Running Heads

From the editors of Cascade Books and Pickwick Publications at Wipf and Stock Publishers

Category: Biblical Studies (page 1 of 3)

Oakman’s The Political Aims of Jesus

Years ago, I acquired The Political Aims of Jesus by my good friend Doug Oakman for Fortress Press, and it finally appeared in 2012. Doug is also the author of Jesus and the Economic Questions of His Day (1986), Jesus and the Peasants (2008, a collection of his most important essays), and Jesus, Debt, and the Lord’s Prayer (2014). Together, he and I wrote Palestine in the Time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflicts (2nd ed., 2008; 1st ed. 1998). Working with him on that last book was one of the highlights of my life.

Doug asked me to give him feedback on a preliminary version of the manuscript of Political Aims, and I was blown away by it. But now, three years later, I just reread the whole thing, and I was blown away a second time. I think I have had more time to let his approach and conclusions sink in; but I am repeatedly startled/awakened by his skill in bringing new light on well-known gospel passages.

Doug begins with the importance of H. S. Reimarus‘s work for seeing what Jesus was up to, and why Schweitzer so highly praised his work. But we are are far down the road from Reimarus in terms of archaeological, historical, literary, and social analyses, and this is where Doug’s work takes off. He analyzes the political—and political economic—landscape of Galilee and greater Palestine and then focuses on the earliest Q (Sayings Source) material and what Jesus’ emphases were: the disenfranchisement of the peasants, the land grabs by the elites, the oppressive tax situation (temple, Herodian, and Roman), emphases of priestly religion that foregrounds purity issues over justice, and what God’s dominion would mean in addressing these issues.

He looks intently at the sayings, parables, and actions of Jesus in a politically charged and economically complex environment—and prior to later christological emphases. One of the most rewarding things about the book is Doug’s analysis of the intent of the parables. Reading his fresh interpretations often feels like I am hearing these for first time. But this brief summary only scratches the surface of this important work.

If you are interested at all in a deep look at the Jesus tradition, I not only highly recommend this book, I would say put it on your “must have” list!

A Womanist Biblical Hermeneutics Reader

Last week I shared a flurry of Pickwick titles I’ve worked on in this new publishing year. Today I’d like to call attention to a recently published Cascade book:

I Found God in Me is the first womanist biblical hermeneutics reader. In it readers have access, in one volume, to articles on womanist interpretative theories and theology as well as cutting-edge womanist readings of biblical texts by womanist biblical scholars. This book is an excellent resource for women of color, pastors, and seminarians interested in relevant readings of the biblical text, as well as scholars and teachers teaching courses in womanist biblical hermeneutics, feminist interpretation, African American hermeneutics, and biblical courses that value diversity and dialogue as crucial to excellent pedagogy.


I first worked with Mitzi J. Smith in 2011 to publish a revision of her dissertation, The Literary Construction of the Other in the Acts of the Apostles: Charismatics, the Jews, and WomenIn the first part of this new book, she and other womanist interpreters pull back from the text a bit to take a look at womanist interpretative theory more broadly, using Alice Walker’s short essay, “Womanist,” as a springboard. Beginning with Walker’s essay, the chapters in the first half of the book then include:

  1. Womanist Interpretations of the New Testament: The Quest for Holistic and Inclusive Translation and Interpretation by Clarice J. Martin
  2. Re-Reading for Liberation: African American Women and the Bible by Renita J. Weems
  3. Womanist Interpretation and Preaching in the Black Church by Katie Geneva Cannon
  4. An African Methodology for South African Biblical Sciences: Revisiting the Bosadi (Womanhood) Approach by Madipoane J. Masenya
  5. Marginalized People, Liberating Perspectives: A Womanist Approach to Biblical Interpretation by Kelly Brown Douglas
  6. Our Mothers’ Gardens: Discrete Sources of Reflection on the Cross in Womanist Christology by JoAnne Marie Terrell
  7. “This Little Light of Mine”: The Womanist Biblical Scholar as Prophetess, Iconoclast, and Activist by Mitzi J. Smith

In the second half of the book, Smith and others look more closely at biblical passages, characters, and books.

  1. A Womanist Midrash on Zipporah by Wil Gafney
  2. Fashioning Our Own Souls: A Womanist Reading of the Virgin-Whore Binary in Matthew and Revelation by Mitzi J. Smith
  3. A Womanist-Postcolonial Reading of the Samaritan Woman at the Well and Mary Magdalene at the Tomb by Lynne St. Clair Darden
  4. Minjung, the Black Masses, and the Global Imperative: A Womanist Reading of Luke’s Soteriological Hermeneutical Circle by Mitzi J. Smith
  5. Wisdom in the Garden: The Woman of Genesis 3 and Alice Walker’s Sophia by Kimberly Dawn Russaw
  6. “Knowing More than is Good for One”: A Womanist Interrogation of the Matthean Great Commission by Mitzi J. Smith
  7. Silenced Struggles for Survival: Finding Life in Death in the Book of Ruth by Yolanda Norton
  8. “Give Them What You Have”: A Womanist Reading of the Matthean Feeding Miracle (Matt 14:13–21) by Mitzi J. Smith
  9. Acts 9:36–43: The Many Faces of Tabitha, a Womanist Reading by Febbie C. Dickerson

The result of this structure is a fascinating collection that introduces readers to both theory and practice of womanist biblical interpretation. Thomas B. Slater of the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University, Macon, GA says,

It is good reading for pastor and academician alike: for pastors to see the many implications of a growing movement for fellowship in the black church; for academicians to engage in a continuing activity that is not dissipating but growing, a movement which has significant implications for the interpretation of Scripture and the development of Christian theology and ethics in the future. The church and the academy are indebted to Smith for this significant, stimulating study.

Greek isn’t that easy

Greg Lanier posted a couple of days ago an application of quantitative analysis to the acquisition of Greek vocabulary for New Testament reading. He runs through some statistics about the number of words in the GNT, the number of hapax legomena, the number of words one has to acquire to reach 80% of the word occurrences, etc. It is all very interesting and informative, and there are graphs. I love graphs! His point is to encourage students to focus on learning core vocabulary. His numbers and graphs help to make this task less daunting than it might appear at first. His summary is thus:

  • Investing significant time up front to acquire the 50+ words pays significant dividends.
  • There is a tremendously “long tail” whereby going from 90% to 100% of words by occurrence (that is, ability to read that percentage of the NT without relying on a dictionary) requires learning >80% of the total vocabulary! That’s a huge step!
  • Perhaps the best idea is to focus on the 882 words that get you to 90%.

882 words doesn’t seem like all that much . . . if that were all there was to it! I always think I am giving students too rosy an outlook when I tell them how few words they have to memorize to read a majority of the NT. Inflected languages actually require students to memorize a handful of words when they are learning “one” word. For instance, it feels dishonest to tell students they only have to learn one word in the definite article to have nearly 20K (19,867 to be exact) word occurrences under their belt. That one little word actually has 17 different forms, 17 different words to memorize, if we’re being honest. And some of those words pull double duty (or triple, in the case of plural genitive).


It sounds less daunting to think we only have to memorize 882 words to get to 90% of the GNT, but in reality it is much more than that. 

I’m by no means a statistician and I do not claim the same abilities in quantitative analysis as Greg. So you will not be getting any charts from me. But I want to explore my point a bit further. Using Greg’s post, the list provided by the Institute of Biblical Greek, a calculator, and a grammar to check my paradigms, I want to take a look at the 20 “unique” words that occur 900 times or more in the GNT.

Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at [Jan 29] 9.04

According to the traditional spiel about Greek vocabulary learning, one would only need to memorize 20 words to account for 64,486 (somebody check my calculator work!) word occurrences out of a total of only 138,150 total words in the GNT. That’s 20 words for over 46% of the GNT! Sounds pretty good doesn’t it? Of course, you would have 5400 more words to learn to acquire the nearly 54% outstanding, but let’s focus on the surmountable part for now. Here’s the rub, though. As I said earlier, there are actually 17 different, truly unique words that make up what most vocabulary lists put down as only one word in their listing of the definite article.  In fact, if I am counting right, there are only 9 words in this list of 20 that do not inflect, decline, morph, augment, presto-change-o somehow. Wait, strike that. There are a few of those prepositions that will end differently depending on the word they precede. When I set out on this blog post, I had in mind to try to count the actual number of words hidden away inside this list of 20, but the idea of trying to count all the verbal forms of a couple of the words overwhelmed me, and I have actual editing work to do today. So , I never did make use of the Greek grammar I had on my desk in order to count all the different forms/words. Still, the point I want to make explicitly now is that learning enough Greek vocabulary to account for 90% of the GNT is a good deal more than learning 882 words.

And before pedants start putting me in my place about what a “word” is or about what we mean by “learning” a vocabulary word or about how memorizing a few paradigms make it so that one need only memorize one word to have all 17+ forms (AKA unique words!) at hand, let me appeal to my Merriam-Webster dictionary for an example or two. You will find there an entry for the indefinite article ‘a’ on one page, and an entry for ‘an’ on another page.  One could argue that it is just one word with different forms, but there are two separate words for English-language learners to memorize! Yes, I understand that if English-language learners memorized a few rules (easier rules than Greek since English inflects only minimally), then they would only have to memorize ‘dog’ to get ‘dogs’ and ‘inflect’ to get ‘inflected’ and ‘inflecting’ and ‘inflects’ and ‘inflection’ and so on. I would say, however, that learning these rules only makes learning related words easier. It is not that they’ve memorized one word. It’s that they’ve memorized several related words with the assistance of standard rules. And it is a hard argument to make that English-language learners are memorizing only ONE word when they learn ‘go’ and ‘went’ or ‘goose’ and ‘geese’ or any number of irregular word sets. Greek is filled with irregular words of all sorts. It is a hard argument to make that Greek-language learners are memorizing ONE word when they learn all of the crazy forms of εἰμί.

I don’t mean to be discouraging of students learning Greek vocabulary. When I taught, I had a reputation for requiring more than the normal number of vocabulary words. And now in retrospect I see that I was actually assigning many more words than were listed. I don’t regret it. My students might. I don’t. I’m writing all of this as a way to think out loud, as it were, about how we “market” vocabulary learning to students. Is it fair to say only 882 words and you’ve got 90% of the GNT? Most students, I would guess, hear the word “words” and assume it is something like looking up an unfamiliar word in Merriam-Webster. They have no idea that Greek is just not that easy.

Robin Parry on the Biblical Cosmos

I have just finished proofing a really fine book by my colleague, Robin Parry. It is titled The Biblical Cosmos: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Weird and Wonderful World of the Bible.
While attentive to the scholarly nuances, Robin has written it with wit and whimsey. What he has done is not only sketch how the ancient Israelites and Judeans imaged the world, but what gave that meaning—and how it can still have meaning for us. This is a particularly difficult move given the Enlightenment, modern science, trips to the moon and Mars. But he has done an admirable job of making it informative, engaging, and enjoyable. I especially liked his wise use of ancient Near Eastern parallels.
An added bonus for the reader are the illustrations provided by Hannah Parry, Robin’s daughter. They are elegant, but some of them also have the whimsey that Robin’s prose exhibits.
This should be out in less than ten days, and I highly recommend it.

10 Theses for Trinitarian Biblical Interpretation

I’ve had the fortune this summer of working on two projects that stand apart for me among the many book projects to which I attend. I am sure all of the authors with whom I work would like for me to tout their latest writing project. And if I had the time, I would. Despite the sometimes mundane tasks of cleaning up commas and repairing sentence structure, I really do get to have my hands in the making of a lot of wonderful books. A person could get lost for hours browsing the titles we publish.

Gorman.26558 copyOut now is Michael Gorman’s terrific new book on the atonement: The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of the AtonementAs with all of Gorman’s books, I can’t recommend this one enough.

Newly appointed Dean of the School of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, Joel Green, says this about the book:

With this biblically and theologically mature study, Michael Gorman shifts our focus away from fascination with the how of the atonement and toward reflection on the what: What does Jesus’s death accomplish? The result is a richly textured statement of how the atonement reaches deeply into the scriptural story of God’s mighty acts in order to present the consequences of the cross for the church’s faith, hope, and love.

Black.27241Currently in the proofing stage is C. Clifton Black’s Reading Scripture with the Saints. In this book Black takes the reader on a tour of interpreters of scripture who have been both careful and formed readers of Christianity’s sacred texts. He uses “saint” flexibly to refer to magisterial figures who have been “set apart” in the cultural imagination. Given that description, I think the reader should be intrigued by the Table of Contents:

  • Introduction Chapter 1. Welcome
  • Patristic Stirrings
  • Chapter 2. Trinity and Exegesis ”In which Trinitarian doctrine frames a reading of Ecclesiastes”
  • Chapter 3. Serving the Food of Full-Grown Adults “Augustine preaches First John in the fifth and twenty-first centuries”
  • Chapter 4. Listen ”Benedict rules today’s biblical exposition”
  • Middle Ages
  • Chapter 5. Transfigured Exegesis ”Twenty centuries of interpreters teetering on Mount Tabor”
  • Chapter 6. Doubtless Thomas ”In which Aquinas probes the Fourth Gospel’s Prologue”
  • Chapter 7. Luther Times Three “’Have Mercy on Me, O God,’ Martin cries across two decades”
  • Some Early Moderns
  • Chapter 8. “Not of an Age, But for All Time” ”King James’s Job suffers with Shakespeare’s Lear”
  • Chapter 9. Searcher of the Oracles Divine ”Accompanying Charles Wesley on two breathtaking journeys from Jerusalem to Jericho”
  • Chapter 10. American Scriptures ”Washington and Lincoln: biblical exegetes”
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 11. Until Later

In chapter 2 Black shows himself to be a tour guide with positions and commitments of his own. His Ten Theses for biblical interpretation with a trinitarian understanding harmonize well with the rising voices in the choir of theological interpretation. He says much about each thesis. I simply list them here and encourage you to get the book when it is available (hopefully) next month.

  1. Considered reflection on the triune God is appropriate to exegesis that attends to the Bible’s theological character.
  2. If, as the historic church has confessed, the Trinity is a true and faithful expression of the God whom it worships, then that doctrine inevitably bears on the church’s understanding of the Bible as Holy Scripture, its inspiration and sanctification, prior to its disciplined exegesis.
  3. Even as theology arises from worship, the native habitat for a Trinitarian approach to Scripture is the church and its ancillary communities, like schools of theology, whose special vocation in service to the gospel is the strengthening of the church’s ministry.
  4. No academic exegete is required to practice scriptural interpretation as herein characterized, nor is every student required to study the Bible as Christian Scripture.
  5. For Christian theological exegetes, Trinitarian doctrine tends toward a less sectarian, more comprehensive, and arguably less problematic framework within which to read Scripture.
  6. The components of a Trinitarian confession—the integrity of Persons that voluntarily respect the space between themselves and one another, thereby fructifying loving freedom—suggest a salutary framework within which to consider the variety of biblical texts, the diversity of interpretive methods, and the inevitable divergence among Scripture’s interpreters.
  7. A Trinitarian hermeneutic does not abjure historical criticism en bloc. It embraces and opens up historical investigation while challenging historicism’s fatalistic imperialism.
  8. A Trinitarian approach to exegesis is eschatologically pregnant, affirming God’s freedom to dynamite interpretive obstacles and to guide Scripture’s faithful readers to fresh, truthful insights.
  9. By its nature Trinitarian exegesis of Scripture engages the interpreter intimately. Properly construed, the relationship is not merely that of “subject matter” and “investigator.” Rather, it is nothing short of “Lover” and “beloved.”
  10. So understood, scriptural theology recognizes no insuperable division between scholarly and devotional reading, even though the needs of different communities respect differences of emphasis.

What the Eye Cannot Unsee

Ever since my graduate school days I’ve been interested in models outside of hermeneutics and biblical studies that can inform our understanding of how we—that is readers of biblical texts, generally, and Christians of their sacred texts, more specifically—read, understand, and interpret scripture. So things like Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiotics and pragmatism (though, later in life Peirce insisted on his ideas as “pragmaticism,” so as to distinguish them from the growing popularity of William James’s pragmatic theory), or J. L. Austin‘s speech acts (John R. Searle was influential in bringing speech acts more fully into philosophical discussion, but I tend to side with Stephen Fowl in seeing Searle as the systematizer of Austin’s looser thoughts), or Nancey Murphy’s ideas about supervenience and nonreducibility (and also her work, along with many others, on body and soul) have opened my eyes to the complexities of reading texts and getting at their meaning(s). Even after muddling my way through a dissertation that danced around these hermeneutical questions with two capable dance partners, I don’t feel any closer to being settled than I did 15+ years ago when the questions first rose to the surface for me. Still, I’m on the lookout for theories, models, analogies, examples, etc. that help us think about these things constructively. Earlier this week Alexis C. Madrigal published an article available online at The Atlantic entitled, “Things You Cannot Unsee (and What That Says About Your Brain.” I started to read the article first because the internet meme it references fascinates me. I can’t look at a two-pronged coat hook the same again! drunk-octopus But Madrigal digs a little deeper into the cannot-unsee phenomenon by talking to psychologists, cognitive scientists, philosophers, neuroscientists, and others. I began to think that many of the things Madrigal was discussing could just as well find currency in hermeneutical conversations. Take for example a few snippets from the article and consider them in the context of interpreting texts:

  • “What’s interesting is that the visual stimulus (the picture) doesn’t change, but once your mind knows what kind of organization to impose, it’s obvious…”
  • “…perception is not the result of simply processing stimulus cues.  It also importantly involves fitting prior knowledge to the current situation to create a meaningful interpretation.”
  • “You’re not only seeing what is actually before you; you’re seeing what your brain is telling you is there. Specifically, the cortex is sending a cascade of predictions about what should be seen at all the different layers of complexity. So what travels back up from the eyes is not raw visuals of the environment, but how the world deviates from what the brain is expecting.”
  • “Knowledge feeds perception and back again.”
  • “Neural signals are related less to a stimulus per se than to its congruence with internal goals and predictions, calculated on the basis of previous input to the system.”

In a trite, but not untrue, way we rewire our brain when we see something we cannot unsee. I would guess that a certain amount of rewiring takes place when we read and understand a text differently for the first time. This makes the work of biblical interpretation all the more important, I think. And, if I may get a little pious, it makes the task of those who proclaim the gospel all the more significant. Indeed, they are not asking us to see a coat hook as a drunken octopus or Australia as the conjoined heads of a cat and dog… australia No, the gospel calls us to see the Messiah as a crucified messiah, the Gentile as a part of God’s people, the enemy as one to love, etc. That’s a lot of rewiring! But equally daunting is the rewiring of those who have read and lived with the biblical texts for a long time, those whose “previous input to the system” has so well established certain “internal goals and predictions” that finding the Dalmatian among the spots is next to impossible, metaphorically speaking (as seems appropriate here).


Click the image if you need help spotting the dog. (Pun intended!)

“Bring out your links!”

I must confess. When I am proofreading I can’t go more than a page or so (sometimes only a paragraph or two!) before I have to divert my attention elsewhere. Usually that “elsewhere” is the Web. In the past few weeks I’ve been doing a lot of proofreading, which means I’ve also been doing a lot of web surfing. Some things I come across stick with me; other things not so much. Below this video, which gives reference to the post’s title, is  a rundown of some of the stuff that has continued to knock around inside my head.

Continue reading

Reviews to Start the Day

Periodically our marketing director will put on my desk copies of reviews of books I’ve edited. It’s helpful to see the critical reviews. I often learn ways to be better at my job. But, I have to admit, it is especially nice to read positive comments! One day this week I arrived at work to find a little stack of reviews from The Catholic Biblical Quarterly. It was a great way to start the day.

Eugene Hensell, O.S.B., on Text and Story: Narrative Studies in New Testament Textual Criticism by Peter R. Rodgers (Pickwick, 2011).

…throughout this book clearly demonstrates that he is well versed in both the science and art of textual criticism…

Rodgers intends to make this book more than just a summary of what previous scholarship has accomplished. He sees his contribution to be relating the field of NT textual criticism to that of the narrative study of the NT. To date scholars have not given much attention to this kind of study.

He concludes the book by asserting that, contrary to past practices, textual criticism and exegesis are very much interrelated. They cannot and should not be separated. This assertion is made even clearer by the more recent studies of intertextuality. Furthermore, Rodgers argues, textual criticism and theology can no longer continue to operate in separate worlds since many variants are the result of early theological discussion. This delightful and challenging volume is recommended for students and scholars alike.

Eric D. Barreto on An Exemplary Man: Cornelius and Characterization in Acts by Bonnie J. Flessen (Pickwick, 2011).

[T]his book is a step forward toward analyzing the inextricability of power and identity in Acts and thus invites new and valuable avenues of research.

Florence Morgan Gillman on Romans: The Divine Marriage. A Biblical Theological Commentary by Tom Holland (Pickwick, 2011).

Holland’s clearly stated exegetical conclusions will be of interest to those both within and outside of the perspectives of evangelical exegesis, particularly for his sustained corporate reading of Romans as well as his specific challenges to New Perspective arguments.

Robert J. Karris on The Letter of James: Worship to Live By by John Paul Heil (Cascade, 2012).

A gold mine for learning can be found in the summaries Heil provides at the close of each of the eleven sections and at the end of the study. In these summaries he masterfully shows how one section relates to another, well beyond connecting sections together by catchwords. The macro-method is based on a profound grasp of the entire letter.

Brueggemann’s essays

One of the things that characterizes Walter Brueggemann’s work is that he writes to be read and be accessible. But despite the fact that his work is mostly focussed on work for the pastor and the church, he has written a large number of more technical essays for Festschriften in honor of other scholars.

After finishing four volumes of his articles from Journal for Preachers, I am currently working on multiple volumes of his Festschriften essays, and they never cease to amaze me. His attention to textual detail, the depth of his analysis, and his perceptive theological assessments are real models to be emulated. Keep an eye out for this forthcoming volumes.

Biblical Interpretation

I ran across the following quotation in Gerhard Ebeling’s volume, The Truth of the Gospel: An Exposition of GalatiansContinue reading

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