You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ category.

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 has sketched the character of the first generation of Christians in the first two volumes of this series and now proposed 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 that 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 that 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 and 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.




Estes, Douglas. Questions and Rhetoric in the Greek New Testament. An Essential Reference Resource for Exegesis. Grand Rapids, Mich. Zondervan, 2017. 400 pp. Hb; $49.99. Link to Zondervan

For most students of the New Testament Greek, the syntax of questions is often mysterious and difficult since most introductory grammars do not devote a chapter on how Greek forms questions, let alone the rhetorical nuances of questions. Usually how questions are formed is covered under punctuation or when the first interrogative pronouns are introduced. But rarely does a first-year New Testament grammar have the space to unpack any of the subtle rhetorical features of questions.

Douglas Estes has filled this lacuna with a lengthy monograph on the syntax and rhetoric of questions in the New Testament. Estes previously published his dissertation on The Questions of Jesus in John: Logic, Rhetoric, and Persuasive Discourse (Biblical Interpretation Series 115; Leiden: Brill, 2013). This handbook on Greek questions joins Murray Harris’s 2012 monograph on prepositions in Zondervan’s Essential Reference Resource for Exegesis series.

Estes describes twenty-eight linguistic features of questions (related to syntax, semantics, and pragmatics) in the first main section of the book. With respect to syntax Estes examines sentence formation and function, including word order, punctuation, mood of verbs and many other ways a Greek sentence can ask a question. This will be the most familiar to beginning Greek students. With respect to semantics, Estes examines such things as illocutionary force (pushing something forward toward the audience) or predicaments (asking a question in a way that affects how the question is heard by and responded to by the hearers). In the third section of the book Estes looks at four types of questions driven by syntax, rather than semantics. In this section he examines polar questions, variable questions, alternative questions and set questions. The fourth section lists a staggering twenty four types of questions which are driven by semantics (open questions, dilemma questions, counterfactual questions, etc.)

For each of the syntactical categories, Estes offers a brief definition followed by illustrations from the Greek New Testament but also in English. This will help a student understand the category. For example, under the heading of “Dilemma Questions,” Estes defines this category as a question asking the hearer to choose between two difficult situations. He then gives three examples in English and distinguishes the dilemma from a dilemmaton, which is a trick question designed as a verbal ambush for an enemy. He then briefly discusses the formation of this kind of question and its rhetorical effects. After this technical detail, he examines one New Testament text in detail as a “case study” (Luke 20:4 to illustrate a dilemmaton).

Estes provides copious examples from the Greek New Testament (a Scripture index is provided) as well as references to Greek rhetorical handbooks where appropriate. These include Quintilian (Institutio oratoria) and the works of Aristotle. After describing the syntactical or rhetorical feature and a case study, Estes provides several New Testament examples and a “key bibliography” to both ancient and modern writers.

Conclusion. Douglas Estes has done students of the Greek New Testament a great service by writing a remarkably accessible introduction to a potentially arcane sub-discipline.

Zondervan posted a book trailer for Questions and Rhetoric on YouTube.

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

Longenecker, Richard N. Paul, Apostle of Liberty. Second Edition. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 435 pp. Pb; $34.   Link to Eerdmans

Richard Longenecker’s Paul, Apostle of Liberty was first published in 1964. Much has happened in Pauline studies since 1964, not the least of which is E. P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977). Since the first edition of this book, Longenecker himself contributed a highly regarded Word Biblical Commentary on Galatians commentary (Word; 1990) and most recently the NIGTC volume on Romans (Eerdmans, 2016), along with many other monographs and articles on topics within the field of Pauline studies. This introduction to Paul’s theology can fairly be described as a classic text which has already served a generation of students as a classroom textbook and standard reference work on Paul’s theology.

The body of this introduction to Paul is essentially the same as earlier editions. Longenecker does not survey the letters of Paul or discuss “background” issues. His interest tracing the more important contours of Pauline theology. After a chapter on sources, Longenecker provides three chapters on Jewish backgrounds for Pauline studies (Paul as “Hebrew of the Hebrews; Piety in Hebraic Judaism; Saul and the Law). Longenecker uses the Romans 7 as evidence Paul was indeed “kicking against the goads” when he zealously persecuted the church.

Longenecker has four chapters on Pauline teaching: Legality and the Law; The End of Nominism; Liberty in Christ; The Exercise of Liberty. For Longenecker, liberty in Christ is essential for a proper understanding of his theology. In the third section of the book Longenecker entitles “practice” although his interest in these three chapters is how Paul worked out his view of Christian freedom in Christ with respect to the Law. Chapter 9 discusses the Judaizers and Paul’s relationship with Jerusalem. Chapter 10 focuses on Paul’s mission strategy of “all things to all men.” Here Longenecker is interested in how Paul evangelized Gentiles, but also his response to the Libertenes, the Ascetics, the “strong” and the Ecstatics.

Finally, chapter 11 deals with the “problem practices” in Acts. Late in Acts, Paul claims to have a clear conscience with respect to the Law. If Paul is the Apostle of Liberty and believed the Gentiles were no longer under the Law, why does Paul continue to preach to the Jews? Why did he take a Nazarite vow in Acts 18? Why did he accept the Jerusalem decree in Acts 15 if he believed he was not under the authority of the Jerusalem church?

The new material in this book is a lengthy addendum tracing the reception of Paul and his letters through church history. Even in this 92 page survey, Longenecker cannot hope to present a comprehensive summary of all of the commentaries and sermons produced over 2000 years, so he provides a “Hall of Fame” intended to honor his own favorite commentators on Paul. Longenecker has divided his list into three periods, Patristic (including texts like the Acts of Paul and Thecla, the Gnostics and Marcion, but also Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian,  Jerome, Augustine, and many others), the Reformation (beginning with Erasmus, but including all the expected reformers) and modern (Schleiermacher, Baur, Lightfoot, Barth, and James S. Stewart). For the modern period, he has purposely avoided scholars who are still active. This means there is nothing from N. T. Wright, for example, even though Wright has contributed a major Romans commentary and a massive book on Paul’s theology, nor is there any attempt to deal with the often visceral reaction against Wright’s views on Paul. Longenecker is not particularly swayed by the New Perspective, although in many ways the original 1964 version of this book anticipated some of the problems raised by Sanders and Dunn. Perhaps Longenecker’s recent commentary on Romans offers insight into his opinion of the New Perspective: there is very little in more than 1000 pages of commentary which reflects the contributions of the New Perspective.

In addition to this hall of fame style survey of historic commentators on Paul, Longenecker offers a series of brief summaries of modern approaches to Paul. This section includes two or three pages on:

  • Rhetorical approaches to Paul which recognize the epistolary form of Paul’s letters
  • Reevaluation of the textual history of the New Testament
  • Reevaluations of Palestinian Judaism (E. P. Sanders)
  • The New Perspective on Paul (James Dunn)
  • Narrative approaches to the New Testament applied to Paul

Since this is a second edition, it is fair to evaluate the value of the book in contrast to the earlier edition. As Longenecker recognizes, the field of Pauline studies has gone through several major developments since 1964, but he has chosen not to update the body of the book to reflect these changes. Most readers of this new edition will be aware of the work of E. P. Sanders and the New Perspective on Paul as well as the reactions to Sanders and the New Perspective. Some of these responses were violently opposed to the movement, others took up the suggestions in Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism and developed them in detail. Longenecker does not attempt to integrate any of this massive secondary literature into the 1964 version of his book, but rather comments on Sanders and the New Perspective in the addendum (p. 345-50).

By way of conclusion, Paul, Apostle of Liberty, remains a classic of Pauline theology and ought to be read (and re-read) by anyone studying Paul’s theology. The addendum is an excellent primer for a seminary student who needs to “catch up” on two thousand years of thinking about Paul’s theology.


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

Tidball, Derek. The Voices of the New Testament: Invitation to a Biblical Roundtable. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2016. 279 pgs., Pb.; $24.00 Link to IVP

In the late 1970s Steve Allen hosted an educational program on PBS called Meeting of the Minds. Actors portrayed various historical figures to discuss history and philosophy, often representing opposing views on various issues. Derek Tidball’s The Voices of the New Testament is something like that television show. He uses the metaphor of a roundtable discussion between representatives of various streams of early Christianity in order to sketch out the basics of New Testament theology.

The Voices of the New TestamentIn the introduction to the book Tidball surveys several recent approaches to New Testament Theology. I. H. Marshall (New Testament Theology, 2004) uses an authorial approach, tracing the theology of individual writers, while James Dunn (Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, 1977) traces the development of several streams of Jewish Christianity. Donald Guthrie (New Testament Theology, 1981) and Thomas Schreiner (New Testament Theology, 2008) use a more thematic. None of these approaches are necessarily fatally flawed, although one may more appealing than the others to particular readers.

These approaches reflect the historic divide between systematic theology and biblical theology. Biblical theology tends to focus on an individual writer (Paul or John) or a particular theme within a writer (a biblical theology of poverty in Luke-Acts, Paul’s view of the future). Systematic theology tends to look at the whole canon in order to develop an outline of what the entire canon teaches. The classic systematic theology uses several loci of theology (Christology, Anthropology), creating a clear outline of what Christian Theology looks like. To a certain extent, systematic stands on the foundation of biblical theology, which in turn is based on exegesis of the text.

In this book, Tidball attempts to blend these approaches in a creative way by allowing all the voices in the New Testament to speak on several important topics. This sounds like a thematic approach (there are chapters on Jesus, sin, atonement, eschatology), but by creating a conversation between ten different New Testament writers, Tidball attempts to create mini-biblical theologies to discuss these systematic theology categories.

What is unique here (aside from the style of the dialogue) is Tidball’s selection of ten voices from the New Testament. Glancing at the index of a typical New Testament theology (or systematic theology for that matter) usually shows New Testament theology’s preference for Paul, and then a preference for the book of Romans. This is fair, since Paul says a great deal about theology and Romans is the closest thing we have to a systematic Pauline theology. It is difficult to discuss justification by faith without focusing on Romans and Galatians.

Rather than placing Paul at the head of a table occasionally letting others have a word, Tidball invites Luke, James, John, Jude, Mark, Matthew, Peter, the Hebraist, and the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke together), To be fair, Paul still gets the biggest say in the conversation, but there are several examples where Tidball begins a discussion with John (on who Jesus is) or Mark (the definition of the Gospel). In the section on adoption as a metaphor for salvation, Tidball begins with John, supplemented by Peter then Paul. Rarely will a systematic theology spend time tracing Mark’s theology, and almost never will Jude be mentioned. In fact, Jude rarely speaks in this book, but it is a very short letter.

In addition to the voices from the New Testament, Tidball includes a chair to guide the conversation and ask the questions as well as an observer. The observer comments appear in grey blocks and offer some exegetical comment or background information to illuminate the discussion.

The book is intended to be an introduction and is designed for easy reading for the layperson who wants an overview of New Testament theology. Given the metaphor of a roundtable discussion, Tidball achieves his goal of describing the common elements of the theology of the New Testament. I have two constructive criticism of the book. First, by using the roundtable metaphor, Tidball has flattened the development of New Testament theology. For example, beginning the discussion of adoption with John obscures the fact Paul used adoption as a way of describing salvation first. Given the traditional authorship and date of John’s Gospel it is plausible to argue John’s views were a development (or reaction to) Paul’s.

This leads to a second criticism. Although Paul and John are given the most text in the book, all of the voices are unified. I anticipated James’ objections to Paul’s teaching on Justification by Faith, but that section only includes Paul’s voice (p. 139-41). Tidball is emphasizing the unity of the theology of the New Testament, but I would have liked to hear James strenuously object to Paul’s teaching of “faith not works.” He does get to this eventually (eight lines, 187-8), plus a page from the observer explaining that there is no need to drive a wedge between Paul and James. Although I do not want to go back to Bauer, I think there was more diversity among the ten voices than Tidball allows.

Conclusion. Despite these minor criticisms, Tiball has written an entertaining introduction to New Testament theology, both biblical and systematic. This book would be an excellent basis for a small group Bible study

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.

Anizor, Uche and Hank Voss. Representing Christ: A Vision for the Priesthood of All Believers. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2016.205 pp. Pb.; $20. Link to IVP  

Representing ChristRepresenting Christ is a study of the priesthood of the believer written by two recent Wheaton Ph.D graduates who have published dissertations on this topic (Anizor, Kings and Priests: Scripture’s Theological Account of Its Readers, Pickwick, 2014; Voss, The Priesthood of All Believers and the Missio Dei: A Canonical, Catholic, and Contextual Perspective, Pickwick 2016; both with introductions from Daniel Treier). Representing Christ fills a gap in discussions about the church by reviving a discussion on the priesthood of believers and applying this key Reformation doctrine to a modern church context.

The book begins by exposing a major problem in contemporary Christianity, the exaltation of the clergy in contrast to the priesthood of all believers. This brief introduction contrasts the priesthood of the baptized (the Orthodox tradition) and the priesthood of the faithful (the Roman Catholic tradition) with the Protestant doctrine than all believers are priest. Although Luther did not coin the term, most associate the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers with him. The book therefore includes a chapter on Luther, although the book strives to thoroughly biblical.

Chapter 2 sets the scriptural context for a “royal priesthood” using the model of the Garden of Eden as a Sanctuary and Adam as a Priest-King. This theme is drawn through the Exodus as God establishes his own people to be a nation of priests and David as a royal priest (focusing primarily on Psalm 110 and the Isaiah’s Servant songs). In the New Testament, 1 Peter 2:4-9 is a programmatic statement since Peter picks up on the idea of a royal priesthood from Exodus. If Adam was a priest-king in the original sanctuary, and Christ is a priestly servant, then the church is the offspring of Jesus and are therefore like Adam priests in a new Temple, the church. The theme seems to be muted in Paul’s letters, although the authors do reflect on Paul’s description of the believer as a living sacrifice, doing “acceptable worship.” For Anzior and Voss, the biblical vision of a royal priesthood of the church is the eschatological fulfillment of Israel’s corporate and professional priesthood, but viewed through the lens of Christ as the true Priest-King (55).

In the third chapter, Anzior and Voss describe the priesthood in the medieval period as a backdrop to their presentation of Luther’s reforms. Luther dismantled the hierarchy of the medieval priesthood and changed the way church life functioned. Luther’s unique contribution was to dispel the myth of “two estates,” a professional (elite) clergy and a non-professional laity. For Luther, all believers are called to do ministry even if not all exercise that call in the office of pastor. This is not an individualistic, democratic church, but rather a church united around the proclamation of the Gospel. In fact, as Anzior and Voss demonstrate in their fourth chapter, this community should reflect the unity and community of the Trinity. They want to avoid professional clericalism, but also atomistic collectives which misunderstand what being “in Christ” means.

What would a community practicing a biblical priesthood of all believers look like? In their fifth chapter Anzior and Voss describe this community by following Dallas Willard’s VIM model: Vision, Intention, and Means. The church’s vision needs to be representing Christ as a member of a royal priesthood, the intention of the church is being faithful to baptismal vows, and the means are the “seven central practices” of the royal priesthood.

The seven practices are drawn from Luther and beginning with baptism and concluding with the Lord’s Supper. These two public rituals frame the regular practices of the royal priesthood. Perhaps it is too much to describe Christian baptism as an ordination to a royal priesthood (on the analogy of the ritual washing of the Old Testament priesthood). The Lord’s Supper as the “culmination” of the practices of the royal priesthood does not seem to resonate with the purpose of the celebration in either the Gospels or Paul.

The middle five of the seven practices of the royal priesthood seem more related to the function of priests. Prayer, lectio divina (reading Scripture), Church discipline, and proclamation are the traditional functions of priests both before and after the Reformation, and Anzior and Voss include serving other priests as an additional practice. Here they have in mind the frequent command in the New Testament to serve one another (since everyone is a priest, serving one another is to serve the other priests).

The book concludes with a short chapter reflecting on why the royal priesthood of all believers is such an important doctrine. If everything they argue in this book is true, “so what?” Anzior and Voss believe their vision of a biblical royal priesthood will promote unity in the church and allow the church to better represent Christ in a world desperately in need of the grace of God.


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.

Buckley, Michael J. What Do You Seek? The Questions of Jesus as Challenge and Promise. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 158 pages; pb. $18.00   Link to Eerdmans

This short monograph collects fourteen short meditations on questions asked by Jesus in the Gospel of John. Many of these questions are recognized as programmatic in the Gospel of John. For example, Buckley draws his title for the book from the first question Jesus asks in the book. In In John 1:35-38, the first words Jesus speaks in the book asks two disciples following him, “What do you seek?” The Gospel of John returns to this theme frequently as people seek something from Jesus (healing, living water, bread from heaven, etc.) In his final question in the Gospel Jesus asks Peter, “Peter do you love me?” (John 21:15-16). Jesus’s question demands a response just as the whole Gospel of John demands a response from its readers.

Buckley’s short reflections on the text focus on the challenge issued by Jesus’s questions. For example, his comments on Jesus’s question to Peter in 21:15-16 concern forgiveness. He devotes two chapters to questions asked in the passion narrative, “what shall I say, save me from this hour?” and “shall I not drink this cup?”) On occasion the meditation ranges far from the original intention, such as in John 2:3-4, when the wedding runs out of wine Jesus asks his mother, “What has this to do with us?” Buckley uses this question to address concern for the suffering and responding to those in need. Perhaps, but Jesus used the opportunity to reveal something about himself by providing wine at a wedding. When Jesus asks his disciples “how can we buy bread” (John 6:5), he reveals something about himself as “bread from heaven,” but Buckley develops an application from the text about the unpredictability of the power of God and our weakness in service. Since this book is devotional reading, these applications are inspiring and challenging even if they seem tertiary to the text.

The book is rich in allusions to classic literature (many citations of T. S. Eliot, Dostoyevsky), philosophy and especially classical of western spirituality (St. John of the Cross, Cardinal Newman) and a few nods to modern scholarship (Bultmann, Barth, and Raymond Brown). Buckley reflects his Roman Catholic background (pp 34-24, for example) but this is not at all distracting.

Readers will be challenged by Jesus’s questions and Buckley’s thoughts on these questions.

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


Follow Reading Acts on

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 3,569 other followers

My book Jesus the Bridegroom is now available from Amazon in paperback or Kindle

Christian Theology

%d bloggers like this: