Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all of my readers. I will be taking a hiatus from blogging for a few days. See you in the New year!

Friday, December 21, 2012

O Little town of Bethlehem: A City Hoping for Peace

In 1997 we spent Christmas Eve in Bethlehem with another couple. We spent the day wondering the town and the church of the Nativity  We had been there many times before, but this was Christmas Eve. Where else would one want to be on this day? We were even interviewed by a reporter from a Denver newspaper. Later that night the various Christian groups would hold services in the church to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

But the town was surprisingly empty. I had expected large crowds to be flocking to the place of Jesus' birth, but the Israeli's had enforced a closure that day and many of the tourists were unable to get in. In fact, the annual Bethlehem Christmas parade was delayed for quite a while because the Israelis would not allow the Catholic bishop past the check point. In the end, the parade went on without the bishop. It consisted of about 30 Palestinian Boy Scout and Girl Scouts banging drums and carrying flags without the guest of honor.

So how did we manage to get in? We went in the back way. Elias, a friend of ours, lived in Bethlehem and came to Jerusalem to get us. He knew the back way and we were able to avoid the Israeli check points. 

The below video is from modern Bethlehem and talks about the story of Christ's birth interwoven with the Palestinian peoples hopes for peace this Christmas season. One of the men, Zak, is a friend of mine from the Old City of Jerusalem. 

May God grant peace to all people in that part of the world.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Is the Virgin Birth based on a bad translation?

In an interview on BBC 5 today Francesca Stavrakopoulou claimed that the Virgin Birth is based on a mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14. This is not an uncommon claim and is often used to make it sound like Matthew and the early Christians didn't know what they were talking about. 

Well the response has been quick. Timothy Michael Law explains why Professor Stavrakopoulou is overstating the case for mistranslation. Not  far behind him is Mark Goodacre with an epsidoe of the NT Podcast. Mark suggests that calling Matthew's understanding of Isaiah 7:14 a mistranslation fails to appreciate the complex exegesis Matthew is doing. 


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

An obituary for American Evangelicalism?

I don't usually wade in on topics like this on my blog, but I found this op-ed piece in the New York Times to be interesting. 

John Dickerson, pastor at Cornerstone Church, has written about what he perceives to be the decline of Evangelicalism in America. In the piece he demonstrates that the movement doesn't seem to have the influence it once did, but he also holds out hope. Here is a part I found most interesting, if not prophetic. 

How can evangelicalism right itself? I don’t believe it can — at least, not back to the politically muscular force it was as recently as 2004, when white evangelicals gave President George W. Bush his narrow re-election. Evangelicals can, however, use the economic, social and spiritual crises facing America to refashion themselves into a more sensitive, spiritual and humble movement.
We evangelicals must accept that our beliefs are now in conflict with the mainstream culture. We cannot change ancient doctrines to adapt to the currents of the day. But we can, and must, adapt the way we hold our beliefs — with grace and humility instead of superior hostility. The core evangelical belief is that love and forgiveness are freely available to all who trust in Jesus Christ. This is the “good news” from which the evangelical name originates (“euangelion” is a Greek word meaning “glad tidings” or “good news”). Instead of offering hope, many evangelicals have claimed the role of moral gatekeeper, judge and jury. If we continue in that posture, we will continue to invite opposition and obscure the “good news” we are called to proclaim.

I agree with the above diagnosis, but I am not sure if Evangelicalism is worth saving. The term and the movement have become associated with so many things that stand in opposition to the traditional meaning of "evangelical" that it is probably time to recognize that we are better off without it. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Fabricating Jesus: Craig Evans on what we know about Jesus

Over the years there have been a number of books that claim to help us find the "real Jesus".  Sometimes these claims are made by scholars, often not. Craig Evans wrote a book a couple of years back entitled Fabricating Jesus (IVP, 2008). The below video from St. John's Nottingham features an interview with Craig about his book and those who "fabricate" Jesus.

HT: Brian Leport

Monday, December 17, 2012

Have doctors discovered what killed Herod the Great?

Petere Ustinov as Herod the Great
This being Christmas time, the name of Herod the Great will be mentioned many times in church services and Nativity plays. Herod, of course, is the infamous king of Judea who, according to Matthew 2:1-18 ordered the killing of all the children two years old or younger living in Bethlehem. The story presents Herod as attempting to wipe out a potential rival to his throne. 

Although we have no corroborating evidence for this story, it does fit into what we know about the man. He was responsible for killing his own wife and several of his sons. He even ordered that, upon his death, all of the leading figures of Judea be executed so that there would be some level of mourning when he died, even if not for him. Herod was a nasty piece of work and was clearly not a very popular person. Caesar Augusts is supposed to have once said " I would rather be Herod's pig than his son."

Well Herod didn't escape life without a painful death himself, at least according to Josephus. And the Montreal Gazette has an article today that explains the kind of death Herod suffered and asks medical experts: "what killed Herod?" Here is a bit of what the article has to say.

“He had a fever, though not a raging fever, an intolerable itching of the whole skin, continuous pains in the intestines, tumours of the feet as in dropsy, inflammation of the abdomen and gangrene of the privy parts.” He also suffered, according to Josephus, from “limb convulsions, asthma and foul breath.”
The doctors of the day were, not surprisingly, flummoxed by this combination of symptoms. They used the contemporary therapeutic armamentarium, including immersing the patient in a bath of hot oil. But Herod received no relief, and the bath burned his eyes.
The clinically curious of today can turn to the more modern Historical Clinicopathological Conference put on by the University of Maryland, which brings experts together periodically to examine the death of a famous personage, and which recently tackled Herod’s case. The combination of symptoms was a challenging one, especially the presence of gangrene of the genitalia — something one does not see every day. The scientists used a clever bit of clinical reasoning and came to a tentative conclusion: chronic kidney failure of unknown cause complicated by the rare (thank God) Fournier’s gangrene of the testicles. There are other candidates, of course, such as syphilis or other sexually transmitted diseases, but the kidney diagnosis seemed to fit the symptoms best.

All very interesting, but I am not convinced. Without some type of forensic evidence, I am not sure we can really know how Herod died. Moreover, I think Josephus' description of Herod's death is colored in such a way as to communicate to his readers that this is the way that evil people die. It was a common literary motif in ancient literature to describe the death of the wicked in very gruesome details. Here are two examples in Acts. 

Acts 1:15-19

15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) 16 and said, “Brothers and sisters, the Scripture had to be fulfilled  in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus. 17 He was one of our number( and shared in our ministry.” 18 (With the payment  he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. 19 Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language  Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)
Acts 12:21-23
21 On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. 22 They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” 23 Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.

It seems that having problems in the bowels was commonly understood as a painful way to die, and just the way you would like to see your enemies die. Look at these other examples from antiquity, one a very graphic description of the death of Judas.

Papias Tradition concerning Judas (early 2nd Cent CE). 

Judas walked about as a great example of ungodliness in this world. His flesh was so swollen, that when a wagon was passing through the street he was unable to pass through; there was only enough room for his head. The eyelids over his eyes, it is said, protruded so much, that he did not see light, and that a doctor could not make his eyes visible with optical instruments. To such an extent was the light shut out from outside. His genitals of indecency were more disgusting and yet too small to be seen. There oozed out from his whole bursting body both fluids and worms. After much suffering and agony, it is said that he died in his own place. And this place is out of the way and the piece of land is uninhabited until now. No one even to this day passes by the place without stopping up his nose with his hands. Such was the opinion spread about the country concerning his body.

Antiochus Epiphanes the infamous persecutor of the Jews in the 2nd century BCE recorded in a 1st century BCE (2 Maccabees 9:5-7, 9-10, 28): 
 ‘But the all-seeing Lord, the God of Israel, struck him with an incurable and invincible blow.  As soon as he stopped speaking he was seized with a pain in his bowels, for which there was no relief, and with sharp internal tortures – and that very justly, for he had tortured the bowels of others with many strange inflictions.  Yet he did not in anyway stop his insolence, but was filled even more with arrogance, breathing fire in his rage against the Jews, and giving orders to drive even faster.  And so it came about that he fell out of his chariot as it was rushing along, and the fall was so hard as to torture every limb of his body..... and so the ungodly man’s body swarmed with worms, and while he was still living in anguish and pain, his flesh rotted away, and because of the stench the whole army felt revulsion at his decay.... so the murderer and blasphemer, having endured the more intense suffering, such as he had inflicted on others, came to the end of his life by a most pitiable fate, among the mountains in a strange land.  

King Joram, who had caused the people of Judah to turn away from God (2 Chronicles 21:18-19):

‘And after all this the LORD smote him in his bowels with an incurable disease.  In the course of time, at the end of two years, his bowels came out because of the disease, and he died in great agony.  His people made no fire in his honor.... he departed with no one’s regret.  They buried him in the city of David, but not in the tombs of the kings.’

I could provide more, but I think you get the point. Besides, it is a bit early to be reading this type of material. I once had a student leave my class very white from reading some of the above descriptions. But in any case, I am not sure that we should accept Josephus's testimony about the type of death Herod experienced. It follows too many of the literary conventions used to describe the death of evil people, which is what most of Herod's subjects thought of him. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Blame the weather on the Bible?

Here is an interesting poll. Reuters is reporting that 4 out of 10 Americans blame weather disasters like  hurricane Sandy on biblical predictions about the end of the world than climate change. 

Here is what the article says.

Nearly four in 10 U.S. residents say the severity of recent natural disasters such as Superstorm Sandy is evidence the world is coming to an end, as predicted by the Bible, while more than six in 10 blame it on climate change, according to a new poll.
The survey by the Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with the Religion News Service found political and religious disagreement on what is behind severe weather, which this year has included extreme heat and drought.
Most Catholics (60 percent) and white non-evangelical Protestants (65 percent) say they believe disasters like hurricanes and floods are the result of climate change.
But nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of white evangelical Protestants say they think the storms are evidence of the “end times” as predicted by the Bible.
Overall, 36 percent point to end times and 63 percent to climate change.PRRI research director Daniel Cox said that some respondents – including 75 percent of non-white Protestants – believe extreme weather is both evidence of end times and the result of climate change.

Read the full story here.

Bible Series: Mary did you know?

I don't know if I have mentioned it before, but in the spring the History Channel will be airing a ten part series entitled The Bible. It will be a series that highlights sections of the Old and New Testaments.

Here is a video clip with some scenes from the life of Jesus with the song Mary did you know?

Book Giveaway Winners!

Congrats to our two winner!

Charlotte Yamada has won  Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes.

Annie Foerster has won the NIV Greek and English New Testament.

Charlotte and Annie, please send your details to by Monday and I will send you the books.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Funding Opportunity for a PhD in Early Christian Gospels at the University of Durham

If you are interested in persuing a PhD in New Testament with a focus on gospels you may want to consider applying to the University of Durham in the UK. I received the following announcement from Francis Watson this afternoon.

My AHRC-funded project on “The Fourfold Gospel and its Rivals” has aPhD studentship attached that will provide three years worth of homefees (or equivalent) and living expenses in 2013-16. The double focusof the project is on early Christian gospels (canonical andnoncanonical) and on gospel reception in the patristic era, whichshould cater for applicants wishing to work primarily in the NewTestament field or in patristics – although some overlap would belikely. I’d be most grateful if colleagues would draw this opening tothe attention of current or recent students who may be interested inpursuing a PhD in this area.

The following suggestions illustrate the kind of PhD topic that wouldfit the terms of the project, but many others are equally possible:

(1)     The Protevangelium of James in its relationship to Matthew andLuke, and its later historical and theological significance.
(2)      Patristic views on gospel origins, from Papias to Augustine.
(3)     The relationship between selected “gnostic” gospels (e.g. Mary,Judas, Philip, etc.) and the canonical ones.
(4)     The construction and purpose of either Marcion’s Luke or Tatian’sDiatessaron.
(5)     Revelatory discourse in John 14-16 and selected “gnostic” gospels.
(6)     The role of writing in the transmission of the early Jesustradition: how far back does it go?
(7)     Tradition, reception, and the “historical Jesus”.
(8)     Factors involved in the construction of the four-gospelcollection.
(9)     The hermeneutical significance of the four gospel collection.
(10)    Public responses to publication of newly discovered gospelliterature, c.1890-2012.

Applicants should have a good first degree in theology/religiousstudies, a completed or a current MA, and experience in the study ofthe Greek New Testament. Applications will be submitted in the normalway (for which see the Durham Department of Theology and Religionwebsite), specifying the AHRC project studentship. A detailed researchproposal will not be essential, although it may be an advantage.Preliminary enquiries may be addressed to Prof Francis Watson( The closing date for applications for thisposition will be Monday, 25 February 2013, and the successfulapplicant will be notified in early March.
 As a Durham grad I can highly recommend the program and the experience. Best of luck to all who apply!

Digital Versions of Ancient Manuscripts now Online

The University of Cambridge has announced that online publication of some of religious documents. Here is a bit from the article. 

Launched in December last year (2011), the Cambridge Digital Library has already attracted tens of millions of hits on its website. Among the 25,000 new images being made freely available at are a 2,000-year old copy of The Ten Commandments (the famous Nash Papyrus) and one of the most remarkable ancient copies of the New Testament (Codex Bezae).

HT: Pete Williams at Evangelical Text Criticism

Three links that I have chosen are:

1) The Nash Papyrus:

The Nash Papyrus. Named after the Egyptologist who purchased it at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Nash papyrus is a very fragile second-century BCE manuscript.  Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it was by far the oldest manuscript containing text from the Hebrew Bible, and even now it remains among the most ancient.

2) Codex Bezae:

The Codex Bezae is one of the most important New Testament manuscripts. Containing the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles in Greek and Latin, it is thought to date from the late fourth or early fifth century. Codex Bezae is striking in containing many unique forms of the text, including, a saying attributed to Jesus found in no other sources, a longer ending that was added to Mark’sGospel and a strikingky different version of Acts. In addition to the high-quality digital facsimile of the Codex, the Cambridge Digital Library includes a new edition of the manuscript with full Greek and Latin transcriptions, including information about its many corrections, prepared by the International Greek New Testament Project 

3) The Cairo Genizah:

The Cairo Genizah Collection (selection). The Taylor-Schechter Cairo Genizah Collection is the world’s largest and most important single collection of medieval Jewish manuscripts. Obtained from a synagogue storeroom (genizah) in Egypt in the late 1890s, the collection contains 193,000 manuscript fragments, obtained by a Cambridge professor, covering all aspects of life in the Jewish community at Fustat, near Cairo, over a period of a thousand years. The digital library currently contains several thousand items from the collection. This will expand over the next few years to include the entire collection, along with a further 7,000 fragments from the long hidden Jacques Mosseri Genizah Collection. The digitisation of the Genizah collections has been sponsored by the Jewish Manuscript Preservation Society, the Friedberg Genizah Project, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

On Preaching a Difficult Text: 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16

 Here is another installment of my Tuesdays with Thessalonians. Today I look at 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16, a set of verses that have proven to be very troublesome for the church at times. In fact many NT scholars don't think they were written by Paul. I happen to do think Paul wrote them, which makes dealing with them even more difficult.

14 For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews 15 who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone 16 in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.

There are times in life and ministry when we are tempted to lash out against those whom we perceive to be opposing us or causing us grief. At the same time, we know that the witness of scripture often calls for a very different reaction. We are called to demonstrate self-control, to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. So when we read in the Bible a statement that appears to display a lack of these virtues it is difficult to know not only how to interpret, but how to apply such passages.

The above verses represents one of those occasions when we are left scratching our heads wondering about what we have just read and how we can preach it. Some have chosen to simply avoid the topic. The Revised Common Lectionary, for instance, omits 2:14-16 from the preaching year. Similarly, the Catholic Church’s Liturgy of Hours omits Psalms 58, 83, 109 and selected verses from others because they are “harsh in tone and would present difficulties in worship” (Kenton Sparks, Sacred Word, 46). But ignoring such problem texts could be labeled irresponsible since it assumes that people don’t read their Bible and will never wonder what to do with these verses.

The need to wrestle with these texts is highlighted by church history. There have been times when Christians, based on a reading of difficult texts like this one, enacted persecutions and oppression against Jews. One only has to look at some of the cringe inducing statements made by Martin Luther to realize that the church carries much responsibility for helping to lay the theological groundwork for the Holocaust (Martin Luther, On the Jews and Their Lies). This has led, in turn, to charges that Paul was anti-Semitic and so is, by extension, the church.

What we need to remember, however, is that Paul is using insider language to talk about his fellow Jews. And this language, harsh as it might sound to us, needs to be read in its historical and cultural context. Paul is certainly frustrated with the actions of some of his fellow Jews in relation to the gospel, but his comments should not be interpreted as his final say on the subject.  His comments about Jews are the result of a theological disagreement over the identity of God’s Messiah, not a repudiation of Israel as God’s people. There is no suggestion here that he no longer views himself as a Jew. In fact, in later letters Paul will boast of being a child of Abraham, an Israelite, a member of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews and will go so far as to wish that he could be cursed and cutoff from Christ for the sake of his own race (Rom. 11:1; 2 Cor. 11:22; Phil. 3:5). Moreover, Paul is not publicly abusing them. He is a Jew critiquing other Jews. And Paul will have similarly harsh language for his fellow Christ followers who he considers to be either perverting the gospel or challenging his authority (e.g. Gal. 5:12; 2 Cor 11). There is nothing worse than the church airing its dirty laundry for the whole world. And that is exactly what Paul is not doing here.

One thing we should take away from this passage is a caution about how we use language, especially in the public sphere. In an age when any and every word we utter can literally travel around the world in seconds we need to be cautious about the words we use. The Bible has a lot to say about the words we speak and the damage they can cause (Prov 12:18; 21:23; Luke 6:45; Col 3:8; Jas 1:26). Today, however, our culture thrives on “gotcha sound bites” and the “politics of personal destruction.” Rather than engage those we disagree with we eviscerate them with words. Christians, however, should be willing to discuss issues in ways that are consistent with the gospel.  This is true both inside and outside the church. Paul didn’t have to worry about people with whom he disagreed taking his words out of context and putting in a video clip on the internet. We, on the other hand, do not have the luxury of assuming that what we say will stay within “the four walls” of the church. While Paul may have been free to use hyperbole and insider/outsider language, such a choice is not always the best option for us today. In most cases the old English proverb “think before you speak” can help us eliminate trouble before it starts.

Let me close with this about preaching this text. It needs to be preached, but what needs to be focused on is Paul’s point here. His primary purpose here is pastoral. He wants to encourage the Thessalonians in the face of persecution. I would acknowledge the rather harsh sounding language here and even the way that it shows up elsewhere in the Bible. But I also would bring in other scriptures like Prov 13:3, Eph 4:29, and Col 3:8 to show that it is important to watch not just what we say, but how we say it. Finally, I would point to 1 Thess 4:11 where Paul talks about living in such a way that you “win the respect of outsiders.” Even though Paul may engage in some rough and tumble insider language here he is still concerned with the way the community interacts with those on the outside. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Who owns the past? Turkey Wants Statues Back.

Mausoleum of Halicarnassus
Two marble statues from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus.
 Photograph: The Trustees of the British Museum
I was interested to see that Turkey is suing the British Museum to return statues from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus that was built in the 4th century BCE. Some of the statues were "acquired" by the British ambassador in 1846 others during excavations in the 1850's. The British aren't the first to move them since the Crusaders pillaged the site centuries before. You can read the whole article in Guardian

Turkey's case mirrors another one that has been in play from Greece. The Greeks have been asking for the return of the "Elgin Marbles" which were taken from the Parthenon in Greece by Lord Elgin between 1801 to 1812. These statues are also in the British Museum. 

One issue that will complicate the cases is that when the statues from Turkey and Greece were moved to Britain both of the "donor" countries were being run by the Ottomans, not the current democracies that are now in place. So there will be a question as to how a court can rule on the acts of a government that has not existed for almost 100 years.

But a bigger question that I think needs to be addressed is who owns the past? Does any country have a right to claim back artifacts from another simply because they were found on land that now incorporates a modern country? Don't get me wrong, I am not taking sides with the British Museum, but I am wondering about statue of limitations. 

If we agree that these artifacts must be returned, then where do we draw the line. If the British return the statues to the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus will the Turks in turn return artifacts that are not from Turkey? Will they return, for instance, the artifacts from Jerusalem, Megiddo, Gezer and other places in Israel and Palestine? What about all the sarcophagi that are in the Istanbul museum, but were discovered in what is modern Lebanon and Syria?  Or if we reach back even further into the past, will they return to Egypt the Obelisk of Tuthmosis III which he erected in Luxor in 1490 BCE? It made its way to Constantinople in 390 CE when it was brought there to adorn the hippodrome of Theodosius the great. 

And speaking of Constantinople/Istanbul, I suspect the Greeks would like the city back, or at least Hagia Sophia. 

My point is this, artifacts from other countries are spread all around the world, many of them in the museums of western countries. And the pillaging of artifacts is part of the dark legacy for colonialism. But I am not sure simply suing one another for particular artifacts is the best way to go about it. As in the case of Turkey, it seems that several countries could bring the same type of legal action against it. Perhaps it is time for an international discussion about who owns the past and how we are going to all share it. 

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Happy Hanukkah!

This is the first night of Hanukkah, the Jewish celebration of lights. This is when Jews across the world commemorate their victory of Antiochus IV Epiphanes who outlawed Jewish worship and desecrated the temple. The earliest source we have for the holiday is Josephus' Antiquities 12.

Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days, and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon; but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honored God, and delighted them by hymns and psalms. Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival. Judas also rebuilt the walls round about the city, and reared towers of great height against the incursions of enemies, and set guards therein. He also fortified the city Bethsura, that it might serve as a citadel against any distresses that might come from our enemies.

You can learn more about the holiday here.

Happy Hanukkah to all my Jewish readers!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Book Giveaway for Christmas; Only 1 day left!

Greetings dear readers. As we draw near to Christmas I know that one thing many will have on their list is a book. With this in mind I have decided to give away two books for the Christmas season. And this giveaway will be slightly different than normal. Rather than end on Sunday, it will continue until 9:00 am on Friday, December 14th. At that time I will choose two lucky winners. So here are the books.

First up is  Kenneth E. Bailey's Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Critical Studies in 1 Corinthians (IVP, 2011). 

Here's the blurb:

In this groundbreaking study of Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians, Kenneth Bailey examines this canonical letter through Paul's Jewish socio-cultural and rhetorical background and through the Mediterranean context of its Corinthian recipients. Uncovering the letter's roots in the Hebrew prophetic tradition, its intentional theological organization and its rhetorical reference to Near Eastern cultural practices, Bailey allows us to see the full scope of Paul's response to a community in crisis.
If you are observant you will notice that I tried to give this book away a few weeks back. I announced the winner, but he never claimed the book. Thus I am trying once again to give it away. If you enter don't forget to check back next Friday to see if you win. See the details below on how to enter.

Second up is the NIV Greek and English New Testament (Zondervan, 2012). Here is the blurb.

The NIV Greek and English New Testament is a parallel Bible, with the Greek New Testament on the left-hand page (using the text that underlies the NIV 2011) and the NIV 2011 on the right-hand page. The Greek text includes footnotes that relate to other Greek New Testaments, and the NIV has the footnotes readers have come to expect and rely on. Section headings are identical in both editions for easy reference. Additional features of the NIV Greek and English New Testament include: Side-by-side format (Greek text on one page with NIV on the facing page) Greek text formatted to match the NIV text Single column format Words of Christ in black Presentation page Maps.

Now if you want to win one of these two books here is what you must do. Enter your name below and tell me which of these two books you are hoping to win. I will randomly choose two readers next Friday and post the names of the two winners. You will have until Monday, December 17th to claim the book. As soon as I hear from the winner I will mail the book so you can have it for Christmas.


Thursday, December 6, 2012

Mistakes, Forgiveness and Ted Haggard

I remember the day I first heard about Ted Haggard's fall from grace. The accusations of sexual immorality and drug use were everywhere as the media celebrated the demise of yet another one of those moralist Christians who spend their time condemning everyone publicly for the very acts they do in secret. 

The church wasn't any better. I remember overhearing a conversation between some people who were shaking their heads at Ted. They were disappointed with him, but they also were categorizing his sin in the "worse of the worse" column. One gentleman, said "If he was going to do this at least it could have been with a woman!" Funny how the church is more willing to gloss over some sins more than others.

I knew little about Ted Haggard before his troubles and still know very little about him. I gave up on following the stories of fallen heroes, Christian or otherwise, since I realized long ago that we are all capable of making the very same mistakes.We think we are somehow immune from "it" happening to us and we go our merry way in life until one day we realize we are in a real mess. And often it's a mess that we have made, but are left wondering how we ever got there. 

An article in Leadership was brought to my attention this morning about Ted Haggard. This time I read it and I am glad I did. It is by Michael Cheshire a pastor in Colorado who began a friendship with Ted Haggard and has some good insight on forgiveness. Here is part of what he says. 
A while back I was having a business lunch at a sports bar in the Denver area with a close atheist friend. He's a great guy and a very deep thinker. During lunch, he pointed at the large TV screen on the wall. It was set to a channel recapping Ted's fall. He pointed his finger at the HD and said, "That is the reason I will not become a Christian. Many of the things you say make sense, Mike, but that's what keeps me away."
It was well after the story had died down, so I had to study the screen to see what my friend was talking about. I assumed he was referring to Ted's hypocrisy. "Hey man, not all of us do things like that," I responded. He laughed and said, "Michael, you just proved my point. See, that guy said sorry a long time ago. Even his wife and kids stayed and forgave him, but all you Christians still seem to hate him. You guys can't forgive him and let him back into your good graces. Every time you talk to me about God, you explain that he will take me as I am. You say he forgives all my failures and will restore my hope, and as long as I stay outside the church, you say God wants to forgive me. But that guy failed while he was one of you, and most of you are still vicious to him." Then he uttered words that left me reeling: "You Christians eat your own. Always have. Always will."
had a hard time understanding why we as Christians really needed Ted to crawl on the altar of church discipline and die. We needed a clean break. He needed to do the noble thing and walk away from the church. He needed to protect our image. When Ted crawled off that altar and into the arms of a forgiving God, we chose to kill him with our disdain.

Cheshire hits the nail on the head. As the church we often talk about forgiveness, but we really don't practice it in the way that we claim. I suspect that we could all stand to remember Jesus' parable on the unforgiving servant  in Matthew 18:23-35. Like the man who was forgiven an unpayable debt, we all want to extract our pound of flesh from those we think somehow owe us. It is so easy to forget that we have made mistakes and were forgiven. It is also easy for us to forget how easy it would be for us to be the next Ted Haggard. And in our heart of hearts we all hope that, should we fall, we would also be forgiven. Sure there will be consequences. But when someone repents, is forgiven by God and yet can never quite measure up to our approval, then we are in danger of becoming the unforgiving servant in Jesus' parable. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Book Notice: The Apocrypha by David A. deSilva

The Apocrypha (Core Biblical Studies)David deSilva is my colleague here at Ashland Seminary. Among the many fine books that he has written is his Introducing the Apocrypha (Baker, 2002). It is a well written, accessible volume that has proven to be very popular. 

Now David has written a shorter presentation with Abingdon Press titled The Apocrypha, which is part of the Core Biblical Studies Series. Here, in David's own words, is what the book is about and why he wrote it.

After the books of the Hebrew Bible (the Protestant Old Testament) and the New Testament, the Apocrypha, or the Deuterocanonical Books (as Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians know these texts), constitutes the single most important collection of books from antiquity for understanding the shape of Judaism in the centuries around the turn of the era and the matrix within which the early church was formed.  The impact of these texts on Jesus, the writers of the New Testament, and the early church is pervasive and potent.  They are also valuable in their own right as witnesses to the faith of Jews seeking to remain loyal to the covenant and to God amidst the stresses of living as a minority group in the Hellenistic and Roman world. 
 I wrote this book as an invitation particularly to the non-specialist and the general reader to explore these important texts and as a guide to thinking about their contexts and their contributions.  Unlike my much fuller Introducing the Apocrypha: Message, Contexts, and Significance(Baker Academic, 2002), which provides background and analysis on the collection text-by-text, this brief volume approaches the material more thematically.  It should be of use both to individual readers and to groups wishing to study these texts together.
Scholars, seminary students, and clergy who are likely to make use of Apocryphal texts in preaching and worship may wish to look into purchasing the volume by Baker: 

If you are looking for a book that will help you begin to read and understand the apocrypha, then I recommend this book. If you are a leader in the church, it will be a good volume to give to those who have questions about those books.

Many thanks to David deSilva and Abingdon Press for the gratis copy. 

Fakes, Forgeries and Frauds: Updates on the Gospel of Jesus' Wife and the Lead Codices

The furor over the Gospel of Jesus' Wife fragment seems to have died down, for now at least The media has moved on to other stories and Karen King, along with the rest of the scholarly community, is still waiting for the ink tests to help determine the fragments authenticity. At this point, no one is sure when the tests will be complete. In the mean time, Harvard Theological Review is standing by its decision not to publish King's article on the fragment until its authenticity can be verified. See article here.

While I, along with others, have doubts that the fragment will be found to be authentic, I don't think Karen King was or is attempting to pull the wool over anyone's eyes. I do think she jumped the gun by filming a television documentary for Smithsonian, but I don't think she has tried to be duplicitous in any way. At the very most she may be the victim of a well executed forgery.

The same can't be said for David Elkington and the Lead Codices that he has been promoting as "some of the most important documents of early Christianity."

Historians, experts in epigraphy, biblical scholars and those of us who blog on these topics have been questioning not only the authenticity of the Lead Codices, but also David Elkington. Now, is a recently released investigation by the BBC program Inside Out West, it seems that the evidence is stacked against the codices and Elkington. It is a 13 minute clip and very informative.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Still thinking about a career in theological studies?

With the doomsayers predicting that that next bubble to burst will be education, there has been a lot of navel gazing going on. Surveys are being published about graduation rates, student debt level, etc and etc.

In my opinion all of this is good. It never hurts for anyone to conduct a serious examination of the facts as a way to help bring needed adjustments and corrections.

Along these lines, a recent study was released by in which they identify 8 college degrees with the worst investment return. As you have probably already guessed, religious/theological studies didn't rate so well.

What's more expensive than going to college? Until recently, the answer was easy: not going to college. Numerous studies over the years have shown that individuals with college degrees significantly out-earn those with high school degrees by $1 million or more over the course of a lifetime.
But as the cost of education increases faster than inflation and the economy remains relatively weak, people are beginning to question how they spend their education dollars. As student loans hit the $1 trillion mark and more and more graduates are faced with years of paying staggering monthly payments, many are starting to ask themselves, "Is it worth it?"
While there's no doubt that a college degree increases earning power and broadens opportunities, today's high cost of education means it makes sense to more carefully consider which degree you earn. When it comes to return on investment (ROI), not all degrees are considered equal. This article exposes eight college degrees with poor ROI.

Religious Studies/Theology
Talk about finding your calling. While devoting your life to the church and dedicating your life to the service of others is laudable, it's not going to leave you with a lot of profit after you earn your degree. Here are three commonly held jobs theological jobs:

RELIGIOUS EDUCATOR Median Salary: $47,95730-Year Earnings: $2,828,502
ROI of Degree Earner Attending Public College: 75%
ROI of Degree Earner Attending Private College: 22%
CHAPLAIN -- HEALTHCARE Median Salary: $51,12730-Year Earnings: $3,015,174
ROI of Degree Earner Attending Public College: 80%
ROI of Degree Earner Attending Private College: 24%
ASSOCIATE PASTOR Median Salary: $61,81130-Year Earnings: $3,645,610
ROI of Degree Earner Attending Public College: 96%
ROI of Degree Earner Attending Private College: 29%

Read the article here.

This is certainly not encouraging, but I think many will also note that we didn't go into this filed for the money. Don't get me wrong. Money is nice if not a necessary evil. I never imagined I was going to get rich in this field. But if you are thinking about a career that requires a degree in religion/theology you should be aware that the returns are not all that great. Perhaps this survey can serve as a good reminder to us all that piling up debt to rush through a degree in this field is not necessarily the best way to go about fulfilling your call.

Evangelism in a Globalized World: 1 Thess 1:4-8

I continue with my Tuesday with Thessalonians series. Today I look at 1 Thess 1:4-8

 4 For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. 6You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. 7 And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. 8 The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, 

Paul views the gospel’s arrival as beginning a chain reaction with Thessalonica at the epicenter. It was like dropping a stone into the center of a quiet pond. At first there is the initial splash, then ripple after ripple reaches out until it fills the entire pond. In Thessalonica the gospel caused an initial “splash” (1:5a; cf. Acts 17: 1-4) and formed a series of concentric rings beginning with the way the apostles chose to live among the Thessalonians (1:5b). The rings expanded to include the Thessalonians who became imitators of the apostles and the Lord (1:6). Eventually the rings expanded beyond the walls of Thessalonica so that they became an example to other believers living in the far flung areas of Macedonia and Achaia (1:7). But the splash did not end there. The concentric rings from the initial splash extend far beyond Thessalonica to places and in ways that neither Paul nor the Thessalonians could have predicted nor imagined (1:8). In fact, the events in Thessalonica are so well-known that the apostles can sit back and say nothing. The results speak for themselves (1:8).

The world is becoming increasingly smaller and more interdependent. Globalization as an economic, cultural and political phenomenon is linking the world in ways never before seen. Whatever our opinion of globalization, we must acknowledge its existence and the impact that it is having on how ministry is done, in particular missions and evangelism. Most of the world now participates in a global culture connected by better communication, an interdependent economic system and is formed by a way of thinking patterned on the scientific method.

Religion has also become globalized. As Muck and Adeney point out, “religion” as a generic category is more viable in a globalized world (Christianity Encountering World Religions:, 17-18). In the past, “religion” generally only meant one thing, depending upon where you lived. For instance, if you lived in the west it meant Christianity, Islam if you lived in the Middle East and Hinduism if you lived in India. Religion was, at least perceptually, more regional than global. Now, the lines are blurred and it is common to encounter people of other religions in whatever region of the world you may find yourself.

I have seen this blurring of the lines happen in my own lifetime. I grew up outside of New York City on Long Island.  When I was in school it wasn’t uncommon for other kids to ask “what is your religion.” By that question they meant: are you Catholic or Jewish? In my neighborhood you were either Jewish or Catholic. Those two groups represented the vast majority of religious identities in my area, even in a place just outside of the New York metropolitan area. Yes, there were other groups there. But they were few enough in number that we did not notice them. Now, however, it’s not unusual to see a sign for a Buddhist temple or the minarets of a mosque among the church steeples and synagogue menorahs.

The globalization of religion invariably impacts our ministry and evangelism. There is an increasing chance that the person working with you, walking in the park or answering the door is going to be Muslim, Hindu or a member of some other religious group that is not Christian. We no longer live in a world where religious identity can be assumed based on the region in which we live. Just as globalization has opened up the market place to products and services from around the globe, it has also brought religion to new places and Christianity no longer encounters these religions. It coexists with them. 
While religious globalization might be threatening to some, there are some parallels with the first century. In the Greco-Roman world the religious market place was not just an economic metaphor to describe the dissolving of geographic, political and economic boundaries between countries and regions. Religion was literally in the market place. I remember the first time I toured ancient Corinth and was struck by the way that the temple of Apollo dominates the agora. Archaeologists have uncovered and identified some nine temples and seven shops/markets from the first century all scattered among one another in the agora.  The close proximity of temple and market explains why some, if not most, of the meat available in the shops had been butchered as part of temple sacrifice, a problem Paul confronts in 1 Cor. 8-10. The situation was probably the same in Thessalonica. While much of first century Thessalonica remains unexcavated, the city’s forum has been excavated along with some of its shops. Remnants of inscriptions and buildings belonging to a number of temples, including one dedicated to worshiping Caesar, have been found suggesting that religion in Thessalonica provided a smorgasbord of opportunities for worshipers.

But this mixture of religions in the market place was not only a pagan phenomenon. Early Christians do not seem to have been shy about opening a church in the same neighborhood as a pagan temple. In the third century Syrian city of Dura Eurpos located on the Euphrates River, archaeologists have uncovered more than thirteen different temples.  If you walk the streets at the western edge of town you pass by a number of pagan temples or shrines as well as a Jewish synagogue and a Christian house church. Consequently, when Christianity came to town the religious marketplace was already very crowded. Religious pluralism typified all ancient cities and Christianity did not step into a religious vacuum waiting to be filled. Christianity was one among many competitors vying for attention and support.

The religious setting of the ancient world also impacted evangelism. As noted above, it does not seem likely that the first Christians in Thessalonica initiated a missions movement to spread the gospel. On the contrary, the troubles they encountered at home probably kept them preoccupied. Besides, the church was still very young and still in need of learning much about the gospel, as Paul himself acknowledges in 3:10. Yet, word about what was going on in Thessalonica spread to the surrounding area. Their “turn from idols” to worship God (1:9) seems to have been enough to get the attention of a lot of people. Their life style was radical enough that they did not need to advertize it. People seemed to notice.  Moreover, considering the religious market place of the Greco-Roman world, there was no need for them to go outside of their own city, they were able to be very effective in their own location. They were salt and light within their own community.

In a globalized world, missions no longer require us to move to a foreign land. In previous centuries it was possible to never encounter someone from another people group and culture. Now, it is almost impossible not to encounter someone who is different from us racially, ethnically, religiously. This means that for many of us the opportunity for missions exists right where we live. The concentric rings can start in our own cities and neighborhoods. The gospel “splash” happens where we live.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Near Death Experiences: Are they real and do they matter?

Picture taken from Daily Mail
I remember the first time I was introduced to the idea that some people have died and come back to life. In the 1970's a documentary style film Beyond and Back was shown in theaters across America. It claimed to be a" movie that dares to investigate the possibility of  life after death" based on the studies of parapsychologists, doctors and the testimonies of real people who were pronounced dead and yet miraculously recovered. Over the course of two hours story after story of people who "died and came back" was shared with the viewing audience.

I was probably ten years old when my parents, new Christians, took us as a family to see the film. We didn't get out to the movies much and I remember thinking I would rather have seen Star Wars. But the film first introduced me to the idea that some people die and come back to life. I think it played an important part in  affirming my own belief in life after death. Of course, when I watch it now I realize just how bad of a film it was, but it did cause quite a stir in the Christian community. And ever since then I have been aware of speakers and books making the circuit that share the stories of people who have died, returned and told their story. Most claim to have gone to heaven or a place of peace and light.  A few claim to have gone to hell and back.

The current issue of Christianity Today has an article on the topic. In the article Mark Galli asks whether it matters if people who have what he describes as "near heaven experiences" tend be theologically confused. Quite often what these people describe is not in line with traditional orthodox Christian belief. But Galli says that he does find many of these testimonies to be true because they have the ring of historical authenticity that historians look for. Unfortunately, Galli doesn't detail the criteria he is using. For a nonreligious point of view on the topic see the Daily Mail's May 2011 piece on near death experiences.

As I said above, over the years I have been aware of numerous books and speakers circulating on the topic. I remember once when someone gave me a book to read about how Jesus took a woman to hell to "show her around." The person who gave me the book wanted to know what I thought. I read the book and told her I didn't believe it. The person was less than happy with me because they didn't want my opinion but my affirmation  At the time I wasn't sure why I doubted the author's story. It was only years later when I began reading Jewish apocalyptic literature that I realized the book was a wholesale ripoff of the book of Enoch and Dante's Inferno.

To this day I remain more than skeptical about people's near death/ near heaven experiences. It's not that I doubt that they really did have some sort of experience. But I am not sure that the experience is all that they claim. I also think that there are a lot of frauds out there.

But whether these experiences are real or not, I wonder to what extent we should be basing any amount of theology on them. The Bible describes people coming back from the dead, yet not one of them that I can think of recounts what is was like. In the end, the way that these type of books are promoted seem to be a distraction from more important issues.

What about you? What do you make of these testimonies? To what degree should base anything in our faith and theology on them?

Friday, November 30, 2012

BCC Announces Major New Archaeological Discoveries

The following clip was brought to my attention by Aran Maeir who is the archaeologist at Tel-es-Safi, also known as biblical Gath. In the clip two major finds are announced by Israeli archaeologists Ishereal Finkelstein and Egyptologist Zahi Harass. If you watch Discovery or History Channel I am sure you will recognize these "experts."

Happy Friday!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Beer and Archaeology . . . What a Combination

Those who are regular readers of this blog will know that in addition to my work as a biblical scholar I also dabble in archaeology and homebrewing. Not at the same time mind you. I am part of the team currently excavating at Tel-Gezer and I brew my own beer and occasionally teach a class to encourage others to do the same. (Disclaimer: The class is not offered as part of the seminary curriculum). Anyone who has worked in the hot sun excavating a site knows that you should not be drinking beer. It's water you need. 

Of course someone should have told that to some of the previous Gezer teams since we sometimes dig up empty bottles of Maccabee and other Israeli beers. But I won't mention any names. 

In any case, an archaeological dig in Cyprus discovered and rebuilt a brewing facility. And they are trying it out. Here is a bit from the article

In the summer of 2012 HARP ran an Experimental Archaeology Field School in the village of Kissonerga, Cyprus.  The Field School recreated an installation that was likely used for beer production in the Middle Bronze Age.  The original structure has been excavated as part of a research excavation run by Dr. Lindy Crewe of the University of Manchester since 2007.

The resulting beers were very different to the beer that we are accustomed to today, some of the batches had a slight acidic taste to them, which is more than likely due to the wild yeasts used to produce them.  Brewers yeast has been developed over the years in order to have a well controlled strain of yeast suitable for producing alcohol, however, the strains available back in the Bronze Age may not have been so reliable.  Wild yeasts cannot be as 'controlled' as modern brewers yeast and can produce differing results.  Whilst some of the beers produced had an acquired taste, the fig beer was a hit, and with a little tweaking to the recipe it may well prove to be an appropriate session ale!

You can read the whole article here. It is a very informative piece.  I hope there is a way that this beer can be sampled by others at some point.