Come Out of Her My People

by Tony Kessinger

★★★★

The mysterious book of Revelation was addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). Kessinger examines these “churches” (cities) in historical context, to see what lessons can be drawn for our benefit today.

This is a good book, so let me get my minor complaints out of the way first. First, it reads just a little dry, but that’s made up for by deep scholarship. It’s seldom that we readers get both. Second, Kessinger’s insistence that Revelation is the inspired word of God comes through a little too strong, sometimes making him seem just a little naive. For example, Revelation is usually considered apocalyptic literature, very similar to many other non-canonic writings in the first century, but Kessinger discounts that genre out of hand. Why? Because those other writings are purely fiction, and Revelation obviously is the inspired Word of God, so classing them together would insult God … regardless of how extremely similar the writings are.

One hundred pages into the book, though, it turns really interesting. Kessinger’s historical background sets the stage for each of the seven cities, putting you right square into the atmosphere of the first-century. Then, using the “historical method” of interpretation (Kessinger believes that Revelation was written specifically to these churches, but with the added purpose of providing inspiration and instruction to all churches through the ages) his deep exposition brings John’s Revelation to bear, so that the Bible’s words come alive. Kessinger liberally quotes other Bible scholars and historians, which helps a lot.

I strongly recommend this book if you wish to dig deep into Revelation’s audience. However, Kessinger does have a strong bias that it was intended also for our edification today, which devalues (in my opinion) the tension of that age. Particularly, the tension between Christianity and the Imperial Cult which was so strong in Asia minor at the time. For this reason, I give it only four out of five stars.

Xlibras Corporatio, © 2003, 248 pages

ISBN: 1-4134-2659-X

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Book review: The Bible Tells Me So

by Peter Enns

Oops! Sorry, folks! We jumped the gun on this one, publishing our review before the publicist intended, and throwing off her campaign plan. So we pulled the review, and will re-post it when the publication date arrives.

This is a book you don’t want to miss, so look for it again in a couple months!

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Book review: We Make the Road by Walking

by Brian D. McLaren

★★★★★

With 52 chapters–one for each week of the year–McLaren takes us on a year-long quest toward “aliveness,” as taught by Jesus through words and example. Each chapter lists a few suggested Bible readings, gives a few pages of inspiration, and lists suggested discussion topics. His idea is that we would use this book for Bible study, with family or close friends in Christ.

“Aliveness” is a wonderful description for the type of existence Jesus wishes to share. Where the Synoptic gospels speak of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Gospel of John prefers terminology like life, life of the ages, life to the full (all much more precise translations than “eternal life”). How are we to understand the Kingdom, then? Some possibilities that resonate with our current-day language: how about The global commonwealth of God. Maybe God’s regenerative economy. Perhaps God’s beloved community or God’s holy ecosystem. You get the idea. We’re talking about a transformation of this world, not a distant kingdom in the sky.

McLaren is a liberal Christian. He is not going to preach doctrine, and in fact, even an atheist could be inspired to a more wholesome, meaningful life by Jesus. Nor does McLaren delve in church theology. You won’t be taught you’re a horrible sinner in need of repentance and covering by the salvific blood of a sacrificed god. You won’t be taught that life’s purpose is to guess which religion to believe in, so that after you die you can float away to heaven.  Instead, you’ll be reminded that God’s creation is good, we are good, life is good, and aliveness is an attainable dream. Jesus taught us how.

I’m a fan of McLaren’s straight-forward, inspirational writing. Definitely worth reading.

Jericho Books, © 2014, 281 pages

ISBN: 978-1-4555-1400-7

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Book review: Lincoln’s Bishop

by Gustav Niebuhr

★★★★★

In 1862, war broke out between the Dakota Sioux Indians and the white settlers in Minnesota, where I currently live.  Niebuhr’s new book digs below the surface to tell the story, from a 19th-century Christian bishop’s perspective.

Niebuhr writes like a journalist, and he spent nearly the first half of the book setting the stage and introducing the major players (President Lincoln, Chief Little Crow, and Bishop Whipple). There were times I struggled to maintain interest, even in light of the mistreatment of Indians. But then hostilities escalated to warfare between the Sioux and the white settlers, and the story grabbed me by the guts. Indian tactics were gruesome, and half the state of Minnesota fled in terror. Tales of horrific massacre grew like gossip. Niebuhr presents both sides of the story, which is far from clear and hardly guiltless on either side. When the dust settled, 303 Indian warriors stood ready to be hanged, and public opinion was ready to lynch any others who remained.

Enter Bishop Whipple, an Episcopal minister who took the side of the Indians. But what could Whipple accomplish against strong public opinion? How could he capture the ear of a distant President (Lincoln) whose attention was more strongly focused on civil war? What would be the fate of the 303 Indians, and hundreds of others who coexisted peacefully or–even more astounding–risked their lives to save white men, women and children during the war?

This is a story of out-of-control greed, human limits when backed against a wall, and the ugliness that results … plus one man’s determination to apply Christian principles where humanity could only fail. Highly recommended.

HarperOne, © 2014, 210 pages

ISBN: 978-0-06-209768-2

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Book review: Becoming the Son

by C. D. Baker

★★★★★

Very, very good! It’s a gutsy challenge to write fiction about Jesus, yet I believe this is the most enjoyable and moving Bible-times story I’ve ever read. Jesus’ message comes alive in glorious humanity. It was doubly enjoyable for me because Baker took the time to explain much of his research in footnotes. The novel took much longer than normal for me to read, because I was constantly tempted to study the footnotes and look up scripture.

To the best of my own research, Baker’s story is consistent with scripture. It is historical fiction, of course, meaning Baker adds his imagination and elaboration, yet there was very little I would argue against. Should I be surprised his book is so precise? No … Baker has a Master’s degree in Theology, and has published six novels before this one. His writing is captivating and authentic, so much so that I found myself hoping Becoming the Son would end before the crucifixion of Jesus, so that Baker would have to write a sequel!

This book is not a light-hearted beach read. It’ll pull your guts out in places, it’ll make you think differently about Jesus as a human being, and regardless of your belief in God, it’ll uplift you with what an astounding story the Bible tells about an incredible life lived and died for others.

Read this one.

© 2012, 363 pages

ISBN: 978-1-44749-114-0

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Book review: The Beautiful Scientist

by Corrado Ghinamo

★★★★★

This little book is a gem. Ghinamo doesn’t present his credentials beyond personal study, he doesn’t use footnotes, and he has no reference section, so it’s clear this isn’t meant to be read as a scholarly treatise. It’s just an honest way of looking at God, one which is consistent with scientific exploration. Nevertheless, he is well-read in the sciences, and he presents his views very simply and beautifully.

Ghinamo draws our attention to the Super Force governing our universe (a phrase coined by scientists) and argues that it’s likely this force is our creator. More than that, creation was intentional, by a being of advanced intelligence. Let’s call him God, a being that must of necessity be composed of both a “maker” part (who dwells outside the universe, for he created it) and a “ruler” part (the physical Super Force). But we can’t go too far with this line of thinking without leaning on religion to fill in the details, and Ghinamo feels satisfied with Christianity for that.

Utmost among Ghinamo’s concerns is to point out that science and belief do not contradict one another. Evolutionary creation doesn’t contradict the Bible. Science, he insists, is that discipline which studies God. (I would have put it the other way around: God is that which science studies, but this is probably too restricting for Ghinamo’s tastes.) Ghinamo elegantly describes reality in a manner which is consistent with Christian beliefs about such a being, delving into a “flatland” scenario to help explain a governing being who may reside in one or more dimensions beyond ours. He even gives a reasonable explanation for Satan.

In search of perfection, Ghinamo leads us deeper into the microscopic makeup of living matter, down to the cell, the atom, the quarks, and he notes how the precise role of each elementary particle is perfectly performed. Working backward, then, he posits that the assembly of living beings, though it appears to have flaws, is actually perfect. This implies perfection on the part of our creator, as well. I’m not sure I agree with this definition of “perfect,” or the logic itself, yet I share his appreciation for the wonder of creation!

Be aware that Ghinamo’s focus is not as an apologist trying to prove the Christian viewpoint. He simply argues that science is consistent with Christian thinking, in both this life and the next, and even discusses the creation account in Genesis, though he doesn’t insist on a rigorous adaptation. More than anything else, The Beautiful Scientist is meant to open our eyes to the beauty of the world around us and its creator. This he does very well.

Tate Publishing & Enterprises, LLC, © 2012, 188 pages

ISBN: 978-1-62147-462-3

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Book review: Healing Marks

by Bruce Epperly

★★★★

Reverend Bruce Epperly, Ph.D., is more than an ordained minister: he is also a reiki practitioner and teacher. He has published many times, including a book about Process Theology that I found very intriguing.

Healing Marks is far from a fringe journey into alternative medicine; it is an examination of Jesus’ purpose and healing practices, and how they can relate to today’s world. Says Epperly, “I am a firm believer in prayer and Prozac and meditation and medication as instruments of God’s healing power.” Epperly’s discussion of his own healing experiences are short and practical (he considers effective healing to be gradual and subtle in nature), far from the flamboyance of popular televangelists (whom Epperly thinks do a disservice to everyday people), and they do not overshadow the theological purpose of his book.

While I hold a certain curiosity about the workings of the healing ministry of Jesus, I really just don’t know how much can be read literally, and therefore how much we can experience today, beyond the placebo effect. Epperly himself doesn’t insist that we take all biblical healings at face value, or think that we can replicate them all today. This is good: where holistic healing is concerned, I confess skepticism and near-ignorance on the matter. Epperly’s conclusion, however, that love is the key to effective healing, is thought-provoking. Healing in this manner depends upon the interconnectedness of mind, body and spirit.

There’s no question that emotions affect the immune system, but Healing Marks goes much deeper than that. Epperly’s concept of God is not clearly defined, and he appears satisfied with leaving God a mystery. Yet Epperly is clearly a believer in something very magical underneath the surface of our material living: “I believe that our prayers radiate across the universe, unlimited by spatial separation of temporality. Our prayers can heal past memories, influence the future, and influence peoples’ lives and situations in distant places. … In an interdependent and dynamic universe, I believe that prayer creates a positive field of force around those for whom we pray. … Our prayers create an energetic openness at every level of life from cellular to spiritual through which God can act more decisively…” (pp 82-84).

Is there something to all this? has Epperly shed some light on the healings of Jesus? I honestly don’t know. Read it with an open mind; it’s well worth it.

Energion Publications, © 2012, 183 pages

ISBN: 978-1-938434-13-6

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Book review: Make Christmas Real

by John Henson

★★★★★

I loved it! The first Christmas comes alive in this book, in typical John Henson form. Throw what you thought you knew about Christmas out the window. The really, really humble birth of our Lord is even more precious than the manger scenes portray. The first half of the book is a story to be treasured.

Henson and Ray Vincent then collaborate on a few practical Christmas-themed sermons in the second half of the book. If you find the holiday season to be too commercial and exhausting, these chapters will be a breath of fresh air.

I confess, I didn’t always follow how some of the themes relate to Christmas. Henson’s endorsement of Harry Potter books as Christian literature threw me a little. Not that I’m no fan of Harry Potter, it’s just…

…oh, hey, maybe I’m getting the connection now. The wizards who visited the baby Jesus from the East, right? The misfits that today’s manger scenes turn into three kings, because wizards just won’t do? We can’t have magicians from the land of Zoroastrianism with their star-gazing and occult practices in our Christmas story. That would be like us today welcoming New Age spiritual freaks into our church.

One of Henson’s finest, cover to cover.

AuthorHouse, © 2014, 118 pages

ISBN: 978-1-4969-7894-3

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Book review: Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most

by Marcus J. Borg

★★★★★

Yes, I’ve read most of this before, since I’ve devoured most of Borg’s books. A number of the topics in What Matters Most are rehashes, yet as Borg looks back on his life (he just turned seventy) and recounts the lessons he learned of greatest importance, these topics seem to take on new life. This is a personal, friend-to-friend, heart-felt discussion, as Borg tries to share his wisdom without being an “opinionated old fool.” Marcus, it’s wonderful … thank you.

We live in a time of deeply divided American Christianity. It’s not a matter of denominational differences anymore, but of conservative versus progressive thinking. Progressive Christianity is growing, contrary to what some may have you think: a recent poll shows 28% of Americans are on the “religious conservative” end of the spectrum, while 19% are “religious progressives.” The latter is Borg’s perspective, as he recounts both the goodness and mystery of God. Borg’s very personal description of his own mystical experiences (which lean toward panentheism) and lack of certainty regarding what happens after we die are likely to hit home.

Espousing the “radical protest against economic injustice and violence” of his favorite Old Testament prophet Amos, and comparing that to the pacifistic teachings of Jesus (which does not mean passive acceptance of injustice), Borg will make you think and feel differently about what it means to be a Christian in the military empire we call America.

Loving God means loving what God loves. That’s what a Christian life is all about: becoming passionate about God and participating in God’s passion for a different kind of world. Whatever mysteries hide beyond this life, we leave that up to God.

HarperCollins, © 2014, 241 pages

ISBN: 978-0-6-226997-3

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Book review: Jewish Christianity Reconsidered

★★★★★

by Matt Jackson-McCabe

Ten scholars present papers (now seven years old) about early Jewish Christians, their writings and practices.

It’s a slippery topic. All scholars recognize the ambiguity in the term “Jewish Christian,” which makes classification difficult. Understanding that Christianity is an offshoot of Judaism, where exactly do you draw the line between Judaism and Christianity? The term usually refers to Jesus-followers who continue Jewish practices, such as Sabbath observance, circumcision, and dietary restrictions. But what makes a person more of a “Jewish Christian” (speaking of practice, not nationality) than a Christianized Jew? It’s a sliding scale without full consensus, but this book examines early Christian groups and certain Christian texts which lean toward Judaism; enough to be classified as “Jewish Christianity.” These include:

Groups: The Jerusalem church; the “Christ-believing Jews” who opposed Paul; the Ebionites & Nazarenes; and the Johannine Community

Texts: Q, Matthew, James, Revelation, the Didache, and the Pseudo-Clementines

The examination of the epistle of James was the most interesting to me. You may find the writing a bit on the scholarly side unless this is a topic which fascinates you. For me, it’s more than fascinating; it’s essential to understanding our Christian roots. This is because in my own studies, I have come to believe that Jewish Christians (particularly the Ebionites) trace their heritage back to the church leadership in Jerusalem, headed by the inner apostles themselves. This is not to say that Jewish Christianity didn’t evolve … it surely did, as did other strands of Christianity … but its roots are just as strongly anchored in the earliest Jesus traditions as the Gentile religion we’re more familiar with.

I found this an essential collection for those who want to keep their finger on the pulse of early Christian tradition. Definitely recommended.

Fortress Press, © 2007, 389 pages

ISBN: 978-0-8006-3865-8

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Book review: Disciples: How Jewish Christianity Shaped Jesus and Shattered the Church

by Keith Akers

★★★★★

Wow. I wish I had written this book. Speculative but convincingly argued, it strikes a perfect balance between reason and wonder, as it traces the evolution and demise of Jewish Christianity.

I have both curiosity and sympathy for the Ebionites, that early Jewish Christian sect which probably stemmed from the first Christians in Jerusalem, headed by Jesus’ brother James. Their disagreements with Paul, their emphasis on simplicity, and their primitive Christology have always intrigued me. But Akers pulls no punches in digging up the truth about the Ebionites and others. Some of their doctrine entices me, and some does not. For one thing, by the time you finish this book you may turn into a vegetarian … and life without bacon? No thanks, Keith.

In my studied opinion, Akers oversteps the bounds of reason only once–when he discusses the Talpiot tomb (the “Jesus tomb”) and its implications–but the thing is, his scholarship is so precise elsewhere that it makes me want to take a hard look at even this and see if there is really something to it! If it sounds like I’m gushing praise, it’s because this may be the most intriguing book I’ve read since discovering Paul Anderson’s Johannine studies. In a word: Disciples is simply brilliant, very highly recommended.

My one complaint is that it suffers from a scarcity of references, having no reference section or footnotes. The in-text references are not plentiful enough.

Apocryphile Press,  © 2013, 298 pages

ISBN: 978-1-937002-50-3

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Book review: Blueprint for Theocracy: The Christian Right’s Vision for America

by James C. Sanford

★★★★★

For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king. –Isaiah 33:22

This stuff frightens me. Sanford approaches the topic of the Religious Right much like a journalist struggling mightily to remain unbiased. This goal is too lofty, and though he gives it a good try, the inherent danger of merging church and state nevertheless surfaces in his writing.

The word “theocracy” merely means a form of government where God is in control. It sounds wonderful, until the question arises of who speaks for God. Sanford’s book is the history of the growth of the Religious Right and its infiltration into government, from the Moral Majority through today’s time. It’s deeply researched, written intelligently and straightforwardly, with strong reference material.

Is Christian Reconstructionism, ala Rushdoony’s The Institutes of Biblical Law, really dead? How about Abraham Kuyper’s Christian Worldview? Are personalities like Francis Shaeffer, James Dobson and Charles Colson really under control? By 1984, Pat Robertson, an extremely popular evangelist, was insisting that only Christians and Jews are qualified to govern the nation, and that “God’s people would soon hold sway in Washington.”

Should we fear the emergence of organizations such as the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) or the Campus Crusade for Christ (CCC) who run their fingers through politics? How about politicians such as Palin, Bachmann and Gingrich who see politics as a battle against secular America?

The fear runs both directions. In 1980, Timothy LaHaye predicted that without a Christian awakening, humanists would achieve their “goal of a complete world takeover by the year 2000.” How did we get so polarized in politics? Will the culture war ever end? Sanford argues that secularism is not hatred of religion; pluralism is not anarchy; tolerance is not indulgence; autonomy is not rebellion. There is nothing to war over. Yet all these are imagined by the Christian Right as undermining a Christian Nation.

Sanford traces the assumption of Divine authority back to Calvin. “Supreme authority makes demands that must be obeyed at all costs, however unreasonable or unpalatable its directives may appear on their face.” The ultimate goal for such Christians is salvation in another world, sometimes reflecting a lack of concern for this world … for the sooner things spiral out of control, the sooner Christ will return.

This book is a probing but necessary read. Still, the solution to ending the culture war is unclear, and it leaves me feeling nervous.

Metacomet Books, © 2014, 278 pages

ISBN: 978-0-9747042-0-3

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Book review: Excommunicating the Faithful: Jewish Christianity in the Early Church

by Kenneth W. Howard

★★★★★

This is a scholarly look at the evidence, both archaeological and from the written record of the Church Fathers, of early Jewish Christianity. Howard focuses on two sects, the Ebionites and the Nazarenes. He notes that early Christians all went by the name of Nazarene, and that the Jewish Christians probably fled Jerusalem just prior to the war of 70 AD, landing in Pella (the famous Christian exodus noted in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 21). These displaced Christians were surely the Jerusalem church, once headed by James, the brother of Jesus. They favored versions of the Gospel of Matthew. There in Pella, they splintered, dividing into two or more sects sometime in the second century, with the point of division probably being over the matter of Christology.

Howard considers the Ebionites to be clearly heretical, denying the divinity of Christ and not believing in the virgin birth. The Nazarenes, on the other hand, were orthodox in all respects except that they adhered to Jewish ceremonial law. This respect for the Law was to be expected: when the apostle Paul met with the Jerusalem Christians, they reached a compromise. Jewish Christians would continue to observe the Law, while Gentile Christians would not. This worked well, apparently, and Jewish Christianity remained the dominant expression of the Christian Church in Palestine up until perhaps the time of Constantine.

This compromise was broken, however, over the course of several centuries. Antisemitism reared its ugly head, and Jews in all forms grew despised. Jewish Christians all began to be classed with the heretical Ebionites, whether they fit the mold or not. They were not invited to the Council of Nicaea; of the 318 fathers at the Council, only 18 were from Palestine and these were Gentile bishops representing only the coastal cities. No Jewish Christians were in attendance, and by the end of the fourth century, it was no longer acceptable for Jewish Christians to practice any aspects of the ceremonial law, even if they were in all other ways orthodox in belief. Epiphanius declared the Nazarenes heretical in 376 CE, Augustine endorsed the claim in 400 CE, and Jewish Christians simply ceased to exist.

Excellent booklet, very well documented.

Kenneth W. Howard, © 2013

ISBN: none

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Book review: STABLE: The Keys to Heaven on Earth

by April Michelle Lewis

★★★★

April Lewis’s book is a pluralistic Christian approach to happiness. She notes that it is God’s will that we be happy, experiencing heaven on earth, and that virtually all religions promote common goals of love, forgiveness, altruism and healthy relationships … the very things which contribute to our happiness on earth. Lewis has apparently been through the wringer in life and learned some hard lessons (which she doesn’t discuss), but she eventually overcame them, with the help of God. She describes her success through the acronym STABLE, writing in a conversational, heart-felt tone that makes it easy to get to know her and to join in her journey toward heaven on earth. Here’s what STABLE means:

S.T. = Sound Thoughts, which is much more than just positive thinking. Lewis teaches that we should treat the harmful thoughts which pervade our brains as unwelcome enemies, to be chased away and replaced. Happiness is attainable, and one secret lies in the awareness of an afterlife, as it will someday offer us a feeling of incredible joy. This Lewis deduces from her research into near-death experiences.

A.B. = Always Believe, by which she means belief in God. Lewis thinks atheism is silly, that it is impossible for life to begin without a creator, and she assumes that this creator is a “loving intelligence,” a personal God interested in our well-being. STABLE depends upon faith in God, finding a deeper meaning and divine plan in every circumstance. The meaning of life can be summed up in one phrase–we are here to love and to help others–and God is our ever-present strength. Says Lewis, “I ask God for everything. I talk to Him about everything.”

L.E. = Life of Excellence, the result of focusing our life on others. The excellence in our lives is determined by how we treat each other, how we treat animals, how we treat the earth, and so on. It is a result of living as though heaven were on earth, and it is not merely a switch we can flip on. Practice, perhaps years of practice, is required. Lewis refers to the research of Dr. Martin Seligman, who finds that altruism, volunteering, donating to charities, and helping others is what leads to what he calls Authentic Happiness. It is by giving of ourselves that we achieve joy.

Lewis then begins to steer a bit off course, as she encourages us to chase our dreams as part of the Life of Excellence. The idea is that God has ordained a particular life for us from an early age, perhaps revealed to us by childhood dreams, and we should hold tight and pursue them. When heaven has a plan for you, God will not allow you to look back, so we must work toward our goals and achieve our individual purpose. To be honest, this new emphasis didn’t seem to me to fit the “live for others” mold of STABLE. Anyway, setting that aside…

Encouraging and inspirational, this is a book worth reading.

Inspiring Voices, © 2012, 171 pages

ISBN: 978-1-4624-0471-1

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Book review: Judas of Nazareth

by Daniel T. Unterbrink

★★★★

Yes, Jesus lived, he’s no myth … but he’s not who you think. Daniel Unterbrink is a retired forensic auditor who “turned his analytical prowess” to uncovering the real Jesus.

In this fascinating, controversial study, Daniel equates Jesus with Judas the Galilean (not Judas the betrayer of Jesus), and he equates Paul with Saul the Herodian, both from the writings of Josephus. The Fourth Philosophy that Josephus writes about is what we scholars refer to as the Jesus Movement. The famed Testimonium Flavianum in Josephus’s Antiquities is authentic, but it’s not about Jesus; it was originally about the death of Judas the Galilean. These corrections to our understanding shift parts of the Gospel story back about a decade, and shift other parts forward a couple generations to the time of the war of Jerusalem in 67-73 CE.

Unterbrink leans on the combatant tone of some of Paul’s letters toward the Jerusalem Christians as he builds his theory. He escalates the known friction between Paul and the “Judaizers” (primarily James, the brother of Jesus/Judas), presenting it as deadly antagonism. He notes how the book of James opposes Pauline writings, and suggests that the “enemy of god” in James 4:4 is none other than Paul, who once was a follower of the Jesus Movement (the Fourth Philosophy) but strayed … or was ousted. He sees two distinct churches that share little commonality: the Jewish Jesus movement centered in Jerusalem with James in control, and the Pauline Christ movement among the Gentiles.

So if the Jesus story is founded on Judas the Galilean, where did the gospel story come from? Unterbrink suggests it may have been dreamed up by Paul, who was actually still alive after the war of 70 CE. Paul contributed to (or perhaps himself wrote) the Gospel of Mark, and the other three gospels built upon Paul’s foundation. The evidence? Much of the Jesus story sounds more like Paul than any other historical character. Here’s an interesting twist that comes about when the Bible is read this way: when the crowd calls for the release of Barabbas instead of Jesus, they are calling for the release of Judas Barabbas, and selecting Jesus (Paul) to be crucified. Paul sounds a little whiny about the whole thing in his letters, but he does come out on top … thanks in no small part to the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 CE.

The gospels of Matthew and Luke were likewise written by followers of Paul, who reworked the story of Mark’s Gospel to fit their audience. Unterbrink suggests that Luke wrote his gospel with Matthew in hand, and that the contradictions between Matthew and Luke (such as birth narratives and resurrection appearances) merely reflect Luke’s willingness to change the story willy-nilly as needed for his own agenda. This negates the need for a Q document.

Unterbrink relies heavily on a controversial document known as the Slavonic Josephus, which, when first discovered, was thought to be a translation of Josephus from Aramaic, but which few modern scholars any longer consider genuine. Unterbrink recognizes that the book is a Christianized version of Josephus’s Antiquities, dating to the eleventh or twelfth century. Nevertheless, he does find some fascinating and relevant passages in the SJ to further his research.

My thoughts on the whole matter? I have a few difficulties with Unterbrink’s portrayal of Paul and his beliefs. For example, Unterbrink thinks the virgin birth stories in Matthew and Luke reflect Paul’s methodology, but it seems clear to me that Paul never imagined a supernatural birth. And for all the devious, dastardly deeds of both the Saul/Paul movement and the Jesus movement, we somehow wound up with a pretty compassionate set of scripture. I loved studying all the comparisons, but I’m not sure they are more convincing than the similarities to other historic figures uncovered by other scholars. The focus on Judas and Paul as Jesus’ doppelgangers is entertaining, but it seems to me that if we are going to go looking for parallel figures, parts of the Jesus story could just as easily be founded on Jesus, son of Ananus (another figure from Josephus who prophesied against Jerusalem), or the healer Hanina ben Dosa, or any of several pagan gods. The scriptures are a great mystery.

I believe this is a five-star book which repeats itself for emphasis a bit too much. Too scholarly for an easy read, Unterbrink could probably put more trust in his readers to study carefully, and condense the book by about one third. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed the read.

Bear & Company, © 2014, 365 pages

ISBN: 978-1-59143-182-4

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Book review: Things That Must Take Place: A Commentary on Revelation Chapters 4-22

by Tony Kessinger

★★★★★

This is a verse-by-verse commentary on everything in Revelation outside the letters to the churches. As a writer about Revelation myself, I must begin by pointing out how differently Kessinger and I read the Book of Revelation. Please pardon my upcoming rant–anyone who submits a book about Revelation to The Dubious Disciple can expect some critical analysis, ha–because Kessinger really does provide solid research, and I don’t want to leave the impression that it’s unscholarly. Tony holds a Ph.D. in religion, has “taught more than 1800 pastors and church workers on five continents,” and has published twice before.

Kessinger subscribes to a premillennialist view. He bemoans the way some scholars interpret Revelation too symbolically, and encourages us to “read the words literally unless they cannot be taken as such.” But if I follow his advice, noting the repeated promise that all would be fulfilled immediately, it would destroy Kessinger’s theme of “things that must take place,” replacing it with “things that took place as promised,” or maybe “things that were promised but failed to take place.” See verses 22:7, 22:10, 22:12, 22:20, 1:7, 3:11, and 11:17 plus a host of verses written in a tone of urgency to a first-century audience. A common promise made by Christ in Revelation is “Behold, I come quickly.” Kessinger largely ignores these, except to point out that since a long period of time has already gone by, our interpreters–who all use words like “quickly” or “soon” or “pronto” for the Greek word tachy–should substitute “suddenly,” as this word at least preserves the possibility of a 2,000 year wait. This odd substitution appears to me unwarranted, given the way the word tachy is used everywhere else in scripture. So, it’s hard for me to take the timing of Kessinger’s interpretation seriously.

Kessinger could come clean about the immediacy of Revelation’s message and its first-century setting if he wished; he just doesn’t. For example, he discusses how Antiochus IV serves as a typology of the antichrist to come, showing his appreciation for the historical setting of the book of Daniel, but neglects to do the same with Revelation’s ancient nemesis. The Beast of the Sea, according to the best Revelation scholars both conservative and liberal, is primarily identified as Roman emperor Nero Caesar. 666 = Nero Caesar, NRWN QSR, in the cryptology often used in religious writings of the first century. Much of the book of Revelation is about Nero Caesar. He’s the antichristic figure of the first century, the hated enemy of Christians, and the immediate threat John was warning about back then. This is all well-known today, and since no scholar of Revelation could possibly be unaware of Nero’s role, Kessinger’s refusal to even mention Nero betrays his one-sided interpretation.

In another example, Kessinger notes how Revelation chapter 9 is reminiscent of a volcanic eruption. Well, of course it is! Revelation was probably written just after perhaps the most famous volcanic eruption of all time; an eruption near Rome that buried an entire city (Pompeii) and spread famine for thousands of miles. An eruption so extreme that it happens somewhere on earth only about once every thousand years. How could any first-century Mediterranean apocalyptic book not be influenced by the eruption of Vesuvius?

Of course, Kessinger doesn’t consider Revelation to be apocalyptic. He considers all the other books like Revelation, written in the same time period, to be apocalyptic; just not Revelation. It’s special I guess … “from the mind of God,” Kessinger decides, not the mind of man, I assume because it eventually snuck into the Christian canon. This insistence that Revelation is in a genre of its own creates a problem. Kessinger’s research is deep and illuminating, but his modus operandi contains a weakness, which nearly cost him a five-star rating: He ignores a great deal of extra-canonical Jewish writings which can shed a lot of light on Revelation’s nuances. (I also felt like dropping one star when he asked us to tell our families about their fate of being eaten by birds if they don’t repent, but one isolated bit of hellfire evangelism can be forgiven, ha! This is, after all, the book of Revelation!)

Now on to the good side. Though Kessinger’s approach is blatantly canonical and futuristic, I nevertheless enjoyed it a lot. The insights are fresh and well-presented; not merely a rehash of other publications. The discussion of Antiochus IV as a typology was particularly well-done, and the comparison of the plagues of Egypt (from the book of Exodus) to the tribulations of Revelation is fascinating. As much as I’ve studied Revelation, I’ve never carried the comparison to Egypt’s plagues as far as Kessinger, so it definitely helped my understanding. Kessinger’s in-depth study of the Church as the Bride of Christ was also helpful (though it’s not emphasized as such in Revelation).

Though I hope this isn’t the only book you read about Revelation, I definitely recommend it for a premillennial view! Very good, if a little confusing about the timing of events in places. (Kessinger recognizes Revelation’s confusing order, and presents a chronological order of events in an appendix.)

CrossBooks, © 2013, 295 pages

ISBN: 978-1-4627-3432-0

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Book review: Heretics for Armchair Theologians

by Justo L. and Catherine Gunsalus Gonzalez, illustrations by Ron Hill

★★★★★

An excellent little book covering the major “heretics” of the first five centuries. The authors do not try to present these men as evil or anti-Christian at all. On the contrary, they were sincere people trying to understand the Christian faith in their own context, asking important questions and seeking to lead others to what they took to be a fuller understanding of the Gospel. The authors eventually describe a “heretic” as a person who carries one truth about God too far, such that it distorts other doctrine. For example, who can comprehend the Trinity? The divine mystery gets out of balance by focusing too heavily on any one aspect.

You’ll see how Marcion’s early ideas shaped Christianity; heretical views did serve a role in sharpening Christian theology. You’ll learn how Augustine battled Pelagius. You’ll learn about the Ebionites, Docetists, Gnostics, and Montanists. You’ll learn how Christology developed and the Trinitarian battles, which the authors explain with a cute baseball analogy.

All of this is extremely well-written, informative yet friendly. The book goes into just enough theology as necessary to paint a descriptive picture of each Christian offshoot. Very highly recommended and fun to read.

Westminster John Knox Press, © 2008

ISBN: 978-0-664-23205-4

Reviewed on Logos Bible Software

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The Miracle Free Gospel

by Gerhard Jason Geick

★★★★

Scholars have long speculated about the existence of an early, miracle-free version of the Gospel of John. It wasn’t until recently that a Palestinian discovery proved this speculation to be true. The miracles of Jesus were added to the text of the Gospel of John around 130 CE. What you’ll read in Geick’s book is the original Gospel, translated from Aramaic into English.

In this early rendition of Jesus’ life, everything remotely fantabulous no longer exists. No shocking miracles, no birth stories, no resurrection body. The real Jesus is so grey that one wonders how he could have possibly affected history the way he did. Jesus is merely a next-door-neighbor type, friendly, a little crude, quite powerless but likeable. He dies because rumors of miracles got out of hand.

It’s a parody, of course, or perhaps a wild guess. Why, Gerhard? Why did you do this to my Jesus? Disturbed, I read past the end of the book into the bonus material, where I found excerpts from prior books. Geick likes to call himself a Hopeful Theist, by which he implies that he rejects history’s various attempts to describe God, yet hopes there is more to life than meaningless grief. This is the Jesus he identifies with … one who tried to teach folks but wound up crucified for no good reason.

A cute read, but it probably reveals more about the author than the subject. Read it with a grain of salt to get to know Jason, because it’s a long way from anything any Jesus scholar I know would confirm! :)

© 2014, Kindle Edition

ISBN: unknown

Purchase at: http://themiraclefreegospel.weebly.com/

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Book review: Announcing the Scientific Discovery of God

by Eric Demaree

★★★

Can God’s existence be proven by logic? Demaree takes a shot at it, by providing a reasonable argument for the existence of a being who dispensed to us a moral law. Demaree calls this being “God” and assumes him to be our creator. He then takes a leap of logic:

“It is highly probable that the Biblical God is the God who wrote objective morality into our mind. Objective moral principles and the Biblical commandments written into our mind are similar, if not identical.”

From this foundation–that we have proven God exists, and is the God of the Bible–Demaree begins his discussion. But this argument is not convincing to anyone who is not already persuaded. For example, the issue of gay rights easily defeats his argument. Got no religion to taint your opinion? Then you typically have no moral problem with gays. Thus, any universal morality that exists today accepts gay relationships. Yet the “Biblical God,” in Leviticus, holds a different moral standard:  “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death.” I bring up this example not because Demaree shares any opinion about gay rights in his book (he doesn’t)  but because this simple example disproves Demaree’s argument that objective moral principles agree with Biblical commandments. If there is a moral law inside us, it contradicts the Bible, so if a moral law does prove the existence of God, it simultaneously excludes the “Biblical God” as a candidate. Oops.

Unfortunately, the “scientific discovery” process promised by the book’s title ends after a few pages of this flawed argument. Demaree then turns a bit preachy and remains that way to the end. I scanned the rest, but could not get interested after the topic of the title was left behind. All in all it’s not a bad book, actually quite inspirational in places, as Demaree focuses on God’s attributes of love and mercy, but it just wasn’t what I was expecting to read.

Published by Eric Demaree, © 2014, Kindle Edition

ISBN: none

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Book review: Walking in the Moment between Tick and Tock–From Passover to Pentecost

by J. Timothy King

★★★★

Mr. King presented this book to me as appropriate for the season. Passover is nearly upon us. I absolutely love reading about the Biblical feasts and celebrations, so I snapped it up.

King notes that Jewish holidays are different from secular holidays; they’re not just about observing the past, but about bringing the past into the present. We live in the moment, between the tick and tock of the clock, as we journey from Passover to Pentecost … from Egypt to Sinai.

King’s book meanders a bit from the topic, it reads a little like a diary of King’s spiritual journey and how he came to appreciate Jewish customs … particularly Passover. Casual, friendly and well-written, but short and unscholarly, it didn’t teach me anything new. Pick it up for some inspirational Saturday afternoon reading in your backyard while your children play around your feet.

Published by J. Timothy King, © 2013, Kindle Edition

ISBN: 978-0-9816925-2

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