Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Speaking Altar

So, another quirk in Revelation occurs in 16:7, when the seven angels are pouring out bowls of divine wrath upon the earth and sea.  In the middle of it, the "angel of the waters" speaks of the Holy One as judge, who is righteous and offers proportional punishments: those who shed the blood of the saints get blood to drink (the waters turn to blood as in the Egyptian plague).

In response, the heavenly altar itself speaks (NRSV): "yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, your judgments are true and just."

Interestingly, it seems the throne also speaks: "And from the throne came a voice saying, 'Praise our God, all you his servants, and all who fear him, small and great'" (Rev 19:5).

This could just be a disembodied divine voice coming from the throne - or the throne is alive, animate.  It is something that occurs intermittently throughout Revelation, too, usually before breaking out in a hymn.

I know that in the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice the heavenly sanctuary and its various elements are animate and the divine throne in the much later Hekhalot Rabbati also gets up and bows before God.  But has anyone heard of the speaking altar before?

Revelation 14:10 and Heavenly Torture

I have been working on one of the SBL presentations on spatiotemporality in Hebrews, Revelation, and 4 Ezra.  I ran into a passage, which probably won't make the talk, but which I found odd.

Revelation 14:10 reads (NRSV): "and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb."

I found the torture of sinners in the Lamb's and angels' presence a bit strange, even disturbing.  Of course, the Lamb dispenses divine justice in Revelation; nonetheless, punishment itself is usually "off-stage," in the Pit.  My quick glances at commentaries (so far) discuss the motifs of fire and sulfur, but largely skirt the issue of presence.

It did remind me of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke, however, where, while there is a gulf between a good and bad afterlife, they seem to be visible to one another.

Is there a bit of Schadenfreude in these accounts: getting to watch your enemies suffer for eternity? (Something which, by the way, Tertullian indicates at the end of "On Spectacles.")

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Pope's Address to Congress

Here is Pope Francis I's address to a joint session of Congress.  It is not a transcript, but a pre-circulated copy.  So, there might be some discrepancy with what was actually said.  He structured the speech around four Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton.  Take a look.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Gladiators, Funerals, and Roman Schadenfreude

Yesterday I was teaching on Gladiators in my Religion and Sports class.  I had two good questions that generated a lot of discussion in both sections of my class and I thought I would share them here.  The first is in the context of the traditional origins of gladiatorial combat in funeral games:

"Why honor the dead with more death?"

The second question is more about the general Roman psyche:

"Why did they enjoy this so much?"

The discussion following both questions, by the way, at some point touched upon gladiatorial combat as a form of human sacrifice.

So, how would you answer these questions?

Monday, August 24, 2015

Place, Movement, and Community: A Critical Reading of Hebrews 11

At the International Society of Biblical Literature meeting in Buenos Aires last month, I gave a paper entitled, "Place, Movement, and Community: A Critical Reading of Hebrews 11."  It was received rather well - somewhat to my surprise.  And I had a nice Q&A session with a lot of questions from Lawrence Schiffman of Dead Sea Scrolls fame, interestingly enough - especially interesting since, unlike my book, I did not once refer to the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice in particular or the Dead Sea Scrolls in general.  By the way, Buenos Aires is a fantastic city for a conference.

The following is my abstract.  For anyone who wants a copy of the paper as delivered in Buenos Aires, please email me at my Illinois College account (

Borrowing insights from spatial theorists, such as Henri Lefebvre and Edward Soja, and anthropologists of movement (whether pilgrimage, emigration, or dislocated populations), this paper will explore the relationship between the building of the heavenly city by God and the use of movement among the past faithful in Hebrews 11, drawing attention to how this combination of space and movement rhetorically creates an imagined community in the face of adversity.  This paper will further investigate how these related elements of space/place and movement extend throughout the fabric of the homily. 

Camino, Hebrews, and Mysticism

It has been a long while since I have posted anything, and now, as the semester is about to start, seems the worst time to start posting things.  Nonetheless, I have a few things to create a series of posts about - and hopefully I'll have the time to bring them through to completion - due to my many busy activities this summer.

This summer I led a group of students on the Camino de Santiago, walking a portion in France and the final portion in Spain.  I also presented at the International Society of Biblical Literature's Hebrews Group in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  I will also present on a similar theme (space, time, etc. in Hebrews) at the annual meeting this November.  Finally, I am slated to turn in an Encyclopedia article on the general trends of methods of studying mysticism in the past century or so.

I want to use the blog as a (hyper)space to recall issues from the Camino and round out some comments on methods of researching mysticism (since the article length is pretty short).  So hopefully I'll get some regular posts going again and shake the dust-bytes off this old blog.  Happy reading!

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Greece: Democracy and Identity from the Classical to the Modern Era

I am pleased to announce that Paul Fuller, from the Sociology Department at Illinois College, and I will be leading a travel course (called "Breakaways" at Illinois College) to Greece in May/June 2016.  We are both very excited to return to Greece.  It has been way too long for me.

If you are an Illinois College student (returning or incoming), and you have stumbled upon this website, you may want to consider this.

While there is still much planning and editing of the itinerary, here is a preliminary peek at our (unedited) description:

Greece: the birthplace of democracy, history, philosophy, theater, and the Olympics.  It is the land of Socrates, Plato, and Pericles.  St. Paul traveled here.  Its history is etched into the ruins and archaeological sites that dot the landscape.  It is also the strongly tied to the modern developments, inspiring modern forms of democratic governance, participating in rapid urbanization and nationalization, and playing major role in the Euro Crisis.  How does its past relate to its present?  What does ancient Athens have to do with the modern nation?  How does its ancient democracy compare to its modern politics? 

In this BreakAway, we will explore several important ancient and modern Greek locations for their impact on religion and society, always keeping in mind how representations of the (ancient) past relate to contemporary circumstances.  We will explore the ancient ruins and ideas of Athens including a daytrip to the ancient religious center of Delphi to consider how its antiquity has been used to craft a modern nationalist Greek identity, and how Greek nationalism relates to the EU and austerity.  From there, we will turn to the island of Spetsis, a site of modern Greek feminist action centered around Laskarina Bouboulina who fought for Greek independence.  Next we turn to Corinth, Nafplio, Epidauros, and Mycenae, exploring sites associated with St. Paul, the first modern Greek government, ancient healing and theater, and the Iliad, respectively.  Finally, we will visit Greece’s second major city, Thessaloniki, which has an unbroken history from Alexander the Great to the present day as a thriving metropolis.  It is a place brimming with ancient, medieval, and modern significance, a place where Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived side-by-side under Byzantine and Ottoman rule.  It is an intersection between Greece, the Balkans, and Turkey with multiple cross-cultural influences from religion to cuisine.

Religion Classes at Illinois College (Fall 2015)

Since one of our faculty members - Caryn Riswold - is on sabbatical next year, we will only have six courses per semester offered next year in our little department at Illinois College.  If you are a current or future student and have stumbled upon this blog, keep these courses in mind!  If you are an academic and have questions about a particular course, let me know.

For those students who have been interested in RE 216 - Religion and Film - please note I will be offering it again next Spring (2016).  

My Courses:
RE 104: Questions of Christianity
Who is God? How is Jesus the Christ? What is sin? Where did we come from? This course examines questions like these to introduce students to foundational concepts of Christian faith and their development in the life of the Church. 

I am inheriting this course from Caryn Riswold for the year, and will be developing this course in a different way than it has been previously taught, focusing on how these questions can be used to discuss the different forms of Christianity that have emerged around the world in Asia, Africa, N. and S. America, Europe, Pacific Islands, etc. - basically, Global Christianity!  

RE 111: Introduction to Hebrew Bible
My personal description differs a little bit from the official description (in letter, but not necessarily in spirit): here's my take.

The Bible has been one of the most influential collections of literature on religion, other literature, politics, society, and culture.  The stories of Abraham and Moses and the words of Jeremiah and Isaiah have had a profound impact on Jewish, Christian, and Muslim cultures from popular films to politics.  Despite this apparent familiarity, the Hebrew Bible (a.k.a., the Old Testament) can often be very strange and disorienting for modern readers.  In this class we will recover Hebrew Bible’s strangeness by reading it anew in its ancient Near Eastern context.  To do this we will critically examine the biblical books’ transmission, development, historical contexts, and literary aspects. 

RE 197: Religion and Sports
This is a new course I am developing!  

The relationship between athletic competition and religious worship is as old as the Olympics in ancient Greece.  Why do some religions encourage athletic competition, while others see playing or even watching sports as incompatible with religious life?  How do specific religious commitments conflict with athletic competition?  How and why do some religions borrow athletic imagery to describe the religious life?  How do sports borrow religious imagery?  In this class, we will look at the role of sports in several religions from antiquity to the present, from ancient Greece to contemporary America.  We will look at Jews, Christians, Muslims, among others, examining the relationship between their religious commitments and athletics.  Finally, we will think of how athletics and religion often take on each other’s qualities to the point that sports can be analyzed as a form of religion.

Paul Spalding's Offerings:
RE 101: Introduction to Biblical Studies
A study of the contents, historical contexts, themes, development, and transmission of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and New Testament. 

RE 188: Religious Traditions of South and East Asia
A survey of globally important religious traditions that have emerged from South and East Asia, including those commonly called Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Daoism, Confucianism, and Shinto. 

RE 322 / HI 322: China: History and Religion
A historical study of Chinese religions in their classical and modern forms. This course offers an introduction to Chinese history and culture. 

So please come and join us in the Religion Department next fall!  

Monday, March 16, 2015

Place, Movement, and Community (ISBL in Buenos Aires)

I will be traveling to my first International SBL this summer in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  It will also be my first time in South America.  It will be a nice cooling off period (it is winter down there in July) after I walk the Camino in Spain this summer.  Here is my abstract:

Place, Movement, and Community: A Critical Reading of Hebrews 11

Borrowing insights from spatial theorists, such as Henri Lefebvre and Edward Soja, and anthropologists of movement (whether pilgrimage, emigration, or dislocated populations), this paper will explore the relationship between the building of the heavenly city by God and the use of movement among the past faithful in Hebrews 11, drawing attention to how this combination of space and movement rhetorically creates an imagined community in the face of adversity.  This paper will further investigate how these related elements of space/place and movement extend throughout the fabric of the homily.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

DeConick Returns

I don't know if anyone noticed - well, James McGrath notices everything - but April Deconick has been active on her blog again after a several month hiatus:  She has posted some book notes for people interested in Gnosticism and Mysticism as well as her role in a new documentary about the Gospel of Judas.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Jesus as Creator, Sustainer, and Destroyer in Hebrews

I thought after last night's post that I would go ahead and post the abstract from my own paper at the Midwest SBL, which generated more discussion than I expected - always good.  So, here it is:

Jesus as Creator, Sustainer, and Destroyer in HebrewsCreation imagery extends throughout Hebrews more than any other New Testament text, yet has received less attention than John 1, Colossians 1, or 1 Cor. 8:6.  Those who have discussed creation in Hebrews have focused on how it relates to the work's cosmology.  This paper, however, will analyze its relationship to Christology, arguing that Hebrews maintains a consistent division between what and how God and the Son create.  God creates and is the source of all things, including the heavenly tent and city, while Jesus is the creative agent of the "ages," who inherits, sustains, and destroys heaven and earth.

A copy of the paper is available upon request - just send me an email to my Illinois College email account.

Midwest SBL

I am currently attending and presenting at the Midwestern Region of the SBL.  I have never attended a regional meeting before.  It is nice, intimate.  Mostly, it is a space to throw out new, creative ideas that one is toying with, and so I have heard some very interesting papers.  Here are my personal highlights.

This morning I heard a paper on the Testament of Job by a young scholar, Scott Cason of Jacksonville University (that's Jacksonville, FL).  He analyzed the text using Bakhtin's Carnivalesque (from Rabelais and His World), Michael Serres's concept of parasitism with a dash of good ole fashioned Victor Turner / Arnold van Gennep liminality.  There is also a lot of interesting gendered issues going on with Job becoming emasculated/feminized in the text and Job's wife become masculinized according to Cason.  The audience was unfortunately very minimal for this paper, but I would like to reproduce the abstract for everyone's benefit:

Job as Parasitic Grotesque in the Testament of JobWhile tradition credits Job's patience for having pulled him through his ordeal, a reading of the Testament of Job through the lenses of Mikhail Bakthin's grotesque and Michael Serres' work on parasitism suggests otherwise.  Just as the grotesque consumes the material realm to achieve rebirth, so also does the Testament's Job symbolically cannibalize his wife.  The implication here is that it is not Job's patience but his parasitism that leads to his triumph.  

I hope he develops his idea for a paper next fall in Atlanta.

Secondly, I attended a reception of the Bible / gender theory section that focused on the appropriations of the story of the rape of the women at Shiloh.  The papers ranged on the many misidentifications of Shiloh throughout the centuries to a comparison of the story with U.S. Reconstruction era.  The paper that caught my attention was that of an older scholar who works for ATLA (American Theological Library Association): Lowell Handy.  He gave a presentation on how especially artists (among others) combined the story of the rape of the Shilonite virgins with the story of the rape of the Sabine women.  I have long been thinking of a class comparing stories from the Hebrew Bible with those of Greek and Roman literature, and this is definitely on the list.  Here is his abstract:

Classically Illustrated: Benjaminites and the Sabine Women
It has long been recognized that the episode concerning the Benjaminite men and the Jabesh women of Gilead in Judges 21 is a counterpoint to the Rape of the Sabine women in Roman tradition.  This presentation takes a quick look at select biblical illustrations for the episode in Judges, demonstrating their reliance on a history of illustrations of the classical narrative.  Classical literature was for a long time the major comparative material for biblical exegesis; classical art and its later representations also provided a visual "exegesis."

Perhaps what struck me most was when you look at artists depictions of these two episodes, one from the Bible and one from Roman legend, it is almost impossible to discern the difference without the artist's title.

In the evening, everyone gathered to listen to David Aune, who is best known for his work on early Christian prophecy in the context of Greco-Roman (and Jewish) oracles and prophecy, give an autobiographical discussion of the directions of his career.  It was, indeed, a highlight of the day likely not just for me (as the previous two were) but for most people there.  Here is his abstract.

Confessions of a ParallelomaniacThis talk consists of a series of connected autobiographical reflections on how the author became increasingly convinced that the New Testament and early Christian literature are virtually incomprehensible apart from knowledge of the Greco-Roman linguistic social and cultural world in which they were almost seamlessly embedded.  However, far from regarding ... this framework as simply a background to a foregrounded New Testament, the competent scholar should be equally acquainted with these two intersected worlds.  On analogy with what Patrick Henry is now thought not to have said, "If this be parallelomania, make the most of it."

He noted some interesting influences, such as Hans Dieter Betz and Morton Smith, who challenged him to provide a systematic framework for offering parallels to biblical materials.  As he noted in the talk and Q&A, he is an unrepentant parallelomaniac, though I should note that in the Q&A he did offer caution on how to be a responsible parallelomaniac.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Origen on the Ark's Animals' Poop

I have been reading some Origen lately, currently his Homilies on Genesis.  In his second homily, which is about Noah, he works through all of the details of the ark's construction in both the biblical account and in traditions handed down to fill in the gaps.  One major gap that Origen notices is that there is nothing to account for all of the excrement the animals would surely expel during their tenure upon the boat.  He explains this absence as follows,
Certainly since Scripture related nothing about the places which we said were set apart for the excrement of the animals, but tradition preserves some things, it will appear opportune that silence has been maintained on this about which reason may sufficiently teach of its importance.  And because it could less worthily be fitted to a spiritual meaning, rightly, therefore, Scripture, which rather fits its narratives to allegorical meanings, was silent about this. (Genesis Homily 2; trans. Ronald E. Heine, p. 75).  
The last sentence gives Origen's operating assumption about scripture: that it is made to be allegorized; anything that might fit a literal interpretation but not an allegorical one has been omitted - though he admits there are some traditions that try to close the gap.  

Ultimately, however, you just can't spiritualize crap.  

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

God is Not Male according to Arnobius

Reading through Christian works from the 2nd to 4th century can often be mind-numbingly boring, but every so often, one comes across a gem.  In a much earlier post, I noted Tertullian's surprising call for tolerance of other religions - especially from a person whose own religion (emergent Christianity) was not well tolerated.

Today, reading Arnobius's screed against pagan religion, he offers an interesting statement about God's gender: he claims Christians refer to God in the masculine manner out of custom or habit of speech - not as a reflection of God's nature:
And yet, that no thoughtless person may raise a false accusation against us, as though we believed God whom we worship to be male - for this reason, that is, that when we speak of Him we use a masculine word, - let him understand that it is not the sex which is expressed, but His name, and its meaning according to custom, and the way in which we are in the habit of using words [alt. with familiarity of speech]. For the deity is not male, but His name is of the masculine gender. (Arnobius, adversus Gentes 3.8)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Shana Tova!

Here is my favorite Rosh HaShanah tradition:

Journey to the End of the Earth

I am pleased to announce that Illinois College has approved the proposal submitted by Emily Adams (in French) and myself to take students to hike the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (the Way of St. James) in France in Spain next summer.

The travel course - or in Illinois College's parlance, "Breakaway" - is called

"Journey to the End of the Earth: Hiking the Way of St. James in France and Spain"

I am very excited to have this opportunity to lead this trip.  Here is a description:

Hiking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela – the Way of St. James – has recently become the most recognizable and most traveled pilgrimage in modern Christianity.  While recently touted as a symbol for European unity, the Camino has a long history and provides extensive opportunities to see medieval churches, castles, palaces, ancient ruins, as well as stunning views of the countryside.  Hiking the Camino offers a multifaceted experience.  This trip would be ideal for student-athletes looking for a physical challenge, language students who want to test their French and/or Spanish, and those interested in the history, religious landscape, and cultures of southern France and northern Spain.  While officially a Roman Catholic pilgrimage route, today one can also find Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists from around Europe and the world walking the “Way.”  The reasons why so many people take such a pilgrimage are varied, from seeking a religious experience to losing weight; nonetheless, most seek some sort of personal transformation. 

            In this BreakAway course, students will encounter their peers from multiple religious and cultural backgrounds from around the world, who tend to walk the Camino during the summer months.  Our trip will break into two roughly equal parts.  First we will walk the “Le Puy,” a route in Southern France.   On this part of the journey, students will see the French countryside, local farms, old Gothic churches, and a Roman ruin.  Then we will turn our attentions to Galicia in Spain, walking the last portion of the French Way leading into Compostela.  This is the most-walked part of the Camino, making it a prime opportunity for students to mingle with people of all ages from other countries.  Students will also see the extensive French influence along this route in terms of the Gothic architecture of churches, which made it into Spain with the medieval pilgrims themselves.  In both France and Spain, students will have the opportunity to share in common meals with other pilgrims, as well as partake of the local cuisine.  Since this is the time when large numbers of students from around Europe, Latin America, and Asia walk the Camino, our students will meet and interact with people their own age from many different countries.   It will be a truly international experience.

The reference to the "End of the Earth" refers to the final stop many pilgrims often make on the coast at Finisterre (literally, the end of the earth).

If you are an Illinois College student, and are interested in joining us next summer, please contact either Emily Adams or myself.

If you would like to learn more about the BreakAway program, learn how to apply to a BreakAway, and see what BreakAways have been offered in the past, please visit here.

Monday, July 7, 2014

A Review of Seth Schwartz's latest

I just saw this positive review of Seth Schwartz's latest book, The Ancient Jews from Alexander to Muhammad, a condensation of his book, Imperialism and Jewish Society.  Imperialism and Jewish Society should be required reading of any scholar of ancient Judaism, ancient Christianity, and Roman history.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Dangerous Literature

Though not directly discussing the Bible or ancient texts more generally, there was a review article in the Chronicler of Higher education discussing "When Literature was Dangerous."  The example used there is James Joyce's Ulysses, which used to be banned in the U.S. and England until the 1930s.  In the U.S. today, however, when very little is actually censured, there appears to be very little dangers in reading and writing.  At the same time, when anything goes, does anything matter?  Individual institutions may issue a ban, but there is no force behind it like there used to be.  Whereas writers in other, more totalitarian states, often risk imprisonment and execution for their work.  Where nothing goes, does everything matter?

This, ultimately, raises a different issue than usually addressed in our dusty discussions of what something meant in antiquity or even how it has been received later.  It is not even limited to questions of cui bono? That is, who benefits from something being written.  The question is what's at stake?! And what has the writer risked?