Helen Bond Reflects on Historical Jesus Studies

Helen Bond is one of the sharpest Jesus scholars in academia today. I just finished reading her Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed (Continuum). It is an absolutely brilliant read (I will have more to say about this on a later occasion). She has written a helpfully succinct set of reflections on her writing of the book. You can read it here.

Interestingly, Helen has a general appreciation for the criteria of authenticity for HJ studies, though she does not use it mechanically or inflexibly. Since I was reading her book while also completing the new Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (eds. Le Donne and Keith; also Continuum), which casts serious doubt on the benefits and effectiveness of the standard “criteria of authenticity,” I wonder how Bond would respond to their “cease and desist” order for Jesus scholars.

My guess would be that she would agree that the “criteria” should not be used to authenticate sayings or a word or phrase here and there. She would agree that some criteria are seriously flawed, such as dissimilarity. However, I think she would still find the general idea of using some standard tools acceptable and even useful. She would support caution and use of the criteria to get a sense for the “gist” of Jesus, but we should not toss them away in toto. That’s just my guess about what Bond would say. I hope she gets a chance to review the book (perhaps for her Edinburgh hosted Expository Times?).

Is Gene Boring Right about John’s Compassion-less Jesus?

Currently I am enjoying reading M. Eugene Boring’s new massive reference book An Introduction to the New Testament (WJK, 2012). I will have much more to say about this book on another occasion, but I will say right now that Boring is extremely well-versed in almost every major critical issue in the study of the NT. However, one statement he made in his chapter on John’s Gospel took me off guard. I am curious what you think:

In general, the Johannine Jesus is portrayed as without compassion, as divinely aloof. God’s compassion for the world is manifest in the Christ event itself, not in the individual stories in which the ultimate act of God is symbolically portrayed (p. 668)

Is this true? Is john’s Jesus lacking in social concern? Is he void of empathy for the downtrodden?

I have some responses that come to my mind, but please share your thoughts in the comments!

Forthcoming (2013) OT Theology book from Walter Moberly

I just came to know that 2013 will see the publication of an OT theology by Walter Moberly of Durham University (Baker Academic). The “Christian Theology and the Bible” section of SBL will have a panel discussion. The title of the book is: Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture.

Let me say, Moberly is absolutely brilliant – deeply theological, philosophical, and concerned with making sense of Scripture in the modern world. So, this will be no stale or sterile theology, but a dynamic, engaging, and even captivating work!

Catrin Williams, new editor of JSNT

Congrats and best wishes to Catrin Williams (Univ of Wales) who is now the editor of JSNT (following Simon Gathercole). Two reasons why I love JSNT – they are open to publishing theologically-focused pieces and they have a very good turn-around time for assessing articles. Simon was an outstanding editor (with laser-precision in editorial criticism which, in the end, is always a good thing!). I am sure Catrin will do a fabulous job as well.

Reading the Gospels Wisely with Jonathan Pennington Part I

There are a number of good introductions to the Gospels, but there is nothing quite like Jonathan Pennington’s new Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction (Baker, 2012). In this book, Pennington attempts to develop a robust method for interpreting the Gospels. It is almost like a hermeneutics primer just for the Gospels. He relates reading the Gospels to the idea of building a house. On the foundation level you have questions about genre, reception, and meaning (chs. 1-8): what Pennington calls “Clearing Ground, Digging Deep, and Laying a Good Foundation.”

Then you have the building itself, where Pennington engages in the theory of narratival reading and the importance of literary context (chs. 9-10). Thirdly, he discusses what it means to live in the house, particularly relating to application (chs. 11-12). I will deal here with the first fourchapters.

Chapters 1-2: What are the Gospels?

For Pennington, the “Gospels” are, of course, about the gospel, the “good news.” But what is the good news? It is “the long-awaited return of God himself as King [through Jesus], in the power of the Holy Spirit bringing his people back from exile and into the true promised land of a new creation, forgiving their sins, and fulfilling all the promises of God and the hopes of his people” (16). This sounds a lot like Tom Wright! Well, I can’t argue with that!

Now for “genre.” Pennington basically accepts what appears to be a new consensus that the gospels fit the genre of bios (a la Burridge). He has some criticisms for Burridge’s perspective (particularly how unique Jesus is in the Gospels as a soteriological agent and one who is clearly more than a normal human who takes the role of a hero in a bios), but he is especially appreciative of the bios focus on the reader emulating the hero (p. 33): “If the goal of the evangelists is (at least in part) to present Jesus as a model of God-ward virtue, then we should receive them as such, keeping this goal as an important part of what it means to interpret the Gospels and to read them well” (33).

So, Pennington recognizes that the Gospels are bioi, but they are much more – he calls them Bioi plus! In the end, he offers this “thick” definition of a Gospel”

theological, historical, and aretological (virtue-forming) biographical narratives that retell the story and proclaim the significance of Jesus Christ, who through the power of the Spirit is the Restorer of God’s reign (35)

Chapter 3: Why Do We Need the Gospels?

In the third chapter, Pennington offers 9 reasons why we need the Gospels (and we can’t just learn from Paul).

1. They have been central to the church throughout history (esp. in the formation of creeds, tradition, doctrine, and liturgy)

2. Paul and the other NT writers presuppose and build on the story and teachings of Jesus

3. While the Gospels were written after Paul, the Jesus tradition (in good amount) precedes him

4. They give us a sense of Scripture’s grand story

5.  They teach the important concept of the Kingdom of God

6. They offer a different way of learning “truth” and “doctrine” (i.e., through narrative).

7. [Going beyond #6], story communicates truth in the most powerful and comprehensive way [I'm not sure this can be proven]

8. Encountering Jesus in narrative helps us grow in experiential knowledge.

9. In the Gospels alone we have a personal, up-front encounter with Jesus Christ.

Ch 4: The Joy and Angst of Having Four Gospels

In this chapter, Pennington deals with the problem and benefit of the fourfold story of Jesus in Canonical Gospels. He discusses early Christian embarrassment regarding discrepancies and some limited solutions (Tatian). Regarding harmonization, he mentions that there are some who have tried to make everything work out perfectly so no one is “wrong” (he calls this “maximalist harmonization”) Pennington acknowledges many flaws in this kind of approach and alternatively advocates “reasoned harmonization,” choosing to see divergent accounts not as contradictory, but complementary. Looking at problematic differences in sayings and minor details in teaching discourses, Pennington (rightly) confesses that while we cannot claim to be reading the ipsissima Verba of Jesus, we can be quite certain we have the ipsissima Vox of Jesus (p. 63): “We can be confident that the Gospels, as inspired, canonical documents, accurately reflect Jesus’ teaching, but we need not (and cannot) insist that they always contain the exact words of Jesus. This is to demand too much and goes beyond what is required in historical discourse” (63-64).


I found this book a very enjoyable read overall especially because Pennington is a skilled communicator.

There are just a few items in these earlier chapters that I found problematic.

1. Pennington briefly makes the case that the original autographs of the Gospels probably had titles (contra scholarly consensus).

In my opinion the strongest argument for the originality of these titles (at the publication level) is that ancient books were rarely anonymous, and the apostolic connection for these narrative accounts was especially important for their use in the church. Another weighty argument for their originality from Hengel is that suddenly in the second century these titles appear consistently and are referred to as authoritative. It is difficult to imagine this happening if the titles were not original (10)

I really don’t think there is enough evidence to make this kind of case. This would be an interest topic for a dissertation, but could hardly be developed in 2-3 pages as Pennington tries to do.

2. Pennington argues nine reasons why we should be interested in the Gospels (see above). Firstly, I don’t think he needed to devote a whole chapter to this, as it doesn’t take that much convincing for Christians to want to read about Jesus! Still, he did make a few good points. However, the idea that “truth” is best learned through story – this really needs to be proven scientifically or it is just an interesting theory.

3. Pennington argues that there is not as much of a distance between John and the Synoptics as some scholars have argued in the past. Here I agree with Pennington, but I think he would have been very well served by giving close attention to the work of Paul N. Anderson. His work is noticeably absent from Pennington’s book, and this is an unfortunate oversight. Anderson often refers to the “bioptic” nature of the Gospels and the interpenetration of the Jesus traditions as they find themselves finally written down into four Gospels. One can sense that Pennington, while writing a book on all the Gospels, has a preference for commenting on Matthew and Luke. John is given far less direct mention or attention.

Stay tuned – in the next installment, we will turn our attention to chapters 5-8.

Beverly Gaventa moving to Baylor!

Big news in New Testament studies – Baylor University just announced that Beverly Gaventa has just been appointed “Distinguished Professor of New Testament” at Baylor beginning fall 2013.

I imagine this will be a bit of a “game-changer” in terms of doctoral study. Some students who had considered PhD work in NT at PTS will undoubtedly reconsider and imagine trading in their snow shovels for sunblock (Waco-TX style!). With scholars like Longenecker, Gaventa, and Todd Still (who is at Truett), Baylor would be a truly amazing place to study the letters of Paul.

The Baylor announcement offers a series of endorsements and congratulations from a variety of eminent scholars:

“Beverly Gaventa is a gracious and collegial conversation partner who will be a wonderful addition to the community of scholars at Baylor. I have known and valued Beverly as a colleague in the field for the past 30 years, and I hold her work in high regard. Her scholarly writings are consistently thoughtful, well-researched, balanced and illuminating. Beverly exudes poise, professionalism and dignity. Baylor University is to be congratulated on its good judgment in appointing Dr. Beverly Gaventa to the post of Distinguished Professor.”-Richard Hays, Dean and George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School

“Beverly Gaventa’s scholarly contributions are of the highest order. She has published significant work for the academy and wider church, especially in Acts and in Paul. She has participated regularly in scholarly exchange in the Society of Biblical Literature and Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas and has long been a much sought-after lecturer. Clearly, Beverly will be a great asset in helping Baylor University achieve its goal to be a leading research university.”
-Joel B. Green, Professor of New Testament Interpretation & Associate Dean for the Center for Advanced Theological Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary

“Beverly Gaventa is an exceptional mentor, a widely published scholar, and a leader among American biblical scholars. Her appointment insures that Baylor will continue to move up in the ranks of the leading programs for biblical research in the country.”
-Alan Culpepper, Dean of Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology

“The appointment of Beverly Gaventa brings to Baylor an internationally recognized New Testament scholar who is also a great teacher and engaged community member. Beverly has served as a mentor for innumerable students and budding New Testament scholars, and Baylor students will now be the beneficiaries of her many gifts. Her work on Paul sets high standards for clarity and theological acumen, and her scholarly perspectives now will enrich the intellectual conversations at Baylor. Congratulations to Baylor on a great appointment.”
-Gail O’Day, Dean and Professor of New Testament and Preaching at Wake Forest University School of Divinity

Augustus, a Slave, and Flesh-Eating Lampreys

I am putting the finishing touches on my Colossians commentary before sending it off to some proof-readers and editors. I am working through the Household Code at the moment and I just had to laugh at this sidebar I created regarding the treatment of slaves in the Roman empire.

Augustus, a Slave, and Flesh-Eating Lampreys

Publius Vedius Pollio, an official under Augustus, once had the pleasure of entertaining the emperor as a dinner guest. When Pollio’s slave accidentally dropped a crystal goblet, Pollio was so incensed that he ordered the slave to be thrown into a pool of flesh-eating lampreys. The slave was only spared thanks to Augustus’ clemency and despite Pollio’s intransigency. Indeed, in sympathy for the poor mistreated slave, Augustus ordered that all of Pollio’s crystal dishes and cups be dashed and that the lamprey pool be drained.

See Seneca, On Anger 3.40.

What is a “lamprey,” you ask? It is a ferocious eel, of course!

What is Progress in NT Studies? Walton Responds…

Expository Times online is now posting articles in advance as they are in line for publication. One such article, by Steve Walton (London School of Theology) is entitled “What is Progress in New Testament Studies.” This article is a slightly revised version of his public lecture that marked his promotion to full professor. As a public lecture it is appropriately meant to be non-technical and does a fine job of promoting the study of the New Testament as a true academic discipline in the university.

While Walton makes several very good points, one matter he addresses is the profit and ills of reception study. On the cautionary side, Walton warns Biblical scholars not to confuse study of the history of the interpretation of the NT with the study of the NT documents itself. He goes as far as saying study of reception fits more as a sub-discipline of “Cultural Studies.” For NT interpreters, it should go without saying (but nowadays actually needs to be said) that such scholars need to study the actual NT texts themselves in their own historical and literary context.

Of course Walton has some positive things to say about reception study. For example, he looks at Acts 1:15-26 where the apostles are selecting a disciple to replace Judas. Peter seems to be addressing men (1:16) as the cohort of leaders entrusted with this task: “Men, brothers.” Were women there? John Chrysostom (whom Walton refers to as the first commentator on Acts) understands there to have been present both men and women. Does Chrysostom encourage us to take more time and effort to see whether there actually were women there?

Reading Chrysostom prompts looking further, and it is noteworthy that in Acts 17:34 the same expression can include women. Thus reading Chrysostom, an interpreter more likely to be alert to ancient Greek usage after the writing of Acts, suggests that the group being addressed in Acts 1:15-26 consists of both women and men. (p 7)

This is just one nice discussion in the whole article. There is much here that reminds me of Markus Bockmuehl’s reflection on the trajectory and state of NT studies.

Congratulations again, Steve, and I often recommend students try and do their doctoral studies with you, so keep up the good work! Also, finish up that Acts commentary so I can buy it!

Five Interesting New Books on Jesus and the Gospels

I have, sitting on my desk, about 25 new books that I got at SBL and elsewhere – can’t wait to be done with finals grading and kick back with a good book (or 2 or 20) during the Christmas break. I would like to spotlight or review each and every one eventually, but for now I would like the mention five new and interesting books on Jesus and the Gospels.

The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed (Helen Bond, Continuum). I am about halfway through this book and it is a very engaging work. Sometimes Jesus books are tedious and stale. Bond writes in a very attractive style. She gives just the right amount of information and divides up the short book (194 pp.) into 13 chapters. She is neither a pious optimist, defending everything the Evangelists recount about Jesus point-by-point; nor is she a thoroughgoing skeptic, trying to deconstruct the Christ of faith and propose her own revised Jesus of Nazareth. She clearly has a deep appreciation for her own Doktorvater James Dunn and appears to be basically on-board with the Third Quest. I will have some critical comments about this book in a later post, but I want to make it clear that anyone interested in the “Historical Jesus” would find this book an extremely cogent and illuminating “state of the discussion.”

Unity and Diversity in the Gospels and Paul: Essays in Honor of Frank J. Matera (eds. C.W. Skinner and K.R. Iverson, SBL). While Festschriften tend to be “hit or miss” in terms of how insightful they are, there have been several as of late that have been “keepers.” I especially like when FSs truly engage with the honoree by focusing on a particular subject where the honoree made his or her mark. This is absolutely the case of this FS as it looks at this unity/diversity dialectic in NT theology, a hallmark of Matera’s work. The Synoptics are given special attention in the first half of the FS (“Unity and Diversity in the Gospels”), with eminent contributors such as Francis Moloney, Jack Kingsbury, John Donahue, Paul Achtemeier, William Kurz, and John Meier.I am particularly interested in Donahue’s essay: “The Lure of Wealth: Does Mark Have  Social Gospel?” (71-94).

Jesus, Matthew’s Gospel and Early Christianity: Studies in Memory of Graham N. Stanton (eds. D.M. Gurtner, J. Willitts, and R.A. Burridge; T & T Clark). Speaking of Festschriften! Here is another one, this time for the late Graham Stanton. While I did not have the privilege of ever meeting Prof. Stanton, he was known through the UK as a true gentlemen, the kind of scholar and all-around gracious fellow that most students desire to emulate. Contributors in this FS (almost all focusing on Matthew) include Richard Burridge, Scot McKnight, James Dunn, Don Hagner, Craig Evans, Chris Tuckett, and David Catchpole (among a few others). What a fantastic memorial and tribute! The one problem is that this FS retails for $120, while the Matera FS sells for $50! Cost, in either of these cases, does not reflect quality! It is simply the way publishing works (sadly).

Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and theological Introduction (Jonathan Pennington, Baker). I just finished reading this book rather recently and I must say that it is extremely well written and a very fresh theological perspective on the hermeneutics of the Gospels. Like a good dialogue partner, I found myself at times nodding in agreement with Pennington, at other times scratching my head in confusion, and even still wanting to throw the book across the room out of frustration and disagreement! That is a good thing! He’s making me think! I talked with Pennington at SBL and congratulated him on the book. I told him, quite directly, that I was surprised that a profess at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary had the [shall we say 'guts'] to push some of the buttons that he does in the book. One can even get a sense for this “button-pushing” in Thomas Schreiner’s tempered back-cover endorsement where he says “While I don’t agree with everything Pennington says…” I never thought of myself as the “conservative” while reading a book by a SBTS prof, but, sure enough, I was! Thanks Jonathan for your boldness. I will have a series of blog posts on this excellent book, underscoring, not the Good/Bad/Ugly, but the Great, the Good, and the So-So.

Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (eds. C. Keith and A. Le Donne; T & T Clark). Last, but not least, I got in the post yesterday this very attractive volume that relates to a conference held earlier this year. James McGrath has a nice “round-up” of how that conference went. Together, the contributors attempt to bury the “criteria-movement” of HJ research in the ground. By many people’s accounts, this is an important “snapshot” in the history of NT scholarship where we see the progression towards a consensus that the choppy and marble-pitching approach to the study of the Gospels historically is a dead end. The “quest” will, no doubt, still go on for the foreseeable future (sorry Scot!), but memory studies and oral culture habits seem to be paving the way. More to come…

Your favorite Jesus scholar (asks Le Donne)? And Paul?

Anthony Le Donne asks the question, “If you could study under two (and only two) living historical Jesus scholars, who would they be?”

I encourage you to go to Anthony’s blog and comment! 

I think it would interesting to ask the same about the study of Paul…

Any thoughts?

I think I might say (for Paul), if I could spend the weekend at a Pauline seminar, I would want to hear from Beverly Gaventa (where can I pre-pre-order her Romans commentary?) and Richard Hays. When I had originally applied for PhD programs, I wanted to study with Stephen Barton/John Barclay (Durham, where I went), but I also applied to study with Simon Gathercole (then at Aberdeen) and Markus Bockmuehl (then at Cambridge).

It is no surprise, then, that when people ask me where they should go to study Paul, I usually recommend Duke, Princeton, and Durham. Now I add St Andrews because of Wright and Hafemann.