“Known knowns, known unknowns,” and the New Testament


The good folks over at the Babylon Bee, a Christian satirical site, posted a gem of a fake article today called “Historical-Critical Scholar Doubts Authorship Of Paper He Wrote,” which comically captures some of the dubious certainties that sometimes come out of the New Testament studies combine.

The article quotes the fictitious Dr. Gunther Burg of Yale questioning the authenticity of an article he himself had written. Continue reading

Coming Soon: A New Bible Study on Romans

RomansP1I am pleased to announce that the Bible study on Romans that Mike Bennett and I have been working on for so long can now be ordered through UCC Resources and will ship on March 1.

Romans, Part 1, Romans 1-8 and Romans, Part 2, Romans 9-16 are titles in the United Church of Christ’s LISTEN UP! Bible Study series.

Romans, Parts 1 and 2 are not ground-breaking new works of original Biblical scholarship, but rather teaching tools to be used by small groups in Bible studies. A leader’s guide is included in every workbook.

Mike and I together bring over a half-century of experience as pastors leading Bible studies in local congregations. Romans Part 1 and 2 brings our knowledge of how to make Bible study come alive.

Behind these studies we bring our own understanding of Romans from a lifetime of engagement with this important book. Mike has been influenced by two important commentaries on Romans by Professors at his alma mater Yale Divinity School, Leander Keck and David Bartlett. Mike is also a contributor to the Feasting on the Word series. Continue reading

Ridiculous and sublime: Richard Bauckham’s “The Pooh Community”


More and more I am finding satire the proper vehicle to address some of the more foolish antics of both the church and the academy.  So I was delighted to come across Richard Bauckham’s delicious deadpan savaging of his own guild in his lecture “The Pooh Community,”  in which he employs some of the methods of contemporary New Testament scholarship to analyze A.A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh.”
His careful sifting leads him to posit the existence of several “communities” behind the final redaction of the text.  Here’s a sample:

“The very distinctive nature of the Pooh community can be further appreciated when we compare it with other children’s literature of the period, such as the Noddy books or the Narnia books (though it may be debatable whether these were already written at the time when the traditions of the Pooh community were taking shape). Words and concepts very familiar from other children’s literature never appear in the Pooh books: the word school, e.g., is completely absent, as is the word toys, even though the books are ostensibly about precisely toys. Conversely, the Pooh books have their own special vocabulary and imagery: e.g. the image of honey, which is extremely rare in other children’s literature (not at all to be found in the Narnia books, e.g., according to the computer-generated analysis by Delaware and Babcock), constantly recurs in the literature of the Pooh community, which clearly must have used the image of honey as one of the key buildingblocks in their imaginative construction of the world.

The stories afford us a fairly accurate view of some of the rivalries and disputes within the community. The stories are told very much from the perspective of Pooh and Piglet, who evidently represent the dominant group in the community – from which presumably the bulk of the literature originated, though here and there we may detect the hand of an author less favourable to the Pooh and Piglet group. The Pooh and Piglet group saw itself as central to the life of the community (remember that Piglet’s house is located in the very centre of the forest), and the groups represented by other characters are accordingly marginalized. The figure of Owl, for example, surely represents the group of children who prided themselves on their intellectual achievements and aspired to status in the community on this basis. But the other children, certainly the Pooh and Piglet group, ridiculed them as swots. So throughout the stories the figure of Owl, with his pretentious learning and atrocious spelling, is portrayed as a figure of fun. Probably the Owl group, the swots, in their turn ridiculed the Pooh and Piglet group as ignorant and stupid: they used terms of mockery such as ‘bear of very little brain.’ Stories like the hunt for the Woozle, in which Pooh and Piglet appear at their silliest and most gullible, probably originated in the Owl group, which used them to lampoon the stupidity of the Pooh and Piglet group. But the final redactor, who favours the Pooh and Piglet group, has managed very skilfully to refunction all this material which was originally detrimental to the Pooh and Piglet group so that in the final form of the collection of stories it serves to portray Pooh and Piglet as oafishly lovable. In a paradoxical reversal of values, stupidity is elevated as deserving the community’s admiration. We can still see thepoint where an anti-Pooh story has been transformed in this way into an extravagantly pro-Pooh story at the end of the story of the hunt for the Woozle. Pooh and Piglet, you remember, have managed to frighten themselves silly by walking round and round in circles and mistaking their own paw-prints for those of a steadily increasing number of unknown animals of Hostile Intent. Realizing his mistake, Pooh declares: ‘I have been Foolish and Deluded, and I am a Bear of No Brain at All.’ The original anti-Pooh story, told by the Owl faction, must have ended at that point. But the pro-Pooh narrator has added – we can easily see that it is an addition to the original story by the fact that it comes as a complete non sequitur – the following comment by Christopher Robin: “‘You’re the Best Bear in All the World,” said Christopher Robin soothingly.’ Extravagant praise from the community’s major authority-figure.”

To see the entire lecture go here.

Richard Bauckham is a theologian and biblical scholar who was Professor of New Testament at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.   His web site is here.

Another Lifeline: Brevard Childs

Brevard Childs, who died in 2007, was Sterling Professor of Divinity at Yale University, and to my mind one of the great Biblical interpreters of his generation.  He provided many pastors and teachers in the church with the interpretive tools needed to do their work, and he bravely challenged the ruling canons of his guild as to how biblical studies should proceed.

I was trained in biblical studies in a day when form criticism and its various offspring ruled the day.  Exegesis often reminded me of taking a bicycle apart,  which is not hard to do, but putting it back together so that you can ride it takes knowledge and skill.  Child’s canonical approach allowed you to take the text seriously as scripture, rather than the starting point for a host of other questions from various disciplines.

In an interviewhe once said this about biblical interpretation:

“By defining one’s task as an understanding of the Bible as the sacred Scriptures of the church, one establishes from the outset the context and point-of-standing of the reader within the received tradition of a community of faith and practice. Likewise, Scripture is also confessed to be the vehicle of God’s self-disclosure which continues to confront the church and the world in a living fashion. In sum, its content is not merely a literary deposit moored in the past, but a living and active text addressing each new generation of believer, both Jew and Christian. Of course, the Bible is also a human work written as a testimony to God’s coercion of a historical people, and extended and developed through generations of Israel’s wrestling with its God. Biblical interpretation is a critical enterprise requiring exact handling of the language, history, and cultures of its recipients. The crucial hermeneutical issue turns on how one uses all this wealth of information. The goals of interpretation can be defined in countless different ways, but for those confessing its role as sacred Scripture the goal is to penetrate deeply into its content, to be illuminated theologically by its Word, and to be shaped and transformed by its gracious disclosure which witness is continually made alive by its divine communicator. The divine and human dimensions of Scripture can never be separated as if there were a kernel and a husk, but the heart of the Bible lies in the mystery of how a fully time-conditioned writing, written by fragile human authors, can continually become the means of hearing the very Word of God, fresh and powerful, to recipients open to faithful response.”

Child’s books still have a  prominent place on my bookshelf, and he remains one of my lifelines.