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Update on Latest Books

Earlier this week I had the encouraging news that the trade journal,Publishers Weekly, gave my forthcoming book a starred review:  Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, September 2016).  The link to the PW review is here.  For more information and comments on this book, the BUP link is here.

Copies available by mid-September in the USA, a few weeks later in the UK.  A Spanish translation is planned, to be published by Ediciones Sigueme (Salamanca, Spain).

While you’re waiting for that one, I could point you to a small, related book of mine published a few months ago:  Why on Earth did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? (Marquette University Press, 2016).  I posted on this book earlier here.  It’s available, e.g., here.

“Angels”: Pagan, Jewish, Christian

Over the past few days, I’ve been slowly digesting a recent large article surveying Greek inscriptions referring to “angels” in Roman Asia Minor:  G. H. R. Horsley and Jean M. Luxford, “Pagan Angels in Roman Asia Minor:  Revisiting the Epigraphic Evidence,” Anatolian Studies 66 (2016): 141-83.  (The online link to the article is here.)

The central portion of the article gives a number of inscriptions, each with English translation and commentary, in which the Greek word “angelos” (or the plural form) appears.  This is the sort of data-rich discussion that I find particularly valuable and stimulating.  The commentary is also rich in references to prior studies, and there is a copious bibliography at the end of the article.

One of the broad purposes of the article is to “push back” against some earlier tendencies to posit Jewish and/or Christian influence on inscriptions that appeal to or mention “angels”.  Of course, the Greek term didn’t originate with Jews or Christians, but in ordinary Greek usage, in which it can designate either a human messenger or a heavenly “divine” one.  The term was adopted in the Greek OT as a good translation-equivalent for the Hebrew “malach,” and thereby became part of ancient Jewish and then ancient Christian parlance too.  As the authors contend, unless you’re predisposed to seeing Jewish or Christian influences, there’s little reason to do so.

But they do accept a likely Christian influence/stance reflected in a few, such as one from Phrygia, dated third century CE, on a tomb erected by an Aurelius Zotikos Lykidas.  Part of the rationale for thinking it Christian is the use of what scholars term “the Eumeneian formula” indicated here it italics:   “If anyone places another (body) here, he will have to reckon with God and the angelos of Roubes.”

A number of the inscriptions in question are in burial sites, and warn against disturbing the graves, effectively warning the ire of angels if anyone does so.  They also come from a particular geographical area in present-day Turkey, and a few islands off/near the Turkish coast.  A few others seem to have served to invoke city-deities for their protection of the city.

I can’t here do justice to this careful, detailed discussion of the inscriptions.  One final note:  The authors propose that the inscriptions give us insight into some of the anxieties of the people who had them prepared, these concerns moving them to invoke or threaten the protection of supernatural beings.  In that basic sense, as with all such artefacts, we have physical remnants of the lives of ancient people.


Jesus and God, encore.

Several comments to my posting yesterday, “Jesus and God,” exhibit the fallacious assumption that I posted about a couple of years ago here.  That assumption is that, for purposes of Christian theology, the sayings of Jesus trump everything.  Well, so far as NT authors are concerned, it’s clear that it is God who is the ultimate “reliable voice,” and it is God’s action that is the basis for everything.  Jesus’ significance, in short, is declared by God, and is defined with reference to God.  Indeed, one could say that all Christological claims are, at their basis, actually/also theo-logical claims, i.e., claims about what God is supposed to have done with reference to Jesus.

So, e.g., in the NT generally, the key basis for all other theological claims about Jesus is God’s action of raising him from death and exalting him to heavenly glory.  Prior to God doing so (in the outlook of NT writings), it was inappropriate for anyone to treat Jesus as rightful recipient of worship, for example, in the way that believers treated Jesus in the “post-Easter” period.  So, surprise! surprise!, the Jesus of the Gospels doesn’t receive worship, doesn’t demand it, etc.

The “mutation” in Jewish devotional practice that I underscored in my 1988 book, One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (3rd ed, London:  Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015) took place in the aftermath of the conviction that God had exalted Jesus “to the right hand,” and now required him to be reverenced.  In is in light of God’s action that discourse about God and worship of God was re-drawn to include reference to Jesus programmatically.  (By the way, the 3rd edition of the book includes a new 20,000 word Epilogue in which I engage key works that appeared subsequent to the 1998 edition.)

So, for example, playing off Jesus’ saying in Mark 12:29 in which he cites the traditional wording of the Jewish confession, the Shema, for theological purposes against such passages as Philippians 2:9-11 or 1 Cor 8:4-6 or others is simply fallacy prompted, ironically, by 18th-century Deist thinkers (as I note in the 2014 posting cited above).

Jesus and God

Years ago, in one review of my 1988 book, One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, the reviewer referred to it as “Arian”.  Others have alleged an implicit Nicene orthodoxy being promoted. In a forthcoming book sent to me for advance review, the author characterizes my work as “proto-Chalcedonian.”  These conflicting (mis)characterizations suggest I must be doing something right!

More seriously, these various assertions all reflect a persistent tendency in scholarly discussions of earliest beliefs about Jesus vis-a-vis God:  They all approach the matter via the conceptual categories of the 3rd-5th centuries.  Some, of a more “traditional” leaning, try as hard as possible to find the later categories there in the NT, whereas others, not finding them, make a great show of that.  And in addition, scholars all too often assess the work of other scholars (as I well know) by querying it via the lens of those later issues and categories.  But for historical purposes this is all wrong-headed.

Of course, there’s a historical connection between the earliest and later stages of developments in Christian beliefs about God and Jesus.  But I urge that we approach the earlier evidence in its own terms, seeking to build up more inductively a sense of the conceptual categories used and the import of what is written.  Sort of like being tried by a jury of one’s peers!

My own attempts at this have led me to judge that the statements in various NT writings about the relationship of Jesus and God can be characterized largely as what I would call “transactional” and “relational.”  “Transactional” statements include those that refer to God sending forth Jesus, acclaiming him, empowering him, bearing witness to him, offering him up to suffering/death, raising him from death, exalting him, bestowing on him the divine name, enthroning him as regent over all, requiring him to be reverenced, etc.  “Relational” statements include those that refer to Jesus as God’s “Son,” “Image,” “Word,” “Christ,” as seated “at the right hand” of God, etc.

In my 2010 book, God in New Testament Theology, I’ve judged that Jesus is integral to NT discourse about God, and so integral to the worship of God in the NT as well.  Indeed, he is so integral in NT texts that, for the early Christians whose faith and devotion are reflected in them, to put the matter negatively, to speak about God without reference to Jesus is inadequate discourse about God, and to worship without reference to Jesus is inadequate worship.  Put positively, both in “God-discourse” and in worship, Jesus is integral, even constitutive of adequate talk about God and adequate worship of God.

Now, granted, this doesn’t involve use of later categories of divine “being/essence/substance,” for example.  The NT statements don’t seem to me (at least for the most part) to reflect use, or even awareness, of what are often now referred to as “ontological” concepts/categories.  But, note carefully, the absence of them doesn’t comprise a rejection of them; they just don’t feature.  So, it’s a bit meaningless, either to try to impute those later categories into NT statements, or to posit a conflict with them.  To indulge in such moves isn’t history-of-religion work; it’s theologizing, and, in my view, it’s often rather clumsily done theology.

One of the more sensitive explorations of the relationship between the earlier and somewhat later developments was by the theologian, A. W. Wainwright, The Trinity in the New Testament (SPCK, 1962).  Although I have some disagreements with this work, he helpfully posited that in the NT we have “the problem” of the relationship of God and Jesus, and in the subsequent early centuries we have Christians developing a “doctrine” to solve that problem.  Likely, his work can be improved upon, but it’s illustrative of one attempt (in addition to my own book mentioned earlier!) to respect the differences between NT statements about God and Jesus and the later developments that led to the doctrine of “the Trinity.”  Again, “differences” is simply a historical observation, not a theological stance!

Jesus-Devotion and YouTube

For those who prefer YouTube to reading books (or at least might want to judge first whether to read them), I note again that on YouTube you can find some videos in which I sketch my findings on the origins of Jesus-devotion, for example, here.

I mention this here again because I occasionally get comments and complaints that actual publishing/professional scholars don’t make enough of an effort to communicate to the wider/general public.  Well, in general it’s a fair charge, I guess.  Professional scholars are expected primarily to do original work and to publish primarily in venues directed to other scholars, for the aim is to contribute to shaping scholarly understanding of their subject.  That means publishing material that is “heavy-weight” enough to justify the serious critical attention of other scholars, and, hopefully, to shape critical opinion.

But a number of us (from various perspectives) do try also to contribute to the wider, “general-audience” understanding of the important matters that we investigate.  The YouTube video I mention above is one of my own attempts at this.  From the comments, however, it looks like viewers remain much more interested in touting their own pre-conceived opinions (of various kinds), rather than considering patiently what I’ve tried to express in carefully measured ways.  I disappoint some who can’t seem to grasp, or don’t like, a historical approach; and I get blow-back from others who hold other pre-conceived views.  But, nevertheless, it’s there for those interested.

Epp on Historical Impact of NT Manuscripts

In a recently-published essay, Eldon Epp gives a fascinating and detailed account of the initial scholarly engagement with major NT codices in the 18th-19th centuries:  “Codex Sinaiticus:  Its Entrance into the Mid-Nineteenth Century Text-Critical Environment and Its Impact on the New Testament Text,” in Codex Sinaiticus:  New Perspectives on the Ancient Biblical Manuscript, eds. Scot McKendrick, David Parker, Amy Myshrall, Cillian O’Hogan (London:  British Library; Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 2015), 53-89.

The essay is trademark Epp:  incredibly well-researched and detailed, fully documented, data-rich, and with a fascinating story-line.  (Epp was my PhD supervisor all those many years ago, and he was then and remains exemplary for me in the quality of his published work.)

He starts with the appearance and early use of Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis (Codex D; 05), which began in the mid-16th century.  Then, he recounts the appearance on the scene of Codex Alexandrinus (Codex A; 02), which was presented to the English king by the patriarch of Constantinople in 1621, and how this manuscript (in contrast to Codex Bezae) “was utilized extensively and commanded high respect” among scholars.

Next, Epp recounts the intricate and “long and winding road” (apologies to Paul McCartney) of scholarly efforts to gain access to Codex Vaticanus (Codex B; 03), from initial references to it in 1481, on to the appearance of full editions of the manuscript in the 19th century (including an early photographic facsimile in 1889).  Epp also relates the unsettling impact of Codex Vaticanus, especially on Richard Bentley’s planned project to produce a comprehensive critical edition of the NT:  “…Codex Vaticanus, a premier manuscript for text-critical work ever since its full availability, became the death knell for the most ambitious and systematically ordered project of early modern times . . .” (64).

Then, in the context of the impact of these manuscripts, Epp turns to the appearance of Codex Sinaiticus (Codex א) in the mid-19th century.  Of course, Tischendorf is the well-known figure who brought the manuscript into scholarly study, although the way he did so continues to excite controversy.  The key finding for text-critical purposes, however, was the significant alignment of Sinaiticus with Codex Vaticanus (although, as Epp recounts, this is not consistent through all NT writings).  But these two manuscripts served as the major Greek witnesses in what became influential editions of the Greek NT, especially, of course, Westcott & Hort’s 1881 edition.

Epp finishes up with a brief notice about the subsequent impact of key NT papyri, especially the Chester Beatty papyri and also the Bodmer cache, with special attention to the impact of P75 on estimates of the age and nature of the kind of text found in Codex Vaticanus.  On the widely-accepted date of P75 (early 3rd century CE), this kind of text is shown to be far earlier than Vaticanus, likely taking us back into the 2nd century (but cf. Brent Nongbri’s recent questioning of the dating of P75 noted here, and Orsini’s revised dating noted here).

Along the way, Epp serves up lots of details of the many individual scholars who studied these manuscripts, such as the sometimes-tense relationship between Tischendorf and Tregelles.  He includes an appendix of data about the six manuscripts surveyed, when they each became known, used, collated or published, and another appendix listing critical editions and scholars in NT textual criticism, from Erasmus to Westcott & Hort.  The essay displays the sort of detailed knowledge of the history of NT textual criticism for which Epp is now probably the master-figure.

YHWH’s “return to Zion”

I’ve now uploaded the pre-publication form of my essay in a recent volume engaging N.T. Wright’s massive two-volume work on the theology of Paul, my essay focusing on Wright’s claim that the theme of “YHWH’s return to Zion” functions as “the catalyst” for Christology in the New Testament.  The upload is available here.

I’ve mentioned my essay in earlier postings (cited here), and it will be apparent that I don’t find Wright’s claim persuasive.  Given the prohibitively expensive price of the published volume, this pre-publication version may have some use in making the gist of my argument more readily available.  Those wishing to cite my essay will, however, still have to access the published version.

The “Original” Ending of Mark?

Last year I was given copy of a recent book that presents an argument for Mark 16:9-20 being the authentic ending of the Gospel of Mark:  Nicholas P. Lunn, The Original Ending of Mark:  A New Case for the Authenticity of Mark 16:9-20 (Eugene, OR:  Pickwick Publications, 2014).  It’s a substantial book, and the author has clearly invested a good deal of effort in it.  Moreover, it’s generally free of the sniping sort of comments about those with whom he disagrees that one sees in some (here un-named) advocates of a similar position.  But I have to say that it’s a noble failure to make the case.

To be sure, Lunn is able to score a point here and there in correcting the occasional statement of evidence by some commentators on Mark, especially when discussing the “external evidence” (i.e., evidence of manuscripts and the witness of ancient Christian writers).

But there are failures of his own, among them a failure to distinguish between evidence that material in Mark 16:9-20 was known to this or that ancient Christian writer, and evidence that the writer knew the material as part of Mark.  Other reviewers have noted other flaws in Lunn’s handling of the evidence:  see, e.g., Peter Head’s blog-postings (here, here, and here, with further postings to come I think), and a review by Stephen Carlson here.

This isn’t the place for a full and detailed engagement with the book, in which Lunn also proffers literary reasons that Mark 16:9-20 is original, and tries to rebut analyses about the “non-Markan” language in the passage.  Instead, I’ll simply offer a couple of observations that are telling for me.

Yes, there is reason to think that 16:9-20 was part of some copies of Mark at an early point, perhaps as early as sometime in the early/mid second century.  That’s both true but not as telling as Lunn wants it to be.  Those of us who doubt the authenticity of 16:9-20 think that early on the endings of the other Gospels made people want a more “satisfactory” ending to Mark.

To my mind, the key weaknesses in Lunn’s case are his handling of the resurrection topic, and his attempt to account for the supposed removal of 16:9-20 from Mark.  Lunn makes the Markan witness to Jesus’ resurrection pretty much stand or fall on 16:9-20.  But the Markan witness to the belief is both assured and clear at various other points.  Jesus’ three-fold passion/resurrection predictions (8:31; 9:30-31; 10:32-34), Jesus’ reiteration of this prediction in 9:9), and in 14:28, which the figure in the empty tomb cites in 16:7, and, of course, the figure’s declaration in 16:6 as well, all make it clear that Mark’s Gospel presents the familiar early Christian belief that God raised Jesus from death.  Lunn’s Preface shows his apologetic anxiety about the matter, but he is misguided in thinking that the belief in Jesus’ resurrection stands on Mark 16:9-20 (and the ignorant critics of Christian faith that he cites in the Preface err in the matter also).

Second (and related to the preceding point), Lunn’s proposal for why 16:9-20 was supposedly removed (suppressed?) from some manuscripts is utterly unconvincing.  He proposes that heretical Christians in Alexandria were to blame, because they were uncomfortable with a bodily resurrection notion.  But Lunn doesn’t explain why they didn’t remove all these other references to Jesus’ resurrection in Mark, or why they left the much more extended and explicit appearance-narratives in the other Gospels intact.   And Lunn doesn’t engage the indications that neither Codex Sinaiticus nor Codex Vaticanus (the two early witnesses to Mark ending at 16:8) were copied in Alexandria anyway.  So, how would Alexandrian heretics have affected these two witnesses?

It’s entirely appropriate for scholars from time to time to reconsider positions that are long treated as secure, and seek to test and problematize them, and Lunn’s book is an attempt at this.  But in the end, I don’t think that he answers the key question:  If 16:9-20 was the original ending of Mark, why would Christians have removed it?  For we know that from the 5th century onward it became overwhelmingly accepted.

But  go to Peter Head’s blog postings cited above to see oodles of comments by various others, including some vigorous responses by Lunn.

“Relevant” Exegesis

In a recent book, Margaret Sim lays out an approach to exegesis of the Greek NT that draws upon the insights of linguistics, especially what is known as “relevance theory”:  A Relevant Way to Read:  A New Approach to Exegesis and Communication (Cambridge:  James Clarke, 2016).

Sim is herself an expert in linguistics and completed her PhD here with a fine work that likewise applied “relevance theory.”  The published form = Marking Thought and Talk in New Testament Greek:  New Light from Linguistics on the Particles ἱνα and  ὁτι (James Clark, 2011).  In her more recent book, Sim widens the scope to address verbal irony (and how to detect it), several “small words” such as those addressed in her earlier book, conditional sentences, and several other matters, one of them being “verbal aspect.”

The first couple of chapters lay out in simple terms what “relevance theory” is in linguistics, and how it offers insight into human communication in general and into reading and interpreting texts in particular.  These chapters lay a helpful foundation for all the following discussion.  But the key strength of her work is the provision of copious clear and helpful examples of sentences from the Greek NT and other Koine literature.  Personally, I find it necessary to have such “for instance” examples in grasping any theoretical proposal, and Sim understands that need well.

Essentially, “relevance theory” proceeds on the view that humans seek to make themselves understood, and that we also seek to understand others (which goes against some forms of much-touted “deconstructionist” theory).  So, on this view, Sim shows how speakers and authors kit out their speech and writing to achieve success in communication, and also shows how hearers and readers can improve their abilities in understanding things.

Having myself benefited from an introduction to linguistics back in the 1980s, through studying initially John Lyons, Language and Linguistics: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), which I still think is a good place to begin for those without linguistics training, I’ve lamented for many years how rare it is to find NT exegetes with any understanding of elementary principles of semantics.  For those without any introduction to linguistics, Sim’s book will open up whole new vistas on how to engage the Greek NT.

Dating Ancient Papyri

Further to my recent posts about recent proposals for the dating of certain NT papyri, let me briefly clarify the process of dating papyri, which might well seem a mystery to those not familiar with it.

There are two main types of papyri:  “documentary” (letters, official documents such as land-transfers, marriage contracts, shipping bills, etc.) and “literary” (treatises, poetry, history, fiction, etc.).  Documentary texts are often/typically dated by the writer, which makes dating the manuscript fairly straightforward.  But literary texts are hardly ever dated.  So in their case the only way forward is by estimating the approximate time-frame of the handwriting (often referred to as the “hand” of the manuscript).

Dating ancient Greek handwriting, for example, requires making comparisons with other dated manuscripts, and over the past several decades especially (as more and more papyri has come into view) palaeographers have tried to develop a broad sense of developments in Greek handwriting across several centuries (from the Ptolemaic period, from which our earliest papyri comes, to “late antiquity” or the Byzantine period).  So, when examining some undated papyrus, palaeographers try to place its hand in that broad time frame, looking at the basic “style” of the hand.

They will, therefore, look for “comparators,” i.e., other dated papyri with a “hand” similar to the papyrus under investigation.  It is especially important to look for comparators that are themselves securely dated, i.e., documentary texts.  But, on the other hand, documentary texts are often written in a “documentary hand,” which is much like the difference between modern cursive writing and writing out individual letters.  So, quite often, one must rely heavily on other literary “hands” in manuscripts that have themselves been dated by palaeographical comparison.

There are books containing photos of many papyri of various dates that one can consult to help in this.  But the expert palaeographers will have looked at perhaps a few hundred papyri, developing a close sense of an inventory of “hands” that enables them to make judgements.  This kind of expertise requires a commitment to this task, and the admiration and gratitude of the rest of us.

Sometimes, a literary text is written on the reverse (outer) side of a scroll, a re-use of a scroll.  And if the original use of the scroll was for a dated documentary text, then that means that the re-use must have happened at some point subsequent to the original documentary text, at least giving an “upper” date limit.

But, as with all such judgement-activities, experts can disagree, often by several decades, even a century or so, and sometimes even more.  In part, this is because different palaeographers take somewhat different approaches, some focusing more on the overall appearance of the “hand” and others focusing more on particularities of individual letters, for example.  Also (and this is actually encouraging), sometimes a given expert can change his/her mind, revising an earlier judgement in the light of further reflection on the data.

It’s not, however, simply all subjectivism.  And, contrary to one reported statement by a scholar not himself a palaeographer, it’s not all “bullshit.”  Typically, people today will call for carbon-14 testing.  But, as is evident from recent examples, carbon-14 testing can’t really do more than offer a certain probability for a timeframe of approximately a century or so:  about the same timeframe that palaeographers can offer.

Further, as I noted in a posting a couple of years ago (here) arising from a conference on papyri dating that I took part in, the results of carbon-14 testing of several papyri yielded date-estimates pretty much in agreement with the dating proposed by palaeographers.  These tests, thus, suggest (1) that carbon-14 dating is no more precise than palaeographical dating, and (2) that palaeographical dating by really competent experts is broadly reliable, independently confirmed in these carbon-14 tests.

(For anyone seriously interested in learning more, the following two publications: The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology, ed. Roger S. Bagnall [Oxford University Press, 2009]; and the classic gem by Eric G. Turner, Greek Papyri:  An Introduction [2nd ed; Clarendon Press, 1980].)


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