Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Why a Written Gospel?

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The question is sometimes asked as to why the Gospel tradition was ever written down in the first place. Writing may have obvious advantages to those of us who live in Gutenberg’s world, but some contend that those living in largely illiterate cultures where orality dominates would have felt differently.

Let the reader understand.
This came up yesterday in the NT seminar here where Chris Keith was presenting an interesting paper on the reading of the Gospels in early Christian worship services. During the Q&A, he mentioned that it remains a real question as to why Mark decided to write an account of the Gospel in the first place. The oral tradition had been humming along nicely up to that point, so why the need for a new form?

I find myself on the side of those who see distinct advantages to written transmission and I think some of these hold true even in an oral culture. Christian Vandendorpe summarizes three of these advantages in his book From Papyrus to Hypertext (p. 5):
A listening situation is defined by three constraints: (a) listeners cannot determine the time of communication; (b) they do not control the rate of delivery, but are dependent on the pace chosen by the storyteller; (c) they cannot backtrack and choose to review content that particularly interests them, but must follow the thread of the narrative, which is necessarily linear because it is inscribed in time.
If you add a concern for a connection with eyewitnesses, then a written narrative of the Gospel seems near to an inevitability. Obviously there are distinct advantages of oral communication over against written, but I still find myself unsurprised that the Gospel story was “textualized” as the nascent Christian movement matured and spread.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Museum of the Bible Job Posting

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Research Projects Coordinator 

Beginning 01 August 2016, the research projects coordinator of the Scholars Initiative, located in Oklahoma City, OK, will coordinate with the executive and associate director to plan, implement and support collaborative work on innovative research projects, which advance the museum’s commitment to “invite all people to engage with the Bible through … scholarly pursuits.” In particular, the programming of the Scholar’s Initiative fosters research projects in which scholars include outstanding students in rigorous research projects relating to the languages and material culture of the New Testament and Hebrew scriptures.

The Scholars Initiative has previously organized collaborative research projects on Greek papyri from the Roman era, Dead Sea Scroll fragments and Medieval Latin manuscripts. Most recently, projects exploring the nature of the Old Greek tradition of the Psalter and the Greek minuscule tradition of the Pauline Corpus have been developed, with programs on Syriac patristic texts and the Lollard movement currently in active development. Where appropriate, participating scholars will publish their findings within a Brill series dedicated to the artifacts and research interests of the Museum of the Bible.

 Education/Experience 

  • Doctoral degree from a research university 
  • Facility in Greek and Hebrew 
  • Demonstrated commitment to scholarly publication 
  • Academic specialization in biblical languages and material culture 

Duties 

  • Significant travel to support relevant programs and events 
  • Researching, planning, launching and working on collaborative research projects 
  • Support program alumni within the Logos Fellows network by planning annual events and coordinating various resources including scholarships, books and networking opportunities 
  • Collaborate with various other departments within the museum (esp. Curation and Development) in order to represent the scholarly character of the institution 
  • Support the mission and goals of MOTB and the Scholars Initiative in all ways as assigned 

Skills preferred 

  • Reading ability in secondary ancient languages (esp. Akkadian, Aramaic, Hittite, Sumerian, North Western Semitic dialects) 
  • Research profile in Ancient Near Eastern languages and archeology 
  • Affinity for scholarly digital tools 
  • Spoken fluency in a modern foreign language 
  • Effective strategies for communicating in writing, via video conferencing and face-to-face 
  • Experience with event planning and coordination 
Pay and benefits are competitive. Candidates may submit a coverletter and CV by email to Mrs. Molly McCloud, manager of human resources (molly.mccloud@mbible.org) The coverletter should be addressed to Dr. Michael Holmes, executive director of the Scholars Initiative. Please provide contact details for three references. References and further materials will be requested from shortlisted candidates. Review of candidates will begin immediately and continue until the position is filled. Please direct any questions to Dr. Christian Askeland (christian.askeland@mbible.org).

Friday, April 22, 2016

Micrography in Hebrew Manuscripts

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The BL has just put up a new website for their digitized Hebrew manuscripts (mentioned here). You can now filter by Hebrew Bible manuscripts. There are 13 in all, seven of which are scrolls. There are some short articles on the new site as well that are worth reading. The most interesting one is on the subject of micrography. The description for the Sana’a Pentateuch (A.D. 1469) describes it this way:
Micrography is an original and charming expression of Jewish art dating back to the early Middle Ages still practised today. It entails using minute Hebrew script to create geometric patterns and animate forms. Micrographic decoration can already be found in some of the Hebrew Bibles produced in the Near East in the 9th and 10th century CE. With time, this unique form of Jewish art gradually spread beyond the boundaries of the Near East, to Europe and Yemen reaching its pinnacle between the 13th and 15th centuries CE.

Initially, the scribes used the Masorah (body of rules on the reading, spelling and intonation of the scriptural text) to shape the micrographic outlines in Hebrew Bibles, but over time they looked for other sources, a particular favourite being the Book of Psalms.

As with Jewish manuscript illumination itself, micrographic designs tended to follow the trends in the host environment at a particular time. Thus, in Islamic lands and Spain the patterns and shapes delineated in Hebrew minuscule lettering were mainly architectural, geometric and vegetal, whereas in European countries such as France and Germany they were symbolic and figurative. Micrographic grotesques and fabulous creatures became quite popular in hand-copied books produced in Ashkenaz (Franco-German areas) in the medieval period. From the 17th century CE onwards micrography was mainly used to decorate marriage contracts, amulets, Esther scrolls and other types of Hebrew texts written by hand.
There are some incredible designs in this micrography. Here is Psalm 119 in the Sana’a Pentateuch.

BL Or 2348, f. 39r and 38v
 And here is Jonah praying from the fish beside the text of Jonah 2 in the “Jonah Pentateuch.”

BL Add MS 21160, f. 292r
For more on micrography, see Illuminating in Micrography by Dalia-Ruth Halperin (Brill, 2013).

Saturday, April 16, 2016

IACS Awards for Academic Excellence 2016

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Competition for awards to be given at the Eleventh International Congress of Coptic Studies, to be held in Claremont, California (U.S.A.), 25–30 July 2016. The International Association of Coptic Studies will award two prizes, one for the best M.A. thesis and a second one for the best Ph.D. dissertation, both written in the field of Coptic studies. Winners will receive a certificate and an amount of €2,000 (Ph.D.) or an amount of €1,000 (M.A.).

Eligible theses and dissertations should make a significant scholarly contribution in the field of Coptic studies in the widest possible acceptation, in accordance with the objectives of the IACS. Eligible for the current competition will be M.A. theses and Ph.D. dissertations accepted by any recognized academic institution in the four-year period 2012 through 2015. By “acceptance” is meant the date of the formal approval of the thesis/dissertation by the responsible faculty; it does not mean the date of submission or the date on which the resulting degree was ceremonially conferred (as at a graduation ceremony).

Competitors for the prizes are requested to submit a .pdf version of their thesis/dissertation before 15 May 2016 to the President-Elect of the IACS, Prof. David Brakke (email, it is not necessary to submit also a printed copy). Submissions should mention clearly the full name and contact information of the author of the thesis/dissertation, and they should be accompanied by a copy of the diploma (or other proof that the thesis/dissertation has been formally accepted by a recognized academic institution) and a brief letter of recommendation from a thesis/dissertation supervisor. The thesis/dissertation may be written in any of the four “congress languages” recognized by the IACS (English, French, German, Italian). Submissions will be judged for clarity and correctness of expression, conceptual and methodological adequacy, originality, as well as general quality and interest; for Ph.D. dissertations, also methodological innovation will be a criterion. The jury will consist of the Board of the IACS, which may call in specialist advice if necessary.

Download official PDF, here.

Friday, April 15, 2016

New Book: The Pericope of the Adulteress in Contemporary Research

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http://www.bloomsbury.com/us/the-pericope-of-the-adulteress-in-contemporary-research-9780567665799/
Finally, the book from the Pericope of the Adulteress Symposium is out (see here), and I am happy to have contributed with a chapter, “The Strange Case of the Missing Adulteress.” This is an expensive book, but a more affordable paperbook will be published in due course.

Publisher’s description: 

The contributors to this volume (J.D. Punch, Jennifer Knust, Tommy Wasserman, Chris Keith, Maurice Robinson, and Larry Hurtado) re-examine the Pericope Adulterae (John 7.53-8.11) asking afresh the question of the paragraph’s authenticity. Each contributor not only presents the reader with arguments for or against the pericope’s authenticity but also with viable theories on how and why the earliest extant manuscripts omit the passage.

Readers are encouraged to evaluate manuscript witnesses, scribal tendencies, patristic witnesses, and internal evidence to assess the plausibility of each contributor’s proposal. Readers are presented with cutting-edge research on the pericope from both scholarly camps: those who argue for its originality, and those who regard it as a later scribal interpolation. In so doing, the volume brings readers face-to-face with the most recent evidence and arguments (several of which are made here for the first time, with new evidence is brought to the table), allowing readers to engage in the controversy and weigh the evidence for themselves.

Read more about the book on Larry Hurtado’s blog. On behalf of the editors, I asked Larry to write a response chapter and I am glad that he accepted to do it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Handwriting Analysis and Dating the Bible

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Ostraca from Arad dating ca. 600 B.C. (source)
There’s currently a story making the rounds on the major news sites (NY Times, Guardian, etc.). The headlines are, as headlines often are, “exciting”:
  • “New Evidence on When Bible Was Written: Ancient Shopping Lists”
  • “The Bible Is Really Old, Handwriting Analysis Reveals”
  • “Parts of Bible may have been written earlier than expected, archaeologists say”
The study these stories are referencing was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. What the article actually does is try to show that there were at least six literate people at the desert fortress of Arad ca. 600 B.C. It takes a bit more work to get from there to an earlier-than-expected date for the Bible obviously. Here is how the paper summarizes its own significance:
Scholars debate whether the first major phase of compilation of biblical texts took place before or after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Proliferation of literacy is considered a precondition for the creation of such texts. Ancient inscriptions provide important evidence of the proliferation of literacy. This paper focuses on 16 ink inscriptions found in the desert fortress of Arad, written ca. 600 BCE. By using novel image processing and machine learning algorithms we deduce the presence of at least six authors in this corpus. This indicates a high degree of literacy in the Judahite administrative apparatus and provides a possible stage setting for compilation of biblical texts. After the kingdom’s demise, a similar literacy level reemerges only ca. 200 BCE.
I’m certainly not qualified to comment on ancient Israelite literacy rates so I will leave that to others. But what’s much more interesting about this paper, in my opinion, is the use of computer handwriting analysis to detect multiple scribes at work on ostraca. Here’s the description of the method:
Our algorithmic sequence consisted of three consecutive stages, operating on digital images of the ostraca (see Supporting Information). All of the stages are fully automatic, with the exception of the first, which is a semiautomatic step.
  1. Restoring characters
  2. Extraction of characters’ features, describing their different aspects (e.g., angles between strokes and character profiles), and measuring the similarity (“distances”) between the characters’ feature vectors.
  3. Testing the null hypothesis H0 (for each pair of ostraca), that two given inscriptions were written by the same author. A corresponding P value (P) is deduced, leveraging the data from the previous step. If P ≤ 0.2, we reject H0 and accept the competing hypothesis of two different authors; otherwise, we remain undecided. [Note the assumption favoring different hands.]
 The important thing is that the computer software has to have “binary” images in step two. This seems to mean that the computer needs a crisp black and white image with just the letter and nothing else. But that means reconstructing letters from pottery that’s worn, dirty, scraped, etc. (see photo below). That’s the stage I have some doubt about since the handwriting algorithms work by measuring distances between vectors (see step 2 above). Depending on how sensitive those measurements are, the reconstruction process could make a big difference.

Visual representation of the process of restoring lost letters.

The authors did test the method on 18 modern Hebrew writers and it worked in about 98% of the cases. That’s impressive. But then they didn’t have to reconstruct their handwriting either since they had nice, clean scans of alphabets the 18 people wrote for them.

In the end, the analysis found at least six different hands at work in the 16 inscriptions used in the study. Thus (a) literacy rates were high and thus (b) the Old Testament was compiled in the 7th rather than the 2nd century B.C. That at least explains the headlines. The article actually doesn’t spend much time getting us from a to b. (Remember, it is a science journal.)

Still, I did find the handwriting analysis itself most interesting. I’d like to see the method applied to something like the correctors in Sinaiticus and see what it comes up with.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Three New Books on the Bible in American History

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It is a good time to be a student of American religious history and especially American Evangelicalism. Historians like George Marsden, Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch and others continue to write incisively on the subject even as a younger generation follows in their wake. Just recently, a number of fine historians of American religion have turned their attention to the story of the Bible in America. Not that there haven’t been others, but each of these stands out in one way or another from previous works.

1. Mark Noll, In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783

The most notable of the recent bunch is Mark Noll’s first volume of a projected two volume history of the Bible in American public life. I can’t think of anyone better suited to write this story. Noll has been writing about American Evangelicalism for decades and along with George Marsden is considered the dean of American religious history. I have yet to be disappointed with anything Noll has written and I would venture that this new book will overshadow his acclaimed America’s God. Sadly my copy had to be shipped to the U.S. where it is eagerly awaiting my return.

Here is how Peter J. Thuesen concludes his review for Books & Culture:
In the end, it is precisely this capacity for self-criticism that distinguishes Noll’s In the Beginning Was the Word as the most profound treatment ever written of the Bible in American public life. All too often, histories of the Bible in America have uncritically glorified the American project, stopping just short of assuming that Moses and Jesus were Americans whose teachings were everywhere in harmony with the nation’s imperial ambitions. Noll exposes this delusion while also admitting the illusory nature of the sola scriptura that forms part of his own heritage as a Protestant. 
Yet Noll’s book is not all criticism. In its own nuanced way, it is a celebration of the richly fertile biblical world that colonial Americans inhabited. I have been unable to do justice in this review to the sheer volume of biblical allusions and citations that Noll uncovers in the legions of sources he examined. As he explains in the book’s introduction, his referencing of so many passages of Scripture was a conscious decision—an answer to his colleagues in the historical profession who have treated the Bible as mere “wallpaper, simply a backdrop for more important objects of attention.” To be sure, as Noll’s own account makes clear, the Bible has sometimes functioned as little more than rhetorical wallpaper, a fancy covering designed to sanctify the nation’s aims. But the Bible has also proven personally ennobling for countless citizens, even—and perhaps especially—after the republic threw off the system of inherited nobility and monarchy in the wake of the Revolution. Noll promises a second volume that will examine the “rise and gradual decline of a ‘Bible civilization’ in the United States in the long 19th century.” After the intellectual feast Noll has already given us over the course of his career, including in his earlier magnum opus, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (2002), we can only rejoice that the world does not yet “contain [all] the books that should be written” (John 21:25) by this uncommonly wise interpreter of the American religious experience.

2. John Fea, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society 

Second up is John Fea’s new institutional history of the American Bible Society which should be of special interest to those of us who read the Bible in a UBS edition. As Scot McKnight puts it, “Every major translation of the Bible today translates the Hebrew and Greek texts produced in conjunction with ABS and UBS. This alone justifies the importance of knowing the story told by Fea.” Interestingly, Fea was commissioned by the Bible Society and agreed only on the condition that he would have full academic freedom. He says that “in the end, I am not sure some folks at the ABS understood the difference between a scholarly history and a promotional piece” (his book being the former rather than the latter).

Historian Thomas Kidd closes his review of the book with this:
As the ABS observes its 200th birthday, it has become more clearly aligned with a broadly defined evangelicalism than it has been for a century. That adjustment has been both self-conscious and controversial among the ABS leadership. ABS leaders have also become concerned that the agency has, for too long, focused simply on shipping as many Bibles as it can... Especially in America, the Bible remains pervasively owned, but little read, except among a devout minority. With the advent of the Internet and smartphones, access to the Scriptures in physical or electronic form is no longer an issue for much of the world’s population. The problem is focusing a prospective reader’s attention (or what the ABS calls “engagement”) on the Word of God.
Christians have no doubt that the Bible is “living and active,” as the Book of Hebrews puts it. But millions of dust-covered Bibles on American bookshelves don’t do much to enliven souls or even to preserve an American national culture. Addressing that neglect of the Bible may be the greatest challenge the American Bible Society has ever faced.

3. Douglas Sweeney, Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment

No study of the Bible’s influence in America would be complete without some consideration of “America’s theologian,” Jonathan Edwards. After a swell of interest in Edwards’s theology and philosophy over the last thirty plus years, Edwards is finally being studied at length for his contribution to Biblical interpretation. Other contributions have tackled his interpretation of specific portions of scripture (e.g., the Psalms or Revelation), but this book’s aim is much more comprehensive in setting the great Puritan’s exegesis firmly in its historical context.

From the publisher:
As Sweeney shows, throughout Edwards’ life the lion’s share of his time was spent wrestling with the words of holy writ. After reconstructing Edwards’ lost exegetical world and describing his place within it, Sweeney summarizes his four main approaches to the Bible—canonical, Christological, redemptive-historical, and pedagogical—and analyzes his work on selected biblical themes that illustrate these four approaches, focusing on material emblematic of Edwards’ larger interests as a scholar. Sweeney compares Edwards’ work to that of his most frequent interlocutors and places it in the context of the history of exegesis, challenging commonly held notions about the state of Christianity in the age of the Enlightenment.