A Celebration and Contest/Giveaway!

Well folks, it is time for a bit of a celebration, as this blog has just surpassed 500,00 views. I began the blog in January of 2007. I have tried to blog regularly. I have had five different homes during that time in two countries and four different states in the US. But I have tried to stay committed to blogging.

It is exciting to be settled in at Northeastern Seminary whence I will continue to blog, hopefully with even more regularity since I am not packing and moving anymore!

How shall we celebrate? How about a giveaway! I am giving away a copy of Raymond Collins’ new 2 Corinthians commentary in the Baker Paideia series.

In order to be in the running, you have to (1) sign up to follow me on Twitter (@nijaykgupta), and (2) write a comment on this post where you summarize the letter of 2 Corinthians in one sentence. (For those of you who think you can get away with a run-on sentence, I am limiting the sentence to 50 words or fewer!)

Entries from the US only (contiguous states) unless you will be at SBL and are willing to wait for a personal hand-off (which I am more than happy to do!).

The winning comment will be accurate and attention-getting. No plagiarism please!

This contest/giveaway will go on for a week’s worth of entries.

To sweeten the deal, I will throw into the package a surprise freebie – I think it will be worth it! I will reveal what the freebie is after the winner is selected.

The contest will end @ 11:59PM on August 9. Good luck to all!

Exciting Fall ’13 Baker Academic Titles

Yes, folks, that’s right. The fall Baker catalog is out – I feel like a kid in a candy shop, except the shop only has pictures and descriptions of candy. Well, I am still excited.  Here is what I hope to get my hands on this fall!

#1: Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture – Walter Moberly. Whilst (I had to throw the British “st” on there in honor of the author) I was a student at Durham, I had the privilege of being a member of St. John’s Senior Common Room (a kind of academic club). There were regularly luncheons and I had the honor of chatting with Prof. Moberly a few times during those occasions. He is absolutely brilliant, and a model British gentleman. His students all adore him and for good reason. He is truly interdisciplinary, and as comfortable in Systematics and Historical Theology (and the New Testament) as he is in the Old Testament! I read his Theology of Genesis a few years back and found it exceptionally challenging and cogent. Incidentally, SBL this year will feature a review panel discussion of his new Old Testament Theology in the “Theological Interpretation of Scripture” group, and the list of panelists is quite impressive: Ellen Davis, Ben Ollenburger, Claire Mathews McGinnis, H.G.M. Williamson, and Joel Kaminsky (and Moberly, of course).

#2: Galatians – Douglas Moo. While I am more in agreement with Dunn than Moo on Pauline soteriology, I have a lot of respect for Moo’s careful exegesis and his irenic spirit. Westerholm’s endorsement hails this as a future “standard” for Galatians research. I wouldn’t be surprised, if this commentary reaches the quality of his Romans work.

#3: Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism – eds. C.M. Hays and C.B. Ansberry. Are Historical Criticism and Evangelical Faith friends or foes? This book attempts to engage in this question. Because this book released in the UK in June, there has already been some online reviews and chatter. Google it.

#4: Paul and the Miraculous – Graham Twelftree. I will simply repeat my endorsement for the book:

“Well researched, fresh, engaging, and appropriately cautious about drawing tempered
conclusions, this examination allows a neglected area of New Testament study to be
brought into the forefront. While the reader may not agree with every part of Twelftree’s
historical reconstruction of Paul, it is nearly impossible to reject his main hypothesis that
the miraculous played an important role in Paul’s ministry and theology.”

#5: Love in the Gospel of John – Francis Moloney. What can I say other than Moloney is an extremely gifted scholar, and I anticipate this book being helpful, not only for exegetical and theological insight, but also for discipleship and Christian formation.

#6: Acts – William Kurz. I have been impressed so far with the Catholic Commentary series. It is very well-produced and there is much attention given to Catholic doctrine and piety.

Carter’s Big Seven for New Testament Backgrounds (Review)

Warren Carter has written a handy little book (~150 pp) on the background and context of the New Testament called Seven Events That Shaped the New Testament World (Baker, 2013). So, what are the “big seven”?

(1) The Death of Alexander the Great (and the Hellenization of his conquered lands)

(2) The Process of Translating the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek (and the influence of the Septuagint)

(3) The Rededication of the Jerusalem Temple (and the legacy of the Maccabean revolt)

(4) The Roman Occupation of Judea (and the challenge of faith and cultural adaptation and resistance for Jews)

(5) The Crucifixion of Jesus (and the subsequent interpretation of Jesus’ death)

(6) The Writing of the New Testament Texts (and the various genres of the texts)

(7) The Process of “Closing” the NT Canon (including the criteria and controversy)

So – what is my estimation of the book?

The Strengths

Perhaps the three best qualities of this book are that (1) Carter is an expert when it comes to the historical and social issues of the second temple period, and also life in the Roman Empire. In the early chapters of the book, I deeply appreciated  his socio-historical analysis. (2) Carter is an outstanding communicator and he sprinkles pithy statements and dashes of humor throughout which makes it easy reading. (3) It is short. What a treat to be able to get through the book in just a few hours of reading!

On the chapter on the Septuagint, here is a choice quote that shows Carter’s penetrating analysis:

For Jewish people in the cities across the ancient world where Hellenistic culture was well established, the translation [LXX] was a way of making and marking their way in the Greek world. It recognized and legitimated their hybrid existence. They lived with a foot in each of two cultural camps. The translation upheld Jewish identity and practices. But by rendering the writings in Greek, it signified the Jews’ presence in and an openness to a context of Greek culture. They did not flee it or fear it at all; yet in embracing it and being embraced by it, they did not completely capitulate to it, nor were they assimilated by it. The translations recognized and shaped a tensive existence, a hybrid life lived in two worlds simultaneously in the interaction of cultural traditions (p 34).

Brilliant!

In the next chapter, he addresses a variety of responses to persecution and pressures from anti-Jewish forces. I think his very basic taxonomy is helpful; Jews ranged across these options: alliance, flight, nonviolent defiance to death, and fighting (p. 54).

I also appreciated his take on works and grace in early Judaism.

First-century Judaism is not based on works whereby people try to earn God’s favor, as many Christians have thought. It is not ignorant of grace. It is not dead and obsessed with ritual. Rather, it is rooted in God’s gracious initiative expressed in the covenant and the giving of Torah; this requires human obedience in lived faithfulness, in which failure is inevitable but forgiveness is available (61)

Carter gives a tip of the hat here to covenantal nomism, but it is expressed so carefully and makes important corrections to problematic assumptions.

The chapter on crucifixion is also very helpful, mostly for how Carter succinctly communicates.

 Crucifixion was reserved for lower-ranked, more marginal, and provincial folks like violent criminals and , typically, rebellious slaves….In addition to punishing violent criminals and slaves, crucifixion was especially used to punish rebellious foreigners. Brigands, violent terrorists, or guerrilla fighters attacked the personnel and property of ruling powers, whether during war or in times of social unrest. Retaliation was always swift and violent: crucifixion was the fate of many. (p. 89)

This is a great wake-up call to any Christian sentimentality towards the cross. It was repulsive and degrading. It was reserved for the most despicable enemies of the state. This is a wonderful introduction to the question – what kind of perception did the Romans have of Jesus such that this was his punishment?

Weaknesses

While I found the earlier chapters very informative and engaging, as we got into the last two chapters, I found the information less striking, and also less relevant to the main subject at hand (shaping the NT world). As we leapt from 30AD to the writing of NT texts and beyond (as far as 397AD), I wondered – why not include the destruction of the temple (70AD)? After all, it appears to have been a major point in the beginnings of the “partings of the ways” (and thus the formation of a distinctively “Christian identity”) and also a hinge point for the dating of the Gospels (though where one falls, before or after, is a matter of debate).

Also, I think he pulled the “Paul didn’t write these texts (Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, PE)” trigger took quickly. My understanding of the state of the discussion in 2013 is that Colossians and 2 Thessalonians, even if they are not card-carrying members of the “authentic club,” still should hardly be lumped together with the dubious authorship of the Pastoral Epistles (so the guild has largely agreed). Also, if Carter included a discussion of the role and influence of a letter secretary, I must have missed it, yet that is a major factor on the table of this discussion. I don’t want to be painted as the nay-saying fundy here, but this seemingly casual bifurcation (letters that Paul did write, those he didn’t write) does not keep up to the same standard of up-to-date scholarship demonstrated in the earlier chapters. If you are interested in getting into this topic further, see my article on authorship and Colossians in a recent Current in Biblical Research.

One more thing

I hesitate to raise this matter because I don’t want to sound too political, but in the end I think if you are considering using this as a textbook, you ought to know: in one sidebar discussion, Carter makes a statement that sounded kind of universalistic. Now, I am not saying students shouldn’t talk or think about this, but it felt one-sided and out of place with no exegetical explanation or discussion. This could catch students off guard and give folks the wrong impression about Carter’s concerns or agenda. In a discussion of social “identity markers” (like circumcision for Jews), Carter makes an analogy regarding cultural markers in the church today, and the potential problems caused by litmus tests and divisions among Christians on matters like homosexuality. He goes on to say this:

Paul declares that because of God’s faithful purposes, ‘all Israel will be saved,’ and it is not at all obvious that in context he limits this to those who believe in Christ (Rom. 11:26).Nor it is clear that God is as committed to assigning people to hell as our politician and his allies [he mentions a hell-fire politician earlier in the sidebar]. Paul describes God’s work in this way: ‘God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that [God] may be merciful to all’ (Rom. 11:32). If ‘all’ actually means ‘all,’ declaring who is going to hell may not be on track. (44)

I am just not sure where Carter is going with this, and I think he could have made his point about cultural identity markers in another way. For what its worth, I think a “you-don’t-have-to-believe-in-Jesus-to-be-accepted-by-God” approach to Romans needs more defense than appeal to Romans 11. Remember in chapter 10 (just one chapter before), Paul presupposes that being saved involves calling on the Lord (10:13). 10:9 makes it clear this “Lord” is Jesus. The calling requires believing –  believing in Jesus (10:14; cf 10:17).

Again, this was a surprising little statement in a book focused on setting the scene of the New Testament. I think it was out of place, and too brief and vague to be of any proper value in the wider purpose of the book.

We Can All Learn From Carter

Do not let these caveats turn you away from what is overall an articulate work. The best thing this book does is say — you gotta understand the events and cultural situation of Jews (and eventually Christians) in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds if you really want to make sense of the whole New Testament. While I decided not to use this as a textbook,  I have already introduced quotes from the book into my lectures. For more information, Carter has a couple of videos on the book produced by Baker.

The Importance of the Septuagint (The Apocrypha) Part II

In the last post, I talked a bit about the importance and legacy of the LXX. Here I would like to talk about the Apocrypha, which is included within the LXX.

Disclaimer: it is a bit misleading to talk about “the Septuagint.” Someone once wrote that to refer to the Septuagint is like referring to the English Bible. Just as with the English Bible, the Septuagint (as a term) represents a variety of text traditions with a long and winding history. The same goes with the Apocrypha. Which texts make up the Apocrypha? Again, while there are variant collections, there is a central set of texts (Tobit, 1-2 Maccabees, Epistle of Jeremiah, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, etc…) and peripheral texts that appear in fewer collections (4 Maccabees, Odes, etc…). Still, I think we can refer to the Apocrypha generally for convenience.

The books of the Apocrypha are post-exilic compositions. The Septuagint (as a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly the Pentateuch) was written to meet the needs of Hellenistic Jews who desired the sacred texts in the common language of the time. But why was the Apocrypha included in the LXX?

To be quite frank, we don’t know. Perhaps it was added, not because Jews considered it on par with the Pentateuch, but because it was instructive. It nurtured Jewish identity and piety. However, there was no official notation of this in the Septuagint. Nevertheless, we do not see Jews of the second temple period appealing to the Apocryphal texts explicitly (as Scripture), though they sometimes show knowledge of it.  Also, Josephus (Ant. 8.159) makes reference to “books of our own country” as a source of reference for his historical material. Perhaps he refers to the Apocrypha (perhaps other Jewish writings).

The situation regarding the status of the Apocrypha is similarly unclear for the earliest Christians. The NT writers do not quote the Apocrypha explicitly, despite the fact that they did treat the Septuagint as Scripture. Did the NT writers allude to or draw from the Apocrypha? There is ample evidence to show that Jesus, Paul, James, and others certainly were acquainted with the Apocrypha and probably positively influenced by texts like Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach.

Interestingly, the Patristic theologians seemed to have a high respect for the Apocrypha. 1 Clement quotes Wisdom of Solomon, and so does the Epistle of Barnabas. Tobit was cited by Polycarp, and Hippolytus included discussion of the Apocryphal  “Additions to Daniel” in his commentary on Daniel. According to Martin Goodman, “These citations generally treated the text of the Apocrypha as inspired like the rest of Scripture.” Goodman mentions that the Muratorian Canon includes Wisdom of Solomon (though with a caveat). [see OUP’s The Apocrypha; Goodman wrote the very insightful introduction, pp. 1-12].

So, we know that the Apocrypha commanded great respect in the Church for many centuries. Even Jerome, though he challenged the preeminence of the Septuagint, included these works in the Vulgate. But Daniel Harrington sums up well Jerome’s attitude: “Even though he quoted from them and praised their content, he did not regard them as part of the canon and argued they should not be used in establishing doctrine” (Invitation to the Septuagint, 5). But Jerome’s delineation and demotion of the Apocrypha was not indicative of the attitude of the wider Church. Until the Protestant Reformation.

This is where Sola Scriptura comes in. When Luther and the later Reformers pondered the nature and limits of Scripture, the authority of the Apocrypha was reconsidered. Luther himself did include the Apocrypha in an appendix in his German translation of the Bible. He encouraged its use in worship, but felt that it should not be a basis for the development of doctrine.

In response, the 1546 Council of Trent reaffirmed the Apocrypha. Protestant Reformers fell across the spectrum on their treatment of the Apocrypha. Not long after Trent, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer included readings from the Apocrypha. The Puritans, though, rejected these texts completely. For many Protestant Christians today, especially evangelicals, the Apocrypha are treated as uninspired and uninspiring “rejected” texts. When I tell my students that they are going to learn about the Apocrypha, some express fear (as if it will transfer cooties to them), others excitement (as if I were promising to bring the Iron Curtain down), but most appreciate the opportunity to address their ignorance on the subject.

There is one scholar today who has taken it upon himself to promote interest in the Apocrypha amongst Christians: David deSilva (Ashland Theological Seminary). deSilva does not simply want Christians to read the Apocrypha to learn more about Jewish history and genres (though he mentions these benefits). He encourages interest in the Apocrypha as tools for spiritual growth.

[T]he Apocrypha are rich in devotional insights, ethical admonition, and spiritually formative guidance–to such an extent that the majority of the world’s Christians include them among their inspired Scriptures. The apocryphal books teach about repentance and humility before God; they give insights into the spiritual and practical disciplines required to achieve breakthroughs in personal transformation; they teach about the importance of keeping our focus on the life of eternity with God for the preservation of a life of ethical integrity. Because many of these texts were born from the struggle to discover and nurture the way of faithfulness in the midst of significant challenges, they remain devotional literature of the highest order–devotional literature that has stood the test of time and has been repeatedly affirmed by the reading practices of Catholic and Orthodox communions. Even if Protestants do not turn to these texts as sources for theological reflection, the Apocrypha can be valued as worthy and serious conversation partners in the quest for theological truth, wrestling quite openly as they do with questions of perpetual interest. (The Apocrypha, Abingdon, 2013, xiii).

I am probably not as passionate about this as deSilva, though I too try to cure evangelicals of the fear they have of the Apocrypha. Not only are they not dangerous, they are good for you!

In a wonderful article entitled “Never Without A Witness: The Apocrypha and Spiritual Formation” (Ashland Theological Journal 2006), deSilva argues that, even if we treat the Apocrypha as flawed or imperfect, we should at least afford to them  the same value that we do modern books related to Christian devotion and discipleship. So deSilva cogently and elegantly writes:

There is no doubt that the works of Max Lucado or Rick Warren represent the finest devotional fruit that blossoms on the tree that is the church, and many are nourished and delighted by this fruit. But the authors of the Apocrypha are located deeper down among the roots of that tree. The apostles themselves drew their nourishment from these roots as the tree began to sprout when it was but a young sapling. In the most formative centuries of our faith, Christian teachers mined these books as rich treasure troves on the life lived with God, and the life of responding to God. The whole tree has continued to be nourished by them, even though some of its branches do not seem to know it. (p. 77).

But, and here is the million-dollar question – are they “inspired?” Did God imbue these texts with his own unique authority? That is an extremely onerous question, but I like to share with my students a helpful (though complex) quote from Ross Wagner:

[John] Webster’s appeal to God’s gracious and sovereign superintendence of Holy Scripture ‘from pre-textual tradition to interpretation’ bears close affinities, of course, to the theological justifications offered by Origen and Augustine for the role of the Septuagint as a norm for Christian practice and belief. It is because of the sanctifying work of the Spirit in the translation, canonization, and reception of the Christian Bible that we are enabled to hear in the Septuagint, too, ‘the terrifying mercy of God’s address.’ (“The Septuagint and the ‘Search for the Christian Bible'” in Scripture’s Doctrine and Theology’s Bible, pg. 28)
There is a lot of back-history of discussion packed into this quote from Wagner, but the bottom line is this: would God breathe his Spirit into only the original Hebrew Old Testament, and not to the Septuagint which was widely used and learned from by Jews of the Hellenistic period and beyond? Does God’s Spirit not also work and prompt and “inspire” past the text itself and into the actual interpretation of Scripture (which, undoubtedly includes the Septuagint)? The questions come easy; the answers do not.
The last post in the series will offer some suggestions for further reading on the Septuagint and the Apocrypha.