Middleton Interview by Nijay Gupta (30 OT/HB Scholars to Read and Follow)

Nijay Gupta is a prolific and insightful New Testament scholar who teaches at Northern Seminary. His focus is primarily on Paul, but he knows just about everything. He’s written on Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and the Lord’s prayer, plus introductions to the field of NT studies and a helpful book on doing a PhD in biblical studies.

A few years back Nijay was my faculty colleague at Northeastern Seminary (I know, the two Seminaries have very similar names). Besides being a brilliant scholar, he is a wonderful person. Northern Seminary is very lucky to have him.

Recently, Nijay interviewed me for his Crux Sola blog series called “30 OT/HB Scholars to Read and Follow.” The interview is hosted on the Patheos blog site here.

I have reproduced it in full below:

J. Richard Middleton, Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis, Northeastern Seminary at Roberts Wesleyan College


Why do you love teaching and researching about the OT/HB?

I find the Old Testament to be rich, complex, and textured—in its literature, its theology, and its earthy spirituality. The literature is so varied (from creation texts to prayers of lament, from wisdom treatises to narratives about the ancestors of Israel and the rise and fall of the monarchy), it’s impossible to get bored with it. One of the great challenges for those who teach the Old Testament is that it is impossible to “master” it. You develop various areas of expertise, but there is always so much more that you have to learn.

The earthiness of the Old Testament is also a great antidote to some of the otherworldly spirituality that has become embedded in the history of the church. Since the Old Testament was the Scripture of Jesus, Paul, and the early church, it was the story and symbolic world in terms of which they mapped their lives and God’s plan of redemption for the ages. This means that it is essential for us to understand the worldview of the Old Testament, since it shapes the New Testament in a fundamental way. So my study of the Old Testament has led me to become a better reader of the New Testament.


What is one “big idea” in your scholarship?

I think I have two big ideas, or at least two emphases, that I hope I have been able to communicate in my teaching and writing. When I started teaching at Northeastern Seminary, the Dean suggested I take the title Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis, since these were my twin emphases.

The first emphasis that I want to communicate is the big picture, the story of the Bible from creation to eschaton, which is the story that ought to make sense of our lives (the trouble is that many in the church have “lost the plot”). So the big picture can help reorient the church to its vocation (the missio Dei), how it is called to contribute to the unfolding of God’s purposes for the world God loves. For me, this has meant a focus (initially, at least) on creation texts, whether in Genesis, the Psalms, Job, or the prophetic literature. Creation is the founding moment of the biblical story and studying these texts helps us see God’s original intentions for humanity and the world, which have something to say about the telos or goal of salvation.

The other big idea that I want to communicate (and model) is that careful reading of the biblical text yields wonderful theological and ethical results. I’ve tried to show precisely that in exegesis courses that I teach on Genesis, Samuel, Job, and the Psalms. This means reading with an inquiring mind, wondering why the text says what it does, and why it says it in the way that it does. It means bringing the entirety of who we are to the study of the Bible, including our hopes, our doubts, our assumptions, our questions, and being willing to challenge the text—so long as we are willing to be challenged in response. The Bible is not a safe book; it can radically change us.


Who is one of your academic heroes and why do you admire them?

My first academic hero is Walter Brueggemann. Although I haven’t always agreed with Brueggemann (I’ve written an article critical of his creation theology, and he graciously accepted my critiques), his attempt to bridge the gap from the ancient biblical text to the contemporary world has inspired me to try and do the same. He particularly opened up to me the riches of the prophetic literature and the Psalms.


What books were formative for you when you were a student? Why were they so important and shaping?

When I was an undergraduate theological student, I was profoundly affected by George Eldon Ladd, The Pattern of New Testament Truth. In that book Ladd tried to sketch the Synoptic pattern, the Johannine pattern, the Pauline pattern, and also to address the Old Testament pattern that undergirded the New Testament. Whether or not I would fully agree with his analysis of the New Testament today, his attempt to show both diversity and coherence in the New Testament text was very helpful. But most helpful of all was Ladd’s chapter called “The Background of the Pattern: Greek or Hebrew?” where he did detailed textual study of Plato, Philo, and the Old Testament to address whether the Old Testament pattern was human ascent from the world to God or God’s descent from heaven to earthly existence.

When I was a graduate theological student, it was Brueggemann’s books that deeply impacted me—first The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, then The Prophetic Imagination. I still assign them in courses.


Read Middleton’s Work

The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1

A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology


Follow Middleton Online

Blog: https://jrichardmiddleton.wordpress.com/ 

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If you ran into me at SBL, and you didn’t want to talk about OT/HB studies, what would you want to talk about?

I would probably talk about music—especially reggae (both from my home country and “world reggae”) and the music of Bruce Cockburn and Leonard Cohen.


What is a research/writing project you are working on right now that you are excited about?

I am now finishing the final chapter of a book on the Aqedah (Genesis 22) for Baker Academic. It’s called: Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God. It’s a theology of prayer for a time of suffering, developed through interaction with biblical texts (the only way I know how to do theology).

Pre-release information (and book cover) on the Baker website

You’ll be hearing more about this book soon. Stay tuned.

Essays Celebrating Paul Livermore—an Incomparable Faculty Colleague

In a previous post I introduced an essay I wrote, entitled  “The Blessing of Abraham and the Missio Dei: Reframing the Purpose of Israel’s Election in Genesis 12:1–3.”

A Festschrift for Paul Livermore

The essay has been published in a volume of twenty-five essays that I co-edited with Doug Cullum, the Vice President and Dean of Northeastern Seminary. This volume is a Festschrift in honor of our retired colleague Paul Livermore, one of the founding faculty members of the Seminary—indeed, the person who first came up with the vision to start the Seminary.

Paul Livermore retired in 2013, after thirty-three years of faithful service to both Roberts Wesleyan College and Northeastern Seminary. This short video commemorates his life and ministry at both institutions.

 

 

The video is interspersed with Livermore’s comments. Three things he says stand out to me.

One is his comment that in a given class lecture, only one-tenth of what a professor knows is visible (often it is students’ questions that uncover some of the hidden nine-tenths). This was very true for Paul, who had an amazing wealth of knowledge about a wide range of subjects.

Another is that hell for a professor would be a huge stack of bad student papers to grade (how honest can you get!). But that heaven would consist in reading some really excellent papers.

The third thing I note about Paul is that there is a recording of his reciting the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4–9), which plays over the opening video scenes; this shows how deeply grounded he has always been in the Old Testament.

The title of the Festschrift is Orthodoxy and Orthopraxis, which suggests something of the range of intellectual and practical interests that have characterized Paul Livermore throughout his career. These interests have spanned theological scholarship (in different academic disciplines) and a commitment to the life of the church.

Here you can read a brief four-page biographical sketch of Paul Livermore’s career, from the Introduction to the Festschrift.

From Biblical Studies to Patristics

Paul Livermore was formally trained in New Testament and Second Temple Judaism (he was a doctoral assistant to Bruce Metzger at Princeton). His doctoral dissertation was called “The Setting and Argument of Romans 1:18–3:20: The Empirical Verification of the Power of Sin” (PhD diss., Princeton University, 1978).

Although he started out teaching Biblical Studies at Roberts Wesleyan College, Livermore eventually became an expert in Patristic theology. As someone in the Wesleyan theological tradition, he was drawn to the Church Fathers (especially the Eastern Fathers, as John Wesley himself had been) and he crafted an influential interdisciplinary course at Northeastern Seminary that addressed the development of doctrine, spirituality, and the church in the centuries after the New Testament.

Originally called “The Formative Era,” the course is now called “Being Christian,” and focuses on the attempt of the early church to clarify what it meant to be Christian in the first few centuries of the Common Era.

Since Livermore retired, the course has been taught by Dr. Rebecca Letterman and (in its current configuration) by Dr. Josef Sykora. The Seminary offers this course as part of six foundational courses, called The Great Conversation.

Contributors and Essays in the Festschrift

Paul Livermore’s impact on a range of faculty colleagues, church leaders, and students is confirmed by the wide variety of essays in the volume, which span Old and New Testament studies, theology, history, pastoral ministry, the Apocrypha, and the ancient Near East.

The essays are grouped into three sections:

  • Part 1: Grappling with Scripture in Ancient and Contemporary Contexts (eleven essays).
  • Part 2: Insights from the History of the Church (nine essays).
  • Part 3: Exploration and Reflections—Theological and Otherwise (five essays).

There are essays by current and former faculty at Northeastern Seminary and Roberts Wesleyan College, including:

  • Jeffrey Altman (Professor of Psychology, Emeritus, Roberts Wesleyan College)
  • David Basinger (Professor of Philosophy at Roberts Wesleyan College and Northeastern Seminary, and Chief Academic Officer, Roberts Wesleyan College)
  • Douglas Cullum (Professor of Historical and Pastoral Theology, Vice-President and Dean, Northeastern Seminary)
  • Timothy Dwyer (Professor of Bible and Ministry, Chair of the Ministry Department, Warner University)
  • Elizabeth Gerhardt (Professor of Theology and Social Ethics, Northeastern Seminary)
  • Rebecca Letterman (Professor of Spiritual Formation, Northeastern Seminary)
  • Wayne McCown (Provost Emeritus of Roberts Wesleyan College and Founding Dean Emeritus of Northeastern Seminary)
  • J. Richard Middleton (Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis, Northeastern Seminary)

There are essays by past students of Paul Livermore, including:

  • David Belles (Academic Dean, International Fellowship of Christian Assemblies Bible College, Richmond Heights, OH)
  • T. L. Birge (Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies, Azusa Pacific University)
  • Margaret Flowers (Professor Emerita of Biology, Wells College, Aurora, NY)
  • Joel H. Hunt (author, Athens, GA)
  • Mark McMonagle (Vicar, St Brendan Orthodox Mission, Honeoye Falls, NY)
  • John Miller (Professor and Program Chair, Elim Bible Institute and College, Lima, NY)
  • Suzzane Pearson (Spiritual Director, Rochester, NY)
  • Linda Schwab (Professor Emerita of Chemistry, Wells College, Aurora, NY)
  • Louis Stulman (Professor of Religious Studies, University of Findlay)
  • Thomas Worth (Pastor, Community Covenant Church, Manlius, NY)

There are also essays by colleagues of Paul Livermore from various academic and church contexts, including:

  • Donald Bastian (Bishop Emeritus of the Free Methodist Church)
  • Joseph Coleson (Professor of Old Testament, Emeritus, Nazarene Theological Seminary)
  • Eugene Lemcio (Professor Emeritus of New Testament, School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University)
  • James McNutt (Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History, Thomas More University)
  • Frank Anthony Spina (Professor Emeritus of Old Testament, Seattle Pacific Seminary and School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University)
  • James Sweeney (J. Russell Bucher Professor of New Testament, Director of the Master of Divinity Program, Winebrenner Theological Seminary)
  • Karen Winslow (Professor of Biblical Studies, Chair of Biblical and Theological Studies, Director of Master of Arts in Theological Studies, Azusa Pacific Seminary)

You can see the full Table of Contents here.

Paul Livermore, the Old Testament, and Judaism

In the video commemorating Paul Livermore’s retirement, he mentions teaching Hebrew in his first semester at Roberts Wesleyan College and the extremely bright students he had in the class. Two of his brightest students (who went on to do doctoral work in Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern Studies), were Louis Stulman and Joel Hunt. I don’t know if they were in that particular Hebrew class, but Stulman’s essay on the Hebrew Bible as trauma and resistance literature and Hunt’s essay on the meaning of an ancient Mesopotamian prayer are included in the Festschrift.

Livermore’s deep connection to the Old Testament and the Jewish tradition is evident in a 1987 article he wrote for the Wesleyan Theological Journal, where he challenged various Christian stereotypes about “legalism” and Jewish understandings of the Law/Torah. The article title is taken from a comment Rabbi Akiva makes about the Torah as the “precious instrument” (klî ḥemdah, also translated “precious vessel” or “desirable instrument) in Pirkei Avot 3:14 (Pirkei Avot or “Chapters of the Fathers” is a collection of ancient Rabbinical teaching on various ethical subjects).

You can read the full article here: Paul W. Livermore, “The Precious Instrument: A Study of the Concept of Law in Judaism and Evangelicalism,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 22 (1987) 17–37. This essay is cited in James McNutt’s chapter (see below).

Various of Livermore’s colleagues from other academic contexts have also contributed essays in Old Testament, the Apocrypha, and Judaism.

These include Joseph Coleson, who probes beneath the idea of “covenant” to a more foundational relationship between God and his people in the Bible; Eugene Lemcio, who engages in an eschatological reading of “Bel and the Dragon” (in the Apocrypha); James McNutt, who exposes the anti-Judaism in the writings of biblical scholar Adolf Schlatter; Frank Anthony Spina, who addresses the irony of reading Joshua as a Christian text; and Karen Winslow, who explores the understanding of the Akedah (Genesis 22) among Second Temple Jews.

It was Paul Livermore’s interest in the Jewish tradition that encouraged me to complete my own essay exploring a non-supersessionist reading of the call of Abraham, which is included in the Festschrift.

Tolle, Lege (Take Up and Read)

And then there are all the essays on New Testament, church history, spirituality, ethics, and beyond!

These essays pay tribute to the multidisciplinary impact of Paul Livermore, founding faculty member and Professor Emeritus of Northeastern Seminary at Roberts Wesleyan College.

Orthodoxy and Orthopraxis is a book well worth owning, with essays to be mulled over and savored.

Endorsements and Reviews

Brian T. Hartley, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of Theology at Greenville University:

“Paul Livermore’s deep influence over three generations of students can be clearly discerned through these twenty-five essays that span key refrains in Scripture, theology, and church history. Dr. Livermore’s character, passion, and vision for bridging the divide between church and academy all receive clear witness through probing pieces that explore central themes which lay at the heart of his own scholarship and teaching.”
David W. Kendall, Bishop Emeritus, Free Methodist Church-USA:
“I have known and worked with Dr. Paul Livermore for nearly forty years. I regard him as both friend and mentor, scholar and learner, accomplished and humble, and a lover of God and people. I am pleased to commend this volume as a fitting tribute to the breadth and depth of Paul’s character and influence for so many of us—his students, colleagues, and friends.”
Deana L. Porterfield, President, Roberts Wesleyan College and Northeastern Seminary:
“This collection weaves together multiple voices to create a beautiful tribute to the deep impact of the life and teaching of Dr. Paul Livermore. It is an accessible but rich compilation focused on his commitment to the cause of Christ through scholarship, teaching, and service to the church. Each author magnifies an aspect of Dr. Livermore’s insights, through their own lens of scholarship, to honor a life and mind dedicated wholly to God.”

The Silence of Abraham, the Passion of Job—Exploring Genesis 22 in Mirfield

This is the fourth installment about my journey through the UK.

After leaving Durham, I visited friends (David and Ruth Hanson) in Leeds overnight, then David drove me to the College of the Resurrection in nearby Mirfield to speak on the same topic I had presented on in Durham—Genesis 22.

The College of the Resurrection is an Anglo-Catholic seminary attached to a monastery in Mirfield. There I was hosted by Dorothea Bertschmann, tutorial fellow in New Testament at the College.

Those organizing the event decided to give my talk on Genesis 22 the same title as the book I am currently working on, “The Silence of Abraham, the Passion of Job,” even though most of the talk was focused on Abraham, with only a bit on Job at the end.

I met some great people at the College of the Resurrection. Besides Prof. Bertschmann, I had a good chat with Steffan Mathais, a senior student (who already had a PhD in Old Testament) currently studying for the pastoral ministry.

Below is Steffan’s account of my talk on Genesis 22 (written for the community’s newsletter). He starts with a Rabbinic quote about how to study Scripture, and why it is worth studying.


Turn it and turn it again, for all is in it; see through it; grow old and worn in it. – Rabbi Bag Ben Bag, Pirke Avos, 5:22

One of the great ironies of biblical scholarship is that often those who have given their lives to study of the bible are at best bored, and at worst irritated, by the texts they spend their days with. By contrast there was an infectiousness of Prof J. Richard Middleton’s excitement and playfulness, in his lecture The Silence of Abraham, the Passion of Job, delivered to the college on the 27th April, in conjunction with SIIBS, the Mirfield Centre, and St Hild’s College.

Prof Middleton is Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis at Northeastern Seminary, New York State. The body of his lecture focused around the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac in Genesis 22. While central in the imagination of Judaism and Christianity – and Islam – Middleton initially explored some of the ethical ambiguities of the narrative, before pointing out some of the interesting quirks of the story, notably the breakdown of relationship between Abraham, Isaac and Sarah, who henceforth in Genesis are said to live in different parts of the land.

Middleton asked if, perhaps, the text is more complex than our traditional reading, that Abraham was tested to see if he was willing to kill his son to submit to God. Through a close reading of the Hebrew (and without giving any surprises away to those who wish to read his next book on the subject!) Middleton read the story as a test of a very different kind: that God required Abraham to argue back, to say no, to be so sure of the mercy of God that he could wrestle with him. And in the end Abraham failed the test, remaining silent where those such as Job could not, but God’s faithfulness to his covenant carried them through.

Middleton’s reading was surprisingly compelling for one so provocative, but even more compelling was a reading of an old text which brought it alive again; which rather than ironing over the difficulties understood the creative tensions at play – the gaps, the lacunae, the ambiguities – and saw the scriptures as something to be enjoyed, to be wrestled with and poured over, not to be compartmentalised and ‘solved.’ Through his reading Middleton – partly through his study of Jewish exegesis – embraced the advice of Rabbis of old to always make the scriptures always new: ‘turn it and turn it again, for all is in it.’

~Steffan Mathais


I shared three meals with faculty and students at the College of the Resurrection, as well as gathering for coffee, drinks, and conversation. I also participated in a eucharistic liturgy led by the principal of the College, Fr Peter Allan.

All in all, it was quite wonderful to share worship, meals, camaraderie, and theological reflection with the members of this unique community of ecclesial learning.

My next post recounts my time in Leeds, with the Thinking Faith Network.