Stephen R. Donaldson Duly Awarded

Jim Davila shares some exciting news: my favorite fantasy author, Stephen R. Donaldson, was made an honorary graduate of the University of St. Andrews. Now that’s richly deserved. It looks like Tom Wright was too, and I must say that seeing these two together in the same photo, being similarly honored, is weird beyond weird.

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Five Lasting Influences

I’ve been tagged in a 5-book meme by Mike Koke. The name of the game is to “name the five books or scholars that had the most immediate and lasting influence on how you read the bible”. So here they are.

(1) Malina & Rohrbaugh’s Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels and Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Until meeting Dick Rohrbaugh in college, the world of the bible had always been alien and hostile to me. I suppose it still is, but I can at least respect why thanks to work like this.

(2) Ed Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism. I cut my teeth on this as an undergrad, and it was as much responsible for hooking me on biblical studies as the above social science approaches. No work stands as a better illustration of the danger of foils and false starts. Over summer vacation I read the book again, just for fun.

(3) Dale Allison’s “Apocalyptic” Trilogy: Millenarian Prophet, Resurrecting Jesus, and The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus. Channeling Schweitzer, these books oppose conservative and liberal apologetics in equal measure, and present Jesus in all his flawed and deluded humanity. The second and (especially) third books dip into theology that even secular folks like me can learn from.

(4) Philip Esler’s books on Galatians and Romans, & Mark Nanos’ books on Galatians and Romans. Mentor and student couldn’t be more opposite in their view of Paul and the law, but they ask all the right questions and think outside the box while eschewing idiosyncratic theories. I’ve found myself persuaded by Esler’s evolving anti-nomian Paul, but Nanos’ Jewish-friendly apostle can’t be dismissed as mere apologetic. One is a healthy check against the other.

(5) Bill Herzog’s Parables as Subversive Speech. There’s much to agree and disagree with here, but no book has raised my awareness of unspoken cues and hidden transcripts as much as this one.

And no, I’m not going to tag anyone else.

UPDATE: Check out everyone else’s lists gathered by Ken Brown.

Embarrassed by Discontinuity

In my review of A Marginal Jew, Vol 4, I opined that Meier applies the criteria of authenticity better than most scholars. But he does slip on occasion, especially with the notoriously difficult criterion of discontinuity. Let’s look at the example of oath-taking.

In order to show that Jesus’ prohibition against oaths is authentic, Meier first invokes discontinuity with Judaism, which granted isn’t the best argument, but fair enough. He then proceeds to discontinuity with early Christianity, as follows:

“In the first Christian generation, Paul swears on a regular basis, without giving it a second thought. His epistles are strewn with various oaths… The Epistle to the Hebrews makes much of solemn oaths pronounced by God and presupposes the habit of human swearing with no hint of disapproval. In the Book of Revelation, John the seer apparently sees no difficulty in portraying an angel taking an oath by the living God… Hence…the criterion of discontinuity argues strongly for the prohibition of oaths going back to Jesus.” (pp 199-200)

Now in the very next sentence, Meier appeals to multiple attestation to supplement his argument. Concluding that since Jas 5:12 is a clear parallel to Matt 5:34-37 in content, structure, and vocabulary:

“The most reasonable conclusion is (1) that Jas 5:12 is an alternate form of the saying attributed to Jesus in Matt 5:34-37; and (2) that this Jesus tradition was transmitted in the early oral Christian tradition in two streams: the ‘gospel’ stream that retained an attribution to Jesus and that wound up in Matthew, and the ‘epistolary’ stream that wove sayings of Jesus into general Christian parenesis without attributing them to Jesus… We have in Jas 5:12/Matt 5:34-37 an unusual but valid example of multiple attestation.” (pp 204-205)

So taking the criterion of discontinuity (with early Christianity) in tandem with multiple attestation, we see that the prohibition against oaths is not attested enough in the NT, yet is attested enough in the NT, and thus must be authentic. Heads I win, tails you lose!

As far as I’m concerned, the criterion of discontinuity with early Christianity cancels that of multiple attestation. The latter is the better criterion, the former almost useless. It’s different from the criterion of embarrassment, which remains useful and supplements multiple attestation. That’s what we see in the case of divorce, and where Meier is on more solid ground, noting how Jesus’ prohibition caused later Christians to squirm and create wiggle-room in different ways — Paul allowing divorce when a pagan spouse is unable to live in peace with a Christian partner, Matthew permitting it in cases of unchastity.

Thumbs up to embarrassment, and down to discontinuity. They’re not as closely related as many people think.

UPDATE: On XTalk, Chris Weimer defends Meier as follows: “Meier is implying that Paul, John, Hebrews do not have access to such a tradition about oaths, but Matthew and James do. Since Matthew and James have this statement that conflicts so much both with other writers of the early church (Paul, John, Hebrews) and Judaism which proceeded it (Philo, Ben Sirah). How else, he is implicitly asking, would this prohibition against oaths arise in two independent documents of Matthew and James? It’s certainly a fair question to ask. For me, it’s merely a variation of multiple attestation, since one author alone could invent something that is discontinuous both from earlier Judaism and the early church. But when two authors do it, the likelihood of it becoming historical (under this paradigm we have assumed) increases.”

UPDATE (II): Doug Chaplin believes that “Meier is not as inconsistent as [I] propose. It would be perfectly possible to have a strand represented by Matthew and James which gave emphasis to the prohibition on oaths, while this failed to make much impact on those who had become accustomed to swearing them, thus satisfying at least double attestation and discontinuity.”

Blomberg Reviews Allison

I’ve been meaning to read Dale Allison’s The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, for which Craig Blomberg has written a fine review. This book completes a trilogy of sorts, the theological outworking of Millenarian Prophet and Resurrecting Jesus — and thus more geared toward the Christian believer than the previous two, though I’m sure I’ll enjoy it just as much. Anyone can profit from a believer like Allison, who embraces the Nazarene in all his shortcomings and apocalyptic delusions with little embarrassment.

Of particular interest is Allison’s skewering of the classic criteria of authenticity, evidently taking the opposite approach of someone like John Meier. According to Blomberg, Allison claims that

“The criteria for evaluating the probable historicity of individual sayings or deeds of Christ will never be developed to deliver the goods they advertise. Instead, we should look to the broad contours of what the Synoptic Gospels most pervasively stress. This fits the way memory works in general; we may unwittingly get details wrong, but we remember big pictures.”

But as a commenter notes, this sounds like a variant of the criterion of multiple attestation. In any case, I’m sure Mark Goodacre would agree with Allison on this point, but my view (at least for now) remains more middle-of-the-road: I think many of the criteria remain useful in some cases; the question is whether or not they are being used properly.

Allison apparently urges that Christians need to eschew Christologies which are either too high or too low, and (as I’ve said myself in the past), if we can’t trust the general contours of the synoptic gospels, and an eschatalogical framework, then “neither the Gnostic gospel writers, nor the modern skeptics are in any position to propose a better alternative; sheer agnosticism remains the only option”. It all looks sound and sane, as Allison always is, and I’ll post a full review when I get around to reading the book.

Farewell, Videomat

With my favorite video store closing its doors after 25 long years of excellent service, I decided to hop on the Netflix bandwagon. From this day on I rent my DVDs either through the mail at great bargain prices, or at the public library for free. I certainly won’t darken the doors of Blockbuster for ridiculous prices and incompetently unalphabetized chaos; they never have half the films I’m looking for, and their days are numbered anyway. Netflix’s service is simply amazing.

But I’ll miss my trips to the local store. Rest in glory, Videomat, and best of luck to managers Kevin and Dorothy. Nashua won’t be the same without you.