I (Still) Believe – review

I-still-believeA little while ago, I bought a copy of John Byron and Joel N Lohr (eds) I (Still) Believe – leading bible scholars share their stories of faith (Zondervan, Michigan, 2015) because I thought it sounded interesting. I used it as bedtime reading for a week or two, and then got to read most of the rest of it in one day, whilst killing time between appointments.

It proved to be as interesting as I had expected. The editors have put together reflections from 18 experienced biblical scholars from the US, Canada and the UK, specialists in both testaments, whose faith has not been destroyed by the serious academic study of scripture (even though many people are sure that this is what happens when you do it). I hadn’t heard of all of them but knew and was interested in enough of them to make it worth buying, to my mind. I haven’t been disappointed. It is very clear that academic biblical study has changed what and how these people believe, but it is equally clear that each of them still has a strong Christian faith.

Theologically, they represent a wide cross-section of positions and there are some interesting juxtapositions because the chapters are in alphabetical order of family name.  Bruce Waltke’s piece begins with the statement:

My faith in the inerrancy of Scripture as to its Source and in its infallibility as to its authority for faith and practice was firmly rooted in my formative years, nurtured throughout life by my walk with God, defended in college by an apologetic of defensible partiality, enriched in seminary, challenge throughout life, especially at Harvard, and matured in my career. (p 237)

and follows directly after Phyllis Trible’s account of wrestling with the ‘texts of terror’ in the Hebrew Scriptures from a feminist perspective.

In almost all of the pieces, I found things to which I related, things that struck a chord from my own experience. In particular, however, I warmed to Morna Hooker’s notion that ‘trust’ might be a better word than ‘faith’ to translate the Greek pistis (p 125). She argues that faith suggests a set of particular doctrines that one has to believe, whereas the biblical understanding is rather on relying on someone who is utterly reliable – God in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New.

I was also interested in Scot McKnight’s contention that ‘the church does not need historical Jesus studies.‘ (p 168)  He isn’t arguing that it is a waste of time, but that the conclusions it offers are limited.

I can prove that Jesus died, but I can never prove that he died for my sins; I can prove that Jesus asserted that he would be raised from the dead but I can never prove that he rose for my justification. (p 168)

While I had never thought about it in these terms, I have for a long time thought that much of the enthusiasm for historical Jesus studies lies in the hope that we will be able to prove the Bible and that this kind of aim is hopeless. Faith is faith by definition because it believe in things that are essentially unprovable.

Zondervan has a short YouTube clip in which John Byron talks about the book concept – the wish to combat the notion that doing serious biblical study causes you to lose your faith and an understanding of the importance of testimony. I agree that the testimony of these scholars is important. So often we hear that theological/biblical study makes you lose your faith, and that you can’t tell people in the pews these kinds of things. We hear about the biblical scholars who no longer count themselves as Christian, but very rarely from those who do.

Although I have used it as ‘light reading’ – and it is, in comparison to the material I am reading for my research – it is aimed at people who have a grounding in the academic study of the Bible and much of what the authors write about would probably mystify the average reader-in-the-pew. It would, however, be a valuable resource for people who are preparing for ordained ministry and for those in charge of their preparation and a prompt for reflection for the ordained about how they actually integrated their studies with their faith. For those who can’t read the names in the photo, the book contains chapters by:

Richard Bauckahm Walter Brueggemann Ellen F Davis
James D G Dunn Gordon Fee Beverly Roberts Gaventa
John Goldingay Donald A Hagner Morna D Hooker
Edith M Humphrey Andrew T Lincoln Scot McKnight
J Ramsey Michaels Patrick D Miller RWL Moberly
Katharine Doob Sakenfeld Phillis Trible Bruce Waltke

Criteria of Authenticity

I have been doing some reading around the Criteria of Authenticity for sayings of the Historical Jesus and find that I am now confused. It appears that, despite the fact that scholars talk about The Criteria of Authenticity as though they were an agreed list, they aren’t.

A quick search of the web came up with:

Robert H. Stein, “The ‘Criteria’ for Authenticity,” R.T. France & David Wenham, eds., Gospel Perspectives, Vol. 1, Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1980. pp.225-263.
He has

  1. The criterion of multiple attestation on the cross-section approach
  2. The criterion of multiple forms
  3. The criterion of Aramaic linguistic phenomena
  4. The criterion of Palestinian environmental phenomena
  5. The criteria of the tendencies of the developing tradition
  6. The criterion of dissimilarity on discontinuity
  7. The criterion of modification by Jewish Christianity
  8. The criterion of divergent patterns from the redaction
  9. The criterion of environmental contradiction
  10. The criterion of contradiction of authentic sayings
  11. The criterion of coherence (or consistency)

Stanley E. Porter, The Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research: Previous Discussion and New Proposals. JSNTSup 191. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000.

If Richard Vinson’s review of this for JBL is accurate (and it seems to be from what I can see of the book on Google books), Porter suggests that there have been five criteria but thinks there should be three more.

  1. dissimilarity
  2. coherence
  3. multiple attestation
  4. least distinctiveness
  5. Aramaic background plus
  6. Greek language
  7. Greek textual variance
  8. discourse features

John Kloppenborg has an article on his website where he lists one preliminary criterion, five primary criteria and three secondary ones.

The preliminary one is being very suspicious of anything that lines up too closely with the evangelist’s particular theological leanings. This is followed by:

  1. dissimiliarity
  2. embarassment
  3. multiple attestation
  4. coherence
  5. historical plausibility plus
  6. Palestinian environmental phenomena or Aramaism
  7. stylistic criterion
  8. plausible tradition history

Michael Kok has gone with Kloppenborg’s first five criteria.

All this rather surprised me, because I was expecting to find the criteria used by the Jesus Seminar in voting on the gospel sayings. The book that outlines the process and presents the findings is Funk, Robert Walter, Roy W. Hoover, and Jesus Seminar. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus: New Translation and Commentary. New York, Toronto: Macmillan; Maxwell Macmillan Canada; Maxwell Macmillan International, 1993 and it doesn’t have a neat list of criteria. When you look at pp 16-34, they looked at and for:

The rules of written evidence

  1. Clustering and contexting
  2. Revision and commentary
  3. False attribution
  4. Difficult sayings
  5. Christianizing Jesus

The rules of oral evidence

  1. Orality and memory
  2. The storyteller’s license
  3. Distinctive discourse
  4. The laconic sage

FWIW, my summary of the Funk etal criteria can be found at Jesus_semnar_criteria (because I can’t type accurately and changing the file name now is just too hard). It seems, however, that there is no official set of criteria – or have I missed something?

Music in worship

Yes. I know. Not what you usually get from this blog. But I am on holiday and have been surfing the net. I found a link to Peter Enns’ Rethinking Biblical Christianity Blog and this post piqued my interest. Peter currently attends an Episcopalian service that doesn’t use any music and he enjoys it, even though he likes church music.

I also like music in church. I like to sing and I like to hear harmonies and be part of harmonies. I like a wide range of styles of music that I come across in various forms of worship. It occurred to me as I read Peter’s post, though, that the part of worship that is most likely to alienate me is the hymns. There are hymns that I can only sing if I switch my brain out of ‘find meaning’ mode and just sing each word as it comes up and there are some bits of some hymns that I can’t bring myself to sing at all. In one particularly memorable service, the music person had selected ‘contemporary’ (aka written in the last 40 or so years) music without consulting the worship leader (I knew this because the worship leader had expressed her frustration at the refusal to consult) and I found the clash between the carefully crafted prayers, readings and reflections and the theology of the songs so painful that the only thing that kept me in the building was the fact that I didn’t want the worship leader to think that I was leaving because of something she had done.

Apparently other people don’t do this. They just enjoy the melody and it doesn’t matter what the words say.  Is this the curse of the biblical scholar – the need to examine all text closely?

I wonder how I would find a music-free worship? I know that, unlike Peter, I would not be arriving at church at 7.45 am to find out. 🙂

Burridge and the Life of Brian

Chris Keith on the Jesus blog draws our attention to an article in the UK Telegraph about Richard Burridge’s take on the Life of Brian. I first heard of Richard when I attended an international multifaith university chaplains’ conference in Vancouver. Richard was the Christian keynote speaker and his talk, “The Phoenix in the Marketplace”, used Harry Potter to link what chaplains do in universities into popular culture. His presentation was entertaining as well as helpful. I have referred to his What are the Gospels a number of times in my work on eyewitness testimony and memory and I also enjoyed hearing him when he visited Melbourne a year or two ago while he was on study leave and again reflecting on aspects of Christianity in the context contemporary society. I think the Pope and his advisors made a good choice in presenting him with the Ratzinger Prize.

Reading the Telegraph article took me back to the time when Life of Brian was first released in Australia. Richard says that those who called for the satire to be banned after its release in 1979 were “embarrassingly” ill-informed and missed a major opportunity to promote the Christian message and I can attest to a personal example of this. I was living away from home for the first time, in Brisbane (13 hours’ drive from friends and family). I was attending a continuing Presbyterian church (the more progressive members of the Presbyterian church had joined the Uniting Church and the Presbyterian remnant were contemplating whether they could unordain the women ministers who hadn’t left), so people in the congregation I attended were involved in picketting the local picture theatres because they were quite sure it was satanic. I was studying for a graduate diploma in a group of ten students – one Uniting Church person who had grown up Methodist; one Latter Day Saint, me and seven people who were not actively involved in any religious practice. We got to know one another quite well and hung out together quite a bit. Several of the seven wanted to know what the churches had against it and since I was the religious person who went to the pub with them (they wanted to know why the Uniting Church person wouldn’t – weren’t they good enough for her?), they asked me. I had to say that I didn’t know – the newspaper reports made no sense to me, either, but I wasn’t willing to go and see it at the picture theatre  because there was a very good chance that I would be spotted by a picketter and I didn’t know how to cope with that.

I have since seen it several times and cannot believe that anyone could possibly see such brilliant satire on the factions within the church as satanic.  It’s much more a wake-up call to people who get so fixated on the fine detail that they can’t see the big picture and had I attended a screening at the time, we could have had a very worthwhile discussion about it at the student bar, because these people were genuinely interested in what Christians believed and why. I certainly agree with the Telegraph article’s concluding quote from Richard:

They were satirising closed minds, they were satirising fundamentalism and persecution of others and at the same time saying the one person who rises above all this was Jesus, which I think is remarkable and I think that the church missed that at the time.

Maybe the Python reunion this year will provide us with the opportunity to redress that missed opportunity.

Robbins on his book

The latest post on Christopher Skinner’s PEJE IESOUS blog talks about Vernon Robbins’ new book Who Do People Say that I Am? which I also mentioned recently. Chris has provided links to three posts by Robbins here, here and here on Eerdblog which provide some back story to three of the chapters in the book and also give you a flavour of the way Robbins writes. As Chris observes, the book is aimed at teaching. It has minimal footnotes together with a bibliography and series of discussion questions at the end of each chapter. The questions encourage readers to compare the text of the various non-canonical texts with the canon. The two chapters that I’ve read present good scholarship in a way that is accessible to the non-scholar without ‘dumbing it down’ so it would be useful in a theological book club setting as well as in formal classes and at USD25 it is very affordable. Definitely on my list to finish reading when I don’t have to concentrate more or less entirely on Thomas.

Asking questions, getting answers

Returning to my blog after a longish break, I came across this half-written post and thought I might finish it and publish it.

At the end of last year for the first time I was teaching earliest Christianity during the leadup to Christmas. It was a very interesting experience to sit in the pews and listen to preachers talking about the Advent readings from a faith perspective whilst preparing lectures for Studies in Religion students and then reading essays about the challenges for the early Jesus movement. Something that has stood out starkly for me is that the information that you get from the text depends to a very large extent on the questions you bring to it.

The Studies in Religion students had been asked to write about the challenges that the members of the early Jesus groups faced and how they responded. The preachers were talking about the challenges that Christians today face and how we might respond to them. Both groups were using the Bible as a primary source of their answers, but the answers they were giving me were quite different- or they should have been. Unfortunately, some of the students gave me information about how to live as a Christian today, which, whilst not unreasonable things to read out of the text, was the wrong answer to the question they were addressing. Because the preachers I was listening to are good preachers, I didn’t hear sermons that just told me about how the early Jesus groups responded to the challenges of their time, but I have certainly heard this kind of sermon in the past. Usually the preacher of the latter kind of sermon has offered a very reasonable assessment of the situation at the time of writing of the text, but it has not been the right answer to the questions that most members of congregations bring to Sunday worship.

The early Christian texts are capable of providing answers to a range of both historical and faith questions and I think it’s perfectly valid to ask both kinds of questions of them, but it’s important not to confuse the answers. Or to try to force the answers to your questions down the throats of people who are asking different questions. As someone whose initial training in biblical studies was focussed on answering faith questions, I find that I have to watch quite carefully at times that I don’t slip into that mode in my current writing, but careful historical work is an essential basis for the faith work.

Faith, biblical studies and teaching in ‘sectarian’ universities

Over the past few days, one of the hot issues in the blogosphere has been the sacking of Anthony Le Donne from Lincoln Christian University because the understandings expressed in his writing do not line up with the university’s confession of faith (see for example Larry Hurtado, Jim West, Chris Skinner, Ben Witherington III and James McGrath). It sounds as though the university has done a really bad job of dealing with the issue and I am very sad for Le Donne and his family and also sympathetic to his colleagues.

I haven’t read the book in question (although I’ve just ordered a copy from the library) but I have read his 2007 “Theological Memory Distortion in the Jesus Tradition: a Study in Social Memory Theory” in S. C. Barton, L. T. Stuckenbruck & B. G. Wold (Eds.), Memory in the Bible and Antiquity (pp. 163-177), Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, which I found helpful in my article on eyewitness testimony. I can see, however, how the average conservative evangelical Christian would have issues with comments like “memory is distortion. This is so regardless of any claims to veracity” (p. 168) although he explains that this is because it is not possible to view an object from every perspective or to recall an event without emphasizing some details.

Much though we might like it to be otherwise, the reality is that an awful lot of biblical scholars teach in institutions that prepare people for ordination in particular christian churches and this has always been the case. They are therefore not doing their teaching and research in a vacuum. Not only that, a significant proportion of biblical scholars are confessing Christians and maybe some keep their research and their faith in two separate compartments in their lives, but most don’t. This stuff doesn’t make you lose your faith!! If, however, my theological training institution was anything to go on (and I’m sure it was), very little time is actually spent on trying to help students preparing for ordination to make sense of what they are being taught in terms of their faith, so they are left to their own devices to work out how to communicate what biblical scholarship teaches about Scripture and many, fearing the same kind of reaction from their congregations as Le Donne has had from his university’s board, say nothing. Others just view it as a hoop they need to jump through in order to be ordained and forget everything they’ve learned as soon as they pass their exams. In either case, they don’t share what they’ve learned with their congregations.

Helping them isn’t all that hard, either. Last year I presented my work on human memory and eyewitness testimony to a local lay preachers’ course. I told them basically what Le Donne says – human memory is simply not accurate. You can’t rely on eyewitness testimony to be “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”, especially 30 years down the track. The student from one of the very conservative congregations in our region came up to me afterwards and said that she had thought that she was going to really hate what I was saying, but instead had found it incredibly helpful. This is because I went on to talk about what I believe this means for our use of Scripture (that we can’t reasonably preach a sermon that turns on one or two words in a biblical text) and about the role of our faith in God in guaranteeing the trustworthiness of Scripture. Really, all that our research on human memory, social memory and eyewitness testimony is demonstrating is that we are not ever going to be able to produce empirical evidence that the Bible is true. We are just saying “we can’t prove this”, not “this isn’t true”. Why is that such a big deal? People of faith have been dealing with that for a couple of millennia. And furthermore, being able to provide very convincing empirical evidence for something does not mean that people will believe it, anyway. Look at the evidence for climate change. Psychological research also demonstrates that people are very good at believing what they want to believe and ignoring evidence that conflicts with their world view, except under specific circumstances (and I don’t have the research readily available and can’t remember what the circumstances are).

I don’t think people in the field of academic biblical scholarship have actually helped, either. I think there is a big difference between allowing the particular teachings of your faith group to shape what you see and say during your research and reflecting on what the consequences of your research are for Christian faith. It seems to me that Lincoln wants Le Donne to do the former and he clearly can’t and maintain either his academic or personal integrity. I believe, however, that if you are being funded by a christian body to teach and do research, you have a responsibility to do the latter, and not just in your own mind. So often, however, when people in biblical discussion forums try to do this, they are howled down for being ‘confessional’. But where else but in a group of people who are also specialists in the field can you work out where the holes are in your thinking before you present a case to those who are not educated in the area? Surely, we owe it to the people who donate from their wages and savings the money that pays our stipends to show them how you can know these things and still remain Christian? So often when I do share it, I am greeted by relief that what people had suspected but were afraid to ask is true, often swiftly followed by anger that no-one had told them about it years ago.

And maybe, if more of us (both ministers and biblical scholars) had been doing this for longer, Le Donne would not have been sacked for telling the truth?


Death of CK Barrett

CK Barrett died on 26 august, aged 94.  He was not only a fine biblical scholar (and all around good guy, from what I can read) – he was also an excellent communicator. When I was studying Romans, Barrett’s Reading Through Romans was a favourite commentary amongst the students because in it Barrett presented good scholarship in an extremely readable form.  Barrett was one of the people who showed me early in my theological/biblical studies that it is possible (and extremely desirable) to write so that your reader doesn’t need a dictionary and to read your writing through mulitiple times in order to follow your argument. This gave me hope that I could actually pass the subject! He was certainly one of the giants on whose shoulders we now stand (thanks to Ben Witherington via Michael Halcomb for this image.)

As an aside, I remain perplexed by the number of scholars who seem to think that the aim of writing is to sound erudite, rather than to communicate ideas – or maybe it’s because in this ‘publish or perish’ academic climate, people don’t have the time to polish their work for readability. 😦

I first read about this in a digg post by James McGrath, linking to his longer post on Exploring our Matrix.


Why study early Christianity?

A few days ago, one of my FaceBook friends who is studying theology as a candidate for ordination in the Uniting Church in Australia (ie my denomination) put up a status update saying she was fascinated by the reading she was doing on the Gospel of  Thomas, to which someone else responded that they’d immediately thought of Thomas the Tank engine. This got the response from someone else that you would learn as much about salvation from Thomas the Tank Engine as from the Gospel of Thomas.

This caused me to wonder just how many people read the Bible simply to learn about salvation, and how many people study theology/biblical studies just to learn about salvation? It has certainly never been one of my motivations, but I am a big fan of knowledge for its own sake rather than for how I can use it.

Having said that, if my sole reason for studying early Christian manuscripts was to learn about salvation, then it is possible to learn things from GosThom if you have an enquiring mind. About 50% of GosThom has parallels in one or more of the Synoptics and I certainly find that when I read the material I’m working on (the parables of the Reign/Kingdom of God in GosThom and their parallels, where there are any, in the Synoptics) it causes me to view the canonical material with new eyes. I find myself saying “Oh, I didn’t realise that it said that!” So, you know, if the Bible is really the inspired word of God and God really does speak to us through it . . . 🙂

Hmm – I wonder if I should tag this as a “reasonably intemperate rant”???

PS: I would actually be interested in why other people study early Christianity – do you do it to learn about salvation or for some other reason?

Learning, teaching and researching biblical studies

The first article in the Spring 2010 JBL is David Clines’ presidential address from the last SBL Annual Meeting. His topic is “Learning, Teaching, and Researching Biblical Studies, Today and Tomorrow” and in it, he looks at using student-centred learning in Biblical Studies.

I found it particularly interesting because I have been working as a research assistant on two teaching and learning focussed grant projects over the last few months, as well as teaching into a Religious Studies unit on Earliest Christianity. These three things have started me thinking about effective ways of teaching and learning and Clines’ article pushes some of the things I’ve been thinking a bit further.

He talks about designing courses around the outcomes that students want and around the learning styles that best suit them, and about teaching them to be researchers from day 1. Thus, he recommends asking students what they want to get out of a course at the beginning and then designing learning material around this. This sounds like a great idea. It would certainly make the transition to postgraduate studies easier. One of the common problems that we experience with new postgrads is that they expect their supversiors/advisers to organise everything for them and the supervisors know that this is not their role but often forget to point this out. Students who were used to being part of a research culture would cope much better.

Lots of students, however, don’t want to be researchers. They want to get the degree they need to get the job they want and they resist strongly any notion that university education should be more than being told what they need to know and the practical skills they need to get the grades they want. Lots of the students I went through ministerial formation with just wanted to pass the course so they could be ministers. Clines draws the distinction between knowledge, which allows you to:

  • name
  • describe
  • list
  • state
  • given an outline of
  • given an account of
  • give and example of
  • summarize

and understanding, which enables you to

  • explain
  • give reasons for
  • give reasons against
  • find connections between
  • discuss the issue of
  • show the purpose of
  • state the meaning of
  • show the importance of
  • state the results of
  • draw conclusions (p 10)

(Bother – I hit publish before this was ready to go…)

IMHO, the attributes of someone with understanding are what is wanted in ministers and something that employers want in a wide range of fields, but the challenge is to get students to see this.


I also wanted to comment on the practicalities of totally student-driven courses. At least here in Australia, it takes about 3 months to get enough text books for all the students in a course into the bookshop and the library resources can be rather limited if you have a large class, so there is a limit to how flexible you might be able to be in developing courses once you have students enrolled and ready to start.

I’m also not sure that Clines’ ideal of designing learning around the preferred learning modes of the students you have in your class is do-able, but certainly developing a range of ways of helping students to engage with the material is possible and a good thing. This is, of course, a challenge for a teacher who is not a multimodal learner. I did the questionnaire that Clines pointed to at www.vark-learn.com and discovered that I am quite strongly read-write. When I read ideas for developing learning for other styles, I found myself saying “but students wouldn’t want to do that, surely?”

And, of course, the more student-centred you make your classes, the more work assessing them is going to be, because you will have a wider range of assessment tasks to get your head around as a marker.

Looking back over this, it sounds as though I am rather negative about the article, but I’m not. I think people teaching Biblical Studies (or any other theological discipline) really need to give it some serious thought, if they’re not already doing the things he is talking about.

Complete reference: David J A Clines. “Learning, Teaching, and Researching Biblical Studies, Today and Tomorrow”, JBL 129, no 1 (2010): 5-29