Friday, December 25, 2009

Where was Jesus Born and When?

In my last post I briefly mentioned the problems with determining when Jesus was born (hint: it wasn't 0 A.D.). In honor of Christmas day, here are some additional resources if you're interested in exploring the issue of where and when Jesus was born. Being an OT guy, I hadn't even realized there was any question about where Jesus was born until this year. Apparently, the choices are Nazareth or Bethlehem and the scholarly consensus of NT studies leans toward Nazareth.

1. NT Pod 19: Was Jesus Born in Bethlehem?

2. NT Pod 20: When Was Jesus Born?

3. BAR Article: Jesus' Nativity-Where Was Jesus Born? (And When?)

4. Contradictory Christmases by James McGrath about the different stories in Matthew and Luke. Quite a discussion developed in the comments thread.

5. Pisteuomen: Jesus' Birth In Context - a 12-part series that looks interesting but I haven't finished reading yet.

For my second Ph.D., maybe I should do New Testament studies. I've realized lately how ill informed I am when it comes to critical issues in New Testament scholarship. My excuse is that I'm a Hebrew Bible/Ancient Judaism specialist anyway.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Year Zero and Other Observations

'Tis the season when Christmas music has taken over the airwaves at home, at the mall, and in the car. While struggling to manage a semblance of holiday cheer, I have three somewhat random observations (i.e., pet peeves) inspired by things I've heard said in various Christmas songs.

1. THERE IS NO YEAR ZERO. The Gregorian calendar goes from 1 B.C. (or B.C.E.) to 1 A.D. (or C.E.). Even if there was a year zero, it's not the year of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The change of era was off by a few years. If we accept the Gospel of Matthew account, Herod the Great was alive and well when Jesus was born, and Jesus's family lived in Egypt for some months or perhaps even years until Herod died. Herod died in 4 B.C. Jesus's birth must have been before 4 B.C. at the latest. Update: This online article from Biblical Archaeology Review discusses the date and location of Jesus's birth.

2. "In excelsis Deo" from the hymn "Angels we have heard on high" is NOT to be pronounced "in ex-Celsius Deo." Latin only has a hard /c/ like English /k/. Proper choir pronunciation (which doesn't follow pure Latin) is "in egg-shell-sis Deo." But whatever you do, "Celsius" should not leave your lips.

3. Christendom. It's pronounced "Chris-en-dom", not Christian-dom, as in "the belfries of all Christendom" from "I saw 3 ships."

Well, I feel better just getting those observations off my chest. I am now  free to celebrate Christmas as my usual cheerful and festive self.

Oh, one more thing. I drove by a billboard yesterday that had a picture of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. Joseph was wearing a leather vest and he looked an awful lot like Inigo Montoya from the Princess Bride.

My random Christmas observations are ended.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?

The current issue of the Smithsonian magazine (Jan 2010) has a long article about the Dead Sea Scrolls and the archaeology of Qumran. Despite the title, most of the article is devoted to surveying the many different interpretations of the archaeological data of Qumran itself. It is a remarkable article for the simple fact that it is  about Qumran and yet well-balanced, giving equal time to multiple minority views about the site. Personally, I share the skepticism of Yuval Peleg concerning the site as a settlement of a religious community:
But hearing the dramatic recitation, Peleg, 40, rolls his eyes. “There is no connection to the Essenes at this site,” he tells me as a hawk circles above in the warming air. He says the scrolls had nothing to do with the settlement. Evidence for a religious community here, he says, is unconvincing. He believes, rather, that Jews fleeing the Roman rampage hurriedly stuffed the documents into the Qumran caves for safekeeping. After digging at the site for ten years, he also believes that Qumran was originally a fort designed to protect a growing Jewish population from threats to the east.
I agree with Peleg, so I'm not quite sure what Jodi Magness is getting at when she's quoted as saying:
But Peleg’s view has won few adherents. “It’s more interpretation than data,” says Jodi Magness, an archaeologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who shares de Vaux’s view that the site was a religious community. She says that some archaeologists—by refusing to acknowledge evidence that residents of Qumran hid the scrolls—are inclined to leap to conclusions since their research relies solely on the ambiguous, physical remains at the site.
"More interpretation than data"?! The data are all meaningless without interpretation. By evidence that residents of Qumran hid the scrolls, I assume she means the similar pottery found in the caves and at the site. Is there more than that? All that proves is that local pottery was used to hide scrolls. It says nothing about who was doing the hiding.

I recommend the article for anyone interested in an overview of current research related to Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

HT: Robert Cargill

Monday, December 21, 2009

Quote of the Day: Lazy American Students

From an op-ed piece in the Boston Globe:
We’ve got a knowledge gap, spurred by a work-ethic gap.
Kara Miller, professor at Babson College.

I think that describes large segments of American society, not just the students. We have a big sense of entitlement coupled with a disdain for personal responsibility.

If you're at all concerned with the decline in performance of American students compared to international students and how that might affect the global marketplace of ideas, then I highly recommend you read the whole essay.

HT: Rich B via Facebook

House of Jesus Himself Discovered in Nazareth . . . sort of . . . well, not really

Just in time for Christmas (coincidence?), the Israel Antiquities Authority has announced the discovery a house in ancient Nazareth dating to the first century CE, the time of Jesus. Here is an excerpt from the IAA press release.
According to Yardenna Alexandre, excavation director on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “The discovery is of the utmost importance since it reveals for the very first time a house from the Jewish village of Nazareth and thereby sheds light on the way of life at the time of Jesus. The building that we found is small and modest and it is most likely typical of the dwellings in Nazareth in that period. From the few written sources that there are, we know that in the first century CE Nazareth was a small Jewish village, located inside a valley. Until now a number of tombs from the time of Jesus were found in Nazareth; however, no settlement remains have been discovered that are attributed to this period”.

The Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs has this photo:

It is nice to see that, so far, none of the news stories are connecting this story to a specific person or family (as my headline does in an intentionally facetious way). Now if they'd found a tunnel in the city of David, I'm sure they would have quickly speculated a connection to David's conquest of the city.  Oh, wait . . .

HT: Wild Wild West, Todd Bolen

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Christmas Gifts for the Bible Scholar in Your Life

Some people are just hard to shop for, especially Bible scholars who often show little interest in any hobbies or activities not related to their research. If you know such a hard-to-shop-for person (like myself), here are some gift ideas.

1. A mug inscribed with the Gezer Calendar inscription from Eisenbrauns.


2. Books are always a good choice, but it has to be the right book. Most of what's in stock at the local Barnes & Noble or Christian book store doesn't cut it. Here are some suggestions (from the list of books I want but don't have.)
  • Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels from Eerdmans.

  • John Collins, Beyond the Qumran Community from Eerdmans.

  • John Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch from IVP.

  • James Beilby, ed., The Historical Jesus: Five Views from IVP.

Karel van der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (available from Amazon).

3. A tie with a picture of biblical Jerusalem (Amazon)

jerusalem tie_

4. A Levenger Shirt Pocket Briefcase (a personal favorite - I have 2).

levenger pocket

5. The Levenger Editor's Desk, a truly great tool for reading and organizing reference books. I received one as a gift several years ago.

editors desk

6. Book Darts. A must for serious readers.

7. The ever-popular tweed blazer - the hallmark of a true scholar.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Bringing the Dead Sea Scrolls to Life in MN

My first Hebrew professor and undergraduate mentor, Michael Wise, is profiled in the current issue of Northwestern College's Pilot.PilotFW09Cover_6384
You might expect to find the preeminent scholar on the Dead Sea Scrolls cloistered in the sunless basement of a museum, surrounded by ancient artifacts and sheaves of dusty papers. 
But on a warm afternoon in early September, Michael Wise, Ph.D., internationally celebrated for his knowledge in ancient languages, history and the scrolls, is in his well-lit office at Northwestern College.
The scholar-in-residence and professor of Hebrew Bible & ancient languages jumps up amiably to meet with a student seeking advisory help. Wise, the highly regarded author of The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation, has published innumerable scholarly papers, presented professional papers and lectures and has been featured in Time, The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. But he is relaxed and at home in his third-floor office in Nazareth Hall. 
A self-professed “language guy,” Wise reads Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, Syriac, Middle Egyptian, Coptic, Arabic and Akkadian (an extinct language spoken in ancient Mesopotamia). For him, learning the intricacies of ancient languages is as addictive as "eating peanuts." His
achievements put him into an elite group of academics, both secular and religious.
"There aren’t too many of us," he admitted. 'We talk about languages with a certain glee." [read the rest here]
The most exciting news I learned from this issue is that there will be an exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls in St. Paul this spring.
The Science Museum of Minnesota plans to exhibit three sets of five of the actual scrolls discovered in caves along the shore of the Dead Sea between 1947 and 1956. This collection of important writings includes biblical manuscripts, commentary and rules for community life and details of religious rituals. Fragments of the earliest known texts of the Old Testament, dating back 2,000 years, will be displayed. The exhibit opens March 12, 2010.
I expect that the MN exhibit with Wise's involvement will reflect the broad spectrum of scholarship on the DSS more than the exhibit I saw in San Diego, for example.

For those of us in central WI, the exhibit opening Jan. 22, 2010 at the Milwaukee Public Museum is a little closer to home. For my part, I'll be trying to get to both so I can criticize them online anonymously  . . . (sorry, inside joke. well, not really a joke, a tragically sad and bizarre story).

Friday, December 18, 2009

Review: NLT Mosaic Bible

_DSC0553 I originally considered categorizing this review of NLT Mosaic according to the "Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" cliche, but I couldn't think of anything Bad or Ugly to say. So, I'm going with something a bit weaker: what I like and what I like less.

What I Like:

1. The Concept. The Mosaic Bible leads off with 53 short meditations/devotional readings, one for each week of the year. The sequence follows the church year from Advent to Pentecost. Each reading is interspersed with brief quotations and artwork that sp_DSC0620an the entirety of Christendom, both globally and chronologically. It's a mosaic piecing together little bits and pieces of traditional and contemporary Christianity. This is a great way for Christians in the United States to be introduced to the great breadth of the Church around the world. Too often our view of church is limited only to the hundred people or so we may see on any given Sunday in our own small corner of the planet.

_DSC0590 2. The Artwork. The color pictures capture well the essence of each week's topic. Biblical scenes are depicted frequently in art from Africa or Asia, and I'm reminded that it was more than just Flemish painters in the Renaissance who read their world back into their biblical scenes. The art is also an effective reminder of media translation. Think about it. We've transferred the biblical text from the original languages into native tongues around the world, carrying a foreign ancient text into a new culture. Is it any different to translate the world of the Bible into visual images that are meaningful in that same culture?_DSC0551

3. The Book. The book itself is an attractive hardcover. It appears to be sturdy and durable, but I'm too gentle with my Bibles to ever have one fall apart anyway. The binding is glued and the paper is noticeably different between the meditations and the Bible itself.

What I Like Less:

Since this is really a devotional Bible, I don't have anything to critique content-wise. The meditations that I've read are meaningful and thought-provoking. My only criticism is that by picking and choosing bits and pieces from various lectionaries they've created a set of readings that doesn't actually align with any denomination's regular reading cycle. I'm not even sure this is necessary or important since the goal was to share segments from the breadth of Christianity.

The Bottom Line:

_DSC0589 The Mosaic Bible is still effective in raising awareness that a church calendar exists and that some denominations structure their year around these seasons. The audience for this Bible appears to be evangelicals anyway who are often blissfully unaware of what is going on in most mainline denominations. (I know I'm always surprised when the fish sandwich returns to prominence at McDonalds every year, strangely corresponding to Ash Wednesday. This Bible may not help you with that culture shock per se.)

If you're looking for a new Bible to read through in 2010, I recommend the NLT Mosaic. The translation is fresh and clear and the weekly devotions will expose you to a whole wide world of Christian thought and art that you never knew existed.

The Fine Print:
In accord with FTC guidelines regarding endorsements, it is my duty to disclose that I received a complimentary copy of the Holy Bible Mosaic from Sean Harrison at Tyndale House Publishers in exchange for this review. The FTC apparently considers this a paid endorsement and treats the review copy as compensation. Their guidelines require that any such material connection between the reviewer and the publisher be disclosed. However, unlike paid endorsements, there is no agreement, express or implied, between me and the publisher requiring a positive, glowing endorsement.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

New Book: Original Sinners

Since I'm kind of collecting books on Genesis lately (Walton's Lost World of Genesis One, Smith's Priestly Vision of Genesis 1 to name a couple), I was pleased to receive a review copy of this new book from Free Press--Original Sinners: A New Interpretation of Genesis by John R. Coats. The overall thrust of the book is attempting to show readers how reading Genesis is valuable for the depth and breadth of human experience that it reflects. It's geared toward a popular audience and will likely connect with the average person interested in the book of Genesis much more than the typical scholarly work on Genesis because the author is directly concerned with making the book relevant for contemporary life. As I read more of the book, I'll post further reflections, but for now, I want to share this quote from p. 11:
The text that is actually there in Genesis, and what readers assume is there, are often quite different. Indeed, among its other functions, Genesis challenges assumptions, a role made necessary by thousands of years of attempts at interpreting its contents, itself a role to which any interpreter, being human, will bring a point of view. Moreover, people tend to defend their assumptions regarding Genesis -- or, for that matter, any part of the Bible -- with the tenacity of a lioness guarding her cubs. While proponents of this or that assumption, however outrageous, might truly believe theirs to be the product of divine inspiration, some, for their own reasons, likely made it up. Or someone else did, and they believed it. (emphasis original)

Best Creation Story Joke: Sumerians and Genesis 1

Today's headline from the Onion ties in perfectly to the research I've been doing on Genesis 1. Yes, it's a bit sacrilegious, but all good satire is at some level. This brilliant piece highlights how absurd it can be to read Genesis 1 literally side by side with what we've learned from ancient history and anthropology.

"Sumerians Look On In Confusion As Christian God Creates World"
Members of the earth's earliest known civilization, the Sumerians, looked on in shock and confusion some 6,000 years ago as God, the Lord Almighty, created Heaven and Earth.

 According to recently excavated clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform script, thousands of Sumerians—the first humans to establish systems of writing, agriculture, and government—were working on their sophisticated irrigation systems when the Father of All Creation reached down from the ether and blew the divine spirit of life into their thriving civilization.

 "I do not understand," reads an ancient line of pictographs depicting the sun, the moon, water, and a Sumerian who appears to be scratching his head. "A booming voice is saying, 'Let there be light,' but there is already light. It is saying, 'Let the earth bring forth grass,' but I am already standing on grass."

 "Everything is here already," the pictograph continues. "We do not need more stars."

 Historians believe that, immediately following the biblical event, Sumerian witnesses returned to the city of Eridu, a bustling metropolis built 1,500 years before God called for the appearance of dry land, to discuss the new development. According to records, Sumerian farmers, priests, and civic administrators were not only befuddled, but also took issue with the face of God moving across the water, saying that He scared away those who were traveling to Mesopotamia to participate in their vast and intricate trade system.

 Moreover, the Sumerians were taken aback by the creation of the same animals and herb-yielding seeds that they had been domesticating and cultivating for hundreds of generations.

 "The Sumerian people must have found God's making of heaven and earth in the middle of their well-established society to be more of an annoyance than anything else," said Paul Helund, ancient history professor at Cornell University. "If what the pictographs indicate are true, His loud voice interrupted their ancient prayer rituals for an entire week."

 According to the cuneiform tablets, Sumerians found God's most puzzling act to be the creation from dust of the first two human beings.

 "These two people made in his image do not know how to communicate, lack skills in both mathematics and farming, and have the intellectual capacity of an infant," one Sumerian philosopher wrote. "They must be the creation of a complete idiot."

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Genesis Rabbah I.IV: Which Came First?

Genesis Rabbah I.IV begins with a list of 6 things that might have been created or at least existed as a glimmer in the Father's eye long before everything else was created. (See below for previous posts in this series.)

After running through the list of six things (with a seventh likely inserted later), the discussion turns to which of the six was the very first. Of course, they only get through three before getting sidetracked by a new topic - why did the world deserve to be created (or on account of whose merit was the world created).

Here is text and translation of another paragraph in I.IV:

אבל איני יודע אי זה קודם אם התורה לכסא כבוד אם כסא כבוד לתורה, אמר ר׳ אבא בר כהנא התורה קדמה לכסא הכבוד שנ׳ י״י קנני ראשית דרכו קדם מפעליו מאז קדם לאותו שכתוב בו נכון כסאך מאז וגו׳. ר׳ הונא ר׳ ירמיה בשם ר׳ שמואל בר׳ יצחק מחשבתן שלישראל קדמה לכל.
However, I do not know what was first, whether the Torah was before the throne of glory or whether the throne of glory was before the Torah. R. Abba bar Kahana said, “The Torah was before the throne of glory, as it is written, ‘The Lord made me, the beginning of his way, before his works of old’ (Prov. 8:22) – before that of which it is written, ‘Your throne is established from of old, etc.’ (Ps. 93:2).” R. Huna, R. Jeremiah in the name of R. Samuel b. R. Isaac: “The intention (to create) Israel was before everything else.”
The last sentence is not really the end of the section but rather the beginning of the new direction the discourse takes. Basically, God foresaw that Israel would accept the Torah; therefore, he went ahead and created the world based on the merit of that decision. Of course, not everyone agrees so the discussion continues with arguments in favor of other candidates whose merit also would have been sufficient to account for God's decision to create.

One of the most fascinating things about rabbinic literature is how much ink is spilled over one line from the biblical text. The text is still interpreting just Genesis 1:1a--"In the beginning God created." They won't even get to Genesis 1:1b until I.XIII.

I don't know what all the fuss is about. It's clear which one came first. Obviously it was the throne because God needed a place to sit as he looked into the Torah and thought about creating Israel.

The Ongoing Series on Genesis Rabbah:

1. Creation in Rabbinic Literature
2. Genesis Rabbah I.I: The Pre-existent Torah
3. Genesis Rabbah I.IV: First Things First
4. Genesis Rabbah I.IV: Identifying Insertions in Rabbinic Texts

New Evidence from Ps 23 for the Divine Council

If you never learn the biblical languages, then your exegesis could always be derailed by a multitude of English homonyms, not to mention real semantic issues like range of meaning. My sense of humor tends toward puns and dry wit, sometimes hilarity ensues, sometimes it elicits groans. Anyway, a random thought occurred to me today in conversation about a shepherd's staff for a nativity costume. I think we can use Psa. 23:4b as proof that God has a divine entourage. Here's my gratuitous translation proving it.
Your club and your staff, they console me.
There you have it, proof of the divine council. God has a staff. Their job is to console. (If you don't get it, remember what I said about homonyms and read it again.)

If you want a much better example of how a literal over-reading of Scripture creates humor, Scott's old post here is one of my all-time favorites.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Song for Hanukkah!

This is the only Hanukkah tradition I have. So much fun-ukkah . . .

Happy Hanukkah!

Hanukkah begins at sundown tonight, the 25th of Kislev in the Jewish calendar. Maybe I should get a menorah. No real reason that I can’t celebrate the Festival of Lights and the re-dedication of the Temple by Judas Maccabaeus in 164 BCE just because I’m not Jewish. Karyn does. See her posts on Hanukkah or Chanukah or however you want to spell it.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Best of . . . err . . . Favorites of 2009

I think Jim was over-reacting just a bit in his rant against "Best of" lists this morning. I thought it was inherent to the genre that these lists were based on the compiler's "very limited, values laden, short sighted point of view". I rarely find myself in full agreement with any publication's "Top 10" or "Best of" articles. I had intended to compile a "Best of Biblia Hebraica 2009" list, but I hesitate now because of Jim's indictment:

‘Best of’ lists belong in the trash heap.  They tell us nothing at all about what’s really useful.  They only tell us what one person has found useful.  Hence, if you’re the sort that simply must assemble such a list, be honest and simply say ‘The Best of… to Me’.

So instead of offering my own values-laden, limited judgment on what posts at Biblia Hebraica were "best" in 2009, I am simply asking for you, dear reader, to offer your opinion in the comments here on what posts may have been your favorites of these past 12 months. At the end of the year, I will post the list - "Readers' Favorites from 2009."

P.S. Here's my "Best of 2008 posts according to me" compilation in two parts.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Scholars and Non-Scholarship

I had a post all but finished last night to contribute to yesterday's topic of the day - the conservative/liberal divide over who's a scholar or not - when suddenly and without warning the power went out thanks to the heavy snow and broken tree branches getting the better of the power transformer out back. Unfortunately, I'd neglected to save the draft with Windows Live Writer, so it was all gone.

Rather than attempt to reproduce my now-lost-but-undeniably-brilliant post, I'd like to simply say that I agree completely with Ken's assessment of the reactionary counter-scholarship often produced as conservative responses to advances in biblical studies. Ironically, the two most recent "response" books that jump to mind are responses by evangelicals against the work of other evangelicals. (An irony Doug Chaplin also pointed out and for that observation I've upgraded him to my "Favorites" folder.) Unfortunately, I would categorize the responses as non-scholarship (following Doug Chaplin there as well) compared to the careful scholarship of the works they were reacting against. I found Piper's response to N.T. Wright disappointing (much to my chagrin since I admire Piper's devotional and pastoral work), and I was left under-whelmed by what I've heard of Beale's response to Enns.

True scholarship is open to going where the evidence leads, not coming up with explanations for why the evidence doesn't really lead to where it appears to be going.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Messianic Hope Renewed

I've started reading through the weekly meditations found in the NLT Holy Bible Mosaic. (Thanks to Sean Harrison at Tyndale House Publishers for passing along a review copy. A complete review will be forthcoming.) One of the page-long quotations struck me for how well it describes the pattern common to many millenarian movements: hope is placed on messianic figure > reality fails expectations > crisis of faith > renewal of hope OR failure of movement. It is interesting to note how short-lived most millenarian movements are. The inevitable crisis usually results in failure of the movement. (I've had a fascination with studying messianic movements ever since I was a teenager in 1993 watching the David Koresh debacle unfold in Waco.)

This quote is from Augustus Neander (Germany; 1789-1850):

The death of Christ annihilated at a stroke the Messianic expectations of the Apostles. Their dejection was complete. But if, of all that they had hoped, nothing was ever realized, this dejection could not have passed away. . . .

   We cannot explain (not bare conceivable possibilities, but) the actual state of the case, viz., the dejection of the Apostles at first, and what they were and did afterward. There must be some intermediate historical fact to explain the transition; something must have occurred to revive, with new power, the almost effaced impression; to bring back the flow of their faith which had so far ebbed away.

   The reappearance, then, of Christ among his disciples is a connecting link in the chain of events which cannot possibly be spared. It acted thus: Their sunken faith in his promises received a new impulse when these promises were repeated by Him, risen from the dead; his reappearance formed the point of contact for a new spiritual communion with him, never to be dissolved, nay, thenceforward to be developed ever more and more.

   According to their own unvarying asseverations, it was the foundation of their immovable faith in his person, and in himself as Messiah and Son of God; as well as of their steadfast hope, in his communion, of a blissful, everlasting life, triumphing over death. Without it they never could have had that inspiring assurance of faith with which they everywhere testified of what they had received and joyfully submitted to tortures and to death.

"Hoping for Hope: Advent, Week 2," p. 22. Holy Bible: Mosaic. Carol Stream, Il: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2009.

A Great “New” Syriac Lexicon, edited by Michael Sokoloff

Gorgias and Eisenbrauns have teamed up to publish an updated version of Brockelmann's Syriac Lexicon (edited and updated by Michael Sokoloff). I haven't had a chance to use it at length, but it looks wonderful, and as I've handled it I'm sure that it's worth the money that I've spent on it. The text entries are in estrangelo, sometimes pointed (in contrast to Payne-Smith which presents the entries in serto, but has the guide words at the top of the page in estrangelo).

Many thanks to Dr. Sokoloff, Gorgias, and Eisenbrauns for your work. Syriac reference tools aren't high-traffic items, so blessings on you!

Friday, December 4, 2009

In the Mail: The Right Chorale

"The Right Chorale": Studies in Biblical Law and Interpretation
2008. XXIII, 432 pages. plus 34 figures. FAT 54
ISBN 978-3-16-149382-9
cloth € 99.00

Thanks to the kind folks at Mohr Siebeck who sent along a copy of Bernard Levinson's recent book, "The Right Chorale": Studies in Biblical Law and Interpretation. It looks excellent, and I simply must come up with an excuse to read it sooner, rather than later. I will, of course, review it in depth here in the coming months. For now, here's the publisher's description:
This book presents twelve selected investigations of textual composition, interpretation, revision, and transmission. With these studies, Bernard Levinson draws upon the literary forebears of biblical law in cuneiform literature and its reinterpretation in the Second Temple period to provide the horizon of ancient Israelite legal exegesis. The volume makes a sustained argument about the nature of textuality in ancient Israel: Israelite scribes were sophisticated readers, authors, and thinkers who were conscious of their place in literary and intellectual history, even as they sought to renew and transform their cultural patrimony in significant ways. Originally published over a decade and a half, the significantly revised and updated studies gathered here explore the connections between law and narrative, show the close connections between Deuteronomy and the Neo-Assyrian loyalty oath tradition, address the literary relationship of Deuteronomy and the Covenant Code, reflect upon important questions of methodology, and explore the contributions of the Bible to later western intellectual history. The volume offers essential reading for an understanding of the Pentateuch and biblical law.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Top "Must-Read" Biblioblogs

The Biblioblog Top 50 site has a "Complete List of Biblioblogs" with 361 entries. I appreciate the work that goes into maintaining such a list, not to mention the monthly ranking (recently cut back to a biannual ranking). Who has the time to check the Alexa ranking on 361 sites? That's a bit unwieldy for anyone to keep track of (for free), but how many of those blogs are really worth following anyway? There's a nice mix of scholars, students, thoughtful amateurs, and outright cranks and dilettantes calling themselves bibliobloggers.

I subscribe to 103 blogs with Google Reader. Thankfully, it seems like 80% or so post very infrequently. I still have 50-100 posts to wade through each day, though. Of course, usually 50 of them are from Jim West alone. I click "Mark All As Read" a lot after skimming the titles.

I have a separate folder grouping the select few biblioblogs that I follow more closely. So here are my top 10 "must-read" biblioblogs based on who's categorized in my "Favorites" folder. These are in alphabetical order, not ranked.

1. Ancient Hebrew Poetry (John Hobbins)

2. Anumma (Brooke Lester)

3. Euangelion (Michael Bird)

4. Exploring Our Matrix (James McGrath)

5. Hesed we 'emet (John Anderson)

6. Higgaion (Chris Heard)

7. NT Blog (Mark Goodacre)

8. Paleojudaica (Jim Davila)

9. Targuman (Chris Brady)

10. Scotteriology (Scott Bailey)

Now lest anyone protest that the #1 biblioblogger didn't make my Top 10, Jim has his own category. He's simply not on the same plane as any of the other 102 blogs I subscribe to. Plus there are another 92 blogs out there which I occasionally read if the title catches my interest. I met many bibliobloggers at SBL and added their feeds recently, too, so maybe my reading habits will change in the coming months. Is it just me or has biblioblogging really taken off in the last year or so?

If you only have time for 11 biblioblogs, follow this one and my 10 favorites. If you have time for 12, follow Jim, too. If you have time for 13, Clayboy is good. If you have time for 14, I like Pat McCullough. If you have time for 15, maybe you'll like Daniel McClellan. If you have time for 16 . . .

Point and Counterpoint

In the midst of the swamp of interpretational communities that we all navigate through, we can often lose sight of the service that people who take clearly defined positions provide all of us. It's fun to attack caricatures or parodies of well-defined positions, but well-defined positions allow us the luxury of providing a counterpoint to a well-made point.

As I've been teaching this last quarter, I found that many of the ideas that I want to communicate to people in the classroom often come out best as counterpoints. For instance, if I want to point out how every hermeneutic ultimately leaves some data unaddressed, it really helps to have students who have already adopted a well-defined hermeneutic. That is to say, it's really hard to make a counterpoint without a point.

On a good day, it all works. But on a bad day, my teaching style can vacillate between boring and raving. That's a problem, and it really doesn't work very well in the long run to simply look for caricatures to attack. So, much of my work is building a well-made points so that I can hopefully get to the place where I can offer a counterpoint. It's laborious, but it seems to be the way that works best for me.

Which brings me back to those well-defined positions, whether theological or scholarly, that I often use as touchstones in my thought in teaching. People or positions that I often perceived as enemies are starting to seem like friends because of the service that they provide for me.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Questioning Consensus

Biblical scholarship now operates with a few defining consensuses. Questioning the consensus can be okay. Overturning the consensus is nearly impossible. Sometimes the consensus position is solid and does not need to be overturned. There are several high-profile consensus positions, however, that are less than solid, yet questioning them is highly controversial. The consensus also differs depending on which side of the liberal/conservative spectrum one is on.

But those weak consensus positions should be questioned and overturned. Why do we love consensus so much? Consensus leads to a speculation being considered a fact which can be safely assumed as the starting point for further speculation. Think of how silly it sounds when you read books from the 1960s on the Deuteronomistic History that assume Noth's amphictyony. This was accepted as historical fact despite the lack of evidence for it. Eventually, it was abandoned.

Here's my list of the top 3 consensus positions that should be tossed out (or at least debated with an open mind to the evidence).

Top 3 Weak Consensus Positions (both secular and theological):

1. Q existed and was a source for Matthew and Luke. (Very questionable but Goodacre's fighting an uphill battle.)

2. Essenes are responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls, and they lived at Qumran. (Admittedly, Golb's association with the alternative colors any chances of questioning this at present. However, all attempts to prove an archaeological or textual connection between Kh. Qumran and the DSS have been less than compelling. It's all speculation.)

3. The 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is the final word on the inerrancy debate. Scripture is always fully in agreement with itself. (Defending a doctrine of Scripture against Scripture itself. If the Bible says this is the Book of Isaiah, then, by Jove, that means Isaiah wrote it.)

I'm sure there are more, but these are the three that immediately came to mind. Any debate on the relative weakness (or strength if you see it that way) of these positions? Any others that I should add to the list?

Go Where the Evidence Leads

Thanks to James McGrath, I became aware of this recent post by Dan Wallace and the ensuing discussion (363 comments and rising). I found myself agreeing with most of what was frustrating Wallace except for the odd statement up front that "most biblical scholars are not Christians." I (and I imagine many others) are wondering how he's defining "Christian." The thrust of the post seemed to lean toward "Christian=conservative evangelical" in which case a better statement would have been - "most biblical scholars are not evangelicals." The definition of "Christian" was clarified by Wallace in comment #32:
Again, I would say that a Christian is, by definition, conservative. And that means that he or she believes in the atoning work of Christ, the God-man, and in his bodily resurrection. Jan thought that I was defining things awfully narrowly, but this is the historic position of all three branches of Christendom. In light of that definition, I would say that SBL is overall not conservative, not Christian.
I'm still not sure that his definition moves much past the equation of Christian with "conservative evangelical." Despite that minor problem with semantics, I think the issue Wallace raises is important. I have to admit that even coming from a conservative evangelical Christian background, I have had the impulse to brush off or ignore students or scholars who I perceived to be from more conservative institutions. I've hesitated to discuss issues with them, fearing that it might devolve too quickly into an apologetics debate focused on defending the nearest untenable doctrine that critical scholarship has questioned. Unfortunately, Dallas Seminary seems to have become the poster child for uncritical conservative Christian institutions, possibly undeservedly so. Of course, there are more fundamentalist institutions out there, but they tend to not even make a blip on the academic radar. Dallas does.

For some reason, fostering true intellectual debate and encouraging critical thinking is threatening to the status quo on both sides of the conservative/liberal divide. (Liberal and conservative are slippery terms, I know, but it's what Wallace was using. Both are a matter of perspective. I'm too liberal for some and too conservative for others.)

Apparently, consensus (no matter how wrong it might be) feels safer than allowing students or scholars to "go where the evidence leads" (Wallace's mantra as he says toward the end of the post).
A genuine liberal used to be someone who was open to all the evidence and examined all the plausible viewpoints. Now, “liberal” has become a hollow term, invested only with the relic of yesteryear’s justifiably proud designation. Today, all too often, “liberal” means no more than left-wing fundamentalist, for the prejudices that guide a liberal’s viewpoints are not to be tampered with, not to be challenged.
If we’re to judge liberal vs. conservative by one’s method, then the new liberal is the evangelical and neo-evangelical who is willing to engage the evidence, examine all sides, and wrestle with the primary data through the various prisms of secondary literature. He’s open. I tell my students every year, “I will respect you far more if you pursue truth and change your views than if you protect your presuppositions and don’t.” And they know my mantra, “Go where the evidence leads.”
It's unclear to me, however, how "going where the evidence leads" would work at a conservative evangelical college or seminary. The evidence often leads to a discussion no one wants to have because it challenges the consensus - theological or otherwise. Also, most Christian institutions have some kind of doctrinal statement. What if the evidence leads away from some of the positions on the school's statement of faith? That doesn't go over well. In college, a friend over-dramatically nailed his "theses" arguing why many of our lifestyle rules were unbiblical to the chapel door. Unfortunately, his 50-page well-documented piece was quickly dismissed as "specious" by the administration. The doctrinal statement often takes a very narrow position on non-essentials (like eschatology). What if the evidence led me away from pre-tribulational premillenialism? Well, I'd just have to keep quiet about that or risk rocking the boat.

So, I agree with Wallace that evangelical scholars are capable of quality scholarship, and I share his desire that all of us in academia should feel free to "go where the evidence leads." Those of us who try, too often find ourselves in the middle - getting shot at from both sides.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Identifying Insertions in Rabbinic Texts

I'm continuing to work through Genesis Rabbah I.IV. As I translated the next few lines, picking up where I left off in the previous post, it struck me that this short section seemed out of place in the flow of thought. The section started with a discussion of the six things that came before the creation of the world, and it will continue with a discussion of which came first out of those six things. In between, we have this:
ר׳ אהבה בר׳ זעירא אמר אף התשובה הה״ד בטרם הרים וגו׳ (שם צ ב) מאותה השעה תשב אנוש עד דכא ותאמר שובו (שם שם ג,
R. Ahbah bar Zeira said, “Also repentance. This is as it is written, ‘Before the mountains [were brought forth or you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting, you are God’] (Psa. 90:2). From that hour: ‘You return man to dust and say, Return, [O children of man’] (Psa. 90:3).
This section appears to be a later insertion. I don't know how rabbinic scholars would determine this, but here's my reasoning. First, we started out with a list of six things. The list is complete: 1) the Torah, 2) the throne of glory, 3) the patriarchs, 4) Israel, 5) the Temple, and 6) the name of the Messiah. So, "repentance" is added here as the seventh item in the list. Second, the style shifted when an interloper entered the discussion - R. Ahbah bar Zeira. This interjection breaks the logical connection between what came before and what will come after. The use of Scriptural support is not as neat and succinct as the earlier items. It is as if a later reader was following the discussion and couldn't help but interject with yet another text that somehow seemed to him to be relevant. R. Ahbah reminds me a bit of Elihu in Job 33-37. Fortunately for us, Ahbah is not nearly the windbag and blowhard that Elihu is. He throws in his couple of lines and goes away, for the moment. I wonder if it just really bothered them to have a list of only six things when we all know that lists of seven are so much better.