Biblical Studies, Books, Reviews

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

Kregel ǀ Amazon ǀ WTS

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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Read a sample here.

Doctrine & Theology

Stories and History

I was watching an episode earlier of White Collar (one of my favorite shows!) and the main character, Neal, made an interesting comment that prompted this post. He said something to the effect of “Stories are worthless if there’s nothing to back them up.” In the context of the show’s story it made sense, but in literature, obviously it doesn’t quite work out as well. I’ve been thinking lately about various “stories” in scripture and how we as interpreters approach them. For many, the biblical accounts are essentially meaningless if they didn’t actually happen. For others, they are perfectly fine to read the stories as purely literary works without foisting upon them the burden of being historically true and/or accurate.

I must admit that at one time I would have fallen into the first camp. Accounts such as the exodus, Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal, or Jonah’s exploits in Nineveh I would have declared as actual historical events without batting an eye. For the record, I do believe these events in the Hebrew Bible took place as recorded; however, if the evidence were compelling to see them as purely literary-theological works and the events described therein didn’t literally happen, I would be ok with that. I have come to see the bible as both a book and a collection of books, understanding that each book possesses its own uniqueness while at the same time contributing to a larger narrative.

One thing that still nags at me is somewhat inherent in the statement quoted at the first: if the bible were merely a collection of literary works, however theologically oriented they may be, would I be compelled to think more highly of and worship God, of whom these stories speak so highly? I chose the stories above (the first two primarily) because they are accounts that tell of awesome displays of power and those displays are compelling to me, personally, as reasons to hold a higher view of God than perhaps others might. To know (insomuch as we can “know”) that God has acted in history motivates my worship. This is especially true when it comes to Christ.

I do believe there are plenty of accounts in the scripture that are not actual historical events and I can appreciate them for what they are and what they say/teach about God. But to read the bible without seeing God as having acted in history, however accurately you believe those acts are recorded, seems to miss much of what the biblical authors intended.

What are your thoughts on this matter?

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