Industrial-Sized Deals Best Books of the Month Shop Women's Handbags Learn more nav_sap_SWP_6M_fly_beacon Beach House Fire TV Stick Off to College Essentials Find the Best Purina Pro Plan for Your Pet Shop Popular Services tmnt tmnt tmnt  Amazon Echo Starting at $99 Kindle Voyage Metal Gear Solid 5 Gear Up for Football Deal of the Day
Profile for Loren Rosson III > Reviews

Browse

Loren Rosson III's Profile

Customer Reviews: 48
Top Reviewer Ranking: 303,252
Helpful Votes: 2282


Community Features
Review Discussion Boards
Top Reviewers

Guidelines: Learn more about the ins and outs of Your Profile.

Reviews Written by
Loren Rosson III RSS Feed (New Hampshire, USA)
(REAL NAME)   

Show:  
Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5
pixel
The Disciples' Prayer: The Prayer Jesus Taught in Its Historical Setting
The Disciples' Prayer: The Prayer Jesus Taught in Its Historical Setting
by Jeffrey B. Gibson
Edition: Paperback
Price: $28.01
44 used & new from $26.52

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Reading the prayer afresh, May 29, 2015
I’ve waited a long time for this book. Its arguments were gestating back in the early days of the Crosstalk mailing list, and according to the preface even years before. Those arguments are now marshaled, and scholars who are attached to traditional views of the “Lord’s Prayer” will need impressive rebuttals. Jeffrey Gibson’s reading is not only better but strangely obvious at points, as if we just needed someone to take a hard look at the people who first prayed it.

Which is why he calls it the Disciples’ Prayer. The disciples were those first people (not Jesus, who taught them the prayer), and they operated out of an austere remnant theology that had little to do with what Christians today pray on their knees. The prayer, as Gibson argues, was designed to secure them as the faithful elect, and to keep them from apostasy.

**Jesus, not John**

But let’s start at the end, with the book’s appendix, since it represents Jesus’ starting point. Gibson asks if there is any merit to the claim that Jesus inherited the prayer from John the Baptist. I’ve long been sympathetic to this view since it avoids “great-man” fallacies, but also because Luke 11:1 shows the disciples asking Jesus to teach them to pray “as John taught his disciples”. The Greek wording could mean the disciples are asking to be taught to pray “just as” or “exactly as” John’s disciples were taught, though not necessarily. Gibson thinks not, and his strongest reason is that some of Jesus’ disciples had been John’s, and thus unlikely to be part of a group-request to be taught a prayer that was already known among them (pp 169-170). I applaud Joan Taylor’s attempt to align Jesus closely with John (against Crossan’s ilk), but on the point of the Disciples’ Prayer I’m afraid Gibson is right. The text doesn’t lend the greatest support for John as its author.

**Matthew, not Luke**

Q-skeptics will be happy that Matthew’s version of the prayer is given primacy. Gibson never actually brings up Q, relying on arguments that don’t depend on the question of its existence. Jeremias’ confidence in Luke is shown to be empty (pp 15-20), for Luke betrays a heavy editorial hand. The parts he omitted are organic to the prayer, and his version reflects a general effort to divest it of Jewish themes and make it more Gentile-friendly (p 27). Farrer advocates could obviously make Gibson’s case stronger. Not taking a stand on Q might be shrewd tactics, but that’s a two-edged sword, since some Q-believers may charge that Gibson is sidestepping an important part of the debate. Q-skeptics like myself will be convinced in advance.

Then comes the deeper question: Does Matthew’s version go back to Jesus? Gibson thinks yes, but arguing anything about the historical Jesus these days is speculative business. He nicely refutes Goulder and Crossan (pp 20-25), but just because their arguments are weak doesn’t make a case for historicity strong. Gibson’s case is that Matthew’s writing style and characteristic vocabulary “might be be a reproduction, albeit in Greek, of the style and vocabulary of Jesus” (p 26) and that the Didache, which mirrors Matthew’s version, is likely independent of Matthew (p 27). The first is conjectural, the second questionable. I’ve no idea if the Disciples’ Prayer goes back to Jesus, but in the absence of a compelling case against it, I can go along with Gibson and assume so to see where it leads. And on this assumption, Matthew’s version is indeed the better candidate.

**The Meaning of the Prayer**

Gibson’s thesis is on whole compelling, though some of his supportive arguments are either problematic or unnecessary. He basically dismantles the eschatological reading under the influence of George Caird. The prayer, he says, isn’t about praying down blessings from the end-times. I think he’s right about this, though part of his reasoning depends on what I take to be an unwarranted skepticism about literal apocalyptic imagery:

“The whole scholarly notion, rampant in New Testament studies since Johannes Weiss’s (re)discovery of apocalyptic, that Jews expected any kind of cosmic catastrophe, let alone an imminent end of the world, as part of the outworking of any divinely grounded hope for Israel, may be a false one, since it may be based in an overly literal reading, and misunderstanding of the nature, of ‘apocalyptic’ texts.” (p 138)

I strongly disagree. In a page-by-page decimation of Tom Wright, Edward Adams proved (beyond reasonable doubt) that Jewish apocalyptic pointed to the universe’s literal destruction, followed by either its re-creation or miraculous transformation. Wright’s insistence that cosmic disaster language was a metaphor for purely socio-political events is refuted by a thorough assessment of the literary evidence. Even worse is the way Wright abuses George Caird to support his pseudo-historical view. Caird at least maintained literal elements alongside the metaphorical, though I think Caird could also push the metaphorical envelope a bit far.

But that’s an aside. Just because I’m confident that Jesus was a literal apocalyptic doesn’t mean everything he said had to be about the apocalypse. That would be absurd. Some of his parables were apocalyptic, others not at all. He spoke directly about the kingdom, but he also said things that were kingdom-related without focusing on the issue — not least in the Disciples’ Prayer. Gibson makes a strong case that the prayer isn’t “about” the kingdom. It’s about resisting apostasy to make oneself worthy of it.

**Paraphrasing the Prayer**

Here is Gibson’s paraphrase of the prayer (p 28). Again, this isn’t a plea for God to make his kingdom arrive, but to help the disciples maintain an obedience which the kingdom demands.

“Our Father, the one in the heavens,
ensure that we hallow your name
ensure that your reign comes
ensure that your will is done on earth just as it is done in heaven;
do indeed give us today our daily bread
and forgive us our sins
in the same manner in which we have forgiven our enemies
and keep us from subjecting you to testing
but rescue us from doing evil.”

Thus, the “Our Father” segment is a confession of God’s sovereignty and pledge of disciple-loyalty, whatever the cost. “Hallow your name” asks that the disciples not dishonor God through disobedience, even at the cost of their lives (pp 114-120). “Your kingdom/reign come” asks that God shape the faithful remnant of believers and enable them to do his will (pp 109-114). “Forgiveness” has in view the principle of non-retaliation and constraint to love one’s enemies, and is the condition upon which God forgives the disciples (pp 126-132). “Lead us not into testing” asks God to keep the disciples from putting him to the test, not the other way around (pp 135-160). That last needs special attention — Gibson devotes an entire chapter to the “testing” segment — and I’ll return to it shortly.

All other prayers which Jesus urged on his disciples (Mt 9:38/Lk 10:2; Mt 24:20; Lk 21:36; Mk 14:38/Mt 26:41/Lk 22:40,46) were aimed to keep them on the right path (see pp 90-96), and so Gibson’s reading of the Disciples’ Prayer naturally follows suit. He also discredits comparisons to the Amidah, Kadish, and the Morning Prayer — the eschatological Jewish prayers from which the Disciples’ Prayer supposedly derives. The datings of these prayers are uncertain (later is more likely), and they were doubtfully prayed in synagogues before the liturgical introductions of the second century (see pp 54-58). First-century synagogues were places of Torah recitation and instruction (per Horsley and Sanders), and any prayers uttered in them were private and spontaneous. Taken together, the evidence reinforces Gibson’s reading of a prayer that aligns more with the stringent demands of remnant theology, and less with the liturgical hopes of later catechisms.

**Who Puts Whom to the Test?**

The final chapter on the “temptation” petition is the book’s strongest. For starters, the word is a poor translation. The Greek word πειραζειν peirazein, like the Aramaic nisan (which likely stands behind it), wasn’t thought to convey what “temptation” conveys to us today; “testing” is the better translation (p 33). But the real question is who is testing whom? Most assume that the petition means something like “Please God, don’t tempt (or test) us too harshly”, but Gibson argues that the disciples are asking God to keep them from putting him to the test.

It’s ironic that the apocalyptic crowd (of which I’m a vocal member) views this part of the prayer as lending strong support to the standard reading. The assumption that devout Christians would be assigned a prayer that begs to be spared temptation, testing, suffering and/or persecution makes nonsense of NT theology. Gibson grinds this point home (see pp 141-146), and cites Moule:

“Why should anyone pray to escape testing — even if it is testing by the Devil and constitutes temptation [enticement to evil]? If one knows that testing and temptation are inevitable; if one knows that, before the glorious climax of God’s final triumph, there will be inescapable testing of an exceptionally severe kind; if, moreover, one knows that testing can be salutary and that the Lord himself has pioneered the way through it to spiritual effectiveness — then what is the logic of praying for exemption?”

To which Gibson answers in agreement, none at all (p 144). The faithful elect expected to be put through the grind; they wouldn’t pray to be spared the badge of honor. As a brief aside, this is a similar point made by some of the more sane fundamentalists when they refute pre-tribulationist doctrine: the NT is replete with the idea that believers will be persecuted, oppressed, robbed, starved, slaughtered — have their faith put to the test in horrendous ways, especially during the tribulation. (Certainly the “rapture” spoken of by Paul in I Thess 4 was never understood to avoid this, against pre-tribbers). Christians were committed to suffering for their cause. Disciples invited martyrdom as proof of their allegiance. They faltered and got terrified and had doubts like anyone, but the remedy for this wasn’t a petition to get out of jail free.

The prayer should read, as Gibson says, “Lead us not into testing you”, which basically says, “Please God, keep us from doubting you and renouncing all that you have deemed fit for us to follow” (p 150) — in particular, the constraints of non-retaliation and loving one’s enemies in the face of lethal hardships (p 159). That’s a difficult thing to do in any time and place, but especially in the honor-shame cultures of the Mediterranean.

**Verdict**

Gibson’s book is more than an argument. It’s an aesthetic, especially for the way it evokes seminal moments in Israel’s history: the wilderness generation, who hardened their hearts and put God to the test (Exod 17; Num 14; Psalm 95); the bread from heaven they received (Exod 16); Moses’ command to hallow God’s name, do his will, and not put him to the test (Deut 6:10-19). All of this lends more support to the apocalyptic model than Gibson realizes (I don’t think it’s possible to have a “new exodus” without literal end-times, unless your name is Tom Wright), but that’s a small matter when his thesis doesn’t suffer for it. This famous prayer, as he shows, doesn’t pray future blessings down into the now. It wards against evil by keeping people constrained under hard demands — loving enemies; shunning families; rejecting violence; inviting martyrdom. If Jesus believed the world was about to end (as I think he did; Gibson less so), he also insisted on intense commitment and unconditioned loyalty in preparation. He was like any millenial leader, but he crafted a special prayer to reinforce allegiance.

For modern Christians, the book almost functions as a dare: To consider what Jesus demands, instead of what God will bring — and how the first disciples feared God’s wrath if they couldn’t meet those demands. Not all religious martyrs are pacifist, and the path of non-violence is a hard one. Violence is in our nature, and a perennial question is whether our savagery is fueled or reined in by religion. Muhammad fueled it. Jesus reined it in, and for him, “to profess God as Father,” says Gibson, “entails taking a stance, and to pledge oneself to demonstrating and proclaiming this certain way of being in the world” (p 164). Biblical scholars are at their best when they force relevant questions in view of original intentions, and that’s exactly what Gibson does in The Disciples’ Prayer.


The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals
The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals
by Anthony Le Donne
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $21.16
54 used & new from $4.39

14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Was Jesus scandalous? Yes, but not as most people think., October 25, 2013
In this terrific and accessible book, Le Donne argues that many Christians have been right for the wrong reasons. While the gospels don't say that Jesus had a wife, neither do they say he didn't, and silence means nothing. Marriage was a cultural given in Jesus' time and place, the most important way of honoring parents, and the path to economic integrity and manhood. It was considered necessary for survival, and so we should assume that Jesus was married unless we have reason to believe otherwise.

Though that last is admittedly the rub. In scrutinizing the New Testament, it appears that Jesus was abnormal -- not on account of being too holy for sex, says Le Donne, but for having wild ideas about honor and family. By his 30s at least (i.e. by the time of his gospel ministry), he was dishonoring his blood ties and reshaping a spiritual family around him. He had embraced many (though not all) of the ascetic and non-conformist teachings of his mentor John the Baptist. He lived as if the world was coming to an end, and provision for future generations (family property rights secured through marriage) wasn't a part of his message. He said there were different kinds of eunuchs -- those who lack reproductive organs, but also those who choose celibacy for the sake of God's kingdom (Mt 19:12). "In all of these ways, Jesus subverted civic masculinity and quite possibly the institution of marriage, which stood at the center of civic masculinity (p 128)."

Le Donne allows that Jesus may well have been married prior to becoming a prophet. It's more plausible that he was married in his 20s and that his wife died in childbirth (as was extremely common), than that he would have shamefully dishonored his family by rejecting the Abrahamic blessing of progeny. Only by the time of his itinerant prophetic career was he engaged in the flagrant dishonor of severing blood ties. Of course, from his radical point of view, he wasn't being dishonorable at all: he thought of his disciples and followers as his true family; his blood relations weren't even real.

The gospels are replete on this point, and Le Donne discusses all the relevant passages. Jesus declares that his family members are not biological kin, but those who do the will of God (Mt 12:46-50; cf. Mk 3:31-35; Lk 8:19-21); that he hasn't come to bring peace but a sword -- "to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother"; that if you loved your biological family more than him, you were unworthy (Mt 10:34-36); indeed you had to hate your biological family to be a disciple (Lk 14:26). Following Jesus meant surrendering economic and social security, sacrificing inheritance rights, hating your family, and living like a shameful itinerant. Le Donne notes the irony that many modern Christians who see Jesus as "above sex" tend to be the same who champion "family values", which Jesus clearly had no use for.

The Wife of Jesus is a sober analysis devoid of sensationalism, but don't fear: sensationalist claims are addressed by the author, which makes the book fun (and amusing at times) to read. He covers the recent hoax of the Jesus' Wife fragment, noting that whoever forged it had internet access to a source with a typographical error which the forger copied. He even discusses the Secret Mark hoax, which of course depicted a gay Jesus. He traces the evolution of Mary Magdalene, who began in the gospels as a follower of Jesus, was later cast a prostitute by the church, and in recent years became the actual wife of Jesus (in the hack novel by Dan Brown). It's a concise and well-written book that couldn't be more timely, and I hope many people will read it.


Sex, Wives, and Warriors: Reading Biblical Narrative with Its Ancient Audience
Sex, Wives, and Warriors: Reading Biblical Narrative with Its Ancient Audience
by Philip Francis Esler
Edition: Paperback
Price: $46.00
20 used & new from $41.28

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The battlefield and the bedroom, March 20, 2012
Even with all its prescinding from source and form criticism, Sex, Wives, and Warriors is one of the most penetrating books on the Old Testament available, a compulsive page-turner, and strong reminder that in the 21st century dedicated scholars have the tools to really do right, and enable us to read stories as they were first heard. Esler's approach is intercultural as much as historical, and it's impossible not to be emotionally charged by the eight stories he takes us through. For some this will be an exhilarating experience, for others repulsive, but you'll be a different person either way by the end. The real beauty to the book is that it's a friend to both maximalists and minimalists of historiography, since it doesn't care what actually happened or who actually existed, only in how an ancient Israelite audience would have heard these narratives by the time they were first put into the form we now have in the Old Testament.

The cover sets the tone right away with Allori's famous portrait of Judith. Ever since my high-school reading of Dante's Inferno I've had a thing for people who carry around human heads (especially when, like Bertran de Born in the Ninth Bolgia, they carry their own), and there's something quite stirring about a Jewish woman brandishing the head of an Assyrian general she deviously manipulated before decapitating with his own sword. This is almost a metaphor for Esler's strategy throughout the entire book, as he manoeuvres us into corners and severs our assumptions about what constitutes righteous biblical behavior. Judith, for her part, told no less than thirteen lies (Jud 10:12, 10:13, 11:7, 11:11, 11:12-15, 11:16, 11:17, 11:18, 11:19 (x3), 13:3), and was all the more honorable for it. This highlights the Mediterranean double standard which commends the tactical use of lying and deception against enemies like Holofernes. As Esler puts it:

"It is perfectly acceptable to rail against the lies and deceit of other people, even while you do exactly the same thing yourself. The point is to be the final winner, to promote the honor of oneself and one's group by obtaining revenge." (p 290)

Which is exactly what Judith does. Like David with his sling, Judith with her lies gets the enemy in a compromising position to finish him off and subsequently parade his head around in public. Esler notes the abundant parallels between David/Goliath and Judith/Holofernes -- and the astounding blindness of scholars who ignore these in favor of more superficial comparisons with Jael, Elijah, and Moses. David's insults are to Judith's flatteries, and their vorpal swords ended up saving Israel against impossible odds. Even if the Goliath and Holofernes narratives are largely fictional (as I suspect they are), they became quickly believed with mighty theological payoff:

"Both Judith and David represent Israel as a whole in being small, inferior and frequently despised compared with surrounding nations, and often facing apparently insuperable odds, but nevertheless with God on their side, a God who comes to the aid of the weak and socially marginal and rescues them from dangerous predicaments." (p 296)

David was a shepherd (a despised occupation in agrarian socieites, since they were roaming thieves who couldn't be at home to protect their women) and Judith was a woman. Neither made for honorable heroes, yet that's what the God of the Old Testament does with marginal people time and time again.

But if Esler's social readings make admittedly powerful statements about God exalting the lowly and crushing their arrogant oppressors, they are not naively romantic. They are embedded with real-life tensions and even contradictions. In the case of David, oppressed peasants collected around him in his revolt against Saul, but that doesn't mean he had a good relationship with peasants per se. Eric Hosbawm's social-bandit theory is challenged rigorously by Esler, so that David's banditry emerges less a Robin Hood protest movement and more a Sicilian mafia-like protection racket. This is seen in a text like I Sam 25:5-8, where David is not suggesting that his men protected Nabal's shepherds from other thieves or raiders, but darkly stating that his men themselves held back from attacking the shepherds though they were completely in his power. "So reward us, or else," being the clear threat.

The ruthless nature of David's banditry is evident in other places, and Esler compares I Sam 27:9 ("David smote the land, and left neither man nor woman alive, but took away the sheep, the oxen, the asses, the camels, and the garments, and came back to Achish") with an account from 1930s China when bandits had looted and burned the town of Kingsuchen, killing men, women, and children, and capturing others. They were reported to have engaged in atrocities that were off the scales. Esler comments:

"What David did was essentially identical to this, except that the Chinese bandits at least left some of the townsfolk alive so they could carry the loot. David was also attacking old enemies of Judah and the other Israelites but there was no current threat from these peoples [and he was even allied at this point with the pagan Achish to boot]. The fact that David may have been settling old scores would not have mattered much to those he slaughtered, and his band clearly kept all the booty for themselves... The narrator appears to see no evil in David's actions, probably because this was a culture where moral duties were owed to members of one's ingroup, and the outgroups were fair game for insult and attack." (p 250)

The irony is compounded when a few chapters later, the Amalekites are referred to as a "maurading band" (four times in I Sam 30), though this term is equally applicable to David's own band, indeed even more so since he had killed every man and woman he captured while the Amalekites kiled no captives at all (I Sam 30:1-2).

There are, in other words, plain realities under the socially empowering theology of the Old Testament, that often sit at odds with it. David was pursuing a goal that would enable him to become king of Israel and benefit from the exact same oppressive system Saul enjoyed. "His trajectory is towards joining the elite, not challenging it on behalf of the non-elite." (pp 255-56) It was a revolution for the kingship, not gang-preyings on the rich. Yes, he is portrayed as the exemplar of God raising the humble and lowly, but Yahweh's election evidently has knifing irony: David ended up crushing the humble and the lowly as often as he vanquished evil giants.

The guy I most empathize with in the Samuel narratives is actually Saul, who at least has the excuse of madness to fall back on. Againt critics who think he was manic-depressive, Esler suggests that Saul suffered from anxiety disorders featuring panic attacks. He draws on crosscultural studies which find such disorders linked to feelings of helplessness, not being in control, delusions of persecution, homicidal impulses, and, interestingly enough, belief in spirit possession. Even before he fell out of favor with God, Saul had been reveling in possession trances (I Sam 10:9-13). But when he disobeyed Samuel twice (I Sam 10:8, 13:13-14; I Sam 15:3,9-11) God abandoned him and sent an evil spirit into him instead (I Sam 16:14), causing relentless terror, and (as we are to understand it) the cause of his madness. Esler notes that when the young David makes his first appearance and provides soothing therapy for Saul with his lyre, this bears remarkable similarities to relaxation treatments prescribed by modern behavioral clinicians.

An anxiety disorder admittedly makes good sense of I Sam 18-30 which is dominated by a repeated cycle of Saul eyeballing David with envy, doing his utmost to kill him, then bewilderingly making amends and "becoming friends" again for brief periods before returning to homicidal mania:

"Saul's first attack on David, at I Sam 18:10-11, which signals the beginning of the king's paranoid hostility toward him, correlates quite closely with [a documented Taiwanese case] where delusions of persecution and outbreaks of hostility were associated with an anxiety condition... Saul's is triggered by the extreme stress of the day before when publicly dishonored by the women's unfavorable comparison of him with David. The damage sustained to his honor induces the psychosocial stress pushing an already chronic anxiety condition into a dangerously acute phase. Thereafter, although there are times when Saul is able to attend to the voice of reason of those around him or to relent of his hostility in the face of extraordinary displays of devotion to David, in general his anxiety condition is characterized by a paranoid and indeed homicidal attitude toward his erstwhile favorite." (pp 176-77)

Saul's monstrous actions -- like his slaughter of the priests of Nob, and every living thing in the town, in revenge for harboring David (I Sam 22:18-19) -- appalling by even honor-shame standards, become understandable if not excusable on this view. Esler is to be commended for correcting the nonsense touted in academia that modern psychiatric explanations are out of bounds since they are "anachronistic" to the biblical writers' theological worldview. A truly intercultural approach does justice to both emic and etic perspectives (see pp 166-167); that we empathize with the ancients' spiritual explanations doesn't mean we necessarily endorse them.

If Saul, David, and Judith are the "warriors" of this book, then Bathsheba and Tamar serve up the "sex" -- or more accurately, their violators do. Esler's readings of the narratives in II Sam 10-13 are so suspenseful that one almost stands in awe over how much dread and devastation can come out of the bedroom. (Maybe soap operas have a weird biblical basis.) In the case of Bathsheba, we again find God's "humbly anointed" in the unflattering spotlight. David's violation of another man's wife occurs because he is slothfully loitering in Jerusalem instead of avenging his honor against the Ammonites. The Ammonites had shamed him outrageously by humiliating his ambassadors -- spurning their courtesies, shaving half their beards, and exposing their buttocks. David's astounding, dishonorable failure to take the field against Ammon (by sending Joab in his place) is seen by the narrator of II Sam 10-12 to be the direct cause of his liaison with Bathsheba. "Put bluntly," says Esler, "if he had done the right thing and led his own men to war, he would have never got into the trouble he did." (p 314)

David's crime is explained as the deliberate scorning of the generosity of his divine patron (God) by taking Bathsheba. After all, he already has an abundance of wives; taking Uriah's single wife amounts to the same thing as a rich man feeding a guest by stealing a poor man's single lamb, as famously critiqued by the prophet Nathan (II Sam 12:1-7). Esler rightly notes that when commentators critique David's adultery with Bathsheba based on this or that code of the Torah, they are only correct in a technical sense; they miss the stronger point that

"Not only had David breached his obligations to his patron but he had murdered a man and stolen his wife. David's wrong is indeed far worse than that of the rich man in the parable who did not, at least, have the poor man murdered to conceal the theft of his lamb. Thus the text focuses on the devastation David has wrought both in his personal relationship with God and in its effect on Uriah rather than on the infringement of any specific provision of Israelite law." (pp 317-18)

And as a result of his gross immorality, God's wrath proceeds to steamroll over David's entire family. II Sam 10-12 becomes almost a mild preface to the horrific sequel in chapter 13, which deals death to David's son Amnon. This involves, of course, the rape of Tamar, which is Esler's final chapter. It's a fitting end to the book, because it arguably captures the alien culture of the bible best of all the eight stories, dealing as it does with women who are blamed and shamed for being violated in the worst way.

In the famous account, David's daughter is raped by her half-brother Amnon, but not, as some critics claim, as a hostile takeover bid against Absalom as contender for the crown. The argument (put forth by Victor Matthews and Don Benjamin) is that when a man representing one household rapes a woman from another, the rapist's household lays claim on the resources of the woman's household. While this is a plausible suggestion, it receives no textual support in the case at hand. First of all, as Esler demonstrates, Tamar is not part of Absalom's household; she is part of David's, residing at the royal palace. But second, a political motive never remotely surfaces in the story. Amnon is driven by sadistic urges purely to gratify himself and ruin Tamar's honor and innocence. He is ill and frustrated at not being able to do anything "to" Tamar (II Sam 13:2); he is tormented because of her virginity. That's all.

For a biblical narrative, the rape is graphic, like a vicious Last House on the Left crossed with an emotionally charged General Hospital. Tamar actively resists, struggles, and protests (II Sam 13:12-14). And when Amnon is through with her, he discards her and contemptuously tells her to get lost (II Sam 13:15). This, as Esler knows, is worse than the rape itself: "Brother, this evil in sending me away is greater than what you just did to me" (II Sam 13:16). She is begging Amnon to marry her, since that's now her only hope of salvation:

"The only way a man could do justice to a woman whom he had raped was to marry her himself, because no one else (or no one respectable) would. Tamar's appeal to Amnon was really her last chance to prevent the destruction of her life." (p 347)

Reminding us then that in honor-shame cultures the closest bonds are between brothers and sisters (not husbands and wives), Esler goes on to note that Tamar does the only the thing possible, moving in with her (full) brother Absalom who exacts murderous revenge on Amnon. Of course, in many honor-shame cultures Absalom would be honor-bound to kill her as much as Amnon, but in ancient Israel, a raped woman didn't necessarily need to die (witness also Dinah in Gen 34). But in effect she dies -- a social death, says Esler, since virtually no one will want to marry such a defiled woman. Absalom may have avenged the family honor, but Tamar herself is left devastated. In the context of the narrative, she is collateral damage for the punishment God lands on David's house for the Bathsheba affair, posing critical questions to the audience about kings and princes devoted to satisfying their mean sexual urges.

I've reviewed six of the eight stories covered by Esler, from the "warriors" and "sex" sections -- the battlefield and the bedroom, as it were. The two stories from the "wives" section (at the beginning of the book) I'll only mention as a tease: they involve the stigmas attached to women who are unable to bear children, whether by circumstance (Tamar in Gen 38) or barrenness (Hannah in I Sam 1-2). Esler cranks these narratives up again with the right cultural cues, and I found his expose of the vicious relationships between co-wives in polygynous cultures particularly helpful in Hannah's story.

Sex, Wives, and Warriors is, then, a tour-de-force of the Samuel narratives (and Judith) and a rare breed in biblical scholarship. Only Richard Rohrbaugh's reading of The Prodigal Son delivers the same kind of jarring social analysis that puts you on alien soil not knowing quite who to like and despise. I'm a bit surprised by the omission of the David and Jonathan controversy, considering that Esler leaves hardly a stone unturned. Is it because he considers the idea that these men were homoerotically involved without foundation and thus not worth even mentioning? Or that he just doesn't know what to make of it? He practically sets himself up for the discussion in tying I Sam 17:1-18:5 to the literary landscape of "Rags to Riches" stories, noting how the conclusion (18:1-5) deviates, "taking the form not of matrimony, but the love of Jonathan" (p 212). But what kind of love? To this day, I've not seen a Context-Group scholar address the texts which speak of David's love for Jonathan being "greater than the love of a woman" (II Sam 1:26), and Jonathan's alleged sexual "delight" in David (I Sam 19:1) which supposedly recalls Shechem's erotic delight in Dinah (Gen 34:19). For a book that deals precisely with honorable vs. shameful sex, this was a sorely missed opportunity on Esler's part, whatever side of the debate he would fall on.

In some ways this is Esler's best book, certainly his most riveting. Like him, I spend more time in the New Testament, but the Old offers a sharper lens onto the honor-shame world, by the sheer abundance of stories with rural settings. Most of the New Testament documents were written for urban communities (so Esler notes on p 49), still part of the shame-based milieu, to be sure, but with a more civilized polish. Jesus' parables are notable exceptions (Esler compares his book to the work done on the parables by William Herzog in addition to Rohrbaugh; pp 24-25), and like the messiah's folk tales, the Samuel texts draw us into places where redemption seems out of reach for all the promising theology.


Restless Ghosts
Restless Ghosts
Price: $8.91

5.0 out of 5 stars Going up gracefully, February 12, 2011
This review is from: Restless Ghosts (MP3 Music)
Though the first half of the album dominates, Restless Ghosts is pretty solid from start to finish. The resonantly slow-paced "Your House on the Hill", the arresting melody of "Novelty Prize", the delightful guitar work on "Little Feet", the confident power running through "Tides", the catchy beat and lyrics of "Mountain Lions" (a rework from the band's first album, and still my favorite), the frenetic rhythms of "Silhouette", the insistent keys behind "My Show", the soulful end-pieces, "The Good Man's Way" & "I'm Not Happy", all add up to a well crafted opus.

Your House on the Hill - 5
Novelty Prize - 4 ½
Little Feet - 5
Tides - 4 ½
Mountain Lions - 5+
Silhouette - 3
My Show - 4
The Good Man's Way - 3 ½
I'm Not Happy - 3 ½

Old Abram Brown is a band to watch closely -- this second album shows them maturing fast. If Alive in Winter quickly died in my iTunes library, Restless Ghosts will remain restless in my playlists for a long time. (4 ½ stars)


Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History
Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History
by Dale C. Allison
Edition: Hardcover
21 used & new from $35.99

58 of 61 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Memories, doppelgangers, passions, November 3, 2010
Outstanding sequels are rare, third sequels even rarer, but trust Dale Allison to deliver against the odds. Constructing Jesus caps off the author's work begun in Millenarian Prophet and the even more impressive Resurrecting Jesus, and is a powerhouse presentation of an apocalyptic Jesus who had exalted thoughts about himself, and saw death coming at him and didn't run away. Taken as a whole, the trilogy -- but especially this book -- puts to bed fantasies of a non-apocalyptic Jesus, and calls for new ways of assessing the Jesus traditions in place of the classic criteria.

The first part, "Memories of Jesus", covers the fallibility of memory, and is a healthy antidote to monographs which treat the gospels as robust eyewitness accounts. "Even where the gospels preserve memories, those memories cannot be pristine; they must often be dim or muddled or just plain wrong." At the same time, the Jesus tradition is saturated with certain themes, motifs, and rhetorical strategies, and it is in these places that the historian should expect to find at least some reliable memory. Frequently attested themes point to something more promising, albeit more generally, than multiply attested sayings & deeds (pp 19-20), about which no consensus can be reached regarding authenticity.

The second part, "The Eschatology of Jesus", revisits arguments from the previous two books, but with more muscle and finality. Again we see, beyond a reasonable doubt, that if we can't trust the massive traditions of apocalyptic eschatology, then we can't say anything about Jesus at all. Allison also revisits the hobgoblin of consistency and underscores what, really, should be common sense: that even the best theologians are inconsistent, and the most effective charismatics are those who act strangely, unpredictably, and inconsistently. Apocalyptic eschatology, in particular, "has never incubated practical reason". These few pages alone (pp 88-97) should be required reading of every student of the New Testament, let alone the historical Jesus.

The third part, "The Christology of Jesus," is as strong as the eschatological part, and represents fresh material. Even if messianic complexes strike us as egocentric, they were not so in ancient Judaism, and in any case prophets could be reluctant about their divine callings even when accepting them. I think Allison's arguments would have been strengthened by the further observation that in dyadic cultures identity is provided by one's peers more than oneself; and that if certain roles were thrust on Jesus, he would have had to embrace them in some permutation to keep a strong core of followers.

The author proceeds by skewering the scholarly mantra that "Jesus preached not himself but the kingdom", one of the falsest dichotomies plaguing Jesus-scholarship. That Jesus thought he would rule on God's behalf in the future kingdom is more than likely: the Romans crucified him for being "King of the Jews" (and he doesn't seem to have distanced himself from the title any more than he explicitly accepted it), and only in four cases in Matthew's gospel is God himself portrayed as a king. As for why Jesus accepted an "anointed" role, he had probably grounded his prophetic ministry in Isa 61:1-3. Allison also discusses the pros and cons of Jesus as Elijah or Elisha come again, finding the data rather murky, and then finds more promise in the idea that he saw himself as an eschatological Moses derived from Deut 18:15-18.

But by far the most intriguing contribution of the Christology section comes in the author's solution to the Son of Man enigma. Eschewing his earlier support for a collective understanding of the figure (see Millenarian Prophet, pp 65-66), Allison now affirms that Jesus believed the Son of Man to be an angelic figure after all -- indeed, his own heavenly twin or Doppelganger, with whom he was one, or would soon become one. Not only is there precedent for celestial doubles and heavenly alter-egos (see pp 296-300), this would resolve long standing puzzles:

(a) If Jesus and the Son of Man were two yet one, it would explain both the earthly human sayings and the heavenly angelic ones.

(b) Dan 7:14 is easily read as an angelic figure (whether or not the "one like a son of man" was originally intended it as a collective figure). The Book of Similitudes certainly read it this way, and, moreover, ultimately identified it with Enoch the seer: Enoch sees visions of the Son of Man (I En. 46, 48, 62, 69) and is eventually translated into him (I En. 71). Jesus may have correlated his own Son of Man identity with a heavenly counterpart.

(c) Hope for humanity's eschatological destiny is often angelic, which could have encouraged Jesus to imagine his future identification with an angelic savior.

(d) If Jesus believed he had a heavenly counterpart, then there is no mystery in the fact that he imagined himself coming on the clouds of heaven while having nothing to say about being removed from earth, and raised to heaven, before that could possibly occur -- he was already up there.

(e) There are traditions of Jesus having a twin (Acts of Thomas, Book of Thomas the Contender), which could possibly descend from a belief in his heavenly Doppelganger. (pp 301-303)

Like Allison, I've gone back and forth between collective and angelic interpretations of Daniel's "one like a son of man" and the synoptic Son of Man, but in recent years have been moving increasingly in the direction of the angelic. Allison's "Doppelganger" proposal (which he cautions is just that, a possibility rather than probability, p 303) reinforces my faith in this direction and invites more investigation.

The fourth part, "The Discourses of Jesus," is to me the least satisfying part of the book, no doubt for its reliance on Q, and its top-heavy focus on a single pericope. Here the author devotes over 75 pages to the Sermon on the Plain, arguing that Lk 6:27-42 points to a reliable recollection of discourses that Jesus uttered habitually, like a stock sermon, rather than on one occasion. It's not so much that I have a problem with the general conclusion. Allison is on solid ground about "stock sermons": as an itinerant, Jesus was surely "less like a modern pastor facing a single congregation and forced to come up with new ideas, and more like a seasoned professor teaching an introductory class for the umpteenth time" (p 24). I just see red whenever Luke's sermon is prioritized or held to be more historical than Matthew's, since there are powerful reasons to believe Luke truncated Matthew's unwieldy and unaesthetic version. The lesson of this section is nonetheless sound, that in addition to aphorisms and parables, at least one of Jesus' discourses owe to reliable memory derived from multiple episodes, implying that other discourses may too, though Allison is more reserved, for instance, about the eschatological discourse of Mk 13 and the instructions on mission in Mk 6:7-10/Mt 10:5-42/Lk 9:3-5; 10:2-16.

The fifth part, "The Passion of Jesus," argues powerfully that Paul was as much familiar with a passion narrative as the gospel writers were, and that it's a sure bet that Jesus was a martyr. "There is less evidence that Jesus cast out demons, yet who disputes that he was an exorcist?" (p 433) Paul spent enough time in Jerusalem not long after the crucifixion that he could have learned about the circumstances of Jesus's death from those who were with him, and like Donald Akenson (Saint Saul), I would go stronger than Allison on this point: it's incredible that he would not have learned about something like this. Regarding the passion narratives themselves, Allison upholds Mark Goodacre's contention that "history remembered" and "prophecy historicized" are not mutually exclusive, and that, contra Crossan, to biblicize is not necessarily to invent. The passion accounts are memories told in the language of scripture.

The sixth and final part, "How Much History?", addresses whether or not the gospel writers believed their own stories about Jesus, to which there is no tidy answer. On the one hand, the ancients didn't see history everywhere in the bible (in the Talmud one rabbi insisted that Job never existed and was just a "parable"; Origen was comfortable with spiritual truth being preserved in material falsehood in the gospels; and then there was Philo), on the other, they certainly believed things we deride as false (many miracles, the creations accounts of Genesis, apocalyptic prophecies of the end, etc.). Allison suggests an under-appreciated index that can help us gauge how literally an ancient author intended a story: humor. The hilarity and absurdity in (for instance) Judith, Jonah, The Acts of Peter and Andrew, The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and The Testament of Abraham show these works to be products of authors who are declaring their nature up front, and advertising fiction. The canonical gospels, on the other hand, appear to do just the opposite. The bottom line is that our critical sensibilities are deficient guides on this issue, and we shouldn't underestimate how literal minded people can be about stories that academics see as purely metaphorical.

Constructing Jesus beckons us to fields where memory patterns and themes supplant detailed sayings and deeds. I haven't given up on the classic criteria as much as Allison has -- and frankly, not even Allison has done so as much as he thinks. He half-acknowledges breaking his own rule in demonstrating the historicity of Pilate's sentence for the crime of being "King of the Jews" (pp 231, 233-240), basically wielding a version of both the criterion of discontinuity (with early Christianity) (p 235), and of course, execution. He thus implicitly acknowledges that there are at least some cases where the criteria work, and I'm again put in mind of Donald Akenson, who railroaded the criteria as almost completely useless, save in rare "glaring" cases where an eight-year old can see the process at work (i.e. the embarrassing account of Jesus' baptism by John).

More successfully -- in fact, completely so -- Constructing Jesus pounds the last nail in the coffin of minimalism. I've often said that it's better to be a mythicist than a minimalist -- the former at least don't pretend to be able to construct a historical Jesus on the assumption that our sources are so untrustworthy; the latter (read: Jesus Seminarians) cut their own throats. But it's even wiser to be a millenialist than a mythicist, because, as this book shows, our sources, while legendary, are more reliable than either mythicists or minimalists allow. It's Dale Allison's final say in a trilogy that stands as the definitive guide to what Jesus was about, and in many ways the best of the three.
Comment Comments (7) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 21, 2013 6:07 PM PDT


Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective
Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective
by Francis Watson
Edition: Paperback
Price: $26.82
41 used & new from $13.80

27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good-bye, New Perspective, August 18, 2008
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
Imagine an insanely anti-Lutheran book on Paul, revised years after its author came to believe the New Perspective was equally misguided, yet ending up essentially unaltered, its thesis intact. Is that even possible? Amazingly, yes. This is the book -- now subtitled "Beyond the New Perspective" -- presenting the same sectarian apostle as before, a Paul who believed the law had had its day and sought to theologically legitimate his church communities independent of the synagogue.

Although Watson says he's retained only "the empty shell of what he once argued", I think that's an overstatement. True, he has repented of his enthusiasm for the New Perspective, but that hasn't effected the heart of his argument. It just happens to move us beyond the New Perspective in a way he didn't originally anticipate. The New Perspective paints Paul as Jewish-friendly -- speaking against only parts of the law so as to make things easy on Gentiles -- when in fact, the apostle had no more use for the law than Luther did (if for different reasons). It paints Paul's emphasis on divine grace as readily compatible with Judaic soteriology, when in fact Judaism didn't have the one-sided emphasis on grace that Sanders claims.

In some ways the book reminds of Philip Esler's work. But where Esler uses different social identity theories to account for different situations (separation in Galatians; recategorization in Romans), Watson uses a single sociological model for both letters (sectarian), which results in problems for understanding Romans, where Paul tried establishing a common identity that embraced Jew and Greek identities without extinguishing either. In Galatians he was trying to eradicate Jewish identity in sectarian/separatist fashion ("in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek"), while in Romans he was trying, in large measure, to preserve it.

Watson's insistence that Romans was addressed primarily to Jews -- that they should accept the legitimacy of the Gentiles' law-free gospel and separate from the synagogue -- while a refreshing and more plausible alternative to the New Perspective's focus on Gentile addressees, fails to make sense of the recategorization strategy spotted by Esler, not to mention the exceptionally positive estimation of ethnic Israel (Watson's gloss of Rom 11 as a "comparatively irenic passage" is still the Achilles' heel of his thesis), and even more so the injunction upon Gentiles to abide by minimal Torah standards when in the company of Jews with ties to the synagogue (14:1-15:13). Romans is addressed to "the Jew and Greek" in equal and alternating measure.

Curiously, Watson isn't able to distance himself from Dunn and Wright as much as he wants to. For all his insistence that the law was obsolete -- that Paul did not retain an ethical kernel of the Torah minus its ethnic works -- he turns around and claims that Paul did pretty much exactly that in the context of Christian community. "There is according to Paul a reduced law -- a law without circumcision, dietary restrictions, cultus, or sacred days -- that remains operative in the Christian community (Rom 13:8-10). Thus it can be said that 'circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing -- all that matters is keeping the commandments of God'." (I Cor 7:19) In other words, he thinks Paul believed in a new law fulfilled by Christians. While this is a plausible expression of Paul's view at the time of writing I Corinthians (in which Paul presents commandments and moral imperatives as having force), it finds no place in his writings after the Galatian crisis. Unfortunately, Watson dates Galatians before I Corinthians instead of after, and his arguments for doing so are unconvincing, not least because I Cor 7:19 is seen to be revised by Gal 5:6: "the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love" -- again in the exact same context of circumcision, but this time with nothing said about the necessity of keeping commandments. By the time of Galatians Paul was completely through with the law: The best it ever had to offer (love of one's neighbor) was now available through an entirely different route -- the spirit. "To say that the law is fulfilled by love does not affect this conclusion... Fulfillment means that the moral demands of the law no longer have any role for Christians." (Esler, Conflict and Identity, p 334). Paul now believed in the complete replacement of the law by the spirit, rather than a continued ethical aspect of it.

While Esler's books offer the best readings of Galatians and Romans, Watson's remains the most devastating critique of the Lutheran Perspective, and now of the New as well. But what exactly does it mean to move "beyond the New Perspective"? Does Watson's endorsement of Sanders really take us "beyond" anything? Isn't it a step backwards? Aren't we just acknowledging that Sanders had it right before Dunn and Wright came along and tried improving on Sanders in the wrong way?

Sort of. Watson calls us to move backwards to Sanders' view of Paul (which he has always approved) but forwards beyond Sanders' view of Judaism (which he now only half-approves as a corrective to Lutheran caricatures). Of course, to move forward beyond the latter carries implications that will take us -- at least in some ways -- beyond the former. Watson ominously concludes that

"The Lutheran insistence on the centrality and radicality of divine grace is not wholly in error... The claim that Judaism is a religion of grace will prove to be at least as misleading as the older language of legalism or works-righteousness. While there should be no reversion to the Lutheran Paul of the old perspective, one does not read Paul aright merely by criticizing Luther and emphasizing Gentile inclusion." (p 346)

The Gentile issue was obviously crucial, but subordinate to a radical Christology. If we subordinate Christology to ethnicity, we kill the former and misrepresent Paul's gospel as a variant of Jewish messianism. The New Perspective has done exactly that. Watson forces us to face our eisegetical delusions: that the specter of nationalism can be as intrusive as that of legalism, and if we allow ourselves to light on a more alien Paul, perhaps, just perhaps, we'll finally be doing the apostle justice.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 27, 2011 9:42 PM PDT


The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery
The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery
by Peter Jeffery
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $58.50
67 used & new from $0.01

25 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Morton Smith's demons, November 18, 2006
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
Like Stephen Carlson a year ago, Peter Jeffery is able to show how obvious it is that Morton Smith fabricated Clement's letter to Theodore. One would think that Carlson exhausted all of Smith's anachronisms (the "bald swindler" M. Madiotes, Morton Salt, and modern gays in the 1950s being arrested in public Gethsemanes), but Jeffery has spotted more:

* The three features of Secret Mark's initiation rite -- resurrection symbolism, a period of teaching followed by a night vigil, and the wearing of a white cloth -- point to the Anglican Paschal liturgy as it was before the 1960s liturgical renewal movement. In addition, Clement and the Alexandrian church had a theology of baptism that was based not on the easter event of Jesus' resurrection, but on the epiphany event of Jesus' baptism by John. Secret Mark should thus have epiphany motifs (i.e. creation, the heavens opening with light, the descent of the Holy Spirit and fire, the seal of priestly and messianic anointings) rather than easter motifs (i.e. Pauline associations between baptism and resurrection).

* The homoeroticism in Secret Mark makes no sense in an ancient context. Adult males were supposed to pursue young boys/men, who in turn were supposed to acquiesce only after "playing hard to get" and only if the boy perceived that the sex would have intiatory value (i.e. that the man would go beyond sex and educate him in proper mores). But in Secret Mark, Jesus does not pursue the young man: just the opposite if anything, and this would have been shamefully unacceptable. Secret Mark was evidently written by a modern person who assumed that ancient homosexuality would have followed Plato's model of an older teacher with a young disciple, but who didn't quite understand how the roles played out -- and such misunderstandings were common in academic circles before the work of K.J. Dover in the late 70s. (This would seem to improve on Carlson, who argued that the homoeroticism in Secret Mark makes no sense since Jesus and the young man are depicted as social peers. But a "young man", however rich, suggests they're not quite peers.)

* Clement's letter is riddled with allusions to Oscar Wilde's 19th-century play, Salome, and Wilde was a homosexual martyr to boot. In the play Salome does the "dance of the seven veils", which is punned by Smith's Clement, who writes about "the truth hidden by seven veils". She is punned, in turn, by Smith's Salome, whom Jesus rejects along with the rest of the female race.

On top of this, Jeffery catches Smith in some pretty amusing lies. A notable one: whereupon discovering Clement's letter, Smith says he went to Vespers instead of staying to investigate his discovery, apparently forgetting what he said two pages earlier (in The Secret Gospel, p 10) -- that he had stopped attending religious services because he no longer "responded" to them.

Jeffery examines Smith's brief career as an Anglican priest, noting his excessively harsh judgments on homosexuals in a 1949 article -- very severe by Anglican standards at the time. Any fool can make the diagnosis: Smith was going through his own sexual crisis that caused him to leave the priesthood a year later. Interestingly, in that same 1949 article, Smith referenced a 19th-century debate between Catholics and Protestants over whether Clement of Alexandria believed that lying was justified if it served the causes of the church. Quelle surprise: the letter to Theodore answers that very question.

Jeffery goes after Morton Smith pretty hard, unlike Carlson who seemed (at least in part) to respect or admire a man who had the skills to bamboozle so many academics. Jeffery expresses sorrow and contempt: Smith "became what he opposed: a hypocritical Clement who condoned lying for the sake of a fundamentalist sexology"; "a man in great personal pain", who didn't even understand himself despite pretensions to a superior gnosticism; a bitter academic, whose hoax stands as "the most grandiose and reticulated 'F--- You' ever perpetuated in the long and vituperative history of scholarship". He's right about that last one, but whether Smith wrote his hoax more out of experimental amusement or angry revenge remains unclear.

The names Stephen Carlson and Peter Jeffery will soon become closely associated, and that's a credit to them both. But who has the stronger case? Carlson has the edge with his forensic handwriting analysis. The Morton Salt exhibit (Carlson) and Anglican liturgical analysis (Jeffery) each point to Morton Smith in particular. Both address the homosexuality issue -- which also puts Smith directly on the spot -- though Jeffery more satisfyingly. Carlson insists on the pernicious nature of fakes, while Jeffery seems more interested in the perniciousness of Morton Smith himself. They complement each other perfectly, and stand as definitive twin debunkings of the Secret Mark hoax.
Comment Comments (6) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 11, 2011 7:48 PM PST


God's War: A New History of the Crusades
God's War: A New History of the Crusades
by Christopher Tyerman
Edition: Hardcover
45 used & new from $4.95

160 of 169 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The definitive study of the crusades, November 10, 2006
With the insights of Jonathan Riley-Smith and ambition of Steven Runciman, Christopher Tyerman has written the definitive study of the crusades needed for a long time now. It's heavy reading at times, but well worth it and fun, a fascinating account of an alien era. I agree with the forecast that this will replace Runciman's hostile and misleading (if elegant) classic from the 50s.

Tyerman draws on corrective scholarship, demolishing myths about crusading motives, which had nothing to do with colonialism. Most crusaders expected to return home, and they knew they would take heavy financial losses. Nor was the papacy driven by economic interests: Urban II exploited the Byzantine request for military aid by working a new idea of holy war into his reformist agenda. Alongside the pacifist movement, the abolishment of simony, concubinage, and lay investiture, the crusades represented an attempt to secure papal leadership and power over secular authorities. "The crusade is impossible to understand outside of this wider context of church reform." So while it's true that the First Crusade was a defensive war only in a superficial sense -- Catholic territory wasn't threatened, and the Latins were hardly motivated to help the Greeks out of altruism -- there was no materialist agenda on the part of the papacy.

As oxymoronic as it sounds, the crusades were part of the reform movement stemming from puritan-radicals who took over the papacy in the 1040s. The Peace of God movement at home and holy wars abroad went in tandem, the former playing right into the inception of the latter. Christian knights had been living in contradiction, taught that violence was intrinsically evil even when necessary. What better way for the church to exploit this by channeling such aggression into a radically new cause which made warfare, for the first time ever, and under the right conditions, sacred? Crusaders were driven by religious zeal, the desire to protect holy places and secure their salvation; the papacy by reform and power-politics.

Tyerman also dispenses with lazy comparisons to the Islamic jihad. Unlike the crusade, the jihad was enjoined on the entire faith community (all able-bodied Muslims), and it was fundamental to faith, an actual sixth pillar of Islam. The crusade and jihad were both driven by militant zeal, but other commonalities are superficial.

The crusading phenomenon wasn't born overnight. It evolved, and this book has the length and patience to illustrate how. The success of the First Crusade didn't usher in a "new age" of crusading, especially since with the capture of Jerusalem there lacked an ongoing perceived threat. Enthusaism waxed and waned according to volatile perceptions (it hit a major low between the Second and Third Crusades, during which time holy wars were often mocked and dismissed as foolish and wasteful). Crises like the loss of Edessa in 1144 and Jerusalem in 1187 called forth sudden massive responses, a couple of papal bulls, and minimal doctrinal guidance. Only after the Fourth Crusade, and thanks to the ambitious vision of Innocent III (1198-1216), did crusading really come into its own as an established institution and public devotion, with all the logistics formalized. Now the crusades touched the daily lives of Europe's laity in the form of public processions, special prayers at mass, taxation, alms-giving -- all of this reinforced by popular stories and songs.

Particularly refreshing is Tyerman's analysis of historical figures, who come across as realistically complex. There's no clear division of good and bad guys here. Bohemund of Taranto wasn't the demon he's made out to be. Raymond III of Tripoli, far from a wise and cautious tactician, proved treasonously incompetent, and his rival Guy of Lusignan has been overly maligned. The outrageous Reynald of Chatillon, usually perceived as destructive to his allies as much as his enemies, might have actually been good for the crusader kingdom if not for his sixteen-year absence in a Muslim cell. Tyerman challenges assumptions often made about these people, and you're often unsure whether to dislike or warm to them -- or both.

When you've finished this 1000+ page tome, you'll feel like you've heard the papal bulls and gone on crusade yourself. It's amazing how the more we learn about holy wars the more difficult it becomes to judge them. As Tyerman concludes, "the personal decision to follow the cross, to inflict harm on others at great personal risk, at the cost of enormous privations, at the service of a consuming cause, cannot be explained, excused, or dismissed either as virtue or sin. Rather its very contradictions spelt its humanity."
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 10, 2011 8:15 AM PDT


Lazarus, Mary and Martha: Social-Scientific Approaches to the Gospel of John
Lazarus, Mary and Martha: Social-Scientific Approaches to the Gospel of John
by Philip Francis Esler
Edition: Paperback
48 used & new from $4.19

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars John's three heroes, August 4, 2006
Esler and Piper raise intriguing questions about the role of gospel heroes and their relevance in the modern age. The heroes in question are Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, whom we are to understand as prototypes for Christian believers in John's gospel (Jn 11:1-12:11). Against scholars who insist that the raising of Lazarus primarily prefigures Jesus' own resurrection, the authors favor soteriology over Christology. It's not always easy to separate the two, but the former wins out by a long shot in this case. As the authors put it:

"In the context of the Lazarus narrative the phrasing 'I am the resurrection *and the life*' is not just saying something about Jesus. Its main point is to say something remarkably specific relating to the fears about believers who have died."

Confirmation of this comes from Roman catacomb frescoes and sarcophagi dating to the third century. These artistic representations of Jesus are valuable, say the authors, because they represent a common point of view more than that of elites and theologians. By this time the Christian tradition had become suffused with pagan elements, the most notable one being Jesus depicted as using a wand to raise Lazarus. Whether Jesus had become assimilated into a magician or god, the salient point is that he was understood primarily as one who raised other people (with a wand) -- something that has nothing to do with his own resurrection through the agency of God.

The book's major contribution lies in its use of social identity theory to understand prototypes (Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, in this case) and the manipulation of collective memory. Too often in honor-shame cultures the past becomes a battleground as religious sects compete and claim ownership of heroes (whether real or fictional) for support of their vision. Just as Paul used Abraham to redefine what it meant to be an heir to salvation, so John uses three characters -- Lazarus, Mary, and Martha -- to redefine what it means to be true followers of Christ, over against other (synoptic) understandings.

In the authors' view, "it is difficult to understate the significance of John taking the tradition of a woman, whose very name was unknown, who anointed Jesus shortly before his death (Mk 14:3-9/Mt 26:6-13; cf. Lk 7:36-50), and identifying this woman with Mary". Indeed, Jn 11:2 represents "an audacious attempt by the evangelist to rework the collective memory of the Christ-movement". John evidently saw the unnamed woman's anointing of Jesus as a powerful tool that he could re-use for his purposes stressing devotion and care in grim domestic settings. Mary becomes as much a prototype (representing care and devotion) as Lazarus (representing the fate of believers).

The book concludes by asking how the heroes may continue to function as prototypes for modern believers. Esler and Piper see the raising of Lazarus more a sign of divine love than victory over death, offering the reassurance of care and support in Christian households. John had little use for the new heaven-and-earth anticipated by Paul and the synoptic writers, thinking more in terms of a new "house" (Jn 14:2-3) -- and that's exactly what is prefigured in the account of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha (Jn 11:1-12:11). "The imagined future stresses care and support (and in a domestic context) more than victory".

The authors even suggest that a revival of house churches may be in order, especially in a world where many of us have lost direct experience of death (as the corpses of loved ones are immediately whisked away to mortuaries and the crematorium). I agree that something has been lost here. We have become increasingly screened from the natural process of death, and a "mystery" is muted as a result. But at the same time I should be honest: I'm rather comfortable being shielded this way in my modern lifestyle. Maybe that's part of the problem.

This is the best book to date dealing with Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. There's something about a Philip Esler book that makes it impossible to put down. I don't know what his trick is, but he's got some failsafe -- you just have to keep turning the pages. That reflects well on Piper too (though I have to read more of him). For whatever my opinion is worth as an infidel, the way these authors bridge historical criticism and modern theology represents the best approach I'm aware of.


Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas: A History of the Gospel and its Growth (Library of New Testament Studies)
Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas: A History of the Gospel and its Growth (Library of New Testament Studies)
by April D. De Conick
Edition: Hardcover
4 used & new from $39.95

20 of 29 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Rolling Gospel of Thomas, March 18, 2006
April DeConick would have us believe that Thomas belongs in the New Testament canon. Defying those who posit a late gnostic gospel and liberals who identify an early source of wisdom sayings, she proposes something new: that the earliest form of Thomas was apocalyptic, and only later, in the face of failed expectations, did the gospel sayings become pressed into a mystical (though not gnostic) service, in an attempt to make the kingdom realized on earth. The complete gospel dates to a time roughly contemporary with John's gospel, "grounding Thomas' theology inside early orthodoxy rather than outside... Thomas represents a current in the stream of Christian traditions that ultimately became Eastern Orthodoxy".

DeConick sees the compositional history of Thomas as a "rolling corpus," based on the original words of Jesus received through oral tradition, with new material added over time to interpret and update the meaning of the sayings. She finds four layers: (1) the kernel gospel (from 30-50 CE) consisting of Jesus' apocalyptic warnings and advice about preparing for fire and judgment, (2) accretions (50-60 CE) dealing with relocation and a leadership crisis, (3) accretions (60-100 CE) accommodating Gentiles and addressing the early eschatological crisis which resulted in a shift to the mystical dimension of apocalyptic thought, and (4) accretions (80-120 CE) addressing new Christological developments and a continued eschatological crisis which resulted in incorporating primordial traditions pointing to paradise regained.

Much of her analysis of the "kernel" is fine on its own right. In these isolated passages Jesus comes across as a prophet of doom and judgment who is casting fire on the earth. For instance, Thom 111 says that the heavens and earth will be rolled up in the presence of believers, just as Jewish apocalyptic portrays the boundary between earth and heaven starting to collapse (the "rolling up of the skies"). Thom 82 is also given a plausible interpretation, identifying Jesus with the fire of the heavenly realm, promising that believers who draw near him will experience a fiery epiphany; in apocalyptic literature fire is often associated with theophanies. And so on.

All fine and well: from wherever these sayings come, they were surely apocalyptic in origin. But that Thomas preserves their original grouping in a collection traceable to 30-50 CE probably amounts to wishful thinking. Many of the sayings of this so-called kernel gospel make just as much sense (if not more) as late reinterpretations of those found in the synoptics. Nowhere is this more evident than in Jesus' pronouncement against the temple: "I will destroy this house and no one will be able to rebuild it" (Thom 71). DeConick says this saying predates 70 CE. But then how did the "wrong" idea -- that the temple would in fact be rebuilt -- ever enter the Christian tradition, necessitating the damage-control in gospels Mark, Matthew, and John? Thom 71 reads like a glaring post-70 revision rather than the original prophesy itself.

But more general: How does one even attempt to stratify a gospel and determine its earliest layer (the "kernel")? She says we can do this in the case of Thomas "because it wasn't rewritten into a narrative or theological discourse like the synoptics and John". This is an argument we've heard repeatedly from those who love this gospel (and the phantom Q): it lacks narrative. Why are narratives precluded from "earliest tradition"?

DeConick's best answer seems to be that this is just the way oral traditions unfold. Brief, conservative, and redundant speeches mark the earliest stage, with questions/answer units coming later as they clarify and update the meaning of these speeches. This, she says (following Vernon Robbins), is the typical pattern seen in orally transmitted "speech" sources. How verifiable this is remains unclear.

I doubt that DeConick has recovered the original gospel of Thomas, much I would love her theory to be true. Like her, I find it impossible that the gospel is based on an early collection of wisdom sayings. Like her, I believe that earliest Christianity was apocalyptic to the core, and if she were right, then Thomas would go a long way to proving this with an apocalyptic kernel traceable to 30-50 CE -- predating even Paul's letters. But I don't have confidence in this method of stratifying the gospel (the rolling corpus model), and I'm eternally suspicious of downward-dating strategies used in dating the gospels (especially this gospel).

At the end of the day, the traditional view of Thomas as a late gnostic document (derived and reinterpreted from various apocalyptic passages in the synoptics and elsewhere) commends itself as the most likely theory, as unexciting as that may be. But despite its failure to convince, the book is important for the way it forces crucial questions about the evolution of oral traditions, and for its proof that sappiential wisdom sayings neither inevitably, nor likely, lie at the core of this gospel.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 28, 2014 3:25 PM PST


Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5