Category Archives: New Testament

Ancient “Messianic” Tablet and the Resurrection

Discussion has recently entered the public domain concerning a tablet that may have come from the Dead Sea area with a lost text written on it. As always, wild speculation abounds and the media and others are trying to instantly assess whether it “proves” Christianity true or false.

If you want to know what it’s really about, then head over here to the article at Ed Cook’s site. Ed is a conservative Anglican but his real credentials for this would be that he’s a proper scholar of Second Temple Judaism. One of the books I keep on my short shelf next to my computer is a translation he and a few others did of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Needless to say, I trust his judgement in this matter…

Which Culture Infiltrating Which?

Doug at MetaCatholic has an interesting discussion of an anachronistic reading inadvertently committed by a significant English New Testament scholar. I see his main point being that it is very easy—even for the brightest and best educated among us—to fall into anachronistic blunders while reading the Scriptures from time to time, but the one he has identified here was much broader and deeper implications.

That is, Thisleton writes about the Corinthian correspondence concerning : “…the seductive infiltration into the Christian church of cultural attitudes derived from secular or non-Christian Corinth as a city.” After noting the odd and anachronistic equation of “secular” with “non-Christian”, Doug gets to the meat of the issue:

More seriously problematic is the idea that the church is sufficiently well established and developed for ideas to “infiltrate it” as alien, or that what Paul thinks is “church culture” and what the Corinthians think are alien cultural misperceptions. Partly the Corinthians are new converts, and conversion of mind, practice and culture is always a long drawn out and imperfect process, however impassioned the conversion of commitment and heart is. Partly Paul is one of many people trying to work out what a Christian vision is (and other equally prominent people in the new movement are articulating rather different ones).

Paul comes from a long-standing Jewish communal tradition which has considerable experience of singing the Lord’s song in strange land, and is working out how that is transformed by his Messiah Jesus. The Corinthians have no real idea they are living in a strange land, and in so far as they might think in these terms it is not an idea of being in exile, but one of being a colony, there to teach everyone else to sing the Roman song.

Finally, there is nothing other than personal charisma and persuasive argument to say who is doing any misperceiving: Paul or the Corinthians. There is no orthodoxy for the Corinthians to be seduced away from. What will later (in varying degree) become orthodox emerges in part from Paul thinking on his feet. It is not apparent to me that if the Corinthians hadn’t provoked Paul to argument, the church would ever have so strongly committed to belief in the resurrection of the body. It is equally arguable that in some historical periods aspects of the Corinthian view of the body and sex, say, have been at least as close to mainstream Christianity as Paul’s. (“It is well for a man not to touch a woman.” 1 Cor 7:1)

In short, Thiselton makes it sound as though what was happening on the ground was straightforward and obvious. I think it was a mess, in which people (especially in this context) Paul and the Corinthians are contending for the appropriate cultural forms of Christian practice and thought in a non-Jewish culture, one partly alien to Paul, in which the Corinthians are fully at home. I also think that’s much more like most of our own situations, whether in the traditional “mission-field” situation or in our very non-traditional one, where the culture has changed under our feet, and there are competing visions about how much to change with it.

Reading this particular scriptural case as the “seductive infiltration into the Christian church of cultural attitudes” encourages us to do the same today, and engage in name-calling our opponents. Me Paul, you Corinthian. I argue that the reality of what’s going on is more complex, then and now, and if we’re less anachronistic about then, we might be more constructive about now.

The last couple of paragraphs contain the pay-off—and where I’d like to head off in the direction Doug indicates. We modern Americans and Europeans live in what has been referred to as a post-Constantinian culture. And we could debate whether, when, and how these contemporary cultures are Christian, non-Christian, or anti-Christian., but I’d rather go from the other direction.

Do we know what a truly Christian culture to be manifested by the church looks like? Do we have a sense of its markers, signs, virtues, and values? To make the task easier, do we know what a liturgical Christian culture would look like with its own kalendar, ways of marking rhythms and times, and paths of virtue?

One of my mentors states that the job of theologians and religiously committed biblical scholars is to imagine the world that Scripture imagines. While I like this formulation, I think it needs rhetorical tweaking. This is how I’d define the real goal of preaching: to invite the congregation into the world that Scripture describes. “Imagine” is a good enough word, but “imagination” is too easily paired with “reality” as an antonym. An implication I’d rather avoid is that Scripture imagines what doesn’t exist in reality. I’d rather say that Scripture describes some things that are real and some things that are in the process of coming into being. There is a reality, a way of living, of thinking, of believing, of being that Scripture describes and that we experience (albeit fleetingly) in the church’s liturgies. What can we do as people in the church to coalesce these ways of being into an intentional culture that can speak with its own voice—serving when conditions require as a community of resistance?

Now let me be clear—I’m not suggesting that we cultivate a fortress mentality that pits us “enlightened saved” against the “malevolent heathen”. Nor am I envisioning a collective where we listen exclusively to Contemporary Christian Music (saints preserve us!). Attempts to describe or to be intentional about a distinctive Christian culture that have arisen in some conservative Christian movements seem both overly oppositional in some areas and unreflectively complicit in others.

Perhaps the problem is when we start with an attitude of opposition, of describing what we’re against. I’d rather see us do things like embracing the rule of life that seems to proceed from the rhythms of the Prayer Book and being both intentional and explicit about what this would look like, and starting from who we think we are than who and what we think we’re not.

I suppose where I’m actually meandering is here: perhaps we do need to begin constructing and sharing rules of life. Not as legislative documents, not as holier-than-thou checklists, but as ways of framing what it means to be intentional Christians with our own distinctive charisms and callings. I love Benedict’s Rule. I love Cassian’s Institutes. Neither of them function for a household with two working parents, two energetic preschoolers, and an emotionally needy cat. I’ve felt a pull to doing this before, and here it comes again, perhaps even stronger than before…


Speaking to the Soul at the Episcopal Caf has a snippet from the Epistle of Barnabas up for the feast of the same today. The Epistle is most likely not by Barnabas, of course, but is considered a legitimate writing of the Apostolic Fathers. The Epistle is primarily a work against Judaizing tendencies and pushes hard a very allegorical reading of the Law.

I have a rather intimate familiarity with this text since it was the one I chose to focus on for my Patristic Greek exam. My favorite part is the section on the allegorical interpretation of weasels…

Café Piece Supplement

I have a new post up at the Café. In researching and writing it, I discovered that it was ground I’d covered once before. In my first year of Ph.D. coursework I did a brief in-class presentation on the Jewish War, so I dug up some of the things I wrote then. One of these items was a timeline of the events which is now posted here as a PDF.

As is noted on the sheet itself, the timeline is based on John Hays and Sara Mandell’s The Jewish People in Classical Antiquity: From Alexander to Bar Kochba. I recommend this book if you want a lucid introduction to the complicated history that covers the time from the Maccabees through the destruction of the Temple and the second revolt in the 130’s. While thoroughly rooted in the extant sources (especially Josephus, Tacitus, etc. for the Jewish War section), it wears its extensive learning lightly and is accessible for people who aren’t biblical scholars. It’d be a fine choice for a pastor’s study or for the interested layperson looking to learn more.

Ain’t It Odd…?

  • Some evangelical sorts are against women “headship” based on an interpretation of Paul. I wonder how they feel about the Queen of England. And that she’s technically the, well, head of the Church of England…
  • I truly wonder how those who believe themselves to be biblical literalists buy their meat. Every time I go to the supermarket, I somehow miss the section for meats with no blood in them that haven’t been strangled. No—I’m not talking OT food laws, I mean the New Testament ones in Acts 15…

On Gnostics as Proto-Feminists

I’ll point you to two things today. First, Dr. Deirdre Good has an interesting piece up at the Cafe today on women prophets in the first Christian century. It’s a good piece in what it says. I fear that it leaves a few things unstated but implicit. That is, it mentions little bits on women prophets from the NT, then notes that the Church Fathers spoke about some of these unfavorably but gnostic texts were more favorable. This leads one to believe that the Church Fathers and the Early Church in general were oppressive patriarchs and the gnostics were proto-feminists. The texts don’t bear this out…

[Correction: Dr. Good did not mention the gnostics; I had gnostics on the brain this morning from the article on Elaine Pagels mentioned below and did not read the article carefully enough before opening my big mouth… Rather, she mentions Philo (a Jewish author), the Montanists (a group claiming their prophets to be the incarnation of the Holy Ghost deemed heretical by emerging catholic orthodoxy), and the Protoevangelium of James, a popular Christian work later supressed for its denial of Joseph’s virginity.

Pagels, however, does suggest that the gnostic practice of calling God Mother as well as Father translated into social categories and adduces her evidence in chapter 3 of the Gnostic Gospels.]

Yes, the Early Church was born in a patriarchal culture and yes, the Church Fathers didn’t like the Montanists. This doesn’t mean the gnostics weren’t every bit as patriarchial–and sometimes moreso. And that’s what you find when you read gnostic texts. The idea that materiality is evil, a prison for the divine spark of the soul, leaves little place for women who are, as it were, the very source of the infection itself for in procreation they are little demiurges—prison-makers if you will—and each child they bear is another soul entrapped…

Also missing from Dr. Good’s discussion is the way that the NT orders of Widows and Virgins were continued within the Early Church up to the rise of monasticism where they joined their brothers and we had female monastics.
So I added a little addenda that points people to Jerome’s letters to show a vibrant community of women religious within the mainstream church supported rather than oppressed by the Church Fathers.

Add to this a nice article by Bruce Chilton that The Swain points us to on the mistakes of Elaine Pagels and the incorrect picture that many current Christians (especially Episcopalians) have about the gnosts as proto-liberal Christians.

The Apostle’s Creed

No, I got the apostrophe in the right place…

We had Peter’s sermon in Acts 10 as one of the readings at Easter and I was struck by the content of his sermon. Two things in particular struck me as I heard it this time–here’s a selection of the text for reference:

10:34   And Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I perceive that God shows  no partiality,  10:35 but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is  acceptable to him.  10:36 You know the word which he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace  by Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all),  10:37 the word which was proclaimed throughout all Judea, beginning from  Galilee after the baptism which John preached:  10:38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power;  how he went about doing good and healing all that were oppressed by the  devil, for God was with him.  10:39 And we are witnesses to all that he did both in the country of the Jews  and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree;  10:40 but God raised him on the third day and made him manifest;  10:41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses,  who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.  10:42 And he commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that he is  the one ordained by God to be judge of the living and the dead.  10:43 To him all the prophets bear witness that every one who believes in him  receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” 

My first thought is that this sounds like an early creedal statement. It’s got a number of the key elements the connection between Jesus and God, thew fullfilment of the witness of the prophets, the life of Jesus, his crucifixion, resurrection, and role at the final judgment. (We’d also been listening to this interview with Jaroslav Pelikan on the way to M’s church—so creeds were near the top of my mind…)

The second is that this sermon—and others like it—give us a fascinating glimpse into the mind of Luke because they serve as a shorthand key to how he understood and interpreted the gospel that he handed down to us. Now, you’ve got to be careful with Luke.

Of all the Gospel writers, he’s the most sophisticated in terms of Hellenistic compositional technique (yes, te others are quite sophisticated too but in different ways—Luke excells them in this department.)
 If you want an example, look at Paul’s conversion narrative in Acts: we have three accounts of it and each one has subtle but important differences from the others that help it fit the immediate context of the retelling. He does the same thing when the apostles are presenting their kerygma (the heart of their proclamation)

In any case, it’s an interesting exercise to take this summary and to use it as a lens for the Gospel, thinking asbout how the various elements present here play out in Luke’s Gospel (as opposed to the others. Just as for-instances, note the geographical references—one of the distinctive features of Luke’s narrative is the “travel section” where Luke makes a big deal of Jesus leaving Galillee and going to Jerusalem. Here in the summary you’ve got a clear sense of that movement as well. The life of Jesus (something many creeds are short on) gets an interesting summary here too with a strong connection between doing good, exorcism/healing, and freedom from demonic oppression, all of it introduced by the Holy Spirit and power.

There’s a lot more here to go after too—I’m going to have to think about this for a while. I’m sure someone has taken this tack before, using the various apostolic sermons of Acts to analyze the Gospel of Luke, but I don’t know the minutiae of Lukan secondary literature quite well enough to say who…

The Bible Meme

Here’s a meme from bls:

1. What translation of the Bible do you like best?

My favorite translation is the Vulgate. Every act of translation is an act of interpretation, and I really like Jerome’s interpretive choices. Once upon a time I was part of a group that read through Genesis, reading each verse in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. I was quite fascinated with the way that Jerome navigated between the Greek and the Hebrew.

As a result, my favorite Bible for study and reading is a facing page NT that has the eclectic Greek text on one side and the Vulgate on the other.

When I need an English language Bible, I prefer the RSV. We managed to get some of the last sets of 2 vol. Daily Office books that use the RSV rather than the NRSV.

2. Old or New Testament?

It’s impossible to understand one without the other. Christians have always contended that you need the NT to understand the OT properly, but what so many of us today have forgotten is how thoroughly the NT is saturated by OT images, thoughts, and themes. As Augustine and Jerome both insisted, the best way to learn to interpret Scripture better is to read more Scripture; I’d put a finer point on it and say that the best way to understand the New Testament better is to read the Old Testament more.

3. Favorite Book of the Bible?

Well, I love the Psalms.

I’m also a big fan of the Gospel of Matthew—which is good since that’s what my dissertation is on…

Deuteronomy is a classic. That’s the book that starts talking about intention—that the Law is about a way of being, a fundamental orientation towards God, not just things you do and don’t do. I see it as the inspiration for a lot of people in our tradition including Jeremiah and Jesus himself.

Recently I’ve been caught up again in Ecclesiastes; I’ve read through it several times since my spider bite. I hear in it a call to humility: all our works, wealth, learning, and accomplishments are ultimately vanity. What is important—and it underlines this by presenting it several times throughout the book, returning to it like a touchstone—is the recognition and enjoyment of the simple facts of reality: good food, good drink, good companionship, and the sun on your face.

Of course, I can’t forget Ephesians, Colossians, 2nd Peter, and Revelation. And the Song of Songs.

4. Favorite Chapter?

That’s hard to say. Rev 21-22 have always been favorites of mine… I’m also quite partial to Ps 107. And Ps 1. And Ps 18. Colossians 1 is also not to be missed. I could keep going for a while but I think I’ll stop there…

5. Favorite Verse? (feel free to explain yourself if you have to)

There’s no way I can answer this one; I have so many favorites. I’ll point to just two: Ps 70:1 (O God, make speed to save me; O Lord, make haste to help me) and Eph 5:2 (Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an fragrant offering and sacrifice to God). The first is commended by Egyptian monks as the ideal breath-prayer in John Cassian in The Conferences. Given Cassian’s recommendation, it’s no surprise that Benedict uses it to start the Offices as we do today. The second, in the words of a wise man of my acquaintance, can be considered the heart of Pauline Spirituality.

6. Bible character you think you’re most like?

I’d like to say David but my life’s not nearly that exciting. I aspire to be more like John of Patmos.       

7. One thing from the Bible that confuses you?

Hey—that blessing that Jacob gave to the twelve tribes this morning (Gen 49:1-28) totally boggled the mind. I’m suspecting some serious textual corruption in the transmission of that passage because some of it seemed to make no sense at all. It made me wonder what the Fathers did with it…

8. Moses or Paul?


9. A teaching from the Bible that you struggle with or don’t get?

Teachings around obedience are always hard for me. That’s one of the reasons why I need to follow a Benedictine path. [And one of the reasons why I’m Anglican…;-)]

10. Coolest name in the Bible?

I’ve always been a fan of the three young men: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.

I won’t formally tag folks, but if it looks like fun, give it a rip…