The Grammar of Messianism

I want to extend my congrats to my friend, Matt Novenson’s new book The Grammar of Messianism: An Ancient Jewish Political Idiom and Its Users (Oxford University Press, 2017). Matt is a Senior Lecturer at New College, University of Edinburgh and is a well respected Pauline and Christian Origins scholar. But more importantly (to me at least), he’s a great human being. If you are considering doing a Ph.D in Pauline Studies or Christian Origins, Matt needs to be at the top of your list for potential supervisors.

For the release of the book, Matt gave two interviews (here and here) at the Centre for the Study of Christian Origins (New College) blog that gives in depth descriptions about the project.

And then finally here is a description of The Grammar of Messianism, from the OUP site:

Messianism is one of the great themes in intellectual history. But for precisely this reason, because it has done so much important ideological work for the people who have written about it, the historical roots of the discourse itself have been obscured from view. What did it mean to talk about “messiahs” in the ancient world, before the idea of messianismbecame a philosophical juggernaut, dictating the terms for all subsequent discussion of the topic? In this book, Matthew V. Novenson gives a revisionist account of messianism in antiquity. He shows that, for the ancient Jews and Christians who used the term, a messiah was not an article of faith but a manner of speaking. It was a scriptural figure of speech, one among numerous others, useful for thinking kinds of political order: present or future, real or ideal, monarchic or theocratic, dynastic or charismatic, and other variations beside. The early Christians famously seized upon the title “messiah” (in Greek, “Christ”) for their founding hero and thus molded the sense of the term in certain ways, but, Novenson shows, this is nothing other than what all ancient messiah texts do, each in its own way. If we hope to understand the ancient texts about messiahs (from Deutero-Isaiah to the Parables of Enoch, from the Qumran Community Rule to the Gospel of John, from the Pseudo-Clementines to Sefer Zerubbabel), then we must learn to think in terms not of a world-historical idea but of a language game, of so many creative reuses of an archaic Israelite idiom. In The Grammar of Messianism, Novenson demonstrates thepossibility and the benefit of thinking of messianism in this way.

Again, congratulations on the release of the book, Matt.


Southern Seminary recently came out with their latest issue of their journal, Southern Baptist Journal of Theology and for this issue all of the essays are centred around typology. I think one of the strengths of SBJT is that the essays typically have a particular focus or a uniting theme. It is a bonus to see my friend Matt Emerson as one of the co-contributors in his and Peter Link’s essay “Searching for the Second Adam: Typological Connections between Adam, Joseph, Mordecai, and Daniel.” With five girls, I don’t know how he does it.

With an issue like typology, there is much disagreement. Stephen Wellum’s opening editorial essay helpfully notes that Christians do read the Scriptures typologically, but that they disagree about how it should be done. Not every essay in the journal approaches a typological reading in the same way, but Wellum tries to describe the broad contours in which the contributors work.

First, Wellum defines typology as “the study of the relationship between Old Testament revealed truths of persons, events, institutions which God has specifically designed to correspond to, and predictively prefigure their intensified ‘anti-typical’ fulfilment in Christ and his people” (p. 6). And second, he argues that typology is rooted in history and text, prophetic and predictive, escalates, and progresses covenantally.

Wellum’s description raises a question for me on whether there is a difference between the typological reading that Wellum proposes and what I call narrative patterning, where an author or authors pattern narrative plots and characters after previous plots and characters as a way to provide implicit commentary. Because they seem very similar. For example, Adonijah’s attempt at assuming the throne during David’s waning years is explicitly shaped after Absalom’s attempt at taking the throne from David (cf. 1 Kgs 1:5–6, 9 with 2 Sam 14:25; 15:1; 17:17). It is difficult to imagine this as being prophetic or escalating. It seems to be a way to implicitly comment on Adonijah’s actions.

So is typology then an explicitly Christological reading? And therefore, a kind of a narrative patterning that is Christological in focus but also must be understood as prophetic and predictive, escalate, and progress covenantally?

A Book Review on Eugene Merrill’s 1–2 Chronicles Commentary

I’m a bit late in posting this (actually very late). But I thought some might be interested in reading my recent book review of Eugene Merrill’s commentary on 1–2 Chronicles that was published in the latest Themelios journal. Especially helpful are discussions on three theological themes in a redemptive-historical framework that are central to the Chronicler’s theology and purpose: David’s historical and eschatological reign, the renewal of an everlasting covenant, and the restored temple as a symbol of a renewed people (pp. 57–68).

Merrill’s work has been a great benefit to students of the Old Testament for many years. And his work on Chronicles can help remedy one of the most neglected books in the Bible.

You can read my full review here.

A Biblical Theology of Resurrection in an early Christian Burial

My wife, Aubree, and I recently had a chance to get away for a few days to visit Rome—the Eternal City. It was a great visit and Rome truly is one of the greatest cities, if not the greatest. We spent a few days doing the normal tourist things like finding pizza and gelato.

One of our destinations—not too long after some gelato—was the Catacombs of Priscilla, “Regina Catacumbarum: The Queen of the Catacombs.” This catacomb, was used during the 2nd–5th centuries AD and houses some 40,000 Christian graves with a great number of Christian martyrs. The tour was an interesting experience and I marvelled that the tombs were used by rich and poor Roman Christians because they desired to be buried together so that they might all resurrect together.

A particular meaningful part of the tour was a room called the “Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman.” It is thought that these frescoes date somewhere to the second-half of the third century, but I think what is really interesting is that it has a biblical theology of resurrection of sorts represented through painted frescoes.

The centre of the room has a young woman praying with her arms extended, and directly on her left and right are other life scenes—possibly scenes from her life or the life of her family. And above her, in the centre of the ceiling is a painting of the Good Shepherd in Paradise surrounded by lambs, peacocks, and doves.

On the wall to the left is a painting of Abraham and Isaac. And on the wall to the right is a painting to the right is Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the midst of the fiery flames. And in the archway of the room is the Prophet Jonah being vomited from the fish.

Each of these scenes depict resurrection, but it is interesting there is no picture of the empty tomb. It is clear that they put hope in that event, but these early Christians drew upon the Old Testament Scriptures as a way of depicting their hope of the resurrection of the dead. It appears—and I’m no Robert Langdon—that early Roman Christians understood that these Old Testament images reveal the character of God and his providential patterning of the future. What God has done in the past, they trust he will do again in the future.

If you were a Greek preposition, which one would you be?

Here is announcement that on 30 June-1 July 2017, Tyndale House in Cambridge is hosting a workshop on Greek prepositions. This workshop follows the highly successful conference on the Greek verb which resulted in an impressive volume from Lexham Press. The workshop will in particular be drawing from the resources of cognitive linguistic approaches to lexicography. There is a host of great presenters from within biblical studies and general linguistics. So if you’re interested in more information check out my friend Will Ross’s announcement or if you need no other convincing sign up here.

Presenters include:

Dirk Geeraerts
Linguistics, University of Leuven

Richard A. Rhodes
Linguistics, U.C. Berkeley

Jonathan A. Pennington
New Testament, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Patrick James
Classics, University of Cambridge

Steven Runge
Logos Bible Software

Randall Buth
Biblical Language Center


KLICE Celebrates 10 Years

At tea time at Tyndale House today, we celebrated 10 years of the Kirby Lang Institute of Christian Ethics here in Cambridge. The mission of KLICE is:

facilitating academic research and publication by Institute staff, associates and post-graduate students

financially supporting a limited number of doctoral students working on issues in Christian ethics

organising academic conferences, seminars and symposia, and wider public events

publishing six issues of Ethics in Brief per year

offering commentary on selected ethical issues through lectures and talks and through the media

developing website resources to assist reflection on relevant areas of Christian ethics

KLICE is a great resource for theological ethics. I want to draw everyone’s attention to the fourth point on Ethics in Brief. This is a wonderful resource and all Christians can benefit from these briefs. They are available in print and online.

Confirmation Bias?

Like many other people, the increased division among citizens in US and in the UK saddens me. The recent Brexit vote and the US election are symptoms of something that has been taking place for some time. It seems to me these two events reveal the underlying division in a way not previous because the direct way they shape political vision. Of course it is far too simple to imagine a time where there won’t be tension based upon political desire, but I think we can desire mutual understanding and sympathy. In order to do so we will not only need to answer immediate political questions but also understand the roots of division among citizens.

There are probably a number of philosophical structures at play (many that I’m unaware of), but one that interests and worries me is how our use of technology shapes us as persons. In the case of our current political discourse, our constant connectivity and options of social media and/or news sources means we never lack similar voices to our own. Ken Stern’s recent essay in Vanity Fair on his own perception of the way more main stream media outlets abandoned any attempt at partisanship and fully endorsed Mrs Clinton makes this exact point. Here is how Stern ends his essay:

As Emma Roller wrote recently in The New York Times, “The strongest bias in American politics is not a liberal bias or a conservative bias; it is a confirmation bias, or the urge to believe only things that confirm what you already believe to be true.”

Audiences are increasingly seeking, and demanding, news that fits their personal notion of what is important and what is true…And it is not simply that they have opinions on one side or another; they are routinely demanding coverage that conforms to their world view, and they have the choice to go elsewhere if they are not served.

In a fragmenting media world, with rapidly changing norms and vast choices for consumers, any media company that wants to survive over the long run, will need to factor in the demands of their best customers for news that fits their political biases. That need not be done by changing the facts, as happens too often in many places online, but by offering stories that cement a particular view of the world. That may be good for business, and audience, but it is most certainly not good for the notion of a democracy that depends on some notion of shared values and common discourse.

Stern’s conclusion is thought provoking and has numerous implications. I think one of the most important is we be aware of the way technology is shaping our worldview. My guess is that most of us are guilty of delighting in the confirmation of our already held beliefs. The only way I see us moving to mutual understanding and sympathy will as individuals and hopefully small communities that refuse to participate in such a “cultural liturgy.”


Books and Culture Interview with Richard Hays

Books and Culture’s recent interview with Richard Hays has been making the rounds. The interview is interesting in itself and covers topics on Hays’s background and some of his academic work.

Hays is one of the better models for theological reading and I found one aspect of the interview illuminating on him as a scholar.

…once I got into biblical studies courses in seminary, I was both fascinated by the subject matter and puzzled by the ways I found a lot of biblical scholars approaching the text: in many cases, they seemed less interested in the wholeness and message of the text than in trying to excavate some hypothetical prehistory of the text.

My response to that has left its stamp on most of my work as a New Testament scholar. I’ve been attempting to interpret the Bible with the sensibility of someone trained as a literary reader of texts and, through that kind of reading, to recover the powerful and surprising messages of Scripture.

Adolf Schlatter on Theological Method

I stumbled across an essay on the theological method of Adolf Schlatter that is instructive to the theological task. One of Schlatter’s overarching points is the need for interpreters to take the proper time to actually observe what is in the text.  Here is one golden quote from Schlatter:

We will continue to see exegetical works appear that show how the author pored over commentaries about the text but left the text unread. We will see dogmatic treatises which reveal that the writer knows his dogmaticians, especially from his own school of thought, but that he has never seriously observed the religious matters that actually come to pass.

This quote is found is one of Schlatter’s points about the challenge of the theological task to integrate the details of the text into faithful construction of the whole, but coheres well with his overall point on observation.

Robert Yarborough has done us a service with his translation and commentary of Schlatter’s method. The entire essay is worth a read.


Jason Hood on Michael Bird (Luke Wisley)

At the beginning of June, Jason Hood posted some reflections on what he learned from Michael Bird as his doctoral supervisor. Jason’s post really resonated with me, so I thought I would repost two of his thoughts with my own reflections.

* MASTER your content; being a GENERALIST, a category I learned about from Michael and something to which I still aspire, does not mean slagging off, nor does it mean ignoring one’s responsibility to become a specialist (a requirement for entering the guild). Michael, like Howard Marshall, put stress on “making the primary sources your mistress” (IHM’s phrase).

Besides the incredible phrase ‘make the primary sources your mistress’ this thought really hits home for me. It is incredibly important as a pastor, scholar, or layperson to really know the primary sources. From the pastoral and scholarly side, a lack of knowledge of the primary sources is reflected in preaching and research that is guided by secondary literature rather than the text. Theological education must stress mastering the text (which inevitably means being comfortable with Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) and letting secondary literature expand your exegetical horizons rather than letting it be the ultimate guide.

* KNOW YOUR PERSONALITY, primarily so that you can be comfortable in your own skin with your own limits and tendencies. Not everyone will take a fancy to you, but you’ll probably enjoy life and work more.

I enjoyed this little note from Jason. It’s one that I need to learn. There is a huge temptation to allow the work you are producing to dictate your worth and value. This is followed by the endless temptation of measuring yourself against all the other research students you meet. I’ve found that giving into these temptations makes one miserable. Know yourself, your gifts, and be as faithful as you can to work hard and develop further. That’s all you can do. So I think Jason is right, if you know yourself you’ll enjoy both life and work more.

I encourage you to read the whole post.