Friday, May 17, 2024

Study Ancient Greek in Cyprus!

I am delighted to report that Briercrest’s next intensive Greek semester will take place in the fall of 2025 on the island of Cyprus:

I had the privilege of being involved in our first three Greek semesters (2019, 2021, 2023). Although I won’t be going along to Cyprus, I can say with confidence that the learning experience will be fantastic—to say nothing of the living experience on location in the Mediterranean!

There are still a few spots open, but you will need to act soon if you want to go along. For more details, see the press release:

For reflections on what these first Greek semesters were like, see this post and follow the links back.

Monday, April 1, 2024

Strunk & White and the Via Negativa

17. Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell. - William Strunk and E. B. White, The Elements of Style (3rd ed. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 1979).

If you take William Strunk’s injunction to “Omit needless words” and perfect it, the result is the complete silence I have been practicing on this blog over the last couple months. But the end of term is upon us. Once I am done marking up my students’ needless words, perhaps I will have room to add a few of my own.  

Good Friday Snow

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Aviya Kushner and the Grammar of God

“When I was a child I assumed that all families discussed the grammar of the Bible in Hebrew at the dining room table. When I entered kindergarten, I heard, to my shock, that most American-born children spoke English; I spoke only Hebrew then. On my first sleepover, I learned that many families did not discuss ancient grammar. Not over dinner, not at all. This struck me as a terrible shame, a missed opportunity, and it still does.”

So begins the Introduction to Aviya Kushner’s The Grammar of God, an enticing enough lede that it convinced me to read the whole book. The audiobook was all I could find for free through our public library system—not ideal because the reader didn’t know Hebrew—but I liked it well enough to order a paper copy. It is a quirky book, sort of a philologist’s memoir that combines reflections on texts and words from the Hebrew Bible with her own experience.

I thought Kushner’s comments about Hebrew, language, and translation worth returning to. Months later, however, what sticks in my head is her stories about her Jewish upbringing in the Hasidic neighbourhood of Monsey, NY, visiting her grandfather in Israel, and locating the house in Germany where he lived before the Shoah.

On her mother, who sounds like a character right out of a Chaim Potok novel:

“My mother had a life of the night. After everyone else went to sleep, she would sit at the dining room table with a large milk-shake and several piles of dictionaries. She was reading Akkadian tablets—I know because I used to wake up at night and watch her, sitting in her nightgown with her very long hair pinned up, from the darkness of the kitchen. Piles of papers and pens before her, she’d talk to herself in some ancient language that she told me you could hear recorded at the Smithsonian Institution. From a room away, I heard the rhyme and rhythm of antiquity. … I thought that all mothers were like that—mothers in the daytime, and something secret between midnight and when everyone else woke up.” (17)

On her mathematician father:

“I got to know my father during Shabbat. Perhaps that is why, in the aseret hadibrot [the Ten Commandments], honoring our parents and keeping Shabbat are neighbors: because time allows us to know, and honor, our own family. Respecting a person requires time. Moreover, and more deeply, the day in which I got to know my father—Shabbat—allowed me to love what I have. … Shabbat was the only time that he was in my sight, not writing and not doing, for all three meals and all the hours in between. I think that in that long expanse, in the Shabbats and all the hours in them, I met him.” (132-3)

On arriving in Bremen, Germany:

“My mother and I are both silenced by what we see when we get out of the train. We are standing in the Hauptbahnhof, the central train station, the place my grandfather had described hundreds of times as the place he last saw his parents and his four brothers …. My grandfather was twenty-two. His youngest brother was thirteen. … I remember the way my grandfather said: ‘I was just a boy. I was so sure I would see them again. I don’t even think I turned around to wave, to say goodbye.” (172)

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Trouble Gonna Come

In the famous essay that gave the “New Perspective on Paul” its name, James Dunn argued that Paul replaced circumcision and other Jewish “identity markers” with faith as the “badge of covenant membership” in the people of God.

For my part, this way of framing things is wrong-headed. What Paul found wrong with Judaism was neither legalism nor ethnocentrism, nor simply that Judaism was not Christianity. Paul’s problem was not in fact with Judaism but with humanity. In light of the Christ event—the death and resurrection of the Messiah—Paul concluded that the human plight was much worse than he had imagined.

But if Paul thought in terms of a badge of covenant membership, of a sign that one belongs to the Messiah, he would, I think, have fingered something more physical, more obvious, more tactile than faith. He would have pointed, as he does in Galatians, to the stigmata of Jesus that he carried around in his body (6:17). It is these scars of suffering for Christ, not circumcision (6:12-13, 15), that mark him out as a follower of the crucified Lord, through whom, he claims “the world has been crucified to me and I to the world” (6:14).

The pattern shows up often enough to represent a deep (and puzzling) current in Paul’s thinking:

  • In Galatians, Paul exclaims “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6:14); in Romans, Paul insists that we boast in our sufferings (Rom 5:3).
  • According to Rom 8:17, “we are heirs with Christ if in fact we suffer with him.”
  • Paul tells the Philippians that “it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him” (Phil 1:29 NIV).
  • Paul wants to know not only the power of Christ’s resurrection but also the “fellowship of his sufferings,” linking conformity to Jesus’ death in some way to participation in the resurrection (Phil 3:10-11).
  • For other related passages, see 1 Cor 4:6-13; 2 Cor 12:9-10; and 11; Col 1:24.

If there is a badge of covenant membership for Christians, it is not faith but suffering, the imitation of Christ.

This does not mean anyone should look for suffering or beat themselves up if they are not. It does not mean Christians who experience trauma or mental illness should glory (or wallow) in their suffering instead of seeking help. No, “trouble’s gonna come” if you live long enough. And, again, for those who believe, suffering leads to hope of glory.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Josephus and Jewish Ethnonyms Take 2

A public service announcement for anyone in the Caronport area:

This will be a partially-revised version of the paper I gave last year at the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies.

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

A 2023 Reading Retrospective

Zotero tells me I read fewer books in 2023 than I did in 2022, but, for the record, there are a few big books on this year's list and more that are related to my academic and teaching interests. I count eight audiobooks, six novels (if you include Adrian Plass), three or four Greek readers and texts, a couple language-learning pedagogy-related books, ten or so books related to biblical studies and ancient Judaism, and, depending on how you slice them, 3-5 memoirs or autobiographies. 

Zotero also tells me how little reading, aside from student assignments and course textbooks, gets done when classes are in session. Grades submitted, I completed seven books in the delightful final week of 2023 to make up for the drought.

Without further ado, here is the list in reading sequence, with more annotations than usual:

Plass, Adrian. The Theatrical Tapes of Leonard Thynn. London: Marshall Pickering, 1989. [Re-read]

Plato. Apology. 
        [Always a win when I make it through one of Plato's dialogues in Greek]

Doerr, Anthony. All the Light We Cannot See. New York: Scribner, 2017. 
        [Mesmerizing novel that felt a little shallow in retrospect]

Wilcock, Penelope. The Hawk and the Dove. Eastbourne: Minstrel, 1990.

Thiessen, Matthew. Jesus and the Forces of Death. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020. 
        [My initial reaction: Really fine book. I’m not quite convinced about Thiessen's central thesis about Jesus, but it shows compellingly that Jesus was Torah-observant (according to the Gospels) and includes all sorts of helpful details about how the purity system was understood.]

Staples, Jason A. The Idea of Israel in Second Temple Judaism: A New Theory of People, Exile, and Israelite Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021. 
        [My initial comments here]

Rogers, Guy MacLean. For the Freedom of Zion: The Great Revolt of Jews against Romans, 66–74 CE. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022. 
        [Audiobook for the main text, otherwise I would never have finished, print book for the footnotes; among other things, this massive book is a helpful counter to Mason's more minimalistic approach to Josephus]

Moberly, R. W. L. The Bible in a Disenchanted Age: The Enduring Possibility of Christian Faith. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018.

Wyner, Gabriel. Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It. New York: Harmony, 2014. 
        [Audiobook, but I liked it enough to order the print version. Big idea: Use Anki.]

Eliot, George. Silas Marner. Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons, 1861. [Audiobook]

Collier, Winn. A Burning in My Bones: The Authorized Biography of Eugene H. Peterson, Translator of The Message. Colorado Springs, Colorado: WaterBrook, 2022. 
        [Audiobook; two thumbs up]

Balme, Maurice, Gilbert Lawall, Luigi Miraglia, and Tommaso Francesco Bórri. Athenaze: introduzione al greco antico. Parte II. 2nd ed. Montella, Avellino: Accademia Vivarium Novum, 2008. 
        [Re-read for the 2nd time. Also re-read a couple times this year: Athenaze vol. 1]

Kushner, Aviya. The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015. 
        [Audiobook, but I liked it enough to order a paper copy]

Newbigin, Lesslie. Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995. 

Henshaw, Florencia G., and Maris D. Hawkins. Common Ground: Second Language Acquisition Theory Goes to the Classroom. Focus, 2022.

Linebaugh, Jonathan A. The Word of the Cross: Reading Paul. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2022. 
        [Really helpful for thinking about Romans]

Barclay, John M. G. Paul and the Power of Grace. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020. 
        [A textbook; re-read, this time as an audiobook]

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts. When in Romans: An Invitation to Linger with the Gospel According to Paul. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016. 
        [Textbook; re-read multiple times]

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1847. 
        [Re-read for the first time in 24 or 25 years]

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1960. 
        [First read in high school 30+ years ago; takes the prize for best fiction]

Westerholm, Stephen. Romans: Text, Readers, and the History of Interpretation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2022. 
        [Chapter two is a must-read response to the "Paul within Judaism" school; the rest of the book is a slow burn: I confess to wondering why much of the early history of interpretation mattered--the ancients' concerns seemed so foreign to the text--but then it all clicked in the final few chapters.]

Simkovich, Malka Z. Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories That Shaped Early Judaism. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2018.

Bono. Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story. Random House Audio, 2022. 
        [Fabulous audiobook if you like U2; I listened to most of the book on 1x speed for the music and for Bono's narration.]

Joint Association of Classical Teachers. Reading Greek: Text and Vocabulary. 2d ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 
        [Most satisfying book to have completed: I purchased the first edition of this graded Classical Greek reader in the late 90's, but despite repeated attempts I never made it past the first few chapters. After working hard on classical Greek fluency over the last 5 years, most of the text is now accessible.] 

Thiessen, Matthew. A Jewish Paul: The Messiah’s Herald to the Gentiles. Baker Academic, 2023. 
        [Good title, great footnotes; pairs well with Westerholm's chapter two above.]

Collingwood, R. G. An Autobiography. Oxford: Clarendon, 1939. 
        [First read in 2007; more accessible than The Idea of History]

Moore, Russell D. Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America. Sentinel, 2023.\
        [Audiobook; Moore calls out the hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of Trump-supporting American Evangelicals, and proposes alternatives. Big idea: James Dobson was right: character matters. Perhaps because we are the same (!) age, I share Moore's sense of betrayal.]

Saturday, December 16, 2023

ALS and Hope of Glory

When Paul pauses to catch his breath at the beginning of Romans 5, he exclaims, “we boast in the hope of the glory of God,” and then quickly adds, “What’s more, we also boast in our sufferings.” As a follower of the crucified Messiah, Paul can’t bring himself to boast directly in the hope of glory, so he backs up and starts over, tracing a sequence that leads from suffering to hope:

Suffering produces endurance,

    endurance produces character,

        and character produces hope.

Suffering does not always produce hope, of course; it often ends in despair. But, Paul says, for us it leads to hope. These are assertions, not arguments, no doubt based on Paul’s own experience: Those who cry “Abba Father,” co-heirs with the crucified Messiah, find that suffering leads to hope, not despair, that all creation’s groaning goes hand-in-hand, somehow, with the love of God poured into our hearts.

It is a remarkable thing when you see this truth confirmed before your eyes.

My sister, Karen, was diagnosed with ALS not quite a year ago, on Jan 6 2023, just a few days before her 54th birthday. She died on Wednesday, 29 November, leaving behind her husband of 27 years, and two young adult children.

As the terrible disease took its terrible toll - the rapid loss of mobility, the loss of speech, the loss of the ability to eat -  my sister lived life and faced death with courage and steadfast trust in the goodness and love of God.

A few months after her diagnosis Karen began chronicling her experience and expressing her faith on a blog she called “Sufficient Grace.”

The entry for April 11 is a typical example that sandwiches the unvarnished reality of her suffering between a Bible verse and a confession of faith: 

“For his anger endureth but a moment; in his favour is life: weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning. (Psalm 30:5) 
“Grief is the companion of ALS. It rises with every loss, sometimes with great tears and sobs, sometimes with just a lingering sadness and a sense that what used to be is no more. … Joy cometh in the morning! While I am still here, there are plenty of reasons to get up in the morning–sunrises, singing birds, laughter as my husband or daughter gets me dressed, the warm smile of each of my family members, a cup of sweet hot tea, and friends. And there are many more things I could list. God’s blessings are indeed rich and infinite!”

May 6: “The Rock that is Higher than I” (from Psalm 61:2) 

“It’s been a grieving week. As my hands weaken and I can hardly carry my phone, let alone lift anything else, and my legs weaken, and I struggle with the stairs, and my voice weakens, and I struggle to speak, it is so easy to get discouraged. I have become nearly completely dependent on my family. The tears of sadness and frustration have been very near the surface. But there have been good things too. With every loss, there are blessings and mercy….”

May 31 Promise

“ALS is a thief. It takes and takes, and takes some more. But it can’t take my faith, and it can’t take the promises of God.”

Sept 5: Frustration

“I think I have more questions than answers about why God allows such difficult situations to happen to us. All I know is that He is not done writing my story just like I am not done writing my own story.”

Oct 6: Loss to Gain

“One of the recent losses has been that of intelligible speech. … The hardest loss has been the loss of the ability to swallow food. I really miss my morning tea and the ability to take on active part in meals with family. In my family food has been a way of showing love. We cook favorite meals because we love. This subject has taken me a while to write about because the loss has been so painful. Yes you can blend foods and push them through a tube but it isn’t the same. As these losses grow bigger the thought of heaven grows sweeter and I am reminded of Paul when he says, in Philippians 3 ... ‘I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord....’”

Oct 16: Patience in Suffering

“I am faint and weary, weary of this body that no longer works. But I look forward with hope to the One who never is faint or weak or weary. And I look forward to one day having a new body that has strength to be able to walk and talk.” 

Karen’s last post, a reflection on Jesus as the bread of life - “he that cometh to me shall never hunger” - was published on Oct 21

The blog’s final post is her obituary. You can read it here.