Catching up: autumnal reviewlets

Well, I’ve been remiss in posting anything about the very interesting things I’ve been (re)reading over the last few months. I suppose one gets into that kind of rut a bit too easily, thinking, “I’d rather read than write about my reading, and who cares what I think, anyway!” But there is at least some slight sense of responsibility, to warn (or lure) readers away from some book or another, above all saving them time–time that might be wasted–or pointing them toward a more than worthwhile investment of time in the reading of some other book. That is, after all, the understood goal in writing a book review, right?

I tend to read in themes. That is, despite the impression given by my single indicated “Now Reading” indicator in the right column of this page, I tend to be switching between several books, following different thematically consistent directions in reading. Over the last few months, my interest has run into Messianism, Hermeneusis, and what might be called “Pre-Christian Judaism” in addition to a few outliers which I’ve been picking at rather distractedly for a while.

In the category of Messianism:

Sigmund Mowinckel, He That Cometh: The Messiah Concept in the Old Testament and Later Judaism, foreword by John J. Collins (Eerdmans, 2005)
This is one of the classics in messianism these days, but I think more in the manner of “influential in its day and a precursor to much better stuff that came along later, so you have to read it simply because it’s part of the history of scholarship, tedious though it be” rather than in the sense of “a work of truly timeless value, full of permanently valid insights.” I found this book characterized entirely by the time and place in which it was written: 1940s Scandinavia. Mowinckel straddles a strange fence betwen the History of Religions School, the Myth and Religions School, and the orthodoxy of his day (whether religious or scholarly). So much of what appears in these pages is dated, with so much better work having been accomplished over the last two decades alone, that I found this book in places unreadable, primitive, and entirely outmoded. As I noted above, it still possesses some value in a “history of scholarship” sense, but as a source of current and well-reasoned scholarship, it is essentially worthless. Mowinckel works with such a primitive conception of “Messiah”–one that admittedly was common to his age–that it’s no wonder this work has not aged well, and that so many of his positions and conclusions are invalid in light of later studies. I disagree strongly with Collins’ evaluation at the end of the foreword: “He That Cometh remains, however, the best comprehensive treatment available in English of the roots of messianic expectation in the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East” (p. xxviii). On the contrary, I found Mowinckel’s treatment of both to be alternately tendentious and superficial. I would say that Collins’ own The Scepter and the Star (second edition: Eerdmans, 2010) would be a much better choice, though Collins perhaps was modestly avoiding autokeraphonia by avoiding mention of the first edition (though he cites it in the foreword several times. In a footnote to that very sentence, Collins writes “Note, however, the excellent collection of essays edited by James H. Charlesworth, The Messiah: Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992); and [John] Day, King and Messiah in Israel and the Ancient Near East [Sheffield, 1998].” (p. xxviii n. 48). I would instead recommend a volume by Collins & Collins described below. One further note I would like to add concerns the subtitle of Mowinckel’s volume, a translation from the original Norwegian: “The Messiah Concept in the Old Testament and Later Judaism.” Is this “Later Judaism” to be taken as simply “later Judaism” or “Late(r) Judaism”? It is almost certainly the latter, a description that rankles, yet indicates the approach to the Rabbinic material that is taken by Mowinckel and others of his age: that this was a decadent literature, a product not of a thriving culture but of one feasting on the remains of a more glorious past. This is a perceptible undercurrent in the book, which only adds to its datedness, and does not inspire confidence in the judgment shown otherwise on the part of the author.

Kenneth Pomykala, The Davidic Dynasty Tradition in Early Judaism: Its History and Significance for Messianism (Scholars Press, 1995). This book is a “moderately revised” version of Pomykala’s doctoral dissertation (Claremont Graduate School, 1992). I expected better, actually, of a dissertation, particularly of one from Claremont. One issue of the study of the development of Israelite Messianism that cannot be ignored is the Septuagint. Admittedly, the evidence is complex, and difficult to control, but it is essential to an understanding of the development of the concept from the mid-third century BC and for the next three centuries, as it became the de facto public edition of the Old Testament for Jews throughout the Mediterranean. The various translators show varying degrees of concern for messianism, but overall, there is at the very least evidence of a going concern. What does Pomykala say on the subject of the Septuagint and messianism?

The translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek began as early as the third century BCE with the Torah, and before the first century BCE Greek translations of all books were probably completed. Moreover, at times LXX translations are characterized by “midrashic” alterations or expansions and, consequently, indicate how the translator and his community interpreted certain biblical texts. In theory, then, the LXX translation of texts related to the davidic [sic, passim] dynasty could illuminate how some Jews in the Second Temple period construed those passages.

In practice, however, this is not a very fruitful mode of inquiry. On the one hand, a survey of key texts related to the davidic dynasty tradition shows very little in the way of interpretive activity. [!!!] On the other, formidable obstacles confront the analysis of any such interpretive translations. For one, even to speak of “the Septuagint” suggests a misleading notion about the unity of Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible, since, as Kraft notes, “there is no homogeneity among the various translation units of the collection.” Accordingly, each book or section of a book must be evaluated separately. Next, recovering the Old Greek or one of the early recensions from the Second Temple Period–such as the καιγε or proto-Lucian recension–for a passage is often difficult; indeed scholars are divided about the existence and status of some of these layers. Even when the text of the Old Greek or one of the early recensions can be identified, it is difficult to know the date and provenance of the interpretation implied in the translation. Although the Greek translation of the Torah probably stems from Alexandria in the third century BCE, this same context cannot be assumed for other books. Moreover, to clarify the import of an individual variant, it would have to be set within the overal interpretive tendenz of a book or section, a subject about which little is often known. Finally, differences between the Old Greek and the Hebrew of the MT that are perceived as interpretive moves on the part of the translators could at times be the result of the translator using a Vorlage different from the MT. In sum, there are adequate reasons for pessimism about using the LXX for tracking the davidic dynasty tradition in early Judaism. (pp 128-129)

He then goes on to touch, out of all the LXX, solely on 2 Sam 7.11b, Jer 33.14-26, Ezek 34.23-24, and the rendering of צמח by ἀνατέλλω and related words. Thus his complete treatment of the Septuagint evidence appears on three and one-half pages in his book. Now, I simply cannot believe that. Three and a half pages! He gives Sirach about twenty-one and a half pages (which is a sop of sorts as Sirach is actually considered part of the Septuagint, of course). What I see above in the excerpt is someone who was very well aware of some work to be done (note that he seems to have had at least some grasp of the necessary direction of investigation) and yet simply didn’t do it. Now, I doubt that in this day and age, not yet even twenty years after this dissertation was written, Pomykala would say the same thing, nor would he be able to, fortunately, as Septuagint studies have proceeded apace in that time. And I would like to think that no committee today would let such an important source on messianism as the Septuagint slide past the glint of their chilly spectacles. And there is much there there, as Horbury, inter alia, makes clear, as will be described below.

Is it Pomykala’s galling dismissiveness of the Septuagint that makes me similarly dismissive of his book? Partly, yes. But it is more the fact that this is a book which is itself easily dismissed. What I took away from this reading was a general unconcern with doing too much in-depth work with the sources, but with describing what work was done with quite a lot of verbiage. His conclusion is that Davidic messianism was not found in the literature between the Hebrew Bible and the mid-first century BCE Psalms of Solomon. Of course, one finds what one looks for, as the restrictions placed by Pomykala on what he might consider evidence of Davidic Messianism therefore leads him to find little evidence. While on the one hand limiting himself to explicit mention of the Davidic connection with the messiah, and on the other hand ignoring inconvenient sources (the richness of the Septuagint being the chief of these), Pomykala was certain to come to some very particular conclusions on the matter, but these are irrelevant. I can no more trust them to be properly representative of the literature (whether read or unread) than the wrinkles in my palm, which by some contrivance I might designate them representative of the literature. So contrived and restricted a study is worthless. That may be harsh, but we will see some other more comprehensive treatments given below which not only come to conclusions diametrically opposed to Pomykala, but that cover a wealth of literature more than what he covered. I think here especially of Horbury but also of Collins & Collins. So, this Pomykala volume is another curiosity of the history of scholarship, but by no means compelling, and certainly not probative. Someone seeking a comprehensive treatment of the subject of the Davidic Messiah in early Judaism will need to look elsewhere (and there are some hearty recommendations below!).

William Horbury, Jewish Messianism and the Cult of Christ (SCM Press Ltd, 1998). This book is well-known. It stirred up something of a hornets’ nest at its release by re-opening (through machine-gunning evidence into the picture) the question of the consistent presence of Messianism in (for lack of a better term) the intertestamental period. Horbury (and others) were right, however: there is evidence for such a presence, however attentuated and however equivocal, thoughout. They were also right to decry a too-restrictive scholarly definition of messiah (à la Mowinckel) which was restricting the understanding of texts. In the intertestamental period it is much easier to explain the presence of messianism (changing though it may be) than its absence, in fact, looking through the various usages and interpretations of Scripture throughout these times, and inducing the motivations behind that usage. There was a consistent (though not universal) interest throughout on the Davidic Messiah. Horbury is a past master of the evidence. It’s really quite astonishing the variety of sources he’s addressed and the competence he displays in systematizing the results. It’s shocking, really. It’s a book that rewards study, but from which one is given an exhaustive picture of Jewish Messianism leading up to the early Christian period. This book, in combination with Collins & Collins below, takes top prize, for clarity of expression, quality of scholarship, and for fascinating subject matter. The more expansive nature of this volume by Horbury edges it slightly ahead of the more restricted treatment of Collins & Collins (on which, see below) though, in my estimation.

Another one by William Horbury, Messianism among Jews and Christians: Twelve Biblical and Historical Studies (T & T Clark, 2003), is a collection of reworked articles arranged into three categories. In “The Second Temple Period” we find “Messianism in the Old Testament Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha”, “The Gifts of God in Ezekiel the Tragedian”, and “Herod’s Temple and ‘Herod’s Day'”. In the section “The New Testament” we have “The Messianic Associations of ‘the Son of Man'”, “The Twelve and the Phylarchs”, “Jerusalem in Pre-Pauline and Pauline Hope”, “The Aaronic Priesthood in the Epistle to the Hebrews”, and “Septuagintal and New Testament Conceptions of the Church”. In the final section, “Synagogue and Church in the Roman Empire”, are the chapters “Messianism among Jews and Christians in the Second Century”, “Suffering and Messianism in Yose ben Yose”, “Antichrist among Jews and Gentiles”, and “The Cult of Christ and the Cult of the Saints”. As I recall, the articles touching on messianism included herein don’t differ substantially from Horbury’s treatment in the 1998 monograph. This is, however, a very interesting excursus into a scholar’s subjects of interest, and an opportunity to enjoy his scholarship a bit more. In a relationship to the earlier monograph, I’d say this book sits in an ancillary position, not quite as an appendix, but as further background.

Adela Yarbro Collins and John J. Collins, King and Messiah as Son of God: Divine, Human, and Angelic Messianic Figures in Biblical and Related Literature (Eerdmans, 2008). The title fairly well says it all. The Davidic King was considered the Son of God and thus somehow divine, though we have no evidence of a cult of the king. His expected scion, the Messiah, is likewise the Son of God, and likewise considered somehow divine. There are, however, numerous interesting complications! This book was good fun. It’s split between the two authors equitably, with the first four chapters (“The King as Son of God”, “The Kingship in Deuteronomistic and Prophetic Literature”, “Messiah and Son of God in the Hellenistic Period”, “Messiah and Son of Man”) by Mr Collins, and the last four chapters (“Jesus as Messiah and Son of God in the Letters of Paul”, “Jesus as Messiah and Son of God in the Synoptic Gospels”, “Jesus as Son of Man”, “Messiah, Son of God, and Son of Man in the Gospel and Revelation of John”) by Mrs Collins. This is a fine overview of the subject matter, and laid out in a clear and concise fashion by Collins & Collins. In conjunction with Horbury’s monograph, with this book one would have a relatively complete and thoroughly updated treatment on the Davidic Messiah. And while I’m sure there are those who would disagree with one or another Collins (I had some minor, forgettable, quibbles in reading), or Horbury (as some have, including Mr Collins), the overlap in their conclusions is striking, and provides a new direction in understanding how this man Jesus was considered the Son of God in several different ways, stressing the Davidic Messianic aspect, which is often laid to the side in NT and early Christian studies. Hopefully these works will help bring that back to the center.

Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1998). I picked this up and finished it in two sittings just to refresh myself with it. I remember the ruckus this kicked up when it was released, mostly good. But I wanted to see where this fit in with my reading on Messianism and with the idea of the Davidic Messiah’s divine Sonship being key to the understanding of Jesus as Christ. Bauckham doesn’t really touch on the Davidic Messianic aspect, but his little book (which is still thoroughly enjoyable) is not worth less for that. This will make more sense if you, O reader, had just read all the above immediately before reading this little tome by Bauckham, but here goes. Bauckham treats essentially the same issue as that of Horbury and Collins & Collins, even though he lacks the Messiah as Son of God aspect to his argument. That is, the description of application of divinity, whether directly divine or angelically so or some other consideration (as Bauckham’s “identity” is), is an issue no matter the subject’s ultimate derivation. In fact much of the argumentation is familiar from the discussion in those other authors’ works on just this subject. However, the key to pulling all of this together is clearly the Davidic Messiah as Son of God, and this key is something that Bauckham lacks. With that addition, this brilliant little book could be stellar.

In the category of Hermeneusis

Jon Levenson, The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993). I read this on the heels of Michael Legaspi’s The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies (Oxford, 2010), my copy of which is now making the rounds of Bay Area Orthodox Christian clergy. I had earlier picked this book up on the recommendation of Levenson himself, when I wrote with some bibliographic questions while reading Anders Gerdmar’s Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism (Brill, 2009). Levenson draws important attention to a fact that’s often overlooked: Biblical Studies was a field invented by Protestants, for Protestants, and is thus thoroughly Protestant in its nature. He brings refreshing insight (I wish he’d write more on the subject) in addressing the issue as an observant Jew. There are not just “religious” differences involved here. The problem lies deeper than such a superficial label, and most seem prepared only to ignore it (and those who mention it) rather than address it. The book is comprised of six articles, all of which originated as lectures: “The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism”, “Why Jews Are Not Interested in Biblical Theology”, “The Eighth Principle of Judaism and the Literary Simultaneity of Scripture”, “Theological Consensus of Historicist Evasion? Jews and Christians in Biblical Studies”, “Historical Criticism and the Fate of the Enlightenment Project”, “Exodus and Liberation.” These are fascinating reading, all of a piece, addressing a sharp critique to blindered devotees of a particular brand of scholarship.

Michael Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (Eerdmans, 2009). I re-read this in preparation for tackling Douglas Campbell The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Eerdmans, 2009). Why precisely did I think that would be useful? Primarily because both writers take issue with “Justification” as understood in a rather stereotypical form, one which Campbell demolishes, methodically, over the course of his book. Gorman presents a reading of Paul that is much more familiar to an Orthodox Christian reader, not least because of his explicit reference to Orthodox theological terminology (note the “kenosis” and “theosis” in the subtitle). Anything that gets people to be more familiar with the theology of Orthodoxy is welcome, as long as they do take the effort to explore the Orthodox sources. Relying on secondary or tertiary distillations may be what some people are more comfortable with, but anyone who is supposedly devoted to an ad fontes approach to theology needs to make the effort to delve into the riches of Orthodox theology.

Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Zondervan, 3rd ed: 2003). I don’t tend to read these kinds of books very often, these little handbooks on “how to read the Bible.” There are too many presuppositions involved in their writing that are not presuppositions compatible with my nature. In this case, I read the book twice. Once was a general reading in which I simply appreciated the book’s structure and easy, friendly tone, and noted that it is in fact a fairly helpful book in explaining to the typical Anglophonic Christian how to go about reading the Bible in a way that is fruitful. Then I read it a second time, in which I evaluated it for its use for an Orthodox Christian as a guide toward a fruitful reading of the Bible. My objections were so many, and so fundamental, that I had to cease taking such notes lest I write fully another book in objections alone! The largest objection was to the insistence that an individual reader (reading in translation!) is actually more or less qualified to pronounce upon the authentic meaning and value of Scripture alone. That’s a general perception amongst many Christians, but it doesn’t take too much thought to realize how wrong it is. Anyhow, the lack of reference to the Church Fathers in any Orthodox Biblical interpretation would be completely unthinkable, and as at some point or other, this little book advocates for precisely that lack of dogmatic oversight, it won’t work for Orthodox Christians.

Fr Theodore Stylianopoulos, The New Testament: An Orthodox Perspective. Volume One: Scripture, Tradition, Hermeneutics (Holy Cross, 1997). I re-read this to “cleanse the palate” after the How to… book. I would still like to see a Volume Two appear. This book is a very interesting introduction to Orthodox reading of Scripture in a modern context, interacting with a number of perspectives respectfully. Fr Stylianopoulos was almost single-handedly responsible for bringing this particular Orthodox hermeneutic (exegesis > interpretation > transformation) to the attention of scholarship at large through his own publications and lectures. This book functions as a good introduction to reading the Scriptures for an Orthodox Christian. I’d like to see more on the Old Testament, though. That’s been a kind of blind spot through most translation and other projects lately, where emphasis is placed on resources related to the New Testament writings. There is a wealth of fascinating Patristic writing on the Old Testament, however, and it needs to be brought together for the benefit of readers, Orthodox or not, of the Old Testament. Hopefully whoever takes up such a task will write with the wisdom and gentle authority of Fr Stylianopoulos!

Peter Leithhart, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture (Baylor, 2009). This one was recommended to me from several different directions. Such a concatenation of recommendations is striking, so I took note and ordered the thing. I was quite happy to have done so! For one thing, this book on reading is extraordinarily well-written, which is a rare thing. It was a real pleasure to read. And, whereas the little How to… book bore somewhat of an antagonistic stance toward the Apostolic and Patristic readings of Scripture, this book embraces both, particularly the former, tracing how the Apostles as thinkers and authors wrote with a Scriptural mind, and how the Fathers used the same principles in their interpretations, so that there is a more organic continuation between the two than some might think. This continuity is available to readers still, too.

I think I’ll finish this up tomorrow. There are six more books to cover.


  1. Interesting. Usually there is more of an overlap in our reading — and there was only a little here (Campbell — which I found brilliant and fresh; Levenson; and Gerdmar — which I read on your recommendation, so I’m not sure it counts).

    I’m ordering Legaspi now.

    Now, as to Gordon and Fee — tell me, weren’t you thinking as you read it — wow, criticizing this will make a great blog post? (One of the very few books in this genre that I find tolerable is D. A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies, which I read in the 2nd edition — but that is aimed at a considerably more sophisticated audience than Gordon/Fee).

    1. You know me well! Initially my notes were just intended toward writing something similar, then I inched into thinking of them as notes for blog posts, and then away from it after that, as it just grew too unwieldy and unfruitful. Some things can’t be adapted. But maybe I’ll just go ahead and post those notes. It could at least open up some avenues of conversation.

      You’ll enjoy the Legaspi, especially after Levenson and Gerdmar and their like. There’s a trend there, spotty and unspotlit as it is.

      I’ll get the Carson you recommend. I’ve got some other (some quite old) books on the subject of “How to read the Bible” and some of them are bizarre, some not too bad, some fairly good. I should pull those out and do a series or something.

      1. A disturbing trend in secular-Jewish scholarship is books on “how to read the Bible”. In fact, there are two separate books with exactly that title, one by James Kugel (Free Press 2007), and one by Marc Brettler (Jewish Publication Society 2005, republished by Oxford 2007 as How to Read the Jewish Bible).

        Now, these are not horrible books (and they are definitely better than Fee-Stuart), but they aren’t good either.

      2. As I was looking up the publication dates on Amazon, I noticed that Kugel’s book actually was also published in an audio (!!) version. I wonder who thought that an audio version of Kugel’s book would be a good idea.

        1. Probably Kugel, who loves the sound of his own voice, a little bird told me….

          That same little bird thought his How to… book was awful, but then I’m sure also hadn’t seen the full playing field!

  2. Kevin, I’m very curious about what you think of Campbell’s The Deliverance of God. I find his theory not unattractive, but know of no Church Father who reads Romans in this way. Do you?

    1. Well, I’m only about halfway through it (and reading several other books at the same time), but what I’ve seen so far is accurate. The laying out of the problem itself is perfectly clear, and the warnings against stereotyping are accurate. But really, I’ll have to finish the book. I haven’t reached the detailed Romans exegesis yet, though I’ve heard good things. Romans is a goldmine which has been both used well and misused for centuries. A new look isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

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