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The Messianic Jesus in Paul’s Christology

Some time back, in a posting over on the blog site of our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins, I drew attention here to Matt Novenson’s book, Christ Among the Messiahs:  Christ Language in Paul and Messiah Language in Ancient Judaism (Oxford University Press, 2012).  Having re-read it as part of my preparation for a paper on “Paul’s Messianic Christology” for a conference in Rome in late June, I’m again impressed with the book, and want to reiterate my commendation of it.

Over against what has been the “majority position,” that “Christ” (Greek:  χριστος) in Paul’s usage is essentially a colorless name, merely designating Jesus but not really carrying any connotative emphasis, Novenson lodges what I regard as a convincing counter-case.

Part of his case is to show that previous scholars have tended to work with only two “onomastic” categories:  “Christ” in Paul is either a “title” (having strong connotative emphasis, as “messiah”) or a “name” (merely designating Jesus).  Novenson cogently contends that there is a third category to consider, however:  appellatives used as “honorifics,” i.e., a term so closely and particularly attached to an individual that it alone can designate that person, yet still carry its connotation.  As well-known examples, he cites “Augustus” (for Octavian), “Epiphanes” (for Antiochus IV), and Judas “Maccabee”.  This seems to me a breakthrough of sorts beyond the philological impasse that has plagued Pauline scholarship.

Novenson’s contention is that in Paul “Christ” has this sort of function:  It is closely and uniquely attached to Jesus, such that on its own it can designate him (as it does some 150 times in Paul’s letters), but it retains its semantic value (“meaning”) as “messiah.”  This “honorific” category accounts for how “Christ” can seem to function almost like a name, and yet not really be reduced to functioning as a name.

Then, Novenson analyses a selection of Pauline passages, observing how they illustrate Paul’s use of “messianic language.”  This analysis confirms the judgment that Jesus’ messianic status/significance really was an important feature of Paul’s christology.

Another creative feature of Novenson’s study is his emphasis that Paul’s use of messianic language should be seen as a “case study” in ancient Jewish messianic expressions.  Many scholars have portrayed Paul’s Christological thought as a flat contrast with, or negation of, Jewish messianism.  But, as Novenson argues, this seems to rest upon an over-simplified picture of Jewish messianic hopes that does not do justice to its diversity.  Moreover, in light of Paul’s firm efforts to continue to be identified as Jewish, and his view of his gentile mission as securing “the obedience of the nations” to the biblical God and his Christ, Paul’s Christology is better seen as a particular (and distinctive) version in the diversity of ancient Jewish messianism.

I confess that perhaps part of my readiness to affirm the force of Novenson’s case is that I see it as reinforcing and sophisticating views that I’ve tried to express.  But I also readily grant that Novenson’s case is a marked advance on anything previous, and in my view is now the starting point for any further consideration of how Paul’s Christology relates to ancient Jewish messianism.

De Gruyter Emergent Scholar Competition

The respected German publisher of academic books, Walter de Gruyter, is sponsoring a competition for “emergent scholars” in a wide range of disciplines (including “Theology/Religion”), winners getting their PhD thesis published by the firm.  The competition is restricted to those who have received the PhD no earlier than 2010.

For more information, see the link here.

“Fashions, Fallacies and Futures in NT Studies”

I’m pleased to report that my article, “Fashions, Fallacies and Futures in New Testament Studies” has just been published in the advance-online locus of Journal for the Study of the New Testament.  You can see the table of contents of the issue and my article here.

I’ve uploaded the pre-publication version onto the “Selected Published Essays” tab on this blog site here.

In the article I note one or two “fashions” in NT studies of past decades, ideas or emphases that seem all the rage for a short while but then seem to have faded just as quickly as they appeared.  In this case, I cite “structuralist exegesis.”

I also discuss a couple of “fallacies,” by which term I refer to ideas that obtained wide and long-lasting currency but have subsequently been shown to be errors.  The question here is why this happens.  How do a wide assortment of scholars take something as given when there never was adequate basis for it?

Finally, I explore very briefly some possible future emphases in the field, such as the growing internationalization of those who comprise NT scholars, the growing interest in “reception history,” and one or two other things.

The article originated as the Graham Stanton Lecture given at the British NT Conference in 2013 (St. Andrews).  The print version will appear in due course.

“Jesus’ Wife Fragment”: Further Observations

As a follow-up to my initial observations yesterday, I’ll offer a few more to underscore where I think things are at this point.

  • First, let me reiterate that all references to “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” are completely misleading tripe.  What we have is a purported small fragment with several incomplete lines on each side, in which one line contains the words “my wife” ascribed to Jesus there.  If the fragment is authentic (i.e., from some Christian hand ca. 7th-10th century CE, as per the Harvard radio-carbon test), only God knows what it was.  But it’s totally mischievous to claim that it comes from some “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”.  We have a “Jesus’ Wife fragment.”  That’s it.
  • The most recent palaeographical, chemical and radio-carbon tests reported in the latest issue of Harvard Theological Review support the conclusion that the writing material is old, that the ink seems composed per methods used in the putative date of the writing material, and that nothing definitive in the handwriting demands that it is a forgery.  But, note well, Choat (Coptic palaeographer) also urges that his analysis doesn’t mean that it’s authentic, only that he hasn’t found clear evidence that it isn’t.
  • One thing mentioned but not (to my knowledge) probed sufficiently is the clear indication that the fragment has been cut (obvious on the top edge) from some larger piece of material.  The left, right and bottom edges appear to be torn, but the top edge has been cut.  Why?  Cut from what?  It is common for locals who find ancient texts to tear them into individual pages or portions, to get more money item-per-item than by selling the whole manuscript.  But, if this is a portion of something larger, where’s the rest of it?  And, in any case, it is to my knowledge at least very rare (I don’t know another case) for a fragment to be cut on one edge and torn on the other three.  Just one more curiosity about this particular item.
  • The major bases for allegations that the fragment is inauthentic have always been the contents, specifically, the Coptic expressions/phrasing.  Francis Watson and others have alleged that it looks like a pastiche of Coptic phrases from Gospel of Thomas, and the alleged con-artist inadvertently included some errors in Coptic that betray his/her work.  So, the focus of the debate has never been on things that could be settled by “scientific” tests.  It will continue to be conducted on the basis of analysis of the contents (and perhaps a few other factors that I’m not free at this point to discuss).
  • Finally, as Prof. King and others have consistently indicated, even if authentic, the fragment would have no bearing on (1) the marital status of Jesus of Nazareth, (2) the question of women’s role in churches, (3) the question of Catholic priestly celibacy, etc.  None whatsoever.  Nada.
  • For recent responses to the HTR articles, see comments by Watson here,  and by Christian Askeland here.  As will be apparent from these, the debate is by no means over.   So, the Harvard Divinity School press release “over-eggs” things in characterizing the tests as confirming authenticity of the fragment.  Confirming the approximate age of the writing material is one thing, and confirming the authenticity of the writing on it is very much another thing!

“Jesus’ Wife” Articles in HTR: Initial Thoughts

From an initial (and rapid) reading of the articles in the latest issue of Harvard Theological Review about the “Jesus’ Wife” fragment, I’ll offer the following preliminary thoughts.  (I had planned to pursue another project today, but an email early this a.m. alerting me to the HTR publications drew my attention to this “breaking” story.)

First, I’ll speak to Malcolm Choat’s preliminary observations about the fragment from a papyrological and palaeographical perspective.  (Choat is a recognized figure in these matters, with special expertise in things Coptic.)  I note that essentially Choat concludes that he wasn’t able to find “a smoking gun,” i.e., some clear indication of inauthenticity.  I was particularly impressed with his note that there didn’t appear to be any ink-traces on the part(s) of the fragment that seem to have suffered damage.  So, either the damage happened after the text was written, or else a supposed forger damaged the item after writing the text.  I’d guess, personally, that the latter is somewhat less likely, but that’s a guess.

Choat also notes the curious nature of the hand and the way the ink was applied to the item. He judges the hand to be that of a copyist of very limited abilities (noting, e.g., the irregularities in letter-formation), and that the writer seems to have used a brush (anomalous for the putative period in question) or (as Bagnall suggested) a poorly trimmed reed-pen.  As King now grants, the nature of the hand (and other factors) make it unlikely that the fragment comes from a codex and unlikely that the text functioned as a “gospel” liturgically.  Instead, as she notes, it may be some kind of school exercise or perhaps even some kind of amulet-type item.  So, can we all please desist from references to a “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”?  There is no reason to suppose that the fragment comes from any such text.  We have a “Jesus’ Wife” fragment.  Let’s stay with what we have/know.

As for the scientific tests, those on the ink produced results consistent with the item being old, not modern.  The two radio-carbon tests, however, are both a bit puzzling and interesting.  The proposed dates of the two tests are out from each other by several hundred years.  The one report (by Hodgins) notes the curious date-result (405-350 BCE and/or 307-209 BCE), about a thousand years earlier than the date from the other carbon-dating test (659-969 CE), and Hodgins suggests some kind of contamination of the sample.  But I’d assume that a contamination would come from something later than the ancient setting, and so skew the date later, not earlier.  I’ll need some help with this!

To come to Prof. King’s article (the main piece in the issue), I think she takes a careful line, seeking to defend her view that the item on balance seems authentic, but trying to take account of data that require some modification of her earlier judgements, and granting in the end that complete certainty is not possible.  Prominent in the modifications of her earlier view is the intriguing statement in the appended note at the end of the article that the carbon-dating (taking the dating by Tuross) now seems to demand a date sometime in the 8th century CE (not the 4th/5th century CE dating in her earlier paper).  As she notes, this takes us well into the Islamic period of Egypt, and so raises the question of whether, in fact, the fragment might reflect in some way the influence of Islamic ideas about Jesus.

Certainly, as Prof. King has rather consistently emphasized all along, whatever the date and provenance of the item, it has absolutely no significance whatsoever for “historical Jesus” studies.  Contrary to some of the sensationalized news stories, that is, the fragment has no import for the question of whether Jesus was married.

Instead, she continues to propose that the fragment may reflect tensions and questions about marriage, celibacy, child-bearing, and gender that emerged in early Christianity in the early centuries (indeed, to judge from NT texts such as 1 Tim. 4:1-5; and even 1 Cor 7:1-7, questions of this nature emerged quite early).   But, to repeat a point, the revised date for the papyrus (mid-8th century CE) introduces other factors to consider as well.

As to her suggestion that the Coptic text of the fragment might derive from a Greek original and that the latter might go back to the 2nd century, that (to my mind) cannot be taken as more than a possibility, and is certainly not required to account for the text.

Well, so much for now.  I’ll be keen to see what other scholars now make of the matter.

Breaking News: Published Reports on “Jesus’ Wife” Fragment

I’ve just learned that the long-awaited reports on further analysis and scientific testing of the sensationalized “Jesus’ Wife” fragment (Coptic) have been published in the latest issue of Harvard Theological Review.  The link is here, which will take you to the Harvard Divinity School site, and from there you’ll see a link to the HTR issue in question.

Included is the feature article by Karen King, a palaeographical analysis by Malcolm Choat, a characterization of the ink of the fragment by James T. Yardley and Alexis Hagadorn, articles on the application of mass-spectrometry to the item, a ringing judgement (by Leo Depuydt) that the fragment is a forgery, followed by a point-by-point response by Karen King defending the authenticity of the item.

Let’s see now where the scholarly discussion goes.  At last, we have something of substance to discuss!

Jesus and the “Scribal Elite”: Chris Keith’s Latest

In the latest tome from one of our most prolific recent PhDs, Chris Keith offers an argument about the initial causes of tensions/conflicts between Jesus of Nazareth and what Keith terms “the scribal elite,” i.e., the formally trained class of Torah-interpreters of his time:  Jesus against the Scribal Elite:  The Origins of the Conflict (Baker Academic, 2014).

In Keith’s own words,

“I will argue that Jesus was not a member of the authoritative scribal elite class, but acted in some ways as though he were, and managed to convice some of his audiences that he was.  Among other reasons, this blurring of social categories prompted attempts to expose him publicly as clearly not part of the authoritative elite, thus beginning a controversy that soon spiralled beyond these initial concerns and ever closer to a Roman cross outside Jerusalem during Passover.” (6).

Without denying that other factors were involved in the escalating conflict in which the person of Jesus was central (e.g., Jesus’ healings & exorcisms, and features of his teaching, perhaps esp. his claim to be the spokesman and vehicle of the coming “kingdom of God”), Keith insists that “Jesus’ reputation as a teacher” was also a factor, and one too often overlooked.

One effect of his argument, as Keith notes, is to regard the “controversy stories” of the Gospels as more likely based on actual conflicts with “scribal elite” figures (even if in their present form these stories have been adapted to make them more meaningful to the intended readers).

Intended to be accessible and useful for “upper-level students as an introduction to the early period of Jesus’ ministry,” the book is also aimed to elicit scholarly reviews and responses.  Engaging the work of such influential figures as E. P. Sanders on Jesus, Keith’s new book deserves the consideration of anyone keenly interested in understanding Jesus’ ministry in its historical context.

A Neglected Factor (and Book) in NT Studies

In a now-famous (among NT scholars) essay published originally in 1975, the great Nils Dahl drew attention to, “The Neglected Factor in New Testament Theology,” Reflections 75 (1975): 5-8; reprinted in Nils A. Dahl, Jesus the Christ:  The Historical Origins of Christological Doctrine (ed. Donald H. Juel; Fortress Press, 1991), 153-63.  That “neglected factor” is “God”.

In comparison to the oodles of studies published on Christology, and the many on numerous other topics, it was (and remains) hard to find much written on “God.”  Over a couple of decades back, I was asked to write a major article on “God” for a reference work on the Gospels.  I trawled through ca. 20 years of New Testament Abstracts (the major index of scholarly journal literature in the field), and I think I found a total of four articles relevant to the task.

More recently, I was asked to write the volume on “God” for a monograph series, “Library of Biblical Theology.”  Again, I found the bibliographical task easy!  A few further publications had appeared since I wrote that article, but there remained plenty of scope for further work.

I was set a word-limit, and I try to stay within one if given.  So, the result was a modest-sized volume:  God in New Testament Theology (Abingdon Press, 2010), 152 pp. including bibliography & indexes.  But, within the limits assigned, I tried to do justice to major matters.

Unfortunately, that book has been one of the best kept secrets of the publishing world!  The only review I recall was a nice one in Spanish.  And the reason seems to be that the publisher didn’t send the book out for reviews.  (It would take a lot of convincing for me ever to go with Abingdon Press again!)  But I find myself often referring readers of this blog site and others as well to the book, as it’s the place where I’ve tried to map the main contours of the “God-discourse” that we find in NT writings.

So, acknowledging the naked self-publicity involved, I do think that, in good conscience, I can recommend the book to those who would like to study who/what the “God” of the NT writings is.  Whatever its faults, on the subject of “God” there isn’t a whole lot of competition out there still!

Sense and Nonsense: Observations on Running a Blog Site

Caveat lector:  The following is a bit of a rant.  I came into blogging as a complete novice, and have had to learn as I went along.  Having opened this blog site as, well, at the risk of sounding noble, a public service, I simply thought that it would be interesting for me, and perhaps interesting for readers too, to post about/from my own research and scholarship (now, nearly 40 yrs in academic positions in the field).  One of the surprises (remember, I said I was a novice) was the experience of a few (a very few) people who seem to comment (1) far more often than the rest of the commenters put together, and (2) typically have some “hobby horse” idea that is . . . well, shall we say, eccentric (to put it kindly).

I’ve tended to approach comments and questions assuming (unless there was immediate/obvious indication otherwise) that they were sincere.  So, from other scholars, you get agreement, disagreement, other suggestions, corrections, etc.  Great.  From the “general public” you get questions, observations that may well be under/misinformed, but clearly offered with a view to learning something.

But from a few (I’d say over the 3.5 years of operating this site, about three/four) fall clearly into the puzzling type I’ve mentioned above.  This sort typically has developed some pet idea, not something small, mind you, but a “big idea” that fundamentally skews their view of the whole subject.  Among them, on this site, e.g., that Paul was a totally fictional character (yes, you heard that right).  The noisy folk who likewise are convinced (I guess they really mean it and aren’t putting us all on) that Jesus of Nazareth is a fictional character are another such category.  And on this site we’ve got a frequent commenter who, among his pet notions, has the curious idea that, e.g., references to “circumcision” in the NT are actually references to sacrifice.

These folk (in my experience) hardly ever have any of the training, skills and knowledge of the field requisite for forming a critical view of things, no proven record of publishing work in scholarly venues, no work that has been reviewed by those competent to do so.  But they have some kind of prophet-like sense that they’re onto something that has eluded all those with the requisite skills and training in the field.

And I repeat, these people aren’t interested in finding out that their views have no basis, or have been soundly debunked decades ago, or are just plain bonkers.  So, no matter how often you patiently answer specific questions (often coy, baited ones), or offer reasons and evidence for why their view is baseless, they persevere with impressive determination.  If you tell them that their view has no standing among scholars in the field, this has no effect, and they might then allege some sort of conspiracy among scholars to suppress what they know is the real truth!

They also seem to look for any opportunity to try to draw off the conversation into the orbit of their particular fancy.  Repeatedly, I’ve had to tell a few commenters that their line was not only misinformed but also irrelevant to the posting to which they were supposedly commenting.

I find this all rather tiresome.  I certainly don’t want to offend or scare off the many readers (now over 1500 subscribers), for whom (I hope) this blog site is interesting, informative, maybe even stimulating.  Anyone from time to time can propose some collateral issue, and I don’t mind the occasional accidental drift off into some issue that is suggested by a posting.

But the very few dogged (and, I have to say, apparently insincere) commenters (they aren’t content to read; their real purpose is likely self-validation via blog comments) whose main/sole purpose seems to be to try to inflict their curious views at every opportunity–these I find a pain in the posterior.  So, frankly, I wouldn’t mind at all if they (and, I think you know who you are) either refrained from this annoying activity, or just went off and unsubscribed.

Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity

I’m the grateful owner of a new 3-volume reference work:  Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity, Gen. Ed., Angelo Di Berardino (IVP Academic, 2014), hereafter EAC.  It seems to include articles on major and minor figures, events, texts, ideas, places, controversies and creeds, and still more in the period ca. 90-750 CE.  This is a translation from the Italian:  Nuovo Dizionario patristico e di antichita christiane (2006)

In EAC there are some 3,220 articles (each with bibliography), written by 266 scholars from 26 countries.  For this edition (there was an earlier 2-volume edition, English translation published in 1992) many new articles were commissioned, and others updated.  But a check of a few articles about which I know anything left me disappointed now and then.  E.g., the “Nomina Sacra” article has no bibliography later that 1989, and the judgement expressed seems to me woefully misleading.  I could also have wished for some cross-referencing.  For example, looking for an article on “Basilica” disappoints.  But you do find a treatment of the topic in the article, “Church Buildings.”

But, if you need some basic information on the wide swathe of people, places, events, and other things from the period covered (ca. 90-750 CE), EAC  is probably to be regarded as your first place to turn.

Unfortunately (although quite understandably), however, the work also reflects the traditional distinction (division?) between “New Testament Studies” and “Patristics/Early Church.”  So, it’s hard to find anything on any text, character or development earlier than the second century CE.  (It was our aim to try to bridge this unhelpful divide in establishing our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins here in Edinburgh, which brings together specialists in 2nd-temple Jewish tradition, NT/Christian Origins, and Patristics. For more information, click here.)

The breadth of coverage is EAC’s  strength, the number of articles reflecting its riches of information.  But that breadth requires, of course, conciseness (brevity) of treatment.  So, e.g., compare the roughly 3 pages given to “Papyrus – Papyrology” with the 5-page discussion by Edwin Judge in Encyclopedia of Early Christianity (EEC, ed., Everett Ferguson, 2nd ed., Garland, 1992).  But there are many articles in EAC for which there is no equivalent in EEC.

So, thanks to all those in Italy who conceived and completed this grand reference work, and to those at IVP and those who worked with them to provide this English transation of a work that should and surely will obtain a wide usage.


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