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Monday, March 31, 2008

BNTC Durham 2008

The 2008 British NT Conference in Durham has been announced. The main papers are as folows:

Professor John M. G. Barclay
'Two Versions of Grace: Romans 9-11 and the Wisdom of Solomon'

Professor Loveday Alexander
'The Myth of the Imprisoned God: Classical Intertextualities in the Acts of the Apostles'

Professor Dale Martin
'Angels, Demons and Paul'

Dr Eddie Adams
'The Earliest Christian Meeting Places'

One thing that has puzzled a few people (myself included) is the number of main speakers. Usually there three but, clearly, the BNTC are advertising four. Nijay Gupta has pointed out why this is: the short papers are being dropped this year (just for this year?).

The seminars groups are as follows:
Jesus
Paul
Synoptic Gospels
Johannine Literature
Book of Acts
Hermeneutics: Theory & Practice
Social World of the NT
NT & Second Temple Judaism
New Testament: Use and Influence
The Catholic Epistles
Book of Revelation

I'm still co-chairing the Jesus session and while I won't give anything away just yet, I think I can fairly say that it is looking like it is going to be a seriously good session with some very impressive speakers. But you'll just have to wait and see won't you...?

Friday, March 21, 2008

Whose Jewishness is it anyway?

I made some comments on Jewish identity on Mike Bird’s blog and thought them worth discussing further here. Mike quotes Bockmuehl on the Jesus Seminar and Jesus’ Jewishnes who says, ‘Although these writers never explicitly deny Jesus’ Jewishness (and generally take vociferous exception to the charge that they do), they do in fact develop a Jesus largely neutered and declared as to Jewish religious specifics’. Bird adds, ‘I’ve argued much the same in an EQ article and I'm glad that I'm not alone on that one given Bill Arnal and John Kloppenborg's apologies for the construction of the non-Jewish Jesus.’

Notice how Bockmuehl makes a clear (and I think vital) qualification: ‘Although these writers never explicitly deny Jesus’ Jewishness…they do in fact develop a Jesus largely neutered and declared as to Jewish religious specifics’. The issue raised is, clearly enough, religious specifics and not simply Jewish identity as a whole. Mike’s argument actually seems to do what Bockmuehl avoided and go for ‘Jewishness’ as a whole when he speaks of ‘Bill Arnal and John Kloppenborg's apologies for the construction of the non-Jewish Jesus’. Firstly, who is this ‘non-Jewish Jesus’, language incidentally that neither Kloppenborg nor Arnal would use yet supposedly defend? Does it mean gentile, the obvious meaning of non-Jewish? Does it mean that Jews could only be deemed Jews if they were observant? It seems to me – and this was part of Arnal’s point I think – that here we have a modern interpreter saying what Jewish identity must be and that Jewish identity had to be fixed, a very dubious approach – assuming for the moment this is what is being assumed by Mike – to identity these days.

Now no one has to agree with the Cynic-like thesis (in one sense that is another discussion entirely). In fact opponents and supporters alike could agree on the fact that the Cynic-like thesis sees no inherent contradiction between Jewish identity and Cynic-like philosophy. Crossan clearly thinks his Jesus is, as he says quite explicitly in his subtitle to his famous book, Jewish. Arnal clearly says that someone could identify as both Cynic and Jewish, both non-really-observant and Jewish. Is it really fair for an interpreter to say who could or could not be Jewish in such terms? What if an ancient Jew would have disagreed? What if an ancient Jew liked Cynic philosophy and decided it was the most wonderful thing ever but still identified as a Jew? Now Bird may really have meant ‘non-Jewish’ in the sense of Bockmuehl’s ‘religious specifics’ but if so it would be much more helpful if it were made clear, not least because neither Kloppenborg nor Arnal ever apologise for a ‘non-Jewish Jesus’ and the only explicit ‘non-Jewish Jesuses’ of recent times have been the Nazi and Aryan Jesuses, hardly the kinds of beliefs most contemporary scholars would associate with. Is not the phrase ‘apologies for the construction of the non-Jewish Jesus’ particularly loaded?

I will have much more to say on all this in due course and why it is a big deal. That’ll have to wait too…

Iraq and British Political Culture: 5 Years On

'Often it is difficult to know where the self-deception ends and the deliberate mendacity begins.' (P. Cockburn)

The Independent has two Iraq articles worth noting:
Patrick Cockburn: This is the war that started with lies, and continues with lie after lie after lie
Adrian Hamilton: Why did so many people support the war in Iraq?

There are plenty of issues relating to deceit and the Iraq war but for now I want to focus on the role of British political culture. I was never remotely convinced that New Labour cabinet (some of whom of course were hostile opponents of the Falkland's war - when in opposition, naturally) would do anything other than support a war and say whatever needed to be said but then there were backbenchers and with Robin Cook resigning, who knows? The problem for me that this was a time when there were plenty of details being put forward about double standards (even Robin Cook, still a relatively loyal backbencher after he resigned, admitted this in his resignation speech) in dealings in international politics. The issue of support for the Stalinist and human boiling Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov was raised in the national newspapers, by the then British Ambassador Craig Murray, and by dissenting politicians. Consequently, these details were known yet British politicians (e.g. John Reid) could still say that the West no longer supports unpleasant regimes as if that were all a thing of the Cold War. Yet why was the this not an overwhelming issue in party political discussion of Iraq? Why were even opponents of the Iraq war so accepting of Blair's motives?

Adrian Hamilton suggests something relevant:
There is a generational point, too, to explain the contrasting tenor of the Falkland and Iraq debates. New Labour and the post-1997 intake was filled largely with what might be called the "jammy generation", a group that on the whole had had life very easy. Not a few had been parachuted into their seats, most had come from a background in politics, media, advertising and research with a political career in mind. They had views on economics and society, but no particular sense of what was right and wrong in the big judgements. Effectiveness is what mattered and it is still in terms of effectiveness that the Iraq war is almost exclusively discussed today. The people on the demonstrations thought it was a matter of principle and morality. The people inside the Commons, with a few honourable exceptions, did not. Even the influx of women MPs, which some had hoped might alter the framework of debate, didn't and it wasn't only because, being new to the game, they were over-anxious to play by the male rules. The strongest voices against the war among women came from the older generation of Mo Mowlam and Clare Short, not Blair's babes.
This is general but I think there is something in it. In addition to this there is something related and which may support this but something I don't fully understand: how various politicians were coming up with arguments that were rhetorically deceitful. Were they lying? I just don't know in some cases, perhaps they really believed the deceitful views they were peddlinng? When I was at a debate sometime after the beginning of the war with New Labour MP Ben Bradshaw, one of THE cheerleaders of the Iraq War. Throughout he spoke of his experience working with the foreign office yet when confronted with evidence e.g. Uzbekistan he claimed not to know and would check it out 'later' and look at Amnesty's site etc. I was and remain deeply suspicious that this was anything other than devious. I went to another debate just before the war when a Conservative MP ruled out all sorts of options in favour of the war. He said the UK had acted unethically in international politics, the WMD issue was not really conclusive, and so on. His reason for war was simple: he had seen intelligence reports that linked Iraq with the 2002 Bali bombings. Now why wasn't this never used when WMD was discredited? Was he lying? I'm reluctant to say he was telling the truth.

Here there is something problematic and interesting. The majority of the British public had far better judgment, it would seem, than the majority of MPs who had even better access to relevant material than most. What happened to MPs? Well there are the comments made above. Obviously, there are also the constraints of power and the Iraq war seems a shocking example of an utter failure of, let's say, collective morality at the highest level. There is the very related issue of the media largely supporting, including some from the left (most spectacularly the Observer, who went and lost readers because of their support for the govt!). Clearly there was a difference of interests between the powerful and the rest. But this seems to me, and I may be wrong, that we are now witnessing an era when people outside are, for all the money spent selling the Iraq war, not buying it. What the result of all this will be, who knows, but it is certainly an interesting development and one small, albeit bitter, victory for all those highlighting the problems with foreign policy for the past few decades and an indication of basic human decency.

I'll have more to say on how broader issues cultural embeddedness relating to issues surrouding the Iraq war (and other big issues the past 40 years) in the next few months and how many issues are just repeated uncritically. But that can wait for now...

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A.N. Wilson on Vermes

In the Telegraph, the writer and journalist A. N. Wilson has a real dig at Geza Vermes' work, generally (it seems) his historical Jesus work, more specifically his new book on the resurrection. This was a bit of a surprise as I didn't know Wilson had taken back his earlier Vermes inspired views:
Geza Vermes and his writings on the historical Jesus cast a spell on students of the New Testament a generation ago. I was seduced by his book Jesus the Jew (1973) and by the charm of Vermes himself, but now I am ashamed of the book about Jesus which I wrote when under the influence.


Anyway, Wilson claims that 'More rigorous New Testament scholars [citing Nineham] had all warned us off such territory'. Is Nineham more rigorous than Vermes? In general terms I suppose it is possible to tell the difference between rigorous and non-rigorous but when it comes to detailed works, then how can we measure? One way might be to say that Vermes was far more rigorous in his handling of Jewish sources than most NT scholars, so where does this leave us?

In a lot of Wilson's review I am not sure if he is firing at Vermes' historical Jesus work in general in addition to his book on the resurrection or only Vermes' new book. Take this for instance:
At least 100 years ago, the quest for the historical Jesus was shown to be a wild goose chase. Vermes's beguiling attempt to revive it has not yielded one jot of new information.
I'm not sure if Wilson is referring to Vermes' new book on the resurrection which I haven't read so I couldn't possibly comment. But if he is referring to Vermes' historical Jesus work in general, that statement is a little problematic. Whether Vermes provided new information is not the easiest thing to assess in NT studies and HJ studies with so many working in the area but his view of Jesus' Jewishness undoubtedly played a massive role in shifting interests to Jesus' Jewish context and helped move away from some of the highly dubious views concerning Judaism in NT studies. That is some achievement, is it not? Of course, Wilson may well agree with that.

There is also ambiguity in Wilson's wording in the following:
The "Lives of Jesus" school of reading the material overlooks the central, and historically, the earliest, stuff: namely Paul's "visionary" Christ, who died for our sins and rose again for our justification. That is where a detective would start looking for resurrection.
I assume Wilson is referring to historical Jesus scholarship rather than C19 scholarship (am I reading this correctly?). If so this sounds a little strange to me IF Wilson is thinking beyond the resurrection. IF he is discussing HJ scholarship in general, well why would any HJ scholar be so concerned with Paul in this sense? HJ Jesus scholars are concerned with Jesus, and Pauline scholars Paul. I know there's overlap but the basic point stands. IF Wilson only means resurrection, then, 'yes' in the sense begin with Paul, but 'no' in the sense that HJ Jesus' apparently don't do this. Sure some conservative scholars may well begin with the gospel accounts but when it comes to the resurrection loads of HJ scholars working on the historical accuracy of the resurrection accounts go straight to Paul, do they not?

Some of the review strikes me as quite misleading about NT scholarship. For, for instance:
Then Acts, which he astoundingly uses as an historical source. (I now realise it is largely fiction, as I was told by the other dons a generation ago!)
This is a really tricky question. I wouldn't even like to estimate how many believe what in terms of the historicity of Acts but, irrespective of the reality of the situation (I am pretty agnostic on the whole) and the complexities of historicity (generally? specifics?), it is, rightly or wrongly, hardly 'astounding' in terms of contemporary scholarship to use Acts as a historical source. Plenty of mainstream scholars would, rightly or wrongly, use Acts as a useful historical source and, convincing or not, can make arguments to back up their case. If someone argued in detail that Acts could not possibly be used as a historical source and then said it was 'astonishing' to use Acts as a historical source then ok, fair enough. But as a general summary it is misleading to say the least.

I don't mean to be wholly negative. There's this:
The real detective would see that, though some sayings in the Gospels might go back to the historical Jesus, and others not, there is no foolproof methodology which could distinguish one from another.
Seems fair enough, but then people say the same things about Acts.

I have to comment on this:
The Gospels are, to use a phrase, Roman Catholic - they are written after the destruction of Jerusalem (and Judaism) and after the establishing of the New Israel in, among other places, Rome.
In light of contemporary NT scholarship (for what it is worth), this is bit confident and a bit sweeping, is it not?

I'm unsure about this but maybe I agree:
But before Catholicism there was the Protestant Paul. In so far as there is a source for the times of the historical Jesus, it is Paul, who wrote only 20 years after the Crucifixion. He claimed that more than 500 witnesses had seen the risen Christ. Make of this what you will, but it must be your starting point.
Well, if we used Paul we'd know little about HJ. Lived, died, said something about divorce and not too much more. But it seems Wilson is talking more about the resurrection (am I right?) and then, yes, the visions are crucial and certainly the starting point.

This was a particularly interesting turn of phrase:
Vermes writes as if Paul merely invented his visions of a risen Christ in order "to insinuate his equality to Peter and James". Could so outright a liar have been the author of the passage in Philippians about "whatsoever things are lovely and of good report"? Maybe - there's nowt so queer as New Testament folks. But a detective should surely have had his ear cocked for these mysteries.
This is where it is particularly unfortunate that I haven't seen Vermes' book. I'm interested in Wilson's wording, 'Vermes writes as if Paul merely invented his visions'. Presumably, then, Vermes doesn't go this far so is it fair to claim that Vermes' Paul is 'so outright a liar'? I can't speak for Vermes obviously but I personally think Paul witnessed a vision and he used this to support his authority. But I don't think he was lying. I'd be surprised if Vermes goes so far as to suggest Paul was a liar but I guess I'll just have to wait and see.

Not overly keen on this (and I've heard it said by NT scholars from time to time).
That is what you confront all the time if you read the New Testament with an open and inquiring mind - mysteries.
Hmmmm. Sounds a wee bit too pious for my tastes. History provides mysteries all the time so I'm a wee bit suspcious of the motivation here. But then I would, wouldn't I?

Friday, March 14, 2008

Champions' League Draw

Arsenal v Liverpool
Fenerbache v Chelsea

Roma v Manchester United
Schalke v Barcelona

I dunno about this one. Would obviously have liked Schalke or Fenerbache. I'm not convinced avoiding English club is a good thing because United have been far too cautious against European opposition and I know my official Sheffield MUFC consultant agrees. There is the possibility of a Barca semi though. That might bring out the attacking instincts (memories of the 98/99 classic - truly one of THE most entertaining games you'll see).

On the positive side, at least either Liverpool or Arsenal are out. Here's to a United-Fenerbache final (while beating Liverpool in the final would be very special, it would be far too nervy for my own good).

I like this from the Guardian though:
A post left on a newspaper's internet forum at 10.28am this morning - 90 minutes before the draw took place in Nyon, Switzerland - correctly predicted the entire quarter-final draw.The poster claimed that bookmakers were no longer willing to accept bets on the draw, although it is understood that most were not running books on it anyway.

When all four ties predicted in the post came to fruition, it caused fevered internet speculation that some sort of manipulation might have taken place. But a Uefa spokesman denied any wrongdoing: "It is just a lucky guess. I have been in touch with people internally and they are quite surprised. They find it a little ridiculous actually. The results of the draw and the practice draw were completely different, and I think it was just pure luck that this guy could get them all right. That's the only explanation we can give."


Now didn't Fergie accuse UEFA of fixing the draw once...

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Sinners

Should you care - and indeed why should you - I have an article out in the Fourth R, though as it's just out it doesn't seem to be on the online version just yet. The article is 'Jesus and the Wealthy Sinners'. It is a less technical version of chapter three (Jesus and the Sinners) of the last book so Fourth R publication should make the argument much more accessible. The chapter upon which the article is based looks at virtually all the different (and relevant) words for sinners in the the relevant texts in Gk, Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac. The term(s) can be used in a number of ways (e.g. those deemed non-observant, those deemed beyond the covenant, generally wicked, gentiles and so on) and they will (probably) be punished eventually. But what is overwhelmingly clear is that whenever socio-economic status is mentioned they are wealthy and usually wealthy in a particularly nasty sense (1 Enoch is a particularly good example of this). The idea that 'sinners' was a term used for the general populace just cannot be the case. In the synoptic tradition (John, interestingly, drops the term) notice that sinners are associated with tax collectors, notorious for being rich and unpleasant. This, I suspect, is part of the conflict. Of course, the idea of something relating to law observance in the synoptic tradition can hardly be ruled out (I certainly wouldn't push for mutually exclusive interpretations in the synoptic tradition) and this may well be another aspect to the conflict. One of the key reasons for retaining the stories of 'sinners', I would argue, is that they rhetorically play the same role as gentiles in much of Jewish literature and indeed the term is, of course, used of gentiles (see also Gal. 2). But that link was another argument...

An honourable mention needs to be made of the rabbinic tradition here. The language of 'sinners' remained more or less stable from the Psalms to the late rabbinic period but there are some particularly notable stories. Arguably most entertaining (and deliberately so?) is the retelling of the story of Sodom in major traditions like BT Sanh. and Gen. Rab. Here issues of sex are minimal at most and it is the issue of sinners as very nasty wealthy types that gets discussed in great detail.

I've done a few of these word analyses over the past few years and I always like doing them, even if I couldn't do this sort of research all the time. I also did them before I knew of the existence of Accordance and Bible Works or any compter thing. This meant going through concordances (and, believe me, not all are reader friendly) which in turn means my soul is fundamentally pure or something like that. Anyway, while I'm slowly starting to see the benefits of computer programmes, I still wonder if going through all those concordances and tallying the material up with texts is actually better for improving languages? I've never tried serious word searches with the computer yet but using the traditional concordances did seriously sharpen languages.

How about that for a pompous blog entry?

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Blair to teach religion at Yale

From the Guardian:
Yale, the Ivy League alma mater of his good friend George Bush, confirmed yesterday that the former prime minister is to join the schools of management and divinity at the campus in New Haven, Connecticut, in the autumn. He will teach a course on faith and globalisation, looking at religion in the modern world.

This will also be the theme of his Faith Foundation, which he is to launch in London before his Yale commitment starts. It is intended to promote understanding between Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Dear Lord