Monday, August 31, 2009

another thought

The recent research in these areas thus gives powerful confirmation to hypotheses that only a few interpreters were previously ready to entertain and willing to argue. First, Israelite culture was as diverse as were the groups and communities that comprised Judean, Galilean, and Samaritan society. Different versions of Israelite tradition coexisted and competed. The well-known differences between the Sadducees and the Pharisees can be multiplied. (Horsley, Jesus in Context, 129)

This is true, for the most part. But again I'm a little frustrated that Horsley rails so effectively against established assumptions even while continuing to employ them. Earlier on page 129, for example, Horsley has rightly noted:
[T]hose who have closely examined the multiple scrolls of books of the Torah found at Qumran are also concluding that the text of the books of the Torah was not yet uniform or stable. Different textual traditions still existed in the same scribal community (and presumably in Jerusalem as well), each of which was still undergoing development. The Dead Sea Scrolls also supply further examples of alternative Torah (4QMMT; the Temple Scroll) and alternative versions of Israelite history and tradition (not rewritten Bible; Jubilees; Pseudo-Philo, Biblical Antiquities) that coexisted and competed, at least among scribal circles.

Some conservative Christians, somehow, turned to the DSS (and especially the Great Isaiah Scroll) in order to argue for the textual stability of the Hebrew Bible even in texts that were 1,000 years older [!] than previously known texts. Some texts were indeed remarkably similar to what became the Masoretic Text (the basis for modern English translations of the Old Testament), but others were strikingly different. And there were also other texts that Jews and Christians would later exclude from the canon. None of this is meant to imply the Bible is unreliable or untrustworthy. But if the DSS have any significance for the question of the Bible's reliability, that significance is very ambiguous.

Horsley, however, has recognized the textual and traditional dynamics at play at Qumran even while adhering an old paradigm of "competing versions." Qumran might not have preserved a stable text-form of Hebrew biblical traditions, but neither does it suggest a competition between text-forms. In fact, if competition were the best way to think about different text-forms (LXX, MT, Samaritan, in addition to various minor and other variant readings and traditions), I would expect Qumran to have expended some effort to conform their biblical scrolls to a particular text-form.

Instead, we find at Qumran evidence that LXX, MT, and Samaritan readings could be preserved and read as authoritative in a single community. This isn't competition. Rather, it suggests that the text-form may not have been the most important factor. What mattered, I suggest, was the tradition itself, and the text's primary significance was for enabling access to the tradition. In this paradigm, then, what matters isn't [necessarily] whether or not this or that reading was preserved but rather how the text functioned to connect the community to its traditions. Of course, specific readings could become significant as groups engaged in social conflict (whether Qumran against a Temple priesthood, or Justin against Trypho, or Samaritans against Judeans, etc.). But even this "becoming significant" was a function of other, extratextual factors.

just some thoughts

Standard study of the gospel tradition assumed that the gospel tradition was making a break from "Judaism." But "Judaism" is an essentialist modern concept, a largely European Christian scholarly construct, like Orientalism. It is not clear that "Judaism" has any historical referent, at least not until late antiquity at the earliest. (Horsley, Jesus in Context, 110)

I'm sympathetic to Horsley's point here, especially since it comes in his discussion of "social memory and gospel traditions" (109–25). But I think he's made it a bit too bluntly (i.e., without precision), and so some refinement seems in order.
  1. First, "standard study of the gospel tradition" continues to assume that "the gospel tradition was making a break from 'Judaism,'" so I question the past-tense assumed. A mere quibble, perhaps, but the contemporary awareness of (and even emphasis upon) the variegated expression of "Judaism" in the late second Temple period hasn't corrected the problem Horsley's identifying here.

  2. Second, I'm not sure it's helpful to say that "'Judaism' is an essentialist modern concept," but rather that gospels and Jesus scholarship have essentialized "Judaism," and that essentialization has had some unfortunate effects on our understanding of all things Christian origins and second Temple Jewish. Again, a mere quibble, perhaps. But "Judaism" [Ἰουδαϊσμός; Ioudaismos] was a category available in the ancient, non-European world (see, of course, Gal 1.14). The problem isn't the concept but our analytical use of that concept.

  3. "European" and "Christian," perhaps, but I'm skeptical that "Judaism" is "a largely . . . scholarly construct," whether or not like Orientalism. Horsley's discussion might be focused on scholarly essentializations of Judaism, and rightly so, but the problem seems rather more cultural than simply scholarly. This is yet another instance in which scholarship in the humanities has a significant opportunity to identify a blind spot in our larger cultural context, to illuminate that blind spot, and to speak meaningfully about the very real problems with which that blind spot has been associated throughout Western civilization (anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, of course, but also more general questions about how we interact with "the Other").

  4. And so I wouldn't say that "it is not clear that 'Judaism' has any historical referent" prior to late antiquity (again, see Gal 1.14). Instead, I happily note the opportunity to quote The Princess Bride with respect to New Testament scholars' (and others') use of Judaism: "You keep on using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

ringing in the Fall 2009 term

Today is the first day of Fall 2009 classes for undergraduate students at Johnson Bible College. It should be a great semester; last night we had a successful Convocation ceremony and dedicated the new Russell Preaching Center (which houses my new office and into which the entire Distance Learning department moved over the summer). Very sheik, or sheek, or sheak . . . they're nice.

Today is also the first of three days of orientation for new students in the MA New Testament program. Though their semester began 10 July, students come onto campus now to . . . well, be oriented to the program. Since this is a distance learning program, we won't see many of you until you're finishing up your degree. But we hope this is the beginning of a vibrant and inquisitive relationship.

As we start this new term I can't help but be humbled by the realization that a number of institutions of higher education that kicked off the Spring 2009 semester last January closed their doors over the summer and aren't gearing up for 2009-2010. Some of you have made that difficult transition; others are still in the thick of it. My prayers are with you.

Best of luck to all of JBC's students, whether new, returning, or transfer. For my part, I'm teaching Elementary Greek, a first-year Gospel Narratives course, two courses in the graduate program, and I'm taking Intermediate Hebrew I. Structuring Early Christian Memory should be published by the SBL Annual meeting, and I have a number of book reviews in various states of progress. A number of projects were on hold this summer as I revised most of my course materials for this semester, and I hope to pick them up again in the coming weeks. But there's much to do for the Spring 2010 term, so I'm only marginally hopeful. Here's to work completed, work in progress, and work we hope to one day get to.

Friday, August 14, 2009

playing the gospels

Over the last couple years I've been trying to think about the gospels less like written books and more like musical scores. I was led in this direction, I'm sure, by John Miles Foley (especially Imminent Art [1991], The Singer of Tales in Performance [1995] and How to Read an Oral Poem [2002]), who uses the term libretto to refer to the written manifestations of oral tradition. Questions still abound: Does the libretto embody an oral performance (transcript)? Does the libretto enable oral performance (script)? Does the libretto function as part of oral performance (prop)? Etc. But these are fundamentally different questions than traditional gospels scholarship has learned to ask.

For me, the biggest gain that comes from thinking of the gospels as scores rather than books derives from the cultural function of both in our own milieu. We read books directly; they are their own "things." Not so with sheet music. Even accomplished musicians, who can "read" a musical score, are acutely aware that looking at the lines and notes on the page is only the first step of interpretation. We haven't read the music until we've heard the music, no matter how long, how closely, and how carefully we've looked at the page. But here's the point: The marks on the page were meant to be performed! A musical score doesn't give you the option to just look at it and analyze it; you're already misunderstanding the text if you don't play the music. Important as sheet music is, it doesn't exist for itself. It pleads with us to look beyond the page and to hear the music.

So also, I think, with the gospels. We have printed synopses that help us see the patterns of similarities and differences between the four gospels (and especially Matthew, Mark, and Luke). We have commentaries that discuss every word and phrase found in the text. We have even stratified the texts, attributing this layer to Mark, this to Q, this to the evangelist, and so on. We've inspected not only every note of the libretti in front of us but also every jot and tittle. But New Testament scholarship has largely missed the music and refused to hear the text. I'm beginning to wonder if the gospels, like sheet music, don't exist for themselves. We have to move beyond reading the gospels. We have to get to the Jesus tradition to which the gospels point.

My thoughts here are very preliminary, and I need to work them out still. But Richard Horsley has found himself asking the same question, as I found out this morning as I started chapter 3 of Jesus in Context (2008). Horsley remembers a conversation with some of his students:
One of the students, a performing musician, responded by drawing an analogy from music. It seemed to her like Gospel scholars tend to focus on one or two measures of a score at a time, but never realize that the notes on that score are merely symbols for parts of larger melodies, fugues, and movements or of whole choruses and arias, cantatas, and operas. They have not yet discovered the work as a whole, much less considered what it would be like in performance. (2008: 56)

Horsley is talking about context, primarily, and preparing to talk about performance. And he's right on both counts: We need to account for the story as a whole rather than merely its parts in isolation, and we need to account for the medium (or media) in which most people accessed that story. But I'm not concerned, primarily, with either context or performance. Both of these issues, for me, raise larger questions about tradition. If the early Christians spoke more broadly about Jesus than the simple reading of four (or more) texts, if the early Christians lived in the shadow of that broader speech rather than of a written canon, if the Jesus tradition manifested itself in symbols, art, song, behavior, images, rituals, longings, and so on, then how can we read the gospels and hear the tradition to which they point, of which they are embodiments, and in which they find their resonance? These questions, I think, are much more important than the standard, source-, form-, and redaction-critical analyses that have dominated the field.

[N.B. Let me be clear about what type of questions I'm asking. I ask these questions first as a historian and only secondarily as a Christian, though of course this second identity is the more fundamental one for me. But you don't have to worship at the altar of Bach or Mendelssohn to recognize that their score point to their music. Horsley does not write from a perspective of faith; I do. But I'm raising historical and literary questions, not theological ones. Even if a person doubts that the texts enable us to hear Jesus they should still recognize that the texts were meant to make us hear something.]

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

on the allure of learning Greek

Every year around this time (well, in a couple weeks) I ask my students why they decided to commit the time and energy, endure the frustrations, and (even) suffer the stigmata involved in learning New Testament Greek. There are about half-a-dozen typical answers (and usually one or two from out past left field), but one answer is far and away the most popular: "I want to read God's Word in its original language." A little digging reveals an awareness, impressive coming from nineteen-year-olds if not clearly articulated, that reading the Bible in translation entails depending on a layer (or several layers) of translation. If "the Bible" is God's Word, the NIV is a translation committee's mediation of God's Word. The same goes, mutatis mutandis, for the NASB, NRSV, NLT, etc. etc. etc.

Very early in my own experiences as a Greek student, however, I realized that things were a bit more complicated. I learned from D. A. Black's Learn to Read New Testament Greek (now available in a third edition, with an accompanying workbook), the same text I use ten years later in my own course. And as I learned that βαπτίζω means I baptize and ὁ ὄχλος means crowd, I realized that I was exchanging a translation committee's mediation of the texts' meaning(s) for Prof. Black's. Could I ever close the door to the rest of the world and sit—just me and the text—alone with God's Word?

The problem, of course, is that I never read any text alone, whether the New Testament in Greek or the newspaper in English. I've always learned how to interact with texts from others and with others, and even in the solitude of my office or at home I invoke them in my reading of those texts. I don't depend on Prof. Black to understand the nuances of Greek vocabulary, of course; my exposure to and experiences with a variety of Greek texts and lexica have broadened and deepened my knowledge base. And though I feel relatively free (not completely, though) of any of the popular translation committees, I'm more aware than ever that I read the texts as one part of a larger community, one which includes members of translation committees, compilers and editors of lexica, text critics, philologists, exegetes and expositors, homileticians, and a host of others.

Even so, I still long for—strive after, even—an unmediated experience of the text. I want to experience it first-hand, to read it "for myself," to know it face-to-face rather than dimly, through a glass. And I see my longing reflected in Moses' request to see God's glory (Exod 33). And as I finish up Barry Schwartz's book, Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era, I see it reflected, and partially realized, in Sigmund Freud's reaction to the Acropolis:
When, finally, on the afternoon after our arrival, I stood upon the Acropolis and cast my eyes around upon the landscape, a remarkable thought suddenly entered my mind: 'So all this really does exist, just as we learnt in school!' Or it would be possible to maintain that when I was a schoolboy I had thought I was convinced of the historic reality of the city of Athens and its history, but that the occurrence of this idea on the Acropolis had precisely shown that . . . I had not believed in it . . . ! (cited in Schwartz 2008: 250)

The challenge, it seems to me, is to stop teaching my students about the Acropolis and to bring them to it—to stop [merely] teaching them Greek so that they can read the Greek texts at some point in the future and to bring them in contact with the texts themselves.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Horsley's hierarchies

I've begun reviewing Richard Horsley's recent book, Jesus in Context: Power, People, and Performance (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008). I met Horsley in Boston at last year's SBL Annual Meeting, and I can honestly say that no established scholar has been as nice to me on first meeting as he was. I have enjoyed Horsley's scholarship since my first exposure to it in 2000 (when I read his edited volume, Paul and Politics (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000). Though he and I have some significantly different conclusions, he asks almost exactly the same questions I'm interested in pursuing.

Which leads me to one of the ironies I've always found at the heart of Horsley's scholarship. On the one hand, he has made it a regular feature of his research to examine and question established assumptions driving NT scholarship (especially the divide between religion, politics, and economics; the assumption of stable, printed, widely available written texts, etc.). On the other, his own assumptions have created a number of problems, whether because he continues to be influenced by the assumptions he has already undermined (e.g., his interest in Q despite that hypothetical document's dependence on literary theories Horsely elsewhere denounces) or because he applies similar logic as those assumptions to new ones (e.g., his bifurcation of "people's history" from "standard history" despite evidence that both approaches, in isolation from the other, distort our analyses).

With this ambivalence in mind, I point out two references, relatively near to each other, from Horsley's most recent publication:
Anthropologists and social historians, drawing on comparative studies of agrarian societies, have moved well beyond the problematic old two-tier model of aristocratic culture and folk culture. In most situations there is an interaction between a "little tradition," the "distinctive patterns of belief and behavior . . . valued by the peasantry," and the corresponding "great tradition" of the elite. (2008: 28)

There was thus no standardized Scripture that operated as the authority even in the scribal circles and the priestly circles who controlled the Temple. It is highly unlikely therefore that the Hebrew Scriptures were known to Judean and Galilean peasants. Scrolls, which were extremely expensive and cumbersome, were more or less confined to scribal circles. (2008: 29)

Let me say that, in broad strokes, I agree with the main thrusts of both comments. But (and here's the point), Horsley is too restrictive in his view of written texts as weapons wielded by elite power interests to oppress the lower class(es). Written texts—both their contents and the symbolic currency of their material existence—also participated in the "interaction between a 'little tradition' . . . and the corresponding 'great tradition' of the elite." After all, even the gospel texts themselves, which Horsely rightly identifies as rooted in and expressive of a form of little tradition in opposition to Judean great tradition, are written texts. They are also "more than" written texts, inasmuch as they embody a larger, contextualizing tradition that transcends the written texts. But they were never less than written texts.

Here, I think, Horsley has allowed his thinking to be governed by hierarchical structural dynamics, even though he has shown himself to be such a prolific expositeur of other well-established but ultimately inappropriate hierarchies. Horsley is clearly not uncritical. His work is, rather, a useful location for realizing that the social environment into which we learn to read the biblical text exerts massive influence, and the work of distancing ourselves from our heritage in order to understand that heritage is never complete.

Monday, August 10, 2009


How in the world did I miss the publication of the fourth installment of A Marginal Jew?! The first three volumes (especially vols. 2 [1994] and 3 [2001], but also vol. 1 [1991]) are well worth the read, though these are more reference works than books to read from page one 'til the indices. But eighteen years, four volumes, and over three thousand pages all conspire to wane one's interest in historical investigation on Jesus. I dare say anyone else's fourth volume [!] on Jesus would seem . . . I dunno, unnecessary, perhaps. But Meier's work is always impressive in its breadth and incessant in its pursuit of detail. Meier, like Dunn, Hengel, and a few other scholars, somehow seems to know all the relevant primary literature and to have read all the secondary literature, too. Singly, these are impressive feats; together they are Herculean. And though I disagree with Meier at a number of points (some quite significant), I stand in awe of what Meier has accomplished. Congratulations, Professor Meier.

Monday, August 03, 2009

a great couple of clips

If you've never seen the BBC's programme, Top Gear, you really need to. Even my wife loves it, though I suspect she's as interested in Jeremy Clarkson or (more probably) Richard Hammond as she is the cars. There are simply too many hilarious clips to show them all here; I recommend searching for Top Gear on YouTube. But this one is both funny and it makes a salient point. Try to imagine a similar test involving, I dunno, healthcare.

Top Gear, Pt. I

Top Gear, Pt. II

[I apologize for linking rather than embedding the videos; trust me, this is the better way to see these.]

the miraculous in Q

I'd like to solicit your help, because I'm quite sure I must not understand what I've just read.

I'm preparing some reading questions from Pheme Perkins's discussion on "The Quest for Sources" (Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels [Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2007], 54–125), particularly pp. 54–96. Her discussion is pretty standard (as you would expect from an introduction) in that it is characteristically careful and yet glosses over a number of issues I'm not wanting to gloss over. Following the critical edition of Q, Perkins provides a comprehensive list of sayings (pp. 74–80). Then, in a move reminiscent of Richard Horsley and Jonathan Draper's analysis in Whoever Hears You Hears Me (London and New York: Trinity Press International, 1999), she provides a rudimentary structure of discursive blocks into which many (but not all) the Q material fits.

When I'm open to the Q hypothesis, I'm open to this larger "Collection of Discourses" model of Q rather than the atomistic model of a sayings source. But then Perkins makes a comment I really don't understand. She says,
The only anomalous pericope [among the Q material] is the lone miracle story [i.e., Jesus' healing the centurion's child (Luke 7.1–10)]. Most descriptions of Q skirt the difficulty by describing it as a statement about faith. For example, the editors of the critical edition entitle the section, "The Centurion's Faith in Jesus' Word." Jesus' miracle working does not figure in any of the other sayings of Q or in the later Gos. Thom. Rather than to make the healing of the centurion's son fit by stripping it of that element, one should consider alternate possibilities. (Perkins 2007: 81; my emphasis)

I've italicized the passage that's giving me problems. Is Perkins really saying that, other than Q 7.1–10, Jesus' miracle working (especially his healings and exorcisms) don't appear in Q? What about Q 7.18–23? or Q 11.14–23? Perkins has already listed Luke 7.18–35 as "Jesus on the Baptist, against 'this generation'," but we should remember that Jesus' response to John's disciples referred explicitly and programmatically to his healing of the blind, lame, deaf, and leprous, and his raising of the dead. Similarly, she listed Luke 11.14–51 as "Jesus against his opponents," but that story kicks off by Jesus' exorcising a demon and climaxes with Jesus' statement, "But if I cast out demons by the finger [Matt 12.28 = Spirit] of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you." Other references could also be given.

Perkins's discussion is, as I've already said, very careful, so I must be missing her point. I'd appreciate it if someone out there can clue me in to what I'm missing.

[UPDATE: A comment taken out of context but, in light of the previous discussion, nevertheless intriguing: "Q2 knows of, but has no place for, Jesus as healer and exorcist" (Perkins 2007: 96). Is Perkins's but has no place for justifiable?]

on the re-unification of Codex Sinaiticus

The British Library has a series of podcasts on the re-unification of Codex Sinaiticus, for anyone interested.

[HT: Mark Goodacre]

Saturday, August 01, 2009

a [nearly] new article

I fell a bit behind in my reading and so have only just now picked up the second-most-recent issue of Bulletin for Biblical Research (19.1). I have just finished Gary N. Knoppers's very interesting article, "The Synoptic Problem? An Old Testament Perspective" (19.1 [2009]: 11–34). Admittedly I misunderstood the article's title. I expected the piece to present an argument regarding the synoptic problem within gospels scholarship from the perspective of Old Testament criticism. Instead, Knoppers focuses on biblical synopticism in general, but especially in the Hebrew Bible, from the perspective of mimēsis (or imitatio) in the ancient world (Classical, Egyptian, Hellenistic, Roman) in general. Knoppers brings a breathtakingly broad sample of ancient evidence to bear on the question of mimēsis. Given the related discussions among source critics of the gospels' interdependence and the relatively disconnected nature of those discussions from the practices of reproduction and adaptation in ancient milieux, Knoppers's article is probably the place to begin source critical analyses in the future.

To provide one sample, among many possibilities, Knoppers addresses the problem of distinguishing mimēsis from plagiarism in the ancient world (2009: 27–33). It is fairly common practice for gospels scholars to claim, in their introductory source-critical comments, that plagiarism is a modern cultural construction that does not apply to the evangelists. When we claim that Matthew and Luke, for example, reproduced significant portions of their sources (Mark and Q), we are not making the same claim as when we accuse one of our students of reproducing significant portions of their sources in a research assignment. As one example,
Some view [the theory of the gospels as interdependent] as portraying two of the Gospel authors as copyists who relied on others for a large portion of their work. Ancient authors had no scruples about plagiarism; so the theory does not suggest the writers did anything unethical, but it does reduce the originality of the later writers. (Richard Niswonger, New Testament History [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992], 102; my emphasis)

Knoppers's article, pace Niswonger, documents the rather heterogenous and contentious ideas surrounding ideas of imitation and plagiarism. Slavish reproduction of one's sources was not merely considered "unoriginal" by many ancient writers, but it was even referred to as "thievery" (klopē). While the legal concept of copyright did not exist in the ancient world, there was often fierce, sometimes contentious arguments over authors' rights and the obligations of later writers vis-à-vis their sources. Knoppers, who cites Michael Silk's entry, "Plagiarism," (Oxford Classical Dictionary [ed. S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth; 3rd ed.; Oxford: Oxford University Press 1996, 1188]), deserves citing at some length:
As Silk comments, "The preoccupation with plagiarism over many centuries serves as a reminder that, contrary to some modern misstatements, ancient literature, especially poetry, was expected to be 'new.' Certainly many writers, Greek and Roman, are anxious to assert the originality of their own claim to it." Much of the modern discussion about imitation and plagiarism assumes clearly available and agreed-on rules across the spectrum of ancient scholarship during a variety of times, but no central, universally recognized arbiter of definitions and standards existed in antiquity. There was, of course, no such thing as copyright, and, there was no widespread notion of the sanctity of intellectual property. Working within diverse traditions, diverse times, and diverse settings, ancient critics were sure to disagree. (2009: 32)

The gospels, of course, were produced in vastly different cultural milieux than those discussed by Knoppers; the values and norms of ancient elite cultures were certainly not operative in the production and reception of the gospel traditions and texts, certainly not during the first century. But elite standards were massively influential, and their values and norms would have "trickled down" into more popular writings. Those values and norms, also, would have been distorted in the process. But we cannot simply wave aside our students' discomfiture (or our own) at the implied accusation that the evangelists were plagiarists by denying such a concept to the ancient world. Mark himself, if our source-critical theories are accurate, may have picked up a copy of Matthew and exclaimed to himself, "Now just wait one gosh-darn minute!"

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