James Riley Strange, Excavating the Land of Jesus

Strange, James Riley. Excavating the Land of Jesus: How Archaeologists Study the People of the Gospels. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2023. xvi+192 pp. Hb; $29.99.  Link to Eerdmans

James Riley Strange is the Charles Jackson Granade and Elizabeth Donald Granade Professor in New Testament at Samford University and director of the Shikhin Excavation Project in Israel. He co-edited with David A. Fiensy Galilee in the Late Second Temple and Mishnaic PeriodsVolumes 1 and 2 (Fortress, 2014 and 2015). In this new introduction to archaeology, Strange says his book is not another “exercise in archaeological apologetics” but rather an explanation of what archaeologists think they are doing. He repeats throughout Excavating the Land of Jesus that archaeology is “problem-driven.” By this, he means that archaeologists begin with a problem and then try to solve it using existing archaeological methods or developing new methods.

Excavating the Land of Jesus

The main problem addressed by this book is reconstructing the social reality of 1st century Galilee during the earliest years of the “Judaisms that became Christianity” (1). This requires balancing archaeological methods and the text of the gospels to understand first-century Roman Galilee. He is clear that archaeology is not about proving the written account true or illustrating the text of the Bible (14). Archaeology might end up doing that, but that is not the goal of archaeology.

Like most archaeologists, he defines archaeology first by pointing out that it is not swashbuckling treasure hunting, as often portrayed in the movies. For Strange, “archaeology is the systematic recovery and interpretation of ancient human detritus for the sake of understanding human technologies, societies, and values” (10). Strange is interested in using archaeology to understand the lives of people in the past (Roman Galilee, Jesus, and his early followers), and that requires both archaeology and the biblical text. He does not dispense with the gospels but does not prioritize them.

The first chapter deals with the basics of archaeology: how do you know where to dig? As a test case, he uses Magdala. Although the New Testament mentions a town named Magdala near the Sea of Galilee, information in the New Testament and Eusebius. However, the town is mentioned in Josephus, later rabbinic literature, pilgrim reports, etc. Based on this information, archaeologists began to work at the village of el-Mejdel, thinking they would find the ancient town of Migdal. These excavations have turned up two synagogues, several mikvoth, and other evidence illustrating life in first-century Migdal. (I will point out that Joan Taylor challenged this identification (“Missing Magdala and the Name of Mary ‘Magdalene.” PEQ 146 (3): 205–223).

In the second chapter, Strange deals with the problem of how to dig. Here, he outlines the basics of the scientific method of archaeology. In this chapter, he discusses the importance of asking questions and making observations before doing any actual archaeological work. He uses several hypothetical cases to illustrate how archaeologists make their decisions.

In Chapter 3, he illustrates how to use archaeology to understand ancient people. Using the gospel of John as a test case, he tracks the geography of Roman Palestine by tracing Jesus’s movements. He concludes that “the limited view that the gospel of John provides the Judean and Samaritan hill countries, the Jordan valley, and the Beit Netofa valley of Galilee matches well with what we know or can infer from archaeological surveys and excavations. This is often the case” (97). The point here is that archaeologists use ancient texts, like the gospel of John, but also references in ancient literature to the Gallus revolt in 351 or an earthquake in 363 to explain what the find (destruction layers in the region). “Why use the ancient texts? The answer is simple: the texts prove themselves to be useful” (97).

Chapter 4 addresses using archaeology to understand ancient technology. There are some limitations to what archaeologists can understand about ancient peoples based on and examination of their technology. First, many objects are made from perishable materials, such as clothing, curtains, baskets, farming implements, household implements, etc. Second, no excavation of Roman Galilee records every object found. For example, the most common find in archaeology is a pottery sherd. Although they are used to date a site, few archaeologists save and record the total number of pottery shards discovered. There are just too many! Third, archaeologists do not find every object that survives. Strange mentions as an example corroded coins, which are often difficult to distinguish from the dirt in which they lie. Archaeologists sometimes find nails but not what they once held together. This means archaeologists have only fragmentary knowledge about ancient technologies (104). Strange uses olive oil production in Galilee as an illustration. This section has a detailed description of the process of making olive oil, a labor-intensive and intricate economic system.

Chapter 5 discusses what archaeology contributes to our understanding of ancient values of group identity. He surveys the kinds of human detritus found in Roman Galilee. These are mostly Jewish household items that are used to fulfill Halakhah not based explicitly on instructions from Scripture (ceramics, mikvoth, Herodian lamps, cups carved from chalk; use of ossuaries for secondary burial, synagogues, etc.). But archaeologists also find things that raise questions about Jewish practice—for example, domesticated pig bones with signs of butchering. He asks, who did that sort of thing? It could be the case that Jewish farmers raised pigs and sold them to Romans. But it may be the case that some Romans lived in otherwise Jewish areas and raised pigs. There may have been Jews who raised and ate pigs themselves. Sometimes, archaeology creates questions that have no answer.

In his conclusion, Strange asks a question that may be the main problem he wants to solve as an archaeologist: “With the ministry of Jesus, does Christianity emerge as a religious system at odds with the Judaisms of the day, or is it one of the Judaisms of the day, and if it is, how long did it remain so?” (152) Although it is obvious archaeology does help scholars understand the religious, social, and economic situation of early Christianity, can it help trace the so-called “parting of the ways,” the point when early Judaism started to differ from early Christianity?

One of the most fascinating sections of the book is a collection of responses to the question, “Why do archaeologists dig?” These reflections from working archaeologists provide valuable insights into what archaeologists “think they are doing.”

Conclusion. Excavating the Land of Jesus is a fascinating look into the science of archaeology. Strange introduces readers to the technical aspects of archaeology without being overly technical. With clear prose and helpful illustrations, this book is enjoyable to read! Readers interested in how archaeology illuminates the New Testament will enjoy many of his conclusions, although that is not the book’s purpose.

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

Brian P. Irwin with Tim Perry, After Dispensationalism

Irwin, Brian P., with Tim Perry. After Dispensationalism: Reading the Bible for the End of the World. Lexham Press, 2023. xxiii+405 pp. Hb. $24.00   Link to Lexham Press  

Brian Irwin is an associate professor of Old Testament at Knox College in Toronto. He has written many articles and book chapters on Old Testament topics. Tim Perry is a professor of theology at Providence Seminary in Otterburne, Manitoba. He is active in parish ministry and has written extensively on ecumenical dialogue and Mariology, including Mary for Evangelicals: Toward an Understanding of the Mother of Our Lord (InterVarsity, 2006). After Dispensationalism is an irenic critique of Dispensationalism that attempts to correct some of the excessive interpretations of apocalyptic literature.  The authors state early on that “this book commends dispensationalism’s scriptural zeal even as it finds that its way of reading often misses what the biblical authors wished to communicate” (2).

After Dispensationalism

In the first part of the book, “The World of End-Times Teaching,” Irwin and Perry trace the history of dispensationalism. They begin with a survey of early attempts at predicting the end times, starting with early rabbinic and church writers who held to a 6000-year history of the world. Since “a day is like 1000 years,” these writers looked forward to a final 1000-year kingdom in the near future. After a summary of the (non-dispensationalism) Millerite movement, they conclude that we should not make predictions about the end of the world (since Jesus told us not to bother). These kinds of predictions miss the point of the original authors of the Bible (27).

A standard and fair history of dispensationalism follows from Darby to the Scofield Reference Bible, including an account of Dallas Theological Seminary. Then, the authors move to Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye, who they describe as representing “end times as entertainment” (60). Chapter four is important since it outlines dispensationalism’s main ideas. These include literal interpretation, dispensations, a separation of Israel and the church, the pre-tribulational rapture, and the premillennial return of Christ. As most surveys observe, some of these elements appear in other forms of conservative theology, but the combination is “dispensational theology.” There are many examples of premillennialism throughout church history, but that does not mean early church fathers were dispensationalists.

Irwin and Perry then outline dispensationalism’s “end time story,” including the restoration of Israel to the land, the rebuilding of the temple, a rapture followed by a seven-year tribulation, Armageddon, and the return of Christ to establish the millennial kingdom. After the 1000-year kingdom, Christ judges the world at the great white throne judgment followed by “the new heavens and the new earth.” Once again, this is a fair summary of the kinds of things dispensationalism teachers about the end times. Although there are a few charts from Clarence Larkin (always entertaining and out of copyright), they avoid drawing on the lurid details found in the Left Behind movies.

For Irwin and Perry, the main problem is that dispensationalism needs to pay more attention to the original biblical audiences and contexts (95). Dispensationalism’s unrelenting focus on present fulfillment means literal interpretation can be idiosyncratic and constantly shifting. The solution? Study the literary genre of prophecy and apocalyptic (chapter five). This chapter clearly describes biblical prophecy, clarifying common misconceptions that Old Testament prophecy is only about the future. The authors use Ezekiel 34 as an example. The original audience would have understood this prophecy as the near-future return from exile, specifically, 538 BC, when Cyrus the Great permitted the Jews to return to the land and rebuild the temple. However, does the return from exile exhaust the details of Ezekiel 34? Is this an example of a prophecy that has an immediate fulfillment in the prophet’s life and another at the time of the Messiah? This would be like Isaiah 7:14, “The virgin will give birth to a child.” The prophecy refers to an actual child being born at the time of Isaiah but is then used in the New Testament to describe the coming of the Messiah.

This book is a fair summary of dispensationalism up to the mid-twentieth century. Like other writers outside of dispensationalism, the authors know Darby and Scofield but then leap to Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye, and the Left Behind books and films. There is some interaction with Dwight Pentecost and a little with John Walvoord, but for the most part, Pentecost’s 1964 Things to Come is the most recent dispensationalist in this book. For example, in the 1990s, Progressive dispensationalists published several important books hoping to revise (or reform) dispensationalist thought, and these books generated significant responses from other dispensational writers.

Like Daniel Hummel’s Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism, Irwin and Perry seem to be unaware there are many dispensational writers producing scholarship that do not predict the end of the world, the rapture, or map out the tribulation period. One example is the assertion that “most dispensationalist interpreters” evaluate John’s description of the New Jerusalem “in terms of engineering” (155). Dispensationalist Robert Thomas is aware of allusions to Ezekiel and thought the tangible aspects of the city’s architecture were not without “symbolic meaning” (2:461). He compares the size of the city to modern geography and concludes, “the prophet is struggling to express the vastness of the city through language accommodate to this creation” (2:467). DTS faculty member Buist Fanning’s recent commentary on Revelation tries to avoid excessive literalism and spiritualizing. He says, “Working out what the specific symbols mean and how much the mirror that future reality will still demand good judgment, but this is the broad approach taken in the present commentary” (539). John’s description is “under the influence of Ezekiel,” and the names of the apostles “represent the fullness of the New Testament church” (540).  There is no speculation about the “engineering” of the New Jerusalem. For Daniel, recent commentaries by Paul Tanner and Joe Sprinkle approach the book from a dispensational perspective without devolving into excessive literalism or speculation. Although Fanning, Tanner, and Sprinkle do not state, “This is a dispensationalist commentary,” they represent the current state of dispensationalist scholarship on Daniel and Revelation.

Concerning apocalyptic literature, Irwin and Perry offer a clear description of the genre that aligns well with contemporary academic scholarship. Much of this section is similar to what I have written on apocalyptic, especially on Revelation. My main issue with their definition of apocalyptic is that it does not allow for any prediction as part of the genre. For example, Daniel 11 is certainly apocalyptic, and I completely agree with the fact that it refers to the Maccabean revolt. However, beginning in Daniel 11:36, there is a shift from the history leading up to the events of the revolt to a prediction of a judgment on the willful king. If this willful king is Antiochus IV Epiphanes, then the description of his demise is wrong. Maybe Michael refers to Judas Maccabees (or the Hasmoneans), but can “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan 12:2) really refer to real-world events in the lifetime of the prophet? Either the writer of Daniel 11 “gets it wrong,” or he begins looking forward to a future judgment that has not yet happened (from his perspective). So, apocalyptic can have a predictive quality (even if scholars disagree on what a particular apocalypse predicts).

The third section of the book demonstrates these principles using texts from Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation. These are not full-blown commentaries on either book. In fact, there are barely two pages on Daniel 10-12. They conclude, “Most scholars agree that Daniel’s original audience were Jews in Judea suffering under the Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanies” (210). This is not wrong, but it does not entertain the possibility that Daniel 11:36-45 is a genuine prophecy about a final judgment of an ultimate enemy of God.  If Daniel 7:13-14 refers to a “son of man” with authority to judge the arrogant horn and rule over a kingdom that will never end, when did that happen in the prophet’s lifetime? It seems like Daniel has in mind a future judgment that cannot be tied to anything in history. Irwin and Perry do, in fact, see a future aspect to the book of Revelation. Commenting on the New Heaven and New Earth, they suggest, “The scene of perfect peace and relationship with God is not yet realized, however, so this final section and the book as a whole concludes with the reminder and encouragement that Christ is coming soon” (282).

Part of the problem is Irwin and Perry assume one must approach Revelation as either a futurist, a preterist, or an idealist. A survey of recent commentaries on Revelation shows this either/or method does not work. Most commentators recognize that Revelation is grounded in a first-century situation and can be applied to all cultures and contexts in church history. But it also looks forward to a consummation of the ages, whatever that looks like. I realize this seems a little bit like wanting to have my cake and eat it too, but Revelation itself claims to be a prophecy (Rev 1:3). It certainly speaks to the culture of the prophet’s day but also has application to various cultures throughout church history. That is how scholars approach Romans 13:1-7, for example. Paul addresses a real issue in the first century that can be applied to any culture at any point in church history (now and in the future). Why not approach Daniel and Revelation the same way?

Irwin and Perry conclude the book with thirteen theses summarizing their approach to prophecy and apocalyptic. None of these are surprising to dispensationalists outside of the entertainment-style dispensational theology of LaHaye and Lindsay. Many dispensationalists have warned against trying to interpret revelation through the lens of a modern newspaper, and they’re warning that modern political Israel is not equivalent to the future biblical Israel regathered in the land. I wholeheartedly agree with their warnings in this final chapter, but I still think Daniel and Revelation look forward to the return of Christ and the future kingdom of God.

Conclusion. Despite this overly long review and some misgivings about the details, this is really a very good book. Everyone needs to heed their warnings to stop reading current events through the lens of Revelation. Irwin and Perry provide an excellent introduction to understanding prophecy, even if I am more willing to see a future aspect in some details than they are. I wish they were reading more contemporary dispensationalists.

Irwin describes current dispensationalism as like a supertanker with its engines cut. It is still moving but is aimless and slowly losing momentum (37). Daniel Hummel goes further in his Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism (Eerdmans 2023, review coming soon). Scot McKnight blames Dispensationalism for many of America’s political woes in Revelation for the Rest of Us (Zondervan 2023, reviewed here). Yet a book like Discovering Dispensationalism (SCS Press, 2023) seems to indicate that Dispensationalism is “not quite dead yet,” even if scholarship does not take notice.

The physical book is an attractive 5×8 inches and hardback, a handy size. Unfortunately, the book uses endnotes. There is a thirty-three-page bibliography, so the body of the book is only 297 pages. The book is illustrated with various charts and graphs.

 

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

 

 

 

Scot McKnight with Cody Matchett, Revelation for the Rest of Us

McKnight, Scot with Cody Matchett. Revelation for the Rest of Us: A Prophetic Call to Follow Jesus as a Dissident Disciple. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2023. xiii+3412 pp. Hb; $26.99   Link to Zondervan

In the introduction to this new book on Revelation, Scot McKnight describes his early encounters with Revelation in the early 70s. This was all eerily familiar to me. Like McKnight, in my teens, I read The Late Great Planet Earth, listened to Larry Norman warn us about being left behind, and watched the Thief in the Night movies many times. Conspiracy-laced interpretations of Revelation did not end in the 1970s and have only become more paranoid since the Left Behind series (and the freedom of the internet to publish anything and everything).Revelation

McKnight says he believed in a pre-tribulation rapture and premillennialism well into his academic career until one day he stopped believing it. The predictions were always wrong, and these writers seriously misread the Book of Revelation. For McKnight, premillennial and especially dispensational interpretations represented by the Left Behind series interpretations result in escapism. “Escapism is as far from Revelation as Babylon is from New Jerusalem” (xiii).  Instead, this book intends to read Revelation as dissident literature. “The Book of Revelation is for modern-day disciples who have eyes to see the power of the empire in our world and in our churches and in our lives (13). As a result, there is no speculation of how Revelation will be fulfilled in this book. But there is a prophetic call for evangelical Christianity to repent of its association with Babylon. For McKnight and Matchett, Revelation “is an apocalyptic-prophetic book revealing the evils of the empire and summoning readers to discerning discipleship as we live into the new Jerusalem” (143).

The authors specifically reject classic dispensationalism. It is too “prediction heavy…looking for signs of Revelation on your Twitter feed” (94). McKnight and Matchett do not think Revelation predicts literal events and the book does not have a chronological plot. “Prophetic does not mean prediction” (95). This is almost true. They are correct that most prophetic books speak to the people of their day, calling them back to covenant faithfulness. However, Old Testament prophets do predict future events such as the fall of Jerusalem, the exile, the return from exile, etc. These were all chronological events and literal predictions.

The first two chapters deal with introductory issues. Revelation was written by someone named John, who likely wrote the book after Rome destroyed Jerusalem in A. D. 70 and likely after Nero’s Great Fire and subsequent persecution of Christiana. He wrote to encourage Christians in Asia Minor to “follow the lamb” by being disciples of Jesus in this world. John was a dissident imprisoned because of the word of God. His critique of Rome was in many ways like the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. But he used a different strategy: he wrote an apocalypse. An apocalypse reveals that what people think is real is not actually real at all. (Interested readers should read Appendix 2, “What is an Apocalypse?”)

Rather than a chapter-by-chapter commentary on Revelation, the next two sections of the book describe the “Playbill of Revelation” and the “Dramatic Narrative” of the book. In the first five chapters, McKnight and Matchett introduce the various characters of the book (Babylon, the Lamb, and the Faithful Witnesses). Babylon is Rome. Commenting on the Great Whore, “it would have taken very little imagination in John’s day to recognize this so-called great city is Rome. Babylon is a natural name for an anti-God empire, so it is a useful metaphor for all empires throughout history. “Babylon is a timeless trope” (47). The Book of Revelation essentially contrasts “Team Babylon” against “Team Lamb,” with faithful witnesses (“allegiant witnesses”) caught between. Although they do not focus on this in the book, one could also describe an unfaithful group of witnesses (“un-allegiant witnesses”?) who worship the beast and do not follow the Lamb.

This is “the drama of Revelation.” But this plot is not for spectators. It is for dissidents and requires “reading with imagination in order to locate the characters in the dramatic narrative” (94). Revelation is about the Lamb’s final and complete defeat of the dragon and its Babylons and the establishment of a new Jerusalem (97). To understand this, the reader needs to know the back story of Israel in the Old Testament. John retells Israel’s story “with some adjustments” (99). Those adjustments can be summed up as “Jesus.” McKnight acknowledges that, in some ways, the Kingdom of God is already here, but it is not yet completely here (already/not yet). The seven churches, for example, have a foot in the Kingdom of God but the other in Babylon. Revelation, therefore, calls Christians to reject radical secularism, Christian nationalism, and civil religion.

The fourth section of the book, “Living in Babylon,” surveys the seven churches (Rev 2-3). These churches have disordered love, distorted teachings, corrupted worship, and inconsistent behaviors. “Babylon is creeping into the seven churches” (181). After Constantine, this becomes more intense. When the state became the power of the church, “the state does what the state states do. Aligning the church with Babylon was “the most tragic mistake in church history” (183). Chapter 18 discussions “worshiping in Babylon.” Certainly, worship is the key theme of Revelation. There are frequent worship scenes throughout the book, and the beast demands alternative worship. The authors discuss what they call “nine songs for dissident disciples of the Lamb” (190). Worship is a witness of the works of God and the Lamb and a way to signal allegiance (202). “The aim of all worship is Christoformity” (205).

In the fifth section of the book, McKnight and Matchett “turn up the heat” and look at the relevance of Revelation for today. “It’s not pretty.” They begin by outlining the four marks of Babylon: arrogance, economic exploitation, militarism, and oppression (racism and a caste system). Each of these is easily illustrated by the Roman Empire of John’s day (or, I would add, by any empire and culture in history). However, McKnight directs this application to modern America. Christians are always called to be dissidents from the system of Babylon. The call of revelation is “come out of Babylon,” not “jump in bed with the Great Whore” (my words, but it catches the spirit of McKnight’s chapter).

So how do we live in Babylon? McKnight says, “American evangelicalism has lost its way, and it’s suffocating on its own urp” (220). The rest of the chapter illustrates this evocative phrase. He refers to the politics of hate, specifically the insurrection on January 6 and the “embarrassing use of Christian symbolism among the rioters” (227). “Evangelicalism is no longer identified by its theology or mission, but by its politics” (223). “What is happening today among evangelicals is a perversion of biblical Christianity” (227). He names names and calls out many of the leaders of the right wing of the Republican Party who claimed to be evangelical Christians.

He suggests that eschatology, particularly dispensationalism, has shaped the evangelical world toward becoming increasingly Republican. Sadly, this may be true. McKnight points out (rightly) that there is a high correlation between a belief in Armageddon, the rapture, and pre-millennialism and the extremists among the January 6 insurrectionists. He suggests that this “homegrown eschatology” was more American than biblical. Although I am a premillennialist, I agree that “Left Behind” eschatology has led to paranoid conspiracy thinking among people self-identifying as evangelicals. I have two responses to McKnight’s claim.

First, McKnight is correct, “Evangelicalism is no longer identified by its theology or mission, but by its politics,” but that identification comes from the media, who mistakenly think of people like Jerry Falwell Jr. or Paula White as representatives of evangelicalism. The word “evangelical” has become distorted. It no longer refers to a conservative theology and gospel-oriented mission but rather a hate-filled fundamentalism that is “more American than biblical.” It’s not biblical at all! I agree with McKnight that this is a “mutant form of evangelicalism,” and a radical form of premillennialism may have fueled that mutation, but that does not mean premillennialism is wrong. Imagine rejecting Calvinism because Calvinists in South Africa created apartheid. I can reject apartheid (or Calvinism), but those are separate issues. Same with premillennialism. Reject the ultra-whacky conspiracy interpretations of Revelation because they are absolute garbage. Reject premillennialism for biblical reasons if you want. But do not reject premillennialism because some idiots have made a mess of it.

Second, people who used to consider themselves evangelicals (before everything turned political) are in many ways to blame for bad interpretations of Revelation. Many academic dispensational scholars avoid working in Revelation. There are only a handful of premillennialist scholars who have written on Revelation. For example, Buist Fanning’s commentary on Revelation (ZECNT, 2020; reviewed here) is premillennial and treats many of the details in Revelation much like McKnight does in this book. Dispensationalist Alan Kurschner published A Linguistic Approach to Revelation 19:11–20:6 and the Millennium Binding of Satan (Brill, 2022) and recently co-edited a volume with Stanley Porter, The Future Restoration of Israel: A Response to Supersessionism (Pickwick, 2023). Kurschner recently started an online Revelation commentary. But to be honest, it is not much!

Third, I see several differences between my approach to Revelation and McKnight’s. I think one can approach the book within a premillennialist framework and still fully embrace the book as dissident literature in the first century and every time and place throughout church history. This is not an either/or decision; most recent commentaries on Revelation ignore the old preterist, futurist, or idealist categories because a good commentary sees the application of the book to the first century and every generation of the church. But there is a future orientation in Revelation as well. The book does really look forward to some victory over evil and restoration in the future, even if there is no “roadmap for the future.”

In a sidebar on millennial positions, McKnight states that the millennium is a “sideshow at best in Revelation” (143). He points out that there are only three verses in the entire book that mention the millennium. “Revelation should never be read through the framework of the millennium,” and “it is a colossal example of missing the point of the whole book” (143). For McKnight, a better question is, “Ignoring the millennium entirely, what would be your view of the Book of Revelation?”  Indeed, the 1000 years are only mentioned in Revelation 20 (six times, not three). But if that 1000-year period is the “kingdom of God,” then it is a more pervasive theme in Revelation than McKnight acknowledges. Imagine saying the “kingdom of God” is a “sideshow at best” in Revelation.

The book’s final chapter is a “Manifesto for Dissident Disciples.” If Revelation is a call to public discipleship, then pastors will preach a gospel that subverts Babylon. Christian leaders should follow the Lamb, not Babylon! American Christians are worshipping false gods and bowing before the dragon (236). McKnight suggests that American evangelicals need to learn a lesson from the Barman Declaration, Karl Barth’s statement of resistance to national socialism in 1934.

Conclusion.  My reservations aside, this is an important book addressing evangelicalism with the message of the book of Revelation. I fully agree with McKnight and Matchett: Revelation is a condemnation of the power of Rome and a lens to evaluate the empire in any historical and cultural context. You must read this book even if you disagree with McKnight and Matchett’s premises. This book should be required reading for all conservative Americans since it is a powerful challenge to reject Babylon and follow the Lamb. To the one who has an ear, let them hear.

 

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

 

Matthias Henze and David Lincicum, eds. Israel’s Scriptures in Early Christian Writings

Henze, Matthias and David Lincicum, eds. Israel’s Scriptures in Early Christian Writings: The Use of the Old Testament in the New. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2023. xxvi+1140 pp. Hb; $79.00.  Link to Eerdmans

Israel’s Scriptures in Early Christian Writings collects forty-two essays on topics related to how early Christian writers used the Jewish scripture they inherited. As Henze and Lincicum explain in their introduction, the Scriptures of Israel “forms the cultural encyclopedia necessary to understand what Jesus and his earliest followers did and thought” (1). Not only did the writers of the New Testament interact extensively with Israel Scriptures, they “inherited strategies of scriptural interpretation from their Jewish predecessors” (1). This volume, therefore, expresses the state of the question and presses the field forward into new avenues of scholarship. In doing so, they stand on the shoulders of Krister Stendahl (School of Matthew, 1968) and Richard Hays (Echoes of Scripture in Paul, 1989). However, even though the authors of the New Testament are either “Jews or Judaphiles,” not all New Testament scriptural interpretations are easily illustrated in Jewish literature, nor can all types of scriptural interpretation in contemporary Judaism be illustrated in the New Testament.Israel's Scriptures in Early Christian Writings

In the introduction, the editors clarify the terminology used in the volume. A “marked citation” is an explicit quotation with an introductory formula (1 Cor 15:27, for example). An “unmarked citation” has a verbatim agreement with scripture but does not have an introductory formula (1 Cor 5:13, for example). A “verbal allusion” refers to a word or string of words from an earlier text without an explicit marker. In John 1:1, the author alludes to Genesis 1:1, even though there is an explicit indication that the author has that text in mind. What is missing here is any criteria for “hearing an echo,” ala Richard Hays. A “conceptual allusion” is a theme or a topic that refers to a scriptural precedent without an allusion to specific verses. In Romans 9:4-5, Paul obviously alludes to Israel’s Scripture but does not refer to specific verses. As with all studies on “the use of the Old Testament in the New,” the boundaries of these categories are fuzzy. Since this is an essay collection, each author approaches their section with their own understanding of the terms. However, this does not lead to inconsistencies in the book.

The first part of the collection collects seven essays setting the context. First, Edmon L. Gallagher defines what “Scriptures” were in the time of Jesus. He begins by observing that in his scribal debates with various teachers, “at no point does the conversation turn toward the identity of the scriptures of Israel” (23). Jesus never quoted a scripture the Pharisees would consider not scripture. All Jews accepted Torah as Scripture. Virtually all accepted the Prophets and most accepted what were later called the Writings. However, for some (Barclay, Sundberg), Torah was Scripture, and “prophets” referred to all other writings that were “not Torah.” Josephus is the first clear statement of “what counts” as Jewish Scripture (Against Apion, 1.37-43). Gallagher concludes that most Jews had a good idea what books were scripture and that most agreed with Josephus (42). There was room for doubt on a few canonical books (Esther or Ecclesiastes) and a few outside the traditional canon (Tobit, Sirach, or Wisdom). And most agreed that some books were clearly “not scripture.”

Second, Marc Zvi Brettler deals with how Jewish writers used Scripture in the Hebrew Bible. He collects examples of each kind of citation and Moses-typology in the Hebrew Bible. This kind of typology does not neatly fit into the usual categories outlined in the introduction. Third, Martin Karrer defines Israel’s Greek Scriptures as it is known in the Septuagint. The term Septuagint refers to Israel’s Greek Scripture received by early Christians, even though the borders of that collection were not fixed. Rabbinic Judaism focused on Hebrew Scriptures. Greek-speaking followers of Jesus “preferred the greater radius of the Greek Scripture.

Fourth. Grant Macaskill examines Israel’s Scriptures in the wider scope of Early Jewish Literature. He begins by observing that the largest proportion of what we call early Jewish literature was preserved in Christian circles (111; before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, this literature was almost entirely preserved by Christians). This leads to a potential problem, Christian interpolations. Did non-biblical early Jewish writing influence New Testament writers? The obvious example is the book of Jude, which directly cites one Enoch. But there are other examples, such as Matthew 25: 31-46 and the parables of Enoch. Many scholars point out parallels between the Wisdom of Solomon in the book of Romans. For Macaskill, Early Jewish Literature bears witness to “a Judaism marked by a complex attitude to the Hellenistic world (he prefers “ambient cultural influence” (131). In addition, this literature challenges biblical theology strategies, which usually skip the Early Jewish Literature in favor of the Christian Old and New Testaments Canon.

Fifth, Susan Docherty defines “scriptures” in the Dead Sea Scrolls. This is a difficult issue that touches on both canon and authority. If extant copies of a book imply authority, then some non-canonical books are “more authoritative” than many canonical ones. But how often a book is quoted is also an indication of authority. She concludes the Dead Sea Scrolls prefer the Pentateuch, prophetic literature, and the Psalms because of the specific concerns of their community (141-42). But all the manuscripts preserved at Qumran are related to the “still-fluid but unquestionably authoritative collection of Israel’s Scriptures” (156). Sixth, Michael B. Cover examines Philo and interpretative strategies in the Alexandrian Jewish Tradition. After a brief summary, Cover compares Philo’s strategies to Paul (Gal 4:21-31), John, and Hebrews. He suggests these examples “only scratch the surface of the Alexandrian ‘s enormous potential to assist the contemporary New Testament exegete” (184).

The last essay in this section, Michael Avioz summarizes Josephus’s strategies for using Israel’s Scriptures in Antiquities. Josephus was free to omit some things elements of Israel’s Scripture, potentially embarrassing things (the golden calf incident), complex textual issues (David and Goliath), and repetitive or irrelevant to Josephus (long lists of names). He occasionally adds things to the stories which may reflect early rabbinic discussions (193).

In part two, Israel’s Scriptures in the New Testament, scholars examine how individual writers used the Jewish Scripture. These sixteen essays cover the New Testament, with Paul’s letters receiving seven chapters (see the appendix to this review for the authors of each chapter). John’s Gospel is treated separately from John’s letters. Each chapter in this section includes a list of citations and allusions (based on the definitions in the introduction), usually in tabular form with some discussion of the details. Texts from the Septuagint and the Greek New Testament are printed in parallel when authors discuss potential allusions. One example: Paul Foster’s chapter on Ephesians and Colossians lists twenty-five suggested intertexts (comparing commentaries by Fee, Beale, and Beetham) and then concludes, “the use of Jewish Scripture on Colossians is minimal” (414).

Part three covers eight themes and topics from Israel’s Scriptures in the New Testament: God, Messiah, Holy Spirit, Covenant, Law, Wisdom, Liturgy and Prayer, and Eschatology. Garrick V. Allen’s essay on eschatology points out the indebtedness of New Testament eschatology to the Jewish Scripture (744). The essay focuses on Isaiah 40, Daniel 7, and Zechariah, arguing that Matthew stands on Israel’s Scripture for the Baptist’s preaching and the Son of Man sayings. He follows a “winding path” from the prophets through Early Jewish Literature to the sayings of Jesus.

Part four examines how books from Israel’s Scriptures are used in the New Testament. These Four chapters discuss individual books (Deuteronomy, Isaiah, The Psalms, and Daniel), and a fifth chapter looks at figures from Israel’s history in the New Testament. Gert J. Steyn’s article on the use of Deuteronomy in the New Testament might surprise some readers who do not expect a Jewish law code to be so important for Christian Scripture.

Finally, part five goes beyond the New Testament to how early Christian writing used Israel’s Scriptures. The section includes apocryphal gospels and apocalypses. The adversus Judaeos tradition covers Barnabas, Justin Martyr, the Dialogue of Jason and Papiscus, and early Latin writers. Of interest in this section is Deiter Roth’s reconstruction of the views of three heretics: Marcion and his disciple Apelles, and Ptolemy’s Letter to Flora (preserved in Epiphanius). Following Judith Leiu, Roth points out that Marcion did not simply edit Israel’s Scripture, but he read and interpreted it (1014).

Each essay ends with a bibliography pointing interested readers to more detailed studies. Because of this book’s international team of scholars, these bibliographies often include many resources outside of the usual texts in English-speaking scholarship.

Conclusion. The second section of the collection of essays competes with Beale and Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Baker Academic 2007). Although that commentary is more detailed in some ways, the additional essays in this volume go beyond the scope of that work by examining themes and focusing on particular books from the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament (parts 3-4). The first section is almost a book on the canon of Israel’s Scripture alone! Israel’s Scriptures in Early Christian Writings is a major contribution to the study of how the New Testament read and interpreted the Scripture they inherited from Judaism.

 

 

 

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

 

Part I: Contexts
1. What Were the “Scriptures” in the Time of Jesus?, by Edmon L. Gallagher
2. Israel’s Scriptures in the Hebrew Bible, by Marc Zvi Brettler
3. Israel’s Greek Scriptures and Their Collection in the Septuagint, by Martin Karrer
4. Israel’s Scriptures in Early Jewish Literature, by Grant Macaskill
5. Israel’s Scriptures in the Dead Sea Scrolls, by Susan Docherty
6. Israel’s Scriptures in Philo and the Alexandrian Jewish Tradition, by Michael B. Cover
7. Israel’s Scriptures in Josephus, by Michael Avioz
Part II: Israel’s Scriptures in the New Testament
A. The Gospels and Acts
8. Israel’s Scriptures in Matthew, by Matthias Konradt
9. Israel’s Scriptures in Mark, by Elizabeth Evans Shively
10.           Israel’s Scriptures in Luke, by Martin Bauspiess
11.           Israel’s Scriptures in John, by Jaime Clark-Soles
12.           Israel’s Scriptures in Acts, by Dietrich Rusam
B. The Apostle Paul
13.           Israel’s Scriptures in Romans, by Jens Schröter
14.           Israel’s Scriptures in 1 and 2 Corinthians, by Katja Kujanpää
15.           Israel’s Scriptures in Galatians, by A. Andrew Das
16.           Israel’s Scriptures in Ephesians and Colossians, by Paul Foster
17.           Israel’s Scriptures in Philippians and Philemon, by Angela Standhartinger
18.           Israel’s Scriptures in 1 and 2 Thessalonians, by Todd D. Still
19.           Israel’s Scriptures in the Pastoral Epistles, by Gerd Häfner
C. Hebrews and the Catholic Letters
20.           Israel’s Scriptures in Hebrews, by Gabriella Gelardini
21.           Israel’s Scriptures in James, by Karl-Wilhelm Niebuhr
22.           Israel’s Scriptures in 1 Peter, Jude, and 2 Peter, by Jörg Frey
23.           Israel’s Scriptures in the Johannine Letters, by George Parsenios
D. The Book of Revelation
24.           Israel’s Scriptures in the Revelation of John, by Ian K. Boxall
Part III: Themes and Topics from Israel’s Scriptures in the New Testament
25.           God, by Archie T. Wright
26.           Messiah, by J. Thomas Hewitt
27.           Holy Spirit, by John R. Levison
28.           Covenant, by Richard J. Bautch
29.           Law, by Claudia Setzer
30.           Wisdom, by Benjamin Wold
31.           Liturgy and Prayer, by Rodney A. Werline
32.           Eschatology, by Garrick V. Allen
Part IV: Tracing Israel’s Scriptures
33.           Deuteronomy in the New Testament, by Gert J. Steyn
34.           Isaiah in the New Testament, by Benjamin E. Reynolds
35.           The Psalms in the New Testament, by Matthias Henze
36.           Daniel in the New Testament, by Alexandria Frisch and Jennie Grillo
37.           Figures of Ancient Israel in the New Testament, by Valérie Nicolet
Part V: Israel’s Scriptures in Early Christianity Outside the New Testament
38.           Israel’s Scriptures in the Apocryphal Gospels, by Tobias Nicklas
39.           Israel’s Scriptures in the Apocryphal Apocalypses, by Michael Karl-Heinz Sommer
40.           Israel’s Scriptures in the Adversus Judaeos Literature, by David Lincicum
41.           Israel’s Scriptures in Marcion and the Critical Tradition, by Dieter T. Roth
42.           Israel’s Scriptures in Early Christian Pictorial Art, by Robin M. Jensen

 

John Walton, Wisdom for Faithful Reading Principles and Practices for Old Testament Interpretation

Walton, John. Wisdom for Faithful Reading: Principles and Practices for Old Testament Interpretation. IVP Academic, 2023. xv+226 pp. Pb. $24.00   Link to IVP Academic  

John Walton has written extensively on the Old Testament, including the popular textbooks A Survey of the Old Testament (with Andrew Hill, Zondervan 1991) and Old Testament Today (Zondervan 2004), commentaries in Genesis and Job NIVAC series, and several books in his The Lost World series (IVP Academic).

Old Testament Interpretation

The introduction is divided into five brief parts. First, Walton states his quest: faithful interpretation. Second, he states two caveats. Our goal is faithful interpretation, not right interpretation. This humbly recognizes that you may be wrong and need more evidence. Since interpretation happens in a community, Walton has three essential commitments: accountability, consistency, and control.

In the fourth part of the introduction, Walton offers four fundamental concepts for interpretation. First, context is everything. This includes linguistic, literary, cultural, and theological. He illustrates these points with a particular text drawn from the Old Testament. Second, interpretation matters. Meaning can only be determined by interpretation. Third, he suggests we mind the gaps. Interpretation requires readers to fill in gaps since authors just don’t tell us everything. “Filling in the gaps” can lead readers astray. Fourth, interpretation is complicated. Faithful interpretation is hard work because we are reading ancient documents, and this is rarely a straightforward process. He illustrates this with the mysterious Nephilim (Genesis 6:4).

Finally, in the fifth part of the introduction, Walton gives five principles for faithful interpretation. First, an author’s message carries the authority of scripture. Second, an author’s message is couched in his own language and culture. Third, our accountability in interpretation is to track with the author in the text he produced. Fourth, our interpretation should be supported with evidence identifying the author’s intention. Fifth, our task is to find our place in God’s story (17).

After this introduction, Walton gives twelve general principles for faithful interpretation. Some of these will not be controversial, such as “All translation is interpretation.” However, some readers may wonder about principles like “the Bible is written for us but not to us” or “the Old Testament is not about Jesus, but it drives us to Jesus.” He illustrates each principle with examples from the Old Testament and offers ample footnotes to more technical discussions in academic literature.

The second major part of the book offers genre-specific guidelines. This builds on Chapter 11, “A genre discussion must precede an authority conversation.” Often, faithful interpretation requires us to know something about the genre of the literature we are reading. The genre of modern books illustrates this principle. One does not read Harry Potter the same way one reads a biography of Abraham Lincoln, nor does one read an op-ed column the same way one reads a baseball box score. Each genre requires different mental tools. Walton, therefore, has five chapters on the Pentateuch, four on Narrative, three on Wisdom and Psalms, and five on prophecy and apocalyptic.

To illustrate this section of the book, I will focus only on his comments on prophecy and apocalyptic. First, like most Old Testament scholars, Walton observes He also observed that fulfillment of prophecy is distinct from the message. Prophecy has far more to do with revealing God’s plan than revealing the future. Second, it is crucial to understand that prophecy is not always a prediction. Although sometimes there is prediction, this accounts for a very small percentage of the prophetic books. Third, some readers may be surprised by his observation that apocalyptic is not prophecy. This is important since apocalyptic literature often describes the world the writer lives in through the apocalyptic genre. However, I suggest that there are occasional prophecies in an apocalyptic book.

The last section includes three chapters on application. If readers attempt to read scripture well (by which Walton means faithfully), how should they live?  First, Walton encourages readers to avoid using the Old Testament for proof texts. Typically, people only turn to Leviticus to search for verses forbidding certain sins (and ignoring the rest). Second, he suggests readers avoid searching the Old Testament for inspirational nuggets (these are things your grandmother forwards you on Facebook). Third, he also warns against searching for Jesus or the gospel in the Old Testament. He illustrates this point with several examples of bad allegorical interpretations of the Song of Solomon or the Tabernacle. Last, he points out the danger of mixing up promises made specifically for Israel and turning them into personal promises. Applying Jeremiah 29:11 is the classic example of this error since people tend to think this is about their personal relationship with Jesus rather than explicitly addressing Israel in exile.

Conclusion. Wisdom for Faithful Reading is something like a primer for Old Testament Interpretation. The book targets the “academically minded people in the church who want to improve their reading of the Old Testament” (xv). Even though Walton states in his preface that the book was not intended to be a textbook, it would be an excellent addition to an “Introduction to the Bible” or “Old Testament Survey” university or seminary class. Since the style is accessible for the layperson, the book would fit well in a church Bible study or Sunday School class.

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