Free e-commentary from Robert Gundry (and the clash between Christ and Caesar)

Baker Academic is promoting a new series of “ebook shorts” from Robert Gundry by offering his commentary on Ephesians as a free download for a period of 24 hours on Monday 9th January. You can get it from Amazon, CBD and Barnes and Noble. This is what the publisher says about the series:

In these verse-by-verse commentaries taken from Commentary on the New Testament, Robert Gundry offers a fresh, literal translation and a reliable exposition of every book of the New Testament.

Students and scholars will welcome Gundry’s nontechnical explanations and clarifications, and readers at all levels will appreciate his sparkling interpretations. Priced from $1.99 to $5.99 these affordable and convenient resources are available wherever ebooks are sold.

I haven’t seen Gundry’s single volume Commentary on the New Testament so I downloaded the Commentary on First and Second Thessalonians and gave it a quick once over. It looks like a standard evangelical work—”unabashedly evangelical”, Gundry writes in his introduction—aimed at “lay people with jobs and families that take up a lot of time, Bible study leaders, pastors, and all who take the New Testament seriously”. But it appears to have taken on board newer scholarly perspectives that read Paul quite closely against the background of Roman imperial ideology and symbolism. For example, with reference to 1 Thessalonians 4:15-18:

“Lord” was increasingly used for the Roman emperor, and “coming” was often used for his (s well as other dignitaries’) arrivals. So “the Lord’s coming” pits Jesus’ arrival as the true, heavenly emperor against that of the earthly Caesar.

This sort of contextualization is important, but where does it lead us? It seems to me that the more we acknowledge that Paul casts Jesus as the “true, heavenly emperor”, as an anti-Caesar, and his parousia as a counterpart to the presence of the antagonistic pagan régime, the more we are propelled towards the conclusion that what he foresaw was not a transcendent final event but the much more immediate overthrow of pagan imperialism and the installation of Jesus as king in the place of Caesar.

In a rather convoluted comment Gundry on 1 Thessalonians 1:10 says:

God’s having “raised his [‘his Son’] from among the dead” has made it possible for him (Jesus the Son) to come back “from the heavens” and rescue “us” (now including the addressees as well as Paul and company) “from the coming wrath” (that is, from the future cataclysm of God’s final judgment on unbelievers).

This is quite conventional. Later, however, with reference to what Paul has to say about the coming “Day of the Lord” in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-3, Gundry notes that for the Old Testament prophets this was a “day when the Lord would step into human affairs so as to judge the wicked and deliver the righteous”. Paul takes over the phrase and “uses it for the day of Jesus’ coming as the Lord to judge the wicked and deliver believers in him”. There is then a “warning that the peace and security claimed and advertised by Roman rulers will prove illusory at worst, ephemeral at best”. At his coming Jesus will bring “sudden destruction” on the wicked, which according to Gundry “refers to ruination, not annihilation”.

Now what does Gundry think Paul had in mind here? Some sort of “battle” between those who trust in the empire to provide “peace and security” and Jesus? When? In the lifetime of the empire? How much like the Old Testament concept of a “day of the Lord” is this? The “day of the Lord” or the day of God’s wrath are never final judgments in the Old Testament. Despite Gundry’s assertion that Jesus will save believers from the “future cataclysm of God’s final judgment”, the actual exposition of Paul’s argument has a much more historical ring to it, not least because we are frequently reminded that the event is conceived in opposition to the prevailing system. And what is the thrust of the word “ruination” in this context? We are told that it’s not annihilation, but it does not sound like eternal conscious torment either. So is it not much more like the ruination that came upon the Assyrians and the Babylonians on account of their wickedness and opposition to the God of Israel?

In a later comment on 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 Gundry says that Christians “suffer for God’s kingdom because they profess it and proclaim it over against the kingdom of blasphemously deified Caesars and their successors”. But again several questions jostle for consideration. Do all Christians suffer in the way that the Thessalonian believers suffered? If not, what is the universal relevance of Paul’s assurance here that God will “repay with afflictions those who are afflicting you” (1:6)? Did Paul have in mind Caesar and his successors? Are all rulers “blasphemously deified”? If not, is it so obvious that Paul is putting forward a universal argument rather than prophesying the vindication of the churches in the pagan world when Christ is eventually “revealed” to all the nations? And if Paul is not clearly thinking of outcomes beyond the clash between Jesus and pagan empire, do we really have good reason to superimpose our universal perspective upon him?

This is not a criticism especially of Gundry’s commentary. It’s an efficient, concise, intelligent text, and no doubt the others will be in much the same vein. I think it takes things forward and lay people, Bible study leaders and pastors will find them very useful. But I think it highlights the fact that the cautious evangelical appropriation of the argument about Paul and empire puts us on a course that may yet shake quite severely some of our basic convictions about the general theological applicability of the New Testament.

"But I think it highlights the fact that the cautious evangelical appropriation of the argument about Paul and empire puts us on a course that may yet shake quite severely some of our basic convictions about the general theological applicability of the New Testament."

A challenging insight we need to hear if we call ourselves lovers of truth. Since the presuppositions evangelicals bring to the text tend to have this emphasis on soteriology/eschatology/the afterlife, considering what you have proposed might make us very uncomfortable.

What is the worse that will happen? Do we see Paul as merely speaking of events that he expects will happen in his lifetime, not referring to a transcendant metaphysical dimension realized and consummated? Or can we reconcile both traditional perspectives of the NT's "general theological applicability" and a more realistic view that takes into account Paul's letters as occasional documents?

Maim

Craig Beard | Mon, 01/09/2012 - 15:07 | Permalink

Andrew,

I went to the CBD site and ran into the same problem I did when I tried to get the Gundry commentary on Mark: when I got to the site (on the day it was supposed to be free), it wasn't free.  Any ideas?  Thanks.

~Craig