Thursday, December 06, 2012

Goodacre, the Synoptics, and the Gospel of Thomas

I just finished Thomas and the Gospels: The Case for Thomas's Familiarity with the Synoptics (Eerdmans, 2012), Mark Goodacre's initial foray into Thomasine scholarship and an eloquently argued and cogent case for the Gospel of Thomas's literary redaction of the synoptic Gospels (especially Matthew and Luke). In the last three or four years I have only read a handful of academic books that were as clear (and clear-headed) as Thomas and the Gospels; the only two that come immediately to mind are Steve Mason's Josephus and the New Testament (Baker Academic, 2002 [2nd ed.]) and Chris Keith's The Pericope Adulterae, the Gospel of John, and the Literacy of Jesus (Brill, 2009).

This slim volume (less than two hundred pages of text) offers ten chapters that move progressively from "first impressions" (chapter 1) to a catalog of verbatim agreement between the synoptics and Gos. Thom. (first in the Greek Oxyrhynchus fragments of Gos. Thom., then in Greek retroverted from the Coptic manuscript from Nag Hammadi) and a recalibration of what we should expect if Gos. Thom. is in fact familiar with the synoptics (viz., we should expect "diagnostic shards"; chapters 2 and 3). The next three chapters identify Matthean (chapter 4) and Lukan redaction (chapters 5 and 6) in Gos. Thom., followed by a general summary of Thomas's most salient redactional feature (which Goodacre calls "the missing middle"; chapter 7).  The next two chapters explore important issues in Thomasine scholarship: orality and literacy (chapter 8) and the date of Gos. Thom. (chapter 9). The last chapter raises the questions of how and why GThom used the synoptics (chapter 10), and a brief conclusion appreciates Thomas for what it is (a mid-second century CE text) rather than attempts to force Thomas into the mold of the first-century CE synoptic Gospels.

Goodacre provides a formidable argument that takes account of the primary texts involved (the Greek texts of the synoptic Gospels, the Greek fragments of Gos. Thom. from Oxynrhynchus, and the Coptic text of Gos. Thom. from Nag Hammadi). But if you're original language skills are rusty, you will still be able to grasp the finer points of Goodacre's case. I want to stress this point: Goodacre does not avoid the complicated and technical issues; instead, he provides accessible and clear discussions of these issues. This is a rare skill, but those familiar with Goodacre's work will recognize it as characteristic of him.

A couple other points, in potpourri fashion:

  • Goodacre expends a relatively lengthy discussion (twenty-six pages) on orality and literacy; he even references [*cough *cough] my 2009 JSNT article, "Reading and Hearing in Ancient Contexts." And his intentional use of "familiarity" instead of "dependence" to describe GThom's relationship to the synoptics moves in a helpful direction to help us appreciate how texts might function in antiquity and how they might influence other texts. And he is rightly skeptical, in my view, of many of the current discussions of "orality," "oral cultures," and "oral mentalities." However, the function of both orally and textually expressed tradition in early Christianity and the relationship between these expressions of tradition and Gos. Thom. still requires some attention.
  • If any of the chapters of Thomas and the Gospels is disappointing, it would be chapter 10 ("How and Why Thomas Used the Synoptics"). Goodacre's main point is that Gos. Thom. weaves in redacted sayings from the synoptics among his new, non-synoptic sayings in order authenticate the new by means of association with the (almost) traditional voice of Jesus. "The Synoptic material legitimizes the strange new material, interweaving the familiar with the unique, so providing a new and quite different voice for Jesus that at the same time is plausible enough to sound authentic to Thomas's earliest audiences" (2012:180). I have three problems with this line of argument:
    • First, Goodacre began chapter 10 by noting that "it is by no means a given that early Christian sayings collections should feature extensive parallels to the Synoptic Gospels. Thomas's multiple cases of Synoptic sayings contrasts with works like the Gospel of Mary and the Dialogue of the Savior, which are relatively poor in such material" (2012:172). In other words, later Gospels did not feel the need to echo the canonical Gospels in order to legitimize their portrayal of Jesus' life and/or teaching. Therefore, even if the result of Gos. Thom.'s redaction of synoptic material is to legitimize its image of Jesus, we still need to explain why Gos. Thom. chose this (apparently unnecessary) route to enhance its presentation of Jesus.
    • Second, I do not think Goodacre grants sufficient attention to the very different reception Gos. Thom. received vis-à-vis the synoptic Gospels. While the Thomasine author must have hoped his Jesus struck his readers as "plausible enough to sound authentic," he (if I may) either conceived of his audience in rather narrow terms (not Christianity more generally) or he failed to be persuasive. As far as I am aware, we lack any direct evidence that Gos. Thom. enjoyed any broad-based popular reception. If I am right, then Goodacre needs to take more seriously that Thomas's view of Jesus was sufficiently idiosyncratic (= odd) that we cannot assume he would have perceived the synoptic Jesus as an appropriate source of authority. In other words, given the implication of Gos. Thom. 13, in which both  Peter (= Mark?) and Matthew put forward inadequate views of Jesus (see Goodacre 2012:178–79), it is by no means obvious that our author should then appeal to these texts in order to persuade his audience of the veracity of his Gospel.
    • Third, Goodacre's explanation of Gos. Thom.'s use of the synoptics avoids the question of why the Thomasine author should choose and redact the specific synoptic texts that Goodacre has so persuasively demonstrated bore influence over their parallels in Gos. Thom. At points throughout the volume Goodacre raises precisely this question (e.g., see 2012:94–95, on Gos. Thom. 72 and Luke 12.13–14). However, in chapter 10, it would have been helpful for Goodacre to draw these strings together and to explore not just why Gos. Thom. redacted the synoptics but why specific parallels from the synoptics appear in Thomas (and not others). In other words, rather than casting the synoptic parallels as augments to the legitimacy and plausibility of the non-synoptic sayings, this chapter ought to have spent more energy explaining the synoptic parallels' own contribution to the peculiarly Thomasine vision of Jesus.
  • Unlike a number of other scholars in recent days (including David deSilva [mentioned here], Samuel Byrskog, Tom Thatcher, and perhaps Christopher Tuckett, among others), Goodacre rightly eschews the influence of NT scholarship's form-critical heritage over our understanding of the development of tradition (oral as well as written). Some of the best moments of this book are when Goodacre attempts to break the discussion free of a form-critical paradigm and into a redaction-critical paradigm.
  • However, there are problems with a redaction-critical paradigm, and the most salient one (for me) was the attempt to construct evolutionary (or simply redactional) trajectories between texts. Goodacre does well to demonstrate the inadequacies of the influential Koester-Robinson model of trajectories, which assumes a form-critical view of tradition. However, his own literary trajectory (e.g., 2012:195, but in other places besides) suffers similar problems as any construction of linear developmental models. For example, the increasing authorial self-representation in Mark and Matthew to Luke to John to Thomas might look nice, but its correspondence with the relative dating of these texts should not lure us into supposing that earlier Christian texts (Gospels and otherwise) always avoided authorial self-representation and later texts increasingly featured the authorial voice. Our earliest Christian writer, Paul, overtly emphasized his identity in his texts, and that emphasis was not merely a function of the genre of his texts (viz. letters). In light of Paul's references to "my gospel" [εὐαγγέλιόν μου; euangelion mou (Rom. 2.16; 16.25; see also Gal. 1.11)], it is not much of a stretch to suppose that Paul's preaching of the gospel would have included a measure of self-disclosure, and if he had written a Gospel we might have even expected him to engage in authorial self-representation.
I could provide a few more critical comments. More importantly, I could go on and on (and on) in praise of this book. If you have any interest in Christian origins, Jesus, and the Gospels (even if not in the Gospel of Thomas), and especially if you are interested in the Gospel of Thomas, you should pick up this book.

One last thing. At first blush there's nothing audacious or provocative about Goodacre's title: Thomas and the Gospels: The Case for Thomas's Familiarity with the Synoptics. However, we might take seriously the definite article: "the case." I found Goodacre's case compelling, and I am now even more emboldened to describe Thomas as late and familiar with (I might not say "dependent on," but then again I might) the synoptics when I discuss this text with my students. Those who disagree and consider Thomas an independent text now have a formidable challenge in the face of this, the case for Thomas's familiarity with the synoptics.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

is Mark a pre-war document?

In yesterday's mail I received an examination copy of David A. deSilva's new book, The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James, and Jude (Oxford University Press, 2012), which I am considering adopting for my graduate course, World of the New Testament. I started looking through the book, and so far I'm enjoying it. Much to disagree with, of course, but much more to learn from. This is what we enjoy about NT scholarship, right?

At any rate, in the light of yesterday's post about Mark Goodacre's suspicion of an potentially emerging consensus that Mark is a post-war document, I thought it interesting to read the following from deSilva, who affirms (along with nearly every other NT scholar) that Luke-Acts was written after the Roman-Jewish War:
. . . Occasionally the "apocalyptic discourse" has been used to argue that the Gospels of Mark and Matthew also postdate these events, but there is nothing in either account that could not have been uttered by a Jewish prophet in the first half of the first century—quite aside from the question of whether or not such prophetic utterance is "really" predictive. (2012:263, ftn. 5)

Goodacre, in the course of his discussion, will refer to three very recent monographs focused on the question of the date of Mark's Gospel (and an article by John Kloppenborg). deSilva, on the other hand,  is simply making a point about Luke's Gospel and contrasting that point, briefly and in a footnote, against the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. My point here is certainly not that deSilva has the better or more convincing argument. Rather, I just want to point out how easily one can encounter—even accidentally!!—exceptions to the potentially emerging consensus to which Goodacre made reference. Without question detailed and sophisticated arguments for a post-war date are current within the scholarly discussion, and clearly Goodacre has found them persuasive. But if anything, I suspect the consensus—if there be one—pushes Mark back into the immediately pre-war years. deSilva even pushes Matthew back before the destruction of Jerusalem and her Temple!

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

is Mark a post-war document?

I'm reading Mark Goodacre's Thomas and the Gospels: The Case for Thomas's Familiarity with the Synoptics (Eerdmans, 2012). I'll comment on the book as a whole later, though let me say I cannot praise Goodacre enough for his meticulous attention to detail and his clear (and clear-headed) writing.

In his discussion of the date of the Gospel of Thomas, he makes the (obvious) point that, if Thomas knew and depended upon the synoptic Gospels, then Thomas must have been written after them. A first step in dating Thomas, then, is to attempt to date the synoptics. So far so good.

But then we find the following paragraph, which I will reproduce in its entirety. Note that there are no footnotes in this paragraph, which is part of why I'm raising a question mark against it. But first, Goodacre:
Second, the case for a post-70 dating for Mark is strong, and gaining in momentum in recent scholarship. Although it might be overstating the case to speak about a post-70 Mark as an emerging consensus, several recent works place the onus on those wishing to argue the opposite. The importance of this is obvious. Since Mark is the first in the sequence of literary works, dating Mark is a very helpful way of moving forward. If Mark post-dates 70, so do Matthew, Luke, and Thomas. (Goodacre 2012:161)

I was surprised by the strength of Goodacre's statement. I can't say that the date of the synoptics is my area of expertise, but I'm familiar enough with the field that I think Goodacre has, indeed, overstated the case even that the onus is on those who argue a pre-70 date for Mark. Here I'd make two points.
  • First, there are some fringe arguments that date Mark considerably earlier than 70 CE. For example, James Crossley argued in his doctoral dissertation that Mark is nearer the Caligula crisis (41 CE). As far as I know, James has not found an impressive following (though his doctoral supervisor, Maurice Casey, accepts his argument in the latter's Jesus of Nazareth). R. T. France, a Matthean scholar, also dates Mark early, though for completely different reasons. As I have already conceded, these are fringe arguments. Because they are fringe, however, they are more easily disregarded than disproven. At the very least, these arguments force us to temper our confidence in the consensus.
  • Second, my own impression is that the developing consensus fixes the date of Mark's Gospel in the vicinity of the war with Rome, either in the buildup to hostilities or in the war's immediate aftermath (viz. 65–75 CE). Especially significant here are the details of Mark 13, details which (i) echo biblical themes pertaining to the destruction of the First Temple and (ii) do not correlate precisely to Titus' destruction of the Second Temple.
Scene from Titus' Arch depicting the triumphal procession and the spoils from the Jerusalem Temple.
Perhaps I'm wrong here, and Goodacre is right. In fact, my first instinct is to trust Goodacre. But I was under the impression that the case was just as strong that Mark dates to immediately before the war as it was that Mark was written after the war. You Markan specialists out there, let me ask: What are your impressions regarding any potential "emerging consensus" among Markan (and historical Jesus?) scholars? Is there broad agreement that Mark is a post-war document?

UPDATE: Goodacre does consider specific arguments for dating Mark (including Crossley's; see Goodacre 2012:162–64). In rereading this post after it was published, I realized I might give the impression that Goodacre simply ignores Markan scholarship. That impression would be false.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

not ready for the NA28 . . . yet

At the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, I have avoided purchasing the 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament, which is available from two booths, Hendricksen and American Bible Society. (Interestingly, the NA28 is cheaper at the ABS booth, if you're looking to buy it at the conference.) I am waiting for the wide-margin edition, which I heard might not be out for another year. If you haven't seen the wide-margin printing of NA27, the format allows significant space for notation, cross-referencing, or just doodling (if you're into that sort of thing). I would encourage the publisher to get about issuing the wide-margin version of NA28 as soon as possible. Until then, I'll hold on to my thirty bucks.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Nestle-Aland 28 announced

This is certainly a significant announcement:
The long awaited 28th edition of Nestle-Aland's Novum Testamentum Graece will likely appear some time later this year. It has been preliminary announced by various booksellers. Thus, CBD gives the publication date 26/12 2012, whereas Amazon has 31/12 2012.

Anyone looking for a random act of kindness to perform between now and the (very!) end of the Mayan calendar can send one to Johnson University, marked "Attn: Rafael Rodríguez." Thank you very much.

HT: Johnson Thomaskutty

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

ΚΑΤΑ ΤΟ . . . A Tribute for Rikki Erin Bera

The Greek phrase κατὰ τό . . . (pronounced kata to . . . ) means "according to . . ." So, for example, the titles printed over the four canonical Gospels are κατὰ Μαθθαῖον [pronounced kata Matthaion], "According to Matthew," κατὰ Μᾶρκον [kata Markon], "According to Mark," and so on.

At any rate, I wanted to give a few thoughts regarding the outpouring of support in the aftermath of my sister's too-early passing away due to cancer. The spirit of this post is, Thank you.

ΚΑΤΑ ΤΟ . . . ("According to . . .")

Kata to . . . the stats on my Facebook post announcing the news that my sister had passed away, 144 people left kind words in the comments. In the immediate hours after I found out that Rikki's body simply could not fight anymore (her spirit, however, fought through the end!), I needed some little distractions. The near-constant ding of my Facebook notifications gave me something else to think on, and your kind words were very encouraging in those first couple of days. Twelve more of you posted comments on my update when I arrived in Phoenix, and thirty-one of you clicked "Like." Thank you.

Kata to . . . the number of posts on my wall, twenty-four people created new posts expressing your condolences, offering your prayers, uploading pictures, and so on. Also, kata to . . . my inbox, twenty-six of you replied to my e-mail announcing the news and let us know that your hearts broke with ours. In addition to that, four of you created new e-mails informing us that your thoughts and prayers were with us. This is in addition to the sixteen messages I received from people at our church. It might not have cost you anything to give me those words, but I cannot express how much they meant to me. Thank you.

Kata to . . . the stack on my table, twenty-six of you sent us cards, some with poetic words in italic fonts, some with very few words at all. All of them seemed appropriate at the time we opened them. One came with a whole pound of Starbucks whole-bean coffee and a mug to drink it with. (Another dear friend hand-delivered a Starbucks tumbler from Seattle!) One came with a CD with stories of coping with cancer. And one came with a pot of yellow mums. Some traveled from across the street; others came cross-country. All of them touched us. Thank you.

Two Services
On a beautiful Saturday afternoon, 10 April 2010, I married my sister to her husband, Justin Bera. I wrote the service myself, and it was a wonderful honor.
Order of Service (Wedding)

Only nine hundred and two days later, on Friday, 28 September 2012, I had the terrible honor—but it was an honor nevertheless—to officiate my sister's funeral service. Again, I wrote the service myself; I hope I never have a similar assignment ever again.
Order of Service (Funeral)

I loved my sister, and she loved me. We didn't always get along, but we weren't supposed to. I was her brother; she was my sister. She will always be my sister. And I will never forget her.

I love you, Rikki. Be well.

Friday, September 21, 2012

a verdict is in

Mark Goodacre has published a short paper by Francis Watson, entitled "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife: How a Fake Gospel-Fragment was Composed." This will almost certainly not make the Huffington Post or the New York Times; it certainly won't be the subject of a special by the Smithsonian. So even my [*ahem*] judicious assessment that we might genuinely have "a new text that gives us a frustratingly brief glimpse of what some people in the (second? or) third century were saying about Jesus" appears to have been too naïve. All we have really have, in fact, is another forger's attempt at fame and/or riches, a scholar's frustrated attempt to publish something genuinely new and unprecedented, and a Jesus who went stag to a wedding in Cana.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity—the schedule

On The Jesus Blog Anthony Le Donne and Chris Keith have published the schedule for the up-coming Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity conference in Dayton, OH (4–5 October 2012). If you've been meaning to register for the meeting but have been putting it off (or didn't know where to do so), click here for the conference website ($70 registration; $10 lunch).

If you're coming, don't forget to purchase a copy of the volume, don't forget to purchase a copy of the book, Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (T&T Clark International, 2012). If you can't make the conference, then buy two copies!!

The Gospel of Jesus' Wife

Two days ago the news "broke" that a fourth-century CE (300s) Coptic papyrus fragment suggests Jesus might have been married and—perhaps this is the part that's news; I can't tell—referred to her in public. Karen King (Harvard University) has provided a lovely and very helpful and interesting webpage with pictures of the text, a transcription (for those of you with Coptic skills) and translation, a Q&A, and a pre-publication version of an article on this "new Gospel." The news story here—and there is one—is that we now have, apparently a new text that gives us a frustratingly brief glimpse of what some people in the (second? or) third century were saying about Jesus. That's a big deal, but it doesn't add to or change anything we know about Jesus himself.

Those of us in this business get a bit tired of how stories like this get reported in the media. Quite honestly, who cares if Jesus was married? Where's the scandal in a first-century Galilean Jewish man taking a wife? So he's the son of God . . . where is it written that the human son of God had to be single or celibate? So the NT refers to the church as the bride of Christ . . . um, isn't that clearly a metaphor? So where's the scandal? Here it is: Our entire lives we've been told that Jesus was unmarried because no historical source with a claim to know such things mentions his wife. Moreover, those sources had no reason to hide it if he had been married! There's no embarrassment whatsoever that one of the two most well-known apostles—Simon Peter—was married (Mark 1.29–31; 1 Cor. 9.5), and had the historical Jesus had a sign on his mailbox, "Jesus and Mary Christ," I very much doubt that anyone in the earliest decades of the church would have cared. And if any of our Gospels—again, which had no reason to hide such things—suggested Jesus had a wife, then we today would live in a world where Jesus' wife would merit no more news space than Martha Washington (y'all knew George was married, right?).

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Coptic question

I know I'm supposed to be blogging about Jesus' wife. I'll try to get to that later today. But for now, can any of you access or guide me toward the Middle Egyptian Coptic reading of Acts 13.34? Theodore Petersen offers the following translation of vv. 33–34
. . . this day have I begotten thee. Ask of me and I will give thee the gentiles for they inheritance and for they possessions the ends of the earth. (And to show that) he has raised him up from the dead in such a way as never again to return to decay, that all the people may know and do penance (he has said thus) this namely is the way which is written in Isaias the prophet, I will give you the holy and everlasting covenant and sure (promises) mercies of David. (Theodore C. Petersen, "An Early Coptic Manuscript of Acts: An Unrevised Version of the Ancient So-called Western Text," CBQ 26/2 [1964], 240)

The italicized phrases represent the Coptic additions over the critical Greek text. But I'm especially interested in the italicized and bold phrase, "everlasting covenant." Any help?

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

reading Key Events

I have begun reviewing the massive volume, Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence (WUNT 247; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), edited by Darrell Bock and Robert Webb. This book presents the result of the decade-long collaboration of the Institute for Biblical Research Jesus Group, evaluating and interpreting twelve "key events." Each essay, written by a total of eleven scholars, pursues three goals. First, an author will assess and defend the probable authenticity of a given "key event" in the life of Jesus. Second, an author will place their "key event" into a reconstruction of Jesus' late-Second Temple/early Roman Jewish context in order to explain and/or interpret the event. Finally, an author will explain what each "key event," once they have been authenticated and interpreted, means for our understanding of Jesus of Nazareth.

At this point, I have only read the (very) brief Introduction, written by Bock and Webb, and the opening chapter, on history, historiography, and historical Jesus research, written by Bob Webb. This essay, "The Historical Enterprise and Historical Jesus Research," establishes some historiographical "ground rules," even though it was written after the historical analyses comprising the remainder of the book. In what follows, I give you my very brief review of Webb's historiographical essay.

In the first essay, Bob Webb provides a wide-ranging and nuanced discussion of history, historiography, and how scholars can ask historical questions about the figure, Jesus of Nazareth. Webb offers a chastened (or soft) postmodernist view of how we can know about past figures and events on two bases (23–30). First, the historian’s goal is to provide a representation (≠ description! [see pp. 24–26]) of past events on the basis of publicly available evidence and modes of argumentation. Second, the most helpful form of postmodern historiography is the critical-realist form, which “combine[s] and reconcile[s] ontological realism, epistemological relativism and judgmental rationality” (29). Webb then offers a historical method with two main phases as well as a preliminary and a subsequent concluding phase and which resembles a Gadamerian hermeneutical spiral (32–38). After a preliminary phase of critical self-reflection, Webb’s first phase “involves gathering, interpreting, and evaluating the surviving traces (ST) to determine their function as evidence within a particular context” (33). In this phase, the historian evaluates data from both a “bottom-up” perspective, determining of what a datum is evidence, as well as from a “top-down” perspective, identifying multiple contexts and evaluating the “fit” between a given datum and various contexts. In the second phase, the historian “interpret[s] and explain[s] the relevant data with hypotheses” in an attempt to identify a “preferable hypothesis . . . that (a)provides a better explanation of the evidence, and (b) allows for extrapolation that provides a more plausible explanation of the complete historical picture” (35). In the concluding phase, the historian writes up a historical narrative that “describes” relevant data and provides a representation of the past as the historian has come to understand it. Webb then offers “methodological naturalistic history” as a way to engage historical questions without (i) depending on divine causation to provide explanatory statements as well as without (ii) denying the possibility of divine causation in history. If/when/where God acts apart from mundane, natural laws of cause and effect, such actions are, by definition, beyond the scope of historical inquiry (despite having occurred, at least theoretically, in the past; see pp. 40–43). Finally, Webb briefly explains the specific methodological principles and tools (especially the criteria of authenticity) for historical Jesus research (54–82). One easily and perhaps inevitably gets the impression that the historiographical and methodological discussion in this chapter serves as a programmatic statement governing the rest of the book. However, Webb repeatedly acknowledges that this essay was the last to be written and summarizes—more or less—rather than establishes the view(s) of history, historiography, and method operative during the decade-long collaboration that resulted in this book. I think it regrettable that the group, either collectively or via a representative (such as Webb), did not produce and discuss at least a version of this essay prior to the historical analyses comprising the remaining chapters.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity

As Mark Goodacre has already noted, the Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity Conference, scheduled for 4–5 October 2012, has been moved to Dayton, Ohio. I recently received the following announcement:
The 2012 Jesus Conference will be held Oct. 4 and 5, 2012 in Dayton, OH. The co-hosts are United Theological Seminary and the University of Dayton's Center for Scriptural Exegesis, Philosophy, and Doctrine. We're very excited to partner with these institutions and their fine faculty. More information concerning registration, schedule, etc., will be forthcoming.

(Please see the United Theological Seminary and the University of Dayton's Center for Scriptural Exegesis, Philosophy, and Doctrine websites.)

The conference will feature discussion and elaboration on the book, Jesus, Criteria and the Demise of Authenticity (T&T Clark International; forthcoming). If you follow the link you can find a preview of the book. The publisher's description reads:
Criteria of authenticity, whose roots go back to before the pioneering work of Albert Schweitzer, have become a unifying feature of the so-called Third Quest for the Historical Jesus, finding a prominent and common place in the research of otherwise differing scholars. More recently, however, scholars from different methodological frameworks have expressed discontent with this approach to the historical Jesus. In the past five years, these expressions of discontent have reached a fever pitch.

The internationally renowned authors of this book examine the nature of this new debate and present the findings in a cohesive way aimed directly at making the coalface of Historical Jesus research accessible to undergraduates and seminary students. The book’s larger ramifications as a thorough end to the Third Quest will provide a pressure valve for thousands of scholars who view historical Jesus studies as outmoded and misguided. This book has the potential to guide Jesus studies beyond the Third Quest and demand to be consulted by any scholar who discards, adopts, or adapts historical criteria.

When I hear more (registration procedures, housing, costs, etc.), I'll let you know.

(See also T&T Clark International's blogpost about the book.)

Monday, May 14, 2012

the original Jesus?

With the Spring 2012 semester behind me, I've turned my attention back to research and writing, and my first task is to review Alexander J. M. Wedderburn's recent book, Jesus and the Historians (WUNT 269; Mohr Siebeck, 2010). Wedderburn is unhappy with how historians of Jesus (and Christian origins more generally) have pursued historiographical questions—that is, questions about how we can know anything about the past. He surveys the work of a half-dozen prominent (more or less) historians of Jesus in order to explore his unhappiness and suggest appropriate corrective measures.

One of the historians Wedderburn surveys is Jens Schröter, and in this post I want to ask a question about Wedderburn's objections to Schröter. First, the quote from Wedderburn:
In the same vein is perhaps his [viz. Schröter's] endorsement of the view that neither in textual nor in tradition criticism is it appropriate to talk of an 'original form' of the text or the tradition;57 this may be true although it is surely still legitimate to raise the question of earlier and later forms and to try to explain, often very plausibly, how later forms arose from earlier ones. (16–17)

In footnote 57, Wedderburn cites Schröter's essay, "Jesus and the Canon: The Early Jesus Traditions in the Context of the Origins of the New Testament Canon" (in Performing the Gospel: Orality, Memory, and Mark [Fortress Press, 2006]) and goes on to quote Schröter directly:
"The effort to uncover the one text or the one Jesus behind the multitude of traditions appears therefore more and more clearly as an inappropriate attempt to discover a unified starting point for the tradition" ([Schröter's] italics). And yet there was surely only one Jesus, however many the traditional images of him may have been that once circulated. (17n. 57)

I am interested in Wedderburn's last sentence: "And yet there was surely only one Jesus, however many the traditional images of him may have been that once circulated." Wedderburn's point is self-evidently true, of course, but it is also historically unhelpful (I'm tempted to say useless). The problem here is the two senses of "historical Jesus," a problem of which Wedderburn knowns full well (see pp. 3–7). On one level, the historical Jesus refers to the real person, Jesus of Nazareth, whose feet wandered the Galilean and surrounding countryside and whose voice echoed across its valleys. On another level, the historical Jesus refers to historians' reconstructions of the real Jesus—the representations of him produced by means of historical-critical and other research. Both Schröter and Wedderburn are engaged in discussing this second level—the reconstructed/represented Jesus, and Schröter is objecting to much historical-critical work that insists that, of two parallel traditions (e.g., Matt. 5.3||Luke 6.20 [this is my example, not Schröter's or Wedderburn's]), one must be earlier and (more) original and the other later and derivative. But notice that, in discussing how we generate the historical Jesus (= the reconstructed Jesus), Wedderburn changes the subject back to the historical Jesus (= the man himself).

Let's explore the question of the first beatitude (Matt. 5.3||Luke 6.20) a bit further. Granted that there was only one historical Jesus (= the man himself), historians have to pose the question, Did Jesus say, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens"? Or did he say, "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God"? Historians of Jesus have generally (but not universally) concluded that Jesus said something more like the latter—Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God—and that Matthew has altered this saying in order to spiritualize it ("poor in spirit") or to avoid referring directly to God. This is certainly plausible. But why should we assume that Jesus himself could not have said the beatitude as Matthew records it and that Luke has altered it to accord to his demonstrable emphasis on the poor? Or, moreover, why couldn't Jesus have employed this same principle (the poor are blessed) in multiple contexts, some more material and literal (per Luke 6.20) and some more spiritual and metaphorical (per Matt. 5.3)? Why does the singularity of the historical Jesus (= the man himself) justify our insistence on the singularity of the historical Jesus (= the reconstructed/represented Jesus)? The only answers I can think of assume either (i) that Jesus was perfectly consistent in various circumstances, or (ii) that Jesus was completely and totally present in every situation. On the contrary, historians assume that Jesus developed in his thinking, his teaching, and in his relationships (like every other person). We likewise assume that Jesus responded to his social context(s) in ways he deemed appropriate; he was no detached from his society and culture but was fully a part of it.

I have elsewhere posted on the problems of assuming a singular original starting point in Gospels or historical Jesus research (for example here, here, and here, among others). And given the problems with Wedderburn's objections to Schröter's particular ways of accounting for the multiformity of the Jesus tradition from the very beginning, I remain unconvinced that historians of Jesus should continue to search for the ever-valued "original tradition."

Monday, May 07, 2012

Dunn inconsistent?

I'm sorry for the long silence. And I'm afraid it's likely to continue. But I just want to bring two quotes from a single article together and ask out loud (even if just to myself) whether these are consistent. First, some background.

I'm finishing up my comments on Paul's letter to the Romans, and I'm reading through some random articles on the famous passage, Rom. 13.1–7. I find myself persuaded by Stowers, Das, and Co. that Paul writes Romans with an audience of gentile believers in mind, whether or not he also knew that there were Jewish believers in Rome. This is an important point: No amount of evidence for the presence of Jewish Christians in Rome early in Nero's reign (56–58 CE) changes the fact that, wherever Paul explicitly identifies his audience in the text itself (his "encoded audience"), he identifies them as gentiles (e.g., 1.5–7, 14; 11.13; 15.15–16, 18). Though Paul has quite a bit to say about Jews and/or Jewish believers (see esp. chapters 9–11, 16), nothing in Romans strikes me as Paul speaking to them. This is a minority position among Romans scholarship, as far as I can tell, but it clarifies a number of problems that have historically attended the interpretation of this long and complicated letter. (For the proof that supports this assertion, you'll need to contact a certain publisher in Grand Rapids, Mich., beg them to accept and publish my book, and then buy the book and read it.)

Now onto the quotes. I'm briefly reading James D. G. Dunn's article, "Romans 13.1–7: A Charter for Political Quietism?" (Ex Auditu 2 [1986]: 55–68), which he published two years before his important two-volume Romans commentary in the Word Biblical Commentary series. In this article, Dunn makes the following two claims (I've quoted Dunn at length to provide a sense of context; I'll put the relevant phrases in bold typeface):
We might simply add the evidence of Paul's letter to Rome itself. For though it is clearly writen with Gentiles particularly in view (1.6,13-15; 11.13,17-21), it also presupposes a thorough knowledge of the ÖT and a considerable concern with Jewish self-identity. This could conceivably be a matter of Paul's self-indulgence, writing to satisfy his own concerns, regardless of whether his readership was able to make much sense of what he said. But this is very unlikely: the situation of the Roman Christians alreadly outlined above would almost certainly mean that questions of Jewish self-identity were questions for many Jewish Christians in Rome as well as for Paul; and the preservation of the letter by Roman Christianity implies that it was valued for its relevance in Rome. It should also be noted that knowledge of the OT within the ancient world was confined almost wholly to Jewish and Jewish-derived communities: the LXX is not known in Greco-Roman literary circles. Consequently to be able to assume such a knowledge of the scriptures as Paul does in Romans he would have to assume that his readership by and large had enjoyed a substantial link with the synagogues in Rome. (pp. 57–58)

Then, in almost the same context, Dunn writes:
At the same time there is clear evidence that the Jewish community in Rome was quite influential. For example, a population of 40,000 to 50,000 made them a substantial minority ethnic group within Rome itself, and because of Jewish support for Julius Ceasar Jews were given special privileges denied to other religious groups 'to assemble and feast in accordance with the native customs and ordinances' (Josephus, Ant 14.214–6). Cicero in his speech on behalf of Flaccus says he will speak softly since the attendant crowd were liable to favour the Jews (Flacc 28.66–67). Horace speaks of the success of Jewish proselytization—'we, like the Jews, will compel you to make one of our throng' (Serm 1.4.142–3). Judaism evidently proved attractive to not a few, including ladies of nobility like Fulvia and Poppaea, the wife of Nero (Josephus, Ant 18.82; 20.195). And early in the second century Juvenal complains about the way Judaism spread its influence by gradually winning over whole families—pork abstaining and sabbath-observing fathers who were surpassed by their sons going on to embrace circumcision and the whole Jewish law (Sat 14.96–106). No doubt it was precisely this attractiveness to some which made the Jews all the more hated and feared by others. (pp. 58–59)

My question: Is it legitimate for Dunn to imply that Romans must address an audience that includes Jewish members ("a substantial link with the synagogues") because the Septuagint (a Greek version of the Old Testament, abbreviated "LXX") was a back-water text, known only within Jewish circles, and then on the very next page to assert Judaism's attraction to gentiles? Granted that "Greco-Roman literary circles" weren't impressed with the LXX, if Roman Jews had made substantial inroads into various gentile communities and attracted a large (even alarming) number of proselytes, wouldn't the Hebrew biblical corpus find a sympathetic audience among precisely these gentiles? And if believers in Rome, for whatever reason, where no longer associated with/welcomed in the synagogues, doesn't Judaism's/the LXX's reception among gentiles in Rome leave open the possibility that Paul writes to precisely those to whom he claims to write (i.e., gentile believers in Rome)?

On closer inspection, I notice that Dunn mentions "Jewish and Jewish-derived communities" (my emphasis). But what, I would ask, is a "Jewish-derived community" if not a gentile community for whom the Hebrew Bible, probably in Greek (i.e., the LXX) had taken on authoritative (inspired?) status? I cannot see that Dunn's treatment of this particular issue is helpful.

Any thoughts?

Friday, February 24, 2012

does Paul quote Hosea from memory?

The concept of "memory," especially of "social memory," is a live issue among New Testament scholars. (Social memory refers to a field of inquiry within the Humanities that raises questions about the social distribution, function, and contestation of knowledge about the past. In other words, how do humans, as part of the social groups of which they find themselves members, remember, utilize, and argue about the images, narratives, and rituals of the past?) I'm certain that social memory research holds potential for Pauline scholarship just as much as it has opened up new questions and routes of inquiry in Jesus scholarship, but I don't know specifically how.

As I was working on my comments on Romans 9 for a graduate course I'm teaching, I noted that Paul's citation of Hosea (and Isaiah, too) in this chapters seems a bit haphazard. Robert Jewett (Romans [Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007], 599) provides a nice chart showing how re-arranged is Paul's citation(s) from Hosea 2:

It might be difficult to read, but the basic point is that Paul cites passages from Hosea in the following order:

  • Hos. 2.25c
  • Hos. 2.25b
  • Hos. 2.1b
  • Hos. 2.1c
My question: Does this suggest that Paul is citing Hosea from memory? Does it matter that neither his citations from Hosea here or of Isaiah in 9.27–29 exactly match the Septuagintal form of either text? If Paul is citing from memory, does this offer us a glimpse into how the traditions as well as the written texts of the Hebrew Bible worked (or functioned) in early Christian memory?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

gendered pronouns in a discussion of Romans

I'm sure I should know this already (perhaps it has already been explained). But, Does anyone know why Robert Jewett, in his commentary on Romans (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), uses feminine English pronouns in his translation of masculine Greek pronouns that refer to God? For example, he offers the following translation of Rom. 9.19: "You will say to me then, 'Why then does he still find fault? For who has resisted her design?'" (Jewett, Romans, 587) The Greek text behind the Jewett's translation, "who has resisted her design," is τῷ βουλήματι αὐτοῦ τίς ἀνθέστηκεν; This isn't the only time Jewett does this, but it is the first time I've noticed him doing it. Doe anyone know whether he offers any justification for this way of rendering the text?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

something's amiss here

I'm working through some thoughts on the identity of Paul's interlocutor in Romans (chapters 2–11, though my focus is on Romans 1–4). I've been reading Runar Thorsteinsson's Paul's Interlocutor in Romans 2: Function and Identity in the Context of Ancient Epistolography (Almqvist & Wiksell International: Stockholm, 2003), which is just a fantastic book. With very few exceptions, Thorsteinsson's arguments are both clear and compelling; when I examine his reading of Romans, he sees the text the way I see the text. Though I'm neither a Romans nor even a Pauline specialist, it seems to me that this is a book of which NT scholarship must take much greater account. You Pauline scholars out there, Am I wrong?

On the other hand, I'm also working my way through [parts of] Douglas Campbell's The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009). Campbell's book was the subject of the December 2011 issue of JSNT, with very critical review articles by Barry Matlock and Grant Macaskill. Of the very many distinctive reading positions and arguments in this very lengthy book, Campbell argues that we should read Rom. 1.18–32 as "speech-in-character," as Paul taking up the voice of and speaking as a character other than himself. Stanley Stowers has argued convincingly that Paul employs the rhetorical device, speech-in-character, in Rom. 7.7–25, so such things are not impossible. However, as Stowers emphasizes and Campbell acknowledges, anyone who proposes this as a reading strategy has to explain how Paul might have expected his readers to recognize his rhetorical maneuver. In Romans 7 there are several clear signals (which I discuss in my notes on Romans; if there's interest I can post those comments on this site). But Romans 1 lacks such clear signals. So Campbell argues instead,
It is my contention that the initial auditors of Romans could have detected such a strategy relatively easily through a plethora of nonverbal signals—the types of signals with which performed texts abound. And it must be emphasized that at this stage of our discussion it is necessary only to establish this identification as a possibility. Ultimately, my suggested rereading of Romans 1:18–32 will rely on evidence that emerges "downstream," so we will affirm this identification strongly only in retrospect. But it should be noted that this retrospective judgment is an accident of the text's canonical preservation, of the resulting loss of its original performed context, and also of some of our modern hermeneutical assumptions. We will realize belatedly what the Roman auditors could recognize relatively quickly, through the text's appropriate performance. For this reason, my auditors need for the moment only to be open to this reading of 1:18–32 as a possibility. Could the Roman Christians have detected a satirical textual operation here if it was indeed present? (Deliverance of God, 530; my emphasis [see pp. 530–41])

As I have already admitted, I am not a Pauline specialist, so I'm a bit outside my field. But I am a bit more experienced with oral traditional scholarship, and I have spent eight years reflecting on and exploring how to apply the theories, methods, and results of oral traditional scholarship to written textual questions. In fact, oral traditional scholars themselves have spent decades exploring this issue, so there's a vast body of literature on the subject. And oral traditional scholars have long emphasized that nonverbal and/or extratextual factors such as intonation, gesture, voice inflection, pace/tempo, musical accompaniment, social and/or physical environment, facial expression and other body language, eye contact, directionality, etc. etc. etc. affect how a written text communicates its meaning to an audience. In fact, it's safe to say that the written text itself didn't communicate its meaning to its original audience; rather, a reader/lector/oral performer communicated the text's meaning, and s/he did so via a number of techniques that (i) cannot be found within the tradition's textual stratum (i.e., the written text itself) and so (ii) is no longer available to us. This is unfortunate, because these methods, as Campbell rightly recognizes, are often if not always determinative for how and what a written text means.

Anyone reading Campbell's book, however, needs to know, this is NOT the way to apply issues of oral performance and/or presentation to (written) textual analysis. The problem with Campbell's argument here in Romans 1 is that there's no way to falsify it. There's no way to prove that Campbell's rereading runs exactly counter to Paul's intentions for Rom. 1.18–32 precisely because there's no evidence in support of his rereading. Unlike Romans 7, no textual clues suggest that Paul is speaking "in character" in Romans 1, and so all Campbell can do is grin and ask us to bear it.

But, given that, first, Rom. 1.18–32 makes perfectly good sense within Paul's own authorial voice (i.e., in his undisputed letters, in the disputed [or deutero-Pauline] letters, and in Acts, Paul speaks of God's judgment against the gentiles) and that, second, nothing that follows 1.18–32 requires us to hear Paul's comments about gentile depravity as "speech-in-character," we need to read this text straightforwardly, as the author presents it to us. Indeed, Thorsteinsson, in the much more helpful reading of Romans that I mentioned above, argues persuasively against exactly the kind of retrospective reading strategies Campbell employs here. So while we might grant that we could read Rom. 1.18–32 as a "satirical textual operation," we—and Campbell, too—need to admit that Paul has utterly failed to encode that operation with the text itself. And that failure, I would argue, is the best evidence against the proposal that we should read this passage satirically (pace Campbell, 541: "[s]uch texts therefore deliver their ironic and subversive potential entirely performatively" [emphasis his]).

Monday, February 13, 2012

Whitney Houston (9 Aug 1963–11 Feb 2012)

I don't usually write about things like this, but Whitney Houston's tragic and premature death has stuck in my brain more than I would have expected. As a child of the 80s, her music is like a soundtrack to my childhood. I can remember my mother putting on "How Will I Know" or "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" as we did chores around the house. Whitney Houston was an era unto herself, a time when Pop music was broad enough to include people who could really (and actually) sing.

Those of us who live on after the death of an icon have to face a particularly difficult problem: How do we strike a balance between the decorum and dignity that we owe the recently deceased, on the one hand, and the honesty and integrity that we owe ourselves as we recall and reflect on a life now lived? Those who fail to show the former seem calloused, cold, and uncaring, while those who fail to show the latter come off as shallow, selective, and . . . well, full of crap. So how do we appreciate and show respect for a woman whose life has so many negative lessons to teach?

I'm not sure. But I can't escape the notion in my own mind that the really tragic aspect of Whitney Houston is not her early death but her heart-breaking life. If anything, 11 February 2012 brought at least one tragic story to a close, and perhaps the world has one less truly unhappy person this morning. Ms. Houston certainly doesn't need my pity, and so I won't be so bold as to offer it. But I do pray that, at the end of her life, she still knew something of the grace of God that she seems to have known so powerfully early in her life. And if not, I take some comfort in knowing that God has said he loved (and loves) Ms. Houston more than any of us enjoyed her music. Her life is now in his hands, but then again her life has always been in his hands.

On a completely unrelated note, my family and I took a trip to a local used bookstore this weekend, and my wife picked up the now-classic Seven Habits of Highly of Effective People, which I originally read in college. One of those habits, if I remember rightly, is, Begin with the End in Mind. Whatever Stephen Covey said about that habit (I don't really remember, though more of this might come from him than I care to admit), this made me realize that I need to live the kind of life today that merits the eulogy I hope to receive at my own funeral. And while I hope to still have decades left in this world (though I might have only minutes), I hope no one at my funeral thinks inwardly or says outwardly that the most salient lessons of my life are tragic lessons.

The world has lost an amazing voice, but it lost that voice long before this weekend last. What we have gained, sadly, is a powerful prompt to stop and consider our own potential, how far we are willing to stretch to reach that potential, and what actually provides the source of our value and significance in and for this world.
16 LORD, in distress we searched for you.
We prayed beneath the burden of your discipline.
17 Just as a pregnant woman
writhes and cries out in pain as she gives birth,
so were we in your presence, LORD.
18 We, too, writhe in agony,
but nothing comes of our suffering.
We have not given salvation to the earth,
nor brought life into the world.
19 But those who die in the LORD will live;
their bodies will rise again!
Those who sleep in the earth
will rise up and sing for joy!
For your life-giving light will fall like dew
on your people in the place of the dead! (Isa. 26.16–19 [NLT])

Saturday, February 11, 2012

a first-century CE Markan manuscript?

Dan Wallace (Dallas Theological Seminary) has announced the discovery of a number of papyrus manuscripts of the New Testament. He says,
[S]even New Testament papyri had recently been discovered—six of them probably from the second century and one of them probably from the first. These fragments will be published in about a year.

The first-century manuscript is of the Gospel of Mark, he claims. The difficulty, of course, with identifying Mark in fragmentary texts is that so much of Mark appears in Matthew and Luke, too. So if Wallace is this confident that we have a copy of Mark (whatever the ms's date), it must be a text that only Mark has (e.g., Mark 4.26–29, 8.22–26, etc.), or it has some detail that Matthew and Luke lack (e.g., the mention of the cushion in Mark 4.38, or the "splitting" of the heavens in 1.10, etc.), or it lacks some detail that both Matthew and Luke have (e.g., the fuller narration of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness, or John the Baptist's teaching, etc.). As Wallace explains, our earliest manuscript of Mark comes from the third century CE (P45, c. 200–250 CE), so a new and early manuscript of Mark would indeed be exciting, even if it isn't as early as the first century.

But for now, we should emphasize, no physical evidence has been made public, and so we don't have any idea of what we have. In the quote I provided above, Wallace promises publication "in about a year." Unfortunately, that's hardly sufficient to give us any confidence. So, for now, we're better off to imagine ourselves sitting in a café waiting for a blind date to arrive. We've been told nice things, and we hope she's both attractive and engaging. But we sit near the rear entrance in case attractive-and-engaging's step-sister shows up instead. After all, we've been burned before.

See also comments on NT Blog, Exploring our Matrix, Evangelical Textual Criticism, Paleojudaica, and many, many others.

Friday, February 10, 2012

more on "weakness" in Romans 8

In a previous post, I commented on the strange use of "weakness" in Rom. 8.3, where Paul seems to say that Torah itself was rendered weak. This doesn't sound so strange in the Christian's ear, perhaps. But Paul no where else uses the stem ἀσθεν- [asthen-; "weak"] in relation to Torah. In fact, what is "weak" is always Paul and/or some or all of his readers, the flesh, etc. But the translators and commentators I was reading seemed to accept, in their translations, that Paul says Torah [ὁ νόμος; ho nomos] was weakened, even if their comments on the passage denied that Torah was actually weakened in any real sense.

I don't think N. T. Wright solves the problem, but he at least acknowledges it. Wright asks, "What was impossible for the law? That it should give life. It offered it, but could not deliver" ("Romans," NIB 577). He then says,
It could not do so because it was "weak because of the flesh." Despite many commentators and preachers who have been eager to see Paul say negative things about the law, he declares, summing up the argument of chap. 7, that there was nothing wrong with it in itself. The problem lay elsewhere: in the "flesh"—not the physicality of human nature, which was God-given and will be reaffirmed in the resurrection (8:11), but in the present rebellious and corruptible state of humankind, within which sin had made its dwelling (7:18, 20, 23, 25). (Wright, "Romans," 577)

I think this is the right track. The flesh, rather than Torah itself, was the cause of weakness. But of course, this creates some tension with the actual grammar of the passage itself. Paul does indeed say that Torah's weakness came "through/by the flesh" [διὰ τῆς σαρκός; dia tēs sarkos], but nevertheless it looks like Torah itself "was weakened." And this idea, as Jewett noted, is unique among the Pauline corpus and even the NT itself. And I still cannot escape the suspicious that, v. 3 notwithstanding, the rest of Romans 7.7–8.11 does not portray a weakened Torah.

I'm still not sure we've understood this verse rightly. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

even The Message got this one right

Codex Sinaiticus [א], Rom. 8.2 (NB the pronoun σε [se; "you"], circled)
There's a small but significant textual variant in Rom. 8.2. Both Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, two of the more important manuscripts for NT textual criticism, read, "for the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus set you free from the law of sin and of death." A number of other witnesses, including Alexandrinus, a whole host of miniscules, and many of the Fathers, read, " . . . set me free . . ." (A handful of witnesses read "us," but this is almost certainly an attempt to universalize Paul's point here.)

What I find especially interesting is the hermeneutical potential of both readings. In fact, I would adopt both readings (or, better, I would adopt either reading, depending on context). The "me" reading takes an autobiographical approach to Rom. 7.7–25, in which Paul finds himself under sin's sway and in need of being set free. The "you" reading fits better with the "speech-in-character" approach (which I'm adopting for my course); in 8.2 Paul resumes speaking in his authorial voice and addresses the character in whose voice he was speaking throughout 7.7–25. So, in my judgment, the best reading is, "the Spirit . . . set you free from the law of sin and of death."

But here's the point I've been wanting to make the whole time. provides a list of parallel translations of Rom. 8.2. If you follow the link, you'll see that The Message reads "you" here, but the NIV agrees with the King James family of translations in reading "me." Is it really too much to ask the NIV to get it right when even The Message can?!

Monday, February 06, 2012

"weak[ness]" in Rom. 8.3

I'm working my way through Romans 8, and perhaps it occasions no surprise to find that this passage is kicking my butt. For example, my reaction to v. 3: "Focus, Paul. Focus." Complete sentences are not only useful for effective communication but also for theological clarity. But Paul seems to have had other ideas.

But I could use your help (especially you Pauline and Romans specialists out there). Romans 8.3 begins with the incomplete phrase, "For the impossibility of the Torah in that which it was weak through the flesh . . . " [Τὸ γὰρ ἀδύνατον τοῦ νόμου ἐν ᾧ ἠσθένει διὰ τῆς σαρκός; to gar adynaton tou nomou en hō ēsthenei dia tēs sarkos]. Clearly I'm making certain interpretive decisions already (e.g., nomos = Torah). But I'm struggling to determine the subject of the imperfect verb ēsthenei The obvious option, grammatically, is nomos, and every translation and commentator I've consulted takes this option.

But here's the problem. Everywhere in Romans, when Paul uses the language of "weakness," the what that he describes as weak is a person. And with the exception of 4.19, where Abraham did not grow weak [μὴ ἀσθενήσας; mē asthenēsas] in his faith, Paul is always referring to his readers (sometimes including himself [5.6; 8.26], sometimes differentiating some of his readers from others [14.1; 15.1]). A wider search reveals a similar pattern; nowhere in forty-four uses of ἀσθενέω, ἀσθενής, ἀσθένεια, or ἀσθένημα does Paul describe Torah (or nomos on any other interpretation) as "weak." While it's certainly possible that, this one time here at Rom. 8.3, Paul describes the nomos as "weakened by the flesh, I am surprised at the lack of discussion of this unusual usage.

Robert Jewett illustrates the problem, but I don't think he provides any real help in solving it. He rightly notes that the verb ēsthenei is "an expression ordinarily referring to someone becoming ill" (Romans, 483). He also, again rightly, notes that Paul's usage here, if it refers to the nomos, would be "unique to the NT." But then he says, inexplicably I think, that this unique phrase "recapitulates the argument of the preceding chapter about human arrogance and the quest for honor, which corrupt the law and destroy its capacity to achieve the good." The problem here, however, is that Paul never in Romans 7 described the nomos as weak or corrupted or powerless; the image in Rom. 7.7–25 was of Paul's persona—the role from within which he speaks ("speech-in-character")—as helpless and impotent to stop sin from acting within/among his members. Paul's persona, and not nomos, was weak in Romans 7. So how 8.3 "recapitulates" the argument of Romans 7, as Jewett suggests, is unclear to me.

So I'd like to ask the following questions:

  • Are there contextual reasons that make us confident that Paul must be describing the nomos here as weakened (notice that I'm not asking whether nomos = Torah, though that might be a factor that affects the question I am asking)?
  • Are there other ways to understand the relative clause en hō ēsthenei, so that we interpret ἀσθενεῖν in 8.3 in such a way that fits with every other use of this word in the Pauline corpus?
  • Are there discussions in the secondary literature that note and address this complex of issues?
  • If Paul is saying that the nomos was weakened through the flesh, what does he mean?
Any thoughts?

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

a brief comment from Sam Williams

I am reading Sam Williams's classic essay, "The 'Righteousness of God' in Romans" (JBL 99.2 [1980]: 241–90) as I write on the vexed and vexing passage, Rom. 3.21–26. His discussion of the purpose and occasion of Romans in contemporary (in 1980) scholarship is still valuable, especially the tension that he manages without resolving between Romans as an occasional letter, on the one hand, and as a general expression of Paul's gospel, on the other.

But this comment, in which Williams notes Paul's mediating position between both ta ethnē (the nations/gentiles) and the Jews, seemed especially helpful:
In view of these concerns on Paul's part, we cannot avoid the impression that he is defending the conversion of the nations/Gentiles as a crucial part of God's eschatological plan at the same time that he is defending the Law and the specialness of the Jews. (248)

I think much of the Romans scholarship with which I am familiar has too readily read Paul as attacking rather than defending "the Jews" or, worse, Judaism, and fail to miss how often Paul comes to Israel's defense, especially in Romans. I have explanations for why texts like Rom. 2.25–29; 3.9–20; and others have been misread as anti-Judaic (or even anti-Semitic) rhetoric; I might put some of those explanations online at a future date. But for now the important thing to note is that this is a misreading, a failure to understand how Paul defends both the nations/gentiles as the objects of God's grace and Israel as the recipients of God's covenant.

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