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Today is the day I pick a winner for a new copy of Gerald McDermott’s recent book, Israel Matters: Why Christians Must Think Differently about the People and the Land (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2017). The contest opened a week ago, and only 13 people signed up (there were more comments, but I allowed only one entry per person). I took each of your names, sorted randomly and then pasted them into Excel. gave me a number between 1-13, and the winner is…..

Colin Aitken 

Congrats to Colin, please contact me via email (plong42 at gmail .com) or direct message @plong42 with your mailing address and I will ship the book to you ASAP. Better luck next time for the rest of you.


I have not given away a book on Reading Acts in a while, but a giveaway is a good way to overcome the summer blogging malaise.  I recently reviewed Gerald McDermott’s recent book, Israel Matters: Why Christians Must Think Differently about the People and the Land (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2017).  I ended up with two copies, so I am offer a copy to a reader of this blog.

From my review:

Gerald McDermott edited a volume of essays on the status of Israel in the current age (The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land, InterVarsity Press, 2016). The volume included essays by two scholars associated with progressive dispensationalism (Darrell bock and Craig Blaising), two writers associated with the Philos Project (an organization which promotes positive Christian engagement in the Middle East, Robert Nicholson and Shadi Khallou), two writers who edited an Introduction to Messianic Judaism (Zondervan, 2013; Joel Willitts and David Rudolph). This new volume by Brazos Press is an attempt to present the ideas of this previous work at a popular level.

To have a chance at winning these books, leave a comment with your name so I can contact you if you win. I will randomize the names from the comments and select one winner at random.

I will announce the winner picked at random on June 21, 2017.

McDermott, Gerald R. Israel Matters: Why Christians Must Think Differently about the People and the Land. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2017. 158 pp.; Pb.; $17.90  Link to Brazos Press

Gerald McDermott edited a volume of essays on the status of Israel in the current age (The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land, InterVarsity Press, 2016). The volume included essays by two scholars associated with progressive dispensationalism (Darrell bock and Craig Blaising), two writers associated with the Philos Project (an organization which promotes positive Christian engagement in the Middle East, Robert Nicholson and Shadi Khallou), two writers who edited an Introduction to Messianic Judaism (Zondervan, 2013; Joel Willitts and David Rudolph). This new volume by Brazos Press is an attempt to present the ideas of this previous work at a popular level.

In the introduction to this book, Dermott traces his move from the traditional view that the church has replaced Israel as God’s people to what he calls “New Zionism.” He indicates his theological training convinced him the Church is the new Israel and any protests to that position came from Dispensationalism in the 1970s. Unfortunately, the Dispensationalism McDermott encountered argued for two separate ways of salvation (one for Israel, one for the church) and McDermott was repelled by popular Dispensational emphases on fulfillment of prophecy and predicting the rapture. In his previous volume, McDermott argued strenuously what he calls New Christian Zionism pre-dates the origins of Dispensationalism. This is clearly true; one of the keys for the development of dispensational theology was the rejection of replacement theology, opening up the possibility Old Testament prophecy about Israel could be (literally) fulfilled in the future.

As he began to study the New Testament, he encountered many texts which implied God still loved Israel and there was some kind of an anticipated future for Israel. This caused him to question some of the training he received in theology. His theological training had uncritically assumed the historic replacement theology of the church. In his first chapter (“Getting the Big Story Wrong”), McDermott traces this history of supersessionism through the early church (Justin Martyr. Irenaeus, and Origin) through the reformation, deism, and nineteenth century rationalism.

Chapters 2-5 deal with the biblical data on Israel. First, McDermott deals with the claim that the New Testament teaches the church is the New Israel. Despite the fact the New Testament does not expressly teach replacement theology, any church history will show many in the early church did in fact see the church as a new Israel and often spiritualized the promises of the Old Testament in order to make the applicable to the church. McDermott covered this history in the first chapter of the book, but in the third chapter he tracks “those who got it right.”

Chapters 4 and 5 examine the Old and New Testaments in order to show God’s plan has always been to bring salvation to the world through Israel. Despite Israel’s rejection of God in the Old Testament and the Messiah in the Gospels, God’s plan still includes a future for Israel in the Land. McDermott has correctly recognized the importance of Peter’s sermons in Acts 2-3, especially the promise of the “times of refreshing” Acts 3:19 (first in the introduction, then several more times in the book, p. 75 for example). I have written on this passage in the past, including how this phrase resonates with themes in the Second Temple period. In addition, I consider this to be one of the key texts for understanding what is happening theologically in the book of Acts

Chapter 6 deals with a political objections to McDermott’s New Zionism, “What about the Palestinians?” In this chapter he offers a brief overview of the emergence of Israel over the past hundred years beginning with the British Mandate. This is the least satisfying chapter in the book, and perhaps McDermott would have been better off omitting this material from the book. It seems to me this overview is far too brief to deal with the complexity of the issue and will leave him open to criticism from those who are less positive about Israel’s recent political history. McDermott is quite clear (and correct) that properly understanding Israel’s place in history does not mean uncritical acceptance of the modern political State of Israel, nor would he agree with the strange American evangelical relationship with  the State of Israel (usually having something to do with 1948 as the fulfillment of prophecy). But I do think his description of modern Israel and its relationship with Palestine will the main thing some readers will criticize about this book.

Chapter 7 deals with the status of the New Covenant in the present age. A traditional reading of Hebrews 8:13 argues the New Covenant cancels the Old Covenant, so that the Jewish people under that Old Covenant are no longer God’s special people. At the cross they are replaced by the Church and the Law has come to an end (at least Paul seems to think so). McDermott rejects the older dispensational idea of two new covenants, one for the Jews and one for the church, as well he should. McDermott points out Hebrews says the Law is passing away, not that it was abrogated at the cross. Paul’s point, for McDermott, is that the Law has a new meaning since the Messiah has come, not that the Law has been cancelled.

McDermott turns to a few practical of his new Zionism in chapter 8 (”If All This Is True, Then What?”) He presents this material through the eyes of the senior pastor of his church, Mark Graham. As result of several trips to Israel and continued dialogue with McDermott, Graham has begun to read the Bible with Jewish culture and history in mind. This may be as simple as realizing (and teaching) that the Greek word Christ ought to be understood as messiah, But Graham has made a conscious effort to preach more out of the Old Testament and as a result, he has rethought his understanding of church history and theology. McDermott offers one compelling example of this shift it theological thinking. McDermott includes section here on rethinking the Israel-Palestinian conflict (which is pro-Israel).

As a short conclusion to the book, McDermott offers six proposals based on the observations in this book. First, he thinks the church can see itself in Israel. By ignoring the first two-thirds of salvation history, the church misunderstands God. Second, the history of redemption is ongoing in the sense that the present ages is not the last stage in God’s redemptive plan. This implies (third) that prophecy is real, although it is mysterious. This means contemporary interprets ought to be wary of declaring the present State of Israel is a fulfillment of prophecy. Fourth, the land promises to Israel will be fulfilled in the future, Fifth, Israel and the church are “joined at the hip” even if neither side is aware of it. Sixth, the history of the treatment Jews shows is the “mystery of iniquity.”

By way of conclusion, unlike McDermott, I was never part of a replacement theology tradition, so much of what is presented in this book sounds very familiar from two very different directions. First, McDermott has read N. T. Wright extensively and has picked up on some of the best elements of his presentation of Jesus and Paul, as well as the now popular idea of the “drama of redemption.” Although written at the popular level, there is significant substance behind the argument of this book.

Second, many of the ideas presented in this book are familiar to anyone who has read dispensationalism beyond the cartoon parody of the Left Behind crowd. Dispensationalism started with the observation that the Old Testament prophecies concerning Israel remained unfulfilled and it was not satisfied by declaring these prophecies as fulfilled in the modern church. It is this ecclesiological observation (the church is not a new Israel) which was Dispensationalism’s important contribution to the theological discussion and led to re-reading Old Testament prophecy as predicting a real restoration of Israel in the future (a radical idea in 1900!) McDermott could include some Dispensationalists in his collection of people who “got it right.”

McDermott’s book is a very simple introduction to a very complex problem. He touches on issues which merit far more detail (perhaps their own monograph). That lack of detail will frustrate some readers, but would go well beyond McDermott’s goal of presenting the case for a New Zionism in a simple, straightforward fashion.

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

Peckham, John C. The Love of God: A Canonical Model. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2015. 297 pp.; Pb.; $32.00   Link to IVP

Peckham’s 2012 dissertation at Andrews University was published as The Concept of Divine Love in the Context of the God-World Relationship (Studies in Biblical Literature 159; Peter Lang, 2013). The Love of God: A Canonical Model covers much of the same ground in an attempt to find a way between a classic theological view of God’s love which stresses the transcendence of God’s love and process theology which stresses the immanence of God’s love.

Peckham labels the classic view of God as the Transcendent-Voluntarist model. God is so utterly separate from creation he is completely free (voluntarism) and therefore depends on nothing (aseity) nor is he affected by anything (impassability). The Process theology alternative he labels the Immanent-Experientialist model (following Charles Hartshorne). Here God’s love is a divine sympathy because God is in the world and utterly affected by his creation.

In order chart the course between these two extremes, Peckham proposes a “canonical method” which answers five key questions. By canonical method, Peckham means he will engage in grammatical-historical exegesis of the text of the whole Bible. Although he does in fact engage in philosophical discussions of love and the nature of God, he does so from the foundation of what the Bible actually says. It is possible to discuss the nature of God without taking the text of the Bible into account at all, but Peckham grounds his theological proposals in canonical exegesis. By reading inductively across the canon, the scholar can develop minimal theological statements which are open to further expansion and clarification (a theological-spiral). He has discussed aspects of this method in a series of journal articles and a recent monograph (Canonical Theology, Eerdmans, 2016).

This method is used to answer five questions. First, Does God choose to fully love only some, or love all, or is he essentially related to all so that he necessarily loves all? Although this question sounds as though he will enter into a classic Calvinist vs. Arminian debate, he manages to avoid those categories by sticking to his canonical method. He does land somewhere between those two poles as the book develops, but he is less interested placing his view of God’s love in a theological pigeon-hole.

Second, does God only bestow value, or can he also receive value from his creation? Process theology argues that God feels all feelings, a kind of universal sympathy that allows him to love in a real sense. Classical theology resists this since “all feelings” include both love and sadism (for example), and seems to erode the classic theological views of God’s omnipotence and immutability. This was certainly a problem in recent years among evangelicals who developed Hartshorne’s process theology within Arminianism. The so-called “openness of God” debates generated dozens of books for evangelical publishers, Peckham only rarely touches on this literature because his interest is in the canonical data.

Third, Does God’s love include affection, desire, or enjoyment? In other words, his is love merely agape love, or can he experience eros, enjoyable love? In order to make this question make sense, Peckham includes an excellent chapter on the meaning of agape and eros in order to avoid confusion caused by popular preaching on God’s love. Classical theology views the suffering, emotional God of Process theology as weak and hardly a god at all! As Peckham points out in his chapter on this question, it is difficult to read the book of Hosea without hearing the real affection and love God has for his people.

Fourth, is divine love unconditional or unconditional? This question comes the closest to the classic Calvinist vs. Arminian debate, although once again Peckham is able to keep ought of the fight by attending to the details of the text. Does God respond to humans in some way, or is there something within God that requires him to love? Peckham finds room for both unconditional and conditional love because there is a real tension between these two positions in the Bible (210) and there are clear subjective and objective aspects of God’s love.

Fifth, can God and humans be involved in an asymmetrical reciprocal relationship? The classic view of God’s love seems unilateral and one-way while the Process view seems too sloppy, God loves everyone, a view which would naturally lead to universalism. Peckham deals with this issue by observing that the ideal relationship between God and his creation is reciprocal, but God is the more-faithful partner in the relationship.

Peckham’s responses to each of these questions form the main section of this book. He surveys all of the relevant texts (although the massive details are found in his The Concept of Divine Love in the Context of the God-World Relationship) and concludes God’s love is volitional, evaluative, emotional, foreconditional and ideally reciprocal.

These terms are fairly transparent with the exception of foreconditional, a term Peckham coins in order to convey God’s love as freely bestowed prior to conditions but not exclusive of conditions (192). In addition, foreconditional love includes prevenient, unmerited love. Although buried in a footnote, Peckham points out that conditionality should not to be confused with merit (194, note 17). The Bible constantly indicates divine love is conditional on a human response. Here Peckham has John 14:23 in mind, where Jesus states “if anyone loves me my Father will love him.” A condition is stated, although the one who does love the Son does not by that action merit God’s love. In fact, the conditionality of God’s love means God’s love can be forfeited. Jesus has compassion on the crowds, but the crowds refuse to respond to his message.

By way of conclusion, I would observe that traditional Calvinists will find much in Peckham’s book which is challenging and corrective. But I suspect they will remain unconvinced of some aspects of Peckham’s description of God’s love because he falls too far from the theological commitments of classic Reformed theology. This is a book rich in detail which takes the Scripture seriously and is not distracted by the need to defend an entrenched post-Reformation position.

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.

Published on June 4, 2017 on Reading Acts.

Hays, Richard B. and Stefan Alkier, eds. Revelation and the Politics of Apocalyptic Interpretation. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2015. 239 pp.; Hb.; $29.95  Link to Baylor

This collection of essays are the result of an interdisciplinary conference hosted by Duke University in October 2010. Hays and Alkier hosted the conference and the papers were revised to include insights from subsequent discussion of the topics at the conference. In the introduction to the volume, Hays lists five important developments which contribute to a shift in hermeneutical thinking on the book of Revelation. First, scholarship has learned a great deal about the diversity in Jewish apocalyptic thought in recent years. Second, the work of Käsemann, Beker and Martyn have highlighted the importance of apocalyptic thinking on the theology of the New Testament. Third, New Testament scholarship is beginning to ask important questions about how the book of Revelation opposes the Roman imperial order. These questions have far-reaching implications for theological and political movements in the modern world. Fourth, the continued development of canonical hermeneutics has raised questions about Revelation as the final book of the New Testament canon. Fifth, biblical studies has continued to develop the practice of intertextual interpretation. As the final book of the canon, Revelation is a “parade example of intertextual text production” (5). Each of the papers in this collection address these issues in various ways.

In a diverse collection such as this, it is important to find points of broad agreement. Hays offers six points of convergence represented by these papers. First, Revelation is to be read as poetic symbolism rather than literal prediction. In fact, a literal prediction method can only lead to disastrous misinterpretations. Second, the symbolism of Revelation is understood best in its intertextual relationship to the Hebrew Bible. Third, the message of Revelation is Christological, depicting Jesus as both crucified and triumphant. Fourth, the book of Revelation calls on its readers to follow Christ’s example through a countercultural, suffering witness to the one God. Fifth, in Revelation there is no separation between the spiritual and political spheres. Finally, points forward to the future hope of God’s triumphant justice. This is the healing of the present world, not its destruction (7-8).

As might be assumed from these points of convergence, the writers in this volume are reacting against overly-literal readings of Revelation which have generated popular fantasy novels and fruitless predictions of impending doom (whether this is the rise of the antichrist or the imminent rapture of the church and the beginning of the tribulation). For the most part these popular interpretations are simply ignored, only Marianne Meye Thompson brings up dispensationalism, and then only in its most lurid form, Hal Lindsey and The Late Great Planet Earth. Her critiques of dispensationalism are fair and she correctly understands dispensationalism as a kind of theological interpretation of Scripture, although one that misunderstands literal interpretation and cut itself off from a cultural understanding of the first century by ignoring the history of interpretation of the book of Revelation (156-7).

She is correct, but she is also engaging with classic dispensationalism rather than the hermeneutical approach progressive dispensationalism. If Hays’s six points of convergence were opened up for discussion at a gathering of academic dispensationalists, all six would be accepted with very little discussion. The challenge would be finding a group of academics willing to self-identify as dispensationalists.

Michael J. Gorman’s introductory chapter (“What Has the Spirit Been Saying? Theological and Hermeneutical Reflections on the Reception/Impact History of the Book of Revelation”). He begins with a classification system plotting interpretations on Revelation along a temporal axis (past, present, future) and a textual strategy (text as code, text as lens). This helps explain the wide variety of interpretations found in Revelation studies (one cannot plot interpretations of Proverbs or Romans on a similar chart). In addition, the highly intertextual nature of Revelation creates a “perfect storm for polyvalence” (20). Gorman then offers seven theses for reading Revelation which emphasize theological interpretation of Scripture, intertextuality and reception history as safeguards from an over-literal, fantastic interpretations. I am not persuaded that Revelation implies the “necessity of something like the fourfold sense of Scripture” (28), but it is true interpretation of any text requires multiple reading strategies (hermeneutical methods, etc.)

Picking up on the thread of intertextuality, Steve Moyise contributes an essay on “Models for Intertextual Interpretation of Revelation.” Moyise has written extensively on the issue of intertextuality in Revelation and provides a “state of the question” in this article. He surveys suggestions for John’s rhetorical purposes from George Caird, Jeff Vogelsesang, Alison Jack, and Robert Royalty as well as suggestions focusing on John’s intertexts from Greg Beale and Richard Bauckham among others. As he concludes, the use of intertextual methods are “permissive rather than prescriptive,” calling for humility when approaching the complexity of the text of Revelation (44-5).

As a specific example, Thomas Hieke discusses “The Reception of Daniel 7 in the Revelation of John.” This detailed study surveys how Daniel 7 was used in early Jewish literature and in the some twenty-one examples in the book of Revelation. He concludes that an intensive knowledge of the text of Daniel 7 leads directly to a better understanding of Revelation (65).

Richard Hays examines the Christology of Revelation in his essay “Faithful Witness, Alpha and Omega: The Identity of Jesus in the Apocalypse of John.” After surveying somem of the data in the book, he suggests a Christological study of Revelation shows the necessity of an intertextual interpretation which demands a canonical approach to the book. Many of Revelation’s Christological assertions are allusions to the Hebrew Bible, so that the whole canon is in view. As an example Hays points to Isaiah 53:7, like a lamb led to slaughter.

Joseph L. Mangina’s contribution (“God, Israel, and Ecclesia in the Apocalypse”) takes the stars and lampstands in Revelation 1 as a starting point to discuss the church as a messianic Israel shaped by God’s and the Lamb’s victory (94). He observes the curious problem that the word ecclesia is absent from Revelation 4-22, and solves the problem by arguing John reserves the term for the audience of the book (the churches of Asia or subsequent generations of the church). The image of the 144.000 “trade on images from the exodus” and display the destiny of Israel in the messianic era (96), but this too is part of Revelation’s vision for the nations.

N. T. Wright discusses “Political Implications of the Revelation to John.” He begins with the observation that Revelation tells the same story as all four gospels tell, that “Jesus of Nazareth, Israel’s Messiah, conquered the power of evil through his death and became the lord of this world” (122). In order to hear this story clearly, Wright reads Revelation 12-14 as a symbolic challenge to Rome. Wright argues Nero is the beast in Revelation 13, but “the real problem is not Nero but that which Nero, for the moment, embodies and expresses” (115). This evil “empire” will emerge in different guises at different times, and what must be opposed by the church at all times. Remarkably, Wright states clearly this anti-empire reading of Revelation does not support either left-wing liberalism or right-wing conservatism. The ground of Christian hope is not in politics, but in our responsibility to bear witness to the world’s true Lord, Jesus (124).

Stefan Alkier also addresses the politics of Revelation in his “Witness or Warrior? How the Book of Revelation Can Help Christians Live Their Political Lives.” Alkier argues against unnamed “violent fundamentalists” who want to take the book of Revelation as an “exhortation to battle” (126). These remain nebulous in the essay, perhaps this is an unnecessary straw man which distracts from an otherwise well-made point. For Alkier, argues Revelation enables its readers to become and stay witnesses, not warriors (127). He supports this by careful attention to the rhetoric of the book and exploring the intertextual relationships within the text. For example, there are clear allusions in Revelation to the book of Joel as well as similarities in macrostructure. As in Joel, Revelation sees God as the destroyer of enemies, not the people of God. Rather than violent response to the empire, vengeance should be left to God (140).

Tobias Nicklas contributes a canonical study of Revelation (“The Apocalypse in the Framework of the Canon”). He begins by arguing Revelation is a third-generation Christian text which stands at the end of the canon and in many ways draws themes from virtually the whole canon. For example, Revelation’s attitude toward state/society questions are a foil to Romans 13 and other passage which led to Tertullian’s prayer for the Empire or Jesus’s somewhat ambiguous view of the empire in Mark 12:13-17. By describing the empire as a satanically empowered dragon the book of Revelation highlights the danger of compromise (147).

Finally, Marianne Meye Thompson presents a study using a theological interpretation model in order to tease out implications for church life today (“Reading What Is Written in the Book of Life: Theological Interpretation of the Book of Revelation Today”). In addition to my comments above on Thompson’s article, she contributes an excellent series of theses on the theology of the book. For example, she says “if Revelation were a sermon, then the biblical text it expounds would not be a prophetic prediction, but the first commandment: ‘You shall have no other gods before me’” (167).  Revelation is a book about worship which Thompson suggestions could be read as a graphic apocalyptic version of Romans 12 (169).

Conclusion. The nine essays in this book do not all address the topic promised by the title of the volume. The title implies the collection is on anti-imperial readings of Revelation, but only two essays directly address that topic. The volume is nevertheless a valuable collection of essays on Revelation.

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

Bockmuehl, Markus. Ancient Apocryphal Gospels. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2017. 344 pp.; Hb.; $40.00  Link to Westminster

This new contribution to the Interpretation Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Early Church limits itself to apocryphal Gospels. Bockmuehl states in his introductory chapter his approach is both accessible and nonsensational (29), in contrast other recent books which describe this literature as suppressed by the establishment and containing secrets threatening the very fabric of institutionalized Christianity. As Bockmuehl states, it is remarkable that none of these Gospel-like texts provide an alternative narrative to the canonical Gospels. Nor were they suppressed from the canon, they were never part of any canon in the first place (228). In fact, he concludes that on a minority of the texts surveyed in this introduction intended to explicitly subvert or displace the fourfold canonical Gospels (233) and they do not appear to have been widely read (235). This is a reasonable and judicious assessment of the apocryphal gospels.

In the first chapter Bockmuehl provides some orientation to how Gospels were read in the early church. He acknowledges some plurality in the early church, but he asserts this did not detract “from the surprisingly early appearance of a widely acknowledged core of the fourfold gospel narrative in both the East and West” (14). Evidence for this early acceptance is the cross-referencing within the Gospels themselves (and I would add the many potential allusions to Jesus tradition in the epistles) as well as the early citation of the canonical gospels alongside the Old Testament as Scripture before A.D. 100.

Bockmuehl resists the temptation to label these documents as Gnostic since “Gnosticism is a potentially misleading modern analytic construct” (20). Nor does Bockmuehl think there was a widespread suppression of these documents by increasingly orthodox Christianity seeking to limit access to potentially heretical and secret writings. Certainly some church writers sought to blacklist non-canonical gospels, but Bockmuehl points out this did very little and it was not until well after the sixth century the church had power to make these apocryphal texts go away (27).

What is an apocryphal gospel? Some of these gospels were found among the many thousands of documents found at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. This massive collection included the Gospel of Thomas and fragments of the gospels of Mary, Peter and James. Other apocryphal gospels were found as part of the Nag Hammadi collection. Thirteen leather bound books were discovered in Egypt in 1945 and were once considered to be examples of Gnostic texts from the library of the nearby St. Pachomius monastery and discarded in the graveyard as canonical boundaries were established in the fourth century. Bockmuehl points out there are several improbabilities with this popular theory and suggests the manuscripts were an “eclectic collection of privately commissioned copies buried as part of the owner’s grave goods” (17).

After cataloging the many texts which might be considered to be an apocryphal gospel (ie. having something to do with Jesus), Bockmuehl suggest four categories: infancy, ministry, passion, and resurrection.

Chapter two discusses the two infancy Gospels of James and Thomas, summarizing the content of each and offering a section on the influence of each of these sources on the Christmas story. The Infancy Gospel of James has had a great influence on how the church thinks about the first of Jesus, although few Protestants are aware of this. In addition to the two well-known infancy gospels, Bockmuehl catalogs another eight lesser-known texts known from translations (for example, the Arabic Infancy Gospel, known from two Arabic and three Syriac manuscripts). The existence of these infancy gospels indicates the church began to emphasize the role of Mary very early and fill-in some gaps in the canonical gospels.

In chapter three Bockmuehl covers what he calls “fragmentary ministry gospels.” Beginning with Q, he outlines the development of sayings gospels especially among early Jewish Christianity. Some of these narrative gospels are lost, such as the Gospel according to the Hebrews, the Gospel according to the Nazoreans, and the Gospel according to the Ebionites. Although these gospels were known to ancient writers, nothing has been preserved. This chapter also includes Marcion’s edited gospel (which he claimed to be a recovery of the true gospel) and Tatian’s Diatessaron, an early harmony of the four canonical Gospels.

More promising is the Papyrus Egerton 2. This manuscript dates to about A.D. 200 and was discovered in 1935. It contains five non-canonical episodes from the life of Jesus including encounters between Jesus and Jewish opponents. For some scholars, this gospel represents an early, more Jewish form of Christianity in the Johannine tradition, but Bockmuehl is more cautious based on the lack of evidence for the circulation of the fragments (108-09). After surveying the contents of a number of other papyri fragments, Bockmuehl briefly discusses the Secret Gospel of Mark (a highly questionable text which may in fact be a forgery) and the Abgar Legend.

Chapter four reviews several passion gospels, with pride of place going to the Gospel of Peter. Crossan and others have argued the Gospel of Peter predates the New Testament and contributed to the shape of the canonical gospels, but this view has fallen into disfavor (140). The book was originally discovered in 1887 as part of a parchment codex dated between the sixth and ninth century (the Akhmim Codex). Although photographed in 1981, the manuscript is not missing from the Cairo museum (138). The Gospel of Peter contains some striking imagery of the cross and resurrection, perhaps accounting for the popularity of the book in antiquity. After surveying some of the scholarly debate about the book, Bockmuehl suggestions the Gospel of Peter represents “an appropriation and relecture of protocanonical synoptic tradition, not necessarily in written form” (144), placed into the mouth of Peter perhaps as a stamp of authority (146).

The fifth chapter collects what Bockmuehl calls “post-resurrection discourse gospels,” including the gospels of Thomas, Philip, Mary, Judas, Bartholomew and the Epistle of the Apostles. Of these, the 114 sayings in the Gospel of Thomas are by far the most significant because many are similar to the canonical Gospels, although with significant differences. This has led to a “booming industry” for critical studies of the Gospel of Thomas (170). Bockmuehl discusses two important questions, first, “is it a gospel” (Bockmuehl says it is a gospel but not a bios) and second, is it Gnostic? Here Bockmuehl concludes the book is not “properly Gnostic” but it certainly went on to become so (178).

The Gospel of Philip is equal in importance to the Gospel of Thomas, but has received less attention. The document is sometimes described as a “tract about rituals” including baptism and anointing (188) even if it stands in contrast to emerging Christian orthodoxy. Bockmuehl suggests the Gospel of Philip represents the “excerpted summary of the teachings of a gnostic preacher or catechist” (189).

This chapter also includes sections on the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Judas, two texts which have been the subject of headlines in recent years. With respect to the first, Bockmuehl says “we can safely conclude the Gospel of Mary tells us nothing about the closeted sexual life of Jesus or about a primitive radical feminist message suppressed by the later catholic church” (203). With respect to the Gospel of Judas, Bockmuehl cites Foster approvingly: the book is a “bitter satire of apostolic Christianity” (209).

Conclusion. Bockmuehl contributes a useful introduction to apocryphal gospels which avoids the kind of sensationalism which often accompanies books on non-canonical documents. The glossary of technical terms and extensive bibliography makes this an excellent introduction to the apocryphal gospels.

The Westminster John Knox Press website has a 53 page sample PDF which includes the front matter and the entire first chapter of the

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

Connelly, Douglas. Seven Letters to Seven Churches. Lifeguide® Bible Studies. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2017. Pb; 64 pp; $9  Link to IVP

Seven Letters to Seven ChurchesInterVarsity Press sent me a copy of this short Bible Study for the Letters to the Seven Churches found in Revelation 2-3. There are eight chapters in all since the study includes the vision of Jesus in the first chapter of Revelation. This is important since each of the seven letters makes some allusion back to this vision. Connelly provides a short paragraph of orientation for each section before the student reads the biblical passage for the chapter. There are then a series of short questions on the content of the unit as well as reflective questions intended to guide either an individual or group to think about the meaning and application of the sections.

Following the workbook section of the study is a leader’s guide with a suggested lesson plan for guiding a small group discussion. Each chapter has additional notes with background content, parallel biblical texts and suggestions on presenting the material.

Like other Lifeguide® Bible Studies, Connelly’s Seven Letters can be used as a personal Bible Study tool or in a small group discussion. Since the emphasis is on personal application, the book avoids controversial points such as millennial positions and historic interpretations of these letters. The guide could have been improved with a list of books for further reading.

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.


Phillips, Susan S. The Cultivated Life: From Ceaseless Striving to Receiving Joy. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2015. 256 pp;, Pb. $17.00  Link to IVP

The Cultivated Life

Susan Phillips begins her book on spiritual disciplines with a description of life as a circus. Most readers will appreciate this metaphor for overly busy lives bombarded with noise from both American culture and American evangelical culture. Rather than leaving the circus entirely and living a monastic, contemplative life, Phillips intends this book to be a series of suggestions for practices which might open our hearts to God in the midst of the circus-like culture in which we find ourselves (29). Some of these are familiar (silence, Sabbath) but others are not the usual spiritual disciplines found in these sorts of books (friendship, listening). She tries to avoid the language of discipline (which “sounds severe,” 136),

Phillips’s metaphor in this book agricultural. If the goal of the Christian life is to bear fruit, then it is necessary to cultivate that fruit. Like real fruit, this takes time and discipline. This is a biblical metaphor; she begins with Hebrews 6:7 and uses Jesus’s metaphor of the vine from John 15, but she resists the temptation to use Paul’s list of the Fruit of the Spirit as a model. For Phillips, spiritual growth is participatory, one must recognize the need for growth and choose to cultivate their spiritual life. Although she does not make this point, it is entirely possible people who are busy serving in their churches or participating in emotionally moving worship services are not actually cultivating their spiritual life or bearing the kinds of fruit described in Scripture. This book is designed to move people from keeping busy to real spiritual life.

The book has five pairs of chapters on particular disciplines. Phillips begins each chapter with Scripture and a personal illustration to introduce the topic which is briefly discussed. Phillips uses other biblical texts and a wide variety of other literary examples to flesh out her point (Karl Rahner to T. S. Eliot to characters from Les Mis). She often concludes with an illustration of the discipline from a cross-cultural perspective.

Her first pair of topics is refreshment and listening. She argues listening (to other, to God) cultivate both virtue and a deeper relationship with God. Similarly, her second pair of topics explore “stopping” and Sabbath. Sometimes slowing down and listening to God is not enough, we need to come to a complete stop and be silent from all activity in order to cultivate a spiritual life. In fact, stopping may require a period of fallowness: just as fields are left fallow for a season in order to be fruitful, so to the Christian ought to take a short time of rest, even a pilgrimage in order to develop a fruit-bearing life. This naturally leads to the idea of Sabbath. Although Phillips does not advocate for a legalistic Sabbath, she sees the value of devoting a day to slow, even silent listening to God.

In her third pair of chapters, Phillips discusses her view of cultivating attention and praying with Scripture. She draws on recent developments in mindfulness as “relief from the circus,” although she is clear spiritual cultivation requires faith-based attention. Rather the typical mindfulness practices common in pop culture (adult coloring books, etc.), Phillips suggests praying Scripture as a method for focusing attention on God and “watering the soul”

Fourth, she uses cultivation of attachment as a foundation for discussing spiritual direction. One must be attached to God if they expect to develop and grow spiritually (once again, coming out of the circus). Once oriented toward the right goal (God), a person is able to be directed through quiet reflection and prayerful attention to Scripture.

Fifth, Phillips has two chapters on friendship. In many books on spiritual discipline these chapters might concern mentors or accountability partners. But Phillips sees these relationships as more intimate friendships between people who spur one another on to cultivation of spiritual disciplines.

The final two chapters of the book concern how to grow spiritual by “enriching the soil.” The goal of cultivation of a spiritual life ought to be some tangible result, just as the cultivation of a tree is some fruit. Christians are, for Phillips, “walking trees” (202) and need to be enriched with things like joy and exaltation. Once again, a typical spiritual growth book may have used Bible study and prayer (along with other classic disciplines).

Each chapter includes a few questions for reflection. These might make good journaling prompts or discussions questions for a small group devoted to studying spiritual disciplines. The chapters are quite brief so that a weekly small group might discuss their way through the book. One possible criticism some will have of this book is the occasional lack of Scriptural warrant for some suggested practices. In some chapters the point is well made, but grounded in experience and contemporary literature rather than New Testament spirituality. For some readers, this might be a refreshing change from the usual sorts of things included in books in the spiritual growth and development category.


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.

Johnson, Andy. 1 & 2 Thessalonians. Two Horizons New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 349 pp. Pb; $25. Link to Eerdmans

Andy Johnson’s new contribution in the Two Horizons series from Eerdmans on the two letters to the Thessalonians represents a theological interpretation of Scripture which is intentionally missional. As Johnson explains in his introduction, his goal in the commentary is to focus on elements of the text “most useful for facilitating the continuing formation of the church in its proper identity as a missional community” (2).

Thessalonians, Commentary, EerdmansThe second goal of this commentary is to read the Thessalonian correspondence as part of the canon of Scripture. This means placing these letters into the overall story of the whole Bible and the mission of God to undo humanity’s rebellion. Although he does not use the phrase, his overview in the introduction is the familiar “drama of redemption” which drives most writing which self-identifies as theological interpretation of Scripture.

As with most of the New Testament commentaries in this series, Johnson employs a post-biblical creed as a clarifying lens for “bringing 1 and 2 Thessalonians into focus (2). In the case of this commentary, Johnson uses the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, but he also recognizes his place in the broader Wesleyan tradition as well as his openness to being instructed by other Christian traditions. There are occasional theological readings of the text which are informed by Johnson’s Wesleyanism.

With respect to authorship and date, Johnson briefly surveys the state of the question and recognizes there is some merit to the arguments for non-Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians, but he remains unconvinced (7). But from a canonical perspective, it matters very little if Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians or not since the origin of the letters is of lesser importance to theological interpretations than canonical status. He provides several pages of excellent context drawn from Acts 16-18 and following the lead of Kavin Rowe’s The World Upside Down. Although this a brief overview, it is sufficient to enable Johnson to set these two letters in a proper historical and sociological context.

In the body of the commentary Johnson works through the books in larger sections, commenting on some details of the text but falling short of a detailed exegetical commentary. This is to be expected give his stated goal to write a commentary serving the mission of the church. Greek appears in the body of the commentary with transliteration and Johnson does comment occasionally on grammar, syntax and rhetorical features. This makes for a very readable commentary which will be useful for a pastor or teacher as they prepare to preach or teach Thessalonians in a church context.

Since this is a canonical commentary, Johnson pays close attention to intertextual echoes of the Hebrew Bible, although there are a few places where he hears an echo which Paul may not have explicitly intended. For example, commenting on several texts which may illuminate Paul’s understanding of the Man of Lawlessness, Johnson suggests allusions to Ezekiel 28:1-9 as the “most instructive text in this Old Testament trajectory” even if this was not an intentional allusion by Paul (289). This way of using the Old Testament to illuminate the New is not intertextuality (as it is usually defined), but more like an older hermeneutic where Scripture is the best commentary on Scripture. Although I think Johnson is certainly on the right track to draw attention to the arrogant actions of Adam in the Garden and the paradigmatic arrogant rulers in Isaiah 14 or Ezekiel 28 and the claims of these rules to be divine (as well as possible allusions to Daniel 11 and Antiochus IV Epiphanes), I would prefer to see an argument Paul had this trajectory in mind when he described the Man of Lawlessness, especially in the light of where that trajectory may lead the interpreter who is trying to draw out implications for contemporary application.

One of the primary features of a Two Horizons commentary is a lengthy section on the theological implications of the commentary. Johnson’s reflections on 1 and 2 Thessalonians begin with a section on holiness. Holiness is Spirit-enabled and derived from the triune Godhead. It is “intensely personal but necessarily corporate, public and missional” (255). In these two letters holiness is fidelity to God and “cruciform living” (following Michael Gorman, but also influence Gorman’s recent Becoming the Gospel). This section focuses on cruciform living, love of enemies and peacemaking. This section reflects Johnson’s previous articles on holiness and sanctification in the Journal of Theological Interpretation.

Since eschatology is one key area for the theology of the Thessalonian letters, Johnson devotes a long section to the unique issues raised in 1 Thessalonians 4 and 2 Thessalonians 2. He highlights three types of eschatology in the letters. First, the Parousia is described as representatives of a city going out to meet a victorious king and escorting him into their city. Related to this image is the second, the Parousia as eschatological warfare. Here Paul stands on the foundation of Isaiah. Third, the Parousia is a judgment theophany, especially in 2 Thessalonians 2. God demonstrates his “ferocious love” which restores shalom. But Johnson argues Paul stops short of describing “conscious everlasting torment in Hell” (269). Perhaps this is a theological observation driven by theological commitments, but it is a fact Paul does not describe what sort of judgment awaits the Man of Lawlessness other than his utter judgment.

Johnson devotes a few pages to Dispensational interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Although he does admit Dispensationalism is a kind of theological interpretation of Scripture as practiced in this commentary, he is equally clear the theological suppositions of Dispensationalism are wrong. Perhaps this is a problem with the idea the popular theological interpretation method, since (potentially) any “rule of faith” could be applied to a text as a theological lens. For example, Johnson is a Wesleyan and he consciously interprets the Thessalonian letters as a Wesleyan. Someone could approach Thessalonians with a Lutheran or Anglican set of assumptions and find some slightly different nuances in their interpretation.

But why should any given theological structure be discounted a priori? It seems as though any theological lens is possible even if it is not the preference of a particular scholar. Johnson dismisses Dispensationalism as a theological lens because it does not “square with Scripture,” but someone might equally dismiss his more Wesleyan views expressed in this commentary for the same reasons.

Although Johnson is fair towards Dispensationalist readings of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, his argument is blunted by his used of dated scholarship, or non-scholarship. He cites the Scofield Reference Bible and Hal Lindsey frequently and occasionally the brief commentary on 1 Thessalonians by Constable in the Bible Knowledge Commentary, a single volume New Testament commentary produced by the faculty of Dallas Theological Seminary. At best this use of popular level and dated material makes his critique of Dispensationalism appear to be a straw man argument. There are many books and articles which better treat 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 from a dispensational perspective than these.

Conclusion. These criticisms aside, Johnson achieves his goal to provide a Spirit driven commentary which is dominated by the redemptive mission of God. The commentary is a fine example the state of Theological Interpretation of Scripture and will be a useful commentary for pastors and teachers as the work to apply these two early letters of Paul to contemporary mission of the Church.


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

Dunn, James. Neither Jew nor Greek: A Contested Identity. Christianity in the Making, Volume 3. Grand Rapids, Mich. Eerdmans, 2016. 960 pp. Hb; $60.00. Link to Eerdmans

Neither Jew nor Greek completes Dunn’s three-volume project encompassing the New Testament. Jesus Remembered (2003) concerned Jesus and the Gospels, Beginning from Jerusalem (2009) covered the book of Acts and the letters of the New Testament up to 70 CE. This final volume tracks the later history of the early church (for the most part after 70 CE), including both canonical and non-canonical sources. Dunn ends his investigation just prior to Irenaeus, approximately 180 CE.

The title for the volume is significant since it signals Dunn’s conclusions about what the early church was like in the period after the first Jewish revolt. As Dunn puts it, whatever the early Christian movement was in the forty years between Jesus and the Jewish revolt “it was not yet ‘Christianity’” because Christianity as a distinct entity was not so-named until the early second century CE (4). During the time period covered by this volume both Judaism and Christianity were in the process of defining themselves, sometimes in contrast with one another.

How can this development be traced? Scholarship has attempted to define “early Catholicism,” or traced the development of canons and creeds, or examined the way early Christian writers defined themselves in contrast to heretical sects within the larger Judeo-Christian movement (Hellenistic mystery cults or developing Gnosticism, etc.). Dunn sketched the character of the first generation of Christians in the first two volumes of this series and now proposes to trace the streams of early Christianity through the complicated period between 70 and 180 CE. This is an important (and often overlooked) insight. Early Christianity was not monolithic; there was no one document or one writer which fully encapsulated ideal Christianity. There were multiple streams within the orthodox river so that what it means to be “Christian” was indeed contested.

It is possible to evaluate the development of early Christianity by accepting the final result (church history from the perspective of Eusebius, for example, or for many contemporary theologians, the Reformation) and evaluating the various voices with respect to how close they come to the received orthodoxy. But Dunn comes at the question from another angle: would Peter, James and Paul have been satisfied with what happened in the second century (41)? To answer the question Dunn examines at length the Jesus tradition, the impact of James, Paul, Peter and John (in that rough chronological order). Choosing to start with James is an interesting methodological decision since Eusebius and the Reformation might choose to begin with Paul. Dunn thinks Paul is responsible for shaping the Jewish messianic sect (led by James in Jerusalem) into the international movement it would become. Despite being disciples of Jesus, both Peter and John are minor voices in the first century (if later traditions are set aside).

The first three chapters of this volume set the stage by examining the sources available for the study of the post-apostolic period. In addition to the New Testament canon, Dunn surveys the Apostolic Fathers, the apologists of the early second century, Eusibius and the Heresiologists, and the New Testament pseudepigrapha (other gospels, letters and apocalypses). He observes most of the “spin off literature is much poorer in quality” than the material later recognized as canonical (183). For this reason Dunn ranks the Apostolic Fathers and Apologists as more important for tracing the development of early Christianity than “other” literature. The exception is the Gospel of Thomas which Dunn treats in his chapter on the reshaping of the Gospel of Jesus (John and Thomas).

The next major section of the book concerns the development of the Jesus tradition from an oral gospel to the written canonical gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke and finally John. Here Dunn revisits the thesis of Jesus Remembered, although this time from the perspective of how Jesus was remember in these written gospels. Dunn concludes the rich diversity of the Gospels (“same yet different”) indicates different lessons could be developed out of the same memories of Jesus. He illustrates this phenomenon in a chapter on how the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas develop the Jesus traditions using two different strategies.

Dunn traces the development of the Jesus tradition into the second century by examining how the Apostolic Fathers and the apologists used the written Gospels. He provides the data in the form of lists of quotations or allusions to each Gospel. For example, there are tables for the four Gospels as they appear in Justin Martyr. From this data it is clear Justin knew Mark but used the Gospel rarely and John only appears in a single allusion. Matthew is dominant, with a few citations of Luke and a few from the double tradition (so it is impossible to know if Matthew or Luke is in mind).

The next section of the book consists of two chapters defining what Dunn means by “Jewish Christianity” and the so-called “parting of the ways.” Dunn observes it is more important to recognize the Jewishness of Christianity than to unravel the puzzle of various forms of Christianity which may (or may not) have been in competition with one another at the end of the first century (595). He examines (briefly) several Jewish groups which also followed Jesus, including the Ebionites, the Nazoraeans, the Elkesaites, the Pseudo-Clementine literature, and Syrian Christianity. In order to speak about the parting of the ways, Dunn outlines the reasons Christians may have wanted to be seen as separate after the destruction of Jerusalem and consequent Roman policy toward the Jews. The fall of Jerusalem also changed the way Judaism thought of itself, so that the beginnings of rabbinic Judaism can be found in the same events which motivated Christianity to define itself as “not Jewish.” This evidence supports Dunn’s contention Jews and Christians did not see themselves as separate until perhaps as late as the Constantinian settlement (673).

The final major section in the book concerns the continued influence of Paul and Peter. As Dunn observes, of the three principle characters in the early church, James makes the least impact on the development of Christianity and Peter has been the focus of Catholic Christianity but left little impact on the New Testament (assuming 2 Peter is pseudonymous, probably 1 Peter as well, possibly rejecting Peter’s influence on Mark). This makes Paul the chief influence on the early development of Christianity and the so-called “second founder” of Christianity” (675). Even though he is a “contrary and troublesome figure in the history of Christianity” his contributions to the New Testament and their reception by the ensuing generations of the church are essential for understanding the development of Christianity (723). Dunn accepts the minority opinion that 1 Peter was addressed to Jewish Christians, but recognizes the Pauline influence on the letter (728).

There is some backtracking in this volume, which is to be expected in a project written over a long period. First, Dunn returns to his first volume of the series in Part 11 by examining how the Gospel moved from oral tradition to the written Gospels. In a one hundred page chapter Dunn reviews some of his arguments from Jesus Remembered and the essays in The Oral Gospel Tradition (Eerdmans, 2013).  Second, chapter 46 concerns the “parting of the ways,” a topic Dunn has discussed in his essay in the collection of essays, Jews and Christians: The Parting of the Ways, A.D. 70 to 135 (Eerdmans, 1999). But this is not unexpected since Dunn re-used material from his Epworth Acts commentary in Beginning from Jerusalem, for example. Given the massive scope of the project, using and updating previous work ought to be expected. It is perhaps ironic that, like the Gospels themselves, Dunn’s oral presentations became written essays which were then re-worked and edited and included in a final (canonical?) volume.

Conclusion. This volume is an indispensable resource for the study of the late apostolic period. Since Dunn takes into account many non-canonical texts he is able to trace the trajectory of the development of the Church from the oral tradition of Jesus Remembered, through the earliest written forms of that memory, to the interpretation of those memories by the next generations of the early Church.


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




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