Category Archives: General

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.

RLST 201: New Testament Week 7: Prospect and Retrospect

Coming up on the halfway mark, and almost done with our first round of research lenses! I’m super proud of this class for the great work you are doing. I’ve seen a lot of growth in your research and writing skills as regards New Testament studies, and you’re only going to get more awesome as the semester continues!

Working on the annotated translation today took me down memory lane in many ways. I had the honor of visiting Palestine, Israel and Jordan a couple years ago on a tour guided by a friend and legit scholar. It was eye-opening in so many ways.

By the way, if you are interested in me having a special online session or two where I share memories, insights, and maybe even photos of my travels in the “Holy Land,” please reply and let me know, and I’ll put something together. Currently, to the best of my knowledge, there is no CSUF study abroad to the Middle East, but if that’s something you are interested in, let me know. I’ve been thinking about putting together a study abroad to the Holy Land with one or two other professors who work in History, Art, Architecture, Judaism, and/or Islam so that we could give an awesome tour with rich insights from multiple perspectives.

So, the reason my Holy Land travels came back so vividly this week is because of the story of the Gerasene Demoniac in Luke 8:26-39, a story that also appears in Mark and Matthew. Gerasa = Jerash, which happens to be arguably the best preserved Roman-era city in the whole Mediterranean. You can walk down the same streets, see the same pillars, survey the same hippodrome, venture up to the same (though broken) bridges, behold the same triumphal arches, test the acoustics in the same amphitheater, and dip your hand in the same fountain that people did 2000 years ago–people including Jesus himself, who may have visited this city. Do a Google image search for “Jerash” and you’ll see some of those sights for yourself!

Jerash in Jordan: Cardo

Jerash in Jordan

Jerash was supremely memorable because it felt like going back in time 2000 years, like very little had changed except for decay, crumbled walls and ceilings, and a few buildings that had been repurposed into Christian basilicas. Almost everywhere else that people commonly go in the Holy Land (Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Capernaum, and even the recently excavated Migdal/Magdala–where, by the way, a photo I took now sits in the Museum of the Bible in DC)–almost everywhere else has been built, rebuilt, and rebuilt more, until the 2000 year old layers are impossible to see. They are covered over by 4th-5th century Christian basilicas, by 7th-9th century Muslim mosques, by 11th-12th century Crusader fortresses, and by more modern construction, much of which is designed to allure ignorant religious tourists.

For example, in Jerusalem there are signs pointing you to an “upper room” where they say Jesus had his last supper with the disciples and where Pentecost happened. The only problem is, that building was constructed a hundred years ago, not two thousand years ago. Religious tourism is a racket in the Holy Land, and people are happy to make stuff up to get more money from tourists who don’t know better.

But Jerash was like a national park and time machine for scholars of the Bible and antiquity. No shops except at the entrance. No vendors bugging you to buy their crap. Just the amazing feeling of walking around a mile by half mile city whose foundations had been preserved by centuries of dust and neglect until they were unearthed.

That’s kinda how I feel about studying the Bible, too. When I hear lots of today’s sermons, read today’s books, listen to today’s music, etc., I see layers and layers of fluff, so-called knowledge and two-bit history in pious garb, and lots of ways to divide people, entertain people, control people, and make money off of people. But when I pick up a synopsis of the Gospels, when I translate ancient Hebrew and Greek texts, when I re-read passages in Homer, or Vergil, or Plato, or Josephus, or Musonius Rufus, or Tacitus, or many other ancient voices, they feel like a time machine that takes me back and lets me see Jesus and the New Testament with eyes that are new and strange because they are so very, very, very old.

May your studies in this class continue to give you very new, very old eyes. 🙂

More reviews of my first book

Here I continue the initial summary of reviews of my 2013 monograph, as well as my summary of the review in Bryn Mawr Classical Review. Again, allow me to provide quotes directly from the reviews in their original languages, along with English translations for those who would prefer them.

Review 5. Meiser, Martin. Review of As the Bandit Will I Confess You: Luke 23.39-43 in Early Christian Interpretation, by Mark Glen Bilby, Theologische Literaturzeitung 140.5 (May 2015): 488-490.

Meiser’s thorough and positive review is summarized in two specific statements:

B., der auch des Syrischen mächtig ist, kann für sich beanspruchen, ein facettenreiches und lebendiges Panorama altkirchlicher Schriftauslegung vermittelt zu haben.

B(ilby), who is strong in Syriac, can claim for himself to have conveyed a multifaceted and lively panorama of the ancient church’s interpretation of Scripture.

B. kann man zu seiner materialreichen, problembewussten und methodisch stringent argumentierenden Arbeit nur gratulieren.

One can only congratulate B(ilby) on his materially rich, problem-conscious, and methodically stringent argument.

Review 6. Dulaey, Martine. “Patristique latine,” Recherches de Science Religieuse 103.2 (2015): 302-303.

Dulaey gives a positive summary toward the end of the review:

On trouvera encore dans le livre nombre de thèmes parénétiques exploités par les auteurs grecs, latins, syriaques et coptes sur la base de ces versets. On aura profit à lire cette étude qui est d’une remarquable exactitude pour tout ce qui touche à l’authenticité des oeuvres et à leur datation.

We can find in this book a number of parenetic themes exploited by Greek, Latin, Syriac and Coptic authors on the basis of these verses. One can profit by reading this study, which is of a remarkable exactitude on everything it treats regarding the authenticity of works and their date.

Right after this summary, Dulaey calls critical attention to my tendency to find more influence between one interpreter and another than may be merited at times, and also to note that some ideas could become widespread without passing directly from one known interpreter to another. I saw the attempt to draw possible connections as part of the value of a diachronic, comprehensive study of the early reception history of a single passage of Scripture. Raising the possibility of specific connections (e.g., between the poems of Ephrem and those of Gregory of Nyssa and Nazianzus) points out openings for future studies. In my defense, I often qualified these possible connections with tentative language (“may have influenced,” “might have read,” etc.).

Prior to this summary, Dulaey expressly disagrees with my diachronic case for Augustine changing his interpretation. I concede Augustine makes other references to martyrs being defined not by their death but by the cause/reason for their death. But that misses the point of my argument, that Augustine implicitly disagrees with Cyprian’s martyr-reading of Luke 23:39-43 prior to 419 and expressly agrees with Cyprian in 419 and after, and that Vincent Victor (not merely the Donatist controversy) was the reason for this shift in his interpretation.

Unfortunately, Dulaey (an Augustine specialist) elsewhere misreads or misconstrues the book on some important points, such as the range of options early interpreters evinced regarding synoptic disparity (not just chronological or sylleptical harmonization). Most astonishing to me was the claim that the church fathers “hesitated to see in him a martyr” (!). Augustine did not hesitate in this regard; he wavered from one position (that the bandit wasn’t a martyr) to another (that we was a martyr). Many other interpreters (such as Cyprian, Eustathius of Antioch, Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose, Jerome, Chromatius) were quite explicit and consistent in claiming that the bandit became a martyr on the cross.

– Mark G. Bilby

Seoul Postscript

A few days ago I got back from Seoul, South Korea after attending the International Society of Biblical Literature conference and presenting three papers. I’m attaching a pdf of the ISBL 2016 Seoul Conference Program.

My first paper was an invited review of Dennis MacDonald’s forthcoming book, John and Euripides: The Dionysian Gospel (Fortress). My overall assessment of the book was that it makes a convincing case that the first edition of the Gospel of John depicted Jesus as a figure similar to and indeed greater than Dionysus/Bacchus, particularly as he was represented in the Bacchae of Euripides, the most popular play in Greco-Roman antiquity. My main critical comments pertained to MacDonald’s repeated case for the Gospel of John as a later text that borrowed from the earlier composed Gospel of Luke. In my view the potential parallels are sometimes inconclusive and at other times point toward the Gospel of Luke as the later text and one reliant on the earlier texts and/or traditions seen in the Gospel of John.

My second paper explored two Christian apocryphal tales in detail, the Rebellion of Dimas (CANT 78.2) and the Hospitality and Perfume of the Bandit (CANT 78.3), based on my creation of critical editions for these texts, as well as introductions and translations slated to appear in the next volume of More New Testament Apocrypha edited by Tony Burke and Brent Landau. Basically, both of these medieval legends were interpolations into the popular compilation known as Pseudo-Matthew and both promoted the cult of the so-called “Good Thief,” even though they represented two distinct and divergent clusters of medieval stories about this figure. Summaries and bibliographies for these two texts are available on the eClavis site mentioned below!

My third paper narrated the story of the birth of the eClavis for Christian Apocrypha. It began as a prototype I created for a Digital Collections class at Drexel University. After sharing the idea and prototype with Tony Burke, he, I and Brad Rice brought it to life as a subsection of the WordPress blog of the North American Society for the Study of Christian Apocryphal Literature (NASSCAL): The session participants gave helpful suggestions about how to improve the site, fund its work, and expand its collaborators to include notable European scholars of the Christian Apocrypha.

I also got to take in the beautiful Yonsei University campus, enjoy stimulating conversations with friends and colleagues, see a Korean Major League Baseball game (go Doosan Bears!), relish beautiful and delicious traditional Korean cuisine, and get some unique gifts for my family. All in all, a great trip.

Thanks again to Tom Phillips and Claremont School of Theology for allowing me to go!


Fascinating exposé of the Jesus’ Wife Papyrus forger, Walter Fritz

Investigative journalism at its finest. Thank you, Ariel Sabar.

You really can’t make this stuff up about the guy who made the Jesus’ Wife stuff up: disgruntled grad student and former museum employee who specialized in Egyptology; victim of abuse by a Catholic priest; car salesman with a penchant for wheeling and dealing; friend and former business associate of those claimed as previous owners of the papyrus; a Dan Brown devotee, together with his wife who writes in a similar vein; pre-release purchaser of the domain; and even, together with his wife, a maker of online porn with spiritual overtones.

I’ve succinctly summarized the salient details here because I want to encourage people to read this article, in its entirety.

P.S. Karen King refused to answer Sabar’s questions. The scholarly community, including the faculty of Harvard, need to ask those same questions and get honest answers. It’s one thing to be duped. It’s another thing entirely to participate in and enable an ongoing charade.

International SBL Papers

Thanks to the generosity of CST, I am getting the chance to travel to Seoul, Korea, this July to attend the International Society of Biblical Literature meeting. Dennis MacDonald was kind enough to invite me to be on a panel reviewing his new book on the Gospel of John and Euripides. I also submitted a couple of paper proposals which were accepted.

For the Digital Humanities section, I am presenting a paper entitled, “A Digital Rebirth in Christian Apocrypha Studies: NASSCAL and the eClavis.” Abstract:

Digital guides and resources abound for manuscript studies, especially regarding the canonical texts. But this is far less the case with non-canonical texts. Regarding Christian or so-called New Testament apocrypha, a digital rebirth of Geerard’s Clavis Apocryphorum Novi Testamenti would go a long way to bring awareness to texts and traditions whose popularity in earlier generations has often faded into neglect in modern scholarship. This paper will describe the initial planning and prototyping of such a resource, an e-Clavis for Christian Apocrpha conceived and designed by Mark Bilby, Tony Burke, and Bradley Rice. This resource is now sponsored and hosted on the NASSCAL (North American Society for the Study of Christian Apocryphal Literature) website: The presentation will also explore and explain the structure and maintenance of the eClavis, and also invite session participants to sign up as contributors.

For the Christian Apocrypha section, I am presenting a paper entitled, “The Divergent Bandit Narratives of Pseudo-Matthew: A Comparative Introduction to New Critical Editions and Translations of CANT 78.2 and 78.3.” Abstract:

Maurits Geerard published diplomatic editions of two interpolations (designated as CANT 78.2 and 78.3 and both placed under the title De bono latrone) found in medieval Latin texts of Pseudo-Matthew. The presenter is preparing new critical editions of these texts: a diplomatic edition of CANT 78.2 based on autoptic analysis of Namur Bib. Sem. Lat. 80, 13v-15v, 17r-v, and the first collated critical edition of CANT 78.3 from BL Harley 3199, f. 104v-106r (14th cent.) and Vat. Lat. 6300, f. 118r-119r (15th cent.). Introductions and translations of these texts are slated to appear in the second volume of the New Testament Apocrypha series edited by Tony Burke and Brent Landau. This presentation will introduce and compare these two Ps-Matthew interpolations as representations of two divergent narrative traditions about the so-called Good Thief. CANT 78.2 (here assigned the distinct title, The Rebellion of Dismas) is closely related to the story found in Leabhar Breac and Aelred of Rievaulx’s De institutione inclusarum, especially in terms of the bandit’s young age, the demonization of the bandit’s father, Mary’s relative unimportance compared with that of the infant Jesus, and the lack of any reference to hospitality shown the Holy Family. CANT 78.3 (here assigned the distinct title The Hospitality and Perfume of the Bandit), on the other hand, is closely related to the stories found embedded in the Latin Infancy Gospel Arundel form (CANT 78.1) and the Hospitality of Dysmas (BHG 2119y, here proposed as CANT 78.4), especially in terms of their common stress on the bandit’s hospitality to the Holy Family, the description of the bandit’s household, and the production of a healing liquid derived from bathing the infant Jesus.

Insights from Israel, Palestine, and Jordan

Migdal Synagogue (2015 Jan 01)

Migdal Synagogue (2015 Jan 01)

Just yesterday I returned from a two week group tour of historical sites in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. Hosted by the Society for Biblical Studies (SBS) and led by my friend and library director, Tom Phillips, it struck a nice balance of academic and spiritual interests. Many traditional religious sites were extraordinary and moving to behold, and these included the Western Wall, the Dome on the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Church of the Resurrection / Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Nativity, the Church of the Annunciation, the Church at Capernaum, St. George’s Church at Madaba (the location of the Madaba Map), and others.

In terms of educational value, Jerash (Gerasa) in modern day Jordan was the most profound. Unlike most ancient Roman cities, this one was not built over with later or modern construction, so the bulk of the city’s layout and many of its buildings were able to be unearthed and reconstructed. While walking its streets, I gleaned several insights into New Testament texts, insights that may find their way into journal articles as time and opportunity affords.

Sephoris/Zippori was also fascinating in that it played host to the editing of the Mishnah (the most sacred text in Judaism next to the TaNaKh) and, as the closest major city to Nazareth, may have been a destination or even a work location for Jesus. It is instructive here to remember that the Greek word in Mark 6:3 (tekton), usually translated as “carpenter” in English, can just as easily and plausibly be rendered as “builder,” “craftsman,” or even “artisan.” In other words, Jesus may just as likely have been a stone mason or mosaicist as a carpenter, and the roads, buildings, and mosaics of Sephoris and nearby smaller towns (Capernaum, Migdal) may well have been places where Jesus plied his trade.

The site at Migdal, where a synagogue was first discovered in 2009, was just recently opened to visitors. While the site was technically closed on New Year’s Day, an archeologist from the Israeli Antiquities Authority happened to be working on site that day and gave our group an expert tour. He dated the synagogue’s construction no later than 29 CE (the date of a coin in the building’s foundation) and its destruction during the early phases of the Jewish War (ca. 67-68). Since the site was not built over in later years, it is one of the best-preserved and most credible candidates for the earliest synagogue yet discovered. Christian historians and pilgrims will find the site fascinating because of its potential connections to Mary Magdalene (Migdal = Magdala, Mary’s possible hometown), obviously a very popular figure in Christianity through the ages and today, as well as its potential connections to Jesus himself. The Roman Catholic church has built a beautiful church on the site which features the Magdalene and other early Christian women (Luke 8:1) prominently. The altar, designed in the shape of a boat, has as its mast a cross. Looking past the altar to the Sea of Galilee through a huge window, participants in worship will feel as if they are floating in one of the stories set there. The site, along with the hotel currently being constructed there, will almost certainly be a very popular destination for myriads of visitors (scholarly and religious) in coming years.

– Mark G. Bilby

New Publication: Reconsidering Arminius

I wasn’t expecting it to be released until December, as the Abingdon and Amazon pages note, but just yesterday a copy of Reconsidering Arminius appeared on my desk, courtesy of our cataloging librarian here at the Claremont School of Theology. Sometimes Christmas does come early!

This volume was co-edited by me, Keith D. Stanglin, and Mark H. Mann, and it pulls together conference papers, as well as later/additional contributions. The conference was entitled Rethinking Arminius and was held in 2012. I’ll append an abstract below.

The theology of Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius has been misinterpreted and caricatured in both Reformed and Wesleyan circles. By revisiting Arminius’ theology, the book hopes to be a constructive voice in the discourse between so-called Calvinists and Arminians.

Traditionally, Arminius has been treated as a divisive figure in evangelical theology. Indeed, one might be able to describe classic evangelical theology up into the 20th century in relation to his work: one was either an Arminian and accepted his theology, or one was a Calvinist and rejected his theology. Although various other movements within evangelicalism have provided additional contour to the movement (fundamentalism, Pentecostalism, etc.), the Calvinist-Arminian “divide” remains a significant one. What this book seeks to correct is the misinterpretation of Arminius as one whose theology provides a stark contrast to the Reformed tradition as a whole. Indeed, this book will demonstrate instead that Arminius is far more in line with Reformed orthodoxy than popularly believed, and show that what emerges as Arminianism in the theology of the Remonstrants and Wesleyan movements was in fact not the theology of Arminius, but rather a development of and sometimes departure from it.

This book also brings Arminius into conversation with modern theology. To this end, it includes essays on the relationship between Arminius’ theology and open theism and Neo-Reformed theology. In this way, this book fulfills the promise of the title by showing ways in which Arminius’ theology–once properly understood–can serve as a resource of evangelical Wesleyans and Calvinists doing theology together today.

– Mark Bilby