Today’s Workshop: Reading the Qur’an with Heart and Mind.

Today I had the honor of leading a workshop on how to read the Quran for the Chaplaincy Institute in Berkeley. In a brief hour and a half I managed to walk though the traditional origin story of the Quran and some of its literary structures. We looked at Surah al-Fatiha (“The Opening”) and Surah al-Baqara (“The Cow”).

Both surahs contain much that is crucial for learning how to read the Quran. Like any text far removed from the culture of 21st-century educated Americans, the Quran requires a guide to understand its message. Of course, Muslims who keep salat recite al-Fatiha several times a day, so it is a core verse for Islamic devotion. According to Raymond Ferrin, it also has some neat chiasms in it. Al-Baqara, the longest surah in the Quran, gives great insight into the relationship between Islam and previous “Religions of the Book.” Verse 256 of al-Baqara, “there is no compulsion in religion,” will be quoted in pretty much any Muslim interfaith dialogue.

Anyway, I had a great time leading this workshop. I posted my powerpoint on Academia for anyone who is interested. A big thanks to my teacher, Ghazala Anwar, for recommending me for this opportunity.

One of the things that struck me while preparing for this workshop was the need for a guide.

While preparing, I came across a reflection paper I wrote when I first encountered the Qur’an, as an undergraduate taking an “Islam 101” course:

I have been exasperated by flipping around the Qur’an, trying to find verses here and there in a text that seems to have no coherence, narrative thread, plot, or anything else approaching what I consider good literature.

For the record, reading that makes me cringe.

I now see that the problem was not the Qur’an itself, but the abysmal translation my professor assigned. I’m talking about Abdullah Yusuf Ali, whose translation first appeared in 1934. If you visit a mosque and they give you a free Qur’an, Yusuf Ali is likely the translation. The Saudis have invested a lot of money into printing a lot of Yusuf Alis.

I’m not a specialist in Arabic (someday, inshallah), so I can’t vouch for its faithfulness to the Arabic. But as a native English speaker, I can say its English sounds pretty bad to my non-1934 ear. It feels stilted, loaded with artificial thee’s and thou’s, wooden and literal. Yusuf Ali read classics at Cambridge, and his translation reads to me a lot like the old Loebs.

In short, I think part of the reason I failed to appreciate the Qur’an was lack of a guide, that is, a good translator. It was only when I started studying Qur’an with a Muslim professor who unpacked the Arabic original that I began to really get a glimpse of its profundity.

So I hope that in my workshop today, I was a faithful guide. And even if I messed it up entirely I recommended some books that are recognized as good guides by Muslims and non-Muslims alike: Michael Sells’ Approaching the Qur’an, Carl Ernst’s How to Read the Qur’an, Abdel Haleem’s translation, and of course The Study Qur’an.

Early on in grad school, I was told to seek as much advice as possible from as many different people. One solid piece of advice I received is not to turn down opportunities because of my own nervousness about being prepared to do something. In this case my mentor felt I was prepared and offered me the opportunity. I’m glad I did, and from what the students said, they were too.

Review: Framing Paul, Douglas Campbell.

This year I have been cutting my teeth writing small book notices for different journals. It’s been a good way to learn about current scholarship, and it forces me to read closely enough to be able to say something.

Another book note in Theological Studies, this one out in September. Was astounded by the breadth of Campbell’s book—it took some time to get through!


Framing Paul: An Epistolary Biography. By Douglas A. Campbell. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014. Pp. xxii + 468. $39.

51c9+GONhEL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Campbell attempts to construct an “epistolary frame” around Pauline-attributed letters, determining each letter’s authenticity and and dating each letter both relative to one another and in absolute terms. After a lengthy methodological introduction (chap. 1), he builds his “epistolary backbone” with Romans and 1–2 Corinthians (chap. 2). C. then integrates other letters into that developing frame in succeeding chapters, surveying Philippians and Galatians (chap. 3), 1–2 Thessalonians (chap. 4), Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians (chap. 5), and Titus and 1–2 Timothy (chap. 6). C. sets aside widely assumed theories and start his Pauline reconstruction from the ground up. He discerns a 10-letter canon, including Ephesians (304), Colossians (337), and 2 Thessalonians (220), with no composite letters, and an early-40s dating of 1–2 Thessalonians (220–29).

Perhaps the strongest feature of this book is the many methodological insights C. brings to bear on the problem, including patristic reception (102), Scheidel’s ORBIS project (258, 276), textual criticism (310–11), the dynamics of orality (105), and features of prison literature (316–17). C. also deftly questions common arguments in Pauline studies, e.g., C. rejects circular arguments for inauthenticity from theological deviance and stylometrics, focusing instead on historical anachronisms.

Given the danger of making theoretical mountains out of evidential molehills inherent in C.’s task, he is generally transparent in how much certainty any given hypothesis has. However, he does overstate his point at times; his technique of discerning secondary audiences in the letters was often unconvincing (55). At other times he brought up valuable points only to leave them unexamined, such as his comment on the implications of Lindbeck’s “cultural-linguistic coherence” for debates about Paul’s coherence vs. contingency (9–10). Additionally, though C. convincingly argues in his introduction that Acts should only be incorporated into the Pauline chronology after surveying the letters, he does not do this integration in this book.

C.’s breadth, methodological insight, and implications for other issues in Pauline studies make this a valuable book for scholars and the non-specialist willing to wade through the length and complexity of his arguments.

 

Review: Qur’ans: Books of Divine Encounter, Keith Small.

After being away from here for a few months, I took a look at this blog and realized it didn’t fit with what I’m doing now. I originally started this blog as a place to talk about ancient languages—still one of my interests—but other things started creeping in too. I reorganized the blog to reflect that, and to make it look more professional in general. Enjoy.

The banner above is from Word Made Flesh, the frontispiece to John in The Saint John’s Bible.

I don’t have time to write any blog posts until August because of a book deadline I’m trying to meet, but it doesn’t take much time to repost some of the things I’ve been writing for other venues. Below is a book note I wrote for Theological Studies, out in the June issue.


Qur’āns: Books of Divine Encounter. By Keith E. Small. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2015. Pp. 170. $25.

quransSmall, a Manuscript Consultant to the Bodleian Library, Associate Research Fellow at the London School of Theology, and author of Textual Criticism and Qur’ān Manuscripts (2011), has produced a visually pleasing compendium of 53 Qur’ān manuscripts, most of them from the Bodleian Library. Each manuscript is shown in one photo and accompanied by a short description. In the first three chapters, S. explores the history of Qur’an manuscripts, and in the process delivers a gentle, non-technical introduction to issues in studying Qur’ān manuscripts, such as dating, orthography, script, colophons, palimpsests, materials.  He also introduces decorative elements, including carpet pages and gold leaf, and aspects of the manuscripts related to liturgy and recitation.

The second half of the book is organized thematically, and showcases European Renaissance encounters with the Qur’ān, global dissemination of the Qur’ān, and personal copies of the Qur’an. S. showcases Qur’ān manuscripts owned or produced by European scholars, including Robert of Ketton’s 12th-century Latin translation and Renaissance critical editions noting textual variants. His misleading overemphasis on the sympathy with which many of these scholars approached the Qur’ān creates a contrast with the next section. There, he provides the fascinating backstory to how some of the Bodleian’s Qur’ān manuscripts came to Oxford: “plunder in piracy and war” (89), or through former officers in British colonies (e.g., 126-127). This section’s vignettes provide a fascinating window into the past few centuries of Islamic history. The final section, on believers’ personal copies of the Qur’ān, includes talismans and even an undershirt with the Qur’ān written on it to ward off harm in battle.

S. excellently analyzes how details of decoration and calligraphy relate to Islamic theology and the believer’s personal encounter with revelation. I would have liked to see more examples of contemporary Qur’āns. While S. includes an appendix of recommended reading, it would be more useful for scholars if it had a bibliography for each manuscript. This book is aimed at the general reader, but is also of interest to scholars, and would also be a useful supplementary text for courses in art history, book history, or Islamic studies.

Review: Exploring the Book of Kells, by George Simms.

Since I began working with The Saint John’s Bible, I have become fascinated by the physicality of Bibles as books. Not just the art, but even the size, typography, and presence of critical notes in a text reflects and impacts the way we interpret the Bible. Art historians who study biblical manuscripts know this [links], but I rarely see it discussed in biblical studies circles. The physicality of the Bible is just one question that The Saint John’s Bible raises for biblical scholars.

So it was with some interest that I recently picked up George Otto Simms’ Exploring the Book of Kells. In 71 pages, Simms introduces this book, the most famous Anglo-Saxon illuminated biblical manuscript. The Book of Kells contains only the Gospels, and dates to c. 800 from the community of monks at Iona and later at Kells. Simms discusses the daily lives of the monks who created this Gospel book, with some charming illustrations of their daily monkish lives. He discusses some of the more famous illuminations and quirky marginalia in this manuscript, including the famous “XRI” page reproduced so often.

Though I learned a few things from this book, I’m not sure I would recommend it. It has very few color images, and no bibliography for further reading. Simms is not an art historian but a priest, so he misses out on some of the terminology a manuscript scholar would use. Still, this might be a good book for a younger audience.

 

Review: If Sons, Then Heirs, by Caroline Johnson Hodge.

9780195182163 (1)Hodge’s book, If Sons, Then Heirs: A Study of Kinship and Ethnicity in the Letters of Paul, argues that Paul’s letters do not merely theologically navigate the complexities of Gentile belonging in Christ, but actively create a new ethnic identity for those Gentile believers by employing metaphors of ethnicity and kinship to describe these believers as adopted sons of Abraham.

Her introduction spells out some of the particular methods and ideas her book draws on. After a brief introduction to recent scholarship on Paul, she identifies herself with the most “radical” (her phrase) thinkers in the New Perspective, particularly Lloyd Gaston, John Gager, and Stanley Stovers. These thinkers see Paul as writing mainly to Gentiles, and his works as creating a new myth of identity for those Gentiles who believe in Christ separate from a Mosaic covenant, rather than a Paul who is writing to Jewish Christians that the Torah is hereafter invalid. These thinkers see Paul as in greater continuity with Jewish tradition than the NPP thinkers Sanders and Dunn. Like them, Hodge seeks to move beyond a stale binary between ethnic, particular Judaism and non-ethnic, universal Christianity, arguing instead that Christianity is itself ethnic and particular. Lastly, Hodge spells out her theoretical position that ethnicity and kinship are socially constructed and malleable, even if those who employ those concepts hold them in an essentialist manner.

The first chapter of the book explains the “ideology of patrilineal descent,” a broadly shared Jewish and Greco-Roman worldview in which individuals, groups, families, and even nations construct their identity in terms of descent from a common father, a father who passes on certain traits to all his descendants. This ideology, Hodge argues, was used to construct identity, to gain power, and to define group boundaries. Paradoxically, this ideology holds ethnicity and kinship as both natural/fixed and malleable/constructed; even the same thinker can employ both conceptions of ethnicity at different times to suit his argument. Hodge reviews various discourses of kinship in the Greco-Roman world and the rituals used to maintain and legitimate them: adoption, genealogy of noble families, Kleisthenes’ re-mapping of Athens, Dionysus of Halicarnassus’ argument that Romans descend from Greeks, Josephus’ argument for the Jews’ antiquity, and the kinship of the philosophical schools of Greece and Rome. This last example proves that social domains not related to family could still use rhetoric and metaphor drawn from that domain of life—making it less outlandish that Paul would do so too.

The second chapter examines some of the binaries Paul uses to describe ethnic identity: Jew/Gentile, Jew/Greek, and circumcised/uncircumcised. Hodge delineates these in the context of two types of ethnic construction Paul engages in: opposition (constructing ethnic difference) and aggregative (constructing combining ethnic identities). For Paul, the ethnicity of Judaism is defined by ancestry, worship, and the Torah, while “gentile” (of which “Greek” is a subset) is defined by sinfulness and idolatry and by being not-Jewish (51). Mainly Hodge emphasizes that Paul does not see these identities as subsumed completely in Christ (as many readers of Gal 3:28 would have it) or as spiritualized/allegorized (as the TDNT has it).

Chapters 3­–6 examine specific kinship- and ethnicity-based metaphors Paul employs. In chapter 3, she examines the language of adoption in Gal 4:1–7 and Rom 8:14–17, and how Paul employs household hierarchies (e.g. the position of slaves) and the “spirit” to make Gentiles in relationship with God. Chapter 4 re-reads the phrase “from faith” (Rom 4:16) and “those from faith” (Gal 3:6–9) as language of descent: so Gentiles are of faith in being actually descended from Abraham by adoption, not simply by having faith. Chapter five examines the phrases “in Christ,” “in Abraham,” and “in Isaac” (highly debated phrases in Pauline studies) and argues that these refer to embryological assumptions embedded in the ideology of patrilineal descent, the idea that characteristics are passed from father to children through semen (e.g. Gen 15:3–6 and Gal 3:8). Chapter six continues chapter 4’s metaphor by addressing the way in which Christ becomes a brother to all those in faith (Rom 8:29)—again also the embryological assumption plays a role here. Note the way in which Paul uses both metaphors of adoption and of biological descent when rhetorically and mythologically grafting the Gentiles onto the tree of Abraham.

After examining these specific passages, Hodge returns to broader issues in chapter seven, in which she examines how Paul negotiated his multiple identities. Rather than seeing Paul as Jewish or Christian, Jew or Greek, she sees him as navigating multiple identities: a Jew first, but a Jew who subjugates that part of his identity to his “in-Christ” identity, and a teacher who adapts himself to his students by living as a Gentile. The idea employed here is that ethnicity is situational and hierarchically arranged, rather than fixed, and Paul engages in multiple discourses to suit his particular purposes and constructions. So Gal 3:28 is not seen as erasing individual identities, but subjugating them to Christ. Paul’s denial of circumcision for the Gentiles is not seen as a denial of circumcision per se; everyone will still follow circumcision, bit Gentiles need only practice the internal circumcision of the heart.

Chapter 8 ends the book with an examination of oppositional identities: how does Paul separate Jew and Greek? He clearly sees Jews as coming first, as he mentions in Romans 4 and 9–11. But he lays out a salvific plan in which the Greek is included as well. God prefers the Jews, but judges both groups impartially. Romans 9–11, then, is not merely a passage about Gentiles coming to the God of Israel, but a family tree metaphor describing inheritance by adoption. Paul is creating an ethnic genealogy for the Gentiles much as Greek and Roman authors create ethnic genealogies for noble families or entire peoples.

I really like how Hodge’s book brings together both Jewish and Greco-Roman discourses on ethnicity and teases out how Paul uses language of ethnicity. However, in this model of Paul, some of the metaphors he employs are inconsistent. For example, is Christ supposed to be a father or a brother in this metaphorical patrilineal family (103-106)? Other times she seems to mix up metaphors of biological descent and adoption. Maybe Paul himself is being inconsistent. I would grant him that, given that he is not a systematic theologian, but a missionary using rhetoric (not always a logically consistent tool) to persuade believers of his points. But some might find this alleged inconsistency a mark that Hodge’s theory needs work.

For me Hodge’s theory is intriguing because it implies that Paul’s letters can be used to support inculturated Christianity. So just as Paul has Jewish Christianity and Gentile Christianity, today we might have Nigerian Christianity, Chinese Christianity, etc. The idea is that one does not erase their culture, but always brings it to bear on the religion one has converted to. This is of course a historical fact in all religions, but not one theologians have always accepted.

(Belated) State of the Projects: March 2016.

The last two months have been productive in my scholarly life. At least that’s my excuse for not blogging!

First, I’ve been seeing some very nice rewards for the work I have done. The print copies of my first two academic articles came in. It’s very satisfying to see my name in print (yay!). Also, I’ve gotten some good (I think) writing out on other blogs: a post about Star Wars on Sacred Matters, and a post on Christian-Muslim dialogue and apologetics at Christian Apologetics Alliance.

One of the benefits of blogging for me is learning to make points clearly and concisely. Let me tell you: some academics couldn’t write their way out of a paper bag. I’m talking five-clause sentences with parenthetical asides. One-clause sentences are nice. It also teaches me to not expect written perfection. Save that for a book. A blog post is meant to be ephemeral.

Second, speaking of books, my effort to get the writings of my Jesuit friend, the late George Kennard, is coming to an end. George always told me he wanted me to finish his book. Always nice when a friend gives you an impossible task. The book being published is not the magnum opus of cognitive science, linguistics, epistemology, and Vatican II that he wanted to write, but a selection of sermons, speeches, articles, and biographical writings. I’m awaiting the printers’ proof now.

Third, last month, I went to a conference in Michigan to discuss my pet project, The Saint John’s Bible. I looked at some of the Gospels illuminations in the light of Jewish-Christian dialogue. I wrote about my experience at the conference for the blog of the Center for Arts, Religion, and Education (CARE) at my home school, the GTU. It was everything one could want in a conference: great company, great talks, left feeling energized.

I gave my talk again for CARE on Friday. Eight people came, including three of my friends. With the feedback from Michigan fresh in my mind, I did a lot of work to revise my paper. I think it went well.

This conference convinced me of one major thing. I had thought of my work with The Saint John’s Bible as a side project to my real interest in scripture and interreligious dialogue. This conference knocked me out of that mindset. At several of the talks, I noticed things that the speaker didn’t notice—mainly because none of the other speakers had the opportunity to show this Bible to hundreds of people. Showing this Bible has helped me see how the symbols and motifs repeat, how this Bible creates a fresh visual lexicon in biblical art.

Fourthclasses at the Graduate Theological Union are going well. I am taking Race and Ethnicity in the New Testament, a seminar on Jeremiah, Christian Iconography, a reading course on Surat al-Baqara (Surah 2), the longest surah in the Qur’an, and a seminar on papyrology (how to read, work with ancient papyri) at Cal.

All the madness of conferencing out of the way, I can now focus on class again. And most of all, of course, focus on my wife. We just celebrated six months. 🙂

Recommended Reading, 1.26.16.

Because of my intensive intersession course — which I will blog about soon! — and getting the flu, I fell way behind on my blog reading. Here are some of the posts that captivated my attention the most from the last few weeks.

Not to be too self-promotional, but you should totally check out a post I wrote for a friend’s apologetics site on the connection between apologetics and interfaith dialogue:

Nabeel Qureshi, Christian Apologist – and Bridge Between Christians and Muslims?

Because both religions emphasize sharing their faith, a true bridge between Christians and Muslims would also be a bridge between dialogue and apologetics. This bridge would have to be built on the twin pillars of shared similarities and respectfully acknowledged differences. In my experience, interfaith dialogue emphasizes similarities, and often lacks the courage to discuss differences.  Similarities are important, for love can emerge from an understanding of our common humanity. But at its worst, the result of exploring only commonalities is a bland Kumbaya feeling. On the other hand, too often I have read works of apologetics that only discuss differences. These apologists fail to recognize the common ground of love and compassion across religions and cultures, and that do not seem to be written from places of love and friendship for their religious rivals.

(Thanks to CAA for publishing my post!)

“There is No Rejoicing Without Wine”: Jesus’ First Miracle at Words on the Word

And did you catch this nice touch from John: these jars, where the chemical miracle happened, were ones “used… for ceremonial washing.” There’s nothing wrong with religious ritual, per se—I quite like it myself. But these jars for ritual cleansing—Jesus turned them into party favors. That’s kind of like co-opting the baptismal font for a punch bowl.

Religion Snapshots: Methodological Atheism vs. Methodological Agnosticism at Religion Bulletin

This short debate about methodology in the study of religion intrigued me. I come upon this issue in my studies, i.e., when people ask why early Christianity took off. One answer: because Jesus resurrected. Another question: is there such a thing as genuine prophecy, in the sense of seeing into the future? Both cannot be ruled out, but they are outside the bounds of what methodological atheism and agnosticism would allow. The question of how human we are willing to make our sacred texts is an ongoing one for me.

The Problems with Post-Modern Interpretation of the Bible at Bible and Culture

A Biblical text without its original historical, rhetorical, social, literary, archaeological texts becomes a pretext for whatever you want it to mean, and this is not a good thing, it’s a bad thing. Nor is the meaning of a text merely ‘a matter of my opinion’ vs. yours. Why not? Because there is an actual meaning in those Biblical texts which can only be discerned with a combination of careful exegesis attending to the various original contexts and prayerful reflection with the guidance of God’s Spirit.

THE REBEL VIRGINS AND DESERT MOTHERS WHO HAVE BEEN WRITTEN OUT OF CHRISTIANITY’S EARLY HISTORY at Altas Obscura

Really interesting article, reminds me of some of the stuff we read in my Gender in Early Christianity course. One thing — she misses the fact that some of these early female saints were “transgender saints,” i.e. their asceticism was so harsh that they lost all physical traces of femininity, an apt symbol for their psychological denial of femininity. Not sure we can call these women feminist Christian icons.

Levine and Meier on the Parables of Jesus: Two Very Important (and Very Different) New Books at The Jesus Blog

“REMEMBRANCE OF DEATH” CAN OVERCOME “DEATH OBSESSION” at First Things

My friend, author and preeminent American Orthodox apologist Frederica Matthewes-Green, considers the remembrance of death as one of the most helpful disciplines in living a healthy Christian life. She told me, “If you spend your life seeking entertainment and food, trying to keep your mind occupied and amused, you find yourself weary and depressed. Life can come to seem meaningless.” There is a better way than these desperate efforts to delay, deflect, and control our mortal fate. It is to accept it, to ponder and embrace it, and witness a paradoxical result: “Keeping in the back of your mind an awareness of the fact that you will die one day leads to a life lived deliberately, with forethought and gratitude, a life that is worthy and complete.”

Think the Muslim world needs to “reform?” Think again by Connor Wood

Fundamentalism – the inflexible adherence to literal, text-based religious teachings, whether Biblical creationism or Shariah law – often results from reform movements, rather than being banished by them. One reason for this is that religious reformations, by stripping away supposedly outdated or extraneous traditions and rituals in favor of a “return to basics,” can end up pushing their host religions towards a rigid, text-based literalism. Sounds like just what the world needs, right?

The secular front in the US by John Fea

Not sure I agree with him, but thought-provoking.

Yet, despite the demographic power of evangelicals, they are largely marginalised from the media and education. The writer Jay Nordlinger might be correct when he says that ‘all conservatives are bilingual – we have to be. (We speak liberal and conservative.) But liberals tend to be monolingual – they don’t need to speak our languages, or to know much about us at all.’ Indeed, if you are a secular progressive or liberal secularist, it is possible to live in a society that comports to your world view. If you are an evangelical Christian, it is not that easy.

Jesus for Muslims – A Sermon by Rev. Dr. Rebecca Irelan at Patheos

I really enjoyed reading this homily — preached in my own city, no less! Irelan went in really deep and definitely did her homework when it came to Islam and thinking through how Christians can relate to Muslims.

What I’ve been up to lately: The Saint John’s Bible and Jewish-Christian Dialogue.

The GTU’s academic calendar does intersession, which means that apart from one week of crazy intersession madness, I have been off of school. I’ve been taking this time to prepare my conference paper for next month’s “Illuminating Words, Transforming Beauty” conference at Spring Arbor University in Michigan. Although my “guild” is biblical studies, I’m attending this Conference on Christianity and Literature conference because it has a special focus on the Saint John’s Bible. If you haven’t heard about the Saint John’s Bible, well, let me tell you – it’s a treat. And I get to show it as part of my work at SCU Archives and Special Collections.

Although there is much publicity on the project, there is very little analysis or critique of it. I basically read all of it – a few journal articles here and there. There are two books that go through each illumination and give some background, explain visual allusions, and meditate on them. These two books, one by Susan Sink and the other by Michael Patella, are very good. They focus on the intentions behind the art, what the artists and theologians creating this Bible meant. I use them all the time in figuring out what illuminations to show people.

What has not taken place yet is a thorough evaluation of this Bible and what it means as a milestone in contemporary biblical interpretation. We have the statements from the artists of what they think their art means – which is amazing considering we don’t have such documentation from all the famous medieval illuminated Bibles like the Book of Kells or the Winchester Bible. And while all biblical art – heck, every physical copy of Bible – is to some extent a theological interpretation, this Bible is especially so. The artists working on it were advised by a team of theologians and biblical scholars who sent them lengthy packets covering which passages to illuminate, current scholarship and prayerful reflection on those passages, and ideas on how to illuminate them.

But as of now, we have a lot of “wow!” and not much critique or analysis. As a graduate student in biblical studies and someone intimately familiar with this Bible from showing it to over 150 people in classes, churches, and community groups, I felt called to contribute to this analysis.

Frontispiece to Matthew: Matthew's Genealogy of Jesus. When I show the Saint John's Bible this is one of the "show-stopper" illuminations.

Frontispiece to Matthew: Matthew’s Genealogy of Jesus. When I show the Saint John’s Bible this is one of the “show-stopper” illuminations.

Specifically, I am writing about New Testament illuminations in the light of Jewish-Christian dialogue. This Bible was created by Catholics – specifically Benedictines – and we have a boatload of ecclesial statements since Nostra Aetate laying out right relationship with Jews, theologians engaged in Jewish-Christian dialogue, and parish-level work cultivating bonds between church and synagogue. (When I was Catholic, my church was right next door to a synagogue!) This has seeped into New Testament scholarship emphasizing the Jewish elements of Jesus, Paul, and the early Christian movement. (Think of the “New Perspective on Paul” and The Jewish Annotated New Testament).

So does the Saint John’s Bible reflect this new approach to Judaism? Is it an effective tool for dialogue between Jews and Christians? Do any of its illuminations still unwittingly reproduce Christian polemic against Jews?

Yes, yes, and yes. And that’s my paper in a nutshell.

This is my first major writing project since my two senior theses, and I’m refining how I’m working on it. Mainly (1) I’m trying to be more rooted in primary sources before I dive into the murky waters of scholarly commentary; (2) I am using Zotero which saves a LOT of time; and (3) I am writing much earlier in the project. Writing helps me think. After reading the primary sources and deciding which illuminations I want to use, I wrote a “draft 0” that just lays out the very broad outline. I’ve found it works better for me to write crap and revise it like crazy than to store thoughts in my head forever and write something perfect.

This project works well with how I think – very interdisciplinary. I’m bringing together New Testament scholarship, Jewish-Christian dialogue, particularly on liturgy and scripture, and work on art as biblical interpretation, or what Martin O’Kane calls “visual exegesis.”

Through it all, I’m trying to ask: How would a Jew steeped in scripture see these illuminations? Once I get this good enough to show to another human being, I will ask a few of my Jewish mentors. But until then I’m trying to imagine how it would feel for someone to tell me that their religion perfects and completes mine, and that I am, so to speak, only the beta test. Then I remembered, um, every conversation I’ve had with a Muslim friend about Jesus. That might be a bit similar.

My Silk Road paper is now online.

Well, good news!  You can read it for free at The Silk Road. (Scroll down the page a bit for a link to the PDF.)

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=292232

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=292232

I enjoyed working with Greek themes in Buddhist art for my senior thesis. I still have no idea how it might be relevant to my studies in New Testament and early Christianity, other than maybe the most general and broad theme of the Hellenization of non-Greeks and non-Greek religions in antiquity.

Thanks to Daniel Waugh for doing the laborious work of editing this journal, and for providing some images from his personal travels for my article!

My top 10 (or so) Books of 2015, and Goals for 2016.

 

Following Jacob Prahlow and Brian LePort‘s Top 10 lists, I figured I would post my own.  2015 was a good year for reading: 84 books total! Not bad, especially considering I got married, finished my BA, and started graduate school. An eventful year to say the least.

I like to divide my year’s top books into two categories: innovative books that opened new questions for me on topics I know little about, and influential books that are part of my scholarly interests and contribute to my development as a thinker.

 

Most Influential

  1. Religions of Rome: Volume 1: A History by Mary Beard
    Beard’s book is a dense, magisterial survey, accompanied by a second volume that collects primary sources on Roman religions.  I particularly like how Beard reviews the sources on different aspects and time periods of Roman religion, to give an idea of where our evidence comes from and each source’s strengths and weaknesses.  She also gives a convincing argument that Roman religion prior in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE was not waning and falling away to make room for Christianity
  2. Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor by S. R. F. Price
    Price’s book is old (late 1970s), but he makes a convincing case that the imperial cult in Rome was not mere top-down political propaganda, but often an intimate part of peoples’ personal devotion.  His focus is on the Hellenistic era, making this particularly relevant for understanding early Christian language of kingship.
  3. Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective by Amina Wadud
    Wadud, a prominent American Muslim scholar and advocate for womens’ expanded role in Islamic leadership, argues that the Qur’an is not patriarchal, but has been interpreted so by centuries of male interpreters.  I ultimately disagree with her conclusion, but her prophetic tone really began a conversation over 20 years ago in this book, and she gave me a lot to think about.
  4. Jesus in the Talmud by Peter Schäfer
    Schafer’s book looks at Jesus’ depiction in the Talmud through the lens of anti-Christian polemic.  Before I took a course in rabbinic literature this fall, I had never studied Talmud, so this book was a fascinating entry-point into that world of scholarship.
  5. The Im-possibility of Interreligious Dialogue by Catherine Cornille
    After staring at this book on my shelf for a couple of years, I finally read it for a class in Christian-Muslim Dialogue.  Cornille examines the role of virtue in interreligious dialogue and clarifies what aspects make up an ideal dialogue.
  6. The Bible and the Third World: Precolonial, Colonial and Postcolonial Encounters by R. S. Sugirtharajah
    This is my third book by “Sugi,” who always writes witty and intelligently.  Sugi is prominent in the field of postcolonial biblical interpretation, and gives me a lot of ideas on how to read scripture in an interreligious context.
  7. Understanding Other Religious Worlds: A Guide for Interreligious Education by Judith Berling
    Berling’s book describes how to guide people in to understanding other religions, as a balance between incorporating the students’ perspectives and engaging other religions on their own terms.  This pedagogical book is useful for anyone studying religion, whether in an interfaith context or a comparative religion context.
  8. Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity by Nabeel Qureshi
    Qureshi is a Muslim who converted to Christianity, and his book was a very interesting portrait of his (de)conversion and Christian arguments against Islam.  I really appreciated his tone of charity and kindness toward Muslims even though he disagrees with the central doctrines of their religion.
  9. The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew– Three Women Search for Understanding by Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver, and Priscilla Warner
    This book, co-authored by three women (Muslim, Christian, and Jew), is an excellent model for what interfaith can look like on a local, personal, non-scholarly level.  Really enjoyed.
  10. Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam by Jon D. Levenson
    Levenson, a Hebrew Bible scholar, elucidates traditions about Abraham in all three Abrahamic faiths, then argues against the use of the word “Abrahamic” and contemporary efforts to make Abraham a symbol of commonality.  I like how he intelligent brings out major differences between the religions, and how Abraham is construed quite differently in all three.

Most Innovative

  1. The Autobiography of Malcolm X
    Like most prophets, Malcolm X sounds like someone who would have been very hard to get along with. But his autobiography was amazing, and really helped me understand a dimension of the Civil Rights movement that we didn’t learn as much about in school.
  2. The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy Seal by Eric Greitens
    After a top-notch Ivy League education and job offers from top aid organizations, Greitens joined the Navy Seals out of a conviction that protecting the vulnerable of the world through force was the best way to help others. I really admired this intelligent man’s reflections on how the heart and the fist must work together.
  3. Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Gail Steketee and Randy O. Frost
    Coming from a family of hoarders, the mental illness has always fascinated me. This book, co-authored by a social worker and a psychologist, really dives into the mindset of hoarding, and what works to fix the problem (hint: city clean-ups don’t do it).
  4. How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role From the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe by Thomas Cahill
    My wife loves this book, and I read it on our honeymoon. Cahill writes really well about Irish monks’ role in preserving classical texts at a time when classical civilization had fallen apart and the rest of Europe was in the “dark ages.”

Other Achievements in 2015:

  1. I got married!  This is surely the top item of the year.  I can’t even begin to describe how much my wife enhances and supports me in every area of my life.
  2. I got into graduate school and got the funding I needed to attend.
  3. I (re-)started my job at Santa Clara University Archives & Special Collections, and showed our edition of The Saint John’s Bible to several classes and community groups, growing my skills in teaching and deepening my appreciation of scripture.
  4. I finished my first research assistant job, helping my professor publish a critical edition of a scroll of the Book of the Twelve from Qumran.  I also began working as a proof-reader for Theological Studies.  This January I start another job, helping a professor put together a guidebook for students of Biblical Hebrew.
  5. I finished several diverse writing projects, including my first peer-reviewed article on Buddhist-Christian dual belonging, an article coming out soon derived from my senior thesis on Herakles in Buddhist art, an opinion piece at Religion Dispatches, and a book note forthcoming in Theological Studies.

Some thoughts:

  1. Life changes really took a bite out of my reading productivity for the year. I got married at the end of August, and for the weeks leading up to the big day, I got very little reading done!
  2. Graduate school actually lowered my reading productivity. Professors like to assign articles and book chapters, neither of which count toward book reading.
  3. Similarly, language classes also don’t count. For example, in the spring I took a Greek reading course in the Iliad. Obviously, we didn’t finish it in Greek in 10 weeks, and by mere quantity of text we actually moved very slowly compared to if we had read the epic in English.

Goals for 2016:

  1. Rather than aim for another 100-book quota that I know I won’t meet without reading lots of fluff, my goal for 2016 is to read one major work in my academic field each month — and give it a long, thoughtful review.
  2. I would like to join Jennifer Guo in reading the entire Greek New Testament in 2016, following Wallace’s reading plan.
  3. I would like to finish my Biblical Studies Reading Challenge.
  4. As for blogging, I would like to submit a substantive post to the Biblical Studies Carnival every month.