Book Review (part 16: How Jewish were the Writings of the New Testament?) – ‘Neither Jew nor Greek’ by James D.G. Dunn

Christians-vs-jewsAs we continue through my recap/review of James Dunn’s newest volume Neither Jew nor Greek we turn to the chapter entitled ‘Jewish Christianity.’ This section attempts to survey the manner in which early expressions of Christ-devotion were either characterized as Jewish or self-identified as a continuation of the Judaic heritage. Although this chapter has a lot of weighty arguments regarding how more emphasis needs to be placed upon the influence of James the Just in the Jerusalem Church and the various Jewish-Christian ‘sects’ existing in the second century CE, I wanted to highlight in particular Dunn’s inquiry into determining in what sense the NT documents themselves stressed their ‘Jewishness’ (section 45.4). Since the following chapter in the book deals with the ‘Parting of the Ways,’ it is significant to lay the groundwork regarding in what sense Judaism and Christianity were intertwined prior to their unfortunate divorce. Furthermore, it is common stock in some of the more popular discussions about the Christian faith to regard Judaism and its scriptures (the Hebrew Bible/OT) as passe or old hat. It is therefore prudent to examine in what sense did the NT documents regard themselves as Jewish.

 

The New Testament Gospels

Mark Dunn regards the Gospel as Mark as the least Jewish of the four canonical Gospels. However, it opens up with pivotal quotations from Exod. 23:20 and Isa. 40:3. It focuses on the Judaean region and Galilee in particular. The climax of Jesus’ ministry is depicted as Peter’s confession regarding the Messiah of Israel’s hopes. Furthermore, Jesus is regarded as the Son of David and the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Jesus honors the Shema of Deut. 6:4-5 as the greatest commandment and selects Lev. 19:18 as the next most important priority. Overall, Mark does not attempt to exonerate Jesus from his context or deny the Jewish character of his mission.

Luke –  The Gentile orientation of Luke-Acts is readily visible. Nevertheless, Luke makes a considerable effort to ensure that the Jewishness of Jesus’ mission and purpose is evident. The opening songs in Luke chs. 1-2 depict the Jewish hope now fulfilled in the respective births of John and Jesus. Luke alone mentions how the young Jesus was circumcised and how the offering for purification was given in accordance with the Law. Jesus himself regards his ministry as a fulfillment of Isa. 61:1-2. He promises his disciples that they will rule over the twelve tribes of Israel. Even after his resurrection Jesus claims that everything written about him in the Law and the Prophets was to be fulfilled in him. In sum, Luke takes for granted the Jewish character of Jesus’ ministry.

Matthew – It should go without saying that Matthew’s Gospel is thoroughly Jewish. It commences with its argument that Jesus is born as the climax of the promises to David and Abraham, tracing his genealogy with some forty Israelite/Jewish persons. Jesus himself insists that he came to preach to the lost sheep of Israel. In the famous Sermon on the Mount Jesus regards the nature of his teachings to be raised higher than those of the Pharisees. It is almost certain that Matthew depicts Jesus as the ‘new Moses’ and the one who reorganizes Israel around himself. Principally, Matthew is deeply-rooted and interested in depicting Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.

John – Although it is common to regard John as something theologically less-Jewish that its Synoptic counterparts, even it expresses a commitment to Israel’s heritage. John’s Gospel is, in fact, the only of the four to call Jesus “Messiah” (1:41; 4:25-26). Along the same lines, it is also the only Gospel to regard Jesus as the [Passover] lamb of God which takes away the sins of the world. It makes reference to Jewish imagery, such as Moses’ bronze serpent and the water from Jacob’s well, and interprets Jesus through the lens of these Jewish symbols. Jesus states that Moses wrote about him, thus arguing for continuity between the Torah and the climactic ministry of Jesus. Although John expresses a deep schism between the local Ephesian synagogue and the Johannine community, it nevertheless regards the Jesus-movement to be the proper fulfillment of Israel’s hopes and dreams.

 

The ‘Paulines’

The Undisputed Seven Letters – Dunn chose to not deal with these documents in this section, presumably because the scope of his book is limited to the period between 70 and the middle of the second century CE.

Ephesians – Some might be surprised that Ephesians is steeped in Jewish characteristics. It highlights the need to take the Jewish gospel to non-Jews. Its recipients, whomever they were, are regarded twice as “saints” in the opening few verses. In fact, Ephesians regards its audience with the title “saints” more times than any other Pauline epistle. Regular Jewish phrases like, “Blessed are you,” “chosen,” “the beloved,” “the mystery of his will,” and “God’s possession” appear within Ephesians. Although the citations are from the LXX there exist over twenty quotes from the Torah, Prophets, and the Writings. Its audience is comforted by regarding them, not as aliens and strangers, but as fellow-citizens and heirs of the kingdom of God and Christ.

The Pastoral Epistles – In contrast to Ephesians the Pastoral epistles exhibit a lesser degree of Jewish material. The focus seems to be primarily on Paul’s apostleship to the Gentiles. The Jewish Law is still regarded as “good,” “the Law for the lawless,” etc. 1 Timothy speaks of Adam and Eve as common characters familiar with the audience in Ephesus, alludes to Genesis (1:31 and 9:3), and cites explicitly from Deuteronomy (19:15 and 25:4). 2 Timothy in particular regards the Jewish scriptures as inspired/God-breathed and authoritative for life and practice. Titus shows some conflict with Jewish themes (“Jewish myths,” “quarrels relating to the Law,” “those of the circumcision”). However, Dunn suggests that a conflict between Titus’ community and the local synagogue might be the best explanation for these markers.

 

The Rest of the New Testament

Hebrews – It is hardly necessary to argue for the Jewish character in Hebrew, as it is plainly obvious with its nearly forty references and quotations from the OT/LXX. It arguably regards Jesus as the expression of Lady Wisdom in its opening verses. It depicts Jesus as one who is superior to the angels with an argument built on Jewish references. It possessed an clear interest in the priesthood, sacrifices, the Sabbath rest, the holy of holies, the sanctuary, and the elusive Melchizedek. Chapter 11 of Hebrews paints many of the famous figures from the Old Testament (and come from the intertestimental period) as heroes of faith. Hebrews, overall, is arguably one of the most Jewish text in the NT.

James – Dunn summarizes his arguments from Beginning from Jerusalem where James is depicted as an anthology of Jewish wisdom tradition. Particularly, the Book of Proverbs serves as the foundation for the thought and theme of James. A positive attitude towards the Jewish Law is maintained throughout James. Those who cherished the Book of James certainly valued its Jewish heritage.

1 Peter – Although 1 Peter is written to Gentile believers in the eastern part of the Roman empire, it nevertheless regards the identity of its recipients as ‘Jewish identity.’ It makes a strong claim that Christ is the fulfillment of Israel’s prophecies (1:10-11) and scatters  a variety of allusions to the Torah, Prophets, and Writings in all five of its chapters.

Jude – All of Jude’s warnings are based upon the foundation of particular Jewish warnings, with over a dozen examples cited by Dunn. Furthermore, Jude was certainly influenced by 1 Enoch (seven references noted by Dunn). Jude also makes the claim that he is the brother of James, the former head of the Jerusalem Church.

2 Peter – Dunn follows the majority of scholars in seeing 2 Peter as dependent upon Jude. This means that it carries with it Jude’s Jewish character. Furthermore, 2 Peter chapter three exhibits a thoroughly-Jewish farewell speech, drawing upon Isa. 65. It is also, apart from the Synoptics, the only reference to Jesus’ transfiguration vision.

Johannine Writings – The stress on Jewish themes is quieter in these three documents. There is an insistence on confessing Jesus as ‘the Christ.’ Christ, as a title, is still expressed in these late documents. Jesus is also remembered as “the righteous one.”

Revelation – Like Matthew and Hebrews, the Book of Revelation hardly needs to be argued for its Jewish character. It draws heavily on Ezekiel and Daniel, particularly for its christological expressions of the risen and exalted Jesus.  Jesus is further described as the Lion from the Tribe of Judah, the Root of David, and the Lamb. Dunn interestingly regards Revelation as “a new Ezekiel” in light of its indebtedness to its visions and symbols.

 

After reading Dunn’s summary I was surprised at the measure of continuity between the Jewish/Hebrew Bible and the NT writings. I always had a strong feeling of connection between the testaments, but Dunn demonstrates that it is stronger than I had originally appreciated. Dunn offers the following summary of his inquiry into the Jewishness of the NT documents:

The core founding documents of what became catholic Christianity were also Jewish through and through, deeply rooted in Jewish scriptures, faith and ethics, so much so that it is not inaccurate to describe mainstream Christianity as directly continuous with Second Temple Judaism, and catholic Christianity itself as Jewish Christianity, since the Jewish character of Christianity in integral to its identity.

What do you think of Dunn’s assessment regarding how Jewish the NT documents were? Be sure to ‘Like,’ share, and subscribe for further updates. Have a safe and happy New Years.

Wisdom Christology in Q (Matt. 23:34; Luke 11:49)

As I was preparing for tomorrow’s lecture in my Synoptic Gospels class, I was reminded of a ‘Q saying’ which involves Wisdom, the often personified attribute of God’s wise dealings with his creation (cf. Prov. 8; Wisdom 6). The Q saying texts to which I am referring are:

Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city… (Matt.23:34)

For this reason also the wisdom of God said, ‘I will send to them prophets and apostles, and some of them they will kill and some they will persecute… (Luke 11:49)

If I had to put my finger in the air and guess which direction the wind is blowing, I would estimate that the original Q saying is found in Luke’s version, where ‘the wisdom of God’ is doing the speaking. If this is the case, then Matthew, having Q in front of him, decided to redact it in a manner which put the words of ‘the wisdom of God’ upon the lips of Jesus (note the shift from wisdom speaking to Jesus speaking in the first person). It would seem awkward for the original Q saying to have Jesus speaking and for Luke to redact that by placing the speech into the mouth of wisdom.

Another Q saying involving Wisdom is located in Matt. 11:19; Luke 7:35. For the record, no official Wisdom sayings appear in Mark’s gospel.

lady-wisdomThe implications of these observations are worth suggesting. If (and these are pretty big ‘ifs’) the Q collection of Jesus sayings is early, perhaps as early as 40-50 CE, then this places Wisdom christology earlier than its alternative expression located in the Fourth Gospel (God’s personified Logos and God’s Wisdom are closely related). This would mean that John is not saying something so new and innovative compared to the earliest Jesus traditions. If Q records authentic Jesus sayings which indicate that he thought of himself as the embodiment of God’s personified Wisdom, the human expression of God’s wise interaction in the world, then it would be difficult for some of the more critical scholars to write off the Fourth Gospel’s christology as such a late development. It would also posit a legitimate connection between the earliest Jesus tradition and Paul, who considers Jesus to be the fullest expression of Lady Wisdom (eg. 1 Cor. 8:6; 10:4; Col. 1:15-16; etc.).

What do you think?

 

 

Just finished N.T. Wright’s “Paul and the Faithfulness of God”

Yep, all done. The 1700 page beast has been slain.

Since I am teaching courses on Romans and 1&2 Corinthians this semester, I will be frequently interacting with Wright’s PFG in some future posts.

In short, I found many of his exegetical arguments to be very persuasive, while others are far too much of a stretch. For one, Wright still thinks that Paul split the Shema in 1 Cor. 8:6, which is almost certainly wrong (James McGrath’s argument in “The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in its Jewish Context” is far more persuasive). However, the attention to detail given to the significant passages in Paul deserve serious consideration, whether one chooses to agree or disagree with his conclusions. In hindsight, I perhaps should have chosen a shorter book to give me a break from dissertation editing.   

 

Part 5: Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? book review

The fourth chapter of Dunn’s book is where the previous three chapters get incorporated into the New Testament texts. This chapter is, not surprisingly, the longest in the book. I won’t be able to discuss every detail of Dunn’s arguments, but I will try to highlight all of the major points he raises.

In this chapter, Dunn seeks to bring the discussion in ways which will answer these questions:

  1. Was Jesus remembered as a monotheist? Did he restrict worship solely to the God of Israel?
  2. What is the significance of the post-resurrection proclamation “Jesus is Lord?”
  3. In what sense is Jesus the embodiment of God’s Wisdom (and/or Word)? What was meant when Paul described him as the life-giving Spirit?
  4. In what ways did the Book of Revelation offer worship to the Lamb?
  5. How and in what ways did the early Christians call Jesus god/God?
  6. How were the terms “Last Adam,” “mediator,” and “heavenly intercessor” understood?

As to the first question of wondering whether or not Jesus was a monotheist, Dunn acknowledges that this line of inquiry would be shocking to those who suppose that Jesus is to be understood in line with the debates of the fourth and fifth centuries. It is argued that Jesus’ upbringing would have placed him firmly within the educational system of the synagogues of his time. This would have introduced him to the Shema of Israel, the central creed of Judaism which affirms the oneness of God. Jesus was remembered in Mark 12:28-32 as affirming the Shema as the foremost commandment (even above the command to love one’s neighbor). Dunn also recalls the previous discussion in which it was pointed out that Jesus sought out worship for God alone (Matt. 4/Luke 4.), the God who alone was good (Mark 10:17-18). I was actually surprised that Dunn did not talk about the clearest statement of monotheism in John 17:3, but this perhaps comes from his hesitation to attribute the sayings in the Fourth Gospel to the lips of the historical Jesus. Nevertheless, Dunn concludes that Jesus was indeed a monotheist.

The discussion moves onto the subject of Jesus as Lord. Dunn rightly points out that the master Christological text governing this topic, especially in the New Testament, is Psalm 110:1, where YHWH speaks to adoni to sit at his right hand until he makes his enemies his footstool. The title of ‘lord’ is simply a title given to a human master, but it is also used of pagan gods as well as the Roman Emperor. This brings about the issue of the YHWH (LXX kyrios) texts which were used of Jesus. Dunn proposes that this could mean one of two things: that in Paul’s thinking Jesus is Yahweh, or that God has bestowed his unique saving power on the Lord who sits at his right hand via Psalm 110:1. Dunn argues that the second option is more likely. He notes in Phil. 2:5-11, where the YHWH text of Isa. 45 is attributed to Jesus, that the final stanza of the hymn attributes worship ultimately to God the Father. In 1 Cor. 8:6, where Paul speaks of there being one God, the Father, and one Lord Jesus Christ, Dunn actually seems to have changed his mind on how this passage is to be interpreted. Previously, Dunn saw this verse as an affirmation of the Shema in which Paul split open to include Jesus within the creed of Israel. Dunn now argues, along with his student James McGrath (which he footnotes) that:

“It is quite possible to argue, alternatively, that Paul took up the Shema, already quoted in 8:4 (‘there is no God but one’), only in the first clause of 8:6 (reworded as ‘for us there is one God, the Father’); and to that added the further confession, ‘and one Lord Jesus Christ’…A distinction remains between the one God and the one Lord.”  

He goes on to state that this statement from Paul is the natural outworking of Psalm 110:1. When Dunn gets around to talking about 1 Cor. 15:24-28 he concludes that this passage, which while quoting Psalm 110:1, ends by placing God the Father as the one who will be “all in all” in which Christ will be included.

Dunn moves on to looking at how the NT authors pickup the themes of God’s Wisdom, Word, and Spirit and incorporate them into their discussions of Jesus. The first text (and most controversial in my opinion) is John 1:1-18. The author of the Fourth Evangelist has obviously taken up and developed the metaphor of the Word in ways which are coinciding with how other writers used it as a way to speak of God’s action in creation, revelation, and salvation. Dunn questions whether it is right to attribute to the Word the opening pronoun of ‘he’ (is can be translated as ‘it’). Dunn speaks of the common interpretation of the poem, that which speaks of Jesus’ preexistent life with God. He offers another option which points out that nothing written in the poem which would be strange to a Hellenistic Jew (such as Philo). Dunn makes the comment, “Properly speaking, then, it is only with 1.14 what Jesus comes into the story…Jesus is not the Word; he is the Word become flesh.” Jesus then is the one who personally reveals the character of the Logos, a character which previously was only able to be expressed in terms of personification. In Col. 1:15 where Jesus is said to be the image/eikon of God, this according to Dunn, should be read as Jesus embodying the wisdom which God wisely uses to act in his world. Jesus is God acting and outgoing, expressing the very purpose and character of God himself. Wisdom christology is also found in Heb. 1:1-3 in Dunn’s reading.

Dunn carries the discussion over to include the Apocalypse of John and the honors given to Jesus in it. In this book Jesus is seen in visions which are reminiscent to the Ancient of Days found in Daniel 7. Both God and Jesus share the Alpha and Omega titles. And at times they both share the same throne. Yet Dunn asks whether these descriptions were written to be understood as literal facts or not. He concludes by stating that the hermeneutical rule on interpreting the various apocalypses should not be ignored: to interpret them literally is to misinterpret them.

The title of ‘god/God’ is sometimes given to Jesus in the NT documents, although many of them are disputed for syntactical reasons. Dunn offers his opinion on the debate. Rom. 9:5 he leaves open, although his Romans commentaries state that answer should be negative. Titus 2:13, which Dunn reminds us that the thing which is to be revealed in the glory of our great God and Savior, he attributes to Jesus (but with some qualification). Matt. 1:23 is to be read as symbolical according to Dunn. John 1:1c is qualified with a parallel in Philo who distinguishes theos with the article and theos without it. 1 John 5:20 is left open as ambiguous. Heb. 1:8 is cited as quoting one of the looser elohim texts in the Hebrew Bible where the Davidic king is called ‘god’. The very next verse, Heb. 1:9, says that Jesus has a God. Dunn concludes by saying the following:

“The traditional attempt to capture this fuller portrait has been to emphasize the human as well as the divine in Jesus. But the distinction is too crude, already for the New Testament writers.”

Discussion of the Last Adam comes up with reference to 1 Cor. 15 and 1 Tim. 2:5. Dunn sees this line of thinking as the expressing of Jesus as the beginning of the new creation of God. Both Adam and Jesus are spoken of in ‘image’ terminology. 1 Tim. 2:5 is read as the natural outworking of Paul’s previous statement in 1 Cor. 8:6. The title of the heavenly intercessor is interpreted as one who, as the priest, becomes the intermediary between God and mankind.

Dunn then interacts with Bauckham and asks if it is really helpful to interpret all of this data in terms of ‘divine identity.’ He argues that this terminology runs the risk of actually confusing rather than clarifying. Dunn points out that the NT writers are careful to not identify Jesus with the one God of Israel. He goes on, “He is not the Father. He is not Yahweh.” Dunn suggests that the language of ‘divine agency’ or ‘plenipotentiary’ hold together the data better. Jesus is the one who embodied God’s immanence. The NT writers say that Jesus, as the divine agent, is never the source (‘ek’) of the act of the Creator, to where God the Father is constantly described as such.

Dunn concludes the chapter by stating that the best way to understand Jesus in light of all the evidence is to see that the early Christian writers saw him as God’s extension to the world in his redeeming action. Yet God remained the God and Father of Jesus. Jesus was not worshipped as wholly God. If he was worshipped, worship was offered to God but through Jesus.

The next chapter of the book is the Conclusion where Dunn wraps up all of the evidence surveyed and offers his closing remarks. I will reserve my own until that time. Thanks for reading.

“And so we will forever be with the Lord”

Imagine for a moment that you lived in Thessalonica. Paul had founded your church community not long ago, but was there for only a short time. He had taught you about this Jewish man Jesus Christ, who was really the son of the one true God of Israel. He died at the hands of the Romans, but was raised to eternal life three days later. He was coming back again to fix this world up and consummate God’s kingdom. In the meantime, you are to live lives of holiness, peace, love, and joy. Sounds great, right?

But what if your church is under persecution by the local authorities? Perhaps the local imperial cult has heard that your group is calling someone other than Caesar the Lord, the Savior, the Son of God, etc. During these skirmishes, some of your church members were killed for their profession of faith to Jesus. Your community begins to mourn their losses.

 Paul hears of this tragedy and wants to comfort you. Here is what he writes:

13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.

 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.

 15 For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.

 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.

 17 Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.

 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words.  -1 Thes. 4:13-18

 You try to understand Paul’s words of comfort. First, he does not want you to mourn like others who have no hope. This implies that there really is a hope for you and your fallen friends. This hope is bound up in the fact that since Jesus was raised from the dead, you too will be raised from the dead. This will occur when Jesus returns in glory. All the believers will be caught up together in the air. Then Paul uses a very interesting word. The Gk. apantesis was a word which was used when the Emperor was coming to visit and those expecting him would go out to escort him back to the town. You understand this as a simple “meeting,” but its purpose is to escort the royal visitor back to the earth.

Then Paul says something very carefully: kai oupos pantote sun kurio esometha. This means, literally, “and by this process, we will forever be with the Lord.”

Back to 2010. Paul just clearly stated to the Thessalonians that they will be “with the Lord” by means of the resurrection of the dead upon the arrival of Christ Jesus. Paul does not comfort them by saying that the dead are already in heaven and when you get there then you will always be with the Lord.

Why aren’t the words of comfort given by Paul taken seriously by most Christians?

Does Paul expect his believers to be blameless?

In Phil. 3:3-6 we find one of the most revealing autobiographical accounts of Paul’s former manner of life in Judaism. In v. 6 he concludes his list of Jewish privileges, he states: “as to righteousness under the law: blameless” (beware the NIV adds the word ‘legalistic’ to the Greek). Paul then goes on to say that he has given all of these things up for the sake of knowing Christ and understanding the power of his resurrection in hope that he too might become a partaker in it.

It is this phrase ‘blameless’ which I want to discuss. Did Paul say that this attitude was one that he discarded upon his acceptance of Christ? I doubt so. Why, might you ask? Because earlier in the latter, in 2:15, Paul states that his desire is to see this very same blamelessness among his converts.

“so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world”

The same Gk. ἄμεμπτος is used in both places.

Do Christians read a passage like Phil. 2:15 and thing, “Oh, I will never be THAT good! That seems impossible, and therefore I will never try.” How do you read this passage, or the one found in Phil. 3:6?