Saturday, June 25, 2016

Reflections on Hermeneutics and the Purpose of Acts

Recent scholarship on the purpose of the book of Acts is in disarray. I will explain below why I think this matters and then suggest two factors that need to be taken into account in any discussion, but first a sketch of the current situation:
  • Although some 20th-century scholars dated Acts before Paul's death in the mid-60's and a few others dated it to the 2nd century, it is fair to say that most scholars during the 20th century were content to locate Acts in the mid-80's CE. I still think a mid-80's date is preferable, but the current trend is to date Luke's second volume to 115 or beyond.
  • Dating is only one relatively minor introductory issue: Was Luke Jewish or Gentile? Was his church composed primarily of Jewish or Gentile Christians? To what extent can we read between the lines of Luke's narrative and recover the issues facing the church in Luke's own day? When does Luke idealize the past and when does he anachronistically impose his own context onto the past? On all these questions scholars remain divided. (For one example, see this post.)

These questions are important because construing the meaning of a text normally (always?) involves reconstructing its purpose. And when you ask why a text was written, you are soon asking when it was written and to whom.  

Before I go on, a few caveats and clarifications are in order:
  1. Reading a text in light of its overall purpose is more important for some texts--and some parts of some texts--than for others. You don't need a specific Sitz im Leben to read much of Genesis well because individual narrative cycles and thematic elements help explain the meaning. In the same way, Acts can be read with profit and insight from the general orientation provided by Luke's preface--Luke writes both volumes to confirm the Gospel (so R. Maddox)--and through attention to major themes.
  2. There is a hermeneutical circle, though not a vicious one. You get at the overall purpose in the first place by considering the details within the text, not primarily from larger models drawn from external evidence about, say, the structure of early Christian communities.
  3. Scholarly reconstructions can be overdone. The 20th century is littered with the remains of ever more elaborate, hypothetical, speculative settings constructed by historical critics to account for the purpose of a book. In such cases, the payoff tends to be limited.  Better to leave questions of setting and purpose unanswered than to impose a model that ignores or results in forced readings of specific details in the text.
  4. Some authors may not be able to articulate why they write, and may only have a general sense of their work's purpose. To take one example, I have been wondering why I am writing this blog post, and I am not at all sure who it is for. Perhaps it is only my attempt to work out for myself what I referred to recently as the great puzzle of the setting and purpose of Acts. Returning to Acts, it is possible that Luke included some episodes in Acts simply because they were interesting--they made a good story.
Nevertheless, I am persuaded by recurring emphases in the text itself that Luke wrote to address specific issues or, to put it another way, as he was writing Acts, he was preoccupied with specific questions. If it is true that "We can understand a text only when we have understood the question to which it is an answer" (Collingwood/Gadamer), what was Luke's question? 

I suggest that any construal of the purpose of Acts needs to take seriously the prominence of the Jews and Judaism at the beginning and end of Acts. The first 7 chapters of Acts announce the fulfillment of God's promises to Israel in the Jewish community of Jesus followers, a community that by chapter 6 has emerged as a separate Jewish sect. The final 8 chapters insist that in extending salvation to the Gentiles Paul (representing Jewish Christianity as a whole) has not violated the law.

Identifying Luke's emphasis on the Jewish beginning and Jewish ending of Acts is not yet an articulation of his question, but it provides a means of evaluating other attempts to summarize the purpose of Acts.

No promises, but I hope to return to the topic in another post or--don't hold your breath--a series of posts.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Back up your data!

My computer suffered a catastrophic failure last weekend, and is now in process of being replaced. Because it was one of those fantastic light-weight "tablets that can replace your laptop," it is impossible to remove the hard disk to recover its contents (without destroying the computer)--and my last backup was 3 weeks before the crash.

I knew, of course, that I should back up regularly and that my usual practice of periodic back-ups wasn't sufficient. I also had the sense that another back-up was past due. But since there were no signs of imminent collapse, I didn't get to it in time.

On the positive side, I only lost one (very productive) day from the notes I was taking in Zotero, and only 3 weeks of everything else. And it wasn't the worst time to lose data: It wasn't mid-semester and I wasn't in the thick of drafting an essay.

Still, one week later, I am still trying to remember, record, and retrace my steps as well as I can, and it will be some time before a permanent replacement will be in hand and ready for work.

Lesson learned, I hope. In future, my computer will be set to back up automatically to an external hard drive, and/or to my institution's server, and/or to the cloud. I recommend you do the same.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Torah Ethics and Early Christian Identity

I am happy to announce the release (in July) of Torah Ethics and Early Christian Identity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), edited by my friend and colleague, Susan Wendel, and yours truly.

The book is dedicated to our Doktorvater, Stephen Westerholm, whose interest in matters of Torah and ethics is long-standing.

The volume explores a question that is sometimes overlooked in the larger academic discussion about the role of the law in early Christianity: How did the Torah continue to serve as a positive reference point for Christians regardless of whether or not they thought Torah observance remained essential?

For those who care about such things, it should be clear from the roster of contributors that the essays do not hew to a particular "old" or "new" perspective:


Anders Runesson, "Entering a Synagogue with Paul: First-Century Torah Observance"

John W. Martens, "The Meaning and Function of the Law in Philo and Josephus"

Wesley G. Olmstead, "Jesus, the Eschatological Perfection of Torah, and the imitatio Dei in Matthew"

S. A. Cummins, "Torah, Jesus, and the Kingdom of God in the Gospel of Mark"

David M. Miller, "Reading Law as Prophecy: Torah Ethics in Acts"

Adele Reinhartz, "Reproach and Revelation: Ethics in John 11:1–44"

Scot McKnight, "The Law of the Laws: James, Wisdom, and the Law"

Beverly Roberts Gaventa, "Questions about Nomos, Answers about Christos: Romans 10:4 in Context"

Terence L. Donaldson, "Paul, Abraham’s Gentile 'Offspring,' and the Torah"

Richard B. Hays, "The Conversion of the Imagination: Scripture and Eschatology in 1 Corinthians"


Susan J. Wendel, "Torah Obedience and Early Christian Ethical Practices in Justin Martyr"

Peter Widdicombe, "The Law, God, and the Logos: Clement and the Alexandrian Tradition"

Stephen Westerholm, "Canonical Paul and the Law"

You can pre-order your copy today from the Eerdmans website (for $35; listed as shipping July 26) or from Amazon (for $25.52; listed as shipping July 7).

Monday, April 11, 2016

Waiting for the Summer

Winter semester classes ended last Tuesday. "Summer," for the purposes of this post, begins in another couple weeks--after I have made my way through a small mountain of marking, and submit final grades.

Then I transition from marking essays to writing them: I am happy to report that both my SBL proposals were accepted this year, which means that I will be presenting two papers in San Antonio in November, one in the Book of Acts section, the other in the Hebrew Bible and Political Theory section. It also means that I have two papers to write during the summer. Fortunately for me, neither is brand new:
  • "Maccabean Characterization and Reverse Polemic in Acts" will be a major revision of a paper I gave at the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies annual meeting last spring in Ottawa. More details about the CSBS version are here.
  •  "The 'Prophet like Moses' and Josephus's Aristocratic Ideal" will be a revision--minor, I hope--of a paper I am scheduled to give at this year's CSBS at the end of May in Calgary. Provided that the pieces of my argument come together in time, I hope to show that, at least in the Antiquities, Deuteronomy 18 informs Josephus's political philosophy. 
Summer also means preparing for next year's classes, including two brand new courses (a first year "Introduction to the New Testament" and a 300-level elective on 1 Corinthians), second-year Hebrew, and an upper level elective on the book of Acts. S'all good, but full.

Somewhere in there will be vacation too.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Briercrest Colloquium: "Dialogue on Dialectic: An Imaginary Interview with Karl Barth"

A public service announcement for sojourners in Southern Saskatchewan:

Our final colloquium of the 2015-2016 school year will take place this Friday, April 8.

Our presenter is Briercrest Professor of Theology, Church & Public Life, and Dean of the Seminary, Dr. David Guretzki.

David's paper is entitled "Dialogue on Dialectic: An Imaginary Interview with Karl Barth."

Please join us on Friday, in room 144 @ 12:30 PM if you can make it out.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Stephen Westerholm on (not) reading the Bible like any other book

Stephen Westerholm's new book arrived in the mail a couple weeks ago, just in time for my Hermeneutics class discussion on the question, "Should we read the Bible like any other book?"

Stephen begins the volume with his own answer:
"Among the slogans that set the agenda for much modern study of the Bible, the prescription that it should be read 'like any other book' seems to me singularly unhelpful. We do not read Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves or Have It Your Way, Charlie Brown the same way we read Hamlet or King Lear. Critique of Pure Reason and The House at Pooh Corner are both, I believe, eminently worth reading (though, in the one instance, I am relying on others' assurances), but they call for rather different approaches. Textbook of Medical Oncology requires yet another. To cut short a game becoming more fun by the minute, we may well ask: Like which other book are we supposed to read the Bible?
"To be sure, these and other books can all be read the same way if we approach each with a particular question in mind: How frequently does the author split infinitives, dangle participles, or quote Russian proverbs? Or, what do Romeo and Juliet, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, and Pippi Longstocking tell us about eating habits at the time of their composition? (This game, too, could be fun.) These are, I suppose, legitimate questions--doctoral dissertations have certainly been written on stranger topics--but they seem somewhat limiting. Classic literature--William Shakespeare, Søren Kierkegaard, Astrid Lindgren--has more to offer its readers; those open to experiencing the 'more' soon learn that different books make different demands on their readers.
"Unless, then, we are reading the Bible merely to carry out our own limiting agendas, the notion that it should be read 'like any other book' will be true only in the sense that the Bible, like any other book, calls for a particular kind of reading. Sensitive readers of the Bible, like sensitive readers of any text, will be alert to what is being asked of them, given the nature of the text before them." (pp. 1-2)
The first chapter takes soundings in New and Old Testaments to establish that the kind of reading the biblical writings call for is one that responds to the text as the word of God: 
"[T]he New Testament documents were written by people who believed that ... their writings ... were vehicles by which the word of God, uniquely and climactically spoken through Jesus Christ, could now address those who never encountered him in the flesh." (23)
In the same way, the words of the prophets were collected because they transcended their historical contexts:
"The 'word of the Lord' was thus seen, not simply as divinely given knowledge-before-the-fact of some future event, but as a divine force that, once spoken by the prophet, was 'released' into the world where it might shape any number of events: as the word of God, it remained living and active and could not fail to have effect." (24).
This means that "the actual force of the requirement to read the Bible 'like any other book' is to deny--at the outset, and as a matter of principle--the Bible a reading in tune with its peculiar nature, to close one's ears to its call, and to preclude for oneself the possibility of experiencing the transformative impact that the biblical texts have always had within communities of faith" (27).

After a chapter on the formation of the Christian canon of Scripture, successive chapters explore the reading of Scripture by Irenaeus, Origen, Chrysostom, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, Barth and Bonhoeffer. (The chapters on Schleiermacher and Barth were written by Stephen's son, Martin.)

Instead of trying to justify this choice of authors--why no women writers, for example--Stephen acknowledges frankly that his is not an exclusive canon:
"No dozen figures, however significant, can adequately represent the history of biblical interpretation or exhaust the approaches that have been taken to reading the sacred text; nor would any two informed readers think the same twelve figures most worthy of consideration. But selections have to be made, and no informed reader will doubt the importance of each of the interpreters treated here." (ix)
Indeed. Tolle lege


Westerholm, Stephen, and Martin Westerholm. Reading Sacred Scripture: Voices from the History of Biblical Interpretation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

C.K. Barrett on reading what matters

"Not the least valuable part of the service Dr. ---- has rendered to his colleagues is the assembly of an enormous bibliography, running to 50 pages. His diligence in reading and in writing are beyond praise, and he has dealt with a theme too often the subject of amateurish treatment in a professional manner. In view of this it may seem -- it may be -- ungracious to question whether even so the treatment is sufficient. Is each of the topics adequately dealt with? I do not mean by this to suggest that Dr. ---- ought to have turned each of his chapters (including the Conclusion) into a book, though I am sure he could have done so; rather that he might perhaps have taken a little more time here and there for consideration. The huge bibliography (as it is reflected in the very extensive notes) sometimes at least suggests diligent work with the card index rather than prolonged and profound wrestling with the relatively few books that are really important. ... He takes up, one after another, controversial topics disputed in current theological literature; he sets out various opinions with clarity and with charity, compares arguments, adds his own, and reaches a judgement which is always worth considering and often, in my opinion, correct. But it might have made a more creative book if he had more often allowed the New Testament itself, and literature contemporary with it, rather than modern debate, to prescribe the agenda." - C.K. Barrett in a review published in Journal for the Study of the New Testament 15 (1982): 113-115.

HT: Stephen Westerholm in Stephen Westerholm and Martin Westerholm, Reading Sacred Scripture: Voices from the History of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), ix.