Sunday, December 10, 2017

Highlights from the British Museum

I made it out to the British Museum with my daughter last weekend, enjoying our first London Tube ride along the way. S., along with a crowd of other people, was excited at the prospect of seeing the archaeological discovery that enabled scholars to decode Egyptian hieroglyphs:
The Rosetta Stone, British Museum,
After visiting Athens in 2013, I wanted to see the Elgin Marbles that used to adorn the Parthenon. (At the beginning of the 19th century, Lord Elgin received permission from the Ottoman government to take away "pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon." The priceless rock he carted off surely exceeded what the Sultan had in mind.)

The Egyptian exhibits were stunning, as one would expect:
Amenhotep III's left arm

But I was most surprised and astounded by the Assyrian artifacts. Here, for instance, is a Lamassu from Khorsabad that apparently goes back to the reign of Sargon II in the late 8th century BCE:

More exciting still is a series of wall panels depicting Sennacherib's siege of Lachish in 701 BCE:
Sennacherib's capture of Lachish is mentioned in Isaiah 36:1-2; it is also described first-hand in a series of letters inscribed on ostraca that were discovered when Lachish was excavated in the 1930's.

On a final dash through the second floor, I snapped pictures of various 1st-century Roman emperors for use in class:
The Emperor Augustus

If it were not for the incentive of seeing real mummies...

... we would have missed the Cyrus Cylinder, which describes Cyrus's policy of repatriating subject peoples to their homelands:





Admission is free, so it is churlish to complain that the museum is simply too large to take in on a single visit. The contents could easily be divided into a half-dozen world-class museums. 
I guess that means I'll need to go back.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

A Reading Wish List: Recent Books in Jewish Studies

Four books, all but one published in 2017:

Baker, Cynthia M. Jew. Key Words in Jewish Studies 8. Rutgers University Press, 2017. (See the Marginalia Forum on Baker's book here.)
Glinert, Lewis. The Story of Hebrew. Princeton University Press, 2017. (Positive "review" here.)
Goodman, Martin. A History of Judaism. Allen Lane, 2017. (Anything by Martin Goodman is worth reading. See Simon Rocker's review here.)
Mason, Steve. A History of the Jewish War: AD 66-74. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. (I'm curious to read Mason and Goodman side-by-side.)
 
It's a reading wish list both because I'm living through a book-buying deep freeze, and because with such a long list of books on my "to read" list, I am not sure when these will make it to the top. Since when does a book get to jump the queue over all the other eligible volumes just because it has a 2017 publication date?

Saturday, November 18, 2017

On Teaching Romans

I flew back to Canada in October to teach an intensive one-week course on the book of Romans, a class I have taught every second year since the winter semester of 2007. In some respects not much has changed: This year I returned to the same major textbooks I assigned when I first taught the course, and my notes are still deeply indebted to that first wild, desperate ride through the letter.

With experience comes a certain measure of confidence. I am now much more comfortable with the material, I have a good sense for what tends to work in class, and I have learned much from my students' observations and penetrating questions. In each new rendition of the course I am able to work in fresh material as well as to flag specific areas that need more attention or rethinking the next time through.

Still, Romans remains a challenge. As I began preparing for class this fall, I was met by the equivalent of an unpointed Hebrew text. I needed my notes to be the Masoretic vowel points, indicating how it should be read, reminding me how I construed this or that exegetical issue. To extend the metaphor, how you point the text--the exegetical decisions you make--in a few key passages forecloses other options and determines your reading of the whole letter. (The danger is that one's own laziness, refusing to wrestle honestly with alternatives, will reinforce how one has always read the text.)

Romans is also tremendously challenging in other respects. One takeaway for me this time through is a surprising convergence between the 19th-century English preacher, Charles Spurgeon, and the 20th-century German scholar, Ernst Käsemann, both of whom remind us that Romans is not about some theological abstraction, but about encounter with and dependence on the living God:
“[T]he gift which is being bestowed here is never at any time separable from its Giver. It partakes of the character of power, in so far as God himself enters the arena and remains in the arena with it. Thus personal address, obligation and service are indissolubly bound up with the gift. ... [E]very gift of God which has ceased to be seen as the presence of the Giver and has therefore lost its character as personal address, is grace misused and working to our destruction.” - Ernst Käsemann, New Testament Questions of Today (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969), 174-5.
Spurgeon, as one would expect, puts it more colourfully:
“Depend upon it, my dear Brothers and Sisters, if ever our sins are to die, it must be with Christ. You will find you cannot kill the smallest viper in the nest of your heart if you get away from the Cross. There is no death for sin except in the death of Christ.” - Charles Spurgeon, “The Old Man Crucified” (sermon #882).
I began teaching Romans around the time I started blogging. For an assortment of other Romans-related posts, click here

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Louis Feldman on Reading More

 
I was in the Cambridge University Library yesterday morning trying to locate a book, when I came across Louis Feldman's mammoth 1000-page review of scholarship on Josephus. The introduction concludes with this comment:

"One is struck by the sheer increase - 147% - in the amount of published material .... As one who has read almost all of this material, the present writer is reminded of the anecdote which Cicero (Pro Archia 10.25) tells about Sulla, who rewarded a worthless poet who had composed an epigram about him with a present of property from proscribed persons, on the condition that he should not write anything thereafter. In addition to the Desiderata listed at the end of this study, we may be forgiven for expressing the hope - or prayer - that one of the wealthier foundations will establish a fund to give grants on similar conditions, or, at the very least, on the condition that scholars will read what has been written in their field before they embark with pen in hand." - Louis Feldman, Josephus and Modern Scholarship (de Gruyter, 1984), 3.

One sign that Feldman's plea has gone unheeded is the unread tomes spilling over onto the floor in the library's Biblical Studies section. In today's world, scholars who attempt to read everything before they take pen in hand may never write anything of their own. Still, there's something to be said for a thorough lit review.


Saturday, September 23, 2017

Canadian Pirates on the River Cam


We arrived in Cambridge three weeks ago today, and a blog update is now overdue. The day after we arrived I led the family on a walk to a nearby church, and promptly got lost. Three and a half hours later we returned home, groceries in hand, more than a little exhausted, jet-lagged, and foot-sore.
By the end of the first week we had acquired bicycles--the Cambridge vehicle of choice--and our daughter was enrolled in a good nearby school.

By the end of week two we had a bank account, a cell phone, and the beginnings of a study routine. On a typical day I drop s. off at her school and we then cycle 20 minutes across town to Newnham College ...

... where t. sets up at her spectacularly beautiful college library:
Around the corner is Tyndale House, a Biblical Studies research center where I have rented a desk. (The library is great, though less aesthetically pleasing than Newnham's.) As a Reader at Tyndale House I have access to, and can check out books from (!), the Cambridge University Library:
 After months preparing for our move, it is nice to get down to work again.


(The only library disappointment so far has been the three public libraries we have sampled. While Cambridge University students have access to more than 100 fantastic libraries, the reading public's options are much more limited. At least when it comes to children's books, even the Central Library in Cambridge does not hold a candle to the Moose Jaw public library. Well done, people of Saskatchewan!)

Last weekend, we all cycled downtown for a first (planned) exploration of old Cambridge. Thanks to t's student "card of power," we had free entrance to St. John's college:
Clare College:
 And King's College Chapel:


That leaves another 28 member colleges of the university to explore in the weeks ahead.

(If you are wondering why we are in Cambridge, see this post for more details.)




Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Grading Papers Christopher Lasch Style

I decided to try and finish a book a week this summer in a bid to make my way through some of the books I acquired over the years because they were important (or free), but never completed. Some, like my copy of Gadamer's Truth and Method, I started and eventually re-shelved in despair.

The goal makes short books especially attractive. (I included Margaret de Heer's Science: A Discovery in Comics, a library book my daughter enjoyed.)

This brings me to Christopher Lasch's delightful Plain Style: A Guide to Written English, almost half of which is an introduction by Stewart Weaver that places Lasch's guide in the context of his political thought:
"No mere pedant's primer, Plain Style is itself something of an essay in cultural criticism, a political treatise even, by one for whom directness, clarity, and honesty of expression were, no less than for George Orwell, essential to the living spirit of democracy" (3-4).
In Lasch instructions on usage give way to asides about the scholarly profession:
"Remember that disinterested inquiry--the ideal of scholarship--refers not to investigations conducted in a state of apathy or indifference but to a pursuit of truth so intense that it refuses to allow personal whim or inclination to interfere with the determination to follow an idea wherever it may lead. Disinterested inquiry signifies a refusal to indulge in wishful thinking." (p. 98, s.v. "disinterested")
Perhaps my favourite Lasch quote comes from the introduction in an excerpt from Lasch's feedback on a student paper:
"In most examples of bad writing in student papers, I can puzzle out the thought and suggest better ways of expressing it. Here I am completely baffled--not just by this particular sentence but by practically every other sentence in your paper. The grade reflects my belief that you've done a good deal of reading, struggled to understand it, and tackled a very hard subject, furthermore. Still, it is a generous grade. In a way, there's no basis for a grade at all, since I have no idea what you're trying to say. It's as if words had taken flight into an airy realm of their own where they no longer refer recognizably to things or ideas but just kind of mix and mingle and rub shoulders with each other in a friendly kind of just us folks and abstract terribly with jargon and heavy academic, to which makes no difference how you arrange, to read backwards and if you read from the middle it doesn't seem to matter." (22)

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

On Killing Trees


While I admire those who can deliver brilliant lectures or lead class discussion without any written aids, I don't aspire to their example. The presence or absence of notes is, in my view, no sure sign of teaching effectiveness. Notes are not an instructor's training wheels to be abandoned when a teacher can ride without them. Nor need they be a constraint.
Depending on how many times I have taught the course, the notes become more of a prop than a constant reference, a security blanket, if you will, that gives me freedom to innovate and be present in class, focused on reaching and engaging my students without being distracted by the fear of losing my place or missing something crucial.

My usual practice has been to print off a new set of notes before each class, and to mark them up lightly as part of my final class prep. If I have taught the course before, I glance at my marginal annotations from the previous iteration before finalizing the latest version.

Inevitably, end-of-term haste means that the new binder of notes gets added to the old. Over time the paper adds up. As I cleaned my office this summer, the detritus of more than a decade's worth of teaching filled a recycle bin and led to a glut of empty binders.



The experience was motivation enough to look around for alternatives. If I had $700 USD to spare, I would be inclined to abandon paper altogether and switch over to Sony's newest Digital Paper solution, where "writing and drawing feel as natural as on real paper":


The only downside to the Sony DPT-RP1 is the price tag. Since money does not grow on trees, I expect to stick with real paper for the time being.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Book of Common Prayer and Bible Literacy

I recently stumbled across a 450-year-old "Through the Bible in a Year" reading plan in the 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer
"The Psalter shall be read through once every Month, as it is there appointed, both for Morning and Evening Prayer. ... The Old Testament is appointed for the first Lessons at Morning and Evening Prayer, so as the most part thereof will be read every year once, as in the Kalendar is appointed. The New Testament is appointed for the second Lessons at Morning and Evening Prayer, and shall be read over orderly every year thrice, besides the Epistles and Gospels; except the Apocalyps, out of which there are only certain proper Lessons appointed upon divers Feasts."  (pp. 23-24)

The list of daily lectionary readings in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer was taken over more-or-less unchanged from the first 1549 edition. The plan omits the book of Revelation, the subject of controversy in post-Reformation England, and parts of the Old Testament, but makes up for it by reading through the Psalter once every 30-day month and the rest of the New Testament three times in the year. The result is a schedule that is more rigorous than most contemporary Bible reading plans, and, I suspect, significantly more than is expected of churchgoers in most evangelical churches today.

How widely this plan was adopted is another question. For most people in 17th-century England, church consisted of the morning and evening prayer services--Matins and Evensong--but only on Sundays. Most people would not have owned a copy of the prayer book, and most churches did not offer daily services. John Spur notes that "the rector of Clayworth in Nottinghamshire thought himself conspicuously pious when he resolved to read prayers on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent."*

Nevertheless, the plan had an impact. To take one famous example, the community established by Nicholas Ferrar at Little Gidding "read the regular daily offices of the Book of Common Prayer, including the recital every day of the complete Psalter."** According to Hannibal Hamlin's fine Oxford Handbook article on "Reading the Bible in Tudor England," "apparently many did follow the Prayer Book's 'order howe the Psalter is appointed to be read'" each month. If the BCP's annual reading plan for the whole Bible did not catch on as widely, that may have been because there were other more popular alternatives: "Daily reading of the rest of the Bible was a common practice, but readers could either decide on their own reading plan or follow one of the many available in print."***

Indeed, the BCP's daily lectionary is in many respects characteristic of the dedication to lay Bible reading that both contributed to and resulted from the Protestant Reformation. As a result, as Hamlin puts it, "the Bible permeated almost every nook and cranny of sixteenth-century culture."***

Perhaps there is something to be learned here by Protestant churches today who lay claim to the heritage of the Reformation. Why not take a lead from a 16th-century church willing to instruct its members to read through the Bible every year? I submit that the practice of Bible reading says more about the authority of Scripture than any doctrinal statement.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Some News

Last month we received word that Tenyia has been awarded a full scholarship to do a PhD in history at the University of Cambridge. Briercrest has agreed to my request for a temporary leave of absence* so we can move to England as a family for a couple years. This is a dream come true for both of us, and we are thrilled and grateful for the opportunity!

Thankfully, our daughter is excited about the adventure as well. Even before we found out we were going, she had made a shortlist of castles to visit. (Any guesses about what Pontefract, Berkeley and the Tower of London have in common?) Also on our travel itinerary, thanks to S., is a visit to the Isle of Man to look for Manx cats.

My main responsibility during our time away will be to step up my house-husband game so that Tenyia can concentrate on her writing, but I also plan to rent a desk in the Biblical Studies library at Tyndale House, where we will be staying. So while Tenyia works on her thesis and S. is in primary school, I hope to make progress on some writing projects of my own.


*Although my leave of absence begins in August, I will be back in Caronport in October to teach a one-week modular course on the book of Romans.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Fish out of Water: A Parable for the End of Hebrew

Source
Imagine a fish swimming in a sea of Hebrew. The sea is rough, it takes a lot of hard swimming to get to the other side, and the fish can’t wait to get there. Finally, there is land in sight. The fish leaves the deep water, races through the shallows, and with a flying leap lands on a nice sandy beach. The fish lies there, gills flapping contentedly. In a short while, the fish is dead. Don’t be that fish. Stay in the water.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Announcing the 2018 Israel Study Tour


I am happy to announce that Briercrest College and Seminary is planning a study tour to Israel in the spring of 2018. The 13-day trip will be hosted by my colleague, Dr. Wes Olmstead, and led in Israel by Yoni Gerrish, the director of JCF Biblical Study Tours. We know from past experience on our 2009 and 2011 study tours that Yoni is an outstanding guide.


The tour will begin in the south of Israel with stops in Beersheba and Eilat on the Red Sea, as well as several hikes, including one through the Zin Canyon pictured on your left. The group will then progress north along the Dead Sea, and then across to the Mediterranean Sea, before settling in for several nights at a Kibbutz Hotel on the Sea of Galilee, as a base for day trips around the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights. (For those who like swimming, this means you will have the chance to swim in the Red Sea, Dead Sea, Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Galilee.) After touring Israel from south to north, the final four days will be based out of Jerusalem.

For more information, including a more detailed itinerary, see the tour website: http://briercrest.ca/israeltour/.

If you are in the Caronport area, please plan to attend our information meeting this Wednesday, April 5, at 6:30 p.m. in Room 144.




The trip will be a fantastic experience, and I was very much looking forward to going along. Something else has come up for our family, however, about which I may say more in due course. (Update: More here)

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Ten-Year Blog Anniversary

Ten years ago today I published the first entry on גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב. I initially conceived of it as a commonplace book, and took pride in the fact that the blog with an obscure Hebrew name went entirely unnoticed by the wider world.

In time my initial blog description gave way to the quote from Robert Frost that still appears in the sidebar:
But yield who will to their separation, / My object in living is to unite / My avocation and my vocation / As my two eyes make one in sight. / Only where love and need are one, / And the work is play for mortal stakes, / Is the deed ever really done / For Heaven and the future's sakes.
At its best, what I post here represents the meeting of my avocation and vocation--with an emphasis on the former. I do like readers, of course, but have neither the time nor the energy to cultivate a particular audience. Nor is the blog an extension of my day job. What gets said in this writing space appears when I have something to say on any number of mostly Biblical-Studies-related topics, and when saying it either fits in with an active writing project or feels like a break from my day-to-day routine.

At some point early on I articulated to myself a principle of self-censorship that I admit I have not always followed successfully: Say positive things.

And somewhere along the line I decided to prioritize embodied life over virtual reality, a decision I don't regret. A glance at my blog archive indicates when this change occurred: During its first four years, the blog averaged over 100 posts / year. In 2011, that number dropped to 65. Between 2012-2016 the average was in the low 30's.

10 years, 697 posts, and 300,000+ hits later, there is no shortage of topics I would like to blog and write about. At the beginning of the year, I pinned this advice by Jay Parini on my office bulletin board:
  • Don’t stop. You have to write a lot to get better at writing.
  • Write every day. If you must, get up early. An hour each day is enough. Write, revise, and write some more. And don’t hesitate to use those weird little gaps in the day. I often have huge luck with a spare 20 minutes.
  • Don’t fuss. Don’t think you have to be at your desk in a quiet place.
  • If you stick to your writing, it will stick to you. 
I look at it occasionally and smile. Unless the hours I spend crafting notes for a new course this semester count as "writing," Parini's counsel goes wholly unheeded--except on Friday mornings, when you can find t. and me at an undisclosed location in Moose Jaw, laptops open, sipping coffee, and picking away at our respective writing projects.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Why study 1 Corinthians

As I mentioned back in October, I will be teaching a 300-level course on Paul's first letter to the Corinthians this semester. In the syllabus, I make a case for studying the letter this way:

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is a valuable resource for readers who wish to recover evidence for day-to-day church life in the mid-first-century CE, but the relative abundance of historical data in 1 Corinthians also poses a challenge. Of all Paul’s letters, 1 Corinthians may strike modern readers as the most firmly embedded in an alien historical setting. Reading 1 Corinthians well as a historical document demands more than tracing Paul’s argument; readers must also learn about the archaeology of ancient Corinth, the social and religious beliefs and practices of first-century Jews, Greeks and Romans, and the conventions of ancient rhetoric.

The challenge of reconstructing the letter’s context is matched by the demands of its contents. Paul’s instructions are sometimes challenging because they seem obviously and uncomfortably relevant. They address issues—like church unity, sexual morality and the practice of spiritual gifts—with which the twenty-first-century church continues to struggle. Sometimes they are challenging because the topics, such as head coverings and food sacrificed to idols, seem foreign to contemporary concerns and cultural norms; sometimes they seem equally familiar and foreign at the same time.

Readers who seek to read 1 Corinthians faithfully as Christian Scripture must be alert to the ways in which their own horizons of experience and their own preferences shape and constrain their interpretations. They must also face the hermeneutical challenge of applying what Paul says to their own twenty-first-century contexts. These challenges make 1 Corinthians a fascinating and rewarding subject of study.

In this class we will draw on all the interpretive resources at our disposal to read 1 Corinthians carefully in its historical context, and to consider its implications for contemporary readers.

By the end of this course, students will be able to articulate an understanding of the letter’s purpose, summarize its content, trace its flow of thought, and explain how Paul responds theologically to practical questions. They will be familiar with a range of options in the interpretation of key texts and be able to illustrate how knowledge of the socio-historical context of the letter affects its interpretation. They will also be able to describe hermeneutical challenges posed by the text, and be better prepared to engage it seriously as Christian Scripture.

A copy of the full syllabus is available online here.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Bruce Longenecker's Lost Letters of Pergamum

Bruce Longenecker made my job a little easier last semester, by writing a great little book that students enjoy reading. I assigned the second edition of Longenecker's Lost Letters of Pergamum (Baker Academic, 2016) as a textbook for "Introduction to the New Testament," and students loved it.

Perhaps Baker Academic will consider adding these student blurbs to the back of the third edition:
"Extremely interesting!"

"Loved this book, eye-opening, never read Luke the same."
"Really enjoying The Lost Letters of Pergamum book so far!" 

A few students apparently neglected to read the preface, which explains that the letters are fictional:
"The Lost Letters I found pretty cool how I'm able to read letters from a very old historical event."
"I am really enjoying Longenecker's book because it includes actual letters of Luke, Antipas, Calpurnius. It gives a glimpse at life in the New Testament times and is extremely interesting." 

But how often do you find a textbook that prompts this sort of student response?
"Longenecker is by far my favourite thing I've read this whole semester. I was interested from page one. It's the best." 

Based on student feedback I decided to switch out the other two very short introductions I had assigned, but Lost Letters is a keeper - It succeeds in conveying a lot of information about the first-century Roman world, it paints a compelling and attractive picture of early Christian community practices, and--did I mention?--students enjoy reading it.


Sunday, January 1, 2017

Joseph Fitzmyer (1920-2016)

If I were still maintaining my rather-too-morbid list of Nonagenarian New Testament Scholars, Joseph Fitzmyer would have been on it. He died on December 24, at the age of 96.

I only knew Fitzmyer through his scholarship. I first encountered his classic two-volume Anchor Bible commentary on the Gospel of Luke in grad school. Published in 1981 and 1985 when Fitzmyer was in his 60's, I still regard it as one of the top three or four English-language commentaries on Luke.

I read Fitzmyer's Spiritual Exercises Based on Paul's Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), in 2006 as I was preparing to teach Romans for the first time, and found it very helpful. Fitzmyer's major Romans commentary (AB, 1993) created a stir when it came out because the Roman Catholic scholar's exposition of justification by faith sounded so Protestant.

There followed the Anchor Bible commentary on Acts (1998), a disappointment to the seventy-eight-year-old Fitzmyer, who had wanted to publish a major two-volume treatment to match his commentary on Luke, but was forced by the publisher to limit the commentary to a single volume.

I confess that I find Fitzmyer's Acts commentary a bit thin, and I typically turn to other commentaries on Romans first, so I was surprised and delighted when I recently acquired Fitzmyer's 2008 Anchor Yale Bible commentary on First Corinthians and discovered that it is a gem. My initial impression is that it is one of the best recent treatments of the letter--thorough, up-to-date and incisive. I expect to consult it regularly as I prepare to teach 1 Corinthians this semester. As far as I can tell, First Corinthians was Fitzmyer's last major work. Not bad for an 88-year-old.

Perhaps as remarkable as Fitzmyer's longevity and scholarly productivity during the final four decades of his life is the fact that his doctorate was not in New Testament at all. Fitzmyer earned his Ph.D. in Semitics from Brown University in 1956, and made major contributions to scholarship in Aramaic, early Judaism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

For more on Fitzmyer's life and work, see the collection of remembrances at America Magazine: "Remembering Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J." as well as this fine tribute by Lawrence Schiffman, delivered in 2001; the wikipedia entry on Fitzmyer is also very good.