Monday, August 31, 2009

Trends in Higher Education: Enrolment

I ran across this sobering report in the March 2009 issue of University Affairs today:
Within two years, the size of the 18-to-21-year-old cohort is expected to level out and start declining nationwide, according to Trends in Higher Education: Enrolment(published by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada). That decline won’t be uniform and will be strongest in the four Atlantic provinces and Saskatchewan. “Institutions in these provinces will all confront significant enrolment challenges over the coming two decades,” says the 2007 study.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Death of Jesus in Acts

As I prepared to teach the book of Acts last semester I was worried that I would not find anything really practical to talk about. I was determined to show that Acts is not a church growth manual or a template for evangelism. If it is true that "We can understand a text only when we have understood the question to which it is an answer" (Gadamer), then we are on firmest exegetical ground when we learn to track the concerns that were important to Luke. But what happens when Luke's questions are totally foreign to our own? What happens if, as I was increasingly convinced, Luke's primary concern is, on the one hand, the fulfillment of God's promises to Israel in the church, and, on the other hand, the inclusion of Gentiles in the assembly of God's people? What is the practical significance of this question in a mostly Gentile church?

Of course, Luke has other concerns as well, and I probably missed the obvious by focusing on what Acts is not. Be that as it may, I was delighted that the course coalesced (finally and to some extent) around a hugely practical theme that, I think, holds the answer to one of the major questions in Acts scholarship. The theme is suffering; the question is the significance of the death of Jesus in Acts. I have talked around the question before (e.g., here and here): The speeches in Acts mention the necessity of Jesus' death but concentrate on the saving significance of his resurrection. Did Luke think Jesus' death was just some tragic mistake that God put right?

A couple years ago (!) I suggested that disciples participate in the saving significance of Jesus' exodus (= his death) by following him to their own death. I saw more clearly last semester that the same pattern plays out in Acts. Thus, Stephen calls for forgiveness on his executioners as Jesus did (Acts 7:60; Luke 23:34 [?]), Peter is arrested by Herod with plans for his execution on Passover (Acts 12), and Paul, like Jesus, goes on a long journey to Jerusalem, before his trial and eventual execution (in Rome). The significance of these "Peter, Stephen, Paul parallels" is not so much to model the main characters in Acts as prophets like Jesus, the prophet like Moses (so David Moessner), but to model the pattern of discipleship for Luke's readers.
  • In Acts 14:22 Paul declares "we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God."
  • In Acts 20:35, Paul presents his own life as a model for the Ephesian elders. 
  • Those who read on to the triumphal end of Acts know well enough from the predictions along the way how Paul's own life will end. Inasmuch as Paul's life is exemplary, this too is a summons. Theophilus is not allowed to sit comfortably on the sidelines.

I conclude, then, that the missing references to the significance of Jesus' death in Acts are found in the portrayal of Jesus' followers, who suffer like he did. If Luke thinks God's promises to Israel are fulfilled in the church, then the cruciform pattern of church life must also be connected in some way to the already-present-but-not-fully-here kingdom of God.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Which Dead Sea Scrolls translation?

I am toying with the idea of assigning the second edition of The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation (Michael Wise, Martin Abegg, and Edward Cook, trans.; 2d ed.; New York: HarperCollins, 2005) instead of the more standard translation by Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls In English (Penguin Classics, 2004).

Wise, Abegg, and Cook is a trifle more expensive, but their text introductions tend to be more informative for an average reader. I only have the first edition. Does anyone have experience using the second? Which would you recommend?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Topics in Jewish "Backgrounds": What am I missing?

This is a list of topics in early Judaism (in no particular order) that seem immediately relevant to the study of early Christianity. What else am I missing?

  • Purity
  • Women
  • Sacrifice
  • Prayer
  • Law
  • Interaction between Jews and Gentiles
  • Temple and Synagogue; Sanhedrin
  • Political context - Relations with Romans; who rules what in the Land?
  • Hellenization
  • Groups: Priests, Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Common people/ 'people of the land'
  • Social-economic situation(s)
Belief / Theology
  • Afterlife/Resurrection
  • Eschatology
  • Messiah
  • Theodicy - Where is God? What time is it? (exile?)
  • Salvation (see Law)
  • Sin/atonement
  • Angels/demons
  • Election (light/dark)
  • Scripture, canon
  • Ethics
Scripture / Genre
  • Apocalypse
  • (Re)interpreted Scripture: Pesher, Rewritten Bible
  • Wisdom
History ... A general knowledge of events is certainly important, but how much detail is required if, again, one is primarily concerned with the 'so what?' question from a Christian perspective?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Jewish Backgrounds to Early Christianity

If you were teaching a course on Jewish Backgrounds to Early Christianity what primary (or secondary) texts would you assign? What would the main issues be? What are the most important features of Second Temple Judaism for an understanding of early Christianity?

(I don't really like the course title because it can suggest that Judaism is only important for the light it sheds on early Christianity, not something worth studying on its own terms. But it occurred to me, as I began revising my syllabus for next semester's class, that taking the 'backgrounds' part seriously  is a good way of asking the 'so what?' question.)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Hermeneutics Textbook Dilemma: And the winner is...

I had an intensely negative reaction to J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays's Grasping God's Word (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005) when I first considered it five years ago, so it is with some embarrassment that I have decided to adopt it as a hermeneutics textbook next semester.

I thought then that the book had a lot going for it: It is a well-written, thorough, how-to manual, pitched at the right level for college students and geared toward the evangelical market. But I couldn't get over their profoundly misguided 'principlizing bridge' approach to 'the interpretive journey', which the authors treat as a blueprint for the book:

So what changed? After taking a second look (on Scott's recommendation), I was impressed again with the book's positive features and how much its basic content suits what I want to do in the course. I also think that my disagreement with Duvall and Hays could be useful pedagogically. (David Jasper's A Short Introduction To Hermeneutics will also raise important questions that stand in tension with aspects of Duvall and Hays.) Finally, Grasping is a relatively easy read, which should offset some of the more challenging selections I am assigning from Augustine, Clifford Geertz, Richard Hays (a sharp critique of the principlizing approach), and N.T. Wright.

Thanks to everyone for the suggestions. In a future upper-level incarnation of hermeneutics it would be fun to assign Swartley's Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation (Herald, 1983) or something like it. The good folks at Baylor University press sent me an excerpt from Peter Leithart's brand new Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture, which also looks excellent and provocative.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Hermeneutics Textbook Dilemma - Take 2

I am now considering two very different potential textbooks to go along with David Jasper's A Short Introduction To Hermeneutics as textbooks in my 2nd year college hermeneutics course next semester.

I pick up a copy of W. Randolph Tate's Biblical Interpretation: An Integrated Approach (3rd ed.; Hendrickson, 2008) each year I teach hermeneutics, and put it down quickly after reading the Introduction's opening paragraph:
Hermeneutics has traditionally been defined as the study of the locus of meaning and the principles of interpretation. Biblical hermeneutics, then, studies the locus of meaning and principles of biblical interpretation. Hermeneutics in the broad sense is bipolar: exegesis and interpretation. Exegesis is the process of examining a text to ascertain what its first readers would have understood it to mean. The varied set of activities which the hermeneut performs upon a text in order to make meaningful inferences is exegesis. . . . (xix)

Tate writes well (he is 'workmanlike', whatever that means), and I like his content and approach. The trouble is his diction. Forget about 'hermeneutics', 'exegesis' and 'hermeneut', I'm afraid my first and second year students will be put off by words like 'locus', 'bipolar', 'ascertain' and 'inference'--all in the opening paragraph.

Tremper Longman III begins Reading the Bible with Heart and Mind (NavPress, 1997) with a story. Well, he begins every chapter with a story, but here's the story that begins the preface:
As I began this book, I thought often of Carmen. she had heard the gospel at a rally in her dorm, and the message made a lot of sense to her. She was lonely; the Christians were neat people. She started attending a Bible study that met for an hour, three nights a week, and she eventually trusted Christ as her Savior. She began reading her Bible every day. . . . . And then, her roommates started to get on her case about spending so much time with those 'religious nuts.' So after a few months, she found excuses not to go to her study group. The excitement just wore off, and the Bible reading times became fewer and fewer. Something about it all began to go dry. Her Bible started gathering dust on her shelf. (11)

Longman's book is pitched to a lay Christian audience, which might work for beginning students at my confessional college. Parts of it make me gag. (Tremper invites his readers to mediate on the "Man" standing by the Sea of Galilee with the "glinting of light in His hair and beard" [46].) But the book is well-written, and he introduces basic concepts in a basic readable way, shorn of technical terminology. (Is the meditation exercise an example of lectio divina?)

So what do you think? In a lower-level required undergrad course, should I assign a content-rich textbook that stretches students' vocabulary even if it means I have to take extra class time explaining what the author is talking about? Or is it better to assign an accessible book that I can be more confident students will read and understand, and spend class time going into (much) more depth? Am I underestimating my students' ability to read?

Sunday, August 9, 2009


This afternoon I finished the best theology book I've read in years. It deals with faith, doubt, grace, forgiveness and glory, while interacting with Barth and Feuerbach and using words like crepuscular.

If you don't already know, Gilead is a pulitzer prize winning novel by Marilynne Robinson.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

K.L. Noll vs. H.-G. Gadamer

In a recent opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on "The Ethics of Being a Theologian," Kurt L. Noll asserts that theology does not advance knowledge and that theologians who claim a legitimate place in the academy are unethical. Tyler Williams at Codex now has an excellent even-handed response.

I will only add my surprise at how Noll defends the place of religious studies (as opposed to theology) by subordinating the humanities and social sciences to the natural sciences. Noll writes:
In my view, the purpose of academe is to advance knowledge, or an understanding of how things are in the real world. . . . Our colleagues in the natural sciences have an advantage over us, in that they are able to wrestle with reality using research tools unavailable to the humanities or social sciences. Nevertheless, when unencumbered by overtly ideological agendas, even those of us in the humanities and social sciences can advance knowledge. (Italics added.)
I would have thought scholars in the humanities would have more confidence in the legitimacy and independent value of their own discipline after Gadamer, who argued that "a logically consistent application of this method [of the natural sciences] as the only norm for the truth of the human sciences would amount to their self-annihilation" (Truth and Method [1960, repr. Continuum, 2004],17).

Now it is possible that Noll has read Gadamer and disagrees with him, but some acknowledgement of Gadamer's critique "of modern approaches to humanities that modeled themselves on the natural sciences (and thus on rigorous scientific methods)" (wikipedia) is surely in order.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Richard Horsley, Walter Grundmann and Guilt by Association

I recently had occasion to work through parts of Walter Grundmann's Jesus der Galiläer und das Judentum (Leipzig: Georg Wigand, 1940) and was reminded of Richard A. Horsley's argument in his much more recent Galilee: History, Politics, People (Valley Forge, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1995):
  • Grundmann begins his discussion in the Tel Amarna period, pointing to evidence in the Amarna archives that “arische Volkstämme” lived in Galilee during this period (166). Horsley begins with Deborah (Judges 5) and then turns to the Amarna archives (21).
  • Grundmann (166) and Horsley follow A. Alt (and many others) in arguing that Galilee “was a secondary shortening of an original galil ha-goyim, ‘circle of the peoples,’” which “was likely a reference to the ‘peoples,’ ‘city-states,’ and other rulers who surrounded and competed for political –economic domination in the area” (20).
  • Like Grundmann (166-7), but in more detail, Horsley argues that Galilee developed separately from Judaea and was only briefly under the unified rule of David and Solomon (22-25).
  • Grundmann argues that there was no peaceful time after the Hasmonean invasion of Galilee around 100 BCE for Jews to settle in Galilee (170); Horsley argues that there was no peaceful time after the Hasmonean invasion for the newly conquered Galileans to be integrated into the Judaean ethnos (51).
  • Both Grundmann (171) and Horsley (87-88) point to the fact that Galileans did not participate vigorously in the Jewish revolt as evidence for a separation between Judaea and Galilee.

There are differences too, the most important of which is that Grundmann argued most Galileans were not racially Jews, while Horsley thinks they were the descendents of Northern Israelites (39-40). And of course, while Grundmann was a Nazi, Horsley is not.

Horsley never mentions Grundmann. I presume he developed his theories independently or under the influence of a common tradition. Still, the similarity between their arguments is striking.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Biblical Studies Strommata

If for some strange reason you want to pursue graduate work in Biblical Studies, you will do well to heed Mark Smith's exhortation (HT: Charles Halton) about the importance of reading primary sources in the original languages. You will also need to cultivate an awareness of the field--which is to say, start devouring important books by major big-picture scholars who know how to write well, and begin as early as possible. (My colleague Eric Ortlund's OT Reading List is a great place to start if you are doing OT. Does anyone know of similar NT reading lists online?)

To be sure, the primary literature is most important, and the secondary literature--especially commentaries--can be overwhelming, frustrating and distracting from the whole point of Biblical scholarship, which for Christian scholars should, arguably, have something to do with the Bible. But good, seminal secondary stuff, at its best, gives new eyes for familiar texts.

If you are wondering why pursuing graduate work in Biblical Studies is strange, consider Carl Trueman's Minority Report in the latest issue of Themelios. I was glad to find him echoing my own more limited advice.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Hermeneutics Textbooks - Any Recommendations?

I am looking for an outstanding textbook suitable for a 2nd year college hermeneutics course. In the past I have used and, for various reasons, rejected the following:

Fee, Gordon D. and Douglas Stuart. How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth.
3d ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003.

Gorman, Michael J. Elements Of Biblical Exegesis: A Basic Guide For Students And Ministers. Rev. ed. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2001.

Peterson, Eugene H. Eat This Book: A Conversation In The Art Of Spiritual Reading. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.

Fee and Stuart's introduction to Biblical genres is still fairly unique, and much of the discussion remains helpful, but I found myself disagreeing with it so much in class that my students wondered why I assigned it. Eventually, I asked the same question and moved on to something else. I used Michael Gorman's Elements of Biblical Exegesis the first couple times I taught the course. It is a fine introduction to biblical exegesis, but so narrowly focused on writing an exegetical paper that it put a bit of a strait-jacket on the course, especially when I realized it was the big picture ideas more than the technical process that I wanted my students to internalize. I liked Eugene Peterson's Eat this Book the first time I read it, but--if I recall--student feedback wasn't as positive as I imagined it would be, and the content wasn't a great fit with what I want to do in class.

Last semester I assigned Jeannine K. Brown, Scripture as Communication: Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2007), which required too much of my first and second year college students; I am also not as sold on the value of speech-act theory as she is. However, some students liked it better than the second textbook--David Jasper's, A Short Introduction To Hermeneutics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2004)--which I do plan to use again this year. In my view, Jasper provides an excellent provocative introduction to issues in hermeneutics by way of a succinct historical overview. But what shall I use in place of Brown?

Jerry Camery-Hoggatt's, Reading The Good Book Well: A Guide To Biblical Interpretation (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007) is excellent, though the title is misleading. The book is a guide to reading NT narrative, not biblical interpretation in general.

So what else is there? What do you recommend?