Friday, December 13, 2013

Jesus was not a white man: A letter to Megyn Kelly

Not being a watcher of Fox or any other type of network news I missed this recent story. But you can watch the video below.

A Fox News anchor responded to a recent suggestion by someone that Santa should no longer be portrayed as a white man. The person suggesting the change in Santa perception is an African-American woman who is trying to relate her experience growing up in a racially charged setting in which the bringer of Christmas cheer looked a lot like those who also brought pain and oppression to her life.

The anchor thinks the whole thing is silly because, after all, Santa is white! Up to this point in the report I sat scratching my head wondering why they were arguing over the race of a mythical figure. True the modern day Santa Claus has a distant relation to the fourth century bishop Saint Nicholas, but apart from the name there is little of the modern Santa myth that represents the historical person.  But people will sometimes enter into silly arguments without thinking about, well, just how silly they are being.

But it was the anchor’s next move in the argument that got my attention. She compares the “fact” that Santa is a white man with the other well-known “fact” that Jesus was a white man. It was at this point I realized that this news anchor was doing more than perpetuating misinformation about Santa, she seems to also be under the delusion that Jesus was raised somewhere in Northern Europe.

So with that, ahem . . .

Dear Ms. Kelly,

I was quite uninterested in your argument until you mentioned Jesus. Yes, I know that Christmas is supposed to be about Jesus. But your analogy that Santa is a white man just as Jesus is a white man demonstrates, well to put it delicately, a level ignorance that should not be evident in someone who is supposed to be providing information to the masses each day. While I realize that you have probably only seen pictures of a white Jesus, I think you should know that those are not authentic photographs. In fact, we have no genuine pictures of Jesus since, well, photography had not yet been invented. Moreover, Jesus was, it seems, a very busy man, always on the move and it seems he never sat anywhere long enough for someone to even make a rough sketch of him. Furthermore, and more to the point, Jesus was a Jew living in Palestine in the first century of the Common Era. This means, therefore, that he would not have been white, but olive skinned, if not darker.

 I have often told my students that if they want a good idea of how Jesus might have looked they should walk through a Palestinian village in the West Bank or Gaza and observe some of the men there who have spent their lives laboring in the heat and sun of the Mediterranean climate. Someone from the BBC figured this out a few years back and created a composite of what Jesus might have looked like (see pic above). 

Jesus was certainly not a white man. So in the future, Ms. Kelly, you would be better served if you didn’t assume that just because you saw a picture of a white Jesus, or a white Santa for that matter, that this means you are looking at the real thing. After all, no one has seen Jesus in over 2,000 years nor has anyone seen Santa. Unless you are among the naughty who spy on the jolly, old elf when he stops to deposit gifts at your home. Or perhaps you saw mommy kissing Santa Claus. In any case, Jesus was still not a white man.

Ps. Saint Nicholas, the historical source for the mythic Santa, was Greek and lived in what is modern day Turkey, also a Mediterranean country. So, like Jesus, he wasn’t a white man either.

Merry Christmas!

For a less snarky response, see the post by my friend Allan Bevere: What Color is your Jesus?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Book Notice: The Future of Biblical Interpretation

I arrived home last week from the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature to find a package in my mailbox. The kind folks at InterVarsity Press sent me a gratis copy of the recently released The Future of Biblical Interpretation: Responsible Plurality in Biblical Hermeneutics edited by Stanley M. Porter and Matthew R. Malcom. It looks to be quite an interesting volume featuring eight chapters looking at Biblical hermeneutics with related topics like Theological Responsibility, Historical Responsibility and Ecclesial Responsibility, to name a few. Article authors include well-known scholars like Thiselton, Moberly, Dunn, and Porter.

Here's the blurb.
The Bible encompasses a plurality of voices, not only in genre but in perspective. And not surprisingly, interpreters of the Bible have generated a plurality of interpretations. How might biblical scholars work responsibly with and within this plurality? And what are the future directions or possibilities for biblical hermeneutics? The essays in The Future of Biblical Interpretation originated in a conference held in honor of Anthony C. Thiselton, who is well known for his important work in hermeneutics and New Testament interpretation. After an opening essay by Thiselton on “The Future of Biblical Interpretation and Responsible Plurality in Hermeneutics,” the contributors look at the issues from a variety of angles—theological, scriptural, kerygmatic, historical, critical, ecclesial and relational. The result is an engaging conversation exploring responsible and productive interpretation of the Bible. A must-read for anyone seriously engaged in biblical scholarship today.

I look forward to reading this book and posting on it in the future.

Many thanks to folks at InterVaristy Press!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Keep the Chi in Xmas

I have posted this in the past, but it seemed like a good time of the year to remind everyone about it.

I can't tell you how many times I have heard people complain about Xmas - "Don't take Christ out of Christmas!" In reality, that is not what is happening.  Xmas is what is known as a Nomina Sacra, an ancient way of shortening the name of Christ out of respect. Christ is in the "X," the Greek letter Chi, which is the first letter used to spell "Christ" in Greek. It is an abbreviation, one used quite often by early Christians.

Another example is to the right. The early church used the first two Greek letters in the word Christ, chi (C) and rho ( R), a symbol that later became part of the official standard of the emperor Constantine.

Another example is the symbol of the fish, one of the earliest symbols of Christians that has been found on the walls of the catacombs of Rome. It originated from using the first letter of several titles of Jesus (Jesus Christ Son of God Savior). When combined these initial letters together spelled the Greek word for fish 
(icquV, ichthus).

So the next time you see Xmas in a store don't tell them "hey, put Christ back in Christmas." Instead you might thank them for partaking in an ancient Christian tradition of referring to Christ with a Greek letter. I doubt many will know what you are talking about.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Geology Confirming Theology: Looking for oil in the Holy Land

I have heard about this story before. A Texas oilman and 30,000 investors are looking for oil in Israel. The emphasis is on looking since they haven't found any oil after drilling 4 wells and spending $130 million over the course of at least 13 years.

The name of the company is Zion Oil & Gas. It was formed by its owner John Brown who sold his Michigan tool company after having a religious experience in Israel. He began a new company dedicated to the exploration for oil in Israel. One problem, Brown has no prior experience in the oil business.

Zion's motto is geology confirming theology and have based their investigations on the words of Moses for the tribe of Joseph in Deut 33:13 which talks about blessings from things "lying below the deep."

NPR has run a story on this adventure. It's easy to be sarcastic about this whole situation. I wonder, however, how many well intentioned people, including Brown, have wasted a lot of time and money based on poor hermenuitcs and misplaced zeal. One thing that is striking about the whole story is the level of personal and financial commitment people will sometimes make to projects like this one. I wish the same level was there for other projects like helping those in need.

Listen to the NPR story Texas Oil Man Commanded by Bible Drills in Israel.

Here is a video from Zion's web page.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

SBL and my question for N.T. Wright

Column Capital in  Saint-Lazare Cathedral Autun, France
I leave tomorrow to attend the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. This year we are meeting in Baltimore. I have a variety of sessions to attend, but am looking forward to two in particular. 

One is a session in which I will give a paper on the death of Cain in art. I will explain how the legend of Cain's death developed from the biblical text and became a favorite topic of medieval artists Here's an abstract of the paper  I am delivering in the Bible and Visual Art section. 

One of the more peculiar oversights in the Genesis narrative is the failure to mention when and how Cain died. We are, of course, told how Abel died and the deaths of Adam and Seth are both recorded in Gen 5:3-8, yet we are never told about Cain’s death. Instead Cain goes on to marry, raise a family and build a city, but his death is never recorded. For some this created a theological problem. If Cain was allowed to live, what kind of judge was the almighty? Ancient exegetes sometimes solved this problem by inserting details about Cain’s death as well as elements of divine retribution for his murder of Abel. The most sophisticated of these interpretive expansions is the legend that Cain was killed by Lamech. By expanding Lamech’s speech in Gen 4:23-24, interpreters were able to fill in the story’s lacuna and thus guarantee Cain was justly punished. While this story is not as well-known today, it was familiar to many in the past. The story of Lamech killing Cain is visible in the architecture of churches, such as Saint-Lazare in Autun, France and the Modena Cathedral in Italy, and in the engravings of Lucas van Leyden, Jacques Legrand and the Egerton Genesis Picture Book. This paper will demonstrate how the theological questions raised by the text were answered not just with pen and parchment, but in the artwork that enhanced the life of the church. In a time when many couldn’t or didn’t read the Bible, illustrations of Cain’s death helped to answer the questions some would have raised about the circumstances surrounding the first recorded murder and the punishment of its perpetrator. 

The other session I will attend is with N.T. Wright to which I was invited by Fortress Press. As many will now know, Tom has published his massive (1700 pages!) Paul and the Faithfulness of God. I have been asked to attend a session with bloggers who will engage with Wright about his new book and other aspects of his scholarship. If there is WiFi in the suite where we are meeting I will attempt to live blog the session. Otherwise, I will post on it later. 

In the meantime, here is my question for N.T. Wright

In Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG) you compare Pliny’s letter to Sabinianus with Paul’s letter to Philemon. As part of your analysis you suggest that the letters demonstrate the different worldviews that existed between the two authors. You suggest that resident in Philemon are echoes of Ex 21 and Dt. 15 that are in Paul’s mind as he requests that Philemon accept Onesimus back and perhaps free him (p. 15). This “echo of Exodus,” you suggest, demonstrates that each letter encapsulates “a completely different worldview” (p.18-19).
 In light of these suggestions, I wonder if you would comment on Paul’s words to slaves in 1 Cor 7:21-22. Here Paul says to those in the audience who are enslaved “were you called as a slave? Don’t worry about it.” While I agree with the majority of modern scholars that the elliptical phrase in 7:21 probably allows for manumission, it does seem that the echoes of Exodus are missing in this passage. I do not see where in PFG you address the issues of 1 Cor 7:21-22 and how that passage may impact your understanding of Paul’s worldview or Exodus shaped prism. Does Paul have one worldview in Philemon and another in 1 Cor 7:21-22? It seems that although freedom may extend to slaves metaphorically, it isn’t always that way practically and Paul’s seemingly contradictory statements could suggest that Paul really isn’t all that different from Pliny.

Perhaps I will see you in Baltimore!

Flight to Hell

I have been on "flights from hell," but never on one "to hell." Apparently some people did board that flight back in September, on Friday the 13th. 

Would you board flight 666 to HEL on Friday the 13th? For superstitious travellers, that might be tempting fate. But Finnair passengers on AY666 to Helsinki apparently were not too bothered. Friday's flight was almost full.
"It has been quite a joke among the pilots," said pilot Juha-Pekka Keidasto before flying the Airbus A320 from Copenhagen to Helsinki. "I'm not a superstitious man. It's only a coincidence for me."
The daily flight AY666 from Copenhagen to Helsinki falls on Friday the 13th twice in 2013. Friday the 13th is considered bad luck in many countries and the number 666 also has strong negative biblical associations.

See the full article here

HT James McGrath

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Gezer in the News

As some will know, I have twice taken a team of students to Tel-Gezer to participate in the ongoing excavations. For a variety of reasons we chose not to participate this year. As it turns out, this was the summer they found evidence for a previously unknown Canaanite city. Some people have all the luck. 

Here is an excerpt from the Live Science article. 

Archaeologists have unearthed traces of a previously unknown, 14th-century Canaanite city buried underneath the ruins of another city in Israel.
The traces include an Egyptian amulet of Amenhotep III and several pottery vessels from the Late Bronze Age unearthed at the site of Gezer, an ancient Canaanite city.Gezer was once a major center that sat at the crossroads of trade routes between Asia and Africa, said Steven Ortiz, a co-director of the site's excavations and a biblical scholar at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.The remains of the ancient city suggest the site was used for even longer than previously known.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Noah the Movie (Official Trailer)

I reported in a previous post that a new movie about the story of Noah's Ark was in the works. The film starring Russell Crowe and Emma Watson seems to promise a technological feast for the eyes and ears as Hollywood tries to do a better job of destroying the world than God.

Below is a short teaser trailer. I do note that Russell Crowe seems to have a spear chucking scene in which I assume he is reprising his Gladiator role via the book of Genesis. No word yet on whether Emma Watson will concoct a batch of polyjuice to disguise herself as a helpless animal needing space on the ark.

On another, note there is a second video below which comes from Jon Voight's Noah's Ark movie produced by Hallmark 1999. Some have aptly described it as the "Plan 9 of biblical movies." Those you who know Ed Wood will know what I mean.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Ill-fitting Clothing and Theological Labels

When I walked into my office yesterday here at the seminary I discovered a shirt bearing the seminary logo waiting for me on my desk. The shirt was a gift from a colleague who is always kind enough to make sure that I have the latest in seminary propaganda fashion.  

But when I picked it up to admire it I noticed a problem right away. The shirt tag read “Large GG.” I am not sure what the “GG” meant, but I suspect that it was something like “gargantuan giant” since the only way I was going to wear that shirt was either with the assistance of tent poles or with someone else in there with me. It was simply too big.

So I headed over to the seminary bookstore to see if they had one in medium. They did and the kind lady behind the counter suggested that I try it on in the restroom to make sure it fit. What I discovered was not encouraging. While the shoulders and chest of the large shirt seem to swim on me, the medium was a bit too snug in the very same areas. Oh, they both did the job, but it was clear to me that no matter which shirt I chose there was going to be an element of discomfort involved. I decided I would take the medium and hope it would stretch out a bit. When I returned to the bookstore the lady behind the counter asked which one fit best. I responded “Neither, I think I need a medium-large.”

I must admit I wasn’t completely surprised by what happened. Over the years my shirt size has changed.  For a longtime I wore a medium, but then all of sudden I noticed that mediums were too small and I had to move up to a large.  But then one day I noticed that larges were too big and I was back to the mediums that I had always worn. I suspect there is a conspiracy among the clothing manufacturers since my closet now has a variety of medium and large shirts. This of course presents a challenge for me since, as my wife knows, I hate ill-fitting shirts. It is not unusual for me to put a shirt on and take it off immediately with the comment “well, that’s not happening today.” Sometimes I find the medium a bit too tight and would rather go with the large. Other times the large makes me feel unkempt since it seems to just hang on me.

I feel the same about theological labels. Many years ago I would have readily identified myself as an evangelical. But, like the medium size shirts in my closet, I began to notice that it was a bit ill-fitting. It didn’t allow me to move freely in the areas where I needed some space and was more restricting than freeing. Later I thought of myself as a liberal, but that too didn’t seem to fit very well.  Like the large shirt, I had to find too many things to help fill out the shirt so it would fit and what I realized is that the shirt/label no longer revealed who I am. Like the shirts, I had begun to find labels to be ill-fitting.

Next week I will attend the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. And like the dance I sometimes do in my closet when deciding what shirt to wear, I will find that the labels other want me to use to identify myself won’t fit. I will spend time in groups or sessions where people proudly proclaim they are liberal (or some variation thereof) and I will realize that the shirt is too large and make me look like someone I am not. I will then spend time with those who proudly proclaim to be evangelical and I will realize that the label is a bit too tight and doesn’t give me the room to move that I need. I have been experiencing this situation for some time. In the past I would go to the conference and come home amazed at the situation in which I find myself. Now I think I have adjusted to at least know what to expect.

As I mentioned above, in the end I chose the medium shirt with the hopes that perhaps it would stretch out a bit to fit me better. It’s the same with being an evangelical. I still don’t like nor identify with the label. Evangelical is still too tight for me, but it fits me better than any other label. I suppose what I need is a medium-large. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Passing of Jerome Murphy-O'Connor

Reports are beginning to filter out about the death of Jerome Murphy-O'Connor (born 10 April 1935 in CorkIreland died 11, November 2013 in Jerusalem). Dominican priest and leading authority on the Aposlte Paul, O'Connor was Professor of New Testament at the École Biblique in Jerusalem, a position that he held since 1967.

O'Connor is well know among New Testament scholars for his expertise in the the New Testament. He wrote a number of important and helpful books on a wide range of topics including the Apostle Paul, archaeology and the geography of the Holy Land. He will be greatly missed.

HT: Jim Davila 

Monday, November 4, 2013

Of God and Beer: How some churches are retaining worshipers

As my regular readers will know, I not only enjoy a good beer I enjoy brewing it as well. I still get strange looks from some who can't figure out how my occupation and hobby interact with one another. The simple answer is, usually not while I am working. I was, at one time, however, a member of group called God and Guinness. We would meet once a week in a pub and . . . well I think the name explains what we did there.

But there are some who are now moving to introduce beer as a regular part of their worship service and evening hymn sings. NPR ran a story recently about how a a few churches are trying to stave off decline by holding services accompanied by craft beers. Here are some excerpts from the story.

With mainline religious congregations dwindling across America, a scattering of churches is trying to attract new members by creating a different sort of Christian community. They are gathering around craft beer.
Some church groups are brewing it themselves, while others are bring the Holy Mysteries to a taproom. The result is not sloshed congregants; rather, it's an exploratory approach to do church differently.
Leah Stanfield stands at a microphone across the room from the beer taps and reads this evening's gospel message. She's a 28-year-old leasing agent who's been coming to Church-in-a-Pub here in Fort Worth, Tex., for a year, and occasionally leads worship. "I find the love, I find the support, I find the non-judgmental eyes when I come here," she says. "And I find friends that love God, love craft beer."
In downtown Portland, Ore., at the stately old First Christian Church, one Saturday night a month they open the parish hall for an event called Beer and Hymns.
There must be 100 people here tonight, most of them young, the kind you rarely see in church on Sunday morning. They're swigging homemade stout from plastic cups — with a two-beer limit. They're singing traditional hymns from a projection screen like Be Thou My Vision. And they're having way too much fun.
Like the crowd at Church-in-a-pub, a lot of folks at Beer & Hymns appear to be refugees from traditional churches.

As much as I love both beer and theology, I do wonder to what end this sort of worship experience will lead. I am not sure if the ultimate reason they are gathering is so that they can focus together on the worship of God and the good news of the gospel or so that they can down a few beers. While meeting people who "love God and craft beer" does appeal to me, I do think, however, the church is about more than finding people who have things in common with us. Certainly that will be the case in many or our worship experiences, but I am not sure that should be what attracts us to one another. Moreover, while I am certainly not one to insist that all worship of God most take place in a church, I do wonder if moving the church into the bar will help attendees focus more on God or their beer.  

Proponents of this move call it a transitional experiment. They are waiting to see how this new church model will develop. I am wondering, however, to what degree do the attendees have any connection with the long history of the church. Do they have any sense of the sacred? Or has it been diluted along with the beer they drink while belting out hymns? 

Somehow I am not convinced this is a viable long term strategy. Perhaps someday I will have an opportunity to visit such a meeting. 

What are you thoughts?

Here is the story n NPR

Badass Birds of the Bible

I must admit that this is probably the first time I have used the above descriptor in any of my blogs. But after reading Debbie Blue's article over at the CNN Blog I must admit that there is no better way to describe the birds of the Bible. Birds are at the beginning and the end of the (Christian) Bible, but their roles vary from place to place.

(CNN) – As long as humans have been breathing, they've invested birds with meaning. 
They fly all over the Bible - from beginning to end - and they have a prominent place in the founding narratives of almost every culture and religion. They are not just bones and feathers. They are strength or hope, omen and oracle.
In the Bible's first book, Genesis, God hovers over the face of the water like a dove, the Jewish sages suggest in the Talmud. In its final book, birds gorge on the flesh of the defeated "beast" in Book of Revelation.
Birds are the currency of mercy, sacrificed to God in the hopes of winning blessings or forgiveness. They bring bread to the prophets. Abraham has to shoo them away from his offering, and a pigeon accompanies Jesus on his first visit to the temple.
Jesus told us to "consider the birds." I love this about him, and I've taken his advice to heart.
In doing so, I've found paying attention to these wild, awesome animals reveals hidden layers of meaning in the Bible and new lessons for modern Christians looking for grace in unexpected places.
Here are a few of the surprising things I've learned about Bible birds.
Read the full post here.

Story of God Commentary Giveaway Winners

Congratulations to Jordan Messner and Lori Lower! They each one a volume of the new Story of God Commentary series.

Many thanks to everyone who participated. I will be posting more great giveaways in the future and will offer more Story of God Commentaries as they become available.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Gospel According to Britney Spears?!

I chose this pic of Spears in an attempt
to keep this a family friendly blog.
When Jesus Christ Superstar was released by Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber it was met with both critical acclaim and derision. While the critics thought it a brilliant piece of work, the faithful were not so sure. Now, more then 40 years later, the show is still running and even many of the faithful (myself included) have come to love the show. 

But I am not so sure about this next one. It seems that someone has written an opera about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ using the music of Britney spears. In fact, that is all they use. There is no dialogue. Here is what the press release says about Spears the Musical
Britney Spears has met the Bible. SPEARS is an original musical that chronicles the life of Jesus Christ, telling the story through the hit music of Britney Spears. Creator Patrick Blute, 23, and the SPEARS creative team are holding a funder’s preview on November 7th in Studio A of the Foxwoods Theater. The musical tugs at the heartstrings of America’s lost twenty-somethings, calling on familiar hits such as “Stronger,” “One More Time,” and “Crazy,” to describe the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Not one word is spoken, and not one lyric is changed, technically making the musical an opera. Originally dreamed up by Blute during his undergraduate years, SPEARS debuted in April 2012 at Columbia University’s Glicker-Milstein Theater. Tickets to the first production sold out in less than one minute, and the show received overwhelming support. Charolette Murtishaw of the Columbia Spectator wrote, “Little can be done to deny the star power of SPEARS, which manages to tackle the marriage of Spears and Christ in a way that respects both deities and keeps the audience fully engaged and entertained.”

I suspect many will object to Spears being referred to a "deity." 

No word yet on whether Spear's hit "Oops I did it again" will be used. 

HT: Mark Goodacre 

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Does the Church Alienate Intellectuals?

As a biblical scholar I will admit that it can be difficult at times to attend church. What I mean is, on the one hand my world consists of engaging biblical texts and theological topics at a level that many Christians won't. So attending a church service on a Sunday can be a bit like sending an adult to the childrens' Sunday School class. It's not that what is being taught is unimportant, it's just that I have already heard it before and I have different questions. 

On the other hand, I have always tried to remember that not everyone, including the pastor, gets to live in the world I do and that those in the pews around me don't have the same questions that I do. A few years back I was fortunate to have a pastor who was careful to meet the needs of the congregation at large, but demonstrated intellectual rigor in his teaching and preaching. He is also someone who would (and still does after retirement) talk with me about issues which allowed us both to learn from one another.

But not everyone is fortunate enough to have a pastor who is sensitive to the needs of those who we label the "intellectuals" (my readers will know my disdain for labels). Over at the Sojourners blog Stephen Mattson discusses the situation and what he sees as the problem. Here is bit of what he has to say.

In a world where people are craving inspiration, growth, and information, many churches maintain a cyclical pattern based on redundancy, safety, and closed-mindedness.
Unfortunately, many pastors and Christian leaders continue to recycle old spiritual clichés — and sermons — communicating scripture as if it were propaganda instead of life-changing news, and driving away a growing segment of people who find churches ignorant, intolerant, absurd, and irrelevant.
As technology continues to make news and data more accessible, pastors are often failing to realize that they're no longer portrayed as the respected platforms of spiritual authority that they once were.
Instead of embracing dialogue and discussion, many Christian leaders react to this power shift by creating defensive and authoritarian pedestals, where they self-rule and inflict punishment on anyone who disagrees, especially intellectuals.
Intellectuals are defined as people who show a high degree of mental capacity. And while we often tend to associate intellectuals as professors clad in bow ties that attend fancy cocktail parties and publish award-winning books, there are no demographic, cultural, professional, racial, or gender restrictions on who can or can’t be an intellectual. There are no rules on who is and isn’t an intellectual — everyone has the capacity to be one!
Recently, it's been said that smarter people prefer not to go to church or believe in God, but maybe part of the problem is that churches won't let them in — or they’ve already kicked them out! There are many reasons why intellectual believers are often rejected by faith communities, but here are few of the main ones:
Mattson goes on to outline three areas that he views as contributors to the problem. What do you think? Is he correct? Are there other areas? Or is the problem with the intellectuals? 

HT: James McGrath

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A New Commentary Series and a Giveaway

I am privileged to be a contributor to a new commentary series. The Story of God Bible Commentary explains and illuminates each passage of Scripture in light of the Bible’s grand story. The first commentary series to do so, SGBC offers a clear and compelling exposition of biblical texts, guiding everyday readers in how to creatively and faithfully live out the Bible in their own contexts. Its story-centric approach is ideal for pastors, students, Sunday school teachers, and laypeople alike.

I am the author of the volume on 1 & 2 Thessalonians, which is with the editor now and will be available sometime next year. This week the kind folks at Zondervan sent me copies of the first two volumes, the Sermon on the Mount by Scot McKnight and Philippians by Lynn Cohick. In order to celebrate the release of these volumes I am giving away a copy of each. This means that there will be two lucky winners on the giveaway. The giveaway begins today and the winners will be announced on Monday, November 4th. 

It has been a while since I hosted a giveaway, so let me review the rules. Enter your name in the comment section below. On Monday, November 4th I will choose two winners and post their names. You will then need to contact me to get the books and you have five days to do so.

Good luck!

Monday, October 28, 2013

O'Reilly admits he isn't qualified to write a religious book.

In an interview with Fox News Bill O'Reilly admits that he isn't qualified to write a religious book.

But I don't think he knows what kind of a book he did write. At one point in this interview he sounds like an evangelist. I do wonder how this interview, in which he claims to have written a "history" squares up with his claim in the 60 Minutes interview (below) that the Holy Spirit inspired him to write the book.

Sigh, hopefully this will all go away soon. But I suspect there will be a whole new roll out in April in time for Easter. In fact, National Geographic is filming a special based on the book. I hope someone contacts those of us who know something about Jesus first.

See my review here.

Here is the link to the interview

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Magic and Curses in Jerusalem

Magic is not a topic most would associate with Jerusalem. But it is more common than you would
think. Although the Bible has some not too pleasant things to say about those who practice magic, archaeology reveals that it was practiced by many (Lev 19:31; 2 Kings 21:6; Isa 8:19). Amulets and incantation bowls are among some of the items sometimes discovered in a dig.

The Israel Antiquities Authorities is reporting the discovery of a lead curse tablet found in the area of the city of David. It is written and Greek and was found in the remains of Roman mansion. Live Science has the story.

A lead curse tablet, dating back around 1,700 years and likely written by a magician, has been discovered in a collapsed Roman mansion in Jerusalem, archaeologists report.

The mansion, which is being excavated by the Israel Antiquities Authority in the Givati Parking Lot, is located in what is known as the "City of David," an area that holds at least 6,000 years of human occupation. The mansion itself covers at least 2,000 square meters (about half an acre) and contains two large open courtyards adjacent to each other. It was in use between the late third century and A.D. 363, when it was destroyed in a series of earthquakes on May 18 or 19.

The text is written in Greek and, in it a woman named Kyrilla invokes the names of six gods to cast a curse on a man named Iennys, apparently over a legal case.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Lynn Cohick - On Being a Female Biblical Scholar

At one time the field of biblical studies was populated only by white males. Those demographics are changing quickly as more women and minorities enter the field. But there are still some challenges.

In a recent interview with Christianity Today Lynn Cohick, Professor of New Testament at Wheaton, talks about her recent commentary on Philippians and what it's like to be a female biblical scholar. Here are some excerpts.

When I was a seminary student I didn't come across many commentaries written by women, so your contribution to this series is especially meaningful for women like me. Although women still face challenges as a minority in evangelical scholarship, are there any benefits of being a female in your field?
I would say it's almost a double-edged sword. I get invited to speak or to write a chapter in an edited volume, and oftentimes there is a presumption, or it's even directly stated: "We need a woman." We need a woman on this panel, or we need a woman speaker because the last three years we've had men.
So you become the token female voice.
Exactly. So while it gives me a chance to work, I also wonder if my efforts are judged differently. I wonder if people think, "Lynn has been asked because she's a woman, so I'm going to presume that her work is not that good, that she wasn't given this based on her merit or her argument, but just because she's a woman.
There are still tremendous challenges for women in evangelical scholarship, and I'm just not sure how to go forward because of the tokenism mindset. I want to encourage female scholars, but I would want a young, male New Testament scholar to look up to me as much as a female New Testament scholar would. I want to move beyond thinking that I should just mentor women. I should also mentor men, and I think that would be the next frontier.
What advice would you give to women who are interested in the field of biblical studies?
Follow your passion. But I would say that to a man as well, though there are different challenges.
Yes you are female, but you're also human…If you're interested in it, charge ahead. Don't let another person box you in as though you're the female voice. If you're really interested in Septuagint studies or Isaiah studies or in Historical Jesus studies, then just charge ahead with that and don't let somebody box you in with "Well you really should be talking about feminist issues or this or that." Think theologically, think hermeneutically, and take it one step at a time.

Read the full interview here.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Why O'Reilly's "Killing Jesus" Nearly Killed Me

By now many will know that Bill O’Reilly has written a new book titled Killing Jesus. The Fox News conservative pundit has already published two other books of the same genre – Killing Kennedy (2012) and Killing Lincoln (2011). I once borrowed an audio copy of Killing Lincoln that I listened to on a trip. I admit that I found it interesting. So, while I do not subscribe to O’Reilly’s flavor of politics and had never watched his O’Reilly Factor, I thought I would see what he had to say in Killing Jesus. Having finished the book I thought I would share my impressions with you.

I am not sure where to begin with this book. I can’t provide a serious review because it is hard for me to believe that he published it with a straight face. This book is horrible on so many levels. O’Reilly claims that he and his co-writer, Martin Dugard, have uncovered a narrative about Jesus that is fascinating and frustrating; a story that has not been fully told until now in this book (pp. 2, 4). However, a simple read of any undergrad Introduction to the Gospels textbook would demonstrate that O’Reilly doesn't know what he is talking about.

Of all the problems with this book it is his complete lack of understanding about history that is most frustrating. He claims to separate myth from history, but I don’t think he knows the difference. He certainly doesn't have a coherent methodology. Not only does he not understand how history writing works (both now and in antiquity), it is obvious that he makes it up as he goes along or he just gets it plain wrong.  For instance, he in correctly writes that the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed in 722 BC by the Philistines when even Wikipedia knows that it was the Assyrians that conquered Samaria, not the Philistines (p. 14). In another place he discusses Luke’s story of the twelve year old Jesus teaching in the temple (2:41-48). O’Reilly, who claims to be using “classical” sources in his research, says that the event took place on March 23, AD 7 . . . in the afternoon (p. 70). Really? He knows the date and the time? Where he got this information from is a mystery. At times his “evidence” comes from Medieval Jewish sources that would have no bearing on the first century. Often he uses Josephus injudiciously. And there are some typos that make the whole situation even sadder. One such example is found on p. 241 where Pilate calls “the high priest and church elders to announce his decision.” Church elders!? Me thinks Mr. O’Reilly gets ahead of the story here. I could go on, but this handful of examples demonstrates that his claim to be a “historical investigator” doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

Adding to problems of the book is the really bad writing. At times I could hardly look at the page because my eyes were in pain from what the authors clearly thought were clever sentences. Lines like “But the young Jesus is not long for this small town” (p. 81) or “The Plot to kill Jesus is about to unfold. But Jesus has other plans” (p. 171) and “Jesus travels with a dozen grown men, each with a man-size appetite” (p. 199). O’Reilly makes Jesus sound more like a hero in an action film than a traveling religious teacher. While I tried not to skip any pages, there were times I had to skim just to keep myself from banging the book against my head.

One point that has been made by some reviewers is that O’Reilly’s Jesus ends up as an anti-tax Republican. While it is true that he does highlight the oppressive tax system of Rome, I can’t say that he beats that drum consistently. It certainly is there, but I don’t think that Bill has created Jesus in the image of the Tea Party. But it’s possible I missed something during those times when I had to read with my eyes closed lest they burst into flames.

As one of my former students has pointed out to me, Bill probably didn't write this book. It was most likely written by a ghost writer, I assume his co-author Martin Dugard. On a recent 60 Minutes interview Bill claims that he was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write the book (see below). If this is true, it’s too bad the Holy Spirit didn't help him to do a better job of it.

I have spoken to some who, although they may be fans of O’Reilly’s brand of politics, are suspicious of what he is trying to do here. I think they all realize that Bill can smell the money. I recommend that you NOT buy this book. You would be better served by sending the $20 to a local organization that provides outreach for the poor in your area.

Finally, I admitted above that I had listened to and enjoyed Killing Lincoln. After reading Killing Jesus I now question everything that is in that book as well. I will be talking to a Lincoln scholar in the next week. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Creating a Crisis of Faith: The Job of Good Bible Teachers

Over the years I have had the repeated experience of introducing students to a topic in biblical studies
that did not line up with what they were taught or believed. I can identify the look in their eyes when I drop "the bomb" that makes them feel like the rug has been pulled from under their feet. I can see the panic in their face as their brain tries to fit what I have just said into the paradigm they use to understand faith and the world. Some will simply ignore what I say. Others will dig in deeper. Some will mull it over for weeks if not months.

Some might assume that I find a certain level of evil satisfaction in undoing what someone has thought or believed. But that's not the case. I still remember the conflict I experienced within as I studied the Bible and compared it what I had been taught and begin to realize that things were not as I had been taught. So I try to approach these difficult topics with a certain level of pastoral care while not backing away from it. I consider it my job to make sure that my students leave my class having really thought about what they believe and why.

 Today I ran across someone else who articulates well the situation many of us encounter when we study the Bible in an academic setting. Over at Pete Enn's blog Andrew Knapp has shared his own thoughts on The Christian College and the Crisis of Faith and why that might be a good thing. Here are a few excerpts.

It seems reasonable, even inevitable, that 18-year-olds leaving home to educate themselves will encounter new ideas that challenge their preexisting beliefs and compel a reevaluation of the evidence. Young men and women who take their faith seriously and are honest with themselves will recognize that some of their beliefs are not tenable—they do not need to be defended with better arguments but modified or even discarded entirely.
This can be difficult—we do not like to part ways with cherished ideas upon which we have built a worldview. But this is why students get educated. And this is why students have crises of faith.
Many Christian colleges include something in their mission statement about seeking to strengthen their students’ faith. Although I appreciate the sentiment behind this, I fear it can have bad effects. Many young people have an immature faith. Schools do not do them a service by helping them embrace this faith via dubious apologetics. Examination should always precede entrenchment.
This is why I am crushed whenever I hear that an institution has invoked the fact that “Bible Professor X caused some students to have faith crises” as grounds for dismissal. This is what good Bible teachers do!
What if we extended this to other disciplines—if physicists had to fear for their jobs whenever they caused students to understand nature in a new way, or if philosophers came under fire whenever they encouraged students to question reality in a new way?
Wanting to spare students from having faith crises implies that the students arrive at university with a perfect understanding of the nature of the Bible, in which case, we do not need to teach Bible classes at all.

You can read the entire post here. I would be interested to hear your own stories and struggles related to this topic.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Oral Tradition and the Telephone Game

Earlier in the week I posted a book notice for J.D.G. Dunn' new book Oral Gospel Tradition
(Eerdmans, 2013).

Now, I suspect by coincidence, Mark Goodacre has posted installment 66 of his excellent NT Podcast in which he talks about oral tradition and the telephone game. Mark explains how oral tradition may or may not have worked in relation to the gospel tradition.

If you are new to New Testament studies or a professor looking for resources, I highly recommend Mark's podcasts as a way to teach important concepts in a short, yet informative space of time. You can find all of his podcasts at NT Pod.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Jerusalem: The Center of the Earth

Computer Generated Recreation of the Second Temple
Jerusalem has sometimes been called the center of the world. Some have even referred to it as the navel of the earth. And even if you have never visited the city, it's hard to deny that it is one place in the world that attracts a lot of attention, as it has for more then 3000 years.

If you haven't had the opportunity to visit there in person you will get a chance to tour the city virtually. National Geographic has announced the release of a new film titled "Jerusalem" that will be showing in IMAX theaters across the world. Below is the trailer.

You can search for theater locations nearest you, but I can already see that it won't be playing anywhere near Ashland, Ohio. Perhaps I will need to wait for the DVD. See the Huffington Post for more photos.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Book Notice: The Oral Gospel Tradition (J.D.G Dunn)

For more than two hundred years New Testament scholars have researched and debated the sources used by the evangelists for what we now know as the four gospels.  In the case of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) there is broad consensus that a literary relationship exists. It is generally accepted that Mark wrote first followed by Luke and Matthew who both used Mark and other sources, some common to one another others perhaps independent of one another. While there are numerous variations in the theory, this is the most accepted one. 

One question that continues to drive the ongoing study is the degree to which the gospel writers used oral sources. There has been a lot of ink spilled over this topic. For more than a decade Professor James D. G. Dunn has been one of those advocating for a reconsideration of how oral tradition worked and how it may have impacted the authors of the gospels. While Dunn has written about this in various publications (e.g Jesus Remembered) he has not yet published a comprehensive overview of his years of research, until now. 

In a new book about to released by Eerdmans on October 3rd, Dunn brings together fifteen different essays that provide an in depth look at the status of oral tradition in gospel studies. Here is a description from the Eerdmans blog.

Imagine the scene. The Christian community to which Matthew was attached receives a copy of the Gospel of Mark.

Is this the first time they have heard of the accounts of Jesus’ exorcisms or of the death of John the Baptist which Mark tells? Is this the first time they have heard Jesus’ Parable of the Sower, or Jesus’ teaching on purity, or the story of Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah, or Jesus’ teaching on divorce, or the account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem? Some seem to think so. If Matthew’s treatment of these same stories and teachings can be explained in terms of Matthew’s copying and redaction of Mark, then that explanation is regarded as a sufficient and complete explanation of such Matthean accounts.
But is it historically credible that such traditions about Jesus were entirely unknown by the wider range of Christian churches until Mark collected them — from where? Is it credible to assume that such traditions about Jesus had only a very restricted circulation — to the few locations and apostles where Mark found them? Is it credible to assume that Mark was the sole channel through which such traditions passed into wider knowledge? After all, we are talking about forty years after Jesus’ own mission. Was knowledge of the Jesus tradition so minimal and highly restricted throughout that period?
The more obvious scenario is surely that traditions of Jesus’ miracles and teaching circulated quite widely among the groups of believers in Jesus. That when new groups were formed the new believers had already heard traditions about Jesus and were eager to hear more. If this is indeed the case, it is hardly likely that the traditions about Jesus contained in Mark’s Gospel were wholly unknown to Matthew and his community. On the contrary, it is much more likely that they knew many of these stories and teachings, in all likelihood in varying versions. And it is also much more likely that in some cases Matthew preferred the version he knew best when writing his Gospel as an expansion (and perhaps even as an improvement?) of Mark’s.

 Many thanks to Eerdmans for sending me a copy ahead of the release date. I look forward to reading it and posting a review here in the near future. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Hoard of Gold Discovered at the Temple Mount base in Jerusalm

Eilat Mazar, granddaughter of famed Israeli archaeologist Benjamin Mazar,  has been excavating in Jerusalem's City of David and the area known as the Ophel. The Ophel is a small piece of land between where the temple mount stands and the original location of ancient Jerusalem. In the past she has uncovered large foundation stones belong to a monumental structure that may or may not have belonged to King David (see here).

On Monday the Hebrew University announced that Mazar's excavation team has discovered a hoard of Byzantine gold, including a piece depicting a menorah. Below of some of the report and a video.

The find, unearthed in the area adjacent to the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount known as the Ophel, was dated to the early 7th century CE, in all likelihood the time of the brief Persian conquest of Jerusalem.
Professor Eilat Mazar described the discovery as a unique find with “very clear Jewish symbols.” She posited that the hoard of gold and silver objects, found beneath the floor of a Byzantine-era house meters from the massive walls of the Temple Mount, was brought by Jews who returned to the city after the Persians conquered it from the Byzantines in 614 CE.
“I have never found so much gold in my life!” she said with obvious excitement at a press conference on Mount Scopus. “I was frozen. It was unexpected.”
The centerpiece, a medallion that Mazar posited may have been used as ornamentation for a Torah scroll, is emblazoned with a seven-armed candelabrum — a menorah — a Torah scroll, and a shofar, a ram’s horn.

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Syrian Crisis and the Bible

As the west, led by the US and prodded by France, rattles its saber at Bashar al-Assad, some in the Christian community are looking to the Bible to see what it might say about these events. They are turning to Isaiah 17:1-2 which is an oracle against Damascus.
See, Damascus will cease to be a city, and will become a heap of ruins.Her towns will be deserted forever; they will be places for flocks, which will lie down, and no one will make them afraid. 
Some Christians, and apparently some Muslims too, see this as sign of the second coming of Jesus Christ.  But there are a couple of problems with this interpretation.
  1. The Damascus referred to in Isaiah 17 is the one from 732 BC. It is the one that was mostly destroyed by the Assyrians for rebelling against their Assyrian overlords.
  2. If we are going to read 17:1-2 as a prophecy about the 21st century, then we need to do the same with Isaiah 17:3-14, which has some rather negative things to say about Israel. In fact, if you read those verses you see the destruction of Israel is described in far more detail than that of Damascus. Some have looked at these verses and conclude that it is describing a chemical attack by Syria on Israel. But in reality, it is about God judging Israel because they have forgotten God. The events described there seem to reflect the way the Assyrian army moved into Israel in 720 BC.

A major problem with this sort of interpretation is that it completely ignores the context of the oracle. This oracle was written at a specific time for a specific people. It doesn’t have on going predictive powers. This type of interpretation is the result of a very egocentric reading of the Bible. It happens when we think that everything written therein is about us and for us. All that we need to do is solve the code, connect the dots and we have the secret road map to how the world will end. But as I said, this ignores the fact that what is described here has already happened.

Over at the Time Blog Walter Bruggemann has what is probably a more responsible way to understand this passage, 2800 years after it happened. He says

 “You cannot read the Bible that way. It is an ancient poem about an ancient context,” he said. “If we are going to contemporize it with such an easy connection then we have to learn to read the text against the United States as well because the United States now plays the role of Babylon and all those ancient superpowers. We have to tread very gently about making such silly connections.”
A better interpretation of the passage, Bruggemann explains, would be that all nations are answerable to the God of justice, even  nations like Syria and Babylon. “No nation has high moral ground,” he says. “That is a bite against every exceptionalism, including American exceptionalism.”

Bruggemann’s point is one for Christian Americans to consider seriously. Our egocentric way of reading the Bible often neglects to ponder the possibility that perhaps we are playing the role of a modern day Assyria, Babylon or Rome. And while the Bible suggests that God used those nations at various points in history, it wasn't because God thought they were “his people.” In fact, they are the nations that eventually met their own destruction. We should remember that God's justice has no favorites. Even ancient Israel found that out. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

Do we need the New Testament?

It's not unusual to hear people make snide remarks about the Old Testament. People are sometimes referred to as "Old Testament Christians" or as having an "Old Testament answer" to a situation. I recently heard someone remark that they were going to "go Old Testament" all over someone, which I took to mean that they were going act in some violent, wrathful way.

To hear some Christians talk, there is really not much need for the Old Testament in the Christian Bible. Sure there are some great stories there (Samson, David and Goliath, etc) and who doesn't enjoy at least some of the Psalms and the occasional cheeky parable. But most don't see much point to the Old Testament apart from serving as a very long preface to the New Testament.

In the video below John Goldingay, professor of Old Testament at Fuller Seminary, asks a different question. Do we need the New Testament? Goldingay does a good job of explaining how much of what is thought to be "New Testament" thinking and theology is actually take straight from the Old Testament.


HT: Nijay Gupta

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Need a scapegoat to help cover your latest "infraction"? There's an App for that.

Filed under- "You can't make this stuff up".

We are all familiar with the term "scapegoat." It is often used when a group of powerful people are accused of a crime, but escape the consequence by blaming it on some low level person. The aide or intern working for the senator or congressman is often referred to as the scapegoat, since they are the one who is blamed for the problem, usually without any basis.

Many will not be aware, however, that the term actually comes not form the political arena, but an ancient religious practice. In Leviticus 16:20-22 the goat is part of an elaborate Day of Atonement ceremony whereby the people of Israel receive forgiveness for their sins.

20 “When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. 21 He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. 22 The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.

The passage of scripture and the ceremony it describes is among the more oddest one in the Bible.  How a wandering goat removes the sin from the community is not clear, although it is probably more symbolic in nature. We are not certain how often this ceremony was practiced in ancient Israel. While the Day of Atonement is still celebrated by Jews around the world, I am not aware of any that include the ritual of the scapegoat. 

But now we can bring back that ritual through the magic of technology. In a recent article The Jewish Week reports that a company has designed an eGoat app that can be used for private confession of sins. Go to, select your age range, type in your confession and then hit enter. On Yom Kippur the eGoat will be driven into the wilderness of the internet and your sins will be taken with it.

One wonders what kind of atonement theory this practice reveals?