Monday, July 17, 2006

The Prodigal "Prodigal Son" Posts.

Pertinent to recent comments both here and on The Busybody are Geza Vermes' comments on the Prodigal Son in his The Authentic Gospel of Jesus. While I was disappointed in the book in general, he offers an interesting Tannaitic parallel to the Prodigal Son, as well as a poignant response to Loren's suggestion that the father is the main character of the narrative. Contra me, he nonetheless traces its message back to the historical Jesus, opining that:

Nevertheless his compassionate father treats him much better than he deserves or asks for, and welcomes him back with warmth and joy. The message of repentance belongs without any doubt to the central core of the teachings of Jesus.

Commentators dispute whether the leading actor is th eson or the father, but in reality it is the young man who, with one exception, always takes the initiative. The exception consists in the father's forgiveness prior to the son's confession of sorrow. A similar repentance parable is told by Rabbi Meir, interpreting 'When you are in tribulation. . .you will return to the Lord your God' (Deut.4:30: 'To what can this be compared? To a king's son who set out on the path of wickedness. The king dispatched his tutor to ask him to come home. The son replied that feeling unworthy and deeply embarrassed, he could not return. But a fresh message was brought to him by the pedagogue, "My son, can a son be ashamed of returning to thi sfather? And if you return, is it not to your father you return?"'(Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:3).


I must confess to finding the analogue between the two parables particularly strong, however, the dating of Deut. Rabbah is a tricky business. While core material may predate 400 CE (in its written form), ascertaining what that material is seems to be anyone's guess. And even so, 400 CE is plenty of time for the Christian reading of the parable to have reached Jewish circles; there is a better than passing chance that Luke is, directly or indirectly, the source behind Deut. Rabbah's parable.

It might also bear noting that, while it would be extremely helpful to have early witnesses to the passage, such that we might see whether or not there were divergences of opinion, unfortunately that is not the case, with the earliest reference to it (at least according to Peter Kirby's e-catena) being probably Irenaeus, though I suppose that it's not entirely inconceivable that the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, in its original form, both contained a reference to the Prodigal Son and predated Irenaeus. These sources are unanimous in regarding the usual reading as correct, but being of such late date, that contributes little, since it allows more than sufficient time for Luke's understanding to become the only understanding.

I'm going to have to do some reading on that prodigal lad. No matter how I look at it, something always doesn't feel quite right.

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