Saturday, January 24, 2015

Herculaneum: Where Particle Physics and Papyrology Meet

I love what I do. Just when you think nothing can surprise you any more, something always lights up your horizon in the world of the ancient history and biblical studies. NPR just released a fascinating radio story on a major breakthrough in papyrological studies: using a particle accelerator developed in France, papyrologists are beginning to read the text off of a fossilized papyrus scroll without having to open it. You can listen to the radio show here, and read more from the technical published article on which the show is based at Nature Communications
Photo of a rolled up, charred scroll uncovered from the Herculaneum
library which was buried under volcanic ash in AD 70
Photo credit:
   Since my research agenda involves the intersection between ancient philosophical discourse and Paul, and my next major monograph will be on Paul and the Epicureans (right after I'm done with my 1st one.... almost there by the way!), I have been reading the philosophical writings of Philodemus uncovered from the ancient library at Herculaneum in Italy for some time. The villa of Piso (Julius Caesar's father-in-law) near the seaport of Herculaneum, along with the entire city of Pompeii just 9 miles south, if you recall, was buried under volcanic ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 70. Hopefully some of you had a chance to see the exhibit of Pompeii when it circulated nationally in the States back in 2006. It was stunning! and my sons and I had a great learning experience when the exhibit was displayed at the Field Museum in Chicago. 
   To appreciate the NPR article, let me digress a bit to explain succinctly the process that archaeologists and papyrologists undertake to reconstruct an ancient text from papyri. When I work with the ancient texts, I almost always deal with the published form, like this example from Richard Janko's Philodemus: On Poems, Book 1 (The Asthetic Works 1:1; New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 260
Print edition: P Herc 460, Column 67, lines 1-10
The above critical, published text is reconstructed, with conjectures on what the text might be in brackets since there are gaps or unreadable sections in the original papyrus.
    But in order for me to read the above, some enterprising papyrologist had to do the hard work of unrolling a brittle, charred scroll. As soon as you unroll the scroll, it starts to fall apart and you are left with hundreds of fragments that need to be carefully put together with the other fragments in correct order, much like how a person has to solve a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle, but in this case, you might be missing many of the pieces, or some of the pieces are stuck together and you have to take them apart before finishing the puzzle. Here is the same text above but as a photo of its original fragment: 
Photo of P Herc 460, fragment 1
This piece, however, needs to be laid aside the other pieces to reconstruct the full text. Many times the texts are illegible and have to viewed under a multi-spectral, infra-red light in order to read the ink (click the link for a youtube video on the process). Without the infra-red light, it looks much more like a charred mess: 
Almost completely illegible charred Herc papyrus fragment
Photo Credit: The Friends of the Herculaneum Society
Fragments from an unrolled scroll put back together
Photo credit:
Often papyrologists double as artists and sketch their reconstructed texts in their notebooks. Here again is the same P Herc 460 fragment (highlighted in yellow) but hand-drawn and put to gether with other fragments:
P Herc 460, frag 1-4, redrawn by F. Casanova
(frag 1 is highlighted in yellow)
   What makes the NPR article, now, so exciting, is that with the particle accelerator and technique called "X-ray phase-contrast tomography," they can read the ink off the papyrus scroll without having to unroll it. This way, the rolled scroll is kept from potentially being destroyed by the unrolling process. The technique still needs further refinement but if all goes well, we might see previously unpublished scrolls accessible to the academy and public when their texts are reconstructed and made available in the print edition. I don't have the expertise to do any of the above, except to read the printed form of the texts. So I'll have to eagerly await along with everyone else what treasures can be unlocked when particle phyics and papyrology collide at Herculaneum!
   Want to watch a video demonstration of the process? See the youtube video demonstration below from the University of Kentucky lab team. Wow!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Movie Review: Apostle Paul - A Polite Bribe by Robert Orlando

I'm glad that I can get back to blogging. I was taken aback by how busy the 1st week of the Spring 2015 term was and missed already my aim to post regularly at least once a week here. Hopefully, I can get back on track, though I make no promises (note: posting 1x a week was not a new year's resolution!). I am teaching 4 classes this semester, and if I include a co-taught course on Reconciliation, Race and the Corinthian Correspondence with Paul De Neui (North Park's missiologist) in May (a 2-week mission trip to the Equateur province of Congo), that's a whopping 5 courses that I need to prep and teach. Ouch! But I'm all-in and ready to charge out of the gates with gusto as far as human agency, divine help, and prayer can take me. 
Purchase or rent the movie at amazon instant video
A preview/promo of the film can be watched here: 

   That said, I have been meaning to watch and review the recent documentary on the apostle Paul with the provocative title: Apostle Paul - A Polite Bribe (2014). I finally watched this and like it enough that I am currently requiring that my undergraduate Paul course and my seminary New Testament 2 class view the film. Their research project will involve an engagement with Orlando's central thesis on the purposes and motivations of Paul to collect, transport, and deliver an offering to the church in Jerusalem (mentioned explicitly by Paul in 1 Cor 16:1-4; 2 Cor 8:1-9:15; Rom 15:25-32; and likely Gal 2:1-10 though Bruce Longenecker would argue otherwise; and recorded by Luke in Acts 11:27-30 [famine impetus]; 21:17-26 [delivery of the collection]). 
    Orlando, if I did not miss anyone, interviews some 24 different New Testament scholars on the life and mission of Paul, using the Jerusalem collection as a kind of thematic thread to unite the interviews and illustrated narrations (using some impressive comic-motion style graphics) that reconstruct the historical Paul of Acts and his letters. It's a relative who's who of top names in the academy on Pauline studies, including (roughly in order of their 1st appearance): Paul Achtemeier, Ben Witherington, Candida Moss, Bart Ehrman, N.T. Wright, John Dominic Crossan, Jeffrey Bütz, Philip Eisler, Gerd Thiessen, Paula Fredriksen, Pamela Eisenbawn, Larry Hurtado, Neil Elliott, Elaine Pagels, Richard Horsley, Amy-Jill Levine, Robert Jewett, Troels Engberg-Pedersen, Dale Martin, John Reumann, Douglas Campbell, Victor Furnish, Daniel Boyarin and Edgar Krentz. Whew... did I miss anyone?
    Just to hear in person the above scholars offer their expertise on Paul is worth the price of admission. They together represent a wide range of confessional, ecclesial, and ideological commitments which range from conservative evangelical scholars to radical source critics. You get the whole spectrum. But while a range is represented by the choice of interviewees, and while the critical listener can glean from these interviews diverse and competing theories on Paul's missionary enterprises, the interviews themselves have been expertedly edited to promote one central thesis: that Paul's monetary offering functioned as some sort of "bribe" to assuage suspicions from a hard-line faction in Jerusalem (= the Judaizers of Gal 1-2) who did not consider Paul's Gentile churches full converts to Jewish-Christianity. How the offering functioned as a bribe was not clear in the film. Perhaps, Paul hoped that the acceptance of the offering by the Gentile converts by the famine-stricken Jerusalem church would also mean that the Jerusalem church accepted the donors as full members of God's people without the Jewish requirements of circumcision and food law observance. If so, this meant that Paul paid Jerusalem to by-pass the Jewish legal requirements and hence the subtitle, "a polite bribe." 
   However, if one simply reads the key texts in Paul (cited above) where he explains his own motivations for asking the Gentile churches to contribute to the Jersusalem collection, we read that 1) his Gentile churches could have simply wanted to help the poor in Jerusalem who were recovering from a horrible famine (mentioned in Acts 11:27-30) as a sign of their transformed lives and genuine conversion; or 2) the collection demonstrated that there was one church, Jewish and Gentile, united by their common fidelity to one Lord and one gospel, and so the needs of one were the concern and burden of the other; or 3) perhaps Paul saw in the collection an eschatological fulfillment of Isaiah (60:6-7) and other OT prophetic texts (cf. Micah 4:13) that promised a day when Gentiles would bring gifts to Jerusalem as an act of worship and recognition of Israel's one true God. There have been other suggestions by scholars like Klaus Berger that 4) the collection functioned to substitute for the cost of Jewish initiation rites required from Gentile converts to Judaism (a stretch in my opinion). Johannes Munck theorized that 5) Paul wanted the collection to draw Israel's attention to how the influx of Gentile converts into the church and somehow provoke Israel's jealousy and conversion to the gospel (less of a stretch, but still a stretch). This list of possible explanations is not exhaustive either. There could also be a non-competing coalition of several motivations that drive Paul to pursue the collection and deliver it (see Down's The Offering of the Gentiles). But the movie, unfortunately, really focuses on the idea of a polite bribe.
   So in the end, Orlando's thesis is not satisfying, and it creates more questions than answers. But the latter is not a bad result. In fact, his film is a fantastic segue into larger historical issues surrounding Paul and hence my keen interest to show the film in class and let it generate further discussion. 
   A number of other bibliobloggers share my same sentiments and evalution of the film, in varying degrees. Worth reading are the posts by Larry Hurtado, James McGrath, and Richard Fellows. Also check out the interview of Ben Witherington in the Lexington Herald, as well as his video question and answer session after a film viewing. Mark Goodacre posted a pre-showing interview with Orlando on his NT blog as well. 

Post-script 03/11/15: Here is a link to the post-screening discussion which took place over the film at the SBL showing in San Diego on Nov 22, 2014 between the director Robert Orlando, and scholars Larry Hurtado and Ben Witherington. 

Friday, January 2, 2015

New Year's Resolutions for the Scholar

As I think about new year's resolutions and commitments, I have two that I will attempt. One is a modification of Lee Iron's excellent suggested reading plans for the Greek New Testament (click on the link). Given the craziness of this 2015 with my finishing the WUNT monograph in the next few months, I think trying to read the GNT in one year is just not going to work. But if you take Lee Iron's 2-year plan, ignore the dates, and just check off all the Pauline texts as you get through them one at a time, I believe a modest goal for myself to read through (again) all of the Pauline letters is a reachable new year's resolution for 2015.
Our making Korean dumplings at home on New Year's Eve
for a traditional dish called dduk-gook (a dumpling+rice cake soup)
    Secondly, an exercise routine. My son showed me an alarming video (a short 3 min) of the dangers of sitting too long, which is a definite occupational hazard for any scholar. According to the video, sitting for six hours total (that's it! I sit at least that much if not more!) in any given day is bad for your health. Ouch! When I'm writing, I'm often oblvious to time until my wife angrily shakes me from my focused trance and reminds me to do household chores, pick up the boys from their after-school activities, or call it a night and go to bed! And especially since I have been eating way toooooo much food this winter break (i.e., Korean food and dumplings!), the video is sobering to say the least. The health(-scare) video is below and the persons who created it have other science tutorials on their youtube channel. 

   Warning: watching the video can scare you into exercising more! 

Finally, this is not really a resolution as much as a spiritual tradition in the Lee family household to pick a Bible text as a the key verse of the year. Mine is Psalm 23:1 - "The Lord is my shepherd, and I lack for nothing." Personally, I want 2015 to be a year when, no matter how tough life gets, no matter the unexpected challenges thrown my way, in the end all I need is to abide in Christ and follow with reckless abandon the Chief Shepherd who has shown himself faithful, time and time again. 
   May you all experience the joy of having Christ and therefore lacking in not one thing this 2015.