Wednesday, December 29, 2021

May We All Have A Better 2022

In recent years I have sought to round off the blogging year before Christmas and signal to readers that I am taking a holiday from the blog.

This year, for various reasons, it feels okay to do a small amount of blogging after Christmas - yesterday's and today's posts. But a blogging holiday is beginning at the posting of this post - likely won't be back writing until around Monday 17 January 2022.

2021 has felt a gruelling year and this is an unremarkable statement because it seems as though everyone in the whole world had found it gruelling.

May we all have a better 2022!

Right at the end of this present year of 2021, we have learned of the death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Looking on Twitter, lots of people, including many Anglican clerics, have something to say and often in the form of lovely stories about ++Tutu's life, faith, witness, generosity and laughter. There is no need for me to add to these good words. But the Anglican Communion has been better off, has it not, for the brilliance of this man - as a leader and as a communicator?

A Christmas thought: for Christians, Christmas is all about the worship of Christ. Both shepherds and sages lead by their example on this matter. And John's Prologue poetically explains why we worship the Infant Christ: God has become human so the human can become divine.

"And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent in our camp, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. ... From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who has come from his home in the Father’s heart, who has made him known." (NRSV adjusted by me).

Arohanui to all readers - lots of love to you all,


Tuesday, December 28, 2021

On Some Commentaries in 2021

A correspondent recently mentioned appreciation for those occasions when I mentioned commentaries, so, in the penultimate post for 2021, here are a few thoughts, mostly relating to the several commentaries I purchased this year.

I have never had as many commentaries on OT books as on NT books so this year - I can't recall exactly what prompted me - I purchased only OT commentaries.


Looking for something both deep and different on Ruth I ordered The JPS Bible Commentary: Ruth : The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation Commentary by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Tikva Frymer-Kensky (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2011). 

This has an excellent and wideranging introduction (75 pages including notes). The commentary itself consists of Hebrew text and English translation in parallel at the head of each page and commentary below that. Typically there is one verse per page or even two pages so this is a commentary which leaves no stone unturned.


Naturally another JPS commentary is in order for Exodus. This is The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation Commentary by Nahum M. Sarna (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1991). The Introduction is briefer - just a few pages and then into the text itself. Exodus is longer than Ruth so the text (Hebrew and English in parallel) at the head of each page has a varying number of verses, from 1 to many. The commentary is thorough in its attention to the details of the text and the theology of the text.

I have long known that Brevard S. Childs' commentary on Exodus is a tour de force, so I also purchased The Book of Exodus: A Commentary by Brevard S. Childs (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1974). Later I had a facepalm moment when I realised I already had a copy (which I had obtained for free) - I now keep my all my commentaries in one room!

This commentary is ambitious in scope - it offers, first, a translation of the Hebrew text (but does not offer the Hebrew text as well) then:

1. Textual and Philological notes

2. Literary and History Problems of the Tradition

3. Old Testament Context

4. New Testament Context

5. History of Exegesis

6. Theological Reflection.

NB: not all these sections are offered on all passages - some passages create no issues, questions or interests for, say, "New Testament Context."

Thus the commentary is comprehensive in degrees many commentaries (focused on original text, translation, textual problems which the translation seeks to resolve, and discussion of the meaning of the text) do not.

Naturally, compared to the JPS and its overtly Jewish perspective on the text, this is an overtly Christian perspective on a text of ancient Israel. Nevertheless the "History of Exegesis" section (in particular) demonstrates Childs' wide reading of Jewish commentary on the text.

At the beginning of the commentary, Childs makes a couple of statements which brilliantly and simply sum up the task of the biblical commentator.

First, noting that within the commentary, Childs is developing the then relatively new discipline of "canonical commentary" and his personal, lifelong development of his take on "biblical theology," he talks about the purpose of this particular commentary:

"The purpose of this commentary is unabashedly theological. Its concern is to understand Exodus as scripture of the church. The exegesis arises as a theological discipline within the context of the canon and is directed toward the community of faith which lives by its confession of Jesus Christ." (p. ix)

In similar vein, but expanded to also discuss the authority of Scripture, Childs begins the Introduction to the commentary with a discussion of "The Goal of the Exegesis."

"The aim of this commentary is to seek to interpret the book of Exodus as canonical scripture within the theological discipline of the Christian church. As scripture its authoritative role within the life of the community is assumed, but how this authority functions must be continually explored. Therefore, although the book in its canonical form belongs to the sacred inheritance of the church, it is incumbent upon each new generation to study its meaning afresh, to have the contemporayrr situation of the church addressed by its word, and to anticipate a fresh appropriation of its message through the work of God's Spirit." (p. xiii)

To which I say AMEN.


On any reckoning, Judges is among the most challenging, if not the most challenging, books of the Bible, because it attributes actions to God or godly people which strain moral credulity. There is also the modest question of how the victorious conquest of Joshua gives way to the intermittent strife of Judges - is Judges the more reliable guide to the history of Israel between Moses and David? Archbishop Justin Welby, in his Foreword to the commentary refered to below, says,

"Judges is notoriously the darkest place of the Old Testament" (p. v).

Almost needless to say, I haven't had much in the way of commentaries on this book, not racing to preach on it. So when I saw some good promotion for a new commentary, I ordered it. 

Isabelle Hamley is Secretary for Theology and Ecumenical relations and Theological Advisor to the House of Bishops, and a Visiting Research Fellow at Kings College London. She has written God of Justice and Mercy: a theological commentary on Judges (London: SCM, 2021).

This commentary is quite different to the JPS/Childs ones listed above. It offers no translation of the original text and notes are light in comparison. In part, that is in keeping with the intention to write a "theological commentary". In another part, there is an intention to write a readable commentary of a reasonable length, able to be appreciated by a larger readership than the respective hefts of the JPS series and of Childs' particular in-depth approach. But, if the potential buyer is wondering about value for money, this readable commentary of a reasonable length is the tip of an iceberg of deep scholarship which Hamley has mastered and delivers in summary form.

Does Hamley make a success of explaining the darkest and most difficult parts of Judges? The answer to that question, in my view, begins by denying that some simple solution is at hand, if only the commentator would find out. So Hamley doesn't succeed where others have failed. But (to the extent that we get to know her through her words), she does understand that she can aim to do the best she can, and that best seems to me to be very good - sensitive, discerning, probing - as she offers as much sense as she can for the darkest place of the Old Testament.

Further Thoughts

The great thing about blogging is that the blogger is both writer and editor, so I can undulge myself a little and bring in two further books, one not strictly a commentary and one a commentary but not one I bought this year.

Walter Moberley, who has featured in ADU previously, has written, The God of the Old Testament: Encountering the Divine in Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 2020). Across six chapters, Moberley comments on the following significant passages from the OT:

Proverbs 8; Exodus 3; Psalm 82; Genesis 4; 2 Kings 5; Psalm 46, Jeremiah 7 and Micah 3.

Moberley always engages deeply with Scripture and his insights illuminate brightly.

Finally, looking at a few commentaries recently, I realise that in a world of many, many commentaries per book of the Bible, there are commentaries worth having and commentaries not worth having. By that evaluative remark I mean that some commentaries kind of talk their way through the scriptural text (and, as far as that goes, offer explanations and so forth of use, especially if that commentary is the only one available to you) but fail to dig deep into issues present in the text, providing the bits and bobs of information about the issues which enable you and me the readers to think carefully through the matters at hand.

I do not feel any need to talk about commentaries I have which I would not buy if I did not have them already. But, as an example of the commentary I would definitely buy again, I would like to share one commentary to which I consistently return again and again when I am working on something from Luke's Gospel. That commentary is C. F. Evans Saint Luke (TPI New Testament Commentaries) (London: SCM; Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990). It is a mine of information and a treasure trove of scholarship which is both deep and wide. It is a great commentary (as others have recognised through the past three decades) and a model for all commentaries.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Christmas as Fulfilment

What has struck me this late Advent as we move towards Christmas 2021?

It is best expressed in sharing the text of my sermon from last Sunday - Advent 4:

St Paul’s West Melton; St Columba’s, Hornby; St Saviour’s Templeton

Readings: Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:45-55

God fulfils his promises

The Magnificat according to the Message:

46         And Mary said, I'm bursting with God-news; 

47           I'm dancing the song of my Savior God. 

48           God took one good look at me, and look what happened - I'm the most fortunate woman on earth! What God has done for me will never be forgotten, 

49            the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others. 

50           His mercy flows in wave after wave on those who are in awe before him. 

51           He bared his arm and showed his strength, scattered the bluffing braggarts. 

52           He knocked tyrants off their high horses, pulled victims out of the mud. 

53           The starving poor sat down to a banquet; the callous rich were left out in the cold. 

54           He embraced his chosen child, Israel; he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high. 

55           It's exactly what he promised, beginning with Abraham and right up to now. 

 It is not difficult to imagine a young woman in 2021 singing a different song …

 V1: This is going to change my life

V2: I am about to be married, what will my husband think?

V3: Am I going to suffer sorrow when my son is martyred and dies an early death?

 All very Mary centred in its concerns.

Mary’s Song is remarkable because it is very God-centred:

this is what God is doing in and through me – Isn’t God amazing?

Look at what God is up to, God is turning the world upside down.

The rich and powerful are going to get their come uppance – that’s God’s plan.

Also God’s plan: good times are coming for the poor and powerless.

Now this is not the main thing I want to say today, but let’s pause and note that everytime our political will is expressed – at an election, through legislation in parliament – in favour of the poor and against the rich, we are lining ourselves up with this remarkable song of Mary.

What is that main thing I want to say today because I think God wants us to attend to it and take it on board?

It’s this: Mary tells us that God keeps his promises – God fulfils his promises.


54         He embraced his chosen child, Israel; he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high. 

55           It's exactly what he promised, beginning with Abraham and right up to now. 

When Jesus is conceived in Mary’s womb and born in Bethlehem, God’s plan is being worked out according to God’s promise.

The plan is a very old one: that there would be a remedy for Adam’s sin which involved the formation of Israel, beginning with Abraham; and through this people – Abraham’s descendants – the world would be blessed by God.

None of this Abraham or Israel or the world deserved – God’s kindness and mercy motivate this plan and the promises associated with it.

But what was happening to the plan? When Israel got stuck in Egypt until Moses came along; when Israel was beset by enemies until David overcame them, it was tempting to wonder if God would keep his promises to Abraham. God did.

Then Israel let themselves down again, undid the remedy for sin with more sin. Exiles happened. Jerusalem was sacked.

Was all lost? It looked like it. But the prophets, including Micah whom we have heard from today, prompted by God’s voice in their ears, said “No!”. The plan is in play, a new David is coming.

But that was hundreds of years before Mary conceived Jesus and his birth in Bethlehem.

That was a long time and many generations of Israelites to keep faith and believe through the silence of those centuries that God would keep his promise.

2000 years after Jesus birth, death and resurrection, we can both celebrate his birth as a mighty act of fulfilment of God’s promises to Abraham, and wonder when the final fulfilment of God’s promises will take place.

Mary’s own example of taking God at his word; and her song affirming and proclaiming that God has kept his promises, encourages us to continue to trust God, to believe and act on the belief that God has everything in hand; and in God’s good time, all will be well. 

Covid, Omicron, inflation, uncertainty, disruption, anxiety and anger – that is what our eyes see and our ears hear. 

But in our hearts and minds, are we trusting that the same God who brings Jesus to birth according to his promise, will bring a new earth and a new heaven to birth, also according to God’s promise? 

Looking ahead to next Monday: A review of some commentaries sighted in 2021.

Monday, December 13, 2021

Theologies of Christmas [UPDATED]


A post at Psephizo, entitled "Why do Matthew and Luke offer different birth narratives?" is well written and names a number of important issues in the reconciliation (if possible) and differentiation of the two accounts.

Overall, it makes an excellent case for each writer composing a story to express a viewpoint; and its weakness is that it offers no grounds for thinking that either account is anchored in history = what actually happened.

A specific weakness, in all accounting for the historiography of Matthew and Luke's early chapters, are their difficult-to-reconcile accounts of the reason why Nazareth becomes the place of Jesus' upbringing: in Matthew, Nazareth is a refuge from Herod in Judea; in Luke, Nazareth is the home already for the holy family, who only leave it for the purpose of the census and its requirement that they respond to it in Bethlehem itself. And that matter is scarcely touched on in this particular account at Psephizo.


The other day my association with Academia (a kind of mega academic articles repository, here is one you might like because we spotted your interest in that subject, store and alert thingy) led to an email promoting "The Birth of Jesus: The Evolution of Jesus in the Infancy Narratives" by William S Abruzzi. It is quite a long article but its thesis is simple: 

"Numerous stories about the birth of Jesus were written during the first several centuries. When considered as a group, they tell us more about the evolution of early Christian beliefs about Jesus than they do about his actual birth."

The opening sentences set out an approach unlikely to be found in many pulpits this Christmas, or in books published by, say, IVP or Paternoster Press:

"Every year at Christmastime, millions of Christians throughout the world hear these words from Luke's gospel. They also hear stories of three Wise Men traveling from the East to pay homage to the newborn "King of the Jews;" of shepherds "tending their flocks in the field;" of a star shining over the place of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem; of visits by angels; of warnings given in dreams; of the massacre of innocent children by the evil King Herod in his attempt to kill the infant Jesus; and of Joseph, Jesus' earthly father, taking his family to Egypt in order to escape Herod's wrath. While these tales provide a beautiful prelude to opening gifts under the Christmas tree, none of them is true. They are all fables. Indeed, the modern version of the Christmas tale is a synthesis of several independent stories merged into two distinct and contradictory infancy narratives presented in the opening chapters of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Most Christians are completely unaware of the inherent contradictions presented by the two infancy narratives."

I certainly agree that in many churches in Aotearoa New Zealand, an annual "Christmas pageant" service (perhaps held yesterday, the Sunday nearest the middle of December) will have been a "synthesis" of Matthew and Luke: wise kings and shepherds appearing on the same night before the Infant King.

I am not so sure about boldly declaring of Matthew's and Luke's accounts (included along with other Infancy Narratives), "They are all fables." Such a declaration assumes we know what didn't happen as well as not knowing what did happen.

Matthew and Luke agree on certain things: Joseph and Mary are the earthly parents of Jesus; Jesus is conceived in the womb of Mary without human sexual intercourse taking place; the birth takes place in Bethlehem, when Herod the Great is (local) ruler of Palestine/Israel, and the upbringing of Jesus takes place in Nazareth.

Matthew and Luke tell different stories from one another: as we all know, there are wise kings in Matthew and not in Luke; shepherds in Luke and not in Matthew; a threat from Herod which drives the Holy Family to temporary refuge in Egypt according to Matthew and unmentioned in Luke. Notably, Matthew gives us Joseph's encounters with God's divine messages whereas Luke gives us Mary's encounters with God's divine messages. None of these differences are necessarily contradictory.

The most obvious contradiction (in my view) between Matthew and Luke is how they report the Holy Family arriving in Nazareth. 

Luke has  a natural sequence, with not a hint of a shadow of a threat of persecution by Herod, in which birth is followed by circumcision, followed by presentation in the Temple, followed by return to Nazareth, warranted because "they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord" (Luke 2:39). Further Nazareth has been Jospeh and Mary's home and so the journey to Nazareth is a return home.

Matthew has a different natural sequence which takes the Holy Family to Nazareth, and that journey is not a "return home" but the making of a new home: fear of Herod's persecution leads to the journey to Egypt; Herod's death leads to the possibility of return to Judea; but a new Herod ruling over Judea leads to a decision to head to Galilee, in which district lies Nazareth where the new home is made (Matthew 2:19-23).

We can only speculate what sources (if any!) Matthew and Luke each have in order to arrive at such differences in the telling of the birth and infancy of Jesus. 

Here I am interested in the theological considerations which drive Matthew and Luke, as well as Mrk and John to their respective versions of the beginnings of Jesus' life, whatever their sources may have been.

Matthew, to begin with the first of our canonical gospels, tells a story of Jesus as a new Moses. The first Moses was threatened with infanticide at the decree of a king, though the king was Pharoah and the location of the threat was Egypt and not Judea (Exodus 1-2). Moses is protected through refuge in a basket and then a hidden life in the court of Pharoah himself. The second Moses is protected through refuge in Egypt. But Matthew is also telling the story of Jesus as a new Abraham (see the genealogy in Matthew 1) and a new David (so the prophecy from Micah associated with Bethlehem as the place of Jesus' birth, Matthew 2:6). Through story, Matthew sets out the theological (or christological) significance of the baby Jesus in relation to the story of the people of God known as Israel: fathered by Abraham, taught by Moses and ruled by David.

Mark, most likely written before Matthew and Luke, doesn't bother with any details about Jesus' birth (though he tells his story as the story of a man with a family, since they appear at certain points). Theologically, he sees no need to underline Abrahamic, Mosaic or Davidic qualities of Jesus. Everything Mark wants us to know about Jesus is found and emphasised in Jesus' preaching and miracle working or in his encounters with religious authorities. There is no back story to Mark's Jesus: just the front story of Jesus the preacher, power worker and provocateur.

Luke, whether he knows of Matthew's Gospel or not, seems disinterested in Jesus as the new Moses, but he is very interested in Jesus in relation to the Roman Empire (so the big driver in his story of Jesus' birth, Luke 2, is an imperial census which draws the Holy Family from Nazareth to Bethlehem; later, in Luke 3, the beginning of Jesus' adult ministry is set very precisely in terms of "the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius"). For Luke, the kingdom of God is both an alternative to the kingdom of Rome and not a rival to the kingdom of Rome (a theme in Acts). Theologically, Luke's Jesus is a new and greater Caesar/Lord, who also fulfils a number of Israelite prophecies - hopes and aspirations for a new and better day. Thus, the presentation in the Temple, at the end of Luke's story of the young infant Jesus, is less about fulfilling legal requirements and much more about Anna and Simeon's joy at seeing the fulfilment of their hopes and aspirations. Fittingly, for Luke's Jesus as an ideal human ruler of a world kingdom of gentleness and compassion, his version of Jesus' genealogy goes past Abraham to Adam himself.

John, whatever his knowledge of Matthew, Mark and Luke, is, like Mark, disinterested in details of Jesus' conception, birth and infancy. But somewhat like Matthew and Luke, John is interested in the ultimate origins of Jesus. A new Moses? Descended from Abraham? Adam? Ok, says John, but let's go further and deeper: Jesus is the Word present before time began; Jesus is the only Begotten Son who comes from the Father's heart. Christmas is all very well as a festival of birth but why have such a limited celebration when we could celebrate Jesus as the agent of creation itself? (So, John 1:1-18).

Wonderfully, each of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is agreed on one thing: Jesus is the Son of God!

And each says that in quite different ways: Matthew 2:15; Mark 1:1; Luke 1:35; 2:49; 3:38; John 1:18, 34.

Theology by narration!

Monday, December 6, 2021

Is this an odd era for Christian politicians?

Last week our main party in opposition, the National Party, elected Christopher Luxon as its leader. He is therefore the Leader of the Opposition and potentially our next Prime Minister.

Christopher Luxon is a Christian and has views on things such as abortion and euthanasia which seem exceptional to some in our media but which are pretty standard for a large majority of Christians in New Zealand, whether Protestants or Catholics.

Oddly, however, he says he has not been to church for five years. (Here he offers a jokey kind of explanation for this.)

Across the Tasman, Scott Morrison is Prime Minister and well-known for his Christian beliefs and for his involvement in a large Pentecostal church (though it is not Hillsong as a number of people have mistakenly supposed). But some of his decisions and actions as Prime Minister don't sit easily with some of us who are his brothers and sisters in Christ. In particular, as PM he presides over a harsh approach to New Zealanders in Australia!

Of course, US President Joe Biden is a Christian, a Catholic faithful in attendance at Mass and a Catholic at odds with many Catholics who cannot understand his failure to uphold Catholic teaching on the sanctity of life to the point where a number of US Catholic bishops think he should be denied communion.

Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister, to be fair doesn't make a great show of his Christian faith, which may be just as well given his odd pattern of behaviour, decision-making and somewhat eccentric approach to leadership. Many commenters would not be as kind as I have just been in that sentence!

Yet recently Boris managed to pull some kind of ecclesiastical deal to enable his third marriage to be a Catholic marriage in Westminster Cathedral!

Over in Russia, Putin lacks no shortage of fans in the Russian Orthodox Church. Yet he may be about to invade Ukraine.

This brief survey, which could be extended into other countries, especially in Europe, perhaps leads to the conclusion that it is difficult to find consistency among political leaders who profess to be Christian.

Oh, and we should not forget Angela Merkel, recently stepping down as Chancellor of Germany: the most sensible of all Christian politicians in this present era?

Regular in church/irregular in church. For abortion/against abortion. Sensible leadership/foolish leadership. Kind/unkind. It is interesting, is it not, that the phrase "Christian politician" is not a useful guide to what we might expect from a politician so described?

But, more deeply, might we observe that this may not be some uplifting sense of "diversity among Christians is to be welcomed and celebrated" because we do not all think alike? 

Rather, such difference among Christian politicians is a sign of deep fractures in global Christianity, fractures of the kind that are debilitating for the cause of Christ? 

What are non-Christians to think when, say, they recognise that Boris and Joe and Angela and Scott all follow the way of Christ? To those outside of or even against the way of Christ, that way must seem, well, a little confusing!