Scribes and Disciples: Following Jesus By Reading His Book

Far from driving a conceptual wedge between belief in him and the study of the Scriptures, Jesus envisions a kingdom where following the master involves mastering his book.   

In Matthew’s Gospel, there is an interplay between blocks of discourse and blocks of narrative. At the end of one of these discourse sections, Jesus asks his disciples, “Have you understood all these things?” (Matt 13:51). In the preceding chapters, Matthew recounts Jesus’s teaching on the kingdom (often in parables) and on the nature of discipleship. After the disciples answer in the affirmative to Jesus’s query, Jesus makes an important comment. He says, “Therefore, every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure things new and old” (Matt 13:52).

Jesus’s words here are a fitting representation of two of the expectations that the biblical authors have for their readers. First, the implied reader of the Christian canon is a believing disciple, a “disciple of the kingdom.” As Bockmuehl argues, “Both Testaments of Scripture clearly presuppose such an interpreter. The implied interpreter of the Christian Scripture is a disciple, just as that disciple’s implied reading of the text is its witness to Christ.”

In addition to this theological characteristic, there is also a complementary hermeneutical one. The implied reader of the biblical text is one whose eye has been trained to recognize the contours of those very texts. Jesus tells his followers that a scribe (one trained in the interpretation of texts) who has become a disciple (one trained to know God) can produce great things for the kingdom of heaven.

At this place in Matthew’s narrative, the issue of interpretation is prominent. In fact, the immediately preceding section of discourse focuses on the presentation and right interpretation of Jesus’s words (e.g., his sayings and parables). Accordingly, Jesus’s query to his disciples encompasses the broader discourse context and is loaded with hermeneutical freight: “Have you understood all these things?” (Matt 13:51). Further, Jesus now highlights the importance of the personal involvement of his followers in the “kingdom of heaven,” a concept that he has been filling with meaning.

Jesus here envisions a certain type of “scribe,” in other words, a certain type of reader/interpreter. The scribal figure that Jesus envisions  is one who “has been discipled in the ways of the kingdom” (13:52) through grappling with Jesus’s own words and the Hebrew Scriptures that are so often invoked by those words.

Jesus likens this individual to a “head of a household” who “brings out of his treasure things new and old” (13:52). The word picture that Jesus paints here suggests that the task of “bringing out” things from the treasure or storehouse is not a simplistic one but rather involves a strategic selection. As a complex entity, the content of the “treasure” must be gathered and stored together in some sort of structure. The head of the household then brings out of that storehouse what is needed at the appropriate or “fitting” time. There is also an implicit hermeneutical task involved in the process. The presentation of goods involves selecting elements from a diverse store. Both new and old things must be ordered and presented. What is more, they are presented in a dialectic, mutually defining relationship.

In striking fashion, Jesus’s words resonate with the burning issue of the relationship of the authority of the Scriptures (the Law and the Prophets) and the authority of Jesus himself (the Lord and the apostles). This is both a theological and a literary question, as the authority of both the old covenant and the new covenant is quickly bound up with sacred texts that share that authority. By stressing the new and the old, Jesus simultaneously affirms both the unity/interrelatedness and the diversity/distinctiveness of the two elements involved (i.e., the man “brings out” both new and old).

In this regard, Jesus’s description of the scribe who has become a disciple can serve as an analogy to readers seeking to read individual parts of Scripture in light of the whole canonical context. Just as Jesus exhorts his original followers to view his own words in light of the Scriptures, Matthew’s readers are likewise encouraged to view the import of this passage (i.e., the part) within the broader context of the surrounding discourse—the book of Matthew, the Gospel-corpus, the New Testament, and the Two-Testament Christian canon (i.e., the whole).

Part of Matthew’s compositional strategy is to present a carefully crafted selection of Jesus’s words so that readers (both ancient and contemporary) can still hear his voice. In this sense, as author of a Gospel narrative, Mathew himself represents a scribe who has become a disciple. Through Matthew’s compositional work, he has enabled subsequent generations to see, hear, and understand the words of Jesus. This textual feature enables a careful and sympathetic reader of Matthew’s Gospel to answer Jesus’s query, “Yes, I do understand these things.” Moreover, the canonical context (OT and NT) within which readers encounter Matthew’s narrative includes the texts that are most germane to the interpretation of Jesus’s words. 

In other words, the implied reader of the Christian Scriptures is one that has a robust canon-consciousness. The canonical context has a number of hermeneutically significant features. The implied reader of the biblical collection skillfully takes note of this multifaceted matrix of canonical features. Taking the shape of the biblical material into account allows biblical readers to identify and voluntarily associate with the expectations generated by a closed authoritative canon. The canon as a whole guides its readers through the biblical material by limiting and generating meaning. In turn, the ideal reader of the canon is one who accepts this guidance. This type of real reader, in effect, exemplifies “the wisdom of the implied exegete.”

Accordingly, the implied reader affirms the authority of the canonical documents (the theological dimension of canon) and also accepts the guidance of the canonical framework (the literary dimension of canon). The believing community is also to be a reading community. In this sense, the implied audience is the community that notes, this is the framework provided by the canonical collection, and we know that its testimony is true.

 Accordingly, one way to move toward being transformed into the implied reader projected by the biblical authors is to move toward a canon-conscious reading of Scripture. In this sense, the ideal reader is a Christian, but more specifically he or she is one who reads particular Christian texts in a particular way. These texts have a shape that has contributed to the formation of that reader’s understanding of what it means to be the ideal reader of those texts. Thus, the notion of the ideal reader can form a crucial part of the foundation for a confessional view of the doctrine of Scripture, and it can also function as an integrated element of one’s hermeneutical approach to reading those authoritative texts.

The ideal reader of the Christian canon, then, is a disciple (one who follows Jesus) who is also a scribe (one who skillfully reads texts). In this vision of discipleship, the ones who can pick up these texts and follow the author’s intention are the same ones who have picked up their own cross and followed Jesus.
For more along these lines, see here
Biblical Theology
December 22, 2016


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