Review of Robert McIver, Verbatim and Gist Parallels Between the Gospels: Coded Greek Synopsis and Selected Statistics (2nd edition)

I’ve recently submitted a review of Robert McIver’s Verbatim and Gist Parallels Between the Gospels: Coded Greek Synopsis and Selected Statistics, a multi-faceted synopsis of the four biblical gospels, to Review of Biblical Literature. There are several distinct features of the synopsis that contribute greatly to considering the text in new ways.

First of all, there are several synopses focusing on different types of parallels. McIver begins with a synopsis of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). He pairs off passages, so if there are three parallel versions of a story, one will see a block pairing Matt / Mark, Matt / Luke, and Mark / Luke. McIver also underlines exact matches in wording (under a rubric he describes in the introduction), highlighting verbatim parallels and making it easier to see passages that are closer or more distant in phrasing.

Importantly for me, he includes tables of statistics based on his counts of words and verbatim agreements. For example, in the first table, he lists:

  • His passage numbers
  • The passages compared
  • The number of words in each text
  • The number of verbatim agreements in the text
  • The percentage of each passage made up of verbatim agreements
  • And the lengths of the longest sequence of verbatim agreements if one allows for zero, one, two, or three differences.

McIver presents the material this way based on his understanding of how to differentiate literary dependence (marked by long sequences of verbatim agreement) and mnemonic dependence (marked by high percentages of verbatim agreements, but no long sequences). He then adds tables that focus on specific texts and specific features, like the long sequences of verbatim agreements — which should help researchers interested in a specific text or in a specific type of agreement between them.

He follows with a synopsis of John paired with Synoptic passages, and tables relating the same features.

McIver also includes synopses focused on other features, like internal parallels (say, the feeding of the 5,000 / 4,000), or only the texts with the highest gist parallels or longest verbatim sequences. Again, not only are these portions useful for people with particular research interests, they got me thinking quite a bit. For example, the passages with long verbatim sequences often only have two parallels, while all but one of the passages with high percentages of words in common but no long sequences of verbatim matches had three or more parallels. Does this align with McIver’s distinction between literary dependence and memory? Or does it suggest that literary competition is at play — was there more pressure to add variation when there are more versions of a story out there? I haven’t resolved how I think about this yet, but then again, I had never considered the question before reading McIver’s synopsis.

I will warn you: there are many typos and printing errors in the English portions of McIver’s book — mine even had one on the cover (see above). But so far I have seen none in the Greek, and I do not suspect that his statistics are off. The second edition came out just a year after the first, and I suspect the quick turnaround is to blame. You may not always agree with the way McIver counted, but there’s little reason to suspect his counts are off.

More details will obviously appear in the full review, but long story short: I would recommend McIver’s synopsis of the biblical gospels as a highly useful tool for studying gospel parallels. At about $16 for the paperback volume and much more compact than many synopses, it is also worth considering if you are using it in a college course on the gospels.

Jermo van Nes Applies Regression Analysis to the Question of the Disputed Letters of Paul

I’ve just come across an article written by Jermo van Nes from 2018 in ZNW, “Hapax Legomena in Disputed Pauline Letters: A Reassessment.” Here, van Nes uses regression analysis to address the use of unique words in determining which of the letters credited to Paul were written by the apostle, and which were forged. The article is creative, measured, and should be taken seriously by Pauline scholars.

So what’s the issue?

Thirteen letters are ascribed to Paul in the New Testament, but scholars do not always trust that all of them were actually written by Paul himself. Some may have been written by a disciple of Paul’s in his name or on his behalf, and others just blatantly forged. So Paul’s letters are divided into two camps: the “undisputed” letters (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon) and the “disputed” letters (the other six). Hebrews doesn’t count: it’s anonymous and almost no one thinks Paul wrote it.

There are many reasons to question the authenticity of the disputed letters (some more than others), but one reason has been the frequency of hapax legomena, or unique words in those six letters. Van Nes defines hapaxes as “words that are univocal in meaning and that are used exclusively, whether once or more, in one Pauline letter and not in any of the other twelve” (p. 122). The claim often made by Pauline scholars is that the relative frequency of such words is much higher in the disputed letters than in the undisputed.

In other words, the vocabulary of the disputed letters is frequently unlike anything else in the letters we are certain were written by Paul. Van Nes seeks to test this proportionally, and to create a baseline, he uses regression analysis.

Van Nes counts the total number of words in the undisputed letters as his x-variable, and correlates it to the total number of unique words in the same letter as his y-variable. There is a very strong correlation between the two. The correlation isn’t perfect—the dots are not all lined up perfectly in a row. But none of them strays far from the line, either.

Once we have a best-fit regression line, we can also compare other results by creating confidence intervals around the regression line. Any point within these confidence intervals shows typical variation of the type that is evident in the original seven letters. Any point that outside the confidence intervals is significantly different from the undisputed letters, whether using too many unique words (if above the interval) or too few (if below).

I will only put van Nes’s first graph showing the undisputed here:

As you can see, none of the disputed letters is significantly different from the undisputed letters in terms of the use of the unique words except for 1 and 2 Timothy, which use significantly more unique words. On the one hand, that seems to put to rest the use of unique words to argue againt Pauline authorship of, say, 2 Thessalonians (which uses unique words slightly less often than average). On the other, van Nes does not let the issue rest for 1 and 2 Timothy either, instead questioning some ways that his method may be over-counting unique words and reanalyzing once these are subtracted away. I’ll let you read his article for the rest.

There is a tendency in biblical studies to make quantitative claims (e.g. Ephesians wasn’t written by Paul because there are so many uncharacteristic words) without carrying out any sort of quantitative analysis. Van Nes tests whether the use of unique words can differentiate between the disputed and undisputed letters, and his use of regression analysis shows that it cannot.

Now, van Nes does overstate the case when he says, “This type of analysis has not been applied to New Testament studies” (p. 123).

(After all, I had applied regression analysis to arguments from order for Q five years prior to van Nes’s article, but I get what he’s saying.)

But otherwise, I think his critical testing of the claim that unique words is enough to differentiate using regression analysis is spot on.

Now, I would add that we’ve looked at the use of unique words here before with regard to the Story of the Adulteress in John, and we’ve seen that unique words is not a sensitive enough metric to differentiate some non-Johannine passages from John. This is consistent with van Nes’s data, but it warns us that just because the disputed letters are not significantly different in this regard, it does not follow that they were written by Paul. Instead, scholars who advocate for the pseudonymity of the six disputed letters need to refine their arguments and their methods. Hopefully van Nes’s article will spur them in the right direction.

Review of Joshua W. Jipp, The Messianic Theology of the New Testament

I’ve just submitted a review of Joshua Jipp’s The Messianic Theology of the New Testament to Reviews in Religion and Theology. The book is a theology of the New Testament, which Jipp expresses some reserve about even writing since the many texts of in the NT evince such diversity in their theologies and the way they express them. Still, Jipp argues that Jesus’s role as a royal, Davidic, and anointed figure provides a consistent framework throughout (most of) the books of the NT*. He divides his study into two parts: first, a series of exegetical chapters moving his way through the four gospels (with Acts attached to Luke), the works of Paul, Hebrews / 1 Peter / James, and Revelation. Then a second part unpacks the theological (really christological, but hey, Nicea) implications of the NT’s messianic christology.

The review in RRT will carry much more detail of course, and overall my take is very positive. Jipp writes well—he’s clear and accessible, and he makes a strong case for royal, Davidic motifs running through the NT. One really couldn’t ask for more out of him.

But there are some weak points in his reasoning, or rather, points where he pushes the evidence further than it warrants. And often this is due to a failure of Bayesian reasoning. So here, I’d like to highlight this particular weakness in Jipp’s reasoning, again not because he wrote a bad book or because overall he’s wrong, but only because attending to this flaw would strengthen his argument and leave him less open to attack.

When I say Jipp occasionally fails at Bayesian reasoning, I mean he uses a high conditional probability of one claim to imply a high conditional probability for the converse, which does not logically follow.

Wait, what’s that now?

Part 1: Um, what’s Bayesian reasoning?

When interpreting the meaning of a biblical passage, there are often a range of possibilities. Generally, we’d like to opt for the most likely meaning from whichever perspective we’re approaching the text, i.e. the meaning with the highest probability.

Okay, so an empirical or experimental probability of an event is simply how many events turn out the way you want them to, out of how many total ways the event could turn out. The probability that a dog is a mammal is 100% because you would divide the number of dogs that are mammals by the number of dogs—and these numbers are the same. Meanwhile, the probability that a mammal is a dog is very small since you divide the number of mammals that are dogs by the total number of mammals—and that second number is much, much bigger.

A conditional probability shifts from the empirical probability because you’ve got additional information. So, if we wanted the probability that a mammal is a dog given that it is a pet, the numbers shift up dramatically, maybe even to a plurality when compared to all mammal pets. If you already know someone owns the mammal as a pet, it is simply much more likely to be a dog than if all you knew was that it was a mammal, when it could be a gorilla, whale, elephant, etc.

What Bayes recognized (and formalized) was that the direction of conditionality matters. The probability that a mammal is a dog given that it is a pet is relatively high, but not extremely high. There are cats, hamsters, gerbils, teacup pigs, all sorts of pets that are mammals and not dogs. Say the probability that a mammal is a dog given that it is a pet is around 40%.

Now let’s reverse it. The probability that a mammal is a pet given that it is a dog is very high, certainly in the US, where the overwhelming majority of dogs are pets. Even if we discount dogs in shelters or stray dogs, we might estimate that the proportion of dogs that are pets is closer to 90%.

If you knew the mammal was a pet, you have a fair chance it’s a dog (40%).

If you knew the mammal was a dog, you have a really good chance it’s a pet (90%).

The two conditional probabilities do not give the same result, and in this case we might be as much as 50% off confusing the one with the other.

What Bayesian analysis cautions us against is that confusion. We have to attend to the direction of conditionality because it is easy to get the two mixed up. After 9/11, many Americans were afraid of Muslims. In their heads, the probability of being Muslim given that someone was a terrorist was very high. But if all you know is someone is a Muslim, then the informationt that is given is that he is Muslim, not that he is a terrorist. You’re assessing the converse, the probability that someone is a terrorist given that he is Muslim, which was abysmally small. Even if you imagined there were 1,000,000 Muslim terrorists in the world (there weren’t, but say you believe this), then the probability that a person is a terrorist given that he is Muslim would be 0.1%, or 99.9% of Muslims you met were not terrorists. There was no reason to fear a Muslim was a terrorist even if 100% of terrorists were Muslim!**

Part 2: Bayesian reasoning applied to biblical studies

I’ve discussed Bayesian reasoning in this context before, and Christoph Heilig uses it much more thoroughly than I do in his biblical work.

It came up in a recent video I did on Paul’s use of malakoi in 1 Cor 6:9, and how translators render this as related to homosexuality somehow. These translators rightly note that the probability that a man would be called soft given that he bottoms during anal sex with other men is high, in fact almost certain. So they translate malakoi as something like “homosexuals.” But we are not given the information that these men engage in certain homoerotic practices. We are given the information that they are called soft. So the real question is: what is the probability that a man bottoms in sex with other men given that he was called soft? That probability is rather low. As I detail in the video, Paul could be commenting on a number of nonsexual vices (lack of restraint, being too rich, dressing too nicely, being too emotional, etc.) or heteroerotic sexual vices (masturbating, bottoming with a woman, being too attracted to women, etc.). If gay sex were the issue, he could be a sex slave or a male prostitute. He could even be a rape victim. So when we add up all the uses of “soft” as an insult, probably less than 10% apply to men who have sex with men. That’s not much of a basis to translate malakoi as homosexuals, and it reflects a failure of Bayesian reasoning.

We need to attend to the textual data as we have it, and ask: what is the probability of my reading given what the text says? We are on much less stable ground asking: what is the probability that the text would say this given my reading? My reading is not a given—I’ve imposed it on the text.

The text is the given.

Part 3: Jipp’s messianic reading of the NT

In the exegetical chapters, Jipp seeks out passages in various texts that associate Jesus with a royal, Davidic messiah. Many of these are solid—especially when Jesus is just called a king or son of David. But others are somewhat questionable.

One “sign” that Jesus is being marked as the Davidic messiah is the presence of the Spirit. Here, for example, is a line from Jipp’s exegesis of John:

“We have seen that Israel’s messianic traditions often depict the Lord’s anointed as endowed with God’s authority to enact his rule and that this relationship between God and messiah enabled the king to operate as an agent of God’s Holy Spirit.”

Messianic Theology, p. 128 (emphasis added)

In other words, Jipp notes that the probability that the Spirit will be invoked given that a text comments on a figure’s royal, Davidic status as Yahweh’s messiah is high. He then uses the presence of the Spirit as a sign that a text is commenting on Jesus’s royal, Davidic nature or role.

But what is given? And what is Jipp concluding? It is not given information in all passages that Jesus is the royal messiah, but rather that the Spirit hangs out with Jesus. Jipp is concluding that Jesus is marked as royal and Davidic. So what he wants is the probability that a text is commenting on a figure’s royal, Davidic role given that the Spirit is present.

That probability is substantially lower.

The Spirit is associated with judges (Judges 3:10; 6:34; 11:29, etc.), priests (e.g. Hag 1:14; Rom 15:16), and especially prophets (just effing everywhere). Sometimes the presence of the Spirit says nothing about the human acting in the scene, but about God’s actions there (e.g. Gen 6:3 of everyone). If we add all these up, the probability that the presence of the Spirit is commenting on someone’s royal nature does not make up a majority, maybe not even a plurality. So it becomes questionable to take the presence of the Spirit as pointing to Jesus’s royal role. It is coherent with that characterization, but not necessarily indicative of it.

Another lesser example of this is the idea of anointing as indicating a royal office. As Jipp recognizes, priests and other functionaries were anointed. Furthermore, he almost completely ignores Jesus’s actual anointings by women in all four gospels, preferring to understand Jesus’s baptism (by a dude?) as a metaphorical anointing, even though this language is never used of Jesus’s baptism in the NT. Presumably, Jipp understands the scenes with women as anointings for burial (Mark, Matthew, John) or for cleanliness / a good foot rub (Luke). He also gets into trouble when NT texts talk about the anointing of a believer. Granted, a major theme of Jipp’s book is that believer’s participate in Jesus’s kingly rule—but they are neither the King, nor the Messiah.

So, while I would agree with Jipp that language about anointing most often points to a royal office, it is not certain. I would leave open the possibility that a given text may point to Jesus’s role as a priest, for example, if that was an option on other grounds.

Finally, Jipp uses Jesus’s role as fostering (a better) righteousness, i.e. proper Torah-observance, as a messianic vocation. Two pieces of evidence support this ideal image of the king. First is “the Law of the King” in Deut 17:14-20, which says that “if” the Israelites ever choose a king, he may not 1) be a foreigner, 2) have a lot of horses, 3) have a lot of wives (suck it, Solomon!), and he must have a copy of the Torah made by the priests to learn from so he can be an observant king. Granted, pretty much all the Davidic kings failed in this from David on down—barring Josiah—but it reflects the ideal king from a deuteronomistic perspective. Second, Jipp argues that the psalter pairs royal psalms with Torah psalms (e.g. Pss. 1-2; 18-19; 118-119), again associating the king with Torah observance. So, there is a strain of Jewish tradition linking the ideal messiah to proper observance of the Torah, providing an example of righteousness to his people.

But again, Jipp takes claims that Jesus, for example, fulfills all righteousness (Matt 3:15) as indicative of Davidic themes, not simply coherent with them. If Christians held to the deuteronomistic model, or more likely, were influenced by the psalms, they probably connected righteousness to Jesus’s Davidic character. But what we know is that some NT texts associate Jesus with righteousness. So if a figure is associated with righteousness, what is the probability that figure is Davidic? My guess is not terribly high. Priests are associated with righteousness, and the prophets continuously take on a role of criticizing the unrighteousness of kings—of guiding them to proper righteousness. In the first century as well, we have the emergence of the rabbis, who interpreted the Torah to guide the people to a better righteousness. I’m not sure of any royal, Davidic claims for the Qumranic Teacher of Righteousness, but cases for a rabbinic, prophetic, or even priestly role could be made. So having Jesus guide followers toward righteousness could portray Jesus as a rabbi (a title he also gets in the gospels; Matt 26:25, 49; Mark 9:5; 11:21; 14:45; John 1:38, 49; 3:2; 4:31; 9:2; 11:8; 20:16), as a priest, or as a prophet. The theme is coherent with an idealized Davidic role, but hardly indicative of it at a probabilistic level.

To be fair to Jipp, his case does not rest on these three issues. There is much stronger evidence for a Davidic core to NT christology. Furthermore, it is not as if the probability is zero that a text focuses on Jesus’s Davidic character given that it introduces the Spirit, or the theme of anointing, or of righteousness. I only mean to point out that on an individual level, the probability that each case is pointing to a royal theme is low, so not an indicator of this character, only coherent with it. Jipp would also be justified in highlighting the cases where one of these themes shows up in the middle of a bunch of explicitly Davidic language, making it more likely that the text is not suddenly switching to a prophetic or priestly image in the middle of all that. As I said above, I would recommend Messianic Theology of the New Testament to interested scholars and devotional readers.

*Jipp does not even address four texts—2 and 3 John, 2 Peter, and Jude—and others are only addressed to the extent that they are in the Pauline corpus.

**Now they’re more likely to be white, Christian American men with a gun fetish and a history of violence toward women, but since Americans know many of these types of men, they don’t confuse every white Christian American man with a terrorist. Still, even though the probability is high right now that a terrorist in America is one of these men, the probability is not high that one of these men is a terrorist.

Sounds Like BS, ep. 6: The Synoptic Problem

The Synoptic Problem comes down to this: if three students all turned in assignments as close in wording and content as the Synoptic Gospels, they’d all get hit for plagiarism. Many parts are just too similar. But with students, you can question them to find out what happened — who copied off of whom? The gospel writers have been dead for centuries, so we can’t ask them. Instead, gospel scholars try to piece together who wrote first and who lifted whose material based on a close reading of the texts.

In this episode of Sounds Like BS, I present the Synoptic Problem in basically three stages.

Stage 1: Why do we think there is plagiarism in the Synoptic Gospels?

The Synoptics have similarly constructed scenes set within a very similar plot, told with very similar language. I try to demonstrate this by comparison with John. I know most Synoptic scholars will chafe at this — most would rather pretend John doesn’t exist. But John is useful in that it is 1) a first-century gospel 2) from within the same social circles that 3) nevertheless tells Jesus’s story in its own way. In other words, there evidently wasn’t overwhelming pressure to tell Jesus’s story in the particular way that Mark or Matthew does, but all three Synoptics choose to anyway.

Stage 2: How many relationships could there be?

I set out two initial assumptions here.

Assumption 1: The gospels share a literary relationship. That means I basically dismiss similarities due to oral tradition or memory. Close agreements in wording are best credited to one author reading another text. (That doesn’t mean that oral tradition or memory played no role, and it doesn’t mean that they only played a role where texts disagree, just that according to most Synoptic scholars, there is a literary relationship in there somewhere).

Assumption 2: I (mostly) ignore hypothetical (but now lost) source texts or earlier drafts of gospels. One benefit is that we avoid complex and unfalsifiable scenarios like Boismard’s.

The main benefit is that the number of possible solutions balloons beyond control, so it’s better to keep the possibilities to graphs involving just the three Synoptic Gospels.

Unfortunately, on just these assumptions, there are still 37 possible graphs, including sequential cases (where, say, Mark copies off of Matthew, and Luke copies off of Mark without ever seeing Matthew), independent cases, cumulative tradition cases, and collaborative cases (where two or more writers mutually influence each other as they work).

Field of 37 possible solutions to the Synoptic Problem

So we add a third assumption.

Assumption 3: Mark wrote first. This position is now reaching a consensus in Synoptic scholarship, and I detail a couple of the less technical reasons for that. This lowers our number to eight possibilities, with three of them the main contenders today.

From left to right: The Farrer model, the Matthean Posteriority model, and the Two-Document model (minus one of the documents).

Stage 3: The Three Main Contenders

Here I briefly look at the strengths and weaknesses of each of the models.

For the Farrer Hypothesis, it fits all three of our assumptions and helps to explain both differences and similarities between Matthew and Luke. Yet Luke’s editorial work on Matthew does not leave many Synoptic scholars satisfied.

For Matthean Posteriority, it also fits all three of our assumptions without the esthetic problems. Yet it hasn’t received much attention, positive or negative, which means we most likely haven’t found the major issues with the model yet.

For the Two-Document Hypothesis, it explains the major differences between Matthew and Luke, especially their different beginnings and endings, and their different placements of teaching material into Mark. However, it does require a fourth document (or series of small documents), which they call Q. In other words, it violates one of our assumptions.

In the next episode, I hope to talk with some Synoptic scholars from each of these camps to get a deeper understanding of why they find their solution the best, what weaknesses they find in the other solutions, and why it’s important to actually solve the Synoptic problem.

Here’s the video:

Sounds Like BS, ep. 5: Positive Gay Images in the Bible

In episode 5, I respond to suggestions about the possibility of passages that reflect positive attitudes toward sexuality.

These include a potentially homoerotic scene between Jacob and an angel wrestling alone in the night. For centuries, various writers and artists have explored the homoerotic potential of the scene. The seed of this interpretation lies in the fact that the angel is referred to as a “man” (32:24), as is often the case with angels, that some of the language is sexually suggestive (cf. 32:25), and that we tend to picture angels as beautiful men.

Against this interpretation, angels are often genderless and “man” is probably better translated “person,” the sexual language may have to do with Jacob’s genealogical potential more than his sexuality, and there’s no reason in the scene that the angel couldn’t be a chimeric monster covered in eyeballs.

Nevertheless, I have no problem if the episode gives someone a little charge.

Jacob and the Angel (detail), Hendrik Christian Andersen (1911)

It’s also possible that Matthew and Luke feature a scene with a couple who engage in homoerotic sex, yet Jesus does not reprimand them for it. This was the argument regarding the healing of the centurion’s servant in Matt 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10 by Theodore Jennings and Tat-siong Benny Liew. Put briefly, it would be entirely common for a centurion, especially if he were a Roman citizen, to have sex with his slave. If Jennings and Liew are correct that in Matthew, the servant is his “boy-lover,” not strictly a slave, then it would be certain they were having sex.

This reading is questionable for a couple reasons. First, Jesus rarely calls people out for their sins when granting miracles, despite the evidence that he as a character would know them. That doesn’t necessarily mean he approved of them. Second, the relationship is probably not pedophilic in the way we mean it, but it is still exploitative. One risks making so many choices pushing for Jesus’s approval of homoerotic relationships that one endorses the exploitation of a powerless slave by a military commander.

Finally, there is the possibility that we might “read between the lines” on certain main characters and interpret them as in gay relationships. The three main contenders are Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, and Jesus and the Beloved Disciple. It’s interesting that all of them come from the same family line (well, Jesus adopted), but the video explores the assumptions we need to bring with us to end up with these couples as specifically gay couples. Of course, if that is how someone wants to read them, they are no worse off than someone who reads them as thoroughly platonic. It is only the case, as it is with anti-gay readings of the Bible, one needs to make certain choices along the way.

Here is the video if you’d like to watch:

Sounds Like BS, ep. 4: Paul’s Gay (?) Idolaters

For this final episode on biblical passages that Christian homophobes use to condemn LGBTQ people, we look at Romans 1:26-27. At just two verses, this is still the longest sustained argument against homosexuality in Christian bibles. It is also important because it addresses desire, not just homoerotic acts, and for the first time it addresses women.

In using this passage to condemn gay people, however, interpreters are making several choices:

  • They have to embrace Paul’s Roman context to infer homosexuality for the women, which is never explicitly stated in the text. Comparing them to gay men could just as likely indicate that both groups involved men, or both groups were having anal sex — in either case, the women wouldn’t be gay. However, since Rome was just starting to become concerned with non-heteronormative women (often ones with bisexual tendencies), it is possible some sort of homoerotic behavior would be inferred.
  • They have to ignore Paul’s Roman context for the men, though. Gay sex was often exploitative, abusive, coerced, and in some cases pedophilic in Roman culture. Modern homophobes and gay allies would agree that this sort of sex is ethically problematic — so it’s not terribly useful for a culture war. Ignoring these elements of Roman sex allows homophobes to generalize to all gay men and all gay women.
  • They also have to ignore the conclusion to Paul’s argument, which is not to judge and exclude others since everyone is guilty of sin. Christian homophobes glance over envy, greed, foolishness, and haughtiness as minor character traits, but lobby, rant, and rave against homosexuality.

The next episode will address some passages that LGBTQ and gay ally readers put forward as positive images of gay people in the Bible.

Here’s a link to the video:

Review of Defiant by Kelley Nikondeha

My review of Kelley Nikondeha’s Defiant has just come out in Reviews in Religion and Theology, and I want to take a moment to strongly recommend that anyone interested in the women in the Bible or the positive role women can play in Christian life should read this book. It’s not very long and Nikondeha’s writing is clear, smooth, and it keeps you deeply engaged. My initial read-through took me only a few days – which is rare with a book I’m reviewing.

Defiant: What the Women of Exodus Teach Us about Freedom: Nikondeha,  Kelley, Bessey, Sarah: 9780802864291: Books
Cover of Defiant by Kelley Nikondeha

Nikondeha reads through Exodus, focusing on the women. While there isn’t a lot of material for her to work with, she creatively interweaves her interpretations with stories of women from different times and cultures that help to unpack their experiences and highlight what must have been going on behind the scenes. The juxtapositions often feel like an epiphany. I will undoubtedly continue to feel the impact of reading Defiant in my own readings and teaching.

There are, appropriately enough, 12 women in Exodus who play a vital role in Israel’s deliverance from slavery:

  • The midwives Shiphrah and Puah, who protect Israelite boys from death long enough for Moses (and Yahweh) to lead them out of Egypt.
  • Moses’s mother, Jochebed, his sister, Miriam, and the Pharaoh’s daughter, traditionally named Bithiah, who conspire to save Moses from infanticide.
  • The seven sisters of Midian, including one of Moses’s wives, Zipporah, who saves Moses from Yahweh… for some reason. Nikondeha doesn’t adequately explain why Zipporah needs to protect Moses from God, but that’s not really her fault. Interpreters have been struggling with that question for millennia.

Nikondeha puts these women in dialogue with figures like Rosa Parks and Emma González, and with her own experiences in the US and Africa.

Again, Defiant is accessible and even includes reading guides for use in Bible studies or reading groups. For more details, see my review in RIRT. I wholeheartedly recommend the book, and look forward to Nikondeha’s future work.

Sounds Like BS, ep. 3: Paul’s Softies and Man-F@#kers

In 1 Cor 6:9-10, Paul gives a vice list. Nothing weird here, except two words that Paul rarely uses (one appears only here, another only once more in 1 Tim 1:10), and which translators and interpreters seem to have trouble nailing down precisely. In the English versions, translations include effeminate men, Sodomites (despite Sodomite being a biblical word if Paul wanted to use it), homosexuals, “transvestites” (by which I assume they mean transgender men, but who knows), and male prostitutes. The problems, which I outline in the video, are that one is a euphemism, the other a neologism, and both are slang. But have interpreters made the right choices in focusing almost exclusively on men who don’t fit a heteronormative ideal?

The episode examines the many options for translating malakoi or “soft ones,” many of which could be chosen while fitting Paul’s theology and not excluding gay men. It also looks at the social context of Paul’s vulgar term, arsenokoitai, asking whether the practice of exploitation and coercion in Roman homoerotic practices may play a role in how we interpret the word.

As I warn at the outset of the video, some of the language gets a bit salty since both words are capable of referring to sex acts — so fair warning.

Sounds Like BS, Ep. 2: Leviticus 18 and 20

I’ve just uploaded my second episode of Sounds Like BS on the laws regarding anal sex in Leviticus 18 and 20. As I did in my earlier video on Sodom and Gomorrah, I look at the choices readers have to make in order to turn the passage into a condemnation of homosexuality — since that’s where they want to get in the end.

The laws themselves seem to prohibit anal sex between Israelite men, a specific sex act between people of a specific gender from a specific cultural milieu. In order to get that very narrow commandment to support a homophobic reading, they must:

  1. choose to see anal sex between men (which not all gay couples practice) as a symbol for all sexual and romantic activity between two men. This is inconsistent with their typical reading logic since they don’t take prohibitions against specific heterosexual sex acts (like sex during menstruation, anal sex, oral sex, etc.) as symbols for all heterosexual activity, so that heterosexuality would be condemned. If banning one sex act condemns a whole sexual orientation (homosexuality), then one would think banning dozens of sex acts would condemn that sexual orientation (heterosexuality), but homophobic readers don’t choose to apply their reasoning consistently.
  2. choose to hear a law about men as somehow having anything to do with lesbians. In most sexual ethical discussions until the 20th century, couples were grouped by who was involved (men or women), or by what they were doing. Linking a prohibition on male anal sex to lesbians is unlikely since a) the act only involves men, so it is more likely linked to other types of couples that involve men, i.e. straight couples, and b) it involves anal sex, which again is more likely linked to other couples who could have anal sex, i.e. straight couples. The choice to read lesbians into the law is especially forced and reflects our modern way of thinking more than ancient Israelite ethics.
  3. if they are Christian, choose to care about this law when they don’t bother with most of the rest of them. This does not just have to do with laws that Christians view as specifically Jewish, such as not working on Saturdays, but also with laws against, e.g. adultery — condemned very strongly and on many occasions, but which many Christians are eager to forgive or look the other way. Not use them to justify legislation and violence against people who cheat on their spouses.

In short, believing Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 condemn all homosexuality is a conclusion you only reach if you work to get there. You have to make choices. And of course, there are other choices you can make.

Here’s the video for Sounds Like BS 2: Leviticus 18 and 20:


Are Paul’s ἀρσενοκοῖται Gay if They’re Women? When Context Matters More than Grammar

At the moment I’m finishing a work on modern arguments against homosexuality which use the New Testament. There are only four verses and a misreading of Gen 19 to work with, so a lot of weight gets put on two words in 1 Cor 6:9: μαλακοὶ and ἀρσενοκοῖται. The former literally means “soft ones” and is male, suggesting effeminacy in Greco-Roman anthropology. I highlight that there are many ways this insult is used in Paul’s context, only a minority of them having anything to do with homoerotic behavior, and then to sex slaves (so, not consensual), prostitutes (problematic in its own right), or to ‘bottoms’. Meanwhile, “soft” can refer to masturbators, wealthy men, over-educated men (relevant in 1 Corinthians), gluttons, men who liked sex with women too much, and even men who cared for their wives too much. It can even mean people with a physical illness (cf. Matt 4:23; 9:35; 10:1). So,

  • If “soft” appears, it can refer to many different issues in Paul’s Greek context; and
  • If Paul wanted to attack ‘bottoms’, there are other terms that are just as popular (passive, mounted, boy, etc.).

Without more context, Paul’s precise meaning is unclear and the reader has to make a lot of choices to get to an anti-homosexual message. In other words, one has to go out of one’s way to pick the meaning that applies to some gay men, let that act represent all male homosexual behavior, and let male homosexual behavior represent all homosexual behavior, male or female. Continue reading