November 24, 2017

Loving and Learning at #AARSBL17

Last week, Boston was Awe-ston with Sarah and everyone else. You can search the above hashtag on Facebook and Twitter, although 90% of the tweets are from AAR people. It seems like SBL Tweeting is the one area where we've suffered from joint organization. At any rate, here's my slice of what happened at this year's Bible Nerd Rodeo.

On Friday morning, I met with my hillbilly advisor, who said my project is so original that we can't afford not to dig through the German material. Suddenly, I'm asking Santa for a new language this Christmas. Chris Keith ist gleichzeitig ein geschenk von Gott und ein schmerz in meinem arsch... Though, really, I guess I'd have it no other way. Dagnabbit. (That last part's not German. It's Southerner.)

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German. Southern. Whatever works, bruh.

Friday afternoon I listened to Eve-Marie Becker discuss her recent book on an IBR panel with Sean Adams, Kylie Crabbe, Craig Keener, and Gregory Sterling. The book is called The Birth of Christian History: Memory and Time from Mark to Luke-Acts (2017), and the gist of its argument (apparently) is about GENRE. Becker insisted she is not reviving the category of "sui generis" from the old perspective of form criticism but re-introducing the category "from a new perspective". Unlike the form critics, she says, she holds great respect for the Gospels as literature. In her view, the Gospels are a sub-genre of biography, emphasizing elements of historiography. In my view, it was delightful to hear a panel display great mastery of ancient non-fiction literature. Becker's "sub-genre" argument works for me, but I was disappointed to find that her apprehension of MEMORY centers merely on that which precedes Gospel writing. (Didn't NT scholars used to call that "Tradition"?) For those interested, Becker's book does not engage with the memory research of Dale Allison or anyone at The Jesus Blog, but the only bad thing I can say is that her first chapter somewhat emphasizes eyewitness memory, seeming perhaps as if one of her goals were to defend the reliability of ancient testimony.

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Some eyewitness memories are better than others

I wish believers would quit defending faith, now and forevermore. I also wish Sean Adams would put together a two day long conference for the IBR Research Group on Ancient Historiography and the New Testament. I'd fly to Timbuktu (or crawl!) if I could hang out with that crew, get to know them all better, and talk with them all weekend about historiographical theory and practice!

On Saturday I had breakfast with three of my favorite NT scholars. We caught up, laughed a lot, and talked shop for an hour. At the exact moment when someone said James Crossley's name - I SWEAR - he walked right past our window. Testing that theory, I will now type "NT WRONG" three times, to see if he (or perhaps Beetlejuice) will leave a comment below: NT Wrong, NT Wrong, NT Wrong! 

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"I got minions running all through me. All through me."

Saturday's first SBL session was a panel review of Chris Keith's Jesus' Literacy (2011) and Alan Kirk's Q in Matthew (2016). I don't believe in Q, personally, but Alan seems to (for the moment, at least) and his argument sounds like an interesting thought experiment that could teach us much more than whether "Q" is a valid hypothesis. It was unfortunate that Francis Watson's review focused on debunking Q because he only engaged Alan's book where Alan had engaged Watson's earlier work - which is to say Watson neglected Kirk's overall argument itself. On a brighter note, Watson was for the most part quite complimentary about Jesus' Literacy, and called it "innovative and groundbreaking", which it obviously is. Andrew Gregory also praised Jesus' Literacy but pushed back at Chris Keith, saying that Social Memory Theory "helps to clarify and to articulate what many historians already do... But do we need it... ?" In reply, Chris affirmed that Social Memory Theory is, indeed, NOT a necessary path towards improving historiographical practice, but he has found it a helpful way to proceed. In our efforts to help Jesus scholars learn about historical thinking and inquiry, we can use all the help we can get! For my money, at this panel, CK put on a big red cape and told everybody. Just. What's. Up. The Q&A got too mired down in arguments about Q, but this was still the most fun I had at a panel all week.

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This depiction NOT Biblically accurate.

As a side note: Alan Kirk's best comment, imho, was to clarify: "I don't think Matthew is operating in a scroll-free zone [but] memory is a tool." NB, that's "a tool" as opposed to "the tool." In other words, Alan's term "instrumental use of memory" does not mean to suggest that a Gospel writer was using memory exclusively. It means a Gospel writer was drawing upon memory alongside other resources. After lunch Saturday, Sarah went to a session on Ancient Thessaloniki while I basked in the glory of Chris Seeman and Steve Mason talking about various aspects of Josephus' Judean War. I'm starting to feel more and more comfortable with this crowd of delightful, sharp-thinking historians, and I'm hoping their next call for papers will be looking for intersections between Josephus and the NT. Later on, when my brilliant wife and I went to hear Lynn Cohick on "The Kingdom of Christ and of God", we were pleasantly thrilled to hear this evangelical professor sound out clearly a strong message of social justice. Who knows for what you come into the world for such a time as this?

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By the way, I'm going to go ahead and declare that the annual bibliobloggers' dinner seems to have fizzled out. Our official plan was to find each other at the Eerdman's reception, but I didn't see anyone there who I knew from the facebook group invite. James McGrath should be honored for keeping it going all these years. The zenith of biblioblogging was probably from 2009 to 2011, at which point most of the conversations moved to facebook. The trade-off has been worthwhile for me, personally, but whatever we've lost doesn't seem to be coming back. We may as well let this dinner die out, imho. My Sunday began with Sarah and I meeting some old and dear friends, then the book room (again), and then at 1pm I sat through four papers and a respondent in the new program unit on "The Historical Paul". Perhaps someday they'll get back to using Acts, in some way or another, but for now it was nice to hear Ben White talk about Dale Allison's manner of privileging GIST over details by looking for patterns of recurrent attestation (in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd century memories of Paul). My other favorite bit was Ryan Schellenberg's plea that biographical studies of Paul need to stop privileging Pauline *THOUGHT* -- and my soul shouted. I'll probably check in with this movement again in a year or ten, by which time I'll hope they've produced something like a proper life story. I mean, somebody should. 

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Photo Credit: John Mark

After the Paul session I got to hear Jonathan Bernier speak extemporaneously with a dynamic visual presentation about "The New Perspective on the Synagogue" and James 2:2. Even more delightfully, Jonathan made all his key points succinctly, stopped early, and fielded 15 minutes of Q&A with impressive command of his subject and related issues. We could use much more of that at future SBL meetings, if you ask me. From Jonathan's paper I hurried away to a secret one on one meeting that I can't tell you about, a potential collaboration with someone I greatly admire, and even if it doesn't work out I learned a ton from our conversation, working out the good and bad points of the ideas we both have for this (humble but exciting) project. All I can say here is, stay tuned...

On Monday morning, so sadly, I slept in and missed the Tessa Rajak section, but I was dangerously behind on my rest at that point. It's hard to reverse my sleep schedule from vampire mode to conference mode, and sometimes that means catching up when I must. That afternoon I enjoyed the second half of the historical Jesus section. Jeffrey Gibson's reading voice is even more soothing than his regular voice, and he argued impressively against several scholars who'd previously said something stupid about the Lord's Prayer. It's sad how much necessary clean-up work needs to be done. Thanks for doing your part, Jeffrey. After him, Murray Smith argued that "Jesus entertained a chronologically complex eschatological vision" by observing a pattern of recurrent attestation (a la Dale Allison). In both his discourse and his handouts, Murray unfurled a breathtaking array of relevant material that showed great diversity and complexity in Jesus' statements about future times. The key points were how often Jesus' predictions were expectedly going to happen before or after some other predicted event, and that NOWHERE in any of the references do we have any specific chronological delimitation about WHEN these predicted events might take place.

Three or four stalwarts of the old guard got their hackles up during the Q&A, and Murray nobly tried to teach them what they should have in read about long before now in Dale Allison's work on memory (2009, 2010). Later on, this sad scene reminded me of how British soldiers at the outset of WWI were still lining up in straight lines to be mowed down by machine guns, and I also thought later about the Fenway Park scene from Moneyball: "Anyone who's not tearing down their ballclub right now, and rebuilding it on your model: they're dinosaurs!" In the future, I may borrow a line Murray used in his paper. He told the room that if they found his massive collection of relevant material to be challenging, then "you've just been Dale Allison'd." In the end, the old guard didn't seem to understand the idea of the GIST, and they didn't seem to understand that accepting a general impression is entirely different than accepting every detail in the collection. Nevertheless, Murray kept pushing Allison's primary contention that if we cannot trust the general thrust of the data in aggregate, then how can we trust individual bits of that data? The Q&A there could have gone on for some time...

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Which of these tells you what a car looks, acts, and feels like?

Monday night, in between another coffee meetup and a very special group dinner (with esteemed ancient historians whose names I won't drop!), I squeezed in the final three papers and most of the Q&A around some papers interacting with William A. Johnson's Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire (2012). There was a lot said for me to keep thinking about, but this was yet another Chris Keith project that deserves greater attention, and we should look forward to hearing more about "Competitive Reading Cultures in Early Christianity". TL;DR - Reading Groups naturally seek out extra reading material, but Matthew's Gospel was still competing with Marks' Gospel with a given reading group, on a given day or night.

On Tuesday morning, my first two choices were no-shows but Sarah and I saw lots of friends in the CHNT session on Hair in Greco-Roman Antiquity. (Yes, you read that correctly.) The delightful surprise of this panel was Janet Stephens, an independent scholar of Roman Hairstyles whose command of ancient world contexts in general, and ancient hair in particular, was breathtaking. While presenting, while others presented, and while taking Q&A, Stephens constructed a coif fit for imperial Roman women, while SBL-Facebookers flooded my feed with photos and video of Helen Bond's beautiful new hairdo.

From there, Sarah and I were soon headed to the airport. Another SBL in the books. For me, so far, each one gets better and better. I can hardly wait to go back next year, in Denver.

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Anon, my monkeys...

November 16, 2017

Jesus, Memory, and History at SBL: Top Picks

Here are my top picks for the papers and sessions in Boston this week that I personally can't stand to miss. If your paper is somehow not on my list, it probably just means you're a different kind of nerd than I am. But hey, we kind of knew that already, didn't we?

9:00am - 11:30am: Synoptic Gospels
Ancient Media and Memory Theory. . . A Panel Review of Jesus' Literacy (Chris Keith) and Q in Matthew (Alan Kirk); Also featuring Helen Bond and Francis Watson
1:00pm - 3:30pm: Josephus  
Showcasing the ongoing work of the Brill Commentary Series' authors, Steve Mason and Chris Seeman will present with 20 minutes of discussion following each paper
1:00pm - 3:30pm: The Historical Paul
The inaugural session, about which I blogged recently.
4:00pm - 4:30pm: Jonathan Bernier will be applying the 'New Perspective on the Ancient Synagogue' (Lee Levine, Anders Runesson) to the phrase "your synagogue" in James 2:2.
9:00am - 11:30am: Hellenistic Judaism; Josephus; Philo of Alexandria  
This panel in honor of Tessa Rajak includes Loveday Alexander, Martin Goodman, Erich Gruen, and Steve Mason
1:00pm - 3:30pm: Historical Jesus
Of special interest here is that Murray Smith will be following Dale Allison's unique work on "recurrent attestation" in order "to build a composite picture of the kinds of things Jesus most likely said" in anticipating future events, some imminent and some farther away. 
5:05pm - 5:25pm: Chris Keith's intriguing paper is entitled "Competitive Reading Cultures in Early Christianity" (Apparently, the program chair's dog ate all the abstracts.)
9:25am - 9:50am: Christoph Heilig applies Narratology (!!!) to Paul's metaphor of the Roman Triumph in 2 Cor 12
10:00am - 10:30am: Brian J. Wright previews aspects of his forthcoming book, Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus
10:30am - 11:00am: I am not making this up! A little bird told me that Helen Bond is going to sit and have her hair styled like a Roman noblewoman while Francis Watson reads a paper which attempts to answer the question, "Why Did Paul Care about Women's Hair Length?" Maybe *YOU* can think of a reason to miss that, but I seriously can't.
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Pictured here: ancient matron, Edith Grimley
"Like, I suppose you could do better than that!"

As usual, there are dozens of interesting papers I won't be able to attend, but I may sneak in to hear a few of them where possible. I'm also hoping to watch Christopher Skinner shake and shimmy to Macho Man or Disco Duck... and I might ask Michael Barber to groove on some Hamster Themed Christmas Tunes... and I'm pretty sure Anthony Le Donne is going to tango metaphorically with Larry Behrendt... but you'll have to scan Facebook for that kind of thing, if you're reaaaaly interested. 

To enjoy THAT KIND of exquisitely scintillating SBL action, you've got to do more than just lurk here on my blog. You've gotta grab your dancing shoes and jump on into the fray.


November 12, 2017

Historical Paul at SBL: Theory & Methods

Don't miss this! If you're going to Boston next week, and you care about NT/History, come check out the two inaugural sessions for this new program unit focusing on The Historical Paul. Here are the details, from the SBL Annual Meeting Program Guide (app):
1:00pm - 3:30pm, Sunday, 11-19 (S19-243): Approaching Pauline Biography  
This consultation seeks to reinvigorate the study of the historical Paul by working to conceptualize him as a plausible human person, a social actor with comparanda both in the Roman world and in other societies. In this inaugural session, papers will address the theoretical and methodological questions involved. 
9:00am - 11:30am, Monday, 11-20 (S20-147): Varieties of Judean Expertise in the Roman World  
The aim of this session is to juxtapose various forms of Judean religious expertise attested in the Roman period, with a view to reconstructing a specific backdrop for Paul and his Judean rivals.
The Sunday session promises greater attention to historiographical theory and methodological issues, with the most intriguing paper being presented by Benjamin White: Practicing Paul: Outline for a New Approach to Pauline Biography. Just look at this fascinating abstract:
Scholarship on Paul since the nineteenth century has proceeded in the same historiographical mode as Jesus research: discern which data from within the tradition can be secured as authentic and then construct a narrative of Christian origins that has been stripped of its canonical trappings. For the study of Paul, this has meant sloughing off Acts and discerning which of the canonical letters should be discarded as pseudepigrapha. The promise that such an approach held has come under scrutiny among historical Jesus scholars, yet Pauline Studies has yet to catch up. Perhaps this is on account of the prospect of having authentic writings of Paul, whereas for Jesus we have only ever had subsequent traditions. This paper argues that the data for reconstructing the historical Paul are not that dissimilar to the data for accessing the historical Jesus. In the first half of the paper I explore the problems of the dominant mode. Determinations of an authentic Pauline literary style, arguments for the presence of anachronisms in particular letters, and admissions of the inability to place a letter within an already perceived Pauline biography are considerations that cannot bear the argumentative weight they are intended to carry. The second half of the paper argues that our only access to Paul is through early Pauline traditions and that it is precisely from within these early memorializations of Paul (manuscripts of Pauline epistles, Marcionite prologues, varieties of acts and apocalypse traditions, second century writers who refer to Paul) that we should begin our work, asking what gist memories they share in common. Decisions about authentic Pauline epistles should occur later in the investigation and from within the framework of what the critical examination of the traditions has secured.
While the Monday session mostly appears to provide the standard inference of contexts from readings of texts, a special treat here will be Sarah Rollens: Paul as a Mediating Intellectual. Again, to whet your whistle, the abstract:
This paper explores the social positioning of Paul as a mediating intellectual who uses the space in his letters to imagine a new social form, though it is unclear the extent to which this form was ever realized in reality. Through this analysis, Paul emerges as a kind of educated, axial figure who wanted to create a diverse constituency among his audiences, and his function as this sort of figure result from his social mobility, his familiarity with diverse cultural forms (some perhaps perceived as exotic by those he encountered), and his (perceived) positionality of marginalization.
I know Rollens' work, thus far, only through her online publications, which demonstrate an exceptional penchant for historical thinking, and I'm dying to see how White's suggested approach to Pauline Studies compares to recent advances in Jesus Studies.

These two sessions are high on my list. Come check them out!

Maybe I'll see you there...

November 4, 2017

Historical Inferences (Case Study JB1117)

In this brief blogpost (about an early French Canadian), Jonathan Bernier illustrates precisely how arguing for a hypothesis about the past is different from arguing about the contents of a text. From there, he succinctly explains:
what constitutes a historical hypothesis is not ultimately our observational apprehension of the data but rather our inferential apprehension of the relationships between the data. That is to say, history is not exegesis: it is not the interpretation of documents followed by pronouncements about whether their claims are true.
Oh, how these words sing to my soul!

Jonathan goes on to point out that proposing a single scenario is not enough until we compare that scenario against other possibilities, asking "does this hypothesis explain a greater scope of relevant data than does any competitor?" These are critical distinctions which separate savvy historians from "historical critics" who mainly cast judgment on the "reliability" of textual content.

Literary criticism, exegesis, and bold suggestions are a popular package among NT scholars, but that package is not a viable substitute for proper historiographical work. If you need help understanding and recognizing this critical distinction, there are not many resources I'd recommend more highly than Docteur Bernier's published books and online blogposts.

Happy reading...
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