Friday, January 8, 2021

The Joy-Drenched Essence of All Things


Milton Steinberg's powerful novel about the rabbinic heretic, Elisha ben Abuyah, contains this remarkable description of the biblical--and rabbinic--worldview:
"Inevitably, contrasts suggested themselves between this [Greek] literature and that Scripture to which so many years of Elisha's life had been dedicated. It was a sternly earnest book, that of the Jews, and yet animated for all its dour austerity by a confident serenity which the Greeks seemed never to experience. For, given its presuppositions, all things were good by virtue of the God who pervaded them. There was for men no burning urgency in the quest for the fugitive experience. Love and laughter were but transient manifestations of the joy-drenched essence of all things." - Milton Steinberg, As a Driven Leaf (Behrman House, 1939), 354.
I first finished reading As a Driven Leaf ten years ago today, and blogged about it here, here, and here. (I see that I was struck by this passage the first time through as well.) 

Thursday, December 31, 2020

A 2020 Reading Retrospective


Zotero tells me I finished reading 28 books in 2020, down five from 2019, which goes to show that pandemics do not automatically increase scholarly productivity. (On the contrary ... But I digress.)

A few statistics: Of the 28 books, I count 13 novels, 6 popular-level non-fiction books, and 8 or 9 popular and more scholarly books that are more-or-less in my field; six I've read before, eight I read aloud, only one was an audiobook. Remarkably, four of the books were first published in 2020.

Bed-time Reading, in sequence:

Lewis, C. S. The Screwtape Letters with Screwtape Proposes and Toast. New York: Collier Books, 1982. (First read in high school or college)

Williams, Charles. The Place of the Lion. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1933. 

A 1985 Christmas gift from my mother who, for some strange reason, thought her twelve-year-old son might enjoy a novel about Abelard and a Platonic apocalypse. As the blurb puts it, "Reading Charles Williams is an unforgettable experience." A decade later I discovered the copy I had left behind in Africa in a Mombasa guest house, and returned with it to Canada. Thirty-five years later, I read it to my own twelve-year-old daughter.

Speare, Elizabeth George. The Bronze Bow. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961. 

One of a few books I read as a teenager that helped spark an interest in the land of Israel and ancient Judaism. This one, set around the Sea of Galilee, I read several times as a child, and enjoyed re-reading partly because it has some literary merit, partly because of what it says about popular Christian views of first-century Judaism ca. 1961.

Hunter, J. H. The Mystery of Mar Saba. Toronto: Evangelical Publishers, 1940. 

Another book set in Israel that I first encountered in high school. More funny to read now than the author intended [see this review], this evangelistic 'thriller' can claim no literary merit. Its chief value is as a literary artifact for anyone interested in the beliefs of Presbyterian dispensationalists during World War II, the admixture of Christianity and nationalism in the early twentieth century, ex eventu prophecy, or life in British Mandate Palestine. Much of the book reads like a 1930's-era travelogue of Galilee and Jerusalem--no doubt based on Hunter's first-hand experience.

Family Reading (aloud)

Bauckham, Richard. Who Is God?: Key Moments of Biblical Revelation. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020. 

By turns theologically rich and eccentric; sadly not suited for reading aloud to a lay audience.

Jacobs, Alan. How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. New York: Currency, 2017.

Jacobs, Alan. The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography. Lives of Great Religious Books. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013. 

A moratorium was declared on Alan Jacobs after the second book. If I want to read Breaking Bread with the Dead, I'm on my own.

Warren, Tish Harrison. Liturgy Of The Ordinary. Downers Grove: IVP, 2016.

Too far removed from the 17th century

The Rest

Bryan, Christopher. Listening to the Bible: The Art of Faithful Biblical Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Collins, John J. The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2013. 

Purchased for the appendix on "Personalities in the Discovery and Subsequent Controversies," but the whole thing is worth reading.

Crowe, Brandon D. The Hope of Israel: The Resurrection of Christ in the Acts of the Apostles. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020.

Garner, Alan. Elidor. London: Collins, 1965.

Glinert, Lewis. The Story of Hebrew. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017. (Fascinating)

Hays, Richard B. First Corinthians. Interpretation. Louisville: John Knox, 1997. (A course textbook; re-read for the 2nd or 3rd time.)

Jipp, Joshua W. Reading Acts. Cascade Companions. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018. 

A textbook for a second-semester Acts course--stimulating and up-to-date

Laird, Martin. Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Lambdin, Thomas O., and John Huehnergard. Introduction to the Aramaic of Targum Onqelos, 2020.

Martínez Sotodosos, César, and Mercedes Ovejas Arango. Mythologica. Guadix, Granada: Cultura Clásica, 2016.

McCall Smith, Alexander. Portuguese Irregular Verbs. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2004. (Reread)

Murray, Douglas. The Madness of Crowds: Gender Race and Identity. London: Bloomsbury, 2020. (Audiobook)

Potok, Chaim. The Promise. Alfred A. Knopf. New York, 1969. (Excellent)

Tartt, Donna. The Secret History. New York: Vintage, 2004. 

Someone commented that this novel got them interested in classics. I had no idea how long it was when I bought the e-book. I would have preferred more Greek and less murder.

Turner, Megan Whalen. The Thief. New York: Greenwillow Books, 1996.

———. The Queen of Attolia. New York: Greenwillow Books, 2000.

———. The King of Attolia. New York: Greenwillow Books, 2006.

———. A Conspiracy of Kings. New York: Greenwillow Books, 2010.

———. Thick as Thieves. New York: Greenwillow Books, 2017.

———. Return of the Thief. New York: Greenwillow Books, 2020.

Best of: Megan Whalen Turner's Queen's Thief series was my 2020 comfort reading. Intelligent young-adult novels set in a world that seems vaguely Byzantine, with real gods.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

On Learning Biblical Hebrew as a Living Language

After a week to catch our breath, term two of Briercrest College's modified fall semester begins tomorrow. For me and my students this means a full semester of Introductory Hebrew compressed into 6.5 weeks. Because I want to reserve class time for Hebrew learning, I made a short video to explain in advance why we are going to study a “dead” language like Hebrew as one would a living language:


I am reproducing the first part of what I say in the video, for those like me, who prefer reading to watching:

This course takes a “Living Language” approach to learning Biblical Hebrew. Among other things, this means the course will be conducted, as far as possible, in Biblical Hebrew. You are going to spend a lot of time in this class listening to Biblical Hebrew. You will be learning to speak Biblical Hebrew as well as to read and write Biblical Hebrew.

This is different from how Biblical Hebrew has traditionally been taught in North America. In a traditional language classroom you would spend most of your time in class listening to your teacher talk about Hebrew in English. Homework would consist of painfully trying to memorize English glosses for Hebrew words, and translating Hebrew sentences into English.

Now, the goal of any Introductory Biblical Hebrew course is to help students learn to read and understand an ancient text. The traditional approach takes for granted that the easiest, quickest way to learn to read Hebrew is to focus on grammar and translation. There are no native Biblical Hebrew speakers. You don't need to know how to buy food in the market or how to hire a taxi in Biblical Hebrew. Why bother making the extra effort to speak Hebrew? Why emphasize hearing when all you really need to do is read letters on a page? 

But if your goal is to internalize the language so that you can read with understanding, and if you want long-term retention—not just passing a test, but being able to continue to read 10 years down the road—the traditional approach turns out to be neither efficient nor particularly effective.

For one thing, I can say from experience that memorizing lists of vocabulary words is very time consuming ... and doesn't work very well. More importantly, the preoccupation with translation—as if Hebrew must be turned into English to be understood—actually gets in the way of internalizing the language.

For more detail, as well as a few comments about what motivates me to teach Hebrew, you will need to watch the video itself. It's only five minutes long. 

I have never taught Biblical Hebrew using a fully communicative approach before, and the pressure to prepare for daily classes will be intense. But I am grateful to be able to ply my trade in a context where face-to-face teaching is still an option, even if it means I need to learn how to say ‘put on your masks’* in Biblical Hebrew.

*I've settled on עֲטוּ עַל־פְּנֵיכֶם, which uses Leviticus 13:45 as a model. My thanks to Aaron Eby for the suggestion.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Purity and Impurity in Second Temple Judaism

Few Christians today linger over the ritual purity laws in the Pentateuch. This lack of familiarity with the Torah, and with how the Torah was understood in ancient Judaism, is often combined with a profound failure of historical imagination. The predictable result: major misreadings of the New Testament.

In this 28-minute video, prepared for students in my introduction to early Judaism course, I explain how Jewish systems of purity really worked 😏: 

There are still plenty of mistakes in delivery, production and, no doubt, in content, but this one turned out better than most of the videos I've produced so far. (It also takes the prize for most time-consuming to prepare.) I justify its length by telling my students to watch it at 2x speed.

I should note that I make no claim to originality here. The model I present is essentially that of Jonathan Klawans with a side of E.P. Sanders.  

Comments, corrections and recommendations for further reading are welcome.

A Working Bibliography

Hayes, Christine E. Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities: Intermarriage and Conversion from the Bible to the Talmud. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Kazen, Thomas. Jesus and Purity Halakhah: Was Jesus Indifferent to Impurity? 2d ed. CB 38. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2010.
Klawans, Jonathan. Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
________. “Notions of Gentile Impurity in Ancient Judaism.” AJS Review 20.2 (1995): 285–312.
Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew Volume 4: Law and Love. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.
Poirier, John C. “Purity beyond the Temple in the Second Temple Era.” Journal of Biblical Literature 122 (2003): 247-265.
Rogan, Wil. “Purity in Early Judaism: Current Issues and Questions:” Currents in Biblical Research 16.3 (2018): 309-339.
Sanders, E. P. Judaism: Practice and Belief: 63 BCE - 66 CE. London: SCM Press, 1998.
Thiessen, Matthew. Jesus and the Forces of Death. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020.
Wassen, Cecilia. “The Jewishness of Jesus and Ritual Purity.” Scripta Instituti Donneriani Aboensis 27 (2016): 11–36.

In addition to Klawans and Sanders, I found the chapter on Purity in John Meier's 4th volume as well as the recent essays by Wil Rogan and Cecilia Wassen especially helpful. It will be obvious that I am not finally persuaded by Thomas Kazen or John Poirier. 

Monday, September 7, 2020

Ready or not, here we go

"This will be the most difficult period of our careers. But this is what it takes to live and work during a natural disaster. And we are the lucky ones." - Stan Yoshinobu, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education 

"This is definitely the most demanding and stressful period of preparation for a semester that I have ever had." - Alan Jacobs, Baylor University  
"Due to social distancing requirements & classroom sizes, my 3 courses of 25-28 students have become 6 hybrid courses of half that size. I'm essentially managing the logistics of 6 hybrid courses, & even as a very organized prof teaching courses I've done before this is an astonishing amount of work. It's what I need to do right now, and I'm thankful for a job that I love at an institution I love. But wow, we faculty need a serious break and some appreciation for all this. If you are faculty & still planning courses, do what you can to find ways to make things even a little easier on yourself this term, especially when the emotional support our students need will demand a lot from us--much more than usual, from what I'm already seeing." - Jessica Coblentz, St. Mary's College, Indiana  
"Reducing burnout in what might be an entirely new teaching environment should be on everyone’s mind." - Lance Piantaggini (MagisterP) 
As I anticipate the beginning of fall semester classes tomorrow, there is much to be grateful for: Briercrest College is located in a rural area that has not suffered a significant Covid outbreak. The college has worked hard to develop a solid plan that will follow provincial guidelines. And we have students who are eager to return to the classroom. 

From the academic side of things, the plan is to run two seven-week terms in the fall semester, with a combination of daily 45-min tutorials and asynchronous video lectures that we record in advance. To meet physical distancing requirements, large classes are divided into multiple sections. The intensive format means less time for grading and for class prep during the term itself. In my experience, the process of preparing, recording, editing, and uploading video lectures at least doubles the time I would normally spend preparing for and delivering a conventional lecture. Even with the summer to prepare, it won't be easy for faculty members to pull this off. 

My course assignment for the fall looks like (1) Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, a one-week modular class in the seminary (two weeks ago on Zoom), (2) two sections of Jewish Backgrounds in the first term (including another 18 of a projected 24 video lectures that I have yet to record), and (3) two sections of Biblical Hebrew taught as a living language in the second, fortunately with extra face-to-face class time instead of video lectures.

My semester theme is the chorus from this Bruce Cockburn song:


"Under the Mercy and I'm Okay."


Tuesday, August 18, 2020

On Relearning Aramaic via Syriac

I will leave communication about Briercrest’s plans for on-campus course delivery this fall to official channels, and say only that if I knew what was coming, studying Syriac and Targumic Aramaic during parts of May and June would not have made it onto my summer agenda. But last September, when I agreed to supervise a student’s Aramaic independent study, I thought it would be fun to take yet another stab at learning this third biblical language. Since we both had had some previous exposure to biblical Aramaic, I proposed a more oblique approach that would, I hoped, be more successful than my two previous attempts. 

Instead of using Frederick Greenspahn’s conventional Introduction to Aramaic textbook, which I have worked through twice before, we spent the first three weeks or so listening to the recordings in Niek Arentsen and Jordash Kiffiak’s Living Christian Aramaic (Syriac), and the next four completing the exercises and readings in Thomas Lambdin & John Huehnergard’s free online Introduction to the Aramaic of Targum Onqelos. 

Living Christian Aramaic appears to use the same pictures as the Biblical Language Center's other picture lessons products, and it is equally effective. I'll admit that I found the recordings--authentic as they may be--a little grating, but I can still hear  in my head. 

If you have worked with Lambdin's Introduction to Biblical Hebrew, you know what to expect from Lambdin & Huehnergard's Aramaic primer: bare-bones grammar notes, paradigms, and exercises in classic grammar-translation style. About a dozen chapters in the pace seems to pick up. The second half of the book introduces a dizzying array of new paradigms too fast to assimilate. Although I don't like the approach, I found the written exercises--even adding vowel pointing--to be effective and well-designed. The book ends with the text of Targum Onqelos on Genesis 12-16. If you have done the exercises, you can read the Targum. 

Despite major differences between these two language streams, beginning with oral Syriac helped me secure some of the vocabulary and basic syntactical patterns of Targumic Aramaic, and Targumic Aramaic is, in turn, quite close to the Biblical Aramaic of Daniel. As a bonus, I felt comfortable making my way through Targum Onqelos and confident that I could do the same with other Aramaic Targumim--at least when I finished the book. Once I relearn the Estrangelo Syriac script, I should be able to at least dabble in the Syriac Peshitta versions of both Old and New Testaments. Learning a completely foreign script also helped me appreciate what it must be like for my students to learn the Hebrew alphabet!

I will probably agree to supervise another Aramaic independent study in the future, should the opportunity arise, because I confess I am not doing the one thing needed to retain Aramaic, which is to use it. If I may be allowed an excuse, Aramaic has been crowded out by Hebrew. More on that, perhaps, in another post.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

A Twenty-Year Anniversary

Summer Ulpan at the Hebrew University

Twenty years ago this month, I landed in Israel for a year of study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The trip fulfilled a dream I had had since high school, and remains without question the most significant year of my adult life personally and academically (so far). It also continues to shape my teaching, especially "Jewish Backgrounds to Early Christianity" and Biblical Hebrew--both courses I am set to teach again this fall.

In retrospect, I could lament my failure to take full advantage of the opportunities I had in Jerusalem as well as the missed opportunities to foster friendships and develop professional networks in the years since. But my overwhelming response is gratitude for the generosity and hospitality I repeatedly encountered: the professors in Canada who went out of their way to connect me with scholars they knew in Jerusalem, the invitations to attend synagogue and participate in Shabbat dinners, the visits in Palestinian and Arab-Israeli homes, and the conversations with Christian friends in Jerusalem and elsewhere who helped sustain my faith by letting me know it is okay to live with unanswered questions.

I could go on at length, but since this blog is not an acknowledgements page I want to reflect for a minute on why the memories from that year are still so vivid, why the learning was so intense.

August 15, 2000
 (1) Context had something to do with it: Who can forget reading Thackeray's translation of Josephus's Jewish War on daily bus trips past the Temple Mount? 

  (2) But so did kindness. One of many illustrations I could mention: The argument of a certain 1997 monograph may have stuck in my head anyway. (It's a good book!) But I can assure you it is lodged there more firmly because one morning in Jerusalem its author took me out for coffee. 


When I remember Jerusalem twenty years later, one of the first things that comes to mind is the generosity of friends and scholars, whose names I won't mention here, as well as the kindness of others, whose names I have now forgotten. The least I can do is try to pay it forward. 


(There is another reason why I remember 2000-2001 Jerusalem so vividly, but that is a topic--and an anniversary--for another occasion.)