Gospels and Acts


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.

Various online news groups are reporting that the scientific studies conducted on the fragment of the so-called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife have shown it NOT to be a forgery! See, e.g., the article in he Boston Globe. See also the official Harvard Divinity School site. Can’t wait to hear the reactions of Watson, Gathercole, Goodacre, and others.

I have an article in the latest volume of JBL (131.3 [2012], 547-66) titled “Voluntary Debt Remission and the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-13).” JBL doesn’t include abstracts, but here is a lengthy soundbite at the end of the survey/critique of existing interpretations that, more or less, explains what I try to do in the piece:

Numerous other interpretations could be presented here, each with its own shortcomings. The foregoing survey, however, has sufficiently demonstrated the common assumption underlying most of these inadequate explanations, namely, that unless the steward is deducting from his own profits, the reductions are to be viewed as hostile to his master, or in the words of Douglas E. Oakman, as “betrayal” and “an abrogation of the then-current social mores of fidelity.” Kloppenborg similarly remarks, “[T]he natural implication of the story is that the steward’s actions are injurious to the master’s interests.” Schellenberg concurs, explaining, “The expectation within the world of the parable [is] that loyal stewardship requires meticulous collection of the master’s debts.” But these assumptions rest on a limited understanding of the purpose and function of debt remission in the ancient economy. And since, as Klyne Snodgrass suggests, “[t]his is a parable where one must fill in the blanks,” in this essay I will offer a new explanation of the master’s praise based on the general custom of lease adjustment in the early empire. Through the testimony of Roman landowners such as Pliny the Younger, Cicero, and Columella, as well as those represented in leasing contracts from early Roman Egypt, I will demonstrate that the instability of land tenancy during the early imperial period quite often required wealthy proprietors to reduce debts (rents and arrears) in order to enable and encourage their repayment, as well as to secure the longevity of their tenants and their own long-term profitability. Debt remission in antiquity, then, was advantageous both to landlords and tenants, an insight that has significant implications for the interpretation of our parable (552-53).

If you interested in matters relating to the ancient economy and/or the interpretation of this confusing parable, I would encourage you to check out the article.

Sinces it was first introduced just a few weeks ago, there has been an enormous amount of specticism about the authencity of The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. Many scholars have charged that the fragment is a forgery, several even advancing theories about its possible dependance on the coptic version of The Gospel of Thomas. Now scholars are suggesting that the fragment was probably composed with the use of a specific online interlinear of Thomas, since the fragment and the interlinear share the same typographical error. This evidence looks quite damning for The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. For more, see the article by Andrew Bernhard, as well as the blog posts at Evangelical Textual Criticism and the NTWeblog.

In a new article (“Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13: The Denouement of the South Galatian Hypothesis”, NovT 54.4 [2012]: 334-53), Clare Rothschild argues a number of controversial theses relating to the composition of Acts 13 and the text’s relationship to Paul’s letter to the Galatians. She argues that “Luke” (i.e., the author who wrote Acts in 115 C.E.) produced the account of Paul’s visit to South Galatia in Acts 13 without the aid of any historical data about Paul’s actual journey there—that is, with the exception of Paul’s epistle to the Galatians itself. In fact, the account is fictional, and was created for two reasons:

  1. “to provide grounds for Paul’s foundation of the Galatic churches, irrespective of the historicity of its presentation in Acts” (334; she refers to the account throughout as a “desideratum”);
  2. to place Paul in the colony of Pisidian Antioch (“Little Rome”) at the start of his gentile-centered gospel ministry in order to form a literary inclusio with the apostle’s journey to the imperial capital (“Big Rome”) at the end of the book. “Pisidian Antioch,” she explains, “affords Luke an attractively Romanesque departure point for his Roman-born, Roman-named, Rome-bound missionary” (348).

Luke, therefore, perhaps the first proponent of the Southern Galatian hypothesis, mistakenly portrays Paul’s ministry to have taken place in South Galatia, when, in fact, it took place in the north. Her theory, as she explains in the article’s final paragraph, “invalidates the Southern Galatian Hypothesis by demonstrating that South Galatia is based on nothing more than a blank mandate to get Paul to Galatia and a literary advantage of placing him in the South. And, conversely, it confirms the Northern Galatian Hypothesis: for many scholars the more cogent explanation, even before this argument was made” (353).

Rothschild’s article is certainly provocative, if not highly speculative. Indeed, there are a number of problems with her argumentation. First, even if one were to grant her thesis on Acts’ composition and literary structure, it does not follow that the Northern Galatian Hypothesis is thereby “confirmed,” as she supposes. Casting doubt on the historicity of Luke’s account does not prove that Paul never founded churches in Southern Galatian, or that the epistle to the Galatians was addressed to Northern Galatia. She does not, for instance, address the historical difficulties of the Northern Galatian Hypothesis identified by Stephen Mitchell, even though she is clearly aware of them (336-37 n. 5). In fact, Rothschild never actually advances a case for the Northern Galatian Hypothesis, only that Luke’s account in Acts 13 is fictional and its denouement in the plot of Acts lies in its connection with the end of the book.

Moreover, Rothschild believes that her argumentation demonstrates that “South Galatia is based on nothing more than a blank mandate to get Paul to Galatia” (353). But she does not adequately demonstrate the basis of this mandate. Why is Luke so committed to getting Paul to South Galatia if, in fact, he did not have good reason to do so? Was it simply for the literary purpose of bookending Paul’s ministry with Romanesque cities? This is doubtful, since Luke mentions nothing in Acts 13 about Pisidian Antioch being a Roman colony. As Conzelmann remarks, “The Roman character of the city is not recognizable in Acts (in contrast to [Philippi in] 16:12).”

It seems far more plausible, then, that Luke places Paul and company in South Galatia, because that is where they traveled following the conversion of the proconsul Sergius Paulus in Cyprus, whose possessions and prominence in South Galatia made that region an advantageous place to do ministry with the proconsul’s commendation (of course, Rothschild does not accept the historicity of the Cyprus mission, either).

To her first point—that the mission to Pisidian Antioch is creative fiction—she presents five textual features to make her case: “(1) stereotypes; (2) lack of detail; (3) historical inaccuracies; (4) brisk narrative pace; and (5) link between Cyprus and Antioch” (340). I’ll present part of her explanations and then limit my comments to some initial thoughts.

1. Stereotypes:

Stereotypes replace historical information in Acts 13-14, suggesting that the author knows little more about Paul in the region of Galatia than the duty to place him there. If, for the sake of argument, the “three missionary journeys” model for Acts is adopted, the second journey—with its references to Jerusalem—poses by far the most historical questions. Challenges posed by the first journey seem minor in contrast. With some exceptions, traveling from Paphos to Perge, Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, and Attalia comprises the expected Galatian tour. Pisidian Antioch made a natural choice as hub. . . . Antioch was caput viae of this road system, running east through Iconium and Lystra in Lycaonia and southwest through Apollonia and Comama across the Taurus Mountains to Perge in Pamphylia.

In terms of Luke’s narrative, the via Sebaste would have taken Paul on his so-called first journey. In fact, the cities of Paul’s journey beginning in Pisidian Antioch adhere so closely to the route of the via Sebaste as to appear stereotypical. A writer in possession of a map or even just a list of the cities on this road might easily have selected them as an itinerant missionary’s (or other traveler’s) choices in lieu of sources. (340-41)

I find this to be a curious argument. Paul’s route, she explains, “comprises the expected Galatian tour.” I do not understand how one gets from “expected” to “stereotypical” to unhistorical. If this route is in any sense “typical,” why is it not thereby extremely plausible? Her point seems to rest on certain unstated assumptions about how to assess historicity. I suspect that if Luke had Paul traveling a route that was in fact atypical, she could have just as easily used that as grounds to argue for the text’s unreliability.

2. Lack of Detail:

The second observation that Galatia constitutes a desideratum of Luke’s narrative irrespective of access to specific information about Paul’s visit there (either to the North or South) is that, different from other cities [cf. 19:9] . . . Acts’ account of Paul’s visit with Barnabas to this city lacks detail. The account comprises, almost entirely, a speech to Jews and others who “fear God.” As such, the report is a construct of the Lukan imagination. Whereas the episodes about Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe (14:1-20) feature local color in lieu of historical detail, the report about Pisidian Antioch lacks both. (342)

This is a bit misleading, since, as Rothschild assumes in the second half of the article, Luke knew plenty about the Romanization of Antioch to use the colony to form an inclusio with Acts 28. Knowing enough about Antioch to consider it to be “Little Rome” seems at least comparable to the “local color” that Luke knows of other cities visited on Paul’s first mission. If Luke was not aware enough of the colony’s “local color” to report Paul’s visit in any detail, why is it fair to assume he knew enough about the Romanization of the colony to use it in an inclusio? This sounds like special pleading.

3. Historical Inaccuracies:

Third, what little the narrative offers about Paul in Galatia is not always accurate. Although 13:13 mentions that the missionaries arrive from Paphos at Perge—Perge was not on the coast and the nearest tributary (i.e., the Cestrus River) was still eight kilometers from this city. Pisidian Antioch was not in Pisidia (it was, rather, “toward” or “facing” Pisidia as opposed to Antioch on the Maeander), and the adjective “Pisidian” (Πισίδιος, 13:14) has no prior attestation. The episode in Pisidian Antioch is at once significant and hollow, suggesting some kind of empty imperative. (343-44)

I’m not sure that it is fair to infer from Acts 13:13 that Perge was the first stop following the departure of Paul and company from Paphos. The Greek ēlthon eis (“came to”; cf. Acts 13:51; 14:24; 17:1; 22:11; and many other places in the LXX/NT) simply indicates arrival; to force it to mean “to land the boat at,” or perhaps “came directly/immediately to,” seems to force the phrase to mean something it does not demand. Indeed, if Luke was able to create Paul’s route by map, as Rothschild supposes, why would he not have been able to realize that Perge was not a harbor town?

Moreover, Pisidian Antioch (Antiocheian tēn Pisidian) is simply an attributive adjective and this does not necessarily imply that Luke believed Antioch was located within the geographical limits of Pisidia; it was simply the Antioch related to, or associated, with Pisidia, to which it faced. As F. F. Bruce explains, “Πισιδίαν is an adj. here: Pisidian Antioch was so called because it was near Pisidia.” And as Colin Hemer remarks, “‘The Pisidian Antioch’ is an informal allusion to a city of Phrygia on the Pisidian border.” Again, if Luke knew enough about Antioch as “Little Rome” to link it to “Big Rome,” why would he not have known where Antioch was located? Rothschild seems to be grasping at straws here to demonstrate the inaccuracy of this particular narrative.

4. and 5. Brisk Narrative Pace and Cyprus and Antioch

Fourth, the Pisidian Antioch episode is driven by a sense of urgency. No sooner do Paul and Barnabas arrive in Antioch than they enter the synagogue to deliver a speech. (344)

[T]he fifth and final observation . . . is that the Cyprus and Pisidian Antioch incidents are, in at least one important respect, linked. The Bar-Jesus episode (nine verses) constitutes the miraculous component of a two-part—miracle + teaching—segment, a common feature of the Lukan narrative. The apostles’ dash to the synagogue emphasizes the connection, unifying Cyprus and Pisidian Antioch. (345)

Now, I don’t know nearly as much as Rothschild about the literary and stylistic features of Acts, but it seems plausible that the fifth feature, in fact, helps to explain the fourth, which also helps to explain the second: Luke desires to connect the two episodes; he therefore narrates them with urgency, and therefore omits the details. Thus, the features of the text do not suggest that the narrative is some kind of historical fiction; rather it was written selectively. As William Ramsay eloquently remarks, “The power of accurate description implies in itself a power of reconstructing the past, which involves the most delicate selection and grouping of details according to their truth and reality, i.e., according to their comparative importance.”

I do not, of course, approach the NT without presuppositions. But even if I were to try to lay my historical and theological assumptions aside, I do not find Rothschild’s evidence to be strong. Her evidence certainly does not “demonstrate” what she thinks it does, nor is she able to “validate” the Northern Galatian Hypothesis; her argument neither adds support to nor confirms anything about the audience of Paul’s letter. The whole exercise seems to beg for a preliminary discussion on how to assess historicity.

Congratulations to Michael Bird, who is headed to Ridley College Melbourne in 2013 to be Lecturer in Theology.

Mark Goodacre has recorded the sad death of Christopher Evans (C.F. Evans), the former Lightfoot Professor here in Durham. Mark says,

His commentary on Luke (1990) is probably the best scholarly commentary on Luke available in the English language…

High praise indeed, and it is certainly an excellent commentary. If you haven’t already got it, the good news is that it is in the Summer sale at SCM Press for £10 plus postage (paperback – reduced from £50). There are also a number of other goodies.

I preached last Sunday on the lectionary readings of Isa 7.10-16 and Matt. 1.18-25.  Since the names of Immanuel (God with us) and Jesus were central to the account of who Jesus is, that’s what I focused upon.

Immanuel seems pretty straight forward, but the name ‘Jesus’ is one that I can’t ever remember hearing much about in the academy or the church.  If I’ve heard anything, people most often point out the name Yeshua, but that doesn’t get English speakers any closer to the OT connections.  The anglicised name we would recognise is Joshua.  This first became clear to me a couple of years back when I was translating through Hebrews, where Joshua shows up in 4.8, and lo and behold his name is the same as Jesus in Greek.  I’ll have to do some more reading on the connection.

The other learning opportunity for me was to track down the background to the H. in the ‘Jesus H. Christ’ name that you hear on the street rather than in the church.  I was told that it wouldn’t be appropriate to bring it up in a service, but since I was looking into Jesus’ name, I thought I would look into it.  Who would have thought there would have been a Wikipedia page on it?  Essentially, it stems from the nomina sacra IHC for IHCOYC (or Ιησους).  For those that don’t know Greek, they would assume the C from uncial Greek (which is Σ in modern Greek) stood for Christ.  Therefore, the IHC would be Jesus’ initials.  Coming out of a nonliturgical background, I wouldn’t have ever come across this at church, but the pulpit cover at our church has a lowercase form ‘ihs’.  Probably the most practical part of my sermon was to explain to them what that ‘ihs’ stood for (without the modern interpretation).

Since we celebrated the ascension liturgically last week, here’s a quote from Leo the Great in Sermon 2 on the Ascension (5th c.) relating its significance. A friend here, Mark Mathews, said that it was inculcated into him from Darrell Bock that the ascension is quite important for NT theology but often neglected. I would agree that it is neglected, but I haven’t spent enough time in the Gospels and Acts to see its full significance there.

The Lord’s ascension increases the disciples’ faith because

the evidence of their eyes no longer held back their mental vision from contemplating this truth, that the Son descended from his Father without leaving him, and ascended from his disciples without departing from them. For the Son of man, dearly beloved, was revealed more perfectly and more solemnly as the Son of God once he had returned to the glory of his Father’s majesty, and in a mysterious way he began to be more present to them in his godhead once he had become more distant in his humanity. Then faith gained deeper understanding and by a leap of the mind began to reach out to the Son as equal of the Father. It no longer needed contact with Christ’s bodily substance, by which he is less than the Father. For though the glorified body remained a body, the faith of believers was being drawn to touch, not with the hand of the flesh but with the understanding of the spirit, the only-begotten Son, the equal of his Father.

I preached last Sunday at a local methodist church here in the Durham circuit. It was deemed worthy, and I moved from being ‘On Note’ to ‘On Trial’ as as part of the lay preaching vetting process. For this sermon they require you to preach out of Mark because of the training module that goes with this stage of the process. Since we’re in the Easter season I picked Mark 16.1-8.

I was struck at how odd this passage is. Lost portion of manuscript or intentional ending? The thing I thought was most interesting was that the angel/young man told the women to do two things: 1) don’t be afraid and 2) go tell the others what he said. And 16.8 reads: ‘So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’ So, Mark has them not doing either one. Interesting.

P.S. We moved last week, and are almost done unpacking all the boxes and re-organising everything. Thanks especially to Heather’s mom, who had a previously planned trip here and has spent most of it cleaning and organising.

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