J. Louis Martyn, Apocalyptic, and Quotation Marks

In (re-)starting my comprehensive exam prep in earnest, I thought it might be fun to borrow a page from my friend/colleague/dungeon master‘s book and blog through some highlights of my reading. First up is J. Louis Martyn’s fascinating, if a bit mystifying, reading of Galatians.

Martyn (d. 2015) is one of the main architects of the so-called “apocalyptic” reading of Paul. Within the broad sweep of Pauline scholarship, Martyn’s apocalyptic reading fits somewhere between the “old” and “new” perspectives. Inasmuch as Martyn sets up a sharp contrast between Pauline and Sinaitic/Torah-observant theologies, we are right to hear some echoes of Luther. Still, there is much in Martyn to differentiate him from Luther and Luther’s inheritors and, despite some strong disagreements over particular issues, I find much in Martyn with which to agree.

First, our agreements: I happily affirm Martyn’s characterization of Paul’s gospel as God’s “invasion” of the cosmos, resulting in the dawning, the revelation, of a new creation. The death and resurrection of Christ signal the beginning of a new age and this, for Paul, is of central import. Indeed, on this Paul is most emphatic: “a new creation is everything!” (Gal 6:15). In his review and critique of Martyn’s position, N. T. Wright also affirms this crucial foundational  agreement (N. T. Wright, Paul and His Recent Interpreters, 168). On this count, I’m happy to have a seat at Wright and Martyn’s table.

Martyn’s apocalyptic reading gives me serious pause, though, in the categorical opposition he sets up between “forensic” and “cosmic” apocalyptic. “Forensic” (or judicial) apocalyptic has to do with divine justice and the forgiveness of sins. “Cosmic” apocalyptic has to do with God’s rescuing of humanity from fallen, at times tyrannical suprahuman powers. This schematic, which was heuristic and less strictly determinative in de Boer’s reading (cf. Wright, 167ff), forces Martyn to get creative with the text, as it appears in Gal 1:4 that Paul affirms both “forensic” and “cosmic” aspects of God’s apocalypse-in-Christ. Compare Martyn’s translation with the NRSV:

[Christ] gave up his very life for our sins, so that he might snatch us out of the grasp of the present evil age, thus acting in accordance with the intention of God our Father (1:4, Martyn’s translation; see Martyn, 3).

[Christ] gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father (1:4, NRSV).

Note the quotation marks in Martyn. These are, by his own admission, marks of his own interpretation, deployed to suggest that Christ’s self-giving act as atonement for sins (forensic apocalypse) is a pre-Pauline confession and one that “is to a significant degree foreign to Paul’s own theology” (Martyn, 90). Martyn goes so far as to suggest that this forensic gospel coheres more with Paul’s opponents than it does with Paul’s typical confession, which Martyn locates in the latter half of 1:4 (divine rescue from a present evil age – cosmic apocalypse; see Martyn, 89).

While Martyn is on firm ground to remind us that the forensic aspect of this confession is indeed pre-Pauline (Martyn rightly cites 1 Cor 15:3), it remains to be seen how the wedge he drives between the first and second halves of the verse can be exegetically sustained. In 1 Cor 15:1-3, Paul refers to Christ’s atoning death as a chiefly important part of the good news that he himself preached at Corinth:

1Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. 3For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures…. (1 Cor 15:1-3, NRSV)

If Paul himself elsewhere claims to have preached this forensic aspect of the gospel, how can we say that it is foreign to his thought? For this, Martyn’s reading cannot offer an account. Thus it is exceedingly difficult to agree with Martyn that Paul’s gospel represents any sort of rejection of a “forensic” aspect of God’s apocalypse-in-Christ in favor of only the cosmic.

As Paul himself puts it, without any indication to the contrary, Christ died for our sins so that (ὅπως, hopōs) we might be set free from the present evil age (Gal 1:4). The two aspects of the one event must go hand-in-hand in any reading of Galatians.

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“New culture, yes—coup, no”: A Review of C. Kavin Rowe’s Theo-Political Reading of Acts

C. Kavin ROWE. World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

With the present volume alongside his previous Early Narrative Christology: The Lord in the Gospel of Luke (Baker Academic, 2009), C. Kavin Rowe has emerged as an important and self-consciously interdisciplinary contributor to ongoing conversations in Luke-Acts. Where Early Narrative Christology employed narrative criticism to track the meaning and usage of kyrios in Luke’s Gospel, in World Upside Down, Rowe blends traditional biblical exegesis, narrative criticism, political theory, and constructive theology to marshal an argument about the theo-political logic of Acts (7).

In Rowe’s reading, Acts sits uncomfortably within Greco-Roman culture. On the one hand, Acts is not, as some have posited, a kind of apologia for Christian quietism within the empire. On the other, neither is it quite anti-imperial propaganda, either. Rowe is after a reading that eschews such false dichotomies, and he upsets both old scholarly orthodoxies and newer assumptions by arguing that Acts is “a highly charged and theologically sophisticated political document  that aims at nothing less than the construction of an alternative total way of life…that runs counter to the life-patterns of the Graeco-Roman world” (4). Rowe argues that there is a “profound tension” in Acts, as Luke presents the nascent Christian movement as both a threat to Graeco-Roman politics, economics, and religion as well as a movement whose kyrios is not in direct competition with Caesar.

Rowe explores this tension in Acts between cultural collision (chapter two) and avoiding direct competition with the Empire (chapter three). In narrating the elements of Acts that conflict with Graeco-Roman culture, Rowe assists his readers in paying close attention to the responses garnered by Paul and his compatriots when they take their message out into the world. In Rowe’s framing, the story of Paul and Barnabas refusing sacrifices after the healing of a paralyzed man in Lystra in Acts 14 is “the summons that…involves the destruction of an entire mode of being religious” (21). Similarly, Rowe reads Luke as further destabilizing Graeco-Roman piety by emphasizing that, for example, even the name of Jesus Christ is enough to displace a pagan pneuma/daimon and exorcise it from a slave-girl (Acts 16:14ff). Rowe is a careful exegete and well aware that “religion” should not be reduced to a discrete element of human life and thus contends that the implications of these stories upset multiple levels of religious and civic life. When Paul and Silas exorcise the spirit of divination from the slave-girl, her owners are correct to be outraged: Luke’s version of the Christian confession has (negative) implications for their economic practices. Rowe contends that other characters are quite savvy to notice just how disruptive the Christian movement is to every level of pagan life. Public responses at Thessalonica, Athens, and Ephesus to the Christian movement further illustrate the multiple strata of cultural disruption that Luke’s confession causes.

Rowe’s argument is a nuanced one, however, and he stops short of baptizing Acts in the waters of modern day politically-subversive wishful thinking. Acts is not, Rowe contends in chapter two, a direct threat to Caesar and Roman rule. Rowe shows how Luke narrates the Christian movement as dikaios—innocent—of any charges of sedition towards the emperor. Here Rowe illustrates the “profound tension” of Acts particularly well: yes, the Christian confession destabilizes multiple spheres of pagan life and Acts’ non-Christian characters are right to name the writing on the wall, but no, the Christian movement of Luke’s narrative is not interested in seizing upon Caesar’s throne. As Rowe memorably puts it: “New culture, yes—coup, no. The tension is thus set” (92).

Chapter four moves further into the tension that is the theo-political imaginary of Acts as Rowe shows how the confession and practices of the nascent Christian movement eclipsed, but did not directly challenge, the Graeco-Roman ways of knowing and being in the world. The Christian confession of Jesus as lord, practice of mission, and the formation of mixed communities of followers signal Luke’s mixed-bag of theological politics (135). The Christian movement was not founded in response to Roman rule or other aspects of Graeco-Roman culture; rather, it was founded on this confession and these practices, all of which signaled a fundamental break with Roman culture and jurisprudence—truly, a “world upside down.”

In chapter five, Rowe moves from the ancient world to our own and allows the political imagination of Acts to speak into, and perhaps even shape, our own. Rowe writes as a Christian and, in this chapter at least, is engaged in the work of constructive Christian theology. Rowe does not, however, cheaply port over the theological politics of a small messianic movement from the backwaters of the Roman Empire to modern-day, Western contexts. The differences are too vast and Rowe’s theological acumen is too strong for such easy moves. Instead Rowe uses his final chapter as a kind of exercise in thinking with Acts—embodying its particular Christocentric epistemology—to come at modern politics, and even the practice of critical biblical scholarship, from an Acts-inspired perspective derived from apocalyptic claim in the story of Acts that Jesus is lord of all (176).

The present volume is a must-have for all serious readers of Acts. Although Rowe, who teaches in the Divinity School, rather than the Religion Department, at Duke University, writes with theological aims in mind, his work must be engaged by anyone who would make a claim about the political life of the post-Easter Christians. This text would be a welcome addition to any graduate or upper-level undergraduate course on Acts, and would be a helpful conversation partner for ministers, religious leaders, and thoughtful laypersons looking to read Acts carefully and with an eye for questions of theology and politics in the shadow of empire.

 

Translating Book, Translating Online Bible Education

Over at a proximate bible, my friend and colleague, Michael Hemenway, has recently written something very interesting and helpful regarding the media cultural shift currently affecting Bible/book technology. I’ll quote just a few snippets, but you really ought to read the whole thing. It is an unfinished work, publicly displayed in its current state on purpose (a welcome look behind the curtain of academic workflow and production). There is a lot in Michael’s project to dig into, but what I am particularly interested in right now is how portable his work is for online theological education. This is, of course, wholly unsurprising: Michael currently serves at the Iliff School of Theology as Director of Academic & Information Technology. He is passionate about the possibilities of online education and, in the three years of our friendship, his passion has proved contagious.

Hemenway sets up his project like this: just as print technology is on the wane and books are in the transition from print to digital media, so, too, is the Bible:

Book is undergoing a major media transition as print wanes in its dominance and the internet and mobile devices transform our reading habits. With the ever entangled histories of bible and book, this emerging media age and its transformation of reading practices begs us to imagine bible as an anarchic interface, a space of contact where meaning is produced without the reign of an original.

This first bit—about the media transition of Bible and book from print to digital technologies—is especially pertinent to theological education. Just as print Bibles are giving way to digital ones (just try to eat a biblical Kindle, Ezekiel), theological education is shifting from brick-and-mortar to digital classrooms. Many of my colleagues lament this media shift in theological education. Brought up in the brick-and-mortar classroom, I share some of their concerns. But Michael gives us something to think about: media culture is shifting and “the original” media form—of the Bible or the brick-and-mortar classroom—need not dictate every future possibility for interface and engagement. The future is open; positively anarchic, even. Opportunities abound.

In a recent post over at the Digital Pedagogy Lab, Martha Burtis explores some of these opportunities as she considers the near-limitless potential of the Internet juxtaposed with the frustration of online education platforms. The best line in the whole essay expresses the excitement of possibility alongside the user-unfriendliness of certain Learning Management Software (LMS):

Most importantly, how could we not, in fact, see it as our job to shape this new medium [the Internet] and to help the rest of the world understand what it could do? As a platform for transformational teaching? As a space for public research and dissemination of knowledge? As a place for collaboration on scales never seen before?

And yet. Blackboard.

“And yet. Blackboard,” indeed. She could’ve lamented Moodle, even Canvas, just as easily.

Burtis’s piece and the interface in which it is presented, coupled with Hemenway’s plea that we “imagine bible as an anarchic interface,” though, gives me great hope that online education in the humanities (theological or otherwise) is not the swansong of a dying field but, rather, the invitation to reimagine text and education. There’s freedom in anarchy, despite the risk. Take, for example, the elegant user interface for Burtis’s essay:

DigitalPedagogies Page

(Click to enlarge)

Note the commentary interface here. Users may directly and publicly highlight the text (no annotation) as well as highlight and comment on the text in a side-bar. This interface seems borrowed from word processing software editorial features. When my professor comments on my papers, she usually does so digitally: highlighting the text, which then links up to a commentary side-bar on the right. GoogleDocs, MS Word, and Adobe Acrobat have this functionality; most pages on the Internet do not.

Most essays and blogs feature reader commentary in a separate bank below the main post. See, for example, the comments space on this blog entry: you have to scroll to the bottom of the piece, leaving it “behind,” and say your piece in a separate thread, unconnected to the text of this post. If you wish to take me to task on a specific point, you must copy-and-paste the quote, lifting it out of its native context, and then (finally) have your say. The same goes, I think, for most LMS discussion forums. To comment on a person’s post or a primary text, the user must copy-and-paste or use the forum’s quotation function, which is a somewhat fancier way of doing the same thing. I think that this kind of threaded discussion, especially for the teaching of primary texts like the Bible, is hopelessly outmoded.

But what if we looked to Hemenway and Burtis and worked to actively shape LMS interfaces for transformational teaching of biblical texts in our new and emergent digital media culture milieu? Imagine if we pillaged the user interface of the Digital Pedagogy Lab for use in online discussion forums? If, in a class on Romans, we loaded in the primary text reading for that week and gave students the opportunity to annotate the text based on their own insights, questions, and gleanings from secondary readings?

Most threaded forums I’ve participated in, as student or instructor, have been needlessly wordy and interfacially complex. To comment on Romans 3:1-8 in a threaded forum, students must make the choice to either (a) simply cite Rom 3:1-8, with the expectation that other users will look up the text (in print? online?); (b) link to an online edition like this; or (c) copy-and-paste the passage into their initial post. Users must then juggle screens and/or media (a printed Bible on the desk next to the tablet she is using to post). Their commentary is then about Romans but, if you’ll permit me some play with our prepositions, it’s not really on Romans. Romans is somewhere else, disconnected from the student’s comments.

Importantly, too, this sort of interface would free students up from the burden of writing and reading too-long comments. The side-bar annotation/commentary interface is nimble in ways that the bottom-of-the-page comment thread is not. User interaction can be broken up into smaller bits, creating more “surface area” and points of contact between text, students, and instructor.

It seems to me that digital media, among many other things, gives us the opportunity to bring primary text and student engagement closer together. To riff on Hemenway’s dissertation title, this sort of pedagogical practice would render a (more) proximate Bible: a Bible in closer proximity to student engagement through the emergent interfacial possibilities of digital media culture. I’m excited. This should be fun.

I’ll let Hemenway have (nearly) the last word:

 

In light of this process of material media translation as palimpsest, remembering bible’s rich media history will provide a helpful context and data for imagining how bible might be practiced as interface amidst the changing reading dispositions of our emerging media age. The material media translation of book from manuscript page to mobile screen already has and will continue to shape our reading practices.

I hope the “material media translation” of Bible and classroom continues to shape our teaching practices as well.

http://aproximatebible.postach.io/

http://digitalpedagogylab.com/

Stump Speeches and the Synoptic Problem: A Lesson Outline

Like nearly every other American user of the Internet, I have recently been following the reports of plagiarism in Melania Trump’s 2016 RNC stump speech. As others have been quick and correct to point out, Ms. Trump (or, more likely, her speech-writer) is not alone in lifting material from other speeches. Although I’ve been enjoying the humor of these posts, and of the Trump campaign’s response to the allegations, I really don’t have a strong opinion about what Melania(‘s speech writer) did or didn’t do or why that matters. Those concerns are completely irrelevant to me. Although Anthony Le Donne may think me a scoundrel, I politely and good-humoredly demur. The circus amuses me, and I certainly appreciate the bread, but I’m after something else.

What I am most interested in is how Ms. Trump’s speech and its relationship to a 2008 speech from Michelle Obama may be leveraged for teaching. As a student and teacher of Bible, like many others, I seized upon these events as a modern corollary to what biblical scholars call source criticism. And so I have developed a lesson outline draft that uses the Melania/Michelle speech as an introduction to mapping literary relationships among the Synoptic Gospels. It is my intent that this activity be a fun(ny) entree into the Synoptic Problem, a tool for honing reading skills, and a way of reminding students that they already know how to read carefully, critically, and comparatively.

Note: the outline below is meant as a companion to a Synoptic Gospels coloring exercise, but does not include directions for this activity.

GoogleDoc Link: https://docs.google.com/document/d/15S3K3Gk64OMyR8dfRB_jDxvzDSvQ5ibBgPmqvJR-6EQ/edit?usp=sharing

Readers may use this outline for their own teaching. Proper credit appreciated, but not required; I’m not going to hunt you down.

 

Paul and the Pothetic Love of Christ: A Review of David E. Fredrickson’s “Eros and the Christ”

FREDRICKSON, David E. Eros and the Christ: Longing and Envy in Paul’s Christology. Paul in Critical Contexts. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013.

To begin, a banal truism: biblical exegesis, like all historical inquiry, is an act of cross-cultural exploration. The past is foreign to the contemporary reader, and it is the task of the historian to catch a glimpse of and describe for others what once existed across that “ugly, broad ditch” of history. Things are unimaginably different on the other side of Lessing’s ditch; the people “over there” are profoundly unlike us. History-writing, like understanding between contemporary cultures far removed, is difficult, for it must attain the dual goals of both highlighting the differences of the ancient culture and making the culture and its differences in some way intelligible to a modern reader.

In my view, Fredrickson’s Eros and the Christ is an example of good historical inquiry. It stands out among recent scholarship on Paul’s letter to the Philippians in part for its creative de-familiarization of an incredibly familiar text, the so-called “Christ Hymn” of Philippians 2:5-11. First, Fredrickson reminds us that the Christ Hymn and its writer are ancient, and therefore might differ, perhaps even sharply, from the interpretive frames we have placed them in. As the reader progresses through Fredrickson’s argument, though, the de-familiarized text becomes intelligible once again within a new interpretive frame. Even when Fredrickson’s exegesis is not fully convincing, his creative act of textual comparison is still fruitful and provides a theological and hermeneutical seedbed of new questions and ways of approaching one of Paul’s most famous writings.

For Fredrickson, Philippians displays “Paul’s longing for the [Philippian] church and for Christ and Christ’s longing for mortals” (3). As Paul longs for the church (1:8), so Christ longs for communion with humanity. Whereas most Christian interpreters of Philippians 2:5-11 have read it as the obvious account of the condescension of the all-powerful second member of the Trinity, Fredrickson places the text alongside Greco-Roman poetic expressions of pothos, the physically-felt and self-emptying longing of the lover for the beloved. Fredricksen forwards the thesis that the Christ Hymn is comparable to other Greco-Roman poetic traditions of longing and that this might helpfully frame Christian theological reflection on what this text says about the nature of Jesus Christ. Fredrickson thus reads the passage “as if it were a narrative of longing, as if the motivation for the incarnation, life, and death of Jesus had been the Son of God’s impossible desire for communion with humanity” (1). Thus Fredrickson’s project is not a historical-critical denial of Christian theology but, rather, a literary re-contextualization of it. Although focused most intently on Philippians 2:5-11, Fredrickson’s reading supplies insights into the whole of the letter as well as the ancient practice and goals of letter-writing.

Chapter one problematizes the traditional assumption that ancient letters served for the audience as substitutes for the presence and voice of the author (13). While the establishment of authorial presence is indeed the goal of ancient letter writing, Fredrickson cites epistolary evidence to point out how fragile a conduit ancient letters really were, especially when author and recipient longed to actually be in one another’s presence. Fredrickson highlights the longing Paul himself expresses for his audience in the letter (1:3-8) and shows how authorial “absence comes around the corner just as presence and voice seem established” (15). The fragility of authorial presence, such as it is, simply served to make the heart grow fonder. This distance, which is at best only partially mitigated (if not also reinforced) by Paul’s letter, is the hallmark of the Philippian epistle in Fredrickson’s reading.

In chapters two and three, Fredrickson builds on this argument by further contextualizing Philippians as a letter of longing, highlighting the ways in which Paul characterizes himself and his Christ as marked by pothos. Fredrickson translates 1:8 as “For God is our witness how we long for you in the innards of Christ Jesus” (35, emphasis added). Compare his translation to the NRSV rendering: “For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.” Although the NRSV better translates the first-person singular character of the verb ἐπιποθῶ (epipothō), Fredrickson’s glossing of σπλάγχνοις (splanchnois) as “innards” highlights the bodily compassion Paul and Christ both feel. “Love happens in the innards. That is where pothos [longing] lodges. The innards were also known to melt away in longing for an absent beloved” (36). Such longing melts the innards and the lover empties herself, as she longs for communion with the beloved. Kenosis, the self-emptying of Christ, has traditionally been imaged as having to do with the self-limitation of Christ’s divine power through the act of incarnation. Within Fredrickson’s framing, Christ’s self-emptying is a bodily event (64), a deep sorrow that has lodged itself in the divine “innards.” Alongside Greco-Roman love poetry, 2:6-7 has less to do with the self-limitation of divinity and more to do with “the wasting effects of love” upon the body. Overcome with desire for communion, Christ “emptied himself” and took on the form of a slave—a slave of his beloved humanity (69).

If chapters two and three contextualize the love of Paul and Christ in Philippians as being marked by longing, chapters four, five, and six highlight the non-exploitative character of this love in Paul’s Christology and vision for the Philippians’ lives together. Christ “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,” and, therefore, neither are other people in the Philippian community things to be exploited. That “something to be exploited” (ἁρπαγμὸν, harpagmon), Fredrickson contends, can also be rendered within the semantic register of rape in antiquity. “Erotic seizure” was common among both gods and men. As Fredrickson playfully puts it, ancient “gods can do whatever they damn well please,” which places Christ’s refusal of such seizure in starker contrast (90). Erotic seizure, like modern-day rape, is not necessarily about sexual attraction or desire; rather, it is an expression of power and abuse, whether human or divine. Fredrickson contends that Paul calls the Philippians to embody Christ-like, non-exploitative, loving power in their community (105). This non-coercive leadership, like Paul’s longing for Philippi and Christ’s self-emptying pothos for humanity, are all profoundly physical expressions of Christian theology. Longing, and the communion it desires, is mapped onto and felt by physical and social bodies (143).

A good piece of biblical scholarship stands out among its peers not necessarily because its thesis is overwhelmingly persuasive, or because every element of its argument is unassailable to peer review. While interesting, Fredrickson’s “pothetic” reading of Phil 2:6-11 is not fully persuasive. Fredrickson seems to be on surer ground in highlighting Pauline longing in 1:8, but it is less evident to me that traditions of ancient rape stand behind ἁρπαγμὸν in 2:6 (the term can carry connotations of robbery and non-sexual force as well). Within the context of the verse, it is not “Christ’s refusal to abduct mortals” or rape them (94), but rather his refusal to exploit divine equality. Potentially more destructive to Fredrickson’s argument that Christ’s kenosis (2:7) has to do with longing rather than divine self-limitation is the immediately preceding verse, 2:6. Read together, vv. 6-7 are more easily read as Christ’s choice to refuse exploitation of divine equality, which in turn leads directly to his self-emptying, slavery, and obedience to death. Fredrickson’s comparison of this passage to Greco-Roman letters of longing is interesting, but it does not fully overturn the consensus reading of this passage as “Christ’s humble subordination to God’s will” (63).

These criticisms aside, I still reckon Fredrickson’s monograph to be an excellent contribution to biblical scholarship. Good biblical scholarship can stand apart because it attempts to muddy the waters of the biblical text for a reader—querying, problematizing, and even upsetting old interpretive paradigms by offering up a new reading of the relevant data or, better yet, offering up new data that sheds a different shade of light on a very old interpretive problem. A good biblical study will generate new questions instead of simply rehashing old orthodoxies, theological or scholarly. Fredrickson’s monograph is such a book. Inhabiting the kind of humility often read into the Christ Hymn (somewhat ironically, as this is a reading the author ultimately rejects), Fredrickson offers up a reading of the possible, of what might be animating the apostle’s rhetoric in Philippians (e.g., 2; 92). By assuming such a posture, Fredrickson succeeds in not only making an interesting argument but doing so in a winsome way. Biblical studies, as a field, is dominated by the rhetoric of certainty; Fredrickson’s study, on the other hand, is characterized by creative and humble questioning. Even when Fredrickson’s argument can be critiqued, his work still presses fresh questions to the biblical text and, in doing so, creatively opens up new passages for further explorations into the text and its ancient context. 

On Not Doing What Ehrman was Doing

Over the past year I’ve shared my interests and dissertation project with enough folks, and received enough push-back, to feel like maybe it’s time to clarify my aims. This post is intended to clarify what it is I’m doing in my research on early Christian scribes, both for my own thinking and for the (very) few others who are interested in how I’ve been spending my time in Denver.

The impetus for this post goes back at least to SBL last year in Atlanta. At one of the receptions, I struck up a conversation with a prof at one of the schools I’d like to teach at one day. He asked what I was working on and I told him: my project is broadly about reassessing the changes scribes made to the gospel traditions as they reproduced them in manuscript form. His almost instant follow-up question: “Is that like Bart Ehrman’s Orthodox Corruption of Scripture?”

My answer then was pretty fumbling. Kind of ‘yes,’ but mostly ‘no.’ I’ve had some time to reflect on it, hindsight being 20/20 and all, and here’s how I’d answer now: No. I work with the same pool of data (NT traditions, manuscripts, and literature on early Christian scribes) as Ehrman, but I have a totally different set of premises and aims.

Ehrman’s project in Orthodox Corruption was a really important one, and remains so to this day. It’s a watershed monograph in New Testament textual criticism for a reason, and his thesis that Christological controversies are reflected in scribal alterations in the NT manuscripts has stood the test of time. But his goal was to explain a certain kind of scribal change—theologically motivated alterations—whereas mine has been to reassess and redescribe all sorts of scribal changes, theological or otherwise. Furthermore, Ehrman located his contribution within an established paradigm in NT textual criticism that I don’t find particularly useful. My beef is with the language of “corruption” in his title and text.

Ehrman wasn’t the first to use the notion of “textual corruption” to describe the phenomenon of scribal change in the NT manuscript tradition, and he won’t be the last. Ehrman represents a pretty strong consensus when it comes to the use of this term, though, so I use him as my whipping boy. (I am a Christian pacifist, though, so whatever rhetorical whipping I do won’t draw any blood.) For Ehrman, textual “corruption” just means what most other NT text-critics take it to mean: an “alteration of text” (Orthodox Corruption, 31). That is to say: most text-critics assume that early Christianity prized the original text of, say, the Gospel of Mark in its pristine, unedited, unadulterated form and that any scribal change to Mark in its transmission, whether intentional or unintentional, amounts to a “corruption” of the original text. In my view, this says more about how we moderns conceive of the text of the NT than how ancient Christian scribes and audiences understood it.

Certainly we have some flagship examples of an ancient allergy to textual alteration (Rev 22:18–19 comes to mind, as does the scribe of Codex W). These folks certainly appear to have thought that alteration = corruption. But what about the scribe of Codex Bezae, that delightfully singular 5th century codex? What about the scribe who added to Mark’s ending at 16:8? Or the one who first introduced the story of the woman caught in adultery to John 7? Or all the other scribes who introduced all manner of finer-grained changes, like clarifications and synonymous phrasal replacements? Did these scribes think they were “corrupting” the text? Did their audiences? I tend to doubt it.

The language of textual “corruption” has a counterpart that also needs abandoning. In order for us to have a notion of “corruption” in antiquity, we need first to assume that scribes considered themselves to be “copyists.” This term is ubiquitous in the field to describe the work of early Christian scribes and, once again, it’s not just Ehrman that I’d like to put on the ropes. Another scholar that I similarly admire, the venerable St. Bruce Metzger of Princeton, spilled a lot of ink propping up this misguided paradigm.

Commenting on a scribe’s addition of ό Ίησοῦς (“Jesus”) to John 6:14, Metzger suggests that “[t]he addition…was made by copyists in the interest of clarity” (Metzger, Textual Commentary,  181). To belabor the point: in what sense are scribes acting as copyists if they are intentionally introducing changes for the sake of clarity, theological emphasis, or any other editorial aim? In what sense were the interpolators of Mark’s ending or John’s Pericope Adulterae copyists or their alterations corruptive? In what sense did their listening and reading audiences expect them to be? I suggest that maybe we’ve been operating under the wrong premises.

I saw a copyist today. A real, in-the-flesh copyist. She was sitting in the seat in front of me on the bus, balancing two papers on her lap. On her right was a notebook filled with what appeared to me to be very complex algebraic figures that she was working on. On her left was a sheet filled with the very same complex algebraic figures, written in a different hand. She was very clearly copying—line by line, digit by digit—from the exemplar to her own sheet. Any deviation from her exemplar would, I assume, amount to a “corruption.” You transpose one number, one variable, in your mathematical formula and it all falls apart. She appeared to be working with great care to avoid just such a corruption. That’s a copyist.

Is that what we imagine the early Christian scribal enterprise to be like? Does one iota of scribal change amount to a total corruption of the manuscript? Maybe for John of Patmos or the scribe of W. But I don’t think the same holds true for a great many scribes and audiences in early Christianity. We’ve got way too many manuscripts that deviate way too often in way too many interesting ways from the “original text” for that premise to be anything other than terrifically bad.

Part of my point ends up being that early Christians—committed, faithful Christians—simply had a different understanding of the NT traditions than we do. For many of them, certain levels of deviation from an exemplar or the original were OK. For many of us, on the other hand, such alterations are dangerously corruptive to the biblical text. Part of my goal, writing as a Christian scholar, is to reclaim these scribes and audiences as faithfully Christian scribes and audiences who made and accepted certain kinds of lesser and greater alterations to the NT traditions as they were reproduced in writing.

There were, and are, limits to the acceptability of scribal change. Marcion, the guy who edited a bunch of stuff out of Luke, is a parade example of scribal change far beyond the limits of acceptability. The scribes who interpolated endings to Mark or the Pericope Adulterae to John, though, were apparently within those limits. Their changes are now Scripture for Christians. In both cases, it was the listening and reading audience—the Church—who enforced the rules. If I do it well, my work will end up having something constructive, however small, to contribute to the Church’s theology of Scripture. But first we need to move beyond assuming all scribes were copyists and all alterations were corruptions.

So, no. I’m not really doing what Ehrman was doing in Orthodox Corruption. I’m trying to do something else.

The CIA’s Anti-Christian Eucharist

One of the category mistakes American Christians often make is expecting the government, in any way whatsoever, to look, act, or be anything even remotely close to ‘Christian.’ There’s a popular meme in support of Bernie Sanders that has been floating around that nicely illustrates this. It is ostensibly attempting to galvanize Christian support for Sanders based on the claim that Sanders (somehow) resembles Christ. (I like Sanders the best among the available options, but Jesus he is not.) For whatever reason, we tend to want our government to in some way approximate our God: among Christians on the right, this has amounted to imagining the U.S. as a “Christian nation,” whereas Christian lefties have wanted a Jesus-shaped socialism. Both hopes are totally misguided.

There are biblical and theological reasons why such hopes are woefully misplaced, but we can leave them aside for now. The most potent reason why it is foolish to hope for a Christian or Christ-like America is: the nation and its ruling powers do not want to be Christian. 

Take, for example, the commemorative ritual performed by the CIA on Twitter today:

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Today, May 1, 2016, marks the five-year anniversary of the killing of Osama Bin Laden (alternative spelling in Tweet). To commemorate it, the CIA’s social media person is “live-tweeting” the narrative of Bin Laden’s death as if it were taking place again today. Although met with disgust in some quarters, the performance appears to be trading well on the currency of nationalism and revenge—two values at odds with nearly every aspect of the Christian confession.

Even if we concede that Osama Bin Laden’s death was justified—which, if one believes that God at times makes use of the nations to perform God’s justice and achieve God’s ends, is not that difficult (even for a Christian pacifist)—there is still something deeply and profoundly un-Christian, even anti-Christian, about performing a ritual that celebrates the killing of the enemy.

In a Christian frame, even among Just War theorists, intentional homicide never represents a moral good. It never represents the best of what could have been. At best, it is always less than the good that could have been. (Even Christians willing to kill for particular reasons should be able to recognize this. One can make a case that killing may at times be justifiable, but it is never representative of the good that could or should have been.) No committed Christian can say that the best possible world is the one in which Bin Laden was killed. For the Christian, the best possible world is the one in which Bin Laden had become a brother in Christ. His death is not worthy of celebration among Christians; it is grounds only for lament. His story, inclusive of all the horrors that he wrought, is a tragedy; his death simply cannot be taken by Christians as reason for celebration.

Yet the CIA celebrates Bin Laden’s death with the support and co-commemoration of many of their followers. In this way the CIA’s social media performance is an aping of the Christian ritual of communion. Whereas Christians follow the example of Paul and “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26), the CIA is proclaiming the death of the enemy, presumably with no eschatological end in sight. But it is built on the same logic: we re-enact, relive, and in some way embody the celebrated story through its ritual retelling. One group tells the story of the man whose death put an end to the hostility between and among humans, while the other tells the story of a death that only reflected, if not built-up, the dividing walls of hostility that already divide humanity.

The CIA is doing us all a favor by showing, in no uncertain terms, how vast the differences are between the Kingdom of God and the rule of the nations. For those with ears to hear and eyes to see, the CIA is trying to tell us: the government has no use for the Christian story. The government has no use for Christ because the government does not want to be Christian.