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Thursday, July 24, 2008

RBL review of Boer

There is a very polemical (and a bit odd) review of Roland Boer's latest book, Rescuing the Bible, by D. A. Carson. An authority no less than NT Wrong has fired back and makes some very telling counter arguments. Wrong said that Carson volunteered to review the book but (and I ask out of some ignorance), isn't there much more selecting reviewers by RBL these days (can anyone clarify?)? If this is the case, is Carson not a strange choice given Boer's background and interests in Marxist and critical theory. Not that different people shouldn't be allowed to review different books but it seems like a strange choice. Likewise, it would be an odd choice if Boer was chosen to review Carson on (say) divine sovereignty and human responsibility? I mean experts on Markan historical criticism tend to be chosen to review works on Markan historical criticism. I dunno, just an observation. But there are implications because I would have liked someone to critique and engage with Boer on his intellectual foundations and even the very genre of 'manifesto'.

To use an old phrase, Boer can defend himself so I won't defend Boer's book or Marxism (don't worry I won't be defending Carson either). Besides, Wrong has exposed some serious problems in the review. In the sprit of recent postings here, let's look at reception. It may not be much but it ain't pretty! And, unsurprisingly enough, it highlights some interested parties and those who want the Bible to support a certain position (clue: not Boer's).

Mike Bird mentioned the review and quoted the scathing remarks at length but made no particular judgment himself. In the comments, 'Wow! What a review! That was refreshing.' I'm not sure how it was refreshing (it was critical of a left wing and secularising position - how is that refreshing?) but presumably the rhetoric of the review has roused one interested party. Not the only one... Andy Naselli claims that, 'The analysis and conclusion are refreshingly blunt'. More refreshment! In the comments the support gets weirder and a mild hip-hop makeover: 'Wow. Go, Carson. Don’t even think about messing with D to the A.' Got that Boer? I wish he'd said 'you go girl!' though.

No need to read between the lines? Are other manifestos dictating certain receptions of Boer in blog circles?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

BNTC Jesus Seminar (Durham, 2008)

The historical Jesus seminar at the British NT Conference has been posted. Should be good and the topics should spark some heated debated, I'd have thought.

Session 1:
Justin Meggitt (University of Cambridge)
'How did Jesus cure?'

Given the historical likelihood that Jesus of Nazareth was believed by many of his contemporaries to have been a successful healer, how did he effect such cures? It has become common in NT studies to avoid such questions by either declaring them inadmissible or providing supernaturalist explanations which would be unacceptable in any other discipline and are not usually considered appropriate when looking at comparable figures with reputations as healers in antiquity. In recent years scholarship has tended to focus increasingly on how Jesus healed the social experience of illness, whilst largely avoiding the awkward question of why recipients also believed that they had been physically cured of disease. It is true that a number of scholars, often when providing justifications for accepting the historicity of the healing traditions, do venture some non-supernaturalist explanations, alluding to possible psychosomatic factors, but these remarks, although often quite central to their arguments, are inchoate, ill thought through, and surprisingly anecdotal. However, by engaging with more recent anthropological literature we may be able to go some way to providing a more plausible understanding of the processes that led contemporaries to make this assessment about Jesus.

Session 2:
Halvor Moxnes (University of Oslo)
'What was Galilean Identity like? The problem of describing Galilee as a place for the historical Jesus'

Due to renewed historical interest, as well as many recent excavations, there has been an explosion of studies on Galilee, many of them with explicit discussion of their relevance for Historical Jesus studies. In this way the question of how to describe 1st century Galilee has been linked to discussions of how to understand the Historical Jesus in the Third Quest. This paper will investigate the assumptions and presuppositions that underlie the constructions of Galilee in recent studies. In its simplistic form the most important question has been "was Galilee Jewish?"

Recent studies have developed more sophisticated approaches: e.g. in his Archaeology and the Galilean Jesus, (2000), Jonathan L. Reed has a chapter on "The identity of the Galileans: Ethnic and religious considerations," and various arguments are developed one of the most recent collections of studies, edited by J. Zangenberg, H.W. Attridge and D.B. Martin (2007) is titled Religion, Ethnicity and Identity in Ancient Galilee.

Yet in studies of the historical Jesus and early Christianity the terms "identity" and "ethnicity" are much used, but seldom discussed with regard to their history, development and use in current studies in social anthropology and sociology. To place the studies of 1st century Galilee within a wider context this paper will explore, for example, essentialist versus more process oriented understandings of these terms, and the links between "ethnicity" and "race", which were much used in the 19th and earliest 20th century. The term "nation" as an important identity category belongs also in this context; however, it is not discussed in recent studies of Galilee. Likewise there is a lack of awareness of the role that archaeology and historical descriptions play in constructions and legitimations of modern, national identities, so there is no discussion of the relation between the construction of ancient identities in Galilee and that of contemporary identities.

Respondent: James Crossley (University of Sheffield)

Session 3:
Michael F. Bird (Highland Theological College)
'Jesus the Messiah: A Role Declined? A Response to non-Messianic Jesus'

This paper examines recent arguments against the historical Jesus as a messianic claimant including arguments based on (1) Messiahship inferred from the resurrection; (2) The 'Messianic Secret' as proposed by William Wrede; (3) The disciples' enthusiasm for and the authorities' perception of Jesus as Messiah; (4) An inference from the titulus on the cross; and (5) Scripturizing of the tradition. In sum, this paper endeavours to demonstrate that the case against a messianic is Jesus is far weaker than it appears to be.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Evangelical erotica: an overlooked area in reception history?

In response to Mike Bird's reference to a Sydney Morning Herald article on Christian Sex Guides, Doug Chaplin points out a load of exotic sounding practices and makes the following comment which may or may not be true:
I’m not quite sure why, since evangelical Christians (the only sort who would buy a separate “Christian” guide) seem to me to have bought fully into a late modern Western hedonistic relational pleasure-giving-and-receiving understanding of sex as a necessary means of human fulfilment – only adding the proviso that it really ought to happen only in marriage (straight of course!) whether it’s your first, second, third or more.

Earliest Christian History is a family blog and would never publish the sorts of descriptions Doug does. However, it seems that Mike may have been reading a bit more widely, perhaps from one of the aforementioned, I don't know, though he seems to be getting a little less elaborate in his old age:
Most nights I do a 10-15 minute reading from the Greek New Testament. Since I haven't mastered all of the Greek quite yet, I sit in bed with three books: Kubo's lexicon, an NIV Bible, and my trusty UBS4. With my little library in bed with me (next to the wife) it gets pretty crowded. Well I'm glad to say that I only take the one book to bed with me now which is the new UBS reader's edition of the Gk NT.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

More reception history 2: stating more of the obvious

[UPDATE: I should have mentioned the return of Rafael and Verily, Verily - see also the comments)

1. Some invented speculative questions now. One is on the influence of the Bible and biblical verses. Now that’s a big, big question and gets us back to the old issue of ideas versus more socio-economic ‘forces’. It is also one John Lyons discussed a while back and I develop some of those ideas in this post.

In many Western, obviously enough the Bible is a major cultural reference point, consciously or unconsciously. We might think of literary and theological traditions where the Bible has been integral and the old chesnut that is the weight/anxiety of tradition and influence is, obviously, very much present. Ok, but no general problem here.

But West is far too broad. Let’s take the US and UK for two very distinct views and politics in particular. A nice obvious example, yes, but one which should help make the point that this question is very complex. In the UK it is difficult to see how the use of the Bible has any significant impact on party politics. Certainly some politicians may well be motivated by faith and the Bible but there is not yet a big Bible-belt style vote to be won and things overtly biblical are usually avoided. In the US, well we all know how interpretation of the Bible is a big issue. But even then the problem is not simple. In terms of Christian Zionism and their currently influential interpretation of the Bible, it has only really emerged as a force, post-1967, post Six Day War. And even that shows greater problems of causality: CZ becomes a big influential issue after a major historical event which, for many, seemed to confirm biblical prophecy. And in turn, it is a particularly American issue, with all the history and theology underlying it. While it is relatively easy to explain the various influences on US politics, it is not so easy to make division in terms of primary influence and say just how much the Bible and biblical interpretation play a role and how much itself was a product of historical events or that history and ideology is just so embedded that the task is near impossible. Perhaps all we could do is suggest that the Bible and biblical interpretation is one factor among many, not as influential as wider geopolitical trends and urges but an influence…?

Another good example would be the current problems facing the Anglican Church over homosexuality. On one level there is a debate over interpretation of the key biblical verses and if it could be said that they are fairly explicitly anti-homosexual (or whatever terms you want) then the Bible is having an influence. But again, why now? Why not 150 years ago? Well the obvious reason is that more liberal views towards homosexuality have developed in the past 40 years and so it becomes an issue, with the Bible kind of dormant on the issue, just waiting to be woken. Then there are all sorts of complex local histories that need to be factored in and so on. So again, it starts to become a bit chicken and egg and again we are seeing another example of how broader cultural trends spring the Bible into action but with the influence of the Bible always lurking and perhaps its sheer presence always influencing and only now being reacted against…?

One example which I think shows how the Bible is being used and not a significant influencer is the emergence of liberal democracy. There is common rhetoric that the West is so wonderful and liberal because of the Bible in contrast to the East, Arabs, Muslims, Islam, or whatever. Now I’ll have more to say on the whole clash of civilisations stuff in the following months but I find the idea of the Bible somehow ‘causing’ liberal democracy a problem. For a start it took so long. Another point is that the Bible has nothing really to say on liberal democracy and most biblical writers would be most happy with some form of theocracy. We could invoke other influences, such as the taking up of certain classical Greek traditions as ‘Western’, perhaps add other things such as interlinked geographical and technological locations, among many, many things. Whatever, you get the point. More generally, is this not a good example of how the Bible gets invoked after the event rather than having any serious causal function?

Another twist, is the ‘unconscious’ use of the Bible. It is not difficult to find (as has well and truly hit home in writing a forthcoming paper) plenty of examples of the Bible and biblical language being used by people (esp. in pop cultural contexts) without any care for religion, Christianity, the Bible and so on. Famous words and lines are used for a variety of ‘secular’ and previously unheard of reasons. This takes us back to the general cultural and historical contexts and who knows where using and being influenced begin and end.

2. My own other question: what should reception history be like? Both its strength and weakness is that there is simply so much material waiting to be analysed. One problem for the commentary and a problem that presumably faces the writers of the Blackwells series on reception history is what to include and exclude. Selecting evidence is a problem at the best of times but selecting evidence for a reception-historical commentary is even more difficult, with the probable exception of If the commentary was a mainstream theological type of thing (something like Luz’s Matt commentary or Thiselton’s 1 Cor. commentary, say) then this the boundaries are relatively easy: look at the patristic, medieval, Reformation, modern etc. theologians. What is to be done is then another issue: explain why the given theologian made the interpretative decision they did or see whether they have interpreted the given verse ‘correctly’ or have a particular insight that historical criticism has missed.

But for a reception historical commentary that doesn’t want to go this way then what are the boundaries? A theme could be chosen but a theme for a whole commentary? Some verses might have an obvious route to choose (maybe) and perhaps it might be worth focusing on one tradition, an ideology (e.g. feminism, liberation etc) or what country or something like that. But, ultimately, how does a reception historical commentary of a more open variety avoid the problem of being sort of, well, random? The commentary format is something of traditional biblical studies and theology and there’s no reason (obviously!) why it should be the route for all, many, or most (likewise in traditional biblical studies) but for those working on commentaries there are problems of choice. I know one or two who hang out online and are working on such commentaries, so is this a fair comment?

There is a danger of a reception historical work being little more than cataloguing: this book says this about Luke 6, that text work of art says something else, this singer references this, that and the other biblical verse etc. (though collections of reference works would be very helpful). I suppose there are many ways in which to develop this. One way would be to emphasise the historical aspect and avoid simply the question of this person interprets this way, another that. And by historical…well that could mean a lot of things but how about this… If someone works on the reception of the Bible in art then it would no doubt be a good thing to get into art history and the historical and cultural context of the given work of art and explain why certain interpretative decisions were made in context, in addition to contexts in the history of ideas. Likewise, film, music, literature or whatever. That seems an obvious enough point and may seem banal to those trained in traditional historical criticism but I’ve been to enough reception historical papers to know that serious study of historical and cultural contexts is often avoided. In some ways, it is an extension of many of the methods used in conventional historical criticism of the Bible. Just lots of new detail with which to work.

More reception history 1: some responses

More reception history…

A couple of further questions have been raised since the last post and ones that are, I think, worth addressing.

1. Geoff Hudson (see previous post comments) suggested that the emergence of reception history ‘Seems like a great escape from the earliest history.’ It depends what Geoff means here but it reminded me of common suggestion made about reception history and one I have actually made myself from time to time, i.e. reception history is a safe place to work and avoid all the tricky questions of historical accuracy (I’m not sure if Geoff actually meant this but it’s a common enough point so let’s develop it). Put it this way, it wouldn’t surprise me if people did get into, or have got into, reception history because it avoids problems such as (and I caricature, but you get the point) Jesus not necessarily thinking he was God, the historical Paul not really meaning what this or that theological tradition claims he meant and so on. Rightly or wrongly, it is obvious enough that the earliest history really does matter for many people (why else would Wright write a massive Jesus book and not deny historicity once [to the best of my knowledge])? All this could well partially account for the popularity, interest and potential in reception history. But…

The idea of reception history as a refuge for the frightened is not necessarily a good or bad thing in itself. It might be if everyone ran off and stopped doing the earliest history but even though there may be limited things to say it is difficult to see that happening in the foreseeable future. The fact that so many are concerned with history probably answers that already. Moreover, at present there is so much polemic and interest groups in the area of Christian origins and so much importance put on historical context for interpretation (hardly a bad point!) that it is difficult to see this pool full of scholars being drained just yet.

And we might add, so what if people are frightened of the earliest history? If they can do good things in reception history all the better, right? If I felt naughty, I could add that it is better people doing good reception history than making things up.

And another thing, not everyone can be classed as scared etc. Berlinerblau – he of Secular Bible fame – has now written on the Bible and American politics. It’s difficult to account for him being scared off by history giving uncomfortable answers (indeed one of his points in Secular Bible was a willingness to accept whatever answer emerges from interpretation irrespective of whether the answer coheres with personal theological/ideological views). There are others like him but he’s a particularly appropriate example I think.

2. Jim West gave a response and I responded back. Details available here.

3. Doug Chaplin added this:
One question it seems to me James doesn’t address, but which might in some ways be the most interesting is how the study of the reception of biblical texts might / could / should be influenced by the ways in which the one doing the study receives the texts.

As a preface, the issue of should is not something that could be imposed (thankfully) but it is certainly an interesting question. This question could be taken in a number of different ways I think (maybe even fuelling Doug’s question more). One way would be to interact critically with the objects of reception. An obvious example would be the reception of the biblical texts which discuss and/or supposedly discuss the issue of homosexuality, a particularly relevant issue at the moment and an issue with which Doug is constantly engaging. Alternatively, the work I have been doing on reception has involved the selection of people who interest me for whatever reason rather than the biblical verses themselves (other than most being NT). I suspect a few more people do this too. In my case, I am not so bothered about how I interpret the biblical texts in relation to the people I have studied (it usually has little relevance) but more on the reasons why people I study interpret the way that they do, irrespective of rights and wrongs of interpretation or at least largely irrespective of whether it is a ‘valid’ or ‘correct’ interpretation. To state the blindingly obvious (as much of what I am saying, and will say, frankly is), it is often going to come down to little more than what sort of commitment the academic has in relation to the Bible.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Reception history: some speculation

Dedicated to John Lyons and Bishop Wrong, seeking out reception where angels fear to tread.

Reception history is becoming the next big thing in NT studies, or at least it seems that way to me. It may also be the future for the simple reason of how much interpretation of the same small collection of texts can be done without coming close to exhausting the options or doomed to repeating old arguments over and over (as Dale Allison showed)? The big advantage is that reception history has masses of material waiting to be exploited. Now, if we define this a bit more, how about two broad types of reception history, as several colleagues are now talking about… 1. The semi-official church based versions, something like Calvin’s view on this or that passage, Luther, Augustine, Liberation theologies, and so on, with some concern for a ‘correct interpretation’ of the biblical texts. 2. Whatever else is out there, irrespective of true meaning of the biblical texts and orthodoxy, but more how biblical texts influence, are used and are influenced (e.g. films, music, literature, popular culture and so on). And, yes, I know that, like most definitions, this definition will break down and people will cross over into both camps and one could (and often should) be influencing the other etc and so on but in general terms there are enough people now who would generally practice one or the other.

So now for some speculation…

What would this mean for the future of NT studies/biblical studies? Category 1 seems to be a continuation of traditional theology and would presumably have no problem surviving in church based contexts and theology departments. Presumably Category 2 could survive in church based context but not quite so easily if it is concerned less with theological truths (or whatever). It could obviously survive in a conventional university context but as what? If (say) 20-30 years in the future reception history was dominant and more and more people were looking at Category 2 (sounds like a disease or drug or something, sorry about that) then wouldn’t NT/biblical studies be more like cultural studies and/or critical theory? On the one hand, this could mean the end of NT/biblical studies as we know, with academics scattered around different university departments (film studies, English, French, religious studies etc). That certainly could be very interesting, though personally, I have found it much more beneficial being in a department where, for all the different interests, the common interest in biblical studies makes it far easier to learn all sorts of helpful things. On the other hand, and this seems more likely to me, biblical studies as a discipline could simply look very different in the future and could survive as a discipline. Another reason I say ‘more likely’ is because there is a massive biblical studies network. Most obvious is SBL and the recent issues with AAR might show how strong SBL and biblical studies actually is. Another reason I say ‘more likely’ is that there is obviously no collection of literature so deeply rooted and continually influential, or at least continually used, than the Bible in ‘the West’, not even Shakespeare (and even in ‘the West’ his influence has its limits). There has been a clear interest in the use of the Bible (and, of course, the Qur’an – scripture studies anyone???*) in different departments and disciplines, from politics to critical theory. Study of the reception of the Bible is currently at least pretty crucial I’d have thought.

How about that for a not-too-subtle ideological defence of careers?

I think Hector Avalos said something about the scholar as hero, finding a problem and then solving it (this is a blog so I don’t have to check the reference, right?). Well, that’s what I’m doing here, though un-heroically not solving the problem, more leaving it open…

*Sort of relevant, I just noticed this via Sean Winter: New Abrahamic Religions Chair at Oxford University.