Friday, December 30, 2011

The Biblical World's Top Posts of 2011

Well this year is all but over. I have been blogging now for seventeen months. It all started as an experiment. I wasn't sure if I would enjoy it or not. To be honest, I find it a bit addictive. And I think the statistics help keep me going. I average about 24,000 visitors a month. But even more important than the statistics are the comments and emails. From time to time I wonder if this is project that is eating up too much of my time. Then I get a comment thanking me for a post. Or I receive an email telling me how much they enjoy my blog or how a post was inspiring to them. And so I continue.

What is funny, however, is the posts that seem to generate the most traffic are not the ones I would expect. And sometimes they are the ones that required the least amount of thought and effort. And so here they are, the top five posts of 2011.

  1. The number one post of 2011 was actually written on December 2, 2010. But the attention it received was concentrated in the first 5 months of the year. The world watched as the end of the world was predicted to end on May 21st, 2011. And the date passed, and we are still here. But my post on the topic received 13,987 hits.
  2. The second most popular post was about the supposed discovery of the Ark of the Covenant in Greece. This was short piece that I posted mostly because I thought it was silly. But several "prophecy" web sites picked up on it and it received 8,350 hits.
  3. The third is also rapture related. I posted a video about the invention of the rapture, which not only generated 4,642 hits, but also made a number of people upset with me.
  4. In fourth place is a post I did in June about questioning the historicity of the Adam and Eve story.
  5. Finally, in fifth place is a post I did on Urban Legends of the Bible. Actually, I got the idea from Trevin Wax who listed the items first.  I made the post on April 28th and received some good responses. But then about a month ago a Polish web site picked up on it and re-posted it . That drove the hit count up to 3,967. 

While the top five certainly generated some traffic, here are some of my personal favorites from this year.

  1. Resurrection: The Hope of Easter explained why I still have hope.
  2. What we need to do after the rapture doesn't happen was my attempt to encourage people not to laugh at those who thought May 21 was the end of the world. Instead I suggested that they would need some to minister to them.
  3. Between Fear and Faith was my thinking out loud about what happens when the faith you were raised on goes under radical change.
  4. The Myth of the Church's Golden Age was me ranting about how everyone wants to go back to the good old days of the New Testament church. I suggested that no such golden age ever existed.
  5. Finally, a more recent post was When the Manger is Empty: Childless at Christmas. This was an attempt at expressing the emotional and theological dissonance felt by infertile couples at this time of the year. I had no idea so many people would find it helpful. 

There are many more I could mention, but these are the ones that stand out in my mind. And the responses to them encourage me to keep blogging. So to all my readers, wherever you are, I wish you a happy and prosperous new year. And I look forward to hearing from you in 2012.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Noah's Ark and the Persian Gulf.

The story of Noah's Ark is well-known. And that there has been a lot of discussion about the story. It is true? Is it a myth? Was it a worldwide flood or only localized? Have explorers in Turkey discovered Noah's Ark? Did the flood create the Persian Gulf?

National Geographic is airing a program on January 5th in which Jeff Rose will suggest that the flood created the Persian Gulf.

Most people are familiar with the biblical story of a worldwide flood, where God destroyed all life on earth except the family of Noah and the animals that they boarded on an ark. Scholars of ancient writings from Mesopotamia (now Iraq) point to texts written thousands of years before the bible that describe a flood and say that the bible story comes from those stories. Others like archaeologist Jeff Rose say these pre-biblical stories have merit because the destructive forces of water in a once tropical region in Iraq, considered by some to have been the Garden of Eden, might have inspired the biblical story of Noah's Ark and the great flood. Dr. Rose believes that a massive flood once swallowed a landmass as big as Great Britain, created the Persian Gulf and sent tribes of Neolithic people into constant retreat from the ever-rising waters. The documentary, Diving Into Noah's Flood, will air January 5, at 8 PM EST, on the National Geographic Channel.

Here is a short clip from the forth coming show.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Star of Wonder, Star of Night

The story of the Bethlehem star is well known. Every church nativity has a six year old dressed as a star and many Christmas trees are topped with one. And the star has been cast in many a Christmas movie. It's not uncommon for the protagonist to look up into the night sky and see a star. Although no explanation is given, it is understood that some connection between the present situation and that of the babe in Bethlehem is being alluded to.

The story is so well known that there have been a number of attempts by astronomers and others to determine what star the magi from the East saw and how it was that a star could move.  There are couple of articles on the topic of the star that I ran across this week.

At the Washington Times, Amanda Read provides a theological explanation of the star and what it meant.

At National Geographic Robert J. Vanderbei of Princeton University looks at the story of the Bethlehem Star and suggests that it was created by a convergence of Jupiter and Venus on June 17 in 2 BC.

At MSNBC Joe Rao asks if it was a star or a comet.

Finally, Kelly Oconnell at the Canada Free Press adds a perspective that combines faith and science.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Rare Second Temple Coin and Seal

The Israel antiquities announced on Sunday, Christmas day, the discovery of some rare artifacts. Here is what they had to say:

The Israel Antiquities Authority held a special press conference in Jerusalem's City of David on Sunday to unveil a rare coin from the Second Temple era. 
The cartouche – or seal – never seen by the public before, is the size of the modern New Israeli Shekel coin and bears the Aramaic inscriptions “it is pure” and a two-letter abbreviation for the name of God.It was discovered near the Robinson’s Arch at the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount. Archeologists say the soil layer above the Herodian road where the seal was found was dated to the first century BCE. 
Archaeologist Eli Shukron of the Antiquities Authority, and Professor Ronny Reich of Haifa University, who oversaw the excavation, explained to reporters the significance of the coin."This is the first time an object of this kind has been found. It is direct archaeological evidence of Jewish activity on the Temple Mount during the Second Temple era," they said."Products being brought to the temple had to be stamped pure – which is what this seal was used for," they added. 
Such seals are mentioned in the Mishna and discussed in the Talmud – but the cartouche unveiled today does not match any of the four inscriptions included in extant texts."What we know is brought down from the surviving literature," the archeologists said. "Here archeology has brought us something new." Minister of Culture Limor Livnat and Minister of Education Gideon Saar joined dozens of students for the unveiling. Saar said, "The seal shows the deep connection of Israel to the City of David. It is important excavations like these that demonstrate our bond to Jerusalem. Everything uncovered here strengthens us." 
In addition to the seal other artifacts were discovered dating to Second Temple period, and some to the days of the Hasmoneans – such as oil lamps, cooking pots made of clay, a jug containing oils and perfumes, as well as coins of the Hasmonean kings such as Alexander Jannaeus and John Hyrcanus.

You can read the article here.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Gifts of the Magi: A Cure of Arthritis?

Gold, Frankincense, Myrrh. According  to the Gospel of Matthew those are the gifts brought to Jesus by the Magi. But what were they for? Over the years I have heard various explanations including: spending money for the trip to Egypt, for his eventual burial . . .  But apparently it was for the cure of arthritis and other similar diseases. At least that is what recent studies are saying:

A remarkable new treatment for arthritis made from boswellia serrata (frankincense) and commiphora molmol (myrrh) has been found to be as successful at reducing pain and inflammation caused by arthritis as conventional painkillers.The two ingredients have a medical history of relieving the inflammation associated with rheumatic and osteopathic forms of arthritis.There have been more than 20 scientific studies carried out on these two ingredients in the past 15 years for the treatment of arthritic and other inflammation, the most recent of which was this year at the Indira Gandhi Medical College at Nagpur in India. The boswellia serrata tree is found in India.
The study found that the myrrh extract significantly reduced swelling in hands and feet. It is thought to work by reducing the levels of leukotaxine (a chemical produced by injured tissue that causes inflammation) as well as helping to reduce the permeability of blood capillaries, which can also add to inflammation and pain in joints and surrounding tissue.Myrrh, when taken orally in the same trial, helped reduce inflammation associated with ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, which are also thought to be triggered by high levels of leukotaxine in the intestinal tracts. The first UK trial of this treatment is being carried out by Dr Robert Jacobs, a GP from Devon, on 30 of his arthritic patients.

You can read the rest of the article here and here.

I am not sure how much of this to believe. But I do think that that some gold would help me to forget my aches and pains for a while.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?

One of the difficulties facing readers of the New Testament is how to reconcile the teachings of Jesus with the theology/letters of Paul. Anyone who has done serious study of the New Testament will recognize that Paul can seem to be quite and enigma. It is not always clear that his theology lines up with what was taught by Jesus. No wonder some New Testament scholars have labeled Paul as the "founder of Christianity," meaning that what Paul founded is different than what Jesus had in mind.

It is this perceived conflict between Jesus and Paul that has led J.R. Daniel Kirk to write Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? (Baker Academic, 2012).  Here is a description of the book.

Readers of the Bible are often drawn to Jesus's message and ministry, but they are not as positively inclined toward Paul. What should people who love Jesus do with Paul? Here Pauline scholar J. R. Daniel Kirk offers a fresh and timely engagement of the debated relationship between Paul's writings and the portrait of Jesus contained in the Gospels. He integrates the messages of Jesus and Paul both with one another and with the Old Testament, demonstrating the continuity that exists between these two foundational figures. After laying out the narrative contours of the Christian life, Kirk provides fresh perspective on challenging issues facing today's world, from environmental concerns to social justice to homosexuality.

The book will be released in January. I am grateful to Baker Academic for providing me with an advance copy. Over the course of two weeks (January 9th to January 20th) Baker will sponsoring another blog tour similar to the one I participated in for Bruce Fisk's A Hitchhiker's Guide to Jesus (Baker Academic, 2011). Each day over the two weeks different bloggers will be reviewing and interacting with the content of Kirk's book. I will be reviewing chapter 7 Liberty and Justice for All? on January 17th. I also plan to give away a copy of the book. In the mean time, you can visit the blog tour hub and view the short videos below to hear Kirk lay out a bit of what he tries to communicate in the book.

What's the Problem with Paul?

Deconstructing Paul

Christianity as Community

In the Classroom and Beyond

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Maccabeats: The Hanukkah Song

In honor of the second night of Hanukkah here is a video.

Thanks to my colleague in the History Department, John Moser, for pointing this out to me.


The Torah: A Beginners Guide

Reading and understanding the Bible can be difficult. Whether you are a beginner or a scholar, it takes a lot of work to understand the complex book that is the Bible. It is made up of documents written in three different languages, across thousands of years, in a variety of genres and cultures. Sometimes what readers want/need is a guide to help them navigate the Bible, to give them some background information.

Among the numerous resources available are Study Bibles that allow the reader to look at footnotes or a side column and glean some information that helps make sense of what the text is saying. For those interested in a more formal approach there are many, many introductions to the Bible and more are published every year.

But few of these resources can be utilized by both Jews and Christians. Although Jews and Christians have a common interest in the 39 books that make up the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, there are few resources that can be shared by both. Invariably, each book or study Bible is designed with a target audience in mind and little if any thought or space is given to how the other faith community interprets and/or uses the scriptures. Sadly this is the case with most resources that are not used by those with more scholarly interests.

But this gap between the two faith communities is reduced in the new book by Joel Kaminsky and Joel Lohr The Torah: A Beginners Guides (Oneworld Publications, 2011). Kaminsky is a Jew and Lohr a Christian. Together they combine their respective faiths and expertise to introduce readers to the first five books of the Bible commonly known as the Pentateuch or Torah.

After covering a few basics like the language of the Pentateuch, authorship and versions they explore the Torah as a religious book for both Jews and Christians and in a separate chapter they explore modern interpretive methods. After laying this groundwork they devote a separate chapter to each of the five books. Each chapter:

  • Discusses the book’s placement in the Torah
  • Provides an overview of the book’s content
  • Covers some of the critical issues related to the book
  • Explains how the book is used by both Jews and Christians

In addition there are a number of dialogue boxes that briefly looks at topics such as “Monotheism vs Monolatry,” “The Meaning of Purity in Leviticus” and “The Voice of Women in the Torah,” to name just a few. The volume is complemented with a helpful glossary of terms, lists of suggested readings for further study, and a set of time-lines.

This book is ideal for those who want to learn more about the first five books of the Bible, but also need a book that is accessible. Kaminsky and Lohr do a good job of introducing some important concepts for readers who are new to the subject. It would also be ideal for undergrad Bible classes and small study groups.

The book only costs $9.95 which makes it even more attractive.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Happy Hanukkah!

This is the first night of Hanukkah, the Jewish celebration of lights. This is when Jews across the world commemorate their victory of Antiochus IV Epiphanes who outlawed Jewish worship and desecrated the temple. The earliest source we have for the holiday is Josephus' Antiquities 12.

Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days, and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon; but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honored God, and delighted them by hymns and psalms. Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival. Judas also rebuilt the walls round about the city, and reared towers of great height against the incursions of enemies, and set guards therein. He also fortified the city Bethsura, that it might serve as a citadel against any distresses that might come from our enemies.

You can learn more about the holiday here.

Happy Hanukkah to all my Jewish readers!

We're not dead yet! Christianity is still the world's largest religion.

It is not unusual to read or hear about the steady decline of Christianity in the world. And to some degree this is true, at least in places like Europe and North America. But in the two-thirds world, Christianity is growing. The result is that the growth of Christianity has been somewhat consistent over the last 100 years, but the location of the growth has shifted.

The Pew Forum has released a report on Global Christianity. Here is a bit of what they have to say.

A comprehensive demographic study of more than 200 countries finds that there are 2.18 billion Christians of all ages around the world, representing nearly a third of the estimated 2010 global population of 6.9 billion. Christians are also geographically widespread – so far-flung, in fact, that no single continent or region can indisputably claim to be the center of global Christianity.

A century ago, this was not the case. In 1910, about two-thirds of the world’s Christians lived in Europe, where the bulk of Christians had been for a millennium, according to historical estimates by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity. Today, only about a quarter of all Christians live in Europe (26%). A plurality – more than a third – now are in the Americas (37%). About one in every four Christians lives in sub-Saharan Africa (24%), and about one-in-eight is found in Asia and the Pacific (13%).

The number of Christians around the world has nearly quadrupled in the last 100 years, from about 600 million in 1910 to more than 2 billion in 2010. But the world’s overall population also has risen rapidly, from an estimated 1.8 billion in 1910 to 6.9 billion in 2010. As a result, Christians make up about the same portion of the world’s population today (32%) as they did a century ago (35%).

This apparent stability, however, masks a momentous shift. Although Europe and the Americas still are home to a majority of the world’s Christians (63%), that share is much lower than it was in 1910 (93%). And the proportion of Europeans and Americans who are Christian has dropped from 95% in 1910 to 76% in 2010 in Europe as a whole, and from 96% to 86% in the Americas as a whole.

Christianity is still the largest religion in the world followed by Islam. But the center is moving elsewhere from Europe and North America. As they say in real estate. It's all about location.

You can read the whole report here. There site also provides some interactive maps and a quiz. I got eight out of ten correct.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Advice for Seminarians from a Graduating Seminarian

We have just ended another term at Ashland. I am still grading, but the students are probably already enjoying their break. Some are enjoying it more than others because they graduated this month. For them, the process is over. For others, it will continue another six months or more.

Over at the Christianity Matters Blog, Casey has posted eleven things that students in seminary should know. I liked what he had to say and decided to repost here. The only thing I adjusted was number eight by assuming that, at least for my students, their supporting spouse could be either a husband or wife. So if you are currently in seminary or thinking about enrolling, have a read of what Casey has to say. And do please visit his blog and perhaps leave a comment.

1. Seminary requires you to be a good researcher and writer

In order to learn the trade well, it would be wise to spend time reading books on writing and research, knowing the better researcher and writer you become, the better speaker you will be. In addition, the better writer you become, the better reader you will be, helping you to better process the overwhelming material you will read during your time in seminary.

2. Seminary provides you with tools, it does not teach you everything you need to know

Receiving your diploma does not mean your studying is over. You could argue seminary is just the beginning of your theological education, giving you the ability to pursue further self-study. In order to serve a church well, those graduating from seminary need to continue to study, research, and write, faithfully exercising the skills developed during their time in seminary.

3. Make an effort to develop good friendships

Not only are you making friends for life, who will be a rock for you to lean on during your days in ministry, but you will learn more outside of the classroom in conversations with friends than during lectures. Since this is true, you should take as many classes as you can with your friends, and discuss the lectures and readings as often as possible. I have learned more, and been challenged more, during conversations with friends at Starbucks and over lunch than I would have if I solely relied on my personal study of class lectures.

4. Develop friendships with your professors

I have spent time getting to know several professors throughout my seminary career. These men have given me solid biblical advice, as well as challenged me in my spiritual life. It is worth it to put forth the effort to get to know a few professors on a deeper level.

5. Find a solid local church and pour into it

Don’t coast through your seminary career thinking you will minister when you take on your first church. Find a church now, plug in, spend as much time with the leadership there as you can, and minister to as many people as you can, even if it is not from the pulpit. In addition, you should give the church you attend during seminary the same opportunity to examine your calling to the ministry as you did your home church.

6. Buy as many books as you can

In order to find books at a reasonable price, spend time finding the discount book sellers in your area. A high concentration of seminary students equals a greater potential for a gold mine of cheap theology books to develop in your local used book stores. Visit these stores often; especially, at the end of a semester when other students may be unloading their unwanted books. What one student does not want, may be a gem to another.

7. Attend Conferences

Most conferences will allow you to attend at a cheaper rate while you are in seminary. Take the opportunity while you have it, knowing that traveling with friends and networking with other pastors from around the country is priceless. Not to mention, most conferences give away books like they are candy. It is not uncommon to walk away with 20-30 free books written by your favorite authors and speakers.

8. Set aside time for your wife/husband

Seminary can easily dominate all your free time, so it is important you set aside time to spend with your husband/wife, remembering she/he is your first ministry.

9. Make time for your personal relationship with the Lord

Even a theological education is no substitute for one’s devotional life. Setting aside time to do your daily devotion is crucial to your growth in the Christian life.

10. Plan out your semester

Nothing is more stressful than having to write three papers and study for two tests in the same week. In order to avoid that type of stress, setup a schedule and plan at the beginning of each semester and stick to it. If you planned well, and started your projects early enough, you should have no problem turning in your best work with minimal stress.

11. Have fun

Seminary is a time for serious study and preparation for ministry, but it is also a time to enjoy life. Don’t always act so serious, and take the opportunity to get involved in intramural sports, as well as seek out a hobby other than reading. Always make sure to set aside time during the week to relax with friends and family.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Book Giveaway Winner!

This week's giveaway winner is Carl S. Sweatman! He is the winner of N.T. Wright's - The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress, 2003).

Carl, please send your details to and I will send the book out this week. Remember, you have five days to claim the prize.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the giveaways the past three weeks. Friday book giveaway will resume sometime after the holidays. In the mean time, many thanks to all of my readers.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Theology of Snoopy

I think this comic describes an attitude we should all bring to the task of biblical and theological studies. We develop our theories, form conclusions and forget that we just might be wrong. I think we could all learn something from Snoopy.

HT: The Pangea Blog.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Friday Book Giveaway! Special Holiday Edition

This is the last week of the book giveaway before Christmas. This week I am giving away N.T. Wright's - The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress, 2003). Here is the blurb.

Why did Christianity begin, and why did it take the shape it did? To answer this question – which any historian must face – renowned New Testament scholar N.T. Wright focuses on the key points: what precisely happened at Easter? What did the early Christians mean when they said that Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead? What can be said today about his belief?

This book, third is Wright’s series Christian Origins and the Question of God, sketches a map of ancient beliefs about life after death, in both the Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds. It then highlights the fact that the early Christians’ belief about the afterlife belonged firmly on the Jewish spectrum, while introducing several new mutations and sharper definitions. This, together with other features of early Christianity, forces the historian to read the Easter narratives in the gospels, not simply as late rationalizations of early Christian spirituality, but as accounts of two actual events: the empty tomb of Jesus and his "appearances."

How do we explain these phenomena? The early Christians’ answer was that Jesus had indeed been bodily raised from the dead; that was why they hailed him as the messianic "son of God." No modern historian has come up with a more convincing explanation. Facing this question, we are confronted to this day with the most central issues of the Christian worldview and theology.

So if you want to win this book put your name below and I will draw a random winner on Sunday. Once chosen the winner has five days to claim the book. Good luck to you all.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Must you believe in the Virgin Birth to be a Christian?

I know this is not a topic that many are comfortable talking about. It is also Advent/Christmas and thus the Virgin Birth is on the minds of many. As we know, the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke say that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin when she became pregnant with Jesus. But not everyone believes it. And I am not just talking about "scholars." There are a number of people who call themselves Christians and yet do not believe in the virgin birth. For whatever reason they find it to be a pious legend the communicates more theology than history.

The question I would like to put to my readers is: Must one believe in the Virgin Birth to be a Christian? The impetus for the question comes from an article Albert Mohler wrote yesterday in which he argues that one cannot be a Christian and not believe in the Virgin Birth. He concludes the article with this statement.

This much we know: All those who find salvation will be saved by the atoning work of Jesus the Christ — the virgin-born Savior. Anything less than this is just not Christianity, whatever it may call itself. A true Christian will not deny the Virgin Birth.

So my question is this - Must a Christian believe in the Virgin Birth? Must they be convinced of its historical veracity? What I am NOT asking for is evidence for or against the virgin birth. I know the arguments and that is a different topic. But I am interested in hearing as to whether you think a person can be a Christian and NOT believe in the historical veracity of the virgin birth and why or why not.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

When the Manger is Empty: Childless at Christmas

While some people call this time of the year the “Christmas Season” it is technically Advent. For those who follow or are familiar with the liturgical calendar, Advent is the season in which the church looks forward to the coming of Christmas, the birth of Christ. During the four weeks prior to Christmas day, churches across the world will read scriptures and sing songs expressing the hope that the Christ will be born. It is a time when the church looks forward to celebrating the first coming of Jesus, as an infant, incarnate. In some churches a manger is positioned at the front. But the baby Jesus is not placed in the manger because it is not yet Christmas. Christ has not yet come. But on Christmas Eve/Day the babe will be placed in the manger as part of the celebration of Messiah’s coming. Until then, however, the manger remains empty.

But in the midst of the celebration there are those who find Advent and Christmas a struggle. It is a painful reminder that for them the manger in their own home is empty. It is empty not because they are not religious. Not because they refuse to participate, but because they are unable to fill that manger. They are among the six million couples a year that learn that they are unable to have children. And the irony of the season is not lost on them. As the church celebrates God’s gift to the world, a baby, they are keenly aware that there is a level at which they cannot participate in the Advent celebration. The coming of the Messiah is somehow dulled by their realization that God’s gift seems to have skipped over them. There is a feeling of disconnect for them as they hear the promises of Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23 and Luke 1:29-33 read in church, all of which speak of a child, of joy, of great things to come. And yet, the childless couple is unable to identify. Add to this the overwhelming focus on children at Christmas (a good thing), and the season is more crushing than uplifting.

The Bible is of little help to the childless couple. A quick survey of the Bible reveals a number of stories about childless couples. Most of them focus on the woman’s inability to conceive. All of them, without exception, find resolution when God opens the womb. Quite often the focus of readers, teachers and preachers of the Bible is on the divine intervention that finally allows the woman to bear a child and bring to fruition a previous promise made by God. But the absence of stories about promises to those who remain childless creates a painful cycle for the couple. The story of the Christian Bible focuses on the promise and birth of the baby. But there is no place in the Bible for the couple to turn to find comfort when their own manger remains empty.

Ministers will often recognize the pain that a Mother’s day or Father’s day celebration can cause to a childless couple. Usually these couples will stay home from church on that Sunday. They don’t want to spoil the celebrations of others, but they also don’t want a reminder of what is lacking in their own life. But some are unaware that there is a level of discomfort at Christmas as well. And it is theological as well as emotional. Why is it that God overturns the circumstances of every childless couple in the Bible, but leaves them in their own circumstances? God makes promises to the barren Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary, but where are the promises of God to them? How can they process their situation theologically? In the midst of the celebration of Christmas, the birth of a promised baby, they live in theological silence. There are no answers. And Advent and Christmas becomes a bittersweet time as they join the church to celebrate God’s gift, while their own manger remains empty.

I have been unable to find a way to close this post. Indeed, it may be that closure is not the answer here since for many childless couples closure is not something that ever fully happens. I decided to Google the phrase “Childless at Christmas” to see if anyone else had thoughts. I found two columns recently published on the topic. One from the Australian Sydney Morning Herald and the other from the UK Daily Mail. Neither of them proposes answers to the theological aspect of being childless at Christmas. But perhaps you will find them helpful if you find yourself ministering to a childless couple this Christmas. If you are childless this Christmas, perhaps this blog or the linked articles will at least let you know that you are not alone.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Credibility of the Miracles in the New Testament

Miracles. The Bible is full of them. But few in the western world have ever see one. I know I have never seen one. I have heard plenty of stories about them, but they always seem to take place somewhere else. A place where I can't got to see it or the person who experienced the miracle.

And the truth is the longer you go without seeing a miracle the more you suspect that they no longer happen today or, quite simply, never happened in the past either. This is a particular problem of the modern age. We can explain so much through science that we are able to explain away many things that might have been called a miracle. The same happens with the miracles in the Bible.

But Craig Keener believes in miracles, especially the ones of the Bible and says that modern believers should expect them. Keener is professor of New Testament at Asbury Seminary and has recently published a two-volume work titled: Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker, 2011).

Most modern prejudice against biblical miracle reports depends on David Hume's argument that uniform human experience precludes the possibility of miracles. Yet current research shows that human experience has been far from uniform.

Hundreds of millions of people all over the world in all cultures, in both ancient times and in modern times, claim to have experienced miracles. In Miracles New Testament scholar Craig Keener argues that it is time to reevaluate Hume's evaluation of the miraculous in light of the growing stock of evidence available to us in support of miraculous events.

This magisterial, wide-ranging and meticulously researched two-volume study presents the most thorough current defense of the credibility of the miracle reports in earliest Christian history, namely the Gospels and Acts, and also for plausibility of the miraculous occurring in today's world. Covering methodological concerns and assumptions, empirical evidence, and majority-world assumptions, Keener also draws on claims from a range of global cultures and takes a multidisciplinary approach to the problem of miracles.

Thus Keener argues, that when the methodological issues are properly dealt with, and the historiographical veracity of many miracle accounts throughout history and from contemporary times are explained, our best option remains to acknowledge them as genuine divine acts which, in turn, lend credence to biblical miracle reports.

Keener recently gave an interview to Christianity Today about his book. Here is some of what he had to say about miracles and New Testament scholarship:

Miracles are an unusual subject for a New Testament scholar. What led you to it?

I was going to write a footnote in my commentary on Acts, and was dealing with questions of historical reliability. Many scholars dismiss miracle stories as not historically plausible, arguing that they arose as legendary accretions.

I was familiar with [contemporary] reports of miracles taking place. There must be thousands of such reports. It was inconceivable to me that people would say eyewitnesses can't claim to have seen such things.

What do you want to accomplish with this book?

Primarily, to challenge scholars who dismiss miracles in the Gospels as legends and not historically plausible. Eyewitnesses say these kinds of things all the time. I also want to challenge the bias that says these things can't be supernatural. I believe God does miracles, and I don't see why we scholars are not allowed to talk about it.

What does New Testament scholarship gain from taking miracle stories seriously as historical phenomena?

We have been embarrassed by the miracle stories, and have tended to allegorize them more than other narratives. Accounts from the Temple of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing—nobody allegorizes those. I agree that the Gospel writers are teaching us broader principles with broader applications. But in much of the majority world, when people read these narratives of healing, they see a God who cares about their suffering, who meets them at their point of need. I think we in the West can learn from the way they hear.

One of your main points is that non-Western cultures may provide a better paradigm for reading the Gospels than the academic Western paradigm. Can you say more?

Most cultures believe and report experiences that do not easily fit our Enlightenment paradigm. Hume may have been aware of that, because he makes a point of dismissing reports from "ignorant, barbarous" peoples. Hume's ethnocentrism is well-documented. It's not an argument that would fly too well in the 21st century.

Are you suggesting that even in our own era, there is an ethnocentrism in the way scholars read the New Testament?

Yes, though I think there is more openness today. If somebody today said what Bultmann said, that nobody in the modern world believes in miracles, then that would be flat-out having your head in the sand.

You can read the rest of the interview here. In addition to talking about New Testament scholarship Keener talks about his own experiences with researching the miraculous. It is an interesting read and I imagine his book will generate a good discussion.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Friday Book Giveaway Winner

Congrats to Jeremy Miller! He is this week's Friday Book Giveaway winner. Jeremy has won David deSilva's - An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation(IVP, 2004).

Jeremy, you five days to email your details to Failure to claim your book in five days will return the book to the shelf.

Didn't win this week? Don't forget that next Friday I will be giving away a copy of N.T. Wright's - The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress, 2003).

Friday, December 9, 2011

Friday Book Giveaway! Special Holiday Edition

Hello again blog fans. By way of reminder, in honor of the holidays I am giving away a book each Friday until December 16th. That means that if you are a reader of this blog and either want a book for yourself or to put under the tree for someone special, you have three chances to win before Christmas.

Last week I gave away Ben Witherington's - The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought World of the New Testament Vol. One which was won by Mike Suh.

This week I am giving away David deSilva's - An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation (IVP, 2004). Here is the blurb:

A 2005 Gold Medallion finalist! Some introductions to the New Testament highlight the historical contexts in which the New Testament literature was written. This introduction gives particular attention to the social, cultural and rhetorical contexts of the New Testament authors and their writings. Few introductions to the New Testament integrate instruction in exegetical and interpretive strategies with their customary considerations of authorship, dating, audience and message. This introduction capitalizes on the opportunities, introducing students to a relevant facet of interpretation with each portion of New Testament literature. Rarely do introductions to the New Testament approach their task mindful of the needs of students preparing for ministry. This introduction is explicit in doing so, assuming as it does that the New Testament itself--in its parts and as a whole--is a pastoral response. Each chapter on the New Testament literature closes with a discussion of the implications for ministry formation. These integrative features alone would distinguish this introduction from others. But in addition, its pages brim with maps, photos, points of interest and aids to learning. Separate chapters explore the historical and cultural environment of the New Testament era, the nature of the Gospels and the quest for the historical Jesus, and the life of Paul. This introduction by David A. deSilva sets a new standard for its genre and is bound to appeal to many who believe that the New Testament should be introduced as if both scholarship and ministry mattered.

Winners will be selected on the Sunday following the Friday the book is posted. As always, the winner has five days to claim their book once their name has been posted. All unclaimed books go back on the shelf.

Leave your name below and check back on Sunday.

Don't forget that next Friday I will be giving away a copy of N.T. Wright's - The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress, 2003).

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Nativity Factor

Over at the EChurch Blog Stuart James has posted a link to the Nativity Factor. The Nativity Factor is a competition sponsored by ITN in the UK. Entrants were asked to create a 30 second to 3 minute long video in which they creatively (re)tell the story of Christ's birth. At last count 66 clips have been loaded. You can watch the others at the Nativity Factor web site and vote for your favorite. Some of these would work very well as part of a sermon.

I Have posted my four favorite below.

This one is a retelling of the story from the Inn Keeper's perspective.

This one was entered in the under 16 group. Very creative way to use Legos.

This one is a bit more hip.

This one is very different than the other three.
It shows scenes of modern day Bethlehem and reminds us that although the city is very different today than it was 200 years ago, some things are similar. Bethlehem in the first century and the twenty-first century is an occupied city. And yet it is a place of hope.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Theology of Gilligan's Island: Who'd of thought it?

Gilligan's Island was one of favorite shows growing up. The reruns were aired everyday on channel 5. I have probably seen every episode including the TV movies Escape from Gillian's Island and Return to Gilligan's Island.

But little did I know that while I was watching the show I was also learning theology. I didn't not realize that the island was actually hell, Gilligan the devil and that each character was a metaphorical representation for the Seven Deadly Sins. At least that is what its creator Sherwood Schwartz claimed. Below is a short piece that appeared on NPR in 2008, but was only brought to my attention recently.

Poor castaways. Each week they would devise a way off the island. Each week Gilligan would thwart their escape usually with the best of intentions.

Years after the show ended, its creator, Sherwood Schwartz, admitted that each of the characters represented one of the seven deadly sins Pride (the Professor), Anger (Skipper), Lust, (Ginger), and the rest. Gilligan was supposed to be Sloth.

But a closer viewing indicates that the island may well have been Hell — and the red-clad Gilligan the devil who kept them on his island.

The greatest part of the metaphor, though, is that if the others ever wanted to get off the island, what they needed to do was kill Gilligan — and that each of us has our own inner Gilligan, that sweet-natured, well-meaning part of us that always sabotages us from getting what we really want.

Maybe if we truly want to succeed in life, we need to kill our own inner Gilligan.

I suppose watching Gilligan's Island may have had a profound influence on my becoming a biblical scholar. Of course, at one time I probably knew Gilligan's Island better than the Bible.
I wonder, however, if any of this is true or if it is just a way to get people to keep watching a silly show. No matter, if I would see it on today I would still sit down and watch it.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

How Saint Paul Bribed the Early Church

The Jerusalem collection is a well-known feature of the Apostle Paul's story. According to Acts and some of Paul's letters, Jerusalem was suffering a severe food shortage (Acts calls it a famine). Paul took it upon himself to gather a collection from among the Gentile churches he founded and to present it to the Jerusalem church. It was Paul's way of showing the Jewish believers in Jesus that the Gentile believers were concerned for their fellow Christians in Judea. It was also Paul's way of demonstrating that he understood that Jerusalem was still the center of Christianity, the home base of the movement.

So was it a bribe? Was Paul attempting to use the generosity of the Gentile churches as a way to get approval from the Jerusalem authorities for his Gentile mission? Was this what Paul means in Galatians 2:9-10 when he recounts that James and John endorsed his mission, with the proviso that he "remember the poor"? Was it a polite bribe? That is how some New Testament scholars have described it. And now it is the basis of a new film about the Apostle Paul.

Robert Orlando is the writer and director of the soon to be released A Polite Bribe. This movie/documentary looks at the story of Paul and the collection that he gathered for the Jerusalem church. It features a wide selection of New Testament scholars from across the theological spectrum.

Below is a trailer for the film. The promotional web site also contains a number of short video clips featuring some of the scholars interviewed in the film. The trailer says it is being released in "select theaters" on December 29th. Somehow I don't think Ashland will be one of those "select theaters." I will post more as information becomes available.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Bethlehemian Rhapsody

Here is a bit of fun for a Monday.

One of the all time classic rock songs is Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody. I just don't get tired of hearing it. And I have Jimmy Dunn to thank for a new appreciation for Queen's music since Bohemian Rhapsody is also a favorite of his. I have fond memories of sitting in Durham Cathedral during the SNTS conference listening to the North East choral group performing the song for us.

Well in honor of Christmas, here is a seasonal version of that song. Bethlehemian Rhapsody.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Book Giveaway Winner!

Congrats to Mike Suh! He is the winner of this week's giveaway.

Mike, send your details to and I will send the book out this week. Remember, you have 5 days to claim the book.

Didn't win this week? Check back next Friday with I will be giving a way a copy of David deSilva - An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation (IVP, 2004).

Friday, December 2, 2011

Friday Book Giveaway! Special Holiday Edition

Forget Black Friday! Who needs to wait in long lines for cheap stuff?

Forget cyber Monday! Who cares what deals you can buy online?

I know what my readers want. They want free books just for the asking!

So, in honor of the holidays I will be giving away a book each Friday until December 16th. That means that if you are a reader of this blog and either want a book for yourself or to put under the tree for someone special, you have three chances to win before Christmas (Xmas). And, I am going to tell you in advance which ones I am giving away in the order you can expect them.

December 16th - N.T. Wright - The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress, 2003).

So check back each week and put you name in the drawing and put a book under your tree (they are much to thick for stockings). Winners will be selected on the Sunday following the Friday the book is posted. As always, the winner has five days to claim their book once their name has been posted. All unclaimed books go back on the shelf.

In the mean time, here is the blurb for Witherington's book.

All too often, argues Ben Witherington, the theology of the New Testament has been divorced from its ethics, leaving as isolated abstractions what are fully integrated, dynamic elements within the New Testament itself. As Witherington stresses, "behavior affects and reinforces or undoes belief."

Having completed commentaries on all of the New Testament books, a remarkable feat in itself, Witherington now offers the first of a two-volume set on the theological and ethical thought world of the New Testament. The first volume looks at the individual witnesses, while the second examines the collective witness.

The New Testament, says Ben Witherington, is "like a smallish choir. All are singing the same cantata, but each has an individual voice and is singing its own parts and notes. If we fail to pay attention to all the voices in the choir, we do not get the entire effect. . . . If this first volume is about closely analyzing the sheet music left to us by which each musician's part is delineated, the second volume will attempt to re-create what it might have sounded like had they ever gotten together and performed their scores to produce a single masterful cantata."

What the New Testament authors have in mind, Witherington contends, is that all believers should be conformed in thought, word and deed to the image of Jesus Christ--the indelible image.

Leave your name below and good luck to you all.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Thoughts on Applying for a PhD in Biblical and Theological Studies

Several times a year a student will make an appointment with me to discuss what it takes to earn a PhD degree. These are often students who enjoy learning and the academic setting and would like to continue on to the next level. I usually begin by asking them why they would like a PhD and why they believe they need one. After a few more preliminary questions I lay out for them what is involved in getting the degree. At some point in the conversation they begin to realize that this is not like earning a second, slightly more advanced masters degree. I then usually say something like “there is a reason they call it a terminal degree.” By the end of our 30 minute meeting many of those students leave my office wide-eyed at what it takes to earn a PhD and convinced it is not for them. This is a completely different degree with all kinds of new expectations and demands.

While I may sound like the fount of all wisdom to the students who visit my office, I remember being in the same situation. Not only did I not know what was required to earn a PhD, I had no idea what a PhD was. Honestly, I knew that professors were called “Dr” but I had never stopped to ask why (nor did I care). I entered my masters program with no intention of going beyond that degree. It was a miracle that I had made it that far in my academic pursuits and even wanted to go that far. School and I did not have a very positive experience. So when I entered a graduate program and began to meet people with PhDs I was introduced to a whole new aspect of the academic world.

Over time, however, I began to realize the need for a PhD, which in turn birthed the desire. I was fortunate to have some professors who not only encouraged me to move forward, but also provided some helpful guidance and contacted their own friends and mentors at the institutions where I was hoping to enroll. Long story short, I was accepted at the University of Durham and completed the PhD in 2002.

Ever since I have tried to provide my students with helpful advice as they seek to follow the same path. After eight years of teaching I have seen four of my students enter PhD programs and one a ThM. I am hoping and praying that they will all finish successfully. When I do find a student that I think will be successful and should apply to a program I provide some suggestions that might help them. Perhaps you will find them helpful if you are considering applying for a program.

Have a 5 to 10 year plan

Getting a PhD takes time. The average program in North America lasts five years (three years course work, two years writing). In the UK the program is slated as three years, but often takes four (or more). If you are in, say, the second year of a master’s program then you are at least two years away from entering a PhD program and at least five from finishing. That is at least seven years. And if you hope to find a job you will need to build in a one to two year buffer to find that job after completing the degree. Most people do not walk out of a program into a job. I started my master’s degree when I was 25 and started my first teaching job when as I was 35.

Take the Kaplan GRE class

If you are applying to programs in the USA (Canada?) you will need to take the GRE exam. I am not convinced that this is always the best policy since taking this type of exam is not necessarily an indicator of success, but that is the way things are. In order to prepare for this exam students will buy preparation books that help them to learn vocabulary, brush up on their math, and sharpen their analytical skills. This is what I did and my scores were satisfactory (my math skill was my lowest, which is why my wife has the business degree). But over the last few years I have had several students take the Kaplan GRE preparation course. This is not a way to cheat. The GRE is a particular kind of test, one you will most likely never see again. The Kaplan course helps you learn how to take the exam so that your score correctly reflects your knowledge of the subjects rather than your inability to figure out how the exam is written. At least two of my students have taken the GRE using the preparation book they bought off Amazon and then took the exam a second time after taking the Kaplan course. In both cases their scores increased dramatically. The course will cost about $1200. I know that is a lot for a student, but consider it an investment. A good score will not only help increase your chances of getting into a program, it could also help to earn you a scholarship.

Learn the Languages

Most PhD programs, especially in biblical and theological studies, require that you know a number of ancient and modern languages. Make sure that you learn your Hebrew and Greek in your masters program. Take advance level courses and, if possible, sign up for courses and directed studies that require you to use and advance your languages skills. And if possible learn at least German. Here at Ashland we offer two terms in Theological German. The course won’t have you ordering schnitzel and a beer at your favorite German restaurant, but it will help you to read Bultmann and others. If you can learn French do that as well. But I would also recommend learning a language like Spanish. The population of Spanish speakers (at least in North America) is growing and knowing another modern language will only help you, especially when you are looking for a job. I learned German before I entered my PhD program. The advantage of having some ability in the language before beginning the program is that it will reduce the pressure on you once you are enrolled. It will be one less thing you have to learn.

Be careful where you go, remember you want to get a job someday

Students usually already have an idea of where they want to enroll for a PhD. Since I work at a seminary the students often are thinking about other seminaries or denominationally affiliated institutions. That is fine if you only ever want to work in schools associated with that particular denomination. But if you are hoping to increase your employability beyond your own denomination then I recommend going to a university where denominational ties are either weaker or non-existent. Remember, there will be a lot of PhDs applying for about 50 jobs a year and you want to attract the attention of as many of them as possible. On the flipside, not going to a program sponsored by or associated with a denomination can also hurt your employability. Many schools require that their professors be a member of denomination “X” if they want to teach there. Consequently, a PhD from the denomination’s school is more attractive to them. So know what kind of institution you hope to teach at and plan accordingly.

Who you work with can be just as important as where you go

Simply saying that got your degree from the PhD program at Ivory Tower University does not mean that you will get a job. Sometimes it matters who you work with in that program. Don’t simply choose a school based on its name. Who is teaching there? What are their areas of research and publication? How can this person help you to advance in your own academic career? Once you have isolated a dozen or so potential mentors write them a short email, introduce yourself, and explain you research interests and your hopes for the future. Ask them about the program at their institution and whether or not it is the place for you. Keep the email to no more than a paragraph or two. Long emails from strangers are not always the kind of things professors like to find in their inbox. Some of the people you write will answer within a few days to a few weeks (they are busy). Some will never answer you. Take that as a hint. Remember you need to work with this person for several years and you want to finish. So, when possible, try to find a person who will at least respond to you and perhaps would be a good mentor

Apply to a number of schools

Finally, once you have taken your GRE exam, learned your languages and located some potential mentors, you need to make application. Do not apply to only two or three schools. The competition is fierce for these programs; some only take ten or less new students a year. I suggest that if you are serious about getting the degree that you apply to as many schools as possible. I once had a student apply to twenty different schools. A bit excessive, perhaps, but in the end he had both acceptance and rejection letters, which means that he had the opportunity to choose from the acceptance letters where he wanted to go. True, the application fees can add up. But, if you apply to two schools and don’t get in you are not only out the application fee, you are stuck at your current degree level and your career has stalled. On the other hand, if you apply to ten schools and get accepted by two or three you are then in the position to choose and can move ahead in your career. Yes the process was more expensive, but in the end your investment got you where you want to be.

There is much more that I could say. And then of course there is the other whole topic of actually completing the PhD program successfully once you are enrolled. But if you are getting ready to or thinking about applying, then the above should help. I would be interested to read any other advice that others may have for those interested in getting a PhD. Leave a comment below.