My Amazing Faculty Colleagues Presenting at the Society of Biblical Literature 2020

I am privileged to teach at a Seminary that is associated with a liberal arts college. I have wonderful faculty colleagues at both institutions.

Northeastern Seminary is on the campus of Roberts Wesleyan College (in Rochester, NY) and while they are formally separate institutions, there is much practical overlap and collaboration between both the institutions and the faculty.

Of late, there have been joint meetings of the Seminary faculty with the faculty of the Department of Religion and Philosophy at the College. And, although faculty members find their home primarily in either the Seminary or the College, some of us teach in both institutions.

Here I want to highlight some of my faculty colleagues (in both institutions) who are presenting papers at the 2020 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, which is being held virtually this year (the first time in this format since I began attending in 1991).

Fredrick David Carr Presents on December 8

My colleague in New Testament, Fredrick David Carr, will present his paper on December 8 in a session on Healthcare and Disability in the Ancient World.

David’s paper, called “Experiencing Changes and Changing Experiences: Pauline Transformation and Altered Sensory Capacities,” addresses the apostle Paul’s account in Philippians 3:1–11 of how his sense of identity changed after he was confronted by Christ (which moved him from being a persecutor of the church to the status of apostle).

In his paper, David examines the changes experienced by those who receive cochlear implants, including new relationships and a different sense of selfhood, to “shed light onto the experiential and subjective dimensions of the transformations that Paul describes in Philippians 3,” including his sense that what he previously viewed as “gain” is now counted as “loss.”

Kristin Helms Presents on December 10

My colleague in Old Testament, Kristin Helms, will present her paper on December 10 in a session on the Literature and History of the Persian Period.

Kristin’s paper, called “The Roaming Eyes of Yahweh in Zech 4:10b and the Context of Persian Religions,” examines the background of the strange image in Zechariah’s fifth vision of a lampstand, which is identified with the “eyes of YHWH” roaming through the earth.

In her paper, Kristin examines competing suggestions for where Zechariah got his image, and ends up suggesting that it is drawn not only from the network of persons in ancient Persia known as “the eyes and ears of the king” (suggested by some scholars), but also from the portrayal of Mithra in Persian religion, who is “associated with fire, light, and eyes that roam throughout the earth for the sake of seeking out injustice.” She apples this background to Zechariah 4:10b, suggesting that the text uses this imagery “to encourage the people that YHWH, the Emperor of the cosmos and maintainer of justice, is at work to bring about a hopeful, purified future.”

Josef Sykora Presented on December 2

My colleague in Old Testament, Josef Sykora, presented his paper on December 2 in a session on Intertextuality and the Hebrew Bible.

Josef’s paper, called “A Different Kind of Crusade: Jesus’s Commissioning of His Disciples in Luke 10:1–24 as Reworking the Rules for Warfare in Deuteronomy 20:10–14,” examines the parallels and divergences between the texts in Deuteronomy 20 and Luke 10, to see if it is plausible that Jesus is intentionally drawing on the ancient rules of warfare.

He insightfully demonstrates that both Deuteronomy and Luke give similar instructions to those who are sent out, including an offer of peace to those they encounter and two possible outcomes depending on the responses of those they meet. Yet while Luke’s Gospel presents a battle with the powers of evil and the disciples are parallel to Israel’s soldiers, the texts diverge in that in Luke it is God and not the disciples who bring judgment.

My Own Paper Presented on December 1

Although I was scheduled to give a paper at SBL in a session on the Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures, the organizers decided to postpone the session until next year, when (hopefully) the SBL will meet in person (in San Antonio, TX).

However, I did present in the Institute for Biblical Research (an affiliated organization, which meets under the umbrella of the SBL), in a session on The Relationship between the New Testament and the Old Testament.

My paper, initially called “Herod as Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar: A ‘Political’ Reading of the Prophets in Matthew’s Infancy Narrative,” examined the way that Matthew’s Gospel cited Old Testament texts from the Prophetic books to address the political situation at the time of Jesus’s birth. The actual paper I gave had a slightly different title from what was listed in the program, since I adapted it to the timeframe I had for presentation.

The paper I presented was called “Herod as Pharaoh? Jesus as David? Matthew’s ‘Political’ Reading of the Prophets in the Infancy Narratives” (click here for the paper). I suggested that when we read Matthew 1–2 as a “feel good” story for the Christmas season, we miss the astute sociopolitical critique of the Jerusalem power structure that Matthew intended by his use of quotations from Hosea 11:1 and Micah 5:2 (with a line from 2 Samuel 5:2 spliced in). There is nothing sentimental about Matthew’s portrayal of the newly born king of the Jews, who would be a very different sort of leader not only from Herod, but also from David of old.

My Upcoming Presentation on December 7

I also have a short presentation coming up on December 7 (tomorrow) in a session on Science, Technology, and Religion at the American Academy of Religion (which meets in conjunction with the SBL).

This session is devoted to a recently published book, called The T&T Clark Companion of Christian Theology and the Modern Sciences, ed. by John P. Slattery, Bloomsbury Companions (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2020).

Everyone who contributed a chapter in this book was invited to give a brief presentation on their chapter. Of the many who contributed chapters, eight of us, along with the editor, agreed.

As part of this session, I will give a short explanation of my chapter, called “The Genesis Creation Accounts.”

I recently wrote a blog post (here) on the book and my article.

If you are registered for the AAR-SBL annual meeting, you are invited to attend any of these session that interest you.

Terry Fretheim and the Renewal of Creation Theology

One of my favorite Old Testament scholars, Terence Fretheim, died yesterday (November 16, 2020).

Terry was both a wonderful person and a brilliant biblical scholar. He excelled both in detailed exegesis of the Old Testament and in his reflections on the theological and ethical meaning of of this ancient text.

The first book of his that I read was The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective (1984), which was a short but profound study of how God is affected by us. Although the book focuses on the Old Testament, it helpfully lays the foundation for understanding the coherence of both Testaments, since the same God who allowed himself to be affected by humanity at the flood (God’s heart was grieved by human evil) and by Israel’s unfaithfulness (see the prophet Jeremiah), ultimately became incarnate and went to the cross for our sake.

I found some similarity between Fretheim’s interest in reading the Old testament theologically and the work of Walter Brueggemann. In Nijay Gupta’s recent interview with me, I cited Brueggemann as the first Old Testament scholar whose work deeply impacted me, especially on the relevance of the Old Testament for its claims on our lives today.

I read Terry Fretheim a bit later and he impacted me in a similar way. But what was distinctive about Fretheim was that he grounded his understanding of the Old Testament in a creation theology, a topic I was coming to see as crucial.

After The Suffering of God, I read numerous journal articles by Fretheim, many of which were spin-offs from his wonderful commentary on Exodus (1991) and were incorporated into his magnum opus, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (2005).

The latter book is so good that I view it as one of the best works of biblical theology I have ever read. On almost every page, as Fretheim works through Genesis, Exodus, the Psalms, and the wisdom literature, there are reams of exegetical insights that could serve as a sourcebook for years of sermons on the Old Testament. And it is all exegetically rigorous and theologically thoughtful.

Fretheim was a Lutheran and the Lutheran tradition has been notoriously weak historically on the doctrine of creation (with a few exceptions, like Gustav Wingren). So I have often thought that Fretheim was addressing this lack in his own tradition by mining the Scriptures for their teaching about creation and the God-creation relationship.

An example of the difference between Brueggemann and Fretheim can be seen in their respective commentaries on Jeremiah. Brueggemann’s Jeremiah commentary (which is immensely helpful) focuses on the radical (almost Barthian-like) challenge the prophet brought to Israel back then and that he brings to us today. Fretheim’s commentary, however, focuses on God’s complex relationship to Israel and to the created order, showing much more of divine compassion in the midst of judgment. Indeed, Fretheim often takes Brueggemann to task (gently) in the commentary about his glossing over aspects of the text.

My own early interaction with Brueggemann took the form of a critique of his creation theology, first given at the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) in 1992 and then published a couple of years later as “Is Creation Theology Inherently Conservative? A Dialogue with Walter Brueggemann.”

Brueggemann graciously accepted my critique, both in his unplanned response to my paper (the person presenting after me was absent and the chair asked him if he had anything to say), then, after I published the paper, in a more formal print response.

Interestingly, although my first interaction with Fretheim was at the SBL (in 1995), it wasn’t a critique, but rather encouragement. I had just given a paper on a rhetorical reading Genesis 1, in a session on the ethical reading of Scripture, which was followed by a respondent who was somewhat negative towards my paper.

Just as the floor was opened for questions, Fretheim came up to me, introduced himself, and told me he had to leave for an appointment. But he wanted me to know that I was onto something important in my reading of the text and that I should not be fazed by the response I got. He handed me his business card and told me to be in touch.

So, when I published the paper in 2000, called “Creation Founded in Love,” I sent him a copy. I received a wonderful Christmas card from him, dated December 15, 2000, with this encouragement:

“Thanks for the offprint of your article—an important piece of work! Thanks, too, for your kind reference to my own work. We can hope with some confidence, I believe, that a more open understanding of creation, and the God of creation, will become more prominent in both church and academy.”

For his astute biblical scholarship and for his winsome personality, I will miss Terry Fretheim.

RIP until the resurrection!

The Heart of Torah: Jewish and Christian Voices on the Relationship of Biblical Exegesis to Theological Interpretation

The latest issue of the Canadian-American Theological Review (the journal of the Canadian-American Theological Association) has just been published. This is a theme issue, which collects the papers presented in a panel discussion at the Society of Biblical Literature last year (November 2019) on Shai Held’s two-volume work, The Heart of Torah, (Jewish Publication Society, 2017). These papers were given by Jewish and and Christian biblical scholars.

Although it hadn’t been planned that way, the presentations (hence the published essays) all focused, in one way or another, on the question of the relationship of biblical exegesis to theology. Or, to put it in Jewish terms, the relationship between peshat (literary-contextual readings of the Bible) and midrash (readings that go beyond the intent of text, in order to explore contemporary significance).

While all the articles are agreed that these are both legitimate approaches to the Bible, there is some disagreement about how these should be related, and Held’s response addresses this issue head on.

This has a parallel with recent discussion among Christian biblical interpreters about the value of the “Theological Interpretation of Scripture” and whether this is at odds with historical-critical study of the Bible. For an excellent discussion of why these two shouldn’t be severed, see Joel Green’s essay, “Rethinking ‘History’ for Theological Interpretation,” published in the Journal of Theological Interpretation (2011).

An Introduction to Shai Held

Rabbi Shai Held is Dean and Chair of Jewish Thought at the Hadar Institute, an ecumenical egalitarian study center in New York City that he helped found in 2006, along with Rabbis Elie Kaunfer and Ethan Tucker.

My initial introduction to Shai Held was in January 2015 when he contacted me to discuss the imago Dei in Genesis 1, in preparation for a public lecture he was going to give on human dignity and police violence against African Americans. He had read my book The Liberating Image and wanted to clarify some aspects of the interpretation. We first communicated by email, then had a telephone conversation on the topic.

Since then I have attended the Hadar Institute (previously called Mechon Hadar) for two of their annual Executive Seminars and I wrote an initial blog about my experience.

Middleton with Rabbis Elie Kaunfer and Shai Held at Hadar, July 2016

Shai Held (son of Ugaritic scholar Moshe Held) has written an in-depth study of the theology of Abraham Heschel (Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence) that explores the complexity of his thought. This is his published dissertation, written under the supervision of Jon D. Levenson at Harvard.

Here is a newspaper article (The Times of Israel, September 2017) on Shai Held’s combination of Jewish piety and social ethics.

The Heart of Torah

Held’s latest publication, The Heart of Torah, 2 vols. (Jewish Publication Society, 2017), is a compilation of short theological-ethical essays on selected passages from the weekly Torah portion in the Jewish lectionary cycle. Volume 1 covers texts in Genesis and Exodus, while volume 2 covers texts in Leviticus to Deuteronomy.

Along with approximately 7,000 others, I subscribed to receiving these essays every week by email; and I have been profoundly moved by Held’s insights. So when I found out that the essays would be published in a two-volume collection, I contacted a number of Christian biblical scholars to join me in writing endorsements for the publication.

I then organized a panel discussion on The Heart of Torah at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in San Diego, November 24, 2019 and I collected the papers for publication in the Canadian-American Theological Review.

You can download my introduction to the theme issue of the journal here.

If you want to read the entire issue (consisting in my introduction, six papers on The Heart of Torah, Held’s response, and some excellent book reviews), you will need to log on to the website of the Canadian-American Theological Association. This requires an inexpensive one-year membership (which includes subscription to the journal).

Depending on your library’s subscription to online materials, you might be able to access the journal that way.

This the lineup of articles.

  • Marvin Sweeney, “Human Participation with G_d in Perfecting Creation”
  • Ellen Davis, “Moral Theology in an Exegetical Key”
  • Jacqueline Lapsley, “The Perfect Craft Cocktail on a Sweltering Day”
  • S. Tamar Kamionkowski, “Jewish Theology Rooted in Biblical Texts”
  • David Frankel, “A Critical Review of Shai Held’s The Heart of Torah
  • Dennis Olson, “A Place to Stand: Shai Held’s The Heart of Torah in Dialogue with Pentateuchal Scholars and Literary Theorists”
  • Shai Held, “A Response to My Respondents”