Saturday, June 2, 2012

BibleWorks 20th Birthday: Sign up to win a free copy of BibleWorks 9

I got an email Friday from Jim Barr and the BibleWorks team announcing a celebration of their 20th year. I have been using BibleWorks for about ten years now and think it is the best Bible software available, hands down. When my students at Ashland ask me what they should buy I tell them BibleWorks.

As part of the celebration you have an opportunity to win a copy of BibleWorks 9. Go to their celebration website and tell them in exactly 20 words why you need a copy of BibleWorks and you may be one of the two lucky winners. I am still using version 8 and might enter the contest myself.

Enter here. 

Good luck!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Onesimus and Philemon: Peter Head on the people who delivered Paul's letters

We have become very accustomed to reading Paul's letters and interpreting what he wrote. What we often don't think about is "who was doing the interpreting on the receiving end." Surely the recipients of Paul's letters didn't understand everything crystal clear. Someone who had knowledge of the letter's content as well as the apostle's intentions must have been on hand to answer any questions when the letter was read aloud to the church.

The most likely candidate for the job of "first interpreter" of Paul's letters is probably the person who delivered it. Whoever it was that delivered the letters to Corinth or Galatia was probably very familiar with the situation and prepared to provide answers and explanations in the absent apostle's stead. This is probably what happened with Timothy in Thessalonica (1 Thess 3:2)  and Phoebe in Rome (Rom 16:1). 

In a recent paper delivered at the New Testament Seminar at Cambridge University Peter Head examined Paul's letter to Philemon and wondered who carried the letter. Here is some of what Peter had to say as reported by Peter Malik at RBECS.
In order to interpret the role of the letter-carrier in Philemon, Peter Head first of all presented relevant parallels found in three corpora of ancient epistolary material, namely the Oxyrhynchus papyri, the ancient Jewish epistolary material, and the letters of Cicero. The reason why these three were chosen is they all are in a sense ‘bounded’ groups of literature, and are diverse enough to extrapolate general characteristics applicable to the ancient epistolography. Head demonstrated that one can glean several common characteristics of the named letter-carriers in antiquity: (1) the letter-carriers were present at the composition of the letter; (2) they, obviously, delivered the letter; (3) and, finally, they were present at its reading. Many letters at Oxyrhynchus indicate that the named letter-carrier mediated to the recipient the fuller information that was only partly present in the letter, especially so in the letters of recommendation. Similarly, in Jewish epistolography, one often finds that the named letter-carrier was to reinforce and supplement the overall argument of the letter. The letter-carriers in Ciceronian texts display a wider array of functions, depending on Cicero’s purpose in a given letter, but the above mentioned characteristics are strongly present in his letters as well.
How does all of this come together in Philemon? Our presenter argued that it’s precisely the role of the letter-carrier, which plays a decisive role in the interpretation of this ambiguous, highly problematic little letter. Having established that Philemon is best categorised as ‘the letter of recommendation’, Head also alluded to John Barclay’s hypothesis that Paul’s ambiguity was probably occasioned by the difficulty Paul was facing in this precarious situation; indeed, Paul could do, by way of letter, little more, and thus the practical implications weren’t spelled out clearly in writing. This is precisely the point where Head’s research into the ancient letter-carrier makes a decisive move: Paul’s confidence in his letter-carrier implies that, in the light of the ancient parallels, Onesimus was entrusted to deliver and interpret the message addressed to Philemon. What would then Paul have Onesimus say to Philemon? In short, Dr. Head intimated that Paul would request Philemon that Onesimus be released, forgiven, and sent back to Paul. Firstly, Dr. Head pointed out that in 1 Cor 7, Paul intimates that the slaves who can become freedmen, should ‘avail themselves of the opportunity.’ This reflects the generally shared sentiment in antiquity–the slaves, above all, desired freedom. Therefore, there’s no reason to think that Onesimus would have felt otherwise. Thus, Onesimus’ role as the letter-carrier of Paul’s epistle to Philemon is of principal importance for resolving some of its, otherwise obscured, ambiguities.

You can read the whole review of the paper here.

I like what Pete has to say here. I have wondered what it must be like for Onesimus to stand there, perhaps a bit nervous with a slight sweat, as his master read the letter. Considering the way that Paul describes Onesimus in the letter and the way that Paul paints Philemon into a corner, it seems quite plausible that Onesimus was not only the subject of, but also the deliverer of the letter.

If you are interested in learning more about interpreting Philemon and the situation of Onesimus you can check out the following essay I published:  “The Epistle to Philemon: Paul’s strategy for forging the ties of kinship” pp.205-216 in Jesus and Paul: GlobalPerspectives in Honor of James D.G. Dunn for his 70th Birthday. (LNTS; T& T Clark, 2009).

Here is a link where you can read/download the essay online.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Radicals Damage Synagogue Mosaic in Tiberias

Picture of damaged mosaic
There are radicals in every religion. The are radicals outside of religion too. And sometimes they do things that really annoy the rest of us. A case in point is the damage done to a 1,600 year old synagogue mosaic in Tiberias, Israel. The mosaic is among the most beautiful from the time period. Here is some of the report.

Vandals badly damaged a rare 1,600-year-old mosaic in the northern Israeli city of Tiberias that formed the floor of an ancient synagogue, smashing parts to rubble and scrawling graffiti, antiquity officials said Tuesday.
Experts suspect extremist Jews who object, sometimes violently, to excavations they claim involve ancient grave sites. There was no claim of responsibility. Police are investigating.
Guards found the damage on Tuesday morning, said archeologists involved in the site.
The mosaic, dating 400 years after the birth of Jesus, was one of the best preserved and beautiful of its period, according to archaeologists.
It featured illustrated zodiac signs and the traditional symbolism of a fourth-century synagogue: ritual candelabras and palm fronds. The synagogue's ruins, including its ancient mosaic floor, were in a fenced-off area of a national park in Tiberias, next to the Sea of Galilee.
It listed the names of the synagogue's chief patrons in ancient Hebrew, Latin and Greek.

Read the whole article here.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Will the James Ossuary be Destroyed?

Most people know the story of Solomon and the baby. Two women claim the same baby as their own son. Solomon decides that the easy way to discover the truth is to divided the baby and give the women each a half. The real mother decides to save her son and give up the baby. Solomon then gives her back her son.

The story certainly provides some wisdom for dealing with disputes. But is that always the case? A judge in Israel is set to announce today the fate of the James Ossuary that some have claimed belonged to James the brother of Jesus. The judge acquitted Oded Golan of forgery charges, but the fate of the ossuary and some other artifacts is to be decided sometime today. The judge has suggested that one to settle the dispute is to destroy it. Here is what the Jerusalem Post reported.

A Jerusalem judge will announce on Wednesday whether he has decided to order the destruction of a burial box that could have held the bones of the brother of Jesus and an inscribed tablet that could have come from the First Temple.
At a Jerusalem District Court hearing in April, Judge Aharon Farkash said he might exercise “the judgement of Solomon” and order both items to be destroyed.
At a hearing in April, the prosecution demanded a tough sentence including jail time and said that the ossuary, the tablet and many other items should be confiscated by the court, even though Golan had been acquitted of all charges related to them.
“Maybe I’ll order them to be destroyed and neither side will have them,” said Farkash in comments that were not recorded in the official court transcript.
It would be “the judgement of Solomon,” said Judge Farkash.“Neither of you will have the ossuary or the Jehoash tablet. They broke once already; they can be broken again. Just destroy them,” he said.
The judge also suggested that the items might be put on display for the public.“Maybe they should be exhibited at the Israel Museum as items from this trial suspected of being fakes,” he said.
Experts who gave evidence for both sides last night urged Judge Farkash not to destroy the items.

I have my doubts that this will happen. It sounds more like he was exasperated with both sides and spoke out of frustration. I suppose we will find out.

Update: The judge didn't order the destruction of the ossuary. But he did give the government 30 days to demonstrate why it should be given custody of the ossuary rather than Golan. Read the brief here.

The Bible and Questions

I am busy this week grading papers and getting ready for graduation as the term winds down. So I have not had as much time or energy for blogging as I'd like. But I did find this drawing from the Naked Pastor to be worth posting. As I have done before, I will leave the readers to comment on it.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Good Reason to Learn Hebrew

Every now and then I will have a student ask me how to write out a word or Bible verse in either Hebrew or Greek. They ask because they are getting a tattoo of the word/verse in the biblical language. I am often tempted to give them the wrong word or verse. If you are reading this and have asked me don't worry. I haven't done it, yet.

But I did see a good example of how such an endeavor can go wrong. This past summer there was someone at Tel-Gezer with us who had what was supposed to be a verse from Jeremiah in Hebrew. What it really was, however, was gibberish since the person doing the tattoo didn't know Hebrew and made a mess of it. The poor person had this tattooed on the back of the neck.

Along the same lines, but not as permanent as a tattoo, is this t-shirt that you can buy for as little as $14.95 with the name of Jesus in Hebrew, spelled incorrectly. That's right, what the website claims is the name of Jesus in Hebrew is not "yeshua" but "yeshra." The third letter in from the right is the wrong one. But hey, what does it matter. Your friends will know what you mean, you hope.

Interested in buying this shirt and other tacky stuff? Shop here.

Thanks to David Ladow for pointing this out to me.

Gezer Boundary Marker Discovered

As many of my readers will know, Ashland Seminary has been involved with the Tel-Gezer excavation project since 2009. I have had the opportunity to work at Gezer twice with groups of students from the seminary here and will most likely find my way back next summer.

The focus of the current excavations is on the 10th century BCE. Being a second temple guy, I am more interested in the remains of Gezer that date from the Hellenistic Hasmonean era. And that is what makes this most recent discovery at Gezer interesting.

The Gezer survey team led by Eric Mitchell and Jason Zan recently announced the discovery of a 13th boundary marker. These boundary markers plotted out the extent of the city of Gezer and its associated agricultural lands. These are bilingual inscriptions in Greek and Hebrew. Here is what Mitchell and  Zan had to say.

The boundary inscriptions demonstrate the period of conflict between the Seleucids and Maccabees. They show that the city had agricultural land around it and that the Jewish occupants were concerned over keeping their fields according to Jewish law. These discoveries are significant since the boundary stones have been frequently sought, but with long time frames between new discoveries. According to the scholarship of Ronnie Reich, of the University of Haifa, there are 12 known and published Gezer boundary stones dating to the Maccabean period. These bilingual inscriptions in outcrops of limestone bedrock ring the ancient city of Gezer on the South, East and Northeast. Many of these are two line inscriptions reading “Region of Gezer” on one line in Hebrew and “Belonging to Alkios” on the second line in Greek.
The new boundary stone inscription located by the Gezer survey team this season is the first to be found in over a decade, increasing the total number of known Gezer boundary inscriptions to 13. The new inscription is very weathered and is a bilingual inscription like many of the others, with some minor differences. It is a three line inscription, rather than the typical two, with the Greek name Alkiou on the first line (literally “belonging to Alkios”), remnants of the Hebrew word for “region of” on the second line and small remnants of the letters spelling “Gezer” on the third line. The Greek letters are larger than in other inscriptions and both the Greek and Hebrew lines are oriented in the same perspective. The survey directors will seek to publish the inscription as soon as possible in an academic publication.

For me this discovery raises once again the question of to what extent Hebrew was used in the second temple period. Most scholars agree, and with good reason, that Aramaic was the more commonly used language and that Hebrew was more a "sacred language" used in worship, etc. But such an inscription as this, which serve a municipal rather sacred purpose, seems to suggest that Hebrew was also used for other types of inscriptions. I have asked a few a my colleagues on the Gezer team their opinion, but they are not ready to venture any comments or suggestions at this time.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Book Giveaway Winner

Congrats to Vince O'Connor! He is the winner of this week's giveaway J. Albert Harrill, Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social and Moral Dimensions (Fortress, 2005).

Vince you have 5 days to claim your prize. Send your information to me at and I will mail the book this week. Remember you have 5 days to claim the prize or it goes back on the shelf.