Definition and Explanation of Terms



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I am currently in the midst of a series on the Speeches in the Book of Acts; and, as several of these sermon-speeches contain language regarding the person of Christ which does not entirely fit the standard orthodox terminology, it may be helpful to define and explain the specific label Adoptionism. This label denotes the view that Jesus was only God’s Son “by adoption” and not “by nature“—in this respect it is somewhat inaccurate, since it is not at all clear that those who held “adoptionistic” views specifically thought of Jesus as being adopted. The term is also anachronistic, in a sense, as being understood from the standpoint of Nicene Orthodoxy—with the clear idea that Jesus Christ is by nature (and in substance) identical with God, being eternally generated (or “begotten” [gennhqe/nta]) by God the Father, as enshrined in the Nicene Creed. The Nicene formulation was the product of nearly three centuries of Christological reflection, interpretation, and debate; there are serious difficulties when one tries to read this orthodoxy back into the sub-apostolic and New Testament periods. Be that as it may, when one speaks of “adoptionism” in the early Church, there are two main viewpoints which ought to be distinguished:

  1. That Jesus (a human being) was in some way chosen or designated by God as the Messiah (and/or Son of God), most commonly at the Baptism. This ‘appointment’ was accompanied by miracles and powerful (salvific) actions performed by God (through Jesus), culminating in the death and resurrection.
  2. That Jesus (a human being) was exalted by God following the resurrection, being given a divine status and position in Heaven (at the right hand of God the Father)

The first view better fits the label “adoption[ism]”; the second is closer to actual language used in the New Testament (on this, see below). Some scholars would apply the label “Adoptionism” more narrowly, to specific ‘heretics’ from the second- and third-centuries (such as Theodotus, Artemon, and so forth; cf. below). On the other hand, for many (proto-)orthodox Church leaders and writers of the time, the issue was drawn in simpler, general terms—of Jesus as God incarnate vs. being a “mere man” (yilo\$ a&nqrwpo$). Interestingly, while I do not know that this stark juxtaposition actually fits the reality of early Christological disputes, it does fit the situation today! In the twentieth (and early twenty-first) century, there appears to be little interest or inclination toward Christological thought and expression beyond the simple question of whether Jesus was “divine” or “just a human being”.

Unfortunately, we have little reliable information as to what supposed “Adoptionists” in the early Church genuinely believed or taught; there is little, if any, first-hand information, and what is recorded by ‘orthodox’ authors such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Eusebius and Epiphanius, is of varying degrees of reliability. Certain Jewish Christians (such as the so-called Ebionites, or “Poor Ones”) are indicated as holding viewpoint #1 above. In the late-2nd and early 3d centuries, there were “Adoptionists” in Rome (associated with Theodotus [the cobbler]); apparently several bishops of Rome at this time were influenced by these views. In the mid/late-third century, Paul of Samosata (condemned at a Church council in Antioch in 268) gained a notorious reputation as a prime “Adoptionist”, but this association is highly questionable. Not surprisingly, heretical Adoptionists were accused of manipulating (altering) Scripture to accomodate their views (cf. Eusebius’ Church History V.28.13ff); while little evidence of this survives, there is actually indication of the opposite—that ‘orthodox’ scribes may have introduced changes to combat such heretical views. For a detailed discussion of the issue (specifically related to Adoptionism), see B. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (Oxford: 1993), pp. 47-118; some of the examples he gives are more convincing than others as instances of possible intentional changes. Such modifications were not so much for the purpose of altering the text of Scripture, as to clarify the text and avoid misunderstanding/misinterpretation of key passages (such as we might find done in translations today). An obvious example would be changes meant to safeguard the idea of the Virgin Birth in verses where Joseph is referred to as Jesus’ “father” (or Joseph and Mary together as his “parents”).

The text of Scripture certainly was central to early Christological disputes, and it raises the highly controversial question as to whether there is any manner of “adoptionistic” Christology present in the New Testament itself. Upon any careful and objective study, it must be admitted that there are certainly passages, and language, which could be interpreted that way (and Adoptionists in the early Church presumably would have done so). If we consider the main question—”in what sense can Jesus be understood as God’s Son?”—and recall the two main strands of “adoptionistic” thought isolated above (#1 and 2), it becomes clear that the principal point of controversy centers on the eternal pre-existence of Jesus. Adoptionists presumably denied this point; for the (proto-)Orthdox, it was vital to the reality of both the Incarnation and the salvation brought about by God in Christ (cf. for example, Irenaeus Against Heresies IV.33.[4ff]). And, while the pre-existent divine status of Jesus is assumed in orthodox Christology, it is important to note that relatively few passages in the New Testament state or affirm this with clarity. It is attested primarily in the Gospel of John (and other Johannine writings), several places in the Pauline and Petrine Epistles, and in Hebrews; but it is hard to find, for example, in the Synoptic Gospels or Acts. In fact, one could read the Synoptic Gospels from an “adoptionist” viewpoint without much difficulty; even the Matthean/Lukan Infancy narratives, which affirm the Virgin Birth, do not necessarily indicate a belief in pre-existence.

When we examine examples of (what appears to be) some of the earliest kerygma (Gospel proclamation) in the New Testament, one is struck by a certain ambiguity of expression (judged by later ‘orthodox’ standards)—it is vivid and concise (often hymnic/poetic), full of dynamic immediacy, but lacking the kind of systematic clarity so eagerly sought after in later formulae. Note the following examples, which I believe, preserve early kerygmatic formula:

  • References where it is indicated that Jesus was “presented/designated/appointed” to special/divine status—cf. the use of the verbs o(ri/zw (“mark [out], limit, determine”, sometimes in the sense of “declare, decree, appoint”, etc) in Acts 10:42; 17:31; Romans 1:4, and a)podei/knumi (“show forth, present”, often in the sense of “demonstrate” or “designate, appoint”) in  Acts 2:22. The latter reference especially could be taken in the sense of Adoptionist view #1 above.
  • In Romans 1:3-4; Acts 2:33ff; 13:32-33, and other key passages, Jesus’ designation to divine status is connected with and follows (or is a result of) the resurrection. This could be seen as corresponding to Adoptionist view #2 above. In even more striking language, note Acts 2:36, where it is stated that God “made [e)poi/hsen] him Lord and Anointed [i.e. Messiah]”, as the climactic statement in Peter’s Pentecost speech. Later Christology would be most reluctant to suggest that in any way Jesus had been made Lord [ku/rio$].

Similarly, consider the manner in which Psalm 2 [verse 7b] was used in the early Church. In Greek the key portion reads:

ui(o/$ mou ei@ su/ e)gw\ sh/meron gege/nnhka/ se
“You are my Son, today I have begotten you”

Orthodox Christology would apply this to Jesus in terms of his pre-existent Deity, of being eternally born/begotten by the Father (as the use of genna/w in the Nicene Creed); and it is presumably meant in more or less the same way in Hebrews 1:5 (and 5:5?). However, note that:

  • In Acts 13:32-33, Paul applies it to Jesus explicitly in the context of the resurrection. In a similar way, Hebrews 1:13 cites Psalm 110:1 (apparently) in the “orthodox” sense of Jesus’ pre-existent divine status (cf. Heb 1:2-3), but in Acts 2:33ff, it is cited in the context of Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God. This could be taken to imply that Jesus was ‘born/begotten’ as God’s Son only after the resurrection [Adoptionist view #2 above].
  • In several Western MSS, in Luke 3:22, the heavenly voice at Jesus’ baptism cites Ps 2:7b; a few scholars have argued that this is the original reading, and may have been altered (to the Synoptic parallel in Mark/Matthew) because of the possibility of misunderstanding. After all, the Western variant could be taken to mean that Jesus was (only) appointed as God’s ‘Son’ at the Baptism [Adoptionist view #1 above].

That passages such as these had an Adoptionistic ‘ring’ to them is demonstrated by the fact that a number of important variant readings can be found in the surviving manuscripts (see examples in Ehrman, pp. 54ff). How are they to be reconciled with orthodox belief affirming the (pre-existent) Deity of Christ? The best (and soundest) solution lies in the concept of progressive revelation—the idea that God only reveals truth to believers by a gradual process. This means that even the early Apostles did not necessarily have a full and complete understanding of the nature and person of Jesus Christ. The immediate emphasis in early Gospel preaching and proclamation was not a clear and consistent picture of Jesus’ mysterious nature, but rather the salvific impact of his sacrificial death, the reality of the resurrection, and his exaltation to heaven at the right hand of God (from whence he will come again to judge the World). By the time we come to the Epistles of John (c. 80-90?), for example, there is a much stronger emphasis on the need for a correct confessional formula regarding the person of Christ.

There are two other, somewhat related, terms which are perhaps worth mentioning here (I may address them in more detail in upcoming articles):

  • Subordinationism—by this is meant that Jesus Christ, in his divine person (as Son of God), is in some way—whether in terms of divine nature, power, or position—subordinate (and/or “lesser”) than God the Father. The term could also be applied to the person of the Holy Spirit, and is sometimes addressed as a proper theological, rather than Christological, question—related to the Christian view of the Godhead and the doctrine of the Trinity.
  • Kenosis/Kenotic Theory—this view is derived primarily from the “Christ hymn” of Philippians 2:6-11, and would hold (with some variation) that: (a) Jesus Christ was eternally pre-existent with God the Father, but that (b) in some mysterious way, he emptied himself of deity in his Incarnation as a human being, becoming totally dependent on the Father and the power of the Spirit, only to (c) receive the divine nature/status again (with greater glory) following the resurrection and exaltation.

Ipsissima Verba and Ipsissima Vox

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Ipsissima verba is a Latin expression translated as “the actual words”, i.e. of a particular author or speaker. It has been used primarily in Gospel studies, applied to the sayings of Jesus (see below). It can also be applied to any of the narrative portions of Scripture (including most of Genesis through Esther, the four Gospels and Acts), as well as to the oracles and sayings of the Prophetic and Wisdom books, and even to the (superscriptions of the) Psalms. The expression can be understood or qualified two ways:

  1. In a strict sense—the exact words in the exact language
  2. In a looser sense—the actual words, but in translation, or modified/edited slightly in context

The first is a matter of linguistics and source-criticism. In fact, the words of the speakers in many of the Biblical narratives would not be considered their “actual words” (ipsissima verba) in the strict sense. For example, nearly all of the speakers in Genesis through Samuel would have spoken a language (or dialect) often very different from the Hebrew in which their words have come down to us—this is certainly true, say, for Abraham and Moses (the traditional author of the Pentateuch). In the New Testament, it is generally assumed that Jesus would have done most of his normal speaking and teaching in Aramaic; if so, then the Greek of the Gospels does not preserve Jesus’ “actual words” in the strict sense (except in the rare instances of transliterated Aramaic, Mark 5:41, etc). The same could be said for the words of Peter, James, etc (and even Paul, to some extent) in the book of Acts. Anyone who has attempted to translate Hebrew (or Greek) into a very different language (such as English) knows how difficult it can be to capture and transmit accurately the detail (and even the basic sense) of the original—a strict word-for-word, or otherwise ‘literal’, rendering can, at times, be almost impossible. The idea of ipsissima verba (in this strict sense) is, to a great extent, the result of an interest in trying to “recover” the original Aramaic of Jesus’ sayings; however, as I point out below, this has been rendered largely obsolete by modern trends in New Testament scholarship.

The second, looser, sense of the expression ipsissima verba is of far greater interest, from the standpoint of historical criticism. It has to do with the question of whether, or to what extent, the words of the speakers in the Scriptures are: (a) authentic and (b) (historically) accurate. Here it is worth mentioning the corollary expression ipsissima vox (“the actual voice“)—by this is meant that, though they may not represent the speakers “actual words” (in either a strict or loose sense), the words preserved in the Scripture do reflect the substance of what was actually said. In this regard, let us consider the two characteristics mentioned above:

  • Authenticity—i.e., the speaker really did say, in whole or in part, something similar to what is recorded. Again, this concept is most prevalent in Gospel studies, where scholars have sought to defend, disprove, or otherwise determine, whether sayings of Jesus are authentic. Critical scholars have developed a number of so-called “criteria of authenticity”, some of which are more useful (and convincing) than others.
  • Accuracy—i.e., on the whole, to a varying degree, the recorded words are reasonably close to what the speaker actually said (even if given in translation); to this may be added the qualification that the words may (or may not) have been spoken in the exact historical context (the place and position) indicated within the Scripture narrative.

A special difficulty arises with regard to the extended speeches in Biblical narrative—in the New Testament, most notably, the discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John and the speeches in the book of Acts. As I am discussing the latter in a current study series, I will use the speeches of Acts as an example. Traditional-conservative scholars would tend to accept the speeches as representing the “actual” words of Peter, Stephen, Paul, etc, whereas many critical scholars believe the speeches are largely the product of the author (trad. Luke). A moderate critical position would see the end product as essentially Lukan, but built, to some extent, upon authentic tradition. Consider for the moment, the idea that the speeches do represent the ipsissima verba (as at least some tradition-conservative commentators would hold)—how exactly could this be? There are two possibilities: one natural, the other supernatural.

  • Natural—Luke (or the author of Acts) has access to a source (written or oral) of the speech, a stenographic record preserved by eye/ear-witnesses.
  • Supernatural—God (by the Holy Spirit) has somehow vouchsafed to the author a (perfect) stenographic record of the speech.

A “natural” word-for-word (or otherwise accurate) source for speeches (especially lengthy ones) given years prior can be extremely hard to obtain, as Thucydides clearly admits (cf. The Peloponnesian War I.22.1); to expect a record of the ipsissima verba of such speeches by entirely natural means would seem to be quite unrealistic. A “supernatural” source is often assumed simply on the basis of a belief of the divine inspiration of Scripture (for many believers, this includes the idea of verbal/plenary inerrancy). However, it is often unclear just how this works, especially in the case of historical speeches (as in Acts). Most of the clear examples of divine inspiration (or, more accurately, revelation) described in the Scriptures themselves refer either to: (a) God’s own original words (of instruction, prophecy, etc), or (b) foreknowledge of future events (including things people will say). It is hard to find many definite instances where inspiration functions by preserving a perfect record of what was done/said in the past. A “synergistic” theory, whereby the Spirit of God guides and superintends—enhancing, if you will—the natural process and development of historical tradition appears far more realistic. Along these lines, I might recommend a variation of the moderate critical view of the speeches in Acts: they accurately record a substantive tradition regarding what was said at the time (i.e. ipsissima vox), but are, to a significant degree, expressed by the author’s own (Spirit-guided) artistic style and wording. Clearly, the end result is not a mere stenographic record, but a powerful, dynamic work of literary art.

On the ipsissima verba of Jesus and Gospel Studies

As mentioned above, the expression ipsissima verba has been used primarily in terms of criticism and study related to the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels (primarily the Synoptic Gospels). In the late 19th-century through to the middle of the twentieth, there was a particular interest among many New Testament scholars in the relationship between the current Greek of the Gospels (and Acts) and the Aramaic with which many of the original sayings and traditions are assumed to have been expressed. This interest and emphasis can be seen in the work of scholars such as Gustav Dalman, Adolf Harnack, C. C. Torrey, Matthew Black, and many others. To a large extent, this involved an effort to ‘recover’ or re-establish the “original” Aramaic, by way of, e.g.—

(1) textual criticism, working back from textual variants and other details in the text to find examples where the Greek may translating (or mis-translating) an Aramaic original
(2) comparative analysis, working with the Syriac versions, the Targums, etc., sometimes involving attempts to convert (retrovert) the Greek into a possible Aramaic original
(3) historical and critical study regarding possible (original) Aramaic versions and/or sources of the Gospels and Acts

In more recent decades, New Testament scholars have largely abandoned such efforts, along with a growing recognition that theories involving Aramaic sources for the Gospels and Acts are highly speculative and questionable. Scholars with an Aramaic speciality (such as J. A. Fitzmyer) have offered incisive criticism of earlier methodology, such as the use of later Jewish Aramaic sources to establish the Aramaic of the first-century. A greater emphasis on form-, genre- and literary-critical approaches has also tended to focus scholars back to the Greek text (of the Gospels and Acts) as it has come down to us, and away from pursuing source-critical Aramaic theories.


Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy

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The term “Orthodoxy” can be defined, more or less accurately, as “right/correct opinion”. The verb o)rqodoce/w (orthodoxéœ) is relatively rare (but can be found in Aristotle, Nic. Ethics 1151a.19), from o)rqodo/co$ (orthodóxos, also rare). Neither word occurs in the earliest Christian writings (New Testament and Apostolic Fathers, etc); in fact, even the underlying component words are relatively rare in the New Testament:

  • The adjective o)rqo/$ (orthós, “straight, [up]right”) and the related adverb o)rqw=$ (orthw¡s, “straightforward, rightly, plainly”) are used only 6 times combined, and in the sense of a “right/correct” saying/opinion only in Lk 7:43; 10:28; 20:21. Heb 12:13 uses the adjective according to the Hebrew idiom of making one’s paths “straight” (in the religious/ethical sense of “walking straight”), and note the similar compound verb o)rqopode/w (orthopodéœ, “set foot [i.e. walk] straight/right”) in Gal 2:14, as well as o)rqotome/w (orthotoméœ, “cut right/straight”) in 2 Tim 2:15 as a reference to correct teaching. Both noun and adjective are used more commonly for “right/straight” teaching and Christian ministry in the Apostolic Fathers (Ignatius Eph 1:1; Herm Sim 2:7; Diognetus 11:2, etc) and e.g. Justin Martyr (1 Apol 4:8; 2 Apol 2:2; Dialogue with Trypho 3:3; 5:2; 67:4, etc).
  • The noun do/ca (dóxa) is derived from the verb doke/w (dokéœ), which itself has a fairly wide range of meaning, “think, suppose, imagine, consider, recognize” and, more abstractly, “seem (to be)”. So, the noun do/ca primarily means “thought, opinion”, but in the more specialized sense of “consideration, recognition”, etc., it came to be used regularly for the “esteem, reputation,” etc. with with one considers someone/something, and so more specifically for “honor, glory”, etc. It is almost always in this latter sense that the noun (and related verb doca/zw (doxázœ, “esteem, honor, give glory/glorify”) are used in the New Testament. However, the verb doke/w occurs more frequently in the ordinary sense of “think, suppose, consider”.

By the end of the first century, and in what are usually considered the latest (anywhere between c. 65-100 A.D.) New Testament writings, there came to be a greater emphasis upon safeguarding “correct” teaching and tradition against ‘false teachers’ and opponents, as can be seen vividly in the Pastoral epistles (esp. 1 Timothy), 2 Peter, Jude, and the epistles of John (note esp. the strident partisan identifications and credal tests in 1 John). As Christianity continued to develop over the next two centuries, a greater number of divergent beliefs and sects arose often with contrasting (or contradictory) and competing viewpoints, ranging from fundamental issues of cosmology and theology (such as the nature of God and the person of Christ) to specific details of Church practice (such as the dating/celebration of Easter). Church leaders and theologians of various stripes sought to defend the “correct” position, usually on the basis of: (1) interpretation of Scripture, and (2) the reliability of inherited tradition. This multifaceted (historical) Christianity is normally described, in relation to orthodoxy (“correct belief/thought/opinion”), by one of two terms—”heterodoxy” or “heresy”.

Heterodoxy simply means “other thought/belief/opinion”, and today is typically used to reflect the (apparent) diversity of belief and practice, especially in the first three centuries of the Church, in contrast to Christianity as the established religion of the Roman Empire (both in the West and Byzantine East), from the early-mid 4th century through the end of the Middle Ages. In the 16th and 17th centuries, a different, but related sort of Protestant “Orthodoxy” developed (mainly that of the Lutheran and Reformed Churches), which extends, at least formally and in theory, among (most) Protestants to the present day. The term heresy has a far more negative (and odious) connotation, and, for that reason (as well as its history of spiteful application), is avoided (and/or used with great caution) by thoughtful Christians today. It is a transliteration in English of the Greek ai%resi$ (haíresis), derived from the verb ai(re/w/ai(re/omai, “take, choose, select (for oneself)”, and fundamentally means “something chosen/taken”, as, for example, a (religious) way of life, a partisan or communal affiliation, a belief, and so forth. The word is used in the New Testament in Acts 5:17; 15:5; 24:5,14; 26:5; 28:22; 1 Cor 11:19; Gal 5:20; 2 Peter 2:1. The related noun ai(retiko/$ (hairetikós) generally means “one who takes/choose, is capable of choosing,” etc.; it is used in a negative (partisan) religious sense in Titus 3:10, a meaning preserved in English by the word “heretic”, i.e. one who has chosen the wrong religious belief, affliation, etc.

What is the basis for establishing “orthodoxy” over and against either “heterodoxy” (diversity of beliefs/practices) or “heresy” (choice of the wrong belief, etc)? Historically this has been both defined and recognized according to a number of standards or factors, such as:

  • Teaching and/or edicts by influential or authoritative persons
  • Consensus forged through argument and debate over time (as in various Church councils, etc)
  • Interpretation of the (formative) authoritative religious texts (Scriptures)
  • Acceptance/adoption of (written) formulas of belief (i.e. Creeds and Confessions of Faith)
  • Isolation/emphasis on what the majority of believers hold in common (fundamental and/or ecumenical principle[s])
  • A defining (hierarchic) organizational structure

For many Christians, including the majority of Protestants, the belief, variously expressed, is that the canonical Scriptures should be the ideal for establishing “orthodoxy”, as in the Reformation slogan sola Scriptura—Scripture alone as the authority of religious faith and practice. Unfortunately, this ideal is greatly complicated by the differences of interpretation which attend many key passages; there are many other profound difficulties as well, such as the weight and force given to one passage over another, the relation of the Old and New Testaments, whether a teaching is culturally conditioned or meant to be applied to all believers through history, and so forth. A much simpler (and popular) approach toward establishing “orthodoxy” is the adoption of written creeds—statements of belief (credo, “I believe…”), whether in the form of a Confession of Faith or a Catechism for instruction of new believers. And yet, here again there is great difficulty, for history has proven (rather decisively) that the establishment of each new creed, however well intentioned, is likely to result in at least as much (or more) division than unity among believers. This is especially true the more detailed and extensive the creed is; the best creeds tend to be those which are the simplest, such as the so-called Apostles’ Creed, and which clearly evince an irenic and peace-loving spirit. Among the many Protestant creeds, the most beloved and widely accepted are the Augsburg Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, both largely free of the worst and most destructive polemical characteristics of the period. A faithful and effective creed (in the best Christian sense) ought to be limited to as few “essential” points of doctrine as possible, allowing freedom for discussion and debate on more difficult or controversial matters. As Church historian Philip Schaff has put it well: “a surplus of orthodoxy provokes skepticism”; to which I would add that it (unnecessarily) promotes and instigates division as well.

From the standpoint of the New Testament, of course, the ideal of Church unity is found in the presence of the Spirit at work in the hearts, minds, and lives of believers—uniting us to God (and Christ) as well as to one another. And, while this is true enough—and ought to be the goal and focus of faithful believers around the world—it is, admittedly, more readily expressed at the level of the intimate relationship between individual believers (“where two or three are gathered”); within a larger corporate or institutional setting it is much more difficult to realize.


“On objective grounds….”

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This is a phrase (“on [purely] objective grounds”) I have used rather frequently in the notes and articles posted here. The purpose of the phrase is to indicate when a saying, narrative, or other tradition recorded in Scripture may be considered as authentic on the grounds of critical scholarship, without resort to any doctrine regarding the inspiration or historical reliability of Scripture. Similarly, it is used to judge the greater likelihood of various (critical) theories related to the development of tradition and how the Scriptures (the Gospel narratives, especially) came to be composed. For more traditional-conservative commentators, and for many devout believers in general, the accuracy and authenticity of the Scriptures is self-evident—is assumed or taken for granted—and requires no (objective) critical analysis to confirm the matter. However, even for those who hold, or tend toward, the traditional-conservative position, the observations and insights of critical scholarship can be most beneficial: it is foolhardy (in the worst sense) to ignore or disparage them, and, I should say, unworthy of the believer who wishes to be a serious student of the Scriptures.

The qualifying term “objective” implies verifiable evidence, both internal and external to Scripture, which can be analyzed, agreed upon, and accepted, by all commentators—believer and non-believer alike—apart from what one personally believes or thinks about the Scripture. This is contrasted with (or, one may say, complemented by) interpretation on “subjective” grounds—that is, the personal (whether unique or shared by a wider community) opinion or belief of the commentator. Examples of “objective” evidence include: word usage, the development and particular meaning of a word or phrase, historical parallels to a word or passage, similarities of usage in other writings, signs of historical/literary development in a narrative, and so forth. Complete objectivity may or may not be possible for a scholar or commentator, but it remains a noble goal, and one which ought to be pursued in faith and humility.


“Tradition” and “Authentic Tradition”

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The word “tradition” (from Latin traditio, tradere) means that which is “given over, delivered, transmitted, passed on”. In Greek, the corresponding term is para/dosi$ (parádosis), from paradi/domi (paradídœmi), lit. “give along”. A tradition is something which is passed along, i.e. from one generation to the next, within a specific cultural matrix or community. In particular, one may speak of religious traditions passed down within a community. So it is with much of the material which we find preserved in the Scriptures—lists, genealogies, narratives, words and speeches, and any number of related historical and/or tribal/community details. In many instances these traditions were passed down orally, perhaps for generations, taking on fixed or well-established forms, before ever being written; then, several written stages may have occurred before being given definitive shape in the Writings which have come down to us. Often the Scriptures themselves bear witness to a wider tradition (regarding, e.g., the Patriarchs, the Prophets, Jesus and the Apostles, etc), of which only a small portion has been preserved.

Gospel Tradition(s)” is a term regularly used by critical scholars, especially, to refer to the various sayings and narratives (and occasional lists, etc) which have been preserved and recorded in the Gospels. “Jesus Tradition(s)” is a parallel term referring specifically to sayings of Jesus, narratives and historical details involving Jesus, which have been preserved—primarily in the four canonical Gospels, but also in other New Testament and extra-canonical writings.

“Authentic Tradition”

For those familiar with the notes and articles posted here, this is a qualified term I use quite frequently. By it I mean a tradition which has been transmitted from the time, and from within the cultural milieu, indicated. For example, an authentic Gospel (Jesus) tradition will have been passed down from Jesus’ own time, originally by his followers (and/or their close associates). An authentic tradition is not necessarily (strictly speaking) historical or factual in every detail—even though such traditions would (originally) stem from persons who may have been ear/eye-witnesses (or nearly so), the possibility of distortion and/or adaptation during the process of transmission must be taken into account. For many Christians, a doctrine of inspiration of Scripture presumes that the process of transmission would (or must) be completely accurate and reliable in (every) detail. However, this rather depends on how one understands the nature and extent of inspiration (a vital question, sadly neglected today), and the force of the claim could certainly be debated.

For the purposes of these notes and articles, I use the term “authentic tradition” in the sense indicated above. It should be pointed out, however, that many (critical) scholars also use the term “authentic saying” (that is, of Jesus) in a specific technical sense. This has been a significant area of Gospel Criticism in the past two centuries, tied to the idea of the “historical Jesus”—authentic (i.e., actual, genuine) sayings and actions of Jesus are often contrasted with sayings and narrative events viewed as (in whole or in part) the product of the early Church. To this end, critical scholars have developed a number of “criteria for authenticity”, several of the most important are:

  • Multiple Attestation: Sayings or episodes which are attested in multiple, unrelated sources (i.e., Synoptics, Gospel of John, Pauline epistles, extra-canonical sources) are more likely to be authentic.
  • Dissimilarity: Sayings/episodes which are significantly different from the language, style, theology, etc. found elsewhere in the early Church (or Judaism of the period) are more likely to be authentic. A subcategory of this criterion is that of embarrassment—i.e., sayings which proved difficult or ’embarrassing’ to the early Church are more likely to be authentic.
  • Coherence: Sayings/episodes which cohere or conform to other material judged to be authentic (on other grounds).

While such analysis has led to many useful insights, I find the search for “genuine” vs. “inauthentic” sayings and actions of Jesus to be, on the whole, exaggerated and overextended, with critical scholars often engaged in considerable speculation. However, in presenting something of the critical approach and viewpoint in these articles, I feel it both it both necessary and helpful to point out when a narrative or tradition can, on objective, critical grounds, be judged as authentic, and where, by contrast (or complement), an early interpretation may be attached to a tradition within the text of Scripture.



“Critical” and “Traditional-Conservative”

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I have regularly used the labels “Critical” and “Traditional-Conservative” as a short-hand description for two general approaches to handling and interpreting Scripture. The reality is more complex than the labels would suggest, and, of course, there is a wide middle ground of opinion and analysis; however, fundamental differences exist which are distinct enough to warrant some basic form of demarcation.


For the term “criticism” in general, I would recommend the three-part article I posted more than a year ago, introducing the subjects of Biblical Criticism and, in particular, Textual Criticism. “Criticism” of Scripture simply means informed judgment and analysis of the sacred Writings, in terms of: Text, History (and Historicity), Literary Form and Genre, Composition (and Redaction), Authorial Purpose/Intent, Development and Transmission, etc.—that is, everything meaningful which one could study and analyze about a particular literary document. All commentators engage in “criticism” at some level. What distinguishes a specific “Critical” approach, as such, to Scripture, is the willingness to apply to sacred Writings the same methods and techniques one might apply to any other writing from the ancient world. In so doing, there is no doctrinal presumption, no resort to supernatural agency in explaining how the text came to be—for the most part, entirely ordinary, natural means of production and development are assumed. On the one hand, this allows the commentator freedom in analyzing the text—every aspect (authorship, historical accuracy, theology, etc) can be examined apart from any religious doctrine regarding the text. On the other hand, this detachment can blind the commentator to the very religious and spiritual dimension which caused the text to be preserved and treated as sacred in the first place. Indeed, it is unfortunate that one can read page after page of critical commentary without any suggestion of unique, Divine inspiration (however one understands this precisely) at work in the text of Scripture.


As the label indicates, there are two aspects which I emphasize:

“Traditional”—This implies that the Christian tradition regarding the Scriptures is generally accepted, unless there is strong reason to reject it. This is opposed to the “Critical” approach, which tends to be skeptical, willing to question and examine every tradition (before accepting it outright). In particular, traditions regarding authorship (Moses for the Pentateuch, Matthew/Mark/Luke/John for the Gospels, etc), are assumed. See also the separate article on “Tradition”.

“Conservative”—Because of the highly polemical, partisan nature of this term in many circles, I use it somewhat reluctantly. I mean by it the tendency to accept—to take at face value—everything one finds in the Scriptures. This may be driven by a theological/doctrinal viewpoint, a religious/credal viewpoint, or both. Especially, when authorship is indicated in the Scriptures (e.g., Isaiah, Daniel; Paul in the “disputed” epistles [Pastorals, Ephesians]; 2 Peter), it is accepted more or less without reservation. Most controversial are questions regarding the historicity/factuality of the Old Testament and Gospel narratives; much of modern-day “apologetics” is devoted to defending the details of the Scriptural narratives against critical-skeptical ‘attacks’.

The Traditional-Critical view, at its best, demonstrates a sensitivity to the value of tradition, and to the religious/spiritual environment which produced the Scriptures (with recognition of the reality of inspiration); at its worst, however, it tends to close off important paths of inquiry, and risks distorting and misrepresenting the very sacred text it seeks to defend.

To demonstrate a basic difference between the two approaches, consider the concept of Gospel tradition in relation to the canonical Gospels which have come down to us. The Critical approach generally assumes multiple layers of development in the Gospel tradition, during which many modifications, accretions, interpretive expansions, etc. have occurred:

  • Stage 1: The words and actions of the historical Jesus and his contemporaries
  • Stage 2: These words and actions as described and transmitted orally among the earliest believers
  • Stage 3: Early collections of sayings and narratives (oral or written, perhaps translated into Greek)
  • Stage 4: Early Gospels (or Gospel fragments)—sayings and narratives connected within a larger framework
  • Stage 5: The sayings and narratives as recorded in the four canonical Gospels

The Traditional-Critical view, by comparison, would tend to compress these layers so that Stage 5 is more or less equivalent to Stage 1—i.e., the Gospels as we have them preserve (with minimal modification) the words and actions of Jesus just as they originally took place.

The thoughtful and sensitive student of Scripture will recognize the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches—by holding them in balance, in true humility, and under the guidance of the Spirit, we may faithfully explore and expound God’s Word in the Scriptures (and the Scriptures as God’s Word).


Pseudepigraphy and Pseudonymity

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Pseudepigraphy refers to written works “falsely ascribed” to an author. Pseudonymity refers to works “falsely named” by an author. I prefer to regard pseudonymity as a type of pseudepigraphy. For works generally considered “pseudepigraphic”, one may distinguish several types, broadly speaking:

  1. Pseudonymous works—that is, works in which the (true) author has written under the guise of a more famous figure. Such writings today are often referred to as literary “forgeries”.
  2. Works which are anonymous, or where the authorship is otherwise unknown or uncertain. In the process of transmission and preservation, scribes and editors would occasionally ascribe such writings to a presumed author; sometimes the attribution simply developed as part of a wider tradition.
  3. Works which are written as being the words of a main character (usually a central, and famous figure). This is distinct from pseudonymity, though related to it in some ways.
  4. Works which present additional events and exploits of a famous character as authentic historical or biographical material. In other words, these are narrated from the point of view of an eyewitness, as opposed to legendary accounts or “historical fiction” in the modern sense.

While these criteria can be applied to any writing, they relate specifically (and primarily) to discussions of ancient and medieval literature. Things are further complicated by the fact that the term “Pseudepigrapha” is used in a very definite sense: referring to a collection of Jewish (and Christian) writings (c. 300 B.C. to 700 A.D.) which draw heavily upon the Old Testament (hence the qualifying label “Old Testament Pseudepigrapha”). These writings are centered on the Patriarchs of Israel, the Prophets, David and Solomon, and so forth, often purporting to be (or at least written as they are) their authentic words. Much of this literature can be classified as apocalyptic—as meant to convey special revelation of future events; in such instances the Old Testament personage is really a literary device to couch the prophecies within the context of biblical (and/or world) history.

However there is much pseudepigraphic material (Jewish and Christian) beyond the “Pseudepigrapha” proper, including: (a) portions of the so-called (Old Testament) “Apocrypha”; (b) a good number of Dead Sea texts from Qumran; (c) New Testament “Apocryphal” books, many written in imitation of Jewish pseudepigrapha; and (d) a number of prominent Rabbinic works.

Especially sensitive is the question as to whether, or to what extent, pseudepigraphy and pseudonymity occur in the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. The traditional-conservative view is reluctant to admit any occurrence, but many scholars (and most critical commentators) believe that it applies to a good many books. A few examples (the number indicates the type of pseudepigraphy, 1-4, listed above):

  • The Pentateuch (Genesis–Deuteronomy) is essentially anonymous, but authorship has been traditionally attributed to Moses (#2), and Moses is the speaker of nearly all of Deuteronomy (#3).
  • Again all the books of the Prophets (Isaiah–Malachi) are technically anonymous, but clearly claim to represent almost entirely the words of the Prophets whose names are indicated in the opening verses (#3, possibly #2 to a lesser degree).
  • The Psalms are attributed to various authors in the superscriptions, the accuracy (and even inspiration) of which is debated (#2).
  • The Proverbs (much of it), Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs are attributed to Solomon in the text (though the opening verse of the Song does not as clearly indicate authorship); nearly all critical scholars hold that Ecclesiastes and the Song, particularly, were written considerably later (#3, perhaps a bit of #4).
  • The four Gospels, Acts and the Johannine epistles are all anonymous, but the traditional authorship was ascribed to them very early on (early-mid 2nd century at the very latest in the case of the Gospels); it is impossible to judge objectively whether they were applied at the original publication (#2).
  • Critical scholars are nearly unanimous in the view that the Pastoral Epistles (1-2 Timothy, Titus) and 2 Peter are pseudonymous; many hold the same opinion regarding Ephesians and 2 Thessalonians (#1).

It remains an open question as to whether pseudonymity is, in fact, entirely incompatible with a sound, reaonable doctrine of inspiration. Early Church fathers and officials generally condemned the practice; but it certainly took place, for we have examples of both ‘orthodox’ and ‘heretical’ works from the early centuries which are almost certainly pseudonymous. A famous example from the early middle Ages is the writing of so-called Pseudo-Dionysius—a heady mixture of Christian mysticism and Greek ascetic philosophy, which many later Fathers viewed as authoritative to some degree, due to its apparent authorship by the Pauline disciple Dionysius the Areopagite. If they thought it was a pseudonymous work (a “pious fraud”), orthodox theologians such as Thomas Aquinas would not have tried so hard to make it fit into their system of belief. Subsequent centuries have viewed pseudonymity even more harshly, as an attempt to deceive readers or appropriate another author’s prestige. If seen in this light, pseudonymity would seem to create an ethical problem for any writing purported to be divinely-inspired. However, to what extent is the pejorative and negative value judgment attending such descriptions as “false”, “fraud”, “forgery”, etc. actually warranted? Should authorship be viewed in terms of literary device or historical fact? These are important questions as we seek to study carefully the text of Scripture with both clear mind and open heart.


On the Interpretation of Prophecy

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It may be helpful to outline various ways Christians have sought to deal with the (predictive) prophecies found in the Old Testament Scriptures—as these are still the primary methods for applying such passages today. A particular difficulty comes in regard to those Scriptures taken by early Christians (and even the New Testament authors themselves) to apply to Christ and the Church—events often centuries removed from the original historical context, and, not infrequently, with a meaning quite different from that of the original passage.

Bear in mind, these interpretive approaches only relate to those readers and commentators who wish to maintain the validity of both the original meaning of the Old Testament passage (according to the grammatical-historical sense) and the traditional (and/or New Testament) Christian interpretation.

  1. The grammatical-historical sense of the passage, focusing on the original context alone, is the (only) proper mode of interpretation as such (or is by far the most important, primary mode). All other ‘interpretations’ are secondary applications or adaptations (whether unconscious or intentional) to the circumstances of later readers. From a theologically conservative point of view, such interpretations in the New Testament are still valid, but in a qualified sense as “inspired applications” in light of subsequent revelation.
  2. There are two equally valid sets of meaning for the original passage: (1) one present, i.e. related to the circumstances and worldview of author and ancient audience, (2) the other future (primarily christological or eschatological) applicable to a far distant time (age of the New Testament or present day, etc).
  3. The original historical context is maintained as primary (and exclusive) for the ancient author and audience, but the inspired text contains ‘hidden’ within it a special meaning (which is, or becomes, primary) for future audiences. In this regard, some might debate whether: (a) the inspired prophet knew or glimpsed this future meaning, or (b) was essentially unaware of it, being the secret work of the Spirit (that is, he spoke ‘even better than he knew’).
  4. The primary meaning of at least certain passages is futuristic (that is, related to Christ, the Apostolic age, or the present day), and it is actually the ‘original’ historical context that is secondary or incidental to the circumstances, language and thought-world of ancient author and audience.
  5. One should also perhaps mention the so-called dispensational method—that each prophecy applies specifically (that is, exclusively, or at least primarily) to a particular period in time (or ‘dispensation’), sometimes identified with specific covenants established throughout biblical history.

One could perhaps delineate other kinds of approaches, however, I suspect they would end up being just slight variations on the five (particularly the first four) I have outlined here.

Approach #2, would, I think, be favored mainly by traditional-conservative commentators concerned with upholding the doctrinal view that all of Scripture (Old & New Testament) is equally inspired. As such, I would consider it valid, with a few possible exceptions, only in a terminological sense. Practically speaking, it can be extremely difficult to maintain, especially for instances where a New Testament author cites an Old Testament passage is a completely different (even opposite!) sense from its original meaning and context.

#4 was, effectively, favored by many theologians and commentators in the early (and medieval) Church, particularly those who gave emphasis to an allegorical-typological or spiritual-mystical mode of interpretation, virtually to the exclusion of the grammatical-historical sense (as we would seek to establish it). This sort of emphasis has largely been abandoned today—indeed, the pendulum, often enough and sadly, has swung overly far in the opposite direction!

#5 has been (and remains) popular in many circles, whether applied loosely or in a highly systematic fashion. However, in my view, the common modern “dispensational” approach, is highly flawed, and the attempt to fit prophecies into specified ‘dispensations’ (often in an eclectic manner) tends to create more problems than it solves.

In my estimation, #1 and #3 are much to be preferred, in every respect, both as a method of interpretation, and as an aid in treating the question of the nature and extent of inspiration. Approach #1, on the whole, is probably closer to being correct, as long as one emphasizes that the creative adaptation of Old Testament passages by New Testament authors (and other early Christians) is a vital aspect of the nature (and extent) of inspiration (in the theological and doctrinal sense). However, I must confess that aspects of #3 are most attractive and should not be ignored, as this approach is, I think, relatively close to the New Testament authors’ own understanding of the matter (3a moreso than 3b).