N. T. Wright Returning to Academic Life

The news this morning is that the very well-known and distinguished Anglican Bishop of Durham, N. T. Wright, is retiring from his episcopal work to return to full-time teaching and research.  The University of St. Andrews has announced that Wright has been appointed to a chair in New Testament and Early Christianity.  In the press release from the Diocese of Durham, where he has served for seven years, Wright cites the difficulty of combining his continuing vocation as a writer with the complex demands of work as a bishop.  That sounds, to me, like he is very concerned about finishing the projected five volumes in his major academic study on Christian Origins and the Question of God.  Wright is presently at work on volume four, which is on Paul.  Already a prolific writer, Wright will undoubtedly produce more material given the time allowed to research professors for that task.  He will likely continue to be in the accademic and ecclesial spotlight with his forthcoming book on Paul, which will be undoubtedly controversial.  This, of course, is very big for St. Andrews, an institution which has had difficulty maintaining a strong program in biblical studies.  With Wright on the faculty, their application pool will certainly get much deeper.

Rhetorical Criticism: An Appropriate Method for New Testament Studies?

I’ve been working through some material on rhetorical critical approaches to New Testament studies, as of late, in preparation for my presentation at SBL later this year.  While it seems to be gaining acceptance and adherents, rhetorical criticism remains somewhat criticisized as a lens for interpreting biblical texts.  Critics often argue that because our knowledge of the education of the biblical authors is limited, we don’t know whether they were trained in the canons of classical rhetoric.  Thus, they say, it is illegitimate to evaluate and interpret their writings based on those canons. 
A question may be posed in response, though: Do the writings of the biblical authors evidence an awareness of and proficiency in classical rhetoric?  If we answer this question affirmatively, then it would seem rhetorical categories are not only appropriate but called for with regard to the texts which would appear to use them.  If the writer evidences facility with ancient rhetorical convention, then to read the text through a rhetorical-critical lens would be to read the text on its own terms.  We don’t need to have explicit data about the author’s education to judge whether his writings indicate a knowledge of rhetoric.  In my current project, I aruge that 2 Peter 3 is structured with a rather elegant rhetorical transition device.  Is there external evidence that Peter had classical oratory training?  No.  But there is internal evidence that he was familiar with this particular device and put it to use in the letter.
Let me say as well that I find rhetorical criticism to be much more fruitful in the New Testament letters than I do other genres.  The letters were written to be delivered orally upon their arrival at their destination.  It makes perfect sense that they would include features to enhance the oral delivery of the letter/speech.  So, while I might read Romans through a rhetorical lens, I would hesitate to read Mark that way.
So, is rhetorical criticism an appropriate method for studying the New Testament?  The answer is that it is more appropriate in some places and less in others.  If the letters evidence rhetorical features, then we should allow the text to determine our method and analyze them in light of those features.  Evidence for rhetorical features is harder to demonstrate in narratives.  So, we should be more cautious as we approach those texts.

Reading Mark: An Interpretive Key

I’ve been preaching through the Gospel of Mark for nearly seven months now, and I am repeatedly considering questions regarding the appropriate way to read and interpret the narrative.  I’ve been considering this question with particular interest in interpreting the signs (or miracles) of Jesus.  The miracle texts are often simply taken as affirmations of Jesus’ divine nature, and while that may be involved, I’m not so sure that’s what Mark is really getting at with the miracle narratives.  So, here’s the approach as it stands, and it is, of course, subject to revision.
First, any interpretation of Markan texts must be done in light of Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom.  When Jesus begins his public ministry, after John’s arrest, he begins by announcing the gospel of the approaching kingdom of God and calling all who hear to repentance and belief (1:14).  So, the first thing Jesus does is announce the coming kingdom of God.  All of his subsequent words and deeds should be understood in light of this initial announcement.  Now if we were to stop here, we would find ourselves in the odd predicament of many postmodern expressions of (deviations from?) the Christian faith, and that is of a kingdom not quite sure what to do with the cross.  Such an approach leaves us with numerous question marks when Jesus begins predicting and explaining his death (8:32; 9:31; 10:33; 45).  “Yeah, we love the kingdom stuff,” they say, “but what’s with all the brutality at the end.”  The usual attempt at an answer has something to do with Jesus being the supreme example of God’s love, but this is pretty thin without a rigorous substitionary understanding of the cross.  So, we must continue.
Second, the kingdom motif in Mark comes to its climax in the crucifixion narrative of chapter 15.  Here Jesus is referred to as either “king of the Jews” or “king of Israel” six times (15:2, 9, 12, 18, 26, 32).  Further, he wears the garments of a king, a purple robe and a crown, albeit one of thorns (15:17).  Thus, in Mark 15, Jesus is either called or adorned as a king eight times in one chapter.  This is capped off by the declaration of the centurian that he was the Son of God, a Messianic title, in 15:39.  Do we wonder whether Mark is trying to make a point?  Jesus has repeatedly hushed people about his identity as the Messiah-King throughout the narrative.  Now with the cross comes the full revelation of the meaning of Messiahship.  Mark would have his readers understand that the kingdom cannot come until sin has been dealt with, and sins can only be dealt with when the perfect lamb dies as a substitute bearing the transgressions of the many. 
So, the bulk of Mark’s gospel is bookended with the proclamation of the kingdom and the revelation of the king on the cross.  As a result, when we read Mark’s gospel, there are at least two questions that should constantly be at the front of our thoughts: (1) how does this text witness to the coming kingdom and (2) how does this text point forward to the cross.
This approach helps us immensely when we come to the miracle texts.  Not intending to over generalize particular texts, these narratives become clear evidence of the inbreaking kingdom.  When God is king, people are fed, the blind see, demons are cast out.  But the signs also point forward to the cross.  They point to the uniqueness of Christ to meet human needs, including the all-important need for redemption through his blood. 
Another benefit of this approach is that it helps us see the unity of Mark’s gospel.  Mark does not switch boats in midstream, moving from kingdom in the first half of the gospel to cross in the second half.  No, the kingdom is only fully revealed and understood through the cross.  A key to reading Mark’s gospel is understanding that the two themes are held together and interpret one another.  And everything in between should be read in light of this great dual motif of lord and savior, kingdom and cross.
N.B.: I think the observation also helps us understand the so-called Messianic secret.  Jesus keeps his identity as Messiah guarded until the end because he knew that an accurate understanding of Messiahship could not be had apart from the cross.  Until one encounters Christ’s death, one cannot understand his life.

NRSV Revision?

I just finished filling out a survey through SBL regarding the need for a revision of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.  I am glad to hear that the publishers of the NRSV are apparently considering a revision.  The most recent translation is from 1989 and, while I agree with the translation philosophy and am generally pleased with the translation, it does have its shortcomings.  I don’t necessarily want to see a complete overhaul, but some minor revisions are in order.  Here are a few that come immediately to mind:

  • Some of the language in the NRSV is becoming outdated.  The phrase “fullers’ soap” is a good example from Malachi 3:2.  Most people don’t refer to launderers as “fullers” any more.  In fact, I find it hard to believe that this language was current in 1989.
  • I’ve yet to find an adequate translation of 1 Cor 15:44, and the NRSV is no exception.  The translation of sōma psychikon as physical body and sōma pneumatikon as spiritual body is very misleading.  When most people hear the phrase “spiritual body”, they don’t think of something material, which is exactly what Paul has in mind.  These are very difficult phrases to translate without getting bulky.
  • I’d really like to see them drop the translation “sacrifice of atonement” for hilastērion in Rom 3:25.  The word clearly refers to the propitiation of divine wrath.  To paraphrase Leon Morris in his Romans commentary: In Romans 1, we are under the wrath of God.  In Romans 5, we have peace with God.  The difference is the wrath propitiating work of Christ explained in 3:21-26.

These are just a few weakness in the NRSV that come to mind.  I’m sure there are others.  Perhaps the process will result in a better NRSV.  I’ve been thinking about switching from the NRSV some time in the future.  If they produce a good revision, perhaps I won’t have to.  Feel free to comment on your own translation concerns.

To Pay or Not to Pay: Christians, Universal Healthcare, and Taxes

There have been a number of interesting posts, as of late, by Evangelical bloggers on the a Christian response to the recent passage of healthcare legislation and its effect on government funding for abortions and whether or not Christians ought to pay taxes which are excessive, oppressive, and used to fund government programs antagonistic to biblical teaching.

The above links are not explicitly written in response to one another.  Each makes some interesting points.  What do you think?

From Submission to Supremacy: the Work of Christ in 1 Peter

1 Peter 3:18-22 is one of the most obscure and difficult texts in all of scripture.  When did Christ preach to the spirits in prison?  What was the content of his preaching?  Where did he go to do this preaching?  There seems no end to the possible interpretive spins suggested by commentators with regard to this text, and the debate will certainly not be settled in a single blog post. 

The difficulty should not distract us from what is clear about the passage, though.  Three features of this text give it shape and movement.  The passage begins with the suffering of Christ in his death by crucifixion (18).  It then moves quickly to the victory of Christ in the resurrction when he was “made alive in the spirit” (18).  Peter then brings the text to a resounding climax by declaring the supremacy of Christ over every power as manifest through his exaltation to the right hand of power (22).  1 Peter 3:18-22, then, is a powerful declaration of the comprehensive victory of Christ through his death and resurrection and of his unmatched supremacy in all things through his exaltation to the right hand of God the Father.  As a part of that glorious good news, Peter highlights the saving benefit of Christ’s resurrection for those who belong to him.

Peter clearly understands the cross as functioning in a substitutionary manner.  Christ, the righteous one, died for the unrighteous (18).  As one undeserving of suffering, he submitted to suffering in the place of those who rightfully deserved it, namely everyone else.  The goal of this suffering was to reconcile estranged humanity to God. 

The work of Christ does not end in suffering, though.  Peter is happy to celebrate that Jesus was made alive through the agency of the Spirit.  Note the trinitarian framework of Peter’s soteriology here.  Christ died for sins.  He was raised by the Spirit.  He was exalted to the right hand of God.  The fullness of the trinitarian energy is here directed at the saving work accomplished in the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Christ and the movement from suffering to glory. 

Despite the interpretive difficulties that come with this brief passage, one thing is clear: the supremacy of Christ in all things.  The one who suffered for us now lives and reigns over all things.  Salvation comes to us through this one, through his substitutionary death and his all-victorious resurrection (22). 

As a result, Peter indicates that we ought to be deeply thankful for our baptism, which marks us out as those who have received the benefit of salvation through Christ’s resurrection.  Our consciences are clear because Christ suffered the penalty for our transgressions.  The saving work is complete because God vindicated Christ by raising him from the dead.  Our resurrection hope is certain because the suffering Lord has conquered and reigns supreme over all.

2010 SBL Paper

I recently got word that my paper proposal for the 2010 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature was accepted.  The title of the paper is: “Waiting for His Promised Coming: Eschatology and Ethics in Chain-link in 2 Peter 3.”  I’ll be reading it in the Letters of James, Peter, and Jude Program Unit.  Here’s the abstract:
The chain-link interlock is an ancient rhetorical transition device which, though long neglected in scholarship, has recently been identified by Bruce Longenecker. The chain-link transition involves two distinct textual units with overlapping material across the textual boundary which aims to effect a smooth rhetorical transition. This device is present in numerous New Testament texts and often effects how these texts should be interpreted and understood theologically. This paper will demonstrate that the transition in 2 Peter 3 from the argument of vv. 3:8-13 to the peroratio of vv. 14-18 is rhetorically structured by a chain-link interlock, and that this transition has been structured to link the author’s theology of the parousia with the ethical and moral development of the recipients’ character of life. The argument will progress by first presenting primary source evidence for the chain-link interlock from the ancient rhetorical handbooks. It will then be demonstrated that 2 Peter 3 fits the chain-link model and that the author intends this rhetorical feature to govern the way the peroratio is understood by the recipients of the letter. The paper will conclude by offering an interpretation of the peroratio in light of chain-link structure of the text.