Anthony Le Donne on His New Book, Near Christianity (Skinner)

near-christianityMy friend, Anthony Le Donne, has recently written a book entitled, Near Christianity: How Journeys along Jewish-Christian Borders Saved My Faith in God (Zondervan, 2016). I have long been a fan of Anthony’s more academic writing (here, here) and his student-oriented (here) and popular-appeal books (here) about Jesus, but this book is a departure for him. I recently had an opportunity to interview Anthony about the book and the motivations for writing about such different subject matter.

(CWS): You say at the start of the book that you’re writing for fellow Christians. How much of your motivation was to expose Christians to an alternative history of Christianity?

(ALD): I am interested in alternative versions of history. Our histories are always being revised. Sometimes this is good, sometimes not. Christians in particular tend to revise our histories to suit our positive self image. We remember great “fathers” and historic episodes heroically. We tend to see the expansion of Christianity as a spread of the good news. I guess part of my book is about trying to listen to voices from beyond the Christian echo chamber. It turns out that our religious neighbors remember the expansion of Christianity differently. We need as many different voices in the study of our history as possible.

(CWS): In the book you write: “How did Christian morality look in Nazi Europe? What dogmatic shape did it take? And if we find that it looked similar to the Christian moralities at work in the heresy hunting of early Christian theology, or Constantine’s vision, or the Crusades, or our major church splits, or manifest destiny, or the Salem witch trials, or Confederate America, or the Red Scare, or countless acts of harm to LGBTQ+ children, should we not stop to wonder if there is a deeper sickness at work?” Do you think that a deeper sickness is at the heart of Christianity? And if so, what is it?

(ALD): I call this the “mythological foothold.” It is the very old Christian strategy to create a caricature of an “other” who represents some sort of danger, and then triumph over the caricature we’ve created. I don’t think that this needs to be the heart of Christianity. But, for some reason, many Christians need an ideological enemy. This is a very old problem in Christian thought and it began with our attempt to supplant Jews and Judaism. But we’re now seeing the same sort of ideological strategy at work in western Islamophobia. We’ve created a stereotype of Muslims and we’re using it as a rallying cry. It really is the worst version of Christianity. The good news is that we don’t need an enemy to be faithful Christians. We have it in our spiritual DNA to remedy this.

(CWS): In your chapter on Christmas, you denounce Donald Trump as a demagogue. I imagine that ledonnemany evangelicals will not like this description, and this book is published with Zondervan, an openly evangelical press. What, do you think, is the appeal of Trump’s politics to conservative Christians?

(ALD) : Well, I guess that I ought to define “demagogue” as I neglect to do it in the book. So here the Merriam-Webster definition: “a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power”; or “a leader championing the cause of the common people in ancient times.” Aside from the “ancient times” portion of this, I think that this is a perfect description of Mr. Trump. He comes up in the book because he contributes to the so-called “war” on Christmas. My point is that Christians ought to be focusing on Advent rather than fueling a culture war. As a Christian, Advent is important to me. But national surveys show that most American Christians do not observe these important weeks of preparation before Christmas. We have allowed something sacred to be lost. Advent is a time for anticipation, remembrance, and listening for God. But we’ve allowed this time of year to become a consumer frenzy. This is what C. S. Lewis called his “pet abomination”—one can only imagine what he would have thought of people being trampled at Wal-Mart or Best Buy. One of the consequences of this secularization of the Christian calendar is that we’ve created a season of protest. We’ve allowed the news media to draw us into culture wars and Advent becomes a time of celebrating Christmas as a show of religious freedom.

(CWS): Since this book is about your “journeys along Jewish-Christian borders,” can you give us a preview of some of the important insights that have come to you in your interactions with Jewish friends, Jewish customs, and Jewish texts?

(ALD): Sure. But first let me say that my experience of Jews and Judaism is idiosyncratic. Everything that I write in this book reveals only my particular experience. I imagine that others might gain different insights from different sort of inter-religious conversations. In other words, nothing that I say should be used as a general stereotype. This book is more about what I’ve learned from my conversations and less about simply retelling bits of wisdom I’ve digested. That said, here are a few things I’ve learned about Christianity: (1) Christians are much more powerful than we know. We have to get over the us-against-the-world myth. Our inferiority complex is dangerous on a global scale. There are 2.7 billion of us. That we have considerably more power than we think we do is both good news and bad news. It is an enormous responsibility. (2) The best and fastest way to make the world a better place is for Christianity to become the best version of itself. This is not something that I learned from a book or a rabbi or some ancient bit of wisdom. It’s just something that would have never occurred to me unless I had journeyed along Jewish-Christian borders and fault-lines. Finally, (3) most of my Jewish friends want me to become a better Christian. I find this especially motivating. My devotion to God through Christ actually makes me a more interesting dialogue partner at this particular table. For whatever it’s worth, I don’t think that I can say the same thing about my Christian friends. I find that the more time I spend at the Jewish-Christian fence, the more I want to be a good neighbor.

I hope this is enough to whet your appetite. I never cease to be entertained and informed by Anthony’s writing. This book is no exception. Now that you have read the interview, you should go and buy a copy of the book (or two). I’m sure Anthony would appreciate that.

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Characters and Characterization in Luke-Acts (Skinner)

dicken-snyderI just received my copy of a new book edited by my friends, Frank Dicken (who is also a former student) and Julia Snyder. The book, Characters and Characterization in Luke-Acts (LNTS 548; London: Bloomsbury/T & T Clark). Here’s a description from the back of the book:

Like all skilful authors, the composer of the biblical books of Luke and Acts understood that a good story requires more than a gripping plot – a persuasive narrative also needs well-portrayed, plot-enhancing characters. This book brings together a set of new essays examining characters and characterization in those books from a variety of methodological perspectives.

The essays illustrate how narratological, sociolinguistic, reader-response, feminist, redaction, reception historical, and comparative literature approaches can be fruitfully applied to the question of Luke’s techniques of characterization. Theoretical and methodological discussions are complemented with case studies of specific Lukan characters. Together, the essays reflect the understanding that while many of the literary techniques involved in characterization attest a certain universality, each writer also brings his or her own unique perspective and talent to the portrayal and use of characters, with the result that analysis of a writer’s characters and style of characterization can enhance appreciation of that writer’s work.

Part One consists of seven chapters devoted to character issues in the Gospel of Luke. Part Two consists of six chapters devoted to Acts. The book also boasts an all-star lineup of scholars working in the US, UK, and Germany, including: Sean A. Adams, Cornelis Bennema, Hannah M. Cocksworth, John A. Darr, Frank E. Dicken, Stephen E. Fowl, David B. Gowler, Joel B. Green, James L. Ressguie, Julia A. Snyder, F. Scott Spencer, Steve Walton, and Brittany E. Wilson.

Receiving this book made my day for two reasons. First, I am proud to be associated with both Frank and Julia and happy for their accomplishment. Second, I am excited to see further work being done on characters and characterization in the NT narratives. This represents the third book on the subject in the Library of New Testament Studies; the first two were my books, Characters and Characterization in the Gospel of John, and Character Studies and the Gospel of Mark (co-edited with Matt Hauge). As I understand it, Matt Hauge is also working on Characters and Characterization in the Gospel of Matthew. I am excited that this work on characterization is continuing.

Congrats to Frank and Julia!

Interview with Douglas Estes on How John Works (Skinner)

douglas-estesA few weeks back I mentioned the publication of a really great new book entitled, How John Works: Storytelling in the Fourth Gospel (Atlanta: SBL Press), co-edited by Douglas Estes and Ruth Sheridan. I was privileged to contribute one of the fifteen chapters to this volume, which boasts an international lineup of Johannine scholars. I recently had a chance to interview Douglas about the book. Here’s what he had to say.

1) With the proliferation of books in biblical studies, what makes this book special?

“This book is special because it fills in a needed gap between an in-depth commentary and a more topical survey of the Gospel’s features. How John Works is neither a commentary, nor a monograph; instead, it explores fifteen of the most important issues that makes John ‘work’ as a gospel. Each of these issues are part of the ‘narrative dynamics’ of the Gospel—what makes the story John’s story. Also what makes this book special is that it covers the Gospel in a wide-ranging way but without getting too bogged down in the details (as a commentary does, for good reasons, of course) or only looking at one issue (as a monograph does). (We could just say that ‘Chris being a contributor’ is what makes the book special—and while I agree!—it is not the only thing!)”

2) Who are the primary readers of this book; how do you see it being used?

“The original plan for How John Works was to create a textbook that students could use to understand how a narrative like the Fourth Gospel has proven so effective for almost two millennia. As Ruth and I were planning and editing the book, we kept coming back to the question “Will this help a student?” I see the book being used two ways: first, it can be used as a textbook in a NT Literature class, especially one where there is a focus on the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of the Christian texts; and second, as a general introduction to the literary design of the Gospel.”

3) With such a broad group of scholars—literally from all over the world—with different backgrounds, do the chapters come together? Or are there notable divergences?

“One goal that Ruth and I had from the beginning is that the book would not be “just a book of essays.” To that end, we worked with SBL Press and our contributors to have unique voices that fit well together. Whether this would work in practice was a conversation point between a number of us during the process—but in my humble opinion, it actually worked very well. Each contributor brings a unique perspective, of course, but the perspectives do fit together very well and bring a complementary perspective to the whole book.”

4) What is one way that your thinking about the Gospel of John changed by putting together Estes Sheridan Front Cover.inddthis How John Works?

“One way my thinking changed while working on this book is in the area of how important the literary study of this Gospel really is. As a scholar, I admit that I have always leaned more to the literary side of things than the historical (though I believe the separation between the two is often needlessly overblown). When we planned the book, as a textbook, I was thinking more that it would summarize important elements for students, and did not think about it cutting new ground. But, How John Works definitely does cut new ground. Sometimes literary approaches get knocked in scholarly circles as simplistic or limited, but editing this book reminded me how much that is not accurate—at least, when literary concerns are taken seriously, interact normally with historical concerns without artificial brackets, and address big issues in a profound way.”

5) How John Works covers fifteen ‘narrative dynamics’ found in John. Why fifteen? Are these the most important?

“This was a lengthy discussion that Ruth and I had as we were first putting the book together. There was nothing special about fifteen, though we knew that we wanted more than only a few. We also knew that it wouldn’t work to have, say, forty. So what we did was to try to pick the most important narrative dynamics, and we came out with about fifteen. Beyond that number, there were other narrative dynamics that would have been worthy of a chapter … but we wanted to be as broad as we were deep.”

6) Is there much more that can be said about the literary features of John? What is the future to this?

“Yes, there definitely is much more that can be said about the literary features of John. On the one hand, there are always details that some enterprising PhD student will discover in the process of writing their dissertation. Plus, there will also be plenty of opportunities in the future to do comparative studies of literary features with other ancient texts (which really has only begun, what with so many discoveries and recent, computerized access to them in the last century). On the other hand, there will always be a need for reevaluations and summarizations. As to the future, no, this is not the last word; I am hoping to start on a follow-up volume to this one in the near future, perhaps a Vol 2 of Storytelling in John, that will look at literary issues in John from a quite different perspective.”

Thanks to Douglas (and Ruth) for their great work on this book, and also to Douglas for answering our questions! Stay tuned because we are actually going to be giving away of copy of this book in the coming days. . . . .

Continuing My Conversation with Brant Pitre (Skinner)

PitreBefore I began my new position here in Chicago I was slowly but steadily working my way through a serial review of Brant Pitre’s mammoth monograph, Jesus and the Last Supper. As I have been trying to get my bearings here at Loyola over the past five weeks, I have been unable to devote any real attention to blogging through the book. Our discussion over several weeks back in August generated some helpful dialogue that allowed us both to iron out some misunderstandings, discuss some areas of disagreement, and also establish some common ground. Before I continue my review in the next week or so, I wanted first to thank Brant for his willingness to enter into and then continue this dialogue. I wasn’t sure if he would have time or interest when I extended the invitation for him to respond. I also wanted to briefly respond to a few of Brant’s replies on my last post (see if you can follow the discussion trail: here, here, here, here; see also Brant’s posts at the Jesus Blog). Hopefully sometime in the next week, the post that follows will continue the review where I left off. I don’t want to get too off track from the review but I do think the external dialogue is important.

In his last set of questions to me Brant wrote:

You used the language of being “suspicious” of the “subtext” driving my conclusions. You’ll forgive me if this creates the impression that you are reviewing the book with a hermeneutic of suspicion. I want readers of the book will be critical, but not suspicious. I don’t think it too much to ask to focus on the text I wrote rather than on the “subtext” that only exists in the imagination.

To this I would first respond by saying, “Yes. That is correct. I am reading this book with a hermeneutic of suspicion.” To be sure, I read every attempted reconstruction of the historical Jesus with a certain level of suspicion. That’s not because I am suspicious of my colleagues’ abilities or their intentions. It’s largely because I have become persuaded through my own research and by reading the works of scholars like Dale Allison (and others), that there is very little that we can know with any real certainty about the historical Jesus. So, if it seems as though I am giving Brant or his argument a “sideways eye,” (which I am not), it’s only because a lot of reflection has led me to a starting point of this type of suspicion. I would add to this, however, that I don’t think awareness of subtexts is a negative thing or even necessarily a sign of suspicion. Being aware of subtexts is eschewing the simple naivete that attends many attempts to simply “tell you what the text is saying” (which I think is near impossible). We all have a set of lenses we use to interpret these texts and those lenses shape, form, inform, and even taint our very best attempts at objectivity.

Brant continues:

That’s one reason I keep insisting that you focus your critique on my arguments rather than repeatedly emphasizing that I conclude that “everything” historically plausible, as if that alone was somehow a sufficient refutation. This is especially true if you recall that by “everything”, we are only talking about 6 of the over 360 pericopes found in the gospels. Now, if you think the use of E. P. Sanders’ triple-context approach to historical plausibility is flawed to err “on the side of historicity,” then by all means, critique the method. Show where and why the historical arguments from (1) contextual plausibility, (2) coherence, and (3) consequences in the early church break down or don’t work. But the thrust of your review seems to keep falling on the fact that I concluded that all 6 pericopes associated with the Last Supper are historically plausible, as if my conclusions alone show the historical arguments to be invalid or worthy of “suspicion” rather than evaluation. Of course conclusions are part of the argument and therefore fair game, but what I have yet to hear from you is *why* my conclusions *do not follow* from my arguments. That’s where I’d like to see the discussion go.

I understand the potentially positive rhetorical value of connecting one’s methodology to the likes of E. P. Sanders. He is a giant in this field and his work is highly respected. It’s not his methodology to which I am objecting. It’s Pitre’s use of this methodology that I find difficult to accept in places. It’s not that I think Sanders’s methodology errs on the side of historicity, it’s that (to my mind) Pitre’s use of this methodology errs on the side of historicity. As for a more specific critique of the method as it is used in the book, I can enumerate three:

(1) First, I have specific problems with the use of “coherence.” In the days when the criteria of authenticity reigned unquestioned, I always found the so-called “criterion of coherence” to be one of the least convincing approaches to deliberating on the historicity of a given saying or event in the life of Jesus. In my teaching, I often refer to the criterion of coherence as a “drip pan category having little, if any value.” In my estimation, “coherence” is a slippery category because it allows a given researcher to engage in what often appears to be a specialized level of subjectivity: “Now that I have established X as being historically plausible, allow me to make the case for the historicity of Y & Z, which clearly cohere with what I have already established.” To me this is terribly problematic. As I have indicated, I think the notion of coherence is brimming with opportunities for subjectivity to creep into our reconstructions. Now, I do want to be fair and acknowledge that Brant is not using the criterion of coherence as it has been classically formulated, but he is using coherence in a way that, to my mind, allows him to get away with the same type of deeply subjective suggestions when arguing for historical plausibility.

(2) Second, if the Gospels are participating in the genre of Greco-Roman biography (bioi) as Brant concedes (and as most agree), then another methodological concern rears its head. (In saying this, I am critiquing more than just Brant’s book but much historical Jesus scholarship in general.) If you read the works of classicists working with other bioi (e.g., Plutarch, Tacitus, Lucian, etc.) they are asking a very different set of questions than what historical Jesus researchers are often asking. In fact, I would argue that an element of special pleading is embedded in the way we think about the “historical Jesus” that neither classicists nor other historians would allow when approaching ancient Lives. With the nature of the gospel genre at the center of our deliberations, I am not persuaded that we can establish with certainty, precision, or even the levels of “plausibility” attempted by Pitre, that given words, deeds, and more importantly, mindsets can be isolated in the various presentations of Jesus the gospel narratives. Against that backdrop, I think Pitre’s arguments often function against the genre with which he’s working.

(3) Third, my own work on characters and characterization suggests to me that even when we are dealing with characters who are supposed to be imitable—which is one function of main characters in bioi—ancient authors are not concerned with detailing specific words and actions. It also suggests to me that isolating a potential mindset from which Jesus is working, (e.g., seeing himself as the New Moses v. his being presented as a New Moses at the narrative level; seeing himself as a Davidic King v. his being presented that way at a narrative level, etc.) is practically impossible. With that assertion in mind, I have recently written the following for a chapter on Johannine characterization in a forthcoming book. I think it applies to what I am trying to say here:

“The construction of personal identity is of paramount importance to modern individuals and therefore plays a prominent role both in the modern novel and the short story—the standards by which we judge contemporary literature in the Western world. When we encounter characters in contemporary literature we are often treated to psychological profiles as figures move toward and in some cases away from moments of redemption. As familiar as this scenario is to readers of modern literature (and consumers of modern film) this is not how characters typically functioned in ancient literature. Therefore, when approaching the New Testament narratives we must be careful to situate characters within the thought worlds that gave rise to them.”

When we treat Jesus as a historical figure and offer our reconstructions from the gospel material, I think we must pay close attention to the way characterization functions in ancient literature. Otherwise, we end up with a modern character whose inner-life can be profiled with precision—something that would not have been available within this genre of literature. While I could say more concerning methodology, my *brief* response to Brant’s questions is running long. I imagine I will say more in the course of my review.

Brant also wrote:

Second, I understand if you found my section of gospel genre and historical plausibility inadequate. I accept the criticism that it was too brief and I could have said more. What I took exception to was the claim that I “never” gave “any kind of statement” about the genre of the gospels. Yes, the statement was brief. But it wasn’t really in passing. It was at the beginning of a crucial section dedicated to how I understand what the gospels are and its implications for what I mean by “historical plausibility” (pp. 46-50). There I chose to focus on what I consider one of the primary “pitfalls” of gospel analysis: the search for the exact words of Jesus and the failed positivistic attempt to reconstruct “original forms.” I understand if you think more needed to be said. I would have liked to say more too, but this it isn’t a book about the origin and nature of the Gospels. It is a case-by-case analysis of a handful of episodes related to the topic of the Last Supper.

I appreciate this being spelled out in greater detail. While I agree that one pretty major pitfall of gospel analysis is the search for the *exact* words of Jesus, I also see a certain degree of historical positivism in the approach taken in Brant’s book, especially the suggestions about how the gospel accounts of these six pericopae should be harmonized to create a more coherent picture. The harmonization approach strikes me as out of keeping with the genre of the literature we are examining…..but I know this is a subject on which Brant and I clearly disagree (and it continues to be a question across a certain sub-section of historical scholarship). I will get to this critique in future posts.

(3) Brant wrote:

Third, you’re right: I didn’t answer your question: “What kind of evidence do the gospels represent?” So I will try now to give a brief answer: In my opinion, the four gospels are first-century Greco-Roman biographies, written within the living memory of the events they purport to record. Written from a post-resurrection vantage point, they reflect the understanding of later tradition and theology (e.g., Luke 24:45; John 2:22, 7:39; 14:26). Their intention is to provide accounts of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, with specific attention to what he did and said, and how he died and rose again, in order to lead others to faith in him. Like other ancient Greco-Roman biographies—Lucian’s Life of Demonax, Suetonius Lives of the Caesars, Josephus’ Life of himself—the gospels are not necessarily chronological (Suetonius, Life of the Deified Augustus, 9), nor are they comprehensive (Lucian, Life of Demonax, 67; Plutarch, Life of Alexander 1.1). Nor should the speeches within them be considered to be verbatim accounts of what was said (cf. Thucydides, History 1.22.1). As a result, any attempt at reconstruction of the life of Jesus should avoid the pitfall of confusing exactitude with historicity by focusing on the substance of the sayings and actions attributed to Jesus. With that said, the gospels seem closely akin to those bioi that are concerned to stress their historical “veracity” (Josephus, Life 336-39) and rootedness in eyewitness testimony and proximity to the subject (Lucian, Life of Demonax, 1). This seems to be why two of the four emphasize that their accounts of what Jesus said and did are based the testimony of “eyewitnesses” (e.g., Luke 1:1-4; John 19:35; 21:24-25). All of this taken together provides good grounds for the investigation, on a case-by-case basis, of the historical plausibility or implausibility various sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus, as well as events the gospels purport to have taken place.

I appreciate this more fulsome description from Brant. I have already (see above) registered some of my concerns about gospel genre vis-a-vis historical Jesus research in general and Brant’s work in particular. There’s actually much that I agree with in Brant’s paragraph and I’m glad to see him lay out his understanding of the gospel genre in these clear terms.

I also want to say that I appreciate how collegial Brant has been throughout our exchange thus far. Most people that I have heard from have seen us as engaging in rigorous dialogue while remaining friendly. I do hope this is coming through. One comment in the previous post questioned the “tone” of the conversation but for the record, both Brant and I believe it is possible to register strong disagreements and still treat one another well. I hope to get back to blogging through the book in detail in the next week or so. For now this exchange will have to suffice for keeping the conversation going. I look forward future exchanges (as I hope others do)!

Book Notice: How John Works: Storytelling in the Fourth Gospel (Skinner)

Estes Sheridan Front Cover.inddI am pleased to make mention of a soon-to-be-published book from SBL Press edited by Douglas Estes and Ruth Sheridan. It’s called, How John Works: Storytelling in the Fourth Gospel. The book went to press yesterday and should be available on October 7. Here’s a brief description:

“In this book, a group of international scholars go in detail to explain how the author of the Gospel of John uses a variety of narrative strategies to best tell his story. More than a commentary, this book offers a glimpse at the way an ancient author created and used narrative features such as genre, character, style, persuasion, and even time and space to shape a dramatic story of the life of Jesus.”

Features of the book include:

  • An introduction to the Fourth Gospel through its narrative features and dynamics
  • Fifteen features of story design that comprise the Gospel of John
  • Short, targeted essays about how John works that can be used as starting points for the study of other Gospels/texts

Here’s the table of contents:

  1. Genre, Harold W. Attridge

2. Style, Dan Nässelqvist

3. Time, Douglas Estes

4. Space, Susanne Luther

5. Point of View, James L. Resseguie

6. Plot, Kasper Bro Larsen

7. Characterization, Christopher W. Skinner

8. Protagonist, Mark W. G. Stibbe

9. Imagery, Dorothy A. Lee

10. Scripture, Rekha M. Chennattu

11. Rhetoric, Alicia D. Myers

12. Persuasion, Ruth Sheridan

13. Closure, Francis J. Moloney

14. Audience, Edward W. Klink III

15. Culture, Charles E. Hill

We will have more on this book in due course. We will post an interview with the editors and possibly even have a giveaway. Stay tuned…….

Questioning Stan Porter on Peter O’Brien and Plagiarism (Skinner)

obrienI didn’t get a chance to mention this last week, but last Monday several of my friends on social media shared a blog post by Stanley Porter in which he appeared to come to the defense of Peter O’Brien in the midst of recent revelations about O’Brien’s plagiarism across three of his commentaries. A number of my friends shared this post (several approvingly), but in my opinion, Porter’s response was simultaneously condescending and tone deaf, and in places, a bit self-righteous. I’d like to respond to a few excerpts and wonder aloud about what Porter was thinking….

First, in case you missed it, here’s a portion of the statement from Eerdmans:

“Eerdmans editors compared the text of The Letter to the Hebrews (Pillar New Testament Commentary, 2010) with various secondary sources and submitted findings to external experts for verification. Summing up the findings, Editor-in-chief James Ernest said, “Our own editors and our outside consultants agreed that what we found on the pages of this commentary runs afoul of commonly accepted standards with regard to the utilization and documentation of secondary sources. We agreed that the book could not be retained in print” (emphasis added).

Now let’s look at the first excerpt from Porter’s post:

 “I believe that the acceptable convention of commentary writing today is essentially to repeat what others have said before you, even if you massage their words in various ways. Therefore, I find it hard to fathom that there is so much self-righteous indignation over Peter O’Brien’s supposed plagiarism in several commentaries. I think that O’Brien, if he did plagiarize (and I wish to question this), may well have simply been following the convention of current commentary writing—an inevitability that has become an accepted norm. From my experience of reading commentaries, I suspect that many commentary writers would not like anyone looking too closely at how they have written theirs, simply because the use of other commentators is exactly what writing a commentary (unfortunately) has become.”

My first response would be to say that I think Porter is guilty of overstatement here. In fact, he appears to indict this current generation of commentators of being guilty of the same sort of infraction committed by O’Brien. But, let’s just for the sake of argument, grant that Porter is not guilty of hyperbole here. I think we can all agree that it is unprecedented, at least in recent memory, to have a major publisher in the field of biblical studies completely pull not one but three commentaries from circulation. Remember, this decision was arrived at through a collaboration of Eerdmans editors and outside consultants. So when Porter says, “if he did plagiarize (and I wish to question this),” he sounds more than a little arrogant. Surely a cadre of experts both within and outside of Eerdmans’ editorial staff can be trusted to adjudicate this matter fairly, can’t they?

Porter continues:

“I find it interesting that the notion of plagiarism has developed into what it has become. If the New Testament authors cite or closely paraphrase Old Testament writers but without attribution, we consider this a meaningful citation or allusion and engage in all sorts of exegetical gymnastics (and write endless books) to ascertain their meanings and motives—but we do not accuse them of plagiarism. Why? Because that is the convention of the ancient writers (as I believe the convention is for contemporary commentary writers). This is also true of more recent authors. If Shakespeare uses Holinshed’s Chronicles or earlier versions of the story of Hamlet, we don’t call Shakespeare a plagiarist, we instead call him the most brilliant writer of the English language who ever lived. If a contemporary author invokes an earlier author, such as Shakespeare or any number of others, we may spend hours determining the nature of the invocation or its purpose—but again we don’t call it plagiarism, we call it literary allusion and commend the learnedness of the author (as in the allusion to T.S. Eliot above).”

Let’s call this paragraph what it is: sheer editorializing on an unrelated issue (viz., the trajectory of our understanding of plagiarism across literary history). We are not in living in the 16th century when Shakespeare wrote and we are not living in the first century when the apostles wrote. There are clearly delineated understandings of what constitutes plagiarism and theft of intellectual property. “Writing” and “borrowing” are not regarded in the same way today as they were during the time of Shakespeare or biblical writers. This entire paragraph is simply a red herring (and a bit of grandstanding). A real and substantive offense was committed here and we should laud Eerdmans for their response. Let’s remember that O’Brien didn’t deny these accusations. In fact, the plagiarism was deemed so blatant that Eerdmans was willing to (1) discontinue the commentaries, and (2) replace the books with other volumes for those who wanted to send their O’Brien volumes in.

Porter continues:

“[U]nfortunately, there are fewer and fewer scholars really competent to comment upon the text but ever-increasing demands to write new commentaries to fulfill the demands of publishers. There are plenty of scholars willing to unload their theologies and other agendas on each and every biblical text, but few that I have found who are equipped to wrestle in new and distinct ways with its very language. As a result, it is not only easier but has become the norm to use the previous work of others.

So let me get this straight? This type of “not-really-plagiarism” is part and parcel of what commentary writing IS, HAS BEEN FOR YEARS, and CONTINUES TO BE and is therefore not necessarily a bad thing. But, this state of affairs is ALSO the result of shoddy scholarship by a newer, younger group of scholars who aren’t really up to the task of commentary writing? Which is it? I’m not sure Porter can have it both ways. It sounds to me like he’s speaking out of both sides of his mouth. Perhaps the problem is not that there are too few scholars currently capable of writing good commentaries but rather, that a handful of luminaries—especially within evangelical circles—consistently wind up with multiple commentary contracts (and their concomitant deadlines) and are simply unable to meet the demands in a fair and intellectually honest way?

I understand loyalty and I can appreciate not wanting to kick someone when they’re down. I also understand the instinct of one senior scholar wanting to give the benefit of the doubt to another senior scholar (especially one from similar race, gender, and theological demographics). However, we need to be able to call a spade a spade, and wholesale quotations from someone else’s commentaries that are unattributed amounts to plagiarism, pure and simple. Perhaps the reason why there has been so much “righteous indignation” (Porter’s words, not mine) over this issue is that many in this field (myself included), are passionate pedagogues who wish to hold our students to the highest standards of academic conduct. I have been teaching in higher education for the past twelve years and I have caught plagiarized work nearly every semester during those twelve years. How can we hold the students to such a standard if the experts won’t do it?

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.