I was asked to write a review of the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible with a focus on Romans. My first Bible that I really read was the NIV Study Bible that was around in the early 90’s. It was a great aid to my faith and personal growth. I’ve not engaged a study Bible in years, so this was an interesting exercise.

This Bible follows the same format of most study Bibles, including general introductions, call out boxes, and footnotes. As with the title of the study Bible, the information helps explain the text but with a focus on the cultural background. Those materials include geographic details, social practices (Jewish, Greek, and Roman), rhetorical practices, and engagement with other texts such as the OT and Second Temple literature.

The general introductions were informative and the footnotes included a good bit of quick information. The notes are not not merely background information, but provide a helpful explanation of how the paragraph holds together: e.g., 1:18-22, which mentions Wisdom of Solomon, and 3.10-18, which notes the unifying factor of the quotes, not just sin but body parts (feet, eyes, and especially mouth).

These are the main call-out pages that give the a focused attention on topics: Rome Homosexual Activity in Antiquity, Adam in Jewish Tradition, Flesh and Spirit, Pure and Unclean Foods, and the Erastus Inscription. I found discussion of Homosexual Activity in Antiquity. It gives discussion of Greek and Roman practices and context. In particular, it focuses on older men with boys as well as the use of prostitutes and slaves. It explains the demographic basis about baby girls being more often discarded in ancient cultures, which leads to the focus on boys. Ultimately it describes the practices without prescriptive interpretations.

There are elements that are missing. There’s surprisingly little about justification here in Romans (or Galatians). There are only footnotes which by implication gloss justification with “acquittal”. That’s not a minor issue in the letter. While I’ve seen or heard most of the information here since this letter is a focus of mine, but I can say that there were elements that I wouldn’t have focused on but should have or hadn’t thought of. So, I’m a fan.

Thanks to Nijay Gupta for his favorable review of Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination (Fortress, 2016):

This is a timely book, offering thoughtful and thought-provoking reflection and debate on how Pauline scholars use the language of apocalyptic and apply it to the Apostle’s letters. I do not doubt that this volume will enjoy a long life of use, especially the early chapters that treat the critical matters of definition and methodology. Students of Paul will benefit greatly from this colloquium on Paul’s apocalyptic thought in context. (Horizons in Biblical Theology 38 [2016]: 242-44)

I (John) was invited by Emily Varner at Zondervan to review the section on 1 Corinthians in the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (CBSB). Many thanks to Emily for inviting me and for providing a review copy.

Let me say at the start that this is a wonderfully written and beautifully produced resource, edited by John Walton and Craig Keener. It makes great sense for John and Craig to have overseen this project, since they have become perhaps the leading evangelical voices on the study of the historical-cultural contexts of the Old and New Testaments. Many will already know that John edited the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (on the OT), while Craig has written numerous (multi-volume) commentaries on various NT books (those on Matthew, John, Acts, Romans, and 1 Corinthians come specially to mind). And of course, some years ago John and Craig also authored the two-volume IVP Bible Background Commentary. Given, then, their expertise on biblical backgrounds, this was bound to be a masterfully written study Bible.

As I said above, my focus here will be on the background comments on 1 Corinthians. The primary features of the study on 1 Corinthians are: (1) the opening essay introducing Corinth and the background to 1 Corinthians; (2) the notes commenting on specific verses; and (3) the numerous articles/sidebars included throughout (some even with colored images).

The articles are a truly wonderful feature, since they dive a bit deeper into this or that ancient cultural practice and thus illuminate a key unit of the letter without being restricted to a verse-by-verse commentary. For 1 Corinthians, these articles focus on:

  • 2:1-5, “Rhetoric and Paul’s Letters,” with an illustration of first-century Corinth;
  • 6:12-20, “Prostitution and Sexual Immorality,” with an image of a stone bed inside the Lupanar brothel in Pompeii;
  • 7:1, “Celibacy in Antiquity”;
  • 8:1-13, “Sacrificed Food”;
  • 9:24-27, “Athletic Imagery in 1 Corinthians 9,” with an image of two wreaths (the likes of which would have been awarded to winners of the Isthmian and Olympic games) and an amphora depicting boxing in ancient Athens;
  • 11:2-16, “Head Coverings in Antiquity,” with an image of a sculpture of a woman wearing a chiton and himation;
  • 11:20-21, “Banquets in Corinth,” with an image of a fresco depicting a Roman banquet;
  • 14:1, “Prophecy in Antiquity”;
  • Ch. 15, “Resurrection,” with an image of a Coptic icon of the disciples’ encounter with the risen Christ.

Because of the extent to which 1 Corinthians assumes some knowledge of Greco-Roman and Jewish culture and convictions, many, many more articles could have been written on the backgrounds to this letter. However, I believe Craig has done a really nice job selecting key topics that truly illuminate the text for a popular audience and will catch the attention of the interested reader. Of course, some of the articles included for other passages of the NT are relevant for 1 Corinthians as well. For example, the article on the crucifixion (at John 19) will be helpful for understanding what Paul says about the folly and shamefulness of the message of the cross in 1 Cor 1:18. The colored images are also well chosen and add considerably to the attractiveness of this volume.

The essay introducing Corinth and the backgrounds to 1 Corinthians also impressed me. While brief, the essay exhibits great familiarity with the ancient site and recent developments on the study of the Roman colony and its surrounding area. For example, the essay rightly states—though this is sometimes ignored by commentators—that “some local Greeks continued to live on the site” of the city even following its destruction by the Roman General Lucius Mummius in 146 BC. Moreover, the essay correctly notes that it was “Julius Caesar’s decree in 44 BC that led to the city’s refounding.” This sentence, though simple, struck me as carefully and responsibly written (the key phrase being “led to”). For while Julius decreed that Corinth be recolonized, it was Antony, following Caesar’s murder, who implemented Corinth’s refounding (see Mary E. Hoskins Walbank, “The Foundation and Planning of Early Roman Corinth, Journal of Roman Archaeology 10 [1997]: 95-130, at 97-99”).

The same is true of the following statement: “Because most maritime trade between Rome and Asia Minor passed through the Isthmus of Corinth (the rugged southern coast of Greece was dangerous for ships), Corinth was well positioned for trade and wealth.” I was pleased that it wasn’t assumed here—as has been suggested by some early historians—that the Isthmus (specifically, the diolkos road) functioned as a commercial thoroughfare, whereby smaller ships heading either east or west could be carried by trolleys from one end of the isthmus to the other. Rather, as David Pettegrew has argued, goods were probably unloaded at the harbors in Lechaion and Cenchreae and were then exchanged on the isthmus at the emporium (among his other publications, see now David K. Pettegrew, The Isthmus of Corinth: Crossroads of the Mediterranean World [University of Michigan Press, 2016]). All this to say, the essay introducing the letter is well done and while concise, shows signs of familiarity with the best of ancient historical scholarship.

The notes on the biblical text themselves are also very helpful. There were a couple of times, however, that I wondered if they could have been improved. For example, at 1:11 the note reads, “Chloe may have owned a business in Corinth or Ephesus.” Craig’s inclusion of Ephesus as a possible geographical location for Chloe (and her business) is understandable considering that Paul writes 1 Corinthians from Ephesus (1 Cor 16:8). However, nowhere do the notes or essays indicate as much up to this point in the study of the letter, so the reason for considering Ephesus in this respect might be lost on some readers.

Moreover, the very next note (on 1:12) reads: “the phrase [I follow/I am of] was sometimes used as a slogan of ancient political partisans, which Paul caricatures here.” I am aware that such has been claimed by scholars for some time (e.g., L. L. Welborn, “On the Discord in Corinth: 1 Corinthians 1-4 and Ancient Politics,” JBL 106 [1987]: 85-111, at 90-93). However, Margaret Mitchell called into question this assumption (esp. as put forth by Welborn) some years ago:

The problem with this conclusion is that in his analysis Welborn has not produced one example of an ancient political slogan which has the same formula (personal pronoun + εἰμι [or ellipsed] + genitive of a proper name) (nor has anyone else, to my knowledge). The evidence which he cited is significantly relevant to the background of these slogans, but not to their form. . . . As much as these phrases rightly point to the dependence of a faction upon a leader, that is all they can show. They do not supply formal parallels to Paul’s statement in 1 Cor 1:12. . . . An exact replica of the formulae in 1 Cor 1:12 from ancient political literature has not yet been adduced in the history of exegesis of 1 Cor. The absence of this formula in our extant historical writings, a considerable corpus of material, is significant, and casts doubt on the view that these share a common form of political sloganeering. (Paul and the Rhetoric Reconciliation, 83-85)

Now, I have to admit that I have not been able to keep up on this particular debate since first reading Mitchell, or to research whether or not anybody has produced any such evidence since the publication of her work. But I wonder if Craig is simply following the lead of Welborn and others here, or if he is aware of some evidence to support his comment on the use of “I follow/I am of” as an ancient political slogan that I’m not familiar with.

Aside from these minor quibbles, I found the section on 1 Corinthians in the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible to be very impressive. There don’t appear to be any references to ancient literature outside of the OT, NT, or Apocrypha in the pages I read, or to scholarly literature that readers might consult for further study. Therefore, the classroom utility of this work has limitations. However, the CBSB will undoubtedly prove to be immensely helpful to lay readers who wish to access those cultural insights that the biblical text simply does not provide.

Well done, John and Craig and the team at Zondervan, for producing this well-conceived study Bible!

When ruling out transformation as part of justification, he gives his best short summary:

‘Justification’ is the declaration of the one God, on the basis of the death of Jesus: this really is my adopted child, a member of Abraham’s covenant family, whose sins are forgiven. And that declaration, in the present, anticipates exactly the final verdict which can also be described as ‘adoption’…. Whichever way you look at justification, whichever Pauline context you line up beside it, it always retains this character: the ultimate future brought forward into the present, and the two have joined hands by the spirit. (Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 958-59)

My only beef with that, in light of my larger project, is that Paul so directly connects justification with new life, that the new life is not just at the resurrection but starts now. So, while justification is a new status it is also eschatological life–both now and the future. It is not based on works, but the life given now is the ability to love and serve God through the Spirit as God’s new creation act in us, that is through his justification of us. And, with Wright, this justification will ultimately entail resurrection from the dead.

You may be interested in a nice summary here as well: What N.T. Wright Really Said

Francis Watson frames the basic difference between Paul and Judaism as one of distinct views of divine and human agency. He is clear that it is not simply divine grace vs poor form of Pelagianism. His reading has a payoff value when interpreting the notoriously difficult Romans 2.7-13, regarding those that pursue the good receiving life and those that do the law are justified. He argues:

Belief in judgment by works is indeed an integral part of Paul’s theology…[citing Rom 8.13, Gal 6.8, 5.21; Rom 2.9-10, etc.]…[The “good” that humans do] is grounded in God’s prior saving action, which establishes and enables an appropriately directed human agency. This is not “salvation by works” as commonly understood, that is as a salvation attained by unaided human effort. But nor is is “salvation by grace” as commonly understood, that is as a salvation in which the one who is saved stands in a purely passive relationship to the one who saves. Divine and human human agency do not conexist on the same plane, in such a way that more of one means less of the other. Rather, God’s prior grace works in and through the human agent, whose reoriented and free agency is itself the work of grace. (Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles, rev. ed., 214)

I noticed that John Barclay makes a similar claims non-contrastive agency in his Paul and the Gift about Romans 2:

Eternal life is, for Paul, both an incongruous gift (6:23) and the fitting completion of a life of good work (2:6–7). (466, cf. 464–74)

Great summary statement by Sanders about his view of Paul’s soteriology in Paul and Palestinian Judaism:

Pressed by opponents on on various sides, he [Paul] expounded the significance of the present state of the Christian life in such a way that the simple theology of future expectation and present possession of spiritual gifts was greatly deepened. We could do no better than guess by what chain of reasoning or under what history of religions influence Paul deepened the idea of the possession of the Spirit as a guarantee so that it became participation in on Spirit, or the idea of Christ’s death as cleansing former trespasses so that it became the means by which one participated in Christ’s death to the power of sin, but it is clear that he did so, and that herein lies the heart of his soteriology and Christology. (452-53)

In my previous post, I described the rationale for my current project with Eerdmans–Participating in the Righteousness of God: Justification in Pauline Theology–in light of wider theological concerns. In this post, I situate the rationale even more closely to the biblical studies context:

In contemporary biblical studies much discussion of justification just serves as a rehashing of “old” and “new” positions. These two perspectives have dominated, but the insistence on participation in Christ/God via Schweitzer and Sanders has served as a burr under the saddle. In fact, Wright places the relationship of participation and justification as a central theme of debate over the last century. (See N.T. Wright, Paul and His Recent Interpreters, Part 1.) The roots of the debate, he says, go back to Luther’s justification-only view in contrast to Calvin’s placement of justification in the wider sphere of participation. (Wright’s categorization of Luther greatly simplifies and weakens Luther’s proposal about faith being uniting; however, later Lutheranism (through Melanchthon) could much more be open to Wright’s charge.) Pauline scholars in the Reformed tradition have repeatedly attempted to place justification within the sphere of participation; however, their claims are hindered due to their repetitive emphasis upon justification as primarily forensic, by means of imputation. (For example, see Constantine R. Campbell, Paul and Union with Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 388–405.) They, like Wright, set the debates about justification in post-Reformation terms, and therefore “status” issues are primary, whether status before God (as in traditional readings) or status within the community (as with New Perspective readings).

The old and new perspectives have been challenged by those we might call participationists: E.P. Sanders, Michael Gorman, Douglas Campbell. The problem is that these participationists have not provided a thoroughgoing study of justification in Paul. Influenced by Sanders discussion of Paul’s “participationist eschatology,” recent participationists—e.g., Michael Gorman and Douglas Campbell—have provided interesting readings of justification in Paul; however, neither provides a monograph length study of texts which substantiates a holistic reading. (Campbell, for example, has done better at critiquing other models than providing a positive reading of Paul of his own.) Accordingly, there remains a need for a theologically rich and exegetically sustained reading of justification in Paul that frames it within his wider theology of participation.

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