Trump: Respect or Resistance

The comments below were written last week by me and my friend and colleague Robyn Whitaker from Trinity College Theological School. It is a response piece, taking up an article by The Age‘s former religion editor Barney Zwartz, now of the Centre for Public Christianity. You can read that article hereThe Age didn’t publish our response, so I am posting it here. Much more could be said, of course, not least in light of the events of the past weekend.

Donald Trump: Respect or Resistance?

In Tuesday’s Age Barney Zwartz argued that his Christian faith instructed him to pray for President Trump and to trust God’s sovereign purposes. It is not that simple. We share his view that Trump is ‘manifestly unfit for office’ and we are also convinced that handwringing is not the appropriate response to his election and occupancy of White House. We too are committed to praying for the US President and for all those who lead and exercise authority. However, we disagree vehemently with the suggestion that prayer, honour, and respect are the most important things for Christians, or anyone for that matter, to focus on at this time.

Zwartz lands on a selection of texts from the Christian Bible that promote the values of honour and respect in relation to those in political authority. This is not the only, or even the primary, way in which such issues are understood in the biblical tradition. In these texts attitudes towards political authority run across a spectrum ranging from accommodation (pray for the king etc.) through prophetic critique (naming injustice and speaking truth to power), to the encouragement of various forms of active resistance to oppressive and unjust political regimes. Much of the Old Testament is taken up with the witness of Israel’s prophets that challenge kings, rulers and their unjust regimes; from Moses, through Elijah, to Amos and Micah. This critique continues in the teaching of Jesus, who envisages an alternative kingdom, marked by love of neighbour, compassion for the poor, and the creation of alternative forms of community that were profoundly different from those envisaged by the ruling orders of his day. Jesus was executed by a State known for its concern for centralised control, ideological manipulation, and rule through military power.

While some parts of the early Christian movement sought to protect vulnerable communities by offering advice equivalent to that offered by Zwartz, other Christians sought to confront imperial power through words and action, challenging its captivity to economic injustice, systemic violence, and neglect of the marginalised. Nowhere is that critique more pointed than in the Bible’s last book, Revelation, which unveils the ugly side of political power, bears witness to the suffering caused by unjust and oppressive rulers, and calls Christian disciples to resist it. Revelation may yet become a necessary text for contemporary Christian responses in the Trump era. This vision of the demands of Christian discipleship has shaped the theology, spirituality and action of key figures such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany and Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement.

Historically, the Book of Revelation and the prophetic traditions we have described were important texts for black churches in their resistance to apartheid. The texts quoted by Zwartz were, along with others, often used by the white majority churches and the apartheid regime to encourage conformity and subservience to a distorted and oppressive form of political power. To appeal to them now is to neglect the necessary response to Trump and his agenda. Our responsibility is to speak the truth, build community, and resist, even at cost.

Robyn Whitaker is Bromby Lecturer in Biblical Studies at Trinity College, Parkville

Sean Winter is Associate Professor of New Testament at Pilgrim Theological College, Parkville

Both teach within the University of Divinity in Melbourne.

Videos: Jesus in the Gospels (and Paul)

Back in May of last year  I was asked to record some conversations with Darren Wright, exploring the ways that each of the Gospels characterises Jesus in the narrative. But we couldn’t resist also having a chat about the role that the figure of Jesus plays in the Pauline letters.

The conversations were entirely unscripted, and so are more than a little rough around the edges. But Darren has made a good job of editing them to the point where there are some sections that seem to make quite good sense. They are intended to be discussion starters for church groups, not technical discussions of the scholarly issues, although I note with pleasure that I talk at one point about the importance of the category of the idealised human figure (I think the Matthew video), in ways that are broadly consistent with the recent important work by Daniel Kirk (who visited Melbourne last year but whose book, A Man Attested by God, had not yet appeared.)

The videos can be found here.



The Impact of Jesus of Nazareth: 2017 Conference

Over the break details have come through of a conference planned for 28–29 September 2017, hosted by the Sydney College of Divinity and the Catholic Institute of Sydney.



The Call for Papers is deliberately open, with the possibility of a published volume as an outcome of the conference. I am toying with a paper proposal that considers the methodological shifts in historical Jesus studies in recent years. Details of the conference theme and CfP are below.


On Commentaries and Plagiarism

The work of writing a commentary on a New Testament text includes, almost by definition, the tasks of learning from and engaging with the insights of those who have done that work before you. Commentaries cite other commentaries. Sometimes they do so explicitly, and sometimes the connecting threads between one scholar’s work and that of a predecessor operates at the level of information, insight, and implicit influence (anxious or otherwise).

When we teach students how to make use of secondary literature in their own work there are some basic guidelines that ensure that the kind of borrowing described above doesn’t fall into the category of academic misconduct or, more directly, plagiarism. State things in your own words; don’t quote word for word from someone else without quotation marks and supporting reference; check references and sources referred to; and don’t think that just because you have changed one or two words in a sentence you have escaped the problem of potential plagiarism.

In news today, Eerdmans has notified the scholarly community that it is pulping and removing from its list all copies of three New Testament commentaries written by Peter O’Brien. It seems that O’Brien’s 2010 commentary on Hebrews was found to have significant problems in its use of sources and ‘runs afoul of commonly accepted standards with regard to the utilization and documentation of secondary sources’. The company, to its credit, also investigated O’Brien’s other commentaries: on Philippians (1991) and Ephesians (1999) and found these to be ‘less pervasively flawed but still untenable’. The full statement can be found here.

I have been using on a regular basis O’Brien’s work on Philippians since it was published, and hadn’t noticed anything untoward. But this morning, I thought I would run a very quick experiment to get a sense of the nature of the problem. I chose the commentary on the opening verses of Philippians 1:1–2 and read O’Brien’s comments. I then thought to myself ‘what commentary might an evangelical New Testament scholar make good use of in the course of his research and writing?’. The answer, of course, is F. F. Bruce’s 1983/1989 commentary in the New International Biblical Commentary series. The results are interesting.

Here is O’Brien on Paul’s use of the term doulos in the letter prescript.

In the LXX the term δοῦλος often referred to someone whom God used for a special ministry or through whom he spoke, such as Moses (Ne. 10:29), Joshua (Jos. 24:29), David (Ps. 89:20 [LXX 88:21]), and Jonah (2 Ki. [4 Kgdms.) 14:25, each of whom is called ‘a servant (δοῦλος) of the Lord’…But it is more likely that the readers would have understood the Greek term in its common sense of ‘slaves’. Although Paul did regard it as a high honour indeed to be a ‘slave of Christ’, he implied by his choice of the word δοῦλοι that both he and Timothy were totally at the disposal of their Master.

Peter T. O’Brien, Commentary on Philippians (NIGNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 45.

And here is Bruce (identical words are in bold, points where rewording seems to have occurred is in italics with the exception of abbreviations which have been changed to fit house style):

…the Greek word (doulos) is used in the LXX (the Greek version of the Old Testament) of someone whom God uses for a special ministry or through whom he speaks, like Moses (Neh. 10:29), Joshua (Josh. 24:29), David (Ps. 89:20 [LXX 88:21]), and Jonah (2 Ki. [4 Kingdoms) 14:25, each of whom is calledthe servant(Gk. doulos) of the LORD‘…The readers of Paul’s letters, however, would more readily have taken him to mean that he was a ‘slave’ of Christ in the humble sense that word normally had among them. No doubt Paul did esteem it a high honour to be the servant of Christ, but he implied by his choice of the word meaning ‘slave’ that he was totally at the disposal of their Master.

F. F. Bruce, Philippians (NIBC; Peabody: Hendrickson, 1989 [1983), 26.

Now, one example does not a plagiarism case make. O’ Brien does reference Bruce in a footnote alongside several other scholars and commentators as someone who supports the reading of δοῦλος as a term connoting humility. But there would be no way of knowing from this that Bruce was the specific source of actual wording. The Philippians commentary is, apparently, less problematic in this regard than the more recent commentary on Hebrews. Furthermore, O’Brien himself has given an unreserved apology. But the kind of relationship between his work and that of others implied by the small example above is clearly problematic and, if relatively consistent, would in my view fall into the category of academic misconduct if such were discovered in an essay or PhD thesis. The remaining issue will be what ought to happen to the various copies of these works that are still available to students in university and seminary libraries. The enduring reminder to all of us is to take the utmost care and show the utmost respect in our use of the work of others.

Public Lecture: Denys Turner on Atheism

Denys Turner was Head of the Department of Theology at the University of Bristol when I started undergraduate studies in 1986 and he tried, in vain I fear, to teach me philosophy and some theology. I still remember with much fondness his arrival in an introduction to philosophy class armed with only a dog-eared copy of the Penguin Classics edition of Descartes’ Meditations or Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ and teaching without notes in a manner that I now recognise as charmingly distracted. I then vaguely remember jokes about Pseudo-Denys, and a story about a Roman emperor who used to have slaves executed on the lawn because he received aesthetic satisfaction from the combination of red blood and green grass (I think we were studying Hobbes, Leviathan). His class in Christian Mysticism was legendary (although I never took it) and am I dreaming about rumours that in one of the classes he encouraged the students to levitate?

Later, in 1999 when he was Head of Department at Birmingham he (along with Mark Goodacre) signed me up to teach some NT courses while David Parker was on research leave. It was my first University teaching role, post doctorate, and I am grateful to them both for the opportunity.

All of which is an introit to the news that Denys will be in Melbourne next week and will be giving a public lecture on the new atheism and its alternatives. It will be a good event. Poster and details below.

IRCI4434- Turner Lecture Flyer _A4_Flyer_V2

Research Leave Curiosity: Wright, Whiteley and German Philippians Scholarship

I am slowly easing myself into a sustained period of research leave that will run from July–December 2016. The main task, other than a couple of essays due for edited volumes and an SBL paper, is to complete work on a manuscript provisionally entitled Philippians and Friendship: The Relational and Rhetorical Dynamics of a Pauline Letter.

My hope is to post more information about the research as it progresses over the coming weeks. But colleagues in New Testament Studies may be interested in a scholarly curiosity thrown up by my getting my Philippians books (of which there are many) into come kind of order.

When I started doctoral studies with N. T. Wright at Oxford in 1990, Tom had recently been asked to take on responsibility for preparing a new International Critical Commentary on Philippians (still to be completed!). He inherited the project following the death of Dennis Whiteley, author of what is still a quite useful if outdated study of Paul’s theology and known as a rather eccentric Don at Jesus College. My research was on the nature of the ‘opposition’ in Philippians 3 and, in an act of generosity Tom handed over to me three or four German books from Whiteley’s own library. As the research went on I actually returned most of them back to Tom (having procured my own copies of Gnilka and Schenck). But I discovered again today that one volume stayed in my collection: Berthold Mengel’s elegantly titled Studien zum Philipperbrief: Untersuchungen zum situativen Kontext unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Frage nach der Ganzheitlichkeit oder Einheitlichkeit eines paulinischen Briefes (WUNT 2/8; Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siecbeck], 1982). You will see that such is the brilliance of Mengel’s title that I have pinched the last three words for my own.

Below you will see two pictures of the volume in question (click on them to go through to larger images), and you will note two extraordinary things. First, Whiteley not only paid for the book but then paid to have the binding broken, blank leaves of paper inserted in between each leaf of the original. and the binding reset. Secondly (and explaining the first oddity), Whiteley was evidently working through the volume page by page, hand writing English translations of the German at relevant points. The same was true of the other commentaries I have mentioned. For those who are thinking that the handwriting may be Tom Wright’s I can assure you that it isn’t!

Not only is it fascinating to know that Whiteley didn’t know that ‘jedoch’ means ‘however’ or ‘yet’, it also beggars belief that he actually thought that this was a viable way of engaging in research in the German scholarship. I wish my German was better than it is, but if I tried to work in this way over the next 6 months, I might just get through the German commentaries up to Philippians 1:5.