In Defense of Murphy-O’Connor
With so much negative comment appearing in your Readers Reply column concerning Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s article on the Transfiguration (“What Really Happened at the Transfiguration,” BR 03:03), I want to register a strong vote of support for a fine example of biblical scholarship. Certainly as we come to better understand the literary forms found in the New Testament, we will be forced to reconsider our interpretations of the text. Not only did Murphy-O’Connor supply the scholarship that guides us in this reinterpretation, he also did it with a caring and a clarity that are rare in any magazine article, biblical or otherwise.
What I find particularly amazing in the readers’ criticism (Readers Reply, BR 03:04) is the refusal to acknowledge the humanness of Jesus. As explained by Murphy-O’Connor, the Transfiguration was a profound moment in Jesus’ life—what we might call today a “peak experience.” As such it is something I can both understand and identify with. And I can then appreciate more fully why the evangelists presented it as they did. For me, the Jesus reflected in the article by Murphy-O’Connor is much more attractive than a Jesus whose message cannot stand on its own, but must be continually shored up by appeals to belief in the extraordinary, a belief that’s based on how we’d like to interpret what’s in the New Testament, rather than on what respectable scholarship tells us is there.
I am new to Bible Review, and it was. Murphy-O’Connor’s article that convinced me to subscribe. I had sent in the “free copy” card, fully expecting that I’d cancel after the first issue because of my suspicion that there’d be more sentiment than science in the magazine’s pages. I’m happy to report that I was pleasantly, “disappointed.” And now that you’re going bi-monthly, I look forward even more eagerly to each issue.
Haddonfield, New Jersey
Supernaturalism in Understanding the Bible
Ben Johnson’s article on supernatural experiences (“Supernatural Experiences —More Common than You Think,” in My View, BR 03:04) seems to beg that we recognize the Holy Scriptures for what they really are.
In fact, the Holy Scriptures are books about supernatural events. The Creator is a supernatural being who tries, often desperately, by means of supernaturalism to convince mankind, the crown of his achievements, to listen to Him—and we would not!
For instance, Sarah’s conceiving Isaac the age of 89 is seen by many as an event to gloss over lightly.
So the Creator goes one better. He causes a virgin to bear a child without the aid of male. Two supernatural events; one greater than the other.
If the Scriptures are difficult to understand, isn’t it because we apply the tool of inductive-deductive logic intended strictly for the natural world?
The Shoe Does Not Fit
Bernard Batto’s article in the Winter issue (“When God Sleeps,” BR 03:04) reminds me of an unscrupulous shoe salesman who tries to convince us that a size seven shoe will fit size ten foot! That is what Batto is doing trying to fit Near Eastern pagan myths on Yahweh, the God of the Bible.
Batto concedes that the Genesis story creation “avoids every hint of polytheism.” The dignified, straight-forward Genesis account is elevated to a plane that places it far beyond comparison with the ridiculous pagan myths of creation. But even here, Batto manages to find a slight vestige of the “chaos monster.” From here it only gets worse, as Batto scours the Bible to dredge up a paltry few verses that mention divine victory over a sea monster.
I’ll gladly admit the truth: I’m not sure what these verses are directly referring to. But I find nothing in them that even remotely compares with the polytheistic myths mentioned in Batto.
Batto’s article builds to a pinnacle of absurdity when he asserts that we will be “enriched” by knowing that it is “Near 014Eastern myth” that lies behind the Gospel account of Jesus’ awakening to calm the stormy sea! Batto and the rest of the gods of modern intellectualism forbid that Jesus in fact had the divine power to do what the account says he did! They just explain it away as an influence from “Near Eastern myth.”
No, the shoe does not fit, Mr. Batto, and I, for one, am not buying!
The Tree Outside the Wall
Jane Dillenberger’s fine reading of Jan van Eyck’s and Sandro Botticelli’s depictions of the Annunciation (“Dual Impressions—Looking for style and Content in Christian Art,” BR 03:04) invited my eyes to study and understand better: to this end she nicely proved her point that “the more we know about art in general, and about [a] particular painting, the more accessible that painting becomes to our understanding.”
On several symbols, however, our eyes don’t agree. Professor Dillenberger notes that Botticelli places a “single, slender tree rising gracefully from the center of the walled-in area, and she observes that “[T]he enclosed garden is a traditional symbol of Mary’s virginity…”
Closer examination, however, shows that the tree is outside of this enclosure and not within it.
And the enclosure bears little resemblance to a garden; but it does bear a striking resemblance to the sepulchre in Hubert van Eyck’s “The Three Marys at the Sepulchre” (also attributed to Jan van Eyck), and to the tomb Jesus is stepping out of in “The Kildare Book of Hours” (Morgan MS M. 105, fol. 20).
Although the tree might be symbolic of the rod and flower that Isaiah prophesies shall come from the root of Jesse, Botticelli’s tree is puzzling. To get eleven branches [for the tribes of Israel], we have to count the division of the main branches into smaller, and then even smaller ones. The twelfth stem would, if the symbol works, be the babe in Mary’s womb. A more typical version of Jesse’s tree, with its twelve main branches given equal size, can be seen in a plate from A Book of Christian Praiers reproduced in Stanley Stewart’s The Enclosed Garden (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1966, figure 26). Botticelli’s main trunk, by contrast splits into two near the top, and from the trunk spring three main branches. The mystical number five may or may not be intended.
Having had no formal training in art history, I am very much aware of my amateur status and yet know enough to know there is no “innocent eye” least of all my own. Nevertheless, Professor Dillenberger may find time to clarify the issues.
New York, New York
Jane Dillenberger replies:
Christina Moustakis corrects an important point in the iconographic description of Botticelli’s “Annunciation.” She is quite right that the tree rises from behind the walled garden rather than from its center. The color plate used for my article must have been made after the recent cleaning of the painting: I had not seen the transparency for Botticelli’s “Annunciation” prior to publication (I had in the case of the van Eyck), and had worked from a black-and-white photograph. I was started and pleased when I saw the quality of the reproduction in Bible Review, but distressed that I had misread this detail of iconography.
The tree is nonetheless a reference to the tree of Jesse. Rather than following the medieval iconography as seen in the famous window at Chartres Cathedral, or the example Ms. Moustakis cites, Botticelli’s tree is naturalistic in form: the symbolic meaning is conveyed by the things of this world for the Renaissance artist and does not have the “sign” character of medieval iconography.
I studied van Eyck’s painting of “The Three Marys at the Sepulchre” anew in view of Ms. Moustakis’s suggestion, but I do not believe that the enclosed area in Botticelli’s painting is a tomb. Clearly visible in the plate are tiny plants and grasses in this walled garden. However, the tree may have the additional reference that I suggested, “Paul speaks of Christ ‘whom they slew and hanged on a tree’. … The tree thus became a symbol for the cross. Here at the joyous moment of the Incarnation, Botticelli reminds us of the sacrificial death to come.” Thus, we both are seeing the Painting as encompassing the Annunciation and the 015Passion.
Considering Our Nakedness
In response to Robert E. Mohler, Jr.’s, complaint (“No More Naked Women,” in Readers Reply, BR 03:04) about “naked women” illustrating the Book of Enoch (“The Strange Visions of Enoch,” BR 03:02, by Matthew Black), I feel compelled to point out that nakedness must represent perfection; otherwise, God would not have created us that way.
Since it is to be assumed that God’s creation was perfect (in the beginning, at least); man’s naked state must also be a part of that perfection. Hence, our only excuse for wearing clothes is due to the fact that God saw fit to alter the climate sometime thereafter. What’s more, since we were created in His image (says Genesis 1:26), then God Himself must be naked.
Coos Bay, Oregon
What Gabriel and Mary Said to Each Other
Not to get too picky, but Jane Dillenberger, in “Dual Impressions—Looking for Style and Content in Christian Art,” BR 03:04, mistranslated the Latin phrases in van Eyck’s “Annunciation.”
Gabriel’s greeting to Mary Ave Gratia Plena, is not “Hail Mary, Full of Grace,” but “Hail, Full of Grace.” And Mary’s reply, Ecce Ancilla Domini, is not “Behold, I am the Handmaiden of the Lord,” but “Behold the Handmaiden of the Lord.”
It’s part of the content of the painting that, as in the Bible, Gabriel doesn’t call Mary, “Mary,” but “Full of Grace”; and Mary doesn’t refer to herself as “I” but as “the Handmaiden of the Lord”; in other words, it’s an important part of Catholic spirituality that the titles of Mary found in the Bible are “Full of Grace,” “the Handmaiden of the Lord,” and “the mother of my Lord” (d. Luke 1:28, 38, 43).
Also, I doubt that Mary is reading a Bible, but rather a prayer book that contains phrases from the Bible (as a modern Catholic Missal or Breviary does). For one thing, in both paintings she is kneeling. Also the books are too small to be manuscript Bibles (which people are shown reading in the paintings of Rembrandt). Finally, the book that Mary is shown reading in Botticelli’s “Madonna of the Book” (where she is shocked to realize that the Messiah must suffer) is just such a prayer book.
In other words, Mary is portrayed as the Immaculate Conception, deep in contemplative prayer. These are, after all, Catholic paintings.
Jane Dillenberger asked Rev. Patrick Negri, S.S.S., to reply:
Don Schenk is concerned about Jane Dillenberger’s mistranslation of two Latin phrases, Ave gratia plena (Hail, fun of grace) and Ecce ancilla Domini (Behold, the handmaiden of the lord). To the first Dillenberger adds the name “Mary,” something the Church has done for centuries in the recitation of the Hail Mary. To the second she adds the English “I am” which can indeed be understood in the Latin phrase. The Revised Standard Version translates it as, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.” Dillenberger is in good company.
Jacob Neusner Wins Fellner Award for Best BR Article
“Parallel Histories of Early Christianity and Judaism” by Jacob Neusner (BR 03:01 has been selected as the winner of the second annual Fellner Award for the best article published in Bible Review during 1987. The award includes a prize of $500.
Neusner is University Professor and Ungerleider Distinguished Scholar of Judaic Studies at Brown University and a member of the National Endowment for the Arts. He has also written more than 200 scholarly books on Judaism in late antiquity. In 1987 alone, 35 Neusner books appeared, including What is Midrash?, Judaism and Christianity in the Age of Constantine and The making of the Mind of Judaism.
The judges who made the selection were Frank M. Cross, Hancock Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages at Harvard University, and Philip J. King, Professor of Biblical Studies at Boston College. Both are members of BR’s Editorial Advisory Board.
Explaining their choice, Cross and King said that Neusner’s article provides “a provocative and sweeping synthesis drawing on new sources of data for understanding the emergence of Judaism and Christianity from their biblical roots.”
Funds for the award were donated by the Leopold and Clara M. Fellner Charitable Foundation. A corresponding award for the best article in our sister publication, Biblical Archaeology Review, was announced in
In Defense of Murphy-O’Connor