A Book You’d Be Surprised to Learn that I Like (Gupta)

Mike Bird challenged me to join the blog meme “A Book You’d Be Surprised to Learn that I Like,” so here I am.

My book is:

J. Christian Beker, Paul the Apostle: The Triumph of God in Life and Thought

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In fact, I really enjoy several of Beker’s works, and it saddens me that his scholarship is not given much attention these days. I discovered Beker when I was in seminary and he was the first “apocalyptic” Pauline scholar I encountered. I was very attracted to his approach to Paul’s thought, and for those two or three people out there who have read my dissertation, you could perhaps tell that I am a Beker-ian at heart. I do not identify myself with the “apocalyptic Paul” movement that is popular today because Martyn is considered the figurehead of that group; it is a shame that in the long run Beker’s works will be overshadowed by Martyn and de Boer (I fear).

As for me and my household, we will honor Beker!

(Also, I like The Hunger Games books, let the mocking begin…)

Mitzi Smith and African American Interpretation (Gupta)

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Confession: there was a time when I scoffed at the idea of cultural-perspective readings of Scripture. It felt faddish and self-serving. It seemed little more than a distraction from “simple exegesis.” I somehow believed that my perspective was objective and pure, while others brought their own values and assumptions to the text.

I have learned a lot since then, and I discovered (!) that I too bring my own cultural lenses to the Bible. I was taught to read Scripture by a certain community and for a certain community. I still try to be careful when I study Scripture that I do not force my own desires upon the text in a self-serving way. But more and more I am aware of my blindspots. And I am more sympathetic to those who cannot help but bring to the reading of Scripture certain passions, sensitivities, and hurts. I am not above that, I am not immune to that, and it can be an asset as much as a liability.

In spring 2018 I am teaching a new course at Portland Seminary called “The Use and Abuse of the Bible.” I will be introducing students to biblical hermeneutics, and part of what I want to do is better understand Latino/a, Asian, and African-American interpretation (hereafter AAI). So, I ordered Mitzi Smith’s new book, Insights from African American Interpretation in the “Reading the Bible in the 21st Century” series from Fortress. To be honest, prior to reading this book I knew little to nothing about AAI. Smith does an outstanding job briefly and plainly introducing it to the uninitiated. AAI recognizes that “the God of the Bible speaks to black people. The Bible and Eurocentric interpretations of it had become a primary means for constructing a rationale for enslaving, oppressing, and excluding black people” (12). The Bible is not for white people; “God’s self-revelation to black people and other people of color reaffirms their full humanity and hermeneutical agency or their right to read the biblical text through the lens or framework of and in dialogue with black people’s humanness, loves, traditions, artifacts, concerns, joys, and struggles, past and present (12).

After the introductory chapter, Smith treats “Twenty-First Century Foundations” where AAI emerged to counteract widespread oppression inside as well as outside of the American church (ch 2). Then she examines developments in the 21st century (ch. 3) where AAI has become an academic discipline with a significant body of scholarship. One of my favorite features of this book is the inclusion of samples of AAI: chapter 4 offers Smith’s study of Matthew 25:1-13 (Parable of the Ten Virgins), and chapter 5 is on Judges 19.

What I gained from this book (aside from better understanding AAI in particular, of course) is the poignant reminder that we do not turn off our feelings, experiences, and culture when we read the Bible. If we treat reading Scripture as a kind of free-floating ethereal (“spiritual”) experience cut off from “real life,” it becomes purely an escapist activity and will surely lose its transformative power. I am also reminded how crucial it is to read Scripture with others, hearing their stories and perspectives. This takes patience and empathy, but it continues to prove vital for strengthening my faith and my interpretation of Scripture.

Wealth and Poverty in Early Christianity (Gupta)

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Fortress Press has a nice new(ish) series called Ad Fontes: Early Christian Sources (ed. G. Kalantzis). The purpose of the series is to offer primary source readings on a particular theme with light introductory guidance. Already released volumes include Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church (Graves), Church and Empire (Doerfler), and Understandings of the Church (Ferguson). The latest volume is Wealth and Poverty in Early Christianity by Helen Rhee (Westmont).

The source selections are about 5-10 pages per author/work. Rhee offers a wide range of readings from (for example) The Shepherd of Hermas, Clement of Alexandria, The Acts of Thomas, Lactantius, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine, and Rabbula of Edessa. Rhee sometimes gives her own translation, and at other times updates an existing one.

The introduction first gives a broad sketch of earliest Christian thought on wealth before briefly introducing each author/text in the book. She notes that these writers had much to say about the vice of greed and the problem of wealth, and they did not dwell much on the subject of poverty (see p. x). Rhee also adroitly explains the Roman economic system that operated according to the notion of “limited good” – commodities (and other things) existed in finite amounts such that gaining more for oneself was naturally at the expense of another (as it was with status and honor as well). Thus, “the rich or those getting richer were usually seen in a negative light” (xi).

In terms of the readings themselves, I won’t treat them in detail, but just give one observation – there are many wealthy people in the Bible (like Israelite patriarchs and kings), but time and time again these early theologians appeal to the ways and words of Jesus. It is remarkable to me how much Jesus addressed issues of greed and wealth, and showed in his own choices a lifestyle of simplicity and generosity. These theologians were so incredibly familiar with the teachings of Jesus, so they naturally became influenced by his acts and instruction. Would that we too have such knowledge and inspiration!

Gowler -Parables After Jesus Part 3 (Gupta)

Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2

Chapter 5

Parables After Jesus

The last main chapter focuses on both the 20th and 21st centuries (pp. 207-153). Here Gowler covers 9 people/groups including Thomas Hart Benton, the Blues, Flannery O’Connor, Martin Luther King Jr., Godspell, Latin American interest in the parables, David Flusser, Octavia Butler, and Thich Nhat Hanh. I will mention a few interpreters that were especially interesting to me. I love Flannery O’Connor. Her novel, The Violent Bear It Away, is considered to be inspired by the Parable of the Sower, a harrowing but vivid modern tale. As for Martin Luther King, he preached with passion about the Parable of the Rich man and his storehouses. Also, unsurprisingly, King was inspired by the Parable of the Good Samaritan. My favorite musical of all time is Godspell and as a young Christian I learned many of the teachings of Jesus through it. Gowler is no doubt right when he says that Godspell more than any other Jesus film/play/musical “incorporates parables so deeply into its narrative of Jesus’ life and teachings” (232).

Conclusion

Gowler’s conclusion is concise, less than three pages. He simply affirms that we see such creativity and  rainbow of readings of the parables no doubt because they are puzzles and riddles worth pondering extensively. Gowler likens them to art works, inviting the reader into active imagination.

Gupta’s Final Thoughts

Gowler’s The Parables after Jesus is such a fun book to read – the case studies are well-chosen and refreshingly diverse. Gowler balances ancient and modern, East along with West, men and women, academic and art/popular culture. The visuals in the book are helpful and show the impact of the parables even in earliest Christian art. If I have one lingering desire after completing the book, though, it is for more synthesis and guidance from Gowler. I would have enjoyed some commentary on trends and distinctives of certain periods or communities, perhaps briefly at the end of each chapter. In the conclusion, Gowler could have adumbrated how readings have flowed through various watershed moments. These ideas notwithstanding, I warmly recommend this book to all students of the Gospels and the parables of Jesus.

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses – 2nd Ed (Gupta)

 

Confession: I was one of the few folks that did not read Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses when it first came out in 2006. So I felt compelled to wade through this 600+ page updated edition. Bauckham, as many of you know, is an incisive and interdisciplinary scholar, having made important contributions to the study of Revelation, NT Christology, and women in the Gospels, just for starters.

In Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Bauckham makes his intentions clear. He argues that

“in the period up to the writing of the Gospels, gospel traditions were connected with named and known eyewitnesses, people who had heard the teaching of Jesus from his lips and committed it to memory, people who had witnessed the events of his ministry, death, and resurrection and themselves had formulated the stories about these events that they told” (93)

Bauckham realizes that he is cutting against the grain of modern scholarship by appealing to these “eyewitnesses.” One of his overarching concerns is to propose “testimony” as a better description of what the Gospels offer, rather than either what we call (pure) “history” or religious legend. Some have scoffed at this idea of testimony, as if it is “faith-based” rather than scientific. Bauckham responds, though, by claiming this: “From a historiographic perspective, radical suspicion of testimony is a kind of epistemological suicide. It is no more practicable in history than it is in ordinary life” (506). Here is a longer statement on the subject:

“To insist, with some Gospel critics, that the historicity of each and every Gospel pericope must be established, one by one, with arguments for each, is not to recognize testimony for what it necessarily is. It is to suppose that we can extract individual facts from testimony and build our own reconstruction of events that is no longer dependent on the witness. It is to refuse the privileged access to truth that precisely participant testimony can give us. Ancient historiography rightly valued such testimony as essential to good history, and the Holocaust shows us how indispensable it can be when the events we confront are ‘at the limits'” (502)

Bauckham.jpgHow does Bauckham go about proving that the Gospels are supported by eyewitness testimony? His approach is necessarily multiform, focusing, for example, on the use of names in the Gospels and what the appearance of so many named characters tells us; “these people joined the early Christian movement and were well known at least in the circles in which these traditions were first transmitted” (45). Bauckham reasons that there would have been no reason to name such figures except for this identification as real participants in the story and probably known eyewitnesses (47). But could it be that the Evangelists made these names up for narrative purposes? Bauckham argues that from what we know of the popularity and use of Jewish names in the ancient world at large, the Gospels reflect the same (see 84). And what about those unnamed characters? Bauckham proposes that some of these may have been eyewitnesses who were not named due to “protective anonymity” (2000).

I have offered just a taste here of what is in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Bauckham is interested not only in names, but also the earliest reception of the Gospels, recent scholarship on individual and communal memory, problems with form criticism, and ways that the Gospels identify eyewitnesses. In this second edition, Bauckham has added three new chapters that appear at the end of the book. The first extra chapter deals with Mark, specifically offering more detail regarding Bauckham’s argument that Mark presents Peter as a key eyewitness source for his Gospel. A second extra chapter digs deeper into the identity of the Beloved Disciple – Bauckham defends his conclusion that this was not John the son of Zebedee. Finally, Bauckham further discusses his rejection of form criticism. I love this line: “I discovered the death of form criticism and reported it. I did not attempt to kill it” (590).

So, what is my take on Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2nd ed)? Again, I am deeply impressed by Bauckham’s ability to tackle his argument from various angles which requires facility in several disciplines. I believe he is at his best when he demonstrates how eyewitnesses are emphasized and identified in (non-biblical) ancient texts, such as in Lucian, Porphyry – and in the new chapters he adds Polybius, Plutarch, and Josephus. This is exactly the kind of spade-work that will lead to a paradigm shift, if Bauckham’s findings hold up to further scrutiny.

But, I hasten to point out that in many ways Bauckham is pioneering new territory, and this makes it very difficult to prove how the Evangelists were divulging the eyewitnesses. Note for example how he admits: “I know of no comprehensive study of the ways in which ancient historians indicated their eyewitness sources” (514).

Despite the length of the book, I felt that Bauckham should have given more attention the the matter of genre and the Gospels. If he is going to focus on how texts mark eyewitnesses, I believe this merited a chapter on gospels as biographies. This is somewhat implicit in his work, but it deserves space, because then one is able to determine more clearly the best comparative texts.

In the end, what Bauckham offers is plausibility. He shows how it is plausible that the Gospels should be taken as historical works that come from eyewitness testimony, similar to the way other ancient historical works relied on eyewitnesses. Obviously, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses will remain an important voice in the wider discussion of the origins, development, and nature of the Gospels and what they tell us about Jesus and the early Christians.

 

Barth and Ephesians – Book of the Year Contender (Gupta)

Barth EphesiansGood news! A NEW book from Barth….Ok, since Karl Barth has been dead for almost half a century, he hasn’t been publishing much. But Baker just published a newly-translated-into-English book-version of Barth’s German lecture notes on Ephesians. Put simply, what we have now in English are Barth’s lectures on Ephesians. To be more specific, Barth’s extensive notes on Ephesians chapter one, with a brief overview of Ephesians chapters two through six. Putting all the caveats aside, this little book is exhilarating reading, bring the voice of Barth alive to a new generation! This is a contender for book of the year!

Preliminary Notes

This edited work is based on Barth’s 1921-22 lectures on Ephesians. Apparently, Barth had so much to say about chapter one, that he had to rush through the rest of Ephesians in one lecture (Feb 23, 1922). I love an announcement that Barth made to his class pre-empting any questions about the pace of the course:

Announcement: In response to the complaints that we are moving too slowly, I would point out that the text we are considering is not easy to interpret, not insignificant, and not merely a matter of controversy. Our goal is to understand the text. We have no control over how far we go or do not go when it is a matter of understanding something from the word” (92)

The translator offers this comment: “By this point in the course, Barth had delivered five lectures, roughly one half of the semester, and covered only three verses [from Ephesians chapter one]” (92)!

Notes on Barth’s Notes

Authorship: Barth argues that “It seems to me much more likely that one author wrote both letters (Col and Eph), drawing from the same conceptual framework but expressing his ideas in different situations, freely adapting his own ideas the second time, repeating, paraphrasing, and occasionally modifying them, much as any of us might do today when we have lectured on or written about similar material to different audiences” (56); Later: “Personally, I would defend the authenticity of Ephesians” (58)

Who Cares?: “frankly, I do not have any great interest in the (authorship) question. As far as I am concerned, it could be otherwise…[I]t is enough to know that someone, at any rate, wrote Ephesians (why not Paul?) thirty to sixty years after Christ’s death, someone who understood Paul well and developed the apostle’s ideas with obvious loyalty as well as originality” (59)

An Apostle: “An apostle is a person with a mission and the power to carry it out. He is sent to enemy-occupied territory to break up a blockade…” (59)

Incarnation: “The message of the incarnation is not proclaimed as an idea, in the normal sense of the word; rather, the word from the peaceful kingdom enters the world as a battle cry, as a declaration of war” (61)

Faith: “Faith is the action of the new person in me, the person I am not, the new person whose identity within me is the source of the greatest possible honor. Faith is a fundamental and eternal event that is beyond all temporal processes.” (68)

Grace and Adoption: “Grace is the reality of forgiveness, which has no continuity whatsoever with anything that we can grasp (apart from the continuity that is established by God’s will and God’s alone!): this human creature, who is fallen and without exception fails to recognize God, is recognized by God as his child” (73)

The Incomprehensible Nevertheless! “Despite God’s holiness, Grace! Despite human sin, Peace!” (77)

God as Lord: “There is no cause to shudder as before a despot, because his despotism is the despotism of love” (100)

Transforming Forgiveness: “Forgiveness is not a matter of merely excusing a person; the one who is forgiven is also made obedient. The rule of God does not refer only to the dynamics of God’s action; God’s acquittal effects a corresponding dynamic in the creature, whose action is completely dissolved, reconstituted, and established on a new foundation” (106)

Hope: “To hope is to intentionally align oneself with God, with all the risk that such partisanship involves. It is a declaration of war against the reality of this world. You could call it the willingness to see the world completely unromantically and without any illusions” (119)

Pilgrims: “true theology is and will always be theologia viatorum. But if all we can be is pilgrims, then pilgrims we should be…The ambiguity of our existence corresponds to the liveliness of our hope; and hope in turn enables us to live to the glory of God, neither blind to life’s difficulties nor resigned to them” (146).

 

 

 

Scripture and Its Interpretation (Baker) – Book Notice (Gupta)

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This is a book I have been wanting for a long time. I teach a biblical hermeneutics and exegesis course where I want students to think through different modes of reading and also different perspectives. This is perfect -and I absolutely love the cover!

From a variety of contributors, this book introduces everything from African and Asian biblical interpretation to Latino/a, Catholic, Orthodox, and Pentecostal readings. There are also handy essays on theological interpretation, and how Scripture relates to such topics as spirituality, politics, ethics, and mission. I am excited to see a very diverse group of contributors, not only from different faith traditions but diverse perspectives in terms of gender, ethnicity, and location. Congrats to Michael Gorman (editor) and the contributors. [Easter egg: my co-blogger Chris has a nice essay in here on noncanonical writings related to the Bible. I guess they weren’t interested in my suggested essay, “Keeping Bible-reading ‘Portland’ Weird”]