Monday, July 27, 2015

Richard Foster on the triviality of productivity apps (more or less)

I have been making my way through Richard Foster's classic Celebration of Discipline. Our library only has a copy of the original 1978 edition, so a lot of the illustrations are now rather quaint in their datedness. The advice is solid, however.

On the discipline of simplicity:
"[R]efuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry. Timesaving devices almost never save time. ... Most gadgets are built to break down and wear out and so complicate our lives rather than enhance them. ... Propagandists try to convince us that because the newest model of this or that has a new feature (trinket?) we must sell the old one and buy the new one. Sewing machines have new stitches, tape recorders have new buttons, encyclopedias have new indexes. Such media dogma needs to be carefully scrutinized. Often 'new' features are only a way of inducing us to buy what we do not need. Probably that refrigerator will serve us quite well for the rest of our lives even without the automatic ice maker and rainbow colors." (80)
 On a related note, Foster advises this antidote to triviality:
"Four times a year withdraw for three to four hours for the purpose of reorienting your life goals. This can easily be done in one evening. Stay late at your office or do it at home or find a quiet corner in a public library. Reevaluate your goals and objectives in life. What do you want to have accomplished one year from now? Ten years from now? Our tendency is highly to overestimate what we can accomplish in one year and highly underestimate what we can accomplish in ten years." (94).

Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (New York: Harper & Row, 1978).

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Greek Fonts, Free "Productivity" Apps, and Other Trivialities


I recently went looking for recommendations on the “nicest Greek font,” stating my own preference for Gentium. Of the 3 responses to my query on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook, two commended SBL Greek, the other mentioned Cardo, a font created by David J. Parry. The results are not surprising: I suspect SBL Greek and Cardo are the two main alternatives to Gentium in use today by the small percentage of the world's population that thinks about polytonic Greek Unicode fonts. In the image below, I present the same text in all three fonts, along with GFS Elpis, which Mark Hoffman mentioned a few years ago, and I quite like:
These are all excellent Greek fonts. I expect there is nothing to complain about from a technical perspective, and I suppose one’s aesthetic judgement comes down to personal preference rather than any intrinsic merit. A couple comments:
  •  Cardo is my font of choice for PowerPoint presentations: As Mark Hoffman explains, Cardo is "kind of a 'big' font (the characters are wider than usual and have a high x-height), so it works well in projection." 
  •  A lot of people, including Mark, prefer SBL Greek for other uses, but I find it too curvy to my taste, especially when paired with a standard English font such as Times New Roman. I took another look, but came away still preferring Gentium. (Gentium has been upgraded to Gentium Plus. My only hesitation with the Plus version is the wider line-spacing.)

OliveTree for Windows

OliveTree has just come out with a major upgrade that radically improves their free app on the Windows platform. OliveTree is not (yet) in the same league with the big 3 Bible software programs (Accordance, Bibleworks, and Logos), but over the last few years I have gradually acquired morphologically-tagged copies of BHS, the LXX and NA28, including critical apparatuses, for OliveTree, as well as a few other secondary resources. Here's why: (1) OliveTree works and displays original-language texts beautifully on just about every platform. (I originally got into OliveTree because it was the only app that displayed Hebrew and Greek well on my Blackberry Playbook.*) (2) OliveTree regularly offers 50%-off sales that literally can't be beat. There is one on now. So if you want access to morphologically-tagged original-language texts on your phone or tablet, you should check out OliveTree. (You can also perform morphological searches on some platforms, at least.) If the text of the Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament is all you want, free versions are also available (here and here).

*An exception is the latest update for Android, which does not (yet) work well at all on my older Android device. Fortunately, an earlier version that works (but doesn't display the BHS or LXX critical apparatus) is still available.


If you have a pen-enabled touch-screen Windows or Mac device, and you have ever wanted to be able to brainstorm on an infinite (and scaleable) canvas, you should try the free version of Mischief:

Note: The scaleable, prezi-like infinite canvas, is very different from OneNote and, if I recall, Scapple, which start you in the top left quadrant. Since I am no artist, the only thing missing, from my perspective, is the ability to enter text. HT: Surface Blog

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Fall Course Line-up

Another major project this summer is to prepare for next semester's classes. This fall I will be teaching Gospels (our required introductory New Testament course in the college); Romans (offered jointly as both a college and seminary modular course); and third-semester Koine Greek (also cross-listed between the college and seminary).

Current Briercrest students can check out the Gospels and Romans syllabi on Briercrest Live; everyone else can find them here (along with a collection of my other past syllabi), or click on these links:
  • BLST103 Gospels (15-01)
  • BLST306 Romans (college version); BLST825 Romans (seminary version)
  • The syllabus for Greek Syntax (also cross-listed in the college and seminary) is still in progress. (I know we'll be working through Mark 1-4 and talking about Greek syntax, but I am planning to try something a little different this time around, and that requires working through my course notes before I outline the class.)
If you are at all interested in a Romans "study vacation," I would be delighted to have you join the class in Caronport during the week of October 26-30. If Greek is your thing, Greek Syntax is also potentially open to distance students by live Skype-cast.

Summer also includes recess. Today's activity involved climbing freshly bailed hay in the field behind our house.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

On reading the Mishnah

Since I regularly teach a course on Second Temple Judaism, it has always bothered me that I have spent so little time in Rabbinic literature. Sometimes warning about the danger of anachronism--taking evidence from texts written in the 3rd century and beyond, and reading it back into the first century without further ado--has felt like an excuse to justify my own general lack of first-hand familiarity with a very difficult group of primary sources. Despite the potential for abuse, Rabbinic literature remains important both for the light it sheds on the Second Temple period and, perhaps more important, on how that period has been undersood.

So one day last fall I put together a (partial) schedule to ease me into the Mishnah, the earliest major rabbinic text (usually dated to ca. 200 CE). The schedule worked out to about 15-20 minutes a night, five days a week for reading and notes.

Twenty-seven hours and forty-five minutes later, I came to the Mishnah's final sentence:
R. Simeon b. Halafta said: The Holy One, blessed is he, found no vessel that could hold Israel's blessing excepting Peace, for it is written, The Lord will give strength unto his people; the Lord will bless his people in peace (Ps 29:11). (Uktzin 3.12)

I knew from past experience that reading a primary source leaves an invaluable lasting impression even if many of the details fade away, so I did not try to master all the ins and outs of legal argument. More often than not, the notes I jotted down were incidental to a passage's main discussion: I was struck, for example, by the number of references to androgynous people and animals; and I noted comments that reminded me of passages in the Gospels, or of issues, such as Gentiles and the purity laws, that loom large in the interpretation of the New Testament. Though much of it is very foreign, I found that I could count on at least one good chuckle each time I read--not at the rabbis' expense (I was reading to experience not to criticize), but because there is humour in the text. Here is one example from Makshirin, a tractate that determines what "if water be put on..." in Lev 11:38 refers to:
"If a man took his wheat to the miller and rain fell on it and he rejoiced therat, the law If water be put on applies to it. R. Judah says: It is impossible that he should not rejoice; but, rather, the law applies only if he stood still. If his olives were put out on the roof and rain fell on them and he rejoiced thereat, the law If water be put on applies. R. Judah says: It is impossible that he should not rejoice; but, rather, the law applies only if he stopped up the water-spout or soaked the olives in the rain." (Makshirin 3.5-6)

The point seems to be that intention matters: If you rejoice it may be because you are trying to find a loop-hole in the law. Except that no one can help rejoicing when rain falls on a thirsty land. Indeed.

Reading Notes:
  • I read through Herbert Danby's translation of the Mishnah. I recommend it over the translation published by Jacob Neusner.
  • I don't recommend launching into the Mishnah without first working through some of the chapters in Barry W. Holtz's edited volume, Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992).

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Announcing Briercrest's 2016 Israel Study Tour

I am happy to report that Briercrest College and Seminary professor Dr. Wes Olmstead will be hosting a study tour of Israel from April 29 to May 13, 2016.

Our fantastic guide, Yoni Gerrish, describes the tour as follows:
This tour focuses considerable attention on themes from the Exodus narrative, as well as possible routes the Israelites may have followed through the Great Wilderness (portions of which include the modern Negev Wilderness). Attention will be given to life-styles of desert peoples from ancient times to the present. One of our themes will entail comparisons between the task of Moses and the role of Messiah as seen from various Jewish perspectives. Other subjects will include the conquest of the land of Canaan, and the development of Judaism through the Temple periods to the days of Jesus.
The tour will begin in the south of Israel, with four nights in the Negev and around the Dead Sea (Beer Sheva, the Ramon Crater, Eilat on the Red Sea, En Botek off the Dead Sea), one night on the Mediterranean near ancient Caesaria, three nights in Tiberius on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and four nights in Jerusalem. (Click here for a more detailed description of a very similar itinerary.)

Believe me, you want to be part of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Past participants from our 2009 and 2011 Israel Study tours will tell you that it is more than worth it.

For more information, see the tour website:

Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Maccabean Revolt and Reverse Polemic in Acts, and other summer projects

As usual when I forecast a blog post on a particular topic, nothing materializes (like rain this year in Saskatchewan). My excuse this time is that I needed to write the paper, not about it, and shortly after posting about the Maccabean revolt in Acts back at the beginning of May, I took the paper in a slightly different direction so that the question I meant to ask no longer seemed as pressing. For what it is worth, here is what I concluded when I presented the paper at the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies at the end of May:

Connections in Acts to the initial events leading up to the Maccabean revolt are more extensive than is generally recognized, and these challenge the view that Acts narrates a transition from Judaism to Gentile Christianity. The parallels between Acts and 1-2 Maccabees fall into two contrasting patterns. On the one hand, Jewish opponents of the Gentile mission appeal to the Maccabean revolt to paint the practices of Jewish Christ-believers as a threat to Jewish identity, just as the “renegades” had been during the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes. On the other hand, Luke reverses the polemic and asserts that it is the Jewish leadership in Judaea, as well as other hostile Jews, who resemble Antiochus and the “renegades,” and that Jewish Christ-believers, by contrast, correspond to the faithful Israelites who endured Antiochus’s persecution. Faithfulness, for Luke, now requires faith in Jesus. But the law remains important. Instead of triumphantly moving beyond Judaism and the law, Luke employs “reverse polemic” to try to show that the messianic claims of Jesus and the Gentile mission championed in Acts need not undermine the law or threaten the Jewish identity of Jesus’ Jewish followers.
When I got back from Ottawa, I intended to spend my remaining summer research time revising this and one other paper. I turned to the other paper first...and it promptly fell apart in my hands. I didn't want to leave the pieces scattered all over the floor, but picking them up and puzzling over where I think they now belong has required delving into an area (Greco-Roman political thought) in which I can claim no expertise, and has taken longer than I hoped. But that's how it goes. At times like these, I try to remind myself to breathe, relax, and enjoy the privilege of being able to study and learn new things. They say that quality can't be rushed.

In other news, it did rain today. When I went outside this evening, I found the remains of a robin's nest washed down the downspout on our garage, which just goes to show that even in a drought you shouldn't put your egg basket in a rain gutter.