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. 🙂

RLST 201: Week 2 Discussion Summary

Week Two’s survey of methods prompted lots of good discussion about what methods/approaches students felt strongly about, both pro and con. While it is certainly fine for everyone to have preferences, it’s also important that we not entrench ourselves in preconceived notions and biases.

For example, some very strongly worded concerns were expressed about about foisting postmodern perspectives/ethics (such as LGBTQ Criticism) upon ancient New Testament texts. One comment went so far as to call such readings “dangerous.”

Let me give a cautionary note here, both in terms of civility and in terms of academic honesty. Word choice matters, and it’s important that we do not offend others unnecessarily. Even when we disagree, we can disagree agreeably.

Academically speaking, it is true that lenses such as LGBTQ Criticism reflect a postmodern/subjectivist tendency, yet this doesn’t make them necessarily less important in terms of prompting us to situate and understand the New Testament in its original historical context. We shouldn’t make the false assumption that homoeroticism is merely a modern phenomenon in Western, liberal societies. Homoeroticism is found in many cultures throughout history, and it was quite common across the Greco-Roman world in which the New Testament came into existence. Given this, we should at least be open to the possibility that homoeroticism may have been accepted and practiced by some of the Hellenistic-Jewish and Gentile-Christian communities out of which the New Testament texts arose. We should also be careful not to assume that every voice and text represented in the New Testament takes an unequivocally negative view of homoeroticism, especially when the vast majority of Jewish and Christian Biblical texts are simply silent on the issue.

True enough that Paul in Romans 1:26-27 equates homoeroticism (male and female) with idolatry, in 1 Cor 6:9 includes homosexuals in a list of “wrongdoers” who won’t “inherit the kingdom of God.” Paul’s later followers who wrote 1 Tim 1:10 repeats 1 Cor 6:9. But Historical Criticism and LGBTQ Criticism can both help us understand that Paul’s ethics were highly influenced by Stoic philosophy, which was dismissive of homoeroticism as contrary to nature.

Conversely, Platonism and other Greco-Roman philosophical schools readily accepted homoeroticism as normal and natural. Thus it is worth considering whether New Testament texts that were much more influenced by Platonism than Stoicism (such as the Gospel of John) might also assume/convey a more positive sensibility regarding homoeroticism. The frequent depictions of the intimate relationship of “beloved disciple” to Jesus in the Gospel of John may not be explicitly or clearly homoerotic, but they may be suggestive. While the so-called Secret Gospel of Mark is likely a modern forgery, its homoerotic interpretation of the young man in Mark 15:52-53 (who was only wearing a linen garment and who ran away naked!) may not be completely baseless.

In sum, a diversity of methods for studying the New Testament is vital, not only to respect the diversity of our fellow human beings who read these texts, but also because of the enormous diversity of the texts themselves. While a simplistic kind of faith tends to see everything in the Bible or New Testament as bound by a divinely imposed uniformity, a close, scholarly reading of these texts sees tremendous linguistic, cultural, philosophical, rhetorical, theological, and even ethical diversity.

If the New Testament is a song, it’s not a solo. It’s a gloriously diverse choir. 😊

RLST 201: Week 1 Discussion Forum Summary

As part of an online New Testament class I’m teaching at CSU Fullerton, I am writing up summaries of the weekly discussion fora. This seemed like a good opportunity to do some public-facing writing, so I’m posting these summaries in the online course but also to my blog. No information about individual students will be posted unless that student has given permission.

As I had hoped to do, I’m now finally getting around to writing my first weekly (appreciative and critical) summary of the weekly Discussion Forums.

I’d like to start first by commending the class for the positive energy, optimistic tone, kind encouragement, and willingness to learn, grow, and be challenged. There were numerous posts that gave me immense joy to read. Connecting Harry Potter and the baby Jesus. Being open for the first time to consider the influence of Homer on the New Testament. Thinking about all the ways the New Testament has influenced art, literature, movies, and even some of the names our parents gave to us. For those with eyes to see, the New Testament is in us and all around us! In many ways, this class—especially by including the reception of the Bible throughout history and in a diversity of media—will give us the vision to see this for ourselves.

As we saw from many posts, studying the New Testament can be very personal for many of us. I was actually somewhat surprised to find that there was a much stronger religious/spiritual tenor to the conversation than I had anticipated or even than I’ve experienced in the past when teaching at various private Christian Liberal Arts colleges! I suppose part of the reason is that private Christian colleges are sometimes more of a priority for wealthy, tuition-paying parents than for some (many?) of the students who attend them. Some of it may be because New Testament here at CSUF is not a required General Education class, but instead an elective, so students are taking this class because they want to take it. According to the roster, most of our students in this class are seniors, which makes me appreciate all the more that you would take this class as one of your final classes here at CSUF.

On this note, I did want to caution against using the pejorative word “secular” to describe our freakin awesome, vibrant, and diverse public university. 🙂 Just because an institution is public does not mean that its professors, students, or even learning experience has to be “secular” (or, “this-worldly”). Just because public education is focused on this world, prioritizes evidence-based arguments, etc., does not mean that beliefs about a greater reality or future existence are off-limits or foreclosed. Just because a university does not have a shared religious creed does not mean that its members are not together devoted to the shared pursuit of truth.

It should also be noted that the most prestigious Christian universities in the country (Baylor, Notre Dame, etc.) are deeply humanistic, even while they maintain ties to their sponsoring religious organizations. Rather than seeing the world and education in terms of the mutually exclusive categories of sacred and secular, I would continue to invite us to be open to paradox, that our education can be spiritual and humanistic, fully divine and fully human at the same time. Labwork can lead to awe. Software can be a prayer. And business can be a burden of love.

Let me also add a caution about our use of the terms “Christian” and “Catholic.” Several students told stories of converting from “Catholicism” to “Christianity.” While your story is your own to tell, let me frame our stories within a scholarly context:

  1. Catholicism is one type of Christianity and happens to be the largest group within Christian tradition, representing over a billion of the some two billion Christians on the planet.
  2. It would be more accurate, historically speaking, to speak of changing or converting from “Catholicism” to “Protestantism” or even “Evangelicalism,” or vice versa.
  3. Many Catholics confess to identical beliefs and experiences as Evangelicals: having a personal relationship with Jesus, reading the Bible devotionally, focusing on God/Jesus in prayer, and not worshipping saints (even if still honoring/remembering them).
  4. In terms of a colonial and post-colonial reading of Christian history, Catholicism and Protestantism / Evangelicalism have both been shaped predominantly by European culture in which Christianity is defined and dominated by white males, conversion is conquest, individualism is paramount, and experience is sacred. American Christianity, both in its 10,000s of denominations and non-denominations, is deeply influenced by modern capitalism, whereby conversions are market-share, success is defined by numbers and dollars, pastors are brands, and worship is entertainment. So my tough question for our class is this. How have our stories, our experiences, even our conversions been shaped by our cultural context?

It is easy to go through life unaware and uncritical of the kinds of religious beliefs/practices with which we are familiar, and this includes the ways we have been taught to read the Bible. Our class trip back into ancient Christian literature and history may lead to culture shock, but it may also let us see ourselves and our culture more clearly.

The ways that most of us self-identified also got me thinking, where are our fellow students and neighbors? Where are our Eastern Orthodox students? Mormons? Jehovah’s Witnesses? Jews? Muslims? Did our fellow students, our friends and neighbors, not take this class because they did not find it personally meaningful? Educationally significant? Did they think it would challenge them in undesirable ways? In the midst of the first week student shuffle, one or two students who self-identified as agnostic or atheist left the class. Perhaps it was just scheduling or something else, but I wonder whether they felt safe to be themselves.

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 mĂ€chtig ist, kann fĂŒr 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 thĂšmes parĂ©nĂ©tiques exploitĂ©s par les auteurs grecs, latins, syriaques et coptes sur la base de ces versets. On aura profit Ă  lire cette Ă©tude qui est d’une remarquable exactitude pour tout ce qui touche Ă  l’authenticitĂ© des oeuvres et Ă  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): http://www.nasscal.com/e-clavis-christian-apocrypha/. 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 exposĂ© 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 GospelofJesusWife.com 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.

Supplemental Notes on Scott McGill, Juvencus’ Four Books of the Gospels: Evangeliorum Libri Quattuor (New York: Routledge, 2016)

Scott McGill kindly shared the working drafts of his translation and notes on this seminal early Christian epic poem. Now that his book is published, I am informally publishing all of the comments that I sent to Scott between March and May of 2015. Some of these comments made their way into his monograph, while others (understandably so) did not. I publish the this feedback online as a supplemental resource to Scott’s excellent and valuable monograph. I would like to thank Scott for allowing me to provide feedback and for his gracious acknowledgement of my assistance.

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: http://www.nasscal.com/. 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.

Review of first book in Bryn Mawr Classical Review


Here I continue the initial summary of reviews of my 2013 monograph.

Review 4. Feldmeier, Reinhard. Review of As the Bandit Will I Confess You: Luke 23,39-43 in Early Christian Interpretation, by Mark Glen Bilby. Bryn Mawr Classical Review (2015.09.58).

Reinhard Feldmeier, Professor of New Testament at Georg-August-University, Göttingen, recently reviewed my first monograph for Bryn Mawr’s prestigious Classics review journal. As is customary in scholarly book reviews, much of it represents a thoughtful and appreciative summation of the various chapters of the book.

Two critical comments appeared in the review. First, he (rightly) pointed out that my initial presentation of the “Roman-sympathizing sentiment of Luke-Acts” was eindimensional. In my defense, an overview of modern critical scholarly viewpoints on Luke-Acts was not the focus of the book, and Feldmeier recognizes this. Still, it would certainly have strengthened my monograph had I included a more nuanced and slightly more involved discussion of modern interpretations of the social and political significance and context(s) of Luke-Acts. Second, Feldmeier deems fraglich (questionable) my reconstruction of the Luke vis-Ă -vis the Gospel of Peter. I had come to the conclusion that the Gospel of Peter actually represents an earlier version of the story of the crucified bandits than does that of Luke. Feldmeier’s disagreement with my conclusion here certainly reflects the majority scholarly view, including that of Paul Foster in his recent critical edition and commentary on the Gospel of Peter. I would only mention that the textual evidence, at least in regard to the tradition of the co-crucified criminals, weighs against the majority scholarly view here and that alternate scenarios regarding the relationship of Luke (which scholars are increasingly viewing as a second century text) and the Gospel of Peter should be given serious consideration based on that evidence.

Overall I took the review as quite favorable, based on the two following, summary statements, which I translate for those who do not read German:

Der Schwerpunkt der Monographie liegt in dem, was der Untertitel andeutet: in der sorgfÀltig recherchierten und ausgelegten Rezeptionsgeschichte dieser Perikope in der alten Kirche (bis ca. 450 n.Chr.).

The main focus of the monograph lies in that which the subtitle intimates: in the meticulously researched and presented reception-history of this pericope in the ancient church (up to 450 AD).

Es ist das unzweifelhafte Verdienst dieser Studie, anhand der Rezeptionsgeschichte eines einzigen Textes gezeigt zu haben, welche Vielfalt und auch theologische OriginalitĂ€t die patristische Exegese auszeichnet. Auch fĂŒr den modernen Interpreten ist es immer wieder faszinierend, welche Facetten einem Text abgewonnen werden können und wie dies seine eigene Ratio hat.

It is the indubitable merit of this study to have shown, on the basis of the reception-history of a single text, that variety and also theological originality distinguishes patristic exegesis. It is also always fascinating to modern interpreters which facets could be acquired from a text and how it has its own reason.

I take it as high praise to have an esteemed German professor at Göttingen call the work of this North American scholar “meticulously researched and presented” and accord it “indubitable merit.”

– M. G. Bilby