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December 11: Names of God (‘Elohim)

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In yesterday’s article, I examined °E~l (la@) as the basic Semitic word used in the sense of “God” and, in particular, as the name of the chief Creator Deity. Today I will be looking at the related word °E_lœhîm (<yh!ýa$).

°E_lœhîm

Almost certainly this word is related in some way to the more primitive °E~l (°Il[u]); however, the precisely relationship, and the origins of its usage, remain rather uncertain. The simple plural form of °¢l°¢lîm (<yl!a@)—is rare in the Old Testament (4 times), and only twice is it certainly a plural (in Exod 15:11 and Dan 11:36, cf. Cross pp. 45-46). By comparison, the plural form °§lœhîm (<yh!ýa$) is widely used (more than 2500 times)—both as a literal plural, and in a singular sense for “God” generally, or the Israelite Deity (Yahweh/El) in particular. The somewhat unusual application of this plural form for God definitely requires comment, and will be discussed below. One common theory to explain the form of the word is that the simple plural of a biconsonantal (two-letter) root la, i.e. <yl!a@ has been expanded (with the letter h [h]) to fit the pattern of a triconsonantal (three-letter) root (such as lwa or hla). In other words, the form °¢lîm becomes °§lœhîm. While not without certain difficulties, this is probably as good an explanation as any.

By the time the Old Testament Scriptures were written—i.e., in the period between c. 1200 and 500 B.C.—the plural form °§lœhîm had all but completely replaced the older °¢l as the basic word corresponding to “God” in English. This may not have been so much the case in the early part of the period, as we find vestiges of the older use of °¢l in (the archaic) portions of the Psalms, etc; but, certainly it is true in the later Kingdom period. In the ordinary plural sense, °§lœhîm would be translated straightforwardly as “mighty (one)s”, i.e. gods, when referring to the (divine) powers as understood by the ancient (polytheistic) religions of the time. In this plural sense, it can be used three ways in the Old Testament:

  • As “mighty ones” generally, i.e. a descriptive term which could refer either to human or divine beings—Exod 22:7-8; Psalm 82:1, 6, etc
  • For divine beings, in the basic sense of supernatural, heavenly beings (i.e. “Angels”) who reside in the heavenly court of God—Psalm 8:6, et al, where it is generally synonymous with the old Semitic expression “sons of God” (b®nê °¢l, or b®nê °¢lîm)
  • For (pagan) deities worshiped by the (Canaanite, etc) peoples surrounding Israel (i.e. “other gods”)—cf. Exod 20:3; 23:13; Josh 24:2, etc

More commonly, however, °§lœhîm refers to “God”, that is, to Yahweh/°E~l in Israelite religion. How did this plural word come to be used for the singular “God” in this sense? A completely satisfactory explanation to this question has not yet been offered. There are two which seem to me reasonably plausible:

  1. As a collective—i.e. “(all) the gods”. This might be a shorthand way of referring to God as the Creator of (all other) divine beings. Note the specific use of °§lœhîm throughout the Creation account in Gen 1:1-2:4, as well as the (apparent) fundamental meaning of the name hwhy (Yahweh) connected with the creation of the heavenly beings (cf. the next article, on “Yahweh”). There may be a rough parallel in Egyptian religion, where the Creator is called by the name Atum (i.e. the “All”). In a monotheistic context, it was a natural development that all other divine names and forms would be seen as embodied in the one true God.
  2. As an intensive—i.e. “the Mightiest“. This use of the plural is attested in Hebrew, primarily in the Psalms and other poetic passages, as in Psalm 21:7; 68:7; 76:11; Isa 32:18; 40:14, 26, etc. For more examples, cf. GKC §124 e. There is some evidence that, in the earliest strands of Israelite religion, Yahweh/°E~l was emphasized as the “Mightiest” or “Greatest” of all deities or divine beings, and, as such, was the one who should be worshiped. Over time, this would have developed into a more distinct and precise monotheism—i.e. God is the only Mighty One, the only divine Being. Once this monotheistic outlook came to dominate Israelite society completely, it was hardly necessary to qualify God (Yahweh) in this manner, and the “Mightiest” (°E_lœhîm) was simply understood as synonymous with (the one) God.

Probably the second of these two explanations is more likely than the first. To see how the names °E~l and °E_lœhîm were related in early Israelite tradition, we should turn to the formula in Gen 33:20, associated with the altar dedicated by Jacob near the city of Shechem. Here °E~l is identified as the “God” (°E_lœhîm) of Israel—”°E~l °E_lœhê Yi´ra°¢l“. In a similar manner, Yahweh (hwhy) is identified as the one (true) God (°E_lœhîm) in the Creation Account of Genesis 1-2. The name °E_lœhîm is used throughout 1:1-2:4a, and Yahweh in chapter 2, but they are joined together in the transitional line 2:4b—”in the day (when) Yahweh °E_lœhîm made the heaven(s) and earth”.

In the New Testament, most of these distinctions have disappeared. When the basic Greek word qeo/$ (theós) is used, which more less corresponds with °§lœhîm, it is assumed that the reference is to the one God, the God of Israel (Yahweh/El), God the Father and Creator. This hardly needed to be explained to Greek-speaking Jews and Christians of the time. The word qeo/$ occurs more than 20 times in the Lukan Infancy narrative (but only once in Matthew, at 1:23). It is especially prominent in the Angelic announcement to Mary (5 times in 1:26-37), the hymn of Zechariah (1:64, 68, 78), and the Angelic appearance to the shepherds (2:13-14, 20). Several of these passages will be discussed in the notes.

In the references above, “Cross” = F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973 / 1997). “GKC” = Gesenius-Kautsch-Cowley, i.e. Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, edited/expanded by E. Kautsch, 2nd English edition by A. E. Cowley (Oxford University Press: 1910).

December 10: Names of God (‘El)

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The initial articles of this series (cf. the Introduction) will focus on the names of God—the principal names and titles used of God in the Old Testament. In studying the religions of the Ancient World, from our modern (Western) standpoint with its generalized monotheism, the polytheism common to the vast majority of ancient and traditional cultures can seem most confusing. A multitude of names are used, and it is often difficult to know just what to make of them, especially when looking at the evidence of religion spanning many centuries. Names are apt to change their meaning and point of reference over time. Even with regard to the monotheism of ancient Israel, there is some uncertainty and ambiguity over the precise meaning of particular names as they have been preserved in the text of the Old Testament. By way of introduction, I would emphasize the following points to keep in mind, in terms of how names can be understood in an ancient religious context:

  • Names may refer to distinct deities (or concepts of God)
  • Multiple names may refer to the same deity (or concept)
  • Names may be titles or epithets used of a particular deity (who otherwise has a specific name)
  • Names may be evidence of syncretism—deities (and/or their names) regarded as synonymous or joined together in combination

The first name I will be looking at is Hebrew la@ (°E~l).

The Names of God: °E~l

The word la@ (°¢l) in Hebrew generally corresponds to “God” in English. It is an ancient Semitic word which was well-established and in wide use by at least the early Bronze Age (third millennium B.C.), attested in every part of the Semitic-speaking world—in Mesopotamia, Syria-Palestine, south into Arabia and N. Africa, as well as in the Phoenician (Punic) colonies much further afield. It doubtless belongs to the earliest Proto-Semitic vocabulary, and has a basic meaning and usage similar to the early terms dingir () in Sumer and netjer (n¾r, ) in Egypt. The precise etymology remains uncertain, but the fundamental meaning of la@ would seem to be “mighty” or possibly “great, exalted”. It is often thought to be derived from the root lwa (°awl), but I suspect it stems from a primitive biconsonantal root la. As applied to the power (or powers, i.e. deities) which were thought to govern the universe, the term would literally mean “mighty (one)”, with plural <yl!a@ (°¢lîm) as “mighty (one)s”—that is to say, “God” or “gods”. The main difference between °¢l and the corresponding terms from Sumer and Egypt is that °¢l was commonly used as the name of the chief (Creator) Deity of the Semitic-speaking peoples. The range of usage does generally match that of “God” in English:

  • of Deity generally—”God”
  • to refer to any particular deity (or deities)—”god(s)”
  • as a name when addressing or referring to the Creator Deity—as “God”

There is reasonably well documented evidence for the chief Creator God being named °E~l (“Mighty [One]”) for both the Amorites in Mesopotamia and Canaanites in Syria-Palestine. As pronounced (vocalized) at the time (c. 2000-1400 B.C.) it would have been °Il(u). The most extensive information comes from the religious texts and myths uncovered at Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit) in Syria. For the most part, °E~l is depicted as an elderly, but vigorous, chieftain who rules and judges from his mountain (also envisioned as a domed tent)—a cosmic mountain filling the space between heaven and earth, but which could be represented (symbolically) in any important local mountain. This portrait relates especially to nomadic tent-dwellers, pastoral (herding) societies, in which °E~l was frequently referred to by the descriptive title “Bull”.

The principal role of °E~l was as Father—both of gods and human beings—or, more concretely, as Creator. This is seen in the famous episode in Genesis 14, in which Abraham encounters Melchi-Zedek, the (Canaanite) priest-king of Salem. There °E~l (using the compound name °E~l ±Elyôn, cf. below) is referred to with the formula-title “creator [hn@q)] of heaven and earth” (v. 19). The text clearly implies that Abraham and Melchi-Zedek are symathetic figures who share the same basic religious beliefs. Indeed, despite the notice in Gen 4:26, it is all but certain that the Patriarchs and ancestors of Israel—along with the early Israelites themselves—worshiped God by the name °E~l (i.e. “Mighty [One]”). This is amply confirmed by the traditions recorded in Genesis, most notably that in chapter 33 of the altar consecrated to “°E~l the God of Israel [°E~l °§lœhê Yi´ra¢l]” (v. 20). Moreover, personal and place names incorporating °E~l are relatively common in the early period, whereas corresponding names with Yah(weh) become prevalent only in the later Kingdom period. Most notably, of course, the name Israel itself (Yi´ra°el) includes °E~l, though the precise etymology remains uncertain—perhaps “°E~l is/has dominion” (but cp. the interpretation in Gen 32:28). Eventually, Yahweh came to be identified with °E~l, with the names being regarded as referring to the same (Creator) God. On the relationship between these two names, cf. the upcoming article on “Yahweh”.

There are three important compound °E~l-names which should be noted—°E~l ±Ôlam, °E~l ±Elyôn, and °E~l Šadday. It is significant that all three names—±Ôlam (“Ancient [One]”), ±Elyôn (“High[est One]”), and Šadday (“[He] of the Mountain”, “Mountain[ous One]”)—are attested in the Semitic (Canaanite) world as distinct deities, or as separate divine names. Thus there is some ambiguity as to how such compound names should be understood. There are three possible ways to read them (using the name with ±Ôlam [“Ancient”] as an example):

  • “The God (named) ‘Ancient [One]'”—that is, a deity with the name ±Ôlam. Such an interpretation would be rather unlikely within the context of Israelite monotheism.
  • °E~l the Ancient [One]”—i.e., as an epithet of °E~l
  • As a dual-name, which joins together two deities (or concepts of deity) into a single figure—°E~l±Ôlam. In a monotheistic context, this would have to be understood something like “The Mighty One (who is also) the Ancient One”

The second option is to be preferred; that is, such compound names, as found in Israelite religious tradition, involve titles or epithets of the (one) Creator God named °E~l. For more on this subject, cf. Cross, pp. 46-60.

By the time of the New Testament, the specific use of the name °E~l had all but disappeared, in Hebrew and Aramaic usage, having been long since been replaced by Yahweh and its associated titles (e.g. °Adôn[ay], “Lord”). However, through the quotation of the Old Testament Scriptures (and their underlying traditions), vestiges of the name are preserved. Within the Infancy narratives in the Gospels, there are at least three names which preserve the element °E~l:

  • Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah and mother of John the Baptist. The Greek )Elisa/bet (Elisábet) is a transliteration of the Hebrew ub^v#yl!a$ (°E_lîše»a±), “God [°E~l] is (my) oath [i.e. the one to swear by]”, or perhaps something like “God [°E~l] is (the one who) satisfies”. She will be discussed, together with Zechariah, in the note on Luke 1:5-6.
  • Gabriel, the heavenly Messenger (Angel) who appears to Zechariah and Mary in the Lukan narrative. Again, the Greek Gabrih/l (Gabri¢¡l) is a transliteration of the Hebrew—la@yr!b=G~ (Ga»rî°¢l), usually understood as “Strong/young (man) of God [°E~l]”, but perhaps better rendered “(My) God [°E~l] (is) Strong [i.e. a warrior]”. He will be discussed in the note on Luke 1:18-19ff.
  • Immanuel (Grk )Emmanouh/l), the name preserved within the quotation of Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:23. The translation given in the Gospel more or less accurately reflects the meaning of the Hebrew la@uWnM*u! (±Imm¹nû°¢l), “God [°E~l] (is) with us”. Matt 1:23 will be discussed in the notes.

References marked “Cross” above (and throughout these notes) are to F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973 / 1997).

“And you shall call His Name…”

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“…and you shall call his name Yeshua”
(Matt 1:21; Luke 1:31)

For the remainder of Advent and Christmas season, on through Epiphany (Jan 6), I will be presenting a series of daily notes which will explore the Birth of Jesus and the Infancy Narratives (of Matthew and Luke) from the standpoint of names. The declaration of a name was an important part of celebrating the birth of a child, even as it continues to be for us today. Naming events and scenes feature prominently in the birth (infancy) narratives in the Gospels, especially in Luke, where the births of two children—John and Jesus—run parallel throughout the narrative. Such scenes are inspired and influenced by the Old Testament and reflect ancient traditions regarding the meaning and significance of the name given to a child.

It is somewhat difficult for Christians today, especially in modern Western societies, to appreciate how names were used and understood in ancient times. When choosing a name for a child, we may seek out one that appeals to us, perhaps even researching its origins and etymology, but quite often the name itself has no real meaning in our own language. This is true with regard to my own name, Steven, which is an anglicized transliteration of the Greek ste/fano$ (stéphanos), a wreath or “crown”, something which encircles the head as a mark of honor or prestige. It is a fine name, with a rich history, and features prominently in at least one Scripture passage (cf. Acts 6-7), but has no meaning whatever in English. Even in the case of names which have their origins in older English (and its Germanic roots), e.g. Edward, Richard, and the like, most English speakers today would have no idea of their original meaning.

In the ancient world, on the other hand, names typically had clear and definite meaning—often profound meaning—in the ordinary language of the time and place. For names in the ancient Near Eastern languages, including the Semitic languages such as Hebrew and Aramaic, a single word could express an entire phrase or short sentence—something which is nearly impossible in modern English. Not infrequently, these “sentence names” involved and incorporated the name of God—or, in a polytheistic context, the name of a particular deity. I will be exploring a number of such names in this series, but, for now, one example will suffice. The name Why`u=v^y+ (Y§ša±y¹hû, i.e. Isaiah) means something like “Yah(weh) will save” or “(May) Yah(weh) save!” and really ought to be translated this way, since it would have been generally understood by Hebrew speakers and hearers at the time the various Scriptures were written. Yet, as this is strange to our sensibilities, it is simpler and less confusing to retain the customary transliteration. Very few people would give such names to their children in our culture today.

More than this, the ancient mind regarded names (and the idea of a name) very differently than we do in the modern age. There was a kind of magical, efficacious quality to names—they represented and encapsulated the essence and nature of a person or thing. To know a person’s name was virtually the same as knowing the person. To call out (that is, speak out loud) a person’s name established a connection with the person—his/her nature and character, abilities, and the like. This could be utilized in a positive or negative way; in the latter sense, names were thought to allow one to gain control over another person (through binding magical formulae, curses, etc). In the religious sphere, the names of deities were fundamental to nearly every aspect of ritual, in some fashion. To know and utter—properly and correctly—the name of a deity meant the person had established a relationship and connection with that particular deity, and could ‘tap in’ to the divine protection, power, blessing, etc which God (or the gods) provide. This helps to explain the Old Testament idiom of “calling upon” the name of the Lord (YHWH). Divine names were used in a wide range of ritual contexts, related to nearly every area of human society, including their inclusion to safeguard agreements (i.e. covenants), contracts, testimony, and so forth. There was a sacred quality to such names and they were not to be used or uttered (in oaths, vows, etc) for evil, unworthy or frivolous purposes (cf. Exod 20:7 par). For Israelites and Jews the name of God represented by the Tetragrammaton (hwhy, YHWH, Yahweh) was especially sacred and to be treated with the utmost care. This name will be discussed in one of the articles in this series. Early Christians regarded the name Yeshua (Jesus) as efficacious—uttered for the purpose of blessing, healing, protection, etc—in a similar fashion.

This series of (daily) articles will be divided into two parts. The first part will explore the Names of God—that is, the six or seven fundamental names and titles of God used in the Old Testament and ancient Israelite religion. The second part will examine the relevant verses and passages in the Infancy narratives in the Gospels (Matthew 1-2, Luke 1-2), focusing on the scenes of birth and naming, as well as the various names and titles used in the text (especially those applied to Jesus). The commentary on the Infancy narratives will begin with the Lukan account, before turning to that of Matthew. This may seem like a rather narrow lens through which to study the text, but I think you will find it to be a rich and rewarding approach to take, and one which should provide many helpful (and surprising) insights into the familiar Christmas story.

Note of the Day – December 8 (Luke 2:32)

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Luke 2:32

This is the last of four Advent notes on the Song of Simeon (Luke 2:29-32). Today’s note explores the third, concluding line (bicolon) of the Song (in bold below).

“Now you release your slave, Master,
according to your word, in peace,
(now) that my eyes saw your Salvation,
which you made ready before the face of all peoples:
Light for the uncovering of the nations
and (the) splendor of your people Israel.”

Here is a slightly more literal rendering of v. 32:

  • Light unto (the) uncovering of the nations
    • and (unto the) splendor of your people Yisrael

The Greek is as follows:

  • fw=$ ei)$ a)poka/luyin e)qnw=n
    • kai\ do/can laou= sou )Israh/l

In all three parts (bicola) of the hymn, the initial word establishes and governs the line. In verse 29, it is the temporal particle nu=n (“now”); in vv. 30-31, it is the conjunctive particle o%ti (“[now] that”); and here in v. 32, it is the noun fw=$ (“light”). The structure of this line is the simplest of the three:

  • light unto
    • (the) uncovering of the nations
      —and
    • (the) splendor of your people Israel

The conjunction kai/ (“and”) is at the center of the line; its significance will be discussed below. There has been some question among commentators as to whether do/ca (“honor/splendor”) is parallel with fw=$ (“light”) or a)poka/luyi$ (“uncovering”). If the former, then the structure would be:

  • light unto the uncovering of the nations
    —and
  • honor/splendor (for) your people Israel

I have opted for the latter parallel, which I feel is more accurate to the syntax and theme of the hymn.

fw=$ (“light”)—The word, in the initial position, builds upon the motif of seeing in vv. 30-31. The reason why people are able to see the salvation God brings is that is light. The importance of light-imagery in the Old Testament and as a religious symbol is so widespread as to scarcely require comment. For more detail on the background, cf. my discussion on revelation in the series “Gnosis and the New Testament“. Though the noun fw=$ does not occur elsewhere in the Lukan Infancy narrative, light-imagery plays a significant role, including the scenes of heavenly/angelic manifestation (shining forth)—cf. 1:11, 28ff; 2:9-14. It is in the Song of Zechariah (esp. vv. 77-79), which, in many ways, functions parallel to the Song of Simeon, that we find corresponding imagery and similar language (in italics):

to give knowledge of salvation to his people in (the) release of their sins, through the inner-organs of (the) mercy of our God, in which (there) has looked upon us a springing-up out of the height [i.e. from on high], to shine light upon the (one)s sitting in darkness and (the) shadow of death and set our feet down straight into (the) way of peace.”

Mention should also be made of the famous star in the Matthew narrative (2:2ff). While the light (fw=$) of salvation should be understood in the context of the entire line in verse 32, it may also be said to relate specifically to the nations of the first half, according to the Isaian allusions—cf. Isa 42:6; 49:6. That it also relates to the people of Israel (the second half of the line) is clear from a comparison with Isa 49:9; 60:1ff, etc, and the citation of Isa 9:1-2 in Matt 3:15-16.

ei)$ (“unto”)—According to the structure outlined above, the preposition ei)$ (“into, unto”) governs both halves of v. 32. That is to say, the light is unto both the uncovering of the nations and the splendor of Israel. There are two aspects of the preposition which apply here: (a) for the purpose of, and (b) leading toward the goal of, i.e. the result of. More concretely, it can be understood as something which points in the direction of these results for the nations and Israel respectively—the light shines toward them both, and, more importantly, into the darkness (cf. the Isaian passages referenced above).

a)poka/luyin (“[the] uncovering”)—The noun a)poka/luyi$, from the verb a)pokalu/ptw, literally means “taking (the) cover away from”—i.e., “uncovering”. In this case, the motif relates to removing darkness, through the shining of light (Lk 1:77-79; Matt 3:15-16, etc). The noun and verb both are used frequently in the New Testament, often in reference to God’s revelation to his people (believers) in the person and work of Christ and the proclamation of the Gospel. Cf. again the article on revelation in the series “Gnosis and the New Testament”.

e)qnw=n (“of [the] nations”)—The genitive of this noun may be understood two ways: (1) the light is revealed (uncovered) for the nations, or (2) the nations themselves are uncovered/revealed by the light. Probably the former is more readily in mind here in the hymn, but the latter cannot be excluded, especially in the context of the Lukan theme of the identity/inclusion of Gentile believers as the people of God (cf. below).

kai/ (“and”)—This simple conjunctive particle here has special significance, since it emphasizes that both Israel and the nations (Gentiles) will experience the light of salvation manifest in the person of Jesus. If the structure of the line is understood differently (cf. above), then the emphasis of the conjunction would be on salvation in terms of both (i) light for the Gentiles and (ii) splendor for Israel. However, the theme (and theology) throughout Luke-Acts strongly favors the structure I am following, whereby the emphasis is squarely on Jewish and Gentile believers together making up the people of God.

do/can (“[unto the] splendor”)—My interpretation (cf. above) assumes that both nouns a)poka/luyi$ (“uncovering”) and do/ca (“splendor”) are governed by the preposition ei)$ (“unto”). To reiterate:

  • unto
    • (the) uncovering of the nations
    • (the) splendor of your people Israel

The noun do/ca is actually difficult to render accurately in English. Typically it is translated “glory”, but this can be rather misleading. Fundamentally, it refers to the esteem or honor which is accorded to someone or something—that is, how a person is considered, acknowledged, recognized, etc. In the case of God, the honor which is due to him involves his essential nature and character, as the Holy One and (all-powerful) Creator, and so forth, which is traditionally described and depicted with light-imagery. Thus the do/ca of God is envisioned as a brilliant and effulgent splendor surrounding him. In the LXX, do/ca generally translates the Hebrew dobK*, which has the basic meaning “weight”—i.e., the honor and reverence which must be given to God due to the greatness, etc, of His nature. The word has a somewhat different nuance and emphasis when applied to human beings; generally, it is best rendered as “honor” or “splendor”, depending on the context. Here, if do/ca is parallel to “light” (fw=$) then it is perhaps better understood as “honor”—i.e. revelation (light) for the nations, honor/esteem for Israel. However, if it is parallel with “uncovering”, then it is particularly important to preserve the element of light-imagery. The light of salvation then has two (related) effects—(1) it shines in the darkness, revealing/uncovering the nations, and (2) it causes the people Israel to shine with splendor. Light and splendor (do/ca) are juxtaposed in Isa 60:1, and splendor/honor/glory in connection with salvation specifically in Isa 46:13.

laou= sou  )Israh/l (“of your people Israel”)—that is, God’s people, referring primarily to Israel as the elect/chosen people, with whom God (YHWH) established a special relationship and agreement (covenant). The singular noun lao/$ (“[a collective] people”), used together with the plural e&qnh (“nations”), emphasizes the point of contrast—Israel was selected among all the different tribes/nations of the worlds to be the distinct people of God. The plural laoi/ (“peoples“) is often synonymous with e&qnh (“nations”), though in Acts 4:25-27 it seems to refer to Israel (i.e. Israelites and Jews), perhaps in the sense of the various groups which make up “Israel” at the time of Jesus. The significance of the terminology in this passage in Acts (citing Ps 2:1-2) likely runs deeper, however; note the possible contrast:

  • In their opposition to Jesus, Israel becomes like the nations—”peoples” (laoi/, plural) instead of the true “people” (lao/$, singular) of God
  • In trusting in Christ, both “peoples”—Israelites/Jews and Gentiles—become a single “people” (lao/$), the people of God

This helps to explain the use of the plural laoi/ (“peoples”) in line 2 of the Song of Simeon (v. 31). The expression “all the peoples” (par with “all flesh” in Lk 3:6) refers to those (believers) among all of humankind—Jews and Gentiles both—who respond to the Gospel (the “light” of salvation) and come to faith in Jesus Christ. This becomes a principal theme of the book of Acts. Note especially the words of James in 15:14:

“…how God looked upon (it/us) to take out of the nations a people for/unto His name”

This precedes the (modified) quotation from Amos 9:11-12 in verses 16-17, in which Gentile believers are identified as part of the “remnant” (i.e. the true/faithful Israel) who will seek the Lord, and so respond by trusting in Jesus. Paul, of course, as the “apostle to the Gentiles” draws heavily upon this theme, though often in a complex (and somewhat controversial) manner. Note, in particular, the discussion in Romans 9-11 which is vital to the overall emphasis (in Romans) on the unity of Jewish and and Gentile believers in Christ. For a more concise, similar, statement elsewhere in the New Testament, cf. 1 Peter 2:9-10.

The theme itself goes back into the Old Testament, especially in (Deutero-)Isaiah and the later Prophets, continuing on through Jewish literature and tradition. Isa 42:6 was a cornerstone verse, and is alluded to here in the Song; but there are many passages which might express either of two basic, related ideas: (1) that God’s revelation (his Law, salvation, etc) will go out from Jerusalem (and the Temple) into all the nations, and (2) that the nations from all around Jerusalem will come to the Temple and worship God there. For this latter image, cf. especially Isa 56:6-8, cited by Jesus in the Synoptic tradition (the Temple ‘cleansing’ scene, Lk 19:46 par). That the converted/faithful Gentiles would become part of the people of God is also expressed (or implied) in several places, most notably Zechariah 2:10-11, which refers to a future/eschatological moment when the Lord will come and dwell in the midst of his people in Zion, and

“many nations will be (inter)twined [i.e. joined] to YHWH in th(at) day, and they will be unto [i.e. as] a people for me [i.e. my people], and I will set (up my) tent [i.e. dwell] in your midst…” (v. 11)

The two themes mentioned above are both present in the central Pentecost scene of Acts 2—(1) Israelites/Jews from among the nations come to Jerusalem, along with believers miraculously speaking in the languages of all the nations; and (2) Christian missionaries go out (from Jerusalem) in the surrounding parts of Judea, and, subsequently, into the nations all around (cf. Acts 1:8, etc). Yet it may be said that this is already prefigured and foreshadowed here in the Infancy narrative, in the Song uttered by Simeon as he stands in the Temple, holding the savior Jesus in his arms. It is by the inclusion of the Gentiles within the people of God, that the chosen ones (believers) of Israel, along with Simeon, acquire true honor and splendor.

 

In Roman Catholic tradition, December 8 commemorates the conception of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus—her birth (by related tradition) taking place nine months later on Sept 8. The doctrine of Mary’s “immaculate” conception developed over a number of centuries, taking shape in the latter Middle Ages. It is ultimately related to the doctrine of Jesus’ sinlessness. In order to preserve the idea of his sinlessness as a human being, it was thought necessary that Mary herself (i.e. her flesh) must also have been pure from sin (from birth). This underlying logic doubtless seems unnecessary or extreme to many impartial observers today, but it fit with a certain theological mode of thinking regarding the transmission of sin, etc. For the role of Mary in Luke 2:22-38, cf. my earlier notes on vv. 22-24 and on the oracle of Simeon in vv. 34-35.

Note of the Day – December 7 (Luke 2:30-31)

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Luke 2:30-31

Today’s note is the third of four in this Advent series on the Song of Simeon (Luke 2:29-32). In it I will be examining the second line (bicolon) of the Song (in bold below).

“Now you release your slave, Master,
according to your word, in peace,
(now) that my eyes saw your Salvation,
which you made ready before the face of all peoples:
Light for the uncovering of the nations
and (the) splendor of your people Israel.”

Previously, I have treated verses 30-31 as separate lines, but, in terms of the structure of the hymn, they represent a single unit. A slightly more literal rendering is as follows:

  • (in) that my eyes saw your salvation
    • which you made ready against [i.e. in front of] the face of all the peoples

The Greek is:

  • o%ti ei@don oi( o)fqalmoi/ mou to\ swth/rio/n sou
    • o^ h(toi/masa$ kata\ pro/swpon pa/ntwn tw=n law=n

As in the case of the first line (v. 29), an initial particle (o%ti) governs vv. 30-31, though here it is a conjunctive particle, connecting it with the earlier line. It gives the reason why the speaker (Simeon) may now be released from his service to God. I have translated it literally as “(in) that”, i.e. “because”, though it is probably better to retain the temporal sense, as I do in the poetic rendering above—”(now) that”, i.e. “since”. The (chiastic) parallelism of the line is also expressed somewhat differently that that of v. 29; note the structure here:

  • my eyes saw
    —your salvation
    ——which
    —you made ready
  • {before} the face of all the peoples

The framing motif is that of seeing—Simeon now sees what God has prepared for all people, and which soon will become visible/apparent to all. What he sees is clarified by the “inner” pairing of the line—”your salvation which you made ready”. The relative particle o% (“[that] which”) is at the center of the line (on this, cf. below). I will now briefly discuss each of the key words or phrases in vv. 30-31.

ei@don (“[they] saw”)—In English this is usually translated as though it were a perfect form (“have seen”), but it is actually an aorist form, suggesting an action which is completed or occurs (just) prior to the person’s speaking, i.e. “my eyes now (have) see(n)…”. This is the principal verb governing vv. 30-31, with the emphasis on seeing. The same emphasis (and verb) is found, twice, in the explanation given by the author in verse 26:

“it was given (as) information to him, under [i.e. by] the holy Spirit, (that he was) not to see [i&dein] death before he should see [i&dh|] the Anointed (One) of the Lord”

Almost certainly we should recognize an allusion to Gen 46:30. Simeon had been waiting, looking toward the coming of the “help of Israel” and (with Anna) the “redemption of Jerusalem”—both expressions referring to the deliverance (salvation) God will bring about for his people through the coming of the Anointed One (Messiah) at the end-time.

oi( o)fqalmoi/ mou (“my eyes”)—Instead of saying simply “I saw”, the hymn uses the more colorful (and dramatic) Semitic idiom “my eyes saw”, which gives greater emphasis, and a strong personal dimension, to the act and experience of seeing. The expression “my eyes” is used in this manner frequently in the Old Testament (more than 70 times), especially in a poetic setting (in the Psalms, Prophets and Wisdom writings). The idiom is relatively rare in the New Testament, but note the important saying of Jesus in Luke 10:23 par (cf. also 1 Cor 2:9; 1 Jn 1:1). To have one’s sight restored, or suddenly be able to see, is occasionally described as having “the eyes opened” (Mk 8:25; Matt 9:30 etc); while the expression “lift the eyes” means to look and see something (Lk 6:20; 16:23, etc). In Acts 26:18, as in the citation of Isa 6:9-10 (Acts 28:27, etc), opening the eyes is connected with experiencing or realizing salvation.

to\ swth/rio/n sou (“your salvation”)—Interestingly, while the noun swth/ria (“salvation”) is fairly common in the New Testament, the related neuter substantive [to\] swth/rion occurs only three times, all in Luke-Acts—here, and in Lk 3:6; Acts 28:28. All three times it is part of the expression “the salvation of God”, by which is meant, not God being saved, but rather the salvation/deliverance/protection which God brings. This is indicated by the neuter form with the definite article; it could relate abstractly to the means or act of saving, but also to a specific person who might serve as savior/protector. Here, of course, it is connected with the child Jesus in Simeon’s arms. Within the context (and theology) of Luke-Acts, the expression refers specifically to the salvation of the nations (i.e. the Gentiles) through the proclamation of the Gospel. This point will be discussion in the next note (on verse 32).

o% (“which”)—The use of this relative particle is important, both for the flow of the line, but also, more significantly, as a way to connect Jesus (the means of salvation which Simeon now sees) with the deliverance promised to God’s faithful ones (his people) in the Scriptures. It is particularly the prophecies in the latter chapters of Isaiah (40-66) which are in view here in the Song of Simeon, as throughout the other hymns of the Lukan Infancy narrative. There is a clear allusion to Isa 40:5 in vv. 30-31, as well as to 46:13; 49:6b, and 52:10. One may also note the reference to seeing salvation in the deutero-canonical Baruch 4:24. The revelation of salvation—i.e., its becoming visible to humankind—is part of Jewish eschatological and Messianic thought, as we see in a number of the Qumran texts (e.g., CD 20:20, 34; 1 QM 5).

h(toi/masa$ (“you made ready”)—There is a distinct theological sense of the verb e(toima/zw (“make ready, prepare”) in the New Testament. It is frequently used of God, in an eschatological context—i.e. of what God has prepared (ahead of time) for the faithful, and also for the wicked, at the end (following the final Judgment). For its occurrence in sayings by Jesus, cf. Mk 10:40 par; Matt 22:4; 25:34ff; Jn 14:2-3. On God preparing blessing/reward for believers, cf. also 1 Cor 2:9; Heb 11:16; Rev 21:2. The eschatological sense is especially prominent in the book of Revelation (8:6; 9:7, 15; 12:6; 16:12; 19:7). In the Gospel tradition, and particularly in Luke, the verb is related to the idea of “preparing the way of the Lord”—i.e. of the messenger who prepares God’s people (and humankind) for His coming (in Judgment) at the end time. This eschatological and Messianic tradition was strong in Judaism and early Christianity, combining the language and symbolism from Isa 40:3ff and Mal 3:1ff. According to the early Christian interpretation, John the Baptist was identified as the messenger who prepares the way for the coming of Christ (the Lord), as in Luke 3:4 par. The two Old Testament traditions are combined specifically in Mark 1:2-3, but also, less directly, here in Luke. Note especially the language in Luke 1:16-17 and 76-77ff. It is in the Song of Zechariah (Benedictus) that salvation in the person of Christ (vv. 76-79) is tied back to the promised deliverance of God’s people (vv. 68-75), representing the two halves of the song respectively. For more on the parallel between Simeon and Zechariah, cf. my previous note.

kata\ pro/swpon (“against [the] face”)—Concretely, the preposition kata/ would here indicate something God brings down on the face, but more properly means “against” in the sense of “before, in front of, in the sight of”. The use of the noun “face” (pro/swpon, lit. “toward [the] eye[s]”) continues the motif of seeing in this line. The expression “against/before the face” is a Semitic idiom which means “in the presence of”, but also indicates something directed right at a person (cf. Gal 2:11), as in English we might say “right to his face” or “in his face”. Thus, there are two aspects which should be isolated here: (1) that God has prepared this salvation in the presence of all the peoples, i.e. during their history and lifetimes, and (2) that it is directed at the peoples, i.e. made ready for them and their benefit. Also, there is likely a foreshadowing of the idea that this salvation will soon become visible to all people, through the life and work of Jesus, and, subsequently, in the proclamation of the Gospel.

pa/ntwn tw=n law=n (“of all the peoples”)—There is allusion in vv. 30-31 to Isa 52:10 (cf. above); note the parallel, citing the LXX:

“against [i.e. in front of] the face of all the peoples” (v. 31)
“in the sight [e)nw/pion] of all the nations” (Isa 52:10a)

Interestingly, however, the Gospel writer (and/or Simeon as the speaker), uses “peoples” (laoi/) instead of “nations” (e&qnh). The parallel use of the plural “peoples” in Acts 4:25-27 might suggest that the reference here is to the Jewish people (i.e. Israelites/Jews). It seems best to understand the term in the context of what follows in v. 32, were two groups are mentioned in tandem—(a) the nations (e&qnh), that is, Gentiles or non-Jews, and (b) the people (lao/$) Israel. These two comprise the “peoples” in v. 31—in other words, all humankind (that is, all believers), Jew and Gentile both. The expression “all the peoples” should be understood as synonymous with “all flesh” (pa=$ sa/rc) in Luke 3:6 (again citing Isa 52:10): “all flesh will see the salvation of God”.

Note of the Day – December 6 (Luke 2:29)

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Luke 2:29

In the previous Advent note, I discussed the overall background and setting of the Song of Simeon (2:29-32); beginning today, the next three notes will discuss the Song in detail. The hymn is comprised of three lines (distychs or bicola), which I render here somewhat conventionally, to preserve the poetic rhythm and feel:

“Now you release your slave, Master,
according to your word, in peace,
(now) that my eyes saw your Salvation,
which you made ready before the face of all peoples:
Light for the uncovering of the nations
and (the) splendor of your people Israel.”

Today I examine the first line (bicolon) in verse 29, which I now translate more literally:

  • Now you loose your slave from (his bond), O Master,
    • according to your utterance, in peace

The corresponding Greek is:

  • Nu=n a)polu/ei$ to\n dou=lo/n sou, de/spota
    • kata\ to\ r(h=ma/ sou e)n ei)rh/nh|

Each of the key words will be discussed in turn, beginning with the particle nu=n (“now”). This temporal particle functions as an adverb, governed by the verb which follows. It is set in emphatic position at the beginning of the line—i.e., “now you loose your slave…”. This emphatic particle sets the hymn in motion. Note the important (chiastic) symmetry of the remainder of the line:

  • you loose from (bondage/service)
    —your slave
    ——Master
    —according to your word
  • in peace

This structure reflects the precise word order of the line, and should be kept in mind when studying the verse in detail.

a)polu/ei$ (“you loose from [bondage/service]”)—the verb a)polu/w literally means “(set) loose from”, i.e. from bondage or service (as a slave); in English idiom we would say “release from”, i.e. from the obligation. The reference is to the period of service for a slave, who could be released (set free) from that bond only by permission of the master, or when an agreed upon time of service had elapsed. Here it is also used as an idiom for the end of a person’s life, marking the end of his/her (earthly) service to God, often implying hard work and suffering (i.e. bondage). Death is viewed as a release, a loosing from bondage—cf. Gen 15:2; Num 20:29; Tobit 3:6; 2 Macc 9:9.

to\n dou=lo/n sou (“your slave”)—the word dou=lo$ (“slave”) is typically translated “servant” in order to soften the expression, and to avoid comparisons with the more oppressive/abusive forms of slavery known from U.S. history and elsewhere. Simeon considers himself a slave (or servant) of God, just as Paul, along with other early Christians, called themselves slaves of God, or of Christ (cf. Rom 1:1; 6:16ff; 1 Cor 7:22; 2 Cor 4:5; Gal 1:10, etc).

de/spota (“[O] Master”)—here the word should be understood in its literal sense of owner, i.e. one who possesses and has authority over a slave (1 Tim 6:1-2; Tit 2:9; 1 Pet 2:18). It was often used in the broader sense of “master, lord”, etc., and could apply as an honorific title of address for any ruler. It translates the Hebrew /wda* (“lord”), and occasionally is used in the LXX in place of the divine name YHWH (Prov 29:25, cf. Isa 1:24; Jon 4:3). The author of the Gospel uses it again in a similar context in Acts 4:24. It is applied as a title of Christ in Jude 4, and is found in the context of believers as slaves of God (and Christ) in 2 Tim 2:21; 2 Pet 2:1. According to the structure indicated above, the vocative de/spota (“O Master”) is at the center or heart of the line.

kata\ to\n r(h=ma/ sou (“according to your utterance”)—r(h=ma, usually translated “word”, properly means something which is spoken out, uttered by a person. Here it relates to the authority the master/owner has over the slave. A casual reading of the line would indicate that the focus is on the slave being released by the word of the master. And yet, the structure of the line (cf. above) rather suggests that the emphasis is on the authority (and ownership) the master has over the slave; note again the parallel:

  • your slave…
  • …according to your word

Because the master has authority over the slave, only his word—that is, an agreement or command declared by him—can release the slave. The narrative context of verse 26 relates this to a promise by God to Simeon, made through the Holy Spirit:

“and (the) information had been (giv)en to him, under [i.e. by] the holy Spirit, (that he was) not to see death before he should see the Anointed (One) of the Lord”

This is the explanation or interpretation given by the author.

e)n ei)rh/nh| (“in peace”)—Again, if we consider the structure of the line (cf. above), this phrase qualifies the primary verb:

  • you loose (him) from (service)…
  • …in peace

This reflects the basic idea of blessing—of a person departing, or being sent off in peace. As an idiom for death, cf. Gen 15:15. Very likely, there is also an allusion here to the Joseph narrative (Gen 46:30), where the elderly Jacob (Israel) declares that he can die (i.e. in peace) now that he has seen his son (Joseph) again:

“from now [nu=n] (on) I shall [i.e. I can] die away, since I have seen your face (and) that you still live!”

Jacob, like Simeon, is one who is waiting for the deliverance (salvation) of God (49:18). Returning to the interpretation in Lk 2:26, Simeon’s desire, in terms of Messianic expectation, should be related to Messianic (Jewish) thought of the period. In the so-called Psalms of Solomon (17:50), we find the idea that the person is truly blessed who is able to witness the coming of the Messianic Age and the deliverance of God’s people (cf. also Lk 10:23-24). Ps Sol 17:34 draws upon the same Isaiah traditions as the Song of Simeon (vv. 30-32), which will be discussed in the next two notes. There is also a strong Messianic motif involving the bringing and establishment of peace—cf. Psalm 72:7; Isa 9:5-6; Zech 8:12, etc. The birth of the Messiah (Jesus) in the Lukan narrative is accompanied by an announcement of peace on earth (Lk 2:14), so that those who serve God (i.e. believers) may now do so in peace (cf. 1:74). The transition from the old covenant (e.g. Simeon) to the new (believers in Christ) takes place in a moment of peace, as the aged Israelite, standing in the Temple, holds the baby Jesus in his arms.

December 6 is the traditional date in the West commemorating St. Nicholas, the 4th-century bishop of Myra (in Lycia, Asia Minor) who, through an unusual set of circumstances, came to be the basis for the figure of Santa Claus. Nicholas was among the bishops present at the landmark council at Nicea, but otherwise we have very little reliable information about his life, though, of course, numerous legends have been preserved. Of the many familiar Christmas customs, it is perhaps only the practice of placing gifts in stockings which may be said to relate back directly to the old Nicholas traditions.

 

Note of the Day – December 5 (Luke 2:29-32)

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Luke 2:29-32

To commemorate the beginning of Advent, over the next four days I will be presenting a short series of notes on Luke 2:29-32, the “Song of Simeon”. The first note (today) will focus on the hymn as a whole, its setting, background, etc, before examining each line in detail in the three successive notes. I have discussed this passage on several occasions before, including during prior Christmas seasons (cf. from Jan 1 2017 & 2018).

One of the most distinctive features of the Infancy Narrative in Luke (chapters 1-2), is the sequence of canticles, or hymns, which punctuate the account. There are four such hymns, each of which came to be part of the Christian liturgy and known by its Latin title (the first word[s] as rendered in Latin)—Magnificat (1:46-55), Benedictus (1:68-79), Gloria in Excelsis (2:14), and Nunc Dimittis (2:29-32). The Gloria, part of the Angelic announcement of Jesus’ birth, is extremely brief; but the other three are substantial hymns, which, in the narrative context, are presented as inspired oracles by the speaker—Mary (or, possibly, Elizabeth), Zechariah, and Simeon. In the case of Zechariah and Simeon, the oracle properly includes a prophetic pronouncement regarding the future of the child (John / Jesus).

The narrative setting for the Song of Simeon (Nunc Dimittis) is established in verses 22-28. In all likelihood, the author (trad. Luke) has combined the Simeon tradition (beginning in v. 25) with a separate notice in vv. 22-24 which serves two basic purposes: (a) it explains how Mary and Joseph came to be in the Temple with the child Jesus, and (b) it depicts Jesus’ parents as faithful Israelites who are fulfilling the religious obligations of the Law. Indeed, it may be said that these two elements—the Temple setting and fulfillment of the Law—are both essential themes within the Lukan Infancy narrative, and the work of Luke-Acts as a whole. Consider:

  • Mary and the child (along with Joseph) fulfill the requirements of the Law (vv. 22-24). Two basic laws are mentioned, apparently combined or conflated by the author:
    (i) the sacrifice for purification (from uncleanness) for the mother following childbirth (vv. 22, 24; cf. Lev 12:6-8)
    (ii) the consecration (redemption) of the firstborn son (v. 23, cf. Exod 13:1-2, 11-13; Num 18:15-16)
    At the same time, Simeon functions as a prophet who also cites the Old Testament Prophets (as will be discussed), applying them to Jesus. Thus, here in the narrative, it can be said that Jesus “fulfills the Law and the Prophets” (cf. Luke 16:16; 24:44; Acts 13:15; 24:14; 28:23)
  • The Temple setting is likewise a key motif in Luke-Acts, and is found in three different scenes in the Infancy Narrative (here, and in Lk 1:8-23; 2:41-50). Probably the author has in mind Malachi 3:1ff, with the idea of the Lord coming to the Temple. This distinctive prophecy, also related to John the Baptist as the Messenger who prepares the way (Lk 1:16-17, 76-77; cf. 3:4ff) for the Lord, is, in a sense, fulfilled by Jesus already as a child.

There is another important connection between the Temple scenes in 1:8-23 and here in 2:25ff, involving the parallelism between the births of John the Baptist and Jesus which runs all through the narrative. There is a specific parallel between Zechariah, father of John, and Simeon; both are:

  • Devout, aged men who serve in the Temple or frequent it (1:8-9ff; 2:25-27)
  • Each is specifically referred to as “just/righteous” (di/kaio$) (1:6; 2:25)
  • Each man is touched/filled by the Spirit and utters an inspired oracle (1:67; 2:27)
  • Each oracle includes a prophecy regarding the destiny of the respective child (John/Jesus) and the role he will play in God’s deliverance of His people (1:76-79; 2:30ff, 34-35)
  • In the narrative, each man is associated with a corresponding female figure (Elizabeth/Anna) who also is inspired or functions as a prophet (1:5, 41ff; 2:36ff)
  • Linguistically, their names have a similar meaning:
    • Z§½aryâ[hû] (Why]r=k^z+)—”Yah(weh) has remembered”
    • Šim®±ôn, presumably shortened for Š§ma±-°E~l or Š§ma±-Yah—”El/Yah has heard”

Indeed, both pairs of aged figures—Zechariah/Elizabeth and Simeon/Anna—represent faithful Israel of the Old Covenant (1:6; 2:25, 37), those who are waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises. This latter theme becomes more specific with Simeon/Anna, but it is foreshadowed already with Zechariah/Elizabeth in the earlier portions of the narrative—note the motifs of waiting and expectation (1:13, 20-21, 24-25, 57ff, 70-76). There can be no doubt that Messianic expectation—i.e., awaiting the coming of God’s Anointed (Messiah) who will rescue/deliver his people at the end-time—is associated with the faith/devotion of Simeon and Anna. Two parallel phrases (in vv. 25 and 38) make this clear:

  • V. 25—Simeon was “(look)ing toward receiving the para/klhsi$ of Israel”
  • V. 38—Anna was “(look)ing toward receiving the lu/trwsi$ of Jerusalem”

The same verb prosde/xomai is used, which indicates a person who is waiting with eagerness or readiness, looking forward to (lit. “toward”, pro$) receiving someone or something. In the case of Simeon, this expectation is related directly to his righteousness and devotion. The two parallel expressions are especially worth noting here:

  • “the para/klhsi$ of Israel“—the noun para/klhsi$ (parákl¢sis) derives from the verb parakale/w, literally to “call (someone) alongside”, often in the sense of offering help and encouragement, etc. It is difficult to translate with a single word in English, and is typically rendered “comfort” or “consolation”, but the idea of offering help is paramount here—i.e., the aid God will give to his people in rescuing/delivering them.
  • the lu/trwsi$ of Jerusalem“—the noun lu/trwsi$ (ultimately derived from lu/w, “[to set] loose”) relates to the process by which someone is loosed (i.e. set free) from bondage or debt, etc. It generally refers to the paying of ransom/redemption (lu/tron), i.e. the price paid to loose/redeem a person from bondage, and is often translated as “redemption”.

Both expressions stem from portions of (Deutero-)Isaiah—40:1; 52:9; 61:2; 66:12-13—which came to be interpreted in a Messianic sense in Jewish and early Christian tradition. This is important to keep in mind when studying the Song of Simeon itself, which likewise makes use of several such passages from Isaiah. Simeon and Anna essentially function like the Isaian herald, announcing the good news for God’s people (cf. Isa 40:9; 41:27; 52:7).

Returning to the parallel between Zechariah and Simeon, in at least one respect the author draws a contrast:

  • Zechariah is unable to deliver the (priestly) blessing to the people (1:22)
  • Simeon does pronounce a blessing, on Mary & Joseph (2:34a)

Simeon actually speaks a two-fold blessing, introducing each of the two portions of his oracle with a blessing—one addressed to God (v. 28) which precedes the Song, and one addressed to Mary (and Joseph) prior to prophecy in vv. 34-35. This act of blessing—literally, to “give a good account”, i.e. speak good (words) to, or over, a person—should be considered alongside the Song and prophecy, as part of the inspiration given to Simeon through the Holy Spirit. This is the notice at the end of verse 25: “…and the Holy Spirit was upon him”. In fact, there are three references to the Spirit in vv. 25-27, each of which is important in light of the theme of the Holy Spirit in Luke-Acts:

  • “the holy Spirit was upon [e)pi] him” (v. 25)
  • “it was given (as) information to him under [u(po] the Spirit” (v. 26)
  • “he came in [e)n] the Spirit…” (v. 27)

Note the similar references to the Spirit in relation to Jesus in Lk 3:22; 4:1, 14, and also to the first believers in Acts 1:8; 2:4, 17ff, etc. This may be a subtle way by which the author transitions from the old faith of Israel to the new covenant centered on the person of Jesus. As Simeon encounters the child Jesus (in the Temple, the point of contact between old and new, v. 27), holding him in his arms (v. 28), this new covenant is glimpsed and realized, at least for a moment. At any rate, it is the Spirit which inspires the Song which follows in vv. 29-32, and it is to the first line of the song that I will turn in the next daily note.

For an excellent overview and discussion of the passage, which I have found most helpful in preparing these notes, cf. R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1977, 1993), pp. 436-60.

Women in the Church: Summary and Conclusion

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Having examined the most relevant passages in the Scriptures—Old and New Testaments—as well as the evidence from early Christianity taken overall, through the notes and articles of this series, it remains to offer a summary of this evidence, so as to frame a useful concluding assessment of the issues at hand. During this series, I began with the specific passages in the Pauline Letters (Parts 1-5), moving back to examine the New Testament and (earlier) Old Testament as a whole (Parts 6-8). Here, in summary, I will reverse the process.

The Old Testament

When considering the Old Testament passages, it is most important to recognize the ancient Near Eastern cultural context. From the later Bronze and Iron Ages (c. 2000-500 B.C.), down through the Greek and Roman periods, society was predominantly patriarchal and patrilineal—that is, male-oriented, with emphasis given to the position of father, husband, and (eldest) son. The laws, government, and social conventions of Israel naturally reflect this, and we must be careful not to assume that such historical-cultural circumstances, as they are reflected in the Old Testament Law (Torah), are binding on later Jews and Christians. As a similar example, the acceptance of the institution of slavery in Israelite society certainly does not mean that it ought to be accepted by Christians today.

When we turn specifically to the religious side of things, there are three key points which, I believe, can be established with reasonably certainty (cf. the discussion in Part 8):

  1. With but few exceptions, in the Law and the practice of Israelite religion, men and women had more or less equal status. Apart from the priesthood, women were able to participate in the rituals and feasts alongside men, with little or no restriction. Similarly, access to the Tabernacle does not seem to have been limited; only in later Jewish tradition were portions of the Temple reserved for men. Perhaps more importantly, the sacrificial ritual—in terms of sin, cleansing, and redemption, etc—applied to men and women with little apparent distinction.
  2. The Priesthood was reserved for men—that is, for Aaron and his descendents, as well as the males from the tribe of Levi (the Levites).
  3. Men and women could serve equally as inspired/authoritative Prophets.

The New Testament

When we turn to the New Testament (Part 7), the evidence is similarly mixed. On the one hand, Jesus’ circle of close disciples, those specifically chosen by him to serve as his representatives (apostles), were all men. At the same time, there were women who followed him, and traveled/stayed together with him (alongside the men). The evidence for this is relatively slight (cf. Lk 8:1-3; Mk 15:40-41 par), but established well enough to be completely reliable (on objective grounds). Moreover, Jesus’ dealing with women (also well-established in Gospel tradition) were frequent and distinctive enough to cause comment and objection among observers (Lk 7:36-39; Jn 4:7-30, etc), indicating that he may have challenged the accepted social conventions, in certain respects, regarding the interaction of men and women. Martha and Mary, sisters of Lazarus, should be counted among Jesus’ close friends and followers (Lk 10:38-42; Jn 11:5, 19-27 ff; 12:1-3ff). Perhaps the most important Gospel tradition regarding women is the appearance of Mary Magdalene (along with other women) at the tomb; they were the first to see the empty tomb, encounter the resurrected Jesus, and to proclaim the good news of the Gospel (i.e., the resurrection). Mention should also be made of the role of Mary, mother of Jesus, especially within the Lukan narrative (Lk 1:26-56; 2:5-7, 16-38ff; 8:19-21; Acts 1:14).

In the book of Acts, there is a strong egalitarian character to the early Christian community, in which men and women are mentioned together as believers without any apparent distinction (1:14ff, etc). The Spirit comes upon them all as they are gathered together in one place (2:1-4ff), the gift and manifestation of the Spirit coming to men and women both, in fulfillment of the key prophecy in Joel 2:28-32 (Acts 2:17-21). Admittedly, those mentioned as apostles (a)po/stoloi) in Acts are all men, as well as the seven chosen as “servants/ministers” (“to serve”, diakone/w) in Acts 6. Indeed, throughout the entire New Testament, there is only one (possible) instance where a woman is referred to as an apostle (Junia in Rom 16:7, discussed in Part 4), but the interpretation of this reference is by no means certain. However, women do feature prominently throughout the book of Acts, and are mentioned among the notable early converts to the faith. Perhaps most significant is Priscilla who, with her husband Aquila, served as Christian leaders (ministers) in three different cities—Corinth, Ephesus and Rome. Priscilla (or Prisca) was a close companion and fellow-minister of Paul (Acts 18:3, 18; Rom 16:3; 1 Cor 16:19; 2 Tim 4:19), who appears in Acts 18. The role she plays (with her husband) in instructing Apollos (v. 26) is a key New Testament reference for our subject, though its import should not be exaggerated.

The Pauline Letters

Five primary passages in the letters—1 Cor 11:2-16; 14:33-36; Gal 3:28; Rom 16:1-2ff, and 1 Tim 2:11-15—were discussed in detail in Parts 15 (cf. also the overview study in Part 6). Here I will summarize the overall evidence, distilling it into a number of central points. I begin with the letters where Pauline authorship is more or less undisputed (esp. Corinthians, Romans, and Philippians):

  • When Paul refers to women who are his companions and fellow-workers, he does so without any special distinction to suggest that they serve a lesser or subordinate role. As I discussed in Part 4 (on Rom 16:1-2ff), he uses the terms dia/konoi (“servant/minister”) and sunergoi/ (“co-workers”), etc, equally of men and women, without any apparent qualification; and may even use a)po/stolo$ (apostle) of a women (Junia) in Rom 16:7.
  • Based on the references in 1 Corinthians and Romans, it would seem also that men and women receive the various spiritual “gifts” (charismata) equally, with little or no restriction (with the possible exception of the ‘highest’ gift, apostleship). As such, women would have been expected to exercise their gift (i.e. ministry) within the life of the Community.
  • Women could serve as “prophets” (the second ‘highest’) gift within the Community. This included speaking—delivering prophetic messages—within the congregational meeting (1 Cor 11:2-16). The only restriction Paul lays upon them is that they prophesy with their head covered (wearing a covering over their head/hair). Cf. the extensive discussion in Part 1, along with the notes on 1 Cor 11:10.
  • Paul does seem to accept some (hierarchical) distinction between men and women in the congregation which does effect their ministerial role and position in certain ways (cf. the discussion in Parts 1 and 2). The extent to which he restricts the role of women in this regard is based on two main factors: (1) observing accepted social custom, and (2) an interpretation of the Creation account in Genesis 1-3. The latter factor is most problematic from our standpoint today, and yet it cannot be ignored.
  • At the same time, we have the fundamental statement in Galatians 3:28c—”in (Christ) there is no male and female”—which would seem to abolish gender distinctions among believers, just as it does for religious-cultural (Jew/Gentile) and socio-economic (slave/free) distinctions (v. 28ab). While this is certainly true in terms of basic Christian identity (note the baptism context), Paul does not seem (or was not willing) to apply the principle absolutely in practice. I discuss the subject in Part 3, and in a set of supplemental notes on Gal 3:28. Interestingly, this statement (with the specific expression “male and female”) almost certainly ties back to the Creation narrative as well.

Mention should also be made of the Pauline tradition recorded in Acts 14:23 and again in 20:17ff, whereby Paul (and, presumably, other Apostles) appointed elders (presbu/teroi) to lead and guide the congregations established in the various cities. There may be an echo of this in Phil 1:1, but it becomes far more prominent in the Pastoral letters, which present a stronger and more distinctive picture of church organization and government than we see in the undisputed Pauline letters. I discuss this at length in Parts 5 (on 1 Tim 2:11-15) and 6. If the Pastoral letters are genuinely by Paul, and relatively early (c. 60-63 A.D.), then it is necessary to study them closely in comparison with the relevant passages in 1 Corinthians, etc. However, if they (esp. 1 Timothy) are pseudonymous, and a later product (c. 80-100?), then we must consider the traditions and instruction contained in them in a somewhat different light—as part of the subsequent ecclesiastical development in the early Church (cf. below). Folding the Pastorals into the overall evidence from the Pauline letters, we should distinguish several key terms which play an important part in understanding the roles of men and women in ministry in the New Testament period:

  • Apostle (a)po/stolo$)—as mentioned above, with one possible exception, this title is only applied to men. Traditionally, it goes back to the idea of those disciples (the Twelve, etc) whom Jesus appointed and “sent forth” as his representatives, to proclaim the Gospel, work miracles, and, ultimately, to establish congregations (churches) of believers around the world. Paul uses the term frequently (25 times in the undisputed letters), often in reference to himself and the ministry to which God has called him.
  • Servant/Minister (dia/konoi)—With one possible exception (Phil 1:1), Paul always uses the term in a general sense—applying it to himself and his co-workers (men and women alike)—as a minister (lit. “servant”) of Christ and the Gospel. In the Pastoral letters (1 Tim 3:8-13), the word seems to refer to a more distinct role or “office” in the Church, as it certainly came to be in later tradition (but note the general sense of the word still in 4:6). The context of 3:8ff seems to assume that these ministers are men, though, because of the ambiguity surrounding verse 11, we cannot be certain of this.
  • Elder (presbu/tero$)—According to the tradition(s) in Acts 14:23; 20:17ff, Paul established “elders” (presumably gender-specific, i.e. men) to “oversee” and guide/lead the congregations. Interestingly, however, Paul never once uses this term in any of the undisputed letters, which is indeed surprising. By contrast, it is used a number of times in the Pastoral letters (Titus 1:5; 1 Tim 5:17, 19, cf. also 4:14), where almost certainly it refers to men. In this context (5:9-16), widows functioned as a type of “female elder”.
  • Overseer (e)pi/skopo$)—This term is used in Phil 1:1, as parallel to, but distinct from, that of “minister” (dia/kono$). According to Acts 20:28, it would have referred to the elders appointed to guide and oversee the congregation(s) in a particular city or region. In early Christian parlance, it was essentially synonymous with the term “shepherd” (poimh/n), which was probably the older traditional term (cf. 1 Pet 2:25). As such, it corresponds generally with the English word “pastor”. The Pastoral letters (1 Tim 3:1-7; Tit 1:7-9) provide instruction regarding overseers, who, according to the context, should be understood as elders who function in a leading role, though the distinction between overseer and elder was not as pronounced as it would subsequently become in the early Church, and the translation “bishop” should be avoided. Based on the example of the narrative setting of the Pastorals, Titus and Timothy functioned as overseers of all the churches in a particular region (Crete and the area around Ephesus, respectively).
  • Prophet (profh/th$)—This is the distinctive role in the earliest Christian congregations for which there is the best support for women serving. Going all the way back to the ancient (Old Testament) tradition of female prophets, the foundational use and interpretation of Joel 2:28-32 among early Christians established the acceptance of women functioning as prophets in the Churches, though the direct evidence for this is relatively slight (Acts 21:9; 1 Cor 11:2-16). Presumably, the majority of Christian prophets were men, but there would seem to be no restriction on women in this role, except for the cultural observance required by Paul in 1 Cor 11.
  • Teacher (dida/skalo$)—This may understood in terms of one who exercises the distinct (spiritual) gift of teaching, or as the specific role of the elder/overseer. The latter sense is emphasized in the Pastoral letters, in the context of transmitting and preserving the correct (Apostolic) tradition, passed down from men like Paul. Originally, it would have related more directly to the proclamation of the Gospel. In the charismatic context of the Pauline churches (e.g. in Corinth), it likely refers to special inspired instruction, under the guidance of the Spirit, closely related to the gifts of prophecy and the imparting of spiritual knowledge (revelation). Of considerable importance are the passages (1 Cor 14:33-35; 1 Tim 2:11-15) which seem to restrict women in functioning as teachers in the congregation; on this, cf. Parts 2 and 5, and the separate note on “teach/teaching” in the Pauline letters.

Early Christianity

The principles and points of Church organization contained in the Pastoral letters are continued and developed in the early Church, as can be seen by a survey of the evidence from the so-called Apostolic Fathers (writings c. 90-160 A.D., cf. Part 9). Over time, a distinct hierarchical structure with official positions (“offices”) developed, centered on the principle of episcopal (from e)pi/skopo$, cf. above) authority. Women came to be increasingly excluded from leading ministerial roles; at the same time, certain positions—Widows and Virgins—tied to the (ascetic) ideal of ministerial celibacy and virginity, gained in prominence. However, by the 5th century, women had been officially barred from any kind of priestly activity (i.e. approaching the altar, administering baptism, etc), from teaching doctrine, serving as deacons, and so forth. It is hard to say whether the Gnostic Christian groups were more accepting of the participation of women in leading roles, as might be assumed from the language and female characters/images featured in many of their texts. For more on this, cf. the article “Women in Gnosticism“.

It was in the Monastic movements, begun in the mid/late-3rd century, that women would find their place (and empowerment) as ministers within the Church. Female solitaries and communities (i.e. monasteries) spread alongside the male monks and houses, all throughout the ancient Near East (beginning in Egypt), then the entire Greco-Roman world, and, eventually, into Europe. The monastic community (monastery) functioned as a sub-culture, a separate society within the larger Christian community. As such, while women were still under the authority of (male) bishops and priests, they had the ability to govern themselves. At first, the majority of monks and nuns (the traditional title for female monks) came primarily from the upper classes, but, as the tradition expanded, women from lower segments of society had opportunity to join and participate in the communities.

The Medieval and Reformation Periods

For centuries, while there was relatively little change in the official position(s) of women, either in the Church or society at large, the opportunities for participation and expression within Monasticism were considerable indeed. A rich Monastic culture developed, for both men an women, maintaining centers of learning and art throughout the so-called “Dark Ages”. By the time of the high Middle Ages (12-14th centuries), a good number of women in the monasteries were highly educated and skilled in many areas (including art, music, medicine, and other sciences). Many beautiful and erudite examples of writings from female authors have survived, such as those of the “Rhineland Mystics” in Germany. Of the many notable names from the period, one could mention Elisabeth of Schönau, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Gertrude of Helfta, Hadewijch, Bridget of Sweden, Catherine of Siena and Julian of Norwich. The great abbess Hildegard of Bingen, at the peak of her career (c. 1150), was, along with Bernard of Clairvaux, perhaps the most influential Christian leader in all of Europe. Hildegard’s legacy, her writings, and the evidence of her vast learning and creativity, have made her an inspirational figure for many women today.

In the era of the Renaissance in western Europe (14th-15th centuries), humanist trends prompted a marked increase in the status (and education) of women, at least among the upper classes and members of the aristocracy. In England, Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, was an important patron of learning and played a role in the growth of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Women such as Christine de Pizan, Cecilia Gonzaga, Isabella d’Este, Cassandra Fedele, Margaret of Navarre, and Margaret Roper (daughter of Sir Thomas More) could be counted among the most gifted and educated persons in Europe.

Sadly, the legacy of the Protestant Reformation with regard to the role and status of women is rather mixed. On the one hand, the closure of monasteries in the Protestant territories cut off those opportunities for women, effectively forcing them into the more traditional family roles of wife and mother. With very rare exceptions, women did not serve in any sort of leading ministerial position in the Protestant churches. This was true even among the Anabaptists, who were somewhat more tolerant and liberal-minded in certain respects. Only in the Spiritualist traditions, such as the Quakers of the 17th century, were women allowed more freedom to function as ministers in the congregation. At the same time, there can be little doubt that the Reformation, in the long run, was influential in helping to shape democratic and egalitarian ideals, emphasizing personal freedom and basic human rights, in Western society over the centuries to come.

The Situation Today

In more recent times, of course, ideals of liberty, equality and human rights have gained more prominence in society, aided both by religious and secular (humanistic) philosophical principles. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there have been strong and widespread movements championing civil rights for (ethnic) minorities and for women. There has been much success in terms of women’s rights—i.e. to vote, pursue higher education, function in professional occupations previously reserved for men, and so on. To be sure, even today many of the ancient biases, prejudice and mistreatment of women remain, but the fundamental principle of the equality of men and women (including the ideal of equal opportunity) is emphasized today, in the United States and other nations, as never before. The Church can, and ought, to be at the forefront of the struggle for equality and empowerment. Yet it is just at this point that many Christians find themselves at a crossroads between two different viewpoints—the modern mindset stressing gender equality, and the ancient (male-dominated) worldview reflected in the Scriptures. In early Christianity this ancient outlook has been re-interpreted and modified by leaders such as Paul, but it is not quite the same the modern view. There remains considerable tension as to how, and to what extent, we may combine the perspectives and hold them in balance—respecting and remaining faithful to the teachings in the Scriptures without ignoring important areas of social progress.

Concluding Note

For those who wish to better understand the Scriptural evidence (and teaching) regarding the role of Women in the Church, I hope that this series as been helpful and inspiring. I have tried to be as faithful and objective as possible, without reading modern concerns into the various passages. However, if one wishes to apply the New Testament evidence overall to the situation of churches today, this perhaps could be done best by focusing on the two leading roles in early Christianity—that of apostle and prophet.

1. Apostle—According to the New Testament witness, the apostles (a)po/stoloi), the ones “sent out”, i.e. by Jesus, were, it would seem, all men. While this may simply reflect the patriarchal, male-oriented character of the society, it has to be admitted that it was fundamental to early church organization. The apostles and their own representatives (also “apostles”, in a sense), as missionaries throughout the Near Eastern and Greco-Roman world, in the establishment of churches, appointed elders to govern and oversee (i.e. the role of “overseer”) the congregation(s). As far as we can tell, these elders—persons mature and responsible in the faith—were all men, though there may have been corresponding female “elders” to oversee the younger women in the congregation. The role of elder/overseer more or less corresponds with the traditional figure of pastor in Protestant churches. This emphasis on male authority, according to the early Christian way of thinking, represents the vertical dimension of Church structure—i.e., a hierarchy of authority.

2. Prophet—As is clear from the foundational use of Joel 2:28-32 in Peter’s Pentecost speech in the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit comes upon men and women equally, and they all are to prophesy. The existence and acceptance of female prophets is reasonably well-established in early Christianity (cf. above). It is only in the second century, following the New Testament (Apostolic) period, that the role disappears, kept alive at the fringes by heterodox/charismatic movements such as Montanism (cf. the discussion in Part 9). This raises the question as to whether the role and function of prophet in the New Testament reflects a temporary gifting, limited to the New Testament period, or whether it relates to believers today. I discuss this question in the note on 1 Cor 13:8. On the whole, I find no evidence in the New Testament to suggest that this role of prophet/prophecy was not expected to last until the return of Christ. In traditional terms, the prophet was a spokesperson or representative (of God), who communicated the word and will of God to the people at large (i.e. the believers of the Community). As such, it corresponds generally to the role of preacher (and/or teacher) today. Using the same model as above, it also could be said to represent the horizontal dimension of the Church—believers sharing their (spiritual) gifts and instructing one another. According to this view, women could (and should) function as preachers and ministers as they have been gifted by God.

Whether, or to what extent, these two dimensions—hierarchical and egalitarian, vertical and horizontal—can be combined effectively in Church life and the organized Community today is a question that each believer, or group of believers, must address. There are no simple solutions. However, as a closing exhortation, and word of advice, I would return to the sentiment expressed by F. F. Bruce (commenting on Gal 3:28), which I have previously mentioned and with which I entirely agree, that the passages which seem to restrict the role of women (e.g., in the Pauline letters) “are to be read in relation to Gal 3:28, and not vice versa(Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians, New International Greek Testament Commentary [NIGTC], Paternoster Press / Eerdmans: 1982, p. 190).

Special Note on 1 Corinthians 13:8

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In discussing the role of Prophets in the early Church, I have mentioned the difficulty in relating it to the modern Age, and thus in applying passages such as 1 Cor 11:2-16 to the Church today. If Paul accepts the idea of women functioning as prophets, delivering messages in the congregational meeting, then this would certainly seem to support the idea that women may also do so (i.e. preach) today. However, according to one line of interpretation, the spiritual gifts (xarisma/ta, charismata) documented and described in 1 Corinthians (and elsewhere in the New Testament) are part of a unique set of phenomena, limited in time (more or less) to the age of the Apostles and the initial spread of Christianity. According to this view, Paul is essentially describing a situation which no longer applies today, contrary, of course, to the core belief of Pentecostal, Charismatic and Spiritualist traditions. But if, for example, 1 Cor 11:2-16 is taken as referring specifically to women exercising a (prophetic) gift which is no longer in effect, then it would not necessarily support the general idea of women preaching or delivering messages in the church meeting today. It is thus worth examining the main verse (also in 1 Corinthians) which refers to the gift of prophecy coming to an end.

1 Corinthians 13:8

This is part of the famous Love-chapter in 1 Corinthians, 12:31b-14:1a. I have explored the setting and structure of this section in an earlier note. Here is the outline again:

  • 12:31b: Introduction to the way of love
    • 13:1-3: The superiority of love—contrast with other spiritual gifts (Current time)
      —Such gifts without (being guided by) love are of little value

      • 13:4-7: The characteristics of Love
    • 13:8-13: The superiority of love—contrast with other gifts (Eschatological/teleological–in the End)
      —All such gifts will pass away, love is one of the only things which remain
  • 14:1a: Exhortation to the way of love

Love is contrasted with the spiritual “gifts”, in the parallel statements of vv. 1-3 and 8-13—the first referring to the current time (for believers in the Church), while the second refers to the end time. Verse 8 introduced this second section:

“Love does not ever fall; but if (there are thing)s foretold [i.e. prophecies], they will cease working; if (thing)s (spoken in other) tongues, they will stop; and if (there is) knowledge, it will cease working”

Paul does not refer here to knowledge generally, but to a special kind of spiritual knowledge or revelation, granted to believers by the Spirit. This idea of knowledge (gnw=si$) is given considerable emphasis in 1 Corinthians (cf. 1:5, 21ff; 8:1-3ff; 12:8; 14:6, etc), and especially here in chapter 13. The close connection between knowledge and prophecy is important (cf. 14:6), and is indicated by the parallel structure of the verse:

  • Prophecies will cease working [katarghqh/sontai] —Speaking with (other) tongues will stop
  • Knowledge will cease working [katarghqh/setai]

It is interesting that the phenomenon of speaking in other tongues occurs in between the references to prophecy and knowledge, since ‘speaking in tongues’ (glossolalia) was the central phenomenon marking the coming of the Spirit upon believers (in Acts 2). At the same time, prophecy and knowledge reflect two (higher) aspects of the Spirit’s work among believers as they participate in the Community. Though they can be separated as distinct “gifts”, they are really two sides of the same coin. In chapter 14, prophecy and messages in tongues are mentioned as specific ways that believers (men and women) may speak and minister within the meeting; Paul clearly gives priority to prophecy—delivering a message expressing the word and will of God in the ordinary language of the people—rather than similar messages in unknown languages (tongues) which require special interpretation. The close connection between prophecy and knowledge is reiterated in verse 9:

“For we know (only) out of a part [i.e. in part], and we foretell [i.e. prophesy] out of a part…”

The phrase e)k me/rou$ (“out of a part”) means that, even through the presence and work of the Spirit, believers only have a portion—that is, the knowledge and revelation we have of God, and from Him, is partial and limited. And it is this partial understanding, made available through the gifts of the Spirit, which will “cease working”:

“…but when the (thing which is) complete should come, (then) the (thing which is only) out of a part will cease working.” (verse 10)

It is the same verb (katarge/w), used twice in v. 8, and frequently elsewhere by Paul—of the 27 occurrences in the NT, all but two are found in the Pauline letters, including 9 times in 1 Corinthians. The basic meaning of the verb is to make something stop working, have no effect, etc. Paul uses it in a variety of contexts, but the essential idea is related to something new (e.g., the new covenant in Christ) replacing that which was in effect before (the old covenant). With the presence of the new, the old “ceases working”—i.e. is no longer valid or has no effect. In the current context of 1 Cor 13, the idea is that the old way (the spiritual gifts) is no longer needed or of any use. What is it that makes the prior working of the Spirit in believers obsolete? This is stated in v. 10a, and is the interpretive crux of the passage:

“when the (thing which is) complete should come”

Because of the importance of this clause, it will be helpful to look at each word in detail.

o%tan (“when[ever]”)—this is a combination of the temporal particle o%te (“when”) and the conditional a&n, indicating possibility or uncertainty, etc (“if, perhaps”). The simple o%te is used twice in verse 11 as part of the illustration of human development, marking two points in time—”when I was an infant” and “when I became a man”. This should be understood parallel to the use of the related to/te (“then”, i.e. at that time) in verse 12. The conditional o%tan here in verse 10 indicates some degree of uncertainty—i.e. whenever this should take place.

de/ (“but”)—a simple joining particle (conjunction), “and”, but which sometimes is used in a contrastive or adversative sense (“but”). Here Paul uses it to contrast v. 10a with the earlier statement in v. 9, as well as what follows in 10b. The point of contrast is between e)k me/rou$ (“[out] of a part”) and te/leio$ (“complete”).

e&lqh| (“[it] should come”)—this is an aorist subjunctive form of the verb e&rxomai (“come, go”), and is used here to indicate a specific point (in time) when something should take place, that is, when it will come. The subjunctive is related to the particle a&n embedded in the temporal o%tan (“when[ever]”, cf. above). Paul has no doubt this will occur, there is only some uncertainty just when it will take place.

to\ te/leion (“the [thing which is] complete”)—this adjective (te/leio$) is related to the noun te/lo$ and refers fundamentally to something being (or becoming) complete. It can be used in three different basic senses: (a) for the end of something, (b) for something which is full, perfect, whole, etc, and (c) for coming to fullness, maturity, etc. Paul uses the term in all three senses at various points in his letters. When applied to human beings (believers) it is often the third aspect (c) which is meant, as in 1 Cor 2:6 and 14:20 (the only other occurrences of the adjective in 1 Corinthians). The illustration of human growth and development in 13:11 might suggest that this is also the meaning of te/leio$ here—i.e. as believers come to greater maturity and understanding, there will increasingly be less need to rely upon the various spiritual gifts. There is no doubt that a number of the Corinthian believers were unduly enamored by the gifts of (spiritual) knowledge, prophecy, speaking in tongues, and so forth, which is the very reason why Paul was inspired to pen 12:31b-14:1a, to emphasize the priority (and superiority) of Christian love over all other manifestations (gifts) of the Spirit.

However, I do not believe that the adjective te/leio$ can be limited to only this sense. While it may relate to the idea of believers coming to completeness in Christ, it is primarily used in the more general (temporal) sense of something which is to come (in the future). This is the only occurrence in the New Testament of the neuter form te/leion, used as a substantive with the definite article—to\ te/leion, “the (thing which is) complete”. This should be compared with the plural substantive in 1 Cor 2:16: toi=$ telei/oi$, “[in] the (one)s (who are) complete”. In 13:11, Paul does not refer to “the (one)” [i.e. the believer], but to “the (thing)”—something which is going to happen or will appear. What is this “thing” which will come at some point in the future? The only answer Paul gives in the immediate context is found in verse 12, as he describes the transforming moment when we (believers) “will see face to(ward) face”. There can be little doubt that Paul’s orientation here is eschatological—that he has the end time (te/lo$) in mind, the completion of all things, which will follow upon the return of Christ, the resurrection, and the final Judgment. It is God himself we will see, face to face, far more perfectly than Moses did, through our union with Christ (2 Cor 3:7-18). We will know Him fully and intimately, even as we are known by Him. This is already experienced by believers through the course of our lives (2 Cor 3:18), as we grow in faith, wisdom and knowledge, but will only be realized completely at the end.

Given this basic outlook by Paul, it is unlikely that he envisioned a time, prior to the end, when the spiritual gifts would cease—least of all prophecy, which he regarded as one of the highest gifts. The situation is complicated by the fact that Paul, like most (if not all) believers of the time, more or less had an imminent expectation of the end-time—that the return of Christ and the final Judgement would soon take place, presumably in his/their own lifetime. In approaching Paul’s letters from our standpoint today, we are forced to factor in an intervening 2,000 or more years between his teaching and the end (which is yet to come). Still, if we are to give an accurate portrayal of what Paul said and wrote, we must recognize what his perspective was on the matter. It seems reasonably clear that he felt that the current working of the Spirit (the charismata, etc), and his instruction to believers regarding its manifestation, would be valid until the coming of the end, when we would experience and know God (and Christ), as well as each other, in new and perfect way.

Note of the Day (Galatians 3:28, part 3)

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Galatians 3:28, continued

This is the last of three daily notes on Galatians 3:28 and the declaration that “in (Christ) there is no male and female” (v. 28c).

  1. The background and significance of the statement
  2. The logical consequences and possible interpretation(s), and
  3. Comparison with the Pauline teaching in 1 Cor 11:3ff; 14:34-35, etc

See the earlier notes on the first and second topics.

3. Comparison with the Pauline teaching in 1 Cor 11:3ff; 14:34-35, etc

There is an apparent contradiction between the ideal expressed in Gal 3:28c and the view(s) on gender distinction elsewhere in the Pauline letters (such as 1 Cor 11:2-16; 14:34-35; 1 Tim 2:11-15, and Eph 5:22-24). On the one hand, it is stated outright that there is no gender distinction (“no male and female”) for believers in Christ; on the other hand, 1 Cor 11:2ff etc teaches that essential distinctions (including a subordinate role/position for women) are to be preserved. Is Paul being inconsistent? My discussion on this topic will proceed by way of exploring several possibilities that could explain these differences and diverging points of emphasis. The order of presentation does not indicate any preference on my part, but generally moves from critical to tradition-conservative in approach.

a. Paul is inconsistent. In other words, he accepts the declaration of Gal 3:28 without reservation in the case of socio-religious distinction (Jew/Gentile), but really does not for gender distinction (male/female). His position regarding socio-economic distinction (slave/free) is perhaps more ambiguous. Yet there is no indication of any restriction on roles in the Church based on Jew/Gentile or slave/free, such as we find for male/female.

b. Paul changed his mind. This could be indicated by the fact that, in the passages parallel to Gal 3:27-28—namely, 1 Cor 12:13 and Col 3:9-11—there is no mention of “male and female”. According to at least one version of this view, Paul realized the implications and difficulties of Gal 3:28c and avoided including sexual/gender distinction as part of the old order that is eliminated for believers in Christ. However, all of this is based on the premise that Galatians was written well prior to 1 Corinthians, etc., enough so that it would allow Paul time to change his mind or qualify his teaching, and this is highly questionable. There is good reason to think that 1 Cor 11-14 may have been written before Galatians, and that the latter is only slightly earlier than 2 Corinthians and Romans.

A more traditional-conservative version of this overall view would allow Paul to have modified/clarified his position (or the way he expressed it) in the context of progressive revelation.

c. Gal 3:28c does not reflect Paul’s fundamental thinking on the subject. This is based on the theory that Gal 3:27-28 (and 1 Cor 12:13 / Col 3:9-11) reflects an earlier (baptismal) formula which Paul is citing and/or adapting. While the declaration regarding “Jew and Greek” generally corresponds with Paul’s theology and practical instruction, that involving “male and female” does not. There does seem to be a fundamental difference, especially in the way that Gal 3:28c echoes the creation narrative—compare this with 1 Cor 11:7-9 and 1 Tim 2:13-15, where the Genesis account (Gen 1-3) is interpreted and used to make almost the opposite point.

d. The declaration in Gal 3:28c is rhetorical and/or limited in scope. Similar in part to (b) and (c). Again, on the view that Paul is drawing upon an earlier baptismal formula, he does so for rhetorical or dramatic effect, to support his overall argument and teaching in the letter; however, the specific declaration is not meant as a fundamental doctrine.

e. Paul accepts the declaration in theory, but not in practical application. This would indicate a kind of inconsistency, perhaps, as with (a) above. Clearly Paul did not go as far as certain Gnostics and other early Christians in the ideal of eliminating sexuality and gender-based distinction from Christian identity and experience. On this, see the discussion in yesterday’s note. It is fine to speak of us all being one in Christ, but this does not remove the practical reality of differences among individual believers (cf. 1 Cor 12:12-26). The main problem is that Paul seems much more willing to declare that ethnic and religious differences (Jew/Gentile, Gal 3:28a) do not apply to roles and positions in the Church—so why not for gender differences as well (Gal 3:28c)?

f. Gal 3:28c is meant as a declaration for all believers, while the other instruction is not. This is based on the interpretive principle which subordinates instruction, related to specific issues in the local congregations of the time, to doctrines and statements which clearly apply for all believers. While this may be acceptable as a general method for us today, there is little indication that Paul drew such a distinction in his actual letters. Even if we were to theorize, for example, that he allowed customs and practices (e.g. women speaking/preaching in the congregation) which he did not personally endorse (cp. 1 Cor 11:2-16 with 1 Tim 2:11ff), he always is careful to connect his teaching with basic Gospel/Christian principles and traditions. Paul had a much narrower geographical and chronological frame of reference—the establishment and (relatively brief) life-span of congregations, between the resurrection and (imminent) return of Christ—and could readily connect the local with the universal. It is exceedingly more difficult for us to do this today, with the wide gulf in time and culture between, say, mid-1st century Corinth and early 21st century America.

g. Paul sees a distinction between essential identity and practical application. In other words, Gal 3:28 relates to the spiritual identity of believers in Christ (as a theological doctrine), while the other instruction in the letters (1 Cor 11:2-16, et al) applies to the way our Christian life is acted out in practice within an organized community. Such a conceptual division is popular among commentators and theologians, but is altogether too neat and artificial. Why should being male or female have no significance for coming to faith in Christ, but then suddenly be of great importance for our daily life and relationships in Christ? Admittedly, Paul himself, as a minister and founder of churches, had a strong practical side—his vision of the Church involved functioning local communities embedded within the society at large; yet he rarely offers practical instruction which is not closely wedded to the Gospel message and the essential identity of the believer in Christ. This is part of what makes 1 Cor 11:2-16, for example, so problematic for Christians today.

h. The apparent restrictions only apply to role and do not affect essential unity/equality. This is an especially popular view for traditional-conservative commentators today, since it allows one to affirm both (i) equality of men and women in Christ, and (ii) distinct/subordinate roles and positions in the Church. Many today (women especially) consider the logic and terminology (“complementarian”, etc) employed to be rather disingenuous—how can men and women be both (truly) equal and yet (at the same time) in a subordinate position one to the other? Some traditional-conservative interpreters would downplay the idea of subordination—especially in the sense of being secondary or inferior—yet it is hard to deny that Paul has something of this is in mind in 1 Cor 11:3-10 (cf. also 14:34-35; 1 Tim 2:11-15 and Eph 5:22-24ff), especially the manner in which he ties it to the order and hierarchy of creation (vv. 3, 7-9). One very much wishes that Paul had expounded further upon what he presents in 1 Cor 11:2-16, as I suspect it would clarify considerably his actual view of the matter—i.e. how the old order of creation has been transformed for believers in Christ.

i. The apparent restrictions represent a compromise for the sake of peace and order. This takes a simpler, pragmatic view—while Paul accepts essential equality (and unity) for male and female believers in Christ, he also wishes to maintain a certain (customary) order for the Church within the larger society, both from a social and religious point of view. Along the same lines, on the basis of Christian unity itself, believers ought to subordinate their individual rights and privileges, etc, for the good of the community. In 1 Cor 7:2-4ff he describes this in egalitarian, reciprocal terms, for men and women (husbands and wives), while in other passages (cf. above) he uses a more traditional hierarchical relationship (man/husband as head of the wife/woman).

Summary

Arguments can be offered for and against each of the nine interpretative viewpoints presented above. I will comment on them only indirectly, by looking at four key points which much be considered and addressed if one hopes to find and accurate (and satisfactory) interpretation to the overall question.

Point #1—Paul, in his other letters and instruction, retains the gender distinction with regard to ministry roles, etc, in the congregation, but does not do the same for religious-cultural (Jew/Gentile) or socio-economic (slave/free) distinctions. It is easy to charge Paul with inconsistency here, but that is a rather superficial way of looking at the matter. I believe a better, and more thoughtful, explanation lies in a consideration of several important factors:

  • At the time Paul wrote Galatians (as well as 1-2 Corinthians and Romans), only the Jew-Gentile distinction was at issue with regard to Christian identity. This was natural enough, since the distinction is fundamentally religious, and defined the community in religious terms. It was for this reason that Paul fought so hard to eliminate the distinction among believers. Our identity in Christ was not to be defined by religious and cultural factors (such as ethnicity, the observance of the Torah, participation in festivals and holy days, etc), but by our faith and (spiritual) union with Christ. On the other hand, going all the way back to the time of Jesus, men and women were accepted as believers together, with little or no distinction (cf. the discussion in Part 7). Similarly, believers from the beginning were drawn from various social classes, and, while there were doubtless questions of status and prejudice which had to be addressed in the congregations, they do not seem to have been serious or widespread enough to affect one’s basic Christian identity within the community. Thus, these social and gender distinctions could be accepted or maintained without seriously affecting a correct understanding of the believer’s religious identity.
  • Paul’s letter to Philemon is instructive, as it expresses Paul’s understanding of the socio-economic distinction (slave/free) in the Church. Onesimus was a slave, with Philemon his master, and yet both men were Christians. Thus, they were brothers and equals in Christ, while at the same time, on the wider social level, they were in the hierarchical relationship of master and slave. While this situation is foreign to us today, and rather difficult to appreciate, it allows us a window into the thought of many early Christians, such as Paul. The social distinction could be maintained right alongside of the ideal of equality among believers.
  • It was the biological-gender (male/female) distinction which was most fundamental to Christian society, centered as it was on the family unit and marriage bond. Paul’s model for the Church seems to be as a community existing within the larger society. He may have encouraged believers to remain single and unmarried (1 Cor 7), but he recognized that husbands and wives (with their children) made up, and would make up, a large segment of the congregation. Thus, there was greater reason to maintain the man/woman and husband/wife distinction.

Point #2—In the places where Paul (or the Pauline tradition) mentions the male/female distinction, it is often connected with the Creation narrative of Genesis, as I have discussed extensively in earlier notes and articles in this series. Even in Gal 3:28, the phrase “male and female” almost certainly derives from the Genesis account. While Christians today may not always appreciate (or agree with) Paul’s interpretation and use of the Creation account to establish male-female relations and roles in the Church, this dependence on the Scriptural tradition must be recognized. It also means that his view of gender relations is not merely practical or customary, but reflects an essential aspect of the human condition as established by God.

Point #3—Gender distinction and roles in the Church are not simply based on the original created order, but, rather, I believe, in Paul’s mind are supposed to reflect the new creation among believers. Admittedly, he does not discuss this in detail, and the point must be inferred from the relevant passages in his letters, but I think it is reasonably clear, especially when one examines 1 Cor 11:2-16 (cf. Part 1 and the related notes). According to Paul’s thinking (and his theology), the new creation in Christ does not abolish the old order, but transforms it. The old order is eliminated only in terms of the fallen human condition—i.e. our bondage to sin (and the Law).

Point #4—When considering the portions of the undisputed letters (i.e. 1 Cor 11:2-16 and 14:33-36) which seem to contradict Gal 3:28c, one must keep in mind the two fundamental (and interrelated) themes Paul emphasizes in 1 Corinthians:

  • That believers should fulfill in practice (that is, in the life of the Community) the ideal of unity—i.e. of our union in Christ, as the body of Christ. To this end, believers are to subordinate their individual concerns and interests to the (greater) good of the Community.
  • While the principal bond of unity is spiritual (that is, in and by the Spirit), it should be manifest in practice, and in daily life, according to a particular arrangement or order established by God. Paul makes this particular point numerous times, especially within the instruction regarding congregational life and worship in chapters 11-14. This arranged “order” is expressed and realized two ways:
    (i) horizontal—the reciprocal relation between believers, i.e. we are to subordinate ourselves to each other, as brothers and sisters, equally.
    (ii) vertical—a hierarchical chain of relation: God–Christ–Believers. Paul extends this by way of the Genesis account: God–Christ–Man–Woman.

Contrary to some the view of some commentators, Paul does not only emphasize the latter (vertical) aspect of the established order; rather, he has both aspects in view. Admittedly, Christians today often find it difficult to accept both aspects, and it is in the specific division of believers into male and female (based on the Genesis account) which is most problematic, as I have already discussed extensively in relation to 1 Tim 2:11-15 (cf. Part 5 and the notes on v. 12 and Gen 3:16). However, if we wish to be faithful students and interpreters of the Scriptures, we must grapple with the language and imagery which Paul (and the Pauline tradition) uses.