Book Review: Roman Imperial Texts: A Sourcebook

Roman Imperial Texts: A Sourcebook by Mark Reasoner

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

In the field of biblical studies, recent years have seen a resurgence of titles concerning one element or another of the Greco-Roman world, many focusing on the Roman empire and reading the New Testament in light of the hulking shadow it cast over the world of Jesus, Paul, and many others. Works that examine particular facets of Roman culture in the first century are certainly helpful, but Reasoner’s volume proves its usefulness not because of extended examination of Roman culture (though there is an ample of amount of such), but by providing relevant texts that depict and describe the Roman emperors and the kingdom they built and expanded. To study and attempt to understand a culture, more often than not the best place to begin is with its literature. Thankfully, ancient Romans produced a treasure trove of material to be mined.

Reasoner’s work is comprised of three parts: 1) Emperors, 2) Community and its various components, and 3) the city of Rome. The discussion of the emperors focuses primarily on texts and numismatic evidence that speak of them in terms of divinity, beneficence, and their status as sons of the gods. This, naturally, is important for studying the NT concept of Jesus as the Son of God, though Reasoner does not push terribly hard to convince the reader that Son of God language in the NT is directly related to empirical sonship, though Reasoner does believe it important. For example, Reasoner suggests that the use of the term euangelia in the Priene inscription is the use alongside which one should read the canonical Gospels’ association of Jesus’ birth, life, and teachings (30). Part two concerns community in ancient Rome and how participation in various societal events and customs helped establish and define Roman identity. For early Christians, according to Reasoner, this provided a starting point of sorts for understanding their place in the body of Christ, particularly in light of Paul’s multiple references to such through his writings. The creation of an alternative society, i.e., the church, is illuminated when reading against the various texts here provided by Reasoner. Likewise with the collegium and domus, both of which are important for understanding many things Paul (and others) teach. In part three, Reasoner discusses a few aspects of Rome as a city, particularly as it concerned its far-reaching influence in the Mediterranean and beyond. War, commerce, and games were some of the means by which Rome wielded its influence. Early Christians, of course, lived in this immense shadow and Reasoner briefly discusses how these texts might illuminate references in the NT.

One of the strengths of this work is that there is a steady eye on various concepts prevalent in the NT (e.g., Son of God) while discussing the Roman texts. This does not mean that Reasoner deviates from the path by engaging in efforts to demonstrate that certain NT ideas and/or texts are anti-imperial or otherwise; rather, he simply notes these potential connections and provides brief commentary. The reader, then, is given ample food for thought and hopefully ignites a spark to investigate any such connections further, however tentative or substantial they might be. While Reasoner occasionally tips his hand, for the most part he writes with the objective of providing a springboard for further investigation.

Selectivity is an unavoidable constraint on works such as this and will perhaps deter some in favor of other more extensive (and expensive) volumes, but for most this volume will serve as a highly accessible and immensely helpful resource for better understanding the imperial context of the NT world.

Αυτω η δοξα

Paul’s Revelation

I was reading/translating through Galatians this morning and I happened upon this little grammatical ambiguity in 1:12.

οὐδὲ γὰρ ἐγὼ παρὰ ἀνθρώπου παρέλαβον αὐτὸ οὔτε ἐδιδάχθην, ἀλλὰ διʼ ἀποκαλύψεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ.

The phrase in question is διʼ ἀποκαλύψεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ. Does Paul mean that he received the gospel at his conversion on the road to Damascus (subjective genitive; by implication the time following that initial encounter) or is he referring to the gospel as it had been circulated throughout his neck of the woods (objective), so to speak? Could it be both? It’s been a long time since I’ve studied Galatians in any depth, so I don’t recall the discussions here. It’s only a minor point in the scheme of the letter, but I was curious how you all might interpret it. Thoughts?

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Book Review: Interpreting the General Letters

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

Kregel | Amazon | CBD

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: 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!

Αυτω η δοξα

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.

Αυτω η δοξα

Read a sample here.

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

Thought for the Day

Vincent Branick comments,

In pointing out Paul’s apocalyptic thinking, Beker joins K. Stendahl, J. Munck, and other great Pauline scholars who correctly eschew a modern ‘privatized’ and anthropocentric interpretation of Paul. Paul is not wrestling with the question, ‘How can I experience a saving God?’ or ‘How can I assure my personal salvation?’ Paul’s task is rather to understand what God is doing for his creation, how God has overcome and is overcoming the powers of death in the universe (“Apocalyptic Paul?” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 47 [1985], 666).

*just noticed the page number*

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