Friday, February 24, 2012

Friday Book Giveaway

It's time for another giveaway. This week I am offering Neil Elliot and Mark Reasnor (eds) Documents and Images for the Study of Paul (Fortress Press, 2011).

Here's the blurb:
Documents and Images for the Study of Paul gathers representative texts illustrating Jewish practices, Greco-Roman moral exhortation, biblical interpretation, Roman ideology, apocalyptic vision, epistolary conventions, and more to illustrate the complex cultural environment in which Paul carried out his apostolic work and the manifold ways in which his legacy was reshaped in early Christianity. Brief, insightful introductions orient the reader to the significance of these sources for contemporary interpretations of Paul's life and thought. Photographs illustrate the visual environment of the Greco-Roman world; a map, a timeline, and an index of scripture passages make the sourcebook the perfect companion text in courses on Paul and his letters. A companion website offers ancillary materials.

If you are interested in a chance to win put your name below. I will announce the winner on Sunday. The winner has 5 days to claim the prize once they have been announced.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

What do you do when your church is not interested in what you are offering? Cancel everything.

Scot McKnight on his Jesus Creed blog posted this video yesterday. It is a priest in an Episcopal church who cancelled all of their programs because the people weren't interested or too busy. Watch it and let me know what you make of it.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Jewish Wisdom on Repentance for Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Yesterday was Fat Tuesday, Pancake Day, Shrove Tuesday, or Fausnaught Day, depending where you live. These names all signify the attempt to get something fattening or sweet to eat before Lent begins. I suspect, however, that many people who ate donuts and sweets yesterday are not planning to give them up for Lent and some have no idea what Lent is and why it is significant. If you were in New Orleans yesterday it was Mardi Gras, which takes the above idea to all kinds of extremes. And I doubly suspect that many people at Mari Gras also have no intention of giving up something for Lent.

Ash Wednesday is supposed to be a beginning of self-reflection, a time of concentrated repentance. Some will go to church today and receive ashes as a mark of their repentance. Some will wash them off immediately; others will wear them all day. The ashes are supposed to signify our need to repent. But as happens for many of us in life, we go back and do the same things that we repented of.

With that in mind, I thought I would offer some wisdom on repentance from Jewish sages. All but the first are from the Babylonian Talmud.

Ben Sirach 34:25-26

He that washes himself after the touching of a dead body, if he touch it again, what is the point of his washing?  So is it with a man that fasts for his sins, and goes again, and does the same: who will hear his prayer? or what does his humbling profit him?

Rabbi Adda b. Ahaba also gave a similar statement:

One who sins and confesses his sin, but does not repent may be compared to a man holding a dead reptile in his hand, for although he may immerse himself in all the waters of the world his immersion is of no avail unto him; but if he throws it away from his hand then as soon as he immerses himself in forty se'ahs of water, immediately his immersion becomes effective. (Ta'anith 16a)

Our brethren, neither sackcloth nor fasting are effective but only penitence and good deeds, for we find that of the men of Ninevah scripture does not say, And God saw their sackcloth and fasting, but, God saw their works that they turned from their evil way. (b. Ta'anith 16a)

This last one is my favorite.

Rabbi Eliezer said: 

Repent one day before your death.  His disciples asked him, Does then one know on what day he will die?  Then all the more reason to repent today, he replied, lest he die tomorrow and thus his whole life is spent in repentance.  (b. Shabbath 153a)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Did Timothy Evangelize the Apostle Paul?

6 But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you. 7 Therefore, brothers and sisters, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. 8 For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord. 9 How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? 

I’ve been working on my commentary on 1 & 2 Thessalonians lately, and have spent some time thinking about the above verses. Translations usually break 3:6-8 into four separate sentences. But in Greek these verses are all one long sentence that seem to burst from the apostle’s pen. Having just confessed his deepest fears about the Thessalonians and their ongoing perseverance in the faith (3:5), Paul shifts the narrative with the sudden announcement of Timothy’s return (3:6).

But the verbiage Paul uses to describe Timothy’s report is a bit unusual. What the NIV has translated in 3:6 as “brought us good news” is actually the Greek verb euaggalizō which outside of the Bible does carry the basic meaning of “bringing good news.” In the New Testament, however, it became a technical term for “proclaiming the gospel.” But since 3:6 is the only occurrence without direct reference to “preaching the gospel” or Jesus Christ, many commentators identify this as the only non-technical use of the verb in the New Testament and do not associate the idea of “gospel” with it. Yet with the range of other terms that Paul could have used instead of euaggalizō it’s possible that he chose the verb purposefully to make a play on the word.

I wonder if Paul perceived Timothy’s report as more than “good news;” perhaps he felt “evangelized” by the report since it strengthened his faith in God. Timothy’s report about the Thessalonians’ “faith and love” (3:6) was a source of “encouragement” for the apostles (3:7) which caused them to “really live” (3:8) and to acknowledge the impossibility of offering enough thanks to God for the “joy” that they brought him (3:9). Faith, love, encouragement, life, and joy are all elements commonly associated with the results of preaching the gospel. Just as Paul’s announcement of the “good news” to the Thessalonians (1:5) caused them to experience “faith and love” (1:3, 4) coupled with “joy” (1:6) and a turn to the “living God” (1:9), so too the “good news” that the Thessalonians had not abandoned the faith brought the very same experiences to Paul.  I. Howard Marshall sums it up this way:

 “The preaching of the gospel includes the news that Jesus Christ is proved to be a mighty Saviour in the experience of those who respond to the Christian message; knowledge of this can lead non-believers to faith and believers to thanksgiving and deeper faith.” (1 & 2 Thessalonians, 94)

Understanding the word as only having a technical meaning in the context of missionary work strips away the important point that Paul makes elsewhere that the establishment and preservation of the church is God’s activity (Best, 140). In reality, the gospel is preached whenever the story of what God is doing is told whether it be told in the context of unbelievers or believers. The message of the gospel is not merely about how God brings salvation, but how God sustains it.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Is this a fragment of a first century copy of Mark?

As you probably know, there have been a lot of rumors about the discovery of a supposed first century fragment of Mark's Gospel. At this point there is little information about it.

But this picture is floating around the internet today along with the claim by some that it is the fragment. If this is the case, then it is too bad that this is the way a potentially important find is being announced. Even worse is the claim that it was posted on Facebook. If this turns out to be true, I will be very disappointed. However, I have my  doubts that the people connected to the fragment would be so sloppy as to reveal it this way.

For more on this photo see here, here, and here.

Update: Brian LePort at Neat Emmaus has posted a piece with some comments by those who say this photo is a fraud.

Nat Turner's Bible: Slavery and Apocalypticism in America

During the slavery debates preceding the Civil War the Bible was often used by people on both sides of the debate to support their stance. What is not always known is that the Bible also helped to foster the largest, bloodiest slave revolt in the 19th century.
Nat Turner's Bible 

Nat Turner was a slave in Virginia in the early 19th century. What was unusual about Turner, at least among slaves, is that he could read and write. He was also deeply religious. Combined, these made Turner a well known "prophet" among the other slaves due to his frequent messages and visions from God. There is also evidence that his preaching had some influence over whites. Eventually, these visions led him to believe that God called him to something higher. It resulted in the now famous Nat Turner Rebellion.

Until recently, I had never known about the apocalyptic aspects of the rebellion. I had always read about it in the context of the slavery debate. I found the following timeline of the rebellion at PBS. It was part of their series Africans in America.
In 1821, Turner ran away from his overseer, returning after thirty days because of a vision in which the Spirit had told him to "return to the service of my earthly master." The next year, following the death of his master, Samuel Turner, Nat was sold to Thomas Moore. Three years later, Nat Turner had another vision. He saw lights in the sky and prayed to find out what they meant. Then "... while laboring in the field, I discovered drops of blood on the corn, as though it were dew from heaven, and I communicated it to many, both white and black, in the neighborhood; and then I found on the leaves in the woods hieroglyphic characters and numbers, with the forms of men in different attitudes, portrayed in blood, and representing the figures I had seen before in the heavens."
On May 12, 1828, Turner had his third vision: "I heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first... And by signs in the heavens that it would make known to me when I should commence the great work, and until the first sign appeared I should conceal it from the knowledge of men; and on the appearance of the sign... I should arise and prepare myself and slay my enemies with their own weapons."
At the beginning of the year 1830, Turner was moved to the home of Joseph Travis, the new husband of Thomas Moore's widow. His official owner was Putnum Moore, still a young child. Turner described Travis as a kind master, against whom he had no complaints. 
Then, in February, 1831, there was an eclipse of the sun. Turner took this to be the sign he had been promised and confided his plan to the four men he trusted the most, Henry, Hark, Nelson, and Sam. They decided to hold the insurrection on the 4th of July and began planning a strategy. However, they had to postpone action because Turner became ill. 
On August 13, there was an atmospheric disturbance in which the sun appeared bluish-green. This was the final sign, and a week later, on August 21, Turner and six of his men met in the woods to eat a dinner and make their plans. At 2:00 that morning, they set out to the Travis household, where they killed the entire family as they lay sleeping. They continued on, from house to house, killing all of the white people they encountered. Turner's force eventually consisted of more than 40 slaves, most on horseback. 
By about mid-day on August 22, Turner decided to march toward Jerusalem, the closest town. By then word of the rebellion had gotten out to the whites; confronted by a group of militia, the rebels scattered, and Turner's force became disorganized. After spending the night near some slave cabins, Turner and his men attempted to attack another house, but were repulsed. Several of the rebels were captured. The remaining force then met the state and federal troops in final skirmish, in which one slave was killed and many escaped, including Turner. In the end, the rebels had stabbed, shot and clubbed at least 55 white people to death.

 The fact that he was marching towards Jerusalem and that the book of Revelation is missing from Turner's Bible reinforces the apocalyptic nature of the rebellion. He truly thought he was doing God's work. He was eventually captured two moths later, was tried and brutally executed. He seems to have been carrying his Bible when he was captured. It was stored in a court house until it was given to the descendants of some of those who had died in the uprising. That family has now donated the Bible to the Smithsonian. You can read the article here.

This story got me thinking about the way apocalyptic literature has been misunderstood and misused in American history. Soon after Turner's rebellion another apocalyptic movement would begin. Millerism would proclaim that the second coming of Christ was soon at hand. Thankfully, this group did not lash out in violence. They waited patiently in a field in March of 1843 for Jesus to return and were disappointed. Since then there have been other individuals who thought they were doing God's work and were God's servant to bring about the end or to at least proclaim it. The prediction by Harold Camping is the most recent example.

But Nat Turner's story also got me thinking in another direction.

It is easy for us today to look back and see Nat Turner as a crazed, religious fanatic who led a violent uprising against his oppressors. I have never heard Turner's uprising described in positive terms. It is always presented as a dark spot of history. And it is. As many as 55 whites were killed by Turner and as many as 200 blacks were killed in retaliation by angry, fearful whites.

But he was also a hero to some. I am sure there were many slaves who saw him as a black messiah, a new Moses. And why not? The kind of violence he inspired was described in the Bible as the Israelites left Egypt and moved into the promise land.

It is ironic that we look back on Spartacus and the slave rebellion he led in Rome with an element of nostalgia. We make movies and television series that portray the rebel as lifting up the banner of freedom, think Kirk Douglas. Yet we don't see Turner as a hero in US history. Instead, he is a deranged, violent mad man who massacred a group of innocent people.

I suppose it all depends on from whose perspective you read the story.