A Sociolinguistic Reading of ptōchos in Luke’s Gospel, Part II: “Lukan usage of ptōchos from the ‘L Source’ (4:18)”

Posted: October 17, 2013 in General

manilapoverty-4Luke had dealt with the concept of ptōchos in social terms. His usage of the term can be considered as an internal thread that weaves the gospel theologically together. The usages of the term from his own source (‘L Source’ [1]) and his social redaction of ‘Q’ and Mark reveal that the evangelist had a special interest in the matters of the poor. The term appears in four passages in the ‘L’ source (i.e., six times) and that shows his concern toward the subject matter. A sociolinguistic analysis of the term (in 4:18; 14:13, 21; 16:20, 22; and 19:8) shows, both in explicit and implicit terms, the sitz-im-leben of the Lukan community.

In sociolinguistics, a text is a “meaningful configuration of language intended to communicate” [2]. For adequate communication to take place, text needs “context” (literally: with + text) consisting of social system within which the linguistic communication originally took place [3]. Luke quotes here a text from Isaiah 61, in a context where the members of his community (i.e., mainly Jews and Gentiles, including some Romans), who had been associated with synagogues before becoming Christians, majority of whom were poor and some rich [4]. Here setting and purpose as well as the persons who interact are determined largely by institutional arrangements, e.g., synagogue, public challenge based on citing the bible, public teaching, and conveyance of a teaching against the traditional patterns (cf. Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation, 1990, 62-3) [5]. In the gospel, the protagonist and his utterances/actions/mannerisms and the interplay of the narrator and the characters within the setting and the plot structure dynamically interact and rhetorize the story with a social impact. In Luke, Jesus the protagonist is foregrounded with the help of all the available means and the reader gets a stronger feeling of his personality.

In our analysis of Luke 4:16ff., we must look at the text as a product of a community or a society that worked behind as flesh-and-blood characters. Moreover, the text is meaningless unless it is understood from within the social milieu. The working assumption is that Luke 4 like every other text in the NT, emerged [6] from the Mediterranean society in which honor was the core social value [7]. Therefore, the term ptōchos should be understood in concrete terms, though not exclusively in economic terms (cf. Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, NICNT, 1997, 211). The ‘poor’ are persons unable to maintain their inherited honor standing in the society due to misfortune or injustice of others. Because of this, they are socially vulnerable, that is, religiously, economically, and domestically [8]. There is a series of passages in which the word ptōchos is used in the company of other words that describe the condition of the person who is labelled poor. Within these collocations, ptōchoi rank among those who cannot maintain their inherited status (cf. Guthrie, NT Introduction, Fourth revised, 1990, 104). In Luke 4:18, ptōchois is the leading word, which absorbs the following terms such as sutetrimmenous, aichmalōtous, tuphlous, and tethpausmenous [9]. A reader can understand the way the story is told in association with the interpretation of the Isaianic text and the social values.

In the passage, Jesus interprets an Isaianic passage in a messianic idiom. The programmatic Nazareth Manifesto with its quotation of Isaiah 61:1ff. sets the tone in the Lukan writings for Jesus’ preaching to ‘the poor’ (Luke 4:18; cf. Anne-Marie Pelletier, Isaiah, IBC, 1998: 1059). Luke uses the verb euangelisesthai first in 1:19. Its etymological sense is retained here because it is roused in the Isaian quotation (cf. Lk. 7:22). In the OT it scarcely means the preaching of Jesus or Christian preaching [10]. The point is that what Isaiah announced, Jesus is now seen doing himself. Fred B. Craddock (Luke, Interpretation, 1990, 62) says, “When understood literally, the passage says the Christ is God’s servant who will bring to reality the longing and the hope of the poor, the oppressed, and the imprisoned. The Christ will also usher in the amnesty, the liberation, and the restoration associated with the proclamation of the year of Jubilee (v. 19; Lev. 25:8-12)”. The evangelist includes the word ‘poor’ (ptōchous), a foreshadowing of a Lukan emphasis on the social class [11]. Jesus here acts as the fulfiller of the messianic promises in a context in which people eagerly wait for the coming of the up messiah.

The special significance of ptōchous (i.e., a general social term which is inclusive of other groups such as the broken-hearted, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed) for the good news (gospel) of Jesus Christ must be understood against the background of the socioeconomic and religious (Jewish) origins of the Christian movement [12]. The primary stress in Lk. 4:18 falls upon the proclamation of good news to beggars (euangelisasthai ptōchois). In Luke, the context of the good news is Galilee, specifically in the synagogue in Nazareth, where people gathered mostly from the lower strata of the society (cf. Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, NICNT, 1997, 211; Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation, 1990, 62). In such a context, quoting the socially relevant message of Isaiah was very appropriate. The liberation aspect of the ‘Jubilee’ (i.e., ‘the acceptable year of the Lord’, cf. Lev. 25) is brought out here to emphasize further the social outlook of the passage (cf. Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the NT, 2009) [13]. Achtemeier, Green, and Thompson (Introducing the NT, 2001: 162-63) say that, “Drawing on Isaiah 61:1-2/58:6, Jesus interprets his ministry as the fulfilment of the eschatological Jubilee (cf. Lev. 25), a dramatic cipher for the age of salvation, marked above all by the ministry of ‘release’. This ‘release’ is illustrated immediately in accounts of healing and exorcism (4:31-44)” (also see Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, NICNT, 1997, 211). Furthermore, the depiction of Elijah (Lk. 4:26) and Elisha (Lk. 4:27) in relation with the widow of Zarephat and Naaman (a Syrian leper) add more flesh to the skeleton. Thus, the broader sense of ptōchois to include the poor of all categories, who were suffering and shameful, is well recapitulated here. It is transparent that Jesus had in mind the realization of the hopes contained in the Isaianic citation (‘the fulfilment of the scripture today’, Lk. 4:21) [14]. Thus, the urgency of social reversal is vividly communicated through the passage.

In the passage, ptōchois is, thus translated as ‘socially unfortunate’. Fundamentally, the word describes a social condition relative to one’s neighbour (cf. Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation, 1990, 62). Joel B. Green (The Gospel of Luke, NICNT, 1997, 211) says that, “lack of substance might account for one’s designation as ‘poor’, but so might other disadvantaged conditions, and ‘poor’ would serve as a cipher for those of low status, for those excluded according to normal canons of status honor in Mediterranean world. Hence, although ‘poor’ is hardly devoid of economic significance, for Luke this wider meaning of diminished status honor is paramount”. The poor are those who cannot be given a grant of honor, hence socially weak, while the rich are the greedy, the shamelessly strong [15]. The analysis of the term ptōchos (Lk. 4:18) in relation to the first century Mediterranean social world provides us wider meaning of the text. Brian K. Blount says that, “the basic tenet of sociolinguistics is that context shapes the creation and usage of language” [17]. Therefore, the meaning derived from the text is also shaped by context. In Lk. 4:18, the broader and inclusive meaning of the term ptōchous is primarily developed from the context of the author. This fact will be further explored in 14:13 and 21.

End Notes:

[1] Giles (DJG, 1992: 431) says that, “‘L’ can be defined broadly as the unique material in the Gospel of Luke. In German scholarship it is designated ‘S’ (Sondergut, ‘special material’). The exact extant of L is debated, but its importance is seen by noting that it accounts for between one-third to one-half of Luke’s Gospel”.

[2] Robert De Beaugrande, Text, Discourse and Process: Towards a Multidisciplinary Science of Texts, Advances in Discourse Process, Vol. 4 (Noorwood, New Jersey: Ablex Publishing Company, 1980), 1.

[3] Bruce J. Malina, “Reading Theory Perspective: Reading Luke-Acts”, The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation, ed. Jerome H. Neyrey (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendricksen, 1991), 10f.

[4] Bock (DJG, 1992: 502) states that, in Luke “the major elements of the plan are the career of Jesus, the hope of the spiritually humble and needy, the offer of God’s blessings, the coming of the new era, along with the suffering which comes to Jesus and the division which comes to Israel”.

[5] Cf. Ibid., 18.

[6] Bruce J. Malina, The Social Gospel of Jesus: The Kingdom of God in Mediterranean Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 98ff.

[7] Richard L. Rohrbaugh, “Legitimating Sonship—A Text of Honor: A Social-Scientific Study of Luke 4:1-30”, Modelling Early Christianity: Social-Scientific Studies of the New Testament in its Context, ed. Philip F. Esler (London/New York: Routledge, 1995), 183.

[8] Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Second edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 400.

[9] Cf. Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, NICNT, 1997, 211.

[10] Bock (DJG, 1992: 503) says, “Jesus has come to preach good news to those in need (4:18-19), to heal the sick (5:30-32) and to be heard, whether the message is communicated through him or his representatives (10:16-20). He has come to seek and save the lost (19:10). Thus career is reviewed in Acts 10:36-43”.

[11] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke I-IX: Introduction, Translation, and Notes, Anchor Bible Series, Vol. 28 (New York: Doubleday, 1981), 532.

[12] Wolfgang Stegemann, The Gospel and the Poor, tran. Dietlinde Elliot (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 18f.

[13] Filip Noël (Luke, The International Bible Commentary, ed. W. R. Farmer, 1998, 1456) says, “Isaiah’s comforting words to the exiles returning to Jerusalem are now preached to the poor, the imprisoned, the blind and the oppressed of Jesus’ times”.

[14] John A. Martin (Luke, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, 1983/2004: 214-15) says that, “The portion of scripture Jesus reads was Isaiah 61:1-2, a messianic passage”. Filip Noël (Luke, The International Bible Commentary, ed. W. R. Farmer, 1998, 1456) says, “Jesus’ life is dominated by God’s spirit and he raises the broken ones. Thus the favourable time in Israel starts. All are amazed about his gracious words”. Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation, 1990, 62.

[15] Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary, 401; cf. Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, NICNT, 1997, 211. Esler, Community and Gospel, 187; cf. Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, NICNT, 1997, 211.

[16] Brian K. Blount, Cultural Interpretation: Reorienting New Testament Criticism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), vii.

Upcoming post: “A Sociolinguistic Reading of ptōchos in Luke’s Gospel, Part III: ‘Lukan usage of ptōchos from the L Source (14:13, 21)'”

By Johnson Thomaskutty, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India


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