Saturday, March 31, 2007

NewsWeek Poll on Belief in America

A brand new NewsWeek poll of Americans finds that 9 in 10 (91 percent) of American adults say they believe in God. Almost as many (87 percent) say they identify with a specific religion. Christians far outnumber members of any other faith in the country, with 82 percent of the poll’s respondents identifying themselves as such. Another 5 percent say they follow a non-Christian faith, such as Judaism or Islam.
Another interesting finding of the survey is that Democrats tend to believe (42%) that religion has too much influence in the country, whereas Republicans tend to believe (42%) that it has too little!

Friday, March 30, 2007

The Gate at Tel Gezer (post 1)

I posted once before on the famous Iron Age city-gate at Tel Gezer. For the photo, links, and comments, click here. Recently, at a public presentation I did on life in biblical times, I showed some computer slides and video of the gate, so I thought I'd post some more images of it now at this juncture. The first image is a teaching-slide of the gate as it currently lies excavated.

The Gate at Gezer

And here next is an artist's rendition of what the gate may have looked like in real life, when it was more than just its foundations. For this angle of vision, you would be standing outside the city (i.e, in the far upper right of the photo of the excavations above, looking back into the gate from outside it).

Artist's Reconstruction

In a day or two, I hope to say a bit about the interior chambers of the gate complex. Please stay tuned... [update: click here]

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Cosmic Tree

The Cosmic Tree

In my Ezekiel seminar this afternoon we looked at Ezek 31, which compares Egypt and Assyria in their pride and haughtiness to the mythic image of the cosmic tree. The cosmic tree is an archetypal symbol of creation and world order. Growing at the mythic center of earth's landscape and with limbs and branches spreading out to earth's Four Corners, it is a microcosm of world order and cosmic glory. Earthly superpowers may partake of such glory; God grants them this privilege (Ezek 31: 9). If they do, however, they run the huge risk of haughty in their loftiness, bursting all bounds and violating the boundaries of nature and history in the way that the cosmic-tree archetype does in some of its cross-cultural manifestations.
The image above, a royal stele from Teima dating to the reign of King Nabonidus, contains a cosmic-tree in the form of a scepter in the hand of the monarch. Ezekiel 31 is on target in its notion that superpowers of the time could imagine themselves as bearers of the cosmic power of the world tree! The scepter in the image has a natural, slightly crooked shape, like a tree, and is replete with organic joints and knots. Heavenly bodies appear at its top, just as Ezekiel's cosmic tree set its top high among the clouds of heaven (Ezek 31:10).

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Now in Print: Review of John J. Collins, Encounters with Biblical Theology

Now in Print
Just received the latest, February 2007, issue of the Virginia Seminary Journal. Pages 89-90 contain my review of John J. Collins, Encounters with Biblical Theology (Fortress, 2005). The journal editor, Alix Dorr, has given me permission to post a copy of my review here on line. Enjoy:

Encounters with Biblical Theology.
By John J. Collins.
Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005.
Pp. x + 243. $22.00 (pb).

This volume is a collection of learned biblical essays, all touching on theological issues, published over three decades by John J. Collins. It should not be confused for a comprehensive or systematic work of biblical theology. The essays are clumped in sets under five headings: “Theoretical Issues,” “Topics in the Pentateuch,” “Wisdom and Biblical Theology,” “Apocalyptic Literature,” and “Christian Adaptations of Jewish Traditions.” Conspicuously absent is a separate section on Hebrew Prophecy. Throughout the essays, Collins’ writing is cautious, well-considered, and nuanced. This is a careful and erudite collection of knowledge, well documented through endnotes gathered at its conclusion.

The author is a senior scholar of Hebrew Bible, perhaps best known for his work on apocalyptic literature. He has now replaced Brevard S. Childs at Yale University, a sea change for the institution’s biblical department given Collins’ notorious disagreements with Childs’ mode of scholarship.

Collins’ polemical opposition to Childs’ neoorthodoxy and post-critical hermeneutics is conspicuous in this volume, where more than once he pits his own liberal modernism against Childs’ very different canonical sensibilities. Fighting on various other fronts, he also defends a resolutely historical-critical approach to the Bible against conservatives such as Donald Wiseman and Kenneth Kitchen and against postmodernists, such as Keith Whitelam.

Collins is deeply committed to the historical-critical method in studying Scripture, and understands biblical theology as a mere extension of that enterprise. He keeps his scholarly discourse public, rationalist, and historically anchored. His conclusions are almost entirely of a socio-historical nature, and require little or no spiritual sensitivity to appreciate.

Such an approach to the Bible has its merits. It opens up a safe space for ecumenical and interfaith conversation in which even pure secularists are comfortable. Properly insisting that religious thinkers engage evidence, mount arguments, and keep open minds, Collins appropriately reminds us that blind faith is no path to knowledge. These merits of Collins’ stance are laudable. If one is hoping for a biblical theology that is of service to the gospel and to the church, however, Collins’ work proves deficient.

For decades, Brevard Childs has pleaded with biblical theologians to attend to Scripture’s unique shaping, through which the Spirit has created and nurtured faith communities. If willing to do so, their exegesis would become relevant for ministry once again, stimulating and nourishing the active theological work and calling of church and synagogue. Dynamic interaction with the Bible’s inherent qualities as Scripture is the bread and butter of constructive theology, not interaction with the Bible’s hypothetical, pre-scriptural building blocks. Collins, unfortunately, discounts Childs’ plea.

“De-canonizing” the biblical texts and fastening historical-critical blinders on his readers, Collins short-circuits the prospects of his biblical theology. It cannot enliven the church’s contemporary theological task, because it lacks a means of engaging and illuminating the “Word of the Lord” to which the church attends. Collins’ biblical-theological work has nothing to say about any such “Word,” because the Scriptures for him lack a qualitative difference over against other ancient literature. The History of Religion approach is Collins’ ally, not the discipline of theology. Left unanswered is the question of why one should clump the Scriptures together with other ancient writings that lack the internal marks of a long vitality as the life-bread of the people of God!

For Collins, the biblical texts are of historical, not canonical, importance, and modern people must disavow much of their rhetoric and ideology. This is to understand the Bible in anthropological rather than theological terms. It is to take the Scriptures not as a witness to God’s truth but as “works of the [human] imagination, attempts to make sense of historical experience” (p. 32).

Collins is extremely reticent to speak directly about God’s activity in and purpose for history. Indeed, he requires the biblical theologian to bracket her ontological claims no matter how convicted of them she might be. Responsible academic criticism, he holds, does not have the resources to support such claims. This stance facilitates public discourse about biblical theology but at the expense of perpetuating the contemporary mutual isolation of biblical studies and dogmatics. Frankly, it also makes Collins sound a lot like a deist.

Collins’ hard-nosed historicism presupposes a philosophical naturalism. “Modern critical historiography requires that events be explained in terms of human causality,” he writes (p. 86). In one essay he describes the notion of divine intervention in history as a “mythological idiom” of the biblical text. In another, he approvingly quotes a statement by Rudolf Bultmann that Jesus’s miracles are incompatible with a modern conception of the world. Such a perspective on history that does not allow for transcendental causation is reductionistic and obviously stands at odds with traditional Christianity. In his labors to give the Scriptures objectivity over against later church tradition, Collins ends up subjecting them to the metaphysical commitments of Enlightenment rationalism.

In his essays, Collins follows the lead of Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923) in assuming that biblical texts must be interpreted to reflect the conditions and beliefs of their first, primitive settings. He writes, “The study of the Bible over the last two centuries has amply demonstrated that it is the record of a historic people, through the vicissitudes of its very particular history. The social message of the Bible, like everything else in it, is historically conditioned and relative” (p. 78). Collins does not come clean, however, about the crisis of unprecedented magnitude and depth that Troeltsch saw set in motion by the rise of this mode of approaching the Bible as conditioned and relative.

Troeltsch, in fact, argued that the historical-critical method had unleashed a crisis of historical relativism upon Christianity. This historical relativism constituted a “leaven” that would alter the faith forever. Eventually, it would even burst Christianity’s structures as they had hitherto been known. Unlike Troeltsch, and unlike many religious believers today, Collins apparently feels immune from the threats of this crisis.

Although a classic and influential document of religious communities, the biblical corpus lacks transcendent authority for Collins. Thus, he is free to reject those parts that stand in tension with the ethical commitments of contemporary humanism. In his essay “Faith without Works,” it becomes obvious that Genesis 22 is one such part of the Bible.

In this essay, Collins insists that Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac is morally reprehensible and beyond defense. Abraham, he writes, “cannot be invoked as a positive moral example for the modern world” (p. 58). I beg to differ! Far from reprehensible, Abraham’s shocking obedience to God in Genesis 22 flowed out of a riveted focus on the Lord’s wondrous goodness and provision.

Abraham obeyed God’s harsh command because he believed, despite all possible human calculation, that God would somehow not demand Isaac of him in the end or else would make things right in some other manner that only God could foresee—one that lay wholly outside the mundane, the everyday. The text practically shouts this truth.

When Isaac notices that he and his father lack a victim for their sacrifice, Abraham assures him, “God will provide for himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (22:8). When Abraham chooses a name for Mount Moriah it is Yahweh-Yireh, “The Lord Provides,” “The Lord sees to it” (22:14). “Moriah” itself sounds like the Hebrew root for “provide” or “see to it.” That root appears five times in the chapter, which is unusually frequent. All this is no coincidence. The whole story of Genesis 22 revolves around how God wondrously provides for God’s people’s deepest needs, seeing to it they are met. This is the God whom Abraham found himself able to obey through faith.

In this short review, I have left the majority of essays in this volume untouched. They are all of high quality, however, and well worth reading for their historical-critical (if not theological) insights. The complete list of essays in the volume is as follows: “Is a Critical Biblical Theology Possible?” (pp. 11-23); “Biblical Theology and the History of Israelite Religion” (pp. 24-33); “The Politics of Biblical Interpretation” (pp. 34-44); “Faith without Works: Biblical Ethics and the Sacrifice of Isaac” (pp. 47-58); “The Development of the Exodus Tradition” (pp. 59-66); “The Exodus and Biblical Theology” (pp. 67-77); “The Biblical Vision of the Common Good” (pp. 78-88); “The Biblical Precedent for Natural Theology” (pp. 91-104); “Proverbial Wisdom and the Yahwist Vision” (pp. 105-16); “Natural Theology and Biblical Tradition: The Case of Hellenistic Judaism” (pp. 117-26); “Temporality and Politics in Jewish Apocalyptic Literature” (pp. 129-41); “The Book of Truth: Daniel as Reliable Witness to Past and Future in the United States of America,” with Adela Yarbro Collins (pp. 142-54); “The Legacy of Apocalypticism” (pp. 155-66); “Jesus and the Messiahs of Israel” (pp. 169-78); and “Jewish Monotheism and Christian Theology” (pp. 179-89). The volume includes a seven-page introduction by the author, an index of modern authors, and an index of Scripture and other ancient literature.

Stephen L. Cook
The Catherine N. McBurney Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature


Sunday, March 25, 2007

The VTS Variety Show, 2007

Who's on First?

A while back, I posted on a humorous Hebrew take-off on a famous Abbott & Costello comic routine, "Who's on first?" (click here). Well, about a month ago, at the VTS variety show, two seminarians, Beth Bojarski and Christopher Richardson took the routine to a new height. They dramatized the Hebrew Humor routine for the stage. The dialog is the main attraction here, so with Beth's permission, I'm making it available here on my blog as an mp3 audio-file (right-click here and "save as"). The mp3-file is about 4.5 MB, so it is best downloaded over a broadband connection. Enjoy!


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Is the Prophetic Author of 2 Isaiah the Suffering Servant?

The Suffering Servant
Last evening, I taught my night-school class on a biblical theology of servanthoood. The students raised again the question as to whether Isaiah's servant figure might be the so-called anonymous prophetic author of Isaiah 40-55.

I answered that I doubt it. Israelite prophets channeled word of God's judgment or salvation to Israel, they did not embody and enact God's salvation as the Servant does. In Isaiah 49:6, God tells the servant that he, the Servant himself, will both restore the remnant of Israel and become a light to the nations.
Israelite prophets did not claim the right to demand a hearing based on their own special personhood as the Servant does in Isaiah 49:1.

Unlike any prophet, the Servant claims to be Israel (49:3), and to be God's covenant in himself (49:8).

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The So-Called "Jesus Family Tomb"

Talpiyot Tomb

While I was away in China, Jacobovici's documentary film on the "Jesus Family Tomb" aired on the Discovery Channel. I'm sorry that circumstances prevented me from commenting in a timely fashion on why Jacobovici's claims are outrageous and why the Talpiyot tomb in Jerusalem cannot be the tomb of Jesus and his family.

At this point, let me merely direct readers to the excellent analysis by Dr. Jodi Magness, a distinguised professor of early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (click here). Here are a few noteworthy quotes:

...Jesus' family, being poor, presumably could not afford a rock-cut tomb, as even the more "modest" ones were costly. And had Jesus' family owned a rock-cut tomb, it would have been located in their hometown of Nazareth, not in Jerusalem. For example, when Simon, the last of the Maccabean brothers and one of the Hasmonean rulers, built a large tomb or mausoleum for his family, he constructed it in their hometown of Modiin. In fact, the Gospel accounts clearly indicate that Jesus' family did not own a rock-cut tomb in Jerusalem — for if they had, there would have been no need for Joseph of Arimathea to take Jesus' body and place it in his own family's rock-cut tomb! If Jesus' family did not own a rock-cut tomb, it means they also had no ossuaries.
...If the Talpiyot tomb is indeed the tomb of Jesus and his family, we would expect at least some of the ossuary inscriptions to reflect their Galilean origins, by reading, for example, Jesus [son of Joseph] of Nazareth (or Jesus the Nazarene), Mary of Magdala, and so on. However, the inscriptions provide no indication that this is the tomb of a Galilean family and instead point to a Judean family.
In a second article (click here), also posted on the SBL site, Christopher A. Rollston analyzses the data in terms of genealogy, onomastics, demographics, and DNA evidence, and gives the following conclusion:
...Based on the prosopographic evidence, it is simply not possible to make assumptions about the relationships of those buried therein, and it is certainly not tenable to suggest that the data are sufficient to posit that this is the family tomb of Jesus of Nazareth. Finally, it should be stated that at this juncture there is nothing in the statistical or laboratory data that can sufficiently clarify the situation, and I doubt that there ever will be.

Home from China!

buisness class to Tokyo

Rebecca is Home!

Rebecca arrived home and became an American officially around 10:30 am yesterday (Friday) morning. Wendy Tobias gave us the wonderful gift of transportation, bringing the whole family home in the pouring cold rain from Dulles airport. Many balloons, flowers, and gifts awaited our daughter at home in Alexandria.

The whole family had a good nap, then woke up for a light dinner before going to bed. Rebecca woke up once during the night, but did a great job sleeping until 5am this morning.

I am going to try posting to this Bible Blog as best I can as we settle back in to life in Alexandria, but my postings may be a bit sporadic. This new life as a Dad may take some getting used to, but rest assured that I am savoring every second of it!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

We're On our Way Home, Grandpa and Grandma!

The Three Barker-Group Babies

From left to right are: Samantha, Luke, and our baby daughter, Rebecca Ketziah Cook.

Final Group Photo in China

Red-Couch Photo

The Journey Home beings! Here is our last Barker-Foundation group photo. It's a tradition to take a final picture of the babies and their new parents on the Red Couch at the White Swan Hotel here in Guangzhou as the group prepares to fly home to the US.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Best of Blog (10): Tel Zayit Teaching Slide

Power-Point slide: Tel Zayit Inscription (click to enlarge):

Monday, March 12, 2007

Best of Blog (9): The Wilderness Tabernacle

tabernacle model Under the category of neat links, there is a good looking model of Israel's wilderness tent
sanctuary at the Glen Cairn Museum WebSite. The model attempts to reconstruct the tabernacle based on its biblical descriptions in the Pentateuch, where, by the way, it receives more verses devoted to it than to any other object. According to the biblical description, the tabernacle contained the ark, an incense altar, a table, a seven-light menora, an eternal light, Aaron’s staff, the vessels that are used by the priests, a container of manna, and a scroll written by Moses.

There is a neat QuickTime movie about it all that is rather fun to watch. To see the movie, click here.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Best of Blog (8): Genesis 31 and the Teraphim

The Teraphim Here is an artist's reconstruction of Gen 31:19, the shrine of the ancestors in the house of Laban, Rachel's father.

Similar consecrated niches within one's homestead are known in several cultures, including traditional African cultures. The Baganda people, centered in Uganda, traditionally kept such shrines to the ancestors in each home. The presence of the family spirits helped bind the family together in mutual respect and concern. The spirits' permanent connection with the family homestead anchored the family physically on their family land.

Rachel doubtless stole the teraphim figurines so as not to sever this very type of traditional family bonding.

By the same token, Laban's outrage at the theft of the teraphim (Gen 31:30) was doubtless due to their inextricable connection with his ongoing family line and with his family's fields and houses. As among the Baganda, the family spirits must never leave the family homestead!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Best of Blog (7): "Bride Wealth"

Bride WealthWhile reading an excellent book on African Religions and Philosophy by John S. Mbiti, I was reminded that often we westerners mis-apprehend the practice of bride wealth (cf. 1 Sam 18:27). Mbiti writes, "Under no circumstances is this custom a form of 'payment,' as outsiders have so often mistakenly said. ...The two families are involved in a relationship which, among other things, demands an exchange of material and other gifts. This continues even long after the girl is married and has her own children." Further, Mbiti writes, "This marriage a token of gratitude on the part of the bridegroom's people. ...At her home the gift 'replaces' her, reminding the family that she will leave or has left and yet she is not dead. She is a valuable person."

Friday, March 09, 2007


One of our 2006 VTS Alums, Lonnie Lacy, and friends have created Devo-to-Go, a podcast of thoughts & prayers, sounds & ideas--all designed to help us listen for God in our daily lives. Devo-to-Go is a co-production of Cathedral Young Adults at Christ Church Cathedral in Houston, TX and Episcopal Campus Ministry at Georgia Southern University. Click here for some up-to-date Lenten podcasts...

Best of Blog (6): Images of Isaiah's Suffering Servant

As his project for my seminar on Isaiah, Stuart Shelby produced a series of six poster-size drawings, interpreting aspects of the Servant Songs of Isaiah. Here are two of my favorites:

The images reveal close attention to the poetic images of the Servant Songs, and provoked some great class discussion. I would welcome your observations.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Rebecca Loves Dancing and Clapping to Music

A Trip to the Park Atop Chongqing

At the Park Atop Chongqing

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Photo with Rebecca's Nanny at Fuling

Rebecca's Nanny
Rebecca brightened up quickly when she got to spend a few minutes with the nanny who cared for her in the orphanage. We got some good photos of her play areas and of her crib where she slept the last few months before we arrived this week.

Road Trip to Fuling

Today we travelled across mountains and through tunnels from Chongqing to Rebecca's orphanage in Fuling, about 2.5 hours drive away from our hotel. We all saw some amazing countryside along the way.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Dinner with Rebecca...

Dinner in Chongqing
Rebecca is starting to have a lot more fun. She loved eating Congee with Spinach at dinner, and, even more, playing with her coral colored cloth napkin! She was really clowning around and absolutely loving all the attention.

Monday, March 05, 2007

News From China: Rebecca Has Arrived!

As of today, at 4:30pm China time, Rebecca Has Arrived! Daddy, Mommy, and Baby are all doing fine here in Chongqing!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Best of Blog (5): Isaiah 55 set to Music

Isaiah 55

Here is another student project from my 2-Isaiah class, OT-206, Spring 2005. Rosemary Beales has set Isaiah 55:6-11, the Second Song of Isaiah, as a metrical version that can be sung to a hymn tune. The tune she chose was Blaenhafren, a Welsh folk tune, 1982 Hymnal # 610. I think the results that she achieved work rather well. They are based on hard work, exegesis, and artistic talent.

You can see her version (and her research) here.

You can hear the tune as a MIDI audio file here.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Best of Blog (4): 'Ain Dara Temple

In my July 18 blog entry, I mentioned my student Laura F.'s visit to the Middle East last summer. Here are a few of the photographs that she took of the ancient temple at 'Ain Dara. 'Ain Dara was a city-state of NW Syria, part of a broader "Neo-Hittite" cultural area that stretched from SE Turkey to Damascus. The site is located northwest of Aleppo and the temple dates from the 10th to the 8th century B.C.E. Laura's pictures were of special interest to me, since I had used the temple and its iconography as evidence when I was working on Ezekiel's Hierarchical World.

At the extraordinary temple complex, rows of monstrous lions and sphinxes guard both the entrances and the holy of holies. You can see some of them here at the temple's front right. Processions of animals and some dignitaries formed a sculptural band around the exterior walls of the temple and the platform upon which it stood. Hittite conventions and themes are strongly evident in dress, proportions, and surface finish, particularly in the earliest sculptures. Local influence is, however, also clear in the animal bodies, the treatment of the heads, and the stances of the figures.

Ein Dara Temple

Meter-long footprints of the god were carved on the floor between the portico columns and on the door sills. The religious thinking here was obviously rather anthropomorphic. (The god was human in form, but gigantic in size.) Laura uses her foot as a point of comparison for the size of the prints carved into the stone. Interestingly, there are the remains of two columns on the sides of this stone slab, which supported the portico. These seem to parallel the two columns at the front of the first ("Solomonic") temple in Jerusalem. In fact, the 'Ain Dara temple as a whole is quite illuminating of the Jerusalem temple, being of roughly the same architectural plan, although somewhat larger.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Best of Blog (3): Humor: The 10 Commandments

Prof. Kevin Wilson shared this video clip with us when he stayed overnight with us several months ago. It's a brief piece of humor from "The Family Guy." Click to Enjoy: Film Clip (It is a wmv file, probably requiring Windows Media Player or the equivalent.)


Thursday, March 01, 2007

Best of Blog (2): The Land of Israel

This is a sample image from a set of photographs by an outstanding former student of mine, Frank Logue, now an outstanding Episcopal priest in Georgia. He took this portfolio of photos in Israel/Palestine in May of 2000 using infrared and black and white film. You can view the entire portfolio of 20 images here: Black & Whites

P.S. You can find Frank's blog ("Irenic Thoughts") at: