Sunday, July 29, 2007

Reflections on Former Prophets II

As I said previously, the essays are the places in the module where you really go in over your head. Or you go off your head. Or it's off with your head if you miss the deadline. And other head-related things. The essay question for the Former Prophets module was on contrasting Saul's and David's kingships and giving thought as to whether Saul was unfairly treated by Yahweh. A few comments on this one...
  • Again, the range of scholarship we were directed to enabled a wide spectrum of opinions to be assessed. Notable is Gunn, who sees Yahweh dooming Saul to failure in order to teach the people a lesson: yes, they can have a king, but not when they ask for one, only when Yahweh says they can.
  • Also again, naive readings are exposed in considering the narrative in depth. These lead to simple polarisations of David as 'ideal' and Saul as the epitome of a 'carnal', not 'spiritual' ruler. This is all very nice and handy, but it just doesn't square. For a start Saul is anointed king by Samuel on behalf of Yahweh and, to cap it all, is filled with the Spirit. He is given a genuine opportunity to rule under Yahweh, but by his usurping of the boundaries of a human kingship, he forfeits that right.
  • One of the best things I read all semester was Provan et al's treatment of the initially somewhat confusing events of 1S10 and 1S11 (Provan, Long and Longman, A Biblical History of Israel). Theirs is a most persuasive argument for explaining Saul's hiding in the baggage in 1S10:22 during the public recognition at Mizpah, the second public recognition at Gilgal in 1S11:15, and the swift rejection of Saul in 1S13:14. For them, the usual ANE accession rites of private anointing (takes place in 1S10:1), deed of valour and public recognition are not followed through by Saul as commanded by Samuel. Saul is commanded in 1S10:5ff to strike the Philistine garrison at Gibeah (the 'whatever your hand finds to do' of 1S10:7). However, the silence following 1S10:13 indicates that Saul did not do so. In this way, he broke the deed of valour element and the following public recognition finds him hiding in the baggage. Only after an alternative deed of valour in the rescue of the people of Jabesh-gilead in 1S11 can the public recognition be effectual at Gilgal. Saul is then king, but has already failed in obedience in a pretty big way.
  • Whilst David's failures are also significant, they are within a general context of submission to the word of Yahweh as the ultimate king. The pattern of the judges, where Yahweh was king is in a sense repeated in the establishment of the monarchy. The monarch becomes an uber-judge, with Yahweh still the true king.
  • All this still leaves the interesting question of how Yahweh can speak of being rejected in the peoples request for a king in 1S8, when kingship becomes a foundation of the subsequent developments in salvation-history. I would see the request for a 'king like all the nations' to be the problem, rather that for a king per se. Saul turns out to be too much like the kings of other nations. David is a holy king after the heart of Yahweh.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Reflections on Former Prophets I

More Reflections on Year 1, Semester 2 at HTC. This time it's the Former Prophets module, taught by Hector Morrison. The course is split roughly 50/50 between thematic treatments of Joshua and Judges and Exegesis of 1 and 2 Samuel. Texts for this one were Anderson's Living World of the Old Testament, Bright's History of Israel and LaSor's OT Survey. The exegesis text was Baldwin's Tyndale Commentary on 1 and 2 Samuel. So, reflections. What are they?

  • Alternative theologies: one of the real strengths of both this module and the previous Pentateuch module is the breadth of scholarship with which you must engage as you progress through - you can see that a bit in the textbook choices above. This comes out in the set readings from these and from supplementary texts, which are drawn from liberal as well as conservative theologians. This approach takes another step up when it comes to the module seminars. For example, in preparing for the seminar on how Israel came to settle in Canaan, we had to consider and weigh up a spectrum of views from a 'simplistic' reading of the biblical account right through to positions which deny that there was such an entity as Israel prior to the monarchy. This approach is fantastically stimulating and incredibly useful, training you to critically analyse rather than adopt a bunker mentality.
  • Thematic connections: throughout the module at various points, thematic connections were made both back to the Pentateuch and forward to the New Covenant in Jesus Christ. So, for example, the theme of Land is rooted in the Abrahamic Covenant but fulfilled in the Endpoint of the Kingdom as glimpsed in the Revelation to John. Herem and the cleansing of the land by the Israelites is a foreshadowing of the judgement to come on the global land, but also connects to the cleansing of the earth in the days of Noah. These regular biblical theological insights are a necessary and enjoyable complement to the more narrowly focussed work and they are often presented in an uplifting way.
  • Herem: this difficult concept is, I feel, either a stumbling block to some who see huge difficulties in reconciling it to a loving and merciful God, or it is dismissed with a cursory reference to the fact that it shows that God is holy - as if that somehow solves all the difficulties we might feel. The extreme violence of the herem overseen by Joshua is brought into sharp focus when it falls on Achan and his entire family after the raid on Ai. Linking herem with the theological theme of land was extremely helpful to me, but I found it an interesting question (one I pondered, not asked in the module) as to whether the fact that Achan took items which were considered to belong to God (in this case for destruction) could link Achan with Ananias and Sapphira. Tenuous? Probably.
  • Eyeopeners: you might have read something many times, but how come you don't notice pretty important things? Just how different the varying portrayals of the conquest are (swift, blitzkreig portrayal in Joshua vs. partially successful, ongoing counterinsurgency, 'Iraq War' portrayal in Judges) just hadn't made much impression on me before. Neither had the nature and makeup of Israel as they settled in Canaan: Egyptians, Kenites (family of Jethro), distinct possibility of accretions from those around Shechem who would have been aware of the patriarchal connections there. I guess that's why you go to college. Ah, you say, those things are not that important (maybe you don't say, but I'm sure that some would), but they are. Because they shed light on such things as God's covenantal purpose for the world in salvation history. And, 'simplistic' readings are a bad habit that open the church and the bible to justified criticism that they are not interacting faithfully with the text or, worse, that the text is contradictory. And, that kind of reductionism is plain unacceptable my friend! Sorting out these things is great, it's getting to know God in his glorious works and these things ought to bring us joy. So there!
  • Textual criticism of Samuel: Finally, the fact that the text of Samuel has so many variant readings between LXX versions, DSS etc poses some interesting questions for the evangelical doctrine of scripture does it not? Sorting some of these out in the Exegesis was excellent, as was looking at Hannah's Song and the thematic connections with the Rise of Elkanah's House vs the Fall of Eli's House and then on to the Magnificat and the Rise and Fall of Many in Israel. Cool.

Overall, again a quality learning experience on this module. The teaching style is excellent: focussed, serious, a lot of information, but with the biblical theological facets and the seminars to give variation, all in an easy style. Voila!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Reflections on Jesus and the Gospels II

Continuing the Reflections on Semester 2 of Year 1 at HTC...

One of the highlights in every module is preparing for and writing the essays - although its a lot easier to see this in retrospect, rather than when facing deadlines and late nights! I think that it's in the essays that you learn at another level; it's your own work, formulating your own opinions and interacting with the scholars. The Jesus and the Gospels module was no exception. The essay question was What is the Purpose of the Fourth Gospel? A few observations will suffice:

  • Some scholars, including Carson, see the statement of purpose in 20:31 as the starting point for determining the purpose of John's gospel. I myself can't see how this is a wise position to take. For a start, it reverses the structure of the gospel - this statement appears at the end, not the beginning and so is to be read in the light of what precedes it. If Carson's view is followed, 20:31 is loaded with such a weight of expectation that it starts to crumble under the weight. Carson has gone into fine detail in examining the Greek tenses as to whether 20:31 means that the gospel was composed so that readers might start to believe or continue to believe. Carson also goes to town on the alternative translations: Jesus is the Messiah or the Messiah is Jesus, in 20:31. This seems misplaced to me. For me, 20:31 is but one component in determining the purpose of the Fourth Gospel.
  • It seems probable to me that John wrote with a knowledge of the synoptics - from internal evidence and from the witness of the early fathers, which I think carries more weight than some would acknowledge.
  • I found J A T Robinsons work on the purpose very persuasive. He sees the gospel as a document written to a Jewish audience (albeit Hellenistic Jews). That the Jewishness of the gospel could be denied for so long in favour of a Hellenistic viewpoint seems to me particularly surprising.
  • Problems have arisen in this field because we can be so eager to define a believing or unbelieving community. This to me does not reflect the nature of the church. A church community will be a stratified community: some established disciples, some recent believers, some seeking earnestly and some 'hangers-on' and counterfeit followers. You see this tendency in preaching: a passage has one message for believers and one message to unbelievers. Or a passage has no meaning to a person, unless they are born again. How can such a view be reconciled with Jesus' teaching in, for example, the Parable of the Talents (oops, strayed onto the synoptics).
  • Where I got to on John's purpose was: in part, complementing the synoptic material; written to a Jewish audience of believers and their wider communities to strengthen faith, explain the Messiah as Jesus and to provide a rationale for the opposition arising from the synagogues; explain the transition from Old to New Covenant.

So, for us, the Fourth Gospel is a work concerned with salvation-history - with the roots of the church - and considering its purpose sheds light on the nature of faith and the covenant community of God in the church. Such emphases are so important against the post-modern backdrop of Platonic dualism and post-enlightenment individualism. Hmmm. Nice.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Odyssey and Parables

I've finally knocked Homer's Odyssey on the head, after reading the Iliad last year. On reading it, it surprised me that the well known tales of the Cyclops, the Sirens, the Trojan Horse and Calypso are actually sideshows (often overheard as Odysseus relates them to others, rather than described in real-time) in the narrative. The big story is that Odysseus is slowly and painfully, but surely journeying home whilst at his home unjust suitors attempt to woo his wife and plot to murder his son, whilst daily consuming from his stores and flocks and abusing his servants. Of course, they are convinced that Odysseus is dead. When he finally arrives, his judgement is terrible and swift - none are spared.
The theme of the master returning to the house is a key motif in several of the parables: the Talents (Matt 25), the minas (Lk 19), the Wicked Tenants (Lk 20), Watching Servants and Wise Steward (both Lk 12). Homer's Odyssey is the master-returning-for-judgment story. The interesting question is whether Jesus knew the Odyssey story? Was he consciously using the Homeric returning master motif to explain his own return? It seems probable that Jesus, working as a craftsman in Sepphoris would interact with the Roman/Greek cultural milieu and would be aware of the content of the story, even if he had not read it/was not able to read it.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Reflections on Jesus and the Gospels I

OK, back from Lewis and time for HTC Reflections...

This last semester there have been four modules on my plate (yum-yum): Jesus and the Gospels, Former Prophets, Introduction to Systematics and Greek Grammar I. I will be reflecting on these modules in turn over the next few days. First up is Jesus and the Gospels, taught by Dr Mike Bird. The set texts were Exploring the NT I: the Gospels and Acts by David Wenham and Steve Walton, The Challenge of Jesus' Parables by Richard Longenecker and Jesus According to Scripture by Bock. So, my highlights from this module (where to begin, where to begin?)...
  • Walking in Jesus' World: yet again, the material on the 1st century world has been really useful. The early chapters of Wenham and Walton were great for this: knowing the socio-political situation sheds light on the teachings of Christ, but just as importantly brings the narratives alive. And life in these narratives is what we really need to rediscover - the power of the story. And with the parables (see below), understanding Palestinian culture and Second Temple Judaism can shed a great deal of light when it comes to interpretation.

  • Re-discovering the Parables: Longenecker's book on the Parables has been generally very useful even if the first chapters on interpretation can be a little hard going. The much-vaunted 'there-is-only-one-point-to-a-parable' view is challenged effectively by pointing out the importance of the readers/hearers interaction with the parable (oooh careful, reader-response alert!). This is important in exegesis. For example, in the parables of Luke 15 (Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son) you have a mixed crowd of followers, plus the specific group of tax collectors/sinners and the Pharisess listening. So immediately you get three or more target audiences. The thrusts of the parables are in different directions, especially in the Lost Son. You also have the Jewish response to tales of youngest sons and the identification of Israel as God's Son, so different nuances manifest themselves. Exploring the connections with OT parables and with parables in other Rabbinic writings was also extremely useful. More generally, we can be so familiar with the parables that they lose their impact. Longenecker's book and the lectures have helped in rediscovering the scandal of the parables - just how shocking they would have been (Kingdom of God? Like a Mustard Seed? Now just hang on a minute...!). Other parables are so hard to decipher, but again the material in this module sheds light (such as with the parable of the unjust steward). Even well-known parables like the Persistent Widow (and the associated Friend at Midnight) came alive for me with new understanding - in this case the specifically eschatological setting of this parable. The fact that one of us students was required to make a presentation each week on the relevant section of the book really helped in engaging with the material - a good feature of the module.

  • Beginning to get an over-view of the Gospels: I'm a bit slow, but I feel I'm beginning to get a 'feel' for the gospels. You know, above the content, the background to what Mark's saying; where Luke's coming from etc. Again, Wenham and Walton was good for this. There's a long way to go! The differing emphases of the writers are important in showing the richness of the gospel message, but also in warning us against reductionism. It never ceases to amaze me how the Kingdom, which is so prominent in the synoptics, is not afforded the same prominence in our own church vocabularies - at least in my experience. Some more time looking at John's gospel was really valuable in this module (mainly through the essay, which will be the subject of a separate post).
My one regret from the module is that I'm not doing it next year! Next year, so the word on the street goes, the text book is Blomberg's Jesus and the Gospels and there will be more of a focus on John's gospel, including video! Blomberg's book gives a good overview of the life and ministry of Jesus, and I think that the module will be improved by his material. Dr Bird's teaching has again been inspirational and motivational on this module. His insights are matched by a genuine pastoral concern.
Next up on Reflections: Jesus and the Gospels - the Essay...