Friday, June 17, 2011

Thinking about a PhD in Biblical Studies? Read This Book!

Students are always asking me about getting a PhD. I think I do more discouraging than encouraging. It is not that I don't want them to do the degree, I just want to make sure what they are getting themselves into. They don't call it a terminal degree for nothing.

Well if you have decided to go ahead with getting the PhD in spite of what I or someone else has told you, then you should read this book written by Nijay Gupta. It is titled A Guide book for Getting a PhD in Biblical Studies Beyond (Wipf and Stock, 2011).

If you don't know Nijay than you can start by reading his blog. It was on his blog that he first gave some of this advice while going through the program at the University of Durham. Here is the blurb.

What if you had a guidebook that you could turn to at each stage of your academic journey to help you navigate through the process of getting a PhD in biblical studies and succeeding in the academic world? This book is precisely intended to fill that need. From theory to practice, you will find discussions and answers to the most pertinent and pressing questions that prospective and current doctoral students are faced with: How do I choose a program? How can I gain admission into an elite program? How do I choose a research topic?

Alongside the "big" questions about the process, there are also a host of smaller matters: How do I publish an article? What conferences are out there in my field? Where do I start looking for a job? How do I get teaching experience? How do I write a syllabus?

This guidebook tackles all of these questions and many more in three parts: Prepare focuses on getting into a PhD program; Succeed guides you through the doctoral program, especially the writing of the dissertation; and Advance treats issues that relate to success in the academic world such as conference participation, publishing, employment, and best practices in teaching.

I haven't read the book, but I have read his blog posts on the topic and I am sure you will benefit from it.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

More on the Lead Codices

I was just saying to someone that we had not hard anything about the lead codices recently. Then I opened my Google reader and there was a new article. The Jordan Times claims that initial lab tests, including carbon 14 dating, supports the authenticity of the texts. Here is what the article says:

AMMAN - Preliminary lab results indicate that a collection of metal books unearthed in northern Jordan may indeed represent the earliest Christian texts ever discovered, according to experts.

According to the Department of Antiquities (DoA), initial carbon tests to determine the authenticity of lead-sealed metal books billed as the greatest find in biblical archaeology since the Dead Sea scrolls have been “encouraging”.

“We really believe that we have evidence from this analysis to prove that these materials are authentic,” DoA Director Ziad Saad told The Jordan Times.

The tests, carried out at the Royal Scientific Society labs, indicate that the texts may date back to the early first century AD, at a time when Christians took refuge from persecution on the east bank of the Jordan River.

The codices, which were retrieved by Jordanian security services from the black market last month, are believed to be part of a greater cache of 70 lead-sealed books allegedly uncovered in Jordan and smuggled across the River Jordan into Israel.

The majority of the texts are currently in the possession of Hassan Saeda, an Israeli bedouin farmer who claims that the books, which may tell of the last days of Jesus Christ, were uncovered by his shepherd grandfather some 90 years ago.

Jordanian authorities, however, believe the codices were unearthed four years ago in a cave near the northern village of Sarhan and are property of the Hashemite Kingdom.

The texts made international headlines in March when Jordanian authorities and British author David Elkington announced their existence in a bid to prevent Saeda from selling the cache to a private collector and to launch a campaign to repatriate the books.

Efforts to repatriate the texts from Israel are pending the final results of the carbon dating, currently being carried out at the University of New Mexico, the Getty Conservation Institute and Sheffield University.

This is interesting. How can you have carbon 14 dating done on lead? Doesn't that experiment require the burning of a sample of the material and then reading the radiation levels to determine its age? Since when is lead an organic material? Does lead use the process of photosynthesis and produce carbon dioxide? No, it does not. So I wonder what the story is here? Who is feeding this information to the press?

I think someone still wants to make some money from these things and decided to wait a few months to try again.

HT: Thomas Verenna

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Resources for Biblical Backgrounds

Yesterday I posted a link to an article on the importance of reading the Bible from an informed point-of-view. I said I might post on some possible resources for biblical backgrounds. Below is some that I recommend for studying the New Testament.

Josephus - The Jewish War (Penguin Edition). Everyone should read Josephus at least once. He provides an important, Jewish perspective of the events of the first century CE as well as a reasonable overview of the preceding 200 years. Readers will understand the world Jesus and Paul much better as they learn all of the various events not recorded in the Bible. I recommend the penguin edition because it offers an accessible translation with some helpful footnotes.

The Apocrypha - As with Josephus, the historical information contained in the Apocrypha is invaluable. For instance, readers of the Bible turn from Malachi to Matthew and discover a very different world. Suddenly there are Pharisees and Sadducees, groups that did not exist in the time of the prophets. And how and when did the Romans come to occupy that part of the world? The answers are found in the books of the Apocrypha. In addition to historical books there is also some good wisdom literature and expansions of some of the Old Testament stories. If you are looking for a good guide to this literature I would recommend David deSilva's Introducing the Apocrypha (Baker, 2004).

Everett Ferguson's The Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Eerdmans, 3rd ed, 2003) has become the standard in textbooks that introduces readers to the world of the New Testament. It is a handy reference tool that provides informative essays on a variety of topics like, religion, philosophy, the Roman Empire, slavery, family, etc. It is usually priced around $25-$30.

The Dictionary of New Testament Backgrounds (IVP, 2000) is a good reference volume to have on your shelf. It has hundreds of articles on various topics and events that are important for understanding the matrix of the New Testament. And it is affordable too, only about $40.

A good volume to have as you read the New Testament is Craig Keener's IVP Biblical Background Commentary to the New Testament (IVP, 1994). Though not as comprehensive as the above sources, Keener's volume will help you become familiar with the type of information that you need to know and will point you in the right direction.

Web sites that are helpful include Early Christian This is an excellent site to access many of the non-canonical Christian (and otherwise) literature. A companion site is Early Jewish which will have some overlap with Early Christian site, but also has a host of other links. In addition to these, there is is always Mark Goodacre's Although not a backgrounds site, it does contain multiple helpful links to aid in research, some of which are relevant to Bible backgrounds.

I hope this is helpful. If you have a favorite resource why not post it below along with a link if there is one.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

On Reading the Bible from an Informed Point-of-View

Yesterday I posted on why I think it is important that biblical scholars participate in at least one archaeological dig. I believe the exposure to the method and the experience earned adds to our knowledge and understanding.

In the Huffington Post there is an article this week by Kristen Swenson in which she comments about the importance of reading the Bible from an informed point-of-view. She notes that Bible is not designed to be read the same way one would a modern book and that trying to do so can cause more confusion than understanding, Here is a bit of what she has to say.

Simply reading the Bible (really reading it, in any of its three main forms, all the way through) without any background information results more often than not in bewilderment and confusion, leaving readers at the mercy of others to interpret for them. Why is there so much concern about dermatological conditions, so little about homosexuality, and nothing explicitly about abortion? How many animals did Noah take into the ark -- two of every kind, or seven pairs of some kinds? Where is Zion in relation to Jerusalem? Was the Last Supper on Passover or not? Why does Isaiah prophesy, "they shall beat their swords into ploughshares" and Joel prophesy, "they shall beat their ploughshares into swords"? Does God disapprove of, or demand divorce? Why would Paul praise Phoebe as a deacon and also say that women shouldn't teach or have any authority? And what's with the "whore of Babylon"?

Without any background information, simply reading the Bible is not only really hard (Leviticus, anyone?), but also it can lead to all sorts of problems. Some are innocuous misunderstandings, such as today's Ezekiel 4:9 breads and cereals -- cheerfully confident that the recipe is biblical and their preparation mandated by God. Trouble is, God did not urge people to make the bread out of righteousness or anything healthful and good. Rather, God forced the prophet-priest to make it by mixing things that were supposed to be kept distinct in order to show how bad things would be for the sinful people in Babylonian exile. Made by breaking the biblical commandments that respect God's ordered universe, the original bread was meant to communicate uncleanness and disgust. (The modern versions are delicious nonetheless.)

Knowing something about the Bible -- its historical backgrounds and development, its languages of origin and the process of translation, and its use within religious communities as well as secular contexts -- enables readers to make sense of biblical texts and references for themselves. For religious people, such knowledge can enrich their faith; and nonreligious people may appreciate better why the Bible has endured with such power and influence.

You can read the whole article here.

I think Swenson makes some important points about the need to know more about the backgrounds of the Bible. This is one reason why I spend a lot of time studying the various historical periods in which the Bible was written and reading it in the languages in which it was written.

On the other hand, not everyone has the same opportunity to study the way that I do nor do they need to. This is why I think it is important that preachers and teachers be well trained and know much of the background material of the Bible or, at a minimum, know where to get the answers they need. Perhaps I will do a post later this week on quality sources for understanding the background of the Bible.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Why Biblical Scholars Should Participate in at Least One Dig

I landed in Israel Friday and today we begin five weeks of digging at Tel-Gezer. This is my second time here and I was not sure that I would be here again. But circumstances made it possible and I am here with eight of my students. I am excited to be here with them and looking forward to seeing how the season unfolds.

I must confess, however, that working on a dig was never high on my priority. Although I had been to the sites in Israel several times (including a year that we lived here), I did not want to participate in archaeology. The truth is I hate working in the dirt. I would rather show up to a site once it has been excavated and labeled so I can learn about it and then get back into my air conditioned bus. I am fairly convinced that my aversion to digging in the dirt is from the days when I worked for my fathers construction business. He had my brother and I dig many a hole and I learned to despise it.

When people ask me about my experience on the dig I tell them that it is hard work and not unlike a construction job site. I usually finish by telling them I am glad I didn't choose to be an archaeologist.

But in spite of my aversion I am glad for the experience becasue I learn new ways to think about history and how we construct it. Biblical scholars like myself excavate texts, not a tel. Therefore, we rarely need to leave the comfort of our office and as a result our experience can be very insular. Although we are in "conversation" with a number of people on any given topic, it is often done by reading what other people have to say.

I am convinced that there is no substitute for getting dirty and discovering the history and material culture of the ancient world by digging. A Tel does not have its information nicely cataloged and analysed for us with a stack of relevant footnotes. Artifacts tend to be broken, mixed with other artifacts and in need of interpretation. And while skills of observation and interpretation are important in the excavating of either texts or tels, the fact is it is not as easy when looking at a bunch of broken pottery laying in the dirt. It forces you to develop new skills.

Another reason to dig at least once is to gain an appreciation for the hard work it takes. Reading about a site or watching an excavation on the Discovery channel is like arm chair quarter-backing. One needs to experience it to discuss it from an informed point-of-view. Furthermore, when you have some experience it allows you to question and/or critique what is on some of these sensationalist television shows. While you certainly may not be an expert, you will find that your answers are more informed and perhaps seasoned with the type of appropriate caution that is necessary in any situation that requires interpretation.

So if you are a biblical scholar I think you owe it to yourself and the students you teach to participate in at least one dig. It will change your perspective on many things.