Archive for the ‘Bible: NT’ Category

Fishing on Galilee

Capture

Richard Bauckham (University of St Andrews) gave the 2014 Burns Lectures at the University of Otago. The podcast MP3 or MP41 Titled “The Sons of Zebedee: The Lives of Two Galilean Fishers”, the lectures (at least so far, I am finishing #2 as I write) provide careful and full descriptions of the geographical and social contexts of Galilee in the time of Jesus.

If you watch no more, watch the first few minutes of lecture #1! They alone will give you a fine sense of the little world of 1st Century lake Galilee and enrich your reading of the gospels out of all proportion to the time spent.

Here are links to mp4 (video) and mp3 files:
1) The World of the Lake of Galilee’ – Tuesday 12 August (video) (mp3)
2) ‘The Fishing Industry’ – Wednesday 13 August (video) (mp3)
3) ‘Zebedee and Sons’ – Thursday 14 August (video) (mp3)
4) ‘Called to Fish for People’ – Tuesday 19 August (video) (mp3)
5) ‘Sons of Thunder’ – Wednesday 20 August (video) (mp3)
6) ‘Jerusalem’ – Thursday 21 August (video) (mp3)

HT: Deane Galbraith

  1. The MP3s are excessively high quality, 160kbps, so are almost as big as the video, caveat downloador.  []

Humour in the Bible 1.3 Introduction: Locating humour

The simplest useful definition of humour has to be: “Humour is present when people laugh”.

However, this simplicity masks real problems. For a start as we saw people laugh for other reasons than just that something is funny, embarrassment and being tickled are obvious (and pretty cross cultural) examples. But also sometimes people ‘laugh at’ rather than ‘with’, laughter then is not a sign of humour. There is also unintended humour.

Worse still for us this definition is useless as a help for readers of ancient texts, since the audience is not available to test.

Perhaps though we might still say: “Something is humorous when its author intended its audience to laugh (or at least smile?) as they receive the text.” This avoids the ‘laughing at’ problem, but still the biblical authors are no more accessible than their audiences.

It also does not allow for unintended humour, or at least unconscious humour (that is humour that the author was not aware of generating, but which they would recognise after the event if it was pointed out to them).

Cutting a potentially long and complex discussion short perhaps we can agree that somehow, like ‘meaning’, humour exists in the interface of authors, texts and audiences. In the next post I’ll suggest a series of criteria that might be used to get an idea if a text is likely to be intended (author) to be funny, or at least recognised by an audience (at the time of writing) as funny. These criteria will come from both theories of humour (see Humour in the Bible 1.2 Introduction: Theories of Humour), recent scholarly writings on humour in the Bible, and in one case a suggestion from a reader that struck me as eminently sensible.

Did Jesus have a sense of humour?

Dr Jane Heath (Durham University) wrote a piece “Did Jesus Christ have a sense of humour?” In it she suggests that the question might be broken into two parts: “[o]ne about the way Jesus taught during his incarnate life, and another about the way it is proper for followers of Jesus, who seek to share in his risen life, to behave today.” I intend to respond here to what she wrote about the first of these.

Heath begins by noting that the synoptic gospels “[d]o not depict him making people laugh and they do not describe him as ‘witty’, let alone ‘funny’.” This is true, but then descriptions in biblical narrative is commonly sparse, perhaps less so in the New Testament than in the Hebrew Bible but nevertheless the gospels do not describe Jesus as ‘serious’, ‘sober’ or ‘solemn’ either.

In a similar way she erects another straw man to conveniently demolish. When those around him do something silly, she says: “Jesus does not make a joke of their silliness.” Well, no, but then to present Jesus as a sarcastic snob who makes fun of the mistakes of others would hardly fit with the Synoptic Gospels intentions in presenting Jesus. Even if the historical Jesus did make fun of such slips, the gospel writers might well not have reported this.

Moving beyond this trail of successfully demolished straw men, Heath has to admit that: “Some of the things he says in parables might seem to invite us to read them as if told with a twinkle in his eye.” She follows this with a couple of weak examples of such possibly humorous parables, but recognising the difficulty of accurately spotting humour accross cultures concludes: “In general, humour is not a useful tool for interpreting the gospels’ account of Jesus’ life. The evangelists were not writing satire.” The second sentence is true, but entirely irrelevant. Jesus might have been a stand up comedian and the gospel writers would still not have been satirists if they reported his jokes accurately! The question Heath posed is not, are the gospels satire (or even comedies) but rather, did Jesus have a sense of humour?

The other claim: “humour is not a useful tool for interpreting the gospels’ account of Jesus’ life” is more difficult to argue (either for or against). But I would suggest that the fact that it is difficult to picture Jesus’ parable of the man with the log in his eye (Mat 7:3-5, Luke 6:41-42) without smiling may provoke us to look to see if the signs of humour are present in these texts.

The criteria I have used in the past, are drawn from a number of previous studies by others, and most are present in these texts:

  • incongruity – surely evident!
  • lighthearted mood – this is a subjective criterion, but what do you think?
  • surprise – if you had not heard the parable before would you expect Jesus’ punchline?
  • ingenuity (cleverness is often a mark of humour think of puns) – this one may be missing here…
  • inferiority – the main point of the parable?
  • disguise or something or someone pretending to be something else – the “friend” is pretending to be superior and helpful
  • “inelasticity” (following Bergson) – perhaps not…
  • human pretension revealed in all its lack of glory – oh, yes!

My conclusion: This saying seems evidently intended to be humorous. What do you think? On the basis of this saying alone1 The correct response to Dr Heath’s question is a clear “Yes, Jesus did have a sense of humour!” (At least the Jesus who is presented in the Synoptic Gospels did.)

PS: I omitted “hyperbole” which I earlier added to the original list at David Kerr’s suggestion – the hyperbole in this passage is obvious!

  1. Though I can’t help also remember Jesus’ fondness for camel stories! []

Sexist language hobbles scholarship

For decades I have battled with students who insist on using “he” to mean “she or he” and “Man” to mean “men and women”, even “a man” to mean “a human person”. I’ve explained to them, as patiently as I can, that research shows that such language slows comprehension, even among people like them who believe they are comfortable with such “generic” use of gendered language.

I’ve also more generally tried to show students, not just the unrepentant sexist ones, that different perspectives offer richer readings of a text than one monotonous one.

Michelle Fletcher of King’s College, London, in a guest post “Reading with fresh eyes: #heforshe, NT scholarship and sexism” on James Crossley’s blog offers a neat powerful example of how such “generic” language, by its unexamined sexism blinds scholars and hobbles their search for truth.

If you haven’t already, go and read her post. Even if her reading of Mark 7:14-23 were wrong, the very fact that this possibility has not been considered demonstrates how sexist language hobbles schlarship.

Call for Papers: Radical Interpretations of the Bible

Announcement from: Robert Myles (follow link for more details)
Call for Papers: Radical Interpretations of the Bible
The Deserter (1916) by Boardman Robinson
A low cost (i.e. free) full day academic seminar in Sheffield, UK on radical interpretations of the Bible utilising the latest methods in biblical interpretation, like critical theory, Marxist exegesis, anarchist exegesis, radical reception theory and other ideological and political readings.

Date: 8th January 2015
Venue: TBC, Sheffield

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”… []

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.

A first reading of: “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization”

 

Seattle Municipal Archives from Seattle, WA – W.H. Shumard family, circa 1955

A few days ago the Vatican published a working paper “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization“. This paper results from international consultations stemming from Pope Francis’ convocation of an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to treat the topic: The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.

The discussion document reflects the current catholic (and Catholic) concerns over pastoral issues like increasing frequency of cohabitation, blended families, divorce and remarriage, gay marriage… The document has been welcomed not least because of its desire to base the discussion on Scripture and in a concern for mission. Despite the perception of Pope Francis (who in a sense commissioned the document) as a radical theologian my first impression of the document (after sharing in the two reasons for welcoming it mentioned above) is sadness that it is not “radical” – that is it fails to return to reexamine the biblical roots of Christian teaching about family.

Indeed the section on “God’s Plan for Marriage and the Family” sadly fails to ask what the Scriptures teach about “family” but rather presumes an answer to that question by beginning and basing everything on marriage. Whilst biblical teaching about marriage is undoubtedly (as the document understands) founded on Genesis 2, that is not true for biblical teaching about family. The assumption that marriage + children produced by that marriage = family is a modern Western assumption that was not shared by the authors of Scripture.

As I explained briefly in my paper for the NZ Christian Network (in 2006 ) “Families in the Bible” there is no word or expression in either biblical Hebrew or Greek for the nuclear family. Indeed the words and phrases which get translated “family” in both Testaments refer to something broader (in the present including a wider range of relatives, uncles, aunts, cousins etc. not just mother, father and their children) and deeper (including ancestors and perhaps descendants e.g. “David’s family”). The exercise of looking for the word “family” in English Bibles, and then examining the Hebrew and Greek expressions thus translated, makes it abundantly clear that the writers of Scripture had no conception of (or at least had no interest in talking about)  nuclear families. When Scripture talks about family it is always the extended family that is in view. Any talk of nuclear families is a modern overlay on the Bible.

Beyond that, once we examine the families that the Bible actually describes, we soon discover that they are not merely extended, they are messy. Blended families are not a new phenomenon, just look at the Patriarchs.

Going beyond this Scripture does not anywhere present an image of an ideal family as an exemplar to copy, indeed I suspect all the families in the Bible are presented as broken (composing as they do a broken sinful world). On the other hand, it does present a series of virtues which ought to be shown in family life. The centre and heart of this cluster of virtues is hesed that faithful loving loyalty that God shows to us and which is also modeled by Ruth, Boaz, Tamar and other biblical heroes of the family.

By thus starting from the “modern world”, understood to mean the Westernised world, and importing its ideas onto Scripture while silencing Scripture’s own teaching, this discussion document does a disservice to the catholic (in the sense of “everywhere”) Church. By this rejection of Scripture it risks merely reinforcing the individualistic “modern” Western tendencies that it somewhat timidly criticises.

Two pleas, please!

Jim West needs more Logos users to “preorder” his commentary series it is a remarkable effort by one pastor/teacher to write clear straightforward comment on every book of the Bible (so far there are 36 volumes “covering 59 books of the Bible and 4 books of apocrypha”). I believe that the commentaries do not share the sometimes histrionic tone of his blog, where he claims logos are planning to kill him if the series gets sufficient preorders ;) But rather offers sensible useful comment aimed not at other specialists but at everyone.

That’s the first plea, for a serious work, but presented humorously. The second plea is not like unto it, rather it is free and without cost, but a birthday wish. To celebrate the fact that I have survived 66 years I am collecting audio and video readings of classic stories for children and adults. The request is simple, just if you have a blog link to the site, or if not share it on Facebook or other soacial media. Then people will start to visit, the great and wise Google will deign to notice its existance and my effort will be worthwhile :)

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.