Are Jesus’ Teachings Normative?

The Politics of Jesus, by John Howard Yoder (Eerdmans, 1973, 260 pp., $3.45 pb), is reviewed by Donald W. Dayton, director of Mellander Library, North Park Theological Seminary, Chicago.

The Politics of Jesus could prove to be one of the most significant studies published among evangelicals in quite some time. The book was barely off the press before it was being analyzed in graduate courses in Christian ethics at the University of Chicago and was seized upon by circles of evangelical “radical” Christians to support their activism. Its impact on Roman Catholics at Notre Dame is indicated in an essay in Worldview (June, 1973).

Yoder is president of Goshen Biblical Seminary and today’s most articulate Mennonite theologian. Author of a number of books on the Anabaptist heritage, he is one of the most instructive examples available of how a theologian can reshape and revitalize a tradition in fidelity to both Scripture and history.

Much of Yoder’s work is in frank defense of pacifism. His Nevertheless (Herald, 1971) distinguishes nearly a score of “types” of pacifism and criticizes most of them as severely as non-pacifists. Yoder’s own “Messianic Pacifism” is spelled out in The Original Revolution (Herald, 1971). From one perspective The Politics of Jesus develops the exegetical foundations of these other two books.

But this book is much more than a defense of pacifism. It is an extended essay in social ethics arguing the unpopular thesis that the life and teachings of Jesus have direct social and political implications. Herein lies the importance of this book for evangelicals. From dispensationalists to Pentecostals, evangelicals have, like most Christian traditions, found ways to avoid the normativeness of Jesus. Evangelicals speak much of Christ as Saviour, less, and then in a somewhat truncated manner, of him as Lord, but hardly at all of Jesus as teacher and model who calls us to radical discipleship. I have often been reminded of a young girl who said that her evangelical background had conditioned her to assume that any minister who preached from the Gospels had to be a “liberal.”

Yoder’s case is based primarily on a detailed exegesis of the Gospel of Luke that will for most readers open up an entirely new world within the Scriptures. Years of spiritualized interpretation of this Gospel have blinded us to the literal meaning of its basic statement of Christ’s mission:

He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor;

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives;

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And recovery of sight to the blind;

To set at liberty those who are oppressed,

To proclaim the acceptable year of the Yahweh.

We have forgotten that Jesus addressed the Beatitudes to the “poor” and the “hungry.” These are only the most obvious examples of the closely reasoned and coherent case Yoder makes for a new reading of this Gospel.

Marshalling an amazing amount of biblical scholarship in several languages, Yoder argues that what he finds in Luke permeates the whole New Testament. Building on the work of André Trocmé, he finds echoes of the economic leveling of the “Year of Jubilee” throughout the Gospels. Yoder develops the biblical basis of the theme of “imitation of Christ” and analyzes the meaning of the “principalities and powers” in terms of social forces. Attacking scholarly consensus, he argues for the originality of the Haustafeln ethical passages in the epistles that call for “subordination” within the family and the state. But Yoder’s development is in terms of a “revolutionary subordination” modeled on Jesus’ submission to the cross. Building on the work of Markus Barth and others, Yoder argues for the social character of justification by faith.

There are, of course, criticisms to be brought against the book. Despite his claims to the contrary, one suspects that Yoder’s concentration on Luke makes his argument easier. His statement is also somewhat one-sided, and he occasionally resorts to special pleading to close the gaps in his argument. His effort to show the direct relevance of the biblical material to the modern world slights the real cultural differences between the first and twentieth centuries. But these flaws should not become the excuse for avoiding close interaction with his argument. In the words of Markus Barth, this is “a book of supreme importance.” And its importance lies precisely in moving questions of social ethics firmly into the realm of exegesis where every truly biblical Christian must face them head on.

Slick Hatchet Job

The Preachers, by James Morris (St. Martin’s Press, 1973, 418 pp., $8.95), is reviewed by Erling Jorstad, professor of history and American studies, St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota.

James Morris chooses as “the preachers” Oral Roberts, Billy Graham, Carl McIntire, A. A. Allen, Billy James Hargis, C. W. Burpo, the Armstrongs, Kathryn Kuhlman, and Reverend Ike. He explains that these are “generally the most representative of the independent preachers, the ones who have had the greatest social, political and religious impact on grass roots America.” A straightforward explanation of this American phenomenon would be welcome.

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But Morris offers little help in this long series of personal impressions. He concentrates on the subject’s public appearance instead of uncovering the theology involved in each ministry.

Morris spent considerable time collecting the periodicals, attending meetings, and making tapes of the radio programs of these preachers. He tries to see an overall pattern. But in doing this he fails to differentiate among the subjects. Seeing them as a whole, he believes they represent “a movement that for too long has been ignored or dismissed, one that now threatens to become part of the new religious and political ‘mainstream’ of America.”

What audience Morris had in mind is hard to determine. By sidestepping theology, he denies himself the chance to dissuade any followers of a leader he regards as unworthy. If he is writing for those who enjoy ridiculing “radio preachers,” he adds no new information to feed this attitude. By avoiding extensive documentation, he removes the book from serious attention by the informed reader.

Morris’s method depends upon innuendo, inference, and selectivity. The author culls from his subjects’ lives events and statements that suit his purposes. He gives us only snatches of biography, and then large amounts of information about the subject during the years Morris observed him. This selectivity helps advance the author’s “threat” thesis, but it is unconvincing to those wanting the full picture.

Morris says that Roberts used “faith-healing” better than any other practitioner in the past 2,500 years for “personal aggrandizement.” These and similar statements are supported by references to unidentified “critics” and “observers.” He refers to the title of Mrs. Roberts’s autobiography as “suitable for the rural gingham-dress circuit.” Such snide digs leaves the reader more suspicious of the author than of Roberts.

In Morris’s judgment Reverend Ike “seems destined to become the most controversial and famous black preacher in the history of American religion.” The author would do well to read Charles Hamilton on the black American preacher.

Morris errs in stating that McIntire currently broadcasts over 600 stations; that figure might have been correct a decade ago but is definitely wrong now. On Hargis, Morris does a good job of showing the gradual disenchantment of the Tulsa crusader with Nixon after 1969. But then he leaves us in a state of disbelief with the statement that Hargis is “the most powerful speaker of the far right and perhaps in all of America.”

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In his use of evidence, Morris refers to the excellent critique by John H. Redekop but then ignores the material Redekop provides. He also fails to interact with the influential 1964 book by Forster and Epstein entitled Danger on the Right, though he shows he has looked at it.


Eerdmans’ Handbook to the Bible, edited by David Alexander et al. (Eerdmans, 680 pp., $12.95). By any measure, an outstanding volume. The full-color photographs, charts, and maps on almost every page are unique in this kind of work. Dozens of short articles by leading evangelical scholars plus a succinct chapter-by-chapter commentary on the whole Bible make this the rare book of which it can honestly be said that every home should have one.

Victory Over Violence, by Martin Hengel (Fortress, 67 pp., $2.50 pb). Examines the stance of Jesus and of the early Christians toward violent political revolution, finds non-violence and love for enemies taught, and suggests contemporary applications.

The Bible in Human Transformation, by Walter Wink (Fortress, 90 pp., $2.95 pb). A Union Seminary professor rejects historical biblical criticism and proposes a new method of Bible study, using psychological insights and personal interaction. Provocative.

A Dictionary of Non-Christian Religions, by Geoffrey Parrinder (Westminster, 320 pp., $10.95). Hundreds of brief descriptions of deities, beliefs, practices, writings, objects, places, and persons. Includes living as well as dead religions. Value is enhanced by numerous illustrations. Author is a leading authority.

Free to Do Right, by David Field (Inter-Varsity, 111 pp., $1.25 pb). Down-to-earth look at the position of morality in the Christian’s life. Looks at the God-centered view of morality, contrasted with the “new morality.” Well written, clearly presented.

German Pietism During the Eighteenth Century, by F. Ernest Stoeffler (E. J. Brill [Leiden, the Netherlands], 281 pp., 64 guilders). Detailed study of the movement as it relates to the quest for religious reality and to the lives of the people. Francke. Spener, Zinzendorf, and others played key roles in the history of evangelicalism. Their influence spread far beyond German-speaking lands.

The Church Library, by Gladys Scheer (Bethany [Box 179, St. Louis, Mo. 63166], 80 pp., $2.50 pb). Practical tips on organizing and developing local church facilities. Helpful resource material.

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Heaven Help the Home, by Howard Hendricks (Victor [Wheaton, Ill. 60187], 143 pp., $1.45 pb). Biblically based discussion of the contemporary problems in Christian homes and means of dealing with them. Warmly written, personally illustrated, enjoyable to read. Handles everyday situations with insight and humor, based on Christ’s teachings. Beneficial for all parents.

All You Lonely People, All You Lovely People, by John Killinger (Word, 153 pp., $4.95). The captivating story of an encounter group that met for six months in Nashville, as told in a weekly journal kept at the time. Offers insights into the lonely, isolated, out-of-communication people who made up the group. Could be of value to those currently meeting in similar groups. Warm and interesting.

Christianity For the Tough Minded, edited by John Warwick Montgomery (Bethany Fellowship, 296 pp., $3.95 pb). Twenty-four essays, written by students and recent graduates of Trinity seminary aimed primarily at those antagonistic to Christianity. Topics range from an impressive scrutiny of Bertrand Russell’s religious position to a study of weakness in Buddhism. Aggressive scholarship distinguishes this excellent volume.

Anticlericalism: A Brief History, by Jose Sanchez (University of Notre Dame, 244 pp., $8.95). Study of movements, usually successful, against the Catholic clergy in Europe and Latin America from the Middle Ages to the present. While the old fight is dying out, the emergence of social-activist priests may provoke new conflicts.

Sexual Intimacy, by Andrew Greeley (Thomas More, 199 pp., $6.95). Candid look at the human personality in the sexual relationship. Shows great insight into the human emotions in sex.

World Directory of Religious Radio and Television Broadcasting, compiled by International Christian Broadcasters (William Carey Library, 808 pp., $8.95). A country-by-country survey in chart form indicating the actual and potential status of religious programming station by station, including typical costs of air-time. (The United States, with its enormous number of stations, is not included.)

Pre-Christian Gnosticism, by Edwin Yamauchi (Eerdmans, 208 pp., $7.95). Was the great “heresy” that the Church combated in its first few centuries a deviation from apostolic doctrine or an earlier religion that adopted selected Christian concepts? Yamauchi examines the available evidence and concludes that Gnosticism is essentially post-Christian.

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Salvation Is Forever, by Robert C. Gromacki (Moody, 188 pp., $2.50 pb). Good exegetical and theological defense of eternal security for the believer.

The Base Church: Creating Community Multiple Forms, by Charles M. Olsen (Forum House [1610 LaVista Road N.E., Atlanta, Ga. 30329], 167 pp., $4.95). As alternatives to large and impersonal congregations, the author describes various kinds of small-group movements. He favors alterations within existing organizations rather than an anti-institutional posture.

The Roots of Ritual, edited by James D. Shaughnessy (Eerdmans, 251 pp., $3.95 pb). This collection of essays by nine noted scholars argues for the respectability and utility of both civil and religious ritual. Covers its role in liturgy and in church architecture and other aspects. Eloquent treatment.

Beyond the Classics?, edited by Charles Y. Glock and Phillip E. Hammond (Harper & Row, 422 pp., $9, $4.95 pb). Eight essays on the scientific study of religion, each focusing on a pioneering figure in the field (e.g., Weber, Freud, William James) and suggesting implications and new directions. Well researched, detailed bibliographies.

Everybody Can Know, by Francis and Edith Schaeffer (Tyndale, 345 pp., n.p.). Study of the Book of Luke, designed to be read aloud for group participation and discussion. Written on the level that a discerning child could understand and yet meaty enough for an adult. Basic and sound explanation of biblical truth. Imaginatively different book; especially for use with non-Christians and new Christians.

Hansi, the Girl Who Loved the Swastika, by Maria Anne Hirschmann (Tyndale, 243 pp., $1.95). Moving autobiography of a Czech girl who struggles to reconcile Nazi training and Christian teachings.

The Brethren Movement in the World Today, by Donald Tinder, and The Humanity of Jesus Christ, by F. F. Bruce, H. D. McDonald, and D. J. A. Clives (Christian Brethren Research Fellowship [Regent College, 5990 Iona St., Vancouver 8, B.C., Canada], 48 pp. and 40 pp., $2 each pb). The first title looks at the ideals of the so-called Plymouth Brethren in the light of church history and present needs. Thirteen men, including ex- and non-Brethren, then offer responses. Appended is a comparatively accurate description of the various groups of Brethren by a Lutheran scholar. The second title contains evangelicals (Bruce is the world’s best-known scholar from the Brethren movement) emphasizing that the true humanity of our Lord must be proclaimed every bit as much as his deity.

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Presbyterians in the South, volumes two and three, by Ernest T. Thompson (John Knox, 544 pp. each, $15 each). Volume one appeared ten years ago. These volumes complete the narrative from 1861 to 1972. The definitive history of a major segment of Presbyterianism, the Presbyterian Church in the United States.

Design for Discipleship (The Navigators [Box 1659, Colorado Springs, Colorado 80901], 275 pp., $5 pb). A new series of six study booklets to assist the new convert as he starts on the road of discipleship. The same organization has many other useful evangelistic and follow-up aids.

The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, four volumes, edited by Paul Edwards (Macmillan, 4,300 pp., $99.50). Originally published in 1967 in eight volumes at more than twice the cost (yes, some prices have gone down!). More than 1,400 articles by some 500 men make this a very thorough reference work that is also quite interesting. Libraries for secondary schools and up should have it, and many individuals can now afford it as well.

Time to Negotiate, by Hilbert Berger (Friendship, 56 pp., $2.95 pb), and Personal Finances for Ministers, by John Banker (Westminster, 127 pp., $1.65 pb). The first sets down very practical guidelines for clergy to follow when discussing specific terms with the church finance committee. The second offers suggestions on many aspects of money management. Both hold helpful suggestions.

By the Power of the Holy Spirit, by David M. Howard (InterVarsity, 172 pp., $1.95 pb). Exegetical look at Scriptures pertaining to the Holy Spirit. Treats the charismatic movement sympathetically but asserts that baptism of the Spirit takes place at conversion and speaking in tongues is not a necessary evidence of that baptism.

The Challenge of Modern Church-Public Relations, edited by Michael Reagan and Doris Chertow (Library of Continuing Education [150 Marshall St., Syracuse, N. Y. 13210], 67 pp., $3 pb). Several essays applying techniques of public relations to various aspects of communicating the Church’s message to the world.

The Simple Life, by Vernard Eller (Eerdmans, 122 pp., $2.25 pb). An examination of the place of possessions in the Christian’s life, based on some passages from the New Testament and from Soren Kierkegaard’s writings. Does not present specifics but rather philosophical principles.

The Ethics of Jonathan Edwards, by Clyde A. Holbrook (University of Michigan, 227 pp., $10). A religion professor at Oberlin presents his revised doctoral dissertation, which provides a good overview of the subject.

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The chapter on Graham is so different from the others that one suspects it was put there at the publisher’s request. My thirteen-year-old daughter, who shares my enthusiasm for radio preachers, rightly commented, without fatherly prompting, that the book is “too critical of Roberts and too fawning over Graham.”

Morris does not use any primary material such as Graham’s Decision magazine or his printed radio sermons. In this chapter alone he draws on the evaluations of outside observers. He includes criticism of Graham by sources such as the Christian Century but makes none of his own.

He errs in saying that it was the conversion of Stuart Hamblen in the 1949 Los Angeles revival that led William Randolph Hearst to order his papers to “Puff Graham.” Hearst became interested after one of the maids in his home told him of Graham, and then after Graham at a crusade rally predicted the dropping of A-bombs on America.

Morris often lapses into snideness and sarcasm, as well as into mistakes. A critical reexamination of religious leaders is always in order. But this book does not provide that kind of evaluation. It makes hardly any reference to the major religious trends of the era. Morris apparently assumes the reader knows about such specialized topics as the Latter Rain movement, which he mentions but does not explain.

One needn’t be a supporter of any one or more of these preachers to recognize a slick hatchet job.

A Provocative Treatise

The Tenth Generation: The Origins of the Biblical Tradition, by George A. Mendenhall (Johns Hopkins, 1973, 249 pp., $12.50), is reviewed by Carl Armerding, assistant professor of Old Testament, Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia.

The previous major work of professor Mendenhall of the University of Michigan remains a foundational study of covenant forms, both within Israel and in the Ancient Near East, particularly among the Hittites of the second millennium B.C. His work, together with researches of scholars like Dennis J. McCarthy, Delbert R. Hillers, and Meredith G. Kline, and others, has established the covenant as perhaps the most basic form of interpersonal, intertribal, and international relationship. Such covenants, based on Hittite models, have now been discovered in various parts of the Old and New Testament, as form-critical scholars have carried on their researches through the past two decades.

In 1972 Meredith Kline’s work, The Structure of Biblical Authority (Eerdmans), moved from a consideration of covenant form to that of covenant function, with the resulting conclusion that immediate canonicity (in the modern sense of that word) accompanied the promulgation of an ancient covenant, such as Deuteronomy. Now George Mendenhall, in a series of essays loosely grouped around a central theme, has taken up the question of covenant function again, and he concludes that the covenant was the basic element in the creation of a totally new political and ethical synthesis in Israel at the beginning of the Iron Age (c. 1200 B.C.).

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His hypothesis is easy to discover, though like much in the book difficult to comprehend in all of its ramifications. Professor Mendenhall is arguing that proper historical methodology will lead to the conclusion that at the close of the Late Bronze Age there arose a new synthesis amongest a grouping of originally disparate peoples, in which the legal, political, and ethical unity later called Israel was created. In this new synthesis, it was the function of Yahweh as Covenant-King that overshadowed all else, and this period, for Mendenhall, is the Golden Age to which all subsequent history of Israel must be compared. Israel is not, according to Mendenhall, the result of a semi-nomadic invasion from the desert (archaeology will not support a sharp break between Canaanite and invader!) but grew rather from a realization that allegiance to a Covenant-God in a new religious-ethical appreciation transcended the values held in the Late Bronze Age. The author sharply rejects the idea that the covenant-forms, as contained in biblical records, are mythological (myth serves merely to legitimize what already is); rather, the covenant must be seen as that instrument through which the religious unity of Israel was brought about. This is a concern of the historian rather than the literary critic.

This Golden Age of the Kingdom of God in Israel seems to have functioned in a pure way only through the period of the Judges. The end of the period with its heroic values signalled a return to Late Bronze Age ways of looking at the world, and both David and Solomon, like Constantine in his readaptation of Christianity, rejected the simple rule of God in favor of an essentially political solution to religious problems. Whenever this point arises in the discussion, the author’s wrath over much current theology (whether it be the political theology of Harvey Cox or the existentialist currents in a critic like Susan Sontag) is trumpeted loud and clear. That the editorial framework of the book of Judges sees in Israel’s simple, fragmented, and fragile unity something less than the ideal is apparently no problem for Mendenhall, for he holds that many of the biblical traditions represent values politicized by Baal-worship (i.e., kingly values under David and Solomon) rather than the original Yahwistic religion of simple ethics. The prophets are seen as calling for a return to the original values, not so much as a rejection of cult, but more as a rejection of politics as a way of life.

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The remainder of the book (after an introduction and opening chapter in which the hypothesis is outlined) consists of seven valuable historical essays that Mendenhall feels support his basic thesis. Whether each one does or not, it will easily be seen that the primary research and historical synthesis is of utmost value. Many another ancient historian would have buried these articles in learned journals. Mendenhall’s conviction that the real task of the historian is synthesis rather than a mere collecting of facts has brought the articles together in support of a main point.

Chapter 2, “The Mask of Yahweh,” examines evidence for the “winged disk” motif in Egypt, Mesopotamia. Syria, and Hatti, finally concluding that the symbol as presented in Israel through the ’anan or cloud-theophany of Yahweh marked the presence of the Covenant-Lord in the new religion under Moses. Consistent with the major thesis, Mendenhall argues that the reduction of Yahweh to a mere symbol in the later monarchy, with the transfer of real glory to the king, set up the basic conflict between prophetic (ethical) and political religion that caused the death of Josiah and the persecution of Jeremiah.

If the mask is the manifestation of Yahweh, his wrath or vengeance is the necessary exercise of his divine sovereignty (Chapter 3). Mendenhall rejects the assumption that Yahweh was a primitive god characterized by tribal notions of wrath that stand in contrast to the more enlightened concept of deity in the later prophets and the New Testament. A study of the Semitic roots NQM and SPT shows that Yahweh’s vindictive role was merely the exercise of his legitimate power in an early Israel that had rejected kingship and empire with its resort to human force as the solution of human problems. The New Testament rejection of human vindication is simply a return to the truth of the Old Testament “Imperium of God,” created by Moses and reaffirmed by the prophets.

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Mendenhall’s critical methodology is clearly seen in Chapter 4, “The Incident at Beth Baal Peor.” Rejecting both literary and form-critical methods as inadequate, the author turns to ancient historical records as providing a necessary context in which to reconstruct the biblical narrative of Numbers 25. His conclusions, though perhaps less subjective than many, are hardly congenial to the thinking of those who would find in Numbers a consistent Word from God with reference to the conflict at Beth Baal Peor. The reconstructed context is the outbreak of an epidemic disease, and the strange patterns of response (a feast followed by ritual sex acts) are seen (possibly quite rightly) as standard pagan ritual from the Late Bronze Age. Various levels of tradition are incorporated into the text, represented by (1) the instructions of Yahweh, (2) the instructions of Moses, and (3) the reaction of Phineas. Summing up the conclusion of a somewhat tortuous line of reasoning, we find in the account a basic confrontation between tried and true pagan methods of handling a disaster and the newer conviction that only subordination to Yahweh’s own covenant method of vindication is sufficient. The action of Phineas (though commended in the text!) represents the transference of enforcement powers from Yahweh to society, or from covenant to law.

A stimulating discussion of the Apiru/Habiru references in the fourteenth century B.C. Amarna correspondence concludes that these troublesome raiders were in no sense of the word a group of ethnically related outsiders invading Canaan. Rather, they represent an internal grouping of those who had lost the politico-legal status they had formerly possessed and therefore are no longer bound to the traditional legitimate authority. The term “Hebrew” comes from this background, but in Israel the shift from politico-legal to ethnic distinctions (all Israelites become known as “Sons of Israel”) ultimately changes the term to an ethnic one.

Subsequent chapters proceed apace, and will certainly call forth much additional research into the implications of political and ethnic movements in. the Late Bronze Age. Mendenhall’s conclusion that the basic problem of the age was ideological rather than political or economic and that biblical faith is the ideological response to this problem should provoke much discussion and provide stimulus for new direction in the study of Old Testament origins.

Much detailed criticism of this book will have to await the work of technical scholarship and belongs in the learned journals rather than in these pages. Nevertheless, a few remarks may be offered. First, and perhaps most important, is the question of whether Mendenhall is not himself substituting for the old critical methods a subjectively conceived idealistic construction of the Israel which emerged under Moses. Certainly the biblical sources themselves paint no such unified or favorable picture, and it is significant that the Michigan historian has to reject much of the editorial framework of the biblical traditions themselves. In addition, the biblical ideal of divine kingship seems to me so closely related to the institution of kingship in Israel that to claim, as does Mendenhall, that kingship under David is the rejection of the covenant-kingship of Yahweh seems highly questionable.

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On the positive side, I am intrigued by the new respect shown for some aspects of Israel’s early traditions, and can only applaud the insistence upon objective rather than subjective criteria for determining what is fact and what is literary invention. The book will make for its author more enemies than friends, and I suspect he will find that the role of prophet and evangelist is not always a popular one. However, because he is a noted historian and biblical scholar, his preaching cannot be ignored, and his anger must be noted. The book is an example of both the dangers and the possibilities when an historian ceases merely to be a “stamp collector” (his reference, p. 215) and launches into the task of producing from his research a real synthesis that takes seriously the question of relationships and dynamics within a society.

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