Ian Boxall’s new book, Discovering Matthew: Context, Interpretation, Reception (London: SPCK, 2014), is a welcome addition to the study of the Gospel of Matthew. Designed as an introduction to Matthew, Boxall sets out well the main issues in current scholarship and the key players in the various debates. He is not limited to only the classic works or the most recent positions; rather, he tries to give readers a feel for how debates have progressed, where they are, and where they might go. As well as gaining a sense for the state of present scholarship, Boxall aims to keep the text in front of the reader. His discussion is guided by Matthew and his presentation of Jesus, not simply what is fashionable at the moment in Matthean scholarship.

After a brief introduction that summarises the critical turn of the 19th century and lays out the content of Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 2 describes the range of critical approaches for reading Matthew. One finds here the standard references to source, form and redaction criticisms. As well, though, Boxall highlights (so-called) pre-critical readings. He also gives much attention to social scientific and narrative approaches. The strategies outlined in chapter 2 are taken up, more or less, in fuller detail in the remainder of the book. In chapter 3, the issues of authorship and date, source criticism and textual criticism are addressed. The structure of the book is also discussed. The characters and, to a lesser extent, places in Matthew’s Gospel are surveyed in chapter 4. With the rise of narrative criticism, interest in the characters of the Gospels has risen and Boxall develops this in his discussion. I had hoped for slightly more on the places mentioned in Matthew’s gospel.

Set within a narrative framework, in chapters 6-12 (about 100 pages) Boxall walks the reader through the content of Matthew’s Gospel highlighting the key themes and topics debated by scholars. He begins with the infancy narratives, addressing issues like Jesus as teacher and healer, the function of scripture, the church, and concludes with discussions of Jesus’ death and resurrection. While the discussions of these issues will be familiar ground to most scholars (even those of us who do not work much in Matthew), students should find this discussion insightful and accessible.

An important and welcome feature of Boxall’s book is the constant reference to the history of interpretation. Inspired, of course, by Luz’s monumental work, scholars have been keenly interested in how Matthew has been interpreted throughout church history. An important feature of Boxall’s contribution is that he often shows how today’s readings mirror ancient ones. For example, he notes the similarities between Bornkamm’s interpretation of the calming of the storm as a model of discipleship and earlier readings, such as Peter Chrysologus, bishop of Ravenna in the fifth century, who ‘offered an ecclesiological interpretation of the boat’ (p.117). Linking present interpretations with similar ones from the past should help eliminate the notion that all early interpretations are simply wrong and must be abandoned.

Boxall also notes how Matthew has been depicted in art. I think this is important as it helps us see how the texts have influenced others, and in turn how the depiction of scenes from the gospel may influence us in our readings. Perhaps if a revised edition is done, some pictures can be included to help get the full fell of the paintings.

While I would quibble over certain positions, as far as an introductory volume goes, this one is helpful. The book addresses all the standard features that one expects in an introductory book, but in a user-friendly and especially student-friendly manner. Students will benefit from the clarity of Boxall’s discussion.

The meaning of Romans 7 finally uncovered:

I was once alive apart from teaching, but when the end of the semester came, grading came alive and I died.

The very job that promised life proved to be death to me.

For grading, seizing an opportunity through the teaching, deceived me and through it killed me.

So the teaching is holy, and the classroom is holy and righteous and good.

Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was grading, producing death in me through what is good, in order that grading might be shown to be sin, and through the classroom might become sinful beyond measure.

For we know that the teaching is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under grading.

I’m not clever enough to come up with this, but Marc Cortez is. (And on a more serious note, his little volume Theological Anthropology: A Guide for the Perplexed is really helpful.)

Plan to arrive at SBL a day early this year. On Friday 21st November starting at 12:30 some of the world’s top Pauline scholars will gather to discuss ‘Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination’. This special session, being organised by my co-bloggers Ben and John and myself, includes presentations from N.T. Wright, Martinus de Boer, Loren Stuckenbruck, Philip Ziegler, Michael Gorman, Edith Humphrey, Douglas Campbell, Beverly Gaventa, and John Barclay.

Here is the description:

Across various branches of biblical and theological study, there is a renewed interest in ‘apocalyptic’. This development is seen particularly in the study of Paul’s theology, where it is now widely agreed that Paul promotes an ‘apocalyptic theology’. However, there is little agreement on what this means. Scholars from different perspectives have, as a result, continued to talk past each other. This special session provides an opportunity for leading Pauline scholars from different perspectives to engage in discussion about the meaning of Paul as an apocalyptic thinker. Indeed, one of the strengths and aims of this event is that different and opposing views are set next to each other. The session will hopefully bring greater clarity to the ‘apocalyptic’ reading of Paul by providing much needed definition to central terms and interpretive approaches and by highlighting both their strengths and weaknesses.

 

One of the hottest theological topics is Calvinism and Arminianism. The debate divides churches, and denominations like the Southern Baptists have been at odds over it for some time. One thing that bothers me about this whole discussion is that it seems to operate from a mistaken understanding of divine and human agency.

In his excellent introduction to the volume Divine and Human Agency in Paul and His Cultural Environment, John Barclay outlines three models of divine and human agency, two of which are relevant to this issue:

1) Competitive: In this model divine and human action negate each other. When God acts the human is passive; when the human acts God is passive. Barclay writes, ‘Divine sovereignty and human freedom are mutually exclusive; human freedom must be understood as freedom from God’ (p.6).

2) Non-contrastive transcendence: According to this model, divine sovereignty indicates that God works outside the realm of the human agent. Humans act out of their own freedom. The two agents do not negate each other since they operate on different levels. Barclay writes, ‘The two agencies stand in direct, and not inverse proportion: the more the human agent is operative, the more (not the less) may be attributed to God’ (p.7).

The debate about Calvinism and Arminianism operates in the first model. Both views treat the two agents as opposing agents. Calvinists stress divine agency, not only because humans are sinners, but because any action that is attributed to humans impinges on God’s sovereignty. Arminianists emphasise the human agent in order to uphold human freedom. In both views the actions of one agent impinge on the other. True human freedom is only established and maintained in the absence of divine action. Conversely, divine freedom and sovereignty is only established and maintained in the absence of human action.

I wonder, though, if this competitive understanding of divine and human agency is right. Paul’s view seems more in line with the ‘non-contrastive transcendence’ perspective when he writes of grace (1 Cor 15.10) or the Spirit (Rom 8.4-13) working in him and believers in general. Paul holds that human action is established and maintained precisely because God is at work in believers. It is not an either-or, but a both-and. In his book Faith and Perseverance Berkouwer writes,

Preserving ourselves is not an independent thing that is added paradoxically to the divine preservation. God’s preservation and our self-preservation do not stand in mere coordination, but in a marvellous way they are in correlation. One can formulate it best in this way: our preservation of ourselves is entirely oriented to God’s preservation of us. (p.104)

If we shifted the philosophical model behind the Calvinist-Arminian debate, I wonder if it could bring about different conclusions and clarify how the salvation process works and the place of the divine and human agents in it.

N.T. Wright’s volume Paul and the Faithfulness of God was eagerly anticipated by many and broke the back of many mail carriers. For those looking for some help through the massive two-volumes, Larry Hurtado is posting on some key issues. After an introductory post, in which he comments on the length of the work, Hurtado focuses on Wright’s Christology. In the second post, he questions Wright’s claim that in Paul’s view Jesus is the personal return of YHWH. In the third post, he challenges Wright’s understanding of how Jesus’ messiahship functioned in Paul’s thought and its significance for Pauline theology. All three posts are very helpful for seeing the differences between these two leading scholars. Also, in the comments Richard Bauckham and Crispin Fletcher-Louis have weighed in.

The posts can be found here: “Paul and the Faithfulness of God”: Wright’s big Opus; “Paul and the Faithfulness of God”: 2nd Posting; and Messiah and Worship.

In my experience one basic problem with contemporary preaching is that most preachers are poor speakers. Not only do many of them not have a good command of their subject matter, but they give relatively little time to thinking about how to present the material. This could stem from several reasons, for example: a lack of confidence when speaking publicly; lack of time to prepare; or a rejection of the idea that a sermon should be well delivered. The first of these can be overcome with time. The second arises because of the general downplaying of the sermon in many of today’s churches. The role of the pastor-preacher has shifted away from the preaching of God’s Word to an administrator who manages church resources and staff. Ministers find all their time occupied by hospital visits or counselling sessions . Well these things are important (and I don’t want to downplay their signficance), the focus on them as the key components of a minister’s responsiblities reveals a shift away from preaching.

The third point stems from a misunderstanding and misuse of Paul’s statement in 1 Cor 2.1-5:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (ESV)

This text is taken to mean that Paul didn’t give attention to how he spoke and whether he attempted to speak persuasively or not. Such a reading misses the contextual issues at play in the Corinthian church and overlooks the way in which Paul composes his letters.

The outcome of such neglect of speaking well, though, is that many people find the sermon boring and powerless, which breds the sense that the sermon is irrelevant to our contemporary lives. The striking thing, though, is that the ‘monologue’ is still a key element of public speaking in other fields. Political speeches are still highly valued, while people will listen to lectures from famous academics on subjects about which they know very little. The reason people listen to these others is because they speak well.

I think that the sermon has a vital role in the future of the church and the development of disciples. One key to recovering the power of the spoken Word is for ministers to give attention to how they speak. There has been signficant discussion about this in recent years, and a good place to start is the recent blog post by Ian Paul ‘Rhetoric in Preaching’, which draws attention to the place of rhetoric in contemporary society and in current reflections on preaching. He concludes by drawing attention to the practical implications of preaching persuasively:

Given the sense of growing hostility to Christian faith, the importance of good, persuasive, engaging preaching is not just about satisfying religious consumers in the supermarket of faith. Increasingly, Christians in the West need to have good reasons for what they believe, and encouraging faith involves continually making a persuasive case for trusting in God.

Warren Carter’s Seven Events that Shaped the New Testament World (Baker, 2013) is a clear and well-written introduction to issues relevant for understanding early Christianity. The book is structured around seven crucial ‘events’ (using the term loosely at times) that impacted the world of early Christianity. The seven events are:

  1. The Death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE): explores the significance of the spread of Hellenism and compares Alexander with Jesus
  2. The Process of Translating Hebrew Scriptures into Greek (ca. 250 BCE): discusses the tale of the Septuagint and how early Christians read the Scriptures with ‘Jesus-glasses’
  3. The Rededication of the Jerusalem Temple (164 BCE): explains how the Maccabean revolt and the events following it helped form Jewish identity
  4. The Roman Occupation of Judea (63 BCE): describes the rise and impact of Roman rule in Judea and how early Christians responded to Roman rule
  5. The Crucifixion of Jesus (ca. 30 CE): addresses who was crucified in the ancient world and why Jesus was crucifed both historically and theologically
  6. The Writing of the New Testament Texts (ca. 50 — ca. 130 CE): goes over briefly the standard introductory issues, such as authorship and purpose
  7. The Process of ‘Closing’ the New Testament Canon (397 CE): outlines five stages that lead to the canon and then surveys some of the criteria for canonization

Carter explores the historical and social context of these events. His concern is less with individual figures or the event itself. Rather, he is interested in a ‘people’s-history’, so he explores the relevance of these events for the lives of the common folks. He highlights in each chapter the significance of these events for the development of the early Christian community. Spread throughout are pictures and sidebars that briefly explain related issues or develop some point in slightly more detail.

Scholars won’t find anything surprising in Carter’s discussion, although as with any short book like this one would wish for some more explanation at points. At times I thought that Carter presented conclusions as universal givens when there is dispute about the matters. For example, the discussion of the authorship of the disputed Pauline letters was too one-sided for me. Also, each chapter contains a short bibliography, although the lists don’t reflect well ongoing discussions and tend to be one-sided.

Perhaps the most disputed point will be the selection of these seven events. I think Carter is right to highlight these, but I wondered why there was nothing about the resurrection. Arguably the cross is meaningless without the resurrection. The chapter on Christ’s crucifixion needs to be supplemented by discussion of the resurrection for the full significance to come out.

Although Carter’s work is focused primarily on the ancient context, scattered throughout and particularly in the Conclusion are reflections on the relevance of the New Testament for today. I appreciate his concern to bring the ancient context of the New Testament  into connection with its relevance for today. His final words are worth highlighting:

Reading with awareness of the worlds from which these texts emerged and reading in community help readers to have genuine conversation with the texts and with other readers, rather than simply making the texts reflect our prejudices and preferences. Reading in community requires awareness of how readers are interpreting the texts, what values and practices they are promoting, and who is being harmed and benefited by the interpretation. Reading in community requires conversation and accountability. (p.159)

Overall, I like this book and especially the idea of picking seven key events to focus on. I imagine that designing an Introduction to the New Testament class around these events would help students navigate the complexity of the ancient world and early Christianity’s place within it. Also, it would move beyond the typical approach of working book by book through the critical issues. I, though, wouldn’t use the book itself as a core textbook simply because it lacks the necessary detail that I want in an core textbook. But, that being said, I will be recommending it to my students as a starting point to help them get into the context of the New Testament.

Every semester I introduce my students to a range of Jewish literature. In the first year module, Jesus and the Gospels, for example, I give a brief overview of the historical context and review the relevant collections of Jewish literature. We also spend several sessions looking at non-canonical gospels and comparing them with the canonical Gospels. But, despite trying to get my students to read the ancient material, many remain resistant. Some lack motivation. Others don’t see the value: they have their Bible so what else do they need? Some, however, do take up the challenge. I think the spectrum I see with my students is fairly typical of the response of most Christians, and it seems that the majority of my students and Christians I know don’t see any value in understanding the historical context.

Mike Bird draws attention to a helpful piece by Andy Naselli addressing the issue of whether or not ‘background’ (that is, historical) knowledge is necessary for understanding the Bible. Andy gives a ‘cautious yes’, and Mike adds some good points as well. Two additional points seem relevant to note:

1. It seems to me that the debate about whether historical awareness is necessary arises because we have translations. If I wanted to read a Russian novel, then I would need to learn Russian which would include reading about Russian history and culture, for the two (language and culture) cannot be separated. If all Bible students and Christians had to learn the original languages, then this question of historical knowledge wouldn’t exist.

To be clear, I’m not advocating that we do away with translations. It just seems to me that a key reason we even ask the question about the necessity or importance of historical awareness is because translations are available and the reader then assumes that he or she can properly and fully understand the Scriptures.

2. If we hold that no historical knowledge is necessary, then one must ask why God choose to reveal himself through Israel and for the Incarnation to occur during the Roman period rather than some other historical period. God could have simply dropped the Scriptures from heaven at any time and in any language. He could have used metaphors and concepts that fit better with our context. But he didn’t, and because he didn’t it is vital that we seek to understand the language, history and culture of the ancient world in order to understand better and more fully the meaning of the text.

I recently read a novel set in England at the beginning of the 11th century. After finishing the novel I read about some of the events described because there were parts of the story that didn’t make sense to me. This wasn’t the author’s fault. Rather it was my lack of knowledge about the period and I wanted to understand better the setting of the story. The same is true of Scripture. Any reader of Scripture, whether in the original languages or translation, can get the basic story line, but there will always be gaps in one’s understanding without some knowledge of the historical context. The more one knows about the historical and social contexts and the languages, then the better chance one has to understand the text in its fullest meaning. And for those who are able to study the historical context, the greater the responsiblity that is placed on them to teach and help those who are not given this privilege.

For the last month, I’ve been at Tyndale House in Cambridge on research leave. Here are some of the things I’ve liked about Tyndale:

You have a wealth of books and journal articles right at hand. There are, of course, bigger collections elsewhere and there are some things that Tyndale doesn’t have. But one of the advantages is that nothing leaves the library. So even if someone else has gotten a book from the shelve, you can go get it from them.

There is a seriousness about the place. From the first moment that you step into the library, you are very aware that everyone is there for one reason: to research. It’s not like most university libraries where there is constant noise and laughter. Here it is quite and everyone is busy.

For those of us in small departments, Tyndale provides an opportunity to discuss research and get that informal feedback that is so crucial to thinking and writing. The two scheduled tea times are a welcome break as everyone stops for 15 minutes or more and steps away from the books. There are so many people working here that you can find someone who has given some thought to just about anything.

If you have a chance to spend some time at Tyndale, I would highly recommend it. My plans already include another month here next summer.

I’m spending a month at Tyndale House this summer on research leave. One event that overlapped with my time here was the meeting of the Tyndale Fellowship NT Study Group. Other groups meet as well, such as the OT, ethics and theology. These groups run at the beginning of July each year. This year’s papers included several from current PhD students, and the NT Tyndale Paper was given by Dr Hanna Stettler (University of Tübingen, Germany) on the question ‘Did Paul Invent Justification by Faith?’ in which she explored potential connections between Paul and Luke 18.

If you are a PhD student wanting to try out your research, I think these groups are a good place. You will receive constructive criticism, but there is a completely different feeling to the session. No one is attempting to make a name for themselves or trying to stand out.

The meetings are on the smaller side, unlike SBL, and people are not running from one session to the next. This means that you have a chance to talk with people like Howard Marshall or to meet new people. This year I met Tim Gombis (who blogs at Faith Improvised) and Erwin Ochsenmeier (who blogs at Foursenses). One of the enjoyable things about Tyndale is the international element. Another enjoyable feature, and this goes for the British New Testament Conference as well, is that everyone eats meals together. Sharing a meal changes the dynamics of a meeting and is a reminder that life is about more than just research.

So, if you are in the UK at the beginning of July, you should think about coming along to one of the Tyndale Fellowship Study Groups.

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