Marcus Borg: Let light perpetual shine upon him

Word has come of the death of New Testament scholar Marcus Borg. He was enormously influential in biblical studies and played a crucial role in bringing liberal Biblical exegesis into the public eye. Others who knew him well will have much to say about his legacy as a scholar and as someone who sought to connect contemporary people with the richness and strangeness of the New Testament world.

I had the great privilege of spending some time with him several years ago when he was visiting Furman University, where I was teaching at the time. I posted the following reflection at the time:

I’ve also attended lots of scholarly lectures by big names over the years and I was expecting a retread, a boring reread of a lecture given hundreds of times before. But Prof. Borg was different. I had the opportunity to join him and other colleagues for lunch. He was engaging, interested in us, our ideas, and experiences, and shared some of his personal life with us.

He was the same way in the lecture. Indeed he did say little that I hadn’t heard before. What was remarkable was the way he treated us as an audience and a congregation. Beginning and closing with prayer, and sharing his faith and his experiences with us was profoundly moving. It was one of the most memorable evenings of my life.

Read it all here.

A Polite Bribe: Provocative Documentary about St. Paul

On January 29 at 7:00pm at Union South, there will be a screening of the new documentary Apostle Paul: A Polite Bribe. More information about the screening is here. It’s an innovative documentary in that it avoids the usual techniques of biblical and historical films. There no shots of intrepid scholars walking through ancient ruins and no actors in bathrobes and sandals depicting scenes from the New Testament.

Instead, film-maker Robert Orlando makes effective use of animation to tell the story but much of the narrative is carried by New Testament scholars. What’s perhaps most interesting is that he weaves together the words of scholars from very different perspectives to create a coherent story.

It’s a story that rarely is given a central place in the scholarly treatment of Paul (although I remember that when I took an undergraduate course on Paul many years ago, we began with the collection). In his letters, Paul mentions a collection he is taking up for the church in Jerusalem (eg I Cor. 16:1-4). In Acts, Paul brings the collection to Jerusalem where he is arrested. Orlando interprets the story of the collection that Paul brings to Jerusalem as an attempt to preserve the unity within earliest Christianity, his effort to maintain relations between the predominantly Jewish Christian community of Jerusalem, and the communities of largely Gentile Christians that Paul was creating in Asia Minor and Greece.

Mark Goodacre, Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School reviews it here. He writes:

I was impressed by the way that the film manages to weave a story that scholars know well into a narrative that would be comprehensible and compelling to those with no knowledge of the field.  It’s certainly something I would enjoy using in the classroom, but I suspect that those who will enjoy it most will be those who are unaccustomed to reflecting critically on Paul’s biography.

David Mays offers what he likes and doesn’t like about the film, concluding that it is well-worth watching.

James McGrath writes:

I honestly cannot think of another single documentary film about the Bible which has such a wide array of the very best and best-known scholars from around the world in it. The movie would be worth watching just to hear those scholars speak, even if they only spoke in the proportion that is common in documentaries. But scholars speaking makes up the vast majority of the film’s verbal component. And in addition to hearing scholars speak clearly and compellingly about Paul, you’ll also get to hear Ben Witherington do an impression of a mafia godfather.

I had a chance to watch it a couple of months ago and I was struck by the wide range of scholars who were interviewed, by the depth of the scholarship behind the film and conveyed by it as well. I was also intrigued by the film’s overall perspective. Having taught Paul in Intro to Bible and Intro to NT classes many times over the years, I know that the collection never played a significant role in the story of Paul that I taught even if it had in my own undergraduate introduction to Paul. Was it a bribe? Who knows? Was it at least partly Paul’s attempt to smooth over relations with the Jerusalem community? Undoubtedly.

The evening at UW a talk by Orlando, a panel discussion by UW faculty, as well as the screening. I hope a lot of people turn out. More information is available here.

Two scholarly reviews of Aslan’s Zealot

Whatever the fallout from the interview, and the bestseller status achieved by Aslan, I’m doubtful that New Testament scholars, or the more narrow circle of historical Jesus scholars, will agree with much of Aslan’s account of Jesus.

Anthony Le Donne is scathing:

Jesus’ preaching about God’s kingdom is undoubtedly political.  It makes sense that this teaching was directly related to the title posted on the cross (and/or the symbolic value of that title in Christian memory).  This much is not all that controversial.  Defining “political” is the key problem.  Reza Aslan’s book barely touches the vast sea of literature on this problem.  In short, this book is a surface-level (albeit well-promoted) rehash of an old puzzle in Jesus research.  Unfortunately, Aslan brings nothing new to the table that will help us solve the puzzle. He simply dismisses all of Jesus’ sayings about nonviolence as Christian invention.  This move isn’t unheard of, but he fails to make his case for invention adequately.

Greg Carey is more charitable:

I would add that Aslan provides some of the most helpful discussions I have yet encountered regarding the accounts of Jesus’ healing ministry and of his resurrection. These stories represent minefields for any historical investigator. Aslan handles them with sympathy, imagination, and critical judgment.

At the same time, I have some serious reservations about Aslan’s portrait of Jesus, and I suspect that most professional biblical scholars will share some of them. First, the book contains some outright glitches, things a professional scholar would be unlikely to say. Aslan suggests there were “countless” revolutionary prophets and would-be messiahs in Jesus’ day. Several did appear, but “countless” is a bit much. Aslan assumes near-universal illiteracy in Jesus’ society, an issue that remains unsettled and hotly contested among specialists. At one point Aslan says it would seem “unthinkable” for an adult Jewish man not to marry. He does mention celibate Jews like the Essenes, but he seems unaware that women were simply scarce in the ancient world. Lots of low-status men lacked the opportunity to marry. Aslan assumes Jesus lived and worked in Sepphoris, a significant city near Nazareth. This is possible, but we lack evidence to confirm it.

Reading the New Testament with different eyes

When I taught Intro to NT and Intro to Bible, one of the basic questions I had to address was in what order to teach the NT–in the canonical order (Matthew to Revelation), in historical order (Jesus, Paul, later writings), or in the order of the texts’ writing (Paul, Mark, etc.). As a historian, I always came down on the historical order: Jesus, then Paul.

Marcus Borg has recently posted “A Chronological New Testament” that has generated considerable interest. He argues that reading the NT beginning with I Thessalonians is an important corrective to many strands of contemporary Christianity. Among other issues, he cites:

  • Beginning with seven of Paul’s letters illustrates that there were vibrant Christian communities spread throughout the Roman Empire before there were written Gospels. His letters provide a “window” into the life of very early Christian communities.
  • Placing the Gospels after Paul makes it clear that as written documents they are not the source of early Christianity but its product. The Gospel — the good news — of and about Jesus existed before the Gospels. They are the products of early Christian communities several decades after Jesus’ historical life and tell us how those communities saw his significance in their historical context.

While there is merit in being clear about the historical contexts of the New Testament texts, Borg is primarily concerned with challenging notions of inerrancy. But it seems to me that to focus to narrowly on the historical dating of the texts, and to read them accordingly, is to place to much emphasis on the texts themselves. The writing of New Testament scriptures began at least two decades after the crucifixion and resurrection, after a two-decade long period of reflection on the meaning of Jesus and the events of his death and resurrection, two decades after Jesus’ followers had experienced, and continued to experience, the risen Christ in their lives and in their communities.

In a somewhat similar way, contemporary Christians bring their experiences to the texts of the NT, the historical contexts in which we live, but also our lived experience of Christ and the community of faith. To ground that experience in the tradition of the church, to interact and wrestle with the deposit of faith located in Christian scripture, is crucial to the development of mature faith. It’s too easy to dismiss writings that are “late” as somehow less authentic or less authoritative, than those closest to the events themselves. Reading the texts chronologically may help us better understand the development of the literary traditions of early Christianity, reading this way may not help us understand the mystery of the Christian faith and the full range of Christian experience that lies behind the texts.

And of course the other problem is that “mainstream Biblical scholarship” is more divided on the dating of the texts of the NT than Borg is willing to admit.

Elaine Pagels on Revelation

I previously blogged on Pagels’ most recent project. She lectured at UW Madison a couple of years ago. Here’s what I said then:

she seemed to suggest that the author’s Judaism was in some way more important for making sense of the visions than his belief that Jesus Christ was the Messiah. I think you can do that only if you separate out the letters to the seven churches from the visions. For if the same audience is implied then the most important context is the relationship between Christianity and the empire, not Judaism and the empire.

More troubling is her blaming Athanasius for the canonization of Revelation. His wasn’t the leading or primary voice. There were too many other things in its favor, particularly, by that time, the universal assumption that the author of the gospel of John and the author of Revelation were the same person. And it wasn’t just Athanasius who attacked alternative visions or revelations. Early Christianity is filled with such visions, and attacks on them. Unfortunately, Pagels’ bias against orthodox Christianity, the Great Church, whatever you want to call it, in favor of the personal experience emphasized by the Gnostics and others, blinds her to historical reality

Adam Gopnik’s review in the New Yorker is here.

Martin Marty comments here.

An interview with Pagels is here.

One excerpt is here. Another is here.

Preaching Scripture, Teaching Scripture, and the Episcopal Church

Today was one of those days when the Holy Spirit moved.

I’ve been struggling to rethink several things: First of all, how do we create community in a downtown parish when the primary point of contact is the worship service? We can’t hope to get most of those people to stay for coffee hour, let alone get involved more deeply in the life of our parish. Second, how do we do adult education or formation when we get a smattering of people to attend our adult forums, and handful of people to come out at night if we offer something substantive?

And then I read George Clifford’s essay about reading and interpreting the Bible at the Daily Episcopalian. The reality is that for most of those who attend our services their only contact with scripture is listening to the readings on Sunday morning. What we do with those scriptures on Sunday morning is the primary lens through which they will hear them.

I may have had Clifford’s essay in the back of my mind as I began thinking about today’s sermon. I certainly had in mind the fact that we were going to push name tags today. We’ve had too many visitors, too many newcomers in recent months, and we aren’t getting connected with them. But I wanted that connection to be with more than the preacher and celebrant. I wanted to make connections across the pews, across the aisles.

So here’s what I did. I got people talking to each other, and talking about the gospel. I told them to introduce themselves to one another, and to talk about what was puzzling, or problematic, or strange in today’s gospel reading. I walked up and down the aisle and I heard the buzz. It was amazing. I had to interrupt after a couple of minutes, and I invited them to continue their conversations at the peace, and at coffee hour. And then I invited them to share their questions.

And I was surprised. They asked the right questions: Why did Jesus tell the demons to keep silent? Why did Jesus have to go away for privacy? Why did he heal Simon’s mother-in-law so that she was able to get up and serve them? Now, granted, Grace Church is a highly educated congregation, but in my experience, a good education does not necessarily mean that someone is capable of asking intelligent questions about scripture.

But here’s the thing. I’ve been Rector of Grace for nearly three years, and for nearly three years, I have been asking just those sorts of questions about the text in my sermons. Over those three years, this congregation has grown accustomed to pay attention to the reading of the gospel, and, I suspect, to look for those interesting things in the gospel, things that might catch my eye, because chances are, I’m going to talk about them.

I remember the days when I was on the other side of the altar, when I was sitting in the pew, listening to the readings, and wondering what the preacher would do with the text. I remember listening to stories from the Hebrew Bible being read, and looking across at other people and seeing the questions in their eyes, and then waiting for the preacher to talk about those amazing stories, and being disappointed when instead we heard about their latest trip to the Grand Canyon.

Each Sunday, we hear three texts read plus a psalm. Each Sunday there are worlds that we encounter in those texts, the struggles, hopes, and faith of generations past. Too often, preachers recoil in fear from those texts, avoid talking about them, avoid their difficulties, avoid the obvious questions that any careful reader would have. We don’t take the texts seriously and we don’t respect the intelligence or faithfulness of our listeners.

I am more and more convinced that serious Christian formation, serious education begins in the pulpit and in the pews, that for us to once again become a people of the book, a people of scripture, a community interpreting scripture together, we have to do it on Sunday mornings, in the context of the liturgy. If for no other reason than, if we don’t do it there, we won’t have another chance.

And here’s the other thing. After the service, a parishioner pointed out that I could have done something quite different with the texts that would have made a perfect connection with our focus on name tags. Each of the lessons, he pointed out, had something to say about names, about the power of naming. And then he said, “Well, I’ve given you your sermon idea for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany in 2015.” Indeed, what a gift!

Random links on the Bible–the past and future of the text

We just ended 2011, the 400th anniversary of the King James Version (officially the Authorized Version) and there continues to be reflection on the translation and on its significance for the English language and on English-speaking Christianity.

An article from The Chronicle offers insight into the translation process and on the translation itself. The great Robert Alter is quoted:

Alter describes the King James Bible as a masterpiece, but a flawed one. “It is not as seamlessly eloquent as everybody remembers it is,” he says. “There are beautiful lines of poetry, and then lines which are clunky, lines which run on to a multiplicity of words and syllables, which is not only unlike the original but pretty much lacking in poetic rhythm. I don’t think they paid much attention to the sound.”

A review in the Washington Post of books by Harold Bloom and David Jeffrey on the text and its significance.

Alan Jacobs writes a provocative essay on the relationship of technology and scripture, from scroll, codex, and printing press, to the use of electronic media. Of the latter he has to say:

Thus the primary way many millions of Christians today encounter Scripture: seated a hundred feet or more from a screen on which they see displayed fifty or so foot-high letters. (Yes, these Christians know that they’re supposed to have their own personal Bibles and study them diligently when at home alone, during their “quiet time.” But how many do so?) When you consider how thoroughly such a presentation decontextualizes whatever part of the Bible it is interested in — how completely it severs its chosen verse or two from its textual surroundings — how radically it occludes any sense of sequence within the whole of the Bible — it becomes, I think, difficult to worry about the pernicious effects of iPads and Kindles. And impossible to see all screens as having the same effects.


And he concludes:

It is the book, largely as it emerged from the early Christian Church’s understanding of its own Scriptures, that has enabled much of the best that has been thought and said in the past fifteen hundred years. And its key virtues can be preserved, and perhaps even extended, in forms other than the paper codex. By contrast, screens that allow only minuscule chunks of text to be displayed at any one time — and that effectively remove from perceptual awareness context, sequence, and narrative — do violence to the book qua book. If Christians forget, or forget more completely than they already have, the integrity and necessary sequentiality of their holy Book, and of the story it tells, that would be a catastrophe for Christianity.

As much as I want to agree with him, my own experience is that I rarely access the text of scripture except in electronic form. He’s right that doing so decontextualizes it, but the ease of access, and of reading is so much better. And that’s not the case only for study or sermon-prep. I also do the daily office primarily on line.

For an example of violence done to the text, see John Shelby Spong’s recent piece.


And the Word became flesh and tented among us–Further Reflections on John 1

I’ve been thinking about John 1 and the image of the tent or tabernacle. The Greek verb that is translated as “dwelt” in “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” derives from the word for tent. In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, the same word is used for tabernacle, the place in which God was present during the Hebrews’ sojourn in the wilderness.

It’s a rich image, evocative of the temporary nature of the flesh in which the Incarnate Word resided and also because of the resonance with the Hebrew Bible, the author of John’s gospel was making a revolutionary statement about God’s presence in the world.

I thought about the image of “tent” earlier last week as I reflected on Paul’s words in II Corinthians while preparing a funeral homily. Paul uses “tent” to refer the flesh:

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling—

We tend not to think of flesh or body in these terms, perhaps because “tent” no longer has a ubiquitous presence in our culture. Tents are for camping, not for living, or dwelling.

Still, there is one way in which that image might take on new power in the contemporary context. One alternative translation is: “And he set up his tent in our midst.” Jim Keane, SJ, sees in this idea a parallel with the Occupy movements.

The ABC on the KJV

There was a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Authorized Version in Westminster Abbey this past week. Queen Elizabeth was in attendance. Rowan Williams preached a sermon that is worth reading.

He alludes to the problems inherent in translation and the importance of interpretation but he is much more interested in the role of the text in the life of the community:

But what the 1611 translators grasped was that hearing the Word of God was a lifelong calling that had to be undertaken in the company of other readers and was never something that left us where we started.


it was meant to be read aloud. And that means that it was meant to be part of an event, a shared experience. Gathered as a Christian community, the parish would listen, in the context of praise, reflection and instruction, to scripture being read: it provided the picture of a whole renewed universe within which all the other activities made sense. It would not be immediately intelligible by any means, but it marked out the territory of God’s work of grace.


The Guardian’s report on the celebration is here.

Williams reminds us of the open and unfinished nature of translation, to use other language, that translation always involves interpretation. That means scripture always eludes our efforts to capture and contain it, to define and fix its meaning. More importantly, he also urges us to take seriously our obligation to devote our lives to engaging the text, wrestling with its meanings. As Williams puts it, scripture invites us “to a pilgrimage further and further into the mysteries of [God’s] mind and love.”

Lectionary Reflections: Proper 28 Year A

The Hebrew Bible reading for Proper 28 in the semi-continuous reading is Judges 4:1-7. I was surprised to learn that this is the only reading from Judges in the entire three-year lectionary cycle. That means some of the great stories of the Hebrew Bible might not be encountered by ordinary churchgoers–the Samson cycle, for example, or the story of Gideon.

Judges belongs to a larger historical work that spans the books of Joshua through II Kings (not including Ruth). They’ve given it the tongue-twisting name of the Deuteronomic History, because it tells the history of Israel and Judah from the conquest to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile in the 6th century BCE. It was written during the Exile to explain why the Exile happened.

Judges plays a central role in this story. It’s a collection of stories, some of them stories of heroes, others occasionally seeming like folktales. Each episode follows a similar pattern. A judge dies (judges are as much military rulers as judges in the contemporary sense) and the land falls into chaos with the Israelites suffering from foreign invasion and abandoning the worship of God. They cry out and God raises up a new judge who defeats the enemy and establishes a period of peace; but when he (or she) dies, the cycle repeats itself. The book helps to explain why monarchy was needed, but there is also something of a critique of the Israelites, had they been faithful to God, they would not have needed the strong hand of a monarch. The last verse in Judges expresses it well: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes (21:25).

So the question becomes, why of all the possible stories in Judges, is this one included? That’s a puzzle of its own, for it really isn’t a story at all, but the beginning of a story involving two women, both of them also involving military victory. Deborah is a judge and prophetess, who leads the Israelites (with Barak) into battle. Interestingly, of all the judges mentioned in the book, it is only Deborah who is shown actually “judging:” “She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment” (4:4)

Nestled between this scene and the actual battle is another story–the assassination of the Canaanite general Sisera by Jael a woman who, after offering him hospitality, kills him with a tent peg. The Deborah story concludes with what may be the oldest part of the Bible, the Song of Deborah (5:2-31). In it, Deborah is called “mother of Israel.” The story concludes with the observation that “the land had rest forty years” (5:31).

No doubt, this story is included in the lectionary because it shows a powerful and important woman, Deborah, a judge and prophetess, and calls us to remember that God calls both men and women to leadership roles. The nature and exercise of authority is a theme that has run through the Hebrew Bible readings from the story of Moses to this point and it will continue to dominate the history of the Israelites throughout the monarchy.

It’s an issue for contemporary Christians as well. Shaped by our culture and historical context, models of authority from politics and the corporate world contribute to our notions of the proper exercise of authority in the church. On the other hand, in the gospels, Jesus offers a very different model of authority: “I am among you as one who serves” (Lk 22:27).