A Visit with Walter Moberly and St. Cuthbert in Durham

This is part 3 of my journey through the UK.

Having left Aberdeen, I got on the train from Scotland to England, arriving in Durham around suppertime. I was welcomed at the station by Walter Moberly, professor of Old Testament at Durham University.

Walter Moberly is a brilliant scholar who cares immensely about reading Scripture theologically for the sake of the church. I have benefited greatly from his work over the years; indeed, my very first email contact with him (ten years ago), prodded me to significantly nuance my interpretation of a particular biblical text (Genesis 12:1-3).

Walter was also the doctoral supervisor of my colleague Josef Sykora, for which I am very grateful.

Abraham’s Response to God in Genesis 22

I came to Durham, at Walter’s invitation, to give a paper in the Old Testament research seminar for postgraduate students in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University. My topic was “Unbinding the Aqedah from the Straightjacket of Tradition: An Inner-Biblical Interpretation of Abraham’s Test in Genesis 22.”

My interpretation of this famous story (known in Jewish tradition as the Aqedah or the binding of Isaac) deviated significantly Walter’s (he has written extensively on the topic). Whereas I was critical of Abraham’s silent response to God in Genesis 22, Walter has defended Abraham in numerous articles and thinks the story was meant to teach about the true attitude of the heart when Israel offers sacrifices at the Jerusalem temple.

I don’t doubt that the story came to have that use, but I wanted to understand what it could mean in the narrative world of the Abraham story itself.

Despite our disagreement, and the questions that he raised in the wake of my presentation, Walter was extremely gracious to me throughout my visit to Durham.

The Hospitality of Walter Moberly

He was, in fact, a wonderful host. I stayed with Walter and Jenny Moberly in their house near the university, the very house that Charles Kingsley Barrett (the famous New Testament scholar) used to live in.

Having lived and taught in Durham since 1989, Walter Moberly has become very knowledgeable about the history of the university and the cathedral (which are both on the same grounds).

He gave me a fascinating walking tour of Durham cathedral, which dates back almost to the Norman conquest (which took place in 1066). Construction began in the late eleventh century and was completed in the early twelfth century—which makes the cathedral about a thousand years old (that’s pretty impressive to someone from the New World).

St. Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral

Among the historical details I learned was that St. Cuthbert (634–687), the monk who became bishop of Lindisfarne and who died there, was buried in Durham cathedral.

When it became evident that the island of Lindisfarne (off the east coast of Northumbria) would no longer be safe from invasion by enemies, the monks moved their order (along with the body of Cuthbert) to Durham and he was re-interred there. This was before the Cathedral was built.

Legend has it that when Cuthbert’s tomb was opened (first to move him to Durham, then to rebury him in the cathedral once it was built) his body was incorrupt. This magnified the fame of Cuthbert, who was a saint in his own right independently of this phenomenon.

Even when emissaries from Oliver Cromwell (the staunch Puritan) opened Cuthbert’s tomb in the seventeenth century, they were awed by the incorruption of his body, and re-buried him, despite Cromwell’s distaste for the veneration of saints.

I had the amazing experience of sitting where this picture was taken, looking at Cuthbert’s tomb (the dark rectangle set in the floor), overwhelmed by the depths of time (a twenty-first century man contemplating a seventh century monk buried in a twelfth century cathedral).

I prayed silently, offering thanks for the faithfulness of God from the beginning of creation, through all the ages of the world, including his revelation through Abraham, Israel, and Jesus, up through medieval England, and into all the lands of the world, right up to the present day—and on into the consummation of all things.

Thanks be to God, the Alpha and the Omega, the creator and redeemer of all times—including this brief epoch we call human history.

My next post takes us to the College of the Resurrection in Mirfield.

My Intensive Week of Jewish Learning at Mechon Hadar

I am Jewish by birth (through my mother), although I was not raised in the Jewish tradition.

I became a Christian at a fairly young age and began attending church seriously as a teenager. I was particularly drawn to the study of the Bible and—despite my interest in visual art and poetry in high school—I embarked on an undergraduate degree in theology, primarily in order to explore my faith.

Along the way I fell in love with academics, and by the time I received my undergraduate degree (B.Th.) I had experienced a clear call to a teaching career. For me, however, I was only interested in teaching if academics could be integrally connected to the life of faith and the real needs of church and society. Indeed, I have never experienced academics as an ivory tower exercise.

I went on to study philosophy (M.A.), followed by graduate courses in biblical studies, and then a Ph.D. that integrated all of the above (a doctorate in philosophical theology, with a dissertation in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible).

My Jewish Heritage and Love for the Old Testament

I am unabashedly a Christian. Yet I can’t deny my Jewish heritage, a heritage that perhaps led to my love of the Old Testament—what Jews call Tanakh (an acronym for Torah [Pentateuch], Nevi’im [Prophets], and Ketuvim [Writings]).

I have always resisted jumping too quickly from the Old Testament to the New, since I have found that the Old Testament is a profound document in its own right, which has been formative for my spirituality. Rather than reading the Old Testament resolutely in terms of the New (finding Jesus under ever rock and tree—as one of my students put it), I have tried to read the New Testament in terms of the Old.

This way of reading the Bible undergirds all my teaching and led to (among other things) my recent book on biblical eschatology, A New Heaven and a New Earth, in which I tried to demonstrate the consistently this-worldly, earthy vision of “the age to come” (ha’olam haba in Hebrew). The eschatological vision of the New Testament builds on the foundation of the Old Testament, and does not—contrary to many Christian misreadings—“spiritualize” this foundation.

While I have no actual intention of converting to Judaism, I am interested in understanding my Jewish heritage—especially the ways in which Judaism has developed beyond the Bible.

And I have the utmost respect for Jews who take their faith seriously and seek to live out their commitment to God with integrity and compassion.

Mechon Hadar

I met a good number of such people this past week, as I immersed myself in the five-day Executive Seminar of an ecumenical institute of Jewish learning in New York City called Mechon Hadar.

Mechon Hadar (Institute of Honor/Glory/Splendor) was founded in 2006 by three brilliant young Rabbis—Shai Held, Elie Kaunfer, and Ethan Tucker, who continue to lead the institute, along with the addition of other top-notch faculty.

According to their website: “Mechon Hadar is an educational institution that empowers Jews to create and sustain vibrant, practicing, egalitarian communities of Torah learning, prayer, and service.”

Or, as it was articulated more simply during the Seminar, Mechon Hadar seeks to be characterized by “sophisticated yet accessible Jewish learning.” I found that to be an accurate description of my experience with this amazing, innovative institute.

Rabbi Ethan Tucker teaching in the Beit Midrash (House of Study)

Mechon Hadar offers a variety of programs, ranging from one-day seminars to summer intensives and year-long fellowships. While many of their programs cater to young people (especially those in college) who want an advanced course of Jewish studies (some even come from Israel for this), and other programs function as continuing education for Rabbis, the Executive Seminar that I participated in is geared to laypeople of varying levels of comfort and expertise with the Hebrew language and with Jewish texts and traditions.

Although I was the only Christian in the group of nearly forty adults attending this summer’s Executive Seminar, I was warmly welcomed and made to feel at home. Over the five days of intensive learning, I had many wonderful conversations with participants and even—by the end—found myself making a contribution to discussions.

Talmud Study—Clarification of Terminology

Three of the mornings were spent in intensive study of the Talmud (three hours each morning), where our focus was on the ramifications of a law concerning liability for injury in Exodus 21:18-19 and the divine and human roles in healing implied in God’s promises to Israel in Exodus 15:26.

For Christians unfamiliar with Jewish terminology, the Talmud (also called the Gemara) is a collection of Rabbinic commentary on the Mishnah, which is itself earlier Rabbinic commentary on the halakah, that is, the laws of the Torah (hālak means to walk, from which we get the phrase “walk the walk,” which refers to ethical action).

Since many of the commands enjoined upon Israel in the Torah raised questions in the minds of later readers, they discussed what these laws meant and how they might be applied, often suggesting difficult hypothetical cases or even counter examples to try and clarify the point of the laws.

This Rabbinic commentary was collected by Rabbi Yehuda (Judah) and published around 200 C.E. (= “Common Era,” equivalent to A.D. for Christians) as the Mishnah.

But the discussions of the various laws in the Mishnah in turn raised further questions, which led to debate and clarification by later Rabbis. The collection of this later commentary (from about 200 to 500 C.E.) on the Mishnah is sometimes called the Gemara, but more usually the Talmud (meaning “teaching,” from the verb lāmad, to learn).

The confusion is that there is a second, more expansive meaning of Talmud, which can refer to the combination of Mishnah and Gemara. There are two extant versions of the Talmud in this larger sense—the Palestinian or Jerusalem Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi) and the Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli). The latter is more comprehensive and is the version usually studied.

My Knowledge of Hebrew

Since we were studying the train of interpretation concerning Exodus 21:18-19 and 25:26 in the Mishnah (and related contemporaneous literature called the Baraita) and in the Talmud (Gemara), with some excursions into later medieval and modern Jewish texts, we were put into groups based on our facility with Hebrew and Aramaic. Some Seminar participants were paired with advanced students who were at Hadar for the summer intensive (they studied texts in the primary language, usually Aramaic, and usually unpointed—that is, without vowels). I would have been out of my depth in this group.

I began the study of Biblical Hebrew in my thirties, unlike many of the Seminar participants who had been to Hebrew school as children and had participated in the Jewish liturgy (reciting the Siddur) for many years. Some had even been involved in advanced Hebrew learning, and a few were fluent in Modern Hebrew.

So, while I have taught introductory (and even intermediate) Hebrew in college and seminary up to five years ago (so I knew the grammar, and much biblical vocabulary), I never functioned in a context where Hebrew was spoken, and was unfamiliar with many Hebrew terms that named parts of the Jewish liturgy. I felt the force of Mr. Miyagi’s words to Daniel in The Karate Kid, when he sees Daniel reading. “You learn karate from book?” he asks incredulously. Change karate to Hebrew and you will understand my disadvantage.

So I was happy to be part of a group (made up of about half the Seminar participants) whose level of expertise required us to participate in Talmud study with a bilingual text (English and Hebrew/Aramaic).

Each morning this group was expertly introduced to the issues to be studied by Rabbi Alvan Kaunfer (father of Elie, one of the founding Rabbis). Then we broke up into pairs or small groups of three or four (I was paired with a wonderful man named Michael—one of three Michaels in the Seminar) and we would spend an hour and a half digging into the texts for the day, trying to figure out the arguments and the concerns of the various Rabbinic voices. Then we would re-gather with Rabbi Kaunfer to discuss what we had found and he would help us synthesize the learning for the morning.

With Michael, my Havruta (study parntner)

Studying Talmud was a new experience for me and initially I found it quite complex and even confusing; but by the end I had come to a profound respect for the wisdom and insight of these ancient interpreters of Scripture.

As a result of this morning Talmud study, combined with various afternoon lectures on important topics of Jewish theology, ethics, biblical interpretation, and liturgy (all of which were interspersed with references to Hebrew terms and texts), I found my facility with the language growing every day.

In a follow-up blog I will discuss some of these lectures (and the lecturers) and what I learned from them.

The Times They Are a Changing (Institutions on the Move)

In a strange coincidence, I received notification today that two of the graduate schools I have studied at (and taught at) are selling their buildings. Both have been trying to sell their buildings for a while, and both have now found buyers.

I received both notifications by email today, with links that pointed to online postings from the day before.

Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School

First, I heard the news about Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School (Rochester, NY).

I attended Colgate Rochester in the eighties as an M.A. student, while serving as Protestant Chaplain at the University of Rochester, and then I moved back to Rochester in the nineties for a tenure track faculty position in Old Testament.

It was as a student at Colgate Rochester that I was first introduced to the writings of Walter Brueggemann, whose vision of the relevance the the Old Testament has shaped my understanding of Scripture. And Brueggemann sent me a nice note of congratulation when I started teaching there.

I lived in the dorms for my first semester as a student at Colgate and then again for a semester when I began teaching (before my family had moved to Rochester).

But for a long time the beautiful buildings on the “Hill” have been underused, ever since the other theological partner schools that shared the campus (Bexley Hall and St. Bernard’s) moved to other locations, and the largely residential student population shifted to primarily commuting students.

So with all those empty buildings, including dorms and the large cafeteria, it makes sense that the Divinity School plans to move to a smaller facility in the city, sometime over the next two years. It would be a significant cost savings, while allowing them to invest the funds from the sale in the future of the institution.

Institute for Christian Studies

Later in the day I heard the news about the Institute for Christian Studies (Toronto).

I attended the ICS in the late seventies for my first graduate courses, before I transferred to the University of Guelph for my M.A. in philosophy. While studying at the ICS and during my time in Guelph I worked for the ICS teaching non-credit worldview courses on university campuses in southern Ontario.

It was at the ICS that I received an in-depth exposure to thinking about a Christian worldview, through the institution’s intellectual heritage that could be traced back to the life and thought of Abraham Kuyper.

During my studies at ICS my wife and I lived in a small apartment on the top floor (with roof access), which came with the position of being in charge of janitorial work for the entire building.

I later returned to the ICS in the nineties for my PhD, and taught many adjunct courses in Biblical Studies and Worldview Studies in the Master’s programs. At this point we didn’t live in Toronto, but I commuted to the ICS from St. Catharines a couple days per week.

It was during this time that I was introduced to the work of N. T. Wright, who spoke at the ICS on a number of occasions. Wright’s serious historical and theological interpretation of the New Testament has impacted my vision of the text, including its rootnedness in the Old Testament and Second Temple Judaism.

Between the two times I attended the ICS, the school moved from the fourth floor of the building (where I first had classes) to the second floor, and then to the first floor, having sold the greater share of the five-story building they owned in downtown Toronto to investors.

But now, with the investors going out of business, and the option to buy back the entire building being too much at this time (given the price of real estate in Toronto), it makes sense to sell the entire building (including their own share), while continuing to rent one floor. Just as with Colgate Rochester, this would allow them to invest the funds from the sale in the future of the institution.

A Future Orientation

What do these two similar stories tell us about the state of Christian higher education today? What do they tell us about what is really important?

Yes, institutions need buildings with adequate space and facilities to pursue their mission. But these two stories point to the very real need to cut costs and become leaner and more efficient for the sake of the mission.

I have all sorts of fond memories of these two buildings (the beautiful stone towers of CRCDS and the old fourth floor of ICS). But it simply won’t do to focus nostalgically on the past. To be effective and faithful, institutions need to be aware of what serves the mission. So while being deeply grounded in tradition (never forgetting the past), faithful institutions need to be oriented to the present and to anticipate the future.

I am a grateful recipient of the formative intellectual traditions I inherited from both these graduate schools. And I am fully supportive of these ways in which each is preparing to meet future challenges.