Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Teaching (and Studying) Difficult Issues

On The Forbidden Gospels Blog, April DeConick writes of her intention to include a "course contract" on her syllabi this year (after receiving a tip from a friend who developed a similar practice). The text of her contract is given here. As a biblical studies major, my classes often address difficult issues from the relationship between theology and biblical hermeneutics to theodicy, abortion, and homosexuality (the latter of which is also mentioned by DeConick as an example), and so I can see that such a contract may be warranted. And as a critically minded scholar myself, I'm not overly troubled by a contract which stipulates that students engage the various texts and their various issues in a critical way. This is certainly how the Old Testament Interpretation and the New Testament Interpretation courses are taught at Yale. But the concluding sentence of DeConick's contract still gave me some pause: "[b]y remaining in this course and accepting this syllabus, you are expressing your understanding of and agreement with these fundamental, non-negotiable conditions of intellectual freedom and critical engagement." Is intellectual freedom truly being maintained if certain viewpoints are expressly forbidden at the outset? How does the work of canonical critics such as Brevard Childs fit into a matrix which places "faith" on one pole and "scholarship" on the other? I must admit that I have no answers to these questions, nor do I really believe that they can be satisfactorily answered. And I do believe that in an academic setting, an approach such as DeConick's is both the most appropriate and the most effective. I just enjoy playing the Devil's Advocate. ;-)

I once heard a story about Prof. John Collins (possibly apocryphal, possibly not) which I still find amusing. Prof. Collins was in his first semester as an active faculty member at Yale and was teaching the standard Old Testament Interpretation course, a course of approximately 75-100 students. When it came time for him to deliver his lecture on Lev. 18, the class was a little tense, as the chapter's decisive verdict against male homosexuality remains a difficult issue for many. However, he noted that this passage includes no such verdict against female homosexuality--possibly because of a lack of concern for non-penetrative intercourse, or some similar reason. But before he could go any further, a young woman sitting in the back exclaimed in relief, "Pshew!" The entire class laughed and moved on.

The moral of this story: laughter is the surest way to bring people together, even if they represent different theological and doctrinal backgrounds. If only the church fathers had had better senses of humor...

BAR Highlights: 8/29/07

More recent archaeological news from Biblical Archaeology Review:

Temple Mount Digging Condemned—Again

Israeli archaeologists have again blasted Muslim religious authorities for construction work on the Temple Mount and have criticized the Israel Antiquities Authority for doing nothing to stop it.

Hadrian Unearthed

Parts of a large (13-16 feet) statue of the Roman emperor who quashed the Second Jewish Revolt have been uncovered in south-central Turkey.

An Inconvenient Truth?
Climate change may have led to the flooding of ancient Israel’s coastal plain 5,500 years ago.

New Translation of Egyptian Religious Text

The Pyramid Texts, one of the oldest known religious texts from Egypt and which evolved into the Book of the Dead, has been translated into English.

An Artifact in the Strangest Place

A woman in western Austria unwittingly uncovered a medieval cross while searching in a trash container for old dishes. The artifact, valued at half a million dollars, was part of a collection in Poland but was taken to Austria in 1941 by the Nazis.

New: A Slimmer Version of Collins' Intro

A recent announcement from Augsburg Fortress Publishers concerning the publication of a new abridgment of John Collins' An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. The abridgment is about half the size of its predecessor. Prof. Collins is not only my advisor at Yale (which more than earns him a plug on this blog) but also one of the best teachers I have studied with in my career. I haven't had a chance to read the book, but I have seen a copy in the bookstore and it looks fantastic. Plenty of high-quality illustrations, helpful excurses in distinctive colored boxes, and other aids designed to appeal to undergraduates and other introductory readers. Check out the brief video clip on the accompanying website ( in which Prof. Collins wryly mentions that one of his major challenges was to produce a textbook "that students can read." With wit like that, how can he not be my favorite professor? ;-)

Collins' Authoritative Introduction to the Hebrew Bible Now Abridged

"To now have A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible in a format fashioned especially for the undergraduate course is most welcome."
—James VanderKam, John A. O'Brien Professor of Hebrew Scriptures, University of Notre Dame

Fortress Press's new release of A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible brings the erudition of John Collins's well-regarded Introduction to the Hebrew Bible with CD-ROM (2004) to a wider audience. A marvel of conciseness, A Short Introduction provides more student-friendly features than the larger Introduction, including new charts and maps, more illustrations, chapter summaries, illuminating vignettes, and selected bibliographies.

"Using Collins' textbook is like team-teaching with a master teacher."
—Carol Newsom, Professor of Old Testament, Candler School of Theology

A dedicated Web site ( includes test banks and classroom resources geared for the busy professor.

Order your copy today

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A Different Kind of "Historical Jesus"?

On his blog Euangelion, Michael Bird (currently attending the Dogmatics Conference in Edinburgh) has provided the final sentences of a paper given by John Webster entitled "The Eternal Begetting of the Son":

"The only historical Jesus there is is the one who has his being in union with the Son of God who is eternally begotten of the Father. Those who pore over the gospels searching for another Jesus (whether their motives be apologetic or critical) pierce their hearts with many pangs, for they study a matter which does not exist."

This is certainly a provocative conclusion, especially in light of the explosive growth of historical Jesus scholarship throughout the last century (growth helpfully charted for the blogosphere by Scot McKnight, with additional insightful comments from Mark Goodacre). I'm longing to read the rest of the paper... are "[t]hose who pore over the gospels searching for another Jesus" doomed to failure because of a lack of reliable source material (a judgment akin to that of Bultmann)? Or are the theological and historical personages of Jesus truly inseparable? Alas, a trip to Edinburgh wasn't included in my summer budget... ;-)

RBL Highlights: 8/28/07

A few highlights from this week's Review of Biblical Literature:

Zev Garber, ed.
Mel Gibson's Passion: The Film, the Controversy, and Its Implications
Reviewed by Timothy D. Finlay

Michael W. Holmes
The Apostolic Fathers in English
Reviewed by Hennie Stander

Ben-Zion Rosenfeld and Joseph Menirav
Markets and Marketing in Roman Palestine
Reviewed by Michael Trainor

C. Kavin Rowe
Early Narrative Christology: The Lord in the Gospel of Luke
Reviewed by Joel B. Green

Gregory Tatum
New Chapters in the Life of Paul: The Relative Chronology of His Career
Reviewed by Eve-Marie Becker

Gerd Theissen
The Bible and Contemporary Culture
Reviewed by Christian Danz