Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Faith of Jesus Christ: Exegetical, Biblical, and Theological Studies

Michael F. Bird and Preston M. Sprinkle eds. The Faith of Jesus Christ: Exegetical, Biblical, and Theological Studies. Milton Keynes, U.K., and Peabody, Mass.: Paternoster and Hendrickson, 2009. Pp. xix + 350. ISBN: 978-1-84227-606-8. $19.95 paper.

These essays present the range of arguments that have shaped the debate over whether to construe the phrase pistis christou as an objective genitive, i.e., “faith in Christ,” or as a subjective genitive, i.e., “the faithfulness of Christ.” James Dunn, a long-time proponent of the objective interpretation, provides an insightful forward that notes the continuing influence of Richard Hays’ work. Michael Bird’s introduction delineates the purpose of the volume and provides a helpful survey of each chapter.

Part 1 begins with Debbie Hunn who gives a valuable history of interpretation in order to determine which construal of the phrase is most plausible. Next, Stanley E. Porter and Andrew W. Pitts provide a lexical and syntactical analysis and conclude, based on lexis and case function, “that Christ was the proper object of faith” (p. 53).

Part 2 opens with Douglas A. Campbell’s analysis of Rom. 3:22 in which he argues for the subjective reading, as well as a messianic reading of Hab. 2:4 in Rom. 1:17b. Next R. Barry Matlock concludes that there is sufficient warrant for the objective reading. He rightly recognizes that this debate is part of the larger discussion over the juridical versus participationist readings of Paul. Paul Foster concludes that a subjective reading is most appropriate in Phil. 3:9 and Eph. 3:12. The faith of Christ is in view, and righteousness is imputed based on Christ’s work. Richard H. Bell contests Foster’s reading and interprets Phil. 3:9 and Eph. 3:12 objectively.

Part 3 starts with Mark A. Seifrid, who seeks to answer the question: what does it mean to believe in Christ? His answer is, “to be acted upon by God in his work in Jesus Christ” (p. 146). Francis Watson rejects the subjective reading based on hermeneutical grounds and dispenses with the messianic reading of Hab. 2:4 (p. 162). This view allows for faith as part of God’s broader work of grace. Preston M. Sprinkle argues for a third-way, i.e., “Christ-Faith”, which is understood as the gospel and its contents. Ardel B. Caneday assesses the way Christ’s faithfulness is central to the argument of Galatians. He emphasizes discontinuity between Christ and the Law and concludes that Christ’s faithfulness ends the curse of the Law (p. 203).

Part 4 begins with Peter G. Bolt, who argues that when the synoptic gospels are considered, the subjective reading becomes an increasingly viable option. Willis H. Salier contends that John’s gospel provides a balanced portrait of Jesus as a model of faithfulness while at the same time as the object of faith. Bruce A. Lowe concludes that in Jam. 2:1 the subjective reading of the phrase means “nothing other than trust in God” (p. 256). David A. deSilva convincingly asserts that neither pistis or pisteuō are employed in Revelation to indicate trust or faith in Christ; rather, he is presented as a faithful witness (p. 274).

Part 5 opens with Mark W. Elliott, who argues that the objective reading predominated among the church fathers, and throughout the history of Christian theology. Benjamin Myers assesses Karl Barth’s understanding of God’s faithfulness revealed in Christ.

Bird and Sprinkle have gathered key perspectives within the ongoing debate without arguing for any particular one. The book admirably reaches its stated goal (p. xiii). One omission in the collection is the lack of interaction between theological and social-scientific approaches, which could provide both methodological clarity and enhance the interpretive potential of the disputed phrase. Bird and Sprinkle, however, provide both scholars and graduate students with a useful resource on this important debate.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Crossing Over Sea and Land

Crossing Over Sea and Land: Jewish Missionary Activity in the Second Temple Period. by Michael F. Bird. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010, xvi + 208 pp. $24.95 paper.

Michael F. Bird, lecturer in theological studies at Crossway College in Toowong, Australia, offers a densely argued and convincing case that Judaism during the Second Temple Period should not be described as a missionary religion. Bird’s work is part of the ongoing debate concerning the way scholars understand the emergence of the Christ-movement in the context of Second Temple Judaism. Bird extends the work of Scot McKnight’s A Light among the Gentiles and Martin Goodman’s Mission and Conversion, both of whom were strategic in arguing that “postexilic Judaism cannot be properly characterized as a missionary religion” (p. 9). Crossing Over Sea and Land should be of interest to those concerned with the Jewish context of the Christ-movement as well as those looking for an accessible resource for primary documents central to the scholarly discourse dealing with both internal and external perspectives on Jewish proselytizing activity during the Second Temple Period and slightly beyond.

In chapter 1, Bird takes as his point of departure the fact that Christianity was a mission-oriented movement that crossed various cultural and geographical barriers in proclaiming its message throughout the Mediterranean basin. He is interested in determining whether Judaism during this period could be described in a similar manner, and if so, whether that accounts for the mission focus of the earliest Christ-movement, or whether this focus emerges de novo as a distinctive characteristic. Bird is aware that this line of research could be seen as Christian triumphalism or supersessionism; thus he clearly notes that he is “not trying to argue for the superiority of Christianity over Judaism” (p. 7). Rather, he is interested in the varying expressions of proselytizing activity evident in these two closely related religious movements with regard to gentiles. After discussing the significance of John Dickson’s Mission-Commitment in Ancient Judaism, Bird lays out his argument, which is “that the Christian Gentile missions, however indebted to their Jewish background, are not directly attributable to an on-going Jewish mission”; rather they “arose principally out of a concoction of eschatology and Christology and reading the Jewish Scriptures in light of new perspectives in these areas” (p. 12).

Chapter 2 provides Bird’s definition of the terms mission and conversion. He is aware of the potential for anachronistic descriptions of these concepts; however, he provides an extensive sociologically-informed definition of conversion which he then summarizes: “conversion to Judaism involves monotheism, Torah, and synagogue” (p. 24). As one reads the book, it is clear that the conditio sine qua non of Jewish conversion, at least for men, is circumcision. This separates a convert from an adherent and also serves as the primary marker of Jewish identity. Bird defines mission as “the diverse array of activities that attempts to draw, recruit, or persuade persons into conversion consisting of ideological, axiological (ethical), and social transformation” (p. 43). Bird’s construal of conversion and mission serves as the interpretive framework by which he assesses the level of missionary activity in Second Temple Judaism.

Chapter 3 evaluates the evidence for Jewish missionary activity in Palestine. Bird examines first the phenomena of forced conversions during the Hasmonean period, concluding that these activities fall outside the parameters of his stipulated definition. Next, he assesses the evidence from Qumran, and not surprisingly he finds a lack of evidence for proselytizing activity among the Qumran sectarians. He discusses Matthew 23:15 and offers positive support for this verse referring to Pharisees who sought to “recruit God-fearers into the cause of Jewish resistance to the Roman Empire” (p. 69). Thus, he does not find evidence of a concerted effort to proselytize gentiles. Inscriptional evidence is briefly surveyed and shown to be inconclusive with regard to the presence of a significant number of proselytes in Palestine. Finally, rabbinic literature is outlined, and though there is evidence of increased openness to gentiles (e.g. Numbers Rabbah 8.3; Canticles Rabbah 1.15.2), there is still a lack of evidence for widespread proselytizing activity during the rabbinic period.

Chapter 4 provides an extensive discussion of whether or not there is evidence of Jewish missionary activity in the Diaspora. Bird begins by discussing religious pluralism in the Roman Empire and then turns to the various ways that pagans are described as being attracted to Judaism. This is important for Bird’s argument because he sees in Second Temple Judaism openness to gentiles but not necessarily an intentional program of proselytizing them. Next, Bird reviews Josephus’ writings which reinforce the idea of openness without overt religious recruitment. Philo, who presents Judaism in a manner cognizant with Greek philosophy, is likewise not seen as one seeking to do anything other than present Judaism in an attractive way. He is open to outsiders but does not seek them out (p. 109). Jewish apologetic writings in Greek are surveyed, and not surprisingly at this point, Bird finds no evidence of a sustained mission to convert gentiles in these propagandistic writings. These writings, Bird contends following Tcherikover, were actually written for Jewish audiences and were designed to address issues of enculturation and the maintenance of Jewish identity in the context of Hellenism. Finally, this chapter surveys Greco-Roman authors, some of whom discuss Jewish proselytizing activity in passing; however, these disparate references lack the level of specificity necessary to determine whether intentional proselytizing was occurring rather than simply the phenomenon of gentile attraction to the Jewish way of life.

Chapter 5 presents evidence of Jewish missional activity as found within the New Testament. Bird determines that the Colossian heresy is evidence for intentional Jewish proselytizing activity as are the Jewish Christians in Galatia who were arguing for circumcision in order to substantiate the conversion of gentiles. Next, Bird quickly outlines other canonical texts that impinge on this debate and mentions a few early Christian writings that reference Jewish proselytizing activity (e.g., Epistle to Barnabas, Ignatius, and Apocalypse of Peter). He concludes that “outright competition between Christians and Jews for Gentile converts is scant”; however, he rightly recognizes that challenges were “inevitable” as these two closely associated movements continued to develop along differing ideological lines (p. 148).

The conclusion brings together the findings of Bird’s research. He supports the contention that there is no evidence for an organized program of proselytizing gentiles within Judaism during the Second Temple Period. However, he provides a few qualifications for this finding. First, the stipulated definitions of conversion and mission are open to debate and could influence the interpretation of the findings. Second, the diversity of Judaism during this period must be kept in view. Bird concludes with thoughtful reflections on the lack of proselytizing activities within Judaism and the significance of this for the extensive mission to the gentiles evident within the emerging Christ-movement. The most useful summative concept from this section is Bird’s idea of “inclusive sectarianism,” a descriptor that warrants special scholarly attention (p. 154). Crossing Over Sea and Land concludes with an appendix that provides a generous sampling of primary sources, often with the original languages included, and extensive indices that reinforce the widespread scope of Bird’s argumentation in this thoroughly accessible introduction to the nature and extent of Jewish missionary activity in the Second Temple Period.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

John Reumann's Philippians Commentary

John Reumann. Philippians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Yale Bible Series 33B. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008. xxiv + 805. ISBN 978-0-300-140045-3. $65.00 (cloth).

John Reumann’s methodologically eclectic commentary assumes that canonical Philippians arises from the combination of three letters into one at the end of the first century (Letters B, C, and then A). The author bases this assumption on internal considerations and does not cogently argue for this position except for his reference to Polycarp, Phil 3.2 with its allusion to epistolas (pp. 8-9). Letter A, for Reumann, includes 4:10-20 and expresses Paul’s thankfulness and joyfulness for the Philippian Christ-followers. It was written from Ephesus in A.D. 54. Letter B was written in the last part of 54 or in the early part of 55 and includes 1:1-3:1, as well as, 4:1-9, 21-23. This letter, unlike Letters A and C, indicates that Paul composed it in prison. It focuses on Epaphroditus, Paul’s situation, and the way the gospel progresses even amid opposition. The polemical Letter C includes 3:2-21 and most likely 4:1-9. It was written in A.D. 55 and is concerned with issues of doctrine, ethics, and unity (p. 3). Reumann’s partition theory requires him to comment on the text in its original Letter A, B, and C context as well as its canonical literary setting; this sometimes makes the commentary unwieldy and disjointed.

It is difficult to assess his partition theory since editorial constraints limited explicit positive arguments for his view. Furthermore, his claim for an Ephesus provenance with its attendant imprisonment is contested. This rarely impinges on the commentary proper, which follows the traditional Anchor Yale Bible format: author’s translation; extensive exegetical notes; author’s comment and personal viewpoint, and expansive sectional bibliographies. These provide a storehouse of Reumann’s decades-long research into the Philippian correspondence. However, the truncated nature of the finished product (originally planned as a two volume work) results in a commentary that is most useful as a reference work, not as a seamless presentation of Paul’s epistolary discourse. Furthermore, the notational conventions and the often elliptical discussion make the work quite useful for those already familiar with the broader field of Pauline studies but somewhat unapproachable for general readers, who form part of the commentary’s intended audience.

In a short review, it may be most useful to outline some of Reumann’s conclusions. He sees 2:6-11 as an encomium developed by the converts in Philippi for their mission. Paul redeploys it for his rhetorical purposes addressing their internal problems (p. 333). The other preachers in 1:14-18b are resentful over Paul’s use of his Roman citizenship to avoid suffering at the hands of the Roman authorities (p. 207). With regard to the perennial debate over development in Paul’s eschatology (1:23), Reumann concludes that Paul had “a consistent present-and-future position throughout [his] career” (p. 240). The episkopoi and diakonoi mentioned in 1:1 were leadership positions “invented by” the Philippians, though Reumann rightly notes the paucity of evidence for cultic activity at this early stage (p. 89). In 3:4b-11, he initially describes Paul’s understanding of the reconfiguration of his Jewish identity “in Christ” as both a contrast and a comparison (p. 505). However, Reumann’s binary formulation of “Saul the Pharisee” and “Paul in Christ” betrays his understanding of the continued salience of Paul’s Jewish identity. I contend that Paul is not denigrating his Jewish identity; rather by means of a qal wahomer form of argument, he is telling the Philippians that those aspects of their Roman social identity that they hold dear are nothing in comparison to knowing Christ (see 1 Cor 7:19). Reumann, in his comments on 3:9, continues his support for the traditional, forensic understanding of justification by faith (cf. pp. 492-98, 509). However, his consideration of the way righteousness language would have been heard in a Roman context exemplifies his skillful weaving of traditional theological concerns with the Roman imperial context in Philippi. This commentary is a testament to decades of research, and though Reumann passed away in 2008, his thoughts are thankfully here preserved for critical engagement by both present and future scholars.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Sinners: Jesus and His Earliest Followers

Sinners: Jesus and His Earliest Followers. By Greg Carey. Waco, Tex: Baylor University Press, 2009, Pp. xiii + 221 pp., $29.95 paper.

Greg Carey, Professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, in Sinners: Jesus and his Earliest Followers, focuses on the way in which being perceived as people who are described as transgressing “conventional social norms,”, i.e., sinners—formed the identity of the earliest Christ-movement. Carey concerns himself with the way texts reflect and are complicit in the formation of identity. Furthermore, he concentrates on Christ-followers’ sub-group identity in contrast to other local expressions of social identity within the Roman Empire.

Chapter 1 reads Luke 7:36-50 in order to uncover what it means to be a sinner. Though recognizing the theological nature of the concept, Carey’s focus is on sin in the sociological sense. Thus, the sinful woman in Luke 7 may be described as one who does not conform “to some expectations of her particular cultural environment” (p. 14). This social-scientific understanding of sin draws on the concepts of deviance and labeling for its ideological legitimation. This conceptual framework allows Carey to introduce the idea of a “sinful identity” (p. 9). This identity, he argues, becomes a salient node in the identity hierarchy of the emerging Christ-movement.

Social memory plays a key part in the formation of Christ-movement identity. In chapter 2, Carey contends that Jesus is remembered as a friend of sinners, one who engages in table fellowship with those culturally identified as deviant. Moreover, Jesus’ acceptance of these individuals is complete, and Carey points out several times (e.g. pp. 27-29) that there is no evidence of Jesus calling individual sinners to repentance in those commensal settings.
In chapter 3, Carey rightly presents Jesus as one who did not violate Jewish purity laws; rather, he overcame impurity by God’s power. Furthermore, Carey correctly notes that “if Jesus actually violated the Torah, then most of his Jewish contemporaries would have seen him as a sinner” (p. 38). Jesus’ own purity concerns centered on the Pharisees. Their appeals to the “traditions of the elders” reveal an interpretive framework that Jesus did not share. However, Carey rightly notes that this disagreement with the Pharisees did not contribute to Jesus’ crucifixion (p. 52). Jesus’ earliest followers remembered him keeping Torah, and this contributed to the formation of early Christ-movement social identity.

Gender roles contribute significantly in the formation of social identity. In chapter 4, Carey uncovers, drawing from the resources of the emerging discipline of masculine studies, the way Jesus and Paul conformed to and transgressed accepted gender discourse. Both Jesus and Paul were rhetorically effective and thus demonstrated a key characteristic of masculinity during the Imperial period. However, both failed to establish a household, and neither contributed to public life or set out on a cursus honorum. Both endured suffering and engaged in manual labor; however, neither leveraged their power over others in a culturally expected manner. The way that the early Christ-movement remembered Jesus and Paul with regard to masculinity resulted in the development of a discursive tradition that critiqued Roman expectations of masculinity, though often in an asymmetrical manner.

Chapters 5 and 6 discuss the way the death of Jesus formed the identity of the Christ-movement. First, Carey argues that Jesus did not die on the cross as an innocent victim; rather he was crucified by the Romans because of sedition (p. 81). Jesus created a disturbance in Jerusalem during Passover week, and this led to an inevitable conflict with the ruling authorities, resulting in his death on the cross. The cross is central in the formation of Christ-movement social identity, but it was an event that required reinterpretation, since a crucified messiah would be understood as scandalous. Carey focuses on the social significance of the cross and argues that “the cross posed a major obstacle for early Christian self-definition” (p. 122). Between chapters 5 and 6, Carey provides theological reflections concerning the sinlessness of Jesus. His purpose is not “to refute the doctrine of Jesus’ sinlessness”; rather he suggests that scholars refer to Jesus’ “righteousness and faithfulness instead” (p. 98). He is not alone in his contention; he draws from and extends both Pannenberg and Bonhoeffer to buttress his case. The two primary areas where Carey has concerns with regard to speaking of Jesus’ sinlessness include: structural sin and moral growth (p. 100).

Chapters 7 and 8 focus on the way interaction with those outside the Christ-movement contributed to the formation of Christ-movement identity. First, Carey provides a survey of four canonical works that show various levels of social integration. The concern for respectability and deviance, both identity-forming factors, are central to understanding the way the earliest Christ-followers interacted with their environment, especially when there was a perception of imminent persecution. Second, Carey outlines the way pagan writers described the Christ-movement. He relies on the works of Suetonius (Claudius 25), Tacitus (Annales 15.44), and Pliny (Letters 10.96 and 10.97). After surveying these sources, Carey concludes that socially identifying with Christ was sufficient grounds for persecution. Thus, the fear of suffering and the potential for persecution contributed significantly to the formation of Christ-movement identity, even into the second century.

By way of assessment and in a review this size there is only room for a few critiques. First, with regard to the way identity is formed—it is not clear how these disparate remembrances coalesce into an identity for the Christ-movement. For example, the texts cited were written to various communities that may not have had any influence beyond their local settings during the first century. So, it may be better to describe these texts as complicit in the formation of local expressions of early Christ-movement identity. Second, Carey’s suggestion that a crucified messiah was a major obstacle for the formation of identity overlooks the fact that Paul never had to address the importance of Jesus’ death for Christ-followers’ identity, and there is a lack of evidence, in the first century, for any groups bifurcating the teachings of Jesus and the social significance of the cross. Jesus’ death could at least be interpreted outside the Christ-movement as vicarious or within the noble death tradition (cf. Epictetus Disc. 4.1.168-69; Seneca Ep. 24.6). For more on this topic, see Jerry Sumney’s essay, “‘Christ died for us’: Interpretation of Jesus’ Death as a Central Element of the Identity of the Earliest Church,” in Kathy Ehrensperger and J. Brian Tucker (eds.), Reading Paul in Context: Explorations in Identity Formation (London: T&T Clark, 2010), pp. 147-72. Third, with regard to the sinlessness of Jesus, Carey lists the four scriptures (Heb. 4:15; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:22; 1 John 3:5) that have provided the exegetical substantiation for this teaching; however, though he does not wish to overturn the doctrine of Christ’s sinlessness, his suggested reinterpretation requires further interaction with these verses (e.g. he could provide a social identity approach reading to these verses, which would enhance his argument). Fourth, Carey is right to point out the way being a sinner contributes to the formation of Christ-movement social identity; however, it may equally be appropriate to suggest that there is more to the calculus than simply socially identifying oneself as a sinner. It may be, as in Luther’s description of those who follow Christ as simul justus et peccator (“at the same time justified and a sinner”), that the formation of Christ-movement social identity happens in the internal-external dialectic between the ways in which one’s previous identities continue in a transformed manner in Christ (1 Cor. 7:17-24).