Thursday, September 27, 2018

Faculty Job Openings at Briercrest College and Seminary

Briercrest College and Seminary is currently looking to fill faculty positions in Theology, Philosophy, Psychology, Business Administration, and Leadership and Management.

More information is available on the Briercrest website here.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Three or Four Views on the Law in Acts: Preliminary Taxonomies

Bonus marks if you can identify the location of the stairwell.
Note: This is part 2 in a series on the Law in Acts. Part 1 is here.

At the risk of caricature, I begin with two rough-and-ready ways of classifying the major options.

Taxonomy 1: The first typology plots Jewish-Christian Torah observance along a trajectory from least observant (option 1) to most observant (option 2c):

(1) Freedom from the law within Acts: The book of Acts tells the story of a progressive, divinely-orchestrated, abandonment of the law, in tandem with the spread of the gospel to all nations. Acts narrates the emergence of Christianity out of Judaism and the replacement of Israel by the church as the people of God.* This view is the starting point for many ordinary readers who conflate Acts with a conventional understanding of Paul, and who assume the New Testament is about Christianity not Judaism; it remains a common scholarly option as well. [*Supersessionism is a slippery term. Some scholars finesse “replacement” differently, while still holding that Luke presents a move away from the law among Paul and other right-thinking Jewish-Christians within Acts.]

(2) Law-observant Jewish Christians & law-free gentile Christians: A second broad approach grants (a) that the conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10-11 and the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 are focused on a law-free mission to gentiles, and (b) that Luke depicts Jewish Christ-believers within Acts—including Paul—as obedient to the law. What this means for Luke’s understanding of the significance of the law in his own time remains debated:

(a) A Torah-observant past within Acts vs. a law-free post-70 present in Luke’s own day: Acts distinguishes between Jewish and gentile Christians, defending a law-free gentile Christianity but depicting Paul—and therefore all Jewish Christians—as fully Torah observant. However, between the story of Acts and the time of writing a major break between Judaism and Christianity occurred. In Luke’s own post-70 (gentile?) context, there is no longer a distinction between Jewish and gentile Christians, and the law is not considered binding on anyone in the church. Supporters of this view (2a) often regard Luke’s description of law-observant Jewish Christianity in Acts as an attempt to justify the claims of gentile Christianity to be the people of God and heirs of Israel’s ancient heritage. As a result, view 2a often resembles view 1.

(b) A Torah-observant past within Acts and a Torah-observant option in Luke’s own day (?): Luke knows of Torah-observant Jewish Christians among his contemporaries, and he thinks it is fine for them to continue to keep the law, but he doesn’t think it is necessary to do so.

(c) A Torah-observant past within Acts and in Luke’s own day: Acts makes it clear that both Jews and gentiles are saved by faith alone, but the author distinguishes between “a people from the nations” who are not required to observe the law, and God’s covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai, which, Luke assumed, remained in effect. Faithful Jewish believers in Jesus are thus expected to continue to keep the law. More clearly than view 2a, adherents of this view tend to deny that Luke depicts gentile believers as replacing Israel as the people of God. The “true Israel”—not a biblical term, but a sectarian concept—consists rather of Jewish believers in Jesus.

This taxonomy helps us see at a glance the difference between the two major approaches to the law in Acts. On the first approach, Acts can be made to correspond with conventional readings of Paul's letters. On the second approach (options 2a-c), Acts presents Paul as fully Torah-observant.

A problem with the taxonomy is that it combines questions about the story Luke tells--“Are Jewish Christians Torah observant in Acts?”--with speculative reconstructions of Luke’s own later church context--for example, “Were Jewish Christians in Luke's later church still Torah observant?”

Taxonomy 2: Before attempting to form conclusions about Luke's own church context, we should probably begin by trying to relate the story Luke tells about the law with another closely-related theme (or themes) in Acts. So here is a second taxonomy organized like a JoHari Window that combines Luke’s depiction of the law in Acts (the x-axis) with Luke’s depiction of Jewish Christianity within Acts (the y-axis):

  • The x-axis plots Jewish Christianity as described in Acts as either “Torah observant” or “Law-free.” 
  • The y-axis focuses on the significance of the story Luke tells, with “(gentile) church replaces Israel” at one end, and “Israel reduced to a Jewish sect” at the other. 
View 1 on the first typology belongs in the top right quadrant: According to this view, the church described in Acts claims to replace Israel as the people of God and has already abandoned the law.

Views 2a and 2b belong in the top left quadrant: Acts depicts Jewish Christians as fully Torah observant, but presents all believers in Jesus, both Jews and non-Jews, as part of a single new people of God. In the opening chapters of Acts, we see the development of a sectarian movement consisting only of Jews who claim to be experiencing the fulfillment of God's promises to Israel. As the sectarian assembly (or "church") expands to include non-Jews alongside Torah-observant Jews, non- or "trans-" ethnic Christianity begins to emerge out of Judaism and to replace ethnic Israel as the people of God.

View 2c belongs in the bottom right quadrant: According to this view, Luke not only distinguishes between Torah-observant Jewish believers (including Paul) and law-free gentile believers, he also continues to distinguish between a Jewish-Christian sectarian group that claims to be “Israel restored,” and a non-Jewish “people from the gentiles” who share in salvation, the Holy Spirit, and the other blessings brought by Jesus, but who are never fully merged with Jewish followers of Jesus and who are never described as Israel.

No doubt there are still other ways of organizing the scholarly options. Before pursuing these further I hope in the next few posts to begin to lay out the evidence that is so variously interpreted by modern readers of Acts.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Three or Four Views on the Law in Acts

Anyone who has followed this blog for a while will know that I keep returning to the puzzle of Luke’s attitude toward the law. In 2014, in what was at least the third post on some aspect of the topic, I concluded that leaving the puzzle unsolved would be better than forcing all the pieces to fit:
Rover as "sober second thought"
As I have tried to push for consistency, for an interpretation of Acts that makes sense of all the data, I have found myself offering readings of individual passages that, on sober second thought, seem unsustainable. After multiple attempts to walk away with a solution to the problem of Luke and the law, it dawned on me that allowing two readings of Luke's silences to sit side-by-side without deciding finally between them is better than a tour de force that forces all the evidence to fit instead of admitting honestly where the difficulties are. (Click here for the whole post; here and here for earlier posts; and here, here, and here, for subsequent posts.)
For better or worse, by the time the essay I was working on was complete, I had decided to try my hand at a tour de force. Although I did allow that Luke may have envisioned a change in the food laws to enable Jewish believers to eat whatever was set before them by baptized gentile believers, I argued not only that Luke depicts Jewish Christians in Acts as consistently Torah-observant, but that he also thought Jewish believers in his own day should continue to observe the law.

I am now far enough removed from the argument of that essay to want to subject it to “sober second thought.” I like to tell myself that when I am not completely convinced by what I am saying I am probably trying to get at something important. Difficult questions exist for a reason. If the answers were obvious, the questions would have been resolved already. Still, while I was confident enough to go into print with it, aspects of the argument have always troubled me.

For one thing, my conclusions seem to put the author of the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts at odds with the apostle Paul. Try as I might, I have not been able to persuade myself that comments about the law in Paul’s letters are addressed only to non-Jews, as proponents of the “Paul within Judaism” perspective tend to argue. When in Romans 6:15 Paul declares “we are not under law but under grace,” I take it that he includes all believers in Jesus, both Jews and gentiles. Paul’s self-description as one who became “without the law to those without the law” (1 Cor 9:21) and who was “persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself” (Rom 14:14) is difficult to square with the Paul of Acts who insists, “I have in no way committed an offense against the law of the Jews” (Acts 25:8 NRSV)—if, that is, Luke means that Paul maintained a fully Torah-observant lifestyle.

To be clear, Paul’s letters do not determine what Acts must mean or vice versa. The unity of Scripture is, in my view, a theological dictum, not a hermeneutical method that can be used to impose an artificial harmony on the text. Nevertheless, I admit that my inability to reconcile the Paul of Acts and the Paul of the letters results in a certain amount of uncomfortable dissonance.

More importantly, the difference between my reading of Acts and my reading of Paul’s letters raises historical questions about the setting and purpose of Acts. Where in the late first or early second century would you encounter a church composed of Torah-observant Jewish Christians and law-free gentile believers? Was Luke really so unaware of the kind of things Paul said about the law in his letters?

There are also niggling doubts about bits and pieces of Acts that could point in other directions. Was I explaining the text or explaining it away?

Apart from being more reluctant to draw conclusions from the narrative of Acts about law observance in Luke’s own later context, I haven’t changed my mind on any major point (yet). But I have decided that I want to re-evaluate the puzzle of Luke’s attitude toward the law along the more expansive lines of what I suggested back in 2014—not by defending one option, but by presenting the main alternatives as persuasively as I can, and evaluating the evidence as fairly as I can.

My plan in subsequent posts is to use this space to think through the evidence and the options in more detail. Feedback, corrections, and comments are welcome.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Hypocrisy and Moral Bankruptcy of the American Evangelical Right

In 1998 James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, told his supporters that marital infidelity and lying should disqualify Bill Clinton from serving as president: 
"What has alarmed me throughout this episode has been the willingness of my fellow citizens to rationalize the President's behavior even after they suspected, and later knew, that he was lying. ... As it turns out, character DOES matter. You can't run a family, let alone a country, without it. How foolish to believe that a person who lacks honesty and moral integrity is qualified to lead a nation and the world! Nevertheless, our people continue to say that the President is doing a good job even if they don't respect him personally. Those two positions are fundamentally incompatible. In the Book of James the question is posed, 'Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?' (James 3:11, NIV). The answer is no." - James Dobson, as quoted by John Fea here and here.

Two decades later James Dobson not only endorsed but continues to support Donald Trump as president because he offers "relief from judicial tyranny."

For more detail, and a response to American Evangelical reasons for supporting Trump, see John Fea's Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018).

Modular Course: Jewish Backgrounds to Early Christianity

I will be back in Saskatchewan in October to teach "Jewish Backgrounds to Early Christianity" as a week-long modular course at Briercrest. The class can be taken in the college as a 300-level undergraduate History or Biblical Studies elective, in the seminary (with a little more work) as a Masters-level Biblical Studies elective, or as an audit.

This is how I describe the course in the syllabus:
Contemporary scholars of Christian origins are committed to studying early Christianity carefully in its early Jewish context; they also agree that Judaism should be studied fairly on its own terms and not simply as the background to Early Christianity.

This course will adopt the same approach. We will examine pivotal “intertestamental” period events, such as the Maccabean revolt, and consider the impact of centuries of Persian, Greek and Roman rule on the beliefs, practices, and dreams of first-century Jews. We will learn about the distinctives of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes, as well as what was common to the majority of ordinary Jews who did not belong to any group. We will also gain a first-hand acquaintance with early Jewish literature by reading selections from the Apocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. By the end of this course, you will recognize more fully the richness and complexity of the Jewish milieu out of which Christianity developed. You will also be familiar with major trends in scholarship on early Judaism, and be better able to identify the nature and limits of the historical evidence, as well as to distinguish between speculative and solidly-grounded historical reconstructions.

And yet at every turn we will be concerned with the implications of what we are learning for our understanding of early Christianity. Our study of Jewish eschatological beliefs will shed light on the early Christian affirmation that Jesus is the Messiah. Our analysis of early Jewish interpretation of Scripture will help us pay attention to the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament; it will also provide an opportunity to explore the development of the Old Testament canon. Finally, what we learn about the role of the law in early Jewish life will provide a framework within which Paul’s statements about the law can be evaluated. Fresh ways of looking at familiar texts will raise new questions as well as answer old ones. This is good—not least because it can direct us back to the Bible, prepared to listen to Scripture more carefully and to hear its challenge with new force.
It's a course I've taught a bunch of times now--see here and here for past iterations--but never as a "mod." This time around I switched up some of the assignments to suit the intensive format, and, hopefully, my students. I also changed one of the key textbooks--assigning short essays from The Jewish Annotated New Testament instead of readings from George Nickelsburg's Jewish Literature between the Bible and the Mishnah. Here is the full list of assigned texts, in case anyone is interested:

Secondary Sources
Cohen, Shaye J. D. From the Maccabees to the Mishnah. 3rd ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2014.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds. The Jewish Annotated NewTestament. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.
Reserve Reading 
Kugel, James L. “Early Jewish Biblical Interpretation.” Pages 151–78 in Early Judaism: A Comprehensive Overview. Edited by John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012.
Sandmel, Samuel. “Parallelomania.” JBL 81 (1962): 1-13.
Primary Sources
Apocrypha: Coogan, Michael D., ed. The New OxfordAnnotated Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version. 5th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
Dead Sea Scrolls: Vermes, Geza. Penguin Classics Complete Dead SeaScrolls in English. 7th ed. New York: Penguin, 2012.
Pseudepigrapha (Note: You are not expected to purchase a copy, but you are required to bring a copy of the assigned readings from the Pseudepigrapha with you when they are discussed in class):
Charlesworth, James H., ed. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1983, 1985. Repr. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010.
Or Charles, R. H., ed. Pseudepigrapha. The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English. Vol. 2. Oxford: Clarendon, 1913. (Online at or

And here are the syllabi:
BLST 371 College Biblical Studies Syllabus
HIS 371 College History Syllabus
BLST 801 Seminary Biblical Studies Syllabus

Friday, August 31, 2018

I used to write letters: John Newton, William Cowper, and 18th-Century Blogging

A recent visit to the Cowper and Newton Museum in the town of Olney has me thinking about the 18th-century equivalent of blogging, and the impoverishment of new technologies.

Olney was on our list of out-of-the-way places to see, partly because we went on a John Newton kick a few years ago and read through Newton's 1793 Letters to a Wife by the Author of Cardiphonia, and then his more well-known 1764 volume, An Authentic Narrative of some Remarkable and Interesting Particulars in the Life of John Newton Communicated in a Series of Letters to the Reverend Mr. Haweis, Rector of Aldwinckle, Northamptonshire, and by him (at the Request of Friends) Now Made Public.

To these letter collections published during Newton's lifetime, we can add another one and a half volumes in Newton's collected works, as well as a few others compilations that did not make it into the collected works.

Portrait of Cowper by William Blake in the Museum
William Cowper I knew only as a poet and hymn-writer who struggled with depression, so it was a bit surprising to find that the Cowper and Newton Museum is mostly about Cowper, with only one room devoted to Newton--perhaps for tourists like us who come to Olney because of Newton. The emphasis on Cowper is no doubt partly because the museum is located in the house where Cowper lived for almost twenty years (1768-1786), but during the 18th and 19th centuries, it was Cowper who was the celebrity author and letter writer.

The museum is filled with Cowper memorabilia--his sofa, his chair, his personal wash-stand, his handkerchiefs, and replicas of his rabbits. This approach feels a bit dated now, more than a century after the museum opened, but it works well because Cowper was famous for writing about everyday life, and the personal artifacts are frequently matched with Cowper's own descriptions found in his poems and letters.

In the back of the garden behind the museum is Cowper's writing nook, which he described in letters as follows:

"I write in a nook that I call my Bouderie; it is a Summer House not much bigger than a Sedan chair, the door of which opens into the garden that is now crowded with pinks, roses and honeysuckles, and the window into my neighbour's orchard. ... It is secure from all noise, and a refuge from intrusion."

"As soon as breakfast is over, I retire to my nutshell of a Summer House which is my verse manufactory, and here I abide seldom less than three hours, and not often more. In the afternoon I return to it again, and all the daylight that follows, except what is devoted to a walk, is given to Homer."

The definitive edition of William Cowper's letters is the five-volume Oxford University Press edition of The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper.

You could say that Cowper and Newton wrote letters because they couldn't blog. Despite their personal address, letter writers often hoped for a wider audience. At least since Cicero, the publication of letter collections was an established practice, much like books that begin as blogs today. But the shift in technology has also led to a fundamental change in writing (and reading) practices. Now that communication is instant and potentially unlimited in scope, and the epistolary genre is all but obsolete, what have we lost?

Sunday, August 26, 2018

What is גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב for?

This blog has always featured a motley assortment of topics aimed at a variety of different audiences, or none at all. It began eleven years ago as a commonplace collection of quotations, shifted to a travelogue about our June 2007 trip to Turkey, and then, toward the end of its first year, morphed into a biblio-family-blog blend that combined pictures of my infant daughter with an analysis of scholarship on the meaning of Ioudaios. I eventually phased out (most of) the family photos and tried to make sure that my posts retained some sort of connection to biblical studies, ancient Judaism, language-teaching pedagogy, "productivity software," or scholarship in general. But I still let arcane posts about Zotero and work-in-progress on Josephus, Romans, and Luke-Acts sit cheek-by-jowl next to the occasional devotional reflection, comments on the weather in Saskatchewan, and the tribute I wrote for my mother's funeral--assuming that my readers, whoever they might be, could read what interests them and ignore the rest.

The world has changed over the last decade. As Peter Davids recently wrote, "We live in anxious times with all types of black and white thinking, herding, and other anxious behavior." My world has changed too, and it has occurred to me that this combination of the personal and the academic might be a liability. However much I still feel like a newbie, I am no longer a young scholar, fresh out of grad-school. Perhaps I should adopt a more professional posture, curate more responsibly, and project an image that contributes more directly to my own advancement or some greater good. If I want to be taken seriously as a scholar, it may not be in my best interests to comment on my personal life or my personal faith. (I am afraid this concern has affected what I choose to include here more than it should.)

On the other hand, academic posts can also be misunderstood. When I suggested a few years ago that ancient Jews could dine with gentiles without violating the law, someone commented: "Who cares? How does this help life in the real world? Is this seriously where our donation dollars are going?" I deleted the comment because I had concluded from a previous encounter that the commenter was not open to the possibility of conversion that genuine conversation requires. But I also jotted down what I would have said in response:
When I teach the book of Acts in my college context, concerns about the text's relevance to the 'real world', whatever that is, are front and center. I can assure you that the question I addressed in my last post has an impact on my understanding of Acts, and as a result, on how I teach the book. Moreover, it is because I hold Acts to be God's word, in the Christian sense, that I think the text merits careful attention. Asking "who cares?" too quickly may indicate a lack of respect for the Scripture God has given us. I don't feel obligated to connect all the dots on my blog, and you are under no obligation to read what I post if you don't care about the subjects I write about. The blog is not always addressed to a lay or college-level audience, so don't assume that my musings here accurately reflect what or how I teach in the classroom.

Consciousness of the liability of blogging in an anxious age has led to greater self-censorship on my part, and has occasionally contributed to a sense of paralysis as I wonder who I am writing for and why I am writing blog posts at all, especially when I should probably spend my time working toward publications that matter more. For the moment, however, I plan to continue, for a few different reasons: At a basic level, the act of thinking aloud in public sometimes helps me write. Contemplating an audience encourages me to work through ideas and get them down on "paper." The immediacy of publishing a blog post helps stave off the despair that presses in when I contemplate larger projects that are years from completion. And sometimes I have something to say that I hope people will read and benefit from. The blog is, finally, an attempt to practice in another medium what I try to do in the classroom, modeling what it might mean to think critically and live faithfully at the same time.

For a related post about the blog, see my "Ten-Year Blog Anniversary."