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Mahlon H Smith,
Rutgers University

 
Supreme Irony reigns in the conduct of God
as he creates men and the life of men.
In earthly art Irony has this meaning---
conduct similar to God's.
--- Karl Solger/1/

When irony has first been mastered
it undertakes a movement
directly opposite to that
wherein it proclaimed
its life as unmastered.
--- Sřren Kierkegaard/2/

For the foxes there are holes,
for the birds of heaven nests.
But for the son of Man there is
No place he may lay his head.
--- Jesus/3/

 

 

The gospel comparison of a homeless human figure to sheltered wildlife (Matt 8:20=Luke 9:58=Thom 86) is so deceptively simple that on first hearing it hardly seems to deserve separate study.  Unlike other "son of man" sayings, it has not been itself the focus of extensive debate.  In fact, until recently, when a scholar was required to say something about it, the inclination was to tie that interpretation to other sayings provided either by canonical context or by customary classification.  Most commentators on Matthew or Luke are content to explain it as a warning about the cost of discipleship.  And participants in the Son of Man debate, even in finding it problematic, often appear eager to deny its relevance to their discussion.  Only lately, with the recognition that, as a condition for determining authenticity, one needs to disentangle the logia ascribed to Jesus from the theological perspectives implicit in canonical and pre-canonical collections, has there been anything approaching a thorough examination of this aphorism in its own right.  Still, from even the latest studies one gets the impression that it is being made to serve other scholarly agendas.  Underlying all this evasion and digression is the embarrassment of scholars to admit that what one has here is a very difficult saying, which does not fit neatly into any niche within the Jesus tradition.  Thus, before one decides where to put it, one should take time to notice the dislocations in settings where it has been placed, both in the gospels and in scholarly exegesis.

 

 

2.1 Verbal isolation

As one of only two sayings in Q that clearly envision "the son of man" in a pre-eschatological context, the analogy to foxes and birds requires some explanation regarding its place and function within that work./4/  But any theory regarding origin and meaning must also be able to account for the fact that it is the only "son of man" found in the Gospel of Thomas./5/ This saying is unique, therefore, in that among the host of statements scattered throughout the gospels which use this idiom, it alone is found in two independent logia collections that lack the polish of a connected narrative.  The fact that the general character of these two sources differs radically---Q with  its eschatological missionary focus, Thomas with its gnostic universal mysticism---is also significant. Moreover, while the three surviving versions are virtually identical, the separate contexts  in Q and Thomas contain no clue as to common source or prior interpretation. The reason that this aphorism appears in both collections clearly has something to do with its reference to the place of "the son of man."  But either wording could be prior, apart from Thomas' obviously hermeneutical addition of "and rest."

2.2 Compilation: Thomas

Unlike Q, Thomas does not preserve any connection between this logion and the idea of "following" Jesus. Instead he sandwiches it between sayings about Adam's mortality and the wretchedness of the body. Certainly, the reference to death in Thom 85 and Matt 8:21f=Luke 9:50f is too slight a similarity to suppose it is related to the original sense of "lay his head" in our saying. The internal analogies to "nests" and "dens" (resting places of the living rather than burial plots for the dead) must take priority in determining the condition of the "son of man" envisioned here. Only a mind seeking traces of a theologia crucis in Thomas or Q would be disposed to read this logion as akin to the Markan predictions of the passion./6/ The allusion to homelessness within the physical world may have been what first attracted to this saying; and the identification of the subject as "son of man," what led him to append it to an aphorism about Adam. But his setting only serves to emphasize the contrast between his usually cryptic remarks about the human condition and this logion's everyday language.

2.3 Coordination: Q

Given Thomas' haphazard logic, one should not expect an inherent connection between the elements of this aphorism and his adjacent material. With Q, however, where one can trace thematic ties between strings of sayings that verge on a developed plot, we are led to anticipate at least a semblance of appropriateness in the arrangement of aphorisms.  Yet, one need only compare Matt 8:18ff and Luke 9:57ff to notice an uncertain link between the analogy of the homeless man and its context even in their common source.  Granted that the different descriptions of setting and audience in the synoptics were determined more by the editorial concerns of the evangelists than by prior tradition, one is still left with a pair of mini-dialogues that make it difficult to decide whether Q portrayed Jesus here as collecting or discouraging would-be disciples.

(a) The context. Assuming that recent attempts to reconstruct the outline of Q are reasonably accurate, these dialogues introduced a series of missionary instructions to itinerant preachers (Matt 9:37ff=Luke 10:2ff). Here one would expect to find a clear call to leave home and family, which is what one has, in fact, in the injunction to leave the dead to bury the dead (Matt 8:22=Luke 9:59f), particularly in its Lukan version. It is somewhat perplexing, therefore, to note that this whole section was prefaced by a dialogue in which Jesus' words serve as an apparent rebuff to one who, without need of invitation, has volunteered to follow him anywhere (Matt 8:19=Luke 9:57). While the allusion to homelessness may seem vaguely relevant to subsequent sayings (Matt 10:9ff-Luke 10:4ff), the aphorism itself lacks any reference to discipleship or mission and---whether it was formulated before or after the crucifixion----is poorly designed to summon laborers for a harvest (Matt 9:37f=Luke 10:2).

(b) Following Jesus. Even if one supposes that here Q has co-opted an independent pericope that originally concerned only the conditions of discipleship without envisioning an apostolic mission, the saying is only slightly less disconcerting.  For it is presented as a response to someone who has declared himself ready to accompany Jesus without condition.  Although the gospels contain several  instances in which Jesus is shown squelching over-zealous supporters with disarming but somewhat enigmatic repartee (e.g., Matt 16:22f; Mark 10:35ff, 14:29ff; John 3:2ff), this pericope is not one of them.  Indeed, taken as a rejoinder to someone who has said "I will follow you anywhere," the saying about "the son of man" having no place to lay his head is a rather dense remark that would make a volunteer think twice, not about the hardship of homelessness---which he already inferred he was willing to endure---but about the alertness of his prospective teacher./7/  If this were Jesus' regular way of screening recruits, he had only himself to blame for having so few who followed (Matt 9:37=Luke 10:2)! This difficulty disappears, however, if one recognizes the "following" motif as a scribal invention artificially linking a statement about homelessness to Jesus' subsequent summons to leave home.

(c) Independent aphorism. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine that the compiler of Q either fabricated this "son of man" saying or knowingly imported it from outside the Jesus tradition.  For it does not fit his general christological and eschatological views any better than his immediate setting.  Rather, it seems to be a saying that he tried to accommodate without fully comprehending.  Thus, one is led to the conclusion that this logion was originally formed quite independently of the contexts in which it has been preserved and that it circulated as a saying of Jesus prior to the composition of either Thomas or Q. So, to determine what it originally meant and whether it authentically recalls the words of Jesus one must decipher the logic inherent in the saying itself.

 

 

3.1 Genre

In style and tone this saying is a textbook sample of Semitic wisdom, an impression that is strengthened by its easy retranslation into idiomatic and even lyrical Aramaic./8/ With balanced rhythmic stiches arranged in a pair of rhymed couplets it is a poetic gem: in form, a perfect proverb that a Palestinian rabbi might well be proud to have composed.  But it is precisely this formal perfection that poses a problem for it being considered an authentic word of Jesus.  It is not that Jesus might not have uttered it, but so might some other Semite.  The mind that contrasted the conditions of man and beast is akin to the mind that compared human laziness to the industriousness of the ant (Prov 6:6f).  Or so it has seemed to scholars who have dismissed this aphorism as a common saying that circulated anonymously until it was posthumously attributed to Jesus./9/  Two simple observations, however, should deter one from assigning this to the nameless mass mind of folk wisdom.

3.2 Wording

First, there is no good pre-Christian parallel preserved anywhere, either in Semitic tradition or Hellenistic literature.

(a) Similar sentiment. The closest comparable statement is found in Plutarch's biography of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (c. 165-133 BCE). The Boeotian biographer (c. 46-120 CE), describing Tiberius' speech championing agrarian reform against senatorial opposition, claims the Roman tribune contrasted the lot of landless peasants to that of the local wildlife in these terms:

The beasts that inhabit Italy, for each of them there is a hole and a lair and hiding place. But for those who fight and die for Italy, there is the air and light and nothing else.  Rather, unhoused and unsettled, they wander with children and wives...and though they are called masters of the world, they do not have one clod of their own./10/

This is a poignant piece of political rhetoric on behalf of abandoned veterans that would be as effective in modern America as it was in ancient Rome, but it can hardly be considered a common proverb. Behind the topical references one might recognize the same general paradox of sheltered wildlife and human homelessness that one finds in the saying preserved by Q and Thomas.  But to claim that a remark credited to a Latin statesman---who lived more than a century before Jesus---by a Greek moralist---writing almost a century after Jesus---as proof that an aphorism attributed to a Galilean rabbi was a widespread adage in first-century Palestine is to lose all historical perspective.

Plutarch himself seems oblivious to any relation of the words he puts on the lips of Tiberius to any commonplace, insofar as he introduces them as examples of "an eloquence that would have adorned a lesser cause."  Besides, Plutarch's account, with its avowed purpose of illustrating its hero as "honorable and just," is even less likely to be an accurate echo of Tiberius' speech than the sources of our three gospels---composed much closer to their subject---which, while not knowing quite what to do with this saying, show remarkable agreement in wording.  Given the relative dating of these works, one could even argue that the rhetorical similarity of the two statements is due to Plutarch's unwitting echo of a saying of Jesus that certainly enjoyed widespread circulation in Greece, long before the former wrote his life of the Gracchi.

Still, it is not enough to detect a similar sentiment in two passages to claim that the authors knew a common proverb. Only if one finds substantial fragments of the same verbal formula can one show that parallel statements depend upon a single aphorism.  But, in fact, the only word that the remarks attributed to Tiberius Gracchus and Jesus have in common is φωλεός ("hole").  And this hardly provides sufficient evidence to conclude that the minds that framed both logia---whosoever they may be---had access to the same tradition.  Rather, what one has here in two statements that are unrelated historically is an instance of accidental similarity in general observation about quite distinct situations involving vagrancy, due to a universally natural inclination to compare the human condition to that of animals./11/ 

(b) Traditional terminology. Hebrew scripture provides better examples of sayings specifically about the type of wildlife mentioned in the logion attributed to Jesus.

"Birds of heaven" is a stock Semitic category that carried traditional connotations---not so much of migrants, however, as of scavengers. The nearest thing to proverbial use of the phrase is found in a common prophetic prediction of unburied bodies being devoured by vultures./12/  Thus, it was easily taken as a metaphor for the nations who conquered and plundered the chosen people (Ps 79:1f).  In this context, however, there is no consideration given to the "birds" abode.  The image of nesting birds, on the other hand, offered a frequent metaphor for those who thought they dwelt secure in even the most precarious places./13/ In fact, the Hebrew scriptures give no evidence that birds were viewed as creatures on the move, finding temporary shelters for themselves wherever they went.  Rather, they were traditional examples of those who stayed near one place (Prov 27:8).  But as nesters they are neither called "birds of heaven" nor are they paralleled to any ground-dwelling beast.

The predators with whom the "birds of  heaven" are paralleled in Hebrew texts are usually "beasts of the field," sometimes "dogs," but never "foxes." Other passages show that foxes (שועלים), whom the Semitic mind seems sometimes to have confused with jackals, also were known for destructiveness./14/  And their status as social pests led Ezekiel (13:4) to adopt them as a simile for false prophets. Yet, while the "lair" and "haunt" of jackals (תנים) were customary Semitic characterizations of ruins and desert respectively, there was no similar significance of foxes' "holes."/15/  Also, despite similar appearance and some traits common to all wild canines, foxes and jackals have easily distinguishable behavioral characteristics: the jackal being a wandering pack scavenger in the wilderness, while the fox is primarily a solitary hunter who settles on the fringe of agrarian society. Primarily, the fact that foxes regularly dwell in burrows while jackals seek such shelter only to bear young, makes it probable that the author of our gospel saying probably had the fox proper (vulpes vulpes), not the jackal (canis aureus), in mind./16/ 

The only passages in Hebrew scripture that speak of avian shelter in conjunction with that provided other animals are in scenes envisioning the great trees in the mountains of Lebanon./17/ Such panoramic details are not, however, in focus in our gospel logion. Nor, with foxholes clearly in the foreground, is there any reason to suppose that the author of this saying had such passages in the back of his or her mind at all.

Besides, while Hebrew authors regularly employed zoological images to comment on human affairs, nowhere in biblical tradition is any of the terms found in this gospel aphorism attributed to Jesus expressly contrasted to the human condition.  Rather, Hebrew sages sometimes saw fit to equate the lot of humanity and animals. Particularly pertinent to this discussion is Qoheleth's reflection (Eccl 3:18ff) on the common fate of all animate life: as both "beasts" and the "sons of men" (plural!) are composed of the same dust and spirit "all go to one place."  This statement is expressly formulated to contradict a presumed assumption on the part of humans that we have an advantage over other animals (3:19c).  Yet, despite Qoheleth's emphasis on the emptiness of all human endeavor---a position that made his work unacceptable to many Jews---he does not think to propose that, while living, beasts are better off than people.  Even Job, for all his self-pity, does not claim that wildlife have a more comfortable lot; it is trees that are envied (14:7), not any animate being.  Bildad may equate "the son of man" with the lowest of animals, worm and maggot (Job 25:6b), but the response from Job (?) is that even those who are not earthbound, "the birds of heaven," are like humans unaware of "the place" where Wisdom resides (Job 28:12f,20f).  So, while Hebrew scripture provides a conceptual backdrop for delineating the connotations inherent in various bits and pieces of imagery invoked in our saying about the resting places of fowl and foxes, it provides no grounds for assuming that this particular combination of elements was familiar in first century Palestine outside the Jesus tradition./18/ 

(c)Common analogy. Rabbinic texts provide several examples of speakers comparing themselves to animals including foxes and birds, but never both together.  Rabbis regularly paired lions and foxes as a metaphor to contrast prominent persons and their social inferiors./19/ And other passages present tannaitic parallels to the Q logia comparing the relative value of avian and human life for divine Providence./20/ Judah ha Nasi's rival, Simeon ben Eleazar (late second century) is reported by the Mishnah (Qidd. 4:14) to have interpreted the fact that he must work for a living, while beasts and birds do not, as the penalty for human sin.  The Talmudic elaboration of this saying (b. Qidd. 82b) specifies the beasts as deer, lion, and fox; but here the reference to birds has dropped out.  Besides, the question at issue in this discussion is proper employment, not housing.  R. Simeon's statement is intended to clarify the rabbinic dictum that one's wealth depends not on one's craft but on one's merit.  The reason that foxes do not have to keep shop is that they have not sinned, a sentiment totally absent in our gospel logion.  So, while it is possible to use rabbinic texts to argue that the Q aphorisms comparing God's care for birds and men (Luke 6:12f,24) rested on common Jewish sentiment, they offer no evidence of a Semitic axiom paralleling our gospels' contrast of the dwelling places of wildlife and human.

3.3 Transmission

A second reason for not taking this aphorism as a commonly known wisdom adage is that it is a paradox and as such depends on a particular tradition for its preservation. Since it is not generally applicable to the circumstances in which most people find themselves, it is not apt to have come into circulation as an observation by an anonymous sage.

(a) Radically paradoxical formulation. Taken as an adage, this saying is neither "silly" nor "plain nonsense" as some have charged./21/  An observation need not be universally true to become a proverb. But to be accepted as a commonplace it must articulate an insight that anyone might identify with in recurrent situations. Any person might temporarily be without shelter and thus envy animals even their makeshift homes. War or economic crisis can leave large segments of a population suddenly destitute.  In more stable and prosperous conditions, local disasters such as fire can force individuals or small groups into the streets.  Even the voluntary traveler or lifelong nomad may occasionally tire of his lifestyle and long to settle down.  But these are extreme situations and sufficiently uncommon that, if some unknown displaced person articulated this momentary weariness in these terms, it is not likely to have been picked up by someone else and perpetuated without recollection of authorship.   It is precisely the radically paradoxical formulation of the contrast between wildlife dwellings and the human lack thereof that limits its usefulness and hence its ability to survive as a piece of common folk wisdom.

(b) The author(ity) of the saying. The only authority that this saying can offer to command its acceptance is the name of its avowed author. A truism may be attributed to anybody, but a paradox arises from a particular perspective.  The fact that our aphorism placing birds and foxes in more comfortable conditions than "the son of man" has been preserved only within the Jesus tradition and has no near parallel elsewhere means that it must have originated here.  The only question can be: at which level?  Certainly it antedates the composition of both Thomas and Q and most probably was articulated first in Aramaic.  But whether one can accept it as an authentic comment of Jesus or must regard it as a formulation of the most primitive post-Easter community depends on what sense one can make of the idiom "son of man" in this context.

 

 

4.1 Presuppositions

As it stands, the saying about foxes' holes makes no claims about Jesus that are overtly confessional.  And the fact that it (a) reflects a Palestinian origin, (b) is quite dissimilar to sayings elsewhere in Jewish tradition, (c) articulates a paradoxical reversal of popular wisdom typical of genuine Jesus sayings, and (d) and has been preserved in rather awkward contexts in two independent collections of logia, commends it as an authentic utterance of Jesus.  In fact, there would be little scholarly resistance to accepting it as a red-letter saying if it did not mention "the son of man."  Or, rather, it is not so much the occurrence of these words here so much as it is the coordination of this saying with theories interpreting the meaning and authenticity of "son of man" sayings elsewhere in the gospels.  This is not the place to recount all the shots that have been fired in the Son of Man debate.  I am well aware that some who are reading this have already scored some points for one side or another on this issue.  But for some who may have missed key shots or are left confused by the seemingly incessant turnovers in this academic version of biblical basketball, a general game plan is necessary so that our saying does not get lost in the shuffle.

(a) Philology.  There is widespread agreement, if not complete unanimity, that the Greek words ὁ υἱος τοῦ ἀνθρώπου (lit.: "the son of the man") used in thirty-six synoptic sayings attributed to Jesus (not counting parallels) translate a Semitic idiom. Most likely that idiom was Aramaic בר אנשא  [bar (e)naš(a)], although some favor Hebrew בן אדם [ben Adam] or more exotic constructions. The problem is that the multivalent use of this term in Jewish tradition creates an ambiguity of meaning that is only complicated by the range of predication in various gospel logia. 

Some contend that "son of man" was taken generically to encompass all humans without distinction; others argue that it functioned primarily to isolate one individual from the masses; while still others see it as charged with residual connotations of a particular figure with whom it was associated in particular texts. That is to say, there is still an unresolved debate among scholars who argue that in first-century Galilee בר נש (bar naš) was generally understood to mean either "any man anywhere" or "this man here" or "that man described there."  Those who favor the first tend to prefer the absolute form (bar enaš), and argue that the double definite article in the Greek version of the logia attributed to Jesus is the result of mistranslation by Hellenists who interpreted the Aramaic idiom over-literally.  For them "son of man" is an inclusive term used, in line with its dictionary definition, in statements intended to be applicable to any offspring of Adam.  Those, on the other hand, who think that the term primarily indicated the figure described in Dan 7:13f and related passages in later apocalypses (e.g., 1 Enoch 46:1ff, 4 Ezra 13:3f, Rev 2:13ff,14:1) usually claim that the second definite article in the Greek phrase correctly renders the Aramaic emphatic form בר אנשא (bar enaša), used as a demonstrative and, therefore, could function as a title: i.e., "the 'Son of Man' (of that seer's vision)."  For them "son of man" is a technical term intelligible only to who were familiar with the subject discussed in standard texts.  Finally, those for who the idiom was a common Semitic circumlocution for a person understood as the subject of the present dialogue ("a man" = "one" meaning "I" or "you") often argue that it does not matter which Aramaic term underlies Greek, since by the first century the Aramaic emphatic had lost most of its definitive force.  For them "son of man" is a mere colloquialism that had been emptied of virtually all traditional conceptual denotation by its frequent function in everyday discourse as a pointer to whatever subject happened to be present.

These are admittedly caricatures, oversimplifying the subtle nuances of a much wider spectrum of opinions of scholars who have written on the "son of man" question.  I would hardly expect anyone to identify with one or another of these options exactly as described; much less would I dare, in a game with constantly rotating positions, to provide roster of opposing squads.  But reason there is a Son of Man debate at all is that, in the attempt to provide a rational solution to this question, scholars who incline toward one of the poles mentioned feel obliged, in the name of consistency, to deny the possibility that other meanings may have been present in the mind of Jesus and/or his original audience. The options are taken to be mutually exclusive.  Thus, if a saying cannot be made to support one's favored philology, it tends to be passed off as inauthentic.  If, on the other hand, it is obviously intelligible from one's preferred perspective, this is assumed to be its whole meaning with other interpretations not intended by the speaker.

(b) Exegesis.  All agree that Jewish scripture, broadly defined, played an important part in the development of the New Testament "son of man" logia. Older scholarship debated whether Jesus took over a ready-made concept or himself created a new synthesis by an imaginative exegesis of previously independent passages. Today it is widely taken for granted that echoes of Old Testament texts automatically point to a logion's origin in the apologetic midrash of the post-crucifixion church, with some concluding that Jesus himself never used the term "son of man."

The passage that has received the most attention is Mark 14:62, which obviously fuses Dan 7:13 and Ps 110:1, texts which figured prominently in the preaching of the primitive Christian community about the resurrected Jesus.  Attempts to reconstruct the interpretive logical that brought these passages together have assumed that Ps 110:1 is primary, with Dan 7:13f being invoked only later, due to a word-link created by Ps 8:4ff./22/  Yet, while echoes of Ps 8 may be detected throughout the New Testament, its importance for the development of the "son of man" logia has not been generally recognized.  For apart from the quotation of Ps 8:4ff in Heb 2:6ff---which does not make anything of the idiom in question---these verses were not clearly invoked by New Testament authors.  If one can conclude anything about oral tradition from literary silence, Ps 8:4ff was not, as far as we can tell, a proof-text for early Christian preachers.

Recently, however, F. J. Moloney has called attention to the targum to Ps 8 in order to resolve the problem of why New Testament authors associated various other snippets of this psalm with one person, Jesus, as a glorified ruler when it obviously envisions the traditional Hebrew view of generic humanity's status in the cosmos (cf. Gen 1:26ff)./23/  He points out that, among the various individualizing factors brought into the earliest version of the Aramaic exposition is the translation of both Hebrew absolute terms, אנוש (enoš) and בן אדם (ben adam) by the emphatic form בר אנשא (bar enaša), to give this reading of Ps 8:5f (=RSV Ps 8:4f):

What is "the Son of Man" that thou are mindful of his works,
   and "the Son of Man" that thou dost care for him....
Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands,
   thou hast put all things under his feet./24/

Here "the son of man" is clearly envisioned as an individual whom God has elevated to authority over the cosmos.  In the mind of the targumist, the Creator's works have become his works, expressly to "destroy the Author of enmity and the violent One" (8:3), who is identified (by interpolation in 8:9) as Leviathan.  While the Son of Man is not expressly called a king, such a conclusion could easily be drawn from the crowning and dominion described as in the Hebrew (8:6f).  And his messianic status could be assumed from both the cosmic context and interpolated eschatological imagery.  Here, then, one finds a Jewish exposition of scripture interpreting a description of everyman's place in the universe as applicable to a particular individual whose role is described in mythological terms.  Given the uncertain date of the targum, one cannot claim the exact terms of this exposition as a direct influence upon the New Testament "son of man" speculation./25/  But it offers clear evidence (a) that the differing interpretations of בר אנשא (bar enaša) were not necessarily mutually exclusive, (b) that the quasi-titular interpretation of the Aramaic emphatic was not peculiar to Hellenistic Christian texts, and (c) that the mythological role of this Son of Man was not limited to apocalypses dependent upon Dan 7:13.

There is no indication that the targumist had Daniel, 1 Enoch or 4 Ezra in mind as he explained Ps 8.  Yet, if one is allowed to make logical priority a criterion of historical primacy, one might argue that something like this interpretation of the psalm is the source of otherwise inexplicable details in the differing apocalyptic descriptions of the one like a "son of man." In Ps 8 the place of the "son of man's" coronation is not clearly identified. But in the targum, the question "who is the son of man" is the direct consequence of the speaker's contemplation of the heavens; and the replacement of the contrasting conjunction "yet" with the copulative "and" in 8:6 makes it seem that the figure's exaltation to godlike status is itself a celestial event.  Daniel and later texts (1 Enoch and 4 Ezra) seem to presuppose not only this scene but other details of the targum in their varying interpretations of the one "like a son of man."/26/  If so, then one need not look further afield than a Jewish midrashic revision and application of a familiar passage in scripture for the origin of the Son of Man myth.

4.2 Objective focus.

The various interpretations of the aphorism about the displaced "son of man" that presuppose a primary reference other than the immediate experience of Jesus are inadequate to explain its formulation. For either they import assumptions from theological contexts that have little or no relevance to the language of this logion itself, or they overlook important differences between its logic and that of the proposed parallels.

(a) Not a creation of the church. The explanations that allow our saying to be seen as a creation of the post-crucifixion Christian community fail to convince, simply because the saying asserts that the present status of the "son of man" is unsettled without explicitly declaring his ultimate exaltation in power.  Everything in the gospels indicates that the community of the resurrection understood "the son of man" of its logia tradition to be none other than Jesus himself.  And certainly, the cataclysmic experience of Jesus' execution left a permanent scar upon the disciples' understanding of their teacher's destiny.  Thus, some have offered John 1:11 or the Markan passion predictions as passages proving an abiding preoccupation in with the Jewish rejection of Jesus in the primitive Christian community that could have created this aphorism.  But the former are immediately offset by an explicit claim of Jesus' own resurrection or his ability to exalt others.  While one might argue that a statement about the "son of man" belonging nowhere was formed in those dark moments following the crucifixion before the disciples themselves were fully convinced of the Easter event (cf. Luke 24:18ff), it is hard to imagine why it would have been preserved as it, without some later correction suggesting his ultimate vindication.  Besides, this aphorism infers nothing about human or divine rejection of "the son of man" anymore than it does about God or people taking foxes or birds into their dwellings.  It simply states that, as of this moment, while wildlife have a place to rest, "the son of man" is without a bed.

(b) Not the voice of Wisdom. Likewise, the theory that "the son of man" is here envisioned as the embodiment of or spokesman for Wisdom who found no place to dwell among men, though attractive at first, ultimately fails to do justice to the particulars of either this saying or the works in which the Wisdom myth has been preserved./27/  While it is true that the sages portray the power by which God created the world as seeking a resting place, they assert in the next breath that she in fact found one, either in Israel (Sir 24:7f) or among the angels in heaven (1 Enoch 42:1f).  In the gospel logion, on the other hand, there is no claim that "the son of man" has been looking for a permanent abode, much less any hint that he will ever find one.  Moreover, while Thomas' wording of the last stich, with its "place" and "rest," is a possible indication that he interpreted this aphorism in the light of the Wisdom myth, both of the key words are missing in Q and their presence in the original Aramaic is doubtful for stylistic reasons.  The only express echo of the Wisdom myth in Q's "son of man" sayings is found not here but in Matt 11:19=Luke 7:34ff, where the subject so named is portrayed as making himself at home everywhere!  Besides, if the Lukan version of that logion is closer to the original, as is most likely the case, Q clearly distinguished "the son of man" from Wisdom as only one of her several children: the sages./28/ Finally, reference to the Wisdom myth does not adequately explain why the displaced person is identified as "the son of man" or why he should be contrasted to foxes and birds, of all creatures.  Reference to the parables of Enoch is of no avail, not just because of questions regarding the dating and unity of that work, but because there the sole reference to a personified Wisdom (1 Enoch 42) is neither linked or paralleled to the "son of man" (1 Enoch 46, 48, 62, 69).

(c) Not based on apocalyptic. Attempts to explain the use of "son of man" here in the light of the use of that idiom in Dan 7:13f or 1 Enoch are even less satisfactory, since the figure so described in those works is clearly envisioned as seated "forever" on a heavenly throne.  Theories that claim that our saying is dependent on the notion of earthly concealment of the Messiah elect or reflects the use of a figure of a heavenly man as the personification of the community of the saints who are homeless in this world are vitiated by the fact that it forecasts no triumph for its hero./29/  Unlike visions of a man-like figure, this gospel logion leaves "the son of man" in limbo, without an ultimate power base.  Besides, if an apocalyptic reference was intended, one would expect that the speaker could have thought up beasts that provide a more dramatic contrast to the human image than the innocuous sounds foxes and birds.

4.3 Subjective reference.

The failure to locate an external conceptual background that might have given rise to this saying has led to a widespread willingness among scholars to admit it as a genuine autobiographical statement by Jesus.  But one senses that this is a concession rather than an expression of firm conviction that our aphorism is characteristic of the type of remark Jesus can be shown to have made.  For even those who are noted for critical circumspection in their analysis of the "son of man" materials do not account for the place of this logion in the historical evolution of the gospels' "son of man" trajectory.  Or else they take their cues exclusively from the Q context, despite its dubious claim to authenticity.

Those that claim the authenticity of only those "son of man" logia that speak of this person as an eschatological ideal quite distinct from Jesus are compelled to treat it as originally an  "I" saying into which "the son of man" was later interpolated.  But there is absolutely no textual basis for this assumption.  One must admit that the author of Q, whose christology is completely centered on "the son of man," might conceivably have introduced this term here.  But one wonders why he would bother, or why he would have preserved this logion at all if it were not originally a "son of man" saying, as it certainly has no affinity with anything else he presents about this subject.  Moreover, if "son of man" were an interpolation, one would not expect it to have been picked up by Thomas, who otherwise avoids this phrase like a plague./30/

The only scholars who display real enthusiasm in their exegesis of our saying are those who maintain that the בר נש (bar naš) idiom functioned primarily as a reference to a present subject./31/  Read either as an indirect self-description or as a generalization delimited by the speaker's own immediate experience, the saying seems to make good sense.  One need not look for hidden meanings if one simply takes it at face value as a description of historical dislocation in the natural order of things.  Jesus was an itinerant for at least a portion of his public career.  And, as anyone who has ever tried hitch-hiking across the country knows, the risk of such a life-style is that some nights one will not have anywhere to sleep.  Even if one has prearranged accommodations, something can always happen that prevents on from reaching the planned destination.  It is at such a moment that a comment like this comes automatically to mind.  There is no difficulty in  imagining  Jesus expressing personal disorientation in these terms on such an occasion.  The only problem is in explaining why he or his disciples would have repeated it, much less why it was included in the collections of logia intended to provide others with a permanent existential orientation. To absolutize a particular experience of alienation as descriptive of one's whole life is the characteristic of a paranoid. To encapsulate it for the digestion of others is the work of a cynic.  But, while Jesus has been called both, it is unlikely that he was either.  At least those who preserved his sayings did not see him as such.  The question of authenticity, then, comes down to the problem of reconciling the obvious meaning of this aphorism with the mindset of the implicit author of other gospel logia.  And only an answer that accounts for its preservation even those "son of man" sayings whose authenticity is doubtful can be regarded as accurate.

 

 

5.1 The scandal

The foregoing was written not to discredit the work of other scholars.  Without their work as a base my own head would still be unsettled.  Rather, I have intended only to illustrate how difficult it is to provide a satisfactory explanation of the place this saying occupies in the Jesus tradition, if one begins with the assumption that one or another interpretation of the idiom "son of man" has to be the only correct one.  The debate about our aphorism boils down to the issue of whether Jesus meant something other than what he superficially seems to have said.  For what the logion about the displaced "son of man" says or, rather, fails to say, clashes with things said elsewhere, insofar as it does not envision the reversal of a present situation that is, as a single instance, absurd and, as a permanent condition, even oppressive.

Taken as phrased, as an absolute description of the way things are, the contrast of foxes and birds having a place in the world and "the son of man"---however that idiom is understood---having none, points to a dislocation and an inherent injustice in the present fabric of things.  For our very human minds tell us it should be the other way around.  What makes the statement so startling is not just that the human is portrayed at a disadvantage to wildlife in general but to these wildlife in particular.  If the contrast were to lions and eagles the shock would not be as great.  But to modern man as to ancient, foxes are vermin, pests to be exterminated.  And aerial scavengers of whatever size---kites, crows, ravens, vultures or condors---are, even if now recognized to be beneficial, still symbols of disgust and dread.  That such creatures should have a home and any human not is cause for protest.  This saying would seem quite appropriate on the lips of a Tiberius Gracchus.  But, since there is no record of Jesus trying to rectify this injustice by providing shelter for vagrants (rather, quite the reverse!) this saying cannot be taken as a prologue to social reform.

The saying becomes even more incongruous if the Aramaic idiom behind "the son of man" is בר נש (bar naš), understood simply as a conventional circumlocution for the speaker. For then it takes on the color of a complaint full of self-pity.  One might argue that Mark 15:34=Matt 27:46 shows the evangelists had no problem in portraying Jesus as capable of articulating an Angst similar to Job's. But there the context of the cross makes such a cry of abandonment appropriate; and the words are assumed to have been composed by David with whose trials Jesus' are quite literally being compared for apologetic reasons. For Jesus to use the mere lack of a bed to call his own, even if it were a fact of his chosen life-style, to declare that vermin and scavengers were better off than he, makes him seem not only bitter but petty.

5.2 The allusion

The scandal on the face of this aphorism is transformed, however, if one recognizes that, as the targum of Ps 8 shows, the term "son of man" could function with several points of reference at once./32/ As a man, any Jewish speaker could interpret his own existence in terms of this classic scriptural text depicting the cosmic status of humankind in terms of an individual "son of man" glorified and enthroned just "a little less" than the LORD of heaven (8:6). Therefore, even without thinking of apocalyptic texts, he might take this term to carry simultaneously existential, universal and regal---if not messianic---connotations. And the fact that this ideal human was portrayed as ruling over all the earthly order, especially the "birds of heaven" and "beasts of the field," would inevitably program any Jew's mind to compare his lot to theirs.  Indeed, this is precisely the background presupposed by the comments of R. Simeon b. Eleazar (m. Qidd. 4.14) and R. Simeon b. Yochai (Gen. Rab. 79.6), in which each speaker sees himself, as "man" or even "son of man," as intrinsically closer to God than birds, etc./33/  The rabbis did not need to quote a particular passage of scripture for their audience to grasp their meaning. For this image was so fundamental to the Jewish view of humanity's place in the cosmos that they could take it for granted that their hearers would interpret their remarks against such a background.  To deny that such scriptural echoes were present also in the minds of Jesus and his disciples without an example of explicit quotation would be, in effect, to deny that they were Jews.

In fact, however, rabbis seldom cited a complete scriptural text verbatim.  Rather, academic discussions of passages presumed by a syllabus are regularly prefaced only by the particular concepts in focus; and homiletical expositions frequently conclude with with a casual quote of a phrase that was even less central to the thought.  One should not expect to find such tannaitic techniques in the authentic logia of Jesus.  But they illustrate the fact that an ancient Jewish teacher could assume what no modern pedagogue can: that one's students are familiar with basic texts and, therefore, will catch his casual references.  For those whose education consists only of oral exposure to a few works reviewed repeatedly, even an isolated fragment of a familiar passage will call to mind the whole.

The foxhole logion contains two phrases that are combined in Ps 8 and nowhere else in ancient Jewish literature: "the son of man" and "the birds of heaven."  The fact that Q's Greek translation of both terms employs two definite articles---ὁ υἱος τοῦ ἀνθρώπου and τὰ πετεινὰ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ---may be explained by the occurrence of each idiom as an emphatic in the underlying Aramaic, as in the targum's version of this psalm. Moreover, as the targum employs בר נשא (bar naša) twice in 8:5, the term "son of man" is more central to the Aramaic interpretation than it is to the Hebrew original.  While the later begins by asking "What is man?" the former asks "What is the son of man?,"  a question that is immediately answered by the assertion that he is the one who has been given dominion over all the works of the LORD, including "the beasts of the field" and "the birds of heaven."  This definition is probably presupposed by the author of our gospel logion.

Admittedly, the parallel is not perfect.  And it is almost non-existent if the original referred simply to "birds" as in Thom 86.  But the opening of the Coptic version is defective; and the gnostic editor of that collection would have had every reason to suppress "birds of  heaven" since the latter are the subject of a derisive comment ascribed to Jesus in Thom 3.   If Ps 8 referred to "foxes" or the aphorism in the Jesus tradition to "beasts of the field," then a conscious connection in the mind of Jesus might be mind of Jesus might be regarded as centain.  But to require such extensive quotation of the same words is to misunderstand my argument.  The point is not that the author of our aphorism was a targumist, primarily interested in interpreting this psalm, but that he seems have had an Aramaic version of Ps 8 in the back of his mind as he chose some of his words in expressing a totally original observation.  For, while one would not be led to envision a fox by hearing Ps 8, if a first-century Galilean saw a vixen and ravens returning home at sundown while he was still on the road, with miles to go before he could get to a place to sleep, he might very well recall the question posed by the targumist,  "What is the son of man..?," and be led to reflect on the biblical answer.

5.3 The ironist

Such a juxtaposition of immediate personal experience and traditional ideal is both immediate and ironic.  For without premeditated connection an existential situation evokes the images related to an inherited definition of the world's essential structure and reveals them to be inverted.  The psychological impact of this insight demands that it be expressed.

How one takes such an experience depends primarily on one's previous expectations.  If a man always views reality as defective he is a cynic.  Diogenes set out to find one honest man without really expecting ever to find him.  If, on the other hand, the inversion comes as a surprise, one is struck by the irony of the situation. To the cynic the world has already been shown to be other than it ought to be; to the ironist, it is suddenly revealed to be the reverse of what it at first seemed.  The cynic espouses the ideal he believes all others have abandoned. The ironist expresses an insight he believes no one else has yet noticed.  What makes our aphorism ironic rather than cynical is that the one who is seen to have no place to lay his head is identified as "the son of man," a name associated in Jewish tradition with the one whom God establishes as head of creation.

The ironic remark is intentionally startling.  At the same time it is cryptic.  For the disclosure remained clothed in a disguise that does not destroy the immediate setting, but rather projects it onto a mirror in which the place of all the images appears reversed.  For the speaker to set "the son of man" in his present situation is to suggest that he himself somehow has the position of the one so-named in the psalm. 

The basis of this identification is neither rationalized nor made explicit but, rather, simply implied.  Here there is no claim to be that pre-existent Son of Man whom scripture identifies as the mirror image of the Power that created the heavens, living now on earth in humble concealment. Nor is there a prediction that this particular rejected mortal will be vindicated by his eschatological appearance as the cosmic king and judge of apocalyptic visions.  Rather, a paradox is left unresolved for the mind to ponder.  Without explanation two images are juxtaposed: the evident expressed, the ideal inferred.  And one is challenged to grasp the connection.  The saying can be taken as a statement of tragic irony as the one who was supposed to have been assigned universal dominion finds himself abandoned without a place in the world to call his own.  But it is just as readily read from the reverse perspective, as a comment of comic irony in which he who appears to be without support is revealed to be none other than the king who even now controls his domain. 

In Bruce Friedman's 1970 play, Steambath, the Puerto Rican attendant who pauses, between mopping up and passing out towels to the patrons, to play with a video-game console turns out to be none other than God in the very process of determining the fate of mankind.  But this is never stated and may be inferred only from words and circumstances that evoke a cosmic context.  Throughout the rest of the play the servant remains in the role appropriate to the current conditions.  But the hints he drops project not only him but all whom he touches into a world in which all relationships are the opposite of what they seem here and now.  So too in the aphorism about foxholes and birdnests, by being called emphatically "the son of man" he who is declared to have "no place to lay his head" is suddenly seen as one who is usually believed to have "all things put under his feet" (Ps 8:6b).

Is the prince a pauper or the pauper a prince?  To claim that one interpretation is meant to the exclusion of the other is to mistake the function of irony.  For the ironic is not reducible to mono-dimensional logic.  Rather, it rests on implicit paradoxes, which are intentionally ambiguous.  The ironist does not explain, he merely articulates a view that stands the world on its head.  His mind thrives in the reversal of popular expectations and the inversion of everyday values.  And this precisely the type of mind that a number of gospel logia reveal to be characteristic of Jesus./34/

5.4 The trajectory

Read thus, this saying was inspired by a dialogue interior to the mind of Jesus and may have been uttered without any particular external audience in view. It was not formulated primarily to teach others, either to comment on the cosmic status of humans in general or to inform particular associates of the conditions of their co-itinerancy. Rather, like an image in a mirror, this reflection was meant to help the subject size up himself.  Yet, in whatever depths of self-reflection these words were formed, they were obviously not uttered in a void.  Even if one sees Q's context as a questionable description of the occasion on which this saying was first expressed, there were clearly disciples present to hear and recall it.  The fact that it is an open-ended pronouncement that leaves both its subject and its objective undefined made it puzzling and, therefore, all the more memorable.  Then as today the words would echo in the hearer's mind in search of the proper shelf for filing.  As this remark must have struck the disciples as somewhat out of character for their mentor, the quest for meaning had some urgency.  The multivalent idiom בר נשא (bar naša) demanded special attention, particularly if this was the first time it was heard to pass Jesus' lips. Whether the disciples dared ask Jesus for clarification or merely remained sensitive to later uses of this idiom or were left to their own ingenuity to decide what that epithet might imply about their revered rabbi may not be certain.  But the problems with taking this saying as a piece of intentional teaching---whether by Jesus or by the church---make it a more likely candidate than any other to have interest in resolving the question: who is this "son of man"? At the same time, the fact that the idiom בר נשא (bar naša) itself was open to both generalized and personalized applications invited the disciples to identify their own experience with the subject of this saying.  Thus, Q's context, while  probably not primary, is not altogether a fabrication.   For as the saying was transmitted in the apostolic mission, would-be followers were obviously reminded that one to whom they turned for direction did not himself settle here.

5.5 The ultimate irony

If such insights strike the interpreter as cogent, then there is yet another level of irony in this aphorism.  For it appears that the odd ball saying that scholars have had difficulty fitting into various theories about the evolution of complex of logia that use the "son of man" idiom is precisely the one that was able to generate the whole. The aphorism that practically all are prepared to admit contains a generic self-reference by Jesus turns out to be the "source" of the titular use of the emphatic form בר נשא (bar naša) in reference to a cosmic figure. It does not identify Jesus as "the Son of Man," but it clothes him in that guise by predicating a circumstance within his own experience of the figure so-named in Jewish exegetical tradition.  It says nothing about his pre-existence, present authority, rejection or ultimate vindication; yet the paradox it creates can be interpreted in all of these directions.  So, in other circumstances, either he or more mundane minds could bring such thoughts to expression.  Read as a didactic devise, the declaration that there is no place for the "son of man" is a remark that neither those who preserved nor those who tried to explain the Jesus tradition have known quite what to do with.  Yet the real irony is that the saying which both the constructors and the deconstructors of the "son of man" myth almost rejected might yet be recognized as the the head of the corner, the place where all else is ultimately revealed to rest.

Recommended votes: Matt 8:20=Luke 9:56---red
                                     Thom 86---pink

 

 

/1/ Quoted by Muecke, Irony, 38.

/2/ The Concept of Irony, 338.

/3/ Adapted from Burney, Poetry, 132.

/4/ Matt 11:18f//Luke 7:33f parallels "the son of man" with John the Baptizer to contrast their social behavior.  Matthew uses the timeless aorist ἦλθεν ("came") for each, while in both cases Luke uses the perfect ἐλήλυθεν ("has come").  Though the original tense of the verb in Q may be uncertain, the fact that the saying cites critics' complaining that "the son of man" eats and drinks with toll-collectors and sinners makes it certain that his presence is viewed as an observed fact, not some future expectation. The earthly status of the "son of man" in other Q sayings is less certain due to differences in wording and/or context in Matthew and Luke.

/5/ Thom 44 presupposes Matt 12:32=Luke 12:10; but in place of "the son of man" Thomas has the Trinitarian titles "Father...Son...Holy Spirit."  The original formula is problematic since the Markan version read "sons of men" (double plural) and sees this designation as the object, not of blasphemy but of forgiveness.

/6/ E.g., Fuller, Mission and Achievement, 104f; Jeremias, New Testament Theology, 282f; Borsch, Son of Man in Myth and History, 325.

/7/ Cf. Crossan, In Fragments, 239f.

/8/ Burney (Poetry, 132) reconstructed the original Aramaic as:

le ta'alayya it le hon borin
le 'opha dišemayya kinnin
ule bar enaša let leh
han deyarken rešeh.

Casey's version is equally rhythmic, even more idiomatic, and preferable in its choice of paired words in the first couplet:
le ta'alayya iti le hon borin
ule
ippari šamayya miškanin
ule bar enaš loiti leh
an deyi
mok rešeh beh.

/9/ Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition, 28; Beare, Earliest Records of Jesus, 76.

/10/ Vita Grac. 9.828c (translation mine).

/11/ Cf. Casey, "Jackals," 22, n. 29.

/12/ Cf. Deut 28:26; 1 Sam 17:44,46; 1 Kings 14:11, 16:4, 21:24; Jer 7:33, 15:3, 16:4, 19:7, 34:20; Ezek 29:5, 32:4, 39:4.  The curse that the author of 1 Kings alternately claims Ahijah, Jehu b. Hanani and Elijah invoked against the reigning households of Israel may be a set oral formula, but it is more likely a scribal convention.

/13/ Cf. Num 24:21; Job 39:27f; Isa 23:15; Jer 48:28.

/14/ Cf. Judg 15:4f and Cant 2:15. In Ps 63:10, Lam 5:18 and Ezek 13:4 the scene might lead one to translate the term as "jackals." but "foxes" is not impossible.

/15/ Cf. Isa 13:19ff, 34:12ff, 35:7f, 43:20;  Jer 9:11, 10:22, 49:33, 51:37.

/16/ Casey blurs behavioral distinctions to make both appear a single species to the Semitic mind ("Jackals," 8 and 20, n. 19).

/17/ Cf. Ps 104:17f; Ezek 17:3,22ff, 31:3ff; Dan 4:10ff.

/18/ Higgins suggests (without evidence) "foxes and birds" was akin to "cats and dogs" in popular Palestinian speech (Jesus and the Son of Man, 124).

/19/ Cf. m 'Abot 4.15; b. B. Me. 84b; y Šeb. 9.19a.  That vulpes vulpes was meant and not canus aureus is clear from the fact that the term שועל (šu'al; Aram.: ta'al) is frequently used by the speaker as a characterization of himself.  Given the vulpes' reputation for cunning, one might well admit to being a fox; but as a jackal was considered unclean, and a coward as well, one can hardly imagine a tanna equating himself with a tan!

/20/ Most notably the comment by Simeon b. Yohai, "A bird is not caught without the will of Heaven; how much less the soul of a man (בר נש)" (Gen. R. 79.6); but also the statement by Simeon b. Eleazar below. Cf. Matt 6:26=Luke 12:24; Matt 10:29ff=Luke 12.6f.

/21/ Cf. Otto, The Kingdom of God and the Son of Man, 234; and Manson The Teaching of Jesus, 73.

/22/ Cf. Walker, "Origin of the Son of Man Concept," 486ff; Perrin, Pilgrimage, 21 and "Son of Man," 835. Walker claims that the link works only in Greek.

/23/ "Reinterpretation," 659.

/24/ "Reinterpretation," 661 (quotation marks mine).

/25/ Moloney, "Reinterpretation," 660.

/26/ Daniel's political allegorization involves not only a human figure who appears in heaven but also beasts, seen as winged creatures rising from the sea (cf. Tg. Ps 8:9). While I Enoch 46f and 4 Ezra 13 clearly presuppose Daniel's description of the "son of man" as a celestial figure, they do not take over either his collective interpretation or any mention of beasts.  Instead, they echo other motifs, including the question of the "son of man's" identity, that are found in the psalm but not in Daniel.

/27/ Hamerton-Kelly (Pre-existence, Wisdom and the Son of Man, 29f) and Crossan (In Fragments, 239ff) are correct in recognizing Q's association of this aphorism with wisdom material.  But Q's context is artificial and even there does not find motifs of either search or rejection related to this logion.

/28/ In Matt 23:37f=Luke 13:34f Jesus acts as mouthpiece for Wisdom. But this is not a "son of man" saying; and if it were, he probably would be object not subject.

/29/ Dibelius (Jesus, 98) doubted that Jesus referred to himself as "son of man" in any saying but this, yet resorted to the concealment of the one so named in 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra to explain it.  Manson, on the other hand, (Teaching, 73f) in denying that any circumlocution is intended here, had to fall back on Abbott's allegorization of foxes and birds (Message of the Son of Man, 39f) to find any possibility of Daniel's collective interpretation.

/30/ See above n. 5.

/31/ Lindars has it as first of six synoptic sayings he regards as authentic (Jesus Son of Man, 29ff); Casey makes it the focus of a twenty page article ("Jackals"). Lindars treats it as irony but, like Casey, sees Q's setting as essential to its meaning.

/32/ Cf. sect. 4.1b above.

/33/ Cf. sect. 2.2c above.

/34/ E.g., Luke 6:20; Matt 5:10; 10:34, 39; Mark 3:27; 4:25; 10:15,31.

 

 

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  • This paper was first presented in March 1987 to the session of the Jesus Seminar in Sonoma, CA.  The version presented above is a revision of that published in FORUM 4,4 (1988) 83-107.

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