(Some) Best Academic Books of 2017

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Well, I realize I haven’t blogged much this term  – I am finishing up several writing projects, and I got shingles in November which set me back for several weeks. But thinking about the close of 2017, I thought I would briefly mention some noteworthy books. This is far from a true “Best Books” list (as I usually do) because I did not read very much this year beyond what was directly related to my scholarship needs. But I did some reading, and now is a nice time to mention what I think are worthy contributions. In no particular order:

Jonathan Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing (Baker, 2017). 

Read it cover-to-cover and loved it. It is more than a commentary; it tries to read the Sermon in historical and cultural context, but also draws out the way the Sermon addresses timeless questions about life and flourishing.

Michael Gorman, ed. Scripture and Its Interpretation (Baker, 2017).

This is a welcome companion to Gorman’s excellent Elements of Biblical Exegesis. Experts give insight into a variety of topics and perspectives pertaining to hermeneutics. Perfect textbook material here!

Matthew Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone (Baker, 2017).

This book has made some big waves in the last several months, and for good reason. Matt is a sharp scholar and gifted teacher. Learn and engage. Also, it’s short and cheap. #XmasList

Joshua Jipp, Saved by Faith and Hospitality (Eerdmans, 2017).

This just may be my book of the year. The word that kept coming to my mind when I read this is: bold. It is a bold manifesto on what lies at the heart of Scripture – the unilateral hospitality of God towards sinful, broken, and rebellious humanity, and the call to reach out to the outsider, foreigner, or “other” with God’s love. #XmasList

Stephen Chester, Reading Paul with the Reformers (Eerdmans, 2017)

This is a meticulously researched and carefully argued academic work that gives penetrating insight into how the Reformers read and approached Paul. Really liked his reading of Luther.

Fleming Rutledge, Crucifixion (Eerdmans, 2017)

I did not agree with everything Rutledge had to say in this, but unarguably she is a profoundly gifted communicator, and there are numerous flashes of brilliance in this tome.

Christoph Heilig et al, God and the Faithfulness of Paul (Fortress, 2017)

Just scratching the surface of this massive response to NT Wright’s PFG – very happy to see detailed engagement with Wright and plenty of pushback. Expect an RBL review of GFP (WUNT version) from me sometime in 2018.

Paul Holloway, Philippians, Hermeneia (Fortress)

Anytime a Hermeneia Commentary is released, it is a big deal. Holloway is a respected historian of early Christianity and knows a thing or two about Philippians. I am about 60% through the commentary and I have mixed feelings. In some ways it is more of a monograph (Holloway takes a very particular approach to interpreting Philippians) with an explanatory commentary – which can be a good thing, because it is fresh and intellectually stimulating. At the same time, it is rather short and can feel rushed or incomplete. I am reviewing this for Interpretation and I will have much more to say about the strengths and weaknesses of this volume. But I will readily admit that I am learning a lot from Holloway I would not have learned elsewhere.

John Walton, Old Testament Theology for Christians (IVP, 2017)

I don’t get much time to read OT literature, but this one grabbed my attention. Walton is a winsome writer and has thought a lot about interpreting the OT theologically. Just getting started with this book, but very much enjoying his approach so far.

Books I WANT to read soon:

Sarah Melcher, et al, ed. The Bible and Disability: A Commentary (Baylor Press, 2017)

Yes. Yes. Yes.

Lynn Cohick and Amy Brown Hughes, Christian Women in the Patristic Period (Baker)

Important historical work that is long overdue.

Christopher Skinner and Sherri Brown, ed. Johannine Ethics: The Moral World of the Gospels and Epistles of John (Fortress, 2017)

This book boasts a top-flight list of scholars weighing in on a perennially thorny question – did John have an ethic, and if so, what was it?

 

 

 

 

 

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Johannine Ethics: Coming Soon! (Skinner)

In just over two weeks, my forthcoming book, Johannine Ethics: The Moral World of the Gospel and Epistles of John (co-edited with my friend, Sherri Brown of Creighton University) will appear with Fortress Press. We have been planning and working on this book for over three years now. This is the eighth book project I have been able to shepherd through to completion and I am as eager to hold this book in my hands as I have been with any previous project.

It has long been held that the Fourth Gospel in particular possesses nothing that could be considered “normative ethics” within the world of earliest Christianity. Wayne Meeks has given clear exposition to this idea when he writes that “the Fourth Gospel meets none of our expectations about the way ethics should be constructed.”[1] We would contend that much scholarly emphasis on ethical teaching in the NT (and John’s relative lack) is rooted in either/both (1) a limited definition of what constituted “ethics” in the ancient world, or/and (2) an overemphasis on an indicative/imperative schema similar to the categories used by Bultmann in his description of Pauline ethics. After a “state of the question” essay in which I trace the major views currently operative in discussions of Johannine ethics, the book is divided into three sections: (1) “Johannine Imperatives,” (2) “Implied Ethics in the Johannine Literature,” and (3) “Moving Forward.” Sherri and I were pleased to be able to assemble an international cast of leading Johannine scholars for this project and we are both quite pleased with the final product. We hope those interested in the subject matter will also be pleased. (Be sure to pick up a copy or two at AAR/SBL in a few weeks!)

Here’s the Table of Contents:

1. (How) Can We Talk About Johannine Ethics? Looking Back and Moving Forward
Christopher W. Skinner

Part 1: The Johannine Imperatives
2. Believing in the Gospel of John: The Ethical Imperative to Becoming Children of God
Sherri Brown
3. Love One Another: The Johannine Love Command in the Farewell Discourse
Christopher W. Skinner
4. “Follow Me”: A Life-Giving Ethical Imperative
Raymond F. Collins

Part 2: Implied Ethics in the Johannine Literature
5. The Creation Ethics of the Gospel of John
R. Alan Culpepper
6. Love Embodied in Action: Ethics and Incarnation in the Gospel of John
Jaime Clark-Soles
7. The Lyin’ King? Deception and Christology in the Gospel of John
Adele Reinhartz
8. John’s Implicit Ethic of Enemy-Love
Michael J. Gorman
9. Just Opponents? Ambiguity, Empathy, and the Jews in the Gospel of John
Alicia D. Myers
10. The Johannine Request to “Come and See” and an Ethic of Love
Toan Do
11. God, Eschatology, and “This World”: Ethics in the Gospel of John
Francis J. Moloney, SDB

Part 3: Moving Forward
12. Genre, Rhetoric, and Moral Efficacy: Approaching Johannine Ethics in Light of Plutarch’s Lives and the Progymnasmata
Lindsey Trozzo
13. Creation, Ethics, and the Gospel of John
Dorothy A. Lee
14. Virtue Ethics and the Johannine Writings
Cornelis Bennema

Conclusion:
15. Moving the Conversation Forward: Johannine Ethics in Prospect
Christopher W. Skinner and Sherri Brown

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[1] Wayne A. Meeks, “The Ethics of the Fourth Evangelist,” in R. Alan Culpepper and C. Clifton Black, eds., Exploring the Gospel of John: In Honor of D. Moody Smith (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996), 320.

 

 

 

Re-Post: Counting the Costs: On Pursuing Life in Academia (Skinner)

Sad Academic[I initially published this post around this date in 2014. My institutional affiliation has changed since then but everything else I say here remains true. Since it’s hiring season once again, I thought I would re-post it as it may be helpful for those in the cycle.]

This morning I received my program book for the annual SBL/AAR meetings in San Diego. The last time the meetings were held in San Diego was 2007, which consequently was the last time I was there. I was just days away from defending my dissertation and I was in town for a job interview—a job I didn’t get, by the way. Anyway, thinking about my last time in San Diego got me thinking about my own journey in academia, and it occurred to me that it’s that season once again for so many hope-filled academics. It’s the season when grad students, ABDs, freshly-minted PhDs, and in some cases, those who’ve been on the job market for years, set about preparing (literally) dozens of documents for hiring committees; you know, those notorious committees that (1) may not ask for an interview—which is understandable; (2) may not even look at your materials—which is somewhat less understandable; and (3) in many cases, won’t even acknowledge that they’ve received your materials, let alone that the job you were hoping for has been filled—which is inexcusable. I have been on the receiving end of all three of these (non) responses in my career, and I feel your pain. (BTW, if you have time, check out this pretty spot-on indictment of how unethical the hiring practices in our profession can be for people in this very situation I’m describing.)

As readers of this blog know, I am fortunate to have a full-time job teaching in higher education and in my area of specialization. I am also fortunate to teach in a part of the country that allows me to be relatively close to my extended family. In many ways, it’s like I have found one of Wonka’s golden tickets. Those closest to me will tell you that I genuinely love what I do, and as I have grown in my teaching, I have also had relative success in publishing my research. Still I find it possible to be very cynical about life in academia. So much of this is related to my own experiences. With so many of my own students requesting letters of recommendation for graduate school at the moment—some with an eye on landing a job in academia—I felt the need to get real for a moment. I’m speaking to my students in this post, but I invite you to listen in, if you’re interested. (I apologize in advance if I come across as Debbie Downer.)

Life in academia is not for the faint of heart. It is a path fraught with rejection at every turn. Each stage of the process brings more opportunities for rejection. Some think the rejection stops after you’ve landed a job, but actually there are more opportunities to experience the sting of a brush-off. Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of the untold possibilities for rejection, as I see them:

(1) Applying to doctoral programs: This is the first test we must all pass. I know several people who were not admitted to any doctoral programs during their first trip through the process. At least one of them currently has a doctorate from one of the best schools in the world, a full-time teaching post, and a monograph that has just been released. This sort of rejection is not the end of the road. Just know that it’s a possibility. Fortunately, I was admitted to the doctoral program of my choice, but there were other schools that said “no” to me. I shudder to think what would have happened had they all said, “no.” I was a young seminary graduate with a wife and small child. It might have been easy to give up on the dream and turn toward something more “practical,” more “gainful.” Applying to doctoral programs was my first hint that life in academia, along with being a highly competitive profession, has the potential to be a soul-crushing enterprise. (If after reading this bit of honesty you still choose to move forward, you should see Nijay’s comprehensive work on this subject.)

(2) Applying for jobs: This is clearly the most soul-crushing process of them all. I was on the job market for three full years after earning my Ph.D. If I’m being honest, I was applying to jobs for at least two years before I finished. After losing my job in 2009—another story for another day—I spent an entire academic year living in a three-bedroom house with my wife, three kids, and my in-laws. (How’s that for soul-crushing?) During those three to five years, I probably put out 50-60 applications (and killed several baby sequoias in the process). I had a dozen or so interviews and several on campus visits before I finally got a job. In one instance, I was CERTAIN there was going to be an offer in a week. Eight weeks later I was informed via email (yes, that’s right, an EMAIL) that the search committee was cancelling the job due to lack of funding. Can anyone say, rejection? (Just in case you think I’m alone, you can also see some of the details of Nijay’s employment journey here.)

(3) Presenting your research: I try to attend several professional meetings every year, and I have not missed an SBL meeting since 2005. I have given several papers at SBL and elsewhere, but I have had numerous proposals grounded on the tarmac before they could ever take flight. For instance, for four straight years I put in a proposal to read a paper in the Johannine Literature section, and for four straight years my proposals were shot down. To make it worse, each of those proposed papers went on to be published somewhere, but I could not get the Johannine Literature group to give it a sniff. Finally, this year, for the first time I will read a paper in the Johannine Literature section.

(4) Publishing your research: After surviving the gauntlet of rejection presented by the previous three stages, you now have arrived at the part of academic life that continues to offer you various and sundry opportunities to experience soul-crushing rejection. This is the part of the job that no one tells you about. Especially if you are in a “publish-or-perish” institution, you will find yourself face-to-face with the realities of this sort of rejection. Just this week I got word that an article I wrote over two years ago was finally accepted for publication. I had previously sent the article to three different journals. In all three instances, one reviewer liked it and the other wasn’t sure. Practically, this means that each time I submitted said article, it was rejected. After re-working it three times in response to previous reviewers’ comments, I was finally able to get it into a form that two outside readers found acceptable. Thankfully, each rejection served to make the article better, but each time it was “back to the drawing board.”

All of this is to say nothing of the processes of applying for grants, external funding, sabbaticals, promotion, etc. Academia is a profession in which you consistently put your fate in someone else’s hands, without the promise of anything in return. Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment….maybe a bunch of us are, but not everyone is going to be able to sustain such continued rejection and emerge unscathed. Sure, there are those anomalous individuals who get into every program to which they apply, earn the doctorate, get their dream job right out of the gate, and have everything they write accepted for presentation and/or publication. In my admittedly limited experience, however, those people are the rare exceptions rather than the rule.

To my current and former students I say: If, after all of this, you still want to go forward, I do understand. Life in academia is sometimes crazy, often beautiful, and always interesting, and I’m  not sure I would be this fulfilled doing anything else. Just be sure come in with your eyes open and continue to count the costs.

Video Lecture: Making Sense of Paul (Gupta)

This past Sunday I had the honor of speaking at a wonderful church in California (Valley Christian, Dublin, CA). They invited me to give an evening lecture on Paul; my title is “Making Sense of Paul.” You can click on the image below to go the site where you can view the lecture. I am deeply thankful to my hosts, Pastor Roger Valci (fellow GCTS grad!) and Pastor Tawni Garcia. I hope some of you may find this interesting and useful.

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Paul and the Greco-Roman Philosophical Tradition – New Book (Gupta)

Please allow me to tell you about a new book that I contributed to – Paul and the Greco-Roman Philosophical Tradition (ed. J.R. Dodson and A.W. Pitts; LNTS; Bloombury, 2017). My essay is called “Paul and the Militia Spiritualis Topos in 1 Thessalonians.”

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Here is the official book description:

Paul and the Greco-Roman Philosophical Tradition provides a fresh examination of the relationship of Greco-Roman philosophy to Pauline Christianity. It offers an in-depth look at different approaches employed by scholars who draw upon philosophical settings in the ancient world to inform their understanding of Paul. The volume houses an international team of scholars from a range of diverse traditions and backgrounds, which opens up a platform for multiple voices from various corridors.

Consequently, some of the chapters seek to establish new potential resonances with Paul and the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition, but others question such connections. While a number of them propose radically new relationships between Paul and Greco Roman philosophy, a few seek to tweak or modulate current discussions. There are arguments in the volume which are more technical and exegetical, and others that remain more synthetic and theological. This diversity, however, is accentuated by a goal shared by each author – to further our understanding of Paul’s relationship to and appropriation of Greco-Roman philosophical traditions in his literary and missionary efforts.

Table of Contents (the order of essays is actually different in the real book)

Sidenote: fun to see several Durham grads included in this volume!

Foreword: Troels Engberg-Pedersen

Introduction: Andrew W. Pitts

1. Powers, Baptism, and the Ethics of the Stronger: Paul Among the Ancient Political Philosophers – Niko Huttunen
2. Paul and (Pan)theism – Runar M. Thorsteinsson
3. Bruce Winter and the Language of Benefaction in Romans 13.3 – Andrew W. Pitts and Bahij
Ajluni
4. Paul and Aristotle on Friendship – Dave E. Briones
5. Paul and the Militia Spirituals Topos in 1 Thessalonians – Nijay Gupta
6. Divine Causation and Prepositional Metaphysics in Philo of Alexandria and the Apostle Paul – Orrey McFarland
7. Early Conceptions of Original Sin – And its Overcoming. Reading Galatians 4.21-31 Through Philo’s De Opficio Mundi – Gitte Buch-Hansen
8. Gendered Exegesis of Creation in Philo (De Opficio Mundi) and Paul – John Worthington
9. Natural Hair: A ‘New Rhetorical’ Assessment of 1 Cor. 11.14-15 – Timothy Brookins
10. Elements of Apocalyptic Eschatology in Seneca and Paul – Joseph R. Dodson
11. The Nature of True Worship: Reading Acts 17 with Seneca and Paul, Epistle 95 – Brian J. Tabb
12. Death as an Ethical Metaphor in Seneca’s Writings and in Paul’s Letter to the Romans – Matthias Nygaard
13. The Wilderness Tradition in Paul, Wisdom of Solomon, and Hebrews – Madison N. Pierce

 

 

Pennington on the Sermon on the Mount (Gupta)

Pennington.jpgJonathan Pennington has written an interesting and insightful study called The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing (Baker, 2017). He argues that “the Sermon is Christianity’s answer to the greatest metaphysical question that humanity has always faced-How can we experience human flourishing?” (14); more specifically he classifies the Sermon as “Christocentric, flourishing-oriented, kingdom-awaiting, eschatological wisdom exhortation” (15).

His first two chapters focus on the terms “makarios” (blessed) and “teleios” (mature). Regarding makarios Pennington argues that it is a mistake to treat this as vocabulary focused on  divine “blessing.” Rather, this term points to behavior or virtues that promote human flourishing. This leads Pennington to resist using the word “blessed” to translate makarios, because that sense of “human flourishing” gets lost in translation. When it comes to teleios, Pennington argues that it is not best understood as “perfect,” but rather pointing to wholeness and holiness, “wholehearted orientation toward God” (78). In chapter four, Pennington addresses briefly seven other concepts related to the Sermon and he rightly emphasizes Jesus’ concern with the disposition of the heart. Chapter 5-11 of Pennington’s book are basically a short commentary that looks at the Sermon from the perspective of Jesus’ concern for human flourishing.

Overall, Pennington is convincing in his argumentation and his work on the Sermon overall here is engaging. I was not completely convinced that makarios is about “human flourishing” and not about divine blessing. What about a text like LXX Ps 32:1, “Blessed are those whose lawless behavior was forgiven and whose sin was covered over?” What aspect of human flourishing is involved here? Now, I will say when I look at Matthew, yes it seems that he is talking primarily about wisdom and proper virtues and behavior that is considered conducive and approved for flourishing, but I am not persuaded this is built into the Jewish use of makarios all by itself, nor am I convinced this isn’t also about divine blessings. Another small concern – Pennington mentions a few times how Jesus was engaging in a discussion of human flourishing that was popular at his time, including amongst Greco-Roman thinkers. But how helpful is it to place Jesus in that company when he does not seem to be talking to or for such Greek philosophers, and his discourses don’t seem to look much like theirs (and far more like, e.g., Sirach). Not a make-or-break issue, but more of a curiosity.

Since I just finished a book on the Lord’s Prayer, I thought I would mention that Pennington’s short section on the LP is very good, especially on the matter about “Thy kingdom come” and “on earth as in heaven” (an area of speciality for Pennington).

I want to commend Pennington for pressing the importance in the New Testament of formation and discipleship – given he teaches in a conservative Baptist context, he may be stepping out on a bit of a limb here to write such a book. I appreciated these comments

The theological elephant in the room for this discussion is the Protestant emphasis on Paul’s doctrine of justification and how the Sermon’s focus on the necessity of virtuous discipleship squares with this (or not, as some would have it). In short, I would suggest that it is a misunderstanding of Paul if one reads him as being in conflict with Jesus’ emphasis on discipleship and the necessary and effectual work of God’s grace given to believers through the Holy Spirit. Paul and Matthew are in fundamental agreement and share the same ethical and eschatological worldviews, even though at times they are addressing different questions and speak in somewhat different terms. (302)

I am glad that Pennington is able to bust this artificial dichotomy between Matthew’s Jesus and Paul.

As far as theological commentaries go, this is certainly one of the best, and definitely required reading on the famous Sermon on the Mount.