Sunday, December 10, 2017

Highlights from the British Museum

I made it out to the British Museum with my daughter last weekend, enjoying our first London Tube ride along the way. S., along with a crowd of other people, was excited at the prospect of seeing the archaeological discovery that enabled scholars to decode Egyptian hieroglyphs:
The Rosetta Stone, British Museum,
After visiting Athens in 2013, I wanted to see the Elgin Marbles that used to adorn the Parthenon. (At the beginning of the 19th century, Lord Elgin received permission from the Ottoman government to take away "pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon." The priceless rock he carted off surely exceeded what the Sultan had in mind.)

The Egyptian exhibits were stunning, as one would expect:
Amenhotep III's left arm

But I was most surprised and astounded by the Assyrian artifacts. Here, for instance, is a Lamassu from Khorsabad that apparently goes back to the reign of Sargon II in the late 8th century BCE:

More exciting still is a series of wall panels depicting Sennacherib's siege of Lachish in 701 BCE:
Sennacherib's capture of Lachish is mentioned in Isaiah 36:1-2; it is also described first-hand in a series of letters inscribed on ostraca that were discovered when Lachish was excavated in the 1930's.

On a final dash through the second floor, I snapped pictures of various 1st-century Roman emperors for use in class:
The Emperor Augustus

If it were not for the incentive of seeing real mummies...

... we would have missed the Cyrus Cylinder, which describes Cyrus's policy of repatriating subject peoples to their homelands:

Admission is free, so it is churlish to complain that the museum is simply too large to take in on a single visit. The contents could easily be divided into a half-dozen world-class museums. 
I guess that means I'll need to go back.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

A Reading Wish List: Recent Books in Jewish Studies

Four books, all but one published in 2017:

Baker, Cynthia M. Jew. Key Words in Jewish Studies 8. Rutgers University Press, 2017. (See the Marginalia Forum on Baker's book here.)
Glinert, Lewis. The Story of Hebrew. Princeton University Press, 2017. (Positive "review" here.)
Goodman, Martin. A History of Judaism. Allen Lane, 2017. (Anything by Martin Goodman is worth reading. See Simon Rocker's review here.)
Mason, Steve. A History of the Jewish War: AD 66-74. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. (I'm curious to read Mason and Goodman side-by-side.)
It's a reading wish list both because I'm living through a book-buying deep freeze, and because with such a long list of books on my "to read" list, I am not sure when these will make it to the top. Since when does a book get to jump the queue over all the other eligible volumes just because it has a 2017 publication date?

Saturday, November 18, 2017

On Teaching Romans

I flew back to Canada in October to teach an intensive one-week course on the book of Romans, a class I have taught every second year since the winter semester of 2007. In some respects not much has changed: This year I returned to the same major textbooks I assigned when I first taught the course, and my notes are still deeply indebted to that first wild, desperate ride through the letter.

With experience comes a certain measure of confidence. I am now much more comfortable with the material, I have a good sense for what tends to work in class, and I have learned much from my students' observations and penetrating questions. In each new rendition of the course I am able to work in fresh material as well as to flag specific areas that need more attention or rethinking the next time through.

Still, Romans remains a challenge. As I began preparing for class this fall, I was met by the equivalent of an unpointed Hebrew text. I needed my notes to be the Masoretic vowel points, indicating how it should be read, reminding me how I construed this or that exegetical issue. To extend the metaphor, how you point the text--the exegetical decisions you make--in a few key passages forecloses other options and determines your reading of the whole letter. (The danger is that one's own laziness, refusing to wrestle honestly with alternatives, will reinforce how one has always read the text.)

Romans is also tremendously challenging in other respects. One takeaway for me this time through is a surprising convergence between the 19th-century English preacher, Charles Spurgeon, and the 20th-century German scholar, Ernst Käsemann, both of whom remind us that Romans is not about some theological abstraction, but about encounter with and dependence on the living God:
“[T]he gift which is being bestowed here is never at any time separable from its Giver. It partakes of the character of power, in so far as God himself enters the arena and remains in the arena with it. Thus personal address, obligation and service are indissolubly bound up with the gift. ... [E]very gift of God which has ceased to be seen as the presence of the Giver and has therefore lost its character as personal address, is grace misused and working to our destruction.” - Ernst Käsemann, New Testament Questions of Today (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969), 174-5.
Spurgeon, as one would expect, puts it more colourfully:
“Depend upon it, my dear Brothers and Sisters, if ever our sins are to die, it must be with Christ. You will find you cannot kill the smallest viper in the nest of your heart if you get away from the Cross. There is no death for sin except in the death of Christ.” - Charles Spurgeon, “The Old Man Crucified” (sermon #882).
I began teaching Romans around the time I started blogging. For an assortment of other Romans-related posts, click here

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Louis Feldman on Reading More

I was in the Cambridge University Library yesterday morning trying to locate a book, when I came across Louis Feldman's mammoth 1000-page review of scholarship on Josephus. The introduction concludes with this comment:

"One is struck by the sheer increase - 147% - in the amount of published material .... As one who has read almost all of this material, the present writer is reminded of the anecdote which Cicero (Pro Archia 10.25) tells about Sulla, who rewarded a worthless poet who had composed an epigram about him with a present of property from proscribed persons, on the condition that he should not write anything thereafter. In addition to the Desiderata listed at the end of this study, we may be forgiven for expressing the hope - or prayer - that one of the wealthier foundations will establish a fund to give grants on similar conditions, or, at the very least, on the condition that scholars will read what has been written in their field before they embark with pen in hand." - Louis Feldman, Josephus and Modern Scholarship (de Gruyter, 1984), 3.

One sign that Feldman's plea has gone unheeded is the unread tomes spilling over onto the floor in the library's Biblical Studies section. In today's world, scholars who attempt to read everything before they take pen in hand may never write anything of their own. Still, there's something to be said for a thorough lit review.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Canadian Pirates on the River Cam

We arrived in Cambridge three weeks ago today, and a blog update is now overdue. The day after we arrived I led the family on a walk to a nearby church, and promptly got lost. Three and a half hours later we returned home, groceries in hand, more than a little exhausted, jet-lagged, and foot-sore.
By the end of the first week we had acquired bicycles--the Cambridge vehicle of choice--and our daughter was enrolled in a good nearby school.

By the end of week two we had a bank account, a cell phone, and the beginnings of a study routine. On a typical day I drop s. off at her school and we then cycle 20 minutes across town to Newnham College ...

... where t. sets up at her spectacularly beautiful college library:
Around the corner is Tyndale House, a Biblical Studies research center where I have rented a desk. (The library is great, though less aesthetically pleasing than Newnham's.) As a Reader at Tyndale House I have access to, and can check out books from (!), the Cambridge University Library:
 After months preparing for our move, it is nice to get down to work again.

(The only library disappointment so far has been the three public libraries we have sampled. While Cambridge University students have access to more than 100 fantastic libraries, the reading public's options are much more limited. At least when it comes to children's books, even the Central Library in Cambridge does not hold a candle to the Moose Jaw public library. Well done, people of Saskatchewan!)

Last weekend, we all cycled downtown for a first (planned) exploration of old Cambridge. Thanks to t's student "card of power," we had free entrance to St. John's college:
Clare College:
 And King's College Chapel:

That leaves another 28 member colleges of the university to explore in the weeks ahead.

(If you are wondering why we are in Cambridge, see this post for more details.)

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Grading Papers Christopher Lasch Style

I decided to try and finish a book a week this summer in a bid to make my way through some of the books I acquired over the years because they were important (or free), but never completed. Some, like my copy of Gadamer's Truth and Method, I started and eventually re-shelved in despair.

The goal makes short books especially attractive. (I included Margaret de Heer's Science: A Discovery in Comics, a library book my daughter enjoyed.)

This brings me to Christopher Lasch's delightful Plain Style: A Guide to Written English, almost half of which is an introduction by Stewart Weaver that places Lasch's guide in the context of his political thought:
"No mere pedant's primer, Plain Style is itself something of an essay in cultural criticism, a political treatise even, by one for whom directness, clarity, and honesty of expression were, no less than for George Orwell, essential to the living spirit of democracy" (3-4).
In Lasch instructions on usage give way to asides about the scholarly profession:
"Remember that disinterested inquiry--the ideal of scholarship--refers not to investigations conducted in a state of apathy or indifference but to a pursuit of truth so intense that it refuses to allow personal whim or inclination to interfere with the determination to follow an idea wherever it may lead. Disinterested inquiry signifies a refusal to indulge in wishful thinking." (p. 98, s.v. "disinterested")
Perhaps my favourite Lasch quote comes from the introduction in an excerpt from Lasch's feedback on a student paper:
"In most examples of bad writing in student papers, I can puzzle out the thought and suggest better ways of expressing it. Here I am completely baffled--not just by this particular sentence but by practically every other sentence in your paper. The grade reflects my belief that you've done a good deal of reading, struggled to understand it, and tackled a very hard subject, furthermore. Still, it is a generous grade. In a way, there's no basis for a grade at all, since I have no idea what you're trying to say. It's as if words had taken flight into an airy realm of their own where they no longer refer recognizably to things or ideas but just kind of mix and mingle and rub shoulders with each other in a friendly kind of just us folks and abstract terribly with jargon and heavy academic, to which makes no difference how you arrange, to read backwards and if you read from the middle it doesn't seem to matter." (22)

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

On Killing Trees

While I admire those who can deliver brilliant lectures or lead class discussion without any written aids, I don't aspire to their example. The presence or absence of notes is, in my view, no sure sign of teaching effectiveness. Notes are not an instructor's training wheels to be abandoned when a teacher can ride without them. Nor need they be a constraint.
Depending on how many times I have taught the course, the notes become more of a prop than a constant reference, a security blanket, if you will, that gives me freedom to innovate and be present in class, focused on reaching and engaging my students without being distracted by the fear of losing my place or missing something crucial.

My usual practice has been to print off a new set of notes before each class, and to mark them up lightly as part of my final class prep. If I have taught the course before, I glance at my marginal annotations from the previous iteration before finalizing the latest version.

Inevitably, end-of-term haste means that the new binder of notes gets added to the old. Over time the paper adds up. As I cleaned my office this summer, the detritus of more than a decade's worth of teaching filled a recycle bin and led to a glut of empty binders.

The experience was motivation enough to look around for alternatives. If I had $700 USD to spare, I would be inclined to abandon paper altogether and switch over to Sony's newest Digital Paper solution, where "writing and drawing feel as natural as on real paper":

The only downside to the Sony DPT-RP1 is the price tag. Since money does not grow on trees, I expect to stick with real paper for the time being.