Friday, October 21, 2011

A World Without God

The latest issue of Bible Study Magazine has my Hebrew word study dealing with the word pair tohu and bohu (as in "formless and void" from Gen 1:2). An edited version of the article is available on the LogosTalk blog, too.
What does it mean that the earth was formless and void? Did it already exist and God just shaped it? And did God create the matter and then shape it for a purpose?
Check out the blog post to find the answer or pick up a copy of the Nov/Dec issue of BSM to get the full discussion.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Historical Jeremiah

Many readers of the Bible come to the text with the unexamined (and usually unqualified) assumption that the literature is unequivocally historical. In other words, the people existed and the events happened more or less as described by the text. But was the version of the character presented in the text an accurate portrayal of the real, historical figure? We can't know. I've realized that history-writing is much more about creating a plausible narrative about the past than about precisely recording the details. So, the historical person and the biblical/literary character are not one and the same. In the case of Jeremiah, no scholar highlighted the difficulty of reconstructing historical and biographical information from the biblical account as thoroughly as the late Robert P. Carroll. Despite his reputation as the quintessential skeptic and practitioner of a hermeneutic of suspicion in biblical exegesis, I found his honesty about the limits of our knowledge refreshing and his conclusions quite in line with what I've proposed before.
The ‘I’ and ‘me’ of various prose pieces are assumed by most exegetes to represent Jeremiah as speaker, and the editorial framework frequently attributes prose actions and statements to him. Reading the book at face value and following the dictates of traditional and conventional readings of the text, the bulk of modem scholars have understood Jeremiah to be the book of the life and times of Jeremiah the prophet, with direct access to his words, deeds, innermost thoughts and reflections. Such an approach presupposes so much historical information to which nobody has access and a one-to-one correspondence between text and social reality that it is an extremely problematical reading of the book. The precise relation between the character constructed by the writers of the tradition and a hypothesized ‘historical’ Jeremiah behind the book is a very difficult question to answer, though not acknowledging its existence in the first place does not make it any the less real a problem for interpreting the book. For the purpose of this chapter the character of Jeremiah presented in the book will be treated as the creative fiction of the editors and writers who produced it and the relation between the ‘historical’ Jeremiah and the ‘fictional’ Jeremiah will be left to the speculative sophistications of the reader....

Although the majority of scholars continue to read Jeremiah as a biographical or autobiographical set of documents, and this ‘compact majority’ must be recognized for whatever value may be attached to such statistical reports, we cannot prejudge the issue as if there were no alternative or more feasible accounts of how the book was put together. Such accounts undergird the logic of the claim that perhaps the figure of Jeremiah is more the creation of the tradition than the creator of it.**
The bottom line is that reading any biblical book as if it provides direct historical/biographical information is problematic, especially in light of the clear theological program that motivated the anonymous writers behind the bulk of the historical narrative (the so-called Deuteronomists and the Deuteronomic school). What was their theological program and how did it affect the "spin" they put on the biblical history? Tune in next week...
**Quoted from R.P. Carroll, Jeremiah (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 75, 77.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Thou Shalt Not Study Ezekiel

It's just too dangerous to study Ezekiel, especially chapter 1. The Talmud records that:
The rabbis taught: It happened once that a certain child, who was reading in his teacher's house in the Book of Ezekiel, was pondering over 'Hashmal, and there came out fire from 'Hashmal and burnt him, and they sought in consequence to conceal the Book of Ezekiel. (b. Hagigah 13a)

The word "hashmal" only occurs 3 times in the Hebrew Bible, all 3 in Ezekiel's attempts to describe the appearance of God Himself. Since we don't really know what the Hebrew word was trying to describe, Jewish exegesis imbued the word itself with the dangerous power of God's presence as if the ark of the covenant itself was in the room (see 2 Sam 6:6-7 for an example). Rashi, the great medieval Jewish commentator, moves on from Ezek 1:4 with the comment that attempting to understand this verse was not allowed.

The rabbis prohibited anyone under age 30 from studying Ezekiel because of this incident. One needed to be sufficiently mature in the study of Torah before they would expound the secrets of Ezekiel 1, especially the divine chariot. So if your Bible reading plan takes you through Ezekiel, be careful and you may want to implement the buddy system. Never read alone. Just in case.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Online Bible Study Tools

Over the past few years, I've found myself increasingly reading my Bible and working on Bible studies without a physical Bible in hand. Websites, smartphone apps, and Bible software programs have made it less and less necessary for me to open a book. There are pros and cons to this, but there is no denying that our relationship with the written word is changing rapidly.

I was asked recently how I do Bible study and what digital tools were out there, so in this post, I want to list some of the online Bibles and Bible study tools that I've come across. I also use a number of Bible study apps for iPhone and have tried every single one I could find, so I may discuss those in the future. I've also used a number of good Bible software programs. (Go here for a good post comparing available Bible software programs. He's tried out more than I have.)

For plain, old access to the Bible text, I most often go to the online ESV. If I want access to a number of versions to compare or a different version than ESV, I use It has many versions to choose from and is easy to use. They've started adding additonal resources like commentaries and dictionaries. Since I have print versions of both the ESV Study Bible and the NLT Study Bible, I also get online access to their content. This is nice because study Bibles are big and heavy. I also use because it will sync with the resources in my Logos 4 library, but even without that feature, it provides access to many study tools and Bible versions. If you register for an account with the site, you get access to an additional 31 resources. I'm not sure if is meant to replace it eventually, but for now, Bible versions are also accessible at

There are many websites now that provide access to Bible versions and classic Bible reference works that are in public domain. I've known about for a while, but not used it much. I recently discovered that claims to have the Web's largest library of online Bible study resources. I haven't tested the claim, but there was a lot of available content. I will probably use it more in the future. I used to use the NET Bible but hadn't visited their site for a while. It has a clean fresh look and easy to use interface, so I recommend it if you want to use that version for reading or study. They also have a lot of free articles available at Some are by known Bible scholars, teachers, and pastors.

I like and Blue Letter Bible because they have Bible versions in Hebrew and Greek. They also have Bible dictionaries, maps, and encyclopedia articles. The Unbound Bible also has many versions including Hebrew and Greek and some public domain study tools, but their web interface is very basic. I also discovered that Lifeway has an online Bible library which also looks like mainly public domain Bible reference works and translations, but I haven't spent much time using it.

The bottom line is that all the Bible study resources offered for free are essentially the same set of public domain works. is the exception and the text notes alone for the NET Bible are very helpful. I spend most of my time at the online ESV Study Bible but I just might start using as a close second. My goal is to direct you to some websites that might help you with your Bible study, but remember there are limits to what you'll be able to get for free and sometimes the old classics from 100 years ago aren't exactly up to date on their interpretations. If you're serious about having access to some of the best digital tools available for Bible study and research, you might just want to check out a Bible software program like Logos 4.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Computer Cracks Code of Source Criticism

If you haven't already heard, a fascinating study by an Israeli research team (comprised of 2 computer scientists and a Bible scholar) suggests that the fine bits of circumstantial data used by Bible scholars to tease out the varying voices of biblical sources and authors can be run through a computer model as a way of separating the different strands of composition. The Pentateuch and the book of Isaiah are the most debated (probably) so the results on those sections will give us the most to talk about. Here are some quotes from the article at Ha'aretz.
The new software analyzes style and word choices to distinguish parts of a single text written by different authors, and when applied to the Bible its algorithm teased out distinct writerly voices in the holy book.
When the new software was run on the Pentateuch, it found the same division, separating the "priestly" and "non-priestly." It matched up with the traditional academic division at a rate of 90 percent - effectively recreating years of work by multiple scholars in minutes, said Moshe Koppel of Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, the computer science professor who headed the research team.
Similarly, the book of Isaiah is largely thought to have been written by two distinct authors, with the second author taking over after Chapter 39. The software's results agreed that the book might have two authors, but suggested the second author's section actually began six chapters earlier, in Chapter 33.
This is very interesting for my continued musings on the composition of the book of Isaiah. I'd always felt the "voice" in Isaiah had started to switch to "Deutero-Isaiah" (traditionally the writer of 40-55) a bit before the historical interlude in chapters 36-39 was (more or less) cut-and-pasted from 2 Kings 18-20, probably in chapters 34-35. I hadn't thought of chapter 33 as Deutero-Isaiah, though. Food for thought.

A copy of the paper from the conference where this research was presented can be accessed here.

HT: Agade

Friday, June 17, 2011

New Book on Jewish Babylonian Aramaic

Just in time for Father's Day (hint), Eisenbrauns has released a new book on the grammar of Babylonian Aramaic. I really should be reading more Aramaic (as should all of you), so don't miss this one!
This book is the first wide-ranging study of the grammar of the Babylonian Aramaic used in the Talmud and post-Talmudic Babylonian literature (henceforth: Rabbinic Babylonian Aramaic) to be published in English in a century. The book takes as its starting point the long-recognized problem of the corrupt nature of the later textual witnesses of Babylonian Rabbinic literature and seeks both to establish criteria for the identification of accurate textual witnesses and describe the grammar of Rabbinic Babylonian Aramaic. The book is both programmatic and descriptive: it lays the foundations for future research into the dialect while clarifying numerous points of grammar, many of which have not been discussed systematically in the available scholarly literature.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Missed the Rapture . . . Again

The passing of May 21, 2011 without a world cataclysm brings to light the number one reason you should avoid prophesying at all costs.

There's no margin for error and the biblical consequences are severe. Just read Deuteronomy 18.

Deuteronomy 18:20–22 (ESV)
20 But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ 21 And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— 22 when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.   (emphasis added)

How do you know if a prophet is really from God?

Well, he's always right.

But what if he prophesies and it doesn't come to pass?

You have two options:
1) Kill the false prophet or 2) Subtly rework the prophecy so that it is now looking ahead to another time in the future. The problem with option 2 in this case is that there was a specific date set which was missed and then another date set which again passed without incident.

Will this be the next Great Disappointment?

Stop setting dates for the rapture!

Friday, May 20, 2011

The End is Near

In case of rapture, this blog will be unmanned.

It never ceases to amaze me that despite all the failed predictions of the past, people somehow still think their calculation will be the right one. I would think the warning of Matthew 24:36 would be enough to convince them that WE CAN'T KNOW.

Fortunately, James McGrath saved me the time of rounding up all the buzz on this craziness. I especially recommend this post by Rachel Held Evans who points out the connections with the most famous failed forerunner of Harold Camping and manages to give some spiritual food for thought along the way.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

NIV Ads: Just Marketing or Plain Misleading?

I have not been a fan of the NIV ever since I was able to understand the complexities of translation philosophy. In my opinion, it was more popular due to its marketing strategy than for its merit as a translation. (My opinions on the NIV can be found mixed among my posts on bible translation.) I'm sure Zondervan has high hopes that NIV 2011 will help them retain market share and win over the crowd that largely panned TNIV due to the gender translation issue. While initial reports suggested NIV 2011 was more restrained on that issue, I don't think they went far enough to fix the problems with TNIV (as noted here). My litmus test remains their translation of Isaiah 19:16. TNIV and NIV 2011 gut the original of its intentionally insulting rhetoric. I won't translate the verse here lest I offend you.

I have ignored most of the recent advertising push to promote the NIV 2011, but a full back cover ad on a Christian magazine caught my eye. Here's the text from the ad. Is it just marketing spin or a misleading misrepresentation of the facts?

It's amazing how going back to the beginning moves us so far forward. Translated from the most reliable ancient biblical manuscripts. Tirelessly researched by the world's preeminent biblical scholars and linguists. And made crystal clear for English-speaking audiences worldwide. The New International Version is the translation that's easy to understand, yet rich with the detail found in the original Scripture.

Let's look at these claims and their implications.

1. "Translated from the most reliable ancient biblical manuscripts." Oh no! I need to get an NIV. My other Bibles didn't use the most reliable ancient manuscripts. Actually, most translations use the same critical texts in Hebrew and Greek created by scholars from what seem to be the most reliable ancient manuscripts. NIV has a slightly different Greek text than the standard NT critical text, but we are all essentially working with the same manuscript data. The difference is in which variations get preference in translation.

2. "Tirelessly researched by the world's preeminent biblical scholars and linguists." Other Bible translation committees don't have the "preeminent" scholars (only the eminent ones), so NIV must be better. And they worked "tirelessly" this time. Actually, in these past two decades of expanding English Bible versions, many scholars have been involved in the production of multiple versions. Some of the same people working with a different translation philosophy. But at least when working on the NIV, they didn't get tired.

3. "And made crystal clear for English-speaking audiences worldwide." This is a value judgment. Crystal clear relative to what? Young's Literal Translation? The New American Standard? The King James? What is made clear? The meaning of the "original"? The English style? 

4. "easy to understand, yet rich with the detail found in the original Scripture." It's as easy to understand as most moderately idiomatic English translations. But I don't understand how they can claim, in all seriousness, to be "rich with the detail found in the original Scripture." The gender-sensitive issue forces a translation that completely suppresses the rich metaphorical detail of the Hebrew in Isaiah 19:16.

I realize that some people will honestly agree with the opinions about the NIV found in this ad. Only the last claim is, in my opinion, stretching the truth. Our Bible translation preferences have been conditioned from years of using a particular favorite. For a long time, the NIV has been that favorite for a lot of people. An ad like this is designed to get people to stick with the NIV, hopefully without thinking too much about it.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Food and Identity in Early Rabbinic Judaism

I was waiting with bated breath for my friend Jordan Rosenblum's book to be published by Cambridge, but then it was, and I forgot til now to mention it. 

Now a very informative review of the book Food and Identity in Early Rabbinic Judaism has been posted on H-Judaic, so you can learn more about the book before deciding if you want to spend 50 pounds on it (that's UK currency - I don't think the book will help you lose weight). From the review:
Following decades of excitement over new social scientific methodologies in the study of religion, more recent scholars have asked why the new insights offered by these models so often appear inadequate. Jordan Rosenblum provides one answer by actively embracing anthropological innovations in the study of early rabbinic food practices, while simultaneously insisting on a different data set. He observes that previous treatments have elided biblical law and Jewish identity, overlooking the great changes that rabbinic texts made to the food (and other) practices that have shaped later Judaisms. Asserting the necessity of his own investigation of food and identity in early Judaism, he demonstrates that crucial, anthropological approaches have not been adequate for the consideration of rabbinic sources because the questions most frequently posed have not engaged available evidence. In reply to famous early explorations of Roland Barthes, Mary Douglas, and more recently Marvin Harris, Rosenblum argues that “the absolute origins of the prohibitions against pork, for example, are irrelevant. What matters for the Tannaim is that God instituted the ban in the Hebrew Bible. How they interpret, understand, and enact this regulation is verifiable” (p. 9). He promises a book that presents the appropriate data set, as well as the best tools and models for considering how the preparation and ingestion of food constructs identity.
If you read the rest of Susan Marks' review, you will indeed want to read the book. And I'm not just saying that because Rosenblum taught me to read rabbinic Hebrew.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Not the Messiah

Only the true Messiah would deny his divinity . . . famous scene from Monty Python's The Life of Brian, poking fun at Mark's "Messianic secret" motif. (Content warning: the hermit is naked and there's a swear word near the end.)

For more on the Messianic Secret in Mark's Gospel, listen to episode 27 of the NT Pod.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Scripting Jesus

I had a irresistible bookstore coupon good only this weekend, so I trekked to the nearest Borders to see what they had that might be of interest to me. My interests range far and wide in religious studies and theology, but aside from Hebrew Bible and translation studies, my main trajectory of research interest is Judaism and Christianity in Late Antiquity. That covers Second Temple Judaism, New Testament, and rabbinics (for starters). To expand my horizons in Gospels and Jesus research, I decided to get L. Michael White's book Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite. The differences between the Gospels have always fascinated me, and this book looks like a great treatment of the issue. If you've read it, let me know what you thought.

From the publisher:
In Scripting Jesus, famed scholar of early Christianity L. Michael White challenges us to read the gospels as they were originally intended—as performed stories of faith rather than factual histories. White demonstrates that each of the four gospel writers had a specific audience in mind and a specific theological agenda to push, and consequently wrote and rewrote their lives of Jesus accordingly—in effect,scripting Jesus to get a particular point across and to achieve the desired audience reaction. 
The gospel stories have shaped the beliefs of almost two and a half billion Christians. But the gospel writers were not reporters—rather, they were dramatists, and the stories they told publicly about Jesus were edited and reedited for the greatest effect. Understanding how these first-century Christians wanted to present Jesus offers us a way to make sense of the sometimes conflicting stories in the gospels. 
One gospel's version of events will be at odds with another. For instance, in Jesus's birth narrative, there is no mention of a stable in Matthew or Luke, but then there are no wise men in Luke and no shepherds in Matthew. Jesus has brothers in some gospel accounts, and sisters in others, and their naming is inconsistent. Depending on which gospel you are reading, the disciples shift from bumbling morons to heroes of faith. Miracles alter or disappear altogether, and whole scenes get moved around. Such changes from one gospel to the next reveal the shaping and reshaping of the basic story in the living world of the first followers of Jesus. 
With his usual engaging style, White helps us read the gospels with fresh eyes, giving us a clearer idea of what the gospel stories meant to people in ancient times, and offering insight for how we can understand Jesus's story today.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Continuity Errors in the Hebrew Bible?

One of the features of narrative in the Hebrew Bible that as long caught my notice is the common use of place names prior to the aetiological story that explains the source and significance of the name. Logically this inconsistency can only mean that either a later editor went back through and updated names without regard for continuity OR a later writer was using names he was familiar with before getting to the story that explained where the name came from. Either way, the biblical writers were less concerned with what today might be called continuity errors. The most concise example of the phenomenon is Genesis 33:17.

Genesis 33:17 (ESV):

17 But Jacob journeyed to Succoth, and built himself a house and made booths for his livestock. Therefore the name of the place is called Succoth.  [Succoth = booths]

A more chronologically problematic example is the use of the name "Bethel" in reference to Abram's travels in Genesis 12:8 and 13:3. The name "Bethel" is given by Jacob, Abram's grandson, in Genesis 28:19!

Sometimes it's unclear whether the issue is continuity or chronological disorder. For example, Judges 13:25 described Samson growing up "in Mahaneh-dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol." Samson is the last great judge portrayed in the book of Judges: the long narrative of his exploits extends from Jdgs 13 to 16. The rest of the book contains a series of bizarre yet related tales in Jdgs 17-21. Those stories contain this relevant bit of information for the name "Mahaneh-dan" (literally "camp of Dan").

Judges 18:11–12 (ESV)

11 So 600 men of the tribe of Dan, armed with weapons of war, set out from Zorah and Eshtaol, 12 and went up and encamped at Kiriath-jearim in Judah. On this account that place is called Mahaneh-dan to this day; behold, it is west of Kiriath-jearim.

Do the events of Judges 17-21 chronologically precede the story of Samson? It makes sense to group the narratives of major judges together and leave off a story that fits this time period yet focuses on no particular judge or leader.

I don't have the answers and these little details are of no great doctrinal import, but I hope this at least provides a sampling of "Things that make Bible scholars go, Hmmm...."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Eisenbrauns Valentine's Poetry Contest

Eisenbrauns has once again held a contest for Valentine's Day love poetry written in an ancient Near Eastern Language. The results are entertaining as always.

Congratulations to fellow biblio-blogger James McGrath who has carried off first place with his Mandaean poem!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Real Fellowship and the Semantics of Koinonia

The next issue of Bible Study Magazine will ship soon and there is a very insightful, well-written article exploring the meaning of koinonia (often glossed "fellowship") in the New Testament. My opinion of the article is in no way biased toward the fact that I wrote it. (No, I'm not that arrogant. It's a joke.)

Here's an excerpt of what I wrote for the magazine (published with permission, of course). If you haven't already, I highly recommend subscribing if you are looking to learn more about the Bible from a Christian perspective in a clear, non-threatening way.

greek word study without greek


If you’ve been part of a church community, you may have noticed how some words acquire “churchy” meanings—like “fellowship.” When is the last time you got together with your colleagues after work for “fellowship”? Never. But in church, we have fellowship luncheons that are held in fellowship halls and we get together for fellowship in our fellowship groups. When we overuse a word, it can lose its meaning. Our overuse of “fellowship” makes an important point in 1 John fall flat.

“That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. … If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:3, 6–7).

We can determine the meaning of fellowship in this passage by examining it within a New Testament context. To do that, we have to find the Greek root word behind the English term. Using the esv English–Greek Reverse Interlinear, we find that the Greek word underlying “fellowship” is koinōnia (κοινωνία).

To read the rest of the article, check out March–April ’11 issue of Bible Study Magazine.
WHAT!!! I cut you off right before we get to the best part where I actually explain what koinonia means? Now you have to buy the magazine? Sorry about that, but thems the rules.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Comment Policy

Since I have received a number of comments lately that I've left aside unpublished, I've decided to publicize the basic criteria I use in deciding whether or not to publish a comment.

1. Unlike Jim West, I don't automatically dismiss ALL anonymous comments, but your chances of being published are severely diminished if you submit an anonymous comment. If you comment anonymously (because of Blogger or whatever), signing off with your real name means you will likely get published. I have occasionally let anonymous comments with a pseudonym slip through but that is at my discretion.
2. Short but complimentary comments that are clearly only posted as "mules" for your embedded links will not be published. For example, "Great post. I loved it. replica watches"
3. Comments that are largely irrelevant to the content of the post or the comment thread will not be published.
4. Comments that are promoting an uncritical perspective on issues or promoting a pet agenda will be deleted.
5. Closely related to #4, any comments from cranks and/or crackpots will be deleted. If you fall under that category, you won't self-identify there, so you can consider your comment deleted per #6.
6. I reserve the right to delete and/or not publish any and all comments without cause based on my arbitrary and subjective whims. Any objections or repeated reposting of comments will be ignored and deleted.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Biblical Studies Carnival - January 2011 Version

Obviously since I posted very little in January, I didn't make the carnival, but that's no reason why you shouldn't visit Jim West's amazing and fabulous round-up of the biblioblogosphere from last month.

January 2011 Biblical Studies Carnival

Interested in Talmud?

If so, you may also find this article from Jewish Ideas Daily fascinating. I think it's a great brief intro into what rabbinics scholars actually do - (same as the rest of us studying ancient texts: weave theories of origin, identity, and interpretation from close reading of texts). My interest is more in Tannaitic literature, specifically midrash, but that's just because the deep rabbit hole of Talmud scares me. Here are a few excerpts.
The traditional "back story" of the Talmud is put forth in the 10th-century "Epistle" of the great Babylonian scholar Sherira Gaon. It is an invaluable source for reconstructing the generations of sages and students, and the chains of transmission, that yielded the Mishnah and Gemara, which in turn, and together, make up the Talmud. Yet many questions are left unanswered by Sherira. When and how were the Mishnah and Gemara, both of which were Oral Torah, written down? What exactly was the role of the post-talmudic Savoraim, the "explainers" who, Sherira says, "rendered interpretations akin to judgments"?
Epstein and others (including Abraham Weiss and Hyman Klein) gained purchase on these questions by investigating the relationship among the three basic historical layers of which the Talmud is composed: sources associated with the sages known as Tannaim, dating from before and up to the composition of the Mishnah at the turn of the 3rd century; the many statements and discussions attributed by name to the Amoraim, sages coming after the Mishnah; and the anonymous editorial voice known as "the stam" (literally, "plain voice") in which the first two layers are embedded and which surrounds, organizes, and discusses them.
The finished Talmud weaves all of these fragmentary traditions and texts into coherent dialogues among sages living miles and centuries apart, regularly transposing and reformulating sources while adding a sophisticated apparatus of explanation. The result is a work that not only is intellectually compelling but regularly achieves powerful literary effects. To Epstein and the others, what became increasingly clear was that strong editorial hands had been at play in the process.
This portrait of rabbinic culture begets, in turn, a powerful challenge. Modern intellectual integrity having yielded a restless scenario of fragmentary ancient texts being worked and reworked into the sources we have today, can we somehow put the pieces back together into a coherent and compelling story? And will that story reflect not only the work of the rabbinic interpreters but also the original texts and traditions, by now lost to us, that they were trying, through their editing, to maintain? 
The answer is yes, but it will be a different story, in ways both stranger and more familiar: a story of internal ferment and spiritual survival in the face of profound uncertainty.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Understanding Religion

If I had it to do all over again . . . not that I have specific regrets per se . . . but if I had it to do all over again, I would have pursued a graduate studies course less focused on language and philology and more on the academic study of religion. I wish I had known about Baylor's program in the Sociology of Religion 3 or 4 years ago, for example. Many students and scholars in biblical studies go through their entire academic careers without ever considering how their field relates to the broader field of academic religious studies. A total lack of awareness of religious studies theory and methodology characterizes the curriculum of many biblical studies grad programs. My own intellectual interests are drawn more to the study of the religions that have built their traditions on the Bible than on an interest in biblical exegesis for its own sake. For that reason, I was excited to have the opportunity to teach a course called "Understanding Religion" at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin this semester.

Unfortunately, while I am well-trained in biblical studies, I am mostly self-taught on religious studies theory and methodology (despite my religious studies minor which lacked an explicit methods course). This undergraduate course is an introduction to the basic concepts of religion and an exploration of theory and method in academic religious studies with a goal of promoting basic religious literacy -- the ability to understand, recognize, and intelligently discuss religious issues.

Below is my starter bibliography for my self-education on academic religious studies and the wider relationship between religion and culture. I'd appreciate any comments or feedback from anyone who notices that my bibliography is missing something important. Are there any seminal journal articles or essays out there that I should know about?

What I Have in Hand and Have Started Reading
  • Boyer, Pascal. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. Basic Books, 2001.
  • Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
  • Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. [1915.] New York: Free Press, 1965.
  • Eliade, Mircea. Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries: The Encounter Between Contemporary Faiths and Archaic Realities. [1960.] New York: Harper & Row, 1967.
  • ---. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. [1959.] New York: Harper & Row, 1961.
  • Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. Basic Books, Inc., 1973.
  • Harris, Sam. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004.
  • Hitchens, Christopher. God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Twelve, 2007.
  • James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. [1902.] New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004.
  • Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. Riverhead Books, 2008.
  • Kessler, Gary E. Studying Religion: An Introduction through Cases. 2nd Ed. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2006.
  • McGrath, Alistair and Joanna Collicutt McGrath. The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007.
  • Pals, Daniel L. Seven Theories of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t. HarperOne, 2007.
  • ---. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World – and Why Their Differences Matter. HarperOne, 2010.
  • Sharpe, Eric J. Understanding Religion. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983.
  • Stark, Rodney. Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief. HarperCollins, 2007.
  • Weber, Max. The Sociology of Religion. [4th Ed. 1956.] Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.
What I Know About but Haven’t Looked at Yet
  • The Encyclopedia of Religion. 2nd Ed. Macmillan, 2004. 
  • Frazer, James. The Golden Bough: The Roots of Religion and Folklore. 1890.
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  • Stark, Rodney. Exploring the Religious Life. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
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Thursday, January 20, 2011

2011 Archaeology Scholarships from BAR and ASOR!

I'm a little behind on announcements and other blog updates, but here are some notices I received about scholarships or volunteer opportunities if you're interested in participating in an archaeological dig in the summer of 2011. The Biblical Archaeological Society scholarship deadline is April 1st and the ASOR deadline is February 15th. Participating in a dig and getting that firsthand archaeological experience is something I've always wanted to do. I encourage those like-minded Bible scholars/armchair biblical archaeologists like myself to check out these opportunities.

Biblical Archaeological Society
WASHINGTON D.C. (January 3, 2011)—Dig Opportunities and Scholarships Available for Volunteers
The Biblical Archaeology Society is pleased to announce the publication of the Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) Dig Issue (January/February 2011), which features a listing of excavation projects that are looking for volunteers for the upcoming 2011 season. Although an archaeological dig may not have all the glitz and glamour of a TV police drama, the clues you’ll gather and the evidence you’ll examine will have a real-life impact on our understanding of ancient cultures. In “DSI: Dig Site Investigation,”BAR’s annual guide to excavations will help volunteers find the dig that’s right for them. Extensive information on these volunteer opportunities and more can also be found online at For more than two decades, BAR has been connecting people with the experience of a lifetime on an archaeological dig, and the upcoming season promises to be an exciting one, with opportunities available in both Israel and Jordan.
Students and applicants of all ages and levels of experience are welcome to apply to participate in an excavation this summer (minimum age requirements vary). Some programs offer course credit for participation. Applicants are encouraged to visit BAS online to explore the “Find a Dig” section of our Web site at Whether you’re interested in the worlds of Kings David and Solomon or want to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and the apostles, we’ve got an archaeological dig for you. For each dig, we provide an in-depth description including location, historical and Biblical significance, and what the goals are for the season. You can also learn all about the dig directors and professors who will lead your summer adventure. Check out our comprehensive online guide for more about the exciting dig opportunities coming up this summer.
The Biblical Archaeology Society is proud of its ongoing Scholarship Program, which offers funding for selected applicants who wish to participate in an archaeological excavation. Quotes from some of the 2010 scholarship winners can be found in the current January/February 2011 issue of BAR, recounting what it is like to discover history firsthand. More information about our Scholarship Program, including application instructions for 2011, can be found at
American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR)
ASOR offers excavation scholarships for 2011
ASOR is pleased to announce that it will once again offer scholarships for individuals to participate in excavations during the 2011 summer field season. ASOR anticipates awarding approximately 30 scholarships through its Heritage and Platt Fellowship programs. Fellowships will typically be for $1,000 each. Applications are due by February 15, 2011.
In order to apply, individuals must be student, retired, or professional members of ASOR or students enrolled at an ASOR-member school. Applicants are encouraged to apply for both Heritage and Platt Fellowships. While two applications must be submitted, applicants may use the same information on both applications. Details on the fellowship programs can be found at the following URLs: