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Happy Birthday, Thomas Thompson!

Posted by NT Wrong on January 7, 2009

thomas-thompsonCongratulations to Thomas L. Thompson, who turns 70 today (Jan 7, 2009). Since his landmark work on the non-historicity of the patriarchal narratives in Genesis — except for a short stint as a house-painter — Professor Thompson has been at the forefront of work on myth and (lack of) history in biblical narratives. His major works include The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives (1974), The Origin Tradition of Ancient Israel (1987), The Early History of the Israelite People (1992), The Bible in History: How Writers Create a Past (London, 1999) = The Myth of Ancient Israel (New York, 1999), and The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David‎ (2005).

Just to note a curious synchronicity: Thomas Thompson’s 70th birthday coincides with the 91st anniversary of the death of Julius Wellhausen.

Congratulations on reaching threescore and ten — and best wishes for the day!

“not only has ‘archaeology’ not proven a single event of the patriarchal traditions to be historical, it has not shown any of the traditions to be likely. On the basis of what we know of Palestinian history of the Second Millenium B. C., and of what we understand about the formation of the literary traditions of Genesis, it must be concluded that any such historicity as is commonly spoken of in both scholarly and popular works about the patriarchs of Genesis is hardly possible and totally improbable.”
– Thomas L. Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the Historical Abraham. Berlin & New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1974: 328.

Posted in Academia, Historiography | Comments Off on Happy Birthday, Thomas Thompson!

April DeConick’s ‘More Scientific’ Biblical Studies – Proposing a Middle Range Theory

Posted by NT Wrong on December 9, 2008

In a recent series of posts, April DeConick has been talking about social memory, again. In particular, she’s airing some of the issues raised in the Memory and Textuality session, at which she was the respondent. April has an excitement about the area of memory which is contagious:

“I think that the study of human memory is the future of biblical studies. The people that are giving papers in the memory sessions are really on the cutting edge of future methodology. They are setting us on a new course.”
– April DeConick, SBL sessions: Memory and Textuality

In her latest post, she proclaims that biblical studies should become more scientific in its study of the processes behind the writing of biblical texts:

“In order to know how this process [of memorizing] worked [in the ancient world] and how it might have affected the composition of our texts, it is essential in my experience to experiment and to read in cognitive psychology which tells us how human memory operates and affects the transmission process. When we compare the results of this knowledge with what we see in our texts, it is really quite amazing what we can learn about the ancient people processes.”
– April DeConick, ‘Become more scientific’

I am in fundamental agreement with her on this point. Although it pushes us outside our comfort zones, and if done badly can result in worse results than not being done at all, the potential for new and better ways of understanding the texts is huge.

I’ll suggest a way to do it, too. I think we could apply the basic archaeological theory called “middle range theory” as a model, an approach originally put forward by Lewis Binford and the ‘New Archaeology’ of the 1960s — although adapted for the subject-matter of biblical studies. At its simplest, “middle range theory” involves the systematic study of the complex interrelationships between modern material artifacts and their related modern human cultures, for the purpose of applying this interrelationship to the ancient material artifacts that archaeologists dig up. Although we can study how material artifacts are used by living peoples today, we can only study the material artifacts of ancient peoples. We have no direct access to their minds, to their cultures. So middle range theory serves to fill this gap, a bit like this:


The basis for Binford’s method is simple yet compelling:

“if a distinctive combination of material traits could be demonstrated to correlate with a specific pattern of behavior in living societies, the discovery of the same combination of material traits in the archaeological record would permit similar behavior to be associated with a [material] archaeological culture.”
– Bruce Trigger, A History of Archaeological Thought (2006): 508.

Some might object that people aren’t as predictable as pottery, so any scientific study is doomed to be uncertain. This is undoubtedly true. But I have a couple of rejoinders. First, in the humanities nobody is aiming for certainty. Lack of certainty is a given, whether our methods are more or less robust. So, why not aim for more robust methods? Second, what is the alternative? In the absence of tested assumptions, people tend to fall back on a version of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Just-So Stories’. That is, they tend to ask, ‘what would I do in their situation if I were a first-century illiterate peasant?’ And although this is something of a caricature of the alternative, under the “Just-So Story” approach there is a much higher risk of our interpretation of ancient cultures being determined by our untested current prejudices. At the very least it opens up new possibilities for interpretation. There are many aspects of biblical studies which a more scientific approach would benefit from — not every aspect, but certainly a great number.

So, I agree with Dr DeConick — biblical studies should become more scientific. Whether this should be carried out by specialist biblical scholars (knowledgeable of both biblical studies and, say, cognitive psychology) or ‘outsourced’ to other disciplines is an interesting question. But, either way, in order to be successful, a “middle range theory” for biblical studies should certainly be carried out by trained experts. That’s my one proviso. Otherwise – bring it on!

Posted in Academia, Biblical interpretation | 14 Comments »

Bible Scholar or Biblical Scholar?

Posted by NT Wrong on December 9, 2008

It’s the term which is most used to describe practitioners of the discipline. But it’s routinely rendered in two different ways. What should it be: “Bible scholar” or “biblical scholar”?

This is the sort of debate which has the potential to make the Jew/Judean debate insignificant in comparison.

The term “biblical scholar” appears to be more prevalent in the scholarly literature. But “Bible scholar” is used not infrequently. Can we get assistance from comparative disciplines? “Classical Scholar” is the normal designation, but “Classics Scholar” also gets employed. Is the use of one term over the other a recent development? While Google Scholar states that the biblical scholar : Bible scholar ratio is 16:100, the ratio for works since the year 2000 is… 16:100. Is there a distinction to be made between those who study the Old Testament or Tanakh and New Testament, and those who focus on non-canonical literature? The adjective “biblical” should encompass related literature, whereas the noun “Bible” does not. Does the magisterium, the Society of Biblical Literature, assist us? Not really. For every couple of references to “biblical scholar” on the SBL site, there’s one to “Bible scholar”. The discipline does seem to prefer “Biblical Studies” as the object of its study, however. After all, “Bible Studies” sounds a bit too much like an eager church group than the rigorous discipline which is Biblical Studies…

The entry for Naomi Liebowitz (“The World’s Greatest Bible Teacher”) in Great Jewish Women (1994) uses both “Bible scholar” and “biblical scholar” on the first page. Hector Avalos et al, in their introduction to This Abled Body (2007) describe Bruce C. Birch as a “Hebrew Bible scholar” but in the next sentence describe Janet Lees as a “socially committed biblical scholar”. Is the adjective more feminine? Is it less authoritative than the definitive noun? Is ‘biblical’ a little more postmodern? Bob Ekblad, in Reading the Bible with the Damned (2005) describes himself as a “biblical scholar” in one sentence, and then as a “Bible scholar” in the very next. How can the discipline continue with such terminological confusion?

What do you think?

Update: The results are overwhelmingly in favour of “biblical scholar” over “Bible scholar”.

Posted in Academia | 16 Comments »

A Sneaky Look inside one of David Carr’s lectures, in which he discusses Cultural Memory and Women in Ezra

Posted by NT Wrong on November 18, 2008

Ever wondered what a real live Old Testament lecturer looked and sounded like while he was lecturing in the inner sanctum of Union Theological Seminary? Here’s David Carr in action:


Posted in Academia | 1 Comment »

At the Airport for SBL

Posted by NT Wrong on November 16, 2008

I’m at the Airport, waiting to catch an airplane to Boston for the SBL Annual Meeting. It’s good to see that American security is still operating efficiently. I snapped a photo of an A-rab looking person who actually attempted to board a flight. What could she have been thinking? Surely she should have realized that would only lead to trouble. Fortunately, she was quickly stopped by airport security. Thank God. Who knows what she would have done otherwise?


She was probably one of those ‘Islamic Tourists’ we see plotting against our country almost nightly on TV — on shows such as NCIS, CSI, 24, Fox News, or that one with those really smart criminal profilers, you know the one, the one with the young lanky guy with long hair. Anyway, you can’t be too careful with these people, I say. Democracy must be protected at all costs, and that’s why I don’t mind giving up most of my freedoms for the Principle of Democracy.

Posted in Academia, Humour | 8 Comments »

Buying Books at SBL? Bargain or Rip-Off?

Posted by NT Wrong on November 15, 2008

cult_of_cartmanDaniel and Tonya (of the Hebrew and Greek Reader biblioblog) have made it their mission to investigate the issue. To this end, they have made a list of books which are either on their university’s required/recommended reading lists or are in their own wish lists. What a good idea!

“Is SBL’s yearly book exhibit really the best deal around? To find out, we’ll be comparing Boston exhibit prices to used book prices found on Amazon.”

They will be making the comparisons when the book stalls open in a few days time, looking for the lowest Amazon price, including secondhand copies. Be sure to check back then. (They rightly note that the comparison may change when you consider Amazon postage costs. The comparison can change again when you have excess baggage charges.)

But have they factored in the alluring fragrance of freshly printed books, which send their enticing olfactory seductions towards us, begging us to hold them, to caress them, to devour them from beginning to end, inscribing our tender yet forceful marginalia into their innermost parts? Ahhhhhhh… new books…. what rational analysis can negate your sweet seductions?

Posted in Academia | 8 Comments »

More Heresy Hunting

Posted by NT Wrong on November 8, 2008

servetusTony Burke’s ‘Heresy Hunting in the New Millennium’, on the Aug 2008 SBL Forum, has certainly lit a fire under the Defenders of Orthodoxy. And you thought it was only the Heretics that got burnt at the stake!

In the November 2008 SBL Forum, Darrell L. Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary has written what on the face of it appears to be a point-by-point rejoinder to Burke. Yes, I said “on the face of it”, because — while Darrell Bock was only one of the modern ‘heresy hunters’ discussed by Tony Burke (along with Ben Witherington, Timothy Paul Jones, J. Ed Komoszewski, Philip Jenkins, Stanley Porter, Gordon L. Heath, Craig Evans, and Bishop N.T. Wright) — Bock replies to every point made only in respect of himself. That is, even when Burke’s point was about completely different scholars, Bock only adduces evidence from his own books in reply. Bock goes so far as to pronounce that Tony Burke’s point is simply “wrong” (which is the entire content of Bock’s first sentence of rejoinder) based only on his own books — even when the point concerned completely different scholars. So, what at first glance appears to be a point-by-point rejoinder is in fact a rather strange claim of “not me!”

Yet where Darrell Bock does actually recognize that Tony Burke’s points concern quite different writings by quite different scholars, he tends to agree with Tony Burke! As the only example where Bock discusses one of the other alleged ‘heresy hunters’ (Ben Witherington), Bock agrees that Ben Witherington does in fact go “over the line” in impugning the motives of Christian Apocrypha scholars, and that Witherington is “condescending” and “judgmental”. This doesn’t stop Darrell Bock from going on, in the very next sentence, to make the same insinuation about their motives, however. After all, why waste a chance to make an apologetic point against Christian Apocrypha scholars?

So, it’s a disappointing (non-)response — failing to address the specific charges levelled by Tony Burke, missing the point by limiting himself to a defence of his own books. It doesn’t matter that this is what Darrell Bock announces he will do, because in pursuing such an inappropriate method, his attempted response simply fails to address the specific points made in Tony Burke’s original article.

See now: Tony Burke’s Secret Scriptures Revealed

Posted in Academia, Early Christian literature, Fundamentalism | 19 Comments »

Review of Biblical Literature – Sep 13, 2008

Posted by NT Wrong on September 14, 2008

There’s some interesting stuff in the latest Review of Biblical Literature, including:

Wazana, Nili, כל גבולות ארץ All the Boundaries of the Land: The Promised Land in Biblical Thought in Light of the Ancient Near East (Hebrew) (2007)

Wazana’s study of biblical descriptions of Israel’s borders provides comparisons to aNE data and detailed studies of the biblical texts. Interestingly, she finds that some ancient descriptions of borders refer to actual ‘lines’, contrary to what you find in a lot of scholarly literature. She also examines the ideological function of the various types of texts. Invaluable for understanding books like Joshua.

Fishbane, Simcha, Deviancy in Early Rabbinic Literature: A Collection of Socio-Anthropological Essays (2007)

There are ten essays in the collection, four of which are previously unpublished. Fishbane covers a number of ‘deviants’ in Rabbinic literature: bastard mamzerim, long-haired Nazirites, leaky menstruating women, Rabbinic magicians and female witches, skanky ho’s, spazzy physically handicapped people, dirty Samaritans, perverse Goyim, etc.

Crook, Zeba A. and Philip A. Harland, editors, Identity and Interaction in the Ancient Mediterranean: Jews, Christians and Others: Essays in Honour of Stephen G. Wilson (2007)

Comprising …

Kim Stratton – curse rhetoric in early Judaism and Christianity
Adele Reinhartz – why is Caiaphas ignored by historians of 2nd T Judaism?
Willi Braun – meals and social formation
Philip Harland – how meal stereotypes were used as polemical social labelling
Richard Ascough – not only Christians were involved in missionizing activities
John Barclay – ioudaios in Josephus = ethnic ‘Judean’
John Kloppenborg – the author and recipients of the Letter of James as Jewish-Christians
Laurence Broadhurst – newly discovered musical papyri and Gnostic musical texts
Larry Hurtado – textual transmission and Christian identity
Edith Humphey – naming as crafting identity in Revelation
Michele Murray – evidence in Apostolic Constitutions for continued Christian attendance at synagogue, observance of festivals and Sabbath, and no ‘parting of the ways’
Roger Beck – 8th -century AD ‘Horoscope of Islam’
Graydon Snyder – Ethiopian Jews, including DNA analysis supporting their conversion to Judaism rather than ancestry in Dan
Alan Segal – Daniel Boyarin on division between Christianity and Judaism
Robert Morgan – theological and historical approaches to biblical studies should be kept separate
William Arnal – the need to separate traditional biblical studies into seminaries, as distinct from comparative religious studies of Jewish and Christian religions in the Academy

Posted in Academia, Books, Early Christian literature, Early Jewish literature, Historical Books | Comments Off on Review of Biblical Literature – Sep 13, 2008

Crossley is a ‘Scriptural’ Biblical Scholar

Posted by NT Wrong on September 7, 2008

“I may not be the most evangelical but at least I’m scriptural!”
James Crossley

Crossley’s scriptural approach contrasts with that of Mike Bird, who plays fast and loose with the Word of God.

Posted in Academia | 2 Comments »

Westminster Theological Seminary Sells Academia Out to Ignorant Bureaucrats

Posted by NT Wrong on July 25, 2008

The faculty of the Westminster Theological Seminary voted in favour of Enns’ orthodoxy in terms of the Westminster Confession. According to the faculty, Enns was always operating within the confessional boundaries of the Westminster Theological Seminary. But the academically ignorant board of the Westminster Theological Seminary tried to second-guess the academic staff on an academic matter. This is where academic integrity came to an end at WTS.

Jim Getz comments on the Peter Enns dismissal:

“It’s not that I have a problem with WTS firing Enns for denominational or confessional reasons. Div schools and seminaries have every right to terminate the contracts of those who disagree with the school’s charter. The issue isn’t simply one of academic freedom. If you want to be a “free thinker” without any boundaries, perhaps a confessional school that has you sign a confession of faith when you enter isn’t the place for you.

What bothers me about the WTS-Enns affair is that this split was pushed through by the trustees, not the faculty. After the faculty declared Enns’ positions fine, the president and trustees moved in and suspended Enns. The faculty at a theological seminary was not considered theologically savvy enough to make the decision of what constituted the theological boundaries of the institution for which they teach, of the discipline in which they are experts.”

If you were considering studying at the Westminster Theological Seminary, you may wish to reconsider. Let’s face it – academic integrity at WTS was never very high in the first place, considering it meant subscribing to the archaic ideas contained in the Westminster Confesson. But if you knew that from the beginning, that would have been fine. However, after the Peter Enns dismissal, academic integrity at WTS has sunk to a level where it comes second to the uninformed opinions of reactionary bureaucrats. This lack of academic integrity is by no means something that the Westminster Theological Seminary has a monopoly on, but that doesn’t excuse the poor decision.

Posted in Academia | Comments Off on Westminster Theological Seminary Sells Academia Out to Ignorant Bureaucrats