Update: Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary Coming out in June!

Last summer, when I spent countless hours poring over drafts and word lists for David Pleins’ and my book on Biblical Hebrew vocabulary, it was hard to imagine how satisfying the finished product would be. But just yesterday I received the final page proofs, and with the meticulous work Zondervan did on the formatting, it looks great. There is definitely a satisfying leap from a messy Word document on a screen to a clean printed PDF!

All that is fit to print.

David and I owe a big one to our editor at Zondervan, Nancy Erickson, who has pushed this along since the beginning. Recently they have moved the publishing date up from September to  June—in time for possible fall textbook adoption. They are marketing it pretty heavily, and some bibliobloggers should be receiving review copies!

If this looks like your idea of fun, you can preorder the book on Amazon!

Review: Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature, Richard A. Taylor

Taylor wrote Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature: An Exegetical Handbook for Kregel’s Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis series, which is designed for pastors, graduate students, and others interested in the proper steps of exegesis of biblical books. While the exegetical guidelines in this book are common to other similar books, such as Robert Chisholm’s From Exegesis to Exposition, Taylor adds the pedagogical value of focusing only on apocalyptic literature in the Old Testament, especially Daniel, Joel, Zechariah, Malachi, and Isaiah 24-27.

In the six chapters of this book, Taylor covers (1) the definition of apocalyptic literature, (2) major themes and features of the genre, (3) interpretive tools needed to properly make sense of the genre, (4) some guidelines for exegeting particular texts, (5) a step-by-step method for doing so, and (6) two examples of Old Testament apocalyptic exegesis from Daniel and Joel. He ends with an appendix looking at various theories of the origins of biblical apocalyptic literature.

I thought two features of this book were particularly useful. First, Taylor spends a lot of time explaining extrabiblical literature. He does so in chapter two, looking at extrabiblical Jewish literature from the Second Temple to flesh out the features of apocalyptic, and he does so in the appendix when he looks at possible ancient Near Eastern precedents for apocalyptic literature, from Canaanite to Hellenistic to Persian literature. Although Taylor does not dive into these origin theories very fully, he provides detailed citations for the interested reader to follow.

That leads me to the second excellent feature of this book: the extensive bibliographies. Throughout the book Taylor provides annotated bibliographies covering apocalyptic literature in general, commentaries on Daniel and the Book of the Twelve, and various Biblical Hebrew resources such as different grammar and lexica. (While Taylor provides useful information for the student of biblical languages, his book doesn’t assume only an audience that has such training.) Taylor’s book can help the reader build up her scholarly library.

Taylor does a good job of explaining how to preach this often-misinterpreted genre in historical context, and occasionally gives examples of exegesis more fit for AM radio than for scholars and preachers! I do wish he had engaged the history of interpretation more. In sum, this might be a useful textbook, though it is a bit dry for fun reading.

Kregel provided me with a free copy of this book in exchange for a review. To the best of my knowledge, this did not impact my review.

New Article Released at The Interfaith Observer!

My article on Jewish-Christian dialogue, “The Jewish Jesus in the California Desert: A Report from the Tabernacle Experience,” went live yesterday morning at The Interfaith Observer. Do check it out when you get a chance. Thanks to Paul Chaffee, the editor of TIO, for working with me and publishing it!

Interfaith Dialogue and Scriptures: Leading my Church’s “Bible-Qur’an Study.”

Since I am a grad student in Biblical Studies and interreligious dialogue, I recently volunteered my services to my church for adult formation. After a quick poll, our priest found that church members were most interested in two things: biblical studies and interreligious dialogue. Throwing the two together, the “Bible-Qur’an Study” was born. This month I have been leading a small group of people through examination of selected texts portraying shared characters in the Bible and the Qur’an. So far we have done Noah and Mary. In both cases people were perplexed and fascinated.

Now, I should be clear that I approach this with a certain level of respect and humility. Muslims in America are having a PR problem at the moment, to put it mildly! I try to be careful to not feed into whatever misconceptions people carry (consciously or not) about the religion and its adherents.

At the same time, the Qur’an does address itself as guidance for all humanity. In fact, it seems to specifically address Jews and Christians at many points, either by direct address (“O Children of Israel” in Surah 2) or by its repeated echoes and allusions to biblical tradition. So I see myself as merely responding to that address.

Furthermore, four evenings is enough time to only scratch the surface of the tip of the iceberg that is this sacred text. Muslims spend a lifetime pondering it, and they do so within a 1,400-year tradition of pondering it. We are reading small selections in translation.

So how do I get people into the Qur’an in four evenings? Biblical characters are a good place to start. It’s a feature of the Qur’an that Christians naturally find accessible and familiar. It’s also a way for us to return to our own Bible with new questions.

The class so far, in brief:

In the first class I introduced the Qur’an and gave some background on the Qur’anic notion of prophethood.

In the second class we looked at Mary in both traditions, focusing on the infancy narrative in Luke and the narratives of Mary in Surah Maryam (19) and Surah al-Imran (3). I argued that in both texts Mary is described prophetically, even if the religious traditions following those texts generally don’t focus on that reading. Given how many non-Muslims think of Islam as a uniformly patriarchal and gender-oppressive religion, I felt it was important to focus on a strong female figure in the text. (If I remember correctly, Mary is the only woman mentioned by name in the Qur’an.)

Next week we will look at Jesus. I don’t know what we are doing yet.

Two books that have been really helpful to me are John Kaltner’s Ishmael Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers and Michael Lodahl’s Claiming Abraham: Reading the Bible and the Qur’an Side by Side. Both are written by Christians committed to dialogue with Islam, and both focus on shared characters and how each text portrays them differently. For an Islamic perspective on the Qur’an I have been using The Study Qur’an.

One of my firm beliefs is that interfaith dialogue must begin with some commonality, before we can engage the differences. One of the unfortunate casualties of our oppositional, argument-driven media (both mass media and social media) is that sense of meeting someone as a human and finding common ground. In reading Bible and Qur’an in parallel, we find common symbols, common figures, common theological problems, and, of course, common ground.

And perhaps we even find something of beauty. Beauty breaks down fear and invites dialogue and love. This is what I have found when showing The Saint John’s Bible; people who have uncomfortable associations with the Bible relish this Bible because of its beauty.

Hopefully in October we will host a speaker from Islamic Networks Group to give our congregation some background on Islam more generally. We as a parish wish to engage with one of our local mosques, to counter this time of division and hate in America. But for at least a few people from my church, their small glimpses into the Qur’an will have well prepared them to better appreciate and love the people who follow this text.

Amen.

Review: Linguistic Analysis of Biblical Hebrew, Sue Groom

One of the great joys of working on the student’s handbook of Biblical Hebrew vocabulary this summer has been my entry into linguistics and biblical languages. I have long had a layperson’s interest in linguistics, and for me learning about nuances of historical change, sociolinguistics, and such has been one of the payoffs of learning biblical languages, a payoff I had to discover much on my own through authors such as Joel Hoffman and William Schniedewind. This past week I have also started working through

41H1K6GMXWL._SX299_BO1,204,203,200_However, though there are some great books introducing the layperson to linguistics and biblical interpretation, many seem to be more geared more to NT Greek: Silva’s Biblical Words and Their Meaning, Campbell’s Advances in the Study of Biblical Greek, and so forth. So when I saw Sue Groom’s Linguistic Analysis of Biblical HebrewI ordered it on interlibrary loan right away. Groom’s book aims to introduce the linguistic tools that scholars have applied to the Hebrew Bible. However, though there were some useful chapters in this book, on the whole I found it somewhat of a disappointment.

The first hazard is the mention in the introduction that the book is based on Groom’s MA thesis. This is strange: theses and surveys tend to be very different genres. The second hazard is apparent in the table contents, which promises chapters on the corpus of ancient Hebrew, the development of the Masoretic text, the nature of Biblical Hebrew, ancient biblical translations, comparative philology, lexical semantics, and text linguistics. Hence, rather than orienting biblical studies students to the basic linguistic theories—e.g., syntax, phonology, morphology, etc.—she dives into current topics of discussion. And out of this 174-page book, the longest chapter (31 pages) is devoted to ancient translations that are better surveyed in a book on Old Testament textual criticism than in this book.

In the chapters that were the most useful, Groom glosses over the issues that perhaps need the most treatment. For example, her chapter on “The Nature of Biblical Hebrew” surveys discussions of diglossia, diachronic variation, and dialectical variation and geography—all in 14 pages. I found it hard to follow some of her discussions because she summarized complex arguments without sufficient examples. Still, I gained much from that chapter in particular, as well as her discussion of lexical semantics and comparative philology.

Perhaps the most useful part of her book is the conclusion, which integrates the many different methods she described in an analysis of selected terms in Judges 4. This really illustrated how one can use the biblical languages responsibly instead of in one of the exegetical fallacies so common in popular preaching.

So rather than recommending the entire book, I would recommend selected chapters, with the caveat that since this book was published in 2003 the scholarly discussions have certainly advanced. Overall, despite its usefulness, this book’s genesis as a thesis showed, since much of it felt like a literature review. For me, an ideal book of this kind might include a kind of workbook format, with examples to work through and questions for students to tackle.

That said, I just found out yesterday that I might be taking a seminar on historical linguistics and biblical Hebrew this fall, so I am sure to find out more about this area!

My new article on The Saint John’s Bible.

After some months of showing and admiring The Saint John’s Bible, some months ago I wondered if I could find any of Donald Jackson’s better work so I could connect it with this amazing illuminated Bible. I approached the people at Saint John’s University, the patron of The Saint John’s Bible, to see if they would be interested in a short piece for The Scribe, the newsletter of the project. My piece was published recently, and it looks good! (Read here.)

"Crucifixion" in Luke

“Crucifixion” in Luke

Now, Donald Jackson is a god in the English-language calligraphy world. First, for many decades he was (and may still be, for all I know) the official calligrapher for the Royal Crown. (He’s British.) Also, working with this Bible has gotten me in touch with some local calligraphers, including Cari Ferraro who herself wrote a piece on this Bible. Every calligrapher I have met speaks with Jackson with a certain awe. The man is a prodigy who started calligraphy formally at 13. Yet by all reports, he is also very down to earth and supportive of young talent.

Still, because he built his fame in the pre-internet age, he does not have a website. So I had a heck of a time finding any of his earlier work. The only thing I could find was a catalogue of a 1988 exhibition of his work called Painting With Words. (Coincidentally, both Cari and my calligraphy teacher saw the exhibit, which came to Santa Clara’s Triton Museum of Art.) Thankfully, this catalog has a few pieces that reminded me quite a bit of some of Jackson’s illuminations in The Saint John’s Bible.

I just posted my article on my Academia page—go read it if you are interested.

“These Are the Words” in Biblical Hebrew: Why You Should Buy our Upcoming Book.

John Hobbins over at Ancient Hebrew Poetry describes the need for a handbook of Ancient Hebrew vocabulary based on semantic domains. He contrasts this to most of the handbooks available now, such as Landes and Van Pratico/Pelt:

From a pedagogical point of view, furthermore, there is something perverse about trying to assimilate vocabulary according to frequency spectra.

Hobbins is right: this is not how people learn a language naturally. Of course any language textbook should start with high-frequency vocabulary. But you will learn that vocabulary in the context of the language overall, not as isolated words to memorize in order of frequency.

Hobbins recommends an English-language resource that arranges Ancient Hebrew vocabulary by semantic domains, or logical categories such as colors, anatomy, military terms, etc. He wrote that in 2007. So far nobody has written such a book.

This frustration was what led my mentor, David Pleins, to start writing “And These Are the Words”: A Student’s Guide to Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Categories. At some point in the process he brought he on as co-author. After Pleins devised the initial lists and categories, I scoured books with titles like The Days of Our Years: A Lexical Semantic Study of the Life Cycle in Biblical IsraelThe Semantics of Ancient Hebrew Colour Lexemes, and Weathering the Psalms: A Meteorotheological Survey to expand our lists. Oh, and yes, we did crib from Hobbins’ list of human anatomy terms.

I am proud to say that yesterday morning (3 AM!) we got the draft into the publisher. It feels nice to have a contract and know this will come out.

As I said, nobody has published a book like this in English before. Mark Wilson wrote a similar one for New Testament Greek, but it has one fatal flaw: he excludes all rare words except those etymologically related to common words. If we had taken such a principle in our book, it would be 1/4 of its size. This especially applies to many “daily life” words for clothes, furniture, etc., many of which are infrequent in the Bible.

Why might our book be useful?

First, vocabulary acquisition is essential to fluid and fun reading of the Scripture in its original languages. But the Hebrew Bible has many words that are infrequent, words that will not appear in frequency handbooks like Landes and Van Pelt/Practico. And learning vocabulary is best done in context—in this case, in the context of related words. So rather than merely learning a word for “scribe,” we can also learn words denoting books, writings, documents, pens, and ink.

But learning words by semantic domains should not just be an exercise in rote memorization. In an appendix of our book, we have collected “cluster verses” that contain several words for one category. For example, Numbers 31:50 is an ideal verse for those trying to learn words for jewelry:

And we have brought the Lord’s offering, what each of us found, articles of gold [זָהָב], armlets [אֶצְעָדָה] and bracelets [צָמִיד], signet rings [טַבַּעַת], ear-rings [עָגִיל], and pendants [כוּמָז], to make atonement for ourselves before the Lord.’

That’s six different words in the semantic domain of “Jewelry,” which we have under “Clothing.” These verses enable students to learn biblical Hebrew vocabulary by engaging the text.

Second, these lists can serve as a springboard for many exercises in linguistic exploration. Because this is a student handbook, we did not differentiate words beyond basic semantic referents. But of course, words that refer to the same thing can be very different. The word “testicles” and the word “balls” refer to the same thing, but they are not used in the same contexts!

Similarly, we intend these lists to be used by students of Biblical Hebrew to compare words. Is one word poetic and another used in prose? Is one earlier and one later? Is one distinctive to a particular author?

For example, while reading Proverbs, I might come across the word יָפִיחַ, “witness,” as in a legal witness. But I wouldn’t know at first glance that this word is distinctive to Proverbs, and that the rest of the Hebrew Bible uses עֵד to refer to a witness.

Throughout the book, we have marked all words that are rare (used <10 times) as well as hapax legomena. This enables the student to explore words that are rare and have contested or ambiguous meaning. This also signals to the reader that some of our glosses are less sure than others—not because of any shoddy work on our part but because the word itself is infrequent to start with. If a word appears once in the Hebrew Bible, and if it is part of a list in Leviticus or employed as figurative language in poetry, context might not tell us much about what the word means.

Thirdthis book might be very useful for programs teaching biblical Hebrew using communicative pedagogy, such as Randall Buth’s Living Biblical Hebrew and Paul Overland’s Learning Biblical Hebrew Interactively. The lists in our book supply many terms used in daily life. There is something weird about having studied a language for years and being able to talk about complex morphology and syntax, but being unable to create sentences any five-year-old could create in their native tongue: “I want to eat an apple,” “The tree is in the forest,” etc.

I will continue to post updates as we hear back from the publisher. In the meantime, I might do a few blog posts illustrating the usefulness of this tool.

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.