Book Review: Benjamin H. Walton, Preaching Old Testament Narratives

Walton, Benjamin H. Preaching Old Testament Narratives.  Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2016. 254 pp. Pb; $18.99. Link to Kregel  

This short book is based on Walton’s 2012 D.Min thesis for Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (“Enhancing Hermeneutical Accuracy for the Preaching of Old Testament Narratives Using 2 Samuel 11-12 as a Case Study.”) The book offers a methodology for both the interpretive and practical skills necessary for preaching Old Testament narrative.

walton-preaching-narrativesThe first three chapters deal with hermeneutical concerns. First, Walton explains preaching with “biblical authority” means accurately proclaiming and applying the message of biblical preaching texts (29). This necessarily requires a proper hermeneutic for the genre. Since the genre of Old Testament narrative is quite different than a New Testament epistle, Walton argues this difference in genre requires hermeneutical steps in order to write a sermon with an appropriate application.

Second, Walton deals with the often difficult problem of selecting appropriate texts from the Old Testament to preach and making them applicable, what he calls “take home truth.” He offers five steps, beginning with identifying a complete unit of thought (CUT), the moving from the original theological message (OTM) to the take-home truth (THT). These abbreviations are used throughout the book. Although chapter 2 is a basic introduction to reading narrative, it goes beyond identifying a narrative to demonstrating how a large narrative can be captured in a short, crisp original theological statement. If that statement is clear and concise, then “crafting the take-home truth” will be easier and more accurate. I suspect pastors usually start with what they want their application to be, then drive that thought into a text whether it belongs there or not. Walton’s method starts with a serious reading of the text using all of the exegetical skills and tools available so that the final application arises from the text itself. Walton provides a short example of his method in chapter 3 using 1 Samuel 11-12.

One thing missing from Walton’s discussion is some advice on “what not to preach.” A pastor might decide to preach through a series of stories in the Old Testament, but not every paragraph needs to be read and explained. In fact, there are texts that do not make appropriate preaching texts. For example, when preaching through the life of David, it is important to illustrate Saul’s jealousy of David and the loyalty of Saul’s children to David rather than to their father. But it might not be appropriate to treat the dowry Saul demands of David in detail (1 Sam 18:24-28). I might discuss this unusual bride-price in a Sunday School class or a small group Bible Study, but most morning worship service sermons are not quite ready for this particular paragraph.

Walton indicates chapters 4-10 are a “conscious attempt to apply, in my own way, Donald Sunukijan’s homiletic to the preaching of Old Testament narratives” (19). Some of this is generic enough to be used for any text in the Bible (creating introductions and conclusions, applications as “picture painting, etc.) Where Walton excels is his principles for preaching through a text in complete units of thought, rather than verse-by-verse. He recommends summarizing texts without reading whole sections. Certainly some verses ought to be read with the congregation, but to read twenty verses of an Old Testament narrative will not engage the congregation. Another way to do this is to explain the text as it is read, so that the preacher is creating a running commentary, explaining details of the text in order to bring the focus back on the take-home truth.

In Chapter 11 Walton outlines a method for moving from the text of the Old Testament to Christ. Since evangelical pastors want to preach Christ in every sermon, they often avoid the Old Testament because it can be difficult to draw a reasonable and appropriate application from an Old Testament narrative that somehow can be tied to the Gospel. Walton uses an “old covenant to the new covenant” method, similar to apostolic preaching in Acts or Paul in the epistles. By preaching new Covenant theology or ethics, Walton asserts, we are preaching Christ (185). If the take-home truth is well-crafted and attentive to the theological meaning of the original text, then a preacher might as how Christ makes that application possible in the present, New Covenant age. Walton highly recommends the work of Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 1999) as well as his Preaching Christ from Genesis (Eerdmans, 2007).

In his final chapter, Walton offers advice on developing from a good preacher to an excellent preacher. These nine sections apply to any sort of preaching, whether expository from the Old Testament or not. Two sections of this chapter stand out to me. First, he recommends fifteen hours dedicated to sermon preparation, not including practicing the sermon. I suspect most pastors would like to dedicate this much time, but few are able to do so because of other demands on their time. Walton cites his mentor Donald Sunukjian as describing sermon preparation as “the hardest and best thing we will ever do” (200). Second, he recommends writing a manuscript for the sermon, then ditching it. I almost always create a lengthy manuscript of my sermons, although I cannot quite “ditch it” when I preach; it functions like a security blanket for me, and I am OK with that. But Walton is correct that the best preachers have prepared well and should not need the safety net of a manuscript.

Walton includes several appendices demonstrating his method and offering a short overview of the story of the Old Testament.

Conclusion. With five pages of endorsements from academics and preaching experts, the book certainly comes well recommended. Walton’s book does in fact provide a useful method for preaching the narratives of the Old Testament. The value of the book is often in the form of brief advice from an experienced preacher.

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

Book Review: Andrew T. Abernethy, The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom

Abernethy, Andrew T. The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom: A Thematic-Theological Approach. NSBT 40; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2016. 245 pp. Pb; $25.  Link to IVP

This new contribution to the New Studies in Biblical Theology series focuses on the theme of Kingdom in the book of Isaiah. The topic of kingdom in the whole canon of Scripture is too large for a short monograph, but by limiting the discussion to Isaiah Abernethy is able to provide a reasonable foundation for understanding the book of Isaiah and its foundational role in a Christian understanding of Jesus. Abernethy’s previous book on Isaiah focused on the theme of food in Isaiah (Eating in Isaiah: Approaching the Role of Food and Drink in Isaiah’s Structure and Message. Leiden: Brill 2014, reviewed here).

abernety-isaiahIn his introduction, Abernethy describes his approach in this book as synchronic since he is interpreting the book of Isaiah as a literary whole without being concerned about the historical formation of the book. This approach recognizes the coherence of the whole book of Isaiah through a network of intentional literary associations in each of the major sections of the book. Be he is quick to point out that although questions of historical process for the formation of the book are set aside, history is important for interpreting the book of Isaiah. He will divide this large book into the standard three sections commonly used by scholars so that Isaiah 1-39 are rooted in the Assyrian era, Isaiah 40-55 are rooted in the Babylonian era (with 44-45 in the Persian era). Isaiah 55-66 represent the struggles of the post-exilic period in the light of the eschaton. This “metahistory” is derived from the final form of the book regardless of how the book was formed.

The whole book of Isaiah “endeavours to orient the allegiance of its readers around a king, namely YHWH” (13). The first three chapters survey what Isaiah says about God in the three major units of Isaiah. After commenting on a unit in Isaiah, Abernethy offers a few paragraphs on the unit in the canon of Scripture, specifically on how the unit “bears witness to Christ: (29). These brief reflections are intended to be more than sterile “Old Testament in the New” lists. Isaiah 1-39, especially since some of the texts Abernethy uses are not directly cited in the New Testament. For example, there is no direct citation of Isaiah 25:6-8 in the New Testament, but Abernethy finds intertextual allusions or echoes in the Last Supper (cf. Brant Pitre, Jesus and the Last Supper, 448-58 or my Jesus the Bridegroom, 202-4). Other canonical reflections seem strained For example, Abernethy relates Isaiah 36-37 to kingdom language in Matthew, especially the interactions between Jesus and Pilate. This particular example falls well below even a nebulous allusion, although the point may be more clear if this were a monograph on a biblical theology of Kingdom in Matthew.

Chapter 1 reviews the presentation of God as the “king now and to come” (Isaiah 1-39). Abernethy begins with Isaiah’s throne vision to argue that God is the only king and that he is about to render “purifying judgment” on his people (20). In fact, the theme of Isaiah 1-39 can be fairly described as “who is the real king?” The king in Jerusalem is dead, and despite his boasts, Sennacherib is not the true king. The throne vision therefore stands in the center of Isaiah 1-12 in order to throw light on the narrative of Isaiah 1-5 and 7-12 by focusing on the thrice-holy enthroned king. This king will judge the nations and rule from Zion (24:21-23) where he will host a feast for all people, destroying the ultimate enemy, death (25:6-8). This king will reign in beauty, and the eyes of the people will see him (Isaiah 33:17). Abernethy points out this is particularly stirring when read in the light of Isaiah 6. Isaiah sees God and is filled with dread; in Isaiah 33 seeing God is a “vision of hope” (43-4).

In the chapter 2, Abernethy examines Isaiah 40-55 and describes God as the only saving king. Much has happened between Isaiah 39 and 40; Israel has been sent back out into the wilderness and they are to prepare for God’s return. Although it is possible the wilderness is a positive image recalling Israel’s early, pure relationship with God, for Abernethy the wilderness “symbolizes Zion’s destruction” (57). God’s kingly presence will manifest itself as a shepherd king who leads his people out of the dangerous wilderness and back to the good land. Abernethy draws parallels between Isaiah 40:1-11 and 52:7-10, arguing these texts function “to orient our hopes, our desires for comfort, our longings for vindication around the prophetic declarations that God himself is promising to come as king” (65).

In his third chapter, God is “the warrior, international, and compassionate king” (Isaiah 56-66). These chapters are concerned with “eschatological judgment as a collar to salvation” (83), looking forward to a time when God will function as warrior king who will pacify the nations. In order to demonstrate this, Abernethy lays out a chiastic arrangement of 56-66 which sets Isaiah 60-62 in the center. This chapter examines the fourth level of the chiasm, the anticipation of God’s coming salvation (59:15-21) and the final expression of that salvation (63:1-6). The warrior king appears but only sees injustice (59:15a-16), therefore delaying his vindication of his people. When he finally arrives, it is a day of fury and vengeance (63:4-6). Here Abernethy draws a canonical refection to two images of Jesus in the New Testament, first initiating redemption (Luke 1:51) and rendering final judgment (Rev 14:9-11; 19:15-16).

As a conclusion to the first three chapters, Abernethy offers a short theology of kingship in Isaiah (112-17). The recurring themes in Isaiah are seeing the glory of the king, the international king enthroned in Zion; the coordination of judgment and salvation; history and eschatology. These themes are tied to the historical situation of the book (Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian eras) but by the end of the book Isaiah “directs our attention to the eschatological future” (117).

Having surveyed what Isaiah says about the kingship of God, Abernethy devotes chapter 4 to the “lead agents” of the king in each subsection of the book. First, by “lead agent” Abernethy means the character through whom God acts to accomplish salvation and judgment. Although the obvious term to use is “messiah” Abernethy prefers “lead agent” in order to avoid confusion about how Isaiah presents the agent of salvation in each unit of the book. He finds a different lead agent for each of the three units of the book. For Isaiah 1-39, the lead agent is a Davidic ruler who establishes righteousness and justice in the land. In Isaiah 40-55 the lead agent is the Servant who also brings justice to the nations by providing atonement. In Isaiah 56-66 it is the “messenger” of Isaiah 61 who declares God’s salvation at the very beginning of the eschaton.  As Abernethy concedes, most Christian evangelical readers will see all three of these figures as the Messiah, Jesus (169). However, each lead figure functions in their own historical context and are distinct characters from the perspective of the book of Isaiah. The claim of the New Testament is that Jesus takes on all three distinct roles.

Abernethy is content to allow some ambiguity in Isaiah with respect to how these lead agents function as messianic figures. I would suggest the ambiguity explains the variety of messianic expectations in the Second Temple period. If Abernethy is correct and there are at least three lead agents of the eschaton in Isaiah, Second Temple readers of Isaiah seem to have developed one aspect of the coming messiah (such as a Davidic king) and downplayed or missed the others (such as the suffering servant). Early Jewish Christianity may be unique in associating Jesus with all three of the lead agents described by Abernethy.

Finally, chapter 5 concerns “the realm and the people of God’s kingdom.” Abernethy describes Isaiah’s view of the kingdom as “bifocal” since sometimes God’s kingdom is the entire cosmos (40:28) in in other contexts the kingdom is particularized as Zion (65:17). Jerusalem and Zion are a microcosm of the universal kingdom of God (176), and Abernethy refuses to discuss how physical Jerusalem “fits into God’s plan on this side of the cross” (179). Isaiah is clear, however, the people who participate in this future kingdom will be purified and redeemed remnant who are obedient to the King and trust completely in God. The theme of trust is clear in the Ahaz and Hezekiah stories, but Abernethy shows how this theme appears in each of the sections of the boo (Isa 50:10, for example). This kingdom will also be an international community. Abernethy shows that Isaiah 2:2-4 and 66:18-24 frame the book with the prediction that in the latter times Gentiles will be part of God’s kingdom. Although the nations do participate in the eschatological kingdom in some way, I would point out the blood staining the warrior king in Isaiah 63:3 is that of Gentile nations who have opposed God and oppressed his people.

Conclusion. Abernethy contributes an overview of the whole book of Isaiah using the theme of the kingdom of God. Although there are other themes in Isaiah, kingship provides the reader with enough structure to make sense of the massive amount of material in the book of Isaiah. By describing the lead agents of God’s salvation in each unit of the book, Abernethy has provided a useful rubric for understanding how messianic expectations developed in different directions in the Second Temple period.

This is a very readable book for both scholar and layman. Abernethy is clear and structured in his presentation with occasional allusions to pop culture (Batman, the Matrix and Lord of the Rings). Although presenting an important scholarly argument about the book of Isaiah, his canonical reflections have a pastoral interest for the Christian reader. In fact, Abernethy offers two possible teaching outlines in an appendix for use in a small group Bible Study or Sunday School class.

 

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: Stanley E. Porter, The Apostle Paul

Porter, Stanley E. The Apostle Paul: His Life, Thought and Letters. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 487 pp. Pb; $40.   Link to Eerdmans

Stanley Porter’s new introduction to Paul is intended as an updated and reworked version of his Early Christianity and Its Sacred Literature (written with Lee Martin McDonald, Hendrickson, 2000). Porter argues for many traditional views in this book, such as Pauline authorship of all thirteen letters of Paul and the unity of the letters. He rejects pseudonymity as an explanation for the Prison and Pastoral epistles. Since the book is intended for use in the classroom, Porter presents alternative views as well. In addition, he more or less rejects the New Perspective on Paul, offering some sharp criticisms of Sanders and Dunn especially in his discussion of the Law (111-121). Porter has one or two ideas in the book which he considers “new territory” in Pauline studies, such as his belief Paul had seen and heard Jesus during his earthly ministry or that Paul himself was the major force behind collecting his letters.

porter-aposlte-paulThe first part of this book includes six chapters dealing with Paul’s life and letters. There are more issues which could be included in this section, but for the most part these are issues Porter has already written on in the past. Each chapter in this section concludes with a bibliography divided into basic and advanced categories.

In his first chapter, Porter describes “Paul the person” (including appearance, upbringing and education, relationship with Rome, occupation, etc.) Porter evaluates what is usually said about Paul’s background and concludes his associate with Gamaliel is highly likely, although he did not progress far in the Greco-Roman educational system. With respect to citizenship. Porter agrees with Bruce Rapske that it is plausible Paul was a citizen of Rome and a devout Jew at the same time.

There are two problems with this view. First, Paul never refers to his citizenship in his letters and second, Roman citizens would have been required to participate in the imperial cult. Porter points out that Roman citizenship did not require participation in Emperor Worship until the second century and Jews may have been given some level of autonomy which allowed them to avoid this practice. He includes a short section on Paul’s conversion. Although Paul’s experience is similar to a prophetic call, the term conversion is “entirely appropriate to describe what happened to Paul” (31, contra the New Perspective).

Porter covers one additional topic in this section which will be more controversial: Did Paul know Jesus? The consensus view is Paul did not meet Jesus nor hear him preach. Porter claims this is an unwarranted assumption based on 2 Corinthians 5:16. Porter points out that Jesus and Paul lived “intertwined parallel lives.” Since Paul was in Jerusalem and studying as a Pharisee under Gamaliel, it would be remarkable if he had not at least heard about Jesus. Second, Porter thinks Acts and Paul’s letters include claims to having heard Jesus teach. For example, in 1 Corinthians 9:1 Paul states “have I not seen the Lord?”

The consensus view is this prefers to the Damascus Road experience, but Porter calls this “sheer assumption” (35). Since the context concerns the other apostles (who had seen Jesus during his lifetime and after the resurrection), it is possible Paul also refers to seeing Jesus in the same way. He also points out Paul refers to “Jesus our Lord” rather than his more typical “Christ Jesus.”  Porter admits each of his points are “slender threads,” but he concludes it is at least plausible Paul heard Jesus teach (38). For the details of this argument, see Porter’s monograph When Paul Met Jesus: How an Idea Got Lost in History (Cambridge, 2016).

The final issue Porter treats in this chapter is the value of the book of Acts for understanding Paul. The traditional view that Luke was a physician who was a close friend and traveling companion of Paul after Acts 16 has been challenged. There are in fact many chronological details in the letters of Paul which are not reflected in the book of Acts (Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians, for example). He presents five common arguments against the idea the writer of Acts knew Paul and provides an answer for each, concluding that the book of Acts “can be used to reconstruct a fairly coherent chronology of Paul’s life” (44). The writer of Acts was not a disciple of Paul, but he does reinforce the picture of Paul drawn from the letters.

In Chapter 2 Porter develops a Pauline chronology using the letters and the book of Acts. For the most part Porter’s chronology of Paul’s life and ministry is more or less traditional, with the exception of his dating of Galatians for the earliest letter of Paul, prior to the conference in Acts 15. He offers a six-point outline of Paul’s career beginning with his conversion in A.D. 33 and ending with his re-imprisonment in 64-65 and execution as late as 67. He places the letters into this outline, several times if there is significant debate over the date (Galatians, for example). This chapter also includes the evidence for several of Paul’s imprisonments, including Ephesus (not mentioned in Acts) and Corinth (“this view has very little to commend it,” 67). Other than a dismissive footnote, Porter does not interact with the recent contribution by Douglas Campbell’s Framing Paul (Eerdmans 2015).

Chapter 3 discusses potential backgrounds to Paul’s thought. He divides the evidence into two sections, Greco-Roman or Jewish. Porter surveys Paul’s Greco-Roman influence beginning with his use of Greek and epistolary style as well as his contact with the larger Hellenistic world. With respect to his Jewish background, Porter discusses Paul’s interpretation of Scripture (clearly more Jewish than Greek). He includes teaching in synagogues in this section, although this method of ministry is not mentioned in the letters. As Porter points out, this may be in part a result of Paul’s short time doing synagogue ministry in each city, and the fact it often ended in disaster (92).

Porter offers a short survey of Pauline theology in Chapter 4. He divide the material into two categories. First, there are a number of fundamental beliefs Paul clearly holds but does not argue. For example, Paul believes in God, although he does not argue for his existence nor is there a sustained theological statement in the letters on what he believes about God. Porter includes Jesus as messiah as well as Jesus as divine in this category as well. A second category is “developed beliefs.” These are theological beliefs which are developed at greater length than the fundamental beliefs and are consequently the subject of more scholarly debate. For example, Porter includes justification and Paul’s view of the Law under this heading and spends significant space discussing the challenge of the New Perspective on Paul on these two important issues. There are short sections on reconciliation, sanctification, salvation, the triumph of God the gospel, the church, and Jesus’s death and resurrection. Although there are some eschatological ideas in the section on God’s triumph and the resurrection, contemporary interest in Paul’s view of the future should result in a more robust section on Paul as an apocalyptic thinker. Some of this material does appear in the section on 1 Thessalonians, although remarkably there is very little on 2 Thessalonians 2.

Chapter 5 deals with Paul as a letter writer, a topic which has become very popular in recent years. Porter therefore briefly comments on the purposes of the letters and the use of amanuenses, but the main section of the chapter is a short introduction to the form of ancient Greek letters as applied to Paul’s epistles. There are similarities, but also important differences. For example, Paul makes use of paraenesis, “concentrated groups of admonishments regarding Christian behavior” (149), although it is difficult to distinguish how these sections relate to the bod of the letters.

Chapter 6 includes two related topics concerning authorship and the Pauline canon. Porter has written on the topic of pseudonymity in other contexts and concludes rather strongly that pseudonymity was not as commonly accepted in the ancient world as is sometimes claimed, and less so among Christian literature. There are examples of “noble lies” in which a writer attempts to deceive their readers by creating a new letter in the voice of an authority such as Paul, but as Porter points out, even a noble lie is still a lie. In this section he interacts with Bart Ehrman (Forgeries and Counterforgeries, Oxford 2013), concluding that his criteria are “highly subjective and ultimately indecisive” (166). For Porter, the real problem with pseudonymity in the New Testament is the implication of deception both in terms of the author and the audience. For example, if 1 Timothy was not written by Paul to Timothy, then the whole situation of the letter is a deception. Therefore Porter finds it more plausible to accept all thirteen letters as coming from Paul.

The second part of this chapter is likely to be more controversial. Rarely does an introduction to Paul’s letters treat the formation of the Pauline canon in any detail. The standard way of explaining the Pauline collection is a slow evolution of the canon over the 150 years since Paul’s death, perhaps with the final collection occurring after a period of lapsed interest in Paul. On the other hand, there are several competing theories concerning an individual who collected the letters, such as Timothy or a “Pauline school.” For Porter, these suggestions are on the right track, but who better than Paul to select the letters to be collected and circulated in his name? Porter supports his assertion by pointing to the common literary practice of retaining a copy of a letter after it was sent. In this view, Paul retained “official” copies of all this letters, from which he selected some for inclusion in a Pauline corpus. This might account for why some letters such as the Corinthian Correspondence are missing. They have been lost during Paul’s travels, or simply not included by Paul’s own decision (although Porter does not suggest this, the “severe letter” to Corinth could have been omitted by Paul since it was no longer relevant after he was reconciled with the church). Porter has worked out an interesting scenario, although it is built largely on assumptions and silence.

The second part of the book consists of six chapters of introductory material for the Pauline letters in chronological order (Galatians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Corinthians, Romans, the Prison Epistles, and the Pastoral Epistles). Each chapter covers any unique background issues unique to the letter, then Porter summarizes the contents. For example, the north vs. south Galatia theories, the order to 1-2 Thessalonians, the unity of Romans, etc. Each chapter concludes with a basic bibliography divided into commentaries and monographs.

Conclusion. In the introduction to the book, Porter expresses his initial hope that this book would serve as an up-to-date replacement for F. F. Bruce’s Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, although by the time he finished his book it ended up different than Bruce (xi). To a large extent, Porter’s Paul the Apostle is a worthy successor to Bruce’s classic book on Paul. Although he provides a tenacious defense of many traditional views (such as authorship, continuity with Acts), Porter does not simply repeat standard arguments typically found in Pauline introductions. His presentation of alternative views makes this an ideal textbook for a seminary class on Paul’s letters. But the book is written in a clear style which will make in accessible to pastors, teachers or anyone interested in the “state of Pauline studies” today.

 

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

Book Review: J. B. Lightfoot, The Epistles of 2 Corinthians and 1 Peter: A Newly Discovered Commentary

Lightfoot, J. B. The Epistles of 2 Corinthians and 1 Peter: A Newly Discovered Commentary. Edited by Ben Witherington III and Todd D. Still. The Lightfoot Legacy Set 3; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2016. 317 pp Hb; $40.00.   Link to IVP

In the last two years IVP published the first two volumes of newly discovered commentaries by the late nineteenth century scholar J. B. Lightfoot. In the forward to that volume Ben Witherington recounted how he discovered hand-written manuscripts several long-forgotten commentaries J. B. Lightfoot in the spring of 2013. With this commentary on 2 Corinthians and 1 Peter all of manuscripts discovered by Witherington have been published.

lightfoot-corinthainsCompared to the other two volumes in this series, the commentaries on 2 Corinthians or 2 Peter are brief and fragmentary, 2 Corinthians runs about seventy pages and 1 Peter has a twenty page introduction with a mere nineteen pages of commentary with the notes breaking off in 1 Peter 3. Many of the comments on 2 Corinthians are simply textual notes with only a word or two of comment. Chapter 9, for example is about a half-page of text.

Since the commentary is less than 100 pages, the editors have included several additional essays by Lightfoot to round out the volume. As an introduction to 2 Corinthians commentary Lightfoot wrote a “Pauline Prolegomena” on the chronology and context of the letter. The essay interacts with a German text on Pauline chronology by Wieseler published in 1848, although these pages take the form of notes on Wieseler’s work.

Following the 1 Peter commentary are several appendices. The first is an essay on the mission of Titus in 2 Corinthians originally published in The Journal of Sacred and Classical Philology (1885). This essay was originally collected in Biblical Essays (1904, reprinted by Baker, 1979). The second appendix is a reprint or some lectures notes on “St. Paul’s Preparation for Ministry” (1863), also reprinted in Biblical Essays. Appendix three is a sermon preached in 1877 on 2 Corinthians 3:6 entitled “The Letter Killeth but the Spirit Giveth Life.” The sermon was preached at St Paul’s in Cambridge and collected in an 1893 volume.

The fourth appendix reprints “Lessons of History from the Cradle of Christianity.” Witherington had discovered this essay among Lightfoot’s papers, although a later edited version was published in the Durham University Journal in the 1980s. This manuscript was handwritten timed essay, eventually edited and published (and subsequently reprinted in the Durham University Journal in 1987).

Appendix five reprints “The Christian Ministry.” This 90 page essay first appear in Lightfoot’s commentary on Philippians. As Witherington comments in his note, editing this lengthy essay was the last scholarly work undertaken by B. F. Wescott, longtime mentor and friend of Lightfoot. This edition includes several pages of notes from Lightfoot not included in my copy of his Philippians commentary (Zondervan reprint, 1973).

Appendices six and seven essays evaluating the contribution of Lightfoot published in a 1992 Durham University Journal celebrating the centenary of Lightfoot’s death. First, C. K. Barrett’s considers Lightfoot as biblical commentator and James Dunn offers an essay looking back at the influence of Lightfoot, especially his commitment to historical inquiry. Initially this took the form of responding to D. F. Strauss. Lightfoot calls Strauss a “mythicizer” who dismisses the search for historical truth in the biblical records as hopeless. Lightfoot strenuously disagreed and sought to study early Christian with historical rigor, believing there is nothing to fear from the “full light of science and criticism” (cited by Dunn, 307). I find this a less-than-common attitude among conservative biblical scholars more than 100 years after Lightfoot.

Conclusion. When I reviewed the previous volumes in this series, I asked why a modern reader care about a lost commentary written by a scholar who died in 1889? That IVP Academic would be interested in reprinting the notes for commentaries never completed by a scholar who died more than a hundred years ago is a testimony of the influence Lightfoot had on scholarship. That Ben Witherington and Todd Still would devote effort to organize the volumes is a significant testimony to Lightfoot’s long shadow over contemporary biblical studies, even if that influence is not always recognized.

My main criticism of this volume is that these are not newly discovered commentaries, but brief notes which Lightfoot may have later used to write a commentary. The bulk of this book are reprinted essays by Lightfoot and two celebrating his legacy. This does not limit the value of the three volumes of this series published by IVP Academic. The series is a fitting tribute to an important scholar and will serve as worthy introduction of Lightfoot to many younger students of the Bible and early Christianity.

 

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: Jerome, Commentaries on the Twelve Prophets, Volume 1

Scheck, Thomas, ed. Commentaries on the Twelve Prophets: Volume 1, Ancient Christian Texts by Jerome. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2016. Link to IVP

This new contribution to the Ancient Christian Texts series is the first of three volumes collecting Jerome’s commentaries on the twelve Minor Prophets. Jerome (c. 347-419/20) is primarily known for his Latin translation of the Bible (The Vulgate), but he was also a prolific commentator on biblical books. He was thoroughly familiar with Jewish traditions and brought them to bear on his understanding of the Old Testament. Beginning in 379, Jerome used his considerable linguistic skills to translate Origen’s commentaries and, eventually, to translate and comment on Scripture himself.

Image result for Scheck, Thomas, ed. Commentaries on the Twelve Prophets: Volume 1,According to the introduction, in 392 Jerome wrote his commentary on Nahum, the first of his commentaries on the twelve Minor Prophets. In the next year he finished commentaries Micah, Zephaniah, Haggai and Habakkuk, Jonah and Obadiah were completed in 396 following the Originist Controversy. In the mid-390s a petition circulated to have Origen declared a heretic. Although he translated Origen’s work and was an advocate of his work, Jerome signed this petition and became an outspoken opponent of Origen. Scheck says this can be seen by “occasional outbursts” against origin in the commentaries beginning with Jonah. Nevertheless, Jerome possessed Origen’s twenty-five book commentary on the Minor Prophets “which I hug and guard with such joy, that I deem myself to have the wealth of Croesus” (xxii).

The commentaries are presented in the order Jerome wrote them and a table in the introduction identifies the year he completed each commentary (xvi) and a second table includes order of the commentaries along with Jerome’s other commentaries and his translations of Origen. In preparing these commentaries, Jerome used the text of the Hebrew Bible as his main source, but also the LXX and Origin’s commentaries on the Minor Prophets. The translations were originally made by classics students from Ave Maria University under the direction of Thomas Scheck. The original translators are identified at the head of each commentary. Scheck carefully edited these translations into the final form found in this volume.

A key feature of Jerome’s commentaries is his frequent allusion to both the Old and New Testament. These are identified in the notes and virtually every pages of this volume has at least several allusions to biblical texts. As Scheck suggests, Jerome understood as a unity and thought the best commentary on Scripture is Scripture itself (xxiv). Following Jerome’s translation of the Hebrew Bible he usually gives the Septuagint, commenting on any differences. For example, commenting on Zephaniah 2:3-4, Jerome translates the Hebrew “Seek the Lord, all you meek of the earth, you who have worked his judgment, seek the just seek the meek,” and the LXX as “seek the Lord, all the humble of the earth, work judgment and seek justice.” The LXX reading is interpreted as a reference to “no one else by Christ” because everyone who seeks him will find him, citing Matthew 7:8. This is typical of the commentaries, they are thoroughly Christocentric.

An important feature of this volume is the indices. The first collects references in the text (and footnotes) to historical allusions (the Ebionites, Origen, etc.) or to other translations (Symmachus and Theodotion, for example).  There are about ten pages ion the Scripture including allusions to Sirach.

Aside from historical interests, what is the value of reading a 1600 year old commentary on the Minor Prophets? There are a number of allegorical interpretations which attempt to focus a text on Christ or the church which seem to go well beyond the results of a grammatical historical method. For example, commenting on Haggai 2:19-20, Jerome take the pomegranate as a reference to the church. In order to make this point, he alludes to the Song of Solomon 8:1, the bride’s cheeks are compared to a pomegranate and the bride in the Song is allegorical interpreted as the Church. The olive tree in Haggai 2:20 refers to the illumination of Scripture, presumably because olive oil was used in lamps. Modern interpreters would be content to (correctly) read Haggai 2:19-20 as a reference to prosperity returning to the land (when pomegranates and olive trees will flourish again).

This may be an extreme example, but Jerome’s method of reading a given text alongside other texts is a kind of Christological intertextuality which flattens the canon and often creates observations which would be ignored by the traditional grammatical historical method. Perhaps there is good reason to draw two or three texts together as Jerome does, but sometimes the interpretations are strained beyond what my modern mind can bear.

Nevertheless, IVP Academic is to be applauded for once again providing these commentaries to English readers. Like other volumes in the series, the book itself is well-designed and reader friendly.

 

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.

The Problem of Sacred Days and Clean Foods – Romans 14:5-9

In Romans 14 Paul is trying to guide congregations to preserve the unity of the body of Christ despite having a wide variety of views on some practices. He mentions two in particular, considering some days sacred and eating some types of foods.

Esteeming one day over another may refer to when the Roman congregations chose to gather. The natural assumption is Jewish Christian congregations continued to worship on the Sabbath. Primarily Gentile congregations met whenever they could, apparently settling on Sunday, the day Jesus rose from the dead.

Image result for bacon wrapped cheeseburgerEating and abstaining may refer to Jewish food taboos. Again, when a primarily Jewish congregation shared a meal, the food would have been purchased and prepared with attention to cleanliness (i.e., not meat sacrificed to idols, nothing forbidden in Leviticus), etc. Primarily Gentile congregations may not have adopted Jewish food laws, accepting all foods as clean after one gives things for the Lord for the food. However, it is likely some Gentiles did choose to avoid food sacrificed to idols.

What matters for Paul is living one’s life “for the Lord” and not for ourselves. This means the one who is in Christ (a living sacrifice, one who is living in a way that promotes unity in the body of Christ), ought to voluntarily set aside preferences in deference to others.

Voluntarily setting something aside is the key to understanding the principle Paul wants to establish here. Like Jesus, who set aside certain rights he had as a member of the Godhead in order to become human (Phil 2:5-6), so to the member of the body of Christ in the present age must set aside their privileges the may legitimately be owed in order to preserve the unity of the Body of Christ.

Paul is not discussion sinful practices, but what are often called preferences. He is not talking about Gentiles visiting a prostitute (as he is in 1 Corinthians 6), since that is a practice incompatible with being a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. This is the nature of the strong/weak in this passage: the person with weak faith considers eating food to be a mark of spirituality and therefore breaking those convictions would be a sin.

Does this only work one direction? A person who does not eat unclean food cannot “give up” their preferences and eat unclean food to make a Gentile feel comfortable? For example, if a person today is a vegetarian, can they “give up their conviction” and share meat with someone who eats meat? If I were to share a meal with a Seventh-Day Adventist, for example, I would have no problem eating any food they served. But they may have a serious problem eating something I serve. If I have a meal in an Israeli hotel, it is far easier for me to eat kosher than to insist on my rights and have the kitchen make me a bacon-wrapped cheeseburger.

It is far easier for the meat-eater to give up their conviction and eat only vegetables. This is certainly true on a physical level. But more importantly, with respect to convictions, the meat-eater is not violating a principle of their faith, but the vegetarian would be “sinning” with respect to their own world view.

There is a clear application of this principle for the modern church. First, I think there are some easy examples: If a member of congregation prefers one style of music for worship, they ought to be able to set that preference aside in order to reach people for Jesus Christ.

But I can imagine other situations which would make some Christians more uncomfortable. Could a pastor drink a beer with someone in order to not make a beer drinking member of their congregation comfortable? What about a pastor trying to reach a person in the south who is offered a wad of chewing tobacco. Could they accept the offer without violating their conscience? It is critically important to observe Paul is talking about practices which are not important for salvation in the present age nor is he talking about sinful practices (even if the weaker brother thinks they might be).

As I said in the previous post, both the weak and the strong are believers, and both are welcome in Christian worship and fellowship. For Paul, these are not matters to divide churches or break fellowship over. What are some problems you have encountered trying to find the right balance between preferences in local congregations?

Who are the Weak and Strong in Romans 14?

strong-and-weakAlthough it is possible Paul includes this section as a general commentary on how Jews and Gentiles ought to get along in mixed congregations, it is likely he has heard something about a specific conflict in the house churches in Rome. He describes some of the believers as weak and others as strong and admonishes the strong to not pass judgment on the weak.

Who are the “strong and weak” in this passage?

Most commonly, the “weak” are legalists and the “strong” are those that are not trying to “earn” status by their good works. This view has been eroded by the New Perspective on Paul, since it may not be the case that Jews in the first century say themselves as earning their salvation.

After surveying several options, Cranfield concludes the weak are those who desire to continue to observe the ceremonial law of the Old Testament. If this is the case, it is a similar situation to the Gentiles in Galatia who are being encouraged to fully convert to Judaism in order to follow Jesus.

It is possible this weak/strong discussion is an extension of the “meat sacrificed to idols” problem in 1 Corinthians, as suggested by Mark Reasoner. If so, then the weak might be the Jew, and the strong the Gentile. This suggestion has some merit since Paul wrote Romans from Corinth after the period of conflict had come to a close (after 2 Corinthians). It is possible his experience with the Corinthian believers colors his comments to the Romans who may be struggling with similar issues.

Jewett draws attention to a brief exchanged in Horace in which one character does not wish to speak on the Sabbath because he is “a small man of weakness, one of many” (Jewett, Romans, 834; Horace Sat. 1.9.67–72). Reasoner used this line to argue “the person excessively observant in a foreign religion who matched the ‘weak’ caricature was known to Horace’s audience.” (Reasoner, 54).

What has always impressed me about this passage is that Paul never really says the weak are Jewish and the Gentiles are the strong. That may be what Paul is saying, but our post-Reformation reading of the text tends to obscure Paul’s subtle rhetoric. It is possible a Jewish Christian might hear “we who are strong ought to bear the failings of the weak” (Rom 15:1) as meaning, “we Jews who are strong and keep the law properly ought not to look down on the weak Gentiles who have not fully understood the Gospel yet.” But it is also possible a Gentile would hear Paul saying “We strong Gentiles who fully understand the grace of God should not look down on these weak Jews who insist on Old Covenant practices.”

Regardless of the practices of the weak, their faith is sufficient for Paul to consider them to be Christians. He does not tell the Roman congregations to expel them from the church like the young man in 1 Corinthians 5, nor does he admonish them like he the wealthy in 1 Corinthians 11:17-22. Both the weak and the strong are Christians and equally a part of the Christian community. Both are equally welcome at a communal meal where the Lord’s Table is being celebrated.

This issue has important ramifications for Christian fellowship in the present church. Churches often draw lines where they should not, or fail to draw lines when they should. Are there people who are often excluded from fellowship because of some practice (or non-practice)?

Bibliography: Mark Reasoner, The Strong and the Weak: Romans 14:1-15:13 in Context (SNTSMS 103; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).