Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Why Was Jesus Born in a Stable?

Every year, around Christmas time, we hear a lot about the fact that Jesus was "born in a manger." There are even songs about it! 
However, it is important to point out--as I often do to my students, since it's one of my pet peeves--that Jesus was not born in a manger.  According to the Gospel of Luke, he was "laid in a manger"--i.e., a feeding trough for animals--"because there was no place for them in the inn" (Luke 2:7).  This suggests that he was born someplace where animals were housed--probably some kind of stable.
Why is this detail significant? First of all, it points up the utter poverty in which Jesus came into the world. But Saint Jerome gives an even deeper reflection (one which I've never heard from the pulpit). According to Jerome, although it would have been fitting for Christ to come into the Holy of Holies in the Temple, he came into this world in a stinking stable, for us:
"Christ found no room in the Holy of Holies that shone with gold, precious stones, pure silk and silver. He is not born in the midst of gold and riches, but in the midst of dung, in a stable where our sins were filthier than the dung. He is born on a dunghill in order to lift up those who come from it: 'From the dunghill he lifts up the poor' (Ps 113:7)" (Jerome, On the Nativity of the Lord, ACCSNT 3:39).
Leave it to Jerome to get right to the point and never mince words.
Gloria in altissimis Deo!
Merry Christmas, everyone.

The Meaning of Jesus' Swaddling Clothes

Given that's it's Christmas Eve, I thought I'd post something relating to the high holy day. Here I want to focus on a line most people know from Luke's account of Jesus' birth--the reference to his swaddling clothes.

The phrase come from the angel's announcement of Jesus' birth to the shepherds in the field. Let's look at in its full context:
"The angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; 11 for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:11-12). 
The significance of Jesus' swaddling clothes is often overlooked. But notice that the angel specifically explains that the fact that Jesus will be found in swaddling clothes will be part of the "sign" to them of his true identity as the Savior (Luke 2:12). Why is that?

To fully understand the importance of Jesus' swaddling clothes we need a little background.

In Luke's Gospel it is abundantly clear that Jesus is the "Messiah," which means the "anointed one", in Greek the christos--he is the Christ, the Son of David. Of course, the Davidic association with Jesus' role is obvious if you know the Old Testament. In recounting his last words, 2 Samuel 23 calls David, "the anointed of the God of Jacob, the sweet psalmist of Israel" (2 Sam 23:1).

Jesus' role as the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of David, is emphasized throughout the beginning of Luke's Gospel. At the annunciation, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that her son
"... will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end" (Luke 1:32-33).
Later, Zechariah proclaims that the Lord "has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David" (Luke 1:69).

The Davidic themes continue in the story of Jesus' birth. He is born in Bethlehem, the city David had come from (cf. 1 Sam 16). In fact, Luke makes the Davidic association
with Bethlehem explicit. "And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David" (Luke 2:4).

As mentioned above, the angels also allude to Jesus' role as the Son of David in their announcement to the shepherds: "
for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:11).

So what's the significance of Jesus' appearance? Why is it a sign that the royal son of David is born in such a humble setting rather than into extravagance?

I would submit that it is because Solomon, the first son of David, was also known for such humility (until, of course, he turned away from the Lord). In Wisdom of Solomon 7, Solomon recounts how asked not for wealth or power, but only Wisdom. The son of David goes on to describe how, even though he is the greatest of all the kings of the earth, he was born like all others:
And when I was born, I began to breathe the common air, and fell upon the kindred earth, and my first sound was a cry, like that of all. 4 I was nursed with care in swaddling cloths. 5 For no king has had a different beginning of existence; 6 there is for all mankind one entrance into life, and a common departure. 7 Therefore I prayed, and understanding was given me; I called upon God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me. 8 I preferred her to scepters and thrones, and I accounted wealth as nothing in comparison with her. 9 Neither did I liken to her any priceless gem, because all gold is but a little sand in her sight, and silver will be accounted as clay before her. 10 I loved her more than health and beauty, and I chose to have her rather than light...
Jesus' humble birth is a sign that he really is the true Son of David. Like Solomon (before he fell away from the Lord), he is not about power, might or glory. Indeed, it would seem that along these lines the fact that he has even more humble birth might suggest that he is somehow even more worthy of glory. And, of course, he too is wrapped in swaddling clothes.

The Son of David, the Messiah is born. Glory to God!

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Eugenics Vision of Planned Parenthood's Founder

Since becoming a father this year--watching my son's growth on multiple ultrasounds, being present in the operating room where he was delivered, and spending everyday with my wife learning to love him even more--I've come to a profoundly strong realization of the evil of abortion. Here's a shocking video on the founder of Planned Parenthood--the largest abortion provider in America-- everyone should watch. I've heard these things about Sanger before, but I had not heard it in her very own words! This is horrifying. Of course, she is still hailed as a hero by Planned Parenthood today, which is quite telling if you ask me.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Archaeological Find of the New Century?


This is a story I've been closely following for some time now, but have held off posting on out of caution. However, it seems as though the evidence is beginning to look pretty solid. In sum, an archaeological dig at Khirbet Qeiyafa, which was reported on a few months ago by the New York Times, is turning out finds that are rocking the scholarly community. And, while at the time, the New York Times reported that only a small piece of the site had been excavated, information is pouring out that even more striking evidence has been uncovered.

This may very well go down as the "21st century Dead Sea Scrolls". However, while the DSS helped illuminate the New Testament,
Khirbet Qeiyafa is shedding incredible light on a much, much earlier period, apparently corroborating the historicity of the Old Testament.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me give some background here.

Many scholars dispute the historical reliability of the Old Testament, particularly the parts prior to Ezra and Nehemiah: e.g., David, Solomon, the kingdom, etc. Why?

According to many scholars the stories about the glorious reign of David and Solomon are myths--of little more value than the stories about King Arthur and the Roundtable. All of it was made up. When Israel returned from their Babylonian exile the past history of Israel was "invented". In fact, for some historians there never even were twelve tribes in Israel. The Israelites "idealized" their past. The story of the apostasy of Solomon and the sinfulness of the Israelites were created for two purposes. First, it gave the Jews a claim on the land. Second, it gave the Jews a reason to remain obedient to the priestly leaders.

In sum, the Old Testament narratives about David, Solomon--not too mention that of Abraham and the Patriarchs--were nothing more than political propoganda. Some scholars believed Israelite writing didn't even exist at that point.

Perhaps, such scholars might concede, there were some tribal leagues and small villages, but a kingdom of David? Such scholars--often called "minimalists"--would laugh and say, no way.

Until now.

Evidence at Khirbet Qeiyafa suggests that in fact there was a massive political force in the land of Israel in the 10th century. Aside from artifacts, and pottery, writing has even been found, shattering just about everything many scholars thought they knew about the development and spread of literacy. Carbon-14 dating is really making this a discovery hard to dismiss as significant. Here is the homepage of the excavation team, where you will find some photos.

The discovery involves the excavation of what apparently was a heavily fortified structure. Though some think it may be the fortress of David himself, I think we're far beyond the ability to make any such identification. Much, much more work and examination will need to be done. But even if it can be shown that the site is not an Israelite compound, the evidence is highly suggestive: clearly there was a powerful force in the area that had to be reckoned with by outsiders. Yosef Garfinkel from Hebrew University is leading the dig. The New York Times article quotes him as saying:
“There were 500 people inside. This was the main road to Jerusalem, the key strategic site to protect the kingdom of Jerusalem. If they built a fortification here, it was a real kingdom, pointing to urban cities and a centralized authority in Judah in the 10th century B.C.”
Indeed, the article goes on to explain that the evidence being collected is clearly dissimilar from Philistine culture.

The scholarly world is all a-buzz with the find. Even skeptical scholars--who have staked their reputation on minimalistic claims--are now making some very telling admissions. Apparently, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Much more is coming out, as someone close to the dig explained on Jim West's blog. John Hobbins at the blog Ancient Hebrew Poetry has even called it the "end of minimalism as we've known it". He writes, "
Minimalism will go down in the annals of scholarship as a classic example of over-reach." I think he's absolutely right.

Again, caution is always necessary. I've been sitting on this for 2 months now. However, the evidence is really striking. I think the likelihood that we have here a significant find--one involving a seismic shift--is very high.

In fact, what we are witnessing here to assumptions made in Old Testament scholarship may be quite similiar to what happened in the 20th century in New Testament studies. Many scholars at that time believed the Fourth Gospel, for example, was a late creation--a second century document with no historical value. Then of course a fragment of it was found in Egypt dating to the turn of the second century. As a result, a lot of the books that were hot items in libraries got put back on the shelf. They are collecting dust to this day.

Given that minimalists are now making some key admissions about this find, I think it is safe to say that something similar is going to happen to a lot of the books now being checked-out by students on the history of Israel. But again we'll have to wait and see what else comes out of this discovery.

In the comment box I received the following from
Barnea Levi Selavan, the codirector of the organization behind the excavation, to whom I am very grateful for the following information.

I am Codirector of the Foundation Stone organization. We are developing the Elah Fortress/Qeiyafa site, and are responsible for the excavation of Prof Garfinkel of Hebrew U. I appreciate your words. I invite you to see the promo movie and articles on our website, and must share with you there is even more.

The massive fortified city, the unprecedented 10 ton stones, in the unprecedented second gate of an Iron Age city -which may identify it as Sha'arayim, "Two-Gates", mentioned three times in the Bible in this area, twice related to King David before he became king, which would fit its early dating-the clear destruction layer context, an opportunity to examine the workings of the architecture of the casemate wall and houses(21,400 pieces of pottery pulled from 600 square meters), the absence of pig bones, the seemingly destroyed and reused cultic stone, the location at the gateway between the Judean Foothills and the Philistine Coastal Plain, the consensus of scholars that it the pottery typology is early 10th century, the consensus of all the major Philistine excavators that the pottery "is not a coastal ssmeblage"-Sy Gitin- so it is not Philistine, the early proto-Canaanite Hebrew writing with its implications of how and when this writing spread to the Greeks and others, the interesting words and the potential historical value of its actual text, the range of hi-tech imaging methods used to see the letters not visible to the naked eye, the over 100 jug handles with finger impressions until now found only a couple at a time and not valued as a feature, the short Hellenistic-Ptolemaic period reuse of the fortifications, and their strategic approach to fortifications, the short term use of the city - as there is no remodeling, the carbon-14 dating range of burnt olive pits, the potential revising of the transition or even structure of dating Iron Age I and Iron Age II, the surety of more discoveries because of the layout of the casemate walls, the elephant in the room- the historical implications for the accuracy of events and characters reported in the bible, as the urban society of 300o years ago (dating based on science alone-the pottery typology and carbon-14 dating; the ostracon found in the same destruction layer context in a tightly-controlled provenanced excavation) was using writing, not only oral traditions, and this means a higher degree of accuracy is expected in transmission of acts and events, even if passed down to several hundred years later, even as academics currently claim (contrary to ancient Jewish traditions of literacy accuracy and writing throughout, and when the books were written) .... I may have missed something.

Barnea Levi Selavan
Foundation Stone
There is also a funny clip from Saturday Night Live where the excavation is mentioned--be sure to check it out at their website.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Avery Dulles (1918-2008) on Jesus' Atoning Death

The great American Catholic Cardinal-Theologian, Avery Dulles, S.J., passed away this week. Cardinal Dulles was a prolific writer and thinker. He wrote over 750 academic articles and 25 books. In his last years he suffered greatly with a post-polio syndrome. Yet, he continued to give the McGinley lectures at Fordham, where he had taught for over 20 years--having composed the words himself, he would sit in a wheelchair while someone else read them. In his final lecture he wrote:
Suffering and diminishment are not the greatest of evils but are normal ingredients in life, especially in old age. They are to be accepted as elements of a full human existence. Well into my ninetieth year I have been able to work productively. As I become increasingly paralyzed and unable to speak, I can identify with the many paralytics and mute persons in the Gospels, grateful for the loving and skillful care I receive and for the hope of everlasting life in Christ. If the Lord now calls me to a period of weakness, I know well that his power can be made perfect in infirmity. “Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Dulles was a rarity in many ways. In 2001, John Paul II created him a Cardinal, making him the first American born theologian who was not a Bishop to receive such an honor. When Pope Benedict came to America this year he made a special request to visit Cardinal Dulles (see above).

Upon hearing of his death, Pope Benedict put out the following statement:
Whenever a cardinal dies, the Vatican news always carries word of it. However, this Sunday, in addition to the usual coverage of a cardinal's death, the L'Osservatore Romano will run a piece highlighting his contribution to Theology--something which is unusual for the paper. All this just underscores his unique significance.

One of Dulles' last pieces, "The Church and the Kingdom: A Study of their Relationship in Scripture, Tradition, and Evangelization," appeared in last year's Letter and Spirit, the academic journal put out by the St. Paul Center (purchase here). It is my favorite of his articles.

Of course, there are many others that could be mentioned. For the sake of highlighting at least one, I thought I'd mention his, "The Death of Jesus as Sacrifice," which first appeared in Josephinum Journal of Theology [Vol. 3, No. 2 (Summer/Fall 1996)]. It is now available on-line via the St. Paul Center's website. The article tackles the question of the meaning of Jesus' death. In particular, Dulles argues for a theory of "personalist" approach to "atonement". He takes on other models, such as the theory of "penal substition", i.e., the idea that Jesus' death should be understood in terms of a legal exchange in which Jesus in effect takes the place of sinners. Sinners receive Christ's sonship, Jesus receives the punishment they deserve.

Here's an excerpt:

A personalist framework of thinking calls for a radical transformation of this concept of atonement... In primitive mythological thinking, as I have said, guilt is understood in crassly material or objective terms, and consequently atonement is depicted as the mere substitution of one thing for another, as would be the case when an old tire is replaced by a new one, which will itself eventually be replaced. But in a personalized framework, there is no way in which one person can simply replace another. One person may represent another, but cannot substitute for that other except in a merely functional way. As Dorothee Sölle has brilliantly explained, substitution is the definitive exchange of reified objects, whereas representation is the provisional intervention of persons on behalf of other persons. To retain this distinction, it seems preferable to avoid speaking of "substitutionary atonement" in the case of Jesus Christ. Sölle herself proposes to speak rather of Christ the Representative... Christ's redemptive act, unlike the merely mechanical substitution of the scapegoat, is the loving identification of the innocent sufferer with the guilty on behalf of whom he suffers. However, it cannot be understood in merely moral or psychological terms, as the vocabulary of "loving identification" might seem to imply. Even when personalistically interpreted, "substitution" does not do justice to the reality, since a substitute could not do for us any more than we could do for ourselves. In view of his theandric constitution as incarnate Son of God, Christ is able to do far more for us than any human person could do. He stands before the Father as the representative head of the new, reborn humanity. He is the Second Adam, the progenitor in the order of grace, the firstborn of the dead (1 Cor 15:45; Rom 8:29; Col 1:18). Alone among human beings, he is qualified to remove the guilt of human sin and to communicate divine life.

Because there is no mechanical substitution of one person for another, the representative death of Christ does not automatically remit the guilt of sinners. The merits of Christ are not simply imputed to us by some kind of juridical fiction; rather we are truly and inwardly healed through the infusion of the grace that flows from him. We have to allow ourselves to be taken over by Christ as he stands in for us. This we do by appropriating Christ's action on our behalf through free and personal acts of faith, hope, and loving obedience...

Does the vicarious nature of redemption mean that Jesus is punished in our place? Some authors, indulging in very powerful rhetoric, describe in lurid terms the way in which the wrath of the eternal Father was visited upon the guiltless Son, so that he felt rejected and even hated by God... Some go so far as to suppose that Jesus suffered a loss of faith, fell into despair, and underwent the pains of the damned. His cry on the Cross, "My God, my God, why hast thou abandoned me?" (Matt 27:46 & parallels) is considered to confirm this interpretation.

Against these views, I would insist that Jesus remained at all times the well-beloved Son, living in close communion with the Father through the incomparable grace that flooded his soul. Far from despairing, he continued to trust in the Father, whom he loved. Since the cry from the Cross is a quotation from the first verse of Psalm 22, the interpretation remains somewhat uncertain. It seems probable that Jesus (or the Evangelists who ascribe these words to him) had in mind the whole of the psalm, which Jesus is, so to speak, intoning. As Walter Kasper points out, "According to the practice of the time, saying the opening verse of a psalm implied the whole psalm."20 The Psalm, beginning as a lament, turns into a song of thanksgiving to the God who saves from death:

"I will tell of thy name to my brethren; In the midst of the congregation I will praise thee... All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord.(Ps 22:22, 27; cf. Heb 2:12)."

It would be a mistake, therefore, to interpret the words quoted by Jesus as though he were describing his psychological state of feeling rather than referring to the religious message of the Psalm.

The fact remains, however, that Jesus did suffer terrible afflictions, and did so because it was the Father's will that he should do so. He was abandoned in the sense that God did not come miraculously to his aid, as presumably God could have done. Would it not have been far better, some ask, for the Father simply to forgive the guilt of the human family without exacting any retribution? For all we know, it might have been possible for God to grant this free forgiveness. But would it have been better? How, if he had done so, would the right order have been established? What kind of healing would have been effected? How would we have learned the full gravity of sin? What motivation would we be given for avoiding sin in the future? What consolation would be given to persons burdened with exorbitant and unjust sorrows? All things considered, it appears that God has exercised greater mercy toward us by giving his innocent Son to suffer and die on our behalf than if he had simply canceled out the debt of sin...

The Theories Compared
The advantages of the representational sacrifice theory, and the answers to the objections raised against it, may be clarified by a review of the alternative theories described at the opening of this paper. In some ways the sacrificial interpretation, as I have proposed it, resembles the first theory, that of penal substitution, but the differences are important. Both theories maintain that Jesus suffered terrible ordeals and thereby won for sinners a release from the pains they deserve. But the penal substitution theory makes it appear that God punishes the innocent in place of the guilty, thereby suggesting that God is unjust. The theory of representative headship, by contrast, looks upon Jesus as one who offered satisfaction, rather than endured punishment. These are true alternatives. As Anselm insisted, sin requires either punishment or satisfaction; satisfaction takes the place of punishment... Satisfaction is voluntarily given, whereas punishment must be coercively endured. Satisfaction, unlike punishment, can be offered by the innocent as well as by the guilty.

Punishment, as an act of justice, must be strictly proportioned to the offense, but satisfaction, as a work of love, may be superabundant. According to Thomas Aquinas, Christ "offered to God more than was required to compensate for the sin of all humanity."

Read the whole thing here:

May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Beatitudes and Isaiah 61

In his superfantastic book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict makes the case that the Beatitudes are represent a "sort of veiled interior biography of Jesus" (p. 74). Here are the Beatitudes.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  11 “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men
persecuted the prophets who were before you."
The Pope lists many of the ways the Beatitudes can be seen as fulfilled in the life of Jesus.

"Blessed are the poor"... Jesus is poor, having "no place to lay his head" (Matt 8:20)

"Blessed are the meek"... Jesus says, “Come to me. . . for I am meek and lowly in heart” (Matt 11:28-29)

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God"... Jesus says, “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (John 1:18)

In sum, the Beatitudes point us to Jesus: He is the merciful Son of God, the true peacemaker, who suffers for righteousness sake.

But more than that, there's another way to see this passage as describing the "Messiah". Scholars point out numerous similarities between the Beatitudes and Isaiah 61.

Isaiah 61 begins:

"The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted" (Isa 61:1-2).

A few things can be noted here. The word here for "anointed" is, of course, מָשַׁח, mā∙šǎḥ, or "messiah". That the "anointed" one here was understood by first-century Jews as not only an anointed one, but as the Messiah is clear from the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q521), which uses this passage in connection with a description of the coming of the Messiah.

Also familiar should be the fact that this "messiah" comes "to bring good tidings". The Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament) uses a verb here euangelizō (εὐαγγελίσασθαι). The word is where we get the English, "Evangelist". The noun form of this Greek word is euangelion (εὐαγγέλιον)--and it is translated "Gospel" in the New Testament.

In other words, Isaiah 61 describes a "messiah" who brings the "Gospel".

Right before Matthew 5, which begins with the Beatitudes, Matthew 4 closes by telling us how Jesus went through all Galilee "preaching the gospel of the kingdom" (Matt 4:23).

It is striking then that the Beatitudes closely resemble Isaiah 61:

"Blessed are the poor [πτωχοὶ] in spirit" (Matt 5:3) is echoed in Isaiah 61:1: "The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the poor [πτωχοῖς]".

"Blessed are those who mourn [πενθοῦντες], for they shall be comforted [παρακληθήσονται]" (Matt 5:4) evokes, Isaiah 61:2, "‘to comfort all who mourn’ [παρακαλέσαι πάντας τοὺς πενθοῦντας]"

"Blessed are the meek [poor; πραεῖς] for they shall inherit the land [or 'earth'; κληρονομήσουσιν τὴν γῆν]" (Matt 5:5) mirrors Isaiah 61:2, "‘to preach good news to the poor [Heb. anawim; Grk. πραεῖς]" and Isa 61:7: “in your land you shall possess a double portion”. Of course, the language of "double portion" is closely tied to inheritance in the Old Testament (cf. Duet 21:27).

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied" (Matt 5:6). The word translated "satisfied" is literally "to eat one's fill" (χορτάζομαι; chortazomai; cf. Matt 15:33; John 6:26). Righteousness’ occurs three times in Isaiah 61 (v. 3. 8, 11). Strikingly in Isaiah 61:6: God promises that his people will "eat the wealth of nations".

"Blessed are the pure of heart (οἱ καθαροὶ τῇ καρδίᾳ), for they shall see God" (Matt 5:8) echoes Isaiah 61:2, which explains that the Messiah is sent to "to heal the brokenhearted" (συντετριμμένους τῇ καρδίᾳ).

"Blessed are those that have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (5:10) can be said to mirror the entire point of Isaiah 61--the Messiah is coming to announce that the "good news" that Zion's persecution has ended. The Kingdom is coming.

Finally, "Blessed are you when men revile you… rejoice and be glad (ἀγαλλιᾶσθε) (Matt 5:11-12) has a parallel in the language of Isaiah 61:10: "Let my soul be glad (ἀγαλλιάσθω) in the Lord".

In sum, for first-century Jews Isaiah 61 could be read as describing the coming of the Messiah. The Beatitudes draw heavily on this description of the Messiah and what he would do for God's people--he will make his people a messianic people. Jesus in the Beatitudes then is calling His disciples to be that people by imitating Him. He is the Messiah come to bring the "good news". He calls us to be a truly messianic people.

SITR Ranked One of the Top 50 Biblioblogs

Singing in the Reign has been listed one of the top 50 biblioblogs (and so we get to post this cool little icon!). A biblioblog is a blog that covers Scritpure study, and is usually written by an academic. Many of them are written by world famous scholars, e.g., Mark Goodacre, Scot McKnight, Ben Witherington III.

Singing in the Reign has been ranked as #21, up from #31. It is an honor to be right behind our good friend, the eminent Chris Tilling at #21.

I believe there is only one other blog written by a Roman Catholic on the list put together by N. T. Wrong.


Sunday, December 07, 2008

Neusner on Morton Smith, "Secret Mark", and the Blackballing of Gerhardsson

(Pictured to the right: Jacob Neusner, "the Pope's favorite Rabbi").

On his stimulating blog, A New Testament Student, Josh McManaway talks a little bit about the discussion at the Society of Biblical Literature on "Secret Mark". In short, "Secret Mark" is supposedly a non-canonical version of Mark's Gospel that was "discovered" in a previously unknown letter of Clement of Alexandria. It was "found" by a scholar named Morton Smith.

At the time it was released some people saw the discovery as a major breakthrough. Smith used it to argue that Jesus had been a homosexual magician.

Today scholars have largely come to believe Smith fabricated the entire thing. For one thing, no one but Smith ever even saw the document, which conveniently disappeared. (A systematic and devastating critique of Secret Mark can be found in Stephen Carlson's recent book.)

One scholar who has been forthright about his suspicions about the "find" is one Smith's former students, Jacob Neusner (pictured on the right). Neusner, of course, is one of the world's top rabbinic scholars. Time has called him "the Pope's favorite rabbi" due to the fact that Benedict XVI interacts with him quite a bit in his recent book, Jesus of Nazareth. Neusner has also spoke several times of his high regard for Benedict's scholarship.

But back to Smith...

Neusner writes about Smith in the republished edition Birger Gerhardsson's, Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity [1961; repri., Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1998]. Neusner explains that Smith was not only a master at misrepresenting archaeological "discoveries". While we may never know exactly what Smith discovered (if anything at all). Smith was also excellent at misrepresenting works we actually can go back and read, such as Gerhardsson's.

Previously Neusner had been highly dismissive of Gerhardsson's scholarship. In fact, in the past many scholars rejected Gerhardsson's work. But, as Neusner explains, this was in large part due to the fact that Gerhardsson's arguments were unfairly misrepresented by his critics. Indeed, Neusner explains that Gerhardsson was wrongly blackballed by the academic community. In particular, he singles out Smith as a major culprit in all of this. Neusner's words are about as stinging as they come.

It astonishes me to find people in the field of biblical studies who still are influenced by the inaccurate portrait of Gerhardsson's work. I often direct them to this piece of Neusner's. The words are biting. To be honest, it's a bit uncomfortable to read.

I think Neusner is trying to shock readers back into reading Gerhardsson. When they do, I think Neusner believes people will see how wrongly he was treated and will appreciate the anger he directs toward Smith, who helped ensure he wouldn't get a fair hearing.

Whether that justifies his harsh tone is another matter. Perhaps Neusner is attempting to treat Smith with some of Smith's own medicine. I don't direct people to read this because it's the tone I would take. What it does, however, is underline how passionate Neusner is about exposing the wrongful treatment Gerhardsson received. And that is a sentiment that I certainly share.

The following is taken from Neusner's Foreword.

"[R]eaders [of Gerhardsson's work] missed his careful qualifications, his thoughtful word-choices. In giving the work a negative reading on grounds of an uncritical retrojection of techniques attested only much later on into the age of the Evangelists, I followed the lead of my then-teacher, Morton Smith, with whom I wrote my dissertation just before Gerhardsson's book appeared, and whom I extravagantly admired, but not without solid reason, for his powers of penetrating criticism. To understand Smith's influence we have to identify the particular traits that he cultivated. And to place in perspective Smith's reading of Gerhardsson, we have to take a second look at his principal critic, Morton Smith himself.

Like Arthur Darby Nock, but lacking his perspicacity and cultivation, Smith made his career as a ferocious critic of others. Smith thereby surrounded himself with a protective wall of violent invective; what he wished to hide, and for a while succeeded in hiding, was the intellectual vacuum within. Of his entire legacy one book survives today, quite lacking influence but still a model of argument, and a handful of suggestive but insufficient articles. In all Smith wrote three important contributions to scholarship, one a model of argument and analysis though broadly ignored in the field to which it was devoted, another a pseudo-critical but in fact intellectually slovenly and exploitative monograph, and the third an outright fraud [=the Secret Gospel of Mark]. But in the early 1960's, when Gerhardsson's book became a target of opportunity to demonstrate his capacity to seize the jugular, no one could have known the reality. I took as my model his sharp pen and his analytical wit, not understanding that Smith had no constructive capacities and would never on his own write an honest and important book....

As to the scholarly fraud [=the Secret Gospel of Mark], who speaks of it any more, or imagines that the work pertains to the study of the New Testament at all? I need not remind readers of this reprint of the scandal of Smith's 'sensational discovery' of the Clement fragment, the original of which no one but Smith was permitted to examine. Purporting, in Smith's report, to demonstrate that the historical Jesus was 'really' a homosexual magician, the work has not outlived its perpetrator. In the end many were silenced--who wanted to get sued?--but few were gulled.

Beyond [his] three major scholarly projects--as I said, a self-certified Ph.D. dissertation that no one in the degree-granting university could evaluate, an exemplary work done under the tutelage of a great scholar but lacking all consquence in scholarly discourse, and a forgery and a fraud, beyond occasional articles of uneven quality but occasional brilliance, Smith produced a few potboilers, on the one side, and a corpus of book reviews of a supercilious and misleading character. And one of these--alas!--dismissed and denied a hearing to Memory and Manuscript, as Gerhardsson says with complete justification, 'in a caricuatured and misleading way.' And let me plead guilty to Gerhardsson's indictment: 'This misprepresentation, and Smith's rather simplistic courter-arguments, were repeated, in even more simplified forms, by countless critics.' I was one of these, and I apologize in word and, here, in deed."

--Jacob Neusner, "Foreword," in Birger Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript. Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity with Tradition and Transmission in Early Christianity (1961; repri., Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1998), xxvi-xxvii.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

West Coast Biblical Studies Conference--Jan. 24-25, 2009

January will soon be upon us and that means one of my favorite annual conferences is right around the corner, the West Coast Biblical Studies Conference. This year the conference will be held January 24-25, 2009 at the Riverside Convention Center.

Scott Hahn, Brant Pitre and I will be focusing our talks this year on St. Paul. Specifically, the titlee of the conference is "The Gospel of St. Paul."
I'll post more information below, but let me just say this: if you haven't attended this conference yet, you don't know what you're missing. This is a truly unique event. For one thing, all of the presentations are coordinated with the theme. Each of them actually builds on one another. We all have a very good idea of what the other speakers are going to say. So we can actually go much deeper into our own subject matter, knowing that the audience has already been introduced to key passages and concepts.
It is also unique because of the people who attend. If you ever wondered where all the Catholics are who own marked-up, highlighted Bibles just come and we'll introduce you. And of course we also have a good number of non-Catholics show up each year. Suffice it to say, it's a great crowd and an excellent place to network with other people who are on fire for studying God's Word.
It's an amazing time of prayer, study and fellowship--and it's always one of the highlights of my year.
So what are you waiting for? Sign up today!
Oh, and please help us spread the word. Somehow every year I meet people who, for whatever reason, didn't hear about the event and wished they could have attended.
Read on for more information... and follow the links to sign up!
This January, as the Church continues her year-long celebration of St. Paul the Apostle, the St. Paul Center will co-host the annual West Coast Biblical Studies Conference in Riverside, CA.
Over the course of two Scripture-packed days, from January 24-25, 2009, Center President, Dr. Scott Hahn, along with St. Paul Center fellows Michael Barber and Dr. Brant Pitre, will break open “The Gospel of St. Paul.” Through a series of talks and panel discussions, they’ll help you discover just what made St. Paul such a unique and powerful witness to Christ. They’ll also explore how Paul’s preaching and teaching helped the early Church take shape, and how it impacts the way each of us lives the Catholic faith today.
Talk titles for the conference include:
“From Saul to Paul: Called or Converted?”
“What is the Gospel According to Paul?”
“St. Paul and the Mystery of the Church”
“St. Paul and the Mystery of the Angels”
“Justification: Faith and Works of the Law”
“The Resurrection of the Body”
Along with the teaching, the conference will feature ample time for conversation and fellowship with the speakers and conference participants, making it the perfect way to commemorate the Year of St. Paul.
Registration: To register or to find out more, visit or call 877-526-2151. Register before Friday, November 28, 2008 and you’ll receive a $20.00 Gift Certificate from the Catholic Resource Center. Accommodations: Riverside Marriott Hotel – Call 951-784-8000 for reservations.