Monday Mail: Porter and Westfall

I received a copy of Empire in the New Testament, edited by Stanley Porter and Cynthia Westfall, in the mail today for review. I’m excited about this for a number of reasons, among them being that I’m always challenged by Porter’s projects. But after perusing the table of contents, I’m even more ready to dive in to this volume.

The book is organized in a biblical-theological fashion. Each chapter discusses the theme of empire in a particular book or corpus in the New Testament, and these chapters are arranged in canonical order (with the exception of Luke and Acts being combined). There are also two preliminary chapters on empire in the OT, specifically in the life of David and in Isaiah, as well as two concluding ones on Jewish and early church interpretation, which I find very intriguing. This tells me that in a book titled Empire in the New Testament, the editors think it important to include OT and history of interpretation material. In my personal opinion, NT studies so often falters by not paying enough attention to the OT background of NT texts and themes, and so I am glad to see Porter and Westfall at least make the effort to include this vital aspect in their volume. (History of interpretation is pretty important, too.)

We’ll see how I like the rest of the book after I make it past the ToC. 🙂

Teaching the New Testament

One of the classes I’ll teach this fall at CBU is NT Survey. As I’m prepping for this class, it’s interesting to see how many NT Introductions and Theologies approach teaching through the NT in different ways. Specifically, there are a variety of approaches when it comes to ordering the material. You can find an NT Introduction or Theology organized in a way that mirrors the canonical order of the NT, while others might be organized based off some other criteria like date of the books or common authorship. For instance, NT Introductions are commonly organized in a  way that follows the NT canon’s order. Carson and Moo’s Introduction to the New Testament, Guthrie’s NT Introduction, and Elwell and Yarbrough’s Encountering the New Testament all follow the canonical order in their NT Introductions. The exception for Elwell and Yarbrough comes in combining Colossians and Philemon, a standard practice in commentaries, and this is seen also in Green, Achtemeier, and Thompson’s NT Intro. In addition, Green et al combine 2 Peter and Jude, which is again a fairly standard practice in the commentaries. This mirroring of the canonical order, with slight exceptions, is seen in most NT Intros.

That fairly uniform pattern changes with NT Theologies. Frank Thielman’s NT Theology discusses each book of the NT in separate chapters, but these chapters are arranged through consideration of date and common authorship. Tom Schreiner, on the other hand, organizes his NT Theology based on theological themes and then walks through parts or all of the NT canon when discussing those themes. Donald Guthrie follows a similar pattern in that he organizes around themes and then shows where and how those themes are discussed in the NT, but this latter part is ordered in the following manner – The Synoptic Gospels, The Johannine Literature, Acts, Paul, Hebrews, The Rest of the NT. There is some semblance of canonical order here, but the Johannine literature is thrown together and “The Rest of the New Testament” as a category seems to ignore the uniqueness of each of the Catholic Epistles. George Ladd’s NT Theology is one of the few that not only follows the NT order consistently but also uses it as his organizational scheme. Jim Hamilton’s God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment, although a whole Bible theology and not just an NT theology, follows the canonical order as well.

Why do we find such a uniformed organization in NT Intros while there is almost no end to different approaches to NT theologies?

Perhaps more importantly, what difference does it make whether one organizes based on the canonical order or based on some other criteria (date, authorship, theological themes, etc.)?

I know how I’d answer these questions, but I’d like to hear your thoughts first. What do you think?

N.T. Wright on Jesus’ Vindication

I think I’ll start off this blog with its demise, which is to say I want to use it to critique the work of arguably the leading NT scholar in the world, N.T. Wright. How’s that for starting off with a bang (or a death wish)?

I just finished reading Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, volume 2 in his Christian Origins and the Question of God series. I actually thoroughly enjoyed the book; Wright’s explanation of Jesus’ prophetic program, aims and beliefs, practices, and stories all greatly enhanced my understanding of not only the Gospels but the OT as well. I think Wright is careful and meticulous, and he does the church a great service not only with this volume but also with The New Testament and the People of God and The Resurrection and the Son of God. All three of these books help the church first of all in its battle with the Enlightenment project’s seemingly endless quest to either “prove” the fictitious character of the Gospels or to undermine Jesus’ message through labeling him as a misguided apocalyptic prophet. Second, they serve the church well in its quest to understand the Bible better, especially the Gospels.

One nagging question for me, though, in reading through the latter parts of JVO is whether Wright is entirely correct in his assessment of how Jesus believes he will be vindicated as a prophet. Particularly in Part II of the book, Wright frequently argues that Jesus believes and teaches that he and his message will be vindicated through the fall of Jerusalem, which we know occurred in AD 70. Wright is especially concerned to show that when Jesus teaches the disciples about “when these things will be” in Mark 13 (cf. Matt 24), he is speaking not about “the end of the space-time universe” but about his vindication as a prophet. According to Wright, this vindication begins at his death (and resurrection, although Wright mainly leaves that for vol. 3) and ends emphatically with the calamity of AD 70. Wright sees the events of Mk 13:14-23 as referring to the events of AD 70 (the “abomination of desolation” standing where it ought not to be, fleeing to the hills, false prophets), and Jesus is speaking of these events as the way in which the disciples will know that he is right about the Temple’s destruction and his own program to restore Israel from exile.

Although I agree with Wright’s larger assessment of Jesus’ program and with his definition of “the last days” not as some distant, future end-of-the-space-time-universe event but as beginning with Jesus’ mission and especially his death and resurrection, I have a number of questions about Jesus believing he would be vindicated by the events AD 70. My initial reaction is to say no, Jesus believed he would be vindicated primarily by his death and resurrection. The following are a few reasons I lean this way and not with Wright.

First, there is no explicit reference in the NT to the events of AD 70. Although some would argue there are implied references, if those events were the main vindication of Jesus’ message one would think the writers of the NT would at least mention it in a few places, whether prophetically if the book was written before AD 70 or reflectively if written afterwards.
Second, other NT writers (esp. Paul and John) both use similar language in describing a) the period in which we now reside (commonly “the last days”, “these last days”, etc.) and b) the second coming of Christ. I wonder why they would interpret Christ’s words to refer to a future second coming if, as Wright argues, these chapters in the Gospels do not refer to his return at the consummation of the new creation.

Third, Wright consistently, and I think convincingly, argues throughout the book that the primary difference between Jesus’ message and the Pharisees’ and other first century Jews’ expectations was that Jesus saw the coming of the Kingdom centered around himself and inaugurated with his life, death, and resurrection, while the Pharisees and other C1 Jews saw it centered around various symbols and practices (Torah, Temple, Sabbath, food laws, etc.) and inaugurated with a military overthrow of Rome. I wonder why Wright so consistently argues for Jesus’ non-military agenda and then says that Jesus’ vindication will come through a military victory 35 years later (albeit by Rome over Jerusalem instead of the other way around).

Fourth, two of the events of Mk 13/Matt 24 that Wright argues are seen in AD 70, namely the “abomination of desolation” and the destruction of the Temple, are already seen in Jesus’ final work in Jerusalem and in his death. Wright himself argues that Caiaphas is presented as “evil incarnate” and his position as chief priest may point to his fulfillment of the “abomination of desolation.” Second and more strongly presented by the Gospels is the fact that the Temple is destroyed not in AD 70 but at Jesus’ death when the curtain is torn in two. As Wright demonstrates, Jesus proleptically enacts the Temple’s destruction in the Temple cleansing; the temporary cessation of sacrifices momentarily ends its purpose and thus its destruction is foreshadowed. Therefore when the curtain is torn in two at Jesus’ death, the Temple is permanently destroyed. The Holy of Holies has been violated; it can no longer serve its purpose.

Also of interest is Matthew’s use of the phrase “after these things”; Beale argues that John, through a quotation of Daniel, uses this phrase in Revelation to refer to the entire time period of the “last days”, and if Matthew uses it similarly then Jesus could be referring not just to one future event on the horizon but to the entire period of time between his first and second coming.

Obviously these arguments need to be fleshed out further to provide any sort of serious critique of Wright’s position. The purpose of this post  has not been to provide a definitive alternate position, but simply to put forth some questions about Wright’s conclusions concerning Mark 13/Matt 24 and the events of AD 70.

What do you think?