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Thanks to WJKP for sending along a review copy of this new textbook by Markus Bockmuehl. This is the latest in the Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church series, which is itself a subset of the Interpretation commentary series.
The book begins with a 54 page chapter defining an ancient Christian Gospel. Since there are about eighty documents which fall under the category “gospel,” Bockmuehl must carefully define what he will include in this book. In his conclusion he comments “the canonical gospels appear to be unique and distinctive” (226). There are no narrative apocryphal gospels which attempt to tell the story of Jesus from baptism to resurrection, although they all seem to presuppose the general outline of the canonical gospels.
After this introduction, Bockmuehl offers a chapter infancy gospels (such as James and Thomas), ministry Gospels (Egerton and “secret Mark”), Passion Gospels (such as the Gospel of Peter), and post-resurrection gospels (such as the Gospels of Thomas and Philip).
Bockmuehl also concludes these apocryphal gospels were not suppressed from the canon and the evidence overwhelmingly indicate no one thought these gospels would supersede the canonical gospels. Many were in fact produced as private literature and intentionally hidden. As Bockmuehl says, these gospels did not “become apocryphal but remained so” (232). This is important since much of what is written on these gospels is sensationalism at its worst. These are the lost gospels, or the gospels the Church did not want people to read. In fact, only a small percentage of the literature surveyed in this book could be considered subversive by the orthodox church. For example, Bockmuehl considers the Gospel of Jesus as “antagonistic” (234), but most of this literature is not dark, heretical knowledge.
So why read this literature? The non-canonical gospels bear witness to a wide variety of early Christian thinking. The first few centuries of the church were far more diverse than many overly-optimistic church histories would lead you to believe. This diversity also indicates the difficulties of dealing with who Jesus was as presented by the four canonical gospels.
The book includes an extensive 47 page bibliography may be worth the price of the book by itself.
Look for a full review soon.
Gorman, Michael J. Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 351 pp. Pb; $28. Link to Eerdmans
In this new monograph Michael Gorman asserts the apostle Paul wanted his communities to not only believe the gospel, to become the gospel by participating in the life and mission of God (2). Gorman describes local churches as “colonies of cruciformity” Gorman has already contributed two books with similar themes (Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross, Eerdmans 2001 and Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology, Eerdmans 2009). This book intends to develop this view of Paul’s theology of participation by reading Paul missionally. After two introductory chapters, Gorman examines becoming faith, hope and love in 1 Thessalonians, the story of Christ in Philippians, the gospel of peace in Ephesians, and the justice of God in 1-2 Corinthians and Romans.
In this book Gorman argues Paul “expected the salvation of God to spread throughout the world not only by means of his own Gospel ministry but also by means of the participation of his converts in various house churches” (61). In fact, the church was to be a “living exegesis” of the gospel of God (43).
Gorman uses Philippians 2:6-11 as a model of the gospel several times in the book. He calls this text a “missional Christology for a missional people” (109). The pattern of these verses is “although [x] status, not [y] selfishness, but [z] self-renunciation and self-giving.” In Philippians, Jesus as the status of “form of God” [x], but did not consider than status as something to be exploited [y], but rather he emptied himself so that he could give himself on the cross [z]. Chapter 4 contains a careful exegesis of these verses and Gorman describes them as Paul’s master text. Gorman shows how Paul’s example in 1 Thessalonians 2 or 1 Corinthians 9 follows this same pattern (87), but also Paul’s expectation for his churches are similarly modeled.
But Gorman is not advocating some bland lifestyle evangelism. Using the Thessalonian church as an example, it appears their faithfulness to the gospel was public and in some way brought them into conflict with their culture, perhaps even leading to the death of some members of the congregation because of their faithful witness (74; although he admits this is a minority view in footnote 24, I am inclined to agree). In addition to this, those who have expressed public faith in the gospel would have face questions from friends and family about their abandonment of cultic activity. This would include a rejection of family gods, but also civic and imperial worship. This would be interpreted as impious and unpatriotic behavior, potentially leading to persecution (95). Gorman says “one cannot speak of the ‘good news’ of Jesus as ‘Lord’ without focusing on the countercultural religious and political claims of this story” (134). The gospel itself challenges the false master story of the Roman world. If the church is actually living out the gospel in their lives then they will challenge culture in very real ways which will lead naturally to persecution.
Gorman spends two chapters on the church as the embodiment of peace. Chapter 5 is a biblical theology of peace which defines peace as shalom, the fullness of life promised by God (143). Although Western Christians tend to think of peace in the Pauline letters as “peace with God,” Gorman follows N. T. Wright in arguing peace is central to both Paul’s soteriology and ecclesiology. Certainly reconciliation with God is important for Paul, but peace within the community is constantly repeated throughout Paul’s letters. If a local church is an embodiment of the gospel, and peace with God is central to that gospel, then peace with one another must be an important component of how a church lives out the gospel in a community. Gorman sees the peacemaking mission of the church as an anticipatory participation in the coming eschatological kingdom of peace (162, almost an “already/not yet” argument).
To support this, Gorman offers a detailed reading of Ephesians. Ephesians refers to peace eight times, including the introduction (1:2) and conclusion (6:15) of the letter. Before looking at the way Ephesians describes peace, Gorman must deal with several obvious objections to using Ephesians as a model for Pauline ecclesiology. He deals with the authorship problem briefly by stating that Paul is the genius behind the letter regardless of who wrote it. A second problem with Ephesians is the alleged patriarchy of Ephesians 5:22-6-9. Although there are various ways to deal with this problem, Gorman points out the peace of the gospel ought to effect all relationships in which believers participate, so that if a male head of a household is acting peaceably, then he cannot mistreat his wife, children or slaves (186).
He then argues the book of Ephesians demonstrates that Christ’s death reconciles people to God, but also people to one another (192). To emphasize one or the other is to miss the point of “Christ as peacemaker.” But the church is not simply to “be peace,” but rather they are to keep the peace. If shalom means harmony, then the local church ought to be a place characterized by the same cruciform love that created the church (196). Peacemaking cannot reduced to a nebulous imitation of Christ or God, although it certainly includes “putting on” Christ.
Each chapter concludes with a brief example of a ministry which is “being the gospel” in a particular community. For example, after arguing Paul expects his churches to be peacemakers, Gorman illustrates describes Christian Peacemaker Teams, an ecumenical ministry which seeks nonviolent alternatives in Palestine, Iraq, Columbia or other war-torn regions. For the church as the justice of God, Gorman draws attention to Mary’s Cradle in Bluefield, West Virginia, a ministry associated with Trinity United Methodist Church. The ministry provides assistance for pregnant women and offers a range of services for women. These illustrations are helpful because they provide concrete examples of how local churches can think creatively to be the gospel in their communities.
Conclusion. I have always been associated with Christian organizations which were decidedly evangelistic although not always intentional in how they live out the gospel in a community. Missionaries went off someplace and did missions and the local church supported that mission with prayer and money. But this is not what Paul envisioned when he planted local churches in specific communities. Gorman shows Paul’s “missionary strategy” was to create local manifestations of the gospel, local churches, which then could reach into their communities as a living gospel. I agree with Gorman’s assessment that some churches are hearing a call to be the gospel through a “renewed imagination.” In Becoming the Gospel Gorman provides a solid exegetical, biblical foundation for local church involvement in local communities.
The Eerdmans podcast has a two-part interview with Gorman (episodes 14 and 15) and Gorman answered a few questions on Eerdworld about this book.
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.
Richards, E. Randolph and Brandon J. O’Brien. Paul Behaving Badly: Was the Apostle a Racist, Chauvinist Jerk? Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2016. 224 pgs., Pb.; $16.00 Link to IVP
This book follows Mark Strauss’s Jesus Behaving Badly (IVP 2016, I review this book here) and David Lamb’s God Behaving Badly (IVP 2011). In many ways this new book is similar to an earlier volume written by Richards and O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes (IVP 2012). The goal of this book is to offer some explanation for some of Paul’s writings which strike the modern (and politically correct) reader as not just difficult, but impossible to apply. In the conclusion to the book, they state “Paul was a product of his time—like everyone else” (194).
In the introduction to the book, the writers set up the “problem of Paul” by describing their own misgivings about Paul. On the one hand, Paul does say some rather disturbing things. Most Christians struggle with Paul’s command for women to remain silent in church because it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church (1 Cor 14:3-35). His commands on head-coverings (1 Cor 11:2-16) are difficult to apply in a modern context. Paul can certainly be abrasive and downright rude, calling be infants or foolish (Gal 3:1). There are many Christians who prefer the kind, loving Jesus to a cranky, autocratic Paul. In the conclusion to the book the authors express their hope that this book does not “hate on Paul” (193),
But another serious problem is that Paul is intimidating! Reading Paul can be a difficult slog in terms of both content and theology. Following the argument of Romans can be challenging, and unpacking Paul’s logic in a way which resonates with a modern reader is not always possible. For many Christians it is far easier to understand a parable of Jesus and immediately apply the parable to a situation in their life than to wade through the thick theological argument of Romans or Galatians.
Richards and O’Brien, begin with the way Paul communicates with his readers. Sometimes he seems to be “kind of a jerk.” This is certainly true when Paul’s letters are compared to the popular image most people of Jesus. Another aspect of Paul’s letters which is hard for some to handle is arrogance. Rather than following Jesus, Paul regularly tells his readers to follow him. In 1 Corinthians 11:1, for example, Paul demands his readers follow his example as he follows Christ. Despite demanding peace in his churches, Paul occasionally bullies his opponents (24), calling them names and mocking their views. Richards and O’Brien point out that Paul makes a great deal out of his calling to be the Apostle to the Gentiles and he seems to put his own agenda ahead of the leading of the Holy Spirit (citing Acts 21:4). Richards and O’Brien conclude “there is no way around it. Paul thought he was special” (36). At least some of Paul’s bluster can put explained as Greco-Roman rhetoric, and put into the context of other Roman writers, Paul is not that much different (perhaps he is less of a bully that some!)
Chapters 2-6 deal with specific issues in the Pauline letters which are difficult to apply in a modern context (Paul was a killjoy, racist, pro-slavery, a Chauvinist, and homophobic). In each case Richards and O’Brien set up the issue by citing several passages in Paul which imply he was in fact a racist, etc. After examining these passages within the cultural context of the first century, Roman world, they conclude Paul is not guilty as charged. At least not by the standards of the first century Roman world. This is a key observation for each of the issues Richards and O’Brien cover in chapters 2-6. If Paul is understood as a Second Temple period Jew living in the Greco-Roman world of the first century, then his “politically incorrect” sayings are perfectly understandable.
For example, Paul did not “support slavery” in the same sense than nineteenth century Southern Americans did. Certainly Paul did not demand Christians release their slaves, and he did tell slaves they ought to obey their masters. But in the context of the Roman world, slavery was not always an abusive relationship nor would every slave desire to be free! Although Richards and O’Brien do not mention this, it is worth noting that Jesus never demanded his followers free their slaves. Many of Jesus’ parables include slaves, although it is hidden behind the softer translation “servants.” So Paul could be charged as “pro-slavery” if his words are taken out of context, but within the correct cultural context, he is neither for nor against slavery.
With respect to chauvinism and homophobia, from a modern perspective Paul may be “guilty as charged.” But again, Richards and O’Brien work to set some of Paul’s difficult anti-women and anti-homosexual statements into their proper historical context. With respect to women, the writers conclude that Paul does come across badly, but Paul’s Jewish culture would have not been pleased with the level of freedom and responsibility Paul suggested women have in the Body of Christ (122). With respect to homosexuality, it is absolutely true that Paul considers homosexuality a sin, but his view stands on the foundation of the Jewish Law. Paul’s view was counter to the morals of the Greco-Roman world, but as Richards and O’Brien conclude, homosexual relationships acceptable in the Roman world did not include gay relationships between equals (gay marriage).
The two final issues in the book are more difficult. First, was Paul a Hypocrite? The issue here is Paul’s ministry strategy of being “all things to all men” (1 Cor 9:20-21). Did Paul tell to live one way, while living a different way himself? In some letters, Paul refuses to take money from his churches, but in others he thanks the churches for their gifts. The issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols seems odd to us today, but it is was an important issue in the first century since Gentiles had no problem with the practice, Jewish Christians would have thought it was a sin. Richards and O’Brien offer an interesting analogy, should Christians practice yoga? Most Christians would answer like Paul, it depends. Since the origins of yoga are part of a non-Christian religious practice, could a believer do yoga as recreation without all of the pagan baggage? What if you listen to Chris Tomlin while doing yoga? For Paul, the wise answer for some practices depends on the situation (164).
Second, did Paul twist Scripture? There are a few places in Paul’s letters where he seems to read the Old Testament in ways which the original text did not intend. The allegory of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians 4 is an example of this, since Paul uses the two women (and their children) as an analogy for a change in God’s plan from Promise to Law to Grace. I have occasionally joked that if my exegesis students turned in papers using the same methods Paul did in Galatians 4, I would probably fail them! But as Richards and O’Brien point out, Paul is reading the Old Testament as a Jewish Christian. He was a trained Pharisee who was thoroughly trained in rabbinical techniques including midrash and pesher. As with virtually every section of this book, reading Paul in the context of the Second Temple period helps us to understand what Paul is saying. They conclude Paul did not twist Scripture, “but he did squeeze every last drop out of it” (190).
As a conclusion to the book, Richards and O’Brien offer a short reflection on whether we ought to be “following Paul” or “following Jesus.” Like most of the questions in this book, the question is set up in order to generate the discussion which follows. Of course we follow Jesus, but we imitate Paul has he followed Jesus. It is true Paul may have been a “bull in a china shop” at times, but he was called by God to suffer for the sake of Jesus.
Conclusion. As with any book of this kind, chapter titles are set up in order to catch the reader’s attention and make the answer to the question applicable to a modern reader. So, “Was Paul a homophobe?” suggests to the reader perhaps he was, although the answer is always comes down to careful definition of terms. The cover of the book and the promotional material which will accompany the book are intentionally shocking. This book would make an excellent small group Bible study since the chapters are set up to generate discussion Paul’s views on controversial issues and how those issues ought to be addressed in the church today.
Brooks, Christopher W. Urban Apologetics: Why the Gospel is Good News for the City. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2014. 176 pp. Pb; $16.99. Link to Kregel
Christopher W. Brooks is a graduate of Biola’s Master’s program in Christian Apologetics and is currently the senior pastor of Evangel Ministries in Detroit. This short book summarizes the sort of apologetic for the Christian faith Brooks does as a part of his ministry in downtown Detroit. While Brooks is involved in urban ministry, this book is targeted at a more broad audience and will appear to anyone looking for a basic introduction to some of the issues facing the church today.
After initial chapter on the relevancy of the Christian message Brooks describes apologetics in evangelism as related disciplines. Before a Christian can become an effective apologist they must become a passionate evangelist (41). Brooks sees this method as essentially following the pattern of Jesus, who brought his message to where people are crossing cultural and traditional boundary lines in order to confront them with the Gospel. Brooks recognizes that one of the greatest roadblocks to evangelism is hypocritical behavior on the part of Christians. Many people who are apathetic about the gospel have experienced hypocrisy when in dealing with Christians in the past and are therefore less interested in hearing the Gospel in the present (51). Chapter 3 deals with Christian morality in general. Brooks briefly describes relativistic and postmodern approaches to ethics. He contrasts the social uncertainty generated by these approaches with the Christian view of God as a higher moral agent and ethics rooted in God’s character.
Chapter 4 deals with what many would consider to be the greatest ethical difficulty Christians face today, abortion. Brooks addresses some of the important issues such as when life begins, the intrinsic value of human life, and the rights of the unborn from a scriptural perspective. It is remarkable however that he does not include up-to-date statistics describing the problem of abortion in an urban context. The most recent statistical data he cites is dated 2003, although this report supports Brooks’ theme. While there has been a steady decrease in abortions among white women, there has been a rise in abortions for black women over the same time period.
Chapter 5 deals with sexuality primarily with homosexuality. After providing some historical background to the present debate, Brooks examines six biblical passages that directly address homosexual behavior. His brief study of these passages supports the traditional Christian view of homosexuality. After surveying these texts, Brooks devotes several pages to the social impact of homosexuality, primarily of the effects of HIV and AIDS in urban communities. This struck me as odd since HIV/AIDS is not restricted to the homosexual community. Certainly this argument could be extended towards all sexual ethics, although that is not done in this chapter.
In chapter 6 Brooks deals with the urban crisis of family. Here he describes the problems faced by churches attempting to do discipleship in communities where there is virtually no emphasis on marriage or parenting. He briefly describes the biblical family model and compares this to the crisis urban churches face. The statistics concerning urban families in this chapter are in fact frightening, although I would have expected Brooks to relate this failure of the family in urban neighborhoods to a break down in social ethics. It is the task of the church Brooks argues, to model positive marriages and to clearly present the biblical message that marriage and parenting is important. Brooks says “the pulpit is arguably the greatest platform for urban revolution and change” (106).
Chapter 7 he deals with religious pluralism in the attraction of non-Christian religions in the urban context. For anyone doing ministry and intercity like Detroit, Islam is clearly the leading competitor to Christianity. Brooks therefore spent several pages describing Islam in some challenges and myths concerning Islam confronting the church. In addition to Islam, Brooks indicates there is a rise in skepticism in American life. Some of this comes from intellectually respectable sources (such as books and blogs), but most Americans have become increasingly apathetic towards religion in general. Instead of atheists many are “apatheist;” they simply no longer care whether there is a God or not. I’m not sure Brooks (or anyone) has an answer to this apathetic attitude in America. It seems to me that this great challenge faced the modern church should be approached as Jesus approached the sinners, with humility and grace.
His chapter on social justice (chapter 8) is particularly interesting in the light of recent events in Ferguson, Missouri. Conservative Christians are usually nervous when African-Americans begin to speak about social justice. Brooks therefore begins his chapter with Calvin’s commentary on Isaiah 58. Calvin believed “the Bible charged believers to stand against injustice, while challenging us to model the lifestyle that shows generosity and care for the poor” (132). Brooks therefore briefly describes six major social justice issues the church must address. These include economic fairness, educational quality, immigration reform, sanctity of life, women’s rights, and religious liberty. This list is remarkable since most of social justice activists would not include sanctity of life or religious liberty. Brooks suggests “Christians ought to take seriously the call to action given to us by our Savior to protect all people, including homosexuals, from abuse, violence, and ask of hatred” (137). If we are failing on these issues Brooks says we lose credibility for doing evangelism. After having described several approaches to economic justice Brooks speaks positively towards capitalism something unusual when speaking about social justice (143).
Brooks offer some thoughts on doing urban apologetics in the local church (chapter 9). Unfortunately the church in an urban environment often has to take the place of parents. The church therefore is responsible for training constructing and developing believers until they reach maturity. In addition to parenting the local church can partner with other organizations to create a platform for ministry.
In an appendix, Brooks deals with interest in Islam and other new religions especially among African-Americans in urban environments. This is interesting to me because I was unaware of things like Moorish science temple of America or the nation of gods and earth or the Black Hebrew Israelites. Certainly the Nation of Islam is well-known, but some of these other smaller groups are not at all known in White suburban America.
Conclusion. This is an excellent introduction to several apologetic issues that are of interest in any environment not just an inner-city, urban, African-American church. What I found remarkable about this book is that there was less specific information on doing African-American ministry than expected. Having read interviews with Christopher Brooks in the past I expected a more targeted apologetic. There is some of this in this chapter on sexuality, but the statistics he cites are just is true for suburban in teens as inner city. Another example might be challenges faced for people attempting to reach urban teens. In a recent interview, Brooks commented “the Christian hip-hop artist is the modern equivalent of the ancient prophet” (CT interview). I particularly liked the way he put this but I don’t see that kind of attitude in this book. This is not a problem since the book is not on the “doing ministry in a black community.”
NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.
Paul quotes two Greek sources here as support for his point that the creator God does not need temples or service from humans. The first allusion is to Epimenides the Cretan, a poet also cited in Titus 1:12. The original poem no longer exists, but it appears in a number of other ancient writers. The second citation is from Aratus, a Cilcian poet (Phaenomena 5). The original line, “in him we move and live and have our being,” was pantheistic, but Paul spins this line into a statement about God as the source of our life.
We might ask how Paul came to know these lines of poetry. There are not many modern readers who can quote freely from current poets or philosophers. One possibility is that he had some secular education which could be applied to the preaching of the gospel. We might imagine Paul thinking through his task of being a light to the Gentiles and researching possible points of contact in order to preach to pagan audiences. This is in fact a typical way of doing apologetics today. Christians will study philosophy for the purpose of interacting with the philosophical world in their own terms. While I do not think this is a bad idea at all, that may not be Paul’s point in using these sources.
On the other hand, these may very well have been well known bits of proverbial wisdom that were more or less “common knowledge.” If so, then the allusion to Greek poets is more like the preacher who uses a common phrase in order to make his point. Or better, Paul is quoting lyrics of popular songs to make his point. I occasionally use a line from a popular movie or song in order to make a point (although with my taste in music, it usually does not work very well.) This comes down to knowing your audience. I have found that I can get a lot further with college age group with a Simpsons reference, while the same line is lost on an older adult group. Perhaps that is what Paul is doing here in Acts 17 – he is riffing on the culture.
(Let me comment here that most of the books which try to use movies to teach the gospel with a popular movie are lame and probably only read by Christians who like the movie in the first place. I cannot imagine that any pagan would pick up “Finding Jesus with Frodo” and get saved as a result.)
In both of the allusions Paul simply intends to show that his thinking is not all that far from authorities which the audience would have understood and appreciated. To cite the Hebrew Bible would have been fruitless since the audience did not know it, nor where they well disposed to hearing from Jewish texts! Paul does not think that Jewish or Christian theology can be added to Stoicism in order to put one right with God – there must be a conversion to an entirely new worldview.
Does this mean that Acts 17 is permission to quote The Simpsons or Bob Dylan in sermons and Bible studies? Perhaps, but we need to couple cultural reference with a serious point from the text of the Bible. It is one thing to mimic culture to attract attention to you point, but it is a fairly worthless strategy is if there is no point behind the reference. I think that you can (and should) illustrate serious theological points via cultural artifacts (like poets, books, movies, etc.)
If the point is obscured by the fact that you rolled a Family Guy clip in church, then you have missed Paul’s point.
In my previous post, I wondered why the Gospel of John is considerably different than the other three Gospels. One of the reasons that the Gospel of John seems so different is that the three synoptic gospels are so similar. Because of the similarities between Matthew, Mark, and Luke some theory of literary dependence must be given to explain the close relationship. For example, there is no birth, baptism or temptation in John.
While Jesus does seven miracles, they are called “signs” and there are no exorcisms. There are no parables, despite Mt 13:34 and Mk 4:34 which indicate that Jesus primarily spoke in parables in the second half of his ministry. The Last Supper is not described as an ongoing celebration, rather, John describes Jesus washing the feet of the disciples (13:1-16). While the arrest and crucifixion is described in similar ways to the synoptic gospels, there is no agony in the garden of Gethsemane.
Andreas J. Köstenberger provides a reasonable “working hypothesis” to account for the differences in his recent A Theology of John’s Gospel and his Letters (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2009). Köstenberger follows B. F. Wescott’s observation that John’s Gospel was written after the success of the (Pauline) Gentile Mission, after the destruction of Jerusalem, and at the same time as the emergence of Gnosticism as competitor to Apostolic Christianity.
For Köstenberger, the Fall of Jerusalem is the most important factor. I am sure that the development of Gnosticism was factor, but I am not sure that the success of the Gentile mission is as much of a factor than sometimes assumed. John wrote the gospel some thirty years after the death of Paul, from Ephesus, the city where Paul had his most success among Gentiles. Yet the Gospel has very little to say about Gentiles. The Samaritan Woman (John 4) is a possible example, but Samaritans are in many ways “neither Jew nor Gentile.” The healing of the official’s son in John 4:46-54 is sometimes offered as an example of a Gentile who encounters Jesus, but if he is John certainly does not make this explicit.
The Gospel of John is therefore a window into the end of the apostolic era. On the one hand, the Gospel is evangelistic. John wrote to Jewish readers who might be open to Jesus as an alternative to the Temple and the festivals. Given the number of allusions to the Hebrew Bible and the importance of the Jewish story of redemption, it is clear that the main target of the Gospel is Jewish.
On the other hand, the Gospel is apologetic. John wrote to Christians (either Jewish or Gentile) in order to clarify who Jesus was as an answer to growing questions raised by developing Gnostic theology. This is why I said (in class 11/26) that John’s Gospel is a kind of “insider literature” aimed at answer questions which might be asked by second and third generation Christians about the validity of their faith. The primary apologetic thrust the the Gospel is to strengthen the faith of the faithful, in the face of growing persecution as well as misunderstandings about who Jesus was.
John Dickson, Life of Jesus: Who He Is And Why He Matters. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2010. 206 p. pb.$12.99. Amazon
Dickson’s book is ideal for a small group Bible Study. It is divided into six sections of three chapters each. Zondervan sells a DVD to accompany the book and offers a study guide for six-sessions. This material could covered in two sessions, making for a excellent thirteen-week quarter studying the Jesus and the implications of Jesus’ life and teaching. Alternatively, a small group may want to use one chapter per week and stretch the material over a 20 to 24 week period. The chapters are certainly rich enough to spark good interaction around important topics. The book is easy to read, chapters are brief and illustrated with black and white photographs. A Participant Guide is also available for small groups.
Part One offers some orientation to the big questions of historical Jesus studies. The first two chapters are more general, dealing with the question of God and revelation. Chapter three is an evaluation of some evidence for the existence of Jesus, although Dickson does not get really get into the historicity of the Gospels themselves or evaluating the authenticity of individual sayings or stories. His concern is the general historicity of the Gospels, as in chapter four where he acknowledges a certain amount of “faith” in the stories as we have them is required.
Part Two claims to focus on the identity of Jesus as a religious leader, but the section never really gets there. The subtitle given on page 49 is “The Identity of Jesus and his Critique of ‘Religion,’” so I expected Jesus to be described against the political and religious background of the Second Temple Period, contrasted with the Pharisees or Herodians, or perhaps the Social banditry movement. But that is not what this section is about at all. Chapter 6 and 7 deal with various views of who the historical Jesus is (military, mystic, etc). These two chapters could have easily been combined. Chapter 8 deals with baptism and temptation of Jesus, but it is hard for me to see the connection to the apparent goal of the section.
Part Three deals with the Kingdom of God, “Jesus Vision of the Future and Its Relevance Now.” After a chapter on Jesus as a Teacher (8) and on Jesus as a miracle-worker (9), chapter 10 is something of a theodicy. Dickson asks about God’s present activity in the world – why does he allow evil to persist if some sort of future kingdom is coming in which injustice will be answered and judged? This is a good chapter, but to me it does not live up to the promise of the section’s title. I understand that Jesus’ teaching centers on the Kingdom of God as present and that his miracles are a taste of the coming kingdom, but this is not really brought to bear on the problem of evil in chapter 10. Like the previous section, I was left wanting more.
Part Four addresses Jesus and the Religion. Again, the sub-title (Jesus’ Thoughts on ‘Religious Hypocrites’ and ‘Rotten Sinners’”) gives the impression of a contrast between Jesus and the Pharisees, but that is not the content of these chapters. In chapter 11 Dickson deals with the contrast between the common view that Jesus taught love and the several “hellfire and brimstone” sermons in the gospels. He then turns to Jesus and the sinner. In this all-too-brief chapter he describes the social stigma of the tax-collector and the point of Jesus’ table fellowship. In chapter 12 Dickson reads the parable of the Prodigal as a condemnation of the Pharisee, but he quickly moves from this to a discussion of contemporary questions about God and justice.
Part Five concerns the death of Jesus. This is by far the best section of the book. He begins with a brief overview of crucifixion in the Roman and Jewish world (chapter 14) and then offers a nice synopsis the reasons for Jesus’ crucifixion (chapter 15) and then Jesus’ own view of why he had to die (chapter 16). He emphasizes the meaning of Passover and how Jesus’ death was foreshadowed in the Exodus events.
Part Six is deals with the resurrection and the application of Jesus’ resurrection to the atonement. Chapter 17 contains several of the typical arguments for a historical resurrection (the empty tomb and eye-witnesses). Chapter 18 and 19 are perhaps the main point of the book – why does the death and resurrection of Jesus matter? First, it is the basis of forgiveness of sin. In the atonement, humans can be right with God. Second, the Jesus is the basis of living a new life of forgiveness.
Dickson has an apologetic agenda throughout the book. He begins by engaging Richard Dawkins and other Atheists on the validity of Christianity and ends with a plea for small steps toward becoming like Jesus. he frequently cites a critic of the Christian faith and gives an answer to their objections. This book is not really a “life of Jesus” at all, but a primer for new Christians who have some understanding of current discussions of faith (The God Delusion, etc.) My criticisms of the book above may be aimed at an editor rather than Dickson as an author since the arrangement of the chapters and descriptions of the contents are often unrelated. These oddities should not distract from the overall apologetic value of Dickson’s book.
Overall, I can recommend Dickson’s Life of Jesus for a small group or Bible Study, although that group needs to be motivated to read and think deeply about difficult topics.