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Book Review – Christ Among the Messiahs (Matthew Novenson)

Matthew W. Novenson. Christ Among the Messiahs: Christ Language in Paul and Messiah Language in Ancient Judaism. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2012 (paperback 2015). 256 pp. $35.00.

MessiahsChrist Among the Messiahs is a revision of Novenson’s dissertation at Princeton Theological Seminary under Beverly Gaventa. Originally published in hardcover three years ago as a typical monograph costing a kidney, it was reprinted a few months ago as an affordable paperback and there was great rejoicing in the biblical studies land. Against the majority view among scholars that “Messiah” did not mean anything determinative in ancient Judaism and the somewhat bewildering corollary that when Paul used χριστός he did not mean it in any of the its (nonexistent) conventional senses, Novenson argues that χριστός in Paul means “messiah” and that “Christ language in Paul is actually an invaluable example of messiah language in ancient Judaism” (3).


Jesus, Paul, and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright

My review of Jesus, Paul, and the People of God was just published over at Exegetical Tools. Edited by Richard Hays and Nicholas Perrin, this book brings together the proceedings of the 2010 Wheaton Theology Conference and is a very enjoyable read for anyone with interest in Jesus studies and Pauline studies, obviously with extra drawing power for those who want to critically interact with N. T. Wright’s contributions in these two areas of NT scholarship. As I mention in the review, my favorite essay was probably Vanhoozer’s – “Wrighting the Wrongs of the Reformation? The State of the Union with Christ in St. Paul and Protestant Soteriology.” Since his aim is “to encourage peace talks between New Perspectives and Old Protestants” (236), this is an important essay for those who identify with either camp. As an “Old Protestant,” I find this piece to be illuminating, nuanced, witty, and an important corrective for those with a traditional Reformation understanding of justification who write off Wright completely. Furthermore, because I’m particularly interested in the topic of union with Christ, I appreciated Vanhoozer’s contention that the key to incorporated righteousness reconciling old and new perspectives is both sides giving more attention to union with Christ.

What fortuitously has been called the ‘new perspective’ on Calvin’s soteriology anticipates, though not always for the same exegetical reasons, some of what the New Perspective has aimed to discover about Paul’s theology. In particular, what Calvin does with Paul’s notion of union with Christ provides fertile ground for a meeting of old and new perspective minds. Reading Calvin read Paul on union with Christ illustrates what systematic theology at its best can contribute to the discussion: not an imposition of some foreign conceptual scheme onto the text but rather a conceptual elaboration of what is implicit within it. It may also show us that there is more truth and light yet to break forth out of the research program we know as Protestant soteriology (247, emphasis original).

Check out the review for an overview of each of the essays. TL;DR: everyone interested in the topic of justification vis-à-vis the Old/New Perspective on Paul debate must read Vanhoozer’s essay; but the entire book is great for all students and scholars of the NT.

Many thanks to my friends at IVP Academic for the review copy!

Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King (Bateman, Bock, & Johnston)

Herbert W. Bateman IV, Darrell L. Bock, and Gordon H. Johnston. Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2012. 528 pp. $36.99.

Jesus the MessiahIn Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King, three leading biblical scholars bring their differing expertise to provide a survey of “contextual-canonical, messianic, and christological developments of God’s promise of ‘Messiah’ within the larger framework and unfolding of Jewish history in canonical and extracanonical literature” (20). Gordon Johnson covers the Hebrew Bible, Herbert Bateman IV covers intertestamental literature, and Darrell Bock covers the NT. By using the Hebrew Scriptures as the starting point, Jesus the Messiah already differs significantly from certain streams in biblical scholarship that ignore Jesus’s Jewishness and view him primarily through Graeco-Roman lenses (e.g. John Dominic Crossan). However, their approach has a significant difference from others that see the foundational value of the Hebrew Scriptures as well: in distinction from Evangelicals who use a single reading strategy and see direct prophecies in many OT texts, Bateman et al. argue that “these texts do not need to be only direct prophecies for them to reveal a messianic connections [sic] and fulfillment in Jesus…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” (25, italics original).


The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Michael Licona)

Michael R. Licona. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010. 718 pp. $45.00.

resurrection liconaThe bodily resurrection of Jesus is a foundational tenet of the Christian faith. As such, it’s frequently addressed in apologetics books. In the biblical studies guild this topic also receives an enormous amount of attention, being considered the “prize puzzle of NT studies.” With approximately 3,400 scholarly journal articles and books on the topic of the historicity of the resurrection from 1975-2010 alone (19), can a new tome on the topic really contribute anything new? Indeed, it can. In The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach Michael Licona has accomplished something rather remarkable and largely unprecedented by providing a rigorous examination of the approach taken by historians outside of the biblical studies guild and then applying the methodology to an examination of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. The result is a historiographical examination that is impressively expansive and rigorous on any count, but especially noteworthy and possibly unprecedented on a biblical subject.


Book Review – Jesus is the Christ: The Messianic Testimony of the Gospels (Michael Bird)

Michael F. Bird. Jesus is the Christ: The Messianic Testimony of the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013. 219 pp. $18.00.

jesusI grew up an atheist in an unreligious home and never had any exposure to Christianity. Once in a while when I did hear the name “Jesus Christ,” I assumed that Christ was Jesus’s last name. To most evangelicals, however, the affirmation that Jesus is the Christ/Messiah is perhaps the most obvious fact about our Lord; it’s akin to saying that Bird is the Conan-esque Australian biblical scholar. Duh. Of course he is. But in the (critical) academic world of Jesus/Gospel studies, it’s commonly argued that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah; rather, “the identification of Jesus as the Messiah is something of an ad hoc addition to the tradition, made in order to indicate that Jesus is a person of some importance in the divine plan” (3).

In Jesus is the Christ: The Messianic Testimony of the Gospels, Michael Bird argues that “the designation of Jesus as Messiah is not a late, secondary, or dispensable category applied to Jesus. The messiahship of Jesus comprises the primary framework in which the sum of all christological affirmations in the Gospels are to be understood, that is, all Christology is a subset of Messianology” (4). A follow-up to Are You the One Who is to Come: The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question, this book offers a narrative and theological look at the messianic Christology of each of the four canonical gospels whereas the earlier title is a historical Jesus study that argues for Jesus’s messianic self-understanding.


Book Review – Jesus as a Figure in History (Mark Allan Powell)

Mark Allen Powell. Jesus as a Figure in History, Second Edition: How Modern Historians View the Man from Galilee. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013. 288 pp. $30.00.

JesysMy first encounter with historical Jesus research was in a Christian origins and New Testament course at my secular university less than a year after I had become a Christian. While my evangelical faith remained intact through the course by God’s grace, the impression I got about historical Jesus work was that this is the business of non-Christian scholars seeking to debunk the foundational truth claims of Christianity. I went along the next several years with no interest in this field whatsoever, only occasionally brushing shoulders with it unintentionally through apologetics and gospels studies. Needless to say, my opinion of the field based on a very limited and one-sided exposure has changed.1

In Jesus as a Figure in History, Mark Allan Powell provides a very accessible introduction to the field of historical Jesus research from the perspective of a journalist researching an academic movement. Though Powell is a confessing evangelical Christian and has chaired the Historical Jesus Section of the Society of Biblical Literature and was a founding editor of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, he aimed to be descriptive in this book rather than argumentative, writing in an unbiased way with an ideologically neutral tone.

Chapter 1 sets the stage for the rest of the book (which focuses on the scholarship of the past three decades) by providing a brief survey of historical Jesus studies that demonstrates how we got to where we are. Key figures and their contributions to the discipline are introduced, and the various quests for the historical Jesus are defined and explained. Chapter 2 provides an overview of the data and sources historians use to study Jesus (archeology, Roman literature, Jewish literature, New Testament epistles, Synoptic Gospels, Gospel of John, noncanonical gospels, agrapha) as well as a survey of nine key criteria of authenticity that are applied to these sources in historical Jesus research. Though different scholars have different approaches, the sources and methods outlined in this chapter are basic and generally employed by all.

Chapter 3 examines a few snapshots of certain aspects of who Jesus was that have been suggested by modern scholars: Jesus the social prophet (Richard Horsley), Jesus the charismatic Jew (Geza Vermes), Jesus the magician (Morton Smith), Jesus the sage (Ben Witherington III), Jesus the Cynic philosopher (F. Gerald Downing), Jesus the itinerant radical (Gerd Theissen), Jesus the millenarian prophet (Dale Allison), Jesus the mamzer rabbi (Bruce Chilton), and Jesus the purported Messiah (Paula Fredriksen). Chapters 4-9 provide a more in-depth treatment of the work of the “big six” historical Jesus scholars – Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, E.P. Sanders, John Meier, and N.T. Wright. In contrast to the snapshots of chapter three, these scholars have all more or less tried to produce comprehensive portraits of Jesus. Each of these six chapters follows a similar structure: overview of the scholar, his method for studying Jesus, resulting portrait of Jesus, and criticisms from the guild.

The concluding chapter provides a summary of key issues in which there continues to be disagreement. Powell addresses the disagreements in method (sources, criteria, approach) as well as disagreements over Jesus’s relationship to Judaism, eschatology, politics, and the supernatural. Whereas Schweitzer sounded a death knell for historical Jesus studies a century ago, today the field is alive and well. The appendices look at the work of scholars who claim Jesus never existed, the relationship between historical Jesus studies and Christian apologetics, and scholars who try to develop a psychological profile for Jesus. I found appendix two particularly interesting as a Christian and as someone who was at one time very engaged in apologetics. Powell takes a look at how Christian scholars engage in this discipline and the challenges therein, focusing unsprisingly on Darrell Bock and Craig Keener. He notes the unfortunate yet unsurprising marginalization of Christian scholars in this field, and also points out some reasons why Christian apologetics has an uneasy relationship with historical Jesus studies.

Jesus as a Figure in History is a phenomenal introduction to historical Jesus research. This kind of descriptive introduction to the field is uncommon; most of the literature is that of a particular scholar sketching his particular portrait of Jesus or writing from his particular perspective. Powell truly does write in an unbiased way. When he presents criticism of a scholar’s work from the guild, he also points out strengths and contributions. This book is also very accessible and doesn’t require any prior knowledge in the field. Powell explains everything very clearly. This is definitely a must-read for anyone with an interest in historical Jesus research that is seeking an overview of the field and the contemporary issues. And though Powell points out an uneasy relationship between historical Jesus research and apologetics, I actually feel that any Christian with a passion for apologetics and evangelism should be acquainted with the field of historical Jesus research. Some non-Christians are very knowledgeable about the work of scholars like Crossan and Ehrman, and it would be a challenge to engage in dialogue without some familiarity with this kind of critical scholarship.

1 Evangelicals without exposure to historical Jesus research should note that this is an academic field dominated by non-Christians/non-evangelicals. Therefore, when you read in this area, you are bound to read things that you fundamentally disagree with and things you find extremely offensive to your faith convictions.

Purchase: Amazon

A free electronic copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.

Book Review – The Message of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and Ben Witherington III in Dialogue

Robert B. Stewart, ed. The Message of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and Ben Witherington III in Dialogue. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013. 240 pp. $25.00.

crossan and withThis book presents the dialogues and accompanying papers from the sixth annual Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum in Faith and Culture held at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in 2010. This forum brings together a respected Evangelical scholar and a respected non-Evangelical or non-Christian scholar to dialogue on an important subject in religion or culture. The goal of the forum is to facilitate respectful, irenic exchange of ideas that does not require any party to compromise his convictions.

Robert Stewart, the editor of this book and the chair of the forum, opens the book with a survey of the quest of the historical Jesus that pays particular attention to hermeneutical issues and their influence upon key scholars in the history of historical Jesus research. Chapter 1 presents the transcript of the dialogue between John Dominic Crossan and Ben Witherington III from the first evening of the forum, which consists of an opening address by each, a dialogue between the two, and a Q&A session. For Crossan, the message of Jesus is that the eschatological vision of the kingdom of God, the “Great Divine Cleanup of the World,” needs our divinely inspired participation and collaboration; furthermore, the coming of God is nonviolent and therefore so is our participation in it. For Witherington, what Jesus preached was the saving intervention of God through his own ministry and that of his disciples. Without his death, resurrection, and return, there would have been no completion to the story of the Son of Man.

The remaining seven chapters consist of four papers presented on the second day of the forum (by Craig Evans, Amy-Jill Levine & Myrick C. Shinall Jr. , Stephen Patterson, and Darrell Bock) and three additional essays (by Robert Miller, Craig Blomberg, and David Wenham). For Evans, the focus of Jesus’s teaching is the reign/kingdom of God and the redemption of Israel. His paper begins with a look at Jesus’s proclamation of the rule of God and the scriptural roots of this proclamation, moves into an analysis of how Jesus understood and applied the Jewish scriptures (a deliberately subversive interpretation of Scripture), and concludes with an inquiry into Jesus’s relationship with the Judaism of his day (not one of opposition as is commonly taught by Christians).


How Jesus Became God/How God Became Jesus – Part 6 (To Nicea and Beyond)

See the rest of the series here.

How Jesus Became God (Ehrman)
In chapters 8 and 9, Ehrman addresses the Christological views that came to be declared as heresy and the views that came to be declared  as orthodoxy, respectively. A recurring assertion in these chapters is that in the debates over orthodoxy and heresy views that were originally considered right were eventually considered wrong – for example, the first Christians held to exaltation Christology but second century “heresy hunters” more or less rewrote history by claiming that such views had never been held by the apostles at the beginning or by the majority of Christians ever.

Chapter 8 addresses adoptionistic views that denied Christ’s deity (Ebionites, Theodotians), docetic views that denied Christ’s humanity (those supposedly opposed by 1 John, those opposed by Ignatius, and the Marcionites), and views that denied Christ’s unity (Christian “Gnostics”). Ehrman also addresses modalism and the opposition by Hippolytus and Tertullian on the way to the orthodox formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity.

In chapter 9, Ehrman coins the term ortho-paradox. His reasoning is that it’s best to see orthodox formulations regarding Christ as paradoxes that resulted from the debates over Christ’s being. “[I]f u put together all the orthodox affirmations, the result is the ortho-paradox” (328). Here Ehrman summarizes the Christological and theological ortho-paradoxes leading up to the Council of Nicea and looks at some of the important early theologians who helped to shape them (Justin Martyr, Dionysus of Rome). Chapter 9 ends with a look at the Arian controversy and the Council of Nicea, with some attention devoted to Constantine and the political background. The chapter ends with the following:

The Christ of Nicea is obviously a far cry from the historical Jesus of Nazareth, an itinerant apocalyptic preacher in the backwaters of rural Galilee who offended the authorities and was unceremoniously crucified for crimes against the state. Whatever he many have been in real life, Jesus had now become fully God.

(Ehrman 352)


How Jesus Became God/How God Became Jesus – Part 5 (Problems with Ehrman’s Interpretive Categories and Exegesis)

See the rest of the series here.

Interpretive Categories
Instead of responding to a particular chapter of How Jesus Became God, in chapter 6 of How God Became Jesus Chris Tilling tackles overall issues with Ehrman’s interpretive categories. He deals with “some of Ehrman’s strategic decisions, focused on certain words, that he pushes through his entire book and that function as powerful tools of selection and evaluation” (119). Tilling begins with Ehrman’s distinction between exaltational and incarnational Christologies, showing how this distinction to which Ehrman gives key interpretive power does not explain the NT data. Next, he addresses Ehrman’s contention of an angelomorphic Christology in Galatians 4:14 being the key to Pauline Christology. He subsequently points out the main problems with the overly flexible way in with Ehrman uses the concept of divinity in Second Temple Judaism and the way that he incorporates God within this category. The chapter ends with a brief look at other interpretive missteps – the methodological problem with the way Ehrman selected his pre-Pauline texts, his misleading rhetoric, and his use of experts in early Christology (e.g. lack of interaction with Bauckham, misrepresentation of Hurtado).

The most helpful part of this chapter was the critique of Ehrman’s monotheism.  Firstly, Tilling notes that Ehrman basically endorses the problematic “inclusive monotheism” construct notably offered by Horbury and refuted by Bauckham, thereby bringing nothing new to the debate. Secondly, he notes that the majority of English and German biblical scholars do not seriously court “inclusive monotheism”, but instead promote versions of “christological monotheism”; it is bewildering why Ehrman did not at all engage this majority position. And thirdly, central to first-century Jewish faith is the Shema, which the majority of scholars see as asserting a strict monotheism; Ehrman does not mention the Shema even once. Tilling goes on to draw out two implications: 1) “the ontological separation between God and everything else is not a later church invention, as Ehrman asserts” (129) and 2) the key question, which Ehrman ignores, comes into sharp relief: in what ways was God’s transcendent uniqueness understood in the first century?


How Jesus Became God/How God Became Jesus – Part 4 (Christology of the First Believers)

See the rest of the series here.

How Jesus Became God (Ehrman)
In chapters 6 and 7, Ehrman turns to early Christologies. As opposed to the typical terms of low/adoptionist versus high Christology, Ehrman prefers exaltation Christology for the former and incarnation Christology for the latter. This is because he feels that “low Christology” is rather condescending, whereas even in that view Jesus was exalted to an impossibly high state; in the Roman world, adopted sons often had higher status than natural sons.

In chapter 6 Ehrman seeks to demonstrate that the earliest Christology was exaltational – Jesus started off as human being in every way like other human beings, but was elevated at a critical point in his existence (whether conception or baptism or resurrection). He was not thought to have been a preexistent divine being, but rather, a human being adopted by God to divine status. Because we have no writings from the first two decades of the Christian movement, Ehrman admits that it is extremely difficult to know what the first followers of Jesus believed (213). The way to determine what the earliest Christians believed is by detecting and examining preliterary traditions. Ehrman gives a few indicators for detecting preliterary traditions while admitting that they are not easy to detect (216-217). He then asserts that the preliterary traditions are consistent in demonstrating an exaltation Christology (218) and goes on to make the case from Romans 1:3-4, Acts 13:32-33, Acts 2:36, and Acts 5:31. All these passages demonstrate, according to Ehrman, the belief that Jesus was made Son of God at the resurrection.

Ehrman goes on to highlight the work of Raymond Brown in tracing christological development in the gospels – the earliest Gospel, Mark, seems to assume that Jesus became the son of God at his baptism; the next two, Matthew and Luke, indicate that Jesus became the Son of God at his birth/conception, and the  latest Gospel, John, proclaims Jesus as Son of God from before creation. While Brown deems that the development throughout the Gospels may mirror how Christians developed their views, Ehrman actually disagrees. “[S]ome Christians were saying that Jesus was a preexistent being (a “later” view) even before Paul began to write in the 50s – well before our earliest Gospel was written…views of Jesus did not develop along a straight line in every part of early Christianity and at the same rate” (237). So, while Ehrman believes that the earliest Christians held to exaltation Christologies, he does nuance his position.