Wednesday, November 18, 2009

as the SBL looms . . .

Today's Chronicle of Higher Education features a new phenomenon just in time for this year's SBL Annual Meeting in New Orleans, LA (I leave Friday morning): "tweckling."
Tweckle (twek'ul) vt. to abuse a speaker only to Twitter followers in the audience while he/she is speaking.

I've panned presentations here on Verily Verily, but given that I don't Twitter I probably won't tweckle, either. I would only add to the Chronicle's feature a note that tweckling reflects not just on soporific presenters but also on easily distracted attendees.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

zeroing in on the nail's head

Since late 2005 I've been trying to put my finger on a problem within New Testament research that, I think, skews a great number of facets of that research. Yesterday, as I continued reading Barry Joslin's book, Hebrews, Christ, and the Law (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2008), I think I made some progress in trying to formulate the problem I hope to address in future research.

Joslin provides an exegetical discussion of Heb 8.1–13 in chapter five. Hebrews 8, of course, has the lengthy reference to Jer 31.31–34 [LXX = 38.31–34] in which YHWH promises a "new covenant" with the houses of Judah and Israel. Throughout Joslin's book this "new covenant" self-evidently implies the passing of the old, Mosaic covenant. The reference to Israel and Judah, then, become somewhat of a problem. Joslin writes,
Though Jeremiah specifically addresses Israel and Judah, it becomes clear that Hebrews sees the prophecy's fulfillment in the eschatological days of the present time, and that it is applicable to more than simply the Jewish nation, though clearly they are not excluded. (186; my emphasis)

The problem I have, I think, begins with the two clauses that Joslin introduces with the concessive conjunction "though." First, Joslin has to find a way to diminish the Jeremianic reference to Israel and Judah. I don't necessarily fault Joslin here; he's writing about Hebrews, not Jeremiah. If Hebrews diminishes the explicitly Israelite/Judahite focus of Jer 31.31–34, Joslin would need to do so as well. I'm not convinced that Hebrews does this, however, but that's another (though related) subject. In fact, now that I look back at Joslin's quote, this seems to be precisely his point: Jeremiah focuses on Israel and Judah; Hebrews, not so much.

But, and second, the second though-phrase has to back-pedal and reserve a place for Israel and Judah within the Jeremianic new covenant. At this point, then, either the author of Hebrews has misread Jeremiah, or Joslin has misread Hebrews. And it isn't simply deference for Hebrews's privileged place within the canon that makes me prefer the latter option. Hebrews invokes a world determined and defined by Hebrew biblical tradition, by the story of Israel's God and his relationship with his covenant people. Indeed, Hebrews takes up and manipulates those traditions and that story in order to achieve certain ends in its own present.

But one thing Hebrews—and the rest of the New Testament, it seems to me—does not do is "reserve" a place for Israel. The texts comprising the New Testament do not regard Israel (and the Jews enveloped within that label) as ancillary to God. Those texts, in different ways but all together, begin with a notion of God's election of Israel and proceed (again, in different ways but all together) to extend that notion to the nations beyond Israel. Any argument that has to include a caveat such as, "though clearly they are not excluded," is already moving in the wrong direction.

Whence comes this analytical anomaly? The self-evident split between Christianity and Judaism in our own world, I think, has distorted our analyses of the NT texts, of Christian origins, and of late Second Temple Judaism in general. Given that the NT texts are Christian texts, and given that Christianity ≠ Judaism, critical analyses have to explain the role Jews play in the symbolic universe(s) built and inhabited by Jesus' followers. As a result, scholarly discourse on Christian origins resembles a horse being led around by its cart, and exegetical work (such as Joslin's) guided by such a wayward horse is equally lost.

To be clear, eventually Christianity would become something other than Judaism, a fact that present religio-political realities make obvious. And even in antiquity, theologians and bishops comfortable wearing the label Christian but who refused the label Jew would have to wrestle with their strange patterns of identification. But the texts of the NT—and the authors thereof—don't seem to have made this distinction. The point in Heb 8.1–13 is clearly not that the Jews were clearly not excluded from the new covenant. This was never in doubt!

Monday, November 16, 2009


Last December I began reading through my Greek New Testament. Not in order (Matthew to Revelation). Not even very systematically. But [almost] every day. It was sorta a spiritual thing, but it was also about exposing myself to Greek texts everyday. More than that, it was about reading Greek texts everyday, as opposed to the closer, more analytical work I do (also almost daily) with Greek texts.

Of course I did a lot of translating on the way. But I also tried hard to understand without translating—to engage the text as a Greek text rather than to transmogrify the text into a quasi-English text before engaging it. I read a lot aloud, but probably not as much as I should have. But always my goal was to read the text rather than translate the text.

At any rate, today I finished the last book: Acts. I'm considering a similar program for Hebrew, though I can't even imagine trying to work through the Hebrew Bible in a year [!]. But maybe the Pentateuch. Or maybe just Gen 1. Best to start with reasonable expectations.

Regarding Greek, my plan is to start on the Apostolic Fathers next. I'd also like to work through some of the Greek Second Temple Jewish texts, but my immediate research interests pull me more vigorously toward those later texts at the moment. But today felt strangely like some sort of milestone, so I thought it deserved a mention here.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Is this a logical problem?

I'm still reviewing Barry C. Joslin's Hebrews, Christ, and the Law, and I'm struggling a bit to understand its logic. I earnestly welcome clarification from anyone who thinks they understand the logic behind this statement:
Drawing from the only other mention of Melchizedek besides Psalm 110:4, he describes his meeting with Abraham when Abraham was returning from the slaughter of the kings in Genesis 14. Hebrews is only concerned with Melchizedek insofar as much as [sic] he relates to Christ, and receives attention simply because his priestly office and this meeting with Abraham supply evidence for the writer's main thesis, viz., that there is a new priesthood that is superior to the old. (135–136; my emphasis)

Forget the grammatical problem in the middle of the quote; any work of this length and sophistication will suffer a few problems like this. Forget even the non sequitur at this quote's beginning, in which Joslin refers to Genesis 14 as "the only other mention of Melchizedek besides Psalm 110:4." Nothing about Genesis 14 is "the only other mention"; Genesis 14 provides the account of Melchizedek and Abraham, and Psa 110.4 is "the only other mention" of Melchizedek. But Joslin misses this because he isn't concerned with Melchizedek; he's only concerned about priesthood, and Melchizedek is a label that simply means "not-Levitical" (see 135, n. 7). The text might as well have said Christ is a priest forever according to the order of Gidget, and only the consonants מלכי־צדך [mlky-ṣdk] in Psa 110.4 prevented him from doing so.

But I'm struggling with the point that Joslin reads into Hebrews 7. Given the text's logic—that Levi was still in Abraham's loins when Abraham offered his tithe to Melchizedek and so Levi offered tithes to Melchizedek—I don't see how the writer's point could possibly be that Christ belongs to a new priesthood, and that this new priesthood is superior to the old one. If anything, it seems to me that Hebrews places the Levitical priesthood in the category new; Christ's priesthood, then, being according to the order of Melchizedek, is both older and, therefore, superior.

Am I missing something here?!

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