Just the other day a new student asked me (Ben) about studying the New Testament and early Christianity. They were wondering how you study early Christianity because we have relatively few sources for knowing what they thought and practiced. However, when I noted exponential growth in the variety of material we have from the second, third, and forth centuries, the problem is not too little material from these early Christians to process but too much material. Of course, it’s not really too much, but there is so much that putting all the data together can be quite complex.

Since that is the nature of later Christian material, they offered that it’s too bad that we don’t have that same diversity with Jewish material for understanding the New Testament. While again we don’t have “too much,” we have quite a bit of theological, liturgical, historical, philosophical, mystical, narrative, etc. texts from Jews that lived within a similar time frame as the New Testament. The problem isn’t so much the limited amount of material that we have, the problem for students interpreting the New Testament is that they are almost completely unaware of the existence of the material, much less its breadth and depth.

9780310534457I was so much on board when the idea was initially brought up for Reading Romans in Context and now Reading Mark in Context because after seminary I was partially aware that this world existed, but I didn’t know anything about specific texts or much about particular ideas. Our goal with these is to introduce students to this world by making this material accessible to graduate and undergraduate level students. We provide glimpses into that world to help people know it exists and to get a sense of some of its flavor. With just glimpses this means that each chapter is selective, just covering one central topic. Of course, the depth and variety of each biblical passage means there’s much more that could be explored, but we hope this will whet the appetite to study these issues further.


This summer my family and I were glued to our television for nearly a month, as we are every four years, during the FIFA World Cup. Even though the USA didn’t qualify, we were pulling for one particular team—England, where my wife and I lived during my doctoral studies. Sadly, the Three Lions were eliminated in the semi-final round, bringing an all-too-early end to our World Cup dreams. But it was an exciting tournament nonetheless and we were sorely disappointed when the final whistle blew.

Despite our World Cup thrills, most viewers probably appreciated the tournament far more than we did. While my family and I are avid fans of football, the truth is we normally follow the other kind—American football, which is, as they say, a completely different ballgame. In fact, our familiarity with the players, rules, strategies, and team histories of international soccer are embarrassingly limited. We know enough of the basics to follow along, even enough to get caught up in some of the drama, but there is no question we would have understood and appreciated more of what we were watching had we possessed a deeper well of knowledge about the sport, even about international politics and pop culture.

Believe it or not, reading the Gospel of Mark is not unlike watching the World Cup. Many readers can easily pick up their New Testament, read the Second Gospel, and walk away better informed about the life, ministry, and passion of Jesus Christ. They can even, as a result, grow in their love for our Lord and live more faithful lives as his disciples. But what Jesus said and did resonates at an altogether deeper level when one brings to the Bible greater awareness of the “game” Jesus was playing—that is, the game of Second Temple Judaism.

Mark’s Gospel was written for readers with at least some familiarity with intertestamental Jewish history, politics, culture, and religion. In fact, there are numerous pericopae that are in implicit dialogue with the Jewish theological traditions extant in the first century. Sometimes the evangelist himself tells us exactly what those traditions and beliefs consisted of. For example, when introducing the Sadducees for the first and only time in the narrative, Mark tells us they were a sect of Judaism that denied the resurrection of the dead (12:18). But at other times, Mark assumes his readers themselves possess the requisite knowledge to fill in the blanks about the who, what, and where of the narrative.

Reading Mark in Context

Our recently released collection of essays, Reading Mark in Context: Jesus and Second Temple Judaism (Zondervan Academic), seeks to show how familiarizing oneself with Second Temple Jewish literature can help fill those blanks. With a foreword by N. T. Wright and 30 essays by some of today’s most respected Markan scholars (Michael Bird, Darrell Bock, Helen Bond, Elizabeth Shively, Mark Strauss, Rikk Watts, and more), this book will help the reader study the text in new and enriching ways. The volume was designed to cover the entire Second Gospel, but not to be exhaustive. Much more could be said both about Judaism as well as about Jesus. But hopefully this book will whet one’s appetite for reading Mark’s Gospel in context and for digging deeply into the world of the New Testament. If this book interests you, I encourage you to check it out!

In Mark 11.27-12.34 Jesus engages with other Jewish groups as they pepper him with various questions. In one of the rare engagements between Jesus and the Sadducees, they present him with a problem regarding marriage and resurrection (12:18-27). They tell a story about a woman who marries, but the husband dies. Of course, in Jewish law the solution is simple: the woman marries the man’s brother. Yet, in this story, the next brother dies, as does the next and the next and so on. Their question then is whose wife will she be at the resurrection. (The account is probably based on the story of Tobit.)

The story told by the Sadducees is tragic, but their real concern is with the legal code of the levirate marriage law (Deut 25.5-10). According to the logic of the Sadducees, one cannot maintain a belief in resurrection and uphold the authority of the Torah. They make two assumptions here: 1) marital practices of the “supposed” resurrection age will mirror those of the present age; and 2) the ultimate authority of the Mosaic Torah in both the present age and the next. If the Torah commandment of levirate marriage remains applicable in the resurrection age, which it must, then this creates a bizarre situation that violates other laws about adultery. Their question to Jesus is fundamentally about the Torah.

In his response Jesus challenges the Sadducees understanding of Scripture. He claims that if the Sadducees were reading Scripture properly they would realize that God is the God of the living. This is the point of his quotation of Exod 3.6, whatever exactly is the best interpretation of Jesus’ quotation.

But stopping here is to grasp only the surface meaning of Jesus’ response. Underneath the surface Jesus is leveling a more marked charge: the issue as Jesus frames it is not merely whether there will be a resurrection nor even how best to interpret Moses, but rather the very nature of God. Is Israel’s God one who gives life only in the present or also in the future? The conjunction of the double declarations of God’s identity is crucial: Scripture reveals that God is “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” and it is accepted truth that he is “the God of the living,” therefore, Jesus infers, the patriarchs must live again.[1] Jesus cuts through the legal questions to the core issue: what is the nature Israel’s God?

By turning to Exod 3:6, Jesus’ tactic is not only cleaver, but it thoroughly undercuts the Sadducees’ rejection of the resurrection. Jesus exposes them as hermeneutically deficient, for they had failed to grasp the full import of this text as it relates to one of their core beliefs. But, even more sharply, Jesus charges that their denial of resurrection is actually a denial of Israel’s God.

[1] Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, WBC (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 256–57.

In a previous post, I (Jason) briefly explained how little clear evidence there is in second temple Jewish texts for a widespread belief in resurrection. Recognizing this point may help explain two issues about the development of early Christianity (probably more, but I’m only interested in these two right now).

First, if resurrection was not a widely held belief, then the commonality between Jesus, his movement and the Pharisees on this issue can help explain why the two are often linked together. Despite all their differences, these two groups were united in their acceptance of a minority view. They found common support, and if necessary could look past their obvious differences on other matters. This explains why some of the teachers of the law (Luke 20.39) praised Jesus when he rebutted the Sadducees. Recognizing this shared viewpoint also helps explain why there was so much tension between the Pharisees and Jesus. Both had a common message about resurrection which they were offering to the same group of people. In other words, they were competing for the same audience, and Jesus appeared to be winning.

Second, the distinctiveness of the Christian message stands out. If many people were not expecting individual resurrection, then the Christian message strikes a different tone. It not only appears awkward in comparison to Greek and Roman ideas of the afterlife, but also in comparison to many Jewish ideas. The Christian message not only struck a chord with its claim that the messiah was a crucified man, but also with its claim that this one had been raised and that all who believed in him would also be raised. The resurrection of believers should be seen as a distinctive part of the Christian proclamation.

This spring I (Jason) wrote two short pieces on resurrection. The first is on the Sadducees’ question about marriage and resurrection in Mark 12.18-27 (par. Matt 22.23-33; Luke 20.27-38). The second surveys Jewish views during the second temple period. The issue that stood out to me while working on these projects is the lack of clear evidence for a widespread belief in resurrection during this time. I think most people work with the impression that the vast majority of Jews believed in resurrection, and the Sadducees were the odd ones. Reading a work like N.T. Wright’s Resurrection of the Son of God certainly gives the impression that most Jews believed in resurrection. The literature, however, does not clearly support this view.

Sirach has no notion of a continued bodily existence after death. One lives on only in the memories of others. This work was hugely popular in the second temple period and even into the Rabbinic era. Of course, later scribes added resurrection statements, which indicates that they were bothered by the lack of a resurrection belief. These edits, however, come at later stages and cannot be dated clearly to the second temple period.

Jubilees 23.31 describes the death of the physical body and the continuing existence of one’s spirit. Wisdom of Solomon appears to describe a similar view. In order to get either text to refer to resurrection, one must assume that eschatological texts that speak of a continued existence after death assume resurrection even if not clearly stated.

Perhaps the most surprising evidence is the Dead Sea Scrolls. Experts in this literature have, for some time, been challenging the reading that finds here a strong belief in resurrection. George Nickelsburg made the case in his early study Resurrection, Immortality, and Eternal Life (1972), which was updated in 2006. Important texts like 1QS, CD and 1QM have no clear evidence for a belief in resurrection. The strongest evidence comes in the Hodayot, but this is far from clear. I suspect that the author(s) did have leanings toward a bodily afterlife, something like resurrection, but this is far from obvious. Even then, the evidence from the scrolls is strikingly thin.

To be sure, there were Jews who believed in bodily resurrection. Josephus indicates that he believes in resurrection (Ap. 2.217-18), and he attributes the same to the Pharisees, despite describing their position in Greek philosophical language (J.W. 2.163; Ant.18.14). Texts like 2 Macc 7 also give the impression that resurrection was a popular position. 2 Baruch also advocates for resurrection, although it is not clear exactly what the author envisions the afterlife to be like (chapters 49-52). And, of course, the New Testament texts testify to the belief in resurrection among the early Christians.

In the end, though, the Jewish literature does not provide strong evidence for the view that many Jews believed in a bodily resurrection after death.

Matt O’Reilly has written a review of Reading Romans in Context edited by Ben, John and myself at his blog Orthodoxy for Everyone. He writes toward the end:

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.

Thanks Matt for the review. Although there are not formal plans (yet) for additional volumes on Paul’s letter, we are working on Reading Mark in Context.

Ben, Jason, and I are excited to announce the release of our most recent edited volume Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination (Fortress Press). This book has been several years in the making, the main contents of which were initially presented and discussed at an SBL event of the same name in November 2014. The volume contains 17 excellent chapters at 488 pages. The retail price is a reasonable $39.00, though Amazon and other online book sellers are currently offering it as cheaply as $24. Below I’ve pasted the book description and table of contents. We’d be delighted if you and/or your library would obtain a copy!

Since the mid-twentieth century, apocalyptic thought has been championed as a central category for understanding the New Testament writings and the lePaul and the Apocalyptic Imaginationtters of Paul above all. But “apocalyptic” has meant different things to different scholars. Even the assertion of an “apocalyptic Paul” has been contested: does it mean the invasive power of God that breaks with the present age (Ernst Käsemann), or the broader scope of revealed heavenly mysteries, including the working out of a “many-staged plan of salvation” (N. T. Wright), or something else altogether? Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination brings together eminent Pauline scholars from diverse perspectives, along with experts of Second Temple Judaism, Hellenistic philosophy, patristics, and modern theology, to explore the contours of the current debate. Contributors discuss the history of what apocalypticism, and an “apocalyptic Paul,” have meant at different times and for different interpreters; examine different aspects of Paul’s thought and practice to test the usefulness of the category; and show how different implicit understandings of apocalypticism shape different contemporary presentations of Paul’s significance.

Part I.
1. Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction—Ben C. Blackwell, John K. Goodrich, and Jason Maston
2. “Then I Proceeded to Where Things Were Chaotic” (1 Enoch 21:1): Mapping the Apocalyptic Landscape—David A. Shaw

Part II.
3. Apocalyptic as God’s Eschatological Activity in Paul’s Theology—Martinus C. de Boer
4. Apocalyptic Epistemology: The Sine Qua Non of Valid Pauline Interpretation—Douglas A. Campbell
5. Apocalyptic as Theoria in the Letters of St. Paul: A New Perspective on Apocalyptic as the Mother of Theology—Edith M. Humphrey
6. Apocalyptic and the Sudden Fulfillment of Divine Promise—N. T. Wright

Part III.
7. Some Reflections on Apocalyptic Thought and Time in Literature from the Second Temple Period—Loren T. Stuckenbruck
8. The Transcendence of Death and Heavenly Ascent in the Apocalyptic Paul and the Stoics—Joseph R. Dodson
9. Second-Century Perspectives on the Apocalyptic Paul: Reading the Apocalypse of Paul and the Acts of PaulBen C. Blackwell
10. Some Remarks on Apocalyptic in Modern Christian Theology—Philip G. Ziegler

Part IV.
11. Righteousness Revealed: Righteousness of God in Romans 3:21-26—Jonathan A. Linebaugh
12. Thinking from Christ to Israel: Romans 9-11 in Apocalyptic Context—Beverly Roberts Gaventa
13. Apocalyptic Allegiance and Disinvestment in the World: A Reading of 1 Corinthians 7:25-35—John M. G. Barclay
14. After Destroying Every Rule, Authority, and Power: Paul, Apocalyptic, and Politics in 1 Corinthians—John K. Goodrich
15. Plight and Solution in Paul’s Apocalyptic Perspective: A Study of 2 Corinthians 5:18-21—Jason Maston
16. The Apocalyptic New Covenant and the Shape of Life in the Spirit according to Galatians—Michael J. Gorman
17. The Two Ages and Salvation History in Paul’s Apocalyptic Imagination: A Comparison of 4 Ezra and Galatians—J. P. Davies

Index of Names
Index of Ancient Writings

Next Page »