Monday, April 16, 2007

You might be a Christian Zionist

With apologies to Jeff Foxworthy, here's my attempt at a description of the modern movement, influential in many conservative evangelical circles, known as Christian Zionism.

You might be a Christian Zionist . . .
  1. If you think the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 and its expansion in 1967 (West Bank, Gaza, Golan and East Jerusalem) are part of God’s prophetic plan for the End Times and added proof of Scripture’s accuracy.
  2. If you support the modern state of Israel largely for theological reasons.
  3. If you believe America has been blessed by God because of its support for the modern state of Israel.
  4. If you enthusiastically support the Israeli policy of building settlements throughout the West Bank and Gaza as their way of laying claim to more of their entitlement.
  5. If you refer to the West Bank with the Biblical names “Judea and Samaria” rather than with phrases like “Occupied Territories.”
  6. If you oppose the founding of a Palestinian state within the borders of Israel and think the U.S. and U.N. should not pressure Israel to trade "land for peace."
  7. If you rejoice in the 6,000 or so Messianic Jewish Christians in Israel but give little or no thought to the 200,000 or so Palestinian Christians in Israel and the West Bank.
  8. If you believe the Last Days will witness the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple and the resumption of animal sacrifice.
  9. If you believe that one day Israel’s territory will extend, far beyond their present borders, reaching from the Nile to the Euphrates.
  10. If you believe that trouble in the Middle East between Jews and Arabs is inevitable, and that regional conflict must continue until the return of Christ.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

An emergency burial in a temporary location?

James Tabor is persuaded that the burial of Jesus conducted by Joseph of Arimathea was “temporary”—an “emergency” situation that called for unusual measures. Several comments from his April 1, 2007 post are representative (with bold face and italics added):
[Mark] notes that Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joses . . . observed this emergency burial

The gospel of John [19:41-42] . . . makes it quite clear that this tomb was a temporary one, chosen in an emergency situation, that just happened to be nearby.

The tomb was chosen because it was close and the Passover Sabbath began at sundown. Things were in a rush and there simply was no time to even decide what to do with Jesus’ body as far an honorable and more permanent burial.

It should not surprise us that the tomb might turn up empty, given that this site near the place of execution was never intended as a permanent place for Jesus’ corpse in the first place, but was used in an emergency fashion until other arrangements could be made.
Likewise in The Jesus Dynasty, in a chapter titled “Dead but Twice Buried,” Tabor says:
given the hasty and temporary nature of Jesus’ burial we should expect that the tomb would be empty. It was never intended that Jesus be left in that tomb (234, underlining added; cf. 224, 228, 230).
From an “emergency” burial we may draw several inferences:
  1. The original tomb would have been found empty (Jesus Dynasty, 230).
  2. Jesus’ body would have been re-buried elsewhere.
In other words if Jesus’ (first) tomb was indeed found empty as the N.T. claims, this was because Jesus’ body was moved—by Joseph of Arimathea and others at day’s end on Saturday—to another tomb for permanent interment. The Talpiot tomb is simply our latest and best guess as to the whereabouts of this secondary location.

Is there evidence that Jesus’ burial was an “emergency” that called for a “temporary” (i.e., one-day) arrangement? Matthew’s Gospel offers no hint of time pressure; the key texts are in Mark, Luke and John (here given in the NRSV).
Mark 15:42-47
42. When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, 43. Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council . . .went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 44. Then Pilate . . . 45. . . granted the body to Joseph. 46. Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock.

Luke 23:50-56
50. Now . . . Joseph . . . 52. went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 53. Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid. 54. It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. 55. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. 56. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.

John 19:38-42
38. After these things, Joseph of Arimathea . . . asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. 39. Nicodemus . . . also came . . . 40. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
Mark, our earliest source, does not say Jesus’ burial was hurried. Efficient maybe, but not hurried. We can’t assume, for example, that they deposited the body unwashed simply because Mark is silent on the point. What Mark does say is that evening had “already” (ede) come [omitted by the NRSV] and that Joseph’s move to secure the body happened “since” or “because” (epei) it was the “pre-Sabbath” (15:42). So Mark ties the lateness of the hour not so much to the burial as to Joseph’s bold request for the body perhaps because, as Raymond Brown (The Death of the Messiah 2.1212) suggests, the Romans would have been more likely to grant such requests prior to the Sabbath. Evidently there was time enough to buy linen and wrap the body but not enough to complete the anointing, which task the women returned to perform on Sunday morning (Mk 16:1-2).

The women’s return visit on Sunday morning suggests (to me) several things:
  1. They assumed Jesus’ body would still be there.
  2. They were not expecting a resurrection.
  3. They believed that other bodies would eventually be placed alongside Jesus’ body in that tomb, hence the courtesy/necessity of spices and ointment.
For Tabor’s theory to work it seems we must imagine the two Marys utterly oblivious to the temporary nature of Jesus’ burial, to the necessity of relocating the body and to the details of the corpse transfer. I find this aspect of Tabor’s proposal somewhat implausible. Moreover, if the plan was to transfer Jesus’ body, why not wait a few months until the bones could be collected in an ossuary?

Luke adds a time reference—the burial happened just prior to Sabbath—but little else. John adds the detail that the tomb was in a nearby “garden” and seems to imply that the location was chosen in part because it was close at hand. Unlike the NRSV translation cited above, the Greek of v.42 includes two distinct indicators of cause: “on account of (dia) the Jew’s Day of Preparation, because (hoti) the tomb was near.”

Evidence such as this prompts Tabor to conclude that Jesus’ body was never meant to stay where it initially lay. It helps, I suppose, that Tabor rejects Matthew’s claim (27:60) that Joseph of Arimathea owned the tomb:
This is clearly not history but Matthew’s theological addition to show a fulfillment of prophecy, namely, Isaiah 53:9, where the suffering servant is buried in the tomb of a rich man.
Is it reasonable for Tabor to move from the Gospels' hasty burial to an emergency burial in a temporary tomb? Does this go beyond the evidence? Does the shift answer more questions than it raises? For me, Tabor's proposal is not without its own problems:
  1. Would Joseph of Arimathea really have moved Jesus’ body without alerting family and friends, including the two Marys (Mk 15:47; 16:1)?
  2. Weren’t all Jewish burials relatively hurried? Wouldn’t Jews well practiced in same-day burials usually be able to avoid the inconvenience of reburial?
  3. Do we have any other ancient accounts of reburial prior to decomposition?
  4. How tolerant were the Romans of Jewish scruples on this point? Did the Romans regularly prevent Jews from burying victims of crucifixion? Josephus (War 4.317) confirms that the biblical call for same-day burial (Dt 21:22-23) was taken to apply to crucifixion victims. Was it not until the madness of the Jewish revolt (War 4.380-83; 5.33) that Rome prevented Jews from burying their loved ones?

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Thanksgiving from a prison camp

Gregory Petrov died in 1942 in a Soviet prison camp. About his life I know very little except that he composed, shortly before his death, a remarkable hymn. On Good Friday my wife and I attended All Saints-by-the-Sea Episcopal where Petrov's Akathist was performed by a robust, robed male chorus.

Over the years, my low-church Good Fridays have tended to be introspective and somber. More about Jesus' pain and grief than about God's grace. More about darkness than light. Perhaps that's why Petrov's litany of praises was so breathtaking to me. The cross, draped in black, and the crown of thorns gave silent testimony to the horrors of Roman crucifixion. But we were not summoned to writhe in pain, to reenact an execution. We were called, rather, to gratitude.

Here's a sampling:
Glory to Thee for calling me into being
Glory to Thee, showing me the beauty of the universe
Glory to Thee, spreading out before me heaven and earth
Like the pages in a book of eternal wisdom
Glory to Thee for Thine eternity in this fleeting world
Glory to Thee for Thy mercies, seen and unseen
Glory to Thee through every sigh of my sorrow
Glory to Thee for every step of my life's journey
For every moment of glory
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age
And another:
O Lord, how lovely it is to be Thy guest. Breeze full of scents; mountains reaching to the skies; waters like boundless mirrors, reflecting the sun's golden rays and the scudding clouds. All nature murmurs mysteriously, breathing the depth of tenderness. Birds and beasts of the forest bear the imprint of Thy love. Blessed art thou, mother earth, in thy fleeting loveliness, which wakens our yearning for happiness that will last for ever, in the land where, amid beauty that grows not old, the cry rings out: Alleluia!
For all 23 sparkling, scented stanzas, go here.

Do we get to say stuff like this on Good Friday? Aren't our hearts supposed to grow dim like the sky over Golgotha? Aren't we supposed to identify with Christ in his abandonment? Or can we remind each other, even on Friday, of the glorious goodness and tender mercies of God? I hope so. God knows there's enough pain and loneliness out there. Soviet prisons are not the only places this hymn needs to be heard.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Good Friday at the Holy Sepulcher

A dear friend of mine recently moved to Jerusalem where he now serves as priest and professor. In his latest e-mail, describing Good Friday in the Holy City, he looks for signs of hope in a conflicted and chaotic place:
Last night at the Holy Sepulcher was a zoo, but a very international and cross-cultural one. The Latins were from every nation. I chatted with a number of the Franciscans (from Poland, Latin America, Ireland, and Italy), lots of the French, the German Benedictines, and even met an Englishman doing research at the Kenyon. Since the Orthodox are celebrating their Easter at the same time we are, the place was unusually crowded and chaotic (which is saying something for the Holy Sepulcher!) Holidays can be frenetic and depressing, but this Triduum has been joyful and prayerful. Thank God. . .

I must admit I have very little hope for the political situation here. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians have governments that are capable of making the pragmatic and honest decisions necessary for peace. . . For mental hygiene, I pray for peace and avoid engaging any passion in the question.
I agree: it is hard to imagine a just and peaceful end to the grinding Israel-Palestine conflict. And hard to imagine the church--so divided and territorial (for which the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the perfect metaphor)--nudging fearful Jews and Muslims toward peace. That would be like a man with a log in his eye pointing out the log in someone else's.

Not that Jesus lacks agents of reconciliation in the Middle East. Archbishop Elias Chacour wages peace through education in Ibillin, Galilee. From the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem, His Beatitude Michel Sabbah challenges Palestinians and Israelis alike to pursue justice. Salim Munayer gently guides Jewish and Arab Christians beyond prejudice, suspicion and sterotype. But lights like these flash against a dark sky.

Dare we hope for a day when Christian unity would be so evident, when Christian dialogue would be so respectful, when Christians convictions would be so clear--across traditions, in Jerusalem--that the world would hasten to invite Christian leaders to broker a lasting peace between warring Middle East factions?

Dare we not?

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Commentary Recommendations: Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians

My commentary suggestions for several of Paul's epistles appeared in the February, 2007 issue of Catalyst On-line, a web journal for United Methodist Seminarians.


Call me old-fashioned but I still think C. E. B. Cranfield’s 2-volume ICC commentary on Romans (T. & T. Clark, 1975) sets the bar, not because Cranfield always gets it right but because of his sheer mastery of the exegetical craft. For every word or phrase, Cranfield wends through the interpretive maze, lists options, weighs support and defends his own view, combining the technical precision of a master craftsman with the relentless consistency of a trial lawyer. Granted, important questions (e.g., from E. P. Sanders) and new disciplines (e.g., social-scientific and literary criticisms) have emerged in the three decades since this set appeared, such that fresh appraisals are called for, but Cranfield’s work remains foundational. Even though it assumes familiarity with the original languages (only Hebrew is transliterated), one can often “read around” the Greek and still follow the argument.

Taking up Cranfield’s mantle and continuing Durham’s rich tradition of Romans scholarship, James Dunn’s WBC commentary (2 volumes; Word, 1988) built carefully on Sanders’ insights to argue that Paul’s critique of Judaism concerns not legalism but ethnic nationalism or cultural imperialism. A third milestone in Romans scholarship is Douglas Moo’s NICNT volume (Eerdmans, 1996), a 1000-page model of clarity and judicious scholarship that, while affirming certain elements of the “new perspective,” defends a modified Lutheran approach to Paul. Honorable mention goes to Thomas Schreiner’s BECNT volume (Baker, 1998) for its accessibility, comprehensiveness and thoughtful interaction with the secondary literature, and to Charles Talbert’s Smyth and Helwys tome (2002) for its aesthetic appeal and CD-ROM, and for its interest in the rhetoric of Paul’s argument and the social location of the letter.

1 Corinthians

The 1987 publication of Gordon Fee’s NICNT volume was another commentary milestone. Fee’s honed skills as text critic and exegete serve, but never overwhelm, his larger goal of illuminating Paul’s argument and celebrating the abiding relevance of Paul’s theology. Pastoral reflections at the end of each thought unit remain relevant 20 years after they went to press.

Subsequent studies of 1 Corinthians, including Richard Hays’ contribution to the Interpretation series (Westminster/John Knox, 1997), stand on Fee’s shoulders. Hays’ volume is an elegant blend of exegesis, imagination and Biblical theology. In keeping with the pastoral tone of the series, Hays invites preachers to watch and learn as Paul responds to urgent pastoral problems, reshapes pagan imaginations, forms Christian community and reasserts the centrality of the cross. Hays’ reading of 1 Corinthians highlights the Scriptural foundations of Paul’s theology and the ecclesiological, communal nature of his ethics: the desperate need for unity, love and selflessness within the Corinthian community cannot be separated from the community’s New Covenant identity as the people of God. This will preach.

David Garland’s volume in the BECNT series (Baker, 2003) is up to date, heavily indexed with a stellar bibliography. If it does not exhaust every last technical question—for that consult Anthony Thiselton’s 1446-page NIGTC volume (Eerdmans, 2000), it is eminently readable and fair-minded, and moves seamlessly between high-level exegetical debates and practical, pastoral concerns. Greek words are both transliterated and translated so no one is excluded from the conversation.

2 Corinthians

Among commentaries on 2nd Corinthians, Victor Furnish’s Anchor Bible volume (Doubleday, 1984) remains seminal. The puzzle of Paul’s complex historical relationship to the Corinthians, along with the striking shifts in the letter’s tone prompt Furnish to argue that the canonical epistle originally existed as two separate letters, with 1-9 earlier than 10-13. (This partition theory is tame compared to, e.g., W. Schmithals’.) Whether or not one finds such theories persuasive, the strength of Furnish’s exegetical insights remains. A nice feature of this series is how it separates technical “notes” from general and detailed “comments.”

Also aging well is Ralph Martin’s Word commentary (Word, 1986). Martin, who affirms a temporal gap between the composition of 1-9 and 10-13, attends carefully to Paul’s use of scripture, to early Jewish hermeneutics and to the urgent messianic eschatology that drives Paul’s argument. As with all Word commentaries, each unit includes an extensive bibliography.

Murray Harris’ NIGTC opus (Eerdmans, 2005) is to 2 Corinthians what Cranfield’s is to Romans. Harris has inhabited this epistle for over 30 years (cf. Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 10 [Zondervan, 1976]) and it shows: no grammatical detail or exegetical debate escapes his attention. Analysis is crystal clear and conclusions are well-reasoned, but readers will need to read closely and pull their weight. The introduction includes all the usual issues plus a summary of the letter’s theology. Perhaps the only omission concerns recent archaeological finds at Corinth. One might hope that the author’s “expanded paraphrase,” creatively inscribing the conclusions of his exegesis, will catch on.

Honorable mention goes to Scott J. Hafemann’s NIVAC volume (Zondervan, 2000), a sound and practical guide to the letter by another long-term scholar of this epistle.


Several recent commentaries on Galatians have shifted the spotlight away from the letter’s rhetorical-epistolary framework—central to Hans Dieter Betz’s seminal work (Hermeneia, 1979; cf. Richard Longenecker’s [Word, 1990] and B. Witherington [T. & T. Clark, 1998])—to its homiletical and theological agenda. In my view, this is good news, and not just for preachers.

J. Louis Martyn’s acclaimed Anchor Bible commentary (Doubleday, 1997) is theologically penetrating, artful and ground-breaking. With 4:3-5 as the letter’s center, Martyn finds the polarity with which Paul struggles to be, not Christianity versus Judaism, but “God’s apocalyptic act in Christ versus religion” (37). Even if Martyn poses too stark a contrast between Paul’s Jewish heritage and his Christian convictions, every page demonstrates Martyn’s passion to think Paul’s thoughts after him, and to dismantle the contemporary wall between theology and exegesis.

Richard B. Hays’ Galatians (New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX; Abingdon, 2000), though a modest 165 pages, takes up all the pressing issues of the letter with elegance and passion. As with Martyn, Hays takes Paul’s principal beef to be with those who require Gentile followers of Jesus to submit to circumcision and keep the Law of Moses. Martyn calls Paul’s opponents “the Teachers;” Hays, following Dunn, calls them “Missionaries.” Both terms avoid the confusion and pejorative tone of older terms (e.g., “Judaizers,” “agitators”).

Hays is well known for his defense of the “subjective genitive” in the pistis Christou wars. Thus, Hays would say (with Martyn) that we are justified (or “rectified”) through “the faithfulness of Jesus,” as demonstrated in his death (cf. Gal 2:16, 20; 3:22). Although this volume includes practical, often moving “Reflections” at the end of each unit, rich resources for preachers and teachers may be found on every page.


My three choices for Ephesians all hail from the nineties. Andrew T. Lincoln (WBC; Word, 1990) is a faithful guide to the argument of the letter, its predominantly “realized” eschatology and its “universal” ecclesiology. Though Lincoln defends pseudonymous authorship—one of Paul’s students expanded and adapted Colossians, offering us “an updating of Paul’s Gospel” (lviii)—he is eager to affirm the authority of the letter within the NT canon.

Ernest Best’s 1998 contribution to T. & T. Clark’s ICC series replaces the century-old volume on Ephesians and Colossians by T. K. Abbott. Best defends at length the pseudonymous authorship of Ephesians but, unlike Lincoln, finds Ephesians and Colossians to be independent compositions from the same Pauline school. Complementing the detailed, often technical but always clear, running commentary are six “detached notes”: The Heavenlies; In Christ; The Powers; The Body of Christ; Israel, and the Church; The Haustafel; and two essays: The Church; Moral Teaching.

Peter T. O’Brien begins his excellent Ephesians volume in the Pillar series (Eerdmans, 1999) with a lengthy defense of Pauline authorship. Intended for pastors and teachers, O’Brien’s commentary is the easiest of the three to use. It is scholarly but not scholastic (Greek is confined to the notes) and moves easily from exegesis to biblical theology and contemporary relevance. The epistle’s central message, we learn, is “cosmic reconciliation and unity in Christ” (58).