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 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

Provable vs true

Not long ago, one of the IT staff who was in my office to sort out access to the new network on campus asked me if my research often came into conflict with my faith. He was killing time waiting for some process or another to work through and making polite conversation. 🙂

I said no, mainly because I ask different questions when I’m doing research. I posted on this a while ago, but would like to revisit it in the light of some thinking that I’ve been doing recently.

As a result of my work on memory and eyewitness testimony, I am more firmly convinced than ever that we are never going to be able to prove that we have access to the authentic words of Jesus. I don’t see that this actually matters a great deal from a faith perspective, although it should have a significant effect on how we do our exegesis.

I am a fan of detective stories and TV shows and as such am well aware of the importance of having an alibi for the time of a crime if you want to be removed from the list of suspects. I am also aware that there are significant portions of most of my days when I would not be able to provide an alibi if I were accused of a crime because my office is fairly isolated and once the door is shut to keep out the cold or the heat, no-one knows whether or not I’m there. Because I connect to the internet via my laptop, the fact that I’d sent and received emails wouldn’t prove my location, either, just that I was somewhere on campus, I think. The fact that I can’t prove that I was in my office doesn’t make it untrue, but whether or not people were prepared to believe me would depend on my track record for honesty in the past and they would take into account whether I had an obvious motive for committing the crime and for lying.

At home, if I say to my son “Did you use the last of the grated cheese and not put it on the shopping list?”, his reply is most likely to be “You can’t prove that!” And, of course, unless I or someone else was watching at the time, I can’t. If there was cheese in the fridge fifteen minutes before and he was the only one in the kitchen, it’s highly probable that he was the person responsible. If it’s been several days since I last saw cheese in the fridge, any member of the family except the puppy could have done it, but he is the most likely person because he uses the most grated cheese and is more prone than his sister to not put things on the shopping list. His father is also not so good at putting things on the list, but doesn’t use grated cheese except under extreme duress. I am not perfect about putting things on the list, either, but I would almost certainly remember having used the last of the cheese when I went to get some more. Also, my son usually only says “You can’t prove that!” if he’s responsible for the thing he’s telling me I can’t prove. I can therefore say that even though I can’t prove it, on the balance of probability it’s true.

I think that this is the best we can hope for in biblical studies (or any study of  historical events that took place before the advent of modern technology) – until such time as someone produces a machine capable of time travel and miniature recording devices that are not visible to those being observed, anyway. Furthermore, our assessments of the likely reliability of particular sources of information is fairly subjective, so we aren’t going to agree totally on what deserves the “balance of probability” vote.  The fact that I can’t prove something doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, though.

I’ve come a long way…

…since I started my theological training.

I came to the United Faculty of  Theology in Melbourne as a reasonably conservative, evangelically inclined Christian. I loved learning from the Uniting Church, Jesuit and Anglo-catholic Anglican professors, but I remember saying to a friend of mine one day that I was quite concerned because something that Bultmann had said had made sense to me. I was equally concerned to find myself agreeing with Cardinal Ratzinger.

I was reminded of this today because I have been re-reading Robinson and Koester’s Trajectories Through Early Christianity, (1971) Philadelphia, Fortress Press and in the introductory chapter, Robinson talks about bringing Bultmann’s work to the US. I am no longer at all alarmed when I find myself agreeing with Bultmann and his school, and I was most impressed by Koester’s analysis of the parables in GosThom in “One Jesus and Four Primitive Gospels” in Trajectories. It is still a very rare occasion, however, when I find myself agreeing with Benedict XVI although I find the work of many other Catholics really helpful and illuminating. 🙂

Even though I didn’t consciously believe that God dictated the Bible word for word when I started my theological training, I certainly had no appreciation of why people might be suggesting that what I was reading was not in its original form (although I did understand about the translation issues). It would have been good if the lecturers had spent some time on the background material before they threw form criticism at us, given that they all complained about how uniformed we were when we hit the place. It’s not as though it’s all that difficult – my campus bible study group quite enjoyed comparing the Thomasine parallels to the Matthew 13 parables in 2008, and don’t seem to have lost their faith as a result – although they do seem to be heavily into social justice. 🙂

As an aside: I really, really don’t like the way that you can scroll through the “reference type” drop-down menu box in Endnote by turning the scroll wheel on your mouse. I notice that I have managed to list “One Jesus” as a patent, rather than a book section, because I forgot to click outside the box before I turned it!

Sexism and other forms of bias/prejudice

Possibly we are fairly much all over the issue of women in the bibliobloggosphere, but…

April DeConick posted about the insidiousness of sexism. I agree. Men who in general are amazingly supportive of women’s equality with men will occasionally come out with some comment that is based on sexist stereotypes of the roles of men and women in society. This doesn’t make them anti-women – it simply means that there are areas of their thinking that haven’t overcome their social programming. Women can also be sexist – and they can have sexist attitudes that are biased against men but they can also pigeon-hole themselves and other women on the basis of their gender. Men can also limit themselves and other men on the basis of gender. The thing is that we have all been taught to differentiate between people on the basis of gender since we were very small. Some do it more often than others and some think it’s perfectly OK and just the way God ordained it, while others don’t.

Racism is the same.  I used to think that I was pretty much immune to stereotyping based on race until I went to the sixth birthday party of my friend’s son.  He came over to tell me something about what Andrew had done.  I asked which one Andrew was and was told “the one in the red jumper”. As well as wearing a red jumper, Andrew was also the only Chinese-ethnicity child in the room and I would have said “the Chinese boy” – although it turned out that both he and his parents had been born in Australia. I have no particular negative stereotypes of Chinese people, although I do tend to expect them to be more polite in general and more respectful of older people in particular than is the average Australian.

That incident, however, caused me to stop and think about how often I actually do make judgements about a person based on their race, or socio-economic status, or job or even gender. I do it somewhat more often than I’d like, but I try very hard not to and I try very hard to get to know people at least a bit before I make judgements about them.  Doesn’t always work, of course, because I’m not perfect and because sometimes I just don’t have time to get to know people. We all stereotype, all the time.  We would go crazy if we had to stop and assess every chair-like object for ‘chairness’ before we sat on it and every table-like object for ‘table-ness’ before we put things on it. It’s not unreasonable to expect that the person in the department store wearing a shirt with the store’s logo on it is, in fact, an employee of the store and most of them would become quite irate if every customer said “Excuse me, do you work here?” before they asked a question about the store.

When this becomes a problem is when these assumptions are used to limit people or when they are used as a basis for hatred and discrimination. If someone has gifts/skills that enable her/him to do a particular task, her/his gender, race, sexual orientation, socio-economic background etc should not stop her/him from doing it. If we consider a particular gift to be of God and worthwhile in one person, surely it must be of God and worthwhile in all? And even if you don’t think gifts come from God (perhaps on account of being atheist), the worthwhile argument still holds.

As you will recognise if you have been reading this series of posts on this blog, I have been suggesting that a significant part of the reason for the lack of women bibliobloggers is that the church as institution has held onto sexist understandings of the role of women significantly longer than has secular society. One of the things we can all do to combat it is to examine our attitudes and try to avoid any that limit people on the basis of their gender. A bit of positive discrimination can’t do any harm, either, as long as it’s not patronising, grudging or designed to show someone up in a poor light. In other words, I don’t think it’s helpful to say things like “this surprisingly good post by a woman blogger….” or “I guess, in order to get the femi-mafia off my case, I need to add some women…” or to highlight the post of an inexperienced and unqualified woman together with those of some of the giants in the field (unless the woman is holding her own amongst them, of course!)

And now, I plan to resume posting mainly on GosThom and early Christianity. At least for a while. 🙂

How women operate in churches

As I have been thinking about the issue of women bibliobloggers, I remembered that about ten years ago one of my colleagues noticed what seemed to be a discrepancy in who gets most “air time” in church meetings. He decided to do some research during our annual Synod meeting and kept a record of how much speaking time people had. The way that representation works in our church means that Synods have roughly equal numbers of lay and ordained people and they try to ensure that at least one third of the participants are female (which tells you something about representation straight away).

He corrected his statistics for numbers present and found that male clergy took up by far the greatest speaking time in meetings – far more time than would be expected from the proportion of them present. Next came lay men who also took up more than their share.  Female clergy more or less held their own and lay women largely sat and listened. Because only about 20-30% of our clergy are women, my guess is that about half the lay people were women to get the one-third female overall figure right.  And, of course, more than half the members in congregations are female.

In the course of this discussion, it has been noted that the proportion of women studying in seminaries (we call them theological institutions) and doing course in studies in religion in secular universities is significantly higher than the proportion of female bibliobloggers.  Perhaps those who teach in these places can tell us, though, how much the female students participate in class discussions when they are not delivering papers? I suspect that the dearth of women bibliobloggers is a mirror of how women students participate in class discussions and church meetings.