Books to Review

And I have a plethora.

Seriously, though, I do have a lot of them.  I am in the midst of reviewing some I have already started on this blog (but haven’t found the time to finish) and I have a handful I just received that I plan to review this month.  Here is the stack I have waiting for me:

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Since I am anxious to start the review process, let me give some first impressions of these books (in the order they are listed in the picture):

Thomas Brodie’s new memoir is interesting.  My first impressions were somewhat skewed in two directions prior to even seeing the book: (1) Richard Carrier’s not-so-positive review and (2) my great respect and admiration for Brodie’s work over the past few decades.   But I’m not at all impressed with Carrier’s review as I feel it takes the genre of Brodie’s work for granted.  Brodie is not writing a ‘mythicist book’, but a memoir about his life, his discoveries, the directions he has taken with his scholarship, and the direction that his scholarship has taken him.  As someone who has read (and enjoyed) the memoir of another Irish Catholic New Testament scholar (John Dominic Crossan’s, A Long Way from Tipperary), Brodie’s book fits perfectly within such a category and shines, in my humble opinion.  The first few chapters I’ve read demonstrate his struggle with the question of Jesus’ historicity through his time in the ministry, living in different parts of the world trying to teach the New Testament critically as a devout Catholic theologian and as a trained historian.  In many ways I’m sympathetic to Brodie’s positions–not because I think Jesus is a fiction, but because I find his reasoning to be justified within the framework of his career as an expert in literary criticism, as someone tested within the field of New Testament.  He could not have reached this conclusion lightly and therefore I am sympathetic, even if I disagree with the strength of his premise (i.e., Jesus never existed).  But I still have more to read and so I will continue to review it as I can find the time.

Mark Goodacre’s work is always a pleasure to read.  It always engages you critically and tends to have a Cartesian quality that challenges those long-held presuppositions of a text about which you never knew you had.  When I first read his Case Against Q, I was instantly persuaded (though, admittedly, I did already have my doubts about Q for some time).  With the Gospel of Thomas, I likewise started from a position of doubt; that is to say, I suspected that the author of Thomas had a familiarity with the synoptics.  Mark Goodacre’s new book does not strengthen my suspicions as much as it forces me to interact intellectually with them.  Thomas and the Gospels takes all my inclinations and lays them out for me to see, with a range of textual criticism and analysis for which Mark Goodacre is known.  He presents each argument, thus far that I’ve seen, with the intent of demonstrating the familiarity he argues for, rather than simply restating his premise over and over as I’ve seen in so many other studies on Thomas.  I anticipate that I will continue to enjoy this volume and the functionally-useful arguments that Goodacre gives throughout.  I can’t wait to continue reading this one!

Candida Moss’s new book The Myth of Persecution looks extremely promising, conceptually.  I hesitate to speak more about it yet because I am participating in a blog tour for this book in March and would much rather share my thoughts on it then.  However, I will say this is on a subject I have blogged about recently.

cpcisChanging Perspectives is a relatively new project under the Copenhagen International Seminar Series.  The goal of this project is to “publish volumes of collected essays and research articles, which have had a significant effect on the methods and scholarly research of its author as well as on the field of Old Testament and its related disciplines in the course of the last 50 years.”  I have received two volumes of the four to review: Thomas Thompson’s volume and Niels Peter Lemche’s volume.  I am confident in saying that both of these volumes are must-owns for anyone who wants to do serious scholarship in the field of Old Testament and literary criticism.  They are exceptionally important.  Some of the articles are known to me through my years of dialog with Thomas, who has on occasion directed me to them prior to the publication of this book.  However, some are new to me and many of which I would have to order through inter-library loan or pay to get my hands on them.  Thankfully, having them in this volume solves all of that as I can easily reference a particular argument, especially over stages of its development, which is very helpful.  I also learned something about NP Lemche that I had not known: he has a history of being a non-minimalist!  Who knew?!  I didn’t.  But now I do!  Thus we see the evolution of his critical mind in action from the 1980’s (where we see a more conservative Lemche) into the present (into the minimalist we all–well, most of us anyway; the smart ones–love).  I cannot recommend these two volumes enough and would quite enjoy reviewing Philip Davies’ forthcoming volume as well as John Van Seters’ volume, so long as Acumen is feeling generous enough.

Paul and Jesus by James Tabor looks to be a thought-provoking book.  I should preface this short introductory review with the fact that James and I do not always see eye-to-eye, but I like him as a person and find him to be a very serious scholar.  And I see both of those attributes reflected in his new tome on Paul.  I also see some not-so-distant (yet still faded) reflections of Hyam Maccoby and Gerd Lüdemann, along with Bultmann in this hypothesis.  The idea that Paul is really the man behind the movement of Christianity, rather than Jesus, is not new in and of itself.  In fact I would agree with this argument, as it seems that Paul’s theological foundation has played a pivotal role in the early Christian movement.  I won’t say much more until I’ve completed the book, but I do believe this title is worth every New Testament scholar’s consideration, as Tabor presents some challenging arguments that must be dealt with in new ways (as the old ways simply do not cut it, as Tabor demonstrates), even if his premise does not convince a whole lot of people (though particularly those in the more conservative wings of scholarship will find his reconstruction of the early Christian movement unpalatable).

Finally, we come to it at last.  But what exactly it is… Well, I am just not sure.   I get the feeling that Douglas Templeton is trying to do something very, shall we say, flamboyant with the literature, make it burst forth from the pages as would a description of a novel as explained by Derrida.  I’m just not sure what is going on and the volume comes across as very pop-culture-meets-anecdotal-meetup-group-esque.  I want to like this book, but it is so weird I just can’t begin to get attached to the discussion (that is, when I find it).  Honestly, I don’t think I have a firm enough grasp on the functionality of the book, if there is such a thing, to appreciate it.  Someone, I’m sure, will love it.  That certain ‘someone’ just isn’t me.

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Thomas L. Brodie Reviews ‘Is This Not the Carpenter’

The following review is published in full with Thomas L. Brodie’s permission:


In 1977 the London-born historian Michael Grant stated that no serious scholar would postulate the non-historicity of Jesus (Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, New York, Macmillan, 1977, 200). And, almost as if to vindicate Grant, the following years saw an extraordinary flow of books each setting out a reconstruction of Jesus’ history.

Yet a problem remained. While these many books essentially agreed on Jesus’ historical existence they agreed on little else. The reconstructions were so diverse that when Luke Timothy Johnson was writing his introduction to the New Testament (1985)—a serious scholarly writing—he omitted any summary of the quest for the historical Jesus, and when, due to demand, his second edition included an appendix, ‘The Historical Jesus’, he first listed some of  the proposals about Jesus’ history and then said of them ‘one  may well wonder whether anything more than a sophisticated and elaborate form of projection has taken place’ (The Writings of the New Testament. An Interpretation. London: SCM, 1999, 629).

Very recently several books, some not as serious as Johnson’s, have denied that Jesus existed, but Bart Ehrman has responded to them (Did Jesus Exist, The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, March 2012). Ehrman’s case rests largely on long-standing arguments, especially on the idea, very popular in the twentieth century, that the gospels are based ultimately on oral traditions.

Into this situation steps the Thompson/Varenna volume bearing the views of thirteen writers (July 2012). The contributions are diverse, but overall the book reflects a seismic shift: it claims that the primary background for the gospels is not oral tradition but the world of ancient writing/literature. And the most basic question raised by this book is whether Jesus existed historically or whether he is a literary figure:

 The essays…have a modest purpose. Neither establishing the historicity of a historical Jesus not possessing an adequate warrant for dismissing it, our purpose is to clarify our engagement with critical historical and exegetical methods in the hopes of enabling the central question regarding the function of New Testament literature to resist the endless production of works on the historical Jesus. Our  hope is to open a direct discussion of the question of historicity much in the  spirit of the more than decade-long discourse and debate by the European Seminar on Methodology in Israel’s History which has been so profitably engaged in regard to the historicity of figures and narratives of the Hebrew Bible and the related construction of a history of ancient Palestine (editors’ Introduction, p. 11, emphasis added).

The essays form three parts, the first on Scholarship.

  Into the Well of Historical Jesus Scholarship

  • 1. Jim West (Quartz Hill School of Theology, California) – A Very, Very Short Introduction to Minimalism
  • 2. Roland Boer (University of Newcastle) – The German Pestilence: Re-assessing Feuerbach, Strauss and Bauer
  • 3. Lester L. Grabbe (Univ. of Hull) – “Jesus Who is Called Christ”: References to Jesus Outside Christian Sources
  • 4. Niels Peter Lemche (Univ. of Copenhagen) – The Grand Inquisitor and Christ: Why the Church Doesn’t Want Jesus
  • 5. Emanuel Pfoh (National University of La Plata) – Jesus and the Mythic Mind: An Epistemological Problem

For West, the Bible is so focused on theology that it is not possible to affirm or deny historical propositions. ‘Minimalism began…with the Chronicler…. Maximalism… distorts the theological message of the text by transforming it into historical source materials’ (p.31).

Boer reviews the complex heritage of Feuerbach, Strauss and Bauer, notes the economic decline of the West in relation to the East and then concludes ‘it is good time to return to a more sceptical position in relation to the founding documents’ (p. 56).

Grabbe maintains that the evidence provided by Tacitus and Josephus to the existence of Jesus ‘is minimal but nevertheless significant…Its value lies in its independence from Christian tradition’ (p.69). Comment: It does not seem clear how one can be sure that Josephus, for instance, who for thirty years lived in the same city as a Christian community, is independent of some knowledge of what Christians were saying.

Lemche wrestles with the long-standing perceived divide between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, and with the present division between those who engage biblical research and those who avoid it.

Pfoh’s field is historical anthropology of Syria/Palestine (c. 3300-600 BCE) and his ‘main aim is to reflect from strictly historical and anthropological perspectives, on what we can know about the figure of Jesus and what we cannot’ (p.79). He hopes to make ‘a plea for a critical understanding of the nature of ancient literature and the intellectual world supporting such’ (p.79). For him ‘our historical conclusions regarding [Jesus]…cannot be very positive…My opinion is that such an inquiry is doomed to failure…We cannot test a mythic figure historically….’ (pp. 91-92).

Paul and Early Christianity: Historical and Exegetical Investigations

  • 6 Robert M. Price (Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary) – Does the Christ Myth Theory Require an Early Date for the Pauline Epistles?
  • 7. Mogens Müller (University of Copenhagen) – Paul: The Oldest Witness to the Historical Jesus
  • 8. Thomas S. Verenna – Born Under the Law: Intertextuality and the Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus in Paul’s Epistles

Price and Verenna argue strongly for Paul’s independence of an historical Jesus. For Müller, however, the effect of Jesus on Paul’s life is such that it presupposes Jesus’ historical existence, and he concludes, ‘If Paul is assumed to have been a historical person, the same must be assumed with regard to Jesus of Nazareth’ (p. 130).

The Rewritten Bible and the Life of Jesus

  • 9. James Crossley (Univ. of Sheffield) – Can John’s Gospel Really Be Used to Reconstruct a Life of Jesus? An Assessment of Recent Trends and a Defence of a Traditional View
  • 10. Thomas L. Thompson – Psalm 72 and Mark 1:12-13: Mythic Evocation in Narratives of the Good King
  • 11. Ingrid Hjelm (Univ. of Copenhagen) “Who is my Neighbor?” Implicit Use of OT Stories and Motifs in Luke.
  • 12. Joshua Sabih (Univ. of Copenhagen) – Born Isa and Baptized Jesus: The Quranic Narratives about Isa
  • 13. K. L. Noll (Brandon University, Manitoba) – Investigating Earliest Christianity Without Jesus

Concerning the historicity of the gospels, Crossley expresses caution about recent efforts to squeeze more history from John than the gospel allows. Thompson and Hjelm illustrate how the gospels’ content and shape are governed by something other than history, namely by Old Testament features such as patterns, themes, stories and motifs.

Sabih postulates that the Quranic figure of Isa is not identical with the Jesus of the NT, but the Isa of later Muslim tradition is (p. 219).

Finally, Noll’s thesis is that ‘any quest for a historical Jesus is irrelevant to an understanding of the earliest social movements that evolved into the religion now called Christianity. This is the case even if a historical Jesus existed and made an effort to found a movement of some kind’ (p. 233). For Noll the origin of Christianity has a kinship with the origin of Islam and the processes of evolution.

Overall, this volume contributes to a crucial development, namely moving historical investigation beyond the usual restrictions of the historical critical method, particularly beyond reliance on the theory of oral tradition, and bringing it into new terrain, especially that of literature.

However, having reached new terrain, this volume tends to rush further ahead into areas of theory, history and theology without doing justice to the full demands of engagement with literature. The problem is not just that its task is unfinished—as its editors would acknowledge—but that it seems unclear how to advance, unclear about the need to settle down to the slow detailed work of mapping the literary terrain in detail, often verse by verse, so that, before saying much about the history of Christian origins, it first establishes a reasonably clear map of the history of the literature, in effect the history of the composition of the New Testament, both of its many parts and, where possible, of its totality. In David Gunn’s words, ‘Write the history of the literature and then the [larger] history can be written’ (‘The Myth of Israel’, in L. L. Grabbe, Did Moses Speak Attic, JSOTSup 317, Sheffield Academic, 2001, 182).

Such prior mapping is indispensable. If, for instance, the investigation cannot account for the data underlying the theory of Q, or at least give some idea of how that can be done, its proposals regarding history and theology will have fatal gaps.

However, it is of the nature of the hermeneutical circle not only to establish the details that clarify the whole, but also to allow a vision of the whole to clarify the details, so it is appropriate from time to time to leap ahead into theory and into wide historical and theological vistas. And that is what this volume has done. Its writers are like explorers who have been parachuted at night into terrain that is still largely unknown and they are sending back preliminary reports. They do not always give a clear picture, and at times they may get lost, but the land must be crossed, and they are worth listening to.


Thomas Brodie also reflected upon my chapter on Paul in the following way:

As I see it your chapter on Paul reflects both the volume’s strength and limitations.

On the one hand it has wonderful broad lines of thought, especially on the crucifixion. In fact given what Bart Ehrman (Did Jesus Exist?)  wrote about the impossibility of a Jew envisaging a crucified Messiah, I wondered would it be worth your while writing an article that discusses Ehrman’s view and elaborates your own proposal.

On the other hand—and this is very understandable (if nothing else time and space would not allow)—you did not greatly engage the nuts and bolts of the epistles, the more prosaic fabric that holds the text together, verse by verse, and that shows just how detailed and complex is the process of rewriting.

Another question that occurs is whether the writer of the epistles, while they did not know a historical Jesus, knew that their work would be taken up by writers who would turn their work into a history-like form, as the prophets had been turned into history-like form by Hebrew narrative. In other words was there more coordination between the NT writers than we generally allow? I’m certain there was, but how much more?

Most of the essays in the volume, including your own, could become books. 

Overall I’m very happy with the review.  I thought his conclusions perceptive and useful, as were his questions.  On one brief note, I have commented on Ehrman’s book and interested readers can check it out here:

Scripture Citing Scripture: Intertextuality

James McGrath remarks on a mythicist position today on his blog:

The other problematic criterion claims that, if something in the New Testament resembles some detail in Scripture, that is reason to believe that the story was fabricated on the basis of that Scripture.

But James is perhaps unfamiliar with the fact that, as I have said again and again, this is a mainstream academic position.  This has nothing at all to do with mythicists; it just seems that some mythicists are actually up to date on more recent trends in mainstream scholarship.  The idea of intertextuality (which perhaps James just refuses to look into?) has been around since Julia Kristeva coined the term following her time in Tel Quel and the discussions ongoing between the poststructuralists and (neo)structuralists in the 1970’s.  The concept behind intertextuality, however, goes back to Ferdinand de Saussure and his Course in General Linguistics (1916).

I am continually amazed that scholars are seemingly clueless about this, since monographs and edited volumes concerning methods and studies of intertextuality in New Testament have been published for decades.  I am even told (al la Steph Fisher) that in Europe, intertextuality is part of the NT curriculum.  I imagine that it is also a part of OT Theology courses in Europe as well (since every scholar I talk to from Sheffield and Copenhagen–or who might have studied under a scholar from these Universities–knows about it and incorporates it in some of their works).  Among those many studies, Dennis R. MacDonald and Thomas L. Brodie were crucial in introducing this into mainstream academia some time ago, and they weren’t alone (links will bring you to various monographs and studies on the subject; obviously this isn’t comprehensive). And the concept has been in the field of Classics for longer than that.

James might have some quarrels with certain arguments for intertextuality with a certain part of the text (e.g., he might have a problem with my comparison between 1 Sam and 2 Cor and Acts) but he will have to demonstrate that via an actual argument rather than claiming the whole concept of intertextuality is bunk which seems to be his position here.   Intertextuality has become the prime consideration in almost every modern exegetical work by scholars.  It shocks me that he’d make this sort of claim; some might wonder if James might need to expand his reading list when he finds the time.

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