JSHJ defines the neue Zeitgeist (Fourth Quest?) for future Historical Jesus Studies: “Memory” and “Metacriticism” are In


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They’ve done it.

The latest issue of The Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus (14, no. 1 [2016]) has defined the neue Zeitgeist for future study of the Historical Jesus (nb. this is not, by any means, the Fourth Quest… well, ok, maybe it’s the Fourth Quest, but they’re not saying it, ok?)

This issue of JSHJ marks a turning-point in the field.

Details are in the twin-editorial by new editors Anthony Le Donne and James G. Crossley, but the “neue Zeitgeist” (the NZ) can be boiled down to this:

  1. Memory
  2. Metacriticism

As examples of NZ Historical Jesus studies, the issue offers Dale Allison and Richard Bauckham on social memory. In respect of metacriticism, “The essay by Robert Myles … provides an exemplar” (Le Donne 2016:4).

We are in exciting times for Historical Jesus scholarship. Exciting times.

Richard Hays’s method and failure of method in Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels


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echoes-gospelsI was just having a read through of Chris Keith’s comments on Richard Hays’s methodology in Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Baylor UP, 2016). Please have a read, as he makes some good points. Yet I’ve got a particular criticism to add, which relates to the same introductory section.

Hays’ methodology for the detection of allusion either flirts with the idea that interpreters must have spiritual discernment to fully understand allusions to the Old Testament, or maybe simply embraces such a view. It’s not hard to catch the echoes of this underlying confessional assumption. So he speaks of having “ears to hear”, or having a “conversion” of the imagination, requiring “faith”, approaching the text with “humility”, and contrasts the right way of reading “echoes” with the bogeyman of secular, “modern historical criticism”. So it is difficult not to reach the conclusion that the style of reading that Hays promotes – of reading the Old Testament via the Christocentric assumptions of the New, and in a dialectical fashion – necessarily involves confessional assumptions. In particular, he assumes that the one with “ears to hear” has some ability (‘spiritual’) in addition to intellectual abilities.

But Hays might have explained his method without this level of religious obfuscation. The dynamics of rereading older texts through a new lens is hardly new to modern scholarship. Classical scholarship has managed, quite well and extensively, to analyse allusion and mimicry of texts and their precursors, without suggesting that later readers possessed spiritual abilities. The Classicist Joseph Pucci, for example, employs the concept of the “full-knowing reader” to explain how a reader can “recognize and make coherent what is formerly hidden” due to her “unique competencies” (Full-Knowing Reader, pp. xi, xv). By  full-knowing reader, Pucci means one who possesses sufficient insider knowledge to recognize the marker of an external source text, so as to enable her to consider some of the interrelations between the texts, and thereby contemplate how they affect the meaning of either the alluding or evoked texts. So Pucci manages to explain, clearly  and analytically, much the same concept as does Hays, but without dipping into obscurantist language to do so.

I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be an admission of the subjectivity of allusion and other intertextual uses of the Old Testament. I think, rather, as does Pucci,  that subjectivity is inevitable for allusion, echo, etc. As I wrote in an article in Biblical Interpretation (“Drawing Our Fish in the Sand“), “once a reader is directed to a consideration of a biblical allusion, there is no obvious procedure for ending or even limiting the imaginative interaction of
texts which allusion inaugurates.” Allusion and echo are impossible to pin down; these intertextual phenomena can generate a wide number of possible meanings, depending on the scope, content, and emphases of each subject’s textual encyclopedia.

I agree with Hays that the echoes of Old Testament scripture in the Gospels are complex, multivalent, and differ between different readers. But all of this can be, as it has been in other disciplines in relation to other texts, analysed in strictly analytical terms. And if the aim is to better understand the Gospels, it should be here, too. To the extent Hays falls back on the obscurantism of the concept of “spiritual discernment”, or the false humility of being recipient of a form of access to the text which is limited to the elect, it should be viewed as a failure of method and analysis.

Did Jesus save the Aliens?


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alien-jesusJust last month, the Kepler mission discovered an Earth-like planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, in that parent star’s habitable zone. It’s only 4.25 light years away, which makes it a pretty close neighbour of Earth. The Kepler mission has also found some 216 planets in habitable zones of other parent stars, and of these has determined that 20 are most likely to support life. Unlike the habitable planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, all of these other habitable planets are many 100s of light years from Earth.

We are not alone.

Jerome Eckstein, in “The Fall and Rise of Man”, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 5, no. 1  (1965), pondered on what the discovery of alien life would mean for traditional Christian religion:

Let our imaginations roam, and let us speculate about the possible conflicts between future discoveries of space exploration and our old religious beliefs, if these religious beliefs are understood as offering knowledge of the kind given by science. Suppose a strangely figured race of creatures with the approximate intelligence of humans and a culture and ethics radically different from ours was discovered on some distant star, would this not pose serious problems to the dogmatic and authoritarian interpretations of the Judaeo-Christian religions? Would these creatures, who obviously were not descended from Adam and Eve, be tainted with original sin? Would they too have souls? Would they be in need of grace and salvation? Did Jesus absorb their sins? Would they be in need of the Messiah? Would they be subject to the laws and traditions of these earth-centred religions? Would they be eligible to life in the hereafter? (80)

What do you think? Might Jesus have become incarnated as sentient life-forms on other planets? Does the plausibility of alien life-forms make traditional religious dogmas like incarnation, salvation, and the Trinity a bit parochial, in the perspective of the wide universe? What about the other forms of life on this planet? Would theology find a way to rationalize the existence of aliens? Are these questions a bit silly? But more silly than other theological questions?

Maybe C.S. Lewis has a point (in “Religion and Rocketry”):

Each new discovery, even each new theory, is held at first to have the most wide-reaching and theological consequences. It is seized by unbelievers as the basis for a new attack on Christianity; it is often, and more embarassingly, seized by injudicious believers as the basis for a new defence. But usually, when the popular hubbub has subsided and the novelty has been chewed over by real theologians, real scientists and real philosophers, both sides find themselves pretty much where they were before.

As Albert Schweitzer once said, “Es gibt keine Lage so verzweifelt, dass die Theologie keine Ausweg wüsste” (“There is no question so complicated that Theology does not know the answer”). I’m sure that if and when sentient aliens are encountered, Theology will come up with all kinds of rationalizations.

Gigantobibliophile Goodness: Ancient Tales of Giants from Qumran and Turfan (Mohr Siebeck, June 2016)


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goff - ancient tales of giantsBig news for gigantobibliophiles! This volume has just been published:

Matthew Goff, Loren T. Stuckenbruck, and Enrico Morano, eds, Ancient Tales of Giants from Qumran and Turfan: Contexts, Traditions, and Influences (WUNT 360; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016)

While there has been much scholarly attention devoted to the Enochic Book of the Watchers , much less has been paid to the Book of Giants from Qumran. This volume is the proceedings of a conference that convened in Munich, Germany, in June 2014, which was devoted to the giants of Enochic tradition and in particular the Qumran Book of Giants . It engages the topic of the giants in relation to various ancient contexts, including the Hebrew Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and ancient Mesopotamia. The authors of this volume give particular attention to Manichaeism, especially the Manichaean Book of Giants , fragments of which were found in Turfan (western China). They contribute to our understanding of the range of stories Jews told in antiquity about the sons of the watchers who descended to earth and their vibrant Nachleben in Manichaeism.

After the Introduction from Matthew Goff, Brian Doak examines the motif of giganticism in the Hebrew Bible and in its reception. The next two essays compare Greek Titans with Jewish giants and examine early Jewish literature in Greek. Part Two contains five essays examining aspects of the ancient Jewish context for giants (including especially the Qumran Book of Giants, along with other Dead Sea scrolls, Book of Watchers, and Daniel). Part Three takes us to Turfan, China, with four essays on the Book of Giants and Manichaeism.


I can’t wait to read it!

The Discovery of the Skull of Goliath: Scenes from Don Verdean


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DON VERDEAN: Okay, right now we’re standing in the very creek bed
where David collected his five stones. That means the Philistine army
would have camped over here and the Israelites would have camped over there… Military protocol of the day would put David and Goliath somewhere right here in the middle.


CAROL: What is this place?

DON VERDEAN: This is the ancient village of Gath. Goliath’s birthplace. We all need to keep our eyes peeled for any natural landmarks… a… a monument of sorts.

CAROL: What about that monolith right there?

DON VERDEAN: What monolith?

CAROL: Right there.

DON VERDEAN: That’s not a bad idea.

CAROL: Well, to me, this monolith represents the physical strength of Goliath.
So, it only makes sense that they would’ve used something like this as a grave marker.

DON VERDEAN: Dang, you’re a natural…
Everyone be careful. Most Philistine graves in this region are quite shallow. That being said, let’s dig fast. Don’t want any looky-loos showin’ up.


BOAZ YOHALEM: Don. I hit something.

DON VERDEAN: Okay. Ho, ho, ho… everyone stop….  Carol, can you hand me
that brush from my kit?

CAROL: I can see a chunk of bone.

DON VERDEAN: Let’s not get carried away.

CAROL: Ooh! Is that the dome of a skull?!

DON VERDEAN: Phew. Certainly appears that way.


DON: Carol, would you do the honors?

CAROL: No, I’m afraid I’ll break it. You do it. All right, next time. Get that bag ready. Oh, my God. I don’t believe it. That’s… the skull of Goliath.

TOURIST: Hey! Hey! T-these guys just found the skull of Goliath!


DON VERDEAN: Earlier this month on a routine dig in Israel,
Miss Jensen, Mr. Yohalem and myself unearthed the remains of a very large human skull containing a river stone embedded in the frontonasal suture.
This discovery was made in Gath, the ancient birthplace of Goliath …

BOAZ YOHALEM: Tell them how we were chased by three al-Qaeda
guys on “motorcycles” …

DON VERDEAN: Uh… well, yes, as you already know word of our discovery spread quickly and not 10 minutes after we were on the road with the skull,
we were followed by three masked men on motorcycles… I immediately took evasive action and I knocked all three of them off the road…

What al-Qaeda would want with the skull of a Philistine, I have no idea.

BOAZ YOHALEM: They’re possibly cloning an army of giant al-Qaeda guys.

Judah’s military correspondence from ca. 600 BCE: Evidence of widespread literacy but not evidence of the Bible


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An important article by Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin et al has been published t0day in ‘Early Edition’ form, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States. The article demonstrates that literacy was widespread in Judah in ca. 600, that Hebrew could be written and read by both high and somewhat lower ranks of the military, and that military officers produced detailed texts inscribed on pottery shards (ostraca).

Shira Faigenbaum-Golovina, Arie Shausa, Barak Sobera, David Levina, Nadav Na’amanb, Benjamin Sassc, Eli Turkela, Eli Piasetzkyd, and Israel Finkelstein, “Algorithmic handwriting analysis of Judah’s military correspondence sheds light on composition of biblical texts,” PNAS, early edition, April 11, 2016, doi:10.1073/pnas.1522200113

Arad ostraca, ca. 600 BCE

Arad ostraca, ca. 600 BCE

The authors examined over 100 ostraca found at the fortress of Arad, in southern Judah, on the border with Edom. The examination aims to provide material evidence to address two related questions:

1. Did “the first major phase of compilation of biblical texts in Jerusalem” take place “before or after the destruction of the city by the Babylonians in 586 BCE?”

2. What was the level of literacy at the time? In particular, the authors note that “identifying the number of ‘hands’ (i.e., authors) involved in this corpus can shed light on the dissemination of writing, and consequently on the spread of literacy in Judah.”

The article summarises that “the inscriptions contain military commands regarding movement of troops and provision of supplies (wine, oil, and flour) set against the background of the stormy events of the final years before the fall of Judah”. They mention that one of the inscriptions (Ostracon 18) refers to “the house of Yahweh” (p. 1), which they identify with the temple in Jerusalem.

However, the “House of Yahweh” need not refer to the temple at Jerusalem. The Elephantine correspondence confirms that, as late as ca. 400 BCE, worship of Yahweh co-existed with the worship of other gods, even by a community which was under the authority of the Jerusalem governor and priests. This is a long way from the Bible’s picture of centralized worship of one god (Yahweh). Furthermore, it does not cohere with the two standing stones which Yohanan Aharoni found in the earlier temple at Arad (not still standing in 600 BCE), and which William Dever plausibly suggests represent Yahweh and his divine consort Asherah. These considerations make it difficult to make the leap from a widespread basic literacy among certain military administrators to the composition of the books of the Bible in something like their current form.

The authors selected 18 inscriptions for handwriting analysis, based on their legibility and length. Handwriting analysis revealed at least four distinct hands. The archaeological and textual contexts revealed a further two distinct hands, bringing the total to at least six distinct hands. They also identified the following five authors by name or rank (p. 3):

1. The King of Judah;

2. An unnamed military commander: the author of ostracon 24;

3. Malkiyahu, the commander of the Arad fortress: mentioned in ostracon 24 and the recipient of ostracon 40;

4. Eliashib, the quartermaster of the Arad fortress: the addressee of ostraca 1–16 and 18; mentioned in ostracon 17a; the writer of ostracon 31;

5. Eliashib’s subordinate: addressing Eliashib as “my lord” in ostracon 18.

The authors conclude that ” it is reasonable to deduce the proliferation of literacy among the Judahite army ranks ca. 600 BCE” (p. 3). This conclusion is corroborated by “the existence of other military-related corpora of ostraca, at Horvat ‘Uza and Tel Malh.ata in the vicinity of Arad, and at Lachish in the Shephelah—all located on the borders of Judah.”  They summarise that, “in other words, the entire army apparatus, from high-ranking officials to humble vice-quartermasters of small desert outposts far from the center, was literate, in the sense of the ability to communicate in writing.” Such a level of literacy, the authors claim, must have been supported by “an appropriate educational system…  in Judah at the end of the first Temple period.”

The article notes the difficulty of comparing the situation in subsequent centuries: “not a single securely dated Hebrew inscription has been found in this territory for the period between 586 and ca. 350 BCE—not an ostracon or a seal, a seal impression, or a bulla [the little that we know of this period is in Aramaic, the script of the newly present Persian empire]” (p. 4). The abstract adds that “a similar level of literacy in this area is attested again only 400 y later, ca. 200 BCE.”

Although the article acknowledges other possibilities for composition of the Bible, it offers this evidence for widespread literacy in ca. 600 BCE as the basis for “works such as the Book of Deuteronomy and the history of Ancient Israel in the Books of Joshua to Kings” (p. 4). The article’s contention is that “the spread of literacy in late-monarchic Judah provides a possible stage setting for the compilation of literary works”

The strength of the article lies in its identification of the extent of literacy in far-flung reaches of Judea, among various ranking members of the military and military administration. Now this is a very basic level of literacy: the ability to write a few requisition orders and the like. Yet it would be not too rash to say that, given the literacy levels in the military establishment, we would expect that scribal literacy would be competent to produce more literary works of the forms which we find in the Hebrew Bible/Tanach. Indeed, the Tell Deir ‘Alla plaster inscription, written in a Hebrew dialect and located bang in the middle of Israelite territory during the period of its hegemony in the region, dates some two centuries before this. So scribes would be capable of the literary forms found in the Hebrew Bible. This doesn’t really tell us about the general literacy in the wider population, as the article implies it does. But more important is the question of literacy among the elites, which the article provides reasonable evidence for.

The question is: would these elites in fact have written such texts in ca. 600 BCE? And here the issue of content makes it unlikely that much of what we now find in the Hebrew Bible was composed this early. As already mentioned, the existence of an earlier temple to Yahweh (and Asherah) at Tel Arad and continued worship of many gods by priests of Yahweh, as evidenced from the Elephantine correspondence, is highly inconsistent with Deuteronomy’s prohibitions against worshiping other gods and centralization of worship in Jerusalem. Sure, it is possible that a “Yahweh-only party” or some similar group existed which differed from the royal establishment, and which disseminated a version of Deuteronomy as early as ca. 600 BCE. But if the Elephantine correspondence is anything to go by, it does not seem to have affected the worship of multiple gods before the fourth century BCE.

Further, following Nebuchadnezzar’s sack of Jerusalem and deportations, the scribal and ruling elite resided in Babylon, and other places such as Persia and Egypt. So the lack of evidence for literacy in Judea from 600-200 BCE is not determinative for the likely setting for the writing of biblical books. They could have been written in many other places, and quite plausibly were composed in Babylon. This is consistent with the books of Ezra-Nehemiah, which present Ezra as bringing the Torah from Babylon and introducing it to the Judean Jews, who had not hitherto been observing its laws.

So this article provides some insights into the extent of literacy in ca. 600 BCE Judah. It is also quite plausible that many of the sources for the biblical books were composed during this period. For we can observe many earlier layers within the final form of the books which now comprise the Hebrew Bible. But it would be a great leap to suggest that many if any of the books of the Hebrew Bible were in fact written as early as the ‘pre-exilic’ period. What this article provides is evidence of seventh-century BCE literacy, not evidence of the seventh-century BCE  literary composition of the books which became the Hebrew Bible.

There are lots of media stories on this one. Most focus on the article’s conjecture that parts of the Bible were written in the First Temple period. The Daily Mail is a bit behind the pack, discovering that the Bible is an anthology and, oddly, concluding from the journal article’s findings that “the writers of the Bible may have been far more numerous than previously believed”:


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