Craig Keener – Acts: An Exegetical Commentary (Volume 1)

I received the Baker Academic catalog today and noticed the announcement for a new Commentary from Craig Keener.  That Keener might write a commentary on Acts is not a  surprise, his commentaries on John (Hendrickson) and Matthew (Eerdmans) are excellent, and I very much look forward to his contribution to Acts.

What surprised me is this:  the first volume is 1,080 pages and is sub-titled “Introduction and 1:1-2:47”.  Just over 1000 pages and he makes it through chapter 2!  The entire project willbe four volumes, so Keener will have about 4,000 pages on the book of Acts before he is finished.  By contrast, E. M. Blaiklock’s Tyndale Commentary on Acts was 197 pages for the whole book.  Keener’s John commentary is extremely detailed and well-researched,  so I am looking forward to watching this massive set develop over the next few years.

Volume one is due July 2012 from Baker.  Look for a full review on this blog  in the fall.

John 12:12-16 – The Triumphal Entry

The Gospel of John describes the well-known event of the Triumphal entry briefly, only mentioning a few features of the story which serve his overall themes.(See this post for the Triumphal Entry in Mark 11.) The Passover feast was a very nationalistic holiday in the first century since it celebrates God’s redemption of his people and the beginnings of Israel as a nation. Waving palm branches were a part of Jewish nationalism since the time of the Maccabean Revolt (1 Macc. 13:51). Images of palm branches will be used in the coinage of both the Jewish revolt in A.D.70 and the Bar Kohkba revolt in A.D. 132.

1 Maccabees 13:51–52 (NRSV) On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred seventy-first year, the Jews entered it with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel. 52 Simon decreed that every year they should celebrate this day with rejoicing. He strengthened the fortifications of the temple hill alongside the citadel, and he and his men lived there

Bar Kokhba Coin

Bar Kohkba coin (A.D.) 132-135 Seven branch palm tree with “Shimon” (Bar Kohkba) on the observe and a grape leaf on the reverse.


The cry of “Hosanna” is from Psalm 118:25-25. The word means “save us, O Lord!”  The psalm was one of the pilgrim Psalms, sung by those who were going up to the Temple during a feast.  Psalm 118:26 was often taken as a reference to the Messiah, when the true the King of the Jews he will save his people.  As people went up to Jerusalem, they would sing this Psalm and look forward to the coming Messiah.

The rest of this Psalm is important. Verses 10-13 describe the writer as in the middle of his enemies, nations which surround him on every side. In verse 17-18 the Psalmist has been disciplined severely but has not been handed over to death. “I shall not die,” he says, “but I shall live.” Verse 19 describes the “gate of righteousness” through which the pilgrims must enter; Jesus has described himself as the gate through which the sheep must pass. In verse 22 the psalm refers to “the stone the builders rejected” becoming the chief cornerstone, a verse Jesus applies to himself in the parable of the Vineyard.

Perhaps most important is Psalm 118:27: “The Lord is God and has made his light to shine upon us.” A light shining in the darkness is a key messianic image (Luke 1:78-79), but especially in the gospel of John. Jesus is the light which shines in the darkness (John 1:5), those who follow Jesus walk in the light, those who do not remain in the darkness (John 12:35-26).

That Jesus rides a donkey is an allusion to Zechariah 9:9, another text associated with the coming messiah. John does not give the details since they are likely well-known by the time he writes his book. He does emphasize the fact that Jesus deliberately chose to ride a donkey, intentionally evoking the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9. The point of this sign is often missed since it is thought riding a donkey is a sign of humility and peace. It is true that David came to Jerusalem after his son’s revolt “in peace,” riding a donkey instead of a war horse. But a king often rides a donkey; it is shame for a king to ride a donkey in the first century. A better explanation of the donkey is to see that after Solomon was anointed king, he was placed on a donkey and led up to the city of Jerusalem, through the Kidron valley. The anointed son of David, the king named “Peace,” enters the city of Jerusalem to begin the most peaceful and prosperous period in Israel’s history.

Zechariah 9:9 is alluding to that story in the Hebrew Bible, Jesus is the true Son of David who will bring ultimate peace and prosperity, but only after he destroys the enemy of his people. Rather than the Romans, Jesus will enter Jerusalem and offer himself as the ultimate sacrifice for sin.

John once again weaves together allusions to several passages in the Hebrew Bible which hint at who Jesus is. in this case, he is the long-awaited messiah, the one who the Psalmist and the prophets were looking forward to. What else does this passage tell us about who Jesus?

Is James a Christian Letter?

Ever since Luther’s famous disdain for the letter of James, Christian readers have wondered about the Jewishness of the Letter of James.  Some scholars argued that James is not a Christian letter at all.  There are only two clear references to Jesus in the letter (1:1 and 2:1), although there are a few other verses which might refer to Jesus or God (5:8-9, for example).  Most Christian readers will labor hard to show that James is a Christian letter, although the recognize that they book lacks much of what can be called a Christian theology.

Karen Jobes devotes a chapter of Letters to the Church to the question of Christology in the letter of James.  She refers to an implicit Christology in the letter, recognizing the fact that James only refers to Jesus unambiguously twice, although she thinks the “Lord’s coming” in 5:7-8 refers to Jesus.  Her strategy is interesting.  She gathers all the references to the Lord in James and shows that these all could refer to either Jesus or God.  This ambiguity was intentional, so that James is speaking of Jesus or the God of the Old Testament in the same breath. James considers Jesus the same as God.   Given the serious nature of blasphemy in the first century, she argues that this is a high Christology after all.

Her second line of evidence is the use of the Sermon on the Mount in James. That James knew the teaching of Jesus seems obvious, Jobes provides a great deal of evidence that James new and used Matthew 5-7 in his letter. There are at least 24 clear parallels between James and the Sermon on the Mount, too many to be a coincidence. Since he uses this material as authoritative and parallel to Scripture, Jobes argues that he sees Jesus’ teaching as just as authoritative as the Hebrew Bible. A related bit of evidence is the “royal law” in James.  This is essentially the greatest commandment according to Jesus in Matthew 27:37-40.  Jobes concludes that “the way Jesus uses the teaching of Jesus as a moral reference point reveals another aspect of his assumed Christology.”

I agree with Jobes, but I also have some questions.  Is there anything in the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5-7 that is uniquely Christian?  Jesus is interacting with the Law and does not “cancel” the Law or contradict it at all.  In fact, Jesus seems to be arguing for a more strict interpretation of the Law than was popular in the first-century.  Even the “greatest commandment” is not uniquely Christian, the rabbi Hillel is well-known for saying virtually the same thing.

I think the question “Is James a Christian Letter?” might set the problem in the wrong light.  When asked that way, the Christian scholar feels the need to find Jesus lurking behind every line of James, as if a letter which did not mention Jesus is not a Christian letter. It is possible for a Jewish believer with James’ reputation to write a letter admonishing his readers to good morals would sound very much like Proverbs or Sirach.  Where he does allude to Jesus’ teaching, it is not uniquely Christian because Jesus was not creating a Christian theology and ethic in the same sense that Paul was, or later in the first century, Clement or Didache. To expect that James is going to have a high Christology is to assume that he will have a Pauline Christology.  That is simply not the case, and we should not force James into the Pauline Grid.  He simply does not fit.

If we understand that there was a distinct Jewish-oriented form of Christianity in the first century,  then we will not have to struggle so much to bring James into the “Christian” fold.  James is a Christian letter, but it s a distinctly Jewish one, and definitely not a Pauline Christian letter!

John 12:1-11 – The Anointing at Bethany

Jesus stays with Lazarus and his family at Bethany prior to the Passover. During a meal given in his honor, Mary anointed Jesus with an expensive perfume (verses 1-8). This is a rare story in John since the episode also appears in in Matt 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9, and perhaps Luke 7:39-50.  This is an opportunity to study John’s use of his sources since it would appear that this was a well-known story by the time he wrote his Gospel.

Mary anointing Jesus's feetThere are a few differences between John and the Synoptic Gospels. In Matthew and Mark we are told that the anointing took place at the home of Simon the Leper and the woman is unidentified (see this post on the story as it appears in Mark). In Mark she anoints Jesus’ head, while in John she anoints his feet and wipes them with her hair. In John she wipes his feet with her hair, as did the woman in Luke 7.

How is this related to a similar incident in Luke 7:39-50? All three synoptic gospels agree a woman came to Jesus with an alabaster jar of myrrh (ἀλάβαστρον μύρου). But other than the perfume used to anoint Jesus, there is little in Luke which is the same as the even described in John 12.First, The name Simon appears in Luke and Mark/Matt, but the name Simon was extremely common in the first century. In fact, two of Jesus’s disciples are named Simon! There is nothing which requires Simon the Leper of Mark 14:3 to be Simon the Pharisee of Luke 7:40. Second, Luke omits the location (Bethany), but the story is placed before the travel narrative (beginning in Luke 9:51). This implies that the meal hosted by Simon is in Galilee, not Bethany (near Jerusalem). Third, the woman in Luke is described as having a bad reputation, there is nothing in the Synoptic Gospels or John that imply Mary, the sister of Lazarus had a negative reputation. Finally, Luke also omits the words of Jesus praising the woman for her actions, saying that her deed will be repeated wherever the gospel is preached. Instead, Jesus responds to Simon’s critical thoughts with a short parable and pronounces the woman’s sins forgiven.

It is possible John has combined two events (Luke 7 and Matthew 26 / Mark14), or it is possible Luke has move the event to an earlier point in Jesus’s ministry. It seems to me, however, what Luke records is a different event in the life of Jesus. A notorious sinner encounters Jesus and receives forgiveness and acceptance and responds with lavish worship at Jesus’s feet. John (Mark and Matthew) record an event just prior to the Passion week in which Mary honors her teacher with a lavish gift which foreshadows his death and burial. The obvious objection is the oddity of a woman anointing Jesus twice during his life.

John has repeated key elements of the story verbatim (the words of Jesus), yet added a few details which were omitted in Mark and Matthew. For example, the name of the woman (Mary) and the disciple who objected to the expensive display of affection (Judas). John has re-told the story to highlight the difference between Mary’s devotion to Jesus and Judas’s misunderstanding of Jesus.

Zondervan Titles for Logos

Logos Bible Software announced today they are adding 63 new titles published by Zondervan to the Logos Library.  This includes two volumes of the new Zondervan Exegetical Commentary series, Ephesians by Clint Arnold and Galatians by Thomas Schriener.   Several commonly used textbooks are in this collection including Karen Jobe’s Letters to the Church (Hebrews-Jude), Kosetnberger’s Theology of John’s Gospel, and Marvin Pate’s Writings of John and the Apocalypse. The NIV Application Commentary for the Old Testament is part of this new set of titles, Logos has offered the New Testament series for some time.

I am using Jobes’ Letters to the Church for a class at the moment and three of my students are using the Kindle version.  A major frustration for me is how a student cites a Kindle book since there are no page numbers.  If the book were read in the Logos format, this is not a problem since Logos includes proper page numbers and footnotes.  Perhaps a more difficult problem for Logos to overcome is cost.  The “list price” for Letters to the Church is $44.99, Amazon will sell it for $29.24 new, or $17.99 on Kindle. I am not sure what the Logos final price will be for the book, but it will be hard to beat the Kindle price, even with the generous Logos student discounts.

You can pre-order all 63 for $899.95, which is not quite a 50% discount. There are several smaller bundles available for pre-order at a significant discount.  Some of the collections are odd (McKnight’s Gospel of King Jesus and the Blue Parakeet are in a biblical studies bunlde with Pate and Jobes, although I would not considered these particular McKnight titles “biblical studies.” Kosetenberger  ended up in the Theology Bundle with Michael Horton and Wayne Grudem, probably because the title had “theology” in it.

The addition of a significant number of Zondervan titles is good news for Logos and for those who use an iPad or Andriod tablet for reading.

John 11:42-44 – Jesus’ Prayer of Thanksgiving

Jesus prays a “prayer of thanksgiving” before commanding Lazarus to come out of the tomb. This prayer has been discussed with respect to the possibility of historicity. Is it the type of prayer that Jesus might have prayed in this context? Some scholars dispense with the historicity of the prayer as an addition by the writer of the Gospel. For example, R. H. Fuller, (Interpreting the Miracles) wrote that:

To the modern reader this prayer is irritating, if not offensive. The whole thing looks like a put-up show, anything but genuine prayer. Jesus knows he need not pray, but apparently stages a prayer to impress the bystanders.

The Tomb of LazarusRather than an “irritating prayer”, this is actually a Prayer of Thanksgiving as prayed by Jews commonly in the context of first century Palestine. Following J. M. Robinson, Bingham Hunter argued there are formal parallels to a Jewish thanksgiving prayer. As a Jewish Hodayoth, the prayer is intended to be heard by the audience for which it is prayed. The cited article lists many examples (including in the Pauline and Qumran literature) indicating that this sort of prayer was not only common enough in the first century, but expected in a religious context such as the one Jesus finds himself in John 11.

Because of its form the prayer seems to be genetically related to and a part of a tradition of piety exemplified by the Jewish personal thanksgiving psalm. Thanksgivings of this sort are characteristically prayers that both God and spectators are meant to hear.

Interpreters may legitimately feel that the way Jesus is said to have prayed in John 11 offends their religious sensitivities. Yet such sensitivities do not seem to have characterized either Christians or Jews in the first century, and a correct approach to exegesis requires that determinations of whether Jesus’ thanksgiving is a real prayer be based on first-century Jewish, not modern, criteria. In the historical context that the evangelist gives it, the prayer seems authentically real and quite uniquely appropriate. (Hunter, “Contextual and Genre Implications,” 70)

With respect to the scholars that find offense in the prayer, Hunter points that the offense is entirely modern. Read in the context of the first-century, the prayer is exactly the sort of thanksgiving prayer we might have expected.


Bibliography:  R. H. Fuller, Interpreting the Miracles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963); W. Bingham Hunter, “Contextual And Genre Implications For The Historicity Of John 11:41b-42” JETS 28 (1985): 53-70.