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Colloquium 31.1 (1999)


 

BOOK REVIEWS

RELIGION AND SOCIETY IN SCOTLAND SINCE 1707

Callum G. Brown (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997)
ix, 219 pp. ISBN 0 7486 0886 9

Callum G. Brown’s Religion and Society in Scotland since 1707 is a welcome resource in the arena of Scottish social and religious history. Brown’s work provides seminal research in a field largely neglected by social historians of Scotland and will certainly be instrumental in provoking ongoing discussion and research.

This second edition offers an extensive overview of the place of religion within Scottish society from a pre-industrial situation at the beginning of the eighteenth century through to the urban and industrial nature of society today. Whilst it would seem that a book of some few hundred pages could not do justice to more than two centuries of social and religious history, Brown has succeeded in providing a critical examination of the way in which social and economic change contributed to the transformation of Scottish religion from a position of hegemony at the beginning of the eighteenth century to the secondary, if not marginal, position it holds today. Scotland was, according to Brown, unique in that the pace and impact of the agricultural and industrial revolutions during the period 1700 - 1850 surpassed that of any country in the world. The transition of an economy mainly located within subsistence farming to that of an industrial nation posed an unprecedented challenge to the place and character of religion. It is the very nature of that challenge and the measures employed by religion in reaction to that social change which form the thesis of Brown’s work.

Brown’s approach is to lead the reader, chronologically and thematically, through an evaluation of those features which, in his view, were central to the process of social, economic and religious change. In so doing Brown has provided a helpful insight into the complexities of Presbyterian dissent over issues such as patronage which characterised the eighteenth century, the rise of religious pluralism and the ongoing concern over religious decline. Whilst Brown’s discourse is largely directed towards various forms of Presbyterianism he has also addressed the place and role of the non-Presbyterian churches. There is some mention, for example, of the emergence of various Independent groups such as the Glasites, the Scotch Baptists and the Bereans in the eighteenth century as well as the appearance in the nineteenth century of such evangelical organisations as the Salvation Army which emerged in response to prevailing social issues. Amongst the traditional churches Brown has touched upon the origins of the Roman Catholic and Scottish Episcopal Churches and their place within the social, economic and religious fabric of Scotland. The discussion on the Roman Catholic Church is not extensive but it does address such pertinent issues as links between Catholic adherence and immigration and its subsequent numerical strength in the twentieth century. Brown’s discussion on the Scottish Episcopal Church of Scotland focuses predominantly upon Episcopal adherence along socio-economic lines placing emphasis upon the influence of the anglicised upper and middle classes. However, apart from some reference to the modern context of the Scottish Episcopal Church, Brown’s commentary on episcopalianism tends to leave the reader located in the early nineteenth-century.

Of particular relevance to Brown’s discourse on the ways in which social and economic change impacted on the practice of religion in Scotland is his challenge to established theories of secularisation. Historians and sociologists, until the 1980s, were of the view that the emergence of large industrial towns and cities meant the loss of religion amongst the lower classes in that urban workers became removed from the influence of parish life. As Brown points out this view gained prevalence in the early nineteenth century when Thomas Chalmers, the pre-eminent evangelical amongst those working for social and religious reform, warned of the irreligion of the urban working classes. The existence of a such a large cohort of the population outside the authority of the church could only, from a nineteenth-century perspective, be damaging to the stability of society. Brown is, however, critical of modern religious historians who continue to perpetuate what he describes as early nineteenth-century theories of secularisation. It is, in his view, incumbent upon present-day writers of religious history to be cognisant of changes brought about by recent historiographical studies. Revisionist studies, using new forms of evidence and more recent methods of interpretation have, for example, resulted in the re-timetabling of the onset of religious decline from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Central to much of Brown’s discussion is the emphasis he places upon the relationship between class structures and patterns of denominational affiliation. The urban middle classes of the nineteenth century found, for example, a common identity through the religious, cultural and economic ideals of evangelicalism. Empowered by a prosperity gained from commercial interests they worked to establish a voice not only on social and political matters but also with respect to the application of religious ideology. As Brown points out the presence of evangelicals on town councils resulted in the nurture, by church committees and pressure groups, of public debate on civic matters and the establishment of Victorian social policy based upon evangelical premises. Such was the strength of their ideology that evangelicals, both as a class and as a religious affiliation, were successful in providing an alternative power base to that held by the rural landed classes. Whilst the landed elite wielded political and economic influence on the basis of an inherited position, Evangelicals established a new social and cultural order based upon ideals such as enterprise, sobriety, hard-work and self-improvement. In so doing they applied these attributes to what Brown describes as their ‘aggressive’ brand of Christianity and with tenacious dedication went on to establish a plethora of evangelical voluntary enterprises such as Sunday schools, home and foreign missionary endeavours, temperance movements and church extension programmes.

Within this ongoing theme of change and adaptation Brown brings the reader to a thought-provoking conclusion on the nature of the crisis faced by the church today. Statistics indicate that large numbers of people have not only ceased to go to church but many no longer acknowledge the necessity for a religious dimension within society. With the possibility of only one quarter of the Scottish nation claiming, by the late 1990s, a church affiliation it would seem that religion is losing ground within Scottish society. Whilst religion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries grappled with and to some extent transcended the obstacles presented by industrialisation, urbanisation and capitalism it would now, in Brown’s view, seem that secularisation in the twentieth century has dealt its final blow. The handing down of what Brown describes as the fundamental tradition of church attendance from generation to generation is being irretrievably lost and Scottish society is in danger of coming under the care of a generation immersed in secular culture and thinking. Some churches may survive but only as a minority force within a rapidly disappearing Christian society.

Jill Soderstrom

 

THE CAMBRIDGE COMPANION TO BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION

John Barton, ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)
xvi, 338 pp. isbn 0521485932

Controversy is rarely absent from biblical interpretation. But the last decade has seen unprecedented turmoil as the hitherto dominant historical critical approach gives ground to social-scientific, literary and postmodern styles of reading. This collection offers a well-informed progress report on the state of play in two parts. Eleven essays survey various approaches to the interpretation of the Bible as a whole; then follow nine further essays dealing with particular collections or genres.

The contributors are recognised scholars who write clearly and authoritatively in their fields. The cover blurb states that the collection is intended "for students (presumably theological students) and non-specialist readers". Non-specialists in theology would have to be educated to tertiary level in a comparable discipline. This is not a work of popularisation.

The point of departure for the collection is the above-mentioned challenge to the dominance of history as interpretive paradigm. In a splendid opening essay editor John Barton reviews this issue fairly, concluding with a spirited defence of the historical-critical approach properly so-called. The underlying motivation of ‘historical’ criticism is to free the text to speak; it refuses to allow people to mean anything they like by their sacred texts. So far from this movement having had its day in the churches, argues Barton, it has scarcely even arrived there.

For David Jasper the literary approach to the Bible shows how the human imagination can bridge the gap between ancient text and contemporary reader by drawing together the ancient Scriptures, the tradition of theological reading and the response of the contemporary reader to the structure of the text. Keith Whitelam indicates the way in which sociological and anthropological study of the Bible not only investigates the social locations and ideological conflicts and assumptions which have shaped the texts but also criticises the models and assumptions used by contemporary interpreters. Robert P. Carroll’s review of post-structuralist approaches (New Historicism and postmodernism) will contain some surprises for readers unaware of the extent to which scholars of the Hebrew Bible now view the biblical narratives as productions of a period much later than previously claimed for them (the Persian or Greek eras). In the view of the New Historicists the Bible represents "a congeries of historiographical writings which isolate, exclude, repress and misrepresent as much as they may be deemed to advocate"; the task is the reinscription of the repressed and excluded".

A real highlight of the collection is Tim Gorringe’s superb survey of political readings of Scripture. Working from a historical perspective, Gorringe shows that there have always been political readings of the Bible and describes and assesses recent developments with remarkable conciseness and sanity. He quotes Carlos Mesters: "the principal objective of reading the Bible is not to interpret the Bible but to interpret life with the help of the Bible". Anne Loades very adequately surveys the vast field of feminist, while Anthony Thiselton makes the topic of theoretical hermeneutics a little less formidable than it might be for the general reader. Robert Morgan’s essay on "the Bible and Christian Theology" is a further highpoint of the volume, offering amongst other things a fine definition of theology: "the intellectual process of articulating a religious belief and practice by relating an authoritative religious tradition to contemporary knowledge and experience, and vice versa".

William Johnstone does a masterly job of rendering the forbidding area of biblical linguistics accessible to the non-specialist, while Stefan Reif assesses the Jewish contribution in a spiky presentation which is nonetheless salutary reading for Christian interpreters. Finally in this first section, Stephen Prickett makes the interesting point that biblical interpretation has historically followed rather than created, aesthetic interpretation.

The articles devoted to particular parts of the Bible are on the whole a little less interesting. However, Joseph Blenkinsop is informative on the Pentateuch, Robert Alter magisterial on the poetic and wisdom books (the pages on Job and the Song of Songs are unforgettable). Iain Provan is delightfully polemical on trends in the interpretation of the historical books, Robert Wilson a bit heavy on the prophets and John Ashton both authoritative and a little mischievous in regard to the Johannine literature. Pheme Perkins labours somewhat to deal adequately with the Synoptic Gospels and Acts within the compass of a single essay. James Dunn, of course, has total command of the Pauline letters, supplemented by Frances Young on the non-Paulines. James Vanderkam concludes the collection making a great deal of sense in the difficult area of the apocalyptic literature.

While several of the contributors come from the Roman Catholic tradition, this particular reviewer missed any mention of the recent document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (Rome, 1993), which has won such widespread acclaim. Likewise absent is any consideration of biblical interpretation in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

Essay by essay, this volume would make a stimulating text for a graduate or staff seminar. A welcome gift, too, for the parish minister, who may find comfort as well as challenge in the developments it traces.

Brendan Byrne, S. J.

 

PROPHECY AND INSPIRED SPEECH IN EARLY CHRISTIANITY AND ITS HELLENISTIC ENVIRONMENT

Christopher Forbes
(Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1995; Peabody MA, Hendrickson, 1997) ISBN 1565632699

 This book is based on a 1987 PhD thesis in ancient history at Macquarie University. First published in 1995 by Mohr Siebeck, it has recently been republished, virtually unchanged, by Hendrickson. It is divided into two broad sections, both of which are related to possible Hellenistic backgrounds to 1 Cor. 12-14. The first section investigates the phenomena of speaking in tongues; the second, that of early Christian prophecy.

Forbes begins his discussion of the phenomena of speaking in tongues with an important chapter on terminology. After surveying the arguments for the various options that have been suggested in the secondary literature, he is confident "that Paul, like Luke, understands glossolalia as the miraculous ability to speak unlearned human and (possibly) divine or angelic languages". Within the early church, while glossolalia is not mentioned by Clement, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Ignatius of Antioch, ‘Barnabas’, Hermas or the writers to Diogenus and of the Didache, it is referred to by Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Novatian. After the fourth century no evidence of its existence survives. Thus the phenomenon, although reported in three widely separated areas, appears to be confined to the first 350 years of the church’s life. Proposed Hellenistic parallels to glossolalia are then examined. The inspired speech associated with the oracle of Apollo at Delphi was neither ecstatic nor unintelligible. The enthusiastic worship of Dionysius and Cybele, which included ritual and invocatory outcry with its enthusiasm, was not seen as being primarily oracular. Montanist prophecy was ecstatic but intelligible. The primary conclusion Forbes draws from these careful comparisons, and one that stands in deliberate contrast with much received (scholarly) wisdom, is that the Christian glossolalic tradition is substantially different from any known parallels in the ancient world. In other words, the phenomenon is unique to Christianity.

Terminology is a crucial source of confusion in many efforts to compare the phenomenon of Christian prophecy with its Hellenistic parallels. Within early Christianity, prophecy was the ability to speak messages received under inspiration. "In the Hellenistic world this ability would have been called mantikh". In that world, the prophet has a quite different function: that of announcer for the mantikh (a Hellenistic mantikh could be their own prophet), or important cult functionary with some interest in financial matters. Further, and contrary to received opinion, there is no evidence that profhth" was a title used for wandering teachers and philosophers. The most likely background for the New Testament usage of the term profhth" is the Septuagint and the Judaism of the synagogues. Not even within early Christianity is there a clear definition of glossolalia. Paul appears to distinguish prophecy and glossolalia, while for Luke virtually any inspired speech may be described as prophetic. There appears to be no evidence of wandering Christian prophets. Prophecy, though a widespread and powerful force within the Christian community for more than a century, died out sometime after the Montanist controversies.

Forbes finds little evidence to support the three contrasts usually made between Christian prophecy and Hellenistic Oracles: I. That Graeco-Roman ‘prophecy’ is predominantly ecstatic, while Jewish/Christian prophecy is not; ii. Graeco-Roman ecstasy is self-induced, while Christian prophecy is spontaneous; iii. Graeco-Roman ‘prophecy’ is morally neutral, whereas Jewish/Christian prophecy is morally charged with the will of God. After discrediting these, he suggests the following contrasts might be better supported by the evidence: I. Inspiration manticism, while the nearest parallel to early Christian prophecy, was not the dominant form taken by ‘prophecy’ in the Graeco-Roman world; ii. In the Graeco-Roman world, ‘prophecy’ was to be found in oracular shrines, within temple premises and institutionalised priesthoods and traditionally defined relationships with surrounding communities, but Christian prophecy took place within Christian communities; iii. Graeco-Roman ‘prophecy’ was characteristically a matter of answers to questions, while Christian prophecy usually did not occur as answers to questions.

This book illustrates the strengths of much of the work on biblical studies done under the umbrella of ancient history at Macquarie University. It exhibits a confident mastery of the Hellenistic environment in which the New Testament was written, as well as a commendable awareness of the methodological issues involved in using this background material to illuminate issues in biblical studies. Forbes is to be particularly commended for the clear way in which he presents evidence contrary to many assumptions which have widespread currency in biblical studies. It is doubtful that the image of the wandering prophet will disappear from the literature overnight, nor the superficial parallels between glossolalia and so-called ecstatic prophesying in the Hellenistic world. But perhaps Forbes’ work will cause a further examination of how appropriate these images and parallels are. His chapters setting out clear definitions of terminology are very valuable, and should prevent confusion in the future.

If the book has a weakness, it is perhaps that after concluding that the Septuagint and the Judaism of the synagogue are the best backgrounds against which the New Testament concept of prophet should be understood, there is no such investigation to be found in the book. Yet, in a book which surveys not only the secondary literature on the New Testament but also both the primary and secondary literature associated with much of the classical world, this is an omission that can be easily forgiven. Perhaps Forbes’ work will lay the foundation for such a study, either by himself at a later time, or by someone else who might take up the challenge.

In sum, this book provides a useful addition to our understanding of the phenomena of glossolalia and prophecy in the early Christian church.

Robert K. McIver

 

THE BURDENSOME JOY OF PREACHING

James Earl Massey (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1998)
102 pp. ISBN 0-687-05069-3

James Earl Massey tells us that this small book represents the sifting of his thoughts after fifty years of preaching experience. His listed appointments, both pastoral and academic, point to a distinguished career.

I opened his book with a sort of determination not to be disappointed—yet unable to suppress the tiniest apprehension that I was in for a "celebration of the great old days". At the end, neither determination nor apprehension had vanquished the other. On one hand, I had been glad to keep company for a hundred pages with a preacher celebrating preaching. On the other hand, there were few new insights, little that has not been regularly rehearsed as desirable in preachers and preaching.

Though preaching is as old as the church, homiletics is among the most recent of disciplines to find a recognised place in theological college curricula. I remember well enough the principal of our own college looking around faculty meetings at the end of one year to see who would take the preaching class the following year. In colleges where full time appointments were made (predominantly in the United States) such teachers were almost invariably impressive preachers who brought with them their learned skills and accumulated wisdom. Which is another way of saying that at that earliest stage teachers being appointed on the basis of postgraduate qualifications in their subject (mandatory for every other discipline) were, by a long way, the exceptions rather than the rule. Now, however, there is a new generation of homiletical teachers: professors of preaching who have come from graduate studies in language, communications, biblical hermeneutics, postmodernist literature. The journal Homiletic, organ of the American Academy of Homiletics, manifests this professional competence.

Whatever the state of Sunday proclamation in America, it is hard to resist the impression that the quality of preaching in this country languishes. However, I think it is not so very different in the United States in fact, and indeed that the situation applies in all the industrialised societies of the west. That is why, though James Earl Massey comes over unambiguously as one of the earlier generation of teaching preachers, and though I found him saying almost nothing with respect to the difficulties of preachers at the end of the twentieth century, I was happy to spend an hour or two being reminded of how it used to be. And I pondered the question as to how we shall, or might, recover some of that passion for proclamation in our own time.

Graham Hughes 

 

GOD’S SPIRIT: TRANSFORMING A WORLD IN CRISIS

Geiko Müller-Fahrenholz
(New York: Continuum, & Geneva: WCC Publications, 1995) 176 pp.

THE ART OF FORGIVENESS: THEOLOGICAL REFLECTIONS ON HEALING AND RECONCILIATION

Geiko Müller-Fahrenholz
(Geneva: WCC Publications, 1997) 106 pp.  

These two works, written by a German theologian with ecumenical and international experience, are little gems. The first is a rich applied theology of the Holy Spirit; the Spirit is set in relation with the world as people experience it. The main concept by which Spirit’s work is described is that of power. In the first part the Spirit is portrayed as the power of the cosmos, the inexhaustible power of God in all creation. As the soul of the world the Spirit "bestows breath and order, energy and love of life on all things". The reader is offered here a rich theology of creation.

In the second part the Spirit is presented as the power of personal life, or as psychic power. The creator Spirit is the source of our vitality and our personhood, "the vital energy that ensouls and sustains" us. A good deal of attention is given to the things that stand in the way of our personal vitality: the psychic numbing that threats to survival have caused (ch 9), the cynicism that marks many people’s perception of the world (ch 10), and the fundamentalism that replaces a creative encounter with the fundamentals of culture and politics (ch 11). The pastoral care that this calls for centres on the important virtues of truth, solidarity and endurance, the decisive forms of the Spirit’s power.

The third part of the book offers an account of the Spirit as social and ecclesial power, the power of Christian community. This requires, among other things, that the world and its problems be spoken of truthfully. There is also a wonderful discussion of the creative power of forgiveness (ch 20), by which we can "break through the chain of inevitability". There are many suggestions for what life in the world, empowered by the Spirit, will look like. The book is very readable, with 23 short pithy chapters. They are full of arresting images and metaphors, variously drawn from the mystics, artists, and contemporary political and theological writers. The book would be marvellous for a church study group.

The second book is shorter, having two parts, and continues the same lively style of prose. It is prompted by the need of this theologian to think theologically beyond Auschwitz. The only way forward is through forgiveness and reconciliation. But these have to be understood at depth and in the light of the God who – in the three Abrahamitic religions – is the Merciful One. The first part of the book works closely with some key biblical material and succeeds brilliantly in breaking open the rich layers of forgiveness. For example, forgiveness is an encounter, but more than that: it is also "an exchange of pain". Examples of this are given, but also of the moments of grace that exist at the heart of shared pain. Of particular importance is the trans-generational nature of forgiveness, as is the chapter on remembering and "re-membering", which the author regards as "the secret of redemption".

The second part of the book is more directly oriented to political life; it is called "Deep Remembering in Politics and Public Life". The question is how forgiveness can be an element in politics. It requires deep remembering, which includes putting "missing pieces" back into place – the missing pieces in the stories that carry age-old enmities. How greatly ideas like these are needed in the tragic and intractable conflicts between nations and ethnic groups in the world even now! A particularly poignant example of a new and fitting "ritual" was German Chancellor Willy Brand’s falling to his knees during a visit to Warsaw; he understood that "as chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany he had to face the entire history of his country". But there are lessons here for all of us, including the political leaders of our own nation, who have so much difficulty in acknowledging the entire history of our country. There is an enormous amount of value here as we struggle with the demands of reconciliation between indigenous and other Australians. A final chapter looks at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, written, of course, before the conclusion of its work. This book is stimulating, inspiring, sensitive but non-sentimental, and deeply challenging; in my view a ‘must read’ book for all Christians!

Chris Mostert

 

JESUS’ ATTITUDE TOWARDS THE LAW - A STUDY OF THE GOSPELS

William Loader
(Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1997) x, 563 pp.

The field of Gospel studies is inclined to produce large books these days, but this study of the theme of Law in the Gospels amply justifies its size by the scale of its contents. It is a book which covers a great amount of ground, and contains a lot that is illuminating and stimulating on a number of topics - in detailed exegesis of particular Gospel passages, in its presentation of the theologies of the individual evangelists, in its overarching account of the development of the Gospel writings within the New Testament and after, and even, briefly, in the light it sheds on the historical Jesus.

The title is perhaps misleading: should not the Jesus in the title be placed in inverted commas? That would signify that the subject is the "Jesus" who inhabits the imagination and the writing of the evangelists, and only indirectly the Jesus of history. And yet, of course, the speech-marked "Jesus" of the Gospels is the only Jesus to whom historians have access, while the historical figure remains a matter of reconstruction, a more or less shadowy figure - less shadowy, in some respects, in this work, than in many others.

Jesus, then, the Jesus who can be observed in the pages of the Gospels, the Jesus who is, now as in the first century, so often the symbol for what really matters to those who speak or write about him - this Jesus is the subject of this book, and specifically his attitude to the Law. In the first century context, the Law, Torah, represented the great rival authority for those committed to the faith of the Church as it emerged out of Judaism: it could not be ignored, for without the Law, almost nothing in early Christianity (the covenant, the narrative traditions, the existence of Israel itself) could make sense; yet at the same time it represented the Other, over against which the Church had to forge its identity. It is the relation between these two great symbols, Jesus and Torah, that this book examines, as it worked itself out in these seminal writings of the nascent Christian community.

The shape of the book is very simple, with a chapter on each Gospel (including one each on Q and on Thomas and other non-canonical writings), bracketed by introduction and conclusion. The chapters, however, some of them the length of a small book, have a more complex structure: first, a discussion of the main recent writings on the Gospel in question, out of which some live issues are extracted; then the main body of the chapter, a series of sections in which the entire narrative of the Gospel is surveyed; and finally a conclusion. This way of ordering the argument is particularly useful for students, who might otherwise be daunted by the size and density of the topic, and it should enable even the fainthearted to draw sustenance from this rich text.

In reviewing the path taken by each Gospel’s narrative, the guiding principle is: what indicates to the reader Jesus’ attitude to the Law, as the evangelist sees it? The fallacy of reading off the evangelists’ views from isolated passages explicitly devoted to ‘sabbath’ or ‘circumcision’ is avoided by this holistic methodology, which, however, does not result in a compulsion to give equal weight to every part. Instead, issues are allowed to arise naturally. Discussing Mark’s account of the Gerasene demoniac, for example, the author comments: "It is important to notice that the anecdote bristles with Law issues, and, on the other hand, that Mark does not display any interest in them. It is the man’s power, not his uncleanness, that is the focus of attention." In our contemporary scholarly culture, so wracked by anxious over-interpretation, this shows a commendable restraint.

The story, as Loader tells it, is this. Mark, a Gentile writing for Gentiles, understands very well that Jesus was a Jew, and presents him by a host of details moving in a thoroughly Jewish world dominated by observance of Torah in big and small matters. As a Gentile, though, he makes a sharp distinction between the ethical value of the commandments and the obscurity, even absurdity, of the laws of purity which govern the externals of life, food and the washing of hands and cups and pots. In the crucial chapter 7 he interprets Jesus’ remark that "what defiles is not what goes into a person but what comes out", as a declaration that all food is clean. By the same token, the temple, which deals in externals, is without value now. His Gospel is a manifesto for Gentile Christianity, freed from the constraints of Law and of religion.

Both Matthew and Luke represent a turning away from this radical departure. This may be because both draw on Q, a document which, in the analysis here, expresses a conservative Jewish tradition for which the whole Torah is still in force, even though purity issues are played down. There are other ways of reading Q, but the chapters on Matthew and Luke come first, and do not depend on this reading. These chapters show, in their own terms, each Gospel striving to honour Torah as God’s Law, as well as Jesus. The profoundly Jewish Matthew presents them, Loader argues, as dual authorities for Christians: the Law is still in force, every jot and tittle, and if it is reinterpreted by Jesus, that is only to make its demands stronger not easier. Luke, though a Gentile, is equally conservative. He goes out of his way to emphasise Jesus and his disciples as Law-observant Jews founding a community of Law-observant Jews and Gentiles, a new Israel for the new age. This is, however, a very Gentile way of appreciating the Law, which sees the removal of circumcision as a minor concession to Gentile sensitivities, not the total abrogation, desecration, of the covenant, which it plainly was for some of Paul’s opponents. Yet, naive and romantic as it may have been, it was one way of making sense of the continuity and discontinuity that Christians, Gentile as well as Jewish, were bound to live with. What all the synoptics agree about, however, is that compassion is a primary value of the Law and a clue to its purpose, although Matthew, here unlike Luke and Mark, finds no disparity between the needs of compassion and the Law’s demands.

John offers a return to Mark’s radical dualism between the internal things of the Spirit and the Law’s concern with externals. Indeed he goes further, because he writes for a church cast out of the synagogue and for him Law observance is no longer an option, and even on ethical matters it is Jesus, not Law, which provides guidance. Thomas and the other later writings show this and the other options projected into the Church’s future.

And Jesus himself? In the last few pages Loader turns to the historical Jesus. He finds a strong coherance between the traditions underlying Mark and Q which enables him to sketch with confidence a picture of the Jesus who gave rise to all these disparate views: Jesus an observant Jew, in practice conservative though not extreme, but very uneasy about mixing with Gentiles and lepers; in other matters sharing the Hellenistic radical preference for ethical values over purity, and therefore prepared at times to set the law aside in the interests of compassion; a teacher of popular wisdom and eschatological prophecy. The picture is coherent, though hardly simple; nor could it be.

The positions stated here fall within the scope of current debates about the gospels and tend to follow the consensus of recent writings (eg. Neyrey and the importance of ‘purity’ in Mark), though with a preference for what is perceived as the ethical radicalism of Mark and John over the continuing claims of tradition seen in Luke and Matthew. What the book achieves is therefore less the establishing of new positions than the testing of selective argument by exegesis which attends to the place of the particular in the whole.

The book is therefore to be welcomed on several counts: for the range of redactional issues it addresses and the wealth of exegetical comment it offers; for setting the Gospels alongside one another around this major theme, in a way which profoundly illuminates the history of the early Christian movement; for its careful attention to what is there in the text; for its combination of historical discipline and theological insight. The result is a substantial and very valuable contribution to current writing about the Gospels.

John Dunnill

 

REVIEWERS

Brendan Byrne, Professor of New Testament at the Jesuit Theological College, Melbourne

John Dunnill, Lecturer in New Testament, Theology Department, Murdoch University, Perth

Robert McIver, Senior Lecturer, Department of Theology, Avondale College, Cooranbong.

Chris Mostert, Professor of Systematic Theology at the Theological Hall of the Uniting Church of Australia, Melbourne

Jill Soderstrom, PhD student in church history at Murdoch University, Perth

             Graham Hughes, formerly Lecturer in Liturgical Studies, United Theological College, Sydney

 



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