Grant Osborne on Matthew’s Gospel: A New Commentary Series (ZECNT)

Whenever I hear there is going to be a new commentary series, I wince a bit. By and large I have felt newer commentaries series have not contributed much- the exception being the Two Horizons series. So, when I was sent Grant Osborne’s Matthew volume in the new Zondervan Exegetical Commentary Series I was seriously skeptical.

I am happy to report that Zondervan has really figured out what (evangelical) pastors and ministry leaders need, and they have planned a series that can deliver precisely in the traditional areas of “exegesis.”

Firstly, you will notice Osborne’s (GO) commentary is large. This is a bit deceptive. It is hardcover and the font size is quite large. This is not a problem, but I was expected detailed analysis of every verse, and that is not the niche for this commentary series.

So what does it do? In the series introduction, they describe the features:

(1) Interaction with the Greek text – not too “light,” not too “heavy.”

(2) 1-2 sentence summary of the main point of each passage.

(3) visual (graphic) representation of the flow of the passage (looking very discourse analysis style to me)

(4) surveys of the key interpretive issues

(5) summary of main theological issues in each passage with pointers to application

Of highest benefit, I believe, are the many outlines of the flow of the text and the rhetorical or narrative progress. Also, theological insights are helpful when it comes time to preach from a text from the lectionary and it seems too dense, inaccessible, irrelevant, or dull.

The Introductory section of the commentary with normal genre, background, authorship (etc…) issues will be a bit of a disappointment for many, not because of what he says, but it seems too basic of a treatment for such a large commentary. He champions, of course, many traditional viewpoints and often seems dedicated to defending the historical accuracy of a number of events and sayings; this is sometimes odd because he is quite happy at other times to assign redactional interests to Matthew.

In terms of structure, he follows Carson generally with some modification. As for method of interpretation, he does a fine job of tapping into the Jewish background and context of the Gospel.

Here are some of the prominent viewpoints GO holds.

Sermon on the Mount: these are new laws for the kingdom age inaugurated by Jesus. They cannot be lived out  perfectly, but they represent the new way of the new kingdom of Jesus.

11:12: “But from the days of John the Baptist until the present, the kingdom of heaven is subject to violence, and violent people attack it”

Matthew 24: “This is apocalyptic language, in which the destruction of Jerusalem foreshadows the tribulation period and the parousia” (865)

Overall, Osborne does not posit any extreme views. In fact, if there is one limitation, it is that, for its size, one would expect some thoroughly argued fresh insights. However, that is not really the point of the series. Osborne shines in many ways precisely because he is sticking to the narrative, rhetorical, logical, and theological progression and flow of thought.

I believe, again, pastors will really benefit greatly from this commentary. If you have the budget as a pastor to buy a few commentaries, I would recommend Hagner (WBC), France (NICNT), and this one.

Final Review


CLARITY: 4.5/5

OVERALL: 4.5/5

I hope to review the Galatians and Ephesians commentaries in due time, hopefully sometime in the next six months.

Search Engine Terms: January

One thing that WordPress does for bloggers is that it tells us what phrases people entered in and clicked through that led them to my blog. Sometimes this is quite predictable (“Nijay Gupta”) and other times not so much. In any case, I thought it would be fun and funny to respond once in a while to a series of search engine searches (partly because you sometimes never find the answers to your googlesearch questions). Here goes:

1. “Nijay Gupta” -that’s me!

2. “nijay kelly” – I had, long ago, dreamed of being the next R. Kelly. Alas, I abandoned the project when I realized I could not fly.

3. “kirby chair aberdeen” – I have heard it has been extremely difficult to find a suitable NT chair at Aberdeen. As far as I know (since SBL), the search continues. I think someone like Joel Green would do well there, but I think it would be hard to steal him away from Fuller.

4. “nt wright chris wright” – no relation. Although Tom Wright once told me that if he is NT Wright, then Chris is “OT” Wright. ahhh…scholar jokes.

5. “publishing the thesis” – I suggest Cambridge; perhaps Brill. Try to find one that does typesetting for you, unless you have an extra 100-200 hours to burn.

6. “write an abstract in sbl” – I assume this is for the conference – most important tip – it has to be interesting! Also, proofread it.

7. “how much do seminary professors make” – I don’t think you want to know. Just remind yourself, its better than flipping burgers. Unless you’re flipping them at Redmill. Mmmm…Redmill….

8. “completing a phd in 2 years” – Are these literal years or “weeks of years”? Why don’t you see if University of Pheonix has a suitable program. Well, in any case, go to the UK and put in the extra third year.

9. “best new testament phd” – go to a place with scholars you admire and respect, where you will have colleagues that will complement and sharpen you, pay attention to library holdings, and try not to go somewhere where you will need to take out over $100,000 in loans. (subliminal message: Durham, Durham, Durham, Durham….)

10. “how would one write their own old testament theology” – see Pseudo-Philo, though he is more focused on “history.”

11. “how to change my mind” – Base it on a new archaeological discovery and not on your previously being wrong. That is how we Biblical scholars do it.

12. “what is mirror reading” – Jeopardy answer: the excuse we use when we make Paul say what we want him to say

Hope that answers all of your questions!

Review of Urban von Wahlde’s ECC The Gospel and Letters of John (Vol 1)

[DISCLAIMER: I am only reviewing the first volume of a three-volume series]

[UPDATE: Prof. von Wahlde has written a response to my “review” in the comments. In respect to some of his concerns, I have lightly edited some of my harsher comments and I encourage you to read his response to get a sense for how he reacts to my thoughts.]

Apparently a massive undertaking, Urban von Wahlde (UvW) recently wrote a commentary on the Johannine Literature (Eerdmans). The first volume, covering introductory issues, reaches almost 700 pages alone!

Why would such a lengthy volume be necessary?

UvW has developed a rather sophisticated solution to what he sees as the problem of an incoherent and heavily redacted final form of the text of the Gospel of John. Drawing considerably from the work of Bultmann and to some degree from Brown (and Wellhausen, seriously), he has established a reading theory that separates the final form of John into three layers or “editions” as he calls them.

Edition #1: Written probably between 60-65AD offers the skeleton story of the Gospel as it currently is. This ground layer has a low Christology, uses “signs” as the keyword for Jesus’ miracles, focuses on a broad range of terms for the antagonists (Pharisees, chief priests, rulers), and develops a plot line where such enemies of Jesus grow in anger until they plot to kill him. This first author was probably Jewish and had a strong knowledge of the Jesus tradition. His purpose is evangelistic and his writing community probably had contact with or deep knowledge of the ministry of John the Baptist.

Edition #2: This redactor edits the text with a theological agenda, and neglects and even obscures the narratological progression of the text. This edition focuses on the antagonists simply as the “Jews”. It is this edition especially that intends to communicate to Jewish Christians who have been rejected by the synagogal community. A high Christology is woven into the text at this point. This edition probably was produced 65-70AD.

Edition #3: This redactor has even less of an interest in the narrative and make purely theological changes. He infuses the perspective of the Elder (1 John written prior to this edition), brings an apocalyptic perspective, adds the prologue, and develops the eucharistic language. This edition was produced 90-95AD.

UvW recognizes how this reconstruction might sound to a modern guild of NT scholars that have “moved on” away from diachronic readings to treat the canonical text from a literary perspective. Yet UvW is relentless in his argument (hence the massive volume) that such a multilayered approach is absolutely necessary. I find his reasoning flawed, and yet I respect the fact that he presents as thorough a case as possible. In the end, though, the complexity of his own re-construction is not a manageable, provable or satisfactory resolution. Below I will engage with his series of arguments. I will present some of his claims (I can only do so much!), and my own responses.

Claim: The text of the Gospel of John needs to be studied diachronically, because it is a “cacophony” (his words, 3) that needs sorting out.

My Response: UvW does not like some of the tensions and ostensible inconsistencies in GJohn. However, I am really concerned with the idea that we (in our time and culture) have the right ears attuned to sort out the noise and find the symphony. If UvW were to convince me that GJohn is obviously unreadable as a coherent Gospel, I would have liked to hear about Patristic concerns of the same kind – where they also felt uneasy with GJohn in its extant form. That would confirm, to me, that we are not just use to a different style of music.  Even today, scholars like Barrett and P.N. Anderson accept that the “tensions” in Christology, for example, may very well be internal (dialectical, dialogical), rather than external; within the mind of one author.

Second Reponse: UvW seems to prize simplicity, coherence, and smoothness. But, is this really an ideal that we have real examples of? Why is it that he can presuppose that the original author prioritized smoothness, but the final editor (who has fooled so many people in history) is essentially tone-deaf?

Claim: Unlike today, it was conventional in ancient history for books to undergo several editions (p. 10) – such as the Pentateuch.

Response: This is actually a decent argument. However, the Pentateuch was edited over hundred of years. UvW is talking about an editorial process happening over 30-40 years and we have no (clear) evidence from manuscripts of earlier editions. Besides, Greek and Roman biographies were becoming more common at the end of the first century which established a genre (at its most basic form) for the Gospels – I wonder if we have evidence that such bioi went through editions?

Claim: The removal of additional (secondary and tertiary) layers will offer a “cleaner” and “crisper” text and sequence – one that is “coherent and logical by any modern standard.” (34). He offers the example of 13:33-37 which would read more smoothly if vv. 34-35 were removed. Then Peter’s response to Jesus would be direct and uninterrupted by Jesus’ mention of the love commandment.

Response: Again, I would say to UvW, what standard are you using for coherence? Apparently you think the first author possessed a kind of narrative sanity that not only was uncharacteristic of the later editors, but somehow the editors have also fooled so many. Can you offer an example of a coherent, logical Gospel – pick any canonical or non-canonical one. If your ideal is a smooth text, can you supply at least ONE example where it is free from aporias? Does Mark count? If we cannot find an ideal text (free from aporias), how do we know what the ideal (original, crisp) standard was other than using a “modern standard”. Again, either clear manuscript evidence (that lacks vv. 34-35) or Patristic discussion of incoherence would seriously bolster his argument.

Another response I would have deals with the movement UvW makes from a more difficult text to a more simple text. His reasoning is that the more complex and unreadable the text, the less likely it is to be original, presumably because people do not think and write in such a way. However, doesn’t this logic run against the well-known text-critical principle of lectio difficilior – the more difficult reading is probably the more authentic? The key idea is that scribes/editors/redactors are not stupid – they would more likely harmonize a text rather than complicate it further. UvW’s logic runs the other way – redactors muddle up clean and coherent readings with their theological agendas. Would we call this lectio facilior? When has a text-critic relied on this? Why should it be different on a larger scale – especially when we don’t even have a “variant reading” so to speak?

Claim: “For some, the difficulties for interpretation presented by a multilayered text may seem sufficient to reject the enterprise altogether and to return to a “simpler age.” But the problem here is no different from those problems involved in attempting to do a “theology” of the New Testament…[which] does not speak with a single voice.” (p. 41)

Response: Firstly, yes…the complexities of UvW’s theory seems too untenable. In terms of his canonical analogy, he makes a nice attempt, but the key difference is that ANYONE can distinguish the dividing lines between the various canonical texts. While we have things like the problem of 2 Cor 1-9 and 10-13, by and large we know when one book ends and another begins. While we may have a hard time harmonizing Mark’s Christology with Revelation’s, we can still clearly speak of a Christology of Mark and one of a distinct book called Revelation. It is difficult to get to this analytical point with UvW’s proposal simply because we cannot agree on the nature, extent, and substance of the editions. Can UvW name anyone that will agree with even 80% of his reconstructed editions?

Conclusion: While reading this heavy tome, I was reminded of Doug Campbell’s revisionist reading of Romans – both see too many problems in the text as it stands and both construct elaborate theories that require numerous point-counterpoint arguments. Again, this is where Occam’s Razor comes in – once the theories get to a certain level of complexity, they decrease in probability. While such proposals may have covered basic questions with intelligent responses, they continue to seem conjectural. Sadly, I do not think I will consult the commentary much, as UvW weaves and works out his theory into the 2nd and 3rd volumes. Others, of course, may find his reading more convincing.

Review Rating: 2.5/5: Points for creativity and thoroughness, but I find his 3-edition theory to be too elaborate, thinly based, and ultimately reductionistic. Also he uses the word “clear” too often and quite loosely (“It is very clear that…”).

Final Review of R. Jenson’s CANON AND CREED

A few months ago I began a review of R.W. Jenson’s Canon and Creed (WJK, 2010) in the Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church series. I have now had a chance to finish the book so I will give some general comments about the whole book as well as some specific comments about the latter chapters.

Overall, Jenson’s big point is that too many Christians think they only need Scripture and that “creed” is for theologians. However, creed and canon complement one another. The creeds give testimony to the centralizing aspects of the canon. The canon takes the short ideas of the creed and fleshes them out in detail. “Looked at from this angle, the new canon and the rule of faith match like conversely notched puzzle pieces. Each advances what the other holds back.  Canon and creed fitted together, and only canon and creed fitted together, could make and can now make one whole and integral guardian of the church’s temporal self-identity” (p. 41).

In terms of canon development and finalization, Jenson points to the concern over Gnosticism as well as the question of Marcion’s perspective. However, Jenson also hints at the point that perhaps it would have been time anyway for the Church to have some stability with regard to its sacred Scriptures (see 40).

In chapter 5 Jenson looks at the Apostle’s Creed. Not much of interest here, as his comments seem rather random. I was intrigued by his comment that the “communion of saints” focuses on fellowship with departed saint – I never took it that way.

Chapter 6 deals with “The Canonical Text” and engages in two questions: (1) Should Christians go beneath the canonical text in search for meaning in the reprintinated “original text” of a redacted book, like John? and (2) Should we consider the Hebrew or Greek version of the OT Scripture?

As for the first, Jenson moves away from focusing on earlier forms of a text and focuses on the canonical form. There seems to be a view that the canonical form is a corrupted form. But Jenson makes the same point that Childs does: “It is only because the church maintains the collection of the these documents with the texts they presented, as the book she needs, that we are concerned for their interpretation” (p. 55). His answer, ultimately, is pneumato-centric. Fair enough, but it is not fully satisfying to me. On the issue of the Gospels and the historical Jesus, here is what he writes:

we can receive the fourfold Gospels as a single gift of the Spirit and therefore trust that the witness that the Spirit-led church from time to time draws from the Gospels is reliable knowledge of the historical Jesus, even while some of us keep trying to resolve such questions as the day of the crucifixion [and which Gospel presentation is most true to what really happened]. (p. 58-9)

On the second question (LXX versus MT), Jenson raises an important matter, but, again, does not offer a cogent solution. I do like his expression that “the fixity characteristic of Scripture is not dependent on fixity of language” (62). This is where I get lost: “the canonical text of the OT is neither the Hebrew nor the Greek by itself, but both texts together and either text if need be.” (62). Again, “We must trust the purposes of the Spirit both in the history that leads to the dual text, and in the problem with which he thus leave us” (62). Hmmmm.

In Chapter 7 he treats “Dogma,” arguing that theological “hard thinking” is what the church does and what it repeatedly and perpetually needs to do. Fair enough.

In Chap 8, Jenson urges the Church to renew an appreciation for the “Episcopacy” – not a holy magisterium that pulls the strings behind the scenes, but a trust in those leaders gifted by the Spirit, discerned by the body, and in accordance with Scriptural holiness and probity.

Finally, in the last few chapters, Jenson makes his own case for a theological interpretation of Scripture, where he, then, interprets a number of texts. Personally, as  a Biblical researcher, I could not make heads or tails of Jenson’s exegetical acrobatics, finding Jesus in all sorts of places. This reminds me, while much healing has gone on to bridge the gulf between “theologians” and “Biblical scholars,” we still need some work especially in the area of presuppositions, terminology, and simplicity (on both sides I am sure!).

Overall, this book was more interesting for the questions it asked than for the answers it provided. I liked Miller’s volume on the Decalogue in this series more as a tool for the Church. Jenson’s book is more for seminary students and scholars who want to think about the relationship between canon and creed.


Some New Journal Issues…

Firstly, check out NTS, which has some new articles by Kavin Rowe (on the Areopagus speech), M.Y. MacDonald (household codes), Udo Schnelle (order of the Johannine writings), and Simon Gathercole (Luke’s influence on the Gospel of Thomas).

Secondly, the new issue of Interpretation is about Liturgy and Easter with articles on Mark 16:1-8 through the centuries (C.E. Joynes) and Ulrich Luz on the resurrection of Jesus in art.

And, of course, Expository Times is always worth a glance!