Seven Events that Shaped the New Testament World, reviewed

PrintWhat was the world–or, better, what were the worlds–in which early Christians lived?

Seven Events that Shaped the New Testament World answers that question by highlighting seven key “events” in the seven or so centuries surrounding Jesus. Here, from the table of contents, is what the book covers:

1. The Death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE)
2. The Process of Translating Hebrew Scriptures into Greek (ca. 250 BCE)
3. The Rededication of the Jerusalem Temple (164 BCE)
4. The Roman Occupation of Judea (63 BCE)
5. The Crucifixion of Jesus (ca. 30 CE)
6. The Writing of the New Testament Texts (ca. 50-ca. 130 CE)
7. The Process of “Closing” the New Testament Canon (397 CE)


Author Warren Carter uses each of the seven “as entry points, as launching pads, to talk about these significant and larger realities.” As one reviewer (whom I read before I read this book) pointed out, these events are not all “events,” per se. Events 2, 6, and 7 above are extended processes. Similarly (as the same reviewer also noted), the writing of the New Testament and the closing of its canon didn’t shape the NT world; they emerged from it.

That’s perhaps just a technicality, though. Carter seeks to be “transparently selective,” using “each event as a focal point for larger cultural dynamics and sociohistorical realities” of New Testament times.

Here is author Warren Carter introducing his book:


Carter’s analysis of how historical events shape culture–and how that should influence how we read and understand the New Testament–is incisive and engaging. Early on he writes, “Hellenistic culture did not suddenly replace all other cultures but entangled itself with local cultures to create multicultural worlds.” Given my interest in the Septuagint, I really appreciated his take on that Greek translation as “a way to negotiate a multicultural world.” He deftly explains to readers the intersection between Jewish, Greek, and Roman cultures.

Photographs, sidebars, and occasional footnotes contribute to the level of detail Carter provides. And yet his tone is conversational, and his narrative re-tellings engaging. Last summer I wrote about how I wanted to see Mark Wahlberg or Matt Damon in a film adaptation of 1 Maccabees. Carter’s narrative (ch. 3, “The Rededication of the Jerusalem Temple (164 BCE)”) is nearly as engaging as such a movie would be. In addition to telling the narrative, he has a sidebar on “identity markers” that unpacks the role played by boundaries of identity in Jewish and other religious traditions. His explanation of the difference between 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees was easy to follow and illuminating.

The conversational tone at times was a little too conversational for me. There is frequent reference to “the early Jesus movement,” when “early Christianity” would have sufficed. So, too, “Jesus-followers” could just have been called “Christians,” which I would have found less distracting. Of course, a biblical scholar will note that any of these terms are “problematic,” but the more conventional ones would have made for a smoother read, in my view. And I could have done without reference to early Christians as “reading with Jesus-glasses on” and statements like, “Only bad boys were crucified in Rome’s world,” not to mention the description of Alexander the Great as “a macho man, an action figure.”

I also thought that his emphasis on cultural backdrops was occasionally too strong. For example, comparing Jesus to Alexander, he writes, “In many ways, this presentation of Jesus as the man with great power who rules everything imitates and competes with the presentation of manliness that we have seen with Alexander, the world conqueror.” To speak about Jesus in terms of degrees of “manliness” is perhaps a category mistake. Carter’s mention of Philippians 2 and Jesus’ self-emptying is spot on, of course–I’m just not sure that Paul has imperial powers and the social construction of “manliness” in mind when he writes to Philippi.

Theologically conservative/evangelical readers will bristle a little bit at Carter’s statement about the New Testament that readers today “need to discern when to read against the grain” when it comes to groups that the NT seems to exclude. I don’t read Paul and the NT as “not always gracious to women,” as Carter does, and don’t think he somehow needs to be explained away in this manner. Of course, not all who read this review will agree with me either!

Those criticisms being present, Carter succeeds in the book’s aim: “The seven chapters of this book provide an orientation to some important aspects of the early Jesus movement and the New Testament. Reading it will enlighten you about the beginnings of the Christian movement and help your understanding of the New Testament.”

Though I did not agree with Carter on all his assessments, his description of seven key “events” (as well which events he chose to highlight) has enhanced my understanding of and appreciation for the context into which Jesus came and in which the church was born. As long as one reads critically (as one should always do), Carter provides a wealth of helpful information that is accessible to just about any student of the Bible.

Thanks to Baker and NetGalley for the e-galley to review. The book is on Amazon here. Its Baker product page is here. You can download a sample pdf of the book here. There is also a helpful interview with Carter here.

NA28 Greek New Testament text in Accordance


The NA28 Greek New Testament is now available for purchase in Accordance Bible Software. The text itself is free here. The Accordance version includes the apparatus, marginalia, and other nice enhancements. Here’s a screencast that shows how you can use the NA28 in Accordance:

More about the Nestle-Aland edition is here. Its Accordance product page is here, with an Accordance blog post about it here.

Gary Burge’s Jesus and the Jewish Festivals, reviewed

Jesus and the Jewish Festivals

In college I thought my friend Chad was really cool (he was) for climbing on top of college buildings late at night and shouting the Shema at the top of his lungs… until he was corralled by Public Safety.

Sh’ma Yisrael: Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad!

I learned my first Hebrew in Gary Burge’s Christian Thought class my senior year in college. He had us reciting the Shema (Deut. 6:4-5) in no time. We’d stand and say it out loud at the beginning of class: Sh’ma Yisrael: Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad! (Hear, Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one!)

I was never quite as bold as Chad with my recitation of the Shema, but it’s stayed with me these past 11 years since taking Dr. Burge’s class.

Burge’s writing in Jesus and the Jewish Festivals is just as good as his teaching in the classroom. Burge, a Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and Graduate School, focuses especially on the Gospel of John as he looks at Jesus and the Sabbath (ch. 2), the Passover (ch. 3), Tabernacles (ch. 4), Hannukah (ch. 5) and Jesus’ last Passover (ch. 6). Chapter 1 explores “the festivals of Judaism” more generally, while the final chapter (7) looks at what early Christians did with these Jewish festivals.

As Burge puts it, Judaism had three “great pilgrimage festivals”:

Burge_Pilgrimage Feasts

These three festivals

were based not only on the agricultural rhythms of the year, but also they served to tell the story of Israel’s salvation. Israel was rescued from Egypt (Passover, Pesach), Israel met God at Mount Sinai (Pentecost, Shavuot), and then Israel wandered in the wilderness (Tabernacles, Sukkoth). (122)

The chapters cover the original Jewish context of the festivals, Jesus’ relation to each, and then what faith looks like through the lens of that festival–both for Jews then and (especially) for Christians now.

As with other books in the Ancient Context, Ancient Faith series, Jesus and the Jewish Festivals is printed on glossy paper and full of high-quality, color illustrations. It’s like a guide book in that regard. I don’t know whether it was Burge or an editor or both, but the photographs and charts throughout the book are expertly placed and reinforce the text at just about every turn. For example, this image appears in conjunction with Burge’s description of the Passover:


As Burge recounts John 6 and the feeding of the 5,000, he notes that “Passover themes were swirling around almost every aspect of the story” (60). Further, Jesus “is the manna from God’s treasury for which Israel has been waiting. He had been sent by God as manna descended in the wilderness” (63). Then, there is always application to people of faith today: “Therefore celebrating Passover is not only knowing about what happened yesterday–though this is important–it is also about knowing the God who desires to feed us now” (65). I have always appreciated this way of approaching biblical studies with a doxological posture.

Another thing I appreciated about Jesus and the Jewish Festivals is the ease with which Burge uncovers layers of meaning in the Gospels, showing how Jesus related to the major themes of Jewish festivals. I found my own gratitude for Jesus’ sacrifice, for example, greatly enhanced by the author’s description of Jesus’ last Passover. As Burge puts it: “If we understand these festivals and their symbolism, then suddenly we understand the more profound things about Jesus and his work” (31, italics original). The color illustrations make Burge’s explanations even more vivid.

My critiques of the book are few and minor. At times there is what seems to be just a wee bit of speculation on the part of the author as he explores symbolism in John. For example, he says, “But I am convinced that Jesus wanted to die during the Festival of Passover because of the profound meaning it would convey with regard to his sacrifice” (102). Burge doesn’t further elaborate, and this seems a difficult (though not impossible) claim to support.

Jesus and the Jewish Festivals would be aided by a Scripture and subject index at the back of the book. I also found myself wanting more explanation of the Jewish calendar. Page 26 has a nice figure that shows all the months of the calendar of Judaism (together with various festivals noted), but a little more about its construction would have even further undergirded Burge’s tour of the festivals.

I really enjoyed reading Jesus and the Jewish Festivals. Not only did I find my knowledge and understanding of the Jewish festivals refreshed and expanded; I also grew in my appreciation of Jesus and his work due to the connections Burge made. This seems to have been an intention of this book, and in this regard, it is quite successful. Anyone who wants to better grasp Jesus’ words and work in the Gospels, whether pastor or parishioner, scholar or student, would do well to work her or his way through Burge’s short volume.

Thanks to Zondervan for the review copy. Jesus and the Jewish Festivals is on Amazon here. Its product page is at Zondervan’s site here.

An All-Greek Bible, coming this fall?

German Bible Society

I hope this is real:

Just found this on –… Someone likes you, @drjewest LXX/NA28! #lxx #na28

— Chuck Grantham (@ChuckGrantham) April 8, 2013

(via Jim West)

Yes, this does appear to be a Greek Old Testament (LXX) and Greek New Testament (NA28under one cover. Here’s the product page. The thing is more than 3,000 pages and expensive. And those dimensions of 18.4 x 13.3 (inches) can’t possibly be right.

But we’ll see. I know a guy who knows a guy, and he’s asking to see if it’s real. I’ll post again here if what we’re really seeing is just a remnant of an April Fool’s Joke on CBD….

UPDATE: Note the comment below from Rick Brannan of Logos, reproduced here: “FWIW, I asked a guy I know at Hendrickson about this and he said it was real, said it would be at SBL in Baltimore, and reported the issue with dimensions (the dimensions are likely in centimeters and not inches).”


SECOND UPDATE: A few more product details here.

The Handy Guide to New Testament Greek, reviewed

Handy Guide to GNT

Recently my Greek reading has improved due to spending regular time refreshing my memory on verb paradigms, rules of syntax, and so on. The tool I’ve been using is Douglas S. Huffman’s Handy Guide to New Testament Greek (Kregel, 2012). Huffman’s Handy Guide consists of three parts:

  1. Grammar (“Greek Grammar Reminder: With Enough English to Be Manageable”)
  2. Syntax (“Greek Syntax Summaries: With a Few Helps to Be Memorable”)
  3. Diagramming (“Phrase Diagramming: With Enough Results to Be Motivating”)

“A Select Bibliography” concludes the guide and points beginning, intermediate, and advanced Greek readers to grammar texts, reading resources, diagramming helps, and more.

Handy Guide to New Testament Greek joins a number of similar little books already on the market for reviewing and retaining Koine Greek. There is Biblical Greek: A Compact Guide, a helpful and portable distillation of Mounce’s popular grammar. One might also consider Dale Russell Bowne’s Paradigms and Principal Parts for the Greek New Testament, Paul Fullmer and Robert H. Smith’s Greek at a Glance, and even the back of Kubo’s Reader’s Lexicon for its solid summary of Greek grammar with paradigm charts.

How does Huffman’s offering differ? Unlike Paradigms and Principal Parts or Greek at a Glance, the Handy Guide consists of more than simply verb paradigms or noun declension charts. It includes those, but with accompanying explanation along the way. In this regard it is similar to Mounce’s Compact Guide.

Different from Mounce, however, is the lack of any vocabulary-related helps in Huffman. It’s hard to imagine someone wanting a “handy guide” to “New Testament Greek” who doesn’t also want some treatment of vocabulary, which Mounce’s guide accomplishes nicely with its included brief lexicon. Huffman does include information about how words are formed, in his chart on comparative and superlative adjectives, for example:

Huffman Guide sample

But vocabulary is otherwise absent from the guide.

Part 1, “Greek Grammar Reminder,” covers everything from accents and breathing marks to nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and verb declensions. (Verb paradigm charts take up the majority of part 1.)

Huffman’s “Verb Usage Guide” (from part 2) contains a refreshing amount of detail on Greek verbs for such a short guide. For example, he lists 20 categories of participles followed by a “Participle Usage Identification Guide” to help readers of Greek texts determine what kind of participle is at hand. Part 2 also explains noun case usage. His explanations of nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, and vocative cases are short, clear, and include plenty of examples with Scripture references.

Where Huffman is really unique (and what makes this guide desirable especially for a second-year Greek student or pastor) is in his part 3 on diagramming. He briefly treats “technical diagramming” (the kind some of us had to do for English in 5th grade–showing syntactical relationships at the word level) and arcing, then moves into a rich, 22-page description of “phrase diagramming,” which looks like this:

Huffman, p. 103 (1 Peter 1:3-4)
Huffman, p. 103 (1 Peter 1:3-4)

The goal of this kind of diagramming is “to grasp the writer’s general flow of thought and argument, which he has expressed in particular words and sentences” (85). Huffman’s eight steps to phrase diagramming explain the process so that even a beginner can understand it well. His “Special & Problem Issues” section is the icing on the cake of part 3.

The guide is truly “handy”; it fits nicely together with a Greek New Testament, so one can keep it close at hand. The color-coding in the paradigms is done well, so that verb endings stand out for an easy refresher course.

An unfortunate and fairly noticeable drawback to this guide, in my view, is in the layout and color scheme. The orange theme, as attractive as it looks on the cover (pictured above), gets to be an eyesore after looking at more than a page or two. It’s too bright to read comfortably, and there are charts with at least four different shades of orange.

When there is Greek in black font (in grammatical category explanations), it looks great. But the Greek in the charts in orange has a fuzzy or slightly blurry, pixelated appearance. There are also quite a few charts that are in landscape orientation (rather than the default portrait orientation), so that the reader has to flip the book sideways. That alone would not be a huge deal, but the orange was distracting to me.

Hopefully there will be demand for future printings, and hopefully future printings will make the layout and fonts more useable. And despite the omission of vocabulary, this guide has great content. Resources on sentence and phrase diagramming for Greek are few and far between, but Huffman’s guide covers that territory well, and having that coupled with quick-reference charts will help just about anyone seeking to retain and improve their biblical Greek.

Kregel sent me a copy of the book for review. Its product page is here, and it’s on Amazon here. The Table of Contents are here (pdf); read an excerpt here (pdf).

Weekly Greekly Lectionary Confectionery

If your church uses a fixed Sunday lectionary, I found a great blog for you this week. Looking at the Greek (and English translation) of the Gospel reading each week, Left Behind and Loving It is a help to preachers (and parishioners) who want to explore the text in depth.

The Greek is there, but knowledge of it certainly isn’t required to make use of the site. Posts come early in the week, too–no “Saturday specials” here!

Jesus Makes a Pun in the Synagogue

Jesus Reads in Synagogue
Jesus makes a pun in Luke 4. I’m not the first one to notice this, but it stood out to me as I read my way through Luke 4:14-21 this past week. I’m preaching on the passage at my church tomorrow.

Jesus enters the synagogue at his hometown of Nazareth in Galilee and opens the Isaiah scroll to Isaiah 61. In the NIV, the Luke passage reads as follows:

The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

But a few verses later (v. 24) Jesus tells the people, “No prophet is accepted in his hometown.” (They tried then to throw him off a cliff.)

The play on words Jesus uses is not readily evident in most translations, but Jesus uses the same word for favor (“year of the Lord’s favor“) as he does for accepted (“no prophet is accepted“). It’s a rare enough Greek word Luke uses, that I can only conclude it’s deliberate–this is the only passage in all the Gospels to use this word. (For Hellenophiles who read this blog, the word is δεκτός.)

The translations aren’t necessarily wrong to obscure the fact that it’s the same word in each verse. After all, context determines meaning, so even this same word carries different nuances the two times it’s used.

But the irony is that in this year of the Lord’s favor, which Jesus notes later in the passage begins “today,” even his hometown will not accept him. There is no acceptance (δεκτός) of this favor (δεκτός).

And before we rush to point backwards at the hard-heartedness of 1st century Nazareth, perhaps we easily enough realize those ways in which we fail to accept the favor that God would lavish on us. May Jesus give us sight where we do not see all that he comes to offer us.

3 More Romans Monographs to Check Out

Abraham by Wordle 2

To add to the three books I mentioned in yesterday’s post, here are three more books about Romans I’ve enjoyed using the last couple months, with sample quotes.

Benjamin Schließer, Abraham’s Faith in Romans 4: Paul’s Concept of Faith in Light of the History of Reception of Genesis 15:6. (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007.)

The foregoing overview of the interpretation of Gen 15:6 in Jewish theology has yielded a wide array of results and by no means a straightforward line of development in the way how the authors conceived of Abraham’s faith and God’s judgment on it.

Krister Stendahl, Final Account: Paul’s Letter to the Romans. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995.) (I reviewed Stendhal here.)

Consequently, Romans is central to our understanding of Paul, not because of its doctrine of justification, but because the doctrine of justification is here in its original and authentic setting: as an argument for the status of Paul’s Gentile converts on the model of Abraham (Romans 4).

Gerhard H. Visscher, Romans 4 and the New Perspective on Paul: Faith Embraces the Promise. (New York: Peter Lang, 2009.) Here is Visscher’s outline of Romans 4:

Rom. 4:3-8: Paul’s First Argument from Genesis 15:6
Rom. 4:9-12: Second Argument from Genesis 15:6: Faith, Circumcision, and Gentiles
Rom. 4:13-22: Third Argument from Genesis 15:6
Rom. 4:23-25: Fourth Argument from Genesis 15:6: “For us also…”