Baker Academic

Monday, June 29, 2015

Does Jesus Really Have Nothing to Say about Gender Identity?

credit: Southern Poverty Law Facebook Page
If you have traversed in higher learning to any degree this century or last, you are aware of the notion that every truth claim carries a power dynamic with it. Allow me from the start to affirm that this is true. What’s that smell, you ask? Oh, that’s just the sweet aroma of power wagon-trailed in by my truth claim. Truth and Power are the Bo and Luke Duke of the hermeneutical world. You'll never meet one without the other. But it has only been recently that I realized how closely these dynamics relate. Truth and Power are the kissiest of cousins.

Of late I’ve found that even the shrug of my shoulders cannot escape the relationship in question. Every professor, pastor, rabbi, physician, and Apple employee understand the virtue of the shoulder shrug. Allow me to give you an example from my world.
Q: Does God command genocide in the Bible?
A: Well the word HRM doesn’t quite mean “genocide”; it’s a bit more complicated. But, honesty, you’re not going to be happy with any answer I have for you on this one.
Q: So how do you deal with that?
A: I really don’t have a good answer *shrugs shoulders* but what I want you to know is that God is love. I don’t believe that God would endorse any form of genocide.
As you see here, the shoulder shrug allows the answerer to reorient the conversation. This is a kind of hermeneutical jiu jitsu whereby the answerer can sidestep the force of the question and use the momentum of the questioner against her/him. If done well, the questioner goes flying over the broken bridges of Hazzard County into the hayloft of God’s love. 

So the power dynamic of the shoulder shrug works a bit differently. Instead of advancing on the Father of Lies (cf. Boss Hogg) in a full-frontal attack, the shoulder shrug allows the good ole boys of truth to say “I don’t know” with a humble smile and thus deflect any attack against them. I’ll admit that I’ve used this move myself. In fact I love this move about as much as E. Honda loves to slap dudes.

So you probably clicked on this link because the title promises something related to Jesus and gender. So far all that I’ve given you is a ramble about the Dukes of Hazard and karate moves. Okay, then, consider another example from my world:
Q: Does Jesus ever talk about gender or sexual orientation?
A: No.
Q: What about the whole “some are eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom” stuff?
A: That is a very enigmatic saying. And frankly *shrugs shoulders* scholars aren’t sure what to make of it. But what I want you to know is that God loves everybody, regardless of gender, orientation, etc.
Raise your hands if your not guilty of this sort of power move. Okay, you can put your hand down Dale Martin. We’ve all read your book and promise to read it again soon.

Recently I had this conversation with a friend who asked me if there is a “standard scholarly interpretation” of Matthew 19:12. My kneejerk reply was basically that nobody really knows what to do with it. And then I caught myself and realized that I was participating in heteronormative a power play. Because, in truth, queer theorists have been studying the various possibilities of this saying for decades. But most (all?) seem to agree that Jesus is indeed saying something about the larger questions about gender, birth, choice, etc. and not simply the specific case of Lord Varys. To shrug my shoulders concerning Matthew 19:12 allows me to keep Jesus out of the contemporary debates concerning gender identity. Worse, the shrug allows me to reinforce whatever pop-culture box I've constructed for Jesus.

Truth wagontrails power even when we do-si-do around it.


Saturday, June 27, 2015

What is "Mainstream Scholarship"?

Today I was reading what Wikipedia has to say about the "unknown years" of Jesus. I've been aware for a while of several fictions (false claims, hoaxes) about Jesus' globetrotting activities. You might have heard a few of these: Jesus visited England; Jesus visited Tibet; Jesus visited India; Jesus hosted a show for the Food Network. Because I don't watch the History Channel, my interest in popular fiction often leads me to Wikipedia as a second-best option.

During my fun-filled visit to Wikipedia I encountered a curious phrase: "mainstream scholarship." The author of this particular page uses this label several times. Sometimes a variation is used: "mainstream Christian scholarship." Examples include Marcus Borg, Dom Crossan, etc. Interestingly, this umbrella category also covers Bart Ehrman and Paula Fredriksen. I doubt very seriously that either of these fine scholars would welcome the label "Christian." Moreover, I wonder if the late Dr. Borg would have counted himself as "mainstream" in his final years.

But I have a bigger problem in mind. Does the phrase "mainstream scholars" assume the existence of disenfranchised scholars? One thinks of the standard disaster-movie cliché where a lone-wolf Ivy Leaguer predicts the end of the world but nobody listens until it's too late. Is this what the author has in mind? Or consider Dan Brown's sexpot symbolist (itself a fictional field of study) who jumps out of airplanes when he's not lecturing at Harvard. Because in my experience, the folks who get the most headlines, documentaries, and magazine covers are the ones with the theories that don't hold up to historical scrutiny. I.e. the Hollywood cliché is [...drum roll...] a fiction. There is no better way to get published than to come up with an idea that departs from the "mainstream." But - simply put - these folks who discover the Lost Ark or the secret history of Jesus as the Prince of Siam, etc. are not scholars. So I see very little value to the qualifier "mainstream"; indeed, it may be misleading.


Sunday, June 21, 2015

Was Jesus Fatherless?

The Gospel of Mark represents the earliest surviving biography - if that what we should call it - of Jesus' life. It is often noted by commentators that Mark is either unaware of Joseph (of nativity fame) or simply fails to mention him. The most common solution given is that Joseph died while Jesus was a boy. Some have even conjectured the psychological profile of a young man who has taken on the responsibilities of breadwinning. But does this conjecture have merit in historical reconstruction?

First we should acknowledge that is was not uncommon for a man to die before his son reached the age of thirty. I've pointed out that, "If a child was fortunate enough to live to age ten, her/his chances of living to forty were roughly 60 percent. She or he would have a 50 percent chance of seeing the age of forty-five" (Wife of Jesus, 109). So we shouldn't be surprised that Joseph is not mentioned in Mark. Even so, this doesn't mean necessarily that Joseph died while Jesus was a boy. On the contrary, I argue:

We therefore should not assume that Jesus was fatherless. Nor should we conjecture that he carried the burden of a boy who had adulthood foisted upon him too early.


Thursday, June 18, 2015

Charleston Massacre

I am grieved to learn about yet another incident of race-motivated violence and yet another American gun massacre:

My prayers are with the members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Rick Perry cites Jesus' Profit-ic Libertarianism

Today I received (via FB) this word of wisdom from New Testament scholar and Fortress Press editor, Neil Elliott:
One man who would be president cites Mark 14 to dismiss concern for the poor (who "will always be with you"). That's not just insensitive and callous: it's bad Bible reading. Deuteronomy 15 was the likely background for Jesus' words: "SINCE there will never cease to be some poor and needy on the earth, I [GOD] therefore command you, 'Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.'" Better Fortress Press resources make the point -- Emerson B. Powery, for example, in TRUE TO OUR NATIVE LAND: AN AFRICAN-AMERICAN NEW TESTAMENT COMMENTARY (2007); Raquel Lettsome in FORTRESS COMMENTARY ON THE NEW TESTAMENT (2014); etc.
Thank you, Neil.


Friday, June 12, 2015

Of Seraphim and John 3

Maybe you memorized it when you were eight. Maybe it was painted on a decorative plate at grandma's house. Maybe you heard it a Keith Urban concert. Maybe you swoon when you hear it because of Tim Tebow's come-hither smile. But if you have any exposure to Christianity, you're probably familiar with John 3:16.

In the standard evangelical canon-within-canon, John 3:16 represents nothing short of the Gospel (emphasis on the definite article). In modern, minimalist, individualist incarnations of Christian theology, John 3:16 is the gateway drug to heavenly bliss.

It is curious then that many Christians have no idea what to do with the immediate context of this verse:
John 3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life....
So what is this business about the serpent in the wilderness? And how does said serpent relate to the Son of Man? Well, just as a refresher:
Numbers 21:6 Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ 9 So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
As you can see this passage creates space for more questions (to put it mildly). So sometimes the Lord sends poisonous serpents? Or should this be translated "fiery seraphim" [הַנְּחָשִׁים הַשְּׂרָפִים] of angelic import? Sometimes zoomorphic images cast in bronze are salvation from sin and not the cause of sin? And has anyone ever had a worse middle-management job description than Moses?

Back to John's Gospel, what is to be gained by comparing Moses' bronze image to Jesus?

John 3:14 is a fascinating window into a much overlooked biblical topic: serpentine imagery. Once you start exploring the forms and functions of serpents in the Bible, it becomes clear that the image isn't nearly as negative as you might expect.

For a wonderfully comprehensive treatment of this topic, see Charlesworth's The Good and Evil Serpent. It is not for the timid. I once used it for an advanced exegesis class and it really functions well at that level (i.e. it's not going to challenge J. K. Rowling for sales). One of the payoffs is the realization that Christian, theological emphasis on Genesis 3 has negatively colored our understanding of serpents in the Bible. Indeed even a cursory reading of John 3 should suggest that our traditional readings of serpents in the Bible have been insufficient.


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Quarterly Quote of the Month about Jesus for this Week

"The last time that I remained silent in the face of this injustice: Tony and I were riding in the backseat of a car heading to one of Tony’s speaking engagements in a mid-western city. The two people in the front seat were evangelical Christians (I’m sure that this is what they would have called themselves). They wanted to talk to Tony about the “ills that plague our society and threaten the Church” and first on their list was the “homosexual problem.” As they started to describe these people, I started to feel physically ill. I sat in silent misery and anger, doing what I had always done: nothing. It used to be part of my religion never to upset anybody. Tony did his best to enlighten the couple, but my own silence was so loud in my ears that I can’t even remember what he said. That ride seemed interminable. But it ended too soon and I was left with my guilt. Those two people would go on with their made-up Jesus and their mixed-up thinking and they had every reason to think that I agreed with them. For me, that night, a cock crowed for the third time. I had not only failed to stand up for some dear friends, I had betrayed the Jesus who loved them. That night—miserable and ashamed of myself—I asked God to forgive me and to give me the courage to speak the truth next time. And God has given me many, many next times; and today is one of them."

            ~Peggy Campolo

Congratulations to Professor Helen Bond!—Chris Keith

The Jesus Blog would like to congratulate Helen Bond on her promotion to Professor of Christian Origins at the University of Edinburgh!  Congratulations, Professor Bond!  This is a well-deserved honor for one of the leading New Testament scholars in the world (and a wonderful Doktormutter as well).  If you haven't read Professor Bond's contribution to the Jesus Blog, do so here.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Upcoming Changes (and Not) for Me and St Mary’s—Chris Keith

As something of an explanation for why I have not posted a lot on the Jesus Blog here lately, I wanted to update readers that here very soon my family and I will be moving from London back to the US.  Fortunately, I am not leaving St Mary's University, Twickenham.  I will keep my posts as Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity and Director of the Centre for the Social-Scientific Study of the Bible (CSSSB), and thus will continue working with my colleagues in the Centre, Prof Steve Walton and Prof James Crossley.  Our conferences and PhD supervision will roll on as normal, and I will frequently be in London.  I know that trading London for Kentucky isn't necessarily the most logical thing to do.  But this move to the US is due both to family matters and the desire of St Mary's to have a greater presence in the US.

Among many others, one upside to this move is that I will be able to visit US PhD students on site, in addition to meeting together in London at least once a year, at conferences, and over Skype.  If you're in the US and interested in doing a PhD in New Testament non-residentially at St Mary's, working with Prof Crossley and me (Prof Walton will take on new students in Fall 2016), please get in touch with either of us.  In addition to coming to see us, we will now be coming to see you!  Of course, if you're interested in doing a PhD residentially in London, get in touch also!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Typing Hebrew Unicode on a Mac

It has been years since I used a mac to write a biblical studies paper. But my new employer kindly issued me a very nice MacBook Air. So I needed to reacquaint myself with mac. Simply installing the SBL fonts was easy. But getting my word processor to recognize the Hebrew fonts and allow me to type from right to left was difficult (for me at least).

I am very grateful to Dr. Michael Burer for creating this youtube instructional:

It is a short instructional youtube. Watch it and you'll be typing Hebrew like a pro in no time.


Friday, June 5, 2015

Klawans on First-Cent. Supersessionism

Today I am re-reading and appreciating anew Jonathan Klawans' masterful Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple: Symbolism and Supersessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism (Oxford: OUP, 2006).

He writes: "…both Paul’s metaphors and Jesus’ eucharistic words and deeds find a likely context in the multifarious and well-attested ancient Jewish efforts to channel the Temple’s sanctity in to various other rituals activities, such as prayer and eating" (244).

There is so much here to digest. (1) Is channeling the Temple's sanctity necessarily supersessionist? (2) Does the first-century Jewish critique of the appropriation of Jewish symbols create a world of possibilities leading to anti-Judaism? (3) What do we make of the proximity of such critique/re-appropriation immediately preceding the Temple's destruction?

If any of these questions interest you, Klawans' book should be on your list.


Quarterly Quote of the Month about Northern California for this Week

"Christianity is borderline illegal in Northern California."
                               ~Erlich Bachman

Thursday, June 4, 2015

My New Favorite Blogger: Rebecca Runesson

Get your daily dose of angry from Rebecca Runesson:

Don't let this shining countenance fool you, "nothing shall escape my wrath," says she.

Don't confuse her wrath with bitterness. She explains, "this rage is perhaps the truest expression of my near-palpable and sometimes all-consuming love for my subject."

Runesson is my new favorite blogger. Consider yourself demoted, Larry Behrendt.


Gronking Jesus: A Review of 'The Lost Gospel' by Jacobovici and Wilson

An excerpt from my LARB review of The Lost Gospel by Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson:

THE LOST GOSPEL is not the worst book ever written. I once attended a party where I was subjected to an excerpt of dinosaur erotica. It was a lovely gathering otherwise, but my ears were assaulted by pages from Taken by the T-Rex. I will say no more for fear that I will corrupt you, gentle reader. The silver lining of my turpid tale is that I now have a new barometer for beastly books. While The Lost Gospel is no match for dinosaur erotica, it is equally daring.
Here are some of the claims that Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson make: (1) a 6th-century text that never once refers to Jesus or Mary Magdalene is secretly about Jesus, Mary, and their children; (2) the character “Joseph” named in this text represents Jesus, Apollo, Helios, Mithras, and a Roman emperor simultaneously; (3) Mary Magdalene was not Jewish and was, moreover, a priestess of Artemis; (4) when Jesus refers to the Queen of Sheba (Matt 12:42), he is speaking of Mary in code; (5) Jesus — not a peasant, but a powerful figure in the world of Roman politics — was the victim of not one but two assassination attempts, both of which he survived; (6) the Roman general Germanicus was the second threat to Jesus, but a Roman prefect named Sejanus saved him, Mary, and their children; and (7) the wine of the Last Supper symbolized Mary’s menstrual blood. As you will see below, this is only a small sampling of this book’s originality.
What, you might wonder, warrants such derring-do? They take a 2nd-century fiction written about two characters from Genesis — Joseph and Aseneth (here referring to the son of Israel; compare to Genesis chs. 41, 46) — and decode this story’s “true” meaning. The story of Joseph and Aseneth, according to Jacobovici and Wilson, is really the secret history of Mary Magdalene and her husband, Jesus. To keep the secret of their marriage and family, various Gnostic authors from the 2nd to the 6th centuries wrote “Joseph” when they really meant Jesus, and “Aseneth” when they meant Mary. This allows Jacobovici and Wilson to rewrite the history of Jesus. They conclude: “Joseph and Aseneth gives us a glimpse into a story untainted by later Roman theology. We finally have a document that was slated for the fire, but is now seeing the light of the day.”
In order to arrive at such a conclusion, the authors must employ conspiracy theories and find hidden meanings behind the story’s plot, characters, and symbols....
To read the full review, see here.