The “Response Book”: A Few Reflections on a Uniquely Evangelical Phenomenon (Skinner)

How God Became JesusOver the past few days my social media feeds have been inundated with various posts about two recent books: Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God  and a multi-author “response” volume entitled, How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—A Response to Bart D. Ehrman. Various memes have even been created to promote one side or the other (see here and here). The latter book boasts an international lineup of evangelical luminaries, including Simon Gathercole, Craig Evans, Michael Bird, Charles Hill, and Chris Tilling. The book has also received endorsements from academic heavyweights like Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham. Many of the comments in my Twitter and Facebook feeds have offered words of praise for the “response book” while suggesting that Ehrman’s book is self-serving and part of the “same old story” he continues to tell. In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I know several of the individuals involved in these projects, I respect all of them, and have benefited from some of their past work. That said, I wanted to take a moment to offer a few (perhaps unpopular) reflections on the things that come to my mind when I see yet another evangelical publication aimed at responding to or refuting the work of some scholar outside the evangelical fold. For the record, I have not yet read either book in this debate (both are on the way to my office), so I can’t yet speak to the substance of this particular “response book.” The following reflections are more about the culture that continually feels compelled to produce such responses:

(1) I remember sitting in my first theology course (at an evangelical institution) and hearing my professor lament that many in the evangelical world were too interested in reacting or responding to the arguments of non-evangelicals, with the result that they rarely, if ever, engaged in projects that were genuinely creative or constructive. Sadly, I have found this to be true over the past 15 years. Reacting to those with whom you disagree appears to be a critical part of the warp and woof of evangelical life. So many of the positive comments about the second volume that I have read to this point use descriptors like “brilliant defense” and “cogent response,” which at least gives the impression that those who are reading the book believe this is why the “response book” exists. This general impression makes me sad and a little uneasy, especially since I hold the conversation partners in this debate in high regard, as scholars and as individuals.

(2) To my mind there is an interesting irony in the “response” to Ehrman: the very faction that wants to strip him of his credbility unwittingly contributes to his acclaim. They end up giving him more attention when they really want people to stop reading him. Further, they also unwittingly give the impression that it takes five or six evangelicals to counter one non-evangelical scholar. Evangelicals can’t wait to read a book written by “some of the most learned and faithful scholars within evangelicalism” (an actual quote I read), but the wider, non-evangeical public often views this scenario as an army at war with an individual…which brings me to my next thought. 

(3) One word: Fear. Projects like this one give many non-evangelicals the impression that evangelicals are afraid of the arguments that contradict their own. Whether this is true or not is debatable.

(4) I know many gifted and creative scholars working both within and outside of evangelical circles. Those who get the most attention are not necessarily those who propagate a non-evangelical narrative or even a non-Christian narrative, though I often hear this critique. Generally speaking, those who get wide attention do so because of the quality of the work they put forward. Yes, Bart Ehrman gets a lot of publicity. Much of this is related to his ability to write compellingly for non-specialist audiences. He communicates, both on television and in print, in a creative and original way. You may not be thrilled with his narrative, but you can’t doubt his ability to connect with the wider public. When the evangelical faction as a rule begins to do truly interesting, creative, and constructive work, they may begin getting the same attention. However, this might also require a re-thinking of the evangelical narrative in which greater nuance is applied and ground is ceded to those with better, more compelling, and more convincing arguments.

Can We Still Use “Embarrassment” in Some Meaningful Way? (Skinner)

MulletAnyone who reads my posts on this blog (or my previous blog) knows that I have been largely won over by the movement to dispense with the Jesus criteria. However, I’m not completely ready to jettison every potentially good lesson (cultural, literary, historical, etc.) that may have been spawned by discussions about the criteria. I have always been fond of the criterion of embarrassment because I felt that, among other things, it helped us trace historical developments in the gospel traditions. While I think Rafael Rodriguez has made a very strong case that we cannot use this as a means of getting back to the historical Jesus, I’m wondering if we can’t use the concept of “embarrassment” to help us better understand the evolution of certain teachings within the canonical gospel traditions? Let me turn to the paradigmatic example: Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist.

It has often been said that Jesus’ baptism by John was a source of embarrassment to the early church that is subsequently explained away as the tradition evolves. I think there is something to this, though I don’t necessarily think it “proves” the baptism is historical.

In the Gospel of Mark, John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (1:4) and shortly thereafter, the audience learns that Jesus comes to him and is baptized (1:9). I like to tell my students that after this event, there is no parenthetical note to the audience which reads: “Dear followers of Jesus, do not be dismayed by this turn of events. Jesus was sinless from the foundation of the world. This merely took place as an object lesson for future disciples.” Instead, Mark, simply unaware of later Christological trajectories that would proclaim Jesus as “divine” (e.g. John 1, Hebrews 1, Colossians 1, etc.), proclaims something that was not AT THE TIME embarrassing. Mark’s presentation of Jesus’ baptism only becomes a source of potential embarrassment as the early church engages in sustained theological reflection on the life, vocation, and death of Jesus. It is hard for me to read Mark as an autonomous narrative and not feel that later traditions try to explain (Matthew) or even explain away (John), Jesus’ baptism. For Matthew and John the tradition seemed to be a source of embarrassment, even if Mark had no problem with it.

Recently in one of his podcasts, Mark Goodacre took aim at the criterion of embarrassment, commenting that the early church simply would not have retained something that would have been embarrassing. While I agree with much that he says there, I’d like to suggest a qualification to his point. Many of us make choices at a point in time that is not AT THAT MOMENT, embarrassing, but may prove to be at a later time. To illustrate this, we only need to think back to some of the hairstyles or clothing choices of our younger days. When many of us see photos of our youth we cringe at the sight of ourselves. When I was 21 years old, I had both ears pierced with big gold hoops and hair down to my shoulders. I recently saw a picture of myself from that period and I couldn’t believe how ridiculous I looked. At the time, I thought I looked “cool.” Today I look at myself and wonder, “what was I thinking” (and also, “what was everyone else thinking?”).

My point is this: We often have no way of knowing in the present what we might regret or be embarrassed by in the future. So, perhaps things that were embarrassing to the early church did find their way into the NT, and while we can’t necessarily use those to demonstrate the historicity of a given saying or action in the NT, we can use them to evaluate the historical development of traditions within the canonical gospels. I’m interested in your thoughts on this….


Reconsidering Justification with Stephen Westerholm (Gupta)

Westerholm JR
Stephen Westerholm, Justification Reconsidered

As a graduate of the University of Durham, you might suspect that I have a soft spot in my theological heart for Jimmy Dunn and N.T. Wright – and I do. Generally speaking, I think folks like Dunn, Wright, and Hays have done far more good than damage in their work on Paul in the last few decades.

But I am no blanket endorser of the “New Perspective” and I think there are folks who have tried to see some middle ground between “old” and “new” (Howard Marshall and Brian Rosner come to mind). On the “old perspective” side, you have Schreiner, Piper, Seifrid, Carson, and Moo. I seriously struggle with some of their interpretations of Galatians (more on that on another occasion after I finish Moo’s Gal commentary). But I think one of the finest “old perspective” advocates is Stephen Westerholm. And for those of you critical of the NPP, you will be happy to know that I found much agreement with Westerholm on the topic of justification in his new book, Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme (Eerdmans, 2013).

Even though it is a short book, it is surprisingly wide-ranging, so I will limit the discussion to three issues that Westerholm treats.

1. Is Stendahl correct? Was Luther wrong to think that “justification” language has to do primarily with vertical (soteriological) issues rather than horizontal (Gentiles accepted as Gentiles; social) ones? I think Westerholm quite easily rebuts Stendahl’s approach by making appeal to 1 Thessalonians. Even though justification language does not feature in 1 Thess, it is a text that reveals the nature of Paul’s Christian preaching, which certainly included appeal to divine wrath and the possibility of deliverance through Jesus Christ (1 Thess 1:9-10). He argues: “The notion that a deity might be angered by their actions was nothing new, and divine displeasure was a dangerous thing” (5). In response to Stendahl, and in particular reference to evidence from 1 Thess, Westerholm wryly writes:

“If ‘the leading edge of Paul’s theological thinking was the conviction that God’s purpose embraced Gentiles as well as Jew, not the question of how a guilty man might find a gracious God,’ [Westerholm quoting Stendahl] and if the latter question marks rather the concerns of the later West, then it must be said that Paul’s message to the Thessalonians left them in the dark about the core of his thinking while pointlessly answering a question that they were born in quite the wrong time and place to even dream of raising”  – (ZING! Touche, Westerholm!; 6)

I think Westerholm is highly persuasive on this matter.

2. Is Tom Wright correct? Is Paul’s “justification” language all about being “declared to be a member of God’s people” and a label for the covenant people, the children of Abraham?

From Westerholm’s study of the OT and Paul, he concludes that there is a pervasive meaning of dik* lanuage in reference to salvation on behalf of the ungodly (see 67). Especially regarding Galatians, Westerholm writes, “the word ‘justify’ cannot mean what Wright wants it to mean; no Galatian would have heard ‘justified’ and thought ‘entitled to sit at the family table’; nor would Paul (who elsewhere uses dikaio– terms in their ordinary sense) have used this word here if that was what he wanted to say.” (68). Rather than focusing the language on covenant or covenant membership, Westerholm argues that righteousness refers to the universal standard of rightness established by God.

I think, generally speaking, Westerholm is correct on this matter. Justification/righteousness language does not designate covenant inclusion per se. However, Gal 2 makes it clear enough there is an in-group issue at hand and Paul takes words that normally have a vertical force (soteriology) and draws them into the very social discussion in Galatia. For example, he tells Peter that “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners” (2:15). By “sinner,” the normal force would have nothing to do with ethnicity, but in this context that element is noticeably at the forefront, is it not? Or 2:17: “But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners” – what does it mean here to be “sinners”? No doubt, most interpreters take this to mean like the Gentiles (in view esp of 2:14).

So, to try to do justice (!) to Westerholm’s concern for the meaning of dik* language, I would agree with him that its denotative meaning is vertical (soteriological), but in the context of Gal 2-3, it takes on a connotative meaning related to Jews and Gentiles as social groups (where meal fellowship and circumcision, and matters of social inclusion/exclusion are at play).

Taken in this light, dikaioo does not really mean “to be recognized as within the covenant.” Rather, it means “justified” before God in view of sin (as Westerholm urges), BUT (I would add) with the direct implication/entailment that Gentiles are accepted by faith as Gentiles. And the entailments are quite important, so they virtually become fused with the “normal” meaning in this context and for Paul’s clear rhetorical purposes. Is that a way forward in the justification-and-Galatians debate? (In relationship to this, let me note that when I did a quick study of a variety of uses of dik* language in the LXX and early Jewish literature, I came to agreement with Westerholm about how such terminology is used in general, but it is interesting to note that, often enough, in the DSS righteousness language is connected to “the elect” [see,e.g., 4Q184]; and in the Maccabean literature we see righteousness associated with Jewish martyrdom; see 1 Mac 2:51-52; 4 Mac 18:15).

3. Is justification about social groups or is it about sin?

Westerholm is absolutely right to give a special focus on Paul’s theology of sin. Westerholm defends the Augustinian and Reformational emphasis on sinful depravity, such that Paul is compelled to preach the need for sinners to be justified before God in Jesus Christ.

 “Like Paul, these interpreters of his writings are convinced that human beings untransformed by the gospel cannot (really) do good; unlike Paul, they spell out that what distinguishes the apparent virtue of the untransformed from true virtue is their failure to give God his due. Where God is not honored, something basic is awry, spoiling even what would otherwise be good” (48)

I think this is right, and that Paul had a vocational passion to preach good news to hopeless sinners. The one thing, though, that makes me hesitate here is how to interpret Phil 3:6 if Westerholm is correct: what does it mean that Paul calls himself “blameless” when it comes to righteousness under Torah? I don’t have answers of my own, but yet-unanswered questions.

I think we are waiting for a good (hopefully affordable!) monograph on Pauline hamartiology.

Last Words

So, in the end, Luther was on to something when it comes to justification. I have some quibbles with Westerholm’s reading of Galatians, but overall this is a fine treatment of the subject of justification and he has ably challenged Wright to, once again, say a bit more on how he reads dik* language in Paul (esp in Galatians) and to further defend his ideas.

Can We Still Believe the Bible? – Response to Blomberg (Gupta)

I am happy to be participating in the blog tour for Craig Blomberg’s new book Can We Still Believe the Bible? (Brazos, 2014). I signed up to discuss the fifth chapter. Here is my response:

From creation to camels, the topic of the historical reliability of the Bible has been pretty hot news lately. So, it makes all the sense in the world for Craig Blomberg to address the question: “Aren’t Several Narrative Genres of the Bible Unhistorical?” (Chapter 5) in his new book Can We Still Believe the Bible? Sometimes Bible-reading skeptics find it too incredible that Jonah could be swallowed by a big fish and still live to tell the story. Or that the world was made in under a week. Or that Job had long conversations with his friends in poetic verse – for real? Do we have to believe these things happened historically?

Given that Blomberg wrote a book called The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, one might think that he pushes for defense of the direct historicity of the text on such matters. After all, many people make this into a clear either-or: either the text is “right” or “wrong” historically. Thankfully, Blomberg does not discuss this matter on these grounds. No, he turns the reader’s attention to genre and purpose. Not all narratives in Scripture are trying to make an objective and point-by-point historical claim. Blomberg gives the example of parables, texts like the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which are not narratives that are intended to be treated as historical fact. The parables make for an easy case – we can spot these and we know better than to see them as actual events. But what about other narratives: Gen 1-3, Jonah, Job, Matthew, Daniel, Revelation?

Here is what I think Blomberg does (which I find helpful). He notes that in cases like Job, genre matters are complex and it very well could be that “epic and legend are…built around historical characters.” As for Jonah, Blomberg alerts readers to the possibility that “Jonah is fundamentally a historical account that dramatizes, for didactic and hortatory purposes, events that actually happened to the prophet of the same name in 2 Kings 14:25.” (It is not crystal clear where Blomberg himself stands on these issues, but he finds such theories possible and, perhaps, attractive.)


How about the authorship of Isaiah? Blomberg agrees that there is evidence for and against a traditional view (of one author [Isaiah] versus three authors). However, in his mind, such authorship questions have little to do with the truth of the message of Isaiah or what he considers “biblical inerrancy.”


Overall, I was very satisfied with Blomberg’s discussion of historicity and inerrancy. He kept the focus on genre, and left room for there to be appropriate discussion about what a given book/text is actually trying to claim about its relationship to history. For example, when it comes to Gen 1-3, he is quick to note that the theological emphases are central: “it is likely that when the ancient Israelites wrote their history in forms reminiscent of other cultures’ myths, it was done deliberately to subvert those myths and attribute to the God of Israel what other peoples claim was the purview of their own deities.” Looking at the big picture, Blomberg urges us to determine whether or not a narrative (historically) is central to “God’s history of salvation for humanity.” In the case of Gen 2-3, he does not think it can be purely fictional. But that does not preclude the possibility of theological shaping for teaching purposes.

Blomberg takes quite a bit of time to evaluate the case study of the ejection of Robert Gundry from the Evangelical Theological Society on the grounds that Gundry could not be an inerrantist and also consider Matthew “midrash.” Blomberg defends Gundry’s right to have remained a member of ETS on the grounds that “it was not the role of the society to censure a member or try to censor his publications if he had made a good case for how his views could be consistent with inerrancy” – Yes, yes, yes! Students, Christians, readers, listen to Blomberg on this!

I think Blomberg did two things brilliantly in this chapter from a pedagogical standpoint: (1) he demonstrated that not all things are crystal clear in Scripture, so there must be respectful ongoing debate and dialogue on matters where wise and well-researched evangelicals tend to see things differently; and (2) biblical interpretation requires gobs of humility. Blomberg shows these in spades!


Ongoing Questions

Why Bother with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy? In this chapter, Blomberg makes appeal to the CSBI on more than one occasion. Personally, I find the CSBI convoluted. On the one hand, Blomberg notes that a clear emphasis in the CSBI falls on proper determination of genre and textual purpose (so article 13 of CSBI). However, just prior (article 12), the CSBI states that “We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.” So, the CSBI does not seem to be leaving open the possibility that Gen 1-3 is not offering direct historical accounts of origins. Does that mean that only analysis of genre could clarify the proper interpretation of Gen 1-3 and not developments in scientific theory and knowledge? The CSBI seems to be saying, let’s be open to discuss historicity and genre on everything except Gen 1-3.

Like the US Constitution, I think people like Blomberg see the CSBI as a document that offers some flexibility in its interpretation. My question is: why bother? You can still be an inerrantist and try to define it on broader terms: “Scripture is true and without error in all that God intends to teach.” On that definition, I am happily an inerrantist!

Second question: Could the evangelists have made any mistakes unknowingly? The burden of Blomberg’s argument is that we really need to know the author’s intentions before making a decision about a text’s historical claims. On that issue, we are in agreement. But he does not seem to address possibilities where the author may have simply been wrong. For example, what would Blomberg say about Mark 2:25-26 where Mark has Jesus make reference to Abiathar as high priest during the incident where David requests the bread of the Presence. However, according to 1 Sam 21, Ahimelech was high priest. Now, there are all kinds of “solutions” to this problem, but I want to know whether Blomberg could entertain the possibility of Mark simply making a mistake. (On this particular issue, I am undecided, so I have no dog in this fight.)

Third question – perhaps the most important one: What is Blomberg’s theory of inspiration such that biblical authors are able to tell the whole truth perfectly? Let’s say Blomberg believes that Luke’s gospel has a strong historical foundation in the reality of the life and ministry of Jesus. How is it possible that Luke gets this just right? Even if Luke did all his homework right and checked and double-checked all his facts, we know that incidental mistakes happen. How does inspiration work such that the gospel of Luke (for example) does not contain these normal kinds of errors? Again, I am not trying to interrogate Blomberg – I get asked this kind of thing from students all the time, and I just want to know how he answers such questions!

Final words

I will admit that, at first, I wondered whether this was your typical apologetics textbook where major questions that Bible readers ask are addressed at the surface level and challenges are swept under the carpet. Thankfully, this chapter put my mind at ease. Blomberg writes as one who fully recognizes the messiness of biblical interpretation and his reflections are mature, his case studies informative.

On the Greatness of Joseph Fitzmyer (Skinner)

FitzToday I was reading a student’s exegetical paper on Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain,” and the student in question cited Joe Fitzymer’s Luke commentary (from the Anchor Bible series) numerous times. At one point in the paper the student wrote, “I agree with Fitzmyer that…..,” to which I wrote in all caps in the margin, THAT’S USUALLY A GOOD THING TO DO.” Most of my students are 19 or 20 years old and likely have no idea who Joseph Fitzmyer is or the impact he had on the field of biblical studies for the better part of five decades. Here’s a fun exercise: if you are sitting in an office or in a theological library right now, pick up a few random titles on the New Testament published in the past 50 years, then go to the index. There’s a good chance you will see, “Fitzmyer, J. A.” at least once, probably more than once.

When I was beginning my doctoral studies at Catholic University, Fitzmyer was just about to retire. I had the privilege of interacting with him on a number of occasions and was always impressed by the sharpness of his intellect. Few scholars can boast the range of expertise that Fitzmyer displayed for so many years: Dead Sea Scrolls, Aramaic, Pauline theology, the Gospels, all elements of Roman Catholic biblical studies, and the list could continue.

Sadly, for health reasons Fitzmyer has not been writing over the past 7 to 8 years, and I’m afraid that many students currently pursuing research in our field may not know or appreciate his legacy. I once heard Dale Allison say in a lecture: “Some of the old books are still pretty good, while some of the new books are surprisingly bad.” In the spirit of that quotation, I felt like celebrating a scholar whose work is, “still pretty good.” I’d appreciate it if you’d celebrate along with me.