Sunday, December 27, 2015

Off to Urbana 2015

Once held in Urbana, Champaign, Illinois, the conference has become so
large that it has been moved to the larger convention center in St. Louis
I'm off on a road trip to St. Louis to attend Intervarsity's Urbana 2015 Conference. Though I have heard about Urbana many times, as far back when I myself was a college student at the University of California, Berkeley, and listened to tapes from speakers of past Urbana conferences (e.g., Helen Roseveare), this will be the first time I will be attending the conference in person. I, another pastor, my oldest son and four other graduating high school seniors will be driving from Chicago to St. Louis for a week at Urbana. 
   I'm not sure how much of the conference will connect to my research, but if there are pastoral connections and reflections to share, I will post them here or via twitter. I personally am looking forward to hearing some challenging messages and reflect on my own call as a theological educator for the church. I'm always conscious of the need to bring the best of the academy in service of the church's mission and ministry. Being at Urbana will not only be, by God's grace, a fresh wind and fire for my own walk with Christ but also hopefully inspire me to think through the pastoral and theological implications of my own research, as I make connections between what I hear, and the conversations I engage in, with the work that I am currently doing. 
   In the end, this is a time for me to "Be still and know that the Lord is God" (paraphrasing Psalm 46:10). 

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Highlights from Intertextuality, Rhetoric, and the Pauline Letters (Nov 23)

I got sidetracked during the Christmas holiday, but finally I found the time to give my final post on SBL-AAR 2015. 
    The session I presided over for the Intertextuality and New Testament Intepretation Section (S23-124: Intertextuality, Rhetorical Criticism, and the Pauline Letters) had five fantastic paper presentations, and I enjoyed them so much that I forgot to take a quick photo of our session. So here is a random book cover photo of a classic example of intertexuality: Ulysseys, James Joyce's modern retelling of Homer's Odyssey but set in modern 1904 Dublin. 
James Joyce's Ulysses is a classic example of intertextuality,
which structures its poetry after Homer's Odyssey
As with the other session summaries, I won't comment on every paper but just share a few highlights. 
   First up was A. Andrew Das of Elmhurst College, with his paper entitled "An Audience-Oriented Approach to Paul's Use of Scripture in Galatians: Reader Competence and Differing Target Audiences." Das' paper did not really introduce any new theoretical framework on intertextuality but applied existing models in an innovative way. In my previous post, I gave a concise description of the rhetorical vs. narrative approaches to intertextuality (here). Usually, these approaches are seen as competing. But Das, in his reading of Galatians, applied both models in corresponding and consistent ways. From the perspective of reader competence, Das doubts that the Galatian Gentile converts had much knowledge of Scripture (key word here is "Gentile"). He argues that when Paul addresses the church at Galatia, for the most part, Paul's use of Scripture is rhetorical without reference to the wider co(n)text. 
    However, when Paul addresses the agitators (or Judaizers), Paul's approach is narrative and provides a much more sophisticated exegetical argument against a collective reading of the Genesis texts (i.e., the Judaizer position) which would posit the descendants of Abraham as the inheritors of God's promises. Nor does Paul identify the seed of Abraham as Isaac even though some contemporary Jews of his day did. Instead, Paul understands the seed of Abraham to be Christ and controversially the Judaizers as apostates to the gospel. 
    Probably the most provocative paper was by G. Brooke Lester of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, entitled "No, Seriously: A Unifying Theory of Allusion." Lester primarily is a Hebrew Bible scholar, and the Old Testament has its own theoretical models of intertextuality with ancient near eastern traditions or approaches to inner-biblical interpretation. Sometimes the models used do overlap with those employed by New Testament scholars, and in this case, Lester draws on the work of literary theorists Ziva Ben-Porat and Carmella Perri who are familiar to recent NT scholars on intertextuality (e.g., see the work of Christopher Beetham, David McAuley, and Leroy Huizenga; cf. Lester's own book on Daniel). Forgive the pun, but the theories of Ben-Porat and Perri on allusion had eluded me, and so I found Lester's paper on tacitness of reference very helpful.
   In the past, scholars have understood allusions to Scripture or other ancient texts in the New Testament to be defined by how tacit is an author's identification of a Scriptural reference. If, for example, Paul identifies an OT quotation with the typical formula "As it is written," then the OT text is not an allusion because it is overtly recognized by the reader with the author's help. 
    However, Lester points to the work of Ben-Porat and Perri to redefine allusion as a production of the author and reader. An allusion can be overtly identified, but it remains an allusion if the meaning of the NT text is still unclear even when the reader is aware of the alluded-to text. If the connection between texts creates a riddle, that is, it is unclear how the allude-to text is supposed to illuminate the meaning of the read text, then we have an allusion. An allusion creates an imaginative space that needs to be filled in by the reader who interprets the evoked text to make sense of what he or she has read.
    So a good signal that we may have a Pauline allusion to another text is when a surface or literal reading makes no sense. [Try reading Romans 9-11 without reference to the OT and you get the point]. Without the alluded-to text activating the meaning of the read text, the read text's interpretation remains undecipherable. 
    Let me give an example that I immediately thought about, but was not used by Lester: 1 Cor 6:13aτὰ βρώματα τῇ κοιλίᾳ καὶ ἡ κοιλία τοῖς βρώμασιν.
   What does "food for the stomach, and the stomach for food" mean? Commentators have been trying to decipher this text for a while, and the myriads of possible interpretations keep building. To me, this is a signal that an allusion might be embedded, and without identifying the allusion, the 1 Cor 6:13a text will remain undecipherable. I suspect that the allusion is not, however, to Scripture but to Greco-Roman discourse which a wisdom group at the church in Corinth is using to justify a slogan and position on the ethics of pleasure which Paul finds objectionable.
   In any case, I have some reading to do with Ben-Porat and Perri, and I appreciate the theoretical framework provided by Lester's fine paper. 

Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

For all regular readers of this blog and random visitors, have a Merry Christmas! and blessings in the New Year!
Photo Credit by
Personally, as I reflect on 2015, I cannot help but be thankful for how God has answered many prayers, some quite miraculous, and continues to demonstrate His faithfulness no matter how stressful, hectic, and challenging life becomes. May God's grace, revealed most fully in the epiphany of His Son, sustain the work of your hands and strengthen your faith!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

A Primer on Intertextuality and the Bible

Screen Capture Credit:
I was about to start a post on the last session of the Intertextuality and New Testament Interpretation section at SBL-AAR 2015 in Atlanta, when I realized that to appreciate the innovation of these papers, a status quaestionis needs to be described first. So for the benefit of those who are not that familiar with the theory and practice of intertextuality, here is a short primer or tutorial, especially in regards to the Pauline corpus. 
   Intertextuality, to coin the definition articulated by literary theorist Julia Kristeva, is the "shaping of a text's meaning by (an)other text(s)." In regard to the New Testament, intertextuality usually refers to the biblical writer's use of Old Testament quotations, but I would like to define the discipline more broadly to include Greco-Roman allusions as well. Those engaged in the task usually fall between two dialectical approaches: 1) the rhetorical approach, and 2) the narrative approach. At stake is the question: when Paul quotes or alludes to a particular [OT] text, does Paul allow the literary context or larger narrative unit in which the quotation/allusion is embedded to help shape the meaning of his own discourse?
   If you follow Christopher D. Stanley, your answer would be "No!" Paul pays no attention to the original literary context of the Scriptural quotation but shapes the quotation to fit his own rhetorical purposes. So effectively, the quotation or allusion functions as an empty semantic shell into which Paul inserts his own meaning or reinterpretation of the OT text so that the quotation serves the line of argumentation in his letter. A quick example of this would be 1 Cor 9:9: For it is written in the law of Moses, "You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain." Is it for oxen that God is concerned? (NRSV). If you look at the original context in Deut. 25:4, it appears that God is concerned with oxen and the non-exploitation of the land, and not with the rights of an apostle to receive material help from his congregation.
   But on the other side of the debate are those who would answer "Yes!" Paul does take into consideration the literary context of the OT quotation/allusion. Francis Watson, for example, believes that a quotation, echo, or allusion to the OT by Paul functions as a narrative metonymy for a larger text. So the quotation functions to point the reader to the larger context into which the excerpt is embedded. Paul might reinterpret the OT in light of the Christ event but his arguments would not make sense if the reader limited the text's shaping of Pauline discourse to just what is quoted. The entire narrative in which the quotation is embedded must be accessed to make sense of Paul. Watson finds the larger narrative context especially important in Paul's engagement with the role of Torah in Romans. 
    There is yet a third new(er) approach to intertextuality that does not really fit in the spectrum outlined above, and this method has been called 3) the rewritten Bible approach. Some scholars argue that rather than looking at each individual quotation of Scripture in isolation and trying to decipher Paul's use of each quotation one by one, context by context, a larger story view perspective is needed. Take for example, Romans 9-11. In Romans 9 alone, in a successive flurry of OT quotations, Paul references: Gen 21:12, 18:10, 25:23; Mal 1:3; Exo 33:19, 9:16; Isa 45:9; Hos 2:23, 1:9-10; Isa 10:22-23, 1:9, 8:14, 28:16. 
    Rather than looking at each of the above texts individually, what's important is how Paul strings all these quotations together to weave one story, i.e., a particular rereading of Israel's history. If, for example, 1-2 Kings gives a raw version of Israel's historical events and critique of the Davidic monarchy, while 1-2 Chronicles provides a much more idealistic perspective of the Davidic-Solomonic rule, we have other examples in Jewish literature that reread the history of Israel and give alternative versions of Israel's story. Jubilees appears to give a more optimistic viewpoint of Israel's covenant fidelity, while the Psalms of Solomon has a much more pessimistic perspective of Israel's unfaithfulness. Josephus has his Antiquities as another example of rewriting the biblical account. Bruce Fisk has applied his work on Pseudo-Philo's rewritten Bible (L.A.B.) to Romans 11 (see his essay in this anthology).  
   The above approaches are the starting point for any new methodologies in intertextuality. In my next post, I will get to some of the innovations and new methods suggested by the paper presenters at the Paul-themed session by the Intertextuality and New Testament Interpretation section at SBL-AAR 2015 Atlanta. But for now, I wanted to give a guide by which to judge the newly proposed methods. 

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Highlights from Philo, Plutarch, and Paul (Nov 21-22)

Here in this post, I'm going to cobble together highlights from papers read from Saturday through Sunday (Nov 21-22) from various different sessions. Again, I won't be discussing every paper but just the ones of personal or wider interest. 
Joint Session of the Philo Seminar & Corpus Hellenisticum NT Section

On Sat. afternoon (Nov 21) I attended the joint session of the Philo of Alexandria Seminar and the Corpus Hellenisticum Novi Testamenti Section (S21-28). The focus of the joint session was mapping where Philo and Plutarch overlapped in their view of religion. At times, there was very little said in connection with the New Testament, despite the theme: Philo, Plutarch, and the New Testament. The papers, rather, appeared to outline the religious milieu of the New Testament rather than address NT texts themselves.
   That said, I did find a few papers of personal interest. Gregory Sterling presented on "When East and West Meet: Eastern Religions and Western Philosophy in Philo of Alexandria and Plutarch" and made the convincing case that behind the ritual observance of cultic festivals and animal sacrifice practiced by Philo (as a Jew) and Plutarch (as a priest) was a philosophical monotheism: i.e., the doctrine that there is a divine cause to all reality and this cause may not necessarily need to be referred to as "god." Sometimes addressed as the First Principle (Eudorus), other times the First Cause (Aristotle), God nevertheless was understood as completely transcendent, immovable, eternal, indescribable, unspeakable, inconceivable and providential. While differing in the details (e.g., Philo believed the Eternal Forms to be thoughts of God, while Plutarch did not), both Philo and Plutarch's philosophical monothesism are remarkably similar.
   It begs the question, then, why Philo, as an pious Jew, and Plutarch, as a priest of Delphi, would participate in cultic activity when a transcendent God should be above ritual, sacrifice, and ceremonial traditions. In an attempt to answer this question, in part, was Zlatko Pleše's paper on "Ritual, Idolatry, and the Rational Norm in Plutarch and Philo." Examining a number of treatises, including Philo's Special Laws and Plutarch's Isis and Osiris, Pleše summarizes the pedagogical, psychological and symbolic reasons why philosophers continue to observe cultic traditions even though a transcendent God does not require sacrifice. Pedagogically, philosophers, by participating in the cult, provide an example to the wider masses against the dangers of impiety. Psychologically, cultic participation alleviates fear (of what? divine punishment?) and inspires the emotion of joy among its worshippers. Lastly, though the gods are nothing but human daimons, the symbolic import of religious practice points to the real, unseen, divine cause beyond the visible and sensible world.
   What I find fascinating about the papers is the common practice among philosophers (with the exception of the Pythagoreans) to provide a philosophical rationale for continued participation in cultic events even though the religious beliefs behind such events contradicts their philosophical monotheism. I myself read a paper way back at the 2009 SBL-AAR meeting in New Orleans on the reasons why Epicureans worship the gods even though they did not believe in them at all. The practice of philosophers for continued ritual worship of the gods despite their commitment to monotheism provides an interesting analogue and point of comparison with the practices of the Corinthian wisdom group at Corinth who were monotheist yet ate idol food and participated in the pagan cult (1 Cor. 8-10). 
   It just so happens that the uniqueness of Paul's teaching on idol food was the subject of another paper at the 2nd Pauline Epistles session (S22-140) on Sun. morning (Nov 22) by Sonja Anderson entitled: "Are Idols Real? Demons, Christians and the Rabbis." In Paul's day, ambiguity among early Christians and Jews concerning idol food was common. Paul himself seemed to allow for the permissibility of idol food consumption in certain social locations (e.g., sacrificial meat sold in the market place and brought home) but not in other settings (e.g., as part of pagan veneration of idols during cultic worship). I actually wrote a short essay on Paul's ethic on idol food that understands Paul's approach as dependent on Scripture yet nuanced and applied to diverse social settings (here). By the 2nd century A.D., however, Christians and Jews had parted ways on this issue.
   For Christians (e.g., Tertullian and Tatian), any idol food consumption was wrong on any occasion and was to be avoided at all times because of an idol's association with real demons. While idols are only stone and metal, the demons or demonic reality behind idolatry are dangerous. The Christian abstains so as not to commune or provide a pathway for the demonic. 
   For Jews of the 2nd century and onward (e.g., Talmudic tractate Avodah Zarah), an idol only had a demonic hold on a person if he or she believed in the idol. If a person knew an idol was nothing mentally, then the pious Jew could handle some objects previously associated with idolatry. They practiced a mental exercise which Anderson called "idol nullification" where things or places previously unclean because of their association with idols could now be handled or entered. One intriguing example was the case where Rabbi Aqiba was found in a bathhouse where a famous statue of Aphrodite stood. When questioned why Aqiba, a Jew, could occupy the same space as an idol, Aqiba responded that even the Gentiles in the bathhouse do not treat the statue as an idol as they urinate in front of it all the time! 
   So if a Jew knows a statue or object is not an idol, there is no danger of religious compromise or ceremonial contamination. Holiness is maintained. 
   All of this is to say that these two trajectories, Christianity's absolute prohibition and Jewish nullification practices, emerged from an earlier period where there was ambiguity on how to deal with idol food during the 1st century, the latter of which Paul was a part and offered his own unique ethic. 
   In my next and final post on SBL-AAR 2015, I am going to highlight some fantastic papers read at the Intertextuality in the New Testament session (theme = Intertextuality, Paul and Rhetoric), over which I presided.