Thoughts on the Mormon Church (Part III) – More on the Missionaries

There are several questions I like to ask the missionaries when they come calling, not necessarily because I think they will break through the unassailable logic of the fundamentalist mindset but simply because I am interested in seeing how much (and to what depth) they understand their own doctrine (and its evolution), and how much they know about the prophets of their church (particularly Joseph Smith and Brigham Young; though I’m resigned to the fact that it’s a rare missionary who knows anything about Mormonism after Young).

Whenever I speak to missionaries for the first time, one of the first things they try to tell me is that their church has a prophet of God. So naturally I have to ask something to the effect of:

  • What is a specific doctrine or teaching from God that the current Prophet has spoken that you liked?

The only answer I get is some variation of how everything the Prophet says is inspiring in general. Apparently the days are long gone when the LDS Prophet received profound insights from God. Now it sounds like the LDS Prophet is no different from a regular pastor/motivational speaker.

The missionaries tell me that the Prophet and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles guide the church and are given revelation from God, yet it seems like the past LDS Prophets and Apostles are simply thrown under the bus because they taught things that are regularly rejected by the contemporary church leadership and laity. So in that spirit I like to ask this question:

  • How do you tell that what a Prophet says is truly revelation from God and not just his own personal opinions? For instance, Brigham Young taught the Adam-God doctrine -that Adam was God- and he declared it as having been revealed to him by God, yet it was later rejected by the Church.

Brigham Young’s Adam-God doctrine is my favorite example of this, though many of the things that the past LDS Prophets and Apostles get thrown under the bus for could be argued to be relatively trivial (such as the belief that the hill Cumorah is in New York). Yet the point remains: seemingly nothing the LDS Prophets and Apostles say can really be trustworthy. What they teach today may very well be tomorrow’s heresy (or at least toilet paper).

By the way, only one missionary I’ve encountered had any idea of what I was talking about when I brought up Brigham Young’s Adam-God teaching, though he was actually a returned missionary that the missionaries had brought along to answer some of my “tough questions” (and his answer was essentially, “well not everything the Prophets say is revelation,” which of course neglects the fact that Brigham Young said it was revelation). Other than that returned missionary, I don’t think I’ve ever had a missionary know what the hell I’m talking about. [For the interested reader see this link for some of what Brigham Young said concerning Adam-God]

This isn’t uncommon as there are many other issues which the missionaries never know what I am talking about, e.g. the Kinderhook Plate fiasco, the problem of deutero-Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, and Brigham Young’s teaching of Blood Atonement.

Another question that I like to ask is:

  • So which apologetic theory do you subscribe to in order to explain how the Book of Abraham was translated from some Egyptian papyri that were not a document written by Abraham as Joseph Smith claimed, but are rather run-of-the-mill ancient Egyptian funerary documents?

Surprisingly, there was actually one missionary who knew what I was talking about. He held to the “well we don’t have all the papyri and so the Book of Abraham came from those missing papyri” apologetic. Though he had no answer to the follow up question of, “So how do you explain that Joseph Smith’s interpretations of the three vignettes from the papyri that he included in the Book of Abraham are demonstrably incorrect?”

On a related note, the LDS Church recently released an essay (found here) on the historicity and translation of the Book of Abraham. Interestingly, it gives the thumbs up for the idea that Joseph Smith was not actually translating the Egyptian papryi but that they served as a “catalyst.” In the words of the essay: “[The papyri] catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri.”

Ultimately, while I enjoy talking with Mormon missionaries (and they are always very polite chaps and much more personable than the Jehovah Witnesses), it’s pretty much impossible to have a real discussion about their religion with them (such as discussing its difficulties, contradictions, evolution, and so forth). This is simply due to their lack of knowledge. But what they lack in knowledge they do make up for in their earnestness to bear their testimony about how they know the Book of Mormon is true, that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and that the LDS Church is true. Their bearing of their testimony is also a common response to questions they don’t know how to answer, although the last missionary pair that I met with (a few weeks ago) just up and left when it became evident that I wasn’t going to be an easy convert and knew more about their church history than they did (they said that they had an appointment to get to. Yeah, right).

Of course, it goes without saying that not all Mormons are fundamentalists. Not by a long shot. From my talks with Mormons in real life and from reading a copious amount of literature (both in print and online), it is manifestly evident that Mormonism is just like any other religious tradition in that its adherents occupy a vast range of perspectives, from the uber-conservative fundamentalist to the disagree-with-standard-Mormon-doctrine-on-everything liberal. But why, O why, do all the missionaries that come to my door have to be of the fundamentalist variety who have no depth of knowledge of their own religion!

Thoughts on the Mormon Church (Part II) – Meeting with the Missionaries

Over the past few years I’ve had the pleasure of encountering many missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka the Mormons or Latter-day Saints). Almost all of the Mormon missionaries I’ve encountered were 20-21 year old males, hailing from the Mormon bastion of Utah (though there was that one guy from Washington who broke the mould). This isn’t surprising when one learns that Mormonism is primarily centered in Utah, Idaho, and Montana, and that most Mormon missionaries (about 80%) are young men.

I don’t think it is a stretch to say that almost all of the Mormon missionaries I have talked with are essentially the Mormon version of fundamentalists and, to put it bluntly, are pretty damn clueless about their own religion (just like good old evangelical fundamentalists). They really seem to know next to nothing about the formative years of the LDS Church (e.g. the life and times of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young), and even less about church history after that time.

For instance, the missionaries I encountered did not know some basic facts about Joseph Smith such as the fact that Smith had multiple wives (over 30). The majority of the missionaries I talked to were apparently unaware of this and seemed to think that the polygamy started in Utah under Brigham Young. Some of the missionaries did know about Smith’s polygamy but didn’t believe me when I mentioned the number of women he had married, and really didn’t believe me when I mentioned that about a dozen of them were already married to other men.

I don’t bring up such topics to the missionaries because I think it will cripple their faith. It’s moreso because I am curious as to what level of knowledge the missionaries have regarding their church. I know that in “mainstream” Christianity (e.g. good old American evangelicalism) there is an abysmal knowledge of understanding of matters related to Christian origins (including basic knowledge of the New Testament). But, and maybe I am silly for thinking this, shouldn’t one expect missionaries to have at least a somewhat decent understanding of some basic things about the key figures of their religious tradition, especially given the fact that (from my experience) every single one of the missionaries was born and raised as a Mormon.

Anywho, moving on.

Before the missionaries go on their missionary they spend some time at what is known as the Missionary Training Center. Considering that a lot of the missionaries have thrown out the exact same arguments to me, I would assume that this is where they learn the methods and “facts” to employ while proselytizing.

Here are a few arguments that are repeated ad nauseum by the missionaries:

  • I know/testify that the Book of Mormon is true.

When I ask how they know it is true I invariably get the response that God has revealed it to them that it is true. Naturally my follow up question is how did God reveal this to them. Most of the responses I’ve received involved the phrase: “a still, small voice which testifies to me that it is true” (cf. 1 Kgs 19:12; but they don’t mean an audible voice, just something more akin to a happy and peaceful feeling). Another typical answer I’ve received is, “it makes me a better person” (which is nice, but reading the Qur’an and Bhagavad Gita can also have the same effect).

There are two other similar statements I hear just as often from the missionaries:

  • I know/testify that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God.
  • I know/testify that the [LDS] Church is true.

In regards to that last statement, I haved ask how they know “the Church is true” and the only answer I’ve received is essentially “because I know the Book of Mormon is true.” I don’t see, however, why that means the mainstream LDS Church is true and not one of the other Mormon sects which also upholds the Book of Mormon as the Word of God (such as the Community of Christ, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Strangite branch, the Apostolic United Brethren, the Centennial Park group, and the Temple Lot branch). I mean, for all they know the Book of Mormon may very well be true but the mainstream branch of Mormonism may have apostatized from the truth and one of the other denominations is in fact the true continuation of the Church. (I’ve actually had some missionaries try to convince me that there are no other denominations or branches of  Mormonism).

A frequent argument I’ve heard about the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as the Word of God is:

  • Joseph Smith didn’t go to school so how could he have come up with the Book of Mormon?

I’ve heard similar things regarding Mohammed and the Qur’an –Mohammed apparently couldn’t read or write and yet he produced the Qur’an– so does that mean we should all convert to Islam?

If memory serves, while Joseph Smith may have only had a few years of formal education he was nevertheless raised in a household where his father and his brother taught in schools, so I don’t think it is stretching the imagination to assume that despite his lack of formal education, Joseph nevertheless grew up in a household where education was important and that he developed a good ability to read and write.

Another thing I’ve heard on two or three occasions is in the spirit of the following (I think this is a quote from one of the current Apostles of the LDS Church):

  • Either the Book of Mormon is the most ingenious fraud ever concocted, or it is what the Church believes it to be – the very Word of God given to Joseph Smith.

I really don’t see what is all that special about the Book of Mormon, especially when you take into account that the plot and certain aspects of the language of the Book of Mormon have been found in other works available in Joseph Smith’s time (such as the Bible and The Late War). When you take that into account you are left with a book that by no means necessitates a supernatural source. (And yes, I have read arguments from Mormon apologists claiming the Book of Mormon is filled with Hebraisms, but no, they are not compelling).

In a nutshell, I think the Book of Mormon is basically the biblical version of fan-fiction.

Other random things I have heard multiple times from the missionaries are arguments along the line of:

  • “The Bible (or New Testament) was put together by Constantine and left out many books which should have been included.”

I’m unsure of what is the better response here. Should I bite my tongue and say nothing, or give a ten minute rundown on the formation of the NT?

  • “The Christian doctrine of the Trinity comes from Greek philosophy.”

In a way this is accurate because the hammering out of the doctrine of the Trinity amongst the early church fathers utilized Greek philosophical language, categories, and so forth. Yet it is far too simplistic of a statement to make it useful in accurately portraying the evolution of Trinitarian doctrine. Additionally, simply stating that the Trinity (or whatever doctrine) is the result of Greek philosophical thinking only gets you so far… you still need to show why that means that doctrine is in error (i.e. it is not a good argument to simply say, “that doctrine results from Greek philosophy, therefore it is wrong”).

Also, doesn’t this Greek philosophy argumentation essentially undercut the Mormon position too? It seems to me that Mormonism also contain beliefs that one could rightly say are the offspring of Greek philosophical thinking. For example, the Mormon doctrine of a pre-mortal existence of the soul is a thoroughly platonic idea (stemming from Plato’s theory of forms and ideas). In other words… we can all throw around the “Greek philosophy” argument.

Thoughts on the Mormon Church (Part I) – Holy Envy

A concept I’ve come to embrace as a damn good way of studying other religious traditions is to “leave room for holy envy” (to borrow  a phrase from NT scholar Krister Stendahl). The idea behind “holy envy” is that one should have an open mind concerning other religious faiths to the extent of being able to identify beliefs or practices in other religions that one wishes could be reflected more in their own religious tradition.

Over the past few years, ever since the Mormon (or Latter-day Saints) missionaries first knocked at my door in 2011, I’ve spent what must be hundreds of hours reading Mormon literature and talking with the missionaries and other LDS folk (I even got to have dinner at the Bishop’s house one time!). So I like to fancy that I have a somewhat decent understanding of the LDS Church. So here are just a couple of things about the Mormon Church to which I have a degree of “holy envy.”

  • The emphasis upon orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy.

Creeds and systematized theologies are not prized that highly in the LDS Church. In fact, apart from this list of Articles of Faith I don’t think I’ve seen much else in the way of elaborate statements of faith that one must adhere to in order to be a Mormon.

Mainstream Christianity loves to bandy about creeds and confessions of faith as some sort of doctrinal litmus test one must pass before one can rightly label themselves “Christian.” While I can see the usefulness of creeds and confessions of faith for ecclesiological purposes (i.e. marking out the boundary lines for a community of faith), they seem to be too often viewed as soteriological statements (i.e. you must believe x, y, and z in order to be a real Christian). So if someone were to say, for example, that they don’t agree with or even care about the Chalcedonian formulation of Christ, then that is seen in the eyes of many as being the equivalent to purchasing a ticket to the eternal lake of fire. In other words, creeds and confessions of faith are all too often wielded about as rhetorical bludgeons in order to cast people into the outer darkness.

All of this is to say that I can definitely appreciate the focus in the LDS Church upon “likening Scriptures to oneself.”

  • The universalistic outlook on the fate of humanity.

In LDS theology there are three heavens (or “degress of glory”): the Telestial, the Terrestrial, and the Celestial (with even the lowly Telestial heaven apparently “surpassing all understanding”). Basically, as I understand it, pretty much every human gets to hang out in one of these heavens for eternity (except for maybe a small minority of humans, such as Cain and Judas, who get to enjoy the Outer Darkness).

For the past 2,000 years there has always been a trajectory of Christian thought that has been either outright universalistic, implicitly universalistic, or at least possessing a universalistic hope. When I’m not reading news stories about some of the utterly depraved people that inhabit this planet, I typically fall into the category of having a universalistic hope. So naturally the hopeful outlook of Mormonism’s universalistic theology resonates with me.

There are probably other things I could list but those are two that leap out at me off of the top of my head. Stay tuned for more random thoughts on Mormonism, such as my thoughts on the missionaries and the question that some people care far too much about…. “Are Mormons Christian?”

Yoder’s Sexual Violence

For quite a while I knew of John Howard Yoder and his writings on Christian pacifism, yet I also knew to associate him with phrases like “sexual misconduct” and “abuse of power.” This was the reason why I put off reading his stuff for quite some time. Eventually a mentor of mine had me read Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus. I found it quite a satisfying read and so I went on to read more of Yoder, and I am still reading his books to this day.

I have found in Yoder’s writings some fine theological expositions on issues such as Christian discipleship, violence, power, servanthood, and the error of Constantinianism. The main foci of his theological project seem spot on, though there seem to be some gaping lacunae. Despite the fact that I am deeply disturbed by Yoder’s coercive behavior and abuse of power (and his seemingly pathological lack of empathy toward women), I nevertheless have gleaned much from his writings.

I have heard of other notable theologians having sexual foibles, e.g., the womanizing and sadomasochistic practices of Paul Tillich, the apparent live-in-mistress of Karl Barth, and the sexual failures of Martin Luther King. Yet, of course, Yoder’s behavior is not on the same level with these other men, for it is more coercive than the others – though I don’t think the reported behavior of the others –if accurate– is anything to gloss over either. For instance, concerning Martin Luther King, having a position of prestige and power in the church and society –and being the center of a cult of personality– introduces a clear power differential that should not be abused and manipulated (whether unknowingly or not) to one’s advantage in order to bed women. From the little bit of literature I’ve read on the issue of power dynamics and relationships, it sounds like there is no such thing as a truly consensual relationship between two people (even if both are adults) when there is a power differential between them (whether it be doctor-patient, student-teacher, celebrity-fan, and so forth).

Yesterday, a new article, Scandalizing John Howard Yoder, was posted at The Other Journal on Yoder’s sexual violence by two PhD students and two associate Professors at Baylor University [note 7/9: it looks like the article has been taken down]. The article says:

Yoder’s actions toward these women, including students, ranged from verbal sexual innuendo to physical sexual acts, including intercourse.

Until I read that I had been under the direct impression that the allegations against Yoder did not include any physical sexual acts (just many failed attempts at using his position of power to try and bed women, even married women).

For anyone wanting to know about the other side of Yoder’s legacy, I highly recommend reading that article in its entirety. One can too easily fall into one of two extremes of understanding Yoder: one is to paint him as a convicted sexual felon and the other is to avoid the matter entirely and provide a hagiographical telling of Yoder’s life that neglects this sexualized violence. The Scandalizing John Howard Yoder article avoids both and provides a fair assessment of Yoder’s disgrace.

For those wanting to read more on it, here is a list of a handful of articles from a variety of perspectives. I am sure I missed out on some useful pages so feel free to drop links to anything of relevance in the comments.

First up are the articles from The Elkhart Truth (from 1992) on Yoder’s sexual misconduct. The following are a few quotes showcasing what it is that Yoder did:

The women … said the allegations included improper hugging, use of sexual innuendo or overt sexual language, sexual harassment, kissing or attempts to kiss women, nudity and violent sexual behavior. Sexual intercourse was not among the allegations.

“[This behavior] can range from suggesting, ‘sit on my lap,’ to actually pulling people down on his lap, inappropriately kissing and hugging,” one of the women said.

Joe [the victim’s husband] was away for most of the weekend leading a retreat and wasn’t due back until Sunday afternoon. “I had no reason to mistrust John [Howard Yoder],” said Colleen, who then had two small children. “After I had put the kids to bed, I came down to the living room. John was sitting on the couch. He moved closer to me as we were sitting on the couch. He kept coming closer and closer to me and eventually pushed me over and lay down on top of me. I was very afraid. I began to push him away. He began to shake violently…When I pushed him away and confronted him, he denied there was anything sexual about it.”

Barbra Graber provides us with posts here and here. She says:

Let’s all be clear and truthful about what actually happened in the case of JHY. People still ask me what he actually did that was so bad. Words like “inappropriate”, “liaisons”, “dalliances”, “alleged abuses”, “crossed boundaries”, “improprieties”, and “misconduct” to describe Yoder’s actions are highly misleading. The actions of JHY reported to me, beginning in the 70′s, were sexually abusive assaults, sudden acts of aggression. They were obscene and persistent sexual harassments. They were clear perpetrations of sexualized violence. Women don’t write letters of complaint to powerful institutions about liaisons with powerful men. They usually don’t bother to write complaint letters about improprieties. An impropriety is a sexist joke. Stop the whitewashing. The man committed crimes and was very lucky to have been spared a jail sentence.

Dr J. Glenn Friesen provides this article in an attempt to add some nuance to Yoder’s behavior (it is touched upon in the Scandalizing John Howard Yoder article).

Mark Thiessen Nation’s thoughts on the subject can be found here, here, and here.

Andy Alexis-Baker provides an article here.

Ted Grimsrud provides us with a series of reflections on Yoder’s sexualized violence: part 1; part 2; part 3; part 4; and part 5. He also has these other two pieces on Yoder here and here. He also provides us with a PDF of the relevant pages in Stanley Hauerwas’ autobiography which touches upon Yoder’s behavior (Hauerwas was a good fried of Yoder and, if I’m not mistaken, helped him get his teaching position at Duke).

In reading Yoder, I respect his ability to turn a theological phrase and think he provides good insight into the Bible and the teachings of Christ, yet what does one do with his writings in light of his behavior towards women and the harm that he caused them? Even though I have learned a lot from Yoder’s writings, I do not consider myself a Yoderian (nor even a Barthian or Moltmannian), yet I nevertheless think that Yoder’s writings can still be used to stimulate further theological discussion in the church. One must, of course, read Yoder critically in light of his actions, but I do not think that one should necessarily jettison Yoder’s writings from their library.

To quote the Scandalizing John Howard Yoder article:

The Politics of Jesus is one of the great texts of Christian discipleship, and it will remain that way, not because Yoder’s life warrants that place in history but, just the opposite, because God providentially uses the fallen for good. Some will take this as bad news. We see it as good news. We do so because we see in Yoder’s theological legacy, as we have just laid out, the Lamb of God made victorious.

Review: The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research

holmes_ehrman_textofNTTitle: The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research: Essays on the Status Quaestionis (Second Edition)

Editors: Michael Holmes and Bart Ehrman

Bibliographic info: XII + 830 + 53 (indices)

Publisher: Brill, 2013.

Buy the book at Amazon or Brill.

With thanks to Brill for the review copy!

Ever since I first got involved in serious biblical studies and bought the wonderful NET-NA27 diglot, I have been enraptured with New Testament textual criticism. To borrow the well-known saying about the Gospel of John, “it is shallow enough for even babies to wade in, but deep enough for elephants to drown in.” Similarly, New Testament textual criticism is simple enough for the armchair student of biblical studies to get a good enough grasp of it, yet it also offers up deep complexity that one can spend years studying.

This volume is the second edition of The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research. This new edition is called for due to important advancements that have been made in the field of New Testament textual criticism in the years since the publication of the first edition in 1995. The twenty-eight studies in this volume, from many well-known figures in the field, aims to present a thoroughly updated edition to reflect this advancement in knowledge and methods (e.g. the ECM, CBGM, stemmatics, and so forth).

This edition is over twice the size of the first edition, with several new chapters added and all of the recurring chapters being revised and updated. As with the first edition, each chapter concludes with a lengthy bibliography for further reading. One chapter found in the first edition but excised from this updated edition is the study on the use of computers in New Testament textual criticism. Though an unfortunate absence, the preface notes that this deletion was due to “the impossibility of any print resource keeping up with the rapid pace of development and change in this field” (ix).

The first four chapters in the volume discuss the different types of Greek witnesses to the New Testament that we possess, with the chapters having the same authors as they did in the first edition. In order to give an idea of how much these chapters have been revised and update, I have provided the differences in chapter sizes between the first and second editions in parentheses.

  • Eldon Jay Epp on papyrus manuscripts (18 vs. 39 pp.)
  • D.C. Parker on the majuscule manuscripts (20 vs. 27 pp.)
  • Kurt and Barbara Aland on the miniscules (17 vs. 22 pp.)
  • Carroll Obsurn on the lectionaries (13 vs. 20 pp.)

After reading through the chapters in this new second edition and then flicking through the same chapters in the first edition, the structure of these chapters seems pretty much the same yet they have obviously been reworked to provide up-to-date information on the topic at hand, such as how the subject-matter of each chapter has been impacted by various new aspects of research such as the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method.

The next eight chapters are on the various early versions of the New Testament. A notable difference is that the Armenian chapter nearly tripled in size and another being the addition of a chapter on the Gothic version. Out of these eight chapters, seven of them are by a different author than those in the first edition.

  • Ulrich Schmid on the Diatessaron of Tatian (19 vs. 27 pp.)
  • Peter Williams on the Syriac versions of the NT (15 vs. 23 pp.)
  • Philip Burton on the Latin version (17 vs. 33 pp.)
  • Christian Askeland on the Coptic versions (10 vs. 28 pp.)
  • Rochus Zuurmond (revised by Curt Niccum) on the Ethiopic version (14 vv. 21 pp.)
  • S. Peter Cowe on the Armenian version (15 vs. 39 pp.)
  • Jeff Childers on the Georgian version (14 vs. 34 pp.)
  • Carla Falluomini on the Gothic version (21 pp.)

The chapter on the Diatessaron was particularly helpful, for the question of how it can be used in the textual criticism of the Gospels is a difficult one (due to us not even possessing an extant continuous text of the Diatessaron, not to mention there still being debate over whether the Diatessaron was originally written in Syriac or Greek). Schmid approaches the Diatessaron in the chapter by employing an “old perspective”-“new perspective” structure (with the new perspective basically being research from 1995 onwards).

The next four chapters examine the state of the New Testament text to be found in the Patristic witnesses and other important Greek witnesses. Three are revised chapters from the first edition, with the fourth chapter being a new contribution.

  • Gordon Fee (revised by Roderic Mullen) on the Greek fathers (16 vs. 22 pp.)
  • H.A.G. Houghton on the Latin fathers (15 vs. 30 pp.)
  • Sebastian Brock on the Syriac fathers (12 vs. 21 pp.)
  • Peter Head on additional Greek witnesses, e.g., ostraca, amulets, inscriptions, and other types of witnesses. (31 pp.)

Peter Head’s chapter on additional Greek witnesses is a welcomed addition to this edition because not every witness to the New Testament text can neatly fall under the categories of papyri, majuscules, minuscules, lectionaries, patristic citations, or versional evidence. These other Greek witnesses to the New Testament text also bear witness to the Rezeptionsgeschichte of the text and thus should have a role to play in New Testament textual criticism. For instance, an amulet of Mark 1:1-2 from Oxyrhynchus (P. Oxy 5073) is a good example; Head says that it is “our earliest manuscript witness to this passage by a century, and clearly reflects a form of the text lacking the words “Son of God” from 1:1″ (442).

The next eight chapters are on various tools and aspects of New Testament textual criticism. Five of them are new contributions not found in the first edition (the chapters by Haines-Eitzen, Epp, Wasserman, Krans, and Holmes).

  • James Royse on scribal tendencies in the transmission of the NT text (13 vs. 17 pp.)
  • Kim Haines-Eitzen on the social history of early Christian scribes (17 pp.)
  • Thomas Geer Jr. (revised by Jean-Francois Racine) on analyzing and categorizing NT Greek manuscripts (14 vs. 21 pp.)
  • Eldon Jay Epp on textual clusters (38 pp.)
  • Tommy Wasserman on the criteria for evaluating readings (33 pp.)
  • Jan Krans on conjectural emendation (22 pp.)
  • Michael Holmes on the traditional goal of NT textual criticism (51 pp.)
  • Juan Hernandez Jr. on modern critical editions and apparatuses of the Greek NT (13 vs. 21 pp.)

Holmes’ chapter is a much needed study in this volume (he discusses whether the goal of New Testament textual criticism is seeking after the “original text”, the “initial text,” an “authorial text,” etc). Epp’s contribution is another one I’m glad was included. Basically, his idea of “textual clusters” is an updated (and more flexible) version of the now outmoded concept of “text-types.”

The next three chapters are on the three standard methodological approaches to New Testament textual criticism, all of which are revised versions of their first-edition counterparts.

  • Daniel Wallace on the Majority text theory (23 vs. 33 pp.)
  • J. Keith Elliott on Thoroughgoing Eclecticism (14 vs. 25 pp.)
  • Michael Holmes on Reasoned Eclecticism (24 vs. 31 pp.)

The final chapter is Bart Ehrman’s discussion on the New Testament text as a window into the social history of early Christianity (28 vs. 27 pp.).

When I originally looked at the table of contents I was somewhat surprised there wasn’t a chapter on the the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method and its application in the Editio Critica Maior. When one considers the number of times it is mentioned throughout the book, I figured it would have merited its own chapter. Thankfully, though, there are several pertinent discussions on it strewn throughout the volume, with a notable examination of it provided by Wasserman in his chapter on the criteria for evaluating readings (see pp. 595-607).

All in all, this volume provides in-depth studies on New Testament textual criticism from a variety of perspectives. Each chapter truly provides the status quaestionis (“state of the question”) for the subject-matter under discussion by highlighting and expounding upon current thinking in the field of New Testament textual criticism. This is a wonderful update to the first edition and is surely one of the most important books on textual criticism that a New Testament student or scholar could have on their bookcase – and the relatively inexpensive paperback version allows this to become a reality!


Early Christian Depictions of Christ (Part VI)

Byzantine Depictions of Christ – The Crucified Christ Rises

The image of the crucified Christ did not immediately become ubiquitous after the conversion of Constantine, instead becoming more common in frescoes and mosaics during the reign of Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. There are a couple good reasons for the rise of the image of the crucified Christ. First is the “conversion” of Emperor Constantine. This conversion was the result of a vision given to him soon before a decisive battle. According to Eusebius (The Life of Constantine, chapters 27-32), Constantine saw the symbol of the cross in the sky along with the words “[ἐν] τούτῳ νίκα” (“In this, conquer”), typically rendered in Latin as “In hoc signo, vinces” (“In this sign, you will conquer”). Constantine then had a form of the cross –the Chi-Rho labarum– as a military standard (see figure 1). The cross of Christ had thus been turned, theologically speaking, from a sign of the humility and weakness of God into the triumphant sign of the victory of an Emperor. Another reason is that with the legalization and legitimation of Christianity by Emperors Constantine and Theodosius I, there was no longer the need to be scandalized by the fact that Christ had suffered at the hands of the political and religious powers of the world. The cross was no longer scandalous and foolishness.

Figure 1. A recreation of how the Chi-Rho Labarum of Constantine possibly looked.

Figure 1. A recreation of how the Chi-Rho Labarum possibly looked.

A notable example of the crucified Christ from the early fifth-century is found in the Maskell Passion Ivories.[1] Christians who possessed adequate wealth were able to promote their Christian faith even in death by being buried in caskets decorated with appropriate religious artistry, and the Maskell Passion Ivories are a great example of this, depicting the crucified Christ in a narrative context including his betrayal, arrest, beating, crucifixion, death, and resurrection (see figure 2 for the crucifixion scene). The crucified Christ is here flanked by Mary, John, and the Roman Centurion found in the gospel narratives. Christ’s body is naked apart from the modest loincloth. His eyes are wide open, his head erect, and his limbs appear animated with vitality. In fact, it is only his hands that are nailed to the cross, with there being nothing to support his feet. Christ’s rule is made apparent by the nimbus and the Latin inscription for “King of the Jews.” He is juxtaposed with the traitor Judas hanging from a tree and the branches of this tree contain newborn birds, signifying the victory over death which Jesus has wrought. Here Christ’s crucifixion is portrayed as part of the larger narrative where “death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54) by his resurrection.

Figure 2 (click to enlarge). The crucified Christ on the Maskell Ivories, Rome, ca. 420-430.

Figure 2 (click to enlarge). The crucified Christ on the Maskell Ivories, Rome, ca. 420-430.

Another early-fifth century depiction of the crucified Christ, which likewise portrays the crucified Christ as triumphant over death, is a wooden door panel at the church of Santa Sabina (see figure 3).[2] Here a bearded Christ is portrayed as crucified between the two thieves. Again he wears only a loincloth and is portrayed as having an erect, robust posture. An interesting feature of this wooden panel is that Christ and the thieves are nailed to a stone wall rather than crosses, perhaps signifying that Christ was crucified outside of the walls of Jerusalem.

Figure 3 (click to enlarge). The crucified Christ, panel on wooden door of the basilica of Saint Sabina, Rome, 430-432.

Figure 3 (click to enlarge). The crucified Christ, panel on wooden door of the basilica of Saint Sabina, Rome, 430-432.

While the early Byzantine depiction of the crucified Christ was typically one of triumphalism, the crucified Christ of the Middle Ages (beginning about the eighth century) was that of the suffering Son of Man. Rather than the upright and triumphant crucified Christ, he was now typically portrayed with his head bowed and eyes closed. A quick look at figures 4 and 5 are a good demonstration of this trend.

Figure 4 (click to enlarge). The crucified Christ, from Saint Maria Antigua, eighth century.

Figure 4 (click to enlarge). The crucified Christ, from Saint Maria Antigua, eighth century.

Figure 5 (click to enlarge). The crucified Christ, from the Rabula Gospels, Monastery of St. John of Zagba, Syria, 586.

Figure 5 (click to enlarge). The crucified Christ, from the Rabula Gospels, Monastery of St. John of Zagba, Syria, 586.

Concluding Thoughts

The earliest Christian depictions of Christ can be found to have effectively been taken from the wider Graeco-Roman culture, yet they were turned into identifiable Christian iconography with distinctly Christian art eventually emerging. This utilization of pagan images is not amazing; it is simply a method of how religions compete in the marketplace of religions. While images of the crucified Christ were not popular in the earliest Christian art, the imperial underwriting of the Christian faith by Constantine and the subsequent emperors led to depictions of the crucified Christ becoming increasingly popular, turning it from a rarity to ubiquity. The earlier Byzantine depictions typically stressed the ultimate triumph that Christ had over death, with the sufferings of the crucified Christ being accented in later Byzantine art.

There are other important factors and themes that could be investigated in the early depiction of Christ, such as the Traditio Legis motif, the depiction of Christ as pantocrator, and the Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries. (Maybe I will blog get to those things, and others, in future blog posts). I hope that this brief series of blog posts has shown how art is a valuable means of exploring the development of the Christian faith by providing insight to the way in which Christians thought of Christ and their faith.

[1] For a study with a focus on the Maskell ivories, see Felicity Harley McGowan, “Death is Swallowed Up in Victory: Scenes of Death in Early Christian Art and the Emergence of Crucifixion Iconography,” Cultural Studies Review 17.1 (2011): pp. 101-124.

[2] For more on this depiction, see Allyson Everingham Sheckler and Mary Joan Winn Leith, “The Crucifixion Conundrum and the Santa Sabina Doors,” Harvard Theological Review 103.1 (2010): pp. 67-88.

[Note: This blog claims no credit for any of these images. Images on this blog are copyright to their respectful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you and do not wish for it appear on this site, please let me know and the image will be promptly removed.]

Early Christian Depictions of Christ (Part V)

Early Byzantine Depictions of Christ – The Constantinian Shift

By using the term “Constantinian shift” I am denoting the evolution of Christianity that transpired in the period between Constantine’s reign and the writing of Augustine’s City of God; it is the era of the alliance between Christianity and political power. During this period, Emperor Constantine grantedreligious freedom to Christians by the legalizing of the Christian faith with the Edict of Milan (313), which was soon followed by Emperor Theodosius making Christianity the state religion (381).[1]

This imperial underwriting of the Christian faith lead to a significant shift of the attitude towards the nature of Christianity, changing it from the status of a derisory religion-on-the-margins to an attitude of establishment and conventionality. It allowed the Christian faith to flourish and become more popular, leading to more public displays of Christian art, including images of Christ. This reversed the need for cryptic and allusive depictions of Christ such as those to be found in the catacombs, dramatically shifting the tone in how Christ was artistically portrayed.

After his conversion to Christianity, Constantine was a prolific erector of religious edifices and his establishment of Byzantium (later renamed Constantinople) as the Roman Empire’s new capital had extensive effects, amongst which was the growth of Constantinople into a hub of artistic patronage, leading to the appearance of new Christian basilicas and novel iconography. The heart of the basilica, the apse, provided a perfect place to depict Christ with the eye being ineluctably drawn to the nave.[2]

Figure 1 (click to enlarge). Christ and the Apostles, apse mosaic, ca. 390-420, Rome, Santa Pudenziana.

Figure 1 (click to enlarge). Christ and the Apostles, apse mosaic, ca. 390-420, Rome, Santa Pudenziana.

One of the earliest extant apse depictions, if not the earliest, of Christ is that found in the church of Santa Pudenziana (see figure 1). Here Christ is dressed in imperial garb and sits enthroned on a chair overlaid with pearls and gems. He is surrounded by his apostles, who are subordinated to him by being seated at a lower level. The book Christ is holding contains the words: “I, the Lord, am the preserver of the church of Pudenziana.” What is unique about this depiction is the appearance of Golgotha, a conquering cross, the four-winged beasts of Revelation, and the heavenly Jerusalem. In short, Christ is here depicted as the divine savior who shall return at the end of days to set up his kingdom.

Christ as the Good Shepherd, the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, c. 425-426

Figure 2 (click to enlarge). Mosaic of Christ as the Good Shepherd, the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy, ca. 425-26.

While the portrayal of Christ as miracle worker gained popularity in the first century of the Byzantine era, the depiction of Christ as shepherd slowly began to disappear in the fourth century.[3] Any images of Christ which did utilize these motifs underwent a noticeable change. An example of this is the early-fifth century image of Christ as a shepherd in Ravenna (see figure 2). Here Christ is a shepherd, but draped in clothing too ostentatious for a simple shepherd. The nimbus around his head and the golden imperial clothing portrays him as the divine shepherd. With its noticeable use of gold, this mosaic is characteristic of Byzantine art, though the illusion of a three-dimensional space is a holdover from the Classical era of art and is soon discarded in Byzantine art in favor of more symbolism.


Figure 3 (click to enlarge). Apse Mosaic of Christ between two angels (Saint Vitalis and Bishop Ecclesius), San Vitale Basilica, Ravenna, Italy, ca. 526-47.

While there are many beautiful mosaics from the Byzantine period, I will just show this last one (figure 3). Here is a beardless and short-haired Christ in the style of the early catacomb depictions. Yet here he sits enthroned upon a globe, with the book in his hand probably being the Book of Life, signifying that he is ready to judge the world. Christ is seated between two angels, with the one on the right being St. Vitalis who is receiving a crown (of martyrdom), and the one on the left being Bishop Ecclesius who is offering up his church to Christ.

[1] For the latest examination of Constantine’s relationship with (and influence on) Christianity, see Charles Matson Odahl, Constantine and the Christian Empire, second ed. (New York: Routledge, 2010). Other useful reading material on Constantine and Theodosius can be found in Bill Leadbetter’s articles: “From Constantine to Theodosius (and beyond),” in The Early Christian World, Volume I (Routledge, 2000), pp. 258-292; “Constantine,” in The Early Christian World, Volume II (Routledge, 2000), pp. 1069-1087; and “Constantine and Church,” in The Early Christian World, Volume II, pp. 1075-1081.

[2] For some useful literature on early Christian art and architecture, see Robin Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art (Routledge, 2000), pp. 8-94;Mathews, Clash of the Gods (Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 94-95; Richard Krautheimer, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture, fourth ed. (Penguin Books, 1986); Michael L. White, “Architecture: The First Five Centuries,” in The Early Christian World, Vol. II (Routledge, 2000), pp. 693-746.

[3] For an explanation on the disappearance of the shepherd motif, see Boniface Ramsey, “A Note on the Disappearance of the Good Shepherd in Art,” Harvard Theological Review 76.3 (1983): 375-378. The thrust of his argument is that the Christ as shepherd motif was subsumed under the Christ as teacher motif, due to Christ’s role as a shepherd being largely thought of as a didactic role. Additionally, since the church was now legitimate in the eyes of the Roman Empire, there was no longer a need for a shepherd to protect them.

[Note: This blog claims no credit for any of these images. Images on this blog are copyright to their respectful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you and do not wish for it appear on this site, please let me know and the image will be promptly removed.]


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