October 5, 2021


Q. Let’s deal with a related subject, namely what constitutes a human being, being human? The answer in Genesis is that we are uniquely created ‘in the image of God and after his likeness’. This is a theological statement, not a statement about brain capacity, ability to reason as a personal agent etc.  It may presuppose all that sort of thing, both in terms of ontology and function, but as Mike Heiser has demonstrated to my satisfaction, the tselm is not about ontology or function— it’s about status.  We are given the status of being the ‘idol’ (which is what ‘tselem’ means literally) of God on earth— his representatives, who are meant to be on a lesser scale rulers, tenders, creators like God.  Mike puts it this way in a strong personal email to me which he says I am free to quote: “The image is a status, for which function we are given attributes. Bill conflates these things. A radio and radio waves are an illustration. They must both be present for the “radio experience” but they are not at all the same thing.  That God didn’t share his attributes with anything other than humans and supernatural beings (both are lesser versions of himself) tells us the imaging status is primary. Have that status? You are given the tools to fulfill it. There is no *necessary* reason to invert the two the way Bill does. He does that because it’s fits a philosophical notion of personal agency.  Consider the question about a new born baby— is Bill presupposing a newborn exercises rationality and free choice and self-awareness? Huh?! Where? How about the zygote, Bill?  His linking of his definition of the image to personal agency puts us in a very bad ethical place.”    Now I would say this is perhaps a bit too strong a reaction, but I think he right about the image referring to a conferred status, not an attribute, not a list of function or ontological capacity or equipment.  Comments?


Q. In saying, “The image is a status, for which function we are given attributes,” Heiser apparently equates status with function. Therefore I refer you to my discussion in the book of Richard Middleton’s work on the image of God where I dispute this equation. One cannot have a certain status or function without having the properties necessary to fulfill that status or function. Thus Middleton himself admits that a functional understanding presupposes substantivalism concerning God’s image. Heiser’s radio analogy is obscure: neither the radio, nor the radio waves, nor the experience of listening to the radio is a function or status of the radio. The question concerns explanatory order. A thing’s properties are explanatorily prior to the function or status that it actually has. A thing, such as a screwdriver, cannot have an actual function unless it already possesses the properties necessary to carry out that function. A person cannot have a particular status, like being an heir or being royal, without having certain qualifying properties.


I suspect that Heiser has confused the cognitive and the ontological orders (ordo cognoscendi and ordo essendi). God says, “I want man to serve as my representative on earth. What properties must I give him in order to have that status and to carry out that function?” In the ordo cognoscendi the status or function can be specified before the bestowal of the properties; but a thing cannot actually have that status or function as intended unless and until it has ontologically those properties that enable it so to function. There is no Ancient Near Eastern evidence for thinking that “image” denotes status or function. See discussion in the book. Being created “in the image of God and after his likeness” describes the way in which we resemble God, not our status (cf. Gen 5.3).

By the way, I think that zygotes and fetuses are persons endowed with a rational soul and therefore are personal agents. They are not potential persons; rather they are persons with potential. This is the case even though they are not functioning as God’s co-regents. Should we say that because they are not functioning as God’s co-regents, they are not in God’s image? In that case they would not be human. What are the ethical implications of that?


October 2, 2021

Q. You go to great lengths to stress the figurative character of the creation narratives in Gen. 1-3, and you are right about that. But figurative doesn’t mean non-referential, and as you argue, it doesn’t mean there isn’t some historical substance in a story like we find in Gen. 2-3, even if you want to put it in the category of mytho-history. The ancient view of myths was, as you point out, stories about the gods, which were thought in some sense to be true.  The problem I have with using the category myth for Gen. 1-3 is not merely because it has the modern connotation of fiction or something we know is not true, but because the ancient Hebrews were not myth making peoples. Indeed, as G.E. Wright laid out in detail, they readily demythologized ANE myths and used some of its concepts in a new framework (see e.g. Wright’s The Bible and the Ancient Near East, for example the creature Leviathan). For this reason, I would prefer to use the category of proto-history, or saga or legend, all of which have a historical component, but they also use plenty of figurative and metaphorical language in the process.  Thoughts? Comments?


A.  The claim that the ancient Hebrews were not a myth-making people is based on a confusion. The truth is that the Hebrews desacralized nature and eliminated the gods from their ontology of the natural world. But desacralization is not the same as demythologization. The assumption of Wright and others is that there cannot be a monotheistic myth. That is not only unjustified but demonstrably incorrect. The ancient Hebrews rejected polytheism, not myth as a literary genre. Quite the contrary: as I show at length in the book, Genesis 1- 11 exhibits clearly most all of the family resemblances of the genre of myth.



September 10, 2021


Jeff Weima’s helpful guide to Rev. 2-3 is now widely available and I am happy to commend it to one and all.  It does a fine job of exegesis of the material, of recognizing we are dealing with sermons, albeit with epistolary prescripts, and so are not really letters.  Jeff is not only good at helping us understand the meaning of these much debated chapters, but takes the next step as well and helping us understand how to preach this material today to very different audiences at a very different time in the history of Christianity.  This guide is substantial, over 300 pages in length, and reflects long and detailed reflection on the material itself and its various kinds of interpretation.

In this post I would like to say a bit more about sermons in the NT, and revisit some of the remarks I made back in 2006 on this subject in my Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians Vol. One.    The following is some excerpts and extra comments from that discussion found on pp. 38ff. of that volume:

“We need to understand from the outset that ancient sermons may have looked quite different from modern ones.  For example, ancient sermons were not necessarily expositions of a particular, or even two or three, Biblical texts.  Of course there was no NT when the NT writers were living, and thus for them the OT was the sacred Scripture  (see 2 Tim. 3.16).

But even so there were early Christian sermons based on a variety of resources.  There were of course sermons based on OT texts, but also sermons based on early Christian tradition including the Jesus tradition, and sermons based on general Biblical themes.  Also there were rhetorical discourses using all kinds of resources to mention just several possibilities.  Expository preaching of the Bible was not the only thing going on in the first century world of Jewish or Christian preaching.  Where then should we begin to explore this matter?…

Jewish sermonizing, which took place in synagogues (see e.g. Luke 4) tended to have practical and ethical focuses. They did not tend to be long theological discourses, but rather applications of certain OT texts.

“What comports with this picture is what we find recorded in Luke’s synopses of synagogue sermons offered by early Christians like Paul. We may compare for example Acts 13.15-41.  Notice in the first verse that there is an invitation to offer “a word of exhortation” (logos parakleseos), the very same phrase used to describe the highly Jewish and textually oriented discourse we call Hebrews (Heb. 13.22).  This suggests that at least one form of synagogue homily involved paraenesis based on Scripture exposition.  In other words, it had an ethical and practical aim, it was not just an expounding of interesting ideas.  This is hardly surprising since early Judaism was more focused on orthopraxy than orthodoxy.[1]

  1. Wills, in an important essay, has argued that this ‘word of exhortation’ form of homily had in fact three parts: 1) the exempla which was a reasoned exposition of the main thesis, usually with illustrations from one or more Scriptural text. This exempla laid out the facts, sometimes in narrative form and illustrated them. This was followed by 2) the conclusions based on those facts laid out in the first part of the homily. This section was introduced by words like dio (therefore), or dia touto (through or because of this) or some other Greek particle or conjunction. This conclusion was then followed by  3) an exhortation usually with imperatives.[2]

It is argued that this three part form can be seen in the following Jewish and Christian texts—Wis. Sol. 13-15; Test. Reub. 5.1-5; Test. Levi 2.6-3.8; Test. Benj. 2.5;3.1;6.6;7.1;8.1; Acts 2.14-40; 3.12-26; 13.14-41; 20.17-35; 1 Cor. 10.1-14; Heb. 1.1-2.1; 1 Pet. 1.3-11; 1 Clem. 6.1-7.2; 42.1-44.6; Ignatius of Antioch Ephesians; and the Epistle of Barnabas.  Building on the work of Wills, and to some extent critiquing and refining it, C.C. Black noticed that in fact this threefold pattern is an ancient rhetorical pattern such that the first part of the homily in fact corresponds with the rhetorical ‘narratio’ the second major part corresponds with the proposition and the arguments based on the narration (‘probatio’), and the final exhortation corresponds with the peroration.  In fact this form reflects a primitive sort of deliberative rhetoric where one is trying to modify the audience’ s belief or behavior in some way in the near future.[3]

This following of a rhetorical format in early Jewish and Christian preaching should in no way surprise us.  It was part of the harvest of Hellenism even in Israel.  The rhetorical handbooks or guidebooks to persuasive speaking in Greek had been in circulation from the 4th century B.C. and there can be no doubt that this heavily influenced even early Judaism.  In fact one may see the Qumran community as a reaction to the over-Hellenization of  early Judaism in Jerusalem.  But their protest did not stem the tide of Hellenization. The building program of Herod the Great was intent to turn Jerusalem into a cosmopolitan city influenced by Greek culture, as the building of the theater and the hippodrome right in the shadow of the Temple makes evident.  There was in fact a school of rhetoric right in Jerusalem during Paul’s day, and we need not doubt it affected the preaching of those who spoken in synagogues where Greek was spoken, including in Jerusalem.[4]

We must also reckon with the influence of Jewish schooling in a more general sense as well. Speaking of students at a Sabbath school in Alexandria Philo tells us that what was taught these students was the following—“they were trained in piety, holiness, justice, domestic and civic conduct, knowledge of what is truly good or evil, or indifferent, and how to choose what they should do and avoid the opposite, taking for their defining standards these three— love of God, love of virtue, love of people” (Every Good Man is Free 83).  This almost reads like a summary of many of the major topics discussed in these early Christian letters and homilies (see  e.g  1 John), and we may be reasonably sure that these same sorts of topics of orthopraxy were regularly preached in the synagogues, as well as in early Christian house churches.”

“Of course it is the case that not all early Christian sermons followed a rhetorical pattern.  One would be hard pressed to find such a pattern in some of the relevant NT material.  What we can say at this juncture is that 1 John, James, Hebrews, and probably Jude should all be seen as homilies of one sort or another, with Hebrews most closely following rhetorical conventions. These documents either have no, or very minimal epistolary elements, and should never have been analyzed primarily as letters in the first place.   On the other hand we have the Pastoral Epistles (perhaps excepting 1 Timothy, which is more of an exhortation), 2 and 3 John and 1 Peter which definitely can and probably should be analyzed primarily as letters.   This is the sort of genre division of material which will guide our study in these two volumes.

What is important to recognize about all these documents is that they are intended to be pastoral in character and are not theological or ethical treatises in any case.  Their uses of Scriptures and other resources are primarily homiletical rather than exegetical in character by and large and what we actually find in these documents is not theology and ethics but theologizing and ethicizing into specific situations, hopefully in a persuasive manner.   These documents are, by and large, words of exhortation, with ethics and practical matters to the fore, though theology is also not neglected.

If we ask what is the real importance of these documents tucked away towards the back of the NT canon, we can answer that they are very important.  They give us a window on early Christian life between the middle of the first century and the early second century A.D.  Indeed they are some of the very few resources that directly deal with this largely hidden period of time.  Acts, as we are well aware, stops its narrative in about A.D. 60-62 with Paul in Rome and it is the only historical monograph we have from and about the first century church.  The Gospels while written later do not provide direct evidence, only indirect evidence, of what Christian communities were like in the last third of the century.  In this regard they are unlike these sermons and letters which do provide a more direct window into this important period as the apostles were passing away and the torch of Christian faith was being passed to another generation. While the  Book of Revelation, especially Rev. 1-2, does give us a glimpse of church life in the 90s in Asia, it is only a glimpse in passing, for John’s focus is primarily on the future.  There is much to be gained from close analysis of this material if we are to understand the end of the apostolic era, and how the transition was made to a time when there would no longer be apostles.  But there is another reason why this literature is crucial.

In her detailed and brilliant lectures A. Cameron has shown that Christian discourse going all the way back to the first century A.D. and forward into the Middle Ages was a discourse that was shaped by and sought to shape society.  It was not shaped merely by and for its own conventicles and churches.  Christianity was profoundly an evangelistic enterprise and so it is not a surprise that it would adopt and adapt the familiar and popular forms of speaking and writing of the day, and use them to its own ends to convict, convince and convert many for Christ.  Cameron aptly says:

‘Christianity was not just ritual. It placed an extraordinary premium on verbal formulation; speech constituted one of its basic metaphors, and it framed itself around written texts. Quite soon this very emphasis on the verbal formulation of the faith led to a self-imposed restriction—an attempt, eventually on the whole successful, to impose an authority of discourse. And eventually—though only after much struggle and with many variations—this approved discourse came to be the dominant one in the state. The story of the development of Christian discourse constitutes part of the political history… Early Christian rhetoric was not always…the specialized discourse its own practitioners often claimed it to be. Consequently its reception was easier and wider ranging than modern historians allow, and its effect correspondingly more telling. The seemingly alternative rhetorics, the classical or the pagan and the Christian, were more nearly one than their respective practitioners, interested in scoring off of each other, would have us believe.'”[5]

The fact that Revelation was copied, and widely circulated in early Christianity, to the extent that it was much debated well into the 4th century as to whether it was apostolic in character, and even  if it was, whether it should be included in the NT canon (a debate that continued even into the Reformation, when there was little understanding of the nature of Jewish apocalyptic prophecy) demonstrates that this material was not just seen as preaching to the choir. It was also seen as having some evangelistic and missional import, and in fact it still does as Jeff’s helpful study amply demonstrates.


[1] Though it is clear enough from Saul of Tarsus’ zealotic activities against Jewish Christians that orthodoxy was of some concern as well— see Gal. 1.

[2]  F. Wills, “The Form of the Sermon in Hellenistic Judaism and Early Christianity,” HTR 77 (1984), pp. 75-99.

[3]  See C.C. Black, “The Rhetorical Form of the Hellenistic Jewish and Early Christian Sermon: A Response to Lawrence Wills,”  HTR 81 (1988), pp. 1-18,  and Witherington, Acts , pp. 406-407 on Acts 13.

[4]  On this matter see  Witherington, The Paul Quest, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998), pp. 90-98, M. Hengel The Pre-Christian Paul, (Valley Forge: Trinity Press Int. 1991), pp.  54-60.  On the whole issue of Judaism and Hellenism the classic study is of course M. Hengel’s Judaism and Hellenism (2 volumes: Phila: Fortress, 1974) to which one must add the supplement of his The Hellenization of Judaea in the First Century after Christ, (Phila: Trinity Press, 1989).

[5]  A. Cameron, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire. The Development of Christian Discourse (Berkeley: U. Cal. Press, 1991), pp. 19-20.

August 6, 2021

Q. Michael Heiser, an OT scholar, who studied with M. Fox at U Wisconsin Madison, has written some fascinating books about spiritual beings (not just impersonal forces) in the OT and NT— The Unseen Realm, another on Angels etc. These studies are of relevance to the discussion of the ‘things (or is it beings) who are not by nature gods. I am not sure that Paul is talking about idols or beings with the stoicheia language but in 1 Cor 10 he does refer to the ‘daimons’ connected to idol feasts, and there it does seem he is referring to beings, not mere supra-rational forces. Some have found it a mystery that we hear so much about demons in the Gospels, but not under that term in Paul, or for that matter in other epistolary literature in the NT. Now I don’t doubt that ancient peoples, including early Jews believed in demonic beings. The evidence seems to me to be considerable and convincing. My question for you is, should we post-modern folks be doing the Bultmanian thing and de-mythologizing this sort of

language, or should we follow the lead of Heiser and realize there really are demonic beings and a real personal Devil we need to be wary of even today?

A. I think it’s not an either/or. I don’t think we have very good language for non-human forces of evil – and I don’t think they did in the ancient world either. In the nature of the case such stuff is elusive, tricky, sneaky. Demythologizing has many different sides to it and if it is used to mean ‘we don’t believe in such things now we have the electric light etc’ then we are thinking in a very shallow way. C S Lewis was broadly right – diabolical forces try to get people either to fixate on them and think of nothing else or to deny their existence. But they do most of their work under cover, including using political and social ‘forces’ . . .

July 23, 2021

Q. One of the places where I think you and I do disagree somewhat significantly is whether or not the new covenant is about covenant renewal (ala Deut. 30 etc.) or not. My answer would be – Paul says it is not. He’s talking about a genuinely new covenant that contrasts with the Mosaic one in various regards (ala Gal. 4, 2 Cor. 3). Even for Jews in Christ this is not about restoration of something that existed previously, it’s about a fresh new start, on the same basis Gentiles have it— due to the mercy of God, by grace through faith in the faithful one, Christ, one is saved. One of the reasons I’ve become even more convinced this is the right reading of Paul and Hebrews etc. is because of a recent excellent doctoral dissertation done at Asbury about the meaning of the use of ‘new’ language in Jerm 31, and in Isa. 40-66. I will let her speak for herself in the following para. as I would like to get your reaction to her reading of these key OT texts. She has convinced me at least.

In a recent doctoral dissertation on the use of the term ‘hadash’ in the OT, Dr. Deborah Endean, after looking at every single reference to that adjective in the OT, points out the following: “The semantic domain of ‘hadash’ represents a range of meaning and is used in the Old Testament to connote young, recent, fresh, unused, and/or formerly unknown. The difference between a previous state or stage and that which is signified as ‘new’ can only be properly determined by context, whether explicitly or implicitly, and/or additional qualifiers.11 Importantly, use of the adjective ‘hadash’denotes that which is distinctively “new” and not that which is “renewed” or “restored.” The latter expressions signify a verbal notion, which is conveyed in Hebrew through the use of a verbal form of the root.12 While this distinction need not rule out continuity with what existed (or did not exist) previously, it does suggest that use of the adjective emphasizes the quality of newness and thereby a greater degree of discontinuity with a previous state than is the case when the verbal form is employed.”1

She goes on to demonstrate that the use of this adjective in Jerm. 31’s famous prophecy about the new covenant, does not refer to a renewal or supplement to the Mosaic covenant. It refers to a genuinely ‘new’ covenant, with the emphasis on discontinuity, while there is some overlap in commandments with the Mosaic covenant. She also points out that this is why the Greek word kainos not ‘neos’ is used almost exclusively to translate ‘hadash’. Kainos normally indicates newness in kind, where as neos, refers to newness in time— ‘new as opposed to old’. Quoting A. D’Anjour she adds: “the notion of a quality of novelty or difference that arises from human intention or creation, for instance in objects that are ‘brand-new’ and ideas that appear ‘newfangled’, is more appropriately (though in practice not exclusively) expressed by kainos.”2

In that same study, Endean deals at length, and in a helpful manner with Jerm. 31.31-34, the only place in the OT that we really hear about a new covenant, as opposed to the Mosaic one. A few quoted lines are in order: “The obvious temporal distinction between the new covenant and the previous one is reflected in the two distinct time frames given for the establishment of each covenant. The new covenant is to be made in “the days [that] are coming” ( v. 31a), reiterated as “after those days” in v. 33, while the previous one was made “in/on the day” when Yahweh brought Israel/Judah out of the land of Egypt (v. 32a)….” Although scholars differ in the ways they articulate a qualitative difference between the two covenants, the discussion usually comes down to how one defines the terminology of newness, which in this case comes down to the meaning of the adjective ‘hadash’ and the phrase in which it occurs, ‘berit hadasha’ (“new covenant”). The primary question is whether the term only denotes “new” or whether it can also mean “renewed.” The answer based on this investigation thus far is that the adjective ‘hadash’ does not denote “renew” but rather, only “new”—in the sense that it did not exist previously. It does not necessarily rule out aspect of continuity, (e.g., both the previous and the new entities are “covenants”), but at the same time it clearly suggests the emphasis is on a qualitatively different entity by virtue of being “new.” Importantly, the term “renewed” is a verbal notion, and as such is related to the verbal form of ‘hadash’. As we shall see in the following chapter, the verbal form of ‘hadash’ appears only in the piel and once in the hithpael, and the verb, and only the verb, can denote the sense of “make new, renew, or renew.” It is my sense that the grammar alone is enough to justify the fact that “this covenant” (v. 33) is not a “renewed” covenant but rather a definitively “new covenant,” although I would not deny that the two covenants share certain similarities. Some might suggest that the lexical sense of ‘hadash’ as it is used in Jer 31:31 is an exception to its sense elsewhere in biblical usage and I would agree that the suggestion is not an impossibility. However, I would argue that, beyond the standard usage of ‘hadash’, the description that unfolds in vv. 31–34 clearly reinforces the idea that what is meant is a qualitatively different, radically new covenant.”3 This is indeed the most likely reading of Jerm. 31 and the famous promise about a few covenant that would differ from the Mosaic one, not least in regard to its more universal scope and internalization. She adds “Unlike a city, which can be rebuilt on its mound, or a temple, which can be restored or “renewed” on its previous foundation,178 a covenant, once it has been broken, cannot be “renewed” or made new again. If another covenant is to be in place, the only option is to “cut” a new one, which is precisely what Yahweh says he will do “in those days.”179 What follows in v. 33 and 34 are the details of the new covenant, and while I do not dismiss certain similarities between the new and the previous covenant (e.g., Yahweh will be Israel’s God, and they will be his people; v. 33d), they still do not erase the fact that “this” (v. 33) covenant is a “new” covenant and “not like the old covenant.”The differences are both explicit and striking.”4 Indeed, as she goes on to add, what is new is the indissolubility of the new covenant, unlike previous ones. One of the things most different about this new covenant is the notion of individual implanting of God’s word in all God’s people’s hearts, but also the notion of individual pardon of their sins. No longer will individuals be held responsible for the sins of the nation, nor will sin be primarily judged on a corporate and national basis. If personal pardon is the new order of the day, then the covenant cannot be broken collectively (and here she is following the important study of H. Leene, Newness in Old Testament Prophecy: An Intertextual Study. OtSt 64. Leiden: Brill, 2014).

A. Can’t of course comment on this in any detail though I will need obviously to look at it. My point would be, quite simply, that in Rom 10.6ff Paul is picking up Deuteronomy 30 – and his use of Jer and Ezek in 2 Cor 3 points the same way. Those texts were about the ‘real return from exile’, the outpouring of the spirit, the writing of the law on the heart, etc etc. SO, if this is a ‘new’ covenant, so be it, but since it is specifically predicted by Moses within the ‘covenant charter’ of Deuteronomy, esp 27—32, I don’t want to distinguish as sharply as I think you do.


July 15, 2021

Q. p. 129 is an important page in your commentary where you make clear where Kinzer goes wrong. I think you are right that Paul is talking about the incredible change for JEWS like Peter and Paul, the redefinition of the status of Jews now that Jesus has died on the cross, and some of them have accepted Him as the crucified and risen Davidic messiah. This is why Paul goes on to say that even he, as a former Pharisee has been crucified with Christ, and has died to the Mosaic law, and this involves a fundamental change from his past religious modus operandi. At the same time, Paul will go on to say that for missional purposes he can be the Jew to the Jew (1 Cor. 9) in order to win some to Christ, but this has become at best a missional option, not an obligation to keep the Mosaic covenant. Can you unpack this sea change in Paul’s views a bit more for our readers?

A. I think you summarize it well! It’s a matter of identity – such a buzzword today, and one gets into trouble if one challenges someone else’s ‘identity’ – or the identity that someone wants to ‘identify with’, and so on. That’s a quagmire all around us in western culture right now, and the question of ‘Jews and Christians’, already potentially toxic from the last century, fits right in and generates a lot more heat than light. For Paul, the crucial thing – missed in most western hermeneutics both Catholic and Protestant for hundreds of years – is that Jesus is ISRAEL’S MESSIAH, demonstrated as such in his resurrection. That makes all the difference. HE is now the identity-marker for God’s people: as most first-century Jews would have recognized, if God really does send Messiah, then God’s people will be redefined in relation to him. With Jesus, that means that they are cross-and-resurrection people, dying to old identities and finding their new one in him and him alone. Philippians 3.2-11 is about this as well, of course. So the point is not that you ‘stop being a Jew’ if you’re someone like Paul: you become indeed a messianic Jew, with the word ‘messianic’ defined in terms of Jesus and his death, resurrection and sending of the spirit . . .

April 18, 2021

Q. I think you are right that the moral influence of the death of Jesus is vast, but only if we also realize that his death was a penal substitutionary atonement which propitiates and also expiates. It should have been us on the cross, paying for our sins. It seems to me that the best case for explaining all this is the necessitarian one—the God of love and mercy could not simply take a pass on dealing with sin, or else he ceased to be inherently righteous, a God of justice. So sin had to be dealt with if mercy was to be offered. If you take the non-necessaitarian view that Christ’s death was optional, this raises very serious questions about God’s moral character— what Father would ever ask that of his only begotten if it wasn’t necessary for the salvation of humankind?

A. I wholly agree that a plausible moral influence theory demands penal substitution at its core. If someone drowned in an effort to save me from drowning, I should say, “Greater love hath no man than this!” But if someone said, “See how much I love you!” and just threw himself into the water and drowned, I should find his act bizarre.

It seems to me, however, that the non-necessitarian who holds that God freely chose penal substitution can avail himself of the same answer. By this act of sacrificial Self-substitution, God demonstrates His hatred of sin and His love for us in so powerful a way as to draw billions to faith in Christ. Indeed, it’s not at all implausible that only in a world featuring Christ’s passion and death would the optimal number of people freely come to love God and find eternal life. That makes it worth it.

Q. Lastly, if you were asked how exactly Christ’s divine identity was affected by Christ’s death on the cross (since God can presumably not be killed), what would you say?

A. I should say, no effect whatsoever! As mentioned earlier, Christ is a divine person with two natures. He does not perish with respect to his divine nature, which is impossible; rather he

perishes with respect to his human nature. “There is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (I Tim 2.5).

March 13, 2021

More of Philip Jenkins’ reflections…….

Of Demons Laying Traps

A Psalm 91 reference here would also contextualize Jesus’s foes quite powerfully. At the time, this was the main text for use in spiritual warfare and demon-fighting, and was used thus at Qumran. The hunter, or fowler, was the Devil, or a demon. So in this reading, the Pharisees were demonic. That reading is reflected in another (mis)translation, where is our Psalm 91.6 talks about “the plague that destroys at midday.” But the Septuagint renders this as “the noonday demon,” daimoniou. The whole Septuagint version of Psalm 91 is highly demonic in a way the Hebrew just is not, and nor are our modern versions.

Matthew 22.15 has a close verbal echo in 12.14, when again the Pharisees plot together against Jesus, in this case to destroy him rather than to trap him. That earlier line in chapter 12 comes immediately before a heated row with the Pharisees about casting out demons, daimonia, invoking Beelzebub, and other appropriately diabolical themes (12.22-29). That in turn leads into a passage about good and bad words, by which one many be condemned or acquitted (12.33-37). The whole passage offers a neat parallel and prefiguring of the chapter 22 episode I have discussed, and at every point, the Septuagint’s Psalm 91 is lurking in the background.

That is one small and specific example, but issues like this run throughout the New Testament. If you don’t refer to the Septuagint, for instance, then the Epistle to the Romans can sound like a horrible mishmash of half-remembered misquotations from the Old Testament. But in fact, it’s anything but that. Once you realize how thoroughly acquainted Paul was with the Septuagint, things make a lot more sense.

How We Lost the Septuagint, and Why It Matters

It also helps to recall what that Septuagint actually is. We usually speak of it as a flawed or tendentious version of a pristine Hebrew original, and I have done something like that here. But the standard Masoretic Hebrew text did not emerge in final form until much later, and did not achieve canonical status for centuries. The Septuagint reflects rival Hebrew readings that were quite standard at the time of the translation, and which are, for instance, often reflected at Qumran. The Septuagint is way more respectable than we often think, and it is a real shame that we have lost it in mainstream usage.

In the sixteenth century, Christian churches rediscovered Hebrew, and they rapidly applied that skill to reading the Old Testament. That event created an unbridgeable linguistic gulf between all later Christian generations and the world of the New Testament and the Church Fathers. If we know the Old Testament in a reliable translation from the Hebrew, like the NIV, that is a treasure to have, but often, the readings we find there are simply not the ones that the early Church knew. The problem for modern readers is that our modern Old Testament translations are just too accurate to let us understand the church’s earliest thinking.

So if we do have to choose an Old Testament version to use as background for studying the New Testament, if we absolutely must choose between a scholarly rendering of the Hebrew Masoretic text, and the error-prone Septuagint … Then, to adapt the title of a film I love dearly: Let The Wrong One In.


Of Asps, and Even More Asps

On a trivia note, I offer a quick story of “those wacky translators at work.” As part of my Psalm 91 wok, I have been looking at Isaiah 11.8, which is part of one of the most famous passages in the Hebrew Bible, portraying the peace and harmony of the messianic age. In the NIV, verse 8 reads as follows: “The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.” In the Hebrew, there are two not too common words for types of venomous snake, respectively pethen, and the more obscure tsepha’. There is a lot of debate about exactly what each refers to, but the point is that there are two different very dangerous snakes, which are juxtaposed in poetic balance. This is the classic parallelism that we so often find throughout the psalms.

Now move forward to (probably) Alexandria around 200 BC, where a translator was working on the Greek translation. He decided easily enough that the first beast was an asp. He then sat long and hard looking at his sources and tried to work out what a tsepha’ might look like, the only minimum requirement being that it has to be something, anything, except an asp, so as not to duplicate the word. Parallelism had to be preserved. At some point, he concluded, “It’s just a snake. I have a lot of work to do.” The Septuagint as we have it thus reads “And the young child shall put his hand over the hole of the aspidon, asp, and on the lair of the offspring of aspidon, asps.” Sometimes, you can tell when translators have just had a long day.


January 26, 2021

I was on the last leg of my last lecture tour of Australia in the summer of 2019, flying cross country from Perth to Sydney to give some lectures at MacQuarrie University in the ancient history department.  My friend Prof. Alanna Nobbs, just retired from MacQuarrie had informed me that I would be collected at the Sydney airport by ‘Edwin’.  Now Edwin at the time was over 90 years of age. In fact, he was born in 1928, and is only two years younger than my mother!  And I’m no spring chicken, as we say in N.C.  This was a great honor, but also a surprise to be chauffeured by perhaps the greatest Christian ancient historian of the last one hundred years.  Of course if you know Edwin at all, you will know that kudos like that embarrass the man, who did his training at Cambridge before I was even born (and I’m 69)!   But Edwin is still as keen in his intellect and study of ancient Roman and Christian history as a man one third his age should be.  And he is still producing seminal essays of various sorts.   As we were riding to MacQuarrie, Edwin proceeded to tell me about a forthcoming book ‘that may have some considerable bearing on how we evaluate St. Paul and earliest Christianity’. I am pleased to tell you not only that he was absolutely right, but that the volume has now emerged in print thanks to our friends at Wipf and Stock/Cascade.  It is entitled On This Rock: When Culture Disrupted the Roman Community, (ed. A.D. MacDonald; Cascade, 2020, 280 pages).   This volume is the successor to the volume which emerged last year entitled Paul and the Conflict of Cultures, and in truth both volumes are essential reading if one wishes to understand the impact of early Christianity, and particularly Gentile Christianity of the Pauline sort, on the Roman Empire.  There are now some seven or so volumes in Judge’s series of collected essays, and all of them are invaluable.

I want to just emphasis some of the major points that Judge makes here and elsewhere, and/or some of the implications of his points: 1) outsiders in general did not know exactly what to make of early Christianity. On the one hand it did not appear to be what we would call a ‘religion’, as it did not involve priests, temples, and sacrifices at all.  It was not about ritual performances to appease the gods and keep society in good standing with the gods. Indeed, it appeared to Greco-Roman people to be the opposite of religion not only because it didn’t do what ancient religions did, but also because it refused to participate in public festivals, sacrifices and the like which were the religious glue thought to hold society together and keep it stable. Christians were labelled ‘atheists’ for refusing to recognize or honor the traditional gods; 2) whereas Judaism at least before A.D. 70 did have a temple, priests, and sacrifices and did appear to be a ‘religion’ with good claims to antiquity and as a result were allowed to not worship the traditional gods or the emperor, but rather to pray for the emperor, this ‘exceptionalism’ could not apply to Christianity which did not have any of the trademarks of an ancient religion. To the contrary, it appeared to be some kind of philosophy or theosophy, because it was all about beliefs and behaviors, dogmas and doctrines and these latter are what drove the movement and explained its distinctive attempts to evangelize the world. When it became clear that the vast majority of the adherents of this movement were gentiles who should indeed be doing their civic duty and not undermining the religious underpinnings of the state and society, that’s when troubles and persecution, prosecution, and even some executions began to happen.  Christians were heretics, atheists, and the gods could not have been pleased with them. They were seditious, and their leader Christ had been executed by a Roman governor for high treason. Had this movement simply been, or been seen as, a sect of Judaism these developments would have been unlikely to have happened. Even after 70 A.D. Jews still maintained their ‘exceptional’ status by paying a tax to the government instead a temple tax to the Temple in Jerusalem. The money went to maintain the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus in Rome (and perhaps elsewhere);   3)   The language used to describe this new community of followers of Jesus was in some regards like the language used to describe the Empire (the Empire is the ‘body’ of the Emperor—  cf. 1 Cor. 12 on the Christian community), but there was also odd language, using the metaphor of a building, or an assembly of people whose only sacrifices were those of prayers and praises, or of themselves as living sacrifices to God (Rom. 12).  4) While not knowing exactly what to make of Christians, enough alarm bells went off for the more astute pagans, especially the philosophers, to realize that they were a threat to the very fabric of Roman society.  How so?  There was not secular/sacred divide in ancient society.  ‘Religion’ was an essential part of what made society what it was.  It was a corporate thing, not a matter of private opinions or personal beliefs.  While the earliest Christians were pacifists and believed in paying taxes, nevertheless, in other ways they were seen as compromising some of the very things at the heart of the ancient society, not least the notion that nature, and human authorities are ‘divine’ in themselves, or suffused with the divine, rather than creations of an independent Deity.   Religion was not a matter of ‘individual conscience’ and furthermore the ancients didn’t believe in the concept of dramatic change or conversion. They found that notion upsetting.  They believed persons were born into a specific ethnic group etc. and their identity was determined from birth by where they came from, who their father was, and what gender they were.  Furthermore, a religion had claims to authority and allegiance based on its antiquity.  The Christian movement, unless they co-opted the antiquity of Judaism, had no such claims.  In the Greco-Roman world they were not looking for something new in religion, by and large.  Indeed, if it was new and had no claims to antiquity it could hardly be ‘true’ or worth pledging allegiance to. There was a reason Josephus wrote massive volumes about ‘the Antiquities of the Jews’, even claiming folk like Plato owed something to Moses!   In light of all this, it is right to ask how in the world a ‘new’ theology and movement could possibly have changed the Greco-Roman world within four centuries without an army, or a violent transition of some sort.  Especially how could this happen when the essential proclamation of this new group was about a crucified Jewish manual worker who was thereafter raised from the dead?  Crucified messiah was an oxymoron to Jews (God would never let that happen to his anointed one) and an absurdity to Gentiles (crucifixion being the most shameful way to die, and actual bodily resurrection was a ridiculous idea– one unlike the immortality of the soul).   How did this proclamation turn the Empire upside down and lead to Christian emperors?   You will need to read Judge’s careful analysis all the way up to Constantine and beyond to see how that actually happened.

While I agree with Edwin on about 98% of all he says in these matters, a few of his comments I must disagree with: 1) various of the NT writers, including Paul, Luke, and the author of Hebrews do indeed use the ancient art of persuasion, rhetoric, in their compositions. I have demonstrated this at length in my NT commentaries. And it is the lack of recognizing this that has led to misreadings of important texts like Rom. 7.7-25, which is not a description of the Christian’s struggles with sin. It is a Christian evaluation of pre-Christian states, as Rom. 7.5-6, and Rom. 8.1-5 makes abundantly clear. Being a new creature in Christ affects one’s holiness and capacity to deal with sin.   2) It is simply not true that women did not play important roles of teaching, prophecy, preaching etc. in the Pauline communities (see e.g. Acts 18.24-26, 1 Cor. 11). Texts like 1 Cor. 14.33b-36 and 1 Tim. 2.8-15 are problem solving texts, and do not reflect a general prohibition of women teaching men or women. This continued to be true right up to and beyond the time of Constantine, as Judge himself chronicles on pp. 110-11.

This last paragraph does not in any way take away from the enormous contributions Judge has made and continues to make to our understanding of the social history of earliest Christianity. Indeed, his work has made it clear that while there is much value in using modern social scientific theories like social identity theory to better understand the NT, the latter is not as important as straightforward study of ancient social history and the original social contexts in which the Christian movement came and came to change the ancient world.

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