Monthly Archives: November 2012

New Papyrus Fragment of Romans

From Dan Wallace:

At the Society of Biblical Literature’s annual conference in Chicago last week (17–20 Nov 2012), Grant Edwards and Nick Zola presented papers on a new papyrus fragment from Romans. They have dated it to the (early) third century, which makes this perhaps only the fifth manuscript of Romans prior to the fourth (though a couple of others are usually thought to also be from the third century). . . .

Regarding the specific text, among early papyri of the corpus Paulinum, only P46 covers the same passage. But because of the lacunose state of P46, sixteen letters of text that are missing from the Beatty papyrus are found in the Green papyrus. Zola selected four textual problems for our consideration (are these all or does the fragment read for others?). In all four, it agrees with other manuscripts, chiefly Alexandrian. The certain readings all agree with the text of NA28. In the gaps, reconstructions were necessary and there Green 425 agrees with the main Alexandrian witnesses where they are united, with a portion of them when they split.

It’s nothing groundbreaking, of course, but new manuscripts are always exciting! Go read Wallace’s full post for more information about the papyrus, including where it falls in specific textual problems in Romans.

(HT: Jim West)

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The Sociology of Biblioblogging

The following is an excerpt from my paper “Biblioblogging: Confessions of a Newcomer,” presented at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, Chicago, IL.


Traffic Distribution Among Biblioblogs

The first observation I’d like to make about the biblioblogosphere is that in it, like in the larger blogosphere, popularity follows a power law distribution — that is, the top handful of blogs receive the majority of hits. Clay Shirky, an Internet theorist, describes this phenomenon nicely:

The basic shape is simple – in any system sorted by rank, the value for the Nth position will be 1/N. For whatever is being ranked — income, links, traffic — the value of second place will be half that of first place, and tenth place will be one-tenth of first place. (Shirky 2003: n.p.)

For example, looking at the Biblioblog Top 50 from September 2011 [1] (which is, from what I can tell, the last accurate and uncontested list of hits for a set of biblioblogs): the top-ranked blog in the data set (Jesus Creed) got 109,647 hits, or 21.3% — over a fifth — of the total hits for the blogs listed. The top four blogs (Jesus Creed, Debunking Christianity, Exploring Our Matrix, and Unsettled Christianity) received 51% of the total hits, and the top 11 blogs (the above mentioned, plus Zwinglius Redivivus, Near Emmaus, Ancient Hebrew Poetry, Scotteriology, Better Bibles Blog, Gentle Wisdom, and NT Blog) received 75.6% of all the hits in the top biblioblogs. At the end of the rankings, the last two blogs (The Biblioblog Reference Librarian’s Desk and The Poetry of Christ) each received only a few hundredths of a percent of the total traffic. Thus, it is clear that traffic to biblioblogs follows a power law distribution.

The real question to be answered, though, is not what the traffic patterns are like, but why they follow the pattern they do. Several factors are at play. It is typically the case, for example, that older blogs receive more traffic than younger ones. Blogs that attracted traffic early in the history of biblioblogging will continue to attract traffic, following the iterative pattern of “more traffic, much celebrity; much celebrity, more traffic” (Guo et al. 2009: 113). This rule is not absolute, though, as some younger blogs (like Unsettled Christianity or XKV8R) garner a high level of traffic. A better predictor of a blog’s traffic levels is frequency and regularity of posting. Bloggers who post at least once a day typically have more traffic than bloggers who post irregularly, and for good reason — more material published on a blog means more chances for someone to click through to that blog, or to discover it through a Google search. Finally, content plays a strong role in driving traffic to a blog. Timely posts about newsworthy events receive more traffic than posts that don’t deal with such events (Guo et al. 2009: 116-117). Likewise, posts about controversial subjects, which are more likely to be shared and discussed throughout the biblioblogosphere, attract a good deal of traffic, while non-controversial posts are likely to be passed over without even a single comment.

Structure of Conversations About Newsworthy Events

Another similarity between biblioblogs and the larger blogosphere is the way conversations take place about newsworthy events. In general, blogs follow a specific pattern when discussing a given story. As Elwin Jenkins, an Internet researcher, describes it,

Blogosphere stories most often start with an opinion type blog, usually reacting to something in mainstream media. Then, almost within hours several voters point to those original opinions giving either a negative or positive vote. Other opinion writers then add more to the story with reaction posts giving more than just a vote. Reaction posts react to an opinion post, or to the voters. After some time, a blogger will summarize what the story is about and draw together some of the opinions, reactions, and note the voters. Voters then react to the summary and create another round of voting, reaction, and opinion. A story usually ends with an online personality providing a summary of the story, reasonably even-handedly. However, some stories die without a final summation occurring (Jenkins 2003, cited in de Moor, Efimova 2004: 199-200).

I find Jenkins’ schema to be a very good description of how bibliobloggers do scholarship relating to newsworthy events (e.g. the Jonah Ossuary or the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife). The scholarship process begins with a blog (or blogs, but no more than a few) breaking the story to the biblioblogosphere — Jenkins’ instigators. Then, very quickly, several voices chime in, sharing the story and adding their own commentary, with a few of those voices making substantial observations about the subject at hand — Jenkins’ voters and reactions. As the conversation speeds up and more voices join in, a blogger or two will provide an overview of the discussion so far as it has unfolded across the biblioblogosphere as a whole — Jenkins’ summaries. Bloggers then read the summaries, vote on and react to the posts contained therein, and the process repeats itself until the question has been solved, until the controversial stimulus is removed, until everyone loses interest, or a combination of any of the three.

What is interesting is that, despite the flurry of activity surrounding these sorts of noteworthy happenings, comparatively few bloggers make discoveries that significantly advance the conversation; they are usually the bloggers who have spent the most time on the subject, whether before or during the conversation, showing some evidence that blogged scholarship may not be as democratic as it is sometimes made out to be. However, once a blogger makes a significant discovery, their insights are quickly assimilated by the other bloggers engaging with the problem, who then set to work analyzing the problem in light of the new insights, until the next major discovery is made and assimilated, or until the problem is solved.

Speed of Blogging

Another noteworthy facet of blogging is the speed at which blog conversation occurs, especially in regards to controversial and newsworthy events in the field. Biblioblog conversations happen at a fast pace. This pace has the benefit of moving quickly enough to keep up with the news media, giving them timely counter-commentary to whatever claim is being made. However, the speed of blog conversation also runs the risk of concluding a conversation before the question at hand has been solved absolutely, thereby deciding matters too hastily.

The blogosphere reacts to a newsworthy story with a flurry of activity centered around that story, followed soon thereafter by a drop in attention: what information scientist Xitong Guo and his team call “storming.” As an example of this phenomenon, they describe the blogosphere’s reaction to the news that the US government was taking over the AIG insurance group:

At the macro level, the blogosphere usually exhibits “storming” accompanied with social events. For example, Figure 4 [not included in the present paper] shows the dynamics of the “Financial & Crisis” blog posts during September and October 2008. Noteworthy is the sudden “jump” of “Financial & Crisis” posts around September 17. . . . The blogosphere sustained very high interest in “Financial & Crisis” (about 1.2 percent of all blog posts) around September 17. However, the temporal high interest began to wane around September 19 (Guo et al. 2009: 112-113).

Biblioblogs, because they are a subset of the blogosphere and show the same characteristics as the blogosphere as a whole (Guo et al. 2009: 116-117), also exhibit storming in reaction to newsworthy events. To take the most recent example: After the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus was announced and the story broke in the blogosphere, bibliobloggers devoted a massive amount of energy to discussing the papyrus, analyzing it, and trying to determine if it is authentic, an ancient forgery, or a modern forgery. To the bibliobloggers’ credit, their attention spans are much longer than the rest of the blogosphere; conversation was roiling three days after the papyrus was initially announced on September 18, 2012, and was still garnering attention (though less frequently) on October 8.

The benefit of this “storming” behavior is that bloggers respond to the newsworthy events quickly, forcefully, and vociferously; indeed, quickly enough for their commentary to keep pace with the news, and forcefully and vociferously enough even to be featured themselves in the news, like Bob Cargill’s live CNN interview regarding the Jonah Ossuary.

The downside to blogging storms is that matters can potentially be decided before all of the evidence has been collected. A clear example of this phenomenon is the very early labeling of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife as a modern forgery. For example, James McGrath says:

Some are already pronouncing the issue resolved. I would like to suggest that that judgment is premature. . . .

. . . I would like to suggest that nothing that Watson presents in his article indicates that the work is a modern forgery, or even that calling it an ancient “fake” will usefully contribute to our understanding of the text. Chemical analysis may hopefully settle the matter to everyone’s satisfaction, and it may be worth the damage to the fragment that would be involved, in order to achieve that higher degree of certainty. Until then, the discussion should continue, and any pronouncement of the matter as settled is at best premature.

(I should like to note briefly that I have no dog in this fight, and I do not much care whether the text is authentic or a forgery ancient or modern. I include this example solely because it is a quick decision that has garnered controversy for its quickness.)

I see three reasons why bibliobloggers would risk substantial controversy in order to make quick judgments about a matter. The first reason is that the biblioblogging community places a high value on responding to newsworthy events quickly enough to keep pace with the news media. The second is that it rewards quick answers to questions, because the success of a blog and its relative importance in the conversation depend both on reacting to an event in a timely fashion and on frequent posts, as shown above. The third reason is that the biblioblogging community does not place as high a value on posts that are the result of longer periods of investigation, since these sorts of posts usually come after a story has died down and the interest has waned. In general, in discussions of newsworthy events, the biblioblogging community rewards quick responses more than slower ones, providing a strong incentive for scholars to make quick judgments and to stick with them.


So, in sum, I have shown that the world of biblioblogging exhibits three specific behaviors, all of which are similar to behaviors seen in the larger blogosphere: first, a power law distribution of blog traffic, which is itself dependent on factors like a blog’s age, how frequently it is updated, and the content written about in it; second, blog conversations about newsworthy events follow a specific pattern, that is, with instigation, votes, reactions, and summaries being written in turn; third, these blog conversations take place at a rapid pace and with a high volume, resulting in blogosphere “storming.”


[1] Note: In order to have the most representative sample possible, I have only included the 40 blogs for which tracker data was available.



Scholarly Analyses

Blood, Rebecca. “How Blogging Software Reshapes the Online Community.” Communications of the ACM 47 (2004): 53-55.

Davila, James R. “Enter the Bibliobloggers.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. Philadelphia, PA, November 20, 2005.

_____. “What Just Happened: The Rise of ‘Biblioblogging’ in the First Decade of the Twenty-First Century.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. Atlanta, GA, November 22, 2010.

de Moor, Aldo and Lilia Efimova. “An Argumentation Analysis of Weblog Conversations.” Pages 197-212 in Proceedings of the 9th International Working Conference on the Language-Action Perspective on Communication Modelling (LAP 2004). Edited by M. Aakhus and M. Lind. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers, 2004.

Du, Helen S. and Christian Wagner. “Weblog Success: Exploring the Role of Technology.” International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 64 (2006): 789–798.

Gregg, Melissa. “Feeling Ordinary: Blogging as Conversational Scholarship.” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 20 (2006): 147-160.

Guo Xitong, Doug Vogel, Zhongyun Zhou, Xi Zhang, and Huaping Chen. “Chaos Theory as a Lens for Interpreting Blogging.” Journal of Management Information Systems 26 (2009): 101–127.

Herring, Susan C., Lois Ann Scheidt, Sabrina Bonus, and Elijah Wright. “Bridging the Gap: A Genre Analysis of Weblogs.” Proceedings of the 37th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (2004): 1-11.

Lovink, Geert. Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Future. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Luzón, María José. “‘Interesting Post, But I Disagree’: Social Presence and Antisocial Behaviour in Academic Weblogs.” Applied Linguistics 32 (2011): 517-540.

Powell, Douglas A., Casey J. Jacob, and Benjamin J. Chapman. “Using Blogs and New Media in Academic Practice: Potential Roles in Research, Teaching, Learning, and Extension.” Innovative Higher Education 37 (2012): 271-282.

Shirky, Clay. “Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality.” Feb 8, 2003.

Bloggers’ Posts

Cargill, Robert R. “Sins of Commission and Omission: Digitally Generated Marginal ‘Fishes’ and Overlooked Handles on the So-called ‘Jonah Ossuary.’” March 13, 2012.

Goodacre, Mark. “SBL CARG Biblioblog Session.” November 12, 2005.

_____. “Disintegration of the Biblioblogging Community?” April 20, 2006.

_____. “Vertical Blogs vs. Horizontal Blogs.” August 8, 2012.

_____. “Jesus’ Wife Fragment: Further Evidence of Modern Forgery.” October 11, 2012.

Heiser, Michael S. “Just in Time for Easter Cash Flow: The Tomb of Jesus’ Disciples.” February 27, 2012.

Lombatti, Antonio. “Never seen a fish depicted upside-down.” March 1, 2012.

McGrath, James. “Is the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife a Fake?” September 21, 2012.

_____. “Lessons from Jesus’ Wife.” October 8, 2012.

Watts, Joel L. “$imcha Gives a Prime Example of the Theory of Motivated Reasoning.” March 6, 2012.

West, Jim. “The Dis-Integration of the ‘Biblioblogging’ Community.” April 17, 2006. (Accessed via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.)

_____. “It’s The August Biblioblog Carnival! The ‘Look, There’s a List of Biblioblog Twitterers’ Edition.” September 1, 2012.


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An Oldie but a Goodie: “Why I No Longer Believe Religion is a Virus of the Mind”

Are religions viruses of the mind? I would have replied with an unequivocal “yes” until a few days ago when some shocking data suggested I am wrong. . . .

It seems I was wrong and the idea of religions as “viruses of the mind” may have had its day. Religions still provide a superb example of memeplexes at work, with different religions using their horrible threats, promises and tricks to out-compete other religions, and popular versions of religions outperforming the more subtle teachings of the mystical traditions. But unless we twist the concept of a “virus” to include something helpful and adaptive to its host as well as something harmful, it simply does not apply. Bacteria can be helpful as well as harmful; they can be symbiotic as well as parasitic, but somehow the phrase “bacterium of the mind” or “symbiont of the mind” doesn’t have quite the same ring.

“Why I No Longer Believe Religion is a Virus of the Mind” | Comment is Free

This post is really interesting. The author, formerly a Dawkins-esque anti-theist, was convinced — by empirical data at a scientific conference — of the evolutionary value of religiosity. However, even though she no longer thinks that religion is a Bad Thing, she still speaks in negative terms about it.

Go check it out.


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Used Book Store Finds

My wife and I recently visited several of the used book stores here in Iowa City for a much-needed day of relaxation. Here was our haul:

  • E. A. Speiser, Genesis (Anchor Bible). $3.
  • W. D. Davies, The Sermon on the Mount. $2.
  • I. M. Lewis, Ecstatic Religion: A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession. $4.50.
  • Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. $1.99.
  • Willa Cather, My Antonia. $2.
  • Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights. $2.
  • Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina. $2.
  • C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain. $4.50.
  • Lewis Carroll, The Annotated Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass. $2.
  • Chris van Allsburg, The Polar Express. $1.

Total before tax: $25. Not a bad day, if I do say so myself! I’m especially jazzed to have gotten an Anchor commentary for $3.

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Paul and Antony the Great: Christian Shamans

I’ve become convinced that early Christian mystic practice is, at root, shamanistic. Compare the initiation ritual of Siberian shamans with Paul’s conversion narrative and the story of how Antony the Great became a monk:

The shamanic vocation can be directly conferred on someone by the spirits, or it can be a family inheritance. Yet even when it is inherited, Siberian shamans are still supposed to undergo individual initiation in order to obtain knowledge and acquire supernatural aids. Visited by the spirits, the shaman initially goes through a period of deep psychic depression and illness; these only subside when, having crossed the desert of death, he or she comes back to life and learns to control personal spirits in order to perform ecstatic journeys whose purpose is usually healing through exorcism.

Ioan P. Couliano, Out of This World: Otherworldly Journeys from Gilgamesh to Albert Einstein (Boston: Shambhala, 2001), 40.

The initiation experience of the Siberian shamans above closely parallels the sanctification process for early Christian (monastic saints) — a protracted period of struggle against sin, the flesh, and sometimes demons and/or Satan; followed by a complete mastery of his/her own actions and the ability to work miracles and/or have ecstatic experiences.

For example, the New Testament records that Paul, after his conversion experience, fell deathly ill, was healed miraculously, then lived in seclusion in Arabia for three years, before returning to Jerusalem to become a Christian missionary. Paul implies that his years in Arabia were marked by mystical experiences, and even in his later life he had ecstatic, mystical experiences, both during worship services and at other times, and is reported to have been able to heal the sick and resurrect the dead.

Another example is St. Antony the Great, the first of the desert monks of Egypt. After his conversion experience, he lived as a hermit in the Egyptian desert, where he fought the demons, Satan, and against his own temptations to sin; each of these struggles left him deeply wounded, but God would revive him. Eventually, he conquered all of his spiritual adversaries and gained miraculous abilities, like clairvoyance and miraculous healing.

So, both Paul’s and Anthony’s experiences fit the pattern for initiation into shamanic practice: they underwent a serious mental/physical struggle, followed by a full recovery, which was accompanied by spiritual ability and ecstatic adeptness. Their stories provide evidence that shamanism is not limited solely to mimetic or mythic religions, like those of tribal hunter-gatherer societies, but also is a part of theoretic religions like Christianity, where beliefs are usually separated from ritual and mythos.

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Arrowheads and Human Intellect

Archaeologists working at South Africa’s Pinnacle Point cave site uncovered a collection of tiny blades, about an inch big, that resemble arrow points, likely belonging to prehistoric bow and arrows or spear-throwers. The researchers say the discovery is further evidence that humans (Homo sapiens) started to act and think like modern people early in their evolution. …

The new study, however, goes one step further. The researchers say the blades were found throughout a geological section of Pinnacle Point that spans roughly 11,000 years (71,000 to 60,000 years ago), indicating people could communicate complicated instructions to build intricate tools across hundreds of generations. This instance of long-term maintenance of a cultural tradition early in human history is evidence that the capacity for modern culture began early and slowly built up, Brown and colleagues say. Previous suggestions that complex culture came and went in the early days of humans is probably an artificial result, they say, because so few African sites have yet been excavated.

“Early Bow and Arrows Offer Insight Into Origins of Human Intellect” | Hominid Hunting

Very cool stuff! Go on and check out the whole article.


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Mimetic, Mythic, and Theoretic Religion

Robert Bellah has an interesting and eminently useful way of classifying religions, adapted from Merlin Donald’s description of the evolution of culture. Donald classifies cultures into three stages: mimetic, mythic, and theoretic.

In a mimetic culture, which could possibly go back as far as 2 million years ago, members of the genus Homo acted out events with their bodies; that is, communication was predominantly gestural. However, these cultures were by no means silent, and they likely involved music and even simple, pre-linguistic utterances. Not surprisingly, music, dance, and ritual behavior are also the most basic forms of religious practice. So, religious physical enaction and ritual can be called mimetic religion.

Speech developed later than gestural communication — 250,000-100,000 years ago, as opposed to 2 million years ago. With speech came complex narratives, which, in some forms, were cultural and religious myths; hence, mythic culture. In the religious sphere, these complex narratives are religious myths, and they serve to augment — not replace — ritual practice. Myths allow ritual to enact more complex subjects than were previously possible. So, ritual religious enaction accompanied by a complex narrative can be called mythic religion.

Finally, in the 1st millennium BCE, theoretic cultures emerged. They subject the old controlling narratives to rational scrutiny, changing them into new forms, reorganizing them, and/or replacing them. These cultures argued in favor of ethical and spiritual universalism, rather than tribal parochialism. Their religions followed suit, calling the old myths and rituals into questions and changing them into, or replacing them with, something more acceptable. These religions did not abandon ritual or myth altogether, though; instead, they created new rituals and myths, based on their scrutiny of the old forms. These religions can be called theoretic religions.

I find this framework both concise and fair, and I think it’s worth adopting, as a way to study diverse religions without casting value judgments on them.


Robert N. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 2011), xviii-xix.

Merlin Donald, Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991).

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