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Review: Ancient Christian Texts: Commentaries on Galatians-Philemon (Ambrosiaster)


  • Hardcover: 166 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Academic (September 30, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0830829040
  • ISBN-13: 978-0830829040
  • Many thanks to Adrianna Wright at InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of Commentaries on Galatians-Philemon by Ambrosiaster (ed. Gerald Bray). This volume comes out of the Ancient Christian Texts (ACT) series, an extension of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACCS) series. IVP is letting us have our cake and eat it too. Whereas the ACCS volumes give various Patristic interpretations on books of the Bible, the ACT series is focused on one author’s interpretation of entire books. Both series have a lot of merit – ACCS allows you to get a taste, and the Ancient Christian Texts gives you a bigger meal. These texts are so important because they allow you to see the how of Patristic interpretation, not just the what.

    One of the goals of the series is to allow the text to speak for itself, something I very much appreciate. Bray is the translator and allows Ambrosiaster to remain the commentator. The footnotes are mostly for noting allusions/citations of other Biblical texts, or noting a variant reading (such as Gal 1.22). The General Introduction states: “For those who begin by assuming as normative for a commentary only the norms considered typical for modern expressions of what a commentary is, we ask: Please allow the ancient commentators to define commentarius according to their own lights.” This is a good warning against being too much of a presentist in our interpretations.

    As far as appearance: the volume is really beautiful. The text on the pages appears in two columns, with the verses from the New Testament in bold and the commentary following thereafter. The verses are numbered as modern translations do today so that one is able to look up what Ambrosiaster says on any particular verse.

    In his introduction, Gerald Bray discusses the issues with identifying Ambrosiaster. Bray notes that the name ‘Ambrosiaster’ came to be attached to certain texts in the 17th Century by Benedictine editors, whereas before these same texts had been attributed to Ambrose of Milan (xv). Augustine of Hippo quotes Ambrosiaster as ‘Hilary’, though whether he meant Hilary of Poitiers (unlikely in Bray’s estimation) or Decimus Hilarianus Hilarius, a Roman layman, is unclear (ibid).

    I will give a couple of examples of interpretations by Ambrosiaster I found interesting:

    The preface to Ambrosiaster’s commentary on Galatians shows that Paul’s letter spoke to a certain situation in his own day, namely Law-Observant Symmaachians “who trace their origin to the Pharisees” (1). Ambrosiaster’s exegesis of Galatians should be seen through this light. Ambrosiaster’s comment on Gal. 2.21 is probably the crux of his argument: “There is nothing clearer than this – if a person could have been justified by the law, Christ would not have had to die. But because the law could not grant forgiveness of sins nor prevent the second death from robbing its captives, whom it held because of sin, Christ died to achieve what the law could not do, and for this reason he did not die in vain.” This quote is also interesting in how it shows Ambrosiaster’s familiarity with the idea of Christ and the ‘harrowing of hell’, something he describes in his comment on Gal 1.4 – “The devil was willing to take him but unable to hold him, and in that way Christ was able to remove from him what he wrongfully held captive. Having looted hell, he brought his treasure of souls up to the Father…”

    Anyone interested in the ecclesiology of the 4th Century Church will be interested in Ambrosiaster’s interpretation of 1 Timothy. I found his commentary on 1 Tim 3.3 to be really interesting: “These are the marks of episcopal dignity. If someone has chosen the harder way and dedicated his body and his mind to God so as not to be joined in marriage, he will be all the worthier. Paul mentions only the weaker man here, because there was no doubt about the other kind.” (126)

    Though this series is mostly aimed at lay people involved in studying the Scriptures, I think it definitely has value for modern Biblical scholars. There is a great deal of wisdom in the ancient literature and it too often goes ignored simply by virtue of it not being accessible. Here is the answer to that problem: the ACT series. I am looking forward to the other volumes in this series.

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    Arrived today from Augsburg Fortress Press

    I received from Augsburg Fortress Press both of these books in the mail today for review:

    The Rise of Christian Beliefs: The Thought World of Early Christians -Heikki Räisänen

    Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity: A Missing Dimension in New Testament Studies – Luke Timothy Johnson

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    Review: Adrian Fortescue’s “The Early Papacy”


    The Early Papacy to the Synod of Chalcedon in 451

  • Paperback: 121 pages
  • Publisher: Ignatius Press; 4 edition (March 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1586171763
  • ISBN-13: 978-1586171766

    Adrian Fortescue was a scholar of Theology and Patristics in the late 19th/early 20th Century. His other works include The Greek Fathers: Their Lives and Writings and The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Explained. The Early Papacy seems to be a response to Anglicans who had voiced objections that the Papacy was a 5th Century invention. To answer these claims, Fortescue marshalls evidence for the Papacy from the first to the 5th Centuries, with the Council of Chalcedon as his cut-off date. He has four points that he hopes to prove from the Patristic evidence: 1) The Pope as Chief (ch 4), 2) The Pope’s universal jurisdiction (ch 5), 3) Communion with Rome is necessary (ch 6), and finally 4) Papal infallibility (ch 7).

    His opening chapters deal with defining how and why Catholics believe these claims today. He writes:

    We believe in a Church that exists and lives all days, even to the end of the world, guided by Christ, infallible in faith and morals as long as she exists. We have exactly the same confidence in the divine guidance of the Church in 1870 as in 451. To be obliged to hark back some fifteen hundred years, to judge for yourself, according to the measure of your scholarship, what the documents of that period imply, would be the end of any confidence in a living authority. (21-22)

    That is, to Fortescue, this is almost an unnecessary endeavor because the Church today has declared these things to be true. However, he believes that this is such an easy belief to prove from antiquity that it’s a worthwhile venture.

    I won’t go through all of his examples and ruin the fun of reading the book. The more fascinating things he addresses, if briefly, are Denis of Alexandria coming to Denis of Rome after being suspected of false doctrine (70), Athanasius’ appeal to Rome, the canons of the synod at Sardicia (c. 344, p 73), and so forth. Because the book is less than 150 pages, this is a very easy read and I’d certainly recommend it as an intro to Patristic thought on the papacy.

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    Book Review: The Expanded Bible (New Testament)

    ExpandedThe Expanded Bible

  • Paperback: 672 pages
  • Publisher: Thomas Nelson (August 11, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0718019164
  • ISBN-13: 978-0718019167
  • Many thanks to the fine folks at Thomas Nelson for sending me a copy of their “The Expanded Bible (New Testament)”. The Expanded Bible is the product of three scholars: Tremper Longman III of Westmont College and Mark Strauss and Daniel Taylor of Bethel College. With so many Bible translations out there, why would anyone create another? Their explanation can be found in the Introduction. Essentially, the authors argue that because most people do not read the original languages, they are not privy to the many words available to translators while translating. Thus, to aid the reader in studying the Bible, they have created a translation that gives a multiplicity of readings in any given verse. The translators have chosen a formal equivalence translation theory for the text itself, but show traditional, literal, and alternative readings within the text by placing them within brackets. The volume also utilizes the brackets for short commentaries on particular passages. To show how this works, I’ll copy Matthew 1:1  here:

    This is the -family history [record of the ancestors; genealogy; (L) book of the offspring/family; (C) perhaps a title for the entire book] of Jesus -Christ [the Messiah]. -He came from the family of David, and David came from the family of Abraham [(L)…the son of David, the son of Abraham; (C) “son” can mean descendant].

    As you can see, a literal translation is marked by an suprascript “L” (which I’ve put into parentheses) and commentary by a “C”. Alternative readings are marked similarly by an “A”, traditional readings by a “T”, and so forth.

    Aesthetically, the Bible is very pleasing to the eye. I like the simple design on the front, the binding, the page color, font, etc. Headings such as “Who will enter God’s Kingdom?” (Lk 18:15) appear in the margins as well as cross-references. This makes it easy to track down a particular section of verses. As far as actually sitting down and reading the text goes – I originally thought that I wouldn’t like it. I thought the pages looked too cluttered with alternative readings or bits of commentary. However, I sat down and read the Gospel of Mark and the Acts of the Apostles. I found that I read with  more intent because I had to slow down and read over all the information. I can see how this would be extremely beneficial for the reader of the Scriptures who does not read the original languages. If anything, the brackets almost serve as little visual speed bumps, encouraging the reader to slow down and really take in what they’re reading. What I thought would be my least favorite thing about this translation is actually my favorite. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is looking to have a greater appreciation for the numerous word choices that translators can and do utilize when translating the Scriptures.

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    Catholic Bible Dictionary Review


    A big thanks to my friends at St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology for this copy of the Catholic Bible Dictionary , published by Doubleday and edited by Scott Hahn.  This volume has been many years in the making and I’m so thankful to finally see it in print. In the preface, Dr. Hahn notes that, “[m]ore than a generation has passed since the appearance of the last major Catholic Bible dictionary.” (x) Indeed, he notes that despite all the tools available to the laity, that “biblical literacy – among all Christians – is not advancing, but declining.” (ibid). Thus, the necessity for this kind of volume is evident.

    Some of those who have contributed to this volume include Brant Pitre (of Jesus, the Tribulation, and the End of Exile fame), John Bergsma, Curtis Mitch (from the Ignatius Study Bible series), and more.

    The book is extremely attractive and the type is easy to read, which is nice considering it’s 1008 pages long. Though I don’t spend a great amount of time reading dictionaries, I find this one particularly readable. The articles are lengthy enough to give one an adequate background on the matter, but clear enough for anyone to find value in this volume. The lay person and scholar alike, as well as Catholic or not, will benefit from this dictionary. Entries on books of the Bible follow the outline of:

    I. Authorship and Date
    II. Contents
    III. Literary Features
    IV. Purpose and Themes

    The maps and indeces in the back are also very handy. I would recommend this volume to anyone, but in keeping with the mission of the St. Paul Center, I would especially encourage the laity to buy this volume. Any lay person who is serious about reading the Bible will find this extremely advantageous in their studies.

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