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Pate, C. Marvin. 40 Questions about the Historical Jesus. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2015. Pb. 407 pp., $23.99.   Link to Kregel

Historical Jesus studies have fallen on hard times in the last few years. In the mid-1990s there was a flurry of publications responding to the machinations of the Jesus Seminar. These responses were often called a “Third Quest” for the historical Jesus since they evoked the memory of Albert Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus. Sometimes these responses were conservative, but many in the academy were uncomfortable with the minimalist Jesus produced by the Jesus Seminar.

Pate-Historical-JesusBut this torrent of monographs and articles as slowed recently. One factor is the demise of criteria of authenticity announced by Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne. In fact, most scholars who attempt to do historical Jesus work today find themselves defending their method as much as employing it in their study of the Gospels. A second factor may be the rise of Theological Interpretation of Scripture (see a basic introduction, see Daniel J. Treier or Stephen Fowl). By using this approach to the Gospels, historical questions are less important (or completely unimportant) since the focus is at the canonical level rather than the historical level.

Usually historical Jesus studies focus on what we can know about Jesus by using historical methods exclusively. This can be a skeptical approach, doubting everything until proven authentic. The result is often the claim the Gospel writers have created sayings and placed them in Jesus’ mouth in order to advance a theological statement about what they believed about Jesus. Other historical Jesus studies focus on the cultural and social background in order to place Jesus in a proper context.

This is the context for a book like 40 Questions about the Historical Jesus. Pate is solidly conservative, never describing any statement or event in the life of Jesus as non-historical or created by the Evangelists. In fact, I would describe the bulk of the forty questions as background studies for the Synoptic Gospels rather than historical Jesus studies. He is interested in answering historical questions about Jesus from the cultural of the Second Temple period rather than answering questions of how to prove a saying or event as authentic.

The first section of the book begins with a justification for the study of historical Jesus. For Pate, historical Jesus studies support the reliability of the four Gospels in response to the skepticism of historical criticism of Gabler or Reimarus or conspiracy theories made popular by the Da Vinci Code. He argues the Gospels present an accurate picture of Jesus despite the skepticism nineteenth century protestant liberalism, Bultmann, or the Jesus Seminar.

Pate answers several questions in this section on the history of the “quest for the historical Jesus” and the current state of the question. This section includes six chapters on our sources for studying historical Jesus, including the Old Testament, apocryphal gospels, oral tradition and archaeology. Not surprisingly, Pate rejects apocryphal gospels as potential sources for the study of historical Jesus, stating clearly that the “New Testament is our sole authority” for a proper view of Jesus (95). He is also skeptical of the arguments against the reliability of Oral Tradition, although he restricts his comments to classical Form Criticism and does not discuss recent work on oral tradition from James Dunn or Francis Watson.

Section two of the book deals with Jesus’ birth and childhood. Three chapters are devoted to the virgin birth, which I find strange in a book about the historical Jesus. Usually scholars doing historical Jesus work will overlook the virgin birth since it cannot be verified historically, or dismiss it entirely as theologically motivated. Three questions concern Jesus’ family and childhood, another area usually omitted from historical Jesus studies since there is nothing which can be verified. The final question concerns the languages Jesus may have spoken (Aramaic, with some Hebrew, Greek and Latin, but he taught in Aramaic).

In the third section of the book Pate covers the life and teaching of Jesus. This is often the heart of historical Jesus studies. He begins with a short overview of why there are four accounts of Jesus life (Question 20). Typically this is the point where a historical Jesus study would survey the Synoptic Problem and offer an opinion on Markan priority and the (non)existence of a source document like Q, but Pate does not cover these issues except in passing.

Several of the questions in this section concern the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (baptism, temptations, the Twelve), and two concern miracles, including the transfiguration. Once again, some of the material in these sections is not typically within the domain of historical Jesus studies, such as the identity and fate of each of the Twelve Apostles or the meaning of the Transfiguration. That the Transfiguration happened can be a historical question, but the meaning is a theological question. Pate does briefly comment on Bultmann’s claim the event is a misplaced resurrection account (246), but (rightly) dismisses the suggestion.

I think more could have been made of the historical value of Jesus’ miracles, especially since they are routinely rejected in classic historical Jesus studies as creations of the evangelists. He uses two pages for a chart of Jesus’ miracles in each of the Synoptic Gospels; this space ought  to have been used to more fully develop the meaning of miracles in the Second Temple period (which is covered briefly) and to expand on the short sentence claiming miracles were part of Jewish Messianic expectations. A messiah who did not do miracles would have been more anachronistic than the Gospel’s presentation of Jesus as a miracle worker. This criticism is more aimed at the style of the book (forty short answers); Pate is constrained by the format of the book and cannot cover everything which might be important (in my opinion).

Questions 28-32 ask about the main message of the four Synoptic Gospels. The content of these chapters is very good and nothing is radical or unexpected. However, the study of the historical Jesus usually does not concern itself with the theology of the evangelists but rather the words and deeds of Jesus. Question 27 and 32 (the focus of Jesus’ teaching and the Olivet Discourse) are perhaps the best in the section since they do indeed focus on the teaching of the historical Jesus. Pate rightly focuses on the Kingdom of God in these two chapters and he spends significant space comparing and contrasting consistent, realized and inaugurated eschatology before concluding some sort of already/not yet approach best explains the data.

The final section of the book concerns the death and resurrection of Jesus. The events surrounding the crucifixion are one of the more profitable areas of historical Jesus research since the events are narrated in all four Gospels as well as external sources. History and geography can be used to confirm the general flow of the story of the Gospels. Several of the questions in this section are historically plausible (the Triumphal entry, Temple action, crucifixion), although Pate includes a chapter on why Jesus died (question 36). This is not on the crucifixion as a historical event, but on the theological concept of substitutionary atonement. Remarkably he include the Pauline and General epistles, which seems odd for a book on the historical Jesus.

Only two questions are devoted to the resurrection the ascension, events conservative readers will affirm as historical, although many historical Jesus scholars hesitate to comment on the resurrection and routinely ignore the ascension as a theological statement rather than historical reality.

Conclusion. This book achieves the goal of studying Jesus through a historical, albeit conservative lens. For the most part I agree with Pate and much of the book resonates with my own approach to Jesus when I teach a college level Synoptic Gospels class. However, I have some reservations based on the use of the phrase “historical Jesus” title of the book. Pate seems to assume the Gospels are historically reliable early in the book and then develops what the Gospels say about Jesus rather than arguing for the authenticity sayings or deeds of Jesus. Perhaps it would have been better to entitle the book 40 Questions about Jesus and the Gospels since the questions are not always the domain of typical historical Jesus studies.

I think a chapter on parables should have been included since the parables are usually the bedrock of Jesus’ teaching in historical Jesus studies, even in less-than-conservative circles. Pate uses parables in his chapter on the Kingdom of God, but the focus is on what the parables say about the kingdom, not whether they are verifiably the words of Jesus.

Since there are forty questions in less than 400 pages of text, the chapters are necessarily short. I found the chapter on archaeology frustratingly short, but that is the nature of this kind of book. Some chapters have helpful charts or bullet-points to cover details quickly. Pate frequently includes lengthy block quotes as part of his response to questions, perhaps too often. Each chapter concludes with several questions for reflection, so the book could be used in a college classroom or Bible study. Pate provides footnotes pointing to additional resources for the serious student who is interested in going deeper into the issues presented in the book.

 

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

Capes, David B., Rodney Reeves and E. Randolph Richards. Rediscovering Jesus: An Introduction to Biblical, Religious and Cultural Perspectives on Christ. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2015. 272 pp. Hb; $30.00.   Link to IVP

In Mark 2:6 Jesus tells a young man hoping to be healed that his sins are forgiven. Since only God has the authority to forgive sins, some of the teachers of the Law wonder just who Jesus thinks he is. This is exactly Jesus’ question to Peter at the turning point of the Gospel, “who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27-30). Peter’s response is mostly correct, “You are the Messiah.” He understands Jesus as Messiah, but as the rest of Mark makes clear, he did not understand what the Messiah intended to do in Jerusalem.

Capes, Rediscovering JesusEach chapter of Rediscovering Jesus attempts to answer Jesus’ question “who do people say that I am?” Rather than limited the answer to only the four Gospels or the New Testament itself, the authors include four post-biblical views of Jesus (the Gnostic Jesus, the Muslim Jesus, the Historical Jesus, and the Mormon Jesus) as well as two contemporary views of Jesus (American Jesus and Cinematic Jesus). For each of these views, the authors hope to demonstrate the unique understanding of Jesus but also to ask the important question, “what if this was our only view of Jesus?”

The book includes a series of text boxes entitled “What’s More…” which expand on some of the details of the chapter. For example, “Is Matthew Anti-Semitic” or “Was Jesus Married?” In addition, there are boxes labeled “So What?” in each chapter which attempt to draw out some implications of the image of Jesus described in the chapter. For example, under the heading of “I’m Saved. Now What?” there is a short challenge to the reading to think more deeply about the implications of Paul’s view of salvation. Chapters conclude with a brief additional reading section and a series of discussion questions.

A short introductory introduces the reader to a serious problem for people who study Jesus: creating a Jesus who looks exactly like the reader. This has always been a problem for the Church and one that Albert Schweitzer pointed out in his Quest for the Historical Jesus more than a hundred years ago. Rediscovering Jesus recognizes this as unavoidable, everyone who seriously studies Jesus will see something different, therefore the book presents various images of Jesus.

The first major section of the book concerns Jesus in the Bible, beginning with four chapters surveying each gospel writer’s understanding of Jesus. Beginning with the Gospel of Mark, the authors point out Mark’s Jesus is not a warm and fuzzy person. Rather, he is “driven by the Spirit” to fulfill his messianic calling. He is a miracle worker more than a teacher. Matthew’s Jesus, on the other hand, is the “consummate teacher, a prophet like Moses” who was deeply committed to the Old Testament (52). Luke’s Jesus is the king from very beginning of the Gospel. His birth announcement is royal and he is God’s son and Lord. Although the chapter mentions Acts briefly, the authors do not focus on a unique picture of Jesus in Acts (and there is no chapter dedicated to Acts). As is often observed, John’s Jesus is very different. The authors point to John’s view of the kingdom as “not of this world” and consider John’s gospel less interested in the ethical demands found in Matthew (86).

In their conclusion to the chapter on Paul’s Jesus, the authors are struck by his lack of interest in the life and teaching of Jesus. Paul, they say, is “obsessed with things that we think really do not matter” (105), yet Paul’s interpretation of the cross is the “greatest contribution to our understanding of Christ (101). For Paul, Jesus is the crucified one, whom God raised from the dead and exalted to the highest place (Phil 2:6-11). They speculate that if Paul were our only view of Jesus, we would focus more on the return of Christ and perhaps even care less about social justice, thinking it would all be sorted out when Jesus returns. This is in fact a real danger for readers of the New Testament who lack a clear view of the canonical context when reading only Paul’s letters.

In “The Priestly Jesus” (chapter 6) the authors describe Jesus according to the book of Hebrews. Hebrews is the only book describing Jesus as a priest, so the obvious focus on this chapter is the book’s comparison of the Old Testament sacrificial system and the sacrifice of Jesus. The following chapter (“The Jesus of Exiles”) covers the letters of James, Peter and Jude (The epistles of John appear to be included in the Gospel of John chapter).  This chapter understands the language of exile in 1 Peter and James as a metaphor for the church akin to Paul’s “body of Christ” (131). I would rather take these references as more or less literal references to Diaspora Jews and read 1 Peter and James as a Jewish Christian interpretation of Jesus. Although I agree Lordship of Jesus is a key issue in these letters, I think an opportunity to describe a Jesus more agreeable with Second Temple period Judaism is lost by forcing “exile” into a metaphor for the (later) Gentile church. Finally, According to the book of Revelation, the work of Jesus is an accomplished fact and an irreversible force (145).

CEO Jesus

CEO Jesus

Part two of Rediscovering Jesus concerns “Jesus Outside the Bible.” Following a chronological pattern in an attempt to describe how some have attempted to explain who Jesus was from an often radically different perspective from the New Testament. They begin with the “Gnostic Jesus.” This very basic introduction to Gnosticism dispels any “conspiracy theories” about the suppression of Gnosticism and shows Gnostic Jesus as revealer of hidden mysteries. The Muslim Jesus (chapter 10) a kind of “patron saint” of asceticism (184) and prophet who was not the son of God nor divine, and was not crucified. In the “Historical Jesus” (chapter 11) the authors survey various rationalist attempts to explain Jesus in the nineteenth century as a teacher, but not a miracle worker. Since reason proves there can be no miracles, many interpreters of Jesus sought to strip the husk of legend from the Gospels to discover the “real Jesus.” Next the authors describe the sometimes perplexing view of Jesus held by the Mormon Church. Although this Jesus sometimes sounds like the Jesus of the Gospels, there are significant differences in both the nature of Jesus (he is a separate God, not part of a Trinity) and in terms of his post-resurrection appearances.

Redneck Jesus

Redneck Jesus

The final two chapters of the book are fascinating since they are not typically included on academic textbooks on Jesus. In “The American Jesus” the authors suggest several ways American Christians get Jesus wrong: he is a politically correct Jesus who offends no one, or a politicized Jesus supporting your favorite candidate, or a pragmatic, CEO Jesus who coaches you to greater (financial) success, or even a subversive radical hippie freak (queue the Larry Norman song, “The Outlaw”!)

The last chapter looks at Jesus as portrayed in films, “The Cinematic Jesus.” A sidebar lists about twenty films about Jesus since 1905, and there are many more than these. From The Greatest Story Ever Told to Jesus Christ Superstar, from the Passion of the Christ to The Life of Brian, filmmakers have interpreted Jesus as almost everything covered in this book.  Ultimately, the authors suggest the Cinematic Jesus is akin to the Gnostic Jesus, a pious religious man revealing some mystery about life, the universe and everything.

Conclusion:  My main criticism of the book is the speculation at the end of each chapter, “what if this was our only view of Jesus?” Perhaps this is a rhetorical device intended to provoke the reader into reading the canon of Scripture holistically, but this approach seems to read the way Paul or John are described as fairly negative. It is almost as if they are saying, “Paul did not get it quite right, you need Matthew you really understand Jesus.” I do not think it is the case the authors of the New Testament ever “got Jesus wrong,” although the encouragement to take all of the biblical pictures of Jesus seriously is an important encouragement.

One other small concern is the last of interest in the historical development of Christology.  With the exception of flipping the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, the book moves through the New Testament more or less in canonical order. This gives the impression the Gospels pre-date the Pauline letters or even the Book of Hebrews. Since the book is examining the Gospel writers are witnesses to Jesus, their perspective is later than Paul or Hebrews. It might be helpful to recognize this and perhaps use the chronological development to tease out yet another perspective on who Jesus is.

Nevertheless, this book would serve well as a textbook for a college or seminary classroom, especially as a way to confront the tendency to recreate Jesus in our own image. The book is written for a non-academic audience, so it could be used as a small group Bible Study or for personal enrichment.

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

Edwards, James R. The Gospel according to Luke. PNTC. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2015. 831 pp. Hb; $65. Link to Eedrmans

James Edwards previously contributed the volume on Mark to the Pillar New Testament Commentary. It is unusual for a commentary series to assigned two Synoptic Gospels to a single scholar. What is more, Edwards did not write Edwards, Lukethe Acts commentary in the series, David G. Peterson did in 2009. This allows Edwards to read Luke without having a second commentary on Acts in mind. As a result, Luke nor Luke is not merely a prologue for Acts. Edwards notes in the preface he has not paid attention to reception history in the commentary, referring interested readers to François Bovon’s Hermneia commentary on Luke.

At only 22 pages, the introduction to the commentary is brief, especially since it is divided into nine sections. Edwards accepts the traditional view the author of both Luke and Acts was a companion of Paul and quite possibly Jewish (10) native of Antioch (12), although he is less open to the suggestion Luke was a doctor (8). It is nearly certain Luke used the gospel of Mark, which Edwards dates about A.D. 65, suggesting a date for Luke’s Gospel about a decade later. If Like is dated after A.D. 70 then Luke 19:43-44 may be an allusion to the destruction of the city.

Edwards argues Luke used a Hebrew source along with Mark. In the introduction to this commentary he briefly summarizes the argument of his The Hebrew Gospel and the Development of the Synoptic Tradition (Eerdmans, 2009). There are, Edwards argues, a disproportionally large number of semiticisms in the Gospel of Luke, especially in the unique material in the third Gospel. Semiticisms are words and phrases can be best explained as reflecting a Hebrew or Aramaic original, such as the “divine passive.” Sometimes these phrases are called “Septuagintisms” because Luke sounds like the Septuagint. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible obviously is based on a written Hebrew source and often reflects the style of the Hebrew original although it is written in Greek. Edwards finds many of these examples of semiticisms in the Gospel, especially in the prologue.

With respect to the sayings source (Q), Edwards remains unconvinced. Of the approximately 175 verses usually associated with Q, some are narrative and at least one is found in the Passion narrative. This so-called double tradition does not exhibit the semiticism found elsewhere in Luke (17). Edwards suspects the double tradition is the “skeletal remains” of one of Luke’s sources and it is likely Matthew received the sayings from Luke, although this cannot be state with certainty (17-18). The body of the commentary is not overly concerned with matters of Source Criticism, most references to Hebraisms appear in the footnotes.

There are eleven excurses scattered throughout the commentary. These brief notes cover key terms in the Gospel (“Son of Man”), literary features (“Elijah and Elisha Typology,” “Pairs in the Third Gospel”), and historical issues (“Pharisees in Luke,” “Pontius Pilate and Herod Antipas”). These are useful and placed at appropriate places in the commentary. When Edwards offers some additional detail on a historical, exegetical or geographical point within the commentary which are shorter than an excursus, the theme is identified in bold print (tax collectors, 3:11; slavery. 16:1-9).

The body of the commentary follows Edward’s outline of twenty-two sections, roughly equivalent to about a chapter of Luke per section. Each unit is divided into several pericopae with comments on groups of verses rather than words or phrase. All Greek appears in transliteration with most technical details relegated to the footnotes (textual variants, references to various theological dictionaries and wordbooks). Since there are few in-text notes, the commentary is very readable. Edwards has several memorable phrases, such as his description of perceptions of Jewish tax-collectors as “the husk of an individual whose soul had been eaten away by complicity with Roman repression” (169). He is able to use brief contemporary illustrations to make the text clear, such as comparing the shrewd manager in 16:1-13 to a CEO who says “you’ve turned your pink slip into a promotion” (455). Although this is an exegetical commentary which wrestles with lexical and syntactical issues, Edwards finds ways to elegantly draw out meaning and present it in language appreciated by students and busy pastors who desire to teach the text of Luke in various contexts.

The commentary often provides cultural details drawn from Second Temple period practice. Commenting on 11:37-40, for example, Edwards explains the importance of ritual washing before meals, citing the work of Neusner (354). His observations about the piety of the Pharisee in 18:9-14 make it clear the Pharisee is “not to be denigrated for declaring his commendable record” (504) based on Tobit 1:6-8 and other early texts. His presentation of Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple refers to many Second Temple texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls (594).

In addition to the literature of the Second Temple period, Edwards draws on the insights of patristic writers throughout the commentary. There are numerous references to Origen’s Homilies on Luke and the writings of Justin Martyr, Jerome and Eusebius.

Conclusion. Each volume of the Pillar series has been a solid contribution to scholarship, Edward’s Luke commentary continues this legacy. There are more technical commentaries available, but this commentary is a pleasure to read and will serve pastors and teachers well as they continue to study the third Gospel.

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

Jesus Behaving BadlyI happen to have an extra copy of Mark L. Strauss, Jesus Behaving Badly (IVP 2015), so I thought I would pass it along to a Reading Acts reader. I reviewed the book in November, concluding that it is a readable introduction to some of the issues one faces when they begin to read the Gospels seriously. Strauss writes the book on a non-academic level with a great deal of humor as well as plenty of pop-culture references. Although academic, it is written with a pastor’s heart.

The book includes a few study questions which could be used as discussion starters for a small group Bible study. In fact, I think this book would make an excellent read for a small Bible Study group interested in going a bit deeper into who Jesus was than the typical curriculum normally goes. The book might make a good auxiliary textbook for a Gospels college course, supplementing a more thorough textbook. Strauss challenges his readers to think more deeply about who Jesus is by stripping away some of the pre-conceptions about Jesus passed along by tradition and the Church. The result is clearer view of who Jesus was and more importantly, why Jesus still matters to his disciples today.

To have a chance at winning these books, leave a comment suggesting other titles in a biblical “behaving badly” series IVP ought to consider. Or at the very least, just leave your name.

Do not forget to enter to win a copy of Logos Cloud Premium from Logos and Reading Acts. Logos is running that giveaway until January 17, 2016.

I will announce the winner of Jesus Behaving Badly on January 15, 2016.

Marshall, Mary. The Portrayals of the Pharisees in the Gospels and Acts. FRLANT 254; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015. Hb;  €89.99.  Link to V&R 

In this important monograph, Mary Marshall answers the “comparative neglect of the Gospels and Acts” in recent research on Pharisees. Most scholars studying the “historical Pharisee” observe that the tendency of the Gospels to vilify the Pharisees limits their value as sources. Too frequently it is assumed the Gospels and Acts have a uniform, negative view of Pharisees. On the contrary, Marshall contends the Gospels and Acts are complex and each writer has an individual view of the Pharisees. Her goal is not a “quest for the historical Pharisee,” but rather to fairly and accurately describe how each of the four Gospel author’s presented the Pharisee in the service of their own theological agendas. She points out the Pharisees appear in all four Gospels and Acts without any explanation as to who they are or why they are significant (23). Josephus, on the other hand, does have an excursus explaining what a Pharisee was to his Roman audience.

Marshall, PhariseesIn order to achieve this goal, she begins with Mark as the earliest Gospel and argues Mark’s view of the Pharisees in “univocally negative” (66). The Pharisees oppose Jesus and his ministry at key points in the Gospel by challenging Jesus’ authority, either by questioning his behavior (Mark 2:15-3:6), by demanding a sign (Mark 8:11-15), or by engaging Jesus in a discussion on some particular practice (Mark 10:2-9, divorce; 12:13-17, payment of taxes to Caesar). Marshall thinks the challenge to Jesus’ behavior is not included to legitimate later church practice in Mark’s community (as is commonly assumed), but rather to convey his Christology and the Pharisee’s rejection of that Christology (41). Even the controversies over hand washing and korban in Mark 7 emphasize the “Christological implications of the Pharisees’ challenges” (51).

Assuming Matthew has used Mark in the creation of his own Gospel, Marshall examines Matthew’s redaction of Mark with respect to the Pharisees. Although Matthew includes all of Mark’s material on the Pharisees, it is possible to hear Matthew’s unique nuances by observing the changes he makes in his sources. For example, Matthew changes Mark’s “scribes” in Mark 12:24 in order to include the Pharisees in the request for a sign. She concludes Matthew, like Mark, is consistently negative toward the Pharisees and in no way reduces the negative implications of his sources. In most cases Matthew increases the visibility of the Pharisees in order to highlight their rejection of Jesus and the demands of the kingdom (123). For example, in Matthew 22:15-16 the Pharisees seem to have more authority than the Herodians (79). In 22:34-40, Matthew has omitted the scribe’s praise of Jesus and “portrays only unmitigated hostility” toward the Pharisees who only want to test him (89). After surveying several examples, Marshall argues a “motif of replacement emerges” in which the Pharisees are unworthy of a privileged position and are “easily replaced” (112). This is clear in the parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matt 22:1-14). Although she comments briefly on the parable, Marshal refrains from comparing the parable to the Lukan parallel in order to argue for (or against) a Matthean redaction. She also does not suggest who these “replacements” are in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, although in her conclusion to the chapter she suggests Matthew is “defending the legitimacy of ‘Judaism’ ad the inheritance of the law and the prophets by his own community” (125). For Matthew, there is still hope for the Jewish people, but that hope is through Jesus, not the Pharisees. This implies a post 70 CE situation for Matthew’s Gospel.

Although there are differences between Luke and Acts, Marshall examines several themes which run through both works with respect to the Pharisees. First, the Pharisees have forfeited their place in the Kingdom of God by rejecting Jesus as early as his baptism (131). She examines several meals in Luke and argues Luke highlights an eschatological perspective in these meal scenes. For example, the parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14) is given in response to a guest who assumes he will participate in the coming messianic banquet. Marshall correctly connects the Pharisee of Luke 14:15 with the prodigal’s brother, both of whom represent entitlement and an expectation of eating in the great banquet (135). A second theme appears more clearly in Acts: the reputation of the Pharisees serves Luke’s apologetic function (141). Gamaliel, for example, is a prominent Pharisee who appreciates the apostolic message (although he compares it to other failed messianic movements). In fact, Luke’s apologetic concern is to show that the Christian missionaries did not deviate from Judaism, but are in fact in continuity with it (154). A related third motif in Luke is that the Pharisees were most sympathetic toward early Christianity. Acts 15:5, for example, indicates some early Christians were from the Pharisees and were still concerned with the details of the Mosaic Law (160). Luke has redacted his sources to show the Pharisees some respect, although Marshall rejects the suggestion there is an affinity between Jesus and the Pharisees (179).

Finally, John’s unique presentation of the Pharisees presents several problems because scholars usually dismiss John as a historical source in general. With respect to the Pharisees, it is often assumed John lumps the Pharisees together with chief priests, scribes as “the Jews.” The Jews then represent the unreceptive world (229). Marshall challenges this assumption as an oversimplification. It is the Jews who are the objects of fear and attempt to kill Jesus. Pharisees are part of the crowd and are associated with the arrest of Jesus, but they are not the “real opponents” in John’s Gospel as is often assumed (231). In fact, they are not consistently hostile toward Jesus and some (like Nicodemus) are potential sympathizers. This observation causes her to reevaluate the popular view of J. Louis Martyn that John’s community was formally expelled from the synagogue about the time the birkath-ha-minim were introduced in the synagogues. She concludes the portrayal of opposition to Jesus in the fourth Gospel “may not accurately reflect any real life opposition to his community” (241).

Despite eschewing a “quest for the historical Pharisee,” Marshall concludes her chapters with a comment on the relationship of each Gospel to historical Pharisaism. She points out that Mark did not write a book about the Pharisees, but about Jesus (68), so some of the questions which interest scholars with respect to the Pharisees will not find a solution in Mark. Matthew’s portrayal of the Pharisee cannot be understood apart from his view of Judaism. Although Marshall sees Matthew as representing legitimate Judaism, the Pharisees are out the outside of Matthew’s definition of what Judaism should be in a post-70 CE world (125). For Luke, it is not certain his audience had any contact with Pharisees (183), so the Pharisees in Luke and Acts function to convey Luke’s literary themes. For John’s Gospel she evaluates and rejects popular views of a recent ejection of John’s community from the synagogue because John’s portrayal of the Pharisees is not homogeneous (241).

Conclusion. Marshall’s monograph is an excellent contribution to the study of the Pharisees. The unique contributions of each Gospel are clearly presented. This approach is refreshing since the Gospels are not uniform in their presentation of the Pharisees. Popular studies tend to make the Pharisees the arch-enemy of Jesus, but Marshall demonstrates that in Luke (and perhaps John) this is not the case. This book should be part of any discussion of the Pharisees in the New Testament.

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

Gundry, Robert H. Peter: False Disciple and Apostate according to Saint Matthew. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2015. 139 pp. Pb; $20.   Link to Eerdmans   Video of a lecture Gundry gave at Westmont on the topic of this book.

This short study by Robert Gundry makes the somewhat surprising claim that Matthew considered Peter to be a “false disciple and apostate.” In the introduction to the book Gundry makes his motivations clear. This is not an anti-Catholic book and he is not interested in subverting any traditions about Peter. Nor is he interested in the “historical Peter,” assuming a history of Peter’s life could be written. Gundry’s project is strictly limited to the presentation of Peter in Matthew’s gospel only.

Gunrdy, PeterIn order to reach this conclusion, Gundry analyzes every appearance of Peter in the Gospel of Matthew. By way of method, Gundry employs redaction criticism in order to show Matthew edited Mark’s narrative to present Peter as an example of a disciple who was very close to Jesus but ultimately failed to follow through on his commitment to Jesus. In the end, Peter is left “outside in the darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Gundry’s use of redaction criticism is well-known from his commentaries on Matthew and Mark, therefore many will pre-judge some of his comments based on his method alone.

After a short introductory chapter on method, Gundry’s second chapter surveys all of these texts prior to the climactic confession of Peter in Matthew 16. Peter is not presented in these texts as a model of faith, in fact, the famous story in Matt 14:22-33 does not demonstrate Peter’s faith, but his lack of faith. The story of Peter’s request to walk on the water is not found in the other Gospels. Matthew therefore chose to report the words of Peter, “If you are Jesus (14:28) in similar language to the devil in the Temptation (4:3, 6). The other disciples in the boat confess Jesus as God’s son and worship him, but Peter is not included in that group (12).

In Matthew 16:13-32 Jesus seems to call Peter to be the leader of his church. Gundry therefore examines this pericope in detail in chapter 4. By confession Jesus is the Messiah, Peter is “playing catch-up” since the other disciples have already done so in 14:33 (16). The real issue in Matt 16 is Jesus calling Peter “the rock.” Gundry argues the “rock” refer to the words of Jesus, recalling Matt 7:24, the wise man builds his house on the rock.”  The bedrock in Matt 7:24 is clearing the words of Jesus (μου τοὺς λόγους τούτους). Peter himself is cannot be the “foundation of the church” since the church will be built on the teaching of Jesus. He is the one teacher (Matt 23:8) and the disciples will be commissioned to disciples the nations by teaching them everything Jesus has taught (Matt 28:20). The “keys to the kingdom” and “binding and loosing” both refer to teaching Jesus’ words, not the words of Peter as the successor of Jesus. The disciples are to convey Jesus’ words, not interpret them (25).

After Peter’s confession, Jesus reveals he will die in Jerusalem (Matt 16:21). Peter rebukes Jesus for this prediction (16:22). The brazenness of this rebuke is often lost in translation, but disciples do not rebuke their masters in the ancient world. Peter not only rebukes, but Matthew uses a double-negation plus a future indicative, the strongest negation in Greek. Jesus calls Peter Satan and a snare. Again, this stinging counter-rebuke is often translated to put Peter in a good light, but Matthew uses σκάνδαλον, a temptation to sin. In Matthew, Jesus has already said anyone who causes others to sin (πάντα τὰ σκάνδαλα) will be thrown into the fiery furnace where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:41-42). For Matthew, all “σκάνδαλα belong in hell” (30).

At Capernaum

At Capernaum

Chapter 4 traces several appearances of Peter in Matt 17-26, from transfiguration to the Garden of Gethsemane. Most of these are examples of “redactionally anti-Petrine moves by Matthew” (40). In Matt 19:27-30, when Peter responds to Jesus’ “camel through the eye of a needle saying, Matthew adds “what therefore will we have?” (τί ἄρα ἔσται ἡμῖν;). This future expectation of reward is not in the parallel in Mark or Luke. For Gundy, this is evidence Matthew is presenting Peter as “angling for present compensation” (39).

Gundry argues Peter’s denial of Christ is a parallel to Judas’s betrayal and suicide (chapter 5). He carefully examines the details of Peter’s denial, demonstrating Matthew’s modifications of Mark show Peter has apostatized. Matthew has redacted Mark in order to demonstrate the gravity of Peter’s denials. Peter swears with an oath (καὶ πάλιν ἠρνήσατο μετὰ ὅρκου, 26:72). In a passage unique to Matthew, Jesus states his disciples should not take oaths. For Gundry, this is flagrant disobedience to the Lord’s commands. By verse 74, Peter begins “to curse and swear,” another redaction by Matthew in order to highlight Peter’s apostasy; Matthew changes Mark’s ἀναθεματίζω to καταθεματίζω and drops “on himself” from Mark 14:71. In Mark, Peter is cursing himself, in Matthew he is cursing others (49-50).

Peter obviously denies his Lord, but most commentators are adamant Peter is restored after the resurrection. His bitter weeping is usually understood as a demonstration of his great remorse in contrast to Judas’s suicide. Gundry lists two dozen statements from various commentaries which try to rehabilitate Peter and offers a short response for each. For Gundry, the “bitter weeping” indicates Peter is an apostate who has in fact move into the darkness, “where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

In to this evidence, addition, there are a number of places in Matthew where Peter’s name is omitted. Chapter 6 examines these “non-appearances” of Peter and argues they represent Matthew dropping Peter because he is an example of a false disciple. For example, in Mark 16:8 the angels tell the women to go and tell the “disciples and Peter.”

Chapters 7-8 develop two threads Gundry has traced in this book as well in his commentary on Matthew. First, Gundry gathers more than twenty texts in Matthew describing false discipleship and concludes both Peter and Judas are quintessential false disciples (88). Just one example: In the Wedding Banquet parable (Matt 22:1-14) scholars are often perplexed by the unprepared man in the second part of the story. For Gundry, this man is a professing disciple who is marked as a false disciples because of his lack of wedding clothes (79). Like Peter, this man is one of the many who were called but not chosen and will remain outside, where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The second theme Gundry traces is flight from persecution in Matthew. He examines (briefly) eight pericopae in which those who flee persecution are condemned.  A false disciple is exposed when there is persecution. Like Peter’s betrayal, the false disciple will show themselves and deny Jesus publically.

In his final chapter Gundry makes a few suggestions based on the texts surveyed in the book. He speculates a gospel presenting Peter as an apostate could not be written after his martyrdom, so his argument for Peter as a false disciple implies an early date for the writing of Matthew. A corollary he does not mention is dating Matthew to before A.D. 70 pushes the date for Mark/Q perhaps a decade earlier.

A second implication is more speculative. Like many scholars, Gundy associates Matthew with Syrian Antioch. Galatians 2:11-14 describes a face-to-face confrontation between Paul and Peter. Gundry gently suggests Matthew reflects a situation where Paul won his argument with Peter. He recognizes this echoes the old Tübingen school, but it “may call for further investigation” (103).

Conclusion. A book entitled Peter: False Disciple and Apostate will naturally generate a great deal of interest since Peter is beloved as the first leader of the Christian church. This is certainly true in the Catholic tradition, but evangelical pastors love to preach about thick-headed Peter, a simple man used by Jesus to found the Church. Doubtless many will point to John 21 as a “restoration of Peter,” but that is John’s story and not Matthew’s. Gundry has delimited his topic to only Matthew’s Gospel, so the “restoration” of Peter in the other gospels or tradition does not matter to him.

But it is true the Gospel of Mark also fails to mention a restoration of Peter. Although Luke describes Peter as a leader in the Jerusalem church, people are suspicious of his escape from prison in Acts 12. After this event, Peter is hardly mentioned in Acts and seems to have been supplanted by James, the Lord’s brother. It just might be the case Peter is not as important to the foundational level of the Church as tradition has made him out to be.

Peter: False Disciple and Apostate is a brief but extremely well-researched book that argues a single point in a short 100 pages. Gundry makes his case well, although it is a case many will find jarring. Although I imagine the book will cause much “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” the book will set the agenda for Matthean theology for years to come.

 

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

 

Bird, Michael F. The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2014. xiv + 393 pages, pb. $30.   Link to Eerdmans

[NB: This is the third and final part of my review of Bird’s The Gospel of the Lord.  Due to the length of my review, I posted it in three parts:  Here is part one of the review, and part two is here.]

In chapter 4 Bird offers an overview of the synoptic problem by examining “The Literary Genetics of the Gospels.” After a long section surveying the various solutions to the synoptic problem Bird offers a “fresh look” at this old problem. He argues synoptic research has operated naïvely on the assumption the Gospels writers had the identical text it appears in our neatly printed Greek New Testament. Matthew may have used a slightly different text than Mark or Luke. While this might be true, this objection does not seem to me to be very helpful in practice since very few synoptic parallels can be explained as a “variation” in the textual tradition.

Bird, Gospel of the LordSecond, every Gospel synopsis has a bias towards one particular solution to the Synoptic problem. In fact, Bird states the obvious: there is a great deal of subjectivity in all solutions to the Synoptic problem. Nevertheless, Bird thinks the two- or four- source hypothesis is basically correct and he is confident in Markan priority. But instead of a full-blown, layered, Q, he describes the sayings document as a “Q-lite” (162). He wants to avoid what he calls the often “schizophrenic” views of Q in scholarship. He is adamant that Q is merely a hypothetical document even if there are good reasons for thinking something existed and was used by both Matthew and Luke. While affirming Q, he is not convinced everything in the double tradition can be attributed to Q (170). He gives numerous examples of this phenomenon such as the story of the centurion in Q, which he describes as “sticking out like a sore thumb” (174).

What is unusual is in a discussion of the Synoptic problem is Bird’s inclusion of John’s Gospel. After giving a short overview of authorship and date, Bird surveys the differences between John’s Gospel and the Synoptics. He then offers nine possible explanations for the relationship of John’s Gospel to the Synoptics. He suggests we “envision the spasmodic intrapenetration of the Synoptic and John traditions” as they crossed on another other “in the preliminary stages” (212). Ultimately John’s Gospel is “truly enigmatic. . . it defies neat categorization as’ dependent on’ or ‘independent of’ the Synoptics in any absolute way” (213). The Excursus for this chapter is a collection of Patristic Quotations on the Order of the Gospels. These are offered almost entirely without comment.

Chapter 5 is a fresh discussion of the “Genre and Goal of the Gospels: What Is a Gospel and Why Write One?” Once again Bird begins by surveying the options for genre often found in Gospels introductions. Perhaps he spends more time on ancient biographies since he will be most attracted to this view: “given the specific features of the Gospels, I choose to label the Gospels as ‘biographical kerygma’” (271). Theologically, God is the main character of the gospels; Christologically the gospels promote the story of Jesus, and intertextuality, the Gospels are a continuation of the Old Testament narrative of God’s great ask toward his people in their history.

Yet there a number of reasons why a writer might have written a “gospel.” Mark, for example, appears to be an apology for the idea of a crucified Messiah (272). In fact, many scholars assume the Gospels are “fundamentally Christian literary propaganda” (citing David Aune), perhaps created only for use in a particular community.  Following Richard Bauckham, Bird thinks it is highly unlikely anyone would have considered writing something like a gospel purely for the members of a local church. What is more, the hypothetical reconstructions of communities behind the creation of the Gospels is highly speculative. The gospels are, as Bird concludes,  Greco-Roman biographies, indebted to Jewish sacred literature, written for the purpose of explaining Jesus to a broad audience (280).

Bird’s Excursus for this chapter concerns the “Other Gospels,” the non-canonical Gospels often described as “lost” or “suppressed.”  He clearly rejects what he calls “conspiracy fuel revisionist history of Christian origins” (282). He provides several useful charts summarizing the date and contents of these “other Gospels.”  These books are called gospels simply because they are about Jesus, and we ought to be wary using the term “gospel” for some of this literature. The reason these books were rejected by orthodox Christianity is that the books were simply not orthodox. It is not as though there were Christians sensors or “theological thought police” responsible for rejecting these Gospels (294). They simply represent “dissident groups” writing in a period of proto-orthodoxy, often ascetic and anti-Jewish (297). Bird is clear there still some value to studying these Gospels. But they will always remain “marginalia” to the real Gospels, imaginative retellings rather than replacements for the canonical Gospels.

In his final chapter, Bird asks why there are four Gospels. Does the “Fourfold Gospel of Jesus Christ” have significance? In order to get at the question, Bird considers the alternative: a single Gospel. Marcion, for example, favored the Gospel of Luke and other heretical groups have created their own Gospels. In the second century Christian writers tended to harmonize the four Gospels in order to create a single story. Some Gospels may have been written to create a rival Jesus book such as the Gospel of Thomas. This chapter ranges well into the second century and discusses the views of several of the church fathers. Irenaeus justified four Gospels based on his allegorical interpretation of Ezekiel and Revelation. Bird is correct this is not a very good reason to justify four Gospels! For Bird, “the four Gospels exhibit a plurality and unity that both encourages and restricts Christological reflection” (326).

In his final excursus Bird examines “The Text of the Gospels in the Second Century.” He surveys the date and contents of the papyri as evidence for the Gospels. But his main target or studies like Bart Erhman’s The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. He agrees Erhman’s basic theses as correct: changes were introduced into the text tradition, often motivated by Christological concerns. But unlike Erhman, Bird argues the vast majority of additions seem to be accidental or geared toward harmonization (333).

Conclusion. Bird’s The Gospel of the Lord would make an excellent textbook of a seminary classroom. He is thoroughly acquainted with scholarship of the last fifty years and is able to present several sides of an issue with clarity. He certainly takes the text of the Gospels seriously and offers sensible solutions to some of the more difficult problems on Gospels study (source and form criticism and genre studies).

Bird’s writing style is quite enjoyable, ranging from serious scholarship occasionally laced with pop-cultural references to some sections which are quite cheeky. For example, he indicates form criticism faded “about the same time disco died” (114), leaving me to wonder if the rise in popularity of redaction criticism about the same time is somehow akin to the birth of punk rock. He describes the differences between the Synoptic Gospels and John as like leaving The Bourne Identity for The Matrix (188). Wondering about the accuracy of the oral tradition, Bird asks if it was “Wall Street Journal accurate or Fox News accurate?” (4), and he later suggests the four Gospels were a “kind of Gospel-boy-band” (311). While most of these side comments will be understood, it is possible readers from a non-western culture will find allusions to pop-culture. I wonder if an allusion to Jesus tradition as viral like “Gungam Style on YouTube” will be understood in 20 years. (Actually I hope this does become a mystery to future readers!)

I highly recommend the book as an introduction to Gospels studies. It ought to be on the shelf of every seminary student.

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

Bird, Michael F. The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2014. xiv + 393 pages, pb. $30.   Link to Eerdmans

This is the second part of my review of Michael Bird’s new book, The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus is a study of the origins of the New Testament Gospel. Click here for part one of the review.

In the third chapter, Bird examines the formation of the Jesus Tradition. His interest here is primarily in oral tradition, something scholars have occasionally argued is irretrievably lost. On the contrary, Bird believes he can “map the shape of the tradition in its pre-gospel form” (79). This requires attention to the “telltale signs of orality”: looking for mnemonic devices, detecting local color from Galilean or Judean settings, and identifying stereo-typical oral forms in the text. There is a spectrum of views on oral tradition from a “free, fluid and flexible” tradition all the way to “formally controlled,” like a rabbi forcing his students to memorize his teachings. To some extent there is some truth to all of the suggestions surveyed by Bird in this chapter since there is evidence some traditions were passed formal ways (1 Cor 15:3-5), and others stories may have been adapted to new situations. Like many Evangelicals, Bird is impressed by Kenneth Bailey’s “informal controlled oral tradition.” Bailey is well-known for examining how modern Middle Eastern village life is not unlike the world of the New Testament. While Bird does acknowledge some of the shortcomings of Bailey’s method, but he finds it more useful than early form critical models.

Bird, Gospel of the LordPrimary interest in this chapter is Birds discussion of social memory. This method was developed by James Dunn (Jesus Remembered) and has become a very hot-topic for Gospels scholars. Dunn sought to establish a new hermeneutic for the study of historical Jesus which avoided some of the historical skepticism of the previous generations. This “social memory movement” has produced a remarkable number of monographs in the past 10 years and is producing excellent results in Gospels studies. A Bird explains it, past memories are mounted on mental artifacts that are reconstructed in the light of the needs of the present” (99). Simply put, the people who experienced Jesus remembered what he said and did. The year 100 CE did not “cause instantaneous and widespread amnesia” since people were teaching and preaching what Jesus said and did throughout the first century.

Bird explores evidence from the early second century to support this continuity in tradition. Papias, for example, could claim that he “carefully remembered” everything he learned from the elders (103). Polycarp claimed to have remembered what he gained from eyewitnesses, and Irenaeus said he made notes about these things not on paper but on his heart (105). But as Bird acknowledges, memory is not always accurate. He cites the work of John Dominic Crossan who argued people remember things that are both fact and fiction, memory and fantasy, recollection and fabrication. However, Bird thinks that these examples of failures of memory can be fairly described as merely incidental and not tied to core beliefs. People do not misremember absolute fantasies, but they do remember accurately general facts.

Second, if one thinks Jesus closest disciples and journal supporters were inclined to create memories only a decade or two after they allegedly occurred, then the studies of memory studies are obviously of little value. However the Jesus movement was formed around networks and clusters of believers and memories about Jesus were retrieved in that “net context” (109). They remembered “as a community” not as individuals.

Third, “remembering Jesus” was not an isolated instance of remembering some fact. Key to the accuracy of memory is frequency of retrieval. If the apostles really were teaching and preaching the stories and sayings of Jesus, then memory of Jesus was constantly being recalled. Those who suggested the disciples suddenly forgot what Jesus taught a few months after the crucifixion are overly skeptical. While The Gospels are theological documents, they are based on community memories. “Consequently, the memory of Jesus deposited in the Gospels bequeaths to us both authenticity and artistry, fact and faith, history and hermeneutic” (113).

In his excursus on the “Failure of Form Criticism,” Bird argues virtually “every single presupposition and procedure in form criticism has been thoroughly discredited” (114).  One major reason is form criticism never understood Judaism or Hellenism properly, tending to make them as separate and distinct as possible. Martin Hengel and others have called this assumption into question, eroding this important foundation of the form critics. The form critics also held erroneous views of oral tradition. They tended to see the role of Christian prophets as “creators of dominical tradition,” yet as James Dunn has pointed out, later Christian writers demonstrate a “healthy degree of skepticism towards prophecy” (120). Last, Bird discusses the unlikely link between the pre-literary forms the imagined Sitz im Leben. Form critics can justly be accused of making a circular argument when they argued the Gospels were allegories created by the church to address a current situation. But Bird says “all history telling is a mixture of fact and interpretation,” and communities do in fact retell traditions. This retelling may color the Jesus tradition, but it does not create the tradition. Every preacher attempts to contextualize Scripture for a new community, but the preacher does not create new tradition and place it in the mouth of Jesus.

Part Three of the review appears here.

 

Bird, Michael F. The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2014. xiv + 393 pages, pb. $30.   Link to Eerdmans

Michael Bird’s The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus is a study of the origins of the New Testament Gospel. The first three chapters concern the pre-literary forms of the Gospels, focusing on the shape of the Jesus tradition. He includes a chapter on the Synoptic Problem and another on the genre of the Gospels, two often discussed issues in Gospels introductions. Finally, he concludes the book with a chapter on the reason four Gospels were included in the canon of Scripture rather than only single story of Jesus. Each chapter concludes with a related excursus. While most excurses are brief expansions on some technical aspect of a chapter, some of Bird’s excurses are long enough to be chapters on their own. The book was named one of Christianity Today’s top books of the year in the Biblical Studies category.

Bird, Gospel of the LordThe first chapter of this book is a short five-page introduction with a lengthy excursus (fifteen pages of slightly smaller print). The introduction sets up the book as first an examination of the “big bang” behind what eventually became the gospels—the oral tradition about Jesus. What was the purpose of preserving sayings of Jesus? Why were the remembered in the form they appear in the Gospels? A second goal of the book is to trace how those remembered traditions were transmitted, usually the domain of form criticism, although Bird rightly dismisses much of form criticisms advances. A third issue the book will address is how writers used the oral tradition in order to write their Gospels. Last, Bird wants to explore the theological rationale behind a four-fold canon. The excursus for this chapter defines many of the terms Bird will use throughout the book. “From Oral Gospel to Written Gospel” begins with a definition of “gospel” in the ancient world. Here Bird breaks with the majority view that the word gospel was derived from the imperial cult. While there might be some parodying of the language of the imperial cult, Bird thinks the word is ultimately drawn from Isaiah’s “glad tidings” of the end of the exile (13).

In chapter two, Bird discusses the purpose and preservation of the Jesus Tradition. Essentially he asks the question “why did early Christians preserve anything about Jesus in the first place?” Scholarship has occasionally argued that the earliest church had no interest in historical Jesus. Bird considers strange since there seems to be a great deal preserved about Jesus is life. There are several suggested solutions to this problem first historical Jesus is basic to Christian faith. Scholars often assume the main purpose of preserving and Jesus tradition is to connect Christian faith to the historical figure of Jesus. The second reason often suggested is simply the practical value of Jesus’ teaching. Bird suggests that the letter of James, for example, might be considered an early commentary on the oral traditions later in Q. A third possible explanation is the fact Christian self-definition required some sort of the preservation of Jesus tradition. Bird says “the struggle of the early church to remain within the web of common Judaism amid controversy over approaches to the Torah, Temple, and Gentiles by its members probably precipitated conflict between Christ believers and Jews” (31). This conflict resulted in the need for remembering what Jesus actually said and did.  A fourth often-overlooked motivation for preserving Jesus Tradition is assumption Jesus was the founder of a movement. From the earliest times the group was called Christians or Nazarenes.This alone would result in an interest in Jesus’ words.

Rather than at disinterest in Jesus life, Bird suggests that the quest for the historical Jesus began soon after Jesus’ death. He gives several examples of how historical information about Jesus was preserved. These range from pedagogical and rhetorical devices,  suggested Aramaic sources behind the written Gospels, as well as notebooks used by the disciples for preserving sayings of Jesus. The fact that Bird takes seriously the possibility that some disciples kept notebooks to aid in the remembrance and transmission of Jesus teachings is unusual (46). Perhaps most significant for Bird are eyewitnesses as authenticators of the Jesus tradition. Since there were witnesses who were able to “police” the developing oral and written traditions (49), there was some control on that developing tradition. Here Bird is interested in the work of Richard Bauckham on the significance of named persons in the Gospels (59). While he certainly recognizes several objections to the role of eyewitnesses, it seems reasonable that the earliest teachers were “custodians of the Jesus tradition.” In fact, the Jesus tradition was something of “a community possession.” Quoting James Dunn, Bird wonders if contemporary scholars imagine the Jesus tradition as “stored up unused in an old box in the back of some teachers house?” or perhaps “stored up un-rehearsed, in the failing memory of an old apostle?” Jesus traditions were living traditions, taught and preached in widespread communities. Jesus tradition was so frequently taught that the memory of Jesus was preserved actively (67). Yet Bird says we must be aware of the fact that what first century authors would not understand “historical reality” quite the same was “a post-enlightenment, hermeneuticly suspicious, Jesus-questing New Testament scholar” would understand it (54).

In the lengthy excursus for this chapter, Bird attempts to lay out an agenda for an “Evangelical and Critical Approach to the Gospels.”  For some readers, evangelical and critical will sound like polar opposites. Bird deals with the problem most professors teaching New Testament Gospels course have encountered. Young evangelical students get “rather edgy and even irritated” when the professor begins to Sitz im Leben and such things as the synoptic problem or the textual problems with the “woman caught in adultery” passage in John, or Matthew “re-Judaizing Mark,” or the dreaded “criteria of authenticity.”

Like Bird, I find most of my students prefer Lee Strobel to Albert Schweitzer. A number of years ago I lectured for 45 minutes on the synoptic problem, offering clear explanations of the various solutions and arguing for some sort of a saying document like Q. A dazed student in the back of the class raised his hand and asked “What is the conservative answer?” I was less stunned by the question as I was by the non-thinking attitude from a student preparing to go into ministry. For that student, at that moment, there was nothing evangelical in what I was saying about Gospel origins; therefore it was not worth thinking about. Worse, he dropped the class later that week. (The student later apologized and confessed to me wished he had taken the class more seriously, and is currently serving in a church with distinction.)

Bird prefers to call his approach “believing criticism” (68). By this he means that he still believes Scripture is the inspired Word of God, but we will serve ourselves and the church more faithfully when we commit ourselves to studying inspired Scripture in the light of context and the processes through which God gave it to us” (68). He does not want to be judged by the standards of modern historiography, as if Jesus was followed around by hidden video camera. The Gospels are not interested in “brute facts about Jesus” but rather Jesus is the continuation of the story of God begun in the Old Testament. He offers three suggestions for “Evangelical Biblical Criticism.” First, we must begin with the hermeneutic of trust. The Gospel is in fact God’s word and they are about God’s Son. Second we need to “get our hands dirty in the mud and muck of history.” Jesus is not a religious figure separate from real historical situation. We are in fact obligated to study Jesus in his historical context. Third, Bird says we must explore the impact the Gospels intended to make on their “implied audiences” if we are to understand them fully.

This, he believes, is an evangelical approach to the Gospels. I find this inspiring and heartily agree, although there are times when I am participating in an evangelical scholarly meeting when this does not seem to be the practice. I suspect this kind of evangelical, trusting scholarship is easier to maintain outside of the United States, where evangelicalism has drifted considerably to the right theologically and politically. Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly agree a biblical scholar can have a faith-based approach to Scripture and interact with it on a fully “critical” level without compromising either faith or reason.

Part Two of the review appears here.

An angel warns Joseph not to divorce Mary because the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit (1:20-21). The angel indicates that the conception of the child is by the Holy Spirit. While we usually talk about this as a virgin birth, it is better to think in terms of a virgin conception and a normal birth. There is nothing in the Bible which implies that there was anything unusual about the pregnancy after it begins. Jesus’ birth was normal and Mary and Joseph go on to have other children.

The-AnnunciationThe Greek text does not have the definite article, the child is conceived by “a holy spirit.” There are a number of suggestions for what this might meet, at the very least it refers to the power of God as responsible for Mary’s pregnancy.

There is little use trying to figure out the “science” of how this happened, then whole point is that this is a miracle from God. The child is not Joseph’s nor is he the son of any human, he is the “son of God.” The connection of the Holy Spirit to the birth of Jesus is important for several reasons.

First, like Adam, the human Jesus is a special creation of God. Paul will use this parallelism between Adam and Jesus in Romans 5:12-21. The virgin birth is therefore analogous to the special creation of Adam in Genesis 2.

Second, the Hebrew Bible refers to the king of Israel as a “son of God.” In Ps 2:7, for example, the enthroned King of Heaven says to the king of Israel “you are my son, today I have begotten you.” The virgin birth is the ultimate enthronement of a king in the line of David. It is significant tat Joseph is called a “son of David” in this text, the only place in the New Testament where someone other than Jesus is given that title. This likely highlights the royal importance of the child to be born.

Third, there are many references to special servants of God in the Hebrew Bible who are born through miraculous circumstances. Beginning with Isaac, several old or barren women have children. Even John the Baptist is born in this classic “Old Testament”scenario. A virgin giving birth is the ultimate unlikely birth!

Fourth, there are a number of references to the coming messiah / servant of God as being specially empowered by the Spirit of God, Isa 11:2, for example, describes the “root of Jesse” as having the seven-fold Spirit of God upon him.

That the child is not the result of unfaithfulness, but rather a divine miracle, would comfort Joseph and assure him that this child is part of the larger plan of God.

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