Interview with Craig Keener on Romans Continued (Part II)

In a previous post, I shared the beginning of a conversation that I was privileged to have with NT professor Craig Keener.  Here is the second and final portion.

NKG: Based on your work on this commentary, can you give us a one-sentence summary of Paul’s message in Romans?

CK: How about something like: “The good news is God’s power to save everyone who believes, whether Jews or Gentiles, for God’s righteousness is revealed in it …” (Rom 1:16-17)… Oops, that doesn’t sound very original.  How about: God’s way of righteousness is the same for both Jew and Gentile: depend on God for transforming righteousness.

The problem for an exegete is that every word I just said is loaded and debated, and I can’t say it without remembering that!  There is a heavy emphasis on “believe” (I can’t type Greek letters in this email program), but I think modern western Christians have a terrible time with that word because of its subjective connotations for us since Kant and Kierkegaard.  We try to work up a feeling of faith or suppress doubt, and miss the point.  Faith is not its own object.  When Jesus talks about a mustard seed of faith (sorry, remember I am still transitioning from my work in Gospels), his point is that it’s not how much faith you have, but in whom your faith is.  The faith may be tiny but if it is in a very big God, God is more than big enough to make up for it.  The point is not to have some subjective experience of undirected faith, but to put our trust in the One who is ultimately trustworthy.

NKG: What commentators on Romans did you find yourself returning to again and again?  Or, put another way, which Romans commentary in your personal library has the most underlinings, scribblings, and marginal exclamation points?

CK: It’s hard to single one out, because Romans is blessed with a lot of significant recent commentators.  I will some that immediately come to mind: Jewett, Fitzmyer, Dunn, Moo, Schreiner … (on a shorter level also Talbert and others—where does one stop?)  I have heard that Beverly Gaventa is working on a Romans commentary and I expect that one to be very significant also.  I enjoy most of all working through Paul and seeing how he employs his words, where he echoes the LXX, and so forth.  Nevertheless, there are many insights one gets only by engaging with a broader range of interpreters, and Romans has quite a lot of them.

NKG: Now, you are known to be a New Testament generalist, comfortable in Paul, Jesus, and the rest of it (I particularly learned from your Revelation commentary!).  But you have spent a concentrated amount of time in recent years in the Gospels (correct me if I am off here).  What does someone who is well-versed in the Gospels, its background, and its history of interpretation have to offer to the often myopic world of Pauline exegesis and research?  How did you find that recent Gospels work useful or stimulating in your Romans research?  Here is a good chance to plug the generalist mentality!

CK: Paul is actually where I started (e.g., Paul, Women & Wives), but Duke’s NT faculty was particularly heavy in Gospels when I studied there (Ed Sanders did both, but I had Moody Smith and Dan Via particularly for Gospels; I was too early, unfortunately, to get a course with Richard Hays) and it was inevitable that my graduate work influenced me.  But Pauline studies has changed a lot since I was working in Gospels!

Pauline studies actually is less myopic in a sense than Gospels studies.  With Paul, you have hard evidence of contact among a variety of Christian congregations in the Mediterranean world, and you take seriously the voice of the undisputed letters as a firsthand voice in early Christianity.  There is a lot of loosely anchored speculation about communities in some sectors of Gospels studies that could profit from the concrete discipline of Paulinists.  But perhaps my positive experiences have left me overly optimistic about Paulinists.

Narrative criticism, emphasized in some Gospels study as well as in Paul, does help one to approach Paul’s letters as cohesive wholes, reading them in dialogue with their situation and not fixating so much on details that one misses the forest for the trees.  Theologically, moving from the Gospels (and questions about Jesus) to Paul also invites disciplined thinking about how Paul draws not only from the Septuagint but also from the early movement that had so recently sprung from Jesus of Nazareth.  The language is often very different, but I am finding that some common concepts are there on the experiential level (e.g., Jesus’ teaching and practice of faith, of dependence on God, noted above).

When addressing historical issues, Gospels studies can get very polarized into camps, with some members of each camp reading only the work of their fellow campers.  Coming from that background into Pauline studies, I am happy to shed that polarization over historical issues.  There are other camps, such as divisions over the meaning of pistis Christou (sorry again about my lack of Greek font here), but it appears to me that most Paul scholars are not going to suppress or ignore other scholars just because of such disagreements.  Again, I might be too optimistic, but it looks as though even if there is some polarization and stereotyping, it is less than in some historical Jesus studies.  That seems a refreshing change.

NKG: I know that you just came out with a book on the Jesus of history (which just arrived at my doorstep today!) and you have a three-volume commentary on Acts coming in the not-too-distant future.  From the Romans commentary, I got the impression that you plan to do more work on Romans.  Is that correct?  What other major and minor writing projects are on your horizon – would you be willing to share with us?

CK: Thank you for noticing these other works.  The Historical Jesus of the Gospels drew especially on my work in Matthew, and some in my work on Luke-Acts for the Acts commentary.  Its sequel, which required a separate volume, is a work on the plausibility of miracle reports in early Christian historical narratives; perhaps that will be out in 2011 (with Hendrickson).  I finished the Acts commentary a couple years ago, after six years of writing (not including prior research), and it is still not out because it is taking awhile to edit (and then typeset and index).  (Hint: Don’t write long commentaries.  They cost more, also.)  I love Acts and love every bit of the commentary, but next time I am going for a shorter NT book to write commentary on!  It has felt so relaxing to write a couple books (since completing Acts) that could be measured in months rather than years.

As for what is next but not yet started: I would love to write in greater detail on Romans and 1 Corinthians, as I implied above and in my shorter commentaries on each of those books.  I do not intend to supplant what others have done on those works, but my file of research is bursting with many thousands of unused tidbits from ancient sources ready to be applied here.  Over the years, as I have read through ancient material, I have filed most of the materials under the NT references where it could be useful.  At my current rate, I would be 100 by the time I finish publishing it all, so I am having to narrow my focus on what to publish.  I have so much material useful for Romans and 1 Corinthians that those seem obvious targets, although Ihave a glut of material for some other books as well.  At the very least, having all that material on hand made writing the short commentary on Romans very quick.  My greatest difficulty was screening out the vast majority of material for which I lacked space.  The publisher and my coeditor were generous in allowing me a bit of extra space; I joked that if they didn’t I would end my commentary at Romans 14, like some early manuscripts of the letter!  (Smile)

Speaking of generous coeditors, if I may add this: Michael Bird has been such a joy to work with.  He actually initiated the idea for the series, but brought me in quite early, and we have gotten along wonderfully.  I asked him why he was so laid back and he responded that it was part of Australian culture to be laid back.  Wipf & Stock/Cascade have also been very supportive and they publish their works very quickly.


Interview with Ismo Dunderberg on the Gospel of Thomas (Part I)

bb3b04f8-4202-4f1e-b20b-fa017a589b6aMy series of interviews with Thomas scholars continues. Today I am posting the first part of my interview with Ismo Dunderberg, Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Helsinki. Professor Dunderberg is the author of The Beloved Disciple in Conflict: Revisiting the Gospels of John and Thomas , as well as numerous articles and  several books dealing with Gnosticism, early Christian conflict, and John’s relationship to the Synoptics. I would like to thank Professor Dunderberg for taking time out of his busy schedule to respond to my questions.

(CWS) 1. I have posed this question at the outset of each interview I’ve conducted on the Gospel of Thomas. Before I interact with your work on the Gospel of Thomas I would like to begin by asking what got you interested in studying the Gospel of Thomas in the first place?

(ID) As I was writing my dissertation on John and the Synoptics in 1990s, I attended an introductory Coptic course taught by Antti Marjanen. He and Risto Uro were both interested in the Gospel of Thomas, and, after having published the Finnish translation of it in 1992, they started to plan a research project on this text. Because Greg Riley had reopened the question of the relationship between John and Thomas, they wanted to have a Johannine specialist in the team. I happened to be pretty much the only person available, and had some Coptic under my belt, so they invited me to the project, for which we then applied and got funding from the Academy of Finland.

(CWS) 2. Your work on the John-Thomas question represents the first attempt to challenge what I have called “the community-conflict hypothesis.” In fact, your series of articles (which subsequently became the basis for your book, The Beloved Disciple in Conflict) largely served as the impetus for my own work in that area. Could you briefly summarize your views on the relationship between John and Thomas and on the theory that John was written in response to Thomas?

 (ID) Perhaps I should start by saying that although I was invited to the project, I wasn’t asked to defend or rebut any particular view of John and Thomas!

 I agree with Riley and DeConick that John and Thomas are close to each other in spirit, and I find their work important because they brought that issue under discussion. Yet I found problematic the steps they took from the narrative world of John to the social world behind it. The methodological problems seemed similar to what other scholars (e.g., Joachim Kügler whose carefully articulated studies I read when writing my dissertation) had detected Louis Martyn’s reading of John as “a two-level drama.”

 My own view is that John and Thomas both share common ground and disagree on a number of issues but the disagreements aren’t specific enough to show that there was a mutual conflict between them. Different views, yes, a real-life conflict, no. (These are two different things, really.) If John was written to combat the Gospel of Thomas, or more broadly Thomasine traditions, and if this was one of the author’s main objectives, one could easily imagine clearer ways for expressing this than what we now have in John. It doesn’t even seem to me that Thomas is utterly badly treated as a character in John 20, if we compare his figure to the way the other followers of Jesus are depicted in John.

(CWS) 3. In your book, The Beloved Disciple in Conflict, you focused on social and religious issues, specifically looking at the paradigmatic “beloved disciple” figure behind the Gospels of John and Thomas. For readers of my blog who may not be familiar with your work, would you provide a brief description of your thesis.

The basic problem related to the Beloved Disciple is that, among the New Testament gospels, he is only mentioned in John, yet in John he appears in stories which have parallels in other gospels. From this, most scholars reason that the Beloved Disciple was a leader of the Johannine community who was secondarily inserted into the gospel story. I argue, against the usual consensus, that we have little evidence–much less than you would imagine in reading scholarly literature!–for the Beloved Disciple’s leadership in the Johannine community.

I also point out that similar figures gradually emerge in other early Christian texts to lend them authenticity. Hence my suggestion that the Beloved Disciple was invented for the same purpose. The crucial difference I saw (but many disagree) between John and other early Christian texts featuring beloved disciples is that the Beloved Disciple in John isn’t characterized as being the most perceptive of all disciples.

I also argued that one special reason to introduce the Beloved Disciple in John was to offer a replacement for the brothers of Jesus (cf. John 19:25-27), who in John 7 are portrayed as unbelievers.

 More to come. . . .

Interview on Romans with Craig Keener

Craig Keener (Prof. of NT at Palmer Theological Seminary) has recently published a very insightful Romans commentary in the New Covenant Commentary Series. It is as if you have been invited to a party to hear the keynote speaker (Paul), but you don’t really know anyone that will be at the party.  Well, Keener is your party guide who gives you the scoop on everyone in the room.  His knowledge of ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman parallels and backgrounds is astounding and the commentary is busting at the seams with references which will become the student’s treasury.  Craig has so much knowledge of the ancient world and it is a no-brainer that we can all benefit from having some access to some of the connections he is able to make between a host of ancient religious leaders, philosophers, and leaders.  Also, he is very sensitive, in the commentary, to pastoral issues.  Too many scholars focus squarely on “historical” issues and never really address the ethical and theological aspects of the text.  Not so with Craig’s work.  You really get the best of both worlds!  I highly recommend buying it, but at least encourage your library to order it!

Craig was kind enough to answer some questions in an interview as we have a premier exegete of the NT taking on Romans.  This interview will be in two parts. [Update: The second part is HERE.]

NKG: Can you tell us about this New Covenant Commentary Series and why you decided, not only to participate, but also to co-edit the series?

CK: Mike Bird, the other editor, actually conceived the series and proposed it to Cascade/Wipf & Stock, but when he invited me to participate I was excited about the idea.  Several authors were already chosen before I came on board, but for the most part I got to participate close to the beginning.  We wanted to make good scholarship available at an accessible and affordable level.  We also wanted to give the authors the flexibility to play to their strengths—for that reason you will see differences in the approaches even of Michael and myself in our respective commentaries.  One of the most distinctive elements of the series, however, and perhaps the element that most excites me, is the cultural diversity of our authors.  Most commentaries are still being written in the west, but the global church has exploded over the past century, and most theological reflection in the world is therefore taking place outside the west.  We wanted to assemble a team of scholars from various parts of the world, to hear more of the voices of the global church and gain insights that many readers might not otherwise have access to.

NKG:  I presume that you had your pick of which book you might like to do.  Why Romans?  I am sure some scholars would find it too daunting to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to develop a new commentary alongside so many Romans scholars.  What inspired you to take this particular book on?

CK: Hubris (smile).  Actually, I have long planned to write a commentary on Romans, though eventually a much larger one.  In this version I could employ only a very small percentage of my research, especially on primary sources from the ancient world, even though my coeditor kindly let me run over my assigned word limit!  Though I have been working in the Gospels for a number of years, I worked in Paul earlier.  I spent years working through Acts (a commentary that is unfortunately so long that it is taking a long time to appear), and my plans were to return to Paul afterward.  From my work in Greco-Roman sources, I found that 1-2 Corinthians made perfect sense (and had worked on these letters for a short commentary for Cambridge that came out in 2005).

When I got to Romans, though, I realized the difficulty to which you refer.  I thought that leaving the Gospels meant that I was leaving the realm of severe controversies, and was looking forward to the break.  But the “New Perspective” with which I was familiar earlier has become the “new perspectives,” and is a matter of serious debate.  I had to rethink a lot of issues and try to come to the most balanced conclusions that I could.  I guess it is not possible to avoid controversy!  At least in Pauline studies, though, I think that most scholars are willing to read other scholars who disagree with them.

NKG: What did you discover, in the course of your research for this Romans commentary, that surprised you?  Put another way, what presumptions did you have that were disabused?  Were their issues and texts that were seen in a completely new light?

CK: Many of my ideas were changed along the way.  I am glad that a lot of shifts and debates took place before I returned to Pauline studies, often involving ideas I took for granted a decade or two ago.  They serve as a warning to think cautiously about other issues and not to make sweeping claims based on consensus, since consensus is rarely constant.  I’ll give a few examples.

First, we overdo rhetorical criticism when we arrange letters as if they were speeches (and speeches designed like the models in rhetorical handbooks at that!).  On the other hand, Paul’s letters are not by any means typical letters–most of them, most prominently Romans, are full of argumentation.  So what we learn from rhetoric about argumentation, rhetorical devices, and so on is still profitable.  But I don’t think you can outline Romans as a speech.

Second, I excitedly embraced E. P. Sanders’ argument about ancient Judaism in Paul and Palestinian Judaism when I first read it over two decades ago.  Because I studied with him at Duke afterward, I also have an ingrained loyalty to my professor as a scholar and a friend.  But a number of serious criticisms have been raised (Avemarie, Gathercole, etc.), and they have to be taken into account..  I think Ed’s central argument–that Judaism taught grace–is solid and has won the day; even those who argue against aspects of his thesis almost always agree with this point, and we often forget that this was not the case when he wrote.  But the details are still being debated, and we can learn from this discussion.

Third, let me comment on an area where I still think what I thought before but for better reasons: having worked again through Romans, I think that the question of Jewish and Gentile relations is a central issue in the book.  What got my attention in a new way was the first part of chapter 15, to which I hadn’t paid enough attention before.  I do not by any means limit the theological implications of Romans to its original concrete situation (I believe some commentators have lent that impression of their approach), but I do believe that grappling with the concrete contexts that Romans addressed helps us to grapple with the sorts of concrete situations we face today, including some that reflect many analogies with the setting of Romans.

NKG: While reading your book, I was stunned by the level of your knowledge and interaction with ancient Greco-Roman and early Jewish literature and how you interconnected related material.  How does a broad and deep knowledge of ancient extra-biblical texts (from the same time period) contribute to one’s understanding of a New Testament document such as Romans?  (One can certainly see you at work on the relevance issue in the commentary, but what would you say to someone with the mentality that the text’s message is perspicuous as is – or, as I sometimes call it, the ‘just give me Jesus’ approach?)

CK: I have tried to take to heart Martin Hengel’s warning that the NT is a short book, as far as scholarly disciplines go, and NT scholars ought to know its context better.  I actually read a lot of ancient Mediterranean sources—Tacitus, Plato, Homer, Virgil, the Greek tragic and comic dramatists, and so forth—before my conversion to Christianity, as a young atheist.  I hadn’t read more than a chapter of the Bible before I was converted.  As a young Christian, I ditched these other sources and just immersed myself in the Bible—many weeks reading 40 chapters a day.  But as I was immersing myself in the Bible, I realized that I wasn’t taking all of it seriously, despite my stated intention.  If Paul says that he writes this letter to the “set-apart ones in Rome” (Rom 1:7), one has to take into account how they would have heard it.  To ignore that question is to fail to take seriously this passage that explicitly anchors Romans in a concrete historical setting.  It is simply naive to take a document written to a particular ancient setting, written in Greek, using figures of speech and cultural allusions that were shared assumptions by the ancient author and the author’s intended audience, and assume that we can read it without taking any of that into account.  I’m not saying that we can’t get many correct ideas from a translation without additional background, but you will also miss a lot.

That is why I have spent a couple decades collecting data, reading through ancient sources and thinking of connections with the NT documents (and, in time, how what I learned from some ancient Mediterranean sources provides context for other Mediterranean sources).  I enjoy exploring ancient literature, but I want especially to make my work useful for those who want to understand the NT better.

Who is NT Wright’s Old Testament Alter Ego???

Apparently it is John Goldingay (Fuller Theological Seminary) who has been slated by WJK to produce the Old Testament counter-part to the popular Wright series The New Testament For Everyone.  I must say that I have been listening to Goldingay on itunes and he is absolutely the best choice for working on the OT series of this type.  His illustrations are reasonable and insightful and often humorous.  He has a warm and charitable way, similar to Wright.  He knows his history, but has a deep interest in theology, as Wright.  Marvelous!

As you might guess, the series will begin with Genesis, in two volumes (1-16, 17-50).  I get a sense from Goldingay’s lectures that he is more “cheekier” than Wright (in the good sense!).  One chapter from the forthcoming books is entitled: “Two Guys Who Need Their Heads Banged Together.”  That is vintage Goldingay.  I get a sense that we will be seeing this out in March/April 2010.

A Must-Have Pauline Resource (Pauline Parallels)

At the end of January, I am leading a church day-seminar on how to study the Bible in depth (at my brother-in-law’s church in Holland, Michigan).  One of my responsibilities is to equip laypeople to use Bible study resources that are not esoteric or that require knowledge of Biblical languages.  This is the first time I have had to use a reverse-interlinear and an ink-and-paper concordance (I have relied on Bibleworks for many years).

One resource I think that is invaluable is Walter Wilson’s new Pauline Parallels: A Comprehensive Guide (WJK, 2009).  Wilson offers a listing a parallels to Pauline texts in a number of categories.  First, for each passage (in canonical order), he lists intratextual parallels – within the same letter.  Then he offers inter-Pauline parallels – similar passages from other letters of the Pauline corpus.  Then, he gives canonical parallels – from the OT and NT apart from the letters of Paul.  Finally, he gives “noncanonical” parallels.  He only does this last one on occasion and usually it is from Jewish writings, but it is very useful and a handy quick-reference resource.

Computer programs can do word searches and find similar texts, but there is something special about one person thinking through the relationships and finding things that might not be picked up on in Bibleworks or Accordance.

For instance, in relation to Romans 5:6-11, Wilson offers in parallel Seneca’s comment: ‘Why, then, do I acquire a friend?  In order to have someone for whom I may die, in order to have someone I may follow into exile, someone against whose death I may pledge and stake my life.” (Moral Epistles, 9.10).  Wow!  How interesting!

You may not agree with every choice in this book, but the volume, as a whole, is very handy and he makes lots of significant links that I had not thought of before, especially between Paul and other parts of the NT.

This is a resource that will never become outdated (except that More Old Testament Pseudepigrapha will be published!).  It is very affordable for the value and I think every Paulinist (and New Testament researcher) should have it.  Also, of course, I am recommending it to pastors and laypeople as a way of connecting concepts and themes in the Bible and understanding Paul better in the process!

Interview with Gordon Fee on Galatians Commentary

Below you will find an interview I conducted with world-class biblical scholar Gordon Fee (emeritus, Regent College) with special regard to his recent Galatians commentary (DEO publishing).  For being a short commentary, it was very insightful and Fee is such an impressive reader of texts.  It was nice to have his perspective on various controversial issues that he is able to weigh in on.  I highly recommend it.

Without further ado.

Nijay: How has your previous research helped prepare you to write this commentary.  What have you learned from writing your other commentaries?

Gordon: I have taught Galatians in various settings for over 40 years.  All I did basically was to write up my very thorough class notes.  I learned from the (all positive) reviews of the Corinthians commentary to try to be fair to Paul, to say it precisely, and to think about how it might apply today.

Nijay: How did your Christology book stimulate your thoughts about Galatians?

Gordon: I don’t know that it did.  My guess is that I never once referred to the former in writing the latter.

Nijay: I noticed you make several exegetical conclusions based on the particular word-order of the Greek text (such as ‘grace and peace’ in the greeting).  Have you always given this much consideration to word order (in Greek)?

Gordon: In that particular case, yes; can one imagine anyone, and especially the Apostle Paul, putting them in any other order??

Nijay: You seem to show some appreciation for the New Perspective on Paul.

Gordon: I did so, because the major proponents are personal friendswith whom I have disagreed vigorously in person. But in the public arena I refuse to do so.

Nijay: Generally, what do you appreciate about the NPP and in what areas would you critique Wright, Sanders, or Dunn with regard to their articulation of Paul’s view of the law and works in Galatians?

Gordon: They are absolutely right that “works” does not mean trying to get God’s favor by “doing something”; at issue is what role the Jewish law plays in what believers “do.” And since the major issue, that got this whole thing started at all, was the one Paul most vigorously opposes (namely the circumcision of Gentile males), I still think most later Christians miss Paul by an arm’s length on this issue.

Nijay: If you had to recommend one commentary to seminary students on Galatians, what would it be and why?

Gordon: Is this a trick question?  I would have them read mine, of course; but if you meant another, Isuppose it would be Dunn or Bruce.

Nijay: On a different subject, would you be willing to share what writing projects you are working on for the future?

Gordon: I am now 75 and long of tooth.  I have recently finished a commentary on the Revelation; my last hurrah (hopefully) will be an updating of the 1 Corinthians commentary (I have changed my mind very little in the exegesis, but an interaction with 25 years of literature is needed.

Thank you, Gordon!  We look forward to your commentary work and thank you for your scholarship!