Travel and Teaching in Myanmar

29 06 2009

In less than two weeks, I will be in traveling to Myanmar (Burma) to teach at the Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT), July 9 to August 1. This experience will be a unique opportunity for me, and I plan on sharing blog reflections on the theological and religious context of my teaching and my travels in Myanmar.  For some initial thoughts on my preparation, you might want to check out a piece I wrote for Central Seminary’s webpage:  “On the Road to Myanmar.”

This opportunity arises because MIT and Central Seminary are working on partnership relationships related to curriculum and for the exchange of students and professors.  I am traveling to Myanmar with the help of the Alice and Gam Shae Partnership.  The Shaes have had a long history of ministry in Southeast Asia, and at one time Dr. Gam Shae was also a professor of New Testament at Central Seminary.  The nascent relationship between MIT and Central has also received the good news of a grant from the Luce Foundation.  This grant is designed to help sustain a long-term collaborative relationship between Central and MIT.

For some basic information about the Myanmar Institute of Theology, check out their website:  Myanmar Institute of Theology.

My travel this summer is a reminder of the many opportunities to partner with theological institutions around the world.  One of the excellent blogs I follow is “Theologian without Borders.” It links theological educators with opportunities for international teaching.

Presenting a Paper at the SBL

21 06 2009

My paper was accepted for the Society of Biblical Literature Annual meeting in New Orleans in November.  The paper will be in the program unit “John’s Apocalypse and Cultural Contexts Ancient and Modern.”  The paper title and abstract is below.  For time to time, I will post regarding progress on the paper.

Revelation 17:10-11:  The Identity of the Seven Kings Through Roman Imperial Coinage

The identity of the seven kings in Rev. 17:10-11 is an enigma for interpreters of the Apocalypse.  Frederick J. Murphy declared, “. . .  the variety of solutions that have been proposed show that, even more than with the number 666, the impulse to ‘decode’ the seven kings is doomed to failure” (Fall Is Babylon, 360). This paper presents a more optimistic hope for success by proposing a new approach to this problematic passage: numismatic evidence.

Titus Flavius Vespasianus (38-81 CE) succeeded his father, Vespasian, on June 23, 79 CE.  In becoming Augustus, Titus ruled for twenty-seven months (79-81 CE) and issued a series of unusual coins frequently labeled as “restoration” coins.  These coins are always bronze (sestertius, dupondius, and as) and used motifs drawn from the past coinage of the Julio-Claudians.  On these restoration coins, Titus honored four emperors from the past and then adds his father’s own special divus coins:  (1) Augustus, (2) Tiberius, (3) Claudius, (4) Galba, and (5) Vespasian.

While scholars have speculated about where to begin and/or end the count of emperors, who to include, and who to excluded, the restorations coins solve the problem.  The wide distributed and readily seen restoration coins bearing the images of these five emperors presents a natural identity for the fallen kings of the Apocalypse. The one who is, the sixth, therefore, represents the current emperor Titus, and thus helps to date the Apocalypse to his reign.   The seventh, the one who has not come, was Domitian

In Remembrance: Library Checkout Cards

20 06 2009

I had a fondness for the checkout cards found carefully enveloped at the back of most library books.  They have been dead for awhile, killed by efficiency and technology.

Ubiquitous Bar Code

Ubiquitous Bar Code

The checkout card was simple and symbolic.  To sign the card with my signature was, of course, on the most basic level a way for the library to have accountability; I had taken the book.  However, signing one’s name to any document creates a relationship and a commitment.  By signing my name to a library book, I committed myself to some type of relationship with this author and material.   Scanning a bar code does not have the same connection.   Signing the checkout card could mean an intimate relationship–late nights, rereading passages, and anticipation.  At other times, the commit was more platonic, and it could even border on benign neglect.   However, the signature on that thin blue line and the rubber stamped date beside it was an inked contract with this book.  scan0003

I was reminded of this physical connection with books when I recently checked out a book which still had a checkout card at the back.  As patrons checked out unbar coded books, the old cards were removed and new electronic tags were placed on the books.  I always glance at the names of those who had read a book in the past.   The thing about signing your name to a library card was that it was permanent; it could be there for decades.   In looking down though the names on this card, since the book was in a seminary library where I teach, I recognized many of the later names.   I was always glad to see names on checkout cards, because it meant students were reading.  It is a lonely and sad book that had no names on its dance card.  scan0002

One of  the names on this particular card was a former student who had since passed away.  I thought about him holding this book, turning pages and listening to its words.   It was a sense of connection through a mutually shared object.  For most of the objects we handle each day, we have no idea of their past, but for library books  you could look at the checkout card and see a host of readers with whom you were now joined.

I miss library checkout cards.

Of Shipwrecks and Coins

2 06 2009

The narrative of Paul’s shipwreck (Acts 27:1-28:16) is one of the outstanding stories in the New Testament. As is quite fitting, studies on this passage often turn to literary works in the ancient world for details related to sea travel and shipwrecks. Evidently these narratives were quite popular. And of course, there are the archaeological remains of shipwrecks; first-century shipwrecks dot the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. I certainly would not have wanted to insure a ship in the first century.

One might also at least give a brief nod to a little considered source for shipwrecks in the ancient world and that is the iconography found on ancient Roman coins. Actually ship motifs were a popular reverse type found on many Roman imperial coins. Yet reverses related to shipwrecks are, of course, difficult to find. Actually the ability to correlate reverses on Roman coins with specific events is extremely difficult; unfortunately we have little knowledge what provoked most of the images on coin reverses.  However, one coin minted under Marcus Aurelius (121-180 C.E.) probably does reference a shipwreck, one that the emperor was luck to have survived. The coin below illustrates this event.

aurelius155 This coin is a dupondius.  The obverse is the laureate head right of Marcus Aurelius.  The inscription reads M ANTONINVS AVG GERM SARM TRP XXXI.  The reverse depicts a galley with four rowers sailing right.  The god Neptune is before them (in the coin Neptune has been decapitated because of the hole).  The inscription reads FELICITATI AVG P P.    The inscription would translate as something like “to the good luck of the Augustus, Father of the Country.”

The record of this shipwreck come from Historia Augustus (a late fourth-century document), “Life of Marcus,” chapter XXVII:  “After settling affairs in the East he came to Athens and had himself initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries . . . . Afterwards, when returning to Italy by ship, he encountered a violent storm on the way.  Then, upon reaching Italy by way of Brundisium, he donned the toga, and bade his troops do likewise . . . . When he reached Rome he triumphed . . . Presently he appointed Commodus his colleague in the tribunician power, bestowed largess upon the people, and celebrated marvelous games . . . ”

The event of the shipwreck must have happened around the fall of 176 C.E. when the Emperor was returning from the east.  These coins were probably minted around the end of 176 and may have been presented as good-luck presents on 1 January 177.  The holed nature of this coin may indicate that it was used as a good luck charm, maybe by someone who was a frequent traveler via the Mediterranean Sea.  Perhaps it was holed by a servant or soldier who was on board this galley and survived.

This coin is a tangible example of the precarious nature of sea travel, even for those at the top  of the hierarchy of power.  The Emperor credited his salvation from a near disaster by the hands of the gods Neptune and Felicitas.  Paul in his own shipwreck owed his salvation to an intervention and revelation from God:   “For this very night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar; and lo, God has granted you all those who sail with you'” (Acts 27:23-24).

One last interesting reference to gods in relationship to Paul’s shipwreck is that the ship that eventually conveyed Paul to Italy was “a ship of Alexandria with the Twin Brothers as figure-head” (Acts 28:11b).  The Twin Brothers are Castor and Pollux and are often called the Dioscuri.  These two gods were  a frequent motif on Roman coins.  The denarius below from the Roman Republic (46 B.C.E.) illustrates an example of the Dioscuri.