Tag Archives: Old Testament

The Bible With and Without Jesus: Jews and Christians Reading Scripture Differently

Jews and Christians read the same stories in the Bible differently: So argues Jewish Bible scholars Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, as the sub-title to their 2020 book, The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently.

So, why would I, as an evangelical Christian, read a book like this from two Jewish scholars titled as “The Bible With and Without Jesus?” Well, both Jews and Christians have at least one thing in common: The Old Testament, or what many Jews prefer to call “the Hebrew Bible,” or “the Hebrew Scriptures.” But one group reads the Old Testament with all eyes focused on finding Jesus in the text (the Christians), whereas the other group finds it difficult to see Jesus at all in the text (the Jews….. at least the non-Messianic Jews).

What do non-Christian Jews find in the Old Testament, if they do not find Jesus there? I was on a mission to find out. Having worked previously with a Jewish colleague of mine for seven years, with many hours of spiritual conversation, this was not just an academic interest. It was personal.

As Levine and Brettler put it, wherever there are two Jews, there you will find three opinions. This is as true now as it was in the time of Jesus, and in the few centuries leading up to Jesus’ birth.

 

How Jews and Christians Read the Bible in Different Ways

Last year, I read a history of the “time between the testaments,” Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution That Made Our Modern Religious World, by Philip Jenkins (see this review on Veracity). Learning about the history covering several hundreds of years before Jesus was born helped me to better understand why sometimes understanding the Old Testament can be so tricky.

By the time Jesus walked the earth, different Jewish groups all held to the Law of Moses, yet came to different conclusions on certain important theological issues. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection, and the Sadducees rejected it. The Pharisees believed in an oral tradition, that had authority side by side with the written Law of Moses. The Sadducees rejected anything that was not in the written Law of Moses; that is, the first five books of the Bible. As for the rest of the books of what most Christians call the “Old Testament,” such as the Prophets (like Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc.), the Sadducees were highly suspicious as to their status as Scripture.

Other complexities abound: The Pharisees believed in a world filled with angels and demons, that interact with humans. The Sadducees rejected such grand diversity of supernatural beings, and present day communication with them, as being a bunch of nonsense, that obscured the reality of there being but one and only one ultimate divine power, that of God and God alone (Acts 23:8). The Sadducees emphasized the centrality of the Temple, whereas the Essenes (think “The Dead Sea Scrolls” people at Qumran, according to at least some scholars) rejected the Temple as a completely corrupt institution. But the Essenes went beyond even the Pharisees, as they considered books like 1st Enoch as part of Scripture…. but they interestingly dismissed Esther as not part of the Bible. This can be all quite confusing.

These type of differences, some of which are recorded in the New Testament, stem back to different ways of interpreting and translating the Hebrew Scriptures. Fast forward beyond the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, in 70 C.E., the Jews eventually settled on a basic body of Scripture, and have since figured out ways of maintaining their tradition, without a central Temple. Nevertheless, Jews still today regularly debate the interpretation of many important aspects of their faith.

So, when I saw that Levine and Brettler had written a book that tries to show how Jews (in general) read the Bible differently than Christians, my curiosity was pricked, to dig into this issue some more. After all, I have long made the assumption that some of the most basic stories we find in the Old Testament are read the same way, by Jews and Christians alike. Apparently, my assumption has been quite embarrassingly wrong.

Levine and Brettler have been intimately involved in two major projects, that serious students of the Bible have found useful, one being The Jewish Study Bible (Brettler), taking an English translation of the Old Testament and providing study notes, written from a Jewish perspective, just like you would find in a Christian Bible. The other project is the Jewish Annotated New Testament (Brettler and Levine), which is geared towards introducing Jews to the thought world of the New Testament, but which has also helped me, as an additional resource to better understand a more Jewish context in reading the New Testament (see this book review at Themelios).

In The Bible With and Without Jesus, Levine and Brettler take some of the major theological themes as found in the New Testament, to compare how Christians view the same themes as found in the Old Testament, and contrast them with how such themes have been typically interpreted by Jews, who just read the Old Testament, by itself.

Jewish vs. Christian Understanding of Biblical Prophecy??

For example, biblical prophecy, especially as Christians have thought of Jesus fulfilling certain prophecies of the Old Testament, is a big issue. Since the Reformation, particularly after the first generation of folks like Luther and Calvin, many Protestant Bible teachers have tended to dismiss allegorical-type interpretations of the Old Testament, that were common in the medieval church, as such allegorical-type readings of the Bible tended to lead to doctrines that were considered to be theologically suspect, such as the perpetual virginity of Mary. As a result, most Protestant Reformed Christians have believed that only an historical-grammatical interpretation (sometimes called a “literal interpretation”) of the Bible is permissible when studying Scripture.

But this strict approach becomes a problem when trying to handle certain elements of biblical prophecy. For example, in Isaiah 7:14, we find the famous Christmas prophecy for the virgin birth of Jesus, as told by the Gospel of Matthew. The immediate historical-grammatical context shows that the prophecy was originally fulfilled in the birth of the prophet Isaiah’s son, in Isaiah 8. But many Jews acknowledge that there is an additional, deeper meaning of the prophecy, that finds its fulfillment in the birth of King Hezekiah. Christian scholars, even Protestant Reformed scholars, typically refer to this interpretive method as typology (or as many Roman Catholic apologists frame it, in terms of a somewhat different hermeneutical method called sensus plenior, or the “fuller sense” of the text). C.S. Lewis called this interpretive characteristic of the Old Testament to be the second meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Levine and Brettler note Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, where the early Christian apologist, Justin Martyr, engages in a debate with Trypho in the 2nd century C.E. As a Jew, unconvinced by the Christian message, Trypho was emphatic in insisting that Isaiah’s prophecy ultimately had King Hezekiah in mind back in the 6th century B.C.E, and not Jesus of Nazareth, centuries later. In other words, Isaiah 7:14 does not prophecy the coming of the Jewish Messiah. Justin Martyr, as a Christian, took a different approach, contending for the Gospel of Matthew’s claim that Jesus was the real reason and ultimate fulfillment for Isaiah’s prophecy.

The ESV translation reads Isaiah 7:14 as follows, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”  For most Jews, the “virgin” is said to be a mistranslation of the ancient Hebrew, since the translation of “virgin” comes from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, favored by Greek-speaking Jews, including the earliest Christians, in the first century. However, the Septuagint’s translation may indicate an older, more authentic Hebrew tradition, that is currently lost. Or it may indicate some special insight that the Septuagint translators had, which was not made clear in the ancient Hebrew tradition, preserved by the Masoretic text. This Masoretic text, that most orthodox Jews believe to be authoritative, translates “virgin” simply as “young maiden.”

When the verse talks about “give you a sign,” Levine and Brettler note that the “you” is plural, which might suggest that the prophecy does, in fact, have a plural meaning, which might allow for one of the “you” to refer to the time of Joseph, the betrothed husband of Mary, in addition to the original reference to the time of Isaiah, through the birth of Isaiah’s son, or even the prophetic prediction of Hezekiah’s birth. Levine and Brettler’s discussion of this controversial passage reveals the complexities that show why Jews and Christians have differed in their interpretation of certain key texts of the Bible.

Psalm 22 provides another famous example of how New Testament writers used this Old Testament psalm to speak of Jesus, according to Levine and Brettler. In Matthew 27:46, we have Jesus’ well-known cry upon the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?,” which is a direct quotation from Psalm 22:1. But certain Jewish traditions extending back to the time just before Christ treat Psalm 22 differently. In the Apocrypha version of the Book of Esther, part of what Roman Catholics call the deuterocanonical writings, we have a Greek commentary to the Hebrew version of the Book of Esther. The Hebrew version of Esther, commonly found in Protestant Bibles, has no reference to God found in the text. So, the Greek version offers a theological interpretation of Esther’s story, running throughout the text. But many Jews have noted that some significant parts of Esther contain direction allusions to Psalm 22, leading many Jews, even today, to say that Psalm 22 is not about Jesus, but rather, is about Esther.

However, it would be a mistake to conclude that the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) can only be appreciated in a postmodern way; that is, by admitting that the original meaning intended by the original author has very little bearing on what the text says to us today. In postmodernism, what really matters is the reception history of the text; that is, how different reading communities over the centuries have articulated the meaning of the text, for themselves. Yet this would not be consistent with how Jews and Christians have understood the inspiration of Scripture, over thousands of years. Instead, the Bible has a progressive character of revelation to it, where God continues to unfold its meaning and the reading communities develop in their understanding of the text, as God intended it to be understood. In the case of the Christian, the culmination of this progressive revelation is the coming of Jesus of Nazareth, as the Messiah, whereas a non-Christian Jew sees the culmination of the message differently.

Helping Christians and Jews Understand Why They Read the Bible Differently

Levine and Brettler admit that their project is two-fold, to help Christians better understand how Jews approach the Bible, and to help Jews better understand how Christians read the Bible. As a Christian, I would say that both Levine and Brettler are to be warmly commended for treating the Christian tradition fairly.  I was won over by their effort, not to try to get everyone to agree on “the” interpretation of particular passages, but rather to encourage sympathy as to why Jews and Christians do indeed differ, in their reading of the text. Nevertheless, there is a polemic edge that pokes through in some spots The Bible With and Without Jesus. Their project is not an apologetic for any sort of relativism. Rather, their work is still an apologetic for their approach to Judaism.

For example, in their chapter on supersessionism in the Book of Hebrews, they correctly note the New Testament claim that the revelation of Jesus does supersede other Jewish interpretations of the Jewish Scriptural tradition. The author of Hebrews repeatedly tries to show how Jesus is better than the angels, better than Moses, better than Joshua, and better than the ancient Jewish sacrificial system. Levine and Brettler reject such a claim, as they consider themselves to be faithful Jews, unconvinced that the Christian message, that asserts that Jesus is the Messiah, is really true. In other words, Levine and Brettler are convinced that the Jewish tradition is still doing pretty well as it is, thank you very much, without having to make an appeal of accepting Jesus as the promised Messiah.

Furthermore, Levine and Brettler would not fit into a purely “conservative” category of scholarship, and this might bother some Jews, in addition to some conservative evangelical Christians who might read their work. For example, Levine and Brettler find a plethora of evidence in the Book of Jonah, that would indicate to them, that this short, popular story from the Old Testament is a work of historical fiction. A few conservative Christians scholars might agree with them, but a vast majority of Christians, and many Jews as well, will probably find such an idea difficult to swallow. But unlike other prophetic books, like Nahum, Hosea, and Haggai, the Book of Jonah has a completely different look and feel to it, which raises questions, both today and in the long history of Judaism and Christianity, as to what is really supposed to be going on in the Book of Jonah. Is it an allegory, a report of factual history, or something more complicated than that? While Levine and Brettler affirm that Jonah was a genuinely historical prophet, in Israelite history, they conclude that the story of Jonah and the big “whale” (thanks to William Tyndale’s translation of Matthew 12:40, that made its way into the King James Version of the Bible), and subsequent repentance of Nineveh was originally meant as a theological message, describing the merciful and compassionate character of God, and not as observable history.

Levine and Brettler happily argue that the Bible is ambiguous, or “slippery,” in its very nature. They would contend that such ambiguity is a virtue. To a certain degree, such ambiguity should cause Christians to embrace a kind of hermeneutical humility, particularly when Christians are unable to agree with one another, on certain Scriptural passages, involving non-essential matters of faith. Fair enough. However, there are limitations to this. Such limitations are found on both the Jewish and Christian sides of the discussion. But I will only focus on a Christian critique here.

For while The Bible With and Without Jesus succeeds in helping the reader to better appreciate why people can read the Bible so differently, thus creating a pathway for better conversation, it still can not get beyond the fact that the fundamental New Testament claim, that Jesus is the Messiah, stands in stark contrast with any other Jewish reading of the Old Testament. Effectively, the New Testament seeks to set forth the definitive commentary and critique challenging other (competitive?? for lack of a better term?) Jewish readings of the Old Testament. After all, Jesus, Paul, and many of the key figures in the early Jesus movement were all Jewish themselves. Yet the scandal of the New Testament is the claim, drawing on the testimony of Jesus as the Crucified and Risen Messiah, that the teachings of Jesus seek to properly interpret the true meaning of Israel’s Scriptures.

Applying this to the example of Isaiah’s prophecy noted above, Christians believe that Isaiah’s prophecy ultimately had Jesus in mind, despite how other Jews might interpret it. Why? Because the New Testament teaches that the birth of Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of what is preserved in the Book of Isaiah.

Critics will indeed dispute this. The claim that Jesus is, in fact, the promised Jewish Messiah is stilly a gutsy bold claim. Grounded in the resurrection narrative, the claim of a once-died but now Risen Messiah still offends the sensibilities of most Jews.

Sadly, Christians like me, for the past 2,000 years, have at times assumed the worst about the Jews. After all, Christians over the centuries have sometimes settled for some rather odd, at best, or even conspiratorial, at worst, understandings of what Jews really think. In response, a number of Jewish critics have charged that it is the Christians who have been the ones to twist the Old Testament Scriptures to serve Christian purposes, thereby obscuring the message of the Torah.

But once we dive into the world of the New Testament, peeling back layers of tradition, we can see the essential Jewish character of the earliest Jesus movement. Far from being a Hellenized (Greek-influenced) heretical spin-off from Judaism, as popularly believed by some in modern times, or even more so by certain extreme skeptics, that Christianity was simply a “copy-cat” religion of other pagan faiths, the early Christian movement was rooted in the central debates of Jewish thought, that were alive and well in first century Palestine, and other surrounding Jewish communities.

The New Testament as Authoritative Commentary on the Old Testament (…. and Not Some Attempt to Paganize/Hellenize Judaism)

Contrary to many critics of Christianity today, there are good reasons to believe that the Christian faith is thoroughly rooted in a first century, Jewish theological context. Here is a good example of this, that blows my mind, every time I think of it, with respect to the work of Dr. Michael Heiser (see my review of Heiser’s groundbreaking book, Angels). Dr. Michael Heiser teaches about how Jesus uses the reference to the “cloud rider” and “one like a son of man,” in Daniel 7:13-14, to refer to himself, in his defense before Caiphas, the High Priest, in Matthew 26:62-65. For years, it really puzzled me as to why Caiphas immediately charged Jesus with uttering blasphemy, because of this statement by Jesus. However, during the inter-testamental period (that time between when the Old Testament and the New Testament were written), some Jews were actively thinking about how to best interpret Daniel’s mystifying statement.

It was as though Daniel was suggesting that Yahweh, the God of Israel, was giving a prophecy regarding the coming of Yahweh, in human-flesh form (“one like a son of man”). Does this mean that there were somehow “two Yahwehs,” one who was not like “a son of man,” and another who was? According to one Second Temple Judaism tradition, this is exactly what they believed.

This “two-Yahwehs” (or “two-powers”) theology was alive and well in the days of Jesus, which is really the reason why Caiphas freaked out, over Jesus’ claim made before the Sanhedrin. Interestingly though, the mainstream of Jewish thought eventually abandoned this interpretation of Daniel, during the early Christian era. Christians, in turn, found in this Jewish strand of thinking, the basis for affirming the divine nature of God the Son, simultaneously with the divine nature of the Father, thus serving as the Old Testament basis for the doctrine of the Trinity. If you have about 10-minutes, it is worth hearing Dr. Heiser summarize the whole thing:

For a 7-minute exploration of the topic at a deeper level, follow this link to YouTube. If both Christians and Jews are “people of the book,” what really separates them, when it comes to how they interpret Scripture? It is worth now taking a stab at an answer.

Whereas Jews can suffer through having multiple interpretations of their sacred texts, but still remain Jews together, due to their ethnic identities and traditions, this can not be said so easily of Christianity. Christianity is not about embracing a particular ethnic identity, rooted in tradition, as in Judaism. Rather, Christianity has an essential universal claim to truth that demands a response from any and all peoples, not just those who share a Jewish tradition. The Christian faith is ultimately bound up in its unified affirmation of fundamental Christian doctrinal teachings, primarily focused around the proclamation of a crucified Jesus as the Risen Messiah.

We Christians still have much to learn from our Jewish friends, in that many Christians still divide over and against one another, in non-essential areas of Christian doctrine. Many of these disputes have been ongoing for centuries, where it is unlikely that there will be any clear resolution to such controversies, prior to Christ’s final return. We can learn more than a few tips from our Jewish friends, in learning how to still view one another as fellow Christians, when we have disagreements with one another over non-essential matters of the faith. For that reason alone, I am grateful for Levine and Brettler’s book.

At the same time, there are essentials to the Christian faith that can not, and need not, be compromised. If you try to take away an essential to the Christian faith, you no longer have a Christian faith. Either Jesus is the crucified Messiah, Risen from the dead, or he is not. Either Jesus is the unique Son of God, or he is not. Either God has revealed himself  in the pages of the New Testament, thus completing what was started in the Old Testament, or he has not.

And so, this means, that Jews and Christian still have much to think about and talk about. Let the conversation continue.

 

The following 4-minute video clip is from an interview with Brettler and Levin about how Christians and Jews interpret the Sabbath commands of the Bible differently. I am not necessarily endorsing the video, but this section of the interview is surely food for thought.

 

How can a Christian worship Jesus, and still be a monotheist? For a more in-depth examination of the “two-Yahwehs” or “two-powers” theology, which was an important component of some Jewish thinking, during the time of Jesus, that prefigured the development of the divinity of Jesus and Trinitarian thinking in Christianity, please spend some time considering the following teaching by Dr. Michael Heiser:

For a longer and earlier version of this lecture (with somewhat inferior audio-quality), please consider this presentation of Dr. Heiser’s teaching:


The Crucible of Faith, by Philip Jenkins. A Review.

The so-called “inter-testamental” period, that 400-year period between completion of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament, is nothing but a black-box to the majority of evangelical Christians. As the story goes, Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, was the last of the great Jewish prophets, before John the Baptist appears at the dawn of the New Testament period. Israel was without an inspired prophetic voice during this 400-year void.

The problem with this narrative is that it suggests that nothing of any substantive theological value was happening during that time. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It was during the era of Second-Temple Judaism, after the Temple was rebuilt following the Babylonian exile, when the subsequent invasions by the Greeks, the Seleucids, and the Romans, completely reshaped the world inhabited by the people of the Hebrew Scriptures. Respected Baylor historian, Philip Jenkins, has written a popular-level, sweeping history of the time, Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution That Made Our Modern Religious World, that necessarily fills in the gap. Crucible of Faith makes for a fascinating read, but it can be unsettling at certain points. Jenkins’ work both strikingly illuminates the radical, Judeo-centric and often neglected developments of thought that created the theological culture that Jesus of Nazareth lived in, while inadvertently at times casting a shadow of doubt over the inner workings of progressive revelation in the Bible (if one is not careful).

Jenkins has written widely on topics related to Christian history, including a book that I highly recommend and that I read a few years ago, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died. Lost History is a fascinating survey of the much ignored churches of the Christian East, extending from the Middle East to Africa and Asia, during the first millennium of Christianity, that once dominated the Christian world, only to be crushed underneath the rise of Islam, and other Christian-opposing elements in Asia.

Jenkins’ more recent book from 2017, on the era just prior to the birth of Jesus, Crucible of Faith, was one of the last books I finished reading in 2020, and it has left me thinking more and more about it. Aside from my review of Tom Holland’s Dominion, this is my most in-depth book review of the year, … and the most challenging to write.

 

Continue reading


Confronting Old Testament Controversies, by Tremper Longman. A Review

As a Christian, do you tend to ignore the Old Testament? Do the topics of evolution, Israelite history, violence, and sexuality, with respect to the Old Testament tend to freak you out, due to all of the controversies, surrounding these topics?

Dr. Tremper Longman, professor emeritus at Westmont College, who specializes in the Old Testament, tackles these tough topics in a respectful manner in Confronting Old Testament Controversies: Pressing Questions about Evolution, Sexuality, History, and Violence. Most Christians have probably not heard of Dr. Longman, yet he has typically operated in “stealth mode,” for ordinary Christians. They are probably unaware of Longman’s pervasive influence in the world of Bible translation. Nearly every major contemporary English Bible translation in use by evangelicals today bears some influence of his. So, when professor Longman stepped in and wrote a book about the toughest controversies in the Old Testament, I knew I that must read it and offer a review.

Do you desire to know and love God’s Word, as found in the Old Testament, but wrestle with some doubts, as to how to read it? Dr. Tremper Longman offers some vital assistance in Confronting Old Testament Controversies.

 

Helping Christians to Better Navigate Controversies, to Encourage Christians to Read Their Old Testament

Reading the Old Testament is sadly neglected by many Christians today, but Dr. Longman makes the Old Testament a lot less intimidating. Longman addresses the “hot potato” issues that have surfaced in popular culture, since the arrival of the “New Atheism,” in the wake of 9/11. Voices like that of Richard Dawkins have dismissed the God of the Old Testament as vindictive, capricious, and violent.

The Old Testament has taken quite a beating in public debates, in the wake of 9/11, and a number of evangelical and “progressive Christian” scholars have sought to answer such critiques. However, while Tremper Longman is sympathetic with these recent attempts to somehow “improve” the Old Testament’s reputation, he carefully shows how some of these re-examinations of the Old Testament fall short of accurately reflecting the actual message of the Old Testament, suggesting better ways to move forward.

Confronting Old Testament Controversies is therefore an engagement with contemporary scholars, who have made an impact on popular publishing regarding Old Testament difficulties, over the past ten to fifteen years or so. A number of these books look at the Old Testament with some sense of embarrassment, sort of like portraying the Old Testament as that crazy uncle of yours, who says wild and outlandish things at your Thanksgiving dinner. You sort of tolerate your uncle, but you manage to find a nice way to shift the conversation. However, Tremper Longman’s main audience is evangelical Christians, who hold to a high view of Scriptural authority, and who want to take the whole of the Bible seriously, but who find themselves troubled at times, with what they read in the Old Testament.

Longman is basically a theological conservative-moderate, when it comes to understanding the Old Testament. He does not find compelling highly-conservative views of the Old Testament, such as Young Earth Creationism, that tend to sidestep the Ancient Near East worldview of the Old Testament writers. But on the other hand, Dr. Longman does not buy into the more critical, revisionist views of the Old Testament, ranging from liberal mainline Old Testament scholars, like a Walter Brueggeman, to “post-evangelical” or “progressive Christian” scholars, who claim at least some partial affinity with evangelical thinking, like Peter Enns.

Here is a summary of Tremper Longman’s approach: Dr. Longman suggests that the scientific theory of biological evolution is fully compatible with the Old Testament’s teaching on God’s creation of the world and the fall of humanity into sin. He fully supports the traditional positions Christians have held, regarding human sexuality, for the past 2,000 years. Dr. Longman does not shy away from the charges levied by the “New Atheists,” regarding claims of genocide and child abuse being sanctioned in the Old Testament. But he does encourage the reader to better understand the Ancient Near East context, in which the Old Testament was written, as being the key to better interpreting such tough passages in the Scriptures. God is a God of judgment against evil, and not a perpetrator of genocide or child abuse.

Digging into Old Testament Controversies

Taking a closer look at Dr. Longman’s treatment of the creation vs. evolution controversy, he argues that there is a basic historicity, even of the earliest parts of Genesis, but he contends that the literary genre of texts, like Genesis 1-11, and the extensive use of metaphor in such texts, makes it difficult to nail down specific historical claims. He acknowledges, for example, that the New Testament does assume a degree of historicity, such as with the Flood of Noah, though the particular details of that historicity are difficult to determine. Longman contends that the primary concern of the New Testament writers is to make certain theological points, such as God’s universal judgment against human sin with respect to the flood, and less on the concrete details of the historical event.

He is also prepared to say that an historical Adam and Eve is not necessary in order to retain the fundamental theology, associated with the creation texts. This does NOT mean that Adam and Eve did not exist, as two historical persons. Rather it is to say that the truthfulness of the Bible does not hinge on demonstrating the historicity of Adam and Eve. Contrary to a certain group of scholars, who in recent years have had a pronounced voice at BioLogos, an evangelical think-tank seeking to find harmony between the Bible and science, Longman firmly believes that humans are created in God’s image and that there was an historic, cosmic Fall. It follows from these fundamental biblical teachings that sin, and the effects of sin, have permeated humanity, thus setting up the need for human salvation, that Christ came to accomplish. Attempts to diminish humanity’s fall into sin, by claiming evolutionary science as an ally, are wrong-headed ways of reading the Old Testament, and should be rejected. In this approach, Dr. Longman fits within an interpretive tradition that goes back to earlier generations of thinkers, such as C.S. Lewis.

Though not a scientist, Tremper Longman is willing to accept the current genetic and biological thinking, that would rule out a single human couple as the sole progenitors of the entire human race. He finds no need to look for concordist solutions, like that of a Glenn Morton, that might find concrete agreement between the Bible and modern science, as he contends that the Bible does not purpose to reveal the intricate details of a scientific approach to the world. It is unfortunate that Dr. Longman published his book before Joshua Swamidass published The Genealogical Adam and Eve. It would have been interesting to see how Dr. Longman might have modified his view, upon interacting fully with Swamidass’ thesis (see my earlier review of Swamidass).

Longman’s treatment of the controversies concerning the historicity of the Exodus and Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, are generally aligned with most other evangelical approaches to such controversies, though he does not envision the traditional calculation of 2-4 million Israelites wandering through the Sinai desert. Instead, Dr. Longman is content to say that the biblical record suggests a smaller force of former slaves, making their way from Egypt to the land of Canaan, numbering in the tens of thousands, as opposed to the several million (this view concurs with my reading of the relevant texts). Longman suggests that such a reading of Joshua’s conquest of the Promised Land is fully consistent with Scripture, as well as modern archaeology.

Longman argues against certain “progressive evangelical” attempts to dehistoricize Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, advanced by scholars, such as Kenton Sparks,in his Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture (see my review of Sparks from another book he helped to write on the historicity of Genesis). Sparks, along with others, like Eric Seibert, in his The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy, believe that the claim of the God of the Old Testament, as being a god of violence, is without warrant, because there was no such violent conquest of the land of Canaan to begin with. Essentially such revisionist reviews contend that the narrative of the Book of Judges best describes how the Israelites arose within the land of Canaan. The conquest view, as detailed in the Book of Joshua, was basically made up in the mind of the Scriptural author, a fictionalizing of ancient Israelite history meant to address concerns in the minds of Jews during and after the Babylonian Exile.

Yet Dr. Longman is unconvinced by such reasoning, as he contends that the warrior status of Yahweh, the God of Israel, is fundamental to the Israelite conception of God. However, the warrior nature of Yahweh is not one of genocide, or unwarranted violence, but rather that of a God of judgment, who punishes wickedness and fights against evil. Therefore, Longman sees no compelling need to try to de-historicize the basic contour of the Joshua conquest.

Longman also engages perspectives that align towards more classically-oriented evangelical views of Scripture, such as scholars like Paul Copan, John Walton, Preston Sprinkle, and Gregory Boyd (follow those links to see some relevant book titles), particularly when it comes to the question of divine violence in the Old Testament. Reading the works of these other authors should be balanced alongside Tremper Longman’s nuanced critiques of these works. The differences between Longman and these other authors are relatively minor (as compared to the vast differences between Longman and writers like Seibert and Sparks). But as Copan, Sprinkle, and Boyd are probably more familiar to evangelical readers, Tremper Longman’s engagement with the details are very helpful.

Longman resists the current trend towards rejecting a traditional Christian view of marriage and human sexuality, a trend that is taken up by more progressive thinkers. For example, he believes that while Christians need to do a better job of reaching out to same-sex attracted persons, he nevertheless concludes that same-sex relations are not within the scope of God’s purposes for human sexuality, per the teaching of both Old and New Testaments. Longman makes specific recommendations that Christians should be more intentional in making room for single people, including those who are same-sex attracted, in the the life of the church, while still affirming the biblical teaching of marriage between a man and a woman.

Tremper Longman’s position upholding the concept of marriage, solely between a man and a woman, is surely not popular within the larger cultural conversation during today’s era. But he advises that Scripture urges believers to live at peace among our non-believing neighbors. As one notable expression of this, he recommends that Christians back off from attempts to get the state to pass and enforce anti-homosexuality laws, as he sees that such legislation is counterproductive to maintaining a positive Christian witness in our postmodern, secular society.

Having personally wrestled with such interpretive Old Testament issues over the years, I have appreciated Dr. Longman’s fresh approach to deal honestly with the challenges of the Old Testament, while still encouraging his readers to avoid a kind of “practical Marcionism,” as Longman puts it, that would lower our confidence in the Bible.

Marcion was a 2nd-century Christian who advocated getting rid of the Old Testament. Marcion’s views were soundly rejected as being heretical by the early church. A better way to deal with a “practical Marcion” approach is to appreciate a more robust understanding of progressive revelation. Once we see that the teaching of the New Testament completes the job of what was started in the Old Testament, it puts the Old Testament in a more proper perspective.

One particular benefit in Confronting Old Testament Controversies is how carefully and generously Dr. Longman interacts with the writings of his former student, Pete Enns, another Old Testament scholar, the author of The Bible Tells Me So, who runs the “The Bible for Normal People” podcast, that is very popular among more liberal-leaning, “progressive” Christians. Dr. Longman is strongly opposed to some of the readings that Pete Enns gives to certain parts of the Old Testament, but he does so in such a friendly manner, that it is truly a model for good, irenic conversation, despite having fundamental disagreements. I wish I could be that charitable towards others, when such theological disagreements come up.

I had read Pete Enns The Bible Tells Me So about five years ago, and I was quite disappointed to see how far Pete had moved beyond his position, as expressed earlier in his 2005 Incarnation and Inspiration. In many ways, Confronting Old Testament Controversies is the book I wish Pete Enns would have written, as a followup to Incarnation and Inspiration, so I am very glad that Tremper Longman, as a longtime friend, former teacher, and cheerful critic, wrote what he wrote. Dr. Longman works out a view of biblical inerrancy, by developing a very helpful approach to biblical interpretation (hermeneutics), that takes the challenges offered by the Old Testament with seriousness, while not being totally drawn into unwarranted skepticism.

One unresolved area for me, when reading Longman, has to deal with God’s commands for Joshua and the Israelites for them to destroy the Canaanites, including young children.  In Joshua 6:21, we read, “They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys,” and in Deuteronomy 20:16-17a, “But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction.” Christian apologist and philosopher Paul Copan regards this type of language as hyperbole, thus avoiding the claim that bothers many Christians, that God is somehow endorsing infanticide, or even, indirectly, abortion, by silently including pregnant women and infants in with the command to completely destroy the Canaanites. Yet Longman suggests that this type of reading by Copan is really wishful thinking: “As much as we might want to believe that God did not command the death of women and children, such a view finds no support in the relevant texts” (Longman, p. 169).

Tremper Longman’s view of divine violence was probably the weakest part of the book for me. My concern in Tremper Longman’s critique is that I am not entirely convinced that Copan’s view is completely subject to the criticism of being mere wishful thinking. God’s treatment of such classes of vulnerable human persons, and subjecting them to death, would surely be the case in the story of Noah’s flood, which made no distinction when the flood waters presumably killed small children and pregnant women, as part of God’s judgment against humanity’s sin. We have no Scriptural text that indicates that small children and pregnant women were somehow secretly snuck onboard the ark, to avoid the terrors of the floodwaters. The possibility of a large local flood, as opposed to a global flood, offers some leeway here where some humans might have found sanctuary in some unknown manner. 2 Peter 2:5 does say that the flood came upon the “world of the ungodly,” thus suggesting a possible, more limited scope of the flood, but such a conclusion would still be pure speculation. Nevertheless, with respect to Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, the use of hyperbolic and exaggerated language, a common characteristic of ancient writings of all kinds, lends some credibility to Paul Copan’s viewpoint.

Framing Old Testament Controversies within the Context of the New Testament… and Doing So Responsibly

Thankfully the vast bulk of the Old Testament is not fraught with such theological difficulties. Nevertheless, there are topics like these in Scripture that grate against modern sensibilities, for which wishful thinking does not always successfully erase. To pretend that these difficulties are not there is dishonest. We just simply have to acknowledge the presence of such difficult texts in the Bible, accepting their authority, and try to make sense of how such teaching is to be applied in the post-New Testament era. Vigorous debate still continues concerning what applications of certain Old Testament teachings and principles have been superseded under the New Covenant. Yet ultimately, the Old Testament needs to be read within the light of the New Testament, as the New Testament stands as the definitive commentary on the Old Testament.

That being said, the presence of God-ordained violence in the Old Testament is problematic for many evangelical Christians today, who without hesitation condemn all sorts of abortion and infanticide, as being contrary to the revealed plans and purposes of God. As I have not read Paul Copan extensively on this topic, I will reserve further judgment on Longman’s critique until I have looked more at Copan’s argumentation in greater detail.

Thankfully, the progressive nature of God’s revelation in Scripture need not deter us from saying that the New Testament emphasis on giving everyone the opportunity to have faith in Christ, including the unborn and infants, supersedes any possible ethical difficulties found in the Old Testament. For God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4 NIV). Nowhere do we read in the New Testament that infants and the unborn are not to be included by the “all people” mentioned in this text. Christians are called to be “prolife,” for at least that one reason.

It is as though there is a tension in the Old Testament, contrasting God’s judgment against evil and sin, that pertains to all of us, while still yet another theme that emphasizes God’s universal love for all that God created. The story of Jonah preaching to those wicked Ninevites, where Jonah complains about God’s compassion and mercy towards the enemies of Israel, is a good example of this universalistic theme. This does not mean ultimately that all will be saved in the end, nor does it mean that God will wipe out all of humanity, or close to it, as was done with the flood of Noah. It is by looking at the message of the New Testament whereby we begin to see how this tension might be resolved.

There are few cases where I would take issue with Longman on certain interpretations of particular passages.  For example, he favors the New Living Translation (NLT) reading of Genesis 3:16, “And you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you.” (p.214-215).  I am not convinced that the translation of the Hebrew word behind “desire” necessarily implies the concept of “control.” It could simply mean a sense of “longing,” as opposed to a concept that implies some sort of power struggle between man and woman (See my engagement with this text, along with Wendy Alsup’s research and exegesis). However, such criticisms of Confronting Old Testament Controversies need not override the overwhelming positive tenor and aim of Longman’s helpful book.

Not everything in the Bible is neat and tidy. There are clearly moments I wish it was, but to be honest, that probably would not be a good idea. Having a stock of answers that can not be questioned is a recipe for spiritual pride. I would rather have some unsettled questions in my mind than I would having pat and easy answers to difficult questions, that tend to paper over and hide the difficulties. Thankfully, there is more to the story than getting stuck on difficulties in the Old Testament. The good news to be found in the Gospel is that the New Testament completes the story that the Old Testament started.

I would recommend Confronting Old Testament Controversies for anyone who struggles with doubt regarding what they read in the Old Testament, even if one is not convinced by every position that Longman ultimately lands on. Along with Wheaton College’s John Walton and Dr. Michael Heiser, at Celebration Church, Jacksonville, Florida, Dr. Tremper Longman joins my list of perhaps being among the best living Old Testament scholars, who write specifically for a non-academic audience.

For a couple of excellent interviews with Dr. Tremper Longman, about important topics in the book, you should view the following two interviews, on Preston Sprinkle’s video podcast:


Andy Stanley and Jeff Durbin: An “Unbelievable” Discussion About Apologetics

Veracity readers will know that I have posted several times about Andy Stanley, pastor of one of the largest churches in America. Last month, my wife and I attended the Buckhead branch of Andy Stanley’s church in Atlanta, Georgia. Though pastor Stanley was not preaching that week, it was eye-opening to experience how Stanley’s NorthPoint community network of churches function, to reach a large city like Atlanta.

Andy Stanley has become rather “infamous” for coining the phrase that Christians should “unhitch” their faith from the Old Testament, a theme present in his bestselling book Irresistible. Despite what one might think of this controversy, Andy Stanley is more fundamentally known as a preacher who engages in what is called evidentialist apologetics, in an attempt to reach the non-believer with the Gospel. Evidentialist apologetics is a way of establishing common ground with a skeptical non-believer, seeking to share the Truth of Christ, by making an appeal to scientific and historical evidences that support the validity of the Christian faith. Some good examples of Christian apologists who make use of evidentialist apologetics include J. Warner Wallace, Frank Turek, Michael Licona, and the most well-known of them all, William Lane Craig.

In Andy Stanley’s particular approach, Andy Stanley says we should not start with the Bible, but rather start with the Resurrection of Jesus. We build our case for Christ by making a series of arguments in sequence, beginning with the reality of Christ’s resurrection, which leads to establishing the divine authority of Jesus, which then leads to the authority of the Bible, and its salvation message. The simplest way to put it is that it is the event of the Resurrection that gives us the text of the Bible, as we have it today, and not the other way around.

So, I was really excited to learn that Justin Brierley, of the British apologetics podcast, Unbelievable?, was able to get Andy Stanley together with presuppositionalist apologist Jeff Durbin, in order to discuss the nature of apologetics. In contrast with evidentialist apologetics, presuppositional apologetics takes a different approach, whereby you begin with the self-attestation of the truthfulness of Scripture first, and only then speak of the various doctrinal claims of the Christian faith, including Christ’s resurrection. Jeff Durbin himself is a pastor in Phoenix, Arizona, who has been mentored by perhaps the most influential presuppositional apologist, of a Calvinist persuasion, of our day, James White, of Alpha Omega Ministries, also headquartered in Phoenix, Arizona. Durbin, a popular YouTube Reformed apologist, has the unique distinction of being cast in several martial arts movies.

While I do believe that presuppositionalist apologetics does have its place, I am more of an evidentialist. Perhaps that is because that is how God reached me with the Gospel. I tend to differ with Durbin’s brand of apologetics, as presuppositionalist apologetics often begs the question: How do you build a case for Jesus, based on the Bible, when the non-believer does not believe the Bible to be trustworthy in the first place?

Sure, you could begin an evangelistic discussion by asking your listener to pretend that the Bible is reliable and true. But there is a big gap between pretending to believe the Bible, versus actually believing the evidence that exists, to support the authenticity of its message.

Even Christians often come to the Bible with their own negative judgments. An evidentialist approach seeks to build a bridge, that can help the skeptic or puzzled Christian to rethink their own reason for looking down at the Bible, or certain parts of the Bible. A presuppositional approach works great, if the person shares the same presuppositions. But a purely presuppositional approach tends to lead people to talk right past one another. In the worst cases, the presuppositional approach blows up bridges instead of building bridges, in our evangelistic or discipleship conversations.

A more troublesome question for presuppositional apologetics is this: Why start with the Bible? Why not the Book of Mormon? Or the Koran? Or the Bhagavad Gita?

Even if you start with the Bible, as opposed to starting with the evidence for the Resurrection, you still have to figure out which systematic view of the Bible you plan to go with: A Calvinist view? An Arminian view? A dispensationalist view? A charismatic view? Which one?

Andy Stanley’s particular approach does have some problems, as I have discussed before, so it is great to have someone like a Jeff Durbin, with whom I still have more disagreements with, on the other side of the debate, to challenge him. In the end, it is quite clear that there is no “one size fits all” approach to Christian apologetics that works for everyone. The discussion between Stanley and Durbin is great way to figure out where you stand, with respect to how you defend your faith, when engaging a skeptical non-believer. A riveting 90-minutes. This really is an amazing discussion!!


Irresistible, by Andy Stanley, A Review

Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World. Pastor Andy Stanley overstates a central theme in his argument, but his critics should learn something from him as well.

A little backstory, as to why I decided to read this challenging book: I am not really the type of guy who would be naturally drawn to a pastor like Andy Stanley. At least, that is what I thought a few years ago.

Andy Stanley is the son of the well-known Atlanta pastor, Charles Stanley, who for years has been an example, par excellence, of classic, traditional Bible Belt preaching. When I think of the oft repeated phrase, “The Bible says… the Bible says…,” I think of Charles Stanley.

But I must confess. While he has had a profound, positive impact on the lives of many, and I am sure he is a wonderful man, Charles Stanley’s teaching never thrilled me personally.

About twenty years ago, I was teaching a Sunday school class on church history. I love studying and teaching church history. It helps deepen my love for God. The history of Christianity is often neglected in evangelical churches, so I was thankful for the privilege to try to fill in the gap, at our church. After a few weeks of examining how God has moved in the lives of influential Christians, across the centuries, one dear, elderly woman confronted me and asked, “It is all about history to you, isn’t it?

Apparently, this woman did not understand why anyone in a Bible-believing church needed to waste their time learning about church history. I responded by saying something along the lines of, “Yes, I do believe that God works in history. Jesus did not just stop working in the world after the completion of the New Testament, and He continues to work in our world today.” This genuinely sweet woman then had that “I-have-no-clue-what-you-are-talking-about” look on her face.

*SIGH*.

The following week, the same woman walked into class, and handed me a whole set of resources from Charles Stanley’s InTouch Ministries to look at. I gulped. In particular, she pointed me to a cassette tape, with a title, something to the effect of why “the Bible alone is the Word of God.”

I got the message: Just stick with the Bible, and forget about this history stuff. “The Bible says” is good enough.

I thanked the woman, as she was kind and well-intentioned, and while I did eventually listen to the tape, and agreed with the teaching message, I was still flustered. For if this woman, who evidently was a big fan of Charles Stanley, was learning that we should disregard the lessons of God’s working over the past 2,000 years, since the closure of the New Testament, then I was not really impressed with what she was being taught.

My less-than-enthusiatic encounter with my less-than-enthusiastic church history student pretty much poisoned me. Frankly, Charles Stanley’s son, Andy, had never been on my radar, at all, until a few years ago. When I learned that Andy Stanley, a former youth pastor, now a mega-church pastor himself, started to rise in prominence, I really had no interest in learning anything from him either. Like father, like son, I supposed. Life is short, and since I can not read or listen to every resource article or sermon someone gives to me, I just left the ministries of the Stanleys at that.

That was until son Andy began making waves among his fellow Southern Baptist, conservative evangelical constituents. Though Andy Stanley continues to believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, he no longer thinks that the old evangelical mantra of “the Bible says” really works any more in an increasingly post-Christian society. We simply can not assume today that people believe the Bible.

That is a pretty big shift in message from the elder Stanley…. and it got my attention, because that is the world I live in.

My interest was sparked. Perhaps the younger pastor Stanley has something important to say after all. As it turns out, he does. I am chagrined to think that I never paid attention to this before. Continue reading


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