Over the last 150 years there has been a rise in skepticism with regard to the historical validity of the New Testament record concerning Jesus. Originally confined to scholars and theologians, this skepticism is beginning to influence popular thinking. The Jesus Seminar, a highly critical group of scholars, has been featured in national news magazines.  The intention of this group is to popularize non-traditional views of Jesus and the Gospels, primarily that Jesus said and did only a small percentage of what the Gospels claim. They assume that the Gospels were not written by the traditional writers, nor do they record an accurate picture of Jesus.  According to the Jesus Seminar, the early church created stories about Jesus to meet their own needs.

How JesusBart Ehrman’s recent How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (Harper Collins, 2013) is another example of a skeptical approach to the Gospels. The thesis of this book is that Jesus was simply a teacher in Galilee who developed a bit of a following and was executed by the Romans. His followers had some sort of visionary experience after the crucifixion. They believed Jesus rose from the dead and therefore developed the idea he was something more than a good teacher. As they re-told the story of Jesus, they created stories to support this understanding. By the time the Gospels were written there was a belief that Jesus was God.  Christology “as we know it” did not really exist until the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325).

How GodIn March of 2014 Michael Bird edited a collection of responses to Ehrman, How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—A Response to Bart D. Ehrman (Zondervan 2014). The writers in his collection are not knee-jerk fundamentalists, yet they do not find Ehrman convincing. They read the evidence for the resurrection less skeptically and they see the development of Christology much earlier than Ehrman. Michael Bird calls is a “big bang” approach to Christology. Jesus himself is the source of a “high Christology.”

In the face of such skepticism, one might go to the other extreme and say they Christian just needs to “trust and obey.” We do not need to engage the skeptic, someone might say. This is a kind of “head in the sand” approach and is not very helpful.  Aside from the fact that publishers love this sort of controversy (everyone publishes books for and against the Jesus Seminar or Ehrman), dialogue with more skeptical approaches to the New Testament help to sharpen our minds and will create an environment where we are in fact seeking the truth.

There are issues in the Gospels that need to be clarified and objections need a good answer. Rather than avoid interpretation, we need to recognize that we are doing it and refine the tools and methods used for interpreting the Bible. In order to do this properly, we need to be familiar with the contributions and dangers of modern approaches to the New Testament, including those which may have assumptions diametrically opposed to that of Evangelical Christianity.

Should Evangelical Christians try to engage skeptics on the issue of Jesus and the origin of the Gospels? Are there any dangers inherent in using the tools of scholarship to answer skepticism?


Various explanations of the possible literary genre of the four gospels have been offered.  Most Christians approach the gospels as biographies of Jesus.  The do have some biography-like elements, but they are not biographies by the standards of the modern world. Only two show any interest in his birth, only one story occurs before his public ministry, and the majority of the material comes from the last week of Jesus’ life.  Most biographical questions are left unanswered.

A few scholars have suggested that the gospels are patterned after Greco-Roman Aretalogies.   This is a “divine man” biography, the history of a famous hero that has been built up to make him a god-like person (a biography of a god-like person, Julius Caesar, for example.) The Greek word aretai means “mighty deeds.”  Aretalogies are the records of the mighty deeds of a god or hero.  An example from the second century is Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana.  When Josephus describes Moses in Against Apion 2:154-158 he expands the praise beyond the biblical material. Philo of Alexandria also glorifies Moses as the greatest sage and lawgiver, a divine-man who is both priest and prophet. (See David L. Tiede, “Aretalogy” in ABD 1:372-3.)

Historical BiographyBased on Luke 1:1-4, it is possible to read the Gospels as historical documents.  Luke claims in the prologue to his Gospel and the prologue to Acts to be writing history.  That stories are not created by Luke is evident in his claim to have sought the eye witnesses to the events.  The tradition that Mark wrote his gospel based on the preaching of Peter indicates that Mark was well-versed in the eye-witness testimony of Peter.  Mark appears to be used by both Matthew and Luke, Matthew also being an eye-witness.  John supplements this material with his own eye-witness testimony, albeit from a theological angle at a much later date.

But even if the Gospels contain history, they must be considered theological documents as well.  Consider John 20:30-31, where the author of the fourth Gospel states that his purpose was to convince the readers of a theological fact (“Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God”) and that by believing this theology, the reader might “have life in his name.”

While John’s gospel is the most theological of the four, the other gospels are not simply historical and non-theological.  Matthew, Mark and Luke have clear theological agendas.  One cannot approach these documents without getting into the question of who Jesus is, who he claims to be, and how the gospel writers present him in their telling of the story.

The Gospels are therefore best described as historical-theological documents. The gospels are most similar to Greco-Roman biographies or history texts.  Once we step into the world of the first century and study what history looked like then, we discover that the gospels are not all that removed from the standard of history writing for the time.  Luke especially follows some of the conventions for writing good history in the first century.

Craig Blomberg and other evangelical writers conclude that the genre is unique – the Gospels are theological biographies. They contain historical data that is presented through a theological filter. The writers are selective of the material available.  They record the events of Jesus life in such a way to make a theological point about him, that he is the Son of God, that he is fully human, that he died as an atoning sacrifice for mankind.  This make a historical, theological and literary study of the gospels legitimate, they are all of three of these genres combined in something of a unique fashion.

How does Blomberg’s description of the Gospels as “theological biographies” help us read the Gospels accurately? Is there anything missing this description that is important?


Bibliography.  The issue of the genre of the Gospels is covered by Craig Blomberg, Historical Reliability, 235-240; Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Intro to Biblical Hermeneutics, 323-325, Willem S. Vorster, “Gospel Genre” in ABD 2:1077-1079; David Aune, “The Problem of the Genre of the Gospels: A Critique of C. H. Talbert’s What Is a Gospel?”  Gospel Perspectives: Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels, Vol. 2, ed. R. T. France and D. Wenham (Sheffield: JSNT, 1981) 9–60.

It is impossible to read a text without interpreting the text in some way. The very fact we are converting signs and symbols on a page into thoughts in our mind is an act of interpretation. Every time we read a sentence, we make many decisions about what words mean or how a metaphor is to be understood. Rarely do we step back and think about how we understand a text. At the beginning of this series on the Gospels, I want to discuss the need for interpreting a text.

Dirty Harry PotterThe genre of the text matters. If a reader does not know Harry Potter is fiction rather than history, they will be very confused indeed! But it is possible to describe Harry Potter as fantasy. Fantasy has certain “rules” which hold the stories together in ways a crime novel does not. If you think Harry Potter and Dirty Harry should solve their problem in the same way, you have misunderstood the genre! A Harry Potter book can also be described as a “young adult” novel. The young adult genre also has some characteristics typical of these stories (young protagonists, usually in some sort of difficult home life, some teen-romance, etc.) If you confuse the genre Harry Potter and Fifty Shades of Grey (a completely different genre!) you will not fully understand the story. With respect to the four Gospels, we need to be very careful in understanding the genre of these books. They are not dispassionate histories in the modern sense of the word, attempting to set the record straight about what Jesus really did.

The intention of the author matters. In most cases writers create documents in order to be understood. A good writer has an idea they want to express, or a feeling they want to create. A historical writer might want to describe a particular time and place in the past, or prove a point about some important event. With the exception of some modern poetry (or student papers), writers do not simply string words together and allow the reader to create whatever meaning they want. When we read the Gospels we need to be very careful to hear the voice of the author and correctly read the gospel as it was intended.

The situation of the reader matters. I am not advocating for some sort of reader response criticism that allows the reader to ignore the author’s intention and make a text mean whatever the reader can imagine. By situation I mean a reader’s cultural context. For example, I am a white male living in a wealthy, industrialized country. I am going to read texts about agriculture or poverty differently than someone in the Congo. I often miss things my female students hear in a text. Historically, I read the text of the New Testament differently than someone in the sixteenth century, or in the fourth century. I am often perplexed by the things that got Luther and Augustine excited, because my cultural context is different.

Genre MattersAnother situation of the reader that matters is a reader’s preconceptions. For example, when I read Harry Potter, I assume that magic does not exist, there are no magical people living in London, there is no Diagon Alley where I can buy an owl. In my opinion, people who “really believe” are deluded and hopefully grow out of that by their thirteenth birthday (or when they do not get an invite to Hogwarts at least!) If a reader as a preconceived belief that the Gospels cannot contain any real history, then they will read the story of Jesus differently than a believer. If a person is a committed Catholic, they may read the stories of Peter (especially Matt 16) differently than a committed Protestant. A person with a Charismatic theology will read some of the stories in the gospels with different eyes than a non-Charismatic.

My point here is not to argue reading is so arbitrary that all readings are equally valid. I am saying we ought to understand the text as clearly as possible, beginning with the words, genre and authorial intention, and at least recognize our assumptions when we come to the text of the Gospels.

How will an awareness of genre, authorial intent and the reader’s situation change the way we approach the Gospels? Perhaps you have encountered someone who read a text considerably different because of their personal context – were they “wrong”?


blogiversaryOn September 1, 2008 Reading Acts published its first post, “Why Acts?” I originally set up this blog as a supplement to my preaching through the Book of Acts at Rush Creek Bible Church. My plan was to offer a few thoughts before and after I preached on a particular text in Acts. Those first few months I something like 75 hits a month; the first four months I totaled 481 hits in all! While there are several blogs that have been around longer, there are not many that make it to the six-year mark. At least, there are not many that make it to six years without being turned into a spambot.

Reading Acts has grown consistently over the years. This surprises me a bit since I avoid political posts and generally ignore the easy “controversial” targets (Jesus’s Wife, Mark Driscoll, etc). I might do a bit better if I tried to argue a Coptic fragment proved Mark Driscoll was secretly married to Benny Hinn in a secret Illuminati ceremony presided over by Sarah Palin, but I really do not want to stoop that low.

The blog recently passed 1200 posts and 600,000 hits. While daily traffic peaked two years ago there has been steady growth since a lull in posting last summer.  I see more involvement from readers in the last two years, which is a positive sign. It is gratifying that Reading Acts is consistently in the Top Ten Biblioblogs for several years now (#7 for Summer 2014), although I know that several popular blogs have dropped off that list in the last year, inflating my rank just a bit.

Most readers are from the the US, UK, Canada, and Australia, although I see quite a few readers from the Philippines, India, South Africa, and Singapore. My all time top post is the beginning of a series I wrote on using an iPad for biblical studies. Despite being three years old, it consistently leads all other posts each month. I wrote a short piece on Paul’s teacher Gamaliel in 2011 which is still in my top few posts every month. I assume I am helping some homeschoolers or Bible college students do their homework. In 2012 I asked if John was the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved. This post continues to generate hits and comments after more than two years. By far the most popular single-day post I have written was a bit of humor, Top Ten Ways To Fail a Bible Paper. I suppose it is not humor for people who have to grade Bible papers, but it did get well over 2000 hits the first day I posted it, making it the closest thing to “viral” a BiblioBlog is likely to get. I also added a Facebook Page for Reading Acts, so go and “like it” if you are into that sort of thing.

My first book was published by Wipf & Stock, Jesus the Bridegroom. You should really go buy a copy, or at the very least post a glowing review on Amazon. The Kindle version is cheaper, and it is available through publisher.

I started organizing the Biblioblog Carnivals a few years ago and have hosted that event twice. Occasionally I read things about the “death of the biblioblog,” but the Carnivals seem to indicate there is a healthy group of bloggers publishing good work regularly each month. It is not the same ground as six years ago, but it seems to me there is still a need for freely available quality scholarship on the Internet.

Starting almost immediately, I am going to return to the Gospels. I am teaching Jesus and the Gospels in the fall and I have read several excellent monographs on Jesus studies this summer. After a couple of weeks of orientation and basic foundational posts, I will be blogging through the life of Jesus through the fall.

I am looking forward to another great year on Reading Acts, thanks to everyone who regularly reads the blog.  I do appreciate your interest and comments.


Radical Blogger EditRob Bradshaw posted his August Biblical Studies Carnival at the Biblical Studies Blog. This is a great collection of links to articles of interest to those working in biblical or theological studies, including some archaeology and textual criticism. If you are in the US, take a break from your Labor Day festivities and visit Rob’s blog.

If you do not know biblicalstudies.org.uk, you are missing one of the better resources on the Internet. Rob has been collecting and scanning theological journals for years now, always careful to obtain permission to post the text online. The result of his hard work is a collection of more that 20,000 freely available articles. Some of the journals are not available on any database, and even if they were, they would be sitting behind a paywall.  Brian Small’s Hebrews Highlights  includes several links to reviews of commentaries and monographs on Hebrews.

Mike Skinner will host the September Carnival at cataclysmic and Brian Renshaw will do October at his new eponymous blog. I would love to get a few more volunteers to finish out the year strong, or you can volunteer for a 2015 month. Carnivals are a great way to get some good exposure for your blog. If you are interested in hosting a future Carnival, contact me (plong42 at gmail dot com). If you have hosted in the past, feel free to take another spin!



Pettit, Paul and R.Todd Mangum. Blessed Are the Balanced: A Seminarian’s Guide to Following Jesus in the Academy.  Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2014. 137 pp. Pb; $14.99. Link to Kregel.

This is a short guide to maintaining a spiritual life in Seminary. There is nothing here on research skills, how to write seminary level papers or tips on memorizing Greek and Hebrew vocabulary. Pettit and Mangum’s focus is entirely on helping a new seminary student not only maintain spiritual fervor while studying at the graduate level, but also grow as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

BalancedFirst, Pettit and Mangum discuss Christian Maturity as a balance between the head and the heart. Here the authors draw a contrast between higher education and spiritual life. They use Psalm 26:2 as a model, “Examine me, O Lord, and try me; test my mind and my heart.” I think they overplay the meaning of heart (לֵב, lev) as “emotions” in contrast to the head (כִּלְיָה, kilyah) as “motives or understanding, the mind” (31). The nouns appear in in parallel lines of poetry and were not intended to refer to distinct elements of human life. The noun כִּלְיָה refers to the inner parts of a sacrificial animal (Exod 29:13) probably the kidneys (Job 16:13, Lam 3:13). The word refers to deep, inner emotions (Ps 73:21). The noun לֵב refers to virtually the same thing, including emotions and inclinations, even determination and courage. While I agree there is a need for balancing the “heart and the head,” to appeal to these particular Hebrew words seems to go beyond the evidence. I think their point is good, although the way they make the argument is flawed. (Ironically, the fact I make this point might well indicate I am an arrogant seminary graduate who needs to balance my heart and head better!)

The second chapter contrasts learning about God with living for God. The authors make the excellent point that good doctrine and training does not make a good leader. Having an M.Div does not automatically qualify someone for a pastorate. Seminary can breed a kind of arrogance which seriously hinders the effectiveness of a young pastor. I appreciate Pettit and Mangum’s honesty in describing seminaries as “ideological entities.” Most seminaries exist to serve a denomination and it is possible someone can come out of a seminary with the idea they are the ones with all the answers. Most people “in the pew” are not particularly interested in the things Seminary professors get excited about. (How many sermons to you hear on the New Perspective on Paul or the current state of the Documentary Hypothesis?) The training is important, but so too is real world experience serving people where they are at.

Third, Pettit and Mangum develop their “head and the heart” and argue for the practice of spiritual discipline for the Seminarian. They list some 22 spiritual disciplines as well as 14 academic disciplines that are essential if a person is to succeed in Seminary. Most of these are obvious (prayer, devotions, meditation, fasting, worship, etc.), although I was happy to see practices like retreat and secrecy listed as spiritual disciplines. So too the academic disciplines are somewhat obvious (attend class, do good research, respect your teachers), but there were a few items on the list I thought were excellent suggestions most people do not consider. For example, eating right and exercising is a good academic discipline. Most students do not see a connection between classroom performance and their diet, but professors who are cursed with after-lunch lectures know how a fast-food lunch affects the brain of the learner! I was happy to see “citation” as an academic discipline, since plagiarism is a major problem in graduate school, even in seminaries. Citing a source properly is not only honest, it will save the student work later when they develop their work further. (Nothing is more embarrassing than discovering something you thought you “wrote” was actually something you learned and failed to cite properly!)

The fourth chapter warns the potential seminarian of “spiritual frostbite.” Here they have in mind the old joke (usually told by old pastors): “When I was in cemetery, oh, I mean seminary….” It is very easy for one’s spiritual life to wither and die while intensely studying Scripture in seminary! Pettit and Mangum suggest the seminary study clarify their motives (why are they in school in the first place) and work hard at spiritual disciplines. They warn against the sort of critical spirit common among graduate students, looking down on teachers they consider beneath them. While they do not give any real examples of this, think of how Rick Warren or Mark Driscoll is vilified among the “intellectual elite” (including myself). It is very easy for someone who does not like the New Perspective to mock N. T. Wright (he lived in a castle, bah!)

One of the best antidotes for arrogance and pride is humble service. Chapter five therefore focuses on service as a part of graduate studies. Most seminaries have strong service components as part of their programs, so it is possible a seminarian thinks of themselves as “serving the church.” But there is something healthy about serving in ways that humble – an M.Div student teaching the JrHigh AWANA group might be just the thing to keep one’s pride in check. (I did this in seminary, and it was indeed humbling!) While a person might be qualified to preach to thousands on Sunday morning, maybe it is necessary to serve by being a camp counselor, or playing games with the youth group.

Last, Pettit and Mangum discuss the need for the seminarian to work hard at preserving relationships with family and friends. When I first picked up this book, I expected it to have a major section on preserving one’s marriage while pursuing a seminary degree. Many seminaries see this as a major issue and have programs to help the spouse of a potential pastor cope with their support role (usually far more than “how to be a good pastor’s wife” is needed!) There is less in this chapter on marriage than I expected, however. Pettit and Mangum encourage the seminarian to develop quality friendships in order to balance education and social needs, for accountability and personal encouragement.

Conclusion. This is a very positive book that encourages someone entering seminary to consciously dedicate themselves to spiritual growth during their years of preparation for ministry. I think there is room for an additional chapter that is “less positive,” perhaps some warnings away from behaviors which can deaden spiritual life. I expected to see something about managing one’s time and avoiding things like excessive video gaming. I have known far too many students with a great deal of potential who failed courses due to video game addiction. Inappropriate use of the Internet seems to be another obvious problem missing here. Despite it being an obvious problem, it seems young men especially need to be warned about internet porn (although this is mentioned on page 38, the topic is not developed beyond a few lines). Since the book is about personal spiritual development, there is nothing in the book about managing finances during grad school. Most married seminary students know the struggle of working full-time in order to pay for classes, books, and living expenses. Being a married couple studying for ministry puts enormous strain on a marriage and finances is usually one of the major flash-points in a marriage.

This is still useful book, the kind of book a church might give to a person heading off to a Bible College or Seminary to prepare for ministry.


Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.




While the following commands from Paul seem unrelated to the theme of unity, Frank Thielman argues they ought to be read in the context of persecution (Philippians, NIVAC, 217-9). While this is not an Empire-wide systematic persecution of believers, we have already seen several times in the letter than the church at Philippi was a small community of believers who are in many ways “different” from the Roman culture around them. The existence of a group of people who “have the mind of Christ” is enough to be suspicious, and suspicion easily gives way to gossip, wild accusations and pressure to conform. This sort of social pressure can be difficult to accept and a source of great fear for the church. Paul’s series of short exhortations in these verses are therefore designed to give comfort and encouragement to endure.

Alfred E. NewmanFirst, Paul encourages the church to set aside worry by rejoicing in their circumstances. If the context is social pressure on Christians in Philippi, then there may be some despair in the congregation. Paul repeats his call for joy regardless of circumstances here, recalling his words in chapter 1. Paul is in prison and may be executed for his faith, yet he rejoices in his circumstances.  He is modeling the kind of attitude he desires from the congregation.

This is not some sort of masochistic pleasure in suffering, but rather the sort of happiness that comes from understanding the circumstances properly. For example, someone who competes in athletics “suffers” greatly when they train. They consider the work they are doing well worth the pain because of the ultimate goal (winning the prize). The same is true for pursuing a college degree or training necessary to advance at a job. It is hard work, and might fairly be called suffering, but as painful as it is, from the perspective of the goal, it is a cause for rejoicing. Paul models this by counting his past achievements as a loss and “forgetting what is behind and straining for what is ahead” (3:12-14).

Second, Paul says the believer is to be “reasonable” (ESV) or “be gentle” (NIV 2011), or perhaps a “forbearing spirit” (BDAG). The Greek word (ἐπιεικής) does have the sense of kindness or courteousness. But it has the sense of kindness in a context where retaliation is expected. This fits well with the possibility of harassment and persecution as well. The believer responds to pressure to conform to the world in ways the world does not expect; instead of revenge and retaliation, we are to be reasonable, gentle, and forgiving.

Third, worry is not necessary because the “Lord is at hand. The phrase, “the Lord is at hand” may go with “be reasonable,” although it is probably better to see it as the reason we should not be anxious. This is not escapist, as if Paul is saying, do not worry about things since God is going to destroy it all soon anyway! The soon return of the Lord is a motivation for unity because the return will vindicate the righteous (rewarding them) while punishing the oppressors. Again, this is not some sort of defeatist, “hunker down and take it” attitude; Paul is once again pointing to the goal and understanding his present suffering in the light of future vindication at the return of the Lord.

Last, instead of worry, we are to bring requests to God in prayer.  Based on this verse, worry is sometimes considered a sin. But “worry” here is refers to anxiety or apprehension concerning present circumstances (suffering for the faith?) rather than faithlessness or a careless attitude toward life. Some worry is a “healthy concern.” If my car makes a funny noise it is a cause for concern; I might worry about some change in my health; I might be worried about how my children behave, or about my family’s health, etc. But if I begin to worry about your children, perhaps I have gone beyond healthy concern.

How much worry is unhealthy? Since Paul says we ought to bring requests to God in prayer rather than worry about them, perhaps the analogy of a “burden” is good here. Some things you can physically carry better than others, some people are stronger, better at carrying things, etc. Sometimes you need a little help carrying something heavy or awkward. Unhealthy worry may vary from person to person, but sharing the concern with others, first with the Lord is the best way to “share the load.”

Rather than be excessively concerned, Paul tells us to commit these things to the Lord in prayer in order to share the burden with the one who is able to carry it for you. If Paul has in mind pressure to conform to the Roman world faced by the church, but the application to contemporary Christianity life is clear. We are to let God carry our burdens rather than bear them alone.

women_fightingPaul does something unusual in Philippains 4, he specifically names at least two leaders in the congregation have some problem hindering the church. Specifically, Euodia and Syntyche need to demonstrate unity. For Paul to specifically name people is very unusual since the letter would have been read publically to the whole congregation. He treats them equally by repeating the verb twice (“I encourage Euodia, I encourage Syntyche”).

We know nothing about these two women, although there have been a few Christian writers who denied they were women, perhaps because Paul called them co-laborers, and a few who have wondered if they were actual people! But the pronouns throughout the three verses are feminine, so very few (if any) modern scholars deny Paul is talking about two women who worked with him in Philippi.

  • Syntyche is a feminine name in Philippians, but it appears in inscriptions as a masculine. The early Christian writer and bishop of Antioch Theodore of Mopsuestia (ca. 350 – 428) therefore tried to argue this refers to a man rather than a woman. He went as far as to identify Syntyche as the Philippian jailer from Acts 16!
  • Euodia is also a common name in the Greco-Roman world (BDAG cites Greek grave inscriptions on Cyprus); the name means “prosperous” or “successful,” sometimes in the context of a journey. Like Syntyche, the name has a masculine and feminine form.
  • The Tübingen School interpreted Euodia and Syntyche as symbols for Jewish and Gentile Christians (for a summary, see Gillman, “Euodia (Person),” ABD 2:670). If this was the case, the Syzygus is the one who unifies the two opposing sides of the early Christian church.

The motivation for making Syntyche into a man is to avoid the implication that an early church like Philippi had women leaders on a level with Paul.  These women are not opponents of Paul nor are they false teachers: their names are “written in the book of life.” This is a common way of describing someone who have suffered for their faith yet remained faithful (Dan 12:1, Rev 3:5). This may therefore be a hint the church has suffered for their faith and these two women were instrumental in guiding the congregation through that difficult time.

Verse three asks someone in the congregation to help the women to work through their dispute. The Greek word (σύζυγος) has sometimes been interpreted as a name (Syzygus), a name which would mean “yoke-fellow” if it is a name at all. The name does appear in Greek literature as a description of a wife (T.Rub 4:1, for example), so sometimes Syzygus was thought to be Paul’s wife! (She is Paul’s loyal wife, left behind in Philippi, perhaps Lydia herself.) Paul also calls on Clement and the “rest of my fellow workers” to help the women to reconcile.  We know nothing of Clement. Although it is the same name as a bishop of Rome in the late 90s, it is unlikely to be the same man.

eudoiaandsyntychePaul clearly loves and respects these fellow-workers (v. 1), but he does strongly encourage them to set aside these difference.  He uses a strong word for his affection for the church: he earnestly desires to see them (ἐπιπόθητος). The church is Paul’s “joy and crown.” This is similar to saying “pride and joy” today, the church is something Paul can boast about and on the day he stands before the Lord he can consider the church a victor’s crown.

In summary, Paul deeply cares for the church at Philippi and wants them to endure in the trails they will face. Because he loves them so deeply, he needs to call out two people who are causing disunity. But the whole church needs to have the same sort of unity as well; everyone is to “think similarly.”


In this final encouragement toward unity, Paul addresses the leadership of the church at Philippi. He began the letter by addressing the elders and deacons (1:1), now he calls for the leadership of the church to demonstrate the mind of Christ by standing firm in unity.

“Stand firm” is a common phrase in Paul’s letters. It refers to being firmly convinced of a belief. In 1:27 he used the same word to encourage the believers to stand firm “in one spirit,” so they are able to withstand any oppression they might face as a result of their faith in Jesus. Similarly, in 2 Thess 2:15 he encourages his readers to stand firm and hold on to the traditions they have been given; In Gal 5:1 the readers are to stand firm in the freedom they have in Christ and not go back under the yoke of the Law.

UnityOne of the major themes of this letter has been the unity of the church. Paul wants the church to “live in harmony” (cf. Rom15:5) by thinking the same thing in the Lord.”  Paul has used a similar phrase in 3:15 for the kind of intellectually unity necessary in the church, but also in 2:2, the church must be of “one mind” if it is going to have unity (2 Clem 17:3 uses the same phrase, possibly alluding to this text).

There may be some doctrinal unity in mind here, since this is the conclusion of a section describing the teaching of someone who opposes Paul. The church needs to think correctly about who Jesus is and what he did on the cross, for example. In the context, they need to properly understand the function of the Jewish Law in the current era.

But Paul calls for unity more often in practical matters and ethical choices. The church not only has to share the same doctrine, but also practice. In a church like Galatia, doctrine was a serious problem, but in Corinth behavior seems to be a bigger issue. As he has said throughout the letter, the church has to be of “one mind,” and they should have the “mind of Christ.”

This is the real problem with unity. There are some doctrinal and ethical matters I cannot set aside in the interest of unity. Every denomination and church has some doctrinal formulation that is considered foundational as well as behaviors considered unacceptable. How do we balance important distinctions and maintain unity in the Body of Christ?

Freyne, Sean. The Jesus Movement and Its Expansion: Meaning and Mission. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2014. 495 pp. Pb; $35.00.  Link to Eerdmans

Sean Freyne was the Emeritus Professor of Theology in Trinity College (Dublin) until his death in August of 2013. This book is a conclusion to his other studies on Galilee in the Second Temple Period. His other contributions to the topic include Galilee, Jesus and the Gospels: Literary Approaches and Historical Investigations (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988); Galilee and Gospel:  Collected Essays (WUNT 125; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000) and Jesus, a Jewish Galilean (London: T&T Clark, 2004).

Freyne Jesus MovementFreyne begins The Jesus Movement and Its Expansion with three chapters on the history and culture of Galilee in the first century. First, he challenges the common assumption that Galilee was a Gentile region in comparison to Judea. While the region was encircled by Gentile cities, a strong Judean presence was present in Galilee with “a long-standing and deep attachment to the symbols of Jerusalem and its Temple” (48). From the Hasmonean period on there was a “steady growth” in the number of settlements with a distinctive Judean ethos (18). Evidence for this comes from the presence of miqva’oth throughout the region and a few traces of pre-70 C.E. synagogues (Khirbet Qana and Magdala, for example).

Second, Freyne examines the influence of Rome on Galilee and Judea. In order to accomplish this, Freyne examines the how the Roman world view was the developed by Herod and his sons. Freyne argues Herod “fully participated in the Roman exploitation of the idea of one world” (55). He demonstrates this with a brief overview of the building projects the Herodians initiated as well as the coinage issued during this period. The first revolt was an inevitable clash between the Hellenistic aristocracy and radical anti-Roman elements such as the “fourth philosophy” (59). For Freyne, the fall of Jerusalem functions catalyst for the writing of early Christian gospels. He makes reference to the apocalyptic claims of Mark 12:13-18 which seem to anticipate the events of 70 C.E.

The last introductory chapter surveys the economic and social conditions of Galilee in the mind first century. This is ground Freyne has covered elsewhere in more detail. He begins with the economy of the Hasmonean state, suggesting that Galilee experience some growth as Judeans moved into the region for economic reasons. While Herod is sometimes characterized as an oppressive ruler for the “ordinary people,” Freyne insists the Herodian period not necessarily characterized by oppression and extreme poverty. He cites several examples of Herod providing for the people in times of drought or famine (118). Even under Antipas, the ruler functioned as a Roman benefactor. Here Freyne is reacting to the work of Crossan and others who tend to overplay poverty as a factor for describing the culture of Galilee during the ministry of Jesus. He lists a number of items drawn from Mark’s gospel and Josephus indicating a more robust economy than usually granted. For example, In Mark 6:56, people could be expected to have money to provide food for themselves; in Mark 1:20 fishermen hired servants; in Mark 5:26 (cf., Life, 403) people who provided medical services expected to be paid (132).

Chapter 4 makes use this social and cultural background in order to read the presentation of Jesus as found in the Gospels. The Jesus Movement was one of several protest movements challenging the religious of the nation (183). This challenge comes from two perspectives often considered to be mutually exclusive in contemporary scholarship. First, Jesus is in many ways a wisdom teacher. Following Gerd Theissen, Freyne describes Jesus as “inaugurating a ‘values revolution,’ calling into question prevailing attitudes toward wealth and power,” either from Rome or the Temple aristocracy (162). To declare the poor “blessed,” for example, contradicted the usual Deuteronomic thinking that the Lord blesses the righteous with material wealth. With respect to apocalyptic, Freyne thinks the Jesus Movement came to identify themselves with the “wise” from Daniel 12, using Daniel and his companions as models of living a righteous life in the Gentile world (174).

Chapters 5-8 trace the Jesus movement beyond the early first century. He discusses the Hebrews and the Hellenists, Samaritan followers of Jesus, and the traditions associated with James the Just. He suggests that in Acts the relationship of James and the Hebraioi are “another story, running just below the surface and then springing to life occasionally and at key moments” (241). As I have often observed, there is far more variety in the early Christian movement than is usually recognized. Freyne sees diversity in Acts 6, the Hellenists (such as Stephen) and the Hebrews (the Twelve, perhaps James), but he points out the rift is not theological (206), although he goes on to indicate a major difference is the resurrection. Freyne follows Ben Meyer’s lead and suggests the Hebraioi are the link back to the earliest community of the Jesus Movement, consisting of the nucleus of Jesus’ Galilean followers (213). Hellenists were a link to a future Pauline / Gentile movement that went beyond Israel to a purified humanity.

James was a leader in the Hebraioi, but based in Jerusalem rather than Galilee. Freyne detects hints of the importance of James in a number of non-canonical texts expanding his role beyond the description in Acts. James appears two sometimes opposing traditions. Some traditions connect James to the Ebionites, the orthodox Jewish Christians, but James also appears in several Gnostic texts as well. Gospel of Thomas Logion 12 seems to pass leadership of the disciples to James the Just, preserving a title found elsewhere. Jerome knew a tradition that placed James at the Last Supper (De Vir. 2.3). The recently published Tchacos Codex includes a Greek translation of the Apocalypse of James which helps fill in gaps in the Nag Hammadi version of this Gnostic text. In this story, Jesus appears to James after the resurrection and instructs him on what is necessary for the soul to ascend (239). For Freyne, the late acceptance of the Letter of James into the canon of the New Testament is an indication of James’ increasing status in the early church.

In chapters 6-7 Freyne examines how Jesus was remembered, first among Galilean Christianity (Gospel of Thomas and Q) then in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, which he suggests originated in Syria. He examines the Saying collections as early evidence for how the Galilean followers of Jesus understood their relationship with Judaism as well as the terms on which a Gentile might be admitted to the Messianic community (258). In the Sayings sources, Jesus is the “coming one” (Luke 3:7-9) who invites his listeners to participate in a banquet (GThomas 28, Prov 9:1-6). This is a combination of apocalyptic and wisdom at the earliest levels of the tradition. Freyne argues the sayings material is dismissive of Jewish practices and is not as dismissive of Gentiles as other contemporary examples of Second Temple Judaism, “the main focus is clearly on Israel” (265).

Freyne associates the Gospel of Mark with Syria (as opposed to Rome) argues the Gospel deals with the aftermath of the Jewish Revolt and loss of the Temple. The Gospel is “apocalyptically structured” (311), looking back at Jesus as a way to encourage Jesus-followers to cross the political and cultural boundaries necessary in a post-Jewish Christianity. Matthew, on the other hand, deals with a different set of circumstances. For Freyne, Matthew wrote fifteen to twenty years later, using Mark and Q to argue for an inclusive Israel that could “bring new things out of the old” (Matt 13:52).

Finally, Freyne follows these trajectories into the Second Century. He begins by examining the state of the Jesus movement in Rome in the second century, after the time of Domitian. The attitude of Rome was generally positive, despite occasional threats of persecution at the local level (323). Freyne wonders why Celsus went to such great lengths in the late second century to refute toe claims of Christianity. It is likely Celsus realized the threat Christianity posed to Roman order, especially as it moved from an obscure religion to “third nation” within Rome (325). Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians continued to separate during this period. Despite some attempts to maintain a connection to their Jewish roots, the growing orthodoxy rejected Judaism entirely. Ignatius wrote “it is monstrous to talk of Jesus Christ and practice Judaism” (Ign. Magn. 10.2). But the early Christians also rejected attempts to bring Christianity in line with Greek philosophy, as Tertullian famously said, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem”? Christian orthodoxy finally took shape as a reaction to Christian heresies. As challenges arose, orthodox teaching attempted to clarify and separate from forms of Gnosticism and Marcionism.

Conclusion. This book is an excellent contribution to the study of the Gospels and the growth of early Christianity. Sean Freyne argues clearly for an influential Galilean Christianity that is responsible for preserving a collection of Jesus’ sayings (Q). He concludes Christianity was much closer to its Jewish roots than is normally thought. I would have liked a chapter on Luke/Acts, tracing the expansion of the Jesus movement to the Roman world (assuming Freyne accepted some sort of western provenance for the Gospel). Based on his comments throughout the book, he might have taken Acts more seriously as history than recent commentators have (especially Luke’s hints of deeper divisions between the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and Paul’s Gentile mission).

In addition, there is not much in the book on the Pauline mission to the Gentiles. Granted, this would greatly lengthen an already good-sized book, but the topic is not necessarily excluded by the sub-title of the book. Freyne argues well his point on how the Jesus movement spread form Galilee to Syria, but in his final chapter he leaps to the second century without any attention at all to Paul’s Gentile mission or the problems it caused for more conservative forms of Jewish Christianity.

Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book to students of the Gospels and the early church.

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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Phillip J. Long

Phillip J. Long

I am a college professor who enjoys reading, listening to music and drinking fine coffee. Often at the same time.

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