Book Review: Edward M. Curtis, Interpreting the Wisdom Books

Curtis, Edward M. Interpreting the Wisdom Books: An Exegetical Handbook. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Academic, 2017. 204 pp. Pb; $21.99.  Link to Kregel

This new contribution to Kregel’s Handbooks of Old Testament Exegesis covers four difficult books in the Hebrew Bible: Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. Curtis contributed a commentary on Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs in the Teach the Text Commentary Series (Baker 2013) and Discovering the Way of Wisdom (with John J. Brugaletta, Kregel, 2004). This handbook joins Gary Smith’s recent Interpreting the Prophetic Books and Richard A. Taylor, Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature to complete the Handbooks on the Old Testament series.

The first section of the book provides definition of wisdom and the nature of poetry. Curtis understands wisdom literature as a kind of general revelation. By carefully observing life this literature draws accurate conclusions about God’s orderly universe. But this literature does not always answer “enigmatic and anomalous experiences,” perhaps generating the speculative wisdom of Job and Ecclesiastes. The unit on poetry is a basic introduction to Hebrew poetry (parallelism and other literary features), but also a very helpful section on interpreting metaphors. Metaphors can be a problem for Bible students who are taught to “read the Bible literally,” but Curtis provides a basic method for teasing out the meaning of a metaphor.

The second section of the book explores the main themes of the four Old Testament wisdom books in canonical order. These short summaries of the books briefly gather the main theological points of the books under a series of headings. One particularly helpful section is on the application of proverbs. He begins with the warning “a proverb on the mouth of a fool is useless” (Prov 26:7) and explains there is a contingent time and place for a proverb to be used and there is a kind of life-skill in knowing that time and place. Although Curtis does not do this in his book, tt is possible to rearrange the wisdom material so the student encounters Proverbs as the “way wisdom works,” and then read Job and Ecclesiastes as “the way wisdom does not work.”

The Song of Songs is the one book of the Hebrew Bible that is difficult to classify. Although it is usually placed with other wisdom books, it is not at all like Proverbs, Job, or Ecclesiastes. Curtis does not defend the inclusion of the Song in a book of Wisdom Literature other than to observe sexual relationships are part of the created order. It is not surprising his comments on the Song focus on “one-flesh relationships” (lifelong monogamous, and by implication heterosexual relationships). He rejects allegorical interpretation for the most part, he does recognize some insights of allegorical interpreters “reflect legitimate applications” of the marriage metaphor in the Old Testament.

With this material in mind, Curtis then offers two chapters on exegetical method applied to the Wisdom books. Although most pastors will not take the time to worry about textual critical issues for the Wisdom books, Curtis has a short section on determining the text for the Hebrew Bible with a few examples drawn from Proverbs and Job. He develops a series of recommendations for interpreting the poetry and metaphors of each of the wisdom books.

Throughout both these methodological chapters, Curtis offers a detailed and annotated bibliography of resources needed for interpreting wisdom literature. Some of these are generic Hebrew Bible tools: a good lexicon, for example, is a necessary took regardless of the genre. Other bibliographies target Wisdom literature, such as a list of recommended commentaries. An appendix prepared by Austen M. Dutton suggests a number of electronic resources, from free on-line resources to professional (and expensive) Bible Software such as BibleWorks, Accordance and Logos.

The final section of the book is a guide to proclaiming Wisdom literature. Of all of the volumes of the Handbook of Old Testament Exegesis, the various genre of wisdom literature are challenging for preaching and teaching. Curtis offers some specific guidance using Proverbs 2 and Job 28 as examples. Following this model, he gives a series of suggestions for how to preach the four books. For example, with respect to Proverbs, the “proclamation should reflect the big picture and recurrent themes” (159). It would be confusing to preach through the whole book of Proverbs “verse-by-verse” the way someone might move through Galatians. There is simply no sustained argument from verse to verse! In his final chapter in the book, Curtis gives several case studies. These provide a simple sermon outlines and illustrations to serve as examples of what could be done for a particular text.

Conclusion. Curtis says “Proclamation should do justice to Qoheleth’s tensions” (161). Although he makes this comment with respect to Ecclesiastes, it really does apply to the whole of the wisdom literature. Although the attraction of wisdom books is the often clear-cut and simple observations on how to live a successful life, there are frustrating, unanswered questions. If you raise up your child in the way they should go, why do they sometimes stray from that way, despite the claim of Proverbs 22:6? It seems as though there is always an assumed “most of the time” for any given proverbs. For this reason, Proverbs and the rest of the Wisdom literature is often better discussed than proclaimed.

Nevertheless, as with the other contributions to this series, this handbook for the Wisdom books succeeds in its goal of providing students of Old Testament wisdom with the tools for teaching and preaching this difficult material in the Hebrew Bible. This would make a good textbook for a college or seminary class on the Prophets, especially in more conservative circles.

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

Book Review: Michael F. Bird, Jesus The Eternal Son

Bird, Michael F. Jesus The Eternal Son: Answering Adoptionist Christology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2017. xv + 155 pages; Pb. $18.   Link to Eerdmans

This new monograph from Michael Bird is the result of a discussion held at the Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint forum at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in 2016 entitled “How Did Jesus Become God?” featuring Bird and Barth Ehrman.  The seminar discussed Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God (Harper One, 2015) and Bird’s recently edited collection of essays entitled How God Became Jesus (Zondervan, 2015). Larry W. Hurtado, Jennifer Wright Knust, Simon Gathercole and Dale Martin also participated in this conference.

As Bird explains in the Preface, in his preparation for this conference he became aware much of what is said about adoptionist Christology is incorrect. It is simply assumed the most primitive Christology was adoptionist and scholars tended to reference John Knox or James Dunn rather than examine the evidence. This book calls that quasi consensus into question (9). Bird argues in this book that although there was Christological diversity in the early church, adoptionism was a second-century phenomenon. As Bird says, it is not correct to speak of a single, monolithic Christology of the early church, but it is equally problematic to speak of a wide variety of competing Christologies proportionally distributed across the early church (5).

After a short chapter describing what he means by both Christology and adoptionism, Bird examines two passages most often used as evidence for adoptionism (chapter 2). First, Romans 1:3-4 is one of the earliest statements often taken as evidence for adoptionist Christology, especially if these verses are a pre-Pauline creedal formula. Ehrman claims these verses say Jesus was (according to the flesh) the Davidic Messiah, then he was declared to be the exalted Son of God (14). Bird points out both titles “Son of David” and “Son of God” were messianic titles in Second Temple Jewish literature. There is no evidence the phrase “Son of God” was ever used in Jewish literature for a human who lived a meritorious life and was given divinity after a bodily resurrection (20). For Bird, Romans 1:34 claims the resurrection is the transition from Jesus’s messianic and earthy mode to a display of his divine sonship and heavenly position (23).

Second, Acts 2:36 (along with 5:31 and 13:33) claim that “God made Jesus both Lord and Messiah.” Since speeches in Luke-Acts reflect Luke’s theological agenda, it is at least possible these speeches by Peter and Paul intend to present the exaltation of Jesus as the divinization of Jesus. Bird counters this by showing Luke’s theology assumes Jesus was the messiah and Lord from the beginning (Luke 2:11). Bird cites Kavin Rowe to defend the change in Acts 2:36 is not ontological but epistemological. For both Romans 1:3-4 and Acts 2:36 there is no beginning to divine sonship implied because divine sonship is presupposed as a part of his messianic identity (29).

Bird devotes two chapters to the Christology of the Gospel of Mark. As the earliest Gospel, it is often assumed the book has an underdeveloped Christology and the baptism is clearly adoptionist: Jesus goes into the water a human, and comes out the Son of God (34). Barth Ehrman considers this as an innovation in Mark’s gospel; Jesus is adopted at the baptism rather than the resurrection. Mark’s gospel is also considered by some to have been influenced by Greco-Roman culture so that the baptism is deification similar to deified Hellenistic heroes or emperors. Bird surveys how the Greco-Roman world presented these defied figures and concludes ascriptions of divinity “were not primarily about essence but honor, status and power” (41). These people were deified because they had provided some benefit to the people and were worshiped because they were perceived as continuing to be a benefit. In the Hellenistic world the idea a human could become a god was doubted, even if there was some cultural benefit from perpetuating the imperial cult. Both Jews and Christians rejected the idea of human deification, although Judaism developed used angels or exalted humans as intermediaries between God and man. But these angelic creatures are never exalted quite to the same level as Yahweh nor were they recipients of cultic worship (59). With respect to parallels between Mark’s Jesus and the divine men in the Hellenistic world, Bird suggests everyone read Sandmel’s article on parallelomania (JBL 81 (1962). Certainly Mark needs to be read within the context of both Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds, but parallel texts “create endless possibilities” and need to be used with clear criterion in order to avoid seeing things which just are not there (108).

Turning to the details of Mark’s Gospel, Bird interacts at length with Michael Peppard, The Son of God in the Roman World (Oxford, 2011). Peppard argued the term “son of god” in the imperial cult was a major influence on early presentations of Jesus (67). For Bird, Peppard does not take seriously Mark’s key images for Jesus are drawn from the Hebrew Bible, especially in the story of Jesus’s baptism, the key adoption text in Mark. Psalm 2, Genesis 22 and Isaiah 42:1 provide Mark with his material: the Davidic king, the submissive son and the Isaianic servant. In addition, Mark’s use of Lord for Jesus connects Jesus to the Shema. It is Jesus who is the Lord, and it is the Lord Jesus who is initiating a new exodus (91).

Bird deals more briefly with three other issues in the Gospel of Mark. First, in Mark 2 Jesus claims to forgive sin. This is not the function of a priest in Judaism, only God has the prerogative to pronounce sins forgiven. Second, calming the storm (Mark 4:25-41) and walking in the water (Mark 6:45-52) are “theophanic episodes” which reveal Jesus as the God who controls the chaos of the seas (94). Third, in Mark 14:61-62 Jesus claims to be the son of Man from Daniel 7:13 who is invited by God himself to sit on his right hand (Ps 110:1). This blending of texts strongly suggests Jesus is the co-enthroned one who will be Lord of all creation (101).

Since the first four chapters of this book argue there are no adoptionist texts in the New Testament, Bird devotes his fifth chapter to explaining how adoptionism developed in the second century. Even here he questions adoptionism in Shepherd of Hermes (which he calls complicated and even incoherent, p. 111) and the Ebionites (which he calls a “poor man’s Christology, 112). Bird agrees with Bauckham’s assessment that the Ebionites were Jewish believers who were uncomfortable with some of the Christological claims being made about Jesus, and defaulted to a possession Christology (Jesus was taken over by God at the baptism). Bird thinks the first writer who can be described as an adoptionist is Theodotus of Byzantium (about 190 CE). Even here, Bird hedges since there appears to have been some mixture among his followers.

In his brief concluding chapter, Bird makes the point the New Testament is not adoptionist, but rather focuses on the enthronement of the Davidic Messiah to heavenly glory. This conclusion favors a Christology developed out of the Hebrew Bible over one influenced by the Greco-Roman world. Modern adoptionism erodes the atonement since a created being cannot redeem another created being (128) and runs the risk of a merit-based theology (129).

Like most contributions to the ongoing discussion of early Christology, this book will probably not convince adoptionists. However, Bird does successfully challenge the assertion the earliest Christology was adoptionist by carefully examining several Pauline texts and the Gospel of Mark and providing a compelling non-adoptionist interpretation of these texts.

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

 

Book Review: Nick Norelli, Christology in Review

Norelli, Nick. Christology in Review: A Layman’s Take on Books about Christology. Lulu, 2017. 149pp.; Pb.; $10.84. Link to Lulu

Christology in Review: A Layman's Take on Books about ChristologyThis small book collects twenty book reviews written by blogger Nick Norelli on the topic of Christology. Norelli has been blogging at Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth since July of 2006. He offers a short introduction to his journey from AOL chatrooms in 1997 to regularly reviewing books on his blog. He credits Chris Tilling’s detailed review of Gordon Fee’s Pauline Christology as encouraging him to focus on seriously reviewing books.

Christology in Review includes reviews of the following books no particular order.

  • Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel
  • Casey, From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God
  • J. & A. Y. Collins, King and Messiah as Son of God
  • D. G. Dunn, Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?
  • D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God
  • Endo, Creation and Christology
  • Fatehi, The Spirit’s Relation to the Risen Lord in Paul
  • Grindheim, Christology in the Synoptic Gospels
  • Grindheim, God’s Equal
  • W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord
  • H. I. Lee, From Messiah to Preexistent Son
  • McDonough, Christ as Creator
  • F. McGrath, The Only True God
  • Nicholason, Dynamic Oneness
  • C. O’Neill, Who Did Jesus Think He Was?
  • A. Pizzuto, A Cosmic Leap of Faith
  • Stuckenbruck and North, Early Christian & Jewish Monotheism
  • H. Talbert, The Development of Christology During the First Hundred Years
  • Tilling, Paul’s Divine Christology
  • Warrington, Discovering Jesus in the New Testament

The first review is Bauckham’s 2008 work. The oldest reviewed book is Maurice Casey’s From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God was published in 1991 and the latest is Bart Ehrman, How Jesus Became God from 2014. I would have expected the inclusion of the Michael Bird edited response to Ehrman (How God Became Jesus, published almost simultaneously in 2014). Norelli does mention the volume in his review but does not include a review.

The reviews are arranged alphabetically by author and vary in terms of length and depth of interaction. For example, his review of McGrath, The Only True God is a seventeen page review article with 34 footnotes.  His review of Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the God of Israel runs about 14 pages. However, his Grindheim’s Christology in the Synoptic Gospels is only two pages. Some of the books reviewed are from the very best in scholarship (Fatehi, The Spirit’s Relation to the Risen Lord in Paul in the WUNT series), others are written to a more popular audience (Ehrman, How Jesus Became God).

Although he styles himself as a layperson, Norelli offers trenchant critiques in many of his reviews and is not at all shy about expressing disagreement with the scholars he is reviewing. For example, he makes several critical arguments against James McGrath. McGrath called the review “a very detailed and, from my perspective, very fair and useful review” of his book The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context. In his response, McGrath said “There have been more positive reviews that did not leave me feeling as satisfied with the level of engagement as Nick’s did.”

His review of Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee is more scathing. Norelli says “if you have read one of Ehrman’s popular books, you’ve pretty much read them all” (p. 55), especially his frequent digs against his former Christian faith.

This collection is useful for anyone wanting a quick sample of the dozens of books published on Christology in the last 20 years. Norelli has done a service by collecting these reviews in an inexpensive single volume.

He hints in his introduction he might produce a second volume on the Trinity. Maybe you can encourage this blogger by purchasing this inexpensive book.

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

Christology in 1 Peter – Searching the Scripture

1 Peter begins his description of salvation by explaining his methodology.  He states that the salvation he described in 1:3-9  is the subject of prophecy (1:10).  This is an interesting window into the preaching of the Apostles, since the Scripture to which Peter alludes here is found consistently in the the sermons in Acts as well as the letters of Paul.  It appears that the Apostolic preaching of the Gospel began with the idea that the Messiah should have to suffer and die, based on Isaiah 53.

Peter says that the prophets “searched and inquired carefully” into this matter.  The verb ἐκζητέω has the connotation of exertion, to work hard to find something. The compound ἐξεραυνάω also has the sense of diligently searching (John 5:39 uses a related word for “diligently searching the Scriptures.” Both words mean virtually the same thing and both emphasize the effort these prophets made in understanding the coming Messiah.

How did the prophets “diligently search” prophecies about the Messiah? It is possible that the prophets which are described here are not the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible, but rather teachers who read the scriptures and looked forward to the coming of the messiah.   If this is the case, then Peter is saying that all of the sages and scholars of post-Exlic Judaism were searching Scripture like Isaiah 53 in order to figure out when and how the Messiah should come.  What is remarkable is that Christianity is the only for of Judaism to understand the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 as the Messiah.

Perhaps Acts 8 can be used as an analogy here. Philip the Evangelist encounters the Ethiopian Eunuch reading Isaiah 53. The question the man concerns the subject of Isaiah 53. Jews in the Second Temple period would have that the passage described either Isaiah or some other person (like a new Elijah); if the messiah was in view, it was not a suffering messiah at all. Philip “begins with that very passage” to explain the gospel with the Ethiopian. Philip identifies Jesus as the innocent sufferer of Isaiah 53, making it clear that the new age described in Isaiah 56 has begun.

Their search was for the “person or time” the Spirit of Christ was predicting. The prophets predicted the “sufferings of the Messiah” and his “subsequent glory.” This implies a two stage-mission of the messiah, first as a suffering servant, the at a later time in glory.

It is possible to take the “sufferings of the messiah” as the trials of the Jewish people as the await the Messiah. The noun Christ is not genitive, so the common translation “of Christ” is not necessarily accurate. This phrase could be translated “suffering with respect to the Messiah” (for example, Selwyn, 134). But this translation does not take into account the context of Peter’s letter, since by chapter 2 it is quite clear that he means the suffering of Jesus in the cross (Jobes, 1 Peter, 99).

Peter therefore says that the prophets saw two events: the suffering and the glory of the Messiah.  While Peter is clearly standing on the shoulders of the Hebrew Prophets, this two-stage coming of the Messiah was unique in the Second Temple Period.

Is James a Christian Letter?

Ever since Luther’s famous disdain for the letter of James, Christian readers have wondered about the Jewishness of the Letter of James.  Some scholars argued that James is not a Christian letter at all.  There are only two clear references to Jesus in the letter (1:1 and 2:1), although there are a few other verses which might refer to Jesus or God (5:8-9, for example).  Most Christian readers will labor hard to show that James is a Christian letter, although the recognize that they book lacks much of what can be called a Christian theology.

Karen Jobes devotes a chapter of Letters to the Church to the question of Christology in the letter of James.  She refers to an implicit Christology in the letter, recognizing the fact that James only refers to Jesus unambiguously twice, although she thinks the “Lord’s coming” in 5:7-8 refers to Jesus.  Her strategy is interesting.  She gathers all the references to the Lord in James and shows that these all could refer to either Jesus or God.  This ambiguity was intentional, so that James is speaking of Jesus or the God of the Old Testament in the same breath. James considers Jesus the same as God.   Given the serious nature of blasphemy in the first century, she argues that this is a high Christology after all.

Her second line of evidence is the use of the Sermon on the Mount in James. That James knew the teaching of Jesus seems obvious, Jobes provides a great deal of evidence that James new and used Matthew 5-7 in his letter. There are at least 24 clear parallels between James and the Sermon on the Mount, too many to be a coincidence. Since he uses this material as authoritative and parallel to Scripture, Jobes argues that he sees Jesus’ teaching as just as authoritative as the Hebrew Bible. A related bit of evidence is the “royal law” in James.  This is essentially the greatest commandment according to Jesus in Matthew 27:37-40.  Jobes concludes that “the way Jesus uses the teaching of Jesus as a moral reference point reveals another aspect of his assumed Christology.”

I agree with Jobes, but I also have some questions.  Is there anything in the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5-7 that is uniquely Christian?  Jesus is interacting with the Law and does not “cancel” the Law or contradict it at all.  In fact, Jesus seems to be arguing for a more strict interpretation of the Law than was popular in the first-century.  Even the “greatest commandment” is not uniquely Christian, the rabbi Hillel is well-known for saying virtually the same thing.

I think the question “Is James a Christian Letter?” might set the problem in the wrong light.  When asked that way, the Christian scholar feels the need to find Jesus lurking behind every line of James, as if a letter which did not mention Jesus is not a Christian letter. It is possible for a Jewish believer with James’ reputation to write a letter admonishing his readers to good morals would sound very much like Proverbs or Sirach.  Where he does allude to Jesus’ teaching, it is not uniquely Christian because Jesus was not creating a Christian theology and ethic in the same sense that Paul was, or later in the first century, Clement or Didache. To expect that James is going to have a high Christology is to assume that he will have a Pauline Christology.  That is simply not the case, and we should not force James into the Pauline Grid.  He simply does not fit.

If we understand that there was a distinct Jewish-oriented form of Christianity in the first century,  then we will not have to struggle so much to bring James into the “Christian” fold.  James is a Christian letter, but it s a distinctly Jewish one, and definitely not a Pauline Christian letter!