So, I’m hoping for an NA28 for Christmas. Nevertheless,  in a recent research seminar here in Cardiff, I was interested by a comment from Hugh Houghton of the University of Birmingham who said, ‘Don’t worry if you don’t get an NA28, the NA29 is just round the corner.’ Admittedly, when quizzed afterwards, ’round the corner’ probably means a couple of years, but still.

From the proposed timeline he showed us, there may be quite a number of new editions over the next decade or so as the Editio Critica Maior approaches completion. Although this will lead to lots of blue volumes on the shelf, I don’t see this as a bad thing (apart from financially). Quite apart from increasingly reliable and useful text and notes, I hope this plurality of editions will move us away from seeing NAxx as a definitive and fixed text. It was fascinating, now that I’m in a primarily Religious Studies department, to hear scholars of other religious traditions arguing that the quest for a single text (albeit eclectic and with apparatus), seemed to them to be unhelpful, and ideologically driven. They considered it far more intellectually useful to work with actual texts, along with their variants. Happily, this is the way that things seem to be going with the advent of excellent online resources (e.g. Codex Alexandrinus has gone online this week). Nevertheless, such an approach is generally not practical for much work in NT studies, and NAxx is still a very useful tool. But I take the general point and want to avoid the ‘laziness’ that reverence for the ‘default’ text can bring. So here’s my suggestion for future editions: how about putting the apparatus at the top (i.e. making actual MSS the main feature) and the text at the bottom?

Having said this all this, Santa, I hope I’ve been a good boy this year.


So we are familiar with Jesus being described as the son of David. However, a listener to BBC Radio 4 asked whether this might not be so significant because there could potentially have been many such descendants at the time. Of course, we recognise that this description carries a particular theological significance in the Bible, but it nevertheless raises an interesting question: how many descendants of David (assuming he was a historical figure) might there have been in Jesus’ day?

The startling and non-intuitive answer by evolutionary biologist Dr Yan Wong is that, mathematically speaking,

all of Jesus’ contemporaries [would] be descended from David… This is a good illustration of what’s been called the “genealogical paradox”

A mathematical possibility does not, presumably, tell us very much about actuality, although it is a very interesting idea (with implications for claims of common Abrahamic descent, etc.). For the full argument, and rather mind-boggling mathematics, see here. The podcast for the associated radio programme, More or Less, is also available for download.

Mark Goodacre has recorded the sad death of Christopher Evans (C.F. Evans), the former Lightfoot Professor here in Durham. Mark says,

His commentary on Luke (1990) is probably the best scholarly commentary on Luke available in the English language…

High praise indeed, and it is certainly an excellent commentary. If you haven’t already got it, the good news is that it is in the Summer sale at SCM Press for £10 plus postage (paperback – reduced from £50). There are also a number of other goodies.

Every Thursday morning on BBC Radio 4, Melvyn Bragg hosts an endlessly fascinating discussion on a scholarly topic between three researchers in the field, called ‘In our Time‘. I always think it is worth the license fee for this programme alone. Right now (0930 GMT), Judas Maccabeus is getting the treatment by Philip Alexander, Helen Bond, and Tessa Rajak. Listening to the discussion, I hadn’t realised that the historical value of 1 and 2 Maccabees goes so relatively unquestioned. Since this is hardly advance notice (sorry), it will be available via iPlayer from the ‘In our Time’ homepage in due course.

I enjoyed two excellent papers last week, as the NT Research Seminar started up again here in Durham. There has been an attempt to include more research students this year, and the first papers were by two of them: Lionel Windsor and Wesley Hill, both third-years supervised by Prof. Francis Watson. Both papers looked at aspects of Romans. Lionel’s project focuses on Paul’s identity through the perspective of his vocation as a Jew. In this light, Paul’s missionary activity, for example, can be seen as a fulfilment of his Jewish calling: ‘providing God’s revelation to non-Jews’. Lionel offered a reading of Romans 2:17-29 from this viewpoint, raising issues about the Law and making the interesting suggestion, among others, that the setting imagined by the text was the synagogue. Wes’ thesis is equally ambitious, seeking to ground Paul’s Christology in the ‘matrix of trinitarian relationships’. In other words, the ‘place’ of Christ cannot be understood apart from the relationships with Father and Spirit. He sought to demonstrate this by reference to Romans 4, and in particular, that Paul is reading the example of Abraham through the relationship between God and Jesus, and that God raised Jesus provides a hermeneutic for reading the Abraham story.

For those who are interested, the rest of the term’s seminars are below.

17 October                  Dr Benjamin Schliesser (University of Zurich), “The Dialectics of Faith and Doubt in Paul and James”

24 October                  Prof René Bloch (University of Bern), “Who was Philo of Alexandria? Tracing autobiographic passages in Philo”

31 October                  Dr Simon Gathercole (University of Cambridge), “The Religious Outlook of the Gospel of Thomas

7 November                Prof John Barclay, Paul and the Gift  (book preview)

14 November              Dorothee Bertschmann, “The Good, the Bad, and the State: What is the meaning of to agathon in Romans 13.1-7?”

Leonard Wee: “Features in Paul’s Summaries of OT Historical Narratives”

28 November              Prof Lewis Ayres, “Grammar, Polemic and the Development of Patristic Exegesis 150-250”

5 December                 Dr Eddie Adams (King’s College London), “Were the Pauline Churches House Churches?”

12 December               Prof Francis Watson, Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective (book preview)

As I mentioned in my post yesterday, the review committee of the 2011 edition of the ESV can be seen discussing how they translate terms to do with slavery (see here [edit – it is also available on YouTube]). Given their openness to the TV cameras, it would be interesting to know if they intend to publish their reasons for changes made. This is because the change on which they vote and agree at the end seems most surprising.

The vote is on how to translate doulos in 1 Cor 7:21-23. Almost all modern English Bibles, including previous editions of the ESV, translate this as slave. However, the committee decide to change this to ‘bondservant’ in the 2011 edition (see here). I find this a strange decision for a number of reasons:

  1. In 1 Cor 7:15, they have translated the cognate verb as ‘enslaved’. I think this is the right translation, but if they can stomach it here in relation to marriage (!), why not six verses later when the actual institution of slavery is in mind?
  2. In 1 Cor 12:12, they have translated douloi as ‘slaves’, probably because of the opposing eleutheroi. Yet we have this same combination of terms in 7:21.
  3. Bondservant is an archaic term which hardly makes the meaning plainer to the average reader.
  4. Although dictionaries suggest that ‘bondservant’ is synonymous with ‘slave’, as far as I know, it is not the same. The former represents so-called ‘debt slavery’ (or similar forms of bonded labour), while the latter is ‘chattel slavery’. In the former, the individual sells their labour whereas in the latter, they sell themselves (in neither case should this necessarily be taken to imply that it is the slave’s decision). This distinction can be seen in the Torah’s different approach to Hebrews and non-Hebrews who are enslaved, although the ESV there uses the term ‘slave’ for each. But by the 1st century CE, doulos had become the most common word to refer to a chattel slave. What evidence did the reviewers have that supported this different kind of slavery here?

I worry when I see translations of doulos other than ‘slave’, that we are hiding from the reader some of the hardness of the text and the reality of the ancient world. I’m not sure this is the intention here, and to be fair to the reviewers, the footnote says that doulos might refer to slaves, and refers the reader to a preface to which I do not have access. Perhaps all would become clear if I could read that. Moreover, in general, the ESV is an improvement on many versions since it regularly translates doulos as ‘slave’. This makes the review committee’s decision all the more surprising. If this is true elsewhere, why not here?

Rob Bradshaw has pointed out a clip on the BBC (apologies if it doesn’t work for viewers outside the UK [edit – it is also available on YouTube, ht John Byron]), which shows part of the discussion between the 2011 ESV review translators on how to translate terms for slave. I am particularly interested as this impinges on my current research on slavery in the Synoptic Gospels. The clip shows something of the challenge of translating a subject which carries so much historical freight, especially for those in the States, the main market for the ESV I suspect. Peter Williams suggests that ‘ebed should be translated as ‘servant’ everywhere, since the implication of translating it ‘slave’ would make Israel to be slaves to God. It seems to me possible that this is precisely the meaning of the term. Gordon Wenham picks up the idea and argues for a consistent translation as ‘slave’, but Wayne Grudem has concerns about the ‘irredeemably negative connotations’ of the word today. I presume he means that since we see slavery as a bad thing, this would colour our reading of the Bible which often uses the concept without any sense of disapproval. However, I disagree that this would be importing ‘highly inaccurate understandings of the meaning of the term.’* The discussion then moves to a vote on 1 Cor 7:21-3. I will comment on this in part 2, but I take it that their discussion was ultimately seeking to encompass slavery in the NT which is what I want to comment upon here.

I fear that this is evidence of the persistent idea in biblical scholarship that slavery in the ancient world can’t have been all that bad, because we hear of some slaves being well treated, some slaves gaining riches and positions of authority, and some (even many) being manumitted in the Roman world. This, however, is a highly selective reading of the evidence. In NT times, the majority of slaves worked in the harsh, even brutal, conditions of agriculture, and as far as we know, were rarely manumitted, perhaps because they did not live long enough. Those who were household slaves had the dubious privilege of being close to their owners. For younger women and boys, this often meant sexual attention, and all household slaves were the recipients of physical violence at the whim of their owner, as the parables indicate. The slave owner decided slaves’ relationships, and owned any children produced. Slaves experienced terrible punishments under Roman law, even when their offence was carrying out the criminal intentions of their owner. Moreover, slaves’ testimony could only be received under torture. The majority of slaves were cut off from their places of origin, their culture, language, and kin, never to return to them. And this included those lucky slaves who found freedom and fortune. On any level, such an account of slavery is bad, and attempts to see ancient slavery in any kind of rose-tinted light should be abandoned.

I rather like the ESV as a modern ‘word-for-word’ translation (as they put it), and I’m glad the reviewers paid such care and attention. But they ought not to try to protect the Bible from its readers (or is it the readers from the Bible?). Slavery is there and slavery was and is bad. We do an injustice to the biblical texts, and to the unnamed and unnumbered slaves, if we try to pretend otherwise.

* I recognise that the clip is edited, so the discussion was no doubt more nuanced than it suggests.

[21/9/2011 Edited to remove the non sequitur between paras 1 and 2]

I am entering late into this discussion (perhaps too late in blog time), but this is my first opportunity to do so. As is well known by now, Larry Hurtado has been expressing the view (here, here and here) that New Testament PhD students in Britain should have reached a certain standard of linguistic competency by the time of completion (which could include testing at the viva – no thanks, I’m scared enough as it is). For traditional NT PhDs, this seems a reasonable proposition. However, there need to be some fairly major changes to the teaching of theology in the UK if this is to be taken seriously.

At Durham, we naturally have opportunities to study both ancient and modern languages, but I wouldn’t like to have started any from scratch. I am doing this with Latin this year, but fear that I may not be able to devote the time to make it stick. Realistically, therefore, the British candidate needs a reasonable competency prior to beginning research.

In which case, there needs to be more emphasis on languages earlier in the education system. It is pretty much expected these days that applicants for PhD will have an MA in an appropriate subject. These degrees are described by the AHRC as ‘Research Preparation’ degrees since they are meant to be the preparation stage for the PhD. In my Biblical Studies MA at King’s College London, we had to take a module in a language, either ab initio or advancing previous study. This is good, but is it enough? Should there not be a larger language component if the PhD is the aim? However, one academic year is not a lot in the study of a language. This turns the spotlight on undergraduate degrees.

Which is a problem, because it is quite possible to get a degree in Theology and Religious Studies in the UK without studying any ancient languages. Then again, there are plenty of subjects within this field which do not require them. However, if we are hopeful that there will be future generations taking up the discipline, then they will need the tools to enable them to do so. This is particularly acute with ministerial training in almost all denominations (a route which many PhD students have typically taken), where courses often avoid original language study altogether.

If we enforce Hurtado’s language requirement for the PhD and do not change our earlier theological education, then I fear for those educated in the British system. I fear that this will mean in practice that the subject of traditional NT Studies will remain open to (a) those who are self-motivated enough to do the language study on their own (good for them); and (b) those who have studied Classical languages at school, which in the UK, almost entirely means public school (i.e. private school). I am not comfortable with the potential class implications of this, and indeed, it would be interesting to know how many of our current senior figures in the subject have a public school background which has contributed to their linguistic ability.

In other words, this is an important topic with implications for the structure of theological education as a whole, and not just for reasons of academic competence.