NIV Cultural Background Study Bible (Gupta)

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Truth be told, there are too many study Bibles. A quick Amazon search came up with thousands of study Bibles, over 400 just for the NIV. I tend not to recommend study Bibles, as the notes and other information are hit and miss. But last week I recommended to my Gospels course students the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. Three things I really like about this Study Bible are as follows:

-Craig Keener is the editor for the NT portion, and John Walton the editor for the OT; and they are both solid biblical scholars and good representatives of the evangelical tradition (with a “big tent” mentality)

-The study notes and occasional excurses are informative and do not over-interpret a verse. The notes seem fair and flag up when the information points in more than one direction.

-The study notes try to stick to cultural information and do not push into settling on one interpretation of a debated issue. This is important because I worry about study Bibles instilling in readers too much confidence in a 3-sentence “solution” to a complex exegetical problem.

A study Bible is not meant to be a solution to all exegetical problems. Rather, this study Bible succeeds in helping readers of the Bible set the English translation text they are reading into the ancient world of Israel and the early church. I like that use of a study Bible because it does not reinforce theological partisanship. If this were the only study Bible in your personal library, I would be quite happy with that (for laypeople). (Next step, learn Greek and Hebrew. Then Aramaic.)

 

Book Notice: How John Works: Storytelling in the Fourth Gospel (Skinner)

Estes Sheridan Front Cover.inddI am pleased to make mention of a soon-to-be-published book from SBL Press edited by Douglas Estes and Ruth Sheridan. It’s called, How John Works: Storytelling in the Fourth Gospel. The book went to press yesterday and should be available on October 7. Here’s a brief description:

“In this book, a group of international scholars go in detail to explain how the author of the Gospel of John uses a variety of narrative strategies to best tell his story. More than a commentary, this book offers a glimpse at the way an ancient author created and used narrative features such as genre, character, style, persuasion, and even time and space to shape a dramatic story of the life of Jesus.”

Features of the book include:

  • An introduction to the Fourth Gospel through its narrative features and dynamics
  • Fifteen features of story design that comprise the Gospel of John
  • Short, targeted essays about how John works that can be used as starting points for the study of other Gospels/texts

Here’s the table of contents:

  1. Genre, Harold W. Attridge

2. Style, Dan Nässelqvist

3. Time, Douglas Estes

4. Space, Susanne Luther

5. Point of View, James L. Resseguie

6. Plot, Kasper Bro Larsen

7. Characterization, Christopher W. Skinner

8. Protagonist, Mark W. G. Stibbe

9. Imagery, Dorothy A. Lee

10. Scripture, Rekha M. Chennattu

11. Rhetoric, Alicia D. Myers

12. Persuasion, Ruth Sheridan

13. Closure, Francis J. Moloney

14. Audience, Edward W. Klink III

15. Culture, Charles E. Hill

We will have more on this book in due course. We will post an interview with the editors and possibly even have a giveaway. Stay tuned…….

Do We Need More Commentaries? (Gupta)

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“Of making many books there is no end” (Ecclesiastes 12:12)

I have heard it in person, I have been questioned on Facebook, I see it all the time on blogs: does the world need more commentaries?

Truth be told, I myself have never had a problem with the proliferation of commentaries because I am that rare odd duck that likes reading them! But the question is fair. Before I get to why I think the fresh writing of commentaries is a good thing, allow me to bust one myth:

Myth: Commentary series are all about money.

I like to tell this joke: “Every time I get a royalty check in the mail for my commentaries, I cash it in and buy a nice cup of coffee.” Okay, that is a slight exaggeration, but the point shouldn’t be missed that many commentary authors average out to less than $1.00/hour of work. (Yes, I have done the math for myself.)

What about the publishers? Trust me, none of the editors I know drive a Mercedes. I used to work for a publisher so I know more about them than most academics; they live “modest” lives. Perhaps some publisher-CEO somewhere is doing well ($$$), but probably not off of academic commentaries.

OK, so why commentaries? Aren’t there enough out there? Well, yes and no. Yes, there are plenty more out there than a generation ago. And, yes, we are seeing some works that don’t serve much of a purpose as they are re-hashing other commentaries. BUT here are three reasons why I continue to write commentaries.

#1: Staying grounded. I write commentaries so that can stay grounded in the text, and not float away into theories and constructs. I try to stay active with at least one commentary at a time so that I am continually being challenged inductively by Scripture as I work verse-by-verse through a text. As I write more thesis-driven books, doing the commentary work makes me a much better theologian, and it keeps my exegetical skills fresh.

#2: Commentary-writing is the responsibility of every new generation. It is not just about word studies and new methods. It is a challenge to each generation to wrestle and reckon with the Word of God in the changing state of life on earth. There is a reason why many of the best theologians throughout history have preached on or written through biblical books (e.g., Chrysostom, Calvin). It is a salutary sign that many pockets of the modern Church are wanting to hear God anew and respond. Are there dull, uncreative commentaries out there? Sure, but some commentary (e.g., by Luther,  Barth, Martyn) have shaped scholarship in significant ways.

#3: We are welcoming new voices and locations into the commentary-writing world of scholarship. Particularly distinctive of commentaries in the last decade or two is the push to include new perspectives and voices, particularly those of women (e.g., excited about Gaventa’s Romans), non-Caucasian Westerners, and global scholars. Personally, I am very excited about this and the impact it can have on both the academy and the Church.

 

Kingdom Ethics 2nd ed., Gushee/Stassen (Gupta)

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In 2003, David Gushee and Glen Stassen published the first edition of Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (originally with IVP). This year the second edition was released (now with Eerdmans). A lot has happened in the last decade or so, not least in the area of New Testament ethics. In 2014 Stassen passed away, which means Gushee did the majority of work on the second edition with aid from students of his and Stassen’s (see preface).

This second edition is a bona fide “new” edition, with some significant changes,  re-arranging, and fine-tuning. The heart of the book – drawing from a theology and ethic of Jesus bringing the reign and kingdom of God (and emphasizing virtues such as peace, justice, healing, inclusion in community, joy, God’s presence) – is the same, but there has been quite a lot of updating (beyond just adding bibliography entries). For its time (in 2003), Gushee/Stassen were forward thinking and groundbreaking with respect to an integrative and interdisciplinary approach to ethics. As a biblical scholar myself, I find their work very refreshing and they handle Scripture carefully. Also, one will quickly notice that they draw from such a wide range of sources and scholarship, both academic and popular.

About the first half of the book works out the Scriptural and theoretical dimensions of their ethical approach, and in the second half they turn to various pressing ethical issues of our day (e.g., criminal justice, divorce, war, creation care, sexuality, etc.). I really like the tone and direction of this work. They are good writers and often try to work from their theory rather than offer simplistic solutions.

I do wonder what the entailments are of shaping theological ethics particularly around Jesus vs., e.g., Paul. The first half of the book dwells on the work of Jesus, but mostly through Matthew and Luke. What about John (which receives very little interest)? Also, their first half is all about kingdom, but they appeal much to the “church” in the second half – what is their ecclesiology and how do kingdom and church relate?

These questions notwithstanding, this is a great ethics book to read and with which to engage.

Questioning Stan Porter on Peter O’Brien and Plagiarism (Skinner)

obrienI didn’t get a chance to mention this last week, but last Monday several of my friends on social media shared a blog post by Stanley Porter in which he appeared to come to the defense of Peter O’Brien in the midst of recent revelations about O’Brien’s plagiarism across three of his commentaries. A number of my friends shared this post (several approvingly), but in my opinion, Porter’s response was simultaneously condescending and tone deaf, and in places, a bit self-righteous. I’d like to respond to a few excerpts and wonder aloud about what Porter was thinking….

First, in case you missed it, here’s a portion of the statement from Eerdmans:

“Eerdmans editors compared the text of The Letter to the Hebrews (Pillar New Testament Commentary, 2010) with various secondary sources and submitted findings to external experts for verification. Summing up the findings, Editor-in-chief James Ernest said, “Our own editors and our outside consultants agreed that what we found on the pages of this commentary runs afoul of commonly accepted standards with regard to the utilization and documentation of secondary sources. We agreed that the book could not be retained in print” (emphasis added).

Now let’s look at the first excerpt from Porter’s post:

 “I believe that the acceptable convention of commentary writing today is essentially to repeat what others have said before you, even if you massage their words in various ways. Therefore, I find it hard to fathom that there is so much self-righteous indignation over Peter O’Brien’s supposed plagiarism in several commentaries. I think that O’Brien, if he did plagiarize (and I wish to question this), may well have simply been following the convention of current commentary writing—an inevitability that has become an accepted norm. From my experience of reading commentaries, I suspect that many commentary writers would not like anyone looking too closely at how they have written theirs, simply because the use of other commentators is exactly what writing a commentary (unfortunately) has become.”

My first response would be to say that I think Porter is guilty of overstatement here. In fact, he appears to indict this current generation of commentators of being guilty of the same sort of infraction committed by O’Brien. But, let’s just for the sake of argument, grant that Porter is not guilty of hyperbole here. I think we can all agree that it is unprecedented, at least in recent memory, to have a major publisher in the field of biblical studies completely pull not one but three commentaries from circulation. Remember, this decision was arrived at through a collaboration of Eerdmans editors and outside consultants. So when Porter says, “if he did plagiarize (and I wish to question this),” he sounds more than a little arrogant. Surely a cadre of experts both within and outside of Eerdmans’ editorial staff can be trusted to adjudicate this matter fairly, can’t they?

Porter continues:

“I find it interesting that the notion of plagiarism has developed into what it has become. If the New Testament authors cite or closely paraphrase Old Testament writers but without attribution, we consider this a meaningful citation or allusion and engage in all sorts of exegetical gymnastics (and write endless books) to ascertain their meanings and motives—but we do not accuse them of plagiarism. Why? Because that is the convention of the ancient writers (as I believe the convention is for contemporary commentary writers). This is also true of more recent authors. If Shakespeare uses Holinshed’s Chronicles or earlier versions of the story of Hamlet, we don’t call Shakespeare a plagiarist, we instead call him the most brilliant writer of the English language who ever lived. If a contemporary author invokes an earlier author, such as Shakespeare or any number of others, we may spend hours determining the nature of the invocation or its purpose—but again we don’t call it plagiarism, we call it literary allusion and commend the learnedness of the author (as in the allusion to T.S. Eliot above).”

Let’s call this paragraph what it is: sheer editorializing on an unrelated issue (viz., the trajectory of our understanding of plagiarism across literary history). We are not in living in the 16th century when Shakespeare wrote and we are not living in the first century when the apostles wrote. There are clearly delineated understandings of what constitutes plagiarism and theft of intellectual property. “Writing” and “borrowing” are not regarded in the same way today as they were during the time of Shakespeare or biblical writers. This entire paragraph is simply a red herring (and a bit of grandstanding). A real and substantive offense was committed here and we should laud Eerdmans for their response. Let’s remember that O’Brien didn’t deny these accusations. In fact, the plagiarism was deemed so blatant that Eerdmans was willing to (1) discontinue the commentaries, and (2) replace the books with other volumes for those who wanted to send their O’Brien volumes in.

Porter continues:

“[U]nfortunately, there are fewer and fewer scholars really competent to comment upon the text but ever-increasing demands to write new commentaries to fulfill the demands of publishers. There are plenty of scholars willing to unload their theologies and other agendas on each and every biblical text, but few that I have found who are equipped to wrestle in new and distinct ways with its very language. As a result, it is not only easier but has become the norm to use the previous work of others.

So let me get this straight? This type of “not-really-plagiarism” is part and parcel of what commentary writing IS, HAS BEEN FOR YEARS, and CONTINUES TO BE and is therefore not necessarily a bad thing. But, this state of affairs is ALSO the result of shoddy scholarship by a newer, younger group of scholars who aren’t really up to the task of commentary writing? Which is it? I’m not sure Porter can have it both ways. It sounds to me like he’s speaking out of both sides of his mouth. Perhaps the problem is not that there are too few scholars currently capable of writing good commentaries but rather, that a handful of luminaries—especially within evangelical circles—consistently wind up with multiple commentary contracts (and their concomitant deadlines) and are simply unable to meet the demands in a fair and intellectually honest way?

I understand loyalty and I can appreciate not wanting to kick someone when they’re down. I also understand the instinct of one senior scholar wanting to give the benefit of the doubt to another senior scholar (especially one from similar race, gender, and theological demographics). However, we need to be able to call a spade a spade, and wholesale quotations from someone else’s commentaries that are unattributed amounts to plagiarism, pure and simple. Perhaps the reason why there has been so much “righteous indignation” (Porter’s words, not mine) over this issue is that many in this field (myself included), are passionate pedagogues who wish to hold our students to the highest standards of academic conduct. I have been teaching in higher education for the past twelve years and I have caught plagiarized work nearly every semester during those twelve years. How can we hold the students to such a standard if the experts won’t do it?

Book Notice: The Synoptic Problem: Four Views (Skinner)

Synoptic ProblemEarlier in the week I checked my campus mailbox and found this treat waiting for me: The Synoptic Problem: Four Views (ed. Stanley E. Porter and Bryan R. Dyer; Baker Academic). I have always been a fan of the “four views” (or “three views”) format. I find them helpful for introducing students to a given subject and useful for helping a professor get a bird’s-eye-view of the salient points for and against a specific view.

This book features the following lineup of scholars/arguments:

Craig Evans: Two-Source Hypothesis, Mark Goodacre: Farrer Hypothesis, David Peabody: Two-Gospel Hypothesis, Rainer Riesner: Orality and Memory Hypothesis

I was happy to see focused attention given to the Farrer Hypothesis and to Riesner’s “Orality and Memory” Hypothesis. I think this coverage of the topic is particularly useful since: (1) Q skepticism has grown quite a bit in recent years—largely due to the efforts of Mark Goodacre—and needs to be given serious consideration by students of the NT; and (2) research on orality and social memory has significantly impacted our study of the gospels and the historical Jesus in recent years. This book is a welcome addition to the spate of works on the Synoptic Problem. I am planning to use this as one of the primary texts the next time I teach an undergraduate course on the gospels.