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.

- 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."


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.