Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Romans in one sentence

Related to my previous post, let me ask you Pauline and Romans scholars: Would you approve of the following as a one-sentence summary of the entire letter? If so, why? If not, what would you add/change/delete? (Or is a one-sentence summary, in your opinion, inadvisable?) Here's my summary:

Romans is Paul's presentation of the gospel message of the righteousness of God revealed in Jesus, the Son of David and of God, which results in peace with God, first for Israel and then for all the nations.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

the opening of Romans: a question

I'm preparing a graduate-level course on Paul's letter to the Romans. One of the very many famous features of this letter is the credal formula in Rom. 1.3–4. First, let me give my translation of the opening four verses:
1 Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called [to be] an apostle, having been set apart for [the] gospel of God, 2 which he announced beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3 about his son,
  • who came from the seed of David according to the flesh,
  • 4 who was appointed son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by the resurrection from the dead,
Jesus Christ our Lord.

One of the complicating factors of this passage is the relation of 1.2 with the formula in 1.3–4. In verse 2, Paul refers to "the holy scriptures" [γραφαῖς ἁγίαις] as the location in which God announced beforehand the gospel. These are the last two words of the verse. The very next verse then begins with the words "about his son" [περὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ]. I'm sure I've heard/read somewhere that Paul here frames the Hebrew scriptures in terms of their witness to Jesus; i.e., the scriptures are "about his son." Theologically, of course, this isn't a problem; Paul will say something similar in 3.21. But I don't think this is what Paul is saying here.

Here's my question. Would you Pauline and/or Romans scholars be comfortable describing verse 2 as a parenthetical adjectival phrase modifying "the gospel of God" [εὐαγγέλιον θεοῦ]? In this case, we should read verse 3, which begins "about his son," in connection with the end of verse 1. A modified translation might be:
1 Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called [to be] an apostle, having been set apart for [the] gospel of God—(2 which [gospel] he announced beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures)—3 [the gospel] about his son,
  • who came from the seed of David according to the flesh,
  • 4 who was appointed son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by the resurrection from the dead,
Jesus Christ our Lord.

What think ye?

Monday, November 14, 2011

what social memory isn't

I'm currently reviewing Maurice Casey's book (perhaps even magnum opus), Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian's Account of his Life and Teaching (London: T&T Clark International, 2010). I met Maurice in 2005 at the British New Testament Conference, where we both presented papers in the BNTC's Jesus Seminar (not to be confused with the Westar Institute's Jesus Seminar). I found him to be a friendly, encouraging, and collegial figure, which matters since he is a very senior NT scholar and I was (am) just getting my feet wet. Also, I consider one of his protégés, James Crossley, a personal friend; Crossley was also the internal examiner for my PhD thesis defense. This book is certainly the results of decades of detailed scholarship, both in the details and in the larger theoretical and methodological issues.

Moreover, the adjective found in the subtitle, independent, should be taken at face value; Maurice affirms a number of traditional conclusions among NT scholars (Markan priority, Jesus spoke Aramaic, etc.), but he also advances numerous arguments that challenge directly some of the most taken-for-granted ideas in our field. For example, Casey affirms Markan priority and the existence of "Q," though he argues that "Q" refers to a number of disparate written sources, in both Aramaic and Greek instead of a single document written in Greek. However, he also affirms that Luke knew and was influenced by Matthew. Anyone familiar with the Synoptic Problem and the discussion in that field will know how controversial it is for one person to hold to all these ideas at the same time.

And it is to be expected that I have some bones to pick with Casey's approach to the historical Jesus. If nothing else, the fact that Casey isn't a confessional scholar (he is forthright about this but not [always] antagonistic) and I am will necessitate areas of disagreement. But I don't think this difference explains all my complaints. Certainly this one has little if anything to do with my faith or his un- (or non-) faith.

In a section of his chapter on historical method, Casey addresses "social memory," a field in which I am heavily invested professionally. He writes, "In recently scholarly work, both rewriting history and telling stories about traditional figures have been drawn together into discussions of 'social memory'" (133). Already this is wrong. Social memory doesn't refer to either "rewriting history" or "telling stories about traditional figures," though both can be aspects of social memory. Barry Scwartz recently wrote,
"Social memory" refers to the distribution throughout society of individual knowledge, belief, feeling and moral judgement of the past as well as identification with past actors and events. Only individuals . . . possess the capacity to contemplate the past, but this does not mean that such capacity originates in the individual alone or can be explained solely on the basis of his or her experience. Individuals do not know the past singly; they know it with and against others situated in different groups, and through the knowledge and traditions that predecessors and contemporaries transmit to them. (Barry Schwartz, "What Difference Does the Medium Make?" in The Fourth Gospel in First-Century Media Culture [ESCO; LNTS 426; London: T&T Clark International, 2010], 225–38 [p. 231 quoted])

I know this sounds complicated, but the gist is that all of us are affected by social forces larger than our individual, personal identities as we remember the past, whether the past of our social groups (e.g., American history, Christian tradition, Western culture, etc.) or our own autobiographical pasts (e.g., my relationship with my wife and/or children, my personal experience of American citizenship, my religious testimony, etc.). The gap between Casey's rather myopic definition of social memory and the field of study that usually goes by the name is hard to overestimate. I once stood on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon; this seems roughly similar.

As a result, Casey very briefly summarizes the famous story in Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, in which Josephus is waxing eloquently about Solomon's divine wisdom and the exorcistic and therapeutic prowess he exhibited. As an example, Josephus tells the story of a first-century CE exorcist named Eleazar who followed one of Solomon's recipes for removing a demon. At the conclusion of the story, Casey writes,
This is an overt declaration that Josephus had made this non-biblical report about Solomon because of its importance in the world in which he himself lived. His whole account is a perfect example of 'social memory'. (134; my emphasis)

No, this isn't. Josephus's whole account is certainly an appropriate field in which to bring questions of social memory to bear; I suspect this story, and a number of others, would help bring to light "the distribution throughout society of individual knowledge, belief, feeling and moral judgement of the past as well as identification with past actors and events" (Schwartz, cited above). But Casey hasn't brought these questions to bear on the text, and I'm surprised that he seems to think that he has.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

anticipating the kingdom of God

For the second week in a row I was tapped to speak at Johnson University's chapel. The theme for this year is "Extending the Kingdom among All Nations," and our chapel services have been centered on tracing the kingdom of God (loosely conceived) through the story/-ies of the Hebrew Bible. Last Tuesday Mark Nelson (of "The Bible is one story from beginning to Jude" fame; see here for details) presented the story of Nehemiah, which brought an end to our traipse the Hebrew Bible. And next Tuesday Carl Bridges (of very little fame whatsoever, though his mustache has won runner-up in multiple county and state fairs) will speak on the birth of Jesus. Thus begins our look at the kingdom of God in the New Testament.

Between these two corpora, of course, lies an immense story of God's people variously waiting for God to act on their behalf. Sure, the Babylonians who had sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple of the Lord had themselves been conquered by the ascendant Persians. Sure the Persian potentate Cyrus and his successors allowed the Jews to return to Judea and rebuild the city and the Temple. But somehow, the restoration was falling well short of expectations. Something was left undone.

My assignment was to (briefly) discuss the idea of the kingdom of God (again, loosely conceived) in Second-Temple era texts. The theme is vast and the textual database vaster. So I chose to focus on two very different texts to take soundings, as it were, of the various different ways that Jews during this period anticipated their restoration and vindication from God. I briefly introduced the apocryphal book, Tobit, and the Dead Sea Scroll fragment, Melchizedek (11Q13, or 11QMelchizedek). I titled my address, "Anticipations: God's Kingdom during the Second-Temple Era," and my primary point was: "Jews of the Second-Temple era didn’t know what to expect, but they knew to expect something."

Below you can find the text of my address and a PDF version of the accompanying PowerPoint presentation. I welcome your comments.
God’s Kingdom During the Second-Temple Era God’s Kingdom During the Second-Temple Era (pptx presentation)

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

encouragement to study Revelation

At the church where my family and I worship and serve, we have a number of slogans that you might hear with some regularity. One of those slogans is, "We believe the Bible is one story, from beginning to end, of God putting his family back together." Sounds nice, doesn't it?

Except that we don't. I've been trying for a couple years to get our teaching pastor (he refuses to be called "preacher") to do a series on Revelation. Our modus operandi is to take one book of the Bible each year and spend a considerable amount of time studying that book as a community. To date we've studied John, Genesis, Romans, Exodus, and we are currently studying the Gospel of Luke. I think the plan is to break the OT/NT cycle and do Acts next year, then, I dunno . . . Leviticus or something. But the pastor absolutely refuses to do a series on Revelation. So I tell him that our actions say, "We believe the Bible is one story, from beginning to Jude . . ." So far he's been unimpressed.

But I soldier on, trying to convince him that it's for the good of the church. A couple week's ago he showed the famous Sony Bravia commercial in which Sony released a quarter-million bouncy balls in the streets of San Francisco. The image and the accompanying music are . . . well, pleasant (if you haven't seen the video, you should click the link).

Thanks to online file converters and the easy-to-use iMovie, I've edited that video and put together a promo, which I've offered the church free-of-charge, to advertise the series on Revelation. If, that is, Mark ever decides to do one. If you're interested, be sure to e-mail him. Or call him. Or better yet, both.


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