Saturday, August 20, 2011

Happy Birthday Bultmann!

Today is Rudlof Bultmann's birthday. Love or hate him, agree or disagree, you can't help but agree that he left a huge imprint on the study of the Bible and theology in the 20th century.

Some treat Bultmann like a theological leper. Too often, however, this is done by those who either don't understand him or have never read his books. He is just simply written-off.

I remember being in that camp once. I had read little to nothing of his work, but I was aware of his reputation. The first thing I remember reading is his article explaining why presuppositionalist hermenutics is impossible. After that I read one of his sermons. He wrote and delivered the sermon after visiting the wounded in an army hospital during WW I. That sermon helped me to see Bultmann in a very different light. He was not a theological home-wrecker, he was someone trying to understand the Bible in a modern setting. Consequently, I learned to appreciate him for who he was during the time in which he lived.

Below is a short video in which Professor David Fergusson of Edinburgh University talks about Bultmann and his theology. Watch it and learn about this fascinating man. HT: James McGrath.

Saturday at the Movies: Jerusalem in IMAX 3D

This clip was sent to me a couple of weeks ago. It is a nice tour of the Holy Land looking at the various geographical regions and the sites which are sacred to Christianity, Islam and Judaism. I look forward to seeing the finished product.


Friday, August 19, 2011

Friday Book Giveaway!

Here is this week's giveaway. Andrew Das, Solving the Romans Debate.(Fortress, 2006).

Here is the blurb.

Scholars have long debated the "double character" of Romans. Why did Paul address a long discussion of Jewish themes to a Gentile audience? Das provides a fresh understanding of the identity and attitudes of the Gentile Christians in Rome and of the expulsion of Jews from Rome under the emperor Claudius. His reading offers new insight into Paul's concern for the Jewish roots of the Christ movement.

Put your name below and I will choose a winner on Sunday. Good luck!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Women in the Greco-Roman World

There is an interesting interview with Lyn Cohick over at the Centere for Public Christianity. Cohick is associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and is the author of Women in the World of the Earliest Christians (Baker, 2009). The interview is broken into three parts. The first provides a general overview of the status of women in antiquity. The second focuses on statements made by the Apostle Paul and the figures of Mary, mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Part Three looks at women in Paul's ministry including Lydia, Junia, and some others.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper

I recently read Brant Pitre’s book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper (Doubleday, 2011). Pitre is Professor of Sacred Scripture at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans.

The book is birthed from Pitre’s personal experience. In the introduction he explains how he was ambushed by a Baptist minister over issues of Catholic theology, in particular the belief in Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist. Pitre is Roman Catholic and his wife, at least at that time, Baptist. They had gone to visit her pastor who was to marry the then engaged couple. But the meeting turned into a fiasco as the pastor pummeled Pitre with question after question about Catholic theology. It was Pitre’s inability to answer the questions that eventually led to not only his pursuit of a PhD in biblical studies, but also to writing this book.

In the book Pitre attempts to show the Jewish background to the Eucharist and, in particular, that Jesus taught that “he was really and truly present in the Eucharist” (p. 17). Pitre unpacks his argument over the course of eight chapters.

The groundwork for the investigation is laid by looking at the Last Supper and Jesus’ statements about “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood.”These statements are, of course, in direct contradiction to other statements about eating flesh and blood in places like Gen. 9:3-4, Lev. 17:10-12 and Deut. 12:16. Pitre asks the important question of how a first century Jew like Jesus could make such statements in light of the OT injunctions. Pitre argues that one must immerse themselves in the Jewish literature to fully understand what Jesus was saying and doing (pp. 19-21).

Pitre starts by providing a helpful look at Jewish messianic expectations. In a nutshell, Jews were looking for a new Moses who would lead a new exodus. Along with this there would be a new covenant, a new temple and a new promise land. Pitre then outlines how Jesus and his ministry reflect that Jewish hope (pp. 42-47). When Pitre looks at the Last Supper he finds aspects of Jesus instituting a “new Passover” which will begin the new exodus (pp. 68-74).

Of particular interest to Pitre are the bread and the wine. In chapter four he connects the bread of Jesus’ Eucharistic words with the manna of the exodus. He explains how manna was viewed, in Jewish tradition, as the “preexistent bread of the angels” (Ps. 7823-25; Wis 16:20-21) and expected to appear again when the messiah arrived (2 Bar 29:3, 6-8). Pitre goes on to connect this hope for manna with the prayer taught by Jesus in Matthew 6:9-13. He argues that the clause in 6:11 “give us our daily bread” is better translated as “give us our supersubstantial bread.” He supports this translation with an appeal to the Bread of Life sermon in John 6:30-34 and comments made by Jerome and Cyprian (p, 94-96). He goes on to suggest that this means that the bread of the Eucharist cannot be a mere symbol, but is the new manna and is, therefore, supernatural bread. He says “if the old manna of the first exodus was supernatural bread from heaven, then new manna of the Messiah must also be supernatural bread from heaven” (p. 103). By extension, Pitre argues that as the “new manna” Jesus can ask his followers to eat “his flesh” because by eating of the bread in the Eucharist they are eating the “new manna” which is Jesus (p. 115).

Next, Pitre connects Jesus’ real presence in communion with the bread of the presence, which was placed before God daily in the temple. He contends that the Hebrew panim, which can be translated as “presence” or “face” should be translated as face, thus making the bread the “bread of the face” (p. 121). Pitre links this bread to Jesus through the story about King David eating the bread in Matt 12:1-6 (p. 135). He then connects the instructions about the Bread of the Presence (Ex 25; Lev 24) with the Eucharistic words of Jesus in Luke 22. Pitre contends that Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist was also the institution of the new Bread and Wine of the Presence, the bread of Jesus’ own presence (p. 143).

Finally, Pitre looks at the various cups of wine used at the Passover meal and how they figure into Jesus’ Last Supper. He shows that there were four cups during the meal, the last of which he calls the cup of “concluding rites.” He suggests, however, that Jesus does not drink this cup at the supper. He bases this claim on Jesus’ vow “not to drink again of the fruit of the vine until [he does so] in the new kingdom” (Matt 26:7-30; Mark 14:24-26). Pitre argues that when Jesus prays for God to “take away the cup” in the Garden of Gethsemane, that Jesus is talking about the fourth cup (pp. 163-64). But, he says, Jesus does finally drink the cup on the cross as he takes in the wine from the sponge offered to him (pp. 166-68). By doing this, Pitre suggests, Jesus extended the Passover meal to the cross and transformed the cross into a Passover (169). Jesus finished the meal when he drank from the wine soaked sponge and then died as the Passover sacrifice.

Pitre is to be commended for his work on this topic. He brings together a number of loose ends and helps to connect them. Those not familiar with the Old Testament and Second Temple literature will be introduced to a number of new ideas. But Pitre provides not just historical and literary links, he also helps readers to think theologically about the Eucharist and its connection to the Passover. The tone is casual, yet informative which makes it accessible to those who are NOT scholars. There is a lot in this book and I am sure that I have not done it justice in this review, so I encourage you to read it for yourself. I present below six areas of critique that I want to make of Pitre’s work.

  1. While he garners an impressive array of Jewish texts to support his conclusions, many of them are too far removed to be used with his level of confidence. His use of the Mishnah, the Talmud and Midrahsim is suspect since this literature is at least 200 years old or older. Certainly there may be some connections to Jewish messianic expectations and an understanding of the Passover between this literature and the first century. But Pitre never explains how we can be confident that he can use this material for his project. He notes that they can be used"with caution," but he never presents his methodology (pp. 20-21). A lot can change in the course of 200 or more years. The way that he presents his arguments with this supporting literature will be found problematic by many.

  2. I would level the same criticism at his use of early Christian literature like Jerome, Cyprian and others. Granted, some later church fathers did make these types of theological interpretations of the Last Supper. But, as with the Jewish literature, we cannot be sure that what they thought in the fourth century was what Jesus and other early Christians thought in the first century. There are many other things that the later church fathers said about the NT that we would not want to claim today, like some of the antisemitic lines found among some of the fathers. So we must be cautious in the way that we use these sources.

  3. His use of the gospels is problematical because he tends to harmonize them and picks and chooses the gospel that seems to support his goals. He does not tell the reader why Matthew’s version is better than Mark’s or Luke’s for instance. It is difficult to know why he has chosen which text. There does not seem to be any consideration of the differing presentations and theologies that exist between the synoptic gospels.

  4. Along the same lines is his use of John’s gospel. Pitre uses John quite often, especially the Bread of Life discourse. But what he never acknowledges nor tells his reader is that there is no institution of the Eucharist in John’s gospel. John replaces the bread and wine with a foot washing. Similarly, Pitre’s claim that while on the Cross, Jesus knowingly drank the wine from the sponge as a way to “complete the Passover” is suspect since only in John does Jesus say “I thirst.” John seems to be doing something theological rather than historical. It would have been good to hear from Pitre his thoughts on John’s theological interpretation of the Last Supper and how that may or may not alter his conclusions and his theology.

  5. At times he pushes the bounds of linguistic theory by insisting on obscure or very wooden translations. His argument that the “Bread of the Presence” be the “Bread of the Face” and that the “daily bread” be “supernatural bread" seems to bend the language to fit the project.

  6. Finally, it is difficult to know if Pitre is doing history or theology. Granted, the two are not mutually exclusive by necessity. But how one uses the sources is determined by the goal. Pitre claims that he is providing the Jewish roots of the Eucharist, but quite often he seems to be using his sources to support his theology rather than to develop it. His theology would be stronger, I suggest, if he had done his historical work more carefully.

Let me conclude by saying that I am not challenging Roman Catholic belief in the Real Presence of Jesus. I commend Pitre for trying to understand the theology of his church and for trying to find a way to help others understand it. This book does have a lot to commend to it, in particular the impressive collection of texts that he has brought together.

I am challenging, however, the methodology used to get there. I think his aim of showing the Jewish roots of the Eucharist is an admirable and worthwhile project. But it is important that the case not be overstated by using methods and sources that do not necessarily do the job.

I suggest that this book be used with caution.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Who gets to question the Bible?

Two professors from Calvin college recently came under scrutiny for their views on Genesis and evolution. Both, through study of science and the Bible, came to the conclusion that Genesis should not be read literally. As a result, one has lost his job and the other is fighting for his. Here is a piece of the story from

Readers of The Banner, the publication of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, reacted instantly to the news in January that two religion professors at Calvin College had written scholarly papers suggesting that evidence of genetics and evolution raised questions about the traditional, literal reading of Genesis about creation, the story of Adam and Eve, and the fall of humanity out of an initial idyllic state.

The professors were not disavowing the role of God or of their church, but were arguing that modern science challenges traditional, literal readings of the Book of Genesis in ways that may require theological shifts.

Nonetheless, the reaction from readers of The Banner, as expressed in many (but not all) comments on the website, was clear: no deviation from Genesis as literal truth could be tolerated. “To protect the church and college from false teachers and contrary orthodox beliefs it would be right to let these guys go,” said one comment. “Cleary, professors who deny scripture as interpreted by our creeds and who have broken promises they made when the singed the Form of Subscription should be fired,” said another. One recent post says: “Why is it that so many Christians and academics in Christian colleges seem more concerned about keeping in step with what the world teaches than they are about what God’s Word teaches? Are we ashamed of God’s Word in the face of beliefs of our worldly peers?”

After reading the article and the comments above I wonder: who is it that gets to question the Bible? This goes beyond academic freedom and gets to an issue of the church. Who in the church is reevaluating what the church believes to make sure that we are interpreting correctly? Apparently, in this case, it is not these two gentlemen who are educated in their fields and can offer an informed opinion.

The church has always had a difficult relationship with those who question it. Ask poor Galileo about his experience. There tends to be a suspicion of education and an anti-intellectual prejudice. Quite often, however, the same people who are the most vocal about such issues know very little about the topic and what they do know is based on an English translation of the Bible. They are uniformed about the history and culture of the Bible and they know very little of science. The irony, of course, is that the very people they are reacting against are often the same people who help to give them their Bible. They are the scholars that some love to hate.

So if a denomination is going to prevent its academics and experts from looking at the Bible anew and to renew them when they challenge the denomination, then who gets to question the Bible? Who is it that will help us see our blindsides, our misinterpretation, our abuses of the Bible. If the academy is not the first and primary place where these discussions should take place, then where? Who? If freedom and space to question is not allowed, then the denomination is probably doomed to disappear.

Monday, August 15, 2011

NT Wright on Romans . . . in 22 Minutes!

Among the courses I teach in rotation is Paul's letter the Romans. It is one of Paul's most celebrated, important and influential letters. It helped to propel Luther and the Protestant Reformation, it strangely warmed John Wesley's heart, and it landed like a bomb on the playground of European theologians in the form of Karl Barth' commentary. And since the New Perspective on Paul, it has been reexamined and commented on all over again.

In spite of all that, I must admit that it is the one class I enjoy teaching the least. The reason for my lack in teaching Romans is not because it is an uninteresting book. No, the reason I don't find it as enjoyable as say, 1 & 2 Corinthians, is because Romans is so long and complicated that I never feel that I can do the type of job I would like. With sixteen densely packed chapters, I find it impossible to do the kind of job I should when I am only given 30 hours in a ten week quarter. Nonetheless, I continue to teach the course every couple years because despite the courses shortcoming, it is still important for students to have at least one course in this letter, no matter how incomplete it may be.

Recently, Joel Watts over at Unsettled Christianity directed my attention to a 22 minute video clip of NT Wright giving an overview of Romans. Tom is well-known for his ability to boil-down an issue or topic into something that is accessible and digestible. In this clip Wright talks about 1) the historical setting of the letter; 2) what righteousness means; and 3) the faithfulness of God.

I am, not prepared to use this video as a substitute for my class, but I will include it as part of an introduction. The video would also be good for anyone who wants a crash course in Wright's view of Paul's theology and Romans in particular. While Wright and I don't see eye to eye on everything, I do agree with him on a number of areas, so recommend this clip.


Sunday, August 14, 2011

Friday Book Giveaway Winner

Congrats to Jonathan Ammon! He is this week's winner! He wins Joseph A. Marchal The Politics of Heaven: Women, Gender and Empire in the Study of Paul (Fortress Press, 2008).

Jonathan, please send me your details at and I will send the book out. Remember, you five days to claim your prize.

Didn't win this week? Check back again next Friday.