Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Paul was no Genius

"Paul was no genius: he was, after all, hardly remarkable as a literary stylist, of unknown competence as a tent-maker, and, when it comes to profundity, not to be compared with a Plato or a Shakespeare. But even to consider him in these terms, no matter how complimentary our assessment of his gifts, is to rob him of his true importance. Paul was an apostle who spoke with authority the divine message he was commissioned to deliver. As such, he commands a hearing." - Stephen Westerholm, drawing on Søren Kierkegaard, in the introduction to The Blackwell Companion to Paul (Stephen Westerholm, ed.; Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 3.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Romans textbooks and the craft of scholarly writing

The last couple times I taught Romans, I assigned as textbooks Leander Keck's commentary and Stephen Westerholm's accessible introduction to the worldview of Romans. I think Keck is great, but realized last time that it is still a little too technical for a third year undergraduate course. On a quest for up-to-date alternatives to both books, I ordered in several evaluation copies, all published within the last couple years:

Oakes, Peter. Reading Romans In Pompeii: Paulʼs Letter At Ground Level. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009.
Gombis, Timothy G. Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed. Continuum, 2010.
Hultgren, Arland J. Paulʼs Letter to the Romans: A Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011.
Matera, Frank J. Romans. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010.

Reading Romans in Pompeii: Paul's Letter at Ground LevelI thought Reading Romans in Pompeii might substitute for Westerholm as an engaging secondary text on the social context of Romans. While I found it fascinating as a thought experiment about how the letter may have been heard by Gentile readers of Paul's letter, the book does little to welcome modern readers who are not already interested. After a 2.5 pp. preface, chapter one begins:
"We are standing in a street in Pompeii, looking into the doorway of Region I, Block 10, House 6 . . . flanked by the narrower entrances to Houses 5 and 7 (Figure 1.1)." 
How can I assign undergraduates a book that opens with a data dump? ...Next please.

Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed (Guides For The Perplexed)Introductions to Paul are a dime a dozen. I ordered in Timothy Gombis's Guide for the Perplexed because it is recent, because it received positive online kudos from J.R.D. Kirk and Scot McKnight, and because I was pretty sure T&T Clark would send me a free evaluation copy. There's lots to like here. Gombis does a fine job compiling verses on both sides of selected debates, there are helpful charts, and I love his articulation of Paul's mission:
"Paul is a herald of the Kingdom of God and of the victory and Cosmic Lordship of Jesus Christ. This is an intensely political vocation, since Paul is proclaiming the emergent reality of a radically new political order--the Kingdom of God--along with an alternative ruler; the crucified, risen, and exalted Jesus. This calling as a herald inevitably involved a pastoral task, since Paul's aim was to see the creation and establishment of Kingdom of God communities throughout the world." (23)    
Unfortunately, Gombis's evaluation of debated issues sometimes struck me as simplistic and one-sided. No doubt this is partly because I sometimes disagreed with Gombis's conclusions, but--as will be clear below--I have no trouble assigning readings that I disagree with. My concern is that in a guide that aims to introduce debated issues, opposing views should be presented in such a way that critics will agree with the way they are portrayed. The upshot is that I've decided to stick with Westerholm.

Paul's Letter to the Romans: A CommentaryOne look at Arland Hultgren's large commentary on Romans convinced me that it wouldn't do as an undergraduate textbook. Compare the short paragraph in Keck's succinct commentary to the three pages Hultgren spends discussing the first line of Paul's letter. Still, it looks to be an important contribution--Scot McKnight thinks so too--and I hope to read it during the fall semester.

Romans (Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament)
Frank Matera's contribution to the Paideia series is short enough to work as a textbook, and it looks like an insightful, up-to-date contribution by a first-rate Pauline scholar. I look forward to reading it. Unfortunately, I fear my students would not, after reading the first paragraph:
"Romans is the first of the Pauline Letters in the NT. Although it enjoys this pride of place because it is the longest of the letters, its placement is well deserved since it is the most detailed presentation of Paul's gospel, and since it has influenced the course of Christian theology more than any other writing of the NT."
Thud. Commentaries don't have to be written this way. Here is how Keck begins his:
"Like widely differing siblings raised by the same parents, each letter produced by Paul has its own distinguishing character. For the historically minded critic, each letter's unique traits provide important clues for detecting the circumstances in which Paul wrote it as well as what he hoped to achieve with it." 
N.T. Wright prefers an extended metaphor:
"Romans is neither a systematic theology nor a summary of Paul's lifework, but it is by common consent his masterpiece. It dwarfs most of his other writings, an Alpine peak towering over hills and villages." (395)
Wright's contribution to the New Interpreter Bible Vol 10 is a very good, readable commentary on Romans. I've decided to assign it as a textbook this fall as a replacement for Keck.

Wright and Westerholm make unusual bedfellows, to be sure, since Westerholm is usually cast as an opponent of the "New Perspective" on Paul, and Wright one of its champions--but that (and the fact that I disagree with Wright here and there) is half the point. More important, Wright and Westerholm share the two qualities I'm most looking for in authors that I make my students read. (1) In different ways, both model exemplary scholarship; students will learn the craft by reading. (2) They are also fine, engaging writers. If, as John Trimble says, "good writing is good manners," they are both scholars and gentlemen to boot.

The bottom line: I want textbooks that students want to keep reading, that will help me teach by making my students more rather than less interested in the subject matter. I'm betting Wright and Westerholm will do the trick.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Portland's Finest Bookstores

No trip to Portland is complete without a stop at Powell's City of Books, perhaps the greatest used and new bookstore anywhere.

No biblical scholar's trip should be complete without a stop at one of Portland's Windows Booksellers outlets. Better yet, plan in advance: Check the online inventory at their much larger bookstore in Eugene, and ask them to have your order ready to pick up when you arrive. The result is great selection, great prices and $0 shipping. As an added bonus, the copies of Caird's The Language and Imagery of the Bible and Davies' The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount that I ordered in were previously owned and annotated by Robert Kysar and Krister Stendahl respectively.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Hoskyns & Davey on Criteria for the Study of the Historical Jesus

Perhaps this just shows just how little I know about 1930's historical Jesus scholarship, but these final two quotes from Hoskyns and Davey strike me as another instance of being ahead of their time.

This one reminds me of the reasonable insistence by recent scholars that one's reconstruction of the historical Jesus must be able to explain the existence of the church:
The life of Jesus "must be described in such a manner that the emergence of the primitive church is also intelligible on the basis of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. For any historical reconsturction which leaves an unbridgeable gulf between the faith of the primitive church and the historical Jesus must be both inadequate and uncritical: inadequate, because it leaves the origin of the church unexplained; and uncritical, because a critical sifting of the evidence of the New Testament points towards the life and death of Jesus as the groudn of primitive Christian faith, and points in no other direction." (170)
Their concern for the big picture reminds me of N.T. Wright:
"An historical reconstruction is possible only when the uniform nature of the whole material at our disposal is perceived, so that each fragment is seen not only to be part of the whole, but to contain the whole; or, to put it differently, so that each fragment of it not only rests upon a common background, but expresses it. To lay bare this uniform nature, this background, is to discover the Jesus of history" (172).

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

More from Hoskyns & Davey on Historical Criticism

Stephen Neill commented that Hoskyns and Davey's The Riddle of the New Testament (3rd ed.; London: Faber & Faber, 1947) "has great and abiding value" because "[i]t puts in clear form almost all the problems which have to be dealt with in the interpretation of the New Testament" (219). Judge for yourself:

On the assured results of historical criticism: "The progress of critical historical investigation of the New Testament cannot be compared to a gradual mounting the steps of a ladder. One generation does not achieve a number of results which pass into the text-books, so that the next generation is enabled to mount a few steps higher. Rather, as each advance is made, the problem as a whole begins to look different; and the 'assured results' of the previous generation require constant reconsideration when seen in a new perspective. This does not, of course, mean that the modern critic stands aloof from the older criticism. He is completely dependent upon the work of his predecessors. But, where they supposed that they had reached definite and final conclusions, he sees new problems; and the older conclusions appear in their new context almost irrelevant, and, at times, trivial" (11-12).

History and Christian theology: "The historian of primitive Christianity is a mere hewer of wood and drawer of water; it is his function to act as the slave of the theologian or of the philosopher, as the slave also of the simple believer or of the equally simple unbeliever...The historian has therefore to make clear and accessible the material which has shown such remarkable ability to galvanize thought and faith and unbelief. The historian, then, is neither an apologist for the Christian religion nor an apostle of irreligion; still less is he an interpreter of the New Testament in terms of modern thought" (171).

History and faith: "The whole spiritual and moral power of the primitive church rested ultimately, not upon a mystical experience, but upon its belief that what Jesus had asserted to have been the purpose of his life and death was in very truth the purpose of God. Further than this the historian dare not and cannot go. On the basis of a purely critical examination of the New Testament documents he can reconstruct a clear historical figure, which is an intelligible figure; and he can, as a result of this reconstruction, show that the emergence of the primitive church is also intelligible" (177).

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Hoskyns & Davey on Jesus' Jewish Context

This statement about parallels between Jesus and his contemporaries seems ahead of its time:
 "Those modern Jewish scholars who have busied themselves with a comparison between the ethical teaching of Jesus and the ethical teaching of the rabbis have given this judgement, that there is no single moral aphorism recorded as spoken by Jesus which cannot be paralleled, and often verbally paralleled, in rabbinic literature. With this conclusion Christian scholars working in the field of rabbinics are showing more and more agreement. For example, there can be no doubt that such a saying as 'The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath' would have been regarded as a self-evident truism by the best of the rabbis. Similarly, the constant insistence by Jesus that the righteousness which God demands is a righteousness of the heart could not have been strange or new teaching." - Hoskyns and Davey's The Riddle of the New Testament (3rd ed.; London: Faber & Faber, 1947), 135.
Hoskyns and Davey's statement of the difference strikes me as on track:
"It is not sufficient merely to draw up a list of parallels between his teaching and that of the rabbis. What requires explanation is the authority with which he spoke, the urgency which accompanied his moral demands, and the evident judgement of God which he declared would inevitably follow any refusal to obey him" (136).

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Riddle of the New Testament

I first encountered Sir Edwyn Hoskyns in Stephen Neill's fantastic history of The Interpretation of the New Testament, and have been intrigued by Hoskyns and Davey's The Riddle of the New Testament (3rd ed.; London: Faber & Faber, 1947) ever since reading Markus Bockmuehl's Seeing the Word. Neill calls it "a series of hammer blows, at what . . .was a widespread understanding of the gospels" (215). It is that, but it is also a series of hammer blows against theological liberalism, for, as Neill explains,  "[T]he most important thing of all about Hoskyns was that, like Karl Barth, he was a converted liberal" (213).

As one would expect from a book first published in 1931, parts of The Riddle of the New Testament are rather dated. I find the authors a little too confident in the results of historical criticism. However, it is worth your time at least as much as C.F.D. Moule's Birth of the New Testament, and it is an easier (and shorter) read. In many respects it seems far ahead of its time. It is also a model of clarity, forceful argument, and verve. The whole book is written around the riddle of the relationship between Jesus and the church:
"There is a riddle in the New Testament. And it is a riddle neither of literary criticism, nor of date and authorship, nor of the historicity of this or that episode. The riddle is a theological riddle, which is insoluble apart from the solution of an historical problem. What was the relation between Jesus of Nazareth and the primitive Christian church? That is the riddle. The New Testament documents, all of them, emerged from the primitive church. They reflected piety and encouraged faith. Was there, or was there not, a strict relationship between this rich piety and exuberant faith and the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth? Did the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth control the life of the primitive church? or were his life and death submerged by a piety and faith wholly beyond his horizon? . . . The adequacy of the modern historical critical method is therefore finally tested by its success or failure in answering the problem of the Jesus of history. The authors of this book are confident that the critical method does survive this very severe test, and that it does disclose results, even assured results..." (12).
Hoskyn's and Davey's answer is, in a word, Yes. The life and death of Jesus controlled the life of the primitive church:
"No single strand in the evidence deprives Jesus of the conscious sense that he was bringing into being a new order and working out a purpose . . . . Nowhere in the New Testament are the writers imposing an interpretation upon a history. The history contains the purpose, and is indeed controlled by it. That is to say, the historian is dealing in the end with an historical figure fully conscious of a task which had to be done, and fully conscious also that the only future which mattered for men and women depended upon the completion of his task. The future order, which it was the purpose of Jesus to bring into being, depended upon what he said and did, and finally upon his death." (172)
I, for one, find their answer compelling.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

C.F.D. Moule on the Birth of the New Testament

Although it first appeared almost 50 years ago, and was last revised in 1982, it is obvious from the quotations I've posted that I think C.F.D. Moule's, The Birth of the New Testament (3rd ed.; Harper & Row, 1982) is still well worth reading. Here's another gem:
"[I]n a genuinely Christian community there is a humility that renders mutual learning quick and easy--the intellectuals ready to learn from the silent witness of the less articulate, and vice versa." (207)
I found myself disagreeing with some of Moule's proposals--for example, that the Gospels weren't intended as preaching or that most of the NT can be dated pre-70. And, of course, one would turn elsewhere for a current introduction to Christian Origins. But for those already familiar with aspects of current scholarship, Birth offers an instructive glimpse into its history: to the giants on whose shoulders modern scholars--sometimes unknowingly--joust, and of those whose contributions have been forgotten to our collective loss.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Missing the Obvious?

Why is it that when I 'get' the need for grace, I struggle to grasp conversion? Paul never says, "Sorry, churches, I goofed." His conversion, like Augustine's, seems complete and total. To be sure, Paul insists that our whole life is to be lived through God's grace, not our own effort, but he assumes radical transformation. When he addresses failure, he exhorts people to become what they are, and to repent. He doesn't admit to being a continuing failure himself. (I assume that Paul is not talking autobiographically about his experience as a Christian in Romans 7.) Paul doesn't emphasize God's grace to forgive, he stresses grace to live. In short, Paul is not one to sympathize with moral weakness. His life and letters give little comfort to those who, like me, sometimes feel stalled, who need to start over again, and again, and again. Paul left his σκύβαλα (Phil 3:8) when he met the Messiah; what about those of us who sometimes look inside and σκύβαλα is all we see?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

C.F.D. Moule on New Testament Ethics

"Strictly speaking, there are no 'cardinal' virtues in Christianity, for Christian character does not 'hinge' round the disciplined practice of virtue: it is a spontaneous growth, it is a crop of qualities springing from the seed of new life divinely sown . . .; or--more characteristically described--it is life in the new age, resulting from incorporation in the new humanity which is Christ . . . . Agape is not a virtue among other virtues so much as an impulse, divinely implanted: it is God's love for us in Christ, reflected and responded to. And what in other systems might be called virtues are the shape spontaneously taken by agape in the Christian community . . . . Therefore, although in fact many Christian qualities seem to coincide with those on the Stoic list, the difference is a radical one. The Stoic virtues are the proud struggle of the human spirit to conform to nature and to gain the mastery over weakness; the Christian virtues emerge after the recognition of sin and the confession of human helplessness: they are the result of committal to God and dependence upon him" (193-4).

"In the last analysis, it is questionable, indeed, whether a Christian ethical system, as such, can exist. Christianity is concerned with the transformation, in Christ, of personal relations. The code which provides a framework or scaffolding within which this operates must, strictly speaking, be a borrowed one, for Christianity, as such, does not offer a distinctive code or system of conduct" (274).

C.F.D. Moule, The Birth of the New Testament (3rd ed.; Harper & Row, 1982).