March 27, 2012

When was Paul's "Cornelius Moment"?

Matthew Crowe got me thinking on Facebook the other day, and I began to look at some blind spots of mine. For now, here's the full text of our quick Q&A. Well, a quick Q and a longish A. ;-)

Matthew:  Have you blogged about Paul's post-conversion years in Tarsus? I'm wondering if the Jerusalem leaders conveniently put this nuisance (that's too strong of a word, I know) away for his Gentile friendly message.

Bill:  Sorry, long day. Great question. I've looked at Damascus and Nabatea/Arabia several times, but never spent much time on that brief return to Jerusalem. Although Luke plays it straight on the 'for-your-own-safety' angle, it's fair to imagine Peter et al might have taken his leaving as a mixed blessing, at least.

OTOH, to that point in Acts we don't have anything on Paul and circumcision. In fact, by putting Paul with the Hellenists, whom Stephen also disputed with, Luke is telling us that Paul was specifically arguing/fellowshipping with circumcised Greek converts. So while it's very possible Peter & Co thought Paul's continued presence was dangerous for more than one reason, I don't yet see whether Paul has any vision about uncircumcision and the HS. Fascinating question. I'm actually ashamed to say I've never gone into this yet. (Thank You!)

Chronologically, the whole Peter/Joppa/Cornelius foray has always seemed like a semi-timeless piece within Acts, to me. To be more precise, since Galatians tells us that Acts 9:1-22 covers about three years (give or take), it didn't seem necessary to me that the next episode in Luke's narrative would be chronologically *after* that three year gap period. In other words, I once (long ago) decided to treat 9:32 as a possible flashback. Then, after a while, I just quit thinking about it. Then, much later, I started working on Peter & Cornelius (as I've posted on recently).

Thanks to your question, however, I suddenly realize that 9:28-30 does seem to fit better into Peter's "pre-enlightened" phase. The key question, however, is this: WHEN did Paul have his moment like Peter had in Cornelius' house? I never tried to pinpoint that before now. (Again, THANKS!)

First, I don't think Paul overcame circumcision right there on the Damascus Road. Jesus' words were that Paul would go to the gentiles. By themselves, those words are little different than what Peter thought while crossing over Cornelius' threshold. By themselves, those words don't explicitly make the knife a moot issue.

Second, I do think Antioch overcame circumcision at least three years before Peter did. Luke's placement of the Antioch story at 11:19 - which absolutely IS a flashback, to the scattering - by waiting until after the Caesarea episode this is Luke's way of implying more about the Antioch conversions (that, plus the implied contrast of 15:1).

Thus, it appears Paul's most likely moment of dawning was either upon meeting Antioch OR possibly at Tarsus, beforehand.

But to the basic part of your question again, I do think Paul may have been a nuisance in Jerusalem (and that's definitely NOT too strong for Paul, in any age or location - this is the same guy who was locked up or chased out of almost every town he ever went to) but Paul was NOT apparently a nuisance at this point for the sake of the HS and *uncircumcised* gentiles. In that brief era (early 37 AD, I'm certain) during which Peter & Paul actually ministered in the same civic space, I think Paul was enough trouble just as Stephen had been.

Overall, it is interesting how Luke allows Paul to appear as if he'd been enlightened right from the start... and yet Luke never says such a thing. In the hour or so that it took me to build this long comment-response, it's become clear to me that Paul had no such revelation in Damascus, in Arabia, or in Jerusalem. Maybe that's yet another reason why Acts remains sparse on the details of Paul's movements during that time. Again, fascinating!


Matthew:  Wow...thanks for the response! I'll read over this for a while and try to digest it all. :-)

Oh, and don't thank me. W.H.C. Frend's "The Rise of Christianity" gave me the idea. Thanks for interacting!

Hope that all made sense. I'll write a real post on all that someday, maybe.

Feel free to 'like' this post with an IRL thumbs up, and then "Leave a comment..." or "Share".

March 25, 2012

Full Disclosure on Ecclesiology

Most of the time, I feel certain that Pastors are absolutely the first and most serious answer when anyone asks the question "What's wrong with the church?" The centrality of the sermon, the clergy/laity divide, the spiritual & psychological laziness that's unconsciously purchased by tithing, the numbing effect of the special performer, the blessed passivity that's fostered by congregation-as-audience, the unbeatable trap between lead or don't lead - all of these are unfair to the body of Christ, and unfair to our most preciously gifted and called ones, the Pastors themselves. Many never quite realize their very position is what makes significant change nearly impossible. Most do realize this, but embrace compromise as necessary, to some degree or another.

At other times, I honestly believe that Pastors are our only hope for sparking genuine & widespread change. Change always starts with one, not with many. The gifted and called one must sacrifice for the sake of the many. With the proper series of slight shifts on a slow schedule, seeking skillful guidance, and possessing years worth of patience, a traditional Pastor holds a unique opportunity. I can name more than a couple of stories where a typical sit-and-listen auditorium was led into successful transition, in stages, and then oh-so-gradually trained to become a functioning body of multiple functioning parts. I can name multiple 'Pastors' who've had various degrees of success working themselves out of a job, and yet gaining a new job description.

Most churches are like infants, completely dependent on nearly constant parental care.

Many Pastors are good parents, but nearly all feel their 'children' get stuck at the earliest developmental stage.

Natural parenting doesn't succeed if a grown child still acts like an irresponsible infant.

Pastoral care needs to learn that a church has to be raised up... before being 'let go'.

A parent's job never ends. Never.

But it changes. It must.

Else, the child cannot.



March 17, 2012

Hebrew Literacy was Communal

NT Studies is still working to "alter the default setting" of our views on first century literacy & orality, but Michael Bird's (truly, wonderful) post on Thursday still spent most of its energy lifting up examples of Greek and Roman literary practices. That's not bad or good, that's just what scholars at this point expect to see in an argument. Okay. But there's more to this puzzle. The larger goal here isn't just literacy at large, but the particular literacy of Jesus' earliest followers. Those male & female disciples, of course, were neither Roman nor Greek.

Jewish literacy, at large, was generally far more communal than literacy among other ancient cultures. King Philip hired Aristotle to teach his own Prince and the sons of the nobles, but any "notebooks" kept by that cohort aren't going to be read aloud to the Macedonian townspeople each Saturday. Likewise, Roman "literary elites" absolutely kept various "notebooks" for their own personal use, but that remains vastly different from the typical Hebrew experience.

It's common historical knowledge that Synagogues all over the Mediterranean were places where *literacy* was enjoyed aurally, weekly, by the entire community. In Judaism, the literate few served the literary needs of their illiterate brethren. It was not literary elites among the Jews who became known as "The People of the Book". It was everyone. This should clearly be part of scholars' new "default setting".

As NT studies continue embracing a Jesus and Paul who are more fully Jewish, I dare say it's time for "First Century Literacy" to regain more of its Jewish context as well.

Finally, in the even-more-particular case of Jesus and his disciples, I think the last key point is Moses.

Consider Jesus-as-Moses from the point of view of the twelve, or the 120:

(1) Since Exodus was a very strong part of the literary background for Jesus' earliest followers, and (2) because the twelve and the 120 all believed strongly that Moses' story had been written down for the sake of all God's people everywhere, and (3) if Jesus' disciples began to came to see him as the new Moses, leading the new Exodus, more and more as the final Passover approached... THEN all of this should have quite naturally urged several or perhaps most of the 120 to begin asking themselves, and each other, "When is one of us going to start writing some of this stuff down?"

Admittedly, that last part is my own speculation, but it's based in the broader facts, which are not.

Hebrew Literacy was an aural experience, one as ubiquitous as the Torah at the Synagogue and - more - as the Shema on their doorposts. Even to the most illiterate Jews, Literacy was a precious community institution valued as highly as any other. The Passover Night cannot even have an oral haggadah without Hebrew literacy, and no individual Jew had a single memory of Passover that failed to reflect some awareness of their religious literature's very enormous importance.

And now a word on ancient literacy statistics:

The significant stat is not that 5% or 10% of the Ancient world might have been literate. The significant statistic is that 1 out of every 1 Synagogue Jews had a special place in their heart for the value of literacy. The micro-community of Jesus' 120 disciples only required *one* notebook writer to pick up a stylus and parchment (or papyrus, or less likely a codex), but our question is not about not the six to twelve individuals who likely had the capacity to start keeping a "notebook" of Jesus' activities and engagements. The key question is about the 108 to 114 whose very presence, let alone their insistence, would have caused at least *one* of Jesus' disciples to start putting things down for posterity.

Even if the Twelve waited until Jesus' final year of Jesus' ministry to start making some notes... well, that would explain a lot, actually.

At any rate, Jewish Literacy was Communal. And to sum up the Mathematical side point, the odds that one disciple [of twelve] started writing are mathematically much, much stronger than one chance in twelve.

March 15, 2012

This just in:

Michael Bird suggests Jesus' followers used notebooks to remember his teachings. Yes. And why not? As Bird points out with a bevy of ancient examples, such a practice wasn't all that uncommon.

Please read for yourself (and enjoy) his very careful considerations, at Euangelion.

March 14, 2012


I just realized that last post marked the 1,000th post here on the NT/History Blog. Which means I just barely missed celebrating the big round number by only 21 posts.

The next time seventy sevens comes up again will be just 469 posts from now. I hope I don't miss it that time.

Oh, well.

Selah vie. ;-)

March 13, 2012

The Evolution of Adam

I'm neither Creationist nor Evolutionist, but the third option is NOT "undecided". Personally, I find both Genesis' story and Evolutionary theory to be lacking in various* ways, and I suspect that we're ALL fairly unlikely to be guessing accurately at what happened in Earth's far flung past, let alone how to describe and explain biological development - from that point until now - in any practical terms.

Nevertheless, it looks increasingly likely that most if not all Western Christians will soon decide to believe Evolution and I'm totally okay with that as a Christian, no matter how much it bothers me as a Skeptic. Therefore, with my personal mixed feelings aside, I must hereby declare that with RJS' final summary of Peter Enns' new book, The Evolution of Adam, it looks increasingly likely that Enns has done all Western Christians a real favor.

While Jesus and Paul both spoke of Adam as if Genesis were historical, the weight that Paul places on Adam's original sin was about "the deep, foundational plight of the human condition" something that Enns says Paul merely "expressed in the biblical idiom available to him." Furthermore, "God's solution through the resurrection of Christ" obviously remains the same in either case. Yes, I just said that. Please note:

Although I'm usually the last one to embrace solutions where "historicity doesn't matter because the meaning's the same", it's a fair statement in this particular case because the investigation was ideological through and through. In other words, the only good** reason to investigate this issue was to consider if Paul's argument in Romans still works. According to Peter Enns, it still does. The Evolution of Adam may not be complete, but this book is a major contribution in these ongoing developments. About that much, there can be no question.

 * Evolution, if true, is nothing less than divinely miraculous, and utterly non-accidental. Logically, even given whatever bajillions of years for everything to transpire, the odds against all that are still so ridiculous that only Deus Ex Machina could explain all the diverse biological complexity that's developed to this point. So while "Intelligent Design" isn't viably scientific, it remains good logic that absolutely does beg the question. If God's required, why did he choose to Evolve us so slowly?

 * The Genesis story, if true, is at best a poor representation of actual facts. Logically, unless God and Adam spoke Hebrew before the Tower of Babel, then at least *some* of the aspects in Gen 1-3 are merely intended to portray, using words as best as anyone could have, a version of things known/believed at the time. So while there's no grounds to make Genesis totally "figurative", it remains less than 'incontrovertible video evidence'. If that's precisely what happened, how come it all doesn't really make sense?

 ** The other reason some will keep fighting about this is because Evangelical hardliners feel that Paul's evocations of Adam must be taken as evidence of Adam's historicity. Obviously, that's a major reason Enns wrote the book, but for my feelings on all that, see here.

March 11, 2012

New Pages (links)

I'm planning to add a few more content tabs above. Here's the first two, tonight:

Gospel History is an old post with slight revisions that I'm elevating to headliner status. It's my four point suggestion for scripture based historiography, one that pretty well sums up as positively as I can all the best reasons for doing what I (attempt to) do here, and why I'll continue to call upon NT scholars to attempt doing it also.

Simple Christianity is a succinct manifesto I wrote over a year ago that can fit on one 8.5 x 11 sheet, if printed front to back. The first half is meant to encourage individual believer in a spiritual way and the second half is meant to encourage small church groups in a practical way. All of it is meant to be encouraging. 

The primary strategy I have in mind for this small leaflet is to pass it out anywhere, with or without a return address. The secondary idea is that 1,000 handouts might produce 20 return contacts, of which a handful might manage to form long term connections - perhaps with each other, if not altogether. Now, I wish I could tell you that I've tried it successfully here but I haven't felt the right timing or impetus. (A part of me is ashamed to admit that, and a part of me isn't. Let the reader understand.) However, my delay/failure (?) is no reason to keep this new page in the draft bin forever. Maybe someone else will find just the right moment and audience for this small bit of icebreaking. If it helps you or someone you know, I would love to hear back, later, about your experiences.

Thanks for reading, and for praying and for seeking the Lord. I hope you find Him in the Saints.

By the way, as I tweeted earlier I leased four apartments today, which makes me feel even more confidently like this new job is going to work out well enough, long term. That takes a load off, and hopefully translates into more progress on some of these long term projects. Time will tell.

Check for more news and updates in the days/weeks to come.

The Lord is Risen. The Lord is Risen indeed. Allelulia.


March 7, 2012

Worthy NT and/or History Postings

Today's my day off and so far I'm spending it with a typically fascinating spin around the biblioblogosphere. Here's three today that pushed my buttons and made me think harder, plus five more worth a look:

First: Michael Barber is looking forward to Mike Bird's new Jesus book, about facets of memorability. I'm sure I'l enjoy it - mainly because it promises to interact with Bauckham & Allison's latest works on the subject - but it makes me wonder yet again, how many more decades of debate about historicity and methodology will readers have to put up with, in historical Jesus research? Sigh. Maybe the process will eventually prove to 'grind exceedingly fine'. Do you think?

Second: Over at Jesus Creed, RJS continues reviewing Peter Enns' new book, The Evolution of Adam. Q&A: (1) Does Adam's historicity affect Paul's theology, really? Maybe. (2) If you told Paul that Adam was 'figurative', would Paul have believed it? Doubtful. (3) But if Paul *had* believed Adam was figurative, would that have changed Paul's view of Jesus? Answer 3: Highly doubtful!

It seems that Enns may have a strong point: however Paul constructed his argument in Romans, its conclusion may not actually depend on the historicity of Adam. However, if the argument's soundness is not in question, what about it's validity? That's why this discussion keeps reminding me of Mathematicians and the impossible-yet-workable concept of the "Infinite Limit", as I once discussed here, in Genesis AS IF History.

Third: Daniel Kirk has been trying to define and explain "Narrative Theology" recently. Apparently, it's how a theologian incorporates historical thinking, which means (=) having a four-dimensional awareness of how ideas and events in real life tend to go through developmental change, as opposed to thinking of everything as if reaching a fixed status for all time. In other words, Daniel's Storied Theology is the next best thing to doing actual History!

Snark aside, I do think Theological Re-Storying has a bit more wiggle room built in than does Historical Re-Storying, mainly because its a different kind of wiggle room. Theologians work more with highly interpretive ideology, whereas Historians can usually point out precisely which blanks they've filled in. At any rate, I suppose I also just illustrated precisely why I have such a love/hate relationship with Daniel's thinking, but I'm very glad that he does keep on sharing it. I'll take a "Storied Theology" any day over "Bible as Instruction Book"; see also Daniel's thoughts on Narrative Theology versus traditional Biblical Theology or Systematics. Yes, contextualized and temporally oriented views of an active God and his ongoing work are far more helpful (I think) than abstracted absolutes and extracted principles, which so often lead to false understanding and misapplication of scripture.

It occurs to me with increasing force that the popularization of Narrative Theology is not unrelated to the endless frustrations of the NT Historical quagmire - all in all, just the next chapter in the History of History.

Fourth through Eighth, briefly: * Alan Knox agrees with the statement, "There are no perfect churches", but also finds it a bit of a cop-out. * Matthew R Malcolm explains succinctly why fundamentalism so often breeds atheism * I'm saving an hour, later, for an in-depth analysis of Mike Bird's treatise on "believing criticism" * Via HOTAW, why it matters that Rome's economic center was farther East than our 'mental maps' usually go * And Mary Beard mythbusted against the common anachronism of imagining Nero in the Colosseum. That's right, the original Christian-eating lions would have feasted in the Circus, where Ben-Hur won that chariot race! ;-)

By the way, is it just me, or does this famous lion kind of look like he's about to get saved?

I'm sure he managed to press through the transformative urge. Cats are always so stoic.

Have a great rest of the week, everyone!

March 4, 2012

Alexander, Ghost on the Throne

On the goy side, NT background studies should always begin with the legacy of Alexander the Great. From Alexander's successors, you go forward to understand the inevitability - and arguable necessity - of Rome's eastward advance toward Palestine. From Alexander himself, you can go backwards to connect Greece with Persia and the OT. (Remember, Esther loved up on the same Xerxes who killed Leonidas. I always enjoy pointing that out.)

At any rate, N.S. Gill posted a very engaging review of a new biography of Alexander the Great, Ghost on the Throne, which sounds like it accounts more for the aftermath of Alexander's life, which I personally find more interesting because that aftermath was his actual legacy.  Four quick excerpts (w/ brief commentary below):
1* Romm points out that the term [Diadochoi, Successors] is anachronistic for seven years following the death of Alexander (in 323 B.C.), because they weren't competing for the throne, just for power. He prefers to call them Alexander's generals. 
2* So much rested on so little, time and again. 
3* The first known battle led by women was fought between Alexander's family's women.
4* At the end of the book, in 315 B.C., the empire of Alexander was ruled by five sovereigns: Antigonus in Asia, Ptolemy in Egypt and areas on the east of the Mediterranean to Phoenicia, in Thrace, Lysimachus held power, and Cassander ruled Macedonia and most of Greece.
On 1: Romm's right. From the moment of Ptolemy's initial strategy (take Egypt, the wealthiest, most defensible, and yet least desired), the "Diadochs" were never trying to succeed Alexander, as if any one of them could. On 2: that tiny sentence is incredibly apt for this particular period, as for so many others. It's also these short dynamic crucibles of time, more than anything, that are what I believe make the past so very compelling to study. On 3: I'd forgotten this one; interesting that Cleopatra's ancestors were fighters, even if she was a lover. On 4: 315 BC is absolutely the perfect ending point for the initial transition period. Not coincidentally, Thessalonica was founded between 315 and 314. (I still love that story.)

Overall, Romm's book sounds like a valuable contribution to the study of a critical age, one I'm confident specialists will rely on for years to come, and one which - at only $18 ($15 Kindle) will probably be joining my library sometime soon.

By the way, if you're looking for something faster and yet more comprehensive, pick up Peter Green's Alexander to Actium, which alternates between the chronological political history and topical studies of the entire Hellenistic Age, 323 to 30 BC, ending with Augustus' defeat of Antony & Cleopatra, a major turning point for Herod and Israel's political future.

March 3, 2012

Okay, let's try Comments again...

Now I've got the word verification turned off. You can comment with OpenID or a Google Account, or anonymously. Subscribing to updates should be more clear now as well. Hopefully.

Try, try again... (please?)

March 1, 2012

Not the Point

Just saw this on Facebook today. Makes a good point in a way, but with so many problems.

First the good: The top row does have some parallel values. Of course, there's no lecture in the factory and there's no work being done in the sanctuary, but the perfunctory nature of how large groups can be organized and basically herded for the sake of creating efficiencies which happen to favor the ruling power - without question, that absolutely applies.

Now, the bottom row only displays two types of circles but the living room circle (small group, cell group, house church, etc) fits so well that it's obviously what's being implied. Of course, again, there's [often] no work being produced in the third group, which typically also displays very little of the focus, or direction, or (ironically) collaboration, all three of which are characteristically to be found in classroom group work and corporate team projects (at least in theory if not always in practice).

Finally, yes of course the vertical change in all three columns does reflect what has actually been happening somewhat gradually (in some places more rapidly than others) for the past few decades. The public school system, corporate org charts and institutional christendom have all embraced some degree of innovation in how to... well, in how to do what they do. Let's just leave it at that.

Now the bad: First, the cathedral dynamic pre-dates both public schooling and factory work by twelve to fifteen centuries or so. Last I checked, the industrial revolution is what led us to urbanization, factories AND public schooling, but Organized Sunday Service was doing its thing long before, so - good or bad - there's no real comparison here for what's being implied.

Second, if the sixth block were to be filled in, would it look much different from the third one, really? The worst thing about pew sitters (that is, about the kind of pew sitters I mean to critique here, which is not necessarily *all* pew sitters; ahem) is their passivity. But for the most part, small group s.y.i. sessions are often just as passive, although they do tend to be a much more chatty form of not-really-doing-anything, naturally.

Worst of all, the word "should" (below panel 6) seems to imply that the right thing for Churches to do is whatever the World is doing. Really, this one helping verb reveals more clearly than anything else how much of the passing 'emergent' movement is/was merely christians embracing progressivism, liberalism and creative expression. (Not that there's anything wrong - or right - with those three, necessarily!)

This is not the point, not the goal, and not the reason Christ died - or lived - here on the Earth.

Or to (attempt) being more right brained about it...

I don't feel like this graphic expresses well what we ought to be really passionate about, when discussing reasons why and possible ways in which local churches might do well to experiment with different forms and functions, styles and strategies, methods and missions.

"Something to think about"? Yes, indeed so.

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"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton