We had one of my colleagues at Baylor, his wife, and son over for supper last night. SBL quickly became a topic of conversation. My friend’s wife asked me what my paper was on, or if it was “too complicated.” Knowing my wife can’t stand to hear me talk about schooling any more than I do already, I replied the latter. In earnest, though, this would not be my usual move. But this exchange got me thinking yet again about a topic that has been at the forefront for me recently: as biblical scholars, for whom do we write? There are two possible answers: other academics, or the church?
Much of what we do as biblical scholars is of interest only to other biblical scholars, and that even is not always the case! But many of us write and submit to academic journals that will be read by other academics or students of the discipline. The layperson in the pew will likely not hear our detailed lexical argument, nor care much about ancient Near Eastern parallels to the Genesis creation story or to Job and how they might inform the text. Put simply, biblical scholars will often, obviously, write at a level beyond what a layperson should be expected to understand. A former professor of mine once asked whether we, as biblical scholars, were the “elite” (his term). In a way, the answer is yes. But I’m not so sure that is the way it should be.
Yet, if we write for the edification of the church, how is that message to be disseminated responsibly? Pastors? Perhaps. But at the same time, much of biblical scholarship is seen (a priori, mind you) as inimical to the vision and mission of the church. I have said elsewhere that the church and the academy are, I think, asking quite different questions. That is fine. But I do think much of what we do is important for the edification of those who worship, be they Christians or Jews. The difficulty then lies in how one shares that information.
In my judgment, the biblical scholar plays dual yet complementary roles: in academia, and in the church. If one is a member and attends church or synagogue, I feel it is important for that person to take a proactive approach towards incorporating the task of biblical studies into the church, hopefully inculcating in those who attend a deeper understanding of various matters that may be of interest. For instance, my teacher Bill Bellinger leads an adult sunday school class weekly at his church. In the past he has addressed the Jacob cycle (which actually, he tells me, involved some parishioners noting God’s seeming complicity in deception . . . . that’s a smart church!) and the entire gospel of Mark, including the complexity with the ending. I know other bloggers out there, Chris Heard and Bryan Bibb among them, have taught special sessions at churches on various academically suited topics. This, to me, is imperative.
Now, I am not suggesting a church be led through a rigorous grammatical analysis of Habakkuk 3′s poetry (which, if you haven’t worked through it, is quite complex, and the suggestions in BHS’ critical apparatus don’t lessen the difficulty) or even be forced to tackle questions of Pentateuchal authorship. What I do suggest, though, is the necessity of grounding in the text, and the issues that accompany the text. So how does reading, for instance, Job, affect your view of God? Of humanity? Creation? What do Jeremiah’s ‘laments’ say, again, about God? About prophecy? These are issues a congregation can wrestle with, and which can only serve to enhance their understanding of worship and of the biblical text.
In the future, when I (hopefully soon) find a teaching position, this is something I very much want to take part in. My role as a biblical scholar extends beyond simply churning out articles for tenure (although that is a vital component of success and sustainability!); if that work is not in service in some way, implicitly or explicitly, to the life of faith, it is worth little.
One final clarification: I do not mean to imply by the previous sentence that one’s scholarship must be governed by the norms and doctrines of the church. In fact, quite the opposite; biblical scholarship should seek to inform the church. Any good and responsible theology is, at bottom, biblically based. For instance, while some may not accept it, I view my work on YHWH as divine trickster to be in service to the life of faith by pointing to a realistic portrayal of God as seen in the biblical text elsewhere (Deuteronomistic History, Psalms, Job, etc.) and also a portrayal of God that, in a way, speaks to the reality, tensions, and absurdities of life. The church and/or the synagogue may accept this word or it may not. But it is a word that is worthy of being shared. What good, then, is biblical scholarship if it stays within a particular, “elite” circle? If we are indeed the “elite” in this regard–and we may indeed be–then does that not all the more imbue us with a responsibility to not only our own faith community, but any faith community who will hear us?
Brevard Childs has argued that the process of canonization allowed for a certain ‘leveling,’ a general equality as it concerns the various books of the Bible. Obadiah is just as authoritative as the gospel of Matthew, and Genesis just as seminal as Philemon. While I do think there is great merit in such a view–quite a Jewish view, no less, as the Jewish Midrashim affirm just such an equality, using one text to interpret another–none of us is an entirely disinterested interpreter. We all have our own experiences, ideologies, and idiosyncracies that inform our reading of texts. And because of this, the canonical ‘leveling’ is in a way distorted.
I’m all for being an honest interpreter of the biblical text, noting that I have a particular set of spectacles through which I and I alone view the text. I also have my own canon within the canon. My view is not as limited as Bultmann’s, who emphasized essentially John and Paul alone as authoritative for teaching. Nor do I agree with Bultmann here (though to be fair, he wasn’t making this point) that one’s canon within a canon bespeaks what one deems authoritative and what not authoritative. Perhaps it is better to speak of gradations of authority? To do so is only to be honest.
(A brief disclaimer: I am not intending to imply here that those books not mentioned are not authoritative for me or for anyone else. Nor do I desire a reevaluation of the concept of canon or the results of canonization. I am simply here trying to be honest about how I read. It only helps me. And those who read me).
So, I present to you my canon within a canon:
Whew. That was actually a lot harder than I thought it would be. Any surprises? There are a few that alllllllllllllllllllllmost made it on the list (Ruth, Esther, Daniel, Hosea, Amos, 1-2 Corinthians, 1-3 John), but as I reflect upon how I truly read the biblical text, this list seems a good fit. For now.
And so I ask you . . . . what is your canon within the canon. Why?
Rob Kashow has recently posted a rant on ignorance pertaining to the trinity. I’m glad he did; I find myself increasingly frustrated oftentimes with others who claim to ‘know the answer’ and then go on to recite something from the creeds to me. Or, worse, they share what can only be said to be terrible exegesis.
Let me clarify: I do not have the answers. My scholarship is a quest for answers, but I have no grand delusions that I can or will actually arrive at the truth, nor that everyone will agree with me. Of course there is an element of confidence and rightness that I feel with my own interpretations, but as a good and healthy postmodern, I also can’t say my interpretation is the only valid one. But what I will say is this: despite my postmodernism, not all interpretations are equal. Not all are convincing. Some are just downright poor and depressing.
I have often struggled with what I call the “dumb faith” of others. By “dumb faith” I mean an uninformed belief in something . . . . believing “just because.” I used to be one of those very people. When I became a religion major I was wholly ignorant of the field. Yes, we went to church growing up, but I knew nothing about the field, little about the biblical text, and even less about Christianity, let alone Judaism and Islam. I was quickly disabused of this means of existence by rigorously applying myself to the text, the original languages, and to the scholarly enterprise. As I have said before . . . . my paradigm exploded.
As a religious academic, I don’t think it is my job to “explode your paradigm.” We all have our crises of faith, but I don’t think it is my job to shock and awe you away from whatever you believe and into a new set of beliefs (assuming, of course, at that point one even opts to believe; it is often not the case). My role is to give a student the tools to be a competent and confident reader of Scripture, and to be able to avail herself/himself of the various tools to make sense of the text best they can. They won’t be experts, but they will at least be informed readers. That’s all I’m after.
“Dumb faith.” An example. If I ask you why you believe Jesus is the messiah and the response is “because the church says so” or “the creeds say so” or “my parents raised me Christian, and that’s what we believe,” that is not an adequate answer in my view. “Dumb faith.” If I say (as I do) that God is complicit in Jacob’s many deceptions, and also deceptive himself in Genesis and elsewhere in the biblical text, and your response is an a priori dismissal because “that can’t be my God” or “God doesn’t do that” (see my related posts HERE and HERE), that is “dumb faith.” I’m not saying you need to agree with my interpretation of these texts, but please read the Bible. Actually read it. Please. And let that be the basis of your faith. The texts are there.
One of my teachers in undergrad, who remains a dear friend to this day, used to always say, “you are entitled to your own opinion so long as it is thoughtful.” Without a doubt I agree. I’m quite open and pretty easy to get along with. I’m fine if your faith and beliefs don’t match up with mine, and the converse should be true as well. So long as you can give me an informed answer about why you believe x, y, and z to be the case, I’m fine with that. I may disagree. I may think you are entirely wrong. But if you have convinced me you have put some thought into it . . . . and your thoughtfulness also betrays some level of acumen (in other words, it is possible to be thoughtful yet still ignorant . . . . then I’m happy with that. I may engage you. I may press you. And I hope you will press back. Such is the task of learning. But then, only when you can provide a thoughtful response do you no longer possess a “dumb faith” but rather a faith that is . . . . and this is the most important part . . . . your own.
A few weeks back Michael Whitenton tagged me in a meme to name the five most vexing books I have read. Here is the description from Loren Rosson, who started the meme:
“How about the five biblical studies books or essays you think have made extremely important and necessary contributions to the field, yet heavily disagree with in spite of this? I have in mind scholarship you find yourself burning to agree with, or a closet fan of, envying the author’s critical acumen, applauding the fact that all the right (and perhaps long-overdue) questions are being asked, but regretfully finding most of the conclusions just plain unpersuasive.”
Loren goes on to clarify, saying these are books for which I have “enthusiasm, albeit frustrated enthusiasm.” A tall order. Here goes:
1. Hermann Gunkel, Introduction to Psalms: The Genres of the Religious Lyric of Israel
Despite the great importance of this book to the field, which I recognize and greatly respect, this is a tortuous volume to read cover to cover. I am appreciative for what Gunkel was reacting against . . . . the ‘personal/historical’ approach to the Psalter, which he saw as having very few controls from the biblical text . . . . but I am not convinced Gunkel’s contribution has stood the test of time. Form critcism is still a vital component of Psalms scholarship, yet it is no longer the only starting place with approaches emphasizing the macrocanonical or overarching metanarrative of the Psalter. In the end, I think Gunkel overstates his case, claiming that a psalm can only be classified by type when it meets certain strict criteria, yet nearly no psalm is a pure and complete representation of any given form. Gunkel has made a great contribution to the guild, but his conclusions have an air of over-confidence and are almost certainly dated. BTW, Baylor’s own James Nogalski is the one who translated this volume into English!
2. Brevard Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context
Let me begin by saying I am very amenable to the work Childs has done. I think his Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture and Biblical Theology in Crisis are groundbreaking volumes that inaugurate a sort of paradigm shift in the discipline. That said, however, the volume under discussion here disappoints. After a wonderful first 20 or so pages that outline his canonical methodology, the rest of the volume is a little light on the ‘meat.’ For me also, at least in this particular work, the canonical method is far more persuasive in its description than it is in actual practice. I know Childs’ canonical method is much more than an intertextual exercise, but that is largely what one finds in this work. In the end, for such a wonderful description of method, the application is disappointing.
3. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry
While Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative ranks as one of the most influential volumes on my scholarship, his The Art of Biblical Poetry under-delivers in my view. It is not that this book does not contribute anything to the understanding of Hebrew poetry–it does!–but it struggles to compete with the success and convincing nature of the book on narrative.
4. W. Lee Humphreys, The Character of God in the Book of Genesis: A Narrative Appraisal
(See my review here). This volume makes a great contribution to Genesis in that it is one of the very few ones focusing specifically on God as a character. For this, and for its literary approach, I am very thankful and very much on board. In fact, I have taken very much from it. However, I have great frustration with this book; its methodological presuppositions–namely on matters of what constitutes a reliable characterization (Humphreys claims those things shared about a character by others are less trustworthy than what a character says of him/herself, or of a character’s internal thoughts; I disagree entirely). This has led, I think, to many problematic and erroneous conclusions that are tethered to Humphreys’ presuppositions and method rather than an actual reading of the text. This book is probably the one on the list about which my feelings are most mixed. A great contribution, but vexing indeed.
5. Gerhard von Rad, “The Form-Critical Problem of the Hexateuch”
This 70+ page essay is one of the most creative and thoughtful essays I’ve read in a while, and very insightful for its time. At bottom, von Rad argues that the formation of the Hexateuch is comprised of a variety of separate traditions, the two primary ones being settlement and Sinai (evidenced by the absence of Sinai in the kleine Credo of Deut 26 and Josh 24), which are first joined together by a “J” author during the United Monarchy. J also adds the Primeval History and the Ancestral Narratives, forming for von Rad the first master narrative of salvation history. Von Rad was asking the right questions (i.e., noting already that Pentateuchal scholarship had gotten wildly out of hand) and sought a grounding in the text. And while his notice that Sinai is absent in these kleine Credo or brief statements of faith is a striking one that is still puzzling, I–along with other scholars–no longer hold the view that the kleine Credo are ancient; they rather seem to be later distillations of a larger narrative rather than a base out of which traditions grew and expanded. Von Rad’s affirmation of a 10th century “J” author is also problematic by contemporary standards.
There you have it. With what volumes on the list are you familiar? What’s your view?
Matt at Broadcast Depth tagged me in a new meme circulating, cleverly entitled “Honest Scrap” (say it out loud) and asking for ten facts about me. I’ve already done two posts like this (see HERE and HERE), but I would be remiss not to respond. What’s another ten little factoids about me going to hurt?
1. I played the trumpet in band from 5th grade until 12th grade. At no point during this period of eight years did I ever have any discernible skill at playing. In high school (grades 9-12) I was in marching band, which I loved, but I was not too terribly adept at marching and playing. Couple that with the fact I had to memorize the songs and, well . . . . there was a lot of faking going on!
2. I have an unhealthy addiction to email. During any given day, I check it upwards of probably 20-30 times.
3. I absolutely love watching old episodes of Full House, Family Matters (aka, ‘Urkel’), Step by Step, and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Nostalgia.
4. I know way too much about Saved by the Bell. I can not only name the episode and its premise within the first 30 seconds of the show, but also rattle off the dialogue at many points. Sad.
5. I am a ridiculously fast typer. Truth be told I can type upwards of 80+ words per minute consistently.
6. I have no problem buying used books on Amazon. In fact, I will always buy used so long as there is a large enough price difference between used and new. My only caveat is that the book description must say that it is a clean, unmarked copy. Why? Because I mark my books up like crazy . . . . when I’m done, each page looks like a page of Talmud with my commentary around it.
7. I lost 59 lbs about 2 years ago and was in great shape, but when my wife got pregnant (some of) the weight came back on. Hey, I can’t let her eat that pizza and ice cream by herself! What kind of husband would that make me?
8. I prefer Letterman over Leno. The only funny thing Leno ever did was ‘Headlines,’ and it wasn’t funny because of him. I like Letterman’s delivery, improv, and edge.
9. I cannot think, write, or formulate a thought if there is noise. I am terribly sound-sensitive, and actually am convinced I have a mild case of ADHD.
10. It makes me sad that, despite our similar interests in Genesis, Chris Heard has never commented on my blog (puppy dog eyes and pouty lip).
There you have it!
My wife, son, and I are back in Texas, safe and sound, after our week long vacation home to South Dakota. It was a wonderful time, especially since our son adapted so well, actually wanting to play with “poppa” and “manna” (that’s grandpa and grandma, for those who don’t have kids and couldn’t figure it out!).
My week home was a busy yet fulfilling one. Here are a few of the highlights.
Saturday: Arrived home. My son was excited to find several hermit crab shells at my parents’ pet store with Dora the Explorer painted on them. He also found a Diego terrarium to put them in. Even though my parents own the place, he only got the shells. We went to their house, watched my son play piano for a while, and then watched Scooby Doo.
Sunday: Went to church (see THIS POST) and to visit my grandpa. This was an especially meaningful time with him and my son because we almost lost my grandpa to an aneurysm about a year ago. As an 84 year old man, he survived it. Tough, tough man. My dad was also excited to watch Puff the Magic Dragon with my son; he watched it with me when I was little. Surprisingly, my son loves it. He loves to ask to watch “Puhh.” I also mowed my dad’s lawn. I despise mowing. He loves it. But I could not resist trying out his new, huge, zero-turn riding lawn mower. It was fun! I think I mowed the entire front and back yard in about 10 minutes! Ok, a bit of an exaggeration, but let’s just say I drive quite fast on it. And I almost knocked out my parents’ lamp post.
Monday: Became adicted to the show Operation Repo on truTV, which I watched with my parents. Check it out . . . . great show. Also went out to my wife’s parents’ house for about an hour and did a giant slip and slide down a hill. Needless to say, I have scratches all over me and I cut my feet up. Oh well, all in the name of fun.
Wednesday: Went to the largest city in the state, Sioux Falls, for some shopping. I sold all my CD’s to FYE and used the credit to buy some wrestling DVDs. Great exchange! Also met with my old professor and friend from undergrad and wandered my undergrad campus for a while. Always networking.
Friday: Had a joint birthday party with my son and his cousin; my son is turning 2 in a month, his cousin turned 3 this past week. My son got a lot of Scooby stuff (books, magets, puzzle, pj’s), and he still has more on the way when it actually is his birthday in August. I mowed my dad’s yard again (that riding lawnmower is too fun). We also went to the cemetery to visit my grandma. She passed away Dec 12, 2008, which resulted in an unexpected trip home. She had been diagnosed (and beat!!) breast cancer about 10 years ago, but was then diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and continued to deteriorate. It was good to be able to visit her.
Saturday: It was rodeo week in town, and in the morning was the rodeo parade. My son loved running after candy (he got a huge bag—too bad he can’t eat half of it! Guess I’ll have to help him). He also really enjoyed seeing the ‘horsies’ and ‘firetrucks.’ And, in an earlier post, I had mentioned that my high school mascot was an ear of corn. Now, for your viewing pleasure, here is a picture of said mascot (I don’t think this is the official costume but a cheaper version of it), standing in front of a vehicle that says “Mitchell,” the name of my hometown. I thought you all might get a kick out of it. And did I mention his name? It’s Cornelius. No joke.
We left Saturday evening about 6:30 and drove about 4 hours into Nebraska and spent the night. Got up about 5 AM yesterday, left by 6 AM, and drove ten hours from Nebraska to Waco. Our soundtrack for the trip? Episodes of Scooby Doo, Dora the Explorer, and of course “Puhh” the Magic Dragon, which my son watched on the portable DVD player.
Now that I’m back, I will return to regular posting. I’ll likely be posting up some dissertation items soon.
My son is almost two. He’s a good talker and, like his dad, very opinionated. This story is just too classic not to share briefly.
We were in church on Sunday . . . . . myself, my son, my parents, my sister, and her boyfriend. Just as the service was getting over, immediately after the pastor (who is a good family friend and lives across the street from my parents) had finished the final benediction and said “amen,” my son shouts, in a very excited voice, “Yay!” and started clapping. Everyone around us started laughing. We’re still trying to figure out if that was a commendation of the pastor’s work (which he joked later!) or an excitement that it was now time to leave.
Kids . . . . . they say and do the darndest things!
My wife, son, and I are safely home in South Dakota for the next week. The 15 hour drive went well. The weather cooperated. A bit cloudy, but the moment we hit the SD state line (I’m totally not kidding on this), it was a beautiful, clear blue sky.
It is gorgeous . . . . about 80 degrees with a slight breeze; perfect weather. My wife is with her family, I am with mine. My son is in the living room playing with a singing chipmunk and watching Dora the Explorer with grandma. And the Godfathers Pizza is on the way. Life . . . . is good!
So, I will not be on the blogs as often for the next week. I sincerely hope my absence is not too dearly missed (but still duly noted!).
My family and I greatly appreciate your prayers for safe and sane weather and travel. We are driving, splitting the trip up for our little guy, and planning to get home (that’s SD, folks) Saturday early evening.
Celucien Joseph over at Christ, My Righteousness has posted an interesting topic, naming the top ten biblioblogs he reads on a regular basis (I wasn’t mentioned — sigh . . . . . jk). This got me thinking on the same question. There is a consistent group of blogs that I do check daily. I am going to be, however, a bit more selective (and biblical!). And so, here are the seven blogs that I not only check but also actually read most often (in no particular order).
1) Chris Heard, Higgaion - As a fellow Genesis scholar, I am always interested in what Chris has to say. I have expressed my appreciation for his Dynamics of Diselection on this blog before (see HERE), and I am pleased to be able to interact with him in the blogging world. He also has a wonderful sense of humor that I always enjoy.
2) Mike Whitenton, Ecce Homo - Michael and I have recently developed quite the friendship online. He is in the process of preparing Ph.D. applications, and I have been pleased to offer my advice to him on these matters. It has been a fun avenue to revisit and reflect upon my own experiences. He has also kept me on my toes with the ‘other part’ of the Bible (I think it’s called the New Testament . . . . ha!).
3) Nick Norelli, Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth - Nick has a great sense of humor as well, and updates quite often on topics that are quite creative and engaging. I’ve never seen anyone draw 20 comments by posting a story about finding a booger in a book! If only I could attain that level of blogging popularity!!
4) Nijay Gupta - Nijay’s blog is a wealth of information for current and prospective students of the NT. I don’t quite share his interest in Paul, but I have had the opportunity to engage with him on a variety of thoughtful topics. He also is at the tail end of blogging through the writing of his dissertation, a task I plan to begin very shortly.
5) Jim West - This entry should come without explanation. I appreciate the firmness and confidence with which Jim shares his opinions (even though I don’t share all of them), but I do also consider him a serious biblioblogger (you’re welcome, Jim!). There is a wealth of information and resources for biblical studies that have been brought to my attention by good ol’ JW.
6) Bryan Bibb, Hevel - Bryan is an OT professor at Furman; he is one of the few Hebrew Bible scholars out there blogging (in addition to Chris Heard, myself, and a few others). By default, then, I check his blog regularly. I have very much enjoyed dialoguing with Bryan on a host of topics, including the possibility of biblioblogging podcasts, pedagogy, the nature of an OT intro, etc.
7) Richard, YHWH Malak - While Richard and I seem to approach Scripture from very different trajectories and through the work of very different scholars, I always enjoy the questions he poses. His regular and well-thought-out questions have pressed me often to refine my own view of many issues, among them Pentateuchal composition and the closing of the Psalter.
What do you think? And what five, seven, or ten blogs do you most often visit and read, and why?
I seldom remember my dreams. That is probably a blessing in disguise. I awoke this morning wondering why last night could not have been a night that repeated this pattern.
Yes, I had a dream about Jim West. Why I was blessed with such a “privilege” I don’t know. Here’s basically how it went.
My wife, son, and I were at a fair of some sort in a mall. There were video screens and tv monitors set up all over, and people crowded around them, watching what, I don’t recall. In the middle of a long walkway was a giant . . . . GIANT (I’m talking like 50 feet long and 10 feet high) inflated air mattress thing. I was sitting on it with my family, and I turned around and looked over my right shoulder through a huge group of people, and caught what I thought was a familiar face. This face looked away. Then, it looked back at me quickly, and then away. This person had a huge camera around their neck, a goofy look on their face, and was snapping pictures furiously. This person . . . . was Jim West. He looked like the epitome of a tourist. And I remember thinking how rude I thought he was not to greet me when he obviously had seen my picture. And that’s all I remember. I probably woke up at this point from this nightmare.
If anyone wants to take a stab at the meaning of this dream, I am (terrified yet) curious.
A new meme challenge has been started by Kevin asking about the five most important primary sources for biblical studies NOT including the biblical text itself. I’ve been pegged to respond, and when the number one bibloblogger for four months running tags you, you can’t help but respond with a sense of duty and great responsibility!
Here are the rules as Kevin has laid them out:
1.) List the 5 primary sources that have most affected your scholarship, thoughts about antiquity, and/or understanding of the NT/OT.
2.) Books from the Bible are off limits unless you really want to list one, I certainly will not chastise you for it.
3.) Finally, choose individual works if you can. This will be more interesting than listing the entire corpus of Cicero as one of your choices.
Since my area is Hebrew Bible, this list will be focused very much in that direction. And because this area is not my primary MO, this list may be a bit different and less specific than if I were, say, an ancient Near Eastern guy. Here’s the list . . . .
1) The Dead Sea Scrolls: Pesharim
So, so, so hard to narrow this down to just one text. And I don’t want the DSS to occupy all five slots, which it easily could given the rules above. I have learned an invaluable wealth of information from the DSS. The Community Rule (1QS), War Scroll (1QM), Hodayot (1QH), etc. have variously affected my views of Judaism during the Second Temple period, eschatology/apocalyptic, worship texts and practice, etc. But if I had to narrow it down to one corpus of texts, I would say the pesharim. Some of my work in the past has focused on the pesharim, namely the Habakkuk (1QpHab) and Nahum (4QNah) pesharim. They provide valuable insight into a particular method of reading and interpreting Scripture for a specific strand of Judaism, highlight a unique perspective on how ‘Scripture’ –inasmuch as such a concept can even be spoken of here–is viewed (there are instances where the pesherist has very clearly altered the biblical text to suit his own interpretive needs), and corroborate largely the Masoretic text, evincing the great fidelity of the Masoretes in preserving the textual tradition.
2) Merneptah Stele
The earliest extra-biblical attestation of Israel, dated to approximately 1207 BCE, reveals a tremendous amount of information on Israelite origins. Some scholars argue vociferously that Merneptah’s Israel cannot and should not be equated with biblical Israel; this is a silly notion to me, not least because there are not multiple Israel’s running around the aNE and being attested elsewhere. At the very least, the Merneptah Stele reveals there was a religious entity (evidenced by the El theophoric name element) considered to be a distinctive people (evidenced by the determinative for ‘people’ rather than ‘land’ on the relevant line of the stele) in the central hills that was considered a worthy enough opponent to warrant Egyptian attack.
3) A variety of ancient Near Eastern texts: Gilgamesh, Adapa, Sumerian Paradise myth, etc.
This complex of texts, among others, are unique for my work in that they reveal that the phenomenon of the divine trickster was indeed a quite prevalent motif elsewhere in the ancient Near Easter. Such a recognition buttresses my reading of YHWH as a deceptive, trickster deity in Genesis.
4) KTU 1.15 III, 5-21 (Kirta Epic) – Ugaritic
This particular section of text narrates the deity El’s preference for reversed-birth-order in what appears to be a parallel to the biblical depiction of Jacob and Esau. Line 16 is the relevant line, which I translate [yes, I do know Ugaritic!!]: ”their youngest, I will give her the right of the firstborn” (my vocalization: șaģirtahinna ‘abakkirannā). It is striking that the final word, a D-stem imperfect 1cs from b-k-r “to grant primogeniture” occurs no where else in Ugaritic literature in this form. This text bears striking affinities to the biblical account (Gen 25:22-26): 1) both present a reversed birth-order preference of the deity, and that preference is worked out in the ensuing narrative; 2) both texts employ a similar wordplay between “firstborn” (bkr) and “blessing” (brk). There are affinities within the wider Kirta epic, as Simon Parker and Ron Hendel have pointed out. And while I think something a bit different is going on in Gen 25:23–the divine oracle to Rebekah–that sets the stage for the rest of the Jacob cycle, the import and obvious common themes (of reversal) between the two texts cannot be undermined.
5) Josephus’ Jewish War and Antiquities
On the NT side of things, I don’t think Josephus can be undervalued. To be sure, he is not always a trustworthy reporter of actual events, but the shear volume and quality of material he has left us presents an invaluable glance into first century, Roman-occupied Palestine. I have especially found his mentions of Jesus . . . . albeit brief . . . . . to be quite interesting for the task of historical Jesus scholarship.
Well, there you have it. That was quite the hard list to construct! Honorable mention goes to the Septuagint for its role in textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible and its status as an earlier (though not ultimately authoritative?) rendering of the Hebrew Bible in comparison with MT, other Ugaritic texts that may inform the Hebrew Bible (of which there are many, but one should not take this too far as has, for example, Mitchell Dahood on the Psalms . . . . Ugaritic is hardly the key to all the textual difficulties of the Psalter, let alone the Hebrew Bible, especially given how little we actually know about Ugaritic and how to vocalize and translate the language), and the Elephantine Aramaic texts, which provide tremendous insight into a diaspora Jewish community. Plus, Aramaic is just awesome!
So, what do you think? I look forward to your responses . . . . .
Taking a cue from last night’s episode of So You Think You Can Dance (which I’m guessing only myself and Jim West watch to represent that all important biblioblogger demographic), where they asked the contestants what they would be doing if they weren’t dancers, I began to ponder a similar question for myself.
Biblical studies is my passion, and I honestly can’t imagine doing anything else! But, if biblical studies were not my chosen career path, what would I be doing? There are three possibilities that pique my interest (in no particular order):
Being a lawyer would afford a certain level of financial solubility and I think would be interesting to try for a day. But I just couldn’t handle defending someone I knew was guilty. A psychologist takes me back to my first year of undergrad, when I was a psych major (for all of two weeks!). I’m not too terribly interested in the material after that experience, but in watching shows like Intervention and Obsessed on A&E, it doesn’t seem like being one is actually that difficult (a terrible reduction and trivialization, I know). But, I could do that! And while I don’t like to cook–namely because I dislike cleaning up afterwards–being a chef would be a fun experience. Not a cook at Red Lobster or anything . . . a real chef, like Bobby Flay or Mario Batali. My wife and I love the Next Food Network Star, and often end up discussing how fun it would be to be a chef. Of course, I am a terribly finicky eater (I hate lettuce, tomatoes, mayo, rice, onions . . . . ), so my palette likely would not afford me much success as a chef.
It seems based upon these reflections that it is a good thing I’m pursuing biblical studies! I can truly say it is my passion, and what I feel I am meant to do. But, if I weren’t, this is a hint at what I may be doing instead.
How about you? If you weren’t in biblical studies, what career path would you have chosen? What would you like to try?
While it may be a bit overdue, I am indeed reporting for duty, responding to the challenge posed by Michael Whitenton to name the five books that have had the most significant and profound effect on me as a student of the biblical text (N.B. see also my similar posts on “Five Books on Genesis I Could Not Do Without” and “Five MORE Books on Genesis I Could Not Do Without . . . “). So, I present, the five books that have most influenced me as a biblical scholar.
Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic Books, 1981.
No single volume has more influenced how I read the biblical text than Alter. In light of my growing agnosticism about the success of the historical-critical enterprise within scholarship, Alter came along at just the right time and filled a gap for me. I am deeply appreciative of not only the care with which I feel he reads texts, but also with the fact that his methodology–quite unlike historical-critical ones–allows for not just an appreciation of Hebrew art but also a) preserves and finds great meaning in the tensions of the text; b) a recognition of contemporary meaning and relevance for the text as well.
Terence Fretheim, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective. Overtures to Biblical Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1984.
I have discussed this volume in the past. It absolutely exploded my (naive) paradigm of God as omni-everything. Fretheim focuses upon divine suffering, arguing that God has entered so intimately into relationship with creation that God is deeply impacted by the choices of humanity. The idea of divine vulnerability and pathos is one that has, for those that are familiar with my work, greatly affected my conception of God. I have not read this volume in a number of years, but it still sits on my shelf in a prominent place, heavily marked up from my earlier readings of it. And when I think of volumes that have had a bearing on how I read the Bible and, more specifically, how I read God, this is surely one.
While not explicitly a book about the Bible, I cannot underestimate the impact Night has had on how I read Scripture. I am greatly influenced by Wiesel’s work, and I have a keen interest in Holocaust study and theology. Wiesel taught me the value of questions, not accepting ‘pat’ answers, and, perhaps as is to be expected, very much about the character (or lack of character?) of God. I still recall my first reading of Night in my intro to religion course freshmen year of undergrad; we read it alongside the biblical book of Job, and then literally staged a trial of God, indicting him for crimes during the Holocaust and crimes in Job. I, interestingly, was selected by my professor to be God. And yes, God was found guilty on both counts . . . and rightly so.
Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997.
No big surprise here, right? Brueggemann’s massive tome stands out to me for a variety of reasons: 1) the emphasis on rhetoric as ancient Israel’s means of communicating theology, which correspondingly results in his near utter-dismissal of history as the lens through which to view the task of OT theology; 2) his desire to struggle deeply with the tensions in the biblical text and to let them stand where necessary; 3) his portrait of God. I am excited to be meeting with Brueggemann in a tentative ‘sit down’ meeting at this year’s SBL.
Marvin R. Wilson, Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.
Alan Segal’s Rebecca’s Children was in close contention here; in fact, I could likely call a tie. Wilson introduced me to the intricacies of the Jewish roots of Christianity, while Segal’s volume gave that view greater precision. This has greatly impacted my reading of not only the NT (in line with Boccacini, Segal, Boyarin, all of whom claim a twin birth for Jewish Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism from Israelite religion) but also the OT. The overriding message of this book has been one that has interestingly been carried forward in each of my academic contexts . . . undergrad (Augustana), masters program (Duke), and now Ph.D. work (Baylor). It has been an issue constantly at the fore for me, and one with which I have consistently struggled.
Well, there you have it. I will tag my Genesis buddy, Chris Heard, Bryan Bibb, Jim West (since I don’t think he has posted up such a list yet . . . plus he needs the traffic), Mark Goodacre, and Richard from Tehillim and YHWH Malak.
I look forward, as always, to your comments!
This has been a big month. First, I move to wordpress. Second, my traffic increases tremendously. Third, NT Wrong actually debases him/herself enough to comment on my blog (the same may also be said of Jim West!). As if those points alone didn’t make me feel as though I had somehow ‘arrived.’ And now . . . I am pleased to announce that my pleading has paid off! Brandon Wason has selected myself and Hesed we ‘emet as the featured biblioblog(ger) for June 2009. You can read the interview he conducted with me HERE.
Please do feel free to comment on the interview, or any questions that may arise from it, in this post.
[N.B. -- the picture of me included with the interview is me in front of the magnificently beautiful Duke Chapel after receiving my masters hood from, well, Duke.]
Given the success of the previous Q & A with myself, as well as the fact that I simply cannot be defined by a mere list of twenty quirky facts (well, that and I have some new material I wanted to share!), a second installment seems in order. So, I present your (attempt at) levity for the day. Again, I look forward to and welcome your comments.
20 MORE Little Known Facts About Me . . .
1) I am thoroughly convinced that anything in the world . . . anything . . . can be made funny by including a monkey.
2) Sometimes, I wish I were Jewish. I have a deep, deep respect for the beauty, antiquity, and power of that faith tradition. I am also very appreciative of the Jewish roots of Christianity, and think scholars should humbly remain mindful of this historical fact.
3) I wish more theologians read the biblical text. I also, at times, wish more biblical scholars read theologians. This is an unfortunate divide.
4) I pride myself on my sense of humor and quick wit. Truly, I would say I am quite funny (and yes, I realize claiming such a thing here means I’m not funny at all).
5) My wife and I used to fight over who got to change (read that again, who GOT TO CHANGE) my newborn son’s diapers. Now that he’s almost two and eating real food, this pattern has changed dramatically.
6) The one course in high school that ruined my 4.0 GPA (and took away the possibility of me being valedictorian) was . . . gym. Seriously, I get a ‘B’ because I can’t run a mile in under 14 minutes?!
7) I did not ask my wife out on our first date . . . I used to be a customer service manager at my hometown grocery store, and I had one of my cashiers do it. Yes, ladies—smooth operator here. No wonder she married me!
8 ) I refuse to pronounce the Divine Name (YHWH). When I need to write it, I never include the vowels; it is always YHWH. If I need to say ‘it’ aloud, be it in translation, paper presentation, or casual conversation, I will say “Adonai.” I also think it is terribly presumptuous for anyone–Christians included–to pronounce it.
9) I admit to being a horrible audience member at paper presentations (such as SBL). My mind wanders easily, and then I end up being embarrassed to ask my question given it may have been discussed at a point where my mind was elsewhere.
10) I don’t think there is anything wrong with saying another man is good looking.
11) I am terribly unhandy. Anything we own (entertainment center, coffee tables, computer desk, storage cabinets, bookcases, etc.) have all been assembled by my wife. My job consists solely in asking “now the philips screwdriver is the line or the little star?”
12) I don’t drink alcohol. Not for any religious reason, I just never have. Not in HS, not in undergrad, and still not now. I simply have no interest in it.
13) You will never see me writing in my Hebrew Bible (BHS, or my Tanak from Israel). I will, however, mark up an English Bible (read: translation) with no problems.
14) Earlier I mentioned my parents own a pet store. Among the main attractions they have had over the last 30 years have been a pot-bellied pig named Arnold, a giant iguana named Iggy, a capuchin monkey named Josh, and currently a ruby mccaw named Boji.
15) I think South Park is one of the most brilliant shows on TV for its social commentary. I don’t keep up with the show from week to week, but I do watch various older episodes on my on-demand service every so often.
16) When professional wrestling (WWE) comes to town, I hang out behind the arena before the show for about 4-5 hours in the hopes of meeting the wrestlers when they arrive. It has thus far been a success; I have met countless wrestlers, and gotten numerous pictures and autographs.
17) I can’t stand socks. I hate wearing them, and touching dirty ones grosses me out something fierce.
18) At least two of my Baylor colleagues have noted (and one explicitly told me he ripped off) what is apparently my unique fashion sense. When courses are in session and I am on campus, I simply wear jeans, either a polo or a button-up shirt (untucked), and a suit jacket. I call it the Gregory House look (from the Fox tv show “House, M.D.”).
19) I have three distinct yet interrelated skin colors/tones in the summer, and every summer follows this same pattern: white, red, freckled. It is impossible for me to get a tan.
20) My favorite part of the day is when my son gives me a kiss goodnight after saying his evening prayers.
I think that is a fine list! Please do let me know your thoughts, as well as any questions you may have for me. Let this be the opportunity for you to “better know” me. What do you want to know? Topics, categories, specific questions? Should this “series” continue? If so, what should I do next?
Jim West irregularly notes interesting ways in which people have found his blog through searches in various search engines. This is one feature of wordpress that I thoroughly enjoy: seeing what has led people to my blog. There have been some fascinating ones, and I thought I’d share a few here because they pique my interest for varying reasons. These do indicate, at least, in my estimation a quite robust set of questions being asked by some of surf the internet; not all is mindless! Here are a few search strings that have led people to my blog; for your ‘convenience’ I have grouped them into some broad categories that seem applicable:
The ‘Why are you stalking me?!’ category
“john e. anderson baylor” (ok, that’s a bit precise)
“john anderson baylor” (strangely, testifying to the utter simplicity and commonality of my name, you will find a great many John Andersons who simply are not me with this search)
“john anderson hesed we meet” (the typo in emet is the searches, not mine)
“john anderson book length stories about” (WHAT?! If anyone finds something on this please bring it to my attention!)
“john anderson cycle” (what does this even mean? Am I a cyclist? Truth be told, I can barely ride a bike! Does someone think I have my own cycle of stories in the Bible?)
The ‘Ahhh, good, you want to know about Jacob and Genesis’ category
“Jacob known as trickster” (a brilliant search!)
“tricksters in the Jacob cycle” (another brilliant search)
“Jacob and Laban” (hopefully they read my article)
“alter on biblical birth type scenes” (this is clearly the search of a wise, sagacious mind)
“book of Genesis incoherence” (source critics are unfortunately still around–wink!)
“character of God in Genesis,” “character of God portrayed in Genesis,” “characteristics of God in Genesis” (again, I hope they read my article if they want the REAL answers to these questions!)
The ‘glad I could be of service’ category
“Brueggemann” (one of the true heroes of the faith for me; I’m glad others are finding him searchworthy)
“my dissertation in a year” (Yes, I am aiming to get the dissertation done in a year. Insane, surely, but do-able nonetheless. And I hope to do it.)
“phd comprehensive test went well” (Presumably a stressed out student on the eve of talking these tests, and upon finding my posts, is imbued with a great level of not only confidence but also competence, and the next day, aced his/her exams. Hey, I can pretend, right?)
“phd exams 2009″ (gotta make sure you got the 2009 version of these; do NOT search for phd exams 2008 . . . . that was soooooooo last year)
“unmarked subject verb position” (I’m actually uncertain how this got to me. I trust it is the abstract for my upcoming SBL paper, but I can’t imagine the number of pages this person would have had to look through before landing on my BLOG)
“should I get my phd from the same school” (my answer, you should get a ph.d. from a school that will pay for it for you)
The ‘what the . . . ?’ category
“tina fey” (I make one comment about how I watch 30 Rock and all of a sudden the Tina Fey fanclub bombards my blog. Or something.)
“bowl haircut” (I make one comment about how I used to have a bowl hair cut and all of a sudden everyone in the world who still has a bowl haircut bombards my blog. Or something)
“wwe magazine cover” (Sadly I wasn’t on the cover, but in a small article inside. I take great pride in being an academic and a professional wrestling fan)
QUICK ‘DID YOU KNOW’ FOR THE DAY: Did you know I am not the only academic who is enthralled with professional wrestling. It has been confirmed to me that Patrick Miller (Princeton) is a huge pro wrestling fan! Rumor also has it that Brueggemann enjoys it as well, but I have yet to confirm that; perhaps at our SBL meeting. I can already see the segueway into that conversation (“Yeah, I really find the scene where Jacob wrestles with the [angel of] God in Gen 32 a remarkable scene in how it portrays God explicitly as a character of conflict in Genesis. Say, do you like professional wrestling . . . ?) Flawless logic!
I’m not feeling terribly thoughtful right now, and in that spirit it may be an interesting activity for readers to learn a bit more about me. Here are some other, random facts that will perhaps be of interest:
Little Known Facts About Me . . .
1) My parents own the only pet store in my home town, and have for the last 30+ years.
2) I have never broken a bone in my body, ever.
3) I have a fear of flying, but I do it. Reluctantly.
4) My high school mascot is an ear of corn. No joke.
5) I can play the piano, though my skills have deteriorated. I can also play the trumpet . . . poorly. I was in marching band for four years in HS.
6) I am a huge wuss when I am sick. Huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuge wuss.
7) I am scared of spiders, heights, and dying. I’m also not too fond of elevators, but I seldom think of it much anymore.
8 ) I used to have a bowl haircut. For years. And before that it was a spike. Oh, and I’m terribly ashamed to admit this, but I used to have a rat tail.
9) If I could meet one famous person living today, it would probably be Hulk Hogan. If I could meet one person from any period in history, it would likely be Hul . . . just kidding. It would actually be Jesus. Jacob (the Genesis character, assuming historicity)–would be fun too!
10) I can’t grow facial hair for the life of me. And I want a goatee really bad.
11) In undergrad, I was originally a psychology major. The single reason I am in the field of religion right now is because of one professor: Dr. Murray Haar at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, SD. He was and is captivating, and he remains a dear friend to this day.
12) I almost decided not to attend Duke for my masters and continue working at the Wells Fargo Financial credit card headquarters where my wife and I were both employed. The money was good and the opportunities for advancement were there . . . but we took a risk. And I’m glad we did.
13) I’m registered as a Republican, but have seldom been impressed with a Republican candidate. I’ve always voted Democrat for president.
14) One of my biggest pet peeves is when my wife watches the non-HD version of a channel we have in HD.
15) I own ten video game systems: original NES, Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, Gamecube, Wii, Gameboy, Nintendo DS, original Sega, Dreamcast, Sega Game Gear.
16. To evidence how big of a pro wrestling fan I am, my collection in my room back home in South Dakota was once featured (well, part of my room) in an issue of the WWE magazine (image HERE; and keep in mind, this is a very small portion of what I have). I estimate I have spent, over nearly 20 years of watching wrestling, in excess of $15,000-20,000 . . . and to be honest, it is probably worth much more than that.
17) When I was in grade school, I won a contest by writing an essay on “What My Family Means to Me.” It got my family and I featured for a 5 minute segment on the local news, and my parents still have the tape, which includes video of fat little me reading my essay.
18) I am very impatient, but have often found in my experience that good things do come to those who wait.
19) My sister and I, when we were younger, had an immune deficiency and had to have IV’s once a month, all day, for about 3 years.
20) I can do a spot-on impression of Bullwinkle the Moose.
Favorites . . .
Musician: Billy Joel
Food: Chicken strips (General Tso’s chicken is a close second).
TV Show: anything wrestling, especially WWE. If wrestling is off the table, I’d have to name a four-way tie between 24 (on Fox with Keifer Sutherland), American Idol, and the Daily Show and Colbert Report. Notable mention also goes to such wonderful programming as 30 Rock (Tina Fey is a genius), House, Lie to Me, Lost, Hell’s Kitchen, Survivor, and So You Think You Can Dance. Yeah, I watch a lot of TV.
Movie(s): I can’t pick just one. Anytime it is on TV I could watch the following: any of the Naked Gun movies, RENT, Anchorman, Miss Congeneality, The Brady Bunch Movie, A Very Brady Sequel, any of the Austin Powers movies, Rat Race.
Drink: Iced tea (unsweetened; that was the worst thing about living in NC–sweet tea. Bleh!)
Biblical Story: Easy! Gen 25:27-34 (Jacob tricking Esau out of the right of the firstborn–a truly hilarious scene if you agree with me that Esau is portrayed as a bumbling idiot). Gen 27 (the deception of Isaac) is a close second.
Biblical Character: Jacob
Animal: Dogs (I can’t stand cats!)
Season: Texas doesn’t really have much for seasons; I desperately miss the South Dakota winters.
Sport: Assuming wrestling doesn’t count, I have no clue how to answer this. I used to be a big baseball fan, and I loved the Minnesota Twins; Kirby Puckett was my favorite. I don’t like football in the least. As I think about it, probably the only sport on TV that I will actually stop the channel and watch is bowling on ESPN. Now that is sad.
Website: Aside from my email, which I check obsessively, probably wrestlezone.com or lordsofpain.net, both of which are wrestling news and rumor sites. I know, I lead a sad life.
Religion book: Probably Walter Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative is a close contender for this slot.
Non-religion book: I seldom read anything not associated with the academic study of religion. Best bet would probably be Where the Red Fern Grows . . . unless wrestler autobiographies count!
I think that’s adequate for now; my creativity is waning (as though this post were remotely creative!). What questions or items would you like to know? Ask away!
Recently I have had the joy of conversing with several other bibliobloggers via email about the ins-and-outs of and tips for applying to Ph.D. programs. In light of that discussion, I thought it may be a service to post something up here. Please do feel free to weigh in, either with questions, or with your own sense of things. I wish I had known then what I know now. Here is a bit of my narrative, interspersed with what will hopefully be some helpful comments and suggestions.
I attended a small liberal arts college in South Dakota for my undergrad. In preparing for further study, I was told by several professors independently that if you wanted to study Bible, you went to one of three places: Duke, Emory, or Princeton. This was no doubt a bit disconcerting to me from the outset! What do these ‘big three’ think (or even know!) of my undergrad? But I semi-took that advice and applied to both Duke and Notre Dame for masters level work. I was confident in my ND materials (an ND alum who was on faculty at my undergrad helped me revise them!), and not so much in my Duke materials (they were the ‘unedited’ ND materials). In the meantime, in the chance I would get in to neither, I named other places to my profs I was interested in going. One of them told me she could make a phone call to two places and get me in at both with no problems. Good to know (in other words, feel free to exploit your connections; much of this is about who you know . . . things can get quite political). Well, as fate would have it, I got accepted to Duke’s MTS program and denied from ND. The choice was made for me.
I begin my narrative here because while at Duke I realized something appearing quite innocuous that could have worked out quite a bit to my detriment: course choices. My program was a two-year masters degree; thus, at the end of the first year I had to start sending out Ph.D. applications and, of course, asking for letters of recommendation. Here’s the glitch: in a year’s time I had surely made connections with various professors at Duke–Richard Hays, Joel Marcus, Jim Crenshaw, etc.–but some of them had either not had me in a class or had had me only in one (large) course, and while they may have had an opinion on my academic prowess (or lack thereof), they may not have felt it was adequate to write a letter for me. I ended up making it work, but not without some panic. I did have to ask some who felt less-than-prepared to write a full-length letter for me. So the moral of the story: it is all fine and good if a professor knows you, but if they don’t know you academically, that could present a problem come letter time.
I applied to seven schools for Ph.D. work, all in the area of Bible/OT: Duke, Emory, Notre Dame, Marquette, Union-PSCE, Vanderbilt, and Baylor. Within a few weeks I received a call from Baylor, who was offering to fly me to Texas for an interview. Of course I said yes. I thought this was a good omen. It wasn’t. Not only do I feel the interview went terribly (and I remain convinced I am NOT at Baylor because of the merits of my interview!), but when I came home the rejections came flying in. In the end, I was accepted at Baylor, accepted at Marquette, and waitlisted at Union. Obviously, I chose Baylor. And I must say, I cannot be happier. Followers of this blog will know well that I feel I have been blessed by my time here, and I feel I have been afforded some tremendous opportunities that some of my Princeton et. al. colleagues do not have: the encouragement (and success) in publishing, regular presenting at regional and national SBL, working intimately and closely with professors on various book/publishing projects, and actually ‘hanging out’ with profs outside of class. In a little plug, I would suggest that anyone applying for Ph.D. work take a serious look at Baylor. Anywho.
In light of the above, here is some of the advice I give to those asking me about applying to Ph.D. programs:
1) Your task as an applicant is to argue that you fit in with the school (its mission, philosophy, etc.) and with the interests held by the faculty in the department to which you are applying. You must make that case. Certainly most schools have the same or similar application materials (statement of intent/interest, personal letter/autobiographical essay, writing sample, etc.). Do NOT send the exact same, unedited materials to every school. Adapt each statement and essay to fit the school. For instance, in my statements of intent, I included a unique paragraph in each one that discussed specifically, by name, the various faculty at that insitution and how my interests fit with theirs and how I could benefit from them. This demonstrates a certain level of thoughtfulness, and shows you have actually taken the time to note their faculty and what they do. You may also want to choose a different writing sample for each school if you feel different pieces fit different schools better. All in all, taylor your application materials to each school. But . . . .
2) Don’t be fawning. Academics all have egos, and we like to have them stroked from time to time. But, don’t bleed all over the page. If you think Richard Hays is the greatest NT scholar to ever live, that’s fine—but don’t include that in your application as such. This is where making the case is important. One can find a balance by simply acknowledging something to the effect of “Given my interest in the use of the OT in the NT, I have found Richard Hays’ work to be invaluable, especially his work on Scripture echoes in Paul. I understand he is currently working on a similar volume on echoes in the gospels; I have done some work on this myself in . . . . “ Ok, maybe the connection won’t always be as neat and tidy as that, but that reads a lot better than “I have learned much from Richard Hays and I would like to study with him.” Be precise, but not too precise. Acknowledge the work being done there, but don’t suck-up. Balance is key.
3) This is a biggie. Apply to a diversity of schools. Having a list of all ‘top-tier’ programs and applying exclusively to those may set you up for disappointment. Note my list above–I consider that a good mixture of programs. It is unwise (although I’m sure it has worked for some) to apply ONLY to a list consisting of Duke, Princeton, Harvard, Emory, Notre Dame. There are many very fine second-tier (whatever that means) schools. My advice? Compile a list of schools you want to attend–as many as 15 or 20 if you want. Then, order them by how badly you want to attend that school, but don’t let your reasoning be “well it’s Duke, so I should want to go there.” No you shouldn’t, not if the type of work they are doing doesn’t match what you want to do. Take the faculty, the school, everything into account. And then, honestly rank them. That should serve as a nice starting point for adjudicating where to apply and where not to apply. But diversity is key.
4) Read books and articles by the professors at the places to which you are applying. Not only do you then possess an even greater sense of what is going on at this school, you can also interact with this material, possibly in your application materials if you do it responsibly and wisely; but, do not be afraid to email those at the school either. I had a healthy email correspondence with several people from the various schools I was applying to—long, thorough, and persistent, good conversation. Don’t be afraid to email, but again, don’t fawn. Be professional. This is your first impression. And, best case scenario, if you are invited for an interview you can discuss the work with that professor face-to-face. I did this at Baylor, and I trust it was at least in part instrumental in my acceptance. Another great place to make contacts is at SBL, and if you are presenting papers at SBL (regional or national) already in your masters program, you are taking a huge step in the right direction.
5) The GRE is important, unfortunately. Take it seriously. Get a Princeton Review book and memorize the vocab. Likely you’ll see one, maybe two of those words on the actual test, but that’s one or two more correct answers than you may have had. GRE’s are also a great way to get you money at schools. It is unfortunate that such a test plays this important of a role, but it does. So do what you can to beef up your scores. I took it twice, once before I applied for masters work, and once before the Ph.D., and between those two times my score went up 110 points.
6) Be prepared to be humbled . . . but stay sane. Rejections will likely come, and probably from some of your top choices. But a knowledge of the overall process is helpful in alleviating such feelings. For instance, when I applied to Ph.D. programs, I am fairly confident Duke accepted NO ONE in OT that year. Many of these schools have 1, maybe 2 spots open for well-over 100 applicants. Comparatively, next year Baylor is bringing in 3 new OT students and 5 NT students. There are still just as many applications but a few more spots. It will vary by school, but don’t be too terribly let down—you have a lot of competition! This is precisely why making the case that you fit at a given school is so important; if you can make that case strongly, i would bet you can make it past the initial ‘weeding-out’ phase.
7) Lastly, know yourself. Could you see yourself attending here for 4-6 years? Living in this city? Can you afford it (I firmly believe that one should not attend a Ph.D. program that is not covering your tuition)? Does this school match your academic interests, pursuits, and goals? Compromising yourself simply to ’get in’ or to attend a program will leave you miserable, and that will not bode well for any future career plans or prospects.
What do you all think? Questions? Additions? I welcome and look forward to your comments!
The title of this post is blatantly ripped off from an irregular segment on Stephen Colbert’s show “The Colbert Report.” No arrogance intended, only a weak (very weak) attempt at humor!
Joseph Kelly over at kol ha-adam has a great post up about James Barr and myself in which he discusses Barr’s view of the task of Old Testament theology and how my current article meshes with that view. Please do check out his post here, and feel free to comment here . . . I am more likely to see it.
More on deception, coming soon!
Edit: I am now aware of two other posts to add to this list. Please do check them out!
2) Richard over at Tehillim revisits an earlier discussion held on this very blog regarding the closing of the Psalter (or as I prefer to say, when did the Psalter achieve its ‘final form?’) You can see the full original thread with comments (after a little scrolling) here.
I am pleased to announce I have been asked to teach a section of introduction to Christian Scriptures to roughly 60 or so Baylor freshmen in the Fall semester. So now, not only will my summer be taken up by a great many tasks–helping Dr. Bellinger edit and finish his two Psalms books that are forthcoming; writing a dissertation proposal, prospectus, and opening chapter; submitting my Matthew 8:5-13 paper for publication; and job hunting–I can now also add writing lectures and designing my own unique course to the list! Within the next week I plan to make my textbook decision(s); I think I have a fair idea already of what I will do. I am very much looking forward to it!
I have seen such lists on several other blogs, and I believe they reveal a great deal about who a particular scholar is. I am certain some of these names may be little known, and others perhaps all too well known. These, though, are 15 scholars that have influenced me the most (in no particular order).
No big surprise here, right? Regular readers of my blog will be well aware of my appreciation for the honesty with which Brueggemann interprets even the most difficult of biblical texts, as well as the relevancy he seeks in his interpretations for contemporary communities of faith. His Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy is a masterful, magisterial work from which I have learned more than I can adequately recount, and his Genesis commentary in the “Interpretation” series is, from my perspective, an exceptional volume for this series. Walter Brueggemann, without a doubt (and yes, I know this is bordering on haggiography!), is without a doubt one of the most formative scholars for the work I do, both in the questions he asks and in the conception of God he sees in the Hebrew Bible.
I have often found Childs’ work to be quite compelling, even in his earlier, form-critical days. His canonical methodology has greatly influencd my work, and I would argue has set the stage for much current biblical scholarship since his seminal Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture in 1979. He is also one of a very few scholars who I feel has successfully bridged the Testaments, being able to write successfully and prolifically in both the OT and NT. I was saddened to here of his recent passing, but I trust that his methodological programme, at the very least, will continue unabated for some years to come.
Fretheim’s theological work on the God of the Hebrew Bible was foundational very early on in my studies. While in undergrad, I read his The Suffering of God, which revolutionized my understanding of the deity in relation to creation. The material Fretheim adduces in the service of highlighting the intimacy with which God has chosen to involve Himself in creation is not only compelling but also beautifully moving. And while this ‘open theism’ may be unpalatable to some contemporary theologians, I contend it is not only necessary to a proper comprehension of God but also vital–as Fretheim notices–to addressing questions of theodicy. Reading Fretheim is always a transformative exercise for me. My encounter with his The Suffering of God exploded an ‘original’ paradigm of God I had long held, and replaced it with something far more honest, and far more valuable.
Gerhard von Rad
While the certainty with which von Rad wrote, as well as several of his conclusions (i.e., that the kleine credo are ancient recitals of faith that have been expanded into the larger narrative traditions of the Hebrew Bible) is arguably no longer able to be maintained, I have been greatly influenced by the reading of his two volume OT theology. I find him to be a necessary dialogue partner in any theological work I do. Among my greatest take-aways from von Rad is what may seem to be an innocuous enough point, namely that the ancestral promise in Gen 12:1-3 is the conclusion to the primeval history (Gen 1-11) rather than the beginning of the ancestral narratives (Gen 12-50). Surely his ‘unassumed’ center for his theology–heilsgeschichte–dictates in large part this conclusion, but I do think he is on to something in reading the Hebrew Bible as a narrative of salvation history.
Renowned Holocaust survivor, Nobel peace prize recipient, and prolific author Elie Wiesel has transformed for me the very language in which one can (and should?) talk about God. Auschwitz is a crisis of faith, surely, for Christianity just as much as it is for Judaism; it has become my ‘crisis,’ in a way. The poetically haunting beauty of Wiesel’s words has affirmed for me the importance and fidelity of questions–a liturgy of questions–for faith. Wiesel has said that after the Holocaust he still prays to God . . . but only with questions. This perseverence of ‘faith’ has always struck me to be beautifully honest. The words of his memoir, Night, have never left me. And while Wiesel is not a formal biblical scholar, his midrashic treatment of the biblical text (see for example his Messengers of God has cracked many a biblical text wide open for me.
Wilson’s work on the shape and shaping of the Hebrew Psalter has undoubtedly revolutionized contemporary Psalms scholarship; quests for the overarching “metanarrative” of the canonical Psalter are now very much in vogue, and these discussions are very much on my scholarly radar. His The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter is one of the most satisfying, engaging, and compelling volumes I have read in a while. And his later work was equally as rewarding (see his essays in the McCann edited Shape and Shaping of the Psalter, 1993). I deeply lament his untimely passing, but I am thankful for the wealth of work he has left us.
Again, regular readers of my blog will likely be well aware of my deep appreciation for Alter’s methodological insights and application in The Art of Biblical Narrative. His recognition of the literary-aesthetic qualities of Biblical Hebrew has–to be intentionally repetitive–set the stage for modern biblical interpretation (along with other seminal works such as Sternberg’s Poetics), and I am thankful for his emphasis on not only what the text means but how it means. Anyone who reads my work knows I have gleaned very much from Alter, and his modeling of close-reading of the biblical text is a foundational hermeneutical principle that I take very seriously.
One of my teachers at Duke, I am most appreciate of Crenshaw’s work on the character of God as a sometimes-oppressive entity (see his A Whirlpool of Torment and his Defending God). The import of his work on wisdom literature also goes without saying. I must also mention that he was always a delight to interact with, and was one of the kindest men I have spoken with in academia. Some of the stories he told in class–off-topic–were among the funniest things I have heard in a long while.
I was not fortunate enough to take a course with Sanders while I was at Duke; he retired at the end of my first year there. I was able, however, to schedule an appointment with him to discuss his work and get him to sign my books. My attraction to Sanders is twofold. First, I have always found his understanding of the historical Jesus to have much to commend itself. And second, covenantal nomism and his volume Paul and Palestinian Judaism has helped me to have a greater understanding of Paul within his all-important Jewish context.
Dr. Hays was another one of my teachers at Duke. Among those aspects of Hays’ scholarship that have influenced me most are his work on intertextuality and the use of the OT in the NT. I recently had the opportunity to catch up briefly with him again at SBL in Boston and offer my congratulations for his recent festschrift (The Word Leaps the Gap, Eerdmans, 2008), which I have yet to read but hope to soon. The work required of me in Dr. Hays’ class–which I got an A in, thank you very much!! (wink)–set a standard I had to work quite assiduously to meet, and I feel helped prepare me very much for Ph.D. work. Dr. Hays is also among the most gentle, helpful, and giving men I have had the opportunity to know in academia; we had many one-on-one meetings in his office, discussing issues ranging from Paul to the historical Jesus to graduate work.
Dr. Portier-Young is a recent Duke Ph.D. grad and current professor in OT at Duke Divinity School. It is because of her constant pressing that my Hebrew is at the level it currently is (that’s a positive statement). As I have mentioned elsewhere, it was also in her course on Genesis that I first developed an interest in the texts of deception in the Jacob cycle and first articulated my ideas on the topic in writing. At bottom, I attribute much of where I am currently to Dr. Portier-Young.
Dr. Haar is chair of the religion department at my undergrad, Augustana College in Sioux Falls, SD. He was born to Jewish parents who were also Holocaust survivors; he later converted to Christianity and was ordained as a Lutheran pastor. After living that existence for thirty years, he returned to the Jewish faith. From him I have learned the importance of questions, boundaries, interfaith dialogue, as well as my interest in Judaism. It is because of him that I became a religion major and entered this field in the first place (I was originally a psychology major). I am privileged to call him not only my teacher but also a dear, dear friend.
Dr. Swanson also teaches at Augustana College, where I did my undergrad, in NT. Some of you may recognize his name as one of the originators of what has come to be known as ‘performance criticism’ (see his Provoking the Gospel introductory volume, as well as the series on each of the gospels). In sum, ‘performance criticism’ involves the embodying of biblical texts as an interpretive tool. Having taken part in several such performances in the past, I can attest to the tremendous insights that may arise from such a methodology. I am most appreciative to Dr. Swanson for this method as it has transformed the biblical text from a flat, two-dimensional entity into a three-dimensional embodiment of characters. As such, seemingly innocuous matters such as attire, intonation, facial expression, etc. assume deep hermeneutical implications. I am also thankful to Dr. Swanson as he married my wife and I!
W.H. Bellinger, Jr.
Dr. Bellinger is currently chair of the religion department at Baylor, where I am working towards my Ph.D. in biblical studies (OT). He has influenced me in a number of ways, not least of which is introducing me to Old Testament theology, which based upon several of my entries above (Brueggemann, von Rad, Childs) has become a main area of focus in my studies. I have found him to be an invaluable dialogue partner, and his questions are always helpful in honing and sharpening my work. I am also currently working with him on two of his book projects: a Psalms commentary to be published by Smyth & Helwys, and the second revised edition of his Psalms: Reading and Studying the Book of Praises published with Hendrickson, which has afforded me many insights into the publishing side of academia. I am very much looking forward to writing my dissertation with him, beginning in the fall.
J.P. Fokkelman, Mark Brett, and Chris Heard (three-way tie)
See my post below on “Five Books on Genesis I could not do without . . . ” for an explanation.
I look forward to your thoughts on the list. I am sure as I think about it further, more names will come to me.