Bad Bible Translations I: John 1:1-18

In the first place, the word existed. The word also existed near the god, and the word was a god. He was near the god in the first place. All things happened through him; not even one thing happened without him. The life was what has happened in him, and the life was the bioluminescence of humans. And the light shines by the darkness, and the darkness did not arrest it.

A person came around, who was sent alongside a god whose name was John. This one came into some evidence around the light, so that all masculine things might believe through it [i.e. the god named John]. The light was not that other guy, so he testifies around the light.

The light was genuine, which makes every person who comes into worldly affairs evident.

Was he in the world? The world also happened throughout him, and the world did not ascertain him.

Did he come into his own things? His own masculine things also did not take him with them.

But to those who took him, he gave them God’s children to become an authority to those who believe in his [i.e. John’s] name. They were not from Bloods, nor from a kindred will, nor from a husband’s will, but they were born from a god. And the word became kindred and camped in us, and we contemplated his opinion like a unique person beside a god [would], completely occupied with a favor and straightforwardness.

John gives a good report around him and has shrieked, saying, “This was who I said, ‘The one behind me, when he comes in front of me, it happens because, first of all, he was mine, [but second] because we all took from his supply — and thanks but no thanks; [third] because the law was given on account of Moses.”

The favor which was also sincere happened throughout Jesus’s anointed one. No one has seen a god at any time. A unique god who was into his father’s chest, that one showed the way.

 

Review of Christobiography, by Craig Keener

 

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I’ve just finished a review for Reviews in Religion and Theology of Craig Keener’s Christobiography (2019), a typically ginormous study situating the gospels within the genre of Greek bioi — and furthermore attempting to draw conclusions about how historically grounded first century audiences would expect the gospels to be based on their genre. As with all books by Keener, it is extremely well researched and well documented, with over 200 pages of indexes and bibliography. Whenever a student asks me for advice about getting started on a research paper, if there’s a Keener book on the topic, I tell them to start there. You may not always agree with his ideas, but you definitely know exactly how he formed them and where to find his evidence.

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Review of Mary Magdalene from the New Testament to the New Age and Beyond, Part II of III

The first part of the review of this reception history of Mary Magdalene covered the New Testament and late antiquity. In this second part, we move through the Middle Ages into the Modern Age with just five chapters. Here we see expansions on Mary’s biography, increased devotion to her as a saint, and eventually, greater sexualization of her image.

Historian Theresa Gross-Diaz and theologian Seth Alexander offer a pair of chapters looking at the character of Mary Magdalene in Western cultic and literary settings, respectively. Gross-Diaz traces how the establishment of cultic centers with relics of the saint inspired devotion and social action (e.g., in hospitals and care centers for lepers). Medieval hagiographies, meanwhile, sought a balance between the Magdalene as a contemplative hermit, as an apostle and evangelizer, and as a penitent.

Another pair of chapters examine the visual iconography of Mary Magdalene over the centuries. Marcello Mignozzi traces the development from the earliest depictions of Mary up to the fifteenth century, followed by 17 pages of color paintings and sculptures as illustration. She begins mainly associated with tombs: first, approaching Jesus’s tomb on Easter morning, and then (after she is conflated with Mary of Bethany in the West), approaching her brother Lazarus’s tomb. Soon she is anointing Jesus or morning over his dead body. She is sometimes a noble woman, sometimes a ragged penitent, but very rarely a sinner.

That changes during the Baroque period when Mary’s sexuality and role as sinner and prostitute is amplified greatly, according to Jayna Hoffacker: “the saved sinner was reduced to her sin alone” (p. 277). Now her breasts are exposed in Catholic paintings, while jewels and rich fabrics suggest her sinful past even in Protestant paintings. Despite the humanist, Protestant, and later scholarly efforts to question Mary’s association with sexual sin, this aspect of her figure continues to dominate in artistic depictions of her.

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George Condo, Mary Magdalene, 2009. Oil on canvas, 27 x 26 in (68.6 x 66 cm). Collection Richard and Hazel Collins. © George Condo 2010

My own chapter falls between the two on the Magdalene in visual art. While the Magdalene was divided into several women (anonymous or also named Mary) in humanistic and Protestant circles, she remained united as an example of repentance in pastoral or Roman Catholic ones. It seems she was sexualized more intensely and more broadly just shortly before the Three Magdalenes Debate (1517-1519). The efforts of one side to desexualize her by separating her from the sinner in Luke 7 evidently did not succeed.

In the next review, we will close out this volume on the reception history of Mary Magdalene with eight chapters on our contemporary age.

Pop Theology: Elliot Smith, “Pitseleh”

Elliot Smith released “Pitseleh” on the XO album in 1998, five years before he killed himself. If you’d like to listen before reading, you can find it here. It’s a song about a failed or failing relationship, and in the middle of the second verse Smith veers into theology:

They say that God makes problems just to see what you can stand before you do as the Devil pleases, give up the thing you love…

but no one deserves it.

It’s not a positive image of God, and yet he presents it as common (“They say”). A God who tests you (for some reason) is a common enough image, but here presented in a heartless, indifferent light. God is a trouble-maker who pushes you away just to see your breaking point. He doesn’t want to see whether you’ll do what the Devil pleases, or whether you’ll give up the thing you love, but at what point you inevitably do those things. Smith is clearly playing off of the Book of Job, in which case both doing as the Devil pleases and giving up what he loves point to Job’s renunciation of God.

But Job is absent as a character in “Pitseleh,” at least explicitly. In his arguments with his friends, Job does not renounce God. But he does call God out on his bullshit and hopes to understand how God can both do the things he does and also be worthy of Job’s devotion. Job does everything right, everything he thinks God wants from him (and, BTW, he is evidently right about it), and yet God abandons him to Satan’s tortures.

Job is a story about a troubled, ending relationship, as is “Pitseleh.” But is the singer Job, or is she? Before his lines on God, the singer tells her, “I’m not what’s missing from your life now. I could never be the puzzle pieces.” The verse that follows:

The first time I saw you, I knew it would never last. I’m not half what I wish I was. I’m so angry, I don’t think it’ll ever pass; and I was bad news for you just because
I never meant to hurt you.

The singer is missing from her life due to his own failings. He could never fit the hole she’s trying to fill. He knew it would end. Like God, he’s angry, perpetually angry (e.g., Job 4:9; 9:5, 13; 14:13; 16:9; 19:11, 29; 20:23, 28; 21:17, 20, 30; 35:15; 36:18, 33; 42:7). And worst of all, he hurts her although he doesn’t mean to. He knows she doesn’t deserve how he’s treated her, but can’t be bothered to fix his mistakes. It’s this behavior, his anger and self-pity, his indifference to someone who loves him that makes him think of God in the Book of Job. But not even God directly; the God that others have presented to him.

And yet, he opens the song by saying he has a joke wants to tell her. There is a connection; he wishes he could engage with her. But he holds back (“I’ll tell you why I don’t want to know where you are: I’ve got a joke I’ve been dying to tell you”) because he knows he’ll hurt her. He can’t make the noise some other kid is trying to make because “I kept it from you, Pitseleh.” Is it simply that he couldn’t tell her he loved her, and he doesn’t want to interfere with her moving on?

Given that Smith ended his own life (rather horrifically) a few years later, it is worth asking whether he could have benefited from some more direct communication from God, and whether in this small digression into theology Smith, like Job, provides God with an excuse, a theodicy, here of self-pity: God doesn’t say anything, much less the things Smith needed to hear, because it would only make things worse.

Review of Mary Magdalene from the New Testament to the New Age and Beyond, Part I

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Just before winter break, I received my contributor’s copy of Mary Magdalene from the New Testament to the New Age and Beyond (volume 24 of Brill’s Themes in Biblical Narrative series), edited by my dissertation director, Edmondo Lupieri. The volume is an extensive reception history in 20 chapters of the figure of Mary Magdalene and the roles she has played not only in mainline Christianities, but also in smaller Christianities, other Christian-adjacent religions, and in Western popular culture. The chapters come in three broadly chronological sections, so in this post I will review the chapters in Part 1: New Testament through Late Antiquity. Reviews of Part 2 (The Middle Ages through the Modern Age) and Part 3 (Contemporary Period) will follow.

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Mary Grows a Pair: Biblical Puns (?) and Ancient Gender

In its Coptic form, attested in the fourth century and found at Nag Hammadi, the Gospel of Thomas ends with a contentious and enigmatic exchange:

Logion 114: Simon Peter said to them, “Mary should leave us, for females are not worthy of life.” Jesus said, “See, I am going to attract her to make her male so that she too might become a living spirit that resembles you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”*

The Mary here is not Jesus’s mother, but most likely Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, or both (if they’ve already been conflated). There has been a lot of comment on the apparent misogyny of the brief scene, and whether Jesus joins Peter in it. Continue reading

Why No Collaboration in Solutions to the Synoptic Problem?

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[Jacob Jordaens, The Four Evangelists (1625)]

I’ve been working on a (growing) project on the Synoptic problem lately, as I’ve written about here. The problem boils down to this: there is a lot of evidence of literary dependence among the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. That is, we would say now that at least one of them plagiarized from the others – the text and wording is just too close in many cases, even if they do different things with the material. Yet we have no publication data, no copyrights in these texts, so we have to explore the various ways this could have happened. Continue reading

Goodbye, Larry Hurtado

Larry Hurtado, retired professor of New Testament Language, Literature, and Theology at University of Edinburgh, has passed away. Hurtado has been an incredibly influential scholar in the field of Christian origins, focusing especially on the role of Jesus-worship and “high christology” in the early church. He published frequently, and his writing was always clear and well-argued, and often very persuasive. He also kept an ongoing blog, which I checked in with at least weekly, and which I have even responded to here. Hurtado had noted his health problems on the blog before, so the news came as little surprise.

After the passing of someone so well-respected, well-known, and genuinely well-liked, a sort of oral history emerges. People share their little stories. It’s a moment of reflection for us, or maybe it makes us feel important in to be on the distant periphery of an important moment, but hopefully it contributes in a microscopic way to the ongoing memory of the person.

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I met Hurtado for a few days about eight years ago. When I began doctoral study at Loyola Chicago, I was also the assistant to the Cody Chair of Theology, Edmondo Lupieri. Each semester, Edmondo invited international scholars to come to Loyola to contribute to the Cody Lecture series, and to meet with students for graduate seminars. As his assistant, I helped arrange the events and shuffled guests where they needed to be. After the lecture, I often joined the guests for dinner with some invited colleagues and friends.

At my first event, being a lightweight drinker and not realizing the waitstaff kept refilling my wine, I got hammered and close-lined myself on a street sign in front of a renowned philosopher and member of the European Parliament. My second Cody lecturer was Larry Hurtado, and I was quietly glad when he politely refused the wine that was offered to him. Now, me abstaining looked like hospitality.

I was preemptively intimidated by Hurtado. He was a huge scholar, one I had cited in several class papers. I owned some of his books. And more to the point, Hurtado had an imposing writer’s voice. He wrote with authority and didn’t seem to suffer bad scholarship lightly, so I anticipated a no-nonsense, furrowed-brow taskmaster. Instead, he was nothing but congenial and inquisitive about students’ scholarship and interests. He gave a fine lecture and was generous in answering questions. Driving out to the post-lecture dinner, Hurtado, who had spent time in Chicago and Evanston when he was younger, had that bit of contemplative giddiness that comes with nostalgia. The next day he met with a small group of graduate students for a seminar. We held it in a conservatory on the seventh floor overlooking the lake (it was formerly a greenhouse for the nuns at Mundelein College). I recorded the seminar and took photos. The incredible light of the place duped Edmondo into thinking I was a good photographer. The photo included above is from that day.

I did not know Larry Hurtado well at all. I spent a couple of days with him almost a decade ago. But that was just enough time to get a sense of his character, and of his eloquence, erudition, and intelligence as a scholar (you know, in addition to the many articles and books he’s written to high acclaim). I have no doubt he would have continued to advance New Testament scholarship for decades more; instead he is at home with Christ, where I’m sure he would prefer to be. My deepest sympathies go out to his friends and loved ones for their loss.

The Bible and Metallica, Part II: Creeping Death

Metallica released its first studio album, Kill ‘Em All in 1983. The title is itself an allusion to Amalric’s famous quote during the Christian on Christian violence of the Albigensian Crusade, Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius – “Kill them; God will know his own.” You can see the image of traditional Christianity they carry. The album did well for how extreme it was, and “The Four Horsemen” was a fan favorite.

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So on their next album, Ride the Lightning (1984), they included another biblically themed song – this time, “Creeping Death.” Hetfield went back to Exodus (or more likely, The Ten Commandments [1956]) for this one, narrating the tenth plague in Egypt from the perspective of the Angel of Death. It’s a Passover song! Continue reading

The Bible and Metallica: The Four Horsemen

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From about fifth to seventh grades, I was what people in my hometown called a “dirt.” Picture a friend of Beavis and Butthead, mullet hanging down my neck, tight ripped jeans, and a glow-in-the-dark Ride the Lightning t-shirt on more days than was justifiable. Which is to say, I listened to a lot of Metallica back then. For people who were into Metallica before they made a video for “One,” and certainly before they hit big with the black album, this was the legitimate stuff: long prog-metal compositions that were mostly instrumental, changing time signatures, virtuoso bass and guitar, and just bang-your-head thrash. Continue reading