Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Book Review: Simon Peter in Scripture and Memory

I've long enjoyed the work of Markus Bockmuehl. His commentary on Philippians and his monograph Seeing the Word are classics and deserve wider readership than they have garnered. The latter explains and defends Bockmuehl's method for studying historical figures and texts. He argues for the importance of reception history for understanding meaning. Simon Peter in Scripture and Memory: The New Testament Apostle in the Early Church represents Bockmuehl's attempt to carry out that approach on the historical figure of Simon Peter.

The books divides into three parts. The first is an overview of the canonical witness to the historical Peter. The second part, which comprises the bulk of the book, looks at the local memories of Peter from the late first and second centuries. The third and final part uses the results of the first two parts to shed light on two problems, one exegetical and one archaeological.

Bockmuehl begins part one with an observation and a challenge to contemporary scholarship. While a fair amount was written about Peter in the first two centuries CE, we know fairly little biographically and have no early insight into his death. While this may be true, Bockmuehl disagrees with the scholarly trend denying Petrine authorship of 1 Peter or any connection with the Gospel of Mark, any connection with Rome, or any real importance in the early church. The book, is primarily a defense of the last of these points, addressing the first three along the way. The first chapter contains a discussion of methodology. The key to understanding what happened is to look at what happened next and work backwards. Additionally, contemporaries are poor at evaluating significance. This is best done slightly removed from the time the subject lived. Thus Bockmuehl proposes that we look, cautiously, at collective memory. By attending to the text's implied readers and through effective history, Bockmuehl attempts to regain the historical Simon Peter. The second chapter of part one provides a summary of New Testament evidence concerning Peter. This is a synthetic picture aimed more at telling a story than a detailed analysis of each writing in the Newt Testament. Two major points worth mentioning are drawn out. One is that there is no rift between Peter and Paul. The second is that even if 1 Peter isn't "authored" by Peter it is strongly in character.

In part two Bockmuehl turns to local memory. First he discusses the Eastern portrait of Peter, focusing particularly on Syria. Bockmuehl begins with unique local memories and then proceeds through the relevant literature from the first two centuries. After looking at Serapion of Antioch, Ignatious, Justin Martyr, and some apocryphal literature; Bockmuehl gives significant space to the gospels of Matthew and John. While John does somewhat reduce Peter's importance in relation to the beloved disciple, Matthew views Peter as the authoritative bearer of tradition and teaching authority. Additionally, Bockmuehl argues for an early, pre-70 date for Matthew.

Part three gives a similar treatment to the Western Peter. In addition to texts he also looks into archaeological matters like the tomb of Peter. In all, he concludes that we have evidence of Peter's martyrdom in Rome dating back to the time of living memory and thus on the whole it probably reflects authentic tradition.

The last two chapters do more than simply 'tie things together.' Bockmuehl now utilizes the information he has gleaned to advance the discussion on two issues. First is the question of how Peter became a disciple and the second looks at the location of Bethsaida. Here, Bockmuehl knocks it out of the park. He asks the question of Luke/Acts, when did Peter "turn back" as Luke 22:32 implied he would after denying Jesus? Luke never explicitly tells us. We just see a Peter who has turned back. Bockmuehl suggests that Luke expects his audience to be able to supply that information and utilize it as background for their reading of the text. Thus, while Luke's intentions may be not directly available to us, if he communicated well, we may be able to interpret him via looking at how his earliest interpreters understood him.

This strikes me as the absolute correct way to approach the question. While Luke provided enough information for his original readers to understand his communication, we no longer have the same shared knowledge. Recourse to the original audience seems necessary. At the same time it differs from critical methods that ignore the role of authorial intention. It may not be directly discernible (although sometimes it is), but it often is indirectly. Much of biblical studies is spent examining background. That is very important research, but understanding background alone is insufficient. We need to examine the history of effects. In this work, Bockmuehl doesn't just tell us that, he demonstrates why. Life is now harder on the New Testament scholar. Works like this and of Larry Hurtado and others make clear that one cannot just dissect the text. Second century texts, inscriptions, and art are as much the domain of study as the New Testament itself.

Bockmuehl has given us an outstanding work. It's accessible, well documented, and moves the field of biblical studies forward by showing the promise that reception history has in aiding historical and exegetical study. It is my hope that more New Testament scholars utilize this approach. Additionally we've now got ourselves a very nice work on Peter that isn't afraid to take a stand on difficult questions and presents a full, but critical portrait of the chief of the apostles. Hopefully this work can spur on greater Protestant appreciation for the apostle. I'd strongly recommend Simon Peter in Scripture and Memory: The New Testament Apostle in the Early Church to any with an interest in Peter or hermeneutics.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Commentary Review: Song of Songs

I can't think of a better way to ring in my 30th birthday than with a post of commentary reviews. I finished studying the Song of Songs in December so it's time to review the various commentaries that I used. As always, to keep the post to a reasonable length I am not providing comments on the format or level of difficulty of the commentary series each commentary is in. That detail is found in my commentary overview post.

There is one Song of Songs commentary to rule them all. It is that of J. Cheryl Exum in the Old Testament Library. It is undoubtedly the best written commentary I've ever read. Often you feel like you're reading an essay rather than a piece of technical writing. Especially when reading about poetry it's rewarding to read elegantly written material. Exum's creativity extends to her analysis of the Song as well. She has several innovative solutions to difficult interpretive problems. One example is her interpretation of Song 2:15 which I have built off of elsewhere. She also is attuned to key dynamics of the Song and understands, in particular, what the girl is trying to do in each of her parts. If you want to understand the Song as art and feel the passion of the lovers then Exum's work is a great place to start. Restraint in interpreting multivalent imagery is another of Exum's virtues. Some (male) commentators go wild and seeming to find genitalia in every other paragraph. Exum's explanations are much more nuanced and she wrestles hard with the question of if/when the Song crosses the line into voyerism. While discussing relevant technical matters she never gets overly detailed. The commentary also interacts with other scholarship less than many others do. This means you get to hear more of Exum and that is a good thing. This should be the first commentary off the shelf for work on the Song. 5 stars out of 5.

The race for second was close but I would give the edge to Diane Bergant's commentary in the Berit Olam series. For discussion of metaphor and simile in the Song, Bergant's work stands head and shoulders above the rest. In general she is very sensitive to literary elements of the text. This commentary is a bit briefer than most so discussion of ANE background is limited, but she does explicitly draw on it from time to time to explicate particular interpretive decisions. Like Exum she does an excellent job at drawing out how the poem is erotic without being explicit, though once in a while I do think she finds more sexual imagery than I am convinced is present. Along with Exum, Bergant utilizes feminist scholarship productively. For the lay person who is intimidated by Exum's commentary, I think this would be a great commentary to start with. It has enough detail without being too technical. 4.5 stars out of 5.

While technically not a commentary, Michael Fox's comparative work on the Song and the ancient Egyptian love poems is another must have and contains a brief commentary. The book has a translation and commentary of both the Song and a collection of love poems from a period in Egypt that greatly predates the Song. The book closes with a lengthy piece of comparative work that looks at the similarities and differences between the Song and ancient Egyptian love poems on a number of topics. This work was groundbreaking in its day and yes most commentators have built off of his work, but there is no substitute for reading Fox himself. There are a lot of similarities and insightful differences between the two corpora that will help you understand the Song. It also makes it blatantly obvious that the Song is not an allegory. Fox's commentary portion on the Song is highly original if a bit idiosyncratic at times. There is some good technical detail. The primary value is in the comparative work, though the commentary is still worth looking at, as is the work of any thinker as original as Fox. 4.5 stars out of 5.

Tremper Longman has given us the best Evangelical commentary on the Song of Songs. Every other commentator I will mention in this post understands the Song as a unity. Longman takes it to be a collection of poems. While I am not convinced that he's right, I do appreciate his recognition that the Song is not telling a linear story. The  literary sensitivity that exemplified much of Longman's work is on display here. There's also adequate coverage on grammatical issues. Longman was most helpful to me in pointing out the spots where there were correspondences between the Song and Proverbs (probably the Song using Proverbs). Most other commentators treat the Song without trying to examine how it fits in with the rest of the wisdom literature. Overall from introduction to footnotes it's an exemplary intermediate commentary. I'd highly recommend pastors pick this commentary up, if nothing else for the introduction. It has the best concise discussion of the history of interpretation of any of the commentaries I read. 4.5 stars out of 5.

Next up is Roland Murphy's entry in the Hermeneia series. The strength of the commentary is the introduction. It's thorough enough without being tediously exhaustive, and like Exum he is a very good writer. The commentary proper is detailed on grammatical and lexical issues. It's a bit sparse at times on interpretive matters. I wish he would have fleshed out his views a little more fully at times. Like Fox, Murphy is a creative thinker and while that occasionally leads to the adoption of unlikely positions, reading interesting ideas is a boon to ones own thinking. Murphy's commentary is the best technical commentary on the Song. I'd give it 4 stars out of 5.

Duane Garrett has written several commentaries on the Song. This review is of his volume in the Word Biblical Commentary series. Garrett, along with Murphy, is probably the place to go for detailed discussion of the Hebrew. Garrett approaches the Song as if it actually was just that, a song. He assigns every verse either to the man, the woman, or the chorus and tries to give a picture of how the Song would be performed. I found this interesting. Unfortunately, Garrett also approaches the Song as if it had a plot, that it's telling the story of a couple about to and then actually getting married. Exum provides a good refutation of this approach in her introduction. I also think he strains the evidence at times to make it fit his plot. Also, for lack of a better way to put it, the commentary feels very male. The way he discusses sex sounds very male and I believe he makes assumptions about the way women experience sex that overgeneralizes (I say this with caution, as I too am a male). Even with these caveats, I still found Garrett useful and for the most part careful and fair in his discussions. His writing style is a bit dry but I did enjoy the commentary. 4 stars out of 5.

The most unique commentary I read was by Ellen Davis. I have a lot of respect for Davis as a scholar, but I do not think that this represents her best work. She took an allegorical approach to the Song. While she's not totally explicit about this, it seems as if Davis understands the Song to have been allegorical in its original intention. There are several times during the Song where she is insistent not on multiple layers of meaning, but that particular verses can only be understood fully when interpreted allegorically. I disagree and had no such trouble. If she had come to similar interpretations but recognized that they are not the primary meaning of the text then I would be less harsh. Davis's work is interesting to read for her reflections on God and love but doesn't aid ones understanding of the Song in any significant way. 2.5 stars out of 5.

Last is the volume by Marvin Pope in the Anchor series. Pope's strength is his grasp on the history of interpretation. The introduction and bibliography are exhaustive and unparalleled. It extends to the commentary proper as well. He closes his comments on every unit with a brief discussion of one or more ancient interpreters drawing on both the Jewish and Christian traditions. I consider that to be about the only strength of the commentary. The commentary is massive and it needed to be massively reduced. There is so much extraneous information to wade through that, even though well organized, it makes utilization a chore. A prime example is his six page exploration of black goddesses in the ancient world when commenting on 'black but beautiful.' It adds nothing to ones ability to interpret the Song. It's also often difficult to find Pope's actual opinions on how verses should be interpreted. It's hard to believe, but in 776 pages he doesn't find a lot of space for laying out his own views. The commentary very much is a commentary on commentaries. When he does get around to presenting his own positions they're usually well wide of the mark. His cultic interpretation has gained little or no traction and he interprets the Song almost as if it were pornagraphic at times. It's hard to give a rating to Pope's work because of both its significant strength and its glaring weaknesses. In the end the weaknesses overwhelm. I would only recommend it to someone with a keen interest in the history of interpretation of the Song. Buy Murphy or Garrett instead. 2.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Song of Songs: Not a Glorification of Sex

Now that we've wrapped up our section by section analysis of the Song, let's take a look at the Song as a whole and ask the question, what's it all about? In a previous post I outlined the rationale behind reading the Song ironically. I won't rehearse the whole argument here, but I'll add a few arguments to reinforce some of the conclusions reached there. We will conclude by discussing appropriation of the Song today.

The history of interpretation of the Song is in many respects boring. Both Jews and Christians interpreted it allegorically for most of the past two millennia. As many have argued, an allegorical approach arose because the Song was already viewed as religious literature. Something about the Song grated the ears of both Jews and Christians. The easy answer was that there was a strong ascetic tendency that viewed sex as bad. No text glorifying sex could possibly be understood literally. In the case of Christianity I think this argument seems reasonable. While sects within Judaism were ascetic, I'm not so sure that it's fair to assume the same thing about second temple Jews. It's hard to say when the allegorical approach became in vogue, but our earliest strands of the history of interpretation suggest that the dominant approach was allegorical. While unprovable, I think it's a reasonable assumption that Christianity inherited the allegorical approach from Judaism. It certainly wasn't the other way around.

So, if the allegorical interpretation arose in a non-ascetic environment, then we need to ask why? One observation that non-conservative commentators have made fairly universally is that the lovers are not married. While Judaism wasn't ascetic, it certainly was conservative on sexual issues, much like modern day Evangelical Christians (and I believe this is true of more than the just the religious leaders). That certainly would provide an impetus for allegorical interpretation. Much of the Song is the lovers celebration of their love an intimacy.

How did it come to be canonized in the first place? There are subtle, and in my opinion, not so subtle clues that we are to read against the grain of the presentation of the relationship that the two lovers provide. We are to see them, especially the woman as a negative example. I won't go into the details here,[1] but I believe an ironic reading accounts for the data the best and has the fewest interpretive problems. In particular, it is in line with the obvious didactic sections of the Song. Remember the Song is wisdom literature. Jewish wisdom literature clearly is didactic, especially that associated with Solomon. That doesn't mean that the point is obvious. See Ecclesiastes as an obvious example. An ironic reading also explains how the Song came to be read allegorically. Once one loses the interpretive key, it seems as if the text supports the opposite of what it really intends to support.[2]

So what is the Song about? The song is an argument for chastity. Even more fundamentally, it's displaying the dangers of letting teenage girls run wild. It's asking those who have teenagers entrusted to their care to keep a careful watch over their children to keep them from something that the Song views as harmful: premarital sex with someone to whom you are not betrothed.

Why is the Song opposed to that? There probably are multiple reasons and to attempt to answer this definitively is to be naively overconfident. Daughters were property, and they needed to be virgins upon entering marriage to be valuable. However, there's also an emphasis in the Old Testament on sexual purity that saw illicit sexual behavior as defiling. I would expect both of those emphases (and others) are informing our poet as he writes.

Postmodern literary criticism, which helped uncover the message of the Song by looking at the power dynamics in play, would tell us to read against the grain of the Song. Power, when exerted by an author, is understood as something to be overturned and resisted. This is where we must part way with our postmodern friends. Ethics isn't about the abrogation, but the proper use of power. Using power to serve is not the same thing as not using your power.

Who needs to read the Song today? Parents. Unfortunately the shock factor of the Song won't work with many of today's youth. They wouldn't see anything objectionable in the behavior of the couple. Parents, however, have given their children too much sexual freedom and need to rein them in. This isn't to be done in a heavy handed manner (admittedly the inaccessibility motif of the Song borders on domineering), but in a gracious and loving manner that is truly seeking the best for the child. As Scot McKnight's chapter on sex in One.Life shows, chastity isn't just an old fashioned moral ideal. Sleeping around negatively impacts your brain. Now sex is far from the only or most important ethical issue in the Bible, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't matter. Submitting to God here while remaining humble is one of the easiest ways we Christians can show how different we are from the world.


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[1] I started turning to this interpretation when in chapter 3. You can read through my section by section commentaries from chapter 3 on to see my detailing an ironic approach.

[2] A point clearly hammered home in relation to Romans by Douglas Campbell.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Upcoming Year: Outlining the Changes

In my last post, I mentioned that changes would be coming to this blog. I thought I'd outline them here and also chart the intended course for 2013.

My primary commitment it to write two posts per month. Since the birth of my daughter my posting has been erratic. She's old enough and my situation is settled enough that I can begin to get myself back into a schedule. Some months will have more than two posts, but none will have less.

I also hope to raise the quality of the posts, especially the writing. I know my posts often need editing. It's not something I enjoy, but I will commit myself to it for both of our sake, though it is not one of my strengths. I hope that the quality of the content also improves. These two posts should be substantial and hopefully worth your time. I might also go back and sift through some of the old posts, cleaning them up a little and perhaps delete a few that I find to be subpar.

This blog will also get a makeover in look and feel. It will probably take place over the next month or two, so don't be surprised by periodic changes. When I decide on a final form, I'll explain the rationale. One piece that will change for certain is the name of the blog. I'm playing with a couple of ideas and haven't settled on anything final.

So what topics will I cover this year? First there probably will be a few book reviews. I'm currently working through Markus Bockmuehl's little book, Simon Peter in Scripture and Memory and am planning to review that. I haven't finalized a reading schedule yet, so I'm not sure what other reviews will appear. If there are any book that you would like to see me review leave a comment and I may decide to do so (no promises). Second, I have one more post to write to wrap up my series on the Song of Songs. It'll be an overview piece. I will follow that up with the usual commentary review post. Third, Doctor Who will figure prominently again this year. I'm in process on a second post on Amy Pond, and will also write a comparative piece that looks at a creative rewriting of a Classic Doctor Who episode by Russel T. Davies. Additionally, the statistician in me has decided that I need to come up with a methodology for ranking all things Doctor Who. Look for that late summer or early fall.

I haven't yet discussed the main thing I'll be writing about yet, because, well, I haven't decided what it will be. As I teased in the last post, I'm working out a new way of doing theology. I want to offer a fresh presentation of the Christian way. I plan to start this year, but I need to make a final decision on a launching point. Once that decision is made then the rest of my plans will fall into line. A significant focus of this blog since its inception has been careful and systematic study through specific books of the Bible. That will continue, but the book I choose next will be selected to serve this wider purpose. I also intend to write one or two long papers this year that are academic in style which will do some of the heavy lifting for my theological project.

I'm excited about 2013. It's the most excited I've been about this blog in a long time. I hope you're excited too and looking forward to what's to come.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A Personal Update - A Major Change

Happy New Year! Those of you who know me personally may have heard the news by now, but I've decided that I'm no longer intending to pursue further theological education or a career in the academy, at least for now. There are several reasons behind this, but primarily it's because it's not in the best interests of my family. To pursue a PhD would take me 8 or 9 years, during which my wife would have to support the family. On top of that I'd be graduating in a field with very few jobs and an abundance of qualified applicants. At the end of the day I could have put my family through a lot of hardship and not gotten a job.

Additionally, things are going very well at my job. I'm a statistical programmer for Ipsos USA Public Affairs. I enjoy my job and have a great boss. We also do research that matters, not just the kind that helps corporations make money. As many have said about pursuing a professorship in theology or biblical studies, 'if you can imagine yourself doing anything else, do that.' So I'm going to take that advice. I think, too, that my location in the 'normal' working world will have a positive impact on my theology too, but more on that another time.

This blog definitely won't end, nor will I stop my studies, so if you've been a loyal reader (I think there are a few of you out there!), no fear; this blog isn't going anywhere. In fact, it will have a more defined role in my life, as I imagine it will become my primary outlet for my thinking and learning. Additionally, while I haven't been writing much over the past two years, it doesn't mean I haven't been thinking. There are some exciting new directions that I want to pursue, so this blog will get a makeover and I want to begin pursuing a new way of doing theology. But more on that another time. :)