Review: Passions of the Christ

Passions of the Christ, F. Scott Spencer. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021.

Summary: A study of the emotional life of Jesus in the gospels, drawing upon both classical thought and emotions theory.

Sometimes, Jesus is presented to us as without passion, always in control. Some of this arises from belief in the impassibility of God. Yet what does the incarnation mean if the fully human as well as divine Jesus is emotionless. F. Scott Spencer presents a very different picture of the emotional life of Jesus. He observes a range of emotions in Jesus from anger and disgust to anguish to surprise, deep compassion, and joy. Often, in the same episode, there will be a complex mix of emotions. Not unlike us.

Spencer’s approach is a combination of exegesis, word study and cultural backgrounds, a consideration of classic philosophy concerning the emotions and contemporary psychology. This results in a deep, probing study of the emotions of Jesus, surprising and unsettling at times, particularly the instances of his anger or disgust, and yet consistent in his passion for the full human flourishing of those to whom he came to minister.

After two chapters laying out the basis for his study, Spencer explores in eight chapters key emotions of Jesus evident in the gospels: anger, anguish both during his ministry and in his final hours, disgust, surprise, compassion, and joy. One of the most interesting episodes is the resuscitation of Lazarus where anger, anguish, disgust (Jesus “snort”), and compassion all come together in one narrative.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter was that on the amazement or surprise of Jesus. We see this both in response to the unbelief of his own people, and the unexpected belief of the Roman centurion. Spencer proposes that there is a kind of “enlargement” of Jesus on perspective in these episodes. Likewise, we may wonder about the anger of Jesus at times, for example with the leper in Mark 1. Spencer contends that the leper’s “if you choose,” questions the life-giving mission of Jesus, a form of unbelief deeply disturbing, sufficiently explanation for the anger of Jesus.

Spencer makes us take a fresh look at these emotional expressions in Jesus’s life. Whether one agrees with his exploration of these emotions, it is unavoidable that Jesus manifests the full range of emotions we all do. He is not the incarnate God in appearance only. Yet anger, disgust, surprise, compassion and joy also make sense in light of a singular passion for human flourishing in relation with God. And in all this, the saving God is revealed.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Letters for the Church

Letters for the Church: Reading James, 1-2 Peter,1-3 John, and Jude as Canon, Darian R. Lockett. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: A study of the catholic epistles, arguing that they ought be read together and exploring their shared themes and particular emphases.

The books between Hebrews and Revelation, known as the catholic epistles, often seem to get less attention, except perhaps for James, 1 Peter, and 1 John. There were questions early on about the canonicity of some of the books. In contemporary scholarship, books on the gospels and Pauline subjects seem to be in the preponderance.

Darian R. Lockett contends that not only were these books accepted into the canon as a collection but that they ought be read as a collection that concern common themes of concern to all the churches of the day–hence “catholic.” He gives a brief history of the early church’s discussion about affirming these books as part of the canon and talks about their importance as scripture, as instruction on resisting false teaching inside and outside the church, and for their emphasis on practiced faith.

Although a scholarly work, offering bibliographies for further reading and “going deeper” sidebars, Lockett has designed the book for reading through the catholic epistles in one’s study. A chapter is offered on each of the epistles, except for a combined chapter on 2 and 3 John. Each chapter includes discussion of authorship, audience, setting, and the occasion for the letter, the structure and outline of the letter and then a section by section commentary on the text, with further reading suggestions for each letter at the end of the chapter. While reviewing the alternatives in terms of authorship, Lockett seems to prefer the traditionally attributed authors (including Peter for 2 Peter). He does make an interesting case for 2 Peter as testamentary literature based on 2 Peter 1:12-15, comparing it to parallels. Regarding James, he offers a “going deeper” discussion on justification, comparing James and Paul in terms of their use of “righteousness.” He addresses the shared material in 2 Peter and Jude, believing that 2 Peter draws this from Jude but notes addresses different challenges–false teachers inside the Christian community in 2 Peter as opposed to the intruders from outside in Jude.

The commentary is well-suited for reading along with the text, dealing with key textual issues without becoming technical and tracing significant arguments and themes. Both in discussions of each letter and in a concluding chapter, Lockett traces recurring themes in the catholic epistles, the major of which are:

  • Love for one another
  • Enduring trial
  • Allegiance to God and the world incompatible to each other
  • Faith and works
  • Guarding against false teaching

I have studied these books individually but had never considered studying them as a canonical unit. Lockett makes a strong case for doing so and provides a great resource for those interested in making such a study. As I read along in the biblical text, his argument rang true–I had never observed the connections apart from the shared content in 2 Peter and Jude. Lockett’s book serves as a great introduction to reading this less familiar part of the New Testament.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Servant of the Lord and His Servant People

The Servant of the Lord and His Servant People (New Studies in Biblical Theology #54), Matthew S. Harmon. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: A study of the application of the term “servant” to a number of key figures in scripture culminating in Jesus, and the way these were used by God to form a servant people.

In most contexts the idea of servitude at very least is an undesirable state, and, if involuntary, a breach of human rights. Yet one of the curious themes in scripture underscored by this book, is the idea of being a “servant of the Lord.” Matthew S. Harmon notes the cultural overtones, but also addresses the dignity of those who serve the Lord.

This work centers on key figures who “serve the Lord” through scripture: Adam, Moses, Joshua, David, the servant of Isaiah, Jesus, and the apostles. There is another group as well. Throughout scripture, it becomes clear that God is out to form a servant people–first Israel and then the church. Harmon devotes a chapter to each of these key people or groups of people.

We begin with Adam the servant of the Lord who rules over all creation and is the priest and guard of God’s garden-temple. Adam fails in his task, but in his descendants God continues to call servants–Noah, Abraham, and the patriarchs through whom God begins to form a people. Then Moses becomes the servant of God, a kind of prophet, priest, and king. Harmon traces the language of “servant” relative to Moses through the Torah and the Prophets and Writings. Then Joshua follows as the faithful servant who does what Moses commands, through whom God works similar acts, and who calls Israel as a people to serve the Lord at the end of his life.

Yet when the generation who led with Joshua dies, Israel turns to serve other gods, and are given over by God as prey for the surrounding nations. They want a king. Saul fails to serve God wholeheartedly and David is anointed and becomes the next servant of the Lord. He is not only the king through whom God gives Israel rest in the land from their enemies, but priest who prepares for the construction of the temple, and prophet who wrote songs to God. One of the songs is about David’s greater son. Solomon starts out well but is drawn off to other gods, as are most of his successors. Israel and Israel’s kings have failed at their servant calling. Isaiah writes about this failure and about the servant who will fulfill the service in which Israel fail, suffering for the sins of the people as he does so.

And so we come to Jesus, the culmination toward which all the other servants looked. One of the distinctive aspects of Harmon’s treatment is that he shows how Jesus fulfills what the other servants anticipate. He reverses Adam’s failure in his victory over Satan in the wilderness. He is the prophet greater than Moses, the Joshua who brings his people into eschatological rest. He is the Davidic king whose rule never ends. His whole history from his exile in Egypt on recapitulates Israel’s story. He is the servant whose death and resurrection save his people–all people.

The final two chapters focus on groups. First there are the apostles who speak of themselves as servants of the Lord, even his two brothers, James and Jude. He traces this through the letters they wrote. But there is another group, and we are part of it. The church is portrayed as the servant people of God. It is a people who follow Jesus in his sufferings, but also fulfill the Adamic call to reflect the character of God to all things.

In his conclusion, Harmon considers the implications of this call to be a servant people. It is a call to a new freedom from the tyranny to self, sin and Satan. It is a call to be shaped in a community in the form of love that serves each other, washing each others’ feet. It is a call to be a light to the surrounding world, that others would find their way into this community as we did through repentance and faith. Finally, it is a call to become servant leaders, exercising the kind of kingship of the king who stoops to serve and even die.

This monograph cannot help challenge the contemporary church’s quest for power and influence, the celebrity culture, and the obsession with political influence and access at the expense of humble service. It indicates how little the Servant of the Lord captures our imagination and our allegiance. What may be equally challenging to think about is why we hear so little of this overarching biblical theme from the pulpits of many of our churches. It may be that we are working off the wrong script.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Who Created Christianity?

Who Created Christianity?, Craig A. Evans and Aaron W. White, editors. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2020.

Summary: A festschrift in honor of David Wenham focused around the centerpiece of Wenham’s theology, the relationship between Jesus and Paul and Wenham’s insistence that Paul was not the founder of Christianity but a disciple of Jesus.

In 1995, David Wenham, a British theologian who has taught at Wycliffe Hall and Trinity College, Bristol, published Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity?, a groundbreaking work. He contended that Paul was significantly informed and influenced by the Jesus tradition, demonstrating parallels between Paul’s writing and what became the gospels. Much of critical scholarship at this time (and still) contended that Paul significantly re-shaped the Jesus tradition from what was a particular sect of Judaism to the faith that spread through the Gentile world and stood apart from Jesus and his earliest followers.

Defending and extending this work was an important aspect of Wenham’s scholarship, and the research he mentored with his graduate students. In this work, a number of those former students as well as an international group of scholars contribute works in his honor, pointing to ways biblical scholars have built on his signal insights.

David Wenham contributes a foreword to the work that serves as a review of his scholarly career and concludes that scholars like himself negotiate a path between parallelmania and parallelphobia, the challenge of seeing strong parallels between the teaching of Jesus and Paul. Aaron W. White’s preface adds biographical information on David Wenham and explains the organization of the work. Stanley E. Porter then introduces the history of the discussion of the continuities and discontinuities between Jesus and Paul, from the early Fathers to the present, noting the fluctuation between continuity and discontinuity..

The remainder of the work is organized in six sections. In “Jesus, Paul, and Gospel Origins,” N. T. Wright, somewhat provocatively argues that if not the founder of Christianity, Paul did invent “Christian theology,” the work of thinking deeply about God, the world, Israel, the Messiah, what it means to be human, and the future. Graham Twelftree considers the origins of Paul’s gospels: scripture, the Jesus traditions, and revelation. Stanley E. Porter advances the intriguing hypothesis that Paul may well have met Jesus and heard some of the teaching of Jesus and knew of the reports surrounding his life. Rainer Riesner explores the handing along of the Jesus tradition and its use by Paul, whose writings are the earliest in the New Testament corpus. Christoph W. Stenschke examines the continuities between the ministries of Jesus and Paul (including miracles, opposition, suffering, Jerusalem and the temple) and developments. Joan Taylor makes the striking proposal that the author of the “we” passages in Acts, was a woman, likely Thecla (I did not find this persuasive). Editor Aaron W. White concludes this section with an exploration of Paul’s use of possessives (‘my” and “our”) in speaking of the gospel.

Part Two on “Jesus, Paul and Oral Traditions” consists of two articles. Bruce Chilton explores the reliance of Paul on the oral traditions of Matthew’s “little apocalypse” in the writing of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11 and the role Silas may have played in conveying “the word of the Lord.” Armin D. Baum considers the numerous parallels between 1 and 2 Thessalonians and contends on the basis of other documents in antiquity that Paul, using pre-formed material to materials and produced these parallels himself. Part Three explores “Themes in Jesus and Pauline Studies” Alister McGrath begins with a sparkling essay on metanoia and the transforming of the believing mind. Peter Turnhill turns to those who do not believe, particularly, those of Israel and how Paul wrestled with this in his apologetic. Craig Evans explores to what degree there is a connection between Paul on food and Jesus on what defiles and how this impacted Peter. He concludes that on food, Paul was not a “founder,” given the precedents set both by Jesus and Peter. “Women According to Jesus and Paul” consists of two studies of women in Paul. Sarah Harris considers how women are remembered in the gospels and Paul. Erin M. Heim focuses on Junia (who was in Christ before Paul, and thought by some to be the Joanna of Luke 8:2-3. and Phoebe, and more briefly on the other named women of Romans.

Part Five explore “Paul and The Synoptics.” Michael F. Bird observes twelve convergences between Matthew and Paul (not readily thought to converge on anything). Charles Nathan Ridlehoover considers the allusions to the Lord’s prayer in Colossians 1:9-14, as well as allusions elsewhere to much of the material in the Sermon on the Mount. Craig Blomberg considers Wenham’s case for a pre-Markan eschatological discourse to which Paul had access. Steve Walton considers Luke, who wrote on Jesus and Paul, and the parallels Luke draws between them. Part Six turns things around and looks at “Jesus in the Paulines.” Each chapter considers a specific text and its dependence on the Jesus tradition. John Nolland looks at “every sin that a person commits is outside the body” in 1 Corinthians 6:18b. Peter Davids examines 1 Corinthians 5 and the contention that “Jesus is Lord.” Greg Beale considers Colossians 1-2 in terms of the temple and anti-temple in Colossae. Finally, Holly Beers closes out the collection on a high note on Colossians 1:24 on the puzzling statement about “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions,” drawing on allusions to Isaiah’s Servant and the Servants in Second Temple Judaism.

The collection surveys the field of studies concerning Jesus and Paul quite ably. Stanley Porters proposal of Paul’s possible content with Jesus in Jerusalem before the crucifixion was something I’d not considered but makes sense from Paul’s own biography and the Acts accounts. The basic case of the parallels between the Jesus tradition and Paul showing both his dependence, and as Wright argues, his creative appropriation stirred me to think about how I read Paul in light of that tradition, rather than in the stand alone fashion I often do. The articles on women remind me of how we have often overlooked their importance in both the ministries of Jesus and Paul.

It is easy to take a pass on festschrifts but this is worth a look as an introduction to an important aspect of David Wenham’s work as well as the important questions of how the gospels and Pauline materials connect. The stellar line-up of scholars who write are a mark of the esteem with which Wenham is held and an indication of the scholarly work one will find in this volume.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Strength in Weakness

Strength in Weakness: An Introduction to 2 Corinthians, Jonathan Lamb. Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Langham Preaching Resources, 2020.

Summary: A concise exposition of 2 Corinthians designed as a resource for pastors, and for personal and small group study.

If there were a Facebook status for the relationship between Paul and the Corinthian church, it would probably be “it’s complicated.” He spent eighteen months helping establish this church, second in length only to his time in Ephesus. The correspondence we have occupies more space than any other Pauline correspondence to a church, and internal evidence suggests we have only two of four letters Paul wrote to them. This was no mere dispatching of an email, instant message, or even a letter in a mail box. Letters were often drafted and then re-written by a scribe and had to be hand carried to their intended recipient.

What we have as 2 Corinthians was probably the fourth letter Paul sent. Those who study and preach it find it challenging to figure out. It jumps around, touching on a variety of topics, seemingly unconnected: Paul’s non-visit, forgiving an offender, an extended defense of the character of his ministry against the claims of “super-apostles,” a fund-raising appeal for generosity, Another defense of his ministry focused on his sufferings and works among them, and his final encouragements. Some even think this might have represented a splicing together of a couple letters, although there is no manuscript evidence of this.

What Jonathan Lamb does in this book is provide an expository introduction of this challenging book. This is not a verse by verse commentary but a section by section content summary. Running through this “introduction” to 2 Corinthians is Paul’s emphasis on the character of Christ-dependent ministry. It is marked by integrity, service, and suffering for the sake of those ministered to. It forgives as the mercy of God in Christ has been extended to us. It exercises discipline when sin threatens the progress of individuals and communities from Spirit-given transformation from one degree of glory to another as they gaze on Christ. It invites generosity in offerings trusting God to supply needs and multiply the fruit of their righteous trust.

Lamb also pulls together the evidence of the text to delineate the character of the “super-apostles” who threatened the Corinthians allegiance to Christ and affection for Paul. We see individuals who boast of eloquence, that they “charge” the Corinthians for their service, and deride Paul for his self-supporting ministry and his sufferings. In doing so the contrast between Paul, whose ministry credential is the very church at Corinth, and the claims of these spurious apostles is apparent.

Lamb goes lightly on application leaving that to the 3-4 questions at the end of each section. I did appreciate his discussion of Paul’s pains to ensure the trustworthy handling of the offering he was sending emissaries to collect from Corinth. He writes, commenting on 8:20-21:

“It is important to be honest here. The temptation to misuse funds probably comes a close second to sexual temptation, not only among leaders but among all believers, although leaders sometimes face more opportunities to be tempted than the rest of us. Since it can be a device of Satan to exploit potential weaknesses, it is always important in church affairs to ensure that there is careful administration similar to that which Paul put in place here. Even the most trustworthy treasurer needs others to work with him in counting money, signing cheques or making bank transfers, so that we take ‘pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of men’ (v. 21).”

Jonathan Lamb, p. 118.

Oh, that every church and ministry would heed this counsel!

In addition to the section by section summaries of passages, Lamb includes short explanatory articles throughout on such matters as the different letters to Corinth, the offender in 2 Corinthians 2, discussions of covenant, universalism, resurrection, and atonement, and the unity of 2 Corinthians. All of this combines to provide a clear and concise introduction to 2 Corinthians readily accessible for anyone who would study and preach it. In doing so, Lamb points us to the source of true strength for gospel ministry that exalts Christ and serves people.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Voices and Views on Paul

Voices and Views on Paul: Exploring Scholarly Trends, Ben Witherington III and Jason A. Myers. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A discussion and analysis of recent Pauline scholarship focusing on E.P. Sanders, James D.G. Dunn, N.T. Wright, John Barclay, Stephen Chester, and Louis Martyn.

As you may gather from my reviews, there has been a plethora of scholarship on Paul in recent years. This is one of those works that offers both a helpful review of some of the key scholarship in this field as well as evaluation that both affirms what the writers see of value, and offers some critique. Ben Witherington III has written a number of commentaries on the Pauline writings as well as a significant work on the new scholarship on Paul, The Paul Quest, first published in 1998, when much of the “New Perspective” scholarship was still a “new” thing. Since then, a number of the key figures have written newer works, in some cases revising their views. Also, in more recent year the “apocalyptic school” led by Louis Martyn has generated its own discussion and reading of Paul. And lastly, John Barclay has focused on the theme of grace and gift in Paul and Stephen Chester has contributed Reading with the Reformers, an effort to reconcile old and new perspectives.

The two authors divide up the treatment of these figures between them with Witherington contributing a chapter on N.T. Wright and the chapter on Barclay and Chester and Myers taking the chapters on E.P. Sanders, James D.G. Dunn, and on Martyn and others of the apocalyptic school. Both offer overviews of key works, as well as appraisal. Here were a few impressions from my reading:

  1. There is an ongoing discussion of what kind of Jew Paul is. So much of the discussion has been around Paul and second Temple Judaism, but there was the observation that there may be more need to pay attention to Paul’s diasporan roots.
  2. I was impressed by the contrast between E. P. Sanders and James D. G. Dunn in terms of their engagement with their critics. Dunn was far more engaged than Sanders, and his later work reflected this engagement. The authors rightly note the wonderful model Dunn, who recently passed, gave us.
  3. I’m also struck by the greater nuancing that has occurred over time on what is meant by “works of the law” recognizing both the boundary conditions that were a barrier to Gentile inclusion and that Paul had broader understanding of what this phrase meant.
  4. Another matter for continued discussion is the status of Israel and the how the promise that “all Israel will be saved” will be accomplished. Will there be a single way of salvation or distinctive ones?
  5. Myers concedes that there is no accepted definition of “apocalyptic.” I did feel at times there was this “what exactly are we talking about” feel. It is apparent that these scholars may have much to contribute to the understanding of Romans 9-11, and do recover a dimension to Paul’s perspective overlooked by the New Perspective discussion.
  6. Finally, I have concluded that I really want to read the work of John Barclay and I’m intrigued by Stephen Chester’s project.

Probably the least appreciative treatment in this collection is Witherington’s of N.T. Wright. While acknowledging the overall value of Wright’s scholarship, Witherington has a number of critiques, including Wright’s ideas about Christ and Israel, supercessionist tendencies, his exaltation Christology to name a few. Witherington has a history of engagement with Wright, including a blog series on Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God that went to somewhere around one hundred installments. Unlike some who have argued for traditional views of Paul, Witherington carefully engages Wright, affirming helpful aspects of his scholarship, but also noting where he clearly differs.

One other feature of this work, that I’ve seen Witherington do before is team up with younger scholars, noting very clearly their contribution to the work, and introducing them to the scholarly world. This is also a model of generous scholarship to be commended and encouraged not only in the theological world but in the wider academy.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Perspectives on Paul

Perspectives on Paul: Five Views, Edited by Scot McKnight and B.J. Oropeza. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020.

Summary: Presents five perspectives on the ministry and message of Paul: the Catholic, traditional Protestant, the “New Perspective” pioneered by E.P. Sanders, the Paul within Judaism perspective, and the Gift perspective.

Beginning with the work of E. P. Sanders and those who followed him, there has been an explosion of Pauline scholarship, often some version of “perspective” on Paul. The editors of this volume offer a brief overview of the recent scholarship in introducing the five perspectives in this volume:

  1. The Roman Catholic Perspective. Brad Pitre, affirming the New Perspective contribution to understanding Second Temple Judaism’s covenantal nomism, contends that the Catholic view of faith and works has strong resonances with the New Perspective, which for him is not that new.
  2. The Protestant Perspective. A. Andrew Das sets forth the traditional Protestant perspective on justification by grace alone with works as a response to being saved. He also recognizes that the New Perspective gives the lie to stereotypic faith vs. work caricatures.
  3. The New Perspective. James D. G. Dunn offers a restatement of the New Perspective, valuable because it may be one of the last pieces of writing from this scholar before his death in June of 2020, particularly affirming Paul’s theology of justification that crossed cultural boundaries.
  4. Paul within Judaism. This perspective, discussed by Magnus Zetterholm, takes the Second Temple Judaism of Paul further and insists that Paul never left Judaism or its practices, while teaching non-Jews to live consistently with Judaism while respecting their Gentile identity.
  5. The Gift Perspective. John Barclay contributes perhaps the newest perspective, one that sees the gift of Christ, his grace as making sense of the promises to Abraham, the experience of the Spirit, and the oneness of God.

Each of the contributors respond to others with a concluding response from each contributor. What is striking (perhaps apart from A. Andrew Das’ response to the Catholic perspective), was that this wasn’t one versus the others, but each in conversation with the others. It was striking the widely shared consensus on the New Perspective, particularly in its shattering of stereotypes of Judaism that lead to anti-Semitism. More clearly we see the Paul who is a product of second temple Judaism as well as apostle to the Gentiles. James D. G. Dunn candidly admitted his lack of reading of the early fathers in conversation with Brad Pitre. In addition to the irenic character of the conversation, one sensed a convergence of perspectives. Not that there was total agreement, particularly in the nuances. But one had the sense of scholars at different vantage points considering the same object, Paul, and gaining a fuller perspective from the perspectives of each.

This, to me, represented the best of theologians from different perspectives in conversation. In addition, between the editors’ introduction and the interactions around each perspective, this book is a good introduction to recent Pauline scholarship in a single volume, drawing upon the very best from each perspective. Dennis Edwards adds a concluding essay considering the pastoral relevance of the discussion. This is one of the very best “perspectives” books I’ve encountered.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Between History and Spirit

Between History and Spirit, Craig S. Keener. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020.

Summary: A collection of the author’s journal articles on the book of Acts

Craig S. Keener is a prolific biblical scholar. One of his most magisterial works is a four volume commentary on the book of Acts. Writing such a work involved him deeply in studies of context, exegetical matters, and other questions surrounding the book of Acts resulting in numerous shorter articles. This work brings a number of these works together in a single volume. It displays both his erudite scholarship (34 pages of abbreviations of ancient and modern sources referenced) and his missional passion.

The collection is divided into three sections and I will highlight a few from each part to offer a taste of the rich fare the reader interested in such matters will find within.

A Question of History

“Luke-Acts and the Historical Jesus” examines what kind of writing is Luke-Acts and the accuracy of his sources. He concludes this is a form of first century historiography with biographic and rhetorical interests and that Luke draws upon reliable first generation accounts. We wonder if the writer of Acts was actually an eyewitness and participant in some of the events narrated because of the “we” language. Keener explores possible explanations and concludes that the “we” language with the omission of the author’s name reflects the practice of other ancient historians who participate in the events they narrate. “Paul and Sedition” considered the purpose for including so much material defending Paul against charges of sedition and the importance of the defense for the early church. Other essays consider the growth reports of the church in Acts, the novel official of Acts 8:27, whether troops were really stationed in Caesarea during Agrippa’s reign and the character of Paul’s ministry in Athens.

A Question of Context

Interethnic marriage has been considered problematic in many cultural settings including that of the New Testament. Given this, in “Interpreting Marriage in Acts 7:29 and 16:1-3, Keener argues that the only problematic instance of marriage in the New Testament is for believers to marry non-believers and that interethnic marriage of believers is not problematic “within the church. He offers a wonderful study on “Turning from Idols in Acts: 14:15-17 in honor of our shared mentor Ben Witherington III. He offers a careful study of Acts 16:8-10 and the crucial transition from Asian to European ministry by Paul and his team. There is also a wonderful short article proposing Acts 21 and the temple controversy as a backdrop for Ephesians 2:11-22 with it tearing down of dividing walls. A couple essays deal with language and rhetoric focused on Paul’s rhetorical techniques. He considers the charge of insanity in Acts 26:24-25. He also offers a fascinating article on fever and illnesses in Acts and ancient medicine.

A Question of Spirit

Keener has done extensive research on miracles, making the case for the plausibility of miracles in the biblical accounts. His article on “Miracles and History in Acts and the Jesus Tradition” is a great summary of this research. Keener’s work is especially worthy of reading if you are skeptical about miracles but open to argument and evidence. Several of his essays consider the work of the Spirit in empowerment for mission in Act. His study of spirit possession in Acts 16:16-18 and 19:12-16 comparing these accounts to modern anthropological accounts is remarkable for its even-handed discussion of Christian and other perceptions of spirit possession and the anthropological evidence for the universality of this phenomena. He recognizes the beginnings of ancient African Christianity in Luke’s encounter with the Ethiopian and expands of the early development of east African Christianity. His reviews of other works that conclude the section reveals a scholar gracious with those he differs and capable of learning from them.

Anyone who has studied or is studying Acts will find in this collection a treasure trove of insights. It is good for whetting one’s appetite for Keener’s commentary on Acts (at least it was for me if I could fit it into my budget and bookshelves!). It models well the fusion of evangelical conviction and scholarly rigor and careful textual and contextual study. I also find in his writing jargon-free clarity that makes this work useful beyond the scholarly guild. Finally, I value the fine balance between historical and contextual questions, and the unavoidable presence of the Holy Spirit in Acts that both accounts for much of the history in Acts and the empowerment of the missional momentum of that history.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: How to Read Daniel

How to Read Daniel (How to Read series), Tremper Longman III. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A helpful introduction to the Old Testament book of Daniel, dealing with its original setting and context, the theme of the book, basic commentary on each story and vision, and contemporary applications.

Most of us who have read the Old Testament book of Daniel the prophet find we can make pretty good sense out of the first six chapters, which are narratives. It is the last six which are more problematic, consisting of visions with all sorts of strange beasts, divine figures coming on the clouds, and future kings.

Tremper Longman III does for Daniel what he has done in other books in his How to Read series. Without getting engaged in highly technical commentary with extensive introduction, he introduces the reader to the original setting of Daniel, and then offers a concise commentary of the book, offering the thoughtful lay reader enough to study Daniel for oneself, or with a group.

He introduces the context of Babylonian oppression of Israel including Daniel and his companions and the structure of the book, noting the chiasm of chapters 2-7, the six stories and four visions of which the book consists, and the shifts between Hebrew and Aramaic in the book. He reviews the story of Israel, exile and the succession from Babylonian to Persian, and eventually Greek empires significant to understanding the book. The author takes a more traditional position of Daniel as a sixth century BCE rather than second century BCE work, and for the real possibility of predictive prophecy.

He then works through the book chapter by chapter. He does alter the order slightly, looking first at stories of court contest in Daniel 1 and 2, and 4 and 5, and then stories of court conflict in Daniel 3 and 6. Then he moves on to the four visions in Daniel 7, 8, 9, and 10-12. Longman sees all this material held together by a primary theme “that in spite of present difficulties, God is in control, and he will have the final victory.” In each section, he shows how the material develops that theme. He also notes a secondary theme, that “God’s people can survive and even thrive in the midst of a toxic culture.” We witness this repeatedly throughout the book as people live faithfully and experience God’s provident care, whether in superior abilities to interpret dreams or deliverance from fiery furnaces and lions’ dens.

He concludes the book with discussion of what it means to live in a toxic culture where we cannot force the government to act like the church, providing a basis for a far more nuanced political theology than we customarily encounter. He also explores what it means to find comfort in God’s ultimate victory that begins with the recognition of the real existence of a battle between good and evil operating behind many of the conflicts we face in the world today. There may be real instances where we need to stand against evil, and this may even cost our lives. Likewise we need to be attentive to the war within, finding courage to stand against both external and internal evils, the systemic and the personal, in view of the victory of God portrayed in the visions.

This is a great resource for an adult ed class studying Daniel, as well as a personal devotional study. Each chapter includes a few reflection questions helping connect specific content to the larger themes of Daniel. Commentary recommendations will help the person know where to look who wants to dig deeper. This is a sound work of introduction and interpretation that I would recommend as a great first book on Daniel.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Unto Us a Child Is Born

Unto Us a Child is Born, Tyler D. Mayfield. Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2020.

Summary: Proposes that, as we read Isaiah during Advent, we need to read “with bifocals,” considering both the Advent liturgical significance of the texts and their meaning for our Jewish neighbors.

For unto us a child is born.” (Isaiah 9:6a)

This is a phrase from Isaiah 9: 2-7, one of the readings on the fourth Sunday of Advent (Year A) in liturgical churches. Many non-liturgical churches will read this as well during one of the services leading up to Christmas. And surrounding all of this is the magnificent rendering of this passage by George Frideric Handel in Messiah. In our churches, we readily connect this passage with the babe born in Bethlehem, this great one come from God, even called “Mighty God.” We marvel at the divine condescension that means our salvation.

Little do we often consider that we are neither the first nor only ones to read passages like these that we understand as “Messianic.” These passages were read by Jews in Isaiah’s time, and down to our own day. Yet we often remain oblivious to what these passages meant and mean to our Jewish neighbors, sometimes in painful and insensitive ways.

Tyler D. Mayfield recommends that we read with bi-focals, using our near vision to read the Isaiah passages of Advent to consider their significance in the Christian Advent context. He also suggests that we simultaneously read with our distance vision, understanding what these texts mean for our Jewish neighbors who share them.

He spends the first part of the book discussing what it means to read with bi-focals. An important contention he makes is that the prophecy-fulfillment paradigm we often use fails to recognize the significance of the text in its original context, and to Jewish readers. He proposes instead a model of texts in conversation, as is often the case in liturgical churches where Old and New Testament texts are paired and we listen to the conversation between them for common and relevant themes. He also observes the importance of historical development of “messiah” from “anointed” to an eschatological figure, the deleterious effects of supersessionism (the idea that the church has superseded, or replaced Judaism in God’s economy), and how this may even shade into anti-Judaism.

The second and third parts of the book consider eight passages from Isaiah that are a part of the Advent liturgical readings, four “Messianic” texts (Isaiah 7:10-16; 9:2-7; 11:1-10; and 61:1-4, 8-11) and four “eschatological” texts (Isaiah 2:1-5; 35:1-10; 40:1-11; 64:1-9). For each passage, Mayfield considers originating contexts, later Jewish and early Christian contexts or readings, contemporary Jewish and Christian readings, and finally a “bifocal look,” a kind of summary.

We might take the example of Isaiah 9:2-7, noted earlier. He begins with the context of the passage in the 8th century BCE, at the time of the Syro-Ephraimite war. The language is that of the birth of a king whose enumerated qualities would have been vital for this time. Who is this child-king? He is not named but the leading candidate may be Hezekiah. In the early Christian context, “for unto us…” is not quoted but the first verses of this passage are in Matthew 4:12-16, noting the light that has come to the northern tribes in the region of Galilee. Early Christian commentators Justin and Jerome were the first to apply “for unto us…” to Jesus. He then considers the influence of Messiah, including some translational issues, and current contexts, focusing on the light to the Gentiles in this passage for Christians, the shared theme of light with Jews in Hanukkah, and a shared hope for faithful government. He concludes with this “bifocal look”

“With our near vision, we see a wonderful child has been born to us. With our near vision, we hum along with Handel as we celebrate: ‘Wonderful! Counselor! The Mighty God! The Everlasting Father! The Prince of Peace!

With our far vision, we see our neighbors celebrating the theme of light during Hanukkah. With our far vision, we see the originating context’s focus on a new king’s accession to the throne.”

This book raises an important issue of how we read not only these scriptures but other Old Testament texts. Do we read these in a way that recognize and honor our Jewish neighbors, are oblivious to them or even exclusive of them, or at worst hostile? Mayfield models an approach holding in tension readings acknowledging the conversation between these texts and New Testament texts and respect for the context of Jewish readings of these same texts. In this era of rising anti-Semitism in many countries, it is vital that Christians in no way contribute to this by our reading of scripture, and in fact affirm our common heritage with and debt to our Jewish neighbors.

I wonder, at the same time, about the repudiation of the idea of fulfillment, an idea found in the New Testament scriptures, for “conversation.” Fulfillment has historically been an important part of both a Christian hermeneutic of reading the two testaments, and of Christian apologetics. Likewise, prophecy has been understood not only as “forth-telling” but as including elements of “fore-telling.” Mayfield’s approach mutes but does not negate the differences between Jewish and Christian readings of these texts. Good bi-focals, ground to the correct prescription, bring both near and distant objects into sharp focus. I am concerned that Mayfield’s prescription for near vision softens or blurs our Christian reading of these texts while bringing our far vision into focus. While the latter is a commendable aim, for which the author offers a good and important model, I would like clarity of vision in both readings, even if it means wrestling in charity with the tensions that have always existed.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.