Stephen Westerholm, Romans: Text, Readers, and the History of Interpretation

Westerholm, Stephen. Romans: Text, Readers, and the History of Interpretation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2022. ix+413 pp. Hb; $49.99  Link to Eerdmans

Rather than a commentary on Romans, this new volume by Stephen Westerholm in on the reception history of Romans. He is writing the Romans volume for Illuminations commentary series. (I reviewed Amy Erickson’s Jonah commentary in this series here.) This book is not a commentary on Romans, rather it is a commentary on the reception of Romans by later readers. Westerholm surveys commentaries from Lutheran, Calvinist, Wesleyan, Armenian perspectives many well-known but others quite obscure.

Westerholm RomansThe first section (pages 1-40) deals with the text of Romans as a witness to the earliest reception of Romans. He begins with a detailed description of papyrus 46, the earliest papyri copy of the book of Romans as an example of an early reception of the letter. Papyrus 46 dates to around A.D. 200 and was produced by a “blundering and not always attentive scribe,” to cite Michael Holmes (5). The codex contains 52 sheets folded to produce 104 leaves, 208 total pages. Only 86 pages survive (56 are in the Chester Beatty library and 30 are at the University of Michigan). The text was probably prepared for public reading. Westerholm suggests “his patron should have demanded a refund” (7). There are many variant readings comma often unintentional and easily recognized period. But there are some attempts at improvement that are unique to this manuscript. An early reader actively and thoughtfully engaged with the content of the text being read. “In limited but real ways, liberty was taken with the text of the epistle” (9). for example, the scribe had little use for Paul’s rhetorical repetitions, in Romans 8:17 he deliberately eliminated a redundancy. Occasionally the copiest substituted “what Paul might have said” for “what he appears to have written.” For example, when quoting Isaiah 9:27, the scribe replaces Paul’s word for remnant with a synonym because that is what is found in the Septuagint. Occasionally the text is simplified. Westerholm suggests this list of changes is “underwhelming” (12), but his point is that there are many different readings and not all these minor variants are accidental. “The word of the Lord (or of his apostle) is not tied to a particular wording” (12).

The second section (pages 41-76) is entitled “Readers” and interacts with how the “Paul within Judaism” scholarship reads Romans. The section begins with a short sketch on what can be known about the Roman church before Paul wrote his letter (following Peter Lampe, From Paul to Valentinius). Westerholm then introduces the so-called radical new perspective on Paul. Essentially, this view states that Paul did not convert from Judaism to Christianity and continued to live as a Jew for the rest of his life.

Romans has been wrongfully universalized; it addresses a specific situation in the Roman church. For “Paul within Judaism” scholars, Romans deals with the problem of how Gentile sinners become righteous, enjoy salvation, and become the people of God. Paul’s solution, according to this view, is that Gentiles are made right by faith in Christ, but Jews were already right with God because of God’s covenant with Israel. Paul is positive towards the Law, but the Law was only given to the Jews. Gentiles were never intended to keep the Law, so Paul essentially tells them the distinctively Jewish practices do not apply to them.

Westerholm thinks “Paul within Judaism” scholars are correct in denying that Paul in any of his letters denounces Judaism, but after his encounter with the risen Jesus Paul rethought the place of the Law ion God’s plan. The Law is hold, good, and righteous, but it paid out a path to righteousness humans are neither able nor inclined to take. The Law is weak to alter human capacities and dispositions since humans are sinners. Therefore, Westerholm concludes, righteousness can only be found apart from the Law.

As for the purpose of the letter, Westerholm surveys the usual suggestions, but ultimately suggests an unfavorable view of Paul’s theology may have reached Rome before Paul. Paul therefore presents his theology and calls on Jews and Gentiles to live in a single community of faith (73).

The bulk of this book is a survey of interpreters beginning with the Patristic Period, with short chapters on Origen, “Antiochene Interpreters” (John Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrus), and Early Latin Interpreters (Ambrosiaster, Pelagius, Augustine).  For the Medieval Period, Westerholm focuses on Peter Abelard and Thomas Aquinas. For the Sixteenth century, Calvin and Luther are the main lights, but Westerholm includes John Colet and Desiderius Erasmus, and Philip Melanchthon. He concludes with comments on several English translations of Romans (Wyclif, Tyndale, the Geneva Bible, The Rheims New Testament and the King James Version).

The Modern Period begins in the 1600s with Philipp Jakob Spener, Matthew Poole, Richard Baxter, John Locke. Augustin Calmet, Cotton Mather, Robert Witham, and John Gill. He surveys several Arminian interpreters before covering nineteenth century interpreters John Taylor, Heinrich Meyer, Henry Alford, Benjamin Jowett, and John William Colenso. The final chapter is devoted to Karl Barth, perhaps the only writer that might be considered contemporary. In the introduction Westerholm specifically sets aside recent commentaries in this survey.

Westerholm concludes the book with an appendix on the popular Romans commentary by British writer D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones who preached 372 sermons on Romans which were edited and published in fourteen volumes. I. H. Marshall said “if we ask who has been the most influential interpreter of Romans in the church in the twentieth century, one strong candidate is David Martyn Lloyd-Jones. You don’t hear about him in academic circles. Quite simply, he was the finest preacher and expositor of Romans in the evangelical wing of the church, and John Calvin and Martin Luther will have been the major influences on him. He did not always get it right, but of the breadth of his influence in the U.K. there can be no doubt” (351). Although he was not a great exegete, Westerholm describes Lloyd-Jones as “theological controlled preaching,” so the bulk of the chapter is devoted to describing how Lloyd-Jones develops key theological themes like justification and sanctification.

Conclusion. Westerholm’s book is a kind of pre-commentary on Romans, focusing on how a wide range of people in different theological traditions throughout the history of the church have read the Book of Romans. As a result, the book is more theological than exegetical, as a book on reception history must be. Someone might object their favorite ancient commentator was overlooked, but Westerholm provides clear summaries of the major interpreters of Paul’s letter.


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


Susan Ackerman, Gods, Goddesses, and the Women Who Serve Them

Ackerman, Susan. Gods, Goddesses, and the Women Who Serve Them. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2022. xiii+296 pp. Hb; $59.99  Link to Eerdmans

Susan Ackerman is Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Dartmouth. This new book collects ten essays Ackerman has written over the course of her career. Rather than simply reprint the essays, Ackerman has occasionally polished the writing, refined her arguments, and added some additional bibliography. In addition, for most chapters, Ackerman introduces the essay by giving a context for the article and reflecting on the article some years after it was originally published. These introductions are extremely valuable. I wish more authors would add these kinds of updates and personal recollections of the origin of previously published essays.

Ackerman GoddessesPart one collects three essays on goddesses.  First, in “And the Women Knead Dough” Ackerman discusses the worship of the Queen of Heaven in sixth century BCE Judah (Jeremiah 7:16-20; 44:15-19, 25). She stands by her original conclusion that the queen of heaven combines the East Semitic goddess Ishtar and the West Semitic Astarte (16). She returns to this issue in chapters 9 and 10. This cult prospered in sixth century Judah and gave women religious and political power. “Asherah, the West Semitic Goddess of Spinning and Weaving?” deals with an intriguing phrase in 2 Kings 23:7, Josiah tore down the quarters in the Temple “where women did weaving for Asherah.” Ackerman argues Asherah was a patron goddess for spinning and weaving. Women weaving in the temple is found in other cults in near eastern gods, although not for Asherah in particular. Ackerman focusing on Tiamat in “The Women of the Bible and of Ancient Near Eastern Myth.” Since Tiamat is not the sort of god anyone would typically worship, Ackerman argues Tiamat is a type that represents an object lesson regarding proper gender behavior (58). The stories of Tiamat’s conflict with Marduk have an unhappy ending because Tiamat defied gender norms in the Ancient Near East (70).

Part two comprises three articles on priests and prophets in the ancient Near East. First, chapter 4 is an update to her 2002 JBL article, “Why Is Miriam Also among the Prophets? (And Is Zipporah among the Priests?)” As she explains in the introduction, questions that were raised while she was writing her 1998 book on women in the book of Judges. There are four “anomalous women” who are counted as prophets rather than priests (Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, and Noadiah [Neh 6:14]). Ackerman suggests male-authored depictions of liminality and gender conventions restricted Miriam from religious authority (priesthood) but not the prophetic office. So, what about Zipporah? Since she occupies a priestlike role, “the Bible admits the possibility women could assume the role of prophet within Israelite society” (109). Zipporah implies women could take on priestlike functions.

In “The Mother of Eshmunazor, Priest of Astarte” (ch. 5) and “Priestesses, Purity, and Parturition” (ch. 6), Ackerman observes a curious thing about Israelite religion: there is very little evidence for priestesses although there is plenty of evidence “right next door” in Phoenicia. In these two chapters, Ackerman lays out the evidence for priestesses in Phoenicia and suggests the reason there are no priestesses in Israel is Leviticus 15:19-30. Women are unclean for seven days following menstruation, and there are other texts that cut women out of cultic settings during their reproductive years. Therefore, only pre-puberty and post-menstrual women may have had a cultic function. She draws attention to Psalm 68:25-26 [ET 24-25], “the young women playing the timbrels” in a sacred procession. “Young woman” (עַלְמָה) may refer to a sacred function for prepubescent women.

Part three comprises Ackerman’s two essays on queen mothers, the first on the Queen Mother and the Cult in Ancient Israel (ch. 7) and the second more broadly in the Queen Mother and the Cult in the Ancient Near East (ch. 8). 1 Kings 15:13 and 2 Chronicles 15:16 mention Ma’acah as “queen mother” (גְּבִירָה). The text describes Ma’acah as placing Asherah images. Ackerman suggests this was part of her duties as the Queen Mother. “It is artificial to seek to divorce the political role of the Judean Queen Mother from a cultic function” (169). In her survey of queen mothers in the ancient Near East, Ackerman observes Bathsheba was a Queen Mother, citing Canticles 3:11 as evidence for Bathsheba’s powerful role in crowning her son as king. The article ranges into the New Testament: The Gospel of Matthew understood Mary as a Queen Mother! Or better, the article hints, there is evidence in Matthew for the emerging cult of Mary in the apocryphal infancy gospels.

Finally, part four deals with women and worship. Chapter 9, “At Home with the Goddess” brings evidence from the other essays in this collection together to ask how the queen of heaven relates to the practical worship in the home. She examines places like Bethel and Dan, and how women like Ma’acah used her position as a Queen Mother to devote herself to Asherah. Part of this essay addresses how Asherah may have been worshipped in homes in the ancient near east through libations, offering cakes, etc. She concludes: at some points in Israel’s history, a significant cross section of the population was “at home” with the goddess. Finally, in “Women and the Worship of Yahweh in Ancient Israel,” Ackerman suggests later prophetic texts deem women as apostates (Hosea’s Gomer, for example). But texts outside the prophetic books have a more positive view of women worship gods other than Yahweh. Ma’acah worships Asherah. Some take part in the cult of heaven (Jer 7:16-20), others weep for Tammuz in the temple’s courtyard (Ezek 8:14).

Conclusion. Collecting and updating these essays makes them conveniently available to scholars and students working on religion in the ancient Near East and the Hebrew Bible. Ackerman’s introductions are extremely helpful. This should be standard practice for career-spanning essay collections like this. Although these essays overlap, Gods, Goddesses, and the Women Who Serve Them is a valuable collection for those interested in the development of Israelite religion and the role of women in worship in the Hebrew Bible.


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

John Goldingay, The Book of Jeremiah (NICOT)

Goldingay, John. The Book of Jeremiah. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2021. xxix+1033 pp. Hb; $75.00   Link to Eerdmans

John Goldingay’s 2021 Jeremiah commentary in the NICOT series replaces J. A. Thompson’s 1995 commentary (now an Eerdmans Classic Commentary). Besides his major commentary, Goldingay also recently published a short The Theology of Jeremiah (IVP Academic, 2021, reviewed here) and the NICOT volume on Lamentations (Eerdmans, 2022, reviewed here).

The sixty-six-page introduction argues the Jeremiah Scroll (as Goldingay calls the book) is a compilation of messages from Yahweh, stories about Jeremiah, and exchanges between Yahweh and Jeremiah. Goldingay outlines a plausible “three horizons” for the composition of the book. First, the particular context when Jeremiah delivered a message (for example, Jer 3:6, 21:1, 25:1). The second horizon is Jeremiah’s dictation to Baruch in 604 BC and writing in 594 BC (Jer 51:59-64). The third horizon is the production of an expanded scroll after 587 BC, with the final form of the book some time before 562 BC (based on 52:31-34). This final horizon is the work of “curators and storytellers” (9). Curators conserve things. They look after traditions, selecting and arranging them. Storytellers use narrative and drama. People can appreciate and respond to stories (both factual and fictional). Both types of stories can be just as authentic, although whether any story came from Jeremiah directly is unclear. So, Goldingay does not pay much attention to determining the dates for Jeremiah’s messages.

Goldingay, JeremiahGoldingay uses the analogy of the formation of the gospels to help explain the formation of the book of Jeremiah. In fact, both Jeremiah and the gospels have a similar time span between the words of Jesus/Jeremiah and the writing of the Gospels/the book of Jeremiah period. There are even multiple versions of Jeremiah (the Masoretic text and the Septuagint are quite different). Similar to Mark versus Matthew/Luke in the New Testament, getting behind Jeremiah to trace composition is at least as complicated as the gospels. Goldingay suggests that focusing on “getting behind Jeremiah” to work on composition is like the pursuit of Q for the study of the Gospels: it risks ceasing to pay attention to the actual scroll (14).

Nevertheless, the introduction discusses the composition of the book. Goldingay’s reconstruction uses the word possible on nearly every line. In 6626-604, Yahweh gave a series of messages to Jeremiah (Jeremiah 2-6) critiquing Judah. At this point, Jeremiah is trying to reform Judah. By 604, he writes up the messages to present to king Jehoiakim, who destroys the scroll. More messages are added through 587, including the aftermath of the fall of Jerusalem. In either Mizpah or Egypt, Jeremiah has Baruch right down these messages. Storytellers in Mizpah or Egypt wrote the stories about Jeremiah (chapters 26-45). In his Lamentations commentary, Goldingay suggests Lamentations was formed in Judahite communities mourning and fasting at places like Bethel or Mizpah (based on Zechariah 8:18-19). Finally, the curators compiled these complex messages by the 550s, creating the form of the book in the Masoretic tradition we have today.

Goldingay admits this is the minority opinion: most scholars agree the book reached its final form during the Persian period. He offers a series of critiques of this “fourth horizon.” If the scroll of Jeremiah was finished in the Persian period, there are there is a lack of redactional connections with Ezra-Nehemiah. In addition, Jeremiah makes no references to the Persian period, as we know it from Ezra-Nehemiah. He also points out that Jeremiah has more threats and warnings than a hope for restoration, as one would expect if the book reached its final form in the Persian.

But there is a possible fifth horizon. For some scholars, the disunity of the book shows the book of Jeremiah did not reach its final form until well into the Second Temple Period. Goldingay suggests that if the curators of Jeremiah scroll lived in the Second Temple Period, “they avoided drawing attention to themselves” and “invited the readers to read the scroll in the context of the period from Josiah to the aftermath of 587… I have accepted that invitation” (22).

He therefore points out that the book fits well into the historical events in Judah of the late Assyrian and Babylonian. Is Jeremiah a creative fiction which accurately portrays this period in Judah’s history? He draws the analogy to Ecclesiastes, which uses the known history of Solomon to present (later) theology. However, he concludes however that there was a historical Jeremiah. This is true even if the actual authors were the “curators and storytellers” working in 550s and 540s. “Their aim was to transmit the message of the real author, the prophet Jeremiah—poet, preacher, crusader, persuader” (27).

Why are there two versions of Jeremiah? It is possible to study the Hebrew and Greek versions separately or top compare the two, highlighting the special features of each. A key component of Goldingay’s theory of composition is the community at Mizpah (Jer 41:1-43:13). Jeremiah and Baruch stayed in for a time before moving to Egypt with a refugee community. Did these two locations generate two different forms the book? Possibly. Goldingay observes the larger Jewish population was in Babylon, so it is possible that the community compiled the final form of the book. But Babylonian theories are complicated (see Duane Garrett’s recent Jeremiah commentary, for example). Mizpah and Egypt are the simplest. He concludes, “such possibilities are simply possibilities” (38). The commentary uses the Masoretic text as it appears in BHS, although Goldingay’s translation notes regularly refer to differences between the MT, LXX and occasionally the Vulgate.

With respect to the theology of Jeremiah, Goldingay says, “the theology of [Jeremiah] as we have it fits into that of the First Testament as a whole and particularly in the Latter Prophets” (55). He develops three themes in the introduction: The God of Israel, the Israel of God, and the nations. In Jeremiah, God is powerful and faithful, but he is also a God of wrath and rage. God calls Israel “my people,” but they are not acting like his people. Jeremiah probably did not prophesy to the nations, but he has quite a bit to say about them. All the nations serve Yahweh, even Nebuchadnezzar is God’s servant!

Since prophets “do much of their thinking in imagery” (57), Goldingay lists several metaphors Jeremiah uses for God. God is a king, a guide, a master, a build, a shepherd, a father, etc. Citing Walter Bruggeman, Yahweh is “an abandoned bridegroom, a water fountain, a betrayed father, a lion, a wolf, a leopard, a potter” (57).  This robust and diverse portrait of God leads to a series of both/and theological statements in Jeremiah. For example, Is God chiefly characterized by anger or love? Both are true in Jeremiah. Is the catastrophe of 586 inevitable, or can Judah repent and return to Yahweh? Again, in Jeremiah, both are true.

Although the book only uses the phrase in 46:10, the prophet’s vision of the future focuses on the Day of the Lord. The Day of the Lord is the time with God will restore Israel. But this is not a far-off eschatological event at the end of history. The day of judgment is the (soon) destruction of Jerusalem and the restoration is the end of the exile (three generations in the future for Jeremiah).

Each section in the body of the commentary begins with a new translation of the pericope with a series of footnotes on lexical and textual issues. Here is where Goldingay compares the Masoretic text with the Septuagint and occasionally the Vulgate and other ancient versions. Readers who are not interested in this can easily pass over these notes. After a brief introductory paragraph setting the context and literary structure, Goldingay moves through the section verse-by-verse in a clear, readable style. All Hebrew is transliterated, and syntactical comments are minimal. Goldingay is interested in explaining what the text says and does not become distracted by “what other commentaries say.” Nevertheless, he often refers to both contemporary and classic commentaries on Jeremiah in the footnotes.

Conclusion. John Goldingay’s Jeremiah commentary will serve the next generation of biblical scholars, pastors, and teachers as they study this important book of the First Testament (to use Goldingay’s preferred title for the Old Testament). Goldingay’s commentaries are always a pleasure to read and often challenging. His style is uncomplicated and understandable for both experts and laypersons alike. He is committed to explaining the meaning of the text in the clearest terms possible.


Other Commentaries in the NICOT Series:


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

Duane Garrett and Calvin Pearson, Jeremiah and Lamentations (Kerux)

Garrett, Duane and Calvin F. Pearson. Jeremiah and Lamentations. Kerux Commentaries. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Ministry, 2022. 281 pp. Hb. $29.99   Link to Kregel Ministry  

The Kerux commentary series pairs a biblical exegete and a veteran preacher in order to provide quality commentary with the sort of helps a pastor needs to teach or preach the text.

Duane A. Garret is Professor of Old Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Garrett is well-known for his commentaries on Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (NAC, 1993), Hosea, Joel (NAC, 1997), Song of Songs (WBC, 2004), Exodus (KEL, 2014, reviewed here) and was the general editor for The Archaeology Study Bible (Zondervan, 2010). With Jason DeRouchie, he wrote A Modern Grammar for Biblical Hebrew (B&H Academic, 2009). He recently wrote the popular The Problem of the Old Testament (IVP Academic, 2020). Calvin F. Pearson (PhD, University of Texas at Arlington) is a retired pastor who taught homiletics at Dallas Theological Seminary, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Clamp Divinity School at Anderson University, and Grace School of Theology.

Garrett, JeremiahIn the introduction (47-61), Garrett presents his view of the formation of Jeremiah. There are significant differences between the Hebrew text of the book and the much shorter Greek translation in the Septuagint. The consensus view (following Janzen, 1973) is that the translators of the Septuagint used an earlier version of Jeremiah, the Hebrew text is a later, expanded version of Jeremiah. Garrett describes the consensus view as a “rolling corpus.” Jeremiah and Baruch wrote a short book which was expanded over hundreds of years, resulting in the canonical Jeremiah. Garrett opines, “This interpretation of the composition history of Jeremiah reduces the book’s credibility as a faithful representation of the life and preaching of the prophet” (49).

In contrast to the consensus view, Garrett describes Jeremiah as an anthology of the prophet’s messages, interspersed with key episodes from his life (but not in chronological order). Jeremiah comprises several documents which were not originally part of a book (transcripts of sermons, letters, and documents). Think of Jeremiah as a collection of papers curated by the scribe Baruch.

Instead of a “rolling corpus” formed over several centuries, Garrett suggests the following scenario. When king Jehoiakim prohibited Jeremiah from entering the temple, the prophet dictated a scroll to be read aloud to the king (Jer 36:1-8). The king destroyed this scroll as it was being read in a fire (36:9-26). Garrett calls this “edition zero.” After they fled to Egypt, Jeremiah and Baruch expanded on the destroyed scroll. Garrett calls this “edition one,” or the Egyptian version. Baruch then made his way to Babylon, perhaps after Jeremiah had died. He brought edition one with him. While living in Babylon, he edited and expanded edition one, giving it a chiastic structure. This is “edition two,” the canonical Hebrew form of Jeremiah. Edition one remained in Egypt, where it was preserved and eventually translated into Greek (with minimal modification) and included in the Septuagint. Garrett’s suggested scenario means Jeremiah was formed within a decade after Jeremiah’s death. In contrast to the consensus, scribes without knowledge of Jeremiah’s life and message did not create the book over many centuries.

A key element of Garrett’s thesis is the chiastic structure of Jeremiah. This explains why the Hebrew version of Jeremiah includes the Oracles against the Nations later in the book (Jer 46-51). They mirror the oracles against Judah (Jer 2-20). The chiasm also explains why the message of salvation (Jer 30-33) appears in the center of the book rather than near the end (as in the Septuagint).

The introduction sketches the historical setting of Jeremiah (from kings Josiah to Zedekiah) and the outline of the book used in the commentary’s body. There is a brief review of theological themes, but this is barely a paragraph. Basically, the book says Jerusalem is condemned by Yahweh, and destroyed by Babylon, but the structural center of the book is a promise of restoration and eschatological salvation.

If the introduction seems brief for a lengthy book like Jeremiah, Garret teases a companion volume, Jeremiah: Composition, Setting and Message (Kregel, forthcoming). In addition, Garrett presents aspects of the theology of Jeremiah in sidebars scattered throughout the commentary. For example, there is a lengthy sidebar on the “Fulfillment of the New Covenant” (285-89). Garrett summarizes Jeremiah’s claim that the New Covenant will be for Israel and brings about a universal transformation of the heart, enabling God’s people to keep his commands. But Hebrews quotes Jeremiah and claims the church is under the New Covenant. Jesus says his death initiated the New Covenant (Luke 22:20) and Paul claims to be a minister of the New Covenant (2 Cor 3:6). If the New Covenant was “for Israel,” how do Gentiles enjoy the benefits of the New Covenant now? If the New Covenant meant all people would know God, why is evangelism a duty of the church? To answer these questions, Garrett compares contrasting answers offered by Covenant and Dispensational Theology. He wants to avoid a complete spiritualization of the New Covenant (so that the church is the new Israel) and an absolutely literal interpretation. Although Garrett clearly rejects aspects of older Dispensationalism, he does not embrace the view of Covenant theology either. Essentially, he concludes the New Covenant is inaugurated but not yet ultimately fulfilled. “Jeremiah predicts an eschatological future in which Israel would enjoy God forever under the new covenant. In its fullness, all people will know God and sin will be no more” (289).

Garrett and Pearson divide Jeremiah into thirty-two preaching units, and Lamentations into five (one for each lament). Each preaching section begins with a brief paragraph summarizing the literary structure and themes of the unit. This is followed by exposition of the text. Hebrew appears without transliteration, although it is always translated. Some knowledge of Hebrew terminology will be helpful. There are sidebars throughout the commentary dealing with detailed Hebrew exegesis. Entitled “translator’s notes,” these brief sidebars deal with details of Hebrew exegesis, lexical issues, in occasionally textual criticism (for example, “A Scribal Error in 42:10?”). In a commentary on a book of this size, Garrett cannot comment on every exegetical detail, but these sidebars touch on the most important details.

Following the exegetical notes is a short theological focus as a segue into preaching strategy. This unit begins with an exegetical and theological synthesis followed by a single sentence preaching idea (ala Haddon Robinson’s Big Idea). Pearson then attempts to draw contemporary connections by asking “what does it mean?” “Is it true?” and “Now what?” The last section of the preaching is “creativity in presentation.” Here Pearson suggests potential structure for sermons and contemporary applications from Jeremiah. Each chapter ends with a few brief discussion questions. Like other volumes in the Kerux series, Pearson devotes about one third of each chapter to preaching strategy.

Including the introduction, the commentary on Lamentations is about 64 pages. Garrett recognizes that the Hebrew book of lamentations is anonymous, although traditionally assigned to Jeremiah. He suggests “Little is gained by claiming that Jeremiah is the author, since the interpretation of Lamentations does not depend upon it being tied to the prophet” (431). Clearly written to Jews living in the aftermath of the fall of Jerusalem, he suggests a sixth or fifth century B.C. date. The bulk of the introduction to Lamentations concerns genre, ancient Near eastern parallels, and the style of poetry found in the book.

The difficulty of interpreting a book like Lamentations is that it does not appear to have a message beyond voicing grief over Jerusalem’s destruction. He surveys several recent interpreters who argue the book contains a challenge to traditional orthodoxy. This includes feminist interpreters who find the metaphor of Jerusalem as a promiscuous woman offensive. Clearly, the book points out Jerusalem’s guilt as the reason for her suffering. The people have broken the Sinai covenant, even though God is a loyal covenant partner. This creates difficulty for a pastor trying to find a reasonable application in a contemporary context. Pearson warns against over-analyzing the text of Lamentations: “In trying to honor the intent of the text, the deep emotions that are present in the text need to be displayed as well as explained” (452).

Conclusion. Like other volumes of the Kerux series, Garrett and Pearson provide excellent exegesis and useful strategies for and preaching this important Old Testament prophetic book. Since Jeremiah is such a lengthy book, there are sections which seem too brief, but I do not think this distracts from the overall goals of the commentary.



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

Other volumes reviewed in this series:





Hannah K. Harrington, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah (NICOT)

Harrington, Hannah K. The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2022. 529 pp. Hb; $52.00   Link to Eerdmans

Hannah Harrington’s new commentary on Ezra and in the NICOT series replaces F. Charles Fensham’s 1983 commentary (now an Eerdmans Classic Commentary). Harrington was Professor of Old Testament at Patten University and currently serves as an instructor at Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies. She has published extensively on the Dead Sea Scrolls on topics relating to holiness and ritual purity in Second Temple Judaism. She contributed “Leviticus” in Women’s Bible Commentary (WJKP, 2012), Purity Texts, Companion to the Qumran Scrolls (Sheffield Academic Press, 2004) and Holiness: Rabbinic Judaism and the Graeco-Roman World (London: Routledge, 2001). Her interest in holiness and ritual purity serves her well in this excellent commentary on Ezra and Nehemiah.

Harrington, Ezra and NehemiahFollowing a thirteen-page bibliography, Harrington’s ninety-eight-page introduction opens with an explicit statement of purpose: “This commentary seeks to bring into relief the Second Temple context into which Ezra-Nehemiah was written” (1). She views Ezra-Nehemiah as an early repository of information regarding key concepts for Second Temple Judaism, ideas which surface in the literature of other Jewish communities such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament. Jews increasingly asked, “Who is a Jew?” Ezra-Nehemiah is an early narrative dealing with that issue. The books describe an ethnically pure Jewish community, legitimately connected with an Israelite past, guided by that or in the present, despite persecution and domination by a foreign regime (22). The book uses a wide range of literary techniques, in scholars often wonder whether Ezra-Nehemiah is fiction or polemic. She argues the book has historical concerns. There are many precise dates in the earliest audience would not be far removed from the events as they occurred. But the author’s goal was not a precise history, “the book has a theological agenda, presented carefully, using recognizable literary methods” (31).

Since Harrington argues Ezra began his ministry 458 BCE, Ezra’s work predates Nehemiah and the two overlap during the reign of Artaxerxes I. She thinks Chronicles was written later, probably not by the same author. As for the final compilation of Ezra-Nehemiah, if the Jaddua in Nehemiah 12:11 is the same as Josephus (Antiquities 11.302), then the final compilation cannot be before Darius (335-331 BCE). Ezra-Nehemiah claim that under Zerubbabel, about 60,000 lived in Yehud (Judea), but it is difficult to determine population archaeologically for the Persian period. For Jerusalem, some estimates are as low as 2000, others as large as 16,000.

Harrington uses insights drawn from social sciences to examine purity issues in Ezra-Nehemiah, especially intermarriage. For the first time, impurity is caused by certain types of people: gentiles. “The sinner, not just the sin, is impure” (33). This concern leads to a discussion of boundaries. Ezra defines boundaries and groups, which include some and exclude others. “This seems to be exactly the goal of Ezra-Nehemiah” (34).

She surveys Jewish life under Persian rule limited to Cyrus II, Darius I, and Artaxerxes I (35-57). One potential problem is that Ezra-Nehemiah is the primary source for Jewish experience under Persian rule. But there are several texts from the Achaemenid period which support its historical value (36). She says, “faithful readers of the book do not need to despair over discrepancies that exist in the text” and suggests the book was considered sacred, not because it was perfect (lacking error), but because “it was believed to carry divinely inspired traditions that could sustain the faith and life of the community” (37).

This section of the introduction also deals with internal Jewish leadership. What were the political and religious institutions that supported the community? In the absence of a monarch, the power of the priesthood and the Levites grew. But a new class developed, the scholar. Ezra the scribe is a scholar of the word of God. The voice of the prophet is muted in the period, although Haggai, Zachariah, and Malachi are witness to the hope for a full restoration of Israel under a messianic figure.

Since the early Persian period is a turning point for Jewish faith and practice, Ezra-Nehemiah is a source for the development of both Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity. She therefore surveys the contributions Ezra-Nehemiah make to this developing theology (57-88). In fact, “it is the goal of this commentary to highlight the seeds of later Judaism in Ezra-Nehemiah” (59).

“Four ‘pillars’ of Second Temple Judaism are emphasized in Ezra-Nehemiah, and they continued to undergird the faith and practice of Jews across sectors during this period: (1) Yahweh is the only true God of Israel; (2) Yahweh’s law, the Torah, is authoritative; (3) Jerusalem and its sanctuary is “the place of his holiness” (Ezra 9:8); and (4) the community of Israel is holy (Ezra 9:2). In all four of these areas, there are signs in Ezra-Nehemiah of both heritage and innovation” (59).

A major contribution is that the Torah is for everyone. Ezra reads the Torah and explains it to the people. But what was Ezra’s Torah? She argues it was some form of the Pentateuch (65), although she recognizes other scholars suggest it was as little as Deuteronomy (with some priestly material). In this section, she covers several practices mentioned in Ezra-Nehemiah that become important in later Judaism. A table summarizes this material by collecting traditions reflected in the book and Second Temple literature not drawn from the Pentateuch (79-80). For each, she provides reference to later sources for the practice. Examples include fasting during a crisis, minimum age for Levites, and intermarriage with non-Jews.

The introduction concludes with a brief comment on the Christian application of Ezra-Nehemiah (88-91). Since the theme of Ezra-Nehemiah is how to maintain a holy community within a society that applies pressure according to a different value system, the books speak to the heart of Christian life in a wide range of cultures. Like many Christians in the modern world, the Jewish community shared their homeland with antagonistic neighbors and paid harsh taxes to a foreign emperor. How do you maintain a religious identity and reject harmful practices while advancing in this hostile, idolatrous culture? Ezra-Nehemiah address the dangers of pluralism and relativism by emphasizing worship as central to the community. Some Christian application appears in the commentary’s body. For example, in her excuses on the exile, she suggests “in some ways Christians, too, live in exile within societies that often hold contrary systems of value” (116).

She divides the Text and Commentary (101-477) into units based on the outline from the introduction. She begins with a new translation with notes on lexical, syntactical, and textual issues. All Hebrew and Aramaic appear in transliteration. The commentary itself is based on the English text with footnotes used for details and secondary literature. This makes the commentary a pleasure to read and will be accessible for those without extensive Hebrew knowledge. Some units only merit brief comment, such as the genealogical lists. She covers 2:2b-20 in little more than a page since most of this material does not require comment.

The commentary includes twenty-three substantial excurses on theological and historical issues. Harrington uses these asides to connect Ezra-Nehemiah to other Second Temple theology and practice, especially Qumran. For example, in the context of Ezra 9, she discusses The Sacrilege of Intermarriage (Excursus 9, 244-54). She begins by dealing with Ezra’s view of intermarriage, along with the relevant background from the Old Testament. Ezra sees Israel as a “holy seed” and the people are responsible for continuing the remnant of that holy seed. To marry outside of Israel endangers the survival of the remnant since such marriages produce illegitimate offspring (i.e., not holy seed). She then connects this view to other Second Temple literature, such as the Testament of Levi, Jubilees and 4QMMT. Written about 150 BCE, 4QMMT is a document from the Dead Sea Scrolls which outline the practices of the community. In contrast, early Christians allowed marriage without racial distinctions, although Paul warns about being “unequally yoked” to a non-believer (2 Cor 6:14). As observed above, the concern is determining boundaries and determining who is properly in the community (and excluding those who are not).

Conclusion. Hannah Harrington’s commentary on Ezra-Nehemiah is an excellent contribution to the study of these two books, but also an introduction to the theology and practice of Second Temple Judaism. Her focus on Ezra-Nehemiah as an early witness to developments in later Judaism and Christianity makes this an especially valuable book. The excurses are worth the price of the commentary alone!


Other Commentaries in the NICOT Series:


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