Biblical Studies Carnival for October 2017

Welcome to the Carnival

Coming back to host a Biblical Studies Carnival many years after I last did so (but that was on another website and besides the blog is dead), I’m struck by how much things have changed. The biggest of those changes – at least as I see it – over the intervening years is the present lack of interaction among bloggers compared to the past.

From time to time in recent years there has been an occasional flurry of posts, when the big beasts of the bibliobloggging jungle have bestirred themselves, but those are rare and tied to controversies like the Gospel of Jesus Wife, or the Jordanian Lead Codices.

No such major alleged forgery has brought bloggers together around the same topic in October, and so this carnival is a personal selection of largely disconnected posts (with one or two actual interactive conversations) that have for one reason or another caught my eye. (A note of thanks is owed to Bob MacDonald who was helpful in drawing a number of posts to my attention, many of which I have included below.)

So, on with the Carnival. I hope you find it informative, and even, possibly, just slightly entertaining. Continue reading “Biblical Studies Carnival for October 2017”

Lost in translations?

translation cover imageAt the start of the week, Scot McKnight posted about a new translation of the New Testament. This, by Orthodox lay theologian David Bentley Hart, won’t be published in the UK until January.

I confess that my first reaction is, “Another one?” It is hard not to see the continuous production of published NT translations, meeting some perceived lack of scriptural accuracy, as something of a first-world problem.

In these brief remarks, I’m reliant on McKnight’s post and what little I can see from Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature. Continue reading “Lost in translations?”

Biblical Studies Carnival

Phil Long has posted the Biblical Studies Carnival round-up for September. These carnivals – a long-standing blog tradition – are always a good way to discover new blogs or posts you may have missed, and Phil’s is no exception.

But let this also serve as notice that I shall be hosting the October carnival on this blog, which will be posted on 1 November. (I last did one a long time ago, on a blog far, far away, scattered many moons since on the winds of cyberspace.)

If you have posts to which you wish to draw my attention for that round-up, then leave a link in the comments here.

Clubbing together in Corinth (a review)

Detail of Roman banquet

It’s always interesting to read a book which works hard to overturn a consensus. I’ve just finished a scholarly monograph which attempts to do just that: The Pauline Church and the Corinthian Ekklēsia by Richard Last.

Last’s aim is to set the Corinthian church in the context of Greco-Roman associations. He thinks previous scholarship has overestimated both the size and the distinctiveness of the Corinthian church. As he makes his case he pays particular attention to questions of membership dues, elections of officers, and honorific awards. Continue reading “Clubbing together in Corinth (a review)”

“His blood be upon us”

The reading of the whole story of Jesus’ last night and day of his ministry, the last supper, trial, crucifixion and burial, is an important part of Christian liturgy on this Sunday of the Lord’s Passion (Palm Sunday). It poses a particular problem when, as this year, it is the turn of Matthew’s gospel.

High up on the list of verses that we might wish had never made it into the Bible is this part of the story: Continue reading ““His blood be upon us””

Mr Sanders’ Pharisees – and Paul’s (reviewing Sanders on Paul)

I’m still not entirely sure what I think of E. P. Sanders’ Paul: The Apostle’s Life, Letters and Thought. Most scholars who have written extensively on Paul want to write their “big book on Paul”. Examples include James D. G. Dunn’s Theology of Paul the Apostle, a little over a decade ago or Tom Wright’s comprehensive version of his apostle in Paul and the Faithfulness of God.

At one level, Sanders’ book belongs in such company: the older statesman rehearsing his views at the end of his career. At another level, this is a different kind of book. It is written, quite clearly, for undergraduates. Little is assumed, and scholarly methodology is exposed to view in a pedagogically helpful way. Sanders is, it seems, committing to paper his Paul for undergraduates. It is, above all else, clear. The reader knows what Sanders thinks, and what Sanders thinks is that he can offer a relatively Rankean delineation of early Christian history. He claims to prescind from theology, and write as an historian. Continue reading “Mr Sanders’ Pharisees – and Paul’s (reviewing Sanders on Paul)”

For Christmas Eve: “Here the word was made flesh”

This is the basement grotto of the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. The site incorporates a first-century house, which is traditionally claimed to be Mary’s house. The inscription on the altar states “Verbum caro hic factum est – Here the Word was made flesh”.

Not to be outdone by those pesky Catholics claiming the location of Mary’s home, just down the road the Orthodox have built the Church of St Gabriel, incorporating the well at which an early apocryphal text (the second-century Protevangelium of James) narrated Mary’s first encounter with Gabriel. This text splits Luke’s narrative: the initial greeting comes at the well, the remainder of the conversation back at the house. The scene is portrayed in the courtyard of St Gabriel’s Church, below.

There seems to me (despite this territorial competition) to be something tremendously important about adding that “hic” (here) to St John’s prologue – “here the Word was made flesh”. It is not an argument about any kind of certainty that anyone has identified a holy site accurately. I doubt anyone is going to uncover a “Yeshua was here” graffitum. It is rather a reminder that this is a specific story, told about named people at a particular time in history, at a (theoretically) identifiable place.

I often hear people speaking about “the principle of incarnation”. I’ve nothing against such a principle, but the language can sometimes sound as if incarnation is the sort of thing the Deity spends all his time doing, rather than a single and unique event we approach through the stories of Jesus. “God became human” is a faith-filled characterisation of a particular human history, not primarily a theological generalisation about either divinity or humanity.

We need to be reminded of the uniqueness of how this light comes into the world, so that we may better appreciate where  and how to seek it, find it, and reflect it.

So, as I prepare to retell and rehear the Christmas story again in song and prayer, word and (above all) sacrament, I pray that for you and for me, we may find in this unique history of God coming to share our earthly nature, that fruitful encounter with him, that will enable us to participate in his divine life. Happy Christmas.

One will be taken

Choose one of two
Choose one of two

The gospel for Advent Sunday (Year A – Matthew 24.36-44) is not without its problems. Indeed, in our contemporary context, the idea that the parousia – the “second coming” – is a theme used in preparation for Christmas – the “first coming” – of Christ, is itself problematic. An open-minded pentecostal friend messaged me asking about the Advent themes, and was, I think, rather surprised to hear that the traditional ones were not the “love, peace, joy, hope” of many schools’ Advent wreaths, but “death, judgement, heaven and hell”.

The emphasis, it seems to me, in the gospel, is really quite existential. If we live sub specie aeternitatis – in the shadow of eternity – that prospect is presented in Jesus’ words less as a continuous present, and more as an imminent disruption. The metaphors of this teaching point to something sudden. In some contexts, such as Noah’s, the sudden change is being prepared for by a few. In other contexts, it is entirely unexpected. Unexpectedness, suddenness – these seem to me to be the point of the metaphor expressed in “one will be taken, one will be left.”

We are not dealing with some kind of weird timetable of rapture. We are dealing with something that cannot be timetabled: the possibility that any time might be the time when God breaks into normality.

There are some differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of these texts. Matthew places them in the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Luke places them before that final week. Matthew’s analogies are of two men in a field, and two women grinding meal. Luke’s are of two men in a bed, and two women grinding meal. Matthew uses present passive verbs, Luke uses future passives. (This is one of those places where gospel interrelationships don’t meet a tidy Q paradigm.)

Whatever the precise group in view, the idea seems to be that two people are engaged in the same task, and find a different outcome. It is more likely that the one who “is taken” is the loser, and the one who “is left” who is the winner. (Dispensationalist theory notwithstanding.) To be taken by, for example, a flash flood in a wadi, a lightning strike in a storm, a plague that seems indiscriminate in its targets, all suggest that it is “being taken” that is destructive, and “being left” that is escape.

When this is paired with the language used, that becomes even more likely. The language for being left is also the language for being forgiven. Words depend on their context for their meaning, and the use of the verb “ἀφίημι – to leave, permit, forgive” is not a knock down argument. Yet the balance of probabilities suggests that, far from supporting any idea of “the rapture”, Jesus’ language is directed at readiness for change, rather than timetable for judgement.

 

Mind your language

I’ve been in a discussion today about the language of scripture. My interlocutor wanted to claim that the language of John 2 implied that the water that was changed into wine was the water of the well from which the stone jars were filled, rather than the water in the jars (John 2:1-11). And, therefore, Jesus transformed all water into the wine of the kingdom.

The basis of this claim was that the word for drawing water used in the Cana story was the same as the word for drawing water used in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. That much is true. Both narratives use the common verb “to draw” – ἀντλέω (antleõ).

Yet there is the little question of context, which, admittedly, is always more problematic in John, who delights in ambiguity and paronomasia. Words have a range of possible meanings, but to place a word in a sentence, or a series of connected sentences, is always a process of limiting the range of meanings that word may bear.

“Are you religious?” probably means something like, “do you go to church?” when the question is addressed to a lay person. “Are you religious?” when addressed to a member of the clergy signifies, “Do you belong to a religious order?” And “Are you a religious follower of #LFC?” (Victory be upon them) signifies something else again.

Words are simply not repositories of concatenated meanings. To place a word into a sentence is to limit the meanings that word can convey. Sentences restrict semantics. Context constrains meaning.

And in that Johannine sentence, and that context, it seems to me that “draw water” in all probability refers fairly clearly to drawing it from the jars, not from the wells / springs from which that water was originally taken.