A Look Back
Dreams, Kindness, and Determination
François Bovon, Frothingham Professor of the History of Religion Emeritus at HDS, passed away on November 1, 2013. Bovon arrived at HDS in 1993 to teach New Testament and early Christian literature (previously, he was a professor and dean at the University of Geneva in its Divinity School). In recent years Bovon developed his teaching and research in two directions: the exegesis of New Testament texts, particularly the Gospel of Luke; and the publication and interpretation of non-canonical Acts of the Apostles, particularly the Acts of Philip, legends of Stephen, and apocryphal fragments. The HDS community has already gathered to celebrate the life and work of our dear friend, colleague, and teacher. To honor him here, we reprint an excerpt from a 2004 Q&A, in which Bovon discussed his research interests and his books Studies in Early Christianity (essays) and Les Derniers Jours de Jésus.
What interests you about visions and dreams?
. . . [A] new text that I discovered on stories of Philip . . . woke up my interest in the role of dreams and visions [in early Christian literature].
I also studied one vision according to . . . the Protevangelium of James, where Joseph has a vision when Mary gives birth to Jesus. . . . [W]hat happens is that everything stops. This is a suspension of time. He sees that people are eating and they are paralyzed, they no longer can eat. And the birds are in the air but they are stopped. And the goats are trying to reach the river to drink and they can’t. I was thinking about what it means that time stops. I did research about the topic of suspension of time in ancient and other literature, and also spoke to many people. . . . At the birth of the goddess Athena, for example, in the Homeric hymn, or at the birth of Buddha in some stories, we have the same motif. Because this birth is so important, time stops. . . . For the author of the Protevangelium of James, the purpose is to show not only how important it is, but to show it is the beginning of the end, namely, the presence of the kingdom of God. . . . But after a while, time starts again, and the people around the table finish their meal and the goats can drink. My interpretation is that for the author, the birth of Jesus is the beginning of the end, but it’s not the end itself.
. . . Can you say a bit more about what has been lost or missed by ignoring the Lukan special material [and over-concentrating on “Q”]?
I would say three things. . . . One would be the poetic aspect of Jesus’ teachings, because these sayings and parables in the special material are extremely poetic. The second aspect would be Jesus’ kindness, the loving person, because that’s very evident in this material. Third . . . particularly in the parable of the widow, an apocalyptic view. [T]he community who paid attention to these special materials was, in my view, very much concerned with the apocalyptic (see Luke 18:8a), contradict[ing] those who would say that the origin of Q was more wisdom than apocalyptic. My view is that in Hebrew tradition, like in the book of Daniel, wisdom and apocalyptic [are always] connected. In the Book of Revelation, also, in the apocalyptic visions, you . . . have a very strong ethical concern.
You also include an article on the church in the New Testament. Can you talk about . . . this?
I compared three types of churches, the Pauline type, the Q type, and the type of the Book of Revelation. My view is that they are very different in their structure, or their organization and ministry, but there is a unity between these types. . . . The example that I give in the Book of Revelation, in chapter one, when John presents himself, he doesn’t say, “I am your bishop,” he says, “I am your brother.” He is saying, “I am your companion, I am really at the same level, we are in the same boat.” . . . [H]e spells this out in terms of three different qualities: in the kingdom of God, we are kings and queens together, so it’s really a claim of triumph; then we are together in persecutions, the suffering aspect, so you see the power and the weakness together; and then you have a third term, which is typical in the Book of Revelation, . . . togetherness in perseverance. It’s not patience in a passive form, it’s more determination and going through.