Saturday Series: Deuteronomy 32:15-18ff

Deuteronomy 32:15-18ff

As we proceed through the Song of Moses (Deut 32), it is worth keeping in mind the structure of this great poem, as I have outlined it previously:

    • 1-3: Opening (exordium)—Call to Creation (heaven and earth)
    • 4-18: God’s covenant with His people Israel, and their violation of the covenant
      —The Creator God (YHWH) as their Father (vv. 4-6)
      —His choice of Israel as His people, becoming their God (vv. 7-9)
      —His protection and guidance during the Exodus and wilderness travels (vv. 10-14)
      —His people turned away from Him, worshiping foreign gods (vv. 15-18)
    • 19-42: God’s punishment of His people, and their subsequent deliverance
      —Punishment for violation of the covenant (vv. 19-25)
      —Concern for how this will be perceived by Israel’s enemies (vv. 26-31)
      —Plans to bring punishment on Israel’s enemies in turn (vv. 32-35)
      —Ultimate justice/deliverance for His people, and judgment on His enemies (vv. 36-41)
    • 43: Conclusion—Call to the Nations

The bulk of the poem is made up of two sections,  each focusing on one side of the (religious) history of Israel and its covenant with YHWH. The first section (vv. 4-18, discussed in the recent studies) summarizes Israelite history through the people’s settlement in the Promised Land, together with their subsequent violation of the covenant (vv. 15-18). The second section (vv. 19-42) similarly summarizes the judgment that will come upon Israel for violating the covenant, along with its aftermath. The core of this narrative of covenant violation/punishment lies at the very center of the poem (vv. 15-25), and is likewise central, in terms of theme and theology, to the book of Deuteronomy as a whole. It also happens to be one of the most vivid and colorful portions of the text, full of many striking poetic details and devices, some of which we will be discussing below. However, when considering the post-settlement context of verses 15-18ff, we are immediately confronted by an important historical-critical issue with regard to both the poem and the book of Deuteronomy itself; even though this was touched upon in an earlier study, it is worth discussing it again briefly here.

From an historical-critical standpoint, there are three primary historical layers (or levels) that must be considered:

    • The Mosaic setting of the book, as presented in 1:1-5 and throughout, placed just before Moses’ own death and prior to the people crossing the Jordan into the Land of Promise proper. The Song of Moses is clearly set within this historical-narrative framework (see chap. 31).
    • The date of the poem, as established (as far as possible) by objective criteria and critical method, independent of the narrative framework and related traditions
    • The date of the book of Deuteronomy, i.e. its composition, which may cover multiple versions or editions of the book

For traditional-conservative commentators who accept the entire book, with little or no qualification, as representing the authentic words of Moses (and other genuine Mosaic traditions), these three layers essentially collapse into one—all of Deuteronomy, including the poem, more or less dates from the time of Moses. Critical commentators, however, tend to look at each layer on its own terms, which means considering the date and composition of the poem quite apart from its place within the Mosaic setting of the historical-narrative framework of Deuteronomy.

The results of such critical analysis—examination of vocabulary, poetic style and form, the imagery and religious-theological concepts used, etc—have generally pointed to a relatively early date for the poem, in the mind of most scholars. A number of features would, indeed, seem to be characteristic of the earliest poetry preserved in the Old Testament; certain parallels with the language and thought found in the narratives in the book of Judges (e.g., Judges 5:8; 10:14 etc), suggest a comparable time-frame for the poem, i.e. in the period of the Judges (11th century B.C.?). This would likely represent the latest date-range for the poem in its original form, and its old/archaic features could conceivably go back earlier, to the 12th or even 13th century.

By contrast, most critical scholars date the book of Deuteronomy as a whole to the Kingdom period. The soundest such critical theory would, I think, posit an earlier/original form of the book (10th/9th century?) which was subsequently modified under the influence of Josiah’s reforms (late 7th century), along with possible later additions as well. Thus, if we consider the three layers above, from a modern critical standpoint, a fairly reasonable dating would be:

    • The Mosaic setting of the book—presumably mid-late 13th century
    • The date of the poem—12th-11th century
    • The composition of Deuteronomy—10th-9th century, with subsequent revisions and additions (7th century and following)

Now, let us apply this critical analysis to the poem—in particular, to the post-settlement context of vv. 15-18ff. If we take the historical-narrative framework of Deuteronomy at face value (i.e., the time of Moses, generally prior to settlement), then these verses, along with similar portions elsewhere in the book (such as in chapter 31), reflect divine prophecy, God’s revelation (through Moses) of what will take place in the future. If, on the other hand, we were to adopt some form of the critical theory outlined above, then such passages would have to be read as representing an historical situation which had already occurred, and which has been projected back into the Mosaic setting of the book (i.e. as an ex eventu prophecy, after the fact). Interestingly, if we accept the relatively early date of the poem itself (for which there is strong evidence on objective grounds), then we find ourselves somewhere between these two approaches—i.e. the prophecy of Israel’s violation of the covenant would have to refer to events which would, apparently, have occurred during the period of the early Israelite confederacy documented in the book of Judges. Certainly, the book of Judges records the influence of Canaanite religious-cultural influence on Israel at a number of points, and is part of the narrative structure of the book (see 2:1-5, 11ff). Many of the details in the book of Judges appear to be quite authentic to the period, reflecting a time when Israelite monotheism (featuring exclusive worship of YHWH) was still trying to gain a strong foothold within the larger Canaanite (polytheistic) religious environment.

This, indeed, seems to be what the Song of Moses is describing—an initial turning away, under Canaanite (and other non-Israelite) religious influence, but not yet a development of the full-fledged syncretism we find during the Kingdom period. And, while this turning away was already prefigured in several traditional episodes from the Mosaic period (e.g., the Golden Calf and Baal-peor episodes, Exod 32; Num 25), it would not be fully realized until a somewhat later time. The history of Israel in Samuel-Kings, influenced by the book of Deuteronomy in this regard, adopts a similar framework, recording history from the standpoint of whether, or to what extent, Israel and its rulers were faithful to the covenant with YHWH or violated it by worshiping deities other than YHWH.

Verses 15-18

Let us now turn to consider verses 15-18 and 19-25 of the poem. It may help to see these together in translation; here I offer a rather literal (but reasonably poetic) rendering:

And (then) the straight (one) grew fat and kicked—
you became fat, swollen, filled (with food)—
and he left the Mighty (One who) made him,
and treated the Rock of his salvation like a fool!
They made him red(-faced) with strange (thing)s,
with disgusting things they provoked him;
they slaughtered to šedim (who are) not Mighty,
(but are) ‘Mighty Ones’ not known to them—
new (one)s (who) came from near(by),
(whom) your fathers did not recognize.
You forgot the Rock (who) gave birth to you,
and neglected the Mighty One writhing (in birth of) you!

And (so) YHWH saw (it) and spurned,
from (such) provocation, his sons and daughters—
and He said:
“I will hide my face from them,
let me see what follows (for) them!
For they (are) a circle (of) overturning—
sons (with) no firmness in them!
They made me red(-faced) with the non-Mighty,
provoked me with their puffs of breath;
and (now) I will turn them red with a non-People,
(and) provoke them with a nation of fool(s)!
For a fire has sparked in my nostril(s)
and burns until the depths of Še’ôl,
and it consumes the earth and its produce
and blazes (to) the base of the hills!
I will gather (up) evils upon them,
I will finish (all) my arrows on them—
hunger (that) sucks out,
and a burning (that) devours,
and a bitter dead(ly poi)son,
and (the) tooth of wild (beast)s will I send on them
with the heat of crawlers in the dust.
(In the street) outside the sword brings loss,
and terror (inside the) enclosed (room),
even (to) chosen (son) and virgin (daughter),
the suckling (child) with grey-haired man (together).

The language is rough and vivid throughout, something which is often lost in most English translations; I have tried to retain and capture this roughness (even harshness) of expression from the Hebrew. Such a mode of expression is altogether appropriate, from the standpoint of the subject matter—a description of Israel’s violation of the covenant, and the resulting judgment which YHWH will bring upon them. It is here that we turn again to form criticism and literary criticism, to see how the distinctive form and style of this poetry relates to the meaning and purpose of the text. Let us first examine verses 15-18, a sequence of 6 bicola (= 12 lines) which more or less follow the 3-beat (3+3) meter of the poem consistently, with clear use of parallelism (both synonymous and synthetic) throughout. The first bicolon is striking in the way that the address shifts suddenly from third person to second person:

And (then) the straight (one) grew fat and kicked—
you became fat, swollen, filled (with food)

This would be an example of a kind of synthetic parallelism, in which the second line builds dramatically on the first. The people are referenced by the descriptive title y®š¥rûn, presumably meaning something like “the straight (one)” or “the (up)right (one)”; y¹š¹r (“straight, right”) was used as a characteristic of YHWH in verse 4. In context, the title is used ironically, referring to what the people of Israel should have been—straight and loyal followers of the binding agreement (covenant) with God. Instead, they “grew fat” and “kicked” (like an unruly animal); this behavior is clearly related to the people’s feeding on the richness of the land (vv. 13-14), whether understood in a literal or symbolic sense. It is this aspect upon which the second line builds, with a repetitive staccato-like sequence of three verbs, which are almost impossible to translate accurately into English—

š¹mant¹ ±¹»ît¹ k¹´ît¹

literally, it would be something like: “you grew fat, you became swollen, you became full”. The precise meaning of the last verb (k¹´â) is uncertain, but most likely the three verbs are more or less synonymous, referring to the idea of Israel “becoming fat“. The shift to second person (“you”), something which occurs at several points in the poem, serves as an important reminder of the purpose of the poem, within the setting of Deuteronomy (chap. 31)—as a means of instructing all Israelites in future generations (“you”). The remaining 5 bicola (10 lines) essentially expound the first; the second and sixth (vv. 15b, 18) are similar and form an inclusio, framing the lines:

and he left the Mighty (One who) made him,
and treated the Rock of his salvation like a fool!
…..
You forgot the Rock (who) gave birth to you,
and neglected the Mighty One writhing (in birth of) you!

This repeats the central theme in the opening lines (vv. 4-6) of the section, that of YHWH as Creator and Father of humankind (and esp. of Israel). The title “Rock” (‚ûr) alternates with the Divine name/title “Mighty One” (°E~l / °E_lôah). The latter bicolon (v. 18) introduces the striking motif of YHWH as mother giving birth, i.e. writhing (vb. µyl) in labor pains. This makes all the more cruel the people’s abandonment of YHWH, who endured such pains in giving birth to them. In between, these six lines (3 bicola, vv. 16-17) give a summary description of Israel’s violation of the covenant, defined unmistakably in terms of worship of deities other than YHWH:

They made him red(-faced) with strange (thing)s,
with disgusting things they provoked him;
they slaughtered to šedim (who are) not Mighty,
(but are) ‘Mighty Ones’ not known to them—
new (one)s (who) came from near(by),
(whom) your fathers did not recognize.

The first bicolon is a clear example of synonymous parallelism, with the second line essentially re-stating the first, intensifying the image. The last two bicola are more complex, emphasizing two interrelated points: (1) these other deities are lesser than YHWH and not “God” (lit. Mighty One) in the same way, and (2) they are “new” and previously unknown to Israel, presumably meaning that they reflect the local religious environment in Canaan (i.e. “from near[by]”). I have left the noun š¢d (plural š¢dîm) untranslated above; it seems to refer to deities in a general sense, akin to the word daimœn in Greek. The derivation and meaning of the last verb (´¹±ar) is also uncertain; I have tentatively followed the Septuagint translation, relating it to the Semitic root š±r (“know, perceive”), which provides a parallel to the idea of the deities as “not known” among Israelites prior to their entry into Canaan.

Verses 19-25

As in the preceding section, the first bicolon (v. 19) sets the theme, and the remaining lines provide the exposition. Here this format is used for a dramatic narrative purpose: the expository lines represent the direct words of YHWH, introduced (in the poem as we have it) by an additional word (“and he said”) which disrupts the meter. The tension in these lines is reflected in the opening bicolon in which the matter of YHWH’s judgment on Israel is stated:

And (so) YHWH saw (it) and spurned,
from (such) provocation, his sons and daughters—

I have retained the structure of the bicolon—note the apparent awkwardness in the line division, something which is glossed over (and lost) in most translations in the attempt to provide more readable English. In the Hebrew as we have it, there is an emphasis on the word mika±as (“from [the] provocation”) which disrupts the poetic flow and injects a discordant tone into this section of the poem, entirely keeping with the ominous subject. In the first two bicola of YHWH’s declaration (v. 20) we have his own announcement of the judgment that is described in v. 19:

I will hide my face from them,
let me see what follows (for) them!
For they (are) a circle (of) overturning—
sons (with) no firmness in them!

The first couplet (bicolon) provides an extreme example of synthetic parallelism—the second line literally refers to the consequence and result of the first (God hiding his face), and almost reads like a taunt. The noun °aµ®rî¾ with suffix could also be translated “their end” (i.e., “let me see what their end [is]”); this would fit the actual syntax better, but risks losing the important idea that the terrible fate for the people follows (root °µr) as a direct result of the action of YHWH hiding his face from them. In the ancient religious mindset, this image of God “hiding his face” essentially means a removal of the divine power that protects and preserves the life of humankind on earth.

The second bicolon is a standard example of synonymous parallelism, with the noun dôr set parallel to b¹nîm (“sons”, i.e. the people as a whole). I have translated dôr according to its fundamental meaning (“circle”, i.e. circle of life), though it is usually rendered “generation” (“they are a generation of…”), but the phrase could also be translated (“thei[rs] is an Age of…”. The basic reference is to the people alive during a particular period of time, but also to their connectedness as a common people. The root h¹¸ak (“turn [over], overturn”), here as the substantive noun tahp¥kâ, connotes both the idea of perversion and destruction—i.e., the people both turned away from the truth and broke the covenant bond. This was an indication of their lack of true loyalty (lit. “firmness”, °¢mûn) to God and to the covenant.

The next two couplets (bicola) show a more complex parallelism, making use of wordplay that is difficult to capture in English:

They made me red(-faced) with the non-Mighty,
provoked me with their puffs of breath;
and (now) I will turn them red with a non-People,
(and) provoke them with a nation of fool(s)!

Here, again, the parallelism (of form and style) is used to convey a very specific message: the punishment for Israel matches their crime (an extension of the ancient lex talionis principle). The parallelism in this regard is exact, something which may easily be lost in English translation:

    • Verb 1 (q¹na°):
      they made me red [i.e. with jealousy]…” (and so)
      “…I will make them red [with jealousy]”
      • Modifier 1 (b®lœ°, “with no”):
        “with (the) non-Mighty [°¢l]”, i.e. what is not God (not YHWH)
        “with (a) non-People [±¹m]”, i.e. not the people of YHWH
    • Verb 2 (k¹±as):
      “they provoked me…” (and so)
      “…I will provoke them”
      • Modifier 2 (“with [] [things that are ’empty’]”):
        “with their puffs of breath [ha»lîm]”, a derisive term for the worship of other deities and associated ‘idolatry’
        “with a nation of fool[s]”, i.e. a foolish nation (that worships other deities)

What follows in the remaining lines (vv. 22-25) is a graphic description of the coming judgment. It begins with a powerful image of a wildfire, in a pair of bicola (4 lines) where each line builds—an example of how poetic form (here the synthetic parallelism of the bicolon format) serves to paint a visual picture (of a growing/spreading fire):

For a fire has sparked in my nostril(s)
and burns until the depths of Še’ôl,
and it consumes the earth and its produce
and blazes (to) the base of the hills!

The first couplet actually could be viewed as a kind of antithetic paralellism—i.e. from one extreme to its opposite. The first begins in the nostrils of YHWH, and reaches all the way to the deepest place under the earth (in š§°ôl, the realm of death and the dead). If this shows the fire’s spread vertically, from highest above to deepest below, the second couplet shows its horizontal spread—over the entire face of the land, covering it up to the base of the mountains. In verse 23, the imagery shifts from a natural disaster (wildfire) to that of a military attack—YHWH will shoot evils (i.e. misfortune, suffering, death, etc) upon the people like arrows, and so extensive will be the judgment that God will exhaust the entire complement of arrows:

I will gather (up) evils upon them,
I will finish (all) my arrows on them

These evils/arrows are presented in verses 24-25, with a descriptive sequence that strains and twists the poetic meter and rhythm; this is again an example of how a disruption of a common poetic format can be used to make a dramatic point. First in verse 24 there is a dual image of plague/disease and attack from deadly/poisonous animals:

hunger (that) sucks out,
and a burning (that) devours,
and a bitter dead(ly poi)son,
and (the) tooth of wild (beast)s will I send on them
with the heat of crawlers in the dust.

The removal of YHWH’s protection (“I will hide my face”, v. 20) means that the people are vulnerable to the dangerous elements of the natural world. Moreover, in the ancient religious mindset, disease and famine, etc, were often seen as the result of divine anger and punishment on humankind, and so we find the same expressed repeatedly in the Old Testament. Even when subsidiary divine (or semi-divine) beings were involved (pestilence personified, Reše¸), according to the tenets of Israelite monotheism, it was YHWH (in his anger) who is responsible for sending these evils (“I will send on them”). Along with this, Israel also can no longer rely on YHWH’s protection from human enemies, and verse 25 gives a capsule portrait of the people hiding in fear as enemy forces attack:

(In the street) outside the sword brings loss,
and terror (inside the) enclosed (room),
even (to) chosen (son) and virgin (daughter),
the suckling (child) with grey-haired man (together).

The historical narratives in both the book of Judges and the “Deuteronomic History” of Samuel–Kings are replete with numerous examples which illustrate this idea. Indeed, the primary vehicle for God’s judgment upon Israel were the various peoples around them, each of which could fit the description of a “non-People” or “nation of fools” in the sense that they operated from a polytheistic religious point of view, worshiping deities other than YHWH. This is fundamental to the message of the poem, and much of the book of Deuteronomy as well, as we have seen. Central to the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and Israel is the idea that they will remain loyal to Him, and will not violate the bond by turning aside to embrace the religious beliefs and practices of the surrounding nations.

I hope that the analysis above demonstrates the importance that different aspects of Biblical criticism an elucidate important details of the text, especially in the distinctive (and often difficult) area of Old Testament poetry. Next week, we will conclude this study on the Song of Moses, by looking briefly at the following lines of verses 26-42, before delving more deeply into the closing lines in verse 43.

The Law in Luke-Acts: The Jerusalem Council of Acts 15

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 (if not the letter itself) 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 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. On these restrictions, I have devoted a short series of notes to them.

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 at all 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, where they would have been directly on point? 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, which would hold 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.

Saturday Series: Deuteronomy 32:1-43 (continued)

Deuteronomy 32:1-43 (continued)

This week we turn to the areas of source- and historical-criticism. In the case of a passage like Deut 32:1-43 it is useful to include both of these points of reference together in our study. Source criticism deals with the sources which may have been used in the composition of the book (or passage within the book); these sources can be of various kinds, including written documents and oral tradition. Historical criticism involves: (a) the historical background/setting of the events in the book (and its composition), as well as (b) the historical accuracy or reliability of events, words, and traditions recorded in the book, in relation to its composition. Broadly speaking, there are two main approaches to these areas of study, which may be summarized as:

    1. Traditional-conservative, and
    2. Critical

While study and analysis of the Scriptures can be referred to as “criticism” generally, the term “critical” is also used in a more specialized sense—to a mode of criticism which tends to ignore or exclude religious and doctrinal assumptions regarding the nature and character of the Scriptures. Let us examine each of these approaches (see my earlier article for more on the terms) as they apply to the Song of Moses (Deut 32), realizing that many commentators adopt a position somewhere between these two “sides”, combining elements of each approach.

1. The traditional-conservative approach tends to take the text, as it has come down to us, at face value, along with many of the well-established traditions regarding its authorship, etc. In the case of Deuteronomy, the book is seen as coming essentially from the time of Moses, and, indeed, from Moses himself. Many commentators would accept Moses as the author of the book, allowing for a small amount of later editing; but, at the very least, the core sections of Deuteronomy are viewed as an authentic discourse (or series of discourses) given by Moses as speaker. In this regard, the historical setting for the Song of chapter 32 is established simply in 31:19-22ff:

(YHWH to Moses:) “And now you must cut [i.e. inscribe/write] for them this song and make the sons of Israel (to) learn it; you must set it in their mouth(s), for the purpose [i.e. so] that this song may be for me a witness to the sons of Israel” (v. 19)
“And (then) Moses opened (his mouth and) spoke the words of this song in(to) the ears of all the assembled (people) of Israel unto their completion [i.e. the completion of the song]” (v. 30)

Thus for many traditional-conservative readers and commentators, there is no real question regarding the source of the Song—it is an inspired poem, composed and (originally) recited by Moses himself, recorded in the book of Deuteronomy more or less as he composed it. For those who admit that Deuteronomy has been translated into a more recent form of Hebrew (see below), the Song would then preserve language closer to Moses’ own (i.e. his actual words, the ipsissima verba). The purpose of the Song is also made clear in chapter 31: it was meant to bring to mind for future generations the teaching given by Moses (in the book of Deuteronomy), in relation to the covenant established with them by God (including their covenant obligations). A poem would make this easier to commit to memory and transmit from one generation to the next. Indeed, there is evidence that the Song of Moses was part of the liturgy from ancient times, as indicated by Jewish sources such as Josephus (Antiquities 4.303), the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 31a) and Talmud (j. Meg. 3:7, 74b). It is possible that one of the Deuteronomy manuscripts from Qumran (4QDeutq) contained no more than the Song, in which case it might suggest a special use for reciting or learning/teaching the poem.

2. The critical approach attempts to examine the text objectively, without reliance upon tradition (regarding authorship, etc) or doctrinal suppositions (regarding the inspiration of Scripture, etc). When taken in its best, or ideal, sense, this approach is most valuable as it avoids religious preconceptions which can distort the original context and meaning of Scripture. In practice, however, it carries many serious flaws, since it tends to neglect or disregard important aspects of the text—namely, the unique and divinely-inspired character of Scripture—which have been accepted by those who read and transmitted the text over thousands of years.

The critical approach does also take the text of Scripture at face value, but in a different sense. In the case of Deuteronomy, scholars note that, on the whole, the language of the book differs relatively little from, for example, the books of Kings, which were written during the monarchy, down to the end of the period (c. 7th-6th centuries B.C.). Thus, if Deuteronomy genuinely comes from the time of Moses (13th century, or even the 15th century, depending on one’s chronology), it would have been significantly modernized and translated/updated into a more recent form of Hebrew. Many critical commentators believe, however, that the book, while perhaps drawing upon traditions which may extend back to Moses, was actually composed much later—i.e. in the time reflected by the language, the period of the monarchy. The similarities in thought and wording with the historical books (esp. Kings) suggested a definite relationship of some kind (see the note on the “Deuteronomic History” below).

A traditional key was found in the notice regarding the discovery of the “Book of Instruction (Torah)” found in the Temple during the reign of Josiah (2 Kings 22:8ff; 23:24-25), which most commentators today identify with some form or version of the book of Deuteronomy. A rather skeptical (even cynical) critical explanation held that the book was composed during Josiah’s reign, in order to support his program of reform, and was then “found” in the Temple. A more honest analysis recognizes the book discovered in the Temple as an older version of Deuteronomy, or, perhaps, an ancient document which served as the source of the later book. On this basis, a moderating critical view, held in some fashion by a good number of scholars today, posits that an initial version of Deuteronomy, drawing upon the “Book of Instruction” as well as other sources, was composed in the 7th century, at a time corresponding to the reign of Josiah; the book was further edited/updated during the exile or around that time.

The critical approach toward the Song of Moses is, understandably, a bit more complex than the traditional-conservative view. A careful examination of the language and style of the poetry has suggested a date corresponding to the early monarchy, or even the Israelite confederacy (i.e. period of the Judges), perhaps the 11th or 10th century B.C., making it, on the basis of the preserved language alone, one of the earliest portions of the Old Testament. The surviving Canaanite poetry from Ugarit (14th-13th century), along with poetic (and prosodic) elements in other early Semitic texts and inscriptions (Phoenician, Moabite, etc), allows scholars to make extensive comparisons with various segments of Hebrew poetry in the Old Testament. Poetry tends to preserve older and archaic elements, even when transmitted to later generations speaking/writing in a more recent form of the language, and as a result, undergoes less modernization during transmission, or when included as a source in composition.

The critical view might be summarized as follows: the Song of Moses, as we have it, could conceivably go back to the 13th century and the time of Moses, but more likely was composed in a later period (11th-10th century?), before being included as a source in the book of Deuteronomy as written in the 7th century. As a source, it is clearly distinct from the discourses which make up the core of the book; it is often thought that these chapters (4:4129:28) relate more directly to the older strata of the book (and to the “Book of Instruction”), while the introductory portions (1:1-4:40), and chapters 30-34 were added at a later point, drawn from separate lines of tradition.

Having summarized the two distinct approaches to the book of Deuteronomy (and the Song of Moses), it is easy to see the ways in which they differ, and also how both are valuable and useful for a proper study of the text. Questions and difficulties raised by the critical approach ought to be considered carefully, and not ignored or disregarded on a priori doctrinal grounds. In all of the notes and studies on this website I have tried to balance the available evidence and analyses to provide a fair and accurate picture of the issues involved for believers studying the text today. In the next session, I will try to demonstrate how the various areas of biblical criticism we have examined—text-, form-, source- and historical-criticism—relate to a careful and in-depth study of the Scripture as it has come down to us. It will not be possible here to go through every verse in detail; instead, we will focus on a number of selected verses and lines, to demonstrate how criticism relates to interpretation.

Note on the s0-called “Deuteronomic History”

In light of the discussion above on the source and historical criticism of Deuteronomy, it is worth mentioning here a common (critical) theory regarding the composition of the book. Many scholars and commentators today hold that the book of Deuteronomy, as we have it, is actually just one part of a much larger work—a great history of Israel, extending from the time of Moses to the exile. It is usually referred to as the “Deuteronomic (or Deuteronomistic) History”, and is thought to be comprised of Deuteronomy–Judges and Samuel–Kings. The older version (or core) of Deuteronomy served as the inspiration for the work, often believed to date from the time of Josiah (see above), and updated to cover the period ending in the Exile of Judah. This critical theory was effectively introduced and popularized in the mid-20th century by German scholar Martin Noth, whose work is best accessed (in English) as The Deuteronomistic History, JSOT Supplement (Sheffield Academic Press: 1981 [subsequent editions 1991, 2002]). F. M. Cross has a valuable summary, along with his own modification of the theory, in the now-classic Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History and Religion of Israel (Harvard: 1973), pp. 274-89.

For a good moderate critical treatment of the book of Deuteronomy, and the Song of Moses in particular, see Jeffrey H. Tigay, JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy (Jewish Publication Society: 1996), pp. xix-xxviii, 508-18.

June 17: John 6:1-15

In the previous day’s note, I offered a comparison of the miraculous feeding narratives in the Synoptic Gospels, including a comparison of the similarities between the feedings of the 5000 and the 4000 in Mark/Matthew—similarities which serve as a reasonably strong argument in favor of the critical view that the two narrative episodes are based on a single historical tradition (or event). I also mentioned at least one good argument (on objective grounds, apart from any particular view of inspiration/inerrancy) in favor of the traditional-conservative view that these really do represent a record of separate events. This will be discussed in the second half of today’s note; however, to begin with, let me offer a comparison of the miraculous feeding narrative in John vs. the Synoptics. The corresponding passage in the fourth Gospel is found in Jn 6:1-15. The narrative setting of this episode in John is, of course, quite different:

    • Jesus has previously been in Jerusalem (Jn 5:1ff), and is now in Galilee (6:1); this abrupt shift would seem to indicate that we are dealing with the inclusion of traditional material, and no real attempt has been made by the author to smooth over the seam.
    • The occasion of Passover is mentioned (v. 4), which is almost certainly an insertion by the author to connect the miracle explicitly with the setting of the “Bread of Life” discourse which follows in 6:22-59.
    • Note how the author includes the episode of Jesus’ walking on the water (6:16-20) right after the miraculous feeding, just as in the Synoptic tradition (Mark/Matthew), even though it doesn’t seem entirely to fit the narrative context in John (note the rather awkward transitional description in vv. 22-23). I take this as an indication that the two episodes were already coupled together at a very early point in the Gospel tradition.
    • There is, certainly, nothing at all like the Bread of Life discourse following the feeding miracle in the Synoptic Gospels—it appears to be a tradition unique to John.

Special details in common between John’s account and the Synoptic feeding of the 5000:

    • Reference to Jesus’ healing the sick (v. 2) [cf. Matt 14:14; Luke 9:11]
    • Specific mention by the disciples of the cost of (at least) 200 denarii to feed so many people (v. 7; Mk 6:37)
    • The number of loaves (5) (v. 9)
    • The specific (round) number of men in the crowd (5000) (v. 10)
    • The mention of grass (v. 10; Mark 6:39, par Matt)
    • There are twelve baskets [kofino$] of fragments left over (v. 13)

Details in common between John’s account (of the 5000) and the Synoptic (Matthew-Mark) feeding of the 4000:

    • The specific location along/across the Sea of Galilee (v. 1) [cf. Matt 15:29]
    • Jesus going up onto a mountain (v. 3) [cf. in Matt 15:29, but note also mountain theme in Mk 6:46 par. Matt).
    • Jesus takes the initiative regarding the crowd (v. 5) [cf. Mark 8:2-3 par]—however this is more of an original/distinctive element of John’s narrative
    • Philip’s response to Jesus question (v. 7) shows a partial similarity to Matt 15:33 (but also Mk 6:37, see above)
    • The verb “sit/fall back” [a)napi/ptw] is used (v. 10) instead of “lay back/down” [a)nakli/nw/katakli/nw]; also, there is no mention of the crowd sitting down in groups of fifty, etc.
    • Jesus “gives thanks” [eu)xariste/w] (v. 11) as in Matt  15:36 and MSS of Mk 8:7, instead of “bless” [eu)loge/w]

The number of details in common with the feeding of the 4000 is striking—another indication, perhaps, that the two narrative episodes (of the 5000 & 4000) stem from a single historical tradition. It is also worth pointing out some details which are unique to John’s account:

    • The Passover setting (v. 4), though the mention of “green grass” (Mk 6:39) might generally indicate springtime.
    • Jesus specific question about buying food for the crowd (v. 5), described as intended to test the disciples (Philip) (v. 6)
    • The mention of specific disciples Philip (v. 5-7) and Andrew (v. 8).
    • The boy with the loaves and fish (v. 9)
    • The loaves specified as “barley” [kriqino$] and the fish as “dried-fish” [o)yarion, instead of i)xqu$/i)xqudion]
    • Jesus’ command to his disciples to gather up the fragments (v. 12), along with the use of suna/gw (“bring together”) instead of ai&rw (“lift/take [up/away]”)
    • The reaction of the people to the miracle in vv. 14-15.

The significant number of details unique to John would seem to be incontrovertible evidence that John has not derived his account from any of the Synoptics, but has inherited an early Gospel tradition, some version of which is shared by the Synoptics as well. For a convenient chart comparing all of the miraculous feeding narratives in detail, see R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII (Anchor Bible vol. 29: 1966), pp. 240-243.

What, then, of the traditional-conservative view which would regard the miraculous feedings of the 5000 and 4000 as authentic separate historical events? As I mentioned above, there is one main piece of objective evidence in its favor: namely, the tradition recorded in Mark 8:14-21 (par Matthew 16:5-12). Actually, according to standard methods of analysis for the Gospels, one should distinguish three elements in this passage, which follow a relatively common pattern:

    • Narrative setting (v. 14)
    • Saying of Jesus (v. 15)
    • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 17-21), following the question/misunderstanding of the disciples (v. 16)

The saying of Jesus about the “leaven of the Pharisees” is found in all three Synoptics—it is part of the parallel sequence in Matt 16:5-12 (v. 6), perhaps inherited from Mark, and is also found in Luke 12:1 but there in a very different context. It is Jesus’ exposition in Mk 8:17-21 which is of particular interest here, for he refers to both feeding miracles (in some detail!) If one is to regard vv. 17-21 as being in any way an authentic dialogue, then one is also forced to admit that the two miraculous feeding narratives both reflect historical events. This creates something of a dilemma for critical commentators—for if, on the other hand, the two feeding miracles are versions of a single event, then the entire dialogue of vv. 17-21 must effectively be regarded as an early Christian creation. Indeed, many critical scholars, I am sure, are inclined to accept the authenticity of the saying in v. 15 much more so than the expository dialogue in vv. 17-21.

It is interesting that there also appears to be literary significance to the parallel presentation of the two miraculous feedings, at least in the Gospel of Mark; note the following structure:

    • Feeding miracle (of the 5000)—Mk 6:30-44
      • Episode in a boat at sea (miracle of Jesus)—vv. 45-51
        • Statement about the loaves; disciples’ lack of understanding—v. 52
    • Feeding miracle (of the 4000)—Mk 8:1-10
      • Episode in a boat at sea (saying of Jesus)—vv. 14-15ff
        • Discussion of the loaves; disciples’ lack of understanding—vv. 16-21

While not constructed as carefully as similar arrangements of narrative episodes in, say, the Gospels of Luke or John, the parallelism is clear enough. There are then, other concerns besides historical accuracy/reliability that make it important to maintain a distinction between the two miraculous feeding narratives in the Synoptic tradition.

June 16: Mark 6:30-44 par, continued

In the previous day’s note I introduced some of the critical issues (source- and historical-critical) surrounding the miraculous feeding of the multitude (5000 & 4000) narratives in the Gospels. To demonstrate several points more clearly, today I will present a modest comparative study of the passages. To begin with, it is worth noting just how close are the three Synoptic accounts of the feeding of the Five thousand. The passages to compare are: Mark 6:30-44, Matthew 14:13-21, and Luke 9:10-17. The introductory/transition portion of the narrative (Mk 6:30-34; Matt 14:13-14; Lk 9:10-11) shows much greater variance:

    • Occasion/setting: the return of the Twelve from their mission (Mark/Luke) vs. Jesus hearing about the fate of John (Matthew)
    • The extended narrative in Mark (vv. 31-34) including additional dialogue and a longer mention of Jesus’ compassion for the crowd
    • Matthew and Luke do not have the narrative portion of Mark 6:31-34, presenting a simpler narrative setting—Matthew/Luke agree (against Mark) in mentioning Jesus’ healing the sick in the crowd

There are other minor differences as well, such as Luke specifying the location as Bethsaida (Lk 9:10) and the mention of Jesus speaking about the kingdom of God (v. 11). The common elements are: (a) Jesus withdrawing (to a secluded place) with his disciples, (b) the crowd following him, (c) an expression of Jesus’ care/compassion for the crowd. Here is a comparison of the core narrative which follows (using the NASU translation), with significant differences (additions, modification or reordering of material) italicized (note also the simpler descriptions in Matthew/Luke compared with Mark):

Mark 6:35-44

35 When it was already quite late, His disciples came to Him and said, “This place is desolate and it is already quite late; 36 send them away so that they may go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” 37 But He answered them, “You give them something to eat!” And they said to Him, “Shall we go and spend two hundred denarii on bread and give them something to eat?” 38 And He said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go look!” And when they found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39 And He commanded them all to sit down by groups on the green grass. 40 They sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. 41 And He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up toward heaven, He blessed the food and broke the loaves and He kept giving them to the disciples to set before them; and He divided up the two fish among them all. 42 They all ate and were satisfied, 43 and they picked up twelve full baskets of the broken pieces, and also of the fish. 44 There were five thousand men who ate the loaves.

Matthew 14:15-21

15 When it was evening, the disciples came to Him and said, “This place is desolate and the hour is already late; so send the crowds away, that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 But Jesus said to them, “They do not need to go away; you give them something to eat!” 17 They said to Him, “We have here only five loaves and two fish.” 18 And He said, “Bring them here to Me.” 19 Ordering the people to sit down on the grass, He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up toward heaven, He blessed the food, and breaking the loaves He gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds, 20 and they all ate and were satisfied. They picked up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve full baskets. 21 There were about five thousand men who ate, besides women and children.

Luke 9:12-17

12 Now the day was ending, and the twelve came and said to Him, “Send the crowd away, that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside and find lodging and get something to eat; for here we are in a desolate place.” 13 But He said to them, “You give them something to eat!” And they said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish, unless perhaps we go and buy food for all these people.” 14 (For there were about five thousand men.) And He said to His disciples, “Have them sit down to eat in groups of about fifty each.” 15 They did so, and had them all sit down. 16 Then He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed them, and broke them, and kept giving them to the disciples to set before the people. 17 And they all ate and were satisfied; and the broken pieces which they had left over were picked up, twelve baskets full.

Let us now turn to the two accounts of the miraculous feeding of the Four thousand, in Mark 8:1-9 and Matthew 15:32-39. Luke does not record this separate feeding episode, which may not be all that significant since here in the narrative he has nothing corresponding to the entire section of Mark 6:45-8:26. As in the case of the feeding of the Five thousand, Matthew’s version is simpler than Mark’s, but, apart from slight differences in wording and arrangement, is otherwise extremely close. In many ways, the feeding of the 4000 gives the impression (according to the critical view) of being closer to the earliest historical tradition of the feeding miracle—it is a more streamlined narrative, with fewer signs of editing. The historical critical question, of course, is very much in dispute (for traditional-conservative commentators at least); but consider just how close the two narrative episodes actually are—in each we have:

    • A large crowd has followed Jesus, and is now in a deserted/distant place with no opportunity to obtain food
    • Jesus has compassion on the crowd
    • Mention of sending the crowd away
    • Question of the disciples about trying to feed such a large number of people
    • Jesus asks what food they have—just a small number of bread loaves and fish
    • Jesus instructs the crowd to sit down
    • Jesus blesses/gives-thanks and gives the food to the disciples to distribute to the crowd
    • All in the crowd eat and are satisfied
    • Baskets full of fragments remain and are gathered up
    • The (round) number of men in the crowd is stated (5000/4000)

There are, of course, notable differences—both substantive and in detail—but the similarities are striking; it is a fairly strong argument in favor of the critical view that we are dealing with two versions of the same underlying historical tradition. That two separate events would have occurred—and been narrated—in such a similar fashion seems rather unlikely. As critical commentators are fond of mentioning, there is also the historical implausibility of the disciples, having recently witnessed the first dramatic feeding miracle, having the same doubts again about being able to feed such a large crowd (but cf. the notice in Mark 6:52). The main differences between the two narrative episodes can be summarized:

Feeding the 5000

  • It is stated that Jesus had compassion on the crowd
  • The disciples ask Jesus to send the crowd away (to find food)
  • Jesus tells the disciples to give the crowd something to eat
  • The disciples tell Jesus what food they have (response to Jesus inquiry in Mk)
  • Five loaves, and two fish
  • Jesus commands the crowd to lay-back/recline [a)nakli/nw/katakli/nw] in groups
  • Jesus “blesses” [eu)loge/w] the food
  • Twelve baskets [ko/fino$] of fragments left over

Feeding the 4000

  • Jesus states that he has compassion for the crowd
  • Jesus says he is unwilling to send them away (to find food)
  • The disciples question how they can feed such a large crowd
  • Jesus asks the disciples what food they have (as in Mk’s version of feeding the 5000)
  • Seven loaves, a few (small) fish
  • Jesus has the crowd sit down [a)napi/ptw] (no mention of groups)
  • Jesus “gives thanks” [eu)xariste/w] (in Matt; “bless” [eu)loge/w] in Mk some MSS)
  • Seven woven-baskets [spuri/$] of fragments left over

To a large extent, these differences are variations in vocabulary and specific detail, of the sort that might naturally occur during the development and transmission of ancient tradition. If the critical view holds, then, at some point early on, two versions of the story (with differing details and vocabulary) crystalized, developing to become distinct enough to be preserved as separate narratives in the Synoptic tradition. In fairness I think it can be said that, without the need to safeguard a particular view of the inspiration (and/or inerrancy) of Scripture—that is, if such a narrative ‘doublet’ occurred in any other ancient writing—there would be little question that a single historical tradition underlay both narratives. However, there is at least one strong argument (on objective grounds) in favor of the traditional-conservative view, and this will be discussed in the next day’s note—along with a comparison of the miraculous feeding narratives in John and the Synoptics.

June 15: Mark 6:30-44 par

In yesterday’s note, partly in commemoration of the traditional feast of Corpus Christi (first Sunday after Trinity), I examined the New Testament expression of “breaking (of) bread” (as in Acts 2:42, 46; Luke 24:35, etc) in relation to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist) in the early Church. There is one other major passage where this image occurs—the miraculous feeding of the multitude by Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. The tradition surrounding this miracle is unique in that: (a) it is one of the only episodes recorded in all four Gospels (the Synoptics and John); (b) it is one of the only instances where something like the same narrative occurs twice in the same Gospel (Matthew/Mark). For this reason (among others), it proves to be an interesting ‘test case’ in terms of how early Gospel traditions may have developed, as well as being illustrative of the key differences between traditional-conservative and critical viewpoints in this regard. You will also find this episode discussed in detail as part of the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”.

I will divide the discussion into three main sections, each of which will be treated in a daily note:

    • Survey of the passages, with a brief study of the source-critical and historical-critical questions
    • A more detailed comparative study of the narratives
    • An examination of the Eucharistic elements of the traditional narrative—their possible origins and influence in the early Church

Today’s note will is devoted to the first of these—namely, a survey of the passages, study of key source-critical and historical-critical questions. To begin with, a miraculous feeding of five thousand men (plus women and children) is narrated in Mark 6:30-44, Matthew 14:13-21, Luke 9:10-17, and John 6:1-15. As will be seen, all four narratives are quite close, both in outline and much detail as well; typically the the three Synoptic accounts are extremely close, while there are more substantial differences between the Synoptics and John. This brings up two separate, but related, source-critical questions:

    1. What is the relationship between the Synoptic Gospels?
    2. What is the relationship between the Synoptics and John?

The first question is usually addressed in the wider context of the so-called “Synoptic Problem”—how to explain the substantial agreement (including wording, order, other detail) between two and/or all three Synoptic Gospels. Today, there is a rough consensus among many (if not most) critical scholars that corresponds with the so-called “Two-Document” and “Markan priority” hypotheses, according to which:

    • Mark was written first, and both Matthew and Luke made (extensive) use of Mark, including the overall narrative plan and arrangement.
    • Matthew and Luke also made use of a second major (written) source, primarily consisting of blocks of Jesus’ sayings and teachings—this is the so-called “Q” source. Usually this is assumed to be a distinct written document, but it is perhaps safer to refer to it more generally as a collection of shared tradition(s).
    • Matthew and Luke also each made use of other sources—collections of tradition, whether written or oral—not found in the other Gospels, and often labeled “M” and “L” respectively.

While not without difficulties, this does, I believe, represent a reasonably sound working hypothesis. At the very least, if Matthew and Luke did not make use of Mark, then they must have made use of an early Gospel framework very similar in both content and arrangement. In particular, the position of the feeding miracle within the overall Gospel framework is similar between the Synoptics. Assuming, for the moment, the “Markan priority” hypothesis, here is the position of the episode in Mark:

1. Mk 6:1-6: The rejection of Jesus at Nazareth (saying in v. 4)
2. Mk 6:7-13: Jesus’ sending out of the Twelve (saying/commission in vv. 10-11)
3. Mk 6:14-29: Herod and the death of John the Baptist
4. Mk 6:30-44: The feeding of the Five thousand
5. Mk 6:45-52: Episode at sea—Jesus walking on water (reference to the feeding miracle in v. 52)
6. Mk 6:53-56: Summary references to healing miracles by Jesus
7. Mk 7:1-23: Sayings of Jesus in context of disputes with Pharisees and Scribes (at least two blocks of sayings, vv. 6-13 and 14b-23)
8. Mk 7:24-37: Two healing miracles

If we compare the position in the Gospel of Matthew, it is nearly identical; the only structural difference is that Jesus’ commission and sending out the Twelve occurs somewhat earlier (Matt 10:5ff) and serves as the introduction and narrative focus for a lengthy block of sayings vv. 16-42 added to the portion (vv. 5-15) he presumably inherited from Mark. The arrangement in the Gospel of Luke differs even more considerably:

  • The story of Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth occurs earlier (at the beginning of his ministry), and in different/expanded form, in Lk 4:16-30
  • The material corresponding to Mark 6:45-8:26 for the most part is not found in Luke; as a result the confession of Peter, Jesus’ first Passion prediction (with related sayings), and the Transfiguration (Lk 9:18-36) follow immediately after the miraculous feeding episode in Lk 9:10-17

Notable differences between the Synoptic accounts of the feeding of the Five thousand will be mentioned in the comparative study in the next day’s note.

The second question (see above) has to do with the relationship between the Synoptic Gospels and John. Even though there is relatively little common material between John and the Synoptics, scholars have at times proposed that the author of the fourth Gospel utilized one (or more) of the other three. For example, there are some notable details in common between the Passion/Resurrection narratives of Luke and John, but other (apparent) minor points of agreement as well. However, in my view, most of these similarities are best explained by a shared common tradition rather than literary borrowing. I would concur with a good number of scholars today that there is very little (if any) clear evidence that the author of the fourth Gospel even knew (let alone used) any of the other three Gospels. At least one strand of evidence to this effect will be presented in the comparative study offered in the next day’s note. This means that, if we take Mark as the earliest Synoptic (and partial exemplar for the other two), then, at several key points, the Gospels of Mark and John are both drawing from an early tradition (or block of tradition), such as that involving the feeding of the Five thousand. By all accounts the “common portion” shared by John here is modest, limited to the traditions corresponding to Mark 6:30-52.

There is a far more serious historical-critical issue related to these passages, one which demonstrates a rather clear divide between traditional-conservative and critical approaches to the Gospels. The difficulty can be summarized by the fact that, in the Gospel of Mark (and in Matthew) there are two different miraculous feedings which are largely identical, differing mainly in specific vocabulary and other detail. This second episode is a feeding of Four (instead of Five) thousand men, as narrated in Mark 8:1-10 (par Matthew 15:32-39). The traditional-conservative view would tend to take these at face value as separate historical episodes; however, the number of similarities makes this hard to maintain in the light of objective analysis. The critical view would generally hold that these are separate versions of the same episode which have been preserved in different form; but there are difficulties with this view as well, as we shall see. Critical scholars are most reluctant to harmonize differences and discrepancies in Scriptural narrative by positing separate (similar, or nearly identical) events. For example, because of the different apparent chronology between John and the Synoptics, some traditional-conservative commentators would hold that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice; however, I regard this as highly unlikely—apart from the variant position of the episode (‘early’ vs. ‘late’), there is virtually no evidence to support a tradition of two (largely identical) Temple-cleansings. The situation is more complex with the “Anointing of Jesus” episodes in the Gospels; there it is likely that we are dealing with two traditions—one represented largely by Luke 7:36-50, the other primarily by Mark 14:3-9 and the Matthean parallel. As in the case of the miraculous feeding narratives, the Johannine account shows a mixture of details found in the other versions, which is somewhat hard to explain if we are dealing with different historical events (or traditions). This will be explored in greater detail in the next note.

Saturday Series: Exodus 32-34

Exodus 32-34

In the most recent Saturday discussion, we examined the covenant scene in Exodus 24, pointing out along the way the place of this episode in the structure of the book as a whole. The entire second half of the book, chapters 19-40, involves the idea of the binding agreement (covenant) established between God and his people at Mt. Sinai. From the standpoint of the narrative of the Pentateuch (or, at least the Tetrateuch, Genesis–Numbers), this extends to encompass the entire book of Leviticus and the opening chapters of Numbers (up to 10:10)—all of which is set at Sinai.

Chapters 32-33 (+ 34:1-9) of the book of Exodus have a special place in this narrative structure, set between two blocks of legal material (instruction, Torah), 20:1-23:33; 25:1-31:17 and 34:10-40:15. At the same time, there have been numerous critical questions surrounding these passages, which continue to be studied and debated in earnest today. As a result, Exod 32:1-34:9 is instructive for illustrating various aspects of Old Testament criticism. I wish to survey briefly each of the following areas:

    1. Textual Criticism
    2. Source Criticism
    3. Historical Criticism
    4. Exegetical analysis of the received Text

1. Textual Criticism

Generally speaking, the text of the Pentateuch is consistent and secure, as compared with other portions of Scripture. The numerous Dead Sea manuscripts tend to confirm the later Masoretic Text (MT), with a few notable exceptions, one of which is the ‘paleo-Hebrew’ manuscript from Qumran labeled 4QpaleoExodm. This (fragementary) copy of the book of Exodus covers the material spanning from 6:25 to 37:16. The text of this manuscript differs from the MT at a number of points, where it tends to agree with the Samaritan Pentateuch (against the MT). The differences are relatively minor, but they are significant enough to allow us to regard the manuscript as representing a distinct recension, or version, of the text. It appears to be the recension which, with some adaptation, was used by the Samaritans in their version of the Pentateuch. There is a particular example from our passage (Exod 32-34):

Exodus 32:10-11

The Masoretic Text (MT), following the BHS/Westminster critical editions, reads (in translation):

(YHWH speaking to Moses): “And now, bring rest to me [i.e. let me alone], and my anger [lit. nostril] will burn on [i.e. against] them and I will consume them, and I will make you to (be) a great nation!” And Moshe (trie)d to soften the face of YHWH his God, and said (to him), “For what [i.e. why], (O) YHWH, does your anger burn on your people…?”

Now, note the reading of 4QpaleoExodm, in agreement with the Samaritan text:

(YHWH speaking to Moses): “And now, bring rest to me [i.e. let me alone], and my anger [lit. nostril] will burn on [i.e. against] them and I will consume them, and I will make you to (be) a great nation!” And with Aharon YHWH was very angry, (enough) to destroy him, but Moshe interceded on behalf of Aharon. And Moshe (trie)d to soften the face of YHWH his God, and said (to him), “For what [i.e. why], (O) YHWH, does your anger burn on your people…?”

The portion in bold italics is not present in the MT. In such an instance, we must consider whether the longer text is original or represents an addition (interpolation). In this particular case, it is unlikely that the longer text is the result of an accident (copying mistake); nor can the shorter text be explained as an obvious mistake (omission). If, on the other hand, the change was at least partly intentional, then we must consider how or why it was made. The arguments cut both ways:

    • The longer text could be explained by the fact that the shorter text, if original, does not really record any reaction by God against Aaron, nor punishment, for his specific role in the Golden Calf incident; scribes thus might have been inclined to add such a detail, whether from authentic tradition or as a pious invention.
    • Scribes may also have been inclined to minimize Aaron’s role in the sin of the Golden Calf, and to eliminate specific details which cast him in too bad a light (esp. in comparison with Moses). This would be an argument in favor of the longer text.

It is not possible to make a definite determination on these grounds (though I tend to favor the shorter text at Exod 32:10-11a). In such cases, where there is corroborating evidence from Qumran to support either the Samaritan Pentateuch or the Greek Version(s), against the MT, we ought to give it serious consideration in our study.

2. Source Criticism

According to the common critical analysis of the Pentateuch (the so-called Documentary Hypothesis), Exodus 32-34 is a composite, made up of at least three distinct strands (or sources):

    • The core narrative of 32:1-33:23, usually assigned to the “E” (Elohist) source
    • The appearance of YHWH to Moses (34:1a, 2-13) and a parallel version of the Ten Commandments (34:14-28 [cp. 20:1-17]), assigned to the “J” (Jahwist/Yahwist) source
    • A layer of editing and additional material, referred to as the “Priestly” (P) layer or source—31:18; [34:1b]; 34:29-35ff (to the end of the book).

Interestingly, the “E” source was so labeled based on its presumed preference for the divine name Elohim over Yahweh (YHWH). However, chapters 32-33 consistently use YHWH throughout, the only exception being in 32:16. In this instance, the critical theory is more properly based on the presence of “doublet” traditions (two ascents by Moses, two sets of tablets, two versions of the Decalogue, etc), as well as historical considerations (see below). Traditional-conservative commentators, while often respectful of these analyses based on the Documentary Hypothesis, tend to accept the text at face value, as a unified composition reflected authentic historical tradition throughout. Even so, there are a number of apparent inconsistencies and peculiarities which require explanation. It is certainly possible to recognize the presence of various traditions which have been brought together in the narrative, without necessarily adopting the Documentary Hypothesis as a whole.

3. Historical Criticism

There are two aspects to what we call historical criticism: (1) analysis of the historical background of the text as we have it (including when it was authored, etc), and (2) consideration of the historicity of the events and traditions contained in the text. Both aspects have been somewhat controversial over the years, in the case of the Pentateuch, on the basis of two factors: (a) the detailed critical studies and hypotheses which indicate many different and varied traditions, and (b) the strong tradition identifying Moses as the effective author/source of the books. Students and scholars who adopt (or insist on) extreme positions regarding either of these two factors, in my view, end up distorting or neglecting important pieces of evidence related to the text. Let us briefly consider several critical approaches to Exod 32-34:

a. The blending of contrary or opposing traditions

Commentators who recognize different, distinct strands of tradition in the text, often claim that these are contrary or opposed to one another, in various ways. This may include:

    • Different wording or formulation of a tradition, such as in the two “versions” of the Decalogue—20:1-17 (usually assigned to “P”) and 34:14-28 (“J”).
    • Geographical distinctions—esp. interests of the Northern kingdom (Shechem, Bethel, Mushite priesthood), compared with those of the South (Jerusalem, the Temple, the Davidic legacy, Aaronid priesthood). The presumed source documents “E” and “J” are often thought to come from the North and South, respectively.
    • Religious and theological differences—e.g., the northern Bethel cultus vs. that of the Jerusalem (Temple), cherub-throne (the Ark) vs. bull-throne, the position of the priestly lines of Aaron and Moses, specific traditions associated with the religious centers of Gilgal, Shiloh, Shechem, etc.

As just one example, it is often though that the Golden Calf episode in chapter 32, along with Aaron’s involvement in the incident (vv. 1-5, 10-11 v.l., 21-24f), is intended as a (Northern) polemic against the religious establishment of Jeroboam (at the sites of Bethel and Dan, etc). There can be no doubt that an intentional parallel is at work. All one has to do is to consider the basic iconography (of the bull) and the words used to introduce it:

“These are your Gods, (O) Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (Exod 32:4, cf. also verse 8)
“See, your Gods, (O) Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (1 Kings 12:28)

How should this parallel be explained? There are two main possibilities:

    • The declaration in 1 Kings 12:28, and/or the golden bulls of Jeroboam’s religious establishment themselves, are meant to reflect the earlier Exodus tradition.
    • The Exodus scene of the Golden Calf reflects the later development by Jeroboam, being projected back into the time of Moses and the Exodus. At the very least, one might say that the Exodus narrative has been shaped (its wording, etc) in light of the later history.
b. The tendency to include traditions with variant details

Apparent discrepancies in detail do not necessarily mean that traditions are unreliable or inaccurate. However one views the composition of the Pentateuch, the author/editor(s) of the books as they have come down to us has included many different traditions, and narratives, which seem to result in certain inconsistencies. Consider, for example, the shifts in setting and emphasis in chapters 32-34, which do not always flow smoothly in the text:

    • The details surrounding the Golden Calf, including the fact that it seems to be understood as representing both distinct “gods” (i.e. separate from YHWH), and YHWH himself (his throne?)—32:1, 4, 5-6
    • The different expressions of God’s anger, judgment, and the punishment of the people (with multiple intercessions by Moses), without a clear sense of how they relate to each other in the course of the narrative—(these will be discussed in the last section of this study [#4]). In particular, Aaron does not seem to face any definite punishment for his role in the Golden Calf incident (see above).
    • The differing descriptions of what God says to Moses on the mountain, and how it relates to what Moses writes, and to what is written on the “two tablets” of stone—24:3-4; 31:18; 32:15-16; 34:1-5, 28-29, etc.
    • In this regard, there are also some interesting repetitions in the sections of legal instruction (Torah)—examine the passages closely, 25:1-31:17; 34:10-35:3ff, as well as the earlier “book of the Covenant” (20:22-23:23).
    • Certain apparent inconsistencies regarding where/how God appears to Moses, etc—chap. 19; 20:18ff; 24:1-18; 33:7ff, 17-23; 34:5ff, 29ff.

Our modern ideals of composition would perhaps require a bit more clarity, harmonizing and smoothing out details in these various episodes and traditions. The ancient author (and/or editor[s]) did not compose and shape the text in quite this way. We must consider that the apparent rough edges and inconsistencies are intentional, meant to bring out certain details and aspects of the narrative which might otherwise be overlooked.

c. The unifying structure of the narrative

A number of the discrepancies or inconsistencies mentioned above, however one chooses to judge them from the standpoint of source– and historical-criticism (see the discussion above), can be explained, in large measure, when one considers carefully the structure of the narrative as it has come down to us. In this regard, the “doublet” and repeating elements, far from being problematic, are actually vital to a proper understanding of the narrative. Consider the basic outline:

    • Moses ascends Mount Sinai and receives instruction (Torah) from God, which includes material written down on two stone tablets (i.e. the covenant)—24:15-31:18
      • The people violate the covenant and Moses descends—chaps. 32-33
    • Moses re-ascends Mount Sinai and (again) receives instruction (Torah) from God, including that written down on two stone tablets (the covenant)—34:1-28
      • Moses descends and the covenant with the people is re-established34:29-35:1ff

The simplicity of this outline masks a richly-detailed structure of motifs and associations, particular points of emphasis, and the like. This is part of the uniquely inspired character of the text which cannot be reduced merely to questions of historicity. The fourth (final) section of this study on Exodus 32-34 will examine the structure of the narrative in more detail, from an exegetical standpoint. This we will do next Saturday. I hope that you will join me.

Saturday Series: Genesis 15

This week we will be looking at the first of three passages in the Pentateuch which involve the idea of a covenant made between God and his people. This idea is central to the thought (and theology) of the Old Testament, which early Christians inherited; and yet, the concept is altogether foreign to us today. This is an instance where a measure of historical criticism is required in order to understand the Scriptures. It is necessary to be aware of the ancient Near Eastern cultural and religious background of the covenant idea, and the language (and symbolism) used to express it.

To begin with, the Hebrew word usually translated as “covenant” is b§rî¾ (tyr!B=), most likely related to the Akkadian bir£tu/birtu, and the (Semitic) loanword bi-rí-ta in Egyptian. The fundamental meaning is “bond”, specifically in the sense of a “binding agreement”. Its use has been preserved in the record of various formal agreements or treaties, along with the parallel term °âl¹ (Akkadian a°¹lu/a°lu). Such agreements can be made either between equal parties (parity treaties), or between a superior (suzerain) and his loyal associates (vassals); sometimes in the latter case, only one of the parties would be bound by the agreement. A number of suzerain-vassal treaties are known from the ancient Near East; examples of both Assyrian and Hittite treaties, in particular, have come to light which help to elucidate the “covenant” form and language used in the Old Testament. For a good survey of the evidence, see F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard: 1973), pp. 265-73.

Genesis 15

There are two covenant episodes which are central to the Abraham (Abram) narratives in Genesis; the first of these is in chapter 15, which follows directly upon the war and Melchizedek episodes of chapter 14. Both chapters appear to derive from the same cluster of traditions and have many similarities of language. The term b§rî¾ appears in 14:13, where three Amorites (Mamre, Eshkol, Aner), who are allies of Abraham, are referred to as ba±¦lê b§rî¾ (“lords [i.e. men, chieftains] of a [binding] agreement”, i.e. with Abraham). One important consequence of both the war, and the Melchizedek episode, is the faithfulness (to God) shown by Abraham, and, especially, his refusal to receive any material benefit (i.e. spoils, reward) himself from the war (vv. 20b-24). This sets the stage for Abraham’s encounter with God (El-Yahweh) in chapter 15.

The actual encounter with God occurs at the prophetic, visionary level, as is clear from verse 1: “…the word of YHWH came to be unto Abram in a vision”, that is, where one sees and looks with the mind rather than the eyes. The oracle is simple and in three parts, the last of which declares to Abraham, “your payment [´¹k¹r] will increase very (much)”—i.e., in lieu of what he might have gained from the war, Abraham will receive an even greater reward. Verses 2-5 set forth the nature of this reward: that of progeny (children, offspring) which will keep his family line intact for generations to come. The covenant setting of this “reward” is clear from the way it is tied to Abraham’s faithfulness (to God), both the chapter 14 narrative, and also here, as the statement in verse 6 brings out: “And he was firm with [i.e. trusted in] YHWH, and it was counted as faithfulness [ƒ®d¹qâ] for him”. The noun ƒ®d¹qâ (hq*d*x=) is typically translated “righteousness, justice” but it can also signify someone who is victorious (on one’s behalf), trustworthy, faithful, loyal, etc. The covenant-context of the passage suggests a connotation of this sort. In other word, God considers Abraham as a loyal friend.

This relates to the idea of vassalage (and vassal treaties) in the ancient Near East. Loyal supporters (vassals) were bound to a superior (suzerain) by an agreement which was established and ratified through oath and symbolic ritual. Many such agreements involved a grant of land, and that is what occurs here between God and his loyal vassal (Abraham) as well (verse 7). A special ritual act establishes the agreement (vv. 9-21). The details of this episode doubtless seem most strange to readers today; however, they are part of the ritual process associated with treaties in the ancient world. The idiom in verse 18 (and elsewhere in the Old Testament) is “to cut an agreement”, using the verb k¹ra¾ (tr^K*), “cut”. This language is not merely figurative, but concrete. It was common practice for the establishment of a treaty to be accompanied by the ritual cutting up an animal. This is known by way of texts from Mari, Alalakh, and other sites, as well as parallels in Israelite and Old Testament tradition (Judges 19:11ff). The meaning of the ritual cutting is clear enough from Jeremiah 34:17-20 and the Aramaic Sefire treaty; it is a curse formula, meant to symbolize the fate which will befall the one who violates the agreement—i.e., “Just as this {animal} is cut up, thus {so-and-so} will be cut up” if he/they violate the treaty.

However, in Genesis 15, while the ancient ritual symbolism is preserved, it is infused with an entirely new meaning. For one thing, it is God (El-Yahweh) who is the sovereign, not an earthly ruler, giving the covenant-form a unique religious aspect. Moreover, there is no emphasis on the oath/curse associated with the symbolism of the cutting up of the animals. Instead, at the heart of the scene in verses 9-21, is a prophetic visitation and divine manifestation (theophany) of God to Abraham. Note the structure:

    • The cutting up of the animals and arrangement of the pieces (vv. 9-11)
    • The “word of YHWH” comes again to Abraham in a vision [at sundown] (vv. 12-16)
    • God manifests himself to Abraham, passing through the pieces [at night] (vv. 17-21)

Interestingly, there may be a subtle allusion to the curse-symbolism (see above) in the content of the prophetic message given to Abraham (vv. 12-16), as it foretells the suffering and exile of Abraham’s descendants.

In the ancient treaty-format, the party (or parties) bound by the agreement would pass between the cut-up pieces of the animal(s). Here it is God himself, through the vision-symbol of smoke and fire (see Exod 19:18; 20:15, etc). This effectively ratifies the agreement, confirming that the one(s) bound by it will fulfill their obligations. In this instance, the obligation involves the granting of land (i.e. the Promised Land) to Abraham and his descendants. God declares what he will do for his loyal friend/vassal Abraham; it is a one-sided agreement, in which superior’s binding obligation is established. What significance does this have for the ritual imagery of the cutting up (into two pieces) of the animals? If God is the one who takes on the covenant-obligation, and the associated ritual symbolism, is it possible to find any special theological significance for this episode?

I would ask that you think on these questions. Study the passage again in detail, making use of whatever tools you have available to examine the actual Hebrew text. Then continue reading through chapters 16 and 17. What similarities and differences do you find in the two covenant episodes in chapters 15 and 17, and how would you explain these?

Next week, we will be looking at Genesis 17 in detail, as well as introducing a third covenant episode (in Exodus 24). I would suggest that these represent three important aspects of the covenant-idea in the Old Testament, each of which exerted a major influence on the development of early Christian thought in the New Testament. It is thus worthwhile to spend the time necessary to study the passages thoroughly. This we have begun today, and will continue it…next Saturday.

April 8 (3): Mark 14:3-9 par

Traditionally, the anointing of Jesus at Bethany inaugurates the Passion as celebrated during Holy Week. In addition to its poignancy, and spiritual teaching, the episode (or episodes) are immensely instructive for studying the ways in which the Gospel writers may have dealt with early tradition. Each Gospel contains an Anointing episode: Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; Luke 7:36-50; John 12:1-8. The account in Matthew and Mark, occurring after Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem, is virtually identical; John’s account is similar, but is placed prior to Jesus’ Entry; Luke’s account is, in most respects, quite different, and is set earlier in Jesus’ ministry. A strict traditional-conservative approach might end up positing three separate events, but this is quite improbable; the choice, rather, is between one event, or two. Many critical scholars posit a single incident which branched off in early tradition to form the kernel of the Gospel narratives we have now. A more reasonable critical approach, I think, is to assume two historical episodes: one matching Matthew/Mark and John, one matching that found in Luke. Very straightforward; however, the situation is actually more complicated than that. For, despite the very different setting of Luke’s account, there are details which curiously match John’s account (against Matthew/Mark), and even several which match the account in Matthew/Mark (against John). I offer some comparisons here below; since Matthew and Mark are nearly identical, I will use Mark’s account for comparison.

Details common to Mark/Matthew and John:

    1. Setting in Bethany, near the time of Passover, in proximity to the time of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Mark 14:1, 3; John 12:1, 9ff)
    2. A woman (apparently a disciple: in John it is Mary of Bethany) pours perfume on Jesus as he reclines (Mark 14:3; John 12:2)
    3. The perfume is very costly (Mark 14:3; John 12:2; John and Mark use almost exact language: perfume of costly “pure nard”)
    4. The disciples (in John it is Judas Iscariot) decry the waste (Mark 14:4-5; John 12:4-5)
    5. Mention is made of the cost, and that the money could be sold and given to the poor (Mark and John use almost identical language, including mention of the price [“300 denari”])
    6. Jesus rebukes the disciples and mentions that the perfume was intended to be used for his burial (Mark 14:6, 8; John 12:7)
    7. The saying “For the poor you always have with you…” (Mark 14:7; John 12:8)

Details common to John and Luke:

    1. The anointing/wetting is of the feet (John 12:3; Luke 7:38), instead of the head (Mark 14:3)
    2. Mention is specifically made of “anointing” (form of a)lei/fw, John 12:3; Luke 7:38), instead of “pouring [out]” (kataxe/w, Mark 14:3)
    3. Mention is made of wiping Jesus feet with her hair (however, in Luke the woman wipes her tears; in John, apparently, she wipes the perfume [?])

Details common to Mark/Matthew and Luke:

    1. The name of the man hosting the feast is, apparently, Simon (Mark 14:3; Luke 7:40ff)—apparently, two different men with the same name [?]
    2. Mention is made of the woman carrying an “alabaster box/jar” [a)la/bastron] (Mark 14:3; Luke 7:37)

How does one explain so many coincidental details across two very different story settings (Matthew/Mark & John vs. Luke)? Critical scholars generally assume details have been transferred/distorted during transmission (presumably in the early oral stage); but I wonder, at least in the case of Luke. It is noteworthy that Luke contains no Passion-week Anointing scene, which is strange, if, as many scholars assume, he knew and made use of Mark’s Gospel. It also seems most unlikely that he could have confused the story he records in 7:36-50 with the later Bethany scene. This, perhaps, could be seen as evidence that Luke did not use Mark; but, I think it at least possible that Luke has intentionally omitted the Bethany scene (from whatever common tradition he knew), and has merged details from it into his own account set earlier in the ministry. This might explain the curious detail of anointing Jesus’ feet (v. 38): tears falling on his feet makes more sense, but pouring perfume on the feet? Yet the author had to know as well how odd this might appear—either, then, he simply records an unusual fact, or he purposefully includes the detail from the Bethany scene in the context of the sinful woman. Even harder to explain is John’s mention of anointing the feet, since the parallel account in Matthew/Mark specifically mentions anointing the head (not the feet). Is it possible that John has intentionally modified his narrative, just as Luke has, but in the opposite direction?— details from the anointing by the ‘sinful Woman’ (which John does not record) have merged into his account of the Anointing at Bethany. Whether accidental (in early transmission) or intentional (by the Gospel writer), details between the two stories have somehow merged together. Is it justifiable or proper to read the texts this way?

From the standpoint of Church Tradition, of course, such a ‘merging’ clearly occurred. For the “Mary” of John’s account (who is Mary of Bethany, sister of Lazarus), became joined together with the “Sinful Woman” of Luke’s account, in the figure of Mary Magdalene. Under the influence of Luke 8:2 (and Mark 16:9), which states that “seven daimons went out of” her, the traditional story developed of Mary’s former life as a prostitute, from which she repented and became a follower of Jesus. When she appears at the tomb, the perfume she carries (for anointing Jesus’ body) is the same with which she anointed him once before!

Perhaps we should at least consider meditating on both women at the same time: the devout disciple (Mary) who anoints Jesus’ head (and feet?) as an act of worship and consecration; with the (anonymous) “sinful” woman who wipes tears and anoints Jesus’ feet as an act of worship and repentance. “Righteous and Sinner at the same time”, in Luther’s famous phrase (simul iustus et peccator). John’s Gospel sums up the scene (and result) of this offering beautifully: h( de\ oi)ki/a e)plhrw/qh e)k th=$ o)smh=$ tou= mu/rou, “and the house was filled of the smell of perfume” (12:3).

For more on the Anointing scene, see the notes on this episode in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”.

The image of the repentant Magdalene came to be very popular in the West, a symbol of penitence and the ascetic ideal—a visceral image to be sure, very suited to individual dynamism of the Renaissance (one thinks immediately of Donatello’s great sculpture, see right). The story of her life as prostitute, her conversion, repentance, and appearance at the tomb on Easter, expanded in legend over the years, culminating with her appearance (along with Martha and Lazarus) in southern France. The Magdalene story would go on to maintain a position in both art and ritual for centuries in the Western Church.

Ipsissima Verba and Ipsissima Vox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the ipsissima verba of Jesus and Gospel Studies

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

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

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