Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Galatians Back to Paul, and Paul's Response

[[Warning: Thought Experiment Below.  If you are uncomfortable with or unable to detect satire and sarcasm, please quit reading now]]

I, Nestor, on behalf of the churches of Galatia, write to you, Paul, our Apostle and father in the faith.  Grace and peace to you.

We are so grateful for you, and especially for your last letter.  Your position on circumcision saved many of our men from a painful experience.  Now, don't get me wrong.  Many, if not all of us would have gladly been circumcised, seeing it as a small price to pay for the benefits of being made full members of God's family. And those Jewish followers of Christ who came from Jerusalem made such a compelling case from the scriptures that circumcision was a necessary part of being full members of God's covenant people. Yet, we all gasped a sigh of relief as we read your letter, and now that you have presented your argument, we are all the more convinced (although some of that stuff about Sarah, Hagar and the Child of promise seemed a little bit of a stretch).  The rite of circumcision has served only as a barrier or wall that separated Jew and Gentile.  We see it so clearly now that what was accomplished in Christ was the smashing of all such barriers so that Gentiles, like us, can be fully incorporated into the family of God.

Now, those from Jerusalem have returned, and while they are still pestering us about circumcision, few of us seem swayed even a little.  But, another issue has arisen and been pressed by the Jerusalem Christians, and we thought it prudent to write to you for your advice in this matter as well.  We think we know the answer, but would like your thoughts as our Apostle and father in the faith.

You see, down in Lystra they have just erected a gorgeous new temple to Zeus. The marble work is superb, (at least it looks so from a distance, we as a community dedicated to Christ will not worship such false idols), and Philip saw the imposing statue as it was brought into town, and he said he had never seen craftsmanship so beautiful.  Anyway, we thought it sad that Zeus, this idol, whom many of us used to worship but as we now know is no god at all, should be revered with such marvelous architecture and sculpture, while God and Christ are nowhere to be seen.  Therefore, we, the churches of Galatia have decided to pool our resources, and through much sacrificial giving, we have come up with enough to commission a competent local sculptor to sculpt for us a modest, but very well done statue of God.  We have seen preliminary drawings done by the sculptor, and I think you would be very pleased.  When complete, though it will not rival the statue of Zeus in stature, I believe it will be more than sufficient to let our community know that God has a presence here.

Now, here's the rub.  These Jerusalem followers of Christ were outraged when they heard of our plans.  Once again, they whipped out their trusty scripture scrolls and pointed us to the commandment in Exodus, which reads something like, "You shall make no graven images of God, or anything else for that matter."  Well, we just don't know.  Sure, there it was, right in the scriptures, but so was circumcision. So, what are we to do with what these Jerusalem followers of Christ are calling the "Law."  You wrote in your last letter that we were justified by the faithfulness of Christ and by our faithful trust in him, not by these "works of the Law."  So, we believe we know what your answer will be (but we thought we would write to you just to make sure).  So, unless we hear back from you to the contrary, we will go with your previous letter and act is if the "Law" is not binding on us in this matter, as it was with the "Law" of circumcision.

John and Theodore send there greetings.  May the peace of Jesus the Christ and God the Father be with you.


I, Paul, an Apostle of Christ Jesus, write to the churches in Galatia.  Grace and Peace to you through God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I give thanks for your careful reading of my first letter.

Quite busy now with these surly Corinthians.  No time for a lengthy letter. About your issue, nothing more needs to be said.  You are right, the "Law" means nothing.  Disregard it and I look forward to seeing the statue of God.  I've never seen one before.  Why didn't I think of that?

Timothy sends his greetings and says: Statues of God Rock. Grace and peace.




Friday, May 9, 2014

Mark's Ending

Today I want to discuss the ending of Mark's Gospel.  In recent years, with the proliferation of literary analyses of the Gospel of Mark, many NT scholars (myself included) have been convinced that Mark intended to end his gospel at 16:8.  This of course is not a debate about whether the same author could have written the various longer endings of Mark, which is an issue that seems to be settled in textual criticism to a large degree.  The most original ending or Mark's Gospel is at 16:8.  But debates have raged about a lost ending, or the possibility that Mark died before he could finish.  But now, many have argued that Mark intended to end the Gospel at 16:8.

What I want to address here is a sentiment that I have heard many times, but most recently in one of the episodes of Mark Goodacre's NT Pod.  The sentiment is as follows: If NT scholars in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have come to find some literary genius behind Mark's enigmatic ending, then they are the only people throughout all of church history who have done so.  That is, they are so narcissistic to believe that they alone possess the knowledge and skill to recognize Mark's genius.  The argument runs that everyone throughout church history has found the short ending of Mark problematic.

I want to push back on this argument for a moment.  Can we really say that everyone throughout church history has found Mark's short ending a problem?  I don't think so.  Sure, we have examples of a handful of people in ancient church history who found the ending problematic.  Matthew sees fit to add to Mark's ending, so does Luke, so does John if he is familiar with Mark. That's 3 people who either found Mark's ending problematic and added to it.  We also have three different endings in the manuscript tradition (the shorter ending, the Freer Logion, and the Longer ending).  So, I count 6 people who we know either had a problem with the ending, or thought they could improve it.  But, those 6 are not everybody.  Certainly, after the longer ending gained ascendancy in the manuscript tradition, we cannot say that people were dissatisfied with the shorter ending.  They weren't aware of the shorter ending.  So we can discount the claim that anyone from about 500-1800 discounted the shorter ending.  They simply didn't know it was an option.

Well, what about before the longer ending became the majority text?  I have pointed out at least 6 people who went a different way and may have found Mark's ending wanting.  But is this everybody?  Again I say no.  The counter evidence suggests that the very fact that we have manuscripts which end at 16:8 means that there were at least some (the copyists of Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, for example) who either found no problem with the short ending, or at least did not feel compelled to change it.  Perhaps there were early Christians who recognized the genius of Mark's short ending, but over time their voices were lost in the midst of the manuscript tradition in which the various other options had become dominant. So I do not think that we can say that everybody except for modern NT scholars have failed to recognize a possibility that Mark intended  to end his Gospel at 16:8.  Modern NT scholars might stand in good company with many others (the copyists of Sinaiticus and Vaticanus included).

Friday, May 2, 2014

More Musings on Belief

In my previous post, I talked about what IMO comprises much of evangelical Christianity: that is that Christianity is a belief system, defining the word "belief" as a granting of mental agreement to a set of propositions.  I then asked, if this was what Christianity should be like.

I now need to narrate the way in which this view of Christianity as a belief system changed for me.

This view began to crumble during my senior year in college.  I was taking a class called "Christian Literary Classics" taught by Dr. Ralph Wood, and in reading Dante's Purgatorio I was served a huge piece of humble pie.  At first I was taken aback by the strange beliefs of Dante, especially with regard to Purgatory.  Then it hit me.  Dante's beliefs were strange to me, but my beliefs would also be strange to him.  Moreover, it became perfectly clear to me that had I been born in 14th century Europe, I would have believed exactly as Dante believed (there is of course the corollary to this view, and that is that if I had been born in India on the same day I was born, I would most likely be Hindu, not Christian).

This realization, that our beliefs are to a great extent dependent on our culture, opened up all sorts of other questions for me and taught me to hold my beliefs a little more lightly and a little more humbly.

Another great change in my view of Christianity as a belief system came with my study of the New Testament through Seminary and Ph.D. Studies. As I studied the NT, I found that the NT authors don't often (at least on my reading) focus much on belief, at least not in the sense of giving mental assent to propositions.  Now, this might sound strange.  The Greek word for belief, pistis, and its cognate verb pisteuo occur more than 550 times in the NT, so how can I say that I did not see much teaching on belief in the NT.  Well, it has to do with word meaning and translation issues.  You see, there are three perfectly acceptable English words that can be used to translate pistis and its cognate verb.  They are "faith," "belief," and "trust." The noun pistis is most often translated as "faith," and the verb is most often translated as "believe."  Fine, but I do not think that the current connotations of these English words adequately capture the meaning in the Greek. "Faith," and "belief" in their current English connotations carry the sense of giving mental agreement to a proposition.  Thus, one is saved by faith (mental agreement with a proposition about Jesus), not by works (doing something good for God).  But, if that is what faith means, then Paul's letters make no sense to me.  How can Paul, on the one hand contrast faith (mental assent) with works, but then go on to command all sorts of behavior, and to condemn other behavior?  These two don't fit. Luther's saved sola fides, faith (mental assent to a proposition) alone, does not fit then with New Testament teachings on Christian behavior.  Well, maybe the problem isn't the tension between faith (mental assent) and calls for certain behavior, maybe the problem is with our understanding of the word belief.

I think that of the three words given as translation options for pistis, the english word which in its current connotation comes closest to the sense in which the word is used in the NT, is "trust."  Trust, in current English connotation implies action.  Trust encompasses the English concept of "belief," but it goes further.  Trust requires acting on one's belief.  Faith (trust) in Christ is not just giving your intellectual OK to a proposition about Jesus (e.g., Jesus died for my sins), but rather, a trusting following of Jesus in his example.  To trust Jesus, means to change one's behavior, to take up one's cross and follow him.  Trust is much fuller than belief (in its current English connotation).

So, I am uncomfortable with viewing Christianity as a belief system.  Christianity is much more than a belief system.  I guess you could say that Christianity is a "trust system," a system in which followers of Jesus act out their trust in Jesus by following his example, living lives that embody his teachings of loving God with all of their hearts, souls, minds, and strength, and loving their neighbor as themselves.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Musings on Belief

Belief.  It is an interesting word, but what does it mean?

Several recent stimulating conversations I have had with my colleague Trey Gilliam have led to this post.  What is belief?

Many see Christianity as a "belief system."  That is, Christianity is about believing the right stuff.  And belief used in this sense is defined as giving your mental agreement to a set of statements., such as, "Jesus Christ died for our sins," or "Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, of one substance (homoousios) with the father." To believe these statements, for much of the modern church, means to agree in your mind that these statements are facts.

This is how I grew up as a Christian.  In the early phases, my Christianity was seen as accumulating right (orthodox) beliefs about God and Christ.  This manifested itself in reading the Bible, attending church, youth group, conferences, and the like, and acquiring knowledge.  Later it moved on to reading books which explained right beliefs.  This all culminated in reading systematic theology books to acquire knowledge of a compendium of orthodox Christian doctrines, which were propositions calling for mental agreement.

But what do you do after you have acquired all of these beliefs and given your mental assent to them? Well, there's not much left to do.  You can digest a massive systematic theology in a finite amount of time, and then what do you do?  Well, I found that the only avenue left open, if my faith was not to become stale, was to debate.  Find people who disagree with my mental propositions, and show them the error of their ways.  I think that this is what much of conservative evangelical Christianity engages in: finding the right (orthodox) beliefs, and then searching out those who disagree with them, with the purpose of correcting them, or (more common unfortunately), with the purpose of punishing them for their stubborn doubts.  This is why I believe that evangelicalism has become so ugly in the public arena. The goal is to debate and punish those who won't put a mental checkmark by all of the right (orthodox) beliefs as determined by the evangelicals.

Is this a good way to go?  Is this what Christianity should be?

More to follow.


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Q Skepticism

The discussion of Q skepticism is currently sweeping the blogosphere, and since I have not blogged in over a year, I thought this was a perfect time to add my thoughts.  Since this blog has gone dark since 2012, I do not expect many, if any readers, I am doing this more to get my own thoughts down than for any other reason. 

I am a Q skeptic, but for perhaps different reasons than others.  When it really started for me was in Seminary.  I was taking a synoptic gospels course and reading through various treatments of the synoptic problem.  The 2/4 source hypothesis made a great deal of sense.  On the surface, the arguments that Matthew and Luke were independent of one another seem strong.  Surely, why would Matthew or Luke remove so much material from the other gospel had they been aware of it.  So, in jumps Q, a common source, used by both but in different way.  Great hypothesis.  But, where this turned sour for me was the, dare I say, hubris involved in treating Q no longer as a hypothesis but as a fact.  Q works as a hypothesis, but it is not an historical document.  We have no copies of Q.  Therefore, I was turned off by the treatments of Q which accepted it as a fact and not as a hypothesis.  The fact that the critical edition of Q is 10 times bigger than the NA 27 Greek NT just caused me to get very frustrated at the Q scholarship.  Other trends, such as finding three redactional layers in a hypothetical document of which we have no copies smacked of arrogance and hubris of the highest degree.  Hence, my initial frustration with the direction of Q scholarship. 

This frustration led me to seek other solutions to the synoptic problem and I stumbled upon E. P. Sanders and Margaret Davies Studying the Synoptic Gospels in which the authors point out places where the 2/4 source hypothesis is weak and demonstrate that arguments that Luke may have used Matthew are actually stronger than once supposed. Therefore, while not outright endorsing the Farrer hypothesis, Sanders and Davies certainly showed that there are alternatives to Q.  

Finally, a simpler solution to the Synoptic problem.  Markan priority has been firmly established, at least in my mind.  The arguments are so strong for Markan priority that Griesbach just isn't a viable solution, though the simplicity is there.  So, here, with the Farrer hypothesis, we have the best of both worlds: Markan Priority and a simple and elegant solution to the synoptic problem without the complications, and consequent hubris, of Q proponents.  Simple: Mark comes first, Matthew copies Mark, and Luke copies and edits both Mark and Matthew.  No need for Q. 

But, while simple and elegant are nice, they are no guarantee of truth.  I had to search further to find how strong the Farrer hypothesis might be.  This of course led me to Mark Goodacre's the Case against Q.  This is one of the best books I have read in the field in many years.  Goodacre makes a compelling case that first, Markan priority is a must, but also that Luke could certainly have produced his gospel by copying the "Luke pleasing" elements in both Mark and Matthew.  Goodacre shows many places where Luke may have edited Matthew in ways that previous scholars thought were not possible.  I have not looked at the book in a while, but I think what sealed the deal for me is where Goodacre demonstrated what Luke did with the parable chapter in Mark 4.  Essentially, Luke split up the long parable chapter.  He used almost all of Mark's material but spread its contents throughout his gospel and did not keep Mark's material all in one place.  This tendency of Luke then becomes a template for what Luke may have done with Matthew's Sermon on the Mount.  This has for a long time been used as the best argument for why Luke could not have known Matthew: why would Luke tear up such a beautiful 3 chapter sermon written by Matthew.  Yet, using Goodacre's demonstration of what Luke did to Mark's long discourse, one can see that Luke may have done the same thing with Matthew's Sermon. Luke keeps nearly all of the material from Matthew's 3 chapter sermon, but he splits it up.  He creates a much shorter Sermon on the plain, using the beginning and ending of Matthew's Sermon on the mount, but he takes the middle portion of the sermon and spreads that material through the rest of the gospel.  Certainly a possibility.  I think it all the more likely given that Luke's reorganization of Matthew's material makes sense.  

The Sermon on the Mount, as a sermon, is kind of a mess.  It starts and ends well, but the middle seems muddled.  Even modern commentators cannot agree on any sort of organization of chapters 6 and 7 of Matthew.  In short, the sermon becomes a collection of seemingly disconnected sayings.  All of the sayings in and of themselves are wonderful (which is why Luke kept them), but they certainly don't hold together. Luke's Sermon on the plain, however, is very well organized.  It is easy to plot out the thought development and the thematic unity of Luke's Sermon.  Then Luke takes the sayings of the Sermon on the Mount that seemed to be floating in space and relocates them to various places in his narrative where they make sense.  This accomplishes 2 goals for Luke.  One, it breaks up a 3 chapter interruption to his narrative, and two, it relocates marvelous sayings of Jesus from floating in the aether to concrete locations connected to his narrative.  

In short, I am a Q skeptic first because of the hubris involved in treating Q as an historical document and not as a hypothetical document, and second because I believe that the Farrer hypothesis solves the synoptic problem not only with more simplicity and elegance than the 2/4 source hypothesis, but does so with a level of possibility or even probability than was previously thought to be the case. 

Friday, December 7, 2012

Misspelled Books of the Bible

For years now I have made my Intro to Bible students list the books of the Bible in order on their final exams.  I think that Christians should at least know what is in their Bibles, if they have not actually read everything.  Of course, reading it all would be ideal, but at least knowing the table of contents is a start.

Now, this has led to some great misspellings over the years, but I think what I had on one test this year might be an all time high for hilarious misspellings.

Keep in mind, this is not a mashup, these were all on one exam.

The normal misspellings:

Jashua (Joshua)
Esra (Ezra)
Nehimia (Nehemiah)
Isiah (Isaiah)
Lammonations (Lamentations)
Galasians (Galatians)
Phelipians (Philippians)

The funny ones:

Ex Sades (Exodus)
Lavidicus (Leviticus)
Dutereny (Deuteronomy)
1 Colethleans (1 Chronicles)
2 Coletheans (2 Chronicles)
Probers (Proverbs)
Jemiaha (Jeremiah)
Hubbaka (Habakkuk)
Celemons (Colossians)
1 & 2 Thesolionions (1 & 2 Thessalonians)

Runner Up:

Ezekeaskles (Ecclesiastes with an apparent mashup of Ezekiel)

Grand Prize:

Splams (Psalms).  Now, I have seen Pslams before, but never Splams.

Good for a laugh during finals week. 


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Jesus SeM&Minar

Today in my historical Jesus class we conducted our very own Jesus SeM&Minar.  Now I must admit, I got this brilliant idea from James McGrath of Exploring our Matrix fame as I used his syllabus as the template for my own course this year as I was teaching it for the first time.  I thoroughly modified his syllabus to my own needs, but I had to keep the Jesus SeM&Minar.  

The idea is to, Jesus Seminar style, vote on various sayings and/or deeds of Jesus as to their historical probability, but instead of using colored stones, one uses M&Ms.  More fun, and hey, you get to eat your vote after you are finished. 






Here is how I set up the voting for our class.


Red M&M = He said/did such a thing
Orange M&M = He said/did something like this, but not exactly as the text(s) present it
Green M&M = He probably did not say/do such a thing
Brown M&M = He almost certainly said/did no such thing

These colors more or less correspond to the Jesus Seminar's Red, Pink, Gray, and Black.  

I was a little nervous going into the class because my student makeup is to a great extent on the conservative evangelical end of the spectrum and I was afraid of vote after vote of all red M&Ms, because for many conservatives, if it is in the Bible, it has to be historically factual.  

I chose 6 sayings/deeds that we were to vote on.  They are: 


1.     The Beelzebul Controversy (Mark 3:20-22, Matt 12:24, Luke 11:15)
2.     The cleansing of the Temple (Mark 11:15-16, Matt 21:12, Luke 19:45, John 2:13-16)
3.     Jesus walking on water (Mark 6:47-52, Matt 14:24-33, John 6:16-21)
4.     The Parable of the Mustard Seed (Mark 4:30-32, Matthew 13:31-32, Luke 13:18-19, Gos Thomas 20)
5.     Let the dead bury their own dead (Luke 9:59-60, Matthew 8:21-22)
6.     Church Discipline (Matthew 18:15-20)

After voting, I had the students defend their positions based on various Jesus criteria (multiple attestation, dissimilarity, embarrassment, coherence, historical plausibility, etc.).

I stacked the deck in my selection of deeds/sayings, choosing some that Jesus scholars clearly think are historical and others that are clearly on the non-historical side. Out of 15 students, plus my vote, here are the results.

Beelzebul: 8 Red, 7 Orange, 1 Green, 0 Brown
Temple Cleansing: 9 Red, 7 Orange, 0 Green, 0 Brown
Water Walking: 6 Red, 2 Orange, 8 Green, 0 Brown
Mustard Seed: 10 Red, 6 Orange, 0 Green, 0 Brown
Dead bury own dead: 9 Red, 5 Orange, 1 Green, 1 Brown
Church Discipline: 4 Red, 6 Orange, 4 Green, 1 Brown

Looking at these vote counts, it was not as I feared.  Obviously there was some conservative tilt with a lot of red and orange.  The biggest red light issue for me was the walking on water with 8 votes going toward historical authenticity, or at least close to authentic.  But, miracles are a touchy issue and I understand the vote, even though I tried to get the students to disengage their belief and try to act under the confines of historical research only. 

The other shock for me was perhaps #6, Matthew's exposition on church discipline.  This is a largely anachronistic use of the ekklesia, portraying Matthew's Sitz im Leben, not that of Jesus.  Yet, this vote was actually the most interesting, because the verses that I had included in the vote really can be broken down into two sections: vv. 15-18 which is talking about church discipline proper, and vv. 19-20, which talk about binding and loosing and where two or more are gathered.  I called a re-vote, this time just on vv. 15-18 and the results were fascinating. 1 Red, 2 Orange, 5 Green, and 8 Brown.  Wow, 13 people in my class were skeptical or outright dismissive that these words belonged to the historical Jesus. I believe I have succeeded in communicating that the gospels do indeed often represent not just the brute facts of history, but also the concerns of the evangelists themselves.

It has been a really fun class this semester.  I have learned a lot, I think my students have learned a lot, and this Jesus SeM&Minar was a great way to bring many themes from throughout the semester into one discussion here at the end of the semester.  Thanks again to McGrath for the idea.