Friday, August 31, 2007

Christianity v. Christianities

Josh asked me what I think about this distinction, which is just as trendy as the Judaisms that I discussed yesterday.

The same is true in this case. There was a Christianity of the second-century, but it wasn't what scholars generally call "normative" Christianity (by which they mean, apostolic or mainstream). Again, what a person considered "normative" Christianity in the second century was whatever expression of Christianity that person followed. No one expression of Christianity controlled the landscape, although many were battling to do so and consolidating power in the process. So there was variety, there were Christianities.

But to say this doesn't mean there wasn't "Christianity." Indeed, there was. It took its shape from several issues such as christology, communal practices like baptism and eucharist, methods of interpretation of scripture, relevance of Jewish scripture, sacralization of Christian scriptures, worship days, leadership and liturgical calendars. All the forms of Christianity in the second century were part of this web of religiosity, a religiosity that was consolidating in terms of the formation of Christian self-identity as something separate from (even against) Judaism and paganism.

So once again I continue to talk about "Christianity" in the second century, even though I recognize that this took on a variety of expressions. Here is an excerpt from The Thirteenth Apostle where I try to talk about this very issue:
The purpose of the Gospel of Judas was to criticize "mainstream" or "apostolic" Christianity from the point of view of the Sethian Gnostics. The Sethian Christians, whose religious beliefs I will describe in detail in the next chapter, were involved in an intra-religious debate that was raging in the second century as a number of distinct Christianities struggled for control of Christianity. Christianity in the second century was not controlled by a single church or a single hierarchy or a single orthodoxy. In fact, "orthodoxy" (correct thinking and practice) and "heresy" (wrong thinking and practice) were very relative terms. Who was orthodox and who was a heretice depended upon where you were standing. If you were a mainstream or apostolic Christian, you were orthodox and everyone else was a heretic. If you were a Sethian Gnostic Christian, you were orthodox and everyone else was a heretic (p. 5).

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Judaism v. Judaisms

I am developing a real distaste for the trend in biblical studies toward variety, with no room for singularities. This is one of those "bad" consequences of post-modern thought in my opinion.

The notion that we shouldn't or can't talk about early "Judaism" because there was no normative expression borders on bogus. Also bogus is the notion that there was "normative Judaism" (=Pharisees) alongside other sectarian Jews like Sadducces, Zealots, Essenes, and the rest. Normative means that one understands one's particular expression of Judaism as normative. The Pharisees, Sadducces, Essenes, Zealots, etc. were Jewish - they all participated in Judaism as individual expressions of it.

To talk about early "Judaism" does not have to imply a static monolithic entity. It can just as easily refer to a dynamic religion in the second temple period with multiple expressions. It means that all Jews in this period identified with and participated in a particular set of traditions, practices, narratives, and memories as a community, although their interpretation of these may have differed from each other.

As I spoke in my NT class today, all expressions of early Judaism shared in a particular covenant relationship with a particular god YHWH, felt that the Torah was sacred and central to that relationship, and had a shared set of presuppositions about how the sacred texts were to be interpreted. They all worshiped YHWH as a god of holiness, a worship that was centered around the Temple and synagogues and that followed a liturgical festival cycle. They all shared a cosmology that pictured an enthroned king-like deity surrounded and supported by his court of angelic host. They all were involved in apocalyptic-thinking about Israel's future (even if to combat it as might be the case with the Sadducces).

So I retain the word "Judaism" in my academic vocabulary, and have begun resisting using the plural "-isms" except in rare well-defined cases.

Tips for students writing statements of purpose for M.A. and Ph.D. programs

It is that time of year again when students are beginning to collect application materials for M.A. and Ph.D. programs. So I am re-posting an earlier blog entry with tips for writing successful statements of purpose.

As a professor who reviews graduate applications, I have discovered that the weakest part of the application is usually the statement of purpose because students don't seem to know what to include or how to write this genre. So, for what it is worth, here are my suggestions for writing more successful personal statements.

The statement of purpose is NOT

  • an autobiography about how you became interested in religious studies or biblical studies
  • a lengthy rehearsal of everything you have done in college (or: everything you have done out of college)
  • a vague discussion about what you think you are interested in studying further
The statement of purpose should
  • begin with a strong paragraph of specifics introducing yourself and your professional goals (i.e. to become a professor, minister, editor, so on)
  • move on to state what program you are applying to and why you want to be admitted to that particular program (i.e. program's resources, specific professors you'd like to study with, areas of study available in the program, and so on)
  • go on to explain specifically what you intend to study and what research area(s) you wish to pursue for your thesis work (do not be vague; you can always shift topics later if you change your mind)
  • include a short paragraph about the qualifications you bring to the program (i.e., languages, fellowships, publications, previous study) and why you should be admitted
  • this should all be accomplished in under two organized pages

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Syllabus tip for bible classes

I'd like to share a tip that I picked up from a colleague who teaches on sensitive subjects like homosexuality, transgender issues, etc. In order to inform the enrolled students about the content of the course and the critical perspective of the instructor, he puts in his syllabus a section he calls "Course Contract." He gave me a copy, which I have modified and use regularly for all of my courses that deal with bible.

It has helped tremendously in terms of officially signaling to the students that the course is not about contemporary hermeneutics or "bible study." It also gives me the opportunity right off the bat to talk about the differences between doctrinal study and historical study. I include here an example from my syllabus this semester. Feel free to use it or modify it if you think it will be useful for your own classes.
Course Contract
This course does not approach the bible from a faith or doctrinal perspective. By signing up for this course and accepting the conditions of this syllabus, you are agreeing to participate in open class discussions of the bible from a historical and critically-informed perspective. If you are especially uncomfortable or unwilling to think openly and critically about the bible in the context of the modern study of religion, I encourage you not to take the course. It is crucial that you understand this, since by accepting this syllabus and signing up for The New Testament and Christian Origins, you are entering an academic contract and intellectual community whose basic rules of engagement and discourse are fundamentally different from those you may be familiar with. Put differently, the discussions and ideas of this course and its readings are in no way bound by the authority or wishes of any religious community or individual, and the success of this course will depend largely, if not entirely, on how open and comfortable you are with studying biblical materials as a historian. By remaining in this course and accepting this syllabus, you are expressing your understanding of and agreement with these fundamental, non-negotiable conditions of intellectual freedom and critical engagement.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Warm welcome to the new graduate students at Rice

I wish to welcome all the graduate students at Rice University in Religious Studies. There are three new students in The Bible and Beyond concentration. Read more here about the biblical studies students and what dissertation projects they are beginning to work on this semester. I am very excited about their range of projects and the types of materials and theories that they will be exploring as they research and write.

This semester I'm teaching New Testament and Christian Origins, and first semester Coptic. I am going to try out Layton's new book, so I'll keep you posted on how that goes. I'm off to Coptic now and chapter 1 of Layton.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Fire at Olympia

I was very saddened to hear in the Houston Chronicle today that fires are raging in many parts of Greece, taking at least sixty lives so far, and threatening to destroy ancient ruins. The fires reached the edge of the museum and stadium at Olympia yesterday, but the museum and ruins were spared thanks to firefighters who were helped by helicopters and aircraft that dumped water and foam over the site. The fires have been burning for three days and are burning in more than half the country now. The fires are raging so quickly that they are covering a mile in three minutes. The news reports a grim scene of people desperate to get out in the last minute as the fire engulfed them, leaving dozens of charred bodies along roads and in cars.

My heart goes out to the people of Greece, people who have warmly welcomed me in their beautiful country time and again.

"Zeus of the aegis, son of Kronos, has given me bitterness" (Iliad, 2.375)

Sunday, August 26, 2007

New Paul Blog by David Capes

Professor David Capes of Houston Baptist University here in Houston has just started up his own blog on Paul. He and I have been working together this summer on a project that I will reveal more about later this semester, but during our many wonderful conservations, he shared with me that he was starting a blog to supplement a class that he is co-teaching for Fuller this semester on Pauline Theology. David and I co-taught a continuing education course last semester on The Lost Gospels for Rice, and he is a superb colleague and teacher, not to mention writer. On the weekends, David cohosts an award-winning radio show called "A Show of Faith" on TALK RADIO 950 KPRC in Houston.

If you haven't heard about it already, he has a textbook on Paul coming out this October called Rediscovering Paul: An Introduction to His World, Letters and Theology. He is using the book in the Fuller course. He plans to try to use his blog dynamically to post assignments and engage in discussion with his readers. So I encourage you to check his blog, where he says he will make at least weekly posts.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Handy Conference Calendar

Okay, I've been an SBL member for more years than I would like to admit, and I never knew that the society keeps an electronic calendar of upcoming conferences, with links to webpages about the conferences where available! What a great tool this is. So for those of you who might have been in the dark like me, here is the link.

Major Dutch newspaper features my work on the Gospel of Judas

Matthijs den Dulk, a graduate student at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam wrote to one of the major Dutch newpapers about my work on the Gospel of Judas. He tells the story on his blog NT Today:
Some two weeks ago I sent an email to Trouw, one of the major Dutch newspapers. Following the release by National Geographic they devoted considerable attention to the Gospel of Judas and so I thought it would be helpful if the alternative interpretation of the gospel that DeConick and others advocate would also be mentioned. The newspaper responded favourably and two days ago published an article entitled 'Evangelie van Judas beeldt apostel uit als superslechterik', which in English would be something like: 'The Gospel of Judas Depicts the Apostle as Utterly Evil'. The article can be accessed here.
Thank you, Matthijs. I was very excited to learn about this from your blog and am grateful to you for your initiative, which has made known to thousands of people who would not otherwise have known that there is an alternative reading for this Gospel.

Professors of fraudulent history

Wade ran across a "god-fearer" blogger this morning who has an interesting perspective on me and other "professors of fraudulent history."

"The God Fearin' Fiddler" writes:
Third - in spite of the two facts listed already, there IS substantial evidence to validate the claims of Christ's resurrection. So much so, in fact, it's uncanny.

See debates from William Lane Craig vs (insert loser here) or NT Wright's book "Jesus and the Victory of God" (not apologetic in nature yet carries more apologetic weight that most apologetic books). Then go read the professors of fraudulent history: James Tabor, April DeConick, Dominic Crossan, James Crossley etc... The history of the matter is so one-sided in favor of Christianity it's really surprising. God didn't have to give us so much evidence - but because of our weak faith He did.
At least I'm in good company!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

2007 SBL Sessions to Highlight 3: Gospel of Judas

This is my third post of sessions to highlight. I think that this conference is going to see a lot of energy focused on the Gospel of Judas. If you are interested, here are some sessions not to miss!

Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism
9:00 AM to 11:15 AM
Room: Irvine - MM

Theme: Codex Tchacos and the Gospel of Judas

Michael Kaler, McMaster University, Presiding
Philippa Townsend, Princeton University
“What is this Great Race?”: The Meaning of “Genea” in the Gospel of Judas (25 min)
Judith Hartenstein, Philipps Universität-Marburg
The Genre of the Gospel of Judas and its Relationship to the Gospel of Mary (25 min)
Hans-Gebhard Bethge, Humboldt University and Johanne Brankaer, A _Not Found
The Codex Tchacos as “Collection” (25 min)
Gerd Lüdemann, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen
The Judas Iscariot Trajectory in Primitive Christianity and Its Origin (25 min)
John Turner, University of Nebraska - Lincoln, Respondent (25 min)

Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism
1:00 PM to 3:30 PM
Room: La Jolla - MM

Theme: The Gospel of Judas

Ismo Dunderberg, University of Helsinki, Presiding
April D. DeConick, Rice University
The Subversive Gospel of Judas and Sethian Humor (30 min)
Birger A. Pearson, University of California-Santa Barbara
The Figure of Judas in the Coptic Gospel of Judas (30 min)
Louis Painchaud, Laval University
“I Have Told You the Mysteries of the Kingdom": The Significance of the Kingdom in the Gospel of Judas (30 min)
Elaine Pagels, Princeton University, Respondent (15 min)
Karen King, Harvard University, Respondent (15 min)
Antti Marjanen, University of Helsinki, Panelist (30 min)

xBooks on the Gospel of Judas: An Evening with the Authors
7:00 PM to 8:30 PM
Room: 30 C - CC

The weblink with book links for this panel is here.

Michael Williams, University of Washington, Presiding
Marvin Meyer, Chapman University, Panelist (5 min)
Gregor Wurst, University of Augsburg, Panelist (5 min)
Bart Ehrman, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Panelist (5 min)
James Robinson, Claremont Graduate University, Panelist (5 min)
N. T. Wright, Durham Cathedral, Panelist (5 min)
Gerd Luedemann, Georg-August-Universität , Panelist (5 min)
Elaine Pagels, Princeton University, Panelist (5 min)
Karen King, Harvard University, Panelist (5 min)
Stanley Porter, McMaster Divinity College, Panelist (5 min)
Simon Gathercole, University of Cambridge, Panelist (5 min)
April DeConick, Rice University, Panelist (5 min)
Discussion (25 min)
Michael Williams, University of Washington
Summation of Discussion (10 min)

Books by Panelists:

Rudolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, with additional commentary by Bart Bart Ehrman, The Gospel of Judas (Washington D.C.: National Geographic, 2006).

Rudolphe Kasser and Gregor Wurst, The Gospel of Judas, Critical Edition, Together with the Letter of Peter to Philip, James, and a Book of Allogenes from Codex Tchacos(Washington D.C.: National Geographic, 2007).

Bart Ehrman, The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

James Robinson, The Secrets of Judas: The Story of the Misunderstood Disciple and His Lost Gospel (San Francisco: Harper, 2006).

N.T. Wright, Judas and the Gospel of Jesus: Have We Missed the Truth about Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006).

Gerd Lüdemann, Das Judas-Evangelium und das Evangelium nach Maria. Zwei gnostische Schriften aus der Frühzeit des Christentums (Stuttgart: Radius, 2006).

Elaine Pagels and Karen King, Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity (New York: Viking, 2007).

Stanley E. Porter and Gordon L. Heath, The Lost Gospel of Judas: Separating Fact from Fiction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).

Simon Gathercole, The Gospel of Judas: Rewriting Early Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

April D. DeConick, The Thirteenth Apostle, What the Gospel of Judas Really Says (London: Continuum, 2007).

Christian Apocrypha
1:00 PM to 3:30 PM
Room: Columbia 1 - MMChristopher Matthews, Weston Jesuit School of Theology, Presiding
Antti Marjanen, University of Helsinki
Does the Gospel of Judas Rehabilitate Judas Iscariot? (25 min)
Discussion (5 min)

2007 SBL Sessions to Hightlight 2: Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism

This is the first year for the new 10-year project of the Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism Group: mapping possible provenances of mysticism in early Judaism and Christianity. The group is also meeting jointly with the Religious Experience unit, reviewing several significant books that have been published recently by members of EJCM.

There is a website for EJCM here.

Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism
1:00 PM to 3:30 PM
Room: Columbia 1 - MM

Theme: Possible Provenances for Mysticism: Ancient Near East and Hebrew Bible

Kevin Sullivan, Illinois Wesleyan University, Presiding
Silviu N. Bunta, Marquette University
Sitting in Heaven: An Ancient Near Eastern Pre-Merkabah Reading of Ezekiel 1 (30 min)
Kelley N. Coblentz Bautch, St. Edward's University
Ezekiel as Precursor to the Divine Vision in Merkavah and Hekhalot Literature (30 min)
Break (15 min)
John J. Collins, Yale University
Ascent to Heaven in the Dead Sea Scrolls? (30 min)
Daphna Arbel, University of British Columbia
Crown, Name, Robe, and Throne (30 min)
Discussion (15 min)

Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism
Joint Session With: Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism, Religious Experience in Early Judaism and Early Christianity
9:00 AM to 11:30 AM
Room: Edward B - GH

Theme: Joint Book Review Session

Kevin Sullivan, Illinois Wesleyan University
Review of Andrei Orlov,From Apocalypse to Merkavah Mysticism: Studies in the Slavonic Pseudepigrapha (Brill, 2006) (15 min)
Andrei Orlov, Marquette University
Response (15 min)
Catherine Playoust, Independent Scholar
Review of Frances Flannery Dailey, Dreamers, Scribes, And Priests: Jewish Dreams In The Hellenistic And Roman Eras (Brill, 2004) (15 min)
Frances Flannery-Dailey, James Madison University
Response (15 min)
Break (15 min)
Silviu N. Bunta, Marquette University
Review of Kelley Coblentz Bautch, A Study of the Geography of 1 Enoch 17-19: No One Has Seen What I Have Seen, (Brill, 2003) (15 min)
Kelley N. Coblentz Bautch, St. Edward's University
Response (15 min)
James D. Tabor, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Review of Jane D. Schaberg, Resurrection Of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, And The Christian Testament (Continuum, 2004) (15 min)
Jane D. Schaberg, University of Detroit Mercy
Respose (15 min)
Discussion (15 min)

2007 SBL Sessions to Highlight 1: The New Testament Mysticism Project

Now that the SBL program book is available on-line, I'd like to call attention to several sessions that I've been mentioning on this blog over the past few months. The New Testament Mysticism Project is a seminar in its second year, and its goal is to map the entire NT in terms of various authors' views of mysticism and their transmission of mystical traditions. It is a working group, only meeting on Friday. Auditors are welcome!

The NTMP has its own website here.

The New Testament Mysticism Project
9:00 AM to 12:00 PM
Room: Columbia 3 - MM

Theme: Mysticism in the New Testament Gospels
Participants have prepared commentary entries which will be discussed in a round table format by members of the seminar. Entries will not be read as formal papers. Instead the time will be used to introduce the entry by the author and discuss it in detail as a group. This is a working group, a collaborative project to write a commentary on New Testament mysticism. For more information, see our website,

Andrei Orlov, Marquette University
John 1:45-51 and Matthew 4:1-11//Mark 1:12-13//Luke 4:1-13 (20 min)
Kevin Sullivan, Illinois Wesleyan University
John 6:35-65 and Matthew 16:17-23//Mark 8:27-33//Luke 9:18-22 (20 min)
Cameron Afzal, Sarah Lawrence College
John 9:5 and Matthew 7:21-23 (20 min)
Break (10 min)
Jeffrey B. Pettis, Fordham University
John 12:24 (20 min)
Catherine Playoust, Cambridge, MA
John 3:1-15 (20 min)
Robert G. Hall, Hampden-Sydney College
John 12:37-41 and Matthew 13.43 (20 min)
Jonathan A. Draper, University of KwaZulu-Natal
John 1:18 and Matthew 12:6 (20 min)
Discussion (30 min)

The New Testament Mysticism Project
2:00 PM to 5:00 PM
Room: Point Loma - MM

Theme: Mysticism in the New Testament Gospels
Participants have prepared commentary entries which will be discussed in a round table format by members of the seminar. Entries will not be read as formal papers. Instead the time will be used to introduce the entry by the author and discuss it in detail as a group. This is a working group, a collaborative project to write a commentary on New Testament mysticism. For more information, see our website,

April D. Deconick, Rice University
John 20:24-29 and Matthew 22:23-33//Mark 12:18-27//Luke 20:27-38 (25 min)
Robin Griffith-Jones, Temple Church
John 20:11-18 (25 min)
Charles A. Gieschen, Concordia Theological Seminary-Fort Wayne
John 1:12, 5:37-38. 12:28, 17:6, 20:31 and Mt 28:19-20 and Mt 26:64//Mk 14:62//Lk 22:69-70 (25 min)
Break (10 min)
Jared Calaway, Columbia University in the City of New York
John 2:19-22 (25 min)
Jane D. Schaberg, University of Detroit Mercy
John 8:28 and 12:31-34 (25 min)
Alan Segal, Barnard College, Columbia University
John 14:16, 15:26, 16:7, 1 John 2:1 and Matthew 17:1-8//Mark 9:2-10//Luke 9:28-36 (25 min)
Discussion (20 min)

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Mandaean Blog by Noah Kimit

I received an inspiring e-mail today from a young Mandaean in England, Noah Kimit. He is a 16-year old who is trying to raise awareness about the plight of his people and do humanitarian work. He has created a new blog that he hopes you will read where he writes regularly, and is trying to set up a website for his organization: Mandaean Humanitarian Movement. Currently he is planning a campaign through England's churches to collect donations for those in need. Please put a link to Noah's blog on yours if you can, and help direct readers to his site.

The Gospel of Judas Alert

I have been correcting the final proof for The Thirteenth Apostle and studying the newly released critical edition of the Tchacos Codex. I want to alert other scholars who might not be as familiar with the Gospel of Judas as I am, that there have been significant alterations in the transcription presented in The Critical Edition, from what was published on-line in April 2006 (which was a working draft transcription), and even from the pre-publication copies of the critical edition distributed at the Sorbonne in October 2006 and at Washington, D.C. in the SBL meeting 2006. So do not rely on either of these provisional transcripts for your study of the Gospel of Judas. You will need to gain access to The Critical Edition.

I continue to mourn the fact that National Geographic reduced the photographs by about 50% - they are useless for purposes of reconstruction and transliteration questions. Fortunately, I was able to discuss 35.24-27 with Gregor Wurst, and I am very confident that the transcription regarding these lines in The Critical Edition is correct.

The lines in question:
Gospel of Judas 35.24-27 should read: "I will tell you the mysteries of the Kingdom, not so that (oux hina) you will go there, but so that you will grieve greatly." This reading is entirely the opposite sense of the original provisional transcription: "I will tell you the mysteries of the Kingdom. It is possible that (oun chom) you will go there, but it is also possible that you will grieve greatly."

Gospel of Judas 46.24-47.1 should read: "In the last days they [missing line(s)] to you, and you will not ascend up to the holy [generation]." This reading is also the opposite of the first: "In the last days they will curse your ascent to the holy [generation]."

These two passages are very important for the interpretation of the Gospel of Judas because the manuscript does not support an ascent for Judas as the provisional transcriptions and plethora of scholarly interpretations said (and are still saying). And now we know the reason for the revelation given by Jesus to Judas: to provoke regret on Judas' behalf.

I was able to incorporate these readings into my translation of the Gospel of Judas, and in my interpretation, which will be published in about two months by Continuum.

Monday, August 20, 2007

News about paperback edition of The Original Gospel

This morning in my mailbox I found two copies of the paperback version of The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation. So now both companion volumes of my work on the Gospel of Thomas are available in paperback, making them more affordable. I am hoping that Continuum with package some of them in sets with a slight discount. But this is a decision completely out of my hands.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Book Note: The Great Stem of Souls. Reconstructing Mandaean History (Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley)

Gorgias Press released in 2005 a book by Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley, The Great Stem of Souls: Reconstructing Mandaean History. For those of you interested in Mandaeism and Gnosticism, this is a must-have reference book. It is a modern reconstruction of Mandaean history.

How did Buckley achieve this? By studying the colophons in manuscript editions of the Ginza, Canonical Prayerbook, Book of John, and other sources including Lady Drower's personal papers and letters given to Buckley by Drower's daughter. Colophons are lists of scribes and the scribal postscripts that are appended to most Mandaean manuscripts. The list of scribes extends from the current copyist all the way back to the first scribe recorded to have copied the manuscript. They present the name of the scribe and his lineage. It is quite genius I think to work through these lists as a way to resurrect Mandaean history.

I find it extremely interesting that some of the names recovered are names of women priests who were initiated into the religion by their biological fathers who were priests. This view is against the dominant one in scholarship, that there weren't ever women Mandaean priests. Buckley says this is wrong, and quotes several present-day Mandaeans who remember their ancestors talking about women priests in the past. Buckley has detected 24 women priests in the Mandaean colophons. The dates for the women she detected: ca. 200, 700, 750-800, 1300, 15th c. to early 16th c., 17th c. to mid-19th c. (pp. 181-182).

In the end, Buckley postulates that the Mandaeans are at least as old as 30 CE, that they left Palestine via the Wadi Hauran route and went to Media. Although they may have initially been a Jewish group connected to John the Baptist, they turned against Judaism in much the same way that the Jewish-Christians polemicized against Paul and pro-Gentile Christianity. She thinks that their Gnostic religiosity is very old, that they may be our oldest example of mid-first-century Gnostics. By 200 CE they were well-established in Media and lived along the trade routes tied to the Silk Road. It is in Media, she suggests, that their traditions absorbed Zoroastrian and maybe Christian ideas. She suggests that "we view the Mandaeans as the earliest example of a wide-ranging group - possible moving from Palestine to Media - creating our first evidence for Gnostic religiosity" (p. 341).

Thursday, August 16, 2007


I'm back from holiday today, and trying to catch up at the office. I have one syllabus completed, and another that must be done. I have just spent about twelve hours working through the final proof for The Thirteenth Apostle, and I have an edited volume 600-page second proof sitting on my desk waiting for my attention. I also have a stack of data from my orality-scribality experiments that must be analyzed over the next two weeks. So there is much to do before classes start in a week and a half.

To top all off, tropical storm Erin has pelted Houston with a huge amount of rain, so the roads are flooding and my son's school has just closed for the day. So I'll be back regularly blogging soon, after the flood waters recede - both in terms of actual rain and in terms of last minute work that has to be completed before the semester starts.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Persecution of Yazidis Kurds in Iraq

As has been related on many news channels, yesterday Iraqi extremists targeted and killed at least 175 people and injured at least 200 more near the Syrian border. Many of the dead and injured are from another minority pre-Islamic religious group that outsiders call Yazidis. From what I have been able to discover, their name for themselves is Ezidi which means in Kurdish "believer in God." Ezd means God or Angel in Kurdish.

Like the Mandaeans, they appear to have connections with old Gnostic traditions, perhaps even retaining elements from Manichaeism. They believe in one God but this God has seven assistant angels, the chief among them Ta'us Malak which is understood to mean "Peacock Angel," since Taus means "peacock" in Kurdish. But this must be a modern interpretation of an ancient Semitic or Persian name whose old meaning was not retained. I haven't worked out the possibilities yet, but I am certain that Taus did not originally mean peacock. Although God is one, he does not rule the world directly, but these angels do. At least one of the angels is female.

Another confusion arises over the word Shatan which has wrongly been assimilated by outsiders to Satan. Thus they are known as devil-worshipers. But the word is actually a Kurdish word that means "with the body of an angel".

This religion is a syncretistic religion. From what I have been able to discern, it has taken up certain aspects of ancient Persian religion, Manichaeism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I will continue to look into this religion and post more as I learn more. But for now, these latest attacks on minority religious populations in Iraq should be more incentive for legislation to be enacted NOW to help these refugees.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Hearing Testimony on Iraqi refugees and Mandaean Plight

On July 25th, a hearing was held to discuss the situation of Iraqi refugees and the Mandaeans in particular. This is the record of the testimony. For the testimony about the Mandaeans, click here for Dr. Suhaib Nashi's statement. After recounting the history of the Mandaean population and their current crisis, Dr. Nashi said:

We ask of you the following:

  • That the United States Government act immediately to prevent the humanitarian disaster in the making. The USA government should take a leading role to step up and save the Mandaeans and other minorities in Iraq .
  • That the Departments of State and Homeland Security create specific guidelines that recognize that Mandaeans will in all likelihood not be safe from persecution in Iraq and should therefore provide Mandaeans with permanent protection by accepting them for resettlement with Priority One or Priority Two refugee visas similar to the Iranian Mandaeans.
  • That the US government expands the number of Iraqi refugees accepted to a much higher number and that special consideration is given to the Mandaeans and other vulnerable groups.
  • That the State Department allow United States Mandaeans who have relatives seeking asylum in Syria or Jordan to be able to sponsor these refugees to the United States.
  • That the US government should allocate funding and encourage other governments, especially the Iraqi government, to do the same for programs to provide the Iraqi refugees with the necessary means for safe and secure living on urgent bases.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

A bit of vacation

My sister and her family are visiting us the next few days, so I'll post when I can. If you haven't taken a break yet this summer, there are still three weeks before classes start! Go to the beach, climb a mountain, raft a river, ride a horse - it's good for you!

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Robert Price's responses to my questions about The Jesus Project

Robert Price has replied point-by-point to my questions about The Jesus Project. Check it out here. I'm not sure I'm much clearer, but I'm pleased to know that there are others "out there" who are asking similar questions.

Book Note: Coptic in 20 Lessons (Bentley Layton)

My desk copy of Bentley Layton's grammar has arrived, and I must say that I am surprised - pleasantly so!

I was worried that his introductory grammar would be written so that the language was inaccessible for undergraduates. I expected something similar to his extraordinary grammar, A Coptic Grammar, a book not for the linguistically-challenged!

Not only are my worries set aside, but I have decided to embrace Coptic in 20 Lessons and use it this fall as my introductory grammar instead of Lambdin, even though this does mean that I will have to work through all the vocabulary and exercises anew, and replace my old ways of talking about grammatical points with Layton's verbage.

The grammar is laid out well with complete paradigms in each lesson. The exercises (once you get going) are taken from the literature (yeah!), so no nonsense sentences to deal with. And the best part of the book is that all those little things that you encounter and try to figure out once you start reading, are explained by Layton as he goes. So he talks about things like reading from a manuscript and scribal practices - where superlinear strokes are placed, when scribes don't write certain letters, and so forth. So the book is a nice combination between seasoned information and beginning grammar.

It looks like students will only be able to get through one chapter a week though. So if you are used to getting through Lambdin's grammar in a semester, I don't think that is going to happen with Layton's grammar, unless there are a few chapters that can be doubled up in a week. The last part of the book contains three chapters from Coptic Mark. Layton suggests that students can finish the grammar and read the entire Gospel of Mark in two semesters.

So here I go, changing my book order, and hoping I don't live to regret it!

Book Note: The Bible in the Syriac Tradition (Sebastian Brock)

I don't know how many of you are aware of Gorgias Press, but it is worth knowing about if you don't already. They started up four years ago to feature publications on subjects pertaining to Near East-Middle East. They publish both new titles and reprints of rare books in the areas of Arabic and Islamic studies, archaeology, classics, history, religion, languages and linguistic, Jewish studies, Syriac studies, and more.

An example of their excellent publications in areas that other publishers do not touch is Sebastian Brock's Gorgias Handbook, The Bible in Syriac Tradition. Gorgias published it last year (2006). It is a compilation of two earlier separate studies published by Brock: a small booklet he called The Bible in Syriac Tradition (SEERI, 1988); and the last chapter in volume 3: The Hidden Pearl: The Syrian Orthodox Church and its Ancient Aramaic Heritage (Rome, 2001).

This book is extremely valuable because it lays out the biblical traditions of the Syrian Christians, traditions that are not so familiar to many biblical scholars who are trained in Greek and Hebrew and who study traditions west of Edessa. So the book covers everything from the Peshitta to the Syro-Hexapla to the Diatessaron to Philoxenian and Harclean. The use of the Syriac Bible in preaching, liturgy, and Syriac spirituality are also discussed.

Brock presents us here with a handy overview of what the Syrian Christians were reading, and how it is different from other bibles in the ancient world. He includes a fantastic bibliography on the Syriac Bible, so all the resources are listed out by category (e.g., Jacob of Edessa, Christian Palestinian Aramaic, Old Syriac Gospels, Peshitta, etc.).

And the cost? Only $38. For more information about the book and ordering from Gorgias, click here.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

My questions about The Jesus Project

Mark Goodacre has made an interesting post regarding The Jesus Project, followed quickly by a second post. The second post mentions Robert Price's opinion about The Jesus Project. Robert, also a Fellow, seems to think (as I suspected) that the Fellows list came from the Scripture and Skepticism conference list (those who attended or had planned to attend).

I don't think that The Project is "shut down," an opinion that is now circulating on the blogs. The Jesus Project website says that an UPDATE is in progress.

I continue to encourage the wait-and-see attitude, and I will continue to post information as it comes my way. I will continue to worry about methodology and reserve the decision about my involvement until later when I know more.

These are the concerns that I would like answers to before getting involved in The Jesus Project. I offer them not as criticism of The Jesus Project, but as serious reflections on it.
  • What is the actual question of The Project? Did Jesus exist? What do the earliest materials tell us about Jesus? or something else?
  • How will the question be approached in terms of methodology and division of literature-material remains? The scientific approach (which CSER lays claim to) isn't going to tell us much. If that is the approach, we could probably be done with The Project in a couple of hours.
  • In what way is The Jesus Project to be differentiated from the Jesus Seminar?
  • What will happen when different scholars come to different conclusions or solutions? How do you maintain a group project when all scholars have individual agendas that they want to protect?
  • How and when are the "findings" going to be disseminated?
  • How are apologetics (either theological or anti-theological) going to be kept from coloring the picture?
  • How is the group going to ensure that it doesn't just deconstruct the traditions, so that we learn nothing from The Project except that there is nothing we can know for certain about Jesus?
  • How will the group make sure that they aren't creating Jesus in their image?

The McFee Endowed Professorship

I want to extend my hearty congratulations to my Illinois Wesleyan University colleague and former chair, Professor Brian Hatcher. He has just been named the Daisy McFee Professor of Religion at Illinois Wesleyan.

Professor Hatcher studies post-colonial Hinduism and has been an anchor in the Religion Department since his appointment fifteen years ago. He has written three books and more than a dozen articles and book chapters. He is the past recipient of the Distinguished Service Award from the Cultural Association of Bengal. He has received several major grants and fellowships, including the the ASIA Network/Freeman Foundation Student-Faculty Fellowship and the Fulbright-Hays Faculty Research Abroad Fellowship through the U.S. Department of Education, which allowed him to conduct research in Kolkata, India, and the United Kingdom while on sabbatical leave during the 2006-07 academic year.

I learned a lot about teaching and research from Professor Hatcher who helped to mentor me in my early years as a professor. He was always very supportive of my research and encouraged my growth. I appreciate his mentorship and friendship, and am so happy to see IWU recognizing his valuable contributions to his field and to IWU by naming him to this endowed professorship.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Flyer on The Jesus Project

I just received in the mail this morning a mass mailing from CSER about The Jesus Project. So here is more information about it. I quote from the mailing:
This past January, CSER announced its most ambitious and significant venture to date: The Jesus Project. In response to the seasonal hype and scholarly escapades designed to contribute to national Jesus-mania, CSER has gathered together a group of the best biblical experts, linguists, classicists, social historians, archaeologists, and other scholars in order to provide an alternative and more reasoned view. Our ambitious aim is to submit to scrutiny every scrap of evidence bearing on the question of the historical Jesus - we regard the thesis that Jesus of Nazareth existed as testable, and The Jesus Project is determined to test it to the fullest extent possible...If you would like more information on how to get involved with The Jesus Project, please contact an administrator at
So that's as much as I know beyond what I have already said in previous posts.

Scholars on the Move: Accolades and New Posts

Well it's that time of year when the academic folks are on the move. I send out my hearty congratulations to one and all. If you would like me to post your move so that people will be able to locate you more easily, send me a comment or e-mail.

Here are the new moves I know about...accolades to each of you!

Madeleine Scopello has been recently appointed Director of Research at the National Center of Scientific Research Sorbonne, Paris.

Ismo Dunderberg is Visiting Scholar at Wolfson College, Oxford University for 2007-2008 academic year, on leave from the University of Helsinki.

Francis Flannery-Dailey is now Associate Professor of Religion at James Madison University, moving from Hendrix College.

Elliott Wolfson is Visiting Professor at Rice University for Fall semester, supported by the Humanities Research Center and a fellowship awarded from the Lynette S. Autrey Endowment and the National Endowment for the Humanities. A symposium "Venturing Beyond the Beyond" will be held in honor of Wolfson's contributions to the field, October 26, 2007.

Associate Professor of History, Paula Sanders has been appointed Dean of Graduate and Post-Doctoral Studies at Rice University.

Annette Y. Reed is now Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, moving from McMaster.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Article Note: "Body Metaphors in 1 Corinthians and in the Interpretation of Knowledge (NHC XI,1)" by Ismo Dunderberg

Professor Dunderberg just sent me an offprint of his new article that just appeared in Actes du Huitième Congrès International D'Études Coptes (eds. Nathalie Bosson and Anne Boud'hors; Leuven: Peeters, 2007) pp. 833-847. Its timing is rather convenient for the discussion that we have been having about the Gnostics and how some of them were very much part of the wider Apostolic church. As an aside, I wish to send my best to Professor Dunderberg who has just moved from Helsinki to Oxford where he will be teaching this year.

Dunderberg argues that the author is a Pauline exegete, although he applies the body metaphor quite differently from Paul. Paul is concerned about the weak members of the body and is trying to prove that they are indispensable and concludes that God gave greater honor to them. The author of the Valentinian Interpretation, however, is concerned that the weaker members have a wrong attitude (envy) that threatens the unity of the social body. They should change their attitude or face possible expulsion.

Why did the weaker part feel envious? The stronger members have made progress in the "Word" while the rest have not. The stronger members can "speak" while the rest of the ekklesia cannot. This situation created animosity of the weaker toward the stronger.

The author makes three arguments to resolve the issue:
1. the gifts given to the stronger members will benefit all members of the ekklesia; the weaker members benefit spiritually from the more advanced in the community
2. all body parts are mutually dependent
3. the inferior part should be grateful that is is not outside the body or ekklesia
Dunderberg concludes, and this I like very much, that the author of this text may be responding to Irenaeus or other critics like him who accused the Valentinians of elitism. "The author of Interpretation addresses protests, such as we find in Irenaeus, against the boundary between those who have and those who do not have the spiritual gift, and responds by portraying these protests as expressions of hatred and envy" (Dunderberg, pp. 844-845).

The author does NOT see two separate communities - the Gnostics and the Apostolic Church - but presupposes a situation of two groups within the same church and says that the inferior can gain benefit from the gift that the advanced have. "While Irenaeus wanted to make the boundary between Valentinians and other Christians as insurmountable as possible, the vision of the Christian community in Interpretation is that, instead of separation, there should be unity between the two factions of Christians" (Dunderberg, p. 845).

Coverage of the Mary Magdalene Feast Day

Rev. Betty Adam has posted on her blog this morning her impressions of the Mary Magdalene Festival that we celebrated at Christ's Cathedral in Houston last week. She includes a description of the service and even posts the text of my first (and only?) homily. I am not trained in ministry, so when asked to deliver a full homily, I wasn't certain how to do that or if I really wanted to do that.

So I gave some thought to the service and instead of the traditional 20-minute homily, suggested that we put together a Taizé service using Mary's story as our focus. Betty agreed.

But in the end, I didn't get out of delivering the homily - it just became shorter. If you go over to Betty's blog and have a look, I'm sure you will see that I'm no homily writer, just a plain old teacher. Thank goodness for wonderful musicians who made up for it!

The picture I'm uploading was taken after the service, (from left to right) Rev. Betty Adam of Christ's Cathedral, me, and Pam Stockton (the president of Brigid's Place).

It was a truly beautiful and inspiring Festival, so there is talk that we might might start an annual series of these in honor of women saints like Teresa of Avila, Hildegard von Bingen, Mary the Mother, and so on. Stay tuned. I'll keep you posted on these events should they be arranged by Betty and Pam at the Cathedral.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Religion of No Religion: An Interview with Jeffery Kripal

The California Literary Review has just posted an excellent interview with Jeff Kripal about his new book: Esalen. I blogged on his book earlier this summer here. Jeff is my department chair at Rice. His book is written on a contemporary movement (the human potential movement), about "religion" that many in our society would consider "forbidden" or "heretical" or "no religion at all." So I post the interview link here, for those of you interested in reading Jeff's interview about a contemporary form of forbidden religion.

Who is the featured biblioblogger for August?

For the answer, check it out here.

What about The Jesus Project?

There has been some activity about The Jesus Project on Jim West's blog and on Chris Zeichmann's blog and on Novum Testamentum. I wrote about my own impressions of the project in an earlier post here.

As Chris writes, it is a project involving 50 scholars who will assess the historicity of Jesus and review the earliest traditions about Jesus. Chris wonders how the Fellows became Fellows, since it appears that at least one person who used to be listed was not actually asked. Chris has asked me to illuminate this situation.

I know nothing more than has been published on CSER's website. My name appeared on the website after the Scripture and Skepticism conference that took place in January 2007. Once I saw my name on the Fellows list along with a number of other scholars who presented papers at that conference, I just assumed that those who attended the conference were considered by CSER to be Fellows. This was only my assumption. It may be wrong. As for how other scholars became Fellows or why "50" is the magic number, these questions I do not have answers for, but Joe Hoffmann would since he is directing the Project.

I continue to have mixed feelings about the Project. As many of you know already, I am not convinced that we can really recover an historical Jesus from the types of sources that we have available let alone prove or disprove his existence. Neither of these questions are burning questions for me, although I am certainly interested in recovering the earliest traditions about him.

I do not know how the Project plans to proceed methodologically, which concerns me immensely, especially given the very divergent approaches of the current list of Fellows. I don't know how the Project plans to keep itself away from (anti-)theological agendas guised as historical, and I don't know how the Project plans to keep itself from deconstructing the traditions to nothing.

Perhaps these issues will be resolved in December when the Fellows are supposed to meet for the first time as a group. I don't know yet if I will be in attendance.

Update: August 2, 2007
Doug Chaplin writes a nice piece: a sentence of wit - "Perhaps, if they want to be taken seriously as arbiters of history, they should learn how to tell the truth about the present first, and not create a myth of widespread support from eyewitnesses who are around to deny their involvement."

Other posts I came across on the subject: Jim West, Higgaion, James McGrath