Sunday, February 7, 2016

Mark's Divine Christology: In the Eyes of the Beholder?

Recently, there has been some interesting discussion on whether Mark's Gospel portrays Jesus in divine terms. These posts can be seen here with the most recent being Brant Pitre's contribution to the discussion.

I'd like to make some observations regarding Mark's Gospel in general. It seems a truism to state this, but I will anyway-- Mark's Gospel is not John's Gospel. Whereas John leaves no doubt to the reader that Jesus is God, Mark's approach is more connect-the-dots, leaving the reader to tease out the implications. As Timothy Geddert states succinctly in a recent article, "In comparison to the other Gospels, Mark has the lowest explicit Christology but the highest implicit Christology."1 

The implicit nature of Jesus' divinity in the Gospel of Mark is in keeping with the enigmatic nature of the First Gospel in general. Ardel Caneday puts it this way:

Because Mark's technique of telling the story imitates the method of Jesus' self-disclosure, correct understanding of Mark's narrative does not lie on the surface of his story any more than the explanation of Jesus' parables, riddles, miracles, and symbolic acts did for his disciples as he walked among them. Just as Jesus discloses who he is by way of parables and riddles, whether in his teachings or actions, so Mark writes in parables and riddles, all with the intention that his readers who have ears to hear and eyes to see should respond without impaired speech to answer correctly Jesus' question, which though first addressed to those who heard him in the flesh, now cries out from the literary page with the same effect: "Who do you say I am?" (Mark 8:29)2
With these observations in tow, I'd like to take a look at but one example of Mark's implicit Divine Christology in the so-called Markan prologue.

Divine Christology in the Markan Prologue (Mark 1:1-13)

 Before turning to Mark's prologue (Mark 1:1-13), it would be helpful to discuss briefly the nature and function of prologue's found in the canonical Gospels. As J.M. Gibbs noted long ago, the prologue's function is threefold--(1) The prologue functions as a précis of the remainder of the gospel, and thus, it includes a guide to the structure of the gospel.  (2) It provides the setting or frame of reference in terms of which the whole of each gospel is to be understood.  (3) It is also, so to speak, a table of contents which indicates, either explicitly or implicitly, the major themes and motifs of each gospel.3

In other words, the reader of Mark's Gospel should have his/her collective reading antennas in tune when reading the prologue, as Mark will unfold many of his main themes here in the first thirteen verses that will recapitulate in the remainder of the narrative. For example, let's take a look at the conflated citation in Mark 1:2-3, "As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way(τὴν ὁδόν σου); the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way(ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν) of the Lord (κυρίου), make his paths straight, (ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ)...'"  

The conflated citation consists of Exodus 23:20a; Mal 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. Mark 1:2a cites almost verbatim Exodus 23:20a (LXX), "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you.." where God promises to send an angel ahead of the Israelites in the wilderness, and Mark 1:2b, "...who will prepare your way" reflects the text of Mal 3:1, with the significant change that "your way" is rendered "my way" referring to YHWH in both the Hebrew and Greek OT. In Malachi, the messenger is identified with Elijah elsewhere (Mal 4:6). This messenger in Mark prepares the reader for the appearance of John the Baptist (1:4-9), who is unmistakably linked to Elijah, even down to the details of his prophetic garb (cf. 1:6; cf. Zech 13:4; 2 Kgs 1:8). Returning to the point made above, the change from "my way" to "your way" (Mal 3:1; cf. Mark 1:2b), referring to YHWH in the former sense, leaves Jesus/God as the only possible referents to the second person personal singular pronoun in the latter sense. Once again, Mark writes with such subtlety that only those who have ears to hear will understand (Mark 4:9,23). The last citation, Isa 40:3 in Mark 1:3, also includes a subtle, yet significant shift in referent. Isa 40:3 (LXX) reads "A voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God (τοῦ θεοῦ ἡμῶν)." The citation in Mark 1:3 is verbatim until we get to the end, where "the paths of our God" becomes "his paths." Once more, the only referents that the third personal singular pronoun can be are Jesus/God. This Markan adjustment once more places YHWH and Jesus within the same Divine identification. It is important to note that Mark is not making sharp distinctions between YHWH and Jesus, but is rather including Jesus within the Divine identity. This also holds true for the referent κύριος in the above citation. As Johansson states:

"Instead of attempting to solve the ambiguity, we should let it stay, κύριος refers to both God and Jesus and, consequently, links Jesus to the God of Israel." 4

One more item of note regarding the above discussion, the language of "the way" in the composite quotation attributed to Isaiah is programmatic for Mark's Gospel. Malbon puts it this way:

In addition, "the way" (a part of both the Mal 3:1 and the Isa 40:3 references) turns out be a theologically charged location for the Markan Jesus, as repeatedly reported by the narrator in 8:22-10:52. The suggestion that Jesus is Lord is not explicit, but it fits with the Markan rhetoric of juxtaposition.5

If the Markan prologue hints at the Divine identification of Jesus at the beginning of his proclamation of the good news (1:1) shouldn't the reader expect more implicit, subtle references throughout the rest of Mark's narrative? Mark's enigmatic style should not be confused with an absence of such an identification, rather, it is the reader that needs to bring their collective reading/hearing to his narrative. Mark is not John, so let Mark be Mark.

1 Timothy Geddert, "The Implied YHWH Christology of Mark's Gospel," Bulletin for Biblical Research 25.3; (2015); 325-340; here 325.

 Ardel B. Caneday, "He Wrote in Parables and Riddles: Mark's Gospel as Literary Reproduction of Jesus' Teaching Methods," Didaskalia 10.2 (1999); 35-67; here 42.

J.M. Gibbs, "Mk 1,1-15, Mt 1,1-4,16, Lk 1,1-4,30, Jn 1,1-51: the Gospel prologues and their function" in Studia evangelica, (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1973), 154-188. 

4 Daniel Johansson, "Kyrios in the Gospel of Mark" Journal for the Study of the New Testament 33.1, (September 2010): 101-124; here 105.

5 Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, Mark's Jesus: Characterization as Narrative Christology (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2009), 71; (italics mine).

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Enigmatic Nature of Mark's Gospel: Vincent Taylor and the Quote of the Day

Vincent Taylor (1887-1968)
Vincent Taylor, the great British Methodist biblical scholar, was perhaps best known for his work on Mark's Gospel as his magisterial commentary, The Gospel According to St. Mark is still a standard bearer for engagement with the Greek text to this day.

I was beginning to read  David Garland's A Theology of Mark's Gospel: Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God last evening when I came upon a quote from Taylor's in Garland's Author's Preface (25-26), which discusses the enigmatic nature of Mark's Gospel.

In an article, "Unsolved New Testament Problems: The Messianic Secret in Mark," ExpTim 59 (1948): 151; Taylor writes:

We ask who He is and He gives us no answer. Enigmatic as in the days of His flesh, He is enigmatic still to the questing mind. But He so works in history and life that, after He has left us "in suspense," we come to know of a surety who He is. He makes Himself known in His deeds, in the breaking of bread, in the Cross, in prayer and worship. He is what He does. His secret cannot be read; it must be found. (Cited in Garland; 25; emphasis mine)

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Abraham Lincoln's Remarkable Letter to the American Baptist Home Mission Society

Page 1 of Lincoln's letter to Rev. Dr. Ide, Hon. J.R. Doolittle & Hon. A. Hubbell
Perhaps the greatest legacy that Abraham Lincoln, the most famous figure in American history. along with being considered its greatest President, was his ability as a writer.  Lincoln scholar, Douglas Wilson notes:
Page 2 of Lincoln's letter to Rev. Dr. Ide, Hon. J.R. Doolittle & Hon. A. Hubbell
"To approach Lincoln's presidency from the aspect of his writing  is to come to grips with the degree to which his pen, to alter the proverb, became his sword, arguably his most powerful presidential weapon."(Wilson; Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words; 8). 
Fred Kaplan, in his book, Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, remarks, "The novelist William Dean Howell's claim about his friend Mark Twain, that he was the 'Lincoln of our literature,' can effectively be rephrased with the focus on our sixteenth president: Lincoln was the Twain of our politics" (1).

Given Lincoln's reputation as a writer, one might ask what role did the Bible play in his letters?

One great example of Lincoln's use of Scripture is in a letter dated, May 30, 1864. The letter, spanning 2 pages is reproduced here from the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. I will transcribe the letter below, but first I will let Lincoln scholar, Joseph Fornieri, in his book, The Language of Liberty, to set the historical context of this letter.

Fornieri writes:

Lincoln's response to a group of Baptist manifests his righteous indignation over pro-slavery theology. While extremely patient and compassionate towards others, Lincoln particularly reserved his most bitter scorn for members of the cultural elite who exploited the Bible to justify slavery and rebellion. In this speech, he appealed to the biblical precepts of Genesis 3:19 and Matthew 7:12 (the Golden Rule) against the proslavery interpretation of the Bible. (804).

Lincoln's letter can be found in the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (CWAL), VII, 368, reads as follows:

Letter to George B. Ide, James R. Doolittle, and A. Hubbell Abraham Lincoln Executive Mansion Washington D.C. May 30, 1864 
Rev. Dr. Ide Hon. J. R. Doolittle & Hon. A. Hubbell Committee 

In response to the preamble and resolutions of the American Baptist Home Mission Society, which you did me the honor to present, I can only thank you for thus adding to the effective and almost unanamous support which the Christian communities are so zealously giving to the country, and to liberty. Indeed it is difficult to conceive how it could be otherwise with any one professing christianity, or even having ordinary perceptions of right and wrong. To read in the Bible, as the word of God himself, that “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,["] and to preach there–from that, “In the sweat of other mans faces shalt thou eat bread,” to my mind can scarcely be reconciled with honest sincerity. When brought to my final reckoning, may I have to answer for robbing no man of his goods; yet more tolerable even this, than for robbing one of himself, and all that was his. When, a year or two ago, those professedly holy men of the South, met in the semblance of prayer and devotion, and, in the name of Him who said “As ye would all men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them” appealed to the christian world to aid them in doing to a whole race of men, as they would have no man do unto themselves, to my thinking, they contemned and insulted God and His church, far more than did Satan when he tempted the Saviour with the Kingdoms of the earth. The devils attempt was no more false, and far less hypocritical. But let me forbear, remembering it is also written “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

In The Language of Liberty (723), Fornieri notes that Lincoln also alludes to the story of Satan's temptation of Jesus in Matthew 4:1-11. Fornieri's analysis is perceptive:

"Lincoln repudiated proslavery theology as sophistry, claiming that it perverted the Bible and was utterly incompatible with a just God..." in this letter, Lincoln "argued that the disingenuousness of proslavery theology was comparable to Satan's exploitation of the Bible to tempt Jesus Christ, as related in Matthew 4:1-11" (723; italics original).

So what did Lincoln's anti-slavery biblical hermeneutic look like? Stay tuned for the next post.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

F.F. Bruce Video

I was notified this morning that a video of F.F. Bruce's Annual Moore College Lecture from 1977 is now posted online thanks to the folks at Moore Theological College. These lectures, originally entitled "Promised Beforehand by the Prophets," were later produced in a volume by Eerdmans entitled The Time is Fulfilled (1978).

As far as I know, this is the first video of Bruce produced online.


Lecture 1: "The Time is Fulfilled"; Sept. 6, 1977:

There are four more lectures in this series, all in audio format. I will update this post should the video become available.

HT: Timothy Knowlton and the F.F. Bruce Facebook Page

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Brief Reminiscences of I. Howard Marshall

My first SBL (Society of Biblical Literature) annual meeting in 2004 (San Antonio, TX) was memorable for a multitude of reasons. I learned more from that meeting about what not to do-- Spending money you don't have, bring home way too many books, try to book the entirety of my days and nights with sessions, meetings, and parties, leaving no time for reflection and rest. In all, I was an exhausted mess by the time the meeting ended.

I. Howard Marshall (1934-2015)
Despite my overzealous scheduling, there was one event in particular that I am grateful I attended. On the evening of Sunday, November 21, 2004, InterVarsity Press held a symposium to celebrate the releases of I. Howard Marshall's New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel, along with Eckhard Schnabel's Early Christian Mission (2 volumes). A panel discussion featured both authors addressing the topic: "The Missionary Context of the New Testament and Early Christianity." Unfortunately, I do not recall much of the discussion, but I do recall bringing Marshall's New Testament Theology, which I had just purchased at the ever-tempting IVP book stalls. Once the symposium ended, I made my way up to the front, standing in line to have my book signed by Marshall. I remember his warm greeting, a smile, followed by a handshake, and him asking me after looking at my name tag, "What are you studying at Ashland Seminary, Matthew?" After a brief discussion, he signed the volume, closed the book, and wished me well.

Despite this brief exchange, which for him had to have happened thousands of times over his long, illustrious career, many of them forgotten about on his end, I am certain, his kindness to a stranger, a young, seminary student, was something I shall never forget.  I was brought back to that particular moment yesterday when I heard the sad news that Ian Howard Marshall passed away one month short of his 82nd birthday after a brief bout with pancreatic cancer. For many, Marshall's influence was felt through his voluminous writings, whether they be from his magisterial Luke commentary (NIGTC), his Pastoral Epistles commentary (ICC), his aforementioned New Testament Theology, or his monographs, which included such gems as Luke: Historian and Theologian, The Origins of New Testament Christology, Aspects of the Atonement, among many, many others. For others, those who had the wonderful privilege of studying under him (Craig Blomberg, Ray Van Neste, Joel B. Green, Darrell Bock, to name a few), Marshall's generosity and humility were hallmarks that his students have emulated.

Over the several other SBL meetings I attended in the intervening years, I would see Marshall at some of the sessions, occasionally browsing the book stalls, but never again did I approach him and speak with him. What I observed during those fleeting moments though was a genuine humility and graciousness in dealing with others. I'll give but one example. I was at a session and I believe one of the speakers was Stephen Finlan, a fine NT scholar in his own right, and I remember looking a mere two rows ahead of me, and the great I. Howard Marshall was jotting down notes, like a young student! I thought to myself, "What a wonderful example!" This wasn't just a one-off, either. Marshall took notes for every other paper in the session! I observed him doing this at other sessions over the years, so I believe this was a regular practice for him. He never stopped being a student despite his immense stature in the evangelical scholarly community.

As for what he wrote in my book that fateful night? "Howard Marshall- 2 Tim 2:15".  The passage in full reads thusly:

"Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth."

If any scholar lived those words, it was I. Howard Marshall (1931-2015). Rest in Peace and Arise in Glory!

Sunday, December 6, 2015

An Interview with Johnson Thomaskutty on Dialogue in the Book of Signs: Part II

Here is the second part of my interview with Johnson Thomaskutty, Dialogue in the Book of Signs. To see part I, click here.

Without further ado, on to the interview!

5. Exchange units within a dialogue are discussed at three different levels in your work. Can you discuss how these function in your reading of a dialogue and perhaps give a brief example of each? (e.g. micro-, meso-, macro-levels) 

As you rightly said, Dialogue in the Book of Signs discusses the phenomena of dialogue at three levels. First, at the micro-level, it discusses the dynamics of the individual utterances of the interlocutors and their interconnection and role, alongside the narrative, within the exchange units. Here, the study looks at how the semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic aspects integrally work together within the exchange units. ‘Exchange’ is a peculiar term I employ throughout the study in order to indicate the independent units of the episode(s). An ‘exchange’ can be identified as: (a) a self-contained unit within an episode; (b) a narrative unit that contains a dialogue either explicitly or implicitly; (c) a narrative unit that decides the plot structure; and (d) a unit of its own characteristics, i.e., setting, dramatic framework, literary unity, rhetorical features, and development. Second, at the meso-level, the current project analyzes how the exchange units work in relation to one another and how they together form the episodes. Third, at the macro-level, it describes the holistic features of the dialogue in John 1:19-12:50. At this level, the entire Book of Signs is considered as a ‘single literary whole’ communicated by the author/narrator to the reader. In all three levels, the narrator-and-reader dialogue is analyzed alongside the character dialogues. Thus, a triadic-layered structure is established in order to decipher the dialogue foundation. For example, our multidimensional analysis of John 4:1-42 enables us to classify the dialogues into different categories. An important feature of the narrative is its use of explicit and implicit dialogues. In 4:1-42, a five-tier exchange develops within the narrative framework (i.e., vv. 7-26, 27, 28-30, 31-38, and 39-42). At the outset, vv. 1–6 frames a narrative setting for the entire episode. There are two explicit dialogues within the episode: (a) between Jesus and the Samaritan woman (vv. 7–26); and (b) between Jesus and the disciples (vv. 31–38). While exchange one (vv. 7–26) and exchange four (vv. 31–38) are mostly composed out of character utterances and dialogues, exchanges two (the disciples’ dialogue at the background, v. 27), three (the rear-of-stage dialogue, vv. 28–30), and five (vv. 39–42; cf. Dodd, 1960: 315) show narrator’s abbreviating tendencies. By incorporating both the explicit and implicit dialogues, the episode as a whole is dynamically coordinated and aligned by the narrator. In sum, the exchanges together form the episode (4:1-42) and the episodes together form the Book of Signs as a macro-level dialogue.

6. John 9 is rich with dialogue occurring at various levels. What is the payoff in your approach in analyzing this chapter?

Yes, John 9 is rich with dialogue occurring at various levels. If we consider 9:1-10:21 as a single unit, 9:1-41 has to be considered as a dialogue-driven section. The first exchange (9:1–7) has a sign- and work-centered dialogue progression. On the one hand, it shows features of a question-and-answer interaction, and yet again it keeps the form of a challenge-and-riposte. Within the overall framework of the exchange, the dialogue leads to a sign performance of Jesus. In the second exchange (9:8–12) the dialogue progresses from the sphere of a community to the level of a group and an individual. Other aspects such as dual-layered development, question-and-answer format, and forensic aspects are also features of the exchange. The third exchange (9:13–17) maintains elements of a false assertion and a subsequent question of perplexity and a question-and-answer dialogue. In this exchange, a reader can observe the way a dialogue functions within another dialogue. In the fourth exchange (9:18–23) the narrator uses elements of a question-and-answer dialogue and that contains a sequence of a forensic question, a knowing-and-unknowing contrast and a response of escape. In the fifth exchange (9:24–34) a juridical and antithetical progression of dialogue is in the view. The sixth exchange (9:35–38) has a belief-invitation, belief-willingness, revelation, belief-confession, and belief-actualization sequence with tenets of a flashback-centric and revelatory dialogue. And the seventh exchange (9:39–41) shows antithetical and ironical natures of the characters through their very utterances. But the seven-tier dialogue of 9:1-41 is incomplete without the succeeding monologue (10:1-18) and the community dialogue (10:19-21). The episode (9:1-10:21) maintains all the features of a U-shaped plot. While Jesus’ sign performance (9:1–7) and its declaration by a minority group (10:21) are at the heightened positions, the trial of the man (and also of Jesus) and the discourse of Jesus are at the lowered position. This sequence helps the story to maintain a beginning-middle-ending order. At the extended level, John 9:1-10:21 has to be considered as a dramatic dialogue leading to a monologue and a community dialogue.

7. What impact do you hope your monograph makes upon Johannine studies? 

That is indeed another significant question. The current monograph may contribute in the ongoing study of the Gospel of John the following way. First, in the field of dialogue studies: the work reveals that John’s Gospel exemplifies dialogue as a literary genre not simply in the isolated pieces (as we usually look at, i.e., Nicodemus event in chapter 3 and the Samaritan woman event in chapter 4) but in the overall framework of the gospel. While the intradiegetic dialogue reveals the dialogue of the characters among themselves, the metadiegetic dialogue functions as a connecting link between the narrator and the reader. In that sense, John as a literary masterpiece is composed primarily out of the utterances (dialogues and monologues) and the narratives. Within the narrative framework, the intradiegetic dialogue functions both explicitly and implicitly. This understanding may help a Johannine reader to read and understand the entire gospel from an exchange/episode/narrative framework and from dramatic angles. Second, in the field of interdisciplinary approaches: the present study attempts to suggest a new way forward with the help of a polyvalent analysis. It makes use of different approaches (i.e., genre, narrative, rhetorical, dramatic, reader response, and the like), different layers (i.e., micro-, meso-, and macro-), and aspects (i.e., content, form, and function), that better qualify it to be called a multidimensional analysis. It further helps the reader/interpreter to look at the text from multivalent angles in order to see myriad possibilities of meanings. Third, the potentiality of the text and the involvement of the reader: the study reveals that the text itself is potential, powerful, and rhetorical to create a world of its own before the contemporary reader. The semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic layers of the Johannine text guide the contemporary reader to create meaning in a dynamic relationship with the internal textual constructs like the narrator, narratee, implied author, and implied reader. Moreover, the study guides the contemporary reader to be engaged in verbal exchanges with the characters of the story. In that sense, a contemporary reader can consider the text itself as a dialogue partner. Thus, the study encourages the readers and interpreters of John to expound the text with the help of polyvalent methods. It also informs them the contribution of the dialogue toward the narrative development of the gospel.

8. Can you discuss other projects with which you are currently engaged?

Right now I am engaged in writing a monograph entitled Didymus Judas Thomas: New Testament, Apocrypha, and Historical Traditions. Prof. James H. Charlesworth of Princeton Theological Seminary is the main motivation behind this work. In June 2013, I spent a profitable time with him to discuss the Thomas project at École Biblique Jerusalem. The whole trip was sponsored by Foundation on Judaism and Christian Origins. I thank the GRI program of The Center for Missiological Research (CMR) at Fuller Theological Seminary, California, for providing a grant for the writing project right now. Upon the completion of the project, I may begin working on another monograph with a title A Polyvalent Analysis of Dialogue in John 13-21 for Brill. I would like to thank Prof. Paul N. Anderson of George Fox University for the encouragement toward this. He was one of the key figures who encouraged me to publish my doctoral dissertation under Brill. As the editor in chief of the Biblical Interpretation Series, Prof. Paul guided me all through the revision/editing processes. Also, I have another project in my list entitled Gospel according to John: A Commentary for India Commentary on the New Testament (ICNT) Series. Thank you, Matthew, for these significant questions.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Vincent Taylor: Reflections on Commentary Writing

Vincent Taylor (1887-1968), was a preeminent New Testament scholar of his time, serving the bulk of his career as Ferens Professor of New Testament at Wesley College, Headingley, Leeds from 1930-1958. He wrote famous monographs such as Jesus and His Sacrifice: A Study of the Passion Sayings (1937) and The Atonement in New Testament Teaching (1940). As well known as these works were, however, Taylor was probably best known for his magnum opus The Gospel According to St. Mark (MacMillan) published in 1952. Taylor's commentary, although dated, is still considered one of the most valuable commentaries on the Second Gospel to this day, due to Taylor's handling of the Greek text. His approach is now widely used in many commentary series; one thinks of Eerdmans New International Greek Testament Commentary series as well as Harper Collins/Zondervan's World Biblical Commentary series.

I am always interested in the approach a scholar takes when writing a commentary. Many would opine that it is the least creative writing that there is, but to call it artless is a stretch too far. All of the tools that a scholar acquires in his training is challenged by the genre. I was excited therefore to see Taylor's comments in the Preface (v-ix), about what he hoped to achieve. Here are his thoughts on the monumental task of writing a commentary:

I hasten to say that in this work I have no thought of attempting to write a definitve commentary. I am content rather to report progress and perhaps to stimulate others to essay the task. It is not by one commentary, but by a series, that we are most  likely to make real progress. And, for the encouragement of others, I may say that there is no task so rewarding. When we write monographs on such questions as the Parables, the Kingdom of God, or the Son of Man, we read everything germane to such inquiries, but other subjects, which do not make the same appeal, have perforce to be passed by. In writing a commentary this method is not possible. Every theme that arises must be followed, and every line of inquiry into which it opens. The commentator is compelled to be cathollic in his sympathies, international in his outlook, hospitable in his interests (vi; italics mine).
Although the reflections may be more than 60 years old, the same holds true for the commentator today. To boil it down, the commentator, using every tool in their exegetical holster, must still follow the text, allowing it to dictate where the writer goes.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

J. Ramsey Michaels on Evangelicalism: Quote of the Day

One of the finest books I have been in the process of reading now for some time, I (Still )Believe, (Zondervan) coedited by a mentor and friend, John Byron, is full of wonderful stories of some of the most prominent Biblical scholars in the world today. One of the contributors, J. Ramsey Michaels, has over the years, also become a mentor and friend to me as well. It was with great anticipation that I read Ramsey's essay, "Four Cords and an Anchor" (173-185), where he describes in some detail his journey through the four cords of his faith, namely, Roman Catholicism, Fundamentalism, Anabaptism, and Calvinism.

Anyone who has had the pleasure of reading Ramsey, whether it is his magisterial commentary on John (NICNT) or his works on Flannery O'Connor, knows of his unique ability to simultaneously wax poetic and pinpoint the issue at hand, with a beauty and clarity that few writers possess. In this regard, Ramsey resembles one of his heroes, Amos Niven Wilder.

A great example of these traits is on display when Ramsey recounts his 25 years at Gordon-Conwell Seminary and his status as an "evangelical." At this stage in the essay, Michaels reflects on the perplexing nature of that description:

In many ways evangelicals are a strange breed, exemplifying to an extreme the principle of 'no creed but the Bible.'  Whether the buzzword is infallibility or inerrancy, the Bible is all that unites them.  Their common belief in an infallible Scripture seems to produce no other beliefs in common, other than the basic elements of the gospel--Christ's death and resurrection--that define Christianity. It is as if the Bible teaches nothing in particular other than the gospel. They are low church--or else high church, Calvinistic--or Arminian. They practice believer's baptism--or infant baptism. They believe God created the world in six days--or millions of years. They ordain women--or not. They speak in tongues--or not. Self-styled evangelicals can be found on both sides of virtually every theological, ecclesiastical and ethical issue that matters. Moreover, they regard this as one of their strengths, a testimony to their 'diversity' or 'openess.'
How is this possible? By the magic of 'hermeneutics.' I may confess my faith in an inerrent Bible, but what really counts is how I read it and interpret it. Something is wrong when our common agreement that the Bible is 'infallible' or even 'without error' produces agreement on vitually nothing else. If that is the case, what good is it? If  'evangelical'  means simply Christian, or even just Protestant, is it not redundant? (177-78; italics mine).
As one can see in the above quote, Michaels expresses well what a slippery, inadequate label "evangelical" is while simultaneously exposing the ironic nature of the entire enterprise, wisely noting that our interpretive traditions often play the largest role in how we read the Bible.

As a side note, I am happily reading the reflections of some of my favorite scholars  (Fee, Lincoln, Michaels, Hagner, McKnight, etc...) in this wonderful book. This has been one of my favorite books of 2015 and I recommend purchasing a copy here.

Monday, November 30, 2015

An Interview with Johnson Thomaskutty on Dialogue in the Book of Signs: Part I

Recently, I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Johnson Thomaskutty, Assistant Professor of New Testament and Editor of UBS Journal at the Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India, on his recently published dissertation, Dialogue in the Book of Signs: A Polyvalent Analysis of John 1:19-12:50 (Brill).  Currently, Johnson is serving as a Global Research Institute scholar at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Johnson's Dialogue in the Book of Signs is methodologically sophisticated and will be a volume that  Johannine specialists will need to consult for further work in this section of John's Gospel. I have split the interview into two parts, with the second part due to appear later this week.

On to part one of  the interview:

 1. First, can you talk a bit about your experience under the supervision of Prof. Jan G. van der Watt at Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, Netherlands?

I appreciate that question. My Doktorvater Prof. Dr. Jan G. van der Watt deserves great appreciation for his continuous effort in shaping my thoughts and painstakingly going through my dissertation manuscript several times. As a distinguished Johannine scholar, he insightfully molded my academic pursuit with an international outlook. I will remain thankful to him forever. The following things are my observations and experiences with regard to Jan van der Watt: first, he is, on the one hand, one of the friendliest professors I have ever met, and, on the other hand, one of the most analytical and thoroughly experienced scholars not only in the Gospel of John but also in New Testament studies as a whole, Literary Criticism, and Jewish and Greco-Roman rhetoric; second, in our conversations, I was always the beginner of the dialogue and then he, with much creativity and articulation, attuned my thinking patterns toward the expected goal; third, when it comes to the academic standards, there is no compromise on his way. He inspires his students to work at the higher levels by making involved in reading books from his own personal library and also by enabling them to brainstorm multiple layers around the topic; fourth, he gives special exposures to his students by taking them along to other Dutch (and even German) universities and by connecting them with other renowned scholars in the field. I remember that he assigned Prof. Jacobus (Kobus) Kok of the University of Pretoria as my co-promoter, connected me with the Philosophy Department of Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen to discuss the philosophical side of my topic, took me to Utrecht University to discuss the narratorial aspects, and sent me to Leuven University in Belgium to discuss the topic with Prof. Gilbert van Belle; and fifth, we had conversations on the topic mostly in his office. We also had intellectual exchanges through e-mails, at De Refter (university cafeteria), and in some of the restaurants in Nijmegen. Prof. Jan was a great motivation for me to develop the skills of scientific biblical analysis, dialoguing with the biblical texts, originality in thinking, arguing for and against the existing views and propositions, and the best use of interdisciplinary approaches to the biblical texts. Above all, he is one of my distinguished friends.

2. What led up to your exploration of the genre of dialogue in the Fourth Gospel, particularly in the so-called “Book of Signs” (1:19-12:50)?

In my observation, the dialogue of the Gospel of John remained as one of the most significant literary genres without much scholarly attention. The Book of Signs [1:19-12:50] in the gospel is comprised of several dialogue texts. This large block of the gospel is a major dialogue portion in the New Testament connected to the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Our analysis of the Johannine scholarship on dialogue reveals a few gaps. They either lack breadth (only looking at a few dialogues or a certain aspect of dialogue), or depth (only providing a cursory analysis of some dialogues), or both. The following are the four major gaps we identify in the previous scholarship on Johannine dialogue: first, in most of the cases the dialogues are looked at from a diachronic point of view; second, the dialogues of John are mostly analyzed in relation to other aspects or without exclusive focus on them; third, a good number of studies are incomprehensive as the authors treat the texts with wider gaps in between; and fourth, the two major aspects of the dialogue (i.e., character level and narrator-and-reader level) are not treated proportionately by the authors. I felt that filling these gaps requires necessary attempts from the Johannine interpreters so that the dialogue of the Gospel of John may receive adequate attention. Moreover, some important concerns such as treatment of both the explicit and implicit dialogues, consideration of dialogue as a significant genre within the narrative framework of the gospel, a dialogue-centric interpretation of the gospel rather than the habitual practices of narrative-centric interpretations, and the exploration of the contribution of dialogues to the narrative framework of the gospel are brought to the centre of the current discussion. In that sense, the present monograph is an attempt to illuminate dialogue as the most significant literary genre of the gospel by means of a multidimensional and comprehensive analysis. Of course, my original plan was looking at the entire gospel from this perspective. Due to the broadness of the topic and the difficulty in confining the study of the whole gospel within a doctoral dissertation, I changed my plan (in consultation with Prof. Jan) to discuss it within the first twelve chapters of the gospel.

3.How does studying ancient dialogue inform a nuanced reading of the Fourth Gospel?

Dialogue, as a literary genre, was widely in use even before and during the composition of the Gospel of John. As our study follows the synchronic methods, the details in it are intended not to state that John had influences from his predecessors or contemporaries but rather to make all aware of the extensive use of a literary genre that was made use by the Fourth Evangelist. A brief survey of the Sumero-Babylonian, Egyptian, Canaanite, Greek, and Roman religious traditions serves to confirm that dialogue and interactions among the deities themselves and between the pantheon and the human world were part and parcel of the affairs of the ancient world. This pattern of dialogue helps us to understand the dialogues of John between Jesus and the Father, Jesus as the one ‘from above’ and Jews as those ‘from below,’ and Jesus as one who is the ‘word became flesh’ and the rest of the humanity. The philosophical traditions, as in the case of the religious traditions, provide us clues for understanding the existent patterns of dialogue before John. In John, as in the case of Platonic dialogues, it is difficult to distinguish between the voices of Jesus, the protagonist, and John, the author/narrator. As Aristotle identifies ‘conversations with Socrates’ as a literary genre, in John ‘conversations with Jesus’ can be identified as a literary category. While dialogue as a broad category appears in their writings, the philosophers employed that genre at different levels and for different purposes. Similarly, John uses dialogue at a different level and for fulfilling his own literary and theological purposes. Though John employs dialogue as a significant category in his writing, his dialogue has to be treated on its own terms. Furthermore, the Johannine dialogues show striking similarities with the dialogues of the Old Testament. As in the case of the Old Testament dialogues, the Johannine dialogues maintain an “inner-negotiation” and “outer-confrontation” pattern. In the monograph, I discuss these aspects in the introductory chapter so that the readers may get a better grasp of the literary genre used by the Johannine narrator.

4. How does a synchronic reading of dialogue in the Book of Signs better inform the reader?

The primary focus of the diachronic approaches was not on the dialogues/discourses themselves but on their history and sources. Johannine dialogues were discussed in relation to their environs. The aspects like speech units in relation to one another and their interaction within the narrative framework of the gospel were not adequately dealt with. Moreover, the episodic development, dramatic flow, plot structure, and characterization of the dialogues were scarcely looked at. Diachronic studies mostly define the literary phenomenon rather than describing it. At that critical juncture, a study of Johannine dialogue that would illuminate its function within the present text (i.e., by means of synchronic methods) remained as a serious concern. Dialogue in the Book of Signs uses insights from genre, narrative, rhetorical, dramatic, and reader response methods in order to analyze the dialogue texts of John. It helps further to use description and clarification and analytic and synthetic methods to understand the overall nature and function of dialogue in the Book of Signs. The study is an attempt to implement a polyvalent analysis as an overarching approach to pull things together in understanding the overall content and rhetorical thrust of dialogue in John 1-12. This analysis contributes to the advancement of a thoroughgoing interpretation of the dialogue. When we analyze the dialogue texts from a genre critical point of view, we also make use of a polyvalent approach, as an overarching method, to ponder the literary aspects of the Book of Signs. The combined function of the genre components such as content, form, and function are analyzed to determine the nature of the dialogue.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Stephen Fowl and the Virtue of Charity in Interpretation

Stephen E. Fowl, Professor of Theology, Loyola College, Maryland, is known best for his work on Paul (see his Ephesians, Philippians commentaries) and his work in Theological Interpretation of Scripture (see here) has an insightful essay on the latter in the Festschrift for Andrew Lincoln, Conception, Reception, and the Spirit, entitled, "Historical Criticism, Theological Interpretation and the Ends of the Christian Life" (173-186). Fowl does not offer specific methodologies on how theological interpretation should be carried out, but rather points the way forward with an eye towards the future of the enterprise, namely, matters of self-definition.

I'd like to focus on one particularly helpful section of Fowl's essay in this post. He notes:
When theological interpretation of Scripture was trying to get a foothold in the academy there was a good deal of overheated rhetoric from both theological interpreters and historical critics about either the necessity of or the bankrupt nature of historical criticism. I think the time is right to reflect on these relationships in less fevered tones. (178)
After Fowl argues that theological interpretation should employ various interpretive practices, including the various methods of historical criticism (182), he remains reluctant to provide a descriptive account of what theological interpretation should look like. Instead, Fowl takes a prescriptive posture towards the practice of theological interpretation, particularly as it pertains on the interaction with those with whom we disagree. Fowl writes:
Rather than pursuing a method, however, to keep all of the various interpretive interests of biblical scholars in some sort of proper order, theological interpreters would be better served by working to cultivate a set of interpretive virtues which will help them make wise judgments about how to keep theological concerns primary in their interpretive work (182; emphasis mine). 
Fowl recognizes that there is a multiplicity of virtues a theological interpreter should strive to cultivate, but insists that the most important are charity and prudence. My focus is on the former, because what Fowl states here, I believe, has ramifications for all sorts of discourse (political, religious, personal, etc.) and exemplifies Jesus' command of loving one's neighbor (Mark 12:31).

Fowl states:

Charity in interpretation is always directed towards maximizing agreement between interpreters. The point of this is not to reduce disagreement because disagreements are bad and upsetting. Rather charity assumes that if interpreters read each other's works in ways that maximize their agreements, then both the nature and the scope of their disagreements will be clearer and more capable of resolution. Such charity is particularly important when dealing with interpreters and interpretations that come from times, places, and cultures far different from our own. When we seek to maximize the agreements between ourselves and such interpreters we diminish the temptation simply to reduce those interpreters to inferior versions of ourselves who can be easily dismissed. In this respect, when historical critics emphasize how it the temporal and cultural 'strangeness' of the Bible, they are emphasizing a necessary, but not sufficient, aspect of interpretive charity. They see the importance of undertsanding intepreters and interpretations on their own terms (183; emphasis mine).
Fowl takes the notion of interpretive charity a step further when he states:
...the charitable interpreter will want to present alternative interpreters and interpretations in the most positive light possible. This might require going above and beyond the work done by those who hold alternative views; this may involve doing more for one's argumentative opponents than they did for themselves. (183).
In case Fowl could be accused of an artificial attitude of interpretive humility, he goes on to state:

It does not require one to support weak or erroneous interpretations in favor of keeping interpretive peace. There is no reason for charitable interpreters to shy away from disagreement or argument. Indeed, this seide of the eschaton, Christians can expect disagreement and debate will mark all their engagements with Scripture. In such a situation, charity is that virtue that will give us the best chance of resolving are disputes well (183; emphasis mine). 
We would do well to follow Fowl's lead. I believe he has his finger on the pulse of something hugely significant. I, for one, tire of the ad hominem attacks that pervade much of the scholarly, social, political discourse one sees on a regular basis. We have lost sight of the mantra, "Disagree without being disagreeable." Fowl has provided an important insight on how our discourse should take place in the scholarly community, and I argue, his point transcends this very community and gets to the heart of Jesus' command to love one's neighbor.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

C.F.D. Moule on the Historical Jesus

Recently, I was reading C.F.D. Moule's article, "The Christ of Experience and the Christ of History;" Theology 81 (1978); 164-172, when I came across this beautiful quote from a section of the article where Moule argues in part that the worshipped Christ "is continuous with a fully historical figure" (170).

Moule states:
Besides Paul, there are the Gospels, representing, at their latest, collections including very early traditions about Jesus. A good deal is thus known about the character of Jesus. Of course the Gospels present us not with photographs but with portraits, and portraits conceived with varying degrees of freedom; they are all interpretations, not slavish chronicles. Each is different; each is more or less impressionistic. And there are those who deny that any clear-cut, consistent impression of a single sitter emerges through the portraits. But-although I would be among the first to agree that he is much too big to be characterized simply, and that any hope of portraying him may have to be through a succession of paradoxical, partly conflicting impressionsyet it seems to me that certain features do constantly recur. We know Jesus as a man with inflexible singlemindedness and a determination as resilient and hard as steel, and yet with a heart of extreme tenderness and feminine sensitivity; an artist of intense poetic directness, capable of grasping and presenting shattering truths pictorially with a few deft strokes of his brush; and, above all, one who took God with absolute seriousness, so that, wherever Jesus was, there was God's sovereignty, releasing men and women from their fantasies and neuroses and letting them stand free and upright as children of God. Where God is obeyed as intensively as Jesus obeyed him, where God is treated as axiomatic, there things happen which do not happen normally (170-171).

Friday, October 16, 2015

Murray Harris' Advice for Learning Greek

One approach I have used in the past to improve my facility in reading Greek was to dedicate myself to memorization of key passages and or complete letters, i.e. my start and stop relationship with memorizing Philippians.

I was delighted to read a brief interview with the great exegete, Murray Harris regarding his latest offering on John in the Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament. When asked what study habits he has found most useful in his decades of research and study Murray states:

 As for the study habit that has proved most helpful in my academic career, it is this. There is no better way to become proficient in Greek, to gain a “feel” for the language, and to become enriched by the theology of the New Testament than the regular memorization of the Greek text. Paste a photocopy of verses or sections of the text on to cards and carefully reflect on it as you go about your daily exercise. 

This statement had provided me with a fresh impetus to try my hand at this once again. After all, if someone the stature of Murray Harris has found this practice helpful, who am I to argue?

For more on this volume and interview, click here.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Sir Edwyn Hoskyns and the Quote of the Day

Sir Edwyn Clement Hoskyns, 13th Baronet and priest of the Church of England, is perhaps known best for his classic commentary, The Fourth Gospel, which was subsequently completed by his student, Francis Noel Davey, due to Hoskyns untimely death. To give one a measure of Hoskyns as a scholar, the great Charles Kingsley Barrett considered him a main influence in his own scholarly career.

In reading the Introduction, "The Problem of the Fourth Gospel"(17-20), Hoskyns discusses the anonymity of the authorship of the Fourth Gospel and states:

"...the author has done his best, apparently with intention, to cover up his tracks. For his theme is not his own workshop, but the workshop of God, and to this we have no direct access! Where the author's personal ideas and reminiscences? Where is his personal experience? No doubt they are there; no doubt, indeed, there is nothing else there but what he thought and what he experienced, but he does not intend us to bury ourselves with him as though he himself were himself the goal of our inquiry. He has, in fact, so burnt himself out of his book that we cannot be certain that we have anywhere located him as a clear, intelligible figure in history. At the end of our inquiry he remains no more than a voice bearing witness to the glory of God. So anonymous is his book, so intentionally anonymous, that there is in it, apart from the shy little 'I suppose' of the last verse, no 'ego' except the 'Ego' of Jesus, the Son of God. The author of the book has effaced himself, or, rather, has been decreased and sacrificed, in order that the Truth may be made known and in order that the Eternal Life which is in God may be declared." (18-19).

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Gordon McConville on the OT and Human Flourishing

Just wanted to pass along a short video that I found interesting. J. Gordon McConville, Professor of Old Testament Theology at the University of Gloucestershire, has some compelling things to say about human flourishing in the OT in this brief interview.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Studying Isaiah with John Oswalt

John Oswalt, Visting Distinguished Professor of Old Testament at Asbury Seminary, best known for his work in Isaiah, particularly his two-volume commentary set in the NICOT series, has a series of  videos on Isaiah as well as Exodus through the Francis Asbury Society. Click here to access the channel on Vimeo.

Jack Lundbom's Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount

Jack R. Lundbom, best known for his magisterial work on Jeremiah, including a 3 volume commentary in the Yale University Press series and a recent stand-alone commentary on Deuteronomy for Eerdmans, has turned his keen interpretive eye towards perhaps the most famous section of the Gospels, Matthew's Sermon on the Mount teaching material (chs. 5-7). The volume, Jesus' Sermon on the Mount: Mandating a Better Righteousness is a recent release by Fortress Press

Here are the particulars:

The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is the best-known repository of the teachings of Jesus and one of the most studied. Amid the considerable erudition expended on the Sermon, however, Jack R. Lundbom argues that it has proven too easy to deflect or disregard the main thrust of the Sermon, which he characterizes as a mandate to holy living and a “greater righteousness.” Through careful attention to the structure of Matthew’s Gospel and the place of the Sermon within it, keen sensitivity to the patterns and themes of Israelite prophecy, and judicious comparisons with other Jewish and rabbinic literature, Lundbom elucidates the meaning of the Sermon and its continuity with Israel’s prophetic heritage as well as the best of Jewish teaching. By deft appeal to Christian commentators on the Sermon, Lundbom brings its most important themes to life for the contemporary reader, seeking always to understand what the “greater righteousness” to which the Sermon summons might mean for us today.
For more info including chapter samples click here .