Saturday, October 3, 2015

Richard Bauckham on being un-mastered by the text

I couldn't resist picking up a copy of John Byron and Joel N. Lohr's edited collection of mini-biographies, I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Sories of Faith and Scholarship (Zondervan: 2015). So far--one chapter in--it has more than lived up to the hype. I suspect Christian biblical studies type people will find it hard to put down. Here is an excerpt from Richard Bauckham that I haven't seen quoted yet:
"Another peril [of scholarly study of the Bible] is the sense of mastery of a text that may come with a successful attempt to understand it. I suspect that these perils are unavoidable along the path of rigorous scholarship, but if they cannot be avoided there are nevertheless ways beyond them. It helps to remember that the biblical texts are not unique in their ability to transcend their original context and to resist our objectification of them. Shakespeare's plays may seem to have all the life drained out of them by some kinds of classroom study, but they come to life again in performance. In performance the work of Shakespearean scholars makes a contribution but is also transcended. God addresses us through the Scriptures not because they communicate in some magically unique way but by means of all the ways in which texts communicate. A readiness to be un-mastered is required even for the kind of enhancement of life that poetry or philosophy or drama or nature may give us, not to mention personal relationships. In the case of Scripture, such readiness to be un-mastered is one reason why prayer and worship are the most appropriate ways in which to hear it as God's word.

"We also need to develop a broad understanding of what it means for Scripture to address us or for God to address us through it. Familiar texts do not need to surprise us with new relevance, though they may do so. Their very familiarity is their way of having deep effects in our lives. Texts do not only speak to us; they may also speak for us, enabling us to say more than we thought we knew. Texts may affect us by drawing us imaginatively into their world, if we give ourselves over to their narratives or their images. All these are ways beyond the distancing and objectifying of a text that are occupational hazards of the biblical scholar." (p. 28)

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Loose and Unconnected: Rousseau, the Imagination, and the Science of Consciousness

A public service announcement for sojourners in Southern Saskatchewan:

This year's Briercrest College and Seminary Faculty Colloquium series kicks off tomorrow with a paper by Dr. Joel From entitled "Loose and Unconnected: Rousseau, the Imagination, and the Science of Consciousness."

Please join us on Friday, September 25, in room S113 @ 12:30 PM if you can make it out.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Could ancient Jews eat with Gentiles without violating the law?

Peter's vision by Domenico Fetti, via Wikimedia Commons

Could ancient Jews eat with Gentiles without violating the law?

It is safe to say that most readers of the New Testament (and many New Testament scholars) assume the answer is no. After all, (1) in Acts, when Peter returns from visiting Cornelius he is criticized for staying with uncircumcized men and "eating with them" (Acts 11:3). (2) In Galatians, Paul equates eating with Gentiles to living "like a Gentile (ethnikôs) and not like a Jew (ioudaikôs)" (Gal 2:12-14). These two passages seem parallel. (3) Since Peter responds to his critics by telling a story about clean and unclean food that concludes with the declaration, “what God has cleansed, do not regard as defiled” (11:9), readers of Acts routinely conclude that, from Luke's perspective at least, accepting Gentiles into the church meant doing away with the food laws.

I am not so sure. For one thing, Luke never explicitly draws the conclusion from Peter's vision or his encounter with Cornelius that the food laws were set aside. To the contrary, in the latter chapters of Acts Paul insists on his own continued fidelity to the Jewish way of life: Paul participates in temple worship to show that he “guards the law” (21:24); he also denies that he has done anything against the law (25:8) or his people’s ancestral customs (28:17).

Outside the New Testament, passages that emphasize the strictness with which some Jews observed the food laws also demonstrate that it was possible to "keep Kosher" in Gentile contexts: (1) Daniel and friends refuse the king's food and wine, requesting a diet of vegetables and water, but it was still the king's vegetables and water that they ate (Dan 1:8, 12). (2) Josephus describes a group of priests imprisoned in Rome who survived on a diet of figs and almonds out of piety toward God (Life 14). Martin Goodman concludes: "For pious Jews to eat with non-Jews, sharing a convivial table, was possible, but difficult" (Rome and Jerusalem 119).

Moreover, the food laws were interpreted differently by different Jews:
"It is important to remember that--notwithstanding many wide areas of absolute conformity--evolving Jewish law, even within the normative Orthodox wing alone, has never been monolithic. As a result, it is usual for all popular guides to the practice of kashruth (including cookbooks) to contain strong disclaimers and exhortations to the reader to consult local competent rabbinic authority at all times." - Gene Schram, "Meal customs (Jewish)" Anchor Bible Dictionary 4.649.
If this is true for Orthodox Judaism today, how much more may we suppose that there was room for variety in the first century?

E.P. Sanders explains that in addition to the avoidance of pork, food sacrificed to idols and food containing blood posed "potential problems" for observant Jews. "There are possible problems with other foods, especially the main liquids, oil and wine. A libation to a pagan deity might have been offered from wine before it was sold; oil also might have an idolatrous connection." Aside from these restrictions, Gentile food could be fair game, although "some Jews were generally unwilling to eat pagan food, even when there might be no legal objection to it." On the other hand, Sanders suggests that Paul was not the only first-century Jew who advised eating whatever was set before them without asking questions of conscience: "In 1 Cor. 10.27, Paul advises Christians not to ask about the source of food when in someone else's house, and it is most likely that in the Diaspora some Jewish families followed the same practice" (E.P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief: 63 BCE – 66 CE. [Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992], 216).

To this evidence, we may add a passage from the Mishnah about Gentile wine and its use in idolatrous libations, which takes for granted that Jews could in some contexts eat with Gentiles:
"If an Israelite was eating with a gentile at a table, and he put flagons [of wine] on the table and flagons [of wine] on the side-table, and left the other there and went out, what is on the table is forbidden and what is on the side-table is permitted..." (Avodah Zarah 5.5).
However we understand NT passages such as Acts 10-11 and Galatians 2, we need to set aside once and for all the idea that Jews believed eating with Gentiles meant violating the law. That simplistic assumption rests on a failure to engage early Jewish sources--and a failure of historical imagination.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

How to write a lot without signing on to the academic honour/shame rat race

In retrospect, it might have been more helpful for me to read Paul J. Silvia's How to Write a Lot before my sabbatical instead of just after it has ended, but I am excited about applying his recommendations to my regular teaching life now that a new school year is about to begin.

Silvia's basic idea is to schedule time for distraction-free writing each week (he recommends starting with 4 hours), maintain the schedule religiously, set goals, and track your progress. Writing time may include research. If you do this, Silvia promises, you will write a lot.

Rather than expanding on the method--I'm sure Silvia would rather you purchased your own copy--I quote from the salutory reminder in the book's conclusion:
"Writing isn't a race. Don't publish a paper just for the sake of having one more published paper. Don't count your publications. Be proud of the euthanized manuscripts--papers that could be published somewhere but shouldn't be published anywhere--lurking in your file cabinet. If you find yourself counting notches on your academic bedpost, spend a writing period thinking about your motives and goals" (131).

On a related note, Seumus MacDonald is right that the academic guild is susceptible to ancient Roman cultural norms:
It’s blindingly obvious that Academia runs as a microcosmic honour/shame society because the one thing that ranks just below actual scholarship in scholars’ concern is prestige or honour as accorded them by their peers. This is what drives almost all academic endeavours (beyond the actual desire to study): conference papers, journal and monograph publishing, etc.. Every act of publishing is an attempt to gain the symbolic capital of prestige among academic peers, via an act of heroism, which is the public display of scholarly prowess. 
Do read the rest of Seumus's excellent post here:

Monday, August 17, 2015

History 312: Ideas and Society in Early Modern Europe

Erasmus and Thomas More Visit the Children of King Henry VII at Greenwich, 1499 by F.C. Cowper; source
If you are looking to fill a history elective at Briercrest College this fall, may I recommend HIS312: Ideas and Society in Early Modern Europe? Like the history course I recommended last year--which turned out very well, by the way--I can't help but be a tiny bit biased, but I have read the syllabus and talked a lot with the professor about things Early Modern over the past several months, and I think it will be a great course. Curent Briercrest students can check out the syllabus on Briercrest Live; everyone else can find it here (scroll down to the bottom of the page).

For bonus marks, identify Erasmus and Thomas More in the painting, and explain the significance of the colours.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Romans in Reconstructed Koine

Nine years ago, as I prepared to teach Paul's letter to the Romans for the first time, I recorded the Greek text so that I could listen to it on the weekly commute I was doing that year to and from Saskatoon. I found I could make it through the entire letter on the two and a half hour drive, and the experience of listening to the whole thing more-or-less each week did a lot to give me a sense for thematic connections within the letter, as well as the flow of thought in the letter as a whole. But the quality of the recording (and of my newly-adopted Reconstructed Koine pronunciation) was so bad that I could not in good conscience share it with anyone else.

I recently finished recording Romans again, and this time I am not as embarrassed by the result. As far as I know, it is the only recording of the Greek text of Romans that uses the "Reconstructed" or "Imperial" Koine pronunciation system that most closely approximates how Greek was spoken in the first century.

  • My pronunciation follows the Reconstructed Koine system as formulated by Randall Buth in his "Notes on the Pronunciation System of Koiné Greek" (online here; my simplified summary is here). The one (intentional) exception is that I typically preserve the rough breathing, a decision that Buth allows for in a footnote:
"Students are free to add aspiration as they wish, though one may imagine that such would have been thought stuffy or snobbish in the first century. There may still have been some features of a classical Greek that were consciously learned by the upper classes and in which [h] would be learned and heard." (Buth, footnote 24)
My current practice, reflected in these recordings, is to omit the rough breathing when it sounds particularly odd, is difficult to pronounce, or makes little difference in sound (e.g., οἷς, ὁμοθυμαδόν); but to retain it in other instances because the 'h' sound frequently distinguishes between two different forms that would otherwise sound alike.
  • I concentrated on getting the pronunciation and accents right, and, less successfully, on meaningful phrasing. Focusing on these elements meant that I was unable to give as much attention as I would like to reading with inflection. I am also afraid there are still unnatural pauses before words about whose pronunciation I was not confident, particularly in the first few chapters. So the result is still far from a professional recording, but I hope it is serviceable. (If you are simply interested to hear how Reconstructed Koine should sound, I recommend the samples on the Biblical Language Center's website here.)
  • The quality of recording improved as I went along--so much so that I re-recorded chapter 1 at the very end; chapters 2 and 3 should probably be redone as well, but I didn't want to get caught in an endless loop on a project that had already consumed more time than I had to give it. 
  • I would be happy for any suggestions, feedback or technical advice, in the event that I try to do something like this again.
You can listen to individual chapters below or download all the files here (wav) or here (mp3).

Romans 1

Romans 2

Romans 3

Romans 4

Romans 5

Romans 6

Romans 7

Romans 8

Romans 9

Romans 10

Romans 11

Romans 12

Romans 13

Romans 14

Romans 15

Romans 16

Creative Commons Licence
These Romans in Reconstructed Koine recordings by David M. Miller are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. This means you are welcome to download, copy and use the recordings with attribution, but you may not modify them without my permission, or sell them.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Richard Foster on the triviality of productivity apps (more or less)

I have been making my way through Richard Foster's classic Celebration of Discipline. Our library only has a copy of the original 1978 edition, so a lot of the illustrations are now rather quaint in their datedness. The advice is solid, however.

On the discipline of simplicity:
"[R]efuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry. Timesaving devices almost never save time. ... Most gadgets are built to break down and wear out and so complicate our lives rather than enhance them. ... Propagandists try to convince us that because the newest model of this or that has a new feature (trinket?) we must sell the old one and buy the new one. Sewing machines have new stitches, tape recorders have new buttons, encyclopedias have new indexes. Such media dogma needs to be carefully scrutinized. Often 'new' features are only a way of inducing us to buy what we do not need. Probably that refrigerator will serve us quite well for the rest of ur lives even without the automatic ice maker and rainbow colors." (80)
 On a related note, Foster advises this antidote to triviality:
"Four times a year withdraw for three to four hours for the purpose of reorienting your life goals. This can easily be done in one evening. Stay late at your office or do it at home or find a quiet corner in a public library. Reevaluate your goals and objectives in life. What do you want to have accomplished one year from now? Ten years from now? Our tendency is highly to overestimate what we can accomplish in one year and highly underestimate what we can accomplish in ten years." (94).

Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (New York: Harper & Row, 1978).