Saturday, March 7, 2009

Reflections on Racism

John Hobbins of Ancient Hebrew Poetry recently defined "a racist pig" as:

[S]omeone who, regardless of intentions involved, exploits culturally sanctioned beliefs to put down and denigrate someone who belongs to a minority.


The worst kind of racist I know of: the one that says, because you don’t fit my stereotype of what an X is, I will compliment you by saying that you are not at all like what an X is. Rather, you are just like me, don’t you know.

I certainly agree that the majority of racist opinions and acts involve the marginalization and subjugation of members of smaller groups, but these are not the limits of racism. It's a truly multifaceted threat, rearing its ugly head whenever any individual embraces and/or perpetuates a negative stereotype against another. Also, while the type of latent, patronizing attitude John describes is undeniably hurtful and problematic, I'm not sure that it's emblematic of "the worst kind of racist." Members of this ignominious category use their biases as the basis for the infliction of more tangible persecution and pain upon others. I remember reading, as a shocked high school student, of the horrible murder of James Byrd, Jr. by three white supremacists in 1998. Those men, and others like them, are the worst kinds of racists.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Text of the NT: 95% Reliable?

While browsing the Accordance Forums, a perennially helpful and worthwhile series of discussion boards dedicated to the workings of Accordance Bible Software, I noticed an interesting post which included the following:

I am listening this afternoon to a debate between Dr. Bart Ehrman and Dr. James White from Jan 2009. Dr. White claims that even the most "extreme" traditions (such as the Westcott-Hort manuscript vs the Textus Receptus) agree in 95% of the variants, that we can be confident in 95% of the text of the New Testament. Dr. White said in his talk that "you can do a search with Bibleworks" that proves his point.

Similar comparative capabilities are available in Accordance, and within seconds (thanks to the extreme ease of the program's powerful interface) I was looking at a complete list of discrepancies between the editions mentioned above. Some were simply matters of punctuation or capitalization between the electronic texts, but many others were more substantive. However, I'm not particularly interested in an investigation of the accuracy of White's claims. Instead I was reminded of an article by Helmut Koester in which he argued that the most fluid period in the life of any text is the first century after its composition--and of course, we have virtually no New Testament manuscripts which belong to this category (the exceptions being a few fragmentary papyri). Matthew J. Bruccoli explores a modern illustration of this point in his collation of a number of variants in early printings of Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt, all of which appeared mere months after the novel's initial publication in September 1922:

It's certainly something worth thinking about...

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Joys (Read: Horrors) of Transcription

This semester I'm taking a course on textual criticism and scholarly editing with Prof. David Vander Meulen, a member of UVA's acclaimed English department. It's been a great opportunity to spend some time outside my own discipline, and to study one of my particular passions (textual criticism) from a completely different perspective. This week Prof. Vander Meulen asked us to transcribe two brief selections from the notebooks of Robert Frost. These notebooks (some of which are archived here in Charlottesville) were recently edited by Robert Faggen and published by Harvard University Press, in an edition which has received sharp criticism due to the alleged presence of thousands of transcription errors. A thorough article on the controversy from last year's New York Times is available here.

Take a look at the images below and see what you think. I'm pretty sure that both Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus are more legible than this cramped scrawl! ;-)

Forthcoming from T & T Clark: New LNTS Titles

A recent announcement on The T & T Clark Blog:

New Books for the LNTS Series

Customers in the UK please click here

Customers in the US please click here

Paul and Epictetus on Law
, Structuring Early Christian Memory, A Former Jew and Reading Ephesians are four new titles which have just been put into production and will be available in Autumn 2009.

Niko Huttunen’s Paul and Epictetus on Law: A Comparison presents a fascinating discussion on differences and similarities in teaching of law that come from Paul and Epictetus. Can Epictetus’ teachings of law be compared with those of Paul? Should these be firmly categorized as Stoic (Epictetus) or Christian (Paul) or one may hope to find some correlations between these teachings? In this book Niko Huttunen tackles all these issues and offers new observations.

In Structuring Early Christian Memory: Jesus in Tradition, Performance Rafael Rodriguez embarks upon how social memory research has obscured the relationship between past and present in New Testament studies. This captivating debate focuses on the figure of Jesus, a ‘historical Jesus’, and Rodriguez formulates many interesting observations in his quest to find whether it is possible to clearly separate ‘authentic’ from ‘inauthentic’ traditions.

Love L. Sechrest’s volume titled A Former Jew: Paul and the Dialectics of Race is another new volume that concentrates on Paul, although this time focusing more upon the apostle’s Christianity. Sechrest describes Pauline Christianity as a nascent ancient racial group and bases her discussion on Jewish understanding of race in Second Temple Judaism.

Reading Ephesians: Exploring Social Entrepreneurship in the Text
, by Minna Shkul, explores how Ephesians connects in social entrepreneurship, a process that has shaped the emergence of Christian Identity. Shkul’s intriguing discussion stands against the widely assumed theological presupposition that something was wrong with the Judaism practised at the time, but rather focuses upon the divine ‘legitimating’ of the Christian group and its culture.

These books will be available in October 2009 in the UK and in December 2009 in the US.

Bart Ehrman: The Most Successful Brand in Biblical Studies

No sooner did his name grace this blog than he appears on NPR's Fresh Air to discuss his latest book. The complete interview, and a brief excerpt, are available here. Thanks to Jim West for making this available, and for informing me that he did a nice job so that I don't have to actually listen to it. ;-)

Pondering the Lukan Jesus

Richard Anderson, who focuses primarily on the text and themes of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, describes the Lukan Jesus as the "Messiah of Peace":

At the birth of Jesus, the chorus of angels are singing peace and when Jesus makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey the chorus is singing “Blessed is the king that cometh in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” This was a different kind of victory procession. A humble king riding on a donkey with an army carrying psalms is not a threat to Pax Romana.

Luke's preoccupation with peace is certainly a noteworthy observation, but the conjecture that "[a] humble king riding on a donkey with an army carrying psalms is not a threat to Pax Romana," with its implicit corollary that Roman provincial officials would have been willing or able to differentiate between the peaceful demonstrations of a jubilant crowd and the zealous declarations of a nationalistic mob, seems somewhat dubious. Josephus' account of the swift execution of the messianic pretender Theudas and many of his followers after their symbolic journey to the Jordan (Antiq. 20.97-28) suggests that almost any large gathering whose actions could be viewed in an incendiary or revolutionary context was subject to reprisal. Whether the triumphal entry was intended to be such a gathering is an open question, but it seems likely that the authorities would have viewed it as such--at least if it were as dramatic as the gospels suggest.

It might also be noted that the Lukan Jesus flatly denies that he comes bearing earthly peace on at least one occasion: "Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!" (δοκεῖτε ὅτι εἰρήνην παρεγενόμην δοῦναι ἐν τῇ γῇ; οὐχί, λέγω ὑμῖν, ἀλλ᾿ ἢ διαμερισμόν; Luke 12:51, the parallel of the Matthean Jesus' promise that "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword").

More Manuscripts!

Parchment and Pen relates an announcement that a team led by Daniel Wallace has identified seven previously unknown New Testament manuscripts at the Benaki Museum in Greece. Hopefully additional details regarding the date, contents, and other features of these finds will be forthcoming.

Monday, March 2, 2009

White v. Ehrman

Nick Norelli, diligent gatekeeper of the biblioblog world, directed me to this post in which James White virulently criticizes Bart Ehrman's Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don't Know About Them). Several statements were particularly striking to me:

[T]he real issue is, does this book finally signal the end of Ehrman's "I'm not a theologian, I'm just a high-brow scholar so I cannot be held accountable for all the theological pronouncements I make" excuse making? Will those in the "academy" finally see his real intentions, and start to recognize his bias?

I agree with Nick on this point, who rightly suggests (in the title of his post) that the unassuming academicians who blithely accept all of Ehrman's conclusions as objective gospel are a nonexistent category. Or, as Mike Aubrey stated in his comment on Nick's post, "I think the academy is quite well aware that there isn’t such thing as an unbiased scholar period." All of us--believers and nonbelievers, scholars, clergy, and congregants alike--possess inherent biases which affect each and every critical question we approach.

He [Ehrman] has moved far beyond the realm of his narrow expertise in his last three most popular books, all of which are designed to do one thing: destroy Christian faith.

While I haven't read Ehrman's latest book (his publishing prowess far outstrips my meager free time), I have read a large amount of his work, including text-critical monographs and articles not normally read by the general public. Sometimes I agree with him and sometimes I don't. But I admire the way in which he digests and analyzes the extant evidence, and I certainly don't think that his principal goal is to destroy the Christian faith. Personally, I suspect his chief aim is financial and popular success; as one of my undergraduate professors once observed, "A lot of scholars hate Ehrman, but it's mostly because he's making money hand over fist." This argument is supported by the fact that many of his books are strikingly similar to one another in both style and content, and are designed to appeal to a more popular market that will support higher sales and prestige. But this doesn't make them salvos against the Christian faith, merely alternative readings of the available evidence. Ehrman may occasionally play upon the emotions of his readers in order to make the New Tork Times bestseller list, but his critics are almost always guilty of the same crime.

I might note that the quote above would be just as applicable to the Islamic view of the fire as well. Just don't ask Bart about that. As he begins his rounds on NPR, do you think someone will ask him, "So, you are saying Allah in the Qur'an is a never-dying eternal divine Nazi?" Yeah, probably not.

This seems to be a deliberately provocative comment designed to inflame the passions of the reader rather than contribute to a sober, rational refutation of the ideas and contents of the book in question. Ehrman is not, has never been, and has never claimed to be an Islamic scholar. Any caution or outright refusal to apply his conclusions to a field of study in which he has no specialized knowledge should be viewed as academic restraint--an academic restraint which many scholars, commentators, and critics should practice more often.

Spring Break, Part I: Clement of Alexandria on Martyrdom

One of my goals for the spring break (which, incidentally, seems to have come a little early this year, especially given the snow flurries currently swirling outside my window) is to make some significant progress on my research project for Prof. Judy Kovacs' seminar on the life and writings of Clement of Alexandria. I'm presently examining his views on martyrdom, particularly those given in Book IV of the Stromateis, and exploring whether they were influenced by martyrological acta circulating throughout north Africa and the rest of the empire during this period. Initially I was concerned with exclusively Christian writings such as the Acts of Perpetua and Felicitas, but recently I've wondered whether Clement could have read Greco-Roman texts such as the collection variously titled as the Acts of the Alexandrian Martyrs or the Acts of the Pagan Martyrs. His status among the most widely read authors of the early Christian world makes such a hypothesis possible; now if only I can find something more concrete...

Any thoughts?

Sex and the Church I: The Theology of Sexuality

The first installment of an online series on sexuality prepared by the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church is now available:

The theology of sexuality: How to develop open Christian discussions

The author, Traci C. West, is Professor of Ethics and African American Studies at Drew University Theological School in Madison, NJ, and is also ordained in the UMC.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Grades Are In...

For the past several days, Anna Blanch has undertaken the monolithic task of briefly reviewing every blog featured among's 100 Top Theology Blogs. Here's what she had to say about yours truly:

Confessions of a Bible Junkie: A scholarly biblical studies blog. Matthew Burgess (MA - Religion (Yale)) is a current doctoral student in the Christianity and Judaism in Antiquity program at the University of Virginia. Once again, this blog is incorrectly categorized as "writings" and would be better classified as Academic. He often links to the Review of Biblical Literature and the SBL (Society of Biblical Literature) Forum monthly along with biblioblogs carnivals. Design-wise, my only criticism is that the size of the font is a little on the small side. I'd like to see some more original content from Burgess (that's the reason for the B grade) [this is meant as constructive encouragement] although he does link to .pdf's of his own papers and research.

Making the Grade:
Scope - B+
Quality - B
Theological Leanings - ?

Overall, I consider this to be a pretty fair assessment (although I don't see a significant size difference between my font and Anna's, and as Nick Norelli so sagaciously pointed out to me, it's often better to write fewer posts of higher quality than to produce a plethora of drivel... not that I encounter any drivel in the biblioblog world!). One of my recent academic resolutions has been to increase my attention to and involvement in the blogosphere, including additional postings. There's a lot to be learned from this dynamic community, and scholars who are unwilling or unable to avail themselves of it are missing out on a vital resource. As for the resolution, so far, so good... I'm on pace to write more posts this year than ever before! And I will certainly do my best to implement Anna's "constructive encouragement"... although as any current or former doctoral student is aware, what I really need are a few more hours in the day. ;-)

February/March SBL Forum

The latest from the SBL Forum:

This month on The SBL Forum:

Love Turns into Hate: The Rape of Tamar (2 Sam 13:1–22) in Baroque Art
Sara Kipfer

Know*Be*Do: Using the Bible to Teach Ethics to Children
Valerie A. Stein

"They’ve Given You a Number and Taken Away Your Name": Gnostic Themes in The Prisoner, Television’s Ultimate Cult Classic”

Mark Holwager and Valarie Ziegler

The City as Salvific Space: Heterotopic Place and Environmental Ethics in the New Jerusalem )
Thomas W. Martin

PLUS! Essential links to articles and news items of interest and much more!

Textual Criticism Meets Star Trek

Thanks to the guys at Biblical Studies and Technological Tools for introducing me to the Open Scriptures Manuscript Comparator, a remarkable (and free!) online program which allows the interested user to instantaneously compare the readings of a number of critical editions of the Greek New Testament (including UBS 4, N-A 27, Westcott-Hort, Tischendorf, and the Textus Receptus). I've added it to the list of "Related Links" for future reference. Here's the Comparator's presentation of the opening verses of Luke 4:

The introduction to the program hints that New Testament manuscripts themselves will eventually be added to the list of texts available for comparison--which will dramatically increase its value to textual critics. An easy and intuitive way to compare and view disparate readings of Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus, Codex Bezae, and the principal papyri, for example, would be absolutely groundbreaking. But in the meantime, I'm happy to make use of the existing features. Check it out!


My father recommended that the Judaism and Christianity in Antiquity program at UVA adopt this pedagogical approach over its current Hebrew Bible requirements.

Somehow I don't think Liz Alexander will go for it. ;-)

A new twist for the ancient Torah

Ritual Torah storytelling goes back thousands of years, but a local synagogue is bringing in a group of traveling performers to help bring it up to date. In an effort to inject added life into what can sometimes be a routine reading of Torah verses during morning services, this weekend Keneseth Israel Synagogue is holding "Storahtelling" events that will combine traditional Torah readings with modern theater.