Review: Torah Old and New

Torah Old and New, Ben Witherington III. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2018.

Summary: A study of the texts from the Pentateuch quoted or alluded to in the New Testament and how they were understood both in their original context and as used in the New Testament context.

Ben Witherington has previously written Isaiah Old and New and Psalms Old and New. Following this same pattern of studying texts used in the New Testament both as they were understood in their original context and in the New Testament, Witherington takes on the ambitious project of doing the same with Torah, the first five books of scripture, also known as the Pentateuch.

This is an ambitious project as is apparent in Appendix 1, where we find listed all of the passages in Genesis through Deuteronomy cited, alluded to or echoed in the New Testament, and where these occurred. A study of this Appendix explains the layout of the book and demonstrates why the chapters on Genesis, Exodus, and Deuteronomy are so much longer than those on Leviticus and Numbers. The three former books were cited much more. Witherington covers all of these instances in the pages of his text, first consider the passage in the Pentateuch, and then the various New Testament references.

One observation, that Witherington notes, is that much more of the material is “law” material than narrative material. The big exception is some of the the songs, particularly the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32. The narrative is important, however, especially the narratives of Abraham and his faith, who in the new covenant is father by faith for all of humanity, not only the descendants of Jacob, or Israel.

The use of Torah in the New Testament is centered around the significance of Jesus, who extends the application of some parts of Torah while dismissing others such as laws around sabbath and cleanliness. Paul was the first to grasp the significance of this, allowing Jewish believers to remain Torah observant while Gentiles would observe the aspects of the law re-affirmed and deepened by Jesus.

What all this has in common is that the laws of Torah and the new covenant are both framed by the saving work of God. The laws, contrary to later conceptions focus on what it means to “stay in rather than how to get in.” Both assume already being “in.”

The book sparkles with insights throughout whether or not you find yourself in agreement with Witherington at every point. One insight I found helpful is that many commentators debate whether a New Testament citation is drawn from the Greek (Septuagint) or the Hebrew (Masoretic) text. Witherington proposes that in many cases, they may not have had either text at hand and quoted from memory. That seems like just good common sense!

In addition to the Appendix 1 mentioned above, quite useful for study are two others, on a review of Adam and the Genome by Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight and a second discussing the enigmatic references to Enoch in 1 Peter 3:18-22. The review is fascinating, particularly to see Witherington’s defense of a historic Adam, but doesn’t quite seem germane to this work, other than it references material in Genesis.

My experience over the years is that there is far more preaching from the New Testament than Old in most Christian churches. What Witherington shows is that we cannot go far in the New Testament without some Old Testament allusion or outright citation. What Witherington helps us recognize is both what these texts meant in their context and how they are being used in the New Testament, and have been in the life of the church which reads all scripture in light of Jesus. Witherington’s book is a valuable reference for those preachers, written by one whose preacherly background shows through on nearly every page.

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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: Philippians

Philippians

Philippians (Kerux Commentaries), Thomas Moore and Timothy D. Sprankle. Grand Rapids, Kregel Ministry, 2019.

Summary: A biblical commentary on Paul’s letter to the Philippians combining exegetical and preaching resources for each passage.

This commentary represents one of the first of a new commentary series published through Kregel Ministry. The approach in the Kerux Commentaries is to pair a biblical scholar and a preaching author, either a pastor or homiletician. The commentary is organized by preaching passages under an overall outline of the book. Following an overview of all the preaching passages and introduction covering typical introductory issues are exegetical and preaching resources for each passage.

Each section includes a brief section on the literary structure and themes of the passage, a short exposition, and then verse by verse exegesis of the passage including renderings of key Greek terms, sidebars on cultural backgrounds (e.g. slaves and servants, saints from Philippians 1:1-8), and the theological focus of the passage. This is followed by Preaching and Teaching Strategies: an exegetical and theological synthesis, the main preaching idea, contemporary connections, a section on creativity in presentation, a summary of preaching points, and then a list of discussion questions and additional resources.

The commentary highlights well some of the key themes in Philippians: the themes of joy, partnership in the gospel, the call to stand together, looking to others interests, highlighting the example of Christ, and the surpassing worth of knowing Christ and dependency upon him. In very readable form the exegetical part of the commentary sets out key textual issues, terms, and background and sums this up well in identifying the theological focus of the passage.

I found the preaching section less helpful. The preaching strategies did flow from exegesis and model this practice making a number of good points and suggested some creative ideas for presentation (e.g. on Philippians 1:27-30 on loyalty to Christ, suggesting use of a kingdom “pledge of allegiance.”). Perhaps it is my own preference to determine the preaching idea and homiletic outline from my own study and not preach someone else’s material, but I found these sections less helpful than the exegetical sections. Still, the preaching author often raised good ideas that “preached” to me, for example, from Philippians 2:5-8, he poses good questions about what it means to climb down the ladder of privilege.

The discussion questions are helpful for those using this commentary with adult education groups or those teaching the passage in a Bible study. The authors also offer an extensive reference section with eighteen pages of contemporary books, commentaries and articles on Philippians.

This commentary strikes a good balance between the highly technical commentaries and the popular commentaries that are often transcribed sermons. This is helpful for pastors and lay teachers who may not have extended time for study but want to give exegetically sound messages. Just don’t plagiarize the preaching material. I might be in the audience!

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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: Priscilla

priscilla

Priscilla, Ben Witherington III. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: An imaginative rendering of the story of Priscilla, a companion of Paul, as a dictated narrative recorded by her adopted daughter Julia, as she faces possible trial before a Roman tribunal.

Priscilla (or Prisca) is one of those fascinating minor characters we meet in the book of Acts and several of the letters of Paul. Often mentioned before her husband Aquila, she is described as a tentmaker, who works with her husband and Paul to support their mission efforts. When Paul writes the Corinthians, he sends their greetings along with his own. Later, in the letters to the Romans and the second letter to Timothy, he sends greetings to them. Perhaps most significantly, Priscilla and her husband instructed Apollos, who became a noteworthy preacher, in the truth of the gospel.

This book is an imaginative filling out of her story, and that of the early Christian movement. As the story opens, Priscilla is a woman of 80, still proprietor of a tentmaking business in Rome. Her nightmares about the early Neronian persecution of Christians, during which she lost her husband, result in her determining to tell her whole story to her adopted daughter Julia, who takes it down on wax tablets to copy to papyrus.

She traces her Christian journey from the day of Pentecost, when she and her mother became followers of the Way, and were expelled from their home. Eventually, they take up tentmaking in Rome. Prisca meets Aquila, another believer. She describes persecutions of Jews in Rome and their banishing to Corinth, their encounter with and travels with Paul, their instruction of Apollos, to whom she later. attributes the Letter to the Hebrews.

Witherington creates an urgency to the account. Shortly after beginning the narrative, Priscilla receives a summons to appear in a month before the tribunal of Domitian, who has resumed the persecution of Christians. The theme of persecution runs through the narrative–the brutalities of Nero, who illuminated the city with burning Christians, banishments, the trials of Paul, of Peter and many others.

Priscilla’s narrative incorporates descriptions of everyday life, often assumed in scripture, and makes connections that help flesh out the development of the early Christian movement–the ministries of Peter, James, and John, and their writings, along with the gospels of Luke and John Mark.

The account also chronicles the ideal of Paul about Jewish-Gentile relationships in the church, and the struggle, and ultimately failure to achieve this ideal as differences separated these two and the number of Jewish followers of the Way declined. There were both external pressures from the rest of the Jewish community, and the struggle to grasp the new covenant realities that made inclusion of the Gentiles possible.

Finally, the portrayal of Priscilla and the discussion of women and their roles in the church and the world helps us understand both cultural limits and the gospel possibilities Paul envisioned. This commentary by Priscilla, responding to a question from Julia reflects Witherington’s understanding of Paul on women:

” ‘That’s true, but Paulus’s pastoral principle was ‘start with them where they are, and lead them where you want them to go.’ He knew the places Timothy and Titus served were male-dominated, especially on Crete, but if you carefully read the first letter Paulus wrote to Timothy, he mentions female deacons. Those texts were never meant to exclude women from praying or prophesying or teaching or whatever they were gifted and called by God to do so. Paulus view was to change those in the body of Christus over time rather than change society at large.’ “

Sadly, Priscilla probably didn’t envision that two thousand years later the church would still be wrestling with this one.

There are times when the incorporation of explanations of daily life seem a bit artificial, and the use of Latin or Greek terms, and then explanation, while helpful from a historical perspective, seems unnatural in a conversation. Nevertheless, the narrative reflects Witherington’s extensive understanding of the New Testament and its Mediterranean context, and helps us return to the biblical narratives with fresh eyes. The extensive use of illustrations to complement the text add to the reader’s understanding and interest. The use of the impending appearance before the tribunal adds narrative tension, and offers the opportunity for a discussion of the realities of Christian hope that have strengthened believers facing persecution in every age. This is a book both to inform and encourage!

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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: Best Bible Books

Best Bible Books

Best Bible Books: New Testament ResourcesJohn Glynn, edited by Michael H. Burer with contributions by Michael H. Burer, Darrell L. Bock, Joseph D. Fantin, and J. William Johnston. Grand Rapids: Kregel Ministry, 2018.

Summary: A review of commentaries, dictionaries, and other scholarly resources related to the New Testament, singling out those the contributors deem of greatest value.

Theological students, pastors, and anyone serious about Bible study face a dilemma. There is a surfeit of resources in English and for most, limits to their budgets. What are the best resources to purchase to have a useful library at hand for study, preaching and teaching and academic scholarship?

John Glynn, a freelance academic writer, edited ten editions of Commentary and Reference Series before his death in 2007. This new 11th edition carries on much of the tradition he established while expanding it by separating New Testament resources from Old Testament and theological resources (forthcoming).

The work begins with the editor’s recommendations for building a Personal Reference Library, a valuable starting list for anyone building their library. This is followed by a chapter on commentaries series. Favored are the Word Biblical Commentary and the New International Greek Testament Commentary, the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary, and the Pillar New Testament Commentaries. For preaching and application, the New International Version Application Commentary was not commended here, but most volumes in the series were commended in the reviews. The Bible Speaks Today series was also commended for expositional works.

There are then sections listing recommendations of New Testament Introduction, Survey, and Theology books, and books on Jesus and the Gospels. These are in standard bibliography comment, some including very brief comments. Commended works are highlighted by shading.

The bulk of this work is reviews of commentaries, by books of the Bible. Each review includes comments on the approach of the commentary–types of critical approaches, emphases, format–how the material is organized, and usability–including who the commentary might be most useful for. Commentaries are rated by Good, Better, and Best. Commentaries are included from a variety of theological positions–evangelical (the most), more liberal Protestant, denomination (particularly Lutheran and Anabaptist), and Catholic (Sacra Pagina). While the “Best” ratings tend to go to well-executed works by evangelicals, a number of the Anchor Bible (or Anchor Yale Bible, which has succeeded it, some Sacra Pagina, and Hermeneia work also receive these ratings. Commentaries are organized by “Technical/Semitechnical” and “Exposition” categories.

Following the commentaries are further bibliography lists by categories and subcategories. These follow the format of the bibliographies at the beginning of the book, highlighting commended works, with a sprinkling of brief comments about selected works. The categories are:

  • Scholarly One Volume Commentaries
  • New Testament Background
  • Popular References
  • General References
  • New Testament Greek Resources
  • Exegesis, Interpretation, and Hermeneutics

The work concludes with a listing of “the Ultimate New Testament Commentary Collection” selecting one from the Technical/Semitechnical category and one from the Exposition category. In this list, the Baker Exegetical Commentary New Testament and the New International Version Application Commentaries were the most often commended.

Of course, those familiar with the commentaries may not always agree. I was pleased to see commentaries by Linda Belleville and G. Walter Hansen receive “best” ratings as did several of Ben Witherington’s rhetorical commentaries (these scholars are personal friends), as well as much of the work of Colin Kruse, Craig Keener and Craig Blomberg, as well as classics by C. E. B. Cranfield (Mark), C.K. Barrett (Acts) and others. It did seem on the whole that rhetorical critical approaches did not rate as highly. More liberal or Catholic works of exceptional merit were singled out, but these seemed fewer than the evangelical works. Likewise, recent scholarship is favored, but some classic works do receive “bests.” There is a dearth of commentaries or other scholarly works from English speakers in the two-thirds world, or African Americans and Latinx Americans,  and women are still significantly in the minority though represented.

This work is valuable especially for the student or young pastor acquiring a theological library. I was also impressed with how many works I acquired twenty to thirty years have been revised or replaced, and some series, like the Baker and Zondervan series weren’t even around (as well as the new Evangelical Exegetical Commentaries published through Faithlife/Logos). If you acquired many of your books more than ten years ago, and intend to continue to be active in ministry, you might find this a helpful tool. This would also be a helpful source when one begins to preach on a New Testament book, or as a source for a beginning bibliography on some New Testament question. It might even suggest a way to organize your library!

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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: Preaching the New Testament

Preaching the NTPreaching the New Testament edited by Ian Paul & David Wenham. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013.

Summary: The contributors to this volume consider how the character of the genres and sub-genres of the New Testament shape how these texts are preached with faithfulness not only to the meaning of the text but also to the type of text they are preaching. Essays include not only discussions of genres but also issues in hermeneutics and homiletics as they bear on the teaching of the New Testament.

Anyone who has attempted to preach from the various New Testament texts quickly realizes that not only do  different principles of interpretation apply to different genres, but how one preaches these texts differs. When preaching a gospel narrative, helping people inhabit the story is crucial. When preaching Romans, understanding the argument Paul is making and how he develops it is important.

A number of books have been written on genre and exegesis. What is different about this book is that it takes the various genres and sub-categories of genres and explores how these might be preached in a manner consistent with their form. There are several essays concerning various types of writing found in the gospels–an overview by D.A. Carson, a treatment of the nativity narratives by R.T. France, which was the last thing he wrote before his death, and chapters on parables, miracles, and the Sermon on the Mount. Successive chapters consider the book of Acts, Paul’s epistles, and the Pastoral epistles, Hebrews, the General Epistles, and Revelation. These are followed by chapters on the use of archaelogy and history in preaching, how one preaches the ethics of the New Testament, the preaching of hope and judgment, two chapters on hermeneutical issues, and a concluding chapter that considers preaching the gospel from the gospels.

I thought in general the essays were of high quality. Carson’s on preaching the gospels, like so much of what he writes was a goldmine bringing together exegetical and homiletic insight. France explores the crucial issue of how one brings fresh life to familiar infancy narratives. I. Howard Marshall helpfully addresses both the horizon of the context of the Pastoral epistles and a number of contemporary issues that the texts address under the categories of Christian belief, Christian character and congregational life and gives us examples of two of his own homiletic outlines. I thought the essay on Hebrews especially helpful in identifying both the challenges of preaching this text and the thread of redemptive history that may be brought forth.

In the portion not devoted to specific genres, Peter Oakes essay on archaeology and history emphasized as the most crucial task helping people understand everyday life in New Testament contexts. Stephen Travis helpfully took on the important issue of preaching hope and judgment. In his discussion of judgment I thought he struck a good balance of what may be clearly affirmed and the places where there are no definitive answers, between the reality of judgment and the truth that this was not God’s intention for human beings.

A common quality of all these essays was the conviction that those who preach do not need to choose between faithfulness to the text of the Bible and preaching that engages contemporary hearers. In fact, they would contend that faithful attention to the genres of New Testament text that allows these genres to shape how one preaches is critical to homiletic relevance and delivers the preacher from falling into patterns of boring sameness. While this is not the sum total of good preaching, which includes the pastor’s engagement personally with the text and speaking in the power of the Spirit, this work contributes to God’s word being heard by God’s people through the human vessel of preaching. I would commend this book to any who are committed to biblical preaching and seek not only to be faithful to the meaning of these texts but also their literary character.

Review: The Living Paul: An Introduction to the Apostle’s Life and Thought

The Living Paul: An Introduction to the Apostle's Life and Thought
The Living Paul: An Introduction to the Apostle’s Life and Thought by Anthony C. Thiselton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The apostle Paul is alternately portrayed as the true founder of Christianity and the control-freak who destroyed the beautiful thing Jesus began and hated women. Anthony Thiselton, in this succinct portrait, gives us a much more nuanced picture of Paul.

One of the first things Thiselton does is deal with two of the “deal-breakers” that would keep many from paying any further attention to Paul. The first is that he shows the continuity between Paul and Jesus in the grace he proclaimed that is also evident in both the parables and the gracious works of Jesus. This is also the key place where he deals with Paul’s treatment of women, pointing to his close associations with women throughout his ministry and the active ministry roles they shared with him. Secondly he deals with the stark divide many perceive between old and new creation in Paul, setting alongside this Paul’s theology of progress and growth toward maturity in Christ.

His next two chapters give us a narrative of Paul’s life covering his conversion, the “hidden years” and his missionary journeys. He suggests probable dates for different events and the provenance of different letters, while acknowledging scholarly difference on these issues.

In subsequent chapters, Thiselton gives concise overviews of Paul’s contribution to our theology of the Trinity, of the nature of fallen and redeemed humanity, the work of Christ and the crucial Pauline insight of our union with Christ, his development of a theology of the church, the sacraments, Christian ethics, and the last things. He considers the present question of justification and the views of Luther, Dunn, and Wright, coming down with a synthesis of Luther and Wright.

The final chapter was probably of greatest interest as Thiselton considers the major figures of post-modernism in relation to Paul. A key insight not often discussed are the parallels between our time and Paul’s in confronting pluralism, power, and meta-narratives.

Throughout, Thiselton is a model of concision, which may be frustrating for those looking for a more exhaustive treatment but just right for those struggling with their view of Paul and willing to consider a more nuanced view.

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