Larry Hurtado on Early Christology, First-Century Worship, and Love Letters

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Larry Hurtado of the University of Edinburgh. We discuss becoming a Christian (2:20), the lost art of love letters (7:20), entering NT scholarship in the 1970s (9:10), the earliest Christians’ devotion to Jesus (14:15), Jesus as a unique divine agent in comparison to others (20:00), the place of the Holy Spirit in NT theology (27:15), contextualizing the doctrine of the Trinity (33:23), differences between he and Richard Bauckham (36:35), the best and worst trends in modern Christology scholarship (41:39), and more.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.

John the Seer vs. Caesar

Screen-Shot-2017-02-25-at-8.51.28-PM-300x299While compiling notes for my dissertation on the Book of Revelation, I came across this note on Revelation 1:16 in Craig Koester’s Revelation commentary:

The section climaxes by noting that [Jesus] holds seven stars in his right hand (Rev 1:16). This cosmic imagery conveys sovereignty. An analogy appears on a coin from Domitian’s reign that depicts the emperor’s deceased son as young Jupiter, sitting on the globe in a posture of world dominion. The coin’s inscription calls him “divine Caesar, son of the emperor Domitian,” and the imagery shows him extending his hands to seven stars in a display of divinity and power. John has already identified Jesus as the ruler of kings on earth (1:5), and the imagery of the seven stars fits the book’s larger context, which contrasts the reign of Christ with that of imperial Rome. (p. 253)

Koester is referring to the coin in the image (above), used in Rome around AD 88-96 during the reign of the brutal Caesar Domitian. Koester’s insights here give us an interesting look at the background of John the Seer’s writing during hostile Roman persecution. It also helps us think about the later date of Revelation’s writing (the end of the first century) versus a potential earlier dating (some say it might’ve been written closer to AD 65). This is enough to chew on a little bit.

But it offers us more than that. This information helps shed light on the theology of Revelation.

First, it serves as an example that much of Revelation’s imagery (beasts, numbers, etc.) is a direct shot at the Roman empire. Many believe (and I’m largely convinced) that Revelation is written during intense Roman persecution and this letter was first written to encourage the church during that time. However, as a non-preterist, I believe portions of the letter are speaking of future events—i,e., Jesus hasn’t come back yet; the New Jerusalem isn’t here yet; etc. In any event, this note might help us better understand the anti-imperial leanings of John.

Second, it shows us how high John’s Christology was. He’s not merely putting Jesus on par with some exalted or glorified person. Rather, he’s portraying Jesus as divine—specifically pitting Jesus’s true divine sovereignty against the supposed divine sovereignty of the Roman emperorship. Roman caesars liked to pretend to be gods, but John is reminding them and us that there’s only one true God. Jupiter is seated on the world with stars hovering around him? Ha! Jesus created the world and clutches the stars in his hand.

As I argue in my dissertation and elsewhere, John explicitly and purposely ties Jesus into the divine identity of YHWH, and this little note only adds to the case.

The Thorny Issue of Historical Background Research

I just sent in a review of David DeSilva’s recent book, The Letter to the Hebrews in Social Scientific Perspective (Cascade Companions; Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012). As the title indicates, it is a social scientific study of Hebrews. In the review I articulated my concern with some fundamental assumptions with this approach to biblical studies, which I’ve reproduced below.

(If anyone knows if quoting my own review on my own blog is copyright infringement, please let me know. I’ll adjust accordingly. I also plan on updating this post with the relevant bibliographic info if/when the review is published.)

. . . the issue is with the broader tendency in biblical studies to make a sharp distinction between what it meant and what it means (xii) and therefore to place the onus of interpretation on reconstructing historical background, from author to audience to cultural influence, rather than on the text itself.

The issue here lies primarily in the idea that the intended audience of the biblical books, and even more conspicuously, the biblical canon, is almost completely focused on first century readers. But this, both for non-believing interpreters and for confessional Christians, is not the case; the biblical authors frequently mention other readers besides the community to which the letter is originally addressed, and, for confessional Christians, the Bible is not only a collection of historical documents but also and foundationally the Word of God for the people of God. That is, it is the Word of God for all Christians, near to the original context and far from it. To thus locate the interpretive crux on reconstructing the context of the original audience seems at best to dichotomize falsely the book’s readership between original readers and future readers; this is neither authors’ intent, human or divine.

Furthermore, this exacerbation of the importance of historical reconstruction often yields little actual benefits. Ironically, this is nowhere a more acute problem than with Hebrews; we are left in the dark, or at least in the twilight, on both authorship and audience. DeSilva cannot escape this despite his best efforts, and is left to generalizations that are of little assistance. So, for instance, on the question of audience, even after a detailed discussion of its makeup, DeSilva is left to this innocuous conclusion: “In all probability, the community was probably composed from a wide range of social strata . . .” (37). Additionally, this approach tends towards valuing cultural background over Old Testament background, and DeSilva does not escape this. A mere page after listing the litany of OT books upon which Hebrews’ author draws (10), DeSilva makes the altogether puzzling comment that Heb. 12:5–6 is much more dependent on Seneca than it is on Prov. 3:11–12, the passage that is directly quoted (11).  This sort of baffling retreat to cultural background over explicit OT quotations and allusions is frequent throughout the book, and is symptomatic, in this reviewer’s opinion, of this type of approach to biblical interpretation.

This is not to deny the validity of studying the cultural milieu of the biblical books, or even the fact that at times this study may provide valid insights, but rather to say that I think modern biblical studies overemphasizes it to an unhelpful degree.



Textual Method

Well after blogging for four days straight a week and a half ago, an unprecedented blogging feat for me, the law of averages kicked in and I haven’t written my final two posts on method.

I’ll try to get back into the swing of it with this post on textual method.

By textual method I mean that,

Christian interpretation ought to place primacy in hermeneutics on the text itself and not on reconstruction of a provisional, incomplete, finite, and uninspired historical framework.

There are a few things to note here, and I don’t pretend that any of these posts or this outline of method as a whole are complete, but here I want to focus on the locus of interpretation. Modernity has pushed our focus to empirical evidence for everything, including exegesis. Can it be verified? Is your interpretation objective? Are you approaching the exegetical task without bias? As I noted in my previous post on pneumatological method, this arrogance in regard to our ability to objectively approach the text and grind out the correct interpretation is rooted in modernity’s god-like claims of omniscience and comprehensive comprehension of data. This is seen most prominently in how interpretation has shifted from being focused on the actual text to focused on the historical framework constructed around it. Biblical scholars in modernity began constructing vast amounts of historical struts and trellises on which to place the text before they interpreted it. There are, as with any historical event or development, myriads of reasons for this, but primary in my opinion is an Enlightenment distrust of religious texts and especially the inspired nature of the Bible and, therefore, the need to find some other “objective” measure for interpretation besides the (in their mind flawed) text.

Of course for conservative biblical scholars (like myself), the text is still inspired, authoritative, and trustworthy. But evangelical biblical scholarship has capitulated to much of modernity’s methods by adopting many of the tools of the historical-critical approach while rejecting its conclusions about the nature of the Bible. Again, nowhere is this more prevalent than the continued propensity to build historical frameworks on which the text is hung for interpretation.

There are a number of problems with this approach, but the most important are that a) it is a capitulation to modernity’s idolatrous and vainglorious pursuit of “the objective” and b) it shifts interpretation’s focus from the inspired and revelatory biblical text to the uninspired, limited, interpreted, and perspectival historical reconstruction. Christian interpretation ought to be humble in its approach to the text and realize that Christians are given only one enduring form of special revelation by God – Scripture. Historical frameworks are not inspired, and yet they are so often the arbiter of how we approach the text. Should this not be reversed? Shouldn’t we approach our finite historical reconstructions through the lens of God-given and authoritative revelation and not vice versa?

A couple of caveats as I finish here.

  1. This is not to deny the importance of history, and especially the historicity of the text. It seems nonsensical to me to affirm the inspiration of the human authors by the Holy Spirit and then treat the historical verity of their material as unimportant or secondary. No, the biblical authors are claiming something about reality that is rooted in history, and to claim otherwise seems to ignore the biblical authors’ intent in writing their material. The historicity of the text is of utmost importance when we talk about the authority of the Bible (and if you can’t tell by now, I’m an inerrantist; if you didn’t see that coming, you haven’t read much of my blog…).
  2. This is also not to deny the provisional benefit of historical background and worldview reconstruction in interpretation. We ought to, however, greatly mitigate our reliance on that reconstruction in our interpretation of the Bible. The Bible already gives us a worldview – starting in Genesis 1:1 – and many (most?) times it gives us the historical background necessary to understand the author’s message.

For an article on this type of approach, I’d recommend Bruce Ashford and David Nelson, “Meaning, Reference, and Textuality: An Evangelical Appropriation of Hans Frei,” Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 28/2 (2010): 195-216.

Southeastern Theological Review’s Round Table Discussion with Michael Licona

I’m thankful for STR for conducting a round table discussion concerning some of the brouhaha around Licona’s interpretation of Matthew 27. I won’t get into my own personal feelings of how this situation unfolded. You can read the dialogue here and decide for yourself.


(HT Ben Blackwell)

John’s Use of Drama

I’m currently reading George Parsenios’ work Rhetoric and Drama in the Johannine Lawsuit Motif for review. In it Parsenios explores the implications of reading John’s Gospel through the lens of Greek tragedy and forensic rhetoric. I must admit that I’m a bit skeptical of this endeavor, namely because I don’t see how we are supposed to conclude that John had Greek tragedy or legal rhetoric in mind while writing his Gospel. Parsenios admits as much in his opening chapter, saying:

We can say almost nothing with certainty about what [John] read, apart from the Old Testament. We know only such generalities as the fact that the tragedians were part of the school curriculum throughout the Hellenistic and Roman periods in the East, or that many prose authors in the Roman Empire regularly rely on tragic language and scenarios in a phenomenon that is called the “thearicalization of ancient culture.”

Parsenios then concludes this section by arguing that:

regardless of what John read, if we read John in concert with ancient rhetoric and ancient drama, we will read John differently, and with greater insight.

My question is whether Parsenios can legitimately move from his first statement to his second without doing detriment to John’s intention for his Gospel.

I’m inclined to say that he cannot and should not.

What about you?

Historical Adam 2.0

Kevin DeYoung has asked a similar question to mine about the historical Adam. Essentially his point is that in the genealogies of 1 Chronicles there is no indication from the author that part of the record is mythological or figurative while the rest is historical. You can check it out here.

Just another side note on this issue: after my first post on this a friend questioned whether or not the biblical narrative can be more than history. His question was, in other words, whether the biblical text does more than just relate historical events. My answer was of course yes – the Scriptures are the inspired interpretation of the historical events of God and his people. But that does not make them a- or un-historical. We can recognize both the historical veracity of the biblical record and the inspired interpretation that the Scriptures provide of those events. So when I say “there is no indication from the author that part of the record is mythological or figurative while the rest is historical,” I am not in any way intending to separate the biblical authors’ ability to both relate historical events accurately and interpret history in theologically meaningful ways, but am actually trying to argue that these two things are not separable in Scripture. One can recognize the Bible’s historical accuracy and its ability (or, even stronger, its intention) to interpret history at the same time.