Category: Biblical Studies

Book Review: What They Don’t Tell You

235949_1_ftcMichael Joseph Brown is Academic Dean, Interim President, and Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Payne Theological Seminary. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Vanderbilt University, as well as a Master of Divinity degree and Doctor of Philosophy degree from University of Chicago.  Brown has authored a number of books, including, Blackening of the Bible: The Aims of African American Biblical Scholarship, The Lord’s Prayer through North African Eyes: A Window into Early Christianity, and What They Don’t Tell You: A Survivor’s Guide to Biblical Studies.

Originally published in August 2000, What They Don’t Tell You has sought from the beginning to equip and prepare incoming students with a general survey and exposure to the underbelly of biblical studies. Now, 15 years later, an up-to-date second edition has entered into the marketplace with a fine-tuned appearance and revised content. Brown rightly acknowledges that the milieu of biblical scholarship has shifted slightly since the original publication of the book, and sought to address accordingly. Consequently, Brown has added additional “rules of thumb” and an appendix that the reader is sure to find helpful.

What They Don’t Tell You remains organized in a logical manner to best cultivate the needs to the student or interested reader. The book opens with a brief introduction to the world of biblical studies, juxtaposing the aims of devotional bible study with that of an academic study of the bible. Here Brown offers an excellent survey of the history of biblical scholarship, as well as an overview of the various methods of biblical interpretation. The remainder of the book presents 29 “rules of thumb” that are thematically ordered around: (1) reading and interpreting the Bible, (2) understanding biblical scholarship, and (3) surviving the newfound understanding presented by Brown.

The list of “rules” comprising this book, according to Brown, are “not [meant to be taken as] exhaustive, nor are they meant to be taken as hard-and-fast rules that can never be broken” (xii). This explains Brown’s choice to label them “rules of thumb” rather than merely “rules.” But, this also displays a potential shortcoming of the book as a rule of thumb is somewhat subject and largely variegated in nature depending on who you ask. In other words, the book should be understood as more of a list of Brown’s personal rules of thumb when approaching the topics, rather than a list of concrete list for biblical studies in general.  Still, I think Brown has brought together a thorough list of important considerations when approaching the subject of biblical studies. His effort is surely not aimless.

What They Don’t Tell You is a wonderful primer to the world of biblical studies. Brown has provided an engaging and timely revision to a well-received book. Be prepared for occasional disagreement with Brown’s “rules of thumb,” but don’t be too quick to through the baby out with the bathwater. If you are interested in entering the arena of biblical studies, Brown will certainly get your feet wet with the right kind of water. It comes recommended from this reader.

Commentaries: General Epistles

In the first post, we took a brief look at some the commentaries that I have found to be most helpful in my studies of the Gospels and Acts. In the last post we looked at the Pauline epistles, and in this post we will turn attention to the remainder of the New Testament—outlining the commentaries that I have found most helpful in my studies of the general epistles.

At the offset it is important to note that I don’t particularly agree with the conclusion of every commentary listed, and there are a number of excellent commentaries that I have not included because I do not own them. This is not intended to be exhaustive. But, rather a concise list of commentaries that I have and continue to find helpful both in my graduate and personal studies.

I hope that you found these next several posts helpful. If you have any questions or would like a more detailed opinion on a book mentioned (or not mentioned), please feel free to comment below.


Hebrews

The book of Hebrews is arguably the most densely populated and theologically significant New Testament writing. One could spend every day of his life within the boundaries of the book and find full satisfaction in its riches. Below are some of the commentaries that I have found especially helpful in working through Hebrews:


James 

The book of James is a document that has recently developed into a personal interest of mine. It’s short and sweet, but packs mountain of misunderstanding. There are several excellent commentaries on James and the following are some that I have found helpful:


1 Peter 

There are a number of well known and well-loved commentaries on the epistle of first Peter. A few that I have found helpful are as follows:


2 Peter & Jude

2 Peter and Jude are two epistles that display clear parallels and will typically be commented on together. There are several wonderful commentaries available for these two epistles, but there are a few that I have found especially helpful while navigating these difficult letters:


1, 2, & 3 John

The Johannine epistles are filled with some of the most precious and loved words in the New Testament, and the attestation of such is evident in the number of commentaries available. A few commentaries that I have found invaluable in studying these letters are as follows:


Revelation

The book of Revelation is easily the most misunderstood and abused book in the New Testament. Consequently, the number of commentaries that have been written on this book are uncountable. Nevertheless I have found that there are a number of extremely helpful commentaries:

Commentaries: Pauline Epistles

In the last post we took a brief look at some the commentaries that I have found to most helpful in my studies of the Gospels and Acts. In this post we will turn attention to the bulk of the New Testament, as I seek to outline the commentaries that I have found most helpful in my studies of the Pauline epistles.

At the offset it is important to note that I don’t particularly agree with the conclusion of every commentary listed, and there are a number of excellent commentaries that I have not included because I do not own them. This is not intended to be exhaustive. But, rather a concise list of commentaries that I have and continue to find helpful both in my graduate and personal studies.

I hope that you found these next several posts helpful. If you have any questions or would like a more detailed opinion on a book mentioned (or not mentioned), please feel free to comment below.


 Romans

Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is likely the most commented on book in the entire New Testament. History has boasted an uncountable number of commentaries on Romans, and the chances that the church is done publishing on this beloved letter are slim. The following are commentaries that I have found helpful while navigating the book of Romans:


1 Corinthians

Paul’s first epistle to Corinth has produced many helpful and interesting commentaries—typically the case with an letter that contains disputed passage. The following are some of may favorite commentaries on 1 Corinthians:


2 Corinthians

While less theologically controversial than 1 Corinthians, Paul’s second epistle to the church in Corinth surprisingly boasts a good number of commentaries. The following are some of my most used:


Galatians

In terms of theological significance and cutting edge biblical debates Galatians has always found itself amid the discussions. Consequently there are a plethora of excellent commentaries. The following are a few that I have found especially helpful:


Ephesians

The epistle to the Ephesians is rich with biblical treasures. It is a letter that should dear to the Christians heart. There are a number of great commentaries on this Pauline epistle, and below are a few of my favorites:


Philippians

The letter of Philippians is a personal favorite of mine, and there are a couple commentaries that I have come to know and use often:


Colossians & Philemon

The letter of Colossians is a book of the New Testament that I have been working through for some time now. Philemon is a small but weighty general epistle, and typically one will find Colossians and Philemon grouped together within the same volume. There are a number of commentaries that I have found helpful for this little letter:


1 & 2 Thessalonians 

These two epistles boast a wealth of Pauline theology. There are a number of commentaries available (typically both epistles will be included in one volume), but only a little less than a handful of them I have found personally helpful:


Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy, and Titus)

These three epistles (commonly referred to as the Pastoral Epistles) are some of the most pastorally rich literature in the entire New Testament. There are mounds of wisdom in these letter and tremendous commentaries have followed. The following are  a few that I have found helpful:

A few honorable mentions that have also been of great encouragement are:

Commentaries: The Gospels and Acts

As a Biblical Studies major and a current seminarian I find myself occupied with the biblical text on daily basis. Consequently biblical commentaries have become a welcomed extension of my everyday life. A recent count of my library displayed over 1300 individual commentaries! To be sure not all commentaries are made equal, and navigating through such a mountain of information can be daunting task. I personally enjoy reading about the tools others use in their studies and thought if would be mutually exciting to provide a list of my own favorites. Therefore, in the next several posts we will take a journey through the canon of New Testament, highlighting what I have found to be some of the most helpful commentaries for each of the New Testament books—starting today with the Gospels and Acts.

At the offset it is important to note that I don’t particularly agree with the conclusion of every commentary listed, and there are a number of excellent commentaries that I have not included because I do not own them. This is not intended to be exhaustive. But, rather a concise list of commentaries that I have and continue to find helpful both in my graduate and personal studies.

I hope that you found these next several posts helpful. If you have any questions or would like a more detailed opinion on a book mentioned (or not mentioned), please feel free to comment below.


 

Matthew

There is definitely no shortage of commentaries when it comes to the gospel of Matthew. While the options are many and the quality is varied, the commentaries that I typically run to for the gospel of Matthew are as follows:

More recent commentaries on Matthew that I have personally enjoyed and found helpful, and thus deserve mention here are:


Mark

The Gospel of Mark has a history of great commentaries—some are excellent, and some not so much. The following are some of my preferred “go to” commentaries on Mark:

Another honorable mention that is a little less technical, but boasts some helpful gems of information is:


Luke

The size of most the commentaries published on the gospel of Luke are massive, and in multi-volume. Like the others mentioned about there are a plethora of options for Luke. The following are some of my personal favorites:

Another massive (3 volume) work that I have consulted on occasion and found helpful, but have yet to finish in its entirety:


John

The gospel of John is likely the hardest of the gospels to decide ones top commentaries because so much has been published on John, and a lot of it is surprisingly very helpful to the reader. My personal favorites are as follows:


 

Acts

Similar to that of Luke there are a number of massive commentaries on the book of Acts, and several are excellent reference resources for the Greco-Roman background of early Christian missions. The following are some of the commentaries that I have found helpful:

James: A New Perspective (Part 2)

“If this leadership role of James was the real situation reflected in the NT writings, did the early church in later centuries recognize James’ primacy? The answer is yes, and it is witnessed by writers, Jewish and Christian, from the second through the early fifth centuries (p. 13).”

In this post we will seek to outline some of the external arguments that provide support for the New Perspective on James (NPJ). As one would rightly expect if the biblical arguments presented in part one are true, there are several extra-biblical or external indicators that also confirm the NPJ conclusion. If you are unfamiliar with the NPJ position and have yet to read the prior post (which outlined some of the internal arguments for the NPJ), I would highly encourage you to read part one first—as it demonstrate to be a helpful introduction to the position and it function to construct a foundation that will primarily be seen as an assumption in the following survey. Thus, with our task present before us, lets go ahead and enter into the content.

The martyrdom of James took place in 62 A.D. and is vividly described by the Jewish historian Josephus. Josephus intentionally records the details, writing, “…so he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James…and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned” (Ant. 20.200). There is very little present need at this point in the discussion to elaborate, as the account by Josephus is widely accepted as an authentic description of the death of James. However, as Varner rightly points out, there is another important issue that arises from this text that is far to often overlooked:

 “The simple fact that Josephus never mentions any other prominent leaders of the early Christian movement, such as Peter, John, or Paul, seems to have been overlooked in previous scholarship. Or at least no one seems to have recognized the significance of this omission. Apart from a statement about “the tribe of Christians” in the controversial Testimonium Flavianum (“Flavian Testimony”) about Jesus, the only early Christian that Josephus mentions is James! This recognition of his death is because of James’ leading role in the fledgling Jesus movement, a role that was recognized even outside the movement!” (p. 13)

Clement of Alexandria is another individual with which one could easily argue displayed knowledge of James that would perfectly align with the conclusion found in the NPJ. This is something that is affirmed by Eusebius’s citation of the well know Jewish-Christian historian Hegesippus (see Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., 2:23), as well as Jerome (see Jerome, On Famous Men, 2). For purpose here it will be helpful to at least present the manner in which Hegesippus beings his account of James martyrdom, which is taken from the same section that Eusebius uses to support his citation of Clement. Hegesippus writes, “James, the Lord’s brother, succeeds (διαδεχεται) to the government of the Church, in conjunction with the apostles.” Thus, according to Hegesippus, James was given the governing role in the Church in union with the other apostles, and was given this position by the Lord himself. This is a point that is made emphatically clear in the original language by the forward placement of succeeds (διαδεχεται) in the sentence structure—it is actually the word that leads the sentence.

Similarly, declarations by such orthodox leaders as these are also reiterated in a number of pseudepigraphical works, such as the well known second century document, The Gospel of Thomas. The author of Thomas writes, “The disciples said to Jesus, ‘we know that you will depart from us. Who is to be our leader?’ Jesus said to them, ‘wherever you are, you are to go to James the just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being’ (logia 12).” As Varner correctly explains, “This quotation is included, not because we should be certain Jesus actually said that but because these and many other sayings about James’ role reflect an attitude that prevailed in the early church despite the growing authority of Peter’s so-called successors in Rome! (p. 13)” It should be clear from the surveyed statements thus far that original role of James in the Church was perceived as universal knowledge—even the gnostics identified his God-given leadership authority.

Finally, one must equally notice the monumental comparative statement made in the fifth century by one of James’ predecessors to the Jerusalem church, Hesychius of Jerusalem. In a sermon on Acts 15 Hesychius declared the following about James:

“How shall I praise the servant and brother of Christ, the commander in chief of the new Jerusalem, the prince of the presbyters, the leader of the apostles, among the heads the highest, among the shining lights the one who shines brightest, among the stars the most illustrious? Peter speaks, but James makes the law. ‘I judge,’ whose judgment neither the law of custom nor the decree of an assembly can challenge. For in me speaks the one who is judge of all, the living and the dead.’ ”

Varner summarizes the historical implication of Hesychius, writing, “Even after acknowledging a strong measure of rhetorical hyperbole by Hesychius, this description must clearly indicate a prevalent view about the position that James held, at least in the minds of Christians, four centuries after his death” (p. 14).

The external evidence for the NPJ provides a substantial amount weight to the discussion. The diverse array of literature detailed in this post was clearly intentional, and while it may have been brief, the content sufficiently surveyed over four centuries of historical Christian tradition—all of which support the conclusion of the biblical text as outlined in part one. And while much more in the way of content could have been discussed, the aim here was not to be exhaustive.

 

1. Varner, William. James. Edited by H. Wayne House, W. Hall Harris III, and Andrew W. Pitts. Evangelical Exegetical Commentary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012.

2. Josephus, Flavius, and William Whiston. The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987.

3. Hegesippus. “Fragments from His Five Books of Commentaries on the Acts of the Church.” In Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: The Twelve Patriarchs, Excerpts and Epistles, the Clementina, Apocrypha, Decretals, Memoirs of Edessa and Syriac Documents, Remains of the First Ages, edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, translated by B. P. Pratten. Vol. 8. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886.

For more information about the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary please visitevangelicalexegeticalcommentary.com. You can also purchase Dr. Varner’s volume on James (EEC) in both digital and printed format.

James: A New Perspective (Part 1)

Before evaluating some of the internal indicators favoring the New Perspective on James (NPJ), it may be helpful to the reader if we first summarize the position.

According to the NPJ shortly after Pentecost (Acts 2) James rose to a position of leadership in the church similar to that of the Apostles. Furthermore, his leadership was so instrumental among the church that by the early 40’s A.D. he was widely recognized as the leader of the entire Christian movement—a first among equals. Varner illustrates, “If a stranger arrived in Jerusalem or in Antioch between the years A.D. 40-62 and asked, “Who is the person in charge of this movement?” any knowledgeable Christian, including Peter or John or Paul, would have answered without hesitation, “James” (p. 9). The NPJ asserts that James was so well known among the early Church that one could immediately recognize who he was by a single name without any additional description or qualifier—an interesting perspective when one considers how James begins his canonical epistle. Conversely, while the vast majority of Christians today attribute such a prominent position to either Peter or Paul, the NPJ challenges this assumption, and several canonical statements provide convincing support to this conclusion.

Thus with the summary behind us, we can now turn our attention to the supportive evidence found within the pages of the New Testament for the NPJ position.

An imperative starting-point for the NPJ acknowledges that Paul recognized James as an apostle. In 1 Corinthians 15:7, Paul declares that James received a special appearance from the risen Lord apart from the other apostles. The fascinating thing about this passage is that not only does James precede “all the apostles” in Paul’s description, but Paul actually refers James to as one of them. Some may object to this notion based on the context (1 Cor. 15:5), arguing that Paul is using the term in a wider sense that is not typically associated with the Twelve Apostles. However, this would fail to account for fact that Paul elsewhere mentions James as an “apostle” in the narrower sense—placing James and Peter in the same apostolic class (Gal. 1:19).

“This information is crucial for the argument that James became the leader of the entire church, because of what Luke and Paul later record about James. When Paul and Barnabas visited Jerusalem as described in Galatians 2:1–10 (probably the famine relief visit of Acts 11–12), they met privately with the Big Three—James, Peter, and John (Gal 2:9). The order of these “pillars” should not be overlooked. James was first in order and his primacy is illustrated in Peter’s attitude toward James from at least this point onward. After “the pillars” affirm Paul’s Gentile ministry they remind him to “remember the poor.” Paul was eager to add that he had done that and would continue to do so. Paul did what James requested that he do. Then around the same time, during the dramatic episode in Acts 12 when Peter was released miraculously from prison, Peter made a special effort to ask the people in John Mark’s mother’s prayer meeting to inform “James and the brothers” about his release. Peter here acknowledged the leadership role of James as he also did later at the Jerusalem Council.” (Varner, p. 10).

In Act 15, Luke records the events known as the Jerusalem Council. In this account Luke makes plain to his readers the leadership role that James had during the Council and among the church. During this assembly the decision concerning Gentile conversion to Judaism was solidified, and lo and behold it is James who rendered the final verdict as the moderator of the Council (Acts 15:19a). Varner details the significance of James’ words, writing:

“It is very important to take note of the crucial language attributed to James as he introduces his concluding decision in 15:19a: διὸ ἐγὼ κρίνω. Many translations blunt the force of these words that to any Greek reader would mean, “Therefore, I decide.” The transitional conjunction διὸ introduces the conclusion to the argument. This is followed by the pronoun ἐγὼ, which is not needed in Greek so it must be added for particular prominence and emphasis (Therefore, I …). Then the verb κρίνω describes James’ action in rendering the verdict. Standard Greek lexicons inform us that this verb often carries the sense of a judicial verdict or decision and should not be blunted by an idea like, “Well, let me sum up our discussion.” (p. 12).

Both Peter and Paul fully acknowledged James’ authority at the Council and proceed to align themselves with his judgment. For example, Varner explains, “When James added that certain practices particularly offensive to Jews should be observed by the Gentile believers and composes a letter requesting such, Paul delivered the letter as he was instructed to do (Acts 16:4). For the second time, Paul did what James requested that he do” (p.13).

Again, Varner continues with another example:

“In Acts 21:18–26 Paul exemplified what he calls elsewhere “becoming all things to all men” (1 Cor 9:22), by again doing what James asks him to do in regard to ending the Nazirite vows of four young Jewish men. Paul probably thought that such an action was not necessary, but out of deference to James, he does it. He perhaps even used some of the offerings from the Gentile believers that he had brought with him to pay for this action in the temple (2 Cor 8–9; Rom 15:25–29). For at least the third time, Paul did what James requested that he do” (p. 13).

In sum, the internal indicators outlined above provide a convincing case for the NPJ position from a biblical perspective. Nevertheless, while it is unlikely that one will coincide with the implications of the NPJ position simply based on this evaluation alone, the exposition of the above mentioned passages should provide more than enough to perk one’s interest and present James in a previously unexplored fashion.

In a future post our attention will be directed to the exploration of the external indicators in favor of the NPJ position—seeking to reconcile the above mentioned biblical decelerations with a vast array of historical claims.

1. Varner, William. James. Edited by H. Wayne House, W. Hall Harris III, and Andrew W. Pitts. Evangelical Exegetical Commentary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012.

For more information about the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary please visit evangelicalexegeticalcommentary.com. You can also purchase Dr. Varner’s volume on James (EEC) in both digital and printed format.

James: A New Perspective

It seems safe to assume that there are few individuals within early Christianity that have been more neglected than James. But this wasn’t always the case. In fact, there was once a day when such a statement would have been utterly unthinkable. James has traditional been understood as a prominent leader in the city of Jerusalem—well known among the Apostles. But how prominent was James’ influence during this period? Did he have an authority that overextended that of the Apostles? How would a first-century Christian have understood his leadership amid the Apostolic ministry of figures like Peter and Paul? The historical response to these questions may come as a complete surprise to many readers. Could James have actually been more than just another apostolic leader? Has the majority of Christian history unintentionally neglected the very individual whom the Apostles looked to for guidance?

“The proposal is simple, but its implications are profound…James was not merely a significant leader in the early church and not just the leader of the Jerusalem church, but that he was the leader of the church.” (Varner, p. 8)

Over the next several days our attention will focus upon what some have rightly labeled the New Perspective on James (NPJ). The content in the next three posts will draw from Dr. William Varner’s discussion in the recent volume for the Evangelical Exegetical
Commentary, and will center around the (1) internal and  (2) external evidence for the NPJ position.

1. Varner, William. James. Edited by H. Wayne House, W. Hall Harris III, and Andrew W. Pitts. Evangelical Exegetical Commentary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012.