Thursday, July 26, 2018

Scholarly Virtues: The Stone Seminar

I perused the new Festschrift for Michael E. Stone recently, and was not surprised to find several references to the seminar he held for many years in his home. The tributes at the beginning of the volume brought back fond memories of my own experience as a member of the "Stone Seminar" during my year as a visiting research student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem back in 2000-2001.

Some of the tributes comment on the seminar itself:
Harold Attridge: "Most memorable perhaps were the sessions of the seminar at your home in Jerusalem, where you and Nira so graciously hosted mature and budding scholars from around the world. You brought together there, as you have in many of your scholarly endeavors, talented people with very diverse interests, philological, socio-historical, literary. The one sine qua non was the competence to read ancient sources with care and be willing to contribute to the give and take of serious scholarly conversation. All of us who participated in that seminar or in conversations with you at international congresses learned from one another and from you." (p. 17) 
Esther Eshel: "Michael nourished our early academic appetites with exposure to scholars and scholarship—in his famous seminars. There we could meet first-rate visiting scholars, who shared with us their latest ideas and plans. And at the same time, we could share our first lectures, to be presented at international conferences, as well as our debut papers and articles. Here Michael’s criticism was the most valuable, because it always was constructive criticism. From Michael we learn to look at the broad picture, even when looking at the smallest philological question." (p. 35)
Others focus more on the way the seminar exemplified Michael Stone’s outstanding qualities as a teacher:
Esther Chazon: "I have been Michael Stone’s student for forty years. I will always be Michael’s student. It is impossible to put into words, especially in a brief tribute, all that Michael has taught his students. Reading ancient texts we had never heard of before was only the beginning. Over long coffee breaks on campus and in his home during evening seminars and private consultations, Michael continues to engage us in the texts, contexts, and broad implications. The image that encapsulates this for me is the move from precise textual work at his enormous living-room desk to the armchair conversations of “what it all means.” ... Like a father, but also as a friend, he never stops looking after our intellectual, professional, and emotional well-being." (pp. 24-25)
David Satran: "An initial meditation on Michael as teacher prompts me to remark on his extreme lack of caution. Now reckless isn’t a word that readily comes to mind in speaking about Michael Stone—it certainly would seem to fit neither the character of the man we so admire nor the scholarship we celebrate—but it may not be an inappropriate description of his pedagogy or, at least, our first impressions of his pedagogical method. Those of us who have enjoyed the privilege and the delight of studying with Michael—as well as the occasional attacks of anxiety which accompanied these—know that dizzying excitement of being sent off to track down the odd detail of an ancient text, armed only with a handful of obscure references and the encouragement to follow the path wherever it might lead. Those paths inevitably led many of us down innumerable rabbit holes, some with no apparent means of escape, but a fair number ultimately issued in seminar papers, theses, and even dissertations. Looking back, it seems difficult to fathom how Michael could have felt that we should be entrusted, at what seemed an impossibly early stage in our studies, with the responsibility of getting to the bottom of these matters. And no less: the solemnity with which we had to report back on our efforts and the seriousness with which these were recorded and held up for general discussion and appraisal. Slowly, at times ever so slowly, however, we began to trust Michael’s expectations from us and found ourselves more trusting of both our own research and our own judgment …. In his demonstration of confidence in our fledgling abilities and insights, Michael encouraged us to develop that intangible quality of security in our own work and in the scholarly directions we had begun to choose. In a certain sense, it is precisely this measure of his confidence which has come to define a large number of our own highly variegated pursuits." (pp. 31-32)
I am afraid I did not know enough to take full advantage of the seminar, but I still learned a great deal from Michael Stone that year. During the seminar we read the Letter of Thessalos and part of Philostratus’s Life of Apollonius of Tyana in Greek—a struggle for someone like me who had really only read the New Testament in Greek. We also heard papers from members of the seminar, as well as from Greg Sterling, Esther Eshel, and, if I’m not mistaken, Peter Brown. (I confess I had no idea who Peter Brown was at the time.) Fortunately, I had the good sense to look up and read some of the books and articles Professor Stone mentioned, including selections from E.R. Dodds, Gershom Scholem, and Stone’s own seminal essays “Lists of Revealed Things,” “Three Transformations in Judaism,” and Scriptures, Sects and Visions. It was on Stone’s recommendation that I read John Barton’s Oracles of God and acquired my own inexpensive copy of Menahem Stern’s Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism directly from the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. My main point here, of course, is not to enumerate a list of now dated but still valuable books, but to confirm the influence of the teacher and the effectiveness of his pedagogy.

DiTommaso, Lorenzo, Matthias Henze, and William Adler, eds. The Embroidered Bible: Studies in Biblical Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha in Honour of Michael E. Stone. SVTP 26. Leiden: Brill, 2017.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Scholarly Virtues: John Barclay on Michael Wolter's Romans

In a recent book review, John Barclay commends Michael Wolter's 2014 Romans commentary as "a new high-water mark." It "is, now, the first commentary that any student or scholar working on Rom 1–8 should consult."

As valuable as the positive review of Wolter's commentary, which I dutifully noted, are Barclay's comments about what it means to be a good biblical scholar, using Wolter as an example: 
"The result has all the hallmarks of his scholarly excellence: acute exegetical observation, historical precision, clarity of thought and expression, and an independence of mind and originality in argument that manages always to have something new and interesting to say about this well-worn text."

"His philological and historical approach refuses to be bent by a theological or any other ideological agenda, while he takes the theological subject matter of the letter with full seriousness and does not attempt to turn it into something else. ... It is this rigorous historical stance, together with his delightful independence of mind, that makes Wolter’s commentary so valuable."

"Throughout there is the highest regard for clarity: One gets the sense that every word and every phrase has been examined afresh: on numerous occasions, linguistic parallels, drawn from across Greek literature, help support or clarify a reading of Paul’s Greek, with an attention to detail that never becomes obsessive or verbose. It is also clear that Wolter has thought through every exegetical debate anew: often he begins from an original starting-point, while his argumentation is robust but courteous, sober and without rhetorical flourish, and always supported by evidence."

"I know of no current Pauline scholar who can match this argumentative rigor, clarity, and skill."

"There is no attempt to squeeze Paul here into a theological programme, or to salvage the text for a theological or ethical cause. At the same time, there is no anti-theological agenda, which can often produce readings of Paul just as over-determined, whether by a political, moral, or ideological concern. All the virtues of a historian are here displayed - honesty, thoroughness, precision, independence of mind – as applied to the historical roots, contexts, developments, and functions of Paul’s language. Paul’s theology is here, first and foremost, a language-event, and whatever one does with it thereafter should not be allowed to prejudge or distort one’s careful observation of how his text actually works. ...  But because he recognizes that this [Paul's] gospel is inescapably theological, in that it makes huge claims about God and God’s saving action in Christ, his commentary will be as significant for those with a theological investment in the text as for those with only historical interests."

Barclay, John M.G. “Review of Michael Wolter, Der Brief an Die Römer.” Early Christianity 9, no. 2 (2018): 247–52.

Wolter, Michael. Der Brief an die Römer Teilband I: Röm 1-8. EKK 6/1. Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Theologie, 2014. (According to Amazon, volume 2 is due out in October 2018.)

Monday, July 16, 2018

Biblical Leadership according to Josephus

In the first half of Flavius Josephus’s twenty-volume Jewish Antiquities, composed in the 90’s CE for a non-Jewish audience, the Jewish historian rewrites the narrative parts of the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament in his own words. Although he claims not to have added or omitted anything, much has changed in the telling. There are entirely new episodes, like Moses’ conquest of Ethiopia at the head of an Egyptian army—the back story, if you will, of the strange biblical reference to Moses’ marriage to a Cushite woman in Numbers 12. There are also major omissions. The golden calf, for instance, has entirely vanished from Josephus’s account. As a Greco-Roman historian, Josephus also follows convention by inventing speeches and attributing them to characters in his narrative.

One such speech that may at first appear to be entirely Josephus’s own creation is Moses’ final address to the Israelites on the eve of their entry into the promised land. In the Bible, Moses’ final speech consists primarily of a review of the wilderness wanderings and a series of laws that take up most of the book of Deuteronomy. Josephus omits the review of events because it duplicates what he has already described; much of the legal material appears in a separate summary of the Jewish national “constitution” that, according to Josephus, Moses presented to the people in a book. This gives Josephus freedom to innovate with the speech itself. The result is a shorter, punchier version that focuses on leadership—a topic that would have resonated with his Roman audience. Here is my slightly paraphrastic attempt at an idiomatic translation of part of the speech:
Now I am leaving you, rejoicing in your good things and entrusting you to the temperance of the laws, to the order of the constitution, and to the virtues of the governors who will take thought for what is profitable for you. And God who has been your ruler until now—and, really, it is a result of his decision that I have been of any use to you—God, I say, will not at this point stop providentially caring for you. No, you will continue to benefit from his thoughtful care as long as you wish to have a benefactor in the ways of virtue—provided, that is, that you remain in the ways of virtue. And the high priest Eleazar, Joshua, and the council of elders, as well as the tribal leaders, will propose the best counsels to you. If you follow their direction, you will experience true happiness (eudaimonia). Listen to them without causing trouble, knowing that all who know well how to be ruled will also know how to rule if they ever come to a position of authority. (Jewish Antiquities 4.184-6)
One might object that Josephus’s focus on human leaders obscures Deuteronomy’s overwhelming emphasis on God, that Josephus’s Moses resembles a Stoic philosopher, and, of course, that the words Josephus attributes to Moses never actually appear in the Bible in this form. Nevertheless, the speech deserves consideration as an interpretation of Deuteronomy, not just as an invention inserted to appeal to Josephus’s first-century audience.

Josephus rarely simply makes stuff up. His rewriting of his biblical source is a thoughtful interpretation that attempts to explain the text (or texts) he had in front of him, often in a surprisingly conservative way. With a few exceptions, Josephus’s imaginative conclusions about what biblical figures must have done and said are matched, I suspect, by popular contemporary interpretations of the Bible. If his revisions to the Bible seem strange, it is because his assumptions are foreign enough for us to notice them, while we tend to ignore the ways our own cultural assumptions influence what we think the Bible says. Indeed, the value of reading Josephus lies in part in his attention to details our own cultural blinders keep us from seeing. As a first-century interpreter, Josephus can also help us understand the basic assumptions and worldview of his contemporaries, including the writers of the New Testament.

I would suggest that the passage I quoted actually distills much of what Deuteronomy says about leadership. In Josephus, as in Deuteronomy, God is presented as the supreme ruler. And Deuteronomy does, after all, have quite a bit to say about human leadership, both directly in instructions about tribal leaders, judges, kings and prophets (Deut 1:9-18; 13; 16:18-20; 17; 18:14-22), and indirectly in its depiction of Moses as a model for other leaders, like Joshua, who will follow him (Deut 3:28; 4:22; 31:23; 34:5-12).
  • Good leaders are characterized by virtue. 
  • Virtue comes from fearing God and following the “temperance of the laws.” 
  • Good leaders, therefore, are those who have learned to follow.
Note that Moses does not encourage the Israelites to become leaders; he exhorts them to follow. As the speech continues, Moses reminds the people of their previous leadership conflicts in the wilderness. Examples of this conflict—including Korah’s revolt, jealousy about the choice of Aaron as high priest (Num 16-17), and the opposition of Zambrias (based on Num 25)—would be fresh in Josephus’s readers’ minds because Josephus has just described them in detail. Leaders are necessary, but in Josephus’s world, too many aspiring leaders results in civil strife.

While the language of “virtue” is obviously influenced by popular Greek philosophical thought, it is well-suited to what Deuteronomy says about the character qualities of leaders. In Deut 16:18-20, for instance, the cardinal Greek virtue of “justice” is given pride of place. Although the term is rare, the same concern for virtue emerges even more clearly in the New Testament, for example in the list of the fruit of the spirit in Galatians 5:22-23, in Phil 4:8 where the word “virtue” (aretê) actually appears, and in the qualifications for church leaders in 1 Timothy and Titus. In the Bible as well as Josephus, leaders are known by their virtue—not their mission, vision, and values. (For an example of why virtue—or “goodness”—is relevant in today’s context, consider Scot McKnight’s reflections on the recent problems at Willow Creek Community Church, which is known to many as the home of the Global Leadership Summit.)