April 3, 2014

Why is Nazareth not Amazed?

Luke 4 *doesn't* say the Nazarenes were amazed at Jesus' teaching. Two arcs ago, Luke had the Jerusalem rabbis being amazed in chapter 2, and here Luke has bookended this homecoming event by showing other Galilean synagoguers being amazed or praising him for his teaching. So why is Nazareth not "amazed"? 

The historical problem lurking in all this is familiarity. Luke wisely avoids suggesting these Nazarenes were familiar with Jesus' teaching, and yet he can't afford to wind up suggesting the opposite, either. Obviously Luke's motif is to demonstrate over and over that Jesus amazed folks with his teaching, but we also know Luke has read Mark, in which the Nazarenes inquire about the origin of Jesus' teaching. So, if Luke suggests that the N's are *familiar* with Jesus' amaze-all style of teaching then he's going against his research. But, if Luke suggests they're surprised by Jesus' astounding-ness then he's going against his own story about Jesus' youth. 

How can Jesus' hometown be amazed at his teaching when Luke just told us he's been amazing people like that since age 12? My point at the moment is not to answer this question historically but to observe how this posed a compositional challenge for Luke in the homecoming passage.

It seems likely that Luke's own research may not have provided much of a factual answer because Luke's strategic solution is to change topics slightly. Instead of "his teaching", the Nazarenes are amazed by Jesus' surprise claim to fulfill a particular prophecy, at which point the focus changes immediately to outrage for his remarks about Gentiles. Demonstratively, Luke gets to have Jesus stand in the learning center, handle a scroll and speak to great effect in that meeting, and yet Jesus does not actively explain anything, instruct anyone, or provide scripture based insight. With this sleight of hand, Luke maintains the Amazing-Teacher motif without raising questions about whether or not Jesus had ever been so amazing, at all, in all the interim years.

This was a deft solution to a serious narrative problem. The story in Lk.2 is multi-purpose but one goal was to show how deeply imbued and how longstanding this had been. But if Jesus' teaching had been so powerful for so long, then why wasn't he famous much sooner? Why weren't the Nazarene synagogue leaders either showcasing this insightful lad or else calling in outside experts for help in figuring out how to deal with his challenging wisdom? Worse, if these hometown authorities had neither recognized his ability, nor put him out long ago, then how credible is it that Jesus just now becomes a sensation so suddenly? Luke has narrated himself into a tight little corner, but his clever solution is to shift from an emphasis on teaching to emphasize *a* teaching. Thus, when Luke's Nazarenes reject Jesus, it's explicitly not as a teacher, per se, but as a prophet.

Luke artfully avoids raising skepticism about his major motif by directing attention elsewhere as he skirts past the problem. But consider the problem. If Luke has Jesus' hometown react in any way to Jesus' thinking or insights, then it begs unwanted comparison with the one story from boyhood. How could Jesus be amazing at age 12 without amazing his neighbors for the next twenty years?

It's a question we've not asked until now because Luke didn't want us to ask it?


If you think for two minutes about the world outside the text, thinking in a extra-narrative or a four-dimensional or a developmental capacity, you cannot imagine the history of Jesus' intervening years without addressing this dilemma. Did Jesus spend 20 years bottling up all that amazing insight about God and the scripture? Is such a feat mentally feasible for a human adult, let alone adolescent? 

Most readers have perhaps not considered such questions but I think the fact that Luke carefully avoids using his stock phrase in this episode tells us that Luke had considered them well. More importantly, I think the fact that Luke chose to dodge all such questions - even to steer readers away from conceiving such questions - suggests strongly that Luke himself had no answers to any such questions. As elsewhere, Luke tells the stories he wants to tell, of the stories he had to tell, and he sews those patches together as seamlessly as he can in each instance.

However, although Luke does not seem to know whether Jesus was insightful for years in his hometown, we can try using Matthew and Mark to come up with an answer....

Except of course that inquiry belongs to another day, perhaps in the future.

Anon, then...

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