A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…


NT Podcasts

Mark Goodacre, Associate Professor in the Religion Department at Duke University, has developed a New Testament podcast.  He describes it as “condensed content from an academic perspective for everyone interested in historical approaches to the New Testament.

Check it out.

It's Not Just P.C. Theory: Critique Matters to People's Real Lives

In the May 29, 2009 issue of The Chronicle Review, two articles underscored the power of literature to transform students’ lives.  In “Life Stories Unlocked by Literature,” Margot Mifflin invited us to witness a female haunted by rape find strength in reading Alice Sebold’s Lucky and a male abused by a babysitter affirm his sexuality in response to Shelley Jackson’s “My Body: A Wunderkammer.”  In “Great Books 2.0,” David Clemens introduced us to Joshua, jazzed up on the Great Books, convinced they are the “real deal.”  In the classics, Clemens proclaims, students hungry for meaning feast on perennial questions of human existence-a repast far more wholesome and satisfying than the empty calories of an educational diet of multiculturalism and pop culture.

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Does God Really Get Angry? Differing Views

In an earlier blog post, I referred to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s understanding of divine pathos—God’s passionate care about humanity.  In a 2007 article in Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Matthew Schlimm compares Heschel’s views with those of two other biblical scholar/theologians:  Walter Brueggemann and Terence Fretheim.  (“Different Perspectives on Divine Pathos” An Examination of Hermeneutics in Biblical theology” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 69 2007: 673-694.)   Schlimm finds the biggest differences between Heschel and Brueggemann, with Fretheim’s views often falling inbetween that of the others.

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Why Read the OT (1): As Background

A lot of folks treat the Old Testament as “background” reading for something else.  For Christians, it’s treated as the prequel to the New Testament, the part you have to read in order to understand the stuff you want to read. Who is Melchizedek and why does the book of Hebrews link him to Jesus?  Why was circumcision important to Jews of the first century?  What does atonement mean?  What’s a covenant? The Old Testament offers the answers for the New Testament reader who wants to know.


In non-religious circles, students of art, music, and literature are encouraged to learn the Old Testament in order to understand the references in their own subject matters.  After all, it’s the well from which Handel (actually his librettist) drew most of Messiah, including the Hallelujah chorus. Of course you can appreciate the stylistic dimensions of Rembrandt’s “Joseph Accused by Potiphar’s wife” at the Met and Rubens’ “The Meeting of David and Abigail” at the National Gallery without understanding the stories behind them.

But Goltzius’ “Lot and His Daughters” in the Rijksmuseum is more deliciously creepy when you know what’s going to happen after the guy drinks that bowl of wine.

Old Testament literacy also helps folks “get” the references in pop culture.  It explains what half of U2’s lyrics are about.  It shows up over and over in South Park episodes, as when Kyle’s parents read him the Book of Job.  And it’s been great fodder for Leno’s “Jay Walking” segments, allowing him to poke fun at people who don’t know biblical stories–Noah, Cain and Abel, the 10 Commandments. (see blog post on biblical literacy in popular culture)

Especially in the U.S., the political arena is filled with allusions to and arguments about the Old Testament.  Obama’s inauguration speech alluded back not only to the founding fathers but also the Old Testament prophets, and a few hot passages from Leviticus are common weapons for those who stand against same-sex marriage.

But reading the Old Testament as only as background overlooks the true riches of this collection.  In the next few blogs, I’ll share some other reasons to read the Old Testament.

It's the (Biblical) Economy, Stupid

It’s easy to read the Bible as if it contained disembodied doctrine, eternal truths about the divine being and the cosmos floating above the mundane concerns of human living. But biblical materials were shaped by the people who wrote them–not only by their beliefs but also by the economies in which they lived.  And as ancient Israel’s economy changed over time, so too did the assumptions and the agendas of the writers of the documents that we now have in the Bible.

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David, David, David: It's Always about David

King David is on the entertainment circuit these days.  He’s the focus of an off-Broadway musical, not so creatively titled “King David,” now at the Promise Theater. He’s already a TV regular,  starring in the NBC series Kings (see earlier blog post).

In all the media hype, he hasn’t risen above the humble book.  Robert Pinsky’s The Life of David was published in 2008.   For the literary-minded, there’s a new version of his story by Robert Alter: The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel.  And to show that he doesn’t take himself too seriously, David continues to appear as a vegetable version of himself in “Dave and the Giant Pickle” in the Veggie Tales series.


What accounts for David’s timeless appeal?

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The Iconic Books Project

I just learned about the Iconic Books Project at Syracuse University, run by Jim Watts and Dorina Miller Parmenter.  The goal of the project is to catalogue the way in which iconic books (“texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight”) are displayed, read, covered, represented in art, etc., etc.

Here’s how the website describes the project’s goals:

The project’s collecting and cataloguing activities aim to do basic research, but its study of iconic books has implications for understanding phenomena as diverse as the marketing of e-books, political ceremonies, legal conflicts over religion, artistic and media depictions of books, the reproduction of scriptures, the architecture of libraries and museums, radical religious uses of media images, the relationship between image and text, the role of religion in law, and the historical influence of “book religions.”

If you’re interested in how the Bible and other books have become decoration or advertising or the fodder for fine or pop art, have a look at the site. The database itself isn’t open to the public, but the project’s blog is.

You can contribute images there as well.

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Tombs of Anonymous Prophets

The longer I study the prophetic books, the less I talk about the prophets as people.  I see more and more how the authors of the books shaped the words and used stories about prophets to speak to later concerns. More and more I quit looking for who Amos or Jeremiah really were and focus on why writers presented these figures in the way they have.

And yet, the more I follow this path, the more I distance myself from what many people find most compelling about the prophets:  how real they were.  I’ve listened to enough sermons, read enough books, and done enough internet searches to know that people on all sides of the theological spectrum find the prophets interesting as people.  Whether you think ancient prophets predicted the future, called folks back to pure worship, or challenged unjust social systems, chances are that you conjure in your mind the face of a fiery preacher rather than a bookish writer.

I’m reminded of this distance between my own interests and those of most folks whenever I see mention of a prophet’s tomb.  This week I read an article about the purported tomb of Ezekiel, south of Baghdad. And that reminded me of my own experience of visiting the Tomb of the Prophets in Jerusalem in the early 1990’s.

When I saw this sign on the Mt. of Olives, I smiled.  When I found out that it claimed to contain the bones of Malachi, I laughed.  Just a few years before, I had completed my dissertation on Malachi, arguing to my own satisfaction that the book was functionally anonymous.  Others have gone further, claiming that the book isn’t really a separate composition at all but rather a piece of Zechariah made independent so that the collection could be The Book of the Twelve rather than The Book of the Eleven.

The tomb of an anonymous prophet.  Of course, I had to visit.  I had to take a picture.  Which I did. (Sadly, those glasses were in style at the time.)

Maybe it was the darkness of the cave or the fact in Jerusalem everything oozes holiness.  But I did experience something mysterious and sacred peering into the tomb of a prophet I suspect never existed.  It became a place of honoring what the prophet had come to mean, what people had made of a story about him, what chain of significance linked back to this place.  For me, it was also place to think about what writing about Malachi had meant to me.

The article mentioned above suggests that the tomb of Ezekiel functions not only to honor a prophet but also to hold on to a religious past that is too quickly being lost.  Tombs give us a place to go to honor someone and something, a way to make the abstract more concrete and touchable.

I’m not surprised at the excitement that erupts when someone claims to have found the tomb of Jesus’ brother or Caiaphas.  Artifacts help us feel a connection with stories that matter.  A former teacher of mine says that Jerusalem itself is one big icon.  It is a window into contemplation of sacred things.  Things that might not have happened happen in our own experience.


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