Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Nativity Story: The Review's Up

My review of The Nativity Story is now up on the SBL Forum. If you read my earlier, initial thoughts here, you will recognise some of it, but it's substantially revised and I have added a lot:

The Nativity Story: A Review
Mark Goodacre
SBL Forum, December 2006

Christmas TV on Bible Films

Matt Page has usefully gathered together details of Christmas Bible Related Films and Programmes on UK TV. I have already commented on The Secret Family of Jesus and the Daily Mayo podcast connected with it. The one I am particularly looking forward to is the following:

The Secret Life of Brian
1st Jan 8:00 pm
Channel 4 are devoting an entire evening to the Pythons. The evening kicks off with this documentary looking at the controversy surrounding the film. I hope they show the complete footage of the TV debate between two of the Python's and a bishop and another religious representative. I don't think it will, but hopefully there will be some interesting footage that I've not seen before.
I agree on that -- we tend to get the same tantalizing clip each time. Malcolm Muggeridge is the other chap Matt is talking about here; I don't recall which bishop it was. The Not the Nine O'Clock News Parody of the exchange, though, was genius (General Synod's "Life of Christ").

Update (13.44): David Mackinder informs me that the bishop in question was Mervyn Stockwood.

Bill Peterson

I was sorry to hear this morning of the death of Bill Peterson (via Evangelical Textual Criticism, via Hugoye). I was lucky to meet Bill on a couple of occasions through the textual-criticism folks at Birmingham, and I once had a happy meal with him at the SNTS in Birmingham in 1997. A nice man as well as a fine scholar; he will be greatly missed.

Christmas break

It's almost time for the NTGateway blog to take its traditional Christmas break. This may be my last post for a little. My blogging machine won't be travelling with us to England, so I look forward to seeing you in the new year. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Secret Family of Jesus: Channel 4 Documentary

It turns out that this year's religious documentary offering from Channel 4 on Christmas day is a piece exploring Jesus' family. From Channel 4's website:

The Secret Family of Jesus
25 December at 8pm
Did Jesus have a real human family? If so, why were they airbrushed from history and excised from the bible? Robert Beckford tells the story of the people who shared his bloodline.
Robert is a former colleague of mine at the University of Birmingham and his profile as a film-maker has risen hugely in the last few years. In fact, this is one of two documentaries he is involved with this Christmas. He discussed them both on today's Simon Mayo on FiveLive and was his usual, lively self. Listen again to the interview (streamed), or download it as a podcast -- it is today's Daily Mayo item. I'll be interested to see who is involved with The Secret Family of Jesus. Not me. I once enjoyed taking part in one of these experiences, Who Wrote the Bible?, on Christmas Day 2004, having filmed my section in Rome a couple of months earlier. This year, at least I won't have to inflict earnest religious content on my family on Christmas day, though I suppose we have the option of going for a smorgasbord of Some Like it Hot on Channel 4 at 4.35pm, followed by the new Doctor Who on BBC1 at 7pm, followed by Beckford at 8pm. Actually, we'll probably stick with Marilyn Monroe and David Tennant and video Dr Beckford. Sorry, Robert.

E. P. Sanders on the Uniqueness of Jesus' Teaching

Rob Bradshaw continues his fantastic work on of making available a huge range of on-line articles and lectures. The latest is my favourite so far:

E. P. Sanders, "The Question of Uniqueness in the Teaching of Jesus" (London: University of London, 1990)
The Ethel M. Wood Lecture 15 February 1990

Just to whet your appetite, here is one excerpt:
Selective reading combines with confessional interest to produce claims of uniqueness.

People who read more widely than others, such as Davies, make fewer claims of uniqueness and put them more appropriately: this would have struck the hearers as fresh. Occasionally, however, he too claims uniqueness (for example, by ignoring Lev. 19.34), and it will always turn out that he should have read one more passage.

If we removed confessional interest entirely, we would find people making no stronger claims than ‘unparalleled as far as I know’. After all, what percentage of the total wisdom of the world is available to even the most diligent reader? The pronouncement that something is ‘unique’, as I said at the outset, is among other things a claim to omniscience: I know everything, and there are no parallels. This is an extremely unscholarly attitude. The more one studies, the less one should hold it.
Sanders was (and is) something of a hero of mine, and this article is Sanders at his best.

Third annual Ralphies

Over on Ralph the Sacred River, Ed Cook has announced the Third Annual Ralphies, the little bit of annual indulgence among bibliobloggers to go outside of Biblical Studies and blog their "best ofs" of the year. (See mine for 2004 and 2005). This year Ed is doing this as a series. I am keeping mine under one post title so as not to increase the self-indulgence, but I'll blog them in the order in which Ed presents the series, so will update this post at the appropriate times. My campaign of the last couple of years to expand the categories to include best gig, best TV programme, best radio programme and best sporting event seem to be bearing fruit -- best TV programme has been added already. But enough of the preliminaries. Here are my initial entries, following Ed's lead:

Song of the year: Murray Gold's Song for Ten, performed by Neil Hannon. This is a geeky choice, I know, but it made an instant impact on me in last year's Doctor Who Christmas episode, "Christmas Invasion", as David Tennant looks out his (10th doctor)'s outfit. It qualifies as 2006 because the track was only recently released, on Murray Gold, Doctor Who, December 2006.

Honourable mention: The Killers, Read My Mind.

Album of the year: The Killers, Sam's Town. (There was no album by The Fall this year, sadly).

Honourable mention: Arctic Monkeys, Whatever People Say I am, That's What I'm Not

Gig of the year: Franz Ferdinand at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke University, 7 April. It was a particular thrill to be able to get to see one of my favourite British bands out here in North Carolina. (See Viola's blog post on).

Honourable mention: The Wedding Present, Cat's Cradle, Carrboro, March. Same comment as previous. (See Viola's blog post on).

Film of the year: Casino Royale is the only one that made a real impact on me this year, successfully rebooting the Bond franchise, even if it's not quite as great as some people think. Too much of Daniel Craig pouting for my liking. I probably didn't watch enough films this year, so my choice here is uninformed. Honourable mention: Inside Man.

TV programme of the year: Doctor Who, of course! Last year saw a brilliant return for the series after an absence of many years, and it came back transformed, superbly conceived by Russell T. Davies, one of the great contemporary British screen-writers. The second season, starring David Tennant as the tenth doctor, and Billie Piper again as his assistant, fully met our expectations. It was wonderful. Now we await the Christmas day episode co-starring Catherine Tate and the third series in the Spring.

Honourable mention (and a close second): Torchwood, the superb adult-oriented gritty spin-off from Doctor Who, currently airing in the UK on BBC3 and BBC2, created by Russell T. Davies. Some are even saying that they prefer it to Doctor Who.

TV comedy of the year: Extras, the second season of Ricky Gervais's brilliant sitcom. Honourable mentions: Lead Balloon, Catherine Tate.

Other honourable mentions: although nothing is quite up to the standard of the best British TV over here, Heroes is good so far and well worth watching. Battlestar Galactica is still worth watching too.

Radio programme of the year: The Making of Memory -- superb Radio 4 documentary series, part of their Memory Experience series of programmes.

Honourable mentions: I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue: funny as ever. There has been so much fantastic radio this year and the perennials keep the world turning around for me, Today, Test Match Special, Simon Mayo, Start the Week. I catch most of these via the BBC Download and Podcast Trial, one of the major changes to my life in 2006. The availability of so much good Radio 4 and Five Live radio via download has been a godsend. Speaking of which, how about a new category?

Podcast of the year: To concentrate on podcasts available outside of the BBC radio programmes above, the top was Baddiel and Skinner's World Cup Podcast -- made me laugh out loud all the way through the World Cup, and cheered me up when we lost to Portugal. Honourable mention: Ricky Gervais on The Guardian in February -- pretty enjoyable.

Sporting event of the year: well it's certainly not the Ashes this year! (American readers: The Ashes is the name for the most famous cricketing rivalry of all, England and Australian. After winning the Ashes back in the summer of 2005, we have just lost them again in Australia). The Sporting event has to be the World Cup, in spite of England's less than brilliant performance. Viola and I wrote a lot about our first experience of The World Cup in America in The Americanization of Emily.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Inquiry

Over on Filmchat, Petter Chattaway has news about an interesting new film called The Inquiry:
The new film, which premieres December 28 at the Capri Hollywood Film Festival in Italy, is a remake of a 1986 film about a Roman agent who is sent to Palestine to investigate rumours concerning a Jewish prophet who came back from the dead.
The film is directed by Giulio Base. Of particular interest is that Hristo Shopov will reprise his role as Pontius Pilate, after playing the part in The Passion of the Christ (dir. Mel Gibson, 2004). Another very interesting bit of casting is Max Von Sydow, Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told, as Tiberius. There is a trailer available. There is also an IMDb page on The Inquiry.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Bernard Orchard: Obituaries

The death of Dom. Bernard Orchard was reported in Hypotyposeis last week, following on from a note on Synoptic-L from Peter Head pointing to The Times Obituary of 5 December. I met Dom Orchard once, at the SNTS Meeting in Birmingham in 1997. Sadly, I didn't get a chance to attend his short paper at that meeting because I was run off my feet with organizing things, and our second daughter had just been born.

There is also a full obituary in The Independent from 6 December, written by Hugh O'Shaughnessy:

Dom Bernard Orchard
Monk and twice headmaster who transformed Ealing Priory School into the modern St Benedict's
Orchard, by nature a conservative and uncomfortable with some of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, devoted the rest of his life at the abbey to scriptural scholarship which allowed him to continue expressing forthright views with passion, even combativeness. For instance, defending the traditional teaching that St Matthew's gospel antedated St Mark's, in the US Catholic magazine This Rock in 1996 he commented with characteristic tartness,
It has been unfortunate that the combination of an exhilarating freedom to pursue historical criticism with church approval and the reassuring support of the prestigious faculties of the German and American universities has convinced the Markan Priorists that they cannot be wrong.
The Old Priorian Association has a PDF obituary here:

R.I.P. John Bernard Orchard

The Telegraph obituary of 8 December is here:

Dom Bernard Orchard
. . . . His scholarly work was not deeply original, and his judgment was sometimes questioned. But he had a gift for organising, stimulating and coordinating scholars to produce research of lasting value. As chairman of the Catholic Biblical Association of Great Britain he ruled with headmasterly severity for decades.

Orchard edited A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (1953), the first one-volume Catholic commentary since the opening out of biblical studies after Pope Pius XII's encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu. With Fr Reginald Fuller, he set about providing Catholics with an accurate modern translation of the Bible. They obtained the copyright holders' permission to adapt and amend the American Revised Standard Version, and produced an edition that Catholics could use in the liturgy and biblical studies, though it took 10 years before the RSV-Catholic Edition was published with an imprimatur . . . .

. . . . During six years in Rome he became the founder and chairman of the World Catholic Federation for the Biblical Apostolate, and acted as spiritual director of the Beda College. He published his Synopsis of the Four Gospels, in English and Greek editions. With Professor William Farmer of Dallas and Professor TRW Longstaff he wrote papers and inspired international conferences aimed at reviving the 18th-century theory that the first synoptic gospel to be written was Matthew, followed by Luke and finally Mark.

At one stage no biblical conference in the British Isles seemed complete without this tall, strong, silver-haired figure, who also lectured on his theory so widely abroad that some wondered if he did not like being in his monastery. But he remained true to his community, and from 1981 was the titular cathedral prior of Canterbury . . . .

Blogs various

Today seems to be a bit of a catching-up day on the blog, so here are a few things I've wanted to mention for a while. I didn't get time to mention Loren Rosson's interview as Biblioblogger of the Month a couple of weeks ago. I've added a couple of new blogs to my blogroll (and sent others to limbo), including Deirdre Good's On not being a sausage, Neil Godfrey's Vridar and Doug Chaplin's Fool's Footsteps.

The Nativity Story: Chattaway's take

Peter Chattaway's articles and reviews are always well worth reading, especially when it comes to Bible films. I wanted to wait to read his review of The Nativity Story until I had written my own and with mine finished yesterday (a new one, based on my earlier blog post, to be published soon), I took the opportunity to read his today. It is on Christianity Today Movies:

The Nativity Story
Peter T. Chattaway

For me, he gets it about right, and he articulates something very well that had been worrying me:
There is also a tension of sorts in Mike Rich's screenplay, which oscillates between the need to be faithful to the biblical text, on the one hand, and the freedom to create dramatically compelling characters and scenes, on the other. While Rich trims out some of the dialogue that appears in the Bible, the parts that he keeps are presented almost exactly as written, yet these sections of the film—especially the Annunciation and the restoration of speech to Zechariah—feel rushed and anticlimactic, and are never quite woven into the rest of the drama. Compare the first scene between Mary and Elizabeth, which is straight out of the Gospel of Luke (minus the Magnificat), with their later conversations; it's a little like watching Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, in which the heroes use modern English until they wander into a scene from Hamlet and start talking all Shakespearean.
This is exactly right. I thought the worst parts of the film were when they were quoting scripture -- each time they went straight into reading-in-church mode, a shame given the film's strengths, e.g. in allowing us to listen in to Mary's thoughts.

Neotestamentica 40.1 (2006)

Thanks to Holger Szesnat for the note that abstracts, book reviews, and two sample articles (D. E. Aune and F. P. Viljoen) of the latest Neotestamentica are now available on-line:

Neotestamentica 40.1 (2006)

The on-line full text pieces are:

David E.Aune, "The Apocalypse of John and Palestinian Jewish Apocalyptic"

Francois P. Viljoen, "Jesus’ Teaching on the Torah in the Sermon on the Mount"

Pick of the day: A Guide to Grading Exams

If I had a "pick of the day" feature on the NTGateway blog, this would be today's, from the Concurring Opinions blog by Daniel Solove (with thanks to Feeble Mindings for the tip)

A Guide to Grading Exams

There is some particularly helpful advice on that vexed issue of how to decide on those borderline A-/B+ decisions.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Tens of thousands of spam

Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam. Eventually I got fed up of it. 20,000 spam messages in the last 48 hours, and this is getting pretty common. I use gmail, which has an excellent spam filter, so I only get to see a fraction of these that bleed through to my inbox, but a fraction of 10,000 a day is still too much. I decided to take some action. The vast majority of my spam comes from the address. Spam robots simply affix any automated name to, and my ISP sends it all to me. So I have discontinued the use of as my blog email address, and have diverted all mail to another address which I will only occasionally check. Please send any future blog-related emails to my Duke address (goodacre at duke dot edu).

Why aren't there more good plays about Jesus?

Today's Guardian has an interesting article by a playwright who wants to know why there are so few good plays about Jesus:

The greatest story never told
A virgin birth, great parts for everyone and a happy ending ... so why aren't there more good plays about Jesus? Mark Ravenhill reports
. . . .Given that most of our leading playwrights, directors and actors have at some point appeared in a Nativity play during their formative years, it's surprising more of them haven't been drawn to tell the story of the Nativity, or other aspects of the life of Christ, in their adult work . . .

. . . . The absence of the story of Christ from the stage is not a new phenomenon. In medieval England we had the Mystery Plays, most famously in York and Coventry - epic Biblical cycles performed by amateurs on wagons passing through the city. But with the dissolution of the monasteries and the split from Rome, stagings of Biblical events became heretical. It wasn't until the 20th century that these plays were restaged, first by amateur groups, and then in a celebrated production by Bill Bryden at the National Theatre. The success of Bryden's production was in part due to his setting of the plays in a Northern working-class culture, just as it was under attack from the Thatcher government.
It's a good article, though some alarm bells begin ringing here:
Dennis Potter called his play about the crucifixion, written for television and later staged by the RSC with Joseph Fiennes as Christ, "Son of Man" - instantly loading it by denying Jesus his semi-divinity.
Semi-divinity? Could this be another example of that occasional media heresy that Jesus was a half-man, half-god? Apparently it is:
Perhaps the representation of Jesus on stage is always going to be problematic. If you are a believer, he is the son of God and therefore half human and half divine. How does an actor represent the divine?
That aside, though, well worth a read.

Pick of the day: Sigma

If I had a "pick of the day" feature, this would be today's, on Laudator Temporis Acti:


Read about sigma, final sigma, lunate sigma and the lipogram.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Paul Quiz

Beliefnet has a quiz on Paul out today:

Christianity Quiz: All About Paul

My Paul class handed in their final assignments today, but you don't need to have spent much time studying Paul to get ten out of ten on this one.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Microsoft Book Search

Thanks to Jim West for news of this new resources:

Live Search Books

Like Google Books, it has plenty of public domain books in full view downloads available. I've not had a lot of time to play with it yet, but time enough to find the following, which is not available on Google Books:

J. C. Hawkins, Horae Synopticae (Oxford: Clarendon, 1899)

The quality of the scans seems very good, and the site seems pretty easy to use. So thumbs up so far, and I am looking forward to searching for more.

Update (Tuesday, 10.05): Thanks to Ken Olson for pointing out that this is in fact the first edition of 1899 (see comments), so I've adjusted above.

Poirier vs. Tabor

Jack Poirier has a review of James Tabor's Jesus Dynasty online at the Jerusalem Perspective website:

Book Review: James Tabor’s The Jesus Dynasty
by Jack Poirier

And James Tabor has a response on his blog:

The James Ossuary and Pantera (Again!)

Update (Thursday, 15.36): Thanks to Jack Poirier (in comments to this post) for pointing out that he now has a response to Tabor published in the same context above, after a reproduction of Tabor's blog post.

St Paul's sarcophagus

Back in February 2005, stories about the discovery of Paul's tomb began to circulate in the media (see Archaeologists discover Paul's tomb) and they resurfaced recently, e.g. in USA Today (via Paleojudaica). The newer reports point to a press conference at the Vatican today, and reports of this are now becoming available, for example here in IOL:

Vatican may open Saint's tomb
By Philip Pullella
Vatican City - The Vatican said on Monday it was studying the possibility of opening a thick marble sarcophagus believed to contain the remains of the 1st century apostle St Paul to study its contents.

The prospect was raised at a news conference at which Vatican officials unveiled the results of an archaeological dig which has made part of the sarcophagus in Rome's Basilica of St Paul's Outside the Walls visible to pilgrims.

"We tried to X-ray it to see what was inside but the stone was too thick," said Cardinal Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo, archpriest of the basilica on Rome's outskirts . . . .

. . . . Montezemolo belittled some media reports that the apostle's tomb had only now been discovered.

"There has been no doubt for the past 20 centuries that the tomb is there. It was variously visible and not visible in times past and then it was covered up. We made an opening (in the basilica floor) to make it visible at least in part," he said . . . .
The Vatican news service has a full report in Italian here:


The Nativity Story: What the Scholars Say

I have seen only a handful of reviews from New Testament scholars on The Nativity Story. Given the plethora of reviews they put out on The Passion of the Christ, this is a disappointment if not a surprise. It seems that these days, however much we might like to think that we are not influenced by the media frenzy on such things, it was the public thirst for comment on The Passion that was driving all that scholarly interest and which in part explains the vituperative tone of so many of the reviews.

The scholarly interest is not completely lacking, though, and so far, these are the reviews I have found from New Testament scholars:

Waiting for the Magnificat
Scot McKnight, Relevant Magazine
McKnight enjoys the film, sometimes feels he was there in the first century, falls in love with Joseph but not Mary and wishes for more of the Magnificat.
The Nativity-- The Birth of a Classic?
Ben Witherington (blog)
He thinks it's "not only not bad . . . actually pretty good". Unlike McKnight, he likes the portrait of Mary. He is not so keen on the CGI Jerusalem, or shepherds and magi at the manger at the same time, but otherwise it is thumbs up.
Witherington's review reveals that Darrell Bock was one of those consulted for the film and Bock himself has some brief reflections. (We'd love to see more!).

Three million visits today

At some point today, the NT Gateway should receive its three millionth visitor. As I write it is standing at 2,999,482 visits in 8,046,448 page views (statistics). Bear in mind that these figures include The New Testament Gateway as a whole (but not other sites like Case Against Q or Aseneth).

Update: the three million mark was reached earlier this afternoon, I'm not sure precisely when. Since my stats software is not as sophisticated as some people have, I am afraid I am not able to offer a free Mars Bar for the three millionth visitor, but thanks for the support anyway.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Nativity Story Quiz

Beliefnet asks:

How Well Do You Know the Nativity Story?

Some of the questions are a bit dubious, but it's worth doing so that you can enjoy some of the wacky multiple choice answers. If you give them the answers you think they want, it's quite easy to get fourteen out of fourteen. The quiz is up there as part of its Nativity Story movie coverage:

The Nativity Story 2006

The site includes clips, review, interviews and multimedia feature.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Nativity Story: My Review (continued)

The Nativity Story was released in the US last Friday, 1 December, and my first viewing of the film was on Saturday 2nd. Here follows my review.

One of the pleasures for me was that this was the first Bible film I have seen at the cinema with the whole family. My wife would not go to see The Passion of the Christ and I wouldn't dream, of course, of taking the children to that. And it was great to be sitting with the kids either side of me while we watched The Nativity Story, a film that is pitched about right to the family "PG" audience. The violence of the Slaughter of the Innocents is not gory, and is relatively short-lived. The two birth scenes (Elizabeth's and Mary's) are not graphic and again are relatively short-lived. At times I wondered whether it might be sufficiently compelling for the younger audience, but apparently it was. My nine year old had to ask a couple of times "What's going on?" but only a couple of times, and towards the beginning. For the kids, as well as for the faithful, there are enough of the traditional, familiar story markers to reassure everyone that the important bases are covered, Herod, wise men, star, shepherds, no room at the inn, but there are enough imaginative fresh elements weaved into the traditional narrative to keep the interest up.

I am very easily pleased when it comes to Bible films, especially seeing them in the cinema. So much of my access to Jesus films has been via television, video and DVD, that it is always a thrill to catch one on release in the cinema. No doubt my views on this one will change and mature in time, especially with future viewings, and my initial viewing is strongly influenced by the thrill of seeing it in the cinema, where I will return shortly for my next viewing. So when I say that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of watching this film, bear in mind that context.

Not surprisingly, the basis for the story is Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2, and the sources are harmonized pretty successfully, with Luke perhaps just getting the edge. Zechariah and Elizabeth, from Luke, are major minor characters, and Herod and the magi, from Matthew, are ever-present. As expected, the plot focuses on Luke's Nazareth to Bethlehem journey, but it is framed by the Slaughter of the Innocents from Matthew, opening with this, and then presenting the remainder of the film as a flash-back beginning "One year earlier". Very little is omitted from Luke 1.5--2.19, but nothing is utilized from Luke 2.20-51, so there is nothing after the shepherds -- no temple, circumcision, Simeon or Anna. This is necessitated by the turn to Matthew after the birth, with the flight to Egypt and slaughter of the innocents, stories that make it difficult to incorporate a trip to Jerusalem, towards Herod, from whom they are fleeing in Matthew. Little is omitted from Matthew's shorter account, but there is no concession to Mary and Joseph's Bethlehem "house" in Matthew 2.11. It's Luke's (implied) stable / cave and then the flight to Egypt at the end of the film.

I didn't spot any influence from non-canonical gospels at all. Mary's parents were not named in the body of the film, for example, though they were credited as Joaquim and Anna (as in Protevangelium of James). And Joseph was a young man with no children, again in contrast to the Protevangelium, where he is a widow with sons.

Structurally, the one major non-Biblical addition to the narrative was a visit to Jerusalem en route from Nazareth to Jerusalem. Luke 2.4 has Mary and Joseph travelling from Nazareth to Bethlehem whereas Matthew has them already located in Bethlehem. But the addition of Jerusalem here makes good narrative sense. Not only is it historically plausible that those who travelled from Galilee, to Bethlehem, would go via Jerusalem (e.g. take a look at a map of first century Palestine with Roman Road System), but also it allows the film to depict Joseph and Mary coming across Herod's path without quite meeting him, seeing the Temple and thinking about the future. It also provides the opportunity for one of the best shots of the entire film, as Joseph and Mary are on the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, with the city beautifully standing proud in the background, with all the glories of CGI at its best.

The locations used are pretty familiar in Bible and ancient world films. Matera in Italy was the location for The Gospel According to St Matthew (dir. Pasolini, 1964) and The Passion of the Christ (dir. Gibson, 2004). And Ouarzazate has been used for many films and TV specials (see previous comments here), including the BBC's St Paul (2003), when I travelled to Ouarzazate with Philip Esler. It's actually pretty recognizable, and there were a few moments during The Nativity Story where I found myself saying, "I've been there!". The Moroccan company used for extras in these scenes, Dune Films, is the same.

Another BBC Documentary, called The Virgin Mary (dir. David McNab, 2002), also filmed in Ouarzazate, may have influenced The Nativity Story at odd points. When Elizabeth gives birth to John in The Nativity Story, the scene bears an uncanny resemblance to Mary's giving birth to Jesus in The Virgin Mary, especially the use of the rope dangling from the ceiling. I could not help seeing an echo of the dramatization of Mary's relationship with a Roman soldier from the same documentary too. There is a moment when Roman soldiers gallop through Nazareth and one of them stops and looks at Mary, who stares back. Perhaps there is nothing in it. It's just a moment, just a look, but it evoked for me that other, scandalous story that has only ever been dramatized, to my knowledge, in The Virgin Mary.

There were a few inevitable historical oddities and anachronisms of the kind that could have been avoided if they had talked to more scholars (I only spotted William Fulco, S.J., also used in The Passion of the Christ, in the credits). Zechariah, for example, is pictured sitting writing at a rather mediaeval looking desk. As far as we can tell, the ancients did not use desks; the anachronism here is like depicting Robin Hood using a laptop computer. Nor is it plausible that Roman troops would have been spotted galloping through Nazareth in 6-4 BCE bearing a standard in order to enforce taxation. There was a standard Jesus film cliché too, as Joseph makes a disparaging comment on the commercialism of the Jerusalem temple, so prefiguring an old-fashioned reading of Jesus' so-called Temple cleansing. I would have preferred to have seen Joseph and Mary awed and inspired by the Temple.

The low points of the film, though, were the botched attempts to depict the angelic appearances to key characters. Films have always struggled with this. How can one depict in film a angelic appearance, a divine vision, and make it plausible? The Miracle Maker (dir. Hayes and Sokolov, 2000) used traditional animation for "supernatural" events over against its claymation for the rest, and it works. Jesus of Nazareth (dir. Zeffirelli, 1977), less successfully, has Mary responding and speaking to a window during the annunciation. But The Nativity Story is worse. Little imagination has gone into the major angelic scenes. Mary meets Gabriel in Nazareth while going about her business outdoors, his angelic identity coded by his fuzzy-around-the edges focus. He reappears later in the film, standing on a hill-side and speaking to the old shepherd, his costume white but not gleaming. It's horrible. And no heavenly choir either. One gets the feeling that Catherine Hardwicke had a loss of nerve, a failure of imagination, or both. At other points, she is more than happy to go down a traditional, iconic, picture-book route. Here, given that there is no attempt to go for an every-day style human encounter, it might have been better if she'd gone for the full, gleaming robed glory of a picture-book angel. The attempt to take a middle path does not work.

On the other hand, Joseph's dream is handled very well, with the kind of imagination that one longs for in those other heavenly encounters. His dream, in which he sees people gathering to stone Mary for committing adultery, comes straight out of Jesus of Nazareth, which has the identical motif, filmed similarly. But it improves on Zeffirelli in a couple of ways. The viewer does not immediately realize that Joseph is dreaming because we see him out at work as the people gather to stone Mary. And whereas Jesus of Nazareth has the disembodied angel's voice interrupting the action, The Nativity Story has the angel appearing within the dream itself, emerging from the crowd to speak to Joseph. Joseph wakes up while the angel is still speaking (he's got about as far as "You will call his name Jesus").

On the whole, The Nativity Story is predictable; it is faithful to tradition; it ticks all the relevant boxes; but it has some real charm, a lot of warmth, some imagination, and it is just about pacey enough to keep the viewer's interest. I don't think it is destined to be a classic, but it is certainly not a clinker. There are moments when the film just goes through the motions, but these are compensated by many more moments when it has an interesting new angle on the old, old story. In the end, The Nativity Story makes an excellent account of itself because it does not try to be too ambitious. It knows what it is doing, presenting a warm-hearted retelling of the Nativity story without trying to re-invent the tradition. Don't expect too much, but don't be too cynical. Don't expect to be blown away, but don't prepare for disappointment.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Nativity Story reviews

On Bible Films, Matt Page has his review of The Nativity Story up; here's an excerpt:
Yet despite its uniqueness, it can't quite decide what kind of bible film it wants to be. The title suggests a mythic retelling, perhaps aimed at the family, yet the early scenes have a gritty, realistic feel to them. Later on though the film morphs into a sort of road movie as Mary and Joseph get acquainted and start to appreciate one another. Then it changes gear yet again once the holy couple reaches Bethlehem. The last remaining vestiges of realism are swiftly ditched and out comes a touch of the Christmas magic. The light from the star shines through a hole in the roof and makes the coldest and dampest of caves seem warm and lovely. Finally, the film ends with the new family fleeing from Herod, ending the film as if it's the close of part 1 of an action trilogy.
The whole review is here:

The Nativity Story Review

I am looking forward to going to see the film tomorrow. Meanwhile, it has a stinking 26% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, "a dull retelling of a well-worn tale". IMDb has it at 6.3 out of 10 so far.

For lots more, Pete Chattaway has gathered together his posts on The Nativity Story on FilmChat:

The Nativity Story Article Archive

The latest of these is on Canadian Christianity:

Nativity Story producers, writer look beyond the Christian "niche"
By Peter T. Chattaway

I don't think his review is out yet, nor is The Guardian's, where I always go for film, but it does have the following feature today:

The greatest teen drama ever told
Hannah Patterson

The film comes out today in the USA. In the UK, you have to wait until next Friday. (See release dates on IDMb).

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Biblical Studies Carnival XII

Dr Jim West has done a cracking job with the latest Biblical Studies Carnival -- thorough, detailed, witty and very nicely structured. Many thanks, Jim.

Biblical Studies Carnival XII

Friday, November 24, 2006

SBL Annual Meeting General Reflections

A few random thoughts:

(1) I can't say that I am too keen on the extension of the meeting backwards towards Saturday at 9 a.m. I used to like the slightly more civilized start at 1 p.m., which enabled one to orientate oneself before getting into the fray. I was very rushed on Saturday morning, especially with a breakfast meeting too.

(2) Are the receptions getting a bit out of hand? I mean: are they losing their identity as receptions for a given university or publishing house and becoming instead free-for-all crowded boozing sessions?

(3) There are far too many sections, and too many overlapping sessions. The meeting encourages not just specialization but specialization within a given area. So if you are interested in the Synoptics (already narrow), you have the choice also of Formation of Luke-Acts, Book of Acts, Mark, Matthew, Historical Jesus, Q, and more. I think this tends to encourage specialized audiences, even cliques, in given areas. Each section has too many sessions and there are always huge overlaps. One of the biggest problem in the guild these days is over-specialization and the SBL Annual Meeting reflects and encourages that problem. It is something that requires some thought.

(4) Although the academic quality remains pretty good, the massive number of sections and sessions inevitably has an effect on the quality. I would like to see the meeting becoming more competitive. I was disappointed to hear a senior academic speak about the bar being set far too low for him to speak at the AAR. It would be a great shame if senior scholars came to feel the same way about the SBL.

(5) Is it time to scrap the Tuesday morning sessions? If it is desirable to shrink the meeting (above), perhaps Tuesday morning sessions would be a good way of beginning the pruning process.

(6) The chairing of sessions is, on the whole, very good, but there are still those sessions where presiders have just not thought through the practicalities of how to time a session. You have to be ruthless. In a two-and-a-half hour session with five speakers, it essential to begin on time, and to allow 28/29 minutes maximum for each speaker and out of fairness to each speaker, to make sure that no one part bleeds into another part.

(7) I witnessed more problems with room size this year than in previous years. This may be because section chairs are not estimating the size of their audience well (and it is difficult), or it may be because the estimates are not getting carried through to the organizers.

(8) I heard many superbly presented papers this year, but I also heard a good number that were simply scripts getting very hastily read, with no thought about communication with the audience. I would say that I saw more hand-outs this year than usual too, and that is something I like very much.

(9) All those things aside, it has to be said that the meeting overall is superbly run. Somehow, everything comes together brilliantly and the only difficulties are minor ones. The book exhibit always goes off brilliantly; it is rare for there to be technical difficulties; these huge American convention centres are surpirsingly straightforward to navigate. Overall, the SBL does a fantastic job, and perhaps we only notice the little niggly things because it does such a good job.

Update (Sunday, 19.38): there are some good comments below from Stephen Carlson and Alan Garrow. On reflection, I say let's keep the Tuesday mornings. Ending on Monday will result in the loss of Monday evening, the one night I actually get to do something relaxing!

SBL Day 5 (Tuesday)

The Tuesday morning of the SBL is, it has to be said, a bit of a damp squib. As a punter, one is best off when one has a latish flight and one has time to enjoy the last morning fully. But most do not. Some have already left by Monday evening. Many more set off on Tuesday morning without returning to the Convention Centre. No one likes being scheduled on a Tuesday morning. This year, I was able to get to about half of the final Synoptics Section before we needed to pick up our car to begin the drive back to Raleigh. First up in that section was Mike Bird, who did a nice job on the Gospels for all Christians theme, but with a special focus on non-canonical Gospels, arguing that these do not provide counter-examples to the Bauckham claim. Mike is a lively speaker, and his paper was easy to listen to, and I look forward to hearing more from this fellow biblioblogger in the future. Next up was an old favourite in the Synoptics (and related) sections, Jeffrey Gibson, who spoke on "A lack or Alas?" concerning the bread petition in the Lord's Prayer. Since Mike seemed to have left after his paper, and Jeffrey left after his, I feared rather for the remaining speakers, especially as there were only ten or so people in the audience for the session. It does seem a bit unfair that those who draw the short straw of the Tuesday mornings get such a poor audience. Is it time to scrap Tuesday morning sessions?

Our drive back was great, talking all the way and a great second visit to Cracker Barrel to boot. This was one of those SBLs that left me looking forward very much to next year's.

SBL Day 4 (Monday)

After our Synoptics Steering Committee breakfast, it was the SBL Forum Advisory Board meeting. Shortly afterwards I had a meeting of the Library of New Testament Studies editorial board, and next up was the Pauline Epistles section at which I was presenting a paper. Regular readers will not be surprised to hear that the topic of my paper was circumcision in Galatians. Since a few people at the conference asked me about my regular blogging on this topic, perhaps I should explain that one of my reasons for doing this this year, something I have not done in previous years, is that I did not get the chance to practise the paper in a seminar here ahead of time, so I had not had chance to get any feedback on it.

I was pleased with the way the paper went. It is now my habit on these occasions to present the paper and not to read it. I used to call this "extemporary" but since one definition of this is "Spoken, done, or composed with little or no preparation or forethought" (, this is not in fact a very helpful term. To present rather than to read takes, in my experience, a huge amount of extra preparation, not less. One has to make sure that one has all the key information in one's memory, and the structure and balance very clearly worked out. So I think I should talk about "presenting" as opposed to "reading".

That aside, though, I was happy with the reaction. I had a number of incisive and helpful questions, including from Victor Paul Furnish and Sharyn Dowd. And it was nice to have several friends present for support and encouragement, as well as a great audience. My Duke colleague Douglas Campbell chaired the session, the session also included Kathy Barrett Dawson, one of our Duke PhD students, talking on parody in Galatians. The other speakers were John Taylor on "we" language in Galatians, Benjamin Schliesser from Tübingen on faith in Romans, and James Ware on Paul and Job in Philippians.

I was so relieved to have my paper done that changing out of my smart clothes and into casual ones, getting a couple of beers and a steak at the Brew House, and spending time with three of my favourite people, this was a real highlight of the conference, all the more so in that we then went to see Casino Royale, as I previously mentioned. This was my third SBL Bond, with The World is Not Enough in Boston 1999 and Die Another Day in Toronto 2002. Let's hope there'll be another SBL Bond in 2008.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

SBL Day 3 (Sunday)

Sunday's breakfast meeting was the University of Birmingham reception and a great pleasure to see old friends. I was really annoyed last year to have to miss the Birmingham reception because I had another breakfast meeting at the same time. In fact Sunday was university reception day for me, and the three universities I have known, first Birmingham where I taught for a decade, then later Oxford, where I was student for almost a decade, and then Duke, my current university.

At one we had the third Synoptic Gospels session, this time a panel on Simon Gathercole's new book published by Eerdmans, The Pre-Existent Son. This was a session I organized relatively late in the day, beginning last March, when I was approached by Eerdmans. It seemed like a very good idea. The three respondents to the book were James D. G. Dunn, Rikk Watts and Deirdre Good. The fourth was to be Maurice Casey, making a rare appearance at SBL, but sadly he had to drop out last week because of health. The section sent its best wishes for a speedy recovery.

I took the first ten minutes or so of the session to introduce Simon and to summarize the book. Jimmy Dunn then took 15 minutes, and Rikk Watts and Deirdre Good also took 15 minutes each. We had a 5 minute (or so) break followed by Simon's 25 minute response to all three respondents, and then there was plenty of time first for more panel discussion and finally for views from the floor. First up from the floor was Richard Bauckham who said, among other things, that Jimmy Dunn conceived of monotheism in unitarian terms, and that he conceived of others' Trinitarian views as tritheistic. He also chided Rikk Watts for using the divine name in his presentation in spite of his claim to be using emic language. And he added that it is impossible to talk about these issues solely using emic language.

In spite of the interesting discussions, the thing that will remain with me for the longest will be, I think, Jimmy Dunn's strongly worded critique of his former student's book, which he accused of "wooden literalism", of "tritheism, ditheism or modalism"; and he said that Simon was in need of a "refresher course in hermeneutics". I am afraid that I could not resist adding after he had finished, "I am tempted to say: don't hold back; tell us what you really think." Simon defended his book bravely, and had not had either Deirdre's or Rikk's responses in advance, so he did particularly well on those.

I tend to find presiding a little stressful because you have to keep alert for 150 minutes and there is a lot to look out for and not just speakers, time and audience. So I always feel very relieved when it is over.

I went to the John, Jesus and History session next, a disaster of room allocation, one of several at the meeting. Its allocated room had only enough space for forty people, and Felix Just stood outside guiding people to the new room, also far too small, with people sitting on the floor, crowding into the doorway and so on. Sean Freyne was first up and talked about Galilee in John. Next up were Craig Evans, Richard Bauckham and Ben Witherington III. Unfortunately, I missed a lot of what they said because I was now sitting down in a chair and not on the floor and I couldn't stop drifting off, a very annoying habit when one is interested in the material. Actually, I think I heard most of Witherington's talk, which was a tour de force, arguing that Lazarus was the beloved disciple and the author of the Gospel, that Simon the Leper was the father of Lazarus, Mary and Martha, and that the Gospel owned the name of John because it was redacted by John of Patmos. It was the kind of harmonizing reading that I find implausible but entertaining to listen to.

Sunday evening was receptions evening, for me first Oxford and then Duke, both great places to meet old friends, and some new people.

SBL Day 2 (Saturday)

One of the changes in recent years is the arrival of 9 a.m. meetings. I can't say I am too keen on this innovation. That extra morning used to give one a chance to get everything in order before the serious business began. Now, the conference comes crashing in very quickly. Straight after my breakfast meeting, I dashed to the Convention Centre for the first time to catch the first Synoptic Gospels session. I prioritize Synoptic Gospels sessions because I co-chair the section with Greg Carey and I regard it as important to try to hear all papers in the section if at all possible. A particular highlight for me was Stephen Carlson's paper Luke’s Panel Technique for an “Orderly” Account, which I found pretty persuasive -- and very interesting. I hope he has the chance to publish this in due course.

I forgot to take my badge with me this year. In fact I don't remember receiving it. But it turns out that it is very easy to get a replacement.

Later on Saturday was a session I had put a lot of work into organizing, the second Synoptic Gospels session, this time on the Birth Narratives. The session was chaired by Loveday Alexander and was divided into two. The first half celebrated twenty years of Jane Schaberg's The Illegitimacy of Jesus, with Schaberg giving a review of the book and reactions to it and Gail Streete offering her reflections. Sadly, Amy-Jill Levine, who was to be the second respondent, was unable to make it to the meeting because of ill health. The second half was led off by David Landry, whose paper looked at Luke 1-2 as a "hostile takeover" of Matthew 1-2, developing the idea that Luke disliked Matthew's Birth Narrative and tried greatly to improve on it. There were two responses, one by Robert Miller and one by John Darr. I was particularly intrigued by Robert Miller's response, which confirmed a point I make in the first chapter of The Case Against Q, that the majority of those who accept the Q hypothesis do so because they have not given the Synoptic Problem any extended critical thought (note that I say the majority, and not everyone -- I know there are plenty who do, of course). Miller said that he had devoted a total of no minutes thinking about the Synoptic Problem over the last twenty years, a claim he repeated when pressed in various of the questions. Actually, the Q sceptics were out in force; I am afraid that I asked a question and so did Ken Olson, Jeff Peterson and Mark Matson.

John Darr's response had one particularly entertaining moment. Landry had extolled the virtues of Luke's birth narrative, denigrating Matthew's in the process. Darr began his piece by pointing out, facetiously of course, that Matthew's Birth Narrative provides us with a rationalization for giving and receiving Christmas presents, and that we should therefore celebrate his contribution.

It was a good session. I suppose that one thing that I found a little disappointing was that there was not as much dialogue between the two halves of the session as I had hoped. And I suppose us Farrer types slightly skewed the discussion at the end by asking all the tough questions on Luke's use of Matthew.

Speaking of Q, I did manage to get to some of the first Q section dealing with the Christology of Q, and which included a paper from Harry Fledderman.

Saturday evening was the Continuum (T & T Clark) dinner at Clydes restaurant, an enjoyable evening not least because I was lucky to be on a table with some great people. The food was OK and the wine was great. The dinner represented something of a move from former years when Continuum, like everyone else, had receptions. This was a more select gathering and, to be honest, a much more enjoyable occasion.

SBL Day 1 (Friday)

Going to the SBL Annual Meeting when you are living in the USA is a different experience from going to it from abroad. You don't have to deal with the jet lag, you get home much more quickly, and you don't have to go straight back to work when you return. And sometimes, you live close enough to the meeting that you can drive to it. Washington DC is about 250 miles north of where we live in North Carolina, and for the first time ever I drove from home, with a close friend who had been staying with us for a couple of days, to the meeting location. It was about four hours of actual driving, all very straightforward, especially as I didn't do any of the driving. It turns out too that there is a great place called Cracker Barrel every fifty miles or so, and you can stop off there for breakfast, brunch or lunch and get a good meal (and especially their raspberry lemonade). The only difficulty was finding our way to Union Station where we were to drop off our hired car, and then finding our way to the hotel from there. But I was still there in time there to meet an old friend at 7pm for an amazing dinner in a place called the Chop House, which served very, very good brewed-on-site beer and some very expensive food.

We were lucky to be staying in the Renaissance Washington, which was one of the main meeting hotels. I am ashamed to say that I didn't get to any of the DC sites, the monuments or anything else, during the four days of the conference. But my excuse is that I am saving that up to do properly with the family some time.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Back from SBL

I arrived back in rainy North Carolina an hour or so ago after a good SBL, beginning last Friday and ending this morning. I drove up to Washington, DC with a friend last Friday and returned, leaving at lunchtime today. It turned out that it was much cheaper (and more enjoyable) to drive, hiring a car on Friday and dropping it off at Union Station, and doing the same in reverse today.

I hope to have some reports soon. For the first time ever (or since beginning blogging), I didn't manage to blog at all during the conference, in spite of having the blogging machine with me. Just didn't seem to find a spare minute. No doubt other bloggers have already begun their reports, though each time I met a fellow blogger they would say the same, that they had not yet had time.

My main highlights were -- I have to admit -- non-academic, going to see the new Bond film, Casino Royale, last night after a trip to the Brewery House, particularly enjoyable because it came just after having the session in which I was giving a paper this year. And Friday evening at the Chop House, where they brewed their own beer and served very expensive food, with one of my favourite people, was another real highlight.

As usual I tried to do too much, went to too many meetings, got up too early, stayed up too late, got too tired, but in the end found it all worthwhile and lots of it very stimulating academically. I will comment on those things later on.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

SBL Pauline Epistles Handout

I've uploaded my handout for my SBL Pauline Epistles paper on Galatians:

Already Circumcised? Paul's Letter of Rebuke to Apostate Galatians

Update (Friday, 11.36): some formatting issues fixed. (By the way, it is supposed to say "Paul's presents" and not "Paul's presence").

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Were the Galatians already circumcised? VII

This is the seventh post in the current series and it follows on from Were the Galatians Already Circumcised? I, Were the Galatians Already Circumcised? II, Were the Galatians Already Circumcised? III, Were the Galatians Already Circumcised? IV, Were the Galatians Already Circumcised V and Were the Galatians Already Circumcised VI.

If some of the Galatians were already circumcised when Paul heard news of the situation in those churches, what are we to make of Galatians 5.2, often held to be evidence that they had not yet submitted to circumcision?
Gal. 5.2: ἴδε ἐγὼ Παῦλος λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι ἐὰν περιτέμνησθε Χριστὸς ὑμᾶς οὐδὲν ὠφελήσει

Behold I Paul am saying to you that if you are circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you.
According to the standard grammars, Paul is here using a future more vivid condition (ἐὰν + subjunctive in the protasis; future indicative in the apodosis). The protasis here does not describe an unreal condition. Quite the contrary. So a cavalier argument of the kind often found in the commentaries, to the effect that Paul says "If . . ." and so the Galatians are not getting circumcised will not work. But there is a useful question to be asked about the tense of the subjunctive περιτέμνησθε here. If Paul had wished to speak about the possibility of the Galatians getting circumcised, one would have expected him to have used the aorist subjunctive rather than the present subjunctive, to have said, "If you get circumcised . . .", not "If you are circumcised . . ." In short, there is no good reason to see 5.2 as evidence against the thesis I am forwarding.

Nevertheless, I think the question being asked here is a useful one because it reminds us to use our imaginations about the situation in Galatia, and here I think it is necessary to make some distinctions that are seldom made in the literature. We need to bear in mind that we are talking about a sequence of events:

1. Paul visits Galatia and establishes churches there
2. Paul leaves Galatia
3. Paul's opponents begin to influence the Galatian churches
4. Someone in Galatia begins to travel to sends Paul news of what is happening
5. The Galatian arrives with news
6. Paul composes the epistle to the Galatians
7. The epistle begins its journey to Galatia
8. The epistle arrives in Galatia.

Now one of the difficulties Paul faced was that he could not phone up the Galatians, or email them, to find out about their current status at the point that he was writing (still less what their status would be after they had received the letter). Already some time has gone by between the news leaving Galatia and arriving with Paul. What this all means is that writing a letter like Galatians is a difficult business because hoping, guessing, praying comes into the conceptualization of the situation, and to some extent Paul has to hedge his bets. He is writing (6) just after stage (5) above, in response to news that is already dated (4), conveying his letter in the knowledge that the process in Galatia will have developed still further by the time of the letter's receipt (8). Some of the difficulties of interpreting the background of Galatians emerge from this. When we are reconstructing the background of Galatians, we are essentially using the letter to find out what the news was that Paul received, (4)-(5), something that is a little difficult because Paul is anticipating further developments, (4)-(8).

With that in mind, my hypothesis is that the news that Paul has received is that a substantial number of Galatians have been circumcised. We are looking at a process already underway at the point when the news left Galatia and began its journey to Paul. Paul no doubt hopes that the process has not progressed as far as it might have done by the time they receive the letter, but he fears that it may have done. The way he deals with this situation is always to talk about the process in the present tense:

1.6: μετατίθεσθε, you are turning away
3.3: ἐπιτελεῖσθε, you are completing in the flesh
4.10: παρατηρεῖσθε, you are keeping days and months and seasons and years
6.12: ἀναγκάζουσιν, they are compelling you to be circumcised

The implications are clear: those who are on this path, who are being righteoused by the law (5.4), are separated from Christ; they have fallen from grace. But Paul would not have written the epistle if he did not think that some kind of change of path was possible, some kind of reintegration of those who were sowing to their own flesh (6.8) into a community which, he hopes, still contain those who are "spiritual" (οἱ πνευματικοί, 6.1). Sadly, though, Paul suspects that his work in Galatia has all been in vain. He is once again in the pain of child-birth for them (4.19), an image that speaks of anxiety and uncertainty lest this birth is abortive. Paul's hope for a change of course is "in the Lord" (5.10) but the evidence that Paul lost the church in Galatia (see Paul's lack of travel plans in Galatians, Paul's loss of Galatia I and Paul's loss of Galatia II and related posts) suggests that the change of course in fact never took place.

Were the Galatians already circumcised? VI

This is the sixth post in the current series and it follows on from Were the Galatians Already Circumcised? I, Were the Galatians Already Circumcised? II and Were the Galatians Already Circumcised? III, Were the Galatians Already Circumcised? IV and Were the Galatians Already Circumcised V.

I would like to turn next to a famous verse in Galatians and ask what it implies about how Paul is picturing his opponents:
5.12: ὄφελον καὶ ἀποκόψονται οἱ ἀναστατοῦντες ὑμᾶς

Oh that those who are disturbing you would mutilate themselves!
The image is, of course, of Paul's opponents cutting off their own genitalia in the process of circumcising the Galatians (NRSV: "castrate themselves"; NIV: "go the whole way and emasculate themselves!"). It's one of the most biting pieces of sarcasm anywhere in the Pauline corpus. Now of course (one hopes), Paul does not really want anyone to castrate themselves, but notice what he gives away in passing, that when he imagines his opponents, he imagines them with knife in hand. Perhaps he thinks of them as so busy at the work of circumcision that he hopes the "knife slips" (Jerusalem Bible). So in this rare glimpse at his opponents, Paul envisages them as circumcising, and not just "preaching" about it. There is a certain rather anachronistic, Protestant image of Paul's opponents as "preachers", as missionaries who are attempting to persuade the Galatians of their point of view, whose "sermon" can be reconstructed (e.g. J. Louis Martyn), and which the Galatians are currently contemplating, final decision still pending. But Paul's picture of his opponents' gospel involves action as well as words, compulsion as well as proclamation.

No doubt some will ask, though, whether there is any evidence in the epistle of Paul treating the circumcision of any of the Galatians as having happened. Is the image in 5.12 one of knives ready or knives already being used? In 5.3-4, Paul directly addresses those who have already undergone the knife, the circumcised males in Galatia:
Gal. 5.3-4: μαρτύρομαι δὲ πάλιν παντὶ ἀνθρώπῳ περιτεμνομένῳ ὅτι ὀφειλέτης ἐστὶν ὅλον τὸν νόμον ποιῆσαι. 4 κατηργήθητε ἀπὸ Χριστοῦ οἵτινες ἐν νόμῳ δικαιοῦσθε, τῆς χάριτος ἐξεπέσατε.

And I witness again to every circumcised male that he is obliged to do the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are being righteoused by the Law, you have fallen from grace.
Paul is testifying here to every circumcised male. He is addressing the circumcised males among the Galatian churches to whom he is writing. When speaking directly to them, he gives a clear indication of their current status. "You have been separated from Christ . . . . you have fallen from grace"; the verbs (κατηργήθητε and ἐξεπέσατε) are both aorist indicatives. The act that has caused the falling away is envisaged as having already happened. The deed has been done. Paul thinks of their circumcision as leading not, as they no doubt intended it, as a means of separating themselves from the ungodly and becoming a part of God’s people. Instead, with characteristically clever irony, he turns this around on them. The act of putting off their flesh has in fact separated them from Christ.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Using technology in conferences presentations: some advice

With the SBL Annual Meeting on the horizon, here are some thoughts about the use of technology in conference presentations. These emerge partly from the fact that I am trying to make my mind up about whether to use powerpoint or not in my paper, and this is the advice I am giving myself:

(1) Only use powerpoint if it will enhance your presentation. It is quite possible that the presentation will detract from your ability to communicate clearly and effectively. What are you hoping to achieve by using it? Do you need to show images or diagrams? Is there some kind of representation of the data that the visual aid of powerpoint will help?

(2) If you use powerpoint, or any other projections from a computer, keep in mind that when you get there the technology may not work, even if you are well prepared and if there is a technical person on hand and everything else. Sometimes, nay often, an unforeseen technical hitch occurs. So if you are planning to use powerpoint, make sure you are not reliant on it. Make sure that you have a back-up plan, e.g. hand-outs are always worth preparing and seldom go wrong. Think of that happy comfort of knowing that you have your hand-outs all ready in your suitcase, and that all you have to do is make sure that the suitcase makes it with you. (And speaking of that, make sure you have your electronic back-up in your hand luggage or better, on the net, for when your suitcase goes missing).

(3) If you are planning to use your laptop for powerpoint, take a USB cable with you. You may get to the room and find a projector, a wire and no way to plug it into your laptop.

(4) Have a back-up plan in case your laptop goes on the blink. Take your powerpoint presentation on your flashdrive too, so that you can plug it into a PC in the room, or someone else's laptop, in case of difficulties. And take your presentation on a CD-ROM too just in case neither laptop nor flashdrive works with the PC in the room.

(5) You may lose your CD-ROM and flashdrive, so make sure that you have also loaded your presentation somewhere on the net, either by emailing it to yourself, putting it on Yahoo!briefcase, or whatever.

(6) If you are not using unicode fonts in a presentation that needs the fonts to be displayed correctly (e.g. if using Greek or Hebrew), make sure you embed your fonts in your presentation. This is especially important for (4) above, where you are using your flashdrive or your CD-ROM for the presentation. You do not want your carefully planned Greek diagrams to be gobbledygook because you've used a nice Greek font that isn't going to show up on the room's PC.

(7) If you are planning to use your laptop, make sure that you know how to toggle between your laptop monitor and the projector. Don't expect someone else present, even a techie, to know how your laptop works; that's your responsibility.

(8) Arrive at least twenty minutes before the session you are speaking in begins so that you can introduce yourself to the chair, warn him/her that you are planning to use some technology, and get everything set up and tested. Remember that even if you are last in a two and a half hour session, you may not have a minute to sort out your technology during the session, so it is essential that you arrive in plenty of time before the beginning. That way you know well in advance of the session starting whether or not the technology is working. You then have time either to relax in the knowledge that all is well, or to find time to compose yourself in the knowledge that it is not.

(9) If the technology is not working, grit your teeth and get on with your presentation without mentioning it. Ideally, do not mention it at all. If you must, mention once and once only that you had prepared a great presentation. If you do have to do this, use humour and don't be resentful. Your audience may feel a bit sorry for you if you can't show your powerpoint, but that's the end of it. They will not appreciate it if you keep going on about how great your presentation would have been if only you could illustrate it properly. After a while they will stop feeling sorry for you and will start feeling embarrassed before you.

Now this probably sounds horribly neurotic, but every one of the things mentioned above are the result of my own direct experience, either presenting, chairing or participating in sessions using technology, and I offer them in the hope of sparing someone somewhere some anxiety.

Were the Galatians already circumcised? V

This is the fifth post in the current series and it follows on from Were the Galatians Already Circumcised? I, Were the Galatians Already Circumcised? II and Were the Galatians Already Circumcised? III and Were the Galatians Already Circumcised? IV.

In this post I would like to turn to two more interesting passages in the epistle. The first follows on from the discussion of 3.1 in my third and fourth posts. In 3.3, Paul goes on to write:
οὕτως ἀνόητοί ἐστε; ἐναρξάμενοι πνεύματι νῦν σαρκὶ ἐπιτελεῖσθε
This is usually taken as a question, “Having begun in the spirit, are you now completing in the flesh?” While I don't think that that can be ruled out, this may in fact be an exclamatory statement – “Having begun in the spirit, you are now completing in the flesh!” He is expressing his horror at what he has heard, that his converts, who had begun with him by accepting the Spirit that made them sons, are "now" sealing or "perfecting" their calling with the "flesh" of circumcision. As usual in the epistle, the terms for what the Galatians are actually doing are present tense, and suggest a process underway (more on this in a future post).

When attempting to get behind Paul’s rhetoric to find out what it was that he thought his converts were doing, it is worth asking the question whether he ever tells us anything concrete about their current practices. He says that they are being compelled to be circumcised, that they are completing in the flesh, and so on, but is there anything that relates to practices other than circumcision that might help? Well, it is worth taking another look at 4.10-11, where Paul writes:
ἡμέρας παρατηρεῖσθε καὶ μῆνας καὶ καιροὺς καὶ ἐνιαυτούς. φοβοῦμαι ὑμᾶς μή πως εἰκῇ κεκοπίακα εἰς ὑμᾶς

You are observing days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that I might have laboured over you in vain.
The observance of days and months and seasons and years is a reference to the Galatians’ new found commitment to the Jewish calendar, beginning with the Sabbath and continuing with the celebration of other major Jewish festivals and fasts (though see Troy Martin for the alternative view). It sounds like the news that Paul has been given includes this key item, that the Galatians are now observing these works of the law. Its significance for our question is that it coheres with the view that the process of circumcision is already underway in Galatia, just as the issue of food laws had raised its head, to Paul's great dismay, in Antioch (Gal. 2.11-14). In Galatia, as in Antioch before, what Paul calls "Judaizing" is taking place, with works of the law like circumcision, Sabbath and food laws getting adopted by Gentile converts.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Were the Galatians already circumcised? IV

This is the fourth post in the current series and it follows on from Were the Galatians Already Circumcised? I, Were the Galatians Already Circumcised? II and Were the Galatians Already Circumcised? III. I break the development of the argument here to address some points made in comments to the third post by Mark Nanos. I am very grateful to Mark for his robust and forthright criticism of my view. To have Mark Nanos comment on one's thoughts on Galatians is a bit like having John Kloppenborg comment on one's thoughts on Q, a great honour.

Mark argues that Paul's use of ἀνόητοι does not so much depict not thinking as thinking the wrong thing:
I do not think that Paul addressing them as ἀνόητοι lends any support to your argument. It connotes shamelessness, that is, thinking wrongly from the accuser's (Paul's) point of view, and in that sense failing to think (meaning, to think correctly, with the accuser's way of thinking).The idea is that they are perhaps being effected by something since otherwise they would be expected to think otherwise (like the accuser thinks), not that they are not thinking versus thinking.
Well, Paul's charge of not thinking is consistent with the rest of the epistle. Paul depicts the Galatians as being compelled rather than making a willing decision based on rational thought. So for Paul, it is not that they are thinking the wrong thing, but that they are not thinking at all. Of course this is Paul's rhetoric, but as always we have to ask the question about what situation best explains the trigger for this rhetoric. I am arguing that what Paul insists makes best sense on the assumption that they have already done something drastic, not that they are only thinking about it. In other words, Paul knows that the Galatians are in fact thinking differently from him, but his depiction of them as ἀνόητοι (unthinking, foolish) functions as part of his depiction of the Galatians as not acting on the basis of careful thought that is consistent with their calling. This is why I begun this series with a post on 6.12, where Paul depicts the Galatians as acting under compulsion from others. He wants to suggest that they are not acting in accordance with the Spirit, that they are being neither consistent nor intelligent, that they are turning to another gospel under some kind of unthinking coercion. Now the actual situation on the ground in Galatia must have been rather different from this, but the point here is that the charge of lack of thought, of compulsion being enacted upon them, makes excellent sense as something aimed at people for whom circumcision is now becoming a reality. It is much more difficult to get it to work for a group who are, in the standard description of the Galatian situation, simply "considering" circumcision.

Mark also feels that 3.1 does not make sense on my interpretation:
I think this piece of evidence in Gal 3:1 works against your thesis that some of the Galatians to whom Paul writes have already been circumcised. If already completing proselyte conversion (circumcision), then this would eliminate that which Paul accuses the influencers here of doing, of "evil eying" the addressees; that is, of the influencers "envying" (=begrudging) the Galatian addressees for claiming to have the gift of the Spirit reserved for those who are circumcised children of Abraham. That seems to depend on the addressees not yet being circumcised, but being instead non-Jews who should not be entitled to have the Spirit and miracles in their midst.
I may be misunderstanding Mark's point here but it seems to me that the "evil-eying" or "bewitching" is something Paul depicts as already having happened, τίς ὑμᾶς ἐβάσκανεν (aorist indicative), "Who bewitched you?". They are not "evil-eying" those who have already been circumcised; in Paul's construction here, the evil-eying (past) precedes the Galatians' taking action.

Mark goes on to ask me a question about my interpretation:
A question for you, Mark, is how Paul can express in 5:10 that he is confident they will remain on his (non-circumcision) course (to stay on it after hitting an obstacle along the way, i.e., contemplating a detour; v. 7) if they have already become circumcised?
Let's have a look at what Paul says here:
ἐγὼ πέποιθα εἰς ὑμᾶς ἐν κυρίῳ ὅτι οὐδὲν ἄλλο φρονήσετε ὁ δὲ ταράσσων ὑμᾶς βαστάσει τὸ κρίμα ὅστις ἐὰν ᾖI am persuaded concerning you in the Lord that you will come to think in no other way, but the one who is troubling you will face judgement, whoever he is.
5.10 says nothing about Paul's confidence that "they will remain on his (non-circumcision) course". Rather, he is here expressing his hope that they will (future) come to think like him, in other words that this letter will succeed in his task of persuading them that the course of action they are on needs to be turned around. One can see that he is thinking about this future scenario because his mind turns here also to the (future) judgement of the one currently troubling the Galatians. 5.7 ("You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth?") does not speak about "contemplating a detour". Contemplation is not what Paul is discussing in Galatians; he sees the act as currently taking place. But that, of course, brings us back to my argument, which will continue in the next post.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Were the Galatians already circumcised? III

This is the third post in the current series and it follows on from Were the Galatians Already Circumcised? I and Were the Galatians Already Circumcised? II.

One of the weaknesses of many readings of Galatians is that they imagine the Galatians "contemplating" or "thinking about" the message brought by the influencers, as if they have listened to a series of sermons and have now retired for a fortnight to meditate on the practical application to them as individuals. Whenever anyone attempts to describe the background to the epistle, it is usually construed in terms of this Galatian contemplation, and it is thought that Paul is speaking directly to people still in the process of thought. This supposed background is problematic. The letter does not sound like it is addressed to groups of people who are thinking about taking action. Indeed Paul's very criticism of them is that they are not thinking at all:
3.1: Ὦ ἀνόητοι Γαλάται, τίς ὑμᾶς ἐβάσκανεν, οἷς κατ’ ὀφθαλμοὺς Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς προεγράφη ἐσταυρωμένος;

O foolish Galatians! Who has evil-eyed you, before whose very eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?
This key verse comes after Paul’s chapter-long discussion of what happened in Antioch and Jerusalem and marks the point at which Paul is resuming his direct assault on his former converts, for the first time addressing them directly as “Galatians”. The word he uses to qualify "Galatians" is ἀνόητοι, usually translated "foolish", but meaning something like "unthinking". He uses the term again in 3.3, οὕτως ἀνόητοί ἐστε; ("Are you so foolish?"). Far from thoughtfully engaging on the possibility of circumcision, the Galatians, in Paul's rhetoric, are not thinking at all. Whether Paul's characterization of them is accurate or not, it hints that the basis for Paul's criticism is not intention but action. It is not that they are thinking about circumcision but that they are getting themselves circumcised.

The point is further clarified by Paul’s attempt to get the bottom of what has happened here. After calling them foolish Galatians, Paul goes on to ask, in the standard translations, "Who has bewitched you . . . ?" The reference is to the practice of giving someone the evil eye (See Mark Nanos, "The Social Context and Message of Galatians in View of Paul’s Evil Eye Warning (Gal. 3:1)"). Paul is attempting to explain what the Galatians have done in the light of the ancient world’s notion that they are victims of someone’s evil eye. In other words, Paul is attempting to make sense of what is going on in Galatia by appealing to magical practice. His rhetoric illustrates his conviction that they are victims who are being cajoled into making a decisive step. We will turn next to evidence that that illustrates how the Galatians were already "Judaizing".

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Jacques Berlinerblau on the SBL

Jacques Berlinerblau’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, What’s Wrong With the Society of Biblical Literature? (Nov. 10 2006) is attracting lots of interesting comment among the bibliobloggers. See Stephen Carlson on Hypotyposeis for relevant links, and now add also John Lyons's on Reception of the Bible. I am finding the comments of the bloggers, as so often, more interesting and thought provoking than the article itself, which is a bit too grape-shot in its approach to want to present a precise and coherent critique of the SBL. There are so many points at which the author simply throws out a grenade and runs away, that it is difficult to choose only a couple of points for comment. Nevertheless, here are two to add to the other bibliobloggers' comments. First, I am surprised by this point:
Consider that the most popular and widely discussed books about the Bible are almost never written by biblicists . . . On the level of serious scholarship, I find it quite telling that some of the most influential studies — the ones that get reviewed in the major journals of opinion . . . . are written by professors of English and comparative literature. To give a recent example, Harold Bloom has released a quirky, unforgivable, but deliciously provocative book entitled Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine. In 2006, as far as I can tell, it has generated more media commentary than any other work of scholarship focused on the Bible in the past year.
But this is nonsense; what about Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus, which has been everywhere, radio, TV, the bestsellers lists? I even found myself talking about it to one of my neighbours the other day when he brought it up. (Cf. Danny Zacharias on Deinde for similar thoughts). And the massive interest generated by the Gospel of Judas shows the media and the public's thirst for interesting new discoveries that relate to early Christian history, and of scholarly involvement with that.

My second comment relates to this passage, already isolated for comment by others (including Stephen Carlson and John Lyons):
Another problem: Under the mistaken assumption that it is an academic society like any other, the SBL has encouraged scholarly specialization. In so doing, it has always favored philology and archaeology, all the while avoiding the more capacious domain of hermeneutics. The study of how Scripture has been interpreted across history, and in contemporary society, has traditionally held little interest for a society that places a premium on the examination of ancient languages and artifacts. But the study of hermeneutics really forces one to be a generalist. It is a diachronic enterprise through and through.

Let's say that you are interested in studying depictions of Queen Jezebel in music and art. You will need to know about descriptions of her in Hebrew, Greek, or Latin (if not all three). You will need to know what the learned rabbis and fathers of the church had to say. Then you will need to look at renderings of the queen in, say, 16th-century France and 20th-century Ethiopia. In other words, you will need to abandon any pretense of being a specialist.
I think this misreads the strengths and the attraction of Wirkungsgeschichte. One of the things that is so enjoyable and intellectually stimulating about reception history is that it is a collaborative enterprise. You do not have to be an expert on 16th century French renderings of Jezebel to be an expert on 20th century Ethiopian ones; indeed, you could organize a conference in which you get together a variety of scholars with different expertises to discuss Jezebel, and you could engage, each bringing something different to the table. Let me illustrate. I am not at all an expert on the reception history of the Passion Narrative, but I do know a bit about the Passion in twentieth and twenty-first century cinema. At a really stimulating conference in March 2005, I was lucky enough to talk about the Passion in film as one small part in a larger gathering at which there were experts on music, art and a variety of other things, all towards an appreciation of the Passion across history. I was not excluded from talking about the Passion in contemporary film because I didn't know about the Passion in eighteenth century European music. That the study of reception history is a growing concern at the conferences is quite clear, SBL included, and I repeat that one of its attractions is its collaborative, inter-disciplinary nature.