Category Archives: Book Reviews

Here I Stand – Review

Here I StandWith the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, I felt compelled to do some reading on Martin Luther. I had a book on my shelf that had been there for a while and so I grabbed Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand.

This is not a new book. Bainton died in 1984 and Here I Stand was published in 1950. Anyone looking to do some serious study on Luther will want to consult some newer books.

Still, I quite enjoyed Here I Stand. Bainton was a talented writer and I truly felt like I was getting to know Luther. The book was filled with illustrations that were created at the time of Luther and it only made the story more real.

Bainton focuses on the adult life of Luther and perhaps bypasses some of the negative aspects of Luther more than people would like. That is not to say that he ignores all of Luther’s faults. I found particularly interesting the discussion of Luther’s interactions with Zwingli and with the Anabaptists.

If you would a good and solid introduction to Martin Luther, I would recommend Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand. It is a good start to more recent and intensive studies on Luther.

The New Testament and the People of God – Review

New Testament and the People of GodOne of the most influential New Testament scholars today is N.T. Wright. While some find him controversial, it is difficult to argue against his intelligence and output of biblical and theological content.

One of his major projects is on Christian Origins and the Question of God. While I had read the second and third volumes in this series, I finally had the opportunity read the first, The New Testament and the People of God.

In some ways the title is misleading as only a small portion of the book is actually on the New Testament. Still, this is an important book as it lays all the historical framework for the volumes that follow.

Many readers want to just jump into the biblical text and discover the interpretation. But Wright asks us to pull back and reflect on the nature of history. How can we know things as history? Wright navigates through a number of theories and lands on critical realism. It is very helpful discussion that is stretching to those not familiar with the theoretical nature of history.

One of my favourite parts of the book is his presentation of Second Temple Judaism (see my episode on Second Temple Judaism). An important part of the third quest for the historical Jesus is to interpret him in his Jewish context. Students of the New Testament are fooling themselves if they think a good understanding of the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) is enough. Much of Jewish thought of the first century was developed in the so-called intertestamental period.

Wright takes us through the tales of the Maccabees and summarizes much of the Jewish history given to us by Josephus. Wright presents the data from the appropriate sources and correctly warns us about the problems of using later rabbinic sources (e.g. Mishnah, Talmud) to reconstruct first century Jewish thought.

This book introduces an idea that is influential in the rest of Wright’s understanding of the New Testament. Wright believes that the Jews still considered themselves in exile, even after Cyrus the Great allowed them back in their homeland. The reason for this is that promises of renewal found in the Prophets had not appeared. Jews, such as the Qumran sect, looked forward to an eschatological fulfillment that end exile.

The volume concludes with an introduction to the New Testament. More than a quest for the historical Jesus, this section is a quest for the early church. That is not to say Wright is pessimistic about the historical Jesus, but this is important background. Later volumes delve much more into the historical Jesus.

Although this is a fairly thick book, I was able to read quite quickly. Wright has a readable style and is gifted at explaining complex ideas. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and highly recommend it for anyone interested in the New Testament.

The Synoptic Problem: Four Views – Review

Synoptic ProblemHistorians who look at Jesus through the Gospel sources quickly notice that there is a relationship between them. Matthew, Mark and Luke (as opposed to John) have similar stories and at times match each other word-for-word. The nature of the relationship is called the synoptic problem (Matthew, Mark and Luke are the synoptic Gospels).

Stanley Porter and Bryan Dyer have edited a nice volume called The Synoptic Problem: Four Views that looks at four ways of explaining the relationship between the these three Gospels. I should note that I have studied under both Craig Evans and Stanley Porter (I even co-wrote a book with Stan).

The basic questions that are addressed revolve around the order in which the Gospels were written and the specific relationship between Matthew and Luke.

Craig Evans presents what is the majority opinion among New Testament scholars today. This is called the Two Source Hypothesis (also called the Four Source Hypothesis). This theory argues that Mark was written first and that it was used as a source by Matthew and Luke. The material that is common between Matthew and Luke but absent from Mark is posited as coming from a hypothetical source called Q. Thus the two sources are Mark and Q. When this theory is called the Four Source Hypothesis, it is from Mark, Q and the material unique to Matthew (M) and unique to Luke (L).

A theory that I have been eager to learn more about is the Farrer Hypothesis, a theory that has breathed new life through the work of Mark Goodacre. This theory shares with the previous hypothesis the priority of Mark. Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source. However, where it departs is when it comes to Q. Instead of having a hypothetical document, this theory argues that Luke used both Mark and Matthew as sources.

One that I was not as familiar is the Two Gospel Hypothesis. This theory, as described by David Barrett Peabody, rejects the idea of Markan priority and Q. This theory accepts the early Christian belief that Matthew was written first. Then Luke used Matthew as a source and finally Mark used both Matthew and Luke as sources. Thus the two Gospels for this theory are Matthew and Luke, since Mark is only a conflation of the two.

The final view is significantly different. The Orality and Memory Hypothesis is offered by Rainer Reisner. This theory argues that the relationships between the Gospels can be explained by their use of oral traditions. This theory is the most difficult of the four summarize but it does have some interesting ideas.

I went into this book with reasonable confidence in the Two Source Hypothesis and I do believe Evans does a masterful job of presenting it. But my confidence was shaken after reading this book. Goodacre presents a simpler view that dispenses with Q but still explains the relationships. While Mark looks like the earliest Gospel to me, Peabody’s theory has support from early Christian tradition. Finally, Reisner’s work on the oral traditions needs to be taken into account.

I really appreciated this The Synoptic Problem: Four Views, including the respectful tone used by the authors when interacting with each other. This is a valuable resource and I intend to use it as a text in a future course I will be teaching.

Did Jesus Exist? by Bart Ehrman – Review

Did Jesus ExistAnything about the Jesus Myth Theory quickly comes up on my radar as it is one of my main areas of research. For that reason, Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? has been on my must-read pile for some time.

In some ways, this is a surprising book for Ehrman to write. Ehrman is a former evangelical who has lost his faith and now identifies as an agnostic (see my article Losing Christianity). Ehrman regularly writes books that are critical of the Bible and Christian theology.

Did Jesus Exist? took two groups off guard. Jesus mythicists (those who deny Jesus existed) are often agnostics and atheists. Ehrman, as a respected New Testament scholar, would be valuable on their side. More than once, Ehrman has surprised mythicists by contradicting their claims about Jesus.

Evangelical Christians, especially those involved in Christian apologetics, have also had to rethink Ehrman. While his other books seem critical of Christianity, at least in its evangelical form, Ehrman provides in this book a helpful resource for refuting the Jesus Myth Theory.

There is much about Did Jesus Exist? that I liked. It must be granted that Ehrman is a gifted writer. Ehrman has done what many scholars cannot do, and that is present technical theories that the average layperson can understand.

I also appreciated Ehrman’s summary of the development of the Jesus Myth Theory. Not only does he he provide the history, he distinguishes between those forms of the theory that deserve a response and those that go beyond the fringe.

Ehrman persuasively argues that the Gospels should be used as historical sources. Mythicists frequently dismiss the Gospels as historical sources because of their status as religious scripture. Ehrman responds:

“The fact that their books later became documents of faith has no bearing on the question of whether the books can still be used for historical purposes. To dismiss the Gospels from the historical record is neither fair nor scholarly.” (p. 73)

While providing a convincing case that Jesus existed, Ehrman also responds to mythicist claims about pagan inspiration. Ehrman clarifies the current scholarly understanding of “dying and rising gods.” While this theme was made popular by James George Frazier (1854-1941), more recent scholarship has been much more skeptical. One scholar who done much to debunk the idea of the dying and rising gods is Jonathan Z. Smith.

One of the things I disagree with Ehrman is his conclusion that the New Testament is “filled with discrepancies and contradictions” (p. 182). My problem with this is not based on clinging to a theological doctrine of inerrancy. Rather, having studied the New Testament and compared them to other ancient writings, I find the New Testament to be rather consistent. There are definitely differences between the Gospels, but they differences are much smaller than even what we get when Josephus records the same event in Antiquities and the Jewish War.

I also disagree with Ehrman’s view that a divine understanding of Jesus was a later invention. Not only do I see evidence of this in Mark’s Gospel, I think it is clear in Paul’s letters, which Ehrman agrees are our earliest Christian writings. I won’t fully respond here, but I will recommend Pauline Christology by Gordon Fee and my podcast episode Jesus: Before the Early Years.

Having said that, I do appreciate this book by Ehrman. I respect him from following the evidence where it leads and not giving in to the mythicist camp, even though they would gladly take him.

Christians will find a number of things in Did Jesus Exist? that they will disagree with. Still, this book provides both a compelling case for the existence of Jesus and a damaging critique of the Jesus Myth Theory.