Over the years I have really come to appreciate all sorts of interpretive handbooks. One of my favorite is the “Handbook on the… prophets, historical books, wisdom books, etc.” series published by Baker Academic. But recently I was given a review copy of the General Letters volume of the “Handbooks for New Testament Exegesis” series. If the rest of the series is as good as this volume, it will soon become one of my favorite handbook series as well.
Interpreting the General Letters by Herbert Bateman IV, professor at the Cyber-Center for Biblical Studies, provides the reader with a step by step approach for analyzing and communicating the general letters.
The book is divided up into several sections:
Two chapters on “background” material to the general letters.
A chapter on the theology of the general letters
Two chapters on how to interpret the general letters using exegetical methods
Two chapters on communicating the general letters through expository writing and preaching
A chapter on other sources that can aid the interpreter in the exegetical task
An appendix with an annotated selection of NT Commentaries
Especially strong are the first few chapters which provide the background necessary for interpreting these texts. One interesting point that Bateman makes in this section is that Jude is actually written to address the issue of Jewish rebellion that permeated all of Judea and that it was not actually written to repudiate false teachers. In other words Jude is a political text. This was quite a surprising interpretation of Jude. Nevertheless it is an interpretation that is worthwhile thinking about.
Also, another strong part of the text is Bateman’s step by step instructions for moving from clausal analysis to preaching on a Sunday morning. Following his step by step instructions can be tedious and time consuming, but eventually those steps will become second nature for the preacher/teacher. Nevertheless, it was helpful to see those steps clearly explicated.
Overall this handbook for interpretation will be a valuable addition to any pastor, teacher, or student’s library. It is certainly a book that I will recommend to the students in my General Letter’s class. Also, I really look forward to reading the other volumes in this series.
(Note: I received the book for free from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.)
Craig Evans was my first ever professor at Fuller Seminary – he was teaching a summer course on the gospels. That was my first ever exposure to historical Jesus studies, and I have been hooked ever since. So when I was presented with an opportunity to review Evans’ book From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian Generation I jumped on it.
When the Jesus movement started it was almost entirely Jewish – essentially it was focused on the redemption and restoration of Israel. Evans points out that during the first forty years of this movement, Jesus and his followers competed with the religious leaders and the temple establishment for the hearts of the Jewish people. So in its earliest days, Christianity was understood as a Jewish restoration movement. However, Evans points out, when James died, Jerusalem was captured, and the temple was destroyed, the relationship between the Jewish Christians and the non-Christian Jews rapidly deteriorated. This book chronicles the process of that deterioration and it does so through the lens of conflict. Evans understands the major conflict as lying between the “family” of the high priest Annas and the “family” of Jesus of Nazareth. This conflict culminates with the clash of a Christian also named Jesus, who takes a prophetic action against the temple right after James’ death and before the destruction of the temple, and the temple establishment.
As Evans develops the theme of conflict, he asks several questions which lead up to his understanding of the root causes of the Christian-Jewish split. First Evans asks: Did Jesus intend to Found a church? Evans concludes that the answer is yes and no. He did not intend to do so in the way we think of “church” today, however he did intend to assemble a community of disciples who would have embraced his teaching. In addition to these question, he asks about the relationship between the Kingdom of God and the Church of Christ. He asks, what was James’ role within the Christian community? Are James and Paul in conflict when it comes to faith and works? What role does the temple play in the conflicts between the ruling priests and the leaders of the Christian movement? Finally, what does the relationship between Jews and Gentiles look like in the letters of Paul and in the works of Ignatius?
As he concludes this short book, Evans explains that the Temple and competing understandings of the role of the temple was a primary cause of division between Jewish Christians and Jewish non-Christians. Yet there are also other reasons why this division developed. Among these reasons are:
Christianity’s aggressive Gentile mission and lenient requirements for entry into the Church
The divinity of Jesus
Gentiles’ failures to observe Jewish food law, purity laws, and Sabbath observance
The Bar Kokhba rebellion
Jewish nationalist interests
The fact that by definition a Messiah could not be crucified This final reason was the decisive factor for why Jews could not accept Jesus as Messiah.
Evans presents the reader with a very fascinating (and underutilized) lens for interpreting the series of conflicts between Jesus followers and Jewish Religious leaders – namely the Temple. Others, namely Nicholas Perrin, have written extensively regarding the role of the Temple in early Christianity’s self-understanding. Perrin has also made an argument that Jesus and the early church saw themselves as a counter-temple and/or temple restoration movement. This book makes a similar argument, but instead uses that argument to show why Judaism and Christianity ended up splitting.
One interesting chapter in Evans’ book was the chapter on “Phinean Zeal and the Works of the Law.” The role of Phineas and his actions in the Old Testament as well as in 2nd temple Judaism has been an under-explored topic when talking about early Christianity. In fact, even James Dunn only devotes a small section to this topic in his massive theology of Paul. This section will be a valuable resource for those interested in the topic of “Zeal” in Qumran literature and zeal for doing good works in Paul and James.
Also, there are a lot of cool side-bars and pictures of important locations for early Christianity.
This book is a very important resource for understanding the parting of ways between Judaism and Christianity – the very fact that he presents readers with a new lens for understanding that parting of ways makes purchasing this book a must. However the book does suffer from a few flaws. For instance, its not always clear how some of his topics fit into his over all thesis. I mean to say that although these topics are relevant to the parting of ways between Judaism and Christianity, they stray from his “temple” theme.
Another issue that I have with this book is that at times Evans tends to over-Judaize the early church in Asia and Europe. For instance, in a discussion of the seven letters Revelation, Evans says:
Given the Judaic orientation of much of the polemic in the letters to the seven churches, we should assume that the people whom make up those congregations are mostly Jewish. Their opponents are not Gnostics or Hellenizers: they are Jewish skeptics and members of synagogues, who reject the claims that Christian Jews make about Jesus. (132)
I grant the fact that the seven letters are steeped in Jewish categories and language – but one cannot infer from that the fact that the congregations are mostly Jewish. All one can infer for certain is that the author of those letters has a Jewish worldview steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures and other Jewish traditions.
It has been a long time since I have been as excited for a book on the history of early Christianity as I have been for this one. Evans thesis is original, and it makes a lot of sense of the facts. For that reason I believe that Evans’ argument is not only plausible, its is likely correct. Jewish leaders and Christian leaders clashed over the role of the Temple. This clash eventually became separation once the temple was destroyed, and this separation became animosity during the Bar Kokhba rebellion.
(Note: I received this book free of charge from WJK in exchange for an impartial review.)
I have spent all week studying the book of James – getting ready for a new series at Soma. As I have been reading James 2 I have been struck by the gravity of his injunction against favoritism.
Essentially James says, if you are believers in Jesus Christ don’t show favoritism. Period. He gives us some examples of how favoritism plays out in the church. Basically, a rich guy wearing gold rings and flowing robes comes in and everybody pays him close attention, people flock to greet him.
A poor guy comes in and people make him sit on the floor, or stand in the back of the room. The problem with this (there are a few problems that James mentions) is that in doing this believers have become “judges.” Essentially they are saying – X is what makes you a valuable person, X justifies your existence & you have X. The thing is though that their “X” is not God’s X. It’s a radically different X.
According to James, and he thinks they should already know this, God has choosen the poor (the not X’s) to inherit the kingdom. They have things backwards. They have bought into the world’s way of seeing things.
Roman culture says you are a “have” if you “have” money, land, prestige, fancy clothes, etc. King Jesus though says you are a “have” once you recognize that you are a “have not.” To say otherwise is to deny the fact that the gospel is for those who are poor in spirit.
Anyway… I’m really interested in what makes you valuable today, because the truth is, if somebody walked in wearing a gold ring and flowing robes into our services aka if somebody came in looking like Liberace most people are going to stay away from that dude. I guess what I’m really thinking about is….
What do we consider “cultural capital?”
According to sociologists “cultural capital” is very similar to “economic capital” – it consists of things we posses that are exchanged for goods, resources, and/or power. If you have “economic capital,” i.e. money, you exchange that for food, education, electricity, etc. If you have cultural capital, you “exchange” or “reveal” those things and get some sort of cultural good i.e. favor, prestige, status, friends, followers, gifts.
When talking about “cultural capital” sociologists will tend to classify it into three categories:
Embodied – that is properties one possesses. This would include your language (formal or slang), your physical looks, race or even gender. All these things are used/revealed/exchanged for cultural goods.
Objectified – the physical objects one owns. This includes the type of car you drive, the type of clothes you wear (or don’t wear), the gadgets you own, etc. Just like all other cultural capital, possession of these things (and the public display of them) give you cultural goods. Those might include special treatment at the store, by the opposite sex, or even in the marketplace.
Institutionalized – these are markers accorded to a person according to one’s position in some sort of institutional system. For example, within the education system degrees count as cultural capital. Within the workforce, one’s position (intern vs. ceo) count as cultural capital.
In all honesty, most young adults and college students could care less about “institutionalized cultural capital,” but embodied and objectified cultural capital matter a lot. And that is just as true among Christians and non-Christians.
Christians will certainly value some things non-Christians wont. For instance knowing the Bible will give you cultural capital, experience on mission trips will give you capital, speaking Christianese, or not-cursing will probably give you capital. There are certain identity markers that we Christians (sadly) have that are used to assign cultural value to some and not to others. However things aren’t that straightforward. Although we would repudiate certain things – like looks giving one cultural capital, fashion giving one cultural capital, etc. – the truth is that things just aren’t that simple. Most of the things that non-Christians consider valuable are the same things non-Christians consider valuable. At times these things are at odds with the gospel but they are too subtle for us to notice.
The Church is always at risk of embracing anti-kingdom cultural values. Some are obvious, but most are subtle.
So what contributes to what counts as cultural capital within any one particular culture? How do people come to learn what is worth something and what isn’t? Is it simply because somebody told us once that some thing is valuable and some other thing is not? I don’t think so. To believe that we are shaped to value some things and not value others simply by means of propositional knowledge is to deny the fact that we are embodied beings. More on that, and how we are shaped to value some things as “cultural capital,” next time.