Several New-ish Volumes of Note (Skinner)

CroninI am nearly always in the process of reviewing multiple books. I have recently finished a few that I am about to submit reviews for and wanted to mention them here.

The first is Sonya Shetty Cronin’s revised dissertation (Florida State University), entitled Raymond Brown, ‘The Jews’, and the Gospel of John (LNTS 504; Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2015). As with many books that began their lives as dissertations, this is not the type of volume just anyone will be interested in buying. The subject matter is sufficiently narrow to limit this book to scholars and graduate students. However, the book is a solid historical study of Brown’s evolution on the matter of hoi Ioudaioi in the Fourth Gospel. Shetty examines Brown’s writings–both pastoral and academic–from 1960 to 1997, with several posthumous writings thrown in. The major argument of the book is that in his post-Vatican II context (which helped facilitate interfaith dialogue and sensitivity between Catholics and Jews), Brown evolved drastically over time in his view of “the Jews” in John. Cronin shows that in the 1960s, Brown started from a position that could potentially be called “anti-Jewish,” but which, at the very least, lacked nuance. By the time of his untimely death in 1998, Brown had reached a nuanced stand that helped him (and his readers) stay aware of and avoid potential anti-Judaism in teaching and preaching John. The book is interesting and fairly well-written but shows the signs (especially in its redundancies) of having been a dissertation. There is one thing that really drove me crazy about this book: Cronin misspells Frank Moloney’s name (as Maloney) at least 15 times. Inasmuch as Moloney was the editor and shaper of Brown’s most important posthumous publication (and a preeminent Johannine scholar in his own right), one would have thought such an important detail would not have been overlooked. Overall, however, I do feel that I can recommend this book for those interested in the subject matter. The idea for this study is interesting, especially for those interested in the legacy of one of America’s most important Catholic biblical scholars.

von WahldeThe second book I want to mention is Cam von Wahlde’s recent monograph, Gnosticism, Docetism, and the Judaisms of the First Century (LNTS 517; Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2015). This book aims to question various proposals about the cultural and religious backgrounds against which the Johannine literature appeared. Thus he discusses Gnosticism, Docetism, and various forms of Judaism before arriving at his own proposal. I have always been a big fan of von Wahlde’s work, and as is the case with much of his previous work, I have really enjoyed reading this book, though I don’t know for sure where I stand on some of his conclusions. As many readers will know, von Wahlde has a massive three-volume commentary on the Gospel and Epistles in which he provides a detailed proposal for understanding three different editions of the Gospel. The first portion of the book is largely dependent upon the reader’s awareness and understanding of his previous proposal in the commentary (which he attempts to summarize briefly in the book’s beginning). I do feel as though von Wahlde’s argument is quite compelling in places but a bigger problem I have is with the speculative nature of much of the argument. (This concern is not so much rooted in mistrust of von Wahlde’s work but in my own discomfort with many source- and redaction-critical proposals.) In order for you to buy his argument (which again, is often compelling), you must be able to understand and accept much of his construct of the stages of Fourth Gospel formation. At the end of the day, this is a very helpful volume in many ways. As one would expect, the breadth of von Wahlde’s research and awareness of the pertinent issues is unassailable. This is definitely a must-have for those doing research in Johannine studies.

HarstineThe third book I want to mention briefly is Stan Harstine’s, A History of the Two-Hundred Year Scholarly Debate About the Purpose of the Prologue to the Gospel of John (Edwin Mellen, 2015). This is admittedly a long title for such a short book! In a brief 124 pages, Harstine looks at the history of scholarship on the Prologue (John 1:1-18) from the late 1700s up to the present day (Chapter One) with a specific focus on arguments about the relationship of the Prologue to the “gospel proper ” (John 1:19-20:31). In Chapter Two he identifies eight central concerns raised by scholars over the centuries, offering “pro” and “con” for each. Then in Chapter Three he presents his own concern for an overlooked issue: themes common to both the Prologue and the gospel proper. He concludes the book (Chapter Four) with an example of how his unaddressed concern might look in gospel exegesis. He calls this a “helical reading,” which utilizes elements of both synchronic and diachronic approaches to exegesis. Harstine has done good work in pointing us to a discussion that needs further examination. The express purpose of the book is to provide information that will serve as a starting point for future dialogue. Since the book contains material that has not been pulled together elsewhere, I think he is successful in this aim.

BarkerNext up is James Barker’s recent offering, John’s Use of Matthew (Fortress, 2015). I just received this book in my campus mailbox last week. I intend to provide a full-scale review in due course. I really like what I have read from James, so I’m looking forward to seeing his full argument. Since I have only looked at the book, I have nothing substantive to say at this time, though I do want to make a comment about the book’s layout. I have said this in recent weeks and I’ve heard others express the same sentiment: what is up Fortress Press’s new spacing and fonts? They are unattractive to say the least. (I say this not only as one who regularly reads and reviews books in the field, but also as one who is currently working on a book with Fortress!)

Character Studies and the Gospel of Mark Reviewed in JETS (Skinner)

Skinner.HaugeThe book I co-edited last fall with my friend, Matt Hauge, Character Studies and the Gospel of Mark, was reviewed by D. Keith Campbell in the most recent fascicle of Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. Frankly, I was astonished to see such a positive assessment of the book. The review was one of the most glowing a book of mine has ever received. Campbell closes his review with these words:

[T]he contributors—all pacesetters in Markan narrative criticism—offer penetrating contributions to the field, contributions that NT narrative critics, who especially study characterization, will discuss for years to come. In essence, they accomplish what all researchers strive to accomplish; they advance their field, provide new methods for research, and open clear avenues for others to travel. What more could a monograph offer?

This is where I would normally encourage you to buy a copy but it costs $117!!! Let’s be honest for a second….who has that type of money? However, I am told that the paperback will be available for under $40 in just a few months. THEN you can go buy a copy. Our thanks to Dr. Campbell for both his positive assessment of the book and for his critical engagement with each chapter.

Review: Burke’s Secret Scriptures Revealed (Skinner)

Burke BookAmong those with interests in the non-canonical Christian literature, Tony Burke is well known for his scholarly writings and his blog devoted to exploring the Christian Apocrypha. This volume, which Burke describes as his “dream project” (vi), is a superb introduction to a broad range of early Christian, non-canonical texts. The book consists of seven chapters of unequal length and a short appendix listing resources for further study (pp. 153-56).

Chapter 1 (“What are the Christian Apocrypha?”) is more than a simple introduction to the subject at hand. Burke situates the study of the apocrypha in the modern Western context of media hype, defines a number of key terms, and demonstrates why these texts are important for our study of early Christianity. Particular attention is given to problems with our current terminology (viz., apocrypha, non-canonical, hidden, secret) and how the use of a given term can unwittingly influence the direction of a discussion. We all know that the terms you choose and how you define them are key to discussing literature such as this, especially among audiences that privilege canonical texts. As I have noted elsewhere, many Christians are quick to dismiss as valueless, all non-canonical material. What is striking about this chapter is the way in which Burke describes both the apocrypha and his task. He writes with the passion and infectious enthusiasm of someone who genuinely enjoys his topic of study.

After introducing readers to the foundational questions, Burke uses Chapter 2 to introduce the tools and methods necessary for studying the Christian apocrypha. Included in the overview are texts and translations, historic discoveries such as Nag Hammadi and Oxyrhynchus, monastic libraries, and the apocrypha in art, literature, and drama.

The next three chapters survey non-canonical writings about Jesus’ life (Chapter 3), passion and resurrection (Chapter 4), and early church legends after Jesus’ departure (Chapter 5). These chapters constitute the substance of Burke’s primer as they introduce students to specific texts and their contents. One emphasis that continues to appear throughout the book is the role these writings play in our understanding of history. At the end of Chapter 4, Burke notes, “[T]here is likely little in these texts that can be considered historical—at least not in the sense that these texts provide additional information about what really happened…But the value of these texts lies not in what they say about Jesus, but in what they say about Christians, about how they used early Christian figures and events to discuss and debate new developments in the lives of their communities” (99). These three chapters are succinct and substantive at the same time. This is the portion of the book from which students will glean the most information about the actual content of the Christian Apocrypha.

Chapter 6 (“Myths, Misconceptions, Misinformation”) looks briefly at nine myths and misconceptions related to the apocrypha: (1) The Christian Apocrypha were all written after the texts of the NT, or were all written before the texts of the NT; (2) The Christian Apocrypha are ‘forgeries’ written in the names of the apostles; (3) The Christian Apocrypha were written by Gnostics; (4) The Christian Apocrypha claim that Jesus was not divine; (5) The Christian Apocrypha are bizarre and fanciful compared to the canonical gospels; (6) The Christian Apocrypha were written to undermine or replace the canonical texts; (7) The Christian Apocrypha were enormously popular before their suppression by a powerful minority in the church; (8) The Christian Apocrypha are being used to rewrite Christian history; (9) Reading the Christian Apocrypha is harmful to one’s faith. This chapter is a thorough coverage of ideas that circulate among popular audiences, and thus helps Burke connect with his intended, non-specialist audience.

Chapter 7 consists of a very brief (3 page) conclusion to the work.

Several features of this book stand out in my mind. First, the material Burke covers is grouped by subject matter rather than date, an arrangement that will likely prove useful for non-specialists. Second, his writing style is clear, engaging, and at times, even humorous in places. Third, at the end of each major section there is a textbox providing information for further study. What I most appreciate about this book is that Burke writes with the skill of an expert and the communicative ability of a great teacher. He ably accomplishes the aim of writing an introductory text for the non-specialist. I definitely plan to require this textbook the next time I teach the non-canonical literature!