Sunday, February 26, 2006

A Dozen Rebuttals to DaVinci

Jim Davila and Chris Heard applaud yet another rebuttal to The DaVinci Code on its way, The DaVinci Deception, written by two Catholic authors. Jim notes that "it's shooting at fish in a barrel, but unfortunately it's still necessary, especially with the movie coming out." I agree but wonder what the authors (Sri and Shea) plan on saying that hasn’t already been said. Here's an amazon list I made of the many DaVinci rebuttals, to which I just added Sri and Shea's to make a nice dozen. Note there is already a book on the list called The DaVinci Deception, a rather bad one written by an Moody evangelical. I guess it's legal since the publication dates are separated by over a year.

A Dozen Rebuttals to The DaVinci Code

Fiction and Fact

Jim Davila mentions an article in the London Times warning that The DaVinci Code film could be delayed over the lawsuit Dan Brown is facing from the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Jim wonders:

"Let me see if I have this straight. The author of a silly novel is being sued by the authors of a bogus 'nonfiction' book because the author used their bogus ideas? It's true that rubbish writing is copyrighted, but rubbish ideas? I'm not a lawyer and I know even less about British copyright law that American, but I cannot see how this case can have any merit. Arrangements of words are copyrighted, but ideas (and one of Brown's characters even credits Baigent's and Leigh's book in the novel) are not. If you violate copyright when you cite someone else's work and use their ideas (but not their words) for your own work, then all scientists and scholars would be in trouble."

This has been the irony all along. Here's an except from the review by Laura Miller I cited a few days ago (though I didn't cite this part):

"This puts both Brown and the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, in a tricky position. Baigent et al. have always maintained that the 'facts' supporting their theories are available to any dedicated scholar and that the theories themselves, while unconventional, have been seriously entertained by other 'experts'...

"Since Holy Blood, Holy Grail presents itself as nonfiction, it has been in its authors' interest to downplay how much of it is invented. However, if the 'research' and ideas in Holy Blood, Holy Grail are not the original creations of the book's authors, they become harder to copyright, and the possible infringement suit against Brown might be weakened. No one, after all, has a copyright on the facts surrounding Abraham Lincoln's assassination or the Treaty of Versailles...

"For Brown's part, it's to his advantage to insist that the farrago of lies and misrepresentations used to prop up the conspiracy theory in The Da Vinci Code (and, originally, in Holy Blood, Holy Grail) is part of the historical record or at least in general circulation..."

So here we have it: to the scholars Dan Brown pleads fiction, and please stop bothering him for his historical inaccuracies and wild revisionist fantasies; to the litigants and attorneys he pleads non-fiction, and please understand that he can use Baigent's ideas as legally as Anne Rice uses Tom Wright's. In any case, the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail haven't a leg to stand on, nor, for that matter, any shame.

UPDATE: Attorney Stephen Carlson weighs in on his blog, and in comments below.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Faithful and Faithless Scholars

Prompted by a post from Danny Zacharias, James Crossley offers some wisdom about faith-based scholarship. Readers of this blog won't be surprised that I agree largely with what James has to say, though I would react a bit differently to Danny's opinion that "the best biblical scholarship comes from a 'faith-base'." I both disagree with this statement (as James does) and agree with it, meaning that the statement is entirely useless. Some faith-based scholars have done priceless work: Dale Allison, Philip Esler, John Meier -- even evangelicals like Scot McKnight and Richard Bauckham -- are all good examples. Others, while having made important contributions, leave too much to be desired: Tom Wright and Ben Witherington come readily to my own mind.

I suspect that Danny is applying the term "faith-based" to relatively conservative and/or evangelical scholars. But what about liberally faith-based scholars -- like Marcus Borg? Would Danny say that they have produced some of the "best biblical scholarship"? I wouldn't (just as I doubt he would), and I'd frankly be hard pressed to choose between a Wright and a Crossan.

Secular scholars can't be lumped under an umbrella anymore than the faithful. I consider Bart Ehrman to be one of the very best secular critics; Bill Arnal is quite sharp, but he either hits or misses with me altogether; and I almost never agree with what Burton Mack has to say. So what can I possibly say about secular scholars, who like me find the bible engaging without a faith-perspective? Not much meaningful.

One should be exceedingly distrustful of anyone who claims that biblical scholarship is best served by any group of people, whether traditionally faith-based, liberally faith-based, or secular. Each has its stars and lemons. Neither a Christian world-view nor an Enlightened one can possibly guarantee better results in the field of historical criticism. Come to think of it, that just strikes me as plain common sense.

UPDATE: See further posts by Alan Bandy, Tyler Williams, and the Blogger Cooler roundup at Deinde.

UPDATE (II): Stephen Carlson doesn't care for the vague and inconsistently interpreted term "faith-based". Some good points here.

Friday, February 24, 2006

"Archaic Mark"

Let me second Jim Davila in cheering on Stephen Carlson as he goes after yet another apparent forgery involving that poor gospel writer Mark.

The War of the Ring as a Chess Game

Tolkien fans may enjoy this exercise. Think how a game of chess would look if you used figures from The Lord of the Rings. It's not that easy. Is Frodo the white king, or is Aragorn? Besides Orthanc, is Barad-dur or Minas Morgul a better black rook? Who are the pawns as opposed to the big players?

I came up with four chess sets. Three reflect the view of someone related to a major player in the war: Frodo Gardner, son of Sam and Elanor; Eldarion, son of Aragorn and Arwen; and Erestor, advisor to Elrond. The fourth set reflects my own outsider perspective as a reader of the books. Interestingly, this is the one I like least. Perhaps because it seeks to be the most objective, it comes across as the most superficial and least distinct. Maybe there's something to be said after all for an insular bias: I very much like the other three.

1. The War of the Ring according to Frodo Gardner, son of Samwise and Elanor










White: Black:
Q Rooks: Bag End Mount Doom
Q Knights: Pippin (on horse) Cave Troll
Q Bishops: Gandalf Sharky
Queens: Sam Shelob
Kings: Frodo Sauron
K Bishops: Smeagol Gollum
K Knights: Merry (on horse) Witch-King (on fell beast)
K Rooks: Grey Havens Barad-dur

Pawns (White): 8 hobbits
Pawns (Black): 8 orcs

This is the war in completely hobbit-centric terms.

For white, Frodo is the obvious king who can't be captured lest the world fall; Sam the all-powerful queen for doing (literally) everything during the quest -- killing Shelob, invading Cirith Ungol and rescuing Frodo, carrying him up the slopes of Mount Doom; Gandalf the bishop assisting unexpectedly at times, Smeagol (Gollum's better half) doing likewise; Merry and Pippin the knights/esquires of Rohan and Gondor; Bag End and the Grey Havens the natural rooks.

For black, Sauron is the king, Shelob his queen who faces off Sam appropriately; Sharky (rather than Saruman) and Gollum are the insidious bishops, one wreaking war on the Shire through other hobbits, the other scheming against the Ringbearer even while assisting him; the Witch-King and Cave Troll face off the hobbit knights -- and again, love the hobbit's perspective: Merry (rather than Eowyn) is the true slayer of the Witch-King; Mount Doom and Barad-dur serve as the rooks of darkness.

The fact that the hobbit pawns are mismatched against the orc pawns (hobbits fought in the Shire against Sharky's men, not against orcs, just as orcs fought against men in the south rather than hobbits) poses no problem at all. Hobbits are cheerfully illogical about these things.

2. The War of the Ring according to Eldarion, son of Aragorn and Arwen










White: Black:
Q Rooks: Helm's Deep Orthanc
Q Knights: Theoden (on Snowmane) Ugluk (on a warg)
Q Bishops: Treebeard Saruman
Queens: Arwen The Mouth
Kings: Aragorn Sauron
K Bishops: King of the Dead Witch-King
K Knights: Imrahil (on a swanship) Gothmog (on a warg)
K Rooks: Minas Tirith Minas Morgul

Pawns (White): Eomer, Eowyn, Theodred, Legolas, Gimli, Gandalf, Ghan-buri-Ghan, Faramir

Pawns (Black): 2 Uruk-hai captains, 2 Dunlending captains, 2 Haradrim captains, 2 Mordor-orc captains

The war from a human and thoroughly military perspective.

Aragorn and Arwen are the royal pieces (though chess-wise, Arwen actually had a more kingly and Aragorn a more queenly role). Treebeard and the King of the Dead are the bishops, last-minute "secret" weapons who helped turned the tide against the forces of Isengard and Mordor, respectively. The king of Rohan and prince of Dol Amroth assist King Aragorn as knights from abroad, while Helm's Deep and Minas Tirith are the castles of refuge.

Sauron is the black king (as in all these scenarios), the Mouth his closest confidant and "queen". Saruman and the Witch-King are the bishops, his prime tools who carry out the war against Rohan and Gondor. Ugluk and Gothmog are the orc captains under their respective commands, from Orthanc and Minas Morgul.

Note all of the important figures who, from Eldarion's snooty perspective, serve as mere pawns -- even Gandalf.

3. The War of the Ring according to Erestor, chief counselor to Elrond










White: Black:
Q Rooks: Caras Galadhon Dol Guldur
Q Knights: Gwaihir Fell Beast
Q Bishops: Radagast Khamul
Queens: Galadriel Balrog
Kings: Elrond Sauron
K Bishops: Gandalf Saruman
K Knights: Shadowfax Fell Beast
K Rooks: Rivendell Orthanc

Pawns (White): The 8 Fellowship members besides Gandalf: Boromir, Gimli, Pippin, Sam, Frodo, Merry, Legolas, Aragorn

Pawns (Black): The 8 Nazgul besides Khamul: Uvatha, Adunaphael, Dwar, Akhorahil, Murazor (Witch-King), Indur, Hoarmurath, Ren

Erestor, like most elves, sees everyone subservient to the immortals.

For white, Elrond and Galadriel are king and queen, Gandalf and Radagast the Istari bishops. Shadowfax and Gwaihir serve as the knights (rather than the riders they may happen to bear). Rivendell and Caras Galadhon are the obvious rooks.

For black, Sauron is king, the Balrog his demonic "queen" reigning by terror between the two elven paradises. Saruman and Khamul threaten Rivendell and Lothlorien from their rooks of Orthanc and Dol Guldur. Countering the graceful Shadowfax and Gwaihir are a couple of fell beasts, and as with white, the steed itself is the knight.

The white pawns fall into place as the eight members of the Fellowship -- commissioned by Elrond, advised by Galadriel, led by Gandalf. Correspondingly, the black pawns are the eight Nazgul who, along with Khamul, hound the Fellowship.

4. The War of the Ring according to Loren Rosson










White: Black:
Q Rooks: Helm's Deep Orthanc
Q Knights: Theoden (on horse) Wormtongue
Q Bishops: Gandalf Saruman
Queens: Aragorn Witch-King
Kings: Frodo Sauron
K Bishops: Sam Shelob
K Knights: Faramir (on horse) Gollum
K Rooks: Henneth Annun Tower of Cirith Ungol

Pawns (White): Eomer, Eowyn, Merry, Legolas, Gimli, Pippin, Beregond, Boromir

Pawns (Black): Uruk-hai, Warg, Dunlending, Nazgul on Fell Beast, Cave Troll, Haradrim, Oliphant, Mordor-orc

This is the war from my own reader-omniscient perspective.

For white: The king can only be Frodo, unable to move much or fast, once captured game over. The queen must be the literal king, Aragorn, who reaches everywhere during the war -- to Edoras, Helm’s Deep, Orthanc, Pelargir, Minas Tirith -- turning tides of battle, then finally arriving in desperate gambit at the Black Gate to buy the king (Frodo) some time. Sam is Frodo’s bishop, just as Gandalf is Aragorn's; without them the Ringbearer and heir to Gondor wouldn’t stand a chance. Theoden is the knight on Aragorn's side, sacrificing himself on the Pelennor Fields, while Faramir is Frodo's knight, sacrificing the Ring to the hobbit's quest, knowing he will incur the wrath of Denethor. The refuges, correspondingly, must be Helm’s Deep and Henneth Annun. (Frodo castled at the latter.)

For black: The king is Sauron, remaining forever hidden at a distance. The queen is his mighty Witch, who extends himself everywhere during the war. Saruman and Shelob are bishops facing off Gandalf and Sam, based at the rooks of Orthanc and Cirith Ungol (Tolkien’s "Two Towers"), and who are served upon in turn by Wormtongue and Gollum. Note how unknightly the black knights are: Wormtongue and Gollum are almost anti-knights, once decent, having sacrificed their souls to serve the wizard and spider, and ultimately (in both cases) Sauron.

The white pawns are individualized, while the black pawns are representative of the entire mess of evil thrown against the free peoples during the war.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The DaVinci Crock

Here's another superb review by Laura Miller of Salon, which I mentioned recently on the Crosstalk mailing list. I hope she reviews the film when it hits theaters in May.

Excerpts from the review:

"The Da Vinci Code is... a cheesy thriller, with all the familiar qualities of the genre at its worst: characters so thin they're practically transparent, ludicrous dialogue, and prose that's 100 percent cliché. Even by conventional thriller standards, the book isn't particularly good; the plot is simply one long chase sequence, and the 'good guy who turns out to be evil' is obviously a ringer from the moment he's introduced. Dan Brown is no Robert Ludlum, so why has his thriller so outdistanced the work of his betters?

"The answer is that what readers love about the novel has nothing to do with story, or character, or mood, or any of the qualities we admire in good fiction. They love it because of the nonfiction material the book supposedly contains, a complicated, centuries-spanning conspiracy theory... Virtually all the bogus history in The Da Vinci Code...is lifted from Holy Blood, Holy Grail...

"As enormous crocks of nonsense go, Holy Blood, Holy Grail is a kind of masterpiece...[but] its theories...have a certain invincible panache. They are proof of the adage that the hardest lie to refute is the Big Lie. Unlike, say, speculation about the 'real' author of Shakespeare's plays, these theories span so many historical specialties -- ancient Hebrew customs, early Christian texts, regional French folklore, ancient and contemporary church history, medieval dynastic minutiae, Renaissance and neoclassical art, esoteric movements of the early modern age, and so on -- that no one person has the expertise to refute all of the fabrications...

"Numerous books have been published refuting the novel's depiction of Jesus' life and Christianity's early years, but most of these have been written by defensive evangelicals. They aren't particularly interesting to a secular reader -- or reliable, since their authors are deeply invested in a particular view of Jesus. They don't apply standards of proof (or, to be precise, plausibility) of much use to nonbelievers. Fortunately, Bart D. Ehrman, who chairs the department of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has just published Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code...

"Ehrman methodically demolishes a sizable chunk of the conspiratorial claims in The Da Vinci Code, which are mostly cribbed from Holy Blood, Holy Grail. To hit some of the high spots: Early Christian texts excluded from the New Testament did not depict Jesus as human rather than divine; in fact, quite the opposite...It was not unheard-of for a Jewish man of Jesus' time to be either single or celibate, particularly if he was part of the apocalyptic prophetic movement of the day, as Jesus most likely was...

"A significant portion of the fan base for The Da Vinci Code consists of women who are uncomfortable with the male-dominated, slightly to very misogynistic nature of the Christianities they were raised in and who see Brown's version of early Christian history as a corrective. As Ehrman points out, it does appear that women had a more prominent role in Jesus' ministry than might be expected of a religious movement at that time and place. Some of that status is apparent in the canonical texts...

"The early Christian scriptures...were written by people who were the product of a patriarchal culture that subscribed to many values we abhor today -- slavery, for one. Most of Jesus' followers assumed the world as they knew it was about to end very soon, to be replaced by an earthly kingdom of heaven. They were wrong about that and a lot of other things. To try to recast them as people with egalitarian attitudes about the sexes is to imply that we can't improve our own society without some kind of precedent from them. This idea could be even sillier than anything in The Da Vinci Code."

It's true that Ehrman's book is the best available corrective, though he gives the novel credit for at least being a good thriller. (Like Miller, I think it fails miserably even on that score.) Most other rebuttals are too defensively apologetic, though I suppose Ben Witherington's Gospel Code is decent enough if you can wade through his hallelujahs.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Witch Craze

Anyone interested in the witch hunts of the 16th-17th centuries will want to read Lyndal Roper's Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany. Laura Miller, one of my favorite reviewers, reviews the book here. Roper dispenses with certain myths about church crusades, especially theories involving a centralized campaign to get rid of (supposed) goddess-worshiping pagans. The witch hunts were more the outcome of petty and vindictive village quarrels. Scapegoating usually started at the common level, born of simple spite and envy, to be joined by equally petty (and perhaps psychosexually fixated) local magistrates. The church itself was infrequently involved with witch-hunting.

Excerpts from Miller's review:

"The Inquisition was not greatly involved in witch burnings; it had its hands full with Protestants and other heretics, whom the church shrewdly perceived to be a far more serious threat to its power. In fact, while the justification for condemning witches was religious, and some religious figures joined in witch hunting campaigns, the trials were not run by churches of any denomination. They were largely held in civil courts and prosecuted by local authorities as criminal cases.

"A witch panic... was less the act of a ruthless authority stamping out all dissenters than a sign of a power vacuum: 'The very fragmentation of political and legal authority in Germany made it possible for panics to get out of hand, while the intensity of religious struggle, with the forces of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation confronting each other directly, nourished a kind of moral fundamentalism that saw the Devil's hand at work in all opponents.'...

"Current popular history holds that the witch hunts were concerted campaigns by a male-dominated church that felt its sway diminished by stubborn pagan and folk traditions that gave too much respect to wise old women... However, when you look at actual cases, the picture is quite the opposite... In most cases, the community itself started it. The church used trials and demonology texts to impose order on the chaotic paranoia of villagers looking for scapegoats for their own misfortunes... There's every reason to believe that -- far from seeking to eradicate folk beliefs in black magic -- Christian churches took advantage of ancient superstitions by stepping in to offer themselves as a solution to the mischief done by evil sorcerers...

"None of this excuses the Catholic and Protestant churches for the many atrocities they've perpetrated over the centuries, against 'witches' or anyone else who earned their disfavor. But it's also a caution against idealizing a pagan past about which we know next to nothing. The pagan cultures that have left records have proven themselves every bit as capable of misogyny and of senselessly brutalizing outsiders and misfits. As human beings, pagans were just as capable of barbarity as monotheists; and as human beings, women can be just as wicked as men, given half a chance...

"A gift of baked goods that comes with a barbed remark about the recipient's own culinary skills, a quarrel over the price of apples, irritation at someone who doesn't come promptly to dinner when called -- these are the sorts of incidents that precipitated the hideous cruelty of Europe's witch hunts. 'It is difficult to comprehend the sheer viciousness of the way villagers and townsfolk attacked those they held to be witches,' Roper writes. Then again, if you've ever lived in a small community, is it really that difficult to see how they got started in that direction, if not how they managed to get so far? It may take a village to raise a child, but history also keeps telling us that it takes a village to burn a witch."

The Guardian also has a review here. Roper's book goes well alongside Edward Peter's Inquisition, which similarly refutes theories about a sinister centralized church whose agents worked everywhere to thwart the masses. No one likes apologists for the church, but those who demonize the church are just as bad, and historically wrong.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Thoughts for the Day: Paul's Loyal Criticism of God

"'Did that which is good, then, bring death to me?' [Rom 7:13] There lurks not very far behind that question a criticism of God... How could God, who all along intended to save on the basis of faith, have given a law which does not save, which first produces or condemns sin, or which at best does not help?" (E.P. Sanders, Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People, p 79)

"It was God, after all, who devised and transmitted this notably useless, indeed, dangerous, law...presuppos[ing] an impossibly high degree of incompetence on his part." (Philip Esler, Conflict and Identity in Romans, pp 230-231)

"How can Paul argue that the law was a benefaction from God but that the supersession of it was also a benefaction from the same God? These are the issues of loyalty, which are the result of a conversion that involved the same divine patron, that Paul is struggling to work out." (Zeba Crook, Reconceptualizing Conversion, p 246)

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Platinum Rule (III)

First part of this series here. Second part here.

What would the historical Jesus have thought about the Platinum Rule? It should be noted that the Golden Rule is less misguided in a communal (group-oriented) society like that of ancient Palestine, where people were less concerned about catering to individual needs like we are today. "Treat others how you want to be treated" was Jesus' way of telling groups of people to put themselves in the shoes of other groups of people. "Give to those who beg from you" (Mt 7:9/Lk 6:30); etc., meaning the haves should treat the have-nots the same way they themselves would want to be treated if their situations were reversed. That's a tall enough order in Jesus' society. In our individualist world the Platinum Rule simply improves upon the Golden Rule by honoring its actual intent. One could say that it even one-ups, or outdoes, the Golden Rule.

In this light Mitch Hadley's observations become interesting:
"I get uncomfortable with someone who tries to trump Christ. It's really kind of a zero-sum game, like trying to outdo your Boss. One can imagine Jesus slapping His head, thinking to Himself, 'The Platinum Rule! Why didn't I think of that?' And Alessandra, like all ambitious people, should fear the consequences of this game of oneupsmanship. Because when this Boss calls you to His office, it's a one-way trip. And being dismissed from His presence is eternal."
Oh really? Though Jesus excelled at one-upping rivals like the Pharisees, he seems also to have thrived on being one-upped in turn by certain outcasts and low-lives. In Mk 7:24-30/Mt 15:21-28 he gets burned by a Canaanite woman, and salvation comes to the heathen nations because of it! John Pilch has discussed the account, where Jesus ignores this woman and then calls her a dog when she persists in harassing him, but she shamelessly embraces the insult and one-ups him in a clever rejoinder: "Lord, even the dogs get to eat scraps." Jesus actually concedes defeat: "For saying this you may go your way; your daughter is healed."(Mark)/ "Great is your faith! Your daughter is healed."(Matthew) In other words, "Touché, woman; you dish out what you take, so God grants your favor" (Pilch). This stands as the pivotal account in the gospels by which grace came to the pagan nations, and it all happened (so Mark and Matthew believe) on account of a shameless hussy who gave as good as she got, and gratified Jesus because of it. Who knows, perhaps Jesus would have been equally gratified to see his own Rule being "outdone" by the heathens of corporate America.

It wouldn't surprise me in the least. I hasten to add, however, that I seriously doubt Jesus would have gone so far as to say that grace came to corporate America (of all places) just because some managers were putting the Platinum Rule into practice. :) The point is that Christians like Hadley could learn from the example of the shameless hussy, and perhaps dare to one-up their savior more often.

UPDATE (3 years later): As it turns out, the historical Jesus probably did not teach the Golden Rule.

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Platinum Rule (II)

First part of this series here.

You can buy The Platinum Rule book or the test from the book online. The test takes about five minutes -- quick, easy, and painless -- which will place you into one of sixteen business personalities. Even if you generally can't stand this kind of pigeonholing (like me), it has turned out to be a fairly accurate assessor for myself and my employees (anywhere between 70-95% accurate).

There are four types of workers:

Directors -- confident, competitive, and decisive types who like being in charge
Socializers -- outgoing, enthusiastic, and talkative types who like attention
Relaters -- personable, easygoing, and low-key types who like stability
Thinkers -- cautious, analytical, and detail types who like things to make sense

Within each of the four types are four subtypes, hence the sixteen work personalities:

Directors

Directing Directors -- "Commanders"
Socializing Directors -- "Adventurers"
Relating Directors -- "Producers"
Thinking Directors -- "Pioneers"

Socializers

Directing Socializers -- "Enthusiasts"
Socializing Socializers -- "Entertainers"
Relating Socializers -- "Helpers"
Thinking Socializers -- "Impressers"

Relaters

Directing Relaters -- "Go-Getters"
Socializing Relaters -- "Harmonizers"
Relating Relaters -- "Servicers"
Thinking Relaters -- "Specialists"

Thinkers

Directing Thinkers -- "Masterminds"
Socializing Thinkers -- "Assessors"
Relating Thinkers -- "Administrators"
Thinking Thinkers -- "Analysts"

I test as a Directing Thinker, and the profile is pretty accurate, about 85% right, though I dislike the "mastermind" title (sounds pretentious). My profile (The Platinum Rule, pp 101-103) tells me, among other things, that I

-- am a creator rather than follower
-- seek independence from constraints that might limit my performance
-- like to be in control, but more over procedures than people
-- can never get too much of quality, discovery, or originality
-- take some calculated risks when making decisions
-- prefer to work alone, or at least with people of my choosing
-- am focused on the future
-- become overly analytical, and possibly procrastinating, under pressure

As for ways to improve myself, I apparently should "work at being less guarded and more direct in communicating with others", "give myself more credit and less grief", and "monitor my tendency to be critical of myself and others, especially under pressure" (ibid).

The types who mix well in a social environment aren't necessarily compatible in the work environment (see pp 115-122). For instance (using myself again as an example), thinkers tend to get along best socially with other thinkers, next best with relaters, and least easily with directors and socializers. But task wise, thinkers work best with relaters, next best with thinkers and socializers, and least easily with directors. It becomes even more important (and challenging) to put the Platinum Rule into practice the more you deal closely with "incompatible" personality types.

How to put the Platinum Rule into practice? The authors suggest applying it to directors by doing things like: "using facts rather than feelings when you disagree with them", "getting to the point quickly", and "stressing competitive results and growth opportunities" (p 144). Apply it to socializers by: "being upbeat and stimulating", "tolerating digressions when possible", and "sparing them the details" (p 149). To relaters by: "using personal feelings more than facts when you disagree", "assuming they will take things personally", and "giving assurances that risk will be minimized or handled reasonably" (p 145). To thinkers by: "being accurate and logical", "providing solid and tangible evidence", "supporting their thoughtful approaches when possible" (p 150).

The authors strongly believe that the Platinum Rule isn't about manipulation, just learning to speak the language of others:

"It isn't considered manipulative to speak French when in Paris... It's something you do briefly while on the Frenchman's soil so you can be more compatible. You don't alter your basic nature while in France. Your ideas don't change. But how you present those ideas does change." (p 10)

Yes and no. I would say the Platinum Rule is manipulative but healthy. Furthermore, many people practice the Platinum Rule without realizing it (just as many others, unfortunately, practice the Golden Rule without realizing it). In one of my favorite books, Why We Lie, David Livingstone Smith suggests that human beings are a species of unconscious psychologists, carefully monitoring others' behavior, constantly manipulating others through lies, deceptions, and veiled meanings. And we often lie to people by telling them what they want to hear, deceive them by stroking their egos, and (indeed) manipulate them by treating them how they want to be treated. That's the Platinum Rule. It's manipulation, but if applied in moderation, a healthy form of it.

In the third and final post to this series, we'll do some loose speculating on what the historical Jesus would have thought about the Platinum Rule.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Platinum Rule

Recently I began teaching my employees about The Platinum Rule. I was drawn to this book not only because I find personality assessors interesting, but even more because of my problem with the Golden Rule. No offense to Jesus -- he undoubtedly had the best intentions -- but the Golden Rule is flawed. It tells us,
"Do unto others as you would want done unto you." (Mt 7:12/Lk 6:31)
The problem is that others don't necessarily want to be treated as "you" do. Thus authors Tony Alessandra and Michael J. O'Connor advocate a Platinum Rule:
"Do unto others as they would want done to them."
It's rather obvious once pointed out. Instead of projecting our desires onto others, we should make an effort to get to know others when possible, and treat them as they really want to be treated.

But The Platinum Rule isn't a religious book. It's wholly secular and geared for supervisors (like me) who wish to understand their employees' behavioral tendencies and improve how they interact with each other on the job. It profiles sixteen different business personalities, and provides a test to find out which type you are (the test takes only about 5 minutes). In short, by appreciating the different ways people like to be treated, and by slightly adapting ourselves according to whom we are dealing with, everyone gets along better and maintains self-esteem.

I'm intrigued by the occasional resistance I encounter to the Platinum Rule. Here's a blogpost I came across by Mitch Hadley, who takes the Platinum Rule to task, in no small part because he's just uncomfortable with anything that "tries to trump Christ". He says:
[The Platinum Rule] would be laughable if one treated this with the seriousness which it deserved... Just think about it for a moment. If I'm a criminal, wouldn't I want people to treat me with leniency when I'm captured? Therefore, shouldn't you give me a free pass out of jail? And that's only the beginning. Suppose you walked into your bosses office this morning and told him, 'Boss, I want to be treated like the CEO of the company. From now on, I think you should do what I tell you to do. Now that you understand what I want, don't you think you should give it to me?'
Such counter-examples are silly, because they are also counter-examples to the Golden Rule. No one uses the Golden Rule to determine what should be done with criminals, anymore than the Platinum Rule!

The point is not that the Platinum Rule works in every conceivable case, anymore than the Golden Rule does. The point is that the Golden Rule is flawed in principle. The Platinum Rule achieves what the Golden Rule tries to achieve but sometimes fails on account of diversity.

Hadley continues:
At the very least, Alessandra shows that he really doesn't understand the depth of the Golden Rule, at the layers which go into its true meaning - Tobit 4:15, 'What you hate, do not do to anyone,' for example. I'd suspect that Christ (who fulfilled the Old Testament, after all) might possibly have been familiar with this passage. If you read this into the Golden Rule, as most sensible people do, then most of Alessandra's arguments fall apart.
The whole point of the Platinum Rule is that what "you" hate others may like.
And as for treating people the way they want to be treated, as St. Augustine pointed out, we must 'do many things against the will' of certain people, because they need to be 'punished with a certain kind of harshness'.
But once again, this objection applies to the Golden Rule no less than the Platinum Rule. Of course we often need to do things against people's wishes. We can't always treat them how either "we" would want to be treated in the same circumstances (Golden Rule) or "they" want to be treated (Platinum Rule).
I think my favorite sentence of all, the one that really crystalizes what this is all about, is the one that The Platinum Rule 'accommodates the feelings of others.' And of course there's the key. In this day and age where we can't offend anyone, where we have to be sensitive to the point of banality, when we serve our love with soft edges so as to not hurt anyone's feelings, it's natural that something like this would catch on. And it's particularly appropriate that HR departments would adopt it for their 'diversity' training programs.
Hadley completely misunderstands the Platinum Rule. This is not about political correctness (for which I have about as much love as Hadley). The Platinum Rule doesn't dictate that we all become sappy benign sweetie-pies. In some cases, actually, just the opposite: it advocates treating people roughly, firm, and forceful if that's the language they appreciate and relate to. Some personality types have no use for touchy-feely stuff (like me), and prefer more direct and impersonal modes of communication.

In the next post, we'll take a look at the sixteen work personalities. And for the fun of it, we'll cap off by pondering "What Would Jesus Say" to the Platinum Rule.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Wright on the Context Group

It's nice when I can agree with Tom Wright about something. Mark Goodacre cites an interview in which the bishop comments on the Context Group:

"I see the work of the 'context group' as basically a sharp-edged form of history. That is, I don't think they are doing anything other than what historians always ought to do: studying the specific and particular context, the social assumptions, the implicit narratives, etc., of the people we're interested in... What they succeed in doing, and what we need to pay close attention to, is joggling us out of our comfortable assumptions that, as I think Neyrey puts it, the ancient Mediterranean world was much like ours except without electronic toys."

Nicely accurate. Wright continues:

"My sense, though, is that sometimes at least members of that group come with an explicit anti-theological agenda, almost a sociological reductionism. That's a big generalization and it wouldn't apply to all of them, or to any of them all the time, I think. But it's something to watch out for."

As I myself cautioned in my recent review of Malina and Pilch's new commentary, it's a mistake to stereotype the Context Group members, who have in fact proven to be a rather diverse bunch. With regards to any supposed "anti-theological agendas" on the part of some, I think that's usually based on a misunderstanding of what they're about. The idea is that theology often derives from sociological realities, and the two can't be easily separated. We saw this recently, for instance, in discussing Jesus' reasons for prohibiting divorce. Jesus and Paul were theological, without a doubt, but whence came their theology?

Monday, February 13, 2006

Religion and Violence: The Biblical Heritage

I just received a flyer in the mail for a conference on religion and violence scheduled at Boston University on Sunday, February 19, and then continued at Wellesley College on Monday, February 20. It looks interesting, and I notice that Paula Fredriksen is one of the speakers. Violence in Israelite religion, the prophetic literature, sacrifice, sectarian rage, and other topics are covered. The info is available online:

Religion and Violence: The Biblical Heritage

The Rolling Gospel of Thomas

If April DeConick is right about the gospel of Thomas, it belongs in the New Testament canon. Defying scholars who posit a late gnostic gospel, and liberals who identify an early source of wisdom sayings, DeConick proposes something radically new: that the earliest form of Thomas was thoroughly apocalyptic, and only later, in the face of failed expectations, did the gospel sayings become pressed into a mystical (though not gnostic) service, in an attempt to make the kingdom realized on earth.

DeConick sees the compositional history of Thomas as a "rolling corpus," in the same way William McKane has described that of the book of Jeremiah. A rolling corpus is based on the original words of a prophet received through oral tradition, with new oral material added over time to interpret, explain, and (most importantly) update the meaning of the sayings (p 61). She finds four layers in the rolling corpus of Thomas (see pp 97-98):
1. The Kernel gospel (30-50 CE) consisting of Jesus' apocalyptic warnings and his advice about preparing for the day of fiery judgment (80 passages)

2. Accretions (50-60 CE) dealing with relocation and a leadership crisis (2 passages)

3. Accretions (60-100 CE) accommodating Gentiles, and addressing the early eschatological crisis which resulted in a shift to the mystical dimension of apocalyptic thought (23 passages)

4. Accretions (80-120 CE) addressing new Christological developments and the continued eschatological crisis which resulted in incorporating primordial traditions pointing to paradise regained (41 passages)
The Thomasine Christians are thus seen to evolve from an apocalyptic community to an Edenic one, and by the second century, "their church was Paradise; they were Adam and Eve before the Fall" (p 240). The complete gospel dates no later than 120 CE, roughly contemporary with John's gospel and letters, and the Pastoral epistles. This "grounds Thomas' theology inside early orthodoxy rather than outside... Thomas represents a current in the stream of Christian traditions that ultimately became Eastern orthodoxy" (pp 240-242).

In an interesting anecdote, the author mentions the thanks she has received from a Greek Orthodox hieromonk for "discovering the origins of his religion" (see p 241). Neither a gnostic heresy, nor countercultural wisdom sayings, Thomas points to paradise regained after a failed apocalypse, readily conducive to Eastern Orthodoxy, which (unlike Western Catholicism) teaches the divine image still recoverable on earth. But is she right about all this?

Much of her analysis of the "Kernel" is fine on its own right. In these isolated passages Jesus comes across as a prophet of doom and judgment who is already casting fire on the earth. Jewish apocalyptic portrays the boundary between earth and heaven starting to collapse -- the "rolling up of the skies" (p 133) -- just like in Thom 111, where it's said that the heavens and earth will be rolled up in the very presence of believers (p 137).

Likewise, Jesus is identified with the fire of the heavenly realm: he promises that believers who draw near to him will experience a fiery epiphany (Thom 82); in apocalyptic literature fire is often associated with theophanies (p 137). Other sayings presuppose a time of apocalyptic chaos during which the powers of good and evil are battling for control of the world; calamity -- and key words like "sword, famine, fire, war" -- are common motifs in apocalyptic literature, just as in a saying like Thom 16 (pp 138-139). Jesus offers advice to prepare oneself for the end in various sayings (like Thom 98 and 103) (p 139). He offers the advice of I Enoch 62-63, telling kings to renounce their worldly power (Thom 46) as God's judgment draws near (p 140). A reversal of world order is expected (Thom 63 and 78) (pp 140-141).

All fine and well: from wherever these sayings come, they were surely apocalyptic in origin. But that the gospel of Thomas preserves their original grouping in a collection traceable to 30-50 CE probably amounts to wishful thinking.

For many of the sayings of this so-called Kernel gospel make just as much sense (if not more) as late reinterpretations of those found in the synoptic gospels. Nowhere is this more evident than in Jesus' pronouncement against the temple: "I will destroy this house and no one will be able to rebuild it" (Thom 71). DeConick offers a peculiar commentary on this passage:
"Unlike Mark, which is promoting the tradition that a divinely rebuilt temple will take its place, a temple 'not made with hands', this Thomas saying suggests that the temple will not be raised again. It is likely that this tradition is older than the synoptic variants, which tone down the harsh oracle by suggesting that there is hope, the temple will be rebuilt." (p 142)
This seems backwards. Originally, Jesus probably made a prediction about God destroying the temple and rebuilding it. When the temple was actually destroyed by the Romans (forty years later), there was less and less hope for its rebuilding as time went on; Jesus' prophecy became embarrassing. Mark and Matthew dealt with the embarrassment by placing the prophecy on the lips of false witnesses:
The chief priests were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death, but they found none. For many gave false testimony against him, saying, "We heard him say, 'I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.'" (Mk 14:55-58/Mt 26:59-61)

They crucified Jesus... Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, "You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself and come down from the cross!" (Mk 15:29-30/Mt 27:39-40)
Luke simply censored the prophecy. John spiritualized it:
Jesus said, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The Judeans said, "This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?" But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this. (Jn 2:19-22)
Thomas -- evidently as embarrassed as the above four -- revised the prophecy, by insisting that no one would be able to rebuild the temple after its destruction:
"I will destroy this house, and no one will be able to rebuild it." (Thom 71)
So whether by falsification, censorship, spiritualization, or revision, Jesus' original prediction was controlled so that it squared with what actually happened forty years later. But DeConick wants us to believe that Thomas' version is original and predates 70 CE. This is problematic for two reasons. First, how did the "wrong" idea of the temple's rebuilding enter the Christian tradition, thereby necessitating the damage-control in Mark, Matthew, and John?

Second, there is little if any precedent in Jewish apocalyptic for the destruction of the temple without being rebuilt. DeConick herself acknowledges the many passages in which the temple is expected to be rebuilt (Jub 1:29, 23:21; I En 14:8-25, 71:5-6, 89:73, 91:13; II Bar 4:2-6, T Levi 5:1, 18:1-14; 4Q266 3:20-4:3), and only one where it is not (T Moses 5-10) (p 142). In the last, moreover, the temple's actual destruction isn't made plain (any more than it usually is, even in cases envisioning rebuilding, save perhaps I En 90). The point is that no matter how we tackle it, Thom 71 reads like a glaring post-70 revision rather than the original prophesy itself.

But more general: How does one even attempt to stratify a gospel and determine its earliest layer (the "Kernel")? Sometimes DeConick's strategy appears to be as circular as those she criticizes (Patterson, Koester, Arnal, and others who identify non-apocalyptic wisdom sayings at the base). She says we can do this in the case of Thomas "because it wasn't rewritten into a narrative or theological discourse like the synoptics and John" (p 36). This is an argument we've heard repeatedly from those who love this gospel (and the phantom Q): it lacks narrative. Why are narratives precluded from "earliest tradition"?

Her best answer seems to be that this is just the way oral traditions unfold. Brief, conservative, and redundant speeches mark the earliest stage (p 27), with questions/answer units coming later as they clarify and update the meaning of these speeches. This, she says (following Vernon Robbins), is the typical pattern seen in orally transmitted "speech" sources (p 55). How verifiable this is remains unclear.

She ties this to what is described in the Pseudo-Clementine corpus: sayings of Jesus first collected into speeches used by the early Jerusalem church for proselytizing purposes, with James himself commissioning their use (pp 34-35). "Thus, the first written speech gospels must predate James' death and probably reflect Christian traditions prior to 50 CE" (p 35). But that the gospel of Thomas happens to preserve one of these mysterious "speech gospels" may owe to a fertile imagination more than actual history.

I doubt that DeConick has recovered the original gospel of Thomas, much I would love her theory to be true. Like her, I find it impossible that the gospel is based on an early collection of wisdom sayings (p 46). Like her, I believe that earliest Christianity was apocalyptic to the core, and if she were right, then Thomas would go a long way to proving this with an apocalyptic kernel traceable to 30-50 CE -- predating even Paul's letters. But I don't have confidence in this method of stratifying the gospel (the rolling corpus model), and I'm eternally suspicious of what Donald Akenson calls "downward dating creep":
"The scholarly work on the Gospel of Thomas is illuminating, for it illustrates a particularly invasive phenomenon among biblical scholars -- namely, downward-dating-creep. When one observes this pattern with any Christian document, it is a warning light to the observer: watch carefully and count the spoons... Within the scholarly community there is an almost magical belief in low numbers..." (Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus, p 92)
... and particularly with this gospel! DeConick's methodology impresses only slightly more than those of Patterson, Koester, and Arnal. It's nice that she focuses on oral developments more than redactional ones; that's long overdue. But can oral history go so far as to unlock a priceless layer of this gospel anymore than literary criticism can?

At the end of the day, the traditional view of Thomas as a late gnostic document (derived and reinterpreted from various apocalyptic passages in the synoptics) commends itself as the most likely theory, as unexciting as that may be. I don't think scholars like Meier and Ehrman have been mistaking early Jewish esotericism for gnosticism, as DeConick claims (p 54). I think they've spotted an implied gnostic thought pattern where it's been all along. It would be conveniently nice if Thomas did the two things DeConick wants it to do -- show the apocalyptic character of earliest Christianity and the orthodox nature of the end result -- and that may be why I really don't trust her theory: it's just too damn convenient. But despite its failure to convince, the book is important for the way it forces crucial questions about the evolution of oral traditions, and for its proof that sappiential wisdom sayings neither inevitably, nor likely, lie at the core of the gospel of Thomas.

UPDATE: See Stephen Carlson's review of the book.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Orthodox Gospel of Thomas

"The scholarly consensus that [the Gospel of Thomas] exemplifies an early Christian non-apocalyptic gospel preserving the message of a philosophical Jesus is highly suspect. In fact, the opposite appears to be the case. The earliest version of the gospel of Thomas was an apocalyptic speech gospel emphasizing the imminent end and its demands. It is only in the face of a communal memory crisis, which also was experienced by other Christian communities in the late first century and early second century, that the text's emphasis was shifted away from the eschatological interpretation of Jesus' sayings to the mystical... This places the complete Gospel of Thomas at a date no later than 120 CE, making the accretions contemporary to the compositions of the Johannine literature and the Pastoral Epistles. It also grounds Thomas' theology inside early orthodoxy rather than outside." (April DeConick, Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas, p 240)

I have finished reading April DeConick's stimulating new book on Thomas. I can't remember the last time I encountered a theory I wanted so much to be true but knew in my gut to be false. Stay tuned next week for a full review.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Mercy Seat of Rom 3:25

On Better Bibles, Suzanne McCarthy objects to the term "propitiation" used in various translations of Rom 3:25:

"I find the term 'propitiation' to be a strangely Latin intrusion into the English Bible. In fact, I was surprised to see it there in Romans 3:25. It seemed to me that Romans 3 was referring to the mercy-seat or the lid of the ark of the covenant... I have to say that I am somewhat upset to find that the use of the term 'propitiation' has been made into such a 'cause celebre' - that people feel that they are getting a more authentic Bible if it has the term 'propitiation' in it."

I have found the work of Stephen Finlan to be immensely helpful in dealing with Rom 3:25. "Propitiation", to be sure, is not the accurate translation here, though it is implied conceptually. Paul's belief that Christ is the new mercy seat of atonement (HILASTERION) involves both propitiation (appeasing God) and expiation (cleansing of sinners). Finlan is probably right that Gentiles would have heard propitiatory themes in the background, while Judeans would have heard both propitiary and expiatory themes (see The Background and Content of Paul's Cultic Atonement Metaphors, pp 141-143). But from Paul's point of view, the propitiatory themes must surely dominate, because Christ's sacrifice follows hot on the heels of God's wrath -- recounted at great length in Rom 1:18-3:20 (see ibid, p 144).

I'm glad Suzanne brought this up, because Rom 3:25 is one of the best biblical examples where an accurate translation becomes important for the conclusions it leaves the reader to draw without spelling them out. Finlan again:

"Those translations of Rom 3:25 that make an explicit equation of Christ with an animal victim need to be corrected, but the implied equation can hardly be avoided since the mercy seat is the place where the sacrificial animal's blood is sprinkled... Allowing the reader to make the connection, but not forcing the connection, is part of what a good translation does... The more [we make] reference to the mercy seat, the more [we] beg the question of the sacrificial ritual performed at that spot." (pp 128-129)

The Evolution of Religious Tolerance

The current furor over mocking portrayals of Mohammed reminds me of an excellent article written in the wake of 9/11 by Robert Wright, "Muslims and Modernity", in which he addresses the question of Islamic intolerance. He begins by noting there is nothing inherently violent or intolerant about Islam:
"Understanding contemporary Islamic fundamentalism, as distinguished from moderate strands of Islam, helps illuminate our predicament. But...this whole business of mining the Quran for incendiary quotes is essentially pointless. Religions evolve, and there is usually enough ambiguity in their founding scriptures to let them evolve in any direction. If Osama Bin Laden were a Christian, and he still wanted to destroy the World Trade Center, he would cite Jesus' rampage against the money-changers. If he didn't want to destroy the World Trade Center, he could stress the Sermon on the Mount."
Absolutely correct. What the Qu'ran says in this passage or that passage has nothing to do with today's conflicts with Islam. The medieval Crusaders, after all, used the words of Jesus to justify the holy wars: "I've come not to bring peace, but a sword".

So why hasn't Islam done what other faiths have largely done, that is, "use the leeway offered by scriptural ambiguity to evolve away from truculent intolerance"? This began in Europe, and the question becomes why.

Religious intolerance is more at home in honor-shame cultures than innocence-guilt cultures. After all (though this may sound pejorative), the code of honor-shame is largely about intolerance: not tolerating those who happen to offend you, regardless of perhaps their best intentions, irrespective of their actual innocence. So what propelled Europe out of its medieval and largely honor-shame outlook? Last night an email correspondent suggested to me that Protestantism may be at the root of western innocence-guilt. But what is at the root of Protestantism?

I believe that Europe was ripe for Protestantism in the same way it was ripe (as Wright suggests in this article) for industrialization. Europe industrialized before anywhere else -- despite the fact that places in the Far East and Mid-East had the capacity to industrialize much earlier than Europe -- because, paradoxically, it lacked an effective empire. As Wright explains:
"Because Europe was politically fragmented, there were lots of polities experimenting with forms of political and economic organization that would let them best their neighbors. The more experiments there are, the more likely you are to find a winning formula -— such as the combination of political and economic liberty that was proving its power in the Netherlands by the late 16th century and in Britain by the late 17th. The success of this formula gave nearby Christian nations little choice but to adopt it, and their Christianity evolved accordingly."
As a result, Christian Europe became more globalized and cosmopolitan. And of course, "it's impossible to do business with people while slaughtering them, and it's pretty hard to do business with them while telling them that they'll burn in hell forever. Modern global capitalism has its faults, but religious intolerance isn't one of them." And I would say the honor-shame outlook in general just isn't compatible with developments in Europe at this time.

So perhaps the Protestant Reformation, and an increased focus on values of innocence and guilt, were the inevitable outcome of a politically fragmented society. Honor-shame values became ineffective, the code of a feudal past. As a by-product of this evolution, Protestants began introducing more cosmopolitan dimensions into their theology: Christ's death as a penal substitution (relating to God's justice) rather than as satisfaction (relating to God's honor). In more secular terms, this paved the way to a world in which people were expected to treat others in "just" terms more than "honorable" ones.

In short, the honor-shame code faded in the west because it didn't yield advantageous results between increasingly independent nations. A more tolerant morality evolved accordingly.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Good to Feel Bad

PZ Myers has good taste in fiction, and his recent post reminds me of a novel I've been meaning to read for a while: China Mievelle's Perdido Street Station, an acclaimed urban fantasy/horror novel in which terrible things happen to one of the protagonists. Commenting on this aspect of the story, Meyers writes:

"Horrible things happen to people in the real world all the time, and I find myself more disenchanted with books in which the main characters stroll through amazing conflicts to emerge unscathed at the end, and where truly bad things never happen...The point of [a good] story is to be disquieting. It's what I look for in my light reading: not too much sweet, lots of bitter and darkness, a good helping of sorrow to end it all."

I couldn't have said it better. Once I sense an author letting off characters too easily, I usually close the book for good. Protagonists need to suffer miserably -- and, yes, die sometimes -- in order for any triumph of good to feel real or meaningful. And sometimes good has no business triumphing at all. Readers may find these remarks curious in light of my enthusiasm for a book like Perelandra, but that's a true exception (for reasons I've recently tried explaining). Stories like James Clavell's Shogun, George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, and Stephen R. Donaldson's Gap Series are so rich for their reality, and making us feel the pain and anguish of characters we come to know and care for. It's "good to feel bad", because that's when we're usually looking at the world, and ourselves, honestly.

Social Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul

Pauline commentary has been dominated by introspective cliche more than any other part of New Testament study, and trust two members of the Context Group to help rid us of this malaise. Malina and Pilch, as expected, put the reader on ancient soil where honor and shame were matters of life and death, saving face more important than wealth and honesty, and soul-searching a foreign intrusion. In many ways the commentary lives up to expectations, though in others it disappoints.

The commentary follows the structure of Malina and Rohrbaugh's (second-edition) commentary on the synoptic gospels, and like its predecessor is a useful tool for identifying and understanding biblical cultural cues. The complete text of Paul's seven authentic letters is laid out in sections followed by the commentary, with pointers to more detailed reading scenarios at the end of the book. The reading scenarios explain phenomena such as "altered states of consciousness", "challenge-riposte", "circumcision", "city", "death/resurrection", "demon possession", "devolution", "dispute process", "evil eye", "meals", "opinion leaders", "slavery", "violence", "wrath", and more. These scenario titles are referenced in bold throughout the commentary where relevant.

Malina and Pilch arrange and date the letters in the following order: I Thessalonians (51 CE), I Corinthians (between 53-56), II Corinthians (between 54-57), Galatians (between 54-56), Romans (between 56-58), Philippians (between 56-57), Philemon (between 55-56). II Corinthians is partitioned as follows: Letter #1: 2:14-6:13, 7:2-4 (written before the dispute); Letter #2: 10:1-13:14 (written during the dispute); Letter #3: 1:1-2:13, 7:5-16 (written after the dispute); [8:1-24 and 9:1-15 are seen as later inserts, and 6:14-7:1 a non-Pauline fragment]. (see pp 133-135)

The first five letters -- I Thessalonians, I & II Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians -- are explained as products of Paul's missionary activity among Greek-speaking Israelites. Romans, on the other hand, is occasioned by Paul's travel plans and a church he had no part in founding, and in this letter alone we see a presence of Gentiles, acknowledged briefly (Rom 11:13-32) and in most unflattering terms (pp 273-274); for the most part Paul addresses the Israelite group in an attempt to persuade them how much he has much in common with them, and to "rectify the distorted gossip they may have heard about him" (p 24). Finally, Philemon shows Paul acting legitimately as a mediator between a slave and his master.

That the recipients of the first five letters were diaspora Jews (or Greek Israelites, as the authors prefer) is the most controversial claim staked out in the commentary, resting on the idea that circumcision was introduced into Judea only in the Maccabean period, while Israelites in the diaspora generally shunned this and other "barbaric" Torah-customs. In that case, then, what did Judeans and Greeks have in common? The authors explain:
"What characterized the various Israelite groups and their Judaisms was a common 'genealogical' story of mythic origin rooted in Abraham. Some of Paul's Israelite clients would know Israel's scriptures, but for Paul's audience these would be in Greek. When it came to Judaism, that is, the customs of Judea practiced by Israelites, there was little unity or commonality around the Mediterranean. In a world based on gossip and networking, such unity would simply be impossible. In his approach to Israelite residents among non-Israelites, Paul presumed, it seems, that his audience held Israel's story as sacred along with Israel's ancient sacred writings and that his essential task was to proclaim how the God of Israel was revealed in the resurrection of Jesus, thus appointing Jesus Israel's messiah with a forthcoming Israelite theocracy. This presumption makes it quite clear that Paul's message was meant exclusively for Israelites." (p 20)
In other words, devotion to YHWH, the figure of Abraham, and perhaps the cries of the prophets for a forthcoming theocracy add up to the few commonalities shared among the house of Israel. Temple and Torah were largely about the Judean way of being Israelite.

While there's no denying the diversity of Judaism in the first century -- and while it wouldn't surprise me in the least to learn that certain aspects of the Torah weren't practiced in the diaspora, or even Galilee for that matter -- the idea that Paul confined his mission exclusively to "Jews" won't hold water. The way Paul describes his converts' former lives points to non-Israelites. I could potentially buy the idea of uncircumcised Israelites (Gal 5:2), but not worshipping idols (I Thess 1:9; I Cor 12:2) (about which the authors say these "Israelites" had been "far along the way of assimilation, including adopting local worship patterns" (p 38).) "Pagan" may not be the best translation of ethne, as Malina and Pilch claim (p 79), but it certainly refers to "the other peoples", and that's exactly what Paul calls his converts in I Cor 12:2. To shift the meaning of ethne in this case to refer to a "social standing" (p 114) is getting a bit desperate.

I agree with what Malina and Pilch -- and many Context Group members -- have been telling us about the term Ioudaios. "Jew" is indeed an anachronism in the first century (though I still use it as a lazy convenience, depending on context). But even if "pagan" calls to mind fourth-century stereotypes of "backwards and boorish villagers" (p 79), ethne clearly refers to non-Israelites. This need not necessarily undermine Malina and Pilch's claim that Paul uses ethne in a geographical sense too (perhaps in Gal 2:7-9), but that Paul evangelized Gentiles, and predominantly at that, seems clear.

The rest of the commentary is easy to swallow and helpful, often making sense of key texts critics have had problems with. For instance, I Thess 2:14-15 is seen as authentic, plausible as coming from Paul, and compatible with I Cor 2:8. Both the Judeans and imperial rulers killed Jesus. "Judeans are proverbial killers of the prophets" (p 41), while "the rulers of this age rule by controlling people [the Judeans] who do their bidding." (p 70) This is an obvious place where a precise translation of Ioudaios clears up confusion and does away with interpolation theories owing to modern concerns.

The authors allow us to appreciate the dynamics of Paul's dispute process in II Corinthians 10-13 and Philippians, and how honorable it was for him to railroad his opponents so that his converts might adjudicate in his favor (pp 353-356). We understand the wrath of God as satisfaction taken to defend the deity's honor in the face of Israel's repeated shame and dishonor (sin) (p 408). We see why Rom 16 was appended to the original letter to the Romans, for Phoebe could not have been recommended to the Romans -- it would have been shameful and socially impossible for Paul to make such a recommendation to people he didn't know (p 292). We laugh at Paul's wit: that he was clever and evasive like Jesus (or any macho man) when it came to defending his honor -- as in his flippant retort to the charge that he was out of his mind: "If I am, that's God's affair; if I'm not, that's to benefit others." (II Cor 5:13) (p 146)

Paul's real genius surfaces in the way he continually presses shameful virtues into honorable service. For instance, he boasts in his weakness (II Cor 11:30), not because he's endorsing a lame form of double-speak, as if to imply that "your weakness is my strength". Rather, in surviving hardships (II Cor 11:23b-28) through his weakness, the manly virtues of endurance, strength of resolve, and courage are demonstrated in the long run (p 158). Paul was able to turn shameful things about Christianity into something honorable, but in ways that could actually have been acceptable -- to at least some -- in a world of Mediterranean machismo.

Noticeably lacking in the book is any discussion of lying and deception. This is surprising, not only since Pilch has done so much work in this area, but because Paul offers plenty of missed opportunity. I would have liked to see the authors treat Paul's deceptive rhetoric in places like I Cor 1-4, I Cor 9:19-23, and II Cor 3:7-4:6, and see how their honor-shame treatments contrast with Mark Given's sophist approach in Paul's True Rhetoric.

The only place the issue comes up briefly is in II Corinthians, and it turns out to be a wasted opportunity. The authors rightly describe Paul as a shrewd strategist who refused the hospitality of his own converts, thereby insulting them, challenging their honor, and thus forcing them to be obligated to him rather than vice-versa (II Cor 11:8-9) (p 155). This -- among many other things, like his self-serving missionary strategy (I Cor 9:19-23) -- called forth the charge that he was "crafty and took them in by deceit" (II Cor 12:14-16). But again, there's no actual reading scenario for lying/deception. So if one is looking for a balanced counter (or supplement) to Mark Given's own study of Paul's lies and deceptions, one will not find it in this commentary. I felt a bit cheated on this point, especially given the importance of honorable lies in biblical culture.

I should conclude with a word about the Context Group, because in the past I've had discussions with people who for some reason think this is a "closed club" of idiosyncratic scholars who all think alike. The Context Group takes as its cohesion some basic presuppositions about ancient Mediterranean culture, sometimes in the interest of bridging that world with ours on a more authentic basis than usual, despite seemingly impossible difficulties. But the members are a diverse enough bunch and certainly don't "all think alike". In this sense, while Malina and Pilch's commentary stands as a Context Group publication, it does not speak for every member of the Context Group.

An example may illustrate the point: Malina and Pilch tell us that "conversion" is an inappropriate term used to describe Paul's Christ-calling. Per Stendahl, they believe he was "called" in the same way the prophets of the Hebrew Bible were called (p 13); and he wasn't converting people, rather announcing "a new stage of Israel's corporate history, a new development in Israel launched by the God of Israel" (p 23). Zeba Crook, on the other hand, another Context Group member, has pointed out that by the time of Hellenistic Judaism, it was indeed possible to speak of someone being called and thus converted: Paul was invoking the call of the divine patron-benefactor (which involved conversion by definition) and the call of the prophets at the same time (see Reconceptualizing Conversion, p 176). Philip Esler also thinks "it is reasonable to speak of Paul's conversion" (Galatians, p 126), but differently than Crook: "the way in which Paul seeks to characterize his new orientation, by describing himself as called like Isaiah and Jeremiah, cannot be the end of the issue, since his contemporaries who opposed his activity were easily able to deny such claims...he [actually] taught apostacy" (ibid, pp 121-122). This is a way of reminding what should be obvious: that the Context Group members are perfectly capable of thinking uniquely and differently, unlike many of the honor-shame collectivists they write about!

In the end, despite certain problems and shortcomings, this commentary belongs on the scholarly shelf, especially if the shelf is top-heavy with theological or literary intertextual approaches to Paul. It's not as sharp as Malina and Rohrbaugh's commentaries on the gospels, but it's the first of its kind for Paul, and necessary at that.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Biblical Studies Carnival II

Take a trip down memory lane in the second Biblical Studies Carnival. Tyler Williams did an excellent job with it.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Quote for the Day: Devolution

"It is a common belief of twenty-first century Americans than human society is progressing. Even U.S. biblical fundamentalists who will hear nothing of biological evolution still believe that the United States is the greatest society in the world and getting better and better. This belief in progress, in things getting better and better, is a belief in social evolution. People in antiquity, on the other hand...believed the world was running down. The prevailing view was one of devolution and gradual collapse of the cosmos in general and of society in particular. A Greek might call this 'kakoterology' (= worse-ology)." (Bruce Malina and John Pilch, Social Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul, p 352)

Friday, February 03, 2006

Archaeology and the Hebrew Bible

See Joe Cathey's Top Five Archaeological Finds for the Hebrew Bible. I'm not the maximalist Joe is, but this is a well presented list.

See also Chris Heard's lengthy observations about archaeology in the Hebrew Bible, and what these discoveries can and cannot tell us. I pretty much agree with Chris' assessment of the Merneptah Stele (second place on Joe Cathey's list):

"The Merneptah stela attests to the existence, in Canaan c. 1200 BCE, of a people group called 'Israel.' The Bible makes the same attestation. On this the biblical and nonbiblical evidence converge, and I agree with Bill Dever that when this happens, we should say so. However... the Merneptah stela attests nothing else that the Bible says of Israel. The Merneptah stela mentions no biblical characters (in fact, no individual Israelites at all) and no biblical events... I do think the Merneptah stela is important, and valuable, and that it attests to Israel's presence in Canaan in the early Iron Age — but by no means does the Merneptah stela 'prove the accuracy of the Bible'."

Finally, for those who still smell a rat over Tel Dan (which topped Joe's list at #1), here's an old post from fake-nabbing Stephen Carlson, who thinks "the weight of the evidence is against it being a forgery."

UPDATE: Jim Davila would place the Dead Sea Scrolls (not on Joe's list) at #1, and also make room for the Lachish Ostraca and, if possible, the Arad Ostraca.

UPDATE (II): Look out for Chris Heard. He has a lot to say in a series of six posts: here, here, here, here, here, and here.