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.

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 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): 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!

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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 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.

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/07/the-unbelievable-tale-of-jesus-wife/485573/

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.