September 28, 2012

Report: HTR will not run article on Jesus' wife fragment

Dan Wallace has reported that the Harvard Theological Review will not run Dr. Karen King's article on the Coptic fragment that is being referred to as the "Gospel of Jesus' Wife". It appears that a number of Coptic scholars have found the authenticity of the fragment to be highly questionable. I've withheld comment on this issue so far, choosing to sit back and watch the sensationalism play out. Since we're on the issue, though, I'll say that even if the fragment were judged authentic, it would give us absolutely no credible evidence about the historical Jesus of Nazareth. First, it's a fragment of papyrus containing only fragments of sentences. And without complete sentences, we have no way of knowing just what is being said. The infamous sentence fragment could have said anything, even something like: "Jesus said, 'My wife is the one who does the will of my Father," which wouldn't be all that surprising. Second, the document is alleged to be from about the fourth century, which means that even if we did know how its sentences were finished, it is far enough removed from the time of Jesus that whatever it did say wouldn't weigh heavily in a historical reconstruction of Jesus' life. And none of that matters if it is indeed a forgery, which appears to be the case.

September 27, 2012

Just in case you forgot

In case you forgot that Christianity is "a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles," here's a little gem from Friedrich Nietzsche to jog your memory:
"When we hear the ancient bells growling on Sunday morning we ask ourselves: Is it really possible! this, for a Jew, crucified two thousand years ago, who said he was God's son. The proof of such a claim is lacking. Certainly the Christian religion is an antiquity projected into our times from remote prehistory; and the fact that the claim is believed - whereas one is otherwise so strict in examining pretensions - is perhaps the most ancient piece of this heritage. A god who begets children with a mortal woman; a sage who bids men work no more, have no more courts, but look for the signs of the impending end of the world; a justice that accepts the innocent as a vicarious sacrifice; someone who orders his disciples to drink his blood; prayers for miraculous intervention; sins perpetrated against a god, atoned for by a god; fear of a beyond to which death is the portal; the form of the cross as a symbol in a time that no longer knows the function of the ignominy of the cross--how ghoulishly all this touches, as if from the tomb of a primeval past! Can one believe that such things are still believed" (Human, All Too Human, 113)?
As it is written, "For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe" (1 Corinthians 1:21).

September 21, 2012

Roundup: 2012 British New Testament Conference

I recently attended for the first time the British New Testament Conference (BNTC) held at King's College London. Here are a few brief reflections on the experience.
 
1. One of the main reasons academics attend conferences is to renew old friendships and make new ones. This being my first trip to BNTC, I was engaged in much more of the latter than the former. I was excited to meet quite a few other Ph.D. candidates and hear about their research. It was also good to put a face to many who I've never met but whose books and articles I've read. One highlight was having coffee with N.T. Wright, whose work has been particularly influential on me. Our discussion focused more on the joys and challenges of living in both academic and ecclesiastic worlds.
 
2. On a related note, while BNTC has no confessional requirements, there were many present who are active in the church and see their work as service to the church. Given my own conviction that the divide between church and academy is unhelpful, it was very encouraging to meet not a few who are committed both to rigorous scholarship and love for the church.
 
3. Attendees at many academic conferences commonly hop in and out of seminars to catch individual papers that are of interest to them. BNTC was the first conference I've attended at which participants are encouraged to remain in the same seminar for the duration of the conference. It will be no surprise that I attended the Paul seminar. There were a number of good papers, and having the same group together in each session gave the conversation coherence and allowed opportunity for summary comments on what was learned and on what fruitful work might emerge from the discussion.
 
4. There were four plenary sessions, some of which I found helpful. I particularly appreciated that one of the plenaries was devoted to a panel session on the state and future of British New Testament studies. Not being resident at my University, this conversation helped me to gain some perspective on the discipline of which I'm a part.
 
All in all, I had a very good conference and look forward to future opportunities to attend and participate.

September 5, 2012

A Perfect Translation? Reading Philippians like Wesleyans

I've got a new post up at Seedbed on Paul's self-description as "perfect" in Philippians 3:15. Here's the intro:
The third chapter of Philippians is important to Wesleyans for a variety of reasons, not least because Paul includes himself within a group he calls "perfect" (v. 15). Now that statement is probably surprising enough that you are already flipping through your New Testament to fact check my claim. Let me tell you what you'll find. Unless you have the old King James or the New American Standard Version, you are unlikely to find the word "perfect" in your English translation of Philippians 3:15. It will most likely be rendered along the lines, "Let those of us then who are (spiritually) mature…" The nearest use of perfection language is a few verses earlier in 3:12 where Paul unambiguously insists that he most certainly has not been perfected. But here's the thing: the Greek adjective that is typically rendered "mature" (teleios) in 3:15 has the same root as the verb rendered "perfected" (teleioō) in 3:12. So, in verse 12 Paul declares that he has not been perfected, and in verse 15 he places himself within a group he describes as perfect. Have I got your attention? Let's talk about what's going on in this passage and why I prefer the language of perfection over maturity when translating Philippians 3:15.
Read the rest at Seedbed.

September 4, 2012

The Entertainment Factor: Why So-Called Cable News is Bad for Us All

The way we receive information affects us more than any of us realize. Whether sign language, printed word, or screen-based, the medium through which we get any sort of content shapes our sensibilities and preferences. And with the speed of technological advance, it's difficult to keep up with the way changing media forms affect us. I've had an increasing interest in these sorts of issues in recent years, and just last night I was reminded how important they are.
 
I seldom watch cable news, but yesternight I found myself taking in a program that will remain nameless, though I'll offer the slight clue that my own surname is unfortunately in the name of the show. (You'll understand why I say "unfortunate" if you continue reading.) There they were; three floating heads before me on the screen, their comments undecipherable because each was shouting in order to be heard above the rest. And despite the surprising volume each was embarrassingly able to produce on national television, no one was heard; neither dialogue nor debate was had; and all of us who tuned in wasted approximately two minutes of our lives.
 
I've had an increasing concern over this sort of thing for several years now. But earlier this year I read Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, and he explained everything to me. Postman recognized that different media forms are biased towards particular types of content. For example, as a medium for communication, smoke signals are not biased towards careful, logical, and rational discourse. They are a good medium for the type of communication for which they were intended, but you wouldn't do philosophy or theology through the medium of smoke signals. Alternatively, the printed word is biased toward extended rational discourse and provides a good medium for the exchange of ideas and debate. Amusing Ourselves to Death was primarily about how televised media is biased toward entertainment and how its increase has affected our society, but his conclusions are applicable (and likely magnified) with the variety of screen-based media that surrounds us today. Postman argued that screen-based media (like TV or iPads) is inherently biased in favor of entertainment and against rational discourse. And here's the kicker: the biases of these various media forms shape our sensibilities. So, if we immerse ourselves in books, our own sensibilities and biases will be towards extended rational argument. If we immerse ourselves in screens, then our sensibilities and biases will be towards entertainment. If it's not entertaining, we become bored and uninterested.
 
The attempt to use a particular media form against its natural bias leaves us rather unsatisfied. You can do extended rational discourse on a screen, but the content resists the bias of the media. Postman makes his point by pointing to C-SPAN. It has plenty of extended rational discourse, but it makes for really bad TV, and no one watches it. So, everything that comes at us across a screen is subject to the biases of the medium. Thus, given that all screens are biased towards entertainment, anyone who wants to use screens as a medium has to make it entertaining in order to be successful. The result (and the problem) is this: when you make the move to do entertainment, you sacrifice serious and thoughtful rational engagement. Entertainment is quick and loud and flashy. Serious engagement requires extended attention, thoughtfulness, and careful critical engagement. This is why cable news is so popular. Over the last several decades our society has become increasingly biased towards entertainment due to the increasing proliferation and domination of screen-based media. So, the news folks have gotten into the entertainment business, because that's what everyone wants and that what advertisers will pay for. The so-called news is now flashy and colorful. There is shouting and song. Segments last only a few minutes, which is, of course, plenty of time for a panel to deal seriously and thoroughly with the major issues of the day.
 
Postman argued that all this causes us to lose the ability as a nation to engage in serious talk about serious business. This is what he meant by "amusing ourselves to death." We've surrounded ourselves with screens and subjected ourselves to their bias toward entertainment which has resulted in our sensibilities being conditioned towards entertainment. So, if something is not entertaining, we are bored with it and pay it no attention no matter how important it might be. The result is the degradation of public discourse and eventually the bumfoozling of society as it spins toward its uninformed though fully entertained end.
 
This is why the unnamed cable news show hinted at above would be more properly titled "The Entertainment Factor". That is, after all, what it is - the verbal equivalent of professional wrestling. And there is, of course, spin. But the spinning is not what we expect. We expect political spin, which is certainly there in abundance. But the stronger spin, the more cunning spin, indeed the more dangerous spin, is the entertainment spin. When the most serious issues of the day are spun in order to entertain, then those all-important issues are trivialized, and the result is that we eventually lose our ability to engage is serious talk about serious issues. And the real tragedy, as Postman recognized, is that we don't care. We are entertained; so everything is okay.
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