Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Virginal Conception of Jesus (Matthew 1:18-25)



Most English Versions begin the narrative in Matthew 1:18 by rendering the Greek word genesis as “birth” (KJV, RSV, NEB, TCNT, NASB, Phillips, etc.). While this is an adequate translation, it has the unfortunate aspect that it obscures a careful connection which Matthew seems to have intended, that is, that the term genesis (= origin, generation) is repeated in 1:18 from 1:1. As such, the story of how Mary came to be pregnant is directly connected with the whole genealogical scheme in 1:1-17 and provides a direct answer to the implicit question which Matthew has raised by using the passive construction “out of whom was fathered Jesus” (1:16). In the genealogy proper, Matthew has not told his readers who fathered Jesus, but now he addresses this question specifically. Furthermore, the term “virginal conception” is more descriptive of the present passage than the traditional term “virgin birth” since the passage does not as yet describe a birth but only a conception.

To appreciate the circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy, it is advantageous to know something of marriage customs among Jewry of the first century in Palestine. Marriage was completed in two stages, a betrothal and a home-taking. In the betrothal, which usually occurred when the girl was between twelve and twelve and a half years of age, the father of the girl received from the prospective groom the mohar (= bride price) in the presence of witnesses. This began the transfer of the girl from her father’s power to her husband’s power. Once the betrothal was valid, the girl was called the “wife” of the man, since betrothal was considered to be permanent. Even though she would not yet live with him for a time, she could be widowed, divorced, or executed for adultery. In Judea, the betrothed couple might engage in sexual relations under certain circumstances, but in Galilee, where Mary lived, no such liberties were tolerated; the bride had to be taken to her husband’s home as a virgin. The home-taking, which usually occurred about a year or so after the betrothal, was celebrated with a processional to the new home followed by a wedding feast. At this time, the bride came under the full power of her husband.

According to Matthew, between the betrothal and the home-taking, Mary was found to be pregnant. How the discovery was made or how far along Mary was in the pregnancy is not explained, but Matthew is quite clear that the news deeply disturbed Joseph. Matthew is also careful to inform the reader that the pregnancy was a miraculous conception “through the Holy Spirit,” something that Joseph did not know as yet. Joseph was left to figure out the problem for himself, and he could only conclude the worst. He knew the child was not his, and seemingly the only other options were seduction and rape. Thus, Joseph resolved to divorce Mary privately rather than publicly expose her.

The two expressions deigmatisai (= to publicly expose) and lathra apolysa secretly divorce) are significant in that they suggest that Joseph considered both seduction and rape as possible causes of Mary’s pregnancy. According to the Torah, if the encounter had occurred in a town, the woman was then assumed to have been seduced, since she had not been heard screaming for help. Both parties were to be executed. If it happened in the country, she was given the benefit of the doubt, since she could have been forced. In this case only the male was executed (Dt. 22:23-27). If there was only suspicion of seduction but no proof, the woman was required to submit to a judicial ordeal, an appeal to divine judgment to absolve or condemn her through the drinking of filthy water and the imposition of a curse (Nu. 5:11-31).

Rabbinic sources are not as clear as one might like regarding how the Jews approached the subject at the time of Jesus. Apparently, the judicial ordeal could have been declined and a divorce could have been effected privately before two witnesses. It is possible that some Jews felt that divorce was required in the case of rape while others felt that it was at least allowed though not mandatory. Thus, if Mary had been raped, Joseph could either have married her or divorced her. If she had been unfaithful, she was subject to execution according to Mosaic law, though the severity of this judgment was probably relaxed by the time of Jesus, and divorce was more than likely to have been the judgment rather than execution. Thus, Joseph wrestled with the most acute dilemma. Mary, his betrothed, was pregnant, and he knew not how. Was it her fault, or was it someone else’s? Being a “righteous” man (a Torah-observant Jew), he struggled with the alternatives, finally choosing private divorce in order to spare Mary the worst. He elected not to resort to the judicial ordeal, but chose to shield Mary through a merciful alternative. With nothing being proven against her, she could return to her father’s home and hope for another marriage in the future.

It was in the midst of his acute dilemma but after he had chosen a particular course of action that God intervened to change Joseph’s mind. An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, urging him to complete the home-taking rather than proceed with a private divorce.

The messenger to Joseph, the “angel of the Lord”, is the familiar figure of the Mal’ak Yahweh (= messenger of Yahweh) from the OT, a figure that appeared more than once in connection with either an annunciation or a dilemma of a parent and child (Ge. 16:7-16; 22:11-18; Jg. 13:2-22). It was part of the paradoxical character of the Mal’ak Yahweh that he could speak both for God and as God, and it is worth noting that on several occasions, when one saw the Mal’ak Yahweh it was equivalent to seeing God (cf. Ge. 16:13; 31:13; 32:30; Jg. 13:22). This figure appears two times more in Matthew’s prologue, each time to insure the protection of the child Jesus (2:13, 19).

Dreams figure significantly in Matthew’s narrative, and no less than five dreams are recounted (1:20; 2:12, 13, 19, 22). This is in keeping with the OT pattern that revelatory dreams seem to have appeared in clusters (i.e., patriarchal era, time of Daniel). The OT writers may not have made a clear distinction between dreams and night visions, but in the case of Joseph, at least, it is clear that he was asleep when the first angelic appearance was made (1:24).

When the angel addressed Joseph, he called him the “son of David”, a point that Matthew has already substantiated in the genealogy. As is common in annunciation stories in general, this annunciation follows the stereotypical pattern found elsewhere in the Bible:

1.     The appearance of an angel

2.     The person is saluted by name

3.     The person is urged not to be afraid

4.     A pregnancy is announced and explained

5.     The child is named in advance

6.     The significance of the name is explained

7.     The future accomplishments of the child are indicated

Joseph was counseled not to be afraid of completing the home-taking, the second stage of Jewish marriage. Of course, to complete the marriage meant that he would be called upon to bear Mary’s stigma as well. It meant that while he was willing to protect her from the overt charges of seduction or rape, he could never remove any popular suspicion that seduction or rape had actually occurred nor could he exempt himself from being suspected of marital intercourse prior to the home-taking. That suspicions of illegitimacy were indeed fostered in the Jewish community is hinted at in the NT (Mk. 6:2-3; Jn. 8:41) and explicitly stated in non-biblical traditions. In the pseudipigraphic Gospel of Nicodemas, also called the Acts of Pilate (AD 4th or 5th century or earlier), the accusers of Jesus at his trial are depicted as charging that he was “born of fornication” (Chap. 2). In the pseudipigraphic Coptic Gospel of Thomas (about AD 140), there is an enigmatic saying which may refer to Jesus as the son of a harlot (Logion 105). Celsus, a pagan philosopher who wrote in about AD 178, says that Jewish opinion held Jesus to be the son of Mary and Panthera, a Roman soldier who corrupted Mary, and that the story of the virgin birth was “not believed” (Oriqen Against Celsus, 1.28, 32, 39, 69). Rabbinic literature follows this same line, referring to Jesus as Yeshua ben Pantera (= Jesus son of Pantera) as well as by other derogatory epithets of illegitimacy.

Matthew explains the divine action which resulted in Mary’s pregnancy by the phrase, “...what is conceived in her is through the Holy Spirit.” Virtually all scholars agree that this passage intends to teach the virginal conception of Jesus. Non-evangelical scholars may be reluctant to believe what Matthew asserts, of course. J. A. T. Robinson sums up this position of doubt about the historical reliability of the gospel accounts when he states, “We are not bound to think of the Virgin Birth as a physical event, in order to believe that Jesus’ whole life is ‘of God.’” Such skepticism, however, arises largely from the philosophical and scientific convictions that the world has advanced to such an extent through science and technology that it is no longer possible for anyone seriously to hold to the New Testament view [i.e., supernatural] of the world. Intelligent Christians are not to be bound by such presuppositions. It may be noted that at least one scholar, Jane Schaberg, seeks to prove that Jesus could have been conceived “through the Holy Spirit” while at the same time being born through normal male-female intercourse, but this controversial approach stands against the historic faith of the church. The phrase “born of the virgin Mary” is uniformly included in the historic creeds of the church, and the virginal conception of Jesus points toward his uniqueness as both human and divine. There is mystery here, of course, and if one wishes to know the exact biological processes of the virginal conception, he/she can only be partially satisfied, though it should be pointed out that from even a strictly biological point of view, a virginal conception is not nearly so absurd a notion as was popularly supposed by biologists a century ago.

In the virginal conception of Jesus, Matthew saw a connection with a prophecy given by Isaiah in the 8th century BC. Matthew goes back to a distinctive section of the Book of Isaiah sometimes called the “Book of Immanuel” (Is. 7:1-l2:6), because of the centrality of the Immanuel figure (7:14; 8:8, 10). Here, we must take a lengthy excursion into the history of Israel to understand what Matthew is doing.

This was the time of Judah’s political crisis during the reign of Ahaz in about 734 BC. Assyria was emerging as a Mesopotamian superpower, threatening the lands on the Mediterranean seaboard. Ephraim (Israel) had formed an alliance with Aram (Syria) in order to withstand any Assyrian aggression. This Syro-Ephraimite league wanted Judah, the Israelite southern nation, to join their coalition, but Ahaz, the king of Judah, hesitated in indecision. His reluctance incited the leaders of the Syro-Ephraimite league, Rezin of Damascus and Pekah Ben-Remaliah, to invade Judah, an attack which included the threat of deposing Ahaz and replacing him with their own man, Ben-Tabeel, a man who was not even of the Davidic family (2 Ki. 16:5; Is. 7:1-2, 5-6). While Jerusalem was under siege, Isaiah was directed by God to meet Ahaz and assure him that the Syro-Ephraimite threat was an empty one and that Ahaz must trust in God (Is. 7:3-4, 7-9). It was in connection with this message to trust in God’s protection that Isaiah spoke for Yahweh and instructed Ahaz to ask for a sign which would confirm the promised divine security (Is. 7:10-11).

Ahaz, however, refused under the guise of pseudo-humility; he would not “put Yahweh to the test” (Is. 7:12). In actuality, Ahaz was not a serious worshiper of Yahweh (2 Ki. 16:1-4), and his refusal was only evidence of his lack of faith. Yahweh was angered at this impudence and gave a sign anyway, a historical sign that a maiden would give birth to a son and would name him Immanuel (Is. 7:13-14). Isaiah does not clearly identify this maiden, though doubtless Ahaz knew of whom he was speaking. A tremendous amount of discussion has been given to the Hebrew word ‘alma in this passage, rendered either “virgin” (ASV, RSVmg, NIV, NAB, NASB based on the LXX) or “young woman” (RSV, ASVmg, NEB, NASBmg). The word probably refers to a girl of marriageable age. However, the word itself is not as precise in meaning as one might hope or as precise as the English translations might seem to suggest. The conclusion of Youngblood is probably the most honest, that is, “The most that can be said of ‘alma is that in all of its OT occurrences it seems to be used of an unmarried woman, a ‘damsel’ which, in situations such as the one before us, carries with it a strong presumption in favor of virginity.”

The name of the child, Immanuel, means “God with us”, a reflection of the divine promise to protect Ahaz if he would put his faith in Yahweh (Is. 7:4, 7-9). God’s presence would be evident in the fact that before Immanuel had reached adolescence, the lands of the Syro-Ephraimite coalition would be devastated (Is 7:16). However, God’s presence would be there not only to protect, but also to judge, and while Judah would be protected from Ephraim and Aram, she would soon be invaded by Assyria as a further sign of God’s presence (Is. 7:16-25). Thus, the Immanuel sign to Ahaz was double-edged; it was a sign of protection on the one hand, but a sign of judgment on the other. This double-edged character of the sign is reflected in the two names given to the sign-child. Not only was he to be called Immanuel (= God with us), he was also to be called Maher-shalal-hash-baz (= the spoil hastens, the plunder comes quickly) (Is. 8:1-2).

The predicted sign came to pass when Isaiah’s second son was born, and at the time of the birth, the word of Yahweh came to Isaiah confirming to him that this son was indeed the promised sign (Is. 8:3-4). The promise of protection from Ephraim and Aram was to be kept. Yet the promise of judgment from Assyria would also be kept (Is. 8:5-8). The land of the young Immanuel would suffer an invasion so serious that Jerusalem, the capital, would be surrounded by Assyrian armies, so much so, that the city could be compared to someone standing in water up to the neck. That Isaiah’s son was the sign-child is further emphasized by a direct statement to that effect (Is.8:18).

Now, back to Matthew…  Over 700 years later, Matthew, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, saw a prophetic connection between the prediction of a sign-child given by Isaiah to Ahaz and the birth of Jesus. The birth of Jesus “made full” the word of Yahweh given to Isaiah about the Immanuel child. Matthew seems to be using the term pleroo (= to fulfill) in the sense of recapitulation. Since Jesus was miraculously born “of the Holy Spirit”, he was Immanuel in the fullest sense of the word, not merely God invisibly among us (to protect and judge us), but God visibly among us (to save us from sin)!

This, then, is Matthew’s account of the virgin conception of Jesus. Joseph’s dream was decisive! He immediately completed the home-taking, just as he had been instructed by the angel. However, as Matthew is careful to point out, Joseph did not have intercourse with Mary until after the birth. When the promised child of virginal conception had been born, he named him Jesus.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Another Look at the Antioch Incident

The traditional interpretation of Paul’s public denunciation of Peter’s withdrawal from table fellowship with the Gentile Christ believers in Galatia centers on the Kashrut (Jewish dietary laws). This reading argues that when Paul, Barnabas, and other Jewish Christ believers shared common meals with the Gentiles in the Galatian church, this action was a clear witness to Paul’s rejection of the ongoing validity of Torah observance for Gentiles and Jews alike and his promotion of a “law-free” gospel. Peter — a Jewish Christian visitor to the missionary church — initially joined Paul in these mixed meals. But under pressure from “those of the circumcision” — who apparently argued that Gentiles could only be included in the Christ community if they first submitted to Jewish proselyte conversion with the ultimate act of commitment in physical circumcision — Peter and other Jewish Christ believers ultimately withdrew from table fellowship with the Gentile believers, thus reaffirming the dietary demands of Torah observance and rejecting Paul’s” law-free” stance.

A major problem with this interpretation is that the issue in the Galatian confrontation is not what one eats, but who one eats with. The Jewish dietary law is not the main concern here. Table fellowship is. And this must be understood against the central role that table fellowship – the invitation to all regardless of rank, social acceptability, or even moral uprightness to dine together – played in the ministry of Jesus.

The practice of table fellowship with all was the most offensive element to his contemporaries in Jesus’ ministry prior to his cleansing of the Jerusalem Temple. His opponents regularly attacked this practice over all others. This open table fellowship was also the clearest “object lesson” of Jesus’ teachings of the nearness and even presence of the kingdom of God. For Jesus, in the “age to come,” the kingdom of God that was already dawning in the present, “many would come from the east and west and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” – a great and final act of table fellowship.

This ultimate symbol of inclusion of all in God’s kingdom is not a new idea, but rather is a clear fulfillment of the Hebrew prophets’ expectation that at the end of the age God would restore Israel and “the law would flow forth from Zion” to all nations and peoples. In the age to come, Gentiles would make pilgrimages to Jerusalem bringing with them gifts and be accepted as part of the people of God. This is nothing short of the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise to Abraham that through him and his family (Israel) “all the nations of the world would be blessed.”

Inclusive table fellowship in the ministry of Jesus was the clearest indication that the “age to come” was dawning, Israel was being restored, and the ingathering of the Gentiles had begun. It is precisely this eschatological framework that Paul — the apostle to the Gentiles — used to explain how “Jews as Jews” and “Gentiles as Gentiles” are brought together into the people of God. The “middle wall of partition” has been torn down, Paul argued. God’s people — who had been separated and divided – are now, at the end of time, one body, one building, one loaf.

When looking at the Antioch incident, it is important to remember that this eschatological “re-visioning” of Jews and Gentiles together was not just Paul’s way of thinking. The verses that directly precede Paul’s confrontation of Peter in Galatians 2 speak specifically of how James and the Jerusalem church shared this understanding of Gentile inclusion in God’s end time action. These words clearly parallel — and may actually referred to — the decision of the Apostolic Council in Acts 15 where Paul and Barnabas tell of their ministry among the Gentiles who clearly experienced the same outpouring of the Spirit enjoyed by the Jewish Christian believers, yet without submitting to Jewish proselyte conversion.

This testimony of God’s actions among the Gentiles is followed by the affirmation of God’s end time inclusion of the Gentiles by the two strongest voices in the Jerusalem church — and in a sense, the representatives of all Jewish Christ believers – Peter and James, the brother of Jesus. The Apostolic Council concluded with the wise saying of James that “no greater obligation” –that is, Jewish proselyte conversion and full Torah observance – should be demanded of the Gentiles who God had now so clearly included in the people of God by the actions of the Holy Spirit among them.

Let me say this again. Paul was not the only one who embraced the eschatological vision of the Hebrew prophets and the teachings and practices of Jesus of Nazareth. The church at Jerusalem, the “mother church” of Jewish Christ believers, and its two most prominent representatives — Peter and James — also shared this view of the end time inclusion of the Gentiles.

This brings us back to the incident at Antioch. Paul places a “date stamp” on the timing of this confrontation – at the arrival of certain “men from James.” The traditional reading identifies these men with “those of the circumcision,” later referred to by Paul as demanding Jewish proselyte conversion, culminating in the physical act of circumcision as prerequisite for Gentile Christ belief. But this directly contradicts the preceding verses which make it clear that James and the Jerusalem church recognized — even endorsed — Paul’s ministry to the “Gentiles as Gentiles”, making no demands of full Torah observance of these non-Jews.

Here I would propose that the “men from James” and “those of the circumcision” in Galatians 2 may not be the same people at all. Rather “those of the circumcision” are better identified with those “false brothers” that “have infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom that we had in Christ Jesus and to make the slaves” (Galatians 2:4). Clearly, this group is demanding full Torah observance of Gentile believers — that is, full Jewish proselyte conversion including circumcision – as a requirement for entering the Christ community.

It is the pressure of this group – and not necessarily the “men from James” — that led Peter and the other Jewish Christian leaders to withdraw from table fellowship with Gentile believers. In turn, it is this action – withdrawal from ongoing table fellowship of Jewish and Gentile Christ believers — that launches Paul’s ire against Peter. Paul is not attacking “those of the circumcision” here in Galatians 2 (although he certainly has many choice words for them elsewhere). Rather he is attacking the “hypocrisy” of Peter and the other Jewish believers who had openly shared table fellowship with Gentile believers, but now withdrew.

These Jewish leaders had clearly affirmed the new eschatological understanding of the inclusion of “Gentiles as Gentiles” as part of the people of God in the dawning age to come. They had acted on this belief by regularly partaking in a mixed table fellowship, following the example of Jesus himself. But now, under outside pressure, Peter had “caved in” to the complaints and withdrew from the symbolic meal of unity.

For Paul, this is nothing short of an open denial of the entire inclusion of the Gentiles that Paul knew Peter and the “men from James” shared with him. Paul did not charge them with “heresy,” but with “hypocrisy” — that is, acting in a way inconsistent with what you know and believe.

The damage done by Peter’s withdrawal from table fellowship with Gentile believers had nothing to do with the Jewish dietary laws. Rather, it undermined the entire theoretical framework upon which the mission to the Gentiles was built, the entire inclusion of “Gentiles as Gentiles” in the people of God — a belief commonly affirmed by Paul, James, Peter, and the Jerusalem church. Even worse, Peter’s actions lent credibility to those who demanded Jewish proselyte conversion for Gentile Christ believers.

Paul was therefore compelled to react so strongly against such “hypocrisy” and the credence it allowed his opponents in the Galatian church who were demanded full Torah observance for Gentile Christ believers. In short, Paul was defending the validity of his Gentile mission and the theoretical framework on which it stands.

[Having said all this, several questions are left unanswered. Was the shared meal in the Galatian church one that a Torah observant Jew could eat without violating the Jewish dietary laws? Did Paul, Peter, James, and the members of the Jerusalem church continue to be Torah observant? The witness of the book of Acts certainly implies that Jewish Christians remained Torah observant even though the full weight of Torah obligation was never placed on Gentile converts. When Paul tells his hearers to “remain in the calling in which you were called” (I Corinthians 7:17-24), does this mean that Gentile Christians should live "as Gentiles" (not under Torah obligations) and that Jewish Christians as natural and ethnic Jews are to continue Torah observance which is part of their original “calling”?]

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Principles of Literary Interdependence

Recently, I have been studying I and II Peter with a group at North Metro Church in Atlanta. When it came time to look closely at II Peter, I insisted that we also look at the short book of Jude.

There is a definite LITERARY relationship between these books. Clearly, one author had a copy of the written text of the other and frequently quoted and reshaped the source text. This is much more than simply an appeal to the same oral tradition. The vocabulary, syntax, and even sentence structure betray a literary dependence of one document on the other.

While I will not attempt to argue "who quoted who" in the II Peter-Jude interdependence, I would like to take a moment and offer several observations about the phenomena of literary dependence in New Testament texts that apply beyond the II Peter-Jude context--especially in the literary interdependence of the synoptic Gospels.

When one biblical writer uses the written text of another biblical writer, there is a tendency to (1) soften, (2) shorten, and (3) embellish the text of the source document.

Shorten - The quoting writer will often reshape the original text to make it more pithy--that is, easier to tell and remember by the removal and/or replacement of (a) technical language and (b) local detail.

Soften - The quoting author will often remove or smooth out controversial ideas or words, especially if they conflict with the agenda of the new writer. This is most clear when the quoting author takes special care to remove embarrassing and/or easily misunderstood content from the original text.

Embellish
- The quoting author will often add detail and/or language to the original text that will further his own theological message. (While this may seem to contradict the principle of "shortening" the original text, this is an entirely different matter. In "shortening" the text, the new author removes content that is superfluous to his theological agenda. In "embellishing" the text, the new author adds new content not present in the original text for the express purpose of furthering his own theological agenda.)

These three tendencies are everywhere apparent in Matthew's and Luke's handling of the Markan (triple tradition) material.  Such tendencies are not as clear in their supposed "manipulation" of the so-called "Q' (double tradition) materials.

This speaks loudly for Markan priority and much less for the possible existence of the theoretical "Q."

DEEDS OF TITLE IN THE ANCIENT WORLD


Anyone who has bought a house or a piece of property is familiar with a title deed. Properly executed, a deed establishes legal ownership. In fact, the modern term “Title Company” commonly refers to commercial businesses that make it their specialty to research, secure and officially record ownership titles. What is true in the modern world was equally true in the ancient world. Property laws in ancient law codes, like the Code of Hammurapi, describe accounts of sales, receipts and deeds—even to the point of authenticating the document through a notary. Even an ancient buyer had to be sure of the seller’s title!

In the Bible, we encounter such a title deed in the career of Jeremiah, when God instructed the prophet to purchase a piece of property from his cousin Hanamel ben Shallum (Jer. 32:6-16). Here, the deed of sale was signed, sealed and witnessed. It is of special interest to note that the title deed is described as being sealed, but that alongside it there also was an unsealed document. The unsealed document served as an abstract—a description of the property and terms accessible to anyone who wanted to read it. The sealed title, on the other hand, had to be preserved from any changes, which is why it was sealed in order to remain sacrosanct. Both documents were deposited by Jeremiah in a clay jar for safe keeping, much as hundreds of years later the people at Qumran deposited their precious scrolls in clay jars.

Sometimes, the “sealed” and “unsealed” documents were combined into a single document. To understand this, one must appreciate the fact that typically scrolls were inscribed on only a single side.  (Imagine, for instance, trying to read a scroll on both sides as it is being unrolled.) After a scroll was sealed, however, one could write the abstract that originally was on a separate document on the outside of the sealed scroll (which would be the backside). As such, the contents of the sealed scroll remained intact, but the abstract, which now appeared on the outside of the sealed scroll, did not require a second document. This type of text gains the technical name of a “double-deed”, and such a text, written on both sides, is called an opisthrograph.  Good examples are known from ancient Mesopotamia. You also can find one briefly referenced in Ezekiel, when in his commission the prophet was shown a scroll written on both sides. Two excellent ancient examples of such double-deeds can be found in the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York and the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums, Jerusalem. The latter was discovered at Elephantine, a Jewish community in the 5th century BC in Egypt. Both deeds are secured with a cord, and over the knots in the cord is a clay bulla, a lump of clay which has been impressed with a seal to secure the document. Printed in Hebrew characters on the outside of the sealed document is the Hebrew word for “Deed”.

This brings us to just such a double-deed in the New Testament. In the Apocalypse of John, the elder John is shown a scroll “written on both sides and sealed with seven seals.” Almost certainly, this scroll represents an ancient title deed. Indeed, archaeologists have discovered a very similar deed—one tied with seven cords, no less, each cord sealed with its own bulla—at Wadi Daliyeh near Jericho. (This one also is preserved in Jerusalem by the Israel Department of Antiquities.) John seems to know the meaning of the sealed scroll, but he is distressed that no one is able to open the seals. Whatever this vision means, the seven-sealed scroll seems to represent a title deed to something, and the only one able to open the scrolls—the only one who is entitled to do so—is the Lamb. This factor, in turn, likely reflects on the Lamb’s qualifications to be a redeemer or buyer, for such a title under Israelite redemption laws could only be “bought back” by someone who was in the family. I would suggest that the seven-sealed scroll represents the title deed of the world. God intends to reclaim the world as the final act in his redemptive purpose, and this includes not only the final redemption of his own people but also the judgment and overthrow of evil.

The redemptive ability of Jesus Christ to open the scroll, as in ancient times, rested on his qualifications. He was both willing and able, and he was a close relative who was descended from Judah and David. Most important, he was the Redeemer of the people of God. The seven seals clearly signify events to occur on the earth (6:1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 12; 8:1).  If the seven-sealed scroll is such a double-deed, it suggests that God intends to reclaim a world which has been infiltrated by evil, and the final stage of this reclamation will come in the climactic events described in the Revelation.  The Lamb who was slain, who already has procured salvation for all humans through the cross and resurrection, is worthy to open the seals, heralding the consummation.  In the end, the foremost plea in the Lord's Prayer will be answered.  His kingdom will come--his will shall be done (Mt. 6:10; Rv. 11:15)!

If this interpretation that the seven-sealed scroll represents the title deed to the world is allowed to stand, then the opening of the seven seals represents precursors to the end.  The idea that judgments would be poured out upon the world before the end is strongly rooted in the Hebrew prophets.  Some of the passages in Revelation describing the opening of the seals directly allude to such Old Testament texts, such as, people hiding in the caves of the earth for fear (Is. 2:19//Rv. 6:15), the darkening of the sun and the moon turning to blood (Is. 13:10; 24:23; Eze. 32:7; Jl. 2:10, 30-31; 3:15//Rv. 6:12), the rolling up of the sky like a scroll and the falling of the stars like figs (Is. 34:4//Rv. 6:13-14), and the giving of the nations over to slaughter (Is. 13:15-18; 34:2-3; Eze. 32:3-6; Jl. 2:1-9//Rv. 6:4).  The Book of Daniel, while not listing such stereotypical woes, generalizes that prior to the end there would occur "a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of the nations until then" (Da. 12:1), and Jesus reiterated this statement (Mt. 24:21//Mk. 13:19).  Such trauma, sometimes referred to as the "woes of messiah," was a characteristic of Jewish apocalyptic in the intertestamental period and later.  Lists of disasters and cosmic disruptions describe the darkening of the sun, the turning of the moon to blood, the shaking of the mountains (Testament of Moses, 10), plagues of pestilence, famine, earthquakes, war, and hail (Apocalypse of Abraham, 30; 2 Baruch, 70).

Admittedly, this interpretation takes the Book of Revelation in a futuristic sense (and for whoever wants to know, I follow historic premillennialism as an interpretive model). Those who adopt a preterist or historicist model for interpreting the book will doubtless find other explanations for the opening of the seven seals. Nonetheless, however, one interprets the final meaning of the Apocalypse of John, the imagery of a title deed embodied in the seven-sealed scroll should remain a constituent part of the interpretive process.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Face of God


As the covenant God, Yahweh is one who reveals himself to his people. This capacity of God to reveal himself is fundamental to the possibility of covenant. As Moses says, “What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way Yahweh our God is near us...?” (Dt. 4:7).

God takes the initiative to reveal himself early in the patriarchal narratives. He is not known because men and women seek him; he is known because he graciously condescends to them. At the same time, the pure essence of God is not immediately accessible to humans, and the divine self-revelation is always to some degree veiled, for as God explains to Moses, “You cannot see my face, for no one may see my face and live” (Ex. 33:20). Hence, the descriptions of God’s self-revelation are invariably anthropomorphic, which is to say, God is described in human terms, even though he is beyond humanness. Hence, God “walks in the garden” (Ge. 3:8) and “lifts his hand” in oath (Ex. 6:8). Furthermore, he expresses a wide range of human emotions. He “snorts” in anger (Ex. 15:8), for instance. The standard Hebrew expression for anger, ‘aph (= snorting, anger) is derived from the Hebrew word for nose, and the English translation, “My anger will be aroused” (NIV), may quite literally be rendered, “My nose will become hot” (cf. Ex. 22:24; 32:10-11, 22). Similarly, God “regrets” actions (Ge. 6:6a), experiences “jealousy” (Ex. 20:5), feels “heart-pain” (Ge. 6:6b), appreciates “goodness” (Ge. 1:31) and “hates” (Dt. 16:22) and “abhors” detestable things (Lv. 20:23). Such anthropomorphisms should probably be understood as poetic metaphors, particularly in light of the fact that God, in his pure essence, was considered to be invisible and transcendent. They express the fact that God is personal as opposed to impersonal; he is a divine Someone, not merely a divine Something. By speaking of God anthropomorphically, the Torah describes God as coming to humans on their level. At the same time, it must be remembered that such metaphors are limited and carry with them the inherent danger that God might come to be understood as made in the image of humans with their vices and failures—which was pretty much the way the rest of the ancient Near East understood the deities. Anthropomorphisms of God in the Torah are carefully balanced by the affirmations of God’s invisibility, his hiddenness and mystery, and the prohibition of carving any likeness to him.

The primary recurring anthropomorphism in the Old Testament is the panim (= face) of Yahweh. The English translation of panim with respect to the face of Yahweh is usually “presence”, and the reader of the English Bible may not be aware that this is most often the word for the “face of God”. The entire personality of Yahweh, his love as well as his anger, is concentrated in his face. The displeasure of God is expressed when his face is against someone (Ge. 3:8; 4:14, 16; Lv. 10:2; 22:3). The approval of God is expressed when his face is turned toward someone (Ge. 27:7; Nu. 6:25; Dt. 12:7, 18; 14:23, 26; 15:20, etc.).

In a special sense, the panim represents the presence of God without reservation. At Sinai, Yahweh instructed Moses to depart with the people for Canaan, but he said that he himself would not accompany them because of their stubbornness (Ex. 33:1-6). Moses, however, pleaded with God so that God promised to send his panim, that is, his “face”, with the Israelites (Ex. 33:12-17). Later, Moses could say that God brought the entire company out of Egypt by his panim (Dt. 4:37; cf. Is. 63:9). Because God was so powerfully present in the Tent of Meeting, the sacred bread, which was to be displayed at all times, was quite literally the “bread of the face”, or more familiarly, the “bread of the presence” (Ex. 25:30; 39:36). Similarly, the table upon which the sacred bread was placed was called the “table of the face” (Nu.4:7).

In a Christian sense, this “face of God” reaches its climax in the face of Jesus:

For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.  (2 Co. 4:6)

While on the mountain of God Moses was prevented from seeing God’s face, and indeed, the invisibility of God is upheld by the writers in the New Testament as they speak of God living in “unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see” (1 Ti. 6:16). Still, the promise for the future is that in the end believers shall see him “face to face” (1 Co. 13:12). “They shall look upon his face,” John says (Rv. 22:4). Roman Catholics and the Orthodox call this theosis, though the broader term is the “beatific vision”. However one describes it, this ancient anthropomorphism of God—the face of God—takes on special meaning, for as Fanny Crosby’s old hymn puts it:

                                                And I shall see him, face to face,

                                              And tell the story saved by grace;

                                                And I shall see him, face to face,

                                              And tell the story saved by grace.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

THE MOVING SHADOW


No less than three accounts are provided by biblical authors regarding the unusual sign that God gave Hezekiah to assure him that his life would be extended. Isaiah had first announced to the king that his life was near its end, but when Hezekiah pleaded for a reprieve, Isaiah returned and told him that God had heard his prayer and would add another 15 years to his life. As a sign confirming this prediction, Yahweh invited Hezekiah to decide whether the shadow on the time-marker would move forward or backward, and Hezekiah chose backward. The details of the story are recounted both by Isaiah and the compiler of the Kings record (Isa. 38:1-8; 2 Kgs. 20:1-11), while the account in the Chroniclers’ History is very abbreviated (2 Chr. 32:24). That the accounts in Isaiah and 2 Kings are for the most part verbatim in the Hebrew text has convinced most scholars that one account is dependent on the other (Isaiah is likely the earlier one).

There are, however, some lingering questions about the incident. First, there is the nature of the time-instrument itself. The Masoretic Text of both Isaiah and 2 Kings describes it as a marker with “steps”, which suggests that the instrument was some sort of device that cast shadows on a wall as the sun moved through its daily course. The great Isaiah scroll recovered from the first cave at Qumran, however (1QIsaa), describes it as “the upper dial of Ahaz”. This description presumes that the instrument was inherited by Hezekiah and might very well have been of Assyrian origin due to Ahaz’ fascination with Assyrian devices (cf. 2 Kg. 16:10-18). Either way, Hezekiah’s remark that he wanted the shadow to move backward, since it was too simple to have the shadow move forward, seems a bit strange. From a modern point of view, whether the shadow moved forward or backward seems sufficiently miraculous by all definitions!

So how did the shadow move? We can immediately dismiss the legendary story that scientists at the Goodard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, using a sophisticated computer program, discovered a missing 40 minutes in the astronomical record. The scientists at Goddard have repeatedly disclaimed this story outright, but nonetheless, it has been floating around for decades in one form or another. A version of it was first published as far back as 1936 by Harry Rimmer, who in turn cited an otherwise unknown 1890s source. It was picked up by a gullible Harold Hill and repeated in a new and improved version in his 1974 book, How to Live Like a King’s Kid. Now, with the advent of the internet, it is still making the rounds, albeit in an updated fashion (see the debunking at www.snopes.com/religion/lostday.asp). A much more plausible explanation is that the moving shadow was related to a total solar eclipse (a total solar eclipse is when the moon completely blocks the sun, creating a short period of darkness). We know, for instance, that just such an eclipse occurred in 702 BC, the 16th year before Hezekiah would eventually die (you can find it online at NASA’s Five Millennium Catalog of Solar Eclipses), and unlike the story by Harold Hill, this one is not bogus.

Solar eclipses can create strange visual phenomena. If a “steps” device in Hezekiah’s court was shrouded in darkness for a short period and then restored to daylight, the shadow might very well have seemed to go backward. A solar eclipse seems a more likely explanation than some disruption of the planet’s daily revolution. Such total solar eclipses are rare (the last one in America extending coast-to-coast was in 1918, but Hawaii had one in 1991 and some of the western states saw one in 1979). Indeed, should you be interested, you’ll be able to see another on August 21, 2017, and it will be from coast to coast, its path of totality extending from Lincoln City, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina, passing through Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia. Darkness will last longest at Carbondale, Illinois (a few seconds beyond 2.5 minutes).

At the end of the day (to use a rather loaded metaphor in the present context), I suppose the real question concerns the legitimacy of biblical prophecy more than celestial disruption. The moving shadow was a predicted sign to Hezekiah, and Isaiah was to be regarded as a true prophet. If you can believe in a God who knows the future, then it was not hard for him to inform Hezekiah that the steps of the shadow would move backward. Was this the result of a total solar eclipse? There is no way to know for certain, of course, but in my mind this is a satisfactory explanation.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Why Should Pentecostals Become Orthodox Christians

I love these observations from The Very Rev. Archpriest Andrew Stephen Damick, pastor of St. Paul Orthodox Church of Emmaus, Pennsylvania.

I am . . . interested in how Pentecostals may come to find a home in Orthodoxy. In some ways, Pentecostals and Holiness believers may approach the Orthodox Church quite differently from mainstream Protestants and Evangelicals. Those more in touch with their Holiness roots will not find in Orthodoxy the moralism of their founders, but may nevertheless appreciate our ascetical emphasis on purity. Those who especially focus on healing from God may connect with our theology of salvation as a healing process. The highly interactive character of Pentecostal services may make the back-and-forth rhythms of liturgy more accessible. Some may be attracted by our sense that everyone has a "personal Pentecost" when he is chrismated, that that first Pentecost never truly ended. And Pentecostals who thrill at the stories of famous faith healers and fiery preachers will no doubt have their heads set spinning at the stories of the lives of the saints.

On a deeper level, I believe that one of the things that Pentecostals share with the Orthodox is a lack of fear of materiality when it comes to the spiritual life--something that distinguishes them from most Evangelicals and other Protestants, who tend to shun this as idolatry. The Orthodox believe that holiness can reside in physical things, including our own bodies, and so do Pentecostals. We may not engage in "grave soaking," [a practice among some Charismatic Christians in which a person will lie or kneel on a departed saint's grave in order to obtain his or her "mantle" as the prophet Elisha received from Elijah] but we certainly do like to visit the graves of saints and ask for their prayers. And we do have the sense that physical touch can be an important part of our connection with the saints. Our dedication to physical beauty and love for the mystical experience of worship with all five senses may be for a Pentecostal seeker a fulfillment of all his long hopes.

The appeal of Pentecostalism in all its forms is that it speaks directly to the real pain and suffering of people, to their need for healing and contact with God. While I do not believe that its methods and peculiar beliefs are the best way to do this (and in some cases are counterproductive), even the acknowledgement of this need in people is powerful and compelling. Orthodoxy, when truly lived, also sees the pain of mankind and offers true consolation and hope for resurrection.

While the Orthodox do not seek for God with the pursuit of ecstasy and the constant expectation of miracles, we do believe that He touches us directly in the holy sacraments. And I believe that it is this experience of the very touch of God that may appeal most to Pentecostals and bring them home into Orthodoxy.