"The object of all good literature is to purge the soul of its petty troubles." ~ P.G. Wodehouse

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Pope John Paul II on Labor and Co-creation

A little over thirty years ago, Pope John Paul II made this comment as part of his blessing the fishing fleet at Flatrock, Newfoundland (Sept 12, 1984):

"Men and women are meant to contribute by their work to the building up of the human community, and so to realize their full human stature as co-creators with God and co-builders of his Kingdom." 

You can see his full comments here.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Interview on Reconsidering the Relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology

Jason Maston asked me some questions recently about the recent book I co-edited on the relationship between biblical and systematic theology: https://dunelm.wordpress.com/2014/11/10/ben-reynolds-on-biblical-and-systematic-theology-author-interview/.

Thanks, Jason and the Dunelm crew.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Importance of Big Ideas and Great Books

There is an excellent piece entitled "Philosopher Kings: Business Leaders would benefit from studying great writers" in the Schumpeter column of the October 4th 2014 Economist. The article is a lament with some poignant comments arguing that business leaders would be better off spending weekends reading great books and discussing big ideas with others rather than doing team building exercises or experiencing leadership skills on a kayak trip. The call is for business leaders to take some "inward-bound" courses instead of the typical outward-bound courses.

I think that the piece offers some great advice, and I think that the advice shouldn't just be taken by business leaders. Everyone in every walk of life could use a few big ideas and read a great book or two. Connecting with the broader ideas of what humanity is and what culture is can expand our horizons and challenge us to rethink our own narrow parts of the world. If a business leader can be encourage to rethink wealth accumulation by reading Plato, then what else can happen when other writers, thinkers, and philosophers from the past are read in new contexts?

The argument of the piece also reaches beyond mere weekend retreats for business leaders. What if someone was to immerse themselves in four years of university education that focused on great books and big ideas? What if rather than spending one's university years on one subject the coursework was part of a broad-based curriculum that integrated arts, humanities, and social sciences and challenged students to wrestle with humanity's big questions, to integrate disciplines with life and questions of faith, and to encourage analytical thinking and clear, concise writing? What if we abandoned the contemporary call for the "practical" and "employable" and actually graduated students who can think and make decisions and be innovative, which are arguably practical and employable in their own right? If this was the education that we pursued, we would have a few more people who could think outside the box, who could assess the past and consider the promise of the future, who would have a better understanding of what it means to be human.

The liberal arts or a broad-based curriculum may be old-fashioned. It may not be trendy, but something has to be said for its longevity. And I'm not convinced that the existence of glowing screens in front of every face make the liberal arts obsolete. I think our present time is in need of great books and big ideas more than ever. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Thoughts on "Jesus Christ didn't exist"

The Daily Mail Online has run a piece today entitled: "'Jesus NEVER existed': Writer finds no mention of Christ in 126 historical texts and says he was a 'mythical character.'" The writer is Michael Paulkovich who is described as a "historical researcher." (It is probably worth mentioning that the next story that the Daily Mail suggests its readers view is "Has 'Dracula's dungeon' been unearthed in Turkey?")

As the title, and every following paragraph, states, Paulkovich did not find reference to Jesus in 126 ancient historical writers (his list is provided), and so therefore, Paulkovich believes Jesus was mythical. The assumption built in here is that by the end of the first century Jesus was famous enough throughout the Roman Empire that any decent historian would have mentioned him: "all of whom should have heard of Jesus but did not." 

Yet, it should be obvious that this is clearly an argument from silence. For example, before today, the odds would have been quite good that there were more than 126 historians and writers who had not heard or written about Michael Paulkovich. Note also the difference between hearing and writing. A historian may have heard about Jesus, but considering what histories they were writing, where they were writing, their perception of Jesus' importance, etc., it is not required that they write about Jesus. It is also telling that the Dead Sea Scrolls are brought into this as evidence against Jesus' existence, and with a misspelling no less: "the silence from Qumram [sic]." The Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran have been dated to a period that briefly overlaps with early Christianity: 200 BCE to 70 CE, yet as Geza Vermes states, some of the scrolls are from the third century CE and the majority of manuscripts are from the the first century BCE and thus pre-Christian (The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, 14. See pages 21-23 for Vermes' discussion of the actual relationship between the scrolls and the New Testament). 

Positively, although there is no mention of Jesus in these 126 authors, with the possible exception of the debated Josephus readings, we do have writings from the first century and second century that speak about Jesus. While it is typically pushed aside, the reality is that the New Testament is a collection of documents that all purport the existence of Jesus. The bulk of historical Jesus scholars over the last century have agreed on some basic historical facts of Jesus' life, even if they do not believe Jesus was the Son of God or Messiah. E.P. Sanders in The Historical Figure of Jesus states, "There are no substantial doubts about the general course of Jesus' life." He lists the following "statements about Jesus that meet two standards: they are almost beyond dispute; and they belong to the framework of his life, and especially of his public career." He adds, "(A list of everything that we know about Jesus would be appreciably longer.)" Sanders' list is as follows, but I provide it here somewhat abbreviated yet with mostly Sanders' wording.
  • Jesus was born near the time of Herod the Great's death
  • he lived his early life in Nazareth
  • he was baptized by John the Baptist
  • he called disciples
  • he taught in the countryside and village and not in cities (This latter point is of interest for Paulkovich's claim.)
  • his message was "the kingdom of God"
  • he went to Jerusalem for Passover near the year 30 CE
  • he caused a disturbance in the Temple area
  • he had a final meal with his disciples
  • he was arrested and put on trial by the Jewish authorities
  • he was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate (pp. 10-11)
The tension in Paulkovich's claim is that a common person in the far reaches of the Roman Empire, who taught in out of the way places and was executed along with two others, is not likely to have been mentioned by historians, who were sometimes located far from Jerusalem. Jesus did later become well known, but how well known and by what time? By the end of the first century CE, the group called the Way and followers of Christ were only beginning to be noticed in certain pockets of the Roman Empire. 

For an excellent discussion of the issues of whether or not Jesus existed, see Mark Goodacre's NTPod 47: "Did Jesus Exist?"! Paulkovich's argument is obviously not quite so astoundingly new.

[For thorough response to Paulkovich's claim, see Candida Moss and Joel Baden here.]

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Apology to Saeed Hamid-Khani

It has been a while since posting, but I have been meaning to get to this one.

I wanted to formally apologize to Dr. Saeed Hamid-Khani for not making use of his published thesis in the writing of my own thesis on the Gospel of John. Hamid-Khani's thesis was published as: Revelation and Concealment ofChrist: Theological Inquiry into the Elusive Language of the Fourth Gospel (WUNT II/120; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000). It was examined by William Horbury and C.K. Barrett. John Philip M. Sweet was Hamid-Khani's supervisor. 

In the course of working on an essay related to the topic of "revelation" in the Gospel of John, I ran across the title of Hamid-Khani's book. I was able to get a copy through interlibrary loan and waded my way through the immense amount of work that the volume contains. The striking contribution of Hamid-Khani's thesis is his challenge to Rudolf Bultmann's claim that what is revealed in John's Gospel is an empty revelation formula, i.e. Jesus only reveals that he is the Revealer. Hamid-Khani argues that the elusive language of John's Gospel has content and that has a theological force in that it is tied to the Evangelist's use of the OT. For the Gospel, Jesus is the fulfillment of the OT. Those who do not believe this will find the Gospel's language elusive. Those who do believe will understand the truth. 

There is much more in Hamid-Khani's book, but I was surprised that I had never run across it before. A quick perusal of the bibliographies in the post-2000 edited volumes Gospel of John that I have on my shelf indicate that I am not alone. Hamid-Khani's book is not listed in Donahue, Life in Abundance: Studies of John's Gospel in Tribute to Raymond E. Brown, 2005; Lierman, Challenging Perspectives on the Gospel of John, 2006; Thatcher, What We Have Heard from the Beginning, 2007; or Bauckham and Mosser, The Gospel of John and Christian Theology, 2008. The title is also missing from Porter and Gabriel, Johannine Writings and Apocalyptic: An Annotated Bibliography, 2013, even in their section on "Revelation" (!).

A Google search of the book title presents records of the book on Google books, the various places it may be purchased (Amazon, Mohr Siebeck, etc.), various bibliography repositories, and the review by Josaphat Tam at RBECS, Academia.edu, and Facebook (see below). A search of the Review of Biblical Literature website reveals that the book was never reviewed for RBL. Cornelius Bennema acknowledges Hamid-Khani's book in his preface to The Power of Saving Wisdom, although only to say that the book came to him at a late stage. Hamid-Khani's book essentially disappeared...or never appeared. 

My sincere apologies to Saeed Hamid-Khani for not interacting with scholarship that I should have. This will be remedied as best I can in my current work on John, apocalyptic tradition, and revelation. 

A review of Hamid-Khani by Josaphat Tam may be found on the site "Reviews of Biblical and Early Christian Studies" (here).

Monday, June 9, 2014

Thomas Dekker in Dororthy Sayers

Great quote at the beginning of chapter 15 of Dorothy Sayer's Lord Peter Wimsey novel Gaudy Night.

Do but consider what an excellent thing sleep is: it is so inestimable a jewel that, if a tyrant would give his crown for an hour's slumber, it cannot be bought: of so beautiful a shape is it, that though a man lie with an Empress, his heart cannot beat quiet till he leaves her embracements to be at rest with the other: yea, so greatly indebted are we to this kinsman of death, that we owe the better tributary half our life to him: and there is good cause why we should do so: for sleep is that golden chain that ties health and our bodies together. Who complains of want? of wounds? of cares? of great men's oppressions? of captivity? whilst he sleepeth? Beggars in their beds take as much pleasure as kings: can we therefore surfeit on this delicate Ambrosia? Can we drink too much of that whereof to taste too little tumbles us into a churchyard, and to use it but indifferently throws us into Bedlam? No, no, look upon Endymion, the moon's minion, who slept three score and fifteen years, and was not a hair the worse for it.
--Thomas Dekker

Monday, June 2, 2014

John Ashton's new book, The Gospel of John and Christian Origins (Fortress Press)

John Ashton's book The Gospel of John and Christian Origins was published this spring by Fortress Press. I did have the opportunity to read earlier versions of about half the chapters, and it has been enjoyable to read through the finished book.

Ashton has continued themes from his previous book on John, Understanding the Fourth Gospel (1st ed. 1991; 2nd ed. 2007). Ashton made significant changes between the two editions of Understanding, but the third section on "Revelation" (pp. 303-528 in the 2nd ed.) was largely left unchanged.
(See my comments on that volume here.) Ashton acknowledges he is revising that section in Gospel of John and Christian Origins, but he is also making more explicit his arguments for the history behind the Gospel, its writing, and Johannine Christianity.

The primary interlocutors and support for Ashton throughout the book are Wayne Meeks, Rudolf Bultmann, Ernst Käsemann, and J. Louis Martyn. Coupled with the title, it is clear that that he is concerned with the historical situation of the evangelist and his Gospel. Ashton is not a fan of methods that avoid the historical dimension, such as narrative criticism, and in "Excursus 1: The Gospel Genre," he strongly disagrees with Richard Burridge and Richard Bauckham that genre determines how texts are read.

Ashton judges rightly, in my opinion, that the focus on Hellenistic origins argued by Wetter, Bultmann, and Dodd is not correct and that the Gospel has a home in the Judaism(s) of the Second Temple, which Brown was quick to highlight in the years following the discovery and publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Ashton has an intriguing and important chapter on "The Essenes" in which he contends that Qumran exegesis and its emphasis on mystery and revelation reflects a "veering away from the insistence on the definitive nature of the revelation to Moses that already characterized the dominant party in Israel" (74). 

To take a step back, Ashton opens the book by indicating what he sees as the displacement of Moses by Jesus in the Gospel of John. This view is what drives his understanding of the origins of Christianity as portrayed in the Fourth Gospel. Ashton assumes the two-level reading of Martyn, that the Gospel itself tells us about the Johannine community as much as, if not more than, the events of Jesus' life. The displacement of Moses by Jesus ("we are his disciples" 5:31-47; "the law came through Moses" 1:17; etc.) reflects the power struggle or change of belief by those synagogue-goers who have come to believe in Jesus.What becomes evident throughout is that Ashton, like Christopher Rowland, sees any reinterpretation of the law and prophets as a negation of what was previously prophesied. It may be worth considering if this view is necessarily the case. One could argue that Moses may not be cast aside and replaced, since the Johannine Jesus does say that Moses wrote about Jesus (5:45-47). If Moses did write about Jesus, then we may not have displacement. However, regardless of the manner in which we take this, one's interpretation comes down to one's understanding of Second Temple handlings of prophecy and revelation. [On this see, Bockmuehl, Revelation and Mystery in Ancient Judaism and Pauline Christianity (WUNT II/36; Mohr Siebeck, 1990) and Jassen, Mediating the Divine: Prophecy and Revelation in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Second Temple Judaism (STDJ 68; Brill, 2007); Reynolds, "Apocalypticism in the Gospel of John's Written Revelation of Heavenly Things," EC 4.1 (2013), esp. 88-94.]

The "Mosaic-Prophet" of Martyn's argument (cf. also Meeks) is found wanting by Ashton, and in the later chapters, Ashton argues for "three strong streams of Jewish tradition that flow into the Christology of the Fourth Gospel" (133). These streams are "the mission of the prophet," "the Incarnation of Wisdom," and "the Son of Man." Chapters 7 and 8 focus on these three themes. Ultimately, Ashton returns to the theme of revelation and understands this as important for the Christology of the Fourth Gospel. 

"From the first page of this book I have argued that resonating through the Gospel, and most emphatically in the Prologue, is the insistence that the truth, the real revelation of God, is not the law but the self-revelation of Jesus, who represents in his own person God's plan for his people, and indeed for all humankind. For he now replaces both the law and the great figure of Moses through whom the law was given." (190-191).

Ashton rejects Meeks' and Martyn's views on the reason for this replacement (Samaritan traditions and synagogue disputes). Instead, he picks up a suggestion of Christopher Rowland and contends that the followers of Jesus took this view of Jesus because they saw him as more than the Messiah and more than the prophet-like-Moses. As a result, they speculated on who Jesus was, and this speculation led to the portrayal of Jesus' humanity being "eclipsed" by a portrayal of the glorious, descended one.

Much more could be said about The Gospel of John and Christian Origins, especially because Ashton touches on many topics, but I will leave that for you to read.