What do you do with Daniel?

9780825427619I have been a fan of Kregel Academic’s Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis Having read the volumes on the Prophets and the Historical books, I was pleased to receive a copy of their Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature, and quickly found myself challenged in a number of ways.

David Howard, professor of Old Testament at Bethel University, approaches the Biblical text from an exegetical and literary viewpoint. While the other volumes in this series deal almost exclusively with the Biblical writings, Howard’s analysis of the apocalyptic writings involves a detailed look at extra-biblical sources as well. This was unexpected, but served as one of the most engaging parts of the books. Though I was already familiar with The Book of Enoch and the like, I had only encountered them in minor ways, usually in a “why to avoid these books” kind of way. Howard, however, uses them in a way that reminds me of John Walton’s analysis of creation texts or Jeffery Niehaus’s look into Ancient Near Eastern polemics.

But rather than singularly focused cultural study, Howard’s remains primarily focused on exegetical problems of the Biblical text. Chapters 3 and 4 concentrate on the text itself, with chapter 5 laying out practical guidance on how to preach these texts despite their linguistic and cultural difficulties. Chapter 6 remains my favorite section, though, with Howard’s advice sampled through analyses of Daniel 8:1-27 and Joel 2:28-32. Here, Howard’s comfort with the genre and the Hebrew text shines forth, with sermon material that any pastor would benefit from.

Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature is perhaps a bit more academic than the other volumes I have read, particularly in terms of the literary comparisons. This quality might be of less interest to some laymen or pastoral counselors, but I think is necessary to the specific study of Old Testament writings. I recommend Howard’s work to anyone interested in the topic.

A Balm in Textual Studies

9780825443824There is an abundance of textbooks on the New Testament. Concordances, dictionaries, grammars, and their ilk proliferate book shelves of students and teachers across the spectrum of studies. Dr. Charles Lee Irons is not unawares, but with the publication of his A Syntax Guide for Readers of the Greek New Testament has demonstrated a knowledge of the holes that often plague the student laboring under the load of Biblical languages. This guide is not a substitute for hard work, but rather an aid “to provide concise explanations of syntactical, clause-level features that may not be immediately obvious to the beginner” (8). Of course, the out of practice pastor might find it helpful too.

For instance, a young pastor is preaching through Hebrews and turns to his Greek text for exegetical purposes. Everything is cruising along, and then wham! 3:16 stops him as he cannot quite recall what to make with “τἰνες.” Rather than digging through multiple commentaries to sort it out, or revisiting his professor’s self-published grammar book, he pulls out Irons’s book and turns to p. 506. “Ah,” he recalls, “there is an accent issue to be sorted out here.

This is the brilliance, and practicality, of SGRGNT. It serves as an immediate reference for problems that often come up if your Greek is not quite as good as your Hebrew (or perhaps your English, if you’re like me). This handy little volume is small enough to keep out on the desk all the time, and user-friendly enough to make any M.Div. holder wish they had owned it earlier.

I think we can all thank Dr. Irons for his efforts. May they act as a balm in Greek class, when Gilead seems so far away.

Keeping Up Your Greek with the LXX

9780825443428One of the easiest things to do, when the grades are in and classes over, is to let your language skills slip away. Sometimes this is simply an issue of time management, but at other times it is a matter of interest; I don’t keep studying because I do not have a professor to keep it engaging. Fortunately, books come along that do serve that purpose of renewing the interest of the mind with material that is new or appealing. Karen Jobes’s Discovering the Septuagint: A Guided Reader is just such a book.

To Protestants, the LXX often appears to be a curiosity (shedding light on Catholicism in some way) or an experiment in translation. I teach the Septuagint every Spring, and the reactions from students is fairly predictable. “Why is this so strange? I don’t understand these changes here.” And those are all from the English translations. What I have hope to do in the past, but been unable to do thus far, is bridge the gap between my students’ Greek classes and their Classical studies. Jobes’s book is perfect for this, and laid out in a manageable format, which can be used by students, teachers, or laymen alike.

While the book doesn’t get into too much apocryphal material aside from 73 verses from the “Additions to Esther,” the selected texts stand out as great examples of how the Hebrew and Greek inform one another, sometimes with stark differences between them. Because the book is more of a introductory language textbook, there are relatively few critical comments to slow down the chapters. Thus, what you have is a quick-paced study of the Greek Old Testament that can breathe life into dying Greek skills that have sat too long in disuse.

As stated in the front matter of the book: “if we are to better understand the New Testament and the world in which it was produced, then we must acknowledge the role of the Septuagint in how the Bible has come down through history to us,” (p. 12). If for other reason, this is a great starting point for truly digging deep into the LXX.

Craziness & Romance in the Bible

9780825425561I have read three previous entires in the Kregel Exegetical Library, and have come away edified by any of them. Each is written by a scholar of the highest integrity, and deals openly with problematic passages. A Commentary on Judges and Ruth does not disappoint. Dr. Robert Chisholm, a regular Biblical commentator for most folks who have taken a Hebrew class, handles some of the strangest passages in the Old Testament narrative in a clear, effective manner. If you are looking for a book that will help unravel some of the violence and bizarre events of Israel’s early days, then this is a good place to start.

A prime example comes from the section on Jephthah’s foolish vow (Judges 11:29-40). A number of explanations for understanding this passage have been explored over the years (Wikipedia even has a section dedicated to it), but consensus is rare. Chisholm dedicates 17 pages to the issue, and alternates being exposition in the main body of the text, and extensive footnotes about various views. Though Chisholm does not convince me of his own view, that Jephthah does in fact offer a human sacrifice to Yahweh, he is cautious in dismissing opposing perspectives and provides ample space for those views to be considered by the reader.  This kind of writing is typical of the entire work, and made reading it an exercise in humility and conversation.

Of course, the extensive footnoting method used by Chisholm might be daunting to some, particularly the laity. But it is most definitely worth it to sift through those lengthy academic ramblings in order to find a beautiful gem of wisdom that adds to one’s understanding of the Biblical story.

It is also worth noting that Chisholm treats the book of Ruth as part of the story told in Judges, rather than a one shot episode of the coming kingdom through David. Chisholm is careful not to throw arbitrary labels at Ruth, chastising the myriad of scholars who has sought to impose their own perspective on the book, rather than letting it speak for itself. Though his treatment of the book is brief, Chisholm offers a balanced, reverent account of one of the most overlooked books in the Bible.

This has been my favorite of the Kregel Exegetical commentaries thus far, and has definitely whetted my appetite for more.

Redeeming the Past (A Convocation Address)

This post originally appeared at the Trinitas Christian School blog. 

When thinking of the past, we often find ourselves in one of two precarious positions: veneration or disdain. Looking back on those “good ole days” can cause us to miss out on the gifts of God before us now. Do we, like Saul, desperately seek to evade the consequences of today by reaching out to the ghosts of the past? Or are we more like Ajax, holding silently onto old grudges, forsaking forever a chance for restoration to a friend and comrade? Surely these are not the only ways to view what has gone before us? Is there a way to recall the past without glorifying it unnecessarily, or a way to avoid treating as an experiment in regret? In fact, when we turn to the Old Testament, we find that the writings of Moses and his fellow authors are replete with reminders to remember: “And you shall remember that the Lord your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not,” (Deut. 8:2). Verses like this show us that remembrance is not just about the past, but it is even about the present. It is how we know where we stand in relation to what came before. As Jesus said to the church in Ephesus, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent,” (Rev. 2:5). As you go throughout the year, I challenge you to remember the past, so that you might easier repent of your sins and learn to quickly forgive your neighbor. That is how we hold the past in the right relation to the present and future.

Books, Covers, and Genesis

On the back of The Grand Canyon: Monument to an Ancient Earth, one the latest books coming out of Kregel publications about the age of the earth, boasts a Paul Copan quote recommendation on that back that goes like this: “Irenic in spirit, scientifically informed, and biblically sound.” Dr. Copan is one of my favorite apologists out there at present, and a genuinely nice guy. So when he states that a book is aimed at peace and the reconciliation of denominational differences, I do not hesitate to pick it up.9780825444210

On the surface, The Grand Canyon looks like a work of great care and consideration. As scientific textbooks go, it is by far the most readable I have encountered in some years, interspersing the scientific lingo with beautiful pictures and engaging diagrams. The eleven authors mentioned on the first page demonstrate a breadth of knowledge that is impressive. They present the case that the Grand Canyon serves as irrefutable proof that the Earth cannot be young, and that Noah’s Flood cannot possibly have created something like the gorge surrounding the Colorado River. The book showcases remarkable lucidity with a topic that is often tedious or difficult to understand. Having read several books on the topic, including Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies and Francis Collins’s The Language of God (to name a couple), and find there is a fine line between scientific tedium and understandable theorizing. But the authors work hard to make the subject even enjoyable.

All of that being said, I think to call this book irenic is a bit misleading. While there are authors out there genuinely working to bridge the gap between Christians who disagree (like Kenneth Wheately and Alvin Plantinga), the bulk of this book is dedicated to converting Young Earth Creationists to a different view. Now, I understand that books are frequently written to make an argument. This can be done in a tasteful way, however, and much of the shots taken at YEC proponents through the book detract from what would otherwise be an insightful contribution to the larger discussion. Such a dismissive attitude limits the book’s potential.

While the book is one I recommend, I do so with caution. Coming to this book for a genteel and fair-minded discussion will not go far. But if you are already in, or leaning towards, an Old Earth view which congeals with Christianity, then this book is definitely for you.

The Joy of Exegeting the Psalms

Ask most high school students what kind of literature the enjoy the least, they’ll likely say poetry. Its symbolism and patterns often create a sense of tedium for many readers. Of course, poetry is a beautiful form of writing, and as I say to my own students when we memorize poetry throughout the school year, appreciating the mastery of a single word can bring joy and satisfaction far beyond  merely reading a poem.

I have noticed a tendency of Christians, myself included, to sometimes take the same perspective on the Psalms. Originally written in Hebrew, English translations of the Psalms appear in different forms and try to encapsulate the beauty of the original language in a number of ways. A helpful way to explore these Biblical songs and poems is through an exegetical study, clarifying some of the ways the Hebrew text stresses and highlights ideas and concepts. If, like me, you’re not a Semitic languages scholar, then a nice commentary is a good place to start.

Dr. Allen P. Ross has 9780825426667authored a three-volume set of exegetical commentaries on the Psalms for Kregel Academic. I have reviewed two other entries in the Kregel Exegetical Library (Exodus and I & II Chronicles), and was fortunate enough to get my hands on the final entry in Dr. Ross’s trilogy. While I do hope to eventually acquire the rest, examining Psalms 90-150 proved a great adventure in and of itself.

The format is simple, with substantial background and contextual information before each psalm that demonstrated the immense amount of study that has been spent on the poetic parts of Scripture. I will use Psalm 119 to detail some of the highlights of Ross’s work.

While it is the dominant psalm of the Biblical collection, Psalm 119 has cause some to despair over its apparent repetition of ideas and words. Ross, however, concludes that this is the result of a poor reading of the text. First, the Psalm should be seen as a literary work. In terms of dating, Psalm 119 seems to have been written prior to the Exile (461) and is written in such a way that a preacher could approach the text from various ways to preach through it either by stanza or theme or both (463). After drawing the background information together, Ross works through the Psalm using its acrostic format as the outline. Each section is translated, followed by a brief content summary and exegetical outline. This outline also serves as the main points for the commentary, which is delivered in an expository form making it easy for pastors to work through the content in small sections.

As a result, Ross gives a work that any Christian could pick and work through, while also being a wonderful aid to a pastor who wants to lead their congregation through the Psalms.

Historical Jesus Primer

91Yadw-FeZLIt seems that every year, right around Easter, a host of arguments find traction in some bastion of so-called objective journalism where Jesus is suggested to be misrepresented, or sometimes even non-existent. As the usual attacks are lobbed, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by what (on the surface) appear to be legitimate concerns. Enter 40 Questions About the Historical Jesus from C. Marvin Pate.

The book is a part of Kregel Academic’s line of apologetic survey works that take the form of 40 questions. I’ve previously reviewed their entry regarding creation, and commented on the benefits of this approach to such discussions. While these books cannot be exhaustive, they serve as excellent introductions to difficult material that is often weighed down with emotional appeals and mistrust on both sides. Pate’s foray into the quest for the historical Jesus is a welcome addition to the larger discussion and would serve as a great starting point for any Christian interested in the topic.

That being said, there are two particular points of, what I hope will be, constructive criticism. The first is a comparative element. In Kregel’s book regarding creation, there was a marked effort to be generous to differing viewpoints because it was a mostly “in house” debate. This book, however, is primarily a discussion between the orthodox and the heterodox, the believing and the non. As such, the tone should be different in some areas, at times calling for sharp rebuke and other times gentle correction. But it would appear to me that Benjamin Merkle, the series editor, would like the tone of each work to be the same. I think this is noble, but an ultimately ill-fated attempt to keep the conversation civil. If I hadn’t read a companion work to make the correlation, then I might not have even noticed, so take that for what it is.

The second issue is minor, but I think important still. The book has a wonderful set of indexes, which give guidance when something like The Gospel of Thomas specially comes up. But what happens when Bart Ehrman gets mentioned? Since so much of this topic is generated from 19th, 20th, and even 21st century scholars, an index dealing with such men and women would be not only appropriate, but perhaps essential for someone who is really trying to dig in to the subject.

These are small quibbles, and should not dissuade anyone from purchasing the book. It is a great resource for Christians of all stripes, regardless of age or denomination. I hope Kregel continues to put out great works like this.

Studying the Greek Gods

This post originally appeared on the Trinitas Christian School blog.

olympian

In his book, The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly About the Arts, Leland Ryken asks a simple but provocative question: “Why do people hang paintings on walls?” There is of course the straightforward response: “because they enjoy said paintings.” But there is another level to the response worth considering, and its implications ripple out beyond the singular notion of picture hanging. Creative expressions have been how humanity thought and considered the reality around it for all recorded history. We don’t write or tell stories or sing just because we enjoy it; we also do these things because we must.

How does this fit into the Christian life? For starters, the Bible is chock full of stories, and not all them seem pristine on the surface. The Christian Scriptures affirm the idea that we are a people in need of creative expression, with complex heroes like Samson and theologically rich poetry like the Psalms. The Christian, then, engages with the artistic world every time he or she opens their Bible, and this exercise helps the believer interact with opposing worldviews as well. We read the literature of other cultures and eras, mining for gold or dropping lead lines into the water, always expecting to find something of value.

Though the Christian has much to reject in the worldview of the Ancient Greeks, there are also things worth a closer examination. Is there significance to Pandora’s perseveration of Hope that the Christian can understand? Do we weep with Helios when Phaethon is struck down due to his impudence and inexperience? Are we sometimes rattled by the idea that life is out of our control, like Achilles or Oedipus? The Greek myths are not only good stories (though they are that), for they contain in them a way of understanding the world that should and can be reckoned with by any thoughtful Christian.

As we head into Zeus’ Family Reunion at Trinitas this week, we consider the truth and beauty found in the archives of the Greek imagination. Join us as we try to explore these stories together. Perhaps there are still depths to be mined, still deep waters to be sounded. And when it is all said and done, you’ll have a new mosaic to hang on your wall.

The Right Questions for “The Force Awakens”

This post originally appeared at the Trinitas Christian School blog.

Star-Wars-The-Force-Awakens-still-10Every quarter, our students are invited to participate in our Classic Film Society. We gather, eat popcorn, watch movies, and then spend time discussing the ways these films wrestle with the Gospel, even if they do it inadvertently. This is more than just an excuse to watch good movies, because movies are one of the primary way our culture searches for the Gospel. Directors aren’t necessarily looking to imbed the content of Christianity in their film, but they cannot escape the shape of Christianity.[1] Films made in the past demonstrate this, as do those that continue to come to a theater near you.

And this is one of the beauties of our Classic Film Society: what we do connects with current movies as well. In fact, it’s probably most helpful to understand the word classic like this: “Here is the body of work which sets the standard for all subsequent achievement.”[2] If the box office numbers are any indication, Star Wars: The Force Awakens will set the standard for years to come. So does Episode VII wrestle with the Gospel? I think it does, by dealing with specific elements of the Gospel shape found in so much of our world’s media.

For instance, the universe Star Wars inhabits is a moral one, dealing with good and evil.[3] There is a clear villain (Kylo Ren) and a clear hero (Rey). There is transformation, as Finn becomes less of a selfish character, and even risks his life to save someone else (not once, but twice). And all of this surfaces in the midst of a story that often advocates “balance.” But make no mistake, there is good and there is evil; there is light and there is dark. Even the cinematography embodies this concept, with the light being extinguished at the pivotal moment of choosing the light or the darkness.

These ideas provide excellent conversation starters. For instance, if this morality is driven by feelings, how are viewers to understand the problems that so often arise from characters pursing their feelings? A Jedi must feel the force, but must also avoid attachment. Is it because our feelings are so often wrong (Jer. 17:9)? And if feelings are to be the guide to the Force, as Obi-wan instructs Luke in Episode IV, what happens when a character feels the draw of the dark side? The questions abound, and the answers aren’t always airtight, but these are the kinds of things that Christians should think about when engaging with contemporary film. The Force Awakens should be a segue to a bigger conversation about Truth and Beauty and Goodness. Just like those we have at Classic Film Society.

[1] If you’re interested in reading more about this idea, Gavin Ortlund has a nice introduction here: http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/3-ways-movies-are-searching-for-the-gospel.

[2] This definition comes from J. Budziszewski, a professor of law at UT Austin (http://undergroundthomist.org/classical).

[3] I have explored this before, particularly in relation to the Lord of the Rings movies (http://humanepursuits.com/a-world-where-feelings-are-king/).