Book Review: Marvin Sweeney, Jewish Mysticism: From Ancient Times through Today

Sweeney, Marvin A. Jewish Mysticism: From Ancient Times through Today. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2020. 432 pp. Hc; $60.   Link to Eerdmans    Link to EerdWorld to read a twenty-six page excerpt

In his preface Marvin Sweeny explains the need for a new textbook on Jewish mysticism. Since he began teaching both undergraduate and graduate courses, his only choices for textbooks were Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941) and William Kaufman’s Journeys: An Introductory Guide to Jewish Mysticism (1980). Both volumes begin their survey with rabbinic literature. Sweeney could find nothing which included mysticism from the Ancient Near East, the Hebrew Bible, Qumran and Jewish apocalyptic texts. In addition, Sweeney gives a greater place in his volume to Jewish liturgical and theurgical practices, as well as textual interpretations of earlier mystical works. As he says in his introduction, later mystics built on their predecessors in order to “resolve ongoing problems left open by earlier movements and texts” (7).

Sweeney, Jewish MysticismThe first chapter describes visionary experiences in the Ancient Near East. By surveying Egyptian, Canaanite and Babylonian texts which depict “seeing and hearing the gods” Sweeney argues Ancient Near Eastern had a wide variety of ways of expressing human experience of the gods through dreams, visionary experience, and divine interaction. These were powerful experiences, but ultimately “undependable, self-interested, and frequently amoral.”

Chapters 2-4 survey visionary and dream experiences in the Pentateuch, Former Prophets and Psalms, and Latter Prophets (pp. 50-166). He collects every example of someone “seeing and hearing G-d” through visions and dreams in the canonical Hebrew Bible. Although these experiences often have tangible elements, “YHWH is experienced in the world by divine acts of mercy and justice the stand as the basis of the covenant between YHWH and Israel” (p. 81). For example, the Pentateuch describes YHWH’s enthronement in the tabernacle though the pillar of cloud and fire, but more importantly the Pentateuch “presents a creation narrative modeled on those of the Ancient Near East in which YHWH puts his creation in order, and establishes YHWH’s own people, Israel, in the midst of that creation, and establishes a sanctuary to honor YHWH as the creator” (p. 85).  Isaiah’s temple vision (Isa 6:1-13) and Ezekiel’s throne room vision (Ezek 1-3) are foundational for Heikhalot literature (temple visions) and Merkavah literature (throne visions).

Jewish apocalyptic literature serves as the transition from the Hebrew Bible to the Heikhalot literature. (ch. 5).  He begins with a survey of “proto-apocalyptic” such as Isaiah 24-27, 34-35, 56-66, Ezekiel 1; 8-11, 37, 38-39; 40-48; Joel and Zechariah 9-14. Wisdom literature is important for the development of Jewish mysticism, especially Job, Proverbs, and Song of Solomon. He then briefly discusses two major Second Temple apocalyptic texts 1 Enoch and Daniel (which uses “the setting the Babylonian exile to address issues relevant to the outbreak of the Hasmonean revolt against Seleucid Syria” (p. 189). In his brief survey of the Judean Wilderness Scrolls, Sweeny highlights the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice as “anticipating later heikhalot compositions” (p. 194). Finally, he briefly introduces three late first century C.E. texts, Revelation, 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch. Although a Christian text, Revelation includes a heavenly ascent, throne room visions, and abundant allusions to the Exodus narrative. Bo0th 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch call on Jews to “observe divine Torah” in response to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. This, Sweeny suggests, “constitutes the foundational viewpoint of rabbinic Judaism: to sanctify Jewish life and the world of creation by adhering to the divine Torah in preparation for the time when God would bring about the restoration” as promised in Ezekiel 40-48, Isaiah 40-66, Jeremiah 30-33, and Zechariah 9-14 (p. 206).

Chapter 6 introduces the Heikhalot and Merkavah literature. After the failure of the Bar-Khokba revolt and the development of Oral Torah, rabbis sought to place limits on study of mysticism.  Sweeney cites a parable which illustrates the dangers of mystical study (b.Hag. 14b). Four rabbis entered the Garden (Pardes, paradise), but only Akiva left unhurt. “Entering Pardes” refers to the proper study of the Torah. Only Akiva understood his own knowledge and succeeded in mystical study (p. 216). These experiences of these four are developed in the Heikhalot and Merkavah literature.

Sweeney surveys four texts in this chapter. First, Ma’aseh Merkavah is the most basic account of the four rabbis who ascended to Pardes. The book focuses on the hymns and prayers a mystic must employ in order to undertake ascent the seventh level of heaven. Second, Heikhalot Rabbati describes the ascent of R. Nehunyah ben Haqanah to the throne of G-d in the seventh heaven narrated by R. Ishmael ben Elisha. R. Ishmael was one of the key Tannaitic sages, one of the most prominent rabbis of his day and one the Ten Martyrs. The book anticipates a time when the Torah will be “fully understood and applied to the sanctification of the world of creation” (p. 222). Third, one of the oldest heikhalot texts, Heikhalot Zutari (Lesser Places) begins with the parable of the four rabbis attempting to enter Pardes in order to “specify the experience of the prospective mystics” (p. 231).  The book refers to Metatron, the powerful angel of the presence who sits on the throne of G-d in the seventh heaven when Go-d is not present. The name may be derived from the Greek meta, with, and thronos, throne, but Sweeny suggests it is related to the Aramaic mattara’, “keeper of the watch” (p. 238). Finally, in this chapter, Sweeney introduces Sefer Heikhalot (Third Enoch). The book seems to be a response to the story of the four who entered Pardes but focuses on the visualizations of Metatron.

Chapter 7 surveys the transition from Heikhalot to early Kabbalistic literature. Kabbalah means tradition or “that which is received” and the study of this literature became a major Jewish mystical movement in the mid-twelfth century. Since Heikhalot literature assumes the transcendent nature of G-d who is approached by the mystic through liturgical prayer and theurgic practice, and Torah study, the Kabbalistic literature began to consider the immanent presence of G-d in the world of creation. After an introduction to the development of Jewish life in the Middle Ages, Sweeney introduces several early Kabbalistic texts.

First, Shiur Qomah “is easily one of the most problematic, controversial, and misunderstood writings in all of Jewish tradition” (p. 255). The name of the books means “The Measure of G-d’s Body,” a fair description of the contents of the book G-d’s height is given and 2,300,000,000 parasangs and the crown on his head is an additional 600,000 parasangs. A parasang is 30 stadia, or about 3.5 miles. G-d’s height is therefore more than 80 billion miles and an additional 2.1 million miles for his crown. The point here is that “the divine presence is beyond human capacity to comprehend in any meaningful way” (p. 263). Second, Sefer Yetzirah, the “Book of Formation,” focuses on language has the means by which G-d manifests himself in creation and the creative power of human speech. The book observes that G-d spoke ten times in Genesis 1 and then uses several other numerical observations to outline the Ten Sefirot and describes their role in creation. Third, Sefer Habahir, the “Book of Brilliance” is the first major Kabbalistic work (p. 271). The name derives from Job 37:21, the sun is “brilliant (bahir) in the clouds.” Sweeney suggests the development of the Ten Sefirot in the book is dependent on gnosticism and is highly intertextual. The book is a synthesis of earlier Jewish texts with gnostic ideas to explain how an ultimately transcendent being can be fully present in a finite earthly world. He concludes the chapter with a brief survey of other key movements and figures in the period (The Hasidei Ashkenaz, Isaac the Blind, and Abraham Abulafia).

Chapter 8 focuses on the most well-known kabalistic texts, The Zohar. The name Zohar means splendor or brilliance and is likely drawn from Ezekiel’s description of a human-like figure show lifted the prophet up and transported him to Jerusalem to witness the fall of the city (Ezek 8:2). The book is a mystical comment on the Torah revealing the hidden meaning of the text. Like earlier kabalistic texts, the primary concern of the text is how the infinite character of God is manifested as a divine presence in a finite world (p. 289). The book therefore discussed the Sefirot, God’s shekhinah, his glory dwelling in the world (using sexual language), the nature of creation and the origin of evil and demons.

The final two chapters treat more recent forms of Jewish mysticism. In Chapter 9 Sweeney discusses Lurianic Kabbalah, a popular movement prompting Jews to adopt kabalistic spiritual practices and study in anticipation of the messianic age when the Messiah would appear, the temple would be reestablished, and the world of creation would be completed” (p. 325). After a short review of the Spanish expulsion of Jews in 1492, Sweeny describes the activity of Jewish mystics who gathered in in Safed, a small town in the upper Galilean hills. R. Luria (1534-1572) studied under kabbalist Moses Cordovero (1522-1570) and became the principle kabbalist teacher in Safed after Cordovero’s death. Luranic kabbalah has three basic principles. First, the Tzimtzym is the contraction of the infinite God into the finite world. Second, Luria’s idea of the Abba (father) and Imma (mother), two aspects of God. When they are united, they form the third basic principle, the Zeir Anin, the “Impatient One.” Each of these three principles are tied to aspects of the Ten Sefirot. Luria also believed in the transmigration of the soul: a tzaddik (righteous person) could embody a past tzaddik. Luria thought he was the embodiment of R. Shimon bar Yohai, for example. This form of mysticism had an influence on Shabbetai Zevi (1626-1676), a failed messiah who converted to Islam in 1666. Many of his followers continued to believe he was the messiah long after his death (the Dönmeh).

Chapter 10 concludes with an introduction to Hasidism, the modern manifestation of Jewish mysticism. He is quick to point out modern Hasidism as nothing to do with the earlier movement. In this chapter, Sweeney describes the earlier mystical and pietistic movement led by Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760) in the early eighteenth century and his follower Shneur Zalman (1745-1831). Zalman was the founder of the Schneersohn family line and the founder of Habad Hasidism (p. 379). Habad theology is rooted in the idea God is the only reality in the universe and all other realities are illusions. The chapter traces several movements which developed from this eighteenth century origin, including Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) and the Lubavitcher Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994).

Conclusion. For each mystical text surveyed in chapter 6-10 Sweeney provides a footnote to sources for reading the text and key studies. He only rarely uses long quotations from the texts, preferring to summarize the esoteric content for the reader. Although I would usually prefer to read selections from the original texts, the esoteric nature of this literature makes me appreciate his careful summaries. Still, a second volume collecting example readings for each chapter would be useful, especially when this book is used in a classroom setting.

NB: Spelling and use of YHWH and G-d conforms to Sweeney’s text. Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Book Review: Justin W. Bass, The Bedrock of Christianity

Bass, Justin W.  The Bedrock of Christianity: The Unalterable Facts of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection. Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2020. 238 pp.; Pb.  $13.99  Link to Lexham Press    Link to Logos Bible Software

In this short apologetic text, Justin Bass seeks to establish the basic facts of Christianity. Alluding to the introduction to John Meier’s historical Jesus study, The Marginal Jew, Bass imagines a meeting during which Protestants, Catholics, Jews, atheists and agnostics scholars evaluate evidence and determine what basic facts about Christianity everyone can agree on. In his introductory chapter he disregards the mythicist position represented by Richard Carrier. He cites Bart Ehrman description of the view as “foolish,” compares the “handful of mythicist hecklers” to Holocaust deniers (p. 5-7).

In the first chapter, Bass outlines his historical method. Following Bart Ehrman, he says historians want early dating, multiple eyewitnesses, corroboration of those eyewitnesses, and unbiased sources (p. 28). He then asks what we can know about Tiberius Caesar, the Jewish War, Socrates and John the Baptist using these four historical measures. In each case, scholars agree on a historical bedrock based on a variety of sources. With Tiberius, his reign is well known from four literary sources that date long after his death. Comparing this to what we can know about the apostle Paul, Bass argues scholars have an abundance of trustworthy sources for Paul’s life, especially compared to Tiberius and Socrates. However, Bass omits archaeology from his list. Hard evidence for the reign of Tiberius is abundant if archaeology, inscriptions, and numismatics (coins) are allowed as evidence. This kind of evidence is unavailable for characters in the New Testament.

The Apostle Paul is therefore Bass’s “Bedrock Eyewitness.” Chapter 2 sketches a biography of the apostle Paul drawing only on his epistles. He uses Acts for his chronology of Paul’s life, working backwards from Paul’s hearing before Gallio (A.D. 51/52; Acts 18:12-17). Having established that Paul is an early eyewitness, he presents his “Bedrock Source,” 1 Corinthians 15:3–7 (ch. 3). Bass argues this is a pre-Pauline creedal tradition delivered to Paul by the apostles (p. 74). He follows James Dunn who suggested the beginnings of this creedal statement may go back to the first few months after the resurrection (p. 82). But at the very least Paul must have received it during his brief visit to Jerusalem in A.D. 37 (Gal 1:18-19).

Having established the creedal statement in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 constitutes early eyewitness evidence from multiple sources, Bass then examines the three key claims of the creed. First, the creed establishes the bedrock fact that Jesus was crucified: “Christ Died for our Sins and He was Buried” (ch. 3). After a short discussion of crucifixion in the Roman world, he draws together several texts from Paul’s early letters which demonstrate that Jesus was not just crucified, but that his crucifixion was “for our sins.” Bass argues these statements are based on the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53 and he suggests  the historical Jesus may be the origin for the idea his death is in some ways like the servant of Isaiah 53. Here Bass goes to another tradition Paul received from the apostles, the inauguration of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:24-25. Although he considers the crucifixion of Jesus under Pontius Pilate as a historical bedrock fact, he does not think the phrase “he was buried” can be counted as a bedrock fact. For Bass, it is likely Jesus was buried as recorded in the Gospels, but the evidence is not clear that someone named Joseph of Arimathea buried the body of Jesus.

The second element of the creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 is the claim Jesus was “raised on the third day.” Bass shows that there were no traditions drawn from the Hebrew Bible to indicate a belief in the first century that the Messiah would be die and rise from the dead. Although there is a hint of resurrection in Daniel 12:2-3 and 2 Maccabees 7:9-14, a dying messiah is unknown. Bass argues there are three innovations from the earliest Christ followers. The first innovation is a positive interpretation of a crucified Messiah. There is no other crucifixion in the Greco Roman world seen in a positive light. The second innovation is the claim this crucified Messiah had been raised from the dead. This claim is unanticipated in Second Temple period Judaism. Third, that this crucified Messiah who God raised from the dead is the divine Lord of the world is an unparalleled innovation. Here Bass cites another early Christian tradition passed along to the apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 8:6. This is the almost shocking insertion of Jesus into the Jewish shema. Bass cites Larry Hurtado, “this worship of the risen/exalted Jesus comprises a radical new innovation in Jewish monotheistic religion” (129).  Bass is using the so-called criterion of dissimilarity used in historical Jesus studies. Essentially, this criterion argues that if something is different than the Judaism of the Second Temple period, it is more likely to be authentic. In this case, the crucifixion and resurrection of the Messiah is not something that a group of Jewish theologians would have created.

The third element of the creed is the list of post-resurrection appearances. That Jesus appeared to Peter, the Twelve, more than 500 at one time, and James is a wide range of witnesses. Bass recognizes that Paul has added himself to the list. He quotes skeptics Bart Ehrman and Paula Fredriksen as saying they might not know what Paul saw, but Paul believed he saw Jesus (p. 162). Bass argues Paul was not lying by using Paul’s “foolish speech” in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27. This speech lists various ways Paul has suffered for his preaching of the Gospel. If he was lying about the resurrection of Jesus, then his life after his Damascus Road experience is inexplicable. In the conclusion to his book, Bass cites E. P. Sanders, “That Jesus is followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know” (Historical Figure of Jesus, 279-80). Bass’s challenge to this agnostic view of the resurrection is to push past agnosticism and “give the risen Jesus welcome” (p. 207).

Paul’s suffering serves as a transition to the final piece of Bass’s argument, the fast rise of the Nazarenes. For Bass, it is difficult to account for not only the persistence of followers of Jesus from the days just after the crucifixion, but also the willingness of those followers to suffer and die for their faith in a resurrected messiah who is the Lord of the world. This is a common apologetic strategy, but it may fail because there are many other movements that encouraged martyrdom from their adherents, yet they were based on horrible distortions of the truth (Jim Jones and David Koresh, for example). This chapter includes sections on Christianity’s unique origins, continuing influences, and skeptics who have converted to Christianity throughout history. Similar to the willingness to die for one’s beliefs, someone might suggest Islam has had a similar influence on the world, and no one wants to argue Christianity has always had a positive influence. This strategy is typical in apologetic textbooks, but I’m not sure how it contributes to the bedrock of Christianity as defined in the first chapter of the book.

Bass often cites skeptical scholars who agree with him such as Bart Ehrman or Paula Fredriksen; even Crossan and Bultmann make a few appearances. This is a rhetorical strategy designed to show these are in fact “bedrock facts” of Christianity. The book is richly footnoted and includes an extensive bibliography which will point interested readers to more detailed studies. The book will reaffirm the beliefs of committed Christians and perhaps encourage Christians who have some doubts. I’m not sure it will convince skeptics, but that’s the nature of apologetics. Bass’s book supports the contention the bedrock of Christian faith is reasonably historical.

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

Book Review: Eckhard J. Schnabel, Jesus in Jerusalem: The Last Days

Schnabel, Eckhard J. Jesus in Jerusalem: The Last Days. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2018. 680 pp. Hb; $60.   Link to Eerdmans

Eckhard Schnabel contributed a commentary on Acts in the Zondervan Exegetical New Testament Commentary (2011), Mark in the Tyndale Series (IVP Academic, 2017) and Romans in the Historical Theological Interpretation series (in German; Wuppertal: SCM & R. Brockhaus). With David W. Chapman, Schnabel published The Trial and Crucifixion of Jesus: Texts and Commentary (WUNT/2 344; Tubingen: Mohr Mohr Siebeck, 2015; Hendrickson, 2019 forthcoming). Jesus in Jerusalem: The Last Days is similar to his Early Christian Mission (2 vol., IVP Academic 2004) in that Schnabel collects detailed notes on the people and places mentioned in the four Passion narratives. Essentially, Schnabel is interested in identifying who did what, where they did it and when it happened.

In the introduction to the book Schnabel argues this simple outline is an essential approach to help readers understand texts like the Passion Narratives. He rejects form criticism and more recent historical Jesus methods which employ the criteria of authenticity. Further, he wants to avoid the postmodern view that all history is subjective. He observes the fact very few practicing historians are impressed by philosophical objections to the possibility of truth in history (p. 4).

More positively, he reads the Gospels as similar to the Greek bios. The Gospels are expressions of faith, but they also provide examples from Jesus’s life and teaching which preserve the memory of Jesus. Here Schnabel builds on the work of Richard Bauckham and others who have focused on the significance of eyewitnesses for the transmission and preservation of the words and deeds of Jesus. To a large extent, many of the persons surveyed in chapter two of this book were eye-witnesses to the events of Jesus’s last week, and the earliest traditions concerning the authorship of the Gospels claimed Matthew and John were eyewitnesses. Schnabel believes this method of reading the “canonical Gospels as historical biographies of the life of Jesus that are based on the testimony of eyewitnesses and treating them as good historical sources is neither gullible nor uncritical” (p. 7).

Remarkably, Schnabel uses data from all four Gospels. For some this might not be a surprise, but in New Testament studies John’s Gospel is often dismissed as lacking historical details. For Schnabel, John’s chronological details are important (“six days before the Passover” in John 12:1, for example, p. 153). He includes John’s unique contributions to the Passion Narrative such as Jesus washing the disciple’s feet (John 13) and the farewell discourse (John 15:1-17:26).

Since he includes data from all four Gospels, the book can be read as a “harmony of the gospels.” An unfortunate result of this method is the flattening of the four gospels into one story so that the individual theological emphases of the writers are lost. But since this is a historical study of the last week of Jesus’s life not a biblical theology of any one of the Gospel writers, this observation is does not detract from the value of Schnabel’s work.

The first three chapters of the book can be read like a Bible Dictionary since they identify the people and places associated with Jesus’s final week in Jerusalem. The first chapter briefly identifies seventy-two people one encounters when reading the four versions of the passion stories in the Gospels. Some are named individuals like Annas, Caiaphas, Barabbas or Simon of Cyrene. Others sections treat groups of people, Pharisees, Sadducees, or experts in the Law. A few are rather generic, such as the gentiles, pilgrims, crowds, or the blind and lame. Schnabel includes brief units on the “rich people” in contrast to the widow who donates two coins (Mark 12:41). There are even brief paragraphs on obscure persons like the man with the water jar (Mark 14:13) or the soldier with the sponge (Mark 15:36).

Chapter two describes seventeen places, including larger areas such as the city Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives. Schnabel usually includes some discussion of the modern identification of locations such as Gethsemane, Golgotha and Jesus’s tomb. There are units on the residences of Annas, Caiaphas, and Herod and the location of the Sanhedrin building. These are important for reconstructing the trials of Jesus and his movements after his arrest. Throughout this section Schnabel uses detailed historical data to describe the locations mentioned in the Passion narrative.

In his brief third chapter Schnabel lays out his timeline for the events of Jesus’s final week in Jerusalem. He dates the crucifixion to A.D. 30 (Nisan 14, April 7-8) rather that A.D. 33 (Nisan April 3). He then offers a short description of what happened on each day, concluding with Sunday, Nisan 16 (April 9-10). He includes suggested hours of the day as well.

Chapter four traces the events of Jesus’s final days in Jerusalem from the anointing at Bethany to his resurrection appearances to the disciples. This is by far the longest chapter of the book, covering twenty-four topics in 223 pages. Since the topics are arranged chronologically, this chapter can be read sequentially as a commentary on the events of the Passion Week. Since the burden of the book is historical research rather than exegesis, there is little textual work in this chapter other than identifying Greek words. Schnabel sets important events like the Temple action into an Old Testament context. He states the symbolic action on the Temple Mount “was not anti-temple or anti-sacrifice. It was an action intended to announce the beginning of the messianic era” (p. 164).

He often refers to Second Temple literature in order to illustrate the events. When discussing the trial of Jesus he compares the accusations against Jesus as a mesit and maddiakah (a “seducer”) by comparing Deut 13:5-11 and the Temple Scroll (11Q Temple LIV, 8-LV, 10). When discussing the possibility the messiah was described as “Son of God” Schnabel cites 1Q28, 4Q174, and 4Q246 at length (p. 257-58). He interacts with Greco-Roman literature when necessary, such as Seneca’s description of crucifixion (Ep. 101.14, p. 315).

The final chapter of the book is a short theological essay on the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Schnabel concludes that Jesus exercised messianic, royal authority in his final week, a fact recognized by Pilate when he ordered “King of the Jews” to be written as the charge against Jesus (p. 377).  With respect to the theological meaning of Jesus’s death, Schnabel begins by reflecting on the suffering of God on the cross and concludes the deal was a sacrificial death “for sinners,” a substitutionary death which turned away the wrath of God (Romans 3:24-25; 5:1-2; 8:1). Using the sermons in the book of Acts, Schnabel argues in the earliest Christian preaching the resurrection did not supersede Jesus’s crucifixion (p. 390). Finally, Schnabel reflects on Jesus’s mission and the mission of his followers. Similar to his Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods (IVP Academic, 2008), Schnabel points to Luke’s commission of the disciples to go out from Jerusalem as witnesses “to the end of the world” (Acts 1:8). Similarly, Matthew concludes his gospel with a command to go, “making disciples” (Matt 28:18-20).

In addition, Schnabel includes thirteen excurses on details of the Passion Week which do not fit his people places and events scheme. For example, he has short notes on the Cursing of the Fig Tree and Peter’s Denials of Jesus. Some discuss historical details, such as Historicity of Annas’s Interrogation of Jesus or the Hour of Jesus’ crucifixion. Several of these sections concern the Greco-Roman context of the Passion Narrative, such as Crimes against the Emperor, The Passover Pardon and Roman Legal Precedent, Carrying the Crossbeam in Greco-Roman Sources, and Jesus’ Shout in Greco-Roman Perspective. He has a brief note on the ending of Mark, although it explains the shorter ending rather than a discussion of how the longer ending developed nor is there anything on the textual history of the longer ending.

The book includes occasional photographs, diagrams, and tables. Schnabel provides extensive endnotes (179 pages). For example, in chapter one there are 652 endnotes for only 90 pages. Although I prefer footnotes, endnotes make this book easy to consult on some detail of the Passion Narrative, further details are found in the notes. The book also includes a detailed bibliography (49 pages) and indices of authors, subjects, Scripture and other ancient writings references (51 pages). This means the body of the book is only 399 pages.

Conclusion. Schnabel’s Jesus in Jerusalem is a major contribution to the study of the final chapters of the four Gospels. The detail provide is staggering, yet the layout of the book is uncomplicated and comfortable for the non-expert.

 

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 as a New Moses

“Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying…” (Matthew 5:1–2).

In Exodus, Moses went up on Mount Sinai and received the Law then taught the Law to God’s people. Like Moses, Jesus is presented as a second Moses who teaches the Law on the Mountain. Matthew intentionally draws a parallel between Moses as the original leader of God’s people and Jesus, the ultimate “lawgiver” and interpreter of God’s Law.

Jesus and Moses

In fact, there are a number things in the Gospel of Matthew which indicate the author wanted to intentionally present Jesus as a “new Moses.” Dale Allison pointed this out in his 1993 monograph, The New Moses: A Matthean Typology and it is now quite commonplace to find this commentaries on Matthew. In fact, drawing parallels between Jesus as Moses goes back at least to the fourth century writer Eusebius in this in his Demonstration of the Gospel. McKnight has a lengthy quote from Eusebius (p. 23), but as he observes, Eusebius’s point is “the noxious fumes of supersecessionism,” the belief the Church has replaced Israel as God’s people.

Just a few examples should be sufficient here. First, when King Herod ordered the execution of children in Bethlehem Jesus and his family escape to Egypt (Matt 2:13-18), just as Moses escaped Pharaoh’s order and was adopted by the Egyptian princess. Second, Jesus passes through the water in his baptism (3:13-17) and goes into the wilderness for forty days to be tempted by the devil (4:1-11). Israel passed through the waters at the Red Sea and went into the wilderness and were eventually tested for forty years. It is also significant Jesus answered the devil’s temptations with quotations Moses’s words drawn from the book of Deuteronomy. Third, in Matthew 5 Jesus “went up a mountainside” (ἀνέβη εἰς τὸ ὄρος) to teach his disciples. The content of this teaching is in many ways an interpretation of the Law of Moses. In Exodus 19:3, Moses “went up to the mountain of God” (ἀνέβη εἰς τὸ ὄρος τοῦ θεοῦ). Moses “goes up to the mountain” in Exodus 24:18 (when he entered into the glory of God) and 34:4 (when he received the two stone tablets from God). Finally, Scot McKnight points out Jesus’s posture is important: he is sitting down to teach the Law, just as those who teach with legal authority “sit in the seat of Moses” (Matt 23:2).

Why would Matthew use Moses as a model for Jesus in his Gospel? Most commentators want to avoid any hint of supersecessionism and anti-Semitic overtones and (correctly) observe Jesus does not replace Moses (nor does the church replace Israel), but rather Jesus fulfills the Law of Moses (McKnight 24). As we will see as we work our way through the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers a new way of reading the old commands, “do not kill” or “do not commit adultery.” This “new way” is really the original way, to seek the heart of God in his commands and find ways to live out God’s heart in the real world.

I would suggest Jesus is a new Moses in that he demonstrates how the disciple in the new age should understand how to apply God’s word in the new age of the Kingdom. Under the Law, it was entirely possible to do many functions of the Law perfectly, yet still miss the heart of the Law. This is what the prophets constantly condemned Israel for doing. Amos, one of the earliest writing prophets, declared that God hated Israel’s worship, the sacrifices and music was offensive to him because Israel did not practice the justice at the heart of the Law. Amos 5:11 decries abuse of the poor through taxation and 5:15 demands justice prevail in the courts.

Jesus therefore says it does no good to “not murder” if you are going to hate people in your hearts. It does no good to follow the commands on oath making if you are going to find all sorts of ways to bend the rules. As the New Moses, Jesus demands his disciples look deep beneath the surface of religious practice for the heart of God.

If this first sermon in Matthew’s Gospel is intended to recall the original covenant God made with his people, how does that change the way we read the Sermon on the Mount? Is this a “strict moral code” for following Jesus? Or is Jesus offering a pattern for thinking through how the heart of God can be applied to new and different cultural situations as his disciples move out into the world with the message of the Gospel?

 

The Sermon on the Mount and Christian Ethics

It is no coincidence that the Sermon on the Mount echoes throughout the Gospel of Luke, as well as in Paul’s letters and the rest of the New Testament….  In the first three centuries of the church, no other biblical passage was referred to as often…There is no question that it was understood as the charter document for Christian Living.  Church leaders constantly quoted it when offering moral exhortation. Glen H. Stassen and David Gushee, Kingdom Ethics (Downers Grove:  Invert-Varsity, 2003), 31.

For many Christians, the Sermon on the Mount is the core of Christian Ethics. As Stassen and Gushee state above, the early church used the Sermon frequently to describe how a Christian ought to live out their life in Christ. The same is true for modern Christians. Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously used the sermon as the basis for his The Cost of Discipleship, one of the most influential books on the thinking of Christians in the latter half of the twentieth century. For many Christians, the Sermon on the Mount is the foundation for Ethics, so that books like Kingdom Ethics can use Matthew 5-7 as a starting point for an ethical system.

But as Scot McKnight comments in his recent commentary on the Sermon, Jesus does not “do ethics” quite like anyone else. His teaching is not quite virtue ethics or utilitarianism or any other category of “modern ethics.” He therefore suggests “it is wiser to begin by wondering what Jesus sounded like—morally, that is—in a first century Galilean Jewish world” (Sermon on the Mount, 7).

Sermon on the MountAs McKnight explains it, the Sermon makes people nervous because it does not fit any one category of “doing ethics.” He suggests there are three dimensions to the ethics of Jesus, “from above, beyond and below.” “From above” refers to the commands directly from God as found in the Torah. The Law is not ethics in the contemporary sense since it claims to be a direct revelation of God’s will. Jesus speaks this way in the Sermon on the Mount. He teaches “by his own authority” (Matt 7:28-29). Even if he makes reference to the Law (Matt 5:21, 27) or seems to reflect rabbinical debates (Matt 33-37), Jesus declares “this is what I say.”

But Jesus does not simply command. According to McKnight, his ethics also is “from beyond.” Here McKnight refers to a “kingdom ethic.” The disciples of Jesus are part of the new age (already) even if that new age is (not yet) fully present. There is an eschatological dimension to the Sermon on the Mount since the “future has already begin to take place in the present…An ethic unshaped by eschatology is neither Jesus nor Christian” (11). But Jesus did not have in mind a kind of other-worldly detachment from the present world. The coming Kingdom of God shapes the way Jesus-followers live right now in this world.

A third dimension to Jesus’ ethic is “from below,” by which McKnight means Jesus’ ethics are like biblical wisdom. Biblical wisdom is intensely practical and is often based on observation of the human condition. Jesus’ teaching on worry in Matt 6:25-27 says worry is not worth the effort, one is better to find contentment in want God has already provided than worrying about tomorrow. This is not a “from above” commandment, “Thou shalt not worry.” Nor is it based on a prophetic look ahead to a future when one does not have any worries in a future kingdom. It is based on a common observation that people who are overly worried do not accomplish much.

In the end of his introduction, McKnight concludes that Jesus’ ethics are messianic and kingdom-oriented, but they also describe how a gathered, Spirit-filled people are to live. This observation bridges the gap between the original audience and later Christians who seek to follow Jesus.

Do other teachings in the Sermon fit into McKnight’s three categories?

Book Review: C. Marvin Pate, 40 Questions about the Historical Jesus

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.

Book Review: Capes, Reeves and Richards, Rediscovering Jesus

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.

Book Review: Mark L. Strauss, Jesus Behaving Badly

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.

Jesus the Bridegroom Reviewed by Review of Biblical Literature

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!

Book Review: Michael Bird, The Gospel of the Lord (Part 3)

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.