The Extramission Theory of Vision and Jesus’ Anthropology of Perception

Hans Dieter Betz and Dale Allison argued that Jesus’ claim that “the eye is the lamp of the body” in Mt 6:22a reflects the so-called extramission theory of perception, where eyesight is thought to originate from within the eyes to illuminate and enable vision of the environment. They argue that by extending this idea, the “good eye” refers to something like an inner disposition that “illuminates” external circumstances with the proper perspective that is the condition of righteous living for the Kingdom. The thesis of this proposal agrees that Jesus does indeed refer to dispositional factors that govern perception, but that the extramission theory of perception cannot serve as background to this idea without significant correction of the caricatures to which these and other scholars subject it. First, Jesus’ earlier observation that a lamp is placed on a stand to illuminate the house (Mt 5:15) requires the view that the eye remains dependent on external sources of light, notwithstanding its metaphorical likeness to the “lamp of the body” (Mt 6:22). Whatever is meant by this likeness, it cannot include projections of “eye-light” that would obviate the use of lamps in the dark. Stated negatively, there is no evidence that either Jesus or ancient theorists of perception believed that the eyes actually cast forth light in the simplistic manner that modern exegetes suggest. Second, all available evidence favors the more nuanced view that ancient theorists were well aware of the eye’s dependence on external sources of light, and that this led them to qualify their postulates to exclude notions of the eye directly illuminating objects of vision. This leaves them only two broadly comparable factors with which to construct theories of how vision was mediated between perceivers and their environment: (1) the causal dependency between light and sight, which signifies the difference between them, and (2) the functional affinities between them of being extinguishable, dimmable, directional, trajectorial, etc. Once these complexities are acknowledged, the extramission theories can help rather than hinder interpretation of the metaphor of the eye as the lamp of the body. It will be argued that it signifies the manner in which a good or bad eye sets the conditions for perceiving or misperceiving disclosures of the reality of God’s rule in experience. Since this leads to Jesus to consider the dire possibility that “the light in you is darkness!” it can also be associated with the idea of “seeing and (yet) not perceiving” in Jesus’ quote of Isa 6:9–10 (Mt 13:13–15; Lk 8:9). In this light, Jesus’ diagnosis of the “eye” attains considerable significance among his key statements of perceptual anthropology.

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