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.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Simon Schama on writing with a fountain pen

"I have two styles of writing, anal and loopy, both adopted in slavish but futile imitation of models who used a fountain pen as though they had been born with one in their hands. I had not. My primary-school exercise books, an Abstract Expressionist field of blots and stains, looked as though the nib had wet itself on to the page rather than been purposefully guided over the paper to form actual words. And yet I loved -- and still do -- the purchase the metal makes on paper, and can't begin a chapter or a script or a newspaper piece without first reaching for a fountain pen and notebook. I scribble, therefore I am." - Simon Schama, Scribble, Scribble, Scribble: Writing on Politics, Ice Cream, Churchill, and My Mother (HarperCollins, 2010), xix.

My introduction to Simon Schama came through his excellent BBC / PBS series, "The Story of the Jews":

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Jewish Christianity in Acts: In Search of a Sitz im Leben

In Acts, Luke responds to the charge that Paul teaches “all people everywhere against our people, the law and this place [the Jerusalem temple]” (Acts 21:28) with an emphatic, multi-chapter denial:
  • In Acts 22, Paul identifies himself as a Jew who is accurately instructed in the ancestral law, and who is as much a “zealot for God” as his audience in the Jerusalem temple (22:3).
  • In Acts 23, Paul claims to have always conducted himself with a “good conscience” (23:1).
  • On trial before Agrippa and Festus, he denies that he “sinned against the law … or the temple” (25:8).
  • And before the assembled Jewish elders in Rome, he insists that he did nothing “against the people or the ancestral customs” (28:17).
C.K. Barrett, finding Luke’s portrayal of Paul at odds with the Paul of the epistles, concludes that Luke was honestly mistaken: He knew Paul was a Jew, he knew that Jewish Christians in his own day in the late 1st century observed the law, and he assumed that Paul did too, not realizing that “[w]hen Paul expected Jews to eat with Gentiles he was asking them to give up some of their Jewishness” or that the way in which Paul could claim “to be a conscientious Jew" (cf. Acts 23:2) “would have destroyed Judaism as currently understood”*:
“Luke writes in a situation in which it is accepted that Jewish Christians may and do observe the Law, and it is part of his conviction that Paul was both a good Jew (this will be frequently repeated in the ensuing chapters) and a good Christian. Paul was in fact a Jewish Christian of a kind that could hardly continue to exist after the first generation--a fact that was not clearly seen by Luke. The story presupposes that Jewish Christians in Palestine, in Luke's day and before it, continued to observe the provisions of the Law.”*

Wolfgang Stegemann** agrees with Barrett that the charges against Paul reflect actual Jewish opposition to early Christianity, but he transposes the conflict to the late first century. When Acts was written during the reign of Domitian, Luke’s community was located uncomfortably between the synagogue and Roman authority. The Romans suspected Gentile Christians of adopting Jewish ways because they followed a Jewish Messiah, but after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Christian acceptance of Gentiles without circumcision, indifference to the temple, and lax attitudes toward the law could only be regarded as apostasy by Luke’s Jewish neighbours. In addition to theological differences, conflict in Gentile cities caused by Christians tended to affect their Jewish neighbours. As a result, Jews distanced themselves from Christians. For non-Christ-believing Jews, the period after the destruction of the Second Temple corresponded to the period after the desecration of the Temple by Antiochus Epiphanes, and their Christians neighbours were like the Hellenizers of the Jewish reform after 175 BCE—people who abandoned the Jewish law and made a covenant with the Gentiles. After 70 CE, the Christian community could be conceived only as an “anti-Israel movement.”

According to Stegemann, actual practice in Luke’s Christian community justifies the conclusions of Jewish outsiders: Although Luke depicts Jewish Christians in Paul’s day as remaining faithful to the law, he shows no real interest in the details of the law, which shows that Torah observance was no longer a live issue in Luke’s own much later church context. Since Luke cannot deny the charges in his own time, he responds to contemporary conflict by projecting it onto the past when observant Jewish Christians still existed in the church and before the decisive break with the synagogue. The effect, I take it, is to blame non-Christ-believing Jews for the parting of the ways, and to attribute long-standing hostility to Jews.

Of interest to me is that these two proposals are almost precisely inverted:
  • For Stegemann, Jewish Christianity is no longer a viable option in Luke’s late 1st-century context, and present conflict (between a Gentile-dominated church and non-Christian Jews) has been retrojected onto the past.
  • For Barrett, Jewish Christianity is still alive and well. Luke lives in a time of harmony between Jewish and Gentile Christians in a church that has lost sight of Paul’s radical views about the law (and the conflict that accompanied them), and he has retrojected the absence of conflict between Gentile and Jewish Christians onto the past.

If you have read along this far in the hope that you will find out what I think, I am sorry to disappoint. The setting and purpose of Acts--in particular, a setting that makes sense of Acts 21-28--is a great puzzle to me. I don’t have it all worked out.


*Quotations of Barrett are from C. K. Barrett, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (Vol. 2; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1998), pp. 1013-1014, 1058.

**Wolfgang Stegemann, Zwischen Synagoge und Obrigkeit: zur historischen Situation der lukanischen Christen (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1991), cf. esp. pp. 178-9, 186.

Much of the substance of Stegemann’s argument appears in English in chapter 11 of Ekkehard W. Stegemann and Wolfgang Stegemann, The Jesus Movement: A Social History of Its First Century (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001).

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Seth Schwartz on the value of learning Arabic

"Special benefits will accrue to those willing to learn languages outside the comfort zones traditional to the field, in particular Jewish Aramaic, for Christian scholars, Christian Aramaic for Jewish scholars, and Arabic for everyone." - Seth Schwartz
So reads the final sentence in Seth Schwartz latest excellent book, The Ancient Jews from Alexander to Muhammad (Cambridge: CUP, 2014).

Schwartz does not say whether or not the promised benefits include a tenure track job.