July 14, 2020

BEN: A lot of your studies involve comparative etymologies from ANE languages like Ugaritic etc. I remember G.E. Wright (yes I’m old, and I ended up with some of his library which went on sale at a bookshop on Cape Cod after he died) writing a book on how the ancient Hebrews were not a myth-making people, rather they demythologized other people’s myths. The point about Hebrew words is, that the Hebrews were creative with loan words, and they morphed into something more in line with monotheism in the hands of the Biblical writers. And, of course there are many scholars very leery of committing the etymological fallacy—i.e. seeing the idea of a Biblical devil with a tail and horns coming from ANE remarks about some pagan deity. And as you say, the Bible says nothing about such an image for Satan anyway. How do you adjudicate issues of word origins etc. and what do you think about Wright’s basic view of demythologizing?

MICHAEL: Words are inevitably used to communicate ideas; they are not the ideas themselves. They are a means to an end. The best illustration for me here is elohim. That word does not communicate the unique ontology of the God of Israel. A specific set of unique attributes does not derive from the Hebrew consonants that make up elohim. That word is more neutral than that. But we in the West have imbibed that false assumption, and so we errantly think that plural elohim overturns the idea of monotheism (a term by which we mean an ontologically unique deity). You can only get to ontological uniqueness by the way the God of the Bible is described (using lots of other words) and by the fact that those descriptions (e.g., eternality, creatorship, omnipotence) are denied to other elohim. So when a biblical writer uses a word that may have a long history in other languages, or is a sure cognate to some word in other languages, it has utility and brings with it a semantic range already in place as it were. But that doesn’t mean that biblical writers won’t introduce other ideas / words to talk about the thing they’re talking about using a cognate word to make their own beliefs apparent and distinct. I think the biblical writers are busy with the task of theological messaging. Doing that requires using words that were comprehensible to their own readers, not necessarily us. Their readers would have some knowledge of vocabulary overlap through normal human discourse – trade, commerce, conflict, etc. Their vocabulary choices will communicate, but communication isn’t about just knowing the words in a lexicon, even if it’s your own. Words get used in a variety of ways and are accompanied by other words, other contexts, storytelling, etc. Meaning isn’t just about knowing glosses or “word exchanges.”

July 13, 2020

BEN: I was pretty surprised by your take on Sheol in the OT. It seems to me it is simply the land of the dead at least in Israel, not the domain of wicked humans and evil spirits. For example, the prophet Samuel seems to be summoned up from there by a medium, and the very phrase ‘gathered to one’s ancestors’ in conjunction with talking about death and the grave surely conjures up the place of the dead in the ground. So far as I can see, your name has to begin with E to get beamed up into God’s realm— Elijah and Enoch. Nothing is said about all the righteous going to heaven. Am I wrong about this, and if so, what’s the counter evidence? Put another way, while Biblical figures like the patriarchs want to be buried in the holy land, and some were moved there with the exodus from Egypt, at least in regard to the Holy Land, they thought Sheol was just the land of the dead, the underworld, whatever they may have thought about the underworld outside of God’s country. Right?

MICHAEL: I’d say it’s “all the above” because of the way I approach the previous question. But I’ll add another thought here. People got buried in the ground or in places / recesses that were cut off from normal human habitation (e.g., caves). The idea was that such holes / pits / places were gateways to the place under the earth, the realm of the dead. You still buried your dead in holy ground, so the conception was the same – but also different because of cosmic geography. Being buried in Yahweh’s land (which the patriarchs were) mattered in that worldview. Not being in Yahweh’s land is at the heart of the Jude passage about the dispute between Michael (prince of Yahweh’s land/people) and Satan over Moses’ body. Second Temple tradition makes it clear that people assumed there was a problem for Moses in terms of where he’d been buried.

July 12, 2020

BEN: Let’s talk for a minute about what I will call the spiritual universe as opposed to the material universe. If I’m understanding your first chapter in the new book aright, you are suggesting that there are created beings in the spiritual universe or realm, as well as in the material realm. Indeed, the only uncreated being seems to be God, though we could debate with the church fathers about what ‘only begotten Son’ (monogenes) actually means. A related matter is that heaven, as we call it, is technically the dwelling place of God, and since God always existed, we would assume he always had a place to dwell. Are you then suggesting that some things and some beings in the spiritual realm did not always exist (but what about the heavenly council in Genesis), and indeed some places in the spiritual realm, namely what came to be called Hell, didn’t exist before at least there were rebellious spiritual beings? Can you clarify on some of these points?

MICHAEL: This is an old problem that derives from our necessarily limited vocabulary (and that of the biblical writers as well). Put in the form of simple questions: Is the spiritual universe made of something? If so, wouldn’t that be a material universe? Are spiritual beings (other than God) in that spiritual universe made of something? If so, are they in some sense material? All the vocabulary we use, and which is given to us in Scripture, is deficient for aligning what the writers are trying to communicate with the material world we know (and will discover) from science. Since I don’t believe for a minute God chose people in antiquity for the purpose of communicating precise science that would satisfy a 21st century audience someday, I don’t worry about this – my question (and yours) extends beyond the data. The same problem would exist 1000 years from now (or maybe 100!) if God chose someone living today with a PhD in theoretical physics to write Scripture. Science will always change and expand. Vocabulary available to a writer at any given point in time is what it is. To say a word in 100 BC that has to do with creation “really meant” to include quantum physics is to impose a meaning on that word that wasn’t in the mind of the person God chose. It’s hermeneutical cheating (and naïve). My take is that the biblical writers were tasked by God with describing “places” that have no latitude and longitude and beings that were un-embodied spirits using the vocabulary of spatiality and embodiment. Good luck with that. So what I think we need to realize is that these questions aren’t answerable from data. Instead, we should be asking what the writers were trying to convey about where God “lives” or where disembodied spirits are. They are trying to communicate otherness in the extreme. This is why God / the gods make their homes in places humans cannot – the heavens, the sea, under the earth, etc. It’s the best the writers can do to communicate otherness. Likewise for the afterlife – how to we describe beings who don’t have bodies—they’d be invisible. Again, good luck with describing the posture, behavior, expressions, form, etc. of invisible beings. And so what do the writers do? The only thing they can do – they use words that include the element of physicality to describe that which isn’t part of their physical world. This is also why I don’t think the Underworld was “invented later” – when humans die they leave the world humans know. What other world would they go to? The biblical writers can only conceive of one answer – they go to the “place” where humans aren’t by nature – the place where God / the gods are. In that place, the unrighteous needed (always, not at some point in our chronological time) to be distanced from a holy God. That teaching point could be achieved either by non-existence or, if the dead go to the only other place available, the “spiritual world,” we need to still distance them from God. But the only way to do that is to use the language of spatiality, height, depth, length, width – again, good luck with that.

July 11, 2020

BEN: While this question might better suit the Unseen Realm discussion, still it’s relevant here. I entirely agree with you that Eden was a particular place on earth, not the whole earth. From my viewpoint, in addition the story of Adam and Eve is basically the story of the origins of the group of people who became God’s chosen people, not everyone. The Bible is about God’s relationship with a particular people, and others enter the picture only insofar as they interact with God’s people. We can say that Adam and Eve are the representative head of all human beings, but not the genealogical ancestors of all humans. This explains, for example how Cain and Abel could have wives that were not their sisters!! For me, I don’t see any problem with taking Adam and Eve to be real historical human beings, as Jesus and Paul seem clearly to have believed, without trying to claim they are the origins of the human species all over the world. I had a long critique of Scot McKnight’s recent book where he seems to waffle on the history of Adam and Eve, in order to take into account the scientific evidence of genomes, genetics etc. which suggest human beings originated in various places in the world not in just one. How do you view these things? Would you say, for instance that Cro-magnon man is subhuman rather than human, or Australiopithicus?

MICHAEL: I think co-Adamism (humans co-existing alongside Adam and Eve) is an idea that the biblical text can sustain. That doesn’t mean it’s correct. I’m not sure it is, even though it’s attractive in several respects. My only real concern with the idea is the image of God. I see all humanity being created as God’s imagers, not just a subset that extend from Adam and Eve. That would be a grave error, the results of which we’ve already seen. The idea that some humans were image bearers and others were not was one of the theological trajectories that justified racism and the treatment of “non-imagers” as sub-humans. People interested in the history of that subject, especially as it pertains to the believing Church, should read Livingstone’s work, Adam’s Ancestors (Johns Hopkins). It’s an intellectual history and dense reading, but there’s nothing as suited to tracing this idea from its roots to its tragic results. I’ve been talking recently with S. Joshua Swamidass about his recent book, The Genealogical Adam and Eve. Josh is a believer. His thesis depends on co-Adamism. He argues, on the basis of science (genetics) that all humanity as we now know it could certainly have genealogically descended from a single couple. His worked resulted in Biologos changing their position and removing some older material from their website. Josh’s book has been reviewed by antagonistic atheist scientists who affirm the science is on target even thought they don’t like “the religion” that goes with it. So I feel secure that the science is sound. The question for me is whether the biblical text can sustain it. I’ll be participating in a 2020 AAR session reviewing his book. Josh has a chapter on defining what a human is that I’m still thinking about – this is the key for me, as it relates to the imaging idea. I have pretty simplistic notions of science and how geneticists would define homo sapiens and “human” – to this point it has been the idea that interbreeding requires calling XYZ hominid a human. But his work has awakened me to the fact that the terminology is more complicated than that. That’s about all I can say now. I have to make sure with Josh that I understand the science before I can answer my own question. But for now, I feel positively predisposed to co-Adamism with the imaging caveat. If I can see a biblical defensible path for co-Adamism that doesn’t result in “human sub-humans,” then that’s workable, since I already know how to defend co-Adamism from the text.

BEN: And I would say that a text like Hos. 11 makes clear that God treats non-Israelites and their descendants as fully human image bearers whom he loves. So co-Adamism makes good Biblical sense to me. I don’t think this rules out the notion that there were pre-human creatures, now extinct that might explain some archaeological evidence about Austrailiopitchicus etc. but I could certainly be wrong about that. It’s my wife who is the scientist in the family.

July 10, 2020

BEN: It’s ironic, but it seems clear that even very conservative Protestants don’t just stick to the Bible and its literal interpretation. They have their own traditions that muddy the waters— for instance the Christian Church tradition that the NT rules out using musical instruments in worship, or the Pentecostal tradition that Acts 2 is about speaking in angelic tongues, or the tradition that Ephesians 6 is authorizing deliverance ministries, rather than ‘standing’ and defending against devilish onslaughts. Why do you think it is that even Protestants are blind to how their own traditions skew the reading of the Bible?

MICHAEL: The short answer is the Reformation—really, the caricature of the Reformation that has been ingrained in them. What I mean here is that it’s easy for Protestants to think the Reformation meant turning away from the traditions of men (Catholicism). The unconscious myth is that Protestantism turned away from tradition to some sort of unfiltered biblicism. Protestants presume this either-or choice, not realizing that turning away from one set of traditions didn’t immunize them from creating a body of their own tradition that now serves as an interpretive filter in the same way (but not the same outcomes) as the body of tradition Protestantism left behind. We sort of want to think of ourselves as above the human propensity for creating intellectual communities just like we create physical or cultural communities. Tradition is a human phenomenon. We have to be honest with that and, awareness raised, make intentional efforts to tap into the intellectual framework of the biblical writers, not our own, regardless of the labels we’ve given those frameworks. That takes work, honesty, and humility, etc., and a willingness to stay at it, not presuming we can’t improve on the effort we’re already making. I should add that the cost of doing this isn’t the erasure of one’s traditions. We just need to be honest to the distinction between Scripture read in context and our traditions. The former needs to shape the latter, not the other way around. They can co-exist.

July 9, 2020

BEN: Recently, I’ve spent many weeks working through the long history of exegesis of the Lord’s Supper with my Sunday school class, and explaining where the notion of transubstantiation came from. The underlying message was that later Christian traditions, like kudzu in the South overrun and cover up the actual meaning of Biblical texts like ‘this is my body, broken for you’. It seems to me that your M.O. is much the same in these books. Misunderstanding comes from later Christian traditions read back into the text—the old problem of anachronism. What in your view is the best hedge against anachronistic readings of the Bible?

MICHAEL: Interpretive anachronisms can only be avoided when Bible students, pastors, and even scholars, intentionally commit themselves to immersion in the worldview of the biblical writers—their thought patterns, beliefs, cultural and historical circumstances. Maybe a way of summarizing that is to be committed to reading the text the way the original readers would have read it and understood it. That only happens with intention and practice and repetition. You have to train yourself to approach each and every passage that way – setting aside “what it means to you” and asking what it meant to someone who isn’t you and who lived a long time ago and thought quite differently. If we reflexively did that, if that became a true habit, it would impede anachronistic readings. I know that sounds like hard work. It is. But we fortunately live at a time where he have an abundance of tools and resources produced by scholars who do “live there”—who have committed themselves to being immersed in the ancient modes of thought and who are honest about the need to do that. The difficulty isn’t whether we can do that; we can. The difficulty is finding those resources and then committing ourselves to approaching the text that way.

July 7, 2020

BEN: Your discussion of unclean spirits in Chapt. 10 is fascinating. But I wonder if any of the hearers or readers of the NT could have possibly known to associate that terminology with the spirits of the dead Nephilim? Or for that matter could Mark’s audience, even the Jewish Christian ones, in Rome really be expected to know all the ANE and 2nd temple speculations about evil spirits and demons? It seems unlikely. And we have to remember there was not yet a canon even of the OT before late first century at most, and even most synagogues did not have a whole collection of the 39 books of the OT in scrolls, never mind all the intertestamental books like Jubilees or 1 Enoch. At most Jude suggests some in his Jewish Christian audience would know some of this. How would you respond to these points?

MICHAEL: I think that the biblical writers were writing to readers – that is, literate people. I think we all know as scholars that the real time speeches, conversations, sermons, etc. of Jesus, the apostles, and Paul were consistent with, though different than, the crafted literary works we call the books of the New Testament. Those books included “boots on the ground” sayings, of course, but they are crafty literary works. They all had communicative agendas and were designed to accomplish those agendas. This is, to my eye, transparently obvious. We can have a high degree of certainty, for example, that Jesus didn’t have conversations in chiasms, yet the gospel writers frequently present what Jesus taught in that literary form (and others). So, for literate readers, I do believe that the New Testament writers did indeed presume that their craftsmanship would be noticed by those sorts of readers. Why else would a writer quote subtly from LXX, or mix LXX references, or borrow a phrase here and there from a Second Temple text, or use a specific literary device? It’s not all the accidental result of dis-engaged minds. I think it’s very purposeful and aimed at readers who would notice. In the course of doing that, less literate readers would still get content they needed, though they wouldn’t be able to trace the thoughts as well or as deeply.

June 18, 2020

After his first major book The Unseen Realm went viral and then he gave us ‘Angels’ now we get a full length treatment of demons, Satan, unclean spirits— all things dark and dangerous. I was beginning to feel like I was in a Dan Brown novel (cf. Angels and Demons) there for a while. This study, like his previous ones, is in many ways excellent— it’s well written, very well researched, Mike plays to his strengths which is his detailed knowledge of ANE and Intertestamental literature and the Biblical languages. While the text of the book can be read by any serious Bible student, the footnotes should keep the scholars entertained for some time to come. Mike doesn’t shy away from taking on sacred cows and turning them into hamburger— for instance the notion that the Bible teaches a pre-Edenic Fall of Satan and his minions. Nope says Mike, Rev. 12 is not about that— and he is absolutely right. It’s about the way the Christ event overcame the powers of darkness, establishing God’s kingdom and church on earth. He also thoroughly demolishes the ‘gap theory’ which tries to squeeze some sort of angelic fall into the first few verses of Gen. 1. Furthermore, he critiques convincingly the whole spiritual warfare stuff of Peter Wagner. The Bible does NOT encourage us to engage in WWE style attacks on the powers of darkness, or even to rebuke them. To the contrary Ephes. 6 calls us to stand and withstand the onslaughts of the Dark Lord by countering it with the Gospel, the Great Commission, disassembling false arguments with the truth.

Perhaps one of the most interesting major building planks of his approach is that he sees 3 divine rebellions in the OT— one in the garden in Gen. 3, one just before the flood, and one at the tower of Babel, as read through the lens of Deut. 32. And these do not all refer to the activity of the Devil himself. Indeed, as Mike says, that guy is nowhere called Satan or the Devil in the OT. Ha Satan, which means the adversary, in Job 1-2 is a member of God’s council who is allowed to test human beings, rather like a prosecuting attorney. Satan is never a proper name for anyone in the OT. This doesn’t mean the nefarious one isn’t in the OT, as some have thought. Another important point he makes is that without an understanding of the ANE context of the OT, much will be misunderstood or misinterpreted, just as one must understand the Intertestamental and even Greco-Roman contexts to understand the NT. The writers of the NT knew and drew on ideas from books as divergent as 1 Enoch, or Wisdom of Solomon, or Sirach etc. As I like to say, ‘a text without an original context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean’.

There are of course various points along the way in which I would disagree with some of Mike’s conclusions, as you will discover in the dialogue that follows starting in the blog posts tomorrow and running for a good while. Nevertheless, this is an excellent book that asks the right questions and helps us to better understand the Darth Vader of the NT and his legions….. One word of advice— do not read this book after midnight or you may start looking under your bed for things that go bump in the night!!!

In July, after the 4th, I will have an extended dialogue with Mike about his new book. Stay tuned.

January 7, 2023

Five Views on the New Testament Canon, eds. S.E. Porter and B.P. Laird, (Grand Rapids, Kregel, 2022), 288 pages, $24.99.


In recent years there have been a slew of books with four or five views on some topic important to students of the Bible.  This is another one, and interestingly it involves Protestants Catholics, and Orthodox scholars sharing and comparing their views on the complex manner of NT canon formation.  Three of the views are by Protestants, or at least by people well conversant with the Protestant views on such matters (and two are labeled some sort of Evangelical, the other representing liberal Protestantism). Doubtless this is because the folks putting this together know that the main audience for such books by Kregel are Protestants, and chiefly Evangelicals.   But it is very helpful that both a Catholic and an Orthodox scholar are allowed to weigh in on the matter, and critique the other presenters as well.

No book can be all things to all people, and this is a good book remarkably free of unnecessary and unhelpful polemics. It involves respectful dialogue, but if you are looking for a deep discussion of what counts as truth, what counts as the Word of God, what we should think about the relation of history to theology, and particularly what we should think about the inspiration of Biblical texts, there is not a surfeit of discussion on those relevant topics, though there is some.  For instance, there is little or no discussion about how sacred texts worked and were viewed in an overwhelmingly oral environment in early Judaism or the Greco-Roman world.  There is no real discussion about whether inspiration somehow produces truthful discussions about history, theology and ethics in the NT.   There is also next to no discussion about the relationship between the closing of the canon of the OT and the canon of the NT even though all the quotations of the OT in the NT with one possible exception (Jude quoting 1 Enoch, but he does not quote it as ‘Scripture’ but as a true prophetic utterance) all come from the 39 books of the OT that all Christians and also Jews recognize as Scripture.   This suggests that the OT canon was de facto closed by the time the NT documents were written, and provided Scriptural resources for the composers of NT documents, all of whom or almost all of whom were Jews.   What we do get in this volume is elongated discussions and debates about whether the church authorized and canonized the NT books, or merely recognized them as authoritative on the basis of certain criteria— apostolicity (in some sense), catholicity, widespread use etc.   What about the criteria of veracity of content?

There are many positive things to say about this volume, and here are some of the things: 1) it makes very clear that all the participants recognize that the NT is (and I would add, should be) these 27 books plus nothing.  Other early Christian literature is valuable but not canonical, not NT Scriptures.  2) Protestants Catholics, and the Orthodox have more disagreements about what the OT canon includes than the NT canon. Only Protestants are in agreement with Jews about the extent of the OT canon; 3) the term kanon itself refers in the first instance to a measuring rod, and came to refer to canonical limits of the NT, something that no sort of definitive statement was made about before the 4th century.   And as Prof. Boxall says, the real watershed moment for Catholics was at the Council of Trent (on which see below). 4) Note the helpful definition of apostolicity by Prof. Boxall on p. 143: “Apostolicity is understood rather as the preservation of the original apostolic response to the Christ event, first conveyed through the preached Gospel, and preserved both orally in the ongoing transmission of the apostolic tradition, and in written form in the writings now recognized as canonical. The authority of the NT writings lies in their preservation of the authoritative testimony from ‘the closing period of foundational revelation.’”  Note the reference to revelation. The NT is not viewed as mere human words about God, but as revelation.  What should have been also said in this statement is that the authoritative testimony is a true testimony.  Its authority doesn’t primarily lie in which human being said it, but in what was said when the truth was revealed.  5) Prof. Boxall rightly stresses that at the heart of all these texts is a person— Jesus Christ, a living person, indeed the risen Lord, not merely a collection of texts.  But does this mean that the teaching of Jesus is somehow more inspired than say the teaching of Paul?  The early church fathers do not in the main seem to think so.  Here, I’m thinking particularly of people like John Chrysostom.

Something has to be said about the false notion that shows up in places in this volume that the writers of the NT had no clue they were speaking or writing God’s Word, but rather that idea was a clearly ex post facto judgment.  Just for a moment let’s talk about probably the earliest contributor to the NT— the apostle Paul.  Consider for a minute what’s in perhaps our earliest NT document—1 Thessalonians 2.13— “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the Word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.”  Paul of course is talking about hearing the Good News about Jesus which he calls ‘the Word of God’, and he quite clearly says it was properly received as not merely the words of human beings, but THE WORD OF GOD.  In fact, he says that it is actually the Word of God, the change agent at work in those who believe.  In fact, the phrase ‘logos tou theou’ throughout the NT, when it does not refer to Christ himself (e.g. in John 1) refers to the oral proclamation of the Good News and the truth about Christ.  This is true where this phrase occurs in Acts and also in Hebrews where that word of God is said to pierce to the depths of a person’s being and changes that person.  Paul, and others believed they were inspired to proclaim God’s Word that told the truth about Jesus (see my The Living Word of God, on this and on the issue of whether the canon misfired or not!).  It’s not enough to talk about canon consciousness.  We need to discuss Word of God consciousness spoken of above, Scripture consciousness (see 2 Pet.3—- “He writes the same way in all his letters….which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures”), and yes canon consciousness.  Both Word of God and Scripture consciousness already existed and was applied to what is now the content of the NT, including the earliest Pauline content, long before the canon or canon consciousness appeared in early church history. The failure to deal with the historical situation of genuine Christians before there was a canon of Scripture and yet for whom various of these texts were soul nourishing and coming from God through human writers is a significant failure in some forms of canonical criticism.

Now we can debate what the relationship of this oral proclamation is to written words, but when we actually look closely at a text like 1 Cor. 7, Paul stacks up his own pronouncements alongside of Jesus’ in regard to divorce, and thinks they have the same authority for his audience as Jesus’s words.  And if there was any doubt about that he tells them that he too, like Jesus, has the Spirit of God inspiring his words.  I do not personally doubt Paul believed his written words were viewed by him as just as authoritative as his proclaimed words.  Indeed, his letters contain what he would have proclaimed orally to various congregations had he been present there.   They are oral and rhetorical discourses.  Put another way, they are the preaching of God’s Word in written form.

And are we really to suppose that when we read in regard to the OT Scripture that it is God-breathed that somehow the writer thought that the content of the writers of the NT about Jesus as the Savior of the world were somehow less authoritative or truth-telling than the God-breathed OT? The answer is surely no.   They did not.   They believed God’s inspiration applied not just to speaking but also to writing, just as was the case with the OT prophets like a Jeremiah.  The authority of what was said was determined by the truth of the content itself as inspired by God.  A secondary thing that gave authority to what was said is who it came from—- from eyewitnesses (cf. Lk. 1.1-4), from apostles, and from the co-workers of  both apostles and eyewitnesses.  And since that, broadly speaking, became the criteria used to determine what books should be consider inspired NT texts in due course, then automatically any documents created after the apostolic period of whatever sort were ruled out as canonical Scriptures of the NT.

Of course, it is true that various Christian writers of the 2nd through 4th century were not always clear on the criteria for what counted as their new Scriptures, but happily various parts of the church recognized these 27 documents as their NT in the fourth century.   No canon lists or codexes included any Gnostic documents, or the Gospel of Thomas, or the Acts of Paul and Thecla, or other second century documents though there was some debate about the Gospel of Peter and the Shepherd of Hermas early on and occasionally such a document showed up in a codex, but it may be debated whether we should view codexes as canon lists. More likely they are approved Christian reading lists.[1]  And even the Gospel of Peter, when read by a church authority was disapproved for reading in church.

One of the lacuna of this volume is any detailed discussion of the importance of text criticism, of establishing the earliest Greek text of the NT as best we can.  Thankful the editors of the volume in their conclusions have a brief discussion of the matter and offer a helpful listing of volumes where we can track down the canon lists and other helpful resources.   This is good, but contrast this with statements about the Council of Trent that Prof. Boxall rightly draws our attention to. There is a huge problem with the Council of Trent’s pronouncement about the 27 books of the NT because they added the phrase ‘in all its parts”, which includes the long ending of Mark, John. 7.53-8.11 and the additions to Luke’s passion narrative.[2]

This is problematic on several counts: 1) text determines canon in regard to this matter. By this I mean that no clearly later additions to the text in the second or later centuries should be considered the original inspired text of NT Scripture. This is just a basic principle of text criticism widely recognized today, and is rightly the basis of the revisions of NT translations in the last century; 2) of course when the Council of Trent made its decision in 1546, Latin was still the official language of the Scripture and liturgy of the Catholic Church, and proper text criticism didn’t truly exist, even to the point of not giving priority to the original language texts of Scripture.  Latin was in any case the original language of no NT text.[3]

When one considers the intertwined nature of history, theology, and ethics in the NT, and especially in the Gospels and Acts the question that has to be raised is this— If the text is making both a historical and a theological claim, how should this be viewed?  Can a text be both theologically true and historically false?   My answer to that question is no, if the theology in question is grounded in and dependent on some historical occurrence.  So, for example, as Paul makes clear in regard to the resurrection of Christ in 1 Cor. 15— if Christ is not raised then his death atoned for nothing and we are still in our sins.  History and theology are intertwined because early Christianity is a religion grounded in, and based on some historical claims, especially about Jesus.  It would have been good if one of the writers of these chapters was an ancient historian who had actually written a book on NT History.

The NT is full of theologizing which needs to be interpreted, and it does not require a later ‘theological or canonical reading’ of the text to make it theologically important or significant. Later theological readings of the text are fine, if they comport with or are a reasonable exposition or amplification of the theology in the Scriptural text itself.  The fact that the original texts of the NT are words on target for those first audiences does not mean they could not be words on target for other and later audiences as well.  But the important point is that what the text meant in its original setting is still today what the text means— hence the need for good detailed contextual exegesis.  It may have a different significance or application today, but what it doesn’t have is a different meaning.  Meaning is in the configuration of the words in the Greek text, not in the eyes of the beholder, even though it is true we are all active and even creative readers of the text.  What must be guarded against in such readings is reading something into the text which does not comport with the actual meaning of the text.  In other words, the sin of anachronism needs to be avoided.

In the first couple of chapters by Evangelical scholars, the chapter by D. Lockett is far less problematic than the one by D. Nienhuis.   The latter follows the sort of canonical approach to the Scriptures we find in the work of Robert Wall and others.   While I have no problem with the notion that the NT once assembled in a particular order took on further significance, provided further insights, led to new applications of the NT, there is however a big problem with seeing this as the point at which we find the definitive meaning of the text or the point at which it became Scripture for the church.  It had already been Scripture read in church for generations before then. A text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean and the original contexts of each of the NT documents is the first century audiences to whom it was sent.

It was the Word of God for those earliest Christians first, before there ever was a collection of Gospels, or Paul’s letters or the Catholic epistles, and since it is the same texts with the same words which later became part of the NT canon its meaning did not suddenly show up in the fourth century A.D., nor for that matter its original significance.  The sort of canonical criticism suggested in Nienhuis is largely a-historical or to some degree anti-historical in approach (or later 4th century historical in approach).  It somehow mistakes liberal and radical historical criticism of the NT as either the only sort of critical historical study there is of these texts, or suggests we must simply accept the notion that there are pseudepigrapha (see p. 90) in the NT canon, a suggestion many and perhaps most conservative Protestant and Catholic and Orthodox scholars would rightly reject.  As Richard Bauckham and others have made clear, there was a serious problem with pseudepigrapha when it came to the truth claims within a document.  As Bart Ehrman demonstrated at length— such documents are forgeries, and there is clear evidence from the second century and later that church leaders rejected such documents as not to be read in church, much less later included in a NT canon.[2]  The Pastoral Epistles, for example, were not viewed as such by the early church.

Underlying all the discussions in this volume is the issue of the relationship of Scripture to later church tradition, with various authors suggesting that these are two streams of Christian teaching worth studying and learning from, which is of course true, with some suggesting that the tradition outside the NT canon is in various ways as authoritative as the tradition inside the NT canon.  I prefer the statement of my old Princeton Teacher, Bruce Metzger that the church recognized what the Holy Spirit had guided the church to see as its NT Scripture, it did not determine the canon.   As such the canon of the NT was to be seen as the norm of all norms which can be supplemented by, amplified by, explained by other traditions, but can’t be supplanted by, corrected by later traditions.  Only the NT documents are revelation from God, not the later traditions that can supplement and explain such revelation.[4]

Prof. Parsenios says that the Orthodox tradition never felt it necessary to make a definitive statement about the limits of the NT canon, unlike the Council of Trent.  This is perhaps in part because the Protestant movement was born in Europe out of Roman Catholicism, not out of the Orthodox tradition, and the Council of Trent was of course part of the attempt by the Catholic church to counter the Protestant Reformation.    Happily, this volume helpfully proves we don’t need to be anathematizing each other anymore.  Rather, we can have respectful dialogue, even with significant disagreements and can actually work towards understanding canonical matters better together as brothers and sisters in Christ.

It is the measure of a good book like this one that it teases the mind into activity thought as C.H. Dodd used to say about Jesus’ parables, and produces vigorous and hopefully helpful responses.  I highly recommend this book for that very reason, however much I may disagree with this or that point of the five main contributing writers.

[1] On the issue of the Muratorian fragment being a second century canon list, see not only the article by J. Verheyden listed in the Five Views book in a note on p.47, but also my deconstruction of the later date theory by Hahneman in my, What’s in the Word? (Baylor U. Press, 2009).

[2]. See Ehrman, Forged: Writing in the Name of God, (Oxford, 2012).

[3] The council went on for many years, starting in 1545.

[4] See my lengthy discussion of this issue in Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians, Vol. One. (IV Press, 2014).



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