Who Is My Neighbor?

Yesterday a comment on the Internet[1] sparked some reflection about the nature of neighbor-hood and the people who inhabit the Middle East. The comment in question seemed to conflate America, and particularly its Christian inhabitants, with an idealized version of Israel on the one hand, and Middle Eastern peoples, particularly devout Muslims, with Israel’s OT enemies on the other. In doing so, the commenter was saying both that we should take care of our neighbors –fellow Americans – and keep at bay those who hold to Islam because the Arab peoples can only ultimately be consigned to idolatry and violent hatred for Isaac and Jacob’s descendants.

There are a number of issues here, but I will focus on two. I think they can be summarized in two questions – who is my neighbor? And, who is Israel?

Regarding the first, Jesus makes it plain in the Gospels that if one wants to discern who counts as a neighbor, he should first think of the person with whom he has the most enmity and work from there. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan is chosen because to a Pharisee that would have been the most theologically and ethnically offensive choice. Jesus’ point is that neighbor-hood is not nationalistic – the Samaritans were viewed as outside Israelite society; it is not ethnic – the Samaritans were viewed as a sub-par ethnically mixed group by “pure” Israelites; and it is not about theological correctness – the Samaritans were viewed as worshiping incorrectly by citing Mt. Gerizim, not Jerusalem, as the proper site for worshiping Yahweh. In other words, the definition of neighbor-hood starts with the person I least want to be my neighbor and then works from there. In 21st century rural Deep South America, I’d imagine the epitome of someone who is the opposite[2] of a resident of that area in terms of nationalism, ethnicity, and theology would very likely be an undocumented Syrian refugee. That is the starting point for neighbor-hood for a Christian.

This, I think, is fairly easy for many Christians to grasp. What may be harder to work through is the subsequent statement about Middle Eastern peoples only being able to produce idolatry and hatred towards Isaac and Jacob’s descendants. In other words, the idea is that in the Old Testament Israel was the faithful worshiper of Yahweh, and now, since America is Israel, we are the faithful Christian nation. Conversely, in the OT the descendants of Ishmael and Esau were always idolatrous and at enmity with Israel, and now, since the Middle Eastern nation-states are Ishmael and Esau, they can do nothing but produce idolatry and enmity.

I don’t know any other way to say this – that is just a very poor reading of the Old Testament. In fact, I’m not sure anyone with this view has read the Old Testament very much(not a shocking proposition in light of the incipient Marcionism in many churches). In the Old Testament, Israel commits idolatry over and over and over again.[3] Israel is unfaithful to Yahweh and Yahweh almost destroys them many times.[4] Conversely, it is the nations that many times exhibit obedience to Yahweh in contrast to Israel’s disobedience. Rahab in Joshua 2 and the Gibeonites in Joshua 10 are prime examples. Further, God in the OT Prophets promises to save not just Israel but the nations – the Ishmaelite nations particularly – as well. The promise of salvation that Christ fulfills is not for an ethnic group but for all people. Justification by faith is for Jews and Gentiles, Jacobites and Ishmaelites alike. There is nothing inherent in anyone aside from our common inheritance of Adam’s sin nature.

To claim that Americans, or Germans, or Brazilians, or Chinese, or Kenyans, or anyone else has some kind of advantage over any other ethnic group with respect to the way Adam’s sin has affected us all is unbiblical. To claim that the gospel of Jesus Christ is in some way not for another ethnic group is unbiblical. To claim that a certain ethnic group is not my neighbor based on our political, nationalistic, ethnic, or theological differences is unbiblical. This kind of thinking has no place in the kingdom of God or his Church.


[1] I will not link to or quote this comment for two reasons: 1) I have no desire to draw any more attention to it that I already am, and 2) the sentiments expressed are by no means held only by this one person. Through personal experience and observation of our current culture I am certain this kind of thinking is prevalent throughout the USA.

[2] Of course, the Samaritans were not the opposite of the Pharisees; they were closely related to one another in many ways. A closer analogy might be African Americans, particularly in the mid-twentieth century, but really throughout American history. You could also posit a non-English speaking undocumented Hispanic immigrant. The list goes on.

[3] E.g. Exodus 32, Joshua 7-8, Judges 8, 2 Kings 12.

[4] See for instance Exodus 33, and Joshua 7-8 and Judges 20-21 when the herem (command of total destruction) is placed on tribes within Israel. This command is given to Israel to destroy the nations in Canaan but in these and other instances Israel is so unfaithful that Yahweh turns the command on their heads.

Book Review: Andrew Streett’s The Vine and the Son of Man

During ETS and SBL this year I was able to read through Andrew Streett’s welcome contribution to Fortress Press’ “Emerging Scholars” series, The Vine and the Son of Man: Eschatological Interpretation of Psalm 80 in Early Judaism. Streett, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Redeemer Seminary in Texas, revised his dissertation (Univ. of Wales Trinity St. David) for this volume.

In the monograph Streett argues

(a) that Jewish and Christian interpreters found material in Psalm 80 pertaining to events at the end of the age, a time that some interpreters believed had already come upon them and their communities; and (b) that the meaning derived from Psalm 80 most often comes from the images of the vine (vv. 9-17) and the potentially messianic man (vv. 16b, 18), which because of the ambiguity of the text are open to a wide variety of interpretations (1).

The reader familiar with the Jewish and Christian Scriptures will recognize the potential fruitfulness of exploring the history of interpretation of Psalm 80, as it is alluded to in significant passages of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, as well as in Second Temple literature and Rabbinic Judaism. But, as Streett notes, the study of Psalm 80 and its use in later Jewish and Christian writings, and particularly a study of its eschatological interpretation, is relatively scant. Streett’s volume therefore fills a lacuna in the study of ancient Judaism and early Christianity.

The book is tightly organized, beginning with two chapters on Psalm 80 in its historical and literary contexts respectively. Over the course of the remainder of the work (chapters 3 – 7), Streett traces the use of Psalm 80 through various Hebrew Bible, Second Temple, and New Testament texts, including Daniel 7 and John 15:1-8. Streett is particularly keen to show how Psalm 80 came to be read messianically and then christologically, and how it is an exegetically feasible reading.

This type of book – one that traces the history of interpretation of a particular passage through its various stages- seems to me to be increasingly popular, and I think rightly so. While the outline of this book and others like it may appear relatively simple, the work done by Streett in this volume is important and useful on a number of levels. First, it sheds light on a comparatively understudied but still important passage in ancient Judaism and early Christianity, and one whose varied interpretations helps us to understand why Christianity ultimately departed from Judaism. The interpretation of Psalm 80, and particularly the Gospel authors’ reading of it as a reference to Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, is one of the hermeneutical tipping points for early Christianity. Streett’s careful exegesis of the passage, coupled with his nuanced explanation of how ancient Jewish and early Christian writers read it differently, is of great assistance to scholars of these ancient texts and of the history of religion.

Second, Streett provides readers with what I consider to be a robust interpretive method. He describes it as “eclectic”, drawing on both historical and literary tools. On the latter, he is most interested in describing how Psalm 80 can be read canonically and intertextually (11). This type of reading, that situates a passage of Scripture while at the same time reading it as part of a larger whole, is one that I wholeheartedly commend.

Third, while Streett does not describe his project this way, in my mind it is helpful for Christians who wish to understand better the rationale of the New Testament writers as they used the Old Testament. The Vine and the Son of Man demonstrates that, while there are other interpretive options for the passage, early Christian messianic and christological interpretation of it fits well within the realm of possibilities when considering the intentions of the author of Psalm 80.

On that note, one question I continue to have after reading the book, and after re-reading the relevant passages to this question a number of times, is what Streett means by “meaning,” “intention,” and “intentionality.” A number of times Streett uses these terms to my mind in seemingly disparate ways, so that at one point they can refer to a (single?) intent of the original author – i.e. “what it meant” – while at others they seem to refer to what later readers understood it to mean, and at still other times they appear to refer to what the passage means in a canonical context. Perhaps Streett means all three, and maybe more, but it is still not clear to me exactly what he means by meaning or intention.

I would also hope to see a subsequent article or book on the interpretation of Psalm 80 not just in the New Testament but in early Christianity and perhaps even beyond. It seems to me that these types of projects would be bolstered by looking at the history of interpretation not only in the Christian canon and its background literature but also in subsequent Christian writings.

That question and small quibble aside, The Vine and the Son of Man is a carefully argued, methodologically robust, and therefore welcome addition to the study of the Hebrew Bible in subsequent literature. I would recommend it to those interested in a rigorous study of the Psalter, the history of interpretation, or early Christian origins and exegesis.


NOTE: I received this book in exchange for a fair and impartial review.


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.


The Silliness of (Some) Source Criticism

My current course load includes one class on the Former Prophets, and this week we’ve dealt with the critical theories about these books’ composition. Of course for Joshua-Kings the prevailing scholarly consensus is the “Deuteronomistic (or Deuteronomic) History,” most famously postulated  by Martin Noth but having undergone many subsequent revisions. For Noth and most OT scholars, the DtH builds on the earlier Documentary Hypothesis, and specifically on de Wette and Welhausen’s claim that the D (Deuteronomic) source was written in the 7th century in response to Josiah’s reforms. According to Noth, the Dtr uses D and attaches to the larger narrative he writes to compose the entire DtH, spanning from Deuteronomy through Kings.

I’ve been knee deep for months in both of these critical theories, and one particular thread sticks out to me. I’ve read biblical scholars across the spectrum on this, from primary sources (e.g. Noth’s seminal volume) to Robert Polzin’s literary approach to Provan et al. and Alexander’s more conservative approaches. The common denominator that runs through them all is a criticism of the methods and conclusions of the original theories. Even Noth, who assumes the Documentary Hypothesis, is critical of the variety of contradictory conclusions that are made in response to Welhausen and de Wette’s seminal articulations.

These criticisms can be grouped, I think, into three categories. First, there are criticisms of the methods used by pioneers of the two theories. Both Polzin and McConville, for instance, criticize Noth for relying on changes in noun/verb numbers to identify sources, noting that this is an arbitrary source critical device and that it has not yielded any sort of scholarly consensus in subsequent scholarship (more on that in a moment). The same types of criticisms are leveled at Welhausen from all manner of OT scholars across the theological and philosophical spectrum (see e.g. T.D. Alexander’s forceful critique in From Paradise to Promised Land).

Second, and related to the arbitrariness of method, is the arbitrariness of the historical assumptions that lie behind these approaches. The most prominent and important of these for both theories is that D was composed in response to Josiah’s reforms in the 7th century. And yet, today, the opinion of the guild seems to be that there is nothing in particular that requires this conclusion. As McConville points out, there are equally valid reasons for thinking much of DtH is pre-exilic (esp. Joshua-Samuel) as there are for thinking that it is post-exilic, and there is nothing in the text that demands a 7th century (and beyond) setting. So the methods used and the historical assumptions that govern these theories are suspect.

Third, and because of the arbitrariness of both method and assumption, both the Documentary Hypothesis and DtH are criticized because neither the approach nor the methods used have led to anything like a scholarly consensus. If one reads the history of both of these critical theories, it becomes readily apparent that with each and within each subsequent generation of scholarship, there is much more disagreement than there is consensus, either with past or present peers. McConville, for example, notes the variety of perspectives on DtH since Noth, many of which directly contradict one another. One would think that if the methods are “objective”, as modern biblical scholarship claims to be,  these would yield a consensus position. And yet they have not.

I would add a fourth criticism, which is that the progenitors of these theories were highly influenced by German philosophy and Enlightenment suspicion. They went to the text looking for, e.g., a Hegelian dialectic development of ideas and texts, for ways to chop up the text so they could then deny its authority, and to verify positively a historical background using “objective” methods. This, too, has been highly criticized by recent biblical scholarship from across the theological spectrum, in that most biblical scholars now recognize the postmodern turn, thus rejecting “objectivity”, and also have moved on from the German philosophical schools of the last two and a half centuries.

All of this leads me to two questions that are (obviously) mostly rhetorical.

First, if the 1) methods, 2) assumptions, 3) conclusions, and 4) philosophical underpinnings of the seminal works for both of these theories are questioned by virtually all contemporary biblical scholarship, why do we still refer to them as if they represent scholarly consensus or as if they are the only way to understand the composition of the Pentateuch and Former Prophets?

Second, how can any non-confessional scholar look an evangelical in the eye and claim objectivity of method and conclusion when a) neutral objectivity is an Enlightenment myth and b) the supposedly objective methods and conclusions are claimed by their own peers to be arbitrary and contradictory?

One final comment: I named this post “The Silliness of (Some) Source Criticism” because I do not want to suggest that source criticism is of no value. It does have value. But when it is appropriated and used in service of “objectivity” and German philosophy, and then left to its own devices by subsequent scholarship, it devolves into self-contradictory silliness.

The Pure and Undefiled Religion of Critical Biblical Scholarship

UPDATE: After reflecting on the fact that this discussion occurred on a Facebook thread, I’ve removed direct quotes. It’s also been brought to my attention that to include quotes from a private Facebook thread is not allowed by their privacy policy. Please know that their inclusion in the original post was to illustrate the nature of the discussion, not to direct attention to those individuals. My apologies for any offense given in including them in the first place.

I want to make clear at the beginning of this post that I’m arguing against particular comments by particular members at SBL, not the organization as a whole. I am a member of SBL because a) I have benefited greatly from the insights of many of its members and b) I support its mission to “Foster Biblical Scholarship.”

Yesterday on Facebook Twitter Timothy Michael Law posted,

Has RBL merged with the Evangelical Theological Society and not told us?

In the comment thread on the same post on Facebook it became clear that there was some controversy over the review Tom Schreiner’s The King in His Beauty, written by a fellow evangelical. Many of the commenters on Law’s post did not appreciate the fact that someone in the same camp as Schreiner reviewed the book or that said reviewer did not offer any substantive critique, especially at a methodological level. While I can appreciate that critique, it also became clear throughout the comment thread that many of those who posted not only were irritated at the reviewer but more importantly at the idea that evangelical work would be admitted to RBL (and by implication SBL) in the first place.

I then attempted a few times to point out the irony of these biblical scholars’ attempt to exclude confessional scholarship while at the same time accepting and many times promoting a plethora of ideological readings. I also tried to point out that modern biblical scholarship holds to its own presuppositions just as much as confessional biblical scholarship. This comment of mine summarizes most of the points I was trying to make:

In other words, keep your confessional commitments to yourself. In response I’ll simply point out again the plethora of “Asian feminist pansexual reading of Exodus 19” papers at SBL.

And no…, that’s not a conservative evangelical trying to use postmodernism to legitimize myself, it’s pointing out the inherent hypocrisy of asking some people to leave their commitments at the door while welcoming all other presuppositions with open arms. If you want a “non-confessional” society, then have one. But that’s going to mean kicking out a lot more people, or at least excluding a lot more papers, than just confessional evangelicals.

Suffice it to say that there was much discussion on whether confessional scholars ought to be allowed to contribute with their confessional cards on the table, so to speak. At the end of the day it seemed that many wanted to exclude explicitly confessional scholarship and instead rely on the assumptions and methods of critical biblical scholarship. While the former’s stance towards the text can be questioned, it was clear from the comments that the latter should not be questioned, nor should those who do be considered participants in a scholarly enterprise.

“Pure and Undefiled Religion”

To be honest I’m dumbfounded by this entire thread. I thought we’d moved beyond this sort of autonomous, tradition-escaping, scientific positivism in just about every field there is, including biblical studies, but it appears to be alive and well within SBL. (Of course I shouldn’t be too surprised given the 2010 “Farewell to SBL” kerfuffle.) To begin, earlier in the thread everyone seemed to be on board with the idea that presuppositions can be critiqued, that is until I suggested that the presuppositions of modern biblical scholarship be critiqued. This then led one commenter to proclaim that this need not happen and that modern biblical scholarship is about data, not presuppositions. I don’t intend to be unnecessarily incendiary, but I simply don’t see how this position can be held by anybody acquainted with the last 100 years of philosophy. There is no such thing as a bald fact; there are only interpreted facts. So to claim that the SBL is interested only in a dispassionate study of data which leads to presupposition-less, verifiable conclusions makes little sense in light of the insights of postmodernism. Further, as Craig Bartholomew among others has ably demonstrated, the last 250 years of biblical studies have been dominated by and carried along in the current of a whole host of Enlightenment philosophical trends, including Cartesian and Kantian epistemology, Hegelian dialecticism, Heideggerian phenomenology, etc. etc. etc. The Enlightenment was not some gift from the gods of reason dropped from the empirical heavens, but is rather just as much a philosophical movement (or movements) and is thus open to evaluation and critique.

Will the Real Historian Please Stand Up?

A second astounding claim made by the aforementioned commenters is that critical scholarship pays attention to history while evangelical (or at least confessional) interpretation does not. Again, I’m dumbfounded. One has only to look at the work of people like Ray Van Neste or John Sailhamer or Stephen Dempster or Brevard Childs or N. T. Wright or Richard Hays or Stephen Fowl or George Knight or….and the list goes on. All of these scholars are well schooled in the issues surrounding the study of the historicity and historical development (or lack thereof) of the text, and yet come to different conclusions than those held by much of the academy for the last 100-200 years. What the commenters have a problem with is that confessional scholars don’t share their conclusions about historical issues, not that they don’t participate in historical studies.

Of course this brings us back to the first point, which is that modern biblical scholarship, no less than any other enterprise, is in many ways carried along and in some cases determined by its presuppositions. Approaching the biblical text as a purely human product devoid of unity or contemporary purpose is bred from the above Enlightenment commitments. Of course, seeing the Bible as a Christological unity is no less presuppositional. And this is not to say that presuppositions cannot be changed or modified; Bernard Lonergan among others has demonstrated how that happens.

One particular way that assumptions change is through an overwhelming confrontation by data, and I suppose this is what the commenters expect – for me and others to either ignore data or be confronted by it so overwhelmingly that we cannot help but approach the Bible differently. But the truth of the matter is twofold. First, there are many quality evangelical scholars who know intricately the data and the arguments for reading it a certain way, and yet interpret it differently. Take the authorship of the Pastorals – both Ray Van Neste and George Knight confront the supposed airtight case for pseudonymity and overturn it. Ironically, these commenters chide confessional scholars, evangelicals among them, for their holy huddle and refusing to have their assumptions questioned. But I wonder, how is this not the same on the other side?

On a historical level, there is also the irony of many commenters deriding other approaches to the text as “failed projects of modernity.” BIblical theology was explicitly mentioned a number of times in this regard. But what this fails to recognize is that biblical theology was originally a reaction against the growing realization that modern biblical studies was itself a failing project of modernity. I think the history of interpretation is a neglected field, and this is a fine example of where it gets us.

Finally, again on a historical level, the assumption that an ecclesial reading is not scholarly ignores both the history of the text and of its interpretation. The Bible is forever intertwined with the church, and to try to separate them is a fool’s errand. And to claim that the first 1750 years of biblical interpretation, not to mention interpretation prior to Jesus of Nazareth, is at its heart not scholarly and inherently faulty is to identify not as an enlightened progressive but as a quintessential example of chronological snobbery.

Poor Richard…

Of course now the question is, what about people like Richard Hays or Joel Green, who operate with explicitly confessional assumptions? Are they now out of SBL? Is it only the atheist, or the one who pretends to be one, that can be a member? I suppose they’re out, as are a host of others. I suppose that’s fine, if the members choose to vote that way. But I suspect once the full implications of this “non-sectarian objective utopia” are realized, people might back off a bit.


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.

An Observation About Biblical Studies

It is fascinating to me that many biblical scholars today deride their discipline’s captivity to modernity and modernity’s methods while they at the same time continue to accept conclusions about the biblical text that are clearly tied to a modernistic approach. I’ve recently read articles and monographs by TIS proponents, biblical scholars approaching their topic from a “postmodern” perspective, and evangelicals that argue we should move beyond a modernistic model of biblical scholarship. This in and of itself is a welcome proposal, given modernity’s quest for objectivity, focus on the particulars at the expense of the whole, and dependence upon a whole host of philosophical underpinnings which clash with a Christian worldview. But this proposal is almost always accompanied by a concession to modernistic biblical scholarship’s conclusions about the text, whether it be date or authorship or transmission or redaction.

How does this make any sense? With our left hand we ask the guild to stop capitulating to modernity’s methods, and even sometimes, among the most careful of thinkers, to stop building on its philosophical foundations, while with our right we hold tightly to what we have received from it. Why do we not say instead, “Modernity’s philosophical foundations are suspect, and therefore so are its methods. We ought therefore to reconsider all of its conclusions, and especially those that arise from the so-called historical critical method and its tools.”

Quote of the Day

Right now I’m doing some research on the nature of wisdom in Solomon’s judgment over the case of the two women claiming the same baby. I came across this great quote from Richard Briggs:

Complaints against the supposition that this is a paradigm of wise judgment have come thick and fast from various quarters, including the rabbis, some feminist critics, and most memorably, Mark Twain. We shall take our cue from Mark Twain, if only because he is generally more fun than most scholars (83).

Richard Briggs, The Virtuous Reader, Baker Academic 2010.

Happy 70th Birthday Tyndale House

Today marks the 70th year since the house at 36 Selwyn Gardens, Cambridge was purchased. Being a reader at the house is a huge honour and I am thankful to be a part of the larger vision that Tyndale House has for biblical scholarship and serving the global church. You can read Tyndale’s own post about today here.