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The Jesus Seminar and the Non-Apocalyptic Jesus. Hey, Why Not?

I have recently received several questions more or  less out of the blue about what I think about the “Jesus Seminar” and its views of Jesus.  I looked and it appears I’ve only had one brief posting on this issue, so I thought I should say a few things, first by explaining what the question means. The Seminar was made up of a group of about fifty New Testament scholars who, in the 1980s and 1990s, met twice a year to discuss the ancient Gospels (mainly the canonical Gospels and the Gospel of Thomas) to determine which traditions about Jesus were likely to be authentic, and which, as a corollary, were likely to have been later creations of the early church as they told stories about Jesus. The members of the seminar would then vote on each tradition – after extensive, learned discussion -- and publish the results of their votes. The voting procedure proved to be controversial. The Seminar’s original raison d’être was to establish what Jesus actually said, and so they [...]

How to Sugarcoat Scripture but Seem Sophisticated. Final Guest Post by Jill Hicks-Keeton

It's amazing how committed New Testament scholars often try to tame the Bible, making it upbeat and relevant for today when, on the surface, it affirms views that most of us, when we're honest about it, simply can't abide.  And not just the Old Testament celebration of slaughter (those damn Canaanites) and execution (for, say, disobeying parents) but also the New Testament (and not just the grotesque torture and annihilations of Revelation).  Jill Hicks-Keeton, professor of Religious Studies at Oklahoma, deals with how evangelical Christians (one could pick other groups!) try to whitewash the Bible in her book Good Book: How White Evangelicals Save the Bible to Save Themselves.   This now is Jill's third and final guest post for us on the topic. Once again, she names names. Any comments?  Bring 'em on! ****************************** The ancient people who wrote the texts that would become “the Bible” lived in patriarchal societies. Modern Bible readers who see these texts as scriptural and who also deem patriarchy an undesirable way to order society have a problem to solve: [...]

How To Make the New Testament Non-Patriarchal. Good Luck with *That* One. Guest post by Jill Hicks-Keeton

I'm very pleased to post this second contribution by Jill Hicks-Keeton, professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma, and an author who does not appreciate "experts" who try to explain away the problems of the Bible (e.g., with respect to women) and sees no need to pull her punches!  This is an unusually effective and interesting instance; here she reveals the the flaws of a recent attempt by a  New Testament scholar to make Paul patriarchally palatable.  She names names. The post is an adaptation from her recently published Good Book: How White Evangelicals Save the Bible to Save Themselves.  ****************************** In my last post, I introduced the concept of Bible benevolence, which is the rhetorical and intellectual work that people do to make ancient texts in the Bible square with modern moral sensibilities. The Bible is not good by itself. People have to make it so. My recent book, Good Book: How White Evangelicals Save the Bible to Save Themselves, uses white evangelical Protestants in the U.S. as a case study to illustrate [...]

Making the Bible Benevolent: Guest Post by Jill Hicks-Keeton

Is the Bible "Good News" for everyone, or, does it just seem good to those who want it to be? And how do readers make it good in places that on any honest reading are not (think violence and the treatment of women and slaves).  Jill Hicks-Keeton, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Sourthern California, has recently published an intriguing book that is highly controversial in some circles (those who do what she describes) and a breath of fresh air in another, an analysis of how evangelical Christians work to make the Bible not just acceptable but good through and through.  Her study is called The Good Book: How White Evangelicals Save the Bible To Save Themselves.  (Available here:  Good Book: How White Evangelicals Save the Bible to Save Themselves: Hicks-Keeton, Jill: 9781506485850: Books) I've asked Jill to talk about the book in a couple of posts on the blog.  Here's the first, with a teaser for the second! ****************************** Millions of Americans report understanding the Bible as the Word of [...]

Putting Final Polish on a Bible Translation. Ouch.

In my previous post I mentioned how I started a full-time research position for the New Revised Standard Version in 1987-88.  I had several roles to play in that position.  Probably the most difficult involved trying to make sure that there was a consistency in the translation, from one biblical book, passage, and verse to another. How does one determine if a translation is internally consistent?  It’s not easy.  I had to work through the entire translation, and whenever I came across a key term in the Hebrew or Greek that had been rendered into English in one way in one passage, I had to check whether it was rendered similarly in other passages where the same word occurred. I should stress that the translators were absolutely not bound and determined to translate the same Hebrew (or Greek) word the same way every time it appeared in the Bible.  In some contexts a word will be better translated one way, in others another.  But they at least had to be aware of the [...]

A Sensible Approach to Inclusive Language in Bible Translation?

The policy of the NRSV translation committee on inclusive language, as I began to discuss in the preceding post, was sensible, in my view.  It involved a three-pronged approach. Any passage that was referring to both men and women was to be rendered inclusively, even if the original language (Hebrew or Greek) used masculine terms (“men,” “man,” “brothers,” “he” etc.). Any passage that was explicitly referring only to men, or only to women, was to be left as referring only to men or to women. All references to the Deity that in the original used masculine terms were to be left masculine. Here I will say a few things about each of these policies, in reverse order.  First, the deity.  No one on the committee thought that the deity actually has male genitalia or other sexual distinctions.  But changing every reference to God (a masculine term, since there is a feminine alternative: Goddess) or Lord (again, a feminine alternative: Lady) or … anything else, would be hugely cumbersome and distracting.  And there are not literarily [...]

Should Bible Translations Be Gender-Neutral?

More of my reflections from years ago about working with the New Revised Standard Version translation committee in the early 1980s.  (With  a few updates in brackets [ ]) One of the problems the committee had to address involved the use of gender-inclusive language.  Part of the problem was that this issue was not a generally recognized issue (by the wider reading public) when the translators began their work, but was very much an issue when they were already finished with a large chunk of it.  [And oh boy is it a big issue now...]  The translators were mainly senior scholars who had acquired their linguistic skills before virtually anyone in the academy knew (or at least said) that there even was a problem with inclusivity, and so they themselves were learning how to communicate in the new idiom.  And it took a while before they figured out how exactly to handle it. I myself was first introduced to the problem when I entered graduate school, and like a lot of people from my generation [...]

2023-12-28T14:19:17-05:00December 31st, 2023|History of Biblical Scholarship|

Problems with Translating a Single Greek WORD

In my last post I began to talk about my involvement with the translation committee for the New Revised Standard Version.  My Doktorvater, Bruce Metzger, was the chair of the committee and he asked me, during my graduate studies, to be one of the scribes for the Old Testament subcommittee.  In that capacity I recorded all the votes that were taken by the translators for revisions of the text of the Revised Standard Version, in whichever subsection of the committee I was assigned to.  Normally the subsection would have, maybe, five scholars on it.  They would debate how to modify the text of the RSV, verse by verse, word by word; they would then take a vote by show of hands; and I would record their decision. This was an eye-opening experience for me.  Bible translation (or the translation of any foreign-language work, for that matter) is an inordinately complicated procedure.  It is impossible to replicate the exact meaning of one language in another, since the nuances of words vary from one language to another.  [...]

2023-12-28T14:24:44-05:00December 30th, 2023|History of Biblical Scholarship|

How Do You Translate the Bible? My Work for the New Revised Standard Version Committee

About two or three times a month I get asked about translations of the Bible.  Usually the questions are about which one I prefer (answer: The New Revised Standard Version, i.e. the NRSV, and also an annotated edition, such as the Harper Collins Study Bible, which gives brief introductions to each of the biblical books and notes at the bottom of the page for difficulty passages, a kind of mini-commentary).  But sometimes a questioner wants to know about the process of biblical translation and what it entails. I've been interested in this question for, well, roughly 50 years, but my interest reached a peak in the early 1980s when, as a lowly graduate student, I got invited to be a secretarial assistant for the committee producing the NRSV.  Years ago on the blog I talked about that over a series of posts, both what the translation entailed, what problems it (and every other translation committee or individual scholar) had to confront, what I did for the committee over the years, etc. (For the first post [...]

How the Canon Itself Tames the Diversity of the New Testament

The writings of the New Testament do not provide good evidence that Christianity started out as an original unity, only to come to be fragmented with the passage of time into the second and third Christian centuries -- so I argued in the previous post.  Quite the contrary.  And yet having them all in the same book (between covers) does seem to readers to suggest an overarching unity.  That's what I want to talk about here. For the most part, the books of the NT are the earliest Christian writings we have, and most of the books can probably be dated to the first Christian century.  Probably not 2 Peter.  Possibly not Acts.  But the others?  Probably.  Only a couple of other Christian books are to be dated this early.  None of the other Gospels (including the Gospel of Thomas, I would say).  But 1 Clement, is usually dated to the mid 90s CE and the Didache in its final form may be from around 100 CE (they are both in the collection known as [...]

2023-11-21T14:48:19-05:00November 22nd, 2023|History of Biblical Scholarship|

Wasn’t Early Christianity Basically Unified? Why Fret About Occasional Diversity?

I have spent three posts talking about the terms “orthodoxy” and “heresy” and why they are problematic; in doing so I have been explaining both the traditional view of the relationship of orthodoxy and heresy (as found, for example, in the writings of Eusebius) and the view set forth, in opposition, by Walter Bauer.   So, where do we now stand on the issue, some 90 years after Bauer’s intervention? As I indicated in my last post, there are some problems with Bauer’s analysis, but also much positive to say about it.   Conservative scholars continue to hold to a more traditional view (e.g., conservative Roman Catholic and evangelical scholars); others find it *basically* convincing, even if they would write the details up very differently from Bauer. I am very much, and rather enthusiastically, in this latter camp.  It was when I was in graduate school, as a committed evangelical myself, but as one who was moving away from my conservativism based on my detailed research into the New Testament and the history of the early Christian [...]

Are There Really Good Reasons to Doubt the Story of the Discovery of the Gnostic Gospels? My Response to Mark Goodacre

A couple of days ago we enjoyed a guest post on the blog by Mark Goodacre, Professor of New Testament at Duke University.  In this post Mark provided five reasons for doubting if the story of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library – as that story has been recounted by scholars for many years – is in fact accurate.  Mark’s post was a summary of a longer, more detailed, and scholarly article that he has published on the subject. In 2015, when I first discussed this issue on the blog, I asked Mark’s permission to respond to his five points, and he gladly agreed; I in turn agreed to let him respond to my responses.   Rather than asking you to reread his post, I have reproduced each of his five reasons here, and then dealt with them one at a time. Let me say that I really don’t have a horse in this race, and my sense is that Mark doesn’t either.  We would both love to be able to keep telling the story, [...]

2023-10-12T10:45:56-04:00October 22nd, 2023|Christian Apocrypha, History of Biblical Scholarship|

Why We Might Doubt the Story of the Discovery of the Gnostic Gospels: Guest post by Mark Goodacre

A few days ago I posted about the Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library, giving the remarkable story that scholars -- for as long as I myself have been a scholar -- have been telling about how it happened.  I also mentioned that my New Testament colleague at Duke, Mark Goodacre – who is on this blog and who has an important blog of his own – has written an article calling this story into question. Years ago when I was discussing this matter on the blog, I asked Mark if he would be willing to summarize his objections to the story as it is typically recited, and he did so in the following post.   He's asked me to add a couple of links at the end in case you want to look more deeply into the matter. ****************************** Five Reasons to Question the Story of the Nag Hammadi Discovery  I am grateful to my friend and colleague Bart Ehrman for mentioning me in his blog in connection with the fascinating and compelling story of [...]

2023-10-12T10:37:17-04:00October 21st, 2023|Christian Apocrypha, History of Biblical Scholarship|

What Is Actually In the Nag Hammadi Library?

For near fifty years now the "books that did not make it into the New Testament" have been a source of fascination, not just for scholars but for regular ol' folk intrigued by the idea that there may have been alternative forms of Christianity, a wide range of seemingly bizarre beliefs and practices out there in the early centuries of the church. In my previous post I gave the standard tale of how the most significant discovery of such books occurred in 1945 somewhere near the village of Nag Hammadi Egypt (and therefore called the Nag Hammadi library).  The story I told has fallen into some disrepute over the past decade, for reasons we'll see in the next post.  Before dealing with that issue, however,  it's important to see what this library/collection of books actually is.  Here is how I describe it in my textbook, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (Oxford University Press).  ****************************** What was this ancient collection of books?  The short answer is that it is the [...]

2023-10-12T10:32:08-04:00October 19th, 2023|Christian Apocrypha, History of Biblical Scholarship|

Our Most Important Discovery of Ancient Christian Writings: The Nag Hammadi Library

The most significant discovery of Christian manuscripts (ever) was the Nag Hammadi Library, popularly (and a bit inaccurately) known as "the Gnostic Gospels." One of the intriguing features of the discovery is that no one is quite sure how it happened.  When I was in graduate school, everyone heard a standard tale that we then passed along with some glee to our students.  But now that story is in a bit of disrepute -- thanks in large part to that destroyer of New Testament Scholarship Orthodoxy, my friend and colleague, Duke professor, Mark Goodacre, as you will see in subsequent posts.. Just to be clear: the discovery itself was definitely made.  We have the books of the Nag Hammadi Library, readily available in English translations.  And I want to talk about a few of them.  But first I want to talk about what we know and don't know about the discovery itself. I'll start, in this post, by giving the popular tale that, until relatively recently, just about everybody knew.  This is how I laid [...]

Early Gospels in Circulation: An Even Messier Scenario

When it comes to the early Christian Gospels, most people simply assume that there were four Gospels from the first century (those in the NT), and no others, and that they were written as they are found now, and that they circulated in that form, and that later Gospel writers (say in the second century) who used earlier written sources about Jesus must have borrowed their stories from those Gospels. Their other stories they just made up, or heard about from oral traditions, or both. In my last post I suggested why I don’t think that view is particularly plausible, and tried to imagine something a bit more realistic; there I proposed a “messier scenario" in which there were numerous early Gospels, some earlier than others (e.g., Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the earliest that survive, but that doesn’t mean they were the earliest). In this view, Gospels later than the canonical four (e.g., Papyrus Egerton 2) may or may not have used the canonical four for their information (with additional legendary materials); [...]

2023-10-03T10:11:18-04:00October 4th, 2023|Canonical Gospels, History of Biblical Scholarship|

My Trip to Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai: Discovery Site of Codex Sinaiticus

In my previous post I talked about Constantin von Tischendorf and his discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus in St. Catherine’s Monastery on the Sinai peninsula in 1844 and then 1859.   I have a personal anecdote to relate about the manuscript, one of the most interesting things ever to happen to me on my various travels hither and yon. To make sense of the anecdote I need to provide some background information.   As I indicated in my previous post, when Tischendorf discovered the codex Sinaiticus (as it was later called), he considered it to be the most ancient biblical manuscript then known to exist.  He was right.  It was. Tischendorf claimed that the manuscript was gifted to him by the head of the monastery.   The monastery later claimed, and still claims to this day, that he stole it from them. The manuscript consists of both the Old Testament and the New Testament (all in Greek).   It is generally dated today to the middle of the fourth Christian century.   Since Tischendorf’s day, many much older manuscripts have [...]

The Discovery of Codex Sinaiticus: One of the Most Important Manuscripts of the New Testament

Last week my two teenage granddaughters (TEENAGE GRANDDAUGHTERS??  Yikes.  How'd this happen to me...?) were visiting us in London, their first time there.  We did tons of great tourist stuff, and it was fantastic.  One of the things we did is take them to the public exhibition of manuscripts at the British Library, and among the amazing things there -- Leonardo Da Vinci notebooks, the Magna Carta, Beatles songs written on envelopes and scrap paper, Lewis Carroll's own copy of Alice in Wonderland, etc. etc. -- is the very famous Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest complete copy of the New Testament in existence, dating from around 370 CE or so.  I showed my granddaughters and explained a bit.  They're not Bible geeks (oh boy are they not), but still, it was impressive. It made me think that I should talk about it a bit here and its remarkable discovery here on the blog.  It was found by probably a scholar who was almost certainly the most intrepid of manuscript-hunters of modern times, Constantine von Tischendorf. His [...]

Why Critical Scholarship on the Gospels Helps *Believers* in the Bible!

In my two previous posts I’ve been trying to explain that the historical-critical view of the Gospels, in which they are recognized not always to represent historically accurate information about Jesus, is not necessarily a view that “trashes” them.  Instead, it is a view that tries to understand what they really are instead of insisting that they are something else.   Accepting them for what they are is surely a good thing; making them into something they are not can’t be good. In this post I want to do something highly unusual for me.  I want to explain, for those of you who are Christians (or for anyone else who is interested), why this critical view of the Gospels is in fact *theologically* valuable, far more theologically valuable than a view that would insist that the Gospels have no discrepancies between them or errors of any kind, but are historically accurate accounts of what happened in the life of Jesus. When I was a Christian, once  I came to the conclusion that the Gospels in fact [...]

2023-08-12T06:09:19-04:00August 12th, 2023|Canonical Gospels, History of Biblical Scholarship|

Is Critical Biblical Scholarship Valid? What the New Testament Itself Indicates!

In my previous post I argued that critical scholars who insist that the Gospels are not historically accurate accounts of what happened in the life of Jesus – even though they do contain some historically accurate information, which needs to be carefully and cautiously ferreted out of their narratives – are not trashing the Gospels.  They are trashing unfounded fundamentalist assumptions about the Gospels.  In this post I’d like to argue that this view -- that the Gospels are not sacrosanct-historically-accurate-to-the-very-detail accounts of what really happened in the life of Jesus -- is not merely a modern notion that emerged during the Enlightenment.  It is that, to be sure; but it’s not merely that.  In fact, I would argue that this is the earliest attested view of the Gospels from earliest Christianity. Let’s assume for this argument a view that most scholars hold and that I could demonstrate if I wanted to spend a lot of time doing so (for example here and here), that Mark was the first of our Gospels and that Matthew [...]

2023-08-09T07:15:25-04:00August 10th, 2023|Canonical Gospels, History of Biblical Scholarship|
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