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The Task of a Biblical Scholar? 

While reading through John Barclay’s article Pure grace? Paul’s distinctive Jewish theology of gift (Studia Theologica, 2014 Vol. 68, Issue 1, 4–20) in preparation for his visit to our NT seminar here at the University of Aberdeen, I ran across this great quote that pretty much sums up the task of a Biblical/Pauline scholar.

“If we can disencumber Paul of some of the accretions to his theology of grace – some of the additional perfections that now might obscure rather than illuminate its original purpose – and if we can recover and restate its primary significance, both thoroughly Jewish and thoroughly distinctive, we might find ourselves in possession of a valuable tool for social critique.” (17)

I found the phrase “some of the additional perfections” interesting as if seems (based on his argument that has led up to this statement) to really get the the heart of the methodological difference between Biblical Studies and Systematic Theology, at least the modern incarnation of these two disciplines.

The discipline of Systematic Theology, especially its evangelical strain, seems to place a high value on theological concepts that have developed over time within the Church context as guided by the Holy Spirt. The discipline of Biblical Studies, especially its evangelical strain, seeks to look at the biblical text in its historical and sociological context, attempting to understand the author’s original intent behind the words to his audience. Neither discipline, as far as I am concerned, should be content with these introductory tasks or what could be held as stringent methodological constraints. In short, neither one is more “right” or “scholarly.”

Sadly, there appears to be a distinct methodological arrogance on both sides, the very antithesis of the setting in which discussion between these two disciplines should be taking place, the university. The solution, or a least an introduction to the solution, should be interdisciplinary communication, a communication that strives to value the seemingly opposite methodological approach. Who knows, we may even be pleasantly surprised and find out that we have more in common than we originally thought!

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Questions about Overseas PhD

I was asked by a friend a few questions about the process I went through coming to Aberdeen to work on a PhD in New Testament. Below are my answers. They are candid and a little cheeky. Enjoy!

  • How did you go about narrowing down your research proposal. For example, did you narrow it down to a simple question and then expand upon the intertwining issues associated with it?

My first research proposal was insanely broad and would have taken about 15 years to just write the Literature review. One of the most important things I have found out in the last three years here is that, as you continue in a research based PhD program, your topic gets narrower and narrower. No one has any idea of what they are doing when writing their proposal for acceptance to a program. It is like writing a research paper with no resolution. Basically you are saying “I don’t know much about this topic but I am really interested in it and I’d like to study something along these lines full time for a period of my life.”

What you need to demonstrate in your proposal is the ability to think of good questions. Also you need to show the topic you want to study is relevant to current scholarship. It also needs to be something that your supervisor is interested in. I was in conversation with a few scholars in my field about certain topics relating to Pauline studies. When I changed my topic after talking to the individual that would become my current supervisor and approached the others with something similar in mind, interest on their part dried up. I understand why, in most instances the topic drives the relationship.

So to answer your question, expansion was never the issue. PhD theses are notoriously narrow. So much so that the joke is that only 5 people will ever read you thesis: You, your supervisor, your examiners (internal and external) and your mom.

  • What things did you do before applying to establish a relationship with the professor you wanted to work with? Was it primarily over email, did you fly over there, meet up somewhere else, skype, etc?

I met my supervisor at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. It was there, after a cup of coffee, that I decided he was the individual that I wanted to study with. From that point on, we stayed in contact through email. He looked over my proposal and was helpful with a few questions I had about Aberdeen. From what I understand about how the UK system mainly works, once your potential supervisor considers you a worthy candidate and wants to work with you, you have a huge chance to be accepted to the program you are applying to. The one caveat to this would be if you didn’t fit the minimum qualifications that are required for the program.

  • Do you feel like you are getting a broad understanding of theology at Aberdeen or more focused on a specific issue?

The nature of the overseas PhD work is very self-driven towards your niche topic. You can take part in several intense seminars that are offered in the different disciplines. For instance, I am working on PhD on Philo of Alexandria and Paul’s understanding of early Jewish paideia (cultural instruction). This is in the biblical studies department and under a certain supervisor. Since I have been here, in the biblical studies department alone, there have been semester long seminars in the areas of Philo of Alexandria, Paul and the Law, Josephus, and 1st Corinthians. The other departments also have semester long seminars, sometimes in conjunction with each other (i.e. the OT and Systematics joined together to put on a Schleiermacher seminar a little while ago). There are also lots of chances to take undergrad level and grad level courses. I haven’t done this because of time constraints but I know several people that have.

There are mixed reviews on about how broad an education you can get in an overseas program. Since it mostly self-driven, a lot relies on you and your own effort. The fact of the matter is that the PhD thesis is of an immensely better quality. It should be since you are devoting three to four years of your life, blood, sweat, tears, and any other weird clichés one can think of to associate with full-time writing. US based programs will typically involve a lot of course work, comprehensive exams, and a shorter thesis.

I would probably say that coming overseas would give an individual a lot broader view of the theological differences that are associated with different approaches to theology and culture. Where else can you have an officemate from Ireland that was trained in a Catholic seminary and is studying for a Presbyterian pastorate? Or play football with a Pentecostal hipster with a penchant chiasms in Luke? Or even have tea with a Romanian Orthodox studying iconic imagery of Christ in the church. Sure, I don’t agree with some things these individuals have incorporated into their theological outlook on life, but I am still challenged by them daily. It has made me a better scholar and hopefully a better pastor.

Well, I hope I have answered some of your questions. After partaking in an intense round of scholarly writing it sure is nice to just type some off the cuff remarks about my time here in this blog!

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ISBL Reflections

I’m back home now after attending the ISBL in St. Andrews and I have had a little time to reflect on the conference as a whole. To begin with I should probably quickly recap Day 4, if only to be consistent.

Day 4 was pretty uneventful. Eduard and I went to the Pauline Theology session where I heard a few good and one pretty great paper presented. Tim Gombis, a St. Andrews alumni and friend of Klink and Lockett, gave a great paper on the book of Philemon and the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus. His main proposal was that there was much more to their relationship than originally might have been thought. Rather than just a master/slave relationship, Tim offered a very good bit of evidence that Philemon and Onesimus were in fact blood brothers. Without giving to much away (because I assume that Tim is going to publish this paper shortly) it looks as if Paul’s wording might indicate that Onesimus was the slave illegitimate brother of Philemon, probably sharing the same father. This doesn’t change traditional interpretations to much but actually enriches the historical reading of the text, giving full attention to some difficult greek phrasing.

After the session, Eduard and I walked back down town and on the way I ran into an old Talbot friend John Dunn (now a PhD student under N.T. Wright in St. Andrews). It was nice to chat with him for a bit. I was hoping to catch up with him during the conference but never really got the chance. I also ran into the fellas (Klink and Lockett) again who were walking with another friend, Andrew Kelly, who came down from Edinburgh (where his is also working on a PhD with in NT Helen Bond) for the day to catch up with some people while they were in town. It was great to reconnect, even thought was very quickly.

Eduard and I ate lunch and picked up a few souvenirs. I got each boy a little stuffed animal and Melodie a tartan billfold. The ride back was pretty uneventful except for an extremely drunk guy who was a bit obnoxious. He must have asked the porter about 6 times when the Aberdeen stop was (al this in a matter of 5 minutes). When we got to the station I was waiting for Yutaka to pick me up and watched the drunk guy walk up to a corner made of glass and just stand there thoroughly confused. I think he thought it was supposed to be an exit but couldn’t figure out how to “open” it. After about 10 minutes he wandered off somewhere else.

The conference as a whole was ok. St. Andrews was beautiful and the weather was great, if not a little on the warm side. Some of the sessions were a bit disappointing and a little bit boring. Some were pretty great. I think there were a few things that made the experience worthwhile. 1) The great location. I had never been to St. Andrews before and I can’t wait to go back, this time with Melodie and the boys. There is so much history to explore and such beauty to bask in. 2) The company. Eduard and I had a lot of fun. The Reinhards were great hosts. Catching up with the fellas was fantastic. Getting to know new friends from all over the world made the trip worthwhile. 3) I was pretty encouraged that I would be able to study and present at a high academic level. Not that I, or my research, is ready quite yet but hopefully by this time next year I can present at a similar conference. I felt that I could follow most things that were in line with my topic. And, if you present a paper, chances are that some kind of funding is available to help with travel expenses from the university.

Well, that was my week at ISBL and I am happy to be home. Please continue to pray for me and my family. Finances are tight and we are waiting for our US Tax refund to give us a little breathing space. I also have picked up some work with the Development Trust in the next few weeks and that should provide a little cushion for the summer. We would love to be able to travel around a little bit while the kids are out of school and see the fabulous sights here in Scotland.

Pleas let me know how I can be praying for you! Leave a comment on this blog.

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ISBL Day 4

Our fourth day in St. Andrews was a combination of unique experiences and interesting discussion.

I stared off the day at a seminar dedicated to 2nd Temple studies. Interestingly another session scheduled for the afternoon had to get cut because all of the presenters, except for one, dropped out. Because of this I got to hear a paper on a unique topic that was out of my personal context. It was on an apocryphal document titled The Acts of Phillip (circa. 3rd or 4th century C.E.). This document is somewhat fantastical, recording things like a dog making the case that he should be able to take the Eucharist (based on the fact that he recently become a vegetarian). It was a fun presentation that gave us a picture of how legends surrounding the apostles had morphed overtime to fairytailish stories.

For lunch Eduard and I went to the beach and ate at the foot of the Castle of St. Andrews. Here I revived a present from a passing seagull in the form of yellow poo which, thankfully, hit me in the leg (rather than the head as has happened in the past).

After lunch we went to a special whiskey seminar which was interesting and intoxicatingly fun:) Sponsored by one of the publishers, this seminar was completely free to attend, the only requirement being you had to have signed up for it ahead of time. The session started with a round of tasting and conversation. I was helpfully directed by a German OT scholar (Andres Shule) not to go directly for the more smokey flavored whiskeys, as their strength would inhibit my ability to taste the distinctness of the others types offered.

After a round of tasting, we enjoyed a presentation by the head of the St. Andrews School of Business about the history of whiskey in Scotland. It is an interesting tale that includes illicit highland stills, midnight bootlegging runs, royal injunctions and approvals, and much more. The presentation was highly entertaining engaging the crowd with multiple results of laughing and applause. I remarked to a friend that this would probably be the most encouraging and accepted crowd at ISBL due to the fact that everyone in the crowd has had a few drams. This results in the scholarly veneer falling just enough for people to actually enjoy each others company and not attempt to critically defeat every point presented.

A highlight for me concerning this seminar included meeting and talking to people that normally do not attend the same seminars that I do (ie. OT scholars, Orthodox Jews, etc). I also enjoyed leaning more about Scottish culture and tasting the very different and unique flavors of whiskey. I was delightfully surprised at the robust flavor of one whiskey called Laphroaig, which tasted like a nice campfire smells. Evidently Prince Charles and I have a lot in common as Laphroaig is his favorite whiskey and the only one that carries his royal seal of approval.

After the Whiskey seminar we went outside while they rearranged the room (The Parliament Room at Queen Mary’s College) for the next presentation where N.T. Wright gave a historical presentation on 600 years of exegesis at the University of St. Andrews. It was a little on the long side which is understandable since he did have 600 years to cover in a little over an hour. The length, combined with the tipsyness I acquired from the previous seminar (see above) made it a bit difficult to aptly attend to everything he said. There was a few times during the history presented that St. Andrews and Aberdeen were at extreme odds with each other. Mickey Klink let me know later that I should be thoroughly ashamed of myself. I agree, at least until I get back to Aberdeen and get filled with the Aberdonian spirit again. This usually happens when I hear the follow the local pattern of saying things in a grammatically incorrect manner. An example: “I want one of them things.”

Afterwards there was a wine reception following a marching band that consisted of the program’s promised Scottish surprise, bagpipes and kilts. More weird posh food was the fare for that evening. I stayed away from the wine because that last thing I needed was to have more alcohol after the whiskey tasting.

Anyway, it will be good to go home soon!

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ISBL Day 3

Day three started off a little better. Eduard and I got up in time and made it to the sessions. My choice of sessions was based on want I thought would be relevant to my thesis topic. All in all my morning was pretty disappointing. The first paper given consisted of a Jewish scholar who, by his own admission, represented a minority position in contemporary Jewish orthodoxy. He spent 35 minutes trying to convince his audience that God was not the central character of the OT. He was thoroughly convinced that the Hebrew Bible (aka the Old Testament) was recorded Man as the central character with a record of God’s reaction to Man’s actions. To “prove” this he mentioned books where God is hardly mentioned like Proverbs and Esther (where God is not mentioned at all).

This seems to me a startling misunderstanding of the nature of revelation.

The purpose of revelation (esp. the revelation of scripture) is to reveal things previously unknown or impossible to grasp fully without divine intervention. When we look at the Hebrew Bible in an ethnocentric (saying “this is primarily about the Jewish people”) or androcentric (saying “this is primary about mankind”) or even an individualistic (saying “this is primarily about me”) way we create a lens which has the tendency to filter out the primary purpose of the text, to reveal the character and nature of God. Besides, God’s providence and action is implicit thought the text, even in Esther and other texts where God is not frequently mentioned. And, to claim what this guys claims one would have to basically ignore the Jewish organization of the scripture which has books building on each other in a meta-narrative that gives theological structure to the whole.

There were a few other papers given in that session that, along with the heat of the room, served to lull some of the participants to sleep. A highlight of the session was John Goldengay’s thoughts on middle narratives in Hebrew Bible and the discussion afterwards. But all in all I wished I had visited another morning session, especially after hearing the great content Eduard experienced in the Pauline Theology group.

Lunch was the highlight of the afternoon. I got to hang out with some great guys that were very influential in my coming to Scotland. Darian Lockett and Mickey Klink are both professors at Biola/Talbot and studied at the PhD level in St. Andrews. Eduard and another new friend Ben Laird joined us walking around town and seeing the sights. The fellas (Mickey and Darian) reminisced about their life in St. Andrews and showed us some of the places they used to work in an hang out. We ended up eating outside ruins of the Cathedral of St. Andrews where Mickey, to my immense disappointment, did not accept my challenge to lay down in the empty grave/sepulcher so I could get a picture. Before I left for Aberdeen I got to talk to these guys in-depth about life in Scotland, especially life with a family. Darian also read though my proposal and offered some very helpful suggestions. So, catching up with them meant a lot to me.

The afternoon session was better. It stared off with a paper by Andrew Clarke, my supervisor, about the focus and scope of Pauline authority. I stuck around for the next paper that attempted to apply a socio-scientific approach and chart out Paul’s leadership based on current studies on leadership. After that I snuck out and went walking in order to find some space and time for a little solitude and contemplation.

There is a beautiful walking path that leads to a stream called Lady Breas (or something similar) and a great place for contemplation. I spent a little while sitting and journaling, just soaking in the beauty of the place and enjoying God’s presence. I talked about several things with God during that time with specific emphasis on some great advice I revived from the fellas about guarding my heart against the idolatry of scholarship.

That night we met up with the Reinhardts (Dave and Carrie) and bought them dinner as a thank you for letting us stay at their house. Without them I wouldn’t have been able to attend the conference since budget is getting quite tight this summer. We ate at a pub called The Rule. Eduard had haggis for the first time in the form of an appetizer called Haggis bites, a deep fried version of the Scottish fare. I had the Mac and Cheese with chips (French fries). It was pretty good, basic pub food.

It was great to spend a few moments with Dave and Carrie and hear about their testimony about how God has brought them to St. Andrews and provided for them in unique ways. Molly reminded me a lot of Ryun and his love of drawing with crayons. She was super cute bouncing around and excited about dinner. I tried to convince her to order the Monkey Fingers with fish eyes but she declined and went with the Fish sticks and French fries:) Dave and Carrie are great parents taking the challenges of a new baby in stride and still doting attention on Molly, even though Dave almost lost an eye to a pencil I may have over sharpened for a certain three year old:)

One more day and then I get to go home and hang out with the boys, who are out of school and having a blast with Melodie. I miss them like crazy and can’t wait!

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ISBL Day 2

Today Eduard and I woke up a bit late having the rush out the door in hopes to make it to the first session that started at 9am. We made it on time but the room was completely packed offering no seating other some uncomfortable stairs. We decided to forgo the first half of the session and check out the book stalls. After reaffirming my opinion that academic publishing was something akin to the inflated prices of prescription drugs in the USA, we went outside and ran into William Campbell of Univ. of Wales.(

At one point Eduard was thinking about studying with Dr. Campbell before coming to Aberdeen, which had established a connection that lead to an inpromtue conversation out in the parking lot. I was struck by Dr. Campbell’s passion for the success of future scholars (like Eduard and I) and the unrequested but much appreciated advice that he offered us. He told us we needed to be true to our calling to glorify Jesus in our work. He also told us not to be intimidated by our supervisor’s own opinions and not be worried about disagreeing with him on points. He told us to make sure we interacted with opposing points and make sure we mentioned them in citations but not let them intimidate us. Basically he was exhorting us to believe in ourselves; that our well thought through ideas are worthy to be explore just as much as any other scholar (even the world famous ones). It was an succinct but overwhelmingly encouraging conversation.

The day continued with a few seminars honoring Richard Bauckham, a prolific writer and scholar. We worked it out that he probably publishes on average one serious monograph a year, not including his many conference presentations. These are no mere books read by only a few people. My illustrious friend Mickey Klink, John scholar and all in a a pretty cool guy, called them “paradigm changing” books biblical scholarship. I agree (but the again I wouldn’t argue with Mickey because he is a very large man:)).

Later we listened to a panel discussing N.T. Wright’s new 1600 or so page monograph on Paul. It was interesting to hear the differing opinions offered, some more graceful than others. I am excited to read it when if finally comes out in October (as confirmed by the publishers present). It is supposed to be Wright’s definitive work on Paul so it will cross over with my thesis in several areas (hopefully). You have to respect a scholar so prestigious that he can use the colloquial phrase “sqauage it up into a bunch” twice during his presentation and get away with it.

Eduard and I ate dinner at a great little hole in the wall place called Le Rendezvous. It had very tasty homemade pizzas at about half the price of other more popular franchise restaurants. I had The Beast, a conglomeration of meat products including Salami, Pepperoni, Chicken, Sausage, and Ham. It was amazing and very filling.

We ended the night by meeting up with one of my fellow NT scholars at UoAberdeen, Joseph Lear, and his wife Holly for some Ice Cream at another local place called Jeanette’s. I had a scoop of Scottish Tablet flavored. It was pretty fantastic. Joseph’s brother in-law Ronald, a PhD candidate from South Africa, treated us all and for that I am very grateful. We all had fun sitting around talking for a while. Afterwards, filled with great pizza and tastes ice cream, I basically waddled back to the house while talking to the boys on the cell phone. I fell asleep with a full stomach and mind saturated with scholarship.