Monthly Archives: January 2014

Literal Reading of the Bible?

Sometimes it is asserted that we should just take the Bible literally–as if it is obvious what a literal reading might entail.  For example, consider the following passage from Isaiah:

“Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the LORD; awake, as in days of old, the generations of long ago. Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, that pierced the dragon? Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep, who made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to pass over?” (Isaiah 51:9-10)

Now, if we are reading “literally,” should we determine on the basis of this text that the LORD (Yahweh) has an arm?  If so, what sort?  Well, if literal, then wouldn’t we expect a physical arm?  And if so, then how might one reconcile this with passages such as John 4:24 (“God is Spirit”)?  And when precisely did God “cut Rahab in pieces,” especially since this Rahab is further identified as “the dragon” (or sea-serpent)?  Obviously we are bumping up against something complex.  (Regarding how this passage connects to other similar stories in the Bible and the literature of the ancient Near East, consider Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988]).


(Origen: image source unknown)

For devotional purposes, I have been working through The Philocalia of Origen. Origen was an enormously prolific third-century Christian writer, and The Philocalia (meaning “the love of the beautiful”) is an ancient compilation of some of his most profound work. The following quote, which pertains to this whole question of a literal reading, caught my eye:

“The word of God therefore arranged for certain stumbling-blocks and offences and impossibilities to be embedded in the Law and the historical portion, so that we may not be drawn hither and thither by the mere attractiveness of the style, and thus either forsake the doctrinal part because we receive no instruction worthy of God, or cleave to the letter and learn nothing more Divine.” (Origen Philocalia 1.16; trans. George Lewis, 1911).

Is Origen right?  Could it be that God has placed in the Scripture complexities, goads, and spurs that will deliberately trip up the virtuous reader–causing the reader to stop, ponder, think, and fervently pray for insight?  If so, what are the nature of these stumbling-blocks?  Undoubtedly I will have more to say about this in the future, but for now it suffices to ponder, along with Origen, the degree to which God rewards those who earnestly seek–those who when encountering puzzles in the literal sense or the basic narrative sequence of the Bible are willing to delve into God’s arrangement of all affairs (both in Scripture and in the broader world), and to “see” not just the surface, but how the surface is a sign that points beyond itself to the transcendent.  After all, Jesus does seem particularly keen to encourage us to pursue a deeper engagement with his constant refrain:  “The one who has ears to hear, let that person hear” (e.g., Mark 4:9, Luke 14:35).

Paul and the Origins of Christian Theology

Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God

(image source unknown)

Like every other scholar in the world whose research focuses on the Apostle Paul, I have been winding my way through N. T. Wright’s gargantuan scholarly masterpiece, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013).  Actually, since this 1700 page 2-volume monster-work is so large that it has its own planetary system, it is probable that even non-earthling scholars of St. Paul have been reading it.  (Indeed, I am tempted to quip that when I hold these volumes in my arms, they are like two rather squarish oranges on toothpicks).

Wright makes a claim that will undoubtedly prove to be provocative in New Testament studies.  He asserts that the titanic shifts in Paul’s disrupted worldview caused the category of “theology” (the study of God) to move to the foreground in a way previously unprecedented in Jewish or pagan antiquity:

It is precisely because of the major restructuring of Paul’s symbolic world that ‘theology’ comes to have a different, much larger and more important place in his worldview, and thereafter in the Christian church, than ever it had in either Judaism or paganism….  Jewish writers have often commented that ‘theology’, as that word is now understood, is largely a Christian construct, and they are right, for just this reason: that a fresh, reflective understanding of God, the world, the human race, and so on grew and developed to fill the vacuum left by the departing symbols of Judaism” (Vol. 1, p. 403).

I’m still processing Wright’s proposal, indeed, I am only now nearing completion of the first volume so I still need to weigh all his evidence.

Wright has long been one of my favorite authors–in fact, his brief The Challenge of Jesus (Downers Grove, Intervarsity, 1999) was one of the books that first got me interested in a career in biblical studies.  If you are interested in finding a place to start with N. T. Wright’s scholarship on the Apostle Paul, a good entry point is his somewhat pompously titled (but still excellent) little book, What St. Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997).

Social Memory, History Writing, and the Gospel

Like many of you, I usually have several books I am juggling at the same time.  I always try to balance academic work with a novel or two.  Over the holiday break I have been working my way through a novel that marvelously combines poetic beauty and intellectual sophistication:  Michael D. O’Brien, The Island of the World: A Novel (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007).  Island of the World

The protagonist, Josip, is raised in a paradisiacal mountain-valley in rural Yugoslavia, but as war engulfs his country, he again and again loses all that he cherishes.  O’Brien masterfully shows the way in which suffering polarizes–either causing a spiral of hate or a purifying refinement.

A quote grabbed my attention, probably because the affect of social memory on historiography (history writing) has become a burgeoning field of research in Christian origins and New Testament studies.  I think for example of the work of Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), Dale Allison Jr., Constructing Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), Anthony Le Donne, The Historiographical Jesus (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press), and Robert McIver, Jesus, Memory, and the Synoptic Gospels (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011), among many others.  Apparently, O’Brien has a handle on such issues too, and his prose sparkles:

“The isolated shape of each memory is more or less clear, but their context is altered by a history of subsequent interpretation.  Memories are reshaped simultaneously into what they are and what they are not–then pondered as actualities, which in turn are reshaped.  Within this laboratory of the mind, the scientific method deceives the scientist who fails to consider that his experiment is changed by his very presence within it.  The subtle arts of causality or the subtle causalities of the mind’s primary artform.  Or to put it another way: From the alpine peaks of old age one peers into the valleys of the past and sees indistinct forms, highlighted only by the most monumental sub-formations–the valley is a green blur, containing serene flocks of sheep, and buildings in flames.  A palace by a sea is an ivory carving, surmounted by an emerald hill, and beyond it a sheet of rippling phosphorous.  Within that miniature carving, countless dramas are enacted” (O’Brien, Island of the World, 337).

How, precisely, do our memories, both singular and collective, interface with God’s story?  The portraits of Jesus in the Gospels are a result of a refracted social memory-process, so how might understanding that process better help us appreciate the diverse portraits of Jesus in early Christianity?  Although some might fear the danger of asking such questions, the Christian story, including the Scripture, claims to be grounded in the real history of genuine people.  So in the spirit of faith-seeking-understanding, we must all continue to wrestle with precisely these sort of complexities.