Monthly Archives: September 2015

Graduate school: the madness has begun.

Three weeks in and graduate school is so far going swimmingly.  The classes are easier than I thought they would be; my fellow students are a diverse, intelligent, and friendly bunch; and my professors are helpful.  Also, after three years of the frantic quarter system, it is so nice to be back on the semester system!

I elected to take a language-heavy term this semester.  Thankfully I got much of my biblical languages work done as an undergraduate, but I believe there is always more to learn.  So I am taking Dead Sea Scrolls, Muslim-Christian Dialogue, Intro to Rabbinic Literature, and Northwest Semitic Epigraphy.   That last class is basically Hebrew inscriptions from the 10th to 6th centuries BCE, which is often harder to make out than it is to actually parse and understand.  The Dead Sea Scrolls class also has a Hebrew reading section so I am getting practice on unpointed texts.

After going to an undergrad school where the student body was rather, well, monochromatic, the diversity of the Graduate Theological Union is a breath of fresh air.  The GTU is a consortium of seminaries and institutes, both ecumenical and interreligious.  Biblical Studies students (that is, me) get to cross-register with UC Berkeley’s Classics and Near Eastern Studies departments, which opens doors into Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Akkadian, Sumerian, Egyptian, Aramaic, Ugaritic, and, most important for later, Arabic.

The school I affiliate with, the Jesuit School of Theology, is also a part of Santa Clara University (my undergrad school). This means I get to keep my SCU student job working in Archives and Special Collections.  My main task in that department is showing off the Saint John’s Bible, which we have a Heritage Edition (high-quality facsimile) of.  Today I gave presentations on Science and Religion in the Saint John’s Bible to two sections of a freshman religious studies class.  This was my first time presenting the SJB to a class, and it was a very gratifying experience.  My next class visit is Friday, and then I am doing two more in November.


A few other things I have been pondering lately.

First, the other day I was riding BART home and praying/discerning what my next step will be in graduate school.  I have the kind of scholarly temperament where I like to make broad connections.  I like doing things not many others have looked at.  I have the heart that wants to change the world now, and a head that enjoys being an antiquarian and a philologist.

So it hit me, while I was riding the train and listening to Surah ar-Rahman, that I should move into the connections between Qur’an and Bible.   A few of my professors assured me that yes, this is a thing, and it seems it is a hot thing in biblical studies these days.  Though I have taken classes on the Qur’an and dabbled ever-so-slightly in Qur’anic Arabic, it has never occurred to me that this might be my calling.

Mostly, I want Christians to be aware that we are all part of one spiritual heritage, that Muslims are not some terrifying collective stranger to be feared.  Our scriptures have more in common than we think.

And I guess being married (coming up on one month now) has made me more settled in general.  I dabbled a lot as an undergraduate, and that dabbling made me a stronger graduate student, but I am at a point now where I must focus my interest in a sustained research direction.  And thankfully my languages are strong enough that I don’t need to choose Tanakh or New Testament to focus on, but can maybe work across both.

Major point: marriage has changed the way I think.  I like who I am as a married man.  And of course, I love the woman I married.


I promised one last point.  I really liked Jamie Holmes’ piece in the New York Times, “The Case for Teaching Ignorance.”  In it she focuses on teaching ignorance in the science curriculum.  But why not the humanities?

When I am in class decoding an ancient inscription, pondering the nature of the sectarian community at Qumran, or theorizing about the beginnings of rabbinic Judaism, it is very obvious that we antiquarians know very little.  But for at least a year now I have thought we could convey this better to the public.

So what about this book idea: an anthology on what we don’t know about the ancient world.  Each chapter would be written by an esteemed expert in a given field.  So a Homer expert could write about what we don’t know about Homer, a Qumran expert on what we don’t know about Qumran, and so forth.  And each chapter would have to answer the question of what one find would answer the most questions about that area.  From classical antiquity we have many writings we know only by name, since all copies are lost to us.  But if we found the epic that narrates the time gap between the Iliad and the Odyssey, what might we answer?  If we found the lost parts of Aeschylus’ Prometheus trilogy, what might we discover?  So the title of this might be “Missing Manuscripts.”  Or something like that.

Just a thought.  Signing out for now.

Book Review: Understanding the Alphabet of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

This 39-page guide to the paleography of the Dead Sea Scrolls could not have been written by a more qualified guide.  Not only is Yardeni a scholar of ancient Semitic philology and paleography, but she has a degree in graphic arts and calligraphy, so she brings an artist’s eye to her work that most scholars of ancient texts don’t have such formal training in.

yardeniIn this lavishly illustrated book, Yardeni divides Hebrew paleography during the Second Temple period into four categories:

  1. Pre-Jewish (late 3rd century – 167 BCE)
  2. Hasmonean (167-37 BCE)
  3. Herodian (37 BCE – 70 CE)
  4. Post-Herodian (70 CE – 135 CE)

She provides detailed examples of each period, although the last period is, she admits, not well-attested.  At the end of the book she provides a “cheat sheet” of the specific writing styles of each period.  However, through these four period she sees three major developments:

  1. Development of medial/final forms familiar today (e.g. of mem, nun, and tsadi)
  2. Leveling of letter height, more even lines
  3. Development of serifs/flourishes in gimel, zayin, tet, nun, ayin, tasdi, and shin/sin

Overall I really enjoyed the pictures in this book, which made it clear how the script changed over time.  I do think she could have made the book longer and described certain things more.  For example, she could have devoted specific chapters to each of the four time periods, rather than breezed through each one in a few paragraphs.  Often I felt the ratio of illustration to text was off, so that images of manuscripts were not explained adequately.

Still, this is a fun little volume, and I would recommend it for a good 45 minutes of reading and future reference.

Reading Challenge #14: The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems

Although I live about two blocks from the largest museum of Egyptian antiquities on the West Coast, I know little to nothing about ancient Egypt. I picked up this anthology of Middle Kingdom literature to remedy that defect. Parkinson, a scholar in the Department of Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum, translates and provides commentary on these 13 short works of literature, with genres ranging from moral tales, dialogues exploring various moral and spiritual crises, and teachings of wisdom that remind me of biblical proverbs. Unlike many edited anthologies, his commentary was just as vivid and interesting as the texts themselves.

sinuheParkinson explains that the literature in this book comes from a time of cultural unease:

The Middle Kingdom was preceded by a period of less centralized power, when the country was divided, and its literature remained very aware of the dangers of civil unrest and the chaos of the interregnum. (5)

That being true, the literature in this book also attempts to uphold the cultural beliefs and structures of an early Egypt, such as the divinity of the king and the moral order of the cosmos.

Its literature is, in modern terms … didactic. The poems are generally unromantic in all senses of the word, but they are not impersonal or abstract; they have an intimate mode of address and deal with personal themes, being concerned with the human heart. Man’s ethical life is their central concern, and not the cultivation of subjectivity, or personal emotions such as romantic life. (9)

But there is always an edge. For example, “The Teaching of King Amenemhat” is a Hamlet-like text, in which an assassinated king visits his son in a vision and advises him not to trust his advisors as he did. While this text firmly holds to the divinity of the Egyptian king, it also alludes to the anomie of regicide. Another text, “The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant,” is narrated by a peasant who was robbed and left destitute by an official until the king himself rights the situation. Yes, justice is served in the end; but in the meantime, life is unfair, and the powerful abuse their privileges. These texts are emblematic of many others in this anthology that walk a fine line between skepticism and chaos on the one hand, and upholding the divinely sanctioned social order on the other.

I would recommend this anthology to someone unexposed to Egyptian literature. Parkinson includes a chronology and detailed bibliography for anyone wishing to go further. (Too bad most of the works in the bibliography are in German and French!) For me the fun was in seeing parallels with biblical literature, even particular idioms that sound familiar from the Hebrew Bible. Parkinson continually laments that we know so little about each text and so many of them are only partially extant, but the fact we have anything this old at all amazes me.

Tomorrow I have my first class of graduate school: day one of “Dead Sea Scrolls and Scriptures.”  So I will set aside this reading challenge for the time being.  For everyone else beginning school, let us pray for wisdom and discernment to not only acquire knowledge but know how to use it.

Onward and upward!

Reading Challenge #13: 1-3 John.

1-3 johnOne of my initial summer goals was to read the entire New Testament in Greek using Dan Wallace’s suggested reading chart.  Once summer started, reality got in the way!  So this might be a side project for the next few years.  Oops.

Still, what better place to start than with some of the shortest, linguistically simplest texts in the New Testament: the Johannine letters?

J. Klay Harrison and Chad M. Foster’s reader, 1-3 John: A General Reader, makes it easier to do that.  They include the text of 1-3 John with running vocabulary and grammatical helps.  They also include appendices on text-criticism of 1-3 John, vocabulary 50 or more times sorted by frequency and alphabetically, and paradigm charts.  This reader is part of a series of books in Koine Greek education, AGROS, which aim to teach conversational Koine as well as textual and exegetical Koine.  The series is a work in progress, and this was my first encounter with it.

If this book is any indication, AGROS is going to produce some useful texts.  I really enjoyed using it!  First, its choice of texts is good for a beginner.  1-3 John covers some heady theological content, yet its vocabulary is very small and its sentences very simple.  Plus, the letters are short.  So an intermediate reader of Greek can easily read them and feel the satisfaction of finishing three books of the New Testament.  Harrison and Foster have done a superb job of parsing each verb and giving definitions of new words.  Before each chapter, they place a list of new vocabulary, so if the reader wants to make flash cards they can.

brownHowever, there are a few ways this book could be better.  First, I wish there was more exegetical help to make sense of what the Greek means.  This book only helps with the linguistic aspect of the text.  I used Raymond Brown’s The Gospel and Epistles of John: A Concise Commentary as a companion volume for the exegetical help and historical/literary background.  Second, I didn’t care too much for the text-critical helps in this reader.  As far as I know, most intermediate Greek classes don’t spend time on textual criticism, so why did Harrison and Foster put so much of that in?  Still, they put the text-critical notes in an appendix at the end, so if you don’t want to use it, it’s easy to ignore.  Third, there are some places that it would have been nice to have help with idioms.  In 3 John 5, for example, the Greek text reads:

Ἀγαπητέ, πιστὸν ποιεῖς

The NAB in Brown’s commentary renders this “Beloved, you are faithful,” and the NRSV, “Beloved, you do faithfully.”  So there’s an idiom here with ποιεῖς I was not familiar with.  Oversights like this are uncommon and easy to correct.

What about the letters themselves?  After all, this reading challenge is focused on Scripture itself, not just reviewing teaching aids.

  1. Raymond Brown argues that these letters were written by the Johannine school, perhaps by the same author who wrote the Gospel of John.  He puts their composition between 90-100 CE, so toward the later end of New Testament texts.  We see the same strong moral/spiritual dualism in these letters that we see in John, e.g. in 1 John 3:8-9.
  2. The main purpose of the letters seems to be addressing a schismatic group within the Johannine community, warning the community not to follow those teachers.  Brown comments that perhaps this is an early form of the docetic or gnostic teaching, both ways of denying Christ’s humanity, a denial not too implausible if one reads John’s Gospel very selectively.  For example, the author emphasizes the importance of observing one’s behavior to see if they are living a godly life (1 John 2:3-6) and discerning where the Spirit is at work (1 John 4:1).  He seems to imply that these false teachers neither live according to the commandments nor have the Spirit at work among them.

For me, these weren’t the most interesting books of Scripture.  And it is painfully obvious by now that I’m not going to finish my summer reading challenge, I am definitely keeping it on tap for next summer.  One way or another, I will read these books.

Onward and upward!

Reading Challenge #12: Gospel of Luke.

Continuing my summer reading challenge, I’ve just finished Michael Patella’s commentary on the Gospel of Luke. This is part of the New Collegeville Bible Commentary, published by the Liturgical Press out of Saint John’s (Benedictine) Abbey in Collegeville, MN.  Patella is a Benedictine monk and New Testament professor at Saint John’s University.  This series provides very brief commentary on the English text, useful for parish study groups or general readers looking for basic exegesis. Here I have a few thoughts on Luke and a few thoughts on the commentary.

518PDEsGUNL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_One of the difficulties of studying the Bible is that everything looks so familiar. It’s hard to step back and really read the text, really notice something new, because we think we know it so well already. This is especially an issue with the gospels. I’ve read Luke a few times now, and my New Testament Greek class last spring spent the entire quarter reading it in Greek. Still, a few things surprised me.

  1. The stereotype of Luke is that he is the likeable gospel, the one that is most open to women and Gentiles, most interested in the poor. Supposedly, he is more readable than Mark, less eschatological than Matthew, and less cosmic than John. So one thing that really surprised me and sunk in for me this time reading Luke was just how often Jesus encounters demons, evil spirits, and Satan himself, from the temptation in the desert (4:1-13) to various cures of people infested with demons (4:31-37, 8:26-39, 9:35-50), to Satan himself pushing Judas to betray Jesus (22:1-6). Jesus is so good at dealing with demons that at one point, people accuse him of being one (11:14-23). Whether or not one believes that demons and evil spirits exist outside our imaginations, it is a commonly accepted fact that in the ancient world people ascribed many things to supernatural forces which we would give medical diagnoses to today. These many mentions of demons remind me that this is indeed a first-century text, not written with modern ideas of mental illness in mind.
  2. In his introduction, Patella lists reversal as a main theme of Luke’s gospel. Luke often shows reversals of power or privilege taking place in Jesus’ ministry, or has Jesus speaking about future reversals. For example, the centurion comes to Jesus to have his daughter healed, upsetting the colonizing relationship this man has over Judean peasants (7:1-10). Jesus gives his famous “suffer unto me the children” line, reversing his disciples’ devaluation of the child. And many of his teachings describe reversals, whether in the sermon on the mount (6:20-49), the “first shall be last” speech (13:22-30), or him telling his disciples that the first among them is servant of all (22:24-30). To me, these reversals are all part of the kingdom ethics, meant to be lived out in the here and now. This time around reading Luke, I saw this theme more than in the past.

I liked Patella’s commentary. At 158 pages, he gives neither too little nor too much. Most of it is exegetical, but he also gives cultural background in Greek and Palestinian daily life and customs, nuances of the Greek, and comparisons to the other synoptics. At the end of the book he includes questions for reflection appropriate to a bible study. For someone wanting to read Luke with some basic commentary, from a Roman Catholic but mainly from a historical-critical-literary perspective, this is a useful book in a useful series.

Also, an added bonus: the cover (seen above) features the “Parables Anthology” from the Gospel of Luke in the Saint John’s Bible.  Starting from the upper left and moving to the lower right, this illumination depicts the parables of the lost coin (15:8-10), the lost sheep (15:4-7), the good Samaritan (10:29-37), the prodigal son (15:11-32), Lazarus and the rich man (16:19-31), and Mary and Martha (10:38-42).   This illumination is a powerful meditation on forgiveness — below is a (not very good, sorry) image of it.luke