actually went up last night… Even if you watch them from these posts, please do subscribe; that way you’ll see them as soon as I post them, even if I haven’t given notice on the blog…
Here is this week’s episode, including a brief discussion of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.
Is up now…
I’m adjusting to the summer schedule with the girls at home full-time! I really am shooting to release these on Sunday/Monday rather than Tuesday/Wednesday, and am hoping for better success for the coming week.
The latest section of Psalming Christ is up over on Patreon. I’m demonstrating what a close reading of the text looks like, informed by the methods assumed by Benedict and taught by Cassiodorus. It starts like this…
Cassiodorus, Benedict, and the anonymous Master are introducing their monks to a kind of reflective, ruminative reading of a text that occurs at the speed of memorization. That is, it is extremely slow and focuses on details of the text. Reading at this speed and level of attention is not something that modern people are used to—especially not those of us who have to take in large amounts of information every day. As a result, we have to relearn the skill of close reading: reading that pays attention to the grammatical and rhetorical features of a text and that pauses at points to ask questions and double-check our assumptions.
Let’s try a close reading of a psalm—one we know well—and start asking it some questions. Here is the beginning of Psalm 23, perhaps the best-known and best loved of them all:
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me. (Ps 23:1-4, NRSV)
Let’s notice a few things up front: first, this translation (like most of them) breaks the psalm into poetic lines. As we discussed before, lines are important sense-units in the psalms specifically because of parallelism; where the line begins and ends is an important part of the thought-structure because it helps us see which words and phrases and ideas are being put into parallel with one another. In the oldest surviving Hebrew manuscript of the psalms, the Great Psalms Scroll from Qumran, each verse is written out on its own line. While the scribe could have fit more words on each page if the words had been written continuously, the line breaks are deliberately retained precisely because they have meaning.
Second, this translation includes a gap between verses 3 and 4. Recognize this for what it is—an interpretive editorial insertion meant to tell us something about the text. That is, this silent decision on the part of the editors suggests that verses 1-3 and verse 4 belong together in a way that verses 3 and 4 don’t. An interpretive recommendation is being suggested by means of the white space. Is worth noting at this point how much leeway editors have in arranging a text. Most of the punctuation that we see in the Psalms is an editorial decision—it’s not in the original Hebrew.
Right up front, the first verse raises two basic questions. . . .
The latest Liturgical Look Forward is up now for Proper 4!
This is the “Look, ma, no head!” version…
The technical tweak to this video is that I have not included any talking head shots. It occurred to me that it didn’t make sense to do a lot of editing work to overlay pictures of a presentation over top of talking head pictures—why not just record the presentation itself? So, that’s what I tried this week. Too, my digital strategist said that the video was “less cringey” this way.
Thus, without further ado, The Liturgical Look Forward for Proper 2:
Here’s the delayed Liturgical Look Forward…
I’m still figuring out the production schedules for these while juggling everything else.
This is the second part of the discussion raised in the previous post…
Here’s the problem: because there is a disconnect in the questions being asked, there’s going to be a disconnect in the answers that will be received. Modern communities of faith and people of faith are asking something like this: “How does this text reveal God to me?” or “What does God want me to do as a result of my reading of this text?” or “What is God’s claim on my life—beliefs, actions, thoughts and feelings—because of what I read in this verse or passage or book?”
Those are not the questions that modern biblical scholarship are asking. Rather, modern biblical scholarship asks something more like: “what did the authors and editors of this book or passage or verse think about God (or humanity or their environment, cultural or otherwise) and how did they communicate these thoughts through their writing and editing?”
I fully believe that the scientific study of the Scriptures can and should inform our understanding of the faith and how we practice it. We must listen to scholarship, even when it challenges treasured beliefs. But—we must use what scholarship tells us sensibly; we have to recognize that many of the questions we are asking as faithful believers are not going to be answered—at least not directly—in the discussions occurring within the guild of biblical scholarship. If we want to get the most out of it, we must ask modern scholarship the kinds of questions that it is designed to answer.
Cassiodorus, Benedict, and the Church Fathers are, in many ways, on our wavelength because they are asking the same kinds of questions that we are. They want to know what God is saying to them through this text.
Luke Timothy Johnson, a Roman Catholic biblical scholar, has compared the interpretive techniques and experiences of patristic readers and modern biblical scholars as the difference between people who exist with in a lively city and archaeologists who excavate a dead one.
The problem with the patristic authors is that, while fully immersed in the lived experience, they failed to notice that changes caused by the shifts in time, culture, and accidents of translation had altered how the texts were read and understood. Elements from the readers’ everyday experience were too easily read back into the text: it’s not uncommon to see medieval depictions of the Last Supper as the First Eucharist where Jesus is wearing contemporary mass vestments, elevating a host over a chalice, or communing kneeling disciples just like a medieval parish priest. A need to see all four gospels as non-contradictory narratives lead to some fancy contortions of the timeline for the sake of harmonization, requiring Jesus to cleanse the Temple twice—once at the beginning of his ministry (John 2:13-17) and at the end (Matthew 21:12-13|Mark 11:15-17|Luke 19:45-46). Equally problematic are the attempts to reconcile the two different genealogies of Jesus given in Matthew (1:1-17) and Luke (3:23-28). Too, literary conventions and genre markers were lost in translation and over time; Jonah, a folktale-style short story with a theological point, and Daniel, an apocalyptic work of encouragement, were shelved as straight-forward prophetic history. In short, these readers lost the sense that there was a cultural and temporal gap between themselves and the text.
The problem with modern biblical scholars is that the engagement with the text because an investigation in an overly distant and dispassionate past. The gulf between the scholarly present and the biblical past becomes so great that only rigorous historical methodology can certify the accuracy of anything—and only things capable of historical certification are worth knowing. The search for seams in the text, layers of literary production, and establishing direct source materials can lead to the dissection of a text that, once opened and disembowled, has a difficult time functioning again as a living being.
What to do, then? What is the best direction in which to proceed?
Johnson recommends not the stark “either/or” that accepts patristic readings and rejects modern scholarly ones nor vice-versa. Instead, he recommends a “both/and” that functions by starting with a base question that both patristic piety and academic curiosity are eager to answer: “What is the world that Scripture imagines?” If the Scriptures are the written body of God’s self-revelation, what is the kind of world that Scriptures present before us—and invite us into?
Academic scholarship can help answer this question by filling in the ideas and intentions of the ancient authors. That is, scholarship can help us better understand the world that the biblical authors thought that they were communicating. With a better understanding of the religious traditions of the neighboring cultures and ancient literary conceits and signals, details that we either overlook or would normally misinterpret can pop into sudden focus and help us understanding how the biblical authors were trying to envision God, humanity, the world, and the relationship between them all.
Patristic readers can help us delve into the possibilities and potentials within the text when it is read in relation to the full arc of the Christian story. Too, they alert us to the ways that Christian habits, practices, and rituals have been seen within and influenced by readers of the biblical texts. The patristic authors—and especially the monastic authors—are focused not only on describing the world that Scripture imagines, but explaining how we can put it into action and participate within that world. Because that’s their true goal: not just imagining or comprehending a world that God desires, but inhabiting that world—acting and living and behaving within that world. This, after all, is the concept at the heart of the the fourth chapter of Benedict’s rule: The “tools of the spiritual craft” (RB 4.75) are a compilation of 74 injunctions, most taken directly from Scripture, about habits of body and mind that Benedict’s monks are expected to use “without ceasing day and night” as they toil in the workshop that is the monastery (RB 4.76,78). The goal is not just imagining what God hopes and dreams, but putting it into practice in order to draw our world closer to God’s fullest loving intentions for it.
 The 12th century French manuscript New York, Morgan Library
MS M 44, fol. 6v, the 15th century Chantilly, Musee Conde
MS DB 65, fol. 189v, and Fra Anglica’s “Instituion of the Eucharist” all depict these elements. For a more detailed study of these and more images see Margaret Duffy, “Corpus Christi—Last Supper vs. Institution of the Eucharist” online: http://imaginemdei.blogspot.com/2011/06/corpus-christi-last-supper-vs.html.
 Augustine’s Harmony of the Gospels is one of the most comprehensive and influential attempts to explain the many differences between the four gospels without overt contradiction.
There is a piece from Newsweek on the accuracy of Scripture that is making the rounds. I’ll not link to it here because it needs a bit of prefacing.
It’s quite inaccurate. As I commented on a Facebook link to it, “I find this a very biased article full of mischaracterizations and rhetorically augmented half-truths. And as a biblical scholar who’s focused on interpretation in Late Antiquity and the Early Medieval period, I do know what I’m talking about.”
But here’s the problem—there are a lot of people in our churches who don’t have the benefit of the background, education, and research that I do. Furthermore, the article positions itself within an increasingly common and dangerous rhetorical dichotomy. That is, it starts off by portraying a stereotype of malicious and fraudulent Conservative Evangelicals (who are also political opponents) as people who take Scripture literally. What follows, then, is a take-down of Scripture performed as a strategy to undercut these political enemies. The problem is that Christians who see themselves as neither Conservatives nor Evangelicals find themselves in the position of agreeing with the article because they know they are not the sort of Christians who do what those other people do.
It’s a totally false dichotomy: don’t fall for it.
I’m not a Conservative Evangelical, myself. My primary issue with them is not the base text they use (the Scriptures) but rather bad interpretive choices that are internally inconsistent and unmoored from the historical bases of the Scriptural text and the community norms by which the Church has read and wrestled with the text through the centuries. That’s what deserves a take-down, not the Scriptures.
In the author’s opposition to Conservative Evangelicals, however, a series of half-truths and falsehoods are liberally sprinkled about in such away that non-Conservative Evangelicals who have not been taught Church History can easily be swayed by them.
I do not have to time to conduct a point-by-point refutation—which I realize is kind of a shame because it desperately needs one. What I can do, though, is offer is a few basic guiding points that must be remembered when people spout off about Church History and the Scriptures:
- The Church is an organic body that connects from the first followers of Jesus—the disciples and apostles—to the present day. Yes, there has been some drift across the centuries, but the organic continuity here of the Church catholic and orthodox is an important touchstone through time.
- The Church existed before “the Bible” did. It was a community formed around the experience of God-in-our-midst: the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the empowering of the community by the Spirit. Yes, they relied on the Bible—the Hebrew Scriptures typically encountered through the Greek Septuagint—but understood certain parts of that message to be superseded or clarified by what they had and were experiencing.
- The Church produced the New Testament. Not the other way around.
- Our methods for dating the books of the New Testament suck. Hard. There is little internal or external evidence to go on meaning that many of the dates you commonly see are well-established supposition.
- There is external evidence putting Paul’s writings in the neighborhood of 51 AD. The slight differences between the Little Apocalypses in the Synoptic Gospels are used for dating them based on the assumption that they are not recording the actual words of Jesus but, instead, are narrating how the Roman advance on the Temple in 70 AD is going. Hence, Mark (the demonstrably earliest of the canonical Synoptics) is usually pegged at 70 (before the actual fall) and Matthew/Luke are after 70 (after the destruction).
- However, Paul’s letters argue very strongly against the philosophical construct that anything with a High Christology (i.e., John, Hebrews) must be late and written at some point in the second century.
- Quotations from the Apostolic Fathers—some of whom we can date internally and externally—make it far more likely that all of the books of the New Testament were written within the first century.
- By the year 200, there was general consensus across the Mediterranean Christian world that the Church recognized the four canonical gospels (and only these), the letters of Paul, and most of the General Epistles. Some books like Hebrews, James, Revelation, and 2-3 John would continue to be argued over into the fourth century.
- Irenaeus, writing in the 160-70 range, who tells us that he saw Polycarp (not clear if Irenaeus learned from Polycarp or not…) whose teacher was John (i.e., Irenaeus was just one step away from the apostles) clarifies that the faith of the Church is built on three things: the canon (reading the books in church that the Church agrees on), the creed (the basic rule of faith by which and in accordance with the canon is read), and the apostolic succession (the organic continuity of teachers who know what the hell they’re talking about because they heard it from people who went back to the apostles).
- canon: “Now, that the preaching of the apostles, the authoritative teaching of the Lord, the announcements of the prophets, the dictated utterances of the apostles, and the ministration of the law— all of which praise one and the same Being, the God and Father of all, and not many diverse beings, nor one deriving his substance from different gods or powers, but [declare] that all things [were formed] by one and the same Father (who nevertheless adapts [His works] to the natures and tendencies of the materials dealt with), things visible and invisible, and, in short, all things that have been made [were created] neither by angels, nor by any other power, but by God alone, the Father— are all in harmony with our statements, has, I think, been sufficiently proved, while by these weighty arguments it has been shown that there is but one God, the Maker of all things.” Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. II.35.4. (He was arguing against folks who thought there were multiple gods; chiefly that the OT god was an evil demiurge…)
- creed: “The Church, though dispersed through out the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father to gather all things in one, [Ephesians 1:10] and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess [Philippians 2:10-11] to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send spiritual wickednesses, [Ephesians 6:12] and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.” Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. I.10.1.
- apostolic succession: “The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren at Corinth, the Church in Rome dispatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the apostles, proclaiming the one God, omnipotent, the Maker of heaven and earth, the Creator of man, who brought on the deluge, and called Abraham, who led the people from the land of Egypt, spoke with Moses, set forth the law, sent the prophets, and who has prepared fire for the devil and his angels. From this document, whosoever chooses to do so, may learn that He, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, was preached by the Churches, and may also understand the tradition of the Church, since this Epistle is of older date than these men who are now propagating falsehood, and who conjure into existence another god beyond the Creator and the Maker of all existing things. To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Soter having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.” Irenaeus, Adv. Haer III.3.3.
- If you bothered to read that middle one it’ll be painfully clear that the notion that Constantine “created” the idea of Jesus as God is total BS as Irenaeus was writing this 150 or so years before the first Ecumenical Council.
- Ditto on the notion that Constantine “created” the New Testament canon. Constantine did order 50 nice copies of the Scriptures to be made, but this neither created nor closed discussion on the content and order of the New Testament canon.
- On the “errors” in the transmission of Scripture, yes, there are lots and lots of scribal errors. But most of them are errors like substituting “me” where it ought to be “I”—i.e., minor grammatical errors. Substantive content errors, not so much. We know this, because dozens of German scholars dedicated their scholarly lives to matching up thousands of fragments and manuscripts in order to see where the differences between them all were and it is from these that we get a critical eclectic text from which our modern Bibles are translated. So, yes, many scribes messed up, but since they all don’t mess up in the same way, we can compare the hundreds of ancient witnesses and figure out what the text ought to have been.
- Similarly while some gleefully point out that the Trinitarian addition in 1 John is a late addition to the text and extrapolate that to say that all such Trinitarian additions must be equally late totally gloss the fact that Matthew’s ending (Matthew 28:19: “baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”) is thoroughly Trinitarian and is lacking in no textual witnesses.
In short, a living organic body—the Church—produced the New Testament, established agreements on how it ought to be read, and passed that knowledge along through teachers. Once the relatively disconnected Christian communities could openly talk together and gather after Constantine’s legalization of the faith, they did get together and Constantine had a vested interest in unity. However, that does not mean that he created or thought up the unity. The idea of the Trinity is found in the Scriptures; and early Christians talked about Jesus as God a long time before Constantine. Yes, the Bible was hand-copied, but that does not mean that its text—especially as reconstructed by scholars working with massive amounts of evidence—is corrupt and unreliable for the teaching and purposes of the Church.
Please—learn your Christian history and biblical basics from somewhere other than Newsweek!!
(And if you absolutely must, here’s the offending article…)
With yesterday’s feast of the Confession of St. Peter and the Gospel reading appointed for it (Matthew 16:13-19), I’m reminded of one of my pet peeves on the interpretation of said passage. Correcting this interpretation seems particularly appropriate at the given moment.
Here’s what Jesus says in part: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
The issue is with the last part.
The way I see this passage typically read is through the lens of a fortress mentality. That is, we have to hold the line with the church, we have to crouch behind some kind of doctrinal bulwark in order to not be overcome by the devil and his minions. Usually some kind of infallibility is invoked here—whether papal or biblical—to assert that only within this circumscribed space can we be spiritually safe.
This is a complete failure to correctly interpret the metaphor.
Yes, Simon Bar Jonah receives the name Kephas (in Aramaic), Petros (in Greek), or Rocky (in English.) And he is a central foundation upon which the Church is built. However, even though a rock is an excellent place to build a fortress, a defensive structure, that’s not the point. Jesus does not inform Peter and us that the gates of the Church will thereby be safe—because they’ve got a great defensive setup. Rather he informs them that the gates of Hades will not prevail against them.
The Church here is not defensive; it is offensive. This isn’t about sheltering within the Church to stay safe. It’s about having a firm foundation from which to sally forth and conquer Hell.
We as the Church are called to be on the offense against “all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God . . . the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God . . . the sinful desires that draw us from the love of God.” This is the calling of Baptism. To be sure, this is an offensive characterized by the virtues of Christ—humility, love, and compassion—but holding firm to truth and justice and conviction nonetheless.
The calling of the Church is to conquer, not to cower.