Articles By tim

Another must-read


41mJsqaskSL._SX318_BO1,204,203,200_Yesterday I was given two books, both of which I really want to read (neither biblical or theological). Today I read Scott McKnight’s review of Brian Harris’ new book The Big Picture: Building Blocks of a Christian World View (Paternoster, 2015). Brian is a lovely person, an effective pastor, but I have not yet got a copy of his book, Scott McK’s glowing review adds it to my growing list of must-read serious non-fiction that does not relate to biblical studies. He wrote:.

One of the least known and most insightful theologians and Christian leaders I have met is Brian Harris, at Vose Theological Seminary in Perth, Western Australia. He’s not only a delightful person and Christian, not only a President of a seminary, but he established a flourishing church that encompasses far more than the typical come-to-our-church kind of ministry. In short, when Brian speaks, I listen.

41JItDqo5xL._SX279_BO1,204,203,200_517TWMZEEBL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_PS Those who know me will know I mean no disrespect, indeed the opposite by mentioning Brian’s book alongside Pooh and the Philosophers, recognising my affection for the “Great Bear”, Rendering unto Caesar, described by Amazon as “An intimate look into the private and public lives of 50 years of Sri Lankan presidents and prime ministers is provided in this memoir by a long time advisor to Sri Lanka’s highest government officials.” which as well as it’s content is recommended to me by reviewers who praise its self-effacing wit, feeling and concern for people.


How odd of God, or the LORD works in mysterious ways

Photo by Jim Legans, Jr

Photo by Jim Legans, Jr

Offering a course, and preparing the material and then having no students enroll is not an outcome any teacher desires.Add in the bonus that the course was being offered is about 19h and 55mins from home, and the situation seems set to categorise as a disaster. However, that would neglect events around the time when we were waiting on tenterhooks to see if students would enroll. During the waiting the prospect of a series for Swarga (a local Christian TV station) began to be seriously aired. The series will use the material I prepared for the NZ Baptist articles each month in 2014. This is material I am really keen to make more accessible and useful in church contexts. By shrinking our holiday a little and with hasty preparation while Barbara (she has a chock full class) I should be able to record six half hour programs before we leave.

In conversation with the principal and the academic dean today another project has been added for after I return to NZ. I will prepare an enlarged version of the articles with more practical examples and fuller explanations which people here will take and adapt to the local context. This localised English version could also be translated into Sinhala and Tamil. The material would then form a basis for introductory courses in practical hermeneutics for some of the programs here. This too is so exciting.

The LORD does indeed work in mysterious ways, and from time to time enlivens our staid lives with rollercoaster rides.

Reading the Bible Faithfully (as seen on TV?)


book-623163Well this has been a roller-coaster of a 24hr day.

First it seemed that 1 Samuel and the delights of biblical story-telling were so unattractive, or I am, that there might be no students for my class (the journey is worth it though, as Barbara has a big class for her teaching about dealing with adolescents – I guess some human issues are really cross-cultural in this globally franchised world). Then there was the possibility of doing a series for Swarga TV using the Reading the Bible Faithfully material.

That is a possibility that really excites me! Encouraging people to read the Scriptures well, faithfully to the ancient meaning, yet attentive to contemporary application is fun and rewarding. To do it via TV and video with a professional crew, lighting, two cameras etc. is a dream (possibly) coming true! That it seems likely that they would be willing to either let me use the video or to make it accessible online, opens possibilities of it being useful in NZ as well.

So when, this morning under the monsoon rain, it became final that there were no students interested in 1 Samuel, the rest of today was spent preparing the first few sessions. This evening an email came to say that the studio is fully booked while I am in Colombo, but that there is a day free when we are meant to be at the beach. (Enjoying a few days rest before heading home, in a plush resort no less!)

Barbara understands how much this project means to me, so she is willing to curtail our restful time on the beach… so, currently the plan is to spend Mon 21st trying to record 12 sessions of 22 mins each. All before heading south in the middle of the afternoon… Please if you are the praying sort (as they say, but really – as they also say – “there are no atheists in foxholes”, in extremity prayer comes naturally to us all) please ask that somehow this may all work for the best!

Land of the Bible Seminar


IMG_5529Our visit to the Baldwins was a great experience. It’s a small town, off the tourist trails, mainly serving the rural sector. The nearest “attraction” is 26Kms away, and has been there for a very long time – dinosaur footprints. There are very few Christians is this area, yet almost a hundred from several churches met on Friday evening. They shared in praising God till the hired hotel hall almost rocked to the voices. They prayed fervently and joyfully. I think, as we turned first one way then another, we were praying for different parts of the town, perhaps for the different churches represented. It was a lovely example of Christians united in Christ.

It was also a beautiful privilege to be the speaker, translated (since I have none of the local language – being tone deaf has made learning even simple phrases well impossible) and most of the gathering speak little English (except a very few who had worked for Americans during the period of the Viet Nam war when there were US bases here near the border). People seemed interested and excited to learn about the places where Bible stories happened. Real places, real people…

It was also encouraging that almost half returned on Saturday for four more sessions. And even more so, that they were an attentive audience through the long day. The translator did sterling work, and the few who were more bilingual (some local people with good English and some missionaries) helped her out from time to time. Translating is far more exhausting than just speaking!

It was also encouraging to spend a little time with Andrew and Roanna and with Peter and Lynley hearing something of their heartbeat to support the few local Christians, and together to share the good news in a needy world.

The “daughters of Adam” (Women from the Bible #4)


Order66-AoDOther unnoticed women from the early chapters of Genesis include the “daughters of humanity/daughters of the man” in Gen 6:2. This little passage is mysterious and difficult. It is packed with problems..

Starting at the beginning we have to ask who the key characters are:

  • The women are identified as בְּנֹות הָאָדָם but are they Adam’s daughters, daughters of “the human” or daughters of humanity? The use of the definite article suggests not “Adam’s daughters” since names don’t usually take the article.1 Actually since no particular “human” is in view at this point most likely this problem is simple they are daughters of humanity (human girls).
  • But the men are identified as בְנֵי־הָאֱלֹהִים are they sons of the gods or sons of God? Bizarrely, the English translations avoid the obvious answer, and usually render the phrase as “sons of God”. This takes no account of the article. As far as I can see if we are to take this seriously we have a choice of “sons of the God” or “sons of the gods”. Again “the God” is not in focus here, so “sons of the gods” seems the obvious translation. The only problem is (perhaps) theological, since the author(s) of Genesis do not believe in the gods. But this puts theological interpretation in the driving seat.

This gives (an approximate and over literal) rendering as:

“1 When humanity began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them,
2 the sons of the gods saw that they were desirable2 ; and they took women3 for themselves of all that they chose.
3 Then the LORD said, “My spirit shall not abide in humanity forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.”
4 The Nephilim were in the land4 in those days– and also afterward– when the sons of God went in to5 the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, men of renown.
5 The LORD saw that the wickedness of humanity was great in the land, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually… (Gen 6:1-5)

Read like this, it seems to me, many of the difficulties disappear. (The Nephilim are a narrator’s aside and we can, for my purpose here ignore them.) Two main questions remain:

  1. Who are the “sons of the gods”? Are they (minor) gods themselves, powerful (royal) people, or Greek-style demigods?
  2. Why do these liaisons, and or the children they produce, so displeasing to YHWH?6

Cutting a long story short, and to the chase, the most likely understanding seems to me that the “sons of the gods” are royal persons (often claiming quasi-divine status and privilege in the ancient world). The combination of mention of them “taking for themselves women”, who they “go into” and have children, with the mention that they take “from all which they chose” with the suggestion that this is related to the “great  evils” that stimulate the divine wrath (v.6) suggests either rape, coerced sex with the abuse of power (think of David and Bathsheba) or possibly some sort of “first night” custom.

Already, this early in the Genesis story, women are sex objects, and at best the mothers of heroes. Human division has produced classes and ideologies that confer “divine” rights on some and remove the rights of others.

  1. But see Gen 2 where sometimes הָאָדָם is rendered “Adam”. []
  2. The word is the one used for anything “good”, it does not necessarily imply merely beautiful, for which there is a more specialised term. []
  3. Not “married” as NIV since there is nothing here about cultural or familial ceremonies, likewise not “wives” for the same reason. []
  4. The more usual “on the earth” seems unnecessary, this is a narrator’s note breaking the frame, and mentioning that this was during, but not the end of the period when the Nephilim lived in “the land”. []
  5. This is clearly a euphemism for having sex with, a common use of this construction. []
  6. For it seems to me unavoidable that this passage in some way leads to the next, as my inclusion of v.6 above strongly suggests. Only a narrowly source-critical reading allowed people to completely separate this story from the flood that follows. []

Cain’s wife and other Bible “problems”


Between teaching an intensive class to students from a dozen ethnicities and nearly as many countries, and exploring the beautiful scenery in the Cordilleras of North Luzon (photos attached to make you envious) I have been too busy to post properly here (even the women of the Bible series has faltered). So instead perhaps you know someone who is still asking the old chestnut about where Mrs Cain came from?

IMG_4414IMG_3843If you do, if you know someone who is troubled by other “Bible difficulties” please point them to my short article written for the NZ Baptist:

Unpacking Difficult Scripture – Genesis 4: Where did Cain’s wife come from?

The aim is to suggest a better way to approach such “problems” than seeing them as puzzles to “solve”, and reducing Scripture to a sort of jigsaw puzzle to reduce to banal flatness.

Boosting literacy by 1000%

Traces of the 16 and 12 characters of the two Wadi el-Hol inscriptions (Wikipedia)
Traces of the 16 and 12 characters of the two Wadi el-Hol inscriptions (Wikipedia)

Traces of the 16 and 12 characters of the two Wadi el-Hol inscriptions (Wikipedia)

Five years ago I linked to a post by Chris Rollston The Probable Inventors of the First Alphabet:Semites Functioning as rather High Status Personnel in a Component of the Egyptian Apparatus the URL has changed,but the post is really interesting. I still have no desire to differ from Chris’ expert view his “story” is fascinating and largely convincing. Yet I still think he misrepresents the impact of his evidence on the rise of literacy due to the invention of the alphabet. One quote highlights the issue, and in it Rollston highlights some earlier silly claims:

Some have suggested that with the invention of the alphabet, literacy rates rapidly became quite high, with both elites and non-elites writing and reading (note: these two skills are related, but quite different). For example, during the middle of the twentieth century, W.F. Albright stated that “since the forms of the letters are very simple, the 22-letter alphabet could be learned in a day or two by a bright student and in a week or two by the dullest.” And he proceeded to affirm that he did “not doubt for a moment that there were many urchins in various parts of Palestine who could read and write as early as the time of the Judges” (Albright 1960, 123). At the beginning of the twenty-first century, R. Hess made similar statements. For example, regarding ancient Israel, he states that there is “continually increasing evidence for a wide variety of people from all walks of life who could read and write.” In addition, he states that he believes “the whole picture is consistent with a variety of [literate] classes and groups, not merely a few elites” (Hess 2006, passim 342-345).

But the literacy estimates Rollston quotes show that for prealphabetic societies literacy rates were about 1%:

for Egypt, literacy rates are often estimated to be at ca. one-percent or lower, and confined to elites (see Baines and Eyre,1983, 65-96; note that even at Deir el-Medina it is elites that are writing). For Mesopotamia, Larsen believes that one-percent is also a reasonable figure (see Larsen, 1989, 121-148, esp. 134).

Yet for societies using alphabetic scripts the estimates he quotes are between five and fifteen percent:

Rather, the evidence suggests that the vast majority of the population was not literate. Note, for example, that W. Harris (1989, 114, 267, 22) has argued that literacy rates in Attica were probably ca. five percent to ten percent and those in Italy were probably below fifteen percent (note: within this volume [passim], Harris has cogently critiqued those that have proposed high(er) rates of literacy).

Taking, as an approximation, the middle of this range, the move from Cuneiform or Hieroglyphic may have merely increased literacy by a factor of ten, from 1% to 10%. This is an increase in literacy of 1000%, an imporessive achievement.  An increase in literacy levels this dramatic, or even at the lowest level Rollston’s figures suggest (half this increase or a factor of five or 500%), is quite high enough to produce exciting social consequences.

At 1% literacy few rural people would have easy access to someone who was literate, at 10% it is likely that within a few hours walk most would. Thus his own figures suggest that the alphabet would produce a true social revolution. Clearly not producing a modern writing based culture, but nevertheless bringing text and textuality into the realm of experience of ordinary people as well as elites.

Mrs Noah’s Ark (Women from the Bible #2)


Among the women in Scripture we glide over and miss thinking about, what about poor Mrs Noah? Eve gets discussed ad nauseam often asking whether her share of the blame for the first sin is bigger than her mate’s, Cain’s wife gets asked about all the time… But Mrs Noah, another anonymous woman, only named and known for her relationship to her husband. Not even as mother of her sons, who are regularly named as HIS.

Back in Gen 3, when Eve ate the apple (or whatever the anonymous fruit really was) we quickly get told that Adam is right there beside her (Gen 3:6), but when something good happens, and God warns Noah to build the Ark (Gen 6:8-21) we aren’t told if God included Mrs Noah in the instructions. In fact although her boys are mentioned already in v.10, she herself (who bore them and nourished them) is not mentioned till v.18.

Preachers love to embellish the story of the flood. They often imagine Noah’s heroic, or ironic, conversations with the skeptics as he built an enormous gigantic boat miles and miles inland in a desert where “sea” was a word the neighbours hardly understood. Do they ever imagine the work required, most of it probably done by Mrs Noah, with Mrs Shem, Mrs Ham and Mrs Japhet helping out (and they are as unnamed as their mother-in-law) to collect and preserve food for all those people and animals for the half-year long voyage of the NS1 Ark.

Noah and the boys could never have done it without their “other halfs”, yet these hard-working and courageous women don’t get named, in fact their description “your/their woman/women” is in Hebrew just the same as that of the animals “mates”.2

  1. Noah’s Ship. []
  2. e.g. Gen 7:2 uses the same word as Gen 8:18 []

Good Gossip? (Women from the Bible #1)


On Facebook Robyn Mellar-Smith responding to Lindy Jacomb’s guest post at Sacraparental promised to post about a woman from the Bible every day for a week. I doubt I’ll manage that, we are finishing teaching and beginning traveling…

But one of my favourite unsung heroes from the gospels is Anna, after the two old folk have seen the baby Jesus, their responses could hardly be more different.

Simeon gets all poetic and sings a song about being so happy he could die happy, Anna tells all her friends the good news (Luke 2:22-38)

29 Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.
Luke 2:29-32

While dear Anna simply tells all her friends and family the good news….

36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Luke 2:36-38

There is a sermon here, folks :)

PS: How delicious and ironic (at the same time) I had not read Lindy’s post that started the series when I dashed off the note above (I finish teaching the intensive tomorrow and was preaching in college chapel today…) but when I did I discovered she had chosen my friend Anna to mention in her post!

Wise advice for Christians reading Scripture

View across the hills near Baguio - envy us!

As Peter Enns gets towards the end of the journey in his little book he moves beyond the strict topic to some wonderful advice for Christians reading the Bible, and how we should relate to other Christians who perhaps disagree with our interpretation. It is applicable to the global church, so to my current context about to teach to students from a wealth of different cultures none of them mine, but also to the local churches as NZ Baptists move towards an annual assembly with a contentious issue on the floor. For both I pray:

  • Humility on the part of scholars to be sensitive to how others will hear them and on the part of those
    whose preconceptions are being challenged.
  • Love that assumes the best of brothers and sisters in Christ. not that looks for any difference of
    opinion as an excuse to go on the attack.
  • Patience to know that no person or tradition is beyond correction. and therefore no one should jump
    to conclusions about another’s motives.1
  1. Peter Enns. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005, 164 []