Thursday, May 29, 2008

Josephus and the προφηταί: A Conclusion

I am toying with the idea of concluding my Josephus paper as follows:

I imagine that if I had the chance to talk with Josephus about his understanding of prophecy over an amphora of wine at his Flavian residence in Rome, he would explain that from his perspective the term “prophet” is best reserved for Moses and his successors—for those who were responsible for recording the Judaean constitution, for repeatedly summoning Israel back to the divinely ordained way of life, for writing the past history of his people, and for including in these holy writings predictions that came to fulfilment in his own day and—he would add after a pause—predictions that still await their fulfilment.

After these preliminaries, I put the question this way: In your laws, Moses said that the difference between a true and a false prophet comes down to whether or not the prophet’s predictions come true. You have insisted that your own predictions were fulfilled. Are you, then, a prophet? “You say that I am” he replied. This is not a satisfying answer, but it is as decisive a statement as we can expect from someone who models himself after the biblical prophets, who applies Deuteronomy’s instructions about prophets to himself, but who still refrains from using the label in relation to himself.
Is this too glib for an academic paper?? I'll give it some more thought on my way to Vancouver.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Summer "To-Do" List

Today's Ms. Mentor column in the Chronicle of Higher Education has a great description of the summer life of academics, and some good advice:

Question: "Lucky you, you get the summers off," my nonacademic friends often say, not really joking. I don't tell them how much I worry about time and money, and I don't admit that every summer I think I'm a total fraud. Do I need time management? Image management? New friends?

Answer: Too many academics are riddled with guilt, Ms. Mentor knows. Most of you have been fueled by it all your lives.

You've gotten a lot of good mileage out of it: high grades, teachers' praise, honors, fellowships, and awards. But still the backup singers in your head keep chanting, "More, more, more" and "Work, work, work." They never take a day off. By Labor Day, if you don't stop them, they'll have a full-fledged opera.

Academics start the summer with a fresh slate, the way the rest of the world starts a new year: gasping with exhaustion, but brimming with nervous energy and wildly ambitious plans. You'll learn Old Norse or study genetics. You'll clean up all those moldering books and papers. You'll alphabetize and synthesize and categorize.

Of course you have a mental To-Do list. Maybe it's on your computer, and maybe it's posted on your fridge. But it's also in your heart, where it starts thumping with anxiety almost immediately: "You'll never get it done. You'll never get it done."

And so Ms. Mentor's first suggestion is to shorten your summer To-Do list. Make time for children, parents, cats, close friends, and partners -- but make sure summertime can be your festival of the intellect. List only those tasks that you're sure to accomplish. Otherwise you're apt to wind up napping a lot, writhing, frothing, and wallowing in guilt....

Read the whole column here.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Josephus and the προφηταί: An Argument

At the beginning of this month I posted the abstract for the paper I am to present at the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies Annual Meeting next Tuesday. Researching and writing the paper has been a lot more difficult than I anticipated. What I expected to find is not there, I have waffled back and forth on a number of other issues, the paper is now too long, but still incomplete, and I am running short on time. Sound familiar? On the positive side, I have learned a lot, and it has been fun to get back into Josephus!

Here is what I plan to argue, as of this evening: (1) Josephus restricts positive uses of the term “prophet” to the biblical prophets, (2) he did not regard John Hyrcanus as a prophet even though he says Hyrcanus "prophesied" and had "prophecy," and (3) apart from the label (and the time period to which they belong) there is no significant difference between the biblical prophets, Hyrcanus and later inspired figures such as Josephus himself.

If you are (still) interested, I have posted the rest of my introduction below. Any and all feedback is most welcome!


In 1974 Joseph Blenkinsopp could take for granted that Josephus, along with the Tannaitic rabbis, believed prophecy had ceased with Haggai and Zechariah. As an indication of how much has changed in the intervening years, the published collection of essays from the 2003 meeting of the “Prophetic Texts and their Ancient Contexts” group at SBL takes as its starting point that prophecy did not cease. Lester Grabbe’s article in the same volume concludes confidently “For Josephus, prophecy definitely had not ceased, for he was himself a prophet!” Grabbe is not alone, but neither has the view he represents carried the day. Contrast, for instance, Steve Mason’s emphatic reassertion of the cessation view: “If there were prophecy in his day, he [Josephus] would be a prophet, but of course there is not and he is not.”

The issue is disputed in large measure because Josephus’s self-characterization seems to tell a different story than the labels he uses to refer to inspired figures in the ancient past. On the one hand, there are widely acknowledged similarities between Josephus’s depiction of himself and his presentation of those whom we regard as the “biblical” prophets. Like Jeremiah, Josephus summoned his fellow-Judaeans to repentance and exhorted them to capitulate to the foreign power besieging Jerusalem. Like Daniel, whom Josephus describes as “one of the greatest prophets” (Ant. 10.266), Josephus had “ which God had foretold to him the impending fate of the Jews and the destinies of the Roman sovereigns” (War 3.351). We learn from the Against Apion that the Judaean chronicles are superior to those of other nations because they were written by prophets, who learned about the “ancient past” “by inspiration from God…and recorded plainly events in their own time just as they occurred” (Ap. 1.37). But as we read on we discover Josephus means to convey that, like the prophets of old, he also recorded the history of his own people truthfully and accurately. On the other hand, although Josephus employs προφήτης, the standard Septuagintal translation for נביא, with great frequency when he refers to the biblical prophets, he never refers to himself as a προφήτης, and, except for Haggai and Zechariah, he almost never applies words of the same root as προφήτης to anyone who lived after the return from exile.

In the end I agree with Grabbe that there are more continuities than discontinuities between Josephus’s self-understanding and his conception of the biblical prophets, but it will not do to disregard or discount Josephus’s use of terminology if one wishes to approach the cessation question from an emic perspective—to determine not simply whether or not prophecy ceased, but whether or not Josephus thought it did. Of course, it is also necessary to take seriously Josephus’s characterization of inspired individuals who are not referred to by the label προφήτης. In my view, the pressure to decide whether or not Josephus believed prophecy ceased with a simple yes or no answer tends to obscure either Josephus’s distinctive use of “prophet” terminology or his prophetic characterization of contemporary inspired figures. It is more fruitful, I think, to recognize that prophetic characterization and terminology stand in tension with each other, and to explore what this tension suggests about Josephus’s understanding of the relationship between the present and the past.

In this paper, I will try to get at Josephus’s self-understanding by way of the historian’s inspired kinsman and hero, the Hasmonean high priest John Hyrcanus I, who, Josephus claims, was considered worthy of “prophecy.” I will begin by examining whether Josephus’s depiction of Hyrcanus is consistent with his use of “prophet” terminology in other contexts. I will then evaluate proposed differences between Hyrcanus, the biblical prophets, and other later inspired figures. To anticipate my conclusions: I am going to argue that Josephus restricts positive uses of the term “prophet” to the biblical prophets, that he did not regard Hyrcanus as a prophet, and that apart from the label (and the time period to which they belong) there is no significant difference between the biblical prophets, Hyrcanus and later inspired figures such as Josephus himself.

Banqueting Etiquette First Century Style

Josephus says that when the former high priest and ruler, Hyrcanus II, returned to Jerusalem, "Herod received him with all honour, assigned him the first place in meetings, gave him the most honoured seat at the banquet-table and called him Father" (Ant. 15.22).

Nothing too significant here, except that I couldn't help be reminded of the advice of another Judaean who lived a little later:
  • "When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, 'Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." (Luke 14:8-11 NRSV; cf. Matt 23:6)
  • "And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father-- the one in heaven." (Matt 23:9 NRSV).
Josephus goes on to explain that Herod's respect was feigned. It was not long before Hyrcanus, and his grandchildren Aristobulus III and Mariamme were dead.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

George Eliot on Introverted Academics

This is a longish quotation from Middlemarch (Penguin Classics), 279-280, but well worth reading if you (or someone you know) is inclined toward introversion and academia. George Eliot has all our little depravities down cold:

Mr Casaubon had never had a strong bodily frame, and his soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic: it was too languid to thrill out of self-consciousness into passionate delight; it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying.

His experience was of that pitiable kind which shrinks from pity, and fears most of all that it should be known: it was that proud narrow sensitiveness which has not mass enough to spare for transformation into sympathy, and quivers thread-like in small currents of self-preoccupation or at best of an egoistic scrupulosity.

. . . It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self - never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardour of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Barth, his bell rope, and the telephone game

In March, N.T. Wright left a comment on Scot McKnight's Jesus Creed blog, describing his experience writing about the afterlife in his new short book Surprised by Hope:
As I said to someone the other day at the Pastors’ Conference, I find myself often in the position Karl Barth described a propos his Romans commentary: trying to find the way for myself, suddenly a lot of other people seem to be wanting to know as well. He used the image of when, as a boy, he was climbing up the dark staircase in the church tower in the dark and, thinking he’d found a hand-rail, leant his weight on it only to discover it was the bell-rope. (The full note is here.)
I liked the bell-rope image and went looking for it in one of the prefaces to Barth's Romans commentary. It wasn't there, so I checked the internet. Here's what I found:

J. Livingston's Barth page:
"As I look back upon my course, I seem to myself as one who, ascending the dark staircase of a church tower and trying to steady himself reached for the banister, but got hold of the bell rope instead. To his horror, he had then to listen to what the great bell had sounded over him and not over him alone."
Livingston cites: Karl Barth, Christliche Dogmatik (Munchen, 1927), p. IX, as cited in Paul Lehrnann, " The Changing Course of a Corrective Theology," Theology Today (October, 1956), p. 334.
F. F. Bruce's commentary on Romans (Eerdmans, 1985), 58:
He compared himself to a man who, clutching in the dark at a rope for guidance, finds that he has pulled on a bell-rope and made a sound fit to wake the dead.

Bruce cites: K. Barth, Die Lehre vom Worte Gottes (1927), preface.
Clifford Green, Karl Barth: Theologian of Freedom (Fortress, 1991), 16:
Barth himself drew on one of his own experiences and said it was like a man climbing up the church bell-tower in the dark who, reaching for the handrail, grasped the bell rope instead, and sounded the alarm throughout the whole town. (No footnote)
The Encyclopedia of Religion livens things up a bit:
Barth later said that in writing this book he was like a man in a dark church tower who accidentally trips, catches hold of the bell rope to steady himself, and alarms the whole countryside. (No footnote)
And here is James S. Stewart:
Barth's own vivid description of what happened with that book was that it was just as if a man, climbing a church tower by night, should clutch at a rope to save himself from falling : the rope does indeed save him, but it is the bell rope, and the sudden pealing of the church bell through the darkness awakens the whole town. (No footnote)
As a little source critical exercise--would Barth approve, I wonder?--notice the different emphases: Wright's version focuses on Barth's surprise, Stewart's stresses salvation, Bruce's draws on resurrection imagery, Livingston's highlights the personal implications of what Barth discovered, the Encyclopedia of Religion says that the man tripped, and Green focuses on the alarm.

I suspect we have a least two different translations of the German original with some secondary orality thrown in for good measure. Does anyone have access to the original German text?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Walking well wadded with stupidity

Some choice quotations from George Eliot's Middlemarch:
  • If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity. (194)
  • There is hardly any contact more depressing to a young ardent creature than that of a mind in which years full of knowledge seem to have issued in a blank absence of interest or sympathy. (197)
  • Poor Mr Casaubon himself was lost among small closets and winding stairs, and . . . easily lost sight of any purpose which had prompted him to these labours. With his taper stuck before him he forgot the absence of windows, and in bitter manuscript remarks on other men's notions about the solar deities, he had become indifferent to the sunlight. (197)

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Inspiration and Incarnation - Nihil Obstat

Now that I have finished reading Peter Enns's Inspiration and Incarnation, I can say that I like it. If I were a bishop I would grant it my Imprimatur, though I am happy to add that I am not an Old Testament scholar and am therefore not in a position to evaluate some of the observations he makes about the Old Testament and parallels to Ancient Near Eastern literature, and the Old Testament and theological diversity.

Enns has been criticized for his loose terminology and for failing to engage theological discussions of the doctrine of inspiration, among other things (see the links to reviews here). It may well be that he tries to get too much mileage out of the incarnational analogy (as D.A. Carson suggested in his review here), though it serves his limited purposes well. I thought Enns pushed the "this is a problem" line a little too hard at times, and I wished for more discussion of the options. (This last point is the only reason I would hesitate to recommend it to Christians who are not in a position to dig deeper and evaluate the options themselves.)

But the book should be evaluated for what it is: A popular-level work--notice the absence of footnotes!--that takes the inspiration of Scripture for granted and that seeks to reflect on what inspiration means in light of the actual phenomena in Scripture. A sympathetic reading would suggest that pursuing the questions further is precisely what Enns intended for his readers to do.

I like how Enns models a confidence in the authority of Scripture which allows him to approach the phenomena in Scripture honestly instead of defensively. (To be sure, it is possible to make an honest defense, but in my experience evangelicals are not very good at it.)

Consider the following examples of Enns's approach:
  • I am not trying to drive a wedge between the Bible and God. Actually, and somewhat ironically, this is what I see others doing. I feel bound to talk about God in the way(s) the Bible does, even if I am not comfortable with it. The Bible really does have authority if we let it speak, and not when we--intentionally or unintentionally--suspend what the Bible says about God in some places while we work out our speculations about what God is 'really' like, perhabs by accenting other portions of the Bible that are more amenable to tour thinking. God gave us the Bible so we could read it, not so we can ferret our way behind it to see how things really are. (106).
  • Is the fact of diversity fundamentally contrary to the Bible being the word of God? My answer is no. And the way in which we can begin to address this issue is to confess at the outset, along with the historic Christian church, that the Bible is the word of God. That is our starting point, a confession of faith, not creating a standard of what the Bible look like and then assessing the Bible on the basis of that standard. If we begin with the confession that the Bible is God's word, that it ultimately comes from him, that it is what the Spirit of god wanted it to be, that there is no place in all the messiness of the Old Testament where God says, "Oops, I didn't really mean to put it that way--I'd like to try again, please"--if we begin there, we have the freedom to look honestly and deeply at what God is doing in the Bible. In other words, once we confess that the Bible is God's word, we can look at how it is God's word. That investigation ill not come to an end in this life. There is always a freshness and inscrutability about the Bible. This goes hand in hand with believing that the Bible is God's word; it will always be bigger than what we can comprehend. There is always more thinkinig and reflection to be done in observing how Scripture behaves and what conclusions we can draw. (108)
It is for statements such as these that I would second Richard E. Averbeck's endorsement: "This is a very needed and refreshing book."

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Google Books - A research library trip without the library or the trip

Google Books made my day this afternoon. I was looking for an important article on Josephus' understanding of prophets in the following arcane-sounding volume: Josephus' Contra Apionem: Studies in Its Character and Context with a Latin Concordance to the Portion Missing in Greek. Published by Brill, it retails for the low price of $193.68 US at Barnes & The Latin concordance has no doubt contributed to sales, but it is not exactly a bestseller. For some reason our library does not own a copy.

Fortunately for me, Google has the whole book scanned. With the help of Gadwin's free PrintScreen program, I was able to make screen shots of the whole essay, trim them in Paint, and print them out:
More time-consuming than a photocopy, but a whole lot easier than driving to the nearest research library that has a copy of the book!

Another thing that made me happy this afternoon was the first installment of my order from R.G. Mitchell's review program:Alas, it remains true that acquiring books and articles is easier than reading them. To work!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Piper and Pedagogy

I started working on this post back in March shortly after Piper John's comments at the 2008 Resurgence Conference hit the blogosphere:

Here’s my rule of thumb: the more responsible a person is to shape the thoughts of others about God, the less Arminianism should be tolerated. Therefore church members should not be excommunicated for this view but elders and pastors and seminary and college teachers should be expected to hold the more fully biblical view of grace. Do you separate from a denomination that allows pastors and seminary teachers to believe and teach this error? You can. We do. (See for the whole talk; HT: Scot McKnight's Weekly Meanderings)

There is plenty to take issue with in this statement--see here and here for some examples--and Piper himself decided they required nuancing:

By way of clarification, I would say: In an Arminian institution, Arminians should be allowed to teach. But in institutions that regard Arminianism as a defective view of God’s grace, they should not be allowed to teach. Or, more broadly, in an institution that thinks the truth is better served by having advocates of Arminianism and Calvinism, both should be allowed to teach.

Then the question shifts to whether churches and Christian educational institutions should be devoted to a mix of Arminianism and Calvinism. No, I don’t think they should be. I think the truth, the church, and the world are better served by confessional institutions—that is, institutions which settle on the great things about God that they believe, and then build their teaching and research upon them.

Why, one might ask, is the church better served by institutions that require all faculty to side with either Arminianism or Calvinism? And how does one avoid the charge of indoctrination?

When this kind of teaching and research are done well, the charge of indoctrination does not stick. No one’s ultimate aim should be to be Calvinist or Arminian. The aim should be to be biblical. Therefore, teaching and research will labor with all their might to show students what the Bible teaches. That will not be indoctrination. It will be true education.

The fact that we all have blind spots and profit from perspectives different from our own does not imply that we should hire someone to teach those perspectives in our pulpit or class room. It means we read and listen and carry on whatever conversation or dialogue or debate is appropriate.

In my 22 years of formal education . . . it became increasingly clear to me that diverse theological positions on the same faculty of a Christian institution diminished the importance of those differences. For some issues, that is good. For others it is not. Which those are is one of the great challenges of every generation.

If I did not agree with Piper to some extent, I would not be teaching at a confessional institution. We all work within a framework of understanding, and it is appropriate to agree on where the major boundaries are. However, Piper makes it sound as though everything boils down to what one considers the big issues on the dividing line between orthodoxy and heresy. Piper thinks Arminianism is a heresy worthy of excommunication. I don't. End of story.

But there is more to my uneasiness with Piper's comments than mere disagreement about the boundary lines of Christian orthodoxy. At issue is two differing conceptions of the goal of a confessional Christian education. Piper seems to live, think, and teach as though he has the Truth within his grasp, and he knows what it is. I am much more comfortable with Miroslav Volf's chastened epistemology, but my concern here is that this posture seems to disregard the process of learning:

As Piper acknowledges, the goal of a "true education" is not adherence to a party line. But it is also more than showing "students what the Bible teaches" as if students are only so many empty vessels to be filled with knowledge. A true education will encourage in students the ability to think for themselves so that they can continue to be nurtured by their own ongoing study of Scripture. What better way to encourage careful thinking than in a setting where faculty are able to model respectful debate (and disagreement) about vital issues within the framework of broader Christian orthodoxy?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

"We are born for fellowship"

In Josephus's panegyric on the Law which concludes his apologetic work Against Apion, the Jewish historian has this to say on Temple worship:
"Our sacrifices are not occasions for drunken self-indulgence--such practices are abhorrent to God--but for sobriety (σωφροσύνην). At these sacrifices prayers for the welfare of the community must take precedence of those for ourselves; for we are born for fellowship (κοινωνίᾳ), and he who sets its claims above his private interests is specially acceptable to God" (Josephus, Against Apion, 2.195-6; Thackeray LCL vol. 1).
Josephus's description is a salutary reminder of such NT passages as Acts 2:42-47 and Phil 2:1-4, contrasting as it does with the solitary individualism still so pervasive among academics, for whom "libraries are our natural habitat" (James Dunn as quoted by Mark Goodacre).

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Monday, May 5, 2008

Britannica Webshare

Clicking on the links in the previous post will take you to the Encyclopaedia Britannica articles rather than the free Wikipedia entries. As a "Web Publisher" I applied for, and received, complimentary access to the venerable Britannica. The full text of all Encyclopaedia Britannica articles I link to on this blog is free for my readers.

Initial impressions:
  • I like being able to point to and use a more consistently scholarly resource. (Strictly speaking neither the -paedia nor the -pedia should be regarded as authorities in their own right. Articles will be more or less authoritative depending on the quality of their contributor(s). Both are good resources that should be read critically.)
  • I don't like the commercialism of Britannica.
  • Wikipedia is easier to use since once doesn't need to login or wait for a slow website to load.
  • The Wikipedia entry on Middlemarch is also much more extensive than anything Encyclopaedia Britannica has to offer.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Dad said he lay awake the night after our homestead trip, thinking about the sad obliteration of his father's farm and trying to remember the words to Shelley's Ozymandias:
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear׃
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
The poem reminds me of Mr. Lydgate in Middlemarch and, in general, of scholarly attempts to gain fame by shedding "new light" on ancient subjects.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Josephus and the προφηταί: Exploring the Non-Use of a Label

In addition to preparing syllabi for the fall semester, most of my time this month will be occupied writing a paper for the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies Annual Meeting in Vancouver at the beginning of June. Here is the abstract I submitted in December:

Josephus’s general reluctance to employ the label, προφήτης, when he speaks positively of contemporary inspired figures has often been cited as evidence for the cessation of prophecy. Others scholars, who note Josephus’s self-characterization as a prophetic figure, suggest that his diction was influenced by a certain “nostalgia for the past,” that he believed prophecy continued even though the label had fallen out of use, or that the “wise would understand” he was a prophet even though he never employed the term with reference to himself. In this paper, I will assess how these and other explanations account for Josephus’s willingness to use words of the προφητ- root in reference to the biblical prophets and John Hyrcanus, but not to other later inspired figures. I will then attempt to move the discussion about Josephus’s use of the label forward by considering the relationship between his larger narrative interest in the Jewish politeia and his portrayal of prophets.

In my dreams, the paper will shed important new light on Josephus's understanding of prophets, but first I need to find out what that "new light" is. I have a hunch, but I am not far enough along in the research process to be able to substantiate it. Not the most comfortable place to be in the paper writing process!