Duff, Paul B. Jesus Followers in the Roman Empire. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2017. xii+263 pp. Pb; $30.   Link to Eerdmans

It is common for a modern reader of the New Testament to read their spiritual experience into the earliest Jesus followers. But words like conversion, baptism, and church have modern nuances of meaning which are sometimes quite different than the first century. For example, as the early Jesus movement moved away from Jerusalem and into the Roman world, evangelists reached out to Gentiles, Roman pagans who worshiped both local gods and imperial deities. Duff compares the ancient context of the New Testament to an alien, foreign environment (241).

What would the Roman culture think when someone joined a Christian community? Since Christians worshiped Jesus exclusively, they rejected family and local gods. As Duff explains, what we call “conversion” would be seen by the Romans as a “deserting ancestral traditions as a defection from ancestral customs for foreign laws” (115-6). By accepting the Gospel of Jesus Christ these “converted pagans” were challenging accepted cultural values and they put themselves in mortal danger.

Paul Duff’s Jesus Followers in the Roman Empire attempts to set the Jesus movement into the context of the ancient world. This book sets some of his previous more technical work on the churches in Revelation, Who Rides the Beast? Prophetic Rivalry and the Rhetoric of Crisis in the Churches of the Apocalypse (Oxford 2001) and his recent Moses in Corinth: The Apologetic Context of 2 Corinthians 3 (NovTSup 159; Brill 2015) into a more popular form.

In the first section of the book, Duff begins with a survey of the three competing worldviews in which the Jesus movement developed. Chapter 1 sets the stage by tracing the Hellenization of Judea and the rise of Roman power after 63 B.C. In some ways Jews were open to Greek culture, but reacted strongly against the attempt to force Jews to Hellenize by Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Having set this context, Duff then gives a short account of the Jesus movement and the “quest for the historical Jesus.” He correctly observes “that all of Jesus’s teaching and actions were performed in a Jewish context” (63) and that the claim Jesus was the Messiah can be traced by to Jesus’s own teaching (67). Duff then moves to the development of the movement after the resurrection (although what the disciples of Jesus actually experienced is unclear to Duff (70). He is suspicious of using Acts as a historical source since he dates the book late, written A.D. 80-120 (68) and contains “novelistic interpretations” (74).  Duff observes that Paul did not focus on the Kingdom of God as the other Jesus followers did, preferring to call Jesus Lord or Son of God (75).

Chapter 3 traces the movement from idols to the true God. Although Duff is doubtful about the historicity of the book of Acts (101), Acts 14 as a model for understanding paganism and the gods. (Duff defends his use of the term pagan in his introduction.) In the Roman world, there were many gods and those gods were like humans and occasionally interacted with people (90). Sometimes this interaction was good, and humans might cajole a god into acting on their behalf through worship and sacrifice. That Paul and Barnabas could be gods was a real possibility for the people of Lystra in Acts 14. Paul’s sermon in Acts 14 is significant since he declares that he worships the “living and true” God (as opposed to the not-living and false gods of the pagan world). This God’s wrath is coming on all people and he will judge the world through his son, “whom he raised from the dead.” By accepting the message of Jesus even the pagans can escape this coming wrath.

This preaching was attractive to some pagans and they not only listened to the message Paul preached, but accepted it and turned from false idols to the living God (1 Thess 1:9-10). What was it in Paul’s preaching that was compelling to the Greco-Roman world? There were people throughout the empire who were already attracted to Judaism (the God Fearers like Cornelius in Acts 10) and perhaps others who were attracted to Judaism without making a commitment. For Duff, Paul was an “itinerant Judean religious expert” (136) who used the Hebrew Scripture and worked miracles in order to reach people who were already interested in religions from the “mysterious east.”

Duff uses Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:28 to describe the earliest churches in the pagan world. Paul’s ideal church was “neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free.” The earliest Jesus movement was a family in which women played a significant role. Similarly, Paul’s churches had a place for women as well. He surveys the list of women who Paul specifically mentions in this letters (Phoebe, Chloe, Priscilla, etc.) Duff dismisses 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 as an interpolation, although he does not argue this point (162) and does not think Paul wrote the Pastoral Epistles so 1 Timothy 2:11-12 does not represent Paul’s churches (166-7). Although there were a few wealthy members, the earliest Christians were from fairly low economic and social status (192).

The third section of the book is a pair of chapters treating the accommodations the Jesus movement made as well as the resistance to Empire. By committing themselves to the exclusive worship of Jesus, new Christians severed ties with the culture in which they lived. Duff compares early churches with voluntary associations in the Roman world. Like a local house church, these associates met regularly and often had sacred rituals and moral expectations. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper have parallels with these associations, but the worship of Jesus as Lord sets the early church apart from any pagan counterpart (207).

Gentiles in Paul’s churches would have been under enormous pressure to participate in civic life, including festivals dedicated to various gods. In chapter 8 Duff describes some of these civic festivals or sacred meals at temples. Could a Christian attend a birthday celebration for a family member if the meal was hosted at a local temple? Modern readers are often confused by the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols in the New Testament, including Acts, Paul’s letters and the book of Revelation. Marriage to a non-believer was also a complicated issue, as 1 Corinthians 7 makes clear. Both controversies continues well into the second century, Duff cites Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho and Tertullian as an examples.

Conclusion. Duff succeeds in this goal of immersing the reader in the ancient world, teasing out the implications living in the Greco-Roman world for the early Jesus movement. In a study such as this I would have expected more on the Imperial Cult (only a few pages, 86-88). In addition, there is little on Paul’s view of the Empire (was Paul anti-imperial?) Since Duff is skeptical of the book of Acts, he does not make much used of Paul’s activity in Ephesus in Acts 19 or the challenge of the Gospel to the cult of Artemis. Nevertheless, Jesus Followers in the Roman Empire is a valuable introduction to the study of early Christianity.

 

 

 

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Allert, Craig D. Early Christian Readings of Genesis One: Patristic Exegesis and Literal Interpretation. BioLogos Books on Science and Christianity. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2018. 338 pp. Pb. $36.99   Link to IVP Academic  

Craig Allert is a professor of religious studies at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia and an expert on early Christianity and the development of Christian doctrine. His 2002 monograph Revelation, Truth, Canon and Interpretation: Studies in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae 64; Leiden: E.J. Brill) discussed how the second century writer Justin understood Scripture.

This new book is the fourth in the BioLogos Books on Science and Christianity series published by IVP Academic. Allert addresses the use and abuse of early church writers to support certain views of Genesis 1. The main purpose of the book is to correct common misconceptions about what the church fathers meant by literal interpretation and “creation out of nothing.” Throughout the book Allert draws on material produced by Answers in Genesis (AiG), Institute for Creation Research (ICR), and Creation Ministries International (CMI). Some of this material appears in popular formats, including blog posts. These organizations generally reject any higher critical approaches to exegesis and “appropriate the church fathers as advocates of a nascent creation science position” (107).

After a preliminary chapter outlining what he means by the church fathers, Allert offers several examples of “how not to read the fathers.” He provides several examples of popular writers on the issue of Creation who claim the church fathers read Genesis one as referring to literal days, usually alongside the claim the Church considered the days in Genesis 1 to be literal, 24-hour days until the Enlightenment, Darwinism, and theological liberalism. For Allert, there are several problems with the use of the fathers by most Creationists. First, they proof-text and overgeneralize. For example, Creationists cite Basil as an example of young-earth creationism in the church fathers, then assume he represents the whole of the “church fathers” (without citing any other examples). Second, among conservative Christianity, there is a general lack of knowledge about the church fathers so it is almost impossible to quote them with any helpful context. As a result, writers who claim Basil was a literal six-day creationist are pulling proof-texts out of context and not taking into consideration everything else Basil said about reading Genesis 1.

In the third chapter of the book Allert discusses what the “literal interpretation” meant in Patristic exegesis. There is a popular misconception that a writer was either literal or allegorical (or spiritual) in their exegesis of Scripture. But as Allert demonstrates, the situation is more complicated than this strict dichotomy. Writers often took notice of the plain meaning of a text, but then went on to create spiritual readings in order to challenge their listeners.

The main test case Allert uses in the book is Basil of Caesarea (329-379), specifically his book Hexameron (“six days”). Written around 370, the book is a series of sermons delivered during Lent on Genesis 1. The ninth sermon in the book is often cited by creationists as proof Basil interpreted the days of Genesis 1 as six literal days. But as Allert argues in this book, Basil is not attacking allegorical readings of Scripture, but “excessive allegorization” by the Manicheans (197). On closer examination, Basil uses the same method of reading Scripture as Origen (a church father usually vilified for his allegorical method!)

In the following two chapters of the book Allert examines two doctrines often cited as foundational by creationists, creation out of nothing (creation ex nihilo) and the literal day in Genesis 1. Creation out of nothing has been challenged as a theology not drawn from the Old Testament but rather it was constructed to respond to the eternal universe in Greek philosophy. For the literalness of the six days, Allert examines several oft-quoted church fathers and finds some support for reading the days as literal, 24-hour days. But there is nothing ion Basil (for example) which indicates he thought Genesis 1 was giving a scientific (literal) description of creation (246).

Throughout the book Allert deals with the nature of creation and time. As the church accepted creation out of nothing as doctrine, Christian theologians and philosophers began to ask what God was doing before he created the universe. A possible answer to this question is my favorite line in this book: “he was getting hell ready for people who inquisitively peer into deep matters” (269). Allert examines Augustine’s view of time and eternity more closely in chapter seven. Most Christians have a sense that “God is outside of time,” although likely drawn from C. S. Lewis rather than Augustine. Augustine argued God is eternal and created the world “with time” (273), and the days of creation are no more literal than God’s “rest” on the seventh day. Augustine cited John 5:17, “my father is working until now” as evidence God’s rest on the seventh day is not a literal time of rest (278). For Augustine, creation did not happen in “a time measured way” (287).

I have several comments about Allert’s about the book. First, I am convinced an allegorical method is not good exegesis when the text under examination is clearly not an allegory. For example, obviously Jotham’s fable in Judges 9 some kind of an allegory, and there are figurative elements of Jesus’s parables, especially the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13. Allert addresses this concern with an anecdote from John MacArthur who looked back an early sermon he wrote as a “horrible” example of allegorizing a text (p. 108). I have to agree with MacArthur, that sort of exegesis is bad. Of course this opens up the question to what an ancient writer was trying to do with a text, but that is a topic for another book.

Second, Allert proves his case that the ancient church fathers were not proto-creationists and current creationists ought to stop misinterpreting them. Selective citations in order to proof-text one’s view is dangerous, since there is plenty in Basil or Augustine which would not at all be acceptable to a modern conservative creation. But there is nothing in this book (or the church fathers) which anticipates other responses to Darwinism, such as progressive creationism (old earth creationism) or theistic evolution. Ancient writers read Genesis within their own worldview, a worldview which did not contend with modern science.

Third, Allert is correct to raise awareness that the real problem is the nature of time and eternity. His discussion of Augustine’s view is important, but more theological and philosophical work needs to be done on God’s nature and his relationship with this universe. That creationists who hold to literal days in Genesis 1 do not worry too much about this issue is evident from the lack of citation of creationists in chapters 5-7 in this book.

This book is a necessary contribution to the ongoing discussion of Genesis 1. Allert corrects some serious misconceptions and offers a more contextual reading of Basil, Augustine and others who commented on Genesis 1 in antiquity.

 

NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

Frame, John M. Christianity Considered: A Guide for Skeptics and Seekers. Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2018. 140 pp.; Pb.  $12.99  Link to Lexham Press

This short book covers a wide range of issues which may be raised by someone who is interested in Christianity but has some intellectual reservations. Although Frame usually writes lengthy works on theology and philosophy from a Reformed perspective, this book is designed to reach most readers. Chapters are short (usually three or four pages) and there are only limited notes (three pages of endnotes for the whole book). For a more in-depth discussion of many of the issues in this book, interested readers should read Frame’s Apologetics to the Glory of God (P&R Publishing, 1983) or the more recent Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Belief (P&R Publishing, 2015).

Coming from a Reformed background, it is not surprising the first two chapters of the book concern the rational basis for Christian belief and the following four chapters flesh out what Frame means by belief. Frame observed the success of early Christian preaching was not based on rational arguments for the existence of God or detailed theological arguments, yet apostolic preaching was accepted as credible. Although this is true from the perspective of modern theology, Peter did amazed the religious Jewish leadership by speaking boldly even though he was an “uneducated, common man” (Acts 4:13) and Paul certainly held his own among both Jewish (Acts 13) and Gentile (Acts 17) intellectuals of his own day. Nevertheless he is correct this process “may seem somewhat mysterious” to the modern intellectual.

What Frame does in this book is to present a biblical apologetic which is grounded in the Bible’s own epistemology (3). In doing so he is rejecting relativism (does Christianity have the right to assert truth?) and the skeptical conclusions of the Enlightenment (does Christianity have enough evidence to support its claims?) What Frame wants to do in this book is place the argument into the world of the Bible and to challenge readers to reconsider their “web of commitment,” the wide variety of things which push and pull people to believe what they believe. There are feelings involved in a belief in God, but there are rational reasons as well. Some beliefs are more satisfying to both and are chosen. Once this “new mind” begins to develop, other strands of the web may be challenged.

Frame then presents the core of Christian belief over the next ten chapters (the existence of God, the nature of the Bible, Jesus’s death and resurrection, and the Holy Spirit). Unlike most apologetic books, Frame does not offer complicated arguments, partly because a “web of belief” is unlikely to change by considering that sort of argument. He does devote a chapter to the problem of evil, one of the most difficult problems for non-theists. Remarkably Frame considers the existence of evil to be an argument in favor of the existence of God (52).

The next four chapters develop what a Christian life might look like. Here Frame covers Reading the Bible, Praying, Going to Church, The Church in the World (evangelism) and religion as a personal relationship with God. There is nothing surprising in these chapters, but some seekers may be puzzled by the lack of emotional or ecstatic worship found many evangelical churches these days. Church is not a long speech preceded by a rock concert in the New Testament, but rather the place where Christians gather to support one another (90).

The final group of chapters develop out of Frame’s view of the relationship of the church and world (Philosophy; Morality; Politics; Science; The Return of Jesus). Although philosophy is not controversial issue, Frame argues philosophy is a reasonable pursuit for Christians since he understands it as a defense of a worldview (97). Again, a seeker may be pleasantly surprised by Frame’s positive view of science and lack of “silly predictions” concerning the return of Jesus (111).

In a book this brief, there is the risk of under-arguing a point. For example, while discussing the nature of the Bible, Frame says “if someone objects to a Bible story on the grounds that it is a miraculous or supernatural event, we can dismiss that objection quickly. We know that the miraculous is possible because God exists, and the evidence for his existing is overwhelming” (62). This is the reverse of saying “I do not believe in miracles because I know miracles do not exist.” There is far more to the objection to miracles going on; even if God does exist, there is nothing in his existence which demands he do the occasional miracle. This is a matter of dealing with a problem with a three page chapter rather than a book, but sometimes brevity undercuts the argument of the book and put off a genuine seek.

On the other hand, this sort of book is idea for someone who has been a Christian for some time and needs to be assured this is a rational faith. Given the sheer lunacy associated of some who claim to be Christians, a book like this will offer assurance to the believer that biblical Christianity is not at all what the media says it is.

 

NB: Thanks to Lexham Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Glynn, John. Best Bible Books: New Testament Resources. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2018. 318 pp. Pb. $27.99   Link to Kregel

Best Bible Books is an annotated bibliography for the study of the New Testament. There are listings for each New Testament book. The commentary lists are divided into Technical/Semitechnical and Exposition and rated in three categories: good, better and best. The first footnote of each section lists a few forthcoming commentaries. Following the commentary list is a section labeled “special studies.” These are monographs devoted to issues for a particular biblical book (Theology of Luke-Acts, Women in Ministry, etc.) Some titles in these lists are highlighted as better than the rest. At the end of the book Burer offers his “ultimate New Testament commentary collection” by listing the top two commentaries for each book of the New Testament. The volume includes a name index so readers can quickly check their favorite writers.

A short chapter at the beginning of the volume offers some advice for building up a “must have” personal reference library. This chapter is divided into advice for the lay-person, Bible College or seminary student, and the pastor. At the end of the book Burer offers his “ultimate New Testament commentary collection” by listing the top two commentaries for each book of the New Testament. Burer also contributes a short list of one-volume commentaries.

There are a number of specialized bibliographies. Darrell Bock offers lists including New Testament Introductions, Surveys and Theologies, New Testament Introductions cover issues of authorship and destination, material also included in a good New Testament survey. A New Testament Theology may offer a summary of the teaching for each book of the New Testament or for each author. Two lists are devoted to Paul, one on Paul and the Law and another on Pauline Theology. Bock also contributes a nine-page bibliography for Jesus and the Gospels divided into sections on Historical Jesus in three lists, one for evangelical studies and another for the Jesus Seminar and a third for background studies. There are five short lists on the Synoptic Problem divided into the various solutions to the problem and a sixth list for general books on the synoptic problem.

Joseph Fantin provides two lists of books on New Testament Background, Jewish Background and Burer has lists of both popular general references (both chapters cover atlases and Bible dictionaries), New Testament Greek Resources, Exegesis, Interpretation and Hermeneutics. These sections are divided into a number of helpful subcategories although these subcategories do not appear in the table of contents so readers may not be able to find them quickly.

This is the eleventh edition of Glynn’s original Commentary and Reference Survey. When Kregel last published the Survey in 2007 it included Old and New Testament commentaries as well as a section on theological resources. Sadly John Gynnn died in 2007. The current editor and Dallas Theological Seminary professor Michael Burer indicates in his introduction to this new edition that “subsequent volumes will address Old Testament and theological resources.”  Burer has enlisted several additional scholars to create the lists in this new edition of the book, each section has an author. There are new sections on computer based resources (although this was less evident as expected). The new edition also drops Glynn’s assessment of the “theological stance” of the commentator.

The various contributors to these bibliographies come from conservative, evangelical institutions (mostly Dallas Theological Seminary). It will be no surprise their “best” commentaries tend to be published by evangelical publishers. The introduction lists commentary series as evangelical, mixed and liberal. However, the authors do include a broad range commentaries and writers who are “middle to left” on the theological spectrum. The specialized studies lists include titles from dissertation series and journal monographs.

One might question the value of a printed commentary survey like Best Bible Books in a world dominated by the Internet. A website may be a better platform since it can be updated quickly. For example, Best Bible Commentaries aggregates commentary reviews from many sources (including Reading Acts) and is able to place new commentaries on the list as they are published. In fact, any blogger can set up their own “top five commentary” list.

Even though there are advantages to an online format for this kind of book, many readers prefer a printed book to a webpage. This is the kind of book which needs to be used and marked up. It ought to be carried into the book store and worn out with constant reference. When a particular blogger decides they no longer care to maintain their list or take their blog down for some reason, their lists are gone. Ironically, Burer recognizes this shortcoming and cites a website in a footnote which no longer exists (page 17, note 1).

Best Bible Books will serve as a critical resource for students of the Bible for many years to come. I look forward to the Old Testament and Theology volumes of the series.

 

NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

Richards, E. Randolph and Joseph R. Dodson. A Little Book for New Bible Scholars. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2018. 116 pp. Pb. $9.00   Link to IVP Academic  

This new addition to IVP Academic’s Little Book series is an encouragement to fall in love with the noble calling of biblical studies. Previous books in the series include Kelly Kapic (for new theologians), Paul Copan (for new philosophers) and Josh Reeves and Steve Donaldson, (for new scientists). E. Randolph Richards is a veteran of biblical studies, having written many articles and books, including Misreading Scripture through Western Eyes and Paul Behaving Badly (both with Brandon J. O’Brien) and contributed to Rediscovering Jesus (with David Capes and Rodney Reeves). Joseph Dodson is a professor of biblical studies at Ouachita Baptist University and has contributed several books including The ‘Powers’ of Personification: Rhetorical Purpose in the ‘Book of Wisdom’ and the Letter to the Romans (DeGruyter, 2008).

Richards and Dodson believe the church needs quality biblical scholars who work with the biblical text, do quality exegesis or produce material which illuminates the text of the Bible. In this book they offer advice to students who are working towards a career in academia. They point out bad exegesis dilutes and distorts the gospel and can actually hurt members of the body of Christ (49). A career in biblical studies may take the form of pastoral ministry or teaching in the majority world. The church needs well-trained pastors to provide biblical based answers to the sloppy and dangerous use of the Bible common among many congregations.

Some of the advice in the book is familiar. For example, Richards and Dodson encourage students to work on their own spiritual life, to be involved in church and community (don’t be a hermit), and to be aware that scholarship can “puff up.” The call on biblical scholars to serve in ministry (101) and take care of their heart (105). They warn new biblical scholars to avoid fads, citing the example of the resurgence of Reformed theology among younger Christians. Dodson sheepishly confesses he did devotions using the Westminster Catechism (he now considers himself a “recovering Calvinist”). The trouble is distinguishing between and fad and a serious movement within scholarship, but that is for another book.

Perhaps the most important chapter in the book is their admonition to remember biblical studies is an “equal opportunity vocation.” Take a look around most sessions at national scholarly meetings (ETS or SBL); participants are mostly white and mostly male. Richards and Dodson want to encourage people outside western academia to become scholars and contribute to biblical studies. They quote Lynn Cohick at length on her career as a biblical scholar (82-3). But this section of the book wants to avoid putting scholars into pigeon-holes based on ethnicity or gender. A Latino does not only create a “Latino reading” nor should a female scholar’s work be considered “a woman’s view” of the text. If a person is contributing good scholarship then they should not be put into some subcategory (and potentially disregarded as only offering a female perspective).

The book includes a series of quotes from established biblical scholars. Many of these pass along advice the scholar received from an older scholar.

A Little Book for New Bible Scholars is an inexpensive book which would make an excellent gift to a student who is working hard at a biblical studies degree, whether in a Christian undergraduate program, seminary or at Ph.D level. Older scholars will reading this book will recognize some of their own advice to students and perhaps remember their first love for biblical studies.

Here is a short book trailer with Joseph Dodson:

 

NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

This psalm is a description of the invasion of Jerusalem by Pompey. The invading army is foreshadowed by “the blast of the trumpet sounding slaughter and destruction.” Since the sound of destruction is in the holy city of Jerusalem, the writer is crushed by what he heard and becomes physically ill (8:5). The writer sees himself as one of the innocent (8:23) who are devout (8:34).

The writer knows the judgment of God are righteous, so Jerusalem must be worthy of punishment. He lists a series of crimes which provoked the Lord to anger. They sinned in secret underground places provoking the Lord to anger (8:9a), they committed incest (8:9b) and adultery (8:10a). They stole from the sanctuary (8:11, cf. Romans 2:21) and “walked on the place of sacrifice” by entering the Temple with all kinds of uncleanliness (menstrual blood) and defiling sacrifices as common meat (8:12). The writer says they “left no sin undone” and surpassed the Gentiles by profaning the holy places.

I know this isn't what Pompey looked like...Although the writer does not explicitly blame the aristocratic priests for these crimes, it is likely only the priesthood could profane the Temple courts in this way. “Secret underground places” could refer to alternative worship, as it did in Ezekiel 8:7-18. In a vision, Ezekiel digs into the secret places in the Temple to witness the elders of Israel engaged in idolatry. There is little evidence the priesthood permitted idolatry in the Second Temple, so it may be the case the writer is covering the standard sins against God found in the prophets of the Old Testament.

Because of this the Lord sent a “wavering spirit” on the people so that when the Gentiles came to the city they were unable to fight back (8:14-17). Like Isaiah 51:17-23, Israel once again will drink the wine of God’s wrath.

The Lord brought someone “from the end of the earth” to attack Jerusalem. The leaders of Jerusalem met Pompey as if he were the coming messiah. Like Psalm 118:25-26, the leaders welcomed him with joy and blessed him with peace (8:16). Like the coming one in Isaiah 40:3, the leaders made the paths smooth before him (8:17a) and threw open their gates when he arrived (8:17b). This could refer to the machinations of Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, rival Hasmoneans who thought Pompey might grant them control of Judah. Although some of Aristobulus’s party wanted to keep Pompey out, “others admitted Pompey’s army in, and delivered up both the city and the king’s palace to him” (Ant. 14.4). Pompey “captured the fortified towers and the wall of Jerusalem” (8:19). According to Josephus:

But there was nothing that affected the nation so much in the calamities they were then under, as that their holy place, which had been hitherto seen by none, should be laid open to strangers; for Pompey, and those that were about him, went into the temple itself, whither it was not lawful for any to enter but the high priest, and saw what was reposited therein, the candlestick with its lamps, and the table, and the pouring vessels, and the censers, all made entirely of gold, as also a great quantity of spices heaped together, with two thousand talents of sacred money. (Jewish War, 1.7.6).

The writer o Psalm of Solomon 8 believed this judgment was just (8:23-32). God is always right in his judgments, so if he allowed the Gentiles to overrun the Temple, then it must be a just judgment. The people had “stiffened their neck” and have therefore drank the cup of God’s wrath 8:14) just as they had when Babylon took the Temple five hundred years before (Isa 51:17-23). Despite the physical distress this invasion caused (8:1-5), the writer praises the Lord for his justice (8:33-34).

There are two things the writer asks from the Lord. First, to turn in mercy and be compassionate on Israel once again (8:27) by bringing together the dispersed of Israel. The Lexham LXX makes this more explicit: “Gather the diaspora of Israel with mercy and goodness.” Second, the writer asks God to no longer neglect (or better, despise) them lest the Gentiles devour the nation “as if there were no redeemer.” Here the writer declares his faith in God as the redeemer of Israel (8:30-31). The same verb is used in Psalms of Solomon 9:1, looking back to the Lord who redeemed Israel out of their slavery, in Isaiah 44:22-24 to describe a coming messianic figure and in Luke 24:21 disciples on the road to Emmaus thought Jesus might “be the one to redeem Israel.” This is another hint of a messianic figure in the Psalms of Solomon.

The title of this short psalm is significant. R. B. Wright translates the Greek title ἐπιστροφῆς as “about restoring” since verses 1-3 call on the Lord to restore his people after a time of discipline. Likewise, Atkinson renders the phrase “of returning” in the NET Septuagint. The Lexham LXX renders the word “on conversion.” In the New Testament the word is rare, only appearing in Acts 15:3 for the “conversion of the Gentiles.”

But the cognate verb appears in the LXX more than 400 times translating שׁוב, the common word for turning and often used in the sense of turning away from wickedness and back to the Lord. For example, in Jeremiah 2:27 Israel has “have turned their back” on the Lord, but in their times of troubles they will call upon the Lord. In Jeremiah 11:10, Israel has “turned back to the iniquities of their forefathers, who refused to hear my words.” The word also has a positive connotation, the nation can turn back to the Lord. Psalm 126:1 looks forward to a time when the Lord has “restored the fortunes of Israel” (a temporal articular infinitive, Ἐν τῷ ἐπιστρέψαι translating the noun שִׁיבָה, restoration). As a title for this Psalm, ἐπιστροφῆς refers to a future restoration of the “holy inheritance.”

Like several of the canonical Psalms, the writer of Psalm of Solomon 7 thinks the Lord has abandoned his people and allowed Gentile feet to trample his “holy inheritance,” the Temple. This likely refers to the capture of the Temple by Pompey, although the Temple had been desecrated by Gentiles before the Maccabean Revolt. There is not enough in this short Psalm to indicate a date before or after Pompey. In either case, the writer is concerned the Temple will be desecrated by the Gentiles.

While God’s discipline is expected, the writer does not wish to “be turned over to the Gentiles,” something the Lord will not allow (v. 6). Verses 8-9 are critical: the Lord “will have compassion on the people Israel forever and we are under your yoke forever, and under of the whip of your discipline.” This line expresses two important facts. First, the writer believes that God will continue to keep Israel as his people forever. There is no complete rejection of Israel nor will Israel be replaced with some other people (i.e., the church). Like Paul in Romans 9-11 (“has God rejected his people, by no means!”), this writer looks forward to a restoration (or conversion) of Israel in the future. The psalmist makes a confession of faith in verse 8: “the Lord will have compassion on the people of Israel forever”

Second, the writer describes a relationship with God as a yoke (ζυγός) and a whip (μάστιξ). Although this seems quite different than the rather tender metaphor of Israel as God’s sheep, the image of Israel as an unruly animal which needs to be disciplined is found occasionally in the prophets (Hosea 10:11, for example). In the New Testament Peter calls the Law a yoke Israel bears (Acts 15:10) and Paul calls it a “yoke of slavery Gal 5:1), both using the same word (ζυγός).

The image of a yoke is used by Jesus in Matthew 11:29-30. His teaching is like an easy yoke and his burden is light, in contrast to the yoke of the Pharisees. Following command to his followers to take up his yoke, Jesus comes into conflict with the Pharisees over their interpretation of the Sabbath commands (Matt 12:1-14), leading the Pharisees to declare Jesus is empowered by Beelzebub (12:22-37). Jesus then refuses to give the Pharisees any messianic sign other than the sign of Jonah (12:38-45). Jesus declares the Pharisees as wicked as the adulterous generations of their ancestors and in Matthew 13 begins to teach his disciples in parables for the first time.

Although writer of this psalm considers himself and his people living in a time of divine discipline, he still looks forward to restoration of the nation of Israel to a time of divine compassion.

There is nothing in Psalms of Solomon 5 to hint at a date or historical circumstance. The psalm begins with praise to God for his gracious provision during a time of affliction (v. 5). Several times the author describes himself as hungry (v. 8, 10, 11) or in need of kindness (v. 13), but there is no specific historical situation in mind. Most Jews living in the Diaspora would hear their own experience in this Psalm.

In verse 5, Wright translates θλίβω as “persecution in OTP, but the verb does not necessarily connote a religious or political persecution. For example, Paul used the verb in 2 Corinthians 4:8 to describe his own troubles. Sometimes he was persecuted by the Jews or the Romans, but the verb refers to all sorts of troubles he faced. It is tempting hear an echo of the troubles faced by Pharisees under Alexander Jannaeus. Jannaeus arrested 800 of his enemies, many of whom were Pharisees. He crucified these men while he banqueted with his wife and concubines, viewing the executions (Antiq. 13.410-15). Unfortunately there is nothing in the psalm which clearly echoes this event.

Verse 7 is a possible echo of Daniel 3:16-18. In that passage Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were sentenced by Nebuchadnezzar to be thrown into the fiery furnace. When the king offers them one last chance to worship the image of the king, they reply “our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” After describing his afflictions, the writer says “Even if you do not restore us, we will not stay away, but will come to you” (5:7). Like the three young men in Daniel, the writer of this Psalm is willing to suffer affliction and hardship. He knows the Lord may save him, but even if he does not, he will persist in his commitment to his God.

Finally, verses 16-19 are a wisdom saying encouraging moderate living and contentment. Verse 16 begins with a makarism, a “blessed are” saying like the Beatitudes in Matthew 5. In this case, the blessed (or “happy”) person is the one God remembers with “moderate sufficiency.” The noun (αὐτάρκεια) refers to contentment with one’s circumstances. BDAG comments the word refers to a “favorite virtue of the Cynics and Stoics.” Paul uses a cognate word (αὐτάρκης) in Philippians 4:11, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” In 1 Thessalonians 4 Paul calls his readers to live a quiet life, similar to the Jewish philosopher Philo who said the quiet life was the goal of the righteous: “…while those who pay due honor to excellence cultivate a tranquil, and quiet, and stable, and peaceful life” (Philo, On Abraham, 27). The Testament of Issachar 7 also encourages readers to live a simple life, to work hard and mind your own business.

This Psalm does not argue that the righteous person should live in a state of voluntary poverty. Jesus called his disciples to leave everything behind and follow him (Mark 10:17-31 and parallels). After Pentecost, Jesus’s disciples lived in voluntary poverty (Acts 2:42-47) and the Jerusalem community seemed to have continued to be voluntarily poor for some time. Paul is encouraged to “remember the poor” (Gal 2:10), possibly a reference to the Jerusalem community. The letter of James certainly has stern warnings for the rich who overlook the poor.

In contrast to this Christian virtue of poverty, Psalm of Solomon 5:17 says moderate wealth is a good thing if it is accompanied by righteousness since moderate wealth is a gift of the Lord. Those who fear the Lord are happy (εὐφραίνω, the Lexham LXX translates this as “make merry”) with the good things the Lord has given them.

One final note on this Psalm: the final verse refers to the kingdom of God. The “good things” in the first part of the verse are expanded to all Israel. Wright translates the phrase “in your kingdom your goodness (is) upon Israel,” suggesting the implied verb as present tense. The Lexham LXX takes the implied verb as past tense, “your goodness was upon Israel your kingdom.” This translation also ignores the dative phrase “in your kingdom” (ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ σου). Kenneth Atkinson’s translation of the Psalms of Solomon in the NET understands the optative verb (εὐφρανθείησαν) at the beginning of the sentence is linked to this phrase as well, translating “and your kindness be upon Israel in your kingdom.” The NET puts the phrase into the context of a blessing.

This is not technically a reference to a future kingdom, but the writer of the Psalm is looking forward to a time when those who fear the Lord and are celebrate the good gifts of the Lord share in God’s kindness in his kingdom. There is a hint of eschatological hope in Psalms of Solomon 5:19

Psalm of Solomon 4 is labeled a dialogue (Διαλογὴ) although not in the sense of a conversation between Solomon and the hypocrite. The Psalm stands in the “two ways” tradition. It begins with a stunning condemnation of those who sit in the council but are “far from the Lord” and ends with a blessing on “those who fear the Lord in their innocence” (4:23).

The target of the psalmist are the profane “who sit in the council of the devout” (v. 1). The writer uses the word βέβηλος to describe these people, a word used in the Pastoral Epistles for the “pointless and empty talk” of elderly women (1 Tim 4:7, Titus 1:9). Paul warns Timothy to avoid this kind of frivolous talk (1 Tim 6:20, 2 Tim 2:16). The psalmist says these people are “excessive in words, excessive in appearance above everyone else.” They are harsh in their “condemnation of sinners at judgment” (v. 2) and they destroy with “agitating words” (4:12). The psalmist thinks these profane people are trying to impress people with “deeds of ridicule and contempt” (4:7, 19).

The council (συνέδριον) may refer to the Sanhedrin, the ruling council in Jerusalem. R. B. Wright considers this a strong possibility (OTP 2:655, note c), although the word can refer to any gathered council (a local synagogue, for example). At the very least, the psalmist has in mind aristocratic leadership who abuse their position to enrich themselves by oppression the poor and needy. In this condemnation, the writer stands on the foundation of the Deuteronomy and the Hebrew prophets. For example, this person is eager to take the home of the poor person and to scatter the orphans (4:9-10), reminiscent of Micah 2:1-2. These hypocrites “deceitfully quote the Law” (4:8) and condemn people for the very same sins they practice (4:3).

Verses 3-5 and 9-13 list out the offenses of these profane council members. Some of these refer to their judgments in the assembly. In 4:3 their hand is the first against a condemned man, they are zealous to render a harsh judgment. This cruelty is mentioned by Josephus. He described the high priest Ananus as “a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews” (with reference to the execution of James, Ant, 20.9.1, cited by Wright). This zeal is also clear from the New Testament both in the execution of Jesus and Paul’s zealous activity on behalf of the Sanhedrin (Acts 8:1-3, Gal 1:13-14).  Other offense may be standard attacks on one’s enemies. For example, eying women indiscriminately (4:4, 5b) and swearing falsely when signing contracts (4:4).

The psalmist calls upon God to judge the hypocrites (4:6-8, 14-22). He calls on God to expose their hidden deeds to ridicule and contempt (4:7-8) and to drive these profane men out of the “presence of the righteous” (4:8).

Like the canonical Psalms, the writer of this psalm calls on God to destroy the hypocrite (employing a series verbs in the optative). Like Psalm 109:6-15, this profane man is to have no legacy: “May his old age be in lonely childlessness until his removal” (4:18). Like a criminal the psalmist calls on God to judge the hypocrite like a criminal, “May the flesh of those who try to impress people be scattered by wild animals, and the bones of the criminals (lie) dishonored out in the sun. Let crows peck out the eyes of the hypocrites, for they disgracefully empty many people’s houses and greedily scatter (them).” That an enemy of God would become “food for the birds” appears in Psalm 79:2, but also Ezekiel 39:17-20.

Ultimately, this psalm calls on God to separate the hypocrite from the devout. The verb used in 4:24 (ἐξαίρω) has the sense of driving someone away from a group. Paul used the verb in 1 Cor 5:13 when he demands the Corinthians drive out the incestuous young man. This theme of separating the righteous from the unrighteous is common in the teaching of Jesus, especially in Matthew’s Gospel. In the parable of the wheat and the weeds the righteous and unrighteous (Matt 13:24-30). At the conclusion of the Olivet Discourse, the sheep are separated from the goats (Matt 25:31-46).

The final three verses are a confession in faith in a beatitude form: “Blessed are those who fear the Lord in their innocence, the Lord will save them” (4:23-25). The form of the saying in 4:24 is identical to the beatitudes in Matthew 5 (using μακάριος in a verbless clause), but the form appears in the Hebrew Bible as well.

Once again the Psalms of Solomon resonate with the New Testament, especially with the teaching of Jesus in Matthew. Jesus condemns the hypocrisy of the Pharisees (Matt 23) and warns his followers they will need to deal with these hypocrites until the end of the age when God will separate them from the righteous.

This psalm reflects a “two ways” ethic found in Second Temple wisdom literature. Building on the covenant renewal in Deuteronomy 30:11-20, there are only two ways the people can go, either toward life or toward death. If Israel follows the Law, they will be blessed and have peace and material prosperity. However, if they do not follow the Law, they will be cursed and not experience peace and prosperity. Psalm 1 contrasts two kinds of people, the righteous person and the sinner. The righteous is like a tree planted beside water (prosperous and bearing fruit), but the sinner is like a bush growing in the desert, barely surviving and never bearing fruit.

The Psalmist contrasts the righteous (3.3-8) with the sinner (3.9-12). The righteous man has confidence in God and constantly searches his house to remove unintentional sin. He atones for ignorant sin by fasting and humbling his soul.

Psalms of Solomon 3.5-8  The righteous stumbles and proves the Lord right; he falls and watches for what God will do about him; he looks to where his salvation comes from. 6 The confidence of the righteous (comes) from God their savior; sin after sin does not visit the house of the righteous. 7 The righteous constantly searches his house, to remove his unintentional sins. 8 He atones for (sins of) ignorance by fasting and humbling his soul, and the Lord will cleanse every devout person and his house.

In verse 8, the Lord cleanses “every devout person” (ὅσιος). R. B. Wright comments this noun is related to the Hasidim (οἱ Ασιδαῖοι), the righteous ones who supported the Maccabean revolt (1 Macc 2:24, 7:13) but broke with the Hasmoneans and likely developed into the Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes. Perhaps this is a hint of the origin of the Psalm. Early studies of the Psalms of Solomon identified the author(s) as either Pharisees or Essene and Wright’s introduction in OTP leans that direction.

But Charlesworth adds a paragraph to the introduction warning against labeling the Psalms as either Pharisaic or Essene because so little is known about the Pharisees prior to A.D. 70 (OTP 2:642, see note 8). Since some scholars have claimed the Psalms of Solomon were written by Pharisees, a paragraph like PsSol 3.5-8 is used to develop the views of the Pharisees. But as Charlesworth comments, this is a kind of circular reasoning. Neither Anthony J. J. Saldarini (Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society, Eerdmans 2001) and the collection of essays edited by Jacob Neusner  Bruce D. Chilton (In Quest of the Historical Pharisees, Baker, 2007) make little or no reference to the Psalms of Solomon.

But the description of the devout in this section does resonate with the New Testament. The author of this Psalm says the righteous person (δίκαιος) is not sinless. They stumble, but they know their salvation comes from the Lord. They are constantly looking for unintentional sins and fast in order to “atone for sins of ignorance.” Here the verb ἐξιλάσκομαι is used.

The word does not appear in the New Testament, but the cognate ἱλάσκομαι is used in Jesus’s parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The tax collector is devastated by his own guilt and cries out to the Lord, “have mercy (ἱλάσκομαι) on me a sinner” (Luke 18:13). In the Parable, the Pharisee boasts in his fasting and careful tithing, but the tax collector “having been made righteous” (a participle from δικαιόω). Someone who had Psalm of Solomon 3:5-8 in mind would have expected the Pharisee to have received mercy since he was carefully examining his life in order to “remove unintentional sins.” Yet Jesus reverses that expectation and the sinner receives mercy and went away from the Temple having been made righteous (δεδικαιωμένος).

Although it is impossible to state dogmatically this Psalm reflects the attitude of the Pharisee in the early first century, it does resonate with the Pharisee of Luke 18.

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