Friday, May 20, 2011

Friday Book Giveaway!

Ok, this week's giveaway is an oldy but a goody.

For those you familiar with canonical criticism and the works of Brevard S.Childs you know that whether you agree or disagree with his conclusions, this a a volume worth having on your shelf.

So, dear friends, I am giving away a new copy of Child's Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Fortress, 1979). Here is the blurb.

This Introduction attempts to offer a different model for the discipline from that currently represented. It seeks to describe the form and function of the Hebrew Bible in its role as sacred scripture for Israel. It argues the case that the biblical literature has not been correctly understood or interpreted because its role as religious literature has not been correctly assessed.

I will choose a winner on Sunday, May 22nd. The winner will then have five days to send me their details.

Good luck!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

What we need to do after the rapture doesn't happen.

I imagine that by now there are few who have not heard about the rapture prediction for this Saturday, May 21st. Those who have not yet heard about it probably will after it doesn't happen at 6:00 pm as is being predicted. The blogosphere is full of commentary on the whole thing and newspapers are running stories about it (I was interviewed by the Akron Beacon about the prediction). And in this age of Social Media, Facebook even has a group you can join to participate in the “after rapture looting.”

It is easy to shake our head and laugh at those who are promoting this chaos and poke fun of those who are following them. But I wonder if there is a better, more pastoral, dare I say Christian way to handle all of this? I am not sure how many people really believe that the beginning of the end of the world starts at 6:00 pm on Saturday (read about one man), but I do know that there will be some disappointed, embarrassed, even angry people at 6:15. When the rapture does not happen, and I don’t think it will, there will be a group of people wondering how they could have gotten it all so wrong. Some will certainly react against the prognosticator. Others will rally around him, protect him and perhaps even set another date. Many will go back to what they were doing before all the hype or perhaps, like the Millerites of the 19th century, they will go on to start a new movement.

But there will be some who see this as proof that Christianity is a fraud and perhaps even conclude that God either doesn’t exist or doesn’t care about them. It is at this point that those of us who have watched, laughed and shook our heads in disbelief will need to cease making jokes at their expense and come alongside of them to help encourage and build them up. This is, after all, what Paul commanded the Thessalonians to do when he confronted a similar situation.

In 1 Thessalonians 4 and 5 (ironically where the idea of the “rapture” originates) Paul deals with a group of believers who are in a state of confusion about the return of Christ. It seems that some have died already and they fear that the dead have missed out on the resurrection and Christ’s return. Paul encourages them in chapter 4 that the dead have not missed it, but in fact will precede the living when it comes time to meet Christ. Paul then goes on to explain in chapter 5 how believers are to live as they wait for the ‘day of the Lord.’

What is striking in both of these chapters is the way Paul ends both sections. In 4:18 he says “encourage one another with these words.” In 5:11 he says: “encourage one another and build each other up.” For Paul, the response to those who are confused or even wrong about how the return of Christ will happen is not to laugh at them, but instead to comfort and build them up. They need each other’s help, not one another’s condescension.

Later on in the same letter Paul addresses some items to the leaders of the congregation in Thessalonica (5:14). In addition to warning the disorderly, leaders are to do three other things.

First, they are to comfort/console the fainthearted. The Greek for fainthearted here literally means “small soul.” When combined with the verb, we see that the leader is to be a counselor, a help to those who are struggling on the inside. It seems that Paul recognizes that there are those in the church who are not as strong as others and will need to be comforted rather than chastised for their small soul.

The second thing he commands these leaders is to “help the weak.” Here “weakness” perhaps refers to those weak in faith (see Rom 15:1). In 1 Cor 8:7-14 the “weak” are those who struggle with the idea of eating meat sacrificed to idols. Although Christians, they apparently still believe in the existence of other gods and this is a stumbling block for them. Paul recognizes that there are some who are not theologically on the same page as others and rather than laugh at those “weak” people he commands that those who “know better” to sacrifice their own rights for those whose faith is not as strong. Paul encourages leaders to help the weak.

Finally, Paul says that they should have patience with everyone. That is asking a lot. People have a way of getting under our skin. But it is even more so the case when they are fellow believers who are causing unwanted attention to the church for all the wrong reasons. Paul asks us to be patient with everyone.

So as Saturday comes and goes keep in mind that this not the first time the church has confronted this type of situation. And it probably won’t be the last. What is important to remember, however, is how we are to respond. We are to encourage and build each other up, to help console the discouraged and help those with frail faith. And we need to be patient with them. If they are among those waiting for Saturday with anticipation, they will need the church to gather around them not abandon them.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

How to Prepare for the Rapture

I have steadfastly resisted posting anything snarky about the May 21st rapture prediction. But the cartoon and video was too good to resist. So if you are planning on being taken up this Saturday you may want to watch this first so that you know how to prepare yourself and for those who might be left behind. Enjoy!

Thanks to the Echurch blog for bringing this to my attention.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

This is your brain on Christianity. Any Questions?

Remember the anti drug campaign that showed you an egg frying while the announcer said “this is your brain on drugs”? Well, apparently “brain rot” is a problem among the religious, but is not as significant if you are part of a mainline, protestant denomination.

A recent study at Duke University Medical Center has recently revealed the results of a study of brain scans done on elderly patients. What they discovered is that “brain rot” happens faster among those who were religious, but is slower for those who are part of mainline, Protestant denominations. Here is what the study says:

"As you can see in the graph, the rot was slowest in mainline Protestants, faster in born-again Protestants and Catholics, and faster still all in those with no religion. The group who fared worst were those who had experienced a 'life-changing' religious event sometime in the past.
The authors put this down to the stress of being in a minority group. It's known that high levels of stress can increase the rate of hippocampal rot."

Better hope that recent converts don’t read the line about “recent life-changing religious event.” We will have all kinds of people leaving the church.

Interesting that the study says nothing about other religious groups like Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. Maybe their brains don’t rot?

You can read the whole article here.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Pseudonymity and the New Testament: A Problem for Scholarship

Bart Ehrman is generating a lot of media attention lately with his new book Forged: Writing in the name of God - - - Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who we think They are (Harper Collins, 2011). I have not yet read the book, but probably will eventually. Nonetheless, I have a good idea of the contents and what Ehrman has to say (You can read an overview at the CNN Religion Blog). He is claiming that at least 11 of the 27 books in the New Testament are forged, that is, they were not written by the people who claim to have written them. He takes aim particularly at the apostle Paul who Ehrman says only wrote 7 of the 13 letters attributed to him. The other 6 letters are forgeries written by impostors.

I don't intend to take on Ehrman here since I have not read the book yet. But I will note that what Ehrman is saying is not new. New Testament scholars have questioned the assumed and claimed authorship of many of the New Testament books for more than 200 years. What Ehrman is doing is bringing the questions and debates that are normally found in the halls of the academy to a wider audience. And he is doing it in an effective way. But it is a two sided coin. On the one hand, he brings to a more popular venue the discussions that scholars should be having with the so-called "laity." On the other hand, he generates more heat than light since he doesn't really contribute to the discussion, but rather overstates the facts and makes, at times, sensationalist claims. But I have said too much about him already.

What Ehrman is going on about is the phenomenon that is known among New Testament scholars as pseudonymity. It is the act of one person writing a document in the name of another. And we have scores of examples of this from antiquity. For instance, who knew that each of Jacob's 12 sons had written a last will and testament that we can still read today? Or what about Paul's 3rd letter to the Corinthians? Anyone ever read Enoch's book? The author of Jude apparently did. Actually, these are pseudonymous works written by someone other than the claimed author. The fact is, whether we like it or not, it was not unusual in antiquity to come across books whose authorship was attributed to someone else other than the claimed author. Whether this constitutes "forgery" and the writers are "impostors" is a matter for debate.

When New Testament scholars consider this practice in conjunction with Pauline literature, some conclude that some of Paul's letters are pseudonymous. That is, some of the letters were not written by Paul, but by one of his followers or an admirer who wrote to speak to a situation using the authority of Paul. Those letters usually considered to be pseudonymous are 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. It should be pointed out that not every scholar will conclude that all of these are pseudonymous. Some conclude that 2 Thessalonians and Colossians was written by Paul while others will also include Ephesians as authentic. And not every scholar allows for pseudonymity. Some view all the letters attributed to Paul as being written by him. The fact is, there are good scholars, on both sides of the debate, who can contribute important aspects to this ongoing question.

By way of disclosure, I do allow for pseudonymity in the New Testament. I think that Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians, Colossians and perhaps even Ephesians. I am unsure, however, for a variety of reasons, whether Paul wrote the Pastorals. But as I tell my students, it depends on which day of the week it is and how you pinch me as to what answer I will give. I lean hard towards pseudonmity for the Pastorals, but I am open to the possibility of their authenticity. It is still an open question for me.

The problem, however,(and thus the title of today's post) is that allowance for pseudonmity in the New Testament has become a litmus test of sorts for those on both sides. There are many institutions that would not hire me simply because I raise the question. There are also institutions that would think it incredible that I am not firmly in the pseudonmity camp in all aspects. But the problem is more far reaching than where one can or cannot work. It has a knock-on effect for scholarship as a whole.

Although I am open to the Pastorals being written by either Paul or someone else, I almost never reference them in anything that I write. I am subconsciously aware that if I appeal to the Pastorals or even Ephesians, my work will be rejected by certain journals or not taken seriously by some scholars. The result is that I hamstring myself and my work because I want to be able to publish my ideas, but can't appeal to the complete corpus of letters attributed to Paul. The situation has gotten to the point that I find myself rarely thinking about the so-called "disputed letters."

The second result is that there is a dearth of quality resources for those letters whose authorship is disputed. Most of the articles and commentaries that are seriously engaging the Pastorals, for instance, are being written by people who hold the letters to be authentic. I would venture to say that most of scholarship in these resources is done by Evangelicals who do an excellent job, but cannot question the authorship of the letter. To do so could cause them to lose a book contract and/or their job. For instance, read what happened to Robert Gundry when he suggested that Jesus' genealogy in Matthew's Gospel was not intended to be taken literally.

In my opinion, we have closed off the debate too quickly and decisively. We have limited ourselves from new ways to think about the topic and have turned the whole issue into what amounts to a "yes" or "no" vote. The result is that good minds are not engaging with all of the "Pauline" corpus to the extent that we should. And making our acceptance or denial of pseudonmity a litmus test is a violation of academic freedom.

When people make sensationalist claims about the Bible calling parts of it "forgeries" and the writers "impostors" they perpetuate the stagnation of scholarship on this topic. Making accusations about the Bible's and its long dead authors may sell books, but it does not add to the debate in a helpful way. One of the most important things I was taught in graduate studies was to hold my conclusions tentatively so that if new information came along I would be able to consider it fairly and objectively. In the case of pseudonymity, I don't think either side is following that advise.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Friday Book Giveaway Winner

Congrats to Myrto Theocharous!

She is the winner of this week's book giveaway. She wins
George W. E. Nickelsburg's Jewish Literature between the Bible and the Mishnah (Fortress, 2005).

Myrto has 5 days to contact me at at which time I will send her the book.

Didn't win this time? Check back again soon!