August 2013


Today is the 5oth anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.  It is hard for me to think that such egregious, institutional racism existed here in the US so recently.  King’s speech was truly a prophetic call to national righteousness, and it’s for this reason that I show it every semester when we talk about the OT Prophets, particularly Amos 5 which he cites.

As I consider Dr King’s call to equality, it makes me question how far we have really come. While there remains great disparities between ethnicities (e.g., home ownership, income distribution and prison populations), we have made some great social advances, as evidenced by the election of Barak Obama.  Of course, many communities remain segregated, but I’m fortunate to live in the most ethnically diverse county in the US.  Although the Southern Baptist Convention sided with injustice in the past and many congregations remain just as segregated as 5o years ago, it raises the question of how far religiously we have come.  I’ve argued earlier that MLK, Jr Day should be considered a Christian holiday, and so his NT-based ideals should be instantiated in our churches and institutions.

I’m proud to note that HBU is one of the most ethnically diverse campuses in the US because we reflect the full diversity around us.  According to my assessment of the US News statistics, we are the 3rd most diverse university/college in the US.  Our diversity index is .76, and that number is higher than all the  National Universities, all the National Liberal Arts Colleges, all the Regional Colleges and all but two of the Regional Universities (the category in which HBU is situated).  Of course, this doesn’t mean that we have reached the place that King talked about, but I’m happy to know that Christian institutions, even Baptist ones, can help be at the forefront of racial reconciliation.  May we continue to strive towards the dream of a multi-ethnic community as the NT and MLK call us to.

Warren Carter’s Seven Events that Shaped the New Testament World (Baker, 2013) is a clear and well-written introduction to issues relevant for understanding early Christianity. The book is structured around seven crucial ‘events’ (using the term loosely at times) that impacted the world of early Christianity. The seven events are:

  1. The Death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE): explores the significance of the spread of Hellenism and compares Alexander with Jesus
  2. The Process of Translating Hebrew Scriptures into Greek (ca. 250 BCE): discusses the tale of the Septuagint and how early Christians read the Scriptures with ‘Jesus-glasses’
  3. The Rededication of the Jerusalem Temple (164 BCE): explains how the Maccabean revolt and the events following it helped form Jewish identity
  4. The Roman Occupation of Judea (63 BCE): describes the rise and impact of Roman rule in Judea and how early Christians responded to Roman rule
  5. The Crucifixion of Jesus (ca. 30 CE): addresses who was crucified in the ancient world and why Jesus was crucifed both historically and theologically
  6. The Writing of the New Testament Texts (ca. 50 — ca. 130 CE): goes over briefly the standard introductory issues, such as authorship and purpose
  7. The Process of ‘Closing’ the New Testament Canon (397 CE): outlines five stages that lead to the canon and then surveys some of the criteria for canonization

Carter explores the historical and social context of these events. His concern is less with individual figures or the event itself. Rather, he is interested in a ‘people’s-history’, so he explores the relevance of these events for the lives of the common folks. He highlights in each chapter the significance of these events for the development of the early Christian community. Spread throughout are pictures and sidebars that briefly explain related issues or develop some point in slightly more detail.

Scholars won’t find anything surprising in Carter’s discussion, although as with any short book like this one would wish for some more explanation at points. At times I thought that Carter presented conclusions as universal givens when there is dispute about the matters. For example, the discussion of the authorship of the disputed Pauline letters was too one-sided for me. Also, each chapter contains a short bibliography, although the lists don’t reflect well ongoing discussions and tend to be one-sided.

Perhaps the most disputed point will be the selection of these seven events. I think Carter is right to highlight these, but I wondered why there was nothing about the resurrection. Arguably the cross is meaningless without the resurrection. The chapter on Christ’s crucifixion needs to be supplemented by discussion of the resurrection for the full significance to come out.

Although Carter’s work is focused primarily on the ancient context, scattered throughout and particularly in the Conclusion are reflections on the relevance of the New Testament for today. I appreciate his concern to bring the ancient context of the New Testament  into connection with its relevance for today. His final words are worth highlighting:

Reading with awareness of the worlds from which these texts emerged and reading in community help readers to have genuine conversation with the texts and with other readers, rather than simply making the texts reflect our prejudices and preferences. Reading in community requires awareness of how readers are interpreting the texts, what values and practices they are promoting, and who is being harmed and benefited by the interpretation. Reading in community requires conversation and accountability. (p.159)

Overall, I like this book and especially the idea of picking seven key events to focus on. I imagine that designing an Introduction to the New Testament class around these events would help students navigate the complexity of the ancient world and early Christianity’s place within it. Also, it would move beyond the typical approach of working book by book through the critical issues. I, though, wouldn’t use the book itself as a core textbook simply because it lacks the necessary detail that I want in an core textbook. But, that being said, I will be recommending it to my students as a starting point to help them get into the context of the New Testament.

Tavis is part of the newer Durham (i.e., Dunelm) crowd, and he has a great post about learning languages and the discipline and time it requires.

Abbey House Sojourner

I daily contemplate how I can improve my reading ability in Greek and Hebrew (as well as German and French). Now, I consider myself a very disciplined person, setting goals both short and long term, sticking diligently to my reading plans, getting up early or staying up late to finish my intended number of pages or chapters, etc.

Still, I know that I am not as good at these languages as I should be. Applaud me for even attempting to study them if you’d like, but you see, I’m not the kind of person that ever does something half-mast. Ask my wife to describe me and she’ll use one word: “intense.” (I prefer “motivated.”)

My self-assessed shortcomings in the languages are scary, because I’m about to begin a PhD in New Testament studies at Durham University, considered by many to be one of the best theology departments in the world.

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Every semester I introduce my students to a range of Jewish literature. In the first year module, Jesus and the Gospels, for example, I give a brief overview of the historical context and review the relevant collections of Jewish literature. We also spend several sessions looking at non-canonical gospels and comparing them with the canonical Gospels. But, despite trying to get my students to read the ancient material, many remain resistant. Some lack motivation. Others don’t see the value: they have their Bible so what else do they need? Some, however, do take up the challenge. I think the spectrum I see with my students is fairly typical of the response of most Christians, and it seems that the majority of my students and Christians I know don’t see any value in understanding the historical context.

Mike Bird draws attention to a helpful piece by Andy Naselli addressing the issue of whether or not ‘background’ (that is, historical) knowledge is necessary for understanding the Bible. Andy gives a ‘cautious yes’, and Mike adds some good points as well. Two additional points seem relevant to note:

1. It seems to me that the debate about whether historical awareness is necessary arises because we have translations. If I wanted to read a Russian novel, then I would need to learn Russian which would include reading about Russian history and culture, for the two (language and culture) cannot be separated. If all Bible students and Christians had to learn the original languages, then this question of historical knowledge wouldn’t exist.

To be clear, I’m not advocating that we do away with translations. It just seems to me that a key reason we even ask the question about the necessity or importance of historical awareness is because translations are available and the reader then assumes that he or she can properly and fully understand the Scriptures.

2. If we hold that no historical knowledge is necessary, then one must ask why God choose to reveal himself through Israel and for the Incarnation to occur during the Roman period rather than some other historical period. God could have simply dropped the Scriptures from heaven at any time and in any language. He could have used metaphors and concepts that fit better with our context. But he didn’t, and because he didn’t it is vital that we seek to understand the language, history and culture of the ancient world in order to understand better and more fully the meaning of the text.

I recently read a novel set in England at the beginning of the 11th century. After finishing the novel I read about some of the events described because there were parts of the story that didn’t make sense to me. This wasn’t the author’s fault. Rather it was my lack of knowledge about the period and I wanted to understand better the setting of the story. The same is true of Scripture. Any reader of Scripture, whether in the original languages or translation, can get the basic story line, but there will always be gaps in one’s understanding without some knowledge of the historical context. The more one knows about the historical and social contexts and the languages, then the better chance one has to understand the text in its fullest meaning. And for those who are able to study the historical context, the greater the responsiblity that is placed on them to teach and help those who are not given this privilege.