SBL Atlanta: Hotels

Jim West has (with the help of a local) provided a list of cheaper hotels for people going to SBL but on a less generous budget. If that is you hop over and take a look. I always found places at 1/3-1/2 the price of the “official” ones and usually got bonuses like free wifi, when the posh laces charged through the nose for such a basic service.



Historical novel of love and early Christianity

CaptureI have been reading Bob MacDonald’s recently published novel Seen from the Street: A Love Story from the first century. It is a historical novel about love and the origins of Christianity within Judaism in the years around and after the life and death of Jesus. Bob describes the book like this:
I wrote ‘new’ recording – not new faith. In line with several post-Shoa scholars, I have examined the Jewish aspects of first century Christ-believers and I have portrayed the Gentile relationships to them in the areas of love and desire for intimacy. Writers who have seen some of my chapters delight in the gentleness of the dialogue.

The story is told through glimpses into the lives of a number of interrelated groups of characters. Until near the end Jesus does not appear directly “onstage” but through the responses of others to his person and to the gospel proclaimed particularly by Paul. The stories of each set of characters are interesting and lead the reader on. These stories interact, and so together weave a portrayal of Jesus and of early Christian life. I am not a specialist in the NT or in the Graeco-Roman world of the first century but the historical detail rang true for me, and more than just seeming without obvious errors (like those even a non-specialist can spot in many historical novels set in this period) created a series of believable “worlds”.

The writing is really good, though/and1 it sometimes seems to carry overtones that the mind chases beyond the words. The book (though not produced by a well-known publisher) is free from intrusive errors or infelicities, whether because of Bob’s care in composing the text or a skilled editor’s work.

Lest this review seem just a puff piece for a friend’s work I should note my problems and hesitations. I was reading an e-text and the limitations of my Reader were frustrating. Since the story is told through the intersection of a number of different (though related) stories I would have been helped by being able to skip easily between the page I was reading and the list of characters at the start. Since the story is not told chronologically, I would also have been helped by both more dating (this was provided for letters, but not always (I think) for non-epistolatry episodes) and although I have some idea of the sequence of Roman emperors of this period some modern BCE/CE dates would have helped.

The technique of telling about Jesus, rather than telling Jesus, was so effective for me that when he finally appeared “onstage” it was something of an anti-climax. But then I suppose (since Christian dogma and the conventions of the historical novel both suggest he should be portrayed as fully human) perhaps that is inevitable. How would you portray a man whom people come to recognise as God incarnate, rather than the easy task of presenting a docetist God dressed up like a human?

The guiding theme of love, and the mores of the Graeco-Roman world, intersect powerfully in the story. This intersection in the area of sexuality means that the story has its effect on how one responds to contemporary debates in this area. This also leads to perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the book. I am unsure how I feel about Gaius (a/the major character) and though perhaps intended, this uncertainty is difficult – as sexual relationships in the first century (even more than in our time and place) were necessarily implicated in relationships of power.

At just US$3 – 4 this is a book anyone interested in the origins of Christianity in the eastern Mediterranean of the first century, perhaps especially those with a fondness for Johannine styles of thought, will read with pleasure and profit, but which also may/should leave them unsettled.

The Kindle link is here: for epub and other formats:

  1. I am really not sure which is the better conjunction, on the one hand the almost mystical tone is one I do not relate to easily, on the other it fits the content and ideas well, and contributes to the overall “Johannine” feel of the book. []



I was a refugee (for a couple of days, in law not fact)


Refugee for a day (or two)

When Mobutu’s tyrannical kleptocracy in Zaire (now again Congo) began to fall apart, when people were desperate because they could not buy medicines or schooling for their children, the parachute regiment captured the airport and marched into Kinshasa. They and many of the civilian population  began to loot the city, while Mobutu’s Presidential Guard fought back. After a day or two the French and Belgians sent their own paratroops to oversee the evacuation of foreigners. The British (this was before we became NZ citizens) embassy arranged for Brits to go on a South African refugee plane that was able to land at the airport after it had been recaptured. Our passports were in a Zairean government office to get residence visas. So we traveled on temporary refugee papers issued by the embassy.

In just hours we were separated from colleagues and friends, not knowing nor able to find out what had happened to them. But fearing the worst. We shared some of the fear, shock and pain of leaving “home” that real refugees feel, but only some, because we had been people with two homes, and we still had resources of citizenship to protect us and open possibilities of a new life to us.1

img_3212Real refugees

We’ve also experienced life in a refugee camp, teaching courses on two occasions in a camp on the Thai-Burma border. During those months we saw second hand what it is like to be a real refugee. We heard stories of horrific experiences at the hands of the government forces. We met students who had never experienced a free life outside the wire boundaries of the camp. People with no papers (except the document that entitles them to a small food ration) and little hope.

Because these, real, refugees are members of an ethnic minority at war with the national government many of them do not seek UN refugee status, preferring to dream of the day when they can return home and rebuild. But for many after all that time the grinding dullness of life on the edge, whose purpose is merely to wait, prompts them to seek “resettlement” (see Resettlement and repatriation seem such gentle words). This means giving up the old hope (of return home to live with dignity in peace) and making tenuous ties to family and friends who make us who we are. Yet it offers a different hope: a new life. That’s what it means to be a refugee, to have lost all hope in your old life, and to seek a new one.

Land of opportunity

In the colonial period Europeans came to New Zealand seeking a new life, in a land of opportunity. They forged their new lives usually successfully, often at the expense (sometimes at the barrel of a gun, directly through land confiscations, dubious “deals”, or less directly) of the Maori who already inhabited the land. But by and large New Zealand now is a peaceful land, underpopulated full of wide open spaces. We have low unemployment and because of that history opportunities for trade and industry that are surprising in a place so far from anywhere. We even have a record of race relations that is less bad than many similar places.

How come we do not welcome more refugees? Refugees are people with “get up and go” both literally and metaphorically. They have drive and initiative. They are good at looking after themselves. Usually they are unusually socially responsible. With all that space and all those opportunities, why do we not welcome more new New Zealanders?

  1. We even had the hope of returning soon. For we assumed that Mobutu would leave or be killed and the coup would install a new (and therefore better) government. In fact two decades of civil wars have made Congo a byword. []



The Tri-une God and Motherhood

I have not yet pointed to the series of posts on The Tri-une God and Motherhood by kbonikowsky at The Happy Surprise, I should. They are very good, offering a careful, gentle presentation of the topic. .One of the things I like is that she approaches the theology simply, yet insists on a Trinitarian understanding. So many people thinking about emotive topics, like gender or like God, let alone when we mix echoes of our relationships with parents into the mix, seem swiftly to lose  their sense of proportion and theological “niceities” get thrown to the winds. I saw this years ago when I briefly explored Catholic theologians treatment of Mary when preparing my thesis. Catholic dogma concerning Mary is careful (to a lifelong Protestant it is odd, but it is careful), yet once these otherwise sensible theologians started to write about Mary the mother they seemed to lose all the restrictions their tradition had put in place to ensure that Mary did not seem to enter the Godhead. kbonikowsky avoids such emotion-driven excess in her talk of the Tri-une God and Motherhood, so far it is good stuff!




Help me please

For work I am doing on the “confessions of Jeremiah” I need two sorts of help. I need help because here in the hills between Rotorua and Tauranga I library resources are limited to a journal database and Google books (plus

  • People with friends: if you have a friend who has worked on the “confessions of Jeremiah” please help me contact them.
  • People with access to Baumgartner’s Jeremiah’s Poems of Lament or Diamond’s The Confessions of Jeremiah in Context. (Both books I owned and gave to a seminary in Myanmar when I retired, and both have limited access on Google.)For Diamond I need to know if his first few footnotes (probably just #1) to the “Introduction” give any indication of the origin of the usage “Confessions of Jeremiah”. (The PhD his book was based on is listed by the British Library but is not accessible.)For Baumgartner the issue is a little more complex does he in Chapter 1 (in the first few or last couple of pages of the chapter) talk about this at all? Or indeed use an expression like “the confessions of Jeremiah”?

I would be really thankful is someone could help me in either or both of these two ways.

Otherwise I am stuck, between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when expressions like confessions of Jeremiah were used to refer to the content of (much of) the book (Cheyne 1888), or to a particular mode within the book, but already Buttenweiser (1914) talks of “the so-called confessions” and may have the collection of texts we name thus today in mind, certainly the habitual use of the expression to refer to particular texts seems established at the latest by John Skinner, Prophecy & Religion: Studies in the Life of Jeremiah (Cambridge: University Press, 1922), 114 and ch.xi.

Skinner regards the usage as “common”:

These two passages are interesting in another respect. They are the first of a unique series of devotional poems commonly known as the ‘Confessions of Jeremiah,’ which unfold the secret of his best life, the converse of his soul with God through which the true nature of religion was disclosed to him. (114)

On p.201 Skinner calls the usage “recent”, yet I have so far found no use of the expression with this meaning before Buttenwieser!

I am stuck and stumped, and lack access to a suitable library to get much further alone. Please help!



Scripture and the “gay marriage” debate

Photo by Dennis Bratland

I had an unexpected visit from a friend this evening. Among the wide-ranging and inspiring (as well as depressing since we talked of the plight of the Rohingya) topics we addressed was the question facing the Baptist Churches of NZ of what to do faced with many churches who believe that to perform the marriage of a gay couple would deny the truths taught in Scripture and other churches convinced that to refuse to perform such marriages would in itself be a denial of truths taught clearly in Scripture.

I do not want to address this issue directly, but rather the similar issue of divorce – also a question of sexual ethics that can be addressed from Scripture fairly directly.

The Bible seems to me to speak with only two voices on divorce.

Deuteronomy 24:1 “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house…” which allows divorce. The translation of the grounds is open to some debate (for an idea of the range cf. NIV and NRSV) but but in Jesus day the issue resolved into a debate between “conservatives” who only allowed unfaithfulness, desertion or abuse, and the “liberals” who allowed divorce for “any reason” (pretty much the position the laws of most Western countries take today.

Jesus seems (Matt 5:31; 19:7; Mark 10:4) to take a hard line. Arguing that divorce contravenes God’s intention expressed in Gen 2 and concluding: Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” (Mark 10:9)1

I am ignoring Mal 2:16 as this passage (in which God says “I hate divorce”) may not be speaking of literal divorce but rather Israel’s unfaithfulness to her covenant partner, God.

In terms of a Christian position on this issue I can see no justification for setting aside Jesus words and returning to the law of the Old Testament. One common approach to the “problem” of OT law for Christians is to argue the opposite, that only what is affirmed in the NT applies to us. I believe that position to be wrong, but still cannot accept setting aside a saying of Jesus (repeated three times)  in favour of a difficult to translate OT law.

Yet somehow almost all churches today in NZ accept divorce certificates issued by the NZ state as a result of a “no fault” process. They then remarry these divorced people.

I would be grateful for someone who can explain to me how the hermeneutics that allows this flagrant breach of Jesus’ clear and strong teaching applies to “gay marriage”!

[This is a genuine question, I am still unsure where I stand on the question of churches performing “gay marriages”, but I am quite clear on the biblical teaching on divorce. I do not understand how one can allow churches that practice the remarriage of “no fault” divorced people to remain in communion yet argue that churches that practice “gay marriage” should be excluded.]

  1. There is a case to be made that Jesus’ position is not as stark as it seems but that he was siding with the “conservatives” and only allowing divorce for unfaithfulness, desertion or abuse. []



Sex as “Sacrament” – Making Babies and Making Love


Paul bases his teaching about sex and marriage on Genesis. As usual, he is in some ways less of a dreamer and more down to earth than Jesus. His argument does that if sex makes two “one flesh”, then sex outside marriage would make you one flesh with the “prostitute” (1 Cor 6:15-20).

This talk of infidelity (un-chesed) is the basis of Paul’s teaching about sex and marriage. Sex unites, making love – makes two into one. Already this idea is foreign to the Western world with its “serial polygamy”1  and frequent divorce. Another of Paul’s conclusions is even less comfortable for modern thought:

The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does” – a shocking thought (which confirms some people’s bad opinion of Paul?), except that, for Paul, the reciprocal is equally true “the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” (1 Cor 7:4)

You see sex is like a sacrament. One consequence of making love is making babies. With God’s blessing, sex makes a new being, in His image, see Gen 4:1; 5:1-3. But (as many infertile couples know) this is not what makes sex sacramental. Making love cements two beings together in partnership. It both celebrates and produces chesed – a covenant relationship.

While the marriage ceremony marks the beginning of this process – of itself it does not create the partnership. Sex and the ongoing co-operation of daily living are the effective agent that builds union. Rather like the relationship between Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism affirms our desire to be covenant partners of Jesus. Communion continually seals this as we drink the “covenant cup” declaring our continued desire to be faithful, as he is.

  1. As my African colleagues used to call the all too common Western experience of marriage plus divorce plus re-marriage. []



Travel plans

View across the hills near Baguio - envy us!

I realise I have not posted here about our travel plans for later this year. We will be visiting and teaching in (at least)1 two places:

  • View across the hills near Baguio - envy us!

    View across the hills near Baguio – envy us!

    Asia Pacific Theological Seminary, Baguio Philippines. Where Barbara and I will each teach a course (OT Intro for me and Pastoral Counseling for her). I visited APTS as Menzies lecturer last year and am really looking forward to returning to a lovely place and people. Since Barbara will be going too, this time we hope to see a bit more of the northern part of the Philippines as well.

  • Sri Lanka produces much of the best high grown tea in the world.

    Sri Lanka produces much of the best high grown tea in the world.

    Colombo Theological Seminary, Sri Lanka. Where again both of us will teach, in my case on 1 Samuel as an introduction to reading biblical narrative texts. We’ve both visited CTS before and had a lovely holiday seeing more of the country last time. Christians in Sri Lanka (though still smarting from loss of status following the colonial period) have a special place as a religious minority that includes both ethnic groups in a strife torn land.

We will leave towards the end of July and return in late September. We have a nice family (with experience on a lifestyle block in the UK) from Bethlehem College to look after the house and animals while we are away.

  1. Teaching in Thailand is also possible. []