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Preview: Greg Carey

Greg Carey

Welcome to NTGeeks, the blog spot of Greg Carey, Professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary and Scholar in Residence at Lancaster's Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity. This spot features discussion on a variety of topics rel

Updated: 2018-01-10T07:40:38.881-05:00


Lancaster Seminary Baccalaureate Sermon


Congratulations to those of you who are graduating today. You have sacrificed much, given much, labored much, and endured much – and I hope you have received much in return. Congratulations!And congratulations to those of you who have loved and supported our new graduates through their journey here. Many of you have sacrificed much, given much, labored much. God bless you for it. As the Psalmist says, may those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.And congratulations to those of us, staff and faculty, who have walked alongside these new graduates. We feel proud today. Proud, and hopeful, that this class will bear blessing in their diverse ministries of leadership and service.And graduates of the class of 2010, may God’s Spirit sustain you with love, with hope, with wisdom, strength, and skill. May you know God’s presence in a personal, energizing, transforming way. May blessing attend you as you go forth.IFriends, sisters, brothers: We are the inheritors of Jesus’ prayer. This prayer is for us.The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus gathered his disciples on the night of his arrest. According to John 13, Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. At that meal• Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, and he taught them. • He prepared them for life after his departure. • He promised them the Holy Spirit, who would guide and instruct them – and most of all, who would dwell within them, bearing divine life. • He warned them that it might be difficult to follow him, that their faithful discipleship would provoke hostility – friends, conflict is a part of leadership – that they must abide in him in order to thrive.As Jesus prepared his disciples that night, he did what you will do when you send someone you love off into the world. He did what we will do today during the commencement ceremony. Jesus prayed for them.And sisters and brothers, we are the inheritors of this prayer. This prayer is for us. Jesus says he prays not only for his disciples but for all who come to believe. That’s we.Now, source and redaction critics will tell us that Jesus never spoke such a prayer. (Those of you who haven’t learned about source and redaction critics, that’s for another day.) And they are likely correct; perhaps Jesus did not speak such a prayer on the night of his arrest. But something more important is true: at every moment the risen Jesus is living this prayer on our behalf. This prayer was written to remind us what Jesus was about – and what Jesus is about. This prayer is written for those who will follow Jesus beyond his earthly career. Sisters and brothers, this prayer is our inheritance. This prayer is for us.IIWhen I was in seminary people actually typed their papers. We didn’t have email or the web. If you wanted to look up a journal article on a given topic, there was a set of about forty red-bound index volumes you could dig through, one for every year. Student apartments were three miles from the academic complex, five miles if it snowed…. Wait, am I wandering? Oh, yes.When I was in seminary I took a course on the history of preaching in America. At one point we studied the ecumenical movement, that great endeavor to unite the diverse Christian bodies. We studied it as a grand movement of the past, located in the 1960s and 70s. Preachers like Eugene Carson Blake and Bishop James Pike. And there it was, in seminary at the age of 24, that this Baptist first heard of the United Church of Christ.It sounded grand, this church founded on the vision that all of Christ’s people should be one. I was impressed, so much so that I devoted a day to the ecumenical movement when I taught Religion in America to college students. But here’s the point: the church’s oneness seemed like a goal. It seemed like something the church must labor for, that there’s much to be done [...]

What's Up with Evangelicals?


The evangelical world is all over the place, and the rest of the church might want to clue in.

Last week a friend referred me to a video from her conservative evangelical megachurch (inerrancy, pre-trib rapture, you name it). The church was launching a series on global poverty, in which the pastor used words like "justice" and talked about how God sides with underdogs, classic liberation theology lines. This, in the wake of Glenn Beck's call to abandon social justice churches, is a most hopeful sign. The movement to embrace social, economic, and environmental justice shows broad growth among evangelicals.

At the same time, Reformed Theological Seminary has lost an esteemed faculty member, Bruce Waltke, because he expressed openness to theistic evolution in an interview. Apparently belief in a literal Adam and Eve was not enough. That same seminary has rescinded a speaking invitation to Tremper Longman, III, for his radical opinion that Adam and Eve may not have been historical persons.

The upshot of all this? Evangelicals are feeling a huge pull, just as they did in the 1950s and the 1970s. Some are gravitating toward engagement with the outside world, the larger church, and scientific consensus. Others are resisting like hell, trying to hold the line at about 1913. It's time, now more than ever, for the larger church to reach out to progressive evangelicals, honoring our differences but inviting them into prayer and conversation.

New Executive Director for the SBL


The Society of Biblical Literature has named John F. Kutsko of Abingdon Press as its new executive director, effective July 1. Kutsko holds a Harvard PhD in Hebrew Bible/Ancient Near East and has been working with Abingdon Press. Here's the announcement.


Temple Prostitution in the Ancient World?


It's nearly impossible to find consensus on this issue, which bears directly upon the interpretation of passages in the Hebrew Bible, 1 Corinthians, and Revelation.

Here's a popular report from Spiegel online. Thanks to Jack Sasson's distribution list for the link.

Economic Status and the New Testament


When I was in grad school, a coon's age ago, a common wisdom was emerging concerning the economic status of the early Christians. Works by Gerd Theissen and Wayne Meeks indicated mixed communities with a small number of fairly affluent persons, a mix of entrepreneurial tradespersons and merchants, and a substantial number of the truly poor and of slaves. First Corinthians 1:26 said it all: If "not many" of the Corinthians were powerful or of noble birth, then a few must have been.

More recently, however, research by Justin Meggitt and Steven Friesen has painted a picture that's far more grim. The overwhelming majority of ancient people, they argue, were profoundly poor. Relative affluence applied only to the fewest people, Christians included.

All of us tend to cling to the models with which we were "raised," and I'm no exception. But something's long bothered me about the notion that (practically) all the early Christians were desperately poor. First, I must say I've never done an iota of independent research into ancient living conditions. But here are my reservations. For one thing, it seems to me that the argument for nearly universal poverty depends more on models than on empirical evidence. Second, the NT documents are full of calls for almsgiving, stories about banquets, conflict between more and less prosperous believers, and communication between churches over expansive distances. Finally, it seems quite a few ancient people decorated their houses, which suggests some measure of leisure.

A fairly recent multi-author volume by classics scholars is just now making its way down to us NT scholars whose research lies outside ancient economics: Margaret Atkins and Robin Osborne, editors, Poverty in the Roman World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006). There's also the 2007 Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World (ed. Walter Schiedel, Ian Morris, Richard P. Saller). These authors largely agree that the Roman economy didn't do all that badly during the first and second centuries CE, and that poverty was not nearly so universal as some would maintain. See Willem M. Jongman's essay on "Consumption" in the Cambridge Economic History. On the other hand, things declined dramatically in the ensuing centuries. Even recent scholarship on economics in early Christianity (it seems to me) hasn't fully engaged this new work. (See Bruce W. Longenecker and Kelly D. Liebengood, eds., Engaging Economics: New Testament Scenarios and Early Christian Reception [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009].)

For now, I'll consider this a live conversation. But it has tremendous implications for the interpretation of many NT documents.

Matt Skinner on the Trial Narratives


Just received my copy of Matthew L. Skinner's The Trial Narratives: Conflict, Power, and Identity in the New Testament (Westminster John Knox, 2010). Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John all receive one chapter. Acts, in which Skinner is a recognized expert, receives three separate chapters -- but then again, Acts features lots of trial scenes. Skinner's approach is largely narrative-critical, informed by historical knowledge but primarily attentive to the stories' dynamic flow. Thus, each text is allowed to speak in its own voice.

I enjoyed the opportunity to read earlier versions of some chapters, so I can say a little about the book right away. It's a scholarly work, but the writing is clear and accessible: pastors, seminarians, and informed laypersons will be able to enjoy the book.

It strikes me that activists and denominational workers might want to read it too. Skinner is getting at the intersection between Christian identity and power. In many cultures, not least our own, trial scenes have provided the venue through which we explore ourselves, our values, and our conflicts.

How do the NT trial scenes depict the relationship between Jesus and his followers, on the one hand, and the authorities, on the other? Skinner characterizes the trial narratives as contributing to early Christian "self-definition" (158). The trial narratives insist that human authorities may seem overwhelming, but their authority does not rival God's. Faithful witness, such as that of Jesus and his followers, can expose the provisional nature of human power and promote an alternative path. Trials, even those with unjust endings, may in the long run serve to advance the gospel.

We'll benefit as well from recognizing the diverse portrayals of the authorities within the New Testament. Early Christians related to Roman and local authority in diverse ways. No one attitude toward political power accounts for the broad witness we find in the NT, just as no one theory of power can speak for all Christians and all times.

Love One Another: Healthy Sectarianism


In Matthew 5:44 and Luke 6:27 Jesus famously tells would-be disciples to “Love your enemies.” However, John’s Jesus puts it differently and with emphasis: Jesus’ is, “Love one another” (13:34-35; 15:12, 17). The Johannine Epistles take up this “new commandment” and make it the sign of true discipleship (1 John 3:11-24; 4:7-12; 2 John 5).

Which is more noble, to love everyone, even one’s enemies, or to love those in one’s own group? The first reaction for most people is to favor “Love your neighbor.” Indeed, that’s the ethical teaching for which Jesus is most famous. It’s easy, as Jesus says, to love your friends but hard to love everyone. We all know those people who can be gracious and charitable within their group but vicious to those outside.

I’d suggest that we pay attention to “Love one another.”

For one thing, the Bible speaks with multiple voices. It’s a conversation, not a monologue. On a host of questions the Bible offers apparently contradictory advice – and we should attend to both sides. Is wealth a blessing from God or a spiritual danger? Does human suffering represent God’s judgment or a call to mercy?

We should also look out for the social and literary contexts of biblical teachings. Over the past forty years or so, scholars have expended lots of energy on the social context of Johannine Christianity. One of the most striking things about John’s Gospel is the blend of high-flying spiritual and mystical language (“In the beginning was the Word”) with signs of deep social trauma. As Jesus says to his disciples, “If the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you” (15:18). Social scientists call that sort of religious outlook, in which the larger society is considered hostile and dangerous, a sectarian worldview.

Let’s look at the full context of that verse:

This I command you, that you love one another. If the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you.

Without going into detailed hypotheses about why the Johannine Christians came to believe that the world hated them, let’s simply notice this one thing: the “love one another” command results from the perception that the world is a hostile place. The Johannine Christians survive because they love one another.

(We might note that the “love one another” command is not limited to the Johannine literature. Paul was big on it, and so was the author of 1 Peter.)

I would suggest that Christians need to think about loving one another. At times faithful discipleship will elicit hostility. If followers of Christ speak out against violence, against a culture of greed, against the stigmatization of Muslims, against the oppression of queer folk – or, if we speak for peace, for a compassionate society, for blessing all people – we will experience hostility. Precisely at those times, loving one another goes hand in hand with loving our neighbors and our enemies. A sectarian outlook is a healthy thing for serious Christians.

In the great prayer of John 17 Jesus prays that his followers “all may be one, even as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they may also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (17:21). Loving one another is one way in which we love the world. Or to put it technically, a healthy sectarian outlook nourishes our catholicity.

Pulp Fiction Hermeneutics: Jules and Vincent


Spoiler alert.In some circles, it seems the point of biblical interpretation is to control the field of possible interpretations. Some do it by providing "rules" for sound exegesis, though that's going out of fashion. At the moment I'm more concerned by people who suppose that claims concerning the Bible's inspiration, even divine authorship, will guarantee sound interpretive results.Even the highest views of biblical inspiration don't solve the question of interpretation. If we just looked at the Christian bodies who confess such views, we'll see how frequently they dispute with one another. I don't think that kind of resolution deserves serious reflection.What I want is a way of talking about interpretive diversity while recognizing that some interpretations are more persuasive than others. I take a clue from two of my favorite fictional characters Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction.Jules and Vincent are hit men who work together. Near the beginning of the movie they execute a small group of aspiring drug dealers who have fallen out with their boss. Jules quotes a chilling passage from Ezekiel, and the room is cleared of victims. Unbeknownst to Jules and Vincent, however, there's one more kid hiding in the bathroom. The young man jumps out and yells, "Die! Die! Die! Die! Die!" while he empties his pistol directly at the faces of Jules and Vincent.At this point we don't see the two hit men. We watch the boy's face fall into dejection, just before the bullets blow him out of the frame.... Fade to black before the next scene.What just happened? The film takes a long time returning to the question, returning to the earlier scene just after the young man fires at Jules and Vincent. Now we see the two hit men, who coolly dispatch their assailant with a hail of bullets.Here's how the script reads at this point.Jules, obviously shaken, sits down in a chair. Vincent, after a moment of respect, shrugs it off. Then heads toward Marvin in the corner....JULES (to himself): We should be fuckin' dead right now. (pause) Did you see that gun he fired at us? It was bigger than him.VINCENT: .357.JULES: We should be fuckin' dead!VINCENT: Yeah, we were lucky.Jules rises, moving toward Vincent.JULES: That shit wasn't luck. That shit was somethin' else.Vincent prepares to leave.VINCENT: Yeah, maybe.JULES: That was...divine intervention.Hours later, Jules and Vincent schlep into a coffee shop. As always, their brilliant dialogue wins the moment. It returns to the same debate. While Vincent blows off the notion that they'd experienced anything but luck, Jules reflects on the miracle's significance:It could be God stopped the bullets, he changed Coke into Pepsi, he found my fuckin' car keys. You don't judge shit like this based on merit. Whether or not what we experienced was an according-to-Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What is significant is I felt God's touch, God got involved.Jules resolves to quit his gangster activities, while Vincent goes his own way. The outcome? (Spoiler, spoiler, spoiler.) It has everything to do with how their lives turn out.I'd suggest the miracle has something to teach us about biblical interpretation. There's a "text." There's no doubt what happened. Vincent and Jules would agree on the basic events they experienced together. But agreeing on the words on the page does not resolve the matter of what those words mean. How we perceive them requires interpretive choices -- and those choices are the products of temperament, experiences, and socialization. No matter what we say to "bind" the meaning of that text, interpretation eludes our control.[...]

Unfortunate Class Photo


Note the text just to the right of the instructor's head (that would be the guy in the blue vest, back row). Explanation below.

We'd been discussing the position of the opponents in the Johannine epistles, and I believe they held a docetic christology. That is, they believed Christ only "seemed" human; therefore the mortal "Jesus" could not be the "Christ." However, anyone who wants to put a cold stop to giving at Lancaster seminary might publish this!

A joyous Christmas to all!

Reading Hebrews Theologically


I just submitted a review of the anthology, The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology (Eerdmans, 2009). The chapters started out as papers at the 2006 St. Andrews Conference on Scripture and Theology, the second in a series of such events. The first (2003) involved the Gospel of John, and a third (2009) Genesis.

What's special about this book -- and these conferences -- is that it puts biblical scholars in direct conversation with doctrinal theologians. I've heard, from one of the book's editors, that the conversations were sometimes contentious. But the main thing is, this book testifies to the range of ways we might engage the Bible theologically.

I like to think of it as a spectrum.
  • On one end, usually inhabited by biblical scholars, we have the inductive-thematic approach. Here we look at Hebrews with a specific question in mind (the trick is how to identify the right questions), and we sift through Hebrews for passages that relate specifically to that question. A little mixture of historical- and rhetorical-critical analysis might help, too, but basically the approach amounts to gathering the passages, interpreting them, and weighing the evidence. Richard Bauckham's essay on christology provides an example of an excellent scholar doing this sort of work.
  • Theologians might be more comfortable at the other end of the spectrum, with its more tradition-sensitive approach. Here you begin with the "rule of faith" or a doctrinal tradition, bring it to Hebrews, and see how that theological tradition enlightens the text. Bruce McCormack's essay works through key figures in Reformed christology to ask how the death of God's Son relates to God's eternal and unchanging being in Hebrews. Brilliant stuff.
Conflict. Inductive-thematic people are gonna look at the tradition-sensitive ones and say, "You don't even listen to the text; you just impose your doctrine on it. The text has no autonomy with you." In reply, the tradition-sensitive folk will say, "You're so naive, you don't realize that interpretation without presuppositions is impossible. That's why your interpretations don't speak to the life of the church."

But here's the thing. You can't find a "pure" example of either approach in this volume. Both ends of the spectrum, the open-ended curiosity and the tradition-grounded engagement, are necessary for any enlightening interpretation of the Bible. Some of the essays in the volume (John Polkinghorne's, for example), work both ways -- and with insight. That's why I recommend this book -- it demonstrates the variety of approaches to theological interpretation, but it doesn't provide a too-easy answer to our questions.

Apocalyptic Preaching


For next week's class on the Book of Revelation, I've assigned a couple of essays from the excellent preaching and lectionary resource, Both Anathea Portier-Young and I have contributed short essays on "Apocalyptic Preaching" (Thea) and "Preaching Apocalyptic Texts" (Greg). Read carefully, and you'll notice we're talking about different things.

Jewish Jesus People and Paul


This post isn't for scholars so much as it is for students, pastors, and the like. In my teaching -- on campus and off -- I continue to encounter powerful negative stereotypes about Judaism and Jews, including the Jewish followers of Jesus we encounter in Paul's letters. They're historically inaccurate, insulting to Jews, and harmful to Christian faith.

Here's the stereotype. Jews were all tied up about the law. They followed it because they feared they wouldn't pass the final judgment. As a result, they followed the law out of fear rather than devotion, or (healthy) pride. They thought they were superior to the Gentile Christians.

Paul's letters do indicate that some Jewish followers of Jesus expected Gentiles to convert to Judaism as part of their devotion to Jesus. We see this in Galatians, Philippians, and maybe 2 Corinthians. But that's some Jewish Jesus people; we don't know how many. And we might consider their motives.

When you read the Jewish literature of Paul's day, you see that (by and large) people observed the law because they loved it. God had given the law as part of Israel's election, and that gift ordered Israel's life. The law was a source of wisdom and guidance (Psalm 105 and 119, anyone), not a source of fear.

The law also provided identity for the Jewish people. Countless ancient ethnic groups vanished as identifiable peoples during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, but Jews had the law to maintain their identity. When tyrants sought to abolish ethnic distinctions, Jews lived, fought, and died for their faithfulness to the law. It wasn't out of fear. It wasn't out of rigid legalism. It was out of devotion and love.

So when some (remember: some) Jewish Jesus people wanted to continue observing the law, they were simply honoring the tradition in which Jesus himself was born. They didn't think they were "better" than Gentiles, but they did understand the Jesus movement to be a Jewish movement. So did Paul, though his understanding of what that meant led in a different direction.

Preachers, students, and (a few) colleagues, it's time to stop describing ancient Judaism as fearful, elitist, and self-righteous. Look at Paul himself: Jesus people are to remember that we depend on Judaism for our lives, we are not to judge our sisters and brothers, and -- consider how many times Paul says this -- the gospel does not abolish the law.

A Hermeneutics of Passion


At the SBL Annual Meeting this past few days, I encountered phrases like "hermeneutics of welcome" and "hermeneutics of sympathy" pitched against the "hermeneutics of suspicion" other scholars supposedly hold. The thing is, no one ever names the people who hold a hermeneutics of suspicion -- probably because the charge wouldn't stick.

A word of explanation. A few decades ago Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza described a hermeneutics of suspicion as one feminist strategy for engaging the Bible (among others). She meant that feminist readers may safely assume the biblical authors downplayed the contributions of women. A hermeneutics of suspicion, then, looks for signs of women's agency and history where it's not emphasized. I've oversimplified things, but a hermeneutics of suspicion, properly speaking, is primarily a creative strategy -- not a destructive one.

Apparently some people (and I'm not naming them out of charity) feel a need to defend the Bible from its supposed attackers. They invoke "hermeneutics of welcome" or "hermeneutics of sympathy" to suggest that they're open to biblical truth -- while those who differ from them employ the more hostile "hermeneutics of suspicion." It's a specious argument, cowardly even, because it suggests that only one mode of interpretation really values the Bible.

The real truth is, relatively few interpreters set out to find negative things to say. Many more of us, however, find ourselves passionately engaged with scripture -- to the point that the Bible continually surprises us. Sometimes it says things we wish it wouldn't. Sometimes it confronts us with questions we'd never thought to ask. Sometimes signs of hope, grace, and correction leap from the page and into our hearts. Rather than a hermeneutics of suspicion, let's call this a hermeneutics of passion (copyright right here). What about it?

"Passion" in its truest sense means the capacity to be acted upon. I don't mean primarily the passion of desire, often eroticized (more below), but the passion of wild openness to the encounter of the text. I'm talking about a deep engagement, one in which we readers make ourselves vulnerable to the encounter. I'm talking about the possibility that we cannot predetermine interpretive outcomes. I'm talking about passion.

And yes, I'm talking about the passion of desire, eroticize it if you will. We come to the Bible from a lack, a deficit, a need. We come from a world that keeps selling us petty things all glittered up. Music overproduced. Food overportioned. Bodies over-Photoshopped. We lust for something that calls us beyond ourselves, a reality that fills us truly, a set of relationships that lead to transformation. We read passionately.

So... my resolution for today. When someone dismisses another interpretation with the "hermeneutics of suspicion" label, I'm gonna call them out as they cowards they are. It's a hermeneutics of passion, people!

SBL Time: Papers I'll Miss


For those out of the loop, SBL means the Society of Biblical Literature and its Annual Meeting, November 21-24 in New Orleans. The SBL is the world's preeminent biblical studies conference, and I suspect about 6,000 people -- way too many of them in polyester and tipping poorly -- will descend on the Crescent City this weekend.

I always look forward to SBL. Most of all, I'm anxious to reunite with old friends. Then there's meeting with editors and working groups, interesting presentations, and the famous book exhibit -- some publishers discount as deeply as 50%, though things are getting tighter every year. This year there will be a panel review of Sinners on Saturday morning, I'm meeting with a prospective editor concerning a secret project (really, it's secret), and the Rhetoric and the New Testament Section has lots of business to conduct. I've already booked up my calendar with sessions, meetings, and socializing.

But there are also the papers I'll miss.
  • For example, there's a retrospective session on Wayne Meeks' The First Urban Christians. Steve Friesen is speaking there, and I'm particularly interested in Steve's work on the economic resources of the first Christians (extremely bleak, says Steve).
  • Thomas Blanton has a paper on 2 Corinthians 3 and the New Perspective on Paul (available online -- it's a very strong paper).
  • There's a session on the value of (or otherwise) religious experience as a category for the study of early Christianity -- I'd be especially keen to hear Jim Crossley's remarks.
  • Shawn Kelley has a paper that challenges many of our cherished assumptions concerning parables.
  • There's a session on reclining (at meals) -- Jennifer Glancy has some thoughts on how early Christians reacted to this custom.
  • Paul Middleton has a paper on how Revelation's hymns relate to violence. (I've written on this myself.)

Death (and Paul)


I used to think -- and teach, and write (Ultimate Things, 133-34) -- that Paul changed his mind concerning what happens when we die. In 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians, Paul writes that those who have fallen asleep will be raised and transformed upon the return of Christ. As I understood it, these early letters of Paul revealed a series of assumptions concerning afterlife hope.We are not immortal, nor do we have immortal souls. When we die, we really die. We don't go on to "a better place."Life is a gift from God, and it is embodied life. Paul believed in the resurrection of the body -- a new body, for sure -- but one continuous with the body in which we lived our lives, the same body that really, really dies.Abe Simpson sound byte on death.However, in Philippians 1 Paul writes that "to die is gain," since to die is "to depart and be with Christ" (1:21-24). This sounds much more like the Gospel of Luke, in which the rich man and Lazarus go on to afterlife dwelling places and Jesus says to the thief on the cross, "Today you will be with me in paradise." It seemed to me that Paul's opinion changed as time passed, as the return of Jesus tarried, and as he faced the prospect of his own death more seriously.Here's the key: Early Jews and Christians expressed two kinds of hope concerning the afterlife, one involving death then resurrection, and the other involving an intermediate life beyond the grave but before one reaches one's final destination. The classic studies on this topic are by Richard Bauckham, in an enormously wonderful book, The Fate of the Dead; Jaime Clark-Soles, in Death and the Afterlife in the New Testament; and N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God. See also Oscar Cullmann's famous essay.I've made a lot of this point in my teaching. Christians, I've argued, believe in the resurrection of the dead, not the immortality of the soul. Our hymns and liturgies demonstrate great confusion on this point, as do some of our creeds. This is important for several reasons (and I still think it is):Resurrection means the reclamation of our bodies -- our bodies matter. Therefore, what we do in and with our bodies, and how we relate to the bodies of others, also matters.There's nothing special or immortal about us, except insofar as God graces us with life and status. Our life depends on God, now and forever.Now I'm thinking I might be wrong about Paul. In Philippians 3:11 Paul writes in hope that he will "attain the resurrection of the dead." Could it be that for Paul (and for the author of Revelation), the idea of a temporary dwelling place and a final resurrection did not represent exclusive options? I can't get my mind around it, but the presence of both ideas in both Philippians and Revelation suggests that I may need to revise my views. How much, or in what way? I'm still sorting that out.[...]

Still Thinking about Justification: Need Feedback


I thought -- very recently -- that justification was not core to Paul's gospel. I was wrong. The actual noun, dikaiosis, is indeed rare in Paul's letters, restricted to one section of Romans in fact. But what does Paul have in mind in 1 Cor 1:30, when he calls Christ "our righteousness" if not justification? Or 2 Cor 6:7, when he mentions the "weapons of righteousness"?

Having read N. T. Wright's Justification recently, it strikes me that Paul's justification language doesn't always mean the same thing. In some prominent cases it's legal or accounting language, as in Paul's argument that Abraham was "counted" righteous on account of his faith.

But in others -- and here's the point of this post -- I think Paul means something more, something Wright perhaps minimizes. I think there are times when Paul uses justification language to point to God's act of making things right. The old-fashioned English word rectification seems to convey the idea. Look at 1 Cor 6:11 (and here I'm borrowing from Lou Martyn by way of Stephen Chester): "but you were washed, you were made holy, you were justified/rectified (fixed?) in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God." Here Paul is making an argument concerning how believers should live in accordance with God's work in their lives. If justification doesn't entail some measure of "fixing," then Paul isn't making sense. (So I read 2 Cor 5:21, in which Paul and his colleagues become the "righteousness of God.")

I'm just at the beginning of thinking about this, but it seems to me that Paul's justification language is very, very big -- and that it extends beyond the mere categorical notion that God declares us "justified" in God's sight to God's active work of making things right with us. (So Wright would agree -- sort of.)

In conclusion, I'm writing to invite Paul people and others to help me get my mind around this. Is "rectification" part of Paul's justification talk?

N. T. Wright, Justification


Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of N. T. Wright's hugely selling book, Justification. This book does not so much set forth Wright's views as it defends them, particularly against John Piper's The Future of Justification, which is an attack on Wright's position. Because of its defensive posture, and because Wright spends so much time engaging the debates raging (mostly) among evangelicals, the book can feel a little off-putting. Nevertheless, Wright's understanding of justification is hugely important, and mainstream Christians do well to pay attention.

The book has two main parts, an apology/argument and an exegetical section.

Wright believes that the Reformation traditions have narrowed justification to a matter of personal salvation. In Wright's view, justification is part of something much greater, God's rectification of the whole cosmos. This, Wright maintains, has been God's plan all along. It's why God called Abraham (read Gen 12:1-3), why God worked and works with Israel, and why God has worked decisively through the true Israelite, Jesus. Justification is not just about declaring individual Christians "innocent." It's not about making them righteous by imputing righteousness to them. Justification is about God vindicating the faithfulness of Jesus, which makes it possible for those who believe into Jesus to share his status and -- eventually, through the work of the Spirit, grow into righteousness themselves.

In the previous paragraph I used several related words: justification, rectifiction, and righteousness. All of these derive from common Hebrew and Greek roots, which have to do with the legal verdict that one has been declared to be in the right. (Read the parable of the widow in Luke 18:1-8.)

I happen to think Wright is powerfully correct. He points out -- and he's obviously correct about this as well -- that Jews of Jesus' day were not preoccupied with going to heaven after they died nearly as much as they were about God fixing the world and redeeming Israel. Jesus' work and teachings make sense precisely in this context, as does Paul's appeal to the "righteousness of God" -- we know God is righteous because in Christ God makes good on God's covenant with Israel.

Finally, so what? The point is that too many churches and Christians have a narrow, individualistic take on faith. The gospel is about participating in something even grander than that -- not just God's plan to fix things for me, but God's gracious inclusion of me (justification, declaring me a part) in the plan to fix the whole world.

A Clue from the Bible about Interpretation


As we ask where to go for helpful models of biblical interpretation, we must consider how biblical authors performed the same task. It's not that we can always follow the same strategies: I can't imagine a responsible way for modern readers to mimic Paul's appropriation of the Sarah and Hagar cycle (Gal 4:21-31). Of course, some people do it, but I'm not buying it. Nevertheless, Paul's move persuaded some people in his cultural context, and we might attend to that.

As presented in the Synoptics, Jesus' teaching on divorce provides an interesting case (Matt 19:1-12; Mark 10:1-12; Luke 16:18; see 1 Cor 7:10-16). Luke only includes one saying, whereas Matthew and Mark provide a full scene on the subject. What do we learn?

First, we're talking not about Scripture but about the appropriation of traditions going back to Jesus. Note that Mark, presumably addressing a largely Gentile audience where women could initiate divorce, envisions contexts when a woman might divorce a man. Matthew, presumably addressing Jewish followers of Jesus, does not. We may never know what Jesus himself said about divorce -- maybe he spoke to the question on multiple occasions -- but that's not the point. The point is that both Mark and Matthew appropriated traditions concerning Jesus' teachings to address their own cultural contexts.

And Paul? Paul apparently knows the same tradition. There are three steps to his argument.
  1. In 1 Cor 7:10-12 he relies upon a word from the Lord to command women not to divorce their husbands.
  2. However, admitting people will divorce anyway, he continues to rely on Jesus tradition: If a woman leaves her husband, she ought not marry someone else.
  3. Finally, in 7:13-16 Paul addresses an entirely new context. Jesus could not have been speaking to "believers" married to "unbelievers," since there were no "believers" in Jesus' own day. Paul must address the situation, but here he speaks in his own authority: "I and not the Lord."
There's sooo much more to say about these passages, and others have done so. For now, here's the point. Early Christians did not passively repeat sayings of Jesus; rather, they adapted Jesus traditions to their own cultural contexts. The Jesus tradition figures strongly in their deliberations, yet it cannot be the final word. That seems about right to me.

Sweet News for Sinners


In the current Christian Century Beverly Roberts Gaventa includes Sinners among her 10 recommended books in NT ("Take and Read," October 20, 2009, p. 22). I'm grateful to Professor Gaventa for such an honorable mention.

Sex and Christians in the 50s


A few years ago I found myself in love with bluegrass and the blues. And while listening to Bessie Smith's "Empty Bed Blues" (1928) I encountered these paired lines:

Bought me a coffee grinder that's the best one I could find
Bought me a coffee grinder that's the best one I could find
Oh, he could grind my coffee, 'cause he had a brand new grind
He's a deep sea diver with a stroke that can't go wrong
He's a deep sea diver with a stroke that can't go wrong
He can stay at the bottom and his wind holds out so long

I heard this while innocently driving along, and I said to myself -- out loud: "Damn, did she really say that?" In 1928? I suppose it had not occurred to me that people were having sex in 1928. You should see the lines about cabbage....

My introduction to Bessie Smith came back to mind the other day, when I found this book in the church library, Sex and Love in the Bible, by William Graham Cole (Association Press, 1959). All I know about Cole is that he taught at Williams College; his publications suggest that maybe he was a pastoral theologian, someone who worked on the intersection of psychology and theology.

Cole's was a great book. Fifty years ago he was telling the truth about the Bible, sex, and modern morals. He spelled out how "biblical family values" couldn't be found in scripture and shouldn't be imposed on modern believers. He sought to bring gospel values to bear on people's sexual lives with sensitivity and honesty. Following the common psychological wisdom of his day, he regarded homosexuality as an illness -- we know better now -- but he insisted upon treating sexual minorities with dignity and as equals. I have no doubt he'd hold a progressive position today. In short, here is a serious theological publication from fifty years ago that gets it.

Yet so many Christians these days act surprised when matters of sexuality come into our communal reflection. I recall a local denominational gathering just after the UCC had endorsed equal marriage rights for all persons. One speaker lamented that this resolution had been thrown upon us so suddenly -- as if the UCC hadn't been working on these issues for over thirty years! Not to mention the work among Presbyterians and Lutherans over almost as long a period.

Friends, it's long past time that Christians move beyond platitudes, ignorance, bigotry, and naive biblicism. Serious biblical and theological work on human sexuality has been going on for a long time. This doesn't mean we'll all agree on every point. But it does mean we'll have to be as honest with the Bible and sexuality as we've come to be with the Bible and slavery, interest, and church leadership. It's time to wake up and smell the coffee.

Stephen Fowl's Theological Interpretation of Scripture, #4 on Hermeneutics


For such a short book, Steven Fowl’s Theological Interpretation of Scripture covers lots of significant – and sophisticated – territory. That’s one sign of a very good book. My earlier posts have emphasized Fowl’s account of contemporary biblical scholarship, particularly historical criticism, and its relationship to theological interpretation. In this post we’ll focus on questions of how theological interpreters find meaning in scriptural texts. Negotiating some notoriously difficult problems, Fowl offers some terrific insights. For example, Fowl rejects the attempt to propose a grand Theory (capital T) of textual meaning. Instead, he offers a more pragmatic (and I think, reasonable) approach: rather than specifying what a text “means,” we should instead clarify what kind of meaning we’re pursuing. In his words, “what our specific interpretive aims are in particular cases” (42). And on the question of authorial intent, Fowl wisely notes that we can never know an author’s intent, which is a psychological state now lost to us. But we may advance reasonable guesses concerning an author’s “communicative intention” (46-47). Nevertheless, even that goal falls short of a “primary or determinative consideration” for theological interpretation. Sometimes texts speak to us beyond the designs envisioned by their authors, and that can be a very good – and Spirit driven – thing. Unfortunately, this brings us to the question of how the “Old Testament” speaks to us today. Again, Fowl falls upon the notion that God is the ultimate author of Scripture. As I’ve suggested, this idea explains nothing and presents more problems than it solves. That’s the case with finding Christian meaning in the Scriptures of Israel, which are now our Scriptures as well. Obviously (I agree with Fowl here) Christians will find Christian meaning in the “Old Testament.” We and they always have. But that’s a very different argument than saying God secretly embedded Jesus messages in, say, Isaiah, for Christians to discover later. That argument suggests at least two problematic implications. First, it’s problematic to assume that Isaiah did not speak fully and adequately to the people of Israel. And second, it portrays Israel – and Jews to this day – as people who didn’t fully “get” the message of their own Scriptures. Like so many attempts to avoid anti-Jewish sentiments, this approach just moves the problem down the line. It doesn’t solve the problem of anti-Jewish interpretation. Finally, Fowl proposes practices and habits of theological interpretation. I’ll commend the first and third with minimal comment. Like other advocates of the “theological interpretation” movement, Fowl turns to pre-modern interpretation for insight. Fowl does not call for an uncritical appropriation of pre-modern readings but for engagement with the broad sweep of the church. Absolutely! I might add that Fowl should also consider contemporary interpretation on a global scale, which is absent from his book. Believing that much conflict occurs because Christians interpret the Bible without regard for one another, Fowl also seeks to locate interpretation in the context of ecclesial practices. Amen. Fowl’s second proposal may find more controversy, though I’m largely sympathetic to it. Fowl recommends “figural interpretation.” I may quibble with how Fowl defines “literal” interpretation, but I think Fowl is onto something important[...]

Stephen Fowl's Theological Interpretation of Scripture, 3: more on historical criticism


This is the third reflection on Stephen Fowl's important little book, Theological Interpretation of Scripture -- the second on his discussion of historical criticism. My most recent reflection engaged the question of how historical criticism related to theological interpretation. This one addresses three concerns Fowl raises with respect to historical criticism.First, Fowl maintains that the ethos of historical criticism leads to "the policing of the scholar's confessional stance" (19). Fowl raises a significant point. Many of us recall being told to distinguish between "exegesis" and "eisegesis," to resist imposing our theological presuppositions upon the biblical text. Those of us who considered literary theory, cultural studies, and hermeneutics (in the context of philosophy) learned how to question that objectivist approach; we learned that one's convictions and presuppositions are necessary not only for interpretation but for learning as well. During the 90s in particular, many of us included confessional pieces in our scholarly work: "As a white male heterosexual from a professional class Southern revivalist background...." Such disclosure performed a valuable function, but it also had a tendency to reduce interpretation to nature and nurture. Fowl might add, we tended to emphasize demographics over faith traditions.Thus, many of us would regard Fowl's criticism with sympathy. Indeed, theological interpretation could open its doors to acknowledge that questions of ethnicity, gender, privilege, and sexuality are as much theological concerns as are identities such as Reformed, Lutheran, or Orthodox.At the same time, I want to hold on to an aspect of that historical critical self-policing. Impossible as objectivity is, its aim was not to eliminate theology but to clear space for conversation and imagination. In other words, the ability to withhold judgment is a hermeneutical virtue, as is the capacity to see beyond one's own frame of reference. In place of objectivity, historical criticism does allow for self-criticism and an openness to dialogue. Fowl does not acknowledge this potential, and that concerns me. How do we learn if we don't combine a chastened objectivity with a passionate engagement?Second, Fowl maintains that historical criticism tends to elevate the historical reliability of texts above their theological significance. (That's how I understand his discussion on p. 20.) Indeed, such a problem has occurred, but I might add this: after centuries of historical analysis, it's religious conservatives who tend to be preoccupied with historical reliability. The rest of us have largely moved on.In my view, historical questions open up lots of room for theological reflection. Our historical judgments can never determine theological truth, but they surely can enlighten theological conversation. To take one prominent example, many interpreters of Paul are now convinced that "justification by faith" was not the core of Paul's gospel. Paul's gospel, we think, was a story: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. This story presupposes other stories about the God of Israel and the life of Jesus, and it creates the possibility for the church.Yet Galatians and Romans, in particular, argue for justification by faith. And the Reformation traditions have built not only theologies but pieties upon Paul's brilliant insight. People's faith experiences now reflect the model. Are we to ditch justification by faith because o[...]

BibleWorks 8.0 -- biblical studies software


Even though I'm a technical reader of the Bible, I'm not a strong user of technology in biblical studies. Just the same, I'm writing to review BibleWorks 8.0, by far the leading biblical studies software for the PC platform.

At $349.00 for the "full" version (and by "full," I mean entry-level), it ain't cheap. Yet BibleWorks offers stuff that's hard to find anywhere else. In the long run, it's a bargain. You get many, many modern translations of the Bible, including all of the most influential ones that are under copyright (NRSV, NIV, TNIV, Tanak) and translations in a wealth of modern languages. You get the standard critical editions of the Hebrew and Greek texts -- though the apparata for these are not available. Several helpful Greek and Hebrew grammars and lexica are available -- though the HALOT and BGAD cost lots extra.

Here's the BW intro page that guides you through the basic features.
  • If you want to read the Bible in multiple versions and ancient languages, comparing versions side by side,...
  • If you want to search the Bible for words, phrases, and words in proximity to one another, whether in a modern language or in Hebrew/Greek,...
  • If you want to consult seriously helpful lexical and grammatical helps online, plus some valuable (if dated) dictionaries -- without purchasing a whole shelf of books,...
then BibleWorks is for you. In the long run it saves you lots of money by bringing multiple translations, Hebrew and Greek texts, and reference tools all to your fingertips. You won't have the "standard" academic lexica or the textual apparata for the Hebrew and Greek texts without spending extra, but you'll have more than enough to start on basic research. The package includes helpful tutorials for both basic and advanced features; the website features such an addition.

Thanks to Jim Barr of BibleWorks for my (invaluable) review copy.

Stephen Fowl, Theological Interpretation of Scripture, 2 on Historical Criticism


Chapter Two of Fowl's Theological Interpretation of Scripture sets "theological interpretation" (in quotes, because I'm characterizing Fowl's view of it) in conversation with historical criticism, the biblical theology movement, how Christians read the "Old Testament," and theories of hermeneutics and textual meaning. Fowl acknowledges the legitimacy of each of these concerns, averring that they all "look different" in the light of theological interpretation. For now, I'd like to engage the question of historical criticism.When I completed graduate studies I would not have characterized myself as a historical critic. I would have said something to the effect that I was interested in the interpretation of biblical texts, particularly from literary and cultural perspectives. Nevertheless, almost every instance of biblical interpretation involves some historical component. My courses often begin with a simple exercise. I divide students into groups, assign a passage of scripture, and ask them to draw up a list of questions that they'd like to pose to that passage. I insist that they hold off from determining what the passage "means"; just develop a list of questions, please. Every time, I observe that most of the questions are basically historical, primarily involving issues of translation or cultural context. I take this to mean that modern and postmodern persons are strongly historically conscious: they intuitively apply historical categories to the interpretation of ancient texts.Fowl argues historical criticism of the Bible tends to grant "priority" to historical concerns over theological ones. Recognizing that Christian interpreters have always honored questions of history and context, Fowl's concern lies in the aims of interpretation and in the outcomes of a modernist, historicist approach to the world. In addition to the question of "priority," Fowl advances three main critiques of historical criticism. First, "priority." What is "priority"? By priority do we mean that historical concerns are more important than theological ones, that they're an end in themselves? Or do we mean that historical concerns ought to be addressed prior to a full theological reading?Granted, some interpreters don't care about theology at all -- or they don't care about Christian theology. For them, Scripture is an interesting cultural phenomenon, worthy of research in its own right. That's a perfectly legitimate aim, but it's almost entirely irrelevant to the question of theological interpretation. I might add that nearly all biblical scholars enjoy the purely intellectual curiosity of our work. That's also valuable, but it's not what we're talking about here.However, most biblical scholars would insist that professional biblical interpreters should be competent in the broad range of biblical scholarship. That includes historical criticism, and in that sense historical criticism is prior to a finished interpretation. Many Scripture scholars pursue our vocation for theological and spiritual reasons. For us, historical criticism stands in the service of theological interpretation -- but it is a necessary component of the whole process.We acknowledge that historical analysis is not necessary for theological interpretation. Through the centuries countless Christians have interpreted the Bible -- and with insight! -- apart from theological categories. But for those of us who have the ability to pursue hist[...]

Neglected Passage #1: Romans 16:1-23


My first genuine leather-bound Bible goes back to 1981 or 1982, high school in my case. I read it all the way through a couple of times, highlighter in hand. It's not hard to see where my devotional energy clustered in those days: the Gospel of John is pretty much Technicolor, as is Romans. It's no coincidence that these two New Testament books have influenced Protestant theology -- and piety -- more than any others.Working from my office now, I can't pull down that old Bible, but I bet Romans 16 didn't get much highlighter ink. It includes a list of greetings and commendations to the church in Rome and from the churches around Corinth. Biblical scholars had tended to overlook the passage too. Indeed, it used to be "common knowledge" that Romans originally ended at 15:33, with chapter 16 tacked on. You can still buy introductions to the book of Romans that fail to discuss chapter 16 in any level of detail.However, Wayne Meek's classic book, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul, marked a sea change. Attempting to sketch a portrait of those first urban communities, Meeks revealed that "throwaway" passages like the beginnings and endings of Paul's letters provide a gold mine of information concerning Christian origins. Feminist theologians have also turned to these passages for fascinating data.Just three items here.Women. Contrary to what used to be common knowledge, women figured as leaders and equals in Paul's ministry. While Paul mentions more men than women, his references to women simply assume their authority and contribution to the movement. Phoebe is a deacon, the only deacon mentioned by name in the New Testament. It appears that Phoebe is carrying the letter to Rome, and that Paul authorizes her to request whatever she needs from the church there. Junia is an apostle -- well, she became an apostle in 1989, when translators acknowledged the overwhelming evidence that this apostle was the woman Junia and not the man Junias! With the famous missionary pair Prisca and Aquila, Paul mentions the woman first, which strongly suggests that she was the more prominent of the two (see a similar pattern in Acts). Paul never argues for the authority of these women, as if they needed his permission; he simply assumes it.Status. Meeks' study extends well beyond Romans, but the references to Gaius and Erastus suggest that the churches included persons of fairly high status. Gaius owns a house big enough for the "whole church" to gather in, while Erastus is the city treasurer. Then we note how Phoebe has been a benefactor (sponsor or patron) to Paul's ministry, while Prisca and Aquila, now resettled in Rome, host a church in their home. (Perhaps Rome had enough Christians to require several congregations.)Priority. Sometimes people credit (or blame) Paul for "inventing" Christianity. Frankly, that's a stupid notion, which can be easily disproved, but smart people still say it. But notice the reference to Andronicus and Junia, who "were in Christ before I was." Paul did not found the church in Rome. In fact, he'd never visited it. He knew quite a few believers who had preceded him in the faith. We might do better to think of Paul as a partner in ministry rather than as the founder of it.[...]