Monday, April 8, 2024

What is a Christian Book Editor's Job?

I just started reading Nadya Williams’ Cultural Christianity in the Early Church during the past week. The introduction lays out the structure of the book, looking at the interactions between Christian faith and surrounding culture in the New Testament era, in the era of persecution between the New Testament era and Constantine, and then in the period where Christians went from being persecuted to privileged. Sounds like a very interesting read, and the podcast author interviews I have heard have been good.

Chapter 1, “More for Me, Less for Thee,” talks about Greco-Roman attitudes toward wealth and how it should be used, and how that seems to have influenced some people in the early church (Ananias and Sapphira selling some property and giving part of the proceed to the church, while claiming to have donated all the proceeds, in what seems to be an attempt to gain status as generous benefactors, rather than out of true generosity).

Williams says that Barnabas, a Levite from Cyprus, “appears to have previously been a cultural Jew. In particular, did you catch the contradiction in the idea of a Levite with property?” She goes on to mention how the tribe of Levi received no inheritance when the Promised Land was allocated to the tribes of Israel and “thus had to depend on the largesse of the other tribes in exchange for their work as teachers of the law and leaders of worship in the temple. A true Levite should have owned no property, so this anecdote shows just how far the Jewish community had drifted at this point from its roots” (p. 7).

This seems to ignore the fact that, while the tribe of Levi did not receive a single contiguous allocation of land for the tribe as a whole, they were given towns with their associated pasturelands scattered among the other tribes (Joshua 21 mentions a total of 48 towns, each with its pasturelands, that were allotted to the Levites). Leviticus 25, where the stipulations for the Jubilee are laid out, says that a house sold in a regular walled city was not to be returned in the year of Jubilee, and could only be bought back by the seller within the first year after the sale. Houses in villages without walls were considered part of the fields that were adjacent to them, and such properties of production were to be returned in the Jubilee. According to verses 32-34, if a Levite had to sell his house in a Levitical town, it was always redeemable and to be returned in the Jubilee, as the Levitical towns were the Levites’ land grant from God.

Williams goes on to discuss the description of Barnabas as a native of Cyprus. She asks, “Should not he, as a Levite, have considered himself a native of Israel?” First, the text of Acts says nothing about how Barnabas considered or described himself with regard to his nationality or place of origin. Luke is simply telling us that Joseph, whom the disciples gave the nickname Barnabas (“Son of Consolation”), was descended from the tribe of Levi and had been born in Cyprus but now dwelled in Jerusalem. Using Saul of Tarsus as an example, Williams writes, “Paul was born into a family of Pharisees based in Tarsus in modern Turkey, and his father was the first in the family to receive Roman citizenship. Eager for his son to receive the best possible theological education, his father sent him to study in Jerusalem where the family also still had relatives. Though Paul never lived in Tarsus again, he continued to refer to himself by this place of origin.”

Notice the beginning of that last sentence, which says, “Paul never lived in Tarsus again.” The book of Acts plainly contradicts this claim. Acts 9:30 says that the believers in Jerusalem, upon learning that some Hellenistic Jews had tried to kill Saul, sent him away to Tarsus. Acts 11:25 has Barnabas traveling to Tarsus to look for Saul (who is still living there at this point two chapter later in Acts) to bring him back to Antioch to help with the church there.

On page 11 of the book, in a discussion about the reaction of the Jewish religious leaders to Jesus’ overturning the tables of the money changers and driving out the animals being sold for sacrifice in the temple courts, Williams refers to them as Pharisees. Williams specifically references Matthew’s account of this event, and Matthew 21:15 mentions the “chief priests and the teachers of the law” protesting the children crying out in praise of Jesus. The chief priests would have been associated with the Sadducees, not the Pharisees, and while it is possible that the “teachers of the law” here may have been Pharisees, it is more likely they were the scribal elite associated with the temple, and therefore also allied with the Sadducee party.

I don’t bring up these issues to discredit Williams or her book. She is, after all, a military historian of the Greco-Roman world. Her doctorate is not in theology or biblical studies. I agree with a lot of the application points she makes with regard to Christians and culture. This does, however, raise questions in my mind concerning the editorial staff at Christian publishing houses (Williams’ book is published by Zondervan Academic). The fact that Levites did own property in their allotted villages in ancient Israel after the conquest of Canaan, and that Saul did return to live in Tarsus for a time, are not intricate theological nuances, but rather basic facts in the biblical text.

Anyone who reads the Bible through on a regular basis would have bells go off in their brains when reading some of the things I have pointed out here. While I understand that a big part of a book editor’s job is tightening up wording and making sure the book’s content is understandable, when we’re dealing with material related to the Bible, shouldn’t editors also be on the lookout for basic errors related to the biblical text? I’m not talking about interpretive issues where there are long-standing differences in understanding—it’s not the editor’s job to correct the author’s theology, that’s for certain. But when things such as claiming Saul never lived in Tarsus again make it past the editor, a disservice is done to both the reader and the author, as observant readers may question whether they can trust the author’s conclusions when basic errors of fact that do not require interpretation are put forth as a basis for the argument.

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