None but the Sinners: Religious Categories in the Gospel of Luke (JSNT Supplement 58)

Written by David A. Neale Reviewed By Joel B. Green

The important work on Second-Temple Judaism by E.P. Sanders has provided the impetus for a significant degree of rethinking vis-à-vis the religious categories previously largely assumed by students of the NT. Neale’s study pays tribute to the original stimulus provided by Sanders, but also builds on recent literary approaches to gospels-study. As a consequence, he devotes roughly one-half of his book to historical questions, attempting to understand Pharisaism, the ‘am ha-aretz (‘people of the land’) and ‘sinners’ from a socio-historical vantage point. The second half examines pericopae in the third gospel, wherein Luke’s ‘ “sinners” theme’ is foregrounded (i.e. 5:27–32; 7:28–50; 15:1–32; 18:9–14; 19:1–10). Originally accepted as a doctoral thesis at the University of Sheffield, this monograph argues against the backdrop of a revisionist reading of the first-century Palestinian context (à la Sanders) that ‘sinners’ and ‘Pharisees’ are for Luke literary constructs by which he organizes and shapes his gospel message. ‘Sinners’ is for the third gospel an indispensable ideological category through which Luke drives home his theology of transposition: against all expectations, ‘sinners’ are ‘the saved’.

None but the Sinners is particularly interesting for its dual focus on historical and literary issues, and especially for the way historical investigation is employed by way of setting Luke’s literary-theological programme in sharper relief. Moreover, in his discussion of individual Lukan passages, Neale weighs alternative viewpoints with thoughtfulness and fairness, attends admirably to larger co-textual issues, and provides helpful interpretive insight on a number of exegetical issues. This study is most beneficial, however, for its portrayal of Luke’s characterization of ‘sinners’ as it is developed through the material of Luke 5–19. Neale demonstrates effectively how, by the time we reach the account of the encounter of Jesus and Zacchaeus in 19:1–10, the category of ‘sinner’ (and with it, we may add, those of ‘rich’ and ‘tax collector’) has been turned on its head. Zacchaeus’ characterization as an outsider can no longer be taken at face value, for we have been taught by the Lukan narrative to embrace the serendipitous if paradoxical transposition from ‘sinner’ to ‘saved’.

Happily, these literary insights remain largely intact in spite of the methodological problems resident in Neale’s study. Our dissatisfaction stems precisely from his work at the interface of the historical and the literary, for he has moved too hastily to a conspicuous denial of substantive overlap on the identity of ‘sinners’ and ‘Pharisees’ between the world of Luke’s text and the world of Jesus it purports to narrate. Trouble at this point is evident above all by a puzzling lacuna. Defining the historical and the Lukan Pharisees as he does, he can make no sense of the negative reaction of the Pharisees to Jesus’ friendship and table fellowship with ‘sinners’. He can posit no basis of offence at the historical level, and at the literary level can only appeal in a vague way to Luke’s theme of conflict—without elaborating any rationale for Luke’s focusing the conflict on the question of table fellowship, or even grappling with the query why Luke would have placed (an ideologically constructed group called) ‘Pharisees’ at the centre of conflict in his narrative.

A number of questions of historical and literary interpretation follow. Neale observes that the third evangelist virtually equates Pharisees with official Judaism. Without doubting the probability that Luke, reflecting his own interests and era, has heightened the place of Pharisaism in his narrative, it is nevertheless worth asking whether Luke is so far from history as Neale insists on this point. For example, given that during most of the narrative in question (Luke 5–19) Jesus is located geographically outside Jerusalem, what other more-or-less identifiable ‘sect’ was Jesus likely to encounter? Moreover, it is not clear that the choices in the debate on ‘Pharisaism in Context’ are either Jeremias or Sanders, as Neale might have us believe. This way of setting up the discussion allows him to engage in a high-pitched disputation of ‘traditional’ readings of first-century Judaism, but one wonders, especially when the point at issue is Pharisaism, ‘sinners’ and table fellowship, whether a more nuanced presentation that struggles more integrally with the Neusner-Sanders discussion is possible. Had Neale embraced even rudimentary social-scientific insights on kinship and group definition, his portrayal of ‘religious categories’ might have exhibited more of an inner logic, and he might have concluded that Luke’s ‘sinners’ are not so removed from other representations of ‘sinners’ in the world of first-century Palestine (cf., e.g., J.D.G. Dunn, ‘Pharisees, Sinners, and Jesus’, in Jesus, Paul and the Law (SPCK, 1990)).

Moreover, Neale might have explored ‘sinner’ within the conceptual domain in which it appears in the gospel, so as to weave ‘sinners’ more fully into the fabric of Luke’s narrative rhetoric. How, for example, is the ‘sinner’ material related to Jesus’ mission of ‘evangelizing the poor’? Finally, Neale regards the Lukan portrayal of Pharisaism as monolithic in its negativity, and even asserts that Luke’s religious categories are so absolute that the failure of the Pharisees is complete. A more ambiguous reading is clearly possible, and one wonders if Neale was led to this stark reading by the cleavage he finds between literary and historical levels of meaning.

Joel B. Green

American Baptist Seminary of the West and Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA