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cover-1000x1500Now through December 31, Wipf & Stock is offering 40% off any purchase through their website, using the discount code BYE2016. The best use of this discount is to buy my book, Jesus the Bridegroom (Pickwick, 2015).

Marianne Blickenstaff of Union Presbyterian Seminary reviewed the for Review of Biblical Literature (here is a link to the RBL Review)  I am very happy to have her review the book, especially since I read her book, ‘While the Bridegroom is with them’ : Marriage, Family, Gender and Violence in the Gospel of Matthew (London: T&T Clark, 2005) at the very beginning stages of my research on the Wedding Banquet Parable and was influenced by her reading of the Banquet Parable in Matthew 22. I appreciate her very kind review. She summarizes the book and concludes “This study is a compelling counterargument to scholarship that claims the church, and  not Jesus himself, developed the bridegroom and wedding banquet themes. Long has provided well-researched and convincing evidence that Jesus could have operated within Second Temple Jewish interpretive conventions to develop Hebrew Bible themes in new
ways to elucidate the purpose of his ministry.”

The full title of the book is Jesus the Bridegroom: The Origin of the Eschatological Feast as a Wedding Banquet in the Synoptic Gospels and is an edited version of my PhD dissertation. As I was working on my dissertation, people would ask what I was writing on. I usually said “an intertextual study on messianic banquet imagery in the Synoptic Gospels.” After a moment of awkward silence, I clarified: “Jesus said the Kingdom of Heaven is like a Wedding Banquet – what’s up with that?” I considered that as a title for a (very) short time.

The book is now available through Amazon in paperback and Kindle. The Kindle version is only $9.99 and claims to have real page numbers. There is also a Logos version of the book, if you prefer that format. If you live in the Grand Rapids area, I have a few copies in my office if you want to get one directly from me.

If you do read the book, please leave a nice review on AmazonI would appreciate your comments., Unfortunately Amazon reviews carry weight these days, so please consider giving the book five stars and leaving a comment on Amazon if you can.

I would really like to hear feedback from anyone who reads the book – feel free to send me an email to continue the discussion. Thanks!

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.

Strauss, Mark L. Jesus Behaving Badly: The Puzzling Paradoxes of the Man from Galilee. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2015. 223 pp. Pb; $16.00.   Link to IVP

In his introduction, Strauss points out most everybody likes Jesus. Although he begins with a mention of the Doobie Brothers’ hit single, Jesus is Just Alright, I thought of another song when I looked over the table of contents—Larry Norman’s The Outlaw. In that classic early “contemporary Christian” song, Norman sang “some say he was an outlaw….some say he was a poet….some say he was a sorcerer…some say a politician.” Every generation makes Jesus into something more recognizable and every scholar tends to read the teaching of Jesus in a way that supports their presuppositions.

Jesus Behaving BadlyAs Strauss says in the introduction, Albert Schweitzer lambasted his generation for turning Jesus into a nineteenth century German Protestant Liberal, Larry Norman made him into a Jesus Freak hippie, just conservative American Christians make Jesus into a gun-toting fiscal conservative who drives a Ford truck. There is often a kernel of biblical truth in these odd portrayals of Jesus, often over-emphasizing a particular aspect of Jesus’ teaching to the exclusion of others. To be honest, Jesus does sometimes say and do things which may, on the surface, appear contradictory. He teaches his disciples to turn the other cheek, then he kicks over the tables at the Temple and occasionally is angry and frustrated with the lack of faith among his followers!

In order to study Jesus in the context of his own culture, Strauss proposes a series of contrasting descriptions of Jesus, such as “Hellfire Preacher or Gentle Shepherd?” or “Racist or Inclusivist?” In both of these examples, the answer should obviously be “neither.” One or two texts could be used to prove the extremes, but as Strauss points out, Jesus is far more complex than one or two verses. In the final chapter, (“Decaying Corpse or Resurrected Lord?”), Strauss is more or less arguing for a traditional view of Jesus’ resurrection through the use of a contrast.

Strauss’s first example is in many ways the most often cited contrast. Jesus can be described as a “revolutionary” similar to the Zealots who eventually went to war against Rome, but in many other passages he is a pacifist, blessing the peacemakers and turning the other cheek. So which is it? Did Jesus come to bring peace or did he come with a sword? Strauss tries to stay clear of the two extremes since Jesus does in fact resonate with more radical elements in Second Temple politics, but he also teaches his disciples to create peace.

As a second example, is Jesus “Angry or Loving?” There are a few verses where Jesus seems to be rude and offensive, angrily denouncing his opponents as a “brood of vipers.” There are times when his frustrations with his own disciples comes out as potentially angry statements. In some cases, these are glossed over by translators, but they are there and need to be recognized. How do we reconcile anger with the loving image most people have of Jesus? Strauss avoids both extremes by setting the “hard sayings” of Jesus in their proper historical and cultural context.

Some of the contrasts Strauss proposes will have different answers in different theological communities. For example, the answer to the question “was Jesus a failed prophet or victorious king?” may be answered differently in a premillennial community and a-millennial tradition. For the chapter concern Jesus as a “sexist or egalitarian,” church practice tends to inform why Jesus had only male disciples or what we make of Jesus’ relationship with Mary and the other women who followed him. Each of these chapters offers a solution, but each should generate some interesting discussion.

Some of Strauss’s contrasts seem strange to me. For example, in one chapter he asks if Jesus was an “environmentalist” or an “Earth-scorcher?” The two examples of non-environmentalism are the casting of demons into pigs who then kill themselves and Jesus’ curse on a fig tree, withering it until the end of the age. As Strauss explains, neither of these have much to do with environmentalism (the fig tree is a parabolic act not a model for the pave-the-Earth movement). I have a similar impression from the chapter entitled “Antifamily or Family Friendly?” Of course Jesus is “family friendly” in the way the phrase is normally used and the negative examples were never intended as models for mission (leave your family and follow Jesus). I realize Strauss is finding a way to deal with some “hard sayings of Jesus,” but both these chapters seemed like false-contrasts to me.

The most interesting chapter for me is “Was Jesus Anti-Semitic?” This is not a contrast, at least in the title of the chapter, but it does get at a very difficult problem in the study of the Gospels. Certainly Jesus was “against” some of the Jews, he in fact calls the “sons of the devil” in John 8:44. Sadly verses like this have been used to give biblical support to heinous crimes against the Jewish people. But Jesus was not anti-Semitic at all: he was a Jewish teaching who taught Jewish people to respond to the Jewish God properly. Anyone who thinks Jesus was “Anti-Jew” and therefore “pro-Christian” is simply foolish.

This issue raises a small problem with the book. Perhaps the question should have been, “was Jesus Anti-Semitic or was the Gospel Writer Anti-Semitic?” Since John wrote more than a generation after Jesus, it is possible to argue Jesus himself was not quite so angry with the Jews but John presented him in this way in order to support his own theology. Strauss does not broach the issue of historical Jesus or the authenticity of Jesus. The Jesus Scholar in my mind constantly raised those kinds of questions, but Strauss keeps this book on the popular level. He assumes everything in the Gospels comes from Jesus and does not worry about the source of the theology (Jesus or the Evangelist). Strauss deals with that in other places (Four Portraits, One Jesus, for example).

Another minor problem I have with this books is some of the chapters have excellent content that seems tangential to the topic. For example, in his chapter on Grace or Legalism, Strauss spends a large part of the chapter talking through several parables of grace. This is not a bad response to the question he poses, but it seemed to me the chapter was used as an opportunity to discuss parables as much as the topic of grace. Perhaps a section on Jesus’ habit of eating with sinners would have supported the idea Jesus was a grace-filled preacher as much as the parables Strauss chose.

Conclusion. This 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.

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.

00_PICKWICK_Template Marianne Blickenstaff of Union Presbyterian Seminary reviewed my Jesus the Bridegroom for Review of Biblical Literature. I am very happy to have her review the book, especially since I read her book, ‘While the Bridegroom is with them’ : Marriage, Family, Gender and Violence in the Gospel of Matthew (London: T&T Clark, 2005) at the very beginning stages of my research on the Wedding Banquet Parable and was influenced by her reading of the Banquet Parable in Matthew 22. I appreciate her very kind review.

She summarizes the book and concludes “This study is a compelling counterargument to scholarship that claims the church, and  not Jesus himself, developed the bridegroom and wedding banquet themes. Long has provided well-researched and convincing evidence that Jesus could have operated within Second Temple Jewish interpretive conventions to develop Hebrew Bible themes in new
ways to elucidate the purpose of his ministry.”

The full title of the book is Jesus the Bridegroom: The Origin of the Eschatological Feast as a Wedding Banquet in the Synoptic Gospels and is an edited version of my PhD dissertation. As I was working on my dissertation, people would ask what I was writing on. I usually said “an intertextual study on messianic banquet imagery in the Synoptic Gospels.” After a moment of awkward silence, I clarified: “Jesus said the Kingdom of Heaven is like a Wedding Banquet – what’s up with that?” I considered that as a title for a (very) short time.

The book is now available through Amazon and the Wipf & Stock website. The book retails for $33, but Amazon and Wipf & Stock have it discounted. The Kindle version is only $9.99 and claims to have real page numbers. I have not seen a Kindle version yet. If you live in the Grand Rapids area, I have a few copies in my office if you want to get one directly from me.  If you do get the book, leave a nice review on Amazon, I would appreciate that.

Obviously I would love for you to buy a copy, but that is not always possible. Here’s how you can help get the word out for me:

Of course, I would really like to hear feedback from anyone who reads the book – feel free to send me an email to continue the discussion. Thanks!

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.

John 10 begins with the closest thing to a parable we find in the Gospel of John. While parables are common in the other three Gospels, John does not record a single parable. In this passage, Jesus uses an extended metaphor drawn from the common experience of tending sheep. If the audience had not tended sheep themselves, they knew that these things were true from their experience.

Good_ShepherdJesus chose this metaphor intentionally since the image of a shepherd is used in the Old Testament frequently for the leaders of the nation. The are bad shepherds who are not leading the people “beside still waters” (Psa 23) The people are like “sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 9:36). In contrast, Jesus leads the people into the wilderness and provides food for them (the feeding of the 5000), seeking out the lost sheep wherever they are (Luke 15:3-7) and ultimately laying Jesus will lay down his life down on behalf of his flock.

What is more, this image of a true shepherd is a messianic image found in the Old Testament. Moses led sheep for 40 years in the wilderness before God called him to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt, and the ideal King of Israel was David, who was first a shepherd before his was a king. Psalm 23 has messianic overtones (“The Lord is my shepherd”), but Ezekiel 37:24-28 is the most clear use of a shepherd metaphor for the coming Messiah, the true son of David and ideal shepherd who replaces the bad leaders who have led the people into danger but do nothing to save them.

The image of a God as a shepherd is found frequently in the Old Testament. God is described as a shepherd for his people (Gen 48:15, 49:24, Ps 23:1, 28:9, 77:20, 78:52, 80:1, Isa 40:11, Jer 31:10) and the people of Israel are regularly refer to as the sheep of God’s pasture (Ps 74:1, 78:52, 79:13, 95:7, 100:3, Ezek 34:31). It is possible that Jesus had Ezekiel 34 in mind, but the fact that the image of an ultimately good shepherd who will lead God’s people back to the land appears in Isaiah 40 and Jeremiah 31 as well. These are passages Jesus uses frequently in his teaching and would have been well-known to the listeners in the Temple.

By claiming to be the Good Shepherd, Jesus in intentionally declaring that he is the Messiah and therefore God’s son. But he will go beyond the expectation that the Messiah will be the ideal king, a new Moses and new David. Just as both those men could be called “a son of God,” Jesus also claims to be the ideal Son of God because he is in fact God.

There is a great deal of material which makes this claim even more clear – is this an accurate reading of the words of Jesus?  Is he claiming to be the eschatological shepherd?

Thomas was not with the disciples when Jesus first appeared after the resurrection. We are not told why and it may not be important. But while the other ten were locked in the upper room out of fear, Thomas was someplace else. Thomas seemed ready to die with Jesus in John 11, so it may be the case that he is willing to go about his life, almost daring the Jews to arrest him too.

On the other hand, perhaps Thomas experienced a “crisis of faith” when Jesus died. If he believed Jesus was the Messiah and that the Messiah was not going to be crucified by the Romans, perhaps Jesus’ death caused him to doubt everything. He may be in a state of denial, like Peter, but deeper.

Whatever the case, he returns to the upper room the disciples tell him that Jesus is alive. Jesus is “more than alive,” he has risen from the dead to a new kind of life. Whatever the reason, when he is told that Jesus rose from the dead, he refuses to believe without further evidence. Thomas gets a bad reputation as a skeptic for not believing what the disciples told him.

On the other hand, there is virtually nothing in Second Temple Period Judaism that anticipated the death of the Messiah not his resurrection to eternal life. It was something which Thomas was not ready to believe since it was unbelievable within his world view. The disciples are making an extraordinary claim, that the messiah intended to die and rise to eternal life. This will require them to re-think virtually everything that they believe.

When Jesus appears in the midst of the disciples a second time, Thomas believes and confesses Jesus as “Lord and God” (v. 28). Thomas’s confession is a theological statement for the whole book of John. The writer has been slowly revealing who Jesus is through a series of misunderstandings, people hear Jesus’ words but do not fully comprehend his meaning. Even after the resurrection, Mary thinks Jesus’ body was stolen, then the disciples wonder if he ever really died. Even when he appears to them, they still do not confess Jesus quite the way Thomas does in v. 28.

John therefore intends Thomas’s words as a final word on who Jesus is: he is the “Lord and God” of the reader, and that by believing that he is the Lord one can have eternal life in his name (verse 31). Are there other ways in which Thomas’s faithful statement functions like a theological conclusion to the Gospel of John?

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