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.

Αυτω η δοξα

Book Review: Interpreting the Pauline Letters

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

Kregel | Amazon | CBD

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.

Αυτω η δοξα

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.

Αυτω η δοξα

Book Review: The Handy Guide to New Testament Greek

The Handy Guide to New Testament Greek: Grammar, Syntax, and Diagramming by Douglas S. Huffman

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This short review is part of Kregel’s blog tour for Huffman’s book. The blog tour is technically past; however, there was a mix-up and this volume was sent to my old address, thus delaying its arrival for several weeks. Thankfully, Kregel sent along another copy.

The title aptly describes the book’s function—it is a guide, not an exhaustive reference. Huffman states that this book is “for second-year Greek students, pastors, teachers, and preachers,” “will not replace grammar and syntax textbooks,” “to be less cumbersome  and more readily accessible” than “larger grammar and syntax books,” “presumes some of the basics of NT Greek,” and is “intended as a useful tool and ready reference.” There you have it—why this book was produced.

The book is broken down into three parts: 1) Greek Grammar Reminders, 2) Greek Syntax Summaries, and 3) Phrase Diagramming.

There is a lot to commend about this book. First, it’s concise, just as you would expect a “handy guide” to be (in contrast, for example, to Brill’s four-volume, 3,600+-page Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, ringing in at a staggering $1,200). The Brill example was merely to highlight that when we hear terms like “handbook” or “guide,” most of the time we expect something compact, just what this book is. A “handy guide” must be useful. It must glean important information from other volumes and put it in a more accessible work and that’s exactly what you should expect from Huffman.

Second, and perhaps the primary draw of this book, there are helpful little hints here and there that help the reader recall/remember the function of a particular part of speech or a category into which some element of grammar falls. After all, it’s meant to help fairly new students of Greek recall and retain information they had previously studied. These are often found in standard grammars, but I was glad to see some of them here. For example, in the section dealing with the cases, Huffman provides alliterative descriptions associated with each case’s function.

  • Nominative – typically nominates the subject
  • Genitive – typically generates some description
  • Dative – typically names “to/for” whom an action is done, as in “dating”
  • Accusative – makes accusation about what the subject did
  • Vocative – vocalizes who being addressed

Admittedly, these are very simplified descriptions (and even I shortened what was in the book) and don’t draw out the nuances each case can embody, but again, this is a resource for review not advanced study.

Another feature that you don’t find in many Greek grammars is the section on diagramming. My first- and second-year Greek professors instilled the importance of diagramming in us (thankfully so–it’s a very useful exercise), so I can appreciate Huffman’s decision to include them here.

Third, this volume is portable. I didn’t realize it at first, but it’s virtually identical in terms of width and height of the standard editions of the Greek New Testament (NA28/UBS4). It’s like they were made for each other!

As you might expect, there are also charts and tables aplenty! What is a good book on Greek without the requisite tables and charts?!

Though I may only refer to this volume once in a while, I can still appreciate its usefulness. I remember one of the assignments I had for an advanced Greek class was to take Wallace’s advanced grammar and make a summary outline of it, every category and sub-category trimmed down to the essentials (I still have it). The reasoning was so that we would have a more accessible guide handy when working through a Greek text. It was a long and tedious assignment, but I used that condensed outline for some time after the class. This is essentially what Huffman has done, only not having drawn from a single source.

In sum, this is a wonderful little volume that should aid students who haven’t quite found their footing on the sometimes-treacherous terrain of Greek grammar. The book’s greatest strength (its conciseness) will likely be its greatest weakness for some; however, if one keeps in mind the purpose for which it was written, this little volume should serve many and serve them well.

Αυτω η δοξα

Jesus and the Napkin

I was asked at church this week about the napkin mentioned in John (20:7), namely if there were any significance to it being folded. I knew where this was going because I’ve heard/read of this before. Basically it is said that the folded napkin in the tomb finds parallel in the Jewish master/servant relationship. Supposedly a servant would never attend to the table after a meal unless the master was finished. The master would indicate that he was finished with his meal by tossing his napkin (with which he cleaned his hands and face) on the table. If he were not finished, he would fold it neatly as to indicate to the servant he would return to the table. Thus, Jesus’ folded napkin indicates that he would be returning.

After reading through the few commentaries on John I have and reading a few other resources (a search for articles on the matter yielded zero results), I have found nothing that even remotely suggests such a practice as the background. In fact, most of what I read indicates that the orderly placement of the burial cloths suggests Jesus’ body was not taken by grave robbers, who would have had no interest in the tidiness of the tomb.

I am sure this idea is as popular as it is because it sounds good as an illustration, but my initial digging has left me no reason even to suspect that this is the reason for John’s inclusion of the detail.

If you know from whence this little gem of a story came or if there is indeed any good reason to think it true, I’d be glad to know!

Out of curiosity, what are some of your favorite illustrations you’ve heard that have given you pause?

Αυτω η δοξα

The Point of Revelation?

There’s no question that Revelation is easily the most difficult book in the NT to interpret, perhaps in all of the canon, and I don’t have to rehash exactly why. Perhaps because of my immersion in Jewish apocalyptic over the last few months, I’ve rekindled my fascination with John’s apocalypse–quite a good thing since I have a few review books on it waiting!

Phil Long argues for the worship of God as the theological point of Revelation, which I could certainly see based on his brief discussion. I was reading Brian Blount’s commentary on Revelation last night and he rather bluntly asserts that Revelation is about one thing: Jesus. He says,

There are many visions; there is only one Revelation, and it is hiding in plain sight. Many claim that there is some great mystery behind the secret of Revelation. Many claim that one needs proper methods of translation and computation to break the code of Revelation. Many believe that the primary message of Revelation was not for John’s church in John’s time, but for the universal Christian church in some future time. They are wrong. Revelation’s one revelation is the same revelation revealed by the Gospel writers, Paul, and the many disciples who followed each of them. Revelation’s revelation is that Jesus Christ is Lord. It is that simple and that straightforward. Jesus Christ is the Lord of human history, the director of human desitny, the controller of human fortune. Jesus is Savior, Redeemer, transformer, and Lord. – 13

Whether or not he sees at least some of Revelation as future I’ll find out as I read further, but I rather agree with general assertion. I find this works well with Phil’s premise of the worship of God–understanding who Jesus is and what he has accomplished is inextricably connected to proper worship of God.

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PS–CBD has Blount’s commentary for only $13–get it while you can!

Another Snarky Scholar

No, it’s not Jim! This time, it’s Ulrich Luz who shows a bit of snarkiness (evidently that’s not even a word)! I am reading his commentary on Matthew and in his discussion of the word μακαριος, he notes his opinion of K. C. Hanson’s rendering of the term as “honorable”:

“Based on the ancient culture of shame and honor, Hanson (‘Honorable’) wants to translate as ‘honorable.’ For eschatologically formed beatitudes this translation is unbelievably bad.” (190, n. 54).

Luz, you snarky thing you!

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