Friday, October 1, 2010

Taking time with James D.G. Dunn

There will be few students of the New Testament who have not heard of Professor James D.G. Dunn let alone read some of his numerous writings. In a career that has spanned some 40 years, Dunn has made a deep and lasting impression on the field of New Testament studies. Through his numerous books, articles and commentaries, he has helped a generation of students and scholars to rethink a host of issues including the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, the Theology of Paul the Apostle, and Jesus. He has also been one of the major forces behind the New Perspective on Paul adding his voice to those of E.P. Sanders and N.T. Wright.

But for those of us who have had the opportunity to know Professor Dunn personally he is simply Jimmy. His influence is found not just in his writings but in the warm, genuine relationships that he cultivates with just about everyone he meets. Along with him is his wife Meta, who is just as warm and is quick to remember the name of your spouse or your children and some specific detail from when she last saw you.

Jimmy and Meta have been living in retirement for about seven years. They recently moved from Durham, where Jimmy was the Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at the University of Durham. But this has not slowed them down. They keep a busy travel schedule and Jimmy is prolific as ever. Among his post-retirement projects is his three volume series Christianity in the Making.

I recently asked Jimmy if he would take a few moments to answer some questions about his career, New Testament scholarship and the future of the field. Here is what he had to say.

Can you tell us about your background? Where did you grow up? How did you meet Meta?

I was born in Birmingham, UK, but when my father died (I was 10 months old) the family moved back to just outside Glasgow, where I grew up. I met Meta through the Scripture Union Fellowship, which used to meet in Glasgow every Saturday during term time.
Your first degree was in economics. What made you decide to switch to theology?

In the 1950s-60s divinity was a second degree – couldn’t do it as a first degree – since it was vocational (training for ministry in the Church of Scotland). For my first degree I wanted to do something which helped me understand better how the world/society worked – hence Economics and Statistics.

When you first began writing your focus was on the Holy Spirit and then Jesus. Why did you turn to a focus on Paul that lasted for quite some time?

I focused on the Spirit since I had always been interested in revival, and news from California at the time I was choosing a topic pointed me to the phenomenon of neo-Pentecostalism and baptism in the Spirit as possible signs of revival. I was glad to have a subject which took me across the NT and did not require me to specialize too narrowly. I have always regarded myself as a NT generalist. But Paul is such a crucial figure in the NT and beginnings of Christianity, that when I got more deeply into him, as I already had in Baptism and Jesus and the Spirit I found that he posed such substantial questions about the Spirit, spirituality, why the new movement opened the gospel to Gentiles, etc. that I had to focus on him.

You have been fairly prolific with contributions across the spectrum of NT studies. I wonder if there is any one contribution that stands out to you.

I enjoyed writing them all, and many are items I return to frequently to refresh my memory on the issue, the relevant documentation and on what I had said. Graham Stanton said several years ago that his favourite Dunn book was Jesus and the Spirit and I feel much the same. But I feel good about my several commentaries, Partings, Theology of Paul and the two volumes of Christianity in the Making.

You recently completed the second of your three volume series on Christianity in the Making as well as your thoughts on whether the first Christians worshipped Jesus. What is next for you?

I am working on volume 3 of Christianity in the Making which is tentatively entitled ‘A Contested Identity’.

A lot has changed in New Testament studies since you began your studies. Any thoughts on where you see the field going in the next 25 years?

The debate/tension between historical critical and other (narrative readings, etc) will continue, as also that between a theological approach to the text and a merely descriptive, sociological approach. Hengel and others swung the pendulum back towards a thorough setting of the text in historical context. But it needs others with a similar mastery of ancient sources and ability to mount coherent arguments to prevent the pendulum swinging too far back again. The real vitality of the discipline depends on a large proportion of the practitioners having a faith-informed and faith-seeking-understanding approach and able to communicate the importance of that dialogue to others.

What advice would you give to someone looking to follow a path towards becoming a New Testament scholar?

Ask questions which are important to you, questions which you want answers for. That way study of the text will always be fascinating, with questions opening new perspectives and posing further questions. I assume a good knowledge of the biblical languages, of course, and easy familiarity with original source material.

Thanks for your answers and the chance to get to know you a little bit better.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The End of Historical Criticism?

This is the focus of an essay on The Bible and Interpretation by Michael C. Legaspi (Phillips Academy) which is excerpted from his new book The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies (Oxford, 2010) in which he examines the rise of biblical studies as a discipline. Here is the description from Oxford Press.

In this book, Michael Legaspi examines the creation of the academic Bible. Beginning with the fragmentation of biblical interpretation in the centuries after the Reformation, Legaspi shows how the weakening of scriptural authority in the Western churches altered the role of biblical interpretation. In contexts shaped by skepticism and religious strife, interpreters increasingly approached the Bible as a text to be managed by critical tools. These developments prepared the way for scholars to formalize an approach to biblical study oriented toward the statist vision of the new universities and their sponsors.

And here are some excerpts from the essay.

For over a millennium, Western Christians read and revered the Christian Bible as Scripture, as an anthology of unified, authoritative writings belonging to the Church. The scriptural Bible was neither reducible to a written “text” nor intelligible outside a divine economy of meaning. It was not simply the foundation of the Church’s academic theology; it also furnished its moral universe, framed its philosophic inquiries, and fitted out its liturgies. It provided the materials for thought, expression, and action, becoming what Northrop Frye famously called the “great code” of Western civilization. As the book at the center of Western Christendom, the Bible functioned scripturally.

Modern biblical criticism is not a rival to the kind of religious faith once invested in confessional Bibles; it is a successor to it. Though we are in the unfortunate habit of equating biblical studies with “historical criticism,” a long view of the modern enterprise shows that its principal task was the post-confessional management of the Bible’s cultural authority—not the scientific analysis of its historical contexts.

But in our time, an age of low biblical literacy, diminished belief, and weakened religious commitment, there is less and less cultural authority for biblical scholars to manage—and, therefore, less reason for those still interested in the Bible to pay close attention to them. Those setting out on a journey look for guides not policemen. First-order questions now bear explicit examination. The question today is not ‘What is the real cultural valence of the Bible I grew up with?’ but rather, after the decline of Christendom and the long, slow deconversion of elite culture in the West, “Why have a Bible at all?”

To this question theologians no doubt have differing answers. Historical critics, I fear, have no answer at all.

Has anyone read this book yet?

Feast of Saint Jerome

Today is the Feast of St. Jerome who is best known for his translation of the Hebrew books of the Bible into Latin, termed as the Vulgate.

Jerome was born into a Christian family, most likely in 342. At a young age, he was sent to Rome for his education and studied the classical authors, from which he developed a love for literature; at about the age of thirty, he spent five years as a monk in the desert of Calcis. He was ordained a priest in the East by Bishop Paulinus, and became the secretary of Pope Damasus. St. Jerome did not actively exercise his priestly office, however, instead preferring to remain a monk and scholar.

While he is most frequently remembered for his Vulgate, Jerome was a prolific writer, and wrote many commentaries on Scripture.

Follow the link to read more about Jerome.

The Religious Knowledge Quiz

On Tuesday I posted about the Pew Foundation Quiz. The results suggested that Evangelicals were behind Mormons and Jews when it came to religious knowledge and that atheists were ahead of everyone else.

As one person commented on here, this was a test not about Christianity, but religion in general. Thus while Evangelicals might have a greater degree of knowledge about the Bible, they tend to know much less about other religions.

Well I managed to track down a version of the quiz. The Pew Forum has 15 of the 32 questions available for you to try. You can also compare your results with others who took the quiz. I took the quiz and got one wrong. And no, it was not a question about the Bible.

Take the quiz and let me know your score.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What if you could put God on trial?

What if you could put God on trial? What if you could question God in a court of law about your suffering? You could put God in the dock and finally get answers for all of the bad stuff that you have experienced in your life or seen in the world. And when you had exhausted the evidence and turned to a verdict, what would it be? Could you find God guilty of breach of contract? Is God guilty of not being faithful or not holding up the deity's side of the bargain?

This was the premise of a film Lori and I watched recently. It is called God on Trial and is set in the barracks of Auschwitz. The story is based on a legend that a group of Jewish concentration camp prisoners held a mock trial to determine whether or not God was guilty of the suffering in the world. In the movie the actors are from all walks of life, a doctor, a rabbi, a glove maker, a professor and a criminal, to name a few. The prisoners have been selected for extermination in the gas chambers the next day. As they try to make sense of all that has happened to them, they also wonder where God is in all of this. Some are afraid to question God. Others are ready to curse God.

As the trial proceeds various witnesses are called forth to testify for or against God. The current situation of European Jewry and Israel's long history as an oppressed people is recalled. Some testify that God is working out a purifying mystery in the Jewish people. Others claim that God has broken the covenant and is no longer interested in the Jewish people. In the end, the men in the barracks find God guilty of breach of contract. He has not taken care of them as promised in the Bible. As they enter the gas chambers one of them asks another "What do we do now that we found God guilty?" His friend answers: "Now we pray."

The film is thought provoking. It examines both sides of the question of suffering and does not offer any clear answers. The fact that God is found guilty comes as a surprise since we are use to finding comfort in our suffering with a Bible verse or theological statement. None of that happens here. In light of their circumstances it is clear to them that God is guilty.

But the closing scene also provides an answer. As the gas seeps into the chamber the men who found God guilty pray. In the end they are left with nothing else but a realization of their need for God in spite of their guilty verdict of God. It is the mystery of their faith and it is a very Jewish ending.

Jews are a lot better at dealing with theological tension. Christians are accustomed to tying everything together at the end so that everything is in its place and the promises of the Bible work out exactly as we had hoped. But this is not life nor is it reality. There have been people across history who died wondering if God had abandon them. And they died without knowing the answer.

Elie Wiesel relates a particularly haunting story in Night. A young boy had been caught stealing bread. The camp guards hung the little boy in front of everyone in the camp. Wiesel remembers hearing one man cry out "Where is God now?" And Wiesel heard a voice within himself answer "Where is he? Here he is. He is hanging on this gallows" (p. 62). For Wiesel, the God he knew as a child was dead. How else could God exist and allow such an atrocity to happen to a little boy?

And yet the men at the end of the movie pray. What did they pray as they were about to die? What did they say to a God they had just found guilty of unfaithfulness? We never learn. But I think the scene says something to us about faith. It is not based on what we see God do or think God should do. It is in those moments when we lack complete understanding. When everything we had hoped, expected, and believed about God turns up wanting. It is then that we need God most. Especially when there are no answers.

What about you? Could you put God on trail?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Are you smarter than an atheist?

If you identify yourself as religious and your answer to the above question is "yes" you might want to rethink your answer. According to a recent Pew Research survey, atheists and agnostics know more about the Bible and religion than the people who are believers.

According to articles in the New York Times and CNN, the Pew foundation called 3,400 Americans who were asked to answer 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity and other religions. Less than half answered the questions correctly. Also curious is that self-proclaimed Evangelicals scored lower than Jews and Mormons. This is interesting because many Evangelicals claim to read the Bible and are sometimes portrayed as "Bible thumpers" by the media. Apparently they should spend more time reading the Bible rather than thumping it.

What makes the survey results interesting is that the United States is one of the most religiously minded countries in the world with regular church attendance hovering somewhere around 40% of the population. What exactly "regular church attendance" means though, I am unsure.

This article caught my attention because of a previous post I wrote on "does anyone read the Bible anymore"? I lamented the fact that so many claim to know what is in the Bible, when in fact they are functionally illiterate as to the content and claims of the Bible. I have always been uncomfortable with the notion of America as a "Christian Nation". If this poll is correct, than it makes me wonder what kind of Christianity it is that we claim to have in this country.

Where is God in the Disasters?

That is the question at the center of the Terence E. Fretheim's newest book Creation Untamed:The Bible, God and Natural Disasters (Baker Academic, September 2010). In a recent review in America Magazine Daniel J. Harrington has this to say.

In their frequency, severity and devastation, natural disasters (floods, wildfires and earthquakes) and human disasters (suicide bombings, drone airstrikes and gigantic oil spills) have become all too frequent in recent times. Their frequency tends to muffle the hard philosophical and theological questions that these events should bring to the public forum: Where is God in these disasters? Why do innocent persons suffer in them? Can anything good come out of these tragic events?

Here is a book by a veteran biblical theologian that bravely takes on these difficult questions in the context of the God and the world we meet in the Old Testament. Fretheim, professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis, considers how we might speak of God’s relationship to natural disasters and the suffering and death related to them both in biblical times and now. Writing as an exegete and biblical theologian, he deals with the biblical texts as they stand in the Bible, though he is thoroughly conversant with the debates regarding their historicity. He insists that in dealing with natural disasters and suffering we not let God off the hook. After all, it is God’s creation that we are talking about.

This looks like a very interesting read. One point in Harrington's review that caught my attention is his summary of the final chapter.

In the final chapter, devoted to faith and prayer, Fretheim argues that in the context of natural disasters and human suffering prayer may be considered an aspect of the gift of the relationship that God has established with humankind, whereby God and humans can meaningfully interact with one another. He maintains that this relationship is fundamental to thinking about the God of the Bible and the association of God and the world. In this context, prayer (especially lament and intercession) has an effect on the one who prays, on the relationship between the one who prays and God, on God and on persons or situations for which one is praying.

An interesting point. Does suffering and natural disaster bring us closer to God? There are no easy answers. And as Harrington notes about Fretheim, this is not a book with easy answers. Rather, it is a book that encourages us to engage God.

Monday, September 27, 2010

What did Paul really think of Women?

I have posted quite a bit about women in the Bible and ministry. Today's post is a review of Karen Elliott's book Women in Ministry and the Writings of Paul (Anselm Academic, 2010). The book is Elliott's attempt to respond to issues of women in ministry in the modern Christian community with a particular focus on the writings of Paul (p. 2). The book is broken into five chapters.

Chapter one is a broad overview of the ministry of women in the New Testament with a particular focus on the Gospels. Elliott highlights the named and unnamed female disciples of Jesus. She makes the interesting point that the case of the Samaritan women in John 4 is the only instance in all four Gospels where anyone, male or female, who brings many people to Jesus as a result of believing her testimony (p. 9). Elliott also looks at the figure of Mary Magdalene who on the one hand is called the Apostle to the Apostles, but is also commonly and erroneously called a prostitute. Elliott counters this interpretation and points out that Mary, a woman, was one of the first to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus rather than a man.

Chapter two is an examination of Paul and his times. Here readers are treated to a summary of Paul's life, along with his historical and religious context. Elliott does not cast Paul as an ancient feminist. Paul lived in the Greco-Roman world and never seems to have imagined that a home could be organized any way other than the prevailing household structure with its paterfamilias. Husbands were the head of the home. Yet at the same time she sees him as challenging the praxis and hierarchy of his world. She suggests that he was countercultural in some of his views which would have been perceived as a threat by most Roman citizens (p. 23) Nonetheless, Paul should not be seen as a radical. Elliott concludes that Paul's belief that Christ would soon return took first priority. This means that issues like the treatment of woman and slaves became secondary in light of Christ's imminent return (28).

Chapter three is a consideration of Paul's theology of Baptism. Elliott sees Paul's statements in 1 Cor 12:13 and Gal 3:28 as key to understanding him. Paul's new creation theology means that believers "become a new creation in Christ and the old divisions of race, class and sex have been eradicates" (p. 34). Elliott gives consideration to other motifs in Pauline theology such as freedom in Christ and being one in Christ. She spends some time looking at the issue of slavery as an example of Paul's new creation theology.

In chapter four she gives an overview of the scriptural evidence for Paul's views of women. Elliott demonstrates how Paul draws from a rich tradition of female imagery found in the Old Testament and lists some feminine imagery in his letters like being in labor (Gal 4:19) or gentile as a nursing mother (1 Thess 2:7). She also demonstrates that Paul supports equality in marriage (1 Cor 7:10-16) and how a woman's right to prophecy is evidence of their equality in ministry (1 Cor 12:7). Along with this is a list of the named women in the New Testament and what we can learn about their ministry roles. The chapter closes with a consideration of some of the more difficult passages about women including 1 Cor 14:33-36 and 1 Tim 2:8-15. Elliott sides with those who view the former as a later insertion and the latter as non-Pauline.

Chapter five is a very quick overview of women in ministry up to the modern period. Elliott spends most of her time looking at women and their ministry roles in the first five centuries.

In addition to the information she outlines, Elliott provides a series of discussion questions at the end of each chapter. There is also a helpful glossary of terms and a quality bibliography that will help launch anyone interested in reading further.

Elliott has done a fine job. She is to be commended since she accomplishes all of this in only 103 pages! I am assuming that the length of the volume was limited by the publisher and not Elliott. It is clear that there is much more that she could and probably wanted to say about this important topic. I have two points to which I would like to draw attention.

First, since this appears to be intended as a textbook a short chapter on the life of women in the first century would be helpful. Elliott does touch on this here and there, but a dedicated section would help readers to enter the world of Paul better. Her section on Paul's life is interesting, but I am not sure that it accomplishes much. Her material on his religious and historical context is good, but more information specifically on women would improve it.

Second, I wish that Elliott had dealt more with 1 Tim 2:8-15. While I agree with her that this was probably not written by Paul, it is still part of scripture. Many of the students reading Elliott are going to wonder how to deal with this passage. I am not sure that simply dismissing it as non-Pauline helps them. People serving in a ministry setting do not always have the luxury of dismissing passages. I imagine this would be even more difficult for a woman trying to explain the contradiction between her position as a minister and the words of 1 Tim 2:8-15.

In spite of my critiques this is a well-written, concise treatment of the topic. Students encountering it for the first time will be well-served and those who may have already formed their opinions will be challenged to think again. The book should be on the syllabus of any class about Paul or the general New Testament. Those already in ministry should have this on their shelf to either consult or handout to those who may have questions. I will recommend it to my colleagues at Ashland and beyond.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Satan:a course on the historical development of an idea

The presence and the problem of evil in the world has long been discussed. Some religions like Christianity and Islam attribute some responsibility for evil to a a being known by many names, but most popularly as Satan. Modern Judaism rejected the idea of a personal evil centuries ago.

One element that often influences the way we think about evil and the figure of Satan is popular media. Whether it is medieval paintings, modern films or Halloween costumes, the father of evil has evolved over the years.

Jim Davila points out that a new class is being offered on the history of Satan at Carleton University in Ottawa. Here is an excerpt of an Ottawa Citizen interview with Kimberly Stratton who is teaching the course.

The devil is not who we think he is. In fact, for much of ancient history, he wasn’t even a “he,” says Kimberly Stratton, who is teaching a new Carleton University course on the history of Satan.

The earliest Biblical references use “satan” as a verb, meaning to block or prevent something.

In the Book of Numbers, an angel blocks or “satans” Balaam from cursing the Israelites. “In the original Hebrew, the verb is to ‘satan’ him,” says Stratton. “The angel himself was a normal angel of God.”

In the Book of Job, “satan” is a job title, something like a Crown prosecutor who seeks sinners and brings them to justice.

“He is still an angel in God’s court. There is no indication that he is an opponent of God. He just seems to be an angel doing his job. If anything, he has a higher-ranking position in heaven.”

Even in the New Testament’s Gospel of Matthew, the Devil tests Jesus in the desert, but then he disappears, and ministering angels come in. “So it’s not clear there that he isn’t still part of God’s entourage. … acting somehow as the Crown attorney.”

Stratton outlines in her course how man’s ideas of God and goodness, evil and misfortune, are shaped by history.

This looks like an interesting course. Perhaps it will have some influence on popular notions of Satan and evil.