Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The law and salvation in Luke-Acts

In Luke's Gospel Jesus tells an expert in the law to do what the law says if he wants to inherit eternal life (Luke 10:25). But in Acts Peter declares, "through the grace of the Lord Jesus we believe to be saved" (Acts 15:11). Explaining the relationship between these two apparently conflicting statements about works and faith is only one of the puzzles that make grasping what Luke says about the law so challenging.
I have begun to wonder if part of the difficulty is our assumption that we know what salvation is. What if, for Luke, salvation is a new sectarian thing that qualifies law, not a result of the law itself? In other words, what if "salvation" in the Christian sense only became a live issue for the sectarian group made up of Jesus' followers?
If so, it would be anachronistic to suggest that salvation in the sense that Luke uses it would have been legitimately connected to Torah by Second Temple Jews. In Luke, as for Paul, then, there would be a move from solution to plight, and it wouldn't be the law's fault that it can't--and wasn't expected to--deal with the new problem(s) to which "salvation" is the answer.

In any case, reducing the Christian value of the law to a via media or to a concern for its sociological effects (e.g., to legitimate Christianity in Roman eyes by linking it to ancient Jewish tradition), seems to underplay its continued significance for Acts. It is as if "salvation" is such a big thing, that we can't appreciate any subsidiary and on-going role for the law.

(For earlier thoughts on salvation in Luke-Acts see this post, and follow the links back.)

Photo credits: Big Four Ice Caves, Washington (more links here and here). Don't worry, we didn't go inside.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A few of my favourite places

Mt. Hood
 I had hoped to leave for Oregon with my plate relatively clear of other responsibilities, but working out what Luke says about the law in Acts has taken longer than I expected.
Barnes Butte, near Prineville, OR

But we still have been able to spend time among a few of my favourite places to be...
Bandon, OR
The Oregon coast and the Cascades rank close behind the view of Mt. Longonot from the great Rift Valley or the hills near Voi.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Learn Biblical Hebrew in a live online classroom

If you want to learn Biblical Hebrew but don't live near a school that offers it, you now have the option of taking Introductory Hebrew for credit while attending weekly classes in the comfort of your home (or dorm room):
I am happy to report that Charles Grebe will be teaching Introductory Hebrew I and II at Briercrest College and Seminary this year, in a live on-line virtual classroom. Charles is an excellent and well-qualified Hebrew teacher: He taught Hebrew at Briercrest while serving as our director of Distance Learning in class and on-line, he is the creator of the outstanding website, and he runs a weekly on-line Hebrew reading group in the virtual classroom he created. Since Charles now lives in Quebec, both on-campus and distance students will meet for classes on-line this year, with each student accessing the course via computer (and Skype) independently during class time. (The plan is for on-campus students also to attend a weekly tutorial, which will provide face-to-face interaction with each other and a chance to interact in-person with a tutorial leader.)

If you are interested, check out the college or seminary syllabi, and email for more details. I highly recommend it!

Saturday, June 21, 2014


I am happy to announce that my sabbatical proposal was accepted after all, and I will be on sabbatical during the 2014-2015 school year. Readers who have trouble imagining what college professors do during the summer months will be equally stymied at the thought of a whole year off teaching, so it is important to clarify that in an academic context the original "restful" meaning of the term is secondary. One's sabbatical application is evaluated on the basis of its potential to result in scholarly output, not on the extent of one's fatigue and need for a break. Failure to produce something approximating the sabbatical proposal will reduce the chances of being awarded another one in future. That said, the chance to take a sabbatical is a huge privilege. I don't take it lightly.

I may say more about the details of my research project(s) presently. Basically, I am looking forward to being able to read and think about two of my major fields of interest: the writings of Luke and early Judaism.

My other (secret) goal is to take advantage of the extended break from teaching to work toward a more healthy rhythm of living--to reintroduce disciplines that I let fall by the way side, to focus on matters that are important but not urgent, that sort of thing. Judging from the last two months, this will not happen automatically. Even sabbatical has its pressures and deadlines, real or contrived. It doesn't look like I will suddenly feel less busy. But I hope to have more sustained experiences like the one I jotted down in April, near the end of marking season:
I can feel my heart and mind begin to relax. So good to wake up in the morning--or even in the middle of the night--with a fresh thought, a new idea, with something to say, with clarity. What a relief to realize that I may be able to write again, that with a day or two with the pressure off, the words come bubbling up. 
I also look forward to a change of location, and a real break from things academic on the Oregon coast in a few weeks. Blogging may pick up too. Who knows?

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Modifying Zotero Citation (CSL) Styles

Technical post alert: Making minor changes to Zotero citation styles is quite simple once you have done it a few times if you are familiar with basic xml coding. My problem is that I typically only need to modify a style once every three years or so, and by the time I return to it I have forgotten how it is done. So, for my reference (primarily), here is how I did it this time:
  1. In Zotero standalone, go to Tools > Preferences > Advanced, and click on Open CSL Editor under the General tab.
  2. Select a reference from your Zotero library and the citation style you wish to modify. The formatted reference will display in the bottom half of the screen with the xml in the top.
  3. Make changes to the style sheet. (I found what I wanted to use by checking a few different styles and cutting and pasting from one to the other. To find the right bit of code, I copied the whole xml file to Word so that I could use Word's search features.)
  4. Validate the xml file following the instructions here.
  5. Select the xml file, paste it into Notepad, and save it as a text file for reference.
  6. Follow the instructions in this step-by-step guide to change the id and name of the file so that you don't copy over a standard style. 
  7. Save the style as a csl file by clicking "Save As" "All" and make the extension csl. 
Two helpful resources:

This time around I modified the Chicago Manual of Style 16th edition in two ways: (1) to remove final punctuation (non-standard, but my preference), drawing on Adam Smith's directions here (search for "layout suffix" and change layout suffix="."> to <layout suffix=""> under the notes section near the end of the file); and (2) to allow abbreviations in journal titles in the notes (see the general directions here; I ended up copying the relevant section of the SBL style). My modified style is available here.

Now back to the writing that Zotero is supposed to help me with.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Stephen J. Harris on the vapidity of "critical thinking"

"In most management contexts, product, rather than process, is the first measure of value. A risk in courting product over process in education is that one confuses education with vocational training. In humanities quantitatively, susceptible administrators unsurprisingly tend to value courses thought to forge demonstrable habits of mind. These habits are thus distinguished from course content and from discipline-specific methodology. Few will fail to recognize here what has become the least common denominator of pedagogy, critical thinking, the shibboleth of academic mission statements. It seems to mean the ability to reason and an awareness of one's own guiding principles and assumptions....As an academic high-water mark, 'critical thinking' severely underestimates students and demeans (by overgeneralizing) the benefits of an education in medieval history or literature. After all, the details of medieval history and literature are superfluous to this vague if ubiquitous goal. If you can learn critical thinking in a hotel management course, why study Old English?" - Stephen J. Harris, "Introduction," page 12 in Misconceptions About the Middle Ages (New York: Routledge, 2008).

Sunday, March 23, 2014

An echo of Homer in Luke 11:21-22 (?)

Ambrosian Illiad
I make a point of reading through the Gospels each time I teach Briercrest's required first year course on the Gospels. This time through, I was struck by a passage in the assigned reading that we never talk about in class:

"When a fully-armed strong man guards his own estate, his belongings are in peace. But as soon as someone stronger than he attacks and conquers him, he takes away the armour in which he had trusted and distributes his plunder." (Luke 11:21-22; contrast Mark 3:27; Matt 12:29)

According to Howard Marshall, the battle imagery in Luke's version "has as its background the OT idea of God armed as a hero for battle against his enemies (Is. 59:16–18) and the Qumranic concept of the messianic war" (Luke, 478).

That may be so, but the description also reminds me of Homer--no doubt because one of the effects of crawling through the gory details of the Iliad at the rate of a few pages every week is that one thinks differently about ancient practices of warfare. Consider this passage, one of many that describe the same basic procedure:
Both fighters at one great stroke
chopped at each other--Pisander hacked the horn
of the horsehair-crested helmet right at its ridge
lunging as Menelaus hacked Pisander between the eyes,
the bridge of the nose, and bone cracked, blood sprayed
and both eyes dropped at his feet to mix in the dust--
he curled and crashed. Digging a heel in his chest
Menelaus stripped his gear and vaunted out in glory,
"So home you'll run from our racing ships, by god,
all as corpses--see, you death-defying Trojans?"
...                                                    So he cried
and staunch Atrides stripped the gear form the corpse
and heaving the bloody bronze to eager comrades
swung to attack again, frontline assault.
(Robert Fagles translation of the Illiad, book 13.705-714, 738-741)
To my mind, this passage (and others like it) illumines the armour-stripping imagery in Luke 11, but no commentary that I consulted mentions the practice. To be sure, in Homer one only strips weapons from a foe one has killed in battle, and most commentators appear to assume that the opponent in Luke 11 is not dead, but perhaps one shouldn't press the metaphor.

I don't know whether the warfare familiar to Luke's readers (or Jesus' audience) bore any resemblance to battle in Greek antiquity. One might suppose that the better-equipped Roman army would not pause to strip the armour from defeated foes after each kill. Do we then have an echo of Homer in Luke's Gospel?