Some New Books in Gospels Studies (Gupta)

My official “wheelhouse” is Paul (I have a commentary on 1-2 Thessalonians in the editing process, and I am working on commentaries on Philippians, Galatians, and 2 Timothy over the next few years) -but I “dabble” in the Gospels when I get a chance. I am making progress on a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer. So, excited to have been plunging into some really interesting recent books about the Gospels and Jesus.

TanKim Huat Tan, Mark (New Covenant series; Wipf & Stock). The New Covenant series (editors Mike Bird and Craig Keener) continues to fill up, with a recent volume on Mark by Tan who serves as professor and dean at Trinity Theological College, Singapore. This is a very good (though also very traditional) reading of Mark. Tan leans in favor of viewing John Mark as author, with Peter as key source. Tan believes that the occasion of the writing of Mark may have been the onset of persecution; the purposes may have been many, including pastoral care for a beleaguered community, the passing down of apostolic teaching, and possibly counteracting false teaching (see 7). As I mentioned, Tan’s work is conventional, but he seems very well-acquainted with Markan scholarship. I am glad to see good scholarship coming from Asia and I appreciate Bird, Keener, and Wipf & Stock supporting global scholarship in this way.

SWrightStephen Wright, Jesus the Storyteller (WJK).  This book is remarkable even if just for the fact almost no one has thought of doing this before – the study of Jesus’ parables is so convoluted, has anyone thought to analyze Jesus’ story-parables from the perspective of narrative criticism? Wright knows his way around parables-scholarship exceptionally well and offers a helpful rundown of the state of the discussion. Here, he puts several approaches/methods together to take a fresh look at the parables – orality, memory, testimony, performance, as well as reception history and of course narrative criticism. He examines such elements of Jesus’s stories as setting, characterization, point of view, and plot. From this perspective, he is able to identify interesting repeated narrative themes: obstacles in life, violence, contrasting characters, embeddedness of hierarchy, reversal of fortunes, etc. Perhaps my favorite aspect of his book is the implications Wright draws regarding what “Jesus as storyteller” tells us about Jesus himself. Drawing from the work of Beutner and Funk, Wright acknowledges that there is a playfulness and liveliness to the way Jesus taught – he was a kind of entertainer! He preferred to share his message about the kingdom in a very contextualized and stylistic manner. He was savvy! This is a very insightful book.

GGRichard Bauckham, Gospel of Glory (Baker). Bauckham is writing a very big commentary on the Fourth Gospel, but in the meantime he has been producing all kinds of works on the history and interpretation of John and the Jesus tradition. This is his latest installment with chapters on themes such as “Individualism,” Divine and Human Community, Glory, Cross/Resurrection/Exaltation, Dualisms, etc. This is not a comprehensive “theology of John,” but more of a selection of unique theological themes in John. The impressive thing about Bauckham is that he is always wanting to find new paths into old topics. For example, he eschews a formal discussion of the death/resurrection of Jesus in chapter 4. He tackles this topic by discussing the interlocking themes of love, life, glory, and truth. This, I agree, represents John’s interests well. Take up and read!

Green ConvJoel B. Green, Conversion in Luke-Acts (Baker). This is a masterful study of the theme of “conversion” from a senior scholar of Luke-Acts. Green examines this subject particularly with insight from modern cognitive studies (see esp chapter 2). He urges here that biblical scholars have, for too long, interpreted conversion exclusively in terms of the life of the interior only. Green, with characteristic theological and exegetical finesse, makes a strong case for this holistic definition of conversion in Luke-Acts:

Converts are those who, enabled by God, have undergone a redirectional shift and now persist along the Way with the community of those faithfully serving God’s eschatological purpose as this is evident in the life, death, and exaltation of the Lord Jesus Christ, and whose lives are continually being formed through the Spirit at work in and through practices constitutive of this community” (see 163).

I am particularly appreciative of the inclusion of both human and divine agency in understanding Luke’s articulation of conversion. Also, the communal dimensions are especially appropriate to Luke’s perspective, but sometimes screened out by modern readers.


Rutledge on the Crucifixion Part 3 (Gupta)



Today I want to discuss chapters 3 and 4 of Fleming Rutledge’s book Crucifixion. (I am skipping over the excursive chapter in between on Anselm because I don’t have much to add to her discussion; see the last post here)

Chapter 3 is about “The Question of Justice” – why did Jesus have to die? Rutledge rightfully emphasizes the focus on justice in the OT. She goes further than this to talk about how forgiveness and restitution is really achieved.

Forgiveness in and of itself is not the essence of Christianity, though many believe it to be so. Forgiveness must be understood in its relationship to justice if the Christian gospel is to be allowed its full scope. (115)

She gives the important example of life after Apartheid – one cannot “forgive” without a means for sustaining a new system of justice (see 116). This is absolutely right, something Miroslav Volf has emphasized as well. Indeed, Rutledge offers this quote from Volf: “The cross is not forgiveness pure and simple, but God’s setting aright the world of injustice and deception” (126).

God seeks not just to use the cross as a magic wand to “forgive” – no, the death of Jesus is the center of God’s plan to overturn an unjust world. I am not sure, though, Rutledge really explained how the cross in particular achieves (or begins) this.

Chapter 4 is about “The Gravity of Sin.” I absolutely commend the fact that Rutledge wants to give due attention to the topic of sin. Far too few studies of atonement in the NT give proper consideration of this subject. From the start, Rutledge emphasizes that the NT focuses on “Sin” (as an entity) and not “sins” (as wrong-doings) (see 168). She is obviously throwing in her lot with Lou Martyn – I think to the extreme, unfortunately. While there are many NT scholars who recognize that sometimes Paul interpreters sin as a entity (e.g., in 1 Corinthians), she pushes to one side almost entirely. In her own words:

Sin is not so much a collection of individual misdeeds as it is an active, malevolent agency bent upon despoiling, imprisonment, and death – the utter undoing of God’s purposes. (175)

Two questions – is this true outside of Paul? Also, why does Paul himself use the plural so frequently, if this is the case? (e.g., Rom 4:7; 7:5; 11:27; 1 Cor 15:3; particularly 15:17). Rather, there seems to be an important dialectic here, Sin, yes, is our monster (as the old confession goes), but Paul equally reminds his readers they are guilty of their own sins (Gal 1:4). That is, sinners are somehow equally victims of Sin and self-inflicted victims – their guilt is truly their own. Note how clear it is in Ephesians 2:1: “You were dead in your transgressions and sins.” Also, I am no expert, but Hebrews seems to me to be bent towards viewing sin(s) in a way much like the Old Testament – personal covenantal infractions that lead to guilt. How do we integrate different canonical voices?

Perplexingly to me, she turns at the end of the chapter to recover some balance, acknowledging that sin is both “responsible guilt” and “an alien power” (181). Then, yet again, she goes on to focus on “Sin as Power” (188ff). Perhaps this represents the convoluted discussion of Sin/sins in the biblical tradition. It is certainly worth further study.

Next time, we will continue into her chapters on biblical motifs related to the death of Jesus.


Ethics in the Johannine Literature, Part 3 (Skinner)

The TwelveIn the last post we looked at the old scholarly consensus that the Johannine literature lacks ethics altogether. Today we will look at the second of three major views.

(2) The ethics of the Johannine literature are sectarian, exclusive, negative, or oppositional

For the past five decades, scholars have paid particular attention to the sectarian nature of the Johannine literature. Beginning in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, a handful of scholars began setting forth serious historical reconstructions of the Johannine community. In particular, the groundbreaking work of J. Louis Martyn (along with important contributions from Raymond E. Brown, Wayne Meeks, D. Moody Smith, and R. Alan Culpepper) revolutionized contemporary readings of the Fourth Gospel; their work continues to be foundational for modern understandings of Johannine sectarianism.[1]

Martyn’s argument for a two-level reading of the Fourth Gospel was a watershed moment in contemporary Johannine studies, shaping the way scholars understood the Sitz im Leben of the community.[2] Martyn argued that the Johannine community was embroiled in a theological controversy with the local synagogue, a claim he attempted to validate through an examination of three passages in which the term aposunagōgos (“out of the synagogue”) is used (John 9:22; 12:42; 16:2).[3] There is no need to rehearse the finer points of Martyn’s theory here, as it has been a topic of nearly continuous conversation in Johannine studies. Suffice it to say that while there remains debate over the details of Martyn’s proposal, there is still fairly wide acceptance of the two-level hypothesis.[4]

Related to the claim that Johannine ethics are sectarian and exclusive is the observation that the Johannine literature is oppositional inasmuch as it is rooted in the pitting of different groups against one another. In the Gospel a group known simply as “the Jews” (Greek: hoi Ioudaioi) is consistently at odds with Jesus, while the Epistles portray a conflict within the community that has led to a departure of some Jesus-followers who hold a different Christological point of view. These observations have led some to conclude that the ethics of the Johannine literature do not reflect the universal quality of Jesus’ teaching elsewhere in the NT. For example, Luke’s Jesus encourages his followers to love their neighbors (10:25-37), while Matthew’s Jesus commands his followers to love their enemies (5:43-45), both of which can be applied universally. However, both the Johannine Jesus and the author(s) of the Epistles encourage love for “one another.”[5] In the context of the Johannine community’s ongoing conflicts, is this the same sort of inclusive love we see in Matthew and Luke, or is there an inherent tribalism embedded in this love?

In his analysis of the love relationships in the Gospel and 1 John, Fernando Segovia examined Johannine love language against the backdrop of the community’s proposed history. Segovia groups John’s love commands into seven distinct categories: (1) the Father’s love for Jesus, (2) the Father’s love for the disciples, (3) Jesus’ love for the Father, (4) Jesus’ love for the disciples, (5) the disciples’ love for the Father, (6) the disciples’ love for Jesus, and (7) the disciples’ love for each other.[6] His broader interest in the study was to better understand the redaction of the Fourth Gospel vis-à-vis 1 John, though he also argued for the sectarian character of the love commands expressed in these writings.[7] In this same vein, Wayne Meeks has commented that the “only rule [of the Johannine Jesus] is ‘love one another,’ and that rule is both vague in its application and narrowly circumscribed, being limited solely to those who are firmly within the Johannine circle.”[8] Ernst Kasemann has written that there “is no indication in John that love for one’s brother would also include love toward one’s neighbour.”[9] Similarly, Frank Matera wonders, “What is the content of this love? How do disciples exercise this love in real life situations? Whom does this love include? Is this a universal love such as is found in the Gospel of Luke, or has love become exclusive and sectarian in the Fourth Gospel?[10] Thus, one serious implication from observations about the various community conflicts is that while there are ethics in the Johannine literature, they are not suitable within the broader context of what could be termed “Christian” instruction. In a well-known denunciation of John’s “moral bankruptcy,” Jack T. Sanders has written:

Precisely because such [fundamentalist] groups, however, now exist in sufficient abundance to be visible, perhaps the weakness and moral bankruptcy of the Johannine ethics can be seen more clearly. Here is not a Christianity that considers that loving is the same as fulfilling the law (Paul) or that the good Samaritan parable represents a demand (Luke) to stop and render even first aid to the man who has been robbed, beaten, and left there for dead. Johannine Christianity is interested only in whether he believes. “Are you saved, brother?” the Johannine Christian asks the man bleeding to death on the side of the road. “Are you concerned about your soul?” “Do you believe that Jesus is the one who came down from God” “If you believe, you will have eternal life,” promises the Johannine Christian, while the dying man’s blood stains the ground.[11]

While there is some truth to this rhetorically powerful caricature, we can confidently say that Sanders has substituted one contemporary appropriation of the Gospel of John with the gospel itself.

The same sort of criticism Sanders raises against fundamentalist readings of John could also be raised against the egregious examples of anti-Judaism that have been justified by some readings of the Fourth Gospel over the centuries. While there is no doubt that many illegitimate actions have been justified by specific contextual readings of the NT, as we move forward in our series of posts we will keep our reflections on the nature of Johannine ethics in the context of the history of the Johannine community rather than specific appropriations of Johannine texts.[12]

The recent history of research has produced countless similar denunciations of Johannine ethics. While the most prominent arguments in favor of recognizing ethics in the Johannine literature have also argued that those ethics are negative, sectarian or inward looking, more recent treatments have argued that the ethics of the Johannine literature are positive and potentially viable within broader schemes of Christian ethics. Our next post will consider some of those arguments.


[1] See in chronological order, J. Louis Martyn, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel (Nashville: Abingdon, 1968); Wayne A. Meeks, “The Man from Heaven in Johannine Sectarianism,” JBL 91 (1972): D. Moody Smith, “Johannine Christianity: Some Reflections on Its Character and Delineation,” NTS 21 (1974-1975): R. Alan Culpepper, The Johannine School, SBLDS 26 (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1975); and Raymond E. Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple: The Lives, Loves and Hates of an Individual Church in New Testament Times (New York: Paulist, 1979).

[2] John Ashton has written that Martyn’s book was “the most important single work on the Gospel since Bultmann’s commentary” (Understanding the Fourth Gospel [Oxford: Clarendon, 1991], 107).

[3] Among those who doubt the existence of a Johannine community are Richard Bauckham and his former student, Edward W. Klink. See also the recent proposal of Urban C. von Wahlde, Gnosticism, Docetism, and the Judaisms of the First Century: The Search for the Wider Context of the Johannine Literature and Why It Matters, LNTS 517 (London: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2015).

[4] For a recent treatment of these questions, see Jonathan Bernier, Aposynagōgos and the Historical Jesus in John: Rethinking the Historicity of the Johannine Expulsion Passages, BIS (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

[5] E.g., John 13:34-35; 15:12, 17; 1 John 3:11, 14, 16, 23; 4:7,11.

[6] Fernando F. Segovia, Love Relationships in the Johannine Traditions: Agapē/Agapan in 1 John and the Fourth Gospel, SBLDS 58 (Chico, CA: Scholars, 1982).

[7] In a related study, Segovia notes that “number of recent exegetical studies on the different levels of the Johannine tradition have adopted the position that the community behind that tradition was consistently ‘sectarian’ in nature” (Fernando F. Segovia, “The Love and Hatred of Jesus and Johannine Sectarianism,” CBQ 43 [1981]: 258).

[8] Meeks, “Ethics of the Fourth Evangelist,” 318.

[9] Ernst Kasemann, The Testament of Jesus: A Study of the Gospel of John in Light of Chapter 17, trans. Gerhard Krodel (London, SCM, 1968), 59. Similar denunciations abound. See Mary E. Clarkson, “The Ethics of the Fourth Gospel,” Anglican Theological Review 31 (1949): 112-15; Victor Paul Furnish, The Love Command in the New Testament (Nashville: Abingdon, 1972), 144-48; Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (San Francicso: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 139-40.

[10] Frank J. Matera, New Testament Ethics: The Legacies of Jesus and Paul (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996), 92 (emphasis added).

[11] Jack T. Sanders, Ethics in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975), 99-100 (emphasis added).

[12] A conspicuous example of using NT texts to justify illegitimate behavior can be found by looking at the arguments of American slaveholders against those advocating for the abolition of slavery. Slaveholders commonly used Pauline statements about “slaves obeying their masters” (Eph 6:5-8; Col 3:22; Tit 2:9) to justify slavery as a God-ordained institution.