Book Reviews

Book Highlight: Christian Dogmatics

Or: “Don’t Forget Your Theology”

This post is a little bit outside of my usual strike zone for an Old
Testament and Septuagint Studies blog like this one. So I’ve titled it a “Book Highlight” since that seemed to make sense, although the spirit of this post is a review. But, having read and thoroughly appreciated Michael Allen and Scott Swain’s manifesto for scriptural interpretation, Reformed Catholicity, I knew that I had to read this volume too: Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic (Baker 2016). 

This volume is essentially a one-stop tour of theology from a broad and historically Reformed perspective. Almost every major loci of dogmatics is treated by an academic dream team of scholars from numerous institutions. They are all eminently qualified for the task. Each essay is about 25 pages long, and is equally introductory, thorough, and intellectually challenging. It would make an excellent text for the college or master’s level theology course.

Part of what I particularly like about this book is that, while its contributors set out to explicate their theological topic according to the historically Reformed approach, not all of them are formally affiliated with that tradition itself. To quote the introduction, “What binds the different essays together is their attempt to draw on the fecund resources of Holy Scripture within the context of the catholic church of the Reformed confessions … [and their contributors’ commitment] to the proposition that theological renewal comes through dependence upon the generative resources of the Triune God in and through the gospel and that such dependence is best expressed in our particular historical moment by way of retrieval” (p. 2).

The basic idea behind “theological retrieval” is that the contemporary theological task must be undertaken with the full history of tradition that has sustained the faith that has come before it. This will include, of course, the orthodox creeds and confessions, but also earlier theologians and exegetes from the Church Fathers up to and beyond the Reformers.

Contents

Just have a look at the range and caliber of contributors to get an idea of the quality of contributions:

Introduction  Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain
1. Knowledge of God  Michael Allen
2. Holy Scripture  Kevin J. Vanhoozer
3. Divine Attributes  Michael Allen
4. Divine Trinity  Scott R. Swain
5. Covenant of Redemption  Scott R. Swain
6. Creation out of Nothing  John Webster
7. Providence  John Webster
8. Anthropology  Kelly M. Kapic
9. Sin  Oliver D. Crisp
10. Incarnation  Daniel J. Treier
11. The Work of Christ Accomplished  Donald Macleod
12. The Work of Christ Applied  Richard Gaffin
13. The Law of God and Christian Ethics  Paul T. Nimmo
14. The Church  Michael Horton
15. Sacraments  Todd Billings
16. Kingdom of God  Michael Horton

Add to that the remarkable collection of figures who have endorsed the book. I am not going to go into detail describing the content of each chapter, in part because it’s obvious what each deals with. But also, to be honest, because I haven’t finished working through them all yet! It is a dense and richly rewarding read, I can attest, and I don’t plan to rush. Instead, I’ll give some macro-level thoughts on the vision of this volume and highlight its intersection with my normal wheelhouse: biblical studies.

Scripture and Theology

It is an eminently biblical principle that faith and knowledge of God is to be passed from one generation to another (Exod. 13:8-10; Ps. 44:1; Deut. 4:9; 2 Tim. 4:1-4). Each generation therefore receives and is trained in the gospel from those before it, and this process therefore rightly generates a tradition, biblically conceived (1 Cor. 15:3). Helpfully, Allen and Swain distinguish between the biblical concept of theological tradition – being intellectually and spiritually shaped by the Christian confession – and mere “custom” that may perpetuate error through history (p. 5). To that extent, the task of this volume is dogmatic, and not “systematic.” The latter implies doctrinal deduction from a logical principle, while the former entails reflection on the task of Christian confession to “equip the saints for a more faithful hearing of and testimony to the words of the prophets and apostles” (p. 6).

Simply insert “biblical” before “critic.”

There is a persistent notion in the biblical studies academy that our discipline is a non-theological discipline, especially Old Testament studies (where sometimes one gets the feeling that it is an anti-theological discipline for some). Even academics who are active in and practicing some faith tradition (yes, including evangelicals) sometimes prefer to tell themselves they have “turned off” their theological thinking while exegeting scripture. The logic here is that doing so is somehow a more “pure” reading of the text, one that does not “fill in” (or, even worse, eisegete) theological categories that are alien to the virgin text. To change the metaphor, this turns into a kind of interpretive bumper bowling, where a strike is an objective and historically accurate understanding of the ancient text, and where throwing a gutter-ball is “thinking too theologically” and thus “straying” from the goal. Because biblical studies deals with physical evidence like manuscripts or archaeological realia, and intersects with “secular” fields like theoretical linguistics, the logic seems to go, our discipline requires “objectivity” and “disinterest.”

Of course, biblical studies is different from theology. Dogmaticians like those who contributed to this volume have a closed corpus of texts to interact with: the biblical canon. Now, the whole idea behind this volume is to self-consciously allow the weight of Christian tradition – biblically defined – to inform the theological task, which entails a huge range of “secondary literature” for study and reflection. But, unlike in biblical studies, it is exceedingly rare that something “new” comes up in theology. In fact, when that happens, it’s usually a bad sign. In biblical studies, however, it is not all that uncommon for something new to literally be dug up: a manuscript, an inscription, an ancient ruined city, whatever. Very often, these discoveries have some significance to the various tasks of biblical studies – sometimes with enormous implications, as with the discovery of the Qumran Scrolls in the Judean desert. So, to some extent, it’s understandable that biblical scholars often seem their discipline as “scientific” in a way that theological studies is not. The two departments do very different things much of the time.

Next year’s SBL conference will be held here.

But not all the time. There is and must be overlap between the two. That is underlying idea of biblical theology, for one thing, and has been increasingly acknowledged in the so-called Theological Interpretation movement. But more than that, we cannot claim to approach any intellectual discipline severed from our faith commitments. That goes for textual and linguistics studies as much as it does for hermeneutics and theology. Consequently, biblical studies is rightly and most faithfully carried out within the confessional context. That is how we appropriately reconfigure the image of interpretive bumper bowling for a discipline that exists within a secular academy that tends to become a smokey, midnight techno-neon bowling alley.

As someone who shares the goals and convictions outlined so well by Allen and Swain in their Introduction, I am grateful for their efforts. And – perhaps I should do it more – I encourage my readers, who most likely are textual and linguistic gearheads like me, to take up and read theological volumes like this one and get your “bumpers” set in the right places. To the extent we do so, our work too will contribute vitally to a more faithful hearing of and testimony to the word of God to his people in Scripture.

Did Jesus Speak Greek? by G. Scott Gleaves (A Response Essay)

Sometimes I forget where books come from. But recently I received a book that I must have requested somewhere along the way – G. Scott Gleaves, Did Jesus Speak Greek? The Emerging Evidence of Greek Dominance in First-Century Palestine (Wipf and Stock: 2015). I have been fascinated by this question for some time, so I was keen to read this volume and see where it went. The author G. Scott Gleaves is the Dean and Associate Professor of New Testament Studies and Christian Ministry of V. P. Black College of Biblical Studies and Kearley Graduate School of Theology at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Alabama. After reading the book, I felt the existential pang to write up a response.

Table of Contents

  • Foreword by Rodney Eugene Cloud
  • Ch. 1 – Did Jesus and Hist Disciples Speak Greek?
  • Ch. 2 – The Emerging Dominance of Greek in First-Century CE Palestine
  • Ch. 3 – The Linguistic Proficiency in Greek of Some of the Primary Disciples of Jesus
  • Ch. 4 – Aramaic and Portions of the Greek New Testament
  • Conclusion & Backmatter

The Presence of Greek in Palestine

Gleaves opens by noting how the so-called Aramaic Hypothesis is problematic. To say that some kind of Aramaic source(s) lie behind the Gospels is questionable in Gleaves’ opinion, owing to the prevalence of Greek in the world of 1st c. Palestine. Gleaves proposes rather sweepingly that “within the region of Galilee in Roman Palestine in the first century CE, Greek became the dominant language spoken among Jews and Gentiles” (xxiv, emphasis original). No one doubts Jesus spoke Aramaic, as Palestine was distinctly multilingual in general. But to Gleaves, the Babylonian lingua franca had given way to Koine Greek, so the question he aims to address in the volume is whether Jesus also or even primarily spoke Greek (or other languages).

To answer this, he draws on a variety of sources. Here’s a small sample:

First, rabbinic literature seems to presume Greek was spoken among Jews in general, such as m. Meg. 1:8, which, although dated to the 2nd c. CE, may reflect earlier tradition:

Rabban Simion b. Gamaliel says, ‘Also: in the case of sacred scrolls: they have been permitted to be written only in Greek’

Secondly, diaspora Jews had spoken Greek for centuries by the time of Christ and long written in Greek (e.g., Philo). Moreover, NT authors often (if not mostly) cited “Scripture” (i.e., the OT) from its Greek version, the Septuagint. Specific to Palestinian Jews, Hengel has shown decisively the influence of Hellenistic culture in the region, and archaeological realia confirm that Greek was present in Palestine as early as the 3rd c. BCE, even if it was not the primary spoken language. Josephus too comments that he “labored hard” to learn Greek, though his “native tongue” prevented him from pronouncing it properly (Ant. 20.12). Moreover, nonliterary documentary evidence from the early 2nd c. CE has been found in Palestine, written in Greek and, moreover, even from a “Jewish nationalist perspective” that ordinarily eschewed things Hellenistic (13). Jewish signage from the mid-1st c. communicated with Gentiles in Greek also, demonstrating Jewish capability in the language at the time of Jesus (if also cultural-linguistic resistance).

Third, though the extrabiblical evidence is not conclusive, it is weighty and, says Gleaves, more convincing still when paired with biblical evidence (see 14-24). Most of his examples here deal with Jesus interacting with Romans, arguing that their linguistic common denominator would have been Greek, not Aramaic or Hebrew (see John 7:35). But Gleaves argues also that Jesus would have “by necessity” learned Greek and used it in his home town of Galilee, likely close to Sepphoris in the Hellenistic Decapolis (18). And Jesus appears familiar with the Greek OT in Matt. 4, as do some NT authors (e.g., Acts 2). Also, Jesus’ use of certain Aramaic phrases in Mark (e.g., talitha cumi in 5:41) seems to indicate that Jesus accommodated to those who could only speak Aramaic, which suggests that Greek was the commoner language (23). Futher, Mark’s translation of these transliterated phrases into Greek indicates his audience did not understand Aramaic phrases well, if at all.

A Problematic Conclusion

This is all well and good (and generally persuasive). But I wish to focus on one major point that Gleaves makes. Having argued extensively for the predominance of Greek in 1st c. Palestine, Gleaves acknowledges the distinctly Semitic characteristics of NT Greek. In order to explain this phenomenon, he argues that in the period of transition between Aramaic and Greek in Palestinian Jewish communities, their Greek would have had a “Semitic flair,” (164) equivalent to a “hybrid” Palestinian dialect (quoting Robertson, 185). I will discuss this problematic claim in more detail below.

Reflections and Response

Weighing in at just shy of 190 pages, this monograph is on the shorter side when you consider the subject matter and universe of literature potentially involved. Still, a fair range of primary evidence is employed throughout aside from Scripture, such as Jewish literature, ostraca, papyri, inscriptions and so on. Overall, Gleaves has done a good job building his case for early-1st c. CE Jewish fluency in Greek and general Hellenization. It was, however, unclear to me that this case was based on much more than a synthesis of secondary literature. Where primary evidence is cited, in many (not all) cases the conclusion drawn from it is a block quote from another scholar who presumably cited the same evidence in her or his own work (e.g., 36, 39, 42, 45, 47, 48, 57, 60). There is a huge amount unexplored, nonliterary documentary evidence that is awaiting fresh investigation with Gleaves’ question in mind (e.g., here and here), however, and I was hoping to see some of that in this volume.

A “Palestinian Greek Dialect”

Furthermore, while Gleaves has a good grasp upon much of the relevant secondary literature, it seems that certain key resources on linguistics and the nature of Greek were overlooked, with unfortunate results. This pertains mostly to Gleaves’ conclusions about the nature of NT Greek, mentioned above. Gleaves has found an ally for his conclusion in Nigel Turner, who believed that the New Testament reflected a kind of Jewish Greek, a dialect that was “decidedly Semitic” and thus unique (5). From this claim Gleaves reasons that the NT, with its Semitic elements, reflects “a Palestinian Greek” (5, emphasis original). This conclusion is put most expressly in the final sentence of the book:

[A] distinctive dialect emerged within koinē Greek that characterized the way Jews utilized the Greek language. Therefore, what we have in the GNT is a hybrid Palestinian Greek –  koinē Greek with a Semitic flair – containing an admixture of Aramaic words used in private and semiprivate contexts along with Semitic linguistic peculiarities as spoken by Jesus, his disciples, and the Jews in Palestine during the first century CE (186, emphasis original).

There are a number of serious problems here, as this conclusion basically resurrects the old notion of a “Christian Greek” although now with a kind of geopolitical spin.

Firstly, Gleaves seems to be collapsing (or perhaps confusing) some linguistic categories, particularly dialect and register. For instance, he explains tersely in a footnote that the so-called “Palestinian dialect” was “contained” in the “lower form of koinē Greek” (5 n 22). But elsewhere he says that “the common language of Palestine was koinē Greek, of which the GNT is a perfect example of the dialect in written form” (185, emphasis added). This last statement seems to imply that the Koine itself is a dialect, which it is not, at least not without significant qualification. Koine was a (diverse) historical-linguistic phase of Greek as a language. Even if we grant the concept of a Jewish-Greek or Palestinian dialect, it is linguistically unsound to speak in terms of dialects being “contained” within register. Rather, register exists within dialect.

Secondly, Gleaves seems to diminish the linguistic importance of the Septuagint in his (brief) discussion of Semitic elements in his supposed Palestinian dialect. Though Gleaves does discuss the LXX on 54- 60, it is unfortunately not from a linguistic perspective, and he leaves out virtually every major scholar in the field. Jews had been speaking Greek in the diaspora for centuries by the time Jesus was born, and this produced a rich and variegated body of Jewish literature whose style and character the NT authors received. All this Gleaves seems to acknowledge in some form. But Jewish authors like Ezekiel the Tragedian and compositions like Wisdom of Solomon show how more educated Greek could be combined with the Semitic elements common in the Septuagint (1). This is where distinguishing grammar from register becomes so critical. The LXX is important not only for the new developments in the Koine that it produces within the Jewish religious milieu, but also for the natural linguistic developments that it encapsulates. Distinguishing the two is complicated business. More scholars are recognizing the need to carefully nuance discussion of how the LXX reflects natural or non-natural Greek, which is tied directly into questions of semantics, grammar, and register.

Finally, and much more detrimentally, Turner’s view of “Biblical Greek” as a “Jewish-Greek dialect” has been thoroughly disproved for at least fifty years now. The absence of seminal figures like Deismann, Thumb, Moulton, Shipp, and Lee, for example, from this volume is conspicuous at best. It certainly presents major obstacles – to put it mildly – for Gleaves’ conclusion. A brief but firm rebuttal to Gleaves’ whole conclusion on NT Greek can be found, for example, in G. H. R. Horsley’s article in the recent Encyclopedia of Greek Language and Linguistics (Leiden: Brill, 2014): 280-83. Also see footnote (2).

Deconstructing the Aramaic Hypothesis

For the record, I wholeheartedly support Gleaves in his endeavors against the Aramaic Hypothesis, which I find spurious. Gleaves’ case for the prevalence of Greek in Palestine by the 1st c. CE certainly persuasive. But the evidence that Gleaves successfully provides against the Aramaic Hypothesis on the one hand does not lead to the flawed concept of a Palestinian “dialect” on the other. Further, although this is perhaps unrelated, I had a niggling feeling throughout the book that there was an agenda involved. This comes out at the end of the introduction, where Gleaves says that he “will show that in many respects the GNT contains the very words that Jesus and his disciples spoke in Greek” (xxvi, cf. 1, 15). But this is problematic, and somewhat vague. Although the two are related, the question of whether or not Jesus spoke Greek is completely different from the question of whether the New Testament records his very words. Once we establish that Jesus spoke Greek, we must go on to ask the questions of whether and why that Greek is or is not identical to the Greek recorded in the NT. Gleaves seems occasionally to get sidetracked from the former in his concern for the latter.

Final Point

In conclusion, to my mind the most conspicuous and least understood factor in scholarly accounts of the “language” of the NT is the Septuagint, and by extension the under-studied corpus of nonliterary Koine Greek. Although many will point to the NT authors’ familiarity with the Greek OT per se, few will account for the massive socio-religious influence that it was on balance with the natural linguistic developments that it preserves. It is in the current scholarly discussion of the Greek of the LXX that one finds so much helpful material on the development and nature of the Koine in general. There is cutting-edge work going on here (e.g., Lee, Joosten, Aitken) that needs to be related to study of the Greek of the NT in the future.

_________________

(1) James K. Aitken, “The Language of the Septuagint and Jewish-Greek Identity”, in  James K. Aitken and James C. Padget (eds.), The Jewish-Greek Tradition in Antiquity and the Byzantine (Cambridge, 2014), pp. 120-34 (134).

(2) On this topic see, e.g., G. H. R. Horsley, “Res Bibliographicae: Divergent Views on the Nature of Greek of the Bible,” Bib 65 (1984): 393-403; Gregory H. R. Horsley, “The Fiction of ‘Jewish Greek’,” in New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity (ed. G. H. R. Horsley; NewDocs 5: Linguistic Essays; North Ryde: Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, Macquarie University, 1989), 5-40. For a survey of the debate, see John A. L. Lee, A Lexical Study of the Septuagint Version of the Pentateuch (SCS 14; Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1983), 11-30; J. W. Voelz, “The Language of the New Testament,” in Geschichte und Kultur Roms im spiegel der Neueren Forschung (eds. Hildegard Temporini and Wolfgang Haase; ANRW 2; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1984), 25: 894-930. For a discussion of understanding the Greek of the Septuagint as part of the development of the language, see James K. Aitken, “Outlook,” in The Reception of Septuagint Words in Jewish-Hellenistic and Christian Literature (eds. Eberhard Bons, Ralph Brucker, and Jan Joosten; WUNTII 367; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 183-94.

Two Recent Book Reviews, and Some On the Way

I’ve been working on reviewing books pretty steadily over the last year or so. It’s a good discipline to keep you reading texts closely, keep up with topics of interest that are not immediately connected with my dissertation, and get my hands on some free premium volumes.

Two of my reviews were recently published in the Bulletin for Biblical Research, the journal of the Institute for Biblical Research (IBR). At the moment BBR is holding first place in my review contributions, mainly because they publish so many and there is plenty of opportunity to do it.

Here are the two that I reviewed in BBR 25.3 (2015).

The Hebrew Bible (BHS) Reader’s Edition

It’s an odd task to review a Reader’s Edition. In case you don’t know, a Reader’s Edition is simply a primary text – in this case Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia – reproduced with vocabulary helps included throughout. In this case, any word that occurs seventy times or fewer in the Hebrew Bible is given a note in the text that corresponds to a footnote, where the parsing (where appropriate) and a contextual gloss appears. This allows you to read your Hebrew as easily as you like, whenever you hit an unknown word it’s there for you to check and/or parse.

I really like this volume. It’s very well produced by Hendrickson, one of the highest quality publishers in the industry in my opinion when it comes to primary sources. The German Bible Society teamed up with Hendrickson to allow them to use the BHS 5th edition text (’97), so aside from the Masorah Parva and textual apparatus, you’re also getting a high quality scholarly source also. In terms of kethiv/qere variants, the editors of the Reader’s Edition have smoothed things out using their apparatus at the bottom of the page.

There are a few drawbacks. For the most part, this consists of the parsing system used throughout. It is based on LaSor’s system, and takes some getting used to. Ideally, you can parse everything yourself anyway so you won’t need it much!

You can read my review here.

Adams and Socio-Economics of Second Temple Judaism

A lot of my research includes reading about Judaism. That may sound surprising if you know I work in Septuagint studies. But believe it or not, the Septuagint was produced by Jews. Ta-da! Although I tend to read a great deal more about Jewish life in Ptolemaic Egypt, where most of the translation work likely occurred, I am also interested in other diaspora communities and, of course, Palestinian Judaism.

That’s why I picked up Adams’ volume Social and Economic Life in Second Temple Judea to review. I was astounded to read that there is no other volume specifically focused upon this subject-matter, something I am still somewhat inclined to doubt (although I have yet to find proof otherwise). Naturally many of the other tomes on Second Temple Judaism treat socioeconomics in passing or so some extent, but it is not the main focus.

A variety of topics are covered: family and the household, the lives of women and children, the marketplace, the state, and the ethics of wealth and poverty. There is the natural challenge of lack of sources in many parts of this study (especially women and children), so Adams makes up for it by contemporary anthropological studies. This can be problematic, as you can read in my review. More so, however, is his use of almost the entire Old Testament as “evidence” of life in the Second Temple period. If you’re not aware of higher critical assumptions, they more or less allow Adams to presume that most/all of the OT was written or finalized in the Second-Temple period, thus allowing him to use it as a primary source. I find this approach specious, but it’s a different kettle of fish for a different day.

You can read my review here.

Some Reviews in the Pipeline

I have a few reviews that will be coming out soon, and some I’m looking forward to producing. I have two reviews coming out in the Westminster Theological Journal that I will post here in time. I’m more interested in reading these three volumes, however: