The First Christians: From Nazareth to Nicaea

9781846141508LA book recently published in the United Kingdom deals with a subject of interest, namely the history of the early church. It is written by Geza Vermes, whose works we have previously mentioned. The publishers, Allen Lane, a division of Penguin Books, provide the following information on this new title.

Geza Vermes, the author of The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls and acknowledged expert on the life and times of Jesus, tells the enthralling story of the first Christians and the origins of a religion.

The creation of the Christian Church is one of the most important stories in the development of the world's history, but also one of the most enigmatic and little understood, shrouded in mystery and misunderstanding. With a forensic, brilliant re-examination of all the key surviving texts of early Christianity, Geza Vermes illuminates the origins of a faith and traces the evolution of the figure of Jesus from the man he was—a prophet fully recognisable as the successor to other Jewish holy men of the Old Testament—to what he came to represent: a mysterious, otherworldly being at the heart of a major new religion. As Jesus' teachings spread across the eastern Mediterranean, hammered into place by Paul, John and their successors, they were transformed in the space of three centuries into a centralised, state-backed creed worlds away from its humble origins. Christian Beginnings tells the captivating story of how a man came to be hailed as the Son consubstantial with God, and of how a revolutionary, anti-conformist Jewish sub-sect became the official state religion of the Roman Empire.

Geza Vermes, is an interesting author. Born a Jew, he took orders in the Catholic church before reconverting to Judaism. With this background, he provides a unique view of the genesis of the early church .


Tags: first christians, Jesus Christ, Paul, Trinity, State Religion, church history

Just what did the Apostle Paul teach? The hottest debate in Christianity

'First Things' provides a useful review

NEARLY FIVE HUNDRED years after the Reformation, debate over the doctrine of justification continues to divide Christians. What is interesting about the current form of the debate, however, is that it has returned to scriptural foundations. The focus is no longer on Martin Luther’s condemnation of late-medieval works righteousness but on Paul’s epistles—and the decisive question is this: What does Paul mean by “the righteousness of God”?

The debate took this new turn when historical research into first-century Palestinian Judaism generated what has (for a quarter century now) been called “the new perspective on Paul.” In this view, justification by faith alone is a distinctively Jewish doctrine that must be interpreted in the context of “covenantal nomism”: The Jewish understanding of law, according to this account, is a gift that maintains (but does not earn) the individual’s status as a chosen, covenanted member of Israel. If this view is correct, the Reformers were wrong. Paul’s teaching does not contrast unmerited salvation through the grace of Christ’s cross with a puffed-up attempt to earn salvation by obedience to the Law.

So begins a review of one of N. T. Wright’s books: Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. The review is undertaken by Gary Culpepper and published in the latest edition of First Things. Culpepper draws the battle lines that presently exist in the current debate over Paul showing the motivation for Wright’s book.  Wright outlines the deficiency of the old approach and highlights what he sees as the correct approach to understanding Paul.

A worthwhile read if you are trying to understand the debate over Paul


Tags: Paul, N T Wright, New Perspective, First Things, Justification, Righteousness of God

How to Read the New Testament

Recognizing the scope of change in New Testament studies
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E P Sanders

E. P. Sanders is one individual who has contributed an enormous amount  to the study of the New Testament in the past 40 years—especially to the study of Paul.

A brief autobiographical essay was presented by Sanders at a conference held in his honor in April of 2003. Titled “Comparing Judaism and Christianity: An Academic Autobiography,” the paper is available online courtesy of Duke University and Mark Goodacre.

This is a worthwhile read for any student of the New Testament in that it outlines the sea of changes that have occurred throughout the 20th century which have laid the foundation for New Testament studies in the 21st.  

Tags: new testament, E P Sanders, Paul, New Perspective on Paul, Rabbinics

Gentile Knowledge of the Scriptures

Recent book provides an appropriate illustration

Image courtesy of RBLAn excellent example of the point I have sought to make in the last two posts arrived in my in-box yesterday.  The latest Review of Biblical Literature contained two items about a recent title from T&T Clark.  The book in question is Brian J. Abasciano’s Paul’s Use of the Old Testament in Romans 9.1–9: An Intertextual and Theological Exegesis.  This book is a redo of Brian’s doctoral thesis at Aberdeen University; a study of the use of Exodus 32-34 and Genesis 18-21 in the first 9 verses of Romans 9. In writing this analysis, Abasciano builds on the previous work relating to intertextuality by Richard Hays.  

In his review of Abasciano’s work, Thomas W Gillespie of Princeton Theological Seminary encapsulates the approach used:

His thesis is that the apostle viewed Scripture as discrete wholes, with each appeal to a particular text entailing its immediate literary context. The assumption is that the scripturally adept readers (or hearers) of a Pauline letter would have recognized not only the source of such an appeal but its textual context as well, thus allowing the whole to inform their understanding of the apostolic point being scored by the specific textual reference.

In that the book of Romans was written to both Jewish and gentile believers, Paul clearly required an intimate understanding of these key passages in making his argument.  The fact that Abasciano can write more than 200 pages on Paul’s dependence on two sections of Scripture that span just 9 verses shows how important knowledge of the Scriptures  was to the early followers of Jesus, whether Jew or gentile.

Both reviewers found Abasciano’s work profitable for appreciating Paul’s writing although they had points of disagreement with method or approach.  Gillespie concluded, “[t]here are too many exegetical insights here to be ignored for any reason.”  In a separate review, Steve Moyise of the University of Chicester opines: “[t]his is a rich and insightful study that shows the fruitfulness of exploring the complex intertextual connections between Paul and the Old Testament.”

Above all this is a book to be borrowed, not bought.  At $120.00 or $140.00, depending on the reviewer, this is best acquired from the library shelf!

Tags: Paul, Jews, gentiles, Scriptures, Abasciano, Romans

Paul in Context

Paula Fredriksen locates the point of decontextualising Paul

"But when he is talking about the gentile sanctification, he is not speaking as it can sound in English – oh it’s nice . . . they’ve been made holy. It means something special. It means something ritual.  It means that they are fit to come into proximity with the zone of holiness that is represented first of all by the temple. When Paul uses temple language – as he does continuously to his gentile audiences -- he says you are a temple; you are God’s temple -- God’s spirit dwells in you.  

"Way back in the 20th century when I was at university, we were told that meant that Paul didn’t like this temple in Jerusalem and that this was a substitute temple and that the community was a new temple. If you train yourself to remember that if Paul is writing before the year 70, he doesn’t know that there’s going to be no temple.  What he is doing is in fact bringing these nations under the umbrella so that they are turning to the God of Israel just like people like Isaiah, Hosea and Micah had said they would before God’s last ‘put out the light’ is spoken.

"What happens after the temple is destroyed is that this vocabulary remains in Paul’s letters but the typography that interprets the vocabulary begins to switch from temple and ritual space to the idea of the Greco-Roman universe.  And it’s that transposition, the way that Paul’s letters and the way that the early Christian message will be translated in the period after the destruction of the temple and where sin will be imagined with different nuances and with different points of exit and entry that I will get to tomorrow night." 1:04:26

Paula Fredriksen, "Sin: The Early History of the Idea: Lecture 1: God, Blood, and theTemple" October 9, 2007 -- Spencer Trask Lecture, cosponsored by Princeton University Press.

Tags: jerusalem, Temple, Paul, Paula Fredriksen, early Christians, Spencer Trask Lectures, typography,

Why Should We Suffer?

Columnist raises age old question

Theodicy -- an unfamiliar word that relates to the question of why a benevolent God would allow evil and suffering to exist in this world.  Stanley Fish, a columnist for the New York Times examines two new titles that address this problem.

Something we can easily forget in a world that prizes rationalism is that this problem  has perplexed people throughout time.  The Hebrew Scriptures tell us about Job whorestled with this issue and Fish appropriately notes the statement by a 3rd century BCE Greek philosopher:

These questions are as old as Epicurus, who gave them canonical form: “Is God willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence, then, evil.” 

The circumstances that held in the time of Jesus Christ and the early church gave plenty of opportunity for these questions to arise again.  Jesus himself drew attention to those who had been killed by a tower falling on them as well as the case of the Galileans who had been slaughtered by Pontus Pilate as they were sacrificing in the temple to their God! (Luke 13:1-5).  Nor was this the only occasion in which Jews had been slaughtered in the temple by the Roman authorities or other rulers before them.  Nor were such events the limit of the problems that the church faced.  Think of the opportunity for raising the question of God’s apparent absence when Stephen was stoned to death (Acts 7:58-59), or when James the brother of John was executed by Herod Antipas (Acts 12.1-2), or when persecution made the brethren flee from Jerusalem (Acts 8:1).  Add to that famine in Judaea and the situations Paul describes as he pursued his calling to preach the gospel to the nations (2 Corinthians 11:23-30).  His challenges were more than sufficient to require a normal person to consider a change of occupation.  Yet the early church was able to mourn the loss and carry on with its mission.  Paul was undeterred by the challenges.

Despite facing all the types of personal “anguish” that Bart Ehrman takes to himself, somehow these people had a vision of the future that put present suffering into context and made it bearable.  They had an explanation for theodicy that we seldom consider. The idea of eschatology that is so often discussed in terms of the early church implies another factor that is frequently overlooked.  If the present age had to come to an end and be replaced, then something was clearly wrong with the current situation.  Many saw it in geopolitical terms: the Jewish nation was downtrodden and, better times would only come when that changed.  But Paul addressed this question, not in terms of geopolitics but by reference to the fact that this was not God’s world. The world was ruled by another god who was able to transform himself into an angel of light (2 Corinthians 4:4; 11:14-15).  Paul, like the rest of the early church believed in a spirit world that was able to influence the physical domain. His eschatology was based on the replacement of the malevolent power by that of the true God of Israel.  Today, that is seldom part of our thinking.  So often we see things only on a physical plane and hence the divine has no real place in our life.

Much kudos to Stanley Fish for raising the issue and addressing the two books that he does.

Tags: Jesus Christ, Paul, eschatology, suffering, Theodicy

Monotheism Is the Subject of the Month!

More discussion on the blogs
During October a couple of postings have been made on the subject of Monotheism, to which I have since referred. Now, Chris Tilling of Chrisendom, a graduate student at Tubingen, has also written on this subject and posted some references (about which I have also posted a comment). Of even greater interest is another response to Chris in which Nick Norelli points us to his blog where he has listed a number of articles on the subject. Well done Nick! His is good research, that may even cause some to view monotheism differently. The great difficulty for Christianity is to read Scripture in context and not through a metaphysic of ontology!

Tags: Early Church, Paul, Monothesism, Scripture

New Books on the Apostle Paul

Useful introductions to the study of Paul and his writings

Two additional books that I omitted from my posting about reading material on Paul are:

Bassler, Jouette, Navigating Paul: An Introduction to Key Theological Concepts, Louisville: Westminister Johhn Knox Press, 2007

Horrell, David G. An Introduction to the Study of Paul, New York; T&T Clark, 2006

I've added these to the list published last week.

On a personal note, Jouette Bassler was one of my first instructors in graduate school at SMU's Perkins School of Theology.

Tags: Paul, Apostle, Bassler, Horrell

New Perspective on Paul

Suggested reading:

A friend asked for some recommended titles to read on Paul.  That's a challenge as the number of books written about Paul and his Epistles are the largest collection of books on the Bible in any library. In an attempt to provide some titles, I’ve divided the books into sections ranging from very introductory material to more specific works.

The following give a good introduction for a lay person, and introduce a reader to the issues that are to be considered.  Although largely written in the 90’s, these are still available on line at Amazon as one potential source.  Sometimes they have a later imprint date than the version listed.

Gager, John G. Reinventing PaulOxfordOxford University Press, 2000.

Horrell, David G. An Introduction to the Study of PaulNew York; T&T Clark, 2006

Sanders, E. P. PaulOxfordNew YorkOxford University Press, 1991.

Wenham, David. Paul and Jesus; The True StoryGrand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2002.

Wright, N. Tom. What Saint Paul Said?: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity?CincinnatiOhio: Forward Movement Publications, 1997.

Young, Brad H. Paul the Jewish Theologian: A Pharisee Among Christians, Jews and Gentiles.PeabodyMassachusetts 01961-3473: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997.

To address some of the more specific areas of Paul’s writings, my suggestions include the following.  Although one commentary is listed here, it is more for what is contained in the Appendix to the book, rather than the commentary itself.

Bassler, Jouette, Navigating Paul: An Introduction to Key Theological ConceptsLouisville:Westminster John Knox Press, 2007.

Esler, Philip F. Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting of Paul's Letter.Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003

Hengel, Martin. The Pre-Christian PaulPhiladelphia: Trinity Press International, Philadelphiaand SCM Press, London, 1991.

Sanders,E. P. Paul, the Law and the Jewish PeopleMinneapolis: Fortress Press, 1983.

Wenham, David. Paul, Founder of Christianity or Follower of ChristMinneapolis: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1995.

Ziesler, J. A. Pauline ChristianityOxfordNew YorkOxford University Press, 1983.

For more advanced study purposes, then I would recommend the following:

Bird, Michael. The Saving Righteousness of God: Studies on Paul, Justification and the New Perspective. Edited by Howard I Marshall, Richard J. Bauckham,  Craig Blomberg, Robert P Gordon and Temper Longman III. Paternoster Biblical Monographs. Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press, 2007.

Hafemann, Scott J. Paul, Moses and the History of Israel: The Letter/Spirit Contrast and the Argument from Scripture in 2 Corinthians 3. Edited by Howard I Marshall,  Richard J. Bauckham,  Craig Blomberg,  Robert P Gordon and  Temper Longman III. Paternoster Biblical Monographs. Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press, 2005.

Tomson, Peter J. Paul and the Jewish Law: Halakha in the Letters of the Apostle to the Gentiles. Van Gorcum, AssenNetherlands: Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1990. 

Wright, N. T. The Climax of the CovenantMinneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991.

Ziesler, John. Righteousness in the Writings of PaulChicoGa.: SBL, 1978.

The Tomson and Ziesler books would probably only be found in an academic library, but if accessible, are well worth referencing.

Lastly the following individuals writing on Paul has only been in journals.  However Pamela Eisenbaum, as a Jewess, brings a very interesting and useful perspective to Pauline studies.

Eisenbaum, Pamela. "A Remedy for Having Been Born of Woman: Jesus, Gentiles, and Genealogy in Romans." Journal of Biblical Literature 123, no. 4 (2004): 671-702.

And finally, anything by Martin Hengel, or E P Sanders, is worth a read. They, perhaps more than others have done much of the foundational work in this area.



Tags: Jesus, E P Sanders, Paul, N T Wright, Apostle, John Gager, David Wenham, Martin Hengel

Discussion on Jewish Christianity

Panel to discuss two new books on subject at SBL in San Diego

Todays mail brought with it an invitation from Hendrickson's, publishers, to attend a panel discussion of two new books that have recently been published -- Jewish Believers in Jesus, by Oskar Skarsaune and Reidar Hvalvik of Norway, and Jewish Christianty Reconsiderededited by Matt Jackson-McCabe. (Amazon link has at least two misspellings that I noticed). The discussion will be held Monday, November 19, in San Diego during the AAR/SBL conferences.   Looking at the list of those taking part in the review, this will be one session I will definitely be attending.

Oskar Skarsaune and Reidar Hvalvik were at the Patristics Conference in Oxford that I notedhere.  I had the chance to speak with Reidar and hear his paper, but was unable to catch up with Oskar on that occassion.  Perhaps this time.

Tags: First Century, Paul, Ebionites, Jewish Christianity, Nazarenes

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