Saturday, February 26, 2011

Jesus or the evangelist?

As we've been working through the the Fourth Gospel in one of my seminars, one interesting "seam" that I can see between maybe what was originally the words of Jesus and the works of a later author and/or redactor is the switching between singular to plural verbs at points when it doesn't seem to make sense. For instance, John 3 begins with Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night, at which point they discuss the issues of being born again (or above? another topic which I wanted to blog about later). The chapter begins with Jesus and Nicodemus talking back and forth (all singular verbs mostly, though I guess the "we know" of v.2 is an exception) from vv. 1-6. At verse 7, Jesus says: "do not marvel that I said to you (singular), it is necessary for you (plural) to be born from above/again." And again at verse 11: "Amen amen I say to you (sg.) that what we know, we speak and what we have seen, we bear witness, and you (pl.) have not received our testimony." Then it goes further with various uses of plural verbs to make his point.

While it may be possible to say that Nicodemus did not come alone (hence, the "we know" of 3:2) so that's why Jesus could address the "you" as plural, it still doesn't make sense that Jesus all of a sudden begins to say "what we know" or "what we have seen", etc. In my view, it seems that there is something of a blurring (accidental or intentional is another issue that I would like to study further) of lines between what Jesus has spoken and what the evangelist now wants to convey as a collective witness to the truth in their contemporary period. Another interesting aspect can be seen when we bring in some ancient translations of the GJohn, for instance the NT Peshitta. In John 9:4, again Jesus uses the plural and says: "we must work the works of the one who sent me." The Syriac says: (apologies if the font doesn't show, I'm using a font called 'Serto Jerusalem' which is supposed to be unicode but I'm not sure how it functions really in blog posts):

ܠܺܝ ܘܳܠܶܐ ܠܡܶܥܒ݁ܰܕ݂ ܥܒ݂ܳܕ݂ܶܐ ܕ݁ܡܰܢ ܕ݁ܫܰܕ݁ܪܰܢܝ

It can be translated as something like, "to me it is necessary to work the work of/from the one who sent me." For the Syriac translators, they found it necessary to flatten the plural statements into singular. I thought they would be compelled to do likewise in John 3, but in the examples above, the Syriac also has the switching of singular to plural forms (darn these inconsistencies!). Nevertheless, I think in some ways the translators into Syriac may have felt uncomfortable just as we do in our close readings of the text with the awkwardness of the whole singular to plural and back to singular forms of verbs/nouns in Jesus' discourses.

Is this an indication of the work of the evangelist? I'm not sure at this point, but I'm going to look into the Syriac some more to see if there's evidences elsewhere of flattening them all into singular verbs/nouns.

No such thing as "bad" publicity?

Recently, there's been some talks in the blogging world regarding the Christians' response to certain "bad" books, quotes, etc., that essentially give those very people a voice and a venue to be heard. Some have said we need to just calm down (here), another has elaborated on this issue in an article for Christianity Today, and another wonders if Christians are overly contentious and that we just love a good fight whenever we can find (or create!?) one. Just at the heels of a series of these types of blog posts and articles, I saw this post from another widely-followed blogger who comments about yet another forthcoming book, basically labeling it as heresy.

Now, don't get me wrong, I wouldn't be as naive or dishonest to think that anything and everything goes in the realm of Christianity (because I don't), but I wonder if all of this just goes to prove the old adage: there is no such thing as bad publicity.

With hundreds (maybe thousands?) of people reading these blog posts slamming this or that book or author, I wonder if it just makes people want to read them even more than had we just flat-out ignored them?

Friday, February 25, 2011


Even though my main interest is in the New Testament and I spend most of my time reading books, journals, monographs, etc., about NT studies, I also enjoy reading biographies throughout the year to give my brain a break. In 2011, I've finished one on WWII, a short (saw the longer version and got intimidated... will probably read it later) one on Jonathan Edwards, and currently reading two others: one on Bonhoeffer and one on George Whitefield. George Whitefield has always interested me to some degree and reports of him preaching to thousands in open-air preaching without amplified sound piqued my skepticism as well as curiosity in what really happened in his life. Dallimore's two-volume biography has been pretty good so far, and I like how he includes excerpts from Whitefield's own writings. In one particular sermon, titled Cursing and Swearing, Whitefield writes (and preached):

"What shall we say to the unhappy men who think it not only allowable, but fashionable and polite to take the name of God in vain; who imagine that swearing makes them look big among their companions, and really think it an honour to abound in it. Alas! Little do they know that such behaviour argues the greatest foolhardiness and degeneracy of mind.
...Men dare not revile a general at the head of an army. And is the Almighty God, the great Jehovah, the everlasting King, who can consume them with the breath of His nostrils, and frown them into hell in an instant; is He, I say, the only contemptible being, that may be provoked without fear and offended without punishment?
No! Though God bear long, He will not bear always!..."

I suppose in some ways, Whitefield was ahead of his time, as it is virtually ubiquitous that you'll hear on a given day: "Oh my God!" or "Jesus Christ!" or the more modern adaptation, "Jesus H. Christ!"

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Are we free?

In our Pauline theology seminar, one issue we discussed is the notion of "freedom" and how Western, post-Enlightenment, judicial ideas of "freedom" have severely crippled the way we can properly understand what Paul was talking about with regard to freedom in Romans. What Dr. Campbell has been stressing to us in class is that true "freedom" as designed by God is not that we get to do what we want, choose what we want, etc., but rather true freedom for humanity is their proper responding to God's benevolent acts, especially as experienced through Jesus Christ. A week or two ago, he assigned to us a reading out this book by Richard Bauckham (who is in town to lecture @Duke this Thursday/Friday):

The chapter that was assigned is the second chapter (though after I read this chapter, I've decided to try to read the whole thing sometime in the near future) titled "Freedom in Contemporary Context." There was one particular issue that Bauckham addressed which I thought was thought-provoking.

Under the subheading 'The car as symbol of freedom,' he writes:

"There is no more pervasive symbol of this freedom and its destructive futility than the car. Cars are the modern sacrament of freedom; they symbolize it and promise actually to give it. We can glimpse the kind of freedom they promise in the typical television advertisement: an individual driving through open countryside, mountain ranges, and deserts with the widest possible horizons. Some also navigate nimbly through picturesquely narrow streets. Cars offer individuals the freedom to go wherever they wish, whenever they like, as fast as possible. They give independence, freedom to be entirely one's own master, not dependent on others, not even accompanied by others. They suggest the freedom of escape from any situation and of new opportunities and experiences always to be found along a new road. They give the feeling of control over one's destiny. This is why most car owners cannot imagine living without one. But, as always, this kind of freedom restricts the freedom of others. The more people have cars, the more difficult life becomes for those who cannot afford them or are too old or too young to drive; public transport decays, and shops and community facilities are no longer within walking distances. But the more people have cars, the less the car owners themselves enjoy the freedom they value. Commuters spend highly stressful hours in bumper-to-bumper, slow moving traffic. Motorways become car parks. Roads destroy the countryside the car owner wants the freedom to enjoy at the weekends. Moreover, since car ownership has become common, cities and most aspects of life in cities have developed in such a way that normal life requires constant long journeys. The freedom to travel has incurred the necessity to travel. Against typically of this kind of freedom, cars increase personal independence at the expense of the community. Many a vast residential area is for many residents no more than a place through which they drive on the way from their houses to other destinations.

All this would be true even without the ecological disaster. But we must add that cars are the single largest drain on the earth's resources and major polluters of the environment. Most cars still belong to the affluent West. As they spread inexorably to the rest of the world, the environmental consequences will be dire. What applies to the differential between car owners and others in our society applies to a much greater degree on a world scale. The planet can support the kind of freedom the car gives only for an elite. The more car owners there are, the more the freedom of others suffers. The more car owners there are, the more the quality of their own life suffers. There is no way out of this trap except by reevaluating freedom."

Saturday, February 19, 2011

"Critical" Scholarship?

Brian LePort recently blogged here about critical scholarship and the value of faith-based commitments for many scholars. His questions made me think, if scholars are clamoring for "critical" scholarship, would they also be self-critical? Would they unswervingly commit to a standard of "critical" scholarship outside of their own interests? Is that even possible? For example, in my Synoptics Gospels class, we've been talking at length about NT scholarship's stance on Q and the various "solutions" to the Synoptic Problem. From what I can gather, it seems like there are three main camps (though not divided equally into thirds): (1) Two-Source theory, which is Markan Priority + Q, (2) Griesbach or Two-Gospels theory, which is Matthean Priority with Luke coming second, and Mark conflating the two, and (3) Farrer theory, which is Markan Priority without Q, viz. Matthew following Mark, then Luke using both. One thing that strikes me though is how differently a scholar from a particular camp interprets the data, and how unlikely it is to me that they will ever change their individual conclusions on this issue.

Would a scholar who claims to be "critical," after a decade or two having devoted himself or aligning himself with a particular stance, even be able to self-critically come to a point where he/she would flip-flop on the issue? I suppose for various other issues in NT scholarship, there is a kind of spectrum whereby you can shift your stance somewhat, but in something like the Synoptic problem, that doesn't seem possible. Either Mark was first or Matthew was (or Luke for that matter!), and either Mark conflated Matthew-Luke or he didn't. I don't know that you could find a middle-ground per se on this issue. Seems to me that it is quite possible for scholars to hold tightly to their own conclusions and keep publishing and building on it even if an "objective" (if something like that is even possible) perspective has basically proven it to be false. On some levels, isn't this the same as a faith-commitment that is so often disparaged in academia?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Pride and Fall of Man

The title of this blog post is the title of Barth's CD IV, 1 §60. I should've known that I wasn't going to get away from running into Barth at some point in my career here at Duke, so now I'm head deep in his Church Dogmatics, trying to make sense of his whole theology. Anyway, our reading for this week was from section 60, and in it, he does say some interesting things, so I thought I would leave you tonight with a snippet:

4. The knowledge of Jesus Christ is finally the knowledge of the significance and extent of sin, or in the words of Anselm: quanti ponderis sit peccatum.

Granted that we have before us the reality of sin, its negative character, its truth as the determination of every man and the whole man, of man himself, we still have to ask what it means that from all these different standpoints man is the man of sin. May it not be that even on all these presuppositions his existence can be comprehended and expounded as a phenomenon which is purely relative, which can be estimated, its irregularity being finally explained and its part in the great nexus of God and the world and man understood?

Is it not conceivable that, although we have to correct all the individual errors and weaknesses in the modern Protestant view of sin as we have seen it, yet when we survey the whole we are brought back to the grandiose teaching of Leibniz which underlies it? Wrong is simply the negation of good, that which (like evil and death) is not willed and caused by God, but which since the possibility of it was necessary to man as a free rational creature He had to permit for the sake of the relative imperfection and therefore the perfection of the world distinct from Himself. In its own way, therefore, it is a necessary and in its own place a positively ordered and effective element in the harmony of all existence and therefore of the existence of man. Can we not finally hazard the construction that man can and does sin on the basis of his metaphysical imperfection which is inalienable to him as man and the complement of his relative perfection, but that in so doing as an 'asymptote ofthe Godhead‛ he is engaged in a constant approximation to its removal? Of course, the creature is not God, so that this can only be an approximation, a relative and not an absolute perfection. But as an approximation it does represent the attainment of his relative perfection. Why should not the presuppositions to which we have just come enable us to think and say this or something similar?

If we try to approach this aspect of the problem only in the light of Jesus Christ, we shall be well advised to start from the moment in which we see the element of truth in every form of optimism. From the act of atonement which has taken place in Jesus Christ it is clear that in evil we do not have to do with a reality and power which have escaped the will and ork of God let alone with something that is sovereign and superior in relation to it. Whatever evil is, God is its Lord. We must not push our attempt to take evil seriously to the point of ever coming to think of it as an original and indeed creative counter-deity which posits autonomous and independent facts, competing seriously with the one living God and striving with Him for the mastery. Evil is a form of that nothingness which as such is absolutely subject to God. We cannot legitimately deduce this from a mere contrasting of the idea of evil with the idea of good. But we can say it in the light of the fact that in Jesus Christ, in His death (the meaning of which is shown in His resurrection to be His victory and the liberation of man), we see evil overcome and indeed shattered and destroyed by the omnipotence of the love and wrath of God— and this in such a way that in its supreme aggression, in its most blatant manifestation, it was impressed into the service of God and contrary to its own nature became necessarily an instrument of the divine triumph. Whatever else we may say of its origin and nature, however seriously we have to take it in its significance for ourselves, it is certain that we have no reason to fear that in it we are dealing with a factor which is the complement of God and confronts Him on the same level. Its claim to be this was given the lie once and for all on the cross of Golgotha. But if in relation to God its impotence has been unmasked, then in relation to man and his world as the creation of God it may cause serious concern, but it cannot and must not give rise to any final doubt, to any unrestrained anxiety, to any pessimism, defeatism, hopelessness or despair. Certainly we can say this only with reference to God as the Lord and Creator of His creation and the covenant partner of man. Certainly we can say this only with reference to His grace, whose superiority over sin has been unequivocally demonstrated in Jesus Christ. But in the light of God and His grace which alone is sovereign there can be no absolute fear of evil, as though evil itself were an absolute.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


I tell people, if I can study for the rest of my life and make a living out of it, count me in. However, there's one thing that's a bit cumbersome at times: the number of books that I'm concurrently reading (or perusing, for that matter). The semester just started a few weeks ago, and right now, I have 18 books arranged or stacked in all sorts of Tetris-like ways on my desk. I wish there was some way to have all the books arranged on a desk that is 20 feet wide! Alas, my desk is probably five feet at the most, hence the juggling of books.

Will this ever end? I suppose not, if anything I should expect it to get worse if I eventually make it as a professor. Though maybe I'll have some super nice office that has lots of desk space, with five ten-feet high bookshelves... (Wishful thinking!) Maybe this is why people are buying E-book readers.

How many books are on your desk?

Friday, February 4, 2011


Today marks the 105th (would-be) birthday of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His life is so interesting and the two biographies I own (here and here), have helped me to understand a bit more of who he is (though I haven't finished the second one yet). While the first book has received mixed reviews (For example, see here, here, here, here, and here) However, I still think his biography was well-worth reading, and it was definitely well-written in terms of drawing the reader into the world of Bonhoeffer. Here is an interview from the author of that first biography, Eric Metaxas:

Happy 105th birthday to one of the most interesting men in Christian history!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Luke the skeptic?

For a while, there was a very popular video on YouTube:

I remember watching this video with a bunch of church friends, going back and forth in debate about the feasibility of such a feat. We never came down to one firm conclusion, but I think everyone felt a bit skeptical of such thing. In our Synoptic Gospels class, we've been looking at various pericopae, and one thing that is striking is what's called Luke's "Great Omission," where he basically leaves off his Markan material from Mark 6:45-8:26. Particularly interesting is the first pericope that he leaves out of his own Gospel, Jesus' walking on water (Mark 6:45-52 + pars.). What's striking about this is that even John includes this in his Gospel which, to me, shows the prominence (or popularity?) of this scene in the Gospel sources. Why does Luke leave it out? Again, just like the video, our class didn't come to one satisfactory conclusion, but if you follow the Farrer Theory (as Dr. Goodacre does) or the Two-Source Theory (positing Q and Markan Priority), the absence of this pericope in Luke does a number on you.

What was it about Jesus walking on water that Luke felt compelled to leave out of his own Gospel narrative?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Gospel Communities?

I blogged earlier this week about Richard Bauckham, who, as I suspected was not a big fan of scholars who put much stock in viewing the communities of the Gospels as the limited main audience of the first four books of the NT. This was first confirmed to me by Nick Norelli in a comment he posted on my blog, suggesting that I read The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences, edited by none other than Bauckham himself. It just so happened that a chapter of it was assigned for class anyway, titled "For Whom Were the Gospels Written?" by Bauckham, and in it, Bauckham makes some pretty strong arguments against reading too much into the Gospel communities being the only audience in a limited, specific way. Here's one paragraph that I thought was very good:

[This is following his paragraph about the debate on the genre of the Gospels]

"However, the full force of the difference of genre will come home to us only if we add a second consideration. We need to ask, about both an apostolic letter and a Gospel, the question: Why should anyone write it?—by which I mean: Why should anyone put this down in writing? In the case of 1 Corinthians, for example, the answer is clear: Paul could not or preferred not to visit Corinth. Paul seems only to have written anything when distance required him to communicate in writing what he would otherwise have spoken orally to one of his churches. It was distance that required writing, whereas orality sufficed for presence. So the more Gospels scholarship envisages the Gospels in terms approximating to a Pauline letter, addressing the specific situation of one community, the more odd it seems that the evangelist is supposed to be writing for the community in which he lives. An evangelist writing his Gospel is like Paul writing 1 Corinthians while permanently resident in Corinth. Paul did not do this, so why should Matthew or the other evangelists have done so? Anyone who wrote a Gospel must have had the opportunity of teaching his community orally. Indeed, most Gospels scholars assume that he frequently did so. He could retell and reinterpret the community's Gospel traditions so as to address his community's situation by means of them in this oral context. Why should he go to the considerable trouble of writing a Gospel for a community to which he was regularly preaching? Indeed, why should he go to such trouble to freeze in writing his response to a specific local situation which was liable to change and to which he could respond much more flexibly and therefore appropriately in oral preaching?

This was a very persuasive argument to me, and since this is only one chapter of the book, I'm hoping to delve further into this issue as the semester goes on.