Teaching Biblical Archaeology and Numismatics

Teaching Biblical Archaeology in a classroom is, in many ways, a superficial exercise. You can learn a lot about methodology and this or that artifact or site, of course, but there is no substitute for actually “getting your hands dirty.” With this in mind, I thought it might be good to start my Biblical Archaeology course this semester with a hands-on exercise to help students understand one facet of material culture: numismatics, or the study of currency.

I brought in a few small baggies of old United States coinage ranging in date fromimg_3397 the 1840s to the 1980s. In my younger days I was into coin collecting, so I had a pretty good selection of vintage coins on hand (see image). But you could easily do this exercise with a handful of random change from a gas station.

When class started I split students into pairs. Each pair got a bag of coins and some instructions:

Empty the contents of your bag onto the desk, and arrange the artifacts you find in chronological order, oldest to newest. Examine these coins carefully, and on a sheet of paper, make a list of all the symbols that you find. Which symbols appear most often? Which appear least often? What “story” do these coins tell?

I gave them about ten or fifteen minutes to work, and then we reassembled for discussion. Overall I was quite pleased with what they found.

Their lists of symbols were impressive, all groups noting such prominent imagery as the eagle, stars, olive branch, arrows, shield, etc. And when I asked them about the “story” that these coins tell, they were eager to share some of the anecdotes that many of us learned as children.

6791The eagle on the back of the Kennedy Half Dollar, for example, has an olive branch in its right talon and a bundle of arrows in its left, and it gazes in the direction of the olive branch. If the olive branch symbolizes peace, and the arrows symbolize war, then the fact that the eagle faces the olive branch suggests that we value peace more than we do war. Yet the fact that he retains his grasp of the arrows suggests that we are also capable of violence.

Nearly every student had heard this “story” growing up. I asked them if they considered it to be “true”? Some nodded, but most shook their heads. One student noted that because our country has spent more years at war than we have at peace, our history would suggest that our preference is actually the opposite of the eagle’s. This astute observation gave us an opportunity to talk about coinage as propaganda, as something that instills and creates a sense of identity even more than it reflects it. That is to say that the symbols on our coins shape how we understand ourselves, and they frequently do so in ways that are incongruous with actual reality.

I also spent some time underlining the contextual nature of symbols. Nearly every group in the class noted, for example, that when there are stars on United States currency, there are frequently thirteen of them. When asked why, students respond almost instinctively: Because there were thirteen original colonies. If you asked a student in Europe that same question, they probably won’t have as quick of an answer. This is not because they’re stupid, but because the “thirteen original colonies” aren’t part of their narrative. And this is one of the many reasons why interpreting ancient coinage can be difficult. The “narrative” that is reflected, built up, and reshaped by numismatic symbols is frequently patchy and, in some cases, altogether foreign to us. So, when we interpret ancient symbols, we often do so with a degree of educated guesswork.

The payoff of this exercise for the remainder of the semester was enormous. Whenever we encountered talk of ancient symbolism in our readings, our discussion of US currency often served as a helpful, clarifying touchpoint. And students frequently brought up examples from this session as illustrations in their writing assignments and in class. A slightly modified version of the exercise proved valuable in my (introductory) Literature of the Bible course, where we spoke about such symbols before covering the Apocalypse of John.

Thanks for reading, and if you use this exercise, please let me know how it goes!


I Made a Bible Bot: How and Why?

I’ve long been fascinated by Twitter bots — those seemingly-autonomous bits of
programming that retweet, follow, compose and respond to messages, etc. Truth be told, I’ve always wanted a bot, but since I have little to no knowledge of coding/programming language, I always assumed that creating my own was just a pipe dream. Turns out I was wrong.

In this post I’d like to first introduce you to my bot and then I’ll tell you how I made it.

After experimenting with a few different iterations over the weekend, I launched a “Bible bot” that is currently alive and well in cyberspace, tweeting its little digital heart out and gathering followers (an impressive amount so far, actually). What is it tweeting, you ask? For the most part, just gibberish that it puts together at random from the text of the King James Bible. But occasionally it comes up with something that (unbeknownst to it, of course) is really pretty clever. Here are a few examples:

I’m not sure what, if anything, I will do to hone or improve the bot in the future. It is currently doing exactly what it was designed to do, namely, amuse people in general and me in particular. It’s only been live for a few days now, so I suppose we shall see what the future holds for it.

So how did I set it up?

From start to finish, the process was actually much easier than I thought it would be, mostly because I found someone else who had already done the “heavy lifting.” That someone is Zach Whalen, an Associate Professor of English, Linguistics, and Communication at the University of Mary Washington.

Thanks to a push in the right direction from another of my Twitter pals, I stumbled upon a helpful post on Zach’s blog where he walks you through creating a Twitter bot using a Google spreadsheet that he designed. (Note that this sheet will only allow you to create a bot that posts; if you are interested in building a bot that can retweet, respond to tweets, or follow accounts, you will need to look elsewhere.) Zach’s post is remarkably clear and detailed, so I will refrain from reproducing a step-by-step here (if I can follow it, then trust me, so can you). All you need to get started is a Twitter account for your bot and a Google account for the spreadsheet.

After the initial linking up of the spreadsheet with Twitter (which can be a tad tricky, but stick with it), there are only a couple of parameters to set: frequency of posting and “data sheet.” Frequency is straightforward: how often do you want your bot to post? Every hour? Twice per hour? Once per day? Etc. “Data sheet” refers, essentially, to how you want your bot to compose its tweets.

lfmU5E0pThere are a few different options in this data sheet category, all of which are useful depending on your goals. I chose the “markov” option, meaning that my bot uses an algorithm to generate random text from a supplied body of text. The supplied body of text can be anything. The spreadsheet comes with the full text of Sense and Sensibility so that you can experiment before copying and pasting in your own text.

The text you supply the markov algorithm can be pretty much anything (I think). Because my bot is a Bible bot, my text is the Bible — King James translation. I chose King James for two reasons: 1) because I thought (rightly) that it would be funnier; and 2) because I found the King James Bible in spreadsheet form online, which meant that I could copy and paste the whole thing in about twenty minutes. Win.

With all of the text inputted, I set my bot to post a new tweet every thirty minutes (every fifteen minutes strikes me as excessive, and I got impatient having to wait an hour to see new content) and hit “start.” The results so far have been quite amusing.

And that’s why and how I made a Bible Twitter bot! Follow (or just observe) it on Twitter by clicking here.

And follow me by clicking here!

SBL/AAR 2015: A Retrospective

Today is my first full day home from the 2015 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion. As is typically the case, I find myself in the aftermath experiencing a combination of exhaustion and exhilaration and, incidentally, in the mood to write a blog post (more on why at the end).

I gave two papers this year. One was on reading the death of Moses through first-century eyes and in light of the Synoptic transfiguration narratives (available here). The other was an intertextual analysis of some central themes in the Gospel of John and The Polar Express (available here). Both went well. I IMG_0698encountered some pushback on the Synoptic paper, but it was the kind of pushback that you want; several in the audience questioned parts of my analysis and offered some helpful avenues for further explanation that I’d not considered. Both of these papers happened on Saturday, more or less back to back, which made for a long day. But in retrospect, it was nice to not have them hanging over my head for the rest of the conference.
I also chaired a Christian Apocrypha session on Monday afternoon, where I got to hear phenomenal papers by Alexander Kocar (Princeton), Meghan Henning (University of Dayton), Andrew Mark Henry (Boston University), and Mark Bilby (Claremont). Tony Burke (York University) gave a response, and we closed with some discussion. I very much enjoy the Christian Apocrypha group at SBL, and not just because of my research interests. I like it because it’s relatively small, so you have a chance to get to know those who attend. And in the sea of humanity that is the annual meeting, a bit of familiarity here and there never hurts.

The book room is always a highlight, of course. This year there were actually two book rooms, on two separate floors, which was far from ideal. The “main” room upstairs housed the big publishers (Oxford, Eerdmans, Baker, Wipf and Stock, etc.), and the other room downstairs had the software people (Logos, Accordance, etc.) as well as a few other publishers (Notre Dame, etc.). I actually had no idea that the downstairs room even existed until late Saturday afternoon. I can’t remember ever seeing a divided exhibit hall like this, and I hope whoever organizes that aspect of the meeting will avoid similar situations in the future.

My goal this year was to avoid purchasing books that were not directly relevant to my teaching or research. I was actually able to avoid purchasing anything at all, but not because I didn’t find anything worth purchasing. Several publishers that I visited were interested in sending me on my way with gratis examination copies. From Oxford University Press I received a copy of Mark Noll’s In the Beginning was the Word, and from Baker I received Introducing World Religions: A Christian Engagement. And Fortress Press provided me with a new desk copy of a text I’m using next semester: Rhoads, et al., Mark as Story (3rd edition).

I also quite by chance ended up dining with Markus Vinzent on Sunday evening. We chatted for over an hour about his intriguing hypothesis on the origin of the canonical gospels, namely, that they are all in some form drawing from Marcion’s Gospel. He very graciously tracked me down the next day and gave me two of his books: Christ’s Resurrection in Early Christianity and the Making of the New Testament (Ashgate), and Marcion and the Dating of the Synoptic Gospels (Peeters). I will look forward to reading through those and then, hopefully, posting some sort of review/engagement in this space.

One of the best parts of the annual meeting, of course, is reconnecting with old friends and meeting new ones. This year I was fortunate to be able to spend time with colleagues from graduate school, many of whom were giving papers or interviewing for jobs. I also got to meet in person several colleagues who were, until this weekend, only digital colleagues. Over the past two years or so Facebook and Twitter have clearly emerged as accepted and effective means of networking.

This leads to a question that I’d like to respond to briefly right now, but hopefully address further in a dedicated post at some point in the next few weeks. The question is that of blogging and other social media and the degree to which young scholars (graduate students, untenured faculty, etc.) should be involved, if at all. I attended the final twenty minutes or so of a session on blogging (James McGrath’s summary is here) in which several panelists argued that young scholars should not be blogging. Two reasons were cited: 1) it’s a time suck, and 2) it can attract controversy.

I agree wholeheartedly that social media can be an enormous waste of energy. Blogging in particular can demand long stretches of time that could be better spent working on other, more meaningful writing (journal articles, conference presentations, etc.). And I’ve also watched graduate students come close to committing career suicide with tweets, blog posts, etc. that aren’t particularly well thought out. Simply put: social media can be dangerous.

Yet at several points this weekend, even after attending the blogging session, I found myself advising younger colleagues to build up their social media presence. Because at least to some extent, many of the dangers of social media are avoidable ones. I say “to some extent” because there’s always some risk involved in putting yourself out there. And really, that is the case regardless of the medium: one could say the same thing about a book review, conference presentation, or journal article, and we nevertheless encourage these.

It is both possible and wise to limit the amount of time you spend engaging in social media, as academia requires that you commit a substantial portion of your energy to other, more scholarly pursuits. But I do think that social media can be a valuable tool for the young scholar, if used carefully and with an acknowledgment of its limitations. More on that in a future post, I hope (the previous four paragraphs are little more than a knee-jerk reaction to the question, so please read as such and mind the gaps).

For now, time to enjoy another cup of coffee. See you next year in San Antonio!

SBL/AAR 2014: A Retrospective

The SBL/AAR annual meeting is always exhausting. A combination of too little sleep, too much walking, possibly forgetting about a meal or two, schmoozing, and thinking too hard all day is enough to wear anyone out.

Yet we press on, because for many of us the annual meeting is a highlight. It is a time to get together with old friends and to meet some new ones. It is a time to browse (mostly) beautiful books, dreaming that you may one day be able to afford some of them (I’m looking at you, Brill and Mohr Siebeck), and purchasing others because you’ve forgotten that they are always cheaper on Amazon. It is a time to sometimes catch a glimpse of a scholar whose work essentially changed everything about how you understand your field.

This year my beloved spouse Tweeted and Facebooked about my adventures in San Diego using the hashtag, #BibleNerdConference2014. I love it, because in my view, it captures the spirit of what the annual meeting is all about.

Conferences are where nerds go to feel normal. Those of us who spend the majority of our teaching workload in general education courses sometimes need a reminder that there are others out there who are ridiculously interested in what we do, or at the very least, that there are people out there who understand why we do what we do.

We need to spend time in an environment where you can overhear casual conversations on textual criticism, ancient material culture, or the newest trends in research on the Apocalypse. We need to be in a room that erupts in laughter alongside us when someone cracks a clever joke about Rudolf Bultmann or the Synoptic Problem (especially if it involves Q — let the reader understand). We need to spend time in a giant bookstore that is filled with books that don’t make us angry (looking at you now, Barnes and Noble).

So now that NerdFest 2014 has come to a close, we look forward already to next year in Atlanta. See you there.

The Bible in Fifty Words

As I’ve noted before, I am for many reasons a fan of Urban Dictionary. Today I stumbled upon this entry, in which a clever user attempts to summarize the Bible in fifty words. Thought it was worth a share.

God made, Adam bit, Noah arked, Abraham split, Joseph ruled, Jacob fooled, Bush talked, Moses balked, Pharaoh plagued, people walked, sea divided, tablets guided, Promise landed, Saul freaked, David peeked, prophets warned, Jesus born, God walked, love talked, anger crucified, hope died, Love rose, Spirit flamed, Word spread, God remained.

Not terrible, I suppose.

For the original entry, click here and scroll to entry 5 (as of 5/22/2012).

Constitutional Law and Theological Exegesis

This morning when I was raking leaves (a task unrelated to that which I am now writing), I recalled a conversation I had with a friend this past summer. He is a lawyer, and he was asking me about my research on the topic of theological exegesis (I was at the time enveloped in my preparation for qualifying exams, and he was curious as to what could possibly be so interesting). My understanding of theological exegesis, I explained to him, is as follows:

Theological exegesis attempts to affirm the notion that the biblical texts, as Christian Scripture, have enduring value that may at times transcend the intention of the original authors. Moreover, I told him that theological exegesis is not opposed to the reading of the biblical texts in light of developments that arise after them (the Nicene Creed, e.g.), and that such reading does not necessarily hinder the task of interpretation, but may in fact clarify it (this is of course not a direct quote…I have removed the “ums” and upgraded my vocabulary).

He said, “That’s interesting…it sounds a lot like constitutional law debates.” My response: “Say what?” He explained to me that there are in fact several “schools” of thought related to the interpretation of the United States Constitution, and there is an ongoing debate regarding location of meaning and the task of interpretation.

On the one hand, there are those who will say that the Constitution has a meaning, that which was intended by the founding fathers. This “school” of constitutional law, called “Originalism,” holds that discernment of the original meaning of the constitution is the task of constitutional law. One may rightly place Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas in this “camp.” Originalists will not claim that every precept of the Constitution needs to be followed exactly…there is a certain flexibility insofar as later generations may pass laws to override that which was said earlier. The 13th amendment, for example, in outlawing slavery, would supersede that which was said in Article 4 Section 2 of the Constitution, that “no Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”

On the other hand, there are those who will say that the Constitution has an original meaning, but that its significance is precisely in its ability to transcend generations and speak to contemporary situations. In this vein, called “Living Constitution,” discernment of the original meaning is important, but equally important is interpretation of the document alongside developments that have transpired since its institution. Al Gore, for example, once said that “there are liberties found in the Constitution such as the right to privacy that spring from the document itself, even though the Founders didn’t write specific words saying this, this, and this…” The late William Rehnquist once wrote, in contrast, that contemporary leaning toward the idea of living constitution is “genuinely corrosive of the fundamental values of our democratic society.”

In short, the debate concerns whether or not the meaning in the Constitution is static or dynamic: may the “meaning” of this document be something different from what the original authors intended? At its root, the debate centers around the location of meaning and the task of interpretation. Is meaning to be found in text alone, or is meaning to be found within the tradition, which includes the text alongside other factors?

I find the debate interesting given the climate surrounding theological exegesis…I just returned yesterday from the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, where I was reminded yet again that the conversation is far from over. Regarding the biblical texts, there are, broadly speaking, two schools that parallel to a certain degree those present in constitutional law debates. On the one hand, the “Originalists” will say that the biblical texts have a meaning and that this meaning is located in the text or, better yet, in the mind of the original author. On the other hand, proponents of a “living” text will not deny that there is an “original” meaning, either in the text or in the mind of the author, but they will claim that meaning may in fact transcend this original meaning and that the text may rightly be considered (and may in fact only be rightly understood) in light of its effective history.

Two caveats:

1) I’m fairly certain that anyone with a legal background will take issue with the way I’ve framed things here, and I would welcome clarification from anyone with more knowledge on the topic (please do leave comments).

2) The analogy drawn here between constitutional law and theological exegesis is imperfect, as I would claim that the biblical texts are of a different vintage than the Constitution. I include this caveat to appease some who may fear that I am making the Constitution out to be somehow corresponding to Christian Scripture…that said, I suppose the analogy could through some gasoline on discussions pertaining to American Civil Religion (Dr. Michael Gorman has a wonderful ongoing series on the topic).

Noah’s Ark 2.0

The Dutch Daily News ran a story today on a man who has been working on a replica of Noah’s ark. Apparently, he had a dream that the Netherlands was underwater (not too far removed from the realm of possibility, or so I’ve heard), and the next day it became his dream to build an ark, presumably to escape the deluge. What’s more, he’s actually planning on taking to the high seas with this thing. Click here for the full story, as well as a video interview with the guy (which is in Dutch).

The article states that the ark will be open to the public at some point in the near future. My hope is that, when he lets people on this badboy, he will at least attempt to squeeze two of every animal on board with them. Now THAT would be a story!

HT Scotteriology