Book Notice: The Synoptic Problem: Four Views (Skinner)

Synoptic ProblemEarlier in the week I checked my campus mailbox and found this treat waiting for me: The Synoptic Problem: Four Views (ed. Stanley E. Porter and Bryan R. Dyer; Baker Academic). I have always been a fan of the “four views” (or “three views”) format. I find them helpful for introducing students to a given subject and useful for helping a professor get a bird’s-eye-view of the salient points for and against a specific view.

This book features the following lineup of scholars/arguments:

Craig Evans: Two-Source Hypothesis, Mark Goodacre: Farrer Hypothesis, David Peabody: Two-Gospel Hypothesis, Rainer Riesner: Orality and Memory Hypothesis

I was happy to see focused attention given to the Farrer Hypothesis and to Riesner’s “Orality and Memory” Hypothesis. I think this coverage of the topic is particularly useful since: (1) Q skepticism has grown quite a bit in recent years—largely due to the efforts of Mark Goodacre—and needs to be given serious consideration by students of the NT; and (2) research on orality and social memory has significantly impacted our study of the gospels and the historical Jesus in recent years. This book is a welcome addition to the spate of works on the Synoptic Problem. I am planning to use this as one of the primary texts the next time I teach an undergraduate course on the gospels.

My Advice to Incoming PhD Students (Skinner)

PHDReaders of this blog will know that I recently moved from North Carolina, where I’ve been teaching for the past six years, to Chicago to take a position at Loyola University. These past two weeks have been filled with various sorts of orientations as we prepare to begin classes next Monday, so it’s been difficult to to find enough time to get back on the blog. I’ll return to series of posts I was working on very soon, but while I had a moment today, I wanted to share something that has been on my mind since Monday.

One of my new roles here at Loyola will be section coordinator for the PhD in New Testament / Early Christianity. Earlier this week I had a chance, along with the other three section coordinators, to meet all of the incoming MA and PhD students and welcome them to Loyola. We were asked by the graduate student caucus to discuss our responsibilities as section coordinators and then to share any advice we would like to give to the students. I thought it might be helpful to repeat that advice here on the blog and also share something I was a little hesitant to say on Monday (but probably should have).

(1) Make friends while you’re here. A well-known refrain from one of Maya Angelou’s poems reads, “Alone, all alone, Nobody, but nobody, Can make it out here alone.” Doctoral study can be one of the most difficult, most intense, (and for many) loneliest periods of your adult life. This is especially true if you are in a hyper-competitive or isolated environment where every student is out for himself/herself. I encouraged our students to make friends with one another and thereby create a support system that will sustain them throughout the program and even after their time in graduate school. For my part, I was privileged to have four friends with whom I remained close during my time at Catholic University. When I published my dissertation, I thanked all four of them for the role they played in my transformation, but also for how their friendship sustained me through the long and difficult period that is PhD studies.

Alongside the transformative element of making friends in your program—let’s be honest—establishing and maintaining friendships in this field is also a matter of sheer pragmatics. Finding success in academia—which is measured by things like gainful employment and publication—like many professions, is significantly impacted by who you know. In other words: opportunities accrue to those with robust social networks. I have now collaborated on three different book projects with two of the four friends I mentioned above and have met numerous people in this field as a result of my relationships with them (and vice versa).

(2) Start presenting your research and publishing as soon as possible. I am well aware that this piece of advice will not be as universally agreed-upon as my previous point. I conceded this when talking with the students and then said, “On this point, I’m talking specifically to the PhD students in New Testament / Early Christianity.” More and more, we see freshly-minted PhDs entering the job market with numerous professional presentations and a handful of publications already listed on their CVs. In a perfect world, students would focus on getting through their coursework, finishing comprehensive exams, and writing a solid dissertation before attempting to publish. (There’s obviously greater flexibility for publishing during your program if you’re in a European setting.) The problem is that the job market is saturated and therefore incredibly competitive; everyone is doing everything within reason to make their CVs as impressive and competitive as possible. This might not have been great advice 20 years ago, but it seems to me it’s a necessity in the current market.

(3) Enjoy yourself. Very few people have the opportunity to take several years out of their lives to read, study, and learn about a topic of great interest alongside other students and experts on the subject matter. As difficult as it can be at times, it can also be intoxicating….so try to enjoy yourselves.

(4) *What I didn’t say (but probably should have).* What I would have said if (a) I weren’t brand new and eager to make a positive first impression, and (b) I didn’t want to completely discourage the entire room, is that PhD studies require tremendous sacrifice over a period of years during which many people quite literally put their personal lives on hold. So, if there’s ANYTHING ELSE you think you might want to do other than this, press pause and go do it. If there’s enough uncertainty, you should think long and hard about what you’re about to do. At the end of your period of study and sacrifice, there’s no guarantee that a job will be waiting for you. In fact, the outlook for the academy here in the United States is presently, very grim, especially with nearly 51% of college faculty serving in a contingent capacity. In other words, you will expend a lot of energy over several (possibly many) years, potentially sacrificing a great deal, and it could all very well be just an exercise in personal enrichment.

I hope that advice was neither too extreme nor too grim, but reflective of the realities of pursuing a PhD in our field in 2016. I would love to hear what others might have added (or removed) from my list.

Intermediate Greek Grammar – Mathewson/Emig (Gupta)

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Truth be told, Dan Wallace taught “intermediate Greek” to a generation of students including myself with his Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. It was well-organized, and pretty much the only book of its kind. It was a natural follow-up to Mounce.

In 2016, times are different. While many of us cut our teeth in Koine Greek on Mounce and Wallace, Biblical Greek studies has interfaced significantly with the study of linguistics in recent years, and it is time to bring those insights to the classroom.

In comes Dave Mathewson and Elodie Ballantine Emig with Intermediate Greek Grammar: Syntax for Students of the New Testament (Baker, 2016). It is intended to be relatively succinct, clear in presentation, and bring cutting edge discussion of NT Greek to the classroom, especially related to verbal aspect theory and discourse analysis.

I am teaching NT Greek this year for the first time in seven years – wow! – so I sat down with this grammar and worked through it. Explanations are clear and fairly represent the state of discussion and honesty with unsettled debates. It is not too technical, and offers loads of examples.

There are many differences between this and Wallace, but one key difference is that Mathewson/Emig focus less on comprehensive categorization, and more on understanding how semantics and pragmatics affect the study of Greek.

OK, here is how I would explain the benefits of Mathewson/Emig over Wallace and others. If Wallace wanted to help students nail down the science of syntax, Matheson/Emig want to help students get just enough of the science to become comfortable with the art of language and syntax. This grammar, intentionally so, is less aimed at being a “reference grammar” and more concerned with setting readers of NT Greek in the right directions with major categories like “genitive” vs. “dative” and “aorist” vs. “present.”

Overall, I am really pleased with this grammar, and I do recommend it. Two little points of criticism, though. Firstly, sometimes Mathewson/Emig use terminology that overlaps with Wallace, but with slightly different meaning, and this can lead to confusion (e.g., “Descriptive genitive”). Secondly, I am not sure what makes this grammar “intermediate.” I wonder whether you get the same value out of Porter’s grammar or Decker’s grammar (in the same series of Mathewson). Is it advanced in any way over these, or perhaps just more to the point? Assumes knowledge of Greek? Not sure.

Don’t let that stop you from having Intermediate Greek Grammar on your bookshelf or in your library. Honestly, it has been helpful for me (as someone not connected to the wonderfully nerdy academic discussions at SBL on Greek) as I prepare to teach my Greek students this year.

Finding the Research “Sweet Spot”: Tips for Students (Gupta)

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What is the research “sweet spot”? First let’s talk about what doesn’t work with research. Here are two mistakes.

(1) Arguing a thesis or idea that has been done already. Sometimes students have an idea that they think is new, but it is not – it is simply new to them. They are excited about what they discovered and firmly believe that if that idea caught on, it would change the world. Yes indeed, but a good dissertation or thesis must be more than a directed passion. (I want to argue that the church should be [fill in the blank]…)

(2) Going out into the idea abyss. Sometimes students have a “wild idea” and want to run with it. OK, I like that moxie and I applaud the adventurous spirit. But, in the end, an idea must be defensible. So, there must be enough material and evidence “out there” for the idea to “stick.” (So you have a new theory about who wrote John, do you?)

Now – the “sweet spot.”

The sweet spot is where the research idea is genuinely “new” and presses out beyond what has already been done. Nevertheless, what exists in scholarship and evidence must be enough to legitimately make that idea possible, better yet, plausible or likely.

With my own students, I want them to feel confident enough that they can defend their ideas, but always live with this kind of light anxiety – is this going to work? Only with that fear and tension do we gain the courage to push boundaries and cause those around us to perk up and take notice.

If I had to choose, I would take a bold thesis that struggles with the evidence over a mundane re-hash of what is already out there. But, all things considered, I encourage you to aim for confident discomfort, an excitement for the new that can be reassured by “reasonable support,” creativity that stands (even if on tip-toes) on the shoulders of the giants who have come before us – i.e., “the sweet spot.”

Six New Paul Books (Gupta)

This was, in many ways, a “Paul” summer for me as I worked through a good number of books on my shelf that had to wait until the teaching year was over. Here are some highlights of new and noteworthy books on Paul.

Thiselton.jpgAnthony Thiselton, Discovering Romans: Content, Interpretation, Reception (Eerdmans,2016). Thiselton is always a good read. The most useful chapters, I think, are the ones early on. He has a chapter on methods, where he highlights “the big 3”: historical-critical, rhetorical, and sociological. In chapter 3 he includes nine further methods/strategies: reader-response, structuralist, liberation herm, existentialist, pre-critical, Barthian, lexical/grammatical, and text-critical. Probably where Thiselton shines is in his work on the reception history of Romans (ch4), where he covers the main players in the Patristic period, through the Medieval period, the Reformation, and the Modern period (with Stendahl and Sanders). He ends with an interesting reception case-study using Romans 13:1-7. I really like this series by Eerdmans, and I look forward to further volumes.

Varner.jpgWilliam Varner, Philippians: A Handbook on the Greek Text (Baylor, 2016). I have been collecting many of these volumes for the last few years, and I really dig the short treatments of the Greek text. As you might know, contributors to this series tend to give attention to verbal aspect theory and discourse analysis, and Varner is interested in both. I find his exegetical and linguistic decisions sensible, though inevitably I have a translation quibble or two (such as Varner’s choice in Phil 1:1 to translate douloi as “servants,” when I think “slaves” is more appropriate given doulos in 2:7). Nevertheless, this is a great way to work through Philippians, especially as a refresher for post-seminary students wanting to strengthen their Greek.

Gray.jpgPatrick Gray, Paul as  a Problem in History and Culture: The Apostle and His Critics through the Centuries (Baker, 2016). This book is a really great idea – a focused study of the negative reception of Paul. Gray surveys select critics throughout history from various periods. In the end, he sums up his study with an analysis of the kinds of negative labels and profiles constructed of Paul: Paul as pagan, Paul as Judaizer, Paul the libertine, Paul the propogandist, Paul the misogynist, Paul the neurotic (i.e., mentally ill), Paul the (cold-hearted) teacher, Paul the hypocrite. In the end, Gray tries to open up some fresh paths towards thinking rightly about Paul (and his connection to Jesus). This is an engaging study perhaps most because Gray has neither a hagiographic aim nor is he on a smear campaign. I am very tempted to use this for a seminar on Paul!

Horrell.jpgDavid. G. Horrell, An Introduction  to the Study of Paul (3rd ed; T&T Clark, 2015). There are a lot of very good introductions to Paul (e.g., Gorman, Still/Longenecker, Morna Hooker), but Horrell offers a beginner’s guide to the academic study of Paul. He outlines main debates and who takes what side and why. This edition is up-to-date and this book well demonstrates Horrell’s trademark judiciousness. I am particularly pleased that Horrell includes a discussion of Paul’s ethics, a subject often neglected by Paulinists. [A detailed RBL review is forthcoming]

Apoc.jpgB. Blackwell, J. Goodrich, and Jason Maston, eds., Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination (Fortress, 2016). This is a must-read book. The topic of Paul and Apocalyptic is hot, and unfortunately there has been too little light with all that heat in the last decade or so. This volume is a bit of a game-changer. The editors recruited a phenomenal “who’s who” of 2nd Temple Judaism scholars and Paulinists to weigh in on this subject. The early methodological essays (esp Wright and de Boer) are reason enough to read the book, but outstanding essays by Beverly Gaventa and John Barclay are icing on the cake. I will say it again – this is a must-read book! [A detailed review with Horizons in Biblical Theology is forthcoming]

Keener MS.jpgCraig S. Keener, The Mind of the Apostle: Paul’s Approach to Transformed Thinking (Baker, 2016). Well, I hate to admit it, this is a book I wish I had written. A few years ago, I worked a bit on Paul’s language of thought and cognition. In the back of my mind, I had this idea of writing a book on Paul’s theology of thought, especially how the gospel transforms thought. Then I saw Keener’s book and got ahold of a copy. Again, I thought – well, maybe if the book is sub-par I can still make a contribution. Nope. Keener has done it, and way better than I could. This was a book long time overdue for scholarship. How does God work both through the Spirit and our own minds? This is a driving question in the book, and Keener treats this subject with wisdom and skill.

 

 

Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews – Barclay Collection (Gupta)

Barclay Diaspora

I would like to commend to you the Eerdmans-release essay-collection by John M.G. Barclay, Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews (Eerdmans, 2016). When I was a student in Durham, Prof. Barclay was my second advisor and I had the cherished opportunity to work a bit with him in my second year. I made a commitment to track down all the essays and articles he had written and read them – I didn’t quite make it, but I read a whole lot!

Here we have almost twenty important essays bound together, some which have become quite paradigm-shifting, such as his “Why the Roman Empire Was Insignificant to Paul.” Other essays, while less well-known, have inspired my own work, such as Barclay’s “Snarling Sweetly: A Study of Josephus and Idolatry,” and “Thessalonica and Corinth: Social Contrasts in Pauline Christianity.”

I think that Barclay has been rightly recognized as a leading scholar in NT studies precisely because he has dedicated his academic work to making sense of early Christianity in its own time and context. When I write – *ahem*, try to write – articles for publication in elite journals, Barclay’s work is my benchmark. Go and do likewise.