Daniel L Smith’s New Textbook Into the World of the NT (Gupta)

WNTSince I regularly teach NT survey courses, I am always on the lookout for good textbooks. In fact, I like all the textbooks I am currently using, but there is a tendency for textbooks to get longer and longer, which poses serious challenges for the busy student and the need to have time to read and study the NT text itself. In this regard, I found very impressive the new textbook by Daniel Lynwood Smith called Into the World of the New Testament: Greco-Roman and Jewish Texts and Contexts (Bloomsbury, 2015). In 200 pages, Smith does not try to cover everything in the NT, but examines several key ideas, especially by contextualizing from a socio-historical and political viewpoint. He covers topics like kingdom of God, the Roman world, Messianism and Jesus, John the Baptist, disciples/discipleship, Judaism, the cross, and apocalypses (among other subjects). Smith is a clear and engaging writer and, even though he is trying to write accessibly, he does not shy away from introducing large blocks of text from folks like Josephus, Dead Sea scrolls, and ancient Greeks and Romans. Bloomsbury does a great job with an appealing visual presentation of it all as well. Here is why I think Smith’s approach is particularly attractive – students nowadays can go and find a lot of the facts they want to know about the NT on their own due to the amount and accessibility of resources (in the West, particularly). So, I do not feel the need in my NT courses to get into the details of dating of texts and issues over provenance and partition theories (etc.). What I think every student of the NT needs is a large dose of hermeneutics, a sense of biblical theology and how to read the NT in light of the OT, and how the NT texts are a product of their time historically and what the authors meant to communicate in their own time. Smith, in my opinion, really nails this last part. And, again, he does it briefly to allow for students to manageably consume and process his individual chapters. And he also includes really helpful annotated bibliographies at the end of each chapter. So, if you are looking for possible textbooks and place an emphasis on socio-historical contextualization, but want a short offering, this is the perfect thing!

NB: I received an advance copy and the official public release date is March 2015

Mark Seifrid’s New Pillar Commentary on 2 Corinthians (Gupta)

MSThe Pillar New Testament Commentary series has had some good volumes to its credit (particularly 1 Corinthians, 1-2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, Philippians), so I was excited to see the latest offering by Mark Seifrid on 2 Corinthians. I disagree with Seifrid on not a few things about Paul (particularly related to law and gospel in Romans and Galatians), so I was curious to see what he had to say in this work. (NB: Mike Bird, Linda Belleville, Seifrid and I were invited by ETS several years back to review Tom Wright’s Justification book – Seifrid and I did not see eye-to-eye, so put it mildly!)

I am pleased to report that I found this commentary to be, overall, a very good theological reading of 2 Corinthians. Seifrid offers a conservative Lutheran reading of this letter, even frequently quoting Luther or Lutheran historians and theologians. (I approached my Colossians commentary much the same, but with interest in Bonhoeffer’s theology.) Now, when it comes to Galatians, I do not think a Lutheran approach is that useful, but I was quite inspired by how Luther’s “theology/theologian of the cross” penetrates the heart of what Paul’s is communicating in 2 Corinthians – Seifrid draws that out nicely.

Just to give a nice, simple example: “Second Corinthians is nothing other than an explication of ‘the word of the cross’ that Paul announces in First Corinthians” (83). I also liked this word on 2 Cor 5:14-17: “we are not those who may see and judge, but the blind who have been judged and yet have been granted sight” (249).

Thus, my positive word for this commentary is that it is one of the stronger theological commentaries on 2 Corinthians (in company with Garland, Furnish, and Hafemann). I have no problem recommending it to students for its general orientation to Paul’s theology of the cross.

But as you can imagine, I had my concerns as well. Here are a couple.

First, Seifrid chooses to be brief and laconic where I think he should have said more – his introduction is extraordinarily short (less than 13 pages), he gives very little space to talking about the literary integrity issue, and says almost nothing about the opponents. Secondly, Seifrid seems quite limited in whom he interacts with, so I was quite surprised he did not discuss Gorman’s views on cruciformity and theosis, or Lou Martyn’s very influential work on cross and epistemology (nor Witherington or Barnett for that matter). I assume Gorman and Martyn, as dialogue partners, would be included, so this was disappointing.

Last note – not a criticism, but worth observing. On the very messy business of what Paul is talking about in 3:4-11 (old covenant/new covenant), Seifrid takes on both Richard Hays and Scott Hafemann. Seifrid doesn’t find convincing Hays’ argument that Paul’s focus is on “Spirit-empowered transformation” (Seifrid’s words, p. 131). Nor is he persuaded by Hafemann’s salvation-history approach that moves from OT law-without-Spirit to NT law-with-Spirit. Seifrid sees more disjunction here, especially recognition of the usus elenchticus – the condemning function of the law as a “ministry of death” and condemnation (see p. 138). I think Seifrid has a point in this emphasis, but it seems overstated. Nevertheless, it is interesting that Richard Hays – a methodist – reads this section in view of (moral) transformation. Hafemann – reformed – views this in terms of salvation history. And Seifrid – Baptist-lutheran? – reads this in terms of the condemning function of the law. Fascinating!

In the end, I am not sure what I think about how to interpret the dichotomy that Paul establishes, but I would echo David Garland’s qualification to any of the interpretations: “Glory, not law and grace, is the key theme of this unit. Paul makes the incredible assertion that his ministry is far more glorious than that of Moses, the most illustrious figure in Scripture.” I think we need to be careful how we “theologize” this passage when it is noted how contextualized is Paul’s rhetoric.

So, again, I really did like this commentary overall, and it will serve students well, as long as they know that Seifrid has a limited scope of interaction with scholarship.

Mark Taylor’s New NAC 1 Corinthians Commentary (Gupta)

Several months ago Broadman & Holman kindly sent to me Mark Taylor’s new (2014) “New American Commentary” on 1 Corinthians. I waited until I was lecturing on 1 Corinthians to devote time to reading portions of this commentary.

First, I would like to note that it is an up-to-date and exegetically competent commentary. When it comes to some of the key themes of 1 Corinthians, e.g., Paul’s theology of the cross and mutual upbuilding, Taylor offers thought-provoking discussion. Taylor tends to do a good job laying out various exegetical options and which commentators take those options and why.

Probably my main concern is that the series chose to work with the 1984 NIV translation instead of the updated 2011 version, and the 1984 version maintains male-centered language for generic pronouns in Greek (e.g., autostis). Now, just this fact should not necessarily reflect negatively on Taylor, but it seems the male-centered thinking does get absorbed into his exposition.

For example, when it comes to 1 Cor 3:3 “You are still worldly…Are you not acting like mere men?”, Taylor explicitly endorses the English translation “men/man” (see page 99). By this I think he means that “man” is a suitable word to refer to humankind. I am not sure what is behind this thinking, but I know enough women (and men) in the pews who would be confused by hearing the Bible only talk about and to “men.”

Even BDAG seems to be attuned to the changing nature of the English language – BDAG identifies anthropos as meaning, in its primary uses “human being” (of either sex). BDAG only points to two places in Paul where anthropos seems to be used in a more restrictive way as a word for “man” (1 Cor 7:1; Eph 5:31). My own feeling is that when anthropos is meant to represent human nature in contrast to God and godliness, anthropos is even better translated as “mortal.”

This may seem like a strange concern on my part, but I found the constant male-centered language to be simply too distracting and takes away from the more beneficial features of Taylor’s work.

John MG Barclay’s “Paul and the Gift” is Coming – Some Details! (Gupta)

You can now go to Amazon and see a bit about Prof. John MG Barclay’s forthcoming tome, Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans) – coming, fall 2015. It will be 688 pages! Here is the description:

In this book esteemed scholar John Barclay explores Pauline theology anew from the perspective of grace. Arguing that Paul’s theology of grace is best approached in light of ancient notions of “gift,” Barclay describes Paul’s relationship to Judaism in a fresh way.

Barclay focuses on divine gift-giving, which for Paul, he says, is focused and fulfilled in the gift of Christ. He both offers a new appraisal of Paul’s theology of the Christ-event as gift as it comes to expression in Galatians and Romans and presents a nuanced and detailed consideration of the history of reception of Paul, including Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Barth.

This exegetically responsible, theologically informed, hermeneutically useful book shows that a respectful, though not uncritical, reading of Paul contains resources that remain important for Christians today

HT to Torrey Seland.

A Response to Paul Holloway’s Mockery of N.T. Wright (Gupta)

Holloway has recently expressed deep disappointment with his institution’s (Sewanee) awarding of N.T. Wright an honorary doctorate. Now, Holloway has every right to disagree with this, he is also entitled to protest this, but what concerned me was his basis for his protest – he claims N.T. Wright is not a scholar of the New Testament. In Holloway’s own words:

My complaint is that Sewanee has recognized Wright as a scholar in my discipline, when in fact he is little more than a book-a-year apologist. Wright comes to the evidence not with honest questions but with ideologically generated answers that he seeks to defend. I know of no critical scholar in the field who trusts his work. He contradicts what I stand for professionally as well as the kind of hard-won intellectual integrity I hope to instill in my students. I feel like the professor of biology who has had to sit by and watch a Biblical creationist receive an honorary degree in science.

I take this mockery of Wright personally because (a) part of the reason I went to Durham was to learn from Wright (and Wright received an honorary degree from Durham, my alma mater), (b) I have followed his work quite closely (reading nearly everything he has written, including articles) and appreciated his thoughtfulness, and (c) the journal I used to co-edit (Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters) dedicated a whole issue to a series of reviews of his latest Paul and the Faithfulness of God. So, I feel the need to respond, at least to defend a whole segment of the Society of Biblical Literature that respects his work, even if we don’t always agree with him (and there are indeed some things that I think Wright gets wrong, but I would not mock him as if he were a pseudo-scholar).

1. Is Wright an apologist?

I remember the “New Perspective” wars and Wright was actually quite unpopular amongst most evangelicals for his strange and disturbing views, especially on justification. I can’t imagine anyone thought of him as an apologist. Certainly he advocates for orthodox Christianity, but he is a bishop after all! Perhaps that itself is what Holloway protests, but then I wonder what Holloway thinks of Lightfoot and Westcott.

2. Is Wright ideologically-driven, bad at looking at the evidence and facing it as a scholar?

When I was in seminary, we read The New Testament and the People of God, and Wright is quite emphatic that one must engage with the first century on its own term. He made it clear he wanted to establish a firm setting in history, and a clear academic methodology before embarking on his work on Christian Origins. One might critique his method (by all means, and with academic argumentation), but hardly his motives.

Also when I was in seminary, Wright had been invited to Harvard to serve as visiting chair of divinity. My guess is, Harvard  – while not “on board” with everything Wright taught –  respected him as a scholar of Christian Origins.

Several years back, N.T. Wright and John Barclay went toe-to-toe at SBL in a debate on St. Paul and the Roman empire. The place was packed, many hundreds of people. I think the general sentiment at the end was that Barclay had the better argument, but I doubt more than a few thought – Wright is not a true NT scholar.

I guess I am wondering if Dr. Holloway and his circle of scholars ought to fairly represent the rest of us.

3. Is Wright the New Testament equivalent to the unthinking biblical creationist?

Dr. Holloway published his first monograph in the prestigious SNTSMS of Cambridge. The SNTSMS is the series of the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas, the most elite society of New Testament scholars in the world. Dr. Holloway is a member of SNTS, and for good reason. Guess who else is a member? And Wright has presented at SNTS as recently as 2014, though of course he is a regular contributor in any case.

Wright is also recipient of the Burkitt Medal awarded by the British academy “in recognition of special service to Biblical Studies.” He shares this honor with Prof Tuckett, Prof. Luz, Prof. Bauckham, Prof. Stanton, Prof. Hooker, Prof. Gerd Theissen, and Prof. Hans Dieter Betz (and the award goes back further to Metzger, Fitzmyer, Moule, Barrett, etc.). Did the British academy forget to do their homework in 2014?

Perhaps the most objective way to tell if someone is a “legit” scholar is by journal articles in academic blind peer-reviewed journals – the “blindness” means that the review committee is not simply enchanted by “Wright the apologist.” I did a quick scan of ATLA and saw that Wright has published with many top-tier journals (blind review) including JSNT, JBL, NTS, Scottish Journal of Theology, and JTS. Now, Dr. Holloway might have a bone to pick with an ideological bend of a particular journal, but it is worth noting that Dr. Holloway himself has published with both NTS and JBL, so certainly he must admit these two journals at least meet his standard of genuine scholarship. According to the same standard by which Dr. Holloway wants his scholarship judged, Prof. Wright fits the category of (more than monkey-brained) scholar.

May I add that Wright wisely chose to publish his Christian Origins series, from the beginning, with Fortress Press, and I just don’t think Fortress is known for publishing mickey-mouse scholarship. In fact, I think it is an insult to the Fortress editors to question their intelligence and integrity by working with Wright.

Finally, Wright is contracted to write the Philippians volume for the ICC. The ICC has always struck me as a series that produces scholarship in the highest class (I am thinking of Davies/Allison, Cranfield, but also forthcoming volumes with Karl Donfried and David Horrell). I am pretty sure that is widely believed. Of course the proof of the pudding is in the eating, but we are talking about guild-recognition of Wright’s scholarship and potential for contribution.

As a final word, I would like to make it clear that I am not defending UnS/Sewanee’s decision to grant Wright a doctorate; I do not have an opinion on that issue and Dr. Holloway may be right that it undermines their own institutional convictions. My concern is that Holloway is misrepresenting Wright, and mocking many of us who are in academic dialogue with him. We do not all agree with Wright, in fact I am going to disagree with him in several projects I am working on (I am sure he is used to that), but it simply does no good to mock him. He is a thoughtful scholar, and questioning his integrity does not serve our students well as future and current members of the guild (SBL, BNTS, SNTS and so forth).

Houston Baptist Conference on Early Christianity – April 16-18

Sounds like Houston Baptist is the place to be April 16-18, 2015. NB: John Barclay is always worth hearing!

The Department of Theology at Houston Baptist University is pleased to host a conference on “The Church and Early Christianity” on April 16-18, 2015. You can find out more details at hbu.edu/theologyconference. Our keynote speakers are John Barclay (Durham University), Everett Ferguson (Abilene Christian University), Ben Witherington (Asbury Theological Seminary). In addition, we will have a number of short papers presented by scholars and graduate students regarding the development of early Christian communities within their wider theological and cultural contexts in the first two centuries. Registration for the conference is $40 (see hbu.edu/theologyconference), but admission for the plenary talks is free and open to the public.