Biblical Archaeology Review

The July/August issue of Biblical Archaeology Review is now out.  The main articles are:

“Jezreel – Where Jezebel Was Thrown to the Dogs” by David Ussishkin

“The Nash Papyrus – Preview of Coming Attractions” by Marvin A. Sweeney

“From Vespa to Ashkelon: BAR Interviews Lawrence Stager”

“The Destruction of Pompeii – God’s Revenge?” by Hershel Shanks

There are also web articles always available at their web-site: www.biblicalarchaeology.org.

Righteous Reckoning: Paul vs. James on Genesis 15:6

In our house we ask our children to share by giving, they respond by redefining sharing as taking. In the same way, we see reinterpretations of Scripture that look like contradictions. Genesis 15:6 says “And he (Abraham) believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” Paul cites this as evidence of justification by faith alone (Galatians 3:6, Romans 4:3), while James uses this to illustrate faith evidenced by works (James 2:23).

The first step that many people take is to turn to commentaries. Ben Witherington III demonstrates that Paul breaks with Jewish interpretations by focusing on the righteousness that came from Abraham’s faith rather than Abraham’s faithfulness in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. James Dunn in his commentary follows the same line of reasoning in the Romans parallel. Douglas Moo looking at James suggests tAbraham was initially declared righteous by faith alone, but it was Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac that was the “final declaration of righteousness on the basis of a ‘faith that works.’” Victor Hamilton argues Paul and James were not contradicting each other, but rather were dealing with separate issues, both relevant to Genesis 15:6. The commentaries are good but leave us with more information than answers. This is the danger of over reliance on commentaries.

What we need to do before we ever pick up the tools is have a good reading of the text, especially in its context. Genesis is about the accomplishing of God’s promise in surprising ways in the face of continuous obstacles. Genesis 15:6 is Abraham’s submission to God by believing an unbelievable promise. The author is not attempting to illustrate Paul’s justification by faith or James’ active faith that leads to social justice.

The question still stands: Are Paul and James misusing Genesis? The key is the word ‘righteousness’ and it is here that we turn to concordances and Bible dictionaries. Strong’s concordance tells us that the Hebrew for ‘righteousness’ means both rightness and justice. Vine’s New Testament Dictionary describes righteousness as a quality of God that must find expression in his actions. In the TDNT we find that the use of ‘righteousness’ by James “is not to be identified with the central content of the word as Paul uses it in the light of the saving work of the cross. It undoubtedly means right conduct, the work of righteousness.” This takes us back to Hamilton’s commentary that tells us that the Hebrew for ‘righteousness’ means “both ‘rightousness’ (a theological meaning) and ‘justice’ a juridical meaning).” Both Paul and James found what they were looking for in ‘righteousness.’

How do we bring this all together? We must read Genesis, Paul and James in context. Commentaries are good, but they are more useful raising the right questions than providing answers. A careful reading shows that Genesis has a theme of promise fulfillment that should not be too quickly examined through a New Testament lens. Using Bible dictionaries to study the key word ‘righteousness,’ we can see that the author of Genesis was making room for a number of legitimate and non-contradictory applications. Paul and James were able to see in this passage a faith that was both a response to grace and a faith that was revealed in works.

Tools used:

Peter H. Davids, Epistle of James. New International Greek Testament Commentary
James D.G. Dunn, Romans 1-8. Word Biblical Commentary
Victor P. Hamilton, Book of Genesis 1-17. New International Commentary on the Old Testament
Gerhard Kittel (ed.) Theological Dictionary of the New Testament
Douglas J. Moo, James. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries
James Strong, Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible
W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words
Ben Witherington III, Grace in Galatia: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians

Mormons and the Natives

One of the beliefs of Mormonism is that natives Americans are the descendants of Israelites.  One of the problems of this is that there have been people in North America since long before these Israelites supposedly arrived.  This article speaks of a 4,600 year old grave in Ontario, Canada.  As someone from Ontario, I found this very interesting.  I understand that Mormons now say that the Israelites are only one ethnic ingredient within the natives.  However, this seems to me like complying with the evidence and not at all in line with early Mormon writers.

Faith and Reason

Ronald Hendel recently wrote this article in Biblical Archaeological Review.   The basic idea is that Hendel laments the current state of the Society of Biblical Literature.  Somewhat recently, SBL has opened up to some faith-based scholarly groups.  Hendel fears that this is leading to a fall in the quality of scholarship and a lack of intellectual freedom in academic inquiry.  You can find SBL’s response to this here.  I found this article very interesting.  I am a recent member of SBL and attended my first meeting in New Orleans in November 2009.  I very much enjoyed it but I definitely did not feel like I was in an evangelical or even Christian conference.  In fact, most of the sessions I attended seemed to assume that the Bible was quite inaccurate.  I must be seeing a whole different SBL than Hendel is seeing.  I do not know the details of the unwanted evangelism that Hendel speaks of.  Certainly people should not force religious beliefs on people who are not interested.  But I should have the freedom to talk about whatever is important to me, whether my family, my job, or even my faith.  I do not think that Hendel needs to worry that SBL will become a “fundamentalist” stronghold.  But I believe that allowing faith-based organizations to bring their ideas to the table in only help conversation and move academic inquiry forward.

Christian Apologetics Journal

I just received the vol. 8 no. 2 issue of Christian Apologetics Journal.  The articles include:

“An Exposition of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Argument in Rejecting Christ’s Deity Using John 17:3″ by Aaron Tuazon Shelenberger

“The Religious Pluralism of John Hick: A Critical Response to His Philosophical Argument” by Douglas E. Potter

“Everything Old is New Again: Oprah Winfrey, Her Guests, and Their Spiritual Worldview” by Patty Tunnicliffe

“The Hermeneutics of Eschatology: Preterism and Dispensationalism Compared” by Douglas M. Beaumont

“Is Keeping the Sabbath Affirmed in the New Testament?” by Thomas A. Howe

Surprised By Hope

N.T. Wright’s Surprised By Hope is one of the best books that I have read in a long time.  I had read his Resurrection of the Son of God, which is much more scholarly, but Surprised By Hope fulfills an important role of bringing these ideas to a popular level.  The basic idea is that many people, including most Christians, believe that the Christian hope is to be a disembodied spirit in heaven for eternity.  Wright does not deny that there is an intermediate state but argues the real Christian hope is the bodily resurrection.  The material/physical split found in much Christian belief is the remnant of gnostic influence.  The Bible teaches that God’s creation is good and Romans 8 tells us that even creation longs for the resurrection.  Wright describes the resurrection as “life after life after death” and he demonstrates that this has important implications for this life.  What we do in this world, including how we treat this world, somehow translates into the resurrection.  Wright is able to blend a scholarly and pastoral style that leaves the reader better educated on scriptural truth but also inspires one to be a better Christian.  This is an important book that all Christians should read.  You do not have to agree with everything Wright says but it is difficult to deny that Wright has hit on an important but almost lost truth of the Bible.