Hello, Near Emmaus readers! Remember me?

I apologize for my extended absence from blogging—other business has been beckoning, the most important of which is the development of my master’s thesis. A couple months ago, I got my hands on a copy of Douglas Estes’ The Questions of Jesus in John (see Brian’s previous posts on the book here and here), and was inspired to write my thesis on a similar topic.

Below is a rough draft of the first half of my research proposal (Part II coming soon). I would appreciate any constructive criticism you might be able to offer.

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Statement of the Problem
The first words of the main character in almost any narrative are important—they set the stage for the future actions of character and provide an initial impression of the character’s personality. In the Gospel of John, the first words spoken by Jesus are in the form of what Douglas Estes refers to as a loaded sequence question: “What do you seek?” (John 1:38).[1] The nature of a sequence question is to inquire of its subject a thoroughly explained answer—in this regard, sequence questions are very similar to open questions.[2] When Jesus asks two of John the Baptizer’s disciples, “What do you seek?” he is also asking the reader what exactly it is that the reader is seeking, as well, and is furthermore operating on the assumption that they should be seeking something.[3] Such a question demands a complicated and thoughtful answer. Like John, Luke’s Gospel also introduces a young Jesus by placing a question on his lips. But this time, rather than a mysterious sequence question, Jesus responds to the interrogations of his parents with a feisty question of his own: “Why is it that you were looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my father’s house?” (2:49).

The fact that Jesus was an asker of questions has long been acknowledged as textually self-evident. Of the more than 150 questions found in the Gospel of Luke—a staggeringly high number for such a brief narrative—just over 100 are asked by Jesus himself. Of these questions, some are spoken within the context of parables, with Jesus asking questions through the voices of his characters, while some ponder, “to what shall I compare the reign of God?”; some (like 7:24-26) are rapid-fire questions that leave no room for response from his conversation partners; still other questions take on a mysterious, chilling quality, such as 23:31, the last question Jesus utters before he is led to be crucified. But how does one approach such questions and read them with literary integrity? Scholars and laity alike suffer from the tendency to unknowingly or knowingly disregard the questions of Jesus in favor of treating them instead as gilded propositional statements. Unfortunately, this approach fundamentally ignores the logical, rhetorical, literary, and even philosophical role that question-asking plays in constructing arguments.

In my thesis, I intend to closely examine Jesus’ interrogative responses to challenge questions throughout the Gospel of Luke in order to discover how the questions of Jesus impact the Lukan narrative and illuminate Luke’s presentation of Jesus’ characteristic rhetorical style. Building upon the groundbreaking work of Douglas Estes and his logical and rhetorical analysis of questions in the Gospel of John using the field of erotetics, I will seek to illustrate how the author of Luke’s Gospel uses questions for the purpose of generating a motific portrayal of Jesus as a rhetorical challenger (see especially Luke 2:48-49, 5:21-23, 6:2-4, 10:25-37, 18:18-19, 20:1-8, and 20:22-24). Furthermore, I will also examine possible reasons as to why Luke himself dramatically undercuts and subverts this Jesus-as-Challenger motif at the end of the Gospel (22:66-71, 23:1-10, 23:39-43).

Current Status of the Problem
The few scholars who have studied the rhetorical properties of questions in biblical texts have recognized that further research is needed in this field, particularly among New Testament texts.[4] Some minor attention has been paid to the rhetorical analysis of questions in the Gospel of Mark[5] and the Pauline Epistles,[6] and Douglas Estes has carried the field the furthest in his recent monograph on the questions of Jesus in the Gospel of John. In fact, Estes uses erotetics to identify at least seventeen separate question types contained in the fourth Gospel.[7] This recognition alone should warrant further inquiry into the possibilities offered by erotetics and exegesis in other New Testament texts. Furthermore, in confining his study to John, Estes has crafted a uniquely Johannine-related thesis: that, unlike the Synoptics, John was written primarily as a piece of religious rhetoric intended to persuade “outsiders” to become “insiders” by believing in Christ. Other scholars such as Tom Thatcher[8] have written at length on the so-called rhetorical “riddles” of Jesus, but only tangentially addressed the straightforward questions of Jesus, if at all; both Thatcher and Estes acknowledge that these “riddles” fall into an entirely different category and should not be considered as true questions.[9]

The questions of Jesus in Luke have yet to be given the same serious consideration. This fact seems odd given Luke’s highly rhetorical Hellenistic style, in addition to the sheer volume of questions to be found in the third Gospel. Luke contains at least three times the number of Jesus questions that John does, and in strong contrast to John’s Gospel, does not paint a portrait of a Jesus who holds epistemic supremacy—that is, when John’s Jesus asks questions, it is subtly (and, occasionally, not so subtly) suggested that Jesus already knows the answer to his question because he knows the answer to every question and is in fact the source of all knowledge. Paul Elbert has commented briefly on the narrative use of questions by Luke’s author, but only to the extent of suggesting that the third Gospel’s comparatively heavy use of questions is unique among the Synoptics, and probably influenced by other Hellenistic literature such as the works of Homer.[10] Still other authors have noted the ubiquitous presence of questions in Luke, but have failed to fully explore their rhetorical implications for the text.[11] Thus, it is my best understanding that the rhetorical properties of Jesus’ questions in Luke comprise an exegetical well that has yet to be fully plumbed, and that the purpose of my thesis will be to clear a small patch of ground for more exhaustive studies in the future.

[Next post: Methodology, Material Focus, Limitations/Delimitations, and a General Outline]


[1] Douglas Estes, The Questions of Jesus in John: Logic, Rhetoric, and Persuasive Discourse (Leiden: Brill, 2013), p.105.

[2] Ibid, p.103.

[3] Ibid, p.164.

[4] See Douglas Estes, The Questions of Jesus in John, p.171, and Paul Elbert, “An Observation on Luke’s Composition and Narrative Style of Questions.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 66:1 (2004), p.99.

[5] See Kathryn Vitalis Hoffman and Mark Vitalis Hoffman, “Question Marks and Turning Points: Following the Gospel of Mark to Surprising Places.” Word & World 26:1 (2006), pp.69–76, and Jerome H. Neyrey, “Questions, Chreiai, and Challenges to Honor: The Interface of Rhetoric and Culture in Mark’s Gospel.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 60:4 (1998), pp.657–681.

[6] See Stanley Porter, “The Argument of Romans 5: Can a Rhetorical Question Make a Difference?” Journal of Biblical Literature 110:4 (1991), pp.655–677, and Duane F. Watson, “1 Corinthians 10:23–11:1 in the Light of Greco-Roman Rhetoric: The Role of Rhetorical Questions.” Journal of Biblical Literature 108:2 (1989), pp.301–318.

[7] Estes, The Questions of Jesus in John, p.68.

[8] See Tom Thatcher’s The Riddles of Jesus in John: A Study in Tradition and Folklore (Atlanta: SBL, 2000), and Jesus the Riddler: The Power of Ambiguity in the Gospels (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006).

[9] Estes, The Questions of Jesus in John, p.67.

[10] Elbert, “An Observation,” p.108.

[11] See Conrad Gempf, Jesus Asked: What He Wanted to Know (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), and Henry J Cadbury, Jesus: What Manner of Man (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2008).