Regensburg Conference on the Prehistory of the Byzantine Liturgical Year

In early July 2018 the University of Regensburg is hosting a conference on the Prehistory of the Byzantine Liturgy, and I was delighted to have my presentation accepted.

The official program bulletin for this conference was recently distributed. I’m glad to see several friends will be in attendance, including Stephen Shoemaker and Richard Bishop. I’m looking forward to seeing them and to meeting scholars whose work I have long admired, particularly Wendy Mayer. I also want to express my gratitude in advance for the hard work of the conference organizers, Harald Buchinger and Stefanos Alexopoulos, as well as the generosity of the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung for underwriting travel and accommodation costs.

My presentation is entitled, “Festal Breadcrumbs of the Byzantine Eucharist: Patristic Antecedents of the Troparion tou deipnou.” The abstract follows:

According to Robert Taft, the tou deipnou troparion first arose in Constantinople, by 573-574 was established as a standard hymn for Holy Thursday, and by the 11th century became a regular feature of the Eucharistic ritual of Constantinople and other traditions indebted to the Byzantine Rite. The prior origins of this troparion are clouded, but this author’s careful examination of patristic exegesis in his dissertation uncovered several possible sources of influence, including Ephrem the Syrian, an anonymous Syriac dispute poem, and Nyssen’s Vita Macrinae. Continuing that research, and in preparation for a forthcoming monograph, the author has translated numerous homilies on Luke 23:39-43, most of which have a Holy Week liturgical setting and many of which have never been translated into a modern language. These include Greek homilies by Chrysostom (CPG 4110, 4116, 4338, 4339, 4877), Severian of Gabala (CPG 4103, 4728), Proclus of Constantinople (CPG 4062, 4604, 5828), among others. Several features of the tou deipnou are anticipated in these patristic homilies, as well as in patristic commentaries, hymns, and poems. These features include the emphasis on confession, the juxtaposition of Judas and the bandit, and several notable textual variants in Luke 23:42: “Remember me, Lord,” rather than “Jesus, remember me;” the absence of the term “come;” and the dative “in your kingdom” rather than the (earlier attested) accusative “into your kingdom.” While a singular influence cannot be illustrated, patristic homilies do evince common textual and interpretive patterns that helped shape the tou deipnou troparion of the Byzantine Rite.

A Public Prayer for the World: Silent Vigils for Justice

In our Academic Senate meetings at CSUF, we sometimes pause to have a moment of silence for CSUF faculty who have passed. While not overtly religious, it is a beautiful and meaningful ritual and tradition.

I can’t help but think about the many persons who never had an opportunity to be part of our community because of systemic injustice, and that we also have a solemn duty to be vigilant in remembering them.

For them, I offer this guidance and encouragement to all of us at CSUF and everywhere. In all public meetings in which we participate, let us find the courage to read the following and observe a minute of silence.


“Let us observe a moment of silence to remember those absent from among us because they were discriminated against, arrested, imprisoned, and murdered for their color, citizenship, companionship, creed and culture and not for the content of their character. Let us consider ways we can repair this damage and make our world whole.”

Shema / First Commandment / Great Commandment

An inquisitive, contemplative, beloved friend and all-around glorious person recently asked me, “Is it commonly cited in the first commandment, when they say to love the Lord, that they say with your heart, soul, and mind? All three things?”

Simply put, the answer is “sometimes.” 🙂 To be more precise, the answer is “it’s complicated.” 🙂

To explain the earliest history of the so-called First Commandment or Great Commandment, it is important to note three distinct stages.

Stage 1: The Shema in the Hebrew Bible

Deuteronomy 6:4-5, probably written around the late 7th century BCE, is the opening of the Shema. I would translate it as follows:

(6:4) Listen, Israel! YHWH our god, YHWH (is) one. (6:5) You will love YHWH your god with all your heart and with all your life and with all your might.

The words “life” (Hebrew, nefesh) and “might” (Hebrew, meod) are particularly fascinating and important. Often “life” gets translated as “soul,” but this Hebrew term should not be confused with Greek/Platonic notions of an invisible and immortal soul. It is instead the life-force within persons and animals. Meod is often translated as “strength,” but could also be translated as “force” or even “excess.” In Rabbinic interpretation, it was common to read meod as a command to demonstrate love for god with all of one’s financial means.

Stage 2: The Shema in the Septuagint (Hellenistic Jewish Bible)

The translation of the Hebrew Shema into Greek in the Septuagint (created 2nd century BCE) transformed its meaning in certain ways.

(6:4) Listen, Israel! Lord our god, Lord is one. (6:5) And you will love Lord your god with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your power.

The Greek translation of the Hebrew nefesh (“life”) as psyche (“soul”) lends itself to more Greek/Platonic notions of the soul, and the Greek translation of the Hebrew meod (“power/force/excess”) as dunamis (“power/strength/energy/ability”) may narrow its semantic potential and make financial/economic interpretations less likely.

Stage 3: The Great/First Commandment Identified by Jesus in the New Testament

In the Gospel of Mark (12:29-30), written around 70-75 AD/CE, Jesus is quoted as saying that the “first” (prote) commandment is that mentioned at the outset of the Shema:

(12:30) You shall love the lord your god with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your thought and with all your strength.

The text of this commandment is later followed/copied word for word by the Gospel of Matthew (22:37) and Luke (10:27). The word for “strength” here (ischuos) is slightly different than what is found in the Septuagint, but it probably doesn’t transform the meaning very much.

Far more significant is the addition of a fourth term, dianoias, which is typically translated into English as “mind” or “understanding,” but could also be translated as “thought” or “thinking.” Through the expansion of terms from three to four, the New Testament (proto-Christian) version of the Shema becomes more involved, more internalized, more a matter of patterns and habits of thought. In other words, the way we think becomes a way of worshiping, honoring, and loving God.

It should also be said that Matthew and Luke do recontextualize Mark’s quotation, though. Mark has Jesus quote it in response to scribes, but Matthew and Luke make it a response to a “lawyer” or “Torah-expert.” In Matthew, it is described as the “greatest” (not “first”) commandment, whereas in Luke it is not called “first” nor the “greatest” commandment, but is instead simply a response to a question about how to inherit eternal life. In other words, the custom to call this the “First Commandment” comes from Mark, but the custom to call it the “Great/Greatest Commandment” comes from Matthew.

RLST 201: Week 6-14 Highlights

Where has time flown? The last week of the semester is upon us. During the last half of the semester, I participated more in specific discussion threads instead of giving the bird’s eye view that I had during the first part of the semester. Given that, I thought a selection of highlights from my posts would be useful to share.


Luke 11-12: On the Lord’s Prayer

Socratic question: since we have three different versions of Jesus giving instructions about what to say in prayer in early Christianity (in Luke, in Matthew, and in the Didache), is there actually such a thing as “the Lord’s Prayer” in the Bible, or is the idea of “the Lord’s Prayer” a later imposition on the Bible?

Same thing could be said about “the Ten Commandments.” Exodus and Deuteronomy give two different versions. So which one, if any, is the “real Ten Commandments”?

To put it differently, why did later Christian interpreters want to boil down these diverse texts into one definitive “Lord’s Prayer” and one definitive “Ten Commandments”? What does that say about how they saw and used the Bible?

Hint: liturgical/worship and educational interests can overshadow and overdetermine interpretation of the Bible!

Luke 11-12: On Judith and the Fall of Jerusalem

Fascinating connections between Judith to the suffering of Jerusalem. You might be interested in a popular article I wrote about Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds as a kind of modern day Judith. https://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings/seeing-nazis-massacred-followed-humorless-analysis-mark-bilby

Judith and Revelation in the New Testament have quite a bit in common. Revenge fantasies lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, and a call to resistance against imperial rule.

Luke 13-14: Theological and Social Readings

When I read Luke 13:22-30, I read it as a warning against presumption. That theme is very strong in Calvin’s theology. While he says that those predestined to salvation can have assurance, he also stresses that believers should not be presumptuous, and that salvation/election manifests in mortification (self-denial) and good works.

Another way to read the passage is a warning not simply to go along with the crowd.

Yet another way is to read it as a warning to Jesus’ Jewish co-religionists not to assume that their Jewish religious/ethnic standing guaranteed them a place in the eschatological family reunion of God’s people. Gentiles may show themselves more devoted to YHWH than YHWH’s own people.

Lots of possibilities. I wonder if the Jewish/Gentile one is more in keeping with the original context of Luke in its historical context. If so, we should note Calvin’s focus on predestination is itself a profound transformation of the meaning of this passage. My master’s thesis on election and predestination in early Christianity may be helpful here. Early Christian theologians before Augustine saw election and predestination as corporate/ecclesial, not individual. Calvin’s individualistic way of thinking about election and predestination was quite likely a very different way of thinking than what was initially reflected in Luke within its original historical contexts.

Luke 13-14: Individual vs. Communal Interpretations

Ambrose’s interpretation reminds me of the point I made in my reply to another student’s post. Even in ancient Latin Christianity, interpreters took passages (like the fig tree) that had corporate/national/historical significance (as about the fall of Jerusalem) and reinterpreted them to be about the salvation of individuals. If we compare Western (Latin) interpreters to Eastern (Greek/Syriac) ones, often you’ll see that the Western interpreters are more individualistic, and that Eastern interpreters are more corporate/community focused.

Luke 13-14: Calls to Repentance

I’m curious as to whether you would describe these passages as focused on national/corporate repentance and judgement or individual repentance and judgment.

I was meeting with one of my grad student mentees today and we were talking about how English translations of the Bible are so stilted because there is no second person plural (as in Spanish and most Western languages). Because of this, and our individualistic culture, we tend to read the Bible as all about individuals when in its original context it is often speaking to groups of people (families, cities, nations, etc.).

For those of you who read Spanish, French, German, or other Western languages with a second person plural, be encouraged to compare English translations to translations in those languages so you can have more insight into the group-focused mentality that is typical of the books in the New Testament.

My favorite example of this is 1 Cor 6:19. Most people in the US today read that as about individuals (i.e., my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit), and then make it about working out or fitness or something that has nothing to do with the original context of the passage, when the original passage uses all 2nd person plural pronouns and possessives and is speaking of the Church as the collective/shared temple of the Holy Spirit.

Luke 19-20: A Soldier’s Devotion

In addition to the parable of the pounds, the story of the centurion in Luke 7 is also quite reminiscent of the teaching of Epictetus about the taking of oaths. Interesting to think that Jesus expected soldier-like devotion among his disciples.

It’s not well-known in popular circles, but many scholars would say that the historical Jesus led a guerilla warrior movement, and that this is what got him executed. Romans didn’t execute people for teaching about love and forgiveness. They did execute people who were seen as leading revolutionary/independence movements. The fact of the crucifixion is the most important evidence in this argument, but there are other hints throughout the gospels (e.g., the disciples carrying swords and staffs).

After the death of Jesus, and especially after the fall of Jerusalem to Rome in 70, the authors/editors who gave us the Gospels very carefully attempted to make Jesus sound less and less threatening to the so-called Pax Romana. The later the Gospel, the more involved its commitment to picturing Jesus as innocent and that his trial was a travesty of justice.

Luke 19-20: Religious-Corporate Personhood

We don’t often think today about “corporate personhood” in religious terms. It’s interesting to think about the character of Jesus in the Gospels as representing the life and history of a community. In this case, the cleansing of the temple may represent how early (proto-)Christian communities practiced worship that did not exploit the poor, but instead supported them, and the conspiracy to kill Jesus may reflect the sense of opposition these communities had to their way of life in solidarity with the poor.

RLST 201 Week 15: Funeral of James Cone

Happened earlier today at the historic Riverside Church in Harlem, the same place where MLK gave his famous Vietnam sermon.

https://web.archive.org/web/20180507202013/https://myunion.utsnyc.edu/emailviewonwebpage.aspx?erid=4085284&trid=2bc11670-b241-4429-ba09-e68e59bbce2f

If you’ve never heard of James Cone, but have heard of Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, Jerry Falwell, or Pat Robertson, this is a good time for reflection and self-awareness of how Christianity in the US and the West more generally is deeply infected by systemic racism and how the prophetic voices of our day who speak out against systemic racism are silenced or ignored.

What would it do to our understanding of the New Testament if we started with the (historically accurate) premise that Jesus was an oppressed person of color? How would it change the practice of Christianity in the US today if we started with that premise? How would it change our lives?

Guest Post: Marcus Verus Christianus, Making Everyday a Christian Day

An anonymous reader of my blog sent the following and asked that I post it as a special installment for Holy Week.


Making Everyday a Christian Day

by Marcus Verus Christianus

Despite the influence of Christian tradition in Western civilization on the reckoning of years (BC/AD), most Western languages still retain overt pagan references for the days of the week. English is one of the most susceptible to this pagan influence:

  • Sunday comes from the worship of the sun.
  • Monday comes from the worship of the moon.
  • Tuesday comes from the worship of the Norse god Tiw, viewed as a substitute for the Roman god of war, Mars.
  • Wednesday comes from the worship of the Germanic god Woden (= Odin), viewed as a substitute for the Roman god Mercury.
  • Thursday comes from the worship of the Norse god Thor, viewed as a substitute for Jupiter as the bringer of lightning and thunder.
  • Friday comes from the worship of the Anglo-Saxon goddess Frige, viewed as a substitute for the Roman god Venus.
  • Saturday comes from the worship of the Roman god Saturn.

In Western Romance languages, two of these pagan references have at least been replaced with Judeo-Christian ones: Sabbath in place of Saturn, and the Lord’s Day (Domin*) in place of the sun. But this is not the case in English.

It is past time for the English language to cease being a vehicle of pagan worship. It is time for Christians who speak English to stop practicing pagan worship in the use of pagan terms for these days. English can become the most Christian language in the world if we only have the will to create, practice, and enforce a completely Christian set of naming conventions:

  • Sonday in honor of Jesus as the only son of God and the day of his resurrection.
  • Moesday in honor of Moses and the giving of God’s Word/Torah/Instruction.
  • Toesday in honor of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.
  • Woesday in commemoration of the destruction of the first and second temples of Jerusalem, the Babylonian exile, and all woes that have befallen God’s people.
  • Foesday in recognition of Jesus’ commandment to love our enemies.
  • Freeday in honor of Jesus’ inaugural sermon about the liberation of slaves and debts.
  • Shaubday in recognition of the Jewish Sabbath/Shabbat, when Jesus himself rested in the grave.

RLST 201: Spring Break Reflection: Marching for Our Lives & CSUF

My three children and I were part of the March for Our Lives rally yesterday in Santa Ana.

It was peaceful yet passionate. Lots of amazing speakers, including many high school students, Santa Ana City Council member Sal Tinajero, and California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. After the speeches, the middle and high school students led a march around Edinger Park.

It’s probably not talked about during recruitment, orientation, or most classes here, but Cal State Fullerton has its own story of a mass shooting. It took place in 1976, in the Library building where I work every day. A mentally ill employee was able to walk into a KMart, buy a semi-automatic rifle, and start shooting up people in the Library, killing seven.

In the years since, the University has taken many precautions, including automatic door closing mechanisms, active shooter drills, increased police presence on campus. But of course, there’s only so much any University can do when military style weapons and ammunition are so easily available.

What does all of this have to do with a New Testament class, you might ask? In the history of the interpretation of the Bible, Jesus’ teachings on non-violence and non-retaliation in the Sermon on the Mount have been tremendously influential. Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr., both took inspiration from these teachings as a basis for their movements of non-violent civil-disobedience against unjust laws. It should also be remembered that, in an age of Roman military power and Jewish guerilla warfare resistance, Jesus embodied a third way, refusing to align messianic identity with a strategy of violence, conducting a non-violent prophetic protest in the Jerusalem temple, and then non-violently accepting his arrest and death. Christians and non-Christians through the years have seen the significance of Jesus’ death not merely as a sacrifice, but as a model which we can emulate to transform the world.

I strive to maintain an apolitical approach to teaching, so I’ll close with this simple advice.

  1. Think carefully about your convictions, reflect deeply on the sources of those convictions, and find ways to advocate publicly for your convictions.
  2. Register yourself to vote, convince all of your friends to register to vote, then get out the vote!

Your voices are far more powerful than you can imagine. They can shape this country to be a more righteous and peaceful place.

RLST 201: Week 5 Discussion Summary

There were many rich insights this week, which made it difficult to know where to focus my summary reflections. If time were not so limited, I would enjoy following up with pages of reflection on any of the following:

  • The patriarchal and patrilineal bias in the Lukan genealogy, and what the virgin birth of Jesus could have meant in terms of his membership in humanity.
  • The baptismal practices of the Essenes (Dead Sea Sectarians), how John the Baptist is reminiscent of the Essenes, as is Jesus in his desert sojourn.
  • The connections between Aesop’s stories and Jesus’ temptation.

But I also saw a potentially transformative moment for our class in the responses to my footnote on Annas and Caiaphas, which got some pushback. Disclaimer: by no means do I know everything, and I have been and will continue to be wrong about many things, so I welcome students reading, verifying, and checking the scholarly literature about any of the claims I make, this one included.

It’s certainly possible to find commentaries or articles out there that try to explain away the historically inaccurate claim of a dual priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. But there are also many commentaries and articles that honestly accept it and try to understand it, instead of explaining it away. Those who have or will have CRIT lenses, feel free to check me on this!

More broadly, this is one of literally 10,000s of examples of texts in the Bible not being historically accurate. Just in the last few chapters of Luke, we’ve seen that the genealogies of Matthew and Luke are radically contradictory, that the birth stories in Matthew and Luke vary by ten years as to when Jesus would be born, etc. Again, whenever you have your CRIT lenses, use it as an opportunity to check what some of the leading scholars on the Gospel of Luke have to say about the Annas and Caiaphas thing, or the dating of the birth of Jesus, or the contradictions between the Matthean and Lukan genealogies.

Please know here that I’m not trying at all to tear down the New Testament. On the contrary, I love it deeply and passionately! I’ve devoted much of my life, time, talent, and energy to studying it. To me, these texts are incredibly beautiful and powerful.

It is precisely because I respect these texts that I let them speak for themselves and try my best to listen to other ancient voices that would help me hear what was originally being intended in these texts. Because I respect these texts, I let them be whatever they really are, in all of their complexity, their inconsistencies, their biases, etc.

Studying Scripture academically can be kinda like falling in love. At first, you may believe that your beloved is perfect, flawless, and incomparable. And nobody could convince you otherwise, try as they may. That was definitely how I felt about the Bible when I was in my late teens and early twenties, so I get where some of you are coming from.

But if you give love time and cultivate it with prolonged, honest intimacy, they you will eventually come to see that your beloved is actually very imperfect, but still beloved in spite of and even because of these imperfections.

That’s real love. Not trying to make your beloved into something different, but letting your beloved be exactly what your beloved really is.

So we need to be careful to respect these ancient texts enough to let them say whatever it is they are saying, even if we find it to be historically problematic or inaccurate when compared with other sources of information. Our pre-existing assumptions that these texts have to be historically accurate and perfect are far more a self-reflection of our needs rather than an objective interpretation of these texts in their original historical and literary contexts.

Let me conclude with some Socratic questions to ponder, and then a pedagogical prayer.

  • Why would it be a problem for books in the Bible to have historical inaccuracies?
  • Pretty much all human writings that touch upon history have historical inaccuracies, so why not also the books that made it into the canon?
  • What does it say about our theology that we find the humanity of these texts problematic?
  • Do we view God as controlling/dictating humans, our history, and the production of our texts?
  • Is there authentic human freedom, thought, and creativity? If so, why wouldn’t that apply to the Bible as well?
  • Does the Bible really need us to protect and defend it? From what? From itself?

May your love for these texts grow into a fearless maturity that lets them be exactly what they are, and not what we or anybody else wants to force them to be.

RLST 201: Week 4 Discussion Summary: Body and Soul, (No) Birth Narratives, and Interpreting the Interpreters

There were several threads this week that piqued the interest of several students as well as my own interest. Since I can’t cover everything, I’ll pick three matters on which to focus for this post.

Body and Soul

There was some interesting discussion among students about the relationship of the body and soul. It’s important here to note that Christians through the centuries have borrowed the idea of the soul from Plato’s philosophy. In Plato’s thought, psyche (soul) is invisible and immaterial. It pre-exists the body, temporarily inhabits the body, and then leaves the body after death. In Christian theology, this usually is expressed in terms of the soul coming into the body (at conception or later), the soul inhabiting the body, and then the soul leaving the body and going to heaven or hell.

What Christians through the centuries have not recognized (or perhaps not wanted to recognize) is that this view of the soul is not based on the Bible, but instead on Plato. If you scan some translations of the Hebrew Bible / TaNaKh / Old Testament, you can find the terms “soul” and “spirit.” But nefesh (usually translated soul) means “life.” It is not an invisible thing that pre-exists the body or lives on after the body. It is the life-force that courses through the body. Similarly, ruach (usually translated spirit) means “breath” or “wind.” It is not an invisible object or ghostly version of ourselves. It is the breath we breathe, from the moment we are born until the moment we die. (Incidentally, these different understandings of soul and spirit are crucial to why Judaism has a very different ethical assessment of abortion than do most Christian traditions today.)

The New Testament does show hints of being influenced by Platonic thought about the soul, but its anthropology is customarily holistic, in keeping with Hebrew tradition, or focused on the resurrection of the body, in keeping with Zoroastrian tradition.

No Birth Narrative!?!

Several students found in their ancient lenses that there were few if any connections with Luke 1-2. This might have felt like a failure to find connections, but I see it far more as a success to see and be honest about the differences among these texts. Yes, Q did not have a birth narrative. Yes, the Gospel of Phillip did not have a birth narrative. This was also the case for the majority of Gospels written in the 2nd century. In the broader sweep of the earliest Christian literature, Matthew and Luke were strange for their focus on Jesus’ birth. Some roughly contemporaneous texts followed their lead and expanded their themes, especially the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (IGT) and the Protoevangelium of James (PJ).

So then the question is why. Why did Matthew and Luke and IGT and PJ have birth narratives, but most other Gospels did not? Why did Mark, the earliest Gospel written, not say anything about Jesus’ birth or childhood except (maybe) that his mother’s name was Mary (Mark 16:1)? For that matter, why did Paul, the earliest author represented in the texts of the New Testament, say almost nothing about Jesus’ birth and childhood except that he was “descended from David” (Rom 1:3)? Why did John, which speaks so emphatically about Jesus being the incarnate Word of God, ignore his birth and childhood?

When one steps back and looks at these texts with the critical eye of an historian, it leads to a healthy scepticism about the historicity of the birth traditions in Matthew, Luke, IGT and PJ. The earliest Christian texts didn’t say anything about Jesus’ birth and childhood likely because they simply didn’t have much information or interest in them. As time went on, Christians became more curious about the birth and childhood of Jesus, and as their curiosity grew, so did the texts and traditions treating of Jesus’ birth. Matthew’s birth narratives, written between 80 and 120 CE, started down this path of curiosity. Luke’s birth narratives, written between 120 and 150 CE, expanded it. By the late 2nd century, IGT and PJ expanded these traditions even more.

Interpreting the Interpreters

As students read later interpretations of Luke (Later Lenses), a skill that I want everyone to cultivate is to think critically about later interpretations and how they differ from the original meanings of the texts. Interpreters throughout history have their own cultures, biases, prejudices, priorities, and perspectives. If we look carefully at later interpretations of Luke, we can see their self-reflections embedded in their interpretations.

One potentially instructive example of this during week 4 was an interpretation by Ambrose of Milan. Regarding the story in Luke 1 about the elderly Elizabeth finally becoming pregant, Ambrose says, “But once a person has reached a more advanced age, an age more apt for instructing children than for giving them birth, there is a sense of shame in presenting the outward signs of a marriage that has been consummated – however honourable and legitimate that union may have been” (Luke, trans. Tomkinson, p. 24).

Critical scholarly commentaries on the books of the Bible where stories of barren or elderly women become pregnant (e.g., Sarah in Genesis, Hannah in 1 Samuel, and Elizabeth in Luke) give a very different take. (Feel free to check!) In ancient Semitic patrilineal cultures, having a child—especially a male—was seen as a tremendous blessing for a woman. Any prior barrenness would likely have been seen as a curse, and thus an unexpected pregnancy and birth would be a reversal of the curse. Such a woman’s social status and economic security, tied to the son who would take over control of the household, would be elevated greatly.

Ambrose, therefore, is likely not reflecting the original context of this passage. What is he reflecting then? Himself, his time, culture, and context!

Ambrose was an aristocrat and politically connected bishop in late 4th century northern Italy. His claim that Elizabeth’s late-aged pregnancy brings shame reflects his own aristocratic Roman cultural context.

This is the exact kind of gap or dissonance that I want to train you all to see with every passage in the New Testament. These texts had ancient contexts and meanings (revealed by the use of Ancient Lenses), but later interpreters had different contexts and thus transformed these meanings.

Every week, every assignment in this class is a chance to find and explore examples of this ancient vs. later dissonance. The research bibliography, discussion forums, topic paper, and even the creative project.

RLST 201: Week 3 Discussion Summary (Reader-Response and the book of Revelation)

The exercise of summarizing each of the books of the New Testament proved more useful than I had first imagined. My primary goal was for students to do a quick, skim read of each of the books of the New Testament so as to get an overview. I’ve been thinking about having everyone do the same thing at the end of the semester to see if your summaries would change, but I haven’t decided whether to do that yet. One way to go about this is to see whether and how your individual summaries cohere or conflict with some of the handouts I provided at the start of the semester about the authorship and date of the books of the New Testament.

Even at this point, though, at least one poignant take-away comes to mind. A very brief comparison of everyone’s individual summaries reveals lots of overlaps, but also lots of differences.

How is it possible that all of us read over the same books and yet have came up with such different summaries of their meanings?

You may recall that one of the methods we discussed in Week 2 is Reader Response. The basic idea of this method is that readers bring their own meaning and interpretive tendencies to the text. This is not necessarily bad. Indeed, good texts often intentionally leave gaps so as to create more engagement from a greater variety of readers.

Ironically, one of the best ways to see this tendency is in the history of the interpretation of the book of Revelation.

Remember the pictures of Jesus, how different cultures make Jesus look like them?

That’s exactly what happens all the time with the book of Revelation. People frequently use Revelation to predict the end of the world in their own lifetimes.

Each generation the predictions and players change, but one thing remains consistent across history.

All of their predictions end up being dead wrong.

Luther, for instance, pictured the Pope as the Anti-Christ and predicted the end of the world in the 16th century. His end times predictions helped him start the German Reformation, but they obviously ended up being wrong.

Seventh Day Adventists (a denomination of 17 million today) were started by a preacher named William Miller who predicted end of the world would come in the 19th century and people could see it on a mountain. His were obviously wrong, but the hype leading up to his predictions led to this grand error being known as the “Great Disappointment.”

Those are just two examples out of hundreds.

More problematic is that these interpretations of Revelation tend to be very ethnocentric and nationalistic. US interpreters tend to picture the US as God’s chosen people and picture foreigners (Russians during the Red Scare, Arabs/Muslims more recently) as the bad guys.

So Revelation is used to underwrite American exceptionalist prejudices and geopolitical stances.

This class—and the scholarly study of the New Testament—is about shaking ourselves free of our national and cultural prejudices and learning how to put ourselves in the shoes of the people who created these texts.

The author of Revelation lived in the Roman Empire. His whole world—and that of his fellow Jews—was turned upside down when Roman legions invaded Judea and destroyed Jerusalem and the 2nd Temple. The apocalypse written in response is saturated with references to these events and describes in exquisite and imaginative detail how divine vengeance and judgment will come upon the city, emperors, and empire of Rome.

Pick up any scholarly commentary on Revelation, and it will show you all of these historical and literary connections. But turn on the radio or go to most churches, and you won’t hear anything about them.

Scholarly commentaries are trying to teach you how to read these texts well. Many popular sermons today are doing something quite different, either scaring people into believing in God (fear sells), claiming some kind of esoteric, prophetic insight into the events of the day (so smart!), or just underwriting a deeply prejudicial view of Christianity and the US vs. the rest of the world (poo on the EU). 😉

It’s a false choice to say that one has to choose between saying Revelation is about the Roman empire or saying Revelation is about a future end of the world. In its original context, it’s about both. It’s about the end of the world as envisioned by people living in the Roman empire and suffering unimaginable disappointment when their temple, capital, and much of their culture was destroyed.

The true choice is to decide whether you will read Revelation to try to understand how it is about others (ancient interpreters) or whether to remain entrenched in our cultural biases and prejudices that make Revelation all about us (modern readers in the US).

Again, it’s just like the pictures of Jesus. We can try to respect and understand him as someone very different than us, or we can re-make him in our own cultural image so that he is little more than a reflection of us.

Reader response reminds us that people will see whatever they want, that they will see themselves, their culture, their biases and prejudices embedded in texts. But good Bible scholars should respect these texts and their original creators enough at least to try to see them from the point of view of their ancient creators.