Brief Book Review: The Promise of Not-Knowing

The Promise of Not-Knowing: A New New Testament Reading
By David E. Fredrickson

Who’s it for? This book is for everyone who loves God’s word, including laity, pastors, biblical scholars, and academics. The writing is learned and approachable. Fredrickson carefully and clearly guides the reader into following his argument by telling how he will make his case/s, reminding us of his conclusions, and then tracing his next steps as if he has the reader by the hand.

What’s the main point? Fredrickson uses the interpretation of certain words as they would have been understood by the people who first heard/read the Gospels and Epistles in order to unpack new understandings of scripture’s meaning. Example: Jesus “emptied” himself (Phil. 2:7) refers back to the use of “emptying” in Homer’s “Odyssey.” There, Penelope, wife of Odysseus, waits twenty years for him to come home from fighting the Trojan War. In her grief, she “empties” herself with tears. The use of that word for Jesus on the cross shows him giving himself over to common human grief and suffering rather than willing to be emptied of self. “The key to interpreting Paul is to focus on the emotions that saturate his letters” (p. 56).

Why does it matter? Using the example above, to ask what this emptying entails, what it means, what is emptied means exploring two major questions about Jesus’s death. Was his emptying a work that mere mortals could never accomplish? Or did Jesus let go of his strength and give himself over to feeling what we might expect a person being tortured to feel: the deepest sorrow and longing? The first understanding of becoming empty engages the will. It is super human. The second understanding is approachable for human beings. Given that difference, Jesus does not “lord it over” those who cannot match his stamina. Instead, he joins us by elevating the experience of suffering as an experience, an emotion, that binds us together with Christ, as the body of Christ. 

What difference will this book make? Those Bible readers who fight against Paul for being authoritarian will find food for a changed view of Paul in this book. The author re-thinks Paul’s identity by showing us slight changes (more literal translations) in significant verses in Philippians that move from seeing Paul as an arrogant advocate of hierarchical power (much decried by critics of Paul) to someone who, in fact, stood against hierarchical authority.

Why is this book useful / practical? Preachers repeatedly face biblical texts that are so familiar it is difficult to re-enter “beginner’s mind” in order to read afresh. Reading also for devotions and for Bible study, we bring to scripture the well-worn understandings we have gained over years. This book reminds us of how a close reading of the original language with counsel from a creative biblical scholar can re-awaken understandings that offer even radical new insights into who God is and who we are and what it means to be a follower of Christ Jesus.

Kudos. This book is much richer than a brief review can convey. Fredrickson deals with concepts as varied and integral to each other as love, virtue, salvation, relationship over rule-making, the phrase “the letter kills,” how the ancients attained knowledge, and how Paul defined life. The book is a far-reaching investigation of what happens if we hear/read Paul and Luke-Acts in particular through the understandings of those who first encountered their words. The author draws on a wide range of ancient sources, including philosophers and poets, contemporary linguists, and many more.

In short, Fredrickson shows what it means to say that “Paul repeats tradition with a twist” by letting “the traditional train of thought flow in new directions” (p. 99). He gets “in the weeds” with this fascinating assertion by closely reading 2 Corinthians 3. His method seems to see behind and into the words to reveal the goings-on of the community in Corinth and Paul’s relationship with it. Thus, he offers a new New Testament reading which is a gift for anyone who wants to see into scripture for renewed faith. 

Fredrickson, David E. The Promise of Not-Knowing: A New New Testament Reading. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2022. 235 pages. $34.00. ISBN: 9781451496314.

REVIEWER: The Rev. Melinda A. Quivik, PhD
Melinda Quivik is ordained to word and sacrament ministry
in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
A former president of the North American Academy of Liturgy,
she is currently the Editor-in-Chief of Liturgy, the journal of the Liturgical Conference,
and a Mentor with Backstory Preaching.

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