Synoptic Gospels @SCJC2019

I’m very pleased to announce the papers in this year’s meeting of the Synoptic Gospels Study Group at the 2019 Stone-Campbell Journal Conference at Johnson University, April 5-6.

Here are the titles:

Barry Blackburn, Sr. (Emmanuel Christian Seminary/Point University)
Ap’ Arti: The Basis for a Non-Parousia Reading of Matthew 26:64?”

Stewart Penwell (Cincinnati Christian University)
“Samaritans in Luke and the Sins of Evangelical Commentaries”

Danny Yencich (University of Denver/Iliff School of Theology) 
“Courtroom Fatigue: How the Synoptic Tradition Makes Sense of Luke’s Pilate Sequence (23:13-25)”

Please join us in Knoxville in April. See you at Johnson!

Stone-Campbell Journal Conference

Synoptic Gospels – SCJC 2018 CFP

We’ve already received some stellar paper proposals for the Synoptic Gospels study group, whose inaugural meeting will take place at the 2018 Stone-Campbell Journal Conference. Please do consider sending in a proposal for what is already shaping up to be an interesting study group. The submissions thus far have been very strong! See below for our call for papers:

2018 SCJC Synoptic Gospels Study Group Call for Papers

We are delighted to announce the formation of the Synoptic Gospels study group at the Stone-Campbell Journal Conference. The inaugural meeting of the group will take place when the SCJC meets at Emmanuel Christian Seminary at Milligan, April 6-7, 2018.

We welcome submissions in the form of 150-200 word abstracts from scholars and graduate students on any topic related to the study of one or more of the Synoptic Gospels. Please send all submissions and other related inquiries via email to Barry Blackburn, Sr.: Barry.Blackburn{at}point{dot}edu by January 20, 2018. We look forward to your submissions and the fruitful dialogue they will no doubt generate at the conference!


Barry Blackburn, Sr.
Professor of New Testament, Point University


Danny Yencich
PhD Candidate in New Testament, University of Denver & Iliff School of Theology
Adjunct Instructor, Great Lakes Christian College

Just published: “The Centurion, Son of God, and Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles”

I am pleased to share that my article, “The Centurion, Son of God, and Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles: Contesting Narrative and Commemoration with Mark,” has just been published in Horizons in Biblical Theology 39.1. Many friends of mine will recall that this article grew in part out of my concern and advocacy for Kelly Gissendaner, a Christian sister who was executed in Georgia despite her conversion to Christianity, personal rehabilitation, and ministry to other inmates while on death row. I have outlined the reasons why her death was abortive justice here and here. In this article I attempt something else: I simply try to adopt Mark’s way of seeing the world — what I call his “apocalyptic squint” — and reassess Jesus’s and Kelly’s executions accordingly.

Here is the abstract:

The Centurion, Son of God, and Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles: Contesting Narrative and Commemoration with Mark

Against a longstanding tradition of ascribing religious conversion to the centurion who witnesses Jesus’s death in Mark 15:39, I argue that his acclamation of Jesus as υἱὸς θεοῦ is better understood within the narrative as the words of a conquered enemy. The centurion’s confession parallels the responses of unclean spirits and Legion, two other vanquished enemies who, in the moment of defeat, see and name Jesus υἱὸς θεοῦ. By framing the centurion as a defeated enemy, Mark contests the meaning of Jesus’s crucifixion: rather than remembering it as a performance of Roman rule, Mark commemorates it as the summary victory of the rule of God. Turning from an ancient capital offender to a contemporary one, I recast the memory of Kelly Gissendaner, who was executed in Georgia in 2015, and attempt to narrate and commemorate her state-sanctioned death in light of the Markan Jesus’s.

If you are on, you can download the PDF here.

Richard Hays and the Limits of Text

As part of my preparation for comprehensive exams, I had the opportunity to work through Richard B. Hays’ recent Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Baylor University Press, 2016). It is a fine book and will no doubt prove its usefulness for conversations related to OT-NT intertextuality and christology in the gospels for years to come. I have very few criticisms to level at Hays, but there is one area that I think his dominant theory of intertextuality limits him:  Hays’ argument is too text-focused, while his stated theoretical aims should have pushed him further.

As Hays sees it, the gospel composers echo and embed portions of OT texts in their narratives of Jesus primarily through the intertextual method of metalepsis, in which a small portion of a text is cited or echoed “in such a way that a reader can grasp the significance of the echo only by recalling or recovering the original context from which the fragmentary echo came” (11). Put differently, the textual echo evokes the larger text. This is all well and good (and something modern critics have argued at least since Dodd), and Hays finds no shortage of examples in the NT gospels in which textual metalepsis clearly applies. But it is when Hays appeals to a modern example that one begins to wonder if textual metalepsis might be a bit limiting:

In his eloquent victory speech on the night of his initial election to the presidency of the United States in 2008, Barack Obama declared that his hearers could put their hands “on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.” The phrase echoed a maxim from the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Certainly Obama’s declaration was not a direct quotation of King; the verbal link between the two utterances depends on just two words, arc and bend. But just as certainly, Obama’s sentence was an audible echo that summoned his audience to take up once again the moral legacy of the American civil rights struggle and to renew their efforts to work for a just society (11, emphasis added).

Hays’ definition of metalepsis and his contemporary example of it diverge: in Hays’ own words, Obama’s echo of King was not meant to summon the surrounding textual context of King’s speech but, rather, his “legacy.” Put slightly differently, by echoing King’s speech, Obama attempted to summon and instance King’s tradition: who he was, what he stood for, what he said, what he did, how he died, and how his legacy lives on. Obama wasn’t just summoning the next line in King’s speech. Hays’ version of metalepsis, as applied to Obama and MLK, Jr., could’ve been better explained by a more robust use of John Miles Foley (whom Hays cites, but unfortunately only in passing). Foley’s theory of “traditional referentiality” in oral performance—a theory he self-consciously attempted to render portable to other disciplines—would’ve helped Hays understand that echo can create more than just textual links, but can echo entire bodies of tradition. Traditional referentiality, as Foley describes it,

entails the invoking of a context that is enormously larger and more echoic than the text or work itself, that brings the lifeblood of generations of poems and performances to the individual performance or text. Each element in the phraseology or narrative thematics stands not simply for that singular instance but for the plurality and multiformity that are beyond the reach of textualization (Foley, Immanent Art [Indiana University Press, 1997], 7. Emphasis added.).

My issue with Hays isn’t that textual metalepsis isn’t an operative technique in the gospels (it is), but that what the gospel composers were doing was at times a bit more expansive than that. I am critiquing Hays only because I don’t think he took his own theoretical instincts to their logical conclusion. In addition to echoing discrete texts, the gospel composers, like Obama’s echo of King, also instance tradition (in fact, I’d gloss textual quotation as a form of instancing tradition). Had Hays made stronger use of Foley alongside John Hollander (The Figure of Echo [University of California Press, 1981]), he could’ve given a stronger account for the multiple modes by which the gospels engage the body of tradition we Christians call the Old Testament. His chapter on John—a gospel that rarely quotes or echoes specific OT texts—would’ve been strengthened by a stronger theoretical appeal to Foley and traditional referentiality.

Similarly, Hays could have more strongly treated the kerygma of the Kingdom of God as an echo of tradition throughout the Synoptic gospels. As it stands, the traditional referentiality of the phrase βασιλεια του θεου gets relatively little play in Echoes…Gospels, because Hays focuses on the metaleptic force of discrete OT texts in the gospels. What OT text does “Kingdom of God” evoke? You’d be hard-pressed to nail down a solitary text; you’d have to appeal instead to wide swaths of the OT canon and its interpretation in Second Temple Judaism. What is evoked by this phrase is “enormously larger and more echoic” than a single text; the phrase evokes the much larger and more diffuse tradition of the God of Israel’s rule. While the implicit high christology of the gospels’ metaleptic technique gets plenty of coverage in Hays’ book (and this is welcome…Hays even changed my mind on the christologies of the Synoptics!), it is unfortunate that the actual gospel within the gospels is so muted by Hays’ text-centered approach.

Over at The Jesus Blog, Rafael Rodríguez has used Foley to make a similar critique of the limits of Hays’ intertextual theory.

Galatians and the Palimpsest of Commentary

A palimpsest is a manuscript whose original text has been scraped off in order that the papyrus or parchment might be repurposed for the production of another text. A classic and fascinating example of this phenomenon is Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus (C 04). The header image above is a screen-grab from 04 and illustrates the phenomenon nicely. A palimpsest manuscript, like 04, is meant as a reproduction of a given text, disconnected from the text that was scraped-off. But, as is obvious in the above image, we can still catch glimpses of the original text. It bleeds over and impinges upon the later text.

More than a kind of ancient manuscript, though, palimpsest lends itself nicely as a metaphor for biblical commentary. In this metaphor, we could say that the present historical circumstances of the historian or commentator are the the initial text—the one we try to “scrape off” when we don our Objective Biblical Scholar Thinking Caps™. I may try to bracket out my own context and biases, but they creep back in and give animation to my inquiry no matter what. Commenting on NT scholarship and its attempt to negotiate Gadamer’s “two horizons,” Davina Lopez and Todd Penner suggest that “there is in fact no way to negotiate the ‘two horizons.’ […T]here is only one horizon—and that is the horizon of the present.”[1] The historical moment and concerns of the interpreter always lend shape to her interpretation. Like a palimpsest, a scholarly commentary attempts to foreground a new text (the commentary itself) but, when read closely, certain elements of its hypotext (the historical moment and concerns of the interpreter) can be glimpsed.

I agree with Penner and Lopez. We’re all doing this kind of palimpsestuous writing. In my preparation for an exam on Galatians, I’ve noticed that two interpreters do it in particularly interesting ways: Martin Luther and Brigitte Kahl. Luther, as is well known, was responding in part to the Catholic Church in his commentary on Galatians. His circumstances—his hypotext—then lent shape to his reading of Paul’s letter: Paul’s opponents became stand-ins for Luther’s. Whatever Luther got right about Galatians, he himself makes perfectly clear that he views Paul’s opponents as causing the same sort of trouble as Paul’s opponents at Galatia (pick a page, almost any page, in Luther’s commentary and you’ll probably see what I mean). Brigitte Kahl, a contemporary NT scholar writing hundreds of years after Luther, does much the same thing. In her 2014 Interpretation article, “Hagar’s Babylonian Captivity: A Roman Re-Imagination of Galatians 4:21-31,” Kahl names in the first paragraph her concerns about the effects this passage has had throughout the history of Christian interpretation. Both Luther and Kahl, then, are self-consciously doing palimpsestuous commentary: the hypotexts of their concerns and circumstances are shown for all to see. This is laudable.

But naming one’s perspective, biases, and concerns does not get one off the hook for letting them be too determinative in one’s reading. Luther gets nailed to the wall throughout the New Perspective lit for this kind of thing: he let his critique of Catholicism drive the bus in his commentary, and the interpretive tradition has been so much the worse for it. While Kahl’s work does not lend itself nicely to the kinds of catastrophic after-effects that Luther’s reading did, I think she is doing the same kind of thing. She names her ethical concerns about Gal 4:21-31 (the Hagar/Sarah allegory), and then those same concerns explicitly shape her interpretation.

In her article, Kahl appeals to Roman iconography to exegete Gal 4, which she reads as a counter-imperial hidden transcript. Paul does not devalue Hagar in favor of Sarah but rather uses her slavery as a stand-in for Roman domination, leaving Sarah to represent God’s liberation from Roman hegemony. This is attractive stuff for anyone with a slight radical streak, but the article, like her imaginative monograph on Galatians (see what I did there? #hiddentranscript), leaves much to be desired. Because Paul does not mention Rome in Galatians, Kahl has to turn to Roman iconography imaging women as conquered slaves in order to root Gal 4 in any kind of counter-imperial discourse. Sure, the reading is possible, even beautiful, but likely? I’m not so sure.

By naming their perspectives, concerns, and historical moments, both Luther and Kahl do us a favor but also give us reason to be suspicious. For both commentators, the hypotext is determinative—too determinative, I would say—for the interpretation: Luther has (forgive the technical term) mad beef with the Catholic Church and, voila, he finds much grist for his mill in Galatians; Kahl is concerned about the reception of Gal 4 and its use throughout imperial Christendom and, voila, she finds that Paul is just as anti-imperial as she is. Luther’s Paul comes out as anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic; Kahl’s comes out brazenly anti-imperial in a text that only tortuously lends itself to imperial critique. Both readers of Paul end up on the hook for special pleading as both produced particularly palimpsestuous commentaries in which the hypotext is not so much scraped off but acts as explicit and rigid paratext, guiding the author’s interpretation at almost every step.

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting my engagement with some of the “big ideas” in Galatians studies in preparation for a comprehensive exam.

[1] Todd Penner and Davina C. Lopez, De-Introducing the New Testament: Texts, Worlds, Methods, Stories (London: Wiley Blackwell, 2015), 63.

Charting Galatians

In my last post I ventured to offer up Rollin Ramsaran‘s directional reading of Paul as a corrective to Luther’s, Schweitzer’s, and Sanders’ reading. Today I’d like to run Galatians through Ramsaran’s “Pauline Moral Reasoning” chart (“the Paul Chart”) and see what happens. I should note that this is my reading of Galatians using Ramsaran’s reading strategy; I am riffing on his composition and might play a note here or there that he would not. Once again, here is our guide:

My friend, Jordan Kellicut, sent me this image, which is spiffier than the one drawn from my notes. His assistant, Jessie, at Oakland Drive Christian Church cleaned this up nicely.

1. Grace. While χαρις appears in 1.3, we don’t begin to get the freight of this term until 1.6: I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel. God’s grace is the beginning point for Paul’s theology. Through Christ, God has extended God’s grace to the nations. Here, in the first verse of Paul’s letter to the divided gentile communities in Galatia, Paul reminds them of the prior condition that has allowed gentiles into the covenant: God’s calling in grace. This note will resound again and again in Galatians.

2. Faith. The proper human response to God’s grace is faith/faithfulness. Here I am not signaling any of the πιστις χριστου debates. By “faith/faithfulness,” I think that Paul calls his communities not only to believe in Christ, but to order their lives according to that faith. In any case, 2.15-21 has Paul reminding his auditors that the proper response to God’s grace in Christ is covenantal faith (here borrowing from N. T. Wright). Both grace and faith will make more appearances in the letter; they are a fugue in Paul’s rhetoric.

3. The Giving of the Spirit. When humans respond in faith to God’s grace, they are bound to one another and together to Christ through a shared πνευμα, the Spirit. Following hot on the heels of Paul’s reminder about faith as response to God’s grace in 2.15-21, Paul presses a question hard against his audience: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? (3.2). In Paul’s theological order of operations, the Spirit is given to the gentiles via covenantal Jesus-faith, not through works of Torah. 3.1-14 has Paul reminding his auditors of the Abraham narrative to drive home the point that the Spirit has been promised to the gentiles through Jesus-faith.

4. Freedom. Paul is emphatic especially in Galatians that the gift of the Spirit, given in response to human faith, leads directly to freedom. Because of our American context, in which “freedom” is part of a large network of political rhetoric and ideology, we need to slow down and attempt to parse Paul’s concept of freedom. This won’t be exhaustive; it is, as N. T. Wright would put it, “necessarily impressionistic.” For Paul, I want to suggest that freedom moves in two directions: freedom from and freedom for. Believers are freed from, among other things, the power of Sin. Paul signaled this very early in the letter (1.4), but works the ground over more fully in 3.19-29. But the scripture has imprisoned all things under the power of Sin […] we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world (3.22; 4.3; cf. 4.8-9). 4.21-5.1 is an extended meditation on Sarah and Hagar to further drive home the point: grace leads to faith leads to Spirit leads to freedom. What humans are freed for will become clear in the next section (5B).

5A. Gratitude to God. Admittedly, this item is difficult to chart in Galatians. Like assembling IKEA furniture, we need to keep the screws a little loose in our application of this or any other reading strategy to Galatians. In any case, “gratitude to God” clearly does not represent the “weight” of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. I would identify the weight of Paul’s emphasis on the first four: Grace, Faith, Spirit, Freedom. We could argue that thankfulness for God’s grace (note the dotted line) is implied in the letter, but I’m not going to die on this hill.

5B. Cruciform Love for Others. Humans are freed from Sin for the purpose of faithful, loving service. Despite the libertine’s favorite verse (5.1), I don’t think Paul thought the Christian life ought to be driven by the whims of the individual (cf. Rom 14-15 if you don’t believe me). Humans are freed for service: For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another (5.13). Paul’s conception of Christian freedom is, almost paradoxically, slave-shaped (which is to say, it is Christ- and cross-shaped: cruciform. Read Michael Gorman). Paul calls himself a “slave of Christ” (Rom 1.1) and exhorts his audience to become like he is (Gal 4.12). Bear one another’s burdens, Paul says, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ (6.2). Self-giving servant love looks like Christ, the one who gave himself for the sake of others.

6. Joy in Suffering. Like gratitude to God, joy in suffering does not represent the weight of Galatians. We get a banner example of Paul’s own joy amid suffering in Phil 1.15-26. The closest thing I can find in Galatians, however, is Paul’s ever-so-brief mention of persecution in 5.11 and 6.12. For Paul, persecution is of no matter: the world has been crucified by the cross of Christ and is now reborn as a new creation (καινη κτίσις; 6.15), which, I would imagine, is cause for great joy for Paul and the believer. The logic of Paul’s joy-in-suffering is not masochistic; it is eschatological.

7. Hope and 8. Stand at the Parousia. While the final two items may be discrete elsewhere in Paul, they are collapsed into one verse in Gal 5.5: For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousnessAs others have pointed out, there is comparatively little in Galatians about the eschatological coming of Christ (parousia). J. Louis Martyn is right to nuance the point. No, Galatians does not discuss eschatology as explicitly as 1 Thess or 1 Cor. But, importantly, the righteousness described in this verse is not descriptive of a believer’s life in the present, but of what the people of God await at the end (if you hear echoes of the New Perspective here, you’re right). We certainly get more from Paul on the eschaton elsewhere (e.g. 1 Thess 5; 1 Cor 15), but I think the logic of eschatology underwrites this verse.

There you have it: my first and necessarily provisional pass through Galatians using Ramsaran’s directional paradigm as a guide. I have attempted to “keep the screws” loose and not make the chart overly determinative. In this regard, it’s been pretty easy to chart Galatians and I haven’t felt a need to use a shoehorn. Ramsaran’s directional paradigm is built on a close reading of all Paul’s letters. Not only does the chart bear out in broad strokes, it helps us to identify the weight of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. For my money, it’s items 1-4: Grace -> Faith -> Spirit -> Freedom, but I welcome the insights of others.

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting my engagement with some of the “big ideas” in Galatians studies in preparation for a comprehensive exam.

Centrality or Directionality in Pauline Theology?

(If ever there were an image begging for Raiden-style lightning bolts to be Photoshopped in, it’s this picture of my friend, mentor, and former NT professor, Rollin Ramsaran.)

Many debates between the “New” and “Old Perspective” on Paul (hereafter ‘NP’ and ‘OP,’ respectively) rise and fall on defining the center of Paul’s theology. For various OP/Lutheran readers of Paul, the center is justification by faith. For Albert Schweitzer, the center was being “in Christ,” with justification nestled as a subsidiary within that center. Schweitzer’s “crater-within-a-crater” reading of Paul’s central concerns was then redeployed, in modified form, in E. P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism, one of the first shots fired by what has later come to be known as the NP. What is important here is that all three—Luther, Schweitzer, and Sanders—assumed that Paul’s theology had a center and that identifying this center was the first step toward satisfactory exegesis.

Identifying the ‘center’ of Paul’s thought, however, is not the only way we can attempt to understand and describe the apostle’s theology. In the analysis of any discourse, talk of a “center” is profoundly metaphorical. Neither Paul’s letters nor theology are geometrical shapes; in treating them as one, we deploy “center” as a heuristic metaphor to describe how his thought ‘works’ (again, another metaphor!). In the study of Paul, attempting to describe his center has its benefits. It allows for taxonomy, for the identification of all the various parts and pieces of Paul’s theology and the singular driving force that lends animation to them all. But, again, “center” is not the only metaphor we can use and, by using it, we necessarily risk over-emphasizing one thing and under-emphasizing others. There are other options.

Another metaphor we might use instead of “center” is “direction.” As my seminary mentor, Rollin Ramsaran, put it to me at SBL last year: Paul’s theology doesn’t have a center; it moves in a direction. This is reflected in Ramsaran’s preferred method of teaching Paul: the Pauline Moral Reasoning Chart or, as many Emmanuel Christian Seminary students and alumni affectionately call it, the Paul Chart:

(C) Rollin Ramsaran, teaching document. Reproduced from my class notes.

Here Ramsaran, who is neither OP nor NP (but maybe he might hang out with some of the Apocalypticists? I’ll have to ask him next time we break bread), emphasizes that Paul’s theology doesn’t have a center but rather a beginning point: God’s grace, extended first to Israel through the Law and now to the gentiles through Christ. The proper human response to this grace is faith, which then leads to the gift of the Spirit (which binds Christians one to another and together to Christ), and so on. Already the center(s) described by Luther, Schweitzer, and Sanders are subsumed in the directional schematic. Importantly, though, they are not downplayed; they are simply re-contextualized as stops on the way to the telos of Pauline theology, the parousia.

The Paul Chart doesn’t play out exactly like this in every single letter but, among the undisputeds, it’s hard to argue that this isn’t Paul’s basic order of operations. As Ramsaran teaches it, we can use the chart not only to read Paul as a thinker but to read and identify “the weight” of an individual letter (“the weight” = which point[s] on the chart are emphasized most in a given letter). As part of my preparation to teach a series on Paul at a local church, I ran each of the undisputed letters through Ramsaran’s chart. While only the longer letters (Rom, 1 Cor) run through the whole chart, every aspect appears and works out in this basic order depending on the circumstances of a given letter.

Reading a whole slew of NP material, I have been wondering of late if “center” is the best metaphor we might use. While Ramsaran’s Paul Chart does not unseat the explanatory power of all aspects of the NP (nor does it even attempt to), this seems to me to be the better way to map Paul’s theology. By insisting on a center, we must necessarily relegate other aspects of Paul’s thought to a periphery. If, on the other hand, we insist on reading Paul directionally, fewer items of import (e.g., eschatology, ethics) are pushed toward a periphery and are instead contextualized within a distinctly Pauline theological teleology.

10/13/2016: I’ve since used Ramsaran’s chart to read Galatians. You can read my interpretation here.

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting my engagement with some of the “big ideas” in Galatians studies in preparation for a comprehensive exam.