The State of New Testament Studies: A Quick Review

The field of New Testament studies is vast. And it’s growing at a remarkable pace. That reality is both exciting and discouraging. Exciting because these all-important documents are getting the attention they deserve and the field as a whole continues to thrive. Discouraging because no single person could possibly keep up with all the literature. In light of that, we can be grateful to Scot McKnight and Nijay Gupta for editing a new book titled The State of New Testament Studies: A Survey of Current Research (Baker Academic) which brings together a top-notch group of New Testament scholars to survey the major developments in their areas of specialization.

The contributions fall into four major sections. Part 1 is on the ancient context of the New Testament and attends to the relationship between early Christianity and the Roman Empire along with attitudes toward women in the ancient world. Part 2 takes up questions related to interpretation with chapters focused on hermeneutics, Old Testament use in the New Testament, the genre of the canonical Gospels, and developments in the study of Greek. Part 3 contains essays generally oriented around the relationship between history and theology in scholarship on Jesus, Paul, eschatology, and ethics. The final section is Part 4, which contains chapters surveying scholarship on most of the New Testament texts.

I found the book fascinating. One of the challenges with edited volumes is maintaining a sense of coherence between chapters written by different authors. This navigates that challenge well. In general, the chapters do a good job surveying the major movements in each area. They consistently relate newer scholarship to older scholarship and every chapter draws attention to voices that have been marginalized in the interpretation of the New Testament. The chapters focused on my area of specialization (i.e., Paul) helpfully clarified a few matters regarding how different streams in Pauline scholarship relate to one another. And the chapters focused on areas of the NT beyond my specialization were particularly helpful in orienting me to the major emphases in those discussions.

I will say that I would have liked to have seen more on Paul in Part 4. The only text from Paul that gets serious and extended treatment as a text is Romans, which means the rest of the Pauline corpus (and the extensive scholarship on it) was dealt with to a lesser degree than other New Testament documents. I think I understand the editorial choice here. Romans is useful for orienting people to Pauline scholarship, and more chapters on other letters in the Pauline collection would have made an already lengthy book even more so. Nevertheless, I would have very much enjoyed a chapter on the Corinthian correspondence and some attention to the shorter letters. Of course, this is no reason not to read the book. If anything, it’s a testament to its value. Upon reading a nearly 500 page book, I found myself wanting more.

The book will be most useful to graduate students in biblical studies. Every New Testament PhD student should read the whole thing. It will be immensely valuable in navigating the intimidating mountain of secondary literature with which students need to become familiar, and many chapters draw attention to potentially fruitful avenues for future study. Established scholars will already be familiar with much of the material, and will find the book most helpful in orienting them to areas of the New Testament that might lie outside their established research agendas. Academically-minded pastors may also find the book of interest.

All in all, I’m happy to recommend The State of New Testament Studies: A Survey of Recent Research. I plan to keep my copy close at hand and expect to consult it often.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary

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Reading Romans in Context: A Review (@Zondervan, @bencblackwell)

Context is everything. That’s the first rule for interpreting scripture (or any other text, for that matter). The rule refers first to the immediate context of a biblical passage, and it serves to remind us that responsible readers are not at liberty to extract a verse and do with it as they please. A good case in point is the common use of Philippians 4:13 by professional athletes, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” The verse is appropriated as something of a divine pep-talk to motivate the competitor to excellence and ultimate victory over his foes. The problem is that the original intent of the verse has nothing to do with any of that. It was composed with thanksgiving for the power of God to sustain a suffering missionary awaiting the possibility of martyrdom. It is about the strength of Christ that enables that apostle (and the readers) to persevere with faithful contentedness in the face of persecution. So, if you need encouragement as you suffer for Christ, by all means turn to Philippians 4:13. If you are competing in a televised sporting event for tens of thousands of fawning fans, perhaps you should look elsewhere.
Beyond the immediate setting of a particular passage are other important levels of context that bear on interpretation. Among other things, I teach my students to interpret a passage with a view to its place within the context of the book-as-a-whole and, if available, the larger body of work by the author in question. We also talk about historical context, which brings me to Reading Romans in Context: Paul and Second Temple Judaism, edited by Ben C. Blackwell, John K. Goodrich, and Jason Maston (check out their blog).* This book puts Paul in conversation with other Jewish writers of roughly the same period to shed light on the argument of Paul’s most important letter. The non-scriptural material has been well-known by biblical scholars for a long time. This book, however, makes key portions of that material available in a non-technical and introductory format. That means you don’t need a theology degree to read and benefit from this volume.
The book has 172 pages of text (not including glossary and indices) divided into 20 brief chapters. The chapters progress through the text of Romans usually taking a chapter or less of text and setting it alongside another Jewish text that deals with similar themes. For example, Sarah Whittle looks at “circumcision of the heart” in Romans 2 alongside the book of Jubilees (chapter 3). Chapter 5 by Jonathan A. Linebaugh compares the all-important Romans 3:21-31 to the Epistle of Enoch to consider the highly debated topic of the revelation of God’s righteousness. Chapter 6 by Mariam J. Kamell considers the similarities and differences between Paul’s understanding of Abraham in Romans 4 and the interpretation of Abraham in Sirach. Chapter 12 takes up the topic of glorification in Romans 8 by reading it in light of Adam’s loss of glory as portrayed in the Greek Life of Adam and Eve. The relationship between hospitality and meals is the focus of chapter 18 by Nijay Gupta, who compares Romans 14 and 15 to 1 Maccabees. The thing to understand is that the argument of Romans is not historically isolated. The letter was not written in a vacuum. It takes its place among a variety of ancient Jewish thinkers intent on dealing with similar issues. Sometimes Paul agrees with them; sometimes he does not. The better we understand those dynamics, the better we will understand the Bible. This value of this book is the way it makes those matters available to a broader range of readers.

I’ll add that the essays are well-written, clear, and unburdened by lengthy footnotes. The chapters tend to proceed by introducing the theme to be considered in the passage from Romans (e.g. circumcision, salvation, the Law). This is followed by a short introduction of a relevant non-scriptural text. The remainder of each chapter is then given to putting Romans in dialogue with that text. The aim is to shed light on scripture by considering areas of agreement and disagreement between Romans and the additional text. For readers who find their appetites whet, the end of each chapter gives recommendations for further reading in relevant ancient texts and important secondary studies by scholars in the field.

There are many books out there that aim to shed light on the historical context of the New Testament, and many of them are written on a level accessible by non-specialists. These books often proceed with a survey of major themes, groups, and historical events (e.g. Jewish eschatology, Messianic expectations). Let me be clear: this is essential and important work. I’m glad those resources are available. Reading Romans in Context is distinct in that it introduces elements of context by focusing on particular texts. We might say that books on biblical backgrounds often take a wide-angle approach; Reading Romans in Context is a zoom lens that takes the reader up close to the particularities of the ideas in question. I find that students are sometimes intimidated by the large amounts of information that come with a lecture or reading assignment on New Testament backgrounds. There is a lot to learn, and it takes a lot of work. The precision focus of the chapters in this book strikes me as offering a complimentary approach that has potential to mitigate that problem. Students should be able to handle this book, and I am happy to recommend its use in a course introducing the New Testament, Paul and his letters, or on the exegesis of Romans. As a pastor, I would also feel comfortable recommending this book to an interested layperson in a local church setting.
All in all, I’m very glad the editors and contributors have published this book. I only hope they plan to produce further volumes that do the same thing with the rest of Paul’s letters.
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*Many thanks to the good people at Zondervan for providing a complimentary review copy. 

Understanding the Little Apocalypse: Three things to remember about Matthew 24

Matthew 24 (along with its parallels), like other Jewish apocalyptic, is remarkably difficult to get a handle on. Much could be said about it. With this post, I want to raise three points that should be near the beginning of any effort to interpret this challenging passage.
  1. Everything Jesus says is his answer to the question raised by the disciples in 24:3. And their question is primarily looking for a bit of explanation with regard to Jesus’ apparently surprising prediction that that the temple will be destroyed (24:1-2). This means that the passage should be read as the context indicates; namely, Jesus is answering a question about the timing of the destruction of the temple. The signs and symbols should be taken first to point to this reality. Whatever else they may or may not point to, the destruction of the temple is the thing that gets this little apocalyptic discourse started.
  2. Sometimes “coming” does not mean “second coming”. The disciples compound their question about the destruction of the temple with a question about Jesus’ “coming” and about “the end of the age.” I tend to think that these are three aspects of a single event. That is, when the temple comes down, Jesus will be vindicated both as true prophet and God’s anointed king, which will likewise bring an end to the present evil age and usher in the age to come, the age of God’s kingdom as manifest in the rule of the Messiah. Let me explain. When we read the word “coming” in the Bible, our default interpretation is to take it to mean the second coming of Christ. But consider the plausibility of the disciples raising a question about what we think of as the second coming of Jesus. Were these men expecting Jesus to be crucified and killed by the Romans? No. Were they expecting him to be buried in a tomb only to be resurrected by God on the first day of the next week? Once again, the answer is no. They certainly were not. Thus, if they were not expecting his death and resurrection, we can likewise infer that they were not expecting him to go off to heaven for an unknown and rather lengthy period of time only to return again sometime later. The idea of crucified messiah was not on their radar. Neither was the idea of a messiah who disappears for more than two millennia in order that he may come again a second time. Their question could not have possibly meant that. They must have meant something else when they asked bout the “sign of your coming”. The question is: What?
  3. The “end of the age” does not mean the end of time or the end of the world. Jewish thinking in Jesus’ period was commonly characterized by the idea that history was divided into two periods of time. There was “the present evil age”, which referred to the period during which the Jewish people were under the rule of foreign oppressors (which was, at that time, the Roman Empire). This evil age would come to an end when God delivered his people from their oppressors. The evil age would give way to the second period of time known as “the age to come”. This coming age would be marked by the rule of God’s anointed (Messiah) king and the flourishing of God’s people. When the disciples ask about the end of the age, they are not asking about the end of history; to the contrary, they are asking about the end of Roman oppression and the beginning of an age in which they enjoyed God’s forgiveness, freedom, and blessing.
There are unhelpful interpretations of Matthew 24 aplenty. I suggest that we can guard against straying down such an abominable path by keeping these three things in mind. As indicated, there is much, much more to be said. But these three items must be the starting point to interpreting the “little apocalypse”.

Inerrancy and Interpretation (2): More on the Licona Controversy

In light of my previous assessment of the debate over Michael Licona’s comments on the raising of the dead saints in Matthew 27:52-53, I was pleased to see the publication by Southeastern Theological Review of this roundtable discussion between Licona, Danny Akin, Craig Blomberg, Paul Copan, Michael Kruger, and Charles Quarles, in which Licona’s rather controversial view was fairly evaluated by the participants. I was particularly encouraged with the tone of discussion and the general agreement that the issue is not inerrancy but hermenteutics. Despite some disagreement on how to take Matthew 27:52-53, the participants do a good job of articulating the relationship between authorial intent and interpretation, a relationship which Norman Geisler and Albert Mohler failed to take on board in their critiques of Licona. This roundtable discussion is an excellent example of how evangelical scholarship and peer review should be conducted. I am unaware of any apology to Licona from either Geisler or Mohler, but in light of this roundtable discussion, I think there should be an increased call for such an apology from both for their inflammatory and misdirected critiques of Licona’s work.

Was Jonah Really Swallowed by a Whale?

Scot McKnight recently featured an excerpt from Ben Shattuck providing an analysis of the historical plausibility of Jonah being swallowed by a whale. The full piece goes to greater lengths to demonstrate the fanciful nature of the idea that a person might actually be swallowed whole by a sperm whale and then survive to be spit back up. The obvious aim is to persuade readers that the biblical book of Jonah does not recount history but is, instead, a parable or something else along those lines. The article is thorough and interesting, but, in the end, it misses the point. Here are a few reasons why.
First, the text of Jonah doesn’t actually say that Jonah was swallowed by a sperm whale. It simply says he was swallowed by a big fish (1:17). We tend to imagine a whale when we read the story because that is the biggest sea creature of which we know, but the text never actually says what sort of fish it was. So, while Shattuck’s guided tour of the sperm whale’s gastrointestinal tract is interesting, it is also irrelevant.
Second, do we really need history, biology, and anatomy to tell us that people don’t typically get swallowed by whales only to be spat up three days later?
Third, the fact that something is historically atypical and scientifically implausible doesn’t actually mean that it didn’t happen. And this is really my key point. When it comes to unusual and miraculous events in the Bible, historical criticism falls short of providing the necessary tools for analysis. In fact, historical criticism of the Bible developed in part in order to undermine and rule out accounts of miracles and the supernatural in scripture. But if God is able to create the galaxies out of nothing, then creating a fish that could swallow a person whole doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. If Christ really sustains all things and holds them together, then preserving a man in the belly of a fish (even when scientifically impossible) doesn’t strike me as that tall of an order. If the creator God is the God who raised Jesus from the dead, then bringing Jonah back out that big fish’s belly is not all that far-fetched.
Now we’ve not yet considered the question as to whether the story of Jonah is indeed historical. Neither have looked at the different, though related, question as to whether the account of Jonah must be historical in order for it to be meaningful and true. Jonah is at least about the broad scope of God’s loving invitation to repentance and the importance of God’s own character being reproduced in God’s people. Is it possible to imagine a scenario in which a Hebrew scribe sat down and recorded the story (or oral tradition, perhaps) of Jonah as a parable to illustrate those very points? Sure, it is. Even if the story is a parable, it’s meaning remains the same. And if it was intended by the author as a parable, the demand that it be read as history amounts to not taking the text seriously, not to mention the authorial intent. 
Matthew 12:41 is commonly said to demonstrate the historicity of Jonah. Jesus there compares his three day burial in the earth to Jonah’s three days in the belly of the fish. The argument says that if Jesus believed Jonah was historical, then it must be, and to say otherwise is to have a deficient Christology. But there is no reason in the gospels to suppose that Jesus did believe Jonah was historical. If I were to tell you a true story about a man who defended his home and family from an intruder and described the event saying that he battled for his family as Odysseus battled the suitors of Penelope, then my appeal to ancient Greek mythology would in no way undermine the historicity of the main story I was telling. Likewise, Jesus commonly illustrated the truths of the kingdom with parables. There is no conclusive reason that Matthew 12:41 (and parallels) should be read differently. While we cannot know for sure, it might be the case that Jesus knew full well that Jonah was a parable and still chose it to illustrate the historical event of his burial. And if that is the case, to suggest that Jonah must be history is to take Jesus less than seriously.
Be careful to hear what I’m actually saying here. I’m not saying that the account of Jonah being swallowed by a big fish is not historical. I am saying, first, that the truthfulness of the book of Jonah does not necessarily depend on it being historical. And I am saying, second, that the historical implausibility of a man being swallowed by a big fish only to be regurgitated three days later does not necessarily make the story of Jonah unhistorical.
A truly high view of scripture endeavors to read the text as it was intended. Is it possible that Jonah is a parable? Yes. Is it possible for God to keep a man alive in the belly of a big fish for three days? Yes. I’m entirely comfortable with either scenario. Can we know with certainty which is the case and whether such a thing actually happened to a man named Jonah? Probably not. Fortunately, the Christian faith does not stand or fall on this matter. 

Inerrancy and Interpretation: The Licona Controversy

It is unfortunate indeed when members of the same team set their sights on one another. It is all the more tragic when the team on which they all play is evangelical Christianity. You have heard it said that, “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” and misguided potshots certainly undermine the coherence of the larger whole. These reflections refer to the recent and volatile criticisms aimed at Michael Licona by Albert Mohler and Norman Geisler with regard to Licona’s interpretation of Matthew 27:52-53 in his magisterial defense of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus.
The details of the controversy are available in other places; so I’ll simply sum up the core issue. In his massive book, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, Licona devoted a few paragraphs to Matthew 27:52-53, which says that at the time of Jesus’ death, “many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” Licona suggests that this passage is apocalyptic “special effects” rather than historical detail (552). In response to Licona’s interpretation of the passage, Norman Geisler, a prominent evangelical apologist, sent two open letters to Licona (1, 2) charging him with dehistoricizing the text, thus violating biblical inerrancy, and called upon him to recant his interpretation of the passage in question. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, followed Geisler calling Licona’s argument “shocking and disastrous.” Licona responded to these criticisms by affirming his commitment to inerrancy and stating his willingness to revise that portion of his argument in a future edition of the book, though he did not satisfy his critics by recanting.
One disturbing aspect of Mohler’s and Geisler’s criticisms is that they are not acknowledging that Licona understands his interpretation to comport with the truthfulness of scripture. The issue here is not one of inerrancy. The issue is about how we interpret and understand what the Bible is actually saying. Everyone involved in this debate knows that meaning depends on genre and authorial intent. So, the question is not whether Matthew was telling the truth. The question is whether he was intending to communicate apocalyptic symbolism or historical detail. If Licona is right, and Matthew is exhibiting a bit of apocalyptic flair in order to make a certain point, then Mohler and Geisler are guilty of not taking the text on its own terms. Instead, they are reading their presuppositions into the text, which subverts the truthfulness and authority of the text. Inerrancy is not incompatible with symbolism. Licona is not rejecting the literal truth of the text. Indeed, if Matthew is intending to communicate in apocalyptic poeticism, then the text is literally symbolic, and Mohler and Geisler have themselves missed the literal meaning of the text. Is it true and literal history or true and literal symbolism? That is the question on which this debate should turn.
Further, the charge that Licona is dehistoricizing the text is unfounded. Before a text can be dehistoricized, it must be shown that the author intended the text to be read as history. Licona is suggesting that Matthew did not intend the text to be taken as historical fact. Thus, he is not technically dehistoricizing this passage. Instead, he is suggesting that the genre of the text is something other than history, namely apocalyptic, and is interpreting it through the lens of what he takes to be the author’s intent. This does not conflict with grammatico-historical exegesis, as Mohler suggests; it is grammatico-historical exegesis, which takes into account genre, literary form, various textual devices, and the use of similar concepts and ideas in other relevant primary source literature.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that Mohler and Geisler are not arguing for the inerrancy of the text but for the inerrancy of their own particular interpretation of the text. They have mistakenly granted to their understanding of scripture a quality held only by scripture itself, namely authoritative truthfulness. Their interpretation may be right; but it could just as well be wrong. And the same is true for Licona.
At the end of the day, the issue here is not inerrancy but interpretation, not history but hermeneutics. The truly sad thing is that Licona’s contribution to evangelical theology is being overshadowed by this silly and misguided controversy. More so, Licona has had negative professional repercussions as a result of all this. I hope that Mohler and Geisler will withdraw their mistaken attacks, apologize for their ill-founded criticisms, and respectfully agree to disagree with Licona with regard to the interpretation of this text.

UPDATE: Here’s a link to Licona’s response to Geisler entiteld “When the Saints Go Marching In (Matthew 27:52-53): Historicity, Apocalyptic, Symbol, and Biblical Inerrancy.” This paper was given at the 2011 meeting of the Evangelical Philosophical Society.

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N.B. This is not to say that all criticism is out of line within the larger evangelical tent (or any tent, for that matter). It is simply to say that such criticism should be fair and charitable. One can be fair, charitable, and level strong criticism all at the same time. I’ve attempted to hold all of these qualities in balance in this post (and others), even as I’m arguing that the criticisms of Mohler and Geisler are unfair and ill-founded.

UPDATE: Inerrancy and Interpretation (2): More on the Licona Controversy