Tuesday, December 22, 2020

My Take on Ecclesiastes

 About Solomon and Ecclesiastes... Here's my take:

The speaker in this book tags himself with the title Qoheleth, a participial form based on the root q-h-l (= to gather, assemble).  The English title Ecclesiastes comes from the Greek Septuagint, where it is derived from ekklesia and means "the one calling an assembly."  The exact nuance of the word is difficult to capture in English, and some of the various attempts are worth reiterating, including the transliteration qoheleth  without any attempt to translate it:  "preacher" (KJV, NASB, RSV, ESV), "teacher" (NIV), "leader of the assembly" (NIVmg), "speaker" (NEB), "qoheleth" (NAB), "philosopher," "president" or "spokesman.It is also worth noting that in the Hebrew text (cf. 12:8) the title Qoheleth appears with the definite article, indicating that it is not a proper name. 

But just who is Qoheleth, and when did he write?  Unquestionably, the author patterns himself after Solomon, the son of David (1:1), the king of Israel (1:12), even though the name Solomon does not appear in the book. This first person claim to have "grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled in Jerusalem before" (1:16) leaves little doubt that the author intends an identity with the one who asked God for wisdom (2 Chr. 1:7-12) and was heralded as "greater in wisdom than all the kings of the earth" (2 Chr. 9:22-23; cf. 1 Kg. 4:29-34).  All are agreed upon this point. However, there are some mitigating factors. In the first place, the opening of the book is offered in the third person (1:1-2) as are a few later interludes (7:27; 12:8), though most of the rest of the book is in the first person. Does this mean one writer is presenting the wisdom of another, or is the writer adopting the third person to stand outside him/herself temporarily? The Massoretic text offers the rather intriguing possibility, based on an alternative word division, that a woman is the writer by dividing the consonantal text of 7:27 as 'amerah qoheleth (= says Qoheleth [feminine]). The feminine construction would exclude Solomon, of course.  Most scholars reject the Masoretic division and divide the words as 'amar ha-qoheleth(= says Qoheleth [masculine]), the same as in 12:8.

Those who argue for Solomon as the author generally also suggest that the book was composed near the end of his life after he had built a large harem of non-Israelite wives who turned his heart away from Yahweh (1 Kg. 11:1-13), hence, the darkly pessimistic tone of the work.  Most scholars, however, judge it is more likely that the writer is not Solomon (why else avoid his name when obviously patterning a work after him?) but intends to faithfully present the wisdom of Solomon. The author expresses the wisdom for which Solomon was famous by rehearsing the projects of Solomon's life.  In any case, the pessimism in the book is not its final word, but rather its penultimate word. At least one strand of Jewish tradition held that the book was composed by the company of Hezekiah, probably with the understanding that this group edited a Solomonic text, though other Jewish traditions cite Solomon as the author.  Since the time of Luther most scholars, conservative or otherwise, have held that the book, while written as an idealistic representation of Solomon, was put in final form by someone later.

Though some have taken this approach, I would hesitate to say that we should discount the wisdom in the book, even if it be granted that Solomon wrote it in his declining years. This is not something like the words of Satan, which appear from time to time and are to be understood as the voice of evil. Rather, the book, in my view, should be taken as Holy Scripture, but from the viewpoint of exploring life "under the sun," which ends up being empty. This, of course, is the critical phrase--life "under the sun." By this phrase, I think the author intends to explore observable life, bracketing out, as least provisionally, whatever is not observable (and this includes God). 

Further, I think Qoheleth contains an implicit narrative line. The author is "going somewhere" with his thoughts. The book recounts a grand experiment in existential reflection. Thus, any attempt to reach final conclusions about the book's meaning apart from consideration of the whole is bound to fall short. To be sure, the book has many proverbial sayings that stand on their own, but between the prologue (1:1-11) and the epilogue (12:9-14), the main body of the book evidences a coherence that is hardly haphazard. 

On the surface, Qoheleth sounds like an unmitigated pessimist. His opening cry, repeated periodically, sounds like an accusation:  "Utter futility-everything is meaningless!" But there is more to Qoheleth than skepticism. He intends to bring his readers to the conclusion that the only thing giving meaning to life is the presence and recognition of God. However, though this is his conclusion, he does not start here.  He will only arrive by a circuitous route--over ten chapters! On the way, he puts himself and his readers in the sandals of what in the modern world we would call a humanist. He intends to lead them in a systematic search for the meaning of life by following the path that most men and women follow.

He begins as a secularist--a man who is preoccupied with the observable world and its culture. It is not that he denies God (philosophical atheism was not really an option in the ancient world) so much as he ignores him in the existential search. He begins much like a modern person concerned with financial security, personal happiness, leisure, social status and pleasure. Systematically, he moves from lifestyle to lifestyle--from the ancient counterpart to our modern stereotype of the beer-swilling "good ole boy" who is obsessed with television sports to the young executive who is a pragmatic intellectual driven to succeed to the artistic idealist who dabbles with reality while trying to find meaning in aesthetics. Qoheleth invites his readers to follow his quest.

At the outset, Qoheleth adopts a provisional self in the mode of Solomon, king of Israel. The author's provisional self was surely carefully chosen, for Solomon had both the time and the means to conduct such an exploration, and in fact, there is abundant evidence that he closely followed this very path (cf. 1 Kg. 4:20-34; 5:13-18; 7:1-12; 9:17-19, 24, 26-28; 10:1--11:8). Solomon had a much wider range of opportunity than most folks enjoy. He was rich beyond the dreams of avarice, intellectually brilliant, and had both the leisure and power to pursue whatever he wanted. He faced no serious political threats, and the affairs of state set up by his father were stable and required a minimum of effort. In short, he had both the time and resources to do whatever he wanted, and before Qoheleth is done, the author will guide his readers in exploring intellectualism, philosophy, decadence, sensual pleasure, aesthetics, politics, and entrepreneurial business. Qoheleth is an ancient version of the modern phenomenologist who is able to bracket the parts of life that he does not want to consider while he concentrates on isolated segments. In modern terms, he climbs to the heights of Ernest Hemingway's brilliance, Marilyn Monroe's sensuality, and Howard Hughes' wealth and creative genius--a man living in the (supposedly) best of all possible worlds with brains, beauty and money. To be sure, Qoheleth does not conclude by saying this is how life should be lived. In fact, he warns the reader at the outset that there will be profound disappointment. He drives relentlessly to his final conclusion that life ought to be lived in the fear of God. Anything less will be a climax of despair. Still, the reader only reaches this last point when desperate for an answer. Qoheleth's resolve is to see how far a person might get in life without the fundamental framework of deep reverence for God.

Qoheleth's approach raises complications, of course.  There will be tensions between Qoheleth's deepest self and his provisional self.  Still, all this is part of the game, and in many ways, his experiment is very much like a game except that the stakes are the highest possible.

So, this is how I take the book, and indeed, the book is one of my favorites!

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Interpretative Principles for Paul's Vocabulary

First, always understand words by their literal meaning - or better, their common usage - unless context demands otherwise.
Then, do not force any specific contextual meaning onto other more general occurrences of the same word that lack the same, confining context.
Finally, do not read other passages (or doctrines or systems of theology) "into" a specific passage without first listening to what the passage itself says - and does not say.
Remember these principles when reading Paul's "multiple" and varied uses of the word "law" in Romans. (This probably also applies to other Pauline words like "sin", "all", and "everyone" as well.)

These are good conservative, grammatical-historical interpretive principles. If they lead you to some non-traditional readings of Paul's letters, you are still a conservative Christian.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Paul and Recent Schools of Scholarship

The issue of how to best read Paul against the backdrop of Second Temple Judaism has dominated Pauline studies since the publication of Ed Sander’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977).

Four different schools (with a number of subgroups) have emerged in this ongoing academic conversation:

(1) the “traditional” (sometimes referred to as the “Lutheran”) Paul who attacks the legalism of the Jewish religion of Torah as a “means of salvation” in contrast with the gracious endtime salvation provided by God’s action in Christ,

(2) the “New Perspective on Paul” (Dunn, Wright, and in a much more radical way, Stowers and Gaston) which sees Paul’s attitude toward the law as a specific battle against Jewish cultural exclusivism which provided obstacles to Paul’s Gentile Christian mission,

(3) the “Paul within Judaism” view (Nanos, Zetterholm, Eisenbaum) which sees Paul as a lifelong Torah-observant Jew who argued for the continuing validity of Torah covenant obligations on Jews while placing no such obligations on Gentiles who were now being included in God’s “age to come” through the work of Jesus Christ, and

(4) Paul as “cosmic apocalyptist” who radically transformed God’s apocalyptic action in Jesus Christ to the “cosmic” level and away from the “forensic” apocalyptic of the Second Temple Judaism – divorcing Paul’s apocalyptic thought from other contemporary Jewish apocalyptic writings.

The Paul as “cosmic apocalyptist” view is associated with scholars like J. Louis Martyn (Anchor Bible on Galatians), his students Martinus de Boer (New Testament Library on Galatians) and Beverly Gaventa (Apocalyptic Paul: Cosmos and Anthropos in Romans 5-8), and the brilliant, mercurial (and often confusing) Douglas Campbell from Duke (The Quest for Paul's Gospel and The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul).

Martinus de Boer's distinction between "forensic" and "cosmic" apocalyptic is central to this school of thought. This distinction divorces the apocalyptic Christ event described by Paul from the more traditional Jewish apocalyptic which is tied to Israel's covenant faith and eschatological future as seen by the Hebrew prophets.

[Needless to say, I am not an adherent of this school of thought. I know of no earlier, contemporary, or later Jewish apocalyptic writings that are not thoroughly rooted in the Hebrew covenantal faith and the hope of Israel's future. The distinction between "forensic" and "cosmic" apocalyptic seems to be contrived in academia rather than found in any historical witness.

Neither can I accept the distinction of a "narrow" apocalyptic - focusing on the Jewish literary genre - and a "broader" apocalyptic - a worldview of God's intrusion/invasion of human history that transcends the Jewish roots of the Christian faith.

Nevertheless, the writings of this school are fresh, keenly insightful, and challenging. Personally, if I read these texts - while still seeing the close ties between Jewish apocalypse and covenant faith - there is much to be learned here.]

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Incarceration in Ancient Israel

Were there prisons in ancient Israel? Some scholars deny that the practice of incarceration ever occurred in the Hebrew scriptures.

 While it is true that the various Mosaic law codes - the Ten Commandments, the Book of the Covenant, the Holiness Code, and the various collected laws of the priestly code - have little or nothing to say about long-term incarceration as a punishment for crime, there are scriptural precedents for the judicial practice of imprisonment.

It is interesting to note the progression of the judicial practice of imprisonment from the pre-history of national Israel through the monarchial period down to the post-exilic period.

Detainment until Execution of Judgment
11 The Israelite woman's son blasphemed the Name in a curse. And they brought him to Moses-now his mother's name was Shelomith, daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan- 12 and they put him in custody, until the decision of the Lord should be made clear to them.
Lev. 24:11-12 32

32 When the Israelites were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the sabbath day. 33 Those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses, Aaron, and to the whole congregation. 34 They put him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him.
Num. 15:32-34
In both of these cases, incarceration seems to be short-term until a decision on judgment is reached.

Incarceration as a King's Prerogative
26 The king of Israel then ordered, "Take Micaiah, and return him to Amon the governor of the city and to Joash the king's son, 27 and say, 'Thus says the king: Put this fellow in prison, and feed him on reduced rations of bread and water until I come in peace.'"
I Kings 22:26-27

10 Then Asa was angry with the seer, and put him in the stocks, in prison, for he was in a rage with him because of this. And Asa inflicted cruelties on some of the people at the same time.
II Chron. 16:10

15 The officials were enraged at Jeremiah, and they beat him and imprisoned him in the house of the secretary Jonathan, for it had been made a prison. 16 Thus Jeremiah was put in the cistern house, in the cells, and remained there many days.
Jer. 37:15-16

4 Then the officials said to the king, "This man ought to be put to death, because he is discouraging the soldiers who are left in this city, and all the people, by speaking such words to them. For this man is not seeking the welfare of this people, but their harm." 5 King Zedekiah said, "Here he is; he is in your hands; for the king is powerless against you." 6 So they took Jeremiah and threw him into the cistern of Malchiah, the king's son, which was in the court of the guard, letting Jeremiah down by ropes. Now there was no water in the cistern, but only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud.
Jer. 38:4-6
In the period of the monarchy - the united and divided kingdoms (1050-586 BCE) - the power to imprison seems to fall to the monarchs as the chief judicial agent in the nation.

Incarceration as Power of the Courts
25 "And you, Ezra, according to the God-given wisdom you possess, appoint magistrates and judges who may judge all the people in the province Beyond the River who know the laws of your God; and you shall teach those who do not know them. 26 All who will not obey the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be strictly executed on them, whether for death or for banishment or for confiscation of their goods or for imprisonment."
Ezra 7:25-26
In the aftermath of the exile and return, the administration of justice seems to fall to an independent judiciary that had the power to (1) impose the death penalty, (2) banish from the nation, (3) confiscate property, and/or (4) imprison the perpetrator.

See the article on "Imprisonment" at the Jewish Virtual Library for a more detailed study of this issue.


 It is perhaps best to understand the progression of Hebrew notions of punishment and imprisonment against the backdrop of the rise of Israel as a nation state with the attendant rationalization and bureaucratization of laws and institutions that necessarily followed this advance. The more primitive policies reflect tribal organizations - extended families led by a patriarch - only loosely tied together in a confederation by common devotion to YHWH. Only with the rise and maturing of the centralized state was full police power granted to governmental institutions.

 As a parting thought, a few questions remain. Even though imprisonment appears to be part of the judicial process of ancient Israel, did this practice ever reach the proportion and extremes of modern long-term prison penalties? Were the motives for incarceration the same as the modern motives of deterrence and rehabilitation?

Sunday, May 3, 2020


May 21st this year will be Ascension Day in the Christian calendar, when Christians throughout the world celebrate and remember the ascension of Christ and his promise to come again. One of the great Old Testament poems about ascension is Psalm 68. This Psalm as a whole celebrates the bringing of the ark to Jerusalem in the time of David and the eventual construction of Solomon's temple. In particular, it heralds the journey of the ark after its construction at Mt. Sinai though the wilderness sojourn (68:7-10). The psalm may well have been composed in honor of the procession of the Ark of the Covenant from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David (1 Chr. 13, 15 and 16). It opens with the echo of the desert shout when the ark led the way for Israel (Ps. 68:1; Nu. 10:35). It climaxes with the ascent of the mountain in Judah that God chose as his permanent resting place (Ps. 68:16). Thus, when God "ascended on high," that is, when his throne on the ark was taken to Jerusalem and established in honor, he led in his train the captives of his victory over the Canaanites, sharing the bounty of victory with the community of Israel (cf. 1 Sa. 30:16-31; 2 Sa. 6:17-19). The ark was a sort of movable Mt. Sinai, containing the 10 commandments which were given on Sinai, and in the trek from the wilderness to the land of Canaan and the eventual establishment of the sanctuary on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, the ark finally was established in its proper resting place in Solomon's temple, which is why in 68:17 it says, "Sinai is now in the sanctuary." This procession of Yahweh enthroned upon the ark and now brought into the Most Holy Place of the temple is then described by the metaphor of an ancient "triumph," when a conquering king leads the victory procession through the capital. In his train are the captives of his enemies who have been subdued and now offer him gifts (68:18). These captive enemies include those rebels who have fought against him. Those who give gifts to the conquering king include not only those nearby kings who were his allies, but also the rebels who fought against him. The final line in 68:18, "...Yahweh God there to dwell," simply affirms that in his victory, God has established his dwelling place in the Holiest of Holies in Solomon's temple on Mt. Zion, which later is accentuated by 68:24. The idea of outsiders showering gifts upon the conquering king is again reiterated in 68:29 and 68:31.

In the New Testament, St. Paul sees something in this passage beyond the ancient entry of the ark into Solomon's temple and views it as anticipating the victory of Christ (Eph. 4), where he shares the gifts he receives from his tributaries with the church. For Paul, this event in the history of Israel was typological of a far greater ascension, the ascension of the resurrected Son of God into the heavens, in which he destroyed the spiritual enemies of his people (cf. Ep. 1:19b-21). Paul consistently saw events within the history of Israel as earthly fore-shadowings or analogies of spiritual realities in the church (cf. Ro. 4:3, 22-25; 9:24-29; 1 Co. 10:1-11; 2 Co. 3:7-18; Ga. 4:21-31). His treatment of Psalm 68 is typical of such exegesis. Paul shows that in Christ's resurrection and ascension, he not only was victorious over the opposing spiritual entities in the heavenlies (cf. 1:20-21; 3:10; 6:12), but he also shared the bounty of his victory with the members of his church. This bounty consisted of his grace-gifts to the church. Hence, the fuller meaning of the "ascension" in Psalm 68:18 refers, not merely to the bringing of the ark to Jerusalem, but to the enthronement of the risen Christ in the heavenlies (4:9a).

Monday, March 30, 2020

The Third Heaven and God's Dwelling Place

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven-whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person-whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows-was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. (II Corinthians 12:2-4 NRSV)
The creation story of the first chapter of Genesis uses the word "heavens" in two different ways referring to (1) the atmosphere (where the birds fly) and (2) the placement of the celestial objects (the sun, moon, and stars). To these, a "third heaven" - a "heaven of heavens" or "highest heaven" - is mentioned in Genesis 28:12 and Deuteronomy 10:14. In this primitive worldview, the "highest heaven" seems to be the realm of God and his heavenly council.

The term "heaven of heavens" is a typical Hebrew superlative in which language - and the concepts it points to - intensifies and becomes all-inclusive. Apparently, this "highest heaven" points to all space above the earth - however vague, undefined, and immeasurable this may be.

It seems that is to this primitive concept that Paul refers to in his mystical - perhaps apocalyptic - journey to the realm of God himself in the passage above. This language is not intended to be scientific; nor is it to be understood literally. Rather, it means that Paul has had some sort of inexplicable, visionary, "out of the body," "caught away" experience that he perceived as a visit to the divine realm. Paul was clear that this experience was impossible to describe, consisting of things that mere mortals were not permitted to speak. [Clearly no commentator has the ability to expound on that which Paul himself found indescribable.]


It is important to remember that later, mature Hebrew theology - beginning with the Deuteronomist - struggled with any literal conception of God's dwelling place. In Solomon's dedicatory prayer for the new constructed Jerusalem temple, the Deuteronomist records Solomon's denunciation of the limiting language of the temple as God's abode or resting place.
But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! (I Kings 8:27 NRSV)
For the Deuteronomist, neither the temple, nor the Ark of the Covenant, nor the holy city of Jerusalem could "contain" God or rightfully be called his dwelling place. Consistently, the book of Deuteronomy offers a "name theology" in which only the "name of God," not God himself dwells in the central sanctuary. The transcendence of God disallows any primitive notion of a single place as God's abode.

Gerhard von Rad, in his Old Testament Theology: The Theology of Israel's Traditions, reports that ancient Israel pointed to a number of "places" as God's dwelling place: Mount Sinai, the Ark of the Covenant, Solomon's temple, Mount Zion (Jerusalem), and heaven. The multiplicity of these theologically significant, but mixed metaphors speak loudly (1) against any primitive cosmology of God's literal dwelling place and (2) to the mature conceptions of "God's separateness, transcendence, and limitlessness."

Friday, March 27, 2020

Paul's Letters and a Gentile Audience

The primary audience of Paul's missionary labors and letters were Gentiles who never fell under the Torah obligations of the Jews.  Despite the fact that Paul's "churches" were populated by both ethnic Jews and Gentiles, his letters are always - first and foremost - informed by his mission as an "apostle to the Gentiles." Paul understood himself - and his prophetic call - as the harbinger of the great end time ingathering of the Gentiles into the "people of God" that the Hebrew prophets had predicted.

Given Paul's clear - and often stated - self-understanding, there seem to be three simple rules for discerning Paul's audience in his letters:
(1) Unless otherwise noted, Paul writes to a Gentile audience.

(2) When Paul writes about "Jews," these references are most likely to Christ-believing Jews - including the Jerusalem church and other ethnic Jews - that were full participants in the various mission churches rather than to all Jews in general.

(3) Whenever Paul addresses his Jewish kinsmen (sometimes all ethnic Jews, more often Christ-believing Jews as determined by context), these statements are always the exception - and never the rule - to Paul's normal Gentile audience and these statements are always clearly delineated by direct statements or obvious clues in the text itself.
Whatever Paul says about the Jewish Torah and its obligations - especially the cultural identity markers of circumcision, Sabbath observance, and food regulations (kashrut) - it is significant to note that he (unless otherwise stated) is speaking to a Gentile audience upon whom falls no Torah obligations.

The question in Paul about Jews and Gentiles together in "one body" is the question of whether the end time ingathering of the Gentiles requires Jewish proselyte conversion (washing, circumcision, Torah observance). Paul answers an emphatic "NO!" to this question. For Paul, "Gentiles as Gentiles" are included in God's "age to come" without Torah observance that never applied to Gentiles in the first place.

Paul's "apparent" repudiation of the Mosaic law - in Romans and Galatians and similar passages - means one thing if directed toward Torah-observant Jews like himself, but it means an entirely different thing if addressed to Gentile converts who as part of God's final, end time action in Christ are now included into the "people of God" - without taking on the specific obligations of Torah observance.

Primary and Secondary Sources

Whether conducting research in the social sciences, humanities (especially history), arts, or natural sciences, the ability to distinguish between primary and secondary source material is essential. Basically, this distinction illustrates the degree to which the author of a piece is removed from the actual event being described, informing the reader as to whether the author is reporting impressions first hand (or is first to record these immediately following an event), or conveying the experiences and opinions of others-that is, second hand.

Primary Sources

These are contemporary accounts of an event, written by someone who experienced or witnessed the event in question. These original documents (i.e., they are not about another document or account) are often diaries, letters, memoirs, journals, speeches, manuscripts, interviews and other such unpublished works. They may also include published pieces such as newspaper or magazine articles (as long as they are written soon after the fact and not as historical accounts), photographs, audio or video recordings, research reports in the natural or social sciences, or original literary or theatrical works.

Secondary Sources

The function of these is to interpret primary sources, and so can be described as at least one step removed from the event or phenomenon under review. Secondary source materials, then, interpret, assign value to, conjecture upon, and draw conclusions about the events reported in primary sources. These are usually in the form of published works such as journal articles or books, but may include radio or television documentaries, or conference proceedings.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Deuteronomy and the Book of the Covenant

A close reading of the Deuteronomic Code (Deuteronomy 12-26) shows this legal collection to be a commentary of sorts on the earlier collection of Hebrew laws, the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21-23). Again and again, the Deuteronomic writer refers to and builds upon specific themes and principles raised in the earlier collection of laws.

While the Book of the Covenant seems to provide structure to a simple, semi-sedentary agricultural village society, the Deuteronomic code speaks to a more complex society and economy of city states, monarchical government, social class divisions, and external pressures from neighboring peoples.

At the same time, Deuteronomy builds on earlier traditions from the period of the conquest of Canaan and the tribal confederacy. We see this earlier influence most clearly in Deuteronomy's emphasis on the necessity of standardized ritual worship in a single sanctuary, the centrality of covenant and the renewal of the covenant, the negative regard for the institution of the monarchy, and the repeated appeal to the "holy war" tradition. 

These early themes are remolded – updated and expanded to changing social and economic realities – by Deuteronomy's new emphasis on an absolute centralization of the sanctuary (with the attendant destruction of all local shrines and the end of family-based worship), the "name theology" which moves away from the primitive notion of the sanctuary as God's dwelling place, the fleshing-out of the concept of the election of Israel, and updating of laws beyond property rights to social justice concerns (care for the widows, the orphaned, and the immigrant) – themes first found in Hebrew literature in the pages of the Deuteronomic code.

Refer to the linked document below to compare the relatively primitive legislation of the Book of the Covenant and the clear extension and updating of early principles in the Deuteronomic code.

Download The Book of the Covenant and Deuteronomic Code Parallels.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Law Collections of the Pentateuch

There are four distinct, self-contained collections of laws found in the Hebrew Pentateuch – the "books of Moses": Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Each of these collections is clearly delineated by (1) opening and closing formulae, (2) repetitive vocabulary – key words and phrases that are regularly used in introductory formulae, transitional passages, and points of particular emphasis – and (3) recurring themes – large overall literary motifs that tie the individual laws together into a cohesive whole.

These four legal collections are 
  • The Decalogue (The Ten Commandments) – Exodus 20
  • The Book of the Covenant – Exodus 21-23
  • The Holiness Code – Leviticus 17-26
  • The Deuteronomic Code – Deuteronomy 12-26

 In the Pentateuch, these law collections are nestled within lengthy narrative passages that tell the story of ancient Israel's exodus from Egypt, initial reception of the law at Mount Sinai, generational wandering in the desert, and impending entrance into Canaan. Along with these narratives are a smorgasbord of rules and regulations which are not a coherent whole, but rather a compilation of loosely connected laws. Since most of these laws reflect a priestly outlook focusing on Hebrew worship, sanctuaries, sacrifices, and Levitical oversight, this loose conglomeration is often referred to as the "Priestly Code." This name should not be taken to suggest that these laws have the same literary unity and cohesion as the Decalogue, the Book of the Covenant, the Holiness Code, and the Deuteronomic Code.

Each of the collected law books – the Decalogue, the Book of the Covenant, the Holiness Code, and the Deuteronomic Code – reveals clues as to the time and social setting of their collection. Each collection seems to codify – place in written form – laws that speak to a specific and changing historical setting. Clearly, these collections are often built around existing and, in some cases, much earlier individual laws. Equally true, there seems to be a progression among the law "books" with later collections building on earlier collections, revising more primitive laws to apply them to changing social and economic realities.

This trajectory – devotion to early law codes that are revisited and re-applied in future generations – is exactly the same trajectory we see in the later "oral" law and the centuries-long debates among the Jewish rabbis about when and where and how ancient Israel's laws are to be applied in later generations.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Paul, the Gentiles, and Torah Obligations

The primary audience of Paul's missionary labors and letters were Gentiles who never fell under the Torah obligations of the Jews.  Despite the fact that Paul's "churches" were populated by both ethnic Jews and Gentiles, his letters are always – first and foremost – informed by his mission as an "apostle to the Gentiles." Paul understood himself – and his prophetic call – as the harbinger of the great end time ingathering of the Gentiles into the "people of God" that the Hebrew prophets had predicted.

Given Paul's clear – and often stated – self-understanding, there seem to be three simple rules for discerning Paul's audience in his letters: (1) Unless otherwise noted, Paul writes to a Gentile audience. (2) When Paul writes about "Jews," these references are most likely to Christ-believing Jews – including the Jerusalem church and other ethnic Jews – that were full participants in the various mission churches rather than to all Jews in general. (3) Whenever Paul addresses his Jewish kinsmen (sometimes all ethnic Jews, more often Christ-believing Jews as determined by context), these statements are always the exception – and never the rule – to Paul's normal Gentile audience and these statements are always clearly delineated by direct statements or obvious clues in the text itself.

Whatever Paul says about the Jewish Torah and its obligations – especially the cultural identity markers of circumcision, Sabbath observance, and food regulations (kashrut) – it is significant to note that he (unless otherwise stated) is speaking to a Gentile audience upon whom falls no Torah obligations.

The question in Paul about Jews and Gentiles together in "one body" is the question of whether the end time ingathering of the Gentiles requires Jewish proselyte conversion (washing, circumcision, Torah observance). Paul answers an emphatic "NO!" to this question. For Paul, "Gentiles as Gentiles" are included in God's "age to come" without Torah observance that never applied to Gentiles in the first place.

Paul's "apparent" repudiation of the Mosaic law – in Romans and Galatians and similar passages – means one thing if directed toward Torah-observant Jews like himself, but it means an entirely different thing if addressed to Gentile converts who as part of God's final, end time action in Christ are now included into the "people of God" – without taking on the specific obligations of Torah observance.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Paul and the "Parting of the Ways"

Paul wrote before the "parting of the ways" of Jews and Christians. He regularly expressed a utopian view of Jews and Gentiles living together as an eschatological community – the "people of God" at the end of the age joined together as one body, one house, one loaf. Christianity did not have an independent existence during Paul's lifetime. Rather the "Jesus assemblies" – whether meeting in the homes of well-to-do patrons or in tenement work places and houses – grew out of and paralleled the synagogues of the Jewish diaspora. It is hard to imagine the first Gentile "Jesus worship" as anything other than a mirror, or extension, of the liturgy borrowed from the first century synagogues.

This is not to say that Paul was oblivious to the ever-present problems of his utopian vision. The great bulk of Paul's major letters – Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians – deals specifically with the challenges of Jewish and Gentile believers coexisting in a single community of faith. These challenges were voiced with great volume and frequency by Paul's diverse opponents. Nevertheless, Paul never abandoned his vision of end time unity.

We – as modern interpreters of Paul – approach his letters from the other side of the "parting of the ways." And this historical perspective always colors our reading of Paul. Like Luther who "read into" Paul the Protestant conflict with late medieval Catholicism, we often see Paul only through our experience of Western individualism – as so clearly expounded in Krister Stendahl's essay "The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West."

The new perspective on Paul not only challenges Luther's misrepresentation of the religion of second temple Judaism and Paul's place in it, it also – and appropriately so – questions contemporary Western readings of Paul's letters. Whether the new perspective offers a satisfactory reconstruction of second temple Judaism and Jesus and Paul is a separate matter. But the importance and necessity of this quest is beyond question.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Primitive Christian Baptism and Jewish Roots

The exact wording of the baptismal ceremony was not fixed in the first century. While I do believe that invoking the name "Jesus" in the act of baptism is probably the most primitive baptismal formula, I do not think that there was any great discussion or division over the words pronounced at baptism in the primitive church.

I do think that there was a wide range of meanings applied to the act of baptism in the early Jesus movement. The roots of baptism are in the purity washings regularly practiced by second temple Jews - rites of cleansing that removed ritual impurity and prepared the individual to join the community act of temple sacrifice. The archaeological evidence of the Hebrew mikveh - pools for ritual cleansing - at Masada, Qumran, and Jerusalem speak to the importance of this repeated Jewish practice.

Whatever theology of baptism we might embrace, it is important to remember that at its most basic level, baptism is an act of cleansing.

Proselyte baptism - a one-time act that along with circumcision and sacrifice marked entry of non-Jewish converts into the Jewish community - also played a role in the origin of Christian baptism. This act was a once-for-all-time rite of initiation, celebrating the joining of covenant community, the movement from darkness to light, from death to life.

But most powerfully - and in the most direct influence on Jesus and the Twelve - John the Baptizer reworked the Hebrew notions of baptismal cleansing into the final act of preparation for the impending coming of the kingdom of God. Baptism for John, and for the early Christians, was an eschatological moment that embraced the "world to come" which was already invading the present world in God's sovereign act of consummation.

Significantly, it was not just that John baptized or just that he baptized Jesus. The real significance lies in the fact that John baptized - and baptized Jesus - in the JORDAN. John's baptism was re-enactment of the final triumph of the Exodus, the "new Exodus" promised in the latter chapters of Isaiah where Israel once again steps through the waters of the Jordan and into its promised future.

[NOTE: The more I read the New Testament, the more I understand "salvation" - not in individual terms - but as the restoration of Israel which includes the end-time ingathering of the Gentile nations into the people of God. Individuals choose to align themselves with this coming regime and enjoy the liberation it brings or remain trapped by the powers of the present evil age.]

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Second Temple Judaism and Works Righteousness

Second temple Judaism was not a religion of works righteousness. Judaism was always – and still is – a religion of electing grace and covenant relationship. Such faith is not found only in the Qumran community and documents from the late second temple period. "Election precedes covenant which is lived out by following Torah instruction" is the heart of Exodus 19-20 and Deuteronomy 6-7 – which is, in turn, the heart of the Hebrew scriptures. (This is also the heart of Jesus' and Paul's understanding and practice of Torah faithfulness.)

Paul clearly states in Galatians 2:15-16: "We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law." Torah was given in the context of covenant. Covenant was born from gracious election. To be Torah observant never meant living a life of "sinless perfection meriting salvation." Rather it meant to live under the umbrella of God's election and covenant, observing Torah instructions as moral and purity imperatives and availing one's self of the redemptive provisions of the sacrificial system when falling short.

The tendency to fall into legalism is an ever-present temptation in all expressions of ethical monotheism – and I am quite sure that some in second temple Israel succumbed to self-righteousness and exclusion of those who did not live up to their standards. But this is not the essence of biblical faith. Jesus did not find shortcomings in the law of Moses. And in whatever way we understand Paul (unless we want to admit that he is the true founder of the Christian faith), we must start with his fundamental agreement with Jesus' own faith and his proclamation that the "end of the age" was dawning. This proclamation included the defeat of the powers, the restoration of Israel, the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God, and the resurrection of the dead – of which Jesus is the first fruits and the certain guarantee that the "kingdom of God" has come. This vision is the fulfillment of the Hebrew faith, not its rejection.

Both Jesus and Paul were Torah observant Jews. Neither argued that Jews were no longer bound by Torah obligations. Jesus charged the Pharisees with hypocrisy, failing to live up to the standards they set for others; he never charged them with heresy. When asked the greatest commandment, he quoted Deuteronomy and Leviticus. To the rich ruler's question, he replied, "Observe the law." The context for interpreting the teaching of Jesus and Paul is Torah observant Judaism at the end of the "old age" and the coming of the "new." It is precisely the end time inclusion of the Gentiles – and their relationship to the traditional Hebrew faith – that raises the controversies that Paul struggles against in his letters.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Jesus, Paul, and Early Rabbinic Schools

The rhetoric and teaching methods of Jesus and Paul are best understood as part of the emerging rabbinic movement that would come to dominate Judaism after the destruction of the second temple. Like the Pharisees – the contemporaries of Jesus and Paul and the predecessors of the post-temple rabbis – both Jesus and Paul engaged in public Torah interpretation and controversy.

Jesus' disagreements with his opponents did not mean he rejected Torah obligations. They meant exactly the opposite. Jesus actively engaged in the interpretive debates about Torah interpretation between the early rabbinic schools of Hillel and Shammai – sometimes agreeing with one, sometimes the other, and sometimes challenging both with his own fresh application of the Torah to the challenges of the day. Many sayings of Jesus are halakhic statements that amend or modify traditional Torah precepts to conform to contemporary conditions. The collected sayings of Jesus in Matthew's "Sermon on the Mount" are quite simply the "Torah according to Jesus" – comparable to the collected Torah interpretations of other first century rabbis. Jesus ethics and eschatology only make sense inside second temple Judaism.

Paul – a Pharisee probably of the house of Shammai – never rejected his Jewish roots, education, or affiliation after his "conversion" to Christ. Although his Jewish worldview was radically reordered by the resurrection of Jesus and its eschatological implications, Paul remain a student of the Hebrew scriptures. His letters are replete with appeals to authoritative scriptural references. It appears that he remained Torah observant until his death – even though he embraced the prophetic role of "apostle to the Gentiles." Paul's "rabbinic" rhetoric is on display in the lively "debates" with his opponents in his letters.

Unlike Jesus, Paul seldom argued with Jewish scholars about the interpretation of Torah. Rather, his rhetorical flourishes were reserved for those who attacked the basic premise of his mission: the inclusion of Gentiles as "Gentiles" (with no Torah demand) in the end time people of God. Paul's opponents were perhaps Jews who demanded a proselyte conversion to Judaism before Gentile eligibility for inclusion into God's people. More likely, these opponents were Gentile proselytes who had themselves already taken on Torah obligation and felt that their fellow Gentile must follow the same path into God's end time community. Whichever may be the case, Paul wielded the Hebrew scriptures and rabbinic forms of rhetoric as weapons in the wars with those who would deny the validity of his mission to the Gentiles.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Is Dispensationalism Supersessionist?

The dispensational premillennialists argue that Israel is God's chosen people and all the promises and predictions of the Old Testament only apply to the Jewish nation, not to Christians.

They see the present "age of grace" or "church age" as a unique historical period in which God deals with Jews and Gentiles alike through the death and resurrection of Jesus. They like to say that the church age is a "parenthesis" between two exclusively Jewish ages - the age of the Law (from Moses to Jesus) and the Millennial kingdom (which follows the secret rapture which removes all true Christians from the earth).

The key to dispensationalism is that God deals with humans by different standards and offers different criteria for judgment in each progressive period (dispensation) of human history. According to this view, the challenge of reading the Bible is to "rightly divide the word of truth" - specifically, to distinguish those parts of the Bible that focus on Jews (which have nothing to do with Christianity) and those parts which focus on the Christian church (which have no application to national Israel).

So, it is not correct to say that for the dispensationalist, the old covenant has failed and been replaced with a new covenant. Rather dispensationalists would argue that the old covenant (testament) speaks of Israel only, while the new covenant (testament) speaks only of the Christian church (except for some selected sections of the New Testament - especially the Book of Revelation - that they understand to deal explicitly with Israel). Dispensationalism is not supersessionist - a replacement theology that says that Christianity has replaced Judaism. Rather, Christianity is a momentary "blip" in God's larger plan of working through Israel. According to this view, with the removal of the church via the rapture, God will get back to his original way of "doing business" working in and through the Jewish people.


Personally, I cannot accept this position because both Jesus and Paul seem to be very clear that the new covenant prophesied in Jeremiah 31 is fulfilled in the New Testament followers of Jesus - both Jew and Gentile. (See especially the eucharistic words of Jesus, "This is the new covenant in my blood", along with Paul's extensive argument about Israel's continued place in the people of God in Romans 9-11.)

Jesus and Paul taught that the end of the current age has come and the powers of sin, the Satan, and death have been defeated. (The resurrection of Jesus is the "first fruit" of the dawning new age and a sure and certain sign that the powers have been defeated.) The "age to come" will still include Israel as the "people of God." But now at the end of time, the promises of the Old Testament prophets - that the law will flow forth from Zion, that light will shine on the Gentiles, and that they too will be included along with Israel in the "people of God" without converting to Judaism first - will at last be fulfilled.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Deuteronomy and Ancient Near Eastern Treaties

Adopted from J. A. Thompson's The Significance of the Ancient Near Eastern Treaty Pattern.

In 1954, G. E. Mendenhall (1954) recognized that the treaty pattern and language of the ancient Near East (ANE) is often repeated in the Old Testament covenant passages. The Hittites as early as the second millennium BCE formulated the basic structure of suzerainty (or vassal) treaties. This basic structure was later revised by the Assyrians in the 750s BCE – the vassal treaties of Esarhaddon's succession (VTE).

The standard elements in these treaties were

  •   the preamble, which gave the names and titles of the parties involved,
  •  the historical prologue which outlined the events that led up to the treaty,
  •  the stipulations, which were of two kinds—the general principles on which future relations were to be built, and the specific stipulations which arose out of these general principles,
  •  the divine witnesses and guarantors of the treaty, and
  •  the associated blessings and curses for treaty keeping and violation. 

Other elements appear in many of the ANE treaties such as
  •   the requirement to deposit the treaty in the temple,
  •    to read it periodically in a public assembly, and
  •    to secure the continuity of the treaty by a suitable succession on the vassal's throne.

 There is also a good deal of evidence that a religious ceremony accompanied the ratification of a treaty. Quite commonly blood sacrifices were offered on such an occasion. The formal oath, of acceptance and the preparation, sealing, handing over and acceptance of the treaty document were also essential elements in the total proceedings.


The book of Deuteronomy is organized around the ANE vassal treaty structure.
  • Preamble: Deuteronomy 1:1-5
  • Historical prologue: Deuteronomy 1:6-4:40
  • Basic stipulation of allegiance: Deuteronomy 5-11
  •  Covenantal clauses: Deuteronomy 12-26
  • Invocation of witnesses: Deuteronomy 4:26; 30:19; 31:28
  • Blessings and curses: Deuteronomy 28

 Deuteronomy "ends" with a covenant renewal ceremony described in Deuteronomy 29-30, where the assembled Israel "renews" the vows from Sinai.  This is followed by the succession of Joshua to Moses' leadership role of Yahweh's vassal people, Israel.

This covenant renewal ceremony is repeated at Shechem under the leadership of Joshua following the "conquest" of the Canaanites (Joshua 24) and again at Gilgal under the leadership of Samuel (I Samuel 14).

Later Jewish practice associated the giving and renewal of the covenant (specifically, the giving of Torah and Israel's renewed commitment to it) with the feast day of Shavuot (Pentecost).