Book Review: Mark J. Keown, Discovering the New Testament

Keown, Mark J. Discovering the New Testament: An Introduction to Its Background, Theology, and Themes (Volume 1: The Gospels and Acts). Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2018. 631 pp.; Hb.; $49.99. Link to Lexham Press

Keown, Mark J. Discovering the New Testament: An Introduction to Its Background, Theology, and Themes (Volume 2: The Pauline Letters). Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2021. 615 pp.; Hb.; $34.99. Link to Lexham Press

Mark Keown previously contributed one of the most detailed commentaries on Philippians (Evangelical Exegetical Commentary). Discovering the New Testament is a projected three volume introduction and theology written from a generally conservative viewpoint. The first two volumes are good choices for a Gospels or Pauline Lit survey class at the university or seminary level, although anyone should be able to read these introductions profitably.

In the general introduction to the first volume, Keown deals with general issues of canon and the formation of the New Testament. He includes a brief section on how to read the New Testament. First, he suggests the New Testament be read in its proper context with the intention of drawing meaning from text in the context. But that reading should also apply to today’s world by carefully applying the text to contemporary issues. He considers this a nonlinear process akin to Grant Osbourne’s metaphor of a “hermeneutical spiral.”

Keown, Discovering the New TestamentAfter this introductory chapter, the first unit covers New Testament background issues. First, Keown surveys the Jewish background of the New Testament. He begins with a survey of Second Temple Judaism, including geography, socioeconomic conditions, institutions, literature and other cultural influences. He offers theological features of Judaism in the first century. Here he includes a missiological interest based on Matthew 23:15 and the present of proselytes and God-fearing gentiles in Acts.

Second, Keown examines the Greco-Roman background of the New Testament, beginning with Hellenism and the pluralist world of Greco Roman religion. He includes a brief survey of Greek philosophy, concluding with that Paul would have been well aware of the intellectual currents. This chapter also discuss is the social stratification of the Roman world, the importance of patronage in the Roman world in a brief note on honor and shame.

Third, Keown describes various critical methodologies for the study of the Gospels with some brief evaluation. In the section he covers textual criticism, historical criticism, history religions, source, form, reduction, rhetorical, and narrative criticism, and the quest for the historical Jesus. He defines each of these concepts briefly, rarely more than a page.

The fourth and final chapter in the introductory unit concerns the relationship of the Synoptic Gospels. He briefly describes 8 possible solutions to the synoptic problem, with very clear charts illustrating each position. Keown argues for Markan priority and a form of the four-source hypothesis. He suggests Q should be understood as a blend of both written and oral material.

The second unit in the volume offers introductory material on the four Gospels and Acts. For each gospel Keown covers typical introductory material such as date, provenance, purpose, structure, setting, audience, and various special issues for that particular gospel. He usually surveys the available evidence and concludes there is no strong reason to reject the traditional views on authorship. John, for example, is the apostle and beloved disciple. Regarding the dates of the Gospels, he tends toward early dates but considers a wider range than expected: Matthew (mid 60s-80s), Luke (A.D. 62-95, “it matters little when in that period it was written,” p. 231). Since he links the author of John to Revelation, a date in the reign of Domitian is best. In addition to introductory material, each chapter offers a survey of contents and a sketch of the theology of the book.

Keown argues Luke wrote Acts “well after Mark’s Gospel,” even as late as the 80s or 90s AD (p. 323. He recognizes Acts is a theological history, but he emphasizes Luke had sources, often “his own interviews and experiences” (p. 326). He aligns Galatians 2:1-10 with Acts 11:26-30 rather than the Jerusalem council, implying Paul wrote Galatians before Acts 15, A.D. 46-47.

The final three chapters of the volume are a biblical theology of the Kingdom of God. First, Keown orients the reader to his understanding of the Kingdom in the Gospels. He begins with God as reigning as king in the Old Testament. This universal kingdom is a kingdom of righteousness and peace. He then briefly outlines the apocalyptic kingdom as expected in Second Temple Judaism. This kingdom will be preceded by a tribulation and the coming of Elijah and a “supernatural being” who has power over God’s enemies and will establish a “messianic kingdom.” This kingdom will regather Israel from the exile and restore Jerusalem as the “jewel of the world” (p. 423-24). Applying this to the Jesus’s preaching of the kingdom in the Synoptic Gospels, Keown observes there is both continuity and discontinuity with Old Testament expectations. This subversive kingdom is centered on Jesus, and entrance into this kingdom is only through a relationship with Jesus. Although there are aspects of the kingdom present in Jesus’s ministry and in the life of the present church through the world of the Holy Spirit (much of this chapter describes how Jesus’s teaching is foundational for church life). But other aspects are yet future. For Keown, “the coming of Christ is the decisive moment culminating God’s redemption and Israel’s story” (p. 434).

The final two chapters of volume one survey Jesus’s miracles (The Power of the Kingdom) and the parables (The Teaching of the Kingdom). Miracles point to the power of the Kingdom in the present, yet also look forward to the future peace of the consummated Kingdom. Healing and deliverance are “tiny glimpses of the picture of God healing his world” (p. 509). With respect to parables, he asserts that the purpose of parables is to explain the Kingdom of God. The parables are veiled references to the nature of the Kingdom and challenge those who hear them. In his section entitled “guidelines for interpretation” he begins by encouraging readers to always remember that parables are windows into the Kingdom (p. 534). Regarding hermeneutics, he recommends readers think about the main point (or points of the parable), observing there are “often multiple points based on the characters” (p. 536). Here he is following the method described by Craig Blomberg.

Volume two of Discovering the New Testament covers the Pauline Letters. The first chapter is a seventy-page introduction to Paul’s life. He begins a suggested chronology for Paul’s life and mission, beginning with the letters themselves. Galatians 1:18 refers to Paul’s first visit after Damascus (Acts 9:26-30) and Galatians 2:1-10 refers to his second visit fourteen years later (not in Acts). Keown starts with A.D. 30 for the crucifixion, then dates Paul’s conversion to A.D. 34, his escape from Aretas IV and the first Jerusalem visit to A.D. 37. He accepts the traditional view that Paul was released from prison in Rome after Acts 28 and was arrested in 64 after the Great Fire in Rome. It is during this imprisonment he wrote the Pastoral Epistles (rather than 1 Timothy and Titus before the final imprisonment), and Paul’s execution in A. D. 65.

Using Philippians 3 Keown reviews what can be known about Paul’s pre-Christian life and summarizes Paul’s conversion experience from the three reports in Acts. At this point he does not deal with the suggestion coming from the New Perspective on Paul that Paul experienced a prophetic calling rather than a religious conversion.

He describes the next three years as “Paul’s mission to Arabia” based on Galatians 1:17, showing that Paul engaged in some form of ministry in the region, even if there is no evidence of small Christian communities from this time. He briefly touches on the possibility Paul spent time at “Mount Sinai in Arabia” (Gal 4:25) contemplating his Damascus Road experience, working out the details of his theology and developing his strategy for evangelizing the Gentiles (p. 21).

The rest of this introductory chapter outlines what Keown calls the “Antiochian Mission Journey” in three phases plus travel to Rome. This is essentially a summary of the book of Acts, with more attention given to the Jerusalem council (Acts 15) than the anything else. He observes that Luke’s account of the council has a happy ending (everyone agrees with Paul’s gospel of grace), but Paul’s letters show the problem of the Judaizers continues to plague Paul’s churches. Keown has a brief note on the possibility of further ministry after Rome (after Acts 28) based on the Pastoral epistles.

The second chapter of the volume is a general introduction to the letters of Paul discussing structures, forms, rhetorical devices, etc. The longest section of the chapter is on authorship (p. 87-94), This is a spirited defense of Pauline authorship of all thirteen letters in the New Testament in eight points. His last point is perhaps the best: “the similarities outweigh the differences” (p.93). In addition, Keown observes “for those who accept biblical authority and inspiration, the issue of authorship is insignificant” (p. 94).

Eleven chapters survey Paul’s letters in canonical order. As with the first volume in this series, he examines the usual suggestions for date, authorship, and provenance, and in every case concludes the traditional view is correct. For example, he recognizes the possibility Ephesians may not be Pauline but concludes “it is more likely that it is genuine,” suggesting the use of an amanuensis for both Colossians and Ephesians. In the chapter on Philippians, he states Rome is the most likely point of origin, in his section on chronology early in the volume he includes an Ephesian imprisonment (A.D. 54/55) and implies Paul wrote Philippians at that time (compare page 5 and 251). He concludes the canonical order of letters to the Thessalonians is also the chronological order.

Keown combines the pastorals into a single chapter. Although Keown recognizes the Pastoral Epistles exhibit differences in vocabulary, style, and content than the other Pauline letters, he concludes “there is no reason to dispute the authenticity, considering the widespread early church acceptance, the rejection of pseudonymity/pseudepigraphy, the use of an amanuensis, and the differences in Paul’s coworkers’ situations” (p. 338).

Chapter 14 summarizes Paul’s theology in fifteen headings. For Keown, “the center of Paul’s thinking is the death and resurrection of Christ” (p. 409). One of these headings is the new perspective on Paul. Here, in a mere three pages, Keown introduces this important movement in Pauline studies. He suggests “the effect of the new perspective debate has been to complicate Pauline studies, especially in Romans, Galatians and Philippians 3.” this chapter on poles theology includes two sections on controversial ethical issues. First, he deals with Paul’s view on women. He contrasts the traditional, complementarian view with the egalitarian view, laying out the chief arguments and counterarguments for both positions, including a section on Paul’s more controversial statements in 1 Timothy 2:12. He does not argue for one position, although he states the “egalitarian hermeneutical approach is more focused on both the context and the culture of Paul’s ministry setting.” Whatever the decision, he says, “the issue should no longer divide the church” (p. 444).

The second controversial issue his Paul’s views on sexuality. He observes Paul endorsed heterosexual marriage and any variation on heterosexual marriage “should be repudiated on all its forms” (p. 444). Paul argued Christians who are married should seek to remain married. For Paul, sexual immorality violates the creation mandate and Paul was mortified when the Corinthian church dealt with serious immorality. Given the controversial nature of this particular issue, I am surprised there was not more discussion of homosexuality, especially the churches response to those with same sex attraction.

Chapter 15 introduces Paul’s missionary strategy. In this chapter he returns to the book of acts and examines Paul’s strategy of initially entering the synagogue, well developing a marketplace ministry in major cities. He discusses the importance of Paul’s tent-making as a mission strategy, following the work of Robert Hock. More important is the activity of the Holy Spirit. “While Paul had a clear strategy, he was flexible, always prepared to adjust to the Spirit and/or circumstances” (p. 477).

Conclusion. Keown’s work is in some ways similar to Carson and Moo’s popular An Introduction to the New Testament (Second Edition, Zondervan, 2005). It is clearly both conservative and evangelical, yet he is aware of other views and interacts with them throughout the text. The volumes will make excellent choices for a university or seminary classroom, but laypeople who want to go deeper than the introduction in their Study Bible will find Keown’s style readable and should have no trouble working their way through the text.

Remarkably, even at 1200+ pages for the two volumes, there are sections with seem brief. This is the nature of a survey text; perhaps this limitation could have been alleviated by including a “for further reading” for each unit. For example, at the end of his chapters on each Pauline letter, he could include a short bibliography of moderate and advanced commentaries (both evangelical and non-). For his chapter on Paul’s mission strategy, a list of several key monographs on the subject would point interested students to more detailed treatments. Keown refers to basic literature in the footnotes and the “Works Consulted” pages, but students using this textbook in a classroom could be better served with mini-biographies throughout the text.

NB: Thanks to Lexham Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book, both in print and Logos format. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Before the Son of Man Comes – Matthew 10:23

The first part of verse 23 refers to the mission the twelve which is about to begin, the disciples are going to go through the towns of Israel. But what does it mean they will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes (v. 23b)? “This is one of the most problematic verses in the Bible” (Wilkins, Matthew, 394). There are several options for understanding this difficult verse.

First, the “towns of Israel” is an unusual way to describe the short-term mission. They are going to the towns of Galilee, but Israel as a geographical area no longer exists. Some therefore expand this to all of the Jewish communities in the Diaspora. As Nolland suggests, this is unlikely. For Nolland, Jesus’s point is the twelve will not have fled all the villages in Palestine until the Son of Man comes (Matthew, 427).

Second, when the Son of Man comes is eschatological, alluding to Daniel 7:13-14. The Son of Man is the judge of the nations and the one who initiates God’s Kingdom. Jesus calls himself the Son of Man frequently in the Gospel of Matthew (9:6, for example). Does this refer to the second coming of Jesus? At this point in Matthew, Jesus has not mentioned his death and departure, so the idea of “return” would be strange. However, he may be referring to Daniel and the Jewish expectation of the Son of Man judging the nations without yet implying anything about a departure and return. Certainly, later readers would have understood this as the “return of Jesus.”

Third, this section is remarkably similar to Matthew 24:9-14. Describing the time after the birth pains that are NOT signs of the end (24:4-8), Jesus warns his disciples of persecution and promises everyone who stands firm to the end will be save. In 24:14 he says the gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world, and then the end will come. (the abomination of desolation is the next paragraph). Rather than the “towns of Israel” he says the whole world will hear the gospel of the kingdom.

Jesus and his disciples thought the kingdom of God will be fully realized in their lifetimes. This may refer to Pentecost, or a failed belief Jesus would establish the kingdom soon after Pentecost. This refers to the mission in Acts and culminates in the destruction of Jerusalem in A. D. 70. Jesus shifts from the immediate future to the distant future, as he will do in Matthew 24:4-8 (present age) and 24:9-14 (the future tribulation just before the end).

Despite rejection and persecution, there will be a continuous mission to both Israel and the Nations until the Second Coming of Jesus to establish his kingdom in the future. The twelve are not called to live a comfortable life as executive leaders, they will suffer because the maintain their testimony until the very end, even if that end results in martyrdom. The reason the disciples will suffer is their relationship with Jesus (10:24-25). Jesus has already been accused of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebul (9:34) and this will be the cause of the decisive break from the Pharisees (12:22-37).

The problem for interpreters here is “when is this?” Matthew 24:19-13 also warns about very similar persecution on account of the name of Jesus in an eschatological context; the next paragraph predicts the abomination which causes desolation (24:15-21). When the persecution happen? In the apostolic period? During church history? Only in a future “tribulation period” prior to the second coming?

The immediate application is to the Twelve and the persecution they will face as they present the Gospel to the Jews first, and eventually to the rest of the world.

There is an application for contemporary Christianity. Jesus is clear if you are representing Jesus, the world will treat you the same way they treated Jesus. There is no promise in the Gospel that the disciple of Jesus will be free from suffering, either from the typical things that happen in this world or from targeted persecution for your faith.

How does the admonition to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” work in the context to contemporary persecution? Maybe, “don’t hide your faith, but don’t go out of your way to get persecuted.” This seems to have been Paul’s policy.

Do Not Worry About What You Will Say – Matthew 10:19-23

Jesus tells his disciples they will governors and kings, to bear witness. The twelve disciples would be rightly concerned how they would behave when they are brought before these authorities, so Jesus tells then the Holy Spirit will guide their speech.

Peter and John Preachingbefore kings

“Do not be anxious” also appears in Matthew 6:25, do not be anxious about your life, food drink or clothing. Just as the disciples are not to worry about their physical needs (God will provide), they do not need to worry about the words they will speak to the people who have the power to kill them because the Holy Spirit will be speaking through them.

In Acts 4 Peter and John are brought before the high priest and a few of the Temple aristocracy. When he is asked by what authority he speaks, Peter is “filled with the Holy Spirit” (4:8) and he bears witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus (4:8-12). Those who heard the speech were astonished that an unschooled man would have that kind of courage to speak as he did (4:13-17). When he is told to stop speaking in the name of Jesus, Peter boldly says he will continue preaching in Jesus’s name (4:18-20).

I have occasionally heard this verse misused by people who downplay preparing academically for preaching and teaching the Bible. I have talked to pastors who claim that they do very little preparation, they just let the Holy Spirit lead. That is not what this verse is talking about! These disciples will be dragged before authorities and they will give bold testimony through the power of the Holy Spirit, but the Spirit is calling to mind things they have learned from Jesus in the first place! When a pastor tells me they like to let the Spirit lead, I usually tell them they should give the Holy Spirit something to work with (and seriously prepare themselves to preach).

Not only with the disciples be threatened by local Jewish councils and Gentile courts, but they will also be ostracized from their families. Jesus then tells his disciples that “everyone who endures will be saved” (10:21-23).

Is there an allusion to Deuteronomy 13:6-11 here? In that passage Moses warns against family members and friends enticing a person to worship an idol. Do not listen to that person, they are to be killed! If the local Jewish councils and synagogues think the preaching of the disciples is in some way idolatrous, would they think they are following the principle of Deuteronomy 13:6-11 when they try to correct the disciples with physical punishment and even death?

Most commentaries detect an allusion to Micah 7:6, sons and daughters rise up against their family, even neighbors cannot be trusted. “But as for me, I will look to the LORD; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me” (Mic 7:7). The parallel is closer in the LXX.

Everyone will hate the disciples “for my name’s sake.” As he will say in v. 24, it is the preaching of Jesus that causes the persecution. If you suffer on account of your testimony for Jesus and the gospel, then that is a good thing; if you suffer because you did something stupid, then that is not the kind of suffering Jesus is talking about. If you are caught speeding, you cannot claim you are suffering persecution from the pagan government and somehow this passage applies.

Here is a very 2021 analogy, if you do not like it, move on to the next paragraph. If you joined a riot and broke into a federal building, destroyed federal property and looted things from government offices, then you are going to suffer. Your family might even turn you in to the FBI when they see your social media posts! This is not a fulfillment of Matthew 10:21-23: you did something that deserves punishment, jail time, etc.

Jesus is describing suffering on account of his name, unjust punishments and even execution as a result of preaching the Gospel. Some Christians claim this verse when people hate them, but Jesus is not talking about being hating because you are a jerk. This hatred is based toward the disciples of Jesus for being a disciple of Jesus.

Jesus promises the disciples that they will be saved, but from what? This cannot refer to being saved from persecution or death since some will die (Stephen, Acts 7:59-60; James, Acts 12:1).  When a town begins to persecute them, the disciples are to flee and go to another town. On the one hand, Jesus has already prohibited retaliation in 5:39 (so no fighting back against one’s oppressor).

This section began with an admonition to be wise as a serpent. If a town is aggressively persecuting the disciples on account of the name of Jesus, perhaps the wise course of action is to leave (Nolland, Matthew, 427). It is a misuse of this verse to claim that a disciples of Jesus ought to put themselves in dangerous positions of intentionally break laws to preach the gospel. The disciple who is wise learns how to navigate a culture so that they can maximize their chances for reaching the lost with the Gospel of Jesus.

The Disciples Will Face Persecution – Matthew 10:16-23

Mike Wilkins suggested Matthew 10:5-15 are instructions for the short-term mission to the villages of Galilee while 10:16-42 prepares the twelve disciples for their long-term mission in the future (Matthew, 389). This certainly helps with the problem of applying the specifics in 10:5-15 to contemporary ministry. There is a shift from the present to future tense and the ministry envisioned in 10:16-42 does include Gentiles (v. 18). In addition, there is no hint of the kind of persecution described in 10:16-42 in the mission of the Twelve in Galilee.

Flogging Jesus Medieval

On the one hand, this section does describe the dangers faced by the Christian mission both in the earliest chapters of Acts and the mission of Paul in the second half of the book. It is possible to draw analogies to Christian mission at any time in history since those who are doing the ministry of the Gospel often face resistance and persecution from the culture they are trying to reach. This is not only so-called “foreign missions” but also reaching one’s own culture with the Gospel. Matthew is clear: if you are a disciple of Jesus, you will suffer at the hands of even your own family!

The disciples are being sent out into a dangerous world (Matthew 10:16-18). Jesus reverses the metaphor; the sheep were the people living in Galilee who had no shepherds. Now the disciples are the sheep. “Like sheep among wolves”

The contrast between “wise as serpents” and “innocent as doves” suggests the balance the disciples will need between craftiness and moral purity. For early Christians, this may refer to the problems they will face trying to navigate Roman culture and remain ethically upright. Modern missionaries make similar decisions. For example, if every bribes officials to get things done, is it morally permissible for a Christian to bribe government officials?

The ESV translates συνέδριον as “courts,” the NIV 2011 has “local courts” and the NRSV has councils.” This word is often translated as Sanhedrin, but the noun is plural. “The Sanhedrin” refers to the (singular) council in Jerusalem. Since these warnings are more universal, modern translations use the more general term. But this obscures the fact these are Jewish local councils likely meeting in the synagogue rather than the Gentile city council of Ephesus.

That the disciples will be “flogged in their synagogue” indicates they are targeting Jewish audiences. The disciples will be considered worthy of physical punishment for their testimony about Jesus. Synagogue as cultural center, more than a “Jewish church.” A synagogue could function as a legal court for the Jewish community. The “courts” in verse 17 does not necessarily refer to a Roman court (Paul in Acts 18, brought before Gallio’s court in Corinth).

The maximum punishment in the law was 40 lashes (Deut 25:3). Since the Law says more than 40 lashes is degrading to the one giving the punishment, the tradition developed by the first century to stop short of forty. m.Makkot 3:10 recommends a number near forty but less than forty; 3:11 gives some instruction for beating people who are physically unable to take a full flogging.

Paul’s practice of starting in the synagogue until he is forced to leave, usually by a riot. In 2 Corinthians 11:24 Paul says he was given “forty lashes less one” on five occasions. Matthew 10:17 and 23:34 uses the verb μαστιγόω, a word associated with Roman flogging (of Jesus, in Matt 20:19; Mark 10:34; Luke 18:33).

The disciples will eventually de dragged to governors and kings, to bear witness before the Gentiles (v. 18). The ESV’s “dragged” is perhaps overly dramatic, the verb (aorist passive of ἄγω) is often translated as “arrested.” To be arrested by the Gentile authorities (the Romans) is more dangerous than being brought before a Jewish council. The synagogue council might flog the disciples, but the Romans could torture and execute them!

This escalation of persecution tracks well with the book of Acts. Peter and John bear witness before the High Priest (Acts 4:1-22) and the Sanhedrin (Acts 5:17-42) and are flogged several times; Stephen bears witness in a synagogue and is lynched (7:54-8:1); James is beheaded by Herod (Acts 12:1) and Peter is arrested and held for execution (Acts 12:2-5). Paul is frequently abused both by the synagogues and Roman officials (2 Cor 11:16-29) and eventually bears witness to the Sanhedrin (Acts 23:1-11), Roman governors Felix (Acts 24) and Festus (Acts 25:1-12), King Agrippa II (Acts 25:13-32) and eventually before Caesar himself (23:11; 27:24).

Jesus therefore warns his disciples they will face persecution on account of their testimony about him. Two observations follow from this. First, following Jesus is dangerous. There is no promise of an easy life, nor can a follower of Jesus expect nothing but peace and prosperity in their lives. Much of what passes for “evangelical” Christianity in the west seems to have missed this point.

Second, the persecution described here is on account of the name of Jesus. It is not the general suffering which is the fate of all people. Again, popular preachers will sometimes associate personal suffering (illness, financial troubles, etc.) with satanic attacks. It is more likely people suffer because of their own bad choices or poor decisions of others.

Rely on God and Travel Light – Matthew 10:8-11

What did Jesus mean when he told his disciples to not take money or extra cloaks and sandals on their mission to the villages of Galilee? Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 6:25, to not be anxious about their life, food drink or clothing because God will see to their needs. Matthew 6:25-33 is important background for understanding these commands for the short-term mission to the villages of Galilee.

Take no Cloak or sandals

“You received without paying; give without pay” is only found in Matthew and may mean something like, “you are not in this for the money.” Jesus freely gave his authority to the disciples and they are to exercise that authority without expecting payment.

First, Jesus tells his disciples to not take money or extra clothing on their mission to Galilee. These are the things one normally takes on a journey, but they will not need them because God will take care of them. Nolland suggests the three types of coins are significant. They may not bring any gold (rich provision), nor silver (middling provision) nor even copper (modest provision) (Matthew, 418). Mark’s Gospel only mentions copper coins, Luke has silver. Where to you eat when you travel a long distance? A decent restaurant? McDonalds?  A gas station?

Second, carrying a second tunic allows for a change of clothing, but also for warmth if the disciples need to sleep outside. (Clothing not wearing out in the wilderness, so no need for a second cloak?)

Third, “No sandals” is unique to Matthew, Mark allows sandals rather than boots or footwear for long walks (“sensible shoes”). Does Matthew mean the disciples are to travel barefoot, or to not take a spare pair of sandals? If they were to go barefoot, then the journey would be slow, perhaps they rely on God to protect them physically as they travel. (Sandals not wearing out in the wilderness, so you do not need a second pair?)

Fourth, a walking staff is not a luxury since a sturdy walking stick can also be used as a weapon if the disciples are attacked by animals or bandits on the road. The noun ῥάβδος can refer to a stick used for punishment, a rod.

It may be the case that these commands simply mean the mission is short-term and there is no need to collect the supplies one might need for a long journey (Wilkins, Matthew, 390). On the other hand, since Jesus called the people of Israel “sheep without shepherds” and then appointed twelve shepherds to go and tend to their needs, he is likely evoking God’s protection of Israel in the Wilderness and/or God’s protection of Elijah in 1 Kings.

The disciples are to rely on God for their food: the laborer deserves his food.  The disciples are workers in a harvest field, so the principle seems to be based on feeding one’s workers.

Is this an allusion to Elijah and Elisha? God provided for both miraculously, but also through the hospitality of others. A better background is the twelve tribes of Israel in the wilderness, god provided their food, water and clothing during the forty years in the wilderness.

This passage has been interpreted in various ways in church history. But Did Jesus intend these instructions for his disciples to describe how ministry ought to be done in all circumstances? In other words, did Matthew include this teaching of Jesus to give a model for how the Christian Church should continue Jesus is mission for his original readers?

Although I am certain that Jesus did not call us to build huge cathedrals made of crystal, nor are pastors called to be to live in mansions and drive to church in one of their mini luxury vehicles, I’m not convinced that this is a model for ministry. I’m not aware of any modern mission organizations that sends missionaries out to the field with no spare clothing, extra sandals, and no money whatsoever.

What is the application of this passage? Like the prohibition on teaching and preaching in Galilean and Samaritan villages, these commands about traveling light and relying on God refer only to Galilean mission Jesus is about to send his disciples on.

Although there may be some principles to be drawn from these commands in Matthew 10:5-15, this is not a model for doing missions today.

Why did Jesus tell his Disciples to not go to the Gentiles? – Matthew 10:5

After selecting twelve disciples, Jesus instructs them for their mission to the villages of Galilee. The first of these commands may surprise some readers, since Jesus restricts their mission to the Jews. They are not to go to Gentiles or Samaritans at all!

Lost Sheep of the House of Israel

The first of these instructions is to go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (10:5-8a). Does this command imply Jesus only came to the Jewish people? Jesus tells them to not even go to Gentile or Samaritan villages, although the Jewish disciples of Jesus would certainly not have considered entering either a Gentile or Samaritan town.

  • When asked by a Gentile woman to heal her daughter, Jesus states it is not right to give food for the children to dogs. In Matthew 15:24 Jesus repeats the words from 10:6, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (cf., Mark 7:24-30 which does not have the lost sheep line).
  • James and John want to call fire down from heaven to destroy a Samaritan village for refusing to receive Jesus (Luke 9:54). Even though Jesus speaks with a Samaritan woman, his disciples are surprised he is talking to the woman (4:27).
  • Even as late as Acts 10 Peter is reluctant to preach the Gospel of the God-fearer Cornelius and he is criticized when he returns to Jerusalem (11:1-3). James is still suspicious of Paul’s gentile mission in Acts 21:17-26.

It is therefore not surprising Jesus tells his disciples to only go to the Jews. The announcement that the Kingdom of God is near, and Jesus is the Messiah would have little meaning for a Samaritan and less for a Gentile. Mike Wilkins asks why Jesus would bother with the command if the disciples were not likely to go to the Gentiles anyway. For Wilkins, the prohibition dispels any doubts about whether Jesus was really the messiah. This is “Israel’s opportunity” and later they will be responsible for their rejection of the Messiah (Matthew, 390).

Is this restriction retracted in the Great Commission? Perhaps. But in the Book of Acts the initial mission was to still to the Jews in Jerusalem (Acts 2-7) first. There is suspicion of Philip’s mission in Samaria (Acts 8) and of Peter’s mission to Cornelius (Acts 10). Even in Acts 21 it does not seem like James is operating under the Great Commission; he is not reaching out to Samaritans or Gentiles (and probably not Hellenistic Jews). John Nolland argues Matthew did not consider the Great Commission as a “replacement of the mission to Israel with a mission to the Gentiles,” Jesus’s disciples are to continue their mission to Israel after the resurrection (Matthew, 429).

Who are the lost sheep of the house of Israel? The “lost sheep of the house of Israel” alludes to Jeremiah 50:6 and evokes the long exile of Israel.  Just prior to the final destruction of Jerusalem and the scattering of God’s people among the nations, God describes the people as “lost sheep,” ignored by their shepherds and harassed by the nations. Remember Matthew has just described the Jewish crowds as “sheep without a shepherd” (9:36). As the messiah, Jesus is the good shepherd sending his working into the world to care for the lost sheep.

The twelve are to proclaim the same message as Jesus, “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Although repentance is not specifically mentioned in 10:6-7, Jesus condemns the villages of Galilee because they did not repent after seeing his miracles (11:20-24). The disciples are to do the same messianic signs as Jesus in Matthew 8-9 (heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons).

Book Review: Christopher D. Stanley, A Bull for Pluto

Stanley, Christopher D. A Bull for Pluto. Buffalo, NY: NFB Publishing, 2020. 520 pp. Pb. $25.00; Kindle $9.99  Link to Amazon

This is the second volume of Christopher Stanley’s A Slave’s Story picking up the story where A Rooster for Asklepios left off. After a disappointing visit to the Asklepion in Pergamum, Lucius and his slave Marcus travel home to Psidian Antioch. On the way they make a short visit to famous hot springs at Hierapolis hoping to find some cure for Lucius’s illness.

Bull for Pluto, Christophet StanleySeveral things happen when Lucius arrives at Hierapolis. Lucius realizes he will not recover from his illness. While in Hierapolis, he orders a tomb made by a skilled local craftsman and arranges for it to be delivered to his home in Antioch. One of the most interesting features of Hierapolis is the massive necropolis just outside of the town. There are approximately 1200 limestone tombs, many with inscriptions.

Since they arrive about the time of the festival of Cybele and Apollos., Lucius and Marcus witness the wild dance of the Galli, the castrated priests of Cybele. This lurid festival shocks the refined Roman citizen Lucius. The festival also features animal sacrifices to Pluto, the ruler of the dead. The animals led to the mouth of a cave in the Ploutonion where they are killed by poisonous carbon dioxide gas rising from the cave. This location was recently excavated by Italian archaeologists, although the site has been closed to visitors each time I have visited Hierapolis. Here is a link to a 45 minute documentary on YouTube featuring Mark Wilson to orient readers to this archaeological site.

I won’t spoil any of the plot twist, but Lucius becomes very ill while staying in Hierapolis and a local Jewish family takes him into their home and provides for his recovery. This continues a theme begun in the first novel in the series. At the beginning of the story, Lucius was deeply offended when he found out one of his business partners was Jewish. But as the first novel progresses, he encounters Jews who are kind and fair, and offer him gracious hospitality. Both he and his slave Marcus attend a synagogue in the first novel, and they find their attitudes towards Jewish people softening. Marcus falls in love with a slave in the Jewish household, but this romance limited because of her commitment to her Jewish faith.

As with A Rooster for Asklepios, there are only a few incidents involving Christians. After Lucius returns to Psidian Antioch, he is invited a Christian worship meeting. As a prominent Roman citizen, he simply wants to sit in the back and observe in the same way he did when he visited the synagogue. However, one of his slaves wants the congregation to pray for him for healing. This humiliates Lucius and he leaves the Christian congregation with a mixture of embarrassment and anger.

There are several other plot twists when they returned to Antioch, but I won’t reveal any spoilers here. The novel ends satisfactorily and the plot is left open for a third A Slave Story novel. However, the first two books can be read together as a unit. In fact, by way of constructive criticism, I think that A Rooster for Asklepios should have been divided into two shorter novels about the same size as A Bull for Pluto.

Stanley makes considerable effort to ensure the historical and cultural accuracy of every detail in his novels. This included careful on-site research at most of the places mentioned in the books. Stanley recently published “Paul and Asklepios: The Greco-Roman Quest for Healing and the Mission of Paul” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 42 (2019), 1-31 and he has a monograph coming out in 2022, Paul and Asklepios: The Greco-Roman Quest for Healing and the Mission of Paul.

Stanley also maintains a website for A Slave’s Story. There are links to background material relating to the locations described in both novels conveniently organized by the sections of the book. This site addresses one frustration for me as I read the novels. I wanted more documentation! Several times I wanted to check the footnotes to see what primary sources Stanley followed for a particular practice. Most readers will want to browse this site as they read the novels.

Conclusion. A Bull for Pluto is a scholarly novel which illustrates the Greco-Roman world of mid-first century Asia Minor. I highly recommend both A Rooster for Asklepius and A Bull for Pluto for people who are planning on visiting Turkey since most of the “Seven Churches” tours or Pauline Missionary Journeys tours include Hierapolis.

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

Who are the Workers Sent into the Harvest? – Matthew 9:37-38

After looking at the crowds and having compassion on them, Jesus tells his disciples “the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.” He then encourages his disciples to pray to the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into the harvest. In what follows this saying Jesus prepares his own disciples to be the laborers in the harvest.

Wheat Feild

But Jesus describes the harvest as plentiful, not “ripe” or ready for harvest. There are so many people living in Galilee that Jesus cannot personally visit all of the villages to teach with authority and heal. This is the initial motivation for appointing twelve of his followers as disciples. They are going to go to the villages of Galilee and announce the coming of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 10).

A harvest as a metaphor in the Second Temple Period for eschatological judgment (threshing wheat and gathering grapes for the winepress). The “Lord of the Harvest” refers to God, but likely also Jesus as the Son of Man who will render justice at the final judgment. Even in the Parable of the Weeds (Matt 13:24-30, 36-43) the harvest refers to a future time when the wheat and the weeds will be separated, the wheat will be taken into the barn and the weeds burned on a fire (where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth). In the book of Revelation, the “harvest of the earth” refers to the devastation of God’s enemies at the final judgment at the end of the tribulation (Rev 14:14-20).

Does Jesus mean, the field is ready for harvest because the judgment is about to happen? Or does he mean there are many people in Galilee who are ready to hear the message of the messiah? The harvest is not yet ripe, as if the end of the age has already come and the wheat and weeds are about to be separated. But in some respects the harvest has begun when Jesus sends his workers out into the fields, his disciples to the villages of Galilee.

If the people are harassed and helpless, then they are exactly the people who would be looking for the Messiah to come and render judgment on their own leaders and any gentiles who are harassing them.

Who are these workers for the harvest? In the immediate context, the twelve disciples are sent out to the villages of Galilee in the very next paragraph.

There is nothing wrong with the application of this passage to evangelism or world missions. Christians ought to pray to God for him to send workers into the fields ripe for harvest. But in Matthew, that “mission field” is specifically the villages in the region of Galilee. This becomes more clear in Matthew 13, in the parable of the sower. The sower who sows his seed is Jesus announcing the nearness of the Kingdom of God; the various soils will represent reactions to Jesus’s preaching and healing in Galilee up to that point in Matthew.

Logos Publisher’s Spotlight Sale: Wipf & Stock

Wipf & Stock Sale

Logos Publisher’s Spotlight is on Wipf & Stock this month. There are great deals on W&S Publications, including the finest book Wipf & Stock ever published, Jesus the Bridegroom. This is your chance to buy my book in the Logos library for only $4.99 (cheaper than one of those fancy coffees you like so much).  If you purchase the book through Logos, I would really appreciate you leaving a review on the Logos site and Amazon. 

Here are a few highlights:

Volumes of the New Covenant Commentary are only $4.99, including the two-volume commentary on Acts by Youngmo Cho and Hyung Dae Park (a great deal at only $4.99, 88% off). I see some of the volumes of the Cascade Companions series along with a “package deal” on all 26 volumes. Don Garlington New Perspective on Paul Collection is only $14.97. There are quite a few volumes on Systematic Theology (I see some Karl Barth) and Church history.

If you are interested in the Mishnah and Talmud, the 99 volume Jacob Neusner Jewish Studies Bundle is on sale for 60% off. Although it is still pricey, it is well-worth the money for 28,000+ pages of Judaica. The bundle includes the five-volume History of the Jews (from Parthian to later Sasanian times) and (all?) the volumes in the series History of Mishnaic Law, This is a commentary on the various Mishnah Tractates. There are seven volumes of Judaic Hermeneutics and dozens of volumes on aspects Judaism. This collection even includes How To Grade Your Professors: And Other Unexpected Advice.

Although there plenty of grades deals on the sale page, scroll down to the bottom to the link that says “see more.” This will take you to the regular Logos site and show all the W&S publications on sale this month.

Another way to save on Logos this month is the Clash of the Commentaries sale. Having an March tournament is an annual tradition with Logos (not sure where they got the idea). User vote in a bracket style contest, with the discounts going deeper each round. It is a fun way to rate commentaries and maybe your dream team commentary makes it to the final four and you can finally afford the New International Greek Text Commentary.

This Clash of the Commentary tournament runs through March 22, so head on over and fill in your bracket.  

There is also a great free/almost free book of the month sale in March (link goes to my post commenting on the sale). You can get a couple of Anchor Bible Commentaries for free and deep discounts on several others. There are great deals on Anchor Bible Reference Library volumes, so check out the sale and pack that library.

If you do not have Logos 9 yet, at least consider the Logos 9 Fundamentals or the (free) Basic Edition and begin reading these books right away. First-time Logos users save 50% on the Fundamentals bundle, only $49.95. By following that link you can also choose five additional resources for free. Logos Basic is the free version of Logos Bible Software and has limited free resources, but you do get the Lexham Bible Dictionary and can use the basic edition to add the free and discounted resources listed above.







Like Sheep without a Shepherd – Matthew 9:35-38

Jesus sees the crowds following him and describes as “sheep without a shepherd” (9:35-36). Matthew uses this saying to introduce the Discipleship Discourse (Matthew 10). The application of this passage is difficult since many churches have used “the harvest is plentiful” as a Missions conference theme but few take the instructions in 10:5-15 seriously as a model for doing Christian mission. In addition, Jesus is quite clear this is a limited mission to the Jewish towns and villages of Galilee. He specifically tells them to avoid Gentiles and go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

Sheep without a shepherd

In Mark 6:34 has the “sheep without a shepherd” line to introduce the feeding of the 5000. The mission of the twelve is in Mark 6:6b-13, 30. Luke 10:1-2 uses the harvest to introduce the instructions for the mission of the seventy-two. Matthew has relocated this saying as an introduction to a section on preparing the disciples for their mission to Galilee (Matthew 10).

Jesus has compassion on the crowds. The verb (σπλαγχνίζομαι) refers to a strong feeling of pity or sympathy. The word is related to the noun for viscera, the innermost part of a person. One feels their emotions in their stomach, so the verb becomes a metaphor for deeply felt emotions. In the Gospels, the word is only used for Jesus’s compassion on suffering, with the exception of Matthew 18:23-25 (the master’s compassion on the unmerciful servant), Luke 10:33 (the good Samaritan has compassion in the injured men) and Luke 15:20 (the reaction of the father to the prodigal’s return). In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’s compassion is always directed towards physical need (14:14, a healing; 15:32, food for the 4000; 20:34, a blind man)

Since they are like sheep without a shepherd, the people are “harassed and helpless.” In the context, the phrase is an apt description of a lost sheep. Sheep are not well equipped to care for themselves and those who wander off from the flock becomes prey.

Harassed (σκύλλω) has the sense of troubling or annoying someone (in Luke 8:49, “do not trouble the teacher”). But there is violence implied by the word, it is sometimes used literally for “flay” or “skin” and in the passive voice it can refer to being torn or lacerated (BrillDAG).  “Helpless” (perf pass ptcp from ῥιπτέω), literally to be thrown down, the perfect passive participle is used for throwing oneself down on the ground, prostrating oneself.  The verb is used for exposing an unwanted infant (BDAG). The verb does not necessary imply violence, although “discarded” captures the thought, the people are tossed aside as if they have no value (Brown and Roberts, Matthew, 97).

Who is harassing the people? It is possible this harassment refers to general life under the Romans, the metaphor of a “sheep without a shepherd” makes this an allusion to the leadership of Israel. The harassed and helpless people are like “sheep without a shepherd,” a phrase which evokes the prophetic critique of the leaders of Israel and Judah.

The phrase may be drawn from Numbers 27:17. In that context, Moses realizes that when he dies there will be no one to lead Israel in the wilderness, they will be like sheep scattered in the wilderness without a shepherd. The Lord then appoints Joshua, a man with the spirit of leadership, to succeed Moses.

In Matthew, Jesus (the new Moses) appoints his twelve disciples to continue his mission throughout Galilee. As the chapter develops, this call to discipleship extends beyond the immediate context of Matthew 10 to disciples at the time the Gospel was written.

There are several passages in the Old Testament describing Israel’s leaders as “bad shepherds.” In Ezekiel 34 the shepherds do not take care of their flock and they are scattered as if they have no shepherd (34:5). The solution is to appoint a new, good shepherd who will rescue the sheep from the wild animals who harass them and care for them. Ezekiel is looking forward to an eschatological shepherd-king who will rule of Israel in peace and prosperity (34:25-31). In Micah 3 the leaders of Israel and Judah are like shepherds who butcher their flock and eat them (3:1-3), rather than care for them as they should (3:4-12). Perhaps most significant is Jeremiah 50:6, God’s people are lost sheep because their leaders have led them astray and their enemies have devoured them.

The crowds following Jesus are oppressed and downtrodden because they do not have good shepherds. In Matthew 10 Jesus will send out his chosen twelve disciples on a mission to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  There is nothing wrong with the application of this passage made in Missions conferences, we ought to pray to God for him to send workers into the fields ripe for harvest. But in Matthew, that “mission field” is specifically the villages in the region of Galilee.