Baker Academic

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

just an amusing observation

I'm reading through Joan Taylor's edited volume, Jesus and Brian: Exploring the Historical Jesus and his Times via Monty Python's Life of Brian (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015). This is such an interesting book. As with any edited volume, some of the essays exhibit higher quality than others, though judging between them probably also depends on the reader. But in her essay (one of the best I've read so far), Helen Bond examines two different kinds of humor in relation to crucifixion in the ancient world: parody/mockery of the victim, on one and, and gallows humor, on the other.

In her discussion of "gallows humor," Helen Bond relates a story told by Strabo (Geography 3.4.18), in which "Spanish prisoners after the Cantabrian wars who continued to sing victory songs, even when nailed to their crosses" ("'You'll Probably Get away with Crucifixion': Laughing at the Cross in Brian and the Ancient World," 113–26 [p. 121]). For Strabo, the victims' singing is a sign of their madness, but Bond offers a different perspective: "[F]rom the prisoners' point of view, it's easy to see their songs as a final act of defiance, as a way of strengthening morale, and a last laugh in the face of Roman oppression. There's something heroine about these wild Cantabrians, unwilling to be snuffed out by Rome" (121).

Okay, here's the observation promised in this post's title: In Spanish, canta is an imperative verb that means, "Sing!" (the exclamation point meant to convey a sense of command), and so "canta, Brian" would be a command to Brian: "Sing, Brian!"

Cantabrian victims of crucifixion singing while on their crosses, in the context of a discussion of Monty Python's Life of Brian and the crucifixion victims' singing, "Always look on the bright side of life," and the Spanish phrase "canta Brian"; it all just fits together nicely . . .

The Conservative Case against Trump

Allow me to apologize for liberals, progressives, and bed-wetting treehuggers everywhere. I will affectionately call this group the LPBT+ community. (The plus symbol here represents me, as I am fond of simple addition and tiny Celtic crosses.) It is quite common that we in the LPBT+ community are downright rude during election cycles . . . . which is another way to say all of the time. Rude might be an understatement. We are condescending, self-righteous, elitist, and other big words. Among our many moral failures this year is our inability to discuss Donald Trump with civility.

So allow me to try to convince you that Trump is unfit to hold public office without using the standard LPBT+ talking points. For all of my political proclivities, I have come to respect a number libertarian ideals by sitting down with my more conservative friends. I demur more often than not, but I've learned a great deal too. I would encourage my progressive friends to consider these arguments as common ground.

Using a more conservative lens, consider the topics of

WAR CRIMES: "Donald Trump on terrorists: 'Take out their families'"

TORTURE: "Trump on torture: 'We have to beat the savages'"

THE FIRST AMENDMENT: "Is Mr. Trump a threat to democracy?"

EXECUTIVE POWER: "Trump: Obama 'led the way' on executive orders"

Photo credit:
1. War crimes. Mr. Trump, if elected, would command the U.S. military to murder the family members of suspected terrorists. As noted by Rand Paul, such an action would be a war crime. When pressed, he doubled down on his original statement: "they may not care much about their lives . . . they do care, believe it or not, about their families' lives." When it was suggested to him that U.S. soldiers might refuse on moral grounds, Trump said, "If I say do it, they’re going to do it." He has made many over-the-top statements. He makes them so often that this one seems to have been buried in a heap of social media vitriol, comedy bits, and political fatigue. I will admit to making light of Mr. Trump myself. But this particular campaign promise (empty or not) is a clear statement in support of war crimes. It has not been taken out of context. Mr. Trump has clarified it, repeated it, and owned it.

We Americans are a polarized people. We disagree ardently and often on any number of issues from healthcare to hamburgers. Can we at least agree to Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions?

2. Torture. Mr. Trump supports torture. He realizes that this is illegal but proposes to make physical assault legal. In explaining his position, Trump argues that American foreign policy ought to mirror the practices of ISIS. "We have to play the game the way they're playing the game." Whatever you might think of John McCain's politics, can we agree with him that torture ought to be contrary to America's ideals?

3. The First Amendment. Mr. Trump proposes to weaken the first amendment. He intends to use the government to discourage newspapers from writing critical articles about him. In his words, "I'm gonna open up the libel laws so that . . . when they write hit pieces, we can sue them, and they can lose money." He also supports "closing that Internet up in some way." He continues, "Somebody will say, 'Oh freedom of speech, freedom of speech.' These are foolish people." When asked to comment on Vladimir Putin's murder of journalists, Mr. Trump answered "at least he’s a leader."

Also protected by the first amendment is the freedom of religious expression. But Mr. Trump suggests limiting such freedom by closing places of worship. Chief among conservative American values is a commitment to support and defend the U.S. Constitution. In stark contrast, Trump's proposals would set dangerous precedents for religious liberty as defined by the first amendment.

4. Executive power. My chief criticisms of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have been in their military objectives and methods. I tend to get less worked up about domestic policy (I realize that this is a deficit on my part). But my conservative friends have been most dismayed over President Obama's expansion of executive power (tip of the hat to Dick Cheney). If indeed you hold conservative values, you ought to be deeply troubled by Trump's intention to expand executive power. Indeed, we all should be.

This is the point in the program where my progressive friends will want me to call out Mr. Trump's misogyny, racism, and xenophobia. Many of my Christian friends will want me to call out Mr. Trump's lack of humility, greed, vulgarity, and immorality. But I offer the four points listed above as a way to begin a civil conversation.

Finally, if you are willing to grant that this short article as been civil (and I hope you will) I will ask that you return the favor in your comments. I would ask you to avoid the distraction of changing the conversation to Hillary Clinton. This is conversation about Mr. Trump and nothing else.

Anthony Le Donne, PhD
author of Near Christianity: How Journeys along Jewish Christian Borders Saved my Faith in God

Friday, September 23, 2016

Continuing Inter-religious Dialogue

Larry Behrendt reviews Near Christianity: How Journeys along Jewish-Christian Borders Saved my Faith in God. Larry was an important conversation partner for me as I wrote this book so his review reveals a few longer dialogues between us. I continue the conversation in a guest post.

Larry and I are both committed to inviting more (and more diverse) voices to the table of Jewish-Christian dialogue. Do please take this as an invitation to visit Jewish Christian Intersections and comment as often as you will. We believe that this is an important practice and that it can impact larger multicultural relationships.


Thursday, September 22, 2016

2016 Memory Conference Videos are Available!—Chris Keith

I'm delighted to inform readers of the Jesus Blog that videos of some of the lectures from the conference are now available at YouTube and the Conference Highlights page of the CSSSB website.  (If you go to the latter, note that it will look like only one video from the conference is available but you can navigate to seven total.)

If you wish to go directly, here are the links:

Chris Keith (read by Steve Walton), "The Memory Approach and the Reception of Jesus"
Christine Jacobi, "The Reception of Jesus in Paul"
Discussion after Keith and Jacobi
Richard Bauckham, "The Psychology of Eyewitness Memory"
Helen Bond, "The Reception of Jesus in the Gospel of John"
Discussion after Bauckham and Bond
Jens Schroeter, "Memory and Theories of History"

These are the lectures from only the first day.  The sound is not always perfect, and for a reason that I'm not quite sure, Jens's lecture cuts off just a bit early.  I'll share the other videos when they're available.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

BOOK GIVEAWAY: Near Christianity

I am told that my book, Near Christianity: How Journeys along Jewish-Christian Borders Saved my Faith in God, is on Barnes & Noble shelves in places as exotic as Springfield, IL! The generous folks at Zondervan would like to celebrate the occasion by giving away a copy. You can enter in four fun-filled ways:

(1) follow me on twitter (and comment below saying that you have) @AnthonyLe_Donne

(2) visit and sign up for a free sample chapter (comment below saying that you have)

(3) share on any form of social media (comment below saying that you have) #nearchristianity

(4) comment below with your favorite line from a Coen Brothers flick

Sensible contestants do all of the above and comment below four times. Thus they increase their chance of triumph fourfold. And that, my friends, is very gospelish.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Quarterly Quote of the Month about Jesus for this Week

This much is certain, that we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ. Our theological duty is to see and understand it as being still greater than we had seen before.

                         ~Karl Barth

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

PhD Studentship in NT at St Mary’s—Chris Keith

I happily announce a PhD studentship available for a NT student who wishes to do a PhD in the Centre for the Social-Scientific Study of the Bible.  See here for the information and full announcement.  Application deadline is Nov. 7, and this is for someone starting in Fall 2017.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

JSHJ Welcomes New Board Additions

This announcement is long overdue. But it is with no less pleasure that I welcome the following scholars to the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus editorial board:

Helen Bond
Thomas Kazen
Chris Keith
Annette Merz
Halvor Moxnes
Jens Schröter
Joan Taylor

The expertise they bring to this publication is invaluable. James and I look forward to working with them!


Sunday, September 4, 2016

Me Talk on Radio

A couple weeks ago I was interviewed on "Let’s Talk with Mark Elfstrand." You can listen to it here.

If the sound quality is poor, it is because your world frightens and confuses me.

I will also be on "A Show of Faith" with David Capes next week. More details to follow.


Thursday, September 1, 2016

Al from Florida Writes... (Summer Edition)

Dear James,

As we approach what you Brits call "autumn", please could you tell us what you've been doing this summer?


Dear Al,

Great question! I won't go over growing vegetables, PES or No Man's Sky because there aren't many biblical references there (though one day I'd like to grow a garden of biblical plants). I have, however, been interviewing people from a place called "Barrow-in-Furness" about the Brexit and the Bible, the results of which have just been published in Relegere where you can download the article for free. While I maintained a professional distance, some of the subalterns did use a lot of idiomatic cusswords, just like the "weapons of the weak" were used in Galilee. If that's not your thing, you've been warned; if it is you're thing, hopefully they won't disappoint.

Enjoy your fall,

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Mother Teresa (and Jules Winnfield): A Reflection on God's Silence

Unlike some of my colleagues in biblical studies, I do not experience miracles. Or at least I don't perceive most things that I witness in my day-to-day experience as God's intervention. I'm usually the guy sitting across the table from Jules, eating filthy pig meat and challenging the claim that God came down from heaven and stopped the bullets. John 12:29 says, "So the crowd of people who stood by and heard it were saying that it had thundered; others were saying, 'An angel has spoken to Him.'" Had I been there, I would have probably heard thunder.

I readily acknowledge that the limits of my own perception and my presuppositions color my experience. I'm no authority on what can and cannot happen in the universe. Even so, I am much more inclined to experience God in small things: beauty; unlikely spiritual transformation; a pennant race. But I just don't encounter the supernatural or I don't interpret it as such if I do. This I call my experience of "God's silence" and am convinced that many, many Christians experience this silence more often than not. . . . even if they don't talk about it. This topic is one of the major motivating factors behind my new book: Near Christianity.

Today on NPR I learned that Pope Francis will declare Mother Teresa a saint. This short podcast is worth a listen: "How The Catholic Church Documented Mother Teresa's 2 Miracles." This, of course, means that the Church must verify at least two miraculous encounters associated with Teresa. I am not the sort of person that rejects the experience of others out-of-hand as fraud, fiction, or foolishness just because I do not understand it. And so I find this story intellectually fascinating rather than intellectually repulsive. This story is even more fascinating to me because Teresa's journals reveal that she (for almost 50 years) experienced God's silence.
[James] Martin, editor of the Jesuit magazine America, notes that in a posthumously published collection of her private journals and letters, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, the nun so widely revered for her spiritual purity acknowledged that she did not personally feel God's presence. "In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss," . . . . Martin says Mother Teresa dealt with such pain by telling God, "Even though I don't feel you, I believe in you."
The NPR story then goes on to describe Teresa's sense of numbness as "doubt." But I think that we ought to differentiate a lack of feeling of God's presence (what I am calling "silence") from doubt. The two can be related. I imagine that doubt can lead to a lack of experience and vice versa. But God's silence and doubt of God are not the same in my experience.

I talk more about this in the book, but allow me to make three points. (1) I used to think that my experience of God's silence was a deficit in me, as if I required fixing. I now see this as a valuable difference among people of faith—one that contributes to a necessary diversity. (2) We do Teresa a disservice in collapsing doubt and God's silence into a single "problem." I see St. Teresa as an exemplar of faith. She is someone who could experience (even if uncomfortably) God's silence for 50 years and remain faithful to her mission. (3) What a tragedy that Teresa had to keep her experience of God a secret for all of those years. Surely there is a place for God's silence in the Psalms. Even Jesus experienced God's silence. Why are Christians so reluctant to discuss this openly? What a loss to others who might have benefited from Teresa's witness.

I admire the Jules Winnfields of the world—folks who encounter the Divine differently than I do. Who am I to begrudge such a transformational and powerful experience? But I also admire saints who remain faithful because there is something bigger at stake than one's own experience.

Anthony Le Donne, PhD is the author of 
Near Christianity: How Journeys along Jewish-Christian Borders Saved My Faith in God.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Centre for the Study of Christian Origins at Edinburgh—Chris Keith

The Centre for the Study of Christian Origins over at my alma mater, the University of Edinburgh, has sent the following two flyers to us and we're happy to share them.  CSCO will be sharing content this Autumn on social media and invites any former or current students to contribute, and invites everyone else to stop by their website ( to check in with them.

Monday, August 29, 2016

"eyewitness" in Johannine tradition

I've begun working on my paper for the John, Jesus, and History meeting at this year's SBL Annual Meeting in San Antonio. My paper is called "What is History? Reading the Gospel of John as a Historical Text" and will apply discussions of memory and media to refine what we mean when we look for the historical Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. I'm a newbie to the world of Johannine scholarship, so I'm looking forward to learning a lot about this obscure (to me) section of the canon.

As I start writing, I'm working through many of the essays published in Robert Fortna and Tom Thatcher's edited volume, Jesus in Johannine Tradition (Westminster John Knox, 2001). Arthur Dewey's essay, "The Eyewitness of History: Visionary Consciousness in the Fourth Gospel" (pp. 59–70) is causing some problems for me, and I thought I'd throw those up on this particular wall and see if anyone here has any comment.

Dewey's essay strikes me as at the same time deeply insightful and deeply flawed. I will try to lay out the issue I'm highlighting quickly and then explain what I think about it. Dewey makes the following claims about John's "historical interest" (which he helpfully differentiates from FG's "historicity") and the notion of "the eyewitness" in FG:
FE [the Fourth Evangelist] was creatively engaged in what should be called a "visionary consciousness." An "eyewitness" for FE is not a simple observer of raw data. Rather, through enlisting the symbolic presence of the Paraclete (Spirit), FE provides the means for every reader to become an active participant in the epiphany of the death of Jesus. . . . (59–60)

As for the identity of the "one who saw this [and] has testified," "that one" is not the Beloved Disciple found in 19:25–27. Rather, "that one" must be the Paraclete, who arrives at the moment of Jesus' glorification and reminds the reader of the truth of revelation. The text, in effect, mirrors the creative recollection of scene and scripture in the mind of the audience. It deliberately delivers a mimetic presentation: anyone who closely follows the text can do what the text is doing. Each reader can connect these things in memory and become, thereby, a "witness" to Jesus. . . . (67–68)

"[H]istory" becomes meaningful when the deeds of Jesus (in this case, his death) and scripture come together in remembrance. The one who "sees" the events is the Paraclete, not the Beloved Disciple (perhaps that is the cautionary note of John 20:9?). The recollection or rehearing of all the echoes in FG helps the reader/listener understand the message. Thus, the eyewitness account is not a simple report given by an individual. Rather, it is a revision through memory, enlisting both the Gospel story and the resources of Jewish scripture. The effect of this is that the eyewitness to the past is happening now. It is an ongoing eye witnessing—open to all who come to share FE's collaborative vision. (68; emphasis in the original)
There's a lot that's helpful here, I think. I agree with Dewey that, for FE, the status of "eyewitness" depends on more than simply having seen or heard something. In John 2, for example, when the disciples see and hear the events of Jesus in the Temple, they are not yet "eyewitnesses" of the Temple incident because they do not yet understand what they have seen and heard. Rather, as John explains in a narrative aside, "When, therefore, he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had been saying this, and they believed the Scripture as well as the word which Jesus spoke" (John 2:22). It was not until after Jesus' resurrection and the bestowal of the Spirit/Paraclete (20:22) that the disciples were empowered by the Spirit to properly understand what they had seen and heard and, therefore, be eyewitnesses. So I strongly agree with Dewey: "An 'eyewitness' for FE is not a simple observer of raw data." (For more on memory and the Spirit and the question of eyewitness testimony in John, see Tom Thatcher's essay, "Why John Wrote a Gospel: Memory and History in an Early Christian Community," in Memory, Tradition, and Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity, edited by Alan Kirk and Tom Thatcher; SemeiaSt 52 [Atlanta: SBL Press, 2005], 79–97.)

But he and I draw strikingly different conclusions from his insight on the more complex notion of eyewitness in FG. I use this as a limiting principle that excludes some witness to Jesus' actual life and teachings. That is, some people witnessed the events of Jesus' life but were not eyewitnesses because they were not empowered by the Spirit to offer proper testimony to those events. Dewey, on the other hand, uses this insight as an enabling principle that broadens the scope of Jesus' eyewitnesses to include everyone empowered by the Spirit, whether or not they actually witnessed Jesus' actual life and teachings. In theory, the status of eyewitness—in this proposed Johannine sense—is still open today; it certainly was at the end of the first century CE.

As I see it, the Johannine author stressed rather than marginalized the physical senses in his view of eyewitness-hood. "And the Word became flesh and took up his dwelling among us, and we have seen his glory" (John 1:14). "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, with we have beheld and our hands have touched concerning the word of life" (1 John 1:1; see vv. 1–4). Moreover, he strongly differentiates those who have actually seen from those who haven't, and he portrays Jesus pronouncing blessing over those who have faith despite not having actually been an eyewitness to Jesus' resurrection: "Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and nevertheless believe" (John 20:29). Finally, the strong affirmation of FG's link with eyewitness testimony in John 21 makes a comparable distinction: "This is the disciple who testifies about these things and who has written them. And we know that his testimony is true" (John 21:24). The editor/redactor responsible for John 21 does not include himself among those who are offering testimony; the status of "eyewitness" is closed to him because he has not seen, he has not heard, he has not touched the things which are recounted in FG.

Those of you more familiar than I am with the stream of Johannine scholarship: What would you say about these things? And those of you who are more interested in John's Gospel than I am (whatever your scholarly credentials): What say ye?