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Review: Bart Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee

Brian LePort has kindly posted my review of Bart Ehrman’s new book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee at Near Emmaus. Check it out and let me know what you think here or there.


Guest Blogging on Christology at Near Emmaus

I will be publishing my reviews of Bart Ehrman’s book, How Jesus Became God, and Michael Bird’s response volume, How God Became Jesus, in a four-part series at Near Emmaus (thank you, Brian LePort!). My first post is now up there, and it lays some preliminary groundwork by interacting critically with Richard Bauckham’s christology of divine identity model. Since most of the authors of the review volume appear to adopt it, I thought it would save some time to articulate some of my concerns ahead of time. Following the reviews, my final post in the series will discuss my own thoughts on the development of Christ’s identification with God.


Paula Fredriksen on Early Jewish Monotheism

I’m reading back through a number of sources that have been cited and have been conspicuously not cited by both sides of the current Ehrman/Bird-Evans-Gathercole-Hill-Tilling debate, and I’ve been impressed (again) by some comments made by Paula Fredriksen about the treatment of the notion of monotheism by the Early High Christology Club that bear sharing:

Big books and long articles have appeared analyzing the sudden and early development of high christological claims by imputing an austere and exclusive monotheism to late Second Temple Judaism.28 Jews are distinguished from pagan contemporaries on the basis of their cultic exclusivism, a consequence of this monotheism. The persecution of Gentile Christians, in turn, is explained as the result of their commitment, inherited from Judaism, to this sort of monotheism. Meanwhile, the higher the christological claims, the more ingenious the various and scholarly reassurances that these claims do not, in fact, compromise monotheism.

All this raises the question, What do we mean by “monotheism”? In the modern context of its origin, the word denotes belief in a single god who is the only god. When modern scholars transpose the term to antiquity, the definition remains constant. And that is a large part of the problem.

Ancient monotheism spoke to the imagined architecture of the cosmos, not to its absolute population. Ancient monotheism means “one god on top,” with other gods ranged beneath, lower than, and in some sense subordinate to the high god. People of sufficient education who thought philosophically about relations between levels of divinity might see these lower gods as ontologically contingent on the high god; less philosophical monotheists were content simply to assert that their own god was the biggest, the most powerful, or the best god.

Fredriksen, “Mandatory Retirement: Ideas in the Study of Christian Origins Whose Time Has Come to Go,” in Israel’s God and Rebecca’s Children (D. B. Capes, et al., eds.; Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007), 35.

Y’see, in his discussion of early christology, Ehrman explicitly adopts the idea of the divine/human relationship as a continuum, or spectrum (helped along by Peppard, whom I address here), over and against the contemporary notion of a strict and clear divine/human dichotomy that is so often the conceptual linchpin that makes the detection of an early high christology possible (for Bauckham most critically). For proponents of the latter conceptualization, first century Judaism is staunchly and consciously monotheistic because of this dichotomous relationship of God to “all other reality,” but the philosophical lexicon and lenses that make such a view possible are generally just assumed, without argument, to have been issued to every Jewish person of the first century of the Common Era. The reality of the ancient world is much more complicated than that, as Fredriksen points out above (and more forcefully in her review of Hurtado’s Lord Jesus Christ). Building on the work of Gradel, Fredriksen, and others, Peppard and now Ehrman highlight this concern, but I have yet to see a single reference to those precedents in the essays on monotheism from Bird’s response, much less a cogent challenge to their arguments. There is still more left for me to read, though. Individual reviews and thoughts on the overall debate will be forthcoming.


New Testament Textual Commentary Website

Brian Fulthorp recently highlighted on Facebook a new website in the beta testing phase called “New Testament Textual Commentary” that aims to present significant New Testament textual variants and relevant commentary for every verse of the NT. It only has Philippians active right now, but it looks very simple and very helpful. Below is a screenshot. Check out the website.

Phil 2.3


When Religious Rhetoric Kills

Alan Hooker recently linked on Facebook to an article that addresses the phenomenon of loving theology more than people. It makes an important assertion:

[W]ithin our everyday lives reality is what matters most to the people around us. Theorizing only becomes important once it becomes relevant and practical and applicable to our lives.

I agree with this (as does James 1:27), which is why I am greatly concerned with some rhetoric that has been commonplace in Latter-day Saint and other conservative religious circles regarding chastity. While chastity is obviously a very important principle within the LDS worldview, I am very disappointed in the way some people like to emphasize its importance to our youth. Most people who grew up in the LDS Young Men’s and Young Women’s programs within the last few decades (I am not one of these people) have probably seen or heard object lessons related to the importance of “virtue” (virginity). A popular one has the instructor provide the students with a bunch of cupcakes, licking one before handing it to one of them. When the youth shows disgust at the notion of eating the licked cupcake, the instructor unmasks the metaphor: the cupcakes are you and your virtue. No one wants to eat a licked cupcake. In another iteration gum is handed out, and after it’s been chewed the instructor invites the youth to trade with others, explaining after the requisite show of disgust: “No one wants to chew gum that’s already been chewed.” Sometimes the seriousness of chastity is emphasized with the claim that sexual sin is “the sin next to murder.”

These object lessons certainly get the point across to impressionable youth, but they also imbue them with a powerful message—one that can have significant consequences for those who cross that line some day, voluntarily or otherwise: loss of virtue = loss of worth. Elizabeth Smart reifies this process in her comments on abstinence-only education:

I remember in school in one time I had a teacher who was talking about abstinence and she said ‘Imagine you’re a stick of gum. And when you engage in sex, that’s like getting chewed. And if you do that lots of times you’re going to become an old piece of gum and who’s going to want you after that?’

That’s terrible, nobody should ever say that. But for me I thought ‘oh my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum. Nobody re-chews a piece of gum. You throw it away.’ And that’s how easy it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value. Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even made a difference, your life already has no value.

These feelings of worthlessness can and sometimes do lead to self-harm and suicide, but more frequently they simply fester within a young adult’s conscience until they leave them with an empty husk of self-worth that fails them over and over in times of loneliness and need and can forever cripple intimate relationships. Some rhetoric, however, leaves little wiggle room:

There is no true Latter-day Saint who would not rather bury a son or a daughter than to have him or her lose his or her chastity.

And more recently:

[R]emember this, my son: we would rather come to this station and take your body off the train in a casket than to have you come home unclean, having lost your virtue.

This kind of rhetoric makes decisions easy for youth who are wrestling with feelings of guilt or shame associated with the crossing of sexual boundaries, whether it be masturbation, homosexuality, consensual sex, abuse, or rape. Those feelings of worthlessness have led to suicide in multiple cases for each of those issues. It can also compel parents to reject their children or compel children to think their parents reject them, whether or not they actually do. I sincerely hope no parent out there actually believes a dead child is in any way better than an unclean child.

Whatever your beliefs about chastity and sexuality, if you are a Latter-day Saint in a position of authority or influence with children or young adults, please, please, please don’t use this rhetoric to emphasize or punctuate those beliefs. It can and does kill, and we ought to be in the business of mitigating that, not promoting it.


Claire Palmer on the Lead Codices and “Intellectual Fraud”

Claire Palmer, an associate of David Elkington, recently published a post on the International Times blog that directly accuses several bloggers (including me) of slander and misconduct, characterizing our treatment of the Lead Codices issue as “The Great Intellectual Fraud of our Time.” A few very selective quotes are shared along with damning interpretations of their motivation and significance. Of interest to me is the initial response Claire posted from Dr. Christopher Tuttle, associate director of ASOR, after the Elkingtons evidently formally complained about their treatment at our hands:

Please feel free to send me a list enumerating the incidents of slander, misrepresentation, and plagiarism on the ASOR blogsites — evidence required, not just allegations. I would be happy to inquire of the ASOR media officers about such instances in an attempt to rectify them if they are substantiated. … I do not approve of any instances of slander, misrepresentation, or plagiarism

Claire gives no additional details about this complaint, except to point out that “nothing was done about the uncommon behaviour demonstrated as ‘academic’ debate.” Evidently ASOR found no evidence to support the accusations. The tone then grows ominous:

What is scary is that these ‘Bibliobloggers’ are now a recognized entity within one of the most powerful organizations in academe – the Society of Biblical Literature.

Getting a section in the SBL means we’re organized, powerful, and corrupt, and all because we’re trying to protect our theology or our careers or the status quo or whatever. She concludes:

Two thousand years (and more) of patriarchal oppression and control are starting to crack under the momentous, unstoppable truth movement currently gaining rapid pace on this planet. The deceit, lies and veils of disinformation are starting to fall and reveal real truth and wisdom which they have tried, with the most destructive and deceptive forces possible, be it bombs or blogs, to suppress.

“. . . truth and wisdom which they have tried, with the most destructive and deceptive forces possible, be it bombs or blogs, to suppress.” Well, that’s an unfair analogy if I’ve ever heard one.


Richard Dawkins Needs to Check His Privilege

Dr. Richard Dawkins recently linked to an article about a woman at a UK university who challenged the UUK (Universities UK) regarding guidelines allowing for voluntary gender segregation during certain kinds of gatherings. Fair enough, but a Muslim woman replied to his tweet with the following:

Many people have expressed the same concern with a very, very wealthy and influential white male telling minorities how they’re supposed to feel about their worldviews and religious community, and one of Dawkins’ sycophants (the white male to whom Salya was responding) decided to make it worse:

In other words, unless her position on the matter matches that of these two white males, yes, Salya absolutely does need to be told how to feel about Islam. Salya returned the volley:

To which Dr. Dawkins replied with his characteristically naive rhetoric:

What Dr. Dawkins apparently doesn’t know is that racism and sexism are about power and oppression, not about judgments and insults. When Salya says you cannot be racist to a white person, or sexist to a male, what she’s saying is that those comments cannot reflect or reify oppression. Salya’s words can never oppress Richard Dawkins, but Richard Dawkins’ words can absolutely oppress Salya, particularly when he insists that the right to represent Muslim women belongs in the hands of white atheist males. Just look at how many of his 879,500 Twitter followers came out of the woodwork to rhetorically brutalize her. Who has more social leverage in this situation? Who needs to be aware of the effects of that leverage? This is made all the more ironic by the fact that it’s just that power and oppression against which Dr. Dawkins ostensibly fights. That he’s willing to leverage his white male privilege directly against the perspective and integrity of one of those for whom he pretends to advocate in the interest of defending the inerrancy of his own broad characterization of Islam shows his interests lie not in the people, but in his own opinion. His conceptualization of Islam is the priority, not that of actual Muslims, and certainly not that of a Muslim woman, who evidently needs to be told how she’s supposed to feel about her religion by these white males, who—in their etic and antagonistic perspective—know better.

I’m not trying to step in and protect Salya. She’s capable of doing that herself, and she knows much more about this than I do. Dr. Dawkins, however, appears to know as little about racism and sexism as he does about the sociology and psychology of religion, and I suggest he learn to check his privilege.


The Oxford Hebrew Bible is Now The Scholars Hebrew Bible

The URL still has OHB, but the Oxford Hebrew Bible Project is now the Scholars Hebrew Bible Project. I recall hearing many professors at Oxford express concerns with the name, given the fact that not a single professor from Oxford was involved and they broadly disapproved of an eclectic edition. It seems something has now been done about it. For some examples of how it looks, check out the samples of Gen 1:1–13Deut 32:1–9, and 1 Kgs 11:1–8.


SBL Proposal #1

I’m preparing the following proposal to submit to the SBL annual meeting’s Israelite Religion in Its West Asian Environment program unit:

“My Name is In Him”: The Messenger of YHWH and Distributed Agency in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East

This paper examines the nature and function of the Hebrew Bible’s “messenger of YHWH,” focusing particularly on the blending of the messenger’s identity with that of YHWH. It will argue that the earliest appearances of the messenger in the biblical narratives arise from the textual interpolation of the word malak in the interest of obscuring YHWH’s physical presence and activity among the Israelites. These interpolations will be shown to have predated other narrative traditions within the Hebrew Bible, but as a result of cognitive mechanisms related to the conceptualization of divine agency and its communicability that had long been in place within Israelite and Assyro-Babylonian cult practices, later authors were equipped to seamlessly adopt the notion of the mediation of a semi-autonomous divine agent who could speak and act in the very name of the God of Israel. This distributable divine agency would become conceptualized in one influential iteration as YHWH’s “name,” which could indwell architecture as well as anthropomorphic agents,  extending the deity’s presence well beyond the conceptual confines of earlier tradition and cult. The implications of this understanding of the Israelite conceptualization of divine agency are far reaching.


Finkelstein’s 2013 The Forgotten Kingdom Available Online

Israel Finkelstein’s 2013 contribution to the SBL series Ancient Near East Monographs, The Forgotten Kingdom: The Archaeology and History of Northern Israel, is available in PDF format on SBL’s website. It’s definitely worth a close reading.


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