Israel / Jordan 2019

Pwetra Group Picture

In May 2019 I traveled with 27 students, parents and friends to Israel and Jordan. Professor Scott Shaw was a co-leader; without his help it would have been impossible to manage a group of this size. The students were remarkable – very attentive and inquisitive and (almost) always on time. I wrote these posts while in Israel or Jordan on my iPad, so think of them as “live reports from the field.” I revisited them once I was home to add additional photographs when internet was bad and correct some typos.

I have two tours planned with Tutku Tours in 2020, if you are interested in my “Missionary Journeys of Paul” tour in March 2020, check out the brochure on the Tutku website. If you have questions about the 2020 tour, contact me directly via email or a direct message on twitter @plong42

Day 1 – Grace Christian University Tour of Israel and Jordan 2019

Day 2 – The Old City of Jerusalem

Day 3 – Yad VaShem and the Israeli National Museum

Day 4 – Following Jesus from the Mount of Olives

Day 5 – Caesarea, Megiddo, and The Sea of Galilee

Day 6 – Jesus in Galilee

Day 7 – Jerash, Amman, Mount Nebo

Day 8 – Visiting Petra

Day 9 – From the Red Sea to En Gedi

Day 10 – Masada, Arad and the Dead Sea

Day 11 – En-Gedi, Qumran, and Qasr al Yahud

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Ben Witherington, Priscilla: The Life of an Early Christian

Witherington III, Ben. Priscilla: The Life of an Early Christian. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2018. 194 pgs., Pb.; $20.00 Link to IVP

This new novel by Ben Witherington III is similar to both Paula Gooder’s Phoebe (IVP Academic, 2019) and the Week in the Life series also published by IVP Academic. Witherington is well known from his many commentaries and other scholarly work, but he has written several novels (A Week in the Life of Corinth (IVP Academic 2012) and the five volumes of the Art West series (The Lazarus Effect, Wipf & Stock, 2008) written with his wife Ann Witherington.

Priscilla is similar in format to the Week in the Life series in that there are numerous illustrations throughout the text. Almost all of these photographs are from wikicommons. There are no sidebars like the Week in the Life series, making the text easier to read. Most chapters begin with a quote from Scripture or some contemporary Roman writer.

The novel introduces Prisca at the end of her life reflecting on her experiences in Rome and Corinth. At the insistence of her daughter Julia she dictates her memories beginning from Pentecost. Since there are no details in the New Testament of Prisca’s life, Witherington must create a likely story to draw the reading into the world of early Christianity and first-century Rome. Both Priscilla and Aquila were present at Pentecost, but their marriage was not arranged until they had returned to Rome. Witherington follows the common suggestion that Priscilla was from a higher social class than Aquila, in fact she was a citizen in this novel. They are active in Roman synagogues, resulting in public disputes over who Jesus was. Claudius banished them from Rome because of “riots over Chrestus” (Acts 18:1-2). After a time of ministry in Ephesus Prisca returns to Rome. She survives the Great Fire and Neronian persecution but the sub-plot of the book concerns a summons to appear before Domitian.

After writing several Socio-rhetorical commentaries on New Testament books, Witherington has enough background knowledge of the Roman world to fill out the details of Priscilla’s life. H acknowledges Alberto Angela, A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome: Daily Life, Mysteries, and Curiosities (Europa, 2009). I read this entertaining primer on the Roman world several years ago. Angela covers many of the elements of daily life larger histories overlook. Witherington works many of these cultural elements into the novel to give the reader a glimpse into everyday life of a Roman woman.

There are a number of small side comments in the book which reflect some decision by a New Testament scholar. For example, in the novel, Paul recommended Priscilla set her slaves free (reflecting the hope of many New Testament scholars that Paul would have privately condemned slavery). He refers to Thecla as an itinerant prophetess (giving Witherington a chance to talk about prophets in the early church). Thecla is known from a second century apocryphal book, The Acts of Paul and Thecla and an intriguing fresco at Ephesus. At one point in the book Prisca and Julia discuss Nero as possibly the anti-chrestus, “the one called 666” (p. 123). opportunity for Witherington to explain gematria (even reflecting the textual variant of 616 for the mark of the beast).  After Paul arrives in Rome, he writes several letters (the prison epistles), and is released, following the traditional conservative view of the history of Paul after Acts.

Conclusion: As with novels of this kind, there is a tension between a desire to create a compelling plot and the need to slip in details from the New Testament and Roman history. The story is less “the life of Priscilla” than a series of vignettes illustrating the usual sub-plot of early Christianity in Ephesus and Rome. Priscilla is like Forrest Gump, witnessing cultural and historical events. There is no detail in the book I would seriously dispute and the book illustrates life in the Roman world. Readers who enjoy the Week in the Life series will also enjoy Priscilla: The Life of an Early Christian even if the focus is not Priscilla’s life.

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.

Book Review: Paula Gooder, Phoebe

Gooder, Paula. Phoebe. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2018. 308 pgs., Pb.; $22.00 Link to IVP

Like IVP’s Week in the Life series, Paula Gooder’s Phoebe illuminates the world of first century Christianity by a story written by a serious academic scholar. Gooder is the Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and has taught Ripon College Cuddesdon and The Queen’s Foundation. Her Ph.D. dissertation was published as Only the Third Heaven?: 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 and Heavenly Ascent (T & T Clark, 2006).

In the brief introduction to the notes on the novel, Gooder explains her book is an experiment in historical imagination and not a novel (p. 225). A novel, she says is a carefully crafted a story which goes wherever the imagination leads. Since her book is restrained by historical reality and aims to both inform and entertain, it is not really a novel. She wants to prod the reader’s imagination and invite them into the word of the first century.

Gooder selects the tantalizing reference in Romans 16:1 to “Phoebe the Deaconess of the church at Cenchreae” (or servant, depending on your translation) and develops a story around her. This is therefore an opportunity for her to address the often difficult problem of Paul’s attitude towards women found in 2 Timothy 2:9-15 or 1 Corinthians 14:33-36. Gooder encourages the readers to read the “tricky” passages in the light of the roles women played in Pauline churches (p. 228). Phoebe is one of several women who played key roles in early Christian communities. Although this book does not make an argument for the role of women in church leadership in a modern context, it “reflects the view I hold. If you disagree you are unlikely to enjoy what follows” (p. 229).

In the book, Gooder follows the common view that Phoebe was the courier for the Letter to the Romans, Prisca and Aquila led house churches and Junia was a woman prominent among the apostles. Phoebe was a deacon at Cenchrea and a “benefactor of many” (προστάτις, a patron rather than helper). Both are titles which ought to evoke respect from the Roman community as they received the letter from Paul delivered by Phoebe.

The story itself is just over 200 pages, the final 81 pages are notes on the story. I will not spoil the story, but like most of these sorts of scholarly novels, we meet many of the expected characters, Prisca and Aquila, Junia, Andronicus, and the apostles Peter and Paul make appearances as well. There are sections where it seems obvious wants to work in some Roman cultural issue where perhaps a novelist would not, but the story is well written and entertaining.

The notes are much more extensive than the Week in the Life series. In those books additional material is inserted into the flow of the novel through side-bars and illustrations. Phoebe saves all the notes to the final section of the book. There are no footnotes or references to distract from the novel itself, making the book easier to read as a novel. My strategy was to read all the notes before the novel since I was interested in Gooder’s views on Phoebe. One could read a chapter in the novel then read corresponding notes for the chapter.

The book will be a good introduction for readers interested in the background of the Roman world and early Christianity. Many will be attracted to the book for what it contributes to the role of women in the early church, either enjoying it or disliking it depending on one’s presuppositions. This is unfortunate, but Gooder’s book will certainly stimulate discussions of the role of woman in the ancient and modern church.

Other books in the Week in the Life series:

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.

Book Review: Craig Keener, John (ZIBBC 2A)

Keener, Craig. John. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary 2A. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2019. 251 pp. Hb; $29.99.   Link to Zondervan

This new commentary from Craig Keener replaces Andreas Köstenberger’s John commentary in the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Ed. Clint Arnold, Zondervan, 2001). Unfortunately Köstenberger work contained “accidental plagiarism,” something Köstenberger himself has recognized. This led to the decision to remove Köstenberger’s commentaries from the Baker Exegetical New Testament Commentary (2004) and the ZIBBC.

The result of this is another Craig Keener commentary on John. His earlier commentary on the fourth Gospel (Hendrickson, 2003; now Baker Academic) was two volumes and 1242 pages of introduction and commentary, plus another 166 pages of bibliography and 225 pages of indices. The ZIBBC is much more concise at a mere 212 pages of introduction and commentary and 39 pages of endnotes and indices. As a result, this new commentary is a useful tool for laypeople and busy pastors who want to read the Gospel of John with added clarity.

Like other volumes of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary this commentary has only brief notes on the text, more than provided by a major study Bible. At the title of the series implies, the notes focus on cultural, historical, geographical, archeological, and literary backgrounds which may illuminate the text as one reads John’s Gospel.

As an example of a geographical note, Keener locates the pool of Bethesda (John 5:2) at the church of St. Anne’s in Jerusalem. The editors proved a photograph of the Jerusalem Temple model at the Israel Museum, an artistic reconstruction of the five-portico pool and a photograph of the remains of the pools as they appear to visitors today.

Throughout the commentary there are sidebars explaining cultural and theological issues. For example, Keener provides about a page of material on Second Temple Jewish mourning customs as the background for the mourners around the tomb of Lazarus (p. 114-15). He cites the Mishnah, the apocryphal book Judith and the pseudepigraphical book Jubilees. He provides two pages on the historicity of Jesus’s trial (p. 176-77), citing several texts from the Mishnah.

Keener frequently draws parallels to other Second Temple literature. As an example of literary background, on John 1:4 Keener points our Jewish teachers often associated life with wisdom, citing a series of Old Testament texts along with Baruch 4:1, Psalms of Solomon 14:2 and 2 Baruch 38:2. He includes a brief excerpt of each text since most readers will not have easy access to these books.

This short commentary on John provides the reader with sufficient background material for reading John’s Gospel in the context of the Second Temple period world. Advanced readers will find it too brief, but there are enough footnotes to point interested readers to more in-depth resources. Keener’s commentary will serve well as a supplement to personal Bible study or a small group setting.

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

Published on May 16, 2019 on Reading Acts.

Eerdmans Sale on Kindle Books for May 2019

During the month of May, Eerdmans has some great deals on Kindle versions of recent publications

Although I prefer real books to digital (and Logos books to Kindle), these are worth buying at the price. If you do not own a Kindle device, you can get an App on most devices to read Kindle books. I use the iPad Kindle App, it is very convenient for travel (or reading in the dark, which is sometimes a thing).

There are quite a few interesting books on the list this month, but I notice several volumes of the Socio-Rhetorical Commentary series for $4.99 each. As the title for the series implies, these commentaries focus on the social world of the author (Second Temple Judaism and the Greco-Roman world) as well as tracing the rhetorical strategies of the authors. The latter works best in the letters and sometimes can seem tedious, but this careful examination of how Paul (for example) argued his points has the potential to unfold the letters in new and exciting ways.

I have used many volumes in this series and usually found them helpful. Keener and DeSilva are always good,and Witherington always has something to stimulate my thinking. I looked for Witherington’s Acts but it is not available in Kindle format for some reason. It is really the best of the Socio-Rhetorical Commentary series.

In the non-commentary section of the sale, I noticed Richard Bauckham’s The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences ($2.99). This is a collection of essays which argue the four gospels were not written to specific churches (Matthew to Syrian Antioch, for example) but to the whole church.

For archaeology, Fant and Reddish, Lost Treasures of the Bible: Understanding the Bible through Archaeological Artifacts in World Museums is a mere $1.99. The book discusses key artifacts now housed in museums all over the world. I reviewed this book soon after it came out, it is well worth reading. In the review, I concluded “This is an excellent book for general readers interested in archaeology as background for the Bible. Whether it is used in conjunction with a visit to a major museum or not, Lost Treasures provides the reader with good descriptions of the most important artifacts illustrating the world of both the Old and New Testaments.”

For the philosopher/theologian, The Analytic Theist: An Alvin Plantinga Reader is $3.99. The book has thirteen essays and book excerpts in four sections (“Natural Theology and Atheology; Reformed Epistemology; Divine Nature and Attributes; Christian Philosophy). Think of this as Plantinga’s Greatest Hits.

There are quite a few others, so poke around the Eerdmans books on Amazon and see what you can find.

The sale runs through the end of May 2019.

Logos Free Book of the Month for May 2019 – I. Howard Marshall, ICC Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles

The Logos Free book of the Month for May 2019 is I. Howard Marshall, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles (T&T Clark, Hb. 1999, Pb. 2013). This is a tremendous gift from Logos since Marshall’s commentary is a major contribution to scholarship on the Pastoral Epistles.The print version of this commentary in the cheaper paperback format is available on Amazon for $65, good luck finding hardback copies (list price $155)! In addition to the price, the major advantage of owning the book in the Logos library is all the Logos tools are available to reader. This goes far beyond simple searching and highlighting.

At over 900 pages, this commentary is one of the most comprehensive exegetical commentaries available. Marshall wrote the commentary in collaboration with Philip Towner, the author of the NICNT commentary on the Pastoral Epistles (Eerdmans 2006) as well as the short commentary in the IVP New Testament Commentary series.

I listed Marshall’s commentary in my “Top Five Commentaries on the Pastoral epistles” a few years ago. I said:

Marshall’s contribution is perhaps the most detailed exegetical commentary on the list, as is to be expected from an ICC volume. Marshall replaced Walter Lock’s 1924 commentary in the series. The book caused a stir when it was released since Marshall (beloved by many evangelicals) rejected Pauline authorship of these letters. The introduction to the commentary develops Marshall’s view of authorship. The body of the commentary contains detailed bibliographies for each section followed by an overview of the text. The format of the commentary is a phrase-by-phrase unpacking of the Greek text, including textual, lexical and syntactical issues. He interacts with a broad range of scholarship, with Marshall includes a number of excellent excurses (on Household Codes, in Titus, for example).

The International Critical Commentary has been one of the top critical commentaries for well over 100 years. Each commentary in the series comments on the Hebrew or Greek text, dealing with textual, syntactical, and lexicial issues. As with most commentary series, this commentary by Marshall replaced the 1924 volume by Walter Lock. Lock’s commentary had 46 pages of introduction and 159 pages dealing with exegetical issues for all three Pastoral Epistles. It is still available through Logos (and is often found used for $10 or so).

In addition to Marshall’s commentary, Logos is offering both volumes of C. K. Barrett’s Acts commentary in the ICC series for $1.99 and $2.99 each. Barrett is always worth reading and this Acts commentary is no exception. The two volumes were published in 1994 and 1998 and offer solid exegetical comments are remarkably readable. With respect to historicity, Barrett said “Where he agrees with other historical sources, his evidence is confirmed; where he disagrees, or where other evidence is lacking, he must at least be taken seriously (2:cxiv).

Logos usually does a related giveaway on their Free Book promo page. This month you can enter to win the The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew edited by David J.A. Clines (8 vols.; Sheffield,1993–2011; $299 value). This is an exceptional lexicon for serious students of the Hebrew Bible. In many ways the lexicon is like HALOT (Brill, 1994-2000) but is far more comprehensive and includes references to the Qumran literature. Enter early and often, Logos will give the Lexicon away to some lucky winner at the end of the month.

Logos recently released a major upgrade to their Bible Software. I did a “first look” review of Logos 8 here. There are plenty of new features to justify an upgrade and the software runs much more efficiently than the previous version. Everything seems to run faster than Logos 7 and the upgrade is well worth considering. Logos base packages are 20% off through May 31. As always, there are less expensive paths to upgrading and there are paths that will preserve your credit rating.

These three and almost free books of the month are only available through the end of May, so head to the Logos site and get them before the offer expires.

En-Gedi, Qumran, and Qasr al Yahud

Hyrax, En GediThe last day our the 2019 Israel tour began at En-Gedi, where David hid from King Saul in a cave (1 Samuel 24). This is one of the more beautiful hikes on the trip since the Israeli Parks service has developed Wadi David as a nature preserve. The mile and a half walk is relatively easy since there are cut stairs and handrails, but there are a few steep flights and one passage through dark tunnel made of river reed. The walk also has several waterfalls and pools, the highlight being the final one at the end of the canyon. We saw a few hyrax with their pups on the hike and a large group of ibex on the way out of the park.

From En-Gedi we drove north to Qumran, the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The archaeology of the site is relatively simple, although the water system collects far more water that the site might need to survive. The reason for this is large number of ritual baths used by the community for purification. Almost everything at Qumran is controversial and the Dead Sea Scrolls have encouraged a wide variety of fringe ideas about the nature of both early Judaism and Christianity. Even the video at the beginning of the tour tacitly suggests a relationship between John the Baptist and the Qumran community. This provided an opportunity to talk about these theories with the students. At the viewpoint overlooking Cave 4 we had a good discussion about the contents of the Scrolls and their value for Biblical studies.

Since we have a long drive to Tel Aviv, we stopped only briefly at Qasr al Yahud, the more likely of the traditional sites for Jesus’s baptism. This site has been open since 2011 and is now on the Israel National Parks card, so it is an easy add-on for for groups using the parks pass (see this Times of Israel story on the re-opeing of the site for tourist groups). Qasr means castle, and Greek Orthodox Monastery of St John the Baptist does indeed look at bit like a castle. Unlike the site at Yardenit in Galilee, this is a far more authentic location since it is in the general area John the Baptist was active (although it is still not certain this is the place). Another clear difference is the lack of commercialism compared to Yardenit. The majority of the crowds queuing to be baptized in the muddy stream of the Jordan were Orthodox, although there appeared to be a handful of protestants. The site on the other side of the Jordan is only a matter of feet from this location in Israel. The Jordanian site is called Al-Maghtas, “immersion” in Arabic. UNESCO listed the Jordanian side as a world heritage site, but not the western side (likely due to the political situation in West Bank).

Qasr al Yahud, Baptism of Jesus

My plan was to return to the Old City in Jerusalem for final shopping, but it was the first Friday of Ramadan and many streets were closed to traffic. We could have walked to Jaffa Gate, but that would have cut down on our time. Our guide suggested driving to Jaffa instead. As it turned out this was a good idea. He walked us through several points of interest in Jaffa, although there is little I can say is authentic. There is a traditional site for the home of Cornelius and a Franciscan church commemorating Peter’s departure from Jaffa to Rome (although that is not in the Bible, if he left for Rome by ship Jaffa is the likely port). After a 45 minute walk, we turned the group loose in the shops and they contributed much to the local economy.

We stayed at the Tal Hotel in Tel Aviv, just a block from the Mediterranean. This was a very nice stay, although it was far too short: our wake up call was for 2:00 AM and we were at the airport by 3:15 AM for a 6:15 departure. Since I am now back in Michigan, I can cay they long day of travel went well despite an hour delay in Vienna for engine maintenance and extremely long lines at immigration in Chicago (easily the worst I have ever experienced there).