Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Should Christians Abandon B.C./A.D.?

I'd like to add my two cents to the interesting discussion by Bob Cargill and Daniel McClellan about whether Christians should abandon the customary "B.C." (Before Christ) and "A.D." (Anno Domini) dating system and adopt the "B.C.E." (Before the Common Era) and "C.E." (Common Era) in widespread use now in the academy.
Anyone who's ever taught or taken a class in biblical studies, much less published a book or article in the field, will have run into this question: Which dating system to use? And why?
With all due respect to Bob and Daniel, I wholeheartedly disagree with the specific proposal that Christians should abandon the B.C./A.D. system for the sake of following "the scientific community." 
The primary reason is that "B.C.E." and "C.E." are vacuous: they don't mean anything. What actually is the "common era"? Can anyone actually tell me what is "common" about the years 1-the present? And what was it that happened "before the common era" so as to make it, well, 'un-common'? 
It seems to mean the terminological shift is nothing but a rather facile attempt to take a dating system which clearly places the Incarnation at the center of human history and secularize it. But the attempt ultimately fails, since whether you use B.C.E/C.E. or B.C./A.D., the Incarnation is still at the center of the system. There's no other identifiable historical event that marks the transition from one age to the other, whatever one concludes about the chronological controversy regarding exact calendar date of Jesus' birth.  
Second, as a Catholic, I actually believe that all human history does revolve around the Incarnation of Christ. While Bob Cargill may be right that the "use of B.C. and A.D." is not "the central identifier of a person as a christian," historically, the confession of faith in the Incarnation stands at the very heart of the Gospel. As 1 Timothy states: "the mystery of our religion" is that "He was manifested in the flesh" (1 Tim 3:16).   If others find this confession of faith in the Incarnation offensive, then it seems to me that the consistent thing to do would be to create entirely different system, a secular system of dating that is based on some other event--rather than cloaking a Christocentric calendar in secular clothes. 
So, until such a system is created and forced upon me, I will happily continue to use B.C. and A.D., as well as other such unfashionable terms like "Old Testament" and "New Testament," and hope that my respect towards people of different faiths will be judged on other grounds. 

P.S. This is, of course, exactly what Bob said members of the Catholic Church would do ;).

As a sidenote, it's also worth pointing out the origin of the linguistic inconsistency in the B.C./A.D. dating system: Have you ever wondered why "B.C." derives from English ("Before Christ") and "A.D." from Latin (Anno Domini)? Pick up an old Catholic Bible, and you'll find no such inconsistency: in bygone days, the designation for the age before Christ was abbreviated "A.M." (Anno Mundi)--that is, "In the Year of the World." In this system, the dating was counted from creation to the Incarnation, following the biblical timeline, in a way similar to orthodox Jewish calendars.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

So Ancient Jerusalem Really Was Important!?

In case you missed it, a massive fortification wall from the early/mid-second millennium B.C. was recently discovered in the City of David, the heart of ancient Jerusalem.

Why is this significant?

Recent decades have seen the rise of the "minimalist" school of ancient Israelite history. Several important scholars have argued that, although the Bible portrays Jerusalem as an important fortress city already from the time of Joshua, in fact it was a relatively small and unimportant site until, say, the reign of Hezekiah.

The full implications of the discovery of this wall will take a while to digest, but this much is clear--it doesn't help the minimalists' case.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Papal Encyclicals on the Bible: Does Anybody Ever Read Them?

Sorry I've been quiet for a while; I'm in the midst of adjusting to my new job at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. A new job means new classes, which means new preps, and new work!
Right now, I'm working up a new course on Biblical Methodology, which has been a ton of fun so far. In it, we are currently doing a close reading of the three papal encyclicals on the Bible.
These are:
1. Pope Leo XIII, 
Encyclical Letter On the Study of Sacred Scripture,
Providentissimus Deus, 1893
2. Pope Benedict XV, 
Encyclical Letter Commemorating the Fifteenth Centenary of the Death of St. Jerome,
Spiritus Paraclitus, 1920
3. Pope Pius XII,
Encyclical Letter Promoting Biblical Studies,
Divino Afflante Spiritu, 1943
As I'm reading through these encyclicals again, I'm struck by what a treasure trove of teaching they are on a whole host of issues: inspiration, inerrancy, interpretation, the literal and spiritual senses of Scripture, the role of the Scripture in the spiritual life and mission of the Church, and on and on. 
But I'm also struck as I look around in secondary literature, both Catholic and Protestant, that no one seems to be actually reading these encyclicals and engaging them. This is an odd situation, one that seems to be peculiar to biblical studies. At least in Catholic circles, no moral theologian worth his or her salt would ever presume to speak about, say, the Church's teaching on contraception without reference to Paul VI's Encyclical Letter Of Human Life, Humanae Vitae (1968). Likewise, Catholic philosophers regularly make their students study John Paul II's Encyclical Letter On the Relationship between Faith and Reason, Fides et Ratio (1998), in close detail. 
By contrast, when it comes to introductions to the Bible, including Catholic ones, authors often precede blissfully along as if no detailed papal teachings on Scripture have ever been penned--or at least they mention them only in passing without any detailed analysis. Why? 
So, here's my questions:
If you are a Catholic, have you read any of the papal encyclicals on the Bible? Why or why not?
And if you are not Catholic--in particular, if you are a Protestant biblical scholar--have you ever read the papal encyclicals on the Bible? If not, why not?

P.S.: If actually you want access to these encyclicals on the Bible, you can find them all online at the Vatican website, or, even more handy, in Dean P. Bechard's excellent book, The Scripture Documents: An Anthology of Official Catholic Teachings (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2002).

Sunday, September 06, 2009

What do Bible scholars really do?

Some readers of this blog are bible scholars themselves, so they don't ponder the headline question of this post.

Others might. I mean, beside teaching and speaking at conferences, what do bible scholars do with all their time? What are the secret "scholarly" things they do that make them "scholars"?

Unfortunately, the answer is not always too exciting. The technical projects on which we often work, intended for other scholars, are frequently esoteric. It can take a while to explain why they are interesting at all.

Case in point: at the upcoming Society of Biblical Literature conference (the big professional meeting for North American bible scholars) in New Orleans, I'll be giving a paper discussing whether the ancient author of Leviticus 25 was copying from Deuteronomy 15 when he wrote.

Why is this interesting at all? It has to do with how the Pentateuch was written, and how the laws of the Bible developed.

I did my dissertation on Leviticus 25, and have spent a lot of time pouring over both that passage and also Deuteronomy 15, which has a different laws about some of the same topics.

I've never seen any close verbal parallels indicating that there was some copying going on, in one or the other direction, like what we see between the synoptic gospels. (Nonetheless, it seems to be a dominant opinion among those who work in Pentateuchal law that most of Leviticus is reworking Deuteronomy. I've never been able to see it myself, but then again, I've always been the odd man out.)

So I'm going to argue there is no "literary dependence" between these passages.

But I could be wrong. If any of our good readers can find a convincing example of copying between Lev 25 and Deut 15, let me know!

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Marriage and the Old Testament Narrative

I've seen the following piece on more than one website run by observant Jews. Since I've seen it in several places without attribution, I assume it is anonymous and public domain, so I reproduce it here. It discusses whether any of the major biblical characters would be good potential husbands from the perspective of traditional, observant Judaism:

"Would we make a Shidduch (marriage match) with anyone from the Torah?"

There's Avrohom Avinu (Abraham):
He seems to be frum but really he's a BT and his father made idols, not our

Yitzchak Avinu (Isaac):
Well his grandfather made idols, there was all that nastiness with Lot and his half brother is an Arab.

Yaakov Avinu (Jacob):
His great-grandfather made idols, his brother went off the derech, his mother comes from a very treyfe family and he wasn't shomer negiah with Rachel Imeinu before they were married and he spent a lot of time with his uncle, who's mammesh a rasha.

Yosef HaTzaddik (Josef):
His mother had an idol once and she died early, plus he's a slave and his brothers don't like him, must be something in that and with all the issues with Avraham Avinu and Yitzchak and Yaakov Avinu...better not to.

Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses):
Oy, what a maaseh!!!! His parents separated, then they got back together, his parents abandoned him, put him in a basket, he was raised by goyim...not our kind for sure. He may be close to HaShem but his background is so problematic we wouldn't want him in our family!

Dovid HaMelech (King David):
Descendants from a Geyoret, not our kind of people. Sure a few generations have gone by but all things being equal shouldn't we look for someone with more Jewish background?

Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon):
See above, and his mother's marriage was very dubious, he is rich though but the Yichus and family background is very tricky.

Shidduch = match (here, a marriage match)
frum = pious (like German “from”)
BT = Ba'al Teshuva; a “revert” to the faith
derech = lit. road; to "go off the derech" is to cease observing one’s faith
treyfe = not "kosher"
shomer negiah = the laws regulating touching between sexes, i.e. PDA
"mammesh a rasha" = bad dude
maaseh = story, tale
goyim = “nations” or “Gentiles; non-Jews
HaShem = the Name, i.e. pious reference to God
geyoret = female convert to Judaism
Yichus = family background, connections

The point is, from a contemporary observant Jewish perspective, many of the biblical characters themselves would be less than desirable marriage matches.

Compare what's going on in this piece with Matthew's genealogy of Christ in Matthew 1, where the apostle calls painful attention to some of the unusual marriages that formed the ancestry of Solomon, the greatest king and one of the most important Messianic types of the Old Testament.

It is worth noting that, contrary to the contention of some, the Old Testament writers tended not to revise the history of Israel in order to whitewash the deeds of the ancestors.