Thursday, December 30, 2010

on songs, tales, and paroles

In the summer of 2005 I settled upon the metaphor of langue and parole to express my view of the relationship between any particular expression of a living tradition and that tradition per se. These terms—langue and parole—are technical terms in structural linguistics. Langue refers to the "system of language," the patterns and rules and conventions that precede and enable any specific utterance. Parole refers to a specific, particular utterance, an actualization of the language-system, a concrete mobilization of the potential provided by langue. The important point for my purposes is that you can never speak langue; that is, you can never say everything that a language-system enables you to say. I can read the finite number of sentences in a book or on a blog, but I can never read all the sentences in the English language. As a language-system, "English" enables an infinite number of sentences. "English" is the potentiality—the langue—that enables the sentences—the paroles—you're reading now.

The problem I was addressing via this metaphor isn't new in oral tradition studies. Albert Lord, in his seminal 1960 work, The Singer of Tales, entitled his fifth chapter, "Songs and the Song" (99–123). According to this distinction, the plural "songs" refers to any specific performance of the tradition (or parole), and the definite singular "the song" refers to the tradition itself, the langue that precedes and envelops "songs" but is itself unsingable, unutterable, only ever potential. Lord refers to "the song" as "a flexible plan of themes, some of which are essential and some of which are not" (99). And, consequentially, the transmission and preservation of "the song" in these terms differs dramatically from from the transmission and preservation of any given parole. Lord says of the singer of "the song":
His idea of stability, to which he is deeply devoted, does not include the wording, which to him has never been fixed, nor the unessential parts of the story. He builds his performance, or song in our sense [i.e., parole], on the stable skeleton of narrative, which is the song in his sense [i.e., langue]. (99)

If all of this seems a bit confusing, think about any of the seemingly endless versions of any classic Christmas song we've been listening to for the last five weeks. I heard at least three different versions of "Santa Baby" this month, one each by Eartha Kitt, Madonna, and Taylor Swift. These songs are all very different in terms of their style and their affect, and they each evoke a different response from me (e.g., I viscerally hate Madonna's version). Their words may be exactly the same across all three versions (though I haven't checked whether or not they are), but the variation between them is important. So what makes them the same song? And what enables their variations without any of these versions becoming "a different song"? These are the questions I'd like to see us raise, mutatis mutandis, of the four gospels.

In order to raise a similar issue, John Miles Foley refers to the "tale within a tale" in his 1995 book, The Singer of Tales in Performance, which in its very title evokes Lord's earlier work:
[W]e could observe that any performance/version is fundamentally a "tale within a tale," with the avenues of implication necessarily running both ways. The present tale [parole] both enriches and is enriched by the larger, implied tale [langue]—itself unperformed (and unperformable) but metonymically present to the performer and audience" (48, n. 44)

In fact, I first read Foley's book in the summer of 2005, so my landing on the langue/parole metaphor to express these issues was in direct response to Foley's discussion.

All of this comes back to my mind because I'm reviewing The Interface of Orality and Writing: Speaking, Seeing, Writing in the Shaping of New Genres (A. Weissenrieder and R. Coote, eds.; WUNT 260; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010). Today I started John Miles Foley's essay, "Plentitude and Diversity: Interactions between Orality and Writing" (103–18). In the overview to his article, Foley refers to "rule-governed variation" and the navigation of "webs of potentials" (103), both of which get at precisely the issue of how any "oral-derived text" relates to the living tradition it expresses. These phrases, I think, provide a more helpful way for thinking about how the gospels, for example, relate to each other and to the larger "Jesus tradition" of which they are but individual instances or expresses (paroles). Indeed, the phrase "rule-govered variation" nearly depends on the langue/parole metaphor for its explanatory power: the set of rules that governs variation in the expression of any tradition is the system of potentials (langue) that enables the expression (parole) in the first place.

Gambl[ing] again, a story of relapse

I've returned to Harry Gamble's Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995). But it's okay. I can stop whenever I want to.

The first part of Gamble's fifth and final chapter, "The Uses of Early Christian Books" (203–41), begins with a discussion of the form and function of written texts in early Christian liturgical practice. (Recall that Gamble spent considerable time discussing the form of early Christian texts—as codices [i.e., books]—in a previous chapter, where he postulated the Pauline epistolary collection as the formative influence over the early Christians' preference for the codex over the scroll; see my comments here.) The opening sentence deserves citing here:
Books are written to be read, but they are read for many purposes and in many contexts, and the act of reading varies accordingly. (203)

I have argued elsewhere that what it means to read is, for us, so self-evident that we assume we know what we're looking at when we find people doing it in ancient texts. When Jesus stands up ἀναγνῶναι ("to read") the Isaiah scroll in Luke 4, he must be doing the same thing I do when I read Isaiah 61, right? Of course, he's physically handling a scroll rather than a book; but still, his eyes and his brain are doing the things my eyes and brain are doing, right? Of course, the problem here is that what Luke reports that Jesus read doesn't exist on a page anywhere, until, that is, Luke writes it. If Luke can emphasize the image of Jesus reading the way he does in 4.16–21 and still report a nonexistent text, and all this without any sense whatsoever that anything is amiss, perhaps to read doesn't mean what we think it means. I know, I know: Inconceivable!

Gamble goes on to provide a marvelous explanation of the act of reading in antiquity. He makes a lot of the difficulty presented by scriptio continua ("continuous script"), though I think we need to recognize that no one in antiquity complained of the lack of spaces between words (at least, not as far as I am aware; Gamble certainly doesn't provide an instance of such a complaint). Even so, reading the "relentless march of characters across the lines and down the columns" (203) involved the voice and the ears in a way that "reading" in the modern sense doesn't, as ancient readers "organized [written syllables] as much by hearing as by sight into a pattern of meaning" (204). This aspect of "reading" in antiquity results in a more broadly social dynamic of texts, a social dynamic that vitiates, somewhat, the modern dismay at the shockingly low levels of literacy that scholars have estimated for antiquity since, at least, Harris's landmark study, Ancient Literacy: "the illiterate were as capable as the literate of hearing books read. Thus the absence of literacy had limited consequences in the context of public reading" (205; remember Gamble's phrase, participation in literacy, which I discussed here).

Gamble turns to the function of written texts in the early synagogues as an entrée into the function of texts in the early churches. The relation between Palestinian synagogal practices and the practices of synagogues in the Greek Diaspora is unclear.
It is less clear whether strictly Gentile Christian communities of the first century, though they were often spawned from hellenistic-Jewish missions, adopted synagogue usages. For these reasons it cannot be uncritically assumed that scripture reading belonged from the outset to specifically Christian worship or, if it did, that it played the same role that it did in the synagogue. (212)

Gamble may be right, but we need to remember that we're talking about specifically liturgical (i.e., as part of the worship service) uses of texts. The point is less debatable that the early Christians, like their Jewish neighbors, were from the start oriented toward textual traditions irrespective of whether and/or how written texts functioned as part of their worship. Behind a number of our earliest evidences (Paul [1 Corinthians], Matthew, Acts) are specifically and emphatically textual sources of tradition, even if those sources functioned symbolically more than textually. Paul is emphatic that Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection happened "according to the scriptures," even though he doesn't bother to clarify which, specifically, he has in mind. Matthew famously links to written biblical tradition in his account of Jesus, even to the point of explaining Jesus' return to erets Israel in terms of Hosea (11.1). Acts, too, appeals to written authorities in the disciples' actions in chapter 1, in the first presentation of the gospel in chapter 2, in Paul's denunciation of the Roman Jews in chapter 28, and at nearly every point in between. Whatever the early Christians did in their worship services, they were oriented to their world, at least in part, by means of written texts.

I'm also a little skeptical of an important assumption about written texts that Gamble accepts (uncritically, I might say); in an off-handed comment he says, "the text was fixed" (227). In light of the amazing textual fluidity we find within and between manuscripts, I'm not sure how we can say this. I assume he means that once a manuscript was written, that manuscript was no longer subject to change. This is close to true, though we are awash with ancient manuscripts that have been "corrected" (or simply emended) by later hands, sometimes by multiple later hands. Writing a manuscript was not the same as inscribing a stone tablet or stele. But Luke's citation of Isa. 61 in Luke 4, Mark's reference to "Isaiah" in Mark 1.2–3, James' enigmatic reference to "the scripture" in 4.5, and a host of other examples serve to suggest that if "the [written] text," ἡ γραφή with all its theological freight, "was fixed," its fixity looked and functioned rather differently than the stability of our own printed texts.

Gamble makes another interesting point, especially in the face of the claim made recently by a number of scholars (e.g., Richard Horsley) that written texts were prohibitively expensive. In his explication of "the private use of Christian books" (231–37), Gamble argues that Christian texts were rather widely available to anyone who wanted them and that Christian preachers often expected their hearers to have access to make use of written texts. Indeed, the problem for these preachers was often that not enough of their hearers did so! "Apparently the problem was not that Christian books were especially difficult or expensive to procure for private use, but that few troubled to obtain them, and fewer still to read them" (233). This doesn't suggest that Christians were broadly or usually literate; Origen, for example, "certainly does not assume the literacy of all Christians, but he does presuppose the availability of texts to those who could read" (232). The material costs of written texts, apparently, were not nearly as high a hurdle as the educational costs. Gamble concludes,
It seems clear that literate Christians were able to obtain Christian texts for private reading. Because the matter of their cost almost never comes up, expense does not appear to have been an obstacle. Some cost was involved, no doubt, but it was not prohibitive for most. (237)

Finally, Gamble raises the question of "the magical use of Christian books" (237–41), which provides perhaps the most striking difference between ancient and modern uses of written texts. Gamble rightly rejects the idea that only the common, vulgar populace used texts "magically"; Origen, John Chrysostom, and Augustine all attest such uses. The issue is interesting, and Gamble's discussion of it is helpful if only too brief.

Overall, this is a great book that deserves its near-classic status. For those of you interested in media criticism, literacy, the form and/or function of written texts in Christian antiquity, or a host of related questions, I highly recommend Gamble's book.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

a fortuitous find

I have assigned a selection of readings from Plutarch's Moralia (the Quaestiones romanae et graecae) and from Seneca's Epistles (the Epistulae morales) in my graduate course, World of the New Testament. I'm interested in both Plutarch and Seneca as presentations of features of the Greco-Roman world from elite, pagan perspectives. Plutarch explicitly is trying to explain features of Latin culture to his Greek readers; Seneca, on the other hand, is exploring and commending certain behaviors or ways of thinking to his friend, Lucilius.

I'm certainly no Latin scholar; still less do I know anything about Seneca. So I was pleasantly surprised when I came across the following:
I shall therefore send to you the actual books; and in order that you may not waste time in searching here and there for profitable topics, I shall mark certain passages, so that you can turn at once to those which I approve and admire. Of course, however, the living voice and the intimacy of a common life will help you more than the written word. You must go to the scene of the action, first, because men put more faith in their eyes than in their ears, and second, because the way is long if one follows precepts, but short and helpful, if one follows patterns. Cleanthes could not have been the express image of Zeno, if he had merely heard his lectures; he shared in his life, saw into his hidden purposes, and watched him to see whether he lived according to his own rules. Plato, Aristotle, and the whole throng of sages who were destined to go each his different way, derived more benefit from the character than from the words of Socrates. It was not the class-room of Epicurus, but living together under the same roof, that made great men of Metrodorus, Hermarchus, and Polyaenus. Therefore I summon you, not merely that you may derive benefit, but that you may confer benefit; for we can assist each other greatly. (Seneca, Ep. 6.5–6)

Seneca's view of texts—what they are, what they're good for, and how to use them properly—is particularly interesting to me, given my own interests in media criticism and Christian origins. Seneca is a member of the Roman elite social class (he was Nero's tutor!), highly educated, familiar with the range of philosophical texts produced by and for the Greek and Roman upperclasses, able to live a life of relative leisure even in comparatively difficult times (see Ep. 1.4), and sufficiently resourced to send a barrage of letters to a friend who is physically distant from him. Even so, Seneca is no raw bibliophile; he isn't interested in amassing and reading texts for their own sake (see Ep. 2). Instead, although he exhibits familiarity with texts from outside his favored Stoic tradition (Epicurean, Platonic, etc.), he exhorts Lucilius to confine himself to familiar and more profitable texts. Reading too many texts is akin to knowing too many people, and being a friend to none (Ep. 2.2).

So how does Seneca suppose texts function (or ought to function) in order to maximize their benefit? Texts only work properly, according to the excerpt quoted above, within the context of social relationship. The value to Lucilius of Seneca's Moral Epistles isn't in the reading but in the relationship between the two men established prior to the epistles and evoked, strengthened, and furthered by means of the texts. Similarly, Cleanthes embodied and furthered Stoic philosophy via his relationship with Zeno rather than by reading his texts. The same applies, mutatis mutandis, of Socrates' followers; indeed, famously Socrates didn't even leave behind any textual remains!

And so Seneca says (and this really is quite amazing), "Of course, however, the living voice and the intimacy of a common life will help you more than the written word. You must go to the scene of the action, first, because men put more faith in their eyes than in their ears, and second, because the way is long if one follows precepts, but short and helpful, if one follows patterns." The written text enables Seneca to face and overcome the problem of geographical distance (he is physically removed from his friend, Lucilius). But the text is no substitute for the interpersonal relationship and interaction that is given concrete expression in face-to-face conversation; indeed, the text—when it behaves properly—mimics social interaction. Seneca becomes present to Lucilius via the written text. For this reason, Lucilius read a different text than the one before me; when I read Seneca, there is no extratextual relationship invoked (and evoked) in my act of reading.

Notice that this is a far cry from the standard opposition between "orality" and written texts we find in much biblical scholarship. We're not juxtaposing oral tradition over and against written text. Rather, we're on the lookout for how written texts functioned in a world conditioned by and geared toward the actual social engagement of human beings with one another. Thus the significance of Seneca's allusion to social script of autopsy (eyewitness testimony) when he says men prefer their eyes to their ears. On the surface this may seem to elevate written texts—accessed with the eyes—over spoken words—perceived with the hear. But in fact this is exactly the opposite of Seneca's point! Seneca privileges the concrete experience of knowledge shared through interpersonal relationships (including words spoken between people) over that gained second hand, through the reports of someone else or mediated by means of written reports.

Monday, November 22, 2010

SBL in ATL, redux

The SBL is well underway now. It takes some effort to avoid getting caught up in the phrenetic activity of this, our largest professional meeting of biblical scholars. But here's a quick rundown of my Saturday experience.

I began the day with two papers in the Intertextuality in the New Testament consultation. First, Alain Gignac's paper, "'We know that everything that Law says... '. Rom 3:9-20 as a narrative utilization of intertextuality that develops its own theory of intertextuality," read Paul's catena of citations from the Psalter and Isaiah (and Ecclesiastes?) in Romans 3 in terms of a judicial seat in which Paul (the prosecutor) called ὁ νόμος ("the Law") as a witness against Israel. Second, J. R. Daniel Kirk's paper, "Toward a Theory of Narrative Transformation: The Importance of First Context in Paul’s Scriptural Citations," sought to develop a theory of intertextuality by employing Greimas's actantial model.

After Kirk's paper, I left the NT intertextual discussion to poke my head into the Institute for Biblical Research's (IBR) Historical Jesus Group discussion. That group recently published a hefty volume, Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence (Darrell Bock and Robert Webb, eds.; WUNT 247; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009), which has been reissued at a less-insane price by Eerdmans. Bock and Webb presented the book's basic historiographical method and a preview of that method's application to the gospel tradition, and James Charlesworth responded. I spoke with Bob at some length about the book the next day (Sunday), especially because I have some fundamental criticisms of his discussion of history and historical method. I'm looking forward to continuing that conversation—and making it public, probably in the JSHJ—in the near future.

In the early evening I attended the Q section, whose theme was "Oral or Written? The nature of the double tradition material." Terence Mournet presented a paper on parsimony and the use of Occam's razor in source-critical analyses, entitled, "Oral Tradition and Q: Historical Complexity and the Synoptic Problem." Alan Kirk then delivered a paper, entitled "Tradition, Memory, and Scribes: Critical Reflections on Some Recent Accounts of the Origins of the Double Tradition," on the media conceptualizations—oral and (or even versus) written media—driving some recent accounts of the Double Tradition (material in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark). These were both interesting discussions, particularly Kirk's, though I'm not convinced of some of his key arguments. Perhaps more on that later.

I spent the evening schmoozing at the British New Testament Society/King's College reception and then with friends from Cincinnati Christian University. All-in-all it was a good day, though Sunday would be, as it turned out, even better.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


The Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting gets underway later this morning, though the meeting really got underway last night. I made the short drive from Knoxville to Atlanta yesterday morning, parked in one of the northern suburbs, and rode the MARTA train into downtown. After a few hours of getting my bearings, doing some reading, and running into a couple friends, I did attend two meetings. First was the Stone-Campbell Journal Reception, which featured an informal conversation with Loren Stuckenbruck and Randy Chestnutt on why apocryphal and pseudepigraphal texts matter for anyone interested in Christian origins and the New Testament. There were, perhaps, fifty attendees, so the atmosphere was relaxed and casual.

After the SCJ meeting I headed over to the Institute for Biblical Research Annual Lecture, which was relaxing but certainly not casual. N. T. Wright's lecture, "The Kingdom and the Cross," was vintage—or typical—Wright, depending on what you think of his work. He made a strong case that the kingdom of God and the cross of Christ are mutually interpreting, though he did overstate his thesis's innovation. The respondent, Mike Bird, duly pointed out the misstep. Both presenters were engaging, perhaps even thought provoking; the questioners afterward were perhaps less so. Since this is my blog I'll point out that I made an off-hand comment in Structuring Early Christian Memory that, I think, was largely along the same lines Wright proposed:
Though Jesus’ reputation would centre on his healing and exorcistic prowess in some circles, in the New Testament his salience centres on his crucifixion and resurrection. As a phenomenon in itself resurrection did not necessitate Jesus’ status as messiah or guarantee him a hearing with onlookers. But in New Testament traditions the significance of Jesus’ healings and exorcisms transferred onto his death and resurrection, so that these latter, like Jesus’ exorcisms, took on ‘more significance’. In this latter case, Isaiah continued to function as a vital traditional locus, but here texts like Ps. 22 also came into play. Though we cannot pursue this avenue of inquiry here, the way is thus opened up for us to not only understand Jesus’ healings and exorcisms within the context of Jesus’ overarching βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ [‘kingdom of God’] programme but also to understand the connections between the historical Jesus and the memory of Jesus among his followers. (221–22)

That is, despite how seemingly self-interpreting the claim to resurrection seems to us, within the discursive field of Second Temple Judaism resurrection was a more ambiguous—if not a more common—phenomenon. The early Christians, however, understood Jesus' resurrection (and the crucifixion that necessarily preceded it) along lines that were already established during Jesus' life and teaching. The strategies of interpretation that Jesus' followers brought to bear on the healings and exorcisms are largely those we find at work in discussions of Jesus' death and resurrection. Both, Paul might say, were κατὰ τὰς γραφάς (see 1 Cor. 15.3–8).

But enough of that. I also met up with some friends from Sheffield and from Cincinnati Christian University; this is the best part of the SBL. Oh . . . and the free books. InterVarsity Press gave out a free copy of Anthony Thiselton's recent introduction to Paul, The Living Paul: An Introduction to the Apostle's Life and Thought (Downer's Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2009) to IBR members. I was excited, as I'm looking for a good introduction to Paul. I'm not sure, however, that this is the one I'm looking for. The SBL also were distributed free hardback copies of their new Greek New Testament, edited by Michael Holmes. I'm not sure the need for this one, except perhaps for the much-relaxed copyright claims the publisher holds over this text. If you're interested, you can download an electronic copy for free here.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

see you in Louisville

I just found out today that my paper, "Speaking of Jesus: 'Oral Tradition' beyond the Form Critics," was accepted by the (SBL) New Testament section for the 2011 SECSOR meeting. That meeting will be held the weekend of 4–6 March, 2011, in Louisville, KY, at the Galt House. Here's my paper's abstract:
Oral tradition has been a live analytical concept in gospels research at least since the form critics but especially since Werner Kelber’s The Oral and the Written Gospel (1983). Recently, numerous high-profile publications in Jesus and gospels research attest the ascendency of memory as an equally live subject in the exploration and explanation of Christian origins. One by-product of this confluence of issues—oral tradition and memory—has been a renewed discussion of form criticism and its legacy. The apparent connection with the form critics’ aims risks misdirecting contemporary exploration of the early Christians’ use of oral and written traditions down potentially blind alleys. This paper offers three specific areas that distinguish—or ought to distinguish—contemporary oral-traditional research from form-critical inquiry. First, contemporary scholarship conceptualizes orality in terms broader than merely the transmission of tradition. Second, contemporary scholarship problematizes the construction of trajectories as explanatory models of Christian origins. Third, contemporary scholarship highlights both the similarities and the differences between oral and written expressions of tradition and explores the interface between the two. As a result, contemporary scholarship would be well-served by fostering an abrupt rupture between the current interest in the oral Jesus tradition (and the constitutive role of memory therein) and the procedures and products of Formgeschichte.

My thanks to the SBL NT section committee for approving my proposal. You can find more information about SECSOR at their website.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Bennema on Pontius Pilate

In his analysis of Pontius Pilate in the Fourth Gospel (Encountering Jesus: Character Studies in the Gospel of John [Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2009], 183–89), Cornelis Bennema makes an interesting argument. Scholars sometimes describe the Johannine Pilate as weak, lily-livered, indecisive, easily manipulated, etc. This, of course, conflicts with the portrait of Pilate in Josephus and Philo, where he appears strong, cruel, and ultimately too harsh to remain in charge of Judea (Rome removed Pilate from power in 36 CE).

Bennema, however, recognizes (I think rightly) that Pilate in the Fourth Gospel isn't the push-over some have read him to be. Bennema refers to Pilate's "politically motivated game of mocking and manipulating 'the Jews,'" by which Pilate gets "the Jews" "to admit their allegiance to Rome" (187). I think this is exactly right. On the next page Bennema explains,
In our reading of the Johannine Pilate we differ from the majority of scholars who portray Pilate as weak and indecisive. While we generally agree with scholars who view Pilate as a strong character, they seem to overrate Pilate's control over the situation by downplaying the force of 19:12 where "the Jews" finally get a grip on Pilate. Pilate is a competent, calculating politician who wants to show "the Jews" he is in charge while also trying to be professional in handling Jesus' case. But he is unable to achieve either aim because he underestimates the determination and shrewdness of "the Jews." (188)

I imagine Bennema would include me among those who "seem to overrate Pilate's control over the situation," since I'm not persuaded by his reading of John 19.12. I don't think Pilate genuinely sought to release Jesus out of any appreciation for Jesus' innocence; I do think that Pilate simply wanted to reinforce for "the Jews" that he doesn't do their bidding, even if he does ultimately put to death the man they handed over to him.

And I'm not sure what Bennema means when he refers to Pilate's efforts to be "professional." Nothing I've seen about the expression of Roman power and its domination over subjugated populations suggests professionalism was ever a concern for those in charge. Even so, I am reminded of a description of Pontius Pilate I wrote for my freshman Gospel Narratives course:
[According to the gospels,] The Jewish authorities only wanted to get rid of Jesus. Pilate probably wanted to get rid of Jesus as well, but he also needed to avoid the impression that he did what the Jewish authorities told him to. When we recognize that Pilate most likely did not want to release Jesus but rather wanted to affirm and strengthen the Jews’ subjection to his authority, the significance of his actions changes considerably. . . . When we re-read the accounts of Jesus’ trial before Pilate with an eye out for [the story's] political dynamics, it becomes clear that the evangelists portray the Jewish leaders on trial as much as Jesus is on trial. The difference, of course, is that Jesus refuses to acknowledge Rome’s power and is handed over to be crucified, while the Jewish leaders proclaim their loyalty to Caesar and deny the reign of Israel’s God.

Just my two cents.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Bennema on Nicodemus

In chapter nine of Encountering Jesus: Character Studies in the Gospel of John (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2009), Cornelis Bennema analyzes the character of Nicodemus, an ambiguous character who appears at three crucial points in the gospel (John 3, 7, and 19). Bennema offers some interesting proposals, some of which I find more convincing (e.g., that "Nicodemus, accompanied by his disciples, came one evening to have a discussion with Jesus and his disciples" [79]), some less (e.g., that "Nicodemus is the teacher or 'top theologian' of Israel," or that his question at 3.4 "seems to imply that he was advanced in age" [78]).

Of course, the most pressing question is whether the Fourth Gospel portrays N. positively—as one who responds appropriately to Jesus—or negatively. Early in his discussion, Bennema reproduces rather than explains or explores the ambiguity we find in the gospel. N., that is, was "attracted to and even 'believed' in Jesus on the basis of his signs but Jesus was critical of his response" (80). So N. observes what Jesus does and appropriately, in the terms established at the end of the gospel (see 20.30–31), recognizes that Jesus comes from God. But despite his ability to recognize Jesus as "from above," N. is somehow nevertheless "unable to grasp the real significance of these signs" (80). But what is that "real significance" that N. misses, if not that Jesus "comes from God"? Bennema never answers this question.

Even so, in the conclusion to his discussion of N. and Jesus in John 3, Bennema rightly notes that N. "remains ambiguous and as readers we must look at his two later appearances to determine whether he is able to progress in his understanding of Jesus" (80). The evangelist has certainly not tied up all the loose ends at the conclusion of this first encounter between N. and Jesus.

Nicodemus appears twice more in the Fourth Gospel. In 7.45–52 N. speaks up on Jesus' behalf—sort of—as the chief priests and Pharisees berate the "attendants" [ὑπηρέται; hypēretai] they had sent to arrest Jesus. In his discussion, Bennema notes N.'s ongoing ambiguity in the narrative; so far so good. But he appeals to the "edict" mentioned in 9.22 to explain N.'s ambiguity:
We learn later that the parents of the man born blind failed to testify because of fear of the Jewish religious authorities, who had decided to excommunicate anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah (9:22). Nicodemus would certainly have known of this edict and may have been afraid of his colleagues. In John 3 we were uncertain about Nicodemus's attitude and what he had grasped of Jesus' identity, and this incident only adds to his ambiguity. (81; my emphasis)

I think here Bennema misreads John. Certainly at some point [very] early in the history of John's gospel the Johannine audience would have known of the edict mentioned at 9.22, and perhaps John's audience would have interpreted N.'s actions in John 7 in against the "fear" [φοβέω; phobeō] of the blind man's parents in John 9. But this isn't what Bennema claims. Instead, he slips out of a narratological analysis and into a historical argument: (i) The Jewish authorities had decided to expel Jesus' followers from the synagogue, (ii) N. was a member of the Jewish ruling class (7.50), and so (iii) N. knew of the authorities' decision, and (iv) this helps explain N.'s actions in the narrative. There are at least two problems here.

First, Bennema makes a number of historical assumptions that are at the very least open to challenge. Even if ultimately we want to agree with those assumptions, Bennema doesn't offer any kind of historical argumentation to support those assumptions. For example, he assumes that N. is a historical character who actually existed outside the Johannine narrative. He additionally assumes that the decision mentioned in John 9.22 was a historical event that actually existed outside the narrative. And he also assumes that this decision helps explain both the actions of the historical N. and of N. the narrative character in the Fourth Gospel. These first two points are both debated issues among Johannine and Jesus scholars. But even if both N. and the authorities' decision are historical realities, there simply isn't any evidence that either the historical N. or the Johannine N. shied away from a bold, public defense of Jesus for "fear of the Jews" and of being expelled from the synagogue. Granted the value of Bennema's proposed "historical narrative criticism" (13), I'm not convinced that this is a helpful use of the method.

Second, if we limit ourselves to making literary-critical observations, we really can't escape the observation that the Johannine narrator simply does not appeal to the decision in 9.22 to explain N.'s ambiguity. Had this been the key to understanding N.'s behavior, it would have been helpful—even necessary!—for the narrator to mention the authorities' decision in this context. Certainly the narrator doesn't exhibit any hesitation to mention the expulsion "from the synagogue" [ἀποσυνάγωγος; aposynagōgos] to explain the blind man's parents' melting in the face of fierce opposition in John 9. Why, then, should he avoid it here? I think the answer is clear: The Johannine narrator does not interpret (or intend his audience to interpret) N. in light of the decision to excommunicate Jesus' followers from the synagogue.

This is a pretty major weakness in Bennema's analysis, and I don't want to downplay it. But there's also a pretty major strength, I think. Bennema respects the ambiguity of the Johannine portrayal of N. Though I think he misreads certain features of that ambiguity (e.g., I think N. actually draws the correct inference from Jesus' "signs," viz. that Jesus "has come from God" [3.2]), he nevertheless recognizes it as the overriding characteristic of this Jewish leader. "John does not provide sufficient evidence that Nicodemus's actions or understanding of Jesus is adequate for salvation. Although Nicodemus remains sympathetic to Jesus, it is uncertain what he understands of Jesus and his mission" (82–83). And yet, John's gospel is not particularly known for its embrace of the ambiguous; if anything, John files everything into one of two categories: light or darkness, from above or from below, life or death, etc. And so Bennema, even as he recognizes the ambiguity of the Johannine N., argues that the narrator presses the reader to assess N. as one or the other. Bennema's conclusion, then, respects N.'s ambiguity but insists that he "is attracted to the light but does not remain in the light; he keeps moving in and out of the shadows, and within John's dualism, there is no place for a twilight zone" (84).

I'm not sure if I follow Bennema here. I think N. may come off a bit more positively than he has allowed. But overall I think he's right: Despite the haziness of John's portrayal of N., the narrative presses us to understand N. as either in or out, for Jesus or against him. And once we—as John's readers—adjudge N., the way is set for us to assess ourselves and, hopefully, respond more appropriately (i.e., less ambiguously) than he.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

"messiah" in John

I'm continuing to read Cornelis Bennema's character study of the Fourth Gospel, Encountering Jesus: Character Studies in the Gospel of John (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2009). In his chapter on Nathanael, subtitled, "The Genuine Israelite" (64–68), Bennema makes the following, typical statement about the messianism of first-century CE Judaism:
In first-century Judaism, many Jews expected a royal-political messiah who would liberate Palestine from the Roman oppressors and establish a new age of peace and justice. John, however, presents Jesus primarily as a Teacher-Messiah who liberates people from the spiritual oppression of sin and the devil through his Spirit-imbued teaching. (67; original emphasis)

I'm automatically a little suspicious of any historical claims that assert anything of "many Jews." That this assertion is so typical of late-Second Temple era Judaisms gives me additional pause. Apart from its accuracy, this statement strikes me as simply too blunt to be of much help for either exegesis or historical reconstruction.

But I suspect Bennema here makes a good point about John's portrayal of Jesus' messianic status, that he is a "teacher-messiah" who offers liberation through his teaching. Given my relative inexpertise with the Fourth Gospel, I thought I would solicit the help of those of you more familiar with John's gospel. Is this, in your view, a helpful way of thinking about John's presentation of Jesus' status as "messiah"? I suspect it is, largely because in the Fourth Gospel Jesus opposes his spiritual enemy—the devil [διάβολος; diabolos]—by teaching the truth he has heard from God (see 8.42–47). Contrast that with the synoptic gospels, in which Jesus opposes the devil directly (Mark 1.12–13 parr.) and defeats him repeatedly in his exorcisms (Matt. 12.22–30 parr., passim). Indeed, in John's gospel Jesus doesn't perform a single exorcism, except metaphorically (perhaps) in 12.31, though even here Jesus pronounces a "casting out" rather than performs it.

You Johannine scholars out there: Any thoughts?

Monday, November 01, 2010

the best sign ever

Why society—like information—moves at the speed of volunteer, unpaid acquisitions editors.

HT: InsideHigherEd

the battle of the G[r]eeks wages on (or, pt. III)

In my previous post on first-year Greek grammars, I briefly laid out four aspects of my Elementary Greek class and what I'm looking for in a first-year grammar in light of those aspects. It's been a while since that post, so here's a quick recap:

  1. The class is quick-paced and intense, so I don't need an intense grammar. I want a text that presents the book quickly, basically but accurately, and without excessive nuance.
  2. I don't need a grammar that is "all things for all persons." A flexible grammar leaves room for the classroom experience to do more than simply read through the book. I will add material as I see appropriate, but my grammar just needs to establish a solid foundation.
  3. I prefer an approach that balances morphological analysis (and the dreaded memorization) with early and thorough-going exposure to actual Greek texts. Students can't do the latter reliably and quickly until they've mastered the former, but the motivation for the former comes from the latter.
  4. I want a grammar that ranges broadly across and progressively deeper into Greek linguistic structures rather than that presents all the material in a certain area (say, indicative verbs) before presenting other material.
If these are my four most basic expectations, how do Black and Croy line up on the issues? Here are my basic thoughts on each.

Regarding my first concern—a basic, quick-and-dirty presentation of the material—both Black and Croy come out strong. This, in fact, is why I have evaluated every introductory grammar in terms of Black's. Croy does explain in a parenthetical comment,
The original endings for the present active indicative were -μι, -ς, -σι, for the singular, and -μεν, -τε, -νσι, for the plural. In some cases, however, the original endings have undergone such changes that it is best simply to learn the resultant forms rather than the process by which they came about. The original endings are preserved in another conjugation to be learned later. (p. 8)

This is about as complex an explanation as I would be willing to give my beginning [nineteen-year-old!] students. Compare the nuanced discussion in Mounce (131–34), which is largely unnecessary. However, one of my students' frustrations with Black is the stuttered presentation of vocabulary. Some of Black's chapters have over thirty vocabulary words to learn (some considerably more than thirty!), while some have almost none. Croy, on the other hand, presents a steady dozen-or-so vocabulary words for each of his lessons. Less intense = good.

Regarding my second concern—a flexible grammar that allows me to tailor my class to my own idiosyncrasies—Croy's discussion of present active indicative and infinitive verbs (Lesson 2) does little more than present the necessary morphology and the very basic grammar of the present-tense verb (i.e., its aspect). Croy does, however, briefly discuss the "accentuation of verbs" (§13; pp. 9–10). But this is ideal for me, as this was one of the areas I would bring into my classes from Black's book. Black has a general discussion of accentuation in an appendix (§§184–87; pp. 216–19). I like that Croy has tailored his discussion of accents specifically to verbs and, later, to nouns (see Lesson 3; §20; p. 15). So this just happens to provide material that I was already providing beyond Black's chapters, and it does so in smaller, more focused bits that fit my purposes.

Regarding my third concern—an approach balanced between inductive and deductive instruction—I'm torn between the two books. Croy's presentation of Greek morphology is . . . well, it's awful. Black has the clear upper hand here. You simply have to compare the look of the page to appreciate how little thought and effort went into presenting the material. Black, on the other hand, employs clearly laid out tables with (in the newest edition) shading to help the student see what's going on. This will be an area where I will have to provide students with more helpful ways of presenting and organizing the information. But Croy provides something Black doesn't: For every lesson, beginning in Lesson 1, Croy has four kinds of exercises. First is the all-too-familiar "practice and review" exercises comprised of made-up Greek (of the "The apostles loose the slaves in the church" ilk). Second and third, however, Croy provides actual texts from both the LXX and the NT, respectively. In order to aid students with these exercises Croy provides a "Vocabulary for LXX and NT Sentences" section at the end of each lesson. Finally, and fourth, Croy provides a few English to Greek exercises. Compare Black's exercises, which are only ever Greek-to-English and which aren't drawn from actual biblical texts until into the second half of the book.

Regarding my fourth concern—a grammar that ranges broadly and progressively deeper into Greek—I rather like Croy's substance even if his form leaves something to be desired. For some reason, Croy doesn't give each lesson a title, so you actually have to look into the subtitles of each lesson to get an idea of what's covered when. But when I do this, I like what I see. The first real lesson—Lesson 2—presents present active indicative and infinitive verbs. Lessons 3 and 4 present the first and second declensions, respectively (I think I would agree with Black in reversing these), and Lesson 5 presents the full form of the article and first/second declension adjectives. Lesson 6 presents feminine second declension and masculine first declension nouns; I think I like breaking these off into a separate chapter. A little further on, Lesson 9 presents the present middle and passive indicative and infinitive verbs, and Lesson 10 introduces the difference between primary and secondary tenses (as well as the imperfect active indicative). Again, I think I like that Croy sticks with the first principal part before jumping to other verb stems. After Lesson 11 (imperfect middle/passive indicative), Lesson 12 introduces the concept of principal parts and then covers the second principal part (future active and middle indicative verbs). While Croy's order of presentation is, perhaps, the point of widest departure from Black's approach, and while I approve of and appreciate Black's approach, I think I prefer Croy's. A year or two in the classroom will help me decide whether or not I actually do.

Related to this last point, I've always thought—first as a student and then later as faculty—that the second half of Black's grammar does not divide the material into sufficiently manageable chunks. Third declension nouns, contract and liquid verbs, and participles each have one whole chapter. Croy, however, offers two lessons on the third declension (Lessons 17 and 25), three chapters on participles (Lessons 18–20), and a chapter each for contract (Lesson 21) and liquid verbs (Lesson 22). In addition, Black covers -μι verbs in a single chapter, whereas Croy provides three (Lessons 28–30). I anticipate my students will find these smaller, bite-sized lessons helpful (though I have some concerns, which I'll raise in a fourth and final post in this series).

I have learned and taught from Black's book for a dozen years now, and I'm very appreciative of Black's approach to Greek pedagogy and grammar. None of my comments here convey a sense of disappointment with Learn to Read New Testament Greek. In fact, I'm a little nervous about switching texts next year. I have never used another grammar, and I anticipate a bit of a learning curve as I figure out how this book fits within the structure of my particular class. But I'm also excited about any new challenges teaching from a different grammar will present. I remember another exciting switch, one that involved a bit of a learning curve but has certainly improved my quality of life. And as long as I continue to experience God's blessing, I shall never go back to using a PC!

chronology and the gospels

I admit I'm persuaded that we simply cannot develop a chronology of Jesus' life on the basis of the four gospels. It isn't that I don't "trust" the gospels on this account. But as far as I can tell, the gospels just don't intend to present Jesus' life in chronological order. And if the gospels don't even try to narrate Jesus' life chronologically, I don't see how we can reconstruct a sequential "life of Jesus" from them. Perhaps if more information had been preserved we could arrange a few pericopae in relative order (e.g., perhaps Jesus' adventures in Judea and Samaria [John 2.13–4.42] occurred before his return to Galilee in Mark 1.14 parr.). But in general the data simply doesn't enable us to do more than speculate. Despite my "high view" of the gospels (whatever that actually means), I also don't turn to them to understand aerodynamics or how to bake snicker doodles. If the gospels don't present a certain type of information, in general I try not to divine that information from them. And as I read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, I just don't find either snicker doodle recipes or a chronological life of Jesus. Would that either were there!

Cornelis Bennema's narratological analysis of the characters in the Fourth Gospel, Encountering Jesus: Character Studies in the Gospel of John (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2009), recognizes John's relative freedom to move events around in his account of Jesus' life and ministry. Even an event as significant as the Temple incident, which in the synoptic gospels precipitate Jesus' arrest and execution can be moved to much earlier in Jesus' story. Bennema acknowledges,
Most scholars agree that there was only one cleansing of the temple, towards the end of Jesus' ministry (as we find in the Synoptics), and that John has brought this incident forward for theological reasons. Thus, the incident mentioned here reflects a situation at the end of his ministry when the chief priests come to the fore. (39–40)

Admittedly, Bennema's immediate purposes here are different than mine. I am questioning the feasibility of ordering the Jesus tradition; he is setting up his analysis of "the Jews" as a character in John. Even so, he clearly recognizes the thematic (or "theological") presentation of pericopae in the gospels.

So I'm a little unsure what Bennema intends when he uses temporal language. Here are two examples. The first may not be actually temporal, but it occurs in an important context (indeed, immediately after the text quoted above). He detects a shift from religious-theological conflict with the Pharisees early in Jesus' ministry to a religious-political conflict with the chief priests later on. When does this shift occur? Bennema calls it "halfway" (40). Without pressing the temporal aspect of "halfway," I can't help but wonder, What does halfway mean with texts like these? If all he means is "halfway through the story," then fine. But if he intends a more historical "halfway through Jesus' ministry," then problems ensue.

The second example is more problematic because it's more clearly temporal. In his analysis of Andrew and Philip Bennema says, "The disciples have been with Jesus for just over two years, seen him perform several miracles and heard most of his teaching" (49). In a footnote he explains,
Both 2:23 and 6:4 mention the Passover, occurring in March/April, and 5:1 may refer to the Feast of Weeks around May/June. Then, 4:35 mentions that the summer harvest in May/June is four months away, putting the context of 4:35 around January/February. Hence, another, unrecorded Passover must have gone by between 4:35 and 5:1 so that the period between 2:23 and 6:4 is two years. (49, ftn 5)

Perhaps. But remember that the Passover in 2.23 (and the Temple incident that the passage narrates) was moved by the Johannine author from the end of Jesus' ministry. How, then, we can infer the types of chronological relationships between texts that Bennema infers eludes me.

But I'm nitpicking. I don't agree with Bennema's analysis here, but his discussion of John the Baptist and of "the Jews" (Bennema always uses inverted commas here; see 38, ftn 1) provides helpful nuance to scholarship's somewhat "flattened" reading of these characters as simply "witness" or "opponents," respectively. And his analysis of Philip and Andrew (47–52) raises some interesting questions that I hope to pursue in a future post. Encountering Jesus is an easy book to read, and so far I don't have any reservations recommending it to anyone interested in the characters of John's gospel and how they respond to Jesus.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Encountering Jesus

I've recently begun reading Cornelis Bennema's new book, Encountering Jesus: Character Studies in the Gospel of John (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2010). [Authentic Media's website is currently unavailable, but you can find the book's details on Prof. Bennema's webpage.] In Encountering Jesus, Bennema offers a literary analysis—or historical narrative criticism, as he calls it—of all the characters in the Fourth Gospel who encounter Jesus and exhibit some faith-response to him. This analysis fleshes out in detail the literary theory of character Bennema proposed in a recent article, "A Theory of Character in the Fourth Gospel with Reference to Ancient and Modern Literature" (Biblical Interpretation 17 [2009]: 375–421).

Besides Bennema's BibInt article I've only read the Introduction (1–21), so I can't comment too much on the book just yet. But I've enjoyed what I've read so far. Bennema rejects the dominant view among Johannine scholars of the characters populating the Fourth Gospel as "flat" figures who function as ethical types and embody a single trait (typically "faith" or "unfaith"). Instead, Bennema suggests that the Fourth Gospel provides a range of characters; some may indeed be flat, but others exhibit an impressive range of complexity, development, and/or inner being.

Although Bennema sets out to provide a comprehensive literary analysis of all the characters who "encounter Jesus" throughout the entire Fourth Gospel, he explicit avoids applying his theory of character to the gospel's protagonist, Jesus, as well as to the Father or the Holy Spirit (18). We will see how this affects his analysis. At this early stage in the game I think this may be an unfortunate limitation. If John's characters are as "round" and true-to-life as Bennema suggests, then it would be interesting to see how this roundness relates to the character who inhabits centerstage. Indeed, it seems to me an analysis of Jesus' character—and perhaps also of the Father and the Spirit—would have provided an interesting benchmark from which to begin his comprehensive analysis of John's other characters.

Even so, I've enjoyed the first twenty pages, and I look forward to reading—and commenting upon—the remaining two hundred.

Friday, October 22, 2010

archaia in Ignatius

Ignatius, bishop of Antioch in the early second century CE who was marched to Rome and (presumably) martyred, records an interesting encounter with some of his opponents:

I heard of some people who said, "Unless I find it in the archives, I do not believe it in the gospel. When I told them, "It is written," they replied, "That is the question." But for me the archives are Jesus Christ; the sacred archives are his cross, his death, and his resurrection, and the faith that is granted through him.

ἤκουσά τινων λεγόντων ὅτι Ἐὰν μὴ ἐν τοῖς ἀρχείοις εὕρω, ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ οὐ πιστεύω· καὶ λέγοντός μου αὐτοῖς ὅτι Γέγραπται, ἀπεκρίθησάν μοι ὅτι Πρόκειται. ἐμοὶ δὲ ἀρχεῖά ἐστιν Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, τὰ ἄθικτα ἀρχεῖα ὁ σταυρὸς αὐτοῦ καὶ ὁ θάνατος καὶ ἡ ἀνάστασις αὐτοῦ καὶ ἡ πίστις ἡ δι ̓ αὐτοῦ· (Ign. Phil. 8.2)

In his chapter on "Early Christian Libraries" (144–2202), Harry Gamble offers the following discussion of the critical word, "archives" [ἀρχεῖα; archeia]:
The sense of this anecdote has been much debated, but what is important for my purposes is the meaning of the term archeion. Its original sense is "governmental house" or "magistrate's office," whence it came to mean "records office" and could signify either the place where records were kept or the records themselves. Most commentators take the word to mean "the original records" and to refer to the Jewish scriptures regarded as "archival records" or "charter documents" of the church. This is surely correct but does not necessarily exhaust the sense of this unique designation of Jewish scripture, for the word alludes to the place where such writings were deposited and available. Since its use by Ignatius's opponents has no clear ulterior motivation, all the more may it imply the existence of an archive or library of the Antiochene church where the Jewish scriptures, among other documents, were kept. (Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995], 152–53)

Monday, October 11, 2010

battle of the G[r]eeks, pt. II

In my previous post I mentioned that I am teetering on the verge of abandoning David Alan Black's first-year Greek grammar, Learn to Read New Testament Greek (Nashville: B&H Academic, 1994), the book from which I learned Greek back in the late 90s and I have used since I began teaching Greek two years ago. I also mentioned a few other introductory grammars I've looked at and briefly explained why each wasn't right for my class. Before I explain my attraction to N. Clayton Croy's, A Primer of Biblical Greek (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), I thought it might be helpful to explain my approach to teaching elementary Greek and what I expect an introductory grammar to provide my students.

First, as with any first-year Greek program my class is intense. We cover a lot of material quickly, and to make things worse the material is cumulative. Students can't forget present active indicative verb forms just because that was five chapters ago; neither can they forget vocab from earlier in the semester as we move on. Because the class is so intense, I don't want an intense first-year grammar. This is my main criticism of Mounce and, even more so, of Porter & Co. I need a grammar that breaks up the material into manageable chunks, presents it clearly and without excessive nuance, and moves on. I don't need my students to know that the third-person singular primary verbal ending "actually is τι, but the tau dropped out" (Mounce, 133n. 8); I want them to learn it just as -ει. Too much detail muddies the issues for first-year students, and I really don't want them to have to figure out what's important and what can be ignored for now.

Second, I don't want a grammar that explains everything for my students. Again, Mounce provides a helpful foil. An independent student could purchase Mounce's grammar and, with the aid of the website an the CD, learn everything s/he needed to learn about Greek alone. But my students aren't learning Greek by themselves; they're with me, my lab assistant, and their fellow students. What I like about Black's book, then, is that it quickly and concisely explains the most critical information and leaves plenty of room for me to supplement the material with my own. My students spend about one day (out of four) per week working out of Black's book; the rest of the week is spent working on supplementary materials that either I or my lab assistant have devised. More detailed introductory grammars strike me as, well, a bit over-determined.

Third, I think I prefer a balance between inductive and deductive approach to language acquisition. (I say "I think" because I've never been clear about what people actually mean when they use these terms.) Whatever the technical jargon, here's what I strive for. I expect students to be able to fill in grammar charts (verbal conjugations and nominal declensions). The age-old gripe that Greek is about "never-ending endings" doesn't move me to compassion; if you ever hope to be able to read the language you simply have to master its morphological paradigms. Even so, none of my students sign up to endure Elementary Greek in order to be able to fill in grammar charts, and so I try to introduce them to actual Greek texts as early as possible. Black, however, doesn't begin to provide actual exercises from the GNT until chapter eighteen, which is the second chapter of the second semester. Black's exercises are excellent after chapter eighteen, but I can't expect my students to endure six months of studying Greek before they turn to actual biblical texts.

Fourth, even if it's more difficult for students to move back and forth between verbal and nominal forms, syntax, and grammar (and I don't think it actually is), I want a grammar that presents the material in a way that gets progressively more familiar with the language as a whole rather than tackling, say, all three noun declensions before presenting any verbs. Again, even if students find it more difficult to move between grammatical categories, students draw motivation from their noticeably and steadily advancing abilities to work with the language, to decipher ideas in Greek and communicate them in English, and even to provide sketchy versions of English thoughts in Greek-esque. So what Mounce might gain in terms of simplifying the material he looses in terms of his students' motivation.

I think that's enough for now. In my next post on this subject I'll explain how Black and Croy line up on these four issues. As always, your comments are welcome.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

battle of the G[r]eeks

When I first took Elementary Greek back in the fall of 1998, we used the Revised Edition of David Alan Black's first-year grammar, Learn to Read New Testament Greek (Nashville: B&H Academic, 1994). I have loved Black's book, and when I started teaching Elementary Greek in the fall of 2008 I went with what I knew. But I don't want to be blindly loyal to Black, so I've taken occasion to look at a number of comparable books:

  • William Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), is simply too much material, in too much detail, to be helpful for my purposes. I also strongly dislike the order in which Mounce covers the material; even with the two-track option, I can't understand why anyone would present the entire nominal system before introducing verbs. Mounce is a great supplement for my more advanced students, and it comes with great support materials (a CD, along with its own website), but it isn't right for my class.
  • Jeremy Duff, The Elements of New Testament Greek (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), which I really like. But I could never get past the decision to omit accent marks from the text. I was worried that my students would be intimidated by the sudden intrusion of accents on nearly every Greek word when they looked at the Greek New Testament. Given how strange the unaccented text in Duff looked to me, I didn't want my students to react similarly (perhaps even more strongly) to their GNTs.
  • James Hewett, New Testament Greek (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), which I haven't looked at in as great detail. One of my teaching assistants and former Greek students looked through the first couple chapters and liked a lot of Hewett's explanations. But his rather informed opinion matched my more superficial one: Black was still the better choice for my students.
  • And last month I received an examination copy of the long-anticipated Fundamentals of New Testament Greek (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), by Stanley Porter and friends. If Mounce is too much information in too much detail, Porter & Co. is that much again. I love this book. I would use it if I ever taught first-year Greek to a class of students who've had at least a year of Greek and are retaking the course in preparation for seminary, graduate school, or any other academic pursuit. But even I can't impose this book on unsuspecting nineteen-year-olds.

But now I think I've found the book that will pull me away from Black. My Greek lab assistant recommended I look at N. Clayton Croy's introductory grammar, A Primer of Biblical Greek (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999). There's nothing sexy about Croy's book (the same could be said about Black's, at least before the release of the third edition last year). But I like Croy's order of presentation as well as his selection of material to present; I like his explanations of Greek grammar, syntax, and morphology, and I even prefer some of his pedagogical methods over Black. At this point I think I'm 75-25 in favor of Croy for the Fall 2011 semester. In the next week or two I'll explain why I'm contemplating the switch.

My hopes, however, are that some of you with experience with Croy, Black, or any other first-year Greek grammar would chime in, critique my thinking, come to the defense of your favorite text, or whatever. What have you found most helpful in learning/teaching Greek? Or even, Is the choice of textbook not a/the most significant factor affecting student comprehension and enjoyment of the language? I would greatly appreciate your input and/or feedback with this.

Friday, October 08, 2010

stenographers in the late-antique church

I enjoyed this paragraph, particularly for the contrast it provides with both the processes and the products of text-production in the church in the fourth and first centuries ce and the relationship between text-production and oral performance:
The availability of scribes trained in stenography had another important result: it made possible the the transcription and publication of homiletical material and so added another dimension to early Christian literature. By early in the third century Origen's public addresses were taken down in shorthand transcriptions and published (Eusebius, H.E. 6.36.1). This practice became widespread, and as a result the ex tempore words of the most gifted preachers of the Greek and Latin church have survived. The extensive homiletical remains of Christian rhetores like John Chrysostom and Augustine suggest the great interest and wide readership that attached to their sermons, though they were not intended for transcription or circulation and for the most part were not published by their authors. (Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995], 140)

what constitutes an "edition"?

Toward the end of the third chapter of his monograph, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995 [YUP's website seems to have deleted the page for this book), Harry Gamble discusses the peculiar publication of Augustine's work, De doctrina christiana [On Christian Instruction]. The completed work takes up four books, but it was apparently originally made public in a two-volume edition. Augustine writes about his decision to bring the original, shorter work to its intended completion:
When I discovered that the books On Christian Instruction were not completed I chose to complete them rather than to leave them as they were and go on to the re-examination of other works. Accordingly I completed the third book. . . . Then I added a new book, and so completed the work in four books. (Retractationes 2.30; cited in Gamble, 136)

How interesting that Augustine can say he "discovered" his work was not complete; he should always have known this since he, apparently, never completed it. (I'm reminded of a certain breed of student who might claim not to have known that his or her research paper had been left undone on their harddrive.) It looks like Augustine released an early, unfinished version of De doctrina into circulation, and only later decided to return to his earlier project and finish it. From this, Gamble offers the following analysis:
The question whether a text of De doctrina in only two books constituted its first edition cannot really be answered. On the one hand, from the start the scope of the work was intended to be larger, so that a text in only two books would always have been incomplete; but, on the other hand, the work had apparently been corrected and given out for circulation. Hence it was not an edition in the modern sense—a complete, definitive text—but functionally it was an edition, for the work, though incomplete, was allowed to circulate and to be copied. This case shows how misleading the term edition can be when applied in the conditions under which texts circulated in antiquity. A text qualified as an edition only when it had been emended and released by the author for copying. (137)

The issues swirling around Augustine's De doctrina and Retractationes 2.30—and Gamble's analyses of those issues—raise interesting questions about the earliest texts of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).1 The dominant view of the gospels identifies Mark as the earliest written gospel, with Matthew and Luke dependent on Mark. One of the questions gospels scholars regularly raise is how (or why) the church preserved Mark once it had Matthew and Luke. This question is exacerbated by the fate of Q (if Matthew and Luke are independent), which was (apparently) allowed to return to dust.

What value—if any—might there be for thinking of Mark in terms similar to the incomplete, two-volume "edition" of De doctrina, and the other two synoptics as "completions" of the former? On the one hand, given Mark's abrupt beginning in 1.1–13 and—even more dramatically—the sudden ending at 16.8, the gospel of Mark does bear every indication of being an incomplete work that always anticipated "the rest of the story." On the other hand, however, Mark is its own carefully crafted, artistic, sophisticated account of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, and if Matthew and Luke originally intended their gospels to displace Mark they clearly failed.

I suspect these types of questions have already been set to Mark, Matthew, and Luke. But has anyone broached these questions from the perspective of book-production and -dissemination in the early Roman empire (and/or in late-Second Temple Judaism)?

1 Of course, De doctrina, the earliest books of which were written c. 397 and was completed c. 426, is over three hundred years later than the gospels. The dynamics of text-production—including its technologies and its cultural value—were certainly not identical in the first and fourth centuries. But according to Gamble, the testimonies of Augustine and Jerome "indicate that the traditional procedure of the first three centuries remained in effect" (132).

Monday, October 04, 2010

the [un]orthodox corruption of scripture

More from Harry Gamble, who refers to a polemical fragment from Little Labyrinth (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.28.8–19; see Gamble 1995: 122–23). I don't want to reproduce the quote; you can follow the link if you're interested. The point, however, is that Hippolytus (?) is writing against certain named Christian scholars in Rome who have disseminated copies of the scriptures (= the gospels?) in order to support a particular theological point of view. According to Gamble:
The work of each [viz., Theodotus, Asclepiades, Hermophilus, and Apolloniades] was current in many copies, so that copies were easily obtained and compared. It is unlikely that the ready availability of copies was due to purely private, individual copying. Despite its scholastic aspect, this textual work in Rome was not disinterested but stood in the service of exegesis and theological argument, which makes it still more probable that the emended texts were produced in numerous copies, the better to promote their wide use and thus sustain a particular theological viewpoint.1

I can't help but remember Bart Ehrman's work, particularly in The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). Ehrman's thesis is that the "corruption" (in its technical, text-critical sense of variation rather than its popular sense of degradation) of scripture wasn't the sole domain of heterodox scribes and theologians; orthodox (or proto-orthodox) tinkerers also affected the readings in the text. As I read Ehrman, however, I couldn't help but think that Ehrman's analyses depended on too little data. That is, Ehrman made his claim for the orthodox corruption of scripture on the basis of individual variant readings and only rarely considered (i) the effect of a given change on the subsequent manuscript tradition or (ii) the effect of a given theological perspective on potentially problematic readings throughout a given manuscript. Of these, the latter is even rarer than the former.

Gamble's discussion, however, makes clear what Ehrman assumes: that changes to individual manuscripts had limited effect upon the tradition as a whole. If a person or a group of people wanted to conscientiously alter the reading of a text and wanted that change to displace an earlier reading, additional steps had to be taken. In the case of the Little Labyrinth that Eusebius cites, the heterodox teachers in Rome were involved not just in corrupting scriptural texts but also in disseminating their corrupted texts. The Little Labyrinth mocks its opponents' folly: "[The readings] of Asclepiades, for example, do not agree with those of Theodotus. And many of these can be obtained, because their disciples have assiduously written the corrections, as they call them, that is the corruptions, of each of them" (Eus. H.E. 5.28.17; my emphasis). But behind the author's scorn for the numerous copies then in circulation and the ammunition these copies provide against the scribes responsible for them, we can sense a certain frustration—even concern—that the flood of corrupted manuscripts might actually affect the Church's reception of the sacred tradition.

Perhaps, given the paucity and selectivity of the data that survives from antiquity, such evidence against the "proto-orthodox corruptors" of scripture is unlikely to have survived. Even so, this is the type of data I would look for in support of Ehrman's thesis. Gamble, who takes up the question directly of the relation between the authority invested in a text, its textual stability, and its preservation, provides a more helpful basis for historical discussion in that he appeals to actual textual evidence. Ehrman, it seems to me, often relies on the hermeneutical potential and theological possibilities of particular variants and their placement within the very interpretive framework for which he's arguing (viz., the orthodox corruption of scripture).

1 Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995), 123.

Eusebius, Origen, and text-production in antiquity

Harry Gamble quotes the following from Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History, which provides an interesting discussion of text-production in the early-third (or perhaps early-fourth) century.
As [Origen] dictated there were ready at hand more than seven shorthand writers [tachygraphoi] who relieved each other at fixed intervals, and as many copyists [bibliographoi], as well as young women who were skilled in fine writing [kalligraphein], for all of whom Ambrose provided without stinting the necessary means.1

In all that I've read about text-production in antiquity, I'd never run across the role of women as scribes. Origen, of course, is unusual in his literary output, the veritable Ben Witherington III of the third century (or perhaps Ben Witherington III is the Origen of the twenty-first century), so we certainly cannot assume his method of text-production is generalizable. But extreme as Origen's process may have been, it is nevertheless an extreme version of ancient text-production, and Origen's peculiarities seem to be quantitative (the volume of text-production) rather than qualitative (the method of text-production).

1 Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995), 120.

letter-collections and written tradition in antiquity

Now that I've finished reading Jesus in Memory, I've been able to return to Harry Gamble's very important monograph, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995). Earlier in the book Gamble proposed the collection of (ten of) Paul's letters to seven churches as the motivating factor behind the Christians' early adoption of the codex format (rather than the scroll; see pp. 58–66). Now I'm reading Gamble's discussion of another collection of early Christian epistles: the letters of Ignatius of Antioch (109–12). Gamble's analyses of these letter collections are always interesting, even if I find parts of them still open to question.

Even so, what caught my interest is an almost off-handed comment about the early interest in written texts early in the second century among the church in Smyrna (western Asia Minor). Gamble has carefully teased out a surprising level of literary activity among the Smyrnaean Christians, and then he says:
This intense activity shows that the church at Smyrna in particular had both the interest and capacity to reproduce and distribute texts, and this, moreover, during the first two decades of the second century, a period often regarded as still heavily committed to oral tradition and little interested in the written word. (112)

Indeed. If Gamble has accurately reconstructed the letter-gathering, -transcribing, and -transmitting activities of the Smyrnaean church, then the interest in written texts at this Christian center is surprising. And Smyrna isn't the first major center of Christianity in the ancient world that comes to mind; if this state of affairs obtained in Smyrna, what must the text-production situation have been like in Alexandria, Rome, Jerusalem, or Antioch?

But what catches my attention, at least at this point in Gamble's analysis, is the way this textual interest breaks down generically. That is, the texts in which the church at this historical juncture (late-first to early-second century) exhibits such striking interest are all letters, and in fact the collections are of a single author's epistolary works. Collections weren't made on the basis of letters to specific churches or regions of churches (e.g., letters to Asian churches, or Syrian-Palestinian churches, or European churches, etc.). They also weren't all collected together in a single mass (important Christian epistolary texts). What we see are specific anthological interests in Paul's letters, Ignatius's letters, and so on.

Here's my point: What we don't see—and what makes Gamble's barb against the predilection for oral tradition that many of us assume among the general culture of Late Antiquity (and the early Christians in particularly) somewhat specious—are interests in written texts across multiple genre. We don't see at this stage in the Church's history a collection of gospels. Justin Martyr will demonstrate awareness of at least two and possibly all four canonical gospels in just a few decades, but this isn't the same as collecting and binding together multiple narrative texts. Tatian, a few decades after Justin, will bring together the four gospels in his Diatessaron, but this, too, is a far cry from collecting and anthologizing narrative texts. Irenaeus, just a few years after Tatian but on the other side of the Empire, may be the first instance we have of a four-gospel collection, but even here his interest in collecting narrative texts results more from Marcion's exclusive preference for [a corrupted version of] Luke's gospel rather than from the same sorts of impulses we see behind the collection of Paul's and Ignatius's letters.

So when Papias, the late-first- and/or early-second-century bishop of Hieropolis, says, "For I did not think that things found in books would benefit me as much as things from a living and abiding voice," he clearly demonstrates a preference for oral tradition over written texts.1 In context Papias's preference for the "living and abiding voice" applies especially to evangelical and, perhaps, paraenetic tradition. Presumably, if Papias had been writing on the apostle Paul, his estimation of the value of written texts would have differed. And equally clearly Papias doesn't reject tout court the value of written texts; after all, Papias is writing his own text, the now-lost Expositions of the Sayings of the Lord.

Harry Gamble, then, hasn't actually demonstrated any parity between oral and written expressions of the tradition in the early church, though he has very helpfully encouraged us to consider how generic dynamics intersect with media dynamics.

1 οὐ γὰρ τὰ ἐκ τῶν βιβλίων τοσοῦτόν με ὠφελεῖν ὑπελάμβανον, ὅσον τὰ παρὰ ζώσης φωνῆς καὶ μενούσης (Papias, Frag. 3.4; Greek text from Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations [third edition; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007], 734).

Thursday, September 30, 2010

biblical studies and comparative thinking

Werner Kelber's essay, "The Work of Birger Gerhardsson in Perspective," concludes the book, Jesus in Memory: Traditions in Oral and Scribal Perspectives (Werner Kelber and Samuel Byrskog, eds.; Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009; 173–206). I'm not the biggest fan of Kelber's work, though I have to admit that I am a beneficiary of his groundbreaking work. My first introduction to Kelber was through his seminal monograph, The Oral and the Written Gospel: The Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul, and Q (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1983), which in my initial opinion posited too-strong a disruption between oral and written communicative media. Since then Kelber himself has acknowledged this shortcoming, though he still (again, in my opinion) slides too-easily into an oral vs. reading dichotomy.

Those criticisms aside, I find myself enjoying the current essay very much, perhaps more than I've enjoyed any other thing Kelber has written. With that, I'd like to quote Kelber's analysis of biblical scholarship and why objections to cross-cultural and/or transhistorical analytical models are red-herrings.
As an academic discipline, biblical scholarship is laden with centuries of received manners and mannerisms. Not infrequently it has operated in a state of culturally conditioned and/or institutionally enforced isolation. More to the point, many of its historical methods and assumptions about the functioning of biblical texts originated in perennial working relations with print versions—typographic constructs of modernity. Plainly, New Testament (and biblical) studies stand in need of a rethinking of the communications environment in which the early Jesus tradition participated. (181)

Kelber is exactly right. The danger—for Kelber as well as for any of us who search for sociological and anthropological models to help illumine ancient texts—is thinking that we have avoided misapprehending the biblical texts while everyone else sees them through culturally inappropriate lenses. Kelber may too easily critique other scholars for assuming an inapplicable communications model, but his work also constantly reminds that our own ways of perceiving, processing, transmitting, and working with words differ in nearly every respect from Jesus, Paul, and every other figure from antiquity. Cross-cultural models help us become better aware, at the very least, of our own ways of verbalization and so to question how ancient communicative techniques and technologies may have functioned in ways different from our own.

Monday, September 27, 2010

authorial subjectivity

In my History of New Testament Interpretation course I have my students review John Sandys-Wunsch's book, What Have They Done to the Bible? A History of Modern Biblical Interpretation (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005). I just had to share this, from the book's preface:
I should admit to a glaring weakness. I consider it important to be as fair as possible to everyone I discuss, especially to those whose opinions I do not share. However, on occasion my own opinions may seep through the prose, and a whiff of Gilbert and Sullivan whimsy may spoil the academic dignity so dear to the hearts of some of my more solemn colleagues. As an example, I find it hard to warm to Bossuet because of his treatment of Richard Simon, and I would like to record my sincere conviction that the fact that Bossuet has gone down in history with the title of Bishop of Condom is one of the few irrefutable proofs of the existence of a just God who combines righteous judgment with humor.

the stability of [hand]written texts

One of my perennial interests centers on the ways different cultural and historical perspectives influence the way we perceive written texts. This difference in perception affects every level of our understanding of texts, from what they are to what they're for to what kind[s] of information they contain. This is part of the reason I expressed an interest in reviewing Jesus in Memory: Traditions in Oral and Scribal Perspectives (Werner Kelber and Samuel Byrskog, eds.; Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009). One of the consistently interesting scholars in these issues is Alan Kirk, who wrote Chapter 6, entitled simply, "Memory" (155–72).

I'm indebted to Alan for a number of reasons, so my comments here are not meant to be disparaging in any way. In fact, what I've read of his essay so far helpfully and honestly takes up Birger Gerhardsson's work on memory and tradition and sets it on a firmer footing. As one example, Kirk has an enviable grasp of the dynamics of fluidity and fixity at work among the evidence for the early Jesus tradition:
The formal features of such genres ensure stability and thus continuity across many oral enactments. However, through their equally core property of variability, or better, multiformity, the tradition is brought to expression in ways responsive to the different social and historical contexts in which it is enacted. (160; my emphasis)

I love that formulation: "their equally core property [relative to their stability] of . . . multiformity." Too often we think of the tradition as some "thing" that exists on its own and that suffers corruption if/as it changes. Research on memory, oral tradition, and oral performance, however, have encouraged us to reconfigure our understanding of the Jesus tradition to account for the ways the tradition could be multiply expressed in different forms, for different purposes, on different occasions, etc. The tradition contains within itself the capability of multiform expression and variation, so that change ≠ corruption.

Even so, Kirk shares an assumption (if I may call it an assumption) with the vast majority of biblical and related scholarship that the codification of tradition in written texts—even handwritten texts—stabilizes that tradition. Immediately following the excerpt quoted above, Kirk adds,
Oral genres, in other words, though stable are not fixed in the sense that the written medium fixes a text. To fix them would be to impair their capacity for oral (as opposed to written) transmission, for loss of adaptability to different social and historical settings entails erosion of relevance and hence survivability. (160–61)

I understand the basic logic undergirding this assumption. If I give a speech this afternoon, I can't "re-hear" that speech a week or even ten minutes later without the aid of some recording technology (which obviously did not exist in antiquity). But if I write a text this afternoon, I can return to that text ten minutes, a week, even ten years later and the wording will be the same then as it is today. Once inscribed, a text can be corrected, erased, commented upon, whatever. But unless I'm stuck in some J. K. Rowling story, the words set in ink won't change and, within limits, aren't even subject to change.

But Kirk's essay isn't focused on written texts; it's focused, instead, on the conjunction of memory and tradition. And I cannot see how an inscribed text fixes tradition and places limits on its variability (or, to use Kirk's preferred term, multiformity). I'm not suggesting that written traditions can't be fixed, relatively or absolutely. But the fixing (= stabilizing) of tradition requires certain social forces that transcend the presence or the absence of written texts. One need look no further than the synoptic gospels to see that, if Matthew and Luke are dependent on Mark and Q (a proposition Kirk accepts), nothing about the entextualization of the Markan or Q tradition rendered that tradition fixed. Bart Ehrman's work on "the orthodox corruption of scripture" [my comments are available here] highlights the way [hand]written traditions were still responsive to (even subject to) the social contexts in which they were employed.

Within the Hellenistic milieux of early Christianity, second Temple Judaism, Roman Egypt, etc., tradition in both written and oral expressions experienced the "core properties" of stability and multiformity. That may strike us as odd, given the ease with which we naturally expect multiple copies of [printed] texts to be identical, whether we bought them in east Tennessee or South Yorkshire. But we simply cannot even recognize the data of the ancient world—let alone account for it—as long as we think that "the written medium fixes a text."

on books and memory

I'm currently reading through Loveday Alexander's chapter in Jesus in Memory: Traditions in Oral and Scribal Perspectives (Werner H. Kelber and Samuel Byrskog, eds.; Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009): "Memory and Tradition in the Hellenistic Schools" (113–53). Reading this essay reminds me of the most enjoyable moments of researching my PhD under Loveday's supervision; she offers very much to think about and references to a broad range of Classical data that is quite simply beyond my realm of consciousness.

But in this post I only want to repeat an anecdote from the ancient world that Alexander shares with her readers:
The ambivalent relationship between memory and text in ancient understanding is captured nicely in a floating apophthegm attributed to Diocles of Carystus: "Someone once told Diocles the doctor that he would not need any more teaching because he had bought a medical book. Diocles responded: 'For those who have studied, books are reminders, but for the unlearned, they are tombs.'" (148)

[Διοκλῆς ὁ ίατρὸς λέγοντος αὐτῷ τινος βιβλίον ἠγορακέναι ἰατρικὸν καὶ μὴ προσδεῖσθαι διδασκαλίας εἶπε· τὰ βιβλία τῶν μεμαθηκότων ὑπομνήματα εἰσι, τῶν δὲ ἀμαθῶν μνήματα.]

My Visual Bookshelf