First Set of Xmas Books!

Happy Christmas to all! So far, it has been a good Christmas for my family as we have traveled from Seattle to Ohio and Indiana.

We watched a nice documentary on TV called “After Jesus” on CNN, narrated by Laim Neeson and scholars interviewed include Bart Ehrman and Judith Lieu.

I got a few books for Xmas (some are for Journal review, but they are virtually “presents”!)

God in New Testament Theology (Hurtado, Abingdon, 2010)

Since I read Dunn’s Christology book recently, I am now interested in hearing more from Hurtado. Truth be told, I have not read any of Hurtado’s Theology/Christology books (just his excellent, though brief, commentary on Mark). Jimmy Dunn actually invited Hurtado to write this book!

Matthew: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the NT (Grant Osborne, 2010)

I was quite skeptical of a new commentary series, but I read that Zondervan asked pastors what they want from a good commentary and used this data to design the series. Thus, there appears to be a good blending of exegetical discussion of historical and grammatical issues, but also a focus on structure, flow, basic meaning, and application. Of course I am excited to see (eventually) Howard Marshall’s volume on John and Thielman’s treatment of Romans.

Joshua in 3-D (Daniel Hawk; Wipf & Stock)

I am working on a project on Joshua. Dan wrote a commentary sometime ago on Joshua, but this is a more political and ideological reading with a view towards American conceptions of Manifest Destiny. Should be an interesting read! Dan is also a friend of mine – I learned some key pointers about writing papers from Dan when I happened to sit in on a class he was teaching several years ago.

Well, more books (hopefully!) to come. Again, merry Christmas to all.

Dunn asks, Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?

Making a (short) book-length contribution to the question of Christology and monotheism in early Christianity, Dunn’s new book (Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?) brings an important critical voice to the conversation that has largely been dominated in the last decade or so by Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham. The way into this discussion is through the (seemingly) simple question: Did the first Christians worship Jesus? Dunn points out that most Christians ASSUME the answer is YES. He thinks otherwise, based on the New Testament evidence.

In his discussion of terms for worship in the NT, he finds few clear instances where Jesus is worshipped as a god. Almost exclusively, when the terminology of worship is used, it is for the one God (see p. 17). Dunn also looks at worship practices and comes to similar conclusions (see p. 57). So, what do we do with Jesus and his “special” status vis-a-vis the first Christians?

In the third chapter, Dunn looks at spiritual mediators in early Judaism (angels, exalted humans, personified Wisdom, etc…) and argues that such agents bring “the divine presence into humans’ daily reality–not simply a message from Yahweh, but the real presence of Yahweh” (p. 90). While I like part of what Dunn is saying here, he seems to treat all people/items in this category the same, which is not logically necessary or apparent to me.

In chapter 4, when it comes to Jesus, Dunn argues that he was understood “to embody the outreach of God himself” (p. 146). Dunn focuses on Jesus’ work as agent – one who is not worshipped personally or individually. However, Dunn acknowledges that Jesus is so often in the picture of early Christian worship because he is the means of worship of the true God. For Dunn, there is a clear distinction to be made. Dunn warns against “Jesus-olatry” – treating Jesus as a “god” separate from God the Father, an independent divine being worthy of worship. Instead Dunn prefers the idea of Jesus as an icon – a “window through which the eye passes, through which the beyond can be seen, through which divine reality can be witnessed” (147).

I think Dunn has offered some very important points of caution and clarification – it is not the normal habit of the early Christians, as seen in the NT, to “worship” Jesus as a god. He is included in Christian worship, but not as one to be worshipped in the same way as God the Father is worshipped. Practically speaking, there does seem to be a higher place given to God the Father in worship, according to Dunn.

I had some concerns with the shape of Dunn’s discussion, though. Firstly, while I appreciate his concerns and cautions, I think he comes out as arguing for Jesus as the best in category – the most effective divine mediator in history. While I think Dunn is correct that Jesus was viewed as a special agent, the evidence seems to me to place him in a unique category – one that does not fit a previously-devised “slot.” For example, Gordon Fee has pointed out enough times when Paul uses the term LORD ambiguously (Lord Yahweh or Lord Jesus?) that this would have caused some blurring of lines for the early Christians, I think. Perhaps the same confusion we have today (Do I pray to Jesus or “God”?) may have been experienced early on as well.

A second problem I have with Dunn’s discussion is his ostensible minimization of those texts that seem to connect Jesus directly to divine honors and terms: e.g., John 20:28. In such texts, Dunn seems to want to argue that Jesus is only called “God” insofar as he brings God’s presence into the midst of the people. OK, Maybe. Maybe not. It is no more a stretch to think that the disciples “realized” Jesus was a “god” than it is to think that when they say “My Lord and my God” they really mean “My Lord and my God are mysteriously present in a special way in Jesus, though Jesus himself is not a god to be worshipped in his own right.”

Thirdly, Dunn works through various parts of the NT looking for signs of Jesus being worshipped (as a god), and he finds bits here and there and finds nothing or very little where he would be expecting to find it to make a solid case. For example, he notes that there are very few clear instances of worship of Jesus in the Gospels. However, I think he is mistaken to treat all parts of the NT the same. The Gospels focus more on the mystery of Jesus’ advent and life, with a climax in his death and resurrection. These texts are not, properly speaking, liturgical texts. When we do have liturgical texts, the worship of Jesus is more lucid – as in Revelation 5. Of course Jesus is not ubiquitously worshipped as a god in the Gospels – part of the story is the unfolding of his unique role in history and the revelation of his victory in the cross and resurrection. When we get glimpses of his divine glory, they are (only) glimpses probably for narrative/plot reasons, I would think.

Finally, when Dunn gathers all of his evidence, I think the accumulation of insights and thoughts could go either way on the titular question: Did the first Christian worship Jesus? Dunn takes a more minimalistic/negative approach in the end, but I think it could easily be taken the other way. Dunn says, “No, he wasn’t worshipped, but he was a necessary part of worship, the only path through which worship of God could truly take place, and thus he was instrumental in early Christian worship [Nijay's paraphrasing].” I think it could be taken the other way, “Yes, Jesus was so important to worship it could be called “worship” because of his centrality, uniqueness, and amazing victory of sin and death for the sake of humanity.” Again, the special category that Jesus is in could (and I think does) warrant divine honor.

For example, in Acts 14:11, the Lycaonians think Paul is a god and they shout, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men.” Did they think these people were gods or were men-who-mediate-the-unique-presence-of-a-god-but-who-technically-are-not-categorized-as-gods? It is quite obvious that they were going to worship them as gods, even though they were in human form. What category do you think the early Christians would have put Jesus in (i.e. lesser-to-greater principle)?

In the end, I still highly admire Dunn’s book for three reasons. 1.) It helps us think through the terms of divine identity (Bauckham) and binitarian (Hurtado) and their utility, 2.) Dunn offers useful criticisms while maintaining a respectful and irenic tone, and 3.) Dunn is trying to work directly with the NT evidence. As for me, he continues to be a model of good scholarship, even when I disagree. While I enjoyed reading and learned from each and every chapter, I think his final conclusion goes further than his more cautious conclusions at the end of each chapter. Nevertheless, this should be required reading in NT Christology courses!

 

On my desk: The fabulous Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism

A “big box” arrived yesterday – The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism ed. by John Collins and Daniel Harlow. Firstly, it is huge – a whopping 1300 pages, each page about the 8.5 x 11 size (dictionary style).

This is a very untraditional dictionary as it is both textbook and encyclopedia.

The first 300 pages contain a series of “essays” on early Judaism; the next 1000 pages are the actual entries of the dictionary.

Essays include:

“Early Judaism in Modern Scholarship” (Collins)

“Jewish History from Alexander to Hadrian” (Seesman and Marshak)

“Judaism in the Land of Israel” (VanderKam)

“Judaism in the Diaspora” (Gruen)

“The Jewish Scriptures: Texts, Verisons, Canons” (Ulrich)

“Early Jewish Biblical Interpretation” (Kugel)

“Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha” (Stuckenbruck)

“Dead Sea Scrolls” (Tigchelaar)

“early Jewish literature in Greek” (Berthelot)

“Archaeology, Papyri, and Inscriptions” (Zangenberg)

“Jews among Greeks and Romans” (Ben Zeev)

“Early Judaism and Early Christianity” (Harlow)

“Early Judaism and Rabbinic Judaism” (Schiffman)

I hope to have more thoughts on this fine piece of scholarship once I have dipped into more articles (I have read a handful). First impressions are that this will make a great textbook for a course on early Judaism in grad schools and seminaries. The difference between this and, let’s say, the Dictionary of New Testament Background is that this is more focused and written (not by NT scholars but) by scholars of OT and early Judaism. For most of the scholars who write for this dictionary, early Judaism is their primary area of research. Though you will find some articles by folks like James Dunn and Larry Hurtado.

In terms of utility, there is both an alphabetical list of entries in the front matter, as well as a topical list. For example, under “New Testament” you learn that articles appear on Hebrews, James, John, Jude, Luke-Acts, Mark, Matthew, the person of Paul, Petrine epistles, and Revelation. There is also a category of “Modern Interpreters of Early Judaism” which contains a list of articles on people such as Bousset, Goodenough, Hengel, Neusner, Ed. sanders, and Morton Smith, and others.

So far, the only flaw I can see is that there is no Scriptural/ancient text index. That would have been so valuable, though certainly time-consuming to produce. Anyway, do check it out. It is up-to-date, comprehensive, and also looks nice. A winning combo!

Happy Reflection on Academic Life Right Now

I am sitting in my office (!) grading Greek exegesis papers on Philippians. One paper in particular was very impressive and I learedn something very useful from it for a book project I am working on (thanks to this student’s fine skills with Bibleworks). I thought to myself, “when I was a second-year seminary student, I dreamed of this day.” Here I am. Thanks be to God.

HOW I CHANGED MY MIND ABOUT WOMEN IN LEADERSHIP (Zondervan)

I am a strong advocate of women in ministry leadership (WML). I also take the Bible seriously. To many evangelicals, even many evangelical scholars, this is a contradiction. When I began seminary, I was also in this category – to believe that women could be pastors is to play fast and loose with the Bible, to follow society instead of the Triune God, to be “liberal” (in a bad way!).

I had a big change-of-mind in seminary where I came 180 degrees on this topic. Now, when I promote women in leadership (including my wife!), I face many obstacles. Aside from the Biblical exegesis and arguments, there is just that impression that (1) Evangelicals are historically complementarian and patriarchical and (2) to change one’s mind is a sign of weakness. I think great Biblical arguments in favor of WML are quite convincing, but these two other (ideological) issues are serious roadblocks that hinder profitable conversation.

Thus, at SBL when I saw the new Zondervan book How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership: Compelling Stories from Prominent Evangelicals (2010), I HAD to buy it. This book offers a number of personal stories and reflections on the journey to a view of affirmation of WML and the real power of this book is that these stories come from CONSERVATIVE EVANGELICAL men and women. Some of the contributors include:

 

Stuart and Jill Briscoe

Tony Campolo

Bill and Lynne Hybels

I. Howard Marshall

John and Nancy Ortberg

Cornelius Plantinga

Alan F. Johnson

Walter and Olive Liefeld

John Stackhouse

Ronald Sider

[and others]

It is not their logical arguments that make this book powerful (as even some of them are quite weak), but the diffusing of this “Supporters of WML are liberals” mentality.

Another important message of the book is that it is not a terrible thing to change your mind when you find that is appropriate according to Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience (with, of course, special weight given to the first of the four, but serious attention to ALL the others).

If I ever teach a course on WML, I would certainly use this as a textbook. Thank you to Alan F. John for editing this fine book. I agree with the endorsement of Lynn Cohick: “Simply put: I could not put this book down…”

Forthcoming FS for John J. Collins

I just noticed that Eerdmans has a Festschrift coming in January (eds. D.C. Harlow, M. Goff, K.M. Hogan, and J.S. Kaminsky) called The “Other” in Second Temple Judaism. Some of the contributors include:

Susan Ackerman, Shane Berg, Sean Freyne, Martin Goodman, D.J. Harrington, Robert Kugler, Timothy Lim, Carol Newman, G.W.E. Nickelsburg, Susan Niditch, and James VanderKam (among a host of others). Wow! Impressive list of writers desiring to honor Collins! See HERE.

Gorman’s READING REVELATION RESPONSIBLY

Known primarily for Pauline theology and exegesis, Michael J. Gorman recently published a book on Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness, Following the Lamb into the New Creation (Wipf & Stock, 2010).

At under 200 pages of regular text, this is an eminently readable book, meant to give direction to the many Christians who are bewildered by the message of John the Seer.

I was so entranced myself when I began this book that I could not put it down – I read 110 pages in one sitting!

Gorman offers, right away, his concern for the dead-end ways that this powerful Biblical text is read – he shows particular frustration with the Left Behind series and those obsessed with that perspective. Put simply, he wrote for “those looking for an alternative to readings of Revelation that promote fear about being left behind at the rapture or narcissistic preparation for the end times.” (p. xvi)

In his primary introductory chapter, he notes that popular interest in Revelation thinks of “the end” or “the antichrist” or “vengeance” when the title of the book is heard. Gorman argues that “witness, throne, and lamb” should be terms that come to mind, as they are central to Revelation.

This first chapter traces the way Revelation has been read, misread, unread, and judged. He promotes a theological reading that tries to “purge and to refurbish the Christian imagination” (this quote is Gorman quoting Bauckham, p. 8)

The second chapter looks at what kind of literature Revelation is in “form” – its hybrid nature as apocalypse, prophecy, and letter (again, in line with Bauckham). In terms of apocalyse, Gorman gives Collins’ famous definition, while also focusing on the purpose of such texts “to sustain the people of God, especially in times of crisis, particularly evil and oppression” (p. 15). So,

Apocalyptic literature both expresses and creates hope by offering scathing critique of the oppressors, passionate exhortations to defiance (and sometimes even preparation for confrontation), and unfailing confidence in God’s ultimate defeat of the present evil (p. 15).

Particularly important to Gorman is a recognition of the power of symbols in the text – he offers an excellent chart exploring the meaning of numbers and colors (pp. 18-19). On the aspect of “prophecy,” Gorman rightly opposes readings that focus on future prediction. Instead, the prophet’s role is “speaking words of comfort and/or challenge, on behalf of God, to the people of God in their concrete situations” (p. 23). In seminary, we called prophets “covenant enforcers” – I think this is close to what Gorman is saying. Above all, when Revelation speaks prophetically, it is in the name of “first-commandment faithfulness” (a phrase Gorman borrows from C. Talbert), “true worship of the one true God” (p. 25).

Chapter 3 covers the “substance of Revelation” – especially engaging in the historical context and social problems that stand behind the text. He paints a picture of a Christian community at the crossroads in the Roman Empire – accommodation or resistance? Accommodation would mean acquiescence to “imperial idolatry (civil religion) and specifically Rome’s imperial idolatry and injustice” (p. 33). The story told in Revelation calls for a Lamb-obedient resistance to civil religion. In this chapter, Gorman makes connections to the potential for Revelation to warn us against civil religion in our own “empires” – particularly in America.

He also brings up obsessions with the “Rapture” – some Christians presume that this is equivalent to the Second Coming and that not believing in the Rapture is unBiblical. Gorman wisely writes: “It is not the second coming of Christ that is absent from Revelation but the alleged rupture of the Church of Christ in a kind of secret prequel to the real second coming” (p. 59).

Chapter 4 gets into the nettle of how to read Revelation – a question Gorman handles quite well. He urges dispensing with preterist and futurist approaches (as Revelation is interested in past, present, and future) and takes a deeper interest in the text as a lens for understanding a deeper message. He combines a theopoetic, theopolitical, and pastoral-prophetic approach as these “go beyond mere correspondence to more timeless concerns about God, evil, empire, civil religion, and the like, responding to new situations” (p. 68).

On pages 71-73, he offers a very incisive criticism of Left-Behind theology. If you know pastors who are concerned with the series but can’t articulate why, have them read these pages! So insightful!

Chapters 5-9, which I won’t discuss in detail, go into a short commentary-like overview of the sections of Revelation

Chapter 10, the last chapter, brings the book back to Gorman’s central argument:

[Revelation] is above all a community-forming document, intended to shape communities of believers in Jesus as the Lamb of God into more faithful and missional communities of uncivil worship and witness. The primary agenda of John the Seer is to increase the covenant faithfulness in the church universal–then and now…to form victorious communities, communities that do conquer and will conquer. And by “conquer,” Revelation means remaining faithful, even to death, in order to experience glorious, everlasting life with God, the Lamb, and all the redeemed in God’s new heaven and earth (p 177).

When I read this book, it was certainly vintage Gorman, but there are a lot of resonances with the work of Richard Bauckham, Eugene Peterson, Richard Hays, and N.T. Wright.

Gorman has not simply spun out a book by just dumping his lecture notes into a Word file. He has clearly done his Revelation homework. He reveals, through footnotes especially, he has researched and explored the long history of interpretation, but, again, the great value of this book is that it is aimed at a more general audience. While the amount of information that he churns and processes can be overwhelming at times, it just proves to me that I will need to revisit this book again and again as I explore and try to understand Revelation.

REVIEW SUMMARY

ORIGINALITY: 4/5  Gorman is not really trying to be original, but he does give some unique perspectives and syntheses of past approaches. The conciseness and simple language of the book, while still offering the best distillation of scholarship, is certainly unique.

CLARITY: 5/5  it is organized very clearly and the organization is explained.

COGENCY: 4.5/5 Gorman has certainly convinced me that a time-oriented approach (preterest versus futurist) is severely limited and that a more theopoetic approach is best.

SATISFACTION: 4.8/5 My overall satisfaction is quite high. If I have one small critique, it is that Gorman has a small tendency to over-quote. Otherwise, I enthusiastically support it!

If you want to find out how you can order this book, see HERE.