Monday, March 16, 2009

SECSOR—day 3 (pt. I)

The New Testament IV meeting addressed the theme, Theological Issues in the Interpretation of the New Testament. The meeting started at 8.30 am, which wasn't really a problem, but the room had an unlocked door about three feet from the lectern, and from time to time a hapless late-arrival would open the door, take a step or two in, and realize their conspicuous location. That door should probably have had a sign on it. But otherwise, the meeting was interesting.

The first paper, "Christian Triumphalism and the Discourse of Christian Origins: The (Mis)Appropriation of the 'History of Religions School' in Contemporary Scholarship," presented by Diane Segroves (Vanderbilt University), began with the work of nineteenth-century Religionsgeschichtliche Schule ("history of religions school") co-founder Wilhelm Bousett and sought to demonstrate the (inherently?) triumphalistic perspective masked by a "scientific" approach to the history of religion (see, e.g., the problems attached to spät Judentum ["late Judaism"]). She then focused her attention on the work of the "New History of Religions School," including Martin Hengel but especially Larry Hurtado. Like me, Segroves is also looking at the consequences of the essentialization and categorization of Judaism and Christianity as distinct phenomena, though she approaches these questions from a theory of religion perspective (whereas I am trained as a biblical scholar). She helpfully distinguishes the tasks of seeking after origins (genealogy) and pursuing comparative analyses (analogy). And though she does identify some interesting (and problematic) continuities between Hurtado and Bousett, I'm not sure she's adequately accounted for the very significant differences. Of course, she only had twenty-five minutes, and she could only do so much.

The second paper, "Neglecting Widows and Serving the World? Acts 6:1–7 as a Test Case for the Promise of 'Narrative' in Theological Exegesis," presented by Joel B. Green (Fuller Theological Seminary), problematized the distinction between history and theology in Luke-Acts and attempted to show and the two not only inform one another but are pursued simultaneously in the narrative. He offers the intriguing suggestion that Luke does not narrate the apostles' delegation of "table-service" [διακονεῖν τραπέζαις; 6.2] positively, but that he views their shirking of this responsibility negatively. Green's reading takes into account the description of the community's unity (threatened in 6.1–7) as a work of the Spirit and suggests that, in Luke's point of view, the rupture of that unity was an affront (attack?) to the Spirit. This is precisely, again from Luke's point of view, what the apostles should have been concerned with. I like this. I have argued in a couple of unpublished papers that Luke has a subtle but still negative view of a number of episodes often read positively, in particular the story of Gamaliel (Acts 5) and of the split between Barnabas and Paul (Acts 15). Despite my appreciation of Green's paper, I wonder how much Luke might have been satisfied not that the disciples delegated the responsibility for serving tables but that by appointing the Seven the disciples were making provision for this to be taken care of. In other words, the apostles didn't ignore table-service, and I'm not sure Luke would have insisted that they ought to have served tables directly rather than indirectly.

The third paper, "Could it be Satan? A Narrative Ethical Reading of the Ananias and Sapphira Story, Acts 5:1–15," presented by Douglas Hume (Pfeiffer University), continued a narrative reading of the Acts (see Green's paper, above), and explored the implicit role that s/Satan and or wicked spiritual forces were at play in the Ananias and Sapphira story. I remember being reminded of Luke's demonological language for stories that in otherwise don't seem to concern demons or spirit-possession (the healing of Peter's mother-in-law [Luke 4.38–39; cf. Mark 1.29–31] and the healing of the bent woman [Luke 13.11–13]). Sadly, after that I was distracted, and by the time I came back to Hume's paper I had missed too much to really remember how he argued his point. This isn't a criticism of his paper; I think I just hadn't had enough coffee. If you know Douglas Hume, please convey my apologies.

The fourth paper, "Reinterpreting the Shema: Covenantal Theology in the Fourth Gospel," presented by Lori Baron (Duke University), was an excellent paper examining the Shema (Deut. 6.4–9) as context for John's gospel. Famously, all three synoptic gospels, and probably Paul, cite the Shema at some point. (Actually, I think the Shema is formative for Pauline theology, especially the vigor with which he defended gentile inclusion apart from circumcision, kashrut, etc.) John, however, doesn't. But Baron rightfully notes that the language of "oneness," especially as it applied to God, is rampant throughout the Fourth Gospel, and she argues that the Shema is in the background here. Well, I'm not sure Baron used the word "background," and if she did I don't like that term. Rather, I think we can examine the ways the Shema may have framed the theology inscribed in the narrative and the text's reception in the first century. In my opinion, Baron's argument sounds a lot like Daniel Boyarin's very intriguing midrashic reading of John's Prologue in Border Lines (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004). This reframing of John's gospel in more thoroughgoing Jewish terms offers some intriguing possibilities for understanding the text. Baron's paper was an interesting and exciting part of that larger project.

After the New Testament IV session, there was only one more meeting before the conference ended. I debated skipping the last session, but decided against it (there were some paper titles I thought were intriguing). Then I debated leaving early (I was really missing my family at this point), but decided against it (there were only five of us in the audience, and the presenters deserved to have us there). All four papers were interesting, and I'm glad I stayed. I'll have to tell you about them. But later, in the next post.

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