Below is the second half of my notes from last week’s Central States SBL/ASOR meeting in St. Louis. You can read my notes on Part 1 here.

René Such Schreiner (Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary)—“Spiritual Culling for Remnant in John 6: Sign, Signified, Wisdom, and Idolatry”

Schreiner claims that the feeding of the multitude passage in John 6 perfectly mirrors the classic “culling narrative” motif found frequently throughout the OT (especially in the Exodus, where “grumbling” leads to action and divine judgment). In John 6, the crowds (and often, modern interpreters) mistake the true meaning of the sign of the loaves and fish—note the thematic element of “seeing” vs. “not seeing” in 6:30. Using the postmodern language of “sign” and “signified,” Schreiner illustrated that according to John, the focus of the passage is not that the bread is the “sign” of Jesus, but that Jesus himself is the “sign” of God. In keeping with the culling narrative motif, Schreiner pointed out that the classic culling narrative involves a clear progression from human action to divine judgment:

  • Person acts —> God judges —> God acts

However, in John 6, the culling narrative is reversed:

  • God acts —> Person judges —> Person acts

At the end of the presentation, Mark Given commented that Scheiner’s paper supported the new wave of scholarship claiming that Jesus is not to be understood as God in the Fourth Gospel, but is instead meant to be taken as the very image, the signifier or logos (“idea,” or “communication”) of God in human form. My comment regarding the postmodern separation of signifier/signified in surrealist painter Rene Magritte’s The Treachery of Images unfortunately went unappreciated.

John Christianson (Missouri State)—“The Centurion in History and Literature: A Context for Reading in the Gospels”

Christianson, a grad student at Missouri State, entered the NT presentation room dressed in full centurion regalia to present his paper’s thesis that the character of the centurion in the Gospels counts as a “credible witness” in the first-century literature. Apparently, Julius Caesar mentions centurions by name in his war commentaries with the supposition that if such honorable men followed Caesar, then by extension Caesar too must be honorable. Christianson suggested that since the vast selection of references to centurions among first-century literary corpora were positive, then the characterization of centurions in the Gospels should also be considered positive. By extension, then, the various iterations of the so-called “centurion’s confession” in the Synoptics should be taken seriously as an attempt by the authors to lend credibility to their stories by having such a positive, trustworthy character bear witness to the remarkable events reported in their narratives.

John Strong (Missouri State)—“Censoring the Prophetic Word: Translating Ezekiel’s Profane Speech for General Audiences”

In what was probably the most thought-provoking paper presented at the conference this year (at least among the presentations I attended), Dr. Strong spoke on Ezekiel’s use of profanity in his diatribes against the Jerusalemites, and the tendency by contemporary Western translators to defang the prophet’s speech when bringing the text to life in English. For instance, the word Ezekiel uses to characterize the idols worshiped by the Israelites (gililim, if I heard correctly—I haven’t studied Hebrew yet), comes from the root word meaning “dung,” and a more literal translation might be that Ezekiel is referring to the idols as “shit-gods.” Strong went on to point out the various and numerous sexual innuendos and downright vulgar tirades scattered throughout the book, and noted that Ezekiel primarily uses this obscenity as a rhetorical form of “controlled rage” to shame the Israelites. Strong ended with two pertinent questions: 1) Can we retain the spirit of Ezekiel’s crude edginess in modern English translations of the scripture? Or perhaps the better question is 2) Even if we could, should we? In short, Strong answered, no. Ezekiel worked within a totally different context than our own, never expecting his text/speech to be read by general audiences, let alone general audiences in the 21st century. In sum, Strong concluded that any translation must neuter the experience intended by the prophet himself. Consequently, I found myself wondering if the same is true of coarseness in the New Testament—for instance, should English texts of Philippians 3:8 include the literal translation of “σκύβαλα”?

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