Chronological proximity

I would suggest it is probably not a coincidence that the earliest events in (a chronologue of Paul’s life) are spoken of in Galatians almost without exception, and the next earliest in 1 Thessalonians.  Paul’s letters are topical and tend to refer to events of the recent past.  All other things being equal, this point rather strongly to the earliness of Galatians as well as the earliness of 1 Thessalonians.

– Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles:  A Socio- Rhetorical Commentary (1998), 449

I can count on the fingers of one hand (with two or three fingers cut off) the number of known atheistic (as opposed to agnostic) readers of my blog.  Ever.  If by chance today is the day that an atheist pops in here, I want to stress the historicity being referred to by Witherington, a top-shelf scholar.

More significantly here, I suppose:  any believer who wants to rest in the fluffy comfort of a “personal” faith without knowledge ought at least to pay attention periodically to some of the historicity upon which a rational, real faith can rest.  There are always matters and concepts to “accept by faith,” but some of us do relish the use of our left brains in the faith realm.

(In the above statement, I’m intending “faith” to stand apart from “religion,” which is quite another ball of wax.)

Closures and open doors

I worry a lot.  (Yes, I know this is a direct violation of Jesus’ “consider the lilies” saying.)

Closure No. 1
One of my needless worries is that, in my professional life, I find myself oh-so-ready to put away a set of music after an ensemble has been rehearsing it for weeks.  I get tired of it.  I wish I didn’t, but I do.  And I can’t wait to file it all away and get started on the new set of music.

It’s part of the rhythm of my life — digging in to a few musical works for a specified period, performing them, and then moving on to a new set.  What I worry about is that I’m regularly finding myself ready to get rid of the old about a week before  the performance.  And sometimes, I’m more interested putting some music to bed than I am in waking up the beauties of the new music.

This happened just this past week.  I had a somewhat troubling dress rehearsal, which was not made any better by the fact that there were three personnel changes during the final few days of preparation — and I felt like just skipping the concert.  I was not looking forward to it at all.  I went through with it mostly out of (1) habit, and out of a sheer sense of (2) work ethic:

  1. I’ve produced more than 70 concerts in the last 14 academic years, and the process is rather habitual.
  2. I have to do this because it is my job, and I get paid for it.

All that angst aside, I am now past the concert.  Calendar constraints pretty much forced the concert date of Saturday, 4/4, and the audience was sparse during the holiday weekend.

The performance, however, was far better than I had anticipated during the week.  It was a good evening.  And so, a relatively positive closure occurs:

  • The old music is turned in to me for refiling.  (And the inevitable reconnaissance missions are scheduled — in order to search out and recover missing music from a handful of forgetful players.)
  • A couple of community players bow out, for personal/medical reasons.
  • Two other players join in for the next set of rehearsals and concert; new music is reviewed and prepped for rehearsal.

Closure No. 2
Because the regular teacher for an adult Bible class series is travelling, I had the distinctly energizing experience of wrapping up the weekly class on Easter Sunday.

I had no real angst in this case.   Plus, this scenario is not clouded by the job/paycheck aspect.  I did this preparation and teaching because I want to, and because it is something I can do.  Biblical material is more compelling and important to me even than musical material, so it was easy to commit to this.

The class has been dealing with Paul’s letters to believers in Thessalonika.  I had filled in before, so I had some material I wanted to review — themes, unique and/or especially significant vocabulary, and an emphatic, compact section of text (chapter 4:1-12).  First, though, I decided to “step back” with the class to look at the “forest” — both chronologically and theologically.  By that, I mean that I noted these things, among others:

  • what happened in ca. 29 and in ca. 33
  • Saul-Paul’s conversion — as early as 33 and as late as 37
  • missionary activity and obvious theological development from 33-48ish, when our earliest-written NT documents, including 1Thessalonians, began to be written

It is very exciting to ponder the realities of those early years — “between Jesus and [the letters of] Paul,” as author Paul R. Barnett puts it.

There have been times this spring in which three different Bible lessons were in various stages of preparation, and all the books and files (paper and electronic) can get overwhelming.  But in this case, it is a satisfying  sense of accomplishment that leads to fulfillment in putting the 1Thess files away.  Closure no. 2.

Open doors
And now, doors are open to me — namely,

Door No. 1:  to study Mark ch. 4 in preparation for teaching a lesson on Wednesday

Door No. 2:  to read Joshua so I might have something intelligent to contribute when the other teacher is back on Sunday

Door No. 3:  to continue in my deeper study and translation of a passage in 1Corinthians, working toward an online presentation next month

Door No. 4:  to continue to prepare musical works by Camphouse, Bobrowitz, Fuchs, and Forbes for rehearsals in the coming weeks.

Well, to me . . .

This blogmonth is a month of focus — even more than usual — on scripture.  Following all that invective against the continuing use of the KJV, I’m emerging with the similar-but-renewed purpose of spotlighting bad or questionable practices.  In other words, this is kinda the same, but it’s different.

Today’s particular thoughts flowed from two streams, but only one of these is likely to be a) interesting to most and b) intelligibly expressed here.  One stream, related to the dative case in Greek nouns, is therefore relegated to footnote status.¹  In the main “body” below, I’ll stroll alongside the other  stream. . . .

well,to_meIn typical church Bible classes, someone will often pipe up with “Well, to me . . . ” and then proceed to make a statement that can’t be substantiated exegetically or logically.  Although the person means well, is subconsciously trying not to be dogmatic, and may well be a very spiritually minded person, what comes out may be nothing more than a wispy opinion.  In the photo seen here, the gentleman could be making a textually warranted point, given the direction of his eyes.  He also could be about to launch into a baseless opinion.

This latter thing happened recently after I taught a 10-minute spot on 1Thess 4:11-12, relating some specifics about the relationship of six infinitive verbs found there.  I particularly related the syntactical relationship of the words 1) “make it your ambition” and 2) “live a quiet life” (TNIV).  These are verbal infinitives² that come in a uniquely colorful text.

“Quiet life,” in its historical context, is not simple passivity; rather, it has connotations both of active, purposeful philosophizing and non-involvement in political/civic affairs.  In the 1st century, the value of this kind of living pattern was debated.  In addition, the idea in this particular literary context is conjoined with being busy, of working with one’s hands.  Here in 1Thess 4, Paul re-appropriated familiar phrasing about commonly known ideas:  Plato had written something very similar.  Paul was commending “the ‘quiet’ life” to the Thessalonian believers, but “quiet life” meant more than a lack of sound or bustle.

A few minutes after I presented some of these points, which I first learned via the Coffee With Paul Bible study program, this good brother said to the group of about 20, “Well, to me . . .,” (and, upon hearing that introductory phrase, I knew something less than contextually responsible was coming, despite his good spirit) “living a quiet life makes me think of Jesus and the way He had quiet time with God.”

Now, let’s leave alone for the moment the tenuous connection between something like 1.5 mentions of Jesus’ supposed “prayer life” and the current notion in Christendom of “quiet time.”  I’m persuaded that “quiet time” is a good idea — and one I should probably pursue more regularly — but an idea that nevertheless has taken on a life of its own, based largely on preachers, marketers, publishers.  We simply don’t find much of anything in NC scripture about the “quiet time” habit.  But, as I said, let’s leave alone the fact that quiet time, as an institution, is somewhat a human concoction.

The problem with the brother’s comment was that there is no direct verbal or conceptual relationship between prayer in Jesus’ life (whether regular/habitual or sporadic or intentionally occasional) and what Paul was encouraging in 1Thess 4:11-12.

Biblical doctrine must be based on what the Bible actually says.  To understand what the Bible says, we need to stop interrupting God (Greg Fay, thank you, from the bottom of my spirit, for that verbiage) by pre-empting one message and bringing in a concept from a completely separate text.

Next time someone begins a statement in a Bible class with “Well, to me, . . .” know that she is being non-dogmatic (nice!), and be grateful that she is engaged on some level (even nicer!), but beware.  There’s only a 13% chance that the ensuing statement will hold much water.

¹ Now, for the other “stream of thought” that’s really only verbally related.  I have been translating 1Cor 4:1-5 as part of a team project, and I came upon ἐμοὶ | emoi, which is a personal pronoun in the dative case, which tends to imply the indirect object sense, such as occurs in this sentence:  Give the stick to me.  In that example, we may label the parts speech like this:

Imper  article  dir. obj.   prep. indir. obj.
Give   the      stick       to      me.

And in Greek, the “to me” part is often, but not always, expressed in a single word — a dative-case pronoun.

At this point in my Greek language learning, I am less able to deal with the dative noun case than with the nominative, accusative, or genitive cases.  These latter three, more or less, correspond to the subject, the direct object, and the possessive uses of our nouns, respectively.  The dative, as stated above, often implies an indirect object, but I’ve seen probably a dozen other sub-labels for this or that use of the dative — which is just flat annoying.  The whole scenario overwhelms me, so I haven’t expended much effort to get a handle on it.

This particular dative emoi  in 1Cor 4:3 could well be translated “to me,” as many direct objects come out in English.  I am opting for “for me” instead, believing this is a different kind of dative.

I also think “for me” represents better current English usage.  It is a phrase often found in scholarly writing, connoting both openness and studied opinion (in my observation).  To say “For me, grits are a perfectly acceptable alternative to cream of wheat” sounds a bit better than saying, “To me, grits are good.”  Similarly, to say, “For me, worship is more broad than what is implied by ‘contemporary music’ is a better statement than “To me, contemporary worship music is kinda cool, but it represents only a piece of the pie.”


² These infinitives have one antecedent word each, but it is not easy to translate them into English with but one corresponding word.  Another reasonable, substitution for “make it your ambition” might be “aspire ardently.”

Standing alone

Heigh-ho, the derry-o . . .
The cheese stands alone.


from “The Farmer in the Dell”

For a melancholy introvert, standing alone is no uncommon experience.  Among the areas in which I feel increasingly alone is the study of scripture.

In biblical studies, I am coming to know (read that as an intentional use of the imperfect  tense/aspect — I am not in a perfected state of having arrived at the end!) a little more than “just enough to get you in trouble.”  I don’t know how to use all the tools I have available, and sometimes I take the wrong exit ramp or stop at the wrong rest stop in exegetical study, but I am as confident as one can be that I’m on the right road.  It is a lonely highway. . . .

Recently, during Bible class, a very good man (A)

made a very un-good statement. (B)

His statement (C)

reflects the bad ideas (B’)

of lots of other good people out there who read their Bibles.  (A’)

The statement was something like this, in part:  “I’m not very much into the ‘structure’ of Paul’s letters.  I think verses X-Z stand alone.”  And in one fell swoop — and I really don’t think he intended to do this — he undercut the very idea of the importance of literary context.

The indented layout of the five blue lines above shows chiastic arrangement.  Because of my acquaintance with chiasms and my interest in biblical exegesis, and because I felt like using it as an emphatic illustration, I composed that little chiasm (in all of one minute).  It’s cathartic for me, in a way.

This type of arrangement is quite common in ancient texts.  Scholars sometimes disagree on the particulars, but nary a scholar worth his salt denies the prevalence or significance of such things in the rhetorical thought-patterns of the ancients.  In terms of structure, the “text” above is actually very much like something that might be found in a gospel or in one of Paul’s letters.  The emphasis in such a section of text is in the middle—in this case, the statement made by my sibling.  My intent, then, in communicating through the chiastic structure above, is to focus attention on the statement itself, not on the person.  Secondary and tertiary emphases may also be presentsuch as the relationship of bad statements and bad ideas (B and B’ lines).

Anyway, back to the statement itself. . . .  I took it as an expression of some lack of understanding, or maybe some frustration with being confronted with new emphases on context and purposeful literary analysis in Bible study.

The thing is, the statement that “verses X-Z stand alone” was flat wrong, insofar as it went.

The intent of my brother’s heart was completely fine; he was just off-base in suggesting that we might get just as much from a short section by letting it stand alone.

In the course of reading, studying, and coming to understand a literary document, nothing stands alone.

But the cheese and I do stand alone far too often, I think.  Maybe we are limburger.


Commencing exegesis

Today is the first day of a new learning opportunity for me, and I’m enthused.  As part of this new endeavor, several will be studying Paul’s (and Silas’s and Timothy’s) letter known as “1 Thessalonians.”  Far from “devotional Bible study,” although that has its place from time to time, this is to be a serious, responsible, contextual study of the text.

One key factor in good exegesis is awareness of the literary context.  A sense of the entire document at hand aids in prevening unhelpful eisegesis.  Toward awareness of the contextual whole, those involved directly in this new study opportunity read the entire letter (some more than once, but I was pressed for time, and somewhat moody this week — forgive me).

Here are some thoughts related to themes, shared anonymously, from others in the group:

  • “How dear the Thessalonians were to Paul, how thankful he was for them, and the lengths to which he was willing to go for them—and perhaps they for him.”
  • “Themes?  Hope, grounded on Faith (objective), and lived out in a Loving manner.”  (This writer astutely ties in the hope, faith, love trifecta that appears twice in the book, as such.)
  • One student chose this sentence as the prime driving force for the letter:  “You saw it for what it truly is, the Word of God, powerfully active in you who are believers.”

My own ideas on themes in 1Thess, at this relatively early stage of studying the document, arise somewhat from how I’ve read and studied Colossians, Philemon in recent times.  So far, however, I’m relying more on rate of recurrence of phrases and words than on anything deeper in the structure of the document.  Here’s what I have, in no particular order:

Relationship (intimacy, face-to-face visits)
Living patterns, holiness
Last things/end times
Persecution & trouble/Jews

Let the studying begin, and let the message of this letter — one of the two earliest in Christian history — begin to be more clear than ever!