Book Review – Fortress Introduction to The Gospels by Mark Allan Powell

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Mark Allan Powell is a veteran in biblical studies. He has published broadly for both scholars and lay readers. He has been an active contributor in academia for many years serving in the Society of Biblical literature and on the board of several respected academic periodicals. He also has a long history of teaching New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary (more than thirty years). Powell is certainly qualified to write this textbook about the Gospels.

As the title indicates, this book is intended to be an introduction, which for Powell means orienting readers to the world of the Gospels and the scholarship that has helped us to understand them (pp. 1-2). The actual introduction lays the groundwork in several key respects. It gives the reader an overview of the various academic fields of research that scholars use in studying the Gospels (e.g., archeology, sociology, and the social sciences). It describres the various dynamics that make up the world in which they were written (e.g., religious, political, social, and philosophical dynamics). Finally, it explains how the gospel genre has been understood in the past and how it is best understood today. Powell suggests that the canonical Gospels are most similar to ancient Geco-Roman biographies, with several important caveats: they display a strong influence from Jewish literature, they are not very much like modern biographies, and they are more than ancient biographies in the exalted way they depict their main character.

After the introduction Powell devotes the first chapter to the gospel tradition and its main stages of development stretching from the original events in the ancient world all the way to their reception in, and impact on, the modern world. He breaks the transmission down into six generally consecutive stages of development. I say “generally” because they are not completely distinct stages, strictly speaking, but they do generally flow from ancient to modern in terms of the focus for academic research. First, there is historical Jesus studies—which as its name suggests, is the historical task of reconstructing the words and aims of Jesus himself as he existed in history, before the writings we know as the Gospels were produced. Second, the early tradition encompasses both oral and written elements. Scholars who study the oral transmission of the gospel tradition are called form critics. Form criticism typically procedes by identifying distinct segments of material, classifying them according to type (e.g., miracle story, parable, hymn, pronouncement, and so on), discern their original function, then try to reconstruct what they looked like (or sounded like) before being included in the written document. Scholars who study the written sources of the gospel tradition are called source critics. Source criticism, simply put, studies the written sources that the evangelists might have used when composing their own written documents. This entails trying to figure out the relative relationship between the four canonical Gospels. The third stage in this sequence of tradition is the composition or redaction of the Gospels. Redaction critics study the way that the evangelists uniquely crafted their Gospels by selecting, arranging, and sometimes even emending, the stories they include. The goal is to discover something of the purpose and intention of the evangleists in the composition process. The fourth stage of transmission is manuscript preservation. Text criticism, as it is often called, studies the history and relationship of the manuscripts that provide the foundaiton for our modern critical editions of the Greek New Testament. This includes studying the various differences in manuscripts, their causes, and attempting to determine the initial reading of the text in each case. The fifth stage in the transmission of the gospel tradition is translation. Here Powell demonstrates how translating the Bible into English inevitably continues the process of developing the gospel tradition in new directions as translators wrestle with philosophical issues in their attempts to achieve varying degrees of clarity and accuracy in translation. Taking any utterance that originated in one culture and linguistic environment and trying to articulating it in another culture and linguistic environment can be incredibly difficult, and something is almost always lost in translation. The sixth and final stage of development is reception. This field of research studies how the gospels have been heard and understood down through the ages. As the gospel tradition is received in various groups that are situated in different social locations it has created different effects in its readers. Thus scholars have found value in studying the relationship between the perspective of the reader and the meaning that is found in the text. The various approaches that pay attention to this process of reception is sometimes called reader-response criticism. This field of study is further divided into several subdisciplines: rhetorical criticism, Wirkungsgeschichte, ideological criticism, postmodern criticism, and narrative criticism.

The central part of the book (chs. 2-5) is organized by devoting a chapter to each of the four canonical Gospels, with the chapter on the Gospel of Luke also including Acts. Each of these chapters follows the same basic format with four sections each. Powell begins each chapter with a section providing a source critical summary, commenting where appropriate on the general feel and structure of the Gospel and its relationship to the others. In the following section he describes from a literary standpoint the unique chracteristics of the Gospel. Next Powell walks the reader through a reconstruction of the historical context of the Gospel’s composition, considering in turn the question of authorship, location, date, and provenance. In the fourth and final section of each of these chapters he provides a description of the major themes as developed within the Gospel. This process is repeated for Mark, Matthew, Luke-Acts, and John.

The final chapter is devoted to a consideration of noncanonical Gospels. Powell limits his discussion to works that are typically considered to originate in the second century or, in a couple cases, to works that have garnered attention from New Testament scholars for various other reasons. He splits up the noncanonical Gospels into two groups.

The first group he labels “Narrative Gospels” because they comprise stories which relate to Jesus. The Protoevangelium of James which is more about Mary than Jesus, nevertheless contains some overlap with the canonical Gospels. It was popular among early Christians and remained so for many years, as evidenced by the manuscript tradition. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas focuses on Jesus’s early years as a child. It contains various miracle stories purportedly done by the child Jesus. This Gospel was not popular among church leaders presumably on account of the less than flattering picture it paints of Jesus. The Gospel of the Hebrews is only known through references to it in other documents. It was apparently received well by some heavy hitters in the church (e.g., Origen, Clement of Alexandira, and Jerome), but after the fifth century it dissapears from the historical record. Somthing similar can be said for the second century Gospel of the Egyptians which we also only know through several references in other works. The Gospel of the Savior concerns alleged speeches Jesus made toward the end of his life. Apart from its own manuscript tradition (which is small) it is not referred to by any others, good or bad. The Gospel of Peter is a second century account of Jesus’s passion. There is much overlap with canonical Gospels in terms of content, though not in wording. It was mentioned by the church historian Eusebius and also by Serapion, Bishop of Antioch.

The second group of noncanoncial Gospels Powell labels “Sayings Gospels” because they are not so much narrative as they are collections of teachings or sayings of Jesus. The Gospel of Thomas is perhaps the most important by all accounts. Its date and authorship have been of significant inderest to scholars. The fact that the death and resurrection of Jesus is absent from its purview and the theological dissonance between it and other early orthodox gospel traditions has also contributed to its significance for some New Testament scholars. It was used primarily by Gnostic groups. The Apocryphon of James reports Jesus’s teaching to James and Peter just before he ascends to heaven. The Dialogue of the Savior describes a conversation between Jesus, Matthew, Judas, and Mary, and is gnostic in its thematic content. The remaining Gospels Powell discusses in this group are gnostic in character (or anti-gnostic, as in The Epistle of the Apostles): The Gospel of Judas, The Gospel of Mary, and The Gospel of Philip. To sum up the chapter Powell himself puts it this way:

The noncanonical Gospels are a mixed lot: some were regarded as heretical by church leaders, or dismissed for some other reason, but othrs seem to have been less disparaged than they were simply marginalized.…Yet for the most part they did survive! They were copied and treasured, often for hundreds of years, even without official support or enduring, widespread popularity. (p. 245)

Mark Allan Powell has done a great service for students and interested lay persons by writing this book. It can be said with reasonable certainty that he has achieved his goal of orienting readers to the world of the Gospels and the scholarship that has helped us to understand them. A careful review of the end notes reveals that almost every single book that he references is a reputable scholarly academic work. He certainly has a firm grasp of the secondary literature on the Gospels. In line with the nature of textbooks Powell refrains, for the most part, from adjudicating on contentious or hotly debated issues, preferring instead to inform the reader of how various scholars deal with the the issues.

There are, however, a few matters where his own perspective shines through. To take one example, when he discusses the “synoptic problem” (pp. 22-27) he describes the three main views that scholars take, noting that the Two-Source Hypothesis is the most dominant view. It becomes clear in the remainder of the book that he takes the Two-Source Hypothesis—along with the postulated existence of Q—for granted (see pp. 95, 129, 147, 189). That being said, his personal bias does not get in the way of the overall objectivity of his presentation.

I offer the following reflections by way of personal response and engagament with other elements of Powell’s book. In the section dealing with historical Jesus studies (pp. 17-22), Powell gives the impression that this field of research is mostly about writing biographies about Jesus in the modern sense. In fact, Figure 3 (pp. 19-21) is labeled “Modern Biographies of Jesus,” and lists no less than ten major interpreters who have offered historical reconstructions of Jesus in recent years. I have not read all of these authors, but I am familiar with N. T. Wright’s work on Jesus. I do not think Wright would say any of his work on Jesus constitutes a “biography.” Especially considering that Powell only takes into account one of Wright’s books, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996). By contrast, Wright has written a biography on the apostle Paul—which has a very different texture to it than his work on Jesus—Paul: A Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 2018). I think Powell could improve this section by carefully distinguishing historical reconstructions from mere modern biographies.

In the chapter on the Gospel of Mark, Figure 16 (p. 75) compares the references to the “kingdom of God” with references in other Gospels to demonstrate the dominance of the concept in Mark’s Gospel. However, the figure does not display the many “kingdom of heaven” references in Matthew. It seems this would skew his representation of the situation in the chart, which gives the appearance of skewing the data to make a point.

Powell claims that Mark 1:9-11 is the only place in the Bible where the heavens are torn (pp. 78-79). However, Richard B. Hays offers a reading of this “tearing of the heavens” that is more convincing in my opinion, referring to a passage in Isaiah in which he cries out to God asking him how long until he “rends the heavens” and comes down to rescue his people. See Hays’s book, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2016), 16-20. Powell seems not to be aware of this other tearing of the heavens in Isaiah 64:1.

In the chapter on Luke-Acts Powell discusses the models for understanding Jesus drawn from the Greco-Roman world. He discusses several in partricular that I found insightful: Jesus as philosopher, immortal, and benefactor (pp. 160-62). These are thought-provoking comparisons. When reflecting on Luke’s motive behind such comparisons one is reminded of what Josephus did for the Romans in translating Jewish culture for a Roman audience (I am thinking especiually of his use of terms such as “wearing the diadem,” etc., in place of messiah language). See, on this point, especially Matthew V. Novenson’s The Grammar of Messianism: An Ancient Jewish Political Idiom and Its Users (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 145-148.

When describing the various models and images that Luke employs for understanding Jesus Powell concludes by saying, “Taken together, these glimpses provide a complex and somewhat confusing portrait of Jesus that would have offered most of Luke’s readers something that was familiar, mixed, perhaps, with much that was not” (p. 163). I do not think I would describe the results of Luke’s tapestry in this way. Luke’s portrait of Jesus may seem confusing to us but we must, in my opinion, maintain a hermeneutic of trust and assume that it made sense to his first readers.

There is one small lacuna in the chapter on the Gospel of John that relates to the identity of the author. Overall Powell does a good job of describing the complexity of the issue (pp. 196-200), but he does not mention the work of Richard Bauckham in this context. See especially Backham’s chapter, “Who Was The Beloved Disciple? (Continued),”  in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017). To be fair, he does reference others, but as far as I am aware Bauckham makes a contribution to the question that is somewhat unique. Although Bauckham’s position is, admittedly, a minority, he is an accomplished scholar in Johannine studies and so I think Powell’s section here would’ve benefited from mentioning his work.

When discussing the Gospel of John’s use of symbolism Powell mentions the piercing with a spear and the consequent flow of water and blood from Jesus’s side (pp. 191-192). He lists several interpretations that have been suggested (sacraments, forgiveness, Holy Spirit, etc.) including his own (birth). However, he does not mention the possibility of an intertextual allusion to Ezekiel 36:22-37:14. This is the interpretation that underlies The Bible Project’s video on “The Water of Life”: https://bibleproject.com/explore/water-of-life/

Let me hasten to say that all the above criticisms notwithstanding this is a wonderful textbook for Gospel studies. One of the greatest strengths of this book is the way it introduces readers to the world of biblical scholarship that informs our understanding of these texts so dear to us.

Tombs as Sacred Space in Second Temple Judaism and the New Testament

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Lightstone book cover

Jack Lightstone has written an interesting chapter on “The Dead and Their Tombs” in his book, The Commerce of the Sacred: Mediation of the Divine Among Jews ni the Greco-Roman World (Columbia University Press 2006). In the chapter he deals with the Hebrew Bible and other Judaic literature of antiquity. What would be very interesting indeed would be if someone would bring Lightstone’s chapter/thesis in conversation with the New Testament, especially with the New Testament’s account of the burial and tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.

“By the end of the Second Commonwealth, then, and possibly several centuries before, the tombs became a gate to heaven, as were the altars of Ancient Israel, rather than a passage to the netherworld.”¹ Lightstone also notes a striking correlation between two of Herod’s magnanimous building projects, namely, the mausoleum in Hebron and the Temple in Jerusalem: “The one is a scaled-down version of the other—with of course one major difference; in place of the Sanctuary, which occupied the center of the Temple compound, one has in Hebron the six raised tombs of the Mausoleum…Here, as at the altar, heaven and earth met.”²

One cannot help but wonder whether the early accounts of Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection are drawing on precisely this aspect of the first century Jewish cultural encyclopedia. One wonders, also, what the empty tomb might have to contribute to the conversation?


¹ Lightstone, The Commerce of the Sacred, 50.

² Lightstone, ibid., 51.

T. F. Torrance on the virgin birth

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I’ve been reading Thomas F. Torrance’s Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ a second time and I am once again struck with how profound Torrance is in his understanding of the incarnation of the eternal Son of God into our human being.

This is evident in his discussion of the virgin birth as a sign in relation to a thing signified:

The virgin birth cannot be understood apart from the whole mystery of Christ, apart from the union of divine and human nature in the one person of Jesus Christ. The virgin birth is the outward sign, the signitive form in humanity which the creative entry of the Son of God takes, when he assumes our human nature into union with his divine nature…[T]he mystery of the birth and the mystery of the person of Christ cannot be separated, and the mystery of the birth has to be understood  in the light of the mystery of his person, the sign in the light of the thing signified, not the thing signified in the light of the sign.

Or the insightful way he thinks about the virgin birth in relation to the resurrection:

In fact the birth of Jesus of the virgin Mary and the resurrection of Jesus from the virgin tomb (‘where no one had ever yet been laid’) are the twin signs which mark out the mystery of Christ…The incarnation is not only a once and for all act of assumption of our flesh, but the continuous personal union of divine and human nature in the one person of the incarnate Son, a personal union which he carried all the way through our estranged estate under bondage into the freedom and triumph of the resurrection…These are then the twin signs testifying to the miraculous life of the Son of God within our humanity, the one at the beginning and the other at the consummation of the earthly life of Jesus. Both these acts were sovereign creative acts of God’s grace in and upon and out of our fallen humanity, and they are, in the full sense, one continuous act including the whole historical life and work of the incarnate Son.

Or once again, explaining what the virgin birth teaches us about a new humanity:

[T]he incarnation of the Son in our humanity has its source in the hidden creative act of God, but it also assumes a form in the entry of the Son into our humanity which is appropriate to and is required by the nature of the incarnate Son as creator  as well as creature…It reveals God as the creator and redeemer actually with us in our estranged human existence, and as God bringing out of our fallen and sinful existence a new humanity that is holy and perfect.

Or, finally, consider how Torrance sees a fruitful analogy between the virgin birth and the salvation of each new believer:

John of Damascus remarked that Mary conceived through her ear: she heard the Word and the Word spoken by the Spirit in her ear begot himself in her and through her, and so the Word which Mary heard and received and obeyed  became flesh of her flesh. That is the normative pattern for the believer in his or her attitude toward the Word announced in the gospel, which tells men and women of the divine act of grace and decision taken already on their behalf in Christ…As in the annunciation of the word to Mary, Christ the Word himself became flesh, so in the enunciation of the gospel, we surrender in like manner to Christ the Word now made flesh, and there takes place in us the birth of Jesus, or rather, we are in a remarkable way given to share through grace in his birth and to share in the new creation in him. That is the Christian message – the Christmas message…What happened once and for all, in utter uniqueness in Jesus Christ, happens in every instance of rebirth into Christ, when Christ enters into our hearts and recreates us. Just as he ws born from above of the Holy Spirit, so we are born from above of the Holy Spirit through sharing in his birth.

 

The above selections of text are all quoted from chapter three, “The Once and for all Union of God and Man: Christ’s Birth into our Humanity” (pgs.87-104).

If you buy and read this book over Christmas it will be the most profound “Christmas book” that you read this year. Guaranteed.

Buy it from Amazon here: Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ

“Etched into the pattern of our life and work”

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[I]f we are to be kingdom-announcers, modeling the new way of being human, we are also to be cross bearers. This is a strange and dark theme that is also our birthright as followers of Jesus. Shaping our world is never for a Christian a matter of going out arrogantly thinking we can just get on with the job, reorganizing the world according to some model that we have in mind. It is a matter of sharing and bearing the pain and puzzlement of the world so that the crucified love of God in Christ may be brought to bear healingly upon the world at exactly that point. Because Jesus bore the cross uniquely for us, we do not have to purchase forgiveness again; it’s been done. But because, as he himself said, following him involves taking up the cross, we should expect, as the New Testament tells us repeatedly, that to build on his foundation will be to find the cross etched into the pattern of our life and work over and over again.

N. T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, pgs. 188-89

The cross of Jesus was the place, literally and theologically, where the love of God came to bear upon this world. The meaning for us us clear: to carry the cross, to be crucified with Christ, is to bring the love of God to bear upon the world at precisely that point.

One more comment…the above paragraph gets to the heart of why this blog has the name it does: The Cruciform Pen.

George Herbert, poet-priest

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Facts, events, and important dates

  • 1593–Born in Wales
  • Education–Trinity College, Cambridge
  • Held several academic posts in Cambridge, including a Fellowship at Trinity, appointed as Reader in Rhetoric, and then Public Orator.
  • 1624–Served in politics as MP in Parliament.
  • 1625–King James I dies, consequently Herbert decides return to his original intentions for ministry in the church.
  • 1630–Herbert ordained as priest in the Church of England.
  • 1633–Herbert struggled with Tuberculosis and eventually dies after a just a few years of pastoral ministry in the church.
  • All of George Herbert’s poetry was composed privately, not being published until after his death. This fact is a remarkable demonstration of his characteristic refusal to seek self-aggrandizement in life.
  • A Lesser Feast is dedicated to George Herbert in the Anglican Communion church calendar, celebrated on 27 February (hence, this blog post :))

Legacy

Herbert’s prose and poetry has left a lasting influence on others. Henry Vaughan, Charles Wesley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Gerard Manley Hopkins and C. S. Lewis are just a few names (more could be added) of people who have acknowledged their literary debt to Herbert; and that’s not to mention contemporary poets such as Luci Shaw or Malcom Guite.

He is best known today from two significant works, one prose and one poetry. The prose work is titled A Priest to the Temple or The Country Parson and it lays out his thoughts on the ministerial vocation. His insights in this book find richly suggestive connections in some of his poems on the same topic. His collection of poetry, which he gave to his friend Nicholas Ferrar on his deathbed, is titled The Temple. It is a brilliant masterpiece whose poems can be read individually (that is, as a collection of self-contained poems) or as a larger, longer work complete with thematic development as one progresses through the poems. Throughout The Temple there are dense allusions both to scripture and to other poems within the collection.

Some of his hymns are still sung in churches today (e.g., ‘The God of love my Shepherd is’, ‘Let all the world in every corner sing’, and ‘Teach me, my God and King’).

A poem

Prayer (I)

Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;  

Engine against th’ Almightie, sinners towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-daies world transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;

Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bels beyond the starres heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices; something understood.

~extract from The English Poems of George Herbert (Page 178). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

Malcolm Guite has an insightful reflection on this poem over on his blog. Click here to read it. He introduces the poem by describing it as

a kind of rainbow refraction of many insights, a scattering of many seeds broadcast. For each of these images is in its own way a little poem, or the seed of a poem, ready to grow and unfold in the readers mind. And the different seeds take root at different times, falling differently in the soil of the mind each time one returns to this poem. I have been reading it for over thirty years now and I still find its images springing up freshly in my mind and showing me new things. For the purpose of this Introduction we will delve in and examine four of these little seeds, these poems in themselves within the images, before we take a wider view and see how they all fit together in the larger poem itself.

To read Guite’s reflections on “four of these little seeds” click the link above or just buy his book Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination.

Further reading

There are many good editions of Herbert’s poetry that can be found. The books below are helpful introductions to his life and writings. Alternatively, if you are not yet ready to read a whole book, you can start by visiting this website that lots of interesting facts and resources: GeorgeHerbert.org.uk

Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert by John Drury

Heaven in Ordinary: George Herbert and His Writings (Canterbury Studies in Spiritual Theology) edited by Philip Sheldrake

A Year With George Herbert: A Guide to Fifty-Two of His Best Loved Poems by Jim Scott Orrick

A Prayer (from the Book of Common Prayer)

King of glory, king of peace,
who called your servant George Herbert
from the pursuit of worldly honors
to be a priest in the temple of his God and king:
grant us also the grace to offer ourselves
with singleness of heart in humble obedience to your service;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit ,
one God, now and forever. Amen.

*A note on sources…

The biographical information in this post was obtained from the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (edited by Livingston and Cross) and also from Saints on Earth: A biographical companion to Common Worship (by Darch and Burns).

Oxford NRSV

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My default translation is the NRSV (note: I say “default” not “favorite”). Recently the text block started to detach from the cover and so I decommissioned it. I thought about having it rebound but decided to just get a new one instead. I went with the Oxford NRSV without Apocrypha, genuine leather. Here are some pics:

It came with a nice two-piece cardboard box case.

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Genuine leather is typically a little stiff right out of the box. Because “genuine leather” is made from pig skin it is certainly not as supple as calfskin or goatskin, but it is still miles better than “bonded leather”. The gold foil really shows up nice against the black.

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The edge of the cover is stamped with a border which you can see in the picture below, along with the grain which is also stamped (as opposed to a natural grain)PQpuq+KbRbey8%3VM+USGw

The gold gilt line inside the cover is nice and thick.

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The sewn binding allows it to lay flat nicely. And the two golden ribbons complement the black cover.

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The pic below displays the way the two-column text block looks within a narrative book (the pic above displays the poetry format). I like that it is a simple text edition, without references or study notes, though if you want to write in the margins there isn’t much room for that.

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And now for the gymnastics…

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These pics show the relative strength and flexibility of the genuine leather. You can also see the nice shiny gold gilt page edges.

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Although the pages are smith-sewn the spine is glued together so that the sewn pages remain together. The glue that can be seen in the pic below could either be from that process or from glue used to attach the tail band.

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Unfortunately, there is considerable bleed through on the pages.

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Though, it’s not as devastating in the main text.

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There is a 96 page concordance in the back which, interestingly, includes references to the apocrypha. This is a nice feature if you have a separate copy of the apocrypha laying around.

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There are 8 pages of full color Oxford maps.

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My favorite feature of this Bible is the size. I have owned several premium Bibles but most of them are either too thick, too wide, or too small. This one is just right. Perfect size for personal reading, traveling with, and even preaching (if that’s something you do :)).

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All in all, this Bible manages to hold a nice in-between spot between cheaper and premium Bibles. The genuine leather will last much longer than bonded leather but does not cost nearly as much as goatskin or even calfskin.

 

Fortress Press Kindle Sale

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Fortress Press has a great sale going on right now for kindle books. Here are a few that caught my eye (averaging 85-95% off):

These are all great deals!

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Refugee by Malcolm Guite

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Rubens, Massacre of Innocents 2nd version

I have been reading some great poetry lately so I thought I would begin sharing some of it here. Sometimes I may share a few reflections in response to the particular poem. Today I simply share the poem itself. I read it a couple days ago in commemoration of the massacre of the innocents which was observed on December 28. It’s called Refugee by Malcolm Guite.

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,

Or cosy in a crib beside the font,

But he is with a million displaced people

On the long road of weariness and want.

For even as we sing our final carol,

His family is up and on that road,

Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,

Glancing behind and shouldering their load.

Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower

Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,

The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,

And death squads spread their curse across the world.

But every Herod dies, and comes alone

To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.

[Image credit: the Baroque painting above is Peter Paul Rubens’ second version of The Massacre of the Innocents]

Forthcoming Books

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Biblical Studies

Conformed to the Image of His Son: Reconsidering Paul’s Theology of Glory in Romans (Haley Grandson Jacob, w/ a foreword by NT Wright, IVP Academic)

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New Testament Christological Hymns: Exploring Texts, Contexts, and Significance (Matthew E. Gordley, IVP Academic)

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Jesus in Jerusalem: The Last Days (Eckhard Schnabel, w/ a foreword by Craig Evans, Eerdmans)

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Second Temple Judaism

T&T Clark Companion to the Dead Sea Scrolls (Ed. by George Brooke and Charlotte Hempel, T&T Clark)

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Commentaries

Galatians: A Commentary (Craig S. Keener, Baker Academic)

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The Letter to the Galatians NICNT (David A. deSilva, Eerdmans)

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Textual History of the New Testament

Can We Trust the Gospels? (Peter J. Williams, Crossway)

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An Echo of Ezekiel in the Mouth of Jesus

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Destruction of Jerusalem

Ezekiel 33:21-33 contains a report of the fall of Jerusalem. On the night before the herald arrived with that world-shattering news Ezekiel received a word from the Lord telling of doom that is to come upon the Judeans who remained in the land, the non-deportees (see v. 24 “the people living in those ruins in the land of Israel”). This is to serve as a warning for Ezekiel’s community who delight in listening to Ezekiel but with no true effect upon their hearts (cf. the repeated pronouncement, “they hear your words but do not put them into practice” vv. 31, 32).

This passage has a profound echo in Jesus’ words to his own contemporaries in Matthew 7:26; Luke 6:49: “everyone who hears my words and does not do them”. Jesus’ word brings with it a somber warning for those of his listeners who have ears to hear the echo of Ezekiel. Just as Ezekiel’s warning against hearing-without-acting preceded the terrible announcement concerning the ominous fate of Jerusalem, so Jesus’ foreboding words should be heard as a warning not unlike that of Ezekiel: if the people don’t respond with their whole hearts then Jerusalem will destroyed, again. 

Jesus came back to this motif again in Mark 13 (“not one stone will be left upon another” v. 2), Matthew 24, and also in Luke 19:41-48:

41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44 They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” 

45 Then he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; 46 and he said, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers.” 

47 Every day he was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him; 48 but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were spellbound by what they heard.

One curious feature of this passage is the final note that “all the people were spellbound by what they heard” (NRSV). Another translation has “all the people hung on his words” (NIV). This could also be seen as a faint echo of the contemporaries of Ezekiel who was told the following words: “Your people are talking together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, saying to each other, ‘Come and hear the message that has come from the Lord’. My people come to you, as they usually do, to hear your words, but  they do not put them into practice…to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well” (Eze 33:30-32). In other words, the people were mesmerized by the prophet. This was true of both Ezekiel and Jesus. But the dire predictions concerning the people and the beloved city of Jerusalem was also equally certain for both Ezekiel and Jesus:

Ezekiel 33:33 “When all this comes true—and it certainly will—then they will know that a prophet has been among them”

Matt 24:33-34 “When you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened”

The continuing relevance of Ezekiel’s message for Jesus’ contemporaries lay simply in this: if they did not turn from their zealous festering for violent revolt against Rome and heed his message (in other words, if they didn’t repent from their current aspirations and give allegiance instead to the ευγγελιον of Jesus) then the people of Jesus’ day would experience the same terrible fate as the people of Ezekiel’s day—a fallen city and all the horror that accompany it.