Friday, July 29, 2011

Friday Book Giveaway!

This week I am giving a way a copy N.T. Wright's Paul In Fresh Perspective (Fortress, 2005). This is one of the books that you should read if you want to know how Wright thinks about the New Perspective on Paul and his belief that Paul was countering the Roman Empire with his claims about Jesus. Whether you agree or not, you should read it.

Here is the blurb.

"For me," says N.T.Wright, "there has been no more stimulating exercise, for the mind, the heart, the imagination and the spirit, than trying to think Paul's thoughts after him and constantly to be stirred up to fresh glimpses of God's ways and purposes with the world and with us strange human creatures." Wright's accessible new volume, built on his Cambridge University Hulsean Lectures of 2004, takes a fresh look at Paul in light of recent understandings of his Jewish roots, his attitude toward the Roman Empire, and his unique reframing of Jewish symbols in relation to his experience of the risen Christ. Then Wright attempts a short systematic account of the main theological contours of Paul's thought and its pertinence for the church today.

Part One Themes 1. Paul's World, Paul's Legacy 2. Creation and Covenant 3.Messiah and Apocalyptic 4. Gospel and Empire

Part Two Structures 5. Rethinking God 6. Reworking God's People 7. Reimagining God's Future 8. Paul, Jesus, and the Task of the Church

You know the drill by now. Put your name below and I will choose a winner sometime on Sunday, July 31. Once announced, the winner will have five days to claim the prize.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Large Stone altar discovered at Gath

Aren Maier is the archaeologist heading up the dig at Tel-Es Safi. This site is biblical Gath, famed hometown to Goliath of David and Goliath Fame. They have had some great seasons with some important finds.

My group and I were privileged to have Aren come to Gezer this summer and lecture on his excavations. But he did not mention the discovery of this altar. It is a double horned, Philistine Altar. Congrats to Aren and his team!

Below is the description of the altar and a short video in which Aren explains how this altar reveal important cultural contacts between the Philistines and Israelites.

There are many interesting points about this item, many of which can’t be discussed here, but I can mention a few:
1) It is the earliest stone altar from Philistia, a precursor of the many stone altars that are known from 7th century Tel Miqne-Ekron.
2) It is one of the largest altars known (save for the Tel Sheva altar [which though is made of many stones] and an altar from Ekron which was found out of context).
3) It is one of the earliest such altars from the Iron Age, save for those from Megiddo which are late 10th-9th cent. BCE
4) It has TWO and not four horns – quite unusual for such altars. This is VERY interesting, since this may very well confirm a theory put forward by our team member Louise Hitchcock that there is a connection between the Minoan/Cypriote “Horns of Consecration” and the horned altars – perhaps brought by the Philistines.
5) Its dimensions are virtually identical to the dimensions of the incense altar in the biblical tabernacle (1X1X2 cubit) in Exodus 30!
6) Quite surprisingly, the back part of the altar, and part of the top is unfinished! While the back part might have been “built-in” to a niche behind it (and this could explain the unfinished parts) the top is hard to explain.
7) No evidence of burning or residues were found on top of the altar, although a very nice Cypriote “Black on Red” flask was found right near it. Perhaps it originally stood on top of the altar!
8) Surrounding the altar we found large concentrations of various types of vessels and several concentrations of astragali.

Interested in working from home?

Why not consider a career as a papyrus transcriber? If you have some expertise in Greek, an internet connection then you are on your way to an exciting new career working with papyrus fragments from Egypt.

On a more serious note, the International Business Times is reporting that Oxford University has uploaded thousands of fragments from the Oxyrhynchus collection in an attempt to find help in transcribing the fragments. Here is a description of the project.

Oxford University is enlisting the help of "armchair archaeologists" to help unlock the meaning of ancient texts found in Egypt, some of which contain forgotten Biblical episodes or works by master poets.

Scholars have uploaded hundreds of thousands of images of scraps of papyrus known as the Oxyrhynchus collection, after the Egyptian city where they were discovered (it means City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish). People can transcribe the writings, which are in Greek, using character-recognition tools that are included on the website.

"Online images are a window into ancient lives," said project specialist Paul Ellis.

The fragments of parchment all date from between 500 BC to 1,000 AD and are written in Greek, a testament to the fact that Egypt spent that period under Greek or Roman rule. Researchers on the project have already discovered some gems, including an account of Jesus Christ exorcising demons and lost works by the ancient Greek poet Sappho and dramatists Menander and Sophocles. But much remains to be discovered.

If you are interested in learning more or even want to try your hand on a few fragments you can do so at the Ancient Lives Project. The top of the page directs you to transcribe, measure or use a lightbox to look at fragments. There is also a helpful tutorial. It is pretty amazing to see where technology has taken us in the hundred years since or so since these fragments were discovered.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Is the Bible enough for the pastor?

I ran across a short but interesting video clip yesterday. It features DA Carson and John Piper discussing to what degree a pastor needs to be familiar with the background of the Bible. Carson is professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Piper is pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church.

In the clip Carson argues why it is important for preachers to study and be familiar with the historical and cultural background of the Bible. Piper, however, is arguing that a preacher only needs to read the Bible. Piper seems to agree that understanding, for instance, the social and cultural background of Corinth is important, but he also suggests that you can get that information simply by reading the Corinthian letters. Carson makes some good points in response, but Piper does not agree. Here is the clip.

I am curious how Piper can say "the vast majority of contextually relevant things, both socially and linguistically are in the book". He seems to assume that only relying on an English translation is enough for a pastor. But I wonder how he can say this. Carson's question about Ezekiel is a good one, but Piper does not answer it.

Piper argues that spending more time on the passage is more important than learning about the backgrounds. He seems to be separating background study from exegesis and I don't think you can. I think they are both equally important and some passages require more time in background study than others.

What do you think? Can preachers do a good job without having a good grasp of the background to a text? It the Bible enough?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What killed Jesus?

It is not unusual to hear someone suggest that it wasn't the cross that killed Jesus but rather "cardiac rupture." More popularly, it means Jesus died of a broken heart. This claim is usually based on the detail in John's Gospel (19:34) that says when a Roman soldier's spear was thrust into Jesus' side both water and blood came out of the wound.

But a medical researcher thinks that he has a better explanation. In the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine Joseph Bergeron suggests that Jesus' death was the result of three different complications.

Bergeron proposes that a mechanism called "trauma-induced coagulopathy" played a key role. Over the past decade or so, emergency room physicians and others have described a combination of factors that occurs in about 25% of trauma patients and dramatically increases the risk of rapid death. The "lethal triad" includes a rapid drop in body temperature (hypothermia); a failure of the body's blood-clotting ability, leading to uncontrolled bleeding; and abnormal blood acidity, which causes a range of biochemical reactions to go haywire. "Even today's best trauma centers can't control [the lethal] cascade of events," Bergeron says.

Jesus' hypothermia could have been caused by his naked exposure to the cold temperatures of early April, when religious documents say the crucifixion occurred, Bergeron says. And trauma-induced coagulopathy would also explain why Jesus died so rapidly—and "how blood could flow from Jesus' corpse when his chest was impaled," because the condition can cause fluids to pool.

The problem is, as the article points out, is that other researchers aren't buying it. Among the problems with the suggestion is that there is little physical evidence left behind of those who were crucified. Most victims of this form of execution were either left on the cross to decay or thrown to dogs so there are no bodies left for us to study.

Another problem is the attempt to explain a piece of literature, like a gospel, using medical science. We simply do not have enough information in the text to allow us to make these kinds of judgments. Moreover, a literary explanation is probably a better one.

Water and blood are both important symbolic elements in the gospel of John. In 3:5 it is only those who are born of water and the the spirit that will enter the kingdom of God. In 4:10 Jesus offers living water that will keep a person from thirsting ever again. This promise is made again in 6:35 where we read that all those who come to Jesus will never thirst. In 6:54-56 we read about the need for believers to drink the blood of Jesus to receive eternal life. Finally, in 7:37-39 Jesus promises that those who believe in him will have rivers of living water flowing from their bellies.

All of these references seem to point to a symbolic interpretation of the water and blood that flows from Jesus in John's portrayal of the crucifixion. The water and the blood that flows from Jesus' belly is the very thing that he has promised to those around him. He is the spilled water and blood of the Eucharist and baptism and as such God is revealed through the crucified one.

Such an explanation, in my opinion, does more justice to thematic elements in the gospel and the evidence we have. The description of water and blood is theological not medical. The author is trying to communicate the significance of Jesus' death, not the specific way in which he died from complications related to crucifixion.

Monday, July 25, 2011

For whom did this little golden bell ring?

The news is slowly spreading about the discovery of a golden bell found in one of the sewers in an area of Jerusalem known as the City of David. It has been suggested that the bell (pic to the right) might have once been part of the High Priest's garments during the Second Temple period. Here is what Artuz Sheva had to say:

The directors of the excavation on behalf of the Antiquities Authority, archaeologists Eli Shukron and Professor Ronny Reich of Haifa University, said after the finding, “The bell looked as if it was sewn on the garment worn by a man of high authority in Jerusalem at the end of the Second Temple period.

“The bell was exposed in the city’s main drainage channel of that period, between the layers of dirt that had been piled on the floor of the channel,” they continued. “This drainage channel was built and hewn west to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount and drained the rainfall in the different parts of the city, through the City of David and the Shiloah Pool to the Kidron valley.”

The excavation area, above the drain, is located in the main street of Jerusalem which rose from the Shiloah Pool in the City of David. In this street an interchange was built through which people entered the Temple Mount. The remains of this interchange are what is known today as Robinson’s Arch. Archaeologists believe that the eminent man walked the streets of Jerusalem in the area of Robinson’s Arch and lost the golden bell which fell off his outfit into the drain beneath the street.

Jewish sources say that the high priests who served in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem used to hang golden bells on the edges of their coats. The book of Exodus (Shemot), for example, contains a description of the coat of Aaron the high priest in which it is said that coat contains, “bells of gold.”

While it is unknown if the bell belonged to one of the high priests, archaeologists have not ruled out the possibility.

Certainly is exciting stuff. But I am not sure if everything attributed here to the archaeologists has come from them. Ronny Reich, in particular, is a careful excavator and scholar and is more careful about making unfounded claims. But newspapers on the other hand can sometimes overstate the evidence. The AP is also running this story, but says that it is a rare find and notes that it is not known if it belonged to a priest.

Jim Davila has an interesting take on the find which I think is more balanced.

Well, maybe. On the one hand it is true that the only references to golden bells in the Hebrew Bible are to bells on the vestments of the high priest (Exodus 28:33-34; 39:25-26). On the other hand, first, the only other mention of bells (a different Hebrew word) refers to horses' trappings (Zechariah 14:20). Presumably, bells were used in many other contexts, so our sample of cultural allusions is limited. But, you say, what about golden bells? Well, second, Isaiah 3:16-18 refers to bangles that the rich women of Jerusalem wore on their ankles and which "tinkled" or made some king of bangle noise. These ladies clearly had lots of jewelry and finery (cf. also vv. 19-23), so it seems entirely likely that they sometimes wore bells as jewelry and that some of those bells might well have been made of gold. And we know that Second-Temple-era ladies in Jerusalem had very nice gold earrings. So this bell need not have come from "a man of high authority."

So while this is an interesting find, it is not certain that it once belonged to the High Priest. In fact, all we know is that it is a bell from the Second Temple period, full stop. To begin to suggest that it might have belonged to the high priest is to make a claim that simply can't be proven. It will, however, attract more attention to the find, and money to the city of David project.

I hope that this bell will not start showing up in Sunday sermons as "proof of the Bible's accuracy", because it is not. But I suspect that those who do will link this bell to the urban legend about how a rope was tied to the priests leg while he was in the Holy of Holies. If those outside no longer heard the bells ringing they assumed God had killed the priest and they would pull him out. Unfortunately, dear readers, it is not true. You can't find it in the Bible. The earliest reference is in the 13th century Jewish work known as the Zohar (see here for an explanation), so please don't preach it or connect it to the discovery of this little golden bell.

So to whom did the bell belong? We don't know and it is next to impossible for us to know.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Book Giveaway Winner

Congrats to Katie Oskin! She is the winner of this week's giveaway. Katie, you have till Friday to send me your details and I will send you the book.

For those who did not win this time, check back again this Friday for another great chance to win.