Skip to content

“No Lives Matter” at the Missouri State Penitentiary

July 24, 2015

Ah, summer time, when on-break academic types travel to see family and the decrepit relics of a once-flourishing Midwest. After seeing billboards for the Missouri State Penitentiary Tour one too many times along our travels to and from St. Louis, we broke down and paid our twelve dollars to visit, for whatever reason, this site of tremendous human misery.


An active prison from its completion in the 1830s until, astoundingly, 2004, the labyrinthine Missouri State Penitentiary once housed a maximum of 5,300 prisoners at once, according to our nice, sweet tour guide, himself a former long-serving guard at the prison. In his telling, thousands of prisoners died at the Missouri State Penitentiary over its 168-year lifetime, 40 of whom were executed in its gas chambers.

(Incidentally, the MSP gift shop proudly sells a set of 40 postcards commemorating its history of gruesome capital executions. Eight bucks.)

Quite a bit bothered me about this all-white (1), no-need-to-acknowledge-contributions-to-and-complicity-with-historical-injustices tour (2), perhaps more than I’m able to put into words. In light of this, this blog post iis not intended to be a thorough review or critique of the prison tour, but rather more of a stream-of-consciousness commentary approximating my feelings and thoughts from my two-hour stay in its terrifying walls.

  1. To be perfectly honest, a black woman and her daughter showed up at some point after the tour had officially begun, but left just after it was half over. I can’t be certain why this was the case, but the tour guide did acknowledge that we were sitting in the MSP’s all-black barracks shortly before they left. If this was not the reason, perhaps it was a realization that the tour was essentially a whitewash—in the sense of skin color, an event meant to be interesting/palatable for us and not for anyone else, as well as in the sense of a non-acknowledgement of wrongs, essentially a two-hour stream of quasi-governmental braggadocio about  its accomplishments.
  2. The tour guide approached, but stopped short of outright criticism, several times. One example that comes to mind was when he recounted a man’s 17-year stay in the “dungeon” of the prison after the warden believed he started a major fire, ostensibly as a distraction that would allow for a mass prison revolt and escape. “That used to make a man crazy,” he said; emphasis on the “used to” portion of the quote mine. There was no acknowledgement that people are still held in solitary confinement for cruel and unusual lengths of time these days, with one example being a man by the name of Shaka Senghor. (Shaka spent seven years in solitary confinment as part of a 19-year sentence for murder.) I came across Shaka’s story in a recent Democracy Now! program on the efforts toward prison reform that have created strange bedfellows, from himself and liberal activist/writer Van Jones to the Koch Brothers. Of course, I highly recommend the program, which can be downloaded as a podcast as well.


Our tour guide showed us photos on posterboard from as far back as the 1870s inside the prison, with prisoners standing in line waiting to go from station to station inside their caged existence: barracks to yard, yard to mess hall, mess hall to showers, showers to barracks—wash, rinse, repeat. In a moment that either showed his hand or was meant to be a critique of poor record-keeping habits, he told us that no one knew the names of this man or that man in line; it was as if they didn’t even matter.

In the Missouri State Penitentiary, no lives matter. On top of this, were they even human? He repeated his mantra over and over again that outside the walls of the prison, we have our world. “We call it society,” he said. Inside the prison, they have their own world. They’re not like you and me. He recalled being the go-to mentor for new prison guards, and he would tell them, “You can’t trust them. They’re not like you.” They’re not human, essentially.

Our prison system is currently overtaxed and overrun, full of both violent criminals who should be locked up for life (or suitable terms to fit their crimes) and people who sold or turned to drugs and were hit with mandatory minimums and other drug war-era overreaches of an insidious and often racist nature. Obviously, there is not a binary that fits all persons presently in prison, but I mean to emphasize the problems of our prison system encapsulated by one statistic: the United States comprises five percent of the world’s human population, but somehow can claim twenty-five percent of the world’s overall prison population. We have a serious over-incarceration problem—one that the Missouri State Penitentiary certainly contributed to, having previously housed abolitionists who freed slaves and anti-war activists who ran afoul of the Espionage Act—but on this tour, nothing of this over-incarceration problem existed.

Through a recent tour live-tweeted by activist Deray McKesson, I became aware of the Whitney Plantation in rural Louisiana. Formerly known as “Habitation Haydel,” the Whitney Plantation has been transformed into a living museum of the history of enslavement. To the best of its founders’ abilities, they have tried to recover the names of all slaves who worked on the plantation during its history, and to transmit, in whatever terms possible, the manner of life lived by them. I’ve not been on this tour, obviously, but hope to someday.

The Children of Whitney by Woodrow Nash

A photo posted by Whitney Plantation (@whitneyplantation) on


Given the example of the Whitney Plantation, and the historical (and ongoing!) injustices in our prison system, the Missouri State Penitentiary tour could’ve been so much better. One wonders how long it might take for universal acknowledgement of penitential wrongs, however. It’s much harder to see and name injustice when we’re living through it and perpetuating it, whether through outright complicity or passive cognitive support.


Post Script. I might not have written any of this had the tour guide not ticked the last box of fanatical hasbara (a.k.a. “explanation,” a.k.a. pro-Israel propaganda). In the midst of emphasizing, in English, not to close any prison cell doors behind us after entering several times, the tour guide believed that there might have been someone among us fifty or so white people who didn’t understand him. (By this point, the black mother and daughter had left the tour.) “Is anyone here Al Qaeda? Taliban? Hamas?” he asked. “I’ll give it to you in Arabic!” He proceeded to speak in a Semitic-sounding language, but as I don’t speak Arabic, I of course can’t confirm if it was authentic or jibberish. I wasn’t aware Hamas had aided or abetted attacks on the United States. They haven’t, of course: lately, anyway, they’re usually busy responding to Israeli aggression against Gaza, as Max Blumenthal laid out so brilliantly in his recent “The 51-Day War.”

Benjamin Netanyahu predicted the sentiment espoused by our tour guide just after the twin towers came down, calling the acts of terror “very good” for Israel, which would henceforth be able to sell its struggle against militant Palestinian factions opposing its apartheid occupation as an analogous struggle to that which the United States would eventually embark upon.

It’s a special relationship. Very good for Israel, indeed.


Finally, I don’t know where exactly to put this, but here’s a cross on the way to the Missouri State Penitentiary’s gas chamber.

Random Bible Fact: Early Christian Manuscripts and the Shepherd of Hermas

June 14, 2015

Based on manuscript recoveries alone, the most popular books in second, third and early fourth-century Christianity[1] were as follows: the Book of Psalms, the Gospel according to John, the Gospel according to Matthew, and the non-canonical Shepherd of Hermas.

According to Larry Hurtado’s 2006 book The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins, manuscript recoveries for biblical books in this period are as follows:

  • Psalms: 16-18 copies[2]
  • John: 11-15 copies
  • Matthew: 12 copies
  • The Shepherd of Hermas: 11 copies
  • Genesis and Exodus: 8 copies each
  • Luke and Acts: 7 copies each
  • Isaiah: 6 copies
  • Revelation: 5 copies[3]

A number of factors complicate matters here: very few books from the second century in particular survive complete and intact, whether from natural use and deterioration or deliberate destruction by the ruling Roman authorities during periods of local persecutions. Many of the manuscripts that survive are just a handful of pages or no more than a couple of verses or chapters. For the book of John in particular, scholars are unsure whether some of the pieces belonged to the same manuscript or represent distinct manuscripts. And finally, all of our conclusions related to this earliest period must be considered “temporary” or “in progress”: as Hurtado admits, “only about 1% of the estimated 500,000 manuscripts from this period” have been properly identified![4]

The popularity of John and Matthew in this early period is pretty understandable, given that the books were thought to have been written by the disciples of Jesus of those names. The book of Psalms might not have been your first guess at the most popular book in early Christianity, but its popularity is also sensible.

What might throw you off is the early popularity of the Shepherd of Hermas, a book that is now only really known among the scholarly community. Written in Rome in the mid-second century, the Shepherd of Hermas consists mostly of moral instructions delivered in the form of revelations from a shepherd-like character to the author, named Hermas. The book is exceptionally long—if it had made its way into the canon, it would be easily the longest book of the New Testament, and only exceeded in length in by the Old Testament books of Genesis and Jeremiah.[5] In the book, Hermas portrays himself as somewhat of a ditz—he must be given explanations about all of his visions by the shepherd—although he is genuinely interested in moral improvement and proper behavior.

So, why would a book like this eventually be regarded as non-canonical, in spite of its early popularity? In other words, why is the Shepherd not in the Bible? That discussion may feature as a “Random Bible Fact” in the future.

[1] Why this period, from roughly 100-320 CE? This is before Christianity became the entrenched state religion of the Roman Empire, before a rigid orthodoxy developed from the unifying vision of Emperor Constantine.

[2] Two copies of the Pslams retain the Tetragrammaton, or “Yahweh” in Hebrew characters, as the name of God, and therefore these may be Jewish manuscripts rather than Christian. Either way, the book of Psalms wins out as the most popular pre-Constantinian Christian book.

[3] These data come from Hurtado (2006), 19-28 (see especially, 19-21 and 23). His book includes an excellent appendix cataloging and detailing the precise contents of biblical and apocryphal books from this period.

[4] Hurtado (2006), 25.

[5] This is according to the stichometric list inserted into the sixth-century Codex Claromontanus, which lists the Shepherd at 4,000 lines, Genesis at 4,500, and Jeremiah at 4,050.

Random Bible Fact: Acts 24:7

June 6, 2015

Because survey after survey finds that religious Americans are ignorant in various degrees about the contents of their Bibles, I’ve decided to start doing something about it now, before I accept that awesome tenured teaching position. Based off the success of a great Twitter feed I follow called @RandomSpaceFact, today I started @RandomBibleFact on a complete and total whim. Though I’m sure the feed will evolve over its lifetime, I’m presently thinking that it’ll cover facts both at the most basic level and more advanced topics, from textual criticism to translational details or possibly even interpretation. We’ll see!

What does that mean for my blog? Well, I want to keep the tweets manageable within the 140 character limit. Initially I had posted my first Random Bible Fact over the span of four tweets, and that’s just confusing. So when longer explanations are warranted, I’ll just craft a small blog post about it. This is probably a good habit for me to practice: I’ve always had a problem with concision. So without further ado, here’s Random Bible Fact #1…


Acts 24:7 does not exist in most modern translations of the Bible (NRSV, RSV, NIV, etc.). Don’t believe me? Though this is not a complete accounting of all biblical translations, a good representative example would be the omissions of the verse at BibleHub. Most recent translations skip directly from verse 6 to verse 8.

This isn’t a 13th floor in a skyscraper thing, though—the verse has not been omitted out of superstition or anything like that. Versifications and chapter divisions as we know them were only added to the Bible in the Medieval period, and at that time, Acts 24:7 did exist. In fact, 24:7 survived long enough to make it into the King James Version, just as earlier it had been included in John Wycliffe’s Bible and other versions. 

The reason for inclusion or omission of 24:7 comes down to differences in the base Greek text of the New Testament from which English versions are translated. The King James Version was translated from what scholars today call the “Textus Receptus” (or Received Text), which it turns out is a fairly faulty version of the text as a whole, based largely off a single family of Greek manuscripts dating from the 13th and 14th centuries. The Textus Receptus contains a number of omissions and expansions, and this is one of them.

In chapter 24 of Acts, Paul appears before Felix for the first time in Caesarea, and one Tertullus is said to be the attorney prosecuting Paul’s case. The first substantive charges are brought against Paul in this passage: he is a fomenter of rebellion (verse 5) and a defiler of the Jerusalem temple (verse 6). Someone must have thought this prosecutorial opening statement was far too short and bereft of detail, for they expand the charges from rebellion against Jews to rebellion throughout the entire Roman Empire, and also supply Felix with additional narrative explanation saying why this case ostensibly fit for the Sanhedrin has been deemed fit for his jurisdiction.

Verse 24:7 (and the additional simultaneous additions) is attested in the so-called D-Text of Acts, but not in the earliest and best Greek manuscripts, such as Sinaiticus (4th century), Vaticanus (4th century), and Alexandrinus (5th century). It is therefore not included in modern scholarly versions of the Greek New Testament, and does not appear translated in the NRSV, NIV, RSV and many others. In some cases, verse 24:7 and its fellow D-Text variants receive a footnote to explain why the text has skipped from verse 6 to verse 8.

On the Acts of the Apostles and History

June 3, 2015

For those of us in the New Testament discipline of “Christian Origins” or “Early Christianities,” the Acts of the Apostles has all the appearances of being a vital, defining book. It sets out, ostensibly, to tell the story of how a Jewish reform movement spread beyond its humble beginnings in Galilee to the cities of Syria, Asia, and Greece. For reasons that delimit permissible inquiry, we should be most interested in what “Luke,”[1] the supposed author of Acts, has to say about this black hole of the Jesus Movement.[2]

The problem with the book of Acts is that the author’s apologetic goals are apparent on any close reading of the book. Luke tells of a new appellation acquired by “Christians” in Antioch, and takes virtually every opportunity to antagonize against “the Jews,” who pose major problems for all of the book’s most important characters: Peter (4:1-3, 12:3-5), Stephen (6:11-15), and Paul (17:5, 20:3, 21:27-28, etc.) chief among them. Paul in particular is opposed by “the Jews” immediately after his “conversion” (9:23-25). In stark contrast, Roman officials, whenever called upon to adjudicate, can hardly find anything wrong the “movement” (17:35-39, 25:25-27).

The author of Acts goes to great lengths to show that Peter and Paul are delivering the same essential message about the faith (10:34, 11:18). Both are delivered miraculously from prison, and both are called upon to “finish the job” and shower the Holy Spirit upon nascent believers (8:14-17, 19:1-7). Peter’s shadow alone is an instrument of healing (5:15), whereas the handkerchiefs and clothes used by Paul can cure one of evil spirits (19:12). Peter faces opposition by circumcised believers (11:1-3), just as Paul does in Galatians. Who better to authorize the Pauline mission to Gentiles than the prototypical arch-apostle, Peter? The narrative of Acts demonstrates, essentially, that the only difference between Peter and Paul is the theater of their evangelistic mission.

Paul, furthermore, follows a “passion” sequence evocative of Jesus’s, each with three predictions of doom, four “trials,” three declarations of innocence and a mob seeking their demise.[3] It is particularly telling that Luke’s two volumes end with the triumph of Jesus (the gospel) and Paul (Acts), who is claimed to be “unhindered” in his ability to preach and teach the gospel in Rome (28:31). Finally, the subordination of other Christian centers, such as Antioch, to Jerusalem seems contrived. On the personal level, Paul is said to take orders from James after the Jerusalem Conference, when Paul’s attitude toward James in Galatians seems to rule out that potentiality.

During this spring quarter, which is very soon to come to a close, I have been taking an independent study on the book of Acts, where I have been reading Richard Pervo’s 2009 Hermeneia commentary on the book alongside the 2013 report of the Westar Institute’s Acts Seminar called Acts and Christian Beginnings.[4] This has been a particularly enlightening experience for me, given especially that Acts, more so than any other book of the New Testament (aside, perhaps, from the smaller of the general epistles), tends to fall through the cracks of a typical university’s course design. In my seminary experience, anyway, one semester can barely cover the gospels adequately, and the next semester is generally devoted to the Pauline letters, Revelation, and the general epistles (time permitting). These two halves of a typical academic year may appeal to the book of Acts when it becomes convenient, such as to support an argument,[5] but never does one get to read Acts in its own right and receive credit for doing so.

Pervo and the Acts Seminar reached a number of similar conclusions that break ground for a new generation of scholarship on the book of Acts and for the field of “Christian Origins” in general. A small sample of these is as follows:

  • Date of Composition: Whereas previous scholarship assumed a date for the book of Acts in the latter decades of the first century—usually on the grounds that the gospel according to Luke itself was composed around 80 CE, and Luke wrote Acts shortly thereafter—Pervo and the Acts Seminar now believe that Acts should more properly be dated a whole generation later, in the first decades of the second century (115-120 CE). This later dating is supported by evidence that Acts used the works of Josephus, completed just before the end of the first century, as a source for some episodes and small details. More importantly, Pervo and the Acts Seminar concur that Luke knew of and used the Pauline letters in the composition of Acts in a non-transparent way,[6] using the details therein to develop missionary itineraries, narrative events, and particularly the reconstruction of the so-called Jerusalem Council. I have generally found these arguments persuasive. Aside from these source-related reasons to date the book of Acts later, Pervo frequently notes that the historical period conjured by the machinations of Luke better accord with the early second century. One major example of this comes in Paul’s final speech to the leaders of the Ephesian church (20:18-38), where Pervo identifies a unique construction of Paul and distinct similarities with the concerns also found in the Pastorals.[7]
  • The Author as Skilled Storyteller: The deception underlying the “we” passages in Acts becomes unavoidable on this later dating of the book, since it becomes infinitely more unlikely that an adult companion of Paul survived to 115 or 120 CE to narrate events that transpired between 60 and 70 years earlier. To be sure, the authorship of Acts by the historical Luke had been doubted prior to Pervo and the Acts Seminar, but their work may very well be the idea’s death knell.  Given their conclusions, one would anticipate some reprobation for the author on the account of Pervo. Bart Ehrman regards Luke, for example, as a “non-pseudepigraphic forgery.”[8] What one finds from Pervo, however, is only complimentary: frequently, he credits the author (whoever he was) with creating “thrilling,” “entertaining,” “lively” and “artistic” scenes from the slightest of content, and at one point he even notes the “genius” of the author.[9] Along the way, the author successfully intertwines elements from Josephus, the Septuagint, Homer, Ovid, and others from popular literature in ways that add cleverness, humor and verisimilitude to the book.[10] Unfortunately, the recognition of these sources in the last century, combined with artificial parallelism between Peter and Paul and Jesus and Paul, has an adverse affect on claims to historical accuracy.[11]
  • Historicity of the Book: In reading Pervo and the Acts Seminar Report, it becomes clear that the edifice of historicity has been turned on its head. Pervo notes relatively close to the outset of his commentary that the book of Acts is unlikely to persuade those for whom reports of miracles and numerical growth are not relevant proofs of legitimacy.[12] But even the assumption of “historical kernels” behind the various stories and trials of Paul have come under intense scrutiny. The ostensible sources for the book, regarding the environs of Jerusalem and Antioch, which were the furthest from the author’s Ephesian milieu, in these early centuries have been bent out of shape in the author’s thorough reworking of material. The author’s purposes for writing a work such as this and his strategies for accomplishing these goals have compromised reality. The deduction of the Acts Seminar Report is therefore apt: “No longer can Acts be assumed to be historical unless proven otherwise. Rather, the burden of proof has shifted. Acts must be considered nonhistorical unless proven otherwise.”[13]

These conclusions and more proffered by Pervo and the Acts Seminar are likely to influence research on the book of Acts for decades to come. The serious student of “Christian Origins” or the book of Acts cannot well avoid them. Though the entirety of a book such as Acts can hardly be summarized on essentialist terms, my reading this quarter has made it clear that Acts is more of a (hagio)biography of Paul—with a long introduction to demonstrate continuity of the Christian story since the last terrestrial days of the resurrected Jesus—than a genuine history of the “acts” of the “apostles.” For Luke, the substantiation of his own Christian existence hinges on the successful acceptance of Paul’s story. As Pervo writes in the context of Paul’s self-defense before Agrippa and Festus, “the legitimacy of the church Luke knows stands or falls with the legitimacy of the Pauline mission.”[14]

Other stories and tales that Luke has come across find cause for expression in Acts, but they are but handmaidens to his primary purpose of (self-)legitimization. Peter, the first among the apostles, supplies the justification for the Gentile mission that Paul leads, and is never heard from again after the Jerusalem Conference. Conveniently, and ahistorically, the opposition that Paul faces in the book comes exclusively from “the Jews” and nonbelievers (16:19, 19:23-27, etc.), making Paul the epitome of movement and the book’s main protagonist. Accompanying this is an implicit, but immutable claim that the Pauline mission represents the authentic church, against which there is only heresy (which Paul has conveniently warned against, 20:28-31). Christianity is portrayed as hospitable, even friendly to Rome, in comparison to rabble-rousing “Jews.”[15] Luke has constructed a rich, compelling, and skillful narrative, but one that is at best historically dubious and at worst, malignantly deceptive, throwing those interested in actual history well off the scent of the complex realities of the earliest decades of “the Way.” The book of Acts tells us more about the apologetic needs of developing Christianity in the early second century than it does about the historical black hole of the fledgling Jesus movement.


As part of my independent study, I was to develop areas for future research and burning questions related to the book of Acts that I could pursue going forward. Among those questions and research topics in which I have become interested are the following:

  • Source Criticism. With the later dating of Acts, the sources available to and used by Luke become all the more important to recovering any remains of historical accuracy. Whereas Pervo frequently notes certain narrative elements that are “Lukan inventions” or “free authorial compositions,”[16] and often highlights elements that betray the use of a source,[17] the format of his commentary precludes him from being more thorough about source criticism. One of the major advantages of the Jesus Seminar was its production of the red, pink, gray and black letter edition of the gospels; it seems to me that the Acts Seminar Report could have been produced with a similar color-coded goal of suggesting Luke’s use of sources, whether they be the Septuagint, Josephus, the “Gentile mission source,” the “collection source,” popular authors, or the like. From this independent study, I am therefore interested in source criticism for the book of Acts on a more comprehensive scale, to try to understand what sorts of “data” were available to the author when he set out to accomplish this monumental task, and what sorts of “data” he invented unencumbered by historicity or available sources.
  • What about the “Twelve”? This has been a question I’ve pondered for some time, finding no real outlet to express or explore it. To be sure, Luke had solid precedents for referring to the “Twelve,” the gospels and letters of Paul chief among them. However, after being listed at 1:13, when the eleven are gathered to select Judas Iscariot’s replacement, nine of the twelve quickly bow out of the narrative, including the recently selected Matthias.[18] James, brother of John, is mentioned again only at his death (12:2), and John is but a (sometimes) companion of Peter’s, rather than an independent agent. Indeed, Pervo recognizes the “artificiality” of the “Twelve,” who, though suggested to be present at the Jerusalem Conference (15:6), are merely the audience of Peter, Barnabas, Paul, and James.[19] Even Peter, who plays a major role in the first 12 chapters and then makes an encore appearance at the Jerusalem Conference, disappears as James rises to prominence without fanfare or explanation. My questions, therefore, are as follows: Historically speaking, what function did the “Twelve” have? Were the “Twelve” meaningfully distinct from other disciples/apostles of Jesus, either during or after his ministry? (Similarly, why are only two of the “Seven” featured by Luke?) Can this book really be called the “Acts of the Apostles” if three-quarters of them play no role whatsoever?
  • Dating Luke. If Acts is dated at 115 CE, surely the date of the gospel of Luke must be pushed back considerably as well, at least into the second century if not to around 110. Neither Pervo nor the Acts Seminar Report address this necessity, given that it’s not in their purview, but the question must be considered. Similarly, and perhaps unexpectedly, the later date of Acts would seem to add legitimacy to those, like Mark Goodacre, who question the existence of Q and instead suggest that Luke excavated Q statements from Matthew, appropriating them freely. This would seem to comport with what Pervo has recognized as Luke’s free authorial abilities (though he still hangs on to Q). Anyhow, had Q survived as a distinct written source into the early second century, it perhaps becomes more likely that it would have been copied as a stand-alone document. Questions to ponder!
  • Assmann on the Creation of History. I’ve been reading Jan Assmann’s Cultural Memory and Early Civilization for a separate class during this last quarter. Can, I wonder, his theories and observations about early Israel, particularly related to the “invention” of religion based on the charter myth of the Exodus,[20] be applied to the work and genre of Luke-Acts? Assmann says, for example, that “the past … is a social construction whose nature arises out of the needs and frames of reference of each particular present. The past is not a natural growth but a cultural creation.”[21] This characterization seems eminently applicable to the work that Luke has accomplished, whereby religious identity is demonstrated and legitimized by miracles and numerical growth, epiphanies from God to Peter and Paul, and a line of succession back to Jesus. I have not explored the connections between Assmann and Acts in depth, but I would certainly like to.

[1] Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in Gaul toward the end of the second century, is the first extant Christian writer to connect the book of Acts with Luke, the companion of Paul according to the so-called prison correspondence (Adv. haer. 3.14.1). Irenaeus based his judgment off the “we” passages in Acts (i.e., Acts 16:10-17; 27:1-28:16, etc.), where the narrative has the appearance of first-hand experience by its author. There are a number of good reasons to doubt the authenticity of this judgment; many critical scholars recognize this as a literary device perhaps left over from the author’s source(s) but more likely as an intentional attempt to deceive later readers. Intentional or not, the device worked. I, like many other scholars, continue to call the author “Luke” out of convenience alone.

[2] Our first primary sources for followers of Jesus are from Paul, whose authentic letters date approximately from 48 CE (1 Thessalonians) to 55-56 CE (Romans). The gospels, as we have them, all date after 70 CE. Nearly two decades elapsed after the crucifixion of Jesus before any proto-Christian put their thoughts on papyrus! In this void, Luke set out to pick up the narrative where his gospel left off, in the days after the resurrection, in order to tell a certain kind of story about this “black hole” of Christian history.

[3] Richard I. Pervo, Acts: A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 533.

[4] Not only does the Acts Seminar Report use Pervo’s Hermeneia translation as its base text, but a significant amount of cross-pollenation has transpired between the two. Pervo was a voting member of the Acts Seminar, and often cites his colleagues, who wrote excurses for the Acts Seminar Report, from its sessions in the Hermeneia volume. Pervo similarly authored several of the excurses appearing in the Acts Seminar Report. Without taking away from the value of both publications, it may be said that the Acts Seminar Report is a reader’s digest version of the Hermeneia volume. Whereas Pervo intentionally overwhelms the scholar with his voluminous background research, the Acts Seminar Report attempts to reach a broader audience with a cleaner version supported, more silently, with equal scholarly bona fides.

[5] The example that comes immediately to mind is Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s Paul: A Critical Life, where the recently departed scholar simultaneously doubts Acts’ overarching witness to the biography of Paul, but nevertheless uses Acts when it aligns with his thoughts. Murphy-O’Connor believes, for example, that Acts preserves the truer version of the Jerusalem Conference than does Paul in Galatians. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Paul: A Critical Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 133.

[6] Whereas Bart Ehrman has recently suggested that the author of Acts doesn’t know the letters of Paul particularly well, Pervo and the Acts Seminar believe that he did, but sought to override them with his own narrative, wherein the “authentic Paul” became a Lukan construction of early orthodoxy. Bart D. Ehrman, Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 281. Dennis E. Smith and Joseph B. Tyson, eds., Acts and Christian Beginnings: The Acts Seminar Report (Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2013), 117. While this latter perspective is not without its problems—for Luke could not have possibly thought that the Pauline letters would be suppressed—I am more inclined to accept it than the postulation that he knew of the letters but didn’t avail himself of the opportunity to understand them. Pervo finds that Luke used his other sources, such as the “Gentile mission source,” in highly creative and transformative ways to suit his discursive needs, and there’s no reason to believe that he wouldn’t have done the same with the letters of Paul.

[7] Pervo, 525-526.

[8] Ehrman, 264.

[9] Pervo, 140, 400, 442, 506.

[10] One magnificent example of this that caught my attention comes in Lystra, where the locals claim that Paul and Barnabas are actually Zeus and Hermes after Paul heals an infirm man (14:8-18). Pervo, citing A. D. Nock, suggests that this comes from a tale of Ovid in which the residents of Phrygia fail to recognize Zeus and Hermes within their midst, and suffer for it with a flood that claims their lives. Pervo writes, “Those who know the story will appreciate its wit. These yokels are determined not to be taken unawares again.” Pervo, 353-354.

[11] Pervo, 592-593.

[12] Ibid., 42.

[13] Smith and Tyson, 4.

[14] Pervo, 620.

[15] It is likely that this portrait of Jews would have found favor with the Roman elite, who were all aligned against Jewish “superstition” in this period. Luke’s work has sought to distinguish Christians from Jews, but in so doing, substantiated centuries of lamentable Christian anti-Judaism. Shelly Matthews (in Smith and Tyson, 91), suggests that this was part of an endeavor to carve out space for Christianity in the Roman Empire.

[16] Pervo, 580.

[17] Often times, these sources include lists of names or places, but he hints at more comprehensive sources as well.

[18] I concur with Pervo that the Philip who features most prominently in ch. 8 is the Philip named among the “Seven,” not the Philip of the “Twelve.” Pervo, 205.

[19] Pervo, 307 n. 73.

[20] “Charter myth” is my phrase, appropriated from elsewhere. Assmann refers to Exodus’ function as a “memory figure.” Jan Assmann, Cultural Memory and Early Civilization: Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 180.

[21] Assmann, 33.

St. Louis Gateway Arch Phone Background

June 8, 2014
My Gateway Arch Background, in action!

My home screen, with Arch

Ever since I’ve had a smartphone, my home screen background has been a photo I took of the Gateway Arch in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. I’m a fan of simplicity, and didn’t want Apple’s bubbles, or that picture of the planet Earth (even though it is a sweet Earth, you might say), or some other stock photo. Like most people, I wanted my phone to be reflective of my life and experiences, in some way.

Well, Apple changed the screen resolution of the iPhone 5 somewhere like two years ago, and recently, I finally got around to adding an uncropped background photo to my phone’s arsenal. I like sharing cool things, so if you’re a St. Louis native (or transplant!) looking for a slick phone background, you’re more than welcome to piggyback off my photography.****

I’m uploading here both the version cropped to 1440 x 1920 pixels, which I used on iPhones 3G and 4, and an uncropped version of 2736 x 3648, which looks great on the iPhone 5 and 5S. While I experimented with cropping the full version to the iPhone 5S’s native resolution of 640 x 1136, and then to double and triple its native resolution, even adding a border to account for iOS 7’s perspective zoom, I’ve found that the full version looks best and is the most plastic. Furthermore, if you are a user of some other mobile operating systems (Android, Windows, etc.), this will allow you to use, shape and position the background how you see fit.

This photo was taken in May 2009, and features a partial eclipse of the Sun by the apex of the Arch. I edited the image in iPhoto and Gimp to bring out the detail of the Arch’s stainless steel plates as much as possible. Hope you enjoy!

Arch Background - Full Version

Arch Background – Full Version

Arch Background - iPhone 3/4 Version

Arch Background – iPhone 3/4 Version

**** Individuals are free to use these images on their personal devices for personal purposes only. Implied consent is not give for any use other than your phone’s (or other mobile device’s) background. Organizations or corporate entities are not free to use these images for any reason. This should be pretty clear, but in case it’s not, you can tweet me @heatonrob.

Quote of the Day, March 27

March 27, 2014

Noam Chomsky responded in 1989 to a woman questioning him about his general, longstanding criticism of so-called “Marxist analysis.” I found his response interesting:

Well, I guess one thing that’s unattractive to me about “Marxism” is the very idea that there is such a thing. It’s a rather striking fact that you don’t find things like “Marxism” in the sciences–like, there isn’t any part of physics which is “Einsteinianism,” let’s say, or “Planckianism” or something like that. It doesn’t make any sense–because people aren’t gods: they just discover things, and they make mistakes, and their graduate students tell them why they’re wrong, and then they go on and do things better the next time. But there are no gods around. I mean, scientists do use the terms “Newtonianism” and “Darwinism,” but nobody thinks of those as doctrines that you’ve got to somehow be loyal to, and figure out what the Master thought, and what he would have said in this new circumstance and so on. That sort of thing is just completely alien to rational existence, it only shows up in irrational domains.

So Marxism, Freudianism: any one of these things I think is an irrational cult. They’re theology, so they’re whatever you think of theology; I don’t think much of it. In fact, in my view that’s exactly the right analogy: notions like Marxism and Freudianism belong to the history of organized religion.


As found in Understanding Power: The Insdispensable Chomsky, eds. Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel (New York: The New Press, 2002), 227.

Mike Pence is Terrible, but in a Totally Acceptable Way: A Lament

August 3, 2012

Preface: Mike, if you happen to read this, I’m sorry that you became Example 1-A for my lament. You are a public servant, however, and I just happened to see your ad one too many times. Good luck in the race, and I hope you’ll give some thought to that He-who-made-a-way guy, if elected.

How does a particular amalgamation of mainstream politicians become so appallingly atrocious that I will likely vote in the upcoming gubernatorial election for a scruffy-bearded ex-contestant on Survivor, CBS’ never-ending reality show that must nowadays refer to its few remaining viewers? Well, unfortunately, I can’t say much about the systemic causes of the ever-deepening rot of America’s political ruling classes/parties, but I can gawk at and lament about the trainwreck produced incessantly by the election cycle’s inescapable death march toward November.

Meet Mike Pence, Indiana’s very own Flat Stanley, a shockingly boring and vanilla Republican candidate for governor, and the current Congressman from the state’s sixth district in the U.S. House of Representatives. Go ahead, clickthrough to his website; my post will still be around when you wake up from your nap.

Recognizing that some numbers sound like English words, Pence’s campaign, ever-so-cleverly named “Pence4Indiana” on YouTube, is responsible for this excruciatingly generic drivel of a “campaign ad.” It airs on just about every commercial break during the Olympics, but I’ll only ask you to waste 30 seconds of your time watching it.

Great, eh? Indiana has somewhat of a significant National Guard, and some people choose to serve in it. Good for them. Nevermind that the National Guard is not the active-duty Army, even though our military adventurism of the last decade turned them into that on a de facto basis.

But this post is not about the people who choose to join the National Guard or any other branch of the armed forces, their multitude of reasons for doing so, or the like. It is about the jarringly annoying way politicians use rhetoric for perceived gains, especially when weighed against banal statist obeisance to the supposed religious principles of the majority.

(Please, read that previous paragraph again if you have to. This is not an attack against people who join the armed forces. It is a much, much broader lament about a society that both desires and permits injustice and rewards politicians who fail to question the reign of death posed by our foreign policy on the encouragement of the military-industrial complex and the fear machine. Deep breath.)


Let’s start with the absolute basics. I was elected as a delegate earlier this year to the Indiana State Republican Convention, and if you know anything about me at all, you know that I went solely in support of Ron Paul. The state party did everything in its power to ensure that our voice was silenced, using its night-before-the-convention emendations to parliamentary process to silence the strong minority of us who were attending not to schmooze with powerful people in button-down shirts, but to challenge the legality of a clause preventing any debate about party-appointed nominees. Instead, we could only vote yea or nay to their slate of party-line-towers hoping for political careers. This, America, is how you get your politicians.

Anyway, on the second day of the convention, we had the distinct privilege of listening to people speak for 3 hours. These people included one Mike Pence, the party’s uncontested candidate to replace Mitch Daniels as governor. Here’s part of Pence’s riveting speech that day, just after he spoke about “faith,” “morals,” and how to “renew our land”:

Two centuries ago, as our pioneer forebearers labored to carve a home in the woods that was Indiana, they did not labor alone. And I believe with all my heart that He who made a way through that dense and dangerous forest, through harsh elements, toils and snares is with us still today.

I start with this not because those comments sounded particularly stupid to me at the time, but because his snoozer of a speech as a whole, and these excerpts, reveal enough about the candidate’s perspective to illustrate a basic theology: God is with Us, Jesus is on Our Party’s side, He will help us navigate this stormy political climate, and it’s a Good Thing for my candidacy if I sound this way when I speak to Hoosiers.


Now, back to the advertisement.

I’m not sure it’s fair to label it as an advertisement, actually. The information it contains is not especially relevant to Pence’s gubernatorial campaign. If I was in high school again and asked to judge the few statements that Pence makes for their communicator’s purpose, I would have to say “to inform.” Of course, Pence did not sit down and film an ad, involve creative firms to produce an ad, and pay immense sums to NBC Universal to air an ad every waking hour of the day just to inform Hoosiers that their National Guard is the fourth largest in the country. There are deep, persuasive elements at play in the ad, and Pence wants you and I to know that he thinks about the American military exactly as we common people do.

As if we had any question about that.

But beyond the feel-good background music and the silhouetted imagery of glorious assault rifle barrels, what do we learn about Pence as a candidate here, other than the fact that he doesn’t mind taking regular Congressional junkets (on the American taxpayer’s dime) as photo ops to shake hands with our troops?

Considering the placement of the ad–during Olympic commercial breaks when our pro-USA excitement is generally pretty high–can we accept the its intentional nationalism (at best) or blatant jingoism (at worst)? Isn’t the Olympics supposed to be apolitical, to foster a sense of respect and togetherness for humanity, and aren’t we supposed to be affected by seeing the faces of The Other who, though he or she happened to be born in some other region of the world, wishes to live a fruitful life, just like us?

How do we square the dichotomy of military bravado with the command to love one’s neighbor, and especially the example of nonviolent resistance to oppression and corruption given by one Jesus of Nazareth?

How is signing on to destroy human life, or worshipping those who do, a “blessing”?

What do “service” and “sacrifice” actually mean?


I’ve often thought that we, as American Christians, should be far more forgiving to Pontius Pilate. After all, he was just a lad born into the undisputed, uncontested, unchallenged and unmistakeable ruling empire of his day; the world had never before seen such a thing as Rome. Personally, he had aspirations of power and political greatness, and was doing his best to work his way up the chain of command, even if that meant toiling as Prefect of Judaea. Now, I don’t have any insider access to his personal thoughts, but I think it’s fair to say that he probably went about his life without ever questioning the morality of the use of force against oppressed peoples, which meant he had no problem using brutal force against those who his empire dominated violently, even for the most benign of reasons. He, like Rome in general, was not especially critical about who made their way onto his kill list from these inconsequential lands.

Through the armed-forces-worship, this is exactly what I hear from Pence’s advertisement. Only, it’s not in an explicitly abhorrent sort of way, whereby he cheerleads the deaths of people who happen to be on the wrong side of our armed drones, or superimposes the number of dead Middle Easterners all over the screen.

It’s in an I-know-the-American-people-are-totally-cool-with-this sort of way.

And that, to me, is far worse.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 510 other followers