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The Text of the New Testament: Are the Textual Traditions of Other Ancient Works Relevant? A Blast From the Past

Funny how some topics keep recurring in my head.  Here is a post from exactly five years ago, on a topic I still get asked about a lot.  The really interesting bit of it starts about four paragraphs down.  Turns out, I still think the same things today! **************************************************************************   I have had three debates with Dan Wallace on the question of whether or not we can know for certain, or with relative reliability, whether we have the “original” text of the New Testament.   At the end of the day, my answer is usually “we don’t know.”   For practical reasons, New Testament scholars proceed as if we do actually know what Mark wrote, or Paul, or the author of 1 Peter.   And if I had to guess, my guess would be that in most cases we can probably get close to what the author wrote.  But the dim reality is that we really don’t have any way to know for sure.   Our copies are all so far removed from the time when the authors wrote, that even [...]

2017-09-20T22:24:44-04:00April 30th, 2017|Bart's Debates, New Testament Manuscripts, Public Forum|

Teaching the Bible as a Historical Book

Ever since I first put foot in a university classroom as a professor of religious studies, I have been firmly committed to the constitutional separation of church and state.  I have never seen it to be my mission either to convert someone to a new religious point of view or to deconvert them from their old one.  My goals have been to teach about the history and literature of the New Testament from a non-confessional point of view and to make students think hard about whatever their views might be.  The goal is not religious but humanistic -- as is appropriate in a secular research university – namely, to help students learn how to think. There are few subjects that are more perfectly suited to the university's ultimate goal of training thinking human beings than religious studies, especially in the part of the world where I teach, the American South.   Nearly all of my students come into class with a life-long belief involving the material we cover in the syllabus.  Most of my students have [...]

2020-04-03T02:25:15-04:00April 28th, 2017|Public Forum, Teaching Christianity|

Teaching Religion in a Secular Environment

This little diversion of a thread was going to be a simply one-post on the talk I’ll be giving today to my undergraduate Introduction to the New Testament class, where I spill the beans about what I personally believe and why.  But it’s turned into a four-post mini-thread on my views of the separation of church and state. So far it’s been all background – how my twelve years of higher education were all done in Christian confessional contexts, not in secular schools, even though all of my teaching has been in research universities.  Go figure. As I indicated in my previous post, as a PhD student I tried to broaden my range significantly so it would not look like I could do nothing except for textual criticism, the study of the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament with the ultimate goal of figuring out what the biblical authors actually wrote.  My intention all along was to find a teaching position either in a divinity school/seminary (for the training of pastors) or in a Christian [...]

How We Got Our 27-Book New Testament: The Case of Didymus

As I pointed out in my previous post, when I was a graduate student I wanted to show that I was not interested only in New Testament textual criticism (using the surviving witnesses to establish what the authors of the New Testament originally wrote) but in a range of important historical and interpretive issues in early Christianity.   I wanted to be broad ranging.  And I wanted this already at the very beginning of my graduate work. My first semester in the PhD program I had a seminar on the “Canon of the New Testament” with Bruce Metzger.   This was a class that focused on the questions surrounding how we ended up with the twenty-seven books in the New Testament.  Who decided that it would be these twenty-seven books, and no others?  What was motivating these people?  What were the grounds for their decisions?  And when did they make them? These are all, of course, fundamental questions, and Metzger himself wrote the authoritative book on the topic – which is still the authoritative book.  In the [...]

My “Preparation” to Teach in a Secular Research Institution

Wednesday is my last lecture of the semester in my undergraduate Introduction to the New Testament class.  It will be something different.  I have made it an optional class, for anyone who wants to hear me talk about what I really believe, personally, about the material we’ve been covering in the class.  I’ve done this in years past, and usually it is the best attended class of the semester.  I’m not sure what that says about my teaching otherwise…. In a subsequent post I’ll talk about that upcoming talk.  In this post I’d like to set it up by talking about my views about teaching religion/religious studies in my particular environment.  It’s very different from other environments. Here’s a scary factoid about myself.  I never ... The Rest of this Post is for Members Only.  If you don't belong yet, you better join, or you'll never know!  It doesn't cost much, it gives a lot, and every dime goes to charity.  So JOIN!!! I never set foot in a secular university classroom until my first [...]

About Graduate Studies: A Blast from the Past

Two days ago someone asked me about doing graduate studies.  He had a master's degree and was wondering about whether to do a PhD.  I told him that if he could imagine doing something else with his life, he probably should do so.  Doing a PhD is just too painful.  It's long (in my field it typically takes about 6-8 years *after* doing a Masters; lots of students take longer), it's really hard, it's really painful, and there's no guarantee of a job when you 're finished.  If it's your passion, and you can't imagine doing anything else, you should do it (I told him).  But otherwise ... not so much. Looking back over old blog posts, I see that I talked about graduate studies almost exactly four years ago today.  Here is what I said then: ****************************************************************** I teach one undergraduate and one graduate course a semester. Teaching undergraduates is a passion of mine. I love doing it. These are nineteen year olds who are inquisitive, interested, and interesting. I enjoy lecturing to a [...]

Background to a Different View of the Afterlife: The Maccabean Revolt

The views about the afterlife found in the Hebrew Bible are not, by and large, replicated in the New Testament.  A new view had developed in Judaism by that time, rooted in the ideology known as "apocalypticism," which I have talked about before on the blog.  Ideologies do not arise in a vacuum of course, but are responses to concrete historical, social, and cultural forces, events, and situations.   To make sense of the Jewish notion of "resurrection" (the dominant view of what the afterlife would involve in the New Testament -- in contrast to the Old Testament) it is important to know what socio-political events led to it. And so here is a very brief sketch of the history of Judea over the four hundred years from approximately 540 BCE, when the Persians were in control, up to 63 BCE, when the Romans came in and took over.  I’ve taken the sketch from my textbook, The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction. ************************************************************************** The Later History of Judea In the Persian period (starting in [...]

2020-06-03T15:33:18-04:00April 21st, 2017|Early Judaism, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Public Forum|

Dinner With Me? A Blog Idea.

A member of the blog has sent me an email (and given me permission to cite it here) with an idea that may be attractive to some of you.  Or you might think it’s a bit crazy.  It involves giving people a chance to have dinner with me in exchange for a sizeable donation (which would go not to me but to the blog; every penny of it, then, would go to the charities the blog supports).    It could be fun, but for it to work it would have to raise some significant dosh. At this point, I’m not interested in actually *doing* it.  I’m interested in knowing what you think.  Any ideas you have about it, comments, suggestions etc. would be welcome.  (For it to work, the dinner would almost certainly have to be on my home turf.)  Here’s what he says: ************************************************************ So, on to my idea. You can take this and run with it, or tell me I'm nuts!  I know you have lots of members on the blog; many who are [...]

2017-04-20T10:38:36-04:00April 20th, 2017|Public Forum|

Job and the God Who Refuses To Answer

This will be my last post in this thread within a thread on Job.  I ended my last post by pointing out that near the end of the poetic dialogues (chs. 3-42a), Job pleads to have a chance to defend himself before God himself.  Before he is granted – or made to suffer – such a chance, another so-called friend, Elihu appears and states forcefully the view of all the “friends,” that Job is suffering because he has committed sins and God is punishing him. This is where I pick up the plot in my book God’s Problem, as I set out the ultimate view of suffering for the author of these backs-and-forths, the view that becomes clear only when God blasts Job with his Almighty presence. **************************************************************** Job has no time – or need – to reply to this restatement of his friends’ views.  Before he can respond, God himself appears, in power, to overwhelm Job with his presence and to cower him into submission in the dirt.  God does not appear with a [...]

2020-04-03T02:26:01-04:00April 18th, 2017|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Public Forum|

Was Job Really Innocent?

In this thread within a thread I have been talking about the book of Job and its two authors and their two different views of suffering.  In the narrative that begins and ends the book (chs. 1-2, 42), by one of the authors, suffering is a test from God to see whether Job will remain faithful even if he suffers dearly.  Does he really worship God because God deserves it, or because of what he can get from it? In the poetic section (chs. 3-41) Job’s friends insist that Job suffers not as a test or for any reason but one: Job has sinned and God is punishing him.  This we saw in my last post.  Here, in this one, I will lay out Job’s response.  Again, this discussion is taken from my book God’s Problem. ************************************************************ For Job, the charges his friends level against him (that he is unrighteous) is itself unjust.  He has done nothing to deserve his fate and to maintain his personal integrity, he has to insist on his own innocence.  [...]

2020-04-03T02:26:14-04:00April 17th, 2017|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Public Forum|

One Scholar’s Take on the Resurrection of Jesus: A Blast from the Past

On this Easter Sunday I thought I should say something about the resurrection.  It turns out I've said a lot over the years on the blog (I just checked!).  Here's a post from about five years ago, giving not my personal views but those of another well-respected New Testament scholar who, like me (we are a rare breed), is not personally a believer. ***************************************************************** One of the first books that I have re-read in thinking about how it is the man Jesus came to be thought of as God is Gerd Lüdemann’s, The Resurrection of Christ: A Historical Inquiry (2004). Lüdemann is an important and interesting scholar. He was professor of New Testament at Göttingen in Germany, and for a number of years split his time between there and Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville. He is a major figure in scholarship, and is noteworthy for not being a Christian. He does not believe Jesus was literally, physically, raised from the dead, and he thinks that apart from belief in Jesus’ physical resurrection, it is not [...]

2020-04-03T02:26:24-04:00April 16th, 2017|Book Discussions, Canonical Gospels, Paul and His Letters|

Did David Exist? And When Did I Know I Lost My Faith? Mailbag April 15, 2017

I will be dealing with two questions in this weekly Readers’ Mailbag.  The first has to do with the historical evidence, if any, for the Israelite kings Saul, David, and Solomon – did they exist, or are the stories about them entirely legendary?   The second, coming to us from a different universe, is about me personally, and my faith, whether there was a proverbial straw that broke my faith-camel’s back.   QUESTION: According to Finkelstein and Silberman’s book, The Bible Unearthed, which I know you admire, there is zero evidence for the existence of Solomon and not much more for David and Saul (Shlomo Sands takes a similar view). Your position seems to be that all three existed: can you please tell me why you think this?   RESPONSE: First let me say that I think Finkelstein and Silberman’s book is absolutely terrific.  I often get asked what book I would recommend to people who are interested in the critical study of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) comparable to the kind of thing I do [...]

Job’s So-called Friends (With Friends Like These….)

Now that I have started talking about the book of Job in the context of the afterlife, I feel like I need to keep going, on a bit of a subthread to this thread, and talk about the bulk of the book, the poetic dialogues that take place in chapters 3-41.  These are glorious, powerful, and gripping chapters.   To make sense of them will take several posts.  I have lifted the discussion from my book God’s Problem. ******************************************************************* The Poetic Dialogues of Job: There is No Answer As I indicated at the beginning of this discussion, the view of suffering in the poetic dialogues of Job differs radically from that found in the narrative framing story of the prologue and epilogue.  The issue they dealt with, however, is the same.  If God is ultimately in charge of all of life, why is it that the innocent suffer?   For the folktale it is because God tests people to see if they can retain their piety despite undeserved pain and misery.  For the poetic dialogues, there are [...]

2020-04-03T02:26:37-04:00April 13th, 2017|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Public Forum|

Why I Find the Story of Job is Disturbing

In yesterday’s post I summarized the narrative of Job (the story that frames the book, chs. 1-2 and 42, which come from a different author from the poetic dialogues of Job and his “friends” of chs. 3-41), with a few words about its view of why a good person might suffer.  Life’s miseries could be a test from God to see if a person will remain faithful, not just when he is thriving but also when he is in the midst of dire hardship.  Does this person worship God for what he can get out of it (wealth, prestige, stature) or because God deserves to be worshiped no matter what? When I was a Christian I was drawn to this story and thought that it taught a valuable lesson.  It was important to be faithful, even when times were hard.  Suffering might simply be a test to see if I truly loved God and wanted to serve him, no matter what. I no longer see the story that way, but instead find it disturbing on [...]

2020-04-03T02:26:49-04:00April 12th, 2017|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Public Forum|

Understanding the Story of Job

In this thread on the afterlife in the Bible, I have turned to Ecclesiastes and Job as providing alternative views to what is found in most of the Hebrew Bible.  In my previous post I noted that Job appears to be two different books by two different authors edited together at some point into one long account.  The beginning and end of the book represent a short folk tale, with an intriguing view of why it is people suffer (a matter of importance to views of the afterlife, as we will see in the next post,).  Here is what I say about the tale in my book God’s Problem: **************************************************************** The Folktale: The Suffering of Job as a Test of Faith The action of the prose folktale alternates between scenes on earth and in heaven.  It begins by indicating that Job lived in the land of Uz; usually this is located in Edom, to the southeast of Israel.  Job, in other words, is not an Israelite.  As a book of “wisdom,” this account is not [...]

2020-04-03T02:27:02-04:00April 11th, 2017|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Public Forum|

The Two Books of Job: A Blast from the Past

I have been arguiong that there are different views of the afterlife in the Hebrew Bible.  The dominant view is that all people go to Sheol when they die -- either they stay in the grave or there is some place that they all gather, a completely uninteresting, dark, dreary place where nothing really happens.  Some authors, though, suggest there is no afterlife at all.  Ecclesiastes, in one or two places, seems to suggest this, as does the book of Job. Before looking at the relevant passage in Job, I need to say something about the book as a whole, since it is one of the most misunderstood books of the Bible, in part because most readers don't realize that the book comes from the hands of two different authors, living at different times and places, with very different points of view.  Here is how I explain it all in a post I made over four years ago, in the context of a thread dealing with how biblical authors deal with the problem of suffering. *********************************************************** [...]

2020-04-03T02:27:28-04:00April 10th, 2017|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Public Forum|

My Meditation Practice and Women at the Empty Tomb: Readers Mailbag April 9, 2017

I will be dealing with two questions in this week’s mailbag, one about me personally – do I meditate? – and one about the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection: in all our narratives it is specifically women who are said to have found the empty tomb and so to be the first witnesses to the resurrection.  Given ancient views that denigrate women, is it likely that anyone would make up such a story?  If someone made up the tomb-discovery story, wouldn’t they have claimed that that *men* found the tomb empty?  And doesn’t that suggest the story really happened as narrated?   QUESTION: Do you meditate? If so, which techniques do you use? Do you find it helpful?   RESPONSE: Yes indeed, I do meditate.  Every New Years I make it a resolution to meditate each and every day.  This year I’m doing pretty well *except* when I’m traveling (which, unfortunately, is a lot this semester); that’s probably when I need most to meditate and I just have real trouble scheduling it in.  Not good. [...]

The Afterlife (or not) in Ecclesiastes

In my previous post I provided some comments on one of my favorite biblical books, Ecclesiastes.  Here I will continue my comments, with some remarks on the topic of the thread, the view of the afterlife in the book, a view unlike what you find in *most* of the Hebrew Bible.  Again, this is taken from my book God’s Problem. ****************************************************************** For the author of Ecclesiastes “traditional” wisdom (such as one finds in the book of Proverbs) was inherently flawed -- another reason I like him so much.  It simply is not true (as Proverbs insists) that the righteous are rewarded in life and the wicked perish.  As the author of Ecclesiastes states:  “In my vain life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evil doing” (7:15); “there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous.  I said [...]

2020-04-03T02:27:46-04:00April 7th, 2017|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Public Forum|

Ecclesiastes and the Meaning of Life

As I have been arguing, *most* of the authors of the Hebrew Bible who have anything to say about life after death believe that people go to Sheol – whether they are good or wicked, faithful or unfaithful.  It is the fate of all.  Different authors may have different views of what Sheol entails, but nowhere is it a place or reward or punishment for what one does (or believes) in this life. A major exception seems to be the book of Ecclesiastes, which does not subscribe to an afterlife of any kind.  Looking back over the posts of the blog from the past five years I’m surprised to see I haven’t said much about Ecclesiastes – surprised because it is one of my favorite books of the entire Bible.  I’d like to give a bit of an overview, and that will take two posts.  I have lifted these reflections from my book God’s Problem. ************************************************************** Ecclesiastes has long been one of my favorite books of the Bible.  It is normally included among the “Wisdom” [...]

2020-04-03T02:27:57-04:00April 5th, 2017|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Public Forum|

Life After Death According to Samuel

  Before getting sidetracked with other things, I was discussing the intriguing story of 1 Samuel 28, where the king of Israel, Saul, illicitly consults a medium in an attempt to communicate with his now-dead advisor and predecessor, the prophet Samuel.  This is the only case of necromancy in the entire Bible.   In this post I want to consider what the author of the passage seems to think about those who go to Sheol after death. Recall the story: Saul is experiencing both internal turmoil (his rival David is on the rise and there is civil war) and external threat (from the warring Philistines).  He wants advice about how to proceed, but there is no one to turn to.  So he takes on a disguise and resorts to a medium (after having, as king, outlawed mediums!) to call up Saul from the realm of the dead. She does as he asks.  As Samuel “comes up” from the ground, the medium realizes that it is Saul who is her client and that she’s in big trouble [...]

2020-04-03T02:28:05-04:00April 4th, 2017|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Public Forum|
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