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Book Review: Navigating Tough Texts: A Guide to Problem Passages in the New Testament.

Derek Tovey —

MURRAY J. HARRIS BELLINGHAM, WA: LEXHAM, 2020. XVII + 226 PP. ISBN 9781683593959. $39.08.

In this book, Murray Harris presents brief, one-and-a-half to three page, explanations and exegetical guides to 268 New Testament texts. As he says in his preface, these verses or passages might be considered either “problem texts” or “key verses” that could be classified as verses significant theologically, evangelistically, or in church history; or dealing with issues relating to the Christian life, understanding the person of Christ, or the Holy Spirit. Some deal with exegetically difficult verses that have apparent contradictions or are difficult to understand (xiii).

The book is in two parts: Part One deals with texts drawn from the Gospels and Acts, while Part Two deals with those found in the Epistles and Revelation. Almost every New Testament book has at least one entry, most two or three, while some (the gospels, Acts, Romans, I and 2 Corinthians) have over half-a-dozen entries. Second Thessalonians, 2 and 3 John receive no attention. Harris’s comments are clear, crisp, and often draw upon other texts in explicating the meaning of the text at hand. Occasionally, an entry will be cross-referenced to another pertinent entry.

As an example of this, and of a text that may be considered theologically controversial, is the first entry on “Mary’s Perpetual Virginity? (Matt 1:25)”. Here, Harris referring to the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary established as “the official teaching of the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches at the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451”, raises the question of whether, or when Joseph had sexual relations with Mary. The issue hinges on how to understand the prepositional phrase “until [Greek heōs hou] she gave birth to a son” (NIV). Harris discusses the two ways this “until” might be understood: either as an action that is reversed later, as for example, in Matthew 17:9: “Tell no one what you have seen until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead”; or as an action that is not negated at the point referenced by the “until”, for example, “when we read in Genesis 28:15 (in the LXX) ‘I will certainly not leave you until I have done everything I have promised you,’ we may assume God did not desert Jacob after the fulfilment of his promises’” (1). Harris maintains that had Matthew intended Mary’s perpetual virginity, he could have used a form of words that made this explicit. He provides five translations that confirm this understanding, and then cross-references to the entry on Mark 6:3 (also headed “Mary’s Perpetual Virginity?”, 27–29) where the issue is discussed in terms of the reference to Jesus’s siblings: whether they are cousins or half-brothers, and sisters (sharing Mary as a common mother).

Other passages that may be considered exegetically, or theologically difficult, are Matt 11:12 (“Violence and the Kingdom”), where Harris considers the Greek “voice” of the verb to “inflict violence/force upon” to render a meaning that suggests “violent people have been trying to raid” the kingdom (who these might be is not clear, but Harris offers a number of proposals)[17–18]. Harris also considers 1 Cor 15:29, “Baptism for the Dead” (131–32); 1 Thess 4:13­–15, “Are Deceased Christians ‘Asleep’?”, on the status of Christians who have, as Paul puts is “fallen asleep” (178–79), and 1 John 2:1; 3:6, 9; 5:18 (“No Sinless Perfection – Yet”, whereas well as the theological question of what is meant, there is also the need to resolve a seeming contradiction (212–13).

A rather nice example of the exegesis of a controversial text is Harris’s treatment of Phil. 2:7 “The Self-Emptying of Christ”, where he not only explains the meaning of the phrase “he (Christ) emptied himself”, but answers the question, “Of what did Christ empty himself when he entered human history?” (167–68). He points out that not only does the passage concern itself with “of what” Christ emptied himself, but also “how?” ­– by taking on the form of a slave (“unattractiveness, lack of distinction, and submission”, 168).

Many of the texts chosen deal with theological issues or matters of Christian living, such as John 1:1c, where Harris discusses the fact that the Word is represented as having the same nature as God (52–54), or 1 Cor. 7:15, where he examines the issue of “Divorce and Remarriage” (123–24). Another is “Regular Proportionate Giving” (1 Cor 16:2) where Harris outlines Paul’s principles for Christian giving (135–36).

One entry I found slightly odd. Harris discusses John 1:14 “When Did the Word Become Incarnate?” (55–57), where he concludes by going through the stages of the development of Jesus as a foetus in Mary’s womb. While it is true that this shows that “the author of every human process underwent the same development as all humans experience in the womb”, which is “a profound mystery that evokes astonishment, awe, and worship” (57), the detail made me wonder whether there was an unexpressed purpose behind the entry.

The title of the book, I think, is the wrong one. A reader may come to this book thinking that the book will deal with “problem texts”, that is texts that are exegetically problematic, or theologically difficult. Not a few of the entries, however, are neither particularly exegetically difficult (there are others that are ignored), nor theologically problematic (though this may be a hazardous determination to make). Many, I think, are reasonably straightforward for a careful reader of the text to understand. Some such title as “Navigating Significant Texts: Important Greek words and New Testament themes explained” might better capture the actual nature of the book.

Nonetheless, Harris explains the chosen passages clearly, and often in a pastorally helpful or sensitive way. A number of them would provide a good outline for a sermon. Some are devotionally helpful and challenging. A small improvement would be to provide the full English text of a passage, with the Greek words to be explained in brackets, at the beginning of some extracts. That would improve the clarity, for those without a knowledge of Greek, of many otherwise wonderfully explained texts.

Derek Tovey is the book review editor for Stimulus.