New Books on/by Jacques Ellul

Over the past couple years there has been a mini proliferation of literature on the sociologist and erstwhile theologian Jacques Ellul. I have read over twenty of his books and have found him to be an interesting theologian to read. Here are some of the books published in the last few years:

Book Review: The Branch Davidians of Waco

branchdavidianswacoTitle: The Branch Davidians of Waco: The History and Beliefs of an Apocalyptic Sect

Author: Kenneth G.C. Newport

Bibliographic info: 400 pp.

Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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With thanks to OUP for the review copy.

Within a year of the infamous confrontation at Mount Carmel in 1993, there was a proliferation of popular-level publications on the tragedy that approached it predominantly from a sensationalist angle, focusing on issues such as David Koresh’s polygamy and the stockpiling of weapons by the Branch Davidians. This populist literature invariably exhibits little-to-no elucidation on the theology of Koresh and the thought-world in which his followers lived. There were, however, some important volumes published during this time that made attempts to understand the theology of the Branch Davidians and the causes behind their fiery end.[1] In the years since, there have been various books and journal articles published on every facet of the Mount Carmel, though there has always been lacking a comprehensive look at the theology of David Koresh and the Branch Davidian movement. This is where Kenneth Newport’s The Branch Davidians of Waco comes in. Here Newport provides the reader with a full account of the relevant religious history preceding the Branch Davidians, particularly in regards to the theology of Koresh’s predecessors.[2]

The main strength of this volume is that Newport provides the best attempt to date at filling the gap in the literature concerning the theology and belief-system of Koresh and the Branch Davidians,. This is specifically seen in how Newport doesn’t just simply lay the blame for the group’s violent end at their own feet, but takes it a step further by providing a plausible and compelling argument as to how and why their theology led to the group’s self-immolation (see pp. 278–306 for an account of what caused the fire, and pp. 307–24 for a case that the theology of the movement was responsible for the fire). While it is a not-so-uncommon opinion of religious scholars that Mount Carmel may have been accidentally set ablaze by the FBI, Newport convincingly argues that it was indeed started by Branch Davidian members and that they had a theological rationale for it—an apocalyptic theology of martyrdom.

The section on the theology of Koresh himself is not as substantial as one might hope (pp. 213–33), and  instead of trying to portray Koresh as a theologian in his own right, Newport chooses to stress the continuity in thought between Koresh and his predecessors, namely, Victor Houteff, Florence Houteff, Ben Roden and Lois Roden. While this theological pedigree is an important factor to take into account, perhaps this study could have benefited by also placing more of a focus on the discontinuity between Koresh and his predecessors. Though, admittedly, there is not exactly a vast amount of writings and sermons left behind by Koresh that one can draw from, so maybe this severely limits what one can say about Koresh’s theology.

The only real drawback I found in this volume is that the study could have been more judicious in reflecting on the importance of the interactions between the federal agents and the Branch Davidians (specifically in regards to the influence this had on the dramatic denouement that occurred on April 19, 1993). I’ve spent a fair amount of time studying Koresh and the Branch Davidians and from listening to the audiotapes of Koresh’s teachings and the negotiations between him and the FBI, it seems clear that there was sufficient information available to the government of the likely response that the Branch Davidians would take to a second raid on Mount Carmel, yet the author did not appear to be terribly eager to take this into account when exploring the cause behind the fire at Mount Carmel.

Nevertheless, in the plethora of literature that has been published on the “wacko from Waco” and the fiery demise of the Branch Davidians, this is the most definitive study I have come across that provides not only an in-depth look at the historical antecedents of the movement, but also the theology of the movement and how this can help explain why some members of Mount Carmel decided to set the compound ablaze.


[1] For example, James R. Lewis (ed), From the Ashes: Making Sense of Waco (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994); Dick J. Reavis, The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995); Stuart A. Wright (ed), Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); and James D. Tabor and Eugene V. Gallagher, Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). In this last volume, Tabor and Gallagher approach the Mount Carmel incident as a study of the symbiotic relationship between the Branch Davidians, the federal government, the media, the anti-cult movement, and religious scholars. They critically discuss how the government handled the crisis, questioning whether the strategies and tactics used to deal with the Branch Davidians were appropriate, while providing a prescription for avoiding such a violent finale in any future episodes. While it provides a solid attempt to interact with some of the theological thinking of Koresh, as the subtitle indicates it is focused more on explaining the Mount Carmel tragedy in terms of the public perception of cults in American society and how the government challenged the Branch Davidians’ right to religious freedom.

[2] Newport had briefly dealt with Koresh and the Branch Davidians in an earlier work that surveyed how Revelation had been interpreted by various figures over the last 400 years, see Newport, Apocalypse and Millennium: Studies in Biblical Eisegesis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), esp. pp. 197–236.

Brief Book Note: Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, Qumran, Septuagint

textualcriticismlxxdsshbTitle: Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, Qumran, Septuagint: Collected Essays, Volume 3 

Author: Emanuel Tov

Series: Vetus Testamentum, Supplements

Bibliographic info: 540 pp.

Publisher: Brill, 2015.

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This is the third volume of collected studies by Emanuel Tov, with the other two being:

  • The Greek and Hebrew Bible: Collected Essays on the Septuagint (VTSup 72; Leiden: Brill, 1999).
  • Hebrew Bible, Greek Bible, and Qumran: Collected Essays (TSAJ 121; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008).

This volume contains thirty-three studies by Emanuel Tov on the textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, and the writings of Qumran. All of these essays were originally published between 2008 and 2014, though they have all been revised and reworked (to varying degrees) for this volume, including updated bibliographies. Those familiar with these research areas will probably be aware of the role that Tov has played in them, from publishing an impressive amount of literature on these topics to being the past editor-in-chief of the international Dead Sea Scrolls publication project.

There are eighteen studies on which deal specifically with textual criticism, ranging from a review of the Judges volume of the Biblia Hebraica Quinta to a comparison of the genealogical lists in Genesis 5 and 11 in three different versions (MT, LXX, SP). There are nine studies on Qumran writings, covering such topics as the scribal features of two Qumran scrolls to Tov’s thoughts on the Discoveries of the Judaean Desert Publication Project. And there are six studies on the Septuagint, dealing with topics from the use of personal names in LXX Isaiah to the role the Septuagint has played in the Jewish and Christian traditions.

This is an impressive collection of studies from a distinguished voice in the field of biblical studies. It will naturally appeal to anyone interested in textual criticism, the Hebrew Bible, and the Septuagint, but also other areas such as the Apocrypha, Second Temple literature, the Qumran community, and so forth.

Book Review: The Text of Marcion’s Gospel

textofmarcionsgospelTitle: The Text of Marcion’s Gospel

Author: Dieter T. Roth

Series: New Testament Tools, Studies and Documents

Bibliographic info: 491 pp.

Publisher: Brill, 2015.

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With thanks to Brill for the review copy.

This volume is a revised version of the author’s doctoral dissertation completed at the University of Edinburgh in 2009.

For many who have done some casual reading in early Christianity, the name Marcion will conjure up the image of the arch-heretic of “orthodox” Christianity in the second century, the guy who rejected the authority of the Old Testament due to its portrayal of God as being a capricious and malicious figure. Another aspect of Marcion that some are not as aware of is how he had his own version of the New Testament which consisted of an edited version of the Gospel of Luke and an edited collection of Pauline letters. The question arises, however, as to how exactly this fits into the origins and development of the traditional New Testament that we have today. Was Marcion the first person who really attempted to put together a new canon, providing the impetus for the proto-orthodox church to assemble its own New Testament canon as a response to his? Or is he more of a witness to a process that had already begun long before him? Such questions will likely never be able to be satisfactorily answered. But there are other aspects of the Marcion puzzle that can be more adequately examined and answered, such as the question of what the text of Marcion’s canon looked like, and this is exactly what Dieter Roth undertakes in this volume by reconstructing the  text of Marcion’s version of the Gospel of Luke by employing a thoroughgoing source and text-critical method.

This volume begins with the obligatory introductory chapter, a forty-page chapter providing a survey on the history of research, and then a chapter which provides a tabulation of the attestation in early Christian writings concerning the (non-)inclusion of verses in Marcion’s Gospel that parallel those in Luke’s gospel (while also noting the verses where there is no evidence as to whether they were included or excluded in Marcion’s Gospel).

Two chapters then tackle the writings of Tertullian, an author who provides the most data for an attempt to reconstruct Marcion’s text (over 400 verses). The next two chapters each deal with two other key sources: Epiphanius (Ancoratus and the Panarion haereses; covering over 100 verses) and the author of the Adamantius Dialogue (75 verses referenced). This is followed by a chapter on additional sources for Marcion’s text. Roth seems quite able to judiciously navigate the problems that can arise with mining Marcion’s text from the writings of other authors (e.g. Tertullian does not always make it apparent if he is actually quoting Marcion’s text when he discusses it). Quick note: to get the most out of these chapters you will definitely need to have a working knowledge of Latin and Greek.

In Chapter 9, all of this data is then synthesized together in order to present Roth’s reconstructed text of Marcion’s version of the Gospel of Luke, with the final chapter then discussing the implications of this study and possible avenues for future research. Of course, the author does not claim that he has reproduced the original text of Marcion’s Gospel, but rather just its earliest recoverable text. I would say that the version of Marcion’s text that Roth presents us with is somewhat conservative in that he is seemingly hesitant to speculate a great deal in his reconstruction. The same can be said for the implications of his reconstruction that Roth provides; there is no wild speculation flying about concerning how this overturns what we know about earliest Christianity. This conservatism is quite a judicious decision on Roth’s part considering the level of uncertainty that is involved in such an endeavor that this study undertakes. Nevertheless, despite the tentativeness inherent in such a project, any future work carried out on Marcion can use Roth’s reconstructed text to provide a more confident foundation.

Book Review: The Early Hans Urs Von Balthasar

EarlyVonBalthasarTitle: The Early Hans Urs Von Balthasar: Historical Contexts and Intellectual Formation

Author: Paul Silas Peterson

Series: Theologische Bibliothek Topelmann

Bibliographic info: 379 pp.

Publisher: Walter De Gruyter, 2015.

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With thanks to Walter De Gruyter for the review copy.

In this volume, a revised version of the author’s doctoral dissertation completed at the University of Tübingen in 2011, the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar is discussed in relation to the various contexts—literary, historical, cultural, sociopolitical, ecclesial, and theological—of his day that he drew upon (and responded to) during the period of the 1920s-1940s.

The key contexts which the author delves into are the central European Germanophone cultural context, the Germanophone Catholic cultural context, the German studies context, and the French Catholic renewal literature and theology. Within these are smaller sub-contexts, including the important German Jesuit journal Stimmen der Zeit, Neo-Scholasticism, Swiss fascism, Renouveau Catholique, George-Kreis, Neugermanistik, Germanophone Catholic theology, and French Catholic culture.

The author begins this study by looking at the earliest literature von Balthasar produced in the 1920s, such as his first work Die Entwicklung der musikalischen Idee (1925), which Peterson sees as being representative of how von Balthasar absorbed and integrated cultural criticism and philosophical themes from figures like and Hegel. A couple specific areas of focus are: (1) von Balthasar’s appropriation of Guardini’s cultural criticism, particularly his development of a Christian worldview, and von Balthasar’s treatment of Goethe and Nietzsche; and (2) German literature and culture, which includes a discussion of the background of German literature from 1880-1920, with the spotlight being places on a few figures and movements, such as the George-Kreis.

A couple of the most interesting sections of this volume were those that looked at the influence that the following persons and concepts had on von Balthasar: Swiss fascism, Nazi German (and the situation of the church in the context of national socialism), Julius Schmidhauser (and those who had been searching for a more profound relationship between Deutschtum and Christentum), and the relationships between von Balthasar and  two other thinkers, Erich Przywara (specifically Przywara’s metaphysics) and Karl Barth (his anti-liberal dialectical theology). There is, naturally, a section devoted to the Barth-Balthasar relationship.

The unfortunate anti-Semitism to be found in von Balthasar gets its own chapter which provides an analysis of his writings from the 30s and 40s (and a historical contextualization). So too does von Balthasar’s relationship with Renouveau Catholique, Neo-Scholasticism and Nouvelle Theologie, which is achieved by bringing key figures like Speyr, Rahner, and Lubac into the discussion. Balthasar’s works Présence et Pensée (1942) and Wahrheit (1947) are also discussed, with the latter work being examined in light of the context provided by Rahner’s new approach to transcendental philosophy.

The volume then concludes with a concluding chapter, an index of names, and a helpful five-page historical table with the dates and titles of von Balthasar’s publications in two columns and two other columns showing the contemporaneous literary movements (e.g. Blut-und-Boden) and local/global events (e.g. NYSE crash, rise of Swiss fascism, student fascist groups in Zurich, etc).

Hans Urs von Balthasar is the primary theologian from the Catholic tradition that I have been acquainting myself with. In order to understand the writings of a theologian, one needs to properly understand the Sitz im Leben that their works sprung from. This study from Paul Silas Peterson does a fantastic job of illuminating the world von Balthasar lived in and how it relates to his theology. I particularly appreciated the frank look at von Balthasar’s early anti-Semitism and other awkward aspects of his early work. This volume will appeal for those with interest in Hans Urs von Balthasar, European Catholicism, and twentieth-century German theology. If you are truly a fan of von Balthasar then this work should definitely be at the top of your list of books to read.

Book Review: The Promises of God

promisesofgodTitle: The Promises of God: The Background of Paul’s Exclusive Use of ‘Epangelia’ for the Divine Pledge

Author: Daniel J. Brendsel

Series: Beihefte Zur Zeitschrift Fur Die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft

Bibliographic info: xviii + 235 + 61 (indices and bibliography)

Publisher: Walter De Gruyter, 2014.

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With thanks to Walter De Gruyter for the review copy.

Part I of this study attempts to answer the question of whether Paul’s usage of the ἐπαγγελία word group for the divine promise is exclusive to him (used twenty-two times in the undisputed Pauline writings). This section consists of five chapters. Chapter One is the introductory chapter which tackles the expected topics like method and so forth. Chapter Two looks at the language used for the divine pledge in Classical and Hellenistic literature from the eighth century BCE to the first century CE. Chapter Three looks at terms used for the divine promise in the Septuagint and the counterparts in the Masoretic text. Chapter Four then moves on to the Old Testament apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, while Chapter Five then looks for formal divine promise terms in Philo and Josephus.

The literature examined in this part is all found in Greek, whether it be by Classical, Hellenistic, or Jewish authors, with the Jewish literature of course comprising the bulk of the research due to the fact that more references to divine promises are found therein. From the writings the author examines, he concludes that Paul’s usage of ἐπαγγελία is indeed unique, with no one else contemporary with Paul or predating him exclusively using ἐπαγγελία for the divine promise. Another notable finding of the author’s is that Paul neglects to use the dominant term in the Septuagint for the divine promises in the Abrahamic covenant (the ὅρκος/ὄμνυμι lexemes). However, Paul opts to use the Septuagint’s least favored term for divine promises, the ἐπαγγελία word group (with usage of this group in the LXX with God as the source/subject being a rarity). Because of this, the author devises a method for identifying synonymous terms for divine promises. Doing so produces the ὅρκος/ὄμνυμι lexeme, as well as the ὑπόσχεσις/ὑπισχνέομαι and ἐπαγγελία/ἐπαγγέλλομαι word groups.

Part II then scrutinizes the reason for why Paul exclusively used ἐπαγγελία for the divine promise. Was it a conscious or unconscious decision on his part? If it was a deliberate decision to use ἐπαγγελία, then what is the reasoning behind it? The author attempts to answer these questions in the final four chapters. Chapter Six looks at the connection between ἐπαγγελία and εὐαγγέλιον. Chapter Seven then takes this further by specifically looking at this relationship in Romans. Chapter Eight then examines this connection in Galatians, 2 Corinthians, and some other New Testament writings (Luke, Acts, Ephesians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, and 1 John). And Chapter Nine provides the authors concluding thoughts.

The author finds that other than the authors of the Testament of Abraham and 2 Peter, the only writer examined who consistently uses ἐπαγγελία in a sense similar to Paul is Josephus. The author finds that Paul’s usage of ἐπαγγελία for the divine promise is invariably a reference to the promises that God made to Abraham in Genesis (seen especially in Romans and Galatians). This language choice was a conscious decision on Paul’s part, being an intentional rhetorical choice due to the lexeme serving Paul’s communicative needs better than any other. Ἐπαγγελία was employed due to its close conceptual and linguistic correspondence with εὐαγγέλιον. The linguistic correspondence is found in the assonantal wordplay that arises due to both terms having the –αγγελ stem, while the conceptual correspondence has to do with the promises of the Abrahamic covenant which is associated with Paul’s proclamation of the Christian gospel (despite the fact that εὐαγγέλιον does not appear in the Abrahamic narrative in Genesis).

So what I ultimately gathered from this study is that, on a conceptual level, Paul’s εὐαγγέλιον–the good news of Jesus’ death and his resurrection by God–establishes the realization of the ἐπαγγελία that God made to Abraham back in Genesis. And this I found to be a believable and satisfying solution to the peculiarity of Paul’s exclusive use of the ἐπαγγελία word group for the divine pledge.

Book Review: A Gospel Synopsis of the Greek Text of Matthew, Mark and Luke

bezaevaticanusgospelsynopsisTitle: A Gospel Synopsis of the Greek Text of Matthew, Mark and Luke: A Comparison of Codex Bezae and Codex Vaticanus

Editors:  Jenny Read-Heimerdinger and Josep Rius-Camps

Series: New Testament Tools, Studies and Documents

Bibliographic info: xxi + 630 pp.

Publisher: Brill, 2014.

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With thanks to Brill for the review copy.

While most (all?) current synopses of the gospels typically employ the Nestle-Aland edition of the Greek text, this volume displays the synoptic gospels using the texts of Bezae (D/05) and Vaticanus (B/03). It does so, however, three times, with each iteration placing the synoptic gospels in a different order (so that each of the three gospels gets a turn as being the principal gospel in the comparison). Thus, in Part I the synopsis goes Matthew-Mark-Luke, then in Part II it goes Mark-Matthew-Luke, and in Part III it goes Luke-Matthew-Mark.

The gospels are displayed in parallel columns on the page, with the text of Bezae and Vaticanus on opposite pages (Bezae on the left-hand pages and Vaticanus on the right-hand pages), thus there are six columns on the two pages opened before you (with the left-most column on each page containing the text of the principal gospel and the second and third columns having the parallel text of the other two gospels).

There are instances in Bezae where the extant manuscript lacks the Greek text, so in these instances the Latin of Bezae has been translated into Greek (and marked out to the reader by its placement in parentheses). And in instances where the Greek and Latin of Bezae is missing, the editors utilized the text of Sinaiticus (A/01) which is printed in red ink.

There were a couple oddities I noticed in the text of Bezae, one being the omission of Mark 16:9-20 (which is attested in Bezae), and the second being that the Pericopae Adulterae is placed after Luke 20:19 (which is not attested in Bezae). So I’m not sure what that is all about.

The layout used in this synopsis has its pros and cons. One thing in its favor is that the text is written out in short lines, which I find helps a great deal in comparing the columns. A shortcoming I noticed is in how the gospel text is divided into pericopae that sometimes seem arbitrary as to where they are divided and some of which are too long. Another weakness is that the pages do not contain chapter and verse numbers at the top of the columns (which helps in a pinch if you’re flipping through the book trying to find a specific passage).

This synopsis is valuable as there is no other published synopsis comparing Bezae and Vaticanus (as far as I am aware). This is, however, at the same time a drawback. For in limiting this synopsis to two specific manuscripts, it isn’t going to be terribly helpful if your hoping to utilize it for getting a broader understanding of text-critical issues, which is only further compounded by the fact that this synopsis lacks a critical apparatus.

Ultimately, this synopsis gives the reader the ability to compare and contrast two specific instantiations of the text of the synoptic gospels in the early church. I can see why this may be a desired and much needed alternative to the usual synopsis which employs a carefully reconstructed eclectic text that was not actually used in the church.