Book Review: Robert Orlando, Apostle Paul: A Polite Bribe

Orlando, Robert. Apostle Paul: A Polite Bribe. Eugene Ore.: Cascade Books, 2014. 174 pp. Pb; $23.   Link to Wipf & Stock

A “Polite Bribe” refers to Paul’s collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem. Robert Orlando’s thesis is that Paul needed the approval of Jerusalem in order to continue to preach the Gospel. He therefore agreed to give a gift to the Jerusalem church in exchange for their approval to preach his Gospel to the Gentiles.

Orlando understands one of the main problems for Paul was his continual “battle with this sense of legitimacy as an apostle and as a missionary to the Gentiles” (xxiii). As Polite Bribeevidence for this is the Galatians 2, Paul’s conflict with “men from James” and the subsequent rejection of table fellowship by Barnabas and Peter. Orlando paints a vivid picture of Paul’s Gospel as radical and “counterintuitive” to the majority of early (Jewish) Christians (29).

There does seem to be a deep division between James as a leader of the Jerusalem church, Peter as a missionary along the fringes of Judaism and Paul, who was appointed by Jesus to go directly to the Gentiles. In Acts, Luke does tend to smooth over these divisions in favor of presenting the early church as more united than perhaps it really was. The Antioch Incident (Galatians 2), the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) and Paul’s arrest after he returned to Jerusalem with the Collection (Acts 21:17-22:29) are all evidence of a sharp struggle between Paul and other early Christians who considered the Law as required even for Gentiles. This is especially a problem when Jews and Gentiles shared meals and celebrated Communion together.

At the heart of Orlando’s thesis is his assumption Paul needed (or wanted) approval from the original apostles. There are two problems with this assumption. Is there any evidence the original Twelve or James had an interest in appointing additional apostles? When Judas died he was replaced, but this is prior to Pentecost (Acts 1). After James the son of Zebedee is killed in Acts 12, there appears to be no effort to replace him as one of the Twelve. When there is need for leadership among the Hellenistic Jews in Jerusalem, they are told to appoint their own leaders (who are not called apostles, Acts 6). It is not as though the Twelve constitute a governing body for the church who have the authority to authorize preachers of the Gospel.

Second, a fair reading of Galatians 1-2 and 2 Corinthians 10-11 should be enough evidence to indicate Paul was not overly concerned what the Jerusalem church thought of his mission to the Gentiles. He claims an independent apostleship based on his encounter with Jesus. I agree he would have preferred to have the “right hand of fellowship” from Jerusalem, but he does not seem to have ever claimed to be working under the authority of Jerusalem, the Twelve, or James.

Orlando’s most remarkable suggestion that James and the original apostles required a monetary gift in exchange for their approval of Paul as an apostle. He describes this as a kind of Temple Tax imposed on Gentiles to assist the poor, James had his followers in Jerusalem (59). It is true James asked Paul to remember the poor, the very thing Paul was “eager to do “(Gal 2:10). It is even probably the case James understood the “poor” to be his Jerusalem church which was still living in common in anticipation of the return of Christ. But to describe this as a price paid for authorization to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles runs far past what the evidence could prove. Paul does not hurry back to Jerusalem in Acts 20-21 in order to offer a bribe to James, but to arrive on the day of Pentecost with a gift from the Gentile churches. He wants to evoke memories of the Day of Pentecost from Acts 2 when the Spirit of God was first poured out on the Jewish believers. For Paul, the Collection is a first-fruits offering from the Gentiles to those who were followers of Jesus from the beginning.

Orlando is indebted to the old History of Religions view that Paul adapted Greek and Roman myth better present the Gospel to Gentiles. For example, he says on several occasions Paul used the dying and rising god myths from Greek mystery religions (85), stating that Paul need “secret wisdom in order to avoid critique: in the public square. As a result this commitment to Paul’s adoption of Mithraism, he often misses the Jewish foundations of Paul’s theology. One result of the explosion of studies in the tradition of the New Perspective on Paul is an awareness of just how Jewish Paul remained after his so-called conversion. Orlando’s presentation on circumcision, for example, is described in terms of modern practices which were not necessarily present in the first century (metzizah b’peh, for example).

There are several bold assertions which would be hard to support from evidence. Orlando explains Paul’s desire to launch a final journey to Spain, the “end of the known world” as an attempt to “trigger the second coming of Christ” (84). For Orlando, this is in fact Paul’s motivation for dispensing with food laws and circumcision for Gentiles, God was about to “dissolve the distinctions between Jew and Greek in the Kingdom” (37). It would be very difficult to support this assertion from the letters of Paul or the book of Acts, and “dissolving the distinction between Jew and Gentile” is not part of any Second Temple period Jewish expectations for the coming Kingdom! Fourth Ezra, for example, sees no future for Gentiles in the Kingdom at all (nor for most Jews, for that matter).

According to Orlando, Paul was dispatched to Antioch to work as a protégé under Barnabas in Antioch (35), although in Acts Barnabas seeks out Paul because Gentiles are responding to the Gospel in Antioch (Acts 11:25-26). For some reason Orlando omits the mission to Cypress in Acts 13. Luke uses the symbolic miracle, Paul’s blinding of Bar-Jesus, to indicate a shift from Barnabas to Paul. Luke then follows that miracle with a detailed synagogue sermon which presents Paul’s understanding of what God is doing in the present age. Rather than focus on this data, Orlando describes a breach between Paul and Barnabas: “he’d had enough” of Paul and returned to Antioch where he eroded Paul’s relationship with the church (44). It is not Barnabas who leaves Paul, but John Mark. Paul and Barnabas continue as partners through the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) and only split when Barnabas insists on restoring John Mark to the ministry team.

Assuming an imprisonment in Ephesus, Orlando asserts Paul wrote 1 Corinthians from prison in a state of despair, “possibly a loss of faith” (93), which he suggests is akin to a “nervous breakdown” (the title of the chapter, although he never quite states his in the text). To describe Paul’s ministry in Ephesus as “two or three years immobilized, probably ‘lying there and rotting’” (93) completely misunderstands how Luke presents Paul in Acts 19. Although Paul may have been imprisoned for a time in Ephesus (and he probably wrote Philippians during that time in prison), he evidently spent at least two years teaching and preaching so that “all Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:9-10). Rather than “lying there are rotting” Paul established churches and trained people to plant additional churches (Epaphras and Colossae, for example).

Orlando is a film-maker and not a New Testament scholar. He tells the story of Paul in narrative fashion with little awareness of scholarship on Luke-Acts or Paul. Often his source for a particularly striking idea is not the text of the New Testament or a published commentary or monograph, but an interview from his film, A Polite Bribe. This would be unacceptable in a scholarly monograph, but since this book is a companion to the film, it is less problematic.

Sometimes his sense of story-telling goes beyond the evidence. He presents his idea of starting the story of the church with Paul rather than the Gospels as a new and groundbreaking idea. This is not exactly news to biblical scholars, especially those who focus on the writing of Paul. For example, Jens Schröter contributed an article to Paul and the Heritage of Israel (LNTS 452; T&T Clark, 2012) on “Paul the Founder of the Church: Reflections and Reception of Paul in the Acts of the Apostle sand the Pastoral Epistles.” Certainly Reformation theology stands on the foundation of Paul and his epistles.

One additional concern: the book seems to breathe the air of conspiracy. This is a byproduct of the presentation of the book as a film, since a documentary which claims to uncover some dark secret suppressed by the Church is likely to be more popular. For example, Paul’s Jewish opponents “hatch a conspiracy against him” in Corinth (73). This was more or less a standard Roman lawsuit and not a “conspiracy.” It was common problem in Roman culture and Paul treats it 1 Corinthians 6. Orlando detects a “shipboard conspiracy” against Paul on the trip to Jerusalem forcing them to return to shore (107). There is not much evidence for this in the text; Orlando does not cite the book of Acts, but rather an interview with Robert Jewett in his film.

Conclusion: A Polite Bribe is an interesting approach to the difficult problem of Paul’s relationship with James and Jerusalem. Orlando should be commended for taking Paul seriously and attempting to get behind the scenes of Acts and the Epistles, although there are many assertions in this book which will not stand up to close scrutiny. His narrative method makes for easy reading, although his non-scholarly approach seems to create some problems which erode the value of his main point.

 

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

Book Review: Capes, Reeves and Richards, Rediscovering Jesus

Capes, David B., Rodney Reeves and E. Randolph Richards. Rediscovering Jesus: An Introduction to Biblical, Religious and Cultural Perspectives on Christ. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2015. 272 pp. Hb; $30.00.   Link to IVP

In Mark 2:6 Jesus tells a young man hoping to be healed that his sins are forgiven. Since only God has the authority to forgive sins, some of the teachers of the Law wonder just who Jesus thinks he is. This is exactly Jesus’ question to Peter at the turning point of the Gospel, “who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27-30). Peter’s response is mostly correct, “You are the Messiah.” He understands Jesus as Messiah, but as the rest of Mark makes clear, he did not understand what the Messiah intended to do in Jerusalem.

Capes, Rediscovering JesusEach chapter of Rediscovering Jesus attempts to answer Jesus’ question “who do people say that I am?” Rather than limited the answer to only the four Gospels or the New Testament itself, the authors include four post-biblical views of Jesus (the Gnostic Jesus, the Muslim Jesus, the Historical Jesus, and the Mormon Jesus) as well as two contemporary views of Jesus (American Jesus and Cinematic Jesus). For each of these views, the authors hope to demonstrate the unique understanding of Jesus but also to ask the important question, “what if this was our only view of Jesus?”

The book includes a series of text boxes entitled “What’s More…” which expand on some of the details of the chapter. For example, “Is Matthew Anti-Semitic” or “Was Jesus Married?” In addition, there are boxes labeled “So What?” in each chapter which attempt to draw out some implications of the image of Jesus described in the chapter. For example, under the heading of “I’m Saved. Now What?” there is a short challenge to the reading to think more deeply about the implications of Paul’s view of salvation. Chapters conclude with a brief additional reading section and a series of discussion questions.

A short introductory introduces the reader to a serious problem for people who study Jesus: creating a Jesus who looks exactly like the reader. This has always been a problem for the Church and one that Albert Schweitzer pointed out in his Quest for the Historical Jesus more than a hundred years ago. Rediscovering Jesus recognizes this as unavoidable, everyone who seriously studies Jesus will see something different, therefore the book presents various images of Jesus.

The first major section of the book concerns Jesus in the Bible, beginning with four chapters surveying each gospel writer’s understanding of Jesus. Beginning with the Gospel of Mark, the authors point out Mark’s Jesus is not a warm and fuzzy person. Rather, he is “driven by the Spirit” to fulfill his messianic calling. He is a miracle worker more than a teacher. Matthew’s Jesus, on the other hand, is the “consummate teacher, a prophet like Moses” who was deeply committed to the Old Testament (52). Luke’s Jesus is the king from very beginning of the Gospel. His birth announcement is royal and he is God’s son and Lord. Although the chapter mentions Acts briefly, the authors do not focus on a unique picture of Jesus in Acts (and there is no chapter dedicated to Acts). As is often observed, John’s Jesus is very different. The authors point to John’s view of the kingdom as “not of this world” and consider John’s gospel less interested in the ethical demands found in Matthew (86).

In their conclusion to the chapter on Paul’s Jesus, the authors are struck by his lack of interest in the life and teaching of Jesus. Paul, they say, is “obsessed with things that we think really do not matter” (105), yet Paul’s interpretation of the cross is the “greatest contribution to our understanding of Christ (101). For Paul, Jesus is the crucified one, whom God raised from the dead and exalted to the highest place (Phil 2:6-11). They speculate that if Paul were our only view of Jesus, we would focus more on the return of Christ and perhaps even care less about social justice, thinking it would all be sorted out when Jesus returns. This is in fact a real danger for readers of the New Testament who lack a clear view of the canonical context when reading only Paul’s letters.

In “The Priestly Jesus” (chapter 6) the authors describe Jesus according to the book of Hebrews. Hebrews is the only book describing Jesus as a priest, so the obvious focus on this chapter is the book’s comparison of the Old Testament sacrificial system and the sacrifice of Jesus. The following chapter (“The Jesus of Exiles”) covers the letters of James, Peter and Jude (The epistles of John appear to be included in the Gospel of John chapter).  This chapter understands the language of exile in 1 Peter and James as a metaphor for the church akin to Paul’s “body of Christ” (131). I would rather take these references as more or less literal references to Diaspora Jews and read 1 Peter and James as a Jewish Christian interpretation of Jesus. Although I agree Lordship of Jesus is a key issue in these letters, I think an opportunity to describe a Jesus more agreeable with Second Temple period Judaism is lost by forcing “exile” into a metaphor for the (later) Gentile church. Finally, According to the book of Revelation, the work of Jesus is an accomplished fact and an irreversible force (145).

CEO Jesus

CEO Jesus

Part two of Rediscovering Jesus concerns “Jesus Outside the Bible.” Following a chronological pattern in an attempt to describe how some have attempted to explain who Jesus was from an often radically different perspective from the New Testament. They begin with the “Gnostic Jesus.” This very basic introduction to Gnosticism dispels any “conspiracy theories” about the suppression of Gnosticism and shows Gnostic Jesus as revealer of hidden mysteries. The Muslim Jesus (chapter 10) a kind of “patron saint” of asceticism (184) and prophet who was not the son of God nor divine, and was not crucified. In the “Historical Jesus” (chapter 11) the authors survey various rationalist attempts to explain Jesus in the nineteenth century as a teacher, but not a miracle worker. Since reason proves there can be no miracles, many interpreters of Jesus sought to strip the husk of legend from the Gospels to discover the “real Jesus.” Next the authors describe the sometimes perplexing view of Jesus held by the Mormon Church. Although this Jesus sometimes sounds like the Jesus of the Gospels, there are significant differences in both the nature of Jesus (he is a separate God, not part of a Trinity) and in terms of his post-resurrection appearances.

Redneck Jesus

Redneck Jesus

The final two chapters of the book are fascinating since they are not typically included on academic textbooks on Jesus. In “The American Jesus” the authors suggest several ways American Christians get Jesus wrong: he is a politically correct Jesus who offends no one, or a politicized Jesus supporting your favorite candidate, or a pragmatic, CEO Jesus who coaches you to greater (financial) success, or even a subversive radical hippie freak (queue the Larry Norman song, “The Outlaw”!)

The last chapter looks at Jesus as portrayed in films, “The Cinematic Jesus.” A sidebar lists about twenty films about Jesus since 1905, and there are many more than these. From The Greatest Story Ever Told to Jesus Christ Superstar, from the Passion of the Christ to The Life of Brian, filmmakers have interpreted Jesus as almost everything covered in this book.  Ultimately, the authors suggest the Cinematic Jesus is akin to the Gnostic Jesus, a pious religious man revealing some mystery about life, the universe and everything.

Conclusion:  My main criticism of the book is the speculation at the end of each chapter, “what if this was our only view of Jesus?” Perhaps this is a rhetorical device intended to provoke the reader into reading the canon of Scripture holistically, but this approach seems to read the way Paul or John are described as fairly negative. It is almost as if they are saying, “Paul did not get it quite right, you need Matthew you really understand Jesus.” I do not think it is the case the authors of the New Testament ever “got Jesus wrong,” although the encouragement to take all of the biblical pictures of Jesus seriously is an important encouragement.

One other small concern is the last of interest in the historical development of Christology.  With the exception of flipping the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, the book moves through the New Testament more or less in canonical order. This gives the impression the Gospels pre-date the Pauline letters or even the Book of Hebrews. Since the book is examining the Gospel writers are witnesses to Jesus, their perspective is later than Paul or Hebrews. It might be helpful to recognize this and perhaps use the chronological development to tease out yet another perspective on who Jesus is.

Nevertheless, this book would serve well as a textbook for a college or seminary classroom, especially as a way to confront the tendency to recreate Jesus in our own image. The book is written for a non-academic audience, so it could be used as a small group Bible Study or for personal enrichment.

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

Book Review: Ian Boxall, Discovering Matthew

Boxall, Ian. Discovering Matthew: Content, Interpretation, Reception. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2015. 216 pp. Pb; $22.   Link to Eerdmans

Ian Boxall’s Discovering Matthew is the first of two contributions to the new Discovering Biblical Texts series from Eerdmans, joining Discovering John by Ruth Edwards. The sub-title for the series is “Content, Interpretation, Reception,” indicating an interest in both the general content of the Gospel of Matthew but also how the Gospel ought to be read in the light of the reception of the Gospel by the church.

Boxall_Discovering Matthew_wrk04.inddMatthew has been a popular gospel because it was thought to be the earliest Gospel and written by an eyewitness, the tax-collector turned disciple, Matthew. As a result it was used in liturgy and catechisms by the early church, so that many Christians are only familiar with the forms of the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew or the Lord’s Prayer only in Matthew.  In the nineteenth century that consensus broke down, Mark became the earliest of the Gospels and Matthew was written by an anonymous writer as many as sixty years ears after the death of Jesus. This author used (and sometimes abused) Mark’s Gospel. Some are offended by Matthew’s vitriolic attacks on the Jewish leaders, especially the Pharisees, yet others are drawn to the Gospel’s interest in the Gospel going out to the nations.

The first three chapters of this introduction deal with introductory matters, including strategies for interpretation and the text of Matthew. Boxall surveys various exegetical approaches to the Gospel beginning with Aquinas and other pre-critical readings (allegorical, etc.) He introduces Historical Criticism (source, form and redaction criticism) as well as social scientific readings of Matthew and Narrative criticism and Reader-response approaches. For each of these categories he offers a brief description and evaluation supplemented with a few key references to representative scholars. With respect to Matthew’s sources, Boxall briefly summarizes the arguments for (and against Q), although he does not come to a firm conclusion (“leaving Q aside,” p. 35). He dates the Gospel after A. D. 70 and before A.D. 100 and later in the book Boxall surveys several possible provenances for the Gospel and concludes a precise identification does not add much to the interpretation of Matthew (74).

Chapters 4-5 describe the characters of Matthew’s story (following Jack Kingsbury) and the historical and social setting of the first Gospel. The setting of Matthew is a hotly debated topic, with some scholars following W. D. Davis suggestion Matthew was written as an alternative to “Jamnia Judaism,” the Judaism which formed out of the Jewish response to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Others (Richard Bauckham, for example), reject this view of the background of Matthew since it is not tenable Matthew addressed a specific situation as if it was a Pauline letter. Boxall thinks Bauckham has overstated his case: there are passages which do appear to address a specific situation (65). But what is that situation? Was the Gospel written to people who were essentially Jewish who believed Jesus was the Christ, or Christians who were ethnically Jewish (intra vs. extra muros)? Unfortunately, Matthew’s Gospel is ambiguous, both are possible given the evidence of the book. It is even possible Matthew was a gentile, or at the very least has a pro-Gentile bias. John Meier suggested this, Boxall is not convinced (70).

The next seven chapters treat major themes of Matthew’s Gospel, beginning with the Infancy Narratives (ch. 6), Jesus as Teacher (ch. 7), Jesus as healer and exorcist (ch. 8), Jesus as fulfilment of the Law (ch. 9), The Gospel of the Church (ch. 10), The Passion (ch. 11) and resurrection (ch 12). These chapters provide light commentary on genre, sources and content, but also reflection on Matthew’s theology as presented in the unit. As with the other sections of the book, Boxall offers a wide range of opinion in order to introduce students to secondary literature on Matthew.

A concluding chapter offers a few comments on interpreting Matthew today (ch. 13). First, Boxall observes they growing awareness in scholarship that a text is capable of meaning several things. Authorial intent is only one possible meaning sine a text tends to take on a “life of its own once it leaves the author’s hand. If this is the case, Boxall’s second observation is that there is a need for a variety of interpretive tools to more fully interpret a complex text like Matthew. By focusing only on historical-critical questions, one will miss the rich theological possibilities raised by narrative criticism or the study of Reception history. Third, as newer approaches to the text have made clear, interpretations have consequences. Here Boxall alludes to the unfortunate consequences of some interpretations of the phrase “his blood be on our heads” (Matt 27:25). Finally, Boxall concludes modern interpretive methods have increased our understanding of the participation of readers in the process of interpretation. The days of the detached, unbiased historical critic are long gone and it is difficult to separate interpretation from application.

Conclusion. Discovering Matthew offers a brief overview of the Gospel of Matthew with special attention to recent trends in New Testament interpretation. What is remarkable is the vast amount of secondary literature surveyed in this short book. Boxall is able to summarize a wide variety of views on virtually every aspect of Matthew, including historic Christian writers as well as modern commentators. The most significant shortcoming of the book is its frustrating brevity. Virtually every topic could be expanded to a chapter length presentation. Nevertheless, Boxall’s Discovering Matthew is an excellent introduction to the ongoing exegetical and theological discussion generated by the First Gospel

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

Developing Doctrine in Second John

The short letter of Second John is address to the “elect lady and her children.” This is likely a reference to a church. Since the Greek word for church is feminine, calling a church a “chosen lady” is a natural metaphor. Jobes points out that neither “chosen” nor “lady” were used as proper names in the first century, nor are there any personal names in this letter (Letters to the Churches, 441). John refers to the members of a congregation as “children” in 1 John several times, so it seems fairly certain that this address is to a congregation of believers.

It may be a generic letter, however, circulated to several churches in a region. 1 John seems to be intended as a circular letter, so it is possible that this short note from “the elder” was passed around to several house churches. Since this letter is written on a single scrap of paper (verse 12), it may have been intended as a personal note from John, carried by a traveling preacher visiting congregations under John’s oversight. Obviously 1 and 2 John are related, but there is no way to know which letter came first or if they were addressed to different congregations.

The theological content of the letter is similar to that of 1 John. The writer warns the congregation about “deceivers” who have gone out into the world and deny that Jesus came in the flesh (v. 7). In verse 9 John implies that these deceivers have “gone ahead” rather than remained in the truth as it was first taught. Perhaps some teachers had tried to find a way to explain who Jesus was which “went beyond” what the apostles originally taught.

This is a problem for modern theology. The main issue in Second John is that the false teachers had developed doctrine in a way which was unacceptable. I think they had good intentions – they were genuinely trying to explain a very difficult concept (God became flesh) and they did so in a way which they thought was consistent with their Jewish world view. But from the perspective of John, they have gone too far and need to “remain” in the original teaching he delivered to them.

WWJDriveI think that it is necessary to develop doctrine “beyond the Bible,” since the Bible simply does not specifically address every situation which may arise in a modern context. Some years ago there was an attempt to encourage Christians to be environmentally  conscious when choosing a car; the media campaign used “What would Jesus drive?” as a slogan. I really do not think it is relevant to apply Jesus to choosing a gas-guzzling SUV or Prius. There may be good biblical reasons for choosing one over the other, but “what would Jesus drive” is not the way to develop theology.

I am frequently asked what the Bible has to say about birth control or in vitro fertilization. Since it is very hard to “quote a verse” as a proof-text either for or against these practices, Christians have to infer ethical practice from the general teaching of the Bible. The difficult part is knowing when we have “run ahead” and developed a doctrine beyond what the intent of the Bible was in the first place.

How do we guard against “going too far” when we try to apply the Bible to contemporary issues?

Dualism in First John

One of the frustrations reading the letters of John is the John’s rather stark, black-and-white view of the world. He begins in 1 John 1:5 by stating that “God is light, and in him there is no darkness.” There is a “polarity between God and ‘the world’” (Jobes, Letters to the Church, 415). There rest of the letter is filled with similar contrasts – one either walks in the light or walks in the darkness. One either does not sin, or one continues in sin.

The first chapter of the book can be read as saying there are two types of people in the world, those who have been enlightened (the Christians) and those who remain in the darkness (the non-Christian). That is true, of course, but for Christians who have read their Paul, it is hard to imagine “the one who does not sin.” Romans 6-7, for example, describes the struggle of the believer who was a slave to sin and is now a slave to righteousness. Even our own experience seems to make the sharp black/white dualism of John difficult to understand.

Use the Force

In the history of interpretation of the Letters, there are two possible sources for this dualism. In the nineteenth century the Letters were dated much later that the first century, so the light / darkness language was thought to be an allusion to Gnostic dualism. Gnosticism developed in the second century by blending Jewish and Christian theology with a Platonic Dualism. This meant that the world was sinful and evil, only the spirit was good. The goal of life was to separate from the life of this world and purify one’s spirit, perhaps leaving the sinful flesh to return someday to the spiritual realm.

The Gnostic view is far less popular since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Community Rule (1QS) describes the world in terms similar to 1 John. The Community represents the “sons of light” and those in the world are the “sons of darkness.” There is a spirit of truth and a spirit of deceit, humans choose between the two “spirits.” In 1 John 3:6 the writer says that the one who has the “spirit of truth” hears God and knows God, the one who has the “spirit of error” is a liar and will not follow God. The Community Rule has similar language:

1QS 3:18-19 [God] created man to rule the world and placed within him two spirits so that he would walk with them until the moment of his visitation: they are the spirits of truth and of deceit. From the spring of light stem the generations of truth, and from the source of darkness the generations of deceit. (Garciá-Martiínez and Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, 1:75)

But as Andreas Köstenberger points out, the dualism in John is not at all like what is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In fact, he thinks that it is not really “dualism” in the classic sense since there is both a vertical and horizontal aspect to the dualism. (The Theology Of John’s Gospel and Letters, 277).  The Gnostics minimized the human relationships since all human flesh is sinful. The Qumran Community minimized the horizontal as well, declaring war on the Sons of Darkness.

I want to suggest here that John’s so-called dualism is drawn from the creation story. In Genesis 2-3, humans have an ideal relationship with God and with each other. They live in perfect fellowship with God and in perfect harmony with each other. After sin enters the world through Adam’s rebellion, the vertical relationship destroyed – perfect fellowship becomes terror of God’s voice and hiding from him in the bushes. Likewise, the relationship between Adam and his wife changes and there is anything but harmony over the next few chapters (Cain and Abel, Lamech’s revenge, the Flood, etc.)

For the one who is a disciple of Jesus, the relationship with God has been restored, implying that relationships with other humans ought to also be restored. The word was not evil when it was created, nor did our relationship with God cause terror and hiding. For John, the one who is a follower of Jesus has been restored to a pre-fall state in which we can “walk in the light” and quite literally “not sin.” As the writer says in 2:15-17, this world is passing away, we belong to another world which will endure forever.

If this is on track, how would it help read 1 John? Does it help overcome some of the “black or white” ethical commands in the letter?

What is Docetism?

By the end of the first century, at least some Christians began to deny that Jesus had a physical body. This teaching is known as Docetism, and was motivated by a strong belief that Jesus was in fact God, but also that material things are inherently evil The logic of their teaching is based on the Gnostic (or proto-Gnostic) idea that matter is evil. Since matter is evil and Christ is good, he could not have had a physical body. If Christ really suffered, then he was not divine, since God cannot suffer, and if he was God he did not suffer (Burchard, 326.)

Frequently Docetism is seen as part of the larger theology of Gnosticism, and therefore more or less a “Greco-Roman Philosophy” or perhaps even an early Christian attempt to develop a rational non-Jewish theology which would appeal to the larger Roman world.  Since it was strange to imagine a god really becoming flesh and submitting to death on a cross, some Christians described Jesus as “appearing” to be human flesh. The name “docetic” comes from the Greek δοκέω (dokeo), meaning to “appear” or “seem.”

But it is possible that Docetism more Jewish than Gentile.  If 1 John was written from Ephesus in the late 80’s or early 90’s, it is at least  plausible to argue that John was reacting to a Jewish Christian attempt to explain who Jesus was. Rather than making Christianity more palatable to Romans, Docetism would have been appealing to Jews who might find the idea of “God made flesh” contradictory to their view of God as completely transcendent.

Docetism is sometimes associated with a group of Jewish Christians known as the Ebionites. This group was ascetic, living a live of voluntary poverty in the desert. This voluntary poverty may have been based on the early Jewish Christians in Acts 2 (selling possessions for needs of the group), or perhaps based on Jesus’ own voluntary poverty. While they rejected sacrifice, they thought that many of the Jewish traditions were still of value, especially circumcision. Bart Erhman describes the Ebionites as similar to Paul’s opponents in Galatia. Since they were a Jewish Christian group, they used only Matthew as scripture, but they also rejected Paul completely (Erhman, Lost Christianities, 99).

The real problem with this identification is that Docetism as a Jewish viewpoint would have developed in Palestine, not Ephesus. It is possible that John’s gospel was developed while he was still doing ministry in the Land, and that the fall of Jerusalem forced Jews out of the Land, many of whom ended up in places like Ephesus and Corinth.  But this objection does not take into account the large Jewish population in Ephesus in the late first-century.  John’s work in Ephesus may have been with Jewish Christian congregations in the city rather than with primarily Gentile, Pauline congregations.

What is there in the first Letter of John that indicates that he is in fact answering an inadequate view of who Jesus was?  The evidence is in the opening paragraph, but runs throughout the book.

Bibliography:  G. L. Burchard, “Docetism”, in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986.

Bart Erhman, Lost Christianities.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Book Review: James R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Luke (PNTC)

Edwards, James R. The Gospel according to Luke. PNTC. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2015. 831 pp. Hb; $65. Link to Eedrmans

James Edwards previously contributed the volume on Mark to the Pillar New Testament Commentary. It is unusual for a commentary series to assigned two Synoptic Gospels to a single scholar. What is more, Edwards did not write Edwards, Lukethe Acts commentary in the series, David G. Peterson did in 2009. This allows Edwards to read Luke without having a second commentary on Acts in mind. As a result, Luke nor Luke is not merely a prologue for Acts. Edwards notes in the preface he has not paid attention to reception history in the commentary, referring interested readers to François Bovon’s Hermneia commentary on Luke.

At only 22 pages, the introduction to the commentary is brief, especially since it is divided into nine sections. Edwards accepts the traditional view the author of both Luke and Acts was a companion of Paul and quite possibly Jewish (10) native of Antioch (12), although he is less open to the suggestion Luke was a doctor (8). It is nearly certain Luke used the gospel of Mark, which Edwards dates about A.D. 65, suggesting a date for Luke’s Gospel about a decade later. If Like is dated after A.D. 70 then Luke 19:43-44 may be an allusion to the destruction of the city.

Edwards argues Luke used a Hebrew source along with Mark. In the introduction to this commentary he briefly summarizes the argument of his The Hebrew Gospel and the Development of the Synoptic Tradition (Eerdmans, 2009). There are, Edwards argues, a disproportionally large number of semiticisms in the Gospel of Luke, especially in the unique material in the third Gospel. Semiticisms are words and phrases can be best explained as reflecting a Hebrew or Aramaic original, such as the “divine passive.” Sometimes these phrases are called “Septuagintisms” because Luke sounds like the Septuagint. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible obviously is based on a written Hebrew source and often reflects the style of the Hebrew original although it is written in Greek. Edwards finds many of these examples of semiticisms in the Gospel, especially in the prologue.

With respect to the sayings source (Q), Edwards remains unconvinced. Of the approximately 175 verses usually associated with Q, some are narrative and at least one is found in the Passion narrative. This so-called double tradition does not exhibit the semiticism found elsewhere in Luke (17). Edwards suspects the double tradition is the “skeletal remains” of one of Luke’s sources and it is likely Matthew received the sayings from Luke, although this cannot be state with certainty (17-18). The body of the commentary is not overly concerned with matters of Source Criticism, most references to Hebraisms appear in the footnotes.

There are eleven excurses scattered throughout the commentary. These brief notes cover key terms in the Gospel (“Son of Man”), literary features (“Elijah and Elisha Typology,” “Pairs in the Third Gospel”), and historical issues (“Pharisees in Luke,” “Pontius Pilate and Herod Antipas”). These are useful and placed at appropriate places in the commentary. When Edwards offers some additional detail on a historical, exegetical or geographical point within the commentary which are shorter than an excursus, the theme is identified in bold print (tax collectors, 3:11; slavery. 16:1-9).

The body of the commentary follows Edward’s outline of twenty-two sections, roughly equivalent to about a chapter of Luke per section. Each unit is divided into several pericopae with comments on groups of verses rather than words or phrase. All Greek appears in transliteration with most technical details relegated to the footnotes (textual variants, references to various theological dictionaries and wordbooks). Since there are few in-text notes, the commentary is very readable. Edwards has several memorable phrases, such as his description of perceptions of Jewish tax-collectors as “the husk of an individual whose soul had been eaten away by complicity with Roman repression” (169). He is able to use brief contemporary illustrations to make the text clear, such as comparing the shrewd manager in 16:1-13 to a CEO who says “you’ve turned your pink slip into a promotion” (455). Although this is an exegetical commentary which wrestles with lexical and syntactical issues, Edwards finds ways to elegantly draw out meaning and present it in language appreciated by students and busy pastors who desire to teach the text of Luke in various contexts.

The commentary often provides cultural details drawn from Second Temple period practice. Commenting on 11:37-40, for example, Edwards explains the importance of ritual washing before meals, citing the work of Neusner (354). His observations about the piety of the Pharisee in 18:9-14 make it clear the Pharisee is “not to be denigrated for declaring his commendable record” (504) based on Tobit 1:6-8 and other early texts. His presentation of Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple refers to many Second Temple texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls (594).

In addition to the literature of the Second Temple period, Edwards draws on the insights of patristic writers throughout the commentary. There are numerous references to Origen’s Homilies on Luke and the writings of Justin Martyr, Jerome and Eusebius.

Conclusion. Each volume of the Pillar series has been a solid contribution to scholarship, Edward’s Luke commentary continues this legacy. There are more technical commentaries available, but this commentary is a pleasure to read and will serve pastors and teachers well as they continue to study the third Gospel.

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