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On Monday, I mentioned a new review series I planned to start. While this book is not part of that series, it covers a very similar terrain. Edited by Kent Eilers and Kyle Strobel, Sanctified By Grace: A Theology of The Christian Life is a collection of essays articulating the Christian life “in dogmatic key” (3). If we play with the musical metaphor, the idea is that one could compose the melody of the Christian life in a variety of key signatures, but this work does so using the resources of Christian dogmatics. I’m sitting here trying  to think of what other “keys” one might use, but am drawing a blank. I think we need to tweak the metaphor a bit so that it works better.

“Modes” is a better option, but transposition doesn’t work as well. A song in C major won’t sound drastically different if played in D major (unless you have perfect pitch). A song in C Ionian (major) will sound much different than a song in C Dorian, but that is a modality shift rather than a key signature change. Technically, it appears as a key signature change on the score, but the tonal center that emerges in the song would lead you to figure out the mode employed. The difference between C Ionian and C Dorian is not the tonal center, but the steps between the degrees of the scale used.

If we take the idea of tonal center and connect that with the Christian life, we would say the tonal center is “communion with the triune God through union with Christ in the Spirit” (3). Building out from the tonal center and utilizing all the richness of the tones in the key signature is what the authors seem to envision doing. In that sense, the better description is an account of the Christian life that explores the full scale of notes and harmonic richness from Christian dogmatics. Different doctrinal connection points represent different tones within a scale. Many accounts of the Christian life stick close to a single tonal center, perhaps only deviating to the octave or interval of a 5th above, giving minimal melodic or harmonic variation. Here, the full range of tones and harmonies are brought into play, weaving together a more interesting melodic result.

With that metaphor in mind, here’s how the authors describe (not metaphorically) what their aim is:

While the primary reference of “the Christian life” is the lived experience of Christian identity, as a doctrinal locus it stands dogmatically related to other areas of Christian witness such as the doctrines of the Trinity, creation and providence, Christ, the church and the final consummation (to name a few). Being so related, the doctrine of the Christian life is informed and illumined by a whole series of theological claims about God, such as his relation to created reality, his reconciling works and the human activities which arise from them. In turn, those other doctrines are likewise informed and illumined through the doctrine of the Christian life. Our approach thus articulates a theology of the Christian life in terms of the whole of the Christian confession rather than just one dimension (3).

Ultimately, they suggest that this volume provides “a theology of the Christian life oriented around the triune God of grace” (6). This is seen in the outline which breaks out into four parts. The first, “The Gracious One” has essays on the triune God (Fred Sanders), the electing God (Suzanne McDonald), the creating and providential God (Katherine Sonderegger), the saving God (Ian McFarland), and the perfecting God (Christopher R. J. Holmes). Part Two, “The Graces of The Christian Life,” covers reconciliation and justification (John Burgess), redemption (Christiaan Mostert), and mortification and vivification (John Webster). Part Three, “The Means of Grace” provides a pair of essays on Scripture (Donald Wood) and church and sacraments (Tom Greggs). The final part, “The Practices of Grace” focuses on discipleship (Philip Ziegler), prayer (Ashley Cocksworth), theology (Ellen T. Charry), preaching (William Willimon), and forgiveness (D. Stephen Long).

While in some sense that gives you an idea of what the topics and writers include, in another sense, it doesn’t quite give you a feel for the book. To help with that, I entered into a technical discussion about music theory just a few paragraphs ago. If you already understand music theory fairly well, you could probably connect the dots. If not, it might have been harder to follow what I was explaining. In a similar way, the more familiar you are with Barth and other major figures of 20th century theology, the more comfortable you’ll be with the dogmatic expositions in this more or less academic theological work. If you have a finger on the pulse of recent theological movements, you’ll follow the discussions fairly well.

I had originally gotten this work for myself out of interest, and abandoned reading halfway through. I was later contacted to participate in a blog tour, and so I resumed and finished the remaining essays. I’m glad I pushed through to get to the ones by Webster and Willimon which I found particularly insightful. Closely behind were the ones on theology and prayer. While the essay on discipleship provides an interesting theological meditation on the topic, it is not particularly helpful if you’re interested in how to actual disciple someone. Granted, that’s not the focus of the essay (or the work as a whole), but it is perhaps a bit ironic.

This further illustrates the kind of book under consideration. This is not a book of practical theology, at least in the typical evangelical sense. It is a book of academic and dogmatic theological reflection on topics connected to the Christian life. The price probably prohibits it from consideration by the average reader and the content makes it something I couldn’t recommend to anyone in my church (which tells you both about my church and the book). However, it could be of particular use in a classroom setting, but most likely only for upper-level undergrad or introductory level seminary courses. With the opportunity to discuss further in that setting, this book could be more useful, but only if the class itself has the facility in modern theology that enables a clearer reading.

That being said, I do like what Eilers and Strobel were aiming at in their goals for the book. I don’t think that all of the essays necessarily hit the mark (although Sanders sure did). I would be particularly interested in a more user friendly version of a book like for people like me involved in the discipleship and equipping of a local body of believers. I’m not entirely sure what that would look like and don’t particularly fault Eilers and Strobel for not producing that volume. This book sets the tone at least for books like that could follow (and I mean that in the sense of the musical metaphor from above) and I will look forward to that eventual composition.


Kent Eilers & Kyle Strobel, eds., Sanctified By Grace: A Theology of The Christian LifeNew York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, August 2014. 288 pp. Paperback, $39.99.

See other posts in the blog tour

Visit the publisher’s page

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Thanks to the generosity of Crossway, I will be posting reviews of the Theologians on The Christian Life series over the next several months. I have one more to finish reading, but since I just recently finished Augustine on The Christian Life, I’m ready to get started.

Recently, I’ve wanted to refocus my attention on the basic of living the Christian life. Some of that is because of teaching commitments (at school and soon at church). Some of that is because of just feeling rusty myself in terms of basic spiritual disciplines. Another part of it is my fairly longstanding interest in the relationship of good works to the life of faith in Christ. When you add all these together, it should make for a good spring series.

I thought it might be interesting to do the series chronologically by theologian rather than book release date. This particularly series unfortunately only has Augustine before the Reformation, but given some of Bray’s comments, it is probably a justified choice (more on that in the actual review). There are more 20th century theologians than I think any other single century. Also, were it not for Wesley, it would be a fairly monochrome sample of Reformed authors (the Germans being mild outliers).

Regardless, in this stack you have some of the most influential Christian theologians and their thoughts on the Christian life. I thought it might be interesting to move through them in a way that gives a brief overview of each book, notes which ones are stronger contributions than others, and over time, note what themes are held in common by each of these writers. With only one title left to read (Bonhoeffer), I have a pretty good idea what these themes might look like, but it will be clearly as I actually start writing the reviews. By next week, I’ll hopefully have Augustine ready to go and then we’ll see how it goes from there!

Realistically, this probably won’t happen. But, since noting the perils of reading too much, I have thought about ways to cut down. In that post I also pointed out Tim Challies Reading Challenge. After giving it a bit of thought, it seemed good to me and the Holy Spirit to give it a shot.

I need to prioritize reading in order to feed myself, but I need to prioritize other tasks more so that reading doesn’t become a gluttonous activity. I go back and forth about spending my morning doing other things and pushing reading into the afternoon. Ultimately, this might be best since I like reading enough to still do it in the afternoon, whereas making it to the gym can be put off once I’m tired. I may have to ease into adjusting my morning routine, so bear with me.

When it comes to the reading challenge, if I complete it in full, I’ll read 104 books. That’s a bit low for me, given my past history according to Goodreads. As you can see, I usually average around 150 a year:

Book stats

(Not pictured: 2012, which was a low year of 103 books)

Full disclosure, I didn’t read the NICOT Psalms volume cover to cover (I’m doing that this year). I did read enough of it to consider it “read” though. I do that with some longer works, usually commentaries, but not with the other two longest books pictured, which I did read cover to cover. Anyway, I digress…

This year, I thought I’d try to broaden my reading and get back to reading more for enjoyment than for busyness. I say that because I often I end up reading books that are ok for the most part (usually 4 stars given my rating system) but are not particularly enjoyable. I feel obligated to read these books for one reason or another, and so dutifully complete them. Often, this turns into a form of procrastination. Everyone only has so much time in the day, so if I’m reading 150-160 books a year that average 256 pages (last year at least), then I’m doing that instead of many other things. I feel obligated to read these books, but often I don’t really have to, and I’m putting off doing something else (like writing).

Instead, I’d like to read less but read better. Hopefully, this first leg of the Reading Challenge can help. The way it works is like a snowball. You begin with the Light Plan, which includes 13 books:

  • A book about Christian living
  • A biography
  • A classic novel
  • A book someone tells you “changed my life”
  • A commentary on a book of the Bible
  • A book about theology
  • A book with the word “gospel” in the title or subtitle
  • A book your pastor recommends
  • A book more than 100 years old
  • A book for children
  • A mystery or detective novel
  • A book published in 2016
  • A book about a current issue

Some of these are obviously in my wheelhouse. It does have quite a bit more fiction than I usually read, but I need to read more of that anyway. I put some thought into it and came up with this list for the first leg:

Some of these are still pretty typical reads for me, but I think it is a little bit broader than normal. I’m trying to utilize books for review where possible, but also trying to think outside the lines when I can. I’m still taking recommendations for a “book that changed my life,” I got a few on Twitter, but am still undecided. Feel free to lobby for something for me to add there.

In the meantime, I’ll get to reading and once I finish this set, I do another set of 13, then a set of 26, then a set of 52. Sounds like fun right?

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As is my custom, several weeks back I started a series on book recommendations and then promptly abandoned it. I gave some recommended readings in Reformed theology, promised some on systematic and biblical theology, and well here we are. It would be pointless to promise when those posts will arrive, but most likely it will be before Easter (ever the optimist I am).

In the meantime, this is a collection of previous posts with commentary recommendations. What is a biblical commentary you ask? It is a book designed to help you understand either a specific book of the Bible or a collection of books in the Bible. If you have a study Bible, the notes in it a usually a short version of what a full commentary is (although the ESV and NIVZSB are pretty commentaries in their own right). It is a book that should help you understand the literature, culture, and theology of a given book of the Bible. That last point is somewhat disputed when it comes to commentaries that are more technical. That is, those commentaries tend to go into extensive detail on the literary, cultural, and historical side of things, but do not always terminate in explaining the theological message of the book.

Commentaries come in many shapes and sizes. They also tend to get published in series. Some of these are specific to the Old or New Testament, and some are for the entire Bible. The website that I like to gather recommendations from categories commentaries as either devotional, pastoral, or technical. This is roughly a beginner, intermediate, advanced kind of categorization, although the difference has to do more with focus. The devotional commentary is more for the average person who just wants to understand the book of the Bible better as part of their own personal growth and study. The pastoral commentary is generally more for pastors and teachers of the Bible, and goes into more detail in places. The technical commentary is for pastors and professors and as you might imagine, goes into even more detail, often focusing more on literary and cultural dimensions and less on the theological ones.

A couple of years ago, I put together a series of posts with my recommend commentaries for each book of the Bible. Here are the Old Testament lists:

The post on Old Testament Backgrounds gives a good orientation to both the background of the Old Testament and how to select commentaries on it. After I finished the series, I collated my recommendations into a single post, which you can read here.

Here are the New Testament lists:

There isn’t a corresponding New Testament backgrounds post, but this is a similar type of post. Along with all of this, you can read my reviews of specific commentaries, although they are rarely very in depth.

Thanks to the generosity of IVP Academic, I recently got not only several new releases, but a few old ones as well. Four of those are in the outstanding New Studies in Biblical Theology series.

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First, I requested Peter Adam’s Hearing God’s Words: Exploring Biblical Spirituality, forgetting I already had that in my collection (read the sample here). You can tell the subject from the subtitle, however Adam unfolds it in a way that is not strictly biblical theology. The opening chapter nails down the shape and structure of biblical spirituality, the gist of which you can discern from the book’s title. Chapters 2 and 3 then trace this theme through the Old and New Testaments respectively. Chapter 4 then focuses on a key historical figure, in this case Calvin, and what can learned from his take on the subject. Chapter 5 looks at issues in the study of spirituality and the final chapter offers examples, drawing on the Puritans and in particular Richard Baxter. Like most volumes in this series, this is worth your time, especially if you’re interested in digging into the basis of Christian spirituality.

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Next, I was able to read Mark D. Thompson’s A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture (read a sample here). Unlike many other titles in this series, this volume is more historical and/or systematic theology than biblical theology. The clarity of Scripture is a fairly hot button contemporary issue, so it’s still worth checking out. The opening chapter sets the issue in context. Chapter 2 presents God as the foundation of Scripture’s clarity. From here, Thompson turns to the phenomena of Scripture itself in chapter 3, which does a fair share of biblical theology. Chapter 4 then turns to the hermeneutical challenge. In other words, if we claim Scripture is clear, why are there so many interpretations? Thompson then closes with a chapter that takes some of his doctoral work on Luther’s doctrine of Scripture to help us better explain the clarity of Scripture today. While certainly not definitive, this is still a valuable resource on the topic, showing that there is precedent for the clarity of Scripture in Scripture’s own teaching and in the history of the church’s witness.

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Shortly before Christmas, I read through Paul W. Barnett’s Jesus and The Logic of History (read a sample here). This is one of the earliest volumes in the series and as a byproduct, the typesetting is not easy on the eyes. However, in a culture that questions the historical existence of Jesus, this is a handy volume to pick up. Barnett’s opening chapter talks briefly of historiography how to approach the evidence for Jesus’ existence. The second chapter establishes a link between the historical Jesus and the proclaimed Christ of faith. The next chapter surveys the New Testament letters’ proclamations about Jesus. Chapter 4 looks at Jesus in historical context, primarily in relationship to Herod. From here, Barnett looks at the Gospels as historical records. Chapter 6 moves to the early Christian movement and its relationship to Jesus. Chapter 7 is perhaps the longest and is somewhat summarizing of the ground covered so far. Here, Barnett ties all the previous threads together, solidifying his case for the historical Jesus. Chapter 8 and the conclusion are a combined 6 pages, so this is the pinnacle of the argument more or less. While this volume is one of the shorter in the series, I found it very profitable to read and post a bit more about in the coming days.

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Lastly, while I up in Tennessee I finished Andreas Köstenberger and Scott Swain’s Father, Son, and Spirit (read a sample here). I would say of the volumes I’ve mentioned, this one is the most in-line with what you’d expect from a series called New Studies in Biblical Theology. And the two subjects, the Trinity and the Gospel of John, make it worth your time. The first part of the book, which is just one chapter, establishes the historical context for John’s gospel within Jewish monotheism. The second part is in-depth biblical reflections on the Scriptural data of John’s Gospel. The chapters focus on God, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit in turn. Each chapter covers a similar outline, starting with an introduction and then looking at the relevant passages in the prologue, the Book of Signs (1-12), and the Book of Glory (13-21). The chapter on the Son deviates from this slightly. A short concluding chapter synthesizes the findings.

The third and final part of the book then turns to theological reflections. Chapter 7 is Christological, examining Jesus’ identity as Son in the Gospel. Chapter 8 is pneumatological, exploring the relationship of the Spirit to Christ and believers. Chapter 9 is Trinitarian, unpacking the one divine mission of Father, Son, and Spirit. The final chapter looks in detail at John 17 (the high priestly prayer) and the link between the immanent and economic Trinity.

Given all that, this is definitely a volume for your library if you want to study either the Gospel of John or the doctrine of the Trinity more deeply. Having an author that is a biblical scholar (Köstenberger) working alongside a theologian (Swain) makes for a good combination. I would like to see more volumes in this series try something similar (Köstenberger co-authored another volume, but with Peter O’Brien, another biblical scholar). The tag-teaming I think works well, as does the resulting organization of the material. I know Swain has been co-authoring up a storm with Michael Allen, so maybe there’s another volume like this in the works on the horizon. I guess I could always ask!

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I’m usually skeptical of books like this. However, I was intrigued after seeing someone who teaches astronomy review it on TGC (you’ll notice he has the same feeling I do about books like this). Since I had the ability to easily receive the e-Book from Crossway, I decided it was worth checking into. The endorsements are from a combination of respected astronomers and biblical scholars. The foreword is even written by a guy who is literally a cometographer.

I gave a brief overview of the book already when I posted several excerpts last week. The relevant portion was this:

Nicholl had surveyed what people have made of the Bethlehem star (chapter 1). Then he examined Matthew’s historical account (chapters 2-3), the main hypothesis about the star (chapter 4) before offering his own case that it was a comet (chapter 5-6). Chapter 7 then tackles the question, “why did the Magi interpret the comet the way they did?” In other words, what could the Magi have seen in the night sky that lead them to not only infer a special birth, but then know where to go to see the child?

Nicholl looks briefly at what Matthew says the Magi say. They allude to Numbers 24:17, a text they would have had access to, if in fact they were from Babylon (which is most likely). He then suggests that the astronomical phenomena they witnessed involved a conjugation of constellations with the comet. Then, surprisingly, he suggests that it is described in Revelation 12:1-5

The chapters that follow, which I didn’t mention because I hadn’t read, cover how the Magi would have connected what they saw in the sky to Israel (chapter 8). He suggests the main passages that would have formed their expectations are Numbers 24:17 (alluded to in Matthew 2) and Isaiah 7:14 (quoted in Matthew 2). The latter passage was not necessarily part of the Jewish messianic expectations prior to fulfillment. The Magi could have played a significant role in making that connection explicit. Chapter 9 then turns to a chronology of the Magi’s journey. Assuming the earlier data about what appeared in the sky was accurate, the Magi would have arrived in Bethlehem late November or early December. Jesus is still very much a baby.

Chapter 10 tracks the comet across the sky from its first appearance to its eventual departure. The proposed path Nicholl suggests allows the comet to do some interesting things with the constellations, which might have been what initially caught the Magi’s attention. What he explains about Virgo giving birth (see previous post) would have been the culmination of events that had been going on in the night sky for quite some time.

Chapter 11 and 12 are both on the shorter side. The former makes the case that this would have been the greatest comet in history, given the generally accepted measurements of such a thing. The latter then tells the “on-going” story which mainly includes Herod’s demise (which may have also coincided with an eclipse over Virgo). And with that you are left to pore through the bibliography and notes and the glossary of astronomical terms if you so desire.

Not knowing as much about astronomy, I was actually mostly skeptical of the Revelation 12 connection. It makes sense, but having never heard it before, I was curious to see what the commentaries say. Keener (NIVAC) explicitly denies the connection. He does agree that the term “semeion” can be refer to constellations. However, he notes that the portrayal here differs from Greek mythology, so they can’t be constellations. This seems to be begging the question, or at the very least, assuming that since what is depicted here has no direct correlation in mythology, then the constellations can’t be in view. Not a very strong argument.

David Aune (WBC), as you might expect, goes into the greatest detail and explores the background most fully, especially the combat myth in both Jewish and other cultural backgrounds. I didn’t have all day so I didn’t read his entire section on the passage, but he doesn’t affirm or deny an astronomical connection. He notes such a thing is possible, but not in the kind of detail that Nicholl is arguing.

As far as Beale (NIGTC), Osborne (BECNT), Mounce (NICNT), Morris (TNTC), Kistemaker (BNTC), and Patterson (NAC) go, there is no connection argued. They almost all interpret this passage in purely symbolic terms, but with various literal referents (usually Israel as the woman and Jesus as the boy born). To me this suggests that an actual historical referent is entirely possible. John may very well be describing something that historically happened in the night sky (or rehearsing a version of it) that has multiple symbolic meanings. One of those is the literal birth of Christ in 6 BC. This historical event itself has symbolic meaning against the Old Testament backdrop and John may very well be developing that further in his re-telling of it Revelation (since obviously the passage in question doesn’t end with the birth).

All that to say, I don’t see a good argument against Nicholl’s interpretation of Revelation 12 from any of the major commentaries. They do not argue for it, but what they do argue for doesn’t conflict with Nicholl’s suggested referent. At the end of the day though, it may be best to concur with the previously mentioned reviewer’s conclusion:

So, has Nicholl finally solved the mystery of the Star? I’m tempted to say he has. But until an independent reference to the Christ Comet is discovered in the historical record, I would have to call his theory a speculative historical reconstruction—albeit a sophisticated one that may be the most plausible offered to date.

Historians, take note: even a single brief note of a comet appearing at a certain date and in a particular constellation consistent with Nicholl’s theory would be enough to confirm it.

I was encouraged by reading through this book leading up to Christmas. Even though it is tomorrow, it’s not late to use that Amazon gift card you’re going to get to pick this up for yourself!


Colin Nicholl, The Great Christ Comet: Revealing The True Star of Bethlehem. Wheaton: Crossway, September 2015. 368 pp. Hardcover, $40.00.

Buy itAmazon | Westminster

Read an excerpt

Visit the publisher’s page

Thanks to Crossway for the review copy!

Once again, August Burns Red has a new Christmas song. This came out a few weeks ago, but I just stumbled across it. That works out because over at Christ and Pop Culture, they are doing a series this week Stations of Home Alone. Rock out here and then head over to read Wade Bearden’s Can a Filthy Animal Have a Soul? and check back throughout the week for more!

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Yesterday, the stars aligned in an interesting way. It was the last day of classes before break and I wanted to spend some time reading the Christmas story in class. It was also, as you well know, the opening night for Star Wars: The Force Awakens (which I saw, no comment). I had also been reading Colin Nicholl’s The Great Christ Comet: Revealing The True Star of Bethlehem. As is my custom, I was at Starbucks before the break of dawn with a cold brew and my iPad. I did my initial Bible reading and then switched to Kindle to read chapter 7 in Nicholl’s book.

Up to this point, Nicholl had surveyed what people have made of the Bethlehem star (chapter 1). Then he examined Matthew’s historical account (chapters 2-3), the main hypothesis about the star (chapter 4) before offering his own case that it was a comet (chapter 5-6). Chapter 7 then tackles the question, “why did the Magi interpret the comet the way they did?” In other words, what could the Magi have seen in the night sky that lead them to not only infer a special birth, but then know where to go to see the child?

Nicholl looks briefly at what Matthew says the Magi say. They allude to Numbers 24:17, a text they would have had access to, if in fact they were from Babylon (which is most likely). He then suggests that the astronomical phenomena they witnessed involved a conjugation of constellations with the comet. Then, surprisingly, he suggests that it is described in Revelation 12:1-5. He defends this in much more detail, but here is his conclusion:

In summary, Revelation 12:1-5 reveals the multifaceted celestial wonder that coincided with the birth of Jesus— the very sight that the Magi had seen in the eastern sky and that had prompted them to make a long journey west to Judea to worship the Messiah. In this astonishing celestial nativity drama, Virgo was playing the part of Israel/ Mary, and the comet’s coma was playing the role of the messianic baby. After rising heliacally in Virgo’s womb, looking like a baby, the cometary coma remained there for many days, growing in size in the manner of a normal human baby in its mother’s womb. While the comet rose in altitude, each passing day would have meant that it was observable earlier and in darker skies. Then, after descending within Virgo’s belly, the coma would have moved down out of it, making it seem that the baby was being born. Eventually, the baby appeared to have completely vacated Virgo’s womb and at this point it was regarded as having been born. At that moment the comet as a whole apparently formed an immense scepter that stretched from the eastern horizon all the way to the western horizon. Those attuned to what was happening and interpreting it messianically would have had no question but that the Messiah was born at that very time. Finally, the cometary baby speedily disappeared into the Sun’s light (i.e., heliacally set), bringing an end to the wonder in the eastern sky.

We infer from Revelation 12:1-5 that the comet’s coma became extraordinarily large, equivalent in size to a large full-term baby at the point of birth; that the comet as a whole took the form of a long iron scepter at the point of the child’s birth; and that it must have been very bright. Further, Revelation suggests that, on the eve of the birth, there was a meteor storm radiating from the tail of Hydra.

What John writes enables us to narrow down when the celestial events took place— during the months of Ululu and Tishratu (Babylon) or Tishri and Heshvan (Judea), namely in September and October of 6 BC. Moreover, Revelation 12:1-5 enables us to narrow down the time of Jesus’s birth to mid-October (early Tishratu in Babylon and early Heshvan in Judea) 96 of 6 BC. This is a plausible time of year for Jesus’s birth— it was when the Romans tended to have their censuses and when shepherds would certainly have been out in the fields (Luke 2:1-18). The cometary baby would have heliacally risen on September 29 or 30 and remained in her belly for about two weeks before slowly descending out of it to be born.

Essentially, the wonder that marked Jesus’s birth was an incredible full celestial nativity drama focused on Virgo and a great comet that seemed to bring her to life (Kindle Loc., 4603-4625)

Nicholl then takes this interpretation and connects it back to Matthew 1:18-2:12:

We suggest, then, based on our study of Revelation 12:1-5 and our fresh analysis of Matthew 1:18-2:12, that while the Virgin Mary was giving birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, the zodiacal constellation figure Virgo was giving birth to a cometary baby.

What we have preserved in Revelation 12:1-5 is a series of astronomical observations from 6 BC.

The heavenly birth was the climax of the year-plus cometary apparition. It was also the culmination of a pregnancy that had been apparent from the moment that a cometary baby was observed in Virgo’s womb as she heliacally rose, emerging in the eastern predawn sky. The cometary coma would initially have looked small in her belly, but over the following weeks, as the comet approached Earth, the “baby” would have become larger and larger, just like a fetus in its mother’s womb. In due course, it descended within Virgo until it made it seem that she was in labor. Then, when the coma-baby had fully emerged from its mother’s womb, it was “born.” Revelation implies that this celestial birth coincided with the birth of the Messiah to the terrestrial virgin, Mary. At that time the comet as a whole may well also have formed a massive celestial scepter that stretched from the eastern to the western horizon and seemed to rest on Israel in the west.

According to the New Testament, after the comet completed its time in the eastern sky and crossed to the west, it proceeded to guide the Magi to the place where the terrestrial virgin mother and her child were located. While the Messiah’s Star at its rising had revealed to the Magi the fact, time, and manner of his birth, it subsequently turned into a massive celestial pointer, disclosing to them precisely where the baby Messiah was located. The comet that had played the part of Virgo’s messianic baby in the celestial play eventually led the Magi right to the virgin and her special baby!

The Biblical account suggests that, as the Magi entered the house in Bethlehem, they finally saw on the earth what they had seen in the heavens less than 1 ½ months beforehand: the virgin with her newborn child. Their divine mission was now complete. Heaven and earth were united. (Kindle Loc., 4838-4859)

Ultimately Nicholl then concludes:

From what they saw in the eastern sky the Magi could have deduced certain things about the newborn baby, Virgo’s child par excellence: (1) His mother had conceived him through divine intervention without losing her virginity. (2) He had been born at the point when the cometary coma had in its entirety descended below Virgo’s groin. (3) He was the son of God. (4) He was glorious. (5) He was divine. (6) He had a powerful enemy who was eager to kill him. (7) He was destined to reign over the whole world. However, the celestial wonders by themselves cannot explain why the pagan astrologers came to the conclusion that the one born to a virgin was the Messiah, the King of the Jews. It was the Hebrew Scriptures, mediated through one or more Jews in Babylon, that furnished them with the all-important messianic paradigm (Kindle Loc., 4902-4908)

I still have to finish the book, but I found his explanation pretty convincing and used in class yesterday as we talked through the Christmas story. In a real sense, Christmas was the original “star wars.” The sign of Christ’s birth was signaled long long ago (2021 years to be exact), not in a galaxy far far away, but in our very own corner of the vast universe. While you can read too much into the night sky, it does play a fairly prominent role in the biblical story, and based on Nicholl’s careful study, is something we should perhaps examine more closely.

Especially if you happen to teach at a school whose mascot is the Comets!

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Well, it’s almost that time of year again. You know, that time at the end of the year when everyone gets jazzed about Bible reading plans. I haven’t seen the posts pop up yet, but I’m sure the week after Christmas they’ll be here right on schedule.

While I’m all for Bible reading plans, it really is not that effective if you just power through a reading plan without understanding what your’e reading. I would imagine that’s why many people have a hard time getting through a “Bible in a year” plan once Exodus wraps up. Leviticus and Numbers can join forces to tank any resolve you have leftover from January and put an end to your efforts mid-February.

A way to avoid some of this is to learn the basics of biblical interpretation. There are many, many resources you could use for this, but I’d recommend starting with Sinclair Ferguson’s From The Mouth of God: Trusting, Reading, and Applying The Bible. I wouldn’t necessarily make it the only book you read on the topic, but it is an excellent place to start.

The subtitles give you the three parts that the book is divided into. First, Ferguson offers a trio of chapters on the trustworthiness of Scripture. He provides a good foundation that helps readers to see that the Bible is actually God’s Word. The implications of this should be that we make a priority of reading and then applying it.

Toward that end, Ferguson devotes the second part of the book to helping you read the Bible better. The first chapter in this section covers reading in general. The second chapter gives readers several “keys” for reading well. They are:

  • Context
  • Jesus
  • The unfolding drama
  • Biblical logic
  • Each part of Scripture should be read according to its literary character

These could have been presented in perhaps a more memorable way. But, they give readers “handles” for how to handle the Word of God correctly. When we read, we should ask questions about the background context (historical, cultural, literary), as well how it fits into the larger story of Scripture and relates to Christ. We should also develop the ability to read using biblical logic (which is easier said than done) and then read Scripture according to its genre of literature. These are pretty basic ideas, but they are not necessarily common sense and might not be something that every Christian has just naturally thought of in their Bible reading.

Going off the last key above, Ferguson devotes the following chapter to explaining how to read prose, poetry, wisdom, and prophecy well. Then, the following chapter does the same for Gospels, Epistles, and visions. Notice that these seven genres give us the way the Old and New Testaments are organized. The final chapter in this section is a brief Bible study using the keys to examine Ruth.

This makes for a natural transition to the next section on applying Scripture. The trio of chapters here are short, but help readers navigate the use of Scripture, how it takes root (using the parable of the sower) and how to draw practical applications. Ferguson follows up with several appendices, two on divine guidance through reading Scripture, one with more references for further reading, and the last is a Bible reading plan that I happen to use.(which D. A. Carson blogs on here).

Ultimately, this book isn’t a last word on the topic. It is an accessible introduction to reading the Bible profitably as God’s Word. Since many people can make a renewed commitment to do that as the New Year comes, this book would make a good companion resource to help broaden and deepen your reading. If you’ve read many books already on the topic, you won’t necessarily need to add this to your collection. However, simply because Sinclair Ferguson is the author, you might want to anyway.


Sinclair Ferguson, From The Mouth of God: Trusting, Reading, and Applying The BibleCarlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust , July 2014. 224 pp. Paperback, $15.00.

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Thanks to Banner of Truth Trust for the review copy!

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As is my custom during Christmas and Easter, I’ve been reading some books related to the holidays. Alongside The First Days of Jesus and The Great Christ Comet, I just finished up Robert Hutchinson’s Searching For Jesus: New Discoveries In The Quest For Jesus of NazarethOften, I am skeptical of these sorts of books. After reading it, I would recommend it for the most part, but with a few caveats.

First though, an overview is in order. With the exception of the last chapter, each chapter is framed around a question. They are:

  • Is there eyewitness testimony in the Gospels?
  • Liar, lunatic, or legend?
  • Are the Gospels forgeries?
  • Have archaeologists found Jesus’ house?
  • Did the Church invent the idea of a suffering Messiah?
  • Just how kosher was Jesus?
  • Did Jesus have a secret message?
  • Was Jesus a zealot revolutionary?
  • Did Jesus plan his own execution?
  • Do we have proof for the resurrection?

Notice that some of these seem somewhat neutral, while others have a kind of skeptical edge to them. Part of this is because the author’s path to more academic New Testament study runs counter to people like Bart Ehrman. While growing up as a Christian, Hutchinson “just accepted as a self-evident truth that at least some of the New Testament was legendary” (xxiii). In a sense then, Hutchinson started from a position of skepticism related to the historicity of the New Testament and only after moving to Jerusalem, studying the Jewish culture, and then going to seminary at Fuller did he move the more conservative position.

That being said, Hutchinson doesn’t write as an evangelical per se. His book excels when it discusses cultural context, archaeology, and historical documents. When it comes to theology, the atonement for instance, he seems more or less out of touch with the general contours of the traditional doctrine (chapter 9 gets into this and is also one of the shortest in the book). However, his overall focus is not on the theology of Jesus’ teaching and the resulting development of Christianity. Rather, he is exploring what kind of evidence there is for Jesus’ life and work in the first century.

As far as that element of his work goes, his conclusions are more or less in line with the traditional views that Christians have held since basically the first century. The New Testament contains eyewitness testimony, Jesus was neither liar, lunatic, or legend. The Gospels we have aren’t forgeries and in fact were written very early. The church didn’t invent the idea of a suffering Messiah and in fact there is evidence for the idea in Second Temple Judaism. The Gnostic Gospels are not accurate depictions of Jesus, who also was not a zealot revolutionary. The Gospel of Judas is not the best explanation for why Jesus was killed and we do have pretty solid proof of Jesus resurrection (although Hutchinson is a little more fuzzy on this than you’d hope, even after having read Wright).

Hutchinson supports all these conclusions by bringing readers into scholarly discussions in a digestible way. Because of his background, he reads a bit wider than many evangelicals but also stands in opposition to the many radical revisionists when it comes to early Christian history (he debunks quite a bit of Ehrman’s claims in this book). Each chapter contains a short list of recommend books for further study that often include books that are recommendations and books that he gently refutes. For the most part, Hutchinson is interacting with books rather than journal articles. Often, these books are aimed at the popular level public and so it is helpful for a well-educated layman to take on some of their claims and show that the evidence doesn’t always mesh as well as these revisionist authors claim.

On the whole, I’d recommend picking this up if you’re curious about the background for Jesus life and ministry. If you’ve caught wind of some skeptical questions related to Jesus’ existence Hutchinson’s book can provide solid evidence to undermine some more radical claims. He is a very readable author and conversant with a wide variety of sources. It may be a 350 page book, but it isn’t dense academic prose on the subject. From a traditional evangelical perspective, there is much to agree with historically and culturally, but some variance when it comes to theology. However, I think that might be ultimately helpful because it helps readers not only survey the evidence with Hutchinson but can encourage one to be critical in a healthy way regarding some the theological conclusions he makes.

Robert J. Hutchinson, Searching For Jesus: New Discoveries In The Quest For Jesus of Nazareth – And How They Confirm The Gospel AccountsNashville: Thomas Nelson, October 2015. 352 pp. Hardcover, $24.99.

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Thanks to Thomas Nelson for the review copy!