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Pennington, Jonathan T. The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2017. 326 pp.; Hb.; $32.99. Link to Baker   

In the introduction to his new book on the Sermon on the Mount, Jonathan Pennington suggests the Sermon should be read in both a Jewish and Greco-Roman context. In placing the Sermon in this dual context, he argues the Sermon is concerned not simply with theological questions but also with the important the existential question of “human flourishing.” By “human flourishing” Pennington means happiness, blessedness, or shalom, a true flourishing which is only available through fellowship with God revealed through his Son and empowered by the Holy Spirit (14). He does not force either a virtue-based ethic on to the Sermon or a Jewish wisdom model. He will attempt to balance both wisdom and virtue (or, Jewish and Greco-Roman context) because Jesus is the fulfillment and incarnation of both.

This first part of this book begins with a chapter on the context of the Sermon. He uses Umberto Eco’s Encyclopedic Context model to show the ideal “model reader” of the sermon has a cultural and philosophical encyclopedia which consists of both Greco-Roman and Jewish elements. Pennington is clear he is not proposing a new way of doing biblical backgrounds, but rather he is trying to locate the Sermon in the right context, and that context is More complex that either Jewish or Hellenistic. He therefore briefly surveys wisdom literature with its emphasis on shalom which only fully restored in the eschaton and Greco-Roman virtue tradition with its emphasis on eudaimoia, or human flourishing. The Sermon on the Mount sits at the crossroads of these two traditions (38).

The middle three chapters of Part 1 deal with key vocabulary used in the Sermon, primarily makarios and teleios. The word makarios is notoriously difficult to translate with a single word. The traditional “blessed” is not sufficient, and although “happy” is closer to the meaning it does not have the same gravitas. Following Scot McKnight, Penning observes if you get this word right, everything else in the Sermon falls into place. By beginning with the Beatitudes, Jesus is “painting a picture of what the state of true God-centered human flourishing looks like” (47). For Pennington, the Beatitudes blend both eschatological reversals with wisdom/virtue. In fact (as is often observed), wisdom literature has an apocalyptic edge.

The second key concept in the Sermon is telios, a term often translated as “perfect” but should be translated “wholeness” or “completeness,” or even “virtuous” (70). The word is important since it appears in Matthew 5:48, a verse which Pennington sees as central to the whole structure of the Sermon. Rather than “be perfect,” he reads this verse as encouraging wholehearted devotion to God. This cardiographic reading of telios helps to explain how a person could keep the whole law and still not be whole (Matt 19:21).

Pennington surveys seven other key term sin the Sermon, including righteousness, hypocrisy, heart, gentiles/pagans, “the Father in Heaven,” the Kingdom of God/heaven, and reward, recompense and treasure. Each are only treated briefly, each is worthy of a chapter (or monograph)! The final chapter in Part 1 is an attempt to provide some structure for the Sermon.

The second part of the book is the commentary proper (about 130 pages) divided into six chapters. Pennington begins each pericope with his own translation followed by a few paragraphs dealing with the overall teaching of the text. Since Pennington subtitled this book a “theological commentary” he often goes beyond exegesis to theological reflection. Most exegetical details are restricted to the footnotes and interaction with the Greek text is minimal (and transliterated). This makes for a very readable commentary which will appeal to both professions and laypeople.

For example, for the Beatitudes there is little traditional exegesis. To be fair, Pennington covered the main issue for the section in his chapter on makarios. He has a sub-section on the Isaianic background to the Beatitudes, a section connecting the Beatitudes with the rest of Matthew, a section on the paradox of suffering-flourishing, and a section on the theological appropriation of the Beatitudes in the rest of the canon.  Although not as clearly marked in other sections of the commentary, Pennington follows this pattern throughout his work. He sets the sayings in context by looking back to the Old Testament, the whole context of Matthew, then forward to the reception of the sayings in the rest of the canon and early church.

The final chapter is a final theological reflection on the contribution of the Sermon on the Mount to a “theology of human flourishing.” He makes a series of “theological assertions” based on his reading of the Sermon. First, Pennington says the Bible is about human flourishing, a claim he needs to make because of the Protestant fear of describing the Bible in this way. Protestants tend to see the Bible as a “drama of redemption” (how does God deal with the sinfulness of humanity), but to focus solely on this misses the rich material throughout the Bible on how people can flourish as humans. This assertion makes perfect sense if one has a biblical view of shalom, essentially the second and third chapter of Pennington’s book.

Second, the Bible’s vision of human flourishing is God centered and (ultimately) eschatological. This point is developed from Pennington’s work on telios in chapter 3. Since the story of the Bible is working toward the restoration of shalom, it is goal-oriented. Part of this goal can be realized in individual human flourishing, but it is also missional and outward focused. By participating in the story of redemption, humans work toward God’s eschatological goal of restoring shalom.

Third, the moral view of the Bible is a “revelatory virtue ethic.” Although he is attracted to ethics as virtue, Pennington is adamant the virtue demanded by the Bible is shaped by and encircled by divine revelation (300). This is not a case of baptizing secular virtue ethics by prooftexting them with the Sermon on the Mount.

Fourth, salvation is “inextricably entailed” with discipleship and virtuous transformation. In this assertion Pennington wants to defuse the potential disconnect between Jesus and Paul. In Matthew, disciples pursue righteousness, in Paul, righteousness is imputed by grace through faith in Jesus’s death and resurrection. Even though they talk about righteousness differently, the Sermon and Paul both have a vision of discipleship as a transformation of the heart.

Fifth, virtue and grace are compatible. Again, this may be another problem generated by setting Jesus against Paul, since in the Sermon the virtuous disciple “seeks righteousness” and Paul is often made to say righteousness as a legal status equivalent to salvation. For Pennington, righteousness, virtue and sustaining grace are all essentially the same vision for Jesus’s disciples.

Finally, Pennington observes that biblical human flourishing will provide an insight into the meaning of God’s saving work. He does not want to leave the impression one can live a happy and prosperous life by following the Sermon on the Mount but never actually encounter Jesus as a savior. Human flourishing is not the only metaphor to describe the message of the Bible (309), but it does provide a framework for understanding redemption and the kingdom of God.

Conclusion. In this book, Pennington demonstrates that the Sermon is a “Christocentric, flourishing-oriented, kingdom-awaiting, eschatological wisdom exhortation” (15). He achieves this goal by setting the Sermon in a canonical context of wisdom literature, but also by paying attention to interaction with the world of ancient ethics texts. Pennington’s contribution to the ongoing discussion of the Sermon on the Mount is far more than a commentary, it is an introduction to biblical ethics. Like Stassen and Gushee’s Kingdom Ethics, Pennington’s book attempts to use the Sermon on the Mount as a foundation for discussing larger issues of discipleship, virtue and ethics.

 

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

Gowler, David B. The Parables after Jesus: Their Imaginative Receptions across Two Millennia. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2017. 320 pp.; Pb.; $29.99. Link to Baker   

David Gowler’s earlier book on the parables, What Are They Saying about the Parables? (Paulist Press, 2000) was a handy guide to the various approaches to the parables in scholarship. This new volume from Baker Academic extends that project by studying how scholars, pastors, preachers, philosophers and artists have understood Jesus’s parables. This book is a reception history, although it ranges broadly in both chronology and disciplines.

Cover ArtGowler includes chapters covering examples from Antiquity (to ca. 550 CE); Middle Ages (ca. 550-1500 CE); Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries; Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries; Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries. Since he includes so many examples in each chronological period, each sub-section is necessarily brief. This may frustrate some (there is obviously more to be said about prolific writers Augustine or Luther), but it is the nature of the book Gowler has written. On the other hand, by limiting his comments only a few thousand words, readers may use this book as a kind of devotional reader. The brevity allows a reader to profitably spend a few moments reading a section without sacrificing the overall themes of the book.

Some of the selections are the most important and well known authors, but some selections are more obscure. For example, in the section on Antiquity (to ca. 550 CE), Gowler includes several of the earliest and most important Christian writers (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, John Chrysostom, Augustine), but also the Gnostic Gospel of Philip, two obscure writers (Macrina the Younger and Ephrem the Syrian), but also examples in Early Christian Art, Oil Lamp and Roman Catacombs. He also includes the Dura-Europos House Church and Illuminations from the Rossano Gospels and several Byzantine Mosaics and a song from Romanos the Melodist.

This diversity is seen in Gowler’s selections for his chapter on the Middle Ages. Gregory the Great, Hildegard of Bingen, Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas are well-known to most students of church history, but the Sunni writer Sahih al-Bukhari (ca. 870) is far from a household name in contemporary evangelicalism. It may be a surprise for some readers to learn some of Jesus’s parable were discussed in Islamic literature, but as Gowler observes, this illustrates the trajectories gospel traditions could follow. The next writer Gowler includes in this chapter is positively obscure, Wazo the bishop of Liège (985-1048). He is primarily known from a biography written by Anselm. This chapter also includes several panels from the Golden Gospels of Echternach (Codex Aureus), an illuminated gospel produced between1030–1050. The book reproduces several pages illustrating parables in grey-scale. It is well worth the effort to find these images available on the internet. Gowler includes several pieces of art (Albrecht Dürer) and architecture (Chartres Cathedral) in this section, although he only provides a link for the images from Chartres.

Golden Gospels of Echternach

For the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, he includes the reformers Martin Luther John Calvin, but also playwright William Shakespeare, poet George Herbert and the remarkably evocative art of Rembrandt and Domenico Fetti (1859-1623).  One of the more obscure examples in this section is John Maldonatus (1534-1583), an example from the counter-Reformation who likens the “stony place” in the Parable of the Sower to the heretics Luther and Calvin.

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries are even more diverse, ranging from William Blake’s art to Søren Kierkegaard, the poetry of Emily Dickinson and the hymn writing of Fanny Crosby. The inclusion of abolitionist Frederick Douglass is a pleasant surprise. Douglass used the parable of the Great Feast in Luke 14:16-24 as part of his argument against slavery and the plight of the black slaves as similar to Lazarus in one speech, as a symbol for women’s emancipation in another. A rare biblical scholar in this period is Adolf Jülicher, a constantly referenced work on parables but rarely read.

For the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, Gowler includes such diverse voices as Thomas Hart Benton, Flannery O’Connor, and Martin Luther King Jr. along with more pop-culture examples such as writer Octavia Butler and the play Godspell. He has a section on Latin American Receptions, a Jewish writer (David Flusser) and Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

In his concluding comments, Gowler asks, “What Do Parables Want?” Since the parables themselves are literary works of art, they function like any other type of art. Jesus was often ambiguous when he told a parable, and this ambiguity generates the variety of interpretations evidenced in this volume. When Jesus spoke a parable, he demanded a response, as in Luke 10:36-38: “go thou and do likewise.”

Although Gowler includes many examples of the reception of Jesus’s parables over the last two millennia, there is far more to be said. For example, he has barely scratched the surface of in the modern period with respect to art and literature. A catalog of scholarly approaches to the parables could generate another (much longer) book. Gowler maintains a blog, A Chorus of Voices: The Reception History of the Parables, where he has additional examples. Earlier posts on this blog are the seed-bed for this book and occasionally there are links to art and architecture examples. The book also includes an appendix briefly describes each of the parables covered in the book, although Gowler gives biblical references throughout.

Conclusion. This book is a joy to read, a book I would recommend one reads the book slowly. In many cases the examples are obscure and it will reward the reader to look up a few names in an encyclopedia or dictionary in order to place the section in a proper historical context. Gowler demonstrates an amazing range of scholarship, equally at home in patristics as in the Reformation, in both medieval and contemporary art. By including such a wide range of voices readers will be challenged by the diversity of responses to the parables of Jesus.

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

Buckley, Michael J. What Do You Seek? The Questions of Jesus as Challenge and Promise. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 158 pages; pb. $18.00   Link to Eerdmans

This short monograph collects fourteen short meditations on questions asked by Jesus in the Gospel of John. Many of these questions are recognized as programmatic in the Gospel of John. For example, Buckley draws his title for the book from the first question Jesus asks in the book. In In John 1:35-38, the first words Jesus speaks in the book asks two disciples following him, “What do you seek?” The Gospel of John returns to this theme frequently as people seek something from Jesus (healing, living water, bread from heaven, etc.) In his final question in the Gospel Jesus asks Peter, “Peter do you love me?” (John 21:15-16). Jesus’s question demands a response just as the whole Gospel of John demands a response from its readers.

Buckley’s short reflections on the text focus on the challenge issued by Jesus’s questions. For example, his comments on Jesus’s question to Peter in 21:15-16 concern forgiveness. He devotes two chapters to questions asked in the passion narrative, “what shall I say, save me from this hour?” and “shall I not drink this cup?”) On occasion the meditation ranges far from the original intention, such as in John 2:3-4, when the wedding runs out of wine Jesus asks his mother, “What has this to do with us?” Buckley uses this question to address concern for the suffering and responding to those in need. Perhaps, but Jesus used the opportunity to reveal something about himself by providing wine at a wedding. When Jesus asks his disciples “how can we buy bread” (John 6:5), he reveals something about himself as “bread from heaven,” but Buckley develops an application from the text about the unpredictability of the power of God and our weakness in service. Since this book is devotional reading, these applications are inspiring and challenging even if they seem tertiary to the text.

The book is rich in allusions to classic literature (many citations of T. S. Eliot, Dostoyevsky), philosophy and especially classical of western spirituality (St. John of the Cross, Cardinal Newman) and a few nods to modern scholarship (Bultmann, Barth, and Raymond Brown). Buckley reflects his Roman Catholic background (pp 34-24, for example) but this is not at all distracting.

Readers will be challenged by Jesus’s questions and Buckley’s thoughts on these questions.

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

 

Under an Open HeavenJohnson, John E. Under an Open Heaven: A New Way of Life Revealed in John’s Gospel. Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2017. 256 pp. Pb; $15.99. Link to Kregel

John Johnson has served as a pastor and a professor of Pastoral Theology at Western Seminary in Portland. This blend of experience serves him well as he presents thirteen conversations from the Gospel of John. Each chapter is a meditation on an encounter with Jesus in the fourth Gospel. Johnson uses this conversation to present the theology of John’s gospel in a personally challenging way. Some of the conversations are with seekers (Nicodemus and the woman at the well), people seeking healing (the blind men), and others with people antagonistic toward Jesus (his brothers and the Jews in John 8:30-59, even Pilate in John 18:28-19:11).

Johnson presents enough historical and cultural detail (although not exegesis) to set the story in its proper context. For example, he explains the Jesus’s unusual response to his mother in John 2:4 or the clear parallels between Nicodemus and the woman at the well, or the contrasts between the two blind men in John 5 and 9. But since his goal is not to write a fully researched commentary on John, many details are overlooked. For example, there is far more to say about the Feeding of the 5000 than “pointing to a better meal” (116), or the quantity and quality of the wine Jesus provides in John 2 than “Jesus can be so generous” (50). Still, Johnson’s goal is a devotional reading of the text, it is not fair to expect him to fully tease out all of the theological implications of John’s Gospel.

The thirteen chapters of the book read like sermons, with introductory illustrations drawn from pop culture or personal experience, and chapter sections with alliterative headings. He even cites Bob Dylan, which is always a plus. Since the book is written on a conversational level, it would work well in a small group environment or as personal devotional reading. Johnson has included a few questions at the end of each chapter to prompt discussion. Johnson also maintains a blog which touches on some of the topics in this book.

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

 

 

 

Porter, Stanley E. When Paul Met Jesus: How an Idea Got Lost in History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 435 pp. Pb; $34.   Link to Cambridge

Second Corinthians 5:16 is usually read as if Paul is denying he knew Jesus prior to the dramatic event on the Damascus Road. When confronted by the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul asks “who are you, Lord?” This too is taken as an indication Paul did not recognize Jesus and is used as evidence Paul did not know Jesus prior to his conversion. But there have been a few scholars in the early twentieth century who suggested Paul may have seen Jesus in Jerusalem prior to the crucifixion and perhaps even heard Jesus teach at some point.

paul met jesus stanley porterIn this monograph, Stanley Porter attempts to revive this idea by examining the relevant texts in the Pauline epistles as well as the book of Acts. Beginning with William Ramsay, Johannes Weiss, and J. H. Moulton, Porter suggests it is at least plausible to understand some of the texts used to show Paul did not know Jesus as meaning the opposite; he did recognize Jesus on the road to Damascus and he had heard Jesus teaching in person (chapter 1).

Although he admits he has not surveyed every work on the life of Paul (a nearly impossible task these days), Porter claims to have found only one recent scholar who is open to the possibility Paul heard Jesus teach at some point before the crucifixion (Tim Gombis, in Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed). Even works with a vested interest in connecting Jesus and Paul dismiss the possibility Paul knew Jesus prior to his conversion. Porter cites David Wenham who wrote a popular book on Jesus and Paul. Wenham simply states “Paul did not have firsthand experience of Jesus’ ministry (cited by Porter, 175).

So what happened? Porter lays the blame for the common assumption Paul did not know Jesus at the feet of F. C. Baur, followed by William Wrede and most significantly Rudolf Bultmann. As Porter says, “The short answer is Rudolf Bultmann and the long answer is the general history of Pauline scholarship” since Baur (45). There are several assumptions which make the possibility Paul knew Jesus less likely. First, Baur reduced the Pauline canon to Romans, 1-2 Corinthians and Galatians. Second, he assumed Acts altered history in order to make the contrast between Paul and Peter more clear. This led to the third assumption, Peter and Paul represented the two sides of the early church which eventually resulted into the synthesis of the next generation of Christianity. Bultmann argued Jesus’ teaching was irrelevant (and unknowable), and Pauline theology does not really depend on Jesus. Porter interacts at length with Bultmann’s 2 Corinthians commentary since the meaning of 2 Corinthians 5:16 is critically important for the thesis he wants to defend in this monograph, that Paul not only knew the teaching of Jesus, but had heard Jesus teach, perhaps on several occasions, and may have interacted with Jesus during his earthly ministry.

As a result of the influence of Baur, Wrede, and Bultmann, most scholars reject the idea Paul knew Jesus or do not even raise the question. For many, there is a gap between the teaching of Jesus and the theology of Paul. Porter cites James Dunn, “Paul’s influence in determining the beginnings of Christianity was almost as great as that of Jesus” (Porter, 71).

With respect to method, Porter realizes many scholars reduce the number of authentic epistles and often reject the Pastoral Epistles, but there is little in the disputed epistles which supports his case. He fully accepts the book of Acts as evidence for the details of Paul’s life and prefers to date the book as early as A.D. 63 (an early date even for conservative Acts scholars). Scholarship on Pauline chronology often favors the epistles and Porter sees no problem using both as sources this study.

His third chapter surveys the data in Acts and the Pauline epistles, including the three reports of Paul’s conversion in Acts, focusing especially on the phrase “Who are you Lord?” For Porter, both Jesus’ statement and Paul’s response imply recognition, that is, Paul saw Jesus and recognized him because he knew him before the encounter (94). Porter gently suggests the phrase “I am Jesus” is similar to a Johannine “I am” saying, so Jesus is using a Christological formula to identify himself (the human Jesus) with the God (92).

Turning to the Epistles, Porter begins with 1 Corinthians 9:1, “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” Porter offers a detailed exegesis of this passage, comparing it to 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 to argue that Paul had seen Jesus just as the other apostles had. With respect to 2 Corinthians 5:16, Porter interacts at length with Bultmann’s highly influential commentary. Bultmann understood this verse to say Paul did not know Jesus before the Damascus road encounter, that he did not know Jesus “according to the flesh.” Porter offers a detailed exegesis of eleven key points in this verse and concludes it is plausible the verse indicates Paul once knew Jesus only as a human, but now (after the resurrection) Paul knows Jesus as the resurrected Lord. He is careful to suggest this as a possible reading of the text, but along with 1 Corinthians 9:1 and the book of Acts, there is a strong possibility Paul had known Jesus prior to his conversion experience.

In chapter 4 Porter develops some of the implications of Paul knowing Jesus before the resurrection. This would imply all had firsthand knowledge of Jesus’ teaching because he had heard it for himself at some point in the ministry of Jesus. To support this, Porter examines five passages in Paul’s letter which seem to reflect the teaching of Jesus: Romans 12:92-21 (loving, blessing, cursing); Romans13:8 and Galatians 5:14 (loving one’s neighbor); 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 (on divorce); 1 Corinthians 9:14 and 1 Timothy 5:18 (paying ministers of the Gospel); 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 (the Lord’s return).

After examining these passages in detail, Porter concludes Paul had firsthand knowledge of the teaching of Jesus corresponding to three phases of Jesus’ ministry. Romans 12:9-21 alludes to the Sermon on the Mount (which Porter argues was a single sermon preached in Galilee). Loving one’s neighbor alludes to Jesus’ encounter with a lawyer during Luke’s travel narrative on the road to Jerusalem who asked him how he might inherit eternal life.  1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 alludes to the Olivet Discourse, part of Jesus’ teaching to the disciples in Jerusalem. Although Porter does not offer details, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 is perhaps a better example of a possible allusion to the Olivet Discourse. Obeying the government in Romans 13 may allude to Jesus’ saying to “give unto Caesar.”

I have several questions about this section of Porter’s argument. First, acquaintance with the teaching of Jesus does not necessarily mean firsthand knowledge. If Romans12:9-11 does allude to the Sermon on the Mount, it is not necessary for Paul himself to have heard Jesus teach the words himself. The writer of the Didache also alludes to the Sermon, but no one would assume that author personally heard Jesus teach. Although it is not necessary to argue Paul had a copy of Q with him wherever he traveled, it is just as plausible he knew of some sayings sources often attributed to Q. This would account for material in Paul’s letters which would later be used by Matthew and Luke.

A second and related issue concerns the method used for demonstrating Paul had firsthand knowledge of Jesus’ teaching. Porter must walk a fine line between verbal parallels with the Gospels and general allusions. If Paul heard Jesus teach in Galilee and wrote his recollection of that teaching in Romans some twenty or more years later, it would be remarkable if the words he used were exactly the same as the Gospel of Matthew. Porter recognizes this as a problem for the vocabulary for divorce in 1 Corinthians 7 (148-50), eventually concluding Paul offers a paraphrase of what Jesus said.

This raises a third concern. Sometimes a common Jewish source is a simpler solution than Paul heard Jesus teach. For example, that both Jesus’ and Paul’s summary the of Law as “love your neighbor” is not remarkable at all since this was a well-known summary of the Law in Second Temple Judaism based on Leviticus 19:18. That a Jewish lawyer would respond to Jesus in this way is not a surprise. In addition, it is possible to find parallels to Romans 12:9-21 in Jewish wisdom literature.

Finally, sometimes Porter makes a suggestion which goes well beyond the evidence. He very tentatively suggests Paul was the “the lawyer who asked the question” in Luke 10:25-28 (147). Similarly, that Paul “overheard Jesus’ words regarding the worker being worthy of his/her wages” (159) seems to go beyond the evidence or that Paul overheard the Olivet Discourse and “heard enough” of Jesus at that point (167). All of these are of course possibilities, but move into the area of speculation which cannot be supported by evidence.

In his conclusion, Porter cites A.M. Pope who asked what benefit to our understanding of Paul if it can be proven Paul knew the life and teaching of the human Jesus. Aside from historical curiosity, the connection between Jesus and Paul would serve to further strengthen Pauline studies which place Paul in a Jewish context. The wedge driven between Jesus and Paul ought to be removed, but so too the wedge between Judaism, Jesus and Paul.

Conclusion. This is a fascinating book which makes a bold claim and supports that claim with detailed evidence and careful argumentation. Porter makes his case that it is at least plausible Paul knew the teaching of Jesus prior to the crucifixion and that he had personally seen Jesus on occasion.

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

Image result for judah maccabee the hammerIn New Testament studies it is somewhat commonplace to say the Jews at the time of Jesus were expecting a messiah who was a military leader or a Davidic king. In popular preaching this is usually stated without any sort of evidence. There is some reason to think at least some Jewish people in the first century had this view of the messiah, although it was not the only way to think about the messiah in the first century.

This semester I have been teaching a class on the Second Temple period as well as a series of Bible studies in the Gospel of Mark. When I was preparing to teach Mark 10:32-34 for this week, I ran across a potential allusion to the military activity of Judas Maccabees in the Gospel of Mark. I am sure someone what noticed this before, but let me offer this as an illustration of how reading Second Temple period literature helps to illuminate the New Testament.

In Mark 10:32, Jesus is “going before” his disciples. Mark makes it clear Jesus is leading the way up to Jerusalem. Although Jesus has traveled with his disciples in previous stories, this is the first time he has been described as “going before” them. The word is occasionally used to described a military maneuver (2 Macc 11:10), but with the sense of advancing in a battle rather than to describe a general leading his army into battle.

The verb (προάγω) appears in a very important Second Temple text in 2 Maccabees 10:1, Judas Maccabees and his followers up to Jerusalem to recover the Temple after Antiochus had desecrated it. But the writer of 2 Maccabees says it was the Lord himself who was leading them up to the temple (a participle of προάγω, προάγοντος αὐτοὺς).

2 Maccabees 10:1–2 (NRSV) Now Maccabeus and his followers, the Lord leading them on, recovered the temple and the city; 2 they tore down the altars that had been built in the public square by the foreigners, and also destroyed the sacred precincts.

When Judas and his followers reach the Temple, they “recover the Temple and the city.” Judas and his followers purified (καθαρίζω) the sanctuary and initiated the proper worship in the Temple which had been cut off three years before by Antiochus IV Epiphanes. This rededication of the Temple is the climax of a series of stories in 2 Maccabees since Judas has achieved what he set out to do when he came to Jerusalem.

Mark may be intentionally presenting Jesus as acting like Judas Maccabees. For the first time in the Gospel of Mark Jesus is going up to Jerusalem and Jesus himself is leading the way. Before he arrives he will be hailed as the son of David (10:47) and welcomed as the one who comes in the name of the Lord (11:9). The next pericope in Mark begins with the curse of the fig tree (11:12-14) followed by the Temple action (11:15-19). Although the Temple action is symbolic, Jesus is driving out those who are not using the Temple properly. Again, popular preaching calls this a “cleansing of the Temple” even if that word is not used in Mark 11.

This connection of Judas Maccabees may also explains the amazement and the fear of the other followers of Jesus. Perhaps the disciples are amazed that Jesus is leading the way to Jerusalem in this way. Since James and John ask to sit on the right and left hand when “Jesus comes in his glory” (10:37), it is possible the disciples think this is the time the Kingdom will be restored to Israel.

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!

bush-worst-everIn the previous post, I argued that Paul commands obedience to the government.  I pointed out that the Roman government at the time was as oppressive as any in history and permitted any number of practices that we modern American Christians would not put up with more a moment.  Yet Paul said quite clearly that the Christian was to submit to the government because it was God’s appointed minister of justice!

The recent US election resulted in a bad person taking the office of president. I might have written this at any time in the last fifty years and made at least 50% of the US population happy. But in the days following this election the protests seemed louder and more bitter than the anti-Obama or anti-Bush protests. As an American, people have the freedom to protest within the limits of the law and there is nothing illegal about these kinds of protests. It is almost a traditional now to have a small segment of the population enter into a kind of apoplexy when their candidate loses.

Like the Occupy Wall Street movement a few years ago, many anti-Trump protesters are law-abiding and legal protests. Most of the time the people involved work with city officials, obtain permits, etc. The issue that they are raising is important as well: America is incredibly rich and ought to do more to care for the less-wealthy. There is no way anyone in America should be hungry, malnourished, uneducated, or lack access to health care. For most of these protesters, electing a billionaire who appoints other billionaires is not going to solve the problems American faces (unless you are a billionaire already).

Despite the fact Paul says to obey the government in Romans 13, I am not as happy with the  solution offered by the Occupy Wall Street or any presidential candidate. They essentially argue the government is the solution to the real problems of America. The government needs to do something to “spread the wealth.” The highly charged rhetoric of the Trump campaign appealed to people by saying the government can “make America great again.” Trump got elected by saying he could save the country and make people prosperous gain.

trump-neroFor me, this is not a capitalist/socialist issue. It is a matter of responsibility.  I do not think the government should be caring for the poor in a society, but rather the Church.  As I read Romans 13, I see nothing about the government providing a social safety net. The government is ordained to enforce law and keep the peace. The church is to care for the poor and needy and do the job so well there are no poor and needy people. If we are looking to the government for our physical salvation or the president (emperor), are we really any different than the Romans who looked to Caesar as “lord and savior,” the one who makes the world peaceful and prosperous?

I hinted at the end of the last post that Paul did in fact have rather subversive plan to reverse the evils of the Empire.  Like Jesus, Paul is interested in transforming people from death to life. These members of the new creation will then transform society.  Paul was interested in caring for the poor and underclass, and the followers of Jesus modeled their meetings after the table fellowship of Jesus himself.  All shared food and fellowship equally.  That all are equal in the Body of Christ is amazingly subversive in a society which was predicated on social strata and inequality.

An example of the sort of subversive action which had an impact on poverty in the early church is found in 1 Clement 55.  In this letter written at the end of the first century, Clement praises Gentile Christians who have risked plague in order to save fellow citizens, allowed themselves to be imprisoned to redeem others, and sold themselves into slavery in order to feed the poor. I cannot imagine anyone in the twenty-first century taking out a second mortgage and donating the money to a local inner city ministry that cares for the poor. Someone may have done this, but it is exceedingly rare.

I think the church does a good job on some social issues, but given the wealth flowing through most American churches, much more could be done. I am not necessarily talking about throwing money at the problem. There are many creative low-cost efforts to relieve the conditions which cause poverty.

What would happen if the Church dedicated itself to solving poverty in the inner cities of America instead of building big glass churches? What if a single mega-church dedicated their offerings to poverty relief rather than building improvements?  What if we spent as much on helping African orphans as we do on the sound systems for our churches?

Remember that Paul is not talking only to modern America. Every Christian in the world had to work out what it means to “submit to the government” and impact their culture in order to present the gospel to their culture in a meaningful way. I would love to hear from some international readers on this issue, since I am sure my American eyes are not seeing things clearly.

Papandrea, James L. The Earliest Christologies: Five Images of Christ in the Postapostolic Age. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2016. 144 pgs., Pb.; $18.00 Link to IVP

In his introduction, Papandrea explains the challenged faced in the post-apostolic era. Jesus taught and did miracles, was raised from the dead. This lead to the worship of Jesus from the very beginning of Christianity (15). There were good reasons to understand Jesus as divine, yet he suffered and died on the cross. It was difficult for the first few generations to reconcile Jesus’ humanity and his divinity. If Jesus was God, then he ought to be immutable; how then could he live as a human?

Papandrea-ChristologyPapandrea has limited his study to the post-apostolic age, primarily the second century. One reason is to avoid monarchic modalism which flourished in the third century and was a Trinitarian heresy rather than an attempt to explain who Jesus was. It also limits the discussion to the period before Arianism, a far more complicated view of Jesus worthy of a monograph on its own. By limiting himself to the second century, Papandrea has set a manageable goal for a short monograph. He does, however, mention both modalism and Arianism as the legacy of adoptionism in his final chapter.

As believers genuinely struggled with defining who (or what) Jesus was, several competing views emerged. Papandrea places these views along a continuum, beginning with Angel Adoptionism and Spirit Adoptionism, both of which emphasize the humanity of Jesus. He then describes Docetic Gnosticism and a hybrid form of Gnosticism emphasize the divinity of Jesus, concluding eventually Jesus a kind of “Cosmic Mind” devoid of humanity.

These four views might be called heresy, and they certainly were by the time Christians began to define orthodoxy. But Papandrea rightly points out these views all represent the sincere efforts of genuine Christians within the church to make sense of the difficult problem of who Jesus claimed to be. For the most part, these views “grew up rather organically or around certain teachers” (15).

Each chapter begins with a short definition of a view of who Christ was and a short survey of the literature used by the group. Angel Adoptionism is associated with Ebionism and may be represented in the eighth Sibylline Oracle, the Shepherd of Hermas, and (perhaps) an edited version of Matthew’s Gospel. Angel Adoptionism essentially believed that Jesus was a righteous human who was rewarded by God with the gift of an angelic spirit, called Christ. Similarly, Ebionites were also associated with Spirit Adoptionism, in which the man Jesus was given the Holy Spirit like an Old Testament prophet. Relying on the Gospel of the Nazarenes (possibly another name for Matthew, perhaps in Aramaic) and apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, this group also rejected the preexistence of Jesus as well as the virgin birth.

Docetic Gnosticism is an early form of Gnosticism which held that Jesus only appeared to be human. It is customary to cite 1 John as engaging this form of early Christology, although Papandrea suggests Docetists may have used a text like 1 Corinthians 15:50, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” to support their view of Jesus. If he was human (flesh and blood), then how can he ascend to heaven? Papandrea suggests some documents in the Nag Hammadi library may have been Docetic, especially the Thomas traditions (Gospel and Acts of Thomas) as well as the Acts of John. In this book, Jesus is not only intangible, he is invisible (55)!

Papandrea’s fourth view is a hybrid form of Gnosticism which thought of Jesus as a “Cosmic Mind.” The problem for Docetism is that there are too many stories about Jesus eating for him to have been some sort of phantom. He therefore suggests later Gnosticism was also a variation on adoptionism. He cites the Carpocrations and Sethians, and the teachers Basilides and Valentinius as examples of this view that a cosmic mind inhabited Jesus unto the crucifixion. The mind abandoned the man Jesus at that point, or switches bodies with Simon of Cyrene (73). Papandrea is sensitive to the wide variety of Gnostic teaching in this period and he is well-aware there was no standard view. But proposing this new category of “hybrid Gnosticism” he hopes to highlight the elements of Gnosticism which see divinity as a spark within humans while avoiding hedonistic aspects of Gnosticism appearing later.

At the center of his continuum, Papandrea places Logos Christology as a balance between the humanity and divinity of Jesus. The view opposes adoptionism by arguing Jesus pre-exists as the Logos, part of the Godhead, and develops a view of incarnation that can affirm a real bodily death and resurrection of Jesus. This eventual orthodox formulation is represented by Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, and Tertullian.

Finally, Papandrea concludes with a short chapter asking “what is orthodoxy?” To a certain extent, the orthodox view is the middle course between two extremes. Rather than asking “humanity or divinity?” the orthodox view sought to balance both since both were part of the apostolic preaching. Papandrea points out the important implications of adoptionism or Docetism have for the resurrection of Jesus. Neither adoptionism nor Gnosticism leave room for union with God at the resurrection, so that only Logos Christology affirms the bodily resurrection of Jesus (117).

Conclusion. This book makes a good supplemental reading for a systematic or historical theology class. Papandrea clearly and fairly presents the non-orthodox position and is to be applauded for avoiding the language of heresy for many of these positions. The orthodox view of the two natures of Jesus simply had not developed in the second century. He also avoids any of the conspiracy theories often present in a popular presentation of this period of history. It is not the case that orthodoxy suppressed the more spiritual (or liberal) Gnostics. The second century was a time when honest Christians struggled to make sense Jesus’ own question, “who do people say that I am?”

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.

Published on August 2, 2016 on Reading Acts.

AragornVirtually everyone agrees this passage describes the triumphal return of Christ.  But as Aune notes, the imagery used is not derived from other early Christian traditions concerning the return of the Lord (Revelation, 3:1046). The various descriptions in this paragraph of the return of Jesus as conquering king are drawn from a wide variety of Second Temple literature. In fact, this Rider is the culmination Jewish expectations for a restoration of the kingdom.

The Rider is described in somewhat familiar terms to those who read apocalyptic literature. His eyes are like a fiery flame (v 12).  Eyes like flaming torches are associated with heavenly beings, as in Dan 10:6 (Theodotian LXX). He has many crowns (diadems) on his head (12).   In the Greco Roman world, multiple crowns is an indication of sovereignty over territories.

Just as the dragon had seven crowns and the kings to come had crowns, so the rider has “many” crowns, perhaps so many that they are not counted. He wears a robe dipped in blood (13).  Normally blood is associated with the atonement, but this is not the case here.  The blood is that of the enemies of God, and is likely an allusion to Is 63:1-3. Finally, a sharp sword comes out of his mouth (15a).  This is a reference to the power of his word (Rev 1:16; 2:12, 16; 19:15, 21).

4QIsaiah Peshera 8-10 iii 15-19 (tr. García Martínez, Dead Sea Scrolls, 186): [He will destroy the land with the rod of his mouth and with the breath of his lips he will execute the evil] ? [The interpretation of the word concerns the shoot] of David which will sprout [in the final days, since with the breath of his lips he will execute] his enemies.

The rider has several names. First, he is named “Faithful and True,” titles used for Jesus in Rev 1:5 and 3:14. Second, he has another name inscribed which he alone knows (12b).  Divine beings sometimes have a “secret name” or are not willing to give their true names. In Gen 32:29, for example, God does not give his name when asked.  Third, His name is “the Word of God” (13b), reminiscent of John 1:1 where Jesus is called the Word.  Finally, on his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed: “King of kings and Lord of lords” (16).   There are a number of ancient references to names being inscribed on the thigh of statues,

The Rider has come in order to judge in righteousness (11b).  That the messiah will be God’s righteous judge is a theme of several texts in the Hebrew Bible (Ps 98, 72:2, 96:13, Isa 11:4). He will wage war in righteousness (11b) and smites the nations with the sharp sword (15a).  He will rule the nations with a rod of iron (15b).  That the Messiah will be something of a true shepherd is common in the Hebrew Bible (Ps 2:9) as well as Psalms of Solomon 17:21-25.

Psalms of Solomon 17:21-25 See, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David, to rule over your servant Israel in the time known to you, O God.  Undergird him with the strength to destroy the unrighteous rulers, to purge Jerusalem from gentiles who trample her to destruction; in wisdom and in righteousness to drive out the sinners from the inheritance; to smash the arrogance of sinners like a potter’s jar; To shatter all their substance with an iron rod; to destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth; At his warning the nations will flee from his presence; and he will condemn sinners by the thoughts of their hearts.

John describes this judgment as treading “the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.” This is yet another familiar metaphor for the anger of God in Revelation and the est of the prophets. John has already used this metaphor in Rev 14:19.

The Rider on the White horse therefore represents the culmination Jewish expectations for a restoration of the kingdom. God intervenes in history by means of a mighty warrior who renders justice. He will punish the enemies of Israel, destroying them utterly. But he will also vindicate those who have suffered on behalf of their testimony for Jesus: they are raised to new life in Rev 20.

 

 

 

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Christian Theology

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