Archive for the ‘Biblical Studies’ Category

Digital commentary for the 21st C

At the conference I attended in Sydney recently one of the stimulating conversations I enjoyed was around ways to present Bible commentary in a digital medium for non-specialist readers in the 21st C. The Amos – Hypertext Bible Commentary was already beginning to show its age even when it was first published in a stable peer-reviewed edition.

[The pictures and other design elements were planned for a 800×600 screen, and mobile phones were not considered as a delivery system.]

Move forward a decade and responsive design (that will work on both hires screens and on portable devices) seems basic, and indeed one must envisage mobile devices as most likely the hardware of choice for accessing such a work.

This leads to the interesting possibility of packaging the commentaries as apps, and thus potentially breaks the funding barrier. Few people in the developed world or even middle class people elsewhere would balk at spending a couple of dollars for a Bible commentary.

The other interesting idea came from a presentation on visualising biblical studies ideas, and the thought that it would be nice to have a drill down menu that worked a bit like Prezi.

I like the idea, but am having trouble “seeing” how it might work. The Prezi below is my attempt to play with this concept… What advantages, disadvantages, alternatives, possibilities etc. do you see?

Gay Christians and Scripture

In the circles I move in it often seems to be assumed that Gay Christians (at least the ones who do not agree to “settle” for celebacy, nor “recognise” that God “must” be calling them to celebacy – and who consequently support gay marriage) “must” be soft on Scripture.

I have recently been following Allan Hooker’s blog while I never agree with everything anyone says (not even myself) I find much that he writes makes sense, and he seems to care deeply about reading Scripture in faith and not merely “against the grain”. In this he reminds me of some of the Feminist biblical scholars who influenced my Bible reading most a few decades ago.

Whatever your attitude to the questions around Scripture and sexuality I recommend his blog. (His most recent post, as I write this, is on Genesis 11 )

  1. Public Health Warning: Those who prefer to let their knees jerk instead of their minds better avoid it, because it includes phrases like “Queerly Divine”… []

Killing the Bible with kindness

Rhett has a typically sensible and thought provoking post “New” which begins with the strange obsession academia has with “new”, leading in disciplines that deal with a limited corpus of texts and ideas, like biblical studies or theology, to bizzare thesis topics and many silly claims. (Read Rhett’s post!)

From where I stand (often in front of a class of beginning theology students, sometimes Christians studying to be counselors or teachers, even more often in churches or Facebook chatting about this and that) the problem is not so much an obsession with “new”  as one with “simple”.

Fact/FictionChristians are taught from Sunday School upwards a simple approach to a simple Bible. The Bible says it, it is so. This is typified by the habit of citing “verses” to settle arguments.

Relevant Children’s Ministry has a post today also, “Are We Blurring the Lines Between Fact and Fiction When We Teach Children?” This begins with a terrifying statistic

 A recent study says that children who attend church have a harder time distinguishing between what is fact and fiction in life.

The study by Cognitive Science was based on research with 5 & 6 year olds who do and do not attend church.  An example – kids who attend church would be more likely to believe a talking animal they see on television is real.

They go on to ask what seems like a sensible series of questions about whether several of the things we do in children’s ministry risk confounding fact and fiction for these children. Their questions are good ones (and I hope my reply did not seem to suggest that we should not consider them) but I think they miss the more basic point.

The “line” between fact and fiction is already blurred. Thinking about historical biography and good fictional biography of historical personages shows this. Children, and adults too, need to be able to think critically, not merely “know” the line between fact and fiction.

Christians claim the Bible is their source of authority (different Christians give different roles to tradition and contemporary revelation by the Holy Spirit alongside Scripture). Yet few people I meet (who do not have Bible College training) can explain well and sensibly why Paul’s advice that women praying or speaking in church ought to cover their heads/hair (1 Cor 11) does not mean that Christian women today ought to wear hats in church. The answers range from the antinomian: “it’s out of date, that was his culture, it is not ours”, to the weird: “Gal 3:28 means we ought to treat men and women the same” – so men should wear hats also?! Almost none can go on from their explanation to also show how Paul’s teaching in this passage applies today! By one route (temporal snobbery) or another (bash your opponent with a “better” Bible verse) Scripture is denied and therefore devalued.

We need to teach our children, and our adults too, to think critically about Scripture (as well as about other things, don’t get me started) else the Bible will lose what little authority (as more than a tribal totem) it still retains.

[NB this is not my attempt to respond to Rhett’s post, that’s in the comments there. Nor is it my attempt to show you how to approach reading a passage like 1 Cor 11 today, I’m gradually doing that as simply and briefly as I can in monthly articles in the NZ Baptist and at Reading the Bible Faithfully.]

Jim West’s “For the Person in the Pew” commentary project

For several years now Jim West has been posting from time to time about progress with his huge project as he knocks off book after book of his For the Person in the Pew Bible commentary series. This began in 2006 with the ambitious Jeremiah: for the person in the pew, the Pastoral Epistles, Matthew and Micah were finished that same year and the flow continues. In recent months Jim has announced a deal with Logos that will see the series made available in that convenient format. This development needs more pre-orders before it can get off the ground (this is Logos’ clever way of ensuring a profit before they commit to the work of adapting such a large project to their format). Jim has therefore been (uncharacteristically?) indulging in self-promotion as authors without commercial publishers must, and also asking others to help him in this task by posting a notice of his work.

I am happy to do this, and agreed to prepare a notice (less than a formal review but more than a mere puff) of his “Ruth” from the volume Ruth and Lamentations: For the Person in the Pew (Quartz Hill Publishing House, 2007). This task was less easy than I expected. Here is what I wrote:

Preparing even a brief notice (let alone a full review, which this is not) of a commentary written by a friend is a dangerous business. One is more tempted to be either too harsh or too accommodating compared with reviewing the work of some stranger. One error is unfair to the author, the other to the reader.

Reading Jim West’s little commentary on Ruth (in the 2007 volume on Ruth and Lamentations) I found myself applying higher standards than I would use for a stranger’s work of this scale. (I know the quality of Jim’s scholarship and the breadth of his reading, how could he miss out this, or that!) Yet to express such reservations would be unfair to Jim. His work is a very short (some 7,000 words including the text from the ASV) set of notes aimed at “the person in the pew”. By and large it explains what such a reader needs.

As well as the brief explanatory comments this goal is achieved, to a considerable degree, by carefully selected extracts from ISBE articles covering key ideas: marriage in Israel, the Moabites, gleaning, grace in the Bible, and kinsman (go’el). These are likely to be really useful for readers. The selection within the articles of the material to quote has been made with a view to its usefulness for reading this Bible book, so they are more helpful than a copy of ISBE itself would be.

Yet I have two quibbles. The origin, and nature, of these excursuses as extracts from the ISBE is not made clear enough. I don’t think the intent to avoid burdening the reader with cumbersome apparatus is sufficient reason to omit marking quotations clearly and noting their origin. The selection of terms to cover also is open to questioning, why was hesed not included when grace (hen) was, surely hesed is a key motif in Ruth? The first of these quibbles is serious, and because Jim is a friend I find it difficult to draw attention to such a weakness.

The format, Bible text with very short explanations, is popular. The use made by beginning students of the short edition of Matthew Henry or Adam Clarke’s commentary demonstrates the perceived need. I have reservations about the format though. Such short comment risks merely repeating the text in other words without space to explain. More than most authors of this genre, Jim has avoided this danger, indeed he manages deftly to introduce and suggest conclusions about several complex interpretational issues. In the 30 or so pages on Ruth, the issue of the sexual innuendo of chapter 3 provides a good example.

So, based on this small sample, should “the person in the pew” purchase these commentaries? On the positive side they offer a quick, clear explanation that does not seek to avoid or disguise interesting or difficult features of the text. To get the same level of understanding without them would mean more work and/or more expense. On the negative side the comment is very brief, and so inevitably questions many people in the pew will want to ask will be omitted. Yet the Ruth section (and, from a glance not a thorough examination, also Lamentations) offers enough to resource most of the immediate needs of a home group or Bible study.

Living Biblical Scholarship: Teaching Biblical Studies

Jacob L. Wright’s MOOC makes good use of short video interviews with both established scholars and (at least one so far) PhD candidates talking about their research. As a teaching tool such short videos are brilliant.

If we had a database of such video clips available to download and use in teaching it would be a superb resource. Here are three reasons:

  • Firstly since the person speaking is the one doing the research the presentation is not dispassionate but impassioned. Students are often mislead by the style imposed by our turgid academic conventions to believe that Bible scholars are dull and lifeless. Such video dispels that myth.
  • Secondly many of us put up photos and very cut down CVs when we are talking about a particularly influential scholar and their ideas. How much sharper a clip of them presenting a key idea from their work could be.
  • Third students need to be aware that the “results” of biblical scholarship come on a basis of contested evidence and argument. People talking about their own work are bound to present key evidence and arguments as they seek to convince the listener. Bringing scholarship in the most abstract sense alive.

Easy

Such a database would be easy to produce. Some scholars could record their own videos, others would be videoed by friends or by their departments. (The motivation for this “waste” of an hour or so would be the extra exposure of their ideas and the way such presentations could help shape perceptions of the field – once Her Prof Dr X had a video Dr Y (a passionate opponent of X’s reactionary ideas) would need a complementary (though perhaps not entirely complimentary) one ;)

The host would need a simple classification system to enable searching for topics as well as scholars names, but WordPress with a few plugins could handle all that was needed and even build in a few videos already to be found on YouTube as a bonus.

If SBL or the Wabash Centre would sponsor such a project it would be a cheap way to enliven Biblical Studies teaching and promote a research culture among students. I wonder if GERT would be an appropriate group to push the idea?

Please let me know what you think – and tell me what fish hooks I have overlooked!

Tamara Cohn Eskanazi and Aubrey Buster were two of the scholars Jacob Wright interviewed.

Needed reading suggestions

For a course on the Pentateuch that I am preparing I am stuck in two places for good readings to suggest. If you can help me I’d be delighted. I need a chapter-length readings, and ideally at a bit above basic beginner level, yet not too technical.

  1. Biblical narrative technique. Ideally a brief practically focused outline of things like plot, characterisation etc. Yairah Amit’s New Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary entry is too short and so does not quite hit the spot
  2. Purpose of the Pentateuch: was it revolution and/or (re)construction of a community. The idea of this section was to look at how reading the Pentateuch (or one of its possible precursors) might look at various periods. A bit like the last very short chapter in Wenham’s Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Pentateuch. 

Getting Bible Commentaries without a library

A few years back I posted a video showing how to get to the relevant pages of a Bible commentary using Google Books. Since then the video hosting service I used has removed the video, and Google has changed their interface. So, here is a renewed one.

What this means is that any serious Bible student can get at the latest and best biblical studies without a library and from wherever they happen to be.

Commentaries are the lifeblood of serious everyday Bible Study, as they present the results of extensive reading packaged and simplified.

New Criticism

Jonathan Robinson has some as yet unbaked1 thoughts on the hidden presence of children in gospel narratives.

As someone who still remembers being a child (it always surprises me how many people seem to turn off those memories, or at least fail to use them to generate empathy) I like the way he’s thinking. It seems to me he opens up a whole new discipline of biblical criticism. We’ve had Feminist, Womanist, Black, African, Asian… Criticism, how about some serious Child Criticism?

Now, it may be that someone has already published on this, if they have please give me details!

  1. He calls them half-baked, but I think that’s unduly rude []

Social media as staffroom for distance teachers

After thirty years as an onsite teacher, though for the last several years teaching many distance classes, I am now a distance teacher. I used to work from an office at the institution I was teaching in, with the luxury of research and writing days/time at home. This was true whether I was teaching distance classes or onsite ones. Now, however, I am teaching for the Australian College of Ministries (with possible PhD work for Asia Pacific Theological Seminary) but I live and work in the hills between Tauranga and Rotorua, up here there are very few other people around and no other biblical scholars.

When I was an onsite teacher one of the benefits I loved was the help colleagues offered. That wisdom and knowledge is a priceless resource. It is not available face to face over coffee for a distance teacher.

When I ran into a problem in the early stages of planning a course on the Pentateuch I turned to Facebook. I wrote:

I am preparing a course on the Pentateuch/Torah which could be some students first encounter with source criticism. Can anyone suggest good (fairly simple) chapters that introduce this approach in a way accessible to conservative beginning students?

The helpful comments included a wealth of suggestions of possible readings, most of which I had not seen. (Who can keep up with all the textbooks as well as trying to keep some sort of “tabs” on the latest research?)

Reading them suggested a reorientation of the course. The first outline of teaching blocks had looked like this:

 

Sessions

Topic

1

Torah and Covenant: Looks back at what was learned about the Pentateuch in “Introduction to the Old Testament” and also explores the genre covenant.

2

Narrative: looks closer at how Bible stories are told and how narratives work in the Pentateuch.

3

Law: considers genres of law and how they work, also looks at different law collections in the Pentateuch.

4

Genesis: What the first book contains and how it was meant to work.

5

Exodus: Two parts, the narrative of liberation and laws for the freed.

6

Leviticus: Holy living laid out.

7

Numbers:: Laws introduction and hermeneutics

8

Deuteronomy: (re)viewing the law.

9

Theology in the Torah

`10

The Theme of the Pentateuch

 The revised draft looks like this:

 

Sessions

Topic

1

The Pentateuch: revision from “Introduction to the Old Testament” and asking how many books make a Torah.

2

The Books: examines the contents and shapes of the five books.

3

Narrative: looks closer at how Bible stories are told and how narratives work in the Pentateuch, recognising that the whole Pentateuch is a narrative.

4

Israel’s Primary Narrative: The Torah serves as an introduction to the Bible, but especially to a narrative that runs from Genesis to 2 Kings.

5

Covenant: examines the content and shapes of the covenants in the Pentateuch and compares them with ANE treaties.

6

Law: considers genres of law and how they work, also looks at different law collections in the Pentateuch.

7

Origins: asks questions about how the Pentateuch came to be as we have it.

8

The purpose of the Torah: was it revolution and/or (re)construction of a community.

9

Theology of the Torah and the Theme of the Pentateuch: explores answers to the question what is the Torah/Pentateuch “about”.

10

Preaching the Pentateuch: invites consideration of what these ancient texts say to us today.

Which I think is more interesting and an improvement. What I’ll be really interested to see is if the blog post generates even a fraction of the helpful comments and ideas Facebook did.

Brian and Claude asked:: “Are Biblioblogs Dying?” and Are Biblioblogs Dying? Here is a test case. I have linked to both or them, thus attempting to put right one of the things they identify as a problem. Based on my recent experience, and in the light of my Tenth Blogiversary post, you may consider this a challenge :)