Friday, July 30, 2010

From the Professor's Bookshelf

It is not easy being a New Testament scholar who studies the Bible every day. I am constantly engaging the scriptures in ways not afforded to most people since their career does not include the privilege of sitting at a desk all day pondering questions. I am very fortunate because I get paid to do my hobby. In fact, I still can’t believe that somebody pays me to do this. But I should I get off this line of thought lest one of the seminary trustees read this entry and begin pondering their own questions.

While being afforded the opportunity to study the Bible as a job is a wonderful privilege, it has its pitfalls. I sometimes find it hard to be inspired, challenged or nourished by what is offered to me by the wider Christian community. Please don’t hear this as a criticism of pastors and authors who are providing the kind of teaching and reading that is building up the body of Christ. My problem is that I find little that helps me to retain my focus on the reasons that I chose a career in biblical scholarship. I am often asking different questions and I need to remind myself constantly that not everyone is interested in what I am thinking. Most books on Spiritual Formation are not written with New Testament Professors in mind.

A book that has helped me to refocus is David deSilva’s Sacramental Life: Spiritual Formation Through the Book of Common Prayer. In this volume deSilva brings the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) to life and explains the purpose behind some of the various rituals and prayers that are outlined in it. I am a baptized and confirmed Episcopalian who has rarely darkened the doors of an Episcopal church in the last twenty five years. But I still feel a strong connection to the rituals and traditions associated with the Anglican community. Over the last five years I have rediscovered my BCP and incorporated it into my attempts at being spiritually formed. The Sacramental Life is helping to make that experience richer.

DeSilva does not cover the entire BCP. Instead he highlights four sacraments that help to encapsulate the meaning of the Christian life. Part one looks at baptism and explains the theological and relational importance of baptism to the individual and the Christian community. Part two looks at the Eucharist and unpacks the significance of the various prayers and rituals that compose the service of Holy Communion. Part three considers Marriage, what it means to the couple, the church and helps us to be conscious of the theological statement of marriage. Part four examines the rite of burial and the hope that is expressed through grief. Desilva notes that the last two sacraments help to “flesh out” the significance of Baptism and Eucharist in particular life contexts (p. 15). Not all of us are or will be married, but we will all face death. I suppose few us ever think about death as a spiritually forming experience, but deSilva provides valuable insights for all disciples who will one day take that step.

I realize that using the BCP will be foreign to many. If you have struggled with need for a prayer book or the feeling that praying prescribed prayers somehow is less spiritual, then you should read this book. DeSilva will bring the BCP to life by revealing its connection with scripture, history and tradition. Rather than view the prayers as bland, boring and uninspired, you will be challenged to pray in new ways. If you come away with nothing else from reading the book it will be the realization that most of our prayers are either unfocused or reflect mostly on ourselves. Using the BCP can help you to develop a prayer life that embraces all of God’s creation.

You are not at a disadvantage if you don’t own a BCP and you will benefit without consulting one. I have not been consulting mine as I read,but then again I am familiar with its content. If you want to consult a BCP, but don't own one, you can access a copy online (BCP Online). You may find it helpful to follow along in the BCP while reading deSilva. However you decide to approach it, I think you would benefit from this well written, insightful volume. DeSilva did not write this specifically for biblical scholars, but this one has found it bringing nourishment to his soul.

Do you want to learn more about the value of using a prayer book or other forms of prescribed prayer? Why not read a short article by David DeSilva entitled Praying with Another's Words. The article is on page 3 of The Table, a quarterly publication of Ashland Theological Seminary.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Did Noah’s Ark look like a floating bowl?

Recently, some newspapers and magazines have featured articles about a newly translated Cuneiform tablet. The Tablet was translated by Irving Finkel at the British museum who determined that it contains instructions about building a round, reed boat. In Finkel’s translation, the Sumerian king, Atram-Hasis, is instructed by the Deity

Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall! Atram-Hasis, pay heed to my advice that you may live forever! Destroy your house, build a boat; despise possessions and save life! Draw out the boat that you will build with a circular design; Let its length and breadth be the same.

This is a very interesting discovery and it might cause us to rethink the way that the story of Noah has often been depicted. Most artwork is of an ocean going vessel, and the description here sounds much more like a floating disc still used in some parts of the world till this day. The picture above is from India, but similar boats are used in Iraq and Iran.

The problem, however, is that most of the newspaper headlines have read something like “Ancient Babylonian Tablet Says Noah’s Ark Was Round.” Actually, this tablet says nothing about Noah’s Ark. It does provide us with another flood narrative from the Ancient Near East, the Epic of Gilgamesh being the most celebrated of these. But it says nothing about Noah, has no direct bearing on the Bible nor does it provide evidence for a worldwide flood as narrated in Genesis.

This is an example of the misuse of the archaeology and Bible. The press realizes that in order to get your attention you will be more interested in the article if the headlines claim that the artifact “confirms” the Bible. The problem, however, is that some people will read the headline and then interpret the information in the article through the headline. This means that although the tablet does not mention Noah, some readers will interpret the tablet that way since the thought was put in their minds by the headline. This is irresponsible and it cheapens the serious work of archeologist and biblical scholars. And there has been a lot of this going on over the last few years. I am thinking here of the supposed discovery of Noah’s Ark in Turkey that was announced a few months ago and then found to be a fraud.

So what can we learn from the tablet? Well, the Bible does not exist in a vacuum. As every first year seminary student learns, other creation and flood stories exist in the Ancient Near East besides the ones found in Genesis. Many of the stories in the Bible, particularly in Genesis, have contact points with other cultures. This tablet, although not about Noah, may provide further insight into the way the ancients thought about human interaction with the divine. It may even teach us more about flood narratives in that world. But it will not rewrite Genesis.

Sometimes I wonder why people are so quick to believe everything they hear or read. One reason why this sort of yellow journalism may be attractive to some Christians is because it provides them with "evidence" for their faith. It helps to “prove” that there really was a worldwide flood. But as we have seen, this tablet does nothing of the sort. Faith is not something that is based on evidence but what we need when lack evidence or proof. It is when we have little to no proof or assurance that faith is required most.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Which Bible do you read?

Recently I ran across an advertisement in a magazine for “The Bible in its Original Order.” The ad states that this is a

new translation that renders the original Hebrew and the original Greek into enjoyable modern English. It retains the grace, grandeur and accuracy of the King James Version in a fresh, easy-to-read format. It's hallmark is that it presents the books of the Bible in their original, first-century ‘manuscript’ order.

The ad includes the claim that “King James would Loveth this New Bible.” Following the usual conspiracy theories of Dan Brown and others, it goes on to assert that the fourth century church fathers changed the order of the books of the Bible from the “original first century order,” an order supposedly recognized by most scholars.

There are so many directions we could go with these claims but let me outline a few things that may help put this Bible in perspective.

  1. I know of no scholar who thinks that there was a supposed first-century order. In fact, something approaching a “canon” of scripture did not exist. It took several hundred years until the church agreed, for the most part, on the current compilation of books, although the order was not necessarily the same.

  2. If this Bible is reflecting the supposed “first century ordering” where is the apocrypha? There is more than substantial evidence that first century Christians knew of and used the apocrypha. The earliest most complete Bible, Codex Sinaiticus, also includes it. Moreover, the 1611 KJV included the apocrypha. If this is an “original Bible,” why not include these other books?

  3. If this is meant to be a first century Bible for Christians, then why use the Hebrew? Almost all of the Old Testament quotes in the New Testament are from the Greek version of the Old Testament (LXX) not the Hebrew. The Hebrew only began to be used by Jerome in the fourth century, the very person who supposedly changed the first century order.

  4. Lastly, does the order of the books have some type of effect on the inspiration or usefulness of scripture?

This product is the result of the ongoing Bible wars that usually manifest themselves in arguments over translation. Rather than only claim that it has the best translation, it declares to also have the best order. We could talk about translation and how it works, but that would be best left for another day. But we can talk about canon because this Bible reflects a particular canon. That is, it represents a narrow western, Protestant canon. So often protestant Christians, North Americans in particular, have no appreciation for the wider Christian traditions and the books that they hold sacred. For instance:

  1. Roman Catholics include the Apocrypha, which means their Bible actually has 73 books, while Protestants have only 66.

  2. The Ethiopian Church has as many as 87.

  3. The Greek Orthodox Church uses all of the books accepted by the Roman Catholic church, plus I Esdras, the Prayer of Manasseh, Psalm 151, and 3 Maccabees. The Slavonic canon adds 2 Esdras, but designates I and 2 Esdras as 2 and 3 Esdras. Other Eastern churches have 4 Maccabees as well. Also, they use the Greek Old Testament rather than the Hebrew.

  4. And just to keep things interesting, The Syrian Orthodox tradition continues to reject 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, Jude and Revelation.

The fact is, world-wide Christianity cannot even agree on what books constitute “scripture” let alone the order of the books. How can Protestants claim to have the right Bible when theirs is thinner than everyone else’s? And how do we even begin to decide which Bible is the “right one”?

I confess that I read the apocrypha and wish that it was still part of the Protestant Bible. That is why I agreed to provide a new translation of Judith for the Common English Bible that is being published later this year. I did not think we needed another Bible translation, but I was excited about a Protestant Bible that included the apocrypha. I hope it helps to reacquaint Protestant Christians with their heritage.

What I think is at stake here is not the order of the books or even whether or not we use the canon of other Christian traditions. But I do think we should not let the very book that records the history and meaning of our faith become the source of our divisions. By acknowledging the varying canons and customs that make up world-wide Christianity, we are able to be a part of the tapestry that reflects the long history and tradition of Christianity. I wonder how much more we could do in the world if we were working together rather than fighting over who has the Bible in the right order.