Three more reviews of “Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary.”

There is great joy in watching one’s creation move out into the world. Since my last post on Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories: A Student’s Guide to Nouns in the Old Testament, three more reviews have popped up!

Kerry Lee at Bite-Sized Exegesis writes in a long-gushing review:

I, personally, find it to be quite a useful ready reference, particularly as a way of familiarizing myself with the vocabulary of a conceptual category that I had not yet had occasion to master, but also for its curated bibliography and suggestions for further reading. Overall, this is a brilliantly designed and executed book that addresses a real need in the field of Biblical Hebrew studies and pedagogy.

John Barker, OFM, reviews it for The Bible Today:

Students of biblical Hebrew may find this a useful complement to standard vocabulary resources, many of which are listed in an extensive bibliography at the end.

Unfortunately, this review seems to only exist behind paywalls.

Oddest of all, a French biblioblogger has reviewed the book. He rightly discerns that our book is for more than mere memorization:

The work is not very thick, but, in my opinion, relatively effective, for the least that we bother to approach it with method.

In a series of blog posts soon to come out on the Logos Academic Blog, I’ll review what this method is. In the meantime, be sure to get a copy on Amazon, or at the Zondervan booth if you are headed to the SBL!

“Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary,” Three Months in.

Putting together Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories: A Student’s Guide to Nouns in the Old Testament was NOT fun. Like Santa, I spent a summer making lists and checking them twice—and then three and four times, and then a fifth time for good measure.

Since this debutante came to the ball (Amazon) three months ago, then, it’s been satisfying to watch her woo the suitors (reviewers). One professor in my program, known for not being easily satisfied, raved to me about how well put-together the resource is. I used it myself when writing a paper on gendered imagery in the Song of Songs. That paper won a departmental award!

Zondervan was generous in sending out several review copies to known biblio-bloggers. The first to take the bait, Jacob Cerone, writes:

My only complaint about the guide is that I didn’t have it at my disposal almost a decade ago when I started learning Hebrew.

Then John Kight at Sojourner Theology:

Pleins has done a great service to students of the Old Testament and I sense that his approach will be utilized more broadly in the coming years. … I couldn’t recommend it more highly!

Lastly, prolific blogger Phil Long at Reading Acts put up his review:

This is a fascinating resource for anyone who has already acquired the basic vocabulary of the Hebrew Bible … The book is both a unique and useful reference for students of the Hebrew Bible.

Phil has over 3,000 subscribers—this was a big endorsement. When he posted his review, I watched the book’s Amazon Best Sellers Rank spike upwards from the 300,000s to the 42,000s over the next few days! Thanks, Phil!

Still, at times I explain the book and I get a quizzical look: so what? What’s the purpose? How can it deepen exegesis?

Answering this question, I’ve prepared a series of blog posts on how to use the book to deepen studies of biblical imagery, historical linguistics, and archaeology. They’ll be starting soon over at the LAB—The Logos Academic Blog. I’ll be linking to them here when they start.

“Art Interpreting Scripture” catalog just released!

In the two years I’ve worked with The Saint John’s Bible, Heritage Edition at Santa Clara University Archives & Special Collections, I’ve noticed some of the conversations it begins about art, faith, Scripture, and the imagination.

So for the current exhibit in our gallery space, I was asked to put together some of these materials. At the same time, we were offered CIVA’s traveling exhibit of the works of Japanese Christian printmaker Sadao Watanabe.

The result is Art Interpreting Scripture: Characters in and Creators of the BibleAnd the catalog just came in!

We’ve divided the exhibit in two sides: the Characters side, and the Creators side.

On the Characters side, we’ve paired Donald Jackson’s work from The Saint John’s Bible, Barry’s Moser’s woodcuts from The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible, and Sadao Watanabe’s washi prints. Here’s their three very different takes on the crucifixion.

Jackson is all gold, grace, the glorified God.

Moser is the suffering Jesus, warts and all, stark darkness.


I think of Watanabe somewhere in the middle. His Jesus wears a kimono. Inculturation is a big part of his aesthetic.

The Characters side of the exhibit enabled us to incorporate The Saint John’s Bible with the Watanabe prints.

For the Creators side, we focused on our Special Collections books, looking at how the book as an art form mediates visual interpretation of the Scriptures.

When you walk in the exhibit, this is the first case you see:

The lower book is the Mission Santa Clara Choirbook. Santa Clara University is on the site of Mission Santa Clara, one of the Franciscan missions. When the Jesuits got the land in 1851, this book was part of the mission library they inherited. It’s one of our best sources on liturgical music in the California Missions. It’s also bigheavy. The cover is metal plated. The pages are vellum—animal skin.

I opened the choirbook to a liturgical selection containing some Psalms in Latin. Pair this with The Saint John’s Bible Book of Psalms, which opens with a two-page illumination containing symbols of church and synagogue. Some of these symbols are specific to Saint John’s Abbey, who sponsored this Bible.

The Psalms are prayed in church and synagogue. They are prayed at Saint John’s Abbey by the Benedictine monks in their Daily Office and their daily lives. They were, and still are, prayed at Mission Santa Clara.

Every book tells a story. These books of Psalms tell the stories of the communities that created them and used them for their piety and devotion. In an age of hypertext and iPad reading, sometimes we forget the importance of the materiality the book.

Enough preview. If you get a chance, do come by and see the gallery exhibit!

Why I’ve Been So Silent Lately.

…. At least on this blog, that is. In real life, silence is not one of my virtues.

June has been a wild month.

On June 13, Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories was released. Zondervan sent 50 copies to “influencers” around the country — people who teach Biblical Hebrew at universities and seminaries. 10 copies went to academic journals for review. Several more went to bloggers. One professor has already told us he will assign the book for his second-year Hebrew students. We got positive feedback from Michael Halcomb, known for his work in ancient Greek pedagogy.

For several days, we have been, on and off, ranked the #1 New Release in “Christian Bible Language Studies.” Surely many New York Times bestsellers come from that genre. We even briefly hit the 21,000s in the Amazon Best Sellers ranking.

We also got our first public review from biblioblogger Jacob Cerone. He writes:

My only complaint about the guide  is that I didn’t have it at my disposal almost a decade ago when I started learning Hebrew.

Right now, I am devising a virtual book tour, here and on some blogs of friends in the Bible world.

The book came out on a Tuesday. On Saturday, my wife graduated from college—Santa Clara University—with an honors degree in History and Spanish. She won the coveted Redwood Prize in the history department for a paper on Jews’ legal rights (and lack thereof) in the early American Republic.

The next day, we flew out to Florida so I could teach a class on The Saint John’s Bible for the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine. Essentially I ran through my book material with them. They were an incredibly thoughtful and talkative group, which made my job easy as they got into great discussions on the art. More on that to come.


Pedagogy is Philosophy — or, why the medium is the message.

In doing interfaith dialogue—or more broadly, in exposing yourself to different religious communities more broadly—one of the important competencies is not just understanding other religions, but also understanding some of the dynamics of how religious communities function. These dynamics are not specific to any one religion but recur in many different communities.

One dynamic that has been on my mind late relates to how pedagogy is theology— and how different pedagogies create very different kinds of scholars. Sometimes we think of pedagogy as something incidental, less key than the “real” knowledge, more an instrument to the end of creating knowledge than a meaningful part of that end. Instead, I would argue that pedagogy conveys its own ethos. The medium is the message — especially in teaching a religion.

This has been on my mind a great deal because of my Islamic Law class this semester. The professor did advanced work in Islamic Law at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, and is now doing a PhD in the subject in a Western “Islamic Studies” setting. The questions asked, the methods used, the scholars consulted differ quite a bit. He tells us that the shift from one system to another has not been easy.

What is this shift? I’ll give a few examples.

In my MA studies in Bible at the Graduate Theological Union, most of my coursework focuses around methodology. To give a few examples of courses I have taken: Race and Ethnicity in the New Testament; Literary Criticism and the Old Testament; Historical Linguistics of Biblical Hebrew. The coursework revolves around learning how to use various scholarly methods, rather than on just reading texts. The classes are seminars with lots of discussion, stressing the students’ ability to creatively use the methods. If I continue my studies and get a PhD in Biblical Studies (inshallah!), the main hurdle I must pass is writing a dissertation, which proves that I can do original work, that I can be creative. Yes, there are comprehensive exams that demonstrate your knowledge of the tradition of scholarship that came before you. Yes, part of the evaluation of the PhD is how well you understand what other scholars have said about a topic. But you show your understanding of those scholars through critiquing them. A significant part of writing a doctoral thesis involves finding something new to say in a scholarly conversation. You have to kill your idols at a certain point.

This system produces scholars who are creative and rigorous. However, you can legitimately get a PhD in Biblical Studies without having read the whole Bible — even in English. Heck, I know New Testament scholars who haven’t read the whole New Testament in Greek. One might suggest that rigor in one area might come at the expense of another.

By contrast, some years ago I spent a summer studying at the Center for Buddhist Studies at Rangjung Yeshe Monastery in Kathmandu. The program was part Western-style comparative religion, part Tibetan-style monastic education. The latter classes involved reading a set text, a primer of Vajrayana practice titled The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva. Class time consisted of the teacher commenting on this text line-by-line, explicating its every meaning in great depth. If I remember correct, the didactic poem had roughly 40 four-line stanzas. We spent weeks going through it. Of course, there was time for question and answer, but we did not engage in the kind of free-flowing discussion that I have in my graduate seminars at the GTU.

Tibetan Buddhist monastic culture, like the Western academy, has its own gradations of study and hard-earned titles: lopon, lama, khenpo, etc. One who has advanced far in this education system has spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours intensively studying texts, their languages, their explication and exegesis.

While there is of course creativity and diversity in Tibetan Buddhist thought, as I understand it, the scholarly degrees focus more on whether or not one can faithfully pass on the tradition. Similarly, as I understand it, traditional Islamic madrasas have the same ethos. This might produce a conservative scholarly culture. But you can bet these scholars know all the texts inside and out, in a way that someone with a PhD in Buddhist Studies or Islamic Studies from a Western secular university simply won’t.

In both of these cases, the curriculum reflects the practice of the scholarly community: is a scholar’s job to creatively critique and rethink the tradition, or is it to faithfully pass on the tradition? Every religious community has to rethink these questions anew in every generation. But the intellectual leaders of the tradition are themselves formed to follow a balance of creativity and faithfulness by their own education—in its content, its delivery, and its criteria for assessing them as scholars.

Understanding this has helped me better appreciate my more conservative Christian friends. The curriculum at a liberal Protestant seminary and at a conservative Protestant seminary reflect the same differences as above. What examples of this do you see in your tradition?

On Submitting My First Paper to SBL.

For graduate students in biblical studies, presenting at the national Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) meeting is a rite of passage. I have just submitted my first proposal. Needless to say, I am nervous!

The SBL meeting every November is actually part of a smorgasbord of people who study religion. The SBL meets concurrently with the American Academy of Religion, the premier organization for those who study religion: Buddhist Studies, Islamic Studies, sociology of religion, etc. These two Goliaths established, an army of smaller organizations swarm in at the same time, with much more specific titles like the “Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies” and the “International Qur’anic Studies Association.”

And even within the SBL there is a HUGE range of different types of scholars: historians, social-scientists, literary scholars, theologians, archaeologists, postcolonial interpreters…. the list goes on. This is my favorite part of biblical studies. We are defined by subject, not method, so the number of perspectives on anything is quite vast.

My proposal is called “Jesus in the Garden Temple: Intertextuality and Visual Exegesis of the Song of Songs in The Saint John’s Bible.” I look at the Song of Songs in this Bible; show how its illuminations create connections between the Song, symbolism of Solomon’s Temple, and Jesus in the Gospels; and then speculate on what those connections mean.

As readers of this blog well know I have been working on this particular work of biblical art for some time now. I am very excited to spread the word about this project to other scholars looking at the intersection of the Bible and art. This paper is a spinoff from my book project, looking at the intersection of intertextuality and theology in The Saint John’s Bible.

I should hear back by early April to see if I got in. If I succeed then I will share more information here.


What is it like finagling a book contract?

Recently, I was offered a contract from Liturgical Press to write a book on The Saint John’s Bible. If you’re not familiar with the project, this video is a good place to start:

The book is tentatively titled Canonical Conversations. In brief: I am looking at some of the repeated symbolism of the artwork in The Saint John’s Bible, how it connections different parts of the Bible (“intertextuality”), and how those connections reflect a few contemporary issues in Catholic biblical interpretation.

As anyone who has written an academic book can tell you, the process of getting a contract can take months. So I am delighted I got the contract. Now, of course, I have to actually write the book!

What have I learned so far about getting a contract?

First, you don’t need to have the whole book written. This surprised me. For those who don’t know, it is very common to receive a contract to publish academic non-fiction with only one chapter. I sent in one chapter, an introduction, and an outline of the whole volume. (Bart Ehrman says he is on a perpetual cycle to publish one general audience scholarly book every two years with HarperOne. Most academics are not such productive public scholars!) My mentor and co-author on my first book, David Pleins, told me that he always gets a contract before writing the whole book. You don’t want to write a book nobody will publish, or revise ad nauseum to make it fit what a publisher wants.

Second, trust in others to help you articulate what you are doing. My thoughts on The Saint John’s Bible have deepened in the last year as I continue to speak about the project, especially with those who are also immersed in it. My own chronology:

June 2015: My workplace has a copy of the Heritage Edition, a high-quality ‘facsimile’ of the original. I was assigned the task of educating myself on it to show it to classes and community groups. In the course of my work, I started noticing things about the art that nobody had written about—particularly connections between different illuminations and how that reveals the way art exegetes Scripture.

February 2016: I gave my first paper on the project, “Illuminating Abraham: The Saint John’s Bible and Jewish-Christian Dialogue,” at the Illuminating Words, Transforming Beauty conference at Spring Arbor University in Michigan. I also met Michael Patella, one of the main scholars behind The Saint John’s Bible, who encouraged me to write something on it. At the time my idea was to do an iconographic “field guide” of sorts, researching each symbol used in this Bible. (I have since discarded that tedious idea!)

August 2016: For the Catholic Biblical Association meeting—which just happened to be at my university—I presented a paper, “Visualizing Feminist Exegesis: Revelation 12 in The Saint John’s Bible.” At the CBA I spoke with Hans Christoffersen, one of the head editors at Liturgical Press, about the possibility of writing a book. Surprisingly, Liturgical had nothing in the works on the subject. Hans told me to send him a proposal when the time was right.

Third, it requires patience. In October 2016, I sent my formal proposal to Hans. From here things basically went the way Michael Hyatt describes. Hans liked the proposal; he showed it to the editorial committee and they liked it; he showed it to the publishing board and it got through; and then Hans had to make the financial projections work.

It is nerve-wracking to wait to hear about whether or not the publisher likes your idea! As Rachelle Gardner points out, publishers can seem very slow, when in fact they are often crazy busy juggling several projects at different levels of development and keeping to strict schedules. Far from some of the horror stories I have heard, my editors at Zondervan and Liturgical have been responsive and enthusiastic. This might be one of the perks of writing trade non-fiction where the editor hopes to turn a profit, rather than just sell a few hundred copies to the same university libraries that buy everything else they publish.

For me, the financial projections step was difficult because the book has to be printed in full-color, glossy paper for the images, hence higher production costs. I have heard that finagling that kind of printing can be hard. I am glad I am writing on something near and dear to Liturgical Press’s heart! (The press is affiliated with the monks who commissioned The Saint John’s Bible.) Finally, on February 1, 2017, I was formally offered a contract.

Now, my manuscript is due on August 1, 2017. From what David has told me, publishers really, really like it when you stick to deadlines. You don’t want to be known as someone who is a pain to work with. This contrasts with other activities in academia that are known for being painfully slow, aka academic journals.

Fourth, be humble, but don’t underestimate yourself either. As a graduate student, there is often a nagging voice of doubt in the back of my head: should I be writing a book? Shouldn’t I follow the proper order: do my doctorate, publish it as a book, then branch out into a second book?

When I was getting married, several people told my 21-year-old fiance that she should wait until she finished college to get married. It’s the proper order of things, they said. She asked: why? They never had a good answer.

If you have found a question that intrigues you, and if others whose judgment you trust think you have some good ideas, then why not move forward?

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.