Tonight I got to spend part of the evening with a group of students at Reformation Bible College, as part of their biweekly Abide fellowship. Lots of familiar faces from my church were there.
I did a short talk on how to read (at least some of) the psalms in the way Jesus (and other NT writers) guide us to read them. Not merely as anticipating him, but as giving voice to his own words and in many ways shaping his identity.
Christ Church Cambridge is hosting a variety of seminars (see full listing) this autumn, covering a range of biblical and church-related topics. I am leading a 4-week series covering how and why we consider the biblical books authoritative for faith and practice. Specifically, we will be covering the following questions, among others:
What exactly is canon, and why does it matter?
Who “picked” the books (if anyone), and on what grounds?
Who decided we needed a canon in the first place, and who “closed” it?
Why are some books considered part of the biblical canon and not others?
Why do the Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox churches have different canons?
What are we to make of all the other works that are roughly contemporaneous with the OT/NT but which were not received as canonical?
How can we know we have accurate copies of the right books?
The seminar audios and handouts for each class will be posted below as they become available. If you would like the full set of teaching notes, feel free to email me.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend a full day seminar at Cambridge before Christmas dealing with ancient manuscripts and writing systems (papyrology and paleography), hosted by the Tyndale House. During the conference we spent several hours working on reading old Greek manuscripts, including both biblical texts (Septuagint and NT) and non-biblical texts. It’s quite a demanding task for the newbie who is used to reading nicely printed, uniform Greek text in print (yes, I know, that’s a very first-world problem to have).
One of the most fascinating parts of the seminar involved reading an old fragment of the Greek translation of Deuteronomy 31, during which one of the professors in attendance made what we thought was a joke about early Christians misreading the name for the LORD in the synagogue and saying “Pipi.” Turns out…he wasn’t joking. The reason behind this embarrassing mistake provides a nice little (short) tour into the world of scribal habits and ancient manuscripts.
In general, you can learn a lot about people based on what is on their bookshelf, whether they even have a bookshelf, and how many bookshelves they actually have. The literature that one reads – from nothing at all to vampire fiction to romance novels to classical literature to anything by dead Russians – reveals a lot about one’s interests, passions, hobbies, and so on. Or, viewed from the other direction, that which we read plays a large role in shaping and molding us: expanding our experience base, informing us about myriad subjects, and, ultimately, influencing our worldview. One might even say that the things we read the most are the best indicators of the factors and values that make us who we are.
This presents an odd little conundrum for the Christian reader. Unless you have shelves full of well-marked copies of the Bible, or unless you can honestly say that you spend more time reading Scripture than anything else (newspapers, instruction manuals, work-related documents, and cookbooks included!), then you have this peculiar little mismatch between what you actually read and the single book which, in theory, is the most formative influence on your life. For instance, even if you spent an hour a day studying the Bible vigorously this past week, chances are you spent at least twice as much time reading other writings, both religious and non-religious. Does that mean you undervalue the Bible? That it is not the most important of all? Can you measure the importance of your literary influences based on number of copies, or number of minutes spent reading them in a given time frame?
It is pretty obvious that, in general, the answer is “no.” While we all would admit that we should spend more time studying God’s Word than we typically do, it is pretty reasonable to conclude that we do not have to spend numerically the most time reading it than anything else in order to prove that we value it more highly than anything else we read. Put differently, God’s Word can be the definitive, rock-solid authority in our lives without negating the possibility that we can benefit and learn from other texts.
Strangely, this seemingly simple truth seems lost on many biblical scholars who draw puzzling conclusions about the nature of early Christianity by taking a look at what I’m calling the “early church bookshelf.”
I was sitting in a class on biblical interpretation offered at the RTS Washington D.C. campus in the summer of 2012 when I essentially stumbled upon what would later become the genesis of my dissertation topic. The professor, Dr. Tommy Keene, had provided some direction on our writing assignment that morning, and during a short break I was poking around Accordance (Mac Bible software) thinking about what I might want to research for the paper.
I had recently been working through 1 Peter in my personal studies, and our lecture that morning had revolved around the various views of the structure and flow of argument in Romans. Pretty soon I recognized that both letters at key junctures quote the same verse of the book of Isaiah: the stone placed in Zion. What I did not know then but later discovered as I fleshed out my paper and, ultimately, landed on my “stone” thesis idea, was that much of the debate about how Romans and 1 Peter are quoting Isaiah revolves around one key grammatical feature of the sentence: a single pronoun. This one pronoun provides great insight into how NT authors reflect upon and quote from the OT.
I had just received a hardbound copy of Lancelot Brenton’s translation of the Septuagint (introduced in a prior post) from Amazon right before Christmas, so I thought I would peruse it along with the New Testament readings I was doing.
Yes, that is very nerdy. I know.
But the basic idea was to understand what and how the authors of the gospels were quoting from the Old Testament as they presented the arrival of Jesus Christ in the flesh as the fulfillment of prior expectations woven throughout the Hebrew scriptures. When I got to Matthew 2, I found something stunning (to me) that fueled my desire to study the Septuagint more fully.
Fifty years ago, practically every pew Bible in North America was the time-honored, Victorian-styled, classic King James Version of the Bible. Literally everyone above a certain age in life grew up with the KJV; were it not for the rise of the NIV(84), the KJV would likely have maintained its frontrunner status among competing English translations. In many Christian circles today, it is still revered as THE English Bible, for generally good reasons, as well: it is very faithful to the original texts, it has a tremendous 400-yr legacy, and its dignified literary style commands reverence for God’s Word. It is not perfect (no translation is), but it is very solid and deserves esteem as a literary and religious landmark.
That, in a nutshell, also describes the Septuagint – what I call the “KJV of the Ancient World.”