The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

Oct 12, 2013

The book some of us have been waiting for: review of The Life and Witness of Peter by Larry R. Helyer.

Throw a rock and you can hit a dozen Pauline theologies. I’m not denigrating the importance of the Apostle Paul’s theology, mind you! The man wrote a significant portion of the New Testament, and his inspired letters deserve the attention they get. Nevertheless, for those of us interested in Peter and his theology, there has been a significant dearth of scholarship. There is, of course, Martin Hengel’s Peter: The Underestimated Apostle as well as Markus Bockmuehl’s Simon Peter in Scripture and Memory: The New Testament Apostle in the Early Church, both significant books. Yet with Larry R. Helyer’s The Life and Witness of Peter (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2012), we have a rare Petrine theology that also gives key consideration to Peter’s life and treatment in the early church. Its significance, in my opinion, can be summed up this way: I desperately wish to teach a class on Petrine theology (at any level!), and without a doubt this is the textbook I would use (and, in my opinion, it’s well-written enough that it could easily be used at the college level as well as in a grad class).

In the preface, Helyer gives a very brief overview as to his methodology and major focuses (after, of course, the obligatory comments on the relative neglect of Petrine scholarship!) Helyer makes it clear that he will focus on the material from Acts in addition to 1 Peter and 2 Peter (in my opinion one of the major strengths of the book). He will also utilize Mark as a source for a general understanding of Peter’s personal background, and consideration will also be given to some post-NT material, Patristic and otherwise. Especially significant for the content of this book is Helyer’s statement on p. 17 that “The overarching rubric that encapsulates Peter’s theology is the meaning and significance of the cross which shapes Peter’s first pastoral letter.”

Chapter 1 deals with the ‘Background of Simon Peter.” Here Helyer provides a brief discussion of Peter’s name and occupation, providing in the process a beneficial overview of the fishing industry in 1st century Galilee (complete with his own culinary recommendation footnote 35, namely that visitors to the area try the type of tilapia called “Saint Peter’s Fish,” fresh from the Sea of Galilee!). Helyer takes an unapologetic “harmonistic approach” when recreating Peter’s life and background from the Gospels, though he acknowledges the value of both redaction and narrative approaches (p. 30).

Chapters 2 and 3 deals with Peter’s appearances in the four Gospels. Naturally, Helyer devotes considerable space to Peter’s confession in Matthew 16:13-20 (and the parallels), as well as Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to Peter. Especially significant is the way in which Helyer ties events in the Gospels to Peter’s later ministry, noting its significance for our spiritual development today. On page 61, for example, he writes (regarding Peter’s three-fold denial), “Peter’s denial can never be taken back. It happened, and he had to live with the painful memory. But rather than letting his failure cripple him spiritually and emotionally, he used it as a means of building up the flock of God. . . . He becomes a living illustration of forgiveness and a second chance. He possesses a degree of compassion and understanding for wavering believers that others, sometimes rather self-righteously, are incapable of showing. We hear a tenderness in Peter’s first epistle that springs out of a bitterly disappointing failure in his own life (1 Peter 5:1-11).”

Chapter 4 deals with “Peter and the early church,” focusing on the book of Acts, while chapter 5 deals with the mention of Peter within Paul’s own epistles. Chapters 6-10 then basically represent a theology of 1 Peter, focusing on that epistle and its key themes. Chapter 6 functions more-or-less as a traditional introduction to the letter, focusing on authorship, genre, recipients, etc. I was especially glad to see Helyer giving due consideration to Karen Jobes’ thesis regarding the recipients, and also that Helyer concludes on p. 116 that the letter uses the concept “stranger” in both a literal and a metaphorical sense (with which I agree, though, like John Elliott, I prefer an initial focus on a literal sense, as I argue in my soon-to-be-published dissertation; it is from the literal that the metaphorical draws its force). Chapters 7-10 then discuss, in order, “Peter’s Christology,” “Christ and the Spirits, Christ and the Holy Spirit,” “Suffering for Jesus,” and “The People of God.”

Chapter 11 functions as an introduction to 2 Peter while chapter 12 deals with its theology. Chapter 13 focuses specifically on 2 Peter’s treatment of false teachers, and chapter 14 focuses specifically on 2 Peter’s eschatology. At this point, I need to mention one statement by Helyer that I greatly appreciated (and one that needs to be preached!): “Many Christians labor under a misunderstanding about their ultimate destiny. They conceive of their eternal state in ethereal (otherworldy0 terms situated in a celestial city ‘up there somewhere.’ The truth is our final destination is on a new earth. In short, ‘heaven’ comes down and does more than ‘fill my soul’; it takes up residence on this planet and fills the whole world with God’s glory” (p. 269).

Finally, Helyer devotes 3 chapters to “The Rest of the Story,” where he focuses on non-canonical treatments of Peter himself, including Patristic accounts of Peter’s life and death, pseudonymous works on Peter, and (in the final chapter), the “legacy” of Peter which concludes with Helyer’s “top ten contributions of the apostle Peter to NT theology.”

In my opinion, Helyer’s The Life and Witness of Peter represents both a significant contribution that fills in a gap in scholarship (the relative lack of work on Petrine theology) as well as a very readable and enjoyable treatment of Peter, his life, and his theology. While I will have a couple minor issues, I can definitely recommend this book for anybody interested in either Peter or biblical theology, or both.

First of all, does Helyer make an important contribution to biblical theology? In my opinion, absolutely. Treatments of this scope on Petrine theology are very rare, and Helyer does an excellent job of plugging that hole in scholarship (from an evangelical perspective, as well).

Secondly, Helyer is a good writer; without sacrificing its contribution to scholarship, The Life and Witness of Peter is both an easy and an enjoyable read. It’s worth pointing out that his Exploring Jewish Literature of the Second Temple Period is a much more enjoyable read than equivalent books at this level of academia (I’m not claiming it’s necessarily better at the scholarly level than equivalent books, simply that it’s more enjoyable).

Thirdly, I like how Helyer does biblical theology. Rather than approaching the texts with set themes and topics, as I’ve seen some works do, Helyer mostly lets the texts themselves determine the themes. This is why, for example, we see an entire chapter on “The People of God” in 1 Peter but not 2 Peter, whereas we see an entire chapter on 2 Peter’s eschatology but not 1 Peter’s eschatology. Not because 1 Peter does not discuss eschatology, nor that 2 Peter does not concern itself at all with the church, but rather because each book of the Bible has its own emphasis and focus. In my opinion, biblical theology is at its best when it lets each distinct book bring out its own theology rather than approaching each book with a “grid” of theological topics. In other words, when doing biblical theology (as opposed to systematic theology), the question is not “What does [insert name of book] say about God, Jesus, the end times, etc.?” but rather, “What themes does this book explore, and how are they developed?” This, in my opinion, is what Helyer does well. Having said that, I do wish Helyer had provided a bit more  interaction between books on certain themes. Chapter 8, for example, could have dealt with the Spirit and the spirits in both 1 Peter and 2 Peter (in light of 2 Peter 1:21 and 2:4, 11), and I would have appreciated it bit more overview of Peter’s theology as a whole (although the final chapter covers that a little). Nevertheless, overall I am in favor of how Helyer handles Peter’s theology. In addition, I greatly appreciate how Helyer covers all the Petrine material in Scripture, not just 1 Peter and 2 Peter. This, in my opinion, is key to developing a true Petrine theology (as opposed to just a theology of 1 Peter or a theology of 2 Peter). Such an approach makes this book extremely valuable.

Fourthly, one of Helyer’s strengths is his knowledge of Second Temple Literature (he wrote an entire book on it) and how this knowledge contributes to The Life and Witness of peter. Numerous examples can be cited, but I’ll point especially to page 44 (what does it mean to “loose” and “bind” in Matthew 16:19? He provides some discussion of close terminology in the Qumran texts and the Mishnah) and p. 251 (2 Pet 2:4’s remarkably close parallel to 1 Enoch).

Fifthly, Helyer does an excellent job at making his work relevant for the Christian community. In other words, The Life and Witness of Peter is meant to be relevant theologically in the everyday life of Christians (e.g., see the quote above from page 61). Having said that, I did scratch my head at his odd sort-of allegorizing of the story of Peter in the boat from Matthew 14 (see p. 39).

A couple mild critiques. First of all, while this book does well to cover introductory matters, students should not rely on it for the best treatment of such topics as authorship, recipients, etc.. For example, although I like what he does with his treatment of the recipients of 1 Peter, he never mentions Moses Chin’s article “A Heavenly Home for the Homeless” in Tyndale Bulletin vol. 42:1 (1991), a significant and influential article (though I disagree with much of it). Similarly, there are some gaps in scholarship; when discussing both the eschatology and the false teachers of 2 Peter, for example, he never mentions two articles that directly deal with these issues: Gene L. Green, “‘As for Prophecies, They Will Come to an End’” in JSNT vol. 8 (2001) and Jerome H. Neyrey, “The Form and Background of the Polemic in 2 Peter,” JBL vol. 99 (September 1980), although he cites other sources by these two scholars. Having said that, I must express my gratefulness that he mentions a little-known article by yours-truly on Peter, an article significantly less important than the contributions by Chin, Green, and Neyrey, so who am I to complain?

Two more points. Even though this book is meant to be accessible to all levels, it still would have greatly benefited from a “survey of scholarship” on Peter and his theology. Secondly, I’m puzzled as to why the relationship between Jude and 2 Peter receives only a two-paragraph treatment (pp. 246-247), especially since this would seem to be relevant to 2 Peter’s theology.

Nevertheless, these moderate critiques should not diminish the value that Helyer’s Life and Witness of Peter provides. This is an essential book for studying both Peter and his theology, and one that I hope to use as a textbook someday.