Wednesday, March 31, 2010

social memory and the historical Jesus

My PhD, from The University of Sheffield. (the capitalized article and the full-stop [period] are part of the uni's name, as you can see on their website; I know, I know . . . it's stupid), brought together social memory theory, oral traditional research, and gospels/historical Jesus research. My thesis was published earlier this year as Structuring Early Christian Memory: Jesus in Tradition, Performance and Text (European Studies on Christian Origins, LNTS 407; London and New York: T&T Clark, 2010). The only other PhD project I know of that focuses so intensively on the sociological inquiry into memory is Anthony Le Donne's, which he completed at Durham University. Le Donne's thesis was published as The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009), which I began reading earlier this week. My review is scheduled to be published by the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus later this year.

I've only read the first chapter ("Introduction") and the first section of the second ("Hermeneutics and History"). Already, however, I'm discovering quite a bit I like and a bit with which I can argue. Anyone faintly familiar with academia knows that these books—the ones you agree with and argue against—are the best books. Le Donne begins by chronicling the bifurcation among Jesus historians between interpretation ("typology") and history. Even in scholars sensitive to the problem (e.g., E. P. Sanders), Le Donne suggests the model of "two contexts" oversimplifies the processes by which people perceive historical events and narrate them. Historians, then, cannot simply divide historical data into two categories (typology/history, or, I wonder, inauthentic/authentic?).
No, there are not only two contexts; there is a long continuum of many historical contexts that stand between Jesus and the Gospels, each connected and continuous with the others [emphasis added]. By placing the typological discussion in a different category than the context of "Jesus' own career," Sanders has created two contexts and thereby bifurcates his historical portrait of Jesus. (5)

All this is very good. In Structuring Early Christian Memory as well as my article, "Authenticating Criteria," I question the bifurcation of historical data into authentic and inauthentic categories. Le Donne pursues the same topic (independently; I've met Le Donne a few times, but our work has not interacted with each other in any significant way [at least, not yet]). His second chapter, as far as I can tell up to now, traces the hermeneutical essence of any discourse on the past ("memory," or "history") and how modern historiographical praxis has come to understand the two issues, interpretation and history.

As I mentioned above, there are some things I don't buy, at least not yet. Le Donne's research pursues a new approach to historical Jesus scholarship, one that identifies and traces backwards mnemonic trajectories. For well over a hundred years historical Jesus research has relied on models and the rhetoric of trajectories, and this, I think, is part of the problem. So I see red flags when I read:
I contend that typological appeals to salvation history are to be expected along each stage of the Jesus tradition. All history, whether salvation history or otherwise, borrows language, categories, and types from previous eras. For this reason the model of a continuum is to be preferred, one that places early typological interpretations of Jesus and the interpretations of the early church along the same trajectory. (5; emphasis added)

I agree wholeheartedly with Le Donne here; I've even written in the margin, "the past as constitutive of the present," which is a major emphasis of my own work. But when it comes to the italicized phrase, I'm not sure I would follow Le Donne. Memorial events (or acts) are both constitutively linked with memorial events from the past (as Le Donne states here), and they are inextricably embedded in their present contexts (another point Le Donne acknowledges). But the unpredictable and non-sequential nature of "present moments" problematizes any appeal to trajectories as part of our historiographical models.

Of course, I'm only twenty-two pages into Le Donne's book, so I haven't yet read his arguments supporting his use of trajectories. And I'm genuinely open to being convinced. I'll write more as time permits.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

more on panning a book

In July of 2009 I wrote a brief post on how to pan a book, which is actually a very difficult skill to acquire. I have had personal experience commenting on a book I found less than helpful, and as I look back over my comments I find I'm not always as successful as I would like (why did I feel the need to mention Gidget?). Even so, there is a quantum leap between the sometimes less-than-gracious comments we make in the heat of frustration at another scholar's arguments (again, Gidget?!) and the complete breach of professionalism and courtesy that we sometimes find in critical book reviews. (I'm reminded of Bruce Malina's scathing review of David A. deSilva; feel free to mention any other shockingly, even scandalously negative reviews you may have encountered in the comments to this post.)

So it's with a measure of dismay and—to be honest—embarrassment that I point out J. K. Elliott's review of Chris Keith's book on the Pericope Adulterae (which I also reviewed for Biblical Theology Bulletin; you can find some of my comments here). Keith's book is a well-written, focused, clear, and insightful monograph on the problematic story (textually and theologically) of Jesus and the adulterous woman. There are certainly things to argue with in the book, especially if you disagree with the book's theoretical and methodological underpinnings (I don't, but one certainly could).

But instead of summarizing the book's argument and then identifying its most conspicuous strengths and weaknesses (which is, after all, what critical book reviews are for!), Elliott engages in a rambling discussion that ranges erratically across the book's clear structure. He makes idiosyncratic judgments at multiple points (referring to "the pretentious title to chapter 8" as well as one "ugly heading" and "another ugly term") rather than engaging Keith's argument, which raises the question why Elliott found himself unable to spar with the book's substance rather than its surface. The final paragraph of the review, which I reproduce below, is only ad hominem attack rather than critical engagement.

J. K. Elliott: You've embarrassed yourself by publishing this review. You are clearly a top-rate and well-respected practitioner of biblical scholarship, and rightly so. Your contributions to the field are enviable. But your conduct is reprehensible. It takes a big person to train up and nurture a promising young scholar (e.g., Helen Bond, whom you mention in your review); it takes an average person to co-exist within the professional guild. However, it takes a small person to take pot-shots from on high. If Keith's book suffers logical, evidentiary, or other weaknesses, engage them. If you cannot or will not, kindly return your gratis copy of the book to the publisher (given "the enormous cost of this reproduced thesis as a book") so that someone with more interest in distilling and evaluating its argument can do so. You, sir, owe the paid subscribers to the Journal of Theological Studies an apology.

As promised, here's the closing paragraph of Elliott's review. In case I haven't been clear: This is shameful public behavior that I wouldn't accept from my undergraduate students; I certainly wouldn't expect this from an accomplished and storied scholar.
A few weeks before the publication of the book Keith allowed himself the luxury of repeating the contents of most of chapter 5 concerning the textual evidence for the pericope in an article in Novum Testamentum 51 (2009), pp. 209–31: ‘The Initial Location of the Pericope Adulterae in Fourfold Tradition’ [sic]. Given the enormous cost of this reproduced thesis as a book, its essential argument as given in the journal article may be a sufficient summary of the whole for most busy and money-conscious readers. The embarrassing and overblown personal tributes in the Preface (currently a needlessly maudlin convention in too many a published thesis) end (p. xiv) with the realistic statement that only ‘a handful will really read’ this book of little consequence.


Thursday, March 25, 2010

German grammar

I would appreciate some feedback here. Those of you who teach (or have taken) German for the purposes of biblical scholarship, Which textbook(s), online resources, or other resources have you found most helpful and effective?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

on not noticing what's right in front of you

Sky News has amazing footage of a lorry (semi truck) pushing a car along the A1(M), apparently unawares. One would've thought, at the very least, that the truck's driver would have wondered why his headlights weren't illuminating the road in front of him!

Did any of you happen to catch the phone number on the "How's my driving" sticker on the back of the truck?!

more on placing NT texts

As I continue to read Ruth A. Clement and Daniel R. Schwartz's edited volume, Text, Thought, and Practice in Qumran and Early Christianity (Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah 84; Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2009), I find more information relevant to the point I made in my previous post, "placing NT texts." Hermann Licthenberger, in his essay, Last night I finished Serge Ruzer's essay, "Demonology in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament" (267–80), cites Lawrence Shiffman's programmatic announcement, at the beginning of Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls: "This book aims to correct a fundamental misreading of the Dead Sea Scrolls. For some forty-five years, the scholars publishing and interpreting the scrolls have focused almost single-mindedly on the scrolls' significance for our understanding of early Christianity. This is the first book ever written to explain their significance in understanding the history of Judaism" (xiii; Lichtenberger 2009: 268). Schiffman is right, of course, to place the DSS in the history of Judaism. My point (and, I think, Ruzer's and Kister's) is that the NT itself is also a part of that history!

So I was happy to read Lichtenberger's appreciative appropriation of Schiffman's reclamation of the DSS:
But in my opinion we have to go one step further. Since early Christianity in the Land of Israel was, in its beginnings, nothing other than a Jewish group, we have not only to interrelate the New Testament and early Christianity to other Jewish groups of the time—and there were more than the three or four we know from Josephus—but we have also to ask whether and how the New Testament and early Christianity contribute to our understanding of early Judaism in general, and of the Qumran-Essene community in particular. This is not to be understood as another New Testament-centered approach to Jewish texts and Judaism, but as an integration of the New Testament and early Christianity into their Jewish contexts. Or in other words: we read the New Testament as a Jewish text and as a source for our understanding of Judaism. (269; my emphases)

I hope this signals the development—at whatever stage of maturity—in the future of NT scholarship.

placing NT texts

I'm coming to the end of Ruth A. Clement and Daniel R. Schwartz's edited volume, Text, Thought, and Practice in Qumran and Early Christianity (Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah 84; Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2009). Last night I finished Serge Ruzer's essay, "Exegetical Patterns Common to the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament, and Their Implications" (231–51), which aims at the common exegetical assumptions underlying the diverse halakhic rulings on divorce in the Damascus Document and the New Testament. (Perhaps I should mention here that my review of Ruzer's Mapping the New Testament: Early Christian Writings as a Witness for Jewish Biblical Exegesis [Jewish and Christian Perspectives Series 13; Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2007] appeared in the Stone-Campbell Journal 12/1 [2009]: 141–2.) I find Ruzer's reading of ancient texts—especially NT texts—unconvincing and even problematic. Even so, his theoretical approach strikes me as dead-on; more people, I think, should think of the NT texts the way Ruzer does. Here's an extended quote from the conclusion to Ruzer's essay:
It is clear that if the Qumran community and the nascent Jesus movement are perceived as merely two among a number of Second Temple Jewish groups, a comparative study of the respective corpora—if not necessarily pointing to a direct development of New Testament traditions from earlier Qumran ones—may contribute to a better understanding of the Jewish setting of the former. Our discussion of exegetical parallels corroborates this basic position. I suggested a complementing direction, which can also be fruitful: we should more intensively introduce evidence from the New Testament into the discussion of texts from Qumran. Thus in this case, investigation of Paul's epistles has turned out to be useful for elucidating the meaning of the Damascus Document's marital halakhah, while the combined evidence of the epistles and the Gospels may be helpful in clarifying the nature of CD's eschatological stance and/or identity of the opponents against whom the CD exegesis polemicizes. (250)

In other words, we should not simply adduce Jewish data into our efforts to contextualize and understand NT passages and texts, but we should also adduce NT data to contextualize and understand Second Temple Jewish phenomena. A one-way movement pays lip service to the "Jewishness" of the New Testament; the two-way movement Ruzer pursues rightly takes the NT's participation in Hellenistic Palestinian and Diaspora Jewish social, cultural, and political processes seriously. In this regard, it may also be appropriate to reproduce Menahem Kister's concluding remarks to his own essay in the same volume:
Usually, and for good reasons, we seek to understand the Jewish background of the New Testament. It is not rare, however, that a passage in the Gospels supplies us with valuable evidence for the Jewish background of the Jewish texts that have come down to us. ("Divorce, Reproof, and Other Sayings in the Synoptic Gospels: Jesus Traditions in the Context of 'Qumranic' and Other Texts," 229)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

repost: 10 Competencies

Today's InsideHigherEd has a blog post by Joshua Kim, "10 Competencies for Every Graduate." My own sense is that biblical studies have incorporated a number of these competencies amongst its practitioners, perhaps especially because of the close connection of our field with communication and/or preaching. Kim asks, "What would you choose as the 10 competencies that every college graduate must bring to the job market?" I've reproduced his list below. Some of his answers aren't really competencies as much as steps toward developing competencies. What you would you change/add?
  1. Start a Blog.

  2. Buy an Audio Recorder and Learn to Use It

  3. Start Editing Audio

  4. Post an Interview (or Podcast) on Your Blog

  5. Learn How to Shoot, Crop, Tone, and Optimize Photos (And Add Them to Your Blog)

  6. Learn to Create Effective Voice-Over Presentations with Rapid Authoring Software

  7. Tell a Good Story with Images and Sound

  8. Learn to Shoot Video

  9. Edit Your Video with iMovie or Windows Movie Maker

  10. Publish Your Video on Your Blog

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

how the ancients used language

I need some help. I'm reading Ruth A. Clements and Daniel R. Schwartz's edited volume, Text, Thought, and Practice in Qumran and Early Christianity (Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah 84; Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2009), which has been a fascinating collection of essays to this point (I'm about two-thirds of the way through). I'm currently reading Menahem Kister's essay, "Divorce, Reproof, and Other Sayings in the Synoptic Gospels: Jesus Traditions in the Context of 'Qumranic' and Other Texts" (195–229). I'm extremely sympathetic to Kister's reading program, which situations NT traditions (here the sayings of Jesus) within overtly Jewish frames of reference.

But I am once again flummoxed at the implicit model of language and communication that enables conceptions such as the following:
Moreover, the expected Greek rendering of יסוד הבריאה is ἡ ἀρχὴ τῆς κτίσεως, an expression in which the word ἀρχὴ would mean "principle." It seems that this expression was changed in Mark to ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς κτίσεως, "from the beginning of creation" (10:6), and in Matthew further revised to ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς (19:4, 8). If this expression indeed underlies both CD and the sayings tradition, there must be a close genetic link between them. If this is the case, we have here a striking case in which the originality of the wording in one Gospel may be established over against that of another through comparison with the Qumranic parallel. (Kister 2009: 202; my emphasis)

Anyone familiar with redaction-critical analyses of the synoptics will recognize immediately the familiar notion of language revised in later gospels from earlier ones. So Matthew's "from the beginning" is a modification of Mark's "from the beginning of creation" rather than an autonomous instance of language that relates to the sociolinguistic phenomena of Hellenistic Greek in general. Kister takes that thinking to a new level, if I understand him rightly, by applying redaction-critical analytical tools to texts that don't exhibit a literary relationship. In other words, the comparison of Mark and Matthew at least rests on the theory that Matthew knew and copied from Mark; but what theory legitimates Kister's claim that Mark changes language from another (Hebrew) text?

The larger problem, however, stems from our theory of language and communication, if it can be said that we have one at all. As historians of antiquity, we can only work with and analyze the remains of language that was inscribed some place, whether on papyrus or parchment, on a monumental stele or statue, or even the plethora of graffiti that survives from the ancient world. It seems to me, however, that redaction criticism in general, and especially analyses such as Kister's, implicitly assume that written language was all there was. This sounds ridiculous, of course; who could imagine a silent world where people communicated solely in writing?! But this is precisely the conception of language that appears to underlie anlyses of language from text to text. Otherwise, how can Kister (or anyone else) suppose that Mark has changed "the principle of creation" to "the beginning of creation"? Why is either phrase the cause or the effect of the other?

Werner Kelber has for over two decades been arguing against just these very analytical assumptions when he refers to the "equiprimordial"-ness of variant sayings. Kelber's neologism is, perhaps, unfortunate for two reasons. First, it's just plain weird, though it seems Kelber delights in weird language (or in weirdly using language). But second—and more substantively—the concept of equiprimordiality is an exaggeration of an otherwise very insightful point. That is, Kelber argues that tradition, in oral performance, enjoys a certain autonomy vis-à-vis previous and subsequent performances of the tradition. That is, if in one performance Jesus is reported to say, "Blessed are the poor . . . Blessed are the hungry," and in another performance he is made to say, "Blessed are those who mourn . . . Blessed are the meek," the two instances are both equally ("equi-") original instances of the tradition ("-primordial"). One is not "more original" than the other. This variability in the tradition goes back as far as Jesus himself, who on different occasions may have given various renditions of the Beatitudes (cp. Matthew and Luke), and who may have sometimes correlated his Beatitudes with parallel woes (Luke) or not (Matthew).

Kelber perhaps goes too far when he insists that traditions in oral performance are equally "original" or "primordial." Tradition could certainly develop as well as devolve; it could be applied to new contexts, integrated with other traditions, or cast in new frames of reference. These would not be equi-primordial. But we should recognize the fairly obvious point that the traditions we analyze transcended and existed well beyond the texts we work with. As a result, any analysis of one text solely—or even primarily—in terms of another text runs the risk of neglecting the ways that nontextual factors contextualized both the production and the reception of our texts. In other words, in a world where people could (and presumably did) say ἡ ἀρχὴ τῆς κτίσεως as well as ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς κτίσεως, and many other things besides, no one was likely to perceive one phrase in terms of (or as a change from) the other.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

congratulations to James McGrath

James McGrath, newly installed Clarence L. Goodwin Chair of New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University, was recently featured on The Chronicle of Higher Education. McGrath blogs at Exploring Our Matrix.

new Bauckham page

The other day Mike Bird noted that Richard Bauckham has a new webpage, which includes a number of resources that you may find useful. Bauckham's homepage is available here, (Others, including James Davila and Mark Goodacre, have also noted the new site.)

It might be relevant here to note that my review of Bauckham's book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2006), was published in the Biblical Theology Bulletin (38/3 [2008]: 144–145) and is available online.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

the more things change . . .

the more things stay the same. I came across this in a sermon I'm reading. How timely does this sound to you?
For the Lord says, "Through it all, my name is reviled among the nations," and somewhere else, "Woe to the one through whom my name comes into revulsion. And how does it come into revulsion? Whenever you neglect the things I want you to do." For the nations, when they hear from our mouth the words of God, they are impressed by their beauty and value. But then they learn of our actions—that they do not measure up to the words we speak—then they turn to reviling, saying that our words are myth and deception. For whenever they hear from us that God says, "What good is it for you if you love those who love you? Instead, it benefits you if you love your enemies and those who hate you"—when they hear this, they are amazed by the all-surpassing goodness of God's word. But when they see that not only do we not love those who hate us, but we also don't love those who love us, they laugh at us and revile his name. (2 Clem. 13.2–4; my translation of Michael Holmes's Greek text)

2 Clement is, in a lot of likelihood if not in all likelihood, a second-century sermon read among the churches in Corinth (though not necessarily by the same author as 1 Clement). The problems of early second-century Corinth seem remarkably similar to the problems of early twenty-first-century America (and likely all times and places in between). Would that we (qere I) take the Sermon on the Mount just a bit more seriously.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

SECSOR: Day Three

Sunday morning had three sections I wanted to attend, but I had to balance my desire to hear papers with my urge to get home. Sunday morning papers can be sparsely attended, which is too bad. They're typically of the same quality as their earlier counterparts, and often the discussion (perhaps because of the lower attendance) is even better. Having had to present a paper on Tuesday morning at the SBL's Annual Meeting, I really do sympathize.

At any rate, I heard four papers Sunday morning. The first two papers were part of the ASOR/SBL: Archaeology and the Ancient World IV meeting, and the second two were part of the SBL: New Testament V meeting.
  • The first paper, which was moved from a later meeting because two presenters were unable to attend, was "A Sculpture Fragment from Iron II Moabite Khirbet Mudaybi': A Case Study of Inter-Disciplinary Inquiry for Interpretive Purposes" (Ted Carruth, David Lipscomb University), presented a sculpture fragment and the contextual information impinging upon its interpretation. This is about as far afield from my area of expertise as you can get and not be, say, a NASA engineer, so I have very little by way of comment. But it was interesting to see the kinds of deliberations archaeologists engage in and the kinds of argumentation deemed appropriate for those deliberations.

  • The second paper, "Was There an Economic Crisis under Antipas? Revisiting the Questions of Royal Estates and Taxation in Herodian Galilee" (Sharon Lea Mattila, University of North Carolina at Pembroke), took aim at the application of conflictual models of society as they are applied to reconstructions of first-century CE Galilean society (by, e.g., Richard Horsely, Douglas Oakman, and others). Mattila presented a circumstantial (though convincing) argument that the Great Plain (a.k.a. the Jezreel Valley) between the Galilee and Samaria would have been allotted to Herod Antipas rather than to Archelaus after the death of their father, Herod the Great, in 4 BCE. These lands would have been considered Antipas' private lands and would have provided him with considerable income. Due to time constraints Mattila was unable to adequately consider the question of taxation, but that really is the point. That is, if Antipas did not have control over the Great Plain (and so did not reap its fruits for his own wealth), then the funding for his building projects would have had to have found a different source, probably heavy taxation of the populace. Mattila's implied argument was that, since Antipas held the Great Plain, theories of excessive taxation that have been fashionable in the last three or four decades and have driven much of the sociological interpretation of this time are probably wide of the mark. This, I thought, was an especially interesting way to pursue this question.

    [At this point I had hoped to hear the paper, "How to Read a Book: Irenaeus and the Pastoral Epistles Reconsidered" (Ben White, UNC Chapel Hill), but unfortunately Mattila's paper ended about the same time as White's. If you happened to attend the New Testament IV session and you heard that paper, I'd be interested in getting a brief synopsis and any evaluative comments you might have.]

  • The first paper of the New Testament V session was "If Christ Has Not Been Raised—The Inefficacy of a Qualified Gospel in 1 Cor 15:17" (Mark Proctor, Lee University), offered a critique of certain interpretations of Paul's claim at 1 Cor 15.17 ["If Christ has not been raised, your faith is useless and you are still in your sins"]. That is, some have read this verse as Paul's claim that, if Christ has not been raised from the dead, that forgiveness of sins is impossible. According to this reading, the resurrection is the essential factor in Pauline ideas of forgiveness; forgiveness, in other words, is a function (or result) of Christ's resurrection. Proctor argues that this is wrong on two counts. First, Paul typically locates the forgiveness of sins in relation to Jesus' crucifixion rather than the resurrection. Second, this interpretation neglects the rhetorical structure of Paul's arguments in this section. Instead, Proctor reads 1 Cor 15.17 as Paul's claim that, if Christ hasn't been raised, then his proclamation of the gospel—which trades heavily on the message of Jesus' resurrection—is worthless because he has offered false testimony about God. In other words, forgiveness might still be a real possibility between God and Paul's readers, but Paul's proclamation of that forgiveness would not be trustworthy if his message of the resurrection were false. Proctor's argument was convincing, though I lack the necessary knowledge to know the extent to which the interpretation Proctor opposes characterizes the scholarly literature.

  • The second paper, "From Qumran to Philo: Precedence for Paul's Use of Israel" (Thomas Whitley, Gardner-Webb University), compared the use of Israel among the DSS (1QS, CD, and the Temple Scroll) with the rather different use of the term among Philo's writings. According to Whitley, Israel is used among the Scrolls in a number of different ways: as a label for the nation at large, as a label for the group itself, and others. In Philo, however, Israel usually refers to a spiritual level achieved only by a select élite. Whitley finds elements of both Qumranic and Philonic uses of Israel in Paul (esp. Galatians and Romans). Whitley then made an appeal to sociological theories of identity, which I think was the right move to make. Unfortunately, Whitley makes a mistake common among biblical scholarship's appropriation of sociological inquiry in that he identifies two separate theories: "identity theory," which highlights the identity of the individual, and "social identity theory," which highlights the identity of the group. This, of course, is not correct; social identity theory (and the similar field, social memory theory) takes up the issue both personal and collective identity as fundamentally social processes. If Whitley takes account of this difference between sociological research and its biblical social-scientific criticism, I think he'll have a very interesting analytical perspective to bring to bear upon his data.

There were two other papers in the New Testament V session, both of which looked good in the program. But I hadn't seen my family in over forty-eight hours, and I was itching to get home. So I left. I am sympathetic to how frustrating it can be to be the last two presenters at a conference and to watch your audience melt under the heat of earlier papers and pressures of travel. My apologies to Annie Tinsley (University of Birmingham [UK]) and Presian Burroughs (Duke University). I hope your papers were well received and discussed.

And that was my experience of SECSOR 2010. Next year's meeting will be in Louisville, KY, which sounds like a fabulous venue. Hopefully the weather will be nice that far north, but I'm sure I'll survive. Although . . . I suppose that really is the sort of thing I shouldn't take for granted. See you all in Louisville!

Sunday, March 07, 2010

SECSOR: Day Two (pt IV)

After my miserable performance in the New Testament III session (which I chronicled here), and since the New Testament IV session isn't scheduled until Sunday morning, I was a bit torn about which late-afternoon session to attend. There was a joint ASOR/SBL Archaeology and the Ancient World III session discussing the theme, "Jesus and the Galilean Economy," and an AAR History of Judaism session discussing the theme, "Second Temple Judaism." I chose the ASOR/SBL meeting, even though I could write everything I know about archaeology on the back of my daughter's hand. It was interesting, but I was mostly lost.

The best part of the meeting, however, came from an off-hand comment from the session presider, Ralph Hawkins of Kentucky Christian University. As he was introducing Doug Oakman, he mentioned that Sharon Lea Mattila's paper schedule for Sunday morning. I had no idea Sharon would be here (I've never met her), but I knew I had encountered her name somewhere. Then I remembered: I used her article, "A Question too Often Neglected" (NTS 41 [1995], 199–217), which I discussed in a previous post. So after the meeting I made a bee-line to introduce myself to Sharon, which was a bit of an inconvenience for her, I think. But the ASOR/SBL group was going out to dinner, and she invited me to join them. So I sat between Sharon and Ralph and thoroughly enjoyed the conversation on a number of topics, including a very interesting new book put out by T&T Clark.

Perhaps the best part of the evening, I suppose, was that Sharon assumed I was a graduate student, and I think Ralph, too, didn't realize I've finished my degree. I don't mind being underestimated; in fact, I prefer it. So when they asked my age, Ralph was very encouraging (apparently the average age of the beginning PhD student is 40) and Sharon was surprised I wasn't 25. I felt good on both counts! But the professional aspects of the conversation—rather than those parts that played to my vanity—were the highlight of the meeting thus far. These are one of the perks of my field!

SECSOR: Day Two (pt III)

I came down to SECSOR expecting to return to Knoxville with the same number of books I brought with me. That has never happened before, and it's not happening this time. I purchased two books yesterday, both at better prices than I could find online.
  • First, I purchased George M. Landes's Building Your Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary: Learning Words by Frequency and Cognate (second edition; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001 [1961]).

  • Second, and perhaps more surprising, I purchased Leo Duprée Sandgren's massive volume, Vines Intertwined: A History of Jews and Christians from the Babylonian Exile to the Advent of Islam (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010). Few books not written by James Dunn are thick enough to print the title across (rather than along) the spine; Sandgren's survey of 1,300 years of history does. The book comes with a CD that includes a .pdf of the book's full-text, which makes it fully searchable. This is, well, awesome. Sandgren divides his historical survey into six sections, and at the end of each he has a brief synthetic discussion that summarizes and recaps the material for that section. This provides a helpful path through an otherwise intimidating text (the book is 838+xxv pages of small, dense type!); I think this is probably a necessity for any book over 500 pages. I've read the Introduction (1–7) and am very impressed so far. A few teaser quotes:
    A history of Jews and Christians in Antiquity must begin somewhere. We begin in 640 B.C.E. It is true there were no Christians then, but neither were there Jews as we understand the term "Jew" today. Both Jew and Christian are primarily religious identities, with due deference to secular humanism as an option within a Jewish or Christian cultural context. In fact, we find the beginnings of Jewishness at the turn of the first century, just when Jewish believers in Jesus and the Gentile converts were making their own beginning. But the religions of Judaism and Christianity come later still, and it may be argued (as it is) that Judaism as a religion came into existence only in response to Christianity as a religion. (1)

    As a religion without a temple, Judaism begins simultaneously with Christianity. The two communities forged their templeless identities in plain sight of each other, and in continual dialogue, and as constant rivals for the title "people of God" or "true Israel." We now recognize that Judaism and Christianity are what they are because of the other. Neither formed itself in isolation. (2)

    It is easier to describe being a Jew, or being a Christian, than the isms to which they belonged. If a person is asked, "Are you a Jew?" we expect, under neutral circumstances, an answer without excessive deliberation. . . . The same may be said for Christians. . . . Asked to describe their Jewish or Christian practices, we would find all manner of variety. Asked to describe their beliefs, we would be overwhelmed. People tend to muddle along inarticulately with questions and answers about God, the universe, and the human predicament. That is perhaps the wisest course, but it frustrates the neat categories and labels of historians. (3)

    Even under ideal circumstances, however, the best we can achieve in historical description in verisimilitude, a verbal picture that is similar enough to the reality behind the elusive facts of history that it is accurate in impressionistic terms. The description of a person may be more or less accurate, hence verisimilar. . . . Memory and literary license are at work, in which each author differs. But when we have compared all the information about Akiba or Jesus, or any historical figure, it is often possible to arrive at a satisfying verisimilitude. (4, 5; my emphasis)

    I love that phrase: accurate in impressionistic terms. Sandgren has, I think, put his finger on the key to a historiographical perspective that is both sufficiently rigorous and critical as well as reasonable about the degree of certainty our evidence can sustain. For such a massive volume, this book is very reasonably priced (list: $34.95), and I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in Christian and/or Jewish origins, the relation between the two, and the so-called Parting of the Ways.

SECSOR: Day Two (pt II)

Well . . . I feel a bit sheepish. My participation in the afternoon New Testament session was, well, unimpressive. So this is more a confession of the papers I didn't hear. C'est la vie. Even so, yesterday afternoon/last night was perhaps my best SECSOR experience to date. More anon.
  • The first paper, "Lord, Lord: Jesus' Use of the Divine Name in the Synoptics" (Jason Staples, UNC Chapel Hill), springboarded from Bart Ehrman's claim (on The Colbert Report!) that the synoptic Jesus never claimed divine status for himself. Staples analyzes Jesus' self-referential use of the double address κύριε κύριε ("Lord, Lord"; Matt 7.21, 22; Luke 6.46; see also Matt 25.11) against the backdrop of the Semitic אדני יהוה (’adōnay YHWH; "Lord LORD"), which is often—though by no means always—is translated with the double κύριος κύριος, especially in the vocative. Staples's case is (i) first that אדני יהוה would have been vocalized Adonai Adonai, and (ii) that second that "a first-century reader (or author) would most likely read Jesus' use of κύριε κύριε as an application of the Name to himself, directly identifying hiself with/as the God of Israel."

  • The second paper, "The Economics of Friendship: An Interpretation of the Narrative Summaries in Acts 2:41–47 and 4:32–35" (Douglas A. Hume, Pfeiffer University) . . . well, the second paper was the second paper after lunch, so I missed most of (qere: all of) Hume's paper since it was, apparently, my nap time. When Hume was finished, I left so as not to be so rude to the remaining presenters.

  • The third paper was "And They Threw Him Out of the Vineyard: An Analysis of the Parable of the Wicked Tenants" (Michael Zolondek, Florida International University).

  • The fourth paper was "A Theology of Mutuality" (Alan Knox, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary).

There are more papers Sunday morning, though I'm planning on being a section tart. I'll let you know how it goes.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

SECSOR: Day Two (pt I)

The theme of this morning's New Testament session was "The Gospels," and as it turns out the four papers, between them, touched on all four canonical gospels.
  • The first paper, "John's Use and Disuse of Matthew" (James W. Barker, Vanderbilt University), argued that in at least three specific instances the Fourth Evangelist knew and responded to Matthean redaction: John's reference to forgiving/retaining sins (20.32; see Matthew's binding/loosing tradition); John's account of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and his citation of Zech 9.9 (see Matthew's account; cf. the Markan and Lukan parallels); and Jesus' "evangelization" of Samaria in John 4 (cf. Matthew's refusal to allow Jesus entry into Samaria). I'm predisposed against Barker's thesis because of my suspicions vis-à-vis redaction criticism (and so the probative value of asking whether John knew "Matthean redaction"). But Barker does address a very interesting issue standing between synoptics and Johannine scholarship; i.e., How John came to be read alongside and included with the other three gospels. In Barker's reading, such was the intention of the Johannine author (specifically with regard to Matthew's gospel).

  • The second paper, "Jonah, Jews, Jesus, and Gentiles: Matthew's Appropriation of the Sign of Jonah Saying in Light of the Gentile Mission" (David Moffitt, Duke University), approached Matthew's use of the Sign of Jonah via an intertextual reading of the larger Jonah tradition. I'm often wary of intertextual analyses on the basis of John Miles Foley's criticism that, despite the broadened field of vision, intertextuality still privileges discrete, bounded entities ("texts") at the expense of larger traditional dynamics. Moffitt, I think, avoids this problem. His analysis explored the polyvalent connections that the Sign of Jonah enabled early Christian tradents (here, Matthew) to make without insisting that he make all of them or even that he make specific and predetermined uses of them. In other words, Moffitt took into consideration the Jonah tradition as he read the Jonah text. (If memory serves, I also enjoyed Moffitt's paper at last year's SECSOR, which focused [I think] on Hebrews).

  • The third paper, "Mark, the Jerusalem Temple and Jewish Sectarianism" (Tim Wardle, Wake Forest University), analyzed Mark's references to the Temple in Mark 11–15. His analysis raised some interesting questions and rightly, I think, emphasized the Jewish critique of idolatry in the Septuagint's use of ἀ/χειροποίητος ("[not] made with hands"). I think Wardle makes too much of the use of ἱερόν ("temple") and the fact that Mark only refers to the Jerusalem ἱερόν in chapters 11–16. This allows him to (i) ignore the clear reference to the Jerusalem Temple in Mark 1.44 ("Go, show yourself to the priest [τῷ ἱερεῖ] and offer [προσένεγκε] for your cleansing the things Moses commanded, as a testimony to/for/against them"). Despite the difficulties that still attend the precise interpretation of this verse (including the dative αὐτοῖς ["to/for/against them"]), Mark 1.44 is clearly not a critique of the Temple like Wardle legitimately finds in Mark 11–16. (ii) Second, his focus on ἱερόν allows him to read some passages in Mark 11–16 as connoting negatively for the Temple, such as the widow's offering in Mark 12, or even Jesus' lament that the Temple should have been (but wasn't) a "house of prayer for all nations" in Mark 11. As you can see, Wardle's paper raised some interesting questions for me.

  • The fourth paper, "Locating Luke 6:5d: Toward a Social Context for the Sabbath Worker" (Jason Robert Combs, UNC Chapel Hill) sought a social location for the reading at Luke 6.5 in Codex Bezae. In the majority of manuscripts (and likely in Luke's "original"), Jesus in Luke 6.5 "says to them, 'The Son of Man is Lord also over the Sabbath'" [κύριός ἐστιν τοῦ σαββάτου ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου]. In Bezae, however, this reading is postponed until after the healing of the man with the withered hand (Luke 6.6–11), and 6.5d has encounter a man working on the Sabbath: "On the same day, when [Jesus] saw a certain main working [ἐργαζόμενον] on the Sabbath, he said to him, 'Man, if you know what you are doing, you are blessed; but if you do not know, then you are cursed and a transgressor of Torah'" [τοῦ νόμου]. Combs locates this variant as part of the mid- to late-fourth century debates about Sabbath, knowledge, and work. I was reminded of the last chapter of Chris Keith's similar investigation into the socio-historical context that might explain the interpolation of the Pericope Adulterae at John 7.53–8.11 (Keith's book, BTW, has received the John Templeton Award for Theological Promise).

That was it for the morning session. More later, of course, as time permits.

Friday, March 05, 2010


The 2010 meeting of the Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion (SECSOR) began tonight. Attendance appears to be down quite a bit from last year, if memory serves. This time last year wasn't exactly plush, economically speaking, so I'm not sure the economy is the main factor at play here. But maybe it is. Or maybe tomorrow will be different. I dunno.

Anyway, I attended tonight's "New Testament I" session, which featured three rather interesting papers (the fourth, "Gossiping Jesus Into Being: The Oral Processing of a Social Personage in the Gospels" [John Daniels, Flagler College] was, unfortunately cancelled).
  • The first paper, "Eschatology and Soteriology in 1 Peter" (Alexander Stewart, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary), examined the "now" and "not yet" aspects of the language of salvation in 1 Peter. The paper doesn't exactly break new ground; Stewart acknowledged that he was taking aim at a more popular-level conception of salvation in "the American church." And his focus, as is often the case in discussions of "now" and "not yet," was on the relation between the present and the future. As I mentioned to him in a conversation after the session, however, the question that interests me is the relation (and the distinction!) between the present and the past! That is, if the "new age" is supposed to be different from the "present age"—with its suffering, injustice, etc.—and if early Christians believed that Jesus' death and resurrection inaugurated the new age, what's changed? I still don't think Stewart has addressed the question, though he emphasized conversion (and, I think, the inclusion of gentiles among God's chosen people) as the difference. Something still seems missing to me, but I enjoyed the way Stewart's paper framed the question for me (albeit indirectly).

  • The second paper, "Neglected Considerations in Understanding the Structure of the Book of Revelation" (Kevin Larsen, Mid-Atlantic Christian University), raised questions about Revelation's structure (sequential or cyclical) and, relatedly, its genre. Larsen—whose training is in the gospels and who acknowledged at the start his novice status among the apocalypses—reads Revelation salvation-historically, with Jesus and his climactic role in the story of salvation not figuring into Revelation's narrative until chapter 12. There were a number of interesting observations, I thought, but then again I, too, know very little about John's apocalypse. What I appreciated most, however, was Larsen's insistence that Revelation, as a text, spoke to and was written for real first-century CE people. This is a truism among NT scholars, but with Revelation in particular the temptation to read the text as written for (and about!) later Christians too easily leads interpretation astray.

  • The third paper, "One Saturday in Capernaum: Mark's Gentile Appropriation of the Sabbath" (Ricky Shinall, Vanderbilt University), discussed gentile [mis]understandings of Jewish Sabbath observances and then read Mark's portrayal of Jesus healing and teaching in the Capernaum synagogue on the Sabbath. In Shinall's reading, Mark has little knowledge of or use for Jewish Sabbath observance, except that Sabbath does present a useful occasion for teaching and healing. So, unlike the superstitious Jews (in Mark's perspective, not Shinall's), Jesus is uninhibited in his Sabbath observance and, just as importantly, isn't lazy. Shinall closed by suggesting Mark's misunderstanding of Jewish Sabbath observance supports a Roman rather than Palestinian provenance for the gospel. Unfortunately, there were too many other ways to read the evidence (e.g., whereas gentiles mistakenly thought Jews fasted on the Sabbath, Mark has Simon's mother-in-law serve Jesus and his companions after Jesus healed her fever [Mark 1.31]), though presumably, outside the confines of a 25-minute paper, Shinall addresses this (I would prefer to locate the Sabbath controversies within an inter-Jewish framework; Shinall cited E. P. Sanders and J. P. Meier to explain his preference for a gentile framework).

I missed the presidential addresses, which was too bad given that Jodi Magness presented what I presume was an interesting paper: "Truth and Fiction: The Talpiyot Tomb in Context." The reception afterward (which I did not miss, of course) was perhaps the best-supplied SBL reception I've ever seen. I had the pineapple and some grapes, but there was sushi, various dips, and many other selections. I was thoroughly impressed.

That's it for Day One. I'm looking forward to tomorrow; I'll let you know how it goes. If you'd like to see the program, it's available online on SECSOR's website.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

the messiness of ancient history

I am amazed at how uncomfortably historians of antiquity sometimes sit vis-à-vis the mind boggling lack of evidence with which we have to work. The reality of our situation is somewhat akin to trying to piece together a detailed picture of New York City solely on the basis of photographs from postcards. Large parts of the data we'd like to have simply doesn't exist (just as large swaths of New York City don't figure on any tourist advertising!), and our treatment of the pieces that we do have is always likely to require heavy revision as new pieces come to light. (For a prime example, see the dramatic reevaluations of Second Temple Judaism still underway in the wake of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.)

Eliezer Segal ends his essay, "Aristeas or Haggadah: Talmudic Legend and the Greek Bible in Palestinian Judaism" (Common Judaism: Explorations in Second-Temple Judaism, edited by Wayne O. McCready and Adele Reinhartz [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008], 159–72), with an excellent statement of the messiness of ancient historiography (and so of our knowledge of ancient history). We would all do well to remember that what we don't know—about Jesus, the early Christians, other Jews among whom they lived, and the larger world that all of these had to navigate daily—dwarfs what we do know, almost (almost) to the point of calling into question whether we know anything at all. (We do, of course, but everything we know is always subject to subsequent revision.) At any rate, here are Segal's closing words:
Only when speaking about rabbinic Jews as a theological category is it possible to imagine that they maintained a uniform Bible text, uniform observances, and uniform beliefs; and that they and their Pharisaic predecessors could impose them on all Jews. It is only by subscribing to those naïve beliefs that rabbinic literature can be used as the basis for reconstructions of Ptolemaic Alexandria or the age of Jesus. Compared to those neat classifications, the alternatives are just too . . . well, messy. Even if we could be persuaded that ancient Palestinian peasants were, for some reason, more consistent in their beliefs and practices than our own experience with human nature would suggest possible, a faith in clearly defined sectarian divisions is much easier to deal with than the evidence of, say, an Essene-like community that honored the Zadokite priesthood, observed Sadducee halakhah, and yet maintained a belief in survival after death, perhaps even in bodily resurrection. The tidy consistency of the older categories is unquestionably attractive, even if it is historically indefensible. (172)

As Moses might have said if he were the son of a different age: True dat.

My Visual Bookshelf