Saturday, December 27, 2008

Can interpretation be separated from application?

I had a lively conversation around this question with a couple colleagues some years ago. I insisted yes, identifying what a text meant in the first century is different from asking what it means today--although of course the two should be related. (I have already registered my disagreement with the idea that application involves extracting timeless principles from the text here.)

My colleagues replied: No. Go read Gadamer.

I have finally begun taking their advice. Fortunately for me, Gadamer addresses the question early on:
The hermeneutic problem is universal and prior to every kind of interest in history because it is concerned with what is always fundamental to 'historical questions.' And what is historical research without historical questions? In the language that I use, justified by investigation into semantic history, this means: application is an element of understanding itself. If, in this connection, I put the legal historian and the practicing lawyer on the same level, I do not deny that the former has exclusively a 'contemplative,' and the other an exclusively practical, task. Yet application is involved in the activities of both. How could the legal meaning of a law be different for either? It is true that the judge, for example, has the practical task of passing judgment, and this may involve many considerations of legal politics that the legal historian (looking at the same law) does not consider. But does that make their legal understanding of the law any different? The judge's decision, which has a practical effect on life, aims at being a correct and never an arbitrary application of the law; hence it must rely on a 'correct' interpretation, which necessarily includes the mediation between history and the present in the act of understanding itself.

Of course, the legal historian will also have to evaluate a correctly understood law 'historically' as well, and this always means he must assess its historical importance; since he will always be guided by his own historical pre-opinions and pre-judgments, he may assess it 'wrongly.' This means that again there is mediation between the past and the present: that is, application.

From the forward to the second (German) edition of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (2nd rev. English ed.; London: Continuum), xxix.
For Gadamer interpretation and application are part of the same process because, I take it, our preunderstanding about the present always already shapes our interpretation of the past. I'm good with that.

But implicit in Gadamer's illustration is the fact that the process of working out a contemporary application can and, in some sense, should be separated from the process of working out a historical interpretation. The two processes deal with different contexts.

Perhaps the difference is that Gadamer wrote to counteract an over-emphasis on historical distance while my beginning students tend to approach the text without any sense of historical distance at all: I hear students talking about Jesus' criticisms of the church or notice them assuming that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians directly to them--that sort of thing. I find that getting my students to disintinguish what it meant from what it means helps them read the text more carefully. Jumping too quickly to Gadamer--or this aspect of Gadamer's thinking--may actually reinforce sloppy reading practices.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Computer-Free Zone

The next 36 hours or so have been declared a computer-free zone. I'm looking forward to curling up with the Tübinger Bibelatlas, and, perhaps, an Acts commentary or two.

Merry Christmas, one and all!

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Writing Life

Several weeks months ago now,* while describing his daily rhythm, Scot McKnight remarked: "Because I’m a writer, my posts don’t take me too long to write." Although it was not the point of McKnight's helpful post, one could easily infer that writing comes easily for writers--too bad for the rest of us.

Not so, says William Zinsser:
A school in Connecticut once held 'a day devoted to the arts,' and I was asked if I would come and talk about writing as a vocation. When I arrived I found that a second speaker had been invited--Dr. Brock (as I'll call him), a surgeon who had recently begun to write and had sold some stories to magazines. He was going to talk about writing as an avocation....

Dr. Brock was dressed in a bright red jacket, looking vaguely bohemian, as authors are supposed to look, and the first question went to him. What was it like to be a writer?

He said it was tremendous fun. Coming home from an arduous day at the hospital, he would go straight to his yellow pad and write his tensions away. The words just flowed. It was easy. I then said that writing wasn't easy and wasn't fun. It was hard and lonely, and the words seldom just flowed.

Next Dr. Brock was asked if it was important to rewrite. Absolutely not, he said. 'Let it all hang out,' he told us, and whatever form the sentences take will reflect the writer at his most natural. I then said that rewriting is the essence of writing. I pointed out that professional writers rewrite their sentences over and over and then rewrite what they have rewritten.

'What do you do on days when it isn't going well?' Dr. Brock was asked. He said he just stopped writing and put the work aside for a day when it would go better. I then said that the professional writer must establish a daily schedule and stick to it. I said that writing is a craft, not an art, and that the man who runs away from his craft because he lacks inspiration is fooling himself. He is also going broke.

...So the morning went, and it was a revelation to all of us. At the end Dr. Brock told me he was enormously interested in my answers--it had never occurred to him that writing could be hard. I told him I was just as interested in his answers--it had never occurred to me that writing could be easy. Maybe I should take up surgery on the side.
- William Zinsser, On Writing Well (6th ed.; HarperCollins, 2001), 3-5.
Earlier (as in 5 months ago) I quoted from Frederick Buechner's The Alphabet of Grace
on the work of writing:
"It is time to . . . go off to what it embarrasses me to call my work because it is my idiotic game instead, my solitaire, played out in an empty room where when I'm lucky, I manage to escape everything including the question whether there is anything anywhere that the world needs less in its pain than another lecture, another sermon, another book" (62).

"Then, as so often happens, just as I am ready to start writing, knowing pretty much what I want to say and excited about finding a way to say it well, something in me tries to get up and leave it--drink a glass of water, look out the window, read a magazine, [check blogs, surf the net, work on an unrelated blog post]. Just as the spell has a chance of working, I break it. Just as there is a chance of bringing light out of dark, I choose the dark, withdraw my hand from the hand I have reached out for" (88).
Annie Dillard's experience, as she tells it in her wonderful autobiography, The Writing Life, is similar.

Unfortunately, that writing comes hard, doesn't mean that one's writing sparkles with the sheer brilliance of a Buechner or a Dillard. And we can all use help becoming more efficient in our writing, and generally improving our craft. At least I can...

Better get to work before the babe wakes up!

*Who says blogging has to be timely?

Friday, December 19, 2008

SBL Retrospective (Nov 21-25)

This was my first SBL in three years, thanks to the arrival of "SiByL" last November, and other priorities the year before. My goal this year was to avoid spending too much money at the book display on important books I will never read. I was not completely successful, but how can you pass up the Tübinger Bibelatlas at just over 1/3 its list price?
(I notice Eisenbrauns has the Tübinger at 1/2 price during December--not too shabby!)

In other respects the conference was a success:
  • There was enough interaction with acquaintances new and old to satisfy the number one criterion of a good conference.
  • The 30 minute walk from my hotel to the convention center gave me the chance to get some exercise and sample the city, which is always a highlight--and Boston is a fine city. [Granted it was cold, but I'm from Saskatchewan.]
  • And, finally, there were enough interesting sessions to keep me thinking for some time to come.
Friday evening, I took in Joel Green's Institute for Biblical Research paper, "Acts as a Conversionist Narrative" (mentioned already here), and took advantage of the food and free books provided by BakerAcademic.

On Saturday I caught the excellent NT paper by Doug Moo on "Creation and New Creation" at IBR before heading out for a quick peak at the book display and lunch with contributors to the Online Critical Pseudepigrapha. Lunch must have gone late because I missed the first afternoon session and found myself wandering, once again, in the book display.

To keep this post manageable, I will simply list the other sessions I attended:


4:00-6:30 p.m. Paul and Scripture Consultation: Discussion of Bruce Fisk's paper, "Paul Among the Storytellers: Reading Romans 11 in the Context of Rewritten Bible" (full-text online), with discussion partners including Francis Watson, James Aageson, Linda Belleville, J. Ross Wagner, and Christopher Stanley.

7:00-8:00 p.m. SBL Presidential Address: Jonathan Z. Smith, "Religion and the Bible."


9:00 a.m. service at historic and lively Park Street Church off the Boston Common.

10:30 a.m. E. P. Sanders, Duke University, "Was Paul a Prooftexter? The Case of Galatians 3"

1:00-2:30 p.m. Archaeology of Jerusalem during the Second Temple and Byzantine Periods: I caught the end of Milton Moreland's minimalist presentation on "Roman Jerusalem as a Setting of Earliest Christianity," as well as Ronny Reich's talk on the pool of Siloam and Doron Ben-Ami's presentation on excavations in the city of David that have bearing on the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Both were fascinating. Archaeology presentations tend to have nice pictures too, which is nice.

Break for coffee and book browsing before the session I was most interested in. I found Miller's and Kuecker's presentations especially helpful:

4:00-6:30 p.m. Construction of Christian Identities: Ethnicity
James C. Miller, Asbury Theological Seminary - Ethnic Identity “in Christ” according to Paul
Whitney Shiner, George Mason University - Other People's Texts in the Memory of Non-Judean Participants in the Cult of Jesus
Julien C. H. Smith, Baylor University - The Construction of Identity in Mark 7:24–30: The Syrophoenician Woman and the Problem of Ethnicity
Aaron Kuecker, Trinity Christian College - “Ethnic Language” in Luke-Acts and the Construction of a Transethnic Social Identity
William “Chip” Gruen, Muhlenberg College - Constructing Monastic Identities: Ethnicity in the Lives of Anchoritic Monastics
(I especially regret missing the John Strugnell memorial session that conflicted with this one.)

There was no time for a break before the next conference highlight, a discussion of Martin Goodman's new book, Rome and Jerusalem, by an all-star panel chaired by Seth Schwartz, and made up of Shaye Cohen, Tessa Rajak, and John Barclay.


9:00-11:30 a.m. Book of Acts
F. Scott Spencer, Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond - The Rhetoric of Fear and Pity in the “Tragedy” of Ananias and Sapphira
David L. Eastman, Yale University - A Defense of Paul's Roman Citizenship by “Epiphanius”
James McConnell, Baylor University - The Rhetorical Use of Oracles in Plutarch's Lives and Old Testament Scripture in Luke-Acts: An Investigation (I had to step out for a sneezing fit during this one.)
Christoph Heil, Universität Graz - The “Godfearers”: A Phantom in the History of Early Christianity
Jennifer K. Berenson, Roanoke College - The Allusive Man of Macedonia

1:00 - 3:30 p.m. Historical Jesus: Rural-Urban Relations in First Century Galilee
Eric Meyers, Duke University - Contextualizing Rural-Urban Relations in First-Century Galilee
Jonathan L. Reed, University of La Verne - Morbidity and Mortality as a Socio-Economic Factor in Galilee
Mark A. Chancey, Southern Methodist University - Disputed Issues in the Study of Cities, Villages, and the Economy in Jesus' Galilee
Agnes Choi, University of Toronto - Choosing a Speciality: An Investigation of Regional Specialization in Galilee
Sean Freyne, Trinity College-Dublin - City and Village in Roman Galillee: Reexamining the Literary Evidence

4:00-4:40 p.m. John M. G. Barclay, Durham University - I Will Have Mercy on Whom I Will Have Mercy: Paul and Other Jews on Grace in the Desert (great paper; no abstract)

7:00-8:30 p.m. Panel discussion of Hanan Eshel's new book, The Dead Sea Scrolls And The Hasmonean State


9:00-11:30 a.m. Pauline Soteriology: Gift and Transformation: Agency and Grace in Pauline Theology
Alexandra R. Brown, Washington and Lee University - Divine and Human Agency in the Corinthian Correspondence
Stephen E. Fowl, Loyola College in Maryland - Grabbing and Being Grabbed: Gift, Transformation, and Formation in Paul
Murray Rae, University of Otago - Enabled by Grace: A Theological Account of Human Agency
Stephen Westerholm, McMaster University - “Splendid Vices”?: The Untransformed Moral Agent in Paul
Susan Eastman, Duke University, Respondent ...A great response, which led into a rich discussion.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

John Goldingay on Evil and the Exercise of Authority

"We are involved in a struggle against the ruling forces that are masters in a dark age. The powers of evil specialize in ruling, in exercising authority. As far as one can see from Genesis, there was no authority structure designed for human life in the world except the one contained in God. There was no authority of one human being over another until after sin came into the world: that was when people began to exercise domination over each other. There was no headship, no government. Human authority and resistance to human authority both belong to this age, not to the age of creation or the age of new creation. Whenever human authority is being exercised, we are in the realm where the powers of darkness operate.

"That applies to the world and to the church. When rectors or archdeacons or bishops give in to the temptation to act in an authoritarian way, or in a manipulative way, they act under the influence of the powers of darkness. When church councils or clergy either accept that kind of authority or rebel against it (you should listen to clergy talking about their bishops), they are working with the assumption that the church operates as an institution that belongs by its inner nature to this age. They are colluding with the powers of darkness. The same is true in a Christian community such as a theological college, in the way principal, tutors, and students operate. We get sucked into a way of working that is the way of the powers of darkness."

- John Goldingay, To the Usual Suspects: One Word Questions (Paternoster, 1998), 171-2.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Evangelical Bashing

One of the reasons I really like Nicholas Kristof is his willingness to commend Evangelicals for the relief work they do in the developing world. Some of Kristof's liberal NYT readers have more difficulty in this regard. Here is a sampling from the comments to Kristof's post, "A Huggable Evangelical":
  • Comment 18: "Are there any greater hypocrites then the evangelical christians in America? I’ve never seen a group so aggressively insist on following the tenets of the Bible and then in turn so universally ignore them."
  • Comment 19: "Too bad that the vitriolic believers in the evangelical churches have blinders on their mind. They would rather flock to the bombastic greedy power-hungry cheaters who talk a good talk but live corrupted lives."
  • Comment 22: "I will be more than happy to interact and work with evangelical Christians who really are Christians, not deranged barbarians with an old book and a lot of paranoid delusions. Maybe the NAE described above really does consist of the former."
  • Thankfully, comment 6 is not representative.
A typical conservative Evangelical response, I imagine, would be to attribute these comments to the persecution Christians inevitably experience. After all, "We should expect to be hated by the world for our allegiance to Christ."

Fine. Just make sure that that hatred is because of your allegiance to Christ. Sadly, Evangelicals today--unlike their ancient forebears--are more well-known for their strident views on a few so-called "social conservative" issues than for their care for the poor and socially marginalized.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Best thing I've read on pedagogy all year

Mark Goodacre points to some reflections by E.P. Sanders printed in the Duke graduate program in Religion faculty news on teaching Biblical Studies to undergrads. Sanders's piece on "Teaching and Learning" begins on page 3. Here's an excerpt:
I think that the greatest moment in a teacher’s life is seeing a student have an “ah ha” moment by his or her own endeavor. The instructor’s clever or even memorable phrasing is worth much less. I began my career by overestimating students: I did not realize how much they needed repetition and the practice of describing texts and ideas in their own words. The more patient I was, and the harder I worked at getting them to see things for themselves—rather than offering my own glib solutions of difficulties—the better I was at teaching and the more rewarding I found the activity. The hardest thing to do—at which I often failed in my early years—is to find the students’ own level. They are not at your level: few are as smart as you are,
and none know as much as you do. The best way to find their level is to give assignments early in the term that require them to write. And then you have to read their work carefully.
I confess I haven't read much on pedagogy this year, and this piece is fresh on my mind, but it is still very good. Read the whole thing.

Sunday, December 7, 2008


A new course on the docket for next semester is a third year book study of Acts. Here is how I introduce the course on the syllabus:

Acts is a riveting account of the progress of the Gospel despite shipwreck, persecution, Satanic opposition, and human unbelief. We read of prison escapes, miraculous healings, and disciples who testify to the resurrection of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. Though it is far from a conventional history in the modern sense, Acts is our earliest description of—and in many cases our only evidence for—the origins of the church in Jerusalem and its expansion through the Roman world. It is also a virtually indispensible framework for the interpretation of Paul’s letters.

But Acts is more than a window on the past. Its author, Luke, is a theologian as well as a historian who communicates his message through the way he tells his story. To recover it we must learn to read well, attending to the clues he provides through repetition, plot development, characterization, and the like. Reading attentively is also essential to discerning the significance of Acts in our own (post)modern contexts.

By the end of the course you will be able to summarize the plot of Acts, to trace Paul’s missionary journeys on a map of the ancient Mediterranean, to situate major events in their Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts, to identify major themes, to discuss the theology of Acts, and to recognize connections with the Gospel of Luke. You will also be familiar with major issues in current scholarship on Acts and, I hope, grateful for the ways in which contemporary scholarship can contribute to a deeper appreciation of this complex text. I hope too that you will grow more confident in your ability to identify the function of the stories contained in Acts and to see how the biblical story relates to our lives today. Most of all, I hope that we come away from our reading of Acts—this “dangerous document” as Beverly Roberts Gaventa describes it—challenged to more active discipleship, more committed to the church and its mission, more aware of the Holy Spirit’s work in our midst, and deeply grateful to God for the Gospel.

The success of this course and our own learning this semester depends on our joint engagement with Acts, with the assigned readings and with each other. Please consider this syllabus your learning contract: By choosing to take this course, you agree to prepare diligently, to participate in class actively, and to help create a positive learning environment for your fellow students.

The full syllabus can be downloaded here.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Susan Haber's new book

One book I purchased at SBL this year is They Shall Purify Themselves: Essays on Purity in Early Judaism (Brill/SBL, 2008). I bought it because it looks like a significant contribution to an important subject, but also because it is by Susan Haber, a friend and fellow grad-student at McMaster University who died suddenly of pancreatic cancer in 2006.

The monograph was edited by Adele Reinhartz, one of Susan's (and my) former professors.

I've heard of students who edit their professors' posthumous work. But a senior scholar who takes time out of a busy schedule to edit a student's work for publication--who does that?

The answer, I suppose, is someone who puts character before career.

Friday, December 5, 2008

ἡ παῖς μου περιπατεῖ!*

...Just a couple steps, a couple times this morning, but I think that counts. For logistical reasons we don't have pictures yet. These are from a week ago:

Of course, the event, no matter how dramatic, is of little significance if she does not continue to walk in the days to come--which reminds me of Joel Green's IBR paper a couple weeks ago on "Acts as a Conversionist Narrative." Green claims that the modern view of conversion as an internal event that occurs at a particular point in time is foreign to Luke. Though Luke sometimes compresses a process into a moment, conversion, for Luke, is a journey. I wasn't completely persuaded that Luke thinks conversion is always a process, but the larger point is well taken: Participation in the "Way" must be on-going.

*ἡ παῖς μου περιπατεῖ! means "my child is walking!"