Friday, August 17, 2012

The Passing of Marvin Meyer

Reports are surfacing on facebook and blogs that Marvin Meyer has died. Marvin was a good scholar who was personable and did much to bring the importance of biblical studies to the forefront. He will be missed. 

National Geographic has a nice tribute. 

From his academic page:

Dr. Marvin Meyer (Ph.D., Claremont Graduate University; M.Div., Calvin Theological Seminary) is Griset Professor of Bible and Christian Studies and Co-Chair of the Department of Religious Studies, Chapman University. He is also Director of the Chapman University Albert Schweitzer Institute. Recently he has served as Chair of the Chapman University Faculty and President of the Faculty Senate. He is Director of the Coptic Magical Texts Project of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, Claremont Graduate University, Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, and a past President of the Society of Biblical Literature (Pacific Coast).

Dr. Meyer is the author of numerous books and articles on Greco-Roman and Christian religions in antiquity and late antiquity, and on Albert Schweitzer’s ethic of reverence for life. Among his most recent books are The Gnostic Gospels of Jesus (HarperCollins, 2005), The Gospels of Mary (HarperCollins, 2004), Secret Gospels: Essays on Thomas and the Secret Gospel of Mark (Trinity Press International, 2003), The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts (Pennsylvania, 1999), The Unknown Sayings of Jesus (HarperCollins, 1998), The Magical Book of Mary and the Angels (P. Heid. Inv. Kopt. 685): Text, Translation, and Commentary(Heidelberg, 1996), and The Gospel of Thomas: The Hidden Sayings of Jesus (HarperCollins, 1992). He has also edited or co-edited The Gnostic Bible (Shambhala, 2003), Reverence for Life: Albert Schweitzer for the 21st Century (Syracuse, 2002), Magic and Ritual in the Ancient World (Brill, 2002), Jesus Then and Now: Images of Jesus in History and Christology (Trinity Press International, 2001), From Quest to Q (Peeters, 2000), and Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power (Princeton, 1999).

Gender and the Bible

In some circles Christians are still debating the role of women, not just in ministry but society as a whole. And as with most other subject, the Bible is brought in as part of the debate. When someone suggests that a biblical text on women should be read a different way or that perhaps it doesn't or shouldn't mean that for us today, the reaction can sometimes be fierce. 

Craig Keener is one New Testament scholar who has long worked for a better understanding of these texts. He has also sometimes been accused of undermining the Bible for his work.

Craig has a short article on the Huffington Post that looks at the subject. Here is a bit of what he says.

Sometimes more traditional interpreters have accused those of us who follow this approach of dishonoring the Bible. This accusation, however, misrepresents the debate's real crux: how one should apply the Bible. After all, the prophets, Jesus and Paul all reapplied some earlier biblical principles in new circumstances; addressing a new situation, Paul, for example, adds an explicit exception to Jesus's teaching about divorce. It is therefore biblical as well as pastorally sensitive to consider how we apply texts.
Moreover, the issue involves how we can apply the Bible consistently. Most of those who oppose women's ordination do not follow biblical instructions to greet one another with holy kisses or wear head coverings in church. Most recognize that these were cultural expressions of principles (such as friendly greetings) that may be applied differently in different cultures. Certainly most churches do not take up offerings for the Jerusalem church every Sunday (1 Corinthains 16:1-3) and most Bible readers do not feel compelled to go to Troas, get Paul's cloak and try to take it to him (2 Timothy 4:13). When they neglect these instructions, they do not see themselves as disobeying the Bible. They simply recognize that we need to take into account the situations the biblical writers addressed, before extracting larger principles. That is not only how we read the Bible but how we learn from any wisdom originally written in the past. Nearly all communication uses a language and some cultural setting!

You can read the whole article here

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The New Testament, Homosexuality and the Problem with Arguments from Silence: More on the Healing of the Centurion's Slave

Last week I posted a response to a Huffington Post article that suggested Jesus healed the same sex partner of a Roman Centurion.  I suggested that while the author did have some correct points, ultimately he was reaching a bit to use that story as biblical support for same sex marriage. His central contention was that the Greek word pais could mean slave, but it also was a way to describe the junior partner in a same sex relationship. 

I agreed with him, but also pointed out that there is no evidence for the term’s use that way in the Bible and that based on what little evidence we have in the Matthew and Luke’s versions of the story the most we can say is that the individual was probably a slave. We know nothing about whether or not they were sexually involved. You can read my entire response here.

One of the people who left comments on the post was my friend, fellow Durham grad and blogger James McGrath. His first response was to agree with me and thanked me for the post. A few hours later James commented again this time suggesting that the author of the Huffington Post may be correct since pais can sometimes be used for a junior partner in a same-sex relationship. I agreed with James that this was correct, but that I was not convinced that it was the case here since we don’t have enough evidence.

Yesterday James posted a piece asking whether the NewTestament was uninterested in homosexuality. Following a summary of some of what I just outlined above James then moves into challenging conservatives about their view of homosexuality and the Bible. Focusing on the story of the Centurion he says:

At any rate, the point is this: If Jesus cared about whether people were engaged in such activities, given how common they were among Greeks and Romans, he really missed a good opportunity to ask, and potentially offer a rebuke. I wonder how those who think the answer to “WWJD?” is “condemn homosexuals” will explain the fact that Jesus did not even bother to ask or address the issue, apparently missing an opportunity that his conservative followers today would not have passed up.

Following this he turns to Paul where James correctly points out that Paul too is mostly silent on the subject only mentioning homosexuality twice in his letters once with a rarely used term (1 Cor 6.9-10) and as part of list of those things Paul considers unnatural and shameful (Rom 1:26-27). He concludes the post with a critique of conservative Christians, but first has this to say about Paul and the New Testament.

That Paul and other NT authors say little about the subject in a world where it was more taken for granted than it is in our time tells us a great deal. This simply was not as important an issue for the NT authors as it is for contemporary conservative Christians. And in those few places where the subject seems to come up, what is said and what is not said both serve to remind us that the sorts of relationships that are in view are not those being discussed by advocates of same-sex marriage today.

I want to start by saying that I agree with much of what James says in his post. I have advocated for the church to have a much more open conversation about homosexuality. And I think the issue is much more complicated than taking Bible verses and applying them. But my issue has to do more with James’ hermeneutics. I understand what he is doing, but I don’t think it helps his case.

My first problem has to do again with interpreting pais in Matt 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10 in such a way that it means the servant in question was also being used sexually. Again, I agree that pais did sometimes refer to the junior partner in a same-sex relationship, but I don’t think we can argue that here since we don’t have enough evidence. All we can say is that he was a slave. Is it possible even likely that he was used for sex by the centurion? Yes, but we simply don’t know. Slavery often involved sexual exploitation of the enslaved. But slavery was not monolithic and we can’t assume that everyone acted and thought the same way. There is much more that could be said about the problems with interpreting the story this way, but I would direct James and my readers to an article that responds to this type of interpretation of the story in JBLin 2006.This interpretation of the story is complicated on several levels

Also problematic is James’ point about Jesus being silent here and missing a good opportunity to offer a rebuke. I suppose that is one way to look at the situation, but we could also look at it from another angle. Jesus also missed a chance to rebuke any type of sexual exploitation since that was common practice in slavery. Why would Jesus heal a slave who was going to be exploited sexually by the man who was requesting the healing? Jesus missed a good chance here. If, as James wants to suggest, Jesus knew or suspected that the centurion was using the slave sexually why did he not condemn him for this sort of exploitation?

Some might argue that the Centurion had strong feelings for the servant which thus demonstrates their close relationship. But this too is problematic. The story is only told from the perspective of the centurion; the slave has no voice in this story so we don’t know how he felt about the relationship. Which leads to another important question: Does Jesus support slavery? Perhaps he did. It was a commonly accepted practice in the ancient world, Jesus never condemns it and slaves are frequent characters in his parables. Should we then conclude that slavery is “ok” based on this story? Is Jesus’ silence here not only endorsing same-sex relationships but also slavery and the sexual exploitation of slaves?

As to James point about Paul, I agree for the most part, although I think that Paul’s words in Romans 1:26-27 are fairly unambiguous. They are based on the Old Testament and Jewish views of human sexuality. In fact Paul goes further by including Lesbians, something not mentioned in the OT. I am among those who think that Paul did view same-sex relationships as contrary to the created order and therefore wrong. But I also see Paul subjecting women at times in ways that I don’t agree with and supporting slavery not only through his silence on the subject but telling slaves “not to worry about it”(1 Cor 7:21) and sending back Onesimus to Philemon. I do agree, however, that Paul was not preoccupied with same-sex relationships. If anything, Paul was preoccupied with sexual immorality (mentioned in many of his letters) which would include much more than just same-sex relationships.

The problem with appealing to silence, as James well knows, is that there is a lot that the Bible is silent about. For instance, Paul no where condemns premarital sex, although I am pretty sure that he thought sex outside of marriage was a bad idea. If we want to get a hint of what Paul thought was sexually immoral then we would need to look beyond the New Testament to the Old Testament and other Jewish literature of the period.

I realize this could sound like James and I are making the Bible say whatever we want it to say. And as we all know you can in fact do that. But this is what makes the study and the application of the Bible so difficult and exhilarating at the same time. And this is a topic that deserves a lot better consideration and hard work than it often is receiving. Condemning or supporting something simply because that is the way of the Bible is tricky. If we do that we have little theological ground for abolishing slavery, ordaining women and allowing divorced people to remarry.

In closing, I want to reemphasize that I am not against the basic premise of what James is saying. I agree that we are far more preoccupied with homosexuality than Jesus and Paul. And the vitriol with which some pretend to discuss the topic is not only unhelpful, it is unchristian. But I don’t think appealing to the healing of centurion’s slave or an argument from silence will help. Like James I think the Bible has something to say to us today. We just need to do a better job of interpreting and applying it. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Grave Robber

I am working on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 today trying to write and application section. As I am doing it I am reminded of a song from my youth. The Christian rock group Petra had a song titled Grave Robber that is based on 1 Thessalonians 4 and 1 Corinthians 15. All and all it's pretty good theology.

Like the Thessalonians, I still retain my hope for resurrection.

Here's the lyrics to the song.

There's a step that we all take alone
An appointment we have with the great unknown
Like a vapor this life is just waiting to pass
Like the flowers that fade, like the withering grass

But life seems so long and death so complete
And the grave an impossible potion to cheat
But there's One who has been there and still lives to tell
There is One who has been through both heaven and hell

And the grave will come up empty-handed that day
Jesus will come and steal us away

Where is the sting, tell me where is the bite?
When the grave robber comes like a thief in the night
Where is the victory, where is the prize?
When the grave robber comes and death finally dies

Many still mourn, many still weep
For those that they love who have fallen asleep
But we have this hope though our hearts may still ache
Just one shout from above and they all will awake

And in the reunion of joy we will see
Death will be swallowed in sweet victory

Where is the sting, tell me where is the bite?
When the grave robber comes like a thief in the night
Where is the victory, where is the prize?
When the grave robber comes and death finally dies

When the last enemy is done, from the dust will come a song
Those asleep will be awakened, not a one will be forsaken
He shall wipe away our tears, He will steal away our fears
There will be no sad tomorrow, there will be no pain and sorrow

Where is the sting, tell me where is the bite?
When the grave robber comes like a thief in the night
Where is the victory, where is the prize?
When the grave robber comes and death finally

Where is the sting, tell me where is the bite?
When the grave robber comes like a thief in the night
Where is the victory, where is the prize?
When the grave robber comes and death finally dies 

The Year of Living Biblically

Last year I read A. J.  Jacobs' book The Year of Living Biblically. Jacobs is a journalist who writes books that trace him doing unusual things. His previous book Know it All, traces how he read the encyclopedia, every volume. For one year Jacobs tried to fulfill all the laws of the Bible. The result is both interesting and humorous. The end result is not his conversion, but a realization of the importance of religion for us and society.

Below is a video of Jacobs talking about his experience of trying to follow the Bible. It is about 17 minutes long, but it is as entertaining as the book. Enjoy!

HT: Jame McGrath

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Stopping Unwanted Resurrections: Vampire Proofing a Grave

Last week I had two posts on resurrection from two scholars who are on opposite sides of the debate. Today, I ran across this article. Not really about resurrection or the New Testament, but interesting nonetheless. 

Archaeology often leads to some odd finds, but this one is new to me. A team in Bulgaria has discovered two graves that were "vampire proofed." Here is a bit of the article from Archaeology Magazine

Among more than 600 rather typical graves found in a church graveyard in the Bulgarian Black Sea town of Sozopol were a pair of skeletons bearing witness that at least two of the town’s inhabitants were thought to require special treatment after death. One of the skeletons had a plowshare-like object driven through the left side of his rib cage, while the other had an unidentifiable metal object in his solar plexus. According to archaeologist Dimitar Nedev, head of the Sozopol Archaeological Museum, who found the skeletons, these burials are evidence of protection against vampirism—the belief that the dead would leave their graves.

I wonder if they used silver bullets if they thought you were a werewolf?

Monday, August 13, 2012

Is there a difference between public and private faith?

It's election time in the USA which means that all kinds of politicians are going to be saying ""God bless America" and voters going to scrutinize the church attendance record of the candidates. At the same time there will be a significant group of people who will insist that religion has no place in the public sphere.

Over at the Centre For Public Christianity there is a short interview with Stanley Hauerwas, professor of Theology and Ethics at Duke Divinity School, in which he explains why there cannot be a dichotomy between public and private faith.