December 18, 2008

NT Bibliography and Resources

All serious students of the scriptures should make a habit of regular reading of good books about the Bible. It is of particular importance to read books about the world in which the scriptures were written. If we are to understand the Bible, then we need to understand the Bible's world. This means spending a little time learning about the history, culture, and social structures of the ancient world. The task may sound daunting to some. However, there are numerous books now available which introduce the characteristics of the biblical world in an easily accessible style. Most would be surprised by how much they can learn by simply reading one or two books. You will be amazed at how much more understandable the scriptures are when you understand a little bit about the ancient world. Here are three books to get you started. I plan to add to these over time and will categorize them under the label NT Bibliographies. Each of these books are written at an introductory level and highly recommended.

deSilva, David A. Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000.

deSilva provides an introductory look at the four major concepts which identified in the title of the book. I have found the first section on ancient systems of honor and shame to be particularly helpful. deSilva's writing is clear, and he gives a number of examples to show how the cultural concepts aid in our understanding and interpretation of the New Testament.

Jeffers, James S. The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity. Downer's Grove: InterVarsity, 1999.

As the title suggests, this book looks particularly at the Greco-Roman culture of the first century world. Among other topics, Jeffers includes chapters on Greco-Roman religion, cities, history, and governance. I have found the chapter on slavery in the ancient world to be very helpful as I prepared a Bible study on Paul's letter to Philemon.

Longenecker, Bruce W. The Lost Letters of Pergamum: A Story From the New Testament World. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003.

This book is a work of historical fiction organized into a series of letters exchanged between Luke (the author of Luke and Acts) and Antipas, a man devoted to the advancement of Rome and her ideals. The story is well done and gripping. When I first read this book, I couldn't put it down. This book introduces its readers to the New Testament world through the correspondence between Luke and Antipas. The reader will learn about many facets and persons of the first century world including the systems of honor and shame, the Emperor cult, and Josephus to name a few. See my review of this book for more information.

December 17, 2008

What About the New Birth?

The moniker "born again" has become an almost universal term to identify people with a generally evangelical Christian faith and perspective. It has come to have an abstract and universal application for those who have had a conversion experience to Christianity. It's interesting that this term has come be used so widely because, as a metaphor for conversion, it doesn't figure prominently in the New Testament. Given the prominence of the term "born again" in the contemporary religious scene, it is worth exploring its biblical origin and meaning.

The term "born again" is grounded in a conversation between Jesus and the Jewish Pharisee Nicodemus recorded in John 3. Jesus tells Nicodemus that no one is able to see the kingdom of God unless he is born from above or born anew (3). Nicodemus is quite surprised at this news and asks how one is able to be born after growing old. He adds, perhaps rather sarcastically, whether one is able to enter again into his mother's womb in order to be born again. Jesus responds telling him that no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of both water and spirit (5).

This conversation raises the question: Why did Jesus choose to use birth language to describe the work of the Spirit of God to convert and transform a person? Why didn't he just use the language of conversion or tell Nicodemus about the sinner's prayer? The answer to our question comes in an understanding of Nicodemus' cultural context. As a "teacher of Israel," Nicodemus would have believed that his birth as an Israelite, a descendent of Abraham, would guarantee him a place in the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God was understood to be the reality of God's reign most likely through a Messiah figure in which Israel would be exalted above those who had oppressed her and all the nations of the earth. Jesus chooses the language of birth precisely because it is his birth as an Israelite that Nicodemus is counting on in order to gain a place in the kingdom of God. Jesus is telling him that his natural birth as a Jew is not worth counting on. Rather, the Spirit of God must do a work in him that is properly described as undergoing a new birth leading to a new life and a new kind of existence. To enter the kingdom of God, one must both be born of water (or of a woman) and be born of the Spirit.

So, the term "new birth" is a fitting label for those who have been converted to Christ and entered into the new life of the Spirit. It was not, however, such a universal and abstract idea in its origin. Rather, the language was chosen for the specific context in which it was used. It does remind us that, like Nicodemus, there is nothing in us that fits us for a place in the kingdom of our Lord. Instead, the Spirit of God must do a work of transformation to bring us into new life.

December 14, 2008

Rhetoric at the Boundaries by Longenecker

Rhetoric at the Boundaries: The Art and Theology of New Testament Chain-Link Transitions
Bruce Longenecker

Waco: Baylor University Press
2005, 305 pp., hardcover, $49.45

Bruce Longenecker has discovered a missing link in New Testament criticism and interpretation which he has identified as the “chain-link transition.” By carefully analyzing the form, utility, and theological significance of the chain-link interlock, Longenecker demonstrates the importance of this rhetorical transitional device and how the neglect of this construction has led to faulty interpretation of key New Testament texts. The author, who will soon be taking a new post at Baylor University, has made an important contribution to New Testament studies that will require multiple interpretive endeavors to be revisited and revised.

Because the chain-link construction has been so little known, Longenecker’s task is twofold. He must demonstrate both that the chain-link interlock existed in the ancient world and how an understanding of the device is important for interpreting texts. To accomplish the first task, the author’s method involves a “triangulation of evidence” in which he relies on three areas of evidence: (1) first- and second-century Graeco-Roman rhetorical handbooks, (2) sources prior to or contemporary with the New Testament, and (3) the New Testament itself (9). The result is three mutually reinforcing pools of data which together make a convincing case for the existence and regular use of the chain-link construction in ancient texts.

Longenecker first cites evidence for the chain-link transition from the second-century text How to Write History by Lucian of Samosata who speaks of attaching components of a narrative together like a chain. It is from this text in Lucian that Longenecker derives the term “chain-link transition.” He then cites evidence from Quintilian’s late first-century Institutio Oratoria which speaks of textual units being interwoven to strengthen one another as two people who join hands for mutual stability and strength. Longenecker believes that Lucian and Quintilian are referring to the same type of construction which he models as “A-b/a-B” where “A” and “B” are major textual units whose material interlocks across a textual boundary (indicated by “/”). The overlapping of material from two distinct units across a boundary is a distinct characteristic of the chain-link construction making it an “inter-unit” construction and distinguishing it from “intra-unit” features such as inclusio, chiasm, or alternating parallelism.

Some may object that this evidential basis is far from strong enough to conclude that something like a chain-link construction was a well known and viable feature of ancient rhetoric. Longenecker anticipates this objection, though, and points out that the widely accepted chiastic structure does not appear in the rhetorical handbooks until the fourth-century CE (9, 253). He also points out that neither Quintilian nor Lucian provide any instruction on proper use of the chain-link transition indicating that their readers were likely familiar with the form and function of the construction.

The author offers further support from his second evidential database, sources prior to and contemporary with the New Testament. Longenecker cites evidence from nine ancient sources including the Old Testament, Philo of Alexandria, Plutarch, and Josephus. He notes that the presence of the chain-link transition in both Hebrew and Graeco-Roman sources suggests that the construction was not limited to Graeco-Roman rhetoric but was characteristic of wider Mediterranean and Near Eastern literature.

Having shown that the chain-link transition was discussed in ancient rhetorical handbooks and that the device was widely used in literature prior to and contemporary with the New Testament, Longenecker moves to his third evidential database showing fifteen occasions in the New Testament where the chain-link transition occurs. Using material from the gospel of John, Luke-Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Revelation, he demonstrates the importance of knowing the form of the chain-link for interpreting texts and shows how commentators have often misunderstood these texts because they were unaware of chain-link constructions.

For example, Longenecker shows how discussion of the much debated Romans 7:25 would benefit from an awareness of chain-link transitions. Interpreters have been keenly aware that Paul’s statement in 7:25a, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord,” fits better with the content of 8:1-39 than it does with that of 7:7-25. Longenecker cites proposed solutions that suggest the text was misconstrued in transmission or was the product of scribal confusion. The author shows that such explanations are unnecessary because the transition from 7:25-8:1 is structured by a chain-link interlock and that 7:25a is not poorly located but, rather, it is the anticipatory interlock in the chain-link construction. This text which has been used as an occasion to question Paul’s rhetorical skill is actually a carefully structured chain-link transition.

Two major contributions of this volume are worth noting. First, it provides a methodological basis for further study of chain-link transitions not only in the New Testament but in the many available non-canonical Jewish and Graeco-Roman texts. Longenecker’s work was not intended to be exhaustive. Rather, it draws attention to the chain-link construction and provides the foundation for further study by other.

A second major contribution of this book is its demonstration that New Testament scholarship has been weakened by lack of familiarity with first-century rhetorical conventions. Despite recent growth, rhetorical criticism remains a small field within the New Testament guild. Rhetoric at the Boundaries demonstrates the importance of attentiveness to the rhetorical structure of New Testament texts and how a lack of awareness regarding rhetorical conventions can lead to poor interpretation. Longenecker is to be commended for drawing scholarly attention to an important but neglected phenomenon, the chain-link interlock.

December 8, 2008

Christian Love: Commanded, Exemplified, and Enabled

I'll be delivering the second speech tonight of a two part series on "Faith Working Through Love" (Gal 5:6) prepared for my "Communication as Christian Rhetoric" class. The first speech was on faith and was entitled: Christian Faith: It's Object and Content. Here is the second speech on love.

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Christian Love: Commanded, Exemplified, and Enabled

When last we met, we examined both the object and content of Christian faith. We discovered that the object of Christian faith is none other than the God who raised Jesus from the dead. We also learned that the content of Christian faith is nothing less than the gospel, the word of faith, the good news that Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead. But we must remember that the scriptures do not speak of faith in isolation from love as expressed by the Apostle Paul in Galatians 5:6, “The only thing that counts is faith working through love.” So, he thinks of them together, as two parts of one whole. So, we must ask, if Christian faith is constituted by belief in the universal lordship and resurrection of Jesus, then how does such faith relate to love? If Christian faith is directed toward the God who raised Jesus from the dead, then what does it mean to speak of that faith working through love?

First, we should observe that if Jesus is truly lord, then he sets the standards for how we live and behave. Jesus himself made this very claim when he declared, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded (Matt 28:19-20). Our Lord himself commands us thus, “Teach them to obey all that I have commanded. So, if Jesus is Lord of the world, then he sets the standards for human behavior.

But what is the standard? What is it that Jesus has commanded? Well, we do not have time this evening to look at all Jesus commanded. But we do have time to look closely at one commandment in particular. In John 13:34, Jesus is recorded as saying, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” He goes on to say, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 15:35). So, Jesus set the standard for Christian behavior and interaction during his own ministry with his original disciples. The standard is love. Therefore, if we believe that Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead, then Jesus sets the standards for our behavior. And the standard he has set is love. So, faith works through love when take the lordship and commandments of Jesus seriously and love one another. Further, Jesus says that our love for one another is to be a defining characteristic of the Christian community. They will know that we are his disciples and that he is our lord by our love for each other.

But what does this love look like? We can talk about love in the abstract. But what would love look like if we put some flesh on it? Well, once again Jesus provides the answer to our question when he says, “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 15:34). So, Jesus himself not only commands love, but he exemplifies it as well. “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love another.” There are numerous examples to which we could look to see Jesus’ own example of love. But tonight I want to draw your attention to a single event at the end of his ministry.

You will know the story well. It was the night on which Jesus was to be betrayed. After supper, he went to the Mount of Olives to pray knowing fully the events that would transpire that evening and on the following day. As Jesus went into the garden he knelt before the God of Israel and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). It seems that he was so deeply anguished that the small blood vessels in his forehead burst and blood ran down like sweat. After praying, he found his disciples sleeping and warned them to pray so that they would not share in the coming tribulation that he would face. Then going a second time to pray, Jesus cried out to his father, “If you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” Once again Jesus found his disciples asleep, unfaithful even at this crucial moment. Returning again into the garden he prayed for the final time, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” Despite the unfaithfulness of his closest friends, Jesus did not waver in faith or faithfulness, but set his face towards the cross trusting in the God he knew as Father prepared to offer himself in a single great act of love. And even as the mob came to take him away, Jesus reached out to heal the wounded ear of one who sought to harm him. And when he hung on the cross, with thorns pressed into his scalp, spikes piercing his hands and feet, his flesh barely hanging on from the scourging, this holy one interceded before God for the very ones who were torturing him to death. What does love look like? It looks like the Lord who offered himself for his sleeping disciples. What does love look like? It looks like the one who was betrayed and still worked to heal his captor. What does love look like? It looks like the man on the cross who even at the point of death cared more for the needs of his persecutors than for his own. What does love look like? Love looks like Jesus. “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 15:34).

But how are we to love like that with such other oriented and selfless love? Are not we like those sleepy disciples who were more concerned with their heavy eyes than their Lord’s anguish? How are we to love like that? We are not able. Not unless he does something both for us and in us. Not unless he both sets us right and fills us with his own Spirit transforming us into the likeness of his own holy image. Only in power of the Spirit of God given by the Lord Jesus Christ will we ever be able to love like that.

In conclusion, then, what does it mean to speak of faith that is made effective through love? It means that the gospel, the content of faith, is also our standard of behavior. It means that the Risen Lord in whom we believe sets the rules for how we live. It means that Jesus not only commands but exemplifies and, by his Spirit, enables us to love others as he has loved us. Faith that works through love is faith in the crucified Lord which is then manifest in cruciform love.

December 5, 2008

Election in Romans 11: The Salvation of the Hardened

In the early verses of Romans 11, Paul makes a distinction between two groups within the historic people of Israel: the elect chosen by grace (5, 7) and the rest who were hardened (7). Quoting the Old Testament, Paul goes on to say of the hardened that, "God gave them a sluggish spirit, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear," and, "Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and keep their backs forever bent" (8-10). These verses are regularly troubling to Arminians. When taken out of context they seem to assert some manner of unconditional election and predetermined condemnation where God chooses some some for salvation and hardens others leaving them to their tragic fate. However, when read in context, such a system cannot be sustained. Perhaps surprisingly, Paul goes on to invite the question as to whether the falling of these hardened ones means that they have fallen ultimately, "have they stumbled so as to fall?" (11). His answer is an emphatic, "Absolutely not!" The Apostle to the Gentiles then explains God's ultimate purpose in his hardening a part of Israel. Their hardening was the means to the end of the inclusion of the Gentiles within the covenant people of God (11). Paul then begins to entertain the possibility of the re-inclusion of these hardened Israelites by saying, "Now if their stumbling means riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!" (12). Now it must be stressed that Paul is not here speaking of the elect. He distinguished between "elect" and "hardened" in v. 7. The hardened then became the subject of his discourse throughout vv. 8-12. Thus, our understanding of election must be articulated in light of Paul's eagerness to consider the salvation of the hardened non-elect. He goes beyond mere speculation as the chapter progresses. He goes on to speak of an olive tree with natural branches that were broken off and a wild olive shoot that was grafted in (17). The branches that were broken off must be the hardened non-elect Israelites of v. 7. They certainly cannot be the elect remnant because the remnant was kept by God not broken off (4-5). Paul helpfully explains why they were broken off - because of unbelief (20). Then, after warning the Gentiles that they might suffer a similar judgment if they do not persevere in faith (20-22), Paul declares that those hardened non-elect Israelites will be grafted in again on the condition that they do not persist in unbelief (23). Paul is asserting not only the possibility but the certainty that some of the hardened non-elect will ultimately be grafted into the new covenant people of God on the condition of belief in the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Whatever our understanding of election is, if it is to be biblical, then it must be able to take on board (1) the conditional nature of election and, therefore, (2) the possibility of salvation for the hardened non-elect. At the risk of anachronism, Paul would have made a great Arminian. Or, more appropriately put, classical Arminians make for good Paulinists.