Friday, September 24, 2010

Book Notice: Images of Salvation in the New Testament

I want to take this opportunity to alert you to a new book by one of my colleagues, Dr. Brenda Colijn, who is professor of biblical interpretation and theology here at Ashland. Dr. Colijn's book is entitled Images of Salvation in the New Testament (IVP, November 2010). Hopefully it will be available at SBL in Atlanta. Here is the publisher's description.

"The New Testament does not develop a systematic doctrine of salvation," writes Brenda Colijn. "Instead, it presents us with a variety of pictures taken from different perspectives. From one angle, the human predicament is rebellion against God. Salvation looks like living under God's universal reign. From another angle, the human predicament is bondage to both internal and external forces. Salvation looks like freedom from those forces. From yet a third angle, the human predicament looks like alienation from God, from other people, from creation and even from one's own best self. Salvation looks like the restoration of those relationships."

Colijn, who holds degrees in English literature as well as theology, embraces a critical-realist methodology that incorporates New Testament theology, literary criticism and theological interpretation. She advocates listening to the individual authors of Scripture in their own social-cultural and historical settings, while looking for how the texts work both individually and collectively at a literary level.

Students of the New Testament and of theology will both find their vision broadened and their understanding deepened by this rich, informative study. As the author seeks to understand their implications for people of faith, she uncovers how New Testament images provide the building blocks of the master story of redemption.

Congrats Brenda! I look forward to reading it over Christmas!

Moabite Temple uncovered in Jordan.

Last month Jordan's Department of Antiquities announced that archaeologist had uncovered a 3000-year old Moabite Temple. Today there is a nice piece on the discovery in the Jordan Times. Here are a few excerpts from the article.

AMMAN - Archaeologists on Wednesday unveiled what they described as one of the most important Iron Age discoveries in the region, including a 3,000-year-old Moabite temple.

At a press conference yesterday, Department of Antiquities (DoA) Director General Ziad Saad announced the recent discovery of the largest early Iron Age temple in the region, dating back to between 1200 and 600 BC.

The three-storey temple, which includes a 12-by-12-metre courtyard, yielded over 300 Moabite artifacts, leading experts to believe it was once a political and religious base for the Moabite kingdom.

The Moabites are believed to have been Canaanite tribes that settled in the land between the River Jordan and the Eastern Desert near what is now Dhiban in the 14th century BC. Their reign came to an end with the Persian invasion around the 7th century BC.

Much of what is known of the Moabite civilization has been learned from King Mesha, immortalized in a basalt tablet listing his victories and accomplishments. Known as the Mesha Stele, the tablet was discovered near Dhiban and is now on display in the Louvre in Paris.

This find is significant for a number of reasons.

First, it will help us to learn more about a people group from the ancient world. We have very little cultural artifacts from the Moabites.

Second, it may help us to understand the balance in regional powers 300 years ago. Historical documents, including the Bible, can only tell us so much.

Third, it helps to promote archaeology someplace other than the land of Israel. I am not against digging in Israel and Palestine. I will be working at Tel-Gezer again next summer. But a lot of money is sent to digs in Israel while there are numerous sites throughout other parts of the region that could be excavated and help us to learn more about the world of the time period.

I hope such finds like this temple will begin to get the attention of funding agencies and individuals who will in turn donate money to excavations in places like Jordan.

What is the point of agnosticism?

Are you a theist or atheist? Many people claim to be one or the other. It doesn't matter whether or not you attend church regularly or not at all. Scads of people who are not active religiously claim to believe in God. A quick Google search will reveal dozens of newspaper articles with statistics that claim upwards of 90% of people living in the USA believe in God. I suspect the numbers are lower elsewhere. On the other hand, there are people who do not believe in God which means they are somewhere in the minority (less than 10%).

Then there are those who we accuse of hedging their bets. The agnostics. They have concluded that they are unsure whether or not God exists since it is impossible to prove it either way. At times this has been held up as the thinking person's approach to religion and science. The term was apparently first coined by Victorian evolutionist Thomas Henry Huxley as a way to refuse to take sides between the claims of the church and the claims of science.

Nowadays atheism is sexy. People like Dawkins and Hitchens are the rock stars of atheism. They publish popular books and hold public speaking engagements. It seems that being an agnostic is a choice opted for by relatively few.

Robin Le Poidevin has an interesting piece on the OUP blog about agnosticism today. He makes a few important points that I summarize below.

  • The idea that God may or may not exist is not very interesting. There are lots of things for which we have no proof.

  • Not having proof of God's existence does not increase nor decrease the possibility of God's existence.

  • The very idea of God makes his existence highly improbable. God by definition is unknowable. As a divine being science cannot study the evolutionary development of God.

Poidevin concludes with the following thought:

Perhaps God is like that: his understanding and capacities may be infinitely complex, but the underlying nature that gives rise to that complexity may be relatively simple. If so, then it isn’t a given that the probability of such a being is enormously improbable. And if God is not clearly improbable, then atheism is not the default position. Rather, agnosticism is. If, before we start to look at the evidence, the hypothesis that God exists is initially no less probable than the hypothesis that he doesn’t, that neither atheism nor theism has a head start, so to speak, then we should keep an open mind, rather than be atheists until presented by overwhelming evidence for God.

So what is the point of agnosticism? That it stands for open-mindedness, for a willingness to consider conflicting perspectives, for tolerance and humanity. It may even be the basis for a religious life.

What do you think? Can agnosticism be the basis for a religious life?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

What are you reading?

I do a lot of reading. In fact, I get paid to read. That is one of the many reasons that I love my job. In fact, it is not unusual for me to be reading several books at the same time. I might have one at my office. One I read in the evening after dinner and another next to the bed. But that can get to be a bit much.

But I can't read books on biblical studies all the time. I know some people in my field who read nothing but theology books. Scot McKnight once told me he doesn't read novels. Too bad. I like to dive into the land of make believe from time to time.

I tend to favor classics. I love Dickens and Twain. But I have read most of John Grisham's books and J.K. Rowling. I am not much into biographies. But I have read a few about famous theologians (Bruce Metzger, G.E. Ladd, Albert Schweitzer, Jurgen Moltmann). I have even read Velvet Elvis and Blue Like Jazz. The former was "ok" the latter made little sense to me.

Last week I was picking my way through some of Nathanial Hawthorne's short stories.

Recently I started reading John Steinbeck's East of Eden for at least the second time. I enjoy just about everything he wrote, with the exception of the Grapes of Wrath. I am reading East of Eden again because I recently completed a manuscript for a new book on Cain and Abel. East of Eden has a number of biblical themes woven into the story including Cain and Abel.

What do you like to read? Can you recommend something new to me? I am not much into science fiction so James McGrath will need to suggest something else. :) I like epics. Ken Follet's Pillars of the Earth was good. I wish I had a TV to watch the series on Starz.

What are you reading? Let me know and maybe leave me a suggestion. It doesn't have to be a novel.

Is today Jesus' birthday?

The following appeared this week in the Belfast Telegraph.

The advertisements for Christmas are already beginning to inundate us.

After all, 25 December is only three months away: that's just over a quarter of a year to spend all that money. Many theologians readily admit that 25 December is not the true birth date of Jesus Christ. When, then, is the true date?

The Gospels inform us that John the Baptist, who was Jesus's cousin, was born six months before Jesus. John's father, Zechariah, was a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem in the order of Abijah. We can find when the order of Abijah served in the Temple in I Chronicles 24:10, and from this we can calculate that the birth of John fell at Passover.

Jesus, then, was born six months later, on Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles, which falls on Tishrei 15.

This may not mean very much to us who use the Gregorian calendar, but Tishrei 15 falls this year on Thursday 23 September.

Biblical days begin at sunset, so the feast actually starts on the evening of 22 September, which would have been the "silent and holy night" we will all be singing about three months later.

So Jesus's real birthday will pass with hardly a soul knowing it.

Colin Nevin, Bangor, Co Down

The problem with this story is that no one really knows what time of the year Jesus was born. Some have argued that Luke's description of the shepherds having their sheep in the fields suggests a time between March and December. In his commentary on Daniel, Hippolytus (165-235) says that Jesus was born on December 25th. But many scholars have also concluded that this statement looks like a later addition. The December 25th date does have support among some church fathers like John Chrysostom (345-407), but we also know that since the church fathers often copied from one another they also perpetuated each others mistakes. Thus, a bunch of people all saying the same thing does not make it so.

The December 25th date seems to have been set by the Roman church around the early fourth century. The date corresponds with solar dates. Thus Christmas falls around the time of the winter Solstice. It may also have been an attempt to do away with the celebration of Pagan holidays, but that is not certain.

Of course there is also the issue that Eastern Orthodox Churches celebrate the birth of Jesus on January 6th or 7th, which corresponds with the Western December 25th. The problem, you see, is that they use a different calendar.

In the end I don't think the date of Jesus' birth is as important as the event. We can do pretty good determining the year (circa 4-6 BCE), but not the day and month.

All of this makes me wonder why people get all worked up about the date of Jesus' birth. I have yet to hear anyone argue for celebrating Easter on the same day every year. Of the two I would think the celebration of Jesus' resurrection would be more important to Christians than the exact date of his birth. But somehow that never seems to be an issue.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

And now . . . a computer model to explain the Red Sea Crossing

From time to time a story will appear in the news that purports to explain a miracle in the Bible from a scientific point of view. Someone decides to test an event described in the Bible by demonstrating how there is a completely logical explanation can be provided by science.

But I am not sure these 'experiments' are always helpful. Don't get me wrong. I am not against science. It helps us to understand the world. I also don't think that science is antithetical to the Bible. It is just that science serves one purpose while the Bible another.

Thus I wonder when I see that someone has spent a lot of time and money to recreate the Red Sea crossing as described in Exodus 14. Someone has gone to all the trouble of designing a computer model to observe the event.

Of course the results are inevitable. The kind of winds required to push back the waters would have been too strong for the Israelites to stand up in while they waited for the waters to clear. The geography is also wrong. The Red Sea doesn't work but the Nile Delta does. Some quotes from Bible scholars are added to help support the investigation, but I am always suspicious of quotes since I have been misquoted before.

Is this really a helpful exercise? Is the point of Exodus 14 really about whether or not God could dry up the waters? Is it really important that we have a computer model the "proves" it for us? I wonder if we are missing the more important point here and could better invest our time and money in other pursuits.

The Jewish people do a pretty good job of bringing out the significance of the exodus every year at Passover. And they don't need a computer model to help them.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Be careful what you pray for, you just might get it.

I was reading Psalm 106 this morning which is one of my personal favorites. The reason I enjoy it is that the Psalmist provides some "behind the scenes" information about some of the Bible stories we are so familiar with. The Psalm is sort of a Readers Digest version of the Pentateuch. It is a greatest hits tour of events in Israelite history beginning with the Exodus up through the conquest of Canaan. As the Psalmist "retells" these events there are some added explanations of the events. For instance, we learn in 106:32-33 that the reason the Lord was angry with Moses over striking the water giving rock is because the people made his spirit bitter and provoked him to speak rashly. No such explanation is offered in Numbers 2:2-13 however. Biblical scholars sometimes call this type of retelling"Re-written Bible".

What caught my attention this morning was 106:14-15. These verses are a retelling of Numbers11 in which the the people of Israel complain that all they have to eat is manna and wish that they had meat. Moses then complains to God about the people who in turn promises that they will be given meat. The next day a wind blows in off of the sea and the camp fills up with an outrageous amount of Quail for the Israelites to eat. But as they are eating the meat, the anger of the Lord breaks out against them and they are struck with a plague (Num 11:33). Numbers does not tell us what the plague was, only that those who had so badly craved the meat were left buried at the site where they enjoyed what they craved.

When this event is retold in Psalm 106 the Psalmist adds some interpretive details. The people are described as having an intense craving that caused them to put God to the test (106:14). God's response is to give them what they want along with a "wasting in their being" (106:15). The last phrase is my own translation of the Hebrew. Many English translations render God's curse upon them as a "wasting disease upon them" (NAS, NIV, NRSV). The old KJV translated it as "a leanness in their souls." None of these is an inaccurate translation/interpretation of the phrase. But, with the exception of the KJV, I think it is too influenced by the idea of the plague in Numbers 11:33. The Hebrew term here (nefesh) can mean a variety of things including person and soul and being. In light of the theology of the Psalm I have chosen to translate it as "being."

I think the Psalmist is writing about something more significant than just a physical disease. Perhaps what the Psalmist is talking about is what happens to us when we fail to trust God to the point that they very things we ask and pray for are they very things that we do not need or should not have. It is when our desires so overtake us that our prayers become a testing of the Lord.

In his comments on these verses John Goldingay says that the testing here "suggests seeing how far one can push God or trying to discover what God is really capable of." The result is that the Lord "demonstrates total capacity to do what the Israelites ask, then sends trouble as a reaction to being required to do so." (Psalms [Baker], p. 229).

It is interesting that the desire for meat is never mentioned in Psalm 106. The problem was not the meat but the disregard for God. Often times what we want or desire is not in and of itself wrong. It is when our prayers have become so misguided by our desires that our very being is effected. We would rather test than trust God.

Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it

Monday, September 20, 2010

Reading the Bible takes a bite out of crime

This story came across the wires today.

A thief in South Korea turned himself in after his victim convinced him of the error of his ways by reading to him from the Bible.

Ling Cho walked into an English language institute in Ulsan Jungbu and demanded money at knifepoint from the lone teacher, reports Metro.

The teacher asked him why he was robbing her - and listened as he explained how he fell into a life of crime after divorce left him poverty stricken.

The teacher read to him from the Bible, and Cho apologised for trying to rob her. The teacher then gave him an MP3 player filled with gospel tunes, and he left.

But he returned 20 minutes later, in tears, and asked the teacher to report him to the police. After she refused to turn him in, the thief called the authorities himself and demanded to be arrested

He now faces five years in Jail for attempted robbery.

1500 Year Old Samaritan Synagogue Discovered at Beit Shean

The Jerusalem Post reports that a Samaritan synagogue has recently been uncovered.

Directors of the Israel Antiquities Authority excavation, Dr. Walid Atrash and Ya’aqov Harel issued a statement Monday saying “the synagogue that is currently being revealed played an important part in the lives of the farmers who inhabited the surrounding region, and it served as a center of the spiritual, religious and social life there.”

The statement added that the synagogue, which is believed to have stood from the fifth century CE until the eve of the Muslim conquest in 634 CE is indicative of how in the Byzantine period (fourth century CE), "Beit Shean became an important Samaritan center under the leadership of Baba Rabbah, (an ancient Samaritan leader and reformer) at which time the Samaritans were granted national sovereignty and were free to decide their own destiny. This was the case until the end of the reign of Emperor Justinian, when the Samaritans revolted against the government. The rebellion was put down and the Samaritans ceased to exist as a nation."

The Samaritans are Israel’s smallest minority and one of the world’s oldest and smallest religious sects, numbering barely over 700 with a history that dates to before the Babylonian exile. Around half of the community lives in the enclave of Neve Pinchas in Holon, while the rest live on Mount Gerizim, some 800 meters above the outskirts of Nablus.

Review of Dale Allison, Constructing Jesus

James McGrath has posted a helpful review of Dale Allison's forthcoming book Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination and History. It appears that this book will not signal an end to the Third Quest for the Historical Jesus. Rather, from what James has to say, it may generate new conversations. I look forward to it being released in time for SBL.

Seven First Century Ossuaries Discovered in Jerusalem

Israel Antiquities Authority is reporting the discovery of seven ossuaries in Jerusalem. They were found in a rock-hewn burial cave in the Qiryat Shemuel neighborhood of Jerusalem. The cave plan and the style of the ossuaries suggest to archaeologists that the complex and its contents should be dated to the first century, close to 70 CE.

Of particular interest is a well-preserved inscription on the side of one of the bone boxes. It is in legible Hebrew and the letters show residue of a blue dye.

The inscription has been translated as a warning to grave robbers. It says "Cursed is the one who casts me from my place." Apparently the warning was unheeded or the grave robbers could not read it since the contents of the ossuaries had been spilled out and some were smashed.

This leads to a question. Since we often assume that most people in the first century could not read, what would be the point of inscribing a curse that could not be read by potential thieves? A similar inscription comes from tombs that date from the first temple period. One of the tombs was discovered in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem in 1874 and then uncovered again in 1968. The tomb is commonly associated with Shebna the steward and treasurer of King Hezekiah (Isaiah 22:16). The Hebrew inscription on this tomb reads:

Again, if people could not read, why this warning? I am assuming that those who are most given to robbing tombs are not among the aristocratic elite who would more likely be able to read. So if this is correct, why place a warning on the tomb to would be thieves? To go so far as to even tell them that there is no gold or silver so "don't bother." I realize that in order for a curse to work it did not have to be read/understood by they person that was cursed. But this does not explain why someone would have declared that there is "no gold and silver" in this tomb. Apparently some thieves had enough of a vocabulary to know the words for "gold" and "silver."

Perhaps our understanding of a population's reading level has been influenced by our own modern levels of literacy. We expect everyone to have the same level of functionality as we do. But that seems to be what we overlook. All of the inscriptions that we have from the ancient world suggests that a lot of reading occurred and probably not just by a small select group of elites. There must have been a functional level of literacy that at least kept thieves from robbing graves if they didn't want to get cursed.

I would be curious to hear from anyone on this topic. I am by know means an expert on literacy in the ancient world, but I have yet to be convinced that illiteracy was a rampant as we sometimes suggest.