Heading to Oxford

This week I’m boxing up all my books to be shipped across the Atlantic. I’ve been appointed Associate Professor of New Testament Studies in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford and Tutorial Fellow in Keble College. It’s been a great few years in New Orleans.

2014 SBL highlights

The best part of SBL is seeing old friends.

My book, Wages of Cross-Bearing and Debt of Sin, was the subject of a panel review by John Meier, Amy-Jill Levine, and Donald Senior. I thought the session went very well. I’ll post more on this if I get the chance.

Here are a couple of pictures of the session stolen from Michael Barber:

review session 1

review session 2

The Pauline Soteriology unit hosted a session on righteousness and justice in Romans and Galatians. Beverly Gaventa and Martin de Boer presented and then Willie Jennings and I responded. Both Gaventa and de Boer talked about the meaning of δικαιοσύνη as well as the notorious translation issue.

Often we are told that “justice” is a bad translation of δικαιοσύνη because it makes people think of versions of justice (e.g. retributive or distributive) that are different from Paul’s. Sometimes it argued that δικαιοσύνη had no such negative connotations. I disputed both the characterization of δικαιοσύνη in Paul’s world and the resonances of “justice” in ours. Here’s that portion of my response:

First, a few proposals regarding δικαιοσύνη:
1. There is no English word that captures what Paul is describing because the δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ, as Paul understands it, is not something that can be inferred from our everyday experience and language. This point follows from Professor Gaventa’s important observation: she noted that the translation justice could only be used if we understand that God’s justice looks nothing like any recognized definition of fairness or equal standing. I agree and would suggest that the same thing holds for other translations. God’s righteousness cannot be inferred from human righteousness either, and so on.
2. Just as we have no translation that captures what Paul means by δικαιοσύνη, Paul himself had no word free of problematic associations to describe what God had done through the πίστις Χριστοῦ. The impossibility of moving from everyday experience and language to an understanding of God’s apocalypse applies to Paul’s Greek as much as our English. Even if we disagree with Paul – that is, even if we don’t believe that God had actually done something new, it is undeniable that Paul is describing something different from what his contemporaries meant by δικαιοσύνη.
3. More specifically, the word δικαιοσύνη was liable to be misunderstood by Paul’s interlocutors in ways analogous to the word justice today. A few examples will illustrate the point:
a.Book 5 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics contrasts δικαιοσύνη with ἀδικία and distinguishes between distributive and corrective δικαιοσύνη [note: Prof Gaventa had discussed Paul’s opposition of δικαιοσύνη and ἀδικία]. In Paul’s day philosophical reflection on δικαιοσύνη continued apace. Both Dio Chrysostom and Philo, for instance, write often and thoughtfully on the subject.
b. Josephus never reflects on the meaning of δικαιοσύνη, but uses it frequently in connection with the strict application of laws and punishment.
c. Kings and gods were commonly associated with δικαιοσύνη. According to Plutarch δικαιοσύνη was another name for Isis. Nero minted coins in 56-57 with his face on one side and on the other a woman with a scale and the word δικαιοσύνη. δικαιοσύνη is also common in honorific inscriptions, occurring together with ἀρετή and εὐσέβεια.
d. In closest proximity to Galatians and Romans, there is δικαιοσύνη as described by Paul’s opponents. Professor de Boer argues that the question of δικαιοσύνη was raised not by Paul but by these others. If this is correct then from the very beginning Paul had to overcome an understanding of the word which from his perspective took insufficient account of the gift of the rupturing Christ-event.
4. The Pauline understanding of δικαιοσύνη emerges, therefore – not from the intrinsic fittingness of the Greek word – but in his description of it. So perhaps we Anglophones aren’t in such a bad situation after all. In Paul’s day kings, philosophers, and everyone else – including Paul’s opponents – had their own ideas about δικαιοσύνη. Paul attempts to overcome these other claims to δικαιοσύνη by redefining the word in light of Christ.

Now a few observations about the two main English words vying for the privilege of translating Paul: righteousness and justice. I leave some of the other, quirkier translations (e.g. “rightwise”) to one side because I don’t see them catching on and because δικαιοσύνη itself was a common word.
In his recent book, Justice: Rights and Wrongs, Nicholas Wolterstorff describes the difference between “righteousness” and “justice” in common use as follows: “‘Righteousness’ names primarily if not exclusively a certain trait of personal character….the word in present-day idiomatic English carries a negative connotation. In everyday speech one seldom any more describes someone as righteous; if one does, the suggestion is that he is self-righteous. ‘Justice,’ by contrast, refers to an interpersonal situation; justice is present when persons are related to each other in a certain way” (111). I think this is exactly right. For the past few years I’ve asked my students what comes to mind when they hear righteousness and justice. They usually say that righteousness is a personal quality or state but justice is about doing the right thing in the world. Sometimes they say “justice” involves social justice or giving people what they deserve. Frequently they add that “righteousness” makes them think of self-righteousness. I don’t wish to ignite a debate about what justice means to each of us – it is after all a notoriously pliable concept. But there is an important difference in common usage between these two words: righteousness is a personal quality; justice is more outward focused. In Romans, δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ denotes God’s eschatological saving power and action. I would suggest that “justice” is a less imperfect description of this than “righteousness.” There is always the danger that this translation will call to mind other forms of justice, but Paul faced this same challenge with the word δικαιοσύνη.

[end of quotation]

Here’s an earlier post on this issue.

My biggest disappointment this year was missing a number of sessions that I really wanted to attend.

Mark 15:39

My article “Dying with Power: Mark 15,39 from Ancient to Modern Interpretation” is out in Biblica.

Here’s the abstract:

This article examines the reception-history of Mark 15,39 to shed new light on this pivotal and disputed verse. Mark’s earliest known readers emended the text to clarify the centurion’s feelings about Jesus and to explain how the centurion came to faith. Copyists inserted references to Jesus’ final yell around the same time that patristic commentators were claiming that this yell was a miracle that proved Jesus’ divinity, an interpretation which was enshrined in the Byzantine text and the Vulgate. The article concludes that a “sarcastic” reading is a more adequate description of 15,39 as found in B NA28 etc.

Thanks to Mark Goodare for his help on this piece.

A comma that just won’t go away (1 Thess 2:14-15)

First Thessalonians 2:14-16 is among the most problematic texts in the New Testament because of the historical problems it raises –to what events is Paul referring? etc. – but especially because it appears to be the only blanket condemnation of “Jews” in the Pauline corpus. Here it is, as translated by the NRSV:

14 For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews, 15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone 16 by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus they have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God’s wrath has overtaken them at last.

In English, the addition of the comma at the end of verse 14 before the relative clause “who killed the Lord Jesus” makes it sound like Paul is blaming all Jews for Jesus’ death. Twenty-five years ago, Frank D. Gilliard made a good argument that this comma should be omitted (“The Problem of the Antisemitic Comma Between 1 Thessalonians 2.14 and 15,” New Testament Studies 35 [1989]: 481-502). Gilliard surveyed Paul’s use of articular participial phrases and concluded that Paul regularly used such phrases restrictively. The NRSV should be amended to say, “…you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus.”

Prominent commentators have recognized the force of the argument. Abraham Malherbe, for instance, called the comma “wrong,” citing Gilliard (AB 32; The Letters to the Thessalonians, 169). One would think that most translators and commentators would be quick to correct their interpretations, but, strangely, this is not the case. See, for instance, the brand-spanking-new Common English Bible:

2:14 Brothers and sisters, you became imitators of the churches of God in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus. This was because you also suffered the same things from your own people as they did from the Jews. 15 They killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets and drove us out. They don’t please God, and they are hostile to the entire human race.

The CEB makes things worse by starting a new sentence in v.15. See Stanley E. Porter for a critique of other commentaries and translations who have failed to take note of Gilliard’s argument and the relevant Greek grammar (“Translation, Exegesis, and 1 Thessalonians 2.14-15: Could a Comma Have Changed the Course of History?” The Bible Translator 64 [2013]: 82-98).

I suspect that the reason the comma won’t go away is not a desire to make Paul sound as if he blamed all Jews for Jesus’ death but rather a sleepy tendency to trust the punctuation of the Nestle-Aland Greek NT, along with neglect of the Thessalonian correspondence.

meede at youre fadir that is in heuenes

My article “Storing Up Treasure with God in the Heavens: Celestial Investments in Matthew 6:1-21” is out this week in Catholic Biblical Quarterly.

Here is the final paragraph:

A small correction of most English translations of Matthew 6:1 – παρὰ τῷ πατρὶ ὑμῶν does not mean “from your Father” – serves as a helpful entry-point to a neglected aspect of Matthew’s theology. The Evangelist speaks of rewards “with your Father in the heavens” because he assumes that righteous deeds earn treasure in heaven which is kept until the coming judgment when everyone will be repaid for their actions. Though Matthew’s depiction of heavenly treasure is distinctive in some respects – for instance, in withholding all enjoyment of heavenly treasure until the life to come – it is important to note that this reading of Matthew places the Gospel firmly in its late Second Temple context. Modern scholars have sometimes treated these passages in Matthew as a theological embarrassment, but there is little here that would have been surprising to anyone in the milieus of Tobit, Sirach, 2 Baruch, 4 Ezra, and the deutero-Pauline epistles, not to mention the later rabbis. Even Matthew’s apparent reluctance to promise that heavenly treasure brings blessings in this life anticipates later rabbinic distinctions between deeds that accrue interest that may be enjoyed in the present life and deeds that earn a fixed sum.

“Meede at youre fadir that is in heuenes” is the Wycliffite translation of Matthew 6:1. Ever since the KJV English Bibles have been botching this verse, but Wycliffe got it right.

The supposed patristic consensus on Matthean priority

A key argument of defenders of the Griesbach theory (Matthew-Luke-Mark) and other Matthean prioritists is the ostensible unanimity of the patristic evidence in their favor. Defenders of Markan priority concede this point, but argue that it is not enough to overturn the overwhelming internal evidence. Even this is probably too much of a concession.

Francis Watson’s fascinating new book, Gospel Reading: A Canonical Perspective (Eerdmans: 2013), makes a convincing case that Papias and his Elder presuppose Markan priority (121-31). Watson also shows that Augustine’s source-critical hypotheses in his De Consensu evince a preference for “scholarly research over the traditional assumption that the four gospels have independent apostolic origins” (21). Augustine offers formal rather than material support for Markan priority: he is the patron saint of all who would query the traditional accounts of gospel origins on the basis of the evidence of the gospels themselves.

In addition to all this, Stephen Carlson has shown that an important tradition handed down by Clement of Alexandria does not support Matthean priority.

Even if one should quibble with Watson, Mark cannot be both an abbreviation of Matthew (as Augustine argued) and a record of Peter’s preaching (as Papias and others claimed). Unanimous would seem not to be the word that best describes the external evidence.

Ineffably Effable: The Pinnacle of Mystical Ascent in Gregory of Nyssa’s De vita Moysis

My article in the International Journal of Systematic Theology is now out.

Here’s the abstract:

In his commentary on the Song of Songs, Gregory of Nyssa describes a three-step progression of the soul to God, an ascent which ends in the darkness of God’s ineffability. Though some of Gregory’s most prominent interpreters understand Moses’ ascent into the darkness to be the definitive encounter with God in De vita Moysis as well, it is here argued that in De vita Moysis Gregory of Nyssa makes the culminating moment, not the apophatic experience of the darkness, but the encounter with the celestial tabernacle, Christ. Gregory thereby suggests that the mystical ascent to God ends in the encounter of God as both unknowable and known, transcendent but also incarnate.

Here’s a link to the journal.

Why no one should ever cite “If anyone will not work, let him not eat” (2 Thess 3:10) to justify neglect of the needy.

A student in my 1-2 Thessalonians class just pointed out that Congressman Stephen Fincher recently used 2 Thessalonians 3:10 (“Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” NRSV) as a justification for cutting food stamps. This text does seem to be a favorite of those who argue that the hungry should simply feed themselves.

Here are a few reasons why I think this is a misguided use of 2 Thess 3:10. The list begins with general observations and gradually works down to specific arguments from 2 Thessalonians.

1. Those who cite this verse presumably believe that the Christian Bible has something to say about how to live. If this is the case, one wonders why this particular verse should be given so much weight when there are so many other passages enjoining liberality. For example,

Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. (Matt 5:42) [Note: give to everyone, not simply those who seem sufficiently industrious to us]

Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. (Luke 6:30)

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress (James 1:27)

Is not this the fast that I choose: to…share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7)

There are many, many more similar examples. Why should 2 Thessalonians 3:10 do away with all this?

2. Those who cite this verse presumably believe that Paul in particular has something to say about how they should live their lives. If this is the case, then it might be helpful to check one’s interpretation by what Paul says about the poor on other occasions. To take one particularly vivid example, see 2 Corinthians 9:13:

Through the testing of this ministry [i.e. the collection to aid Christians in Jerusalem] you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others

For Paul, generosity to all people brings glory to God (more anon on this. It is the topic of my current book project).

3. If I refuse to give to someone who asks of me because of 2 Thess 3:10, I am acting on the supposition that the person asking for help is in need because he or she is lazy. Most of the time, however, we don’t have the slightest idea what led a person to the point of asking others for help.

The late fourth-century bishop John Chrysostom unmasks the lack of charity in the assumption that a beggar isn’t really in need (apologies for the old translation – I don’t have time to make a fresh one):

But what say they? He is an impostor. What sayest thou, O man? Callest thou him an impostor, for the sake of a single loaf or of a garment? But (you say) he will sell it immediately. And dost thou manage all thy affairs well? But what? Are all poor through idleness? Is no one so from shipwreck? None from lawsuits? None from being robbed? None from dangers? None from illness? None from any other difficulties? If however we hear any one bewailing such evils, and crying out aloud, and looking up naked toward heaven, and with long hair, and clad in rags, at once we call him, The impostor! The deceiver! The swindler! Art thou not ashamed? Whom dost thou call impostor? (In epistulam ad Hebraeos, Schaff)

The point is this: chances are you don’t know why the person is in need, and it is cruel to assume the worst. Moreover, we waste money on ourselves all the time. Why not waste it on someone else for a change?

Chrysostom frequently speaks against those who are over-curious about the goodness of those to whom they give. This is to “take away the greater part of almsgiving, and will in time destroy the thing itself. And yet that is almsgiving: it is for the sinners, it is for the guilty. For this is almsgiving, not to have mercy on the successful, but on those who have done wrong!” (In epistulam ad Hebraeos 63.88). Dorothy Day is reputed to have said something similar: “The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor” (can anyone verify this quotation?)

4. When μηδὲ ἐσθιέτω is translated “let him not eat” (ESV) it almost sounds as if Paul is saying that the Thessalonians should block the lazy from getting food: “Don’t let him eat!” The sense of the third person imperative is rendered more adequately by the NRSV: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” This leads to point #5:

5. Paul’s command (assuming he is the author) to work in 2 Thess 3:10 is directed primarily toward Christians in Thessalonica who are refusing to work, not to hardworking people who need to stop giving to beggars.

6 Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8 and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. 9 This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11 For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12 Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (3:6-12)

These are able-bodied Christians who appear to be living off the generosity of others. Paul wants them to get to work. He is not saying that aid should be withheld from beggars or any other anonymous have-nots. This point bears repeating: Paul is not saying what most people today seem to think he is saying. The best interpretation of verse 10 is Paul’s restatement of the point in verse 12: hey lazy people, start working!

It is interesting to note that ancient readers of Paul frequently applied these words to themselves as a reminder to work hard so as to not burden others (e.g., Athanasius, Vit. Ant. 3; Chrysostom, De stat. 12.5; Jerome, Epist. 17.2, 24.4; Augustine Op. Mon. 1.1; John Cassian, De Instit. Ceonob. 1.5). Those who pass judgment on the industriousness of people they don’t know miss the point.

6. There are a number of competing theories attempting to explain why certain people weren’t working. Without going in to all the details here (time permitting, I’ll update the post with the specifics of the argument later), it should be noted that there is some reason to believe that the laziness in Thessalonica was due to the mutual support of the Christians there. Paradoxically, then, the favorite verse of those who oppose charity actually attests to the early Christian habit of sharing possessions.

7. Chrysostom notes that after Paul tells the lazy to work, he adds that everyone should continue to “do good”: “Hearest thou not what Paul saith? For after saying, “He that worketh not, neither let him eat” (2 Thess. 3:10), he says, “But ye be not weary in well doing.” (2 Thess. 3:13.)” Chrysostom returns to 2 Thessalonians 3:13 repeatedly in his homilies and commentaries because he understands it to be a command to continue to give charity:

Let us not therefore fall away into cruelty, but let us listen to Paul, saying, “Be not weary in well doing;” (2 Thess 3:13) let us listen to the Lord, who saith, “Give to every man that asketh of thee,” and, “Be ye merciful as your Father.” And though He hath spoken of many things, He hath nowhere used this expression, but with regard to our deeds of mercy only. For nothing so equals us with God, as doing good (On Matthew, Schaff)

I was skeptical when I first encountered this interpretation, but I have since become persuaded. The language of “doing good” carried the connotations of generosity. For instance, In 1 Timothy widows are to be known for their good works (ἐν ἔργοις καλοῖς) and to devote themselves to good works (εἰ παντὶ ἔργῳ ἀγαθῷ), specifically, nourishing children, hospitality, washing feet, and helping the afflicted (5:10). The rich are to “do good and be rich in good works (ἀγαθοεργεῖν, πλουτεῖν ἐν ἔργοις καλοῖς), generous and sharing” (6:18). The phrase “he does whatever good he can” (ποιεῖν ὅτι δύναται ἀγαθόν) appears frequently in inscriptions honoring benefactors, who are called the “noble and good man” (ἄνδρα καλὸν καὶ ἀγαθόν), one who “does the good.” See also Galatians 6:9.

It appears that Chrysostom, a native Greek speaker, was on to something. I think we can agree with him that Paul was hoping that the lazy person “will soon be rid of his idleness, and you of your cruelty” (ibid.).

Are the labels liberal and conservative helpful in biblical studies?

The editor of America magazine has banned the use of the labels liberal and conservative for theological reasons. In the comments section many complain that these labels do in fact describe the factions in contemporary Catholicism. Avoiding these terms won’t make the divisions go away (or so it is argued).

These comments miss the point. The words liberal and conservative are not neutral descriptors. When used by Americans they presuppose and reinforce the binaries of American politics. The point is not that it’s better to be moderate or irenic. The point is more fundamental: it turns out that the liberal/conservative binary is not helpful for describing everything under the sun!

I wonder if it would be a good idea to avoid using these labels in biblical studies as well. I remember Mark Goodacre pointing out in his PhD seminar on the Synoptic Gospels that Q-skepticism was not an inherently “liberal” or “conservative” position. For instance, if there is a literary relationship between Luke and Matthew it raises additional questions about the historicity of the birth narratives. And so on. Labeling scholarly hypotheses conservative or liberal clarifies nothing and runs the risk of obscuring the more important question of whether a good argument has been made.