Doug Moo on Bible Translation

The NIV (New International Version of the Bible) turns 50 this year. To mark the occasion, Zondervan have released a new Study Bible edition of the latest NIV (2011). By all reports, this seems to be quite a significant resource to Christian readers of the Bible.

There’s quite a lot of thought that goes into a Bible translation for such a wide audience as English readers around the world. At the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Doug Moo, one of the current movers and shakers in the NIV translation team, delivered a paper titled “We Still Don’t Get It: Evangelicals and Bible Translation Fifty Years After James Barr”. Have a listen to his address in the clip below. And underneath that is a link to some other related resources.

Review of Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy

Zondervan have generously sent me a review copy of Kevin J. Youngblood’s commentary, Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy, which is part of the Hearing the Message of Scripture series (edited by Dan Block).

The format of this series is excellent. Each chapter contains six sections:

  1. a brief statement of the main idea of the passage;
  2. a short discussion of literary context;
  3. translation and visual outline of the relevant passage;
  4. a more detailed discussion of the structure and literary form of the passage;
  5. a sustained explanation of the text; and
  6. concluding observations about the canonical and practical significance of the text, which elucidate themes and seek to bridge forward to a contemporary setting.

Youngblood’s contribution to the series is on the book of Jonah. It begins with a introduction that seeks to place Jonah within its canonical and historical context. In this regard, there are some useful comments about Jonah as part of the Book of the Twelve—an important observation given the increasing importance of understanding the ‘minor prophets’ as a single collection. I found the historical context both interesting and frustrating. On the one hand it provided some good insights about the difficulties with reading Jonah as a straight history, suggesting it would be best viewed as a non-historical genre. However, this was then subverted by characterising the difficulties as deliberate authorial ambiguity. The two claims didn’t quite seem congruent to me. I feel a chance to bring freshness to an evangelical reading of Jonah has been missed.

Nonetheless, despite this qualm, what follows is still a genuinely good commentary on Jonah. Youngblood reads the text closely with attention to Hebrew grammar, syntax, and semantics. This is all discussed in a non-threatening way that makes it largely accessible to the non-specialist (though knowledge of Hebrew will always make this easier). He makes some excellent structural observations, giving an excellent account of the text’s form. And he perceives good thematic development, picking up trajectories from elsewhere in the canon. This leads him to make modest but valid contemporary inferences from reading Jonah as Christian scripture. The one frustration I had pertained to the historical discussions. These were excellent, and yet seemed to continue the incongruence picked up in the introduction between historical difficulty and its implication for genre, and the claim of deliberate authorial ambiguity.

A few notable quotables:

God’s dealings with humanity should never be reduced to simplistic retributive formulas. The author emphasizes this with respect to God’s threatened judgement. He states God “relented concerning the disaster that he threatened.” The last phrase in that sentence (ʾăšer-dibber) stresses God’s freedom with respect to the prophetic word. God’s pronouncements through his prophets do not obligate him to courses of action from which he cannot turn. [p.141]

This is an important observation that helps balance an understanding of the Deuteronomic test of a prophet in Deuteronomy 18:21–22.

21 You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?” 22 If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed. [NIV11]

Youngblood helpfully shows that divine faithfulness must be held together with divine freedom in the understanding of prophecy. Thus, Deuteronomy 18:21–22 is not a one-size-fits-all test (otherwise Jonah would be classified a false prophet!). It is, rather, a handy rule of thumb. Youngblood continues:

The unit loss with a restatement of God’s relenting from his wrath: “and he did not do it” (wĕlōʾ ʿāśâ). The narrative expresses God’s clemency both positively and negatively, thus conforming to the wording of the royal decree (“God may change his mind, and relent [wĕniḥam] … so that we will not perish” [wĕlōʾ nōʾbēd]). Normally, negative clauses in Hebrew narrative function as background, scene-setting devices and are relegated to the lowest rank of significance. In certain contexts, however, the fact that an event did not materialize is so critical to the plot that the negative clause receives prominence. Such is the case with 3:10e, which functions as a second rank clause, directly supporting the preceding narrative verb (wayyināḥem). [p.141]

Here is a good use of syntactical observation for rhetorical significance. This eventually leads Youngblood to reflect on the significance of God seemingly changing his mind:

Special circumstances always apply in contexts where the Bible affirms that God does not repent. most of these cases are related to covenantal obligations into which God voluntarily entered. In such cases, God has chosen to limit his options and his commitment is irrevocable. Yet, one must be careful not to turn one of these affirmations into a general principle that governs the other, or to dismiss one as merely accommodative language that metaphorically attributes human qualities to God while insisting that the other is literally true… Prophecy, generally speaking, is conditional. Unilateral covenants (i.e., covenants in which God unconditionally guarantees promises solely on the basis of his character), however, such as the Davidic and Abrahamic covenants, are irrevocable. [p.143]

This is a safe explanation of the concept of God changing his mind. I’m not sure it would fully explain certain instances of this theme in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., contrast 1 Sam 15.11 with v.29 later in the same chapter), but it covers a significant amount.

Here’s a short clip from Kevin Youngblood himself talking about the commentary.

In conclusion, Youngblood’s commentary on Jonah is a commendable addition to a Christian library, particular for someone who wants to understand the text of Jonah and perhaps preach through the book.

A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism (Book Review)

One way to view modern biblical scholarship is as a big set of conversations. People join the conversations, ask lots of questions, raise new ideas, and challenge old ones. It can be quite daunting keeping up with everything people are saying, but it is exciting trading and testing ideas.

These conversations have been going a long time now, so many conversation partners have come and gone. Some of these are the giants in the field of Biblical Studies. Students usually encounter the names of these giants early on in their studies as they are just trying to pick up what has been said in conversations past. At that stage students are usually unaware of the profound effect these scholars have had. Their influence goes beyond the conversations these scholars had in their own day. They have left an indelible mark on all the conversations after them.

I’m grateful, therefore, to have received from Zondervan a review copy of Mark Gignilliat’s book, A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism (Zondervan, 2012). One of the beauties of Gignilliat’s book is that it not only identifies and introduces some of these expert conservationalists in Biblical Studies; it also allows readers to begin detecting echoes of these scholars in subsequent scholarly conversations. Gignilliat works hard to frame an understanding of these seminal scholars within the social and philosophical currents of their own day. To this end, he supplies a brief biography of these scholars, concentrating on the influences that impacted them, and then sketches the particular contribution each person made to the conversation of Biblical Studies. The result is simple yet masterful! Gignilliat distils the essence of these innovative contributors for easy consumption, allowing us to hear their salient statements, understand how these fell on other ears of the day, and then perceive how theses statements still echo even in our day.

Gignilliat introduces us to seven master conversationalists in chronological order. They are:

  1. Benedict Spinoza
  2. W. M. L. de Wette
  3. Julius Wellhausen
  4. Herman Gunkel
  5. Gerhard von Rad
  6. William Foxwell Albright
  7. Brevard Childs

Of course this list raises questions as to why these seven were chosen over others. Gignilliat states three reasons for the shape of his list:

(1) I want the volume to remain small and accessible to students; (2) I believe the figures in this work represent the larger trends and tendencies of Old Testament criticism in the modern period; and (3) I wanted to finished. (loc 104)

Yet one thing these seven particular scholars have in common is they are no longer with us. Their respective legacies are, therefore, somewhat set. It would perhaps be preemptive to include on the list someone who is still contributing to current conversations in biblical studies. Thus, either Thomas L. Thompson or Philip R. Davies could feature on the list as critics of William Foxwell Albright. While this would provide good balance, both Tom and Philip are still with us actively contributing to ongoing conversations. Their inclusion would perhaps sell their contributions short before they were finished.

If, however, we are to apply departure from the conversation as a criterion for inclusion, then there are two particular names I am surprised are still not on the list. These are Martin Noth and James Barr. The contributions of Wellhausen and von Rad would surely have been enhanced if Noth’s contribution to tradition history in the Pentateuch and the ‘Deuteronomistic History’ had been included. James Barr’s work in comparative philology and his criticism of biblical theology were also highly influential. We could argue the toss on other names, but the legacy of these two scholars, I feel, has been overlooked and, by implication, unwittingly minimised.

Mark Gignilliat (Beeson Divinity School)

Nonetheless, the discussion of these seven scholars is very well presented. It gives students a useful orientation to how these men were shaped by the conversations of their day, thus uncovering their assumptions, and their ideological and rational framework. It also equips the student to see how these men, in turn, shaped conversation after them. For example, we see how Descartes’ radical rationalism and deism influenced Spinoza’s separation of ‘theology’ and ‘morality’ from ‘philosophy’ and ‘truth’. We observe how Romanticism stood behind de Wette’s emphasis on mythicism over historicism. A similar observation is made for Gunkel in his analysis of the Psalms. We come to understand von Rad’s distinction between ancient Israel’s actual history and their account of it in their kerygmatic documents about their God. This notion stands behind many current conversation in biblical studies today, and has led many to abandon conversing about the Bible as ‘scripture’. Thus, we are helped to understand the response of Brevard Childs’ ‘canonical criticism’ as a critical confessional contribution.

Students wishing to understand why current conversations in Biblical Studies sound the way they do will find Gignilliat’s book an excellent tool. It gives some good ‘sound bites’ that will help train the ear. It also just might help students begin to understand how they themselves converse in Biblical Studies. It’s not until we hear someone else speak that we realise we have the same or different accent (i.e. assumptions and framework). Gignilliat’s clever book may guide students to discover from whom it was that they inherited their ‘accent’. Understanding the greats, therefore, is an important step in self-awareness.


Those who made the list:

Benedict Spinoza

W. M. L. de Wette

Julius Wellhausen

Herman Gunkel

Gerhard von Rad

William F. Albright

Brevard Childs


Those I think should have made the list:

Martin Noth

James Barr


DISCLAIMER: I received a review copy of the book from the publisher (Zondervan)

Buy it on Amazon:
By it at CBD:
By it at Barnes & Noble:

The King Jesus Gospel

What was the original gospel that Jesus proclaimed, and that his apostles took up after him? Zondervan has just published an interesting new book by Scot McKnight, which asks that very question. It’s called The King Jesus Gospel. It aims to get back to the gospel, by going back to the Gospels of the New Testament, and also seeing where Christians today may be misunderstanding and, therefore, underselling the gospel. It’s perhaps the most critical issue that Christians need to get right, and therefore this is bound to be an important book.

I’m looking forward to reading it.