A wife for Jesus?

Front of papyrus fragment, Karen L. King, 2012

Did Jesus have a wife? Does it matter?

In the last two days I’ve seen about 50 Facebook status updates from friends and groups I follow, each with their own take on the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” papyrus that Harvard Professor Karen L. King recently announced. (Nerdy grammatical excursus: King has titled the papyrus with Jesus’s, but I follow Strunk and White and prefer Jesus’.)

The Harvard Divinity School press release is here. It begins,

Four words on a previously unknown papyrus fragment provide the first evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus had been married, Harvard Professor Karen King told the 10th International Congress of Coptic Studies today.

The papyrus has been dated to the 4th century and is written in Coptic, the alphabet of which has overlap with the Greek alphabet. King has postulated, in fact, that the Coptic in this little fragment may have translated a Greek original.

The key quote from the papyrus is translated, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife….'” It then gets cut off. Go here for a full translation, as well as helpful Q&A with Professor King.

It seems to me there are two primary questions on folks’ minds right now. First, is this thing real or a fake? Second, did Jesus have a wife, or could he have?

In pursuit of these questions, I spoke with two Professors of Biblical Studies at Gordon College, a top Christian liberal arts school, located just north of Boston. Was Jesus married?

“Is there anything in the Gospels that would give us a hint he was married? I don’t think so,” noted Professor Marvin R. Wilson. “If he was married, how come he says to his beloved disciple at the cross, ‘Take my mother,’ not ‘Take my wife’?”

The significant woman in Jesus’ life, for whom he is looking out in his final hours, is his mother Mary, not a wife.

All the same, Wilson said, “It’s a good question. One who had no marriage would certainly have been the exception. We have an exception in Jeremiah, but that was a divinely commanded celibacy.”

Wilson noted, however, that the assertion that Jesus had a wife is still an argument from silence. “Certainly he had a wonderful ministry with women. We know the 4th century was a time of theological clarification (Council of Nicea) as well as turbulence. This Coptic text may have represented a small sect of aberrant Christians that had broken away from the larger–yet still emerging–traditional community.”

Is there much at stake in the question of whether or not Jesus had a wife?

“Certainly I don’t think any key issues of the Christian faith are at stake here. If Jesus had a self-imposed celibacy because of the work he was called to accomplish, that would make him unusual, but not unique.”

Professor Steven Hunt noted, “There’s so much we don’t know about it yet. It’s apparently a very small fragment.”

Regarding the authenticity of the papyrus, he added, “I’m perfectly willing to go with [Professor King] and say that it’s an authentic fragment of some document that’s now lost, but it’s probably speaking more to the nature of debates in the 3rd and 4th century about sex and marriage… it’s almost certainly not giving us accurate information about the historical Jesus.”

More interesting than the fragment itself, Hunt noted, is the question, “Would Christians be troubled to find out Jesus was married? The fact that many would, may really be quite suggestive, especially if their reaction was rooted in a negative attitude toward bodily existence in general and sexuality in particular.

“So, while there’s no good historical evidence that he was [married], from my perspective,” Hunt said, “it’s not really theologically problematic to suggest that he could have been. Since the Bible affirms the essential goodness of marriage and sexuality, what would be the problem with that?”

What kind of Messiah was Jesus?

What kind of Messiah was Jesus?

Recently for a seminary class I had to describe the difference between “the Maccabean hope in a Messiah and Jesus’ fulfillment of that hope.”

Maccabean hope on first glance would appear to be a hope in military power. This poem at the beginning of 1 Maccabees 3, for example, extols Judas for his might (NETS translation):

And he spread glory to his people and put on a breastplate like a giant and strapped on his war instruments.

And he conducted battles, protecting the camp by the sword.

And he resembled a lion in his works and was like a whelp roaring in the hunt.

And seeking out the lawless, he persecuted them and burned up those who disturbed his people.

And the lawless drew back for fear of him, and all the workers of lawlessness were disturbed, and salvation was successful by his hand.

1 Maccabees closes similarly, in 16:23-24:

The rest of the acts of John and his wars and the brave deeds that he did, and the building of the walls that he completed, and his achievements, are written in the annals of his high priesthood, from the time that he became high priest after his father.

It is difficult not to read Maccabees as, in some sense, a narrative of one war after another. There was a Maccabean respect for leaders/priests who would lead them in battle. Certainly, then, the expectation of a Messiah would have been affected by this. “Maccabean hope” would have called for a Messiah to be a Jewish freedom fighter—in the militaristic sense of the word.

However, I think there is another, perhaps fuller way of understanding “Maccabean hope in a Messiah” that honors the author of 1 Maccabees and that book on its own terms. While a Maccabean hope certainly expected military might from a Messiah, Mattathias and his sons above all valued upholding the law. Their military resistance flowed from and was a result of that desire to keep the law.

1 Macc. 2:27 has, “And Mattathias cried out in the city with a loud voice, saying, Let everyone who is zealous in the law and is upholding the covenant follow me’” (my emphasis, from the NETS again). Only having established zealousness in the law did Mattathias and his family wage their series of wars. (Although these few verses are preceded in 2:24 by Mattathias killing a Judean man who was making a sacrifice that was not in accordance with the law!)

So, to try to read 1 Maccabees on its own terms, Maccabean hope in a Messiah must have been hope in a Messiah who was “zealous in the law” and who was “upholding the covenant.” Christians believe that Jesus was the perfect fulfillment of the law. But the descendants of the faithful Hasidim mentioned in Maccabees did not see it that way.

As I recently read through 1 Maccabees, I was surprised by how much anti-Gentile language and imagery there is in the book. In the institution of Hannukah at the end of 1 Macc. 4, to take just one example, there is a sense of fortifying the temple against the Gentile enemies.

I can appreciate the need for protection and purity–especially given how the temple had been profaned previously. This was truly a matter of life and death for God’s chosen people, physically and spiritually. But I wanted to say to the Maccabees’ author and the Maccabean family: With all due respect, what about all those verses in the prophets and other parts of the Hebrew Scriptures that say things like “nations will stream to your light” and “all nations will be blessed through you“?

Law-abiding Jews who were influenced by 1 Maccabees seem to have been expecting a Messiah who would clear the temple of the nations/Gentiles, as Judas Maccabeus did. Instead, Jesus reminded the Jewish people of their own Scriptures that said the temple was to be a house of prayer “for all nations” (Isaiah 56:7).

What kind of Messiah was he, then?

Jesus fulfilled his role as Messiah by being a conqueror, but not in an earthly, militaristic way. He fulfilled the law, but did not uphold it in a manner many had hoped for. And he drew all nations to himself, but in a way that angered anti-Gentile, exclusivist Jews.

A zealous Jewish freedom fighter? Yes. But not like Maccabees.

Would Mark’s Jesus have us handle snakes and drink poison? (part 2 of 2) (BibleWorks 9 review, concluded)

The Gospel of Mark has a couple of possible (disputed) endings. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the options for how to understand Mark’s closing chapter.

It is the so-called longer ending of Mark that has Jesus appearing to some of his followers and talking about their picking up snakes and drinking poison.

Of course, even if the longer ending is authentic and original to Mark, there is still the matter of interpretation. As a way to complete my review of BibleWorks 9, I set out to use BibleWorks to try to examine some of the manuscript evidence. A BibleWorks module of Daniel Wallace’s Greek grammar (included in BW9) offered some insight into interpretation, which you can read briefly here (screenshot).

BibleWorks 9 features the BibleWorks Manuscript Project, where you can “compare and analyze original manuscript text and images.” As a part of the Analysis Window, the manuscripts are integrated with the Browse Window, so that as you move around in the latter, the former tracks with you. The perfect complement to the Manuscripts Project is the Center for New Testament Textual Studies’ (CNTTS) NT Critical Apparatus. BibleWorks describes it:

For the first time, the New Testament Critical Apparatus from the Center for New Testament Textual Studies is available for PCs. This exhaustive apparatus covers the entire New Testament. The BibleWorks version has been enhanced to show a matrix of Aland categories and time period for the mss for each reading. Users will especially appreciate having the apparatus track and update as the mouse moves over the text in the BibleWorks main window. In addition, the start of each verse entry summarizes the significant, insignificant, and singular variants. When examining a variant, the text of the verse is shown with the variant text highlighted. No unlock required!

You can’t get NA27 and its textual apparatus in BibleWorks but with what CNTTS offers (it’s thorough), it doesn’t matter! Greek textual critics benefit immensely from the additions in BibleWorks from version 8 to 9.

BibleWorks has some great mini-training videos. Here they explain the CNTTS Apparatus. And here they discuss the Manuscripts Tab. If you’re serious about either (a) considering purchasing BibleWorks 9 or (b) have it and want to figure out how to use those two features, those two videos will get you there.

Now, on to the manuscript evidence regarding Mark’s ending in BibleWorks 9. This gives an idea of what the program can do in an applied Bible study.

If I’m wondering what Codex Vaticanus (“B”) has in Mark 16:9, I can simply select that Codex in the drop-down menu in the Mss Tab. (BibleWorks refers to it as m-3, too.) The screenshot below (click for larger) shows that there’s no image for Vaticanus at 16:9. This is because Vaticanus ends Mark at 16:8.

Note, too, something I find exceedingly helpful in the bottom right of the shot above–a key to not only BibleWorks’ manuscript numbering system but to abbreviations for manuscripts, their dates, and their contents. This is the stuff budding text critics always have to look up, flipping from page to page and resource to resource. (Or just using that little insert in the NA27. But this is easier!)

In fact, by right-clicking when you do see an image (e.g., Vaticanus at Mark 16:8), you can “load image in viewer” to pull it out and look at it more closely. There you can zoom and drag your way through the various parts of the text. It looks like this:

The top right section of the Mss Tab (in the full screenshot image above) lines up the various readings available in the manuscripts that BibleWorks contains. I can quickly see that “A” (Alexandrinus) and “W” (Washingtonianus) do have text for a longer ending of mark. Pulling up the image for Alexandrinus, I see this for Mark 16:9 ff.:

Hovering over the verse references (superimposed over the manuscript) brings up the pop-up window that you see there, where I can compare the given manuscript, the English, and the BGT Greek text in BibleWorks. (!!) This is all pretty amazing.

The Mss Tab is easy to figure out. Using the CNNTS Apparatus was less than intuitive for me. But this BibleWorks video explained it quite well. I’ve had to work at it to figure out how to best use it, but having done that, it’s a great apparatus. Especially helpful is its classification of variation types (significant, insignificant, lacunae, etc.). The Apparatus is chock full of abbreviations to learn, but what critical apparatus isn’t? And this one hyperlinks the abbreviations to what they stand for, so it’s not too bad.

For the Greek manuscripts that include some parts of the Septuagint (Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, Alexandrinus), I would love to be able to see both testaments in future BibleWorks editions. That was a loss for me, especially given my appreciation of the Septuagint. So be aware that even though BibleWorks has images of manuscripts that contain parts of the LXX, it’s just the New Testament that appears in BibleWorks.

But the images are already some 8 GB, and this is a work in progress (with future updates promised), so the lack of the LXX/Old Greek is understandable. Viewing Hebrew manuscripts in the future would also be awesome! Until then, what BibleWorks includes and gives the user access to (as part of the purchase price) is pretty remarkable.

BibleWorks won’t actually answer the question I posed in the title of this post: Would Mark’s Jesus have us handle snakes and drink poison? Exegetes will always have to interpret and answer questions like this. (This one’s a bit of a softball, admittedly.) BibleWorks also can’t determine with certainty what the actual ending of Mark is.

But it can sure show you a lot of evidence, and give you just about everything you need to try to have an informed opinion on the matter. Being able to look at images of actual manuscripts still boggles my mind. And it’s not only being able to view those manuscripts (much of which you could do online anyway)–it’s the fact that they’re tied to BibleWorks’ analysis tools that’s truly astounding to me. BibleWorks has enhanced my Bible study immensely.

BibleWorks 9 is easily a five-star program in my book. I’ve enjoyed being able to review it.

See all that’s new in BibleWorks 9 here.

I received a free upgrade to BibleWorks 9 in exchange for an unbiased review. (Thank you, BibleWorks!) See the other parts of my BibleWorks review here. You can order the full program here or upgrade here. It’s on Amazon (affiliate link), too.

Would Mark’s Jesus have us handle snakes and drink poison? (part 1 of 2) (BibleWorks 9 review, continued)

First century snake handler?

Many believe that Mark’s Gospel ends rather abruptly at 16:8 (“for they were afraid”), but others have found it difficult to think of a Gospel ending with Jesus’ followers’ being afraid to say anything to anyone about the resurrection.

So there is the so-called shorter (add-on) ending of Mark, which adds to the above, “…the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation” (RSV). This has 10 words that otherwise appear nowhere else in the book.  In my view the vocabulary and style of the shorter ending do not seem to fit well with the rest of the Gospel, and have the feel of an effort to give the book closure well after the fact of the writing.

Then there is the so-called longer ending of Mark, which is also not satisfied in ending with his followers’ fear. This records Jesus’ appearance to some of his followers, as well as the commissioning of his disciples, including the hard-to-understand reference to picking up snakes and drinking poison.

Mark could well have ended with “For they were afraid”–Mark is not unknown for being abrupt—nor would he have a problem upbraiding (or reporting Jesus’ upbraiding) people for their lack of faith or for their fear.  But would someone who started so positively with a proclamation of Jesus as “Son of God” in 1:1 have truly ended on such a dour note?  One possibility is that Mark’s original ending was lost.  R.T. France says, “It is one thing to emphasise and exploit paradoxical elements within the story of Jesus’ ministry and passion, as we have seen Mark doing again and again, but quite another to conclude his gospel with a note which appears to undermine not only his own message but also the received tradition of the church within which he was writing” (683).

Of course, lacking evidence of such a “lost” ending means that to postulate one is speculative, and it is perhaps a wiser hermeneutic to accept the text as we have it to be the intended one.

Can BibleWorks help here? One of the major new features in BibleWorks 9 is the BibleWorks Manuscript Project. From the BibleWorks site:

This massive project has been years in the making. BibleWorks 9 includes the first installment of this ongoing work. The BibleWorks Manuscript Project’s initial release covers the following:

  • Sinaiticus
  • Vaticanus
  • Alexandrinus
  • Bezae
  • Washingtonianus
  • Boernerianus
  • GA1141

For these manuscripts, the BibleWorks Manuscript Project includes the following:

  • New full NT transcriptions
  • Complete NT digital image sets (over 7.5 GB!!)
  • Verse location tagging in images
  • Extensive transcription notes
  • MSS comparison tool
  • Morphological tagging (not complete for all manuscripts but updates will be provided free of charge to BibleWorks 9 users as they become available)

Manuscripts are fully searchable and integrated with the full array of BibleWorks analysis tools. As you change verses in BibleWorks, the MS image display tracks with the current verse. Compare, inspect, and analyze the text and images of key original manuscripts. Tweak and enhance the manuscript images using the sophisticated image processing panel now included in BibleWorks.

Before I could even get into the manuscripts, there were two ways BibleWorks immediately helped me to explore this issue. First, with my NET Bible notes open in the Verse Tab (which I review here), I see a nice, lengthy note that explains the options–with manuscript evidence–for Mark’s possible ending. (You can see the NET note itself by clicking on footnote 9 here.) That much I’ve come to expect from BibleWorks.

What pleasantly caught me by surprise was that the NET note mentions a section in Wallace’s Greek Grammar that discusses the grammar of the contested snake-handling verses. I quickly and easily navigated over to the “Resources” tab in my analysis window and looked it up (click for larger image, or open in a new tab):

Wallace’s grammar is free with BibleWorks, a nice bonus. And it’s set up so that as you’re working your way through a text, Wallace tracks with you, so you can easily look up what he has to say about a given verse or grammatical topic.

Already some great help from BibleWorks in exploring a difficult textual issue. In my next post, I’ll use BibleWorks to get into the Mark manuscripts themselves, exploring the possible endings of the Gospel of Mark.

See all that’s new in BibleWorks 9 here.

I received a free upgrade to BibleWorks 9 in exchange for an unbiased review. See my prolegomenon to a review here, part 1 (setup and layout) here, and part 2 (the Verse tab) here. You can order the full program here or upgrade here. It’s on Amazon, too.

James (Zondervan ECNT), reviewed

James is no “epistle of straw,” as Martin Luther once (in)famously said of the book. But many–with Luther–find it difficult to reconcile Paul and James on faith and works.

Paul: “A person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”

James: “A person is considered righteous [i.e., justified] by what they do and not by faith alone.”

Here I review James by Craig L. Blomberg and Mariam J. Kamell, from Zondervan’s Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (ZECNT) series. (Click here to find my review of Luke in that same series; below I use some of my same wording from that post to introduce the ZECNT series more generally.)

Like the rest of the ZECNT series, James is “designed for the pastor and Bible teacher.” The authors assume a basic knowledge of Greek, but Greek is not required to understand the commentary. For each passage the commentary gives the broader literary context, the main idea (great for preachers!), an original translation of the Greek and its graphical layout, the structure, an outline, explanation, and “theology in application” section.

The introduction covers an outline and structure of James, the circumstances surrounding its writing, authorship and date, and significance of the book. It is shorter and less detailed than the introductions in Douglas Moo’s James commentary and that of Peter Davids. Immediately I looked for how the authors would resolve the Paul/James (alleged) discrepancy, but they note in the introduction that they discuss James’s theology after “the commentary proper.” (The ZECNT series has a separate “Theology” section at the back of the book that most other commentaries include as part of the introduction.)

They give just two paragraphs in their theology section–with a bit more in the body of the commentary–to “Faith and Works” (compare Moo’s lengthier discussion in his introduction), but they have their reasons for this:

Contrary to what the extent of the discussion of the topic might suggest, faith and works is not the main focus of James’s letter. It is a subordinate point that grows out of his concern for the poor and the dispossessed (2:14-26; cf. 2:1-13).

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that this idea of faith and works as a subordinate point in James had not really occurred to me prior to working with this commentary. (A good trait in a commentary to produce such thoughts!) But if you click on the references above or look through James 2 (and the rest of James) in your Bible, it’s easy to see where the authors are coming from.

In fact, the “three key topics” in James, according to Blomberg and Kamell, are “trials in the Christian life,” “wisdom,” and “riches and poverty.” They follow Davids here, and note that James 1:2-11 lays out each of the major themes, which James then restates in 1:12-27. 2:1-5:18 then consist of “the three themes expanded,” in reverse order, followed by a closing in 5:19-20.

Blomberg and Kamell are “the first to grant that we may still be imposing more structure on the text than James had in mind.” All the same, their outline of James makes it easier to work through the book, and then finally does, I think, justify their claim in the theology section that “faith and works” is not the central theme of the letter and should be considered in its broader context. Still, they do have a good way forward in understanding Paul and James together: “But this action, these deeds or works, are not put forward in any attempt to merit God’s favor but as the natural, spiritual outgrowth of one’s faith.”

As with Luke, the graphical layout of each passage (in original English translation) is a unique contribution in James. Being able to see main clauses in bold with subordinate clauses indented under them (plus how they relate back to the main clause) gives the reader a quick, visual grasp of the entire passage at hand. See page 45 of the commentary in this sample pdf to see how it looks. This is a highlight of the ZECNT series, and the fact that it’s in English makes it all the more accessible. The translation is smooth and readable, doing great justice to both the Greek it translates and the English language.

James has the full Greek text of James, verse by verse, and the full English translation (passage by passage in the graphical layout, then again verse by verse next to the Greek). As I’ve said before, a value for me in using reference works is not having to pull five more reference works off the shelf to use the first reference work! The authors make comments like this one in 1:5 throughout the work, wedding grammatical and lexical analysis to exegetical application:

We are told to ask of the “giving God” (διδόντος θεοῦ). Here the present participle suggests that “giving” represents a continuous characteristic of God.

To take another example, on James 2:20, which they translate, “Do you want to know, O empty person, that faith without works is workless?” they write:

James incorporates a pun on the word “work” (ἔργον), using the negative adjective from the same root–“workless” (ἀργή). The term can also mean idle or useless. Faith that lacks works does not work! In other words, it is entirely ineffective to save.

Teachers and preachers especially will appreciate the “Theology in Application” section that concludes each passage. James may already strike the preacher as a book that just preaches itself, but the authors do well in helping the preacher connect the text with today’s concerns. For example, for 2:14-17 they note that although James

provides no treatise on the most effective ways to help the poor…, true believers will take some kind of action. At the very least, they must cultivate generous, even sacrificial giving to help the poor as part of their ongoing personal and corporate stewardship of their possessions. But in light of systemic injustice, we probably need to do much more.

Amen. The authors go on, “James certainly would share the concern of liberation theologians to do far more for the poor, individually and systemically, than many branches of recent Christianity have attempted” (my italics). Moo agrees–though he wants to distance himself “from an extreme ‘liberation’ perspective,” he says “we must be careful not to rob his denunciation of the rich of its power.” And James 5:1-6 are pretty damning of the powerful rich who use their power to oppress the poor.

The authors write,

[These oppressors] are the financially wealthy in a world where the rich occupied a miniscule percentage of the population. James does not call them to change their behavior. Instead, he warns them of impending disaster in their lives by commanding them to mourn their coming fate. …”Wail” [ὀλολύζοντες] appears in the LXX of the Prophets in contexts of judgment and can refer to inarticulate shrieks of terror. …James makes it clear that these rich people are going to undergo a terrible ordeal.

There were a few times in the “Theology in Application” section that I wondered (as other reviewers have) whether the authors weren’t getting a bit off-topic from the text. For example, on 3:9-12 they say,

Abortion and euthanasia offend God deeply because they take lives made in his image. But abuse or neglect of the poor and outcast (including the homosexual) proves equally offensive because such treatments likewise demean individuals God made to reflect himself.

They say this to argue against the “stereotypical agendas of both the political and religious ‘right’ and ‘left,'” but it was hard for me to decide whether this was a case of applying an ancient text well to a contemporary set of issues, or if it was an anachronistic stretch. Nothing they say here is incongruent with James, but I did wonder here (and in another place) whether those verses in James really speak to issues like abortion and homosexuality. A minor critique, though.

Those working their way through the Greek of James may still want to have Davids on hand. But as with the Luke volume in this series, the combination of close attention to the Greek text with contemporary application makes James a commentary very much worth using. I know I will want to go back to this commentary right away when I am doing work with the book of James in the future.

(I am grateful to Zondervan for the free review copy of this commentary, which was sent to me with the understanding that I would then write an unbiased review. You can find the book on Amazon or at Zondervan.)

What language did Jesus speak?

In my top 10 reasons why you need the Septuagint I conclude with the #1 reason being that the Gospel writers record Jesus’ words as occasionally matching the Old Greek of the Hebrew Bible against the Hebrew. This has become a new research interest of mine, and there is no lack of scholarly opinion on the issue! It’s hard to tell if there’s scholarly consensus. The conventional wisdom seems to be that Jesus spoke Aramaic and read from and recited Hebrew scrolls, but that’s certainly not a universal view, from what I can tell. For example, Stanley E. Porter suggests:

… Jesus not only had sufficient linguistic competence to converse with others in Greek but also even to teach in Greek during his ministry. 

I believe that, first, it can be firmly established that Jesus did speak Greek and that we do indeed have some of his actual words. 

Porter explores the question “Did Jesus Ever Teach in Greek?” here (pdf). Thanks to the LXX Yahoo! group for the link.

Forsaken: Did God the Father kill Jesus on the cross?

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

“Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”

“I and the Father are one.”

Wondering how these three verses of Scripture fit together? I often have. Cognitive dissonance finally got the better of me, and I decided I should try to think through this one a little more deeply. To that end I read Thomas H. McCall’s Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why It Matters (InterVarsity Press, 2012). Here, on Magnificent Monograph Monday, I offer a review of the book. (Thanks to IVP for the free review copy, in exchange for an unbiased review.)

First, the very short summary of my review, if you want to cut to the chase and head off and do something else after this next paragraph.

McCall tackles some difficult questions: “Did God forsake Jesus [on the cross]? Did the Father turn his back on the Son in rage? Was the Trinity ruptured or broken on that day?” His answers and arguments are rooted in Scripture, the history of interpretation of that Scripture, and are consistently compelling. McCall really helped me through my own struggles to grasp some of these questions, leading me to a fuller understanding of the life of the Trinity and the relationship between its persons, particularly in terms of what happened on the cross. And he spells out the implications of his assertions beautifully. God is not divided, he concludes, but God–all of God–is for us. So we can rejoice and rest secure in that. Five stars, no doubt.

McCall writes “not for other scholars…but for pastors, students and friends–indeed, for anyone genuinely interested in moving toward a deeper understanding of God’s being and actions.” Forsaken is heavy theological lifting for a non-scholar (and not lightweight for a scholar, either), but the effort is well worth it. McCall answers some very common questions people ask (or are scared to ask and should ask) about the Trinity, also showing ramifications for our relationship to God.

Forsaken has four chapters. Each asks a theological question, addresses it, then concludes with some theological assertions to avoid, some to affirm, and why it matters.

The first chapter asks, “Was the Trinity Broken?” Here McCall discusses the theological concept of “dereliction,” or the idea that Jesus was abandoned by God on the cross. Recent theology notwithstanding, McCall makes a strong Scriptural case that God the Father did not forsake the Son on the Cross. Understanding Psalm 22 as an “interpretive key” to Jesus’ death, McCall writes:

No, the only text of Scripture that we can understand to address this question directly, Psalm 22:24, says that the Father did not hide his face from his Son. To the contrary, he has “listened to his cry for help.”

Not only that, the author argues, but if God truly had forsaken Jesus, why would Jesus bother–after his cry–to say, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”? Jesus “prefaces his last words with a sense of deep relational intimacy: Jesus addresses his ‘Father.'”

In chapter two McCall asks, “Just what are we to make of the biblical witness to the wrath of God? Is it opposed to his love? Is it a ‘dark side’ to God that is inconsistent with his holiness or with his mercy?” He makes a pretty hard-to-argue-with case that “the biblical witness does not set love and wrath in opposition to one another.” McCall, I thought, was at his best in this chapter when he highlighted multiple New Testament references to wrath–not only the wrath of God generally, but Jesus’ wrath specifically. So there’s no Old Testament God=wrath, New Testament God=mercy conclusion to be drawn from the Bible. The author utilizes the theological categories of divine impassibility and simplicity to show that “wrath” as God exhibits it is not what we might envision in human anger; rather, it is an expression of holy love.

McCall’s third chapter asks whether God’s divine foreknowledge means that God killed Jesus, since he knew it was going to happen, could have stopped it, but didn’t. “God’s plan was to use the death of Jesus for his purposes and for our good,” but God himself did not cause the death. As Acts so often makes clear, McCall points out, “The apostolic proclamation of the gospel places the fault and blame on the sinners who are responsible for the death of Jesus.”

Chapter four articulates a robust theology of justification (forensic; instantaneous; by which I enter into the life of God) and sanctification (separation unto God; progressive; by which I grow in communion with God). Page 145 and following has a brilliant interpretation of Paul’s famous Romans 7:14-25 passage where he (seemingly) wrestles with sin.

One difficult implication of this book for me as a worship leader (and coach of worship leaders) is that, if McCall is right, we may be singing some not-quite-right theology in two well-known songs. “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” has a line that says, “The Father turns his face away.” And the song “In Christ Alone” says, “…till on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” McCall addresses these two claims head on and (in my opinion, successfully) refutes them. The Father did not turn his face away (see the block quote above). And to say that God the Son mollified the wrath of God the Father is to bifurcate the Trinity in some unorthodox ways. (!)

I’m not sure if it’s generally accepted for a book reviewer to admit to shedding tears when reading a review copy. (Objectivity! Right?) No matter. McCall’s concluding postscript (“A Personal Theological Testimony”) moved me to tears, as he recounted the difference “the trinitarian gospel” made for him and his family as they processed the death of his father.

Getting the theological details of the Trinity right (as best we can!) matters. It matters for our understanding of God, our relationship with him, and for all of life. In the life and truths of the Trinity–properly understood, and I think McCall a good guide here–there is great comfort. We see a God who, as McCall says, is for us. We find a God who has granted us victory over sin and death, making it possible for us to enter into communion with the triune God of love.

You can find Forsaken here at the IVP product page or on Amazon.