Book Review: Interpreting the General Letters

Interpreting the General Letters: An Exegetical Handbook by Herbert W. Bateman IV.

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Thanks to the kind folks at Kregel for this review copy! I received this book free of charge in exchange for an unbiased review.

Everyone who opens the Scriptures to read will invariably read the text in light of their own experiences, biases, etc.—this is practically a given—and we all know the dangers of reading texts without the appropriate sensibilities. Thankfully, scholars throughout history have provided works that serve as guides to help navigate the complexities of texts and this is no more important than when dealing with ancient texts.

One might also ask, as many do with yet another volume on a particular subject is released, why do we need another book on this subject? As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, I always welcome new works on any given subject because no one person/team could exhaustively discuss all issues relevant to any given topic, much less resolve all of the issues intertwined. However, one of the dangers in this proliferation of topic-specific works is that many will essentially say the same thing, causing us to ask again if we really need another volume on this subject or that.

In the case of Bateman’s contribution to Kregel’s Handbooks for New Testament Exegesis series, there is much to be commended and is an insightful and helpful volume. As the title indicates, Bateman tackles the issues of interpreting the general letters—Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude (and oddly the Johannine letters, which are typically addressed along with John’s gospel and Revelation, but included here presumably because they are letters). You can expect the standard fare in this volume. Discussion in the first few chapters (1–3) follows fairly typical lines of genre, background, and theological issues that arise and Bateman provides the requisite guidelines on how to identify and assess them in the broader scheme of interpretation. Chapters 4–7 focus more on the spadework of exegesis—translation, grammar and syntax, and interpreting the various components that comprise the letters. Chapter 8 is a bibliography for further reading on the various issues addressed throughout the book.

Overall, this is a rather thorough book. Because it’s not a larger hardcover edition, one might think it to be a lightweight in its field—no so (the whole not judging a book by its cover thing, or even its size in general)! While not a highly technical volume, readers without some knowledge of Greek grammar and syntax may struggle with certain sections. This is not necessarily geared for beginners! When it comes to academic works (which this is, though not geared toward professionals or experts), I expect to see notes/references to works with which the author interacts and/or to which the author points the reader for more detailed discussion—you will find both here. Bateman interacts with a fairly broad range of interpreters, the works of whom you will find on nearly every page. While the whole book was generally good and helpful, there were two sections I found particularly so. The first was Bateman’s discussion of backgrounds specifically concerning the relationship between Jews in Greco-Roman culture and how this affects how one reads the letters in question. The second was the matter of pseudonymity, which is an important issue/problem for interpreting the general letters (see pages 51–56).

One of the risks inherent in approaching a category of works within the canon is that by assigning a label on the basis of common characteristics, some may assume that all guidelines set out for interpreting apply all the time. However, as any interpreter knows, this is not the case. While Bateman does offer any cautionary words on this matter, it should go without saying that titles such as this are meant to be guides, not authoritative works that provide absolute answers for the questions that arise. This volume will certainly serve as a welcome companion to one’s study of the Scriptures that may be called “general letters” and will be a reliable guide through the dizzying array of issues that the “letters” present, if only in a broad sense.

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Ladd on the Gospels

I like G. E. Ladd. In fact, I find myself very “Laddian” on some issues. Reading through his A Theology of the New Testament today, I happened upon this gem (one of many) concerning form criticism, the criterion of dissimilarity and the Gospels:

It is incredible that Jesus as a Jew would not have made use of ideas current in Judaism that in turn rested squarely upon the Old Testament. It is incredible that Jesus would have interpreted the Old Testament at complete variance with the scribes. It is incredible that the early church, looking back to Jesus and remembering his words, would not have made use of his teachings in their interpretations of him. – p. 172

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Too Long for Twitter

I found this thought by Krister Stendahl worth sharing. I shared here because it’s too long for Twitter and no one like multiple tweets that try to communicate a single thought or comment.

“The believer has the advantage of automatic empathy with the believers in the text—but his faith constantly threatens to have him modernize the material, if he does not exercise the canons of descriptive scholarship rigorously.” Krister Stendahl, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 1:422.

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Book Review: Interpreting the Pauline Letters

Interpreting the Pauline Letters: An Exegetical Handbook by John D. Harvey

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Thanks to the kind folks at Kregel for this review copy!

The number of books concerning Paul are seemingly without end. So, when a book of this sort is published, we may ask, “Do we really need another one?” I, for one, am typically glad that numerous books on a particular subject are published because no one person can say all that needs to be said.

Harvey’s book is a helpful volume that combines the task of digging into the world of the text and making the text understandable to us, the text of an alien culture. It’s divided into eight sections:

  1. The Genre of Paul’s Letters
  2. The Historical Background of Paul’s Letters
  3. The Theology of Paul’s Letters
  4. Preparing to Interpret Paul’s Letters
  5. Interpreting Passages in Paul’s Letters
  6. Communicating Passages in Paul’s Letters
  7. From Text to Sermon: Two Examples
  8. Selected Resources

In general, the book is well done and very informative. The first chapter discusses a number of issues concerning the genre of Paul’s letters, a helpful chapter that helps orient the reader to ancient letter writing and why it matters to interpretation. The second chapter on Paul’s historical background is not exactly light reading. Harvey meanders through the historical data in an effort to reconstruct a timeline on which to place Paul’s life and mission. This is a task that has occupied the pursuits of biblical scholars for centuries and Harvey ably navigates the difficult terrain. While some will doubtlessly disagree with some of his conclusions, but he is to be commended for the attention to detail he has given.

The chapter on Paul’s theology is more thematic than anything. Harvey makes no attempt to construct the theology of Paul (or even a theology), but rather a method, which he proposes to be antithetical in nature, particularly as it is conveyed through the Adam-Christ paradigm. He then spends a few pages discussing various themes that show up throughout the Pauline corpus. This is a helpful section in that it is concise enough to whet the appetite and (presumably!) prompt further study, yet does not pretend to answer all the questions that arise in such a study.

Chapter four primarily concerns textual issues–text criticism, grammar and syntax, and translation(s). Essentially, this chapter follows the dictum that before we can exegete the text, we  must establish the text. As some of you may/may not know, I am not a big fan of doing textual criticism, but I acknowledge its importance and am glad to see Harvey has given it a place of importance in the process of interpretation.

Chapter five delves into other necessary elements to exegesis: historical background, geography, and literary and theological analysis. Here Harvey shows the same skill as with the construction of a Pauline timeline–he ably guides the reader on a necessarily truncated survey of Paul’s world and the events that led to its shape.

The next two chapters put wheels on the work that the previous chapters have helped create. Harvey guides the reader through the process of crafting a sermon based on the hermeneutical process detailed in the preceding pages.

The final chapter is essentially an annotated bibliography, offering readers a snapshot of the numerous tools available for the work of interpretation.

In sum, Harvey has written a very helpful book that will be of benefit to all who read it, though it is aimed at interpreters who have had less formal training.

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Book Review: Charts on the Life, Letters, and Theology of Paul

Charts on the Life, Letters, and Theology of Paul by Lars Kierspel

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Thanks to the kind folks at Kregel for this review copy, which I received free of charge in exchange for an unbiased review.

For many readers in the fields of theology and biblical studies, the juxtaposition of “charts” and “theology” in a book’s title may conjure images of elaborately composed end-times scenarios or depictions of history’s progression toward that end. Thankfully, we need not entertain such possibilities here, for Kierspel has done a fine job amassing a wealth of material and condensing it all into a single reference volume. In fact, it’s really rather stunning to consider how much work must have gone into this volume when you begin poring over its pages. While it’s a bit overextending to say that Kierspel has left no Pauline stone unturned, it’s not far from the truth to say that he has indeed surveyed the landscape that is Paul and has put together a map of sorts to help students navigate his eventful life.

This review was a bit of a challenge simply because Kierspel covers so much ground. Thankfully, he organizes the book into four main sections: Paul’s Background & Context, Paul’s Life & Ministry, Paul’s Letters, and Paul’s Theological Concepts.

In the first section, Kierspel covers the ever-important topics of Roman rule before and during Paul’s lifetime and the Judaisms before and during Paul’s life that have been the subject of intense study over the last several decades. Given this tendency to focus on Paul’s Jewish roots, it is a tad surprising to see that  Kierspel actually devotes a bit more space to Paul’s Greco-Roman context. That’s not to say that the Jewish culture in which Paul lived and preached is in any way diminished, but simply a statement of fact concerning the author’s choices.

The second section concerns Paul’s life and ministry and covers many important topics, including a chronology of Paul’s life, parallels between Paul and Acts, autobiographical information, a comparison of Paul’s conversion accounts, his missionary journeys, and a host of other geographical and historical information.

The third section concerns Paul’s letters and it is here that many will find perhaps the most useful collation of data. Kierspel charts 40+ topics related to the Pauline corpus, including introductory information for the disputed and undisputed letters of Paul, the issue of amanuenses, manuscripts, OT allusions, quotes, and parallels, hapax legomena and a handful of other entries.

The fourth section concerns the many theological concepts on which Paul wrote. This chapter, as was the third, was/is immensely helpful. As you should expect with book of charts, there are no elaborations or scholarly discussions here, at least not in the sense that you would find in a commentary or NT intro. These topics include various references to God, Christological concepts (humanity, divinity), pneumatology, sin, death, and judgment, soteriology, salvation metaphors (!), eschatology, and a variety of other theological topics.

Some will register their disagreements here and there, particularly with matters of dating (Paul’s missionary journeys, the dating of various epistles, etc.), which one should expect any time dates and timelines for historical figures and/or events are the subject of discussion. Some will also quibble with the discussion of various theological themes, as in whether or not Paul was as specific about a particular topic as perhaps Kierspel suggests. However, these minor issues aside, Kierspel has put together an immensely useful volume that will serve as a welcome guide for many. This book may be likened to a map, in a way, in that it provides a general orientation to the Apostle Paul in his primary contexts. This will be a great resource, particularly for those who need a quick reference to a particular detail about Paul’s life that perhaps had not been cemented in their memory.

Additionally, this volume will prove to be beyond handy for those who wish to study a particular letter, concept, or theme of Paul’s. With so many issues concisely covered and topically arranged, this will be a go-to guide.

This is a wonderful tool and I look forward to other volumes that Kregel has in the works!

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Book Review: Jesus the Messiah

Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King by Herbert W. Bateman, IV, Darrell L. Bock, and Gordon H. Johnston

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Thanks to the folks at Kregel for this review copy!

I have had the privilege of studying under both Gordon Johnston and Darrell Bock and both are truly gentleman and scholars. Naturally, when given the opportunity to review a book on which they (and Bateman) had collaborated, I jumped at it. I must say that this book met my expectations and will serve as the go-to guide for many when it comes to messianic expectation in Jewish and Christian literature.

Essentially this book covers three major literary corpora and how each demonstrates, in varying degrees, messianic expectation, promise, and fulfillment. Gordon Johnston tackles various texts from the Hebrew Bible, Herbert Bateman discusses the various messianic expectations recorded in intertestamental Jewish literature, and Darrell Bock tackles the NT teachings on Jesus as Messiah.

Though plenty of readers will find fault with interpretations presented throughout (a given for any book of this sort), I found the hermeneutical approach quite satisfying. There is a stereotype/stigma that attends books of this sort, i.e. that books about messianic issues written by evangelicals are predictable. Many may assume that the sections dealing with the Hebrew Bible and intertestamental literature will default to seeing Christ in every possible text so as to demonstrate the obvious presence of messianic expectation. I must say that such hyper-messianic readings of Jewish literature are off the mark, but you won’t find such a view here. While the authors obviously see messianic expectation in a number of texts in the Hebrew Bible and intertestamental literature, they don’t see it everywhere. They lay out their hermeneutical approach on pages 20-36, which I will not rehash here. The gist of the approach is that God revealed the Messiah via progressive revelation, even from the first of canonical literature. This is not to say that everything about the Messiah, particularly his identity, was revealed, but that there were glimpses that continually built over generations until the Jesus the Christ could be made known.

Permit me a lengthy quote by Bateman that describes the difference in their approach (pgs. 24-25).

Granted, our starting point is not unlike other approaches that acknowledge the value of Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) when discussing Messiah. Yet there is a difference. Many people today unfortunately fail to grapple with the human journey of discovery about “Messiah.” Many preachers who preach sermons about Jesus as the Messiah often over emphasize their theological system with limited or even no consideration of any progress of revelation in human history. Others may read the text historically, often looking exclusively to the long-term reality. But in their quest for a singular historical-contextual meaning throughout all of Scripture, they argue that what a First Testament human author said about Messiah equals that which is stated about Jesus the Messiah in the Second Testament. They tend to suggest that Jesus and the apostles assert that the Hebrew Scriptures testify directly and (or more importantly) exclusively about him. In their mind, the evangelists and epistolarists believe Moses foretold only the death of Jesus the Messiah; David foresaw only the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah; Isaiah predicted only Jesus’ ascension into glory; and that Abraham heard only the Gospel to the Gentiles preached to him. Thus, they stress the work of the divine author and thereby over emphasize an unambiguous continuity between the Testaments. The idea is that most or all of these texts need to be direct prophecies to work for Jesus being the messianic fulfillment in the way the Second Testament describes…We, however, will offer a slightly different approach. Granted, there is most certainly a link, but we will argue, just not a completely exclusive one. One of our goals is to argue that these texts do not need to be only direct prophecies for them to reveal a messianic connections and fulfillment in Jesus. Such an explicit-exclusive reading of the First Testament tends to ignore the complexities of Jewish history as well as God’s revelation and its progress. Such an explicit reading deprives us of historical information that ultimately helps us grasp what was going on in the lives of the Jewish people and what God’s revelation told them about their present and future. While a traditional approach argues for explicit predictions about Jesus, we suggest that while the wording is ultimately messianic, it is often more implicitly stated and becomes clearer only as the entirety of God’s portrait of messiah is eventually and fully disclosed, both by how the First Testament concludes and by what Jesus himself does to pull all the messianic pieces together.

I hate to quote things at such length, but this is the grid through which the texts in the book are read and it leads to a much more suitable interpretation than does a hyper-messianic reading mentioned earlier.

All in all, this is a superb book with little to fault. Again, as with any book (particularly those of an exegetical nature), there will be disagreements on this detail or that and I’ve chosen to leave that for others to discuss. Whatever disagreements you may find, I think most who read this, even those outside evangelical camps, will find a trove of exegetical treasure and plenty of food for thought.

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Book Review: From Eden to the New Jerusalem

From Eden to the New Jerusalem: An Introduction to Biblical Theology by T. Desmond Alexander 

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Many thanks to the kind folks at Kregel for this review copy!

Interest in biblical theology (hereafter BT) has been on the rise in recent years and a number of fine volumes have been published on the subject. One of those entries is T. Desmond Alexander’s From Eden to the New Jerusalem: An Introduction to Biblical Theology . One thing that quickly becomes apparent is that Alexander’s approach is hardly like most others. Rather than an introduction to the discipline of BT per se, it’s more an example of how one can do BT. There is no discussion of the history of the discipline, nor of what constitutes such—it’s simply a demonstration of one approach to BT.

He states that this book has its origins in a study he was doing on what Revelation 20-22 reveals about death and the afterlife. Using that study as a springboard, Alexander explores the meta-story of scripture from…end to beginning? Yes, Alexander puts it in reverse and explores the grand story of scripture by starting at the end—Revelation—and working back to Genesis. By that I mean that his study of Revelation 20-22 serves as a catalyst to study from the beginning—Genesis0—and work through the Bible, tracing the development of particular themes.

You should not expect, however, a detailed walkthrough of the whole Bible, but rather a thematic exploration that hits on some of the more central themes in Scripture, the temple motif in particular. Admittedly, I had reservations about this approach; however, Alexander capably accomplishes the purpose he set out to achieve in this book, which is to answer the questions “Why does the earth exist?” and “What is the purpose of human life?”

Having said this, it seemed a bit odd (initially) that Alexander would have entitled the book From Eden to the New Jerusalem.  Given his approach, shouldn’t it have been the other way around? Not really, because Alexander vacillates back and forth between the two canonical bookends and discusses not only how each serves to frame the biblical story, but how the temple motif figures into the intervening material. Obviously this is not an exhaustive discussion of the motif, but a survey to show at minimum how the temple, from the garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem, is developed throughout the biblical story.

Overall, Alexander’s take on the meta-narrative of scripture is one with which I can mostly resonate. If someone wanted to know what my general take is on the big picture of scripture is, I would recommend this book. While I remain unconvinced that the whole of Scripture is bound by a single unifying concept or theme (Heilsgeschichte would be the most likely contender), Alexander ably answers the questions asked at the outset.

Though a few years old now, I gladly recommend this title, particularly if you are interested in biblical theology in general or the temple motif specifically. This book clocks in at only 208 pages (including bibliography and scripture index), so it will leave many questions unanswered or partially addressed. However, Alexander amply footnotes his discussion throughout. That and the bibliography should provide plenty of resources for additional study.

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