Manuscripts, data validity, and textual criticism

More and more, I ponder the nature and provenance of scripture.  Until a few days ago, for instance, I had never stopped to consider that there might have been abbreviations in the original manuscripts of Paul’s letters.  After all, it is clear that he used an amanuensis, and such a methodological setup could easily have involved abbreviations that were later expanded into full forms of words.  This possibility does not threaten my notion(s) of scripture, but it does expand my thinking a little.  If any such thoughts make you uncomfortable, I’m sorry, but please read on.  I think you’ll find that the bits below¹ serve more to shore up than to wear away any moorings.

We have multiple copies of scripture documents from the same period of history, and when we use these copies to check one another, the bottom line is that we have extraordinarily stable and reliable scripture texts.  (The scenario is quite different with most classical, secular works of which perhaps one to three medieval copies survive.)

Agnostic scholar Bart Ehrmann has sensationalized the reality that tens of thousands of manuscript variants exist.  It might well be difficult to put that fact in perspective, if one is ignorant of the fact that 10,000 or more fragmentary manuscripts exist, and that all of them were copied by hand.  And after all, it must be expected that minor variants would exist, especially given that the copies were made over a period of more than 1200 years.  We exist these days in a photocopier world in which minor variants occur only in terms of toner density or pieces of lint that fall onto the glass platen, but the ethos fostered by our duplication scenario was simply inconceivable to the ancients.  Although textual variants were a part of ancient reality, again, according to Hurtado, the percentage of insignificant variants is high—higher than 95%.  These variants do not deserve much individual attention, relatively speaking.  Of the remaining ones, many are very intriguing, but none alter the reality of the Christian faith.

Here is an exceedingly interesting point that makes a good deal of common sense:  when fragments make up the documentary evidence for our sacred texts, the aggregate weight is more convincing if they are randomized than if the selections had been neatly and intentionally chosen.  In other words, if I am a scribe in the 5th century and I want to make a point, I might choose, say, John chapter 6 and part of chapter 7 with a neat beginning and ending.  I might copy that text and disseminate it, wanting my selection to serve a particular purpose and giving it a designated beginning and ending.  On the other hand, if two surviving fragments begin in the middle of different paragraphs and end at different points—one of them, say, ending in the middle of a word, the very fact that the fragmentation has occurred without forethought can help in the process of validation.

Speaking now of more complete copies, as opposed to fragments . . . according to Larry Hurtado, John’s gospel boasts more early, surviving manuscript copies than any other New Testament “book.”²  Hurtado, a recognized expert in the field of Christian origins, also

  • states that there were early Christian “copy centers”—for instance, in Antioch, where master versions were held for the express purpose of making copies for dissemination
  • frequently asserts the generally “bookish” nature of early Christians, even going so far as to say that some early Christians were textual maniacs

I infer from such insights as Hurtado’s that early Christian devotees—either consciously or by providence (or both) were in their writings and disseminations setting forth solid evidence for generations to come.

For a related post on Hurtado’s blog, try here for starters.

¹ Many of these thoughts come from notes I took while listening to a podcast featuring Dr. Larry Hurtado.

² However, Matthew’s gospel seems to have been quoted the most frequently by “church fathers” in the succeeding centuries.


Faith qua allegiance (part 2)

For me, allegiance is a central Christian concept, and it has been throughout my adult life.  In this first post on the word-concept allegiance, I traveled through a bit of personal historyreferring to the relationship of allegiance to human government, songs by Ray Boltz and Rich Mullins, and the influence of Lee Camp.  In the last two years—and especially in the last few months—the place of allegiance has been bolstered considerably in this believer’s thinking.  Allegiance has been inextricably connected to faith itself.

Life can bring great serendipities, synergies, and dovetailings.¹  I note the following that have come in the same phase of my life:

  • a heightened awareness of theological positioning around the word “faith” (and also sovereignty and free will), due in part to a men’s discussion group
  • persistent thoughts about allegiance to God’s Kingdom in a group study of Matthew
  • our home group’s study of Galatians
  • an academic blog’s feature of Dr. Matthew Bates’s 3rd book, Salvation by Allegiance Alone (Amazon catalog reference here).

Product DetailsWhile I have been mentally and hermeneutically challenged in all of the above, the connections are nevertheless satisfying.  Prior to applying this to my present study of Galatians, I’d like to highlight key portions of the lengthy interview with Matthew Bates (see here for part 1).  Here are the lead paragraphs:

Not since the Reformation has there been a challenge to the five solas as persistent and potentially persuasive as Matthew W. Bates’ third book, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017).  This book has generated a groundswell of controversy that continues to build as more theologians, pastors, and laypeople are exposed to Bates’ nuanced proposal.

Bates’ thesis, at once radical and obvious, is this:  in the New Testament writings, the Greek word pistis, or “faith,” is better translated as “allegiance.”  He does not intend for every instance of pistis in our Bibles to be retranslated, but for him, there are specific contexts, especially in Paul and the Gospels, in which the only reasonable rendering is “allegiance,” as in the kind of fidelity or loyalty that one would give to a king.

Note that Bates is especially focused on the gospels and Pauline letters, and also note that allegiance is connected to divine sovereignty, something to which most Christians would give assent, to one level or another.  Next, here is a crystallization of what I take as the crux of the issue, from part 2 of the interview:

Interviewer:  Of the Reformation solas, only yours seems completely dependent upon human agency.  All the rest are due to God’s agency, whether that be scriptura, gratia, doxa, fides (as a gift from God, Eph 2:8), or Christos. How would you respond to the criticism that your sixth sola fails to meet the standard of the others due to misplaced agency?

Matthew Bates:  First, I am not arguing for a sixth sola, but primarily seeking to advocate for a truer understanding of sola fide (by faith alone).  My exploration seeks to uphold the solas while seeking greater precision with respect to their true biblical boundaries.  I do conclude that sola gratia (by grace alone) and soli Deo gloria (for the glory of God alone) need to be nuanced in particular ways in order to stay faithful to the biblical vision.  This is because grace and boasting have both been misunderstood with regard to works (of Law).  As far as I am aware, I am not seeking to add distinctive shades of meaning with regard to Christ alone or Scripture alone.

Second, in Salvation by Allegiance Alone I never state that pistis is solely dependent on human agency rather than God’s agency.  In fact, quite the opposite:

Grace in the sense of God’s prior activity precedes ‘faith,’ for God first had to bring about the good news before it could be proclaimed and before allegiance to Jesus as Lord could be confessed (Rom. 10:9–14).  Moreover, God is the creator, and every good gift comes from God (James 1:17), so we must affirm God as the ultimate source of ‘faith’ and all else. (p. 105)

What is being claimed is that faith, enabled by grace, is the only contribution that we make to our salvation. (p. 122)

So I do assert that in some sense the ability to render allegiance to Jesus the king is either due to God’s agency, or is at least a gift bequeathed to our libertarian agency in the wake of the Christ-event.  Yet since Scripture puts far more emphasis on our agency with regard to pistis than God’s agency, throughout the book I frequently speak about our own human agency in giving pistis to Jesus the king (emphasis mine, bc).  In so doing I am trying to give the same weight of emphasis that we find in Scripture.  Yet I deliberately leave the nature of God’s agency with respect to our own underdetermined.

This matter of agency is key for systematic theologians whose formulaic approaches almost make it a spiritual crime to acknowledge a human response to God—or, dare I suggest it, a human initiative in some sense.  Yes, “while we were yet sinners,” God took action.  But that notion does not negate the fact that we now owe God allegiance.  If allegiance is something God enables, fine, but as far as I know, I choose to give it, and I am glad to give it, in my human weakness, when I am at my best.

Matthew W. BatesWith respect to the word “gospel” (ευαγγέλιον | euangélion), Bates makes the statement, “We can’t make decisions about what ‘good news’ means on the basis of our feelings about what sort of ‘news’ would be better for us.”  Bates then points as an example to a popular author who “is allowing systematic concerns about what would be better for us to override first-century meanings.”  Taking what I believe would be classified a synchronic (within a time period) linguistic approach, Bates says, “The meaning of first-century words must be determined by first-century usages.”  He would say the same about the word “faith” (pistis | πίστις ).  In other words, it doesn’t really matter what what a 21st-century regurgitation of a Lutheran “faith alone” theology conveys to the modern Protestant ear.  Recovering as much of a first-century sense of “faith” (pistis) as possible is key to understanding what Paul and others meant when they wrote of “faith.”

Whatever one makes of Bates’s book,² there can be no doubt that coming to grips with a fuller range of meaning of “pistis” is key to a more adequate understanding of New Covenant “faith.”  And so, when I come to Galatians and struggle hermeneutically with whether in 2:16 or “pistis” means faith (RSV, ESV, NIV, etc.) or faithfulness (NET Bible and some more recent commentators), I now have another viable option:  allegiance or loyalty.

I might now paraphrastically expand some Galatians phrases to include the allegiance idea.  Consider a few more traditional English renderings, followed by the “new possibility” in each case.


ESV:  we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, …

NET:  we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law, …

New possibility:  we know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through the Jesus Christ’s faithful allegiance, and we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by Christ’s allegiance, and not by works of the law, . . .


New possibility:  I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by loyal trust in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.


ESV:  And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, . . .

New possibility:  And the scripture, foreseeing that God would later justify the Gentiles by their faith-filled allegiance to Him, . . .


ESV:  But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

New possibility:  But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise that emanates from Jesus Christ’s faithful allegiance might be given to those who also believe loyally.


CSB:  for through faith you are all sons of God in Christ Jesus . . .

New possibility:  for through faithful allegiance you are all sons of God in Christ Jesus . . .

New possibility (expanded):  for through faithful allegiance —first, that of Jesus, and now, your own—you are all sons of God in Christ Jesus . . .

Whether this season is more filled with Santa and snowmen or shepherds and angels for you, consider allegiance to the King.  Perhaps the thoughtless use of phrases such as “newborn king” or “little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay” bothers you a little, as it bothers me.  Still, I affirm that Jesus did become Lord and Christ.  He became King.  And having faith in Jesus implies allegiance to Him as King.

¹ One such dovetailing was when we first engaged in the serious study of Paul’s letter to Philemon—a letter written to a “house church”—with a home fellowship that met in our living and dining room.  What serendipity, right?  (Or providence, if you prefer.)  I’ve written about that more than once.  Try these two:

Community in Philemon
A mini-odyssey with small groups (3 of 6)

² I myself pored over the serial blogposts and am about to order the book but but have not read it yet.

Historical insights, “position players,” and “Judaism”

I can attribute my relatively newfound affinity for history to three sets of people/experiences:

Two musicology professors second to none:  Jonathan Bellman and Deborah Kauffman of the University of Northern Colorado

As an undergraduate, I had no appreciation for music history at all, and one of my two music Publication Coverhistory courses was the only music class for which I ever earned a B.  On the master’s level, I wasn’t taught much in this area.  At UNC, though, during my doctoral studies, Bellman and Kauffman led me down paths of historical connection and insight, bringing alive for me so much more than the progression from one “style period” to another.  Presently, Kauffman is Editor-in-Chief of the journal shown here, and Bellman is on its editorial board as well.  Both of them honed my writing skills.  I seized on several opportunities in their content areas, going beyond my curricular requirements and almost earning enough credits for a minor in music history.

Historical fiction

The Blue Orchard: A NovelHistorical fiction is about the only kind of fiction to which I gravitate.  Even in my video entertainment choices, I like things that are, or at least could be, real.  In recent months I’ve read Blue Star and The Blue Orchard.  In case you wondered, neither has anything to do with the color blue (or much to do with stars or orchards, either).  These books were engaging and instructive—the former, about persons in an Appalachian town during the build-up to WWII; the latter, about an abortion doctor and his nurse in Central Pennsylvania during the same time period (expanded a bit).  Both were authored by individuals with academic credentials, and their abilities with language and with storytelling kept me reading.  Read my brief reviews of these books here.  I think my wife started me down this path; we enjoy certain historical documentaries together, and she reads historical fiction, too.

The pursuit of early Christianity’s history

Although I’d say I’ve always been interested in first-century Christianity, I began to pursue it with more energy after reading Paul R. Barnett’s The Birth of Christianity:  The First Twenty Years.  The two decades that began in approximately 33 CE constitute a period exceedingly worthy of our reach to comprehend—from both intellectual and pragmatic standpoints.  Barnett’s book laid groundwork for me in clearly presenting, e.g., these facts:  (1) Saul was blinded and converted on the Damascus Road within months of Jesus’ crucifixion, and (2) not more than two decades transpired between those events and when the first extant Christian writings were penned.

It must not go without mention that engagement with the years leading up to the time of Jesus and the apostles is also important.  I have barely begun to scratch the surface of understanding the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, the Davidic and later-divided kingdoms, and the impact on the “culture” of the people of God that resulted from the captivities in Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon.  Neither may the influence of Greek culture or the Roman Empire be rightly discounted when seeking to understand Jesus’ message, the early disciples, and the teachings of Matthew, Paul, and other other writers.

Some feel that their denominations’ takes on things are as important as what happened at the beginning.  The logic tends to go something like this:  God and truth are pursued within the faith-community, so ecclesiological structures such as the Southern Baptist Convention, the Missouri Synod, or the Vatican are repositories of authoritative truth today.  I demur.  Although I support the notion of “faith community,” in the later years far removed from the first century, I find more reason for scrutiny, suspicion, and distance than for support of church conclusions and directions.  If we understood the cultural-historical setting at the time of Jesus of Nazareth, we would understand and apply the period texts better in our faith communities and personal lives.

The backdrop unfurled above quickly became too lengthy.  Rather than making this a serial blogposting, I think I will just make a couple of relatively brief observations with historical implications and then invite comments.

Observation #1:  the term “position player”

Baseball commentators these days are fond of delineating between pitchers and “position players.”  Maybe I only paid selective attention to news media and commentators in my youth, but I don’t remember ever hearing the term “position player” back then.  (For the uninitiated, “position player” refers categorically to a group of field positions including shortstop, center field, and every position other than pitcher [which is also a position, I would point out].)  The professional game of baseball is these days much more focused on pitchers:  witness all the talk about pitch count and the speeds of their fastballs.  My historical hunch is that the category “position player” has developed along with the professional game of baseball.

Whether or not I missed the sporadic use of this term in my early years, I would probably stake my (lack of!) historian’s reputation on the assertion that the usage of the term has increased exponentially since the 1990s.

Observation #2:  the term “Judaism”

Notably, Paul used the term “Judaism” twice in the first chapter of Galatians.¹  These days, depending on who is using the word, and in what setting, “Judaism” might have multiple referents.  I pick up that scholars primarily use the word to refer to the faith-system of the people of the Tanakh (Old Testament) as it developed from the 2nd-Temple Period onward, i.e., after the return from Babylon.²  “Judaism” might be further delineated with respect to the downfall of Jerusalem in 66-74 CE, and/or the rabbinic period which saw the rise of the Talmud, or other developments.  My historical hunch is that “Judaism,” as the term is used by Paul, has more to do with the faith-system and rituals of the 2nd Temple period than with faith in the God of (all) the scriptures.  I find that the term “Judaism” is best thought of as referring to the Hebrew/Jewish faith-system that (has) existed during one or more time periods after 586 BCE.

It seems to me that the usage patterns of the terms “position player” and “Judaism” may be seen as historically based signs of the times.  These terms are aptly seen as speaking within, or to, historical periods.  Specifically in Galatians, Paul appears to call attention to the system of Judaism in which he had been “advancing . . . beyond many of [his] contemporaries” (NET Bible).  With a developing (but not by any means well defined) sense of the first century, I would suggest two things about Paul as revealed in this text.  In writing to the Galatians,

  1. Paul did not denigrate genuine faith in the God of the Old Testament.
  2. Paul employed a unique or at least patently uncommon noun:  Judaism.  He appears to refer, at best neutrally, to a system of faith-related rituals and practices; in doing so, he distinguishes 2nd-Temple Judaistic practice from genuine, post-resurrection faith in God and in Jesus Christ.

The specification of positions on the baseball diamond is obviously not a big deal, but in the case of “Judaism,” it well serves serious students of Christianity to think about historical development and the implications of Paul’s term Ἰουδαϊσμῷ | ioudaismo, opposite how the term “Judaism” is used today.

Please share comments, questions, and observations.

¹ There are no other instances of this exact word in all the NT (or the Greek OT, for that matter).

² There are ethnic and political implications of such terms as “Judaism,” and “Jewish,” but I’m intentionally confining my observation here.

Meet the mascot

Meet the Mascot at Walls of Books – Atchison . . .

Betty (Bibli)Ophilia¹ Walls

a/k/a Betty the Bookstore Bunny

Betty the Bookstore Bunny has become a store fixture at Walls of Books – Atchison, the store my wife manages, since the Great “Books with Bunnies” Adoption event.²  At night, Betty sleeps in her cage in the back, and she stays behind the counter most of the time the store is open.  She eats pellet food, hay, and the occasional celery top or strawberry leaf.  She is “trained” and has only had one minor accident-statement—as though to say “this area is now mine.”  She enjoys ripping newspaper shreds and nibbling on cardboard, an activity that’s good for her teeth.

Development and Training

Betty has grown comfortable in her area.  She lazes, she sits and munches, or she watches and checks things out.  She perks up when cars pass by and when customers come in the door but is not skittish.  She shows curiosity about Mama Manager’s activities and often approaches to sniff and to learn about the cash register.  Betty may turn out to be a natural retailer, but she is a hare short to be of much direct assistance.  BOSHA² has recommended the installation of an ergonomically sound rabbit pedestal.  Betty doesn’t appear to be the litigious type and is unlikely to sue, being rather content with standing on her hind legs, jumping a little in the morning, and flopping down at breaktime.

Product Knowledge and Local Sales Implications

Betty’s IQ has not been tested, but she manifests a love of learning.  She shows a particular taste for what is termed “inspectional reading” in Mortimer Adler’s classic guide (but has not actually tasted any books).

A shop three doors down often has a black lab mix sitting near the door, but he seems to ward off undesirables and divert attention more than actually contributing to sales.  A couple of notable establishments in town have the requisite store cat, but no feline-revenue correlation has been published.  On the other hand, a couple of special customers have gotten to spend time with Betty the Bookstore Bunny, forming a bond.  It is thought that Betty will eventually be able to greet customers—and perhaps to help direct them to certain authors/items, e.g., the Beatrix Potter and Alice in Wonderland books, the pet section, and fidget toys (but not the hunting section).

~ ~ ~

Previous posts on books:

Books! (1 of 2)

Books! (2 of 2)

Store Link:

Walls of Books in Atchison, Kansas:

¹ “Bibliophilia,” from Gk. biblio and philos, means “love of books.”

² The adoption program on 4/15/17 was jointly sanctioned by Walls of Books franchise headquarters and BPS.  [BPS, of course, is Bunny Protective Services.  I assume readers can deduce what BOSHA in the Development and Training section is.]  No large snakes were benefited by the bunny placements.  

Of Lennon, religion, and (re)viewing with less obstruction

I recently subscribed to the Bryn Mawr Classical Review.  This is not a “classical music” enterprise but is rather a sort of clearinghouse for academic research and reviews of recent works about aspects of the first Classical Period (i.e., the one associated with Ancient Greece).  Big mistake, though, to sign up for this thing.  I am feeling really stupid now, plus, I feel the need to buy another book or seven.  Below are a couple titles that caught my eye.  These are available for review, but I am NOT applying for that job (!) as I am completely unqualified.

Bakker, Egbert (ed.). Authorship and Greek Song:  Authority, Authenticity, and Performance.  Studies in Archaic and Classical Greek Song, 3.  Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2017. x, 295 p. $132.00. ISBN 9789004339699.

Baron, Carlin A. and Daniel Boyarin.  Imagine No Religion:  How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities.  New York: Fordham University Press, 2016. 325 p. $35.00. ISBN 9780823271207.

The first title interests me on the Greek language, general literary, and music fronts, but I’m not about to pay $132 for it.  Apparently there are two earlier volumes in this series, but the audience for this kind of thing is surely relatively small.

The second title, referring as it does to the now-famous John Lennon song, says a lot in and of itself.  I immediately resort to my melancholy inner world, thinking if only people could differentiate between realities of the biblical cultures and times on the one hand and modern constructs and human superimpositions on the other!  I’m no disciple of Lennon, but “religion” chafes me, too, and I so wish that it hadn’t gotten in the way.  People might otherwise be able to see Jesus and His way, unobstructed; and not as many people would have drifted from some essential truths they learned early in life.

Echoing the Lennon lyric, I too imagine no religion, and it’s not so easy, no matter how hard I try.  Often I think thoughts like if only. . . .  Moving toward deeper, more visible substance, I appeal to a subsequent entry from the same journal, Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.05.02, which reviews Larry Hurtado’s Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World.  Since one of Hurtado’s chief areas for exploration is Roman-era adherence to cults, his take on the existence and nature of “religion” in the ancient world is of great interest.

Hurtado stresses that Christianity did not fit “what ‘religion’ was for people then,” and was accordingly dismissed as a superstitio (p. 2).  It was the distinctive features of Christianity that account for its successes and not Constantine’s embrace.

– Reviewer John S. Kloppenborg

The technical Latin “superstitio” does not hide the essence above.  (It’s usually all about context.)  The terms “religion” and “religious” can be used with various shades of meaning, for different purposes.  Personally, I rarely use either term positively, but I recognize that “religious” can be somewhat positive or neutral in the hands of others.  Above, in a scholarly context, the inquiry is valid, regardless of the terminology.  We basically know what is being discussed when “religion” is the topic, whether the period in question is antiquity or the present.

Based on the reviewer’s assessment, it appears that Hurtado, when speaking of the early centuries after Jesus Christ, differentiates between “religion” on the one hand and superstitions that did not have the hallmarks of established religion on the other.  It further appears the author’s use of “religion” in this context is neutral or negative, that is, that he is asserting a distinctive place for Christianity precisely because it did not look like “religion”—and because it had uniquely compelling aspects that drew new adherents.  Hurtado himself, I might add, has taken some exception (here) to the reviewer’s characterization of his major thrusts.  I found the objection a bit overwrought, perhaps owing to how each scholar sees the single word “burden.”  Kloppenborg had commented, “The burden of the book is to discuss the reasons that the Christ cult thrived in the Empire,” and Hurtado demurred, “I state no such intention in the book.”  For my part, I suspect Kloppenborg wasn’t speaking of intent at all; a “burden” would be a theme that a book “carries,” regardless of any explicit purpose or stated intention, wouldn’t it?  At any rate, Hurtado clearly bristled a bit, but he did appreciate the tone of the review.

One of Hurtado’s motifs (note that I call these neither “burdens” nor “intents,” and I’m not even specifically referring to the one book here!) is the “bookishness” of early Christianity:  there is more evidence of writing and documentation than with other groups of the same era.  (I assume this is the case regardless of whether a group was more a “religion” or a “superstitio.”)  Kloppenborg finds that Hurtado  describes “Christ groups” as “adopting reading practices and embedding quotations of other literature in their works, making appeals to literate media recursively present.”  This is truly an important feature of Christianity . . . and, I might add, it goes to my aversion to the “Christian” (please read the adjective advisedly there) religion of Medieval times.  When believers are, by and large, neither readers nor writers, they are sorely limited in their “religion.”  It is with good reason that Medieval times were known for a long while as the Dark Ages.  Sight was limited by lack of literature and literacy.

So what is “religion,” really, and isn’t it a good thing in the Bible?  There is that verse in James that says “pure and undefiled religion is to to take care of widows and orphans,” right?  Well, yes and no.  Certainly it is true that taking care of widows and orphans is a good thing and is presented positively by James, echoing a Hebrew prophecy or two . . . but the use of the English word “religion” is a now mixed bag with a whole lot of rot in it.  Without further comment, I will close with a meaty paragraph that gets into this area.

A second methodological issue lurking in the book concerns the tendency to treat emergent Christianity as distinctive in contrast to polis religion. On this showing, Christianity was distinctive and indeed unique in its creation of a transethnic, translocal, elective “religion,” not controlled by or aligned with the interests of the propertied class. This binary, however, neglects the many instances of what might be termed elective cults that were variously related to the civic center and which in varying degrees were curious (but harmless), exotic, transgressive, or horrific. Some reverenced deities not part of the civic pantheon but, like the cult of Silvanus or Mithras, were scarcely treated as deviant.7  Others—Isis at certain periods, for example—were treated as deviant and suppressed. Participation in many such cults crossed ethnic, gender, and social class boundaries and some, Mithraism for example, imposed strict ethical requirements and produced a transformation in one’s lifestyle that was, in Roger Beck’s estimation, a “conversion.” 8  To acknowledge such a shift from cults predominantly of the polis-type to the development of elective cults in the late Hellenistic and early Imperial periods complicates Hurtado’s narrative of Christianity as the major innovation in the “religious” landscape of antiquity.

– Reviewer John S. Kloppenborg

7.   John North, “The Development of Religious Pluralism,” in The Jews Among Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire, ed. Judith M Lieu, et al. (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), 174–93; Greg Woolf, “Isis and the Evolution of Religions,” in Power, Politics, and the Cults of Isis, ed. Laurent Bricault and Miguel J. Versluys (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2014), 62–92.
8.   Roger Beck, “On Becoming a Mithraist: New Evidence for the Propagation of the Mysteries,” in Religious Rivalries in the Early Roman Empire and the Rise of Christianity, ed. Leif E. Vaage, Studies in Christianity and Judaism 18 (Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfird Laurier University Press, 2006), 175–94.

A birthday of sorts

I’m not much on birthdays (or any holidays, for that matter).  I do remember the birthdays of all those in my family of origin, of three of my grandparents, and of my own, little nuclear family.  That’s about where it ends.  I only know birthdays for one niece, one nephew, one aunt, so I probably ought to be embarrassed that I do remember the birthday of my childhood baseball hero every year.  That guy is a year younger than my father, but let’s just say Dad’s character and life patterns are infinitely more admirable than the former Major Leaguer’s.  I have once again not mentioned the baseball player’s name on his birthday, because I don’t want to call any more attention to him.

April 30, though, is a birthday anniversary of something I will call attention to:  the initial invitation for Eugene Peterson to write The Message. 

Portions of The Message were published serially for a period of about ten years, starting in 1993, and I intentionally purchased each new volume until the whole was at last published in 2002.  It was difficult for me to divest myself of the separate volumes such as The Pentateuch and The Prophets, but it didn’t make sense to keep them all.  I now have only a complete hardback edition, a separate hardback copy of The Wisdom Books, a paperback Psalms, and a full electronic, versified edition.

Speaking of “versification,” one helpful-yet-annoying feature of the original work is that it does not contain traditional “verses.”  I say “helpful” because not having those little numbers can guard against the breaking up of thoughts as one reads longer passages.  I say “annoying” because the lack of verse numbers makes it difficult to find a particular spot and to compare with other versions.  There is a place for both, so I’m glad to have non-versified editions in print but also glad that my Logos software contains a versified version for easier pinpoint access.

I could not presume to add what so many others have said in praise of the translation, and I don’t care to expend effort refuting or responding to its judgmental detractors.  (No translation is above criticism, and I’d rather be more granular in my approach to this one and all others.)  Rather, I just want to recognize this milestone.  Here, I’ll allow Peterson’s own introductory words to speak for themselves.  He tells of the time in which the seed of The Message took root:

     I lived in two language worlds, the world of the Bible in the world of Today.  I had always assumed they were the same world.  But these people didn’t see it that way.  So out of necessity I became a “translator,” . . . daily standing on the border between two worlds, getting the language of the Bible that God uses to create and save us, heal and bless us, judge and rule over us, into the language of Today that we use to gossip and tell stories, give directions and do business, sings songs and talk to our children.
     And all the time those old Biblical languages, those powerful and vivid Hebrew and Greek originals, kept working their way underground in my speech, giving energy and sharpness to words and phrases, expanding the imagination of the people with whom I was working to hear the language of the Bible in the language of Today and the language of Today in the language of the Bible. . . .
     The Message is a reading Bible.  It is not intended to replace the excellent study Bibles that are available.  My intent here . . . is simply to get people reading who don’t know that the Bible is read-able at all, at least by them, and to get people who long ago lost interest in the Bible to read it again. . .  So at some point along the way, soon or late, it will be important to get a standard study Bible to facilitate further study.  Meanwhile, read in order to live, praying as you read, “God, let it be with me just as you say.”

– Eugene Peterson, Preface to The Message, 2002, © Eugene Peterson, published by NavPress

Now, especially if you have never read from The Message, you might try it once in a while.  Try it for a change.  Try it for a perk.  Try it for a comparison.  Try reading long passages.  You might be surprised at how quickly one of Paul’s letters goes, or how marvelously new one of the gospels or the books of Hebrew history sounds.  Whether or not you get into The Message, read, consider, and study the message by any helpful means.

Happy creative birthday to Eugene Peterson for his distinctive accomplishment in The Message, with thanks to the editor who wrote the invitation letter received more than a quarter-century ago on April 30, 1990.  No translation is perfect, but this one went a long way in making scripture come alive for readers.

For more Bible Anniversary reading . . . another translation of note, now more than four hundred years old, celebrated a birthday in 2011.  The KJV was a massive achievement in its time and was deserving of celebration and praise for 200-300 hundred years, I figure.  Read my anniversary farewell wishes to the Authorized Version (KJV) here.

Of writing, wordsmithing, and making mistakes (2)

[The first installment is here.]

In writing these posts about writing words, I looked up the word “wordsmith” to make sure it was properly one word and not two, and I also confirmed another thing I suspected about it:  common dictionaries do not show a verb use of “wordsmith.”  So, it is currently proper to say “Joe is a good wordsmith,” but it is not (yet) correct to say “Joe, would you wordsmith this for me?”  I intentionally left “wordsmithing” in the title/slug of these blogposts, because it was more important to me to have three parallel gerunds there than to be proper with a figurative word.

As time passes, words do change in meaning and in usage; modern dictionaries tend to be good repositories of information on relatively current usage.  Incidentally and yet substantively, I originally led that last sentence with “Over time,” but thought better and changed it to “As time passes.”  “Over time” is an awkward prepositional phrase I tend to avoid, but I don’t think it’s as bad as “over $10,000.”  (It is better to say “more than $10,000.”)

Recently, I “caught” (when you read that figure of speech, do you think of trapping or fishing or baseball or a virus or a “catch” in a skeletal joint?) a couple of typos for a coworker, and she caught an error or two of mine in another document.  Sometimes this kind of collaboration can work really nicely, especially when a writer isn’t too proud to proofreaders-marksadmit mistakes—or the potential benefit of a minor (wordsmith’s) change.  My use of a dash in that last sentence reminds me that, many years ago, a coworker was very humble in accepting my proofreader’s suggestions for his writing, but he absolutely hated the dash.  I, on the other hand, love the dash.  I find it very expressive, helpful in communication, and under-used in most other people’s writing . . . so I overuse it in my writing, to a fault.

I have of course discovered more errors in my own writing than I care to admit.  There will probably still be one or two in this post, even after I revised based on the second draft (below) or the third (not shown—there was too much red on it).


My aggregate number of written errors would be well into seven figures, I figure.  (Was that a clever use of a figure of speech or an annoying redundancy?)  I recently completed revisions of two of my books, having corrected several outright errors and having improved several other transitions and expressions, but I’m sure there are still errors present.  My father has discovered quite a few of my errors in various readings of my stuff.  He almost always knows whereof he speaks—far more than I—but sometimes he doesn’t know the jargon of a certain sphere of thought, or I simply might not care to be “correct” on this or that point, choosing rather to leave things consistently nonstandard instead of going to the trouble to force 47 instances to conform.

Most readers know that I care very deeply about scriptural text.  However, I am not one who holds to the popular evangelical doctrine of inerrancy.  Primarily, I refer here to minor scribal errors—those that involve “jots”/”iotas” and misspellings and even word substitutions—but my disenchantment with the notion of inerrancy goes beyond these.  Even the most contemporary, meta-evangelistic¹ statement I have seen about inerrancy, as pure-hearted as it seems to be, leaves me dissatisfied.  I am quite certain that errors exist in many available foundational manuscripts from the early centuries CE, and I am not at all sure that God cares about any particular conception of inerrancy, as concocted by humans, even if some original autographs might one day be discovered.  With that said, I will re-confess a little joy that came when I discovered and reported an error in an important Greek scripture e-text.  You might want to read about that here, and don’t miss the wonderful quotation at the bottom from linguist Moisés Silva about mistakes.

Please know, again, that I’m all too aware that I myself am prone to error.  It gives me strange pleasure, then, to find even one error in the work of a master writer.  Here is an extract from chapter 46 of a John Grisham novel (The Chamber) I recently finished.  I believe this is the first error I’ve ever found in any of the eight or ten of Grisham books I’ve read:


His proofreaders are great, but they missed that one.   (One may “marshall forces,” but that’s the wrong spelling for the noun.)  One particular proofreader friend of mind is the best I’ve ever personally known.  I have served as a proofreader for a few others (notably, CH, GDC, and GLF) and have probably failed or annoyed the authors as much as I’ve helped them, but I persist with the pen as well as the computer keyboard.  I’ll close this piece by sharing some proofreading marks I made on a corporate mass memo to its customer base.  I think this memo would have benefited from more review and revision!

B. Casey, 2/12/17


¹ Here I mean to imply a figurative “evangelism” about the scripture which is, in turn, a core element in (non-figurative) evangelism.  It is possible to be “evangelistic” about scriptures without being evangelistic (good-news-sharing-oriented) about Jesus.

Books! (2 of 2)

Thanks to the new bookstore in our lives, I “deal” in books even more than before.  As much as I appreciate and use electronic technologies, I want paper or a physical book in my hand when I read anything longer than a couple paragraphs.  Audio books on a portable device?  Absolutely.  But I can’t imagine ever gravitating to an e-reader if I can choose a paperback or hardbound volume instead.  (If your hands get tired holding open a book, try this cool gadget.)

A couple days ago, the first post in this short series appeared.  At some point, I may share a few book covers I will never spend my time with, for various reasons.  That should be fun.  For now, though, here are a few more of the new books that have drawn my interest.

 img_20161215_073853_334.jpg I judged this book by its cover.  Positively, that is.  I liked the look of it—a spare design, a nice font.  I like thinking about maps, national borders, and music.  Basically, everything about this cover drew me in.

I don’t know the author, but I’ve seen the movie made from his earlier title.  This one is a nice, moderate-length hardback; based on the flap and back cover info, it has much promise for relaxed storytelling.  Probably a book to be borrowed, not kept.  (Can’t imagine reading a novel a 2nd time.  Corollary:  I can count on the fingers of two hands [with a couple fingers cut off] the movies I’ve intentionally watched a 2nd or 3rd time.)

Best-selling physician-author M. Scott Peck was first famous for The Road Less Traveled.  He is known for some philosophy and some theology in a deeper-than-the-norm self-help vein.  We’ll see if this novel lives up to his name.  I found one pretty negative review, but I suspect I’ll appreciate some things about it anyway.
img_20161215_163058_061.jpg I’ve only vaguely noticed this and other similar titles before.  I probably should have picked it up years ago.  (I have at times exercised little judgment in “choosing my battles.”)  The message here is likely good for me right about now:  when I’m inwardly pouting about relatively little things, or in the annoying lulls between computer screen-refreshes because one software program our company uses behaves badly, or when decisions inhibit my efficiency and effectiveness, I should probably take this book out and read a few pages.
Because everyone needs a rule book for the greatest, most interesting game the world has ever known.  (Just ignore today’s obscene player salaries and team owners’ greed. Those things spoil the game. Oh, for the days of Lou Gehrig and Dizzy Dean and Lou Boudreau and Pee Wee Reese and Carl Erskine and Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams and Stan Musial and even Tom Seaver and Joe Morgan and George Brett. . . .)  The intricacies of baseball can lead to interesting questions that I’ll now be able to investigate more easily. 20161208_210553.jpg
20161208_210559.jpg New Testament Words is a treasured find, and right up my alley.  Some of my study partners will caution me not to place this work too close to my BDAG lexicon or my Greek grammars, but the linguistic insights of the renowned Scottish scholar William Barclay will certainly illuminate some things. In terms of importance in my studies, I imagine these elaborations will exceed those of A.T. Robertson in his six-volume set Word Pictures in the New Testament, at whose right this Barclay book now stands.  (It was interesting to find that this used book belonged to a friend of a friend.  I’ve no idea why anyone would get rid of this one!)
This book certainly caught my eye and was a gift from someone who knew it would. The Kingdom of God is arguably the most comprehensive, utterly significant, even cataclysmic topic of all time. I have already read some of this, and I’ve bookmarked it for a time that my attentions can be more focused. 20161208_210607.jpg

Speaking of God’s Kingdom . . . prior to examining the holdings of “our” new bookstore, I had begun to build a mini-collection of books about Christians, culture, society, government, and (what I take as) the over-arching Kingdom of God.  I’ve spoken and written extensively about this Kingdom myself, and it’s a good time to share again some details, along with the means of acquiring a copy of my book Subjects of the Kingdom.

At least parts of this book would be good reading for any thoughtful person who observes and cares about how pure Christianity relates to American society.  I am interested in avoiding various traps of the Christian Right, and the notion that American patriotism and Christianity should go hand in hand is one of those traps.  The book somewhat extensively deals with some important-but-often-overlooked ideals of original Christianity—namely, nonviolence and non-participation in human government in favor of an “apocalyptic” view of the Kingdom of God.

The term “pacifism” could perhaps be said to be a book theme, but I am reluctant to use the term for fear that it is associated with less thoughtful, or differently thoughtful, philosophies and theologies.  What I advocate does not necessarily correlate to so-called “pacifism” in terms of beliefs about what a government should or should not do.  (On the contrary, I seek to emphasize what those in the Christian nation should or should not do.)  On the other hand, when one digs, he can find quite a number of (pacifistic) “peace churches,” historically speaking, and this fact alone may be surprising to groups other than my own, such as contemporary fundamentalists and Roman Catholics.

Here is a link to cover blurbs from Subjects of the Kingdom: Christians, Conscience, Government, and the Reign of the King.

And here are two ways to get the book:

  1.  CreateSpace Direct

Password:  allegiance

Add the book (1 or more copies) to your “cart,” and then on the next page, paste in the BL8DQZ4H discount code for $1.50 off.

2. Amazon  (may be cheaper, especially if you get a used copy or get free shipping)

All my books may be viewed and purchased here.

Books! (1 of 2)

When the crew came from Gottwals Books headquarters to help set up the new Walls of Books store, one of the t-shirts they wore queried, “Why buy other stuff when you can buy books“?  Yeah!  I might appreciate the acquisition of some good fruits or a new vacuum cleaner, too, but new books are of more value, I figure.

For as long as I can remember, books have been important to me, although I have not been an avid reader, really.  I generally read to have read, or to learn, if you know what I mean.  But I do value books, and I love neat categories on my book shelves.

Recently, thanks to this new store opportunity, I think about books more often and more expansively.  I have traded in quite a few old ones that I don’t think I’ll need again, and I’ve selected a few new ones, too.  Fiction is not generally my thing, but I had previously acquired a copy of Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress.  I took nearly a year to read it, but I finally finished it a month ago.  Although I now have ready access to all the top-selling novel authors, e.g., James Patterson, Dean Koontz, Andrew Greeley, Gillian Flynn, Nicholas Sparks, and (gasp) Debbie Macomber, my next fiction read will probably be another one I’ve had on the shelf for a while:  The Chamber by John Grisham, who is still the best novelist/storyteller I know.

For what it’s worth, here are several of the new ones I’ve taken home—some with my store credit, some on loan (it’s nice knowing the manager and the owner!), and a couple were gifts.

20161208_210610.jpg Through Painted Deserts is not exactly a “coming of age” story, but it has a youth-growing-up layer.  Reading this is as relaxing as it is constructional and inspirational.  Having read Blue Like Jazz a dozen years ago at the recommendation of a younger friend, I knew Donald Miller to be a good writer with something to say about life and God.  His style of relating the two is not exactly my own, but there’s something about him and his ways and his descriptions that makes me wish I were a little more free.
And what about a little light reading?  On a simple topic?  That no one has ever stumbled over or philosophized about?  Mark Vernon’s All That Matters:  God is sort of a brief, fair-minded history of various strands of theological philosophy, not really a theological investigation, and certainly not confined to Judeo-Christian ideas.  Still, this book now sits, having had a fairly thorough scan, among my more traditional books about God by J.I. Packer, A.W. Tozer, and others.
20161208_210556.jpg I always wanted my own Dead Sea Scrolls.  Not really.  But I figured it was a steal at $2.97 to have this early edition of a colossally important find of the middle 20th century.

I doubt I’ll ever read through it all; it’s a reference book more than anything else, and it’ll be better to look at a page in this book than to find some unreliable, hard-to-navigate web page.  Eventually I’ll have to do some spelunking of my own to find out whether this edition has an academic axe to grind, and how it was published so early, and so cheaply, to begin with.

I’m a sucker for a story about people who righteously rebel against the corrupt and/or stupid status quo.  This promises to be just that.  Never had heard of the Cathars.  Their label would appear to be related to “catharsis,” which has taken on a new meaning in current use but which derives from the ancient Greek root καθαρ- | kathar- which signified (roughly) cleaning/cleansing.

This ties in with my interest in biblical words, etymology, and linguistics in general.  And doesn’t it whet your appetite to know more about the Cathars?  I only hope their take on cleansing was more inward rather than finding its voice in such violent atrocities as the Inquisition or the Crusades.

img_20161211_205700_450.jpg This one was a gift . . . because everyone needs a Chilton’s manual for his old truck . . . if not for himself, perhaps the backyard mechanic he will someday hire will find it useful.

On a side note, I wish my little Chevy S10 were red—or, better yet, blue or green—but the white one was a good buy at $1500, and I’ve only put $300 into it.

I’ve also written some books.  You can find them here.  There are two on musical topics; one on the Christian assembly and one on Christian Worship, and I’ve made contributions to other books that also show up on the same page.  In planning stages are books on conducting and Matthew’s gospel, but those are many months or even years off.

In the next post on books, I’ll give some detail on my own magnum opus as well as sharing some more blurbs on books from the bookstore.