Baker Academic

Was Billy Graham's Public Influence Generally Positive?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Ugliest Man in History

Tonight I'm at Dulles Airport on my way to Twickenham for St. Mary's conference: Cities of God? That wasn't a question; I really am at Dulles. The conference just ends with a ?

As I put the finishing touches on my presentation I've realized that I must drop a section on physiognomy from my paper. It is a shame because this section included a wonderful description of everyone's favorite tyrant, Caligula. Here is part of the section I dropped:


Physiognomonic ideology supposed that it was possible to recognize personality traits by observing a person’s physical features. Analogs to “known” animal characteristics were often employed or presupposed.

Ps-Aristotle explains that “soul and body react on each other; when the character of the soul changes, it changes also the form of the body, and conversely, when the form of the body changes, it changes the character of the soul” (808b). In this view, one’s external characteristics reflected something of one’s personality and vice versa. Consider then this description of Caligula by Suetonius:
He was very tall, and extremely pale, with a huge body, but very thick neck and legs. His eyes and temples were hollow, his forehead broad and grim, his hair thin and entirely gone on the top of his head, though his body was hairy. While his face was naturally forbidding and ugly, he purposely made it even more savage, practicing all kinds of terrible and fearsome expressions before a mirror. (Cal. 50)
Caligula is a helpful example because he represents a figure who was almost universally despised in retrospect and who departs in so many ways from Suetonius’ physiognomic ideal. Suetonius emphasizes Caligula’s goat-like appearance and disposition: “The goat was of this appearance. Creatures with hairy legs are sensual . . . . He has a pale skin and is covered with black, straight hair, which is a sign of cowardice, which indicates stupidity and foolishness.”


So there you have it. Caligula's appearance mirrored the fugliness of his soul.


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Quarterly Quote of the Month about Jesus for this Week

Jimmy Fallon: “Norman Greenbaum -- you know, the guy who wrote Spirit in the Sky..."
Jerry Seinfeld: "I love Spirit in the Sky."
Fallon: "Great song. He goes, ‘I’ve got a home, I’ve got a summer home, and a little boat. I wrote one song.”
Seinfeld: “It’s a Jesus song; what’s the lyric?”
Fallon: “I got a friend in Jesus.”
Seinfeld: “Yeah. ‘I got a friend in Jesus’ . . . and the guy’s name is Greenbaum.”
Fallon: *laughing*

Seinfeld: “I need more information. . .”
Fallon: *laughing*
Seinfeld: “I need more information.”
              ~Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Is There a Trial of Jesus in Luke?

J. R. Daniel Kirk offers a close reading of Jesus' "trial" narrative in Luke. You might be surprised by what he observes: "In short, there is no trial in Luke. There is a pre-trial hearing, perhaps, something to gin up charges. But no trial. No sentence of condemnation. No aspersion of guilt."

Read the full post here.


Monday, May 11, 2015

Win a Copy of Skinner's Reading John!

The Jesus Blog and Wipf and Stock are excited to give away a copy of Christopher W. Skinner's newest book, Reading John! You can enter to win by sharing this post on any form of social media and commenting below saying how you shared. The more media vehicles you use, the more times you can enter. In addition, you can enter by telling us your favorite bad movie. I.e. this would be a film that you know is poorly made, formulaic, etc. but you simply love it anyway.

We will announce the winner next week.


Friday, May 8, 2015

Anticipating the Cities of God? Conference—Chris Keith

In an earlier post, we included the paper titles for the upcoming Cities of God? Conference at St Mary's University, Twickenham.  There's still time register for the conference and you can do so here

In anticipation, I thought I'd say a bit about a few of the papers I'm most looking forward to hearing (not counting my own and Steve Walton's, of course).  I'm really looking forward to Paul Trebilco's
"Engaging—or Not Engaging—the City: Reading 1 and 2 Timothy and the Johannine Letters in the City of Ephesus."  This is the keynote lecture and for a good reason. Trebilco is the world's leading scholar on Ephesus, at least among NT scholars, and we are thrilled that he's bringing his learning on this topic to the conference.
After hearing the world's leading NT scholar on Ephesus, I'm looking forward to hearing David Horrell, the world's leading NT scholar on 1 Peter and author of probably the single best introduction to Pauline studies in existence.  His paper is "Placing 1 Peter: Proposed Locations and Constructions of Space."  Also coming from Exeter and speaking on space in 1 Peter is Wei-Hsien Wan, who's presenting:  "The Making of Social Vertigo: Spatial Production and Non-belonging in 1 Peter."  I suspect these will be strongly social-scientific studies and I'm very interested.  I'm interested because of my work in social memory theory.  An unfortunate by-product of the "memory and historical Jesus" stuff has been that social memory theory's ability to speak to more issues has been overshadowed.  Maurice Halbwachs worked out his original ideas in reference to space and topography, though, in addition to other things, and produced a fascinating study on how crusaders re-discovered various famous places from the Gospels in different historical periods, basically re-arranging the topography of the Holy Land in each stage.  Social-scientific approaches to space have, I think, much promise for NT studies so these studies should be excellent.
I'm also looking forward to two papers on Jerusalem for much the same reasons:  Anders Runesson's "Jerusalem according to Matthew: The Sacred City of God" and Anthony Le Donne's "Both Jews and Judeans: Claiming Jerusalem as Polysemy in Urban, Rural, and Diaspora Settings."  Although I'm disappointed not to hear Runesson (recently appointed Professor of NT at Oslo) on synagogues, I'm glad that he'll be extending some of his work on Matthew.  Le Donne's paper promises to be an exciting contribution to the discussion of whether to translate Ioudaios as "Jew" or "Judean."  That discussion recently blew up afresh after an article from Adele Reinhartz on Marginalia.
Of course, I'm anxious to hear all the papers.  My colleague, Prof Steve Walton, has served as the main organizer for the conference and put together a wonderful group of speakers.  Please join us here in London, and especially for the wonderful dinner at La Dolce Vita Italian restaurant on Friday night.  But make sure to register so we know the numbers.  There are a few days left!


Tuesday, May 5, 2015

New and Unimproved Application of the Shroud of Turin!

Inside Edition does not provide the most substantive journalism you'll find. But at least they employ handsome scholars from time to time. Mark Goodacre provides about six seconds of clarity on an otherwise absurd report about the Shroud of Turin. It seems that computer imaging that projects aging in criminals has been used in reverse for the shroud. The result: Jesus was a von Trapp family singer.


Monday, May 4, 2015

Quarterly Quote of the Month about Jesus for this Week

"[T]here is no perfect guide for discerning God's movement in the world. Contrary to what many conservatives say, the Bible is not a blueprint on this matter. It is a valuable symbol for pointing to God's revelation in Jesus, but it is not self-interpreting. We are thus placed in an existential situation of freedom in which the burden is on us to make decisions without a guaranteed ethical guide.”

                 ~James Hal Cone

Friday, May 1, 2015

Conference Q&A Sessions

If you have ever attended a professional conference, this is for you.

I especially love questions 3, 4, 11, and 13.


Thursday, April 30, 2015

Who's afraid of the Cynic Jesus?

From Wikipedia

At the recent God, Religion and Politics: Election 2015 seminar, there was a non-polemical discussion between Michael Sandford and Justin Meggitt about Jesus and the Cynics after Meggitt’s paper, ‘Jesus, Insurrection and the Politics of Prefiguration’. One striking thing about this was that a discussion about Jesus and the Cynics could actually be non-polemical as this topic must have been one of the most polemical in recent historical Jesus scholarship. In fact, I recall Sandford giving a paper a few years back on how the Jesus movement along with various other groups interacted with socio-economic issues. These different perspectives included Essenes and/or DSS, prophets, bandits etc. and…Cynics. Sandford never made any strict connections (as far as I remember) but rather showed the sorts of ideological engagements that were taking place, as well as placing an emphasis on eschatological traditions which were sometimes seen as inherently antithetical on both sides of the debate. Nevertheless, there was a heated reaction from the some members of the audience about the use of Cynics in Jesus studies (bandits also provoked a reaction, but that’s for another time).

Why was the Cynic debate so heated, especially as adherents of the Cynic thesis would qualify this Jesus as ‘Cynic-like’? I’m not entirely sure myself (or indeed why I might have once felt the need to point out that I wasn’t an adherent of such a thesis, being caught up in my own particularly academic contexts as I was/am) but it was certainly tied in with the rhetoric of Jesus the Jew. Put crudely, the logic would sometimes go like this: Jesus was Jewish and therefore could not have been a Cynic; if you call Jesus a Cynic you are implying that he was not Jewish but Hellenistic or the like, possibly in a similar way to Nazi Jesuses (this link was indeed implied by opponents of the Cynic-like thesis). Now, there are debates to be had on the extent of Cynic presence (or otherwise) in first-century Palestine but the idea that a Jew simply couldn’t be a Cynic and a Cynic means you’re not Jewish (and I don’t think I’m overly caricaturing here) works with some problematic and essentialist assumptions of identity. 

Also from Wiki
It’s clear enough that both self-identifying and being identified as a ‘Jew’ could go hand-in-hand with other means of identification in the ancient world (associations, philosophical interests, etc.). It is also clear enough that different traditions could be in dialogue with one another, influence (consciously or unconsciously) one another, use similar language to describe the world around them, and so on. Comparisons between certain aspects of Jewish literature and certain aspects of Cynic philosophy have been made and such overlaps and shared interests must at the very least be theoretically possible. Moreover, as far as I am aware, no contemporary academic presentation of the Cynic thesis has ever claimed that their Jesus wasn’t Jewish.

There has been a lot of discussion about constructions of a fixed Jewish identity in scholarship as a backdrop to make Jesus ‘transcend’ this fixed identity (in ways simultaneously using the rhetoric of ‘very Jewish’). But why did the Cynic (-like) thesis cause so much outrage? One reason sometimes given is that it is theologically useless for the implicitly Christian discipline of NT studies and there is no doubt something in this (just read some of the most prominent reactions against a Cynic Jesus…). But even this needs to be qualified. The criticism that the Cynic (-like) thesis played into a particular North American liberal discourse is not without merit either and it is not exactly theologically useless from another perspective: is not difficult to see how this Jesus has its liberal theological uses (just read some of the prominent proponents of a Cynic-like Jesus). Perhaps it might be better to locate some of this debate in the ‘culture wars’ rhetoric, including such debates between churches.

Again, Wiki
None of this means that discussion of Cynicism is invalid for (ancient) historical reconstruction. I think Sandford was along the right lines in showing how presentations from the Jesus traditions through bandits to Cynics engaged with shifting socio-economic circumstances. Instead of asking whether Jesus was or was not a Cynic, it might be more helpful to think about how traditions negotiated the world around them and not be surprised if there are overlaps and similarities and so on. A study of Cynicism can shed light on the Gospel tradition in this respect, and vice versa. Scholarship has been interested in Jesus as ‘counter cultural’ for some time now; is not Cynicism at least analytically useful as a comparative phenomenon in this respect? Why be scared of that...?

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Who were 'the sinners' in the Gospel tradition...?

Were they ‘the marginalised’, ‘the outcast’, ‘the oppressed’ and so on? Were they people perceived to be breaking the Law or an interpretation of the Law?

In Jewish literature from Hebrew Bible texts and through rabbinic literature the range of meanings appear to be relatively stable in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. We might say similar things about Christian Syriac translations of the Bible. One view of the Gospel ‘sinners’ which should be discounted, however, is one which should have long gone away: ‘the sinners’ as ‘the marginalised’, ‘the outcast’, ‘the oppressed’ etc. with whom Jesus was prepared to mingle. There is a lot of discussion about the socio-economic status of ‘sinners’ in Jewish literature (Psalms, DSS, 1 Enoch, lots of rabbinic literature etc.) and the answer is always clear: ‘sinners’ are perceived to be rich and oppressive. In this sense, they can only be ‘marginalised’ in the same way as ‘the 1%’ are marginalised today.  What else? The usual uses of ‘sinners’ have interrelated uses. They can be perceived to be beyond the Law (or a group’s interpretation of the Law), beyond the covenant, and act as if there is no God. ‘Sinners’ can therefore be synonymous with ‘Gentiles’, a usage known also from Paul (Gal. 2.15).    

What might this mean for the Gospel tradition? It is possible to read all the main uses into the various Gospel passages, though there is sometimes not enough contextual signs to be precise on a number of occasions. Might Jesus’ association with sinners have provoked a reaction for legal issues? Possibly. Passages like Mark 2.15-17 and parables of repentance-return in Luke 15 (esp. the Prodigal Son) might point in this direction. The close association of tax collectors and sinners would point to at least some understandings of ‘sinners’ in terms of wealth and oppression.

But why the controversy in the Gospel? Perhaps, as Dunn suggested, there may be a reflection of some sort of ‘sectarian’ dispute over interpretation of the Law. The suggestion made by others (esp. influenced by Sanders) that the controversies were over Jesus allowing a bypassing of the Temple for forgiveness is problematic not only because of a lack of evidence but because Jesus is criticised for associating with 'sinners': ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ Or, in the words of Sirach, ‘Who pities a snake charmer when he is bitten, or all those who go near wild animals? So no one pities a person who associates with a sinner and becomes involved in other’s sins’ (Sir. 12.13-14).

Largely based on Ezek. 33, some did look for the repentance-return of sinners, although most texts we have are highly sceptical that this would happen and imply something along the lines of Sirach 12. The Gospel tradition appears to be part of a more optimistic approach. But maybe Sirach and others were right to be sceptical. We don’t find much in the way of success stories in the Gospel tradition (which we might expect if there were plenty of available stories) and it is notable that one we do find—the story of Zacchaeus—is only attested in Luke (who especially liked themes relating to ‘sinners’) and which may have been written up in light of the lack of success. Perhaps this hope for the repentance-return of ‘sinners’ failed to materialise and the reactions were more predictably like that of the rich man of Mark 10.22. And even Zacchaeus only gives up half his possessions (Luke 19.8)…

There is much more to say on this topic, including how it relates to the ongoing survival of such traditions. All the answers can be found in Jesus and the Chaos of History (2015) which has just been published in North America.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Summation of the Torah - Hillel and Jesus

I have often told my students a story from the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Shabat 31a) to illustrate the complexity of first-century Pharisaic thought. If we just go by the New Testament's portraits of the Pharisees, we walk away with the impression that Jesus was preaching consequentialism amid a sea of deontology. Put another way, Jesus prioritized wellbeing in context over the strict letter of the law. To problematize this caricature of both the Pharisees and Jesus, I've quoted this story:
On another occasion it happened that a certain heathen came before Shammai and said to him, 'Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.' Thereupon he [Shammai] repulsed him with the builder's cubit which was in his hand. When he went before Hillel, he said to him, 'What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.'
This story tells of two competing rabbis that lived in the first century: Hillel and Shammai. Much of their legacy reflects the concerns of rabbinic Judaism of a later period (often favoring Hillel). But the the story works equally well even if it reflects a later date. My purpose has been to point out that we shouldn't think of "the Pharisees" an ideological monolith. Moreover, some rabbis were quite happy to sum the instructions of Moses (for non-Jews) into a simple "golden rule" while others endeavored to protect the complexity and intricacy of Torah.

Presumably a lesson taught while the student balances on one foot is a short lesson. The question becomes, then, can a non-Jew learn what is important about the Torah in one short, simple lesson? Judging from this story Hillel was willing to try; Shammai was not (we might also keep in mind that Shammai's "builder's cubit" might be a metaphor for the Torah itself). Of course, I have pointed to a similar "golden rule" attributed to Jesus: "So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets" (Matt 7:12). These "golden rules" aren't exactly the same, but they are similar. And to the point: both Jesus and Hillel are willing to attempt a summative statement. Thus Jesus seems to have more in common with Hillel than he does with Shammai in this case.

But I was rereading this story today and I think that I've missed something important. In attempting to emphasize Jesus' Jewishness via Hillel's liberal tendencies, I missed Hillel's final statement: "...go and learn it." The suggestion here is that the non-Jew can begin with a simple summative statement, "What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor." Hillel can even make the remarkable claim that this summation is "the whole Torah"! Or it is at least a lens by which to read the whole Torah. But the final exhortation, "go and learn it" can be taken in two ways: (1) The non-Jew should go and practice the simple rule; (2) The non-Jew should go and learn the whole Torah. Traditionally (or at least from my limited study) the first of these interpretations has gotten the most traction. But there is a danger of superseding the Torah with a "Torah-lite" life ethic. If however Hillel is offering a hermeneutical key for unlocking the Torah for non-specialists (and this applies to me) the complexity and intricacy of the Torah is maintained. Indeed, the ethical lens offered by Hillel might heighten the complexity and intricacy of interpretation. This would fit well with what we read of Hillel elsewhere. Rather than reducing the Torah, Hillel might be inviting the non-Jew to use his other foot as he walks away on the right path.

For what it's worth, Jesus' view on Torah was not as simplistic as we make it out to be either: "But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail" (Luke 16:17).


Friday, April 24, 2015

James Crossley joins the Centre for the Social-Scientific Study of the Bible at St Mary’s University—Chris Keith

Photo Robert Myles
I'm very excited to announce that on Sept. 1 of this year James Crossley, co-blogger here at the Jesus Blog, will join the Centre for the Social-Scientific Study of the Bible at St Mary's University as Professor of Bible and Society.  He will add great strength to our centre and his addition signals the continued growth of Biblical Studies and New Testament at St Mary's, which in the past three years has seen also the addition of Prof Steve Walton and grown from one New Testament PhD student to ten.  Prof Crossley will be taking on new PhD students and any who are interested in studying with him are encouraged to contact him or me (  Although Prof Crossley will spend most of his time on research and PhD supervision, he will also teach undergraduate courses and courses on the MA in Biblical Studies (due to take its first class in 2016).

Readers of the Jesus Blog will be familiar with Prof Crossley's contributions here on the blog but also his previous publications on the historical Jesus and early Christianity, including his most recent work, Jesus and the Chaos of History (Oxford University Press, 2015), which will receive a panel review at this year's British New Testament Conference.  At St Mary's, Prof Crossley will also continue his important work on the Bible in contemporary culture and politics (see his Harnessing Chaos: The Bible in English Political Discourse since 1968 [Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014]) and organize conferences and research projects on this theme.  As his is the most important voice in this discussion, he will add a key contemporary dimension to the social-scientific research already being conducted in CSSSB.

Congratulations to Prof Crossley and welcome to CSSSB at St Mary's!  We'll have to plan a special celebration for the Jesus Blog family at SBL in November. . . .