Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Toughest Passage in the New Testament?

As I was reading this weekend, I came across one of those biblical passages that continues to challenge me even though I have thought about it for many years. You know the kind where your normal interpretive principles lead you to a very uncomfortable conclusion - so your thinking turns to other ways to of reading the text until you reach the point that you realize that you are exerting a lot more energy trying to EXPLAIN AWAY the text rather than trying to EXPLAIN it.

Before I share my #1 candidate for the toughest passage in the New Testament, let me point out two close contenders to the crown - passages that drawn me in and then haunt me with misunderstanding.


Matthew 11:12 - "From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers [permits] violence, and the violent take it by force." (NKJV)

Matthew 11:12 - "From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcibly advancing, and forceful men lay hold to it." (NIV)

The partial parallel in Luke 16:16 - "every man presses into it" - is somewhat helpful, but not completely.

What is the "violence" that the kingdom permits? And how do men forcibly seize the kingdom? Is this strong language simply a statement of the total commitment that the kingdom requires? I don't think so - the emphasis is on human status (forceful men) or human action (take it by force).

This saying of Jesus has such poetry and power it its wordplay. I only wish I knew what it meant.


I Corinthians 15:29 - "Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?" (NIV)

NRSV and ESV say even more explicitly "in behalf of the dead."

NO. I am not becoming a Latter Day Saint. But I have long rejected the simple, literal reading of this passage by explaining that "the dead" refers to the "dead Christ" - thus, baptism into Christ is pointless if Christ remains dead and not resurrected. THIS IS THE WORST KIND OF INTERPRETATION. "The dead" in this passage is a genitive plural masculine noun. It refers to many people, not to one.

Clearly the interpretive context of this passage must be the belief of some in the Corinthian community that the resurrection is already past. This pre-Gnostic tendency reappears later in a more fully realized form which "spiritualizes" resurrection at the time of conversion (see "The Treatise on Resurrection", also known as the "Epistle to Rheginos"). But this does not really help interpret this passage.

If I try to understand this passage literally and historically (before any theological questions) - if I apply Occam's razor that the best answer is usually the simplest - then it seems that some in the Corinthian community practiced a baptismal ceremony in behalf of the dead. Is this the same as "proxy baptism?"


After saying all of that, I am still left with my #1 candidate for the toughest passage in the New Testament.

Romans 11:25b-26a - "Blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved." (KJV)

Romans 11:25b-26a - "Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved." (NIV)

I normally read Romans 9-11 through the lens of the "remnant theology" that is prevalent in the prophetic writings of the Hebrew scriptures. Paul (like the author of the gospel of Matthew) sees Christians - especially Gentile Christians - as true Israel, the "Israel of God," a remnant of God's larger election of rebellious national Israel.

But this is NOT the message of the "grafted branches" that precedes the verses in question. The election of Israel (the root) is holy, some branches (national Israel) have fallen off (but not all), Gentiles have been grafted in to God's larger plan, but many "natural branches" (those of Israel who have fallen away) are also grafted in. Then comes the eschatological bombshell - Israel's blindness is only IN PART and it has an END DATE. In God's future, ALL Israel will be saved.

Is this passage separate from the root/branches analogy or it's conclusion? Is "all Israel" the "Israel of God," the remnant? Or is "all Israel" the sum of Gentiles and Jews "grafted in" to the root of God's election? Or does the passage mean what it literally seems to say - in some sense - in the eschaton - ALL Israel will be saved (Israel in contrast to the Gentiles? Israel including the "grafted in" Gentiles? Or all Israel in some other sense?)

If primitive Christianity (both Jesus and Paul) was a Jewish sectarian group - which I strongly believe it was - a "Judaism" among the many "Judaisms" of the first century - if the founders of the faith had no intention of dividing with the larger Jewish faith - but rather proclaimed the fulfillment of the prophets through the decisive act of God in Jesus and in a new and different way of observing the Torah (which stood against the exclusiveness of Second Temple Judaism) that included the Gentiles - if Paul, in particular, saw the inclusion of the Gentiles as the fulfillment of God's plan for the Jews (and, in turn, all humanity) - holding one standard for Gentiles (freedom from the "works of the law" - the signs of Jewish ethnicity - i.e., circumcision, Sabbath observance, cleanliness regulations, dietary laws. etc.) while never contesting the legitimacy of Torah observance for his fellow Jews -  then this offers a very  different picture of the Christian faith that that which we have on this side of the "parting of the ways" of Jews and Christians.

On the reading of this passage - "all Israel will be saved" - rests the full implications of the new perspective on Paul. Is Paul saying that the Gentiles participate in God's election of Israel without strict adherence to the "works of the law" (circumcision, dietary laws, etc.) while Jews continue to participate in the same election thought Torah observance? If so, do Jews have to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus the Christ? Or are they already recipients of God's gracious salvation via God's covenant with Israel - the tangible expression of God's election - which is witnessed and maintained through Torah observance (covenantal nomism)?


So this is my choice for toughest passage in the New Testament.

Do you have a comment? Or maybe you would like to offer your own candidate for toughest passage.


  1. Hi, Joe,

    Yep, you've mentioned some of the crunchers, that's for sure. Another candidate I'd like to offer is the passage in James 4:5. James poses a rhetorical question: “Or do you really imagine that the Scripture says without ground…”

    There are two problems with the citation that follows, one its translation and the other its source. With respect to translation, there are two alternatives, each in turn yielding two potential meanings.

    First, he [God] jealously yearns for the [human] spirit [or, the Holy Spirit] which he has made to dwell within us. (so NASB, ESV, RSV, NRSV, CEV, Moffat, Goodspeed). If translated in this way, then either God yearns for some reciprocal devotion from the human spirit that he gave to humans at the creation (RSV, NRSV, ESV, Moffat) or else he yearns for (or truly cares for) the Holy Spirit he has given to believers in their regeneration (NASB, CEV, Goodspeed)

    Second, the Spirit [or, spirit] which God has made to dwell within us yearns jealously. (so ASV, KJV, NKJV, NAB, NEB, TEV, JB, Weymouth, Alford) If translated in this way, then either the Holy Spirit yearns for some reciprocal devotion from humans (NKJV, JB, Weymouth, Alford) or else the human spirit inherently is characterized by jealousy (ASV, KJV, NAB, NEB, TEV).

    J. B. Phillips takes his own course and offers the more conflated rendering, "Or do you imagine that…this spirit of passionate jealousy is the Spirit he has caused to live in us?" Phillips translation, of course, has the distinct problem of taking the single word “spirit” in the Greek text and making it into two words, both “Spirit” and “spirit”. This can hardly be the case!

    There are several grammatical ambiguities in the Greek text. (I'm not sure if my Greek fonts will come through in the e-mail, but I'll put them in and hope for the best.) First, the form of the verb “to dwell” has manuscript variations, some reading the causative form kat&j fqo ou!twj), mean that the statement “all Israel will be saved” is critically dependent upon everything he has just said. “All Israel” describes the same thing Paul has said earlier in his letter, when he spoke of Abraham being the father of “all who believe but have not been circumcised” as well as the father of “the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (cf. 4:11-12). “All Israel”, then, means all God’s children of faith, whether Jewish or non-Jewish. This is no replacement theology or dispensational theology either. Rather, it defines the true Israel as the true remnant, the true seed of Abraham, and the true chosen people of God must be defined by faith in Jesus Christ. Even to those directly descended from the patriarchs, Paul assertion is: Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel (cf. 9:6)! But all who believe in Jesus Christ, Jew or non-Jew, are now included in God’s people. This is the true Israel, or as Paul puts it, this is “all Israel.” This hope of salvation is what had been promised long ago in Isaiah 59:20-21 and 27:9.

    In this respect, at least, I am on board with some aspects of the New Theology about Paul, but their treatment of "the righteousness of God" and "justification" is not convincing to me.

    So, Joe, you've managed to get me to put down a very, very long reply to your propositions! Thanks for the stimulating conversation!

  2. Excellent post, Dan.

    I will have to look into this passage further.

    I do appreciate the "boundaries of interpretation" that you set up - "Whatever meaning one adopts . . . James clearly wants to say . . ." Often this is the best step toward interpretation - to disallow flights of fancy that difficult passages sometime invite. An answer - however tentative - that is "inside the ballpark" is always preferable to some clever academic "slight of hand" that strays from the textual context. (How's that for a mixed metaphor.)

    And in light of your statement about the lack of OT citation - I can't believe I did not include my favorite messianic prooftext in my list of tough passages:

    Matthew 2: 23 - "and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: 'He will be called a Nazarene.'"

    I have been looking for that reference for years.