"The object of all good literature is to purge the soul of its petty troubles." ~ P.G. Wodehouse

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Reviews of Reza Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

For those interested in what some biblical scholars are saying about Reza Aslan's book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. A selection of reviews and blog comments are located below. I highly recommend Robert Gundry's razor-sharp review, but you can't go wrong with Le Donne, Hurtado, Evans, and Carey either.

Robert Gundry's review of Zealot in Books and Culture "Jesus as a Jewish Jihadist": http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2013/novdec/jesus-as-jewish-jihadist.html

Anthony Le Donne at Jesus Blog: http://historicaljesusresearch.blogspot.ca/2013/07/a-usually-happy-fellow-reviews-aslans.html#more

Larry Hurtado: http://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2013/08/15/zombie-claims-and-jesus-the-zealot/

Craig Evans at Christianity Today: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/august-web-only/zealot-reza-aslan-tells-same-old-story-about-jesus.html

Greg Carey at the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/greg-carey/reza-aslan-on-jesus_b_3679466.html

Larry Behrendt at the Jesus Blog: http://historicaljesusresearch.blogspot.ca/2013/07/a-review-of-reza-aslans-zealot.html

Elizabeth Castelli at the Nation: http://www.thenation.com/article/175688/reza-aslan-historian#

On Aslan's Fox Interview:
Jesus Blog: http://historicaljesusresearch.blogspot.ca/2013/07/reza-aslan-on-foxnews-embarrassed-to-be.html

Jim West on Aslan's credentials: http://zwingliusredivivus.wordpress.com/2013/07/29/is-reza-aslan-a-liar/

Matthew J. Franck at First Things: http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2013/07/29/scholarly-misrepresentation/

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Jesus Blog

I can tell from postings of mine over the last few months or the lack of posts that it has been a busy semester.

I just added a link under Blog List to the Jesus Blog run by Anthony Le Donne and Chris Keith. There are posting some interesting things about historical Jesus research. You can find them here: http://historicaljesusresearch.blogspot.ca/ 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

SSHRC Storyteller Initiative

The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada is sponsoring a student presentation initiative of what makes the humanities and social sciences great. Students can make a three minute video or other social media presentation and compete Canada-wide for 25 finalist spots. More information below:

SSHRC launches student contest to promote liberal arts research 
 The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) has launched a contest that challenges PSE (post-secondary) students to show Canadians how liberal arts research is “affecting our lives, our world and our future prosperity.” SSHRC is accepting submissions from November 1 to January 15 in the form of a 3-minute pitch via podcast, op-ed, video, or infographic. The top 25 finalists will receive registration and accommodation at SSHRC’s Congress 2014 conference in May, at which they will promote their project and participate in a research communications workshop. 5 jury-chosen presenters will then be covered by national media, promoted by SSHRC, and showcased as part of the 2014 SSHRC Impact Awards ceremony. SSHRC Website

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Wycliffe Centre for Scripture and Theology Fall Colloquium 2013 - Reading Paul

Wycliffe Centre for Scripture and Theology Fall Colloquium 2013 announced.

It is a geat line-up on "Reading Paul: Exegetical Method and Interpretation after the 'New Perspectives.'"

Reading Paul: Exegetical Method and Interpretation After the "New Perspectives"
Presentations by
Dr. Ian W. Scott (Tyndale)
"Overview of the 'New Perspectives'"
Author of Paul's Way of Knowing: Story, Experience, and Spirit. Baker, 2008.

Dr. Douglas Harink (King's College)
"Prolegomena to an Imagined Project: Systematic Theology as a Commentary on Romans"
Author of 1 & 2 Peter. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Brazos, 2009; Paul among the Postliberals: Pauline Theology beyond Christendom and Modernity. Brazos, 2003.

Dr. Stephen Westerholm (McMaster Univeristy)
"Galatians and the Justification Debate"
Author of Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The 'Lutheran Paul and His Critics. Eerdmans, 2004; Understanding Paul: The Early Christian Worldview of the Letter to the Romans. Baker, 2004.

Dr. Ann Jervis (Wycliffe College)
Author of Galatians. Baker, 2011; At the Heart of the Gospel: Suffering in the Earliest Christian Message. Eerdmans, 2007.
Friday, October 18, 2013
9 am to 3:30pm
Leonard Hall
Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto
5 Hoskin Avenue
Toronto ON M5S 1H7
Morning Refreshment and lunch provided. No registration required

Questions? Please email Prof. Ephraim Radner at e.radner@wycliffe.utoronto.ca

Monday, September 23, 2013

Community, Vocation, Virtue, and Classic Education as Benefits of Religious Higher Education

Dr. Thomas Albert Howard of Gordon College in Wenham, Mass recently wrote a article for Inside Higher Ed entitled "The Promise of Religious Colleges." Howard argues that the current challenges facing higher education actually offer religious institutions of higher education "a propitious opportunity."

The positives as he states them are, first, that religious institutions are still about the personal, about the interaction between faculty and students not just in the classroom but also, and almost more importantly, outside the classroom. The discussion of things that matter and the mentoring that occurs at these institutions is something that cannot be offered in the same way or at all at larger universities.

Second, codes of conduct still exist are religious institutions and need not seem antiquated.

Third, these universities and colleges focus on vocation and calling and not career. The religious institutions challenge students to shape their lives and futures around virtues like justice and charity and not vices, greed, narcissism, and pride.

Fourth, and finally, religious institutions offer hope in the area of the liberal arts, or the classic education of the arts, humanities, and sciences. The liberal arts hold the ideal that learning is important for its own sake and not only because you can get something out of it. It is about the discussion of ideas, revisiting the great questions, and reading and interacting with the important minds of humanity.

Religious institutions must continue to strive for these ideals and hold this promise dear. Utilitarian forces seem to grow stronger everyday.

(Relatedly, see some comments on Perry Glanzer's from the March 2012 Christianity Today on similar ideas and themes.)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Visualized Bible: Cross-references Imaged

Recently the Guardian Data Blog brought together a number of data images of the Bible in a post entitled "Holy Infographics: the Bible Visualised." The above image is the first of those images. I think that the image itself is actually quite beautiful in the rainbow like arcing of color, especially when the high resolution image is viewed (find that here). The image is attributed to  

"This is about how the bible speaks to itself - or the textual cross-references within it. The bar graph that runs along the bottom represents all of the chapters in the Bible. Books alternate between white and light gray and the length of each bar denotes the number of verses in the chapter. Each of the 63,779 cross references found in the Bible is depicted by a single arc - the color corresponds to the distance between the two chapters, creating a rainbow-like effect."

This appears to be the Guardian Data Blog description given by Mona Chalabi, although it is a rewrite of Chris Harrison's description on his website

"340,000 cross-references between the Old and New Testament." These cross-references are said to be "primarily" from the following: "public-domain sources, especially the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge, which provides most of the data. It also includes data from my Topical Bible and Twitter Bible Search. I created this experiment because it was hard to find Bible cross-reference data on the web. Download all the cross-reference data (2 MB .zip)." (I am unclear as to the "I" speaking here is, re: "my Topical Bible and Twitter Bible Search"). A note at the bottom of the web page indicates that all Scripture citations are coming from the ESV, but I understand that the cross-references are drawn from a larger set of information and not necessarily from the ESV.

These two images raise a number of questions. First, we have quite a discrepancy of Bible cross-references: 63,779 to 340,000. Quite a shocking difference actually. The second question, especially with such a discrepancy, is what is being classified as a "cross-reference." In biblical studies, the issue of usage of biblical texts between Old and New Testaments is the question of whether we have a citation, an allusion, an echo, or something else. And if we have a citation or allusion or echo, are the NT authors using the Hebrew or Greek version? And what Hebrew text or Greek text? Are they the texts that we have now? For example, Matthew seems to prefer the Septuagint (Greek OT) over the Hebrew, but what OT text is he referring to in Matthew 2:23, when Matthew writes: "and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene." Scholars debate what prophet and OT passage Matthew means by this. So what is it cross-referenced to? Some Bibles will indicate multiple cross-references. If Matthew intended one and the cross-references list more than one, we already have a data difference in just one NT verse.

A third issue comes down to what the cross-references listed in various sources indicate. I have spent the most time working with ESV cross-references. And these cross-references can mean multiple things. Sometimes they are indicating citations such as Psalm 8:4-6 in Hebrews 2:8; other times allusions such as the allusion to Jacob in John 1:47. And on other occasions the cross-references are merely noting similar wording between verses even though there is no contextual similarity between the texts like the phrase "covenant of salt" in Numbers 18:19 and 1 Chronicles 13:5. I would say that this latter example is not "the Bible speaking to itself" but rather similar language found within the Bible. 

A fourth issue can be found in cross-references within books of the Bible. With the ESV references in particular, when the first instance of a phrase occurs in a book, say "the Son of Man" in Mark, the cross-references listed here may list all or most of the instances of the phrase in the rest of Mark or just the next instance. Then the next may only list the cross-references to the next, thereby creating a chain of references. Each reference may only be linked to one or two others when in reality there are many more uses of similar language. This way of listing cross-references would create the sort of asymmetry between OT and NT mentioned in the description of the second image (the red and blue one) above found at OpenBible.info. In other words if similar language is all that is being referred to the OT passages may list cross-references to the NT but not the other way or vice-versa. And again, this does not mean no cross-reference exists. It just means the source one is looking at does not list a cross-reference.  

These sorts of images would actually be more helpful and worthwhile if they focused primarily on citations of the OT in the NT rather than all similarities of language and other aspects within the Bible. There is more agreed upon data to work with in citations (although the line between citation and allusion can be debated). Cross-references on the other hand are more often in the eye of the beholder or editor. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

GK Chesterton on Distraction and Multi-tasking

In his short essay "On the Prison of Jazz" published in Selected Essays (Collins, 1939), G.K. Chesterton makes some comments entirely relevant to multi-tasking and distraction. His primary topic is the inability to hold a conversation in a restaurant while there is live music, namely jazz: "But talking to people who are listening to something else which is not the talk is a sort of complex or nexus of futility." Considering he lived in a non-digital age, his comments on distraction and doing two things at once are strikingly and even more worthy of consideration.

"For, though we talk lightly of doing this or that to distract the mind, it remains really as well as verbally true that to be distracted it to be distraught. The original Latin word does not mean relaxation; it means being torn asunder as by wild horses. The original Greek word, which corresponds to it, is used in the text which says that Judas burst asunder in the midst. To think of one thing at a time is the best sort of thinking; but it is possible, in a sense, to think of two things at a time, if one of them is really subconscious and therefore really subordinate. But to deal with a second thing which by its very nature thrust itself more and more aggressively in front of the first thing is to find the very crux of psychological crucifixion. I have generally found that the refined English persons who think it idolatrous to contemplate a religious image, turn up next time full of delighted admiration of some Yogi or Esoteric Hindu who only contemplates his big toe. But at least he contemplates something, and does not have ten thousand brazen drums to encourage him to do it. He is so far a real philosopher, in spite of his philosophy. He does not try to do two incompatible things at once" (356-57).

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Bible Miniseries 3: Weakest Moments and the Most Powerful One

Previously, I have commented on the  "10 hour" miniseries on "The Bible" with regard to its portrayal of angels and its portrayal of certain characters such as John the Baptist. I would like to conclude my three part series by addressing what to me were two of the weakest moments of "The Bible" from a biblical and theological perspective. To be fair I will finish with a few comments on what I think is the most powerful scene of the 10 hours. (Comments on this scene have already been made by Rachel McMillan.)

The first of the two weak moments I want to mention is the calling of Peter. This scene has problems for me because there is a cheesiness to it, while it is also a bit off both biblically and theologically. This account of the calling of Peter comes from Luke 5 and not from Matthew or Mark or John. In Luke's account, Peter, James, and John become disciples after Jesus gets into Simon Peter's boat and asks Peter to take him out into the lake so that he can teach the people from the water as they stand on the shore (Luke 5:1-11). At the conclusion of his teaching, Jesus tells Simon and the others with him to put down their nets. Peter objects because they fished all night and hadn't caught anything. Miraculously the nets are full and Peter and his associates need help bringing all the fish into the boat. So many fish are caught that their nets almost break and two boats are full of fish. Peter's response is to fall at Jesus' feet and say, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord" (5:8, ESV). Jesus responds, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men" (5:10, ESV).

In the adaptation of this event for "The Bible," as happens throughout, certain characters disappear, most likely to increase dramatic effect. Here, James and John, the other boat, the crowds, and Jesus' teaching are all absent. It is just Jesus and Peter. There is the nice touch of Jesus holding a rock in his hand as he stands on the shore considering Peter, as Peter brings in his boat. The symbolism of the rock is a nod to Jesus giving Peter the nickname "rock" which is Peter in Greek and Cephas in Aramaic. Yet, the one miraculous catch
becomes multiple catches as Peter throws the net into the water over and over again bringing it in full every time. Obviously, some money was saved and difficulty avoided by having Peter haul in load after load of fish that are suspiciously not wriggling with life, but that is another story. After this miraculous catch(es) of fish, "The Bible" adds some dialogue. Peter looks up at Jesus and says not "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man" but "How did this happen? What did you do?" Jesus responds, "I'm giving you the chance to change your life. [Pause] Peter, come with me. Give up catching fish, and I will make you a fisher of men." I am generally okay with this sequence, apart from "change your life" which feels much too modern. Peter's disbelief does make sense, and Jesus' post-pause statement is similar to the biblical account. But then the dialogue continues. Peter then says, "What are we going to do?" The emphasis in the miniseries seems to shift strongly to deeds and doing and from the biblical emphasis on the identity of Jesus and Peter, (cf. Luke 5:8). In the biblical account, Luke describes Peter's response as one of confession, of the recognition of sin, as Peter realizing that he is in the presence not just of a miracle worker but of the Son of God (1:32, 35; 3:22, 38; 4:41; 8:28; etc.), the Messiah (1:32, 69; 2:11,  26-32; etc.), the righteous one. Peter's questions "How did this happen? What did you do?" and "What are we going to do now?" are a far cry from the focus on identity, especially his own as a sinner. Even further from the biblical account, however, is Jesus' final reply to Peter in "The Bible." Answering the question, "What are we going to do now?" the Jesus of "The Bible" says, "Change the world." Hopefully, it is obvious that this statement is not necessarily rooted in the Galilee of the first century. Among other things, it is missing the "kingdom of God" language of Jesus' teaching (Luke 4:43), which has a specific connection to Israel and expectations for God's visitation (Luke 1:68; 2:38). The language sounds weak and cheesy, and it loses Luke's theological focus on the identity of Jesus, his mission, and the significance of sin. The building music and camera shots panning the boat with Jesus and Peter dramatically scanning the horizon seems powerful, but the biblical account and its theology have been weakened.

The second weak scene is probably the most climactic episode of the Gospel of John. In the biblical account, the disciple Thomas, who is only mentioned in John's Gospel (or at least by that name), is not with the rest of the disciples when Jesus first comes to them in the upper room. He does not believe that Jesus is alive, and goes so far as to say that he won't believe that Jesus has been resurrected from the dead unless he sees the nail marks in Jesus' hands and the spear wound in Jesus' side. So the following week "Doubting Thomas" is with the other disciples when Jesus appears. Jesus tells Thomas to feel the places of his wounds and says, "Do not disbelieve, but believe" (John 20:27, ESV). Thomas responds with what was most likely an exclamation, "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:28, ESV). Then Jesus continues to accuse or question Thomas about his need for sight to believe and to bless those who believe without seeing.

In "The Bible," the scene takes place immediately after Peter, John, and Mary Magdalene return from the tomb where they have seen the empty tomb together (note that the biblical account of John is reversed with Mary seeing Jesus on her first visit to the tomb before Peter and John go to the tomb). Peter joyfully makes an intriguing connection to the Lord's Supper in the death of Jesus. This is probably a conflation of the road to Emmaus story in Luke 24 with the upper room accounts and specifically John 20 here. Jesus then appears through the lighted doorway (set to dramatic music again) and makes his way around the table of disciples. He begins speaking to Thomas, "Thomas, stop doubting..." Jesus then sits in front of Thomas, shows him his hand with a hole, touches Thomas' face and continues speaking, "...and believe." Yet, rather than Thomas essentially concluding the theological argument of the Gospel of John that Jesus is God and Lord, Thomas in "The Bible" says, "It is you." What?! "It is you"? Are you kidding? The biblical statement "My Lord and my God!" that basically equates Jesus with God when one traces the argument through John beginning in 1:1-2 (although some scholars disagree) is replaced with "It is you"? Could we have come up with an even weaker line? The Jesus of "The Bible" then continues almost verbatim with the biblical statement in John 20:29. So much theology is lost in the rewording of Thomas' response. Little if anything is gained, even with the addition of dramatic music and lighting, and the juxtaposition of the ritual of the Lord's Supper.

To end on an more positive note, one scene that stands out to me in "The Bible" miniseries as being particularly powerful is the calling of Matthew. The richness of this scene is actually created by the conflation of two biblical passages -- the calling of Matthew (Matt 9:9-17; Mark 2:13-22; Luke 5:27-32) and Jesus' "parable" of the tax collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14). The scene opens with money changing hands in a marketplace. An unseen voice yells, "All taxes must be paid in full." Jesus and the disciples wander into the square, and Peter and Thomas both make comments against the tax collectors. Thomas says, "Our own people working for Rome. Makes me sick." Peter then calls the tax collectors "collaborators." Pharisees hover on the periphery looking concerned, and one says to Jesus, "They are stinking vermin. You should keep your distance." Matthew, who is sitting at his table collecting taxes, looks up at that moment and hears the comment. Jesus immediately begins to tell the parable from Luke 18:9-14, which is nowhere biblically near Luke's account of the calling of Matthew (the parable is only in Luke). As the parable progresses, Jesus speaks of a self-righteous Pharisee (the good Scripture believing and following guy) and his prayer and a tax collector and his prayer. "The Bible" personalizes the unnamed figures of the parable with this Pharisee at Jesus' side and Matthew sitting at his table. When Jesus speaks of the tax collector in "The Bible," Jesus walks over in front of Matthew and speaks directly to him with the marketplace crowd all around him. Tears begin to fall from Matthew's eyes as Jesus speaks of the tax collector who cannot lift his eyes to heaven as he prays in the temple. And as Jesus, still speaking to Matthew, recites the prayer of the tax collector, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner" (Luke 18:13), the camera focuses on Matthew as Matthew mouths the words of the prayer that Jesus states. In "The Bible," the prayer of the unnamed tax collector in the parable becomes the prayer of Matthew, the soon-to-be disciple of Jesus. Matthew is portrayed as a man who longs to be accepted by God yet is ashamed of what he does (something not found in the biblical accounts of the calling of Matthew). In "The Bible," the use of the parable in the calling of Matthew highlights Jesus acceptance of sinners, of his reaching out to those in need of a savior and a healer, which is a key component of the end of the calling accounts (Matt 9:12-13; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:31-32). "The Bible's" conflation of the two stories ends with Jesus telling Matthew to come, and the acceptance of Matthew as one of the disciples (note the warm welcome by John!). While the biblical narratives do not tell either story in this way, I think it powerfully and respectfully presents Jesus as the friend of sinners and of his ministry to sinners and tax collectors. The kingdom of God is for all of Israel.

"The Bible" presents some events in an extremely theologically weak way. Other events and characters are given new life in the conflation of stories or the dramatic presentation of them (John the Baptist, angels, Matthew). "The Bible" is biblical interpretation, and as such, it provides new ways of thinking about the biblical text and challenges some of our preconceived notions of what is in the Bible. There is value in seeing a good presentation like this because it can enrich our understanding of the biblical story as long as we recognize what is "The Bible" and what is the Bible.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Bible Miniseries 2: Interpretation through Characters and Juxtapositions

Continuing with some thoughts and reflections on the "10 hour" miniseries on The Bible, I want to follow up my comments on the portrayal of angels with some comments on certain characters and the depictions of them.

The first I would like to mention is that of John the Baptist. John the Baptist is an extremely important figure in the Gospels. All four Gospels present John as the forerunner of Jesus the Messiah. He is the one who prepares the way, fulfilling prophecies from Malachi 3 and Isaiah 40. Although Luke says that John and Jesus are related, none of the other three Gospels indicate any special relationship between John and Jesus apart from John's baptism of Jesus.

"The Bible" portrays John as the sort of eccentric holy man or prophet that he most likely was. John the Baptist led a renewal movement for the forgiveness of sins out in the wilderness in the provocative location of Israel's entry into the promised land (Joshua 3). What I found compelling about "The Bible's" John the Baptist was that his proclaiming took place as he baptized. The portrayed his hair as unkempt and reciting almost verbatim the prophecies attributed to him in the Gospels as he dunked people under water. There was something about the depiction that made John more authentic, more passionate and concerned about his role as forerunner than the casual reader of the Gospels might sense. It's as if John knew he only had a small window to complete his mission. "The Bible's" portrayal of John includes his imprisonment including Herod Antipas entering into the dungeon and seeming curious about John. John is more forthright about Jesus being the Messiah in this interaction with Herod Antipas than the biblical text states, but John is depicted as proclaiming more of his message in prison, even as he is beheaded. The shocking martyr-like portrayal of John's death and his witness to the person of Jesus captures something of John that can be lost in the pages of the New Testament.

Another intriguing aspect of "The Bible" is the way that certain characters are woven into the narrative in a manner that foreshadows their later importance. This is often done by placing characters in the story where the biblical text does not mention them. For instance, as Moses returns to Egypt to confront Pharoah, he wanders through the brick making/slave labor camp full of Israelites, well, slaving away. Moses is struck by an Egyptian slave driver, and low and behold, Joshua, son of Nun, comes to Moses' aid and lifts him up. Joshua is then portrayed and an early leader helping Moses even in Egypt and at Mt. Sinai. This portrayal makes his command of the people as they defeat Jericho and enter the promised land less jarring and more of a smooth narrative.

A second instance of the raising of a character to prominence is the early appearance of Nicodemus, who actually only appears in the biblical text of the Gospel of John. Yet in "The Bible" he makes his appearance often as one of Jesus' main Pharisee interlocutors. Nicodemus is depicted as being in close relationship with the High Priest, even if he and the high priest do not always see eye to eye. This early antagonistic relationship between Jesus and Nicodemus makes his well-known visit to Jesus at night (John 3) all the more of a contrast, especially with the addition of Jesus' disciples' shock and clear disapproval of Nicodemus' arrival in their midst.

Other aspects of character portrayals in "The Bible" actually raise certain characters to prominence at the expense of other more biblically significant characters. Two instances of this character displacement include Uriah the Hittite and Luke the physician and evangelist. Uriah is portrayed as David's right hand man at the expense of Joab, David's actual right hand man. The reason for this exchange in the miniseries is obvious because of the way David's sin with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah is emotionally greater since he is stabbing a close associate and friend in the back. In the NT, Barnabas, Silas, and Timothy are left out of the Paul/Acts narratives of "The Bible," and Luke the physician and evangelist is presented as Paul's companion and amanuensis. Luke clearly is a write, but those who in the biblical text have a closer working relationship with Paul are missing. Fewer characters make it "easier" for the TV viewer to keep track of everyone, and these changes to the biblical texts can heighten tensions and conflicts. Some of this is beneficial for drama of it all, but the actual contents of the text of the Bible are, in certain instances, unfortunately bypassed.

Part three on the weakest moments of "The Bible" here.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Bible Miniseries: Angels

Not long ago now, I watched the "10 hour" miniseries on The Bible. Thankfully I didn't have to sit through the almost three hours of commercials to do so. And once you figure in all of the repetitive "previously on 'The Bible'" bits, it may only be 6+ hours.

Regardless of its length, The Bible was an ambitious project that was well received, and it will probably continue to be well received. However, any project of this size and breadth will have its positive and negative aspects. Thankfully, the miniseries was more positive than negative. They made some interesting choices on what to film, and stories were woven together in thought provoking ways that brought about fresh interpretation. Yet there were other instances where the scene or script fell flat in dramatically disappointing ways.

One aspect that I was most impressed with was the portrayal of the angels. I have done some research on angels in Second Temple Judaism, and the portrayal of angels in Jewish literature of that time period is definitely not glowing white, ethereal beings. The Bible miniseries captured the powerful, warrior aspects of these messengers of God. The Sodom and Gomorrah scenes may have been a bit too much "ninja warrior," but the rugged, Ranger from the North figures proclaiming sometimes cryptic, revelatory messages struck the right tone. The nod toward the angelic wings with the dull metallic rings was another nice touch, although it seemed odd that almost every angel had to remove his hood in a sort-of-Obi Wan/Gandalf the Grey manner before they spoke.

In two instances, the miniseries implicitly portrays an angel as Jesus. Of the three angels who visit Abraham (Gen 18), the face of one of the angels who remains with Abraham and speaks with him is never clearly shown. The viewer who has paid attention to the foreshadowing clips and promotional hype notices that the figure has the same voice as Jesus. This "angel" is also the angel who stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac, although from a distance and not physically "staying his hand."

The understanding that Jesus appears in the Old Testament as the angel of the Lord has a long pedigree and is held by quite a few people. Part of the reason for this is the fact that in the Bible and extant Jewish literature it is not always clear whether the Lord or the angel of the Lord is speaking to the human recipients of the revelation. If the angel of the Lord is speaking to them and they call him "Lord," it would seem that the speakers (Moses at the burning bush, Samson's parents, etc.) are speaking with a divine being that is not an angel. Thus, the angel must be Jesus, the second person of the Trinity. I do not discount the possibility that the angel of the Lord could be Jesus, but I do not think it is the most likely possibility. "Angel" means messenger, and revealing messages is the primary function of angels. The angel of the Lord is therefore the messenger of the Lord. If Abraham, Moses, or others speak to the messenger of the Lord, they are actually speaking to the Lord through the angel. It is not necessary that the angel be a divine being that is part of the Godhead. (All of this terminology reads much later Christian reflection and theology into the OT anyway.) When they appear, the angels make communication between humans and God possible. To speak to the angel is to speak to the Lord which is why I think that it less likely that Abraham spoke with Jesus in Genesis 18 as portrayed in "The Bible."

There are more comments I would like to make about "The Bible," but I will save those for another time.
[Two other comments can be read here and here.]

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Robert H. Gundry on "Learning for Spirituality"

Here is a brief excerpt from Robert H. Gundry's essay "Learning for Spirituality" which is in his new book Extracurriculars: Teaching Christianly Outside Class. It was originally an address given in chapel at Westmont College where Gundry is Professor Emeritus and Scholar-in-Residence.

"...my point...is not to work Christianity into your business. It's not to work spirituality into your learning. You should, of course. You should make your learning an act of worship by putting a Christian perspective on the literature you study, on the art, on the psychology, on the sociology, the political science--on whatever you study. Sometimes it'll be easy to do, sometimes hard to do. How do you put a Christian perspective on math? I don't know. Maybe our math teachers can tell us. But this morning isn't about putting learning into spirituality, about infusing our learning with spirituality. It's the other way around. It's about putting learning into spirituality, about infusing spirituality with learning, so that our spirituality will have density and depth and weight, so that our spirituality is thoughtful and wise and knowledgeable as well as warm and glowing and tender. Learning for spiritual formation means working everything you learn, in all your courses, working it into your Christian life and witness instead of keeping it separate from you spirituality. Instead of walling off your spirituality and keeping it supposedly safe from your learning, pray the Holy Spirit to make your learning nourish your spirituality, your Christian life, your Christian witness" (40).

What a wonderful description of what faith and learning, learning and faith, the spiritual life and the liberal arts is all about! If you enjoyed this quote, you should read the rest of the essay and the other essays in the volume. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Liberal Arts in Washington State

James McGrath just tweeted a link to this article by Michael Zimmerman at the Huffington Post. It is a great piece on the value of the liberal arts, and it highlights how employers actually want exactly what liberal arts grads have to offer. The exerpt from the winner of the student essay...superb! This is why I teach undergraduates at a liberal arts institution. This is why I believe the liberal arts is the best education on offer.

Anyone for a Canadian Consortium for the Liberal Arts? I am all for it.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Mark Sargent on the Value of the Christian Liberal Arts

Mark Sargent has been provost at Westmont College now for over a year. The following is a long excerpt on the value of Christian Liberal Arts Education from an article in the Westmont Magazine entitled "A Few Words from Mark Sargent" (Winter 2012). They are great words and reminders about what the liberal arts is and how important this sort of education has been and will continue to be.

The Value of Christian Liberal Arts Education
During my college years I often made long bicycle trips with friends along the California coast. For cyclists, few stretches of the road are more demanding than the Big Sur coastline, where the mountains press against the sea. For 70 miles the highway clings to precipitous cliffs, mixing sharp climbs and rapid descents. That stage of the journey requires full concentration on the thin white line along the road’s edge as you weave through the fallen shale and pine branches and avoid nervous drivers.Yet every now and then, after a long ascent, you reach a vista point.You can raise your eyes from that hypnotic white line to survey your environs: the clouds darkening the quiet ocean, the cypress twisting in the wind, and the whitecaps sinking into the crevassed stone.

The liberal arts are much like that slow trek along Highway 1. They will increasingly require both singular focus and breadth of vision. Few challenges will be more pressing for 21st century leaders and intellectuals than balancing specialization and wisdom. Scholarly or professional work often demands the intense concentration of a cyclist climbing a single hill one fierce pedal at a time.We may need, at times, to display the intellectual discipline to carry a single task to finer and finer levels of refinement. But we can also, like the weary and anxious cyclist, get obsessively preoccupied with the white line in front of us, on our own professional duties, scholarly ambitions, disciplinary guilds, or even the proprietary use of knowledge.We need to see our own labors and hopes against the grander vista—the wide history of human endeavor, the diversity of our global neighborhood, and the looming ethical challenges.

At its best, the Christian liberal arts college provides several remarkable vista points. Our task is to help students lift their eyes to see, as we endeavor to lift our own.Above all, we need to continually discover the beauty of the world the Lord has made. The Christian liberal arts—with its diverse fields of inquiry— should enrich our capacity for worship and wonder.The life of the mind is inflamed by discovery and gratitude for all that our Creator has given us. Exploring natural and special revelation is one of our prime callings.We undertake that task with the audacious hope that the broad vista of liberal learning can help us discern, more fully, how to know and to serve God.

We also need to encourage students to see the long panorama of the Christian faith—not just current doctrines and disciplines but the tradition of faithfulness.All of us came to faith at some point along the road, either in a quiet, restful spot through the guidance of family and mentors, or after a tough hill or crash. Evangelical students generally arrive at Christian colleges caught in their own moment, within their own generational stories and idioms.They need to study the various twists and turns in the course of Christian community and thought, both the legacy of great witnesses and the church’s moral failures.We need to help them discern their own road ahead, their sense of calling, realizing that the conscience of the future is often indebted to an understanding of the past. In short, we need to connect heritage and vocation in our students’ journeys.

Similarly, a Christian institution can connect the future and the heritage of the liberal arts themselves.Westmont is able to invoke the medieval synthesis of classical inquiry and Christian thought, when the liberal arts flourished among those who followed Christ.We can also blend this with the service-orientation, philanthropy and pragmatism of American evangelicalism into an ever-more vibrant model of life and learning, full of rich texts and transformative experiences.

For me, our essential goal is to awaken the moral imagination of our students. So many come to us with hearts eager to serve; they also need minds able to imagine new possibilities for social and spiritual hope.The scope of learning provided by the liberal arts encourages interdisciplinary solutions to contemporary issues, often overcoming some stubborn preconceptions, professional habits, partisan loyalties or even counter-productive philanthropy. American Christians, for instance, rushed millions of pounds of grain into rural Africa to address hunger only to discover that their actions undercut the markets for native farmers and, before long, actually increased poverty and starvation.The humanitarian needs the botanist and economist. Pursuing justice—and meeting social needs—requires the interdisciplinary and imaginative problem-solving skills that the liberal arts can cultivate.

To cultivate the moral imagination, the Christian liberal arts college needs to bolster its commitment to blend spiritual virtues and intellectual strengths. For instance, fewer skills may be more necessary for promoting international peace and the resolution of conflict than charity and empathy, the spiritual disciplines of discernment and even forgiveness before condemnation and violence. Our students also need to see the vitality of Christian thought in the marketplace of ideas, rather than retreating into subcultural silos. Even as our graduates learn to live civilly in our increasingly pluralistic society, they also need stronger confidence that bioethics can be enriched by Christian ideals of prudence, stewardship and human dignity—or that community development and economic reform are enhanced by the Christian practices for addressing the spiritual and psychological welfare of people as well as their physical needs.

Few things kindle the moral imagination more than respect for other peoples and cultures.The most significant influence on students’ personal and cognitive development is their peer group. Recruiting a more diverse student and faculty community— socially, ethnically, denominationally—enriches the intellectual and spiritual climate on campus, as we daily encounter the perspectives, experiences, and faith journeys of a broader range of the world’s citizens.The classical image of the liberal arts stresses both an encyclopedic gathering of the world’s knowledge and a commitment to pass the cycle of learning to a new generation.
In many respects, the Christian liberal arts college is the laboratory for the next generation of leadership in the church.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Translating the Bible and First Nations Languages

I sat in on Ruth Heeg's paper at the Native American Institute of Indigenous Theological Studies Symposium 2013 Friday afternoon. The paper was quite interesting, especially for someone who teaches Greek and challenges students to think about translation. Some sitting near me were less than enthused about the discussion of transitive and intransitive verbs and abstract nouns in Greek, English, and Algonquian languages. At some level, (μεν) I agree with them, but (δε) on the other hand, all of these grammatical details are important for translation, especially when it involves translating a text that means a lot to many people.

In her paper, Heeg focused on the translation of Greek abstract nouns in First Nations languages, particularly Algonquian languages such as James Bay Cree, Ojibwe, and Plains Cree, in New Testament doxologies. One passage she used as an example was Rev 4:11: “Worthy art thou, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power, for thou didst create all things,and by thy will they existed and were created” (RSV). What is interesting about these First Nation languages is that they prefer verbs to abstract nouns, whereas Greek and English are very content with the use of nouns such as "glory," "honor," "power," and "will." These Algonquian languages would typically use a verbal phrase like "he-is-high-up" or "you-are-being-high-up" for "glory." (Another passage she noted that is full of abstract nouns is Mark 1:4: "John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.") The English equivalents of these First Nations languages in the doxologies have the effect of shifting the emphasis of the passage in a helpful way and, in my opinion, bring a fresh understanding to God's glory and working in the world.

Say for instance that Rev 4:11 is translated with a greater verbal sense and fewer abstract nouns. Something like this: "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to be glorified, to be honored, to have power, for you created all things and all things exist and have been created because you wanted them to be." (ἄξιος εἶ, ὁ κύριος καὶ ὁ θεὸς ἡμῶν, λαβεῖν τὴν δόξαν καὶ τὴν τιμὴν καὶ δύναμιν, ὅτι σὺ ἔκτισας τὰ πάντα καὶ διὰ τὸ θέλημά σου ἦσαν καὶ ἐκτίσθησαν.) I don't know if this is the case for everyone, but a translation like this, similar to what a First Nation language would prefer with verbal action over static abstract nouns, offers a broader understanding of God and what he is worthy of. It highlights more significantly God's action and will.

I am more of a formal translation person, but Heeg's paper is a reminder that in translation the target language plays an important role. If we create idioms and use phrases and words in ways that are not idiomatic to a language, the translation is of no help to those native speakers and readers. English is difficult to use as a barometer, since William Tyndale's translation of the NT and the subsequent KJV have had such a huge influence on the formation of English. As a native English speaker, the following verse from 1 Peter 5:1 has a richness to it, but when Heeg used it as an example, I wondered if that richness is due to the way in which the biblical text has informed modern English usage. "So I exhort the elders among you as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed..." (ESV). Does it come more to life as: "So I exhort the elders among you as a fellow elder and as one who has witnessed Christ suffering, as well as one who will partake in the revealing of the one who is to be glorified"? Peter's act of witnessing and partaking become more act and less abstract in such a verbal translation. However, verbalizing glory here is tricky. A choice has to be made about the subject of "glorify." Is it God, Jesus, believers, all of the above? I went with the ambiguous "one," although without a closer look, I would guess it is Jesus who will be revealed as glorified, but I also think there is a sense that believers will also somehow partake in that glorification. How is the glory/glorification to be revealed? When? In order to translate "glory" as a verb, many interpretational decisions have to be made. A closer look at "glory" and "revelation" in 1 Peter would help guide this and keep consistency, but this highlights the difficulties involved in translating.

Translation may seem overly detailed, but it is important. Making bread and wine have to be done in particular ways to. You have to follow the recipes, otherwise you don't have bread and wine. Regardless of translation philosophy, all translations in any language should seek to represent the meaning of the original as closely as possible in the language being targeted. This requires a knowledge of the original, but also a sensitivity to the idioms and flow of the target language.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

David F. Wells on Why Go to Seminary

Here is the link to David F. Wells' piece on why those interested in ministry should go to seminary. As a elder theologian statesman, he provides an excellent historical and theological argument for going to seminary.

I meet many students who are content with a BA in Biblical Studies and Theology or Religious Studies who are ready to start serving in a church, but Wells' thoughts may be worth considering, even if you do take a break from school for a year or two before going to seminary. Wells challenges us to reflect on what it means to pastor and be a pastor. It is deeper than we often think.

Wycliffe Centre for Scripture and Theology 2013-2014 Line Up

At the 2013 Spring Colloquium, Ephraim Radner announced the tentative line up for the 2013-14 Wycliffe Centre for Scripture and Theology Colloquia.

Friday, October 18, 2013: The New Perspective on Paul: An Assessment

Spring 2014 (Date TBD): Book of Ecclesiastes

The presenters for these colloquia are not yet set, but if the organizers are able get half of the people that they named as possible presenters, the sessions should be excellent.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Wycliffe Centre for Scripture and Theology

The Wycliffe Centre for Scripture and Theology spring colloquium was Friday on the topic of "Proverbs 8 and the Christian Theological Reading of the Scripture." Four papers were given by Michael Kolarcik of Regis College, Christopher Seitz of Wycliffe, Donald Collett of Trinity School for Ministry in Mass, and Ephraim Radner of Wycliffe.

Theological interpretation is the main focus of these colloquia and it is the sort of look at these texts (Prov 8 specifically) that make a historical-critical biblical studies person (like myself) slightly squeamish at moments. However, much of the time these discussions provide a challenge to think theologically about the text and a reminder to consider or an introduction to the history of interpretation about the text. In that vein, Kolarcik offered a more comfortable and persuasive (to me) contextual setting for understanding wisdom in Proverbs 8 within the larger context of Prov 1-9 (and more helpfully Wisdom of Solomon 6-10 and Sirach 24). He pointed out that within Proverbs 8 God is the one who creates, but wisdom is present during the creation. God is the subject of the verbs throughout 8:22-31.

Seitz noted the way in which the early church made extensive use of the OT for theological argumentation and that Proverbs 8 served as "the dead center of the playing field" of the Christological discussions that took place between the Arians and Athanasius. Was the Son begotten or made? Prov 8:22ff. offered arguments for both. As Kolarcik highlighted, Prov 8 has become in contemporary theology a entry into creation theology, but for the Church in the fourth century debates Prov 8 was key to Christology. It was mentioned more than once during the day that Athanasius has an almost 60 page discussion of Prov 8 in relation to this discussion.

Collett, using Tremper Longman's commentary on Proverbs as a dialogue partner, argued that the view that wisdom is a personified attribute of God does not completely do justice to the text of Proverbs 8. Collett does not find that saying Proverbs' genre is poetry and so therefore the language of Prov 8 is figurative is entirely convincing. Collett contends that wisdom in Proverbs 8 is a "theological ontology". For him, Proverbs 8 indicates that wisdom has some sort of being, which he indicated raises questions for monotheism.

Radner made an argument for a "juxtapositional reading" or "juxtapositional exegesis" of Scripture. He pointed out how Athanasius (in his 60 pages on Prov 8) stacked multiple texts without explaining why they were evidence for an eternal pre-existence of the Son. The line of Athanasius' argument is that only God creates. Thus, the creating wisdom in Proverbs 8 can only be the Son of God. Radner noted the tension in wisdom as God's essence or an attribute and as Creator or creature. This Radner into an interesting discussion of the antimony of Scripture, in which he highlighted the place Proverbs 8 has played in the lectionary (Trinity Sunday where it has obvious trinitarian implications for readers and hearers!). Radner's concluding point is that similar to Athanasius and lectionary readings Scripture needs to be read in this juxtapositional way.

Overall, it was a really interesting day. I would say that I realized all the more how much I approach biblical studies from a historical-critical perspective. I would say, especially with the evidence that Kolarcik provided, that Proverbs 8 has little or nothing to do with the second person of the Trinity. Radner indicated this as much by saying that from the authorial view of Scripture Prov 8 is not about the Son. As Collett pointed out, seeing wisdom as an attribute does not solve all the problems, but personification of an attribute in a poetic genre in an Ancient Near East setting may not need to meet all of our thoughts on how this should work.

So, if the author of Proverbs (Solomon or God? or ???) did not intend the Son with the term "wisdom" and yet many apostolic fathers from the third and fourth centuries saw the Son if Prov 8, what is or should be guiding our interpretation of Scripture? I find it extremely interesting that Prov 8 functioned so prominently in these Christological discussions, but if we want to argue about Jesus' role in creation would not Colossians 1 or John 1 provide better evidence? For the fathers, the language of "begotten" in Prov 8 is important, but John 1:18; 3:16? I remain unconvinced of the link between wisdom (sophia) and the word (logos) in John's Gospel (see my forthcoming dictionary article in DJG 2nd ed. "Logos"). I realize I am traveling against the stream here, but I don't see it.

The history of interpretation is important and helps to place us in our own contexts and alerts us and challenges us with views that we would not otherwise noticed. Nicene orthodoxy on the second person of the Trinity represents Scripture well. I am just not convinced that Prov 8 is about Christology or that it should be used in theological discussions of the Trinity.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Pre-SBL Conference on Brown, Dodd, and the Gospel of John

An excellent Pre-SBL conference is being jointly hosted by St. Mary's Seminary and University and the John, Jesus, and History Group. The headline speakers will be James Dunn and Alan Culpepper who have been outstanding contributors to Johannine scholarship. Other noteworthies include John Ashton, Jan van der Watt, Craig Koester, and Catrin Williams. The conference is subtitled "Engaging the Legacies of C.H. Dodd and R.E. Brown." Looks to be a highlight of SBL even before SBL begins.

Details below:

John, Jesus, and History
Engaging the Legacies of C.H. Dodd and Raymond E. Brown

A Pre-SBL Conference at Saint Mary’s Seminary & University, Baltimore
November 20-22, 2013
Program as of May 1, 2013

Sponsored by the John, Jesus, and History section of SBL and
St. Mary’s Seminary & University

Conference fee: $150 (June 1 to October 15; $170 thereafter)
(includes program, lunch and dinner Thursday, coffee breaks, reception)

Late Afternoon/Evening
4:00-7:30         Check-in/Registration (dinner on your own)
6:45/7:00         Shuttles from Radisson Cross Keys hotel to SMSU
7:00                 Book signing with James Dunn and other presenters
7:30                 Keynote Address/Public Lecture—James Dunn
9:00                 Book signing
9:30                 Shuttles to Radisson Cross Keys hotel

8:00                 Shuttles from Radisson Cross Keys hotel to SMSU
8:00                 Late check-in/registration
8:30                 Welcome and introduction to the conference
8:45                 Tom Thatcher: The Semiotics of History: C. H. Dodd and Raymond Brown
on the Character of the Johannine Tradition
9:45                 Coffee Break
10:00               Craig Koester: Progress and Paradox: C. H. Dodd and Rudolf Bultmann on
the Gospel of John
11:15               John Ashton:  C. H. Dodd and His Near-Contemporaries
12:15               Lunch break—dining room (lunch provided)
1:30                 Catrin Williams: John and the Rabbis: Assessing the Contributions of
C.H. Dodd and R.E. Brown
2:45                 Jonathan Draper: John’s Gospel and the Question of Orality
3:45                 Coffee break
4:15                 Wendy E. S. North: John and the Synoptics: A Test Case and its Implications
(John 12:1-8)
5:15                 General discussion/announcements, etc.
5:30                 Dinner break—dining room (dinner provided)
7:30                 Introduction to Raymond Brown’s legacy and Saint Mary’s Seminary—
Fr. Thomas Hurst, President Rector and student of Ray Brown
7:45                 Panel on Raymond Brown in relation to Dodd and questions of
historical tradition: Paul Anderson (Presiding), Jaime Clark-Soles,
John Donahue, Michael Gorman, Craig Koester;
8:45                 Reception
9:30                 Shuttles to Radisson Cross Keys hotel

8:00                 Shuttles from Radisson Cross Keys hotel to SMSU
8:30                 Announcements, etc.
8:45                 Jan van der Watt: Dodd and Johannine Symbolism
10:00-11:00     Alan Culpepper: Dodd as Narrative Critic
11:00               General discussion
11:30               Final remarks from organizers/SMSU
11:45               Depart for Radisson Cross Keys and/or the SBL hotels by shuttles and/or cabs

Conference registration
Registration for the conference itself will be done electronically beginning June 1. A conference registration link will be located on St. Mary’s web site at the home page of its Ecumenical Institute of Theology, which is sponsoring the James Dunn lecture. Go to www.stmarys.edu/ei.

Accommodation options
1.      Limited availability (15): hotel-type rooms on campus in the Center for Continuing Formation—$100/night single, includes breakfast; first come, first served. Call Gloria Jones at 410-864-4102.
2.      Radisson Cross Keys Hotel (5 minutes from campus; transportation provided to and from conference)—$129/night plus 15.5% tax; availability at this price may be limited. Ask for the “St. Mary’s Seminary Conference” block rate. Call 800-333-3333 or visit
Use the password (PAC code) SBLMAR to get the block rate.
3.      SBL hotels (downtown/inner harbor; 15-20 minutes from campus; transportation not provided)—costs vary.

Contacts for further information
Craig Koester: ckoester@luthersem.edu (program)
Michael Gorman: mgorman@stmarys.edu (accommodations, etc.)

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Wycliffe Centre for Scripture and Theology 2013 Spring Colloquium

The 2013 spring colloquium will be on the topic of Proverbs 8 in the trinitarian debates between Athanasius and the Arians: "Proverbs 8 and Christian Theological Interpretation of Scripture". 

The date is Friday, May 17. More information can be found here.