Monday, January 25, 2016

1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11

You can read the text here.

Through Timothy, Paul had heard that the Thessalonians had some anxiety about those in their congregation who had died before Jesus returned.[1] Paul issues the Thessalonians some reassurance. There is no disadvantage to those who died prior to Jesus return. They will join with Jesus when he returns just like those who are still alive will.[2] They will not miss out on the resurrection. Jesus himself confirms this. Grief is ok, but not grief without hope. The language Paul uses is perhaps a bit odd, talking of meeting Jesus in the air. At the core it's an expression of the fact that Jesus is not mere human king. His kingdom includes and transcends that.[3]

Paul moves on in the next section to give them further comfort via eschatology. His goal is to reinforce what they already know because it is critical and to further comfort them.[4] Paul affirms, Jesus is coming back some day, and it will happen suddenly. It also won't be a pleasant return for everyone as some will experience his wrath.[5] The Thessalonians, however, have nothing to fear. They are God's children and live in a manner worthy of their status. Paul encourages them to continue to live out their identity and to live...'in light of the certainty and unexpectedness of that Day's coming.'[6] It will be a day of their vindication, a day that will begin a blessed eternity living under the rule of the divine King rather than the rulers of this world. In the meantime they will be protected in part by their lives of faithful love for God and one another and their resolute expectation in Jesus' salvific activity on their behalf. Critically, it is a message that the Thessalonians are to remind each other of, that way they can persevere even when the going is tough.

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[1] This concern makes most sense to me if 1 Thessalonians is very early. If it had been 15-20 years since Jesus ascension, then this concern would be odd since surely many Christians has died before his return. Of course this causes problems with Acts' narrative, but I agree with Campbell that Paul's own letters deserve priority when dating the letters. Campbell's date (argued for on other grounds) between 40-42 is plausible.

[2] I don't want to make too much of this, but it's interesting that Paul doesn't say that they're in heaven with God after they die.

[3] Drawn from Gaventa.

[4] Fee is very helpful in drawing out the theme of comfort in 5:1-11.

[5] If only Paul was more explicit here about who will receive wrath. At minimum it appears to be their Roman overlords and those who wholeheartedly invest their system. Fee suggests it's those who are making life difficult for the Thessalonians, which is true probably true as well.

[6] Malherbe p. 289.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Thank You Steven Moffat, Peter Capaldi, and Jenna Coleman

In 2012 and 2013 I was fairly frustrated with the state of Doctor Who. There were several good episodes that would come out each year, but the drop off from the Davies era was massive. Many of the characters were poorly written and Moffat had a penchant for writing himself into corners (Matt Smith's finale was brutal). I went as far as calling for the BBC to go in a different direction. I didn't think that Moffat had what it took to be the show runner for Doctor Who.

In 2015 (and to a lesser extent 2014) Moffat has changed my opinion of him as a writer. This past season was nothing short of excellent. Now, a great deal of credit belongs to Peter Capaldi. I don't see how anyone can objectively prefer Matt Smith to Capaldi unless they just really like Smith's schtick. His superiority is obvious in how much better he and Jenna Coleman work together on screen. Coleman was excellent this year and Capaldi is in the same tier as David Tennant, Tom Baker, and Patrick Troughton. Is there any way that Matt Smith could have delivered this speech anywhere near as effectively? No way.

Back to Moffat. This season lacked the frequent deus ex machina moments that littered the Matt Smith era. This season in particular was well crafted and a cohesive whole. It had great high moments like the Capaldi speech. The first five minutes of the season premier were the most tension inducing moments of any episode of Doctor Who since David Tennant stared down the Vashta Nerada in the Silence in the Library. The classic series and the Davies era got some nice treatment. The show regained a sense of cosmic scope.

In closing let me say, thank you Steven Moffat. I'm glad you've stayed the course. You gave us an excellent season of Doctor Who and I hope you can follow it up with a few more!

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Image taken from: http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2014-11-14/steven-moffat-peter-capaldi-saved-doctor-who

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

1 Thessalonians 4:1-12

You can read the text here.

Paul now transitions into more direct exhortation and encouragement of the Thessalonians. They were doing well, but that does not mean that Paul didn't have a further challenge for them. They had seen from Paul and his associates what a lifestyle that pleased God looked like. He wants to focus on two particular areas in this section, presumably because they were at least partially an issue for his converts.

The first topic Paul addresses is sex. Given the nature of the culture he lived in, he is particularly aiming his advice at men. They need to be able to control their sexual urges and limit sex to being within marriage, abstaining from any of the other outlets accepted by their native culture.[1] The reason behind it all is because of their identity and their calling. They have been drawn into Christ by the Holy Spirit and must live in accordance with the nature of that Spirit which is within them.[2] Rejecting a lifestyle of holiness, of which sexual holiness is a component, would amount to a rejection of God and his authority. Presumably part of the reason why Paul focuses on this particular issue is the opportunity for distinctiveness that it offered to his converts.[3]

Paul then moves on, but first he reminds them again that he is encouraging those who, by and large are doing well. Paul is so confident about his disciples that he can affirm that they have learned about love from God, presumably through their intense experience of his love for them.[4] The second area Paul wants to address is their relationship to money and responsibility. Political ambitions should be suppressed.[5] They should live and work quietly, but they must work. Rejecting work and living off of the support of others in the community would not be loving. It would be taking advantage of their love. Second it would work to destroy their witness to the outside world.

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[1] This passage makes it obvious that the Thessalonians were a Gentile congregation.

[2] Both Gaventa and Fee are very helpful in drawing out this point in their own ways.

[3] It also was a very Jewish position. If Nanos et. al, are right in that Paul's goal was to incorporate the Gentiles into the Jewish people as Gentiles then it makes sense that a lifestyle of sexual permissiveness needed to end. Sexual immorality was the issue besides idolatry that Jews most commonly criticized the Gentiles for.

[4] So Gaventa.

[5] Assuming Gaventa and Malherbe are correct. This verse provides the clearest biblical evidence against Christians seeking political power.

Monday, January 4, 2016

My Debt to Orphan Black

In certain regards my political views have become increasingly raidcal over the past few years. There are many reasons why that is the case. Certainly part of it has been my study of the Bible, theology, and ethics. Some of it has been through the development of relationships with a wider net of people. A third, and key component has been television. No, it has not been through watching cable news outlets, but because powerful storytelling has opened my eyes to understand the world in a clearer fashion. Then theology can step in to make sense of my improved understanding of reality.

While there are many shows that I like, there are only two shows that I cherish, and for different reasons. Orphan Black is one show, and it's story and characters has forever changed the way I see the world. There's much I could write about related to Orphan Black, worldview, and ethics, but a lot of good ground has already been covered in some lengthy online articles (here's one of the best for a taste). Today I want to hone in on something very specific.

I chose this picture carefully.[1] On Orphan Black, the phrase 'I am not your property' speaks at two different levels. The obvious level is the relationship between the individual and corporations. The second, and more subtle level, is the way we cheapen each other and destroy community by defining others mainly on the basis of some characteristic(s).

Even before I began watching Orphan Black I had a an anti-corporate streak in me. I expressed some of those sentiments here, in what may be my single favorite post I have ever written. Orphan Black helped me see that I had not fully grasped the depth of the perversity of our corporate controlled economic system. The tale of the clones is, in many ways, the tale of you and I. Many of us are like Krystal Goderitch, 'happily' living our lives under the control and direction of our corporate lords and masters without even realizing it. We are pawns used by the powers in charge and act on their behalf without really knowing what we're doing or why. We have this sense in the back of our minds that something 'isn't right,' but we can't put our finger on it.

It may seem strange that I picked Krystal out of all of the clones to identify us with.[2] I think we all want to believe that we're Sarah. Yes maybe corporate America has given us certain genes, or predispositions, but we are free agents and are solely responsible for our own messes. We aren't under their control, and the moment they try to exert their control over us we fight back with a vengeance! How deluded we are!

What do we all want? We want to be happy. Often, we equate happiness with being able to do, have, and experience whatever we want. Having and experiencing whatever we want are consumptive activities that mostly enrich major corporations.[3] How do you pay for it?[4] By working a job, often for a corporation, or a company that services corporations, or for a company that aspires to be a corporation. They've got you. You're enslaved. Unless you're very lucky or supremely talented you work for them on their terms so that you can buy stuff and experiences that they and other corporations sell to you. Wages are held as low as possible and prices as high as possible to enable the corporation to maximize their profits. We keep coming back day after day to make sure we can maintain our lifestyle and the illusion of happiness. Deep down, though, we know that this isn't the path to true happiness. However, advertising and social pressures (often experienced on corporate owned social media platforms) make us too timid to really try and break free. For many of us when we realize we've been sold a bill of goods end up medicating to different degrees like Alison. A decision that can easily destroy us and everything we love.

Now some of us try religion as a path out of this.[5] But too often we end up like Helena destroyed by seemingly righteous culture. Christian culture in particular has figured out how to monetize the rejection of conformity to the image of the perfect life sold to us by corporate America. They have crafted their own "perfect life" that parodies many of the values and consumptive patterns (go to Christian movies, not secular movies - either way you're still buying and going)  of American culture and don't end up bringing any of the liberation promised. It just ends up being slavery to a different set of masters.

Fortunately, Orphan Black gives us a solution to the problem. The answer is to seek happiness somewhere else than where the corporations are trying to lead us. Happiness comes through life together as a family where we accept each other as we are, look out for one another, and put each other first. This isn't easy. Like Cosima, we can be our own worst enemies, particularly when we are unable to forgive, but that is the only way to true life and freedom.

Obviously family is a place where we can experience this, but I'd like to argue that this is also what the Christian church is supposed to be like. Rather than focusing on enforcing a certain view of Christian culture, let's focus on loving one another, which means accepting each other for who they are.

This will segue us into our second topic. One of Orphan Black's goals is to get you to move past a shallow and superficial way of understanding people where they are labeled based on some characteristic that they have and treating them as if that fully defines them. Arguably the most famous exchange on the show is the instance where Rachel, upon meeting Cosima, notes that she is gay, and Cosima quips, 'my sexuality's not the most interesting thing about me.' On Orphan Black they are particularly focused on sexuality, but we see other characters presented as more complicated than our default labeling would suggest (Sarah is far more than the 'grifter' that Angie thinks she is, even Rachel has a sensitive and sentimental side, and Krystal has depth as a human being).

One isn't limited to their past. That's one of the big things that the clones, especially Sarah, have to learn. Helena may have been a ruthless killer who hunted their sisters, but she too can be turned and even trusted through love. The turning point in the whole show is when Helena finally realizes that Sarah loves her and isn't trying to use her like everyone in her life had to that point. Sarah only came to love her when she realized that what they shared was more important than the differences that they had and that, through love, Helena could be transformed. Love overcame the box that Sarah had originally put Helena in. It also enabled Helena to escape the box that she had subconsciously put herself in.

Both the dance and dinner parties that close out the first two seasons are powerful because they show the beauty of family when they accept and love each other as they are. To me that's a portrait of what true family should be like. That's a portrait of what the church should be like. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to love each other with the transformative, redemptive love of Jesus. We should be able to be the leaders, building a beautiful alternative society that eschews the message of our corporate powers. Only then will we regain our credibility and only then will we find true happiness, when we are finally known by our love.

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[1] Image taken from http://screenrant.com/orphan-black-season-3-character-posters/

[2] Rachel may actually be the identity of some of us, if we're the ones in power. Be warned by her story. Everyone will be discarded by the corporation when they outlive their usefulness.

[3] Obviously sometimes our money is going to local small businesses, which can be less problematic, but not necessarily so.

[4] Or how do you pay for being able to do whatever you want?

[5] I'm softening the anti-religious rhetoric of the show. The show clearly favors spirituality over organized religion. I want to focus the critique a little more carefully than they do.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Books of the Year: 2015

Last year I never got around to writing my books of the year post. But it's back this year after a year off! This year, most of my reading covered the church of the first four or five centuries focusing particularly on Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen, and Augustine. I did find some time to fit in a few other books as well, some of which are represented.

5. Framing Paul by Douglas Campbell


When you read Campbell you know you are going to get vigorous, well explained, interesting proposals. That certainly is the case here. His discussion of the use of statistics related to style in the determination of authorship is excellent and several of his proposals are very interesting, particularly his identification of Ephesians as the letter to the Laodiceans.

4. Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies eds. Susan Harvey and David Hunter


I came into the year with a minimal background in early Christian studies. This handbook was extremely helpful as I was gaining my bearings. Each essay is very informative and the bibliographies are up to date. It's a must own reference for anyone who wants to learn more about the first five centuries of Christianity.



This was a very nice, helpful book on a difficult topic. Middelton provides an overview of martyrdom in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions. He also provides helpful framework for understanding and discussing the modern phenomenon as well.

2. Paul within Judaism  eds. Mark Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm


I love Pauline studies, and it makes me sad that I don't get to read nearly as much as I'd like in this area. I'm very glad that I did get to read this edited volume. The contributions were consistently of a very high caliber and it helped open up a new way to see Paul. I am not completely convinced yet of the Jewish portrait of Paul presented in this volume but it's not one that can be easily dismissed. I look forward to further engagement with this viewpoint when my time eventually frees up.

1. First Principles by Origen


My apologies to all of the Augustine fans out there, but I found Origen to be the most brilliant and enriching figure to engage with from the first five centuries of Christianity. On First Principles is the most systematic presentation of his thought, though it is from an early period, and some of his thinking did develop as he aged.


Now for the books that came out in 2015 that I'm most excited about but haven't read yet.


5. First Isaiah by J.J.M. Roberts


The time was ripe for a full scale critical commentary on First Isaiah and I think J.J.M. Roberts is up to the task. I'm looking forward to picking this volume up sometime soon.

4. The Work of Theology by Stanley Hauerwas


The more I work on writing my theology the more acutely aware I am of how difficult it is, and how difficult it will be to move past the descriptive phase. I am so grateful that a gifted theologian like Hauerwas would write this book at the end of his career.

3. I Still Believe eds. John Byron and Joel Lohr


I definitely am not a fan of devotional/inspirational Christian literature. I don't think this work will fall into the trap of superficiality or sappiness. I have a deep respect for several of the contributors to this volume and I hope it encourages me as I expect some of them have struggled with doubt in similar areas to my own.

2. Becoming the Gospel by Michael Gorman


No single scholar has impacted the way I live more than Michael Gorman. I expect this book to be the fullest expression of Paul's view of the Christian way of life.

1. Paul and the Gift by John Barclay


That this is number one should be a surprise to no one. Barclay is a gifted scholar and I look forward to deepening my understanding of Paul's view of God's grace.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:13

You can read the text here.

In this section Paul writes very personally to the Thessalonians. It's overflowing with love and concern for their spiritual well being.[1] Paul missed the Thessalonians very badly and really wanted to visit them, but Satan blocked his path. Not only did Paul care about them, but they also were the evidence of how well he fulfilled his calling before God. If they remained faithful, then he was faithful to his calling and would be deemed victorious by God on the last day. The positive report he had heard buoyed his confidence that he would be vindicated.[2]

Paul wanted to come himself, but when he couldn't make and also couldn't wait any longer he sent Timothy, who was well known to the Thessalonians to check in on them and to encourage them to stay faithful to Jesus. Following Jesus changed a lot of relationships for the Thessalonians and made participation in the common life of their city difficult.[3] This was something Paul warned them about. They were each others family now, and so was Paul, from whom they were separated. It was hard on both of them.[4] He knew it would be hard, so he sent Timothy to encourage them and to find out how they were doing.

Timothy brought back good news. The Thessalonians had stayed faithful,[5] and were full of love for one another and for Paul. This news brought Paul much relief through the trials he continued to face as he traveled around proclaiming the gospel, joy that he regularly expressed in prayer on their behalf. He also regularly asked God to allow him to return to see them once again.

Paul then shifts into a prayer of thanksgiving where he also prays for continued growth on the part of the Thessalonians. While Paul was not there long, he gave the Thessalonians a pattern of love to follow (a pattern he continued to demonstrate in this letter), and he urged them to follow it. Their love was the demonstration of their loyalty to Jesus and would bring about their vindication on the last day.

For one additional note. Gaventa has some nice comments on applying the passage on pp. 47-48. I want to quote a couple here as they are worth reflecting on.

"...this text emphasizes the vulnerability of the Christian preacher or teacher. The connection forged with those who are congregants or students is such that church leaders are themselves highly susceptible if those in their "charge," so to speak, turn aside." (p. 47).

"Paul may be speaking hyperbolically when he says "we now live, if you continue to stand firm," but he reveals something central to Christian faith and life. This is not an arena in which the rejoinder, "What I believe is my own business! can be recognized and respected." (p. 47-48).

"Because of God's actions, the apostles and the Thessalonians are irretrievably connected with one another." (p. 48).

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[1] Both Gaventa and Fee underscore this point very well.

[2] Gaventa deems Paul's confidence to be profoundly bold.

[3] So Malherbe.

[4] Malherbe notes that Paul's emphasis on his aloneness throughout this passage signals empathy for the Thessalonians and their newly isolated status.

[5] All three commentaries are consistent in affirming that Paul means faithfulness throughout this section and not just faith, if understood to refer to assent only.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Assessing Verbal Inspiration

What is the Bible? Lately I've been reading The Story of the Scrolls by Geza Vermes, and that in conjunction with recent post by James McGrath propelled me to tackle this topic here. Some in Evangelical circles answer this question by affirming that the Bible (or at least the original manuscripts) is the verbally inspired word of God, meaning that the words themselves are God's words and have some sort of inherently special properties or power. In this post I will explain why I don't think this is the right way to approach the Bible nor is it likely the way the earliest Christians understood the Scriptures. If it was, then one would expect to see the earliest Christians hold slavishly to literal interpretations and even slavishly to the literal wording of their Scriptures when quoting texts, since that is locus of God's power. I will explain that this was not the case, drawing from apostolic interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, early Christian scribal practices, and the question of the original text of the Hebrew Bible.

How did the apostles interpret the Hebrew Bible? There has been debate among Christian scholars[1]. I personally think the evidence is very clear that the apostles did not slavishly interpret the Hebrew Bible literally nor did they even quote the text slavishly when citing entire verses. There are many passages that could be mentioned, but the classic example[2] is Paul's deliberate misinterpretation of the word seed/offspring in Genesis 13:14-16 in Galatians 3:15-29. Paul knows that "offspring" in Genesis 13 is a collective noun and refers to more than one person. However, he felt free to deliberately misinterpret the text to make his point. One could also point to his allegory of Galatians 4:21-31 for another clear example that Paul (and other New Testament authors) were not stuck with a narrow range of uses of Scripture. Scripture gave them a resource to make a point that they felt the Holy Spirit wanted them to make. The point was more important than the literal wording or even the literal meaning of the text.

We see a similar phenomenon with Christian scribal activity in the first several centuries. Many Christian scribes felt free to make additions or modifications to the text[3]. Many textual variants of course are scribal errors or were attempts to fix what later scribes believed were earlier scribal errors. However, there are a lot of modifications made to try to improve the comprehension of or the grammar of the text. If they believed the words of the text themselves were powerful one would not expect to see even these kinds of changes. However, some scribes went far beyond that adding, sometimes, even extensive material to conform scripture to their beliefs.[4] Scripture was clearly important to these early scribes as an authoritative source of doctrine, but again, their behavior suggests they believed the Bible to be something other than verbally inspired otherwise you wouldn't have these kinds of changes.

My next and final point may seem a bit out of place given that I'm talking about Christian understandings of their Scriptures, but the earliest followers of Jesus were Jews so it's meaningful to know what beliefs they would have inherited. In the Vermes book I mentioned above, he discusses the role of the Dead Sea Scrolls in helping us determine the original text of the various writings of the Hebrew Bible. Three distinct textual traditions with significant variations in the text itself have come down to us; the Samaritan Bible, the Septuagint, and the Masoretic Text (Hebrew text). The readings in our Bibles largely (perhaps completely? I'm unsure) follow the latter two in some way shape or form. There are many minor variations between the texts (e.g., the Samaritan Bible often replaces references to Jerusalem with Samaria), but there also are some major differences. For example, the text of Jeremiah in our Bibles is mainly derived from the Masoretic text. However, the Septuagint text is about 1/7 shorter and is arranged in a different order. Which is original? Either, neither, or both? Who knows? Manuscripts reflecting both traditions were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.[5] For other texts, we have examples reflecting the traditions in the Samaritan Bible in the Dead Sea Scrolls. This means that during the time of Jesus and the early church there were a variety of texts that were, in some cases, quite different, and it wasn't imperative to adjudicate which version of the Scriptures was official and "God's words." Even beyond that, given the disarray we have in some cases, how confident are we really that our reconstructed Old Testament is that close to the wording of the Hebrew (or Aramaic) original? That alone seems to be a practical problem for those who hold to a doctrine of verbal inspiration (though of course not a refutation).

Some may say I'm being too modern by requiring literalism on the part of ancient Jews and Christians. I would say that is precisely my point. This doctrine of Scripture is very modern (in that it fits a modern Western worldview better than an ancient one), but I often fear that fact goes unrecognized. If one wants to maintain that Scripture is the word of God, one either needs to recognize that this belief is far more innovative than is typically admitted or find a way to affirm this belief that doesn't necessitate and isn't tied to a "literalistic" method of reading Scripture.

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[1]To get a lay of the land, you could read Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament.

[2] E.g., See the extended discussion by Enns in Ibid. pp. 180-85.

[3] Though I have not read it, I have heard The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture by Bart Ehrman covers this ground well.

[4] A classic example is the Johannine comma an addition to 1 John 5:7-8 (compare KJV with NRSV), though many other texts could be pointed to. Wikipedia has a lengthy discussion of this passage that could serve as a starting point. Note their list of other disputed passages.

[5] Vermes does not discuss my example here of Jeremiah but discusses the diversity of textual traditions found at Qumran on pp. 213-14.