7 stories: a book review

The trajectory of the biblical story is toward non-violence. We see this not only in the movement from the Canaanite conquest (and other so-called holy wars) to the cross of Christ, but also in the very telos of New Creation—wolf and lamb together, a child playing on a snake hole, swords into plowshares, and no tears in our eyes. Anthony Bartlett traces Seven Stories of seismic transformation themes working through the biblical narrative and culminating in Christ.

Bartlett read philosophy and theology at London University, spent 10 years as a Catholic priest, left the priesthood and came under the guidance of Carlo Carretto, discovered the works of René Girard and pursued and got Ph.D. from Syracuse University where he studied under James William (eminent Girardian scholar). Seven Stories is the product of eighteen years of Bible Studies which he and his wife led. This is a course book designed to explore the movement toward non-violence in Scripture.

The book divides into Seven Stories (clever title, right?) with an introductory section exploring methodology. Each section has three chapters. In the method section, Bartlett lays out the nature of scripture, and historical-critical methods, an overview of (objective) atonement models throughout Christian history, and he provides an explanation of Girard’s non-violent atonement. In each of the story sections, the general structure is: a lesson showing a concept in the Hebrew Bible, a second lesson showing the way an idea developed or began to be redefined by the Hebrew community, and a third lesson examining how the trajectory of Hebrew scripture reaches a radical conclusion in the person of Jesus Christ. The transformative shifts which Bartlett describes are the following:

  • 1. Oppression –> to Justice
  • 2. Violence –> to Forgiveness
  • 3. The Land and its Loss
  • 4. Wrath –> to Compassion (with special attention to Second Isaiah)
  • 5. Victim –> to Vindication
  • 6. The Temple and its Deconstruction
  • 7. History –> to its End.

These 7 stories, or lenses on the biblical narrative, probe different aspects of the Bible’s move toward non-violence. Because Bartlett is a teacher, and this book is set up as a text, for personal or group study. Each chapter concludes with lesson questions, questions for personal reflection, a glossary of relevant terms, resources for background reading and cultural references (e.g. relevant movies, literature or music). Each chapter begins with a description of learning objectives, core biblical texts, key points, and keywords. Similarly, there is an at a glance overview at the start of each section of the book.

The gift of each “story” is that it illuminates an aspect of the larger biblical story. However, a peculiar lens can also obscure certain details. Because of Bartlett’s Girardian bent (one that I am sympathetic with), he focuses his discussion of the history of the atonement (Method1.2) on objective models (Christus Victor, Sacrifice, and substitutionary atonement) without any reference to concurrent developments of subjective atonement models (i.e.  Moral Influence models). When he discusses the Hebrew concept of land and its loss (S.3), he offers a superficial analysis of the Hebrew theology of land, though certainly, he notes the shift that happens with exile and the coming of Christ.

I mention this less as a critique and more an acknowledgment of the book’s limitations. It doesn’t delve deeply into every concept in theology or the biblical text, nor does it deal with every issue comprehensively. This is an introductory text designed to call attention to a particular shift in the text—the shift towards non-violence in biblical revelation. I think it succeeds to that end, and while I am still sometimes confused by Girard (though I  like what I’ve read of him) Bartlett sharpened my understanding of his perspective.

This could be a good book for exploring biblical non-violence in a group setting. One of the things I appreciated most was the attention that Bartlett gives the Hebrew Scripture and the literary sensitive way he reads the text. He describes the calling of Israel as the Hapiru (marginalized outsiders). patriarchs, Deuternomistic history, the role of the go’el, and the sacred symbols of temple and land. Of course, Bartlett’s Christocentric reading means that he has an eye to where Jesus builds on and redefines what went before, but he notes continuities in the development of revelation as well as discontinuities. I give this book four stars. -★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book via Speak Easy, in exchange for my awesome review

Rediscover and Recover Paul: a book review

I previously reviewed David Capes, Rodney Reeves, and E. Randolph Richards’ Rediscovering Jesus  (IVP Academic, 2015) That book was an evocative and whimsical look at both biblical images of Jesus in the New Testament and later cultural portrayals of Jesus (e.g. Gnostic Jesus, Jesus in Islam, Mormon Jesus, the cinematic Jesus, and American Jesus, etc).

5191However, that book was not Capes, Reeves and Richard’s first collaboration. Way back in 2007 they published Rediscovering Paul: an Introduction to His World, Letters, and Theology I did not have the privilege of reading the first edition, but there is now a second edition (Nov 2017), which has been expanded to include recent Pauline research, and new material for the “So What?” and “What’s More?” sections (I’ll explain what these are below). This is a non-technical, introductory textbook which examines the life and thought of the Apostle Paul.

Capes is the associate dean of biblical and theological studies and professor of New Testament at Wheaton, Reeves is the dean and biblical studies professor at the Court Redford College of Theology and Ministry, and Randolph is provost and professor of biblical studies at Palm Beach Atlantic University.  In addition to their collaboration, each has penned monographs on Paul (Capes’s The Divine Christ: Paul, the Lord Jesus, and the Scriptures of Israel, forthcoming from Baker Academic; Reeves’s Spirituality According to Paul, IVP Academic, 2011; and Randolph’s Paul Behaving Badly, IVP 2015). 

Each of the book’s twelve chapters includes two types of text boxes. The “So What?” discusses why the topic being discussed (e.g. an aspect of Paul’s life, theology or interpretation of his letters) should matter to us. The “What’s More” sections provide supplementary information to aid our rediscovery of Paul. Additionally, each chapter (except for the last one), closes with suggestions for further reading, and there is a Pauline studies glossary and bibliography at the back of the book.

Chapter 1 describes Paul’s thought world—his Jewish Diaspora, Mediterranean Greco-Roman context and his understanding and his use of Greek Rhetoric. Chapter 2 delves deeper into Paul’s biography and his ‘Christophany’ as described in Acts and Galatians. Chapter 3 discusses Paul’s letter writing (i.e. his format, literary devices and writing process). Chapters 4 through 9 provide brief overviews of each of Paul’s letters. Chapter 10 describes the influences on, and influence of Paul’s theology and spirituality. Chapter 11 explores Paul’s literary legacy and the journey his writings took toward canonization. Chapter 12, concludes the book with reflections on how Paul has been read through church history and what contemporary issues he peculiarly speaks to.

Because this is an introductory textbook, Capes, Randolph and Richards do not break a lot of new ground. However, they give you an overview of Pauline studies from a scholarly, confessional perspective. That doesn’t mean they don’t engage critical scholarship though they tend to favor a more traditional and New Perspective sympathetic approach to Pauline research (though they will critique both traditional and New Perspective approaches gently along the way)

One of the places where it may matter is in terms of Pauline authorship. They begin their survey of Paul’s letters with the uncontested books: Galatians, Thessalonians, Corinthians, Romans before turning to more contested Prison letters (Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians) and pastorals (Timothy and Titus). (Philemon is also clearly Pauline, but discussed with the later Prison letters because of its relationship to Colossians). However, Capes, Reeves, and Randolph argue, along traditional lines, that Paul is indeed the author of all the books in the New Testament which bear his name. They account for the stylistic and grammatical differences between the various books by the occasional nature of each letter, the communal process of ancient letter writing and Paul’s use of secretaries for preparing each of his letters (103-105). They note:

Apollonarius’s secretaries clearly accounted for the considerable stylistic differences in his letters. Scholars of Cicero indicate that Cicero’s letters varied considerably in vocabulary and style. In fact, some letters are stylistically more similar to the letters of others than to his own. Since secretaries often caused minor differences in the letters of other writers, we should allow this for Paul’s letters. Letters may vary because the secreatries varied. (106).

They review some of the arguments against Pauline authorship in their discussion of the Prison and pastoral letters, as it relates to each of the letters, but they maintain Pauline authorship in each case.

Critics of Paul malign him as chauvinist, sexist, homophobic and judgmental. Capes, Reeves and Randolph note that “Caricaturing Jesus as loving and Paul as judgmental is incredibly misleading because they are so distorted: for example, more than anyone else, Jesus is the one who preached about hell. Paul never mentions it” (402). They note Paul’s opposition to homosexuality but note the differences between Ancient Rome’s sexual practices and our own (and that Paul doesn’t signal same-sex practice out in particular but lists it alongside other sins, like gossiping). They contextualize Paul’s comments about women. This book doesn’t answer any of these questions to my satisfaction, but the authors take care to read Paul well and point at some of the inherent issues in interpreting the text.

In general, this is a pretty solid introduction to the writing and thought of Paul, appropriate for college undergrads. It leaves off the more technical discussions and summarizes the contours of debates. The surveys of the letters may also be useful for those who are preaching or teaching through one of Paul’s epistles and would like a birds-eye-view of the letter and its theology. Unfortunately, at 462 pages, this book is likely to scare off the general reader, though it is certainly accessible enough.

It is unsurprising that I liked Rediscovering Jesus more than Rediscovering Paul. After all, if I had to choose between those two, it would be Jesus every time. Still, while this book lacks some of the whimsy of their Jesus volume, this book does a great job of describing Paul’s thought and impact. I give this four stars. ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

Listening to Jesus in the Upper Room: a book review

I don’t always agree with D.A. Carson. His brand of Reformed Evangelical with a Gospel Coalition, complementarian comb-over puts me at odds with some of his conclusions; however I always appreciate the thoroughness and attention he brings to the biblical text. His Exegetical Fallacies has kept me from some fuzzy hermeneutics, and when I am in the market for a new, new testament commentary, I always check his New Testament Commentary Survey (Baker Academic) which catalogues the strengths of the various commentaries for each book of the New Testament. Where I appreciate Carson most is as a Bible commentator. He has written (or edited) some incisive commentaries and studies. His John Commentary (in the Pillar New Testament Commentary Series, Eerdmans) is usually my first stop when I am studying or preaching from that gospel.

So when I got my 9780801075902hand on The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus: An Exegetical Exposition of John 14-17I was excited to see Carson’s trademark attentive exegesis, but I was also curious how he would handle Jesus’ so-called ‘high priestly’ prayer for Christian unity. I feel like Carson’s evangelical brad stresses truth over unity and I was curious as what he may say here and whether or not I would demur from it.

For the most part I found this, as expected, to be a pretty solid engagement with the biblical text. I puzzled a little bit with who Carson’s intended audience was. He notes in his preface, “A need exists for both academic and popular approaches [to scripture]: but this volume belongs to the latter camp” (9). And indeed this a non-academic, non-technical commentary in that there are no long strings of Koine Greek or technical djargon. But if it is a ‘non-academic’ text, it also seems to be an unpopular one. Carson, does lay aside the technical discussion, without quite descending to the level of popular. So, for example, in commenting on Jesus’ phrase in John 14:2, “I’m going there to prepare a place for you,” he writes:

The underlying Greek text precedes these words with a causal “for”: that is, “In my Father’s house are many rooms (the next words, “if not I would have told you” are parenthetical); for I am going to prepare a place for you. The “are” in the first line, as often the case in John’s Gospel, is proleptic (anticipatory) (26).

Carson’s comments here assume a working knowledge of Greek grammar and syntax. This is not exactly popular, even if it lacks some technical percision. However, it does give you the sense of how closely Carson reads the text, and tries to make inferences based on the words on the page. This is the sort of evangelical interpretation I applaud most, and found much that I resonated with and it gives a great deal of what Carson says a rootedness. He isn’t just spouting off opinions, he is engaging with scripture and trying to interpret it faithfully. This is good stuff.

So what of the high priestly prayer and what it says about unity? How does Carson handle that passage? Well, he eschews both those who are ecumenical at the expense of Christian truth and those who think ecumenism is evil (and thus ignore Jesus’ prayer all together). He posits that in our current era, not everything in modern Christendom is really Christian (232), or at the very least, there are competing definitions of what qualifies as Christian. Therefore, he posits the unity envisioned is a unity centered on the person Jesus Christ and our connection to him. He writes:

Whoever cites John 17 to justify a unity that embraces believers and apostate, disciple and renegade, regenerate and unregenerate, abuses this passage. Such ecumenism has its roots not in Scripture but in a misguided (if well-intentioned) notions of what New Testament Christianity is all about.

On the other hand, the things that tie together true believers are far more significant than the things that divide them. The divisive things are not necessarily unimportant: sometimes they are points of faith or practice that have long-range effects on the church for good or ill, reflecting perhaps some major inconsistency or misapprehension concerning the truth. Nevertheless the things that tie us together are of even more fundamental importance. Regardless of denominational affiliation, there ought to be among Christ’s people a sincere kinship, mutual love, a common commitment, a deep desire to learn from one another and to come, if at all possible , to a shared understanding of the truth on any point . Such unity ought to be so transparent and compelling that others are attracted t it. To such biblical ecumenism (if I may so label it ) there is no proper objection. Indeed, it is mandated by the Final Prayer of the Lord Jesus himself (233).

I really appreciate this vision of Christ-centered unity, centered around Jesus Christ and regard Carson and his Gospel Coalition friends as sisters and brothers and Christ and am grateful for some of the ways they bear witness to God’s work in the world. Nevertheless, I’m also conscious of ways they draw lines and fail to recognize the legitimacy of faith of some of my Christian friends because of different doctrinal or social concerns. But I appreciate Carson’s words and desire to lean into Christ’s words.

In the end, this is a pretty solid exegetical exposition. Not too technical, but technical enough that the reader that has done at least a little ground work will find it more fruitful. I give this four stars (really 3 and change, but I’m going to round-up because I appreciate a lot about this). –

Notice of material connection: Baker Books sent me a copy of this in exchange for my honest review. They didn’t tell me what to say or ask for a positive review, but an honest one.

 

Going Old Testament on Nonviolence: a book review

Every reader of the Old Testament wrestles with the violence they find there. God in the Old Testament, sanctions wars, even calls for the destruction of women and children and seems merciless and genocidal in his dealing with the Canaanites. In contrast, in the New Testament, Jesus’s response to human violence is to die on a cross. Is there any way to reconcile the violent God of the Old Testament with the God of love revealed in Jesus?

fc-fullsizeThe angst over the violence of God in scripture is where Matthew Curtis Fleischer begins The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence. He notes the violence in its pages and the real stumbling block to belief which OT violence is to non-Christians. Fleischer is a reader, a writer, and an attorney.  Here he weighs evidence, and builds a case, asserting that not only are we able to reconcile the OT’s violence with the New Testament’s non-violence “but also how it supports the NT’s case for nonviolence and how the OT itself advocates for nonviolence” (7).

Fleischer builds his case in twelve chapters. Chapter 1 introduces the topic—the problem of violence in the Old Testament. In chapter 2, he introduces his key to reconciling the two testaments, namely, ‘incremental ethical revelation.’ That is, the Old Testament represented an advancement of the ethics in ANE culture (e.g.  legal protection for the disadvantaged, criminal penalties more humane, the roots of egalitarianism and women’s rights, rules of warfare, etc). Fleischer writes, “Although God’s OT laws and actions were imperfect, incomplete, fell short of the created ideals, and left much to be desired by current standards, they constituted a significant ethical improvement at the time” (21). And yet there were moral concessions to where people were at (e.g. Mosaic divorce law). 

In chapter 3, Fleischer fleshes out how Jesus fulfills the law and the prophets, examining Jesus’ six antitheses and the ways Jesus’ moral law didn’t ‘transgress OT laws’ but ‘transcended it (30-31). He develops this further in chapter 4, highlighting the ethical movement toward non-violence as fulfillment in the Bible (e.g. God’s condemnation of violence, the anti-violence of the Hebrew prophets, Jesus’ non-violent commands and the non-violence of the cross). Chapter 5 discusses the nature and purpose of incremental revelation, God establishing his existence and authority and teaching the basics of obedience to his people before moving on to higher moral standards.

Chapters 6 through 9 re-examine what the Old Testament says about Israel as a ‘set apart people,’ the Canaanite conquest, and God’s character as revealed in the Old Testament. The establishment of Israel as a ‘holy nation,’ and the punishment of the Canaanites were indeed violent; nevertheless, Fleischer traces the movement toward non-violence in the Bible, and how violence not being an essential aspect of God’s revealed character.  Chapter 10 notes that a lot of the violence in the Old Testament is descriptive, rather than prescriptive, not commanded by God but carried out by human hands. Chapter 11 describes the incremental revelation of God’s character in scripture (again, culminating in Jesus). Chapter 12 concludes the book, a closing argument for biblical non-violence.

Fleischer training as a lawyer serves him well as he weighs the evidence of scripture and builds his case. I think he makes a strong case for incremental ethical revelation, and as a Christian reader of the Old Testament, I’m inclined to agree with the concept. He calls as his expert witnesses like Bible scholars (e.g. Richard Hays, Christopher Wright, David Lamb, N.T. Wright, etc ), theologians (William Cavanaugh, Jacque Ellul, Jurgen Moltmann), Anabaptist thinkers (John Howard Yoder, Donald Kraybill, Greg Boyd), apologists (especially Paul Copan), as well as popular authors (Preston Sprinkle, Derek Flood, Brian Zahnd).  Fleischer synthesizes their insights into a Christocentric ethic, claiming that Jesus was where the story was moving, and He is the moral of the story.

Certainly, Fleischer notes the movement toward non-violence is already in the Old Testament. However, his Christological focus makes this is really the Biblical Case for Nonviolence. The New Testament ethic has pride of place, and the ethical development in the Old Testament is seen as steps along the way until we get to Jesus. I’m am inclined to agree with Fleischer’s reading and focus, though I wish he spent more time exploring the antiviolence of the prophets (particularly their understanding of shalom and the eschaton). The case for nonviolence is really there in the Old Testament.

I also wish his chapter on the Canaanite conquest was more detailed. He says some great stuff here. He mentions some things in passing that mitigate against understanding the conquest as a genocide (e.g.  ANE hyperbole, the nature of the settlement at Jericho, God’s judgment in relation to Genesis 15:16, the limited nature of the military campaign, Israel’s stalling tactics, and the counter-narrative of Judges showing a more peaceful conquest of the land). I think these are important things to wrestle with when you look at the book of Joshua, but they do not wholly alleviate our modern discomfort with what we find in its pages. As the Canaanite conquest is a central complaint of New Atheists (e.g. Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins), and this is the central chapter of this book, I wish he took a more detailed look at it, and the concept of Herem in the Deuteronomistic history.

But then I’m kind of an Old Testament guy, so wanting more engagement with the text, may be my own proclivity. I like a lot that Fleischer is committed to reading the Old Testament as scripture—acknowledging the influence its human writers but also understanding it as a revelation of God. This is a pretty solid look at the issues which I happily recommend. I give this four stars. – ★★★★

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for my honest review

 

A Guide to the Bible: a book review

While statistics tell us that the amount of people who read their Bible continues to fall, there is no shortage of guidebooks for Bible reading on the market. Popular level books by liberals (John Dominic Crossan, Harvey Cox, Marcus Borg), Post-Evangelicals (Peter Enns, Rob Bell), Traditional Evangelicals (Gordon Fee & Doug Stuart, John Walton, RC Sproul), Fundamentalists (Henrietta Mears, John McArthur) flood the market and continue to sell well. Perhaps better than ever, since modern readers find the Bible so disorienting. John Goldingay offers his guidance through the realm of Scripture in A Reader’s Guide to the Bible.

9286Goldingay is one my favorite Old Testament scholars and commentators. He is the David Allan Hubbard Professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, the author of a masterful 3 volume Old Testament Theology and has written several critical commentaries, notably, Daniel in the Word Biblical Commentary, and 3 volume Psalms commentary in the Baker’s Commentary on Old Testament Wisdom. He also provides the Old Testament counterpoint to N.T. Wright, with the 17 volume Old Testament For Everyone Series (WJK).

In A Reader’s Guide to the Bible, Goldingay covers the history, narrative, and various genres of Scripture in 4 brief sections. Instead of providing a book by book overview, he opens with an introductory section, providing a broad chronology of the Bible, and a look at biblical geography (part 1). Next, he examines the story of Scripture from the Creation in Genesis to the early church of Acts (part 2).  In part 3, Goldingay explores the biblical genres which provide “God’s word for his people”: the instructions to the priests in the Pentateuch, the prophets, apostolic letters, the wisdom of Proverbs and Song of Songs, and Apocalyptic in Daniel and Revelation. Finally, in part 4, he examines Scriptures which describe Israel’s response to God—prayer in praise in Psalms and Lamentations, and the doubt and uncertainty described in Ecclesiastes and Job. An epilogue describes the value of reading the Bible today.

One of the things that Goldingay does quite well, is noting the contexts that the biblical authors wrote in and to.  He points, occasionally,  to various sources and settings behind the text (source criticism), but his focus throughout remains on the final form of Scripture. For example, in referring to the opening books of the Bible, Goldingay writes:

Some of the threads that make up the first five books in the Bible can be unwoven, and we can then see how the story was applied to the people in different periods. We will note some examples of this below. But it is a delicate exercise, and it is guesswork. Since only the conflated version has been preserved we concentrate on that. (35).

So in Genesis, Goldingay notes three-time periods that the final text is relevant to (1) the Exodus (Moses’ timeframe), (2) the Davidic Monarchy under David and Solomon, and (3) the exile (40-41). By reading Genesis with an eye to the concerns of these periods, Goldingay avoids reading modern scientific concerns back into the text (as in the creation accounts):

These stories thus relate to a period in Israel’s life, which helps to short-circuit the problems that arise when they are treated as scientific narratives. There are various ways of fitting scientific discoveries and the creation stories together. But we miss the point of Genesis if we concentrate on this question. Genesis is concerned with bringing a message to the people in its day that will help them understand their own lives and help them follow the truth (42).

This same focus on the contexts of the communities that produced and received these Scriptures is carried through the Deuteronomic history,  the time of the Exile and, in the New Testament the early church, as does the same reticence of falling down the source criticism rabbit hole(e.g. Goldingay mentions the various time periods/sections in Isaiah, the synoptic triple tradition, and Q, the questionable authorship of some epistles like second Peter, but on the whole, doesn’t question the contested letters of Paul, or chase down sources and authorship).

The essay that serves as the epilogue, underscores the continuing relevance of reading the Old Testament for Christians. Goldingay contends that the Old Testament provides the necessary background which enables us to understand Jesus, and asks all the questions which Jesus is the answer to (177-180). However, the Old Testament has its own intrinsic value as well. It illustrates God at work in the life of His people, and it addresses a broader range of concerns than the New Testament does (181-183).

Goldingay is a great scholar but this is not a heavy book. I’ve probably used more theological jargon writing this review than Goldingay did in his whole book. He presents a broad overview of the biblical story cognizant of the thought world of its original authors and their intended audience, but he does so, in simple, accessible language. And he does this in only a 186 pages.

Although, I do have a couple of minor critiques. First, there is a small editorial error in the opening pages of the book (1-2). When Goldingay gives an outline for his book, he mentions 3 chapters in his introductory section (part 1). There are only 2 chapters in that section (“The Events of the Bible” and “The Land of the Bible”), so this throws all his other chapter numbers off by 1. Perhaps this is a reflection of an earlier draft. This is not really a substantive complaint, but I hate seeing this kind of editorial oversight in a finished product.

Secondly, I had a difficult time figuring out who the intended audience was for this book. This book was published by IVP Academic, (InterVarsity Press’s academic imprint), but I have a hard time envisioning this book being used in the classroom.  While Goldingay is a thoughtful scholar and there are some real gems here, its brevity, lack of critical engagement, footnotes or even a bibliography, means it is really intended as a  popular level book. In fact, the only suggested reading for those who want to go deeper with individual books is his “Old Testament for Everyone” and N.T. Wright’s “New Testament for Everyone” series, which are non-technical, lay commentaries. On the other hand, there is enough substance here that I think lay readers may also find the lack of works cited frustrating, or find his discussion of some scripture genres or books, overly brief. I followed along with Goldingay just fine, but I have also read a lot (and went to seminary). I wondered if certain sections would make as much sense, or provide enough detail for me if I was a total neophyte.

But on the whole, I found this a handy overview of the Bible, its history, narrative, and various genres, commending the whole scripture to the people of God. Serious students will want more than this book offers but as an entry-level guidebook, this is pretty good. I give it 3-and-a-half stars. – ★★★½

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

Going Old Testament on Mark: a book review

Mark Through Old Testament Eyes is the inaugural volume of the new  “Through Old Testament Eyes” Background and Application Commentary series from Kregel Academic. Andrew Le Peau is the series editor and author of this volume. The commentary examines ways Mark utilized imagery, allusions and his literary structure to illuminate aspects and themes drawn from the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament.

Le Peau was a longtime associate publisher for editorial at InterVarsity Press and author of several of IVP’s LifeGuide Bible Studies, co-author of Heart, Soul, Mind, Strength: An Anecdotal History of InterVarsity Press, 1947-2007. He is currently an editor and writer living in the Chicago area.

9780825444111Mark Through Old Testament Eyes is made up of four repeating features :

  • a verse-by-verse or paragraph-by-paragraph running commentary on the text of Mark, discussing Old Testament background, the text as a whole and questions that may arise from the text.
  • periodic ‘Through Old Testament Eyes’ summaries which give a bigger picture of how Mark makes use of Old Testament themes and motifs.
  • sections on ‘what the structure means’ that discuss the context, literary structure, and imagery.
  • ‘Going Deeper’ sections that unpack the implications of Mark’s gospel for how we ought to live(10, these features will be consistent throughout the series).

Le Peau explores the links between Jesus in Mark’s Gospel and the Exodus, Moses, the Jewish Temple, and Israel’s Messianic hopes and the various ways Christ recapitulated Jewish symbols and practices around himself. As this is a “Background commentary,” it doesn’t address every question in the text. Le Peau doesn’t explore in-depth links between Mark and the other Synoptics, John or the later New Testament. Yet, because Mark (and other New Testament writers) built on and inhabited the Old Testament thought-world, the focus of this commentary (and series) illuminates the text well.

Several features of this commentary resonate with me personally. First, I was a student leader in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship when I was in college. There I learned to study the gospels in the context of investigative Bible studies and manuscript studies. Manuscript studies involved examining books of the Bible with the paragraphs and verse markings taken out. In the context of community, we would examine the passage, look for structural breaks, figures of speech, repeated words, phrases and themes, and contrasting elements in the text. Paul Byer was an InterVarsity staff member who pioneered the “Manuscript” study on Mark in the 1950s, Le Peau has taught Mark through manuscript studies with InterVarsity for the past fifteen years. When I read the ‘what does the structure mean’ sections of this commentary, I felt like I was on the similar ground to the ways I’ve been taught to engage the text fruitfully.

Secondly, the approach of looking to the Old Testament in order to properly understand the allusions, images, and intent of the New Testament, is very much the approach taken in my training in biblical studies. Rick Watts, who wrote Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark (Baker Academic, 1997) and the Mark section of the Commentary on  the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Baker Academic, 2007), provides the general outline and themes Mark’s New Exodus which Le Peau follows (329, n. 11). Watts was my New Testament professor in seminary. So once again I feel I was on the similar ground.

Third, this book is just interestingly written. Le Peau introduction begins with an explorations of the way the Toy Story trilogy pays homage to Star Wars in allusions, references, and characters, and how Star Wars itself alludes to earlier films and history (12-16) This ‘family film criticism’ gives Le Peau a way to talk about Mark’s use of Old Testament themes: Exodus and Isaiah. The commentary itself doesn’t have these kinds of pop-cultural references, but several of the ‘going deeper’ sections relate stories from church history, contemporary Christians, case studies and Le Peau’s own life. It makes this an interesting read for a commentary, which readers of commentaries everywhere understand, that is no small thing.

This is not a technical commentary and Le Peau stays away from linguistic and biblical studies jargon. When he does use technical terms (e.g. chiasm) these are clearly defined and described, so that non-scholars can understand, and Le Peau perfers a more accessible term (such as sandwiching) to technical terms (such as ‘inclusio’)(20). Le Peau does not include long streams of Greek syntax or highly technical, text-critical debates. So, for example, in his discussion of Mark’s structure and the longer ending of Mark (16:9-20), he bases his conclusions on a close reading of the text— where it differs in content, style, and use of the Old Testament, from the rest of Mark’s gospel (300). He does not cite evidence from the Church Fathers or ancient manuscripts.

Le Peau also notes some of the political tensions in Mark. Mark’s Jesus is in direct conflict with Satan and his demons, but underlying the spiritual conflict is also Jesus’ opposition to the structures and institutions of his day. For example, his comments on Jesus’ first miracle, casting out a demon in a Capernaum synagogue (Mark 1:21-28), Le Peau comments, “What, we may well ask, is an evil spirit is[sic] doing in the synagogue in the first place? This suggests that the established religion of the Jews has become corrupted, setting the stage for the further tensions between Jesus and the Jewish leaders we will see in Mark” (47).  Elsewhere, he notes how ‘the nearness of Kingdom of God’ implies a move beyond ‘personal salvation’ toward the corporate care of the poor and oppressed (40-41). I did feel at times, he could have explored the political/social implications a little more than he did, but I was glad to see, he was cognizant of these dimensions to Mark.

On a whole, this is a solid commentary, which will helpful for teachers, preachers, and students of Mark. I give this four stars. – ★ ★ ★ ★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Kregel Academic in exchange for my honest review.

Singing Advent

Advent is a time for singing a new song and for imagining new possibilities in the coming of Christ. We note the not-yet-ness of our experience, but we press in with anticipation and longing. We allow ourselves to hope, again.

The traditional Advent carols (e.g. O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and Come Thou Long Expected Jesus) describe this sense of longing.  But the wider culture presses past the waiting, directly to Christmas (but with less Jesus. Everywhere we go, there is Christmas. Walk into any coffee shop or mall, or turn the radio dial and you hear crooning of chestnuts roasting on an open fire, or how I’ll be home for Christmas (if only in our dreams). Rudolph dances the Jingle Bell Rock. Holiday cheer is in full swing. And beyond the music, there are colorful lights, Silver Bells, tree trimming, Christmas parties, and holiday classics on TV. Only eager seminarians, disgruntled ex-pastors, and cranky liturgists seek to deny people all their early celebrations, but there is something pathological about our inability to wait.

The gospel of Luke commends two songs for Advent that describe the hopes. The first comes from the lips of  a Palestinian teenager, Mary, as she considers who the child she carries, is:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him

from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”  (Luke 1:46-55)

This is more than just a mother’s hope for a child. Mary senses God will do something new through her baby boy and it will change everything. Donald Kraybill notes:

Five types of people are startled and surprised in Mary’s vision. Those at the top of the social pyramid—the proud, the rich, and the mighty—topple. Stripped of their thrones, they are scattered and sent away empty. Meanwhile the poor and hungry, at the bottom of the pyramid, take a surprising ride to the top. Mary sings words of hope and judgment. Hope for the lowly, as she describes herself, and judgment for those who trample the helpless. (The Upside-Down Kingdom, Herald Press, 2011, 16).

The Advent of Jesus would mean a radical reversal of the way things are. No longer would the proud, powerful and prosperous oppress the poor. No longer would they assume they can do whatever they want to us (because they are a celebrity). God would depose leaders, impeach presidents and remove kings from their throne, and those on the bottom of the social order—minorities, the incarcerated, the alien and the poor—would find themselves elevated to places of prestige.

In short Mary’s song, the Magnificat, hopes. It envisions a day when all injustice will cease.

The second Advent song we hear is Zechariah’s song (Luke 1:67-79, the Benedictus). Zechariah speaks these words after receiving his comeuppance. Like Mary, he had an angelic visitation and the promise of a child, though he didn’t  trust the angel’s words. He and his wife were far too old. The angel prophesied that Zechariah would not speak until after his son is born (Luke1:20). Immediately his voice is gone and Zechariah is mute. When Zechariah’s voice returns, his son had been born and having scrawled the child’s name on his tablet, out of his mouth comes this song of praise:

 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.

He has raised up a mighty savior for us

in the house of his servant David,

as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.

Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,

and has remembered his holy covenant,

the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,

to grant us  that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,

might serve him without fear,  in holiness and righteousness

before him all our days.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

to give knowledge of salvation to his people

by the forgiveness of their sins.

By the tender mercy of our God,

the dawn from on high will break upon us,

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Zechariah was a first century Palestinian Jew. Since the days when Babylon tore down Jerusalem’s walls and carried its inhabitants into captivity (586 BCE), the Jews were oppressed by powerful neighbors. They returned from their exile 70 years later, but never fully returned to the days of past greatness. Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome all dominated them. They were at the mercy of foreign leaders and their economy suffered by bad trade deals. Israel’s former glory did not return.

Knowing the singer, we know what key and what tune to apply to Zechariah’s song. He sensed, at last, God was acting to restore his people, rescue and heal them, and renew His covenant with them. God was about to act. Would this be the moment when God Makes Israel Great Again?

Hope and restoration have become political rhetoric. One leader comes promising hope and change. Another comes promising a restoration of past greatness. How easy it is to be cynical at the hollow din of such words.

But if only we can learn to sing again, the way Palestinian teenagers and old men once did, as they imagined the things God could do and was doing in their midst. What is the song God placed in you? What is your song of hope?