Adela Collins: Opening the Gospel, grappling with faith

By Ray Waddle
Editor, Reflections magazine

Da Vinci Code controversies aside, Jesus continues to inspire research trends that speak to modern anxieties as well as the long effort to interpret the gospel historical record.

Adela Yarbro Collins, Buckingham Professor of New Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale Divinity School, knows the trends as well as anyone on earth. Her 2007 book Mark: A Commentary (Hermeneia/Augsburg Fortress) has been praised as a magisterial study of the second Gospel, assessing generations of historical-critical research. At 900 pages, the book is considered foundational for 21st century New Testament study.

That grasp of Gospel history is something she endeavors to pass on in the classroom, before students learn to stake out more seriously their own approaches.

“I think that’s part of being an educated person—as teacher, preacher or reader of the Gospels—an understanding of the historical context,” says Collins, who arrived at YDS in 2000 along with her husband, John Collins, who is Holmes Professor of Old Testament.

New Testament courses can be an intense crucible for students whose cherished perceptions of faith or eager new theories are tested by the light of analysis. Collins’s task, she says, is to expose students to the Gospels’ historical background and invite further conversation about the Jesus of history, apocalypticism, interpretations of Paul—the full range of Gospel inquiry.

“There was never any pure Israelite religion or pure early Christianity—they’re immersed in culture and preoccupied with adopting elements of the culture in order to make their points to their audiences,” she says.

“Once students are exposed to the historical discussion, then they can choose to relate it to their own situation. I encourage them to talk to me. If they are strongly drawn to another method, let’s talk about it.”
Classroom conversation can be animated. Did Jesus really walk on the water as the Gospel accounts describe it? Examining the Hellenistic, Jewish and Roman background, Collins tries to get at what the Gospel writers themselves wanted to communicate, and what their original audiences likely understood to be the message.

“Whether Mark’s intended audience read it as a literal story or not, and whether Mark really believed it or not, we don’t know,” she says. “Some probably read it literally, some symbolically. One point I make is: it’s not just about whether he really walked on water or not. It can be understood as a theophany, a way to express that he had the power of God.

“Students come up right after class to talk about it. Some say they’ve never heard this explanation before. Some are protective of the faith, hostile to the challenge. Others say they took the course precisely to get an alternative to the interpretations they grew up with.”

The learning runs both ways. She says she learns much from the students, who bring interpretations of Jesus or the Book of Revelation that she had not heard before.

Collins’s interest in the ancient world goes back to her undergraduate days. She originally thought she might become a doctor. The daughter of a Seattle physician, she did a year of pre-med in college. But soon a trip to Salzburg, Austria, awakened her interest in the humanities. The next year, at Pomona College in California, she gravitated to contemporary theology. That meant exposure to Barth, Bultmann and Tillich.

“I realized they were all making arguments about the historical Jesus,” said Collins, a Roman Catholic since childhood.  “I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in New Testament to find out what I thought about that topic.”
Choosing New Testament also allowed her to stay in touch with her love of history and theology. In Mark: A Commentary, she brings some 40 years of research experience to bear on what is reputedly the earliest canonical gospel—a narrative of mighty deeds, abrupt changes of scene, misunderstandings by Jesus’ own disciples, and the famously jarring conclusion that features an Empty Tomb but no resurrection appearances.

Collins engages the arguments of hundreds of scholars in her treatment of Mark and provides her own new translations from the Greek. Her introduction alone is 125 pages.

Mark’s Gospel has its share of enigmatic scenes—for instance, the young man who suddenly appears in Chapter 14, only to run away naked, a passage that has puzzled readers for centuries. Collins suggests it’s no random detail.

“Mark often features two characters in the same passage where he seems to make a comparison, a juxtaposition – it’s a rhetorical technique known in other literature of the time,” she says.

“So while the young man is running off, Jesus is seen submitting to his arrest, showing courage. I think Mark’s readers would have been aware of the comparison.”

Whether the debate is over small details or large ones, the Jesus of the Gospels steadily preoccupies scholarly scrutiny. Collins suggests that three trends frame the scene today.

One is the drive of some scholars to claim Jesus for one’s own time, taking Jesus as a champion of an embattled social demographic.

Another is a post-modern procedure that focuses on how the history of Gospel scholarship has been written in the last several decades. What are the writers’ ideological aims? When they write about Jesus, why and how do they choose the perspectives they write from?

A third trend is the recent harvest of historical-critical research. She singled out John P. Meier’s work—A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (four volumes and counting)—as a pinnacle of the discipline.

“Everyone agrees we can’t get a true and complete historical reconstruction of the Jesus of history, but Meier’s work attempts to show what can be said about Jesus that a Protestant, a Catholic, a Jew and an atheist could all agree with. It’s a great example of historical–critical research—as good as we are likely to get.”

The preoccupation with Jesus erupts regularly into pop culture controversies too, Collins notes—witness the latter-day debates around the fictional Da Vinci Code, or the findings of the Jesus Seminar, or the latest outbreak of endtime predictions. All this suggests laypeople are eager to learn more about Christian texts and origins—more so than leaders sometimes give them credit for, she says.

“I think pastors are often being overly cautious at challenging people’s faith. If it’s done out of caution or fear, I think they’re selling their people short.”

So the perennial conversation continues about the figure of Jesus—ever fascinating, ever in flux—with Adela Collins sorting out answers and playing a role in the long drama of beholding the gospel story.  

Posted: 01/09/2012