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!