Category Archives: Biblical Studies

Submitting the PhD thesis

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[NOTE: Having returned to the blog after a long hiatus, I found some quirks in the blog theme I had been using. We will probably be trying a few other designs over the next couple of weeks, so please forgive the aesthetic shifts!]

 

On 15 August I handed over a 105,328-word document to someone behind a welcome desk in Durham University’s Palatine Centre. It was a rather unceremonious act  in form.

Not in reality. And the good folks at Flat White Coffee supplied a memorable scene that was ceremonious enough (note the “receipt” of my submission next to the espresso drink).

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As my wife pointed out—with a bound copy of the PhD thesis sitting between us on the dining table—that PDF is the most expensive thing we own… at least in a sense. Our lives have been hinged to the conviction that my vocational service to the church includes an academic slant. Multiple moves and costly degree programs have defined our past decade… along with the adventure of rearing 4 precious children amidst the pressures.

A “viva”(oral exam) still awaits. And yes, I am nervous about it. But for now, a few brief thoughts…

The Bio of the Book

I will post more on the topic and arguments of the thesis later. For fun, though I would just like to point out that 17 years ago I was sitting at a desk in the O’Callaghan house reading John’s Gospel and noticing a few threads that seemed worthy of further exploration.

14 years ago I started checking out PhD programs from the computer lab at Beeson Divinity School.

8 years ago I made my first (of two) exploratory trips to Durham.

And then a few weeks ago I turned in my third “book.” (Thanks for indulging the historical sketch).

 

A PhD is often a Pyrrhic Victory

I wrote once here at HR that the Christian vocation can often feel like a Pyrrhic victory. This is from that earlier post :

Pyrrhus was a Greek king who soldiered valiantly into the might and muscle of Rome in the 2nd century BC. After a brutalizing series of particular engagements, the battle dust began to settle and someone gave him the news that he was the victor.

Pyrrhus did not feel very victorious.

In fact, he felt messed up, broken down, and demoralized. To gain this “victory” he had sustained massive losses. Though most of the 15,000 corpses lying across the outskirts of Asculum belonged to the Romans, the Greek body count was grievously high (and the Romans had been much better resourced).

A Pyrrhic victory is one in which the gains are roughly commensurate with the losses. From the annals:

“Pyrrhus replied to one that gave him joy of his victory that one more such victory would utterly undo him. For he had lost a great part of the forces he brought with him, and almost all his particular friends and principal commanders….” (see here for Plutarch’s biographical sketch).

I have been a bit of a drama queen over the difficulties of pursuing the PhD. (Please forgive me). But to be absolutely clear: it is miserably hard (though the academic stuff was often less difficult than the circumstantial).

A “Victory,” Nonetheless…

Though a keen sense of the sacrifice in writing that these certainly accompanies its submission, I am delighted to report that over the following days it gradually occurred to me that breathing was a bit easier (figuratively), as if I had been sucking in air for years with a boulder on my chest only recently lifted. The increased oxygen supply has been wonderful. Unburdened by the thesis, my lungs have been able to expand a bit.

And next…

Amidst sleeping a bit extra and reading fiction mostly guilt-free, I am now in quest for a job. And the viva looms nearer each day, for which I feel I must have John’s Gospel memorized in the Greek, along with all the writings of Alexandrian theologians in the first few centuries of the church. These scholarly endeavors are impossible feats, of course (at least for me).

But overall I am pleased to report a general sense of relief, and possibly an increased degree of sanity.

I feel almost 105,328 words lighter.

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How I Opened My Class on Paul and his Letters…

[I am currently teaching the Paul section in a module called “New Testament Texts: The Johannine and Pauline Literature” at Cranmer Hall Theological College in Durham. At the beginning of each class, I have tried to offer a scenario of some kind to engage our imaginations and prime our minds to think more contextually about Paul and his ministry. Here is how we began the course….]

Think “Mediterranean.” Some of you have seen it with your own eyes. A warmer, sunnier climate than the one we are used to here in the UK; an exotic place that perhaps soldiers building a wall for Emperor Hadrian in a cold no-man’s-land might wistfully long to return to once Autumn came. This is a world culturally and linguistically dominated by the Greeks of old; and politically and economically dominated by Rome, the heart—the nucleus—of this vast cosmopolitan realm.

All of life is structured within a universally understood hierarchy. Everyone has a place, the gods holding chief position, the Emperor the earthly manifestation of their supremacy; then the Roman aristocracy; and then there is the aristocratic power bases within the localized municipalities throughout this massive realm. Following these elite ranks is a merchant-class, some of whom are quite wealthy; and there are the renown soldiers—retired generals and heroes whose swords so courageously splintered barbarian bones that they now enjoy lands, fame, riches. These members of the upper castes of society are a tiny fraction of the populace.

But they control the populace. There are farmers, craftsmen, temple priests, prostitutes, freedmen, villagers, and slaves. 1 out of every 4 is a slave, in fact. But all these players in this vast society are bound together by recognizing their place in relation to each other. Knowing your place is critical for survival, and one must always cavil and cater to the society-members ranking above you. Everyone has their place.

Interwoven into this complex way of inferiors relating to superiors and vice versa is a dynamic religious life from which no element is untouched. The “many gods” of this realm are visually and culturally inescapable—images of the gods line every city square, temples command the visual landscape, the coinage is marked by religious imagery. This is a society governed by a rigid caste system, saturated at all points by idolatrous religion, and infused with the rock solid political conviction that Caesar is Lord.

But suddenly, there is a ruckus in the market, a disturbance on the crowded hilltop and in the city square, along the side street. A voice crying out, speaking alien words into this well-established web of life, voicing volatile ideas into the tightly woven fabric of this august culture… What this voice speaks is a counter-intuitive word, a destabilizing word, a message that makes no sense, a message that warrants this accusation about its heralds in the Book of Acts: they “have turned the world upside down… acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7).

The most vocal emissary of this message, the world-inverting message of the Gospel, is the subject of this course: Paul the Apostle.

In his first appearance in the canon he is no apostle. That initial appearance scene is bloody and grim. A death-scene. He stands as a young man approving the splintering of Christian bones as Stephen dies the 1st death of the church. But soon, the world is being inverted, and over time the Greco-Roman world will not withstand the influence of his message. Every one of us in this room have ourselves been changed by this man’s destabilizing, world-inverting words.

Welcome to THMN2021: New Testament Texts.

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Francis Watson’s Forthcoming Book: Rethinking Gospel Origins

The release date is still about 6 weeks away, but it will be worth keeping an eye on the discussion generated by Francis Watson’s Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective.

Prof. Watson is my supervisor at Durham, so I am somewhat familiar with the material and arguments of the book (almost 700 pages). Here is the synopsis provided by Eerdmans on the book’s webpage:

That there are four canonical versions of the one gospel story is often seen as a problem for Christian faith: where gospels multiply, so to do apparent contradictions that may seem to undermine their truth claims. In Gospel Writing Francis Watson argues that differences and tensions between canonical gospels represent opportunities for theological reflection, not problems for apologetics.

Watson presents the formation of the fourfold gospel as the defining moment in the reception of early gospel literature — and also of Jesus himself as the subject matter of that literature. As the canonical division sets four gospel texts alongside one another, the canon also creates a new, complex, textual entity more than the sum of its parts. A canonical gospel can no longer be regarded as a definitive, self-sufficient account of its subject matter. It must play its part within an intricate fourfold polyphony, and its meaning and significance are thereby transformed.

In elaborating these claims, Watson proposes nothing less than a new paradigm for gospel studies — one that engages fully with the available noncanonical material so as to illuminate the historical and theological significance of the canonical.

 

And here are a few endorsements from major figures in biblical and patristic scholarship:

 

Simon Gathercole (University of Cambridge)

“A wonderfully wide-ranging book, full of learning and insight. One of the most significant books on the gospels in the last hundred years, this work will undoubtedly shake up the current study of the gospels.

Lewis Ayres (University of Durham)

“Francis Watson offers here a striking and powerful argument for the importance of reading Scripture as a canon. The argument is constantly historical as well as theological, exploring the character of the early church’s decision to accept a fourfold symphonic gospel. . . . All should celebrate the manner in which Watson sets a new agenda for those who ask why we continue to read the gospel in this form.”

Dale C. Allison Jr. (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary)

“The scope of this major contribution is breathtaking. Watson expertly moves from Augustine to Lessing to Q to Thomas to the synoptic problem to the sources of John’s Gospel to the Gospel of Peter to the emergence of the fourfold gospel canon to Origen to early Christian art and liturgy. The upshot is a slew of new observations and intriguing proposals that open up fresh lines of inquiry. Required reading for all students of the gospel tradition.”

Those of us studying the Gospels, theological interpretation of Scripture, and early Christian exegesis have so much material to read and keep up with. This book is going to be one of those essential, landmark studies that will occupy a central spot on the wide bookshelf.
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Making an Announcement: A New Ministry Assignment

St Mary’s College, Durham

On January 2 I begin working as the Chaplain at St Mary’s College here in Durham. It is a real pleasure to be able to make that announcement. Everyone I have interacted with at the College have been so helpful and enjoyable.

For over a year now I have had the distinct delight of being a “layperson.” For the previous 11 years or so before moving to England, I had been serving as a minister in some official capacity. Since my vocational path has thus far tried to resist forking into Academics or Pastoral Ministry, the role of chaplain at a university college seems quite fitting.

My post will be part-time, with the bulk of my day-job energies still going to the PhD work. But I will now get to ply the crafts of academic biblical studies and pastoral ministry simultaneously. I have been in these waters before (Duke Div School/Mt Hermon Baptist Church), so the territory is not unfamiliar. What will be rather excitingly unfamiliar is that I will get to help lead Anglican-styled worship services every fortnight. This Baptist-ordained theology student has much to learn; but I am keen to soak up the wisdom of the students and staff I will get to work with.

Your prayers will be appreciated!

 

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New Testament Studies at Durham… New Strengths

In spite of the horrific costs of postgraduate study in the UK, I am so pleased that Durham is where I have ended up.  I am biased, of course.  But bias might actually be a criterion for truthfulness—sometimes the only accurate portrayals are not the “objective” views from outsiders, but the subjective view from insiders.

(On that statement one could wax on and on with an exciting theology of hermeneutics, by the way— biased insiders are, for the most part, the “implied readers” of Scripture).

The strengths of Durham’s Dept. of Theology are widely recognized.  From an insider’s perspective, there are some less known elements at play that increase my thankfulness for being here.

For one, there is a sincere and energetic agenda of strengthening the academic skills of us postgrads.  Some serious thinking and evaluation is at work as faculty members wonder how they can make us better scholars and address our potential weaknesses.  This agenda is not enacted in a heavy-handed way.  Instead, the faculty are sacrificially making themselves more available in an array of opportunities which are simply there should we choose to take advantage of the offerings.

Here are examples.  Our NT Seminar meets not fortnightly (every other week) like most in the UK, but weekly.  And Prof. Francis Watson (the seminar convener and my supervisor) has added a skills development dimension.  Every other week we have paper presentations (the standard fare of postgraduate seminars in the UK), but on the alternative weeks there are training sessions in reading primary texts, open only to postgrads and faculty.  This means that every other week we NT doctoral and masters students are reading ancient texts with expert ancient-text-readers.  For this term (Michaelmas), our training sessions are dedicated to textual criticism.  In effect, we will have experienced something akin to a doctoral level seminar on text-critical reading of the Greek New Testament.

In addition to the NT seminar, an impressive host of language reading groups are on offer.  Our faculty have quite a breadth in linguistic competencies, and they are making themselves available so that we can choose to meet them in small groups to read Hebrew, Aramaic, Coptic, Greek, French, etc.

Also worth mentioning is the new Integrated PhD program, just initiated.  The standard US PhD program is 4-5 years with heavy emphases on doctoral level coursework and language study built into them.  The 3-year UK program, on the other hand, expects the competencies gained from language study and coursework to be developed before entering doctoral level research.

Times are changing, so that expectation has proven to be a bit too optimistic.  Many of us begin with an array of linguistic and research weaknesses, a situation that has at times drawn criticism from Americans who have managed to get one of the rare PhD slots in the elite US schools.  Durham is addressing these perceived weaknesses with vigor.  And this new integrated PhD program (4 years) allows an extra year of work on the front end of doctoral research so that these potential areas of scholarly weakness can be mitigated.

Below is the schedule for this term’s NT Seminar.  I’m glad I have a seat at the conference table.

 

8 October | Prof Walter Moberly, “Biblical Hermeneutics and Ecclesial Responsibility”

*15 October | Prof Francis Watson, “Textual Criticism and NT Exegesis (1): Matthew [selected passages]”

22 October | Dr Rainer Hirsch-Luipold (University of Berne), “John and the Religious Philosophy of his Time”

23 October | Dr Rainer Hirsch-Luipold, “Plutarch’s Religious Philosophy and the New Testament” (DCC Seminar Room, 1.30-3.00)

*29 October | Prof John Barclay, “Textual Criticism and NT Exegesis (2) Luke”

5 November | Dr Helen Bond (University of Edinburgh), “Dating the Death of Jesus: Memory and the Religious Imagination”

*12 November Dr Lutz Doering, “Textual Criticism and NT Exegesis (3): John”

19 November | NO SEMINAR

26 November | tba

*3 December | Dr Jane Heath, “Textual Criticism and NT Exegesis (4): Acts”

10 December | Prof Larry Hurtado (University of Edinburgh), “Interactive Diversity: A Proposed Model of Christian Origins”

The Bible is Hard to Read. Very Hard to Read.

I will take up where I left from the last blog post on Celebrity Culture and the Christian “speaking circuit” soon, but I found a worth quote to post.

I just preached at Kings Church Durham on the significance of reading and hearing Scripture.  I am also right in the midst of a 3-chapter section in my media book on God’s “textual and verbal media.”  So these issues are urgently on my heart on my mind… even more so than usual.

If you are interested, Kings Church’s website has a post I wrote on Practical Steps for Personal Bible Study.  In one of the first points, I am honest about the fact that the Bible is hard to read.  I think the more we are honest about that, the better prepared we will be to engage the Bible in all its richness and wonder.

On this idea of the Bible being wondrous, yet hard, I found this from M.E. Boismard in his preface to St. John’s Prologue [1]

It seems to us that there is nothing like wrestling with the difficulties of a text, to enable one to grasp its import and the slightest shades of meaning; and it may well be a good thing to have it brought home to us in a concrete fashion, that to understand the Bible it is not enough to open it and read it.  The Bible is not an easy book to read….

 

 

M.E. Boismard, St. John’s Prologue (tr. Carisbrooke Dominicans; London: Blackfriars, 1957), p. vii.

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Imagination & Biblical Scholarship

Since living in England, my family and I have had our imaginative capacities expanded when it comes to reflecting on history.  Bounding on castle grounds and clambering hillsides once ascended by Viking invaders or defended from Picts by Roman soliders… these multi-sensory experiences provide a landscape / cityscape / castle-scape for imagining the historical events that transpired so long ago.

Using the  imagination might seem too much like a flight of fancy when it comes to so sophisticated a discipline as biblical scholarship.  But in fact, we are always using our imaginations.  The shreds of papyrus picked up in the sands, the torn pages of faded codices, the cracked sculptures discovered under the earth in modern day Turkey, the crumbling mortar in the remaining temples—these are textual and material artifacts by which we imaginatively construct the world of the Old and New Testaments.

Hadrian’s Wall was built by the Romans when the church was still young and just beginning to flourish in the Empire.  My kids run alongside it sometimes, wielding plastic versions of swords or shields fashioned from the prototypes of actual weapons pulled out of bogs or found corroding in the dirt.  Those dear little children are role-playing, vividly spying their enemies on the horizon and fortifying their pretend defenses.  This is imaginative play.  They are mentally imaging a scene constructed in their minds from the ruins and remains of bygone events and peoples.

Professionally trained and long-tenured scholars do the same thing every day (though perhaps less playfully).  To really understand the biblical text, one must try to taste the dirt and smell the smells, to feel the grit and hear the banter in the markets.  Fanciful work?  Yes, at times.  But the imagination can be a powerful ally aiding our retrospective investigations of the past.

Now, sometimes biblical scholarship gets imaginative in ways even my kids would deem irresponsible.  Like stretching the imagination to say that clearly the Jesus of the Gospels was no more than an impoverished cynic-wanderer who had some pithy things to say.  Like offering a multi-year account of the history of some community purportedly responsible for one of the Gospel texts (for which there is little by way of evidence, textual or material).

Sometimes our imaginations get the better of us, I suppose… even if we would never want to admit that we are doing something as “childish” as thinking imaginatively.

In spite of the fanciful mishaps, we need not disparage the imagination as a tool of our trade.   Running along Hadrian’s Wall with my kids and deflecting sailing “arrows” with my “shield” might be another element of my training as a PhD student.

Imagine that.