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The Salvation of “All Israel” in Romans 11

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This article, which is supplemental to the study on Paul’s View of the Law (in Romans 9-11), will attempt to clarify Paul’s complex address in chapter 11, particularly with regard to the declaration in verse 26a: kai\ ou%tw$ pa=$  )Israh/l swqh/setai (“and thus all Israel will be saved”). To begin with, it is important to keep the overall context of Romans 9-11 in mind when studying chapter 11; the following observations are especially significant:

  • The first argument (in Rom 9:6-13) of the section as whole, begins with the statement: “for all the (one)s out of Israel—these are not Israel” (v. 6b), i.e. not all Israelites are (the true) Israel.
  • Paul expounds this with the examples of Abraham and Isaac, to emphasize that true sonship and inheritance (of the blessing, etc) comes not from natural birth and ethnicity, but from the promise and favor of God (and God chooses and calls out whomsoever he wishes).
  • This is further applied in relation to the proclamation of the Gospel (the main theme of chapter 10)—Gentiles have responded to the Gospel, trusting in Christ, while many Israelites, God’s elect people, have failed (or refused) to accept Christ.

There is thus a fundamental connection between 9:6b and 10:15a:

“for all the (one)s out of Israel—these are not Israel”
or, “for not all the (one)s out of Israel are Israel” (9:6b)
“but not all (of them) listened under [i.e. obeyed] the good message” (10:15a)

Both use the expression “not all” (ou) pa/nte$), though the syntax of 9:6b makes this more difficult to see in translation. In any case, the implication is clear—only those (Israelites) who accept the Gospel are the true Israel. Now, to continue on with an analysis of chapter 11:

Paul’s initial address in Rom 11:1-12 contains a central argument (from Scripture), bracketed by two rhetorical questions (introduced with the formula le/gw ou@n, “I relate therefore…”). The central argument (in verses 3-10) draws upon the narrative in 1 Kings 19:9-18, of God’s revelation to Elijah as he sought refuge in a cave on Mount Horeb. Paul refers specifically to verses 10, 14, where Elijah laments to YHWH that he is the only prophet (of YHWH) left who has not been killed, and that the rest of Israel has forsaken the covenant (Rom 11:2b-3); God responds in verse 18 to the effect that there are still seven thousand in Israel who have not “bowed the knee to Baal”. Note how Paul phrases this in Rom 11:4: “I have left down [i.e. left behind] for myself seven thousand…”—the addition of e)mautw=| (“for/to myself”), shifts the meaning slightly from the original context of being spared from death (by the sword) to being chosen by God. We should observe carefully the points that Paul expounds from this passage:

  • Verse 5—he applies the situation in 1 Kings 9:9-18 to his own (current) time: “so then, even now in (this) time, there has come to be a (remainder) left behind [lei=mma] according to (the) gathering out of [i.e. by] (the) favor (of God)”. In verse 4, the verb used is kataleip/w (“leave down, leave behind”); the noun lei=mma is related to lei/pw, indicating something which is left (behind), either in a positive or negative sense. The word lei=mma is typically translated as “remainder” or “remnant”; but here, as indicated above, this remnant is understood as a people gathered out (the noun e)klogh/, from e)kle/gomai, “gather out”), i.e. elected by God, just as Israel herself was chosen as his people.
  • Verse 6—this gathering out is the result of the favor (xa/ri$) of God, and not because of anything the people have done. Here Paul moves away from the Old Testament passage again, which seems to tie the people’s being spared with their particular religious behavior; instead, he emphasizes that the gathering out is no longer (ou)ke/ti, “not yet, not any more”) based on works (“out of works”, e)c e&rgwn). He has already applied this very idea to the example of Abraham in Galatians 3 and Romans 4.
  • Verse 7—only the remnant obtains what Israel seeks after (cf. Rom 9:30-33), the rest were hardened (lit. turned to stone). The metaphor of “hardening the heart” is common in the Old Testament, most famously in the example of Pharaoh in the Exodus narrative, which Paul references in Rom 9:14-18.
  • Verse 12—this verse is transitional, following Paul’s answer to the (second) rhetorical question (in verse 11), and leading into the address of vv. 13-24. He introduces the first of several qal wahomer exclamations, arguing from the lesser to the greater—i.e., if in this lesser/inferior case it is so, then how much more so when…! The contrast is between Israel’s h%tthma (“loss, defeat”), parallel with para/ptwma (“falling alongside [i.e. over the line]”), and their plh/rwma (“filling [up], fullness”). The exact meaning of plh/rwma here is important for the overall flow and force of Paul’s argument; I think it is best to understand it in the sense of a restoration (filling up) of what was lost.

Romans 11:13-24 is the first of two addresses Paul makes to Gentile believers specifically, with regard to Israel and its salvation (vv. 13-14).

  • Verse 14—”if… I will [i.e. that I might] save some of them”—note Paul’s use of ti/$ (“some of them”)
  • Verses 15-16—Paul applies three more qal wahomer-style arguments, similar to the one in verse 12:
    • Israel’s a)pobolh/ (“casting away from”) and their pro/slhmyi$ (“taking/receiving toward”); it is not entirely clearly whether these should be understood as subjective genitives (their rejection/acceptance of the Gospel) or objective genitives (their rejection/acceptance by God), since either is possible, and they actually represent two aspects of the same situation.
    • The (currently) small number of Israelite believers as the a)pa/rxh (“beginning of [lit. from]”, i.e. the first grain of the harvest) and the (future) full number as the fu/rama (“[mass of] mixed/kneaded [dough]”).
    • This may also refer to the current “remnant” of Israel as the r(i/za (“root”), and those who will follow as the kla/doi (“branches”); though the “root” perhaps should be understood more generally as the true people of God (faithful Israel) extending back to Abraham. The context of vv. 17-24 strongly suggests this latter, wider interpretation.
  • Verses 17ff—in the illustration of the olive tree and its branches, some branches are “broken out” (e)cekla/sqhsan) and others are (currently) being “poked in” (e)nekentri/sqh$); the sense generally is that the new branches from the “wild olive” tree (i.e. Gentiles) take the place of those that were broken off.
  • Verse 20—the branches were broken off specifically for “lack of trust” (a)pisti/a), i.e. a failure (or unwillingness) to trust in Christ. This has to be understood in terms of Rom 9:6; 10:15 (cf. above).
  • Verse 23—similarly the grafting back in of branches broken off depends entirely on “not remaining in [i.e. upon] a lack of trust”—that is, they must come to trust in Christ.

Romans 11:25-32, the second of the two addresses directed at Gentile believers deals more directly with the question of Israel’s ultimate salvation. Paul now adopts a more decidedly eschatological focus.

  • Verse 25—Israel’s hardness (i.e. their inability/unwillingness to accept the Gospel) lasts until “the fulness of the nations should come in”. The use here of plh/rwma (“filling [up], fullness”) for the nations (Gentiles) is parallel to that in verse 12 for Israel; Paul probably understands it in the sense of the full (or complete) number, measure, etc. It is only then, once the Gentiles have fully come to Christ, that “all Israel will be saved” (v. 26a).
  • Verse 26-27—the Scriptures Paul cites here are important for an understanding of v. 26a; the primary citation is from Isaiah 59:20-21a, along with Isa 27:9—the combination of elements is significant:
    • “the one rescuing” (o( r(uo/meno$)—Christ himself (1 Thess 1:10, etc), or God working through Christ.
    • “he will turn away from Jacob [i.e. Israel] a lack of (proper) fear [a)sebei/a] (of God)”—cf. Rom 1:18; here a)sebei/a (lack of fear/reverence) is synonymous with sin and wickedness in general, but also, specifically, with a lack of trust (a)pisti/a) in Christ. On the idea of Christ turning people from evil (using the verb a)postre/fw), see Acts 3:26.
    • “and this is the (agreement) set through [diaqh/kh] to them alongside [i.e. with] me”—diaqh/kh here in the sense of an agreement (covenant) between two parties (according to the Hebrew tyr!B=), referring to the “new covenant” in Christ and not the old covenant of Sinai and the Torah (cf. 2 Cor 3:7-18). For the principal Old Testament passage relating to the “new covenant”, see Jer 31:31-34.
    • “when I should take away from (them) their sins”—probably an allusion to Isa 27:9, here set in parallel with the citation from Isa 59:21a, i.e. “turning them away from” and “taking away from them”. For the specific association between removal of sin (and its power), through the death of Christ, and the “new covenant”, see Jesus’ words in Mark 14:24 (par Matt 26:28; Luke 22:20).
  • Verses 28-29—the juxtaposition (me\nde/ “on the one hand… on the other hand…”) Paul establishes in verse 28 must be analyzed and treated with great care:
    • me/n (on the one hand)—
      • kata\ to\ eu)agge/lion (“according to the good message”)
        • e)xqroi/ (“[they are] enemies“)
          • di’ u(ma=$ (“through you”, i.e. for your sake)
    • de/ (on the other hand)—
      • kata\ th\n e)klogh/n (“according to the gathering out”)
        • a)gaphtoi/ (“[they are] loved“)
          • dia\ tou\$ pate/ra$ (“through [i.e. because of ] the fathers”)
    • Paul uses this construction to highlight the sense in which they are (currently) hostile to the Gospel—it is for the sake of Gentiles, that they should come to Christ, as Paul describes earlier in vv. 11-24, 25 (cf. also 10:19-21). For more on this difficult teaching, see below.
  • Verse 31—the mercy which will be shown to Israel is the same that has been shown to Gentiles—that is, the sacrificial work of God in Christ and the proclamation of the Gospel, which has the power to make human beings right before God and to free them from the enslaving power of sin.

Finally, it is left to address specifically the statement in v. 26a: “and thus all Israel will be saved”. There are a number of ways this has been interpreted, which I represent by the following five options:

  1. All Israelites, past and present, will be saved by the mercy and favor of God, but apart from their coming to faith in Christ.
  2. All Israelites, past and present, will be saved collectively through the work of Christ, but in a mysterious way understood only by God, and not necessarily in the sense of “becoming Christians”.
  3. All Israelites alive at the return of Christ will come to faith in him, and will thus be saved.
  4. All of the true Israel will be saved, understood as all Israelites (and Jews) who trust in Christ.
  5. All of the true Israel will be saved, understood as all believers in Christ, Jews and Gentiles alike.

Based on the statement in Rom 9:6 and the olive tree illustration in 11:17-24, Paul certainly would have affirmed the fourth and fifth views above, in the sense that the true Israel is to be identified with believers in Christ (cf. also Rom 2:28-29). However, in Romans 11, and especially in verses 25-32, it would seem that he actually has something like view #3 in mind—namely that, at the end of the age, upon the return of Christ (or shortly before), there would be a widespread conversion of all Israelites and Jews currently living, that together (and/or all at once) they would come to faith in Christ. It is important to remember that, when Paul penned Romans, many, if not most, of the Israelites and Jews of his own generation, who had failed or refused to accept the Gospel, were still living, and he could envision the possibility that they could all still come to faith. As is abundantly clear from his letters, Paul, like most early Christians, expected Christ’s return and the end of the current age to occur very soon, presumably within the lifetime of most believers. In this context, Paul’s eschatological hope for Israel here makes good sense. Admittedly, it is rather more difficult to apply to the situation today, where nearly two thousand years have gone by, and many generations of Israelites and Jews have passed away—a situation, I am quite certain, that never would have occurred to Paul. Even so, it is still possible to affirm the belief (or at least the hope) that there will be a widespread conversion of Israel before the return of Christ; and, indeed, may Christians today hold just such a view.

Interestingly, in recent decades, there have been an increasing number of commentators and theologians who would adopt an interpretation along the lines of #1 and 2 above, at least in the sense that Israelites and Jews will be saved by God without having to “convert” or “become Christian”. This may be related to what is called the “Two Covenants” or “Dual Covenant” theory, which I will discuss briefly in an explanatory article.

Most distinctive is Paul’s teaching that Israel’s ‘hardening’ against the Gospel is directly related to the missionary outreach to Gentiles. This reflects historical reality, in that there were Jews who fiercely opposed the early Christian mission, according to Paul’s own testimony and the narrative in the book of Acts. Persecution often fuels the success of a religious movement, galvanizing support and helping to forge a strong and distinctive identity. This may also reflect, at some level, a degree of “cognitive dissonance”—Paul and other Christians were forced to explain the success of the mission among Gentiles throughout Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece and Italy (Rome), while many Jews, who (as the elect people of God) should have been more receptive, did not accept the Gospel. This leads Paul to two different explanations which he brings together in these chapters:

  • Not all Israelites are the true Israel (9:6), and
  • They fell away (i.e. refused to believe) in order to make room for the Gentiles to come to faith
    —this last proposition is most vividly illustrated by the image of the olive tree and the branches (11:17-24)

    • Paul viewed Christianity as the outgrowth of (faithful) Israel stretching back to Abraham (i.e., the “remnant” is the root of the tree)
    • The branches which are faithful and remain in the tree (cf. John 15:1-11) are the early Jewish believers
    • The branches of the wild olive tree are the Gentiles—believers are grafted into the tree of ‘true Israel’
    • The branches which were broken off (i.e., unbelieving Israelites and Jews) may yet come to faith and be grafted back in

Once the full number (or measure) of Gentiles have come to faith, then the unbelieving Israelites and Jews will have the covering removed from their mind (2 Cor 3:14-15) and will come to trust in Christ as well. This, at least, is how Paul appears to have viewed the matter. Fitting it into a particular eschatological framework today is, of course, especially difficult, as indicated by the wide range of interpretive approaches that have been adopted over the years.

 

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The Law and Sin in Romans 7:7-25

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The famous passage in Romans 7:7-25 has been discussed countless times by commentators and theologians over the years, and it is not remotely possible even to begin surveying this scholarship—nor all the relevant aspects of interpretation—within one relatively short article. My purpose here is threefold:

  1. To offer my view on the essential context of the passage—namely, the force and significance of Paul’s use of the first person (“I”)
  2. To present an exegetical outline, in the hopes of illustrating, clearly and simply, how Paul understands the relationship between the Law and Sin in the context of the passage.
  3. To give a summary distillation on “Paul’s View of the Law”, in terms of this particular passage.

The “I” of Romans 7:7-25

Paul casts this section in the first person, using “I, my”, etc throughout. This has given rise to considerable debate among interpreters over the centuries, and especially in more recent times. Is the use of the first person autobiographical (describing Paul’s own experience), or is a rhetorical and literary device? Most critical commentators today assume the latter, and, in this, they are almost certainly correct; even so, the question would still remain—who precisely is Paul representing in this section? There are several possibilities:

  • Human beings generally, prior to the coming of Christ
  • Israelites/Jews specifically, prior to the coming of Christ (or prior to faith in Christ)
  • Human beings (believers) prior to coming to faith in Christ
  • Believers generally in their struggle with the flesh and sin

A comparison with Romans 5:12-21 suggests that Paul in 7:7-12 is drawing upon the condition of human beings up until the time the Law (Torah) was introduced. Both passages provide colorful interpretations of the situation described in the Genesis 3 narrative, with Sin as the main actor; note, for example, the way sin “deceives”—e)capata/w in v. 11, compared with a)pata/w in Gen 3:13 [LXX]. Paul personalizes the narrative, giving a dimension of psychological realism and drama to it. The introduction of the Law (Torah) in vv. 9ff might suggest that Israelites and Jews specifically are in focus; however, by verse 22 it becomes clear that a somewhat wider view of the Law is meant—one which embraces all human beings (Jews and Gentiles alike). I take Rom 7:7-25 as parallel with 5:12-21—in the earlier passage, Paul is describing the presence and work of Sin in the world (e)n ko/smw|, v. 13); while in 7:7ff, it is the presence and work of Sin in the flesh (e)n th=| sarki/, v. 18). This focus within the human being makes Paul’s personalizing approach (“in me” e)n e)moi/, “in my flesh” e)n th=| sarki/ mou) both appropriate and effective.

Rom 7:7-12 is cast in the past tense, 7:13-25 primarily in the present. This would seem to indicate that in vv. 13ff Paul is describing the current situation of human beings (“under the Law” and “under Sin”): (a) prior to the coming of Christ, and/or (b) prior to faith in Christ. However, there are several details in the text—especially in vv. 13-25—which could be taken as applying specifically to believers in Christ, i.e., of the struggle believers face with regard to the flesh and sin even after coming to faith. Here are the most notable:

  • Verse 9—e)gw\ de\ e&zwn xwri\$ no/mou pote/ (“I was living apart from the Law then”). Elsewhere, Paul uses the expression “separate/apart from the Law” (xwri\$ no/mou) referring to faith and the work of God in Christ (Rom 3:21, 28; 4:6, etc), so one might think that the Christian condition is meant here as well. However, almost certainly, Paul is simply indicating the human situation prior to the introduction of the Law, with no/mo$ used in the strict sense of the Old Testament/Jewish Torah. The verb za/w (“live, have life, be alive”) is meant in the ordinary, conventional sense of human life and existence, and not of “life in Christ” or “eternal life”.
  • Verse 9—h( a(marti/a a)ne/zhsen (“sin came up to life”). The verb a)naza/w could be understood as “be alive, come to life again“; this might mean, in a Christian context, that sin died once (through Christ) and then came to life again (for believers). Probably, however, the force of the particle a)na here is simply “up”—i.e., that sin sprang up to life through the command of the Law.
  • Verse 17—nuni\ de\ ou)ke/ti e)gw\ katerga/zomai au)to\ (“now [it is] no longer I working/accomplishing it…”). Within the context of vv. 13-25, this could certainly be taken in the sense that a person (i.e., a believer) does not truly will to commit sin, and that it is the sin dwelling/remaining in the flesh which can act against a person’s will.
  • Verse 22—kata\ to\n e&sw a&nqrwpo/n (“…according to the inner man”). Elsewhere, Paul uses this language in relation to the inward (spiritual) renewal of believers (2 Cor 4:16), and the same expression “the inner man” is used in Eph 3:16. It is sometimes assumed that the expression refers to something only possessed by Christians, but this is far from certain. Paul also refers to a renewing of the mind (nou=$) in Rom 12:2 (cf. also Eph 4:23), an aspect of human nature presumably possessed by believers and nonbelievers alike. His idea of the “inner man” in the context of Rom 7:7-25 probably relates more to the human mind and conscience generally.
  • Verse 25—Curiously, after Paul’s declaration of thanksgiving in v. 25a, introducing God’s work through Christ which rescues human beings from the “body of death” (v. 24), he restates the situation of the human condition, from the prior verses, in v. 25b. This could be taken to mean that the conflict so described applies specifically to believers, even after coming to faith in Christ.

Perhaps the strongest association of the conflict in Rom 7:7-25 with believers comes from the parallel in Gal 5:17, where Paul briefly describes a dynamic similar to that in Rom 7:13-25. Clearly, in Gal 5:16-25, Paul is addressing believers who are in the Spirit, and yet he speaks of a conflict with the flesh in terms very much like those in Rom 7. But it is just here that we find the greatest difference between the two passages—in Rom 7:7-25 the person struggles against the flesh, but also against the Law and Sin, whereas in Gal 5 only the flesh is involved. According to Paul’s teaching, believers in Christ are freed from bondage to the Law and sin; but he never claims a similar freedom from the flesh—Christians must continue to struggle against the flesh, dying to its influence every day, through identification with Christ’s own death, and through the guiding work and power of the Spirit.

An exegetical outline of Romans 7:7-25

In this section, Paul especially addresses the relationship between the Law and Sin. He does this first by way of an important rhetorical question in v. 7a: “What then shall we declare? (Is) the Law sin?“—to this, he gives a decisive answer, mh\ ge/noito, “may it not come to be (so) [i.e. by no means, God forbid]!” But, if the Law is not identical with sin, how are we to understand the close relationship between the Law and sin, such as he describes throughout Galatians and here in Romans, to the point of using “under the Law” and “under sin” as nearly synonymous expressions? This is what he attempts to explain and expound in vv. 7ff. I divide the passage into three sections, or scenes, each of which describes a distinctive situation involving human beings (represented by Paul in the first person) in relation to the Law:

  • Rom 7:7-12—Scene 1: Introduction of the Law (Torah) over humankind
    • V. 7a—Rhetorical Question: “Is the Law sin?” (may it not be!)
    • Vv. 7b-8—Answer/Explanation (main proposition): the Law brings about knowledge/awareness of sin (cf. Rom 3:20)
      • The command (v. 7b)—example from the Decalogue (Ex 20:17): “Do not set (your) heart upon…”
      • Sin “uses” the command (v. 8) to work/produce instances of “setting the heart upon” illicit/prohibited things
    • Vv. 8b-9—Expository transition:
      • apart from the Law (xwri\$ no/mou) sin is dead (nekra/), v. 8b
      • apart from the Law (xwri\$ no/mou) I was living (e&zwn), v. 9
    • Vv. 9-11—Rhetorical Illustration/Identification (e)gw de\, “but I…”):
      • Sin (already present) comes up to life (in the human being) with the command (v. 9)
      • The command leads to death, not life (v. 10)
      • Sin acts (deceptively) through the command, to kill (v. 11)
    • V. 12—Expository transition (statement regarding the Law):
      • The command is holy, just and good…(how then, does it lead to sin and death?)
  • Rom 7:13-20—Scene 2: Humankind under the Law (of God)
    • V. 13a—Rhetorical Question: “Did the thing that is good come to be death for me?” (may it not be!)
    • Vv. 13b—Answer/Explanation (secondary proposition): the Law makes sin to “shine forth”, i.e., become apparent/manifest
      • Action: The Law works/produces death through the command
      • Purpose: So that Sin would come to be (seen for what it is)—i.e. completely sinful
        —Manifestation of the power of Sin: flesh is in bondage to it (v. 14)
    • Vv. 14-20—Rhetorical Illustration/Identification (e)gw de\, “but I…”):
      Contrast/conflict: The Law is spiritual, but I am fleshly—Spirit vs. Flesh (cf. Gal 5:16-25)

      • I work (“under sin”):
        —lacking true knowledge: “I do not know” (v. 15)
        —the will is trapped between: the Law (good, v. 16) and sin in the flesh (evil, b. 17)
        —the will is weakened by sinful flesh (v. 18)
        —the person does the opposite of the will (v. 19)
      • It is the power of sin working in me (v. 20)
  • Rom 7:21-25—Scene 3 (Illustration): Humanity subject to the Law (of God) and the Law (of Sin)
    • V. 21—Statement of two contradictory laws (Rhetorical Illustration/Identification: “I find… in me”)
    • V. 22—The Law of God: in the “inner man”
    • V. 23—The Law of Sin: in the (outer) members (i.e., bodily parts, the “flesh”)
    • V. 24—Rhetorical Question: “who will rescue me from this body of death?”
      —and the Answer (implied), v. 25a: “…God through Jesus Christ our Lord”
    • V. 25b—Concluding summary statement (of the two contradictory laws):
      • me\n (on the one hand): “with the mind I am a slave to the Law of God”
      • de\ (on the other hand): “with the flesh (I am a slave) to the Law of Sin”

Paul’s View of the Law in Romans 7:7-25

As the above outline should make clear, Romans 7:7-25 is a dense network of arguments and illustrations, images and symbols, drawing upon nearly everything that Paul has said thus far in Romans about the Law (and Sin). It is the power of his personalized (first person) presentation that makes his exposition so memorable. As the history of exegesis and interpretation amply shows, believers (i.e. those hearing and reading Romans) were likewise able to identify themselves with the “I” in the passage—which was doubtless Paul’s aim and intent in using such a literary device. But what do these verses say specifically regarding Paul’s view of the Law? To begin with, there are two fundamental beliefs or propositions which he expresses throughout the passage:

  1. The Law (Torah) itself is not sinful, nor to be identified with sin (v. 7)—rather, it is holy, just and good (v. 12), and is spiritual (v. 14), reflecting the will of God (the Law of God, in the wider sense).
  2. Though he does not state it specifically here until verse 14, by comparison with the rest of Romans (and Galatians), it is clear that, in his view, human beings were in slavery and bondage to Sin (“under sin”) even before the introduction of the Torah.

With these two ideas in mind, it is possible to summarize some key points related to the overall exposition in vv. 7-25:

  • The main purpose of the Law is twofold: (1) to bring about knowledge and awareness of sin (v. 7, cf. also 3:20), and (2) to make sin itself appear in its true (sinful) nature (v. 13). These are two sides of the same coin—one emphasizes human perception and experience, the other emphasizes the power and presence of sin itself. How does this happen?
  • Revelation of sin comes through the command (e)ntolh/) of God as expressed in the Torah—particularly, as Paul illustrates here (vv. 7-8), through the fundamental ethical-moral commands, which would tend to be shared by most non-Israelite/Jewish peoples as well. Until there is a specific injunction or prohibition which is to be obeyed or followed, sin is “dead”—that is, it possesses no conceptual or experiential reality for human beings. With the introduction of the command, sin literally “comes up to life” (v. 9).
  • Sin holds power over human beings (their flesh), but it does not lead to death until the command is violated (cf. Gen 3:3, 11, 22). As in the Genesis narrative, death is to be understood in the normal sense of physical death, and not as some kind of “spiritual death”—it is the body that dies or is dead as a result of sin (Rom 8:10f).
  • There are several aspects to Paul’s view of death that comes as the result of sin: (1) as a future fate and judgment, (2) as a condition or judgment realized already in the present, and (3) as an active power (along with Sin) at work in the world (and the flesh).
  • Sin enslaves human beings externally in the surrounding world (Rom 5:12ff), but also, more notably, internally in the “flesh”. The power of sin dwells and works in the flesh, specifically the body and its parts.
  • The human will is conflicted and torn between the power of sin in the flesh and the mind or “conscience” which recognizes the command (the Law of God).
  • The “Law of God” is a wider concept than the Torah, as it relates to the “inner man”, the human mind and/or conscience. As such, it applies even to Gentiles who do not have the Torah (cf. Rom 2:12-16, 26-28). In this regard, Paul refers principally to the fundamental ethical/moral aspects of the Law; he never attempts to make a similar connection with the ritual/ceremonial aspects of the Law.

It is fair to assume that the people represented by Paul’s “I” in Rom 7:7-25 primarily represent believers prior to coming to faith in Christ. At any rate, they should be distinguished from the situation in Rom 1:21ff—there, human beings have fallen into idolatry and immorality, and God gives them over to even greater wickedness; here, by contrast, human beings are struggling with their conscience, wishing to live in an upright manner according to the Law of God, but unable to accomplish this because of the power of sin and the weakness of the flesh. One should consider the situation in Rom 7:7-25 as that of the “righteous” (Jew and Gentile alike), in the conventional/traditional religious and ethical sense, who wish to be faithful to the Law and to do good—but even they are enslaved by the power of sin. The Law reveals and makes manifest the reality of this bondage; the only hope of rescue from it comes through the work of God in Christ (v. 25).

 

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Paul’s View of Sin and Romans 5:12-21

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As part of the series of articles on Paul’s View of the Law in Romans (see), I felt it worthwhile to explore specifically his view of sin, and the language (and images) he uses to express it. This is done especially with an eye toward understanding his description of sin in the famous passage in Romans 5:12-21, as well as gaining a better sense of how he defines the relationship between sin and the Law.

Paul’s use of a(marti/a (hamartía)

The a(mart- (hamart-) word-group (vb a(marta/nw, hamartánœ) in Greek has the basic meaning “miss, fail to hit (the target)”, or, in a metaphorical sense, to “miss the way, fail to find”, generally, “go astray, err”. As such, its semantic range is similar to the corresponding words derived from the root afj (µ‰°) in Hebrew. The substantive a(ma/rthma (hamárt¢ma), rare in the New Testament, has the general meaning “error, mistake”, along with the more developed legal/moral sense of “offense, fault, guilt”. The related noun a(marti/a (hamartía), far more common, has a similar range of meaning, but often refers specifically to individual actions. All of this fits fairly well under the English word “sin”, in spite of its strong religious/moral connotation.

Paul uses the verb a(marta/nw in the basic sense of “committing an error, offense”, either against the Law (Torah) or generally against accepted moral standards—sexual immorality, drunkenness, etc. (1 Cor 6:18; 7:28, 36; 15:34)—as well as the more distinctly Christian idea of neglect/mistreatment of one’s fellow neighbor/believer (1 Cor 8:12; Eph 4:26). In Romans (Rom 2:12; 3:23; 5:12, 14, 16; 6:15), the verb is used, it would seem, in a more general/generic sense, though clearly violation of the Torah (in its ethical commands, 2:17-27) and the kind of idolatry/immorality associated with paganism (1:18-32) are in mind. The noun a(ma/rthma (Rom 3:25; 1 Cor 6:18) refers to specific erroneous/offensive acts (“sins”), as does Paul’s use of the noun a(marti/a in the plural (Gal 1:4; 1 Cor 15:3, 17; Rom 7:5; Col 1:14; Eph 2:1).

However, the singular a(marti/a often carries a somewhat different meaning or significance for Paul in his letters—”sin” as a power, and one that is occasionally personified. Note the following:

  • the expression u(po\ [th\n] a(marti/an (“under sin”), where the preposition u(po/ (“under”) refers to human beings under the power and authority of sin (Gal 3:22; Rom 3:9; 7:14); the context of Gal 3-4 and Rom 6-7 indicates the idea of bondage or slavery to an overlord
  • human beings are said to act or function as slaves (or servants) to sin (as lord/master), cf. Rom 6:6-7, 13-14, 16-17, 20, 22; 7:25 (indeed, the entire context of 6:1-23; 7:14-25); note also Gal 2:17
  • sin is said actively to rule/reign (as king or lord)—cf. Rom 5:13-14, 21; 6:12, 14
  • sin otherwise is described as acting, with devious/hostile purpose, in Rom 5:12; 7:8ff
  • sin specifically is said to dwell (lit. “house, take up house”) in human beings, as a personal entity might (Rom 7:17, 20, cf. below)
  • sin is connected to the Law and death, both of which can also be described as (personified) powers (1 Cor 15:56; Rom 5:12-14ff; 6:21-23; 7:13ff; 8:2, and see also on the expression “the Law of sin” below)

In order to understand this particular aspect of Paul’s view of “sin” (a(marti/a), it is necessary, I believe, to consider something of the ancient worldview that informs this language and imagery.

The ancient religious/mythological background

Generally speaking, according to the ancient and traditional (polytheistic) worldview, the universe was filled with living and intelligent “powers” (i.e., “gods”), which governed and were manifest within the various forces and phenomena of nature. This extended even to human society and daily life, whether within the community, family or at the level of the individual. Clearly, the cycles of fertility, birth and death, the seasons and the harvest, etc, were seen as governed by “deities”, but equally so the things a person experiences day to day throughout his/her lifetime. To have, or to experience, good fortune (health, prosperity, success) meant that a person had (or possessed) a “god”; in Greek, the word eu)dai/mwn (rel. eu)daimoni/a, eu)daimone/w, etc), often translated blandly as “fortunate, happy, blessed”, literally means “(having) a good daimon [that is, a divine-power/deity]”; an especially gifted person was similarly thought to possess a daimon (“genius” in the literal sense of the word). By contrast, misfortune and disease, etc., were caused by the presence of evil powers, such as we see famously in the book of Job, as well as in the exorcism narratives in the Gospels and the book of Acts (note also 2 Cor 12:7).

Within the context of Israelite/Jewish monotheism, of course, these “divine powers” took on a different character and role, either understood as heavenly/celestial beings (“angels”) serving God’s rule over the universe, or as ‘fallen’ evil spirits acting within the confines of the world. It is the latter sense which dominated the thinking in early Christianity, especially where the world of nature and humankind was seen as existing in a state of corruption and evil. According to such a “dualistic” viewpoint, the quasi-divine “powers” (whether or not precisely synonymous with “demons”) were thought of in terms of beings or forces which were actively hostile and opposed to God. Paul appeared to have believed in the existence of such “powers” (Gal 4:8-9; 1 Cor 10:20; 15:24; Rom 8:38; Col 2:8, 15; Eph 1:21; 2:2; 6:12; cf. also 2 Thes 2:3-12), though he says relatively little about them specifically in his letters. He describes more clearly, especially in Romans and Galatians, the role played by three (personified) powers—Sin, Death, and the Law. Sin, in particular, is described in almost mythological terms—that is, by telling a story or tale (mythos) with Sin as a leading character who acts with purpose and intent. This is what Paul appears to be doing in Romans 5:12-21.

The context of Romans 5:12-21

Much of the difficulty with interpreting this famous passage, I believe, lies in a fundamental difference in worldview. Modern readers and commentators tend to view “sin” almost entirely in terms of individual misdeeds; Paul and other early Christians shared this basic understanding, but, along with it, retained the concept of sin as a quasi-divine force or power which was opposed to God. Such an idea is quite foreign to Western thinking, especially today; it is much easier for us to conceive of the Devil/Satan as an invisible (but real) being than it is to think of “sin” as a personification, moving and acting, holding people in servitude, and so forth.

On the surface, Romans 5:12-21 is framed as a (typological and synchronistic) contrast between Adam and Christ, yet it is interesting how little Adam actually appears in these verses—the principal actor (especially in vv. 12-14) is sin, along with his associate death. Note:

  • Sin enters (“comes into”, ei)se/rxomai ei)$) the world, and death enters along with (lit. “through”, dia/) him (v. 12)
  • Sin is in (h@n e)n) the world—dwelling, working and multiplying—though without his presence really being recognized by human beings (v. 13); people would not see Sin for who he/it was until the coming of the Law (Torah)
  • Sin reigns/rules as king (basileu/w), through his powerful associate and representative death, until the coming of the Law (i.e. of Moses), and then even more thereafter, until the coming of Christ (v. 14)

It is hard to say to what extent Paul is simply using figurative language here; he certainly understood sin as a real and genuine force or power, but at least two aspects of his illustrative argument here suggest that the language is primarily figurative:

  1. In verses 12-14, Paul is generally summarizing the narrative in Genesis 3 (focused on Adam), and extending it broadly to cover the entire period of human history up to the time of the Sinai Covenant (the Law/Torah), and beyond; he does something quite similar in Rom 7:7-12. In this respect, he effectively attributes to Sin actions and functions involving other characters—Adam, Eve, the Serpent, etc—in Genesis.
  2. In verses 15-17, in a story parallel to, and a reversal of, that in vv. 12-14, the “favor/grace of God” is effectively personified as the protagonist much like Sin in vv. 12-14. Grace works in the world, and through Christ, just as Sin worked in the world, affecting all human beings, ultimately ruling/reigning in life (as Sin ruled/reigned in death).

Paul does not explain exactly how Sin’s entry into the world (manifest in the first sin by Adam) spreads into/unto all human beings (v. 12). Historically, there are three primary ways this has been explained by commentators and theologians:

  • Biological/Generational—human beings transmit a “sinful nature” from parents to child, from one generation to the next; this is sometimes connected with the “traducian” theory that the human soul is transmitted biologically.
  • Imitative—the sinful parent effectively teaches the child to sin, from generation to generation.
  • Collective—all human beings sinned collectively in the first human being Adam (or pair, Adam/Eve)

All of these are rather far removed from Paul’s actual line of argument and illustration in Rom 5:12-21; a major problem, as indicated above, is that such theories almost completely ignore the primary context of the passage (esp. verses 12-14), which depicts sin as a (personified) power. I would interpret Paul’s expository logic as follows:

  • Adam’s disobedience provides the opportunity and opening for Sin (as a power) to enter into the world, that is, into the world/domain of human beings
  • Based also on the parallel discussion in Romans 7:7-25, Paul appears to have viewed Sin’s entry in two ways:
    (1) as an external force present and active in the world influencing and affecting human beings (i.e. “the world“), and
    (2) as an internal power dwelling within human beings, operating and influencing people specifically at the level of the “flesh” (sa/rc).
  • A major result and effect of human sin is death (that is, the fate of real physical death), pronounced as a judgment by God (according to the Genesis narrative). Death, too, is sometimes seen as an active force.
  • The “flesh” of human beings—covering both physical/biological and psychological aspects—already weak, and fatally weakened further by the presence and influence of both sin and death (often viewed as working together), is unable to resist the power of sin.
  • Sin effectively rules as king or lord, enslaving all human beings under its power and authority. Viewed figuratively, this means that human beings are unable to resist the impulse to sin (within) and sinful/wicked influences in the world (i.e. human society) around them.

A uniquely Pauline addition to this narrative is the role of the Law (no/mo$)—that is, the Law of God, but specifically as expressed in the Old Testament Law (Torah). This, of course, is the subject of the current series “Paul’s View of the Law”; his unusual and remarkable view of the Law may, thus far, be summarized here as:

  • Prior to the introduction of the Law (Torah), sin was present in the world, working and ruling over human beings, enslaving them; however, people were not able to recognize the true nature and presence of sin.
  • The primary purpose of the Law was to produce recognition and awareness (i.e. proper knowledge) of sin (Rom 3:20; 7:7, cf. also Gal 3:19). Paul seems to envision a connected/parallel dynamic at work for Gentiles who do not have the Torah, but who recognize comparable ethical and religious standards.
  • Paradoxically, however, the effect of this is to increase the presence and influence of sin, even to the point of bringing about death. Through the commands of the Law, sin is defined, esp. in relationship to God, but the presence (and increased awareness) of sin—especially as manifest in the “flesh”—means that human beings are not strong enough (i.e. not able) to fulfill the Law of God (as expressed in the Torah, and also in the human ‘conscience’ or “inner man”).
  • The result is that human beings are further in bondage, to the Law (“under the Law”), just as they are in bondage to sin (and death); Gentiles, in their own way, are similarly in bondage under the Law (cf. Gal 4:1-11). Paul, however, makes the point strongly that the Law is not the same as sin.
  • Through the person and work of Christ, the Law is fulfilled/completed for believers (who are thus “justified” before God), and is, in fact, brought to an end for those who are in Christ—freed from the Law, as we are freed from sin (and death).

The “Law of Sin”

These two key concepts—the Law and Sin—are combined in the expression “the Law of Sin” (o( no/mo$ th=$ a(marti/a$), which Paul uses in Rom 7:23, 25; 8:2. Throughout Galatians, the word no/mo$ (“law”) refers almost exclusively to the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah); similarly in Romans, however Paul does begin to use the term with a somewhat wider scope of meaning, beginning in chapter 3, but most notably here in chapter 7. In Romans 7:7, he starts with the Torah (the Decalogue), but by verse 22, he has shifted the meaning by introducing the expression “the Law of God” (o( no/mo$ tou= qeou=). This phrase seems to include the Law as expressed in the human soul (or “conscience”), i.e., the “inner man”; Paul had used it previously in 1 Cor 9:21, probably in the sense of the true Law, synonymous (for believers) with the “Law of Christ” (cf. also Gal 6:2).

In Rom 7:22-25, Paul juxtaposes “the Law of God” against “the Law of Sin (and Death)”, as two opposing forces at war within a human being—the mind/soul/conscience influenced by the former, and the “flesh” controlled by the latter. This clearly reflects the condition of human beings prior to coming to faith in Christ, though Paul describes a similar dynamic—the flesh warring against the Spirit (and vice versa)—for believers in Gal 5:16-17ff.

A final example: 2 Corinthians 5:21

An interesting use of the word a(marti/a (in the singular) is found in 2 Cor 5:21, where Paul uses it twice, in connected phrases:

“the one [i.e. Christ] not knowing sin, he [i.e. God] made (to be) sin over us [i.e. for our sake], (so) that we might come to be the justice/righteousness of God in him”

It is a most striking juxtaposition: Christ comes to be (made) sin, and we come to be justice/righteousness in Christ. Paul appears to be playing on the various meanings and connotations of the word “sin” (a(marti/a), from a Jewish and Christian point of view. There are several possibilities for interpreting these two phrases:

1. to\n mh\ gno/nta a(marti/an, “the (one) not knowing sin”, in the sense that Jesus—

  • had no experience of sin, i.e. had not committed any such misdeed
  • was unfamiliar sin’s reign, i.e. was not under its/his power and authority (for a similar idea, cf. John 14:30)
  • had no intimate contact with sin, i.e. its power was not dwelling in him

2. a(marti/an e)poi/hsen, “he made (to be) sin”, in the sense that Jesus—

  • was made into the form of (sinful) human “flesh” (Rom 8:3); the idea of incarnation, cf. Gal 4:4; Phil 2:7
  • was made like unto the (enslaving) power of sin, in order to conquer and destroy it (cf. Rom 8:2-3; Gal 3:13-14)
  • was made into a sin-offering; note the similar double meaning of afj in Hebrew, which can be used both for sin and the offering made on behalf of sin

Probably the first meaning in each case is to be preferred, but it is intriguing to consider the other possible associations, as one can find basis for them elsewhere in Paul’s thought.

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Genesis 15:6 in Galatians and James

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The famous contrast between the discussion of “faith and works” in the Epistle of James and by Paul in Romans/Galatians finds its greatest point of difference/disagreement in the use of Genesis 15:6—

  )Abraa\m e)pi/steusen tw=| qew=| kai\ e)logi/sqh au)tw=| ei)$ dikaiosu/nhn
“Abraham trusted (in) God and it was counted to/for him unto justice/righteousness”

as rendered in Greek by the LXX and in the New Testament. Paul expounds this verse in the fourth chapter of Romans (Rom 4), but this treatment largely follows that in Galatians 3-4 (Galatians usually admitted as being written some time before Romans). It is also in Galatians that Paul presents a more forceful rhetorical and theological argument against “works of the Law”, as contrasted with trust/faith in Christ; therefore, it is more appropriate to use Galatians as the primary basis of comparison with the epistle of James (Jas 2:14-26).

In Galatians, Paul cites Gen 15:6 (in Gal 3:6) just prior to the Scriptural arguments, centered on Abraham, in Gal 3:7-29. These two arguments involve the blessing (3:7-14) and promise (3:15-29) to Abraham, emphasizing that the blessing comes by faith (not the Law) and that the promise comes to believers through Jesus Christ (not by observing the Law). Romans 4:4-25 provides a similar discussion.

In the letter of James, the citation of Gen 15:6 (in Jas 2:23) comes at a climactic point toward the end of the (ethical) instruction in 2:14-26. The central proposition (and declaration) is that faith “apart from works” is dead and cannot save a person (2:14-17). There would seem, on the surface at least, to be several significant differences between the claims made by Paul and the author of James (trad. James, the brother of Jesus), which were often emphasized in prior commentaries and works on New Testament theology. However, today scholars and commentators (of all stripes) tend to downplay or dismiss the idea of any real (direct) conflict between these passages, though often for different reasons:

  • Traditional-conservative commentators have generally sought to harmonize Paul and James, under the basic doctrinal assumption that the inspired Writings would not (or could not) be in disagreement
  • For critical scholars, on the other hand, among the more important factors are:
    (1) A tendency to look at individual New Testament writings, without feeling the need to compare/harmonize with others, and to focus more precisely on the specific context in each book
    (2) A tendency to soften or qualify Paul’s arguments in Galatians regarding the Law, limiting their rhetorical and theological scope, in light of what is (often) assumed as Paul’s more positive view of Judaism and the Law elsewhere in his life and writings

I am less willing than many to dismiss all conflict between the interpretive approaches of Paul and ‘James’ on this question of “faith and works”, as there do seem to be several substantive differences. In order to highlight these, it will be necessary to look briefly at the salient points of comparison:

e&rga “works”—It is sometimes said that James and Paul are using the term “works” (e&rga) in a fundamentally different sense, and, as such, are not really talking about the same things. This is not quite accurate; rather, it would seem that James is using the term in a general way, as “action”, while Paul is referring to specific types of religious action. The examples James offers are reflective of (a) charitable giving (esp. to the poor and needy) and/or (b) sacrificial giving (offering from oneself), but otherwise describe various sorts of action. Paul uses the expression “works of (the) Law” (e&rga no/mou) to refer specifically to the performance/observance of the commands and regulations in the Law (Torah), especially that of circumcision. Based on 2:8-13, James would presumably include “works of the Law”—at least the ethical aspects of the Law, as interpreted by Jesus (as in the Sermon on the Mount)—among the “works” described in vv. 14-26. There is no definite indication, anywhere in the letter, that James would include the ritual/ceremonial aspects of the Law (such as circumcision); in that respect, James and Paul are probably in agreement.

pi/sti$ “trust/faith”—Again, it would appear that James uses the word pi/sti$ in a more general sense than Paul does in Galatians, etc. It is likely that, despite the reference in 2:1, pi/sti$ in vv. 14-26 means “belief” without a specific object of belief necessarily being indicated (in v. 19 it is belief in God, generally). On the other hand, in Galatians, Paul typically, when contrasting “faith” with “works”, refers specifically to faith in Jesus Christ (Gal 2:16) or, more precisely, faith in response to hearing the Gospel message (Gal 3:2, 5).

xwri/$ “apart from”—Several times (in 2:18, 20, 26), James uses the expression “faith separate/apart from [xwri/$] works”, to emphasize the importance of faith/belief being expressed in action—the two (faith and action) go together, and cannot be separated. Paul never uses xwri/$ in Galatians, but does so notably in Romans, emphasizing that:

  • The justice/righteousness of God has been manifest [lit. has shone forth] “apart from [xwri\$] the Law” (3:21)
  • A man is made just/righteous by faith/trust “apart from [xwri\$] works of (the) Law” (3:28)
  • (Ps 32:2) Happy is the man for whom God counts justice/righteousness “apart from [xwri\$] works” (4:6)

The last reference matches the expression in James, and also shares the context of quotation from Gen 15:6 (cf. below). However, Paul’s use of “apart from works” could not be more different from that of James; indeed, he makes virtually the opposite point—faith (in Christ) is separate/apart from works! This, of course, is precisely the argument Paul makes in Galatians 2:15-21 and throughout chapters 3-4, and is the very context in which Gen 15:6 is cited.

dikaio/w “made/declared just”—Here, too, James (in 2:21, 24) seems to be saying the opposite of Paul, that Abraham was made/declared just (or righteous) “out of works” (i.e., by or because of his actions), rather than by/through faith (Rom 3:28; 5:1; Gal 2:16; 3:11, 24). But are James and Paul using the verb dikaio/w in the same way? This is an important question, and on it hinges the possibility of conflict between the two viewpoints. The verb does not appear in James apart from this section (2:21, 24-25), but the adjective di/kaio$ (“just/righteous”) is used in 5:6, 16, and the noun dikaiosu/nh (“justice/righteousness”) in 3:18 (apart from the citation of Gen 15:6 in 2:23). These instances suggest that James is using the words in their traditional/Jewish sense, of religious and ethical/moral behavior which is according to the will of God (and which will be rewarded by Him), much as they are used in the teaching of Jesus (cf. Matt 5:45; 9:13; 10:41, et al). Paul, on the other hand, developed a distinct theological (and soteriological) technical meaning and connotation for the word-group which would appear to be foreign to the epistle of James (especially if the early date often given for the letter is correct). Would James (that is, the author of the letter) have agreed with Paul’s usage? On objective grounds, this is difficult to say. Much depends on the interpretation of his use of Gen 15:6.

Genesis 15:6—The citation in James 2:23 occurs toward the end of the ethical instruction of 2:14-26, with an emphasis on the importance of religious faith (in God and/or Christ) being expressed in action, especially in charitable/sacrificial giving (to the poor and needy, vv. 15-16) and in obedience to the will of God. In respect to the latter, the example of Abraham is given, particularly of his willingness to sacrifice Isaac at God’s command (Gen 22). It is Abraham’s trust, expressed in action—a most momentous action—which is emphasized; Gen 15:6 is cited as though God’s declaration followed this action. Paul (in Gal 3:6, also Rom 4:3ff) treats it more properly in its Scriptural context (Gen 15:1-5); note the comparison:

Both contextual situations relate to God’s promise to Abraham of many descendants (through Isaac), but—

Paul refers to the original promise (Gen 15:1-5) of a son,
prior to any proving/testing of Abraham’s faith in action

James effectively refers to God’s confirmation of the promise (by the Messenger of YHWH, Gen 22:15-18),
subsequent to (and as a result of [cf. verse 16]) the testing/proving of Abraham’s faith in action

However, it could be argued that the use of Gen 15:6 in the context of Gen 22 is misplaced; certainly, for Paul, the promise is related entirely to faith/trust in Jesus Christ. The only sacrificial action or efficacious “work” he mentions in Galatians is that of Jesus (Gal 1:4; 2:19-20; 3:13; 4:5). To a lesser extent, he also refers to his own labors (as apostle/missionary of Jesus, 4:12-20); but, overall, praxis is minimal in his ethical teaching (6:1-2, 9-10), with more focus given on the Spirit as the guiding force for believers (5:17-26; 6:6-10). James gives much greater emphasis to specific behavior (Jas 1:19-21, 26-27; 2:1-7, 9-11, 15-16, etc).

In what sense, for James, was Abraham (or Rahab, 2:25) made/declared just through works? Verse 22 gives the answer by the use of two verbs:

  • sunerge/w (“work [together] with”)—”trust/faith worked together [sunh/rgei] with his works”
  • teleio/w (“complete, finish”)—”(his) trust/faith was completed [e)teleiw/qh] out of [i.e. from, by] (his) works”

In the first, proper religious/ethical action is the natural (and necessary) complement of faith; in the second, such action also completes one’s faith. This brings us to the last point of comparison:

teleio/w “complete, finish”—Interestingly, Paul uses an intensive (compound) form of this same verb in the context of his citation of Gen 15:6 (in the section Gal 3:1-6, v. 3), where he asks the Galatians:

“having begun in the Spirit, are you now being completed [e)pitelei=sqe] in/by (the) flesh?”

This contrasting juxtaposition is parallel to that between faith and (works of) the Law. Paul warns the (Gentile, non-Jewish) Galatians against adopting circumcision and observance of the Jewish Law (Torah), effectively arguing that their faith should not be “completed by works”. It is here that we perhaps encounter the greatest (substantial) difference between James and Paul. Consider how the logic in the letter of James essentially proceeds:

Abraham’s faith/trust in God was expressed (and confirmed/completed) by his action in sacrificing Isaac…
…therefore we, as believers, ought to express our faith (in Christ) through (sacrificial) action in love and obedience to the word of God

However, circumcision was another way in which Abraham demonstrated his obedience to God (also involving a kind of sacrifice of his son), cf. Gen 17:9-14; 21:4. Might not Paul’s Jewish-Christian ‘opponents’ argue in a similar way:

Abraham’s faith/trust in God was expressed (and confirmed/completed) by his action in circumcising Isaac…
…therefore we, as believers, ought to express our faith (in Christ) through action (circumcision and observing the Torah) in love and obedience to the word of God

While Paul certainly would have agreed with the importance of moral/ethical behavior (cf. Gal 5:16-25) and for believers to support one another (6:1-2), I doubt very much that he would speak of works (of any sort) completing our faith in Christ. Note how in Gal 5:16-26, the negative “works of the flesh” refer to specific sorts of actions, while the contrasting “fruit of the Spirit” are more general characteristics. The closest he comes in Galatians to a specific instruction regarding action for the believer is in the basic exhortation to “walk by the Spirit” (5:16, 25). Such practical instruction is relatively rare in the other epistles as well, being most prominent in 1 Corinthians, where the instruction is often prompted as the result of questions to him by the Corinthian congregations.

Paul’s emphasis on the (Holy) Spirit brings up another major difference with James—the two instances of the word pneu=ma in the letter (Jas 2:26; 4:5) both refer to the ordinary (natural) human spirit/soul/life, and not to the Holy Spirit. The lack of any reference to the Spirit in James is most striking, and is one of the reasons that some commentators consider the letter to be primarily a Jewish (and only nominally Christian) work. Indeed, much of the language, style and content of James follows traditional Jewish instruction, and is much closer (in tone and emphasis) to the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount than to Paul’s epistles. These differences can be partially explained if one accepts the early date often ascribed to the letter of James (c. 35-40 A.D.). According to this view, James might have been written anywhere between 10 and 20 years earlier than Galatians and Romans, etc. Paul, in his letters, would, by this time, have established a more precise terminology and developed theology, especially with regard to the Jewish-Gentile question, the relation of believers to the Law, sin and salvation, the nature of the Gospel and Christian identity, and so forth—all areas of discussion which are virtually absent from James.

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The Areopagus Speech

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I have already examined the Areopagus Speech by Paul (Acts 17:16-34) in considerable detail—cf. Parts 20 and 21 of the series on the Speeches of Acts. This supplemental article will focus on the specific critical question as to the authenticity of the speech—whether or not it is compatible with what we know of Paul from the (undisputed) letters. At previous points in this series, I have noted the general assumption, shared by many critical scholars, that the speeches are largely the product of the author of Acts (traditionally, Luke), rather than a record of the purported speakers’ actual words. This view is based primarily on two factors:

  1. The way ancient (Greco-Roman and Jewish) historians use and present comparable speeches in their works. Thucydides and Josephus are typically cited for comparison.
  2. A relative uniformity in terms of language, style, citation of Scripture, etc., which is found in most of the speeches, regardless of speaker. The close structural and stylistic similarities between Peter’s Pentecost speech (Acts 2) and Paul’s speech at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13) are especially noteworthy.

The significance and extent of these two factors, however, may be disputed; traditional-conservative commentators generally regard the speeches as authentic, with perhaps some degree of adaptation and modification by the author. Legitimate arguments can be, and have been, presented on both sides; for the purposes of these studies, I have adopted a moderating position.

In addition to these basic historical-critical concerns, commentators have especially noted some unique and unusual features in the Areopagus speech, which I have already highlighted in the prior articles. According to a number of critical scholars, these features are foreign to Paul’s thought (as expressed in his letters), and, indeed, with New Testament theology as a whole. In their view, this provides a decisive additional argument that the speech is Lukan, rather than Pauline. For a clear and detailed presentation of this viewpoint, see Dibelius’ important and influential study “Paul on the Areopagus” (1939) in Studies in the Acts of the Apostles, pp. 26-77, followed by more recent commentators such as E. Haenchen (Acts, pp. 527ff).

It will be helpful to discuss again the relevant points in the speech which are viewed as foreign and/or incompatible with Pauline thought, and to offer a summary evaluation.

Verse 22—One might question the positive characterization of the Athenians’ religiosity, here using the comparative adjective deisidaimone/stero$, derived from deisidaimoni/a (deisidaimonía), which is otherwise used in the New Testament only in Acts 25:19 (a general descriptive term [of Judaism] by Festus). The word deisidaimoni/a, often translated “religion”, “religious devotion/practice”, etc, literally means “fear of divine-powers [i.e. daimons]”, either in the positive/neutral sense of “religion” or the negative/pejorative sense of “superstition”. Elsewhere in the New Testament, a daimon (daimw/n/daimo/nion) is always understood from the Jewish (monotheistic) viewpoint as an evil/unclean spirit; only in here (in Acts 17:18) is the word used in the general sense of “(lesser/local) deities” or “divine powers”. In the letters, Paul only rarely mentions “demons” (1 Cor 10:20-21, cf. also 1 Tim 4:1) and refers to Greco-Roman paganism in more standard Old Testament/Jewish terms of idolatry and immorality. However, here in the speech, there can be no doubt that the speaker/author uses the somewhat ambiguous term deisidaimoni/a with irony (their religious devotion actually reflects ignorance of the truth), which he begins to draw out with the example in verse 23. Also, it should be noted that the positive tone can be attributed to a rhetorical device known as captatio benevolentiae—the use of complimentary or flattering language as an appeal to the audience, in the hopes that they will be receptive to the line of argument in the speech.

Verse 23—Here there is perhaps some uncertainty as to the force of Paul’s argument (regarding the altar dedicated “to an unknown god”). Previously, I pointed out several ways one might understand it:

(a) The Athenians recognize that there is at least one “unknown” divine power, in addition to all the more familiar deities—Paul uses this to introduce the (true) God of Scripture and the Gospel to them.
(b) The Athenians effectively believe a hidden deity called “(the) Unknown”—i.e., the true deity which lies behind their flawed and mistaken religious conceptions, and which Paul now reveals to them.
(c) The Athenians’ (errant) religious seeking has led them to erect altars even to strange and unknown deities, an example of the “times of ignorance” (v. 30) which Paul now would dispel with the truth of the Gospel and revelation of the true God.

The narrative context suggests (a), the overall language and tone of the speech indicates (c), but Paul’s immediate response in v. 23b is closer to (b). The context of Greco-Roman religion in Acts (cf. also 14:15 and 19:26-27ff) expresses the viewpoint, derived from the Old Testament (esp. the Prophets) and Jewish tradition, that the pagan deities (identified with the idols/images) are vain and “nothing” (i.e. they do not really exist). Paul expresses this view as well in 1 Cor 8:4; 10:19 (also Gal 4:8); however, in the same passage he also expresses the more common view in early Christianity, that the deities have real existence but are actually evil spirits (“demons”), cf. 1 Cor 10:20-21. It is actually surprising how rarely Greco-Roman religion is mentioned in the New Testament, becoming a more prominent subject in the theological and apologetic writings of the second century. For this reason, it is difficult to judge how Paul (or the author of Acts) might have handled the matter in addressing pagan Greeks; typically, in the letters, pagan religion is described merely by inference, or under the stock reference of idolatry/immorality. The closest passages to the Areopagus speech would seem to be 1 Thess 1:9 and 1 Cor 12:2, though both are very brief statements.

The verb eu)sebe/w (“treat/regard with good/proper fear”), here used to describe the Athenians’ religion—i.e. good religious ‘fear’, but in ignorance—as well as the related words eu)se/beia, eu)sebh/$, and eu)sebw=$, are never used by Paul in any of the undisputed letters, occurring (frequently) only the Pastoral letters (1 Tim 2:2; 3:16; 4:7-8; 5:4; 6:3-6, 11; 2 Tim 3:5, 12; Tit 1:1; 2:12); they also appear several times elsewhere in Acts (3:12; 10:7).

Verse 25—The argument that God, as eternal Creator of all things, is himself in need of nothing, while relatively common in Hellenistic Judaism, is not much found in either the Old or New Testament writings (but note, e.g. Psalm 50:9-12). Of many examples, see 2 Macc 14:35; 3 Macc 2:9ff; Josephus Antiquities VIII.107-8, 111ff (on Solomon’s dedication of the Temple); for similar sentiments in Greco-Roman literature and philosophy, see Euripides Heracles l. 1345 and Fragment 968; Zeno of Citium in Plutarch Moralia 1034B (“On Stoic Contradictions” 6) and Clement of Alexandria Stromateis V.76 (chap. 11); and Seneca, Letters 41:1-3; 95:47-50. From this basic philosophical observation is derived a general argument against the importance of temple buildings, sacrificial offerings and other religious ritual. The anti-Temple outlook—identifying temples with idol/images as both “made with (human) hands”—appears several places in Acts (esp. in Stephen’s speech, 7:39-50, cf. also 19:26-27), but is not really a point of emphasis in Paul’s letters. The somewhat rare compound verb prosde/omai (“to request [something] besides”) is not otherwise used in the New Testament; similarly the verb qerapeu/w occurs only here in its fundamental sense of “serve, attend, take care of” (elsewhere it always has the specific meaning “heal” [from illness/disease]), and Paul never uses it in the letters.

Verse 26—The premise of the common origin of humankind (from a single person), while obviously assumed from Old Testament narrative and tradition (the line from Adam, Gen 1:26ff; 5:1ff, cf. Romans 5:12ff), is usually not stated in such an abstract manner. In the phrase e)poi/hse/n te e)c e(no\$ pa=n e&qno$ a)nqrw/pwn (“and he made out of one all [the] nation of men”), pa=$ e&qno$ could mean “every nation”, but the specific formulation here is better understood as “(the) entire nation”—i.e. the entire human race, with e&qno$ in a similar sense as ge/no$. It is a more philosophical construct, such as we find, for example, in Philo On the Creation §136, referring to the one man (Adam) as o( panto\$ tou= ge/nou$ h(mw=n a)rxhge/th$ (“the [one] leading/beginning all our lineage [ge/no$]”). The limits in the natural world appointed/designated (by God)—the seasons and physical boundaries (for human habitation)—are also relatively familiar from Greco-Roman philosophy as evidence for the existence and providential care of God (or the gods), a kind of “teleological argument” (cf. the examples cited by Dibelius, Studies pp. 27-37). Citing the seasons, etc., in reference to God’s care and concern for human beings, is known in the New Testament (Jesus’ words in Matt 5:45, cf. also James 5:7), but does not especially occur in Paul’s letters. There is, however, a reasonably close parallel in the brief speech recorded at Lystra (Acts 14:17), cf. below.

Verse 27—This verse is particularly difficult from the standpoint of biblical theology, and is frequently cited as being incompatible/incongruous with Paul’s teaching in the letters.

  • “to seek God” (zhtei=n to\n qeo\n)—The theme of “seeking God (or the Lord/YHWH)” is common in the Old Testament Prophets (Amos 5:6; Isa 55:6, et al), as an exhortation for the people of God, but rarely, if ever, is the concept applied in Scripture within the context of “natural revelation”—i.e., the general religious impulse of all human beings (including non-Jewish/non-Christian pagans). For an interesting reference to seeking God in the context of idolatry, cf. Deut 4:28-29. Of the many relevant passages in Hellenistic Judaism and Greco-Roman philosophy, see e.g., Wisdom 13:6; Philo On the Special Laws I.36; Cicero On the Nature of the Gods 2.153. It must be admitted that Paul, in the letters, does not use this sort of language; indeed, the overall argument of Romans 1-3 would suggest the opposite—that human beings (Jew and Gentile alike) do not truly seek God, nor are they able to do so, being enslaved by sin (apart from Christ), cf. the citation of Ps 14:1-3/53:1-3 in Rom 3:10-12. On a comparison with the famous passage in Rom 1:18-32, see below.
  • “if, indeed, they might touch/feel (about) him and find (him)”—The verb yhlafa/w often has the connotation of exploring by touch, even as far as feeling or groping about (like a blind person). For use of this verb in a somewhat similar context, see Philo On the Change of Names §126. While this verb implies the “times of ignorance” in which the pagans live, it also suggests that, despite their ignorance, they may somehow find God (at least in part).
  • “and yet (truly) he is present (and) not far from each one of us”—The existential use of the verb u(pa/rxw (cf. verse 24b) indicates presence, qualified by the expression “not far from” (ou) makra\n a)po). This idea of God’s immanence is relatively rare in the Old Testament (note e.g. Psalm 145:18; Jer 23:23), being expressed more precisely in Greco-Roman and Hellenistic-Jewish thought—cf. Josephus Antiquities VIII.108; Dio Chrysostom Oration 12.28; 30.26; Seneca Letter 41.1; 120:14, etc. Along the lines mentioned above, this concept of the “nearness” of God (even to pagans) is seen as problematic and generally foreign to Paul’s thinking. Perhaps the closest we come to this idea in the letters is the citation of Deut 30:14 in Romans 10:8, though the context is rather different, referring specifically to the response (in faith/trust) to the Gospel.

Verse 28—There are two separate issues in this verse: (1) the panentheistic tenor of the statement in v. 28a, and (2) the ambiguity of the citation from Aratus in v. 28b.

First, the classic statement in v. 28a: “for in him (e)n au)tw=|) we live (zw=men) and we are moved (kinou/meqa) and we are (e)sme/n)”. It sounds like it was taken out of the Greek philosophers, and yet no clear and convincing source or parallel has been found; the use of the verb kine/w is particularly suggestive of the Stoic concept of God as Mover (who himself is not moved)—see, for example, Chrysippus in the Eclogues of Stobaeus I.8.42; Philo On Allegorical Interpretation I.6 (cf. Dibelius, Studies, 48). Needless to say, there is nothing quite like this in the New Testament. The verb za/w (“live”), along with the related noun zwh/ (“life”), often are used in the New Testament in the sense of spiritual/eternal life, and are typically predicated of human beings (believers) in this way; here, of course, ordinary physical/material life is meant. The use of “in him [i.e. God]” (e)n au)tw=|) is even more unusual; Paul often speaks of believers as being “in Christ” (e.g., Rom 8:1; 12:5; 16:7; 1 Cor 1:30; 15:22, and many more instances), but not of human beings as “in God”—believers are “in God” but only insofar as they are “in Christ” (Col 3:3), and note also this frequent Christological sense in the Gospel and Epistles of John.

The quotation from Aratus (c. 310-240 B.C.), from the opening lines of his verse-treatise Phaenomena, is perhaps even more problematic. The poem begins with Zeus, describing his presence everywhere, and reminding human beings of their dependence on him, stating (as Paul cites), tou= ga\r kai\ ge/no$ e)smen “for we are of (his) lineage”. In the context of ancient mythological-philosophical thought, human beings (or, at least, their spirits/souls) were often viewed as being the offspring of the gods in a metaphysical sense. This is foreign to the basic tenets of Israelite/Jewish monotheism, where God (YHWH) was only the Father of human beings in a symbolic sense, in terms of family relationship, or as the Creator. Paul (and/or the author of Acts) is clearly drawing on the pagan philosophical understanding. For similar (Stoic) language and thought, see Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus ll. 3-5; Dion of Prusa Oration 12.27; 30.26.

Verse 29—Curiously, the author/speaker uses this premise as the basis for a critique and condemnation of idolatry (worship of God through images). While the argument against idolatry is common to Old Testament and Jewish tradition, the reasoning in v. 28b-29a is not. One might have expected a reference to the fundamental Scriptural teaching of man created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27; 9:6), which could have been adapted to Greek philosophical concepts without too much difficulty. The neuter substantive adjective qei=on, which refers more generally to “Deity”, is not used elsewhere in the New Testament.

Verse 30—The statement that God has overlooked the “times of ignorance” for pagan Gentiles up until the present time, while similar to the statement made (by Paul) in Acts 14:16, has been thought to run contrary to tenor of Paul’s thought in the letters. On the idea of humankind’s failure to perceive and understand God properly (prior to the Gospel), cf. Rom 1:20-23; 1 Cor 1:21; for the theme of ignorance (and use of a&gnoia) elsewhere in Acts, see 3:17; 13:27. The verb u(perei=don (“look over, overlook”) is not otherwise used in the New Testament. The emphasis on God’s impending judgment in vv. 30b-31, brings the statement more closely in line with the remainder of the New Testament.

Verse 31—The declaration of the coming day of Judgment is common to the basic Jewish and early Christian worldview, and stated in traditional terminology. Only the last words of the verse create difficulty:

e)n a)ndri\ (“in/by a man”)—’Western’ witnesses (D and Vulgate MSS) add  )Ihsou= (Yeshua/Jesus). Commentators have often wondered why there is not more explicitly “Christian” content in the Areopagus speech, and no specific mention of Jesus (by name, assuming the Western reading to be secondary). This may have been what prompted the addition “Jesus”, in order to, at the very least, clarify the situation and avoid misunderstanding.

pi\stin parasxw=n (“holding alongside a trust”)—this is rather a different use of pi/sti$ (“trust”) than we typically see in the New Testament (and Paul’s letters), where it usually refers to faith/belief in Christ (or in God). Here, however, it has the sense of “assurance”, “proof”, or something similar, i.e. God demonstrating his trustworthiness. Interestingly, a few Western witnesses seem to read the verb as an infinitive (parasxei=n)—”to give along trust to all (people)”—perhaps indicating a tendency to interpret pi/sti$ here in its usual sense of faith in God/Christ.

Evaluation—It cannot be denied that there are good number of terms, expressions, and concepts which are rare or unique in the New Testament (and Paul’s letters) as a whole. But, to what extent are they incompatible with Paul’s own thought and approach? The words and phrases, detailed above, which either do not appear at all in the letters, or are used in a rather different sense, would seem to be a strong (cumulative) argument against Pauline authenticity for the speech. However, the problem with such arguments based on vocabulary and linguistic style, is that they require sufficient (relevant) material for comparison. And, the fact is, we have no other substantive example of Paul addressing (pagan) Gentiles outside of a Jewish or Christian context. All of the letters (undisputed and disputed) are written to Christians, and to believers who, presumably, have been given a significant amount of Christian instruction—including familiarity with the Scriptures, Israelite history, elements of a Jewish(-Christian) worldview and thought-forms, etc. The same applies to the rest of the New Testament; the Gospels and the Letters were all written to and for Christians. It has been pointed out, correctly, that the closest parallels to Areopagus speech are from the brief address in Acts 14:15-17; note, for example—

  • The speech begins with an exhortation to turn away from “vain/empty things” (i.e. pagan deities / idols) and toward the “living God”; for a comparable statement, written not too long after the historical event described here, cf. 1 Thess 1:9. This, of course, is the overall theme and emphasis of the Areopagus speech as well.
  • The statement of God as Creator (at the end of v. 15) is parallel to that in 17:24.
  • Though worded differently, verse 16 expresses much the same thought as 17:30 (cf. above)
  • The mention of the seasons (rain and the fruitfulness for harvest) in verse 17 is echoed in 17:26f; both references treat the features of the natural world as a witness to God’s existence and presence, though, again, in rather different language.

It just so happens that these two passages are also the only examples we have in the New Testament of Christian missionaries directly addressing a pagan audience. One must, therefore, be cautious—we simply do not have enough material available for a proper comparison. Can we be certain just how Paul would have addressed a pagan Greek audience at this time? Even if we were to admit, for the moment, that the speeches in Acts 17:22-31 (and 14:15-17) are effectively the product of the author (and not Paul), this does not solve the problem entirely. A number of the distinctive words and expressions in the speech better fit the context of the the book of Acts (rather than the Pauline epistles), but only slightly so. Luke-Acts did have an educated Greco-Roman audience in mind, at least in part, but it was still written primary for Christians and from a Christian standpoint. Theophilus (Lk 1:1; Acts 1:1) was either already a Christian or was at least someone interested in the new faith, perhaps having a similar role as the God-fearer Cornelius in the book of Acts itself (chaps. 10-11).

What about passages in the letters of Paul which are, in some sense, parallel to the Areopagus speech, especially Romans 1:18-32, which is extensive enough to allow for a reasonably fair comparison? This will be discussed in a set of separate (daily) notes, followed by a concluding statement regarding the critical question.

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The Jerusalem Council of Acts 15

By | Exegetical/Study Series, Supplemental Study | No Comments

As a supplemental study to the article “The Law in the Book of Acts”, part 2 (in the series “The Law and the New Testament”), I will here discuss, in summary fashion, a number of key critical questions surrounding the “Jerusalem Council” narrative in Acts 15. Hundreds of pages could be (and have been) written on these questions—here it will not be possible to treat them thoroughly, but to outline the issues involved and provide some helpful observations for further study. The main questions are:

  1. How does Acts 15 relate to Galatians 2?
  2. Does the Acts 15 narrative reflect separate historical traditions and/or does it record a single historical event?
  3. How does the Letter in vv. 22-29 relate to the episode as a whole?
  4. How accurate is the overall presentation in Acts 15?

1. How does Acts 15 relate to Galatians 2?

This is a longstanding critical and interpretive question, which is connected with the date of Paul’s letter and the general location of the Galatian believers to whom it is addressed. “Galatia” may refer to: (a) the territory of the kingdom of Galatia, (b) the Roman province of Galatia (including portions of Phrygia, Lycaonia and Pisidia to the south), or (c) areas where Galatian (Celtic) language is spoken (including portions of Phrygia & Lycaonia). The older Galatian territory (centered on the cities of Ancyra, Pessinus and Tavium) was considerably north of the sites (in Phrygia, Lycaonia and Pisidia) visited by Paul and Barnabas during the first missionary journey (Acts 13-14). In the second and third journeys, Paul and his companions are said to have traveled “through Phrygia and Galatian territory” (16:6) and “through Galatian territory and Phrygia” (18:23). The reference in 16:6 would imply territory north of the cities visited in Acts 13-14, though there is no indication they went as far east as Ancyra; a northwestern journey, along the Asian-Galatian boundary, is described, ending at Mysia and the NW coastline (Troas). The same general region is presumably meant in 18:23, but here it may include the southern Lycaonian and Phrygian area visited in the earlier journeys.

The main issue is whether “Galatia” in the epistle includes the cities evangelized by Paul and Barnabas during the first missionary journey (South Galatian option), or is limited to territory further north (though likely not as far north as Ancyra). The majority of scholars today (including most critical commentators) favor the North Galatian option. However, the South Galatian option, made popular especially by the archeological work and writings of W. M. Ramsay at the end of the 19th century, continues to be preferred by a good number of more traditional-conservative commentators, as it allows for easier harmonization of the narratives in Acts 15 and Gal 2 (see below). For a good modern defense of this position, see e.g., F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians (NIGTC) (Paternoster Press / Eerdmans, 1982), pp. 3-18, 43-56.

There are important similarities and differences between Acts 15 and Galatians 2. The main similarities:

  • Paul and Barnabas travel to Jerusalem for the express purpose of explaining/defending the missionary approach taken with regard to Gentiles (Acts 15:1-3f, 12; Gal 2:1-2)
  • A key point of contention involves circumcision, and whether Gentile converts should be compelled to be circumcised (Acts 15:1, 5; Gal 2:3)
  • Paul and Barnabas meet with the leaders of the Jerusalem church, including Peter and James (Acts 15:4, 6, 7ff, 13ff; Gal 2:2, 6-9)
  • Other Jewish believers present argue that Gentiles must be circumcised and observe the Law (Acts 15:5; Gal 2:4-5)
  • The leaders of the Jerusalem church accept the missionary approach taken by Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:7ff, 22, 25-26; Gal 2:7-9)

The main differences:

  • In Galatians (2:2), Paul says he went to Jerusalem according to a revelation (kata\ a)poka/luyin), where as in Acts (15:2) Paul and Barnabas were appointed and sent by the church in Antioch
  • There is no mention in Acts of Titus (Gal 2:1, 3)
  • In Galatians (2:2), Paul meets with the Jerusalem leaders privately (kat’ i)di/an), while in Acts the meeting seems to be in front of the full assembly (15:4, 6, 12, 22)
  • In Acts, the basic outcome of the meeting is an authoritative decision on what is (and is not) required by Gentile converts; in Galatians, it has more to do with the missionary status of Paul and Barnabas (2:7-9) (but note also Acts 15:25-26)
  • In the Acts account, Paul and Barnabas, on their return, deliver the decision of the council to Gentile believers, accompanied by rejoicing and the restoration of peace (15:22, 30-31; 16:4); there is no suggestion of any of this in Galatians

Most of these differences are easy enough to explain as a product of the different (autobiographical and rhetorical) purpose and style of Paul’s account; indeed, most scholars would accept that the two accounts describe the same basic event. More significant, I would say, is the very different tone that characterizes the two accounts—Acts 15 shows a peaceful (and decisive) resolution to the question, accompanied by powerful speeches by Peter and James and an authoritative letter sent from the council to all Gentile believers (willingly delivered by Paul and Barnabas themselves). This harmonious picture contrasts notably with the presentation and argument in Galatians. How could the serious and controversial incident Paul describes in Gal 2:11-14—involving both Barnabas and Peter and “men from James”—have taken place so soon (apparently) after the decisions of the Council in Acts 15? Indeed, how is one to explain the fierce conflict between Paul and other Jewish Christians over the question of the Law and circumcision that pervades throughout Galatians, if things were as harmonious as the conclusion of Acts 15 suggests? A controversy between Paul and Barnabas is recorded in Acts 15:36ff, but it apparently has nothing to do with the Jewish-Gentile question in Gal 2. A solution is at hand in the South Galatian theory (above)—identifying the Galatians of the epistle with the territory (in Phrygia, Pisidia and Lycaonia) evangelized in the first missionary journey (Acts 13-14); this allows for the epistle to have been written prior to the Jerusalem council (the Jerusalem visit of Gal 2:1-10 usually equated with the one mentioned [barely] in 11:30).

While I think that the South Galatian theory is generally plausible, I see no compelling reason to consider Galatians as having been written before the Jerusalem Council. There are enough similarities in content and style between Galatians and Romans & 2 Corinthians, to suggest a comparable time-frame for composition. I find a date sometime during (or after) the second missionary journey as more likely (cf. Acts 16:6). Even so, is it possible that the events narrated in Gal 2:1-14 took place prior to the council? The reference to “certain (men) from James” (v. 12) might correspond with what James indicates in the letter (15:24). Paul offers no indication as to exactly when this all took place; though the context perhaps suggests a time not too far removed from the composition of the letter. This question will be taken up again further below.

2. Does the Acts 15 narrative reflect separate historical traditions and/or does it record a single historical event?

There are four basic components to the narrative in Acts 15:1-35:

  • The basic narrative surrounding the “Council” (vv. 1-6, 12), centered on the question of whether Gentile converts must be circumcised and required to observe the Law—little if any detail is provided of the actual debates and discussion which took place, but is summarized simply in vv. 6, 12.
  • The speeches of Peter and James (vv. 7-11, 13-21), with the narrative transition/join of verse 12.
  • The Letter from the Council (vv. 22-29)—somewhat surprisingly, circumcision is not specifically addressed; rather, emphasis is placed on four religious restrictions which Gentile believers are required to observe (also stated in vv. 20-21).
  • The narrative summary in vv. 30-35, which only briefly mentions delivery of the letter (vv. 30-31, cf. also 16:4).

A standard critical approach recognizes two historical traditions at work: (1) a tradition of the meeting held in Jerusalem to address the Gentile question (but perhaps with little detail of the meeting itself available to the author), and (2) a letter addressed to Gentile believers (from the ‘Council’). Many scholars would doubt the authenticity of the speeches by Peter and James in vv. 7-21, viewing them (along with the speeches in Acts as a whole) primarily as the work of the author himself (trad. Luke). On the question of the authenticity of the letter and speeches, cf. below.

An interesting theory would separate the traditions of the meeting and the letter, at the historical level, with the letter seen as having been written on a subsequent occasion (and for a somewhat different purpose). The author of Acts has combined/conflated the traditions, making it appear as though they took place at the same time. This critical theory has the advantage also of harmonizing Acts 15 and Gal 2, at least in part; the chronology might be taken as follows:

  • The Jerusalem meeting, on the question of the acceptance of Gentile converts, and whether they must be circumcised (and observe the Law)—Gal 2:1-9; Acts 15:1-6, 12. The missionary approach of Paul and Barnabas was accepted, i.e. Gentile converts were not required to observe the Law of Moses (cf. Acts 15:10-11, 19, 28).
  • The incident at Antioch (Gal 2:11-14) demonstrated the difficulty involved with Jews and Gentiles relating with one another—some Jewish Christians apparently were willing to adopt Gentile customs, others opposed this. Paul attributes the problem to the presence and influence of “men from James” (Gal 2:12, cf. Acts 15:24).
  • Eventually a letter was drawn up—from James and the Jerusalem church—and sent to Gentile believers in the area surrounding Antioch. Gentile Christians are required to observe certain restrictions (related to pagan cultural and religious practice) which would be especially offensive to Jews.

The main difficulty with such a reconstruction is that it more or less ignores the overall narrative as composed in Acts 15. The substance of the letter is already indicated in James’ speech (vv. 19-21), which, in turn, is presented as taking place at the same time as Peter’s speech during the Jerusalem meeting (cf. the join in v. 12f). Moreover, Acts 15:22, 30-31 shows Paul specifically delivering the letter in Antioch, and even farther afield (16:4). The historicity of this particular detail has been seriously questioned by scholars, since Paul makes no mention of the letter (or the Jerusalem decree itself) in any of his epistles, neither in Galatians nor in 1 Corinthians 8-10 (on the issue of food which has been sacrificed to idols). Even in Acts 21:25, James seems to present to Paul the restrictions in the letter as though they would be something new and unfamiliar to him. And yet, if Paul was indeed unfamiliar with the letter, then the notice in 15:30-31 and 16:4 would have to be factually wrong (or at least highly misleading)—other believers may have delivered the letter (to Antioch and elsewhere), but not Paul. On the other hand, if the letter had been made known widely in the area around Antioch, how could Paul have not known about it? More to the point, would the Paul who wrote Galatians and Romans even have accepted the decision with the legal-religious restrictions placed on Gentile believers? If he regarded them as valid and authoritative, why does he not bring them up in 1 Cor 8-10? There is no easy answer or solution to these difficulties.

3. How does the Letter in vv. 22-29 relate to the episode as a whole?

This has already been discussed in the section prior, but it may be useful to look more closely at how the letter functions within the narrative as we have it. Certain key details should be noted:

  • It follows directly upon the speeches of Peter and James (vv. 7-21), and, as such, provides an authoritative formulation of their decision and resolution of the conflict narrated in vv. 1-6.
  • It is the product of the entire assembly as well as the Holy Spirit (vv. 22-23, 25, 28).
  • It provides sanction for the ministry of Paul and Barnabas—in the wake of the conflict at Antioch regarding Gentile believers and the Law, Paul and Barnabas journey to Jerusalem where they meet with the apostles, elders and the entire assembly; after this, they return to Antioch with an official resolution of the controversy (via the letter) (vv. 22-23, 25-26, 30-31ff).
  • It makes clear that Jewish-Christian opposition to the Pauline approach to the Gentile mission does not come from the official leadership of the Jerusalem church (v. 24, cf. Gal 2:12); rather, Jerusalem is in agreement with Paul and Barnabas.
  • Its requirements for Gentile believers, at the very least, emphasize a respect for the Law and Jewish religious custom (v. 28-29, cf. also vv. 20-21; 21:25). This fundamental sense of harmony between early Christianity and its Jewish heritage is an important theme of Luke-Acts.

Moreover, the letter cannot be separated from the speeches of Peter and James, as the following basic narrative outline indicates:

  • Narrative introduction (vv. 1-5), with the conflict framed in verse 1 and 5
    • Speeches of Peter and James (vv. 6-21)—expressing the authoritative and inspired judgment and interpretation of the Apostles
    • Letter from the Council (vv. 22-29)—expressing the authoritative, inspired judgment of the entire assembly
  • Narrative conclusion (vv. 30-35), with the resolution (at Antioch) framed by verses 30, 35, leading to a resumption of the Antiochene/Pauline mission

I have discussed the speeches of Peter and James in some detail as part of my series on the Speeches of Acts.

4. How accurate is the overall presentation in Acts 15?

Several historical-critical questions related to Acts 15 have been addressed above; here I will briefly treat several specific areas of critical investigation.

The accuracy of the main historical tradition—The tendency among critical scholars is to admit the general accuracy of Paul’s account in Galatians 2 (though shaped by autobiographical, rhetorical, and polemic emphases), but to discredit or disregard the Lukan account in Acts 15 (assuming that they relate to the same underlying event[s]). Traditional-conservative commentators, on the other hand, are much more willing to assume (or require) the historical accuracy of the Acts narrative. It is hard to judge to matter fairly, since neither account (Gal 2 or Acts 15) provides enough specific detail for a proper comparison; especially, we would very much like to know more about the incident at Antioch in Gal 2:11-14, but are left to speculate on the precise circumstances involved. There is nothing implausible about the brief narrative in Acts 15:1-6, though doubtless much historical detail has been left out, glossed over, or otherwise simplified. It may be too that the author of Acts has purposely crafted the narrative to present as harmonious a picture of early Christianity as possible—this seems likely, and I would stress that an idealized portrait is not necessarily mistaken or in error. There must have been fierce debate and disputes over the Gentile question, but this is only hinted at in Acts 15:2, 5-7a, 12; a more realistic, detailed presentation would almost certainly read a bit more like Paul’s rhetorical-polemical approach in Galatians.

The authenticity of the speeches—I have mentioned previously the basic critical approach to the speeches in Acts, that they are primarily the product of the author (trad. Luke), rather than reflecting the actual words of the purported speakers. The basis for this view is generally two-fold: (a) what is known of the way ancient historians (such as Thucydides, et al) included and made use of speeches, and (b) certain relatively common and uniform stylistic characteristics and details throughout all the speeches in Acts (regardless of speaker, etc). Traditional-conservative scholars, mainly for dogmatic reasons, tend to regard the speeches as more or less accurate records of the speaker’s genuine words (though with at least some degree of editing/modification). In my studies on the Speeches of Acts, I have assumed a more moderate position overall—the speeches reflect authentic tradition, but likely have been adapted (to a greater or lesser extent) by the author, in the narrative context, to create and contribute to a literary work of art. This appears especially to be the case with regard to the use of Scriptural citations within the speeches (cf. below). For the speeches of Peter and James in Acts 15, the following, in particular, have been noted by critical scholars and commentators:

  • The use of the Cornelius episode in vv. 7-9, 14—It has been argued that reference to the Cornelius episode here is literary rather than historical, that is, its significance is based on what hearer/reader of Acts is familiar with (from the prominent narrative of chs. 10-11), more than its relevance to the (historical) Jewish believers in Jerusalem at the moment. A certain narrative tension is implied—what the reader knows (from chs. 10-11) vs. what the Jerusalem Christians have apparently forgotten. There are indeed, certain curious details—for example, Peter’s description of the episode as having taken place “in the beginning/bygone days” (v. 7, cf. also v. 14), though in the narrative context it could not have occurred all that long ago. More to the point, if the event had the importance/significance attached to it in the book of Acts, how could the Christians of Judea/Jerusalem have so (quickly) neglected or forgotten it?
  • Peter’s characterization of the Law in vv. 10-11—Many commentators find it unlikely that the presumably devout Jewish Christian Peter (cf. 10:9-16) would have referred to the Law this way: as a burdensome “yoke” that even Jews could not bear. Paul does once refer to the Law as a “yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1), but in Jewish tradition, it is typically described as a “yoke” in a positive sense (see m. Abot 3:5). Verse 10, combined with the emphasis on the favor/grace of God received by faith/trust, certainly does seem to have a ‘Pauline’ sound to it; but it is not clear that this precludes it has having come from Peter.
  • The citation of Amos 9:11-12 in vv. 16-18—It is significant that James, though presumably addressing the assembly in Aramaic (see his use of Shim’ôn/Simeon in v. 14), quotes a version of Amos 9:11-12 that generally corresponds to the Greek LXX, which includes two important textual variants apparently resulting from a misreading of the Hebrew text. For the form of this citation, see my discussion in the series on the Speeches of Acts. Traditional-conservative commentators, eager to defend/preserve a certain idea of inspiration (and/or inerrancy), are generally left with two options: (a) James cites the correct (Hebrew) text and it is the received MT that is corrupt, or (b) he is making (inspired) creative use/application of the variant Greek text. The first option I take as highly unlikely, the second is far more plausible.
  • The restrictions/requirements (from the letter) in vv. 19-21—There is only a problem here if one views the letter as a separate tradition combined/attached by the author in shaping the current narrative. By such a theory, the reference to the requirements of the letter in v. 20 is virtually precluded as being authentic. On its own merits, the idea that the author has combined or conflated separate traditions is interesting and somewhat attractive, but many questions and difficulties are involved with this approach as well (see above).

The authenticity of the letter—This question is extremely difficult to judge, though in general (on objective grounds), I find it much less likely that the author has composed a letter than that he may have done so for the speeches. One strong argument in favor of authenticity, it seems, is the limitation in the letter’s address to Gentile believers “in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia”, i.e. the center of the historical conflict (cf. Acts 15:1-5; Gal 2). A pseudonymous letter would probably have been addressed to a wider or more general audience. Also, if the author has added any details to the narrative, it is far more plausible that, finding the four prohibitions in the letter, he included them in James’ address (in 15:20; 21:25), rather than adding them into a (fictional) letter. The textual and interpretive difficulties surrounding these four items make it virtually certain that they are authentic historical details—the tendency among scribes and authors is to clarify and smooth over difficulties, not to create them.

On the reception of the letter—It is here that the most serious historical questions are to be found, which I have already touched on above. The fact that Paul never mentions the letter (with its requirements) in any of his epistles, even where it would directly apply (in Galatians or 1 Corinthians 8-10), is noteworthy. Either Paul was (1) unaware of the decree, or (2) did not cite or use it because: (a) he disagreed with it, (b) did not regard it as authoritative, or (c) did not feel it appropriate in the context and circumstances of his writing. In Acts 21:25 James appears to bring up the decree (and the four requirements) with Paul as though it would be something new or unfamiliar to him. All of this could be viewed as somewhat at odds with the picture in Acts 15:30-31; 16:4, where it is indicated that Paul delivered the letter and transmitted the requirements of the decree. Consider also the overall tone in Galatians, the argument in 2:14ff, and the specific notice in 2:6.

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Supplemental Study (Beatitudes): Prophets and False Prophets

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In previous notes I discussed the Beatitude of Jesus in Matt 5:11-12 and Luke 6:22-23 (with the corresponding “woe” in Lk 6:26); there “Prophets” and “False Prophets” are mentioned in relation to the ethical instruction for believers to rejoice when experiencing persecution. It may be helpful to examine briefly the background and significance of these terms.

Prophets

The English word prophet is simply a transliteration of the Greek profh/th$ (proph¢¡t¢s), which is presumably derived from a root compound of a verb fh(mi) (“say, speak, tell”) and the particle pro (“fore[ward], before”), along with the related (or denominative) verb profhteu/w (proph¢teúœ). This can be understood in either (a) a spatial-relational sense (i.e., to speak/declare before someone, to speak forth), or (b) a temporal sense (to speak/declare beforehand). In earlier Greek (from the classical period) the former sense is dominant; by the time of the New Testament, the latter is more prominent. The verb prophteu/w (“to speak/tell before”) is roughly synonymous with similar verbs such as prole/gw (“gather/count/say before”), profwne/w (“give voice before”), and proagoreu/w (“say in public before”), and early on came to be used in the technical sense of delivering an oracle or message from the gods (cf. G. Friedrich in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament [TDNT] VI:781ff for an extended discussion and many references).

The Hebrew noun ayb!n` (n¹»î°) is usually translated in English as “prophet”, though its precise etymology remains uncertain. The Arabic verb naba°a (“announce, inform, impart”) may ultimately derive from the same (early Semitic) root as ayb!n` (the verb ab*n` is denominative, itself deriving from the noun ayb!n`). In all likelihood the Hebrew noun relates to the Akkadian verb nabû (“call, proclaim,” etc), and may reflect a passive form (i.e. “[one who is] called”, “[one] appointed to proclaim”; cf. a comparable term dyg]n` n¹gîd, “[one] highly visible, in front” [leader/ruler]). In any event, ayb!n` refers more to a role than a specific activity (unlike the partially synonymous word hz#j) µœzeh, “seer”, one who receives visions, cf. 1 Sam 9:9)—namely, to serve as an intermediary or spokesperson between God and the people. The role of prophet/ayb!n` was hardly unique to Israel; it is attested throughout the ancient world (the prophetic/oracular letters from Mari provide perhaps the closest early examples). Our best information, understandably, comes from prophets attached in some way to the royal court, but there doubtless were persons who fulfilled a similar role and function at the smaller community level (of family, clan, or tribe). By use of various means and methods (vision, oracle, divination), prophets informed people of the will and intention of the gods. “Prophecy” in the popular mind is often associated primarily with predicting the future; however, this is a distortion of the prophet’s true function—to reveal the will of God (or the gods). In the dynamic-magical (one might say “proto-logical”) religious mindset of the ancient world, that which God (or the gods) willed would certainly come to pass. In a non-literate or pre-literate society especially—with no sacred writings—leaders depended upon such a spokesperson for accurate “revelation”. As such, the “false prophet” (see below)—one whose revelatory information was ‘incorrect’ or unreliable—could have a devastating effect on society.

Interestingly, the term ayb!n` occurs only rarely in the Pentateuch and early Historical Books (Joshua–Samuel); outside of Deuteronomy and 1-2 Samuel, it appears only in Gen 20:7 (said of Abraham); Exod 7:1 (of Aaron); Num 11:29; 12:6; Judg 6:8, along with the feminine form ha*yb!n+ (Exod 15:20; Judg 4:4, of Miriam and Deborah) and the denominative verb ab*n` in Num 11:25-27 (of inspired elders/leaders of Israel, cf. v. 29). Deuteronomy 13:1-5 and 18:15-22 provide instruction for how the people should regard prophets who appear or become known in the community, including tests for true and false prophecy (see below); the latter passage, in particular, refers to Moses as a prophet (also in Deut 34:10). Samuel was the first great Prophet, in the traditional sense (1 Sam 3:20); but there are also enigmatic references to groups of prophets (1 Sam 10:5-12; 19:20-24) as well as passing mention of “prophets” (1 Sam 9:9; 28:6, 15), the precise context of which is lost to us today. Other specific prophets begin to be mentioned in the later sections of 1-2 Samuel—Gad (1 Sam 22:5; 2 Sam 24:11) and Nathan (2 Sam 7:2; 12:25)—and many more figures appear in the books of Kings (with parallel accounts in 2 Chronicles), intertwined with the political history of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The best known of these prophets are Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17–2 Kings 8) and Isaiah (see esp. Isa 6:1-9:6; 36-39 and parallel passages in Kings-Chronicles). Contrary to the popular conception of Elijah (and, subsequently, John the Baptist) in tradition, most of the prophets were almost certainly educated and literate persons, especially those associated with the royal court. In all likelihood, there were ‘schools’ or ‘guilds’ of prophets—already in 1 Sam 10:5-12; 19:20-24 we see prophetic groups or communities, and Isaiah is described in a matter of fact way as having ‘disciples’ (Isa 8:16). This latter reference also suggests the task of recording and preserving prophecies (in written form)—a very slight indication of the sort of work which may ultimately have produced the core of the Prophetic writings (Scriptures) which have come down to us (similar collections of oracles [of the Sibyls] are known from the Greco-Roman world).

The early Old Testament references to prophets and prophecy seem to emphasize three primary aspects: (1) the general role of serving as spokesperson (i.e. for God), (2) declaring a specific oracle or message from God, and (3) delivering ecstatic (divinely-)inspired utterances. By the kingdom period, it is the second aspect which dominates, in two basic ways (for an extended discussion, cf. F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic Harvard:1973, pp. 223-229):

  1. Royal oracles—messages delivered to kings, and related to their rule
  2. Judgment oracles—messages delivered to both king and people, foretelling and/or threatening God’s coming judgment, sometimes with an exhortation to repent

In the Prophet books (Scriptures) which are principally pre-exilic and/or exilic in date, the message is largely one of judgment, focusing upon the condition and fate of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. However, gradually, this is extended to incorporate two additional themes:

  1. Judgment oracles against the surrounding nations
  2. The promise of restoration following judgment (for at least a “remnant” of Israel/Judah)

The theme of restoration becomes even more prominent in the later exilic and post-exilic writings (all the more so if one wishes to include some or all of Isaiah 40-66 in this category), and provides the background for a good deal of Messianic thought in Judaism and early Christianity.

Within Jewish tradition, “the Prophets” came to be virtually synonymous with the Prophetic writings (Scriptures) that are now part of the Old Testament. The extent to which these writings derive from the Prophets themselves (and reflect their exact words) continues to be debated by scholars. There can be no doubt, however, that in Jesus’ time “the Prophets” meant the books as least as much as the men associated with them. The expression “the Law and the Prophets” served as a locution for all of what we would call inspired or authoritative Scripture (cf. Matt 5:17; 7:12; 11:13; 22:40; Lk 16:16, 29-31; 24:27, 44; Jn 1:45; Acts 13:15; 24:14; cf. Sirach 1:1), though the extent of the “canon” at the time remains an open question. The book of Psalms appears to have been included under the “Prophets” (with David as a prophet, cf. Acts 2:30), as well as the historical books Joshua–Samuel (associated with the prophet Samuel). Even the Law (Pentateuch) had a prophetic character, considered traditionally as the work of Moses (a prophet, cf. Deut 18:15ff; 34:10).

It is less clear to what extent the actual prophetic role and gift was believed to continue on in persons within Judaism up to the time of the New Testament. The evidence from Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls) is equivocal and ambiguous at best. The word ayb!n` (whether in the singular or plural) nearly always refers to the Prophets of old (or their Writings); in only a few instances is it possible that prophecy is thought to continue on into the present (e.g., in 1QS 1:3; 8:15-16; 1QpHab 7; 4Q265; 4Q375; 11Q5; 11Q19 54, 61; for these and other references cf. George J. Brooke, “Prophets and Prophecy in the Qumran Scrolls and the New Testament” in Text, Thought, and Practice in Qumran and Early Christianity Brill:2009, pp. 32-41). Within the Qumran Community, the positive sense of prophecy appears to have been limited to the (inspired) teaching and interpretation of Scripture (“the Law and Prophets”), such as is exemplified in the “Teacher of Righteousness” (Jesus fulfills a similar role as inspired interpreter in the Sermon on the Mount, cf. Matt 5:17-20ff). 1 Maccabees 9:27 seems to reflect a common sentiment that authoritative Prophets (in the ancient religious and Scriptural sense) had disappeared from Israel—a view which helped to fuel eschatological and apocalyptic expectation of a great Prophet-to-Come. There were two strands to this tradition: one, in terms of Moses (via Deut 18:15-19, cf. 1 Macc 4:46; 14:41; 1QS 9:11; 4Q158; 4Q174); the other, in terms of Elijah (prim. from Mal 3:1; 4:5-6, cf. Sir 48:10; 4Q558; also 4Q521). This (eschatological) Prophet is mentioned several times in the New Testament, in reference to Jesus (see Jn 6:14; 7:40, also Lk 7:16; Jn 1:21, 25 and note the imagery in Mark 9:4ff par); in Acts 3:22-23; 7:37, Jesus is explicitly identified with the “Prophet like Moses” of Deut 18:15ff. As for the figure of Elijah, there is some evidence associating him with Jesus (see Mark 9:4ff par; Jn 1:21, 25; Lk 4:25-26 and 7:18-23 par, with similar language [from Isa 61] in Lk 4:18ff), though in the Synoptic tradition he is more commonly identified with John the Baptist (Mark 8:18; 9:11-13 par; Matt 11:14; Lk 1:17, 76; but see John’s explicit denial of the role in Jn 1:21). In the Gospels, Jesus himself is depicted as prophesying: regarding his own suffering and death (Mark 8:31; 9:31 par), the destruction of Jerusalem (Mark 13:1-2 par; Lk 19:43-44), and other end-time events (Mark 13 par [Matt 24; Lk 21], also Lk 17:20-37). And, of course, in traditional Christian theology, Prophet is one of the three main “offices” of Christ.

Within the early Christian community, prophecy was viewed as a manifestation of the work of the Holy Spirit, marking the “new age” which inaugurates the end-time (see the quotation and adaptation of Joel 2:28-32 in Peter’s Pentecost speech, Acts 2:14ff, and cf. Acts 19:6). In the Pauline congregations, prophecy had its proper place as a “gift” and work of the Spirit (Rom 12:6; 1 Cor 11:4-5; 12:10, 28-29; 13:2, 8-9; 14:1-6, 22ff; 1 Thess 5:20); and there are other references to prophets and prophecy in the Church as well (Matt 7:22; Acts 13:1; 15:32; 21:9-10; Eph 4:11; 1 Tim 1:18; 4:14, etc), though the exact nature such activity and utterance is not entirely clear. The early Christian Didache (chaps. 11-13) deals with the issue of receiving prophets, including the question of how to judge whether they are true or false (see below). The expression “Apostles and Prophets” (Eph 2:20; 3:5; 4:14; Didache 11:3) almost serves as a locution for all leaders and teachers in the community. This may also relate back to the manner in which early believers (esp. the Apostles and first disciples) were, by the suffering and persecution which they would endure, identified with the Prophets of old—the theme of persecution of the Prophets is relatively common in the New Testament (Matt 23:29-37; Lk 11:47-50; 13:34; Acts 7:52; 1 Thess 2:15), serving as sympathetic and exhortative examples for believers (Heb 11:32-12:1) and signifying their ultimate heavenly reward (Matt 5:11-12; Lk 6:22-23; Rev 11:18; 16:6; 18:24).

Interestingly, there is relatively little direct evidence in the Old Testament itself regarding the persecution of the Prophets. We read of attempts to kill Jeremiah (Jer 26; 38:4-6ff, cf. also Jer 15:15; 17:18; 20:11), and Elijah (1 Kings 19:1ff); the latter episode occurring within the context of Ahab and Jezebel putting prophets to death (1 Kings 8:4, 13; 19:1, 10, 14), just as king Jehoiakim put to death Jeremiah’s contemporary, Uriah. Later tradition, as recorded by Josephus (Antiquities 10.38), attributes similar widespread slaughter of prophets by wicked king Manasseh, but there is no comparable detail in the Old Testament (Josephus may simply be elaborating upon 1 Kings 21:16). Amos encountered threatening opposition from the priest of Bethel (Amos 7:10-13), but no further action is recorded. The Jewish work known as The Lives of the Prophets (1st cent. A.D.?) summarizes the lives and careers of twenty-three prophets; of these, only six (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Amos, and Zechariah ben Jehoiada) were put to death, though a number of others suffered persecution in some form. Most famously, Isaiah is recorded as having been sawn in two during the reign of Manasseh (1:1), and this appears to be reasonably well-established tradition (cf. Martyrdom of Isaiah 5:1-5; j. Sanh 10:28c, 37; b. Yeb 49b, and the reference in Heb 11:37a). For Zechariah ben Jehoiada, see the note at the bottom of the page.

False Prophets

The term “False Prophet” translates the Greek yeudoprofh/th$ (pseudoproph¢¡t¢s), but actual references to “false prophets” in Scripture are quite rare. As indicated above, societies—especially those which did not rely on fixed authoritative Writings—depended on the veracity and reliability of their prophets (i.e. those who spoke for and interpreted the will of God [or the gods]). False or unreliable prophecy was, therefore, a religious problem of the highest magnitude. For ancient Israelite religion, the question of false prophets is addressed in Deuteronomy 13:1-5 and 18:15-22. The first passage is connected with idolatry: the prophet who advocates following after “other gods”, even if associated prophetic ‘signs’ have come true, can be judged to be acting falsely (implied) and should be put to death. The second passage frames the true Israelite prophet as being like Moses (see the discussion above), and offers a simple test in 18:20-22: if the prophecy does not come true, then it is not a message spoken by God (cf. also Jer 28:9). This latter test is reasonable enough on the surface, but who makes this determination? Moreover, it may take generations to determine whether a prophecy has ultimately come to pass; indeed, numerous oracles in the Prophetic writings (Scriptures) have not clearly come to pass or require questionable methods of interpretation to demonstrate that they have taken place. By comparison, the early Christian Didache, in its discussion on receiving prophets (chaps 11-13), uses their moral conduct and ethical behavior (along with ‘orthodoxy’ in teaching) as the principal test (11:8-12). Jesus himself offers a test regarding false prophets (Matt 7:15ff), whom he apparently identifies with those followers who have not done “the will of my Father” (vv. 21ff); in the context of the Sermon on Mount, this no doubt refers to those who fail or refuse to follow Jesus’ own teaching and interpretation of the Law.

Who exactly are these “false prophets”? Are there any examples in Scripture? The prophets of pagan religions and deities (such as those of Canaanite Baal-Haddu, 1 Kings 19:20-40 etc), according to the nature of Israelite monotheism, have to be considered false. Other “false” prophets are, perhaps, to be associated with the use of questionable means (forms of visions, dreams and divination, etc, cf. Jer 23:25ff; Ezek 13:7ff; Isa 8:19, etc); however, the emphasis in Jer 23:9-40 and Ezek 13:1-23 has more to do with relying on “false” visions which come from the prophet’s own mind. 1 Kings 22:5-28 records an historical instance of “false prophets” (contrasted with a “true” prophet, Micaiah vv. 8ff)—here at least the name of one “false” prophet is mentioned (Zedekiah, v. 24). In 1 Kings 22 and Ezek 13, the false prophets declare peace, security and military success (which, of course, is just what the people and the ruler would like to hear), rather than judgment, destruction, and military defeat. This, indeed, would seem to be the primary characteristic of “false prophets”—they declare what appeals to their audience, rather than the (often harsh) message which may come from God (Isa 30:10-11; Jer 5:31; 6:14; 8:11; 14:3; Mic 2:11; 3:5; for a similar thought, cf. also 2 Tim 4:3). In Jeremiah 28, Hananiah is a (false) prophet who, in a similar fashion, predicts the defeat of Babylon (see esp. Jeremiah’s response and rebuke in vv. 6-9). At the time of the New Testament, the famous and ancient figure of Balaam would no doubt have been considered a false prophet, of sorts (cf. 2 Pet 2:5; Rev 2:14); however, in at least one strand of Old Testament tradition, Balaam appears as a positive figure, who utters (inspired) oracles regarding Israel (Numbers 23-24).

Within the New Testament and early Christian tradition, along with the revival of Spirit-guided prophecy (see above), the problem of false prophets surface anew. Already Jesus had warned of false prophets (Matt 7:15; 24:11, 24) to come. The Jewish magos Elymas (bar-Jesus) is called a false prophet in Acts 13:6; and the danger of (pseudo-)Christian false prophets is mentioned in early writings as well (1 Pet 2:1; 1 Jn 4:1; Didache 11-13). In Jesus’ eschatological discourse (Mark 13 par) “false prophets” are connected with “false Christs”—that is, false Messiahs—(Mk 13:22 and par Matt 24:11, 24); and elsewhere there is an association with those who claim to have done wonders in Jesus’ name (Matt 7:21-23). More prominent is the connection with “false teaching” in the Church (see esp. 1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 3:1-9; 4:3f; 2 Pet 2:1-3; 1 Jn 4:1ff; 2 Jn 9-10; Rev 2:14-15, 20, 24; Did 11:3ff, and Paul’s reference to “false brothers” and “false apostles” in 2 Cor 11:13, 26; Gal 2:2, cf. also Rev 2:2). 1 John provides perhaps the most detailed description of false teaching, related to a specific Christological view, which is difficult to determine precisely (see esp. 1 Jn 2:18-25; 4:1-6). This aberrant view of Christ is connected both with “false prophets” (4:1) and “antichrist” (2:18) which have resulted in divisions within the community (2:10). 1 Jn 4:1ff provides another test to determine false prophets, whether the spirit which speaks through the Christian messenger is truly from God. Mention should also be made of the personification of false prophecy depicted in the book of Revelation (see on the “False Prophet” in Rev 16:13; 19:20; 20:10); whether this should be understood as a real flesh-and-blood figure, or symbolic and representative, quite depends on one’s mode of interpreting the book (but cf. 2 Thess 2:9-11).

In referring to “false prophets” in the ‘Woe’ of Luke 6:26, Jesus is drawing upon the Old Testament image of prophets who declare things which the people want to hear (peace, prosperity, material security, et al), rather than the message of God. This explains why people speak well of them, and they may have considerable currency and popularity in their lifetime; but the ultimate (heavenly) reward belongs to those who confront society with a message of righteousness (justice) and holiness, according to the example of God in Christ.

The reference to Zechariah in Matt 23:35 presents a notorious historical-critical difficulty. Here he is named as “Zechariah son of Berechiah” (the designation of the Old Testament exilic prophet of the book that bears his name), but the historical event described almost certainly relates to “Zechariah son of Jehoiada” (2 Chron 24:20-22), an earlier figure. The Lives of the Prophets correctly distinguishes the two characters, but regards them both as prophets (chs. 15, 23 [2 Chron 24:2 describes Zechariah ben Jehoiada as a priest]). That there was some confusion in the tradition is clear from the so-called Proto-Gospel (Protevangelium) of James (mid-2nd cent. A.D.), which further identifies the Zechariah slain in the Sanctuary with Zechariah the father of John the Baptist (§23-24).

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The Old Testament in the Book of Acts

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This study is preliminary to a series on the Speeches in the Book of Acts.

It hardly need be said that the Writings (Scriptures) which make up what we call the Old Testament were essential in early Christian thought and practice, and yet one may tend to overlook just how central they were to the earliest proclamation (kerygma) of the “good Message” (Gospel) and the formation of Christian teaching. Jesus and the apostles were immersed in the language and imagery of the Scriptures, both in the original Hebrew and in Aramaic and Greek translation. The slightest nuance or similarity of phrasing led early believers to associate Scripture passages with Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection, even when they originally had a very different context. Almost certainly, florilegia—collections of relevant quotations—began to be compiled early on. We can see this use of Scripture—the stringing together of verses and phrases—throughout the New Testament (cf. Romans 3:10-18; 15:9-12; Hebrews 1:5-13, etc.). Among the Gospels, Matthew in particular frequently cites specific ‘prophetic’ passages: “now this whole (matter) came to be (so) that it might be fulfilled the (word) uttered by the Lord through the Foreteller [i.e. Prophet], saying…” (Matt. 1:22), etc. Of course, Jesus himself is recorded as frequently quoting Scripture.

However, the Gospels make use of the Old Testament in other ways as well. The Gospel of John, especially in the great Discourses (see throughout John 2:13-10:42), emphasizes the festival and holy day settings (Sabbath, Passover, Sukkoth [Tabernacles], etc.) with their associated themes, images and Scripture passages; of the Gospels, John most clearly identifies the death of Jesus with the Passover (John 19:14, 29, 31-36, etc.). As for Luke-Acts, Old Testament stories and details (often using language which directly echoes the Septuagint) shape some of the most distinctive narratives: the Infancy narrative(s), for example, draw upon the birth/childhood of Samuel and the various angelic appearances; the transfiguration account adds details related to the Sinai theophany, and so forth. This extends into the book of Acts: the Pentecost narrative (Acts 2:1-13) likewise echoes the Sinai theophany and giving of the Torah with its related traditions, the exilic/post-exilic theme of the restoration of Israel, etc.—as I discussed in an earlier post.

Two passages, unique to the Gospel of Luke, offer a glimpse behind the early Christian thinking in this regard:

  1. In the resurrection appearance on the road to Emmaus, Jesus rebukes the disciples for being “slow to trust all that was spoken by the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets]… was it not necessary for the Anointed to suffer and come into his glory?” (24:25-26)—then it is stated that Jesus, “beginning from Moses and from all the Foretellers he explained through to them the (things) about himself in all the Writings” (24:27, cf. also v. 32).
  2. In the second appearance, to the larger group of disciples, he reiterates earlier teaching that “it is necessary to be fulfilled all the (things which) have been written in the law of Moses and in the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets] and Psalms about me” (24:44)—then it is stated that Jesus “opened their mind through to understand [lit. put together] the Writings” (24:45), saying “thus it has been written (of) the Anointed suffering and rising [lit. standing up] on the third day…” (24:46).

Nothing is said of just which Writings (Scriptures) were indicated, or how they were “put together” for the disciples. Indeed, scholars have been hard pressed to find passages (outside of Isaiah 53) which could be said to refer specifically to the suffering and death of the Anointed (i.e., Christ/Messiah); the same could be said for other details of Jesus’ life and Passion. However, based on evidence from the Gospels and Acts—as well as other early Christian writings and contemporary Jewish traditions—I have compiled a list of relevant Old Testament references, which I included in an earlier post.

The theme encapsulated in Luke 24:25-27, 44-47 continues on in the Book of Acts, both in the historical introductions to the specific narrative episodes and speeches and within the speeches themselves. The disciples, in their preaching and ministry, sought to:

  • Demonstrate that the Scriptures refer to the suffering (followed by the resurrection/exaltation) of the Anointed (Christ/Messiah)—Acts 1:16; 3:18; 17:2-3; 18:28; 26:23; cf. also 8:32-35; 17:11
  • That Jesus was in fact the Anointed—Acts 2:36; 3:20; 5:42; 8:5, 35; 9:22; 17:3; 18:5, 28, etc.

The frequency of these references suggest that both points of belief posed great difficulty and a challenge for the disciples as they proclaimed the early Gospel message to their fellow Jews. The very fact of Jesus’ apparently ignoble death (on the stake [i.e. cross]), without “restoring the Kingdom to Israel”, would have been a tremendous obstacle to viewing him as the Anointed (“Messiah”). Apart from Isa 53 (cf. Acts 8:32-35), very few Scripture passages describe anything like the suffering or death of a (future) Anointed figure; indeed, to judge by contemporary Jewish writings, nearly all of the most commonly cited ‘Messianic’ passages (Gen 49:10; Num 24:17ff; 2 Sam 7; Ps 2; Isa 11:1-5ff, etc) emphasize the victorious (even military) exercise of kingly power. The same is true when one looks at ‘Messianic’ belief and expectation in the Jewish writings of the first centuries B.C./A.D. (the Qumran texts, Psalms of Solomon, Testaments of Judah/Levi, 1 Enoch [esp. the Similitudes, chs. 37-71], and 4 Ezra)—of these, only 4 Ezra (i.e. 2/4 Esdras) refers to the death of the Messiah (7:29ff), but in a very different setting. It is perhaps noteworthy that only Isa 53 is specifically cited in the narrative context of the disciples expounding the Scriptures (the passages listed above) regarding this very point, and that some of the most common ‘Messianic’ passages are not used in the New Testament at all.

If specific Scriptures are not indicated in these narrative introductions and summaries in Acts, they are central to the great speeches (or sermons) which represent early Gospel proclamation (kerygma) and preaching of the Disciples. The main sections of Acts tend to follow a basic pattern:

  • Narrative introduction
  • Speech by a principal character (Peter, Paul, Stephen, etc), usually centered on the quotation and exposition of a passage (or passages) of Scripture
  • Historical/editorial summary (sammelbericht, to use a technical term from German scholarship)

Most of the citations of Scripture come from speeches in the first half of the book (Acts 2-4, 7, 13). Here is a list of quotations (for the sake of convenience, I have adopted this from J. A. Fitzmyer, Anchor Bible Vol. 31, Introduction § 73, p. 90):

  • Acts 1:20—Psalms 69:26; 109:8
  • Acts 2:17-21—Joel 3:1-5
  • Acts 2:25-28—Psalm 16:8-11
  • Acts 2:30—Psalm 132:11
  • Acts 2:31—Psalm 16:10
  • Acts 2:34-35—Psalm 110:1
  • Acts 3:13—Exod 3:6, 15
  • Acts 3:22-23—Deut 13:15-16, 19; Lev 23:29
  • Acts 3:25—Gen 22:18; 26:4
  • Acts 4:11—Psalm 118:22
  • Acts 4:24—Psalm 146:6
  • Acts 4:25-26—Psalm 2:1-2
  • Acts 7:3, 5—Gen 12:1; 17:8; 48:4
  • Acts 7:18—Exod 1:8
  • Acts 7:27-28—Exod 2:14
  • Acts 7:30-34—Exod 3:2, 5-8, 10
  • Acts 7:35—Exod 2:14
  • Acts 7:37—Deut 18:15
  • Acts 7:40—Exod 32:1, 23
  • Acts 7:42-43—Amos 5:25-27
  • Acts 7:49-50—Isaiah 66:1-2
  • Acts 8:32-33—Isaiah 53:7-8
  • Acts 13:22—Psalm 89:21; 1 Sam 13:14
  • Acts 13:33—Psalm 2:7
  • Acts 13:34-35—Isa 55:3; Psalm 16:10
  • Acts 13:41—Hab 1:5
  • Acts 13:47—Isaiah 49:6
  • Acts 15:16-17—Amos 9:11-12
  • Acts 23:5—Exod 22:27
  • Acts 28:26-27—Isaiah 6:9-10

As throughout the New Testament, these quotations often differ in some respect from the standard Greek version (LXX), but occasionally also from any known version, Hebrew or Greek. In this regard, several possibilities ought to be examined:

  1. The extent to which a quotation matches a Greek (or underlying Hebrew) version
  2. It may be a free or loose quotation (from memory)
  3. The quotation may have been consciously or purposefully modified, sometimes yielding an entirely different sense or meaning than that which the text had originally

Scholars and theologians are, at times, bothered by the second and third possibilities, as they seem to violate the ‘sacredness’ of the text, not to mention a straightforward ‘grammatical-historical’ method as the first and most reliable interpretive approach. Even traditional-conservative commentators are forced to admit instances of “inspired (secondary) interpretation” or “inspired application” of the text by New Testament authors and speakers. At the very least, one should recognize the early Christian approach to Scripture, much as that of contemporary Jews (at Qumran and elsewhere), as reflecting a more creative use of the sacred Writings. If one today adopted similar methods, he or she would no doubt be accused of eisegesis—of reading a meaning into the text which was not originally there.

Let us look at an example from the above list:

The Speech of James—Acts 15:13-21

The speech given by James is central to the account of the so-called ‘Jerusalem Council’ (Acts 15:1-35). It works in tandem with another short speech (by Peter, vv. 7-11), and serves to join the two parts of the narrative: (1) the ‘Council’ dealing with the question of whether Gentile believers must keep the Law of Moses [esp. circumcision], and (2) a letter sent to Gentile believers advising them on what requirements of the Law they ought to keep. Peter’s speech centers on an earlier episode recorded in Acts—the conversion of Cornelius (10:1-11:18). James’ speech, by contrast, uses a passage of Scripture—Amos 9:11-12.

Here is a comparison of Amos 9:11-12:

Translation of the Hebrew (MT)

11 In that day I will raise up [lit. make stand] the woven-shelter of David th(at) is fallen,
and I will wall up her [pl.] (holes that are) bursting out;
And I will raise up [lit. make stand] his [sg.] torn-down-remains [i.e. ruins],
and I will build her [sg.] as in (the) days of distant (past)
12 In order that they possess the remainder of Edom
and all the nations (for) which my name is called upon them—
utterance of YHWH (the one) doing this.

Greek (LXX) with translation

11 e)n th=| h(me/ra| e)kei/nh| a)nasth/sw th\n skhnh\n Dauid th\n peptwkui=an kai\ a)noikodomh/sw ta\ peptwko/ta au)th=$ kai\ ta\ kateskamme/na au)th=$ a)nasth/sw kai\ a)noikodomh/sw au)th\n kaqw\$ ai( h(me/rai tou= ai)w=no$
12 o%pw$ e)kzhth/swsin oi( kata/loipoi tw=n a)nqrw/pwn [to\n ku/rion] kai\ pa/nta ta\ e&qnh e)f’ ou^$ e)pike/klhtai to\ o&noma/ mou e)p’ au)tou/$ le/gei ku/rio$ o( qeo\$ o( poiw=n tau/ta

11 In that day I will raise [lit. stand] up/again the tent of David th(at) has fallen and I will build up/again her [sg.] fallen-parts, and I will raise [lit. stand] up/again her [sg.] dug-down-remains [i.e. ruins] and I will build her [sg.] up/again even as (in) the days of the (past) age
12 how that the (ones) remaining down [i.e. the remainder] of men, and every nation upon whom my name has been called, might seek out [the Lord], says the Lord God the (one) doing these things.

Acts 15:16-18

11 meta\ tau=ta a)nastre/yw kai\ a)noikodmh/sw th\n skh/nhn Daui\d th\n peptwkui=an kai\ ta\ kateskamme/na au)th=$ a)noikodomh/sw kai\ a)norqw/sw au)th/n
12 o%pw$ a&n e)kzhth/swsin oi( kata/loipoi tw=n a)nqrw/pwn to\n ku/rion kai\ pa/nta ta\ e&qnh e)f’ ou^$ e)pike/klhtai to\ o&noma/ mou e)p’ au)tou/$ le/gei ku/rio$ poiw=n tau=ta
gnwsta\ a)p’ ai)w=no$

11 After these (things) I will turn up/again [i.e. return] and I will build up/again the tent of David th(at) has fallen and her [sg.] dug-down-remains [i.e. ruins] I will build up/again and I will set her [sg.] straight up/again,
12 how that the (ones) remaining down [i.e. the remainder] of men, and every nation upon whom my name has been called, might seek out the Lord—says the Lord doing these things,
known from (the) age.

The LXX generally follows the Hebrew of v. 11, although in very flat translation, having lost nearly all of the color and texture of the verse. The citation in James/Acts matches neither the Hebrew or LXX all that closely; it generally follows the vocabulary of the LXX, but in a much simpler form. The most notable differences between the LXX and James/Acts for v. 11 are:

LXX:

e)n th=| h(me/ra| e)kei/nh| (“in that day”)

{no corresponding phrase}

repeats a)noikodomh/sw (“I will build up/again”)

kaqw\$ ai( h(me/rai tou= ai)w=no$
(“even as [in] the days of the [past] age”)

Acts/James:

meta\ tau=ta (“after these [things]”)

a)nastre/yw (“I will turn up/again [i.e. return]”)

uses a)norqw/sw (“I will set straight up/again”)

{no corresponding phrase}
(reflected in gnwsta\ a)p’ ai)w=no$?)

For verse 12, LXX (A) and James/Acts are nearly identical, and both are very different from the Hebrew: “they may possess the remainder of Edom” has turned into “the remainder of men might seek out [the Lord]”—this seems to be the result of a two-fold error in translation:

  1. <d)a$ (Edom, defective spelling) was mistaken for <d*a* (Adam/man)
  2. Wvr=yy] (“they [may] possess”) was either mistaken for (or ‘corrected’ to) Wvr=d=y] (“they [may] seek”)

The lack of a clearly identified subject for the verb in Hebrew would have added to the confusion: the ‘remainder’ and ‘all the nations…’ became the subject (who/what seeks out) in the Greek version. There being no clear object for the ‘seeking’ it was easy enough to add a pronoun or “the Lord” as both the A-text and Acts/James do. That these verses would have proved difficult for Greek translators to understand, several centuries after the fact, is not surprising; it remains troublesome even today. Consider, for example, the complex set of referents indicated by the various pronominal suffixes in verse 11. As for verse 12, there are three ways to read the text:

  1. “all the nations…” is a coordinate object with “Edom”. That is, Israel will possess “Edom and all the nations”. There are two difficulties with this view: (a) the lack of a parallel object marker (Áta) for “all the nations”, and (b) the phrase “my name is called upon” being applied to the nations, which is unusual in the Old Testament. The sense would be that the nations possessed by restored Israel will come to have God’s name called upon them—that is, they will effectively be converted.
  2. “all the nations…” is the subject, coordinate with Israel (implied). This would be translated as follows: “They—even all the nations (for) which my name is called upon them—will possess the remainder of Edom”. Though such a role for the nations may fit the outlook of the LXX and Acts, it seems rather foreign to the original context of Amos; however the idea of nations united/cooperating with Israel could conceivably be in mind.
  3. The phrase “which my name is called upon them” is substantively the subject, but does not apply to “all the nations”. This would be translated: “They—(those for) which my name is called upon them—will possess the remainder of Edom and all the nations”. Here the sense would be that the (restored) Israel is identified (only) with those upon whom God’s name is called. This is an interesting possibility, and one which does fit the context of Amos to some extent.

Despite some syntactical awkwardness, I feel that the first way of reading the verse remains the best option. Of course, there is always the possibility of corruption having crept into the Masoretic text; unfortunately, only one Dead Sea document (a Prophets scroll from Wadi Murabba‘at) contains v. 12, highly fragmentary, but apparently conforming to the MT. Otherwise, apart from the variant reading of LXX/Acts, there is little basis for asserting textual corruption here.

There are other textual, literary and historical-critical difficulties regarding the citation of Amos 9:11-12 in Acts, such as:

  • At the historical level, would James have cited such a passage of Scripture from the Greek? If so, did he recognize a discrepancy with the Hebrew?
  • To what extent is this quotation the product of the author (traditionally Luke) rather than the speaker (James), whether in terms of translation or insertion?
  • What is one to make of either author or speaker using a version of Scripture which is apparently at odds with the original (inspired) Hebrew text?

These are important questions, both for an understanding of the composition of the book (Acts), and in terms of how we regard the nature and extent of inspiration. However, both are rather too complex to deal with adequately here; I will be treating such questions in at least some detail in the series on the Speeches of Acts.

Admitting that there are difficulties with the version of Amos 9:11-12 cited by Acts/James, just how does the author/speaker make use of it, and how does this differ from the original context of the passage?

Consider first the original setting of these verses in the book of Amos: they are part of an ‘epilogue’, both to the sequence of visions (7:1-9:6) and the book as a whole. After searing proclamations of judgment, concluding with a vision of destruction for Israel (9:1-6), there is a promise of restoration, beginning in vv. 7-8, and more fully in vv. 11-15. The “woven-shelter” (hKs often translated “hut”, “booth”) of David, central to this passage, is a curious image—overall, the reference seems to be to the Kingdom (of Judah) and Jerusalem (but perhaps representative of the whole Kingdom) in ruins; however the “booth”, with its echo of the exodus and wilderness wandering (commemorated by the festival of toKs), may refer to an Israelite identity that predates/transcends the Kingdom (at least the divided Kingdom of Amos’ time). The restored Israel will possess again the land (vv. 14-15), including the territory of Edom and, it would seem, the surrounding nations (v. 12), accompanied by a time of renewed prosperity (vv. 13-14).

In James’ speech (Acts 15:13-21), these verses are applied to the early Christian mission to the Gentiles, in particular to the episode of Peter and Cornelius (vv. 7-11, 14; cf. 10:1-11:18). This is done by “catchphrase bonding”, an ancient interpretive method, but one which is rather foreign to us today. By this method, different passages of Scripture (which may be otherwise unrelated), are connected by the presence of a common/similar word or phrase. Here the triggering phrase is “a people for/to His Name”:

V. 14: Simeon [i.e. Simon Peter] has related [lit. led out] even as (at the) first God looked closely upon (it) to take out of (the) nations a people for/to His Name.

The verb e)piske/ptomai (or e)piskope/w), here translated somewhat literally as “look closely/carefully upon”, has a relatively wide semantic range—”consider [i.e. think upon]”, “observe”, “examine”, “inspect”, and ultimately to visit/attend (for the purpose of examination, inspection, etc). This latter technical meaning underlies the word e)pi/skopo$ (typically translated “overseer”).
The verb lamba/nw can have the sense of “take” or “receive”, depending on the context.
“Name” is in the dative (tw=| o)no/mati), but there is no preposition, which has to be supplied in English.

One well-versed in the Scriptures—whether James of the author of Acts—might quickly associate this phrase with the reference in Amos 9:12; and, while the context of the Hebrew is perhaps not so suitable, the Greek of the LXX is very much to his purpose, for it speaks of the nations “upon whom My Name is called” seeking out [the Lord]. Unmistakably, this here is a reference to ‘God-fearing’ Gentiles (such as Cornelius) seeking God (the Lord) and responding to Christ (the Lord) in the proclamation of the Gospel. In other words, James associates the LXX version of Amos 9:12 with the early Christian mission and conversion of the Gentiles. Interestingly, in the Greek, it is no longer the remnant of Israel specifically involved but rather the remnant of (all?) men.

It is all the more extraordinary that this universal reference to the nations would be associated with the “fallen booth/tent of David”, which in Amos clearly refers to Israel and the Davidic Kingdom. However, this is fully in accord with the implicit theme (in Luke-Acts) of the “restoration of Israel” in terms of the early Christian mission—beginning with the Twelve (symbolic of the twelve Tribes) and other believers in Jerusalem, to the Jews of the dispersion (among the nations), and then to ‘God-fearers’ and other Gentiles (non-Jews among the nations). Even in the Hebrew of Amos 9:12 there is the idea of nations who are (or come to be) associated with Israel and share “God’s Name upon them”.

In this light, one should also recognize an eschatological aspect of this reference in Acts. The introductory phrase itself (“after these [things] I will return”), found neither in the LXX or the Hebrew, seems to carry such a nuance. God returns to His People (cf. for example the echoes of the Sinai theophany in Acts 2), establishing His Kingdom in the new Age (“last days” cf. Acts 2:17ff, etc) which now consists of both Jews and Gentiles (cf. Paul’s grand eschatological hope/expectation in Romans 9-11). It is clear from the Qumran texts that Amos 9:11 was understood in an eschatological/Messianic sense. The Florilegium (4Q174), which strings together related Scripture passages (with a brief interpretation), associates Amos 9:11 with the promise of the Davidic dynasty in 2 Sam 7:

This (refers to the) “Branch of David”, who will arise with the Interpreter of the Law who [will rise up] in Zi[on in] the [l]ast days, as it is written: “I will raise up the hut of David which has fallen”, This (refers to) “the hut of David which has fall[en”, which he will raise up to save Israel. (translation from García Martínez & Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition Vol. 1 [Leiden/Brill, 1998/2000], p. 353)

Here the “booth/hut of David” is identified with the Messianic designation “Branch of David”, that is to say with a specific Anointed (Messianic) figure. A similar use of Amos 9:11 is found in the Cairo version of the Damascus Document (CD 7:15-16 [MS A]); this passage mentions in sequence: (a) coming days of judgment and tribulation [citing Isa 7:17], (b) exile of the ‘booth of the king’ [Amos 5:26-27], (c) raising up the ‘booth of David’ [Amos 9:11], (d) the coming of the ‘star’ [Interpreter of the Law] and ‘sceptre’ [Messiah/Prince] who will smite the nations [Num 24:17]. Such eschatological expectations are very far removed from the book of Acts (cf. 1:6ff, not to mention most of the New Testament as a whole); that is to say, they have been transferred into a different framework:

Jewish expectation c. 1st century B.C./A.D.
(Qumran texts, etc.)

  • Signs of travail, persecution, etc
  • Appearance of an Anointed figure (Messiah)
  • Judgment/war on the (wicked) nations
  • Restoration of the Kingdom

Early Christian expectation (1st cent. A.D.)
(Jesus’ teaching, Apostolic preaching, rest of NT)

  • Signs of travail, persecution, etc
  • Judgment on the World
  • Return of Christ (Parousia)
  • Entry into Life in Heaven with God/Christ
    (references to an earthly ‘Messianic’ kingdom are rare in the NT)

Finally, it is interesting to consider the wider context of James’ speech in Acts—namely, the question of whether, or to what extent, Gentile believers must keep the Law of Moses. Many Jewish Christians held the strict view that it was necessary for Gentiles to be circumcised to keep the Law of Moses (i.e. in its entirety)—cf. Acts 15:5, etc., and all of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In response, James limits the ‘requirement’ to those things which traditionally applied to those associated with Israel (as aliens/sojourners), cf. especially Lev. 17-18. The nature and historical context of this resolution (Acts 15:19-21, and in the letter, vv. 22-29) continue to be debated; and, of course, as the Church grew to become predominantly Gentile, and influenced greatly by Paul’s writings, these restrictions soon disappeared. However, the theme of the believer’s relation to the Old Testament Law code(s) continues to be a significant and controversial matter.

The association of Amos 9:11-12 with this question of keeping the Law has an interesting parallel in the passage from the Damascus Document mentioned above. There the “fallen booth of David” is specifically identified with the Books of the Law (Torah), related to the congregation as a whole. The reference in Num 24:17 (“star” and “sceptre”) was understood as foretelling the coming of an “Interpreter of the Law” and a “Prince of the Congregation”—these two will restore obedience to the Books of the Law (and Prophets) “whose sayings Israel has despised”. So here we have two distinct interpretations of the “booth of David” found in the Qumran community (and related groups):

Identified with the coming (Anointed) One
who will save/restore Israel

Identified with the Torah, which the coming (Anointed) One[s]
will restore to Israel

Can we not see Jesus as both Anointed (Christ) and Torah (Word of God), who comes to save His People?

van-eycks-adoration-of-the-lamb

“…the things about the Kingdom of God” (continued)

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In the first portion of this article, you will find an exhaustive list of New Testament references to the Kingdom of God, along with an brief survey of many sayings of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels—this was the first of three main sections to the article. I also provided a simple list of four primary aspects of the Kingdom of God concept:

  1. The eternal rule of God (in Heaven)
  2. An eschatological Kingdom (on earth), which can be understood in two different aspects:
    a. An absolute or cosmic sense: New heavens and new earth (preceded by judgment on the World)
    b. A localized sense: Messianic kingdom (preceded by judgment of the Nations)
  3. The presence of Christ—His life, work and teaching, death and resurrection
  4. The presence of God/Christ (through the Spirit) in the hearts, minds, and lives of believers

In the continuation here can be found the final two sections of the article: (a) on the eschatological aspect of the Kingdom in more detail, and (b) discussion more generally on the tension between a present and future sense of the Kingdom.

2. The Eschatological Aspect(s) of the Kingdom of God

In addition to the two-fold aspect indicated above, one may identify several strands which had coalesced by the time of the New Testament:

  • God’s impending Judgment (as King) upon the nations and rulers of the world—prophetic theme of the “day of YHWH”
  • A “new age” under God’s rule—a time of peace and prosperity on earth (see Isa. 2:4 and many other passages); in 2 Baruch 73 and Test. Mos. 10, etc., this idyllic condition is specific related to God’s Kingdom (or Kingdom of Heaven)
  • Restoration of God’s rightful place as King among his people, in the religious-political order—with related theme of restored/rebuilt Temple—in addition to passages in the Prophets (Isa. 56:7; 60; 66:20; Zech 14:16ff, etc.), see also Tobit 14:5ff; 1 Enoch 25:4ff; 91:13; Jub. 1:15ff; 11QTemple 29, etc. The nations also will bring their wealth and offerings to God (in Jerusalem).
  • The return of Israel (the Twelve tribes) from the nations, to constitute a renewed people/kingdom (centered in Jersualem)—cf. many passages in the Prophets (Isa. 2:2ff; 11:11f; 49:5ff; 56:1-8; 66:18-24, etc.) and subsequent Jewish literature (Tobit 13:5ff; Sirach 36:11ff; 2 Macc. 1:27ff; Ps. Sol. 17; Sib. Or. bk. 3; 1QM; Philo On Rewards and Punishments §§94ff, 162ff, etc.)
  • The restoration of Davidic rule (‘eternal covenant’ with David, cf. 2 Sam 7:12ff, etc) in the person of an idealized/future Anointed figure (i.e. Messiah, “Branch of David”, cf. Isa. 11:1ff, etc). Under the influence of the Book of Daniel (and possibly other apocalyptic works), this “Messiah” concept merged with a separate “Son of Man” tradition—of a pre-existent, chosen human (or angelic) divine representative; cf. the Similitudes of Enoch (chs. 37-71) and the Gospels (Mark 2:10; 9:12; 13:26; 14:62; John 1:51, et al.)

The first three of these could certainly be understood in a general or symbolic fashion; the last two, however, would seem to imply concrete historical events, at least in part. Taken together, these (the return of the Twelve tribes, and the restoration of Davidic rule) make up #2b in the top list.

A most difficult question is: to what extant did Jesus speak of the Kingdom of God in a definite eschatological sense, and particularly in terms of #2b above?

Consider the first words of Jesus’ public ministry, as recorded in Mark 1:15 (par. Matt. 4:17): “the time [or ‘season’] has been (ful)filled and the kingdom of God has come near! Change (your) mind [i.e. repent] and trust in the good message!”

The perfect verbal forms—the time has been fulfilled (peplh/rwtai), the kingdom of God has come near (h&ggiken)—would indicate that the Kingdom has already come or was very close (in the process of coming, or about to come). But what is the sense of the “Kingdom of God” here? Many critical scholars assume that Jesus was speaking in terms of the common eschatological expectation shared by many Jews at the time. Based on the recorded reactions of those who heard his words (cf. especially Mark 11:9-10 par; Luke 17:10; 19:11; John 6:15), including his disciples (Acts 1:6), this indeed would appear to be how they understood it—that God was about to establish a tangible (Messianic) Kingdom on earth. In other Jewish writings roughly contemporary with Jesus and the New Testament—the Qumran texts, the ‘Similitudes’ of Enoch [chs. 37-71], the Psalms of Solomon [17-18], and so-called 4 Ezra—we find the hope/expectation of a end-time Messianic figure who will judge the nations, restore the kingdom to Israel, and/or inaugurate the “new age”. But how did Jesus himself understand the matter?

This really depends on whether one looks “forward”, from the standpoint of Jewish thought prior to Jesus (i.e., Jesus as a Jew), or looks “backward”, from the standpoint of early Christian interpretation (i.e., Jesus as the Son of God and resurrected/exalted Christ). The truth, I think, will be found somewhere in between.

It is important to note that Jesus’ initial proclamation of the Kingdom, according to Matt. 3:2, simply picks up where John left off. It is a striking announcement, sure to capture the attention of all who heard him. To judge from the Synoptic Gospels, throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus spoke and taught often about the Kingdom of God; even after the resurrection, according to Acts 1:3, he continued to speak of “the things about the Kingdom of God”. That he frequently taught of the Kingdom in parables and in terms of “secrets” (Mark 4:11 par.) would indicate that something more was involved than popular Jewish eschatology. An examination of all the Kingdom references I outlined previously shows a wide and diverse context within his teaching. I would like to suggest the following primary points of emphasis:

  1. Realization of the Kingdom of God begins with Jesus’ own person (in standard doctrinal terms, the incarnate person of Christ)—this seems to be a fundamental sense of the Kingdom having “come near” (see Matt 12:28, par. Luke 11:20); it may also be a proper sense of the saying in Luke 17:21.
  2. Those who hear and respond to the Word of God and presence of the Kingdom (in Jesus)—those who both trust and seek after the Kingdom (righteousness/justice)—will receive, inherit, and enter it. This is an eschatological aspect of the Kingdom, but one defined primarily by faith and ethical conduct.
  3. The Kingdom of God is still coming (present into future), in at least two senses:
    a. The will and purpose of God becoming manifest on earth (parallel petition of the Lord’s Prayer), particularly in the hearts and lives of believers [call this the inward aspect of God’s presence and judgment] b. God’s rule and power becoming manifest on earth ( associated with the coming of the Son of Man [trad. identified with the return of Christ]) [the outward aspect of God’s presence/judgment]
  4. There will be an entrance into and inheritance of the Kingdom for believers associated with the final judgment (end of the Age); this is an entrance into (eternal) life, where believers will experience the transcendent rule of God in Heaven
  5. There is an invisible (or hidden) and mysterious (spiritual) dimension to the Kingdom, as indicated in many of Jesus’ parables. This is also clear from the precious few references to the Kingdom in the Gospel of John (3:3, 5; 18:36); and is very much a possible meaning for the difficult saying in Luke 17:21. Though there may be a specific eschatological aspect to several of the parables, this ‘mysterious’ dimension of the Kingdom transcends past, present, and future (see below).

It is striking that, throughout all the Kingdom sayings and teachings in the Gospels, one finds very little evidence indeed for anything like the traditional concept of an earthly Davidic/Messianic kingdom (unless one assumes or reads this into them). Neither does one find this idea much in the remainder of the New Testament, though there are many references to Christ’s (imminent) future return and the coming Judgment. Only in the book of Revelation (esp. chapter 20) is anything like an earthly Messianic kingdom suggested, but a concrete interpretation of such passages is notoriously difficult. There remains, of course, the highly problematic question of whether Jesus still may have taught an imminent eschatological judgment and end of the current age; however, I do not know just how significant this is for an overall understanding of his teaching on the Kingdom of God, and the issue is sufficiently complex that I must save discussion on it for another time.

However, it is interesting to note that there are only three passages in the Gospels and Acts where Jesus addresses the question both of an imminent and tangible (earthly/Davidic) Kingdom:

  1. Luke 17:20-21: The Scribes and Pharisees ask ‘when comes the Kingdom of God?’ The response Jesus gives can be divided into three parts:
    a. “the kingdom of God comes not with close watching”—which could have the sense of “while you are watching”, “even though you may be watching”, or “as a result of watching”. Likewise the implication could be that it won’t come with obvious observable signs, or that it will come while you are not aware of it.
    b. “neither shall they say ‘see here!’ or ‘(see) there!'”—a further indication that it will come unexpectedly or imperceptibly, especially for those actively looking for it (in a superficial manner?)
    c. “for, see! the kingdom of God is in(side) you (pl.)”—a most difficult saying, but certainly the indication is that the Kingdom is (and/or will be) in the midst of believers(?) in such manner that (most) people are unaware of it.
  2. Luke 19:11: Narrative introduction to the parable of the Minas (Luke 19:12-27), which is similar to the Matthean parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-30)—it is recorded that Jesus tells the parable because of “his being near Jerusalem, and their [the disciples’] thinking that the kingdom of God is about to appear [lit. shine forth]”. The parable itself may have been inserted here by Luke from a separate context, as it does not entirely fit the reason given, except for verse 12, which seems to suggest Christ’s exaltation to the Father (receiving the Kingdom) and future return. How soon or imminent this might be is not clear, though the context of the parable suggests perhaps a relatively short time.
  3. Acts 1:6: The disciples ask: “Lord, in this time are you restoring the Kingdom to Israel?” As a modest rebuke, perhaps, Jesus effectively refuses to answer their question. Is the question itself invalid or inappropriate? Consider how he does respond:
    a. “it is not for you to know the times or seasons which the Father has set in (his) own exousia [i..e. authority]”
    b. “but you shall receive the power of holy Spirit coming upon you”
    c. “and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem [and] in all Judea and Samaria and unto the end of the earth”
    Interesting in this regard is the rare variant reading in the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:2): instead of “let your Kingdom come” (e)lqe/tw h( basilei/a sou), one late manuscript (MS 700, partially supported by MS 162) and several Church Fathers read “let your holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us” (e)lqe/tw to\ a%gion pneu=ma sou e)f’ h(ma=$ kai\ kaqarisa/tw h(ma=$). This variant substitutes the coming of the Holy Spirit for the coming of the Kingdom—was this an early gloss which identified Kingdom and Spirit?
    As I described in a prior post, even though Jesus may not answer the disciples’ question regarding the “restoration of the kingdom”, one finds implicit in the narrative of Acts 2 (and beyond) the theme of the “restoration of Israel”. The Twelve disciples (symbolizing the twelve tribes) are gathered together (in Jerusalem) in one place, where they experience a theophany (presence of God via the Spirit); Jews from the surrounding nations (the Dispersion) are also gathered in Jerusalem, where they hear the word of God; the disciples then go out into the surrounding nations, where a new people of God (Jews and Gentiles) is formed through preaching of the Gospel.

3. Present and Future Aspects of the Kingdom

This has been discussed to some extent above, as well as in the survey of New Testament references in the first portion of this article. Here I will limit discussion to passages outside of the Gospels, particularly those in the various Epistles and the Gospel of John.

In the Pauline Epistles (including, for the moment, Colossians/Ephesians and the Pastorals), specific references the Kingdom (of God and/or of Christ) are as follows:

  • Nature and character of the Kingdom:
    1 Cor. 4:20: “for the Kingdom (is) not in word, but in power”—that is, not in (human) speech, but in the power of God (power of the Spirit). There is no verb here, and the declaration appears to be general (not limited to present or future)
    Romans 14:17: “for the Kingdom of God is (e)stin, present) not eating and drink(ing), but justice and peace and joy in (the) Holy Spirit”
    Both statements contrast ‘ordinary’ human activity with a deeper quality in, or of, the Spirit.
  • Inheriting the Kingdom:
    Galatians 5:21; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Eph. 5:5: here the context is a ‘list of vices’ (contrasted in Galatians with a list of “fruit of the Spirit”)—all who exhibit these vices “will not inherit (klhronomh/sousin, future) the Kingdom of God”. In Ephesians it reads “does not have (e&xei, present) inheritance in the Kingdom of Christ and God”. This is the same sort of ethical injunction we find in Jesus’ teaching, the language being common to both Jewish and early Christian tradition.
    1 Cor. 15:50 states more generally: “flesh and blood is not able [lit. is not powered] (du/natai, present passive) to inherit (klhronomh/sai, aorist inf.) the Kingdom of God, nor does corruption inherit (klhronomei=, present) incorruption”. As the context here is the mystery of the resurrection, the Kingdom has a strong future eschatological sense—entrance into the eternal rule of God (in Heaven).
  • Believers called/brought into the Kingdom:
    1 Thess. 2:12: an exhortation to walk worthy of God “the (one who) calls (kalou=nto$, present part.) you into his (own) Kingdom and glory”.
    Col. 1:12-13: an exhortation to give thanks to the Father “the (one who) has enabled us unto the portion of the inheritance (klh=ro$) of the holy ones in the light, who rescued us out of the authority of darkness and transferred (us) into the Kingdom of His (be)loved Son.” (Verbs are all aorist)
    2 Tim 4:18: “the Lord will rescue me from every evil work and will save (me) [i.e. keep me safe] into His heavenly Kingdom”.
    Note that in the 1 Thess 2:12 the action is in the present (“calls” or “is calling”), in Col. 1:12-13 the past (“enabled/rescued/transferred”), in 2 Tim 4:18 the future (“will resue/save”).
  • Christ’s Kingdom in a christological sense (emphasizing his Deity and/or exaltation):
    Christ seated at the right hand of God: Rom. 8:34; Eph 1:20-21; Col 3:1; see also Col 2:10, 15; 1 Tim 1:17; as well as Rom. 14:1; 15:12; Phil. 2:10; 2 Tim 2:12.
  • Christ’s Kingdom in an eschatological sense (his future coming, etc.):
    1 Cor 15:24-25: “then [i.e. after that] the end (telo$) when he should give over [lit. give along] (paradidw=|, present subjunctive) the Kingdom to God and Father…”
    1 Tim 6:14-15: part of a concluding exhortation “to guard the commandment…until the appearance [lit. shining upon, e)pifanei/a] of our Lord Jesus Christ, which [i.e. the appearance] He will show in (His) own times [lit. seasons], the blessed [lit. happy] and only Powerful-one, the King of kings and Lord of lords”.

Not surprisingly these Pauline references, in the pastoral context of the letters, often use eschatological language and imagery in order to exhort believers for living and acting in the present. Predominantly eschatological passages are rather few, though of course there are many other instances referring to the future coming of Christ and the impending Judgment on the world by God (through Christ).

When we turn to the remainder of the New Testament Epistles, specific references are fewer still:

  • Believers receiving/inheriting/entering the Kingdom:
    James 2:5: “has God not gathered out (e)cele/cato, aorist) the poor in the world (to be ones) rich in trust [i.e. faith] and inheritors of the Kingdom (which he promised to the [ones who] love him)?”
    2 Peter 1:11: “for thus shall be supplied (e)pixorhghqh/setai, future pass.) richly to you the way into the Kingdom of-the-ages [i.e. eternal] of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.”
    Hebrews 12:28: “through which [dio/, i.e. therefore] receiving [lit. taking alongside] (paralamba/nonte$, present part.) an unshakable Kingdom, we should have joy [or ‘grace’, i.e. let us be grateful], (and) through which (di’ h!$) we should serve [i.e. do hired service] well-pleasing to God with right attitude [lit. taking/receiving well] and fear [i.e. reverence/awe]”.
  • Christ at the right hand (of the throne) of God:
    Hebrews 8:1 (“is seated” e)ka/qisen, aorist active); 12:2 (“has sat [down]” keka/qiken, perfect active); also 1:8 (quoting Psalm 45:6-7: “your throne, O God, [is] unto the age of ages, and a rod of straightness [i.e. ‘rightness’] is the rod of your Kingdom”).

These references to the Kingdom from the Epistles, can, I think, be summarized according to the following themes:

  1. God has acted to call/deliver believers “into” the Kingdom (present with future promise); here the Kingdom seems to have the primary sense of life “in Christ” (in the Spirit)
  2. The character of believers should conform to that of the Kingdom, both in terms of an ethical standard and according to the Spirit—the power (1 Cor 4:20) and fruit (Gal 5:22ff) of the Spirit. Those with contrary character/behavior will not achieve the eschatological promise (to enter/inherit the Kingdom); here the Kingdom has the fundamental sense of the eternal rule of God (in Heaven), only now it is “the Kingdom of God and Christ“.
  3. There is a christological  theme—Christ seated at the right hand of God; again this should be understood a the eternal rule of God (in Heaven).
  4. There is also an eschatological theme—primarily that of believers’ future entrance “into” the Kingdom (Paul relates this to the Resurrection in 1 Cor 15); again this is the heavenly, eternal rule of God (and Christ, cf. esp. 1 Cor 15:24-25). The Kingdom theme/motif plays only a small part in the main eschatological message: namely of the parousia (coming) of Christ and future Judgment.

The Gospel of John has just five references (in only 2 passages) to the Kingdom of God (and Christ):

  • John 3:3, 5: here we have two parallel sayings of Jesus, which share the same form:

“Amen, amen, I say to you, unless [lit. if not] one [ti$] should come-to-be (born)
from above [a&nwqen] (v. 3)           out of water and Spirit (v. 5)
he is not able [lit. powered, du/natai] to see  (v. 3)                             to come into (v. 5)
the Kingdom of God”

In between these is the question of Nicodemos (“how is a man able to be born [when] he is old….?”), an instance of the familiar Johannine theme of misunderstanding. The word a&nwqen (lit. “from above”) can also mean “from the first”, “again”; through a bit of wordplay, when Jesus speaks of being born “from above”, Nicodemus hears it as being born “again, a second time”. Jesus appears to respond with an even subtler bit of wordplay: he glosses a&nwqen (“from above”), indeed, in terms of two births—out of water, and (out of) Spirit, though this should be understood as two aspects of the one birth “from above”. A precise interpretation of this phrase, and of the powerful discourse which follows, remains most challenging. I have discussed the passage in more detail in an earlier post. Here I will only draw attention yet to the last parallel phrase: “to see” and “to come into” the Kingdom of God. To see the Kingdom means to perceive its invisible nature and mysterious working, particularly in regard to motif of “seeing Christ” (the Son, who was sent by the Father and reveals the Father). As indicated throughout this article the idea of “entering” the Kingdom traditionally has a strong ethical and eschatological component; however, in the Gospel of John, the emphasis is somewhat different. I would argue that here “coming into” the Kingdom should be understood in terms of (the disciples) coming to Christ, and (through Christ) to the Father. There is a strong sense of the ‘incarnate’ Christ—the Light and Word, sent by God, and come into the World; believers who see and hear this Word are called out of the World (to the Father, where Christ is). We also find the sense that, through the Incarnation, the Judgment of God has already come upon the World (cf. John 3:17ff, etc.).

  • John 18:36: the context is Jesus’ exchange with Pilate (emphatic position emphasized):

My Kingdom is not out of [e)k] this world (kosmo$)”
“if My Kingdom were out of this world, my attendants would struggle that I should not be given over to the Jews”
“but now My Kingdom is not on (this) side (e&nqen)”

As in the dialogue with Nicodemos, Jesus is responding to a ‘question’ from the Jewish leaders, by way of Pilate: “are you the King of the Jews?” (v. 33). This would seem to be the clearest possible denunciation of a temporal, earthly kingdom (such as many Jews of the time might expect [see above]). Pilate himself clearly misunderstands Jesus’ words and presses for clarification: “(is it) not therefore (that) you are a(n earthly) king?” (v. 37). Jesus’ response is extraordinary indeed: “you say I am a king! I have come to be (born) unto this, and unto this I have come into the world, that I should witness to the truth; every one that is out of [e)k] the truth hears my voice”. This powerful verse is essential for understanding what Jesus means by “My Kingdom”:

  •      e)gw/ (“I”)—the Person of Christ (cf. e)gw ei)mi “I Am”)
  •      ei)$ tou=to (“into this”, i.e. unto this end, for this purpose)—the literal phrase itself has great significance: ei)$ (“into”) is juxtaposed with e)k (“out of”); “into this” is both concrete (this very moment, etc.) and generic (what does “this” refer to?), and can carry several nuances at once (this world, this time, this place, this purpose, this suffering/death, etc.)
  •     gege/nnhmai (“I have come to be [born]”)—this signifies more than Jesus’ earthly birth, but touches upon His relation as Son to the Father, as well as the wider sense of the Incarnation (coming-to-be flesh, in the world, etc.)
  •     e)lh/luqa ei)$ to\n ko\smon (“I have come into the world”)—again this signifies more than Jesus’ being born a human being on earth; the World (ko/smo$) in the Gospel of John typically connotes a realm of darkness and evil, “below” vs. “above”, those who oppose God and cannot see or hear His truth.
  •     i%na marturh/sw th=| a)lhqei/a| (“that I should witness to the truth”)—the themes of witness (the Son sees and does all that He sees/hears from the Father) and truth (cf. John 14:6, 17 etc) are vital, occurring throughout the Gospel.
  •     pa=$ o( w*n e)k th=$ a)lhei/a$ (“every one that is out of the truth”)—i.e., every one who ‘comes from’, ‘belongs to’, or perhaps ‘is born of’ the truth. See above on John 3:5 (“coming to be born out of… [e)k] the Spirit”), and reference to the Spirit/Paraclete (John 14:17 “the Spirit of truth”).
  •     a)kou/ei mou th=$ fwnh=$ (“hears my voice”)—note the emphatic “hears my voice”; the motifs of hearing (John 3:8; 4:42; 5:24-28, 30; 6:45; 8:26, 38, 40, 43, 47; 10:3, 27; 11:41-42; 12:38, 47; 14:24, 27-28; 15:15; 16:13) and voice (John 3:29; 5:25, 28, 37; 10:3-5, 16, 27; 11:43; 12:28, 30) are frequent in the Gospel.

In conclusion, I would like to stress three key points which I believe help to summarize the relation between present and future aspects of the Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is:

  1. First, our experience and union with the Person of Christ and God the Father in the Spirit (always present)
  2. Second, the ethical teaching and example of Christ, which once we knew primarily by command (and written Word), but we now experience more and more through the inner power and work of the Spirit (present [and past], moving into the future).
  3. Third, the witness and experience of the saving power and work of Christ in the Spirit (present [and past], looking toward future salvation).
  4. Fourth, the promise of Resurrection and Eternal Life with God and Christ in Heaven (the fullness of the eternal rule of God)—future, but also an experience of its mystery in the present.

 

van-eycks-adoration-of-the-lamb

“…the things about the Kingdom of God”

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In a previous post dealing with the Pentecost narrative in the Book of Acts, I focused on two key references to begin the article:

  1. Acts 1:3: “…through forty days being seen by them and speaking of the things about the Kingdom of God.”
  2. Acts 1:6: “…they inquired of him saying: ‘Lord, in this time will you restore (lit. set down from [thence]) the Kingdom to Israel?‘”

As space was limited, I thought it worth devoting a separate article to look at this idea of the Kingdom of God (h( basileia/ tou= qeou=). The subject is so vast, however, that even this can only serve as an introductory study. It will be structured as follows:

  1. A survey of New Testament references, particularly the sayings of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels.
  2. A brief examination of eschatological aspects of the concept, especially related to the “restoration of Israel” (Acts 1:6)
  3. A glance at the unique tension which appears to exist between present and future aspects of the Kingdom concept in the New Testament

1. A Survey of New Testament References

The list which follows here is more or less exhaustive, though one could no doubt find additional passages which use other relevant royal language or imagery, or where the Kingdom may be implied. Also, I have made no attempt to address any significant textual variants or text-critical issues in these passages.

References in the Synoptic Gospels:

  • The Kingdom at hand or coming near:
    • Matt. 3:2 (preaching of John the Baptist)
    • Mark 1:15 (par. Matt. 4:17)
    • Luke 10:9, 11 (par. Matt. 10:7) – instruction prior to sending out the disciples
    • Mark 9:1 (par. Matt. 16:28; Luke 9:27) – [imminent] eschatological context (?) implied
    • Luke 19:11 (introduction to the parable of the Ten Minas – expectation that the Kingdom would come immediately)
    • Luke 21:31 (Eschatological discourse)
  • Other references to the Kingdom “coming”:
    • Matt. 6:10 (par. Luke 11:2) – the Lord’s Prayer (“may Your Kingdom come”)
    • Matt. 12:28 (par. Luke 11:20) – context of Jesus’ casting out demons (“know that the Kingdom of God has come upon you”)
    • Luke 17:20-21 – Pharisees’ question when the Kingdom of God would come, with Jesus’ reply (“the Kingdom of God is not coming with signs…”)
    • Mark 11:10 (par. Matt. 21:9; Luke 19:38) – exclamation of the crowd at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (only Mark mentions ‘kingdom’ [“the coming kingdom of our father David”]
    • Luke 22:18 (context of the Last Supper)
  • Other references to expectation of the [coming] Kingdom:
    • Mark 15:43 (par. Luke 23:51) – Joseph of Arimathea described as one “waiting for” the kingdom of God (see also Luke 2:25, 38 which mention Simeon and other devout Jews in Jerusalem waiting for the consolation/redemption of Israel)
  • Preaching/proclaiming the Kingdom (implied that it is coming [near]):
    • Matt. 4:23; 9:35 (reference to Jesus proclaiming the “good news of the Kingdom”; cf. also Matt. 4:17; 10:7 and par. [Luke 8:1])
    • Luke 4:43 (“it is necessary for me to give the good news of the Kingdom of God…”)
    • Matt. 13:19 – on people hearing “the word of the Kingdom”
    • Luke 9:2, 60 – instructions for the disciples to proclaim the Kingdom of God (see also Luke 10:9)
    • Luke 9:11 – Jesus’ described as speaking to the people about the Kingdom of God (cf. Acts 1:4)
    • Luke 16:16 (“good news of the Kingdom of God”)
    • Matt. 24:14 (Eschatological discourse [“good news of the Kingdom”])
  • Additional references to nearness/presence of the Kingdom:
    • Luke 17:20-21 (“the Kingdom of God is in/among you”)
    • Mark 12:34 (“you are not far from the Kingdom of God”)
  • “Seeking” the Kingdom (see also below on Parables of the Kingdom):
    • Matt. 6:33 (par. Luke 12:31)
  • “Entering” the Kingdom:
    • Mark 9:47 (Mark 9:44-45 and the par. Matt. 18:8-9 all read “enter into life”)
    • Mark 10:23-25 (par. Matt. 19:23-24; Luke 18:24-25)
    • Matt 5:20; 7:21
    • Matt 8:11 (entering is implied in the parable, Luke 13:28-29); 21:31
    • Matt. 18:3
    • Luke 23:42 — thief on the cross speaks of Jesus coming into his Kingdom (see below on “Kingdom of Christ”)
  • “Inheriting” the Kingdom
    • Matt. 25:34
    • Matt. 5:3, 10 (in the Beatitudes; [eschatological] inheritance seems to be implied)
    • Matt. 8:11-12; 13:38, 41, 43 (theme of inheritance of the Kingdom also implied in the parables)
  • Being given or “receiving” the Kingdom:
    • Mark 4:11 (par. Matt. 13:11) – “secret of the Kingdom of God”
    • Luke 12:32
    • Mark 10:15 (par. Luke 18:17)
    • Matt. 16:19 (“keys of the Kingdom of Heaven” to the disciples [Peter])
    • Luke 19:12, 15 – context of the parable: Jesus receiving the Kingdom
    • Matt. 21:43
    • Luke 22:29-30
  • Related sense of the Kingdom “belonging” to believers [see also on “Kingdom of Christ”]:
    • Mark 10:14 (par. Matt. 9:14; Luke 18:16)
    • Matt. 5:3, 10 (par. Luke 6:20)
    • Matt. 13:38 (“children of the Kingdom”)
  • Status of those in the Kingdom (see also the next two sections):
    • Matt. 5:19-20
    • Matt. 11:11 (par. Luke 7:28)
    • Matt. 18:1-4 (and par.)
    • Matt. 20:1ff (parable of the Vineyard)
    • Luke 14:15
  • Fitness/qualification for the Kingdom:
    • Matt. 5:20
    • Matt. 7:21
    • Luke 9:62
    • Matt. 13:52
  • (Special references to the disciples [the Twelve] in the Kingdom):
    • Matt. 20:20-23 (par. Mark 10:35-40)
    • Luke 22:28-30 (par. Matt. 19:28-29)
    • Matt 26:29 (and par.)
    • Also Mark 10:29-30 and par.
  • Suffering “for the sake of” the Kingdom:
    • Matt. 5:10
    • Matt. 19:12
    • Luke 18:29 (and par.)
    • See also Mark 9:47
  • Obstruction or Violence against the Kingdom of God:
    • Matt. 11:12
    • Matt. 23:13
    • Also Mark 10:14 and par.
    • See also the parable of the Tenants (Mark 12:1-12 par.) and the Lukan parable of the Ten Minas (esp. 19:14, 27), etc.
  • Parables of the Kingdom:
    • Mark 4:26-29
    • Mark 4:30-32 (par. Matt. 13:31-32; Luke 13:18-19)
    • Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43
    • Matt. 13:33 (par. Luke 13:20-21)
    • Matt. 13:44-50 (three separate parables)
    • Matt. 18:23-35
    • Matt. 20:1-16
    • Matt. 22:2-14
    • Matt. 25:1-13
    • Matt. 25:14-30 (implied in context, par. Luke 19:11-27)
  • Other Parables which mention the Kingdom or involve a “kingdom” setting:
    • Mark 4:3-8, 14-20 and par. (see esp. Matt. 13:19)
    • Luke 14:16-24 (see v. 15)
    • See also Mark 3:23-27 and par.
  • Specific references to the kingdom belonging to Christ (i.e. “Kingdom of Christ”):
    • Luke 1:33 (implied context as a prophecy of the coming of Christ)
    • Matt. 16:28 (“the Son of Man coming in His Kingdom” – presumed identification of the Son of Man with Jesus)
    • Matt. 20:21
    • Luke 19:12ff (implied context)
    • Luke 22:30
    • Luke 23:42
    • See also Matt. 26:29 (“kingdom of my Father”)
  • Relevant references to the “throne” of God (or Christ):
    • Matt. 5:34; 23:22 — Heaven as the throne of God
    • Matt. 19:28; 25:31 — references to the Son of Man sitting on”the throne of his glory”
    • Matt. Luke 1:32 — prophecy of Christ being given the throne “of his father David”
    • Matt. Luke 22:30 (par. Matt. 19:28) — reference to the disciples [‘the Twelve’] sitting on thrones in Christ’s kingdom
  • Other references to God or Christ as King:
    • Jesus as “king of the Jews” or “King of Israel: Matt. 2:2; Mark 15:2, 9, 12, 18, 26, 32 and par.
    • Matt. 25:31-46 (eschatological context of the coming of the Son of Man and judgment by Christ as King [v. 34])
    • Luke 19:38 — exclamation of the crowd (“blessed is the King who comes…”), and cf. the par.
    • also Matt. 5:35
  • References to Christ (or the Son of Man) seated at the (right) hand of God:
    • Mark 12:36 (par. Matt. 22:44; Luke 20:42)
    • Mark 14:62 (par. Matt. 26:64; Luke 22:69)
    • Mark 16:19 (from the “long ending” of Mark, textually doubtful)
    • See also Mark 10:37, 40 and par.

References to the Kingdom (Christ as King, etc.) in the Gospel of John:

  • John 3:3, 5 (“Kingdom of God”)
  • John 18:36 — Jesus to Pilate (“My Kingdom…”, 3 times)
  • References to Jesus as being “King of the Jews” or “King of Israel”: John 1:49; 12:13 (and 15); 18:33, 37, 39; 19:3, 14, 15, 19, 21
  • Related references to Jesus ‘being made’ (or ‘making himself’) to be a king: John 6:15; 19:12

References to the Kingdom (Christ as King, etc.) in the Book of Acts:

  • Specific references to the Kingdom (of God):
    • Acts 1:3 – Reference to Jesus speaking about the Kingdom of God following his resurrection
    • Acts 8:12 – Reference to preaching the “good news about the Kingdom of God” (see above)
    • Acts 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31 — References to Paul proclaiming, testifying ,etc. to the Kingdom (of God)
    • Acts 14:22 — “enter the Kingdom of God” (in description of Paul speaking to disciples in Antioch)
  • “Lord, in this time will you restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)
  • Acts 17:7: reference to Jesus as “another king” besides Caesar
  • References to Christ (or the Son of Man) at the right hand of God (see also above): Acts 2:25, 33-34; 5:31; 7:55-56

References to the Kingdom (Christ as King, etc.) in the Pauline Epistles (both undisputed and disputed):

  • Kingdom of God:
    • Its nature and character, etc.: Romans 14:17; 1 Cor. 4:20
    • Inheriting the Kingdom of God: 1 Cor. 6:9-10; 15:50; Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:5
    • Believers called/placed by God into His Kingdom: Col. 1:13; 1 Thess 2:12; [2 Tim. 4:18]
    • Fitness for the Kingdom, working for the Kingdom: Col. 4:11; 2 Thess 1:5
  • Kingdom of Christ: Eph 5:5; Col. 1:13; 2 Tim. 4:1, [18]
    • Also: Christ’s eschatological “delivering” of the Kingdom to God the Father (1 Cor. 15:24)
  • Other references to Christ/God as King.: 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:15
  • Christ at the right hand of God: Rom. 8:34; Eph 1:20; Col 3:1
  • Christ as ruling, ruler, etc.: Rom. 15:12; 1 Cor. 15:24-25; Eph 1:21; Col 2:10, 15; 2 Tim 2:12
  • Other royal language: Rom. 14:1; Phil. 2:10, etc

References to the Kingdom (Christ as King, etc.) in the remaining Epistles (Hebrews–Jude):

  • Kingdom (of God/Christ): Heb. 1:8; 2 Pet. 1:11
  • Receiving (Heb. 12:28), Inheriting (James 2:5), and Entering (2 Pet. 1:11) [the] Kingdom
  • Christ as King (Heb 7:2 – “Melchizedek / king of Salem” applied to Christ)
  • Throne of God/Christ: Heb 1:8, see also 4:16
  • Christ at the right hand (of the throne) of God: Heb 8:1; 12:2

References to the Kingdom (Christ as King, etc.) in the book of Revelation:

  • Kingdom of God (and Christ): Rev 12:10, cf. also 11:15
  • Kingdom of the World/Beast vs. that of God: Rev. 11:15; 16:10
  • Believers as a kingdom (or in the Kingdom): Rev. 1:6, 9; 5:10
  • Christ “King of Kings”: Rev 17:14; 19:16 (twice each)
  • Other references to Christ/God as King, ruler, etc: Rev 1:5; 2:27; 11:17; 12:5; 15:3; 19:6, 15; believers reigning with Christ: Rev. 5:10; 20:4, 6; 22:5

Even a brief examination of the passages referenced above indicate that the Kingdom (of God) is a relatively wide-ranging concept. I would isolate four basic senses of the term in the New Testament:

  1. The eternal rule of God (in Heaven)
  2. An eschatological Kingdom (on earth), which can be understood in two different aspects:
    a. An absolute sense: New heavens and new earth (preceded by judgment on the World)
    b. A contingent sense: Messianic kingdom (preceded by judgment of the Nations)
  3. The presence of Christ—His life, work and teaching, death and resurrection
  4. The presence of God/Christ (through the Spirit) in the hearts, minds, and lives of believers

The fundamental idea informing the phrase “Kingdom of God” is that of the rule of God—that is, His governing power and authority—coming to be present, or made manifest, on earth, in a manner beyond what one sees in the natural order of things.

If one examines the references from the New Testament Epistles (see above), senses #1 and 4 appear to dominate, with the following points of emphasis:

  • The Kingdom is of God and of Christ—He rules in Heaven at the right hand of God (from whence he will come to judge the world)
  • The theme of believers inheriting/entering the Kingdom, also found in Jesus’ teachings (see above), is related to life in Christ through the prevailing power of the Spirit and the promise of salvation from the Judgment to come

References in Acts generally follow those in the Synoptic Gospels (especially in Luke), so it is necessary to examine these—the vast majority of which are found in recorded sayings and parables of Jesus. With regard to these sayings and parables, an introductory notice is required:

Traditional-conservative commentators generally regard the sayings/parables as accurately reflecting Jesus’ words (translated into Greek and with minimal modification). Critical scholars, on the other hand, tend to view the matter differently: many of the sayings, to greater or lesser extent, are effectively products of the early church, and to judge them several key “criteria of authenticity” have been developed. I neither reject nor disregard these critical analyses; however, for the purposes of this study, I assume that the sayings in the Synoptic Gospels are authentic in substance—if not always the ipsissima verba, then at least the ipsissima vox.

One can examine all of sayings and parables, according to the detailed list above. In addition, I will here group them into several categories:

  • Sayings where the subject refers to those who hear Jesus’ words—particularly the disciples (lit. “learners”) and others who would follow him.
  • Sayings where the subject primarily (or effectively) refers to God’s action (or Christ as God’s representative)
  • Sayings which reflect the mysterious nature or “secret” of the Kingdom
a. Sayings centered on the disciples, etc.—in relation to the Kingdom

This comprises the bulk of references, including those which speak of seeking, receiving, inheriting or entering the Kingdom, as well as passages related to the status of those in the Kingdom, those who act/suffer for the sake of the Kingdom, and so forth. In particular, one should note the number of sayings centered on:

  • Entering the Kingdom:
    Matt. 5:20 – justice/righteousness must surpass that of scribes/Pharisees
    Matt. 7:21 – only those who do the will of the Father in Heaven
    Matt. 8:11 – Gentiles who trust (in Christ, implied), cf. par. Luke 13:28-29
    Matt. 18:3 – one must come to be as children (cf. Mark 10:15)
    Mark 9:47 par. – avoid/eliminate sin (cut off the offending eye, etc.)
    Mark 10:23-25 par. – difficulty of entering (especially for those with earthly wealth/riches)
    Matt. 21:31 – ‘sinners’ will enter ahead of key religious leaders (chief priest and elders, in context)
  • Receiving the Kingdom:
    Mark 4:11 par. – disciples have been given (de/dotai perfect passive) the secret of the Kingdom
    Mark 10:15 par. – must receive/accept the Kingdom as a little child (or will not enter)
    Matt. 21:43 – Kingdom will be taken away from rebellious/violent (parable of the Tenants) and given to a(nother) people
    Also:
    Matt. 16:19 – “keys of the Kingdom (of Heaven)” given (“I will give”) to the disciples (Peter, following his confession of belief)
    Luke 12:32 – God as subject to give the Kingdom to disciples (context of seeking the Kingdom, v. 31); cf. also Luke 22:29-30
  • Inheriting the Kingdom:
    Matt. 25:34 – those who act with love and mercy to the hungry, sick, stranger, etc.
    Matt. 5:3, 10 – the ‘poor in spirit’ and those persecuted for the sake of righteousness (inheritance implied: “theirs is the Kingdom…”); these two verses encompass all the Beatitudes
    Matt. 13:38ff – inheritance implied (“children of the Kingdom”), righteousness indicated (v. 43); cf. also Matt. 8:11-12
    See also Mark 10:14 par. – disciples must be as little children: “for the Kingdom of God is of such [as this]

Note the strong ethical dimension (righteousness/justice) to many of these passages; but also an emphasis on trust (“faith”) in Christ [implied], along with humility, mercy, etc. These very themes, along with the language of entering/inheriting the Kingdom would become an important part of early Christian parenesis and ethical instruction.

b. Sayings centered principally on God’s action, in relation to the Kingdom

Here I would include most of the general references to Jesus and the disciples preaching/proclaiming the Kingdom, as related to the basic message that the Kingdom is coming or has “come near”.

  • The Kingdom “has come near: Mark 1:15 par.; Luke 10:9, 11 par.; Luke 21:31; cf. also Mark 3:2.
    In all of these passages the Kingdom is the subject, and the verb h&ggiken (perfect active of e)ggi/zw “come near, approach”), except for Luke 21:31 which uses the related adverb e)ggu/$ (“near”). Other passages imply an imminent coming of the Kingdom—e.g., Mark 9:1 par. (perfect participle of e)rxomai); Luke 19:11.
  • The Kingdom coming:
    • Matt. 6:10; Luke 11:2 – Lord’s Prayer: “let your Kingdom come (e)lqe/to, aorist imperative)”
    • Matt. 12:28; Luke 11:20 – Jesus’ miracles: “if in/by the Spirit of God I cast out the daimons, then (truly) the Kingdom of God has come suddenly upon you”. The verb translated “has come” is e&fqasen (aorist). Luke reads “finger of God” instead of “Spirit of God”.
    • Luke 17:20-21 – Pharisees’ question “when comes (e&rxetai) the Kingdom of God?” with Jesus’ reply: “the Kingdom of God comes not with parath/rhsi$ [lit. ‘watching alongside’, i.e. careful/attentive watching]”
    • Luke 22:18 – Last Supper: “now I will not drink from th(at which) comes-to-be [i.e. fruit] from the vine until the (time in) which the Kingdom of God should come (e&lqh, aorist subjunctive)”
    • For other Gospel references related to a coming/expected Kingdom, see Mark 11:10 par.; 15:43 par.; Luke 2:25, 38, as well as Jesus’ eschatological sayings and parables.
  • God giving the Kingdom (to believers/disciples):
    • Mark 4:11 par. – ” to you has been given (de/dotai, perfect passive) the secret of the Kingdom of God”
    • Luke 12:32 – “your Father thought it good to give (dou=nai, aorist infinitive) you the Kingdom”
    • Matt. 21:43 – “the Kingdom of God shall be carried (away) from you [the ‘wicked tenants’] and shall be given (doqh/setai, future passive) to a nation producing its fruits”
    • Luke 22:29f – “and I assign [lit. set through; present middle] to you, even as my Father has assigned [aorist middle] to me, a Kingdom…”
    • See also Luke 19:12, 15; Matt. 16:19; and Mark 10:15 par.

The range of meanings here in these passages is complex and fascinating, as are the tenses of the verbs involved:

  1. References to the Kingdom “coming near” typically use the same perfect form: h&ggiken (“has come near”)
  2. Other references to the Kingdom “coming” (e)rxomai, but also other verbs) tend to be in the aorist.
  3. References to God “giving” the Kingdom cover past (perfect/aorist), present and future.
c. Sayings centered on the (mysterious) nature of the Kingdom

These include many (or most) of the Parables: especially the Markan (4:26-32 & par.) and first Matthean (13:24-52, one par. in Luke) groups, as well as the triple-attested parable of the Sower (Mark 4:3-9, 14-20 & par.). Here images from daily life are used to represent and symbolize the mysterious and ineffable working of the power and presence of God (i.e. the Kingdom). Embedded in many of these one also finds the image of people searching or working in response to the Kingdom’s presence (symbolized by seed, pearl, hidden treasure, etc); one also finds at times an eschatological reference (cf. the parable of the Net, Matt. 13:47-50, etc.). The later Matthean parables (18:23-25; 20:1-16; 22:2-14; 25:1-30) are longer narratives, depicting the actions of disciples (or would-be disciples) in relation to the (coming) Kingdom in greater detail. The parables of the Talents/Minas (Matt. 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27), and the parable of the Wicked Tenants (Mark 12:1-12 par.) all have a clear eschatological context.

A number of sayings also touch on the mysterious nature of the Kingdom, which may also be reflected in the idea of it’s coming suddenly or unexpectedly (cf. Matt. 12:28 par.). As indicated above, Jesus also refers at least once to the “secret[s] of the Kingdom of God” which have been given to believers (Mark 4:11; Matt. 13:11; Luke 8:10).

Perhaps most difficult of all is Luke 17:20-21, which may well combine two originally separate sayings:

20 And being inquired upon by the Pharisees (as to) ‘when comes the Kingdom of God?’ he answered them and said: “The Kingdom of God comes not with close watching, 21 nor shall they utter ‘See here! or (see) there!’ For see—the Kingdom of God is in(side) of you (pl.).”

Pages could be—and have been—written on these verses; as I have discussed them in some detail elsewhere, for the moment I won’t deal with them further here.

Perhaps the thorniest critical question related to the sayings of Jesus is the extent to which he speaks of an eschatological (earthly) Kingdom of God—that is, of a restored Davidic (Messianic) kingdom, along the lines of that hoped for by many of his contemporaries. It is to the eschatological aspect (or aspects) of the Kingdom I will turn next.

See here for the continuation of this article.