Review: I (Still) Believe

i still believe

I (Still) BelieveJohn Byron and Joel N. Lohr, editors. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015.

Summary: Seventeen narratives of scholars who address the question of whether academic study of the Bible is a threat to one’s faith.

One of the ironies of seminary studies are the popular stories of those who went off to seminary only to lose their faith. I’ve seen that happen. The question may be asked, “is academic study of the Bible a threat to the student’s faith?”

The seventeen prominent scholars who contributed to this volume (as well as the two editors) answer this question with a resounding no! The editors provided a series of questions regarding the academic journeys of the scholars, instances where their studies posed challenges to their faith and ways their lives have been enriched by their studies, the role of the church in their work, and the advice they would give aspiring scholars.

Richard Bauckham’s response typifies those in this volume:

All this seems to me relevant to the fact that I have never experienced anything like a “crisis of faith” through my study of the Bible–or through any other kind of study, for that matter. There seems to me nothing remarkable about that fact, but people sometimes find it surprising….I think it may be helpful if I go back behind my work to the deeper roots of my faith. I have always loved God (p. 23).

What struck me through these narratives was that the scholars are marked by this abiding love for God and God’s scriptures, a love that began in childhood for some, following conversion for others, but has remained through their lives and scholarly journeys. Some grew up in fundamentalist circles, which often seems deadly for academic studies, but in this case, the experience was one of loving the Bible from sword drills to family devotions.

That does not mean that they did not face challenges to their faith. The greatest challenges were life experiences, particularly the loss of loved ones, as for example narrated by R.W.L. Moberly in the loss of his wife. He concludes:

Probably the greatest challenge that any Christian scholar faces, however, is not different from that which any believer faces: How can I keep my first love fresh? Love for God and love for one’s subject can both become dulled over time. There is no simple solution. For me, at least, it is a matter of life-long learning: learning to bring together head and heart, learning to pursue both truth and goodness, and learning to recognize that any and every place and time and situation is where, in the words of Moses, I must choose life (p. 210).

I saw several other recurring themes in the work. One was the importance of mentors who modeled both faith and scholarship. Names like C.F.D Moule, Brevard Childs, and James Muilenberg came up over and over. There were a host of others as well.

Another was an intellectual openness coupled with a commitment to the authority and inspiration of scripture. For many who came out of fundamentalism, their understanding of the nature of the trustworthiness of scripture changed over time. For many, the constructions of inerrancy they grew up with became inadequate to their understanding of the kind of book the Bible is. This did not mean a rejection of the Bible, if anything scripture grew in its authority and influence in these scholars’ lives.

Reading about the academic journeys of these scholars, from their studies to their teaching was fascinating. Sometimes there were setbacks, particularly when convictions no longer conformed to their institutions. Many of the narratives detail the scholarly questions, publications, and insights these scholars pursued over the course of their academic careers. For some, there were corresponding journeys in the church communions of which they were part. For example Edith Humphreys describes her journey from the Salvation Army, through Anglicanism, to the Orthodox Church.

These scholars see their work as in service to the church and often enriched by their participation in its ministry. Beverly Roberts Gaventa speaks pointedly about the ethos of self-promotion she sometimes sees in the field while the church often offers up thin gruel. On the other hand, Scot McKnight writes about his congregation, one in which his children and grandchildren are part:

It is of great significance to Kris and me that we are handing on our faith to our children and their children–in the context of worship and fellowship. What is doing on there is propped up by an academic career of teaching and writing, but what goes on transcends an academic career. It is there–under the preached Word and in the Eucharist–that Jesus’ death and resurrection bring forgiveness and justification. When my grandkids become adults and begin to think about me as their grandfather I want them to say that their grandfather was always talking about Jesus, even on the golf course or during baseball games (p. 171).

I thought this a quite wonderful collection, particularly for one considering theological studies. The narratives highlight the grace of God, the orientations of our hearts, the providence of God in one’s career, and the delights of research and teaching and an intellectual life open to the Spirit of God, motivated by the love of God, and the centrality of the risen Christ. They invite the pursuit of this work for its own sake, trusting the guidance of God, warning of the uncertainties of academic careers. It left me with a fresh appreciation for the work of these scholars, and the deep life of faith that motivates so many of them.

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I received this book as a gift from John Byron, executive dean and vice president of Ashland Theological Seminary, where I was privileged to pursue my own theological studies. The views expressed in this review are my own.

Review: Including the Stranger

including the stranger

Including the Stranger (New Studies in Biblical Theology), David G. Firth. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A study of the former prophets that makes the case that God was not an exclusivist who hated foreigners, but that God welcomed the stranger who believed and excluded the Israelite who repudiated him.

Many people have the idea that in the Old Testament, God hates foreigners. At worst, some have called him a genocidal monster. David G. Firth argues from the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings)  for something far different. He believes that these books reveal a picture of a God who includes the foreigner who believes, works through such people for the benefit of Israel, and that ultimately, the people of God were defined not by ethnicity but by faith.

In Joshua, he contrasts the faith of Rahab the Canaanite prostitute (and ancestor of David and Christ), with Achan, who takes for himself what was to be devoted to destruction, to the destruction of his fellow Israelites and his own family. Firth also points to the inclusion of the Gibeonites and their subsequent role. In Judges, he contrasts Othniel the Kenite (an outsider), the paradigm judge who saves Israel from the invading nations, with the nation itself, divided by tribal rivalries and becoming more like the surrounding nations.

The books of Samuel contrast Israel who wants to be like other nations and Saul, whose kingship is shaped more by his responses to foreign adversaries than obedience to God, with David, the man after God’s heart, who slays Goliath who dares to taunt against Yahweh. Later, we see David the unfaithful adulterer and murderer of the faithful Hittite soldier Uriah. And when David’s actions bring a plague ln Israel, it is Araunah, the Jebusite, whose threshing floor becomes the site of an altar to Yahweh at the point where the plague stops.

In the books of the Kings, once again, it is the vindication of the greatness of Yahweh over the nations that results in the defeat of the Assyrians confronting Hezekiah. Often, as in Judges, the incursions of the nations are a judgment for Israel’s faithlessness. When Yahweh acts, it is that the nations may know him (2 Kings 19:19). Perhaps the height of this expression of concern for the foreigner is in Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple:

As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name—for they will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm—when they come and pray toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name. (I Kings 8:41-43, NIV).

Later, Naaman is a striking example of one who finds healing through faith in Israel’s God. Firth then concludes his treatment by tracing this trajectory of concern for including the stranger into the New Testament, and makes application to the church.

Firth’s point in all this is to show that the people of God may include foreigners, and exclude unfaithful Israelites. Foreigner nations face judgment not because they are foreigners, but when they embrace rivals to the living God and represent a threat to lure Israel into the same. Sometimes, these nations are instruments to draw Israel back to God through invasions.

Firth does a service in calling our attention to the numerous instances of the inclusion of the foreigner in the Former Prophets, and God’s revealed intentions, material overlooked by those who attack these books. In so doing he demonstrates that there is a greater continuity in the two testaments than may be thought. Some may find his inference that the people were destroyed or driven out not because of their ethnicity but because of the rival gods they believed in inadequate to justify this destruction. To fully address this would require a much longer book. What Firth does is show us that the actual case is far more nuanced than is popularly portrayed. While we cannot get away from violence against the nations, there is also an ongoing thread of the inclusion of foreigners from Rahab, to the paradigm judge, Othniel, to Naaman and many others that reveal God’s over-riding concern for his glory among the nations and the inclusion of all who believe into the people of God.

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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: The Heart of Revelation

Revelation (2)

The Heart of RevelationJ. Scott Duvall. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2019.

Summary: A thematic approach to the book of Revelation focusing around ten key themes which answer the basic question of “who is Lord.”

I think I’ve just found my new “go to” book when someone asks for help in understanding the book of Revelation.  Instead of getting engaged in systems of trying to figure out who in contemporary history might be one of the Beasts, or the significance of the seals, trumpets, and bowls, J. Scott Duvall focuses on themes running through Revelation centering around the purpose of proclaiming that Jesus, not Caesar is Lord and will triumph, to the encouragement of a suffering and persecuted church.

Duvall thinks that taking context seriously is vital. Revelation cannot mean something to us that it didn’t mean to the original recipients. Duvall helps us understand how the seven churches faced pressure from Rome, from the Jews, and from false teachers. He emphasizes reading the book as a letter, as prophecy, and as apocalyptic, or an unveiling. He proposes that in interpreting that we try to understand what the book would mean to its original recipients, that we take the text seriously, but not always literally, since much is symbol, and that we focus on the theological message of each vision, particularly around the truth that “God is in control, and he will successfully accomplish his purposes.” Also, he offers a kind of theological glossary which he terms “Cast of Characters in the Divine Drama of Revelation,” offering a brief explanations of everything from “abyss” to “woman clothed with the sun.”

A chapter is devoted to each of the ten themes:

  1. God: “The Almighty”
  2. Worship: ” You are Worthy.”
  3. The People of God: “His Called, Chosen, and Faithful Followers”
  4. The Holy Spirit: “The Seven Spirits before His Throne”
  5. Our Enemies: “The Dragon Stood on the Shore of the Sea”
  6. The Mission: “My Two Witnesses”
  7. Jesus Christ: “The Lamb, Who Was Slain”
  8. Judgment: “How Long, Sovereign Lord?”
  9. The New Creation: “I Saw a New Heaven and a New Earth”
  10. Perseverance: “To the One Who is Victorious”

Each chapter traces the theme through the whole book, summarizing main points, offering key texts and a reading plan and community group questions. Indeed, the clarity of the text, the inclusion of this reading plan and questions makes this an excellent text for a class or small group, as well as an adjunct to personal study.

The thing that stood out to me most was the idea of the greatness of and ultimate victory of the Triune God. At the same time, chapters on the people of God, our enemies, our mission, and judgment emphasize the call to faith and faithfulness in witness, which has often been accompanied by suffering. Much of the global church needs to understand this. I found myself wondering if there is also a message for the American church in coming years. At very least, the challenge to faithful witness, vigilance, and a preparedness to suffer is a clear message of scripture.

I found myself pausing at times in worship and wonder on reading passages on the greatness of God, and the destiny of his people. One example from the chapter on “The New Creation”:

   The new creation will be the fulfillment of God’s promise to live among us. This idea can be a bit scary until you let it sink in that every good thing that exists in our lives now comes from the Lord. He is our loving Father, who only wants to give us good things. He wants to be with us and wants us to be with him and to experience the perfect community, the very reality we were created for. In fact, all our longings and desires for life and goodness and beauty will be completely fulfilled in the new creation because we will be dwelling in God’s presence….Haven’t you ever wanted a short time of such peace and joy and love to last forever because it was so wonderful, almost a fleeting glimpse of heaven? We long for that world, and that longing comes from God, and he intends to fulfill these longings and desires. He will keep his promises (p. 176).

This book makes both a great first book on reading Revelation as well as a helpful resource for deeper study and for those who would teach others. It models a good example of doing biblical theology in tracing great biblical themes running through this book in a way that at the same time is consistent with the context and content of Revelation.

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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: The Gospel According to Eve

the gospel according to eve

The Gospel According to Eve, Amanda W. Benckhuysen. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A history of women who have written on Genesis 1-3 since the fourth century, treating their worth, education, their roles as wives and mothers, whether they may teach and preach, and as advocates of social reforms.

One more book on women and issues of biblical interpretation? Yes, but the reason you want to add this book to your library is that Amanda Benckhuysen has done something I’ve not previously seen. She has dug through history and found over sixty women spanning the time from the fourth to the twentieth century who have written on Genesis 1 to 3, either in works focused on interpretation of these passages, or works that reference the passages. [The work also includes one paragraph biographies of the women mentioned in this work in the back matter.]

Why is this important? When it has come to the interpretation of Genesis 1 to 3 with regard to women, most of the work through history has been done by men. For many, the focus has been on the deception of Eve, and the authority or dominance of men over women. While some of these women have taken similar approaches to Genesis, Benckhuysen shows that long before the contemporary discussion, women have been looking at Genesis 1 to 3 and many have reached very different conclusions that anticipate contemporary findings.

A few that stood out to me:

  1. Many women interpreters focus on Genesis 1 that presents men and women equally as made in the image of God. The only stated dominion is over the other creatures.
  2. In the Genesis 2 account, interpreters noted the creation of woman from Adam’s side, an image of partnership. God forms her separate from Adam so that she has a relationship with God before being brought to Adam, who recognizes her as a helper (ezer), the same language used of God’s help of his people. Nothing in the text indicates any inferiority of Eve to Adam, who celebrates Eve as like him in flesh and bone.
  3. While many interpreters read Eve as the one leading Adam astray in the fall, these interpreters suggest other motives to Eve, including Adam’s benefit in growth in knowledge. Instead of putting all the blame on Eve, they note Adam’s culpability, particularly if Adam was present, as the text suggests. What these interpreters emphasize is that each bears responsibility equally in this tragic episode.
  4. In Genesis 3:14-19, these interpreters noted that only the serpent was cursed. Many observe that the statements about men and women are descriptive of the consequences of the fall, not prescriptive of role relationships as God meant them to be.

Benckhuysen organizes the book around the way women interpreters who had insights like those above applied these to concerns of women of their day. She begins with tracing the interpretations of the early fathers of the church and subsequent interpreters. She then considers how women used the material on Eve to advocate for the worth and dignity of women when they were treated as chattel, how they advocated for greater educational opportunities for women, befitting their equal status with men and how they wrestled with Eve’s story as they considered the role of being a wife and mother.

Benckhuysen considers women as teachers and preachers of the gospel. One of the things that mark interpreters here, and elsewhere, is their canonical approach to scripture, interpreting scripture by scripture, noting not simply prohibitions, but the many examples of women in both Old and New Testament of women preaching and leading God’s people, all with the apparent approbation of God. We are introduced to Margaret Fell, a seventeenth century interpreter, along with other seventeenth century millenarian writers: Antoinette Bourignon, M. Marsin, and Rebecca Jackson. She considers the contribution of Deborah Peirce and Harriet Livermore, who speak of the gospel being entrusted to women, and Catherine Booth and Francis Willard, whose careful exegetical work defended the role of women in preaching. This is an example of the pattern followed in each chapter.

Concluding chapters focus on the representation of women in children’s Bibles and literature and the contribution of women to this literature, and the use of Genesis 1 to 3 in advocacy for social reforms in working conditions and opportunities, suffrage, and advocacy against the exploitation and abuse of women. The last two chapters consider the history of patriarchy in the church and the value of listening to these interpreters from other times. These women both questioned the foundations for patriarchy that male interpreters established in Genesis, and offered cogent alternatives. They used this to advocate for the flourishing of women in the home, the church, and the wider society, and against the ways they saw their sisters being abused in these different spheres.

Someone might argue against this gendered reading of Eve. But isn’t that what men have been doing for two millenia, often to the great harm of women and to the church? Benckhuysen doesn’t argue that women’s reading is superior to men. The truth is, her women vary in their interpretations and disagree, just as do men. Rather, what was striking to me was to listen to their collective voices through history as a man and to realize that they see things we have missed. We need their voices if we are truly to hear the whole counsel of God in this very important area of how men and women live together, upholding each other’s dignity, worth, and gifts as image bearers of God, and experiencing the redemptive work of Christ in relationships marred by the Fall, but intended for better.

Review: The Violence of the Biblical God

the violence of the biblical god

The Violence of the Biblical GodL. Daniel Hawk, foreword by John Goldingay. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2019.

Summary: A study of the narratives of violence in scripture and the multiple perspectives one finds in the text regarding God’s involvement in that violence.

The incidents of violence in scripture, and particularly those where God commands, or actively participates in that violence, pose a great challenge for any thoughtful believer both in his or her own reading of scripture, and in discussions with skeptics who point to these passages, and especially the book of Joshua. Does not this deeply conflict with the New Testament witness to the love of God in Christ?

L. Daniel Hawk takes a different approach than others who I’ve seen address this question who either rationalize the violence of God against the Canaanites, or in various ways argue that it actually wasn’t nearly as bad as it appeared. Hawk’s approach argues that “it may be more important to think biblically than to seek biblical answers” (p. xiv). He proposes that one of the reasons there are so many different responses to this question is that the canon itself speaks with multiple voices that do not all agree. He seeks to take an approach that sees all of the canon as authoritative scripture without muting portions that are in conflict with others.

His work begins with a survey of the approaches taken to this question through church history, and then outlines his own narrative approach, eschewing the “quest for a Theory of Biblical Everything” (p. 18) to listen to the biblical narrative in its complexity as it tells in multiple voices the story of God’s work to redeem a fallen world that is violent by “coming down” and entering into that world. He traces this through the fall, the slaying of Abel, and the flood as an accelerating death spiral that God sorrowfully brings to conclusion with the flood, while saving both creatures and one human family to begin anew.

With Babel, Hawk sees a new approach of a God who “comes down,” first confusing the languages of those who would make a name for themselves, and then coming down to make great the name of Abram (Abraham) through whom he begins a redemptive work. He consults with Abraham in his plan to violently destroy the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah, and honors his plea for the righteous. To stand with Abraham means to stand against others, as in the case of Abimelech, who Abraham had deceived. As evident in the deliberation between Abraham and God regarding Sodom and Gomorrah, violence is not a paroxysm of anger but what it means to do what is needed within the context of fallen creation to set things to rights.

He then studies the narratives of God’s descent into Egypt to break the power of Pharoah that held Israel in slavery. Only through violence will Pharoah recognize a power greater than his, and to create a new people through the overturning of the power of Egypt. Hawk notes that no emotion or expression of caprice or anger is evident in these episodes, but rather God doing what was needed to deliver and establish this people of the promise, to show God supreme over all other powers. The narrative then continues with this new people as he establishes this covenant, deals with the disobedience of his people (an incident that evidences God’s anger), and the violence that both responds to sin, and yet restores his relationship with the people to whom he has committed himself.

Before turning to the text of Joshua, and Israel’s conquest of Canaan, he jumps forward to God’s assent to give Israel a king like other nations. God first commits himself to Saul, and then to David and his family. His work in the nation becomes taken up with the power dynamics and violence of these kings while acting as a check against their ungodliness and injustices. With the fall of Israel comes an end to this way of working in the world through the instrumentality of the nation as a political entity. His approach will still work through human agents but in another way.

Finally, Hawk comes to Joshua. He contends that exodus and conquest are inextricably connected to God’s decision to renew the world by forming a people. He states, “No exodus, no conquest. No violence, no Israel” (p. 165). He demonstrates the focused character of the invasion against the kings of Canaan that arises neither from caprice or judgement to establish a space in which Yahweh alone, and not the gods of the kings is worshiped. In this book there are narratives both attributing violence to God and counternarratives in the latter part of Joshua that indicate this is not God’s “preferred mode of working in the world.” Hawk notes that while God’s coming down and entering into the making of Israel as a nation involves God in violence, this is not a warrant for other wars.

With the fall of Jerusalem and the exile, Hawk sees a move of God “to the outside.” Instead of working in and through human systems, God refuses to meet violence with violence, or engage the earthly powers, but takes the violence of the world upon himself in Christ, and in the resurrection, establishes a rule outside the world’s systems.

The conclusion Hawk reaches from this narrative survey is a call to move from debates over who is reading scripture rightly to a dialogue that listens to the full complexity and the biblical text. He doesn’t argue for “anything goes” but sets interpretive parameters that include an understanding of divine violence that doesn’t arise from petty caprice, that often God does not use violence in judgment but to accelerate already evident deterioration (as in Sodom), that biblical accounts are testimonies, not templates, and cannot be use to justify wars advancing national or group agendas. Yet Hawk also seems to recognize that the diverse voices of God’s work inside, and from the outside, create the basis for respectful dialogue between Christians who base a peace stance on the narrative of God’s work from the outside, and Christians working “within the system” who face the choice of engaging in state-sanctioned violence in the resistance of evil.

For me, Hawk’s work challenged a long held assumption of how we read scripture. Do we believe that the Spirit of God speaks with one voice. Or does our understanding of scripture allow for a complexity of voices that reflect the complexity of being both in and not of a fallen world? Where one comes down on this may well affect one’s response to Hawk’s reading. What commends that reading to me is that it does not gloss over or mute the hard passages or seemingly conflicting testimony (for example, the commands to utterly devote to destruction the Canaanites and a strategy of gradually supplanting the people).

More profoundly, we see a God who neither remains aloof in the face of human evil and violence nor acts with petty flashes of anger, but rather a settled purpose to redeem through a covenant people, one that involves God in that violence, yet ultimately ends with the taking of that violence on God’s self in Christ. We also find in Hawk a model of an interpreter of scripture taking the text as it stands, listening humbly, and promoting dialogue between different perspectives rather than ruling everything not one’s own out of court in a “Theory of Biblical Everything.” Such models are all too rare and greatly needed in a time where people seem to polarize around everything.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: A Handbook on the Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith

handbook on jewish roots of christian faith

A Handbook on the Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, Edited by Craig A. Evans and David Mishkin. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2019.

Summary: A topical handbook on the Jewish background of the Christian faith, informed by the perspectives of both Jewish and non-Jewish Christian scholars.

A variety of scholars have called attention to how important it is to understand the Jewish background to the ministry of Jesus and the origins and development of the Christian movement. This background is critical to understanding the New Testament, the relationship between the two testaments, and indeed, the relations between Jews and Christians.

What makes this handbook distinctive from others that cover similar ground is that it is a multi-authored work, in which some of the contributors are well-known scholars like Scot McKnight, Larry Hurtado, Craig A. Evans, Andreas Köstenberger, and George H. Guthrie, and most of the rest are Jewish and/or Israeli citizens who believe in Jesus as Messiah and have had some affiliation with the Israel College of the Bible. Because of this, the book has something of an “insider” feel of those who have lived the context about which they write.

The “Roots” in the title are reflective of the organization of the book around Soil, Roots, Trunk, and Branches. Here are the chapters under each:

Soil:

  • God’s Plan for Israel
  • God’s Plan for the Nations
  • Messianic Prophecies
  • Appointed Times
  • Tabernacle and Temple

Roots:

  • The Jewish World of Jesus
  • The Jewish Life and Identity of Jesus
  • The Jewish Teachings of Jesus

Trunk:

  • The Jewish Disciples
  • The Jewish Paul
  • The Jewish Message: Resurrection

Branches

  • The Parting of the Ways
  • The Mending of the Ways

While the title says this is a handbook, in the acknowledgements, the editors note that the impetus for this volume was an online course on the Jewish Roots of Christianity, and the book has the feel and continuity of a textbook, or supplemental text meant to be read sequentially, as I did for this review. That said, it was an engaging read that is both concise and surprisingly comprehensive, and reflective of recent scholarship. Each section of the chapter includes extensive bibliographies of source materials for further reading or research.

There were both reminders of past reading, and some delightful gems. One was the reminder of how God’s plan for Israel and the nations works hand in hand and runs through scripture. I loved this summary of the major Jewish holidays: “They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat!” The article on Jewish groups in the first century is essential reading for any student of the New Testament, as is the article on messianic expectations. Andreas J. Köstenberger helpfully shows how Jesus was like and unlike other rabbis. I had never seen the connection between the Lord’s prayer and the Kaddish until Scot McKnight pointed it out in his article. Much ink has been spilled in recent years on Paul. The chapter on the Jewishness of Paul covers much of this ground quite concisely.

A surprising chapter of this book was on the Jewish message of the resurrection. This argued for a much more significant basis for eschatological salvation, and eternal life, than one finds in most discussions of Jewish origins.

In the concluding section, the authors include a helpful summary of the parting of Jewish and Christian communities and some of the sad history of enmity between these. I appreciated the hopeful note on which the handbook concluded in describing the Messianic Jewish presence in Israel, and the relationships formed through the Israel College of the Bible between Jewish and Arab Christian pastors.

This is both a helpful reference work to have on one’s shelf for biblical studies, and could be used as a text for an adult ed course on Jewish roots of the Christian faith or a college or seminary level course. It also makes for an enjoyable “refresher” course should one read through it.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Lost World of the Torah

lost world torah

Review: The Lost World of the Torah (The Lost World Series Volume 6), John H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: Like other books in this series, argues that Torah must be understood in its Ancient Near East context as a legal collection teaching wisdom and covenant stipulations rather than legislation, and cannot be appropriated into a system of moral or social ethics today.

The first five books (Torah) of the Bible are challenging for any person who believes the Bible inspired by God and having authority in one’s life. John Walton, joined in this volume by his son, have written a series of books premised on the inspiration and authority of the Bible, as well as the fact that it is an ancient work, reflective of its Ancient Near East context. The Walton’s argue that we often read these texts through our own cultural lens of how law and legislation work, and may be used to establish biblical “positions” or “precedents” for all sorts of modern moral questions. This is problematic not only because what we have is not a codified system of laws (there is much that is not addressed), and some of the laws support practices like slavery or requiring that a rapist marry the woman he has raped, that we would judge unacceptable. Like other “Lost World” books, they proceed by a series of propositions, with an appendix on the Decalogue.

The Walton’s, identifying similarities between Torah and other ancient legal collections, argue that the purpose of these collections is not legislation but to articulate wisdom about how society is to be ordered under the ruler of the state. The purpose is order that reflects well upon the king. Additionally, in the case of Torah, it is a covenant document similar to Ancient Near East (ANE) suzerainty treaties, where the various provisions outline how the people are to remain loyal to their suzerain, in this case Yahweh or God. The statement, “you shall be holy for I am holy” is a conferral of status rather than an objective for the people of Israel, and Torah is wisdom for how they might be who they are by status. There is a distinction between ritual instructions in Torah and other codes. For others, rituals serve to meet the needs of the gods. Yahweh has no such needs and instead, these serve both as means of worship, and maintain and restore covenant order.

The Walton’s then move beyond noting the similarities and differences of ANE codes and Torah to consider similarities and differences of context. They note that many of the similarities in provisions reflect not dependence on other codes but rather that they are both embedded in the same cultural “river.” What differentiates Torah from these other codes is that it also reflects God’s covenant with Israel and God’s presence among them, instructing them how they might retain the enjoyment and blessing of that presence.

The final part of their work addresses the church’s use of Torah and particular focuses on what Torah is not, and what interpretive practices are invalid. They discourage the common practice of dividing Torah into moral, civil, and ceremonial law, arguing that these divisions are both artificial, and undermine understanding Torah in context as an integral whole. Typically, we lift out the “moral” teachings, and seek to derive principles for our contemporary situation, perhaps along with New Testament teaching, which is situated in a different, Greco-Roman cultural river. They point to a number of areas in the Torah where this is problematic: marriage, economy, political system, social status and hierarchy, international relations, warfare, and diplomacy, respect of personhood, taxation, property ownership and rights, crime and punishment, and sexual ethics. They contend that Torah was not for salvation, but arose as instruction for living under the covenant. It is a metaphor of health, not a system of moral instruction, and cannot be used as prooftexts for contemporary problems. Taking Torah seriously reads it as a wisdom text disclosing the gracious character of God toward his people and God’s intention that they flourish under his care as their suzerain, as they pursue covenant faithfulness in adhering to his wise instruction.

There is much here that is helpful. Instructions we would find morally objectionable (those upholding slavery or patriarchy, for example) fall in line with the kind of order one would expect in the Ancient Near East and commend Yahweh as ruler of his people, but do not serve as legislation for the contemporary church.

What I find missing, and perhaps troubling is how then we are to read scripture, including the New Testament, also embedded in a cultural river, and according to the Walton’s, also not a source of moral instruction for us, but rather “wisdom.” They write:

“The decision between ‘do not conform to the pattern of this world’ (Romans 12:1-2) and ‘become all things to all people so that by all possible means [we] might save some’ (1 Cor 9:22) does not default in either direction. It means that we exercise wisdom in knowing where to conform to the culture of our day. This wisdom must be exercised by those who can understand the culture well enough to understand the cost of either decision, and it is these people whom we should appoint to lead the community. But making those decisions is not the same thing as following a rigid set of rules, especially not a rigid set of rules that was written to a different culture” (p. 230).

I recognize the value of reading contextually and avoiding prooftexting, but I’m troubled here with language that seems to elevate the wise interpreter above the “rigid set of rules” they interpret. The language of “rigidity” reveals a disposition toward scripture that seems troubling. Were Paul’s instructions to the Ephesians or Corinthians about how to lead a life worthy of their calling rigid? Or those of Jesus on divorce, grounded not in a particular culture but in God’s creational intent? I agree that the Bible is not primarily a book of moral instruction, yet does not scripture aid those saved by grace, God’s workmanship, who created for good works in which we are to walk (Ephesians 2:8-10)? The Waltons’ conclusion smacks of a “hidden knowledge” accessible to the wise that seems a long way from the perspicacity of scripture. I would have been helped if they would spell out more of how scripture may be appropriated, and not mostly by how it may not.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Husband, Wife, Father, Child, Master, Slave

Husband Wife Father Child Master Slave

Husband, Wife, Father, Child, Master, Slave, Kurt C Schaefer. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2018.

Summary: In contrast to many biblical scholars who argue that the “household codes” of scripture do indeed, for various reasons, affirm cultural role expectations, this work argues that Peter’s version is actually a subtle satire that opposes the cultural norms of Greco-Roman culture.

Contemporary biblical interpreters and teachers have explained the presence of the “household code” passages (Ephesians 5:21-33; Colossians 3:18-4:1; 1 Peter 2:13-3:7)  either as representing enduring role differences or as an accommodation of a nascent movement to powerful cultural norms eventually to be transcended. One thing that is true of most interpreters is that they agree that the biblical writers are affirming the existing “household codes,” perhaps with minor modifications. Of course this raises questions about slavery, as well as misogynous and patriarchal treatment of women. Most of those who endorse the permanent relevance of these role expectations sidestep slavery, substituting employment relationships, which in fact significantly differ from slavery.

Kurt C. Schaefer, a Calvin College economist, has ventured into this discussion, which may not be as disconnected from economics as one thinks since the word derives from the Greek words oikos and nomos, the word used for “household.” and “law” or management. Schaefer focuses his study on 1 Peter and contends that while Peter uses the form of a household code, the substance of what Peter says both in the immediate text and the context suggests that Peter is engaged in a subtle form of satire, a kind of parody of Aristotle, that actually dissents from the cultural norm, calling the Christian community to very different kinds of relationships.

Schaefer builds his case for this contention by first carefully studying the Aristotelian household codes that shaped Greco-Roman culture, observing how these are premised in underlying differences in the essence of different human beings–men and women, masters and slaves, parents and children. He goes on to show how Rome re-purposed these codes to undergird their imperial power.

Then Schaefer turns to 1 Peter. He argues that both the beginning and conclusion of the book emphasize the church’s non-conformity to the culture of the empire and the radical equality of all under divine grace, and that it just doesn’t make sense to include a section that urges conformity to cultural codes premised on fundamental inequality. But the reader then asks, how then ought we understand the household code passage? Schaefer handles this by a side-by-side comparison of Aristotle and 1 Peter.

Space prohibits a complete account of Schaefer’s treatment but a few key elements include the paradox that they live as servants of God and free people; that slaves should suffer for doing right, which assumes that slaves will not submit to the idolatrous worship of masters or any other sinful practice; that there are no instructions to masters, perhaps because Peter assumed that no Christians would have slaves (there are such instructions in Paul, however); and that wives not focus on outward adornment (the expectation of Roman culture) but inward character and virtuous behavior.  He notes there is no parallel passage in Aristotle to Peter’s instruction to men, and that the language of husbands “honoring” wives reverses cultural expectations. Schaefer is essentially arguing that Peter turns the Aristotelian household code on its head, even while following the form of such a code.

One area where Schaefer may be challenged is in his proposed translation of hupotasso, often translated as “submit” or “subordinate oneself to,” as “engage with.” Part of his case is to argue that “engage with is both more complicated, and relationally rich, than merely “to obey” or conversely “to rebel.” This helps explain how a slave may remain “subject” to a master and yet suffer for doing right. They do not give implicit obedience in all things, or become recalcitrant. They may try to loyally serve while giving ultimate allegiance to God, and suffer if a master is unwilling to accept this. Schaefer’s proposal is tenuous in that he does not offer lexicographical support for this translation, either in discussing the root words or the usage of this word in extrabiblical literature. (Ann Nyland has argued that the primary extrabiblical usage of this word is found in various papyri, mostly private letters, where context suggests it means something like “support.”)

In his epilogue, Schaefer discusses the subsequent history of treatment by the early fathers of the church, and proposes that the early fathers follow his interpretation of 1 Peter. He notes the later reversion to Aristotelian understandings with the rise of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. He concludes by noting the continued embrace of Aristotelian versions of household codes in some parts of the church:

“In the twenty-first century, the Aristotelian impulse still has its advocates. Some of the church’s most influential leadership counsel male superiority relative to women, strong parental authoritarianism toward children, and social constructions that reinforce racial/ethnic privilege. As we have seen, this impulse is denounced by Peter’s great epistle.”

I think the strength of this work is the extensive cultural background work on household codes that serves as the basis for showing how 1 Peter parodies these codes as a form of dissent from them rather than support for them. His approach of setting 1 Peter and Aristotle side by side is instructive for showing how Peter’s vision of the household of God (1 Peter 2:5; 4:17) contrasts with the Aristotelian household. This reading removes the stumbling block of these texts’ implicit support for slavery and the subordination of women without treating the texts as anachronisms or accommodations. It also reminds us that it is possible for biblical writers to use satire and wit in their writing, something we may overlook in our seriousness about biblical authority.

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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 Lost World of the Israelite Conquest

the lost world of the israelite conquest

The Lost World of the Israelite ConquestJohn H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: Explores the biblical accounts of the Israelite conquest of Canaan, looking closely at the ancient Near East context and arguing that this was not a divinely commanded genocide or Holy War.

One of the more troubling parts of the Bible are the narratives of Israel’s conquest of Canaan, and the apparent genocide of the Canaanite people at God’s command. Often this is justified as a judgement on the wickedness of the Canaanites. It is even more disturbing when these texts are appropriated to justify other “Holy Wars” or culture wars against evil in society.

In this fourth installment to the “Lost World” series, John H. Walton is joined by his son J. Harvey Walton, in a close study of the biblical texts often understood as God’s command of Holy War against Canaan as divine judgement. Similar to Walton’s approach in other books in this series, the authors combine careful work on cultural backgrounds with close reading of the pertinent biblical texts. Like other books, they present their study as a series of propositions, grouped into six parts.

First, they lay groundwork in asking the question of how we interpret the Bible, emphasizing that it is an ancient document and that often our problem is what our expectations of what the Bible is, which differs from its true nature. In this case the Bible is neither defining what goodness is for us nor telling us about how to produce goodness, but rather in the context of God’s covenant with Israel, how God is bringing about the goodness he purposes. Thus, we must never read these texts as warranting Holy War or a kind of jihad in our own context.

Second, the Walton’s argue that the Canaanites are not depicted in scripture as guilty of sin and that the usual textual indicators for divine retribution against the Canaanites are absent. Critical to their argument is showing that Genesis 15:16 does not indicate that the Canaanites were committing sin, but that God is deferring his action against the Amorites, with whom he had allied.

Third, they argue that the Canaanites are not guilty of breaking God’s law because they did not partake of the covenant and its stipulations. Their expulsion from the land is not analogous to the expulsion of Israel from the land for their unfaithfulness to the covenant.

Fourth, the Waltons look at the language and imagery of the conquest and contend that the descriptions of the Canaanites follow ancient Near East conventions for describing an enemy as “invincible barbarians” Likewise, the behaviors described as “detestable” are from the framework of God’s ideals for Israel under the covenant and not indictments against the Canaanites for crimes against a covenant they are not under. And finally, the language of conquest recapitulates that of creation, in which disorder (chaos) is replaced with order (cosmos). Disorder must be cleared, not as punishment against the Canaanites, but to establish God’s covenant order through Israel.

The fifth part is perhaps most significant in its discussion of herem, most often translated as “utterly destroy.” They argue rather that it involves the idea of removing something from use, so that a new order or use can be established. Killing people is not inherent in herem, but rather the destroying of the identity of a community, particularly the identity markers associated with idolatrous worship. Killing may happen in the course of this, as it tragically does in all ancient wars, but this is not the focus of herem.

Finally, the authors contend that this offers a template for understanding the New Testament, not in attacking those outside the community of faith, but making herem all identities in conflict with absolute allegiance to the Lordship of Jesus. What is to be attacked and removed from use is not outsiders, but our own false allegiances, false identities or any identity that competes for paramount status with our identity in Christ.

This, along with the argument that God does not command ethnic genocide in these passages is important. Yet this argument left me troubled. The plain reality is that even if this wasn’t genocide, people died to set up this new order of God. If they died, not because they were guilty of sins or crimes against God (because they were outside the covenant and its stipulations), but simply as part of a process of destroying the identity of a community, this seems a distinction without a difference. The idea of retributive action at least seems to carry the sense of a just judgment, even if it does involve bloodshed. “Removing an identity from use” driving them from the land, seems more humane, except that the same number of people die, only as “collateral damage” of the conquest. There is something about this that seems more heartless. It also seems to dance around the plain sense of texts that herem in the context of the conquest does involve the destruction of lives in city after city. I did not feel the authors dealt adequately with this problem.

What I’m left with is that these are difficult texts, similar to Genesis 22 in which God commands the sacrifice of Isaac. The last minute substitution of the ram does not make this less challenging. Likewise demonstrating that these texts offer no warrant for genocide is only marginally comforting. Perhaps our difficulty is that we expect God to be nice, a “tame lion” as it were. We would rather a God who remains above the fray than one who gets involved in wars of conquest to effect his purposes. We don’t like the idea of trying to justify the ways of God when they seem unseemly. We likewise are uncomfortable with a God who takes on flesh and blood and dies for us. Many Christian heresies are efforts to sanitize this event. I don’t want to say that is what the authors are doing here. They obviously care deeply about scripture. But I also don’t think we can soften the shocking effect of these passages, or should. These passages remind us both of the tragedy of the human condition, and that God accommodated that human condition in not remaining aloof from war and death even as God worked out redemptive purposes for humankind, first through Israel, then for all of us.

 

 

 

Review: From Good News to Gospels

From Good News to Gospels

From Good News to Gospels David Wenham (Foreword by Donald A. Hagner). Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2018.

Summary: Explores the role of oral tradition as a source for the written gospels.

Depending on the gospel and the scholar, anywhere between roughly 30 and 60 years elapsed between the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and the accounts of the mission and message of Jesus we know as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Most scholars propose that Mark was the earliest of the gospels and that Mark’s material served as one of the sources for Matthew and Luke. At the same time these gospels share material not in Mark, often posited to originate in “Q” (short for Quelle, German for “source.”). There is also material unique to Matthew (“M”), and Luke (“L”). Most have considered these “literary sources,” that is written and circulated, but all we have are the canonical gospels. Q, M, and L exist only hypothetically.

David Wenham argues that serious consideration needs to be given to oral sources. The cultures in which the gospels arose were oral cultures and the possibility of accurate transmission is far greater than often credited. He contends that significant portions of Jesus life, teaching, as well as passion were proclaimed as early believers pursued the mission of Jesus. Wenham notes the emphasis on teaching, learning, remembering, and witness in Acts, as well as the four gospels, all having to do with the faithful transmission of the accounts of Jesus.

Wenham then turns to the writings of Paul, the earliest written documents. 1 Corinthians 15: 1-3 provides the clearest evidence of Paul’s reliance on what were probably oral traditions in speaking of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 is another example, as he speaks of what he received regarding the Lord’s supper. He goes on to note a number of passages including the “thief in the night” of 1 Thessalonians 5:2 and other teaching about the Lord’s return, teaching on non-retaliation in Romans 12:14-19 that echoes the Sermon on the Mount, “love fulfilling the law” in Romans 13:8-10 echoing the great commandment, and a number of others.

He also discusses the places where Matthew and Luke record material that is in Mark but seem to be drawing on another source that overlaps Mark. Traditionally, this is the hypothetical “Q” but Wenham argues that oral tradition is an equally plausible explanation. He also focuses on two incidents of oral tradition in the gospels and also in Paul’s writing, the references to the labor being worth his hire, and the discussions of “the thief in the night” and the surrounding material. Wenham argues that these are strong examples pointing to oral traditions around the mission and return of Jesus. He then considers how extensive this oral tradition is and notes that Paul’s writings show evidence of the whole story of Jesus–his ancestry, birth, ministry, last night, death, resurrection, and commission to evangelize the nations.

Wenham then concludes with some fascinating proposals, that the hypothetical Q might be oral tradition rather than a lost written document, and that Matthew and Luke may have drawn not only upon Mark, but perhaps upon oral material that pre-dated Mark. Rather than drawing on a couple of hypothetical literary sources, these writers may well have drawn upon widely circulated oral traditions, instead of or in addition to these.

Aside from offering a possible explanation as to why we have not found any manuscript evidence of hypothetical Q, L, or M, the primary contribution this makes is to help us see an alternate route to how oral traditions preached and taught became the written gospels (though there is little here about John), and how oral traditions may offer a good explanation for the connections between the gospels and Paul’s letters. I suspect if Wenham’s proposal gains traction, many will continue to find Q, L, and M helpful for delineating the departures of Matthew and Luke from Mark but that, increasingly, these may be posited as oral traditions rather than literary sources. There is a parsimony and explanatory power to Wenham’s proposal in this slim volume that is worth far more study.

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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.