Monday, November 14, 2016

The 'Prophet like Moses' and Josephus's Aristocratic Ideal

A week from today, on the morning of Monday, November 21st, I am scheduled to present my second SBL paper, this time in the Hebrew Bible and Political Theory section (S21-128). This paper is on the influence of Deuteronomy 18 on Josephus's political philosophy. Because Josephus never directly quotes the chapter, it is in the first place an argument that Josephus read Deuteronomy 18, and that it influenced his writing of the Antiquities. Here is the abstract
Josephus’s stated preference for an aristocratic form of government in Antiquities 4.223 is often understood in terms of the priestly aristocracy of Josephus’s early life in Jerusalem. Yet while Josephus’s description of first-century Judean political life and his other forays into Greco-Roman political discourse are important evidence for his political philosophy, interpreting Antiquities 4.223 merely as a reference to priestly aristocracy overlooks the function of 4.223 in its immediate context. Josephus’s claim that “aristocracy is indeed the best” contrasts rule by kings—criticized in Deuteronomy 17 and by Josephus in Antiquities 4.223-4—with a different form of government summarized in Antiquities 4.214-218. This passage, the first direct comment about rulers in Josephus’s account of the Jewish politeia (4.196-302), describes local leaders who judge legal cases in local cities (4.214-7), and what amounts to a court of appeals in Jerusalem, comprising “the high priest and the prophet and the council of elders” (4.218).
Sarah Pearce (2013) has argued convincingly that the “council of elders” corresponds to the Israelite “elders” who appear in leadership positions elsewhere in the Pentateuch, and that within the narrative context of Antiquities, the high priest represents Eleazar, and the prophet, Joshua. However, Pearce proposes that the members of the high court are left anonymous in 4.218 because Josephus wanted to depict the court as an “ideal constitution,” “valid for a timeless present” but instantiated only in Moses’ immediate successors. Pearce does not connect 4.218 with the reference to “aristocracy” in 4.223 and she denies that Josephus “is concerned … with an interpretation of distinct elements of the biblical text through a process of one-to-one substitution.” In this paper I will argue that in Antiquities 4.214-218 aristocracy is defined as supreme rule in the holy city by high priest, prophet and council of elders, that this formulation represents an interpretive paraphrase that abbreviates and combines Deuteronomy 16-17 with the description of the “prophet like Moses” in Deuteronomy 18, and that this aristocratic pattern—including the “prophet”—recurs elsewhere in the Antiquities and functions as a standard by which other forms of government are measured. While Josephus draws on contemporary Greco-Roman political discourse, his political philosophy—at least as it appears in the Antiquities—is also informed and shaped by his reading of Torah, including the description of the “prophet like Moses” in Deuteronomy 18:15.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Maccabean Characterization and Reverse Polemic in Acts


At SBL next Sunday morning I am scheduled to present a paper in the Book of Acts section on "Maccabean Characterization and Reverse Polemic in Acts." The rather long abstract I submitted in February can be read here, for anyone so inclined.

What follows is a slightly modified thesis paragraph from my current draft:
I will argue that Luke knows his story might appear to entail a rejection of Jewishness, like that of the Maccabean era, and he attempts to avert this misreading through a series of allusions to 1-2 Maccabees. First, he allows opponents of the Gentile mission to draw parallels between Jewish Christ-believers and the Jewish renegades of 1-2 Maccabees in order to set up Paul’s climactic rejection of this position in the latter chapters of Acts. Second, Luke reverses the Maccabean “script,” claiming that it is not Jewish Christ-believers but their Jewish critics who play the part of Antiochus and the renegades. This polemical contrast supports Luke’s argument that the Messianic claims of Jesus and the Gentile mission do not undermine the law or threaten the Jewish identity of Jesus’ Jewish followers. The contrast also indicates that the church in Luke’s own day had not moved as far toward a wholly non-observant Gentile Christianity as many suppose.
If you happen to be in San Antonio at 9:00 a.m. on November 20th and can think of nothing better to do, why don't you find your way to session S20-113 in Convention Center 304B.


Saturday, October 29, 2016

Requesting a 1 Corinthians Reading List

Erastus Inscription, Corinth
The lot fell to me to design a new upper level biblical studies elective this year, and I (probably foolishly) decided on Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth. I reasoned that the letter would be closer to my current teaching and research interests than the book of Revelation (my other main option). 1 Corinthians also follows the Gospels, Acts, and Romans--all courses that have formed part of my regular teaching assignment. Why not work sequentially through the New Testament?

I taught 1 Corinthians once before, twenty years ago at a Bible school in Kenya, fresh out of college, with the first edition of Gordon Fee's NICNT commentary as a lifeline. In seminary I took a course on the Corinthian Correspondence from Murray J. Harris, who assigned C.K. Barrett's BNTC commentaries as textbooks. That is, more or less, my last serious academic engagement with the book.

Needless to say, I have some catching up to do. One of the reasons for the blog silence this semester is that I have been trying to read ahead for next semester. I am not as far along as I'd like, however, and a textbook deadline looms. I could use some help:


Primary Textbook: For courses like this, I typically look for an excellent, relatively short, and readable commentary, as a primary textbook. For 1 Corinthians, I haven't found anything better than Richard Hays's 1999 contribution to the Interpretation series.

Secondary Textbook/Articles: To fill in the secondary readings, I'm casting about for one or more of the following:
  • A shorter, accessible book that introduces the text from a more practical or theological level (though Hays does both exceptionally well), or an introduction to the historical context.
  • *A set of paired articles introducing diverse perspectives on major issues in 1 Corinthians.
Any reading recommendations, particularly of seminal essays on 1 Corinthians, will be appreciated!

Monday, September 12, 2016

Luke Timothy Johnson on Greek and Responsible Reading of the New Testament

"The New Testament is written in first-century Greek: diction, grammar, and syntax are not subject to the whim of readers. Writings can say only what the Koine of that time allows them to say. The only truly responsible reading of the New Testament, consequently, is one based on the Greek text in its historical specificity." - Luke Timothy Johnson, The New Testament: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: 2010), 5.

One could say the same thing, of course, about the Old Testament and Hebrew.


Monday, September 5, 2016

On Plagiarism

This summer--before the Melania Trump and Peter T. O'Brien plagiarism cases made news headlines--I was asked to contribute to an academic honesty mini-course designed for incoming Briercrest College students.

You can click on the video if you want to hear what I said, though I should note that the best thing about it is the short talk at the beginning by recent Briercrest graduate, Breanna Bowker, on the importance of reading.

At the risk of subverting the point I was trying to make in the video, what I'd like to do here is add a little nuance:

 (1) Plagiarism in biblical (and related) scholarship: Plagiarism, unfortunately, is not limited to college papers. Two examples:
  • I recently encountered a major work by a prominent scholar (who shall remain nameless), whose summaries of alternative views routinely quote verbatim from the sources that are summarized, without quotation marks. This is plagiarism. I have no idea how it made it through the review process. 
  • Last month Eerdmans announced that it is withdrawing three major commentaries by Peter T. O'Brien that appeared between 1991 and 2010 in highly-regarded commentary series (more information here). O'Brien, now in his 80's, was until this point a respected New Testament scholar. O'Brien released a statement admitting to problems in his research, which "generated clear-cut, but unintentional, plagiarism," and apologizing for this not-on-purpose error. Based on what I have seen (here), the plagiarism is indeed clear-cut and totally unacceptable. (Those who attempt to defend O'Brien on the basis that all commentaries say the same thing, should conclude rather that we need fewer commentaries.) I don't pretend to understand what led to the plagiarism. People and their motivations are complex, and I am not in a position to judge O'Brien's intentions. (As I note in the video, however, intentions don't matter.) I am happy to grant that O'Brien's teaching and writing have contributed in significant ways to the church and to scholarship. 
(2) Accidental quotation: The page-proofs of an article I wrote failed to type-set a lengthy quotation in block quotes. If I had not proof-read carefully, the quotation would have appeared in print as if it were my own. It would have been a mistake of the type-setter, entirely unintentional, but still--according to the definition I'm using--plagiarism. I hope my readers would have granted me grace.

(3) Forgotten Influences:  In the abstract for a paper that I am currently completing I referred to "a perceived threat to Jewish identity." When I composed the abstract, I'm sure I thought my formulation was original, but I recently came across Robert Tannehill's comment that "the cry of the accusers in the temple [in Acts 21:28] is the cry of a people trying to maintain itself against a perceived threat to its identity" (1990: 272), and I expect it influenced me when I first began work on the topic. Then again, F. Scott Spencer's 1997 commentary on Acts says almost the same thing without any reference to Tannehill: 
Throughout the Greco-Roman world, scores of Gentile converts ignorant of the Mosaic law, at best, or prejudiced against it, at worst, have been incorporated into believing communities alongside Jews, thus creating a perceived threat to Jewish identity. (Spencer 1997; repr. 2004: 209) 

Is this the independent identical formulation of a commonplace observation or a sign of the pervasive--but unacknowledged and possibly forgotten--influence of Robert Tannehill?


(3) Unmarked quotations and oral presentations: Conventions are less-defined for oral presentations, and it can be difficult to know what is appropriate documentation. In the script that I composed and basically memorized for the video, I included quotation marks when I defined plagiarism as "a failure to acknowledge sources," but I did not indicate where I got the phrase. (I reasoned that a popular talk of this sort would be distracting if I added a footnote.) Does this mean my definition of plagiarism is itself plagiarized? Just to be on the safe side, I hereby acknowledge my colleague, Rhoda Cairns, as my source. (For the ethics of documentation in sermons, see this post.)

All this does not change how I will deal with clear cases of plagiarism that I encounter in the classroom. No one will get away by appealing to the examples in this blog post.

When I do chat with students, however, I always emphasize that plagiarism is a major sin in an academic context, and I try to keep matters in perspective. There are far greater moral issues than this particular kind of theft, including the deadly sins of pride, envy, and greed, to which academics are perhaps especially prone. Still, I hope my students learn assiduously to avoid the minor sin of plagiarism in any academic and other writing and speaking that they do.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Rejected Prophets


I rang in the new year--just about--by hitting "submit" on my RBL review of Jocelyn McWhirter's Rejected Prophets: Jesus and His Witnesses in Luke-Acts (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014).

Nine months later, the review has now appeared. (For the record, I don't recommend binge writing over the Christmas holidays.)

Here is the final paragraph:

"Although readers will doubtless quibble over specific aspects of her argument, Rejected Prophets is a valuable contribution to scholarship on prophecy in Luke-Acts, and to the study of Luke-Acts in general. Specialists who are not persuaded by an approach that views Luke as a Jewish author writing within a Jewish context will still benefit from her careful attention to Luke’s use of the Jewish Scriptures, and to her explication of an important Lukan theme. Because it relates the theme of prophecy to other major themes in Luke-Acts, Rejected Prophets would work well as an introduction to Luke-Acts as a whole. The volume is accessible to beginning students who lack the original languages and who are unfamiliar with the historical context. More important still, McWhirter introduces Luke to her readers as a consummate story-teller and skillful reader of Scripture, illustrating at the same time how Luke’s own work may be read with profit."
 SBL members can view the whole review here: https://www.bookreviews.org/bookdetail.asp?TitleID=9710.


Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Pietists on Learning Greek and Hebrew

I am always on the look-out for comments about the importance of learning Greek and Hebrew to use in my language classes. Here are a few, courtesy of Stephen Westerholm's chapter on "The Pietists and Wesley" in Reading Sacred Scripture:

John Wesley (1703-1791), known today more for his preaching than his scholarship, insisted that those who wish to be pastors should learn Greek and Hebrew:
"Scripture, then, is sufficient, and sufficiently clear, to meet the needs even of uneducated believers; but more is to be expected of ministers of the gospel. 'Whether it be true or not, that every good textuary [i.e., master of the biblical text] is a good Divine [i.e., clergyman], it is certain none can be a good Divine who is not a good textuary' (Works 10.482). Without a knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, will not a minister find himself frequently at a loss, unable to explain even practical texts--let alone those that are controversial? Wesley responds to the implied question: 'He will be ill able to rescue [controversial texts] out of the hands of any man of learning that would pervert them: For whenever an appeal is made to the original, his mouth is stopped at once.' (Works 10.483). ... Never more at home than when searching his own or others' souls, Wesley then asks those who lack such knowledge to ask themselves, 'How many years did I spend at school? How many at the University? And what was I doing all those years? Ought not shame to cover my face?' (Works 10.491)" (290-1).
Wesley "published short grammars of English (1748), Latin (1748), Hebrew (1751), French (1751), and Greek (1765)" (287). His older contemporary, August Hermann Francke (1663-1727), laid out a curriculum:

"He first gives attention to the 'letter' of Scripture. False meanings are easily attributed to the inspired authors when the text is read either in translation or with an imperfect grasp of the original languages; therefore, it is important that the 'etymology, signification, syntax, and idiom' of Greek and Hebrew 'be fully understood.' Francke outlines what he claims to be a tried-and-true method by which students can acquire these skills. Following his program, the student should have acquired within three months a good grasp of Greek grammar while reading through the Greek New Testament -- twice. (Francke graciously concedes that such progress is possible only if students temporarily set other duties aside.) Learning Hebrew grammar and reading through the Hebrew Old Testament, he says, has been known to take another three months" (275; parenthetical references omitted).
All quotations taken from Stephen Westerholm and Martin Westerholm, Reading Sacred Scripture: Voices from the History of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016).