Book Review: The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction and Commentary

gospelthomasgathercoleTitle: The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction and Commentary

Author: Simon Gathercole

Series: Texts and Editions for New Testament Study, 11

Bibliographic info: 723 pp.

Publisher: Brill, 2014.

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With thanks to Brill for the review copy.

The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of 114 sayings (logia) of Jesus that are extant in a single Coptic manuscript (from Nag Hammadi) and three Greek papyrus fragments (from Oxyrhynchus). In this volume, The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction and Commentary, Simon Gathercole, Senior Lecturer in New Testament Studies at the University of Cambridge, provides a comprehensive commentary on this extra-canonical text of early Christianity. Gathercole has actually published a couple other volumes on non-canonical texts, including The Gospel of Judas (OUP, 2007) and The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas (CUP, 2012).

This volume is split into two main parts. The first section is comprised of twelve chapters (pp. 1–186), covering issues such as manuscript evidence, provenance, dating, genre, religious outlook, its relationship to the canonical Gospels, and so forth. This section is then followed by a thorough commentary (pp. 187–618) on each of the 114 pericopae or logia. The volume finishes with a 54-page bibliography, and indices of citations, modern authors, and subjects.

There have been several notable studies and commentaries already published on Thomas, including those by DeConick, Pokorný, Hedrick, Nordsieck, Ménard, Valantasis, and Grosso. Gathercole interacts with these throughout, though naturally he departs from these other commentaries on various issues, such as its compositional history, its relationship to the Synoptics, and so forth.

As in Gathercole’s earlier volume on this gospel, The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas, he sees Thomas as being originally composed in Greek (instead of Syriac or Aramaic), as well as being dependent on the Synoptic Gospels. He dates Thomas to sometime between 135-200 CE and sees it an unknown author in possibly Egypt or Syria (“it is probably best to admit our ignorance about Thomas’s provenance, while acknowledging that Syria and Egypt are reasonable possibilities” pp. 110-11). Interestingly, Gathercole does not see Thomas as being especially Gnostic in the conventional sense of the term (“it is hard to make a case for Thomas as Gnostic, principally because it does not have a clearly demiurgic account of creation” p. 173), but rather sees it as being quite an adaptable piece of literature. He says:

Part of the fascination of Thomas is that it was apparently acceptable to such a wide variety of different groups (Gnostics, Manichees, etc.), and yet is so difficult to pin down in terms of its origins and of any genuinely close alignment with other known works and movements. (175)

A feature I found particularly helpful was chapter three in which the author discusses the ancient testimonia to Thomas. Gathercole provides forty-eight testimonies to Thomas, of which he sees thirty-nine of them as referencing Thomas and the other nine being a bit more dubious. This is followed in chapter four by about thirty more references to the contents of Thomas found in later writers, from Hippolytus in the third century to the later medieval writers. Another chapter I particularly enjoyed was chapter ten, in which the author provides a thematic theological outlook on Thomas.

Chapter eleven discusses the usefulness of the Gospel of Thomas for historical Jesus studies. While granting the possibility that Thomas may preserve agrapha of Jesus, Gathercole sees it as being dependent on the Synoptics and thus not particularly useful for historical Jesus studies. He says:

Overall, the prospects for the use of Thomas in historical Jesus research are slim. As scholarship currently stands, and with the primary sources that are available to us at present, the Gospel of Thomas can hardly be regarded as useful in the reconstruction of a historical picture of Jesus. (p. 184)

The commentary proper occupies the bulk of the volume and consists of the text of the extant Coptic and Greek text, and a threefold commentary on it: textual comment, interpretation, and verse-by-verse notes. Gathercole dialogues with what other commentators have said about the logia and provides convincing reasons for his own interpretations, or just simply admits the meaning is unclear and refrains from making determinations that go beyond what the evidence may suggest. For example, in the infamous final saying of Thomas, Gathercole provides a detailed look (pp. 607-16) at this difficult saying and, in regards to Mary’s transformation and maleness, he says:

How then should this reference be taken? Given the difficulty of the dialogue, it is easier to criticise the views of others than to come up with a constructive alternative. One path to avoid is to take a rather dewy-eyed view of Thomas which attempts to rescue GTh 114 from any suspicion of unfashionable ‘sexism’. (p. 612)

All in all, Simon Gathercole’s The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction and Commentary will likely be the key commentary on Thomas for some time to come. Thomas is an intriguing remnant of early Christianity and Gathercole’s volume exhibits great lucidity and depth, providing a compelling commentary on the gospel.

Brief Book Review: Indexes and Supplementary Materials (DBW 17)

indexesTitle: Indexes and Supplementary Materials

Series: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 17

Bibliographic info: 600 pp.

Publisher: Fortress Press, 2014.

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With thanks to Fortress Press for the digital review copy.

This volume is the concluding part to the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works collection (originally published in German as Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke). This series is the product of over twenty years of labor and is, of course, a vital resource for those wishing to have an in-depth knowledge of Bonhoeffer in his time and place. This specific volume provides the means to locate anything in the other sixteen volumes (English edition).

The book’s contents are:

General Editor’s Foreword to the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, English Edition (Victoria Barnett)
The Translation of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, English Edition: An Overview (Victoria Barnett)
The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, English Edition: A Retrospective (Clifford Green)
The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke: Afterword to the German Edition (Wolfgang Huber)

Part I: Additional Letters and Documents

Part II: Comprehensive Chronology and Master List of Documents
1. Chronology 1906–1945
2. Master List of Documents for DBWE 8–17

Part III: Master Indexes
1. Master Index of Scriptural References
2. Master Index of Names
3. Master Index of Subjects

The table of contents is pretty self-explanatory for what is included in this volume. I will note, however, that this volume includes about a dozen additional letters and documents, some of which are appearing in English for the first time anywhere. A couple of interesting features of this volume are the detailed chronology and the three introductions by Victoria Barnett, Clifford Green, and Wolfgang Huber. They provide an interesting glimpse on the series as a whole and the translation process.

With the publication of this volume the milestone that is the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (English edition) is finally completed. And, of course, if you own the other volumes, then this one is a necessity. I imagine the indices will be a real help to those who would like to include Bonhoeffer’s words of wisdom in their sermons, or for anyone interested in doing some real research on him.

One final note. I have the Kindle version of this volume and was unsure as to how the indices would come through in an eBook format, but they look completely fine. The only downside I can really see to having the eBook edition is that if you wanted to use the scriptural index, you will to turn through it a page at a time to get to the biblical book you desire. So if you want to know where Isaiah 1:18 is referenced, you’re gonna have to be flickin’ pages for a couple minutes (or use the search function of your eReader and hope it is helpful).

Book Review: The Annihilation of Hell

PrintTitle: The Annihilation of Hell: Universal Salvation and the Redemption of Time in the Eschatology of Jürgen Moltmann

Author: Nicholas Ansell

Bibliographic info: 484 pp.

Publisher: Wipf and Stock, 2013.

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With thanks to Wipf and Stock for the review copy!

This study by Nicholas Ansell, a revised version of his doctoral disseration completed in 2005 at Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. Over the past several years now, I have read through a lot of Moltmann’s writings and literature written on Moltmann’s though, and this  is undoubtedly one of the most valuable pieces of work I’ve read on Moltmann. This is a fantastic theological read for anyone interested in the questions of hell, death, the final judgment, and universalism.

In a nutshell, this study explores the theme of universal salvation in Moltmann’s eschatology, placed within the overall structure of Moltmann’s theological project. After a thoughtful foreword by Jürgen Moltmann, Ansell begins with a chapter that discusses the annihilationist alternative to hell, with special reference to The Mystery of Salvation (a report of the Church of England’s doctrine commission of 1995). The second and third chapters discuss Moltmann’s philosophy of time, such as his concept of the future as futurum and as adventus (i.e. phenomenal, historical becoming and transcendental, eschatological coming). Ansell also spends some time in this chapter responding to some common objections to universal salvation in Moltmann. The fourth chapter tackles the relationship in Moltmann’s thought between nature, grace, glory, specifically in regard to the Arminian and Calvinist understandings of salvation. The fifth, sixth, and seventh chapters each place Moltmann in dialogue with various other thinkers, such as Hendrik Hart, Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, N.T. Wright, and Miroslav Volf. This is followed by a concluding chapter in which Ansell seeks to answer some possible objections to universal salvation in Moltmann, particularly the question of: “can Moltmann’s theology help us envision a truly ‘covenantal’ universalism?” (I won’t spoil the fun by telling you the author’s results… you’ll just have to go read the book!) And, finally, there is an interesting appendix (on exegetical issues in Revelation), a bibliography, and an author index.

One of the things I appreciated about this study (apart from the fact the author did a nice job elucidating some of Moltmann’s puzzling statements on time, the eschaton, etc), is that even though the focus of this study is on Moltmann, there are other theological partners that Ansell engages, including Ernst Bloch, James Olthuis, Walter Benjamin, and the others listed in the previous paragraph. Heck, there is even a chapter devoted to reading Moltmann in light of the debate between Barth and Brunner on the nature of grace. Some of the thinkers Ansell brings into dialogue with Moltmann are ones I myself would not have thought of, such as the neo-Calvinist philosopher Hendrik Hart, whose philosophy of time Ansell compares with Moltmann’s.

Another feature of this study I particularly enjoyed was the copious amounts of footnotes and the wealth of valuable material to be found in them. Truly, the footnotes are impressive and show the depth the author achieved in this study.

A Christian theology book which looks at hell and universal salvation is naturally going to put off a lot of people from ever considering reading it. But if the topic of universal salvation is not something that would dissuade you, then I would heartily recommend this book for anyone interested in Moltmann, Christian universalism, or just for anyone who desires to read a study that weaves together historical theology, neo-orthodoxy, postmodern theology, biblical studies, philosophy, and more.

This study is a valuable theological resource and it will make me keep an eye out for anything the author produces in the future. Highly recommended!

Book Review: 2 Corinthians (BECNT)

2corinthiansguthrieTitle: 2 Corinthians

Series: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament

Author: George Guthrie

Bibliographic info: 736 pp.

Publisher: Baker Academic, 2015.

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With thanks to Baker Academic for the digital review copy.

I should start this review by confessing that 2 Corinthians is the New Testament book I have studied the least. Part of this is no doubt due to the fact that I have always felt more interested in the Gospels, Catholic Epistles, and Revelation more so than Paul’s epistles. But even when I have gone on the occasional Pauline bender, I much prefer something like Galatians (and even Philemon) over 2 Corinthians.

I thought it was high time I familiarize myself with 2 Corinthians and decided that Guthrie’s contribution to the BECNT series was the way to go. As with every other BECNT volume, this one takes you on verse-by-verse exegetical tour of the epistle, providing the Greek text, a transliteration of the Greek, and the author’s own English translation. Each section follows the conventional BECNT pattern: (1) a short summary; (2) the exegesis; (3) reflection; and (4) additional notes (usually related to matters of textual criticism).

The introduction of this volume varies from how they normally run, with Guthrie opting to begin with a piece of (pedagogical) fiction on ancient Corinth to convey the difficult ministry situation that Paul faced there. I actually found this to be a rather refreshing way of approaching the introduction.

With what I have read of the commentary so far, there are many instances where the author tackles a difficult or perplexing issue and provides a helpful examination. For instance, on the issue of literary unity, Guthrie sees 2 Corinthians as being a single composition and provides some literary dynamics in the text that strongly point in this direction (e.g. an inclusio of several verbal parallels between 1:1-7 and 13:11-13). When it comes to what is perhaps my favorite passage of 2 Corinthians–the triumphal procession word picture that Paul provides in 2:14-16–Guthrie approaches it by focusing upon neglected background information that (I think) is overlooked by other commentators. Another pericope that I appreciated Guthrie’s commentary on was 3:7-18 and, of course, the thorny issue of 12:6-9.

Guthrie does a good job at dealing with the question as to the exact nature of the opponents in Corinth, with many seeing them as being Judaizers (to whatever degree). Guthrie divides the opponents into two camps. The first are a vocal minority in the church who oppose Paul, and the second are people pretending to be “apostles” who had been visiting the Corinthian church (and who Guthrie sees as being strongly influenced by the sophist tradition).

All in all, Guthrie provides careful exegesis and a solid commentary from an evangelical perspective. Like all volumes in the BECNT series, this one is written for the more technically minded, and a knowledge of Greek will definitely help. Guthrie ably shows how 2 Corinthians is a rich resource for ministry and also provides the reader with some nice practical reflections on the text.

Brief Book Review: Reading Barth with Charity

readingbarthcharityTitle: Reading Barth with Charity: A Hermeneutical Proposal

Author: George Hunsinger

Bibliographic info: 208 pp.

Publisher: Baker Academic, 2015.

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With thanks to Baker Academic for the review copy!

For those familiar with the world of Barth scholarship, George Hunsinger (McCord Professor of Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary), will undoubtedly be a familiar name as a Barth scholar. He has, after all, been the president of the Karl Barth Society of North America for over a decade now.

In this slim volume, Hunsinger tackles those who he believes misrepresent Barth’s theology. The Barthian revisionists dealt with here are Paul Nimmo, Paul Daffyd Jones, and Bruce McCormack. These Barthian revisionists point out supposed inconsistencies in Barth’s theology, with the key inconsistency that Hunsinger examines is Barth’s views on the Trinity and election. Barth’s stance on such matters, in the eyes of some, leads to the question of whether (in his theology) election gives shape to the economic Trinity. This question of when the election of the Son happened in eternity matters because it could mean that the formation of the Godhead follows the plan of redemption. Hunsinger claims, however, that in Barth’s theology, “election presupposes the Trinity, rather than constitute[s] it.”

Hunsinger uses his hermeneutic of charity throughout to show that the alleged inconsistencies in Barth are able to be explained in a much more coherent manner. What is meant by “reading with charity” is that one should approach Barth with the assumption that his theology is indeed coherent and that one can then, with this assumption, attempt to settle any apparent inconsistencies or contradictions in Barth’s thought. Essentially, it is applying the “golden rule” to hermeneutics.

This book is not intended for the average person in the pew. However, this is definitely a book for anyone interested not just in the question of what Barth himself gets right, but also the question of who gets Barth right. While I am by no means overly familiar with Barth’s writings, I think that Hunsinger has done a fine job in showing that what Barth wrote actually contradicts the claims of inconsistency by the revisionists, though it will be interesting to see the responses that this book  generates.

So if you’re interested in Barth studies then this is, of course, a fine book for you to pick up and read. If this sort of thing isn’t your cup of tea, however, you may just end up wondering about the importance of properly understanding Barth’s view on the relationship between election and the Trinity.

Book Review: Exodus Church and Civil Society

ExodusChurchandCivilSocietyTitle: Exodus Church and Civil Society: Public Theology and Social Theory in the Work of Jürgen Moltmann

Author: Scott Paeth

Bibliographic info: viii + 223 pp.

Publisher: Ashgate, 2008.

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With thanks to Ashgate for the review copy!

As the title of this volume indicates, this study examines the relationship between theology and social theory in the theological project of Jürgen Moltmann. The author, Scott Paeth, explores Moltmann’s concept of the “exodus church” (a concept first discussed by Moltmann in the final chapter of his Theologie der Hoffnung / Theology of Hope), and how the church can engage in public theology in our (pluralistic) civil society. What is meant by public theology and what does it entail? These words from the author may be helpful:

It is because the church exists as an entity within civil society and also as a community set apart through its faith in the promises of God, that it can act in anticipation of the coming Kingdom of God in ways that have the potential to make genuine political and social progress in modern society.

The book is divided in four parts.

In the first part, Paeth takes a look at Moltmann’s public theology. Part of this entails a look at a possible distinction in Moltmann’s writings between his “public” theology and “political” theology. Paeth rightly, in my opinion, notes that there is continuity between the two, with political theology being subsumed under the larger rubric of public theology. This part also encompasses a helpful examination of the role of Moltmann’s concept of the “exodus church” in civil society.

In the second part, Paeth goes further into Moltmann’s public theology, specifically in regards to ethical engagement. He draws upon Walter Rauschenbusch’s ethics of the kingdom of God, H. Richard Niebuhr’s theology of social responsibility, and Reinhold Niebuhr’s theology of sin and human social relations (these three theologians could be considered as having provided precursors to public theology). Other theologians Paeth draws upon are David Tracy, Ronald Thiemann, Max Stackhouse, Miroslav Volf, Hans Küng, James Skillen, and Karl Barth.

With the third part of this book, Paeth discusses Moltmann’s relation to thinkers of the Frankfurt School in the 1960s, Max Weber and Max Horkheimer, as well as Jürgen Habermas (and his “recovery of emancipation through communication”). By exploring the themes of civil society and the public role of the church, Paeth is attempting to make up for a missing aspect in Moltmann’s writings on civil society as it appears in history.

For the final part, Paeth ties together everything he has discussed so far with the hope being to provide an approach to public theology in a pluralistic society. There is substantial interaction with Moltmann himself in this section, particularly his Theology of Hope, The Crucified God, and The Way of Jesus Christ. Paeth sees the political engagement of the believer to be essential in Moltmann’s theological project.

This study is more of a theoretical examination of the topic, rather than one which draws upon actual case-studies of the church’s engagement with civil society, yet despite its focus on theory it is written in a very accessible manner. The author shows an in-depth knowledge of Moltmann’s oeuvre and this study will definitely be beneficial for anyone interested in Moltmann, and will also be enlightening to anyone interested in the relationship between church and modern society. It is a touch on the expensive side (~$100), so you might have to take a trip to your local seminary!

Book Review: Linguistic Analysis of the Greek New Testament

linguisticanalysisTitle: Linguistic Analysis of the Greek New Testament: Studies in Tools, Methods, and Practice

Author: Stanley Porter

Bibliographic info: 448 pp.

Publisher: Baker Academic, 2015.

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With thanks to Baker Academic for the review copy!

This volume is a collection of studies, many of which are papers that the author has delivered at past conferences (e.g. SBL and SNTS), though which have until now remained unpublished. The author, Stanley Porter, is a name that I am sure is familiar with those acquainted with studies on linguistics of the Greek New Testament.

The studies in this volume are divided into three sections: (I) Texts and Tools for Analysis; (II) Approaching Analysis; and (III) Doing Analysis. Each of the studies tackle matters of the Greek New Testament in various linguistic perspectives.

The four chapters in the first section discuss matters necessary for the linguistic analysis of the Greek New Testament, including topics such as lexicography and computer-related issues. An interesting conclusion of Porter’s in this section is that the “Louw-Nida lexicon is an underutilized resource in New Testament studies, while the Bauer type of lexicon is probably best seen as reflecting an earlier day and age in lexicography.”

The eight chapters in the second section discuss the way of approaching linguistics analysis of the Greek New Testament, including discourse analysis, verbal aspect, sociolinguistics, and ideational meta-function within a register. As an aside, Porter is the only person I’ve come across (as far as I can remember) who really brings the subject of register into conversation with studies on the Greek New Testament (there are two chapters in this volume where Porter discusses the concept of register).

The nine chapters in the third section provide specific examples of linguistic analysis, such as a register analysis of Mark 13, verbal aspect in the Synoptics and extrabiblical texts, a study on the grammar of 1 Tim. 2:8, and the utilization of the Prague linguistic school of thought to examine the opponents in Romans, Philemon, and Colossians. The final chapter in this section looks at hyponymy as a possible instructive interpretive device for discussing the Trinity in the New Testament (hyponymy refers to how a word’s semantic field is included within that of another word). While various models and analogies have been provided in recent theology to explore the concept of the Trinity (e.g. narrative, process, social), Porter offers up his own linguistic model that draws upon the notion of hyponymy in order to explore the relationship between the biblical usage of terms such as “God” and “Lord.” It was a brief study but an interesting approach.

This volume is a technical discussion of various linguistic aspects of the Greek New Testament, so considering that most biblical students typically just learn the Greek language and learn next to nothing about linguistics in the process, I think it is fair to say that this volume will be mostly inaccessible to the average biblical studies student. However, those who study the Greek New Testament and have some knowledge of linguistics will no doubt benefit from this volume and, I imagine, it would make a useful supplemental tool for an advanced Greek New Testament course.