Baker Academic

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Quarterly Quote of the Month about Jesus for this Week

I believe in God, not in a Catholic God. There is no Catholic God. There is God, and I believe in Jesus Christ, his incarnation. Jesus is my teacher and my pastor, but God - the Father, Abba - is the light and the Creator. This is my Being.

                      ~Pope Francis

Wednesday, July 27, 2016


My newest book:

This extraordinary book is Jewish-Christian dialogue at its very finest. Professor Le Donne lives out what he teaches. As a Christian, he learns about God, forgiveness, faith, and love from his Jewish friends, and the wisdom he gains is to be treasured. In his allowing his friends to ask him the most difficult questions, he shows the heart of a seeker for truth—ultimately the heart of a teacher on fire for divine friendship made concrete in love of neighbor.
                         —Matthew Levering, James N. and Mary D. Perry Jr. Chair of Theology, Mundelein Seminary 

Monday, July 25, 2016

Scripture Reverberating through the Gospels: pt. 1

Biblical scholarship's most conspicuous medium is the printed word: monographs, journal articles, reference works, even electronic forums like blog posts and other social media. Our discipline's primary currency is ideas, and these are usually encountered through the things we publish.

But the printed word has its downsides. Our books and articles may convey our ideas to wider audiences, but they can also conceal us, the women and men behind the ideas. Every semester I try to get my students to see the authors behind the texts they read, whether the authors of modern secondary course texts or the writers of ancient primary sources. Commentaries don't tell you what a text means; they tell you about an author and what she or he thinks a text means (or, I'm discovering with my own work, what they once thought a text meant). Monographs are not comprised of disembodied ideas; they are the products of years of embodied labor, involving the fluids associated with the body—blood, sweat, tears—and affected by all that befalls the body—health and vitality; illness and decline.

Sometimes the flesh-and-blood author is difficult to detect behind the ink spread out upon the page. While this is usually by design, it is always unfortunate. That is not the case with Richard Hays's most recent volume, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Baylor University Press, 2016). The title is, of course, evocative of Hays's now-classic work, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (Yale University Press, 1989), which in many ways began the tidal shift in the discussion of Paul's use of Israel's scriptures. We no longer read the Apostle merely as a proof-texter who lifted words from the Hebrew Bible and twisted them to serve his own interests; today it is not difficult to find scholars who see in Paul's letters evidence of a creative and attentive reader who shaped and was shaped by biblical traditions and texts. A similar perspectival shift has already affected scholarship on Jesus and the Gospels, and not without reference to Hays's work on Paul's letters. (Think names like Juel, Watts, Marcus, and many, many, many others.) For this reason, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels will struggle to make as monumental an impact on the field of NT scholarship as did its older sibling, though that is perhaps an unreasonably high standard. But we'll turn to the book in a minute; for now, I want to keep our focus on the author.

Hays begins with a seven-page preface that does what all prefaces do: it introduces the reader to the book (pp. xiii–xix). Here Hays offers the standard fare; he offers some explanation of how the book came to be, describes his own interest in the book's subject, and mentions how this book relates to other material he has published (especially his Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness [Baylor University Press, 2014]).

But then the preface ceases to be standard and becomes . . . what? It becomes moving. Unlike other prefaces, the preface to Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels pulls back the curtain to reveal the author as a human being, to make visible the book that follows as an embodied work that participates in all the hopes and fears of life in this Now/Not-Yet. The move from "standard" to "moving" really begins here:
In July 2015 I was suddenly diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In light of this shattering diagnosis, I stepped down from the deanship immediately and went on medical leave. As I write these words in early October 2015, I have been through two months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and it is still unknown whether the treatments will have been sufficiently effective to make it possible for me to undergo surgery. If so, my prognosis will be uncertain. If not, my life expectancy will be short. (p. xiv)
My personal life has been touched by cancer (as I explain here); the words attributed to Amanda's Army in this graphic perfectly expresses my sentiment. My prayers, weak and ineffectual as they may be, are for Richard, his body, and his family.

The remainder of the preface describes "the remarkable events of the past two months" (p. xv), a span of time that, in addition to the myriad personal and existential affairs that require attention in the wake of a dire prognosis, saw the completion of Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels. While every published book (and article) is the product of a team effort, Hays explains the unusually robust contribution that friends have made to the present volume, from Carey Newman and his staff at Baylor University Press to Hays's research assistant to four NT scholars who undertook the task of taking one of Hays's four massive chapters (on Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John) and getting them ready for publication. (I will leave these individuals unnamed, for the most part; see pp. xvii–xix for their identification and a description of their extraordinary work.) When the reader finishes reading the preface, s/he comes away with a sense of relief that this 500+ page behemoth went live while its author was still around to see his work published and while readers might still have access to the embodied perspective behind the work.

I guess what I'm trying to say is: Reading this book, and offering one of the very earliest of reviews, affords me a sense of honor. There will, I'm sure, be occasions to argue and critique. But those occasions will not detract from my gratitude for playing even this small part in the story of this book.

Okay. On to the book itself.

As early as p. xvi, Hays explains the primary objective of Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels: "this book seeks to shed light on the whole range of scriptural interpretation and hermeneutics in each of the four Gospels." Later, in the Introduction, Hays restates this objective: "this book will seek to trace the ways in which the Gospel writers themselves articulated their message through deep engagement with Israel's Scripture" (p. 6). This last statement already reveals a vital component of Hays's thesis (viz., that the Gospels exhibit the marks of their authors' "deep engagement with Israel's Scripture"), though Hays is also careful to acknowledge that this feature common to the four canonical Gospels is not identical in all four texts. All four bear the marks of Israel's sacred traditions, but they bear those marks in various and variant ways.

Hays begins with a discussion of "figural interpretation," a retrospective reading of the past in light of the newly unfolded events of the present. Reading the Old Testament (this is Hays's preferred term, rather than "Hebrew Bible") figurally is not as mechanical or restrictive as reading them predictively. The hermeneutical activity of figuration belongs to the reader rather than the author. "For that reason, a hermeneutical strategy that relies on figural interpretation of the Bible creates deep theological coherence within the biblical narrative" (p. 3; my emphasis).

I find all of this helpful, both for enabling a robustly but respectfully Christian reading of texts from the Hebrew Bible and for a historically sensitive reading of the Gospels (and other texts from the New Testament). Even so, I would quibble with Hays's formulation of the primary question. He asks: "How does each one [of the Gospel writers] draw upon the Old Testament to depict the identity of Jesus and to interpret his significance?" (p. 4). One gets the sense that Hays sees "the Old Testament" as something distinct from the early Christians' perceptions and understandings of Jesus, as if they turned to scriptural texts in order to communicate something they already knew apart from those texts. The influence of biblical tropes, themes, and images, however, belongs not to the early Christians' depictions of Jesus' identity but to their very apprehensions of him, both their perceptions and their interpretations. As I acknowledged earlier, this may seem a quibble. But I think the difference matters, like the difference between contact lenses and eyeballs, or between clothes and skin.

The primary thrust of the remainder of the Introduction (after the restatement of the book's purpose, quoted above) is a discussion of the book's design: its scope, structure, and method (pp. 6–14). As to "scope" (pp. 6–8), Hays is clear that this book is not about the historical Jesus, nor about the earliest Christian social contexts, nor about the development of an early "high" Christology. "Instead, this is a book that offers an account of the narrative representation of Israel, Jesus, and the church in the canonical Gospels, with particular attention to the ways in which the four Evangelists reread Israel's Scripture—as well as the ways in which Israel's Scripture prefigures an illuminates the central character in the Gospel stories" (p. 7, italics in the original have been removed).

As to "structure" (pp. 8–9), the book features one chapter for each of the four canonical Gospels, followed by a brief (twenty-page) conclusion. Each chapter is comprised of five sections: (i) an overview of a given evangelist as an interpreter of Israel's Scripture, (ii) the in/evocation of Scripture to re-narrative Israel's story, (iii) the in/evocation of Scripture to narrate Jesus' identity, (iv), the in/evocation of Scripture to narrate the role of the church vis-à-vis the world, and (v) a summary conclusion (p. 9; see also p. 14). Hays also briefly justifies the decision to address the three Synoptic Gospels alongside the distinctive Gospel of John together in a single volume (p. 9).

As to "method" (pp. 10–14), Hays offers at least three substantive points. First, Hays "presupposes that all four canonical Gospels are deeply embedded in a symbolic world shaped by the Old Testament . . . that their 'encyclopedia of production' is constituted in large measure by Israel's Scripture" (p. 10). The Hellenistic (Greco-Roman) context is also significant, but secondarily so. Second, Hays rehearses how he employs the standard terms "quotation," "allusion," and "echo," with some extended discussion of the last of these (pp. 10–13). "These terms are approximate markers on the spectrum of intertextual linkage, moving from the most to the least explicit forms of reference" (p. 10). This section includes Hays's one reference to John Miles Foley (in an endnote; see p. 370 n.21); in my view it is unfortunate that Hays has not been more profoundly influenced by the Foley's work on tradition and reception, both of which are central concerns in Hays's own works. Even so, Hays rightly grasps the academic task at hand: "not some arcane theory-driven methodology . . . [but rather] simple attention to the way that human language and storytelling ordinarily work" (p. 11). And again, "our discourse is inherently intertextual and allusive" (p. 12). Indeed. Third, Hays assumes Markan priority, but he also employs an ambivalent Q-skepticism: "It seems to me equally probable—indeed more probable—that Luke knew Matthew and that the verbal agreements between these two Gospel can be explained in this fashion rather than through positing a hypothetical Q source" (p. 13). It seems to me, speaking impressionistically, that Q-skepticism (in the specific guise of Markan priority without Q) is quickly becoming an equal rival—if not a dominant option—among non-source-critical scholarship on the Synoptic Gospels; for another recent significant work that rejects Q, see Francis Watson's Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective (Eerdmans, 2013). A fourth point, offered not so much as method but rather as clarification, concerns the legitimacy of the Evangelists' appropriation of the Jewish Scriptures. Here I think Hays preserves an unfortunate set of categories (viz., Christian and Jewish) and attempts to foster respectful and honest discussions between them. But these are our categories, not our texts'. Our authors—all four of them, in my view—wrote as Jews, of a Jewish messiah and other Jewish cultural and theological ideas, and did not approach the concerns and problems they faced with these categories at hand. Even Luke's use of the term Christian (Χριστιανός; Christianos) in Acts 26:28 understands this as a Jewish descriptor; a Christianos is something a Jew (like Paul, and like Agrippa) can be.

Despite these perhaps gnatty criticisms, the preface and Introduction set up Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels as an interesting, insightful, and engaging work of embodied literary scholarship. I'm looking forward to diving into the four substantive chapters on each of the canonical Gospels, though their length is also somewhat intimidating (Chapter 1, on the Gospel of Mark, comprises eighty-nine pages, along with twenty pages of endnotes!). It may be a while before you see pt. 2 of this review, though I can envision interacting with this or that point as I work through the chapter. So I encourage you to watch this space, but do so patiently. In the meantime, buy this book and read it along with me. And if you do, drop me a line to let me know what you think as you read it.

Scripture Reverberating through the Gospels: pt. 1
Scripture Reverberating through the Gospels: pt. 2

Friday, July 22, 2016

Does media criticism make any difference?

I just received a message regarding my book, Oral Tradition and the New Testament (Guides for the Perplexed; Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014). The person raised an insightful and important question, and I thought I'd share it here, along with my response.

First, the question (slightly edited):
I just finished reading your Guide on Oral Tradition & the NT and came away with mixed feelings. While I was looking for a more general, less polemic introduction to the field, I think your exposition of the contextual approach was very well thought-out and definitely helped clarify the way I think about media in the ancient world. Also, as the kind of person who can easily get carried away with social theory, I appreciated your reminders that written texts are all we have to work with.

However, I came away disappointed because none of your four examples of media criticism at the end of your book seemed to really demonstrate the power or necessity of a media critical approach. Your interpretations were convincing or at least intriguing, but they still relied entirely on textual referents and interconnections. It seemed like your approach was leading you to think "outside the box" and approach these texts in a different way from other scholars, but it was unclear to me how media crit, specifically, led to those conclusions, rather than just casting a wider net of potential textual references. What am I missing?
And second, my response (again, slightly edited):
Dear [sir],

Thank you for your message. You actually raise the one issue (well, perhaps there are two) with my book that readers have conveyed to me. How does media criticism, as a method, affect textual exegesis and/or historical reconstruction? We can see, at the level of method, how redaction criticism handles texts differently from, say, form criticism. But how does media criticism affect the interpretive or analytical procedure? It really is a great question.

The problem, for me, is that I don't think media criticism is a method, necessarily, as much as it is a shift in perspective. In other word, how I read texts might not be that different from a media-critical perspective, but the assumptions that I bring to the texts will certainly be different. So, for example, my discussion of ekballō ["cast out"] in Mark 1.12 did not try to explain the Markan text with reference to other textual artifacts (i.e., specific passages from Exodus, or even Exodus as a whole) but rather by placing Mark, as a tradent within the Jesus tradition—which itself was situated within Israelite tradition—in a larger cultural and traditional context and examining how he used language to take advantage of communicative potential afforded him by his community's (broadly conceived) experience with the tradition. In other words, I privileged the question of how Mark's text functioned as a vehicle of meaning between the author/performer and his readers/hearers. This is distinct from the question of traditional philological questions about the meaning(s) of words, phrases, syntactical structures, etc. My approach focuses on questions of production, performance, and reception, and tries to see how the text arises from the communicative exchanges between author/performer and readers/hearers. So I'm not so much "casting a wider net of potential textual references" as I am trying to cast a wider net of potential cultural (or traditional) references.

I think issues of text and performance, of tradition and culture are terribly exciting. Perhaps my little book was polemical; I didn't intend it to be, but I also did not hesitate from advocating for a particular vision of the future of media criticism. I admit to thinking that many of the voices in this field are using terms too loosely and/or looking for things that don't exist (e.g., remnants of "orality" in written texts), and I think scholars looking in from outside of media criticism see that and so avoid taking an interest in a field that should interest them. So if I can be a part of setting the media-critical discussion on firmer and more fruitful paths (I'm probably mixing metaphors here) and thereby expand its impact among biblical scholars, I will be thrilled.

Quarterly Quote of the Month about Jesus for this Week

Evangelicals are voting for Donald Trump. What part of Donald Trump reminds you of Jesus Christ? Trump lusts after his own daughter on national radio, talks about women's bodies and breasts in such a disparaging way, and mocks them. How is this in any way Christian? When you make the "other" the enemy, how is that Christian?

                                   ~Ken Burns

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Problem with the Jesus Movement

I have been asked to write an encyclopedia article on "Jesus Movement, the." When asked, I realized that I don't often use the phrase myself. But it is a common enough designation in biblical / Second Temple studies that it warrants some definition. So I agreed and began to solicit help from a sociologist friend.

It seems to me that scholars use this phrase to indicate the group that coalesced around the personality, teachings, and legends of Jesus before the group can be properly called "Christianity." It also occurs to me that using sociological language for this group allows us to avoid talk of messianism, experiences of divine intervention, and other god-talk and thus avoid the appearance of religion. I.e. social-scientific language sanitizes Jesus for secular consumption. Or maybe it's just that biblical studies (alongside the rest of the humanities) has been trying to appear more like the "hard sciences" in the era of modernity. Whatever the case, somewhere along the way we adopted this particular sociological category: "movement."

But it must be asked: was the Jesus movement a "movement"?

In my research, "social movements" are variously defined by sociologists. But, in general terms, successful movements tend to have a few discernible features:
1. A deeply felt social problem. This must be a specifically named experience of shared suffering or social discontentment. I.e. there must be an impetus for a social antidote around which the social movement rallies.
2. A charismatic personality. This is "charisma" in Weber's sense. I.e. we're not talking about a gregarious fellow necessarily. We not talking about gifts of the spirit necessarily. Rather, this personality is seen as exceptional in some way. He or she may be a gifted orator or may perform amazing actions that inspire social change. This person usually communicates a direction for the group and accesses resources that mobilize them. This person tends to be an authoritarian, acting unilaterally and forcefully commanding his/her following. This person attempts to revolutionize or reform a particular status quo.
3. A shared ideology: The group must be motivated by a sense of shared moral judgements, intentions, and symbols by which they orient their lives.
4. Organization: The leader(s) must be able to marshal economic, political, cultural, and/or military resources to make the movement move. 
By this short gloss of a framework, was the Jesus movement a social movement? I think not. But I am willing to be convinced otherwise. Do please chime in to help me.

There is no doubt that Jesus' following identified social problems. But does any single social problem explain the emergence of the collective identity? I suppose anti-Rome folks will point to Roman colonization and domination as the key. After all, "kingdom (or rule) of God" probably stands in opposition to Roman rule. But does this motivation explain why Jesus' following, teachings, charismatic actions, etc. took the specific shape that they took? Probably not.

The second stage (and it should be said that stages 2, 3, and 4 happen almost simultaneously most of the time) is the only stage that works for Jesus and his followers. Jesus was an exorcist and a healer. This might have been enough to draw crowds. He (or so it seems) was a skill orator. But then we run into number three....

The third stage is another dilemma. What was the shared ideology of Jesus' so-called "movement"? Eschatology? The belief that Israel's God would return as Judge? Care for the poor? Okay, fine. But how does this differ from many (most?) groups within the Second Temple period? Moreover, Jesus' stories and puzzling sayings often confuse rather than clarify. We must wonder whether a specific ideology was being promoted. After all, early Christianity seems to branch out in several directions.

The fourth stage is also a dilemma. Jesus seems much more like an unpredictable holy man who runs from crowds and much less like an authoritarian who organizes them into a force.

In order to call Jesus' following a "movement" we have to force Jesus into a sociological model that doesn't work. I am much more inclined to think of Jesus as a charismatic personality who ends up alienating most of his followers. It could be that early Christianity rallies around the problem of the Cross and thus launches a "social movement." But this doesn't explain how/why Jesus' initial following came together.

In short, the most important dilemma here is identifying the "social problem" (i.e. stage one). What is the specifically named experience of shared suffering or social discontentment? Sickness? Demons? Rome? Agrarian economic disparity? Differences of opinion on purity issues?

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Melania Trump, Plagiarism, and the Teacher's Dilemma

I love my job. There is so much to love about my job. But every job has hazards and my least favorite is my regular encounter with student plagiarism. In my experience students steal ideas without crediting the original source of these ideas all of the time. I guess that most of the time they come by this theft honestly. By this I mean that most students try their best to use commonsense and thus repeat something written by a scholar of a previous generation. There is nothing new under the sun, after all. Technically this is plagiarism by the standards of most universities and seminaries. Very few professors, however, want to spend their time on such matters.

The real trouble is when a student consciously repeats from a source without quotations or citation. In other words, they attempt to pass off the copy-and-paste job as something they authored. When this happens the teacher sighs, curses, laments the downfall of western civilization (audibly to whoever* happens to be in the room at the time), and begins the process of documenting the problem. This process usually results in the failure of the student and an enormous headache for the teacher. The teacher's dilemma involves suppressing her/his exhaustion, negotiating compassion vs. fairness, and copious amounts of cheap pinot noir. In my case, I inevitably decide that the greater good is to support the integrity of the class, the institution, and higher learning (whatever is left of it). So it becomes a matter of demonstrating compassion for the student within the process of failing the student.

What follows is anecdotal and speaks only from my experience and the experience of other commiserating colleagues.

There tends to be a pattern in the type of student who plagiarizes in reckless and obvious ways. This student tends to be (1) overwhelmed in class and/or life and (2) out of their element culturally or professionally.

This student may be a second-career person who is overwhelmed by the work required of a graduate student. This person may be from a different part of the world and has been pressured by numerous cultural differences. They may feel backed into a corner, confused, and frightened. They may have a feeling of being in a no-win situation.

So I am not surprised in the least that Melania Trump finds herself in this situation. As you have no doubt heard by now, Melania Trump has obviously and recklessly plagiarized from a speech given previously by Michelle Obama. At the risk of appearing holier-than-thou (although readers of this blog tend to be scoundrels so it doesn't take much to appear this way -- I'm looking at you Danny Yencich) I feel no sense of schadenfreude about her plight. I don't doubt that she is responsible for her actions; she is also a victim of circumstance.

Mrs. Trump claims to have written the speech herself with very little help from a speechwriter. This seems difficult to believe. It is part of the social contract that we maintain with public figures that we pretend that they write their own public statements while knowing better. In other words, this is the sort of deception that we all agree to, making it something more like a game of winks and nods. So when we hear Hulk Hogan, Adrien Peterson, or Melania Trump speak with legal/political aplomb, we shrug our shoulders and attribute it to a wordsmith even when they claim otherwise.

But let's also remember that Mrs. Trump's husband has created a "brand" with tremendous, amazing, and huge political currency. He has the best words. She thus finds herself in an impossible situation as a proprietor and prisoner of this brand. This brand boasts being off-script and eschews politically correct language. This is the Trump brand and it is built on a big orange face saying things that a professional wordsmith would never say. And apparently it works. At least 30% of Americans (perhaps more?) like being shocked and enjoy laughing nervously at outrageous statements even when they are baldly false. With this in mind, was Melania Trump given an impossible task? Did she, as she says, choose to write her own speech like her husband does?

Regardless of how we answer this question, let's consider the most likely scenario: Melania Trump never in her wildest dreams imagined that she'd be measured against First-Lady standards. Whatever dubious reasons she had for marrying Donald, she didn't sign up for this sort of dystopian absurdity. Who could have imagined things unfolding the way they have?

My guess is that Melania Trump found herself overwhelmed and out of her element culturally and professionally. So what grade do we give her? I see no way around failing her. She must take responsibility and we must uphold the integrity of the political system (whatever is left of it). But doesn't she also deserve our compassion? It is difficult to imagine a worse no-win situation.

*The relative pronoun takes its case from its use in the relative clause. Tip of the hat to James Ernest.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Quarterly Quote of the Month about Jesus for this Week

A Christian community should do as Jesus did: propose and not impose. Its attraction must lie in the radiance cast by the love of brothers.

                                           ~Jean Vanier

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Text and Tradition in Performance and Writing

In 2009, Cascade Books (an imprint of Wipf & Stock) launched the Biblical Performance Criticism series. The series currently has thirteen volumes, including single-author monographs, edited collections of essays, at least one PhD dissertation, and at least two reprints of books that would otherwise be difficult to access. The series is related to the Biblical Performance Criticism website, both of which are under the leadership of David Rhoads, Professor of New Testament, Emeritus, at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Each volume in the BPC series includes the following description of the series:
The ancient societies of the Bible were overwhelmingly oral. People originally experienced the traditions now in the Bible as oral performances. Focusing on the ancient performance of biblical traditions enables us to shift academic work on the Bible from the mentality of a modern print culture to that of an oral/scribal culture. Conceived broadly, biblical performance criticism embraces many methods as means to reframe the biblical materials in the context of traditional oral cultures, construct scenarios of ancient performances, learn from contemporary performances of these materials, and reinterpret biblical writings accordingly. The result is a foundational paradigm shift that reconfigures traditional disciplines and employs fresh biblical methodologies such as theater studies, speech-act theory, and performance studies. The emerging research of many scholars in this field of study, the development of working groups in scholarly societies, and the appearance of conferences on orality and literacy make it timely to inaugurate this series. For further information on biblical performance criticism, go to
Considering the disparate places in which biblical media criticism has been published (including my own Oral Tradition and the New Testament [Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014] and Eric Eve's Behind the Gospels [SPCK, 2014], but also more difficult books to access, such as Anthony Le Donne and Tom Thatcher's edited volume, The Fourth Gospel in First-Century Media Culture [LNTS 426; Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2011]), I think it's probably a good thing that there is now a series dedicated to bringing together media-critical work.

Volume 9 in the BPC series is Richard A. Horsley's book, Text and Tradition in Performance and Writing (Cascade, 2013). Anyone familiar with Horsley's work (especially over the last two decades) will find much that is familiar here: a broad vision of New Testament studies in general as well as an emphasis on recent challenges to dominant assumptions thereof, an emphasis on broad-scale illiteracy and access to tradition through means other than written texts, a focus on performance as the multidimensional experience of our two-dimensional written textual remains, a strong bifurcation of rich and poor, ruling-class and ruled, city and village, "great tradition" and "little tradition," a refusal to distinguish theology from politics and economics, and so on. Few people have been as consistent (or persistent!) as Horsley in pushing a relatively stable set of ideas and agenda in the various areas of biblical scholarship that he engages. Horsley's NT work has focused especially on the Gospel of Mark and the sayings source, "Q," but he also addresses the Hebrew Bible, Second Temple Jewish literature (especially Ben Sira), and social and archaeological research of our era and area. (He has also recently published on the Fourth Gospel [along with Tom Thatcher; see John, Jesus, and the Renewal of Israel (Eerdmans, 2013)], and of course he has multiple publications on the historical Jesus.) In other words, Horsley ranges broadly in time and space. New Testament and biblical scholarship could use more scholars who range more broadly rather than focus too narrowly.

Text and Tradition in Performance and Writing comprises twelve essays, three of which (Chapters 1, 9, and 10) appeared in previous edited volumes and one of which (Chapter 12) appeared in the journal, Oral Tradition. The essays appear as follows:

  1. Oral Communication, Oral Performance, and New Testament Interpretation (1–30)
  2. The Origins of the Hebrew Scriptures under Imperial Rule: Numinous Writing and Ceremonial Performance (31–52)
  3. Oral-Written Scribal Cultivation of Torah—Not "Re-Written Bible" (53–72)
  4. Oral Composition-and-Performance of the Instructional Speeches of Ben Sira (73–98)
  5. Contesting Authority: Popular vs. Scribal Tradition in Continuing Performance (99–122)
  6. Israelite Tradition and the Speeches of Jesus in Q (123–55)
  7. Hearing Q/Luke 12:2–12 as Oral Performance (156–74)
  8. The Speeches of Yeshua ben Sira—and the Speeches of Yeshua bar Marya (175–97)
  9. The Language(s) of the Kingdom: From Aramaic to Greek and Galilee to Syria (198–219)
  10. Oral Performance and the Gospel of Mark (220–45)
  11. Imagining Mark's Story Composed in Oral Performance (246–78)
  12. Oral Performance in the Emergence of the Gospel of Mark as Scripture (279–301)

Horsley's work is consistently innovative, creative, and interdisciplinary. There is much with which to argue, whether as part of Horsley's analytical framework, his sociological perspective, his exegetical decisions, his comparative analysis, or his working assumptions. And I will mention some of these, below. But before I offer any critique, I want to acknowledge that there is much to learn here. Whereas I will offer different answers to many (most?) of the questions Horsley raises, I think he is at least raising many (most?) of the questions that need raising but are too-often ignored. If you haven't read any of Horsley's earlier works, Text and Tradition in Performance and Writing is a good place to get stuck in.

I offer the following three observations:

First, I do think Horsley is too radical in his denial that written texts as written texts played important functions in Jewish culture during the early Roman period. For Horsley, written texts are the products of the ruling elite (and their servants), especially in Jerusalem and the Temple complex; non-elites (esp. in the villages of Judea and Galilee) had no access to and use for written texts. Also, Horsley thinks that written texts were "largely unintelligible even to the literate who were not already familiar with the text, and extremely difficult to consult" (xii). However, as Larry Hurtado argues (rightly, I think), written manuscripts bear the marks of actual use by readers, and just as importantly we do not read complaints from users about texts being cumbersome or difficult to use (see the essays linked to in this post). Instead, as I have mentioned elsewhere, "[d]espite the relative lack of literacy in the ancient world, written texts were everywhere. . . . Jewish culture in the first centuries BCE and CE demonstrated 'an appreciation for texts among the general population'" (Rodríguez, Oral Tradition and the New Testament, 3, 4; citing Larry Hurtado, "Greco-Roman Textuality and the Gospel of Mark," BBR 7 [1997]: 91–106 [96]). Texts, it seems to me, participated in power dynamics; they were not tools wielded only by the powerful. Horsley points us toward the symbolic value of written texts as cultural objects, a value that is other than a text's written contents (see my "Reading and Hearing in  Ancient Contexts," JSNT 32 [2009]: 151–78 [165–66]), which is significant. But this symbolic value should not lead us to presume that written texts were not also objects to be read.

Second, Horsley offers a new image for the relation between written texts, on one hand, and tradition, on the other. In 1995, Werner Kelber referred to tradition as a "biosphere," a context in which a group lived and to which it made reference in its traditional communications (performances, texts, rituals, etc.). Horsley, who also uses the biosphere-image, offers another: written texts are "the tips of icebergs floating in a sea of Israelite culture or cultural tradition with various identifiable currents" (xii [see also p. xv]; Horsley won't use this metaphor again until p. 265). I like this metaphor because it, like the biosphere metaphor, gets us thinking about tradition as a contextual field within which "texts" (whether written or oral, ritual or informal, etc.) become meaningful. This is a significant advance over the way biblical scholars have been trained to think about traditions, namely as materials that are contained within texts (like Legos). Tradition is not smaller than texts; it is larger, similar to the way English—the language—is larger than any particular English sentence.

Third, I wish Horsley had emphasized more thoroughly the function of tradition, as the sea in which the icebergs of a particular traditional expression (whether oral or written), in the construction of meaning and the navigation of processes of memory and identity. Instead, Horsley focuses on orality, which then sets up an unnecessarily stark conflict between purported functions of written texts (see the first point, above) and those of oral performance. As I argued in Oral Tradition and the New Testament, we don't have any surviving early Christian oral tradition, so our emphasis should be on the noun rather than the adjective. Approaching our written texts as instances—or "actualizations"—of the tradition, as actual embodiments of the potentialities inherent in the tradition itself, helps us to get past the anachronistic models of textual function we have inherited from our training as biblical scholars, but I think it can do so without caricaturing the differences between our alleged "print culture" and their alleged "oral culture." Oral communications are just as vibrant today as they ever have been; similarly, written communications were significant cultural and traditional realities in the early Roman empire, both among Jews and gentiles. We simply do not have to choose between written and oral expressions of tradition, because neither we nor the people we study chose between them. In fact, the constant that transcends various media of communication is the noun which I have been stressing all along: tradition.

There is, of course, more to say about this book; indeed, one could write a serial review if one were so inclined. 😉 Horsley's work is creative and innovative and deserves careful consideration from those of us interested not just in early Jewish and Christians texts but also in the people whose lives were in some way lived in reference to these texts. And as much as we might learn from Horsley's content, I would like to see more of us learn from his example, that more of us would read broadly in the Humanities and Social Sciences, develop truly and thoroughly interdisciplinary perspectives, and discover how these other fields can broaden and deepen our understanding of our texts and, for many of us, even our faith.