Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Red Dwarf - Backwards

If you feel like wasting some time this New Year's Eve (or New Years Day, for you Aussies and Kiwis), here's a brilliant episode from the classic British sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf. I was reminded of it today, and it's just as funny as I remember:

Quote - McGrath on Reading the New Testament

James McGrath, in his published dissertation, John's Apologetic Christology (which just happens to be directly relevant to my thesis), makes a point that should be obvious but is too easily forgotten:

[A] century was just as long in the ancient world as it is today, and for this reason it is simply unjustified to assume that what was controversial in the third and subsequent centuries was controversial in the first century. Thus, in much the same way that one would be cautious in reading the Synoptics in light of John, much less in light of the council of Nicaea, so one must be cautious of reading first-century sources in light of the views held by rabbis of the third and subsequent centuries. (pg. 73)
And of course, the same applies to the New Testament itself: the time between the 30s (when Jesus taught), the 50s (when Paul wrote) and the 90s (when John's Gospel reached its final form) was just as long in the first century as it was in the twentieth.

Monday, December 29, 2008

And you say you don't have time to read...

If Karl Rove is to be believed (eh hem), the popular caricature of President Bush as a near-illiterate rube is actually the opposite of the truth. Supposedly, the two have been competing against each other to see who could read the most books. Rove has won each year, but not for lack of effort on the President's part: In 2006, Bush finished 95 books, in 2007, he finished 51, and in 2008 he finished 40 books, mostly history, biography and current events (from the Wall Street Journal, HT Between Two Worlds):

His reading this year included a heavy dose of history -- including David Halberstam's "The Coldest Winter," Rick Atkinson's "Day of Battle," Hugh Thomas's "Spanish Civil War," Stephen W. Sears's "Gettysburg" and David King's "Vienna 1814." There's also plenty of biography -- including U.S. Grant's "Personal Memoirs"; Jon Meacham's "American Lion"; James M. McPherson's "Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief" and Jacobo Timerman's "Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number."

Each year, the president also read the Bible from cover to cover, along with a daily devotional.

The reading competition reveals Mr. Bush's focus on goals. It's not about winning. A good-natured competition helps keep him centered and makes possible a clear mind and a high level of energy. He reads instead of watching TV. He reads on Air Force One and to relax and because he's curious. He reads about the tasks at hand, often picking volumes because of the relevance to his challenges. And he's right: I've won because he has a real job with enormous responsibilities.

Well, there goes my last excuse not to read more! Then again, I'm sure my job as manager of a self-storage facility is much more time consuming than being President of the United States...

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas!

I hope you all enjoy a relaxing week with your families. I suppose it might be appropriate to include here something about the stories of Jesus' birth, but right now I feel like this is something I need to hear more:

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"

"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." (Luke 10:38-42)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Quote - Religion in the Ancient World

A nice summary by John Kloppenborg, in his interesting little book on Q: The Earliest Gospel:

In the twenty-first century we usually think of religion as a discrete and identifiable aspect of culture and distinguish it from economics, politics, education, and other cultural domains. Yet in the ancient Mediterranean languages there is no word at all that is equivalent to our abstract term "religion." There are words for altars, sacrifices, prayers, and temples and words for attitudes towards gods (piety, impiety, fear). But there was no collective word that gathers all of these into a single domain, distinguishable from the city, the empire, the army, trade and professional associations, and other social institutions. Religion in the ancient world was embedded in these institutions. (pg. 85)

Buried Alive

In real life, I pay for graduate school by working as the on-site manager of a self-storage facility. It's not a terribly exciting job, but it allows me to work from home and it's generally only busy one week a month (when rent comes due). But the last few days have been livelier than normal, as I've had to spend quite a bit of my time shoveling snow. This isn't an area that gets it very often so hardly anyone has snow tires or chains, and customer after customer has tried to get to their storage unit only to get stuck in a snow drift. Most are here to get Christmas presents out of their units; I suspect many will be back next week with cars full of everything they just replaced. In truth, most of these people were stuck before they even got here.

A couple years back, I spent a week helping build a mission school in southern Mexico and one of our hosts asked what I do for a living. When I told him I manage a mini storage, he had no idea what I was talking about, so I tried to explain: "It's a place where people can keep the stuff that doesn't fit in their house." He gave me a blank look, then asked "Why would anyone need to keep stuff that they can't fit in their house?" I had no answer for him.

Most of the people who rent from us start out while moving. Some need to clear out space while the house is on the market or before they can move into a new one; others need to store their belongings while on a trip or deployment; most figure they will only need the unit for a few months at the most. The trouble is, a substantial number of people who move in for such reasons, never move out. They get into their new house, decide they want to update the furniture, and never empty the storage unit. They buy new clothes, toys and electronics, and shove the old stuff in storage--too valuable to throw or give away, but too old to keep using.

Half of them will end up keeping the unit for years, filled with stuff they have long since replaced with something newer and better. Others dutifully pay rent for units they never even visit. A few stop paying altogether, leaving us with a garage full of old stuff that no one wants or cares about. Sometimes it's junk--cat-scratched furniture and broken-down appliances--but often enough it's just out of date. By law, we have to auction such units off, and we're usually lucky to get $50 for a whole house worth of stuff. No one, it seems, wants old clothes and used furniture. Inevitably, most of it ends up in a landfill.

Yet the cycle goes on, and every month more people fill up their units with their excess, as we all go on buying and buying, burying ourselves under remnants of our corporate consumerism. All of which is to say, though this snow will inevitably melt away, we'll still be buried alive.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Now That's Creepy!

David Ker shares his view of Santa...

Then there's this, courtesy of James McGrath:

Thank God the true meaning of Christmas lies elsewhere.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Telling Kids About Santa?

Over at Emergent Village, Jenell Williams Paris reflects on what to tell her kids about Santa, a subject that has also become an issue around our house this year (my daughter is two and a half):

Should we really encourage children to project their material aspirations onto an idealized white man? As a full-time working woman, I don’t want my own hard work, income generation, present-purchasing and gift-wrapping to not only be entirely discredited, but all attributed to a benevolent white man. And I also don’t want to encourage my children to associate material wealth, kindness and generosity, and feasting with whiteness and maleness....

If Santa were a refugee, or a woman of color, or a plant or animal, I could probably get on board. But theologically speaking, Santa is in direct competition with Jesus, and it seems that Jesus pales in comparison. They’re both bearded white men (in the American imagination), but Santa gives more hugs and lets you sit on his lap. They’re both invisible characters that appear from time to time, so how do you convince a child that though you once told them both were real, only Jesus is really real? They both listen to petitions, but Santa grants wishes in material, fun, lit-up ways. Jesus occasionally answers, but with much less reliability than Santa. Your odds are much better if you pray to Santa for a Wii than if you pray to Jesus for your fighting parents to not divorce.

I'm not sure what to make of Paris' concerns about racism and sexism. If Santa is allowed to become the focus of Christmas, I suppose this could be a problem, but as long as Santa is just a character in certain stories, one among many others, I don't see the big deal. In any case, my daughter is not really old enough to ask a question like "is Santa real?" To her, Santa is a character on TV, only as real to her as Dora the Explorer and Little Bear, and I've tried to keep it that way.

But this is one area where my wife and I don't quite agree--her family always got gifts "from Santa," whereas mine never did, so she is much more comfortable asking things like "what do you want Santa to bring you for Christmas?" I just don't see the value in transferring Santa from being a character in her books and on TV into an imaginary person in the real world. But what I really do not understand is why parents would continue to insist on Santa's existence even after their kids start to question it. Shouldn't they be glad their kids are thinking critically for themselves? Why lie? It isn't as though they are protecting them from some dark secret. I just don't get it.

Sweet Free Books!

Not to brag or anything but I just got this email:

Hi Kenneth,

At SBL last month, you entered your name to win $250 worth of Continuum and T&T Clark books, and I’m pleased to tell you that you’ve won our drawing!

You can choose which titles you’d like to receive by visiting our website , or I can send you a catalog if you’d rather browse that way. Let me know which titles you’d like, and I’ll arrange to have them shipped to you.
Someone had better not be pulling my leg!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Quote - Brueggemann on the Bible

Walter Brueggemann, Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism (quoted by A. Katherine Grieb, The Story of Romans, pg. xxi):

I assume that the biblical text is not a handbook for morality or doctrine as it is often regarded, nor on the other hand, is it an historical record, as many are wont to take it. Rather the biblical text is the articulation of imaginative models of reality in which the... readers in church and synagogue, are invited to participate. (pg. 8)

Monday, December 15, 2008

That's Pretty Cool

So with that last post I tried using Microsoft Word's blog-post creator for the first time, and it actually worked surprisingly well. Up to this point, I have usually composed short posts in blogger itself, but for more substantial pieces I write them in Word, then copy and paste into blogger, which works fairly well except it strips out the formatting (like italics). This new way uploaded straight to my blog without my even having to access the blogger page, and it seemed to work perfectly apart from the need to go back and add tags. If anyone has used this feature of Microsoft word, do you know if there is a way to add tags within the program?

An Overview of Romans

Anyone care to join me in a round of the Hallelujah chorus? I'm done with coursework! All that stands between me and my degree is a thesis, and I'll worry about that tomorrow. For now I should be back to more regular posting, and in the meantime, here's the final I submitted to my last class, which may be of interest to some readers. The assignment was a five-page position paper summarizing five "non-negotiable" elements of any understanding of Paul's letter to the Romans. It deals with the usual basics (occasion, structure), plus more significant issues like the nature of the Gospel and the people of God. Enjoy, throw stones, move on to greener pastures, whatever:

Romans is not a piece of systematic theology but a letter, written in a specific situation for specific reasons. Yet neither is it purely occasional, as one of those reasons is to introduce Paul and his gospel to a group of people he has not met. Any summary of the "non-negotiable elements of Romans," then, must account for both the context and content of the letter, which are intimately bound together. We will pay particular attention to: 1. The immediate context of the letter, including author, audience, occasion and purpose; and 2. The structure and argumentative method, including large-scale contents. This will set the stage for consideration of three of the most important themes in Romans: 3. The role of the law; 4. The relation between Jews and Gentiles in the people of God; and 5. The Gospel of God's righteousness.

1. Author, Audience, Occasion and Purpose
Romans, of course, was written by Paul (1:1; all stand alone scripture references refer to Romans), the self-described "Apostle to the Gentiles" (1:5; 11:13). It is addressed to the "saints" in Rome (1:7) in anticipation of Paul's upcoming visit (1:8-15; 15:22-32). Unlike the addressees of his other letters, however, Paul has never been to Rome (1:13; 15:22), so part of the purpose of this letter is to introduce himself, not to those who have never heard of him, but to those who only know him second-hand, and might be prone to misunderstand him (cf. 1:13; 3:1-8; 9:1-3; 15:14-22). He wants to clarify his views and earn their support, not only because he hopes to enjoy ministry in Rome (1:15), but also because he seeks their aid for yet further ministry in Spain (15:24). It may also be that Paul's ongoing conflict with those who adhere more strictly to the Jewish law (cf. Galatians) has made him fear that his reception in Rome might be less than friendly, especially as he anxiously awaits a trip to Jerusalem (15:25-31; cf. Acts 21-23). For the purpose of that trip is to bring gifts from his Gentile churches that symbolize his hope for Jewish and Gentile unity, so often threatened by controversy over Paul's view of the law (cf. 15:27; Gal 2:10 in context).

It should come as no surprise, then, that Romans' presentation of the gospel is everywhere tied to questions of Jewish-Gentile relations and the role of the law, as we shall see. Still, the letter was written to Rome, not Jerusalem, and while its audience plausibly included some Jews (cf. 2:17; 16:7, 11), it was likely predominantly Gentile (1:13; 11:13; 15:14-29). As such, Romans not only addresses Jewish concerns (and cites Jewish scripture), but also alludes distinctively Greco-Roman interests. For instance, Jesus (not Caesar) is "our Lord" (1:4; 4:24), who embodies the "good news" (1:16), "peace" (5:1) and "salvation" (10:10) that the emperors promised. In all ways, however, Romans is not just a defense of Paul's views, but an invitation to find in his gospel the true answer to humanity's deepest needs, and it must be asked how he makes this case.

2. The Structure and Argumentative Method of Romans
Though the major section breaks are widely agreed upon (1:18; 5:1; 9:1; 12:1; 15:14; though it seems to me that 6:1 marks a clearer shift than 5:1), the connections between Romans' various sections have been just as widely disputed. Even if the letter is not tightly structured, however, it is well-integrated. Virtually every section can be tied back to the theme announced in 1:16-17: "I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of all who have faith, the Jew first and the Greek. For in it is revealed a righteousness of God from faith to faith...." So in chapters 1-5, Paul argues that Jews as well as Gentiles have failed to honor God and his law (1:18-3:20), and so all alike must look to Christ for God's righteousness (3:21-31). In Christ, all can share in the promises made to Abraham (4:1-25), and the universal hope of salvation (5:1-21). In chapters 6-15, Paul responds to potential questions and objections raised by the foregoing: Is grace an excuse to sin (6:1-23)? Is the law sin (7:1-25)? Who can rescue us (8:1-17)? Why do the redeemed suffer (8:18-39)? Have God's promises to Israel failed (9:1-11:36)? How should we live, without the law (12:1-15:13)? Paul then explains his plans (15:14-33) and closes with greetings, blessings and (perhaps) a warning (16:1-27). Thus, even those sections most often deemed tangential actually address objections raised previously, for instance, 9:1-11:32 answer 3:1-2, while 7:1-25 and 13:8-10 answer 3:31.

This is no mere abstract discussion, however; it is grounded in Paul's lived experience as Jewish Apostle to the Gentiles, and is marked by a series of overlapping narratives: of humanity's failure (1:18-3:20), of Abraham's faith (4:1-25), of Adam and Christ (5:12-21), of Israel's struggle with the law (7:7-25), of creation's "frustration" and restoration (8:18-25), of Israel's stumbling and hope (9:1-11:36), of Paul's own ministry (15:17-33), etc. All of these are bound up in the grand narrative of God's righteousness—revealed in creation and covenant, redemption and restoration—and in that story, the law, the people of God, and the good news of Jesus' redemption stand central.

3. The Role of the Law in Romans
Few issues are as controversial in Pauline studies as role of the Jewish law, and in Romans this theme is especially prominent. So this is one place where context is vital, for tied up in the debate is the nature of 1st C. Judaism as a whole. With the New Perspective I must affirm that Judaism was diverse, but not generally marked by self-righteous legalism, though some (perhaps many) no doubt took their election too-much for granted. Ideally, at least, the average Jew saw obedience to the law as the proper response to God's goodness and promises. Few, however, thought the world was as it should be, and most anticipated God's intervention on their behalf, though who or what they blamed and how they pictured God's response varied greatly. Virtually all saw the law as central to their identity and hope.

For his part, Paul believed that God's redemption had decisively come in Jesus' death and resurrection, and this unexpected turn placed the Jewish law in a new light. He agreed that the law specifies God's (covenant) demands (2:13-29), but insisted that "no one will be declared righteous in [God's] sight by works of the law" (3:20). Instead, the law was given to reveal sin (3:20; 7:13), but because of "the flesh," it cannot make anyone righteous (8:3). Indeed, Israel's reception of the law, which seemed intended to solve the problem of sin, was itself abused by it, so she too fell, like Adam before her (2:17-29; 7:7-24). But Christ did obey perfectly (5:12-21; 8:1-2; cf. 10:4), and those "in Christ" have the Spirit, and so are capable of "fully" meeting "the righteous requirements of the law" (8:4; cf. 13:8-10). Yet it is just this Christological reinterpretation of the law which proved a "stumbling block" to the Jews (9:32-33; 11:9-11; 14:13-18) for, to Paul, it meant that there is no longer any need to maintain the "boundary markers" that divide Jews from Gentiles (3:28-31). Rather, the people of God are defined by faith and identity with Christ, not by ethnicity, ritual purity, food regulations, or adherence to the law generally (2:25-29; 3:27-4:25; 9:1-11:36; 14:1-15:13). Yet if this is so, what then is the proper relation of Jews and Gentiles in the people of God?

4. The People of God: The Relation of Jews and Gentiles in Romans
Arguably, even more central to Paul's purpose in Romans than the law is the relation between Jews and Gentiles, and here too there is a curious tension at work. Though Paul often affirms the equality of Jews and Gentiles (e.g. 3:9; 4:11-12; 10:11-13), the distinction remains important to him: "The Jew first and the Greek" (1:16); "a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly… by the Spirit" (2:29). The law was given uniquely to Israel (2:12-29), but she too fell (7:7-25) so that "Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin" (3:9) and must all respond to Christ in faith (3:27-4:25; 10:9-13). Yet ultimately faith marks one's inclusion in Israel (2:29; 11:17-24) and lack of faith means exclusion, such that "not all who are descended from Israel are Israel" (9:6; cf. 11:23). "Israel" itself remains a valid category, and therefore, while the word "covenant" is not prominent in Romans (appearing only in 9:4 and 11:27), God's faithfulness to his covenant people is central throughout, now extended to include all who are in Christ.

Paradoxically, then, the very distinguishing marks of Israel (cf. 9:4-5) are also applied to the new people of God, Jews and Gentiles: adoption as children of God (8:14-25), glory (5:2; 8:18), covenant (11:27? cf. 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:6; Gal 4:24), the law (8:4; 13:8-10), worship (12:1), promises (4:13-25), patriarchs (4:1-12), and Christ (3:21-31; 5:12-21; 8:1-4). But it is just that equation which poses a problem for Paul: "Did God reject his people [ethnic Israel]?" (11:1). God's righteousness is called into question (3:3-8) and defended (chs. 9-11) precisely in relation to the fate of Israel: Gentiles are "grafted on" to the olive tree of redeemed Israel (11:17-24), and "all Israel will be saved" (11:26-32). So even now there is "a remnant, chosen by grace" (11:5), the first-fruits of the eventual restoration of all through faith in Christ (11:13-36), and Paul sees his own ministry as part of God's plan to bring this reconciliation to fruition (15:14-33). But how has God accomplished all this? That is the Gospel—good news—that forms the real heart of this letter.

5. The Gospel of God's Righteousness
Traditional Protestant theology stresses the individual's salvation by faith as God's entirely unmerited forgiveness of sin. While this is certainly an element of Paul's gospel, however, it should be obvious by now that this falls far short of the cosmic and covenantal scope of both the problem and its solution in Romans. On the one hand, humanity's "plight" is much more than individual sins; humanity as a whole has failed to honor her creator and has been "given over" in slavery to sin, leading to death (1:18-32; 5:12-14; 6:16-23; 7:14-25), pulling all of creation down with her (8:20). More troubling still, God has called a particular people and given her a law that "was intended to bring life" but even it failed to do so (7:10), for the Jews too fell prey to sin (7:7-25), and this calls God's own righteousness into question (3:3; 9:6; 11:1). So as we turn to that controversial phrase, "the righteousness of God," first aired in Romans' thematic statement (1:17), it seems clear that much more than forgiveness of sins is at stake. A solution is needed to the whole nexus of evil that infects humanity and creation, and the vindication of God's own justice and covenant faithfulness.

In fact, much of Paul's purpose in Romans seems to be to explain how these two aspects of God's righteousness can be reconciled: How can God be both just and faithful, in light of Israel's sin? By sending his son, who obeyed where Adam and Israel disobeyed, and who died in our place and so reconstituted God's covenant people "in Christ" (3:24; 6:11, 23; 8:1-2; 12:5), Paul claims that God has indeed proven his righteousness. This all-encompassing "good news," therefore, includes far more than forgiveness (3:25; 4:7-8) and justification (3:26; 4:5; 5:19) declared of sinners through some sort of legal fiction (though cf. 3:23-24; 5:6-11). Rather, through the Spirit and as part of the redeemed people of God, believers are also made righteous (6:1-23; 8:1-17; 12:1-8), offered "peace with God" (5:1; 8:6; 14:17), "the hope of glory" (5:2; 8:17-25; 15:4, 13), the gift of the Holy Spirit (1:4; 5:5; 8:2-27; 15:13), reconciliation (5:10-11; 11:15), adoption as children of God (8:14-25), conformity to the likeness of Jesus (8:28-29; 12:1-8), and more. Ultimately, this means the vindication and restoration of the covenant people of God, now expanded to include Gentiles as well as Jews (3:21-31; 4:1-25; 11:1-36; 15:7-13), the restoration of the whole cosmos (8:18-25), and hope of resurrection life (4:17-25; 5:17-21; 6:4-11, 22-23; 8:2, 6, 11-25; 11:15). In all this, the one God is truly proven "just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus" (3:26).

In short, Romans introduces Paul, his gospel and its implications to a church from whom he hopes to win support for future mission work, written in the context of significant controversy over the role of the law in light of Christ, and the relation of Jews and Gentiles in the people of God. Through argument and narrative, Paul defends his gospel of God's saving, restoring and redeeming righteousness, offered to God's covenant people through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through participation in Christ, all—Jews and Gentiles—may have a share in the blessings and promises made to Israel, truly fulfilling the law and inaugurating the final restoration of every aspect of God's creation. "For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen" (11:36).

Friday, December 12, 2008

I Knew Jim West Hated Guns...

...I didn't know why. I guess if you can kill a bear with naught but a stick, you don't need them:

Jim West, 45, was out walking last Saturday morning with his two dogs near 70 Mile House, about halfway between Kamloops and Williams Lake, when he came face to face with an angry mother bear.

"I turned [when] I heard a grunt. All I saw was eyes full of hatred … I had no option … So I stuck my foot up and tried to kick her in the face," he said.

The bear then attacked him, knocking him to the ground, and West soon found himself on the losing side of an ill-matched fight....

Knowing he would likely soon be dead unless he fought back, the injured West managed to get to his feet and picked up a stick about as thick as his arm....

The five-foot-nine man eventually crushed the bear's skull with the stick, killing it.

West then walked a kilometre and a half to a local lodge, where he was transported to hospital. The gashes in his body took 60 stitches to sew up.

Glad you survived your ordeal, Jim, I hope the environmentalists don't eat you alive!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Battlestar Galactica and a Prequel Series

Good news for fellow Battlestar Galactica fans! The second half of the final season starts January 16 (you can also watch some full episodes here or on Hulu), and starting December 12 there will be a series of 10 webisodes at They have also filmed a 2 hour TV movie called "The Plan," which will air sometime after the series ends in March. Finally, they just approved the prequel, Caprica, as a full series (HT FilmChat):

"Caprica" will star Eric Stoltz, Esai Morales, Paula Malcomson and Polly Walker, and will be set 50 years prior to "Galactica's" seminal attack on human civilization by those dreaded 'droids the Cylons. [The] Family-drama-themed series will focus on the Earthlike planet of Caprica as two rival families deal with, among other topical issues, the broader implications of their society's emerging artificial intelligence technology sector.
That means it will be set 10 years before the first Cylon war, which ought to give them plenty of Terminator-esk themes to explore. I'm eager to see what they do with it.

Oh, and I almost forgot: I'm a Leobon, according to this Cylon Detector Test (HT: Carmen).

Friday, December 5, 2008

Quote - Freedom and Virtue

From Jeffrey Overstreet's excellent novel Auralia's Colors (Abascar is a city-state):

Hear this: if you allow Abascar freedom, some people will choose what they shouldn't.... But take away that freedom, and no one has opportunity to choose what they should.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

I'm a Quaker?

Sorry about the lack of posting, lately. I've been out touring the world, meeting famous people, climbing Everest.... ok, really I've been busy with family and the end of the semester, but after the 12th I'll be done with course work--for good!--so that's something. Then all I'll have left is my thesis... speaking of things I've been too busy to work on.

So with all that extra time I don't have, I wasted a bit of it on the "Belief-O-Matic," which has been making the rounds of late. As all such questionnaires, this one is almost entirely useless, as I'm inclined to choose "none of the above" for almost every question, but I still can't figure out how I got a 100% for "Orthodox Quaker." To be honest, some days I'm not even sure I'm Orthodox, and don't know that I've ever even met an Quaker. Still, the summary at Beliefnet doesn't sound half bad. Anyway, here's my top 5:

1. Orthodox Quaker (100%)
2. Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (94%)
3. Mainline to Conservative Christian/Protestant (83%)
4. Seventh Day Adventist (80%)
5. Eastern Orthodox (79%)

You can take the quiz yourself here.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Thoughts on SBL

Well my first trip to the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting is wrapping up and I wanted to compile some reflections before heading off to the airport to fly home (I miss home!):

I've very much enjoyed my time in Boston, though I could have done without the frigid temperatures. I didn't think to bring gloves or a hat and couldn't find any to buy that were not ridiculously overpriced ($100 for a pair of gloves?!) or covered with Red Sox symbolism (boo Red Sox!), so walking outside has been less than pleasant. It builds character I guess.

As for the meeting itself, I took Mark Goodacre's advice and was very much a "tart"; perhaps too much so. I didn't stay for the whole of even one session, just picking and choosing which papers I actually wanted to hear. Partly this was so that I could catch papers at simultaneous sessions, but mainly it was just because I didn't take Goodacre's advice about not burning the candle from both ends. I couldn't help but wake up way too early each morning, but neither did I succeed in getting to bed at a reasonable hour, so any time I tried to sit through more than one or two papers in a row I'd start to nod off. Like Chris Heard, I figured it less disrespectful to leave early than to fall asleep in a session. Of course, I still managed to fall asleep a couple times, and even saw a few presenters do the same (Emmanuel Tov, reportedly, put his head on the table and took a nap after he finished giving a paper!). Perhaps because of this, I had the good fortune not to have to endure any truly awful papers (unless I slept through one!), but I'm afraid only a handful proved all that enlightening.

The highlight of the week, though, was the chance to meet with a number of people I had only previously known online (and a few total strangers). On Friday I got to have lunch with John Coleman, which was great (if you're reading this John: Start blogging again! ;), then on Sunday night we had the biblioblogger dinner which drew a good 25 people. I'm afraid I didn't get to meet even half of them, but I did enjoy good conversations with several people, including John Hobbins, Jared Calaway (whose paper on the Tabernacle in Hebrews I very much enjoyed before I even knew he was a blogger!), April DeConick and especially James McGrath. Chris Brady also recorded a podcast (with much mocking of Jim West), which I imagine he will post at some point, and Eric Sowell (who could easily pass as one of the Baldwins) wore a great shirt that said: "More people have read this shirt than your blog"! I was disappointed, however, not to get more of a chance to talk with Michael Halcomb, and didn't even realize Chris Heard was there until he posted about the dinner. Ah well, it was fun putting faces to names and getting to chat in a less formal setting.

In fact, I found meals much more conducive to good conversation than the attrocious receptions the grad schools and publishers put on each night. I guess I'm just too much an introvert but walking into a room full of people I don't recognize and trying to insert myself into their conversations is about as much fun as dental work. Apart from a couple of Princeton students whose names I have already forgotten, I didn't make a single contact at those receptions, which is a shame because I was really hoping to get a better idea of where to apply for PhD studies. Good thing I still have a year to figure it out.

As for books, I made off well. I hadn't set myself a specific budget but I was determined not to buy anything that wasn't a truly excellent deal and I got about 25 books for less than $200. Actually half of that was spent on Brill's 3 volume Context of Scripture, so I actually got 22 books for less than $100. I may or may not post a break down of how the prices on various books compared to online, but the best deals came this morning: Random House had all their display books available for just $1 a piece, and they had some great titles, including Henri Nouwin's Return of the Prodigal Son, Geza Vermes' volumes on the historical Jesus and all of Elaine Pagel's books. Also, Zondervan was giving away copies of Christopher Wright's book The God I Don't Understand, on the condition that we post a review online. I've read about a third of it so far and it is excellent. Perhaps I'll finish it on the flight home and post a review this week.

Speaking of which, if I'm going to make my flight I'd better log off and head out. I miss my family and can't wait to seem them again! And to all my new friends, I'll see you next year in New Orleans!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Jet Lag? More Like Jet Propulsion

Can someone explain jet lag to me, because it appears my body is confused. I flew from the West Coast to the East, which means my inner clock should be three hours behind (shouldn’t it?). 6 o’clock Eastern should feel like 3 o’clock Pacific, 10 o’clock like 7 o’clock, right? Logically, then, I ought to have a hard time falling a sleep at night an a hard time getting up in the morning.

But my body seems to think differently. I feel like I’m three hours ahead: 6pm feels like 9pm, while 8am feels like 11am. Thus, I’m dead tired in the evening, but then wake up at 5am as though it were time for breakfast, this despite the fact that it is actually only 2 in the morning back home. What on earth is going on?

So anyway, sorry about the dearth in posting; I’ll have something more substantial in the next day or two. Other than the sleep deprivation, I’m enjoying my time in Boston, particularly the chance to meet in person people I've only previously known online. Oh, and the books.... when even Brill is offering titles at a ridiculous discount, I'm in trouble.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Quote - Modern Paraphrases

Over at Pisteuomen, Scott Bailey made a great observation about modern paraphrase translations like The Message and The Voice. I would add that it goes both ways--if modern paraphrases can have a legitimate place, perhaps we shouldn't be so quick to judge their ancient counterparts:

It is highly ironic to me... that most modern Christians would read some of the Pseudepigrapha, or maybe something like Reworked Genesis from Qumran and be uncomfortable, or even highly critical, of the ancient practices, and here we are in our modern times with authors freely adding to the biblical writers--in some cases obfuscating what the original author wrote or adding to it in a way that is not representative of the original--and that's passable.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Profess, verb.


Yes, it is 2:00am, and yes I am still awake. Actually, I'm taking a break from my frantic push to finish a paper due tomorrow this afternoon, eating health food a McDonalds value meal (they were only place open this time of night, and I didn't want to wake my kids by banging around in the kitchen, but yuk! You'd think something this unhealthy ought to at least taste good!). The goal is to regain some energy and concentration before returning to work... Hmmm, not sure if browsing the internet is helping.... Oi!

Monday, November 17, 2008

To Boldly Go, Where Someone Has Gone Before!

In case you missed the bootleg version that's been floating around the last few days, the full HD trailer for J.J. Abram's reboot of the Star Trek franchise is due to be released this morning. All I can say is, Wow!

Update: Here it is!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

How Does God Speak?

In a recent post, Michael Halcomb expressed his skepticism about claims to have heard a personal message from God:

The thing is, people can rarely ever prove that God spoke, it's like, well, you just have to take their word for it.... But then, I really think that there are legitimate instances where God speaks to people. So, I guess I'm wondering, are there any bloggers out there to whom God has spoken or speaks? If so, how does it happen and how do you know?
I responded there:

God's voice has always seemed to me less like a source of information and more like a rather forceful and focused form of conscience, persistently (sometimes even uncomfortably) pointing toward or away from certain specific decisions. It's not always been there (in fact, ignoring it is a pretty sure way to make it disappear!), but when I have experienced it, it's unmistakable.
And Michael responded:

I'm still wondering just how. Your notion of a "source of information" is interesting but still, how did you hear it? Did you "feel" more than "hear"? What?
My answer grew a bit too long for the comment thread, so I’ll post it here:

The first thing I should say is that I think God’s primary means of communication are scripture and the church, but I don’t think those are the only ways he speaks, and unless I am completely nuts, I think I have occasionally heard his voice in other ways. In my own experience, those latter cases always seemed a mix of thoughts, feelings and "coincidence," like everything in my life was pointed towards a particular choice, and usually one that I did want to make (thus, almost every time it has happened I fought God on it for a long while). At such times I always found that, if I obeyed, things turned out for the best but, if I disobeyed, they very much did not. I’ve given a number of examples in other posts, so here I'll give just one more (omitting a few personal details):

When I was a sophomore in college, for several months I strongly felt that I needed to end a certain relationship, but I had no desire to do so. There wasn't anything immoral about the relationship, but every time I prayed--heck—even when I didn’t, this persistent thought/feeling kept intruding. But I kept pushing it back, giving excuses, arguing with God that it would hurt the other person too much. This went on for months, until finally I got so fed up that one night I went out to the "Back 40" of our campus and prayed/yelled (I don't normally pray out loud, let alone at a shout!) that I didn't understand, I didn't think I could do it, and how could I even know it was God I was hearing and not just my own twisted mind? There was no voice from heaven (if that ever happens, I've not experienced it), just that persistent feeling. So finally I said: "I give up, if this is really you, God, if you really want me to do this, you're gonna have to do something drastic. Hit me over the head with a 2x4!"

I know, I know, that's not how you're supposed to talk to God (I'm rather embarrassed to admit that I did at all, but then again, it'd be nice to have that kind of passion again). Well anyway, I stood there for a few minutes, half expecting some crazed student to jump out of the woods and hit me upside the head, but nothing happened. So I sighed and turned around to walk back to campus, and immediately (I kid you not) I smacked my forehead on a big block of wood.

In all the time I was standing there, I had entirely forgotten where I was. Our campus had a raised set of railroad tracks that ran through the back 40, which the path crossed through a low walking tunnel. I happened to be standing just outside the opening of that tunnel, a bit closer than I realized, I suppose. So when I turned around I slammed my head right into the center brace holding up the roof. I think it was actually a 4x8, but I got the message, and a bad headache. ;)

But I didn't listen. After all that, I went back to my dorm intent to break it off, but I didn't follow through. In fact, I stopped arguing with God about it at all. I knew what he wanted, but I wasn’t willing to do it. So I just ignored him until finally the feeling disappeared. As it turned out, the decision (or indecision!) led to one of the most difficult years of my life. Worse, after so blatantly ignoring God, I never again felt that tug in the same way I once did.

I realize it all sounds a bit unbelievable, but there were many times in my life when similar things happened. Moreover, what convinces me that it was not just my subconscious playing tricks on me is that, when God’s voice was there, it was always unmistakably persistent and very specific--something particular I needed to do or stop doing, not a replacement for conscience, free will or critical thinking--but when it was gone, I couldn't manufacture it no matter how much I wanted to.

Ultimately, then, I do think God occasionally speaks in a more personal way, and it should never be taken lightly when he does, but I'm not convinced this is something we should be seeking as Christians (and I remain deeply skeptical of people who claim God gave them a message for someone else). There are much more important things to our relationship with God, and more important means of ascertaining God’s will, which (I think) should always be sought in the community of faith and in consultation with scripture. To center your life on seeking some private manifestation of God’s voice will seriously distort things. After all, Christianity is not supposed to be about us at all, but about loving God and neighbor. So in the end, if you want to know God’s will for your life, don’t hide in your prayer closet; start with Micah 6:8. For if you were to truly live this out, you could hardly go wrong:
He has told you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?

SBL Biblioblogger Dinner Time and Place

I meant to post this a few days ago, but in case anyone missed it, Michael Halcomb has the details on the biblioblogger get-together at SBL:

Time: 7pm
Location: Plaza Level: In Front of Exhibition Hall B Doors (click here for map)
Attendees: * Michael Halcomb, * James McGrath, * Nijay Gupta, * Josh McManaway, * Ken Brown, * Douglas Mangum, * Eric Sowell,* Donald Kim,* P. Gardella, * James Leonard, * Chris Brady
Restaurant: Dillon's (955 Boylston St. - click here for site , click here for menu)

If you still want to attend, click through and leave a comment. Thanks again for organizing it Michael!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Quote - Science Fiction and Heroism

Sean Cubitt, editor of Aliens R Us: The Other in Science Fiction Cinema, from an excellent interview at TheoFantastique (HT James McGrath):

In the West today, we live in a deeply managed society. From traffic regulation to the management of crowd movements through malls and stations and airports; from statistical aggregation of behaviour to the management of supermarket stock, our societies work on probabilistic predictions that tomorrow will be pretty much the same as today - within statistical variations which themselves can be planned for. In this kind of world, action is incredibly difficult. It’s even more difficult because we are told over and over in our stories that only individuals can take action. But how can little me make an action that changes global warming? I can’t. We feel like action is impossible. In SF, action is possible, heroism, sacrifice, generosity, making a moral choice, changing the course of history.

Friday, November 14, 2008

New Harry Potter Trailer

I can't believe they're making us wait until July 2009, but it looks good:

And if you missed it, check out the international teaser trailer here.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Mark Goodacre on Dating the Early Christian Sources

Mark Goodacre has posted his SBL paper on "Dating the crucial sources of early Christianity" (PDF). I haven't had time to read more than a few pages of it yet, but it is relevant to recent discussions here so I thought I'd pass it along. (HT James McGrath)

BTW, for those non-biblical studies types who may be confused (it occurs to me that I haven't explained the acronym), SBL stands for the Society of Biblical Literature, the annual meeting of which begins next Friday in Boston.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

What Does It Mean to Be a Christian?

Here's an interesting video, posted at Emergent Village by Steve Knight. I think this is a question that we should never stop asking:

I particularly like Tony Campolo's point near the end:

The only description that Jesus gives of Judgment Day is [based on] how we treated the poor. On that day he's not gonna ask you theological questions... you know "Virgin Birth: Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree."... Here's what it's gonna be: 25th chapter of Matthew: I was hungry. Did you feed me? I was naked. Did you clothe me? I was sick. Did you care for me? I was an alien. Did you take me in? What you failed to do to the least of these, you failed to do it to me, because I'm not up in the sky somewhere, I'm waiting to be loved in people who hurt.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

How Do You Read and Take Notes?

I'm curious how my fellow academics (and other book lovers) approach reading and note-taking, particularly for research. Do you take notes while reading, or mark your texts somehow and then go back later to take notes? If you mark your books, do you underline, make marginal notations, use key word summaries, or argue with the author in the margins? And when (if?) you take notes, do you summarize the overall thrust of the book or article, detail the argument (in your own words or theirs?), record key quotes, or just take note of particular points that are directly relevant to your current research? Do you organize your notes in any particular way? Do you print your notes off for use, or just use them digitally?

I've tried a number of different methods over the years but I've never settled on one that really meets my needs. At times I've underlined excessively and filled the margins of my books with questions and comments. At other times I've read with an open notebook or even in front of the computer and taken my notes while reading. Lately I usually just make quick little pencil marks in the margins (< to mark the beginning of a significant section; - for the end; * for particularly noteworthy quotes; ! for surprising statements, whether brilliant or ignorant; and ? for confusing points), with only occasional marginal notations. I then go back through later and type up some notes based on these marks.

But I'm very inconsistent in how much detail I record, especially when I am first starting research on a new subject and am not yet clear on what is significant or what my conclusions are likely to be. I've ranged everywhere from typing out in full every quote I think could possibly be useful (i.e. when I've got a monograph on inter-library loan and can only keep it for a few weeks), to recording only the barest summary of a book's contents and then just consulting the book itself as needed. No doubt there is some happy medium between those, but I've yet to find it.

Anyone want to share their own methods? Frustrations? Dirty little secrets?

Friday, November 7, 2008

Quote - Frans Neirynck on Paul's Use of the Jesus Tradition

In contrast to the last quote (and my own view falls somewhere between these two extremes), here's Frans Neirynck, "Paul and the Sayings of Jesus":

In the Pauline epistles there are two instances of an explicit reference to a command of the Lord, in 1 Cor 7,10-11 and 9,14, but there is not "quotation" of the saying... and [these] can scarcely allow for any general conclusion about Paul's acquaintance with the sayings of Jesus.

Elsewhere in the Pauline letters there is no certain trace of a conscious use of sayings of Jesus. Possible allusions to gospel sayings can be noted on the basis of form and context but a direct use of a gospel saying in the form it has been preserved in the synoptic gospels is hardly provable. Paul's knowledge of a pre-synoptic gospel, of the Q-source or pre-Q collections has not yet been demonstrated. Because of the paucity and the anonymity of the possible allusions and reminiscences, and because of their appearance together with other ethical teaching in the paraenetic sections, it remains doubtful whether Paul was using them as sayings of Jesus. (in L'Apôtre Paul: Personalité, Style, et Conception du Ministère, edited by A. Vanhoye, pg. 320)

Quote - David Wenham on Paul's Use of the Jesus Tradition

David Wenham, "Paul's Use of the Jesus Tradition: Three Samples":

Not only did he know traditions of Jesus' passion and resurrection - see 1 Corinthians 11 and 15 - but also sections of the Sermon on the Mount, Peter's benediction, the dialogue about divorce and the eschatological discourse. He may well have known the woes of the scribes and Pharisees that precede the eschatological discourse in Matthew, also the controversy stories that precede the woes, and probably the mission discourse. This list could be extended, but even this amount of evidence makes it very clear that Paul knew a considerable proportion of what we know as the synoptic tradition (particularly of the material found in Matthew 19-28 and parallels).

The evidence points to Paul's familiarity with a wide range of gospel traditions - traditions attested in the different synoptic strata (so-called 'Markan', 'Q', 'M' and 'L' material) and traditions of different types, not just sayings material. (in Gospel Perspectives Volume 5, pg. 28)

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Congratulations Obama

Politics (and cynicism) aside, I want to wish my hearty congratulations to Barack Obama for becoming the first African American President. It truly is an incredible accomplishment, and a remarkable testament to the progress this country has made in the last 40 years. I sincerely hope that he can indeed bring the positive change to Washington that he has promised.

The Liberal/Conservative Dilemma

The whole modern world has divided itself into conservatives and progressives. The business of progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected. (G.K. Chesterton)
Thank goodness today is the last day of election season here in the US (ooh, it’d better be!). There are few things I find more distasteful than partisan politics. The truth is, I am constantly frustrated by the division between “liberalism” and “conservatism.” These can carry such a wide array of senses as to be almost meaningless, but as Chesterton playfully notes, they do highlight two conflicting and often mutually destructive tendencies. Particularly when it comes to society’s response to vice, “liberals” and “conservatives” (stereotypically speaking) tend to advance mutually exclusive approaches, neither of which seems to me to offer a real solution to the problem.

The trouble is that there is rarely a one-to-one correlation between risky behavior and actual harm. Though gambling or drinking can ruin one’s life if they become addictions, they can be harmless pleasures if kept in moderation. Though drug use can be extremely dangerous, not everyone who tries drugs is harmed by them. Though casual sex can lead to unplanned pregnancy or an STD, it often does not and many people will (obviously) do it no matter what the risks are.

Now society tends to take one of two basic attitudes towards such activities. On the one hand, we can try to add artificial deterrents to make them more risky and (hopefully) less attractive. “Conservatives” who take such a view will tend to take a firm stand on right and wrong, stress the worst consequences of failure rather than the potential mitigating factors, and call for harsher sanctions and punishments for offenders, ranging from mere social disapproval to legal punishment. On the other hand, we can try to reduce the natural risks artificially, so that those who do engage in such behavior will face as little harm as possible. “Liberals” who take such a view will tend to speak non-judgmentally, give as much information about mitigating factors as possible, and call for rehabilitation rather than punishment for those who fail. Of course, both groups want to reduce the amount of harm done, but one emphasizes the dangers as a deterrent; the other emphasizes how to avoid them.

I’m grossly stereotyping of course, and probably no one falls strictly into one category or the other. But these do seem to be clear and opposing tendencies in our society, and they lead to fairly predictable results, neither of which is clearly more compassionate and dignifying than the other. The conservative approach rightly emphasizes the fact that we all have a choice whether to engage in these behaviors, and will tend to reduce the number of people who choose them, but this comes at the cost of piling much more severe harm on those who do so anyway. Alternatively, the liberal approach rightly emphasizes compassion for those in need, and will tend to reduce the harm done to those individuals who fail, but at the cost of allowing (or even encouraging) much more widespread vice. The ideal solution, it would seem, would be to discourage such activities as much as possible while simultaneously offering as much aid as possible to those who choose them anyway, but is this even possible? People are not stupid, and the cheaper a pleasure is, the more likely they are to pursue it.

And so it goes across dozens of issues. “Conservatives” rail against “liberals” for enabling abortion, while “liberals” fire back that outlawing it will only drive people to back alleys. “Liberals” accuse “conservatives” of excessively punishing drug use, while “conservatives” respond that reducing or eliminating punishments will only make the practice even more prevalent. “Conservatives” decry “liberal” socialism for enabling sloth, while “liberals” dismiss “conservatives” for their lack of compassion for the poor and powerless, etc., etc. ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

And so, not only do we have to face the fact that neither solution can work on its own, but our current system ensures that we can rarely work together to find a better alternative that could work. And I’m skeptical about the whole enterprise. Don’t get me wrong, if politics is an evil, it is a necessary one. The problem is not in the attempt to limit harm—whether by liberal or conservative methods—but the delusion that better policies can actually solve evil, as though it were a bad sum on a balance sheet. But every political season it comes to the same thing: One side accusing the other of making things worse while claiming that, if only their own plans were put into practice, all would be well. But all will not be well (nor will all fall to pieces if the “wrong” side wins), because ultimately it comes down to our choices as individuals—to pursue virtue or embrace vice, to help the needy or ignore their plight—and no policy can make these decisions for us.

Virtue cannot be imposed from above, it can only be chosen on an individual basis, and vice can abuse any system, “liberal” or “conservative.”

Monday, November 3, 2008

SBL Bibliobloggers Get-Together Sunday Evening November 23

Thanks to Michael Halcomb for taking point and organizing this:

If you are a biblio / biblica blogger and are attending SBL, you are invited to our annual gathering which, this year, will take place on Sunday evening. Whether you've just started blogging, have been blogging for years or are even considering blogging, you are welcome. We're going to meet up at the convention center and walk to a restaurant from there. A more specific time, restaurant location, etc. will be given soon. Please, if you are coming, leave a comment here so we can reserve seats at the restaurant ahead of time (this will make things go much smoother, give us more time to chat and take a lot of stress off of the restaurant employees. I will make reservations for us beforehand and post those soon enough.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Evidence for the Historical Jesus

In his several posts on the subject, Stephen Law’s primary argument for skepticism about Jesus’ existence is that the inclusion of so many miraculous events in the Gospels should lend doubt even to the mundane details given. This is, in fact, a valid objection to which could be added the important point that the gospels do show some evidence of embellishment and fabrication. He is correct that we cannot uncritically accept these texts as straightforward historical accounts. But neither can the simple fact that they include miracles automatically disqualify them as fabrications. Even if we reject all the miracle stories as too poorly attested to be believed, there are, in fact, many other aspects of the Jesus tradition which make it almost certain that it derives from a genuine historical core.

In my last post on the historical plausibility of Jesus’ existence, I noted that, even in the absence of any other evidence, the claim that he was crucified is itself very good evidence for his existence. In short, the argument runs as follows: 1. We know from independent sources that a number of messianic claimants were killed by the Romans in 1st C. Palestine; 2. We know from independent sources that crucifixion was seen as an extremely shameful death, more likely to be covered up than made up; and yet 3. We know that the early Christians were emphatic that Jesus had been crucified. Quite apart from any dubious reconstruction of motives, it is much more probable that the Christians really did believe their leader had died in this way than that they created the story from scratch. It was simply too big a liability to have been invented (indeed, it opened them up to insistent ridicule from both Jews and Greeks, leading some later Christian heretics to claim that Judas was actually tricked into dying in his place).

Thus, the crucifixion rightly stands as the most important point in any case for the historicity of Jesus, but it is by no means the only reason to believe he existed. I would now like to lay out a few of the other important evidential points which, all combined, not only make Jesus’ historical existence almost certain but also lend a level of support to the broad-scale reliability of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). Here I am building on Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd’s 2007 book The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition:

External Evidence: As has widely been recognized, the external evidence for Jesus’ existence is far from overwhelming. If we lacked the New Testament, we truly would have little reason for confidence in Jesus’ existence. None of the extant sources provide unquestionable evidence, but several of them are important. For instance, the Gospel of Thomas seems to include some early traditions about Jesus that are independent of the canonical Gospels. Since it is a collection of sayings rather than a narrative, it obviously provides no evidence of the activities of Jesus, but it does offer a measure of confirmation for his existence, and since it includes no miracles, Stephen’s objection on that point can be dismissed.

Among non-Christian sources, things are more dubious. Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews twice mentions Jesus, but both cases have been widely dismissed as later Christian interpolations. There are strong arguments both ways, so any conclusion must be tentative, but in my view, the reference to James, “the brother of Jesus, who is called Christ” (20.9.1) seems very slightly more likely to be original than an interpolation for a variety of reasons. In contrast, the fuller description of Jesus (18.3.3) has clearly been tampered with, but there are good reasons to think this tampering represents secondary attempts to Christianize an already existing reference. For instance, the distinctly Christian elements (“if it be lawful to call him a man,” “He was the Christ,” “for he appeared to them alive again the third day”) all interrupt the flow of the passage. When these are removed, the resulting text is as follows:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.
This reconstructed text boasts a number of elements which are unlikely to have been invented by Christians (such as the claim that the Jewish leaders who accused Jesus were “men of the highest standing among us” and the reference to Christians as a “tribe”). It also finds support in the modern discovery of a 10th C. Arabic translation of this text (first published in 1971) in which the three clear Christian interpolations are all absent or altered, confirming their secondary nature. Admittedly, the case is not certain, but Josephus does at least provide potential confirmation of Jesus’ existence and crucifixion.

Outside of Josephus, matters are even less clear. Though we have a variety of later non-Christian references to Christ, it is unlikely that any of them provide genuine independent evidence of his existence. Still, it should be noted that the later critics—like Taticus (an early 2nd C. Roman historian), Celsus (who wrote an attack on Christianity in the late 2nd C.), and several references in the Jewish Talmud—all denigrate Jesus (and his followers) rather than dismissing his existence outright. Since ancient philosophers and historians did occasionally question the existence of various mythic figures (such as the Homeric heroes), it is reasonable to think that if these critics knew of any reason to doubt his existence, they would have mentioned it. This is, admittedly, an argument from silence, but the fact that such was never claimed is at least noteworthy, though by no means conclusive.

Again, if such references were all we had, Jesus’ existence would rightly be in serious doubt. Though these might provide a measure of confirmation, it is the New Testament itself which must provide the most important evidence for an historical Jesus, and it does in fact deliver. Of the many issues that could be raised here, we will focus on just three aspects of the Synoptic Gospels (particularly Mark, widely recognized as the earliest), in increasing order of importance: 1. The inclusion of various incidental details which point to early Palestinian tradition; 2. The omission of any retrojection of various issues of central importance to 1st C. Christianity; and 3. The inclusion of embarrassing details about Jesus’ life.

1. Inclusion of Incidental Details: The gospels include a number of details about early 1st C. Palestine (including knowledge of geography, customs, and figures) that do not appear to be “ideologically motivated,” and can point to an historical core to the story. This evidence is, admittedly, the least secure of those we will discuss, as a knowledgeable author could perhaps have added such details even if writing fiction, but at the least, they help establish the knowledgeability of the Gospel writers (or the traditions they are based on) and point to the early, and very Jewish, nature of the tradition as it has come down to us.

To name just one class of evidence here, note that despite the fact that our Gospels were written in Greek (and are widely claimed by Jesus-deniers to be thoroughly Hellenized), they include a number of Aramaisms which point to much older Jewish traditions. Examples from Mark include Jesus’ use of Abba, meaning “father” (14:36); talitha koum, meaning “little girl, get up!” (5:41); Ephphatha, meaning “Be opened!” (7:34); Rabbi , meaning “teacher” (9:5); and especially Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani, meaning “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (15:34). The fact that all of these (except Rabbi) are glossed into Greek points to their being holdovers from an older tradition. Additionally, the last of these also fulfills the criterion of embarrassment (see below), as it runs counter to the usual depiction of Jewish martyrs as unperturbed and confident of their salvation (cf. Acts 7 and the 1st C. text 4 Maccabees), and is thus omitted from Luke and John.

That such Aramaisms were not simply added to give the account an artificial sense of antiquity is evident from the fact that the tradition itself shows a tendency to remove rather than add them (thus Matthew and Luke eliminate most of these). This, by itself, does not prove that the tradition goes back to Jesus, only that it goes back to the earliest Christians who spoke Aramaic, but it does lend considerable doubt to the notion that Jesus was fabricated to correspond to the Greco-Roman redeemer myths. If there are parallels to such non-Jewish myths (they are never explicitly invoked in the New Testament), such is more likely to be a secondary layer of interpretation of an older Jewish Jesus tradition than its original source.

2. Omission of Relevant Issues: A more important point is the omission from the Gospels of a number of items that we might have expected them to include if they were pure fabrications. The tradition does show some tendency towards reading later issues back into the life of Jesus (e.g. the anachronistic mentions of expulsion from the synagogue in John 9:22; 12:42 and 16:2), but it is surprising how many of the topics that were highly controversial in the first century church (as indicated by the New Testament epistles) go unmentioned in the Gospels. For instance, given that Jesus was incessantly referred to as the Christ by the early Church (the NT Epistles are full of references), it is remarkable that the Gospels present Jesus as downplaying this title. Such is extremely difficult to imagine being a fabrication.

Alternatively, other vital issues are entirely ignored by Jesus, such as the necessity or unimportance of Gentiles being circumcised in order to become Christians (an issue which divided Paul from the Jerusalem church, including Peter, James and John). In fact, the Gospels evidence a remarkable lack of interest in matters relevant to Diaspora Judaism, despite the fact that they almost certainly reached their final form in the Diaspora after the fall of Jerusalem. They are simply dominated by Palestinian concerns, which is extremely difficult to square with claims that the tradition is entirely fabricated. This provides strong evidence of the relatively conservative nature of the Synoptic Gospels and suggests that they contain at least some genuinely historical information about an early 1st C. teacher.

3. Inclusion of Embarrassing Details: The most compelling evidence for an historical Jesus, however, is the inclusion of so many “embarrassing” details in the Jesus tradition. Though the crucifixion itself stands at the head of this group (and its importance must not be underestimated), the canonical Gospels are full of details that are unlikely to have been invented. By tracing the Jesus’ tradition across the various gospels (canonical and non-canonical), we can clearly see that the later texts do tend to soften or omit these items, proving that their embarrassing nature was evident to the early Christians themselves, and thus their fabrication is unlikely. The following is only a partial list, drawing exclusively from Mark, but should establish just how widespread this phenomenon is:

Mark admits that Jesus’ own family questioned his sanity, while others accused him of demon-possession (3:20-30); Jesus was rejected by the people of his hometown and could not perform many miracles there (6:1-5); he sometimes seemed to rely on folk medical techniques, which were not always immediately successful (e.g 7:31-37, 8:22-25); he associated with people of ill-repute (e.g. 2:14-17) and seemed to disregard a number of Jewish laws, customs and cleanliness codes (e.g. 2:23-27); he spoke and acted in culturally “shameful” ways (e.g. 3:31-35); he cursed a fig tree for lacking fruit even though it was not the correct season for figs (11:13-14); the disciples—including the leaders of the early church—are frequently presented in an unfavorable light, often seeming dim-witted, obstinate and cowardly (e.g. 10:35-45; 14:37-40; 14:50); indeed Jesus was betrayed by an inner-circle disciple (14:43-46), while Peter himself is called “Satan” (8:32-33) and denies any association with Jesus at the crucial moment (14:66-72); and the empty tomb itself was discovered by women (16:1-8).

Some of these are easier to explain away than others (e.g. Jesus’ disregard of purity regulations could well be an interpolation reflecting later Christian practice), but others are virtually impossible to imagine as fabrications (e.g. that Jesus’ own family “went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind’” [3:21]; a detail omitted from all the later gospels). In most of these cases, the tradition after Mark indicates a strong tendency to downplay or omit such details (an exception is the betrayal by Judas, which was subsequently played up), verifying their embarrassing nature. Taken together, the inclusion of such material strongly suggest an historical core to the Jesus tradition as preserved in Mark, not only making Jesus existence almost certain, but even providing a measure of confirmation for the reliability of the Synoptic Gospels as a whole.

Conclusion: Though individually the above arguments (which are by no means exhaustive) might be questioned, their combined force is considerable. They do not, of course, prove the New Testament accounts “inerrant” (nor do I believe that they are), but they do make the plausibility of a purely fictional Jesus extremely unlikely. Yet as they say, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” and ultimately the near unanimity of New Testament scholars (from conservative to liberal) about the basic details of Jesus’ life—that he was an itinerant preacher who was crucified in the first third of the 1st C.—is not based on such arguments so much as the basic usefulness of the assumption. The alternatives offer no where near as much explanatory power, and depend on far too much speculation and skepticism. In contrast, the rise and shape of early Christianity and the New Testament simply make the most sense when viewed as a reaction to an historical Jesus. In every way, the early church evidences its profound debt to the unique personality, distinctive teaching, shameful death, and (purported) resurrection of Jesus.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Bibliobloggers Get Together at SBL

For those who will be at SBL, Michael Halcomb is trying to nail down a time for bloggers to get together. The options are: Saturday 1) Lunch or 2) Dinner or Sunday 3) Lunch or 4) Dinner. My vote is for Sunday dinner (4), but head over to Pisteumen and vote for yourselves.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Biblioblog Top 50

According to NT Wrong's newly unveiled ranking system, this was the 29th most popular Biblioblog for October. I'm honored, but also rather skeptical. I'm fairly certain that many, if not all, of those below me actually get more traffic. Oh well, even if a recount reveals massive voter fraud and I'm knocked off the list, I'll take comfort in his disclaimer:

In Biblical Studies the ability to write meaningful pieces that only you and, maybe, one other person in the world understand is the zenith of achievement. The Biblioblog Top 50 is thus no indication of the worth or otherwise of the blogs involved.
But I won't give back the award! ;P

Worshipping the Golden Calf

Oh Dear:

Drew points to this unintentionally hilarious video and article from the (so-called) Christian Broadcasting Network:

“In January of this year, Cindy Jacobs was in a worship service when the Lord spoke to her, “Cindy, the strongman over America doesn’t live in Washington, DC – the strongman lives in New York City! Call My people to pray for the economy.”

“This is so severe in the economic area because we are facing judgment from the actions, not only for our stance towards Israel, but our blatant sin against Him in passing laws such as the one allowing homosexual marriages,” Cindy said....

“We are going to intercede at the site of the statue of the bull on Wall Street to ask God to begin a shift from the bull and bear markets to what we feel will be the ‘Lion’s Market,’ or God’s control over the economic systems,” she said. “While we do not have the full revelation of all this will entail, we do know that without intercession, economies will crumble.”

I'd say their hearts are in the right place (after all, we should trust God in this matter as in all others), but really? The legalization of homosexual marriage is the most "blatant sin" they could come up with? You'd think, standing on Wall Street, that corporate greed might have deserved a mention? Or is that idol too sacred to question?

Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween! Or Happy Reformation Day, for you super-spiritual types. It's been pouring rain all day 'round these parts, so Trick or Treating is gonna be quick and dirty, but the kids are cute, dressed up as Jack-o-Lanterns. No, that's not them! ;)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

SBL Is Three Weeks Away! aka This One Is For the Stalkers

NT Wrong has put together a helpful list of Bibliobloggers, categorizing each (with a whole lot of snarking on all sides) from "Very Conservative" to "Very Liberal." I'm listed as "Fairly Conservative," which I suppose is accurate. John Shuck retorts that the list provides a helpful resource for the stalkers, of whom I'm sure Biblical scholars have many....

In the hope that he's joking, I've decided to finally give up a bit of my own anonymity, so that if I do run into any fellow bloggers at SBL next month, they won't mistake me for a stalker. That said, if anyone knows of any biblioblogger get-togethers planned for SBL (or just wants an opportunity to give me a piece of their mind in person!), I'd love to hear about them.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Did Jesus Exist?

It is a common refrain amongst the New Atheists that Jesus did not exist, that he was invented out of whole cloth by the early Christians. It is noteworthy that the people making this claim are generally not historical critics, while virtually all New Testament scholars (a group which includes a fair number of non-Christians) insist that Jesus' existence and death by crucifixion is an undeniable fact. That said, a mere appeal to authority can hardly be the end of the matter—though it should establish that the burden of proof rests on those who would deny this consensus—so it is worth discussing the matter in a bit more detail.

Just such a discussion has lately been ongoing at James McGrath’s blog. In response to his book The Burial of Jesus, James has attracted the attention of a number of Jesus-deniers and has been attempting to explain a few of the reasons why the crucifixion is almost universally accepted. Before I add my own two cents, be sure to check out these two posts, the latter of which includes this video:

That video drew attention from well-known British atheist Stephen Law, who responded here:

His argument is that the early Christians would not make up a crucifixion story as the Messiah was not someone they would expect to be crucified. The expectation was the Messiah would defeat the Romans, not be executed by them. Of course this is a blog standard argument that gets repeated over and over. He concludes anyone who thinks the story is made up is living in a fantasy land.

This seems to me an amazingly weak piece of evidence.

He is second guessing people's motives for why they would invent a story in which the expected Messiah dies.

First, there may be reasons why they would want their Messiah to die and come back to life. In fact, aren't there some very, very obvious reasons why they would want that? You want to invent a Messiah. But unfortunately no one has defeated the Romans or introduced the Kingdom of God just yet - which is what the Messiah is supposed to do. Hmm. What sort of story might you construct? Or perhaps the Messiah claim got tacked on to a made up resurrection story in order to give it authority, the story then being adjusted to make the Messiah claim fit.

Second, even if the tellers did have a motive not to include this element, and also had no reason to include it, so what?

This chap's argument rests on something like this principle:

If a story, presented as true, reporting many bizarre/miraculous events, contains an element that we think the tellers would have a motive not to include, then that bit of the story is probably true.

This is feeble. After all, alien abductees are often very embarrassed about saying what's been shoved up them. That's not a bit they'd choose to include. Should we conclude that bit of their stories is probably true?

If this is the best Dr. James McGrath has for supposing the Jesus crucifixion story is almost certainly true, I think he's in big trouble....

Remember, I don't say the crucifixion of an historical Jesus is a made up story. I say it's not unreasonable for me, given the evidence I have seen thus far, to suppose it might be.

The truth is, Stephen's own response is the one that is “feeble.” He assumes that the mere possibility that Jesus could have been invented is proof enough that he was. He dismisses James' argument on the grounds that he can imagine an alternative [see Stephen's comment]. He offers no reason to think this alternative provides a better explanation for the rise of early Christianity than that it really was a movement begun by a man named Jesus who was crucified. After all, unlike alien abductees, we have plenty of concrete evidence (archaeological and textual) that many Jews were crucified by the Romans, so there is no obvious reason to deny that Jesus was as well, simply because it was his own followers who recorded it.

Even leaving aside any other reasons to think Jesus existed, James' point about the Jews not expecting their messiah to be crucified is important. The issue is not that it was unlikely that a would-be messiah would be crucified (it was very likely indeed), but that this was generally seen as proof that the claimant was not the messiah after all. It was this latter belief that the early Christians rejected, and the most plausible explanation is that their own favored messianic claimant was actually crucified. What needs explaining is not why a would-be messiah would have been killed, but why anyone would continue to call him the messiah after it happened.

In fact, we know from non-Christian sources (such as Josephus) that there were numerous would-be Jewish messiahs in 1st C. Palestine, many of whom were killed by the Romans. Therefore, if you are going to explain the origin of a 1st C. Jewish messianic sect which claims its leader was crucified, it makes by far the most sense to think they started out as followers of one of those would-be messiahs, and subsequently reinterpreted their beliefs after his death. To claim the sect originated for some other (unknown) reason and then invented an entirely imaginary messiah that never existed and yet was still claimed to be killed by the Romans raises far more questions than it answers. UFO’s notwithstanding, James is right that such “embarrassing” details—of which there are many more, like Jesus’ baptism by John and Peter’s denials—are indeed strong evidence that there is a historical core to the story, however much it may have been embellished and reinterpreted by the early church.

To see this, consider a contemporary analogy: The cargo cults. No doubt it is possible that even if no Western traders ever visited them, the inhabitants of certain Pacific islands might have nevertheless started claiming that white men had brought them extravagant gifts from their gods (and one day would again), but it makes far more sense to see the embellishments and interpretations put forth by such cults as responses to actual encounters with such traders than as pure fiction without historical foundation. Similarly, even if you categorically deny all miraculous elements in the Jesus tradition, it makes much more sense to see those elements as embellishments and interpretations based (however loosely) on actual memories of a crucified messianic claimant than as pure fiction without any basis in reality.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Money Isn't Everything

Nicholas Kristof offers five ways the recession could be good for you (HT Jesus Creed):

Americans haven’t become any happier as they have prospered in the last half-century. And winning the lottery doesn’t make people happier in the long term.

This is called the Easterlin Paradox: Once they have met their basic needs, people don’t become happier as they become richer. In recent years, new research has undermined the Easterlin Paradox, yet it’s still true that happiness has less to do with money than with friendships and finding meaning in a cause larger than oneself.

“There’s pretty good evidence that money doesn’t matter much for how you feel moment to moment,” said Alan Krueger, a Princeton University economist who is conducting extensive research on happiness. “What seems to matter much more is having good friends and family, and time to spend on social activities.”

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Human Sacrifice and the Christian Carnival

This week's Christian Carnival is up at Rodney Olsen's blog. It includes my post on Literalism and the Ascension along with various and sundry others.

In particular, note Henry Neufeld's post on the many meanings of sacrifice, to which I would add the complication that our understanding of legitimate sacrifice has itself changed (thankfully!), and did so even within the ancient world. For instance, I've lately been enjoying an excellent series of lectures on Ancient Greek Literature. The one I listened to on my drive home last night discussed Agamemnon, who sacrificed his daughter Iphigeneia at the beginning of the Trojan War, described with great pathos (and sickening detail) in the first part of Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy. A similar story, of course, appears in Judges 11, which describes with like pathos (though none of the gory details) Jephthah's sacrifice of his own daughter after a war with the Ammonites.

But the interesting this about both stories is how they indicate a shifting view of human sacrifice from the period described to the one in which the story is told. While Agamemnon and Jephthah apparently considered human sacrifice as an acceptable means of earning the god's favor, those telling their stories saw things quite differently, taking pains to build up sympathy for the victim. These, I think, can provide a model for our own reading of the more gruesome aspects of biblical history. Like Aeschylus and the unnamed author of Judges 11, we must tell these stories, not to excuse or encourage such acts, but precisely to reveal their tragedy. For we still live in a world that is willing to sacrifice its children (whether in the names of various gods, nationalities, or as a "choice"), and too often we are numb to its horror.