Archive for category: Biblical Studies

How I Opened My Class on Paul and his Letters…

17 Nov Andrew Byers
November 17, 2013

[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.

Francis Watson’s Forthcoming Book: Rethinking Gospel Origins

26 Apr Andrew Byers
April 26, 2013

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.

Making an Announcement: A New Ministry Assignment

27 Nov Andrew Byers
November 27, 2012

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!


New Testament Studies at Durham… New Strengths

10 Oct Andrew Byers
October 10, 2012

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.

02 Oct Andrew Byers
October 2, 2012

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.

Imagination & Biblical Scholarship

21 Sep Andrew Byers
September 21, 2012

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.

Nijay Gupta’s Book—Prepare, Succeed, & Advance (part 2)

10 Feb Andy
February 10, 2012

I graciously received a review copy in the summer of Prepare, Succeed, Advance: A Guidebook for Getting a PhD in Biblical Studies and Beyond.  When Pickwick Publications (Wipf & Stock) sent the book, I read the first 1/3 of the book and immediately wrote a post.   But then I actually started doing a PhD in Biblical Studies and got delayed in my reading!

That delaying plunge into doctoral candidacy actually helps me appreciate even more what Nijay Gupta has done in this guidebook.

Doctoral work in New Testament studies has loomed like some mythic dream before me for 11 years now.  I remember printing off webpages from UK theology departments and later reading them to my wife during a road trip (a long journey being a fitting context for introducing that idea to my sacrificial wife).  Sorting out my motivations, slogging through the intimidating practicalities, and wrestling with my sense of vocation has marked this past decade of my life.  Was the call to proceed issued from misleading Sirens or from God himself?

Nijay does not offer oracular insight for conflicted souls, but he does offer solid, sensible wisdom for those who intend to place the hand on the academic plowshare.

The section I just finished is called “Succeed.”  Here, Nijay walks his readers through the actual doctoral program, from choosing the research topic to defending the dissertation/thesis.  Having just finished a doctoral program himself a few years back (from Durham), Nijay is able to retrospectively see the experience from an aerial view of sorts, letting readers know what they should know at orientation as well as what they should know and be able to do by the time of the defense or viva.  If you are anxious about your language capabilities (modern and ancient) or about your competency in the field, Nijay offers gracious but challenging wisdom.  He has a good sense as to what is reasonable and unreasonable in terms of expectations.

There is also a lot of counsel not only on researching the project but on writing the blasted thing.  And he offers advice that extends beyond the technical know-how and into the relational matrices of academia.  Nijay understands that the doctorate is not just a solitary, cranial enterprise, but one that requires extensive and sometimes difficult interaction with other scholars.  Unwritten policies as to how one should interact with seasoned scholars in the field are now not so unwritten—Nijay offers brotherly advice on what to say (or not to say) in an email and on how you interact with a senior scholar over coffee at SBL.

The section closes with a look at the defense of the dissertation/thesis.  That 1-3 hour session is the ultimate gauntlet for the doctoral candidate.  The vocational path is blocked unavoidably by that moment of sitting before expert academics who have your textual rendering of blood, sweat and tears placed on the table between them and you.  Again, Nijay’s guidance encompasses not just what to do to get to this point and what to do when you are actually sitting there, but also how to interact and relate in this most fateful of encounters.

The next section, called “Advance,” addresses the other stage of the process: getting a job/entering the field as a bona fide scholar.  The prospects right now are so grim for men and women with freshly minted doctorates.  I will be reading and posting on that section with keen interest soon….

Pastors, Preaching, and the Academy’s Process of Peer-Review

18 Nov Andy
November 18, 2011

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers,

for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”

(James 3:1)

After almost a decade of pastoral ministry, I am now firmly ensconced within the academic world, getting my feet wet in a New Testament doctoral program.  Being situated quite deeply within both realms of the church and the academy has given rise to many curiosities for me, leading me to wonder how those of us in either setting could learn from the other.  I have written on this in “Post-SBL (1): What Pastoral Ministry Can Learn from Academia” and “Post-SBL (2): What Biblical Scholars Can Learn From Pastors.” I want to re-visit here what I suggested in that first post.

The process of peer review is something that is largely lacking among pastors.  For academics this review apparatus is a gauntlet of sorts that seeks to ensure some form of quality control within the guild of biblical studies (or any other academic field).  Though both scholars and pastors spend most of their time addressing non-specialists (students in the classroom or laypersons in the pews), scholars are heavily pressured to operate horizontally among their peers by presenting papers at conferences and submitting high quality essays to journals.  Reading the journals and attending the conferences are rigorously trained experts who are usually unafraid to point out any inconsistencies or inaccuracies.

It is true that that this peer review process leads to an overly critical atmosphere at times.  That scholars will critique and poke and challenge makes the academy an intimidating world.  Entire publications, like book review journals, are devoted to the genre of the scholarly critique.  But while I was sitting in the New Testament seminar here in Durham, hearing a fellow doctoral candidate respond to a series of difficult questions, I found myself quite pleased with the accountability provided by peer review.  Invective and personal bashing have no place whatsoever in the academy, but since my fellow PhD students and I are hoping to teach future leaders of the church and to possibly even write commentaries that will guide their understanding of Scripture, then most certainly, someone had better be asking us hard questions!

Peer review is built into the structure of the academic discipline, but I feel as though pastors lack any sort of equivalent in that field.  When fellow pastors ply their craft of preaching, their peers are all doing the same thing at the same time on Sunday mornings and thus unable to pop in to evaluate one another or offer critical feedback.  Ordination provides some peer review, of course, but once ordained, pastors are cast into pulpits with very little structure for accountability in their teaching.  As I wrote in that previous post, peer review is actually biblical: Paul says in 1 Cor, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said” (14:29) and “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets” (14:32).  But most of us slogging away in the pulpit every week are preaching to a lay audience with a wide range of competencies, but probably not competencies in Greek, Hebrew, ancient rhetoric, Greco-Roman background, theological interpretation, or Early Jewish eschatology.  And there are few opportunities for pastors to present their work among peers.

I am not suggesting that denominations and churches install academic structures.  Pastors do not need to look like academics to demonstrate relevance—the theological academy, I believe, exists to serve pastors (and certainly not to disparage them!).  But some sort of accountability in our ministries for teaching and preaching is surely needed to ensure that we obeying the words to Timothy: “keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” (1 Tim 4:16).

Any suggestions for how pastoral teaching and preaching can be held to higher standards by some sort of peer review?

Here are the suggestions I offered to fellow pastors in that prior blog post I mentioned above:

1] If you are serving with multiple staff members, include a time of critique (and affirmation!) in a staff or elder meeting for the sermons presented in the past week or month, humbly opening the door for your ministry co-workers to provide some accountability.

2] Find a group of fellow pastors and agree to listen to each others’ podcasts, or at least commit to listening to one podcast per month so that the pastors in that group know one of their peers will be listening to them at some point.

3] Find ways to allow the congregation to provide more feedback, perhaps picking a few mature lay leaders and charging them with the job of taking careful notes and thinking through suggestions for improvement.

4] Devote yourself to training up a congregation into such maturity that they become effective peer-reviewers.

5] Learn to acknowledge that our ultimate accountability is provided not by laypersons or peers but by God Himself.  Fear and trembling should accompany any approach to the lectern or pulpit.

Any other ideas?

Johannine Scholarship: It’s Personal

11 Nov Andy
November 11, 2011

My doctoral thesis at Durham University focuses on narrative and theology in the Gospel of John.  For the past decade I have been reading Johannine scholarship and attending the sections on the Fourth Gospel at SBL.  For the past few days, I have been reading through essays in What We Have Heard From the Beginning: The Past, Present and Future of Johannine Studies, edited by Tom Thatcher and published by Baylor University Press. 

This is a rare book.

Wayne Meeks captures its rarity by describing the book in his endorsement as “a unique composite of two disparate genres: the history of research and the professional memoir” (from the back cover).

What Thatcher has done with this book is to collect essays from senior scholars in the field of Johannine research to which younger (though strongly established) Johannine scholars have been allowed to make brief responses.  These senior experts (gargantuan leaders in the field like D. Moody Smith, J. Louis Martyn, Raymond Culpepper, and Francis Moloney) seem to have been asked to provide an aerial view of sorts of their own experiences as students and teachers of John’s Gospel and the Johannine Epistles.  As any aspiring scholar knows, entering into the guild of biblical studies is enormously intimidating.  When you brush past such eminent scholars in the bookstalls at SBL, there is a rush of excitement, but also dread!  What I appreciate so much about Thatcher’s volume is that these men and women who I have been reading for so long now have been permitted to get personal with their own labors in the field, admitting shortcomings, changes of mind, and sharing how their insights arose and were perhaps even crushed.

I remember D. Moody Smith referring to the gathering of John scholars at an SBL session as “the Johannine community.”  There really does seem to be a sense of community among these researchers (in spite of intense disagreements!), and What We Have Heard From the Beginning allows readers to enter their ongoing dialogue.

Something else I appreciate it is that there really is a strong sense of responsibility for posterity in the field.  The book is an inter-generational exchange of the tradents of the discipline.  Three generations are included when I read those essays—the generation of those eminent, and mostly retired (at least officially) scholars, their younger respondents whose works are filling the pages of Johannine scholarship, and then there is me, representative of other aspiring Johannine specialists who have much to learn… and who may want to add a few pages themselves one day.  Biblical studies is a field that truly requires the mentor-apprentice relationship for the responsible maintenance of the craft.  You can see that dynamic at work in this book.

So from one of the apprentice-types: thank you very much, Dr. Thatcher and company….

Accordance or Bibleworks… Suggestions?

17 Sep Andy
September 17, 2011

By a stroke of magnanimity, I was able to get a MacBook Air just before moving to England for the PhD.  I did that Migration Assistant thing with my wife’s Mac, you know—that magical event by which apps and data are invisibly transferred from one piece of well-built machinery to another.  Well, the “migration” was a success, but Bibleworks will no longer open (I was using Crossover to open windows apps).

It looks like I will have to buy either an updated means of virtualization (I can’t believe I am writing about this stuff, as if I had an inkling as to what I am even doing with this tech stuff) or Accordance if I want to retain access to Biblical Studies software.

Any advice?  Is Accordance (at $349) worth it?  I have heard that some folks have trouble opening Bibleworks on Mac’s new Lion operating system.  Should I bother with this route to keep Bibleworks?

Eager to hear some responses….



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