RBL: Questioning Covenant Theology and Divinity

Two RBL reviews for brief discussion.

McGinn, Sheila E., ed.
Celebrating Romans: Template for Pauline Theology: Essays in Honor of Robert Jewett
Review by Julia Fogg

One thing in Fogg’s review caught my eye. Apparently James Dunn is challenging ideas of covenant theology in Paul, arguing that “promise theology” better describes Paul’s thought. Very interesting. I wonder how compatible this “promise theology” is with Philip Esler’s ideas. (I think Esler is correct in refuting Wright’s ideas about covenant theology.)

Neyrey, Jerome H.
Render to God: New Testament Understandings of the Divine.
Review by John Mason
(There’s another review by Richard Edwards, posted back in May.)

Neyrey is one of the oldest members of the Context Group, and from Edwards’ review, we see that he follows many scholars in arguing that Jesus isn’t equated with God until John and Hebrews. He frames the discussion in terms of patrons, clients, and benefactors. Thus in Mark, Jesus is the faithful client, God the patron; in Matthew, Jesus is again the client, God again the patron but even more so a benefactor — “the relationship with God is based not on performance but on God’s applied mercy”; in Luke the relationship between God and humanity extends beyond that of patron-client, since God is humanity’s benefactor who continually cares for people; in Paul Jesus is no longer a client, rather “an elevated conduit of God’s mercy”, with the apostle serving the role of a broker. In John, Jesus is finally equal to God; and in Hebrews, he is even more clearly God, enjoying the deity’s primary characteristics. Jesus is thus either client, conduit, or patron (deity), depending on the writer.

But Philip Esler, another Context Group member, follows Richard Bauckham’s view that Jesus is seen as divine in all the NT sources, that high Christology happened more as a “big bang” than evolution. It will be interesting to see more debate about this, especially when Bauckham completes his two-volume project on Christology.

Anne Rice and Jesus

Jim Davila notes Anne Rice’s upcoming book, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, featuring none other than Jesus as the lead protagonist. I have a somewhat lower opinion of Rice than Davila does, though I liked a few of her older novels. The problem is that she has a habit of running too far with a good idea until it’s completely stale. The first three books of The Vampire Chronicles are pretty good, but everything following in the series is a waste of time. The Witching Hour tells a powerfully original story, but the sequels (Lasher, Taltos) are appalling. She gets lazy in subsequent installments, more interested in subjecting the reader to heavy doses of pseudo-theology than just telling a good story.

I suspect this book on Jesus will be entertaining if nothing else.


Brandon Wason, Mark Goodacre, and Jim West all kick around the definition of a biblioblog.

Wason/West: “…a weblog that focuses primarily on Biblical Literature, related fields, and occassionally contemporary events. It’s purpose is to offer news, opinion, and conversation for those interested in the Biblical text. Biblioblogs occassionally refer to personal matter, but that is not the primary focus.”

Goodacre (more simply): “…blogs which have a primary focus on academic Biblical Studies.”

Jim West notes further that while some biblioblogs are “pure”, focusing almost exclusively on biblical studies, most of them throw personal, political, and theological postings into the mix.

I’d say that probably at least two-thirds of a biblioblogger’s postings should relate to the topic at hand (biblical studies), though forays into unrelated or quasi-related territory are nice too. Sub-topics of my blog include the theological world-view of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, and the field of evolution/evolutionary psychology. Sometimes sub-topics relate back to the main. For instance, I recently compared the way Paul uses the figure of Abraham with the way Tolkien uses the character of Sam. Next week I want to post on the phenomenon of lying and deception, as it applied specifically to people from the biblical world, and more generally to homo sapiens as a species, and what we can say about “lying” in general. (So we need to brace ourselves for strong doses of cynicism next week.)

Most are aware of Biblioblogs.com, run by Wason and West. They offer a good list of biblioblogs, though there may be more out there which deserve to be included.

Book of Vile Darkness

Over the weekend I bought a supplemental manual for the Dungeons & Dragons game, called The Book of Vile Darkness. It caught my eye with the warning label, “Intended for Mature Audiences”, though I don’t think it’s quite as extreme as some reviewers make it out to be. I partly agree with the reviewer at RPGnet:

“I don’t think Wizards of the Coast wanted a mature book on evil, but wanted to present the idea that they were going to target the more mature side of the D&D consumer base… Book of Vile Darkness smacks more of cartoon villainy than an actual attempt at any sort of vile horror or evil. It appears, after all, the real evil of a campaign is to be blamed on the devil. What about the world’s evil: like pedophiles, rapists and other degenerates? Why are they missing in a mature title about the nature of evil?…

Book of Vile Darkness was undercut to make it more a marketing ploy than an actual book about evil that could scare the hell out of the reader. Is the book mature? Yes, and no. Mature enough that some of the concepts might send a few players tittering away at the mention of necrophilia and other topics, but then, the History Channel can cover those topics, as well as Discovery, without the delve into the juvenile mindset.”

This is a healthy corrective to some of the more squeamish (or righteously indignant) reactions to the book. On the other hand, I wouldn’t exactly call this material “cartoon villainy”. It involves plenty of the “worldly evil” demanded by the reviewer: masochism, sadism, torture, disease, necrophilia. It may be a bit top-heavy on demonology, but that’s what the game involves. Some of the spells are quite creative. I particularly like the one which allows an evil priest to transform into a disease — actually become the disease itself — and invade someone accordingly. Imagine what that would be like?

Anyway, this stuff will doubtfully find its way into the teen program at my library, but for mature role-players who like running dark campaigns, I recommend The Book of Vile Darkness without reservation. As the author Monte Cook puts it, the darker the evil, the more good will shine in the end.

Rude Reality and Reinterpretations

Sean du Toit objects to many arguments set forth in my post on the empty tomb. Sean wrote:

Why is it surprising that more Jewish groups didn’t make wild and offensive claims in order to make success of their failures? I don’t think that it is. Jewish groups weren’t in the habit of making things like this up to compensate for failed dreams. They didn’t do this with other messianic failures, why should we suppose that they did it with Jesus? Following this, I’m not at all sure that it is abundantly plain that apocalyptic groups become wildly creative, unpredictably creative, in the face of failed expectations.

But of course they do. Many apocalyptic movements die, but many survive. Those which do survive always find ways of coping with their dashed hopes. Dale Allison has noted many cases of such “secondary exegesis” (see Millenarian Prophet, p 94 and The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate, pp 87, 103). When the Guarani prophecies failed, for instance, shamans attributed the failure to messenger birds being killed so that the ritual dancing couldn’t achieve its goal. William Miller calculated the date of Jesus’ second coming, and when Jesus didn’t show up some of Miller’s followers said that Jesus had gone instead to a “heavenly sanctuary” in order to begin a new phase of salvation history. Members of a Baha’i sect predicted earthquakes and a meteor striking the earth in 1991, and when nothing happened, the leader explained that there had been a “spiritual earthquake” instead. Muhammad Ahmad preached that Allah would come to earth and destroy the oppressors of humanity; when that didn’t happen, his later followers said that Ahmad himself had “destroyed oppression” as a reformer of Islam.

There is no difference — none whatsoever — between these preposterous claims and that of the early disciples, that their leader had been resurrected in the middle of history before the apocalypse. Meaning, there was no more precedent for these particular claims than there was for that of the early Christians. Wright makes a big deal out of the “lack of precedent”, but there’s no obstacle here.

“Rude reality reinterprets prophecies,” as Allison says (The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate, p 87), and as the gospels illustrate. Jesus’ prediction that the temple would be destroyed and rebuilt in three days is a glaring example of a failed prophecy given forced reinterpretations. What’s the difference, really, between John’s bodily temple (Jn 2) and the Bahai’s spiritual earthquake?

Sean continues:

The thought that transphysical visions of the dead are common is also hard for this student to digest…Now how does one have a vision of transphysicality? I may be arguing semantics, but I’m confused as to how one can say that you can “see” [vision] transphysicality. Just because one has a vision that is interactive [hear, see & touch], does not make the vision transphysical. So this is a misnomer.

Allison’s point is simply that reported visions share a lot in common with “transphysicality” as Wright defines the term, despite the fact that Wright supposes Jesus’ transphysicality to have been rather unique. That’s all.

My last quibble with Loren’s comments is that I’m not convinced that because of this mysterious vanishing act, we today have the doctrine of the resurrection. Maybe I’m being pedantic, and if so please forgive me, by the doctrine of resurrection precedes Christianity by some time. Wright and others have demonstrated this well.

I’m talking about the sectarian (Christian) doctrine of the resurrection, not the standard (Jewish) one. Because of the empty tomb, we today have the Christian idea that Jesus rose from the dead before the apocalypse.

Why did the early Christian movement believe this had already happened to Jesus? Why did they not just die out like many other messianic movements that lost their leader? Why make the daft claim that God had acted so decisively, if he clearly hadn’t?

Let’s try this again. History shows us plainly that some millenarian movements die while others continue in defiance of reality. The latter are perfectly capable of “secondary exegesis”, or creative revisionism, as mentioned in the examples above. However, people generally resort to such revisionism in the face of failure (cognitive dissonance), and the disciples would not have seen Jesus’ death as a failure. There’s a difference between being demoralized and failing. Jesus’ suffering and death would have squared with what he told them to expect in the tribulation period. So the disciples had no need to resport to revisionism after all — that is, until such revisionism was imposed on them by the sight of Jesus’ empty tomb. It took the empty tomb to do this.

So it’s in this sense that Allison believes Wright is correct, but only despite himself. The Christians made a “daft claim”, as you say, because the revisionism was imposed on them. Allison and Wright both think it took the empty tomb (in conjunction with visions) to yield the radical resurrection belief. But they arrive at this conclusion very differently — Allison, I think, with better sense and caution. Allison also happens to be more humble about what we can say actually happened to Jesus’ body. Answer: any number of things.

Thanks to Sean for engaging these important issues.