Review: The Old Testament Law for the Life of the Church

The Old Testament Law for the Life of the Church, Richard E. Averbeck. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022.

Summary: A study of for what God intended the law in its original context, how it was fulfilled in Christ, and its continuing relevance for the church today.

Let’s face it. For many in the church, the Old Testament is more or less unknown territory, especially the parts of the Old Testament concerned with the law.

Richard Averbeck has spent much of his life studying the Old Testament as well as other ancient Near East writings and he is persuaded of the continuing relevance of the law to the church, understood through the ministry of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. He contends that this was the scripture Paul asserted to Timothy as being “God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” But how is this so for the church today?

Averbeck asserts three theses that he develops throughout the book:

  1. The law is good. It instructed Israel how to live holy lives under God’s covenant love and it may also instruct us in holiness, particularly how to live under the law of Christ, loving God and neighbor.
  2. The law is weak. It does not have the power to transform the heart; only the Holy Spirit can transform our sinful nature and write the law on our hearts.
  3. The law is one unified whole. Averbeck sees no biblical basis for dividing the law into categories of moral, civil, and ceremonial, and while every law is not simply brought over into the life of the church, there are ways under Christ in which the whole law continues to be relevant to the church’s life.

To develop these theses Averbeck begins with an extensive treatment of the context of Old Testament law. First of all, he charts the covenants, of Abraham, of Moses, and David, each under those that precede, and then their fulfillment in the New Covenant. He follows this with looking at the Mosaic law in context, delineating the law collections, discussing the place of the Sinai narrative and the Decalogue, the book of the covenant and the other parallel collections of law, offering a comparative study of debt slavery as a case study, showing transformations even between collections. He shows how holiness, ceremonial, and civil law together shape Israel as a kingdom of priests oriented around the presence of God in their midst. He discusses in detail the significance of the various offerings and sacrifices and how they sustained the holiness and purity of the people.

He turns to how Jesus fulfills the law in life and teaching, as demonstrated in the antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount. and in his treatment of questions of purity and sabbath. At the same time, he focuses attention on the law of love for God and neighbor in which the whole law is fulfilled. Then he considers the New Testament church and how this was handled, particularly in the incorporation of Gentiles in which Jewish believers continued to observe the law while Gentiles followed the council of Jerusalem, the moral instruction, and the transforming life of worship pointed to in the Old Testament law, made possible by the Spirit of truth. Averbeck then returns in two chapters to show how the law is good, how it is weak but empowered by the Holy Spirit, and remains a unified whole.

He also includes on Jewish Messianic believers and the Torah, offering one of the best defenses I’ve seen for such groups remaining observant Jews while staying gospel focused, citing the practice of the early church.

I appreciated the careful explanation of the contents of the law collections and the importance of these as well as showing how the law continued to be relevant in Christ. The discussion of the law’s weakness and the ministry of the Holy Spirit is much needed. He also shows the arc between offerings and sacrifices, and our calling as a “kingdom of priests” who are “living sacrifices.” Perhaps more needs to be said about the civil aspects of the law and the parallel being, not the secular state, but the church and how it governs itself. What may be gleaned from the law on how the church is ordered and governed under Christ? And to what degree ought the law shape our pursuit of just, though not theocratic, societies?

That said, this is one of the best studies I have seen of Old Testament law and its continuing relevance. His argument that all of the law continues to be relevant, albeit in altered form because of Christ, is a different approach worth considering that avoids explaining how we have dispensed with some aspects and not others. And his love for the Old Testament may encourage readers to explore what in fact were the scriptures for the early New Testament church.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: The Apocalyptic Paul

The Apocalyptic Paul: Retrospect and Prospect (Cascade Library of Pauline Studies), Jamie Davies, Foreword by John Barclay. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2022.

Summary: A survey of the major contributors to the Apocalyptic Paul movement within Pauline studies, as well as a discussion of some outstanding areas for discussion and proposals of bringing biblical scholars in the Apocalyptic Paul movement, theologians focusing on apocalyptic, and those studying the Jewish apocalyptic tradition into conversation.

In the field of Pauline studies, one of the recent developing schools of thought has been that of the Apocalyptic Paul. I’ve found myself grappling to understand this school. What is meant by apocalyptic? How is Paul apocalyptic? As it turns out, even this is a point of discussion according to this helpful survey by Jamie Davies. As indicated by the subtitle, Davies spends the first part on retrospective, surveying the leading scholars in the lineage of Apocalyptic and Apocalyptic Pauline studies. Then the second part deals more with future trajectories in Apocalyptic Pauline studies, looking both at critiques and possible engagement between Apocalyptic Pauline studies and systematic theologians and scholars studying Jewish apocalypticism. He concludes with delineating a number of outstanding questions that these three fields of study might pursue together.

The first chapter in part one traces the history of apocalyptic studies from Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer who focused on the apocalyptic character of Jesus, through Rudolph Bultmann’s demythologizing of apocalypticism and his student Ernest Kasemann’s assertion that apocalypticism is the “mother of all Christian theology.” The chapter concludes J. Christiaan Beker’s focus on apocalyptic in Paul emphasizing the triumph of God and J. Louis Martyn’s that elaborated this triumph around the theme of invasion. Chapter two then introduces more recent scholarship: Martinus de Boer’s two tracks of cosmological and forensic apocalyptic eschatology, Leander Keck’s ex post facto approach that reasons from the resurrection of Jesus to understand salvation history, Beverly Gaventa’s focus on the singularity of the gospel in the apocalyptic Paul, Douglas Campbell’s critiques of foundationalism in theology, Susan Eastman’s focus on language, identity, and agency, particularly Paul’s use of maternal language, and Lisa Bowen’s work on epistemology, heavenly ascent, and cosmic warfare. Chapter three completes part one by reviewing the apocalyptic turn in systematic theology and some of the representative scholars in this “turn”: Walter Lowe, Nathan Kerr, Philip Ziegler, and Douglas Harink. All of these wrestle with the idea of the divine interruption of apocalyptic theology, the invasion of God into the present age.

Part Two moves from survey to a constructive engagement between Apocalyptic Paul scholars and both systematic theologians, especially Barth, and Jewish apocalyptic scholars. In chapter four, he identifies unsettled questions and outlines the discussions from scholars in these three areas. The questions include whether apocalyptic means eschatological, de Boers “two tracks” of cosmic and forensic apocalyptic eschatology and whether this dichotomy may be overcome, the compatibility of wisdom and apocalyptic theology, and how retrospective approaches understanding salvation history reading back from the revelation of Jesus versus progressive salvation histories like that of N. T. Wright. Then in chapter 5, Davies utilizes this threefold engagement to look at three specific matters: the “two ages” with interesting proposals of seeing it rather as this present temporal age intersecting with the eternal through the revelation of Jesus, a study of 1 Corinthians 2 and what we can learn of Paul’s apocalyptic epistemology, and finally a study of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians 4, considering the interplay between cosmology and eschatology.

Davies concludes then for an appeal for this constructive theologizing to go on rather than for scholars to remain in siloes. Davies also raises the issue of the necessity of avoiding a Pauline canon within a canon, emphasizing the importance of engagement with other biblical scholarship. The challenge is between the necessity of specialization versus being a “jack of all trades.” Yet what Davies does both retrospectively and prospectively is offer a good example of the benefit of such engagement. He shows how each needs the other and cannot operate in a silo. What he does then is offer not only a valuable survey for someone new to the discussion of “the Apocalyptic Paul” as well as gesturing toward future fruitful avenues of research and engagement. Such a work is of value for both the prospective scholar and the “pastor-theologian” who seeks to make God’s whole counsel clear to God’s people.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Dawn: A Complete Account of the Most Important Day in Human History, Nisan 18, AD 30

Dawn: A Complete Account of the Most Important Day in Human History — Nisan 18, AD 30, Mark Miller. Good Turn Publishing, 2023.

Summary: An effort to render a unified account of the trial, death, resurrection and post-resurrection appearances of Jesus up to the ascension, detailing the movements of the disciples and especially the women who visited the grave on Easter morning.

Many of us in reading the gospels are struck with the differences in the accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus in the four canonical gospels. While it helps to realize that several witnesses to an event will give accounts that vary in detail while agreeing in many cases on the key occurrences. But is it possible to take the different accounts and come up with a kind of unified account of what happened. Mark Miller, who has worked as a researcher, professor, and entrepreneur thinks so based on four decades of Bible study and research. His author biography states:

“His research for “DAWN” involved deep dives into the chronology, cartography, and culture of first-century Jerusalem. He examined the temple system and rituals, Jewish burial customs, archaeological finds, and ancient historical records outside of the New Testament.”

The author does several interesting things in presenting his findings. First, he introduces us to the key characters, proposing some interesting relational ties–that Salome, the wife of Zebedee was Mary’s sister, making James and John cousins of Jesus by human descent. Likewise, Clopas (or Cleopas) was the brother of Joseph, also married to a Mary, who were parents of James the Younger. He also proposes that Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene are the same person.

He then offers what may be called a dramatic rendering of the Passion events, putting his unified account in story form with some imagined dialogue and story telling. Following this he offers his unified account of the passages in the four gospels concerning the death, resurrection, appearances, and ascension of Jesus including here Paul’s account of appearances in 1 Corinthians 15. Perhaps the most striking assertion here is that Jesus died on the Wednesday, 14 Nisan, AD 30, on the day of preparation for Passover in that year. Much of this is based on the activities of the women, who prepare spices before going to the tomb between the High Sabbath of Passover (after sunset Wednesday to after sunset Thursday) and before the regular weekly sabbath, from after sunset Friday to sunset Saturday, which best fulfills the prophecy of Matthew 12:40 that speaks of three days and nights in the grave. He also makes proposals for the whereabouts of the disciples–nine in Bethany, John with his family who had a home in Jerusalem, and Peter with John Mark and his family, alone from the others because of his betrayal. He also traces the movements of the women, and Peter and John on Easter morning, maintaining that Peter visited the tomb twice, then encountered Jesus alone (as Paul asserts). And he offers a plausible account of the sequence of appearances in Jerusalem, then in Galilee, including how the 500 were gathered, and back to Jerusalem for the ascension on the Mount of Olives.

Part Three explains key features of the unified account including when Jesus was crucified, the relationships, his identification of Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany, and the important locations in the geography of Jerusalem. After the epilogue, additional appendices deal with other questions including calendars, whether the last supper was a Passover meal, the hour Jesus was
crucified, the year of these events, the importance of Emmaus, and other questions.

The author notes where he relies on secondary traditional sources as well as where his assertions find support in the biblical text. He also notes the speculative basis of some aspects of his account, especially some of the relationships. One thing he makes clear is that there is no question on the basic contours: that Jesus died, that he was buried in a sealed and guarded tomb, and that the tomb was empty and the risen Christ encountered by the various witnesses beginning with the women. Miller also observes something that should be obvious: how could the soldiers assert both that they had all been asleep and that the disciples stole the body? How would they know who stole the body? This said, the somewhat novel elements (which have been asserted by
others) of when Jesus died or the various relationships do not change the central realities, and likely will not change our observances, based on the appearance that only a sabbath, Holy Saturday, intervened between the crucifixion and the resurrection.

At the same time, I admit that I want to look a lot more closely at the biblical text before accepting that there were two additional days between the crucifixion and the resurrection. The accounts, apart from the small detail of the women’s preparations, don’t appear to allow for these extra days. Is that detail enough to revise our views?

What I so appreciate is Miller’s rigorous effort to look at the evidence of the four gospels and Paul afresh. He traces the movements through Jerusalem and environs, the hurried burial preparations, the distinctive role of the women in attesting to the resurrection in the face of the doubts of men, and the multiple appearances of Jesus. All this allows me to proclaim with even greater joy and assurance, “He is risen!” when the light of Easter morning dawns.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through BookSirens.

Review: Hardness of Heart

Hardness of Heart in Biblical Literature, Charles B. Puskas. Eugene, Cascade Books, 2022.

Summary: A study of the words and texts in which they are used referring to hardness of heart holding in tension both the refusal to heed God and the purpose of God in the hardening of hearts.

In reading the Exodus narratives, we read both that Pharaoh hardens his heart and that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. There is both a what seems a purposive failure to communicate and a willful refusal and resistance to what is communicated. We want to ask which is it? Charles B. Puskas shows that this is a pattern that recurs both in many Old and New Testament texts. Later in the Old Testament, it is Israel that is hardened. In the New Testament, there is a similar phenomenon with the hearers of Jesus who see but do not see, hear but do not hear. At times, even the disciples hearts are hard, but do not remain so. Later, the apostle Paul speaks in Romans of the hardening of the Jews until the full number of Gentiles has come in (Romans 11:26).

Puskas takes us through a careful study of the words used and the various texts in both literary and historical context, looking at both the world behind the texts and their reception, and subsequent interpretation. One of the observations he makes is that hardness is not limited to hearts, but also to ears, eyes, face and forehead, neck, shoulder, and back. He considers the question of what hope there is for the hard of heart with a God who would have none perish. And he wrestles with the questions of free will and predestination.

What I appreciate in this study is that Puskas conclusion is that we see both human willful refusal and failure of communication that reflects the hardening purpose of God. He cites the work of John Feinberg arguing for free will within divine causation. He also points out that it is God who takes away hearts of stone and replaces them with hearts of flesh, that is, receptive hearts. Hardening as God’s purpose is to fulfill his saving purposes, whether it is the deliverance of Israel, or later the salvation of Gentiles. But Puskas never resolves the tension between free will and predestination with regard to hardening, Do humans harden their hearts? Does God? Puskas would say “yes.”

In an appendix, he discusses Romans 9-11 further and advances the argument of Robert Jenson against supersessionism–“the idea ‘that the church succeeds Israel in such a fashion as to displace from the status of God’s people those Jews who do not enter the church.’ ” He concludes with his own translation of Romans 11:17-18 as the Jews being “some of the branches [were] bent down.” The tone and inference here is an irenic one of hopefulness for Israel with deep regard for honest and respectful dialogue.

This work, derived from a doctoral thesis, is a careful piece of scholarship. I appreciate Puskas’ restraint in being governed by the textual evidence, as complex as this may be. In the end, he reminds us of our utter dependence on the sovereign purposes and great mercy of a God who not only may harden a heart but also make it receptive.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Fight Like Jesus

Fight Like Jesus, Jason Porterfield (Foreword by Scot McKnight). Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2022.

Summary: A study of the accounts of Holy Week through the lens of how Jesus chose peace amid his ultimate confrontation with power.

For someone who has been following Christ over fifty years, Jason Porterfield helped me look at the accounts of Holy Week with fresh eyes. He believes that a key to understanding the actions of Jesus throughout this week is found in Luke’s account of the “triumphal entry” at 19:41-42 where it is written:

“As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace–but now it is hidden from your eyes” (NIV)

Porterfield sees the whole week as Jesus’ campaign of peace, that corrects our mistaken notions of making peace.

Each chapter takes one day of Holy Week (except for combining Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday) and looks at the peacemaking way of Jesus.

Palm Sunday; Confronting the religious and Roman power, people herald him as king but he rides in on a donkey, not a charger, entering the city through the gate where sacrificial lambs would enter. Peacemaking doesn’t evade conflict but moves toward it but extends peace to all. He bids us to follow the way of the Lamb.

Monday: The clearing of the temple seems a most “unpeaceful” action. Porterfield makes some interesting observations. The whip of “cords” may be understood as rushes braided together, primarily used to shoo animals. The te and kai language of John 2:15 (Porterfield conflates this with the synoptic accounts) indicates that “all” references the sheep and cattle, and not people. Jesus concern is the radical inclusion of the Gentiles, repulsed by turning their court into a marketplace. The lack of violence is evident in the lack of response of Roman authorities standing by to keep peace.

Tuesday: It’s the day of confrontations, of traps, and truth-telling, of giving Caesar his coin but calling on people to render their whole lives to God. He speaks truth to the hypocrisy of those plotting his death and in his “little apocalypse” warns his followers to flee rather than indulge in violent revolt, to feed the hungry rather than fighting in an insurrection.

Wednesday: We see the chosen road of the Sanhedrin in Caiaphas words that one should die for all; the beautiful act of the woman and Jesus’s defense of attempts to marginalize her; and finally the betrayal of Judas. Porterfield sees two diverging roads, toward and away from Jesus. Which will we choose?

Thursday: The focus here is on the new command to love one another, forming a new community where love is given and received. We call it Maundy Thursday because of Jesus “mandate.” He also deals with the “two swords” of the disciples and sees this not as a license for bearing weapons but to fulfill prophecy. He says two will be enough. Enough to fulfill prophecy about Jesus among the rebels; certainly not enough for any real defense!

Friday: The two forms of peacemaking–that of Jesus and the violent one of Barabbas stand side by side. Instead of the message of vengeance, Jesus speaks a word of forgiveness, and by refusing retaliation breaks the cycle of violence with forgiveness of all through his death.

Saturday/Sunday: Drawing on the illusions of scripture to the “harrowing of hell,” Porterfield points to the call to trust God in the darkest places. Then we have resurrection Sunday and the appearance of Jesus to the disciples bidding them “peace” even as he commissions to be his ambassadors of peace.

The book is designed to be read and discussed through the Sundays of Lent, taking one day each week. Of course, it may also be used for a series of Holy Week readings. Questions for personal reflection or group discussion are also included. The chapters include “peacemaking” applications drawn from the narrative.

I found that the lens of peacemaking takes disparate events and and weaves them together in a powerful and compelling narrative, one where we see the contrast between how God makes peace with the world’s attempts, often violent, to “make peace.” Porterfield combines exegesis that pays attention to often-overlooked details with pastoral applications that call us, not to passivity, but the active peacemaking of people following Jesus. This comes at a time where a robust peace witness of the church in a world fraught with violence has rarely been more needed.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program.

Review: From Judgement to Hope

From Judgment to Hope, Walter Brueggemann. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019.

Summary: A survey study of the prophets centering on the movement in these books from judgment to hope.

Walter Brueggemann is one of the foremost scholars on the prophetic literature in the Bible. This book represents a distillation of his scholarship, suited for an adult education course in a church or other group. He focuses on a common thread running through the books, a movement from judgment to hope similar to the New Testament movement from cross to resurrection to return in glory. He helps us understand the prophets in their historical context, their canonical context, and our contemporary context.

He begins with a chapter on the three major prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel offering this summary:

  • Isaiah: Jerusalem lost and renewed
  • Jeremiah: covenant broken and restored
  • Ezekial: temple nullified and revivified

Brueggemann, like many scholars, adheres to a “three Isaiah” approach to Isaiah and devotes a chapter to First Isaiah and one to Second and Third Isaiah. First Isaiah traces the announcements of God’s justice due to the people’s injustices, the temporary salvation and eventual fall of Jerusalem, culminating in that fall and hope for restoration. Second Isaiah begins with the highway for our God and culminates with Israel the Servant. The discussion of Third Isaiah centers on the house of prayer for all peoples, God’s chosen fast, and the Spirit of the Lord speaking through the prophet of the new Jerusalem.

Then Brueggemann reviews the “Minor Prophets” in four groups of three, with correspondence to the major prophets:

  • The eight century BCE prophets (Isaiah)
    • Amos: justice and righteousness
    • Hosea: steadfast love and knowledge of God
    • Micah: justice and kindness
  • The seventh century BCE prophets (Jeremiah) — focusing on punishment, both covenantal and cosmic dimensions
    • Nahum
    • Habakkuk
    • Zephaniah
  • The sixth century BCE prophets (Ezekiel) — focusing on restoration, both covenantal and cosmic dimensions
    • Haggai
    • Zechariah
    • Malachi
  • The outliers
    • Jonah
    • Obadiah
    • Joel

Brueggemann only focuses individual chapters on the eight and sixth century BCE prophets. Patricia K. Tull supplements Brueggemann’s work with an introductory overview and a book by book summary in rough chronological order. In the after matter, you will also find a timeline placing the books along key events, familiar quotations from Isaiah and a brief glossary.

This work does offer an introduction to the major contours of the prophetic books, but aside from reflection questions that seem better suited to individual reading, does not seem well-organized for an adult course. It is a good review, though it seems quite cursory especially in its treatment of the seventh century minor prophets and the “outliers.” Frankly, this was a bit disappointing for a Brueggemann work, and unless you are collecting everything he has written, I would pass this one by.

Review: Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew

Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew, Hans Boersma (Foreword by Scot McKnight). Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: In an effort to foster understanding between the two disciplines, a theologian outlines five areas for biblical scholars to understand about theology as it bears upon the Bible.

In the theological academy the study of scripture and theology are treated as two separate disciplines. Yet each depend crucially upon the other. Scripture sources our theological understanding while theological premises inform our reading of scripture. In this work, Hans Boersma approaches scripture sacramentally, as a means of grace, and not “as a mere repository of historical and doctrinal truths.” This leads Boersma to express his “five things” in the form “No______, No Scripture, devoting a chapter to each of these. Each of the five express theological realities that make possible the grace of scripture.

No Christ, No Scripture. Christ is the heart of scripture, the one to whom the scriptures point. Christ’s presence is essential to its authority. Boersma notes how historical-critical exegesis often brackets out Christ, and thus the one who speaks with authority through these texts.

No Plato, No Scripture. While not asserting that Plato has equivalent authority to Christ, Boersma argues that all approaches to scripture assume some form of metaphysic. If we attempt a pura scriptura approach, we will unconsciously import the prevailing metaphysic of our culture. Boersma asserts the essential character of Christian Platonism is due to its antimaterialism, antimechanism, antinominalism, antirelativism, and antiskepticism.

No Providence, No Scripture. Scripture is an expression of God’s providential care for us as his uniquely authoritative witness to Himself and to the blessed life in relation to Him. God has provided the words of scripture to make present the Word of God, the incarnate Son to us.

No Church, No Scripture. The church and not the theological academy is the primary center for the reading of scripture. This argues against individualist and elitist readings. This nourished by canonical, liturgical, and creedal reading. One of the most soaringly beautiful statements in the book is found where Boersma writes:

“We arrive at genuine Christian teaching only when we have been in the presence of angels and saints and the triune God himself. Only in the presence of divine light of the Spirit do the scriptures begin to make sense to us.”

Boersma, p. 107.

No Heaven, No Scripture. Finally, Boersma contends that biblical scholars cannot read scripture without considering its spiritual end, the heavenly contemplation of God in Christ. In this, he argues for the primacy of contemplation over action–that good action can only follow from contemplation. He also offers a trenchant critique of political readings of scripture that fail to originate in contemplation. Rather, he focuses on the cultivation of virtue in life as the fruit of contemplation.

Boersma’s sacramental approach is hardly generic evangelical theology but reflective of his Anglican tradition (he teaches theology at Nashotah House). Actually, this approach is a corrective to Enlightenment-influenced historical-critical exegesis that treats Holy Scripture as one more ancient text to be dissected. His Platonism comes as a surprise but challenges our presumption that we can come to scripture free of metaphysical premises. We cannot, so better to be explicit about them. More than this, his focus on Christ, on God’s providence, on reading with the church, and on the contemplation of heavenly realities all remind us of the joyous gift of scripture, which leads us to the Incarnate Word and His blessed eternal purposes of his people.


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.

Scot McKnight has written a companion volume, Five Things Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew which is reviewed here.

Review: The Samaritan Woman’s Story

The Samaritan Woman’s Story, Caryn A. Reeder. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022.

Summary: Challenges the view of the Samaritan woman as a sexual sinner, considering how this has been read in the church, and the realities of the life of women and marriage that points to a very different reading.

The narrative of the Samaritan woman in John 4:4-42 is one of my favorite gospel narratives. Over the years I’ve given countless talks and led numerous Bible studies on this passage. I’ve always portrayed the woman as of “questionable repute,” having gone through a string of marriages and living with a man who is not her legal husband. I suspect that’s how you’ve heard the story as well. Caryn A. Reeder argues that we’ve gotten the story wrong and that this both reflects and reinforces unhealthy attitudes toward women in the church that thwarts real partnership between men and women in the gospel, contributing purity cultures, fear of women as temptresses, and even offering license to men to sexually abuse.

Let me talk about the second part of the book first, in which Reeder looks at the social world of the Samaritan woman. First she discusses the life of a woman in Jesus’s world. She begins with the lesser worth of girls, who are mainly an expense in terms of dowries. Some baby girls were exposed and left to die. Unless coming from upper classes, girls were taught to manage the household and all its tasks–cooking, cleaning, family businesses, farms and gardens, and specialized trades. They were married young, usually around age twelve to an older man and their primary value, in addition to the household, was bearing children, often a significant number because of those who died in infancy and childhood. Of course, many women died young. Women were married young and kept in the restricted space of the home to protect paternity. Marriages were contracted between the woman’s father and the bridegroom with the bride able to consent to or decline the marriage.

This is important in the case of the Samaritan woman. She was not hopping from the bed of one husband to another. Her five marriages were ones her family was involved with, suggesting the possibility of significant financial resources and status. The marriages may well have ended with the death of a spouse or because of divorce. In either case, women were expected to marry again. Also, men and women often lived together during the period between when a marriage was contracted and formalized. No one would have blinked an eye at this.

Two other things are important to note in the passage. One is that Jesus never speaks to her of sin or pronounces her forgiven, saying “go and sin no more” as in John 7:53-8:11. Nor do the people in town shun her when she testifies about Jesus. Rather they believe her or at least come, and then believe Jesus. Reeder also discusses her noon time visit to the well in the full light of day, contrasting it to Nicodemus’s night time visit in secret. Reeder also contrasts the two dialogues. She is far more engaged, and far more intelligently so than Nicodemus, continuing to question and learn, and she is the first to know that he is the Messiah. She understands what Nicodemus fails to perceive and models discipleship both as a learner and a witness bringing others to Jesus.

Why do I, why do we, not tell the story this way? Reeder traces this to an interpretive history of this story, largely written by men, who perceive her as a sexual sinner, shaped by the perception at times that sex was somehow unclean, even in marriage, that men needed to be wary of temptation by women, and that objectified women as objects of male desire. In successive chapters in the first part of the book she traces this through the early fathers (Tertullian, Origen, and John Chrysostom), Reformation Protestantism from Calvin (who identified her as an adultress) to Clare Lucas Balfour and Moody (who saw the woman as a prostitute, though an effective evangelist), and the present. Liz Curtis Higgs treats her as a sexual sinner after the deaths of her husbands, Barbara J. Essex describes her as having a shady past but as the first missionary, and John Piper identifies her as a adulterer and prostitute who needed the protection of a gender patriarchy.

What was striking to me is that this interpretive history obscured in my own eyes things I should have readily noted in the socio-historical context, important to careful exegesis. I ignored the role of families in contracting marriages and read contemporary practice back into the text. I ignored the betrothal practices (that played into Mary and Joseph’s story) and made her a loose woman living in sin. I ignored the immediate context of Jesus conversation with Nicodemus. And with the sexual sinner aspect so large in my view, I diminished both Jesus and the woman, in terms of the conversation that led to her being the first to see Jesus as Messiah and then bring so many others to him. I missed what “living water” would have meant to a woman who had suffered and witnessed, perhaps, the deaths of multiple husbands.

In her conclusion Reeder discusses contemporary views of women in the age of #MeToo and #ChurchToo. She argues that how we tell these stories does color our views of women in the present–how we honor their worth and their voices. The story challenges men committed to Christlikeness to be like Jesus in this story–not afraid to be with her and respecting her enough to engage her in thoughtful conversation that invites her to explore and question. He takes her intelligence, worth, and voice seriously enough, that, despite barriers of gender and ethnicity, she joins him as a partner in mission.

One thing for sure. I will never tell the story the same way again.


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: Five Things Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew

Five Things Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew, Scot McKnight, Foreword Hans Boersma. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: In an effort to foster understanding between the two disciplines, a biblical scholar outlines five areas for theologians to understand about biblical studies.

A common challenge in the academic world is the need for specialization, which promotes careful research in one’s field, but also increasing ignorance of other related fields. This is true in the world of theological studies as well, and disciplines like biblical studies and systematic theology operate in separate silos. Yet both concern the story of God. In this work, and a companion volume, Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew (review forthcoming), Scot McKnight and Hans Boersma engage in a conversation that seeks to foster greater understanding between the two disciplines.

So here are the five things McKnight wishes theologians knew, and a few of the highlights of each:

  1. Theology needs a constant return to scripture. While McKnight would not adhere to sola scriptura, he proposes an expansive model in which creeds, denominational beliefs, major theologians, and church and culture all figure into our reading of scripture, and yet always beginning with scripture (prima scriptura). He also distinguishes between good biblicism (Bebbington) and bad biblicism (Christian Smith).
  2. Theology needs to know its impact on biblical studies. Here, McKnight asks the question of whether it is possible for the church to interpret scripture apart from church dogma and interacts with a number of contemporary examples around Christology where this is evident.
  3. Theology needs historically shaped biblical studies. Often theology is done without awareness of the historical context of scripture in which a doctrine arises. He notes John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift as an example of where historically shaped study is modifying the theological paradigm.
  4. Theology needs more narrative. Theology is often creedally or topically framed, yet most of the Bible is narrative and arguably, individual narratives are part of a larger, over-arching story. Should the fact that God has disclosed God’s self in this way shape how we do theology? McKnight would say yes.
  5. Theology needs to be lived theology. Theology is often divorced from ethics or practice. McKnight argues that scripture itself doesn’t permit this, cites Ben Witherington, III and Beth Felker Jones as good contemporary examples, and offers a treatment of Romans 12-16 in context of the whole book of Romans as doing theology with practice in view.

Boersma in his forward largely agrees with McKnight. He does contend that even McKnight’s prima scriptura inadequately recognizes the influence of tradition on interpretation, which McKnight himself seems to flirt with in his second chapter. I’d love a longer conversation between the two and look forward to reading Boersma.

I think McKnight hits the key issues and offers constructive examples of theological work informed by biblical scholarship. The discussion on scripture and tradition shows the work critically needed here. McKnight’s proposal that specialists in seminaries regularly offer updates in all-faculty meetings of key contributions to their field just ought to be the case everywhere.


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: Piercing Leviathan

Piercing Leviathan (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Eric Ortlund. Downers Grove and London: IVP Academic and Apollos, 2021. (Link for UK publisher).

Summary: A study of the book of Job that focuses on the second of the Lord’s speeches to Job, focused on describing Behemoth and Leviathan.

There is so much that is challenging to understand about the book of Job, from the willingness of God to permit Job’s loss and suffering to the seemingly endless speeches of Job’s friends and Job’s protestations of innocence and desire that God come and answer. In this book, Eric Ortlund covers all this material but focuses his treatment on God’s two speeches to Job, and especially the second and more baffling, where God at length discusses two imposing creatures: Behemoth and Leviathan. God never directly answers Job about why he has suffered, yet in the end, Job describes himself as having uttered what he did not understand and repents in dust and ashes.

Many of us have imagined ourselves responding, “But, but, but…” Why doesn’t Job? Have these strange answers truly given the answers Job needed, or is Job just acquiescing in the face of God’s awesome presence? Eric Ortlund contends the former, offering a close reading both of Job’s complaint and responses, and the speeches themselves, especially the second on Behemoth and Leviathan. In some sense, Ortlund’s whole book is a prologue to his discussion of this second speech. Even so, I found his elucidation of the Accuser’s test and the friends speeches assuming a retributive answer brought clarity to these chapters–both the inflexible fallback of the friends on the theory that Job must have sinned and thus deserved the tragedy that followed, and the insistence of Job that God has wrongly punished him and his desire to have God justify his ways.

Ortlund describes the first speech with its questions as a massive reminder of God’s good rule in creation, and that God is not the arbitrary deity who has punished Job without cause. And Job admits that his criticism of God’s rule was wrong, but that he has nothing else to say in response. Implicit is still this question of all the evil that has befallen him. Then God launches on the descriptions of the massive and threatening Behemoth and Leviathan, who may only be conquered by their Maker. Yet the conquest is not described here, only the formidable armament and power of these “evil” creatures.

Ortlund considers various possible interpretations for these creatures, contending that they represent supernatural chaos and evil. On this interpretation, the comfort to Job is that it is not simply God and Job in the story but that “a massive, writhing evil is loose in the creation.” There may be other possibilities than God unjustly afflicting Job, or Job having done something worth affliction. The massiveness of Leviathan offers reason to believe there is a source outside God for the terrible evil done Job. And the fact that God wields the sword and fishhook that will bring these creatures down, but not yet, offers hope for ultimate justice.

Then more briefly, a discussion follows on the restoration of Job, and why God never fills Job in, as the reader is, on the specifics behind his suffering. Ortlund argues that any such explanation would have invalidated the test, saying that Job only repented and believed to have blessings restored. As told, while Job is restored, what he lost is lost, and throughout his life, he believes God for God’s sake.

To my mind, Ortlund offers a treatment of Job that coheres. More than that, he portrays a Job that believes God for God’s sake, even in his accusations, and a God who finally will defeat evil and is overwhelmingly good, even when this is not readily apparent in the chaos of the world. He treats other views of Leviathan in the course of this book. What I think Ortlund has done is establish an alternate proposal that other readings will have to address and helped make sense of Job’s ultimate response to God’s speeches.


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.