Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Passing of Anson Rainey (Jan 11, 1930 - Feb 19, 2011)

Jim West reports that Anson Rainey has passed away.

Rainey is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures and Semitic Linguistics, Tel Aviv University, Full Professor since 1981. He was also adjunct professor of Historical Geography, Bar Ilan University and Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

Rainey was well-known for his expertise in Semitic languages and historical geography. His probably best remembered for his work with the Tel- Aramana tablets.

I was privileged to meet professor Rainey in 1997 while studying in Israel. Over the years I had the many opportunities to hear him lecture including at Tel-Gezer in 2009. I last saw and spoke with him at the annual meeting of SBL in Atlanta. May he rest in peace.

You can read an extensive list of his accomplishments here at his Tel-Aviv University faculty page. You can also read about the Armana tablets and Rainey’s work here.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Brimstone from Sodom, Is the Bible "ok," and living life according to Leviticus: Friday Round UP.

Its been a busy week for me but I still managed to get some posts in. Here is a wrap up of some things I posted and items I saw, but did not comment on .

The week started with the sad news that Alan Segal had passed away this past weekend.

Yesterday I had some good interaction over my post on Quirinius' Census in Luke 2.

Jim West announced that he was selling Brimstone from Sodom and Gomorrah.

James McGrath posits his own solution for the ending to Mark in an essay at Bible and Interpretation. Also, Joe Lunceford suggests a way forward in the 1 Corinthians statement about women keeping silent in the church.

A BBC article notes that in spite of the numerous updates the Bible has undergone, the term "ok" is still not in the Bible.

On a similar, but more polemical note, Ghana Web asks if the New Testament needs updating so as to eliminate all that silly non-scientific language along with the "outright falsehoods."

Over on the Huffington Post Cathleen Falsani wonders if anyone could or would want to live life according the regulations in Leviticus.

And today Allan Bevere asks if religion loses its grip where life is good.

Happy Friday! I will add more links as the day goes on.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Interpretive Gymnastics: A look at the problem of Quirinius ' census

Those familiar with the story of Jesus' birth are also familiar with the opening lines in Luke 2:1-2"In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all world should be registered. This was the first census and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria." Luke's statement about the census is intended to explain why Joseph and Mary traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

The problem, as many New Testament scholars know, is that Luke's dating of the census is off by about ten years. We know from Josephus that Quirinius and Herod the Great are not contemporaries in Judea. Quirinius became governor of Syria and Judea in 6 0r 7 AD in order to facilitate the banishment of Herod the Great's son, Archelaus, who had been ruling since his father's death in 4 BC (Ant. 18). Quirinius was responsible for the transition from local, client king rule to direct Roman rule, of which Pilate is a representative. Thus it seems Luke has confused his facts. And many New Testament scholars acknowledge this. Some use it as "proof" that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem, but I am not sure that we can or should dismiss that identification out of hand.

Nonetheless, some New Testament scholars try to explain away what is a clear confusion of the facts. For instance, I ran across a video clip (below) of Darrell Bock on the Ehrman Project, where he attempts to reconcile the incongruities between Luke and history.

Bock admits that the date is a problem. He also acknowledges that Augustus did not institute a worldwide census, thus the picture Luke contrives of the whole Roman world moving around to be counted is not an accurate reflection of what really happened.

Instead, Bock suggests that the census began to get organized in 4 BCE, but was not actually executed until the time of Quirinius in 6 AD. Bock suggests that it was a long ten year process and that although Quirinius did not start the process he became associated with it since he completed and presented it to Rome in 6 AD. In Bock's defense, he does then concede that it is possible that Luke got it wrong.

I have a lot of respect for Darrell Bock and his work, especially in the area of the historical Jesus. But I am not sure that his solution is all that helpful. His answer may be plausible, and I would not dismiss it out of hand, except that Luke confuses his historical facts elsewhere. Luke refers to real, verifiable persons and events, but then seems to mix up the chronology.

The best example of this comes from Luke's second volume, Acts. In Acts 5:35-37 Gamaliel gives a speech in which he refers to two historical figures, Theudas and Judas the Galilean. Here is what Luke has Gamaliel say:

Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. (NIV)

The problem, once again, is that although Luke has his names correct, his dates are wrong. The problem is twofold. First of all, we know from Josephus that Theudas did lead a rebellion and was executed, but that happened in 44 AD, about ten years after the time of the Gamaliel speech (Ant. 20.97-98). A similar problem is connected with Judas. Luke is correct in that Judas did lead a rebellion against the census, the one instituted by Quirinius in fact. But that was in 6 AD. This means that Judas' rebellion was 30 to 40 years before Theudas not after as Luke has Gamaliel claim. Luke has his people right, but his dates wrong.

It is, of course, possible that Josephus is also wrong and that our sources are not sufficient enough to make any firm conclusions. I suppose the reason why I stick with Josephus in this case is because his program in the Jewish War and Antiquities is all about detailing the actions of people like Judas and Theudas. Luke, on the other hand, grabs onto those events as a way to anchor his story about Jesus and the church in history. So while both Luke and Josephus are questionable sources at times, I am thinking about the author's motive for recounting the events they choose to include. Luke’s purpose is not to tell us about Theudas and Judas but Jesus and the church.

The best way to handle these problems, in my opinion, is to recognize that Luke is not a historian, at least not in a 21st century sense, and to stop trying to make his historical facts work when they don't. Luke's works do contain a lot of history, but he uses it to support his overall theological agenda. Luke does use sources and at times he does so in creative ways. His purpose does not seem to a writing of history in the way that we understand history. Rather, Luke wants to convey the significance of Jesus and the early church within the context of history. Thus we need not approach Luke like a history textbook, but as a book that explains the theological significance of Jesus and the church within a particular historical setting.

Again, I have a lot of respect for Darrell Bock, but I don't think this kind of exegesis is helpful since it perpetuates a misguided approach to interpretation. I am not a minimalist and put more trust in the NT authors than some may think. But I think by standing on our heads to make Luke's "history" work fails to appreciate his larger theological program.

Here is the video clip. Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Infertility and the Bible 5: Options Available to the Childless

Last week we looked at the first option available to the childless woman/couple, which was praying to the gods. This week we look at the option of using magic and or medicine. I am aware that it is a false dichotomy to separate medicine and magic from religion since both frequently include appeals to deities. However, for purposes of outlining the options available and, in particular, those represented in the biblical text, I have imposed an artificial framework.

Medicine and Magic

When religion did not work, magic and/or medicine might. From Nippur in Mesopotamia texts have been discovered which contain incantations and magic treatments to help a women having difficulty in childbirth.[1] From Babylonia a short text on the making of amulets says; “Silver, gold, iron, copper, in total 21 stones, in order that a woman who is not pregnant becomes pregnant: you string it on a linen yarn and, you put it on her neck”.[2]

In some Babylonian sources plants were thought to promote pregnancy. In a reference list of plants used for medicinal purposes (a vademecum), there is a section that lists a “plant for a woman who does not bear”. The description of this plant’s uses indicates it was intended to help not only infertility but the whole process from conception to birth. [3] In Egypt, one method for determining whether or not a woman could become pregnant was to have her urinate on wheat or barley.[4] Some forms of this method even claimed to identify the child’s gender.[5]In addition to plants, there were other recipes used to help women conceive. Stol provides a translation for an unpublished recipe which reads: “To make a not child-bearing woman pregnant: You flay an edible mouse, open it up, and fill it with myrrh; you dry it in the shade, crush and grind it up, and mix it with fat; you place it in her vagina, and she will become pregnant”.[6]

The Hebrew Bible does not reveal a particular interest in medical and magical remedies for infertility. But the story of Leah’s mandrakes in Genesis 30:14-17 provides a glimpse at a one such possible remedy. The mandrake plant is a perennial wild herb that grows with a set of forked roots causing it to resemble the human torso. The plant’s leaves form a rosette and between autumn and spring it produces flowers in the center of the rosette.[7] It is debated whether the plant was used to enhance fertility or simply to act as an aphrodisiac as described in Song of Songs 7:14. [8] While there is strong evidence for the plant’s perceived aphrodisiacal powers, the context of the Genesis story does suggest a connection to fertility.[9] In the story Reuben, Leah’s son, finds mandrakes in the field and brings them to his mother. Rachel asks Leah for some of the mandrakes but is rebuffed by Leah who asks the accusing question: “you have already stolen my husband what more do you want from me?” Rachel resorts to bargaining with her sister, a night with Jacob for a portion of the mandrakes. While the situation could surely be interpreted as focusing on the aphrodisiacal qualities of the plant, both sisters are wanting to attract Jacob to their tent, it is the broader context that suggests a desire for fertility. The chapter begins with Rachel’s inability to conceive reaching a breaking point when she demands that Jacob give her children or she will die (30:1). In tandem with the narrative of Rachel’s infertility is the description of Leah, Zilpah and Bilhah each bearing children. Compounding this is the irony that even though Rachel bargained for the Mandrkaes, it is her sister Leah, who seemed to have ceased conceiving (30:9), who gets pregnant another three times (30:16 ). Thus whatever the real or imagined properties of the plant, in the narrative at least, “it seems clear that Rachel and Leah valued it as a fertility drug, Rachel because she had never conceived, Leah because she had become infertile”.[10]

Next week we look at the role of adoption and its almost complete absence in the Bible.

I notice a lot of visits to this particular post lately. Can anyone tell me why you are here and how you got here? I am curious that this post has been so popular. (5/30/2011)

[1] M Civil, “Medical Commentaries from Nippur”, JNES 33 (1974), 331-6.

[2] Stol, Birth in Babylonia and the Bible, 35.

[3] Stol, Birth in Babylonia and the Bible, 53.

[4] This method is also described in a magical papyrus written in Demotic which says: “The way to know it of a woman whether she will be pregnant: You should make the woman urinate on the plant at night. When morning comes, if you find the plant scorched, she will not conceive. If you find it green she will conceive” (H. Betz, The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1992), 242.

[5] G. Robins, “Women and Children in peril, 27.

[6] Stol, Birth in Babylonia and the Bible, 53.

[7] Irene Jacob and Walter Jacob, “Flora,” ABD 2:812; F. Nigel Hepper, “Mandrake,” NIDB 3:787.

[8] Othmar Keel, The Song of Songs (CC; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 257-60.

[9] Stol, Birth in Babylonia and the Bible, 56-57.

[10] Gordon Wenahm, Genesis 16-50 (WBC 2; Dallas: Word, 1994), 247.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Archaeologists plan to rebury recently discovered church some think marks the tomb of the prophet Zechariah

Over the last two weeks reports have been circulating about the discovery of a Byzantine church in the Shephelah (low lands) of Israel. Apparently, antiquity thieves had been looting the site which prompted the Israeli authorities to excavate the site to determine its identification and protect it from further looting.

The site was actually discovered in the 19th century and was thought for sometime to be a synagogue. A lintel at the site was at first thought that it bore the a star of David. But the excavations revealed that is was a church with beautiful mosaic floors.

Some have suggested that the church was built over the top of the tomb of the prophet Zechariah, but there is no firm proof either way. Here is a portion of the report from the Israeli Antiquity Authorities.

As previously mentioned, researchers who visited the site are of the opinion that the site is the residence and tomb of the prophet Zechariah. Ancient Christian sources identified the burial place of the prophet Zechariah in the village of Zechariah, and noted that his place of burial was discovered in 415 CE. The researchers believe that in light of an analysis of the Christian sources, including the Madaba Map, the church at Hirbet Madras is a memorial church designed to mark the tomb of the prophet Zechariah. This issue will be examined and studied in the near future.

You can read the rest of the report here.

Unfortunately, there is not enough money to preserve and develop the church so they are going to cover it back up. Outside of a museum, that is the best way to preserve something. Hoefully they will be able to uncover it again someday.

Here is a short video showing the site.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Passing of Alan F. Segal (1945-2011)

Jame McGrath has reported that Alan Segal has passed away, he was 66 years old.

Segal taught at Barnard College and was an expert in ancient history and semitic languages. Among his many important contributions to the field is his Two Powers in Heaven and Paul the Convert.

The following is a bio from his faculty page.

Alan F. Segal has academic degrees from the following institutions: Amherst College (B.A. 1967), Brandeis University (M.A. 1969), Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (B.H.L. 1971), and Yale University (M.A. 1971, M.Phil. 1973, Ph.D. 1975). Professor Segal's studies included English literature, psychology, anthropology, comparative religion, Judaica, Christian origins, and rabbinics. His publications include Two Powers in Heaven (Brill), Deus Ex Machina: Computers in the Humanities (Penn University Bulletin Board),Rebecca's Children: Judaism and Christianity in the Roman World (Harvard University Press), The Other Judaisms of Late Antiquity (Scholars Press) for the Brown University Judiaca Series, and Paul the Convert: The Apostasy and Apostolate of Saul of Tarsus (Yale University Press). In 2004 Professor Segal publishedLife After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religions (Doubleday). He has published numerous articles and for a decade has been chair of the History of Religion Committee of the American Academy of Religion. He also serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Biblical Literature and has served in many official capacities both within the University and internationally.

Here is a short Wikipedia article about him.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Things of interest in the blogosphere on a Sunday

From time to time I run across items that are of interest, but not something I necessarily want to blog about. So here a few interesting items.

The Catalyst, a publication for Untied Methodists, has a couple of interesting articles. Michael J. Gorman has an interesting article on the Missional Paul in which he tracks what has been written about Paul and gives some helpful overview of the state of where scholarship is moving. Few people, Gorman points out, think of Paul as the "go to person" for social justice issues. That may be changing.

In the same issue of the Catalyst, Nijay Gupta provides a helpful reading list for those interested in scripture and ethics.

The CNN Religion Blog has some thoughts on a Time Magazine article which reports that Baby-boomers are the fasting growing demographic in seminaries and divinity schools. I found it interesting the a generation that helped to do so much to challenge religion is now signing up to be leaders in it.

The Better Bibles Blog has a link to a free downloadable version of the NIV for your iPhone and iPad. As part of the 400th celebration anniversary of the KJV, you download the NIV. But only for a short time. The window opens on Saturday, February 18th and lasts for 400 hours.

Lastly, Allan Bevere has posted an article by Henry Neufeld titled, My Dad was a Fundamentalist. He provides some good thoughts on the way we throw labels around.