Dinkler, Michal Beth. Silent Statements: Narrative Representations of Speech and Silence in the Gospel of Luke. BZNW 191; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013. 261 pp. Hc; $140.00. Link to De Gruyter

This monograph is a revision of Dinkler’s Ph.D dissertation completed in 2012 at Harvard Divinity School. She was one of François Bovon’s last students and his guidance is evident in this fine study of silence in Luke’s Gospel. Dinkler proposes to study “the complex ways that narrative intersections of speech and silences can be useful touch-points for how the Lukan narrative attempts to shape its readers” (5). She follows John Darr in arguing the goal of Luke’s Gospel is to persuade readers to become believing witnesses, and intentional silences in the text are powerful rhetorical elements used by the author to achieve this goal.

DinklerSince this is a revised dissertation, it necessarily begins with a review of previous literature on the rhetorical function of silence. While there are quite a few studies on silence in ancient literature, New Testament scholarship has scarcely recognized their value for reading the Gospels. One recent exception is Bruce Longenecker’s Hearing the Silence (Cascade, 2012), which was published at the same time as Dinkler’s study. Both books examine Luke 4, although Dinkler looks at the whole Gospel of Luke.

Dinkler highlights three main features of silence. First, silence is multivalent (8). When a writer includes silence, the readers fill that silence with something. Silence therefore can express shame, fear, admiration or domination (9). Multivalent typically implies a saying (or silence) is open to several interpretations. Since it is the reader who supplies the interpretation, I initially wondered to this approach to silence opens the door to a full reader-response approach to the text. In practice, this is not really the case. In the examples she studies in detail, it seems as though the narrator has led the reader to understand a silence with a certain range of meanings.

Second, the meaning of silence of contextually is determined (11). Ironically, silence can be considered a speech act since it is some kind of a response. But the meaning of the silence may be shaped by historical and social contexts. Like unpacking a metaphor, something left unsaid may be interpreted in many ways. Her example “shut the door” might be a request, or a warning, depending on the context. The narrator may provide clues for how the silence should be understood, but there are significant examples in Luke where silence is left open-ended, almost inviting the reader to fill in the gap.

Third, since silence has this illocutionary force, it is rhetorically powerful (12). Just as a powerful speaker will use pauses and silences for the rhetorical impact, so too a writer can make a point more powerful by omitting speech or letting characters remain silent, allowing the reader to interact with the text on a deeper level. Perhaps this is why most readers miss the rhetorical impact of literary silence, they simply read over a gap without noticing it is there! For example, Dinkler discusses the gap between Jesus’ childhood and the introduction of John the Baptist between chapters two and three. Most readers would move from one section of the book to the next without pausing to wonder what the point of a long silent gap in the life of Jesus might mean.

After some clarification on literary categories of narrative, narration, plot, characters, and themes, Dinkler proceeds to survey instances of silence in the Gospel of Luke. She focuses on how silence relates to speech, since “what is unsaid relates to want is said” (43). Sometimes silence is explicit, employing vocabulary like σιγάω or σιωπάω. But there are other examples where Luke as the narrator is silent. She cites Luke 23:9 as an example (46). When Jesus refuses to answer Herod, is this an act of defiance or silent acceptance of his fate? Luke does not make this clear with additional narration, allowing the reader to ponder the reason Jesus is silent before his accuser. Another example of silence in Luke is a character who ponders something in their heart (Luke 2:19, using συμβάλλω) or marvels silently about some event (Luke 11:14, using θαυμάζω).

Chapter 1 surveys silence in Luke’s prologue (1:1-4:13). In each of the sections of Luke surveyed by Dinkler, she begins with a few observations on the implied dialogue between the narrator and the reader. In any good storytelling, the narrator offers some information, but leaves much unsaid. This silence in the narration invites the reader to enter into the story and perhaps fill some of those gaps. As she showed in her introduction, silence is multivalent yet contextually determined. Two examples will suffice in this first section of Luke. Jesus’ first words are in Luke 2:49: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house?” Since these are the first words Jesus says, they are extremely important, yet they are rather cryptic and left unexplained. Jesus does not explain them, and the narrator is silent as well. The interpretation is left to the reader (59).

A second, subtle silence is the chronological gap between the end of chapter 2 and the beginning of chapter 3. The narrator introduces Jesus as a boy and simple states he grew in wisdom and stature, but then jumps ahead to the ministry of John the Baptist many years later. A hero-story might fill this gap with an account of the training the hero received. A modern film might use a montage scene with background music. Dinkler suggests this narrative silence functions similarly to the silencing of Zechariah, it substantiates the prophecy of John’s future ministry (Luke 1:16-17, 76-78). This silence functions to “exert narratorial reliability, orient the reader, and stimulate readerly curiosity” (61).

The most obvious example here is the silencing of Zechariah. Usually this silencing is taken as a punishment for unbelief, standing in contrast to Mary’s belief. Dinkler as points out, silence in this context can be read as a proof of God’s omnipotence. Gabriel says he will silence Zechariah and he does; God will give a child to Zechariah and Elizabeth, and he does. Since silence is multivalent, this instance of silence can be both negative (punishment) and positive (proof of God’s power). Again, the emphasis is on building the confidence of the reader in the narrator’s reliability.

In chapter two, Dinkler surveys silence in Luke 4:14-9:50. Jesus is presented in this section as a divinely appointed authority whose speech causes others to act. Dinkler points out that with the exception of the Crucifixion, all of the hostility between Jesus and the Jewish authorities in Luke’s Gospel is conversational combat (91). She points out that in Greek novels these sorts of conflicts usually turn violent, but that is not the case here. I wonder if this is unique to Luke’s gospel, since the other three gospels have the same sort of verbal sparring between Jesus and some religious authority. While some react to Jesus’ words with increasing hostility, the disciples often react with confusion.

What is remarkable in this section of Luke is the contrast between Jesus’ increasing reputation and his command for silence. Using Luke 5:12-16 as an example, Jesus heals a leper and commands him to tell no one how he was healed. Nevertheless, “news spread about him all the more.” This is another example of the narrator introducing a question without offering an answer. Why does Jesus demand silence? Why do people not obey that command? This is a well-known problem in Mark (the so-called Messianic Secret). Dinkler recognizes the possibility this is a “vestigial element” taken over from Mark, but suggests rather Luke is purposefully using the command of silence to reveal Jesus’ identity more clearly.

The best example of silence in this section is Jesus’ meal with Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50). Simon’s inner dialogue and Jesus’ response invite the reader into a hidden conversation the others in the story cannot know. This silent dialogue creates a dramatic irony since Simon (and the reader) knows what he thought, thus proving Jesus to be exactly what Simon initially thought he could not be, a true prophet of God (129). The story ends with more silence: when Jesus pronounced the woman’s sins forgiven, the audience wondered “who is this man who even forgives sins?” Neither Jesus nor the narrator answer this question, it is up to the reader to supply the answer. Based on Dinkler’s introduction to rhetorical silence, I wonder how silence can be multivalent in this case. Luke has carefully brought the reader to this point in the narrative and is asking them to answer “who is this then?” There is only a narrow range of answers possible (a true prophet, for example). The silence in this case is rhetorically powerful, demanding an answer from the reader, but the answer to the question has to be the one Luke led the reader to give.

Chapter three covers the lengthy the central section of Luke’s gospel (9:51-19:27). The structure of this section has been described as a “travel narrative” since Jesus starts out for Jerusalem in 9:15 and does (eventually) arrive there in 19:28, but the various geographical notes Luke makes in the section do not strictly conform to a real journey. After mentioning briefly several suggestions for solving this puzzle, Dinkler points out all but two of the geographical references in the central section are accompanied by some kind of verbal utterance (136-7). It is conversation that moves the journey forward.

One of the most important features of this central section of the Gospel is Jesus’ parables. Twenty of the twenty-four parables in Luke appear in these chapters, and not surprisingly, what is not said in a parable is just as important as what is said (148). The narrator is often silent, using gaps, delays, open endings and internal monologues in the stories in order to deepen Jesus’ speech related teaching. “Every parable that contains an inner monologue,” Dinkler says, “can be read as a cautionary message: one’s response to God matters” (154).

Her key example in this chapter is Luke 14:1-6, the Pharisees’ silence before Jesus. At a Sabbath meal Jesus asks the Pharisees and teachers of the Law if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not? They remain silent (v. 4a) and Jesus heals the man. He asks them again how their own legal rulings applied to healing on the Sabbath, yet they still have no reply (v. 6). Their refusal to dialogue with Jesus is striking, since Greco-Roman symposia featured this sort of philosophical debates (161). This silence may not be hostile; they may simply have had no answer. In fact, when the religious leadership speaks in the rest of the central, it is “feeble, fruitless speech” (163). This is ultimately demonstrated at the Triumphal Entry, when the Pharisees demand Jesus to silence his disciples (19:39-40). [As an aside, Dinkler’s chapter titles include 19:28-44 in the central section, the introduction, however, makes the break after 19:27 (48). It is difficult to know where to put the Triumphal Entry, since it is a translation from the central section into the Passion narrative.]

Finally, there are several significant examples of silence during Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem, his passion and resurrection (Luke 19:45-24:53). These chapters are remarkably rich in dialogue, as the charts on pages 170-1 make clear. Dinkler describes the Temple conflicts as “verbal duels” and a ‘war of words” (171). Most significant for the theological and pastoral themes of the Gospel is the disciples’ descent into a silence they have chosen (175). When the arrest of Jesus finally occurs, the disciples are sleeping and do not testify to the words they have received from Jesus. They retreat into “self-protective silence” and do not speak until after the resurrection, and then only after the women and two disciples bear witness to the resurrection (178).

When Peter does speak, it is only to deny he knows Jesus. The climax to the denial story is Jesus’ silent gaze (22:60-61). When Jesus turns to look at Peter, the reader does not know if this is a compassionate look, forgiving Peter, or a look of condemnation for his denial. Luke does not explain, once again leaving this to the reader to decide. Dinkler argues this silent gaze is a trigger for Peter’s memory of Jesus’ words to him predicting his betrayal. Since everyone who reads Luke’s gospel will know Peter is a leader of the church, the silence that triggers memory of Jesus’ words is an important theological (pastoral?) point.

Perhaps the most important silence in this section of the Gospel is Jesus’ own silence before Herod (23:6-12). Jesus responds briefly to Pilate, but before Herod Jesus is absolutely silent. But there is more silence in the story, since the narrator does not tell us what Herod asked Jesus (v.9, he “plied him with questions”). Is Jesus’ silence disdain for Herod? Luke does not tell us, opening up several possibilities for the reader (194). After briefly looking at several common explanations, Dinkler points out the obvious: silence is the opposite of Jesus’ behavior elsewhere in the Gospel. He talks with everyone and anyone (demons, sinners, tax-collectors, women, Pharisees, Sadducees, even Pilate!), but now he chooses to be silent. This is the third trial (the Sanhedrin, Pilate, then Herod), each time Jesus becomes more silent (compare 22:67-9 and 23:3). His silence in his final trail functions as other silences have in the book, to call to mind the words of Jesus.

Conclusion. Dinkler’s study is an excellent introduction to a neglected aspect of narrative study. While it seems obvious, the rhetorical power of silence has been overlooked and Dinkler’s study fills that gap for students of the Gospel of Luke. Her concluding chapter ties her observations to the main theological themes of the Gospel, the Divine plan and Human Response, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth, and Discipleship. Luke wants to encourage the reader to become the “ideal disciple” who hears and does the word of God.


NB: Thanks to De Gruyter for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.