Monday, 25 July 2016

Changing Our Minds

I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Romans 12:1-2

‘There is no longer a Christian mind’, wrote Harry Blamires in his classic book, The Christian Mind, first published in 1963. The proliferation of publications on the topic since then suggests it’s an ongoing issue. Perhaps that’s a good thing, as each generation seeks to discover afresh what it means to love God with all our mind.

For Paul too, the ‘true and proper worship’ to which we are called involves not just the offering of our bodies but the renewing of our minds. The two go together. It’s possible, though admittedly not easy, to be disciplined with one’s body – to control it, to exercise it, to curb its appetites. But what’s in view here is not merely an outward rule over the body without also an inward renewal of the mind.

Negatively, it means not being conformed to the pattern of ‘this world’ where (as Paul describes in Romans 1:18-32) our minds and hearts are turned away from God. Positively, it involves being ‘transformed’, a verb Paul uses elsewhere only in 2 Corinthians 3:18, where he writes about believers being progressively transformed into Christ’s image. In both places, what’s in view is nothing less than a fundamental makeover at the deepest level of our humanity, a new creation.

So, being renewed in our mind is not first and foremost about being clever. It’s a whole new mindset, a radical perceptual shift where everything is viewed differently because of who we are in Christ. That in turn involves a whole new desire to live a different way, which may well go against the prevailing current, and a whole new set of habits.

To be sure, the old habits are still around, and I may well spot some of them at work in me today: preserving the ongoing rift in the family because of my pride; jealousy and insecurity with the more-talented colleague; self-pity; chronic ingratitude. But where the mind’s habits and dispositions used to go one way following the pattern of this present age, they can now be reshaped according to the new age which has broken in with the events of the gospel.

Such a transformation – a change of mind – comes about not by screwing up our effort or focusing ever inward, but by drawing on God’s mercy shown in Jesus, who makes it possible to live a renewed life from the inside-out.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Tyndale Bulletin 67, 1 (2016)

The latest issue of Tyndale Bulletin has arrived, containing the following collection of articles.

Matthew Hamilton
An Unpublished Fragment of Deuteronomy: Chester Beatty Papyrus VI, Folio 105, Fragment 2, Recto
A previously unpublished transcript and reconstruction of Chester Beatty Papyrus VI folio 105 fragment 2 recto column 1 as Deuteronomy 32:5-11.

Deuk-il Shin
The Translation of the Hebrew Term Nir: ‘David’s Yoke?’
The purpose of this article is to query the viability of Douglas K. Stuart’s recent suggestion that the Hebrew form nir ‘lamp’ should be translated as etymologically related to the Akkadian niru ‘yoke, domination’ on the basis of Paul D. Hanson’s statement. The study is particularly interested in the phrase ‘lamp of David’. The author insists that the traditional interpretation of the Hebrew nir as ‘lamp’ be maintained, thus rejecting the relevance of the Akkadian niru ‘yoke’.

Brian P. Irwin
The Curious Incident of the Boys and the Bears: 2 Kings 2 and the Prophetic Authority of Elisha
A view of 2 Kings 2 that is commonly encountered regards the cursing of the children of Bethel as a meaningless act that is beneath the dignity of the prophet. This paper argues that the curse uttered by Elisha in 2 Kings 2:24 is a covenant curse based on Leviticus 26:22 and is intended to warn Israel of what lies in store if it disregards the prophetic word. In this it complements the story of the healing of the waters of Jericho (2 Kings 2:19-22) which establishes the corollary principle. The events of 2 Kings 3–8 then illustrate this principle in a variety of contexts both nationally and internationally.

Gregory Cook
Nahum’s Prophetic Name
While Nahum commentators correctly acknowledge that the prophet Nahum’s name derives from the Hebrew root for ‘comfort’, they incorrectly interpret the significance of his name for the prophecy. Commentators usually argue that the name does not fit Nahum’s violent vision or they state that the name fits precisely, as YHWH’s vengeance brings comfort to his afflicted people. This article contends that the first two verses of Nahum allude to Isaiah 1:24, which indicates that YHWH receives comfort by being avenged. Therefore, Nahum’s name indicates that the primary purpose of the book is to bring comfort to YHWH, not his adulterous people.

John K. Goodrich
The Word of God Has Not Failed: God’s Faithfulness and Israel’s Salvation in Tobit 14:3-7 and Romans 9–11
Tobit 14:3-7 and Romans 9–11 share several striking verbal and conceptual parallels that invite detailed comparison. Most notably, both Tobit and Paul (1) deny the failure of God’s word (Tob. 14:4a; Rom. 9:6a); (2) proceed to unveil a three-phase redemptive history for Israel (exile => partial restoration => full restoration); and (3) utilise their respective storylines to assure their readers in phase 2 that God will bring phase 3 to completion. These and other parallels show not only that Tobit and Paul share a common eschatological perspective, but that they deploy and develop almost identical thesis statements, thereby further demonstrating the proximity of Paul’s discourse to contemporary Jewish modes of thought and argumentation.

J.R. Harrison
The Erasure of Distinction: Paul and the Politics of Dishonour
The article investigates the deliberate erasure of inscriptional honours of two individuals in the first century: Augustus’s ‘friend’, the infamous Gaius Cornelius Gallus, and the famous orator of Isthmia, Nikias. The public dishonouring of rivals by their enemies was common in antiquity. The author explores how this phenomenon illuminates Paul’s conception of glory in Romans and his attack on boasting in oratorical performance in the Corinthian epistles. Paul sets forth a different understanding of honour based on the shame of the cross, God’s election of the socially despised, and the elevation of the dishonoured in the Body of Christ.

Mark D. Owens
Spiritual Warfare and the Church’s Mission According to Ephesians 6:10-17
Ephesians 6:10-17 is typically understood as either a call to engage in spiritual warfare with the ‘powers’ or as a plea for ethical living. While these two interpretations are not necessarily incorrect, they are likely incomplete. More specifically, they do not account for the author’s use of Isaiah in verses 14-15 and 17 and how this text summarises the whole of Ephesians. When one considers these two factors, it becomes reasonable to conclude that this text portrays the church as a community of ‘divine-warriors’ who continue Christ’s mission by extending the new creation inaugurated by His sacrificial death and resurrection.

Paul S. Cable
Imitatio Christianorum: The Function of Believers as Examples in Philippians
In Philippians, Paul has pastoral, paraenetic aims: the Philippians are to adopt a Christian phronesis – a way of thought and life determined by their relationship to the crucified, humiliated, and risen Christ consisting specifically, in Philippians, of (1) an others-focused mindset; and (2) an attendant boldness and willingness to accept suffering and the burdens of others on behalf of the progress of the gospel. These paraenetic emphases are then embodied and illustrated by multiple examples: Christ is the ultimate exemplar and the source of the content of the exhortation. Paul himself is also one who embodies these qualities, though imperfectly. Timothy especially exemplifies others-focus, and Epaphroditus the willingness to suffer in the service of Christ. Euodia and Syntyche, finally, serve Christ boldly but lack the others-focus and unity that Paul exhorts. We conclude, then, that Paul understands the provision of such Christ-like examples and the imitation of those examples by those in Christ within Christian communities to be an important means by which the community progresses in holiness, that is, to be increasingly conformed to Christ.

Kyu Seop Kim
Better Than the Blood of Abel?: Some Remarks on Abel in Hebrews 12:24
The sudden mention of Abel in Hebrews 12:24 has elicited a multiplicity of interpretations, but despite its significance, the meaning of ‘Abel’  has not attracted the careful attention that it deserves. This study argues that ‘Abel’ in Hebrews 12:24 refers to Abel as an example who speaks to us through his right observation of the cult. Accordingly, Hebrews 12:24b means that Christ’s cult is superior to the Jewish ritual. This interpretation fits exactly with the adjacent context contrasting Sinai and Zion symbols.

Terry Griffith
The Translation of Ho Proagoon in 2 John 9
A little known Old Latin variant of 2 John 9 (‘qui recedit’ for ho proagoon) provides an interpretive clue that has been overlooked in the translation and exegesis of this verse. After a survey of modern translations (which tend to over-interpret this verb) and a look at ancient variants, new lexical evidence is adduced to show how ho proagoon functions in the Elder’s statement. Finally, a more neutral translation is offered: ‘Anyone who goes forth [or leaves] and who does not remain in the teaching of the Messiah does not possess God.’

Brian J. Wright
Ancient Rome’s Daily News Publication with Some Likely Implications for Early Christian Studies
A detailed study on ancient Rome’s daily news publication is currently absent in early Christian studies. This article seeks to begin filling this lacuna by surveying the history of this Roman news bulletin and highlighting the sorts of data that must be taken into account in order to determine the publication's subject matter, scope of distribution, and possible relevance for early Christian studies.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Harvey McMahon on Neuroscience and Free Will

The latest Cambridge Paper from the Jubilee Centre is available online, this one by Harvey McMahon:

Here is the summary:

‘Free-will is fundamental to our sense of wellbeing, and underwrites our sense of morality, our judicial system and the Judeo-Christian faith. However, science has provided evidence that free-will may be an illusion. In this paper I explore how the brain functions as the seat of our individual free-will and how we are also part of a collective-will expressed by cultural or religious groupings. In both cases free-will is an emergent property where decisions are expressed creatively rather than simply responsively. Yet we may not be as free as we like to think, but within boundaries shaped by our individual histories, our genetics and our environment we can make decisions that determine our character, relationships and future.’

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Walter Brueggemann on Money and Possessions

Walter Brueggemann, Money and possessions (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016).

Since I saw it announced, I’ve been looking forward to seeing this volume by Walter Brueggemann in the ‘Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church’ series.

Westminster John Knox has made available a pdf except here.

Here are some paragraphs from the Preface:

‘The purpose of this book is to exhibit the rich, recurring, and diverse references to money and possessions that permeate the Bible. While we might conventionally assume, as we do in practice, that economics is an add-on or a side issue in the biblical text, an inventory of texts such as I offer here makes it unmistakably clear that economics is a core preoccupation of the biblical tradition.

‘In writing the book I have, in ways that have surprised me, come to the conclusion that the Bible is indeed about money and possessions, and the way in which they are gifts of the creator God to be utilized in praise and obedience. In such a frame of reference, money and possessions are of course intensely seductive, so that they can reduce praise to self-congratulations and obedience to self-sufficiency. Whatever is to be made of this expansive inventory of texts, it is clear that the economy, in ancient faith tradition, merited and received much more attention than is usual in conventional church rendering.

‘It is my hope that this exhibit of textual materials might evoke in the church a greater attentiveness to a keener critical assessment of the extractive economy around us in which we are implicated and a more determined advocacy for an alternative neighborly economy congruent with and derived from the gospel we confess. It is clear enough that voices that may champion and legitimate such alternative policy and practice are minimal in our society; the voicing of such alternative urgently requires the recovery of the tradition of neighborly money and possessions that has been entrusted to us.’

Currents in Biblical Research 14, 3 (June 2016)

The latest Currents in Biblical Research recently arrived, with titles and abstracts of the main articles as below.

Russell L. Meek
Twentieth- and Twenty-first-century Readings of Hebel (הֶבֶל) in Ecclesiastes
The meaning of הֶבֶל is a crux interpretum for the book of Ecclesiastes. Notwithstanding some variation, Jerome’s vanitas reading of הֶבֶל in Ecclesiastes dominated scholarship for several centuries. Since the rise of modern biblical scholarship, הֶבֶל as ‘vanity’ has been largely rejected; however, little consensus has been reached regarding the word’s meaning. The result has been a rich history of interpretation as scholars develop various suggestions for how הֶבֶל should be understood in Ecclesiastes. This essay briefly sketches the history of interpretation of הֶבֶל, then surveys proposals for the meaning of הֶבֶל in Ecclesiastes during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Amy Erickson and Andrew R. Davis
Recent Research on the Megilloth (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther)
Until recently, study of the Megilloth as a coherent canonical grouping has been minimal. On the whole, the lateness and fluidity of the collection within the Jewish canon has negated its value for biblical scholars, who have long preferred texts and categories thought to be ‘early’ or ‘original’. The state of the field has begun to shift, however, as scholars are giving more attention to connections between individual books of the Megilloth and the coherence of the collection as a whole. This new interest coincides with the growing recognition among scholars that the later (re)uses of a biblical text are constitutive of its interpretation; thus the lateness of the Megilloth (if the collection really is late) does not preclude interpretation but shapes it. Recent studies in the Megilloth as a coherent collection include canon-historical approaches, which trace the formation of the Megilloth within the Jewish canon; intertextual approaches, which focus on allusions to earlier biblical traditions and on literary connections within the five scrolls; and theological approaches, which adopt a synchronic method that puts the Megilloth in dialogue with contemporary theological discourse.

Garrick V. Allen
Scriptural Allusions in the Book of Revelation and the Contours of Textual Research 1900-2014: Retrospect and Prospects
This article traces the contours of the past century of discourse surrounding the underlying textual form of allusions embedded in the book of Revelation. Special attention is paid to the rapid developments on this issue in the past thirty years, a period in which New Testament scholarship has grappled with the textual complexity of the Hebrew Bible presented by the scrolls from the Judaean Desert. The question of textual form is of foundational importance for analysing the reuse or interpretation of Scripture in the book of Revelation. Despite this reality, it is common to find assumptions or misconceptions in recent studies that obfuscate the textual reality of the Hebrew Bible and its early Greek versions the first century CE. The appraisal of scholarship on this issue allows scholars to better contextualize their own approaches to the text of allusions in the light of previous research. This analysis also highlights the changing methods and approaches by which scholars analyse the text of allusions and suggests some avenues for future research on the allusions embedded in the Apocalypse.

Patrick Schreiner
Space, Place and Biblical Studies: A Survey of Recent Research in Light of Developing Trends
This article surveys developing research on the nature of space and place. It summarizes the arguments proposed by geographers and philosophers outside biblical studies, and then illustrates how biblical scholars have employed these theories in the study of the biblical text. The review focuses on the theoretical underpinning and then examines a number of scholars who have appropriated what they call ‘critical spatiality’ to historical, sociological, and narratival readings. In short, some now describe space in a tri-part division; the physical world in which people exist, the ideological underpinnings of understanding places, and the lived practices of people within those places that sometimes challenge and sometimes reaffirm the expected uses of such places.

Yael Shemesh
Directions in Jewish Feminist Bible Study
The article highlights various possible directions that Jewish feminist Bible scholarship can take. Even though this field has naturally been influenced by feminist scholarship in general, I believe that it does have a number of unique traits, with regard both to content (such as pointing out the Christian source of certain misogynistic interpretations) and form (commentaries oriented to the weekly Torah portion). The first part of the article deals with these unique features of Jewish feminist Bible scholarship. In the second part I look at four goals shared by feminist Bible scholarship in general and the Jewish subgenre, while focusing on the latter: (1) Emphasizing that the Bible is a patriarchal and androcentric – some would say misogynistic – text; (2) highlighting the voices for equality that can be found in the Bible; (3) focusing on biblical women and recounting her-story rather than the traditional his-tory that has been dominant for generations; (4) discovering the female authors of biblical texts, or at least the women’s voices that emerge from it. In the third section I draw on several Jewish feminist Bible scholars’ treatment of three issues to exemplify how the same underlying data led different readers to different and even contradictory attitudes and assertions about the biblical text. Two of these issues relate to narrative – the characterization of Eve and that of Ruth and Naomi and their relationship. The third issue comes from the legal corpus – the laws of menstrual impurity (Lev. 15.19-24). Here we saw not only the different positions taken by different scholars, but also the change over time in the view of Rachel Adler, which corresponds with the change in her religious perspective and move from one religious denomination to another.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Body Matters

I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Romans 12:1-2

Paul uses the language of the temple here – in words like ‘offer’ and ‘sacrifice’ and ‘worship’. But that earlier way of doing things is now transformed.

What is it we offer? Our bodies, says Paul.

As Christians, we can have a lingering ambivalence about our bodies. It’s all too tempting to think that the ‘real’ me is something ‘inside’ me – the ‘soul’ bit or the ‘spiritual’ bit. But Scripture often insists and everywhere implies that the ‘real’ me is embodied.

So, as Paul writes in Romans 3, human fallenness reveals itself through our bodies: in tongues which practise deceit; in lips which spread poison; in mouths which are full of bitterness and cursing; in feet which are swift to shed blood; in eyes which turn away from God. Then, several times in chapter 6, Paul calls us to ‘offer’ (the same word as in 12:1) our bodies as an ‘instrument of righteousness’, while in 8:23 he looks forward to ‘the redemption of our bodies’.

If Christianity involves a recovery of what it means to be truly human, it should come as no surprise that the body is caught up in that restoration. God has saved us – the whole of us. And the whole of us is offered back to him – hands, feet, eyes, ears, and mouth. The challenge is to take seriously what we will do, even today, with our hands or our eyes or our tongue or our brain. The delight is that all that makes us who we are and are becoming in Christ – all the joys as well as the limits of bodily life – can be seen as an ongoing act of worship to God.

But there is something more going on here. We are physically embodied, but we are also socially embedded. Paul’s appeal that we offer our ‘bodies’ (plural) as a ‘living sacrifice’ (singular) suggests he has in mind the whole community of Christians in Rome. This is not a sacrifice made by a wealthy patron on behalf of others in the church, but an act in which all God’s people take part.

So, it’s not just that the body matters, but that every body matters. And there is something about the goal of this sort of worship that allows the church – you and me, even today – to be the embodied presence of Christ in the world.

Friday, 15 July 2016

On Being Overwhelmed

I wrote this week’s ‘Connecting with Culture’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

It was Harold Wilson who allegedly said that ‘a week is a long time in politics’. In these recent momentous days, it looks as if that should be reduced to five minutes. As David Cameron himself quipped in his final Prime Minister’s Questions, this week alone has seen ‘resignation, nomination, competition, and coronation’.

It’s easy to see why our nation is not at ease. You may feel it yourself, or identify it in friends and colleagues, or see it reflected in your social media feeds. We’re experiencing what theologian David Ford has called ‘multiple overwhelmings’. Whether personally, professionally, or politically, it’s one thing to have a single event that knocks us off our feet; but what if the knocks continue to come thick and fast? Is it any wonder we’re confused, anxious, angry, distrustful, and fearful?

In all this, though, shafts of light manage to break through. I was one of millions who watched the video, courtesy of ITV news, showing a young Portuguese boy consoling a distraught French fan after France’s defeat to Portugal in the Euro 2016 final. It was a touching display of empathy, showing that it’s possible to embrace someone wearing another team’s colours – an embrace in which both are required to yield, the one to the other.

Just as arresting was the picture of a protesting woman taken during civil unrest in Louisiana. The juxtaposition of heavily-clad armed police officers and their apparently hesitant stance with a serenely-poised woman in a long flowing dress is striking. Whatever one’s views of the situation, it’s easy to see why the photo was quickly drawing comparisons with other classic protest images.

Both cases illustrate something of a refusal to be shaped by the prevailing culture, which Christians of all people should understand. Both show that while some ‘overwhelmings’ wound and crush us, others are life-giving and transformative. As David Ford says, the wisest way to cope is ‘not to expect to be in control of everything’, but ‘to live amidst the overwhelmings in a way that lets one of them be the overwhelming that shapes the others’.

What would it look like to be overwhelmed by gratitude? Overwhelmed by generosity? Overwhelmed by a passion for justice? Overwhelmed by a desire to see others thrive, even it comes at our expense? Given the resources available to us in the gospel, what might we be overwhelmed by today?