Bauckham’s …Eyewitnesses

Having been reading Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses over the last few weeks when I could squeeze in the time, I have to say that I have found myself non-plussed. As I mentioned in response to several readers’ inquiries, I found E. Earle Ellis’ work on the subject of “traditioning” and his scenario for the production of the Gospels, as found in The Making of the New Testament Documents and in the shorter History and Interpretation in New Testament Perspective to be not only more convincing, indeed compelling, but particular better in interaction with various other trends of scholarship. I have found Bauckham’s work to be very interesting, to be sure, but the digressions and the overall diffuseness of argumentation without specific referents for opposing viewpoints (perhaps something to be expected from an Eerdmans book, an admittedly popular press?), the relatively scanty annotation, and the numerous distracting lists to lead me away from taking it as more than a thought excercise, a published notebook of sorts. In comparison, the treatment of tradition in NT formation by Ellis is well-argued, well-discussed, and well-annotated, particularly with reference to German Biblical scholarship, which is typically where the most serious opposition to traditionary approaches to New Testament (and Old Testament, etc) formation has come from. I suppose that Bauckham’s work is gaining the better press as it is coming from a press that has been able to distribute more copies at a lower price than both of Ellis’ above-mentioned works, which are published by Brill, so they are, of course, both out of print in hardback, were extremely expensive when in print, with only The Making of the New Testament Documents now in paperback, though even that appears to have run out of print now as well. That’s a shame, that such excellent work on this subject hasn’t received the attention that it deserves.

Of course, for an Eastern Orthodox Christian like myself (at the beginning of this year’s Great Fast, no less!), taking tradition as a part of the formation of the New Testament is no surprise, as Tradition is the backbone of the development of the Church itself, and the primary expression of Tradition itself is the Scriptures. That companions of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, were actually involved in the process of passing on information about him is as obvious as water making one wet. But traditionary input is not even so much a matter of faith as it is common sense. Who else would even have cared about Jesus or the very first Christians? The Romans? The Judeans? The Galilean Gentiles? Hardly. Those who witnessed the extraordinary bore witness to it.

These accounts were passed on from that point, sometimes becoming garbled and adulterated, as in various sectarian works. But there has always been a group of people faithfully receiving and faithfully passing on what was passed down from earlier generations, leading all through the years from those first disciples down to the present. In the same way, there have been those through the years who have taken that message and run with it in another direction. Depending upon the place and time, sometimes the former were in the majority, sometimes the latter, sometimes the traditional and orthodox, sometimes the innovating and heretical. None of this is in question except in perhaps the outer limits of extremely skeptical scholarship, I had thought. On second thought, perhaps not.

The reason that Bauckham and others are finding it necessary to belabor the point of traditionary input in the formation of the New Testament perhaps lies not only in the extreme reaches of skeptical scholarship, but also lies in the extreme anti-traditionary aspects of certain trends in modern popular Protestant religion. I’ve heard with my own ears and read with my own eyes various derogatory references to “tradition” in various thoughtless low-browed works. Of course, the same will reference “ancient Christian tradition” and even quote some Church Fathers when it suits their purposes, in a species of proof-texting run rampant. How revolting.

Nonetheless, Bauckham is an interesting read, but not one that has managed to hold my attention at the moment, unfortunately. It has now joined McDonald’s The Biblical Canon (see my short review) on a particular shelf for me to return to when I actually don’t have something better to read. But that’s just me! I enjoy reading other reviews, and expect to see a number of them appearing on various blogs, as it appears that numerous Biblical studies bloggers are currently reading the book. It’ll be a good thing to compare notes, in the end.

What Have They Done to the Bible?

John Sandys-Wunsch put thirty years of work into his What Have They Done to the Bible?—A History of Modern Biblical Interpretation (Liturgical Press, 2005). Covering the development of modern Biblical studies from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century, he’s provided overviews of the approaches to the Bible of various persons throughout those centuries, some longer, some shorter, but all very helpful. The book is not at all polemical, as might be read into the title question, but rather is a fine, succinct history of scholarship. One is able, with this book, to view the development of professional scholarship itself, and to be reminded of the once central role of Biblical studies in both the academy and society. Sandys-Wunsch also displays a fine sense of humor on occasion. His familiarity with the pre-nineteenth century scholarship is particularly valuable, as these formative ages are typically ignored in other survey coverage in favor of late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries scholars whose works are considered more directly foundational. Indeed, Sandys-Wunsch states candidly, “To save reviewers trouble, let it be admitted outright that the author is not as familiar with the work of nineteenth-century scholars as with that of earlier authors. There are many more studies of biblical interpretation in this period than in the earlier ones” (p. 283, n. 3). This book should be required reading for every introductory course on Biblical scholarship. It’s thoroughly annotated, with a bibliography separated by chapter/period, and several useful indices (Subjects, Pre-1900 Names, Post-1900 Names, Scripture). The style is straightforward, eminently readable, and while avoiding technical jargon, still manages also to skillfully avoid misrepresentation or oversimplification of complex subjects. Consider it highly recommended.

Kooky, Kooky, lend me your trowel

So yesterday, Saturday, I stopped by a local shop to pick up some magazines for a nice sunny day’s reading in the sun. Those glossy pics and pages and the relatively simple English writing style is refreshing, even recreational, after my recent slogging through barbaric Latin. Anyhow, the shop had changed hands and all the magazines got moved around. So, while I was looking particularly for KMT (which I think is absolutley the bestest and beautifullest magazine in the whole wide world), he happened to be out, so I got a Biblical Archaeology Review (if only for pretty pictures; it’s got a fairly good story in there about ancient circumcision, and an okay one about the Dome of the Rock, which I’ll have more to say about later), a copy of Archaeology (including, inter alia, a fairly short but also fairly stupid piece on the Gospel of Judas, and a large one on that Bosnian pyramid guy—free publicity, or maybe they paid him—it’ll be a long time before I buy another Archaeology), and then I saw this other cover right next to it, listing as stories along the left column, among others which I didn’t read, “Phoenician Grapes in Virginia” (I thought, “How interesting; they must be able to tell by genetic sequencing.”), “Canada’s Serpent Mounds” (“Ooo, I love mounds! They must be like the Ohio serpent mound we walked around when I was a kid!”) and some other stuff, which I was too hurried to read. Of course, one has to know that I’m a very rapid shopper, generally despising or uncomfortable to be in anything except a musty bookstore, and I was also chatting with the new owner, an Egyptian I think, and I had two iced coffees rather rapidly losing their iciness, so I didn’t take the time to read anything else on the cover of this magazine, Ancient American (and you all read the name and start laughing!). I thought it was a new magazine devoted to moundbuilders and ancient American cultures and all that truly nifty stuff. Once I got out into the sun with my magazines, my two pints of iced Illy coffee, and even a new copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, sitting by a reflecting pool on the Berkeley campus, I opened the supposed moundbuilder mag and it turned out to be one of those ghastly “Phoenicians in America” things. I can’t even describe how vastly disappointed I was to be deprived of what I thought I was about to read, though the faint undercurrent of disgust is probably understandable, with a slight overtone of embarassment, because on the cover, lower right, in letters nearly as large as the title, it says “Ecuador’s Phoenician Artififacts.” All in all, a distinctly unenjoyable flavor. I’ll, um, er, definitely be taking the whole two seconds to pause and read the entire cover of any magazines I’ll be buying in future.

So, here’s to junk archaeology putting a damper on an otherwise beautiful weekend reading session!

Islamic Imperialism: A History

I’ve just finished Efraim Karsh’s latest book, Islamic Imperialism: A History (Yale University Press, 2006). As usual, he’s done an excellent job in lucidly presenting some very complicated history, while simultaenously correcting popularized misconceptions or false history based in propaganda. From the foundations of Islam through to the present day, he argues that the driving force in conflicts involving Islamic entitities have not been based in the “clash of civilizations” per se, but rather in the clash of imperialisms. He ends on this note:

Political cooperation, however, has not meant accepting Western doctrines or values, as the events of September 11, 2001, amply demonstrate. Contrary to widespread assumptions, these attacks, and for that matter Arab and Muslim anti-Americanism, have little to do with US international behavior or its Middle Eastern policy. America’s position as the pre-eminent world power blocks Arab and Islamic imperialist aspirations. As such, it is a natural target for aggression. Osama bin Laden and other Islamists’s [sic] war is not against America per se, but is rather the most recent manifestation of the millenarian jihad for a universal Islamic empire (or umma). This is a vision by no means confined to an extremist fringe of Islam, as illustrated by the overwhelming support for the 9/11 attacks throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds.

In the historical imagination of many Muslims and Arabs, bin Laden represents nothing short of the new incarnation of Saladin. The House of Islam’s war for world mastery is a traditional, indeed venerable, quest that is far from over. Only when the political elites of the Middle East and the Muslim world reconcile themselves to the reality of state nationalism, forswear pan-Arab and pan-Islamic imperialist dreams, and make Islam a matter of private faith rather than a tool of political ambition will the inhabitants of these regions at last be able to look forward to a better future free of would-be Saladins.

Cheese sandwich oracle

The case of Sophronius, bishop of Tella (fifth century), is truly amazing, even though, as a supporter of Nestorius, he may be classified as a heretic. The magical experiments of this dignitary of the Church were described by two presbyters and two deacons before the “Robber Synod” of Ephesus in 449 and denounced by the assembled clergy. Someone had stolen a sum of money from the bishop. He gathered the suspects and first made them swear on the Gospel that they were innocent. Then he forced them to undergo the “cheese-sandwich oracle” (tyromanteia). The sandwiches were offered, and the bishop attached a conjuration to a tripod. In principle, the thief would have been unable to eat, but apparently all the suspects ate with a good appetite. So the bishop insisted on another oracle, the phialomanteia: he consulted a spirit that was supposed to appear in a dish into which water and oil had been poured. This method finally revealed the thief.

This peculiar tale is found on page 460 of the new second edition of Arcana Mundi by Georg Luck (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006). As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been looking forward to its release. An extensive general introduction, epilogue (The Survival of Ancient Magic) and appendix (Psychoactive Substances in Religion and Magic) have been added, each section (Magic, Miracles, Daemonology, Divination, Astrology, Alchemy) has rewritten introductions, and the selection of texts is both slightly different and there are more of them (131 in the second edition as opposed to 122 in the first). Luck’s writing style is still crisp and clear, perfectly explanatory and even somewhat drily humorous at times. He’s obviously benefitted, as have we all, by the numerous publications of magical texts and studies on the subject published over the last twenty years. A very useful Vocabula Magica is included, giving short definitions for the various technical terms used throughout the texts and introductions. The detailed “Select Bibliography” is especially welcome. There is an Index of Ancient Sources, which is useful, and a General Index, which is unfortunately not very detailed.

Caveat emptor: the hardcover edition is without dustjacket, for whatever inexcusable reason. Being that it is a cream-colored cloth cover (the photo shown in my “Currently Reading” spot is apparently of the paperback edition’s cover), not a sensible “library cover” such as Eisenbrauns does so well, I had to return the first copy I received as it seemed to have substituted for a puck in a game of warehouse floor hockey.

The Trial of Job

I’ve just finished reading The Trial of Job by they very busy Father Patrick Reardon, pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Senior Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, author of Touchstone’s online Daily Reflections with Patrick Henry Reardon, contributor to the Touchstone blog Mere Comments, and author of Christ in the Psalms and Christ in His Saints. After all my reading of the book of Job, and especially all the reading about the book of Job, I can honestly say that this is the best book that I have ever read on Job.

This is not a detailed commentary, as the subtitle clarifies: Orthodox Christian Reflections on The Book of Job. This is a small book. Nine pages of introduction open onto the body of the text, giving roughly a page and a half to each chapter of Job, ending with page 104. Father Reardon does refer to both the Hebrew and Greek trextual traditions of Job on occasion, but not in an overly simplified or incorrect manner, as is the case of so many short works such as this. Regardless, these parsimoniously proferred pages pack a punch. Father Reardon has managed for me what numerous other scrupulously, eruditidically detailed academic commentators have all and always failed at: a clearer picture of the book of Job itself, its structure, its characters, and the overall message(s) of the book.

I don’t wish to give it all away in going into details, but will share perhaps the most strikingly useful suggestion that Father Reardon makes regarding the characters of Job’s three would-be comforters. Each presents a form of ancient Near Eastern wisdom in his responses to Job, and each is of lesser value than its predecessor. First, Eliphaz the Temanite, (re)presents a wisdom born in personal spiritual experience. Second, Bildad the Shuhite (re)presents a wisdom with its basis in tradition, passed down through the ages. Third, Zophar the Naamathite (re)presents a wisdom which is simply unmeditated bias. “That is the line of declination: real vision, accepted teaching, blind prejudice” (p. 26).

I recommend this little book for anyone who is puzzled or daunted by the Book of Job. My copy was sent to me gratis upon subscribing to Touchstone, which is, of course, a very fine magazine.

Zondervan Archaeological Study Bible

Well, I got one. Now that Chris Heard is famous, no doubt he’ll roll his eyes behind his oversized sunglasses, and over his soy iced mochaccino no whip with a splash of crème de menthe. Yet, I jest, with such serious work ahead of us.

Chris was entirely spot on, of course, in his review of the preview materials for this new Bible. And that’s good for Chris, and for those of us who share his opinion, but it’s bad for readers of this Zondervan NIV Archaeological Study Bible. Here’s why.

First let me say the good I can say about this Bible. The presentation is beautiful. It has definitely benefitted from modern advances in printing technology. Every page has some color on it, a kind of faint sepia background and header at the very least. The paper (thin but opaque) and printing are of such excellent quality that the full-color photos are crisp on the pages and do not bleed through. The maps are the only glossy pages, with all the rest of the paper being non-glossy, which is what makes the quality of the printing so striking. It very likely heralds a new direction in Bible presentation. They’ve also chosen the single-column presentation of the NIV text, which is quite nice, despite the choice of a slightly cramped font. There are numerous short and some longer excerpts from other ancient literatures scattered throughout, which is quite nice, though the potential for such was insufficiently explored. There are numerous high-quality photographs of artifacts and so on scattered in roughly 500 inserts throughout the entire Bible (which they call “articles”).

Now to the basket of prunes . . . .

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