A book review I wrote for JETS

December 8, 2010

Brothers and Sisters,

Back at the end of September, right before going out of the country for a week, I decided to take a brief respite from blogging.  Unfortunately, I let that stretch to almost two and a half months.  But, over the next few days, I’m going to work myself back into “blogging shape.”

My first post back is of a book review I wrote recently for the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, which will probably be published next Spring.   See what you think.  (Pardon the “signature” at the end.  I could not get the spacing to look right, no matter what I did.)

Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to “Holy Land” Theology.  By Gary M. Burge.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010, xiv + 153 pp., $21.99 paper.

            Gary Burge is Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College Graduate School.  He has been best known for his work on the Fourth Gospel (most notably, Interpreting the Gospel of John Guides to New Testament Exegesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1992, rev. ed. 1998); The Gospel of John NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000); and John: The Gospel of Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008). 

For some, though, what’s not as well known is that, going all the way back to undergraduate study at the American University in Beirut in the early 1970s, Burge has had a deep passion for the Middle East and the people there, especially those in the Palestinian churches.  The present volume plows similar ground to his earlier books on this subject: Who Are God’s People in the Middle East? (Zondervan, 1993); and Whose Land?  Whose Promise?  What Christians are Not Being Told about Israel and the Palestinians (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2003).  More on this later in the review.

Several things attracted me to writing this review.  First, my own background in relation to the Middle East goes back almost as far as Burge’s.  My first trip there was during seminary, in 1974.  In the process, I was shaken by shelling nearby while in the airport in Beirut.  Second, parallel to Burge’s experience (see p. 112), I too have eaten lunch at Jerusalem University College, talking with pastors and teachers from across the United States.  Third, in our earlier publishing careers, Burge and I often contributed to the same projects (e.g., Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, and Interpreting the New Testament: Essays on Methods and Issues).  Fourth, a book to which I contributed a chapter ( entitled “Israel and the Nations in God’s Redemptive Plan” [pp. 283-97]), Israel: The Land and the People: An Evangelical Affirmation of God’s Promises, H.W. House, ed. (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998), is included in Burge’s annotated “Further reading” section (pp. 141-43).  More about this also later in the review.

Jesus and the Land contains an introduction and eight concise chapters, followed by endnotes (pp. 132-40), two listings for “Further reading” (pp. 141-45), the latter of which is focused on “The Israel-Palestine Conflict” (pp. 143-45).  The last feature of the book is an “Index of biblical and ancient sources” used in the book (pp. 147-53).

In his introduction (pp. ix-xiv), Burge helpfully illustrates how widespread is the emotional tie among humanity to land, setting up the fact that both Jews and those of Arab extraction live in the land that is known geographically as Palestine.  He closes by stating that he prefers “the inclusive term, Israel-Palestine” to “Promised Land” or “Holy Land.”  The rest of the book explains that choice.

Chapter 1, “The biblical heritage” (pp. 1-14), is a sketchy overview of the O.T. view of land, the promise to Abraham and what happened to the Jews long-term, due to their disobedience to the Lord.  From the section “After the Exile” to the end of the chapter (pp. 9-14), Burge primarily discusses the Jewish rabbinical writings rather than Scripture, but it’s not clear at this juncture where he’s going with that methodology.

In chapter 2, “Diaspora Judaism and the land” (pp. 15-24), Burge cites nothing but extra-biblical Jewish writings, notably Philo and Josephus, who muted or spiritualized the land promises to Israel.  Where Burge is moving in his argument becomes clearer with this statement: “Here we see that Judaism’s ‘Land Theology’ has been entirely redefined” (p. 24).

Since it is also the title of the whole book, I was initially confused that chapter 3 is titled “Jesus and the Land” (pp. 25-42).  But, as I read on in the book, I began to “get it.”  In chapter 3, Burge concludes that Jesus “expresses no overt affirmation of first-century territorial theologies.  He does not repeat Judaism’s call to land ownership…” (p. 40 [emphasis his]).

Burge clarifies the title to chapter 3 in chapter 4, “The Fourth Gospel and the land” (pp. 43-57).  Here, Burge’s long familiarity with the Johannine Literature is on display.  The overall point of his discussion here is: “In the Fourth Gospel, the land is subsumed within John’s theology of Christological replacement/fulfillment” (p. 57).  In other words, in Burge’s view, the Gospel of John teaches that Jesus replaces the Temple, the feasts and any perceived claim the Jews had to the land of Israel.

            Frankly, chapter 5, “The book of Acts and the land” (pp. 58-72), chapter 6, “Paul and the promises to Abraham” (pp. 73-94), and chapter 7, “Developments beyond Paul” (pp. 95-109), do little to add to Burge’s earlier argument—they just “Amen!” it.  Simply put, Burge asserts that, since these books, making up the majority of the New Testament, do not lay out an obvious spotlighted “territorial theology,” they must not have one.

            Chapter 8, “Land, theology, and the Church” (pp. 110-31), is hardly a typical concluding chapter.  It’s as long as any chapter in the book.  Undoubtedly, the reason for that is, besides briefly summarizing his conclusions in “Thinking Christianly about the land” (pp. 125-31), Burge invests considerable space in describing and critiquing “Christian Zionism,” especially its distinctive “territorial theology” and other troubling features (pp. 112-25). 

The perceived strengths of Jesus and the Land are several.  First, it is well-written and highly readable.  Second, it makes a powerful cumulative case.  Third, it does so in brief compass, which means that the reader is unlikely to “not see the forest for the trees.”  Fourth, Burge’s expertise in both the relevant ancient Jewish sources and the Fourth Gospel are impressive.  Fifth, the annotated bibliography is quite helpful, even if not balanced.  Sixth, to a significant degree, Burge’s description and assessment of “Christian Zionism” is largely on target, even if not specific enough at certain points.  Seventh, Burge’s view that Jesus replaces the land promise, though the Jews still have a salvific future in God’s plan (see his discussion of Rom. 9-11 [pp. 87-91]), offers a creative via media between classic covenantal “replacement theology” (i.e., the church replaces Israel in all aspects) and classic dispensationalism’s insistence on the ongoing unconditional land aspect of the Abrahamic Covenant.

But, Jesus and the Land is not without serious weaknesses.  First—and possibly in an attempt to keep the book shorter—Burge employs a frustrating tendency to engage in “front-end-load” exegesis.  What I mean by that is he spends more time, and gives more biblical examples, in his discussion of passages in the Gospels, only to repeatedly read earlier conclusions onto his later passages in a “we’ve seen this before” wave of the hand. Second—and parallel to the first concern—is what amounts to the widespread use of argument from silence.  Burge effectively alleges that, because there is not a ringing obvious re-statement of the O.T. land promises in the N.T., they must have been “replaced.”  However, he offers no satisfying answer to the “forever” wording of the Abrahamic promises as what Walter Kaiser championed as “antecedent (i.e., existing, and assumed by later writers, biblical) theology.”  Third, Burge ignores (i.e., absent from his index of scriptural usage), or inadequately treats, numerous relevant biblical passages, the most glaring of which are: 1) Gen. 17, 25 (dealing with the Arab peoples descended from Abraham); 2) Deut. 28-30; 3) Ezek. 36-37; several passages in Daniel, particularly 4) the phrase “abomination of desolation” said to be “standing in the holy place” (i.e., most naturally understood as ‘in the Temple’) in 5) Matt. 24:15, just before the wording 6) “those in Judea” (24:16) and “at that time there will be great tribulation, the kind that hasn’t taken place from the beginning of the world…” (24:21), plus 7) the references to “the beautiful land” (Dan. 11:41) and 8) “the beautiful holy mountain” just prior to the “great tribulation” (12:1) and resurrection at the end of the age (12:2; see 11:40); 9) Rev. 11:8 (“where also their Lord was crucified” [i.e., Jerusalem]); and 10) “the place called in Hebrew, Armageddon” (Rev. 16:16, emphasis mine).  Fourth, at several points, Burge’s citation of Jewish writers, like Philo or Josephus, or rabbinical sources, leaves the impression that they not only reflect the thought of some prominent Jews of the day about “the land,” especially in regard to accommodating to the Diaspora and the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, but that they were correct.  However, why does that make any more sense than to conclude that Roman Catholic theologians of the medieval era, who developed the Catholic sacramental and scholastic theological systems, were right because they went almost unchallenged until Luther, Zwingli and Calvin, or that postmillennialism is correct because it was the prevailing eschatological view of earlier great periods of revival?  Fifth, Burge—purposely or not—implies that any who defend the “forever” land promises to Israel are at least borderline “Christian Zionists.” 

Relatedly, Burge’s annotation in regard to Israel: The Land and the People, mentioned above, surprised me.  While Burge is correct that “… the land promises for modern Israel [are] often used by Christian Zionists to buttress modern political theologies” (p. 142), that wording leaves open highly misleading implications.  Using myself as an example, though I do see biblical significance in the modern state of Israel, I’m far from a Christian Zionist.  Like Burge, I believe Israel should be held responsible for the wrongness and brutality of some of their actions (though the Palestinians, particularly the terrorists among them, should also).  And, because of the secondary conditionality (i.e., the aspect of obedience) seen in the development of the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen. 22:16-18; 26:4-5), as well as several other relevant O.T. passages, I conclude that Israel could easily be removed from the land again by God (then later restored and kicked out again), as they have been twice before in history, because of their ongoing disobedience and unbelief. 

Before closing, though neither strength nor weakness, it’s worth asking, “Why would someone write three books on a topic as specialized as this?”  After all, it’s not like Burge writing contribution after contribution on John for different series, or Darrell Bock doing the same on Luke.  My sense is that, as noted at the beginning of this review, this issue truly is a passion for Gary Burge, even much more than an academic subject.  If that is correct, Jesus and the Land should perhaps be read as an impassioned plea by a scholar more than as scholarly argumentation.

In conclusion, despite the problems discussed above, this is a significant volume, the best I’ve seen of the general anti-Christian Zionist perspective currently available.  I would recommend it, but with a caveat: Expect a compact, attractively-packaged, impassioned presentation of Burge’s “Jesus replaces the land promises to Israel” theology, but not a measured objective treatment!   In saying that, however, I am concerned as to whether many students, or laypersons which have not carefully studied the biblical covenants and had an extensive exegetical exposure to broader biblical prophecy, will have the discernment to track Burge’s hermeneutical/expositional sleight-of-hand (“now you see it, now you don’t”) and selectivity in regard to what scriptural passages he chose to treat (or omit).

                                                                                                                                A. Boyd Luter

                                                                                 Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary

                                                                                                              Comal Country Church

                                                                                                                           Canyon Lake, TX

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