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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Aramaic and NT

We're starting and Aramaic reading group at Sheffield for Biblical Studies postgraduates and there are a fair number of NT postgraduates signed up which is great news. So at least in this particular sample there seems to be a desire to learn this language among NT people. Given that it was the language in which and some among the early church Jesus spoke, and given that there are Aramaic issues in the gospels, it seems a little unusual - with honourable insitutions and individuals aside - that it is not a big emphasis among NT scholars and historical Jesus scholars in particular. Thinking out loud (as it were) I wonder what the reasons for this might be: economic (e.g. lack of time and resources)? Influence of Greek teaching? And was there a difference between scholarship of yesteryear and modern day scholarship, much of which has (rightly in my view) broadened out dramatically since the 1960s (and is this another reason for a downplaying of Aramaic in NT circles...)? I also wonder if the recent stresses on a localised Jesus and his peasant context might lead to more interest in Aramaic?

AAR/SBL typo

It appears that on the Secular Approaches section at AAR I have been listed in the handbook (but not the website equivalent) as John Crossley of the University of Southern California. Let me reassure/disappoint you by saying that I have not changed name and I have not changed my institution. Got to say that I feel for poor old John Crossley though if people mistake my paper for his.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Pope on Islam

I've read through the Pope's University of Regensburg speech from a couple of days ago. Leaving aside his view of the university, I can't help but feel there is the now fairly standard cultural stamp of the myth of Christian superiority over against Islam that is also interesting in its historical (non-)selection. It also seems a bit of a philosophical caricature of Islam. I could elaborate but instead I would read the article by Giles Fraser in the Guardian.

Friday, September 15, 2006

When SBL Meets WWE...

The latest SBL Forum piece is by Hugh Pyper called 'Wrestling the Bible'.

Now don't tell me that none of you watch wrestling. As it turns out when discussing things relating to this article in the past you may be surprised just how many biblical scholars and many beyond biblical studies know their wrestling.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Early season thoughts

Before I get to blogging on things academic, by popular-ish demand here are some football thoughts. More specifically Man United thoughts.

It is a good and very necessary start to the season. It has been especially important as Rooney was wrongly banned and Scholes was banned too. Giggs is looking particularly sharp and I couldn't quite believe that his Player of the Month award was his first ever. I thought it was surprising enough that he never won Euro player of the year or one of the English player of the year awards. Carrick will be a good signing. He can play in the holding role and his range of passing already looks good. Neville is loking solid in defence and going forward. My one major concern is that when the injuries come and they already are (e.g. Park and Giggs) some of the back up players might not be up to standard.

Of course, it would be unfair not to discuss other teams. So here's my fair and balanced look at the others. Good to see Chelsea get beat after their previous starts. Also hilarious to see Liverpool (most likely challenge Chelsea!...Bellamy) to get beat by Everton. Notice they keep reverting to that boring defensive formation when they bored their way to the final not so long ago. It was just a pity Arsenal only drew at the weekend because if they lost they would have been bottom of the league. Ah, well, you can't have everything.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006


I am going to blog on my forthcoming book in chapter order but given the recent debates I thought it was worth giving a brief overview of conversion. The approaches I use are therefore based on sociological approaches that can explain social/historical change rather than the more typological models. The latter are interesting for various reasons but are not so useful for explaining change. As I said, I will blog on these features another date but I just wanted to justify briefly the reasons why I chose certain approaches to conversion over others.

The most significant work done on conversion and Christian origins in terms of socio-historical is that of Rodney Stark who, building on his own work as a sociologist of modern religious movements, showed how Christianity spread rapidly, not unlike modern day Mormonism. This work has been developed by several NT scholars. It is crucial to note just how important this approach has been in the sociology of religion. The classic approach to conversion developed by Stark and Lofland in the 1960s has been vigorously critiqued but the one aspect that has only been enhanced right up to the present day has been conversion through pre-existing social networks and affective ties (friendship, work place etc.). Statistically, results of conversion are consistently over (frequently well over) 50% for conversion through a pre-existing social tie. Consequently, it is actually very, very difficult to convert people through conventional proselytising (even though the ‘missionary’ may express themselves in such a way) as people tend to be immersed in their social settings (family, friends, political groups and so on). Proselytising is hard, hard work and members require much encouragement. Anyhow, here’s a nice quotation from Lewis Rambo:

Kinship and friendship networks are fundamental to most conversions, just as they are influential in resistance and rejection…I would argue that relationships are important to most but not all conversions…Virtually every social scientific study of conversion stresses the importance of relationships

A famous example is Mormonism. Conversion to Mormonism was not successful when knocking on doors where pre-existing social ties were lacking. If I remember correctly the success rate of conversion was 1 convert for 1000 doors knocked. Yet when a Mormon friend or relative provided a home for contact the success rate was about 50%. Moreover, Mormon missionary literature knows exactly how to convert and it involves careful establishment of friendships. Another famous example is that of the study of the Buddhist movement Nichiren Shoshu by David Snow and Cynthia Phillips where this pattern was also clear. 82% of their sample was recruited though a pre-existing social tie. Even among the remaining 18% conversions required the development on social ties with a member or members. They even argue that conversion is unlikely without an affective bond.

These are well known examples often repeated in secondary literature but there are countless studies done supporting such claims (and not based just on religious groups), with conversion through social networks even going as high as 100% in some cases. Incidentally, some people have said to me that the results are always from the US and Europe. This is not true. There have various other studies done e.g. the spread of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa, political systems in agrarian contexts of SE Asia, and so on. These results are all echoed in social network theory which is also a useful approach for Christian origins and has been used (e.g. Duling).

Most significantly for the purposes of Christian origins, there are various examples from the ancient world, including Christianity and Judaism. Wayne Meeks famously highlighted the various social networks underlying the Pauline mission (families, household, work place etc.) and showed how contacts could easily be made in an urban centre (cf. Acts 16.13; 18.2-3). Philip Harland has also provided numerous examples of ancient social networks among households, workplaces, marketplaces, neighbourhoods and so on and how networks overlapped and how people could (and did) belong to different networks. Importantly for Christian origins there were gentiles attracted to Judaism in varying degrees (cf. Shaye Cohen) and I am not convinced Acts made up the idea of gentiles attracted to synagogues, irrespective of the historicity of the individual passages. There are also stories of conversion in early Jewish literature (e.g. Josephus) where there are pre-existing social networks paving the way for the convert to Judaism.

That is all pretty conventional (although people will endlessly debate specifics), even in NT studies, or at least among NT scholars who study such things. The above reasons are why I think the approach to conversion through pre-existing social networks is important. But that isn’t saying much new. I thought there needed to be several crucial points added in order to explain various other social and historical changes but that can wait for now…

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

AAR/SBL Secular Approaches

I should have plugged this ages ago but nevermind. Here is the AAR wildcard session on 'The Role of Secular Viewpoints in Scriptural Studies: Past, Present, and Future' at the forthcoming AAR/SBL conference in Washington.

Sunday - 5:00 pm-6:30 pm

Wildcard Session

Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley, Bowdoin College, Presiding

Theme: The Role of Secular Viewpoints in Scriptural Studies: Past, Present, and Future

Secular Criticism, the AAR, and the SBL
Jacques Berlinerblau, Hofstra University

I make two assumptions. First, that the two major scholarly organizations devoted to the study of Scripture and Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion have excluded non-theist perspectives in their scholarly discourses and practices. Second, that this exclusion has had fairly catastrophic effects for the academic study of religion, and by extension these societies themselves. Starting with a definition of “secular criticism,' I examine how a-religious and irreligious forms of criticism can find no institutional place within scholarly societies that imagine themselves to be, ironically, bastions of secular reason. I then discuss the marginalization of religious studies within the larger university framework of the humanities and the social sciences. This marginalization, it is argued, is partly attributable to the misgivings that the mainstream (and stridently ³secular²) Academy has about their pious colleagues in the fields that study religion.

What Difference Does Q Make? or Excavating Q Studies
A. J. Droge, University of Toronto

The hypothetical document 'Q' has come to play an increasingly central role in the (re)construction of Christian origins. The advocates of a traditional description of Christian origins - the synoptic gospels, Paul's letters, and Acts - are now waging a counter-offensive against a (re)description that runs along the non- (or semi-) canonical trajectory of Q, the Gospel of Thomas, the Didache, the Gospel of Matthew, and James. 'Q studies' reveal the ideological investments of scholars on both sides of the fight. The paper will try to identify what the stakes are in this disciplinary crisis. What might appear at first sight to be a While “Q” might seem to be a critical/secular alternative, it is still very much in thrall to the theological/religionist perspectives of its more conservative adversaries. What might a rigorously 'secular' perspective on 'Christian origins' be?

Translation as Manipulation: A Secular Perspective
Hector Avalos, Iowa State University

Translation theory has increasingly emphasized the use of translation as a tool of power. This paper explores the ways in which translations are used to maintain the value and relevance of biblical texts in modern contexts. The paper contends that the relevance of biblical texts is particularly maintained by attempting to hide or to mitigate the thought and culture of biblical authors because modern sensibilities would find such thoughts and culture objectionable. In particular, we explore how translation is used to mitigate anti-Judaism in the Christian scriptures, and misogyny and violence throughout the Jewish and Christian canons. Publishers of biblical translations function to maintain or enhance the market share, particularly in religious communities, for their translations rather than to educate or expose the culture of biblical authors.

What Is Secular Criticism?
James Crossley, University of Sheffield

The paper will begin with an overview of how secular perspectives have been excluded in the history of Christian origins and New Testament studies of the discipline and how this has not only led to the dominance of Christian perspectives (and therefore Christian results) but has also led to the neglect or exclusion of certain supposedly atheistic academic trends which were part of the mainstream in the humanities. I argue that there needs to be an increase in secular minded scholars within the discipline. Three areas are highlighted: 1. Historiography and the importance of asking the big “why” questions rather than what this or that person really said and meant or what this or that community looked like. 2. Theology and secular views of Christological development. 3. Politics. Questioning the validity of the relevance of NT texts by emphasizing the effectively alien to most scholars’ faith commitments.

There will be responses by Hugh Pyper and William E. Arnal

Saturday, September 02, 2006

BNTC 2006

All good fun this year and it is a different experience to see what happens behind the scenes. It was fairly non-stop this year I didn't miss anything for the first time since my, well, first time which I think was 2000 (Roehampton). I'm pretty tired now and this post is between tasks (one of which was playing a big football match against some local rivals - another time, ok).

The Jesus Seminar (no relation to the US one) went very well this year with plenty of discussion which could have gone on for must longer. More than any year or paper given anywhere else the faith/secular thing played a role in a paper I gave (and beyond the seminar too) and it is on an issue I probably naively never thought was that controversial but increasingly is when I mention it: conversion. It was only one sentence or so made in passing in the whole paper but for a couple of conservative evanglical people this (understandably) hits a raw nerve because, presumably, many have undergone a conversion. There is a misunderstanding of sociology, or at least the way people like me use social sciences, that it explains things away. Some sociologists of the past may have acted like this but I prefer to see it in terms of putting that issue to one side and neither affirming the faith side nor denying it, at least for what I want to do, i.e. explain why things happened. Faith won't get you too far there I don't think (to put it mildly). I try to emphasise that faith is a completely different question but it is difficult to get through to people with such deep feelings about this. This raises a problem for my open view of scholarship: how can academic ideas be discussed without having to worry whether this impacts faith or not, i.e. how can ideas be discussed as they are in certain other disciplines? The kind of discussion I was having to engage with was a discussion for church not me and it makes it very difficult to discuss these things in an academic manner which is what something like the BNTC is meant to be. But, anyway, it all went well, good discussion etc etc etc.

Mike Bird's paper and Steve Moyise's paper both went well. It seemed there was general agreement in both cases with most of the debate over specifics, and some strange but interesting diversions, especially in Mike's (not at Mike's prompting it has to be added). I remember a nicely heated exhange with Mike Bird over the cleansing of the Temple (the issue of nationalism in particular). It may have been a wee bit pedantic but isn't that what we go for? Steve Moyise gave a good, detailed and particularly helpful overview of Jesus' use of scripture (with some interesting statistics as it turns out).

I kind of told a lie above: I didn't miss anything (alomst literally in fact) as I went to all of the simultaneous short papers (beat that) but it was to take photos so I couldn't really stay to take things in. I suspect one or two I would have enjoyed the debate but hey.

Main papers were most visually interesting when Peter Williams gave a kind of grand powerpoint exhibition with a little microphone thing attached to his tie. I just wish he had worn one of those Madonna microphone that are attached to the ear and come just below the mouth but you can't have everything. What would have been even more fun would be to see Maurice Casey and Graham Stanton do the same thing (plus Madonna mic).

A bit hazy right now but it was good to catch up with people I like and there were some good debate in the bar where people are often more willing to speak openly. Now for whatever I have to do next (it's not work by the way).