Is it just me…

…or is it somewhat odd that Review of Biblical Literature would publish a review in German of the English translation of a German commentary on the Gospel of Thomas (or any other book)?

The book in question is Uwe-Karsten Plisch’s The Gospel of Thomas: Original Text with Commentary translated by Gesine Schenke Robinson. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2008 and the review is written by Tobias Nicklas from Regensburg University.

The description from the RBL website (I assume this is the publisher’s blurb) says:

This edition presents the texts in the classical languages and provides an English translation and a readily readable commentary. It includes: an introduction to the Gospel of Thomas; the complete Coptic text; the text of the Greek fragments and a Greek retranslation of all logia with parallel texts from the canonic gospels; an English translation; an extensive commentary; illustrations of the Coptic manuscript; an appendix with an index and bibliography. The introduction and commentary do not assume knowledge of the classical languages, making The Gospel of Thomas accessible to a broad audience.

Nicklas’ review is positive and it contains several passages from the English text which give a feel for Plisch’s writing style.  His concluding paragraph says (in my English translation):

The result is clear: U-K Plisch has produced an extremely interesting, important volume, which not only offers the necessary tools for beginners who are engaged in [studying] the fascinating text of  Gos Thom, but will also be consulted with some profit by the expert.

This is clearly a book that I need to own and I’ve already placed an order.  Unfortunately, it’s not a particularly cheap book (given that it’s paperback) and although the Australian dollar is looking significantly better on the world exchange market than it was a couple of weeks ago, it’s going to cost me AUD91.53 by the time I have it shipped to me. :-(  Readers in the US will be able to buy it much more cheaply through Amazon.com, where it qualifies for their free shipping deal.

And is this a potential gym reading project? Well,  making an informed analysis of the translation of the Coptic text won’t be possible – although the sight of my trying to juggle the commentary and my hardcover copy of Crum on the very small platform on the exercise bike might amuse other gym users. It may well be possible to get an overview of the line of argument though, seeing I won’t need to have a separate copy of the text, and  I should have finished Schottroff by the time this book arrives.

Update

I am impressed! I ordered this book on 30 March from Amazon, using the standard international shipping rate which predicts 18-32 days to delivery.  It arrived on 15 April ie less than the predicted minimum time.  Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to take more than a cursory glance at it. :-(  It also turns out that the book is hardcover, which makes the price much more reasonable.

The next gym reading project

Today I started on my next reading project for the gym:  Luise Schottroff’s The Parables of Jesus. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006,  originally published in German in 2005 as Die Gleichnisse Jesu. I’ve had it on my bookshelf since May last year when it was recommended to me by someone on the biblical-studies email list, but presenting a paper at SBL Auckland and writing it up as a journal article got in the way of reading it. Unlike the Bird and Crossley book, this one has the potential to have direct relevance to my doctoral work.

It is interesting, well written, well translated and clearly going to make me think really hard.  In the chapter I’ve read so far, she takes the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple from Luke’s gospel and suggests the church has had it’s interpretation wrong over a very long time. She argues that other evidence from the time of Jesus suggests that Pharisees of the time did not normally act as the one in the story does – that both the Pharisee and the tax collector were acting out of character.  Pharisees would not normally give the public impression that they were the only true believers and tax collectorst would not normally go to the temple to pray.

Hmm.  If that’s the case, what do we make of the “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees – hypocrites” of Matthew 23? Maybe I am going to need to read it again, without the distraction of the people and background music in the gym.  Expect another review when I’ve finished it.

Review: How Did Christianity Begin?

Finally finished Michael Bird and James Crossley‘s How Did Christianity Begin? A believer and non-believer examine the evidence. Last week I hardly got to the gym at all, which limited my reading time – it was, as I anticipated, a good read.

Mike, who is a lecturer in New Testament at the Highland Theological College in Dingwall, Scotland, but a fellow Aussie, is the believer and an evangelical Christian.  James is lecturer in New Testament at the University of Sheffield (UK) and the non-believer.  After the introduction where Mike provides  “the Christian view on the birth of Christianity” and James provides “the secular view on the birth of Christianity”, the chapters take the same format:  one of them writes the first section, the other then writes the second, in which he both comments on the first and provides his own perspective, then the writer of the first section comments on what the writer of the second has written.  They take turns to be the author of the first section.

Clear as mud?  OK, this is how it works:

  • Chapter 1: The historical Jesus – James, then Mike, then James
  • Chapter 2: The resurrection – Mike, then James, then Mike
  • Chapter 3: The apostle Paul – James, then Mike, then James
  • Chapter 4: The Gospels – Mike, then James, then Mike
  • Chapter 5: Earliest Christianity – James, then Mike, then James.
  • Chapter 6 contains a response to James by Scot McKnight, another believer of evangelical persuasion; and a response to Mike by Maurice Casey, who I assume is another non-believer although I don’t know enough about him to be sure of this.
  • There is a brief section entitled “final reflections” which is written by both.

The first five chapters have suggested further reading at the end.

I bought the book because I have other writing by all four of the contributors and while I rarely agree totally with what they say, I am always impressed by their scholarship and they always give me enough information to enable me to come to my own conclusions. This book is no exception.  I found myself sometimes agreeing with Mike, sometimes with James and sometimes coming to a third conclusion on the issues they discussed.

I found it easy to read.  I liked the fact that while both Mike and James presented their positions strongly, neither of them was attempting to do a “hard sell” attempt at converting me.

As someone who has been a Christian minister for over twenty years, I am obviously inclined to take a faith perspective on the Bible. OTOH, as someone who has spent most of her ministry working in secular institutions, I am also very aware that an awful lot of what Christians believe comes across as seriously weird to the non-believer. However, most of the anti-Christian rhetoric that I meet is very ill-informed.  People typically tell me that they could never be a Christian because Christians believe X and cite one or more of the worst excesses of fundamentalist Christianity which I also find totally untenable. I found reading Crossley and Casey’s well-informed arguments and reasonable alternatives fascinating and enlightening, if ultimately unconvincing. Bird and McKnight’s offerings were also refreshing in that they present evangelical Christianity without the emotive, guilt-inducing overtones against which I react so strongly.

I am not sure how the average “person in the pew” or “person on the street” would cope with the level of technicality of some of the argument, but it’s certainly something I’d recommend to anyone asking thoughtful questions about how to understand the origins of Christianity, and to those Christian professionals to whom they bring their questions.  One very minor quibble – you may have noticed that I put some words from the introduction in quotation marks.  I am not sure that there is anything that can be described as the Christian view or the secular view of the birth of Christianity.  I would have said a Christian or secular view.

Full publication details: Bird, Michael F. and James G. Crossley and Scot McKnight and Maurice Casey, How did Christianity begin? : a believer and non-believer examine the evidence. London; Peabody, Mass.: SPCK ; Hendrickson Publishers, 2008.

Looking forward to a good read

I am very pleased that today’s mail contained my copy of Mike Bird and James Crossley’s new book How Did Christianity Begin? The timing is good because I had run out of things to read in my regular exercise bike rides in the gym and was finding that The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants was failing to hold my interest for a second reading and my paperpback edition of the complete Chronicles of Narnia is just a bit big to balance on the bike. It is my current aim to write at least a short review once I’ve finished it, although sometimes time gets away on me. :-)

Update: It occurred to me after I posted this that it might be possible to understand it as the suggestion that James and Mike’s new book is of about the same standard as Sisterhood.  In fact, I was just trying to demonstrate the depths to which I had sunk.  Ideal exercise bike reading for me is not so technical that I need to access reference books or concentrate intensely, but nevertheless stimulating and challenging.  I read 15 pages this afternoon and How Did Christianity Begin? is proving to be excellent bike reading!  I would also recommend Scot McKnight’s The Blue Parakeet and the introductory sections of Bill Loader’s The New Testament with Imagination, although the actual commentary on the passages requires juggling book and biblical text and is beyond my on-bike capability.

Biblical Studies Carnival XXXIX

Darrell Pursiful has put up Biblical Studies Carnival XXXIX over on his Dr Platypus blog. It’s excellent and on time.

I had intended to suggest a post for inclusion but March snuck up on me so I’ll just link to it here:  Tim Bulkeley’s contribution to the discussion on What should a Bible Translation look like?

I agree with him that the section headings in Bible translations can be misleading.  There are definitely section headings that push a particular theological barrow – such as the one that often appears in Ephesians 5 to separate v 21 from 22, thus making it look as though submission in marriage is not supposed to be a mutual thing.  Sometimes they’re just inaccurate, like the one in Matthew 14 that tells us that Jesus feeds 5,000 when the text actually tells us that there were 5,000 men plus women and children.  This happens again in ch 15, where the 4,000 of the heading is also just the number of men. Headings at the top of the page work for me in my dictionary – although it would be good if the headings at the top of columns provided info about all the sections on the page, not just one item, as is the case in my RSV.  I would definitely keep the notes that indicate translation issues – it might decrease the number of church-goers who genuinely believe that their particular translation conveys exactly what Jesus said.

The verse numbers are essential and chapters are definitely useful.  I’m not sure about paragraphs.  They save space but they probably also sometimes make arbitrary divisions in sense units because of the editor’s theology.

The chapter and verse divisions are not, however, self-evident to the beginner reader.  A student I knew who grew up in an atheist home borrowed a copy of Moltmann’s Creating a Just Future from me and reported the next day that it had taken him over an hour to work out how to find the references in the Gideon’s Bible he had at home but he persevered because he found Moltmann so fascinating.

My pet peeve is the habit of starting the pagination again at the beginning of the New Testament.  While it may be useful for private study, it’s a total pain in a pew Bible. “The reading can be found on page 26 of your pew bibles” says the reader about the gospel reading for the day.  The friends and family members of the couple who’ve brought their baby for baptism all understand this as a command and then look totally puzzled when the bit they’re looking at in the blue book that the rest of the congregation has picked up  is telling them all about the exploits of Abraham and Sarah and the bit they’re hearing is telling them about the teachings of Jesus. Yet another reason for them not to bother coming back again!