Archive for March 15th, 2009


Carolyn Sharp Is Right

On Awilum, Charles Halton gives a brief quotation from Prof. Carolyn Sharp’s most recent book, Irony and Meaning in the Hebrew Bible (Indiana University Press, 2009):

Reading is not a simple act of recognizing codes and cues inked onto parchment or engraved in stone. Apprehension of human communication through written texts, especially across time and across cultural boundaries, can be so complex as to defy description.

A beautifully worded observation, from a truly great teacher.


Extreme Right v. Extreme Left: A Hopeless Debate?

Over the past few days, I’ve become belatedly aware of a vigorous (and occasionally downright nasty) debate between atheists and conservative Christian apologists raging throughout the blogosphere, particularly involving exchanges between John Loftus and J.P. Holding–who represent the former and latter camps, respectively. Nick Norelli notes a list of claims recently posted by Holding in response to Loftus:

1) I have answers to ANY claim of “contradiction” you can come up with.

2) The authorship of the NT Biblical books is more solid than it is for any secular work of the ancient world.

3) We don’t have originals for ANY ancient work, but only nimwits like you think this is a problem, and can’t explain why.

4) You wouldn’t know how the canon was put together, since you think Dan Brown is a good source; much less could you criticize its composition intelligently.

5) The textual tradition of the NT is far more secure than that of any secular document, with zero evidence of tampering or corruption; nothing but legitimate interpretive modifications to accommodate shifting language and cultural needs.

6) The NT books were all written within 40 years of Jesus’ lifetime.

7) You couldn’t argue with me ten seconds on any of these points.

Nick provides brief responses to the first, second, fifth, and sixth of these points (after stating that he “couldn’t care less” about the others):

(1) I’m sure that this is true but I doubt that all of the answers are equally good or persuasive.

(2) This is worded in such a way as to indicate that we know who the authors of all the NT books are, but clearly we don’t. Maybe we can argue that the authorship for the Pauline corpus is solid (and there’s more than a few of his books that are disputed) and I’d venture to say that Luke-Acts is pretty well established, but that’s about it. We simply don’t know the rest.

(5) This is just false when it comes to the claim of “zero evidence of tampering or corruption.” Maybe he’s defining those terms in a special way but if he simply means intentional changes that may or may not affect the meaning of a given passage then he’s wrong.

(6) Holding’s preterism colors his dating of the NT but I don’t see any convincing arguments for dating John, 1-3 John, Revelation, Jude, or 1-2 Peter within 40 years of Jesus’ lifetime. Good luck proving it.

I find myself in agreement with Nick’s responses. I would briefly take up Holding’s third point, however, and reply that ancient historians are absolutely concerned with the fact that the majority of texts have survived in copies of a very late date. As Helmut Koester and any number of others have convincingly argued, textual emendation most frequently occurs in the century immediately following the initial publication, an issue which often forces the editors of classical texts to propose conjectural readings not found in any surviving manuscript. Furthermore, works such as the writings of Josephus (e.g., the so-called “Testimonium Flavianum”) and the Sybilline Oracles display unmistakable evidence of alteration by later generations of editors, to say nothing of the innumerable form-critical and text-critical studies of the New Testament. So, I would say that all historians of antiquity are frustrated by the lack of autographic texts, as it makes their studies more difficult and tenuous from the outset.

To briefly supplement Nick’s comments, I would add that while almost all scholars and critics accept Luke-Acts as the product of a single author, the actual identity of that author remains unknown. As for the Pauline corpus, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, and Philemon are universally acclaimed as authentic, with some occasionally advocating the authenticity of 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, and Ephesians, and only the most conservative commentators identifying Paul as the author of the Pastoral Epistles. In his Anchor Bible (now Anchor Yale Bible) commentary on the Letter of James, Luke Timothy Johnson argues that the letter should be attributed to James the brother of Jesus, but this view has not won widespread acceptance (and was not universally accepted even in the patristic era).

Nick is absolutely correct when he identifies Holding’s statement that the text of the New Testament displays “zero evidence of tampering or corruption” as “absolutely false.” I can’t see how anyone could defend such a claim, given the astronomical number of variant readings among the approximately 5500 extant Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, the fact that the Western text of Acts is approximately ten percent longer than the Alexandrian text, etc. Bruce Metzger’s Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament provides summary treatments of many problematic passages; Bart Ehrman’s The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture is also worth reading on this subject. And as for questions of dating, apart from J.A.T. Robinson’s bold but flawed Redating the New Testament, which placed the origins of all of the books before 70 CE, I haven’t seen any recent publications make such an argument. If anything, some arguments for second-century dates are intensifying; Richard Pervo has made a strong case that Acts belongs to this period.

Generally, I’ve found both of the extremes of this debate sorely wanting, usually resorting to bombastic and poorly constructed rhetoric rather than a sober exchange of thoughts and opinions. And I’m left wondering why they’re even bothering to engage one another. Perhaps they simply enjoy the battle, even if there’s no end in sight.


Forthcoming From SBL: The Second Church

For more than four decades, Ramsay MacMullen has been one of the most vibrant and influential social historians of late antiquity, particularly concerning the conflict between Greco-Roman religion and the emerging Christian movement. His latest book will be released this month, and has already received very favorable comments from Helmut Koester, Wayne Meeks, and Brent Shaw (I just know I’m going to end up buying it):

The Second Church: Popular Christianity A.D. 200-400

Ramsay MacMullen

ISBN: 1589834038
Status: Forthcoming
Price: $24.95
Binding: Paperback
Publication Date: March, 2009

Christianity in the century both before and after Constantine’s conversion is familiar thanks to the written sources; now Ramsay MacMullen, in his fifth book on ancient Christianity, considers especially the unwritten evidence. He uses excavation reports about hundreds of churches of the fourth century to show what worshipers did in them and in the cemeteries where most of them were built. What emerges, in this richly illustrated work, is a religion that ordinary Christians, by far the majority, practiced in a different and largely forgotten second church. The picture fits with textual evidence that has been often misunderstood or little noticed. The “first” church—the familiar one governed by bishops—in part condemned, in part tolerated, and in part re-shaped the church of the many. Even together, however, the two constituted by the end of the period studied (AD 400) a total of the population far smaller than has ever been suggested. Better estimates are now made for the first time from quantifiable data, that is, from the physical space available for attendance in places of worship. Reassessment raises very large questions about the place of religion in the life of the times and in the social composition of both churches.

Ramsay MacMullen is Dunham Professor Emeritus of History and Classics at Yale University. He is the recipient of a lifetime Award for Scholarly Distinction from the American Historical Association and the author of numerous volumes on Christianity and the Roman Empire.

Click here for a printable title information sheet that you can put in your files or give to your librarian or bookstore.

“Ramsay MacMullen—for many years the spokesman for the majority of the people who are not represented in the writings of the elite—here focuses on the beliefs and practices of the mass of Christians. He brings forward impressive evidence, mostly archaeological, for the third and especially the fourth century C.E., showing the persistent predominance of pagan rituals among the vast majority of Christians, especially in burial practices and veneration of the dead. While only a small minority of them went to church, most could have been found celebrating the memory of the departed with food and wine at the cemeteries, often in a manner that their bishops hardly approved.

For the first time most of the relevant materials with illuminating illustrations have been brought together in this publication, which should be on the reading list of all courses teaching the history of ancient Christianity.”

— Helmut Koester, John H. Morison Research Professor of Divinity and Winn Research Professor of Ecclesiastical History, Harvard University

“Do not let the small size of this book mislead you. Anyone who wants to know what Christianity was like in the crucial two centuries discussed here—not just what the bishops and theologians were thinking, but what the other 95 percent were doing—will discover the weight of this book to be many times its physical heft. MacMullen, one of our most distinguished historians of Roman antiquity, tries here to refocus ‘the mind’s eye,’—the only tool we have, finally, to imagine that ‘second church’—to sweep away the double astigmatism that besets our usual scholarship, skewed by what our texts say Christians ought to be and what we want them to be. The result is history purged of wishful thinking, and it should make us all blink.”

— Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies, Department of Religious Studies, Yale University

“If you wish to know what it was like to be one of the ordinary Christians who lived in the Roman Mediterranean, then begin here. Through artifact and word, by means of a scholarly excavation of detail and fact from great metropolises and isolated hamlets strewn around the central sea, MacMullen brings to life the varied and contradictory life of Christians at ground level.”

— Brent D. Shaw, Professor of Classics and Andrew Fleming West Professor of Classics, Princeton University

Hardback edition available from Brill Academic Publishers (


The Future of Scholarly Publishing

Given the proliferation of electronic resources, rising production costs for printed volumes, and the current economic situation, I’m sure this will be an especially interesting talk. For those unfamiliar with the location of the Scholars Lab, turn left when you enter the library and head down the hallway immediately in front of you.

“Scholarly Publishing Today and Tomorrow”
Linda Bree
Senior Humanities Editor, Cambridge University Press
Tuesday, March 24 at 2:00 p.m.
Scholars’ Lab, Alderman Library

March 2009


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