The Law in Luke-Acts, Part 1: The Temple and Torah Observance

The question of the Old Testament Law (Torah) in the Gospel of Luke has already been addressed in the series “Jesus and the Law”; in this article I will be looking at the overall treatment of the subject by the author of Luke-Acts (traditionally Luke, the physician and companion of Paul). The article will be divided into two parts:

    1. The Temple and Torah observance
    2. The early Mission to the Gentiles, with special emphasis on the “Jerusalem Council” in Acts 15

The Temple and Torah Observance

This part will be further divided into two main sections:

    • The Temple setting and theme in Luke-Acts
    • Torah observance by the Apostles and other disciples in Acts

The Temple setting and theme in Luke-Acts

This can be examined according to three aspects—narrative, theological, and apologetic—which are interconnected and impossible to separate out entirely; these will be discussed at the appropriate points below. To begin, with one may isolate several main narrative sections in Luke-Acts where the Temple setting and theme is central:

    • The Infancy Narratives (Lk 1-2)
    • The Passion Narrative (Lk 19:28 through chapter 23)
    • The Sanhedrin “trial” scenes in Acts 3-7
    • The Arrest of Paul (Acts 21-22)

The Infancy Narratives (Lk 1-2)

The Temple in Jerusalem provides the setting for three episodes in the Lukan Infancy narratives:

The Angelic annunciation to Zechariah (Lk 1:5-23)—The conception/birth of John the Baptist is announced by the heavenly Messenger Gabriel to John’s father Zechariah, during his priestly duty in the Temple sanctuary (vv. 8-10, 21ff). Gabriel appears to Zechariah standing on the right side of the altar (of incense).

The “Presentation” of Jesus at the Temple (Lk 2:22-38)—Two different rituals are combined in the narrative (vv. 22-24)—the sacrifice for purification after childbirth, and the ‘redemption’ of the firstborn male child—the latter being described in terms of Jesus being presented/dedicated to God in the Temple. This setting also serves as the dramatic stage for the encounters with Simeon (vv. 25-35) and Anna (vv. 36-38).

The Boy Jesus in the Temple (Lk 2:41-51)—This famous and dramatic narrative is set in the Temple, following the observance of Passover in Jerusalem (v. 41). The twelve-year old Jesus remains behind—when his parents find him again, he is in the Temple precincts, sitting (as a pupil) with the teachers (of the Law). The exchange between Jesus and his parents in vv. 48-49 is the climax of the episode.

Besides providing a dramatic narrative setting for these episodes, the Temple serves a theological and apologetic purpose for the author (and/or his traditional source[s]). An important point of emphasis is the religious devotion and faithfulness of Zechariah/Elizabeth (1:6) and Joseph/Mary (2:21, 22-24, 27, 39, 41), which includes the prescribed ritual activities (priestly duty, sacrificial offering, observance of Passover) in the Temple. This theme runs through the infancy narrative, culminating in Jesus’ declaration to his parents in verse 49: “…did you not know that it is necessary for me to be in/among the (thing)s of my Father?” Jesus stands in the midst of the Old Testament religious forms and fulfills the righteousness of the Torah and Temple. From an early Christian perspective, he is connected to the older Israelite/Jewish religious world, to venerable figures such as Zechariah/Elizabeth or Simeon/Anna (see esp. Lk 2:25ff, 37-38). This also reflects a positive view of the Temple, which we see throughout Luke (and Acts), more so than in the other Gospels.

The Passion Narrative

There are three traditional elements in the Passion narrative(s) of the Gospels involving the Temple: (1) the symbolic “cleansing” of the Temple by Jesus, (2) the Temple as a setting for Jesus’ teaching during the days before his death, and (3) the tearing of the Temple veil at Jesus’ death. With regard to the Lukan handling of these details, the following should be noted:

    • The Temple “cleansing” scene is greatly abbreviated (Lk 19:45-46), compared with the account in Mark
    • Luke makes no mention of the “Temple saying” during the ‘trial’ of Jesus (Mk 14:58, Matt 26:60-61, presented as false witness, but cf. Jn 2:19); however, he presumably was aware of the tradition (cf. Acts 6:14), so the omission here is likely intentional
    • Special emphasis is given to Jesus’ presence teaching in the Temple (Lk 19:47; 20:1, 21:5, 37)
    • In Lk 23:45 the Temple veil is torn prior to Jesus’ actual death (cp. Mk 15:38; Matt 27:51)

The Sanhedrin “Trial” scenes in Acts 3-7

The Temple setting and theme is prominent in three different narrative episodes in the early chapters of Acts:

  • Acts 3:1-4:31—a narrative arc including: (a) the healing of a crippled beggar by Peter and John in the Temple precincts (3:1-10), (b) a sermon-speech by Peter (3:11-26), (c) the arrest of Peter and John and their appearance before the Sanhedrin (4:1-22), including a second speech by Peter (vv. 8-12)
  • Acts 5:12-42—a similar narrative arc, involving: (a) additional healing miracles, including mention of the disciples again in the Temple precincts (vv. 12-16), (b) a second arrest of Peter and others, with their miraculous release and instruction (by the Angel) to go and preach in the Temple (vv. 17-21a); (c) search for the disciples, who are found teaching in the Temple (vv. 21b-26); (d) a second appearance before the Sanhedrin (vv. 27-42), with twin speeches by Peter (vv. 29-32) and Gamaliel (vv. 35-39)
  • Acts 6:8-8:1a—a narrative arc involving the arrest (6:8-15) and death (7:54-8:1a) of Stephen, in between which is the speech (set before the Sanhedrin) in 7:1-53; the Temple plays a key role in both the charges against Stephen (6:11-14) and the climactic sections of his speech (7:35-53)

The Arrest of Paul (Acts 21-22)

During Paul’s final visit to Jerusalem, he took part in a purification ritual in the Temple (21:23-26), where he was recognized and seized by the hostile crowd (vv. 27-30) and removed from the Temple precincts, being taken into custody by Roman authorities. This sets the stage for the speech by Paul in 22:1-21.

The Significance of the Temple setting and theme

This can be summarized under two basic thematic headings related to early Christianity and Judaism—continuity and conflict:

1. Early Christianity as a continuation of Israelite/Jewish religion (centered on the Temple)
  • This an important theme in the Infancy narratives (cf. above)—the parents of John the Baptist and Jesus are shown as righteous (in the traditional Jewish sense), faithfully observing the commands and ordinances of the Law, including participation in the prescribed Temple ritual. Jesus and his parents encounter similar examples of Israelite/Jewish piety in the figures of Simeon and Anna who regularly frequent the Temple. It is following the pilgrimage festival of Passover in Jerusalem, that Jesus stays behind in the Temple.
  • The theme of teaching in the Temple precincts, extending from Jesus (Lk 2:46; 19:47; 20:1; 21:37; 22:53) to the apostles (Acts 3:12; 4:2; 5:20-21, 25, 28, 42).
  • After the Resurrection/Ascension of Jesus, the early believers continue to frequent the Temple (Lk 24:53; Acts 2:46; 3:1; 5:42).
  • Paul, the ‘apostle to the Gentiles’ (in Acts 13-20), willingly takes part (along with observant Jewish Christians) in a Temple ritual (Acts 21:23-26).
2. The Temple as a source and symbol of conflict between early Christianity and Judaism
  • The Temple action (“cleansing”) and saying by Jesus, though minimized in the Lukan narrative (cf. above), clearly serve as a point of conflict and controversy in the early Church. The substance of the charge (that Jesus would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days) in Mk 14:58 par is retained in the accusation against Stephen (Acts 6:14, below).
  • The Temple setting is central to the twin narratives (in Acts 3-5), where Peter and the apostles are arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin; it serves to heighten the sense of conflict (especially in 5:20-25ff).
  • The accusations and charges against Stephen (Acts 6:11-14) are:
    • “we heard him speaking abusive/slanderous words unto [i.e. against] Moses and God” (v. 11)
    • “this man does not cease speaking words against [this] holy Place and the Law” (v. 13)
    • “we have heard him say that Jesus the Nazarean will loose down [i.e. dissolve/destroy] this place and make different [i.e. change/alter] the customs which Moses gave along to us” (v. 14)
      The last two are said to have been made by “false witnesses”, and are clearly related to the charge made against Jesus at his ‘trial’ (Mk 14:58 par).
  • The speech of Stephen remarkably draws a connection between the Temple and idolatry (the episode of the Golden Calf, etc) in 7:39-43ff, and questions the value and purpose of the Temple itself (especially with the citation of Isa 66:1-2) in vv. 44-50. The improper approach to God (and His “dwelling”) is further wrapped up in the counter-charge that the Jewish leaders (i.e. the Sanhedrin, implied) are the ones who have not kept the Law (v. 53). I have discussed this at length in the series on the Speeches of Acts.
  • Paul’s arrest in Acts 21-22 (above) is similarly related to accusations against him, that he speaks against the Jewish Law and religious customs (21:20-21). While it is hard to say whether such claims have any basis with regard to Stephen, they could more plausibly be made against Paul, according to his argument in Galatians (and parts of Romans). However, the author of Acts, in presenting the episode of chaps. 21-22, takes pains to emphasize that this is not true of Paul. James’ recommendation for Paul to participate in the purification ritual is specifically made so that other Jews (and Jewish Christians) will know that “(the things) sounded down about you are nothing [i.e. are not true], but (rather) you walk in line and (your)self (are) keeping the Law” (v. 24). When Paul is recognized by the crowd, the accusation is stated: “this is the man teaching everyone everywhere against the Law and this Place” (note the similarity to 6:13). All of this takes place in the setting of the Temple precincts.

Torah observance by the Apostles and other Disciples in Acts

The episode in Acts 21 (discussed above) brings out more clearly the fundamental issue of whether, or to what extent, the early Christians faithfully observed the commands and ordinances of the Law (Torah). Though the evidence is relatively slight, the book of Acts suggests that the early believers in Jerusalem (Jewish Christians) were observant. The following passages may be noted:

    • The Apostles and early Christians continued to frequent the Temple (Lk 24:53; Acts 2:46; 3:1; 5:42); though they are not depicted especially participating in the Temple ritual, it is likely that they did so as well (cf. Acts 3:1; 21:23-26).
    • The charge that Stephen speaks against the Law (Acts 6:13) is presented as false testimony; there is no clear evidence that he ever did such, though there does appear to be an anti-Temple theme in his sermon-speech (cf. Acts 7:35-53).
    • Peter’s objection to the command in the vision of Acts 10:9-16 suggests that he faithfully observed the dietary regulations in the Torah; on this, see below.
    • The conflict leading to the “Jerusalem Council” in Acts 15 clearly shows that many, if not most, Jewish Christians were strictly observant, and some wished that Torah observance be required of Gentile converts as well (v. 1, 5); cf. also 11:1-3ff. This will be discussed in more detail in the next part of this series.
    • The circumcision of Timothy (Acts 17:3), in apparent contrast with Gal 2:3-5 (and the argument throughout Galatians, etc).
    • James, the leading figure of the Jerusalem Church, is depicted as a staunch supporter of the Torah, both in Acts 21:17-26 and (to a lesser extent) in 15:12-29. Other Jewish believers in Jerusalem are described as “zealous for the Law” (21:20; cf. also 22:12) and as those who would regularly take part in the required Temple ritual (vv. 23-24). James is concerned to quash any rumors that Paul opposed the Law and Jewish religious custom (vv. 21ff), and so recommends that Paul participate in the ritual.
    • In addition to Paul’s participation in the ritual of Acts 21:23-26, he makes several direct statements in his subsequent defense speeches regarding his support and observance of the Law—cf. Acts 22:3, 17; 24:11-14, 17; 25:8. The question of Paul’s observance of the Torah, as well as the portrait of Paul in Acts compared with the Epistles, will be addressed later in this series.

A treatment of the mission to the Gentiles and the “Jerusalem Council” will come in the second part of this article; here, however, it is necessary to discuss briefly Peter’s vision in Acts 10:9-16 (cf. also 11:5-10).

Peter’s Vision (Acts 10:6-16; 11:5-10)

The vision involved the descent of a vessel filled with all kinds of animals—clean and unclean (cf. the dietary regulations in Lev 11:1-47; Deut 14:3-20). A voice commanded Peter to “stand up… slay (the animals) and eat” (v. 13), the implication being that he should eat the unclean animals as well. To this Peter objects saying, “not so, Lord, (in) that I have not ever eaten any (thing) common and unclean” (v. 14). In response, the (heavenly) voice declares: “(that) which God has cleansed you must not consider common” (v. 15). It is a striking and powerful scene, but how is it to be understood? Is it simply about food (dietary regulations), or is it symbolic—or both?

Some commentators have tried to suggest that the vision does not abolish the dietary laws, but is simply meant as an example that the Gentiles should be accepted into the Church. I find this most unlikely, even though it is the primary interpretation given in 11:18. While the symbolism regarding acceptance of the Gentiles is certainly correct (see vv. 28b, 35, 45 and 11:1ff), the argument related to the dietary laws themselves seems abundantly clear and specific. It may be helpful to distinguish between the meaning of the vision itself (as a possible independent historical tradition) and the role it plays in Acts 10-11. Taken at face value, the vision appears to be about food and the dietary restrictions of the Torah regarding “clean and unclean” animals; if so, then declaration in verse 15 means that God has declared all animals clean and that they may be eaten without restriction. This would effectively abolish the dietary laws in Lev 11, etc.; however, it must be admitted that the specific logical consequences of the vision do not play any role further in Acts, nor in the rest of the New Testament. Apart from the behavior of Peter narrated in Gal 2:12, it is hard to find evidence of any apostolic sanction for Jewish Christians to disregard the dietary regulations. Upon hearing Peter’s account of the vision (and subsequent events), the Jewish believers accept that Gentiles have come to salvation, but make no comment about the implications related to clean and unclean food. This certainly accords with the purpose of Acts—the emphasis is on the inclusion of the Gentiles, not a commentary on the Torah regulations per se.

The force of the vision itself may be appreciated by a closer examination of the actual language and symbolism used; first, there appears to be a two-fold aspect to the symbolism of the vision, marked by the adjective pa=$ (“all”):

    • “All [pa/nta] kinds of animals” (v. 12)—this indicates a removal of the clean/unclean distinction in the dietary laws; note Peter’s objection (“I have never eaten anything [pa=n] common or unclean”).
    • “All parts of the earth”—as symbolized by the vessel as a “great sheet” with four corners set down upon the earth (v. 11); this indicates the universality of the Christian mission (to the Gentiles), cf. Lk 24:47; Acts 1:8; 2:5ff; 9:15.

In addition, note the careful structure of Peter’s objection (following the dietary laws) and the divine response (vv. 14-15):

    • Not anything common [koino/$]
      • Not anything unclean [a)ka/qarto$]
      • God has cleansed [kaqari/zw]
    • Do not call/consider common [koino/w]

It is a clear, symmetric argument, which certainly appears to undo or abolish the dietary regulations in the Torah. If the vision originally (at the historical-traditional level) addressed the food laws specifically, the author of Acts has deftly incorporated it into the Cornelius narrative of chapters 10-11. This is indicated by the presence of several details—for example, the three-fold vision (10:16) coincides with the appearance of three men (vv. 17-19); similarly, just as the visionary scene “steps down” from heaven to meet Peter (v. 11), so Peter “steps down” (vv. 20-21) to meet his visitors (the same verb katabai/nw is used). This complex thematic interweaving is appropriate, for the question of the dietary laws is ultimately interwoven with the early Christian mission to the Gentiles, as is made abundantly clear in the episode at Antioch narrated in Galatians 2 (cf. the recent notes on Gal 2:11-21). For Jewish-Christian missionaries, to continue observing the dietary restrictions of the Torah meant that Gentiles would effectively be required to do the same if they wished to enjoy proper table fellowship with their fellow (Jewish) believers. Paul saw the serious problem this created, both at the practical and deeper theological levels.

The next part of this article will deal specifically with the mission to the Gentiles and the central episode of the “Jerusalem Council” in Acts 15.

July 5: Gal 2:21

This is the last of four daily notes on Galatians 2:15-21 (for the first three notes see #1, 2, 3). Today’s concluding note is on verse 21, which I have summarized as a concluding argument regarding justice/righteousness.

Galatians 2:21

The sentence in this verse is made up of two statements or clauses, the first by way of a bold declaration:

ou)k a)qetw= th\n xa/rin tou= qeou=
“I do not displace [i.e. set aside] the favor of God”

From a rhetorical standpoint, this a refutation (refutatio) by Paul of a charge (real or hypothetical). The verb a)qete/w, “unset, displace, set aside”, is often used in a legal context, i.e., of “setting aside” (invalidating, nullifying) an agreement; it can also be used in the more general sense of “disregard, deny, repudiate”, even to “act unfaithfully, be disloyal”, etc. For other occurrences of the verb, cf. Gal 3:15; 1 Cor 1:19; 1 Thess 4:8; 1 Tim 5:12. Here Paul probably has the legal sense in mind, related to the Israelite/Jewish covenant (agreement) with God. Paul’s Jewish (and Jewish Christian) opponents might well have accused him of annulling the Covenant by his particular view of the Old Testament Law, as expressed here in Galatians (on this, cf. the previous note). According to the basic Jewish view, salvation (and the establishment of the Covenant) is the result of God’s gracious election of Israel; and observing the commands, ordinances and precepts of God, as revealed in the Torah (Law of Moses), represents the terms whereby Israel fulfills (and adheres) to the agreement. By effectively abrogating the Law, Paul invalidates the Covenant, and, in turn, disregards the favor (grace, xa/ri$) of God. This last is the argument that Paul refutes. It is actually a clever bit of substitution—he does not frame the charge in terms of setting aside the covenant, but rather of setting aside the favor/grace of God. This is important to his rhetorical argument as a whole, as we shall see in the second clause that follows:

ei) ga\r dia\ no/mou dikaiosu/nh, a&ra Xristo\$ dwrea\n a)pe/qanen
“for if justice/righteousness (is) through (the) Law, then (the) Anointed (One) died away dwrea\n

The word dwrea/n (dœreán), which I left untranslated above, properly means “(as) a gift”, and so Paul uses it in a similar context in Romans 3:24; however, this translation can be misleading in English, since often the emphasis is rather on being “free of charge” or “without payment”, either in a positive (2 Cor 11:7) or negative (2 Thess 3:8) sense. It can even carry the harsher connotation of “in vain, for no purpose”; the English expression “for nothing” captures this ambiguity—it can mean something done “for free, as a gift” or “for no purpose”. It is this latter sense that Paul plays on here, juxtaposing xa/ri$ and dwrea/n, as he does in Rom 3:24; there the parallelism is synonymous (both words can mean “[as a] gift”), here it is rather antithetical (or better, ironical). I will return to this in a moment.

The key portion of this conditional statement is the unreal or false (indicative) clause: “if justice/righteousness (is, or comes) through the Law…” Paul has already stated that this is false in verse 16, effectively as a (rhetorical) point of agreement with his (Jewish Christian) opponents, implying however that their viewpoint and behavior actually (if unintentionally) contradicts the ‘agreed-upon’ doctrine in v. 16. Now, he goes on to say that, if they are correct, and one is justified by observing the Law, then this “sets aside” the very work of Christ on the cross! The final irony is that the false/hypothetical charge (against Paul) in v. 21a turns into a real charge against Paul’s opponents—by requiring believers to observe the Old Testament Law, they set aside the grace of God. Usually when Paul speaks of something being “in vain”, he uses the adverb ei)kh= or the expression ei)$ keno\n, as in Gal 2:2; 3:4; 4:11; so the use of dwrea/n here is most distinctive (and intentional), reflecting a powerful irony—by disregarding the central teaching that salvation/justification is entirely by trust (or faith) as a free gift from God (i.e. “for nothing”), Paul’s opponents have made Christ’s sacrificial death to be “for nothing”. Ultimately, of course, this entire argument is intended as a warning and exhortation for the Galatian believers (see Gal 1:6ff; 5:2-4ff; 6:12ff).

It also demonstrates again how important the mystical, participatory language and symbolism of dying with Christ was for Paul. Salvation “by grace” was not simply a matter of God overlooking or forgiving human sinfulness, it was centered in the idea of God “giving” his Son (and Christ “giving himself”) as a sacrificial offering for us. Our faith/trust is “into” Christ and places us “in” Him; this entry is focused—spirtually and sacramentally—upon our participation in His Death and Resurrection.

July 4: Gal 2:19-20

This is the third of four daily notes on Galatians 2:15-21, today covering verses 19-20 which I would summarize as:

The Relation of the believer to the Law

It builds upon the prior verses, especially vv. 17-18 (a rhetorical argument to show the problem with applying the Law to [Gentile] believers), which I discussed in the previous day’s note.

Galatians 2:19-20

These two verses are comprised of a string of declaratory (doctrinal) statements, which will be examined in turn.

e)gw\ ga\r dia\ no/mou no/mw| a)pe/qanon i%na qew=| zh=sw
“For through (the) law I died (off) from (the) law,
(so) that I might live to God”

The translation here is perhaps a bit misleading; a simpler rendering of the first clause would be: “through the law, I died to the law”. The expression “through (the) law” (dia\ no/mou) here means that Paul (in the first person, as an example of the ordinary believer) shares the common human condition of being “under the law”. The purpose (and result) of the Old Testament Law (and the force of it) was to “enclose all (things/people) under sin” (Gal 3:22). This establishes the very condition which makes justification by faith in Christ (and not by the Law) possible. Thus the paradoxical statement is realized: “through the Law, I died (off) from [i.e. died to] the Law”, followed by the result clause: “so that I might live to God”—life is possible only once a person has died to the Law.

Xristw=| sunestau/rwmai
“I have been put to the stake (together) with (the) Anointed”

Here this death is described in stark, graphic imagery—of the believer being crucified together with Jesus (see also Gal 5:24; 6:14). This is one of the more dramatic examples of Paul’s participatory language—i.e., of the believer living and dying with Jesus (see esp. Romans 6:1-10). It is also clear that “dying to the Law” is not simply a matter of ignoring or neglecting the Old Testament commandments; rather, it is the natural product (and result) of our “dying with Christ”. In a sense, it is also related to the idea of “dying to sin” (cf. Rom 6:1ff). Paul’s concept of the sacraments (esp. Baptism) is, to a large extent, based on this same language and imagery.

zw= de\ ou)ke/ti e)gw/, zh=| de\ e)n e)moi\ Xristo/$
“but yet I do not (now) live, but (rather) (the) Anointed (One) lives in me

With this statement, Paul’s mystical participatory language is at its most inspired and profound. This is both:

    1. An existential statement—how the believer should understand his/her own existence and identity in Christ, and
    2. A statement of spiritual unity—we confess and (to some extent) experience the reality of Christ living “in us” (through the Spirit), but this unity is, in turn, expressed by our life “in Christ”; this reciprocal relationship is grounded and ultimately defined by the phrase “in Christ”.

The emphatic “I” (e)gw) is the point of transition between the dying (to the law, sin etc) in verse 19 and the living (to Christ) in verse 20. In conventional theological terms, the emphasis is on self-mortification and self-denial—the believer is no longer driven by selfish and material/carnal desires, but walks “according to the Spirit”, following the will of God and the example of Christ.

o^ de\ nu=n zw= e)n sarki/ e)n pi/stei zw= th=| tou= ui(ou= tou= qeou=
“but the (life) which I live now in (the) flesh, I live in (the) trust (that is) of the son of God…”

Here Paul speaks of a different kind of “life”—the ‘ordinary’ daily life one leads—but still tied to the (eternal and spiritual) life the believer has in Christ. It builds upon the “new identity” expressed in v. 20a, and centers the believer’s daily life and existence “in trust/faith [e)n pi/stei]” and “in Christ” (i.e. in the faith/trust of the Son of God).

tou= a)gaph/santo/$ me kai\ parado/nto$ e(auto\n u(pe\r e)mou=
“… the (one) loving me and giving himself along over me [i.e. for me, on my behalf]”

The concluding phrase is a Christological declaration and piece of early kerygma; for a similar statement in the Pauline writings, see Ephesians 5:2. For the same idea of Christ’s self-sacrifice as giving himself over (u(per) elsewhere in Galatians, cf. 1:4; 3:13.

It would be hard to find a more precise and dramatic statement that the believer is dead to the Law—it is a clear shift from being under (or “in”) the Law (and, hence, under sin) and being “in Christ”. As Paul will go on to explain here in Galatians (and elsewhere), the believer in Christ is now guided by the Spirit and no longer is required to observe the commandments of the Old Testament Law. Religious and ethical behavior is maintained (entirely) by life in the Spirit and by following the example and teachings of Jesus. This point is discussed further in my series on “Paul’s View of the Law” (articles soon to be posted here).

* * * * * *

On the 4th of July, which, in large part, commemorates the qualified independence and socio-political freedom which individuals have in the United States, it is worth remembering that, for believers in Christ, true freedom is very different. Paul writes of this throughout Galatians, referring to “our freedom (e)leuqeri/a) which we hold in the Anointed Yeshua {Christ Jesus}” (2:4). This is not freedom from social or political authority; rather, it is freedom from the bondage to sin under which all of humankind has been, and continues to be, enslaved. In Paul’s teaching, this bondage to sin is intertwined with bondage to the Law, esp. the Old Testament Law (Torah). That this is a genuine bondage is made abundantly clear at many points in Galatians (and Romans), especially in the illustration of Hagar and Sarah, their children (Ishmael and Isaac) representing “children of slavery” and “children of freedom” respectively (4:21-31). Paul’s teaching on the Law (cf. above) in this regard can be difficult for many to follow (and to accept); a summary of it is given in Gal 3:19-27 (see esp. verse 23). The good news is that, through our trust in Jesus, and our subsequent union with him, we come to be children of freedom—we are freed from the power of sin, and of the requirements of the Law. In Paul’s words:

“In freedom the Anointed (One) has made us free; therefore you must stand and must not be held in (bondage) again by (the) yoke of slavery!” (5:1)

This “yoke of slavery” has two aspects: (1) bondage to sin, and (2) bondage to the Law. The second means that believers are no longer bound (required) to observe the Law of the Old Covenant (the old order of things); the first means that we are no longer obligated (and forced) to obey the power of sin. How is this freedom realized? Paul’s answer is two-fold: (1) through the guiding presence of the Holy Spirit, and (2) by following the teaching and example of Jesus as summarized and embodied in the “love-command”. This is the message of Gal 5:1-6:10, which concludes the main body of the letter. The declaration (and teaching) in 5:13 perhaps encapsulates the message best:

“For we were called upon freedom, brothers—only not (for) th(is) freedom (to be) unto a rushing off in the flesh, but (rather) through love we must serve [lit. be a slave to] each other.”

In other words, we must allow ourselves to be guided by the Spirit (5:16-18), and not be carried off by the impulses of the flesh (which can lead to sin). The irony is that this freedom prompts us to serve one another, like fellow slaves in Christ.

July 3: Gal 2:17-18

This is the second of four daily notes dealing with Galatians 2:15-21. Yesterday’s note covered verses 15 and 16, summarized as a basic proposition regarding justification and the Jew/Gentile distinction. Today’s note will examine verses 17-18, which I have summarized as:

A Rhetorical argument to show the problem with applying the Law to (Gentile) believers

Galatians 2:17-18

In verse 17, Paul begins by posing a question (best understood as a rhetorical question), the first conditional clause of which contains two parts:

(a) “But if, seeking to be declared just in [e)n] (the) Anointed (One)…”

This can be understood one of two ways:

(i) True condition—A Gentile who seeks (correctly) to be justified/saved by faith in Christ (instrumental use of the preposition e)n)
(ii) False condition—A believer (Jew or Gentile) already “in Christ” seeks (incorrectly) to be justified by observance of Jewish law

The second part of the clause is:

(b) “…(we our)selves are also found to be sinful ones [i.e. ‘sinners’]…”

This clause also can be understood either as a:

(i) True condition—Converts are shown to be sinful (by the Law) and thus can only be justified through faith in Christ
(ii) False condition—Believers “in Christ” who do not observe the Law are considered to be “sinners” (from the strict Jewish Christian perspective)

The overall polemic, and the specific use of a(martwloi (“sinners”) in verse 15, strongly indicate that the second portion (b) is a false condition—that, according to the Jewish Christian viewpoint, Gentile believers who do not observe the Jewish Law are effectively “sinners”. However, Paul may also be playing on the idea of the true condition as well—i.e., if his (Jewish Christian) opponents are correct, then believers (already justified by faith in Christ) are truly sinful, having transgressed the religious law. The sense of the first portion (a) of the clause is even more difficult to determine: perhaps it is intended as a true condition, emphasizing those (Gentiles) who seek to be justified/saved by faith in Christ, but the false condition is at least possible as well.  The upshot of the question, however, is that the Jewish Christian emphasis on observing the Law results in (Gentile) believers effectively being reckoned as “sinners”. This is made clear in the concluding clause:

“…then is (the) Anointed (One) an attendant [i.e. servant] of sin? May it not come to be (so)!”

The notion Paul frames within this question, drawn from the implicit logic of his (Jewish Christian) opponents, is that a believer who trusts in Christ for justification (being declared just/righteous) ends up becoming a “sinner”. This, in turn, implies that Christ serves to bring about sinfulness (transgression) for the believer (under the Law)—clearly an absurd notion!—and yet one which Paul effectively regards as true if it is necessary (as his ‘opponents’ claim) for believers to continue observing the Old Testament Law.

The conditional statement in verse 18, brings greater clarity to the complex rhetorical question of v. 17:

“For, if the (things) which I loosed down [i.e. dissolved/destroyed], these (things) I build (up) again, I make myself stand together (with) one (who) ‘steps over’ [i.e. violates/transgresses]”

As Paul will expound in the argument:

    • by trusting in Christ one effectively dies to the Law (dissolving it)
    • to continue observing the Law—or claiming that one needs to do so—re-establishes it (builds it up again)
    • but the purpose of the Law was to make sin (transgression) known (Rom 4:15, etc) to all people
    • therefore, if taken seriously, the believer (attempting to observe the Law) again comes to be under sin (a transgressor)

It is powerful line of reasoning, and, I suspect, one which many Jewish Christians would not have considered (and which many still do not realize today). The uniqueness of Paul’s viewpoint comes largely from the third premise above—his extraordinary teaching that the fundamental purpose of the Law was to make sin known (effectively to establish humankind’s bondage under sin, Gal 3:22). There is hardly a Jew at the time (or since)—including, I am sure, many (or most) Jewish Christians—who would accept this remarkable Pauline doctrine. The stark implication of it is that, to (re-)establish the requirement of Torah observance for believers who have died to the Law (Torah), serves ultimately to undo the very work of Christ! This will be discussed further, in the next daily note on vv. 19-20.

July 2: Gal 2:15-16

In the last three daily notes, I explored the relationship between Peter and Paul in the New Testament and Christian tradition, in commemoration of the festival of Peter and Paul (June 29/30). Yesterday’s note discussed the episode at Antioch as narrated by Paul in Galatians 2:11-14. Paul’s statement in verse 14b leads into the famous passage in vv. 15-21, which serves to establish the basic issue at the heart of the letter—the propositio, according to classical rhetorical categories. I felt it well worth devoting a short series of notes on these verses, along the following division:

    • Note 1 (vv. 15-16)—Basic proposition regarding justification and the Jew/Gentile distinction
    • Note 2 (vv. 17-18)—Rhetorical argument to show the problem with applying the Law to (Gentile) believers
    • Note 3 (vv. 19-20)—Relation of the believer to the Law
    • Note 4 (v. 21)—Concluding argument regarding justice/righteousness

Galatians 2:15-16

It is often debated whether Paul’s words to Peter end with verse 14 or continue on into vv. 15ff. From a literary (epistolary) and rhetorical standpoint, I believe the direct address to Peter ends with v. 14 (along with the narration [narratio] of vv. 1-14); Paul deftly (and seamlessly) makes the shift from Peter to the Galatian audience of the letter here in vv. 15-16. This becomes clear when we look closely at the two statements which make up this verse pair:

V. 15: “We (who are) by nature Yehudeans [i.e. Jews], and not sinful ones [i.e. sinners] out of the Nations [i.e. Gentiles]…”

He draws a distinction, entirely from a traditional Jewish point of view, between Israelites/Jews who live according to the Covenant established by God and the Law (of Moses), and non-Jews (Gentiles) who live apart from the Law and Covenant. According to this religious distinction, faithful and observant Jews are considered “righteous”, while non-Jews (and faithless/disobedient Jews) are considered to be “sinners”. Paul admits this distinction (from a religious standpoint) and uses it as the starting point for his argument; it also serves as a point both ‘sides’ can agree upon—Paul, on the one side, and Jewish Christians (who believe all Christians should be circumcised and observe the Law), on the other. The emphatic use of the first person plural pronoun (h(mei=$, “we”) immediately establishes the common ground—Paul associates himself here with another Jewish Christian (i.e. Peter, implied).

Verse 16 is more complex, and, in rendering it, I would break it down into outline form—it begins “[but] seeing/knowing that…”:

    • “a man is not declared just out of [i.e. by/from] works of (the) law
      • if not through trust of Yeshua (the) Anointed
      • and we (indeed) trusted in (the) Anointed Yeshua
    • (so) that we might be declared just out of [i.e. by/from] trust of (the) Anointed (One)
      • and not out of works of (the) law
      • (in) that out of works of (the) law
    • all flesh will not be declared just”

Note the way that the three ‘outer’ clauses or phrases emphasize justification (being “declared just/righteous”), whereas the ‘inner’ pairs of clauses/phrases juxtapose trust (or faith) “of/into Jesus” and works “of the law”. The ‘outer’ portions themselves form a guiding chiasm:

    • A man (i.e. individual person)—not declared just (from works of law)
      • We (i.e. believers) might be declared just (by faith/trust in Jesus)
    • All flesh (i.e. all persons, collectively)—not declared just (from works of law [implicit])

The participle that begins this verse (ei&dote$, “having seen/known [that…]”) joins it to v. 15, and implies that, this too, is a proposition both ‘sides’ can agree on. Indeed, many (if not most) early Jewish Christians, like Peter, would have granted that ultimately it is by faith in Jesus, and not by observing the Law, that believers are “justified” and “saved”. Almost certainly, Jewish Christians who might make statements such as that in Acts 15:1 were a relatively small (if vocal) minority. The difference is that Paul regarded the less extreme view and behavior of Peter (and other Jewish Christians in Antioch) as essentially leading to a denial of this fundamental proposition—the denial being that faith/trust in Jesus ultimately was not sufficient to establish a right religious standing before God.

Before proceeding, however, it is important to mention the difficulty in rendering the verb dikaio/w (dikaióœ), as well as the related noun dikaiosu/nh (dikaiosy¡n¢) and adjective di/kaio$ (díkaios). Translators are generally torn between “just/justice” and “right/righteous(ness)” The basic idea underlying the dik- word group is conformity with what has been established (in society, i.e. custom, tradition) or with (moral/religious/legal) direction. Overall, “just/justice” best captures the social and legal aspects in English, whereas “righteous(ness)”, in particular, is almost entirely limited to a specific religious sense. The main problem is the verb dikaio/w, as there is nothing really corresponding to it in English. Literally, it would be “make right/just”, but this is somewhat awkward and potentially misleading; “declare just” perhaps better fits the legal sense, but this too can be misleading when used in a spiritual or theological context. Typically, “justify” is used to translate, but in modern English this verb has virtually lost its proper legal sense, and necessitates special technical usage in the New Testament (esp. in Paul’s letters). Needless to say, the subject is immense, and requires careful study of all the relevant passages.

Two additional points of translation (and interpretation) are worth mentioning:

    • The genitive construct used in verse 16—”the trust/faith of Jesus”—is best understood as an objective genitive, i.e. “faith in Jesus”. The parallel and synonymous Greek expression is “faith ei)$ [lit. into] Jesus”. This primarily refers to faith/trust directed toward Jesus, but one should not ignore the dynamic, participatory aspect implied by the literal rendering “into”.
    • The expression “works of (the) law”, now also found in the Qumran texts (4QMMT line c27, hrwfh ycum), is distinctive to Paul’s thought. By it, he means active observance of the commands and ordinances of the Old Testament Law (Torah or “Law of Moses”), particularly in its ritual/ceremonial aspect. Here in Galatians the reference is primarily to circumcision, but would also include the sacrificial offerings, observance of holy days (Sabbath, Passover, etc), dietary regulations, and so forth—even extending to supererogatory acts of religious devotion which go beyond the letter of the law. By juxtaposing the parallel genitive expressions “works of law” and “trust of Jesus”, Paul creates a contrasting distinction, highlighted by: (a) “trust/faith” vs. “work/act”, and (b) the use of the preposition ei)$ (trust into/unto Jesus) which Paul takes rather literally—Jews may be “in” (e)n) the Law or Christians “in” Christ, but by trust/faith one moves “into” (ei)$) Christ; in other words, faith in Jesus brings about a dynamic change of religious, existential, and spiritual situation for the person.

The Speeches of Acts, Part 12: Acts 7:1-53ff (concluded)

Due the length and complexity of the speech of Stephen (Acts 7:1-53ff), I have discussed it over three parts (9, 10, 11) of this series on the Speeches of Acts; in this part I will address several key critical and interpretive issues which have thus far been mentioned only in passing:

    1. The Narrative framework—the Sanhedrin trial setting
    2. The actual Speech in relation to the charges against Stephen
    3. The view of the Temple in the Speech (and in the book of Acts), and, finally
    4. The Speech in the overall context of Acts

1. The Narrative framework—the Sanhedrin trial setting

A number of factors have led critical scholars to question the historicity/factuality of the Sanhedrin setting:

    • it follows a general (narrative) pattern already encountered in chapters 4 and 5; and, while certainly it is plausible that the Apostles would have had multiple run-ins with the religious and Temple authorities, the pattern is distinct enough (esp. comparing 5:17-42 with 6:8-7:1, 54-60) to suggest a literary device.
    • the Sanhedrin trial setting, especially here in chs. 6-7, is suspicious due to the clear parallels drawn with the trial/death of Jesus (outlined at the end of part 11); while this may simply represent an historical synchronicity, it is likely that conscious literary patterning is at work here (at least in part).
    • the speech, and the narrative as a whole, in some ways, makes more sense without the Sanhedrin setting (removing portions of 6:12-15 and 7:1):
      (a) the long historical summary better fits a public sermon than a (defense) speech before a tribunal
      (b) Stephen nowhere in the speech directly deals with the charges against him—more to the point, he does not address the question asked to him directly by the High Priest in 7:1
      (c) the shift between the public dispute in 6:9-10 and the appearance before the Council (6:12ff) is rather abrupt and suggests a narrative adaptation
      (d) the reaction of the audience (to the speech) and the subsequent action in 7:54-60 is more consistent with a mob “lynching” than an official action by the Council—in some ways it better fits the (popular) reaction to a public sermon given by Stephen than the Council’s reaction to a defense speech
      (e) this is perhaps confirmed by the fact that the Council is not mentioned in vv. 54-60; apart from the detail mentioned in v. 58b (possibly), there is nothing to suggest that this is an official action

Traditional-conservative commentators, naturally, are more inclined to accept the narrative at face value; while some literary shaping is certainly present, with omissions and simplifications of detail, none of the events described are implausible per se. Probably the most difficult (apparent) discrepancy, recognized by nearly all commentators, is the fact that Stephen’s speech really does not answer (nor even address directly) the charges against him (according to 6:13-14; 7:1). It is to this question that I now turn.

2. The Speech in relation to the charges against Stephen

As mentioned previously, nearly all commentators have noted that the speech does not seem to address the charges brought before the Council in 6:13-14 (and see v. 11) and, correspondingly, the question of the High Priest in 7:1. Indeed, the most implausible detail in the narrative is that the Council would allow Stephen to talk for several minutes, without interruption, delivering the long (and seemingly irrelevant) historical digression we find in vv. 2ff. It must be admitted that, at least through verse 34, there seems to be no clear purpose to the speech; it is just what it appears to be—a straightforward summary of Israelite history (focused on Abraham, Joseph and Moses), with a significant degree of rhetorical development in the section on Moses (vv. 17-34). This changes in verse 35, and it is to verses 35-53 that we need to look for an answer to the charges against Stephen. I offer the following expository conclusions, based on prior exegesis (cf. parts 10 and 11):

    • Moses is presented as one who receives special revelation from God (through Angelic mediation) at Sinai (vv. 30-34), which leads subsequently to:
      (i) receiving the “living words/oracles” of God at Sinai (again through Angelic mediation, vv. 38, 53)—the Law
      (ii) receiving the type/pattern for the “tent of witness” (vv. 44f)—precursor to the Temple
    • A parallel is drawn between Jesus and Moses; both are: (a) sent by God, (b) made to be a leader and redeemer/savior for the people, (c) a Prophet, and (d) ultimately denied/refused by the people
    • A parallel is also drawn between the Temple and idolatry (the Golden Calf, etc)—both are works “made by (human) hands”
    • Just as Moses was denied/refused by the people, so was Jesus—this ultimately meant a rejection of the words of God, i.e. of the Law and the Prophets

These can be distilled down to two basic accusations leveled by Stephen in this section of the speech, that the people:

    1. acted according to a mistaken conception or idea of the “house” (dwelling) of God—the Tent/Temple
    2. refused to follow the Law-giver and Prophet (Moses/Jesus), and so rejected the Law itself

The first conclusion is stated in vv. 48-50, the second especially in v. 53 (and earlier in vv. 35, 39f). These do, in fact, address the two charges against Stephen, though somewhat obliquely; he has actually turned them around into charges against his accusers! Let us revisit the original claims (according to 6:13):

    1. he speaks words against this Holy Place (the Temple), and thus speaks evil “against God” (v. 11)
    2. he speaks words against the Law (also in v. 11)

In verse 14 this is further described according to teaching that:

    1. Jesus would destroy/dissolve this Place (the Temple), cf. Mark 14:58; John 2:19
    2. Jesus would alter the (religious) customs delivered by Moses

The first claim is partially supported in Gospel tradition, and it is certainly possible that Stephen had made statements (related to Jesus and the Temple) which could be interpreted in this way (cf. below). It is hard to know what to make of the second claim, which better fits the accusations made against Paul (see Acts 21:28, etc). If there is any substance to it at all, perhaps Stephen had taught to the effect that the new (eschatological) age inaugurated by Jesus meant that strict observance of the Law was no longer required. This is only guesswork, for we have nothing by which to assess Stephen’s teaching except for the speech in 7:2-53; and, in the speech itself, he makes no statements which could be in any way understood as anti-Law. It is a rather different matter regarding the Temple, as we shall see.

3. The View of the Temple in the Speech

I have already discussed parallels drawn in vv. 35-50 connecting the Tent/Temple with idolatry. Actually, this negative assessment is generally reserved for the Temple itself, the Tent of Witness (Tabernacle) in the wilderness period being treated more positively. Still, there can be no mistaking the implicit claim, regarding the (semi-)idolatrous nature of the Temple as a work (like the Golden Calf) “made with hands”. It is possible, of course, that Stephen (along with many Jews and early Christians) was not objecting so much to the Temple itself, but rather to the way it had been used and administered. This is the essence of the opposition to the Temple in the Qumran texts—it was being run by an invalid (and corrupt) priesthood. To a lesser degree, one can detect a similar emphasis in Jesus’ “cleansing” of the Temple (as recorded in Gospel tradition), both in the action itself and the saying which cites Isa 56:7 and Jer 7:11 together. However, the use of Isa 66:1-2, in the context of expounding/applying Amos 5:25-27 (along with the summary of Israelite history from the Golden Calf to the building of the Temple), strongly suggests a more fundamental opposition to the actual Temple (and the idea/conception of it). If so, this in many ways contrasts with the positive view of the Temple elsewhere presented in Luke-Acts; note:

    • The role and setting of the Temple in the Infancy narratives (Lk 1-2)
    • Compared with the other Gospels, Luke curtails the Temple “cleansing” scene (Lk 19:45f), and gives extra emphasis to the fact that Jesus was regularly teaching in the Temple precincts (19:47; 20:1; 21:37-38)
    • Luke does not include the Temple-saying reported at Jesus’ “trial” (cf. Mark 14:58 par)
    • After the resurrection, the disciples worship God in the Temple (Lk 24:53), and early Christians continue to frequent the Temple in the early chapters of Acts (2:46; 3:1-10; 5:20-25, 42)
    • Acts 6:11-14 describes the claim that Stephen spoke against the Temple as a “false” charge
    • In Acts 21:17-26, prior to Paul’s arrest in the Temple precincts, the author takes great care to depict that the claim that Paul teaches against the Law and religious ritual is false or unsubstantiated

The presentation in Luke-Acts presumably accords with the historical reality—that the early (Jewish) Christians continued to frequent the Temple, probably until the time of its destruction (70 A.D.), though the emphasis may have been more on the Temple as place for prayer, teaching and fellowship, rather than the sacrificial cult/ritual. Many of the New Testament writings (even Paul’s letters) say little or nothing specifically about the Temple. Eventually in early Christianity, a theology of “replacement” developed, which taught that Jesus (in his own person and work) fulfills (and effectively replaces) the Old Testament religious forms—including the Temple and all of its sacrificial ritual. This is best seen in the Gospel of John, the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the book of Revelation, all writings which likely post-date the destruction of the Temple. Luke-Acts probably also stems from this period (c. 70-80 A.D.), but, as indicated above, it demonstrates a more positive view of the physical/historical Temple.

Apart from Stephen’s speech, the nearest parallel to Acts 7:48-50 (with its citation of Isa 66:1-2) is found in Revelation 21:22, which states that there will be no Temple in the New Jerusalem. Rev 21-22 draws heavily upon the eschatological/idealized “New Jerusalem” described in Isa 65-66, and in the later prophecy the Christian theology of replacement/substitution could not be more explicit: “for the Lord God the All-mighty (One) is its shrine, and [i.e. along with] the Lamb”. For believers, ultimately, God (the Father) and Jesus Christ are the Temple. To what extent does Stephen (and/or the author of Acts here) hold such a view? At the very least, the clear use of Isa 66:1-2 in this context would point in that direction. However, the association between the Temple and idolatry probably has more to do with polemical rhetoric (after the manner of the Prophets) than with a developed theological position. Also, one should not ignore the place of the speech in the overall context of Acts, as representing the last great episode of the early Jerusalem Church, prior to the mission into the wider (Gentile) world (see below). Acts records Paul using similar language in regard to Greco-Roman (heathen, polytheistic) religion (cf. Acts 17:24).

4. The Speech in the overall Context of Acts

As indicated above, Acts 6:8-8:1 (which includes the speech of 7:2-53) is the final episode recorded of the early believers in Jerusalem, the first major division of the book (1:128:3). The themes (and style) of Stephen’s speech then would be expected to draw upon the prior chapters, as well as to look forward to what follows. I propose these points for consideration:

    • the sequence of appearances before the Sanhedrin, from a literary/narrative point of view, serve several purposes:
      (a) they provide an effective dramatic setting for proclamation of the Gospel
      (b) they depict early believers fulfilling the pattern and example of Jesus, who also faced opposition from the religious leaders and faced a similar “trial” before the Sanhedrin
      (c) they demonstrate the increasing division/separation between the (Jewish) followers of Jesus and the rest of the (Jewish) people
    • the speech, while it may not entirely fit the Sanhedrin “trial” setting, is nevertheless appropriate here in the narrative:
      (a) it offers a definitive statement as to the place of Jesus and (by extension) early Christians within the Old Testament and Israelite history, and as the fulfillment of it
      (b) the corruption/deterioration depicted through history (leading from true revelation to idolatry) emphasizes the idea that a “new age” has dawned, reflecting the important theme of the “restoration of Israel” found in the early chapters of Acts
      (c) just as Gentiles would need to be instructed in Old Testament history, so here a summary of that history is presented prior to the inauguration of the wider mission (to the Gentiles) as recorded in chapters 8-12ff
    • the climactic position of the narrative makes a longer, dramatic speech fitting, in several respects:
      (a) it records the death of Stephen, the first Christian “martyr”, in terms somewhat similar to Jesus’ own death in the Gospels
      (b) it inaugurates a period of intense persecution, which leads to the dispersal of believers outside of Jerusalem (and Judea) and ultimately into the wider Gentile/Greco-Roman world
      (c) it marks the initial separation between Christianity and Judaism

In conclusion, it may be useful to revisit a basic critical question regarding the speeches in the book of Acts, which is especially acute in the case of Stephen’s speech—that is, the source and nature of their composition. There are two main components to Acts 6:8-8:1: (i) a traditional narrative involving Stephen (reflected in 6:8-15; 7:54-60), and (ii) the speech in 7:2-53. Nearly all scholars would, I think, agree that the core narrative stems from authentic tradition, with some degree of editing or adaptation having taken place. Opinion varies much more greatly regarding the speech; there are four main views:

    1. The speech more or less records Stephen’s actual words (with minor modification), delivered just as the narrative context in Acts suggests—this would be the traditional-conservative view.
    2. The speech is an (authentic) tradition, preserving the substance of what Stephen said (or preached) publicly prior to his death, though much of the actual wording (and style) is probably Lukan (i.e. from the author of Acts); according to this view, the Sanhedrin setting may (or may not) be authentic.
    3. The author (trad. Luke) has set an authentic Christian speech/sermon (or the substance of it) into the mouth of Stephen, inserting it into the traditional narrative and creating the seam at 6:15; 7:1 and 7:54.
    4. The speech is essentially the creation of the author of Acts, though perhaps drawing upon tradition and examples of early preaching, being inserted into the narrative much as in view #3.

Most critical scholars would hold some version of view #3 or 4; my own (personal) view of the matter is closer to the moderate critical position of #2 above. Fortunately the power and effect of Scripture here in Acts (as elsewhere) does not depend on a particular view of historicity and composition, though these are important questions to address; rather, the narrative as it has come down to us—reflecting both historical tradition and inspired creative expression—speaks as a whole, the marvelous end product unique and unparalleled as a work of Christian history, and requiring no defense.

“…Spirit and Life”: John 5:24, 39-40

John 5:24, 39-40

Today I will be continuing in the chapter 5 discourse (cf. the previous note on vv. 21-29), focusing specifically on two statements by Jesus—in verse 24 and 39-40, respectively. These come from key points in the two divisions of the exposition (vv. 19-47)—the first division (vv. 19-29) focuses on the living-giving work which the Son performs, while the second (vv. 30-47) emphasizes the testimony which bears witness to the Son’s work and his identity in relation to God the Father. The statements in vv. 24 and 39-40 are, in many ways, central to these sections. I begin with the first:

Verse 24

“Amen, amen, I say to you, that the (one) hearing my word [lo/go$], and trusting in the (One) sending me, holds (the) Life of the Age [e&xei zwh\n ai)w/nion] and does not come into (the) Judgment, but has stepped with(in) [i.e. over/across], out of death (and) into Life [ei)$ th\n zwh/n].”

The centrality of this statement is indicated by the parallel with v. 25—marking the beginning and end of the two portions of the section (vv. 19-24, 25-29). This parallelism is indicated by:

    • The use of the “Amen, amen, I say to you…” formula at the start
    • The motif of hearing the word/voice of Jesus:
      “the one hearing my word (v. 24)”
      “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God” (v. 25)
    • The result of hearing is life:
      “the one hearing…holds Life…(and) has come…into Life” (v. 24)
      “…and the ones hearing will live” (v. 25)

This will be depicted in dramatic form in the Lazarus episode, when Jesus calls out to Lazarus (in the tomb) and he hears the voice and lives again (11:43-44). It was also foreshadowed in the healing miracle from chapter 4, when the official’s son is healed (and rescued from death) at the very moment Jesus’ voice uttered the word “your son lives” (vv. 50-53). This life giving miracle is connected with trust in Jesus (v. 50b), even as Jesus declared more clearly to Martha in 11:25-26 (cf. also v. 40).

Returning to the statement by Jesus in 5:24, it deftly blends both aspects of future and “realized” eschatology (cf. the discussion on this in the previous note):

    • the one hearing and trusting…
      • holds the Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]—in the present (“realized”)
      • does not come into the Judgment—in the future
    • …has stepped (across) out of death and into Life

The final (perfect) verb form, “has stepped…”, indicates a past action or condition which continues into the present. Here, by extension, it also signifies a present condition (“holding Life”) which continues into the future. While the dualistic construct (trusting vs. not trusting) is not especially emphasized here, it is implied in the repeated references to Judgment (vv. 22ff, 27, 29)—if the one trusting Jesus does not come into the Judgment, then, by implication, the everyone not trusting does come into Judgment.

Verses 39-40

It is interesting to consider how this Judgment theme is picked up from the first section (ending with v. 29) into the next (v. 30). The judgment which Jesus brings (already in the present) is based upon the testimony which bears witness about him. In order for such testimony to be valid in a judicial setting (i.e. court of law), it must be confirmed by at least two witnesses (cf. Deut 19:15ff, etc). Jesus refers to four distinct sources of testimony:

    • John the Baptist (vv. 33-35)
    • Jesus’ own works (i.e. miracles)—identified as having been given to him by the Father (v. 36)
    • God the Father—his Word, which abides [in the believer] (vv. 37-38)
    • God’s Word as manifest in the Writings [i.e. Scriptures, esp. the Torah] (vv. 39-40, cf. also vv. 45-47)

These four sources of testimony all bear witness to Jesus—both to the truth of his words/works and his identity (as the Son sent by the Father). The one who fails (or refuses) to trust in him has essentially rejected this testimony—and these witnesses will, in turn, testify against that person in the Judgment. Since Jesus is addressing his opponents in this discourse—persons who, it can be assumed, are to be identified as the supposed experts in Scripture, the Law (Torah) and related religious matters (cp. the Pharisees in chap. 9 and similar Synoptic scenes)—it is fitting that the Scriptures are set in the climactic position. These experts in the Scriptures have failed (and/or refused) to accept their own testimony regarding Jesus. There is thus a kind of irony in the rebuke offered by Jesus in vv. 39-40:

“You search the Writings, (in) that [i.e. because] you consider (yourselves) to hold (the) Life of the Age in them, and they are the (writing)s giving witness about me, and (yet) you do not wish to come toward me (so) that you might hold Life.”

I have discussed the context (and interpretation) of this statement in an earlier Saturday Series study, and will not repeat that here. It is not an exhortation to study Scripture, but rather a stern rebuke—and a word of judgment against the opponents of Jesus. The logic of this statement is clear enough:

    • you think that you hold life in [i.e. through study of] the Scriptures
      —the Scriptures give witness about me
      —(but) you do not wish to come toward me
    • (yet it is only by coming to me) that you will (actually) hold life

The underlying message is that, while the Scripture bear witness about Jesus, they are not the source of Life—it is only through the person and work of Jesus (the Son) that one receives Life (from the Father). The Father gives Life to the Son, and the Son, in turn, gives it to those who trust in him. While the plural noun grafai/ (“writings”) may be taken as referring to the Old Testament Scriptures as a whole, the primary reference is to the Law (Torah), as contained in the books attributed to Moses (i.e. the Pentateuch, Genesis–Deuteronomy). This is clear enough from what follows in vv. 41-47, especially the statement of judgment in verses 45-47:

“the one bringing public (accusation) against you is Moshe {Moses}, (the one) in who you have placed (your) hope. For if you trusted Moshe, you would (have) trusted (in) me—for that (one) wrote about me. And if you do not trust in that (man)’s writings, how will you trust in my utterances [i.e. words]?”

I.e., their lack of trust in Jesus actually means that they do not really trust in the Scriptures (the Torah). The same sort of comparison (and contrast)—Moses/Torah vs. Jesus—appears at a number of points in the Gospel, beginning with the Prologue (1:11, 17-18). For the relationship between Jesus and the Law (Torah) in the Gospel of John, see my article in the series “The Law and the New Testament”. The contrast between Jesus and the Torah—or, better put, Jesus as the true fulfillment of the Torah—features prominently in the next Johannine discourse, the great “Bread of Life” discourse, which I will be examining in the next note.

Saturday Series: Exodus 32-34, continued)

Exodus 32-34

Last week we looked at chapters 32-34 of Exodus from the standpoint of textual, source, and historical criticism, introducing some of the issues and questions which commentators face when dealing with this section of the book. These are important, and should not be ignored; however, ultimately, we must grapple with the text as it has come down to us, whenever and however it was composed, and in whatever manner the various traditions came to be incorporated. This wider view relates to the area of Biblical Criticism called literary criticism—analysis of the passage as part of a written text and literary document, examining its structure, points of emphasis, its themes, and the images and concepts which reflect the story and message with the author wishes to communicate.

In approaching Exodus 32-34 within the context of the second half of the book (chaps. 19-40), the first point to note is the way that narrative alternates with a record of legal material. The latter is more properly presented within the narrative framework as instruction (laws, regulations, precepts) which God (YHWH) gives to the people, through Moses. This is reflected in the Hebrew word (tôrâ, hr*ot) which traditionally is used to refer to this material, and which gives its name to the Pentateuch as a whole (Torah). We can see how this torah dominates the second half of the book, being recorded in four main sections, as indicated in the following outline (torah marked by asterisks):

  • Introduction: The people at Mt. Sinai—Preparation for the appearance of YHWH (chap. 19)
    —The role of Moses as intermediary between YHWH and the people (vv. 14-25)
  • Part 1: The covenant is established at Sinai (20:1-24:11)
    —The Decalogue*: YHWH speaks to the people (20:1-14)
    —Moses functions as intermediary/representative for the people (20:15-23)
    —The Book of the Covenant*: YHWH speaks to Moses (21:1-23:33)
    —Ratification of the covenant (24:1-11)
  • Part 2: The ceremonial/ritual dimension of the covenant (24:12-31:18)
    —Moses ascends Sinai (24:12-18)
    —Religious instruction*, regarding the Tabernacle, etc (25:1-31:17)
    —The two tablets of the covenant (31:18)
  • Intermediary: The covenant is abolished (chaps. 32-33)
    —Moses descends Sinai
  • Part 3: The covenant is re-established at Sinai (34:1-28)
    —Moses ascends Sinai again (34:1-9)
    —Second ‘Book of the Covenant’* (34:10-27)
    —The two tablets of the covenant (34:28)
  • Intermediary: The restored covenant (34:29-35)
    —Moses descends Sinai
  • Part 4: The ceremonial/ritual dimension of the covenant (chaps 35-39)
    Religious instruction*, regarding the Tabernacle, etc
  • Conclusion: The people at Sinai—Preparation for the presence of YHWH (chap. 40)
    —Moses’ role of leadership in preparing the Tabernacles, etc (vv. 1-33)

There is a thematic symmetry to this structure, and to the character of the Torah, as it relates to the establishment of the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and his people:

    • Establishment of the covenant—Moses ascends Mt. Sinai
      • Theophany—Appearance of YHWH (chap. 20)
      • The “Book of the Covenant” (21:1-33)
      • Religious instruction—the Tabernacle (25:1-31:17)
      • The two tablets of the covenant (31:18)
    • Re-establishment of the covenant—Moses ascends Mt. Sinai
      • Theophany—Appearance of YHWH (34:1-9)
      • Second ‘Book of the Covenant’ (34:10-27)
      • Religious instruction—the Tabernacle (35:1ff)
      • The two tablets of the covenant (34:28)

The Torah itself may be summarized two ways, according to two fundamental aspects:

    1. The regulations and precepts which are to govern Israelite society, and their identity as God’s chosen people; and,
    2. As the terms of the binding agreement (covenant) between God and his people; in written form (the two tablets, etc) it provides the legal basis for the agreement. Transgression of the torah represents more than violation of a law or regulation; it means the violation of the agreement itself, which entailed very specific punishment, tied to the ritual image of cutting (dismembered animals, circumcision, sacrificial offering [with blood])—the one who violates the covenant will similarly be “cut off”.

Any attempt to understand and interpret the legal material in the book of Exodus, without keeping this connection with the covenant clearly in view, will be doomed to failure. It is absolutely essential to the thematic structure and message of the book. You may wish to review our study of the covenant episodes in Genesis 15, 17, and Exodus 24, from recent weeks. Indeed, it is the idea of the covenant, or binding agreement (Heb. b§rî¾, tyr!B=), which governs the intermediate scenes in chapters 32-33—the episode of the Golden Calf, and its aftermath, marking abrogation of the covenant. Let us examine briefly these chapters, along with the following chap. 34, in light of this overriding theme. Several aspects come to fore:

    • The tension involved in Moses as the leader/representative of the people
    • The identity of Israel as God’s people, which is central to the covenant
    • The violation and abrogation of the covenant, and what this entails
1. Moses as the people’s representative

Problematic from the beginning is the people’s dependence on Moses as their representative, serving as an intermediary before God. It is they who request that God speak to Moses, and no longer directly to them (20:16-18), and it is thus only Moses who ascends all the way up the mountain to the place where God’s presence is (24:12-18). This sets the stage for the Golden Calf episode (32:1). The people feared to hear God’s voice, and now they begin to fear what may have happened to their leader and representative. During the 40 days and nights when Moses is on the mountain, the people are without contact with God; implicit in this condition is that it becomes a time of testing. Indeed, this provides the psychological basis for their violation of the covenant (vv. 2ff)—they seek a tangible sign of God’s presence, which, inadvertently, it would seem, leads to idolatry and the worship of “other” gods. The Calf itself, in its historical context and background, almost certainly is to be understood as representing the seat (or throne) of God’s presence, much like the winged figures of the golden Ark. It is, however, a fine line between the creation of such images, and a perversion of true worship. This is a theme which runs through virtually the entire Old Testament, and helps to explain the centrality of the first command(s) in the Decalogue (20:3-5a, see also 34:17). It is the command in 20:4-5 which is violated initially; but the declaration in 32:3 (“These are your gods…”, also v. 8) effectively results in a violation of the first command in 20:3 as well. The words of YHWH in v. 8 reflect his anger over how quickly the agreement was violated, and with the very first words of the Torah.

2. The identity of Israel as God’s people

Verse 10 introduces the idea that God will destroy the people—death/destruction being the punishment for violating the covenant. He intends to start over with Moses, replacing Abraham and his descendants (see the covenant episodes in Gen 15 and 17, etc). Violation of the covenant essentially invalidates this identity of a people belonging to God, who submit to his authority and have established a reciprocal relationship with him. Indeed, in verse 7, God refers to them as Moses‘ people (“your people”, see above on Moses as the people’s representative), no longer referring to them as his own people (v. 9). Moses, however, intercedes for them with God (i.e. the other side of his role as intermediary), requesting that YHWH continue to regard them as His people (vv. 11ff), and this identity seems to be restored, at least in part, in verse 14. There it is stated that YHWH ‘relaxed’ himself over the “evil” (i.e. punishment, destruction) which he was going to do to “His people”. This theme, and the tension involved with it, continues into chapter 33.

3. The violation and abolishment of the Covenant

Even though God may have decided to soften the punishment against the people, the agreement established with them has been invalidated and is over. The breaking of the tablets (v. 19) makes this absolutely clear, according to ancient Near Eastern tradition and practice; e.g., see the Akkadian expression “break the tablet” (tuppam —epû). Still, it is a lesser punishment which is to be administered, in several stages:

    • The people drink water containing powder from the Golden Calf after it was burned down (v. 20). This is presumably for a ritual ordeal to identify the guilty (see the parallel in Num 5:12-31).
    • Once the guilty are identified, they are “consecrated” for destruction and are put to death (vv. 27-29)
    • Apparently, there is also a punishment inflicted on the people through disease (v. 35), though this is stated very briefly, and the exact relation to the events described in the prior verses is uncertain.

Thus, it is not the people as a whole who receive the punishment of death/destruction, but only the specific individuals who are guilty. This important religious principle, which would come up again at various points in the Old Testament, is emphasized in Moses’ second encounter with God (vv. 33-34).

The invalidation of God’s agreement (covenant) with Israel suddenly leaves the narrative at an impasse. The dramatic tension of the scene becomes even more evident in chapter 33, where all the themes from the Golden Calf episode are developed in a unique way, drawing perhaps from a separate line of tradition. I would ask that you read chapter 33 (and on into chap. 34) most carefully. We will be continuing this thematic and exegetical examination of the powerful narrative of Exod 32-34 in next week’s study. Pay attention to each detail and nuance in the text. If you are unable to read Hebrew, make use of whatever tools are at your disposal to study the actual Hebrew words and phrases used. Try to follow carefully the dialogue between Moses and YHWH. How does this relate to the preceding chapters, and to the covenant theme of the narrative? Study and meditate on these points, and I will see you again, God willing…next Saturday.

Saturday Series: Exodus 24:1-11

Exodus 24:1-11

The past two weeks we have examined the covenant-scenes in Genesis 15 and 17, which are foundational for an understanding of the concept of covenant (literally, binding agreement) in the Old Testament. To this we add a third key passage, the covenant episode at mount Sinai in Exodus 24. Actually, this covenant theme covers the entire second half of the book, beginning with chapter 19 and God’s manifestation (theophany) at Sinai. God appears to the people, just as he did to Abraham in Gen 15 and 17. The principal narrative in chapter 20 can be divided into two parts:

    • God speaks to the people, i.e. to the leaders (vv. 1-14), and then
    • God speaks to Moses as their representative (vv. 15-18ff)

This sets forth the agreement between God and the people Israel (Abraham’s descendants). The “ten words” (20:1-14) and the laws/regulations in 20:19-23:33 represent the terms of the covenant—that is, the binding obligation which the people are to fulfill. This material is called “the account of the agreement” (s¢pher hab®rî¾, 24:7, i.e. “book of the covenant”). The legal basis of this agreement requires that it be established in writing. The agreement itself is finalized (ratified) by the ritual ceremony in chapter 24.

Here, in Exodus 24:1-11, the people promise to fulfill their part of the agreement; indeed, the binding obligation in this instance is only on one party—stated in 19:8 and repeated in 24:3 (and again in v. 7):

    • “All (the words) which YHWH has (said by) word/mouth (to us) we will do!”

In the latter instance, the people are represented by their leaders—seventy elders, along with Moses, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu. The unity of the people (as a common party) is emphasized in both declarations:

    • “And all the people answered in its unity [i.e. in unison, united] and said…” (19:8)
    • “And all the people answered (with) one voice and said…” (24:3)

This vow covers the first portion of the episode, which may be outlined as follows:

    • Verses 1-4a: The elders, representing the people, affirm their part of the agreement, which Moses puts in writing.
    • Verses 4b-8: This affirmation is ratified by sacrificial offering and ritual.
    • Verses 9-11: The elders ascend (partway up the mountain) and encounter God (theophany), and the covenant ritual is finalized.

There is obvious symbolism and significance to the seventy elders (see also Num 11:16, 24-25; Ezek 8:11) who represent the people. Most likely it draws upon the idea of completeness connoted by the numbers seven and ten (i.e. 7 x 10). The seventy elders truly represent the entire people of God. The action of the elders bowing low (reflexive stem of the verb š¹µâ) reminds us again of the ancient Near Eastern background of the covenant (b§rî¾) idea. It is the act of a loyal and obedient subordinate, or vassal, paying homage to a superior authority, and indicating submission. This is in accordance with the suzerain-vassal treaty form of agreement, with Yahweh, as the one Creator God, representing the ultimate sovereign.

In each of the covenant episodes we have been studying, the agreement is accompanied by ritual involving cutting. In Genesis 15, animals were cut up into pieces, and God (symbolically, in a vision) passed between the pieces, indicating the binding obligation on him to fulfill the agreement. In the Genesis 17 episode, the ritual cutting is of a different sort (circumcision), and reflects the binding obligation on the other party (Abraham and his descendants). Now, in Exodus 24, the cutting is expressed through: (a) sacrificial offerings, and (b) the use of blood. More important, the ritual symbolism involves both parties—God and the people Israel. This dual-aspect is sometimes overlooked by commentators, but it is clear enough in the account of verses 4b-8.

First, we should note that there are three elements to the ritual scene:

    • The mountain location—symbolically a meeting-point between heaven (God) and earth (humankind)
    • The altar—representing the presence of God, and
    • The twelve pillars—representing the people (i.e., the twelve Tribes of Israel)

Mount Sinai is thus a (sacred) location where both parties can meet to establish the agreement. The use of pillars (or stones) to represent the parties of an agreement is attested elsewhere in the Pentateuch (Gen 31:45-54); see also Josh 24:27, where a stone serves as a witness to the agreement.

With regard to the sacrificial offerings themselves, they are of two kinds:

    • Offerings which are entirely burnt by fire on the altar (i.e. “burnt offerings”, Leviticus 1ff)—these are consumed (“eaten”) entirely by God, through the burning; the very Hebrew word for this offering (±ôlâ, hl*u)) indicates the symbolism of the savory smoke ascending (“going up”) to God in heaven.
    • Offerings which signify the wish to establish (or restore/maintain) good will and peace between parties—i.e. between God and the people. It sometimes called a “peace offering”, based on the customary translation of the Hebrew šelem (<l#v#, “peace”). Both parties “eat” of these offerings—a portion is burnt by fire (i.e. by God), the remainder is consumed by the human participants in a meal.

Only in the case of the “peace offering”, consumed by both God and the people, is the term jbz (noun ze»aµ, verb z¹»aµ), “[ritual] slaughter”, used; this is the offering which involves cutting. Interestingly, while the cutting in the previous covenant scenes (Genesis 15, 17) would have resulted in blood (see Exod 4:25-26, etc), only here, in this episode, does blood play a part in the ritual. It is applied to both parties in the agreement:

    • For God, symbolically, through the blood thrown against the altar (v. 6), and
    • For the people, the blood thrown (or sprinkled) on them (v. 8)

We must consider the different possible aspects of this symbolism. First, note the declaration accompanying the use of blood:

“See—the blood of the (binding) agreement which YHWH has cut with you upon [i.e. regarding] all these words!” (v. 8b)

In the case of the cutting up on the animals in Genesis 15, as we discussed, the background of the symbolism involved the punishment which would befall someone who violated the agreement (i.e., he/they would be “cut up” just as the animals were). In a similar manner, in Genesis 17, the person(s) who violate the agreement, which was marked by the cutting off of the male foreskin, would themselves be “cut off”. The symbolic use of blood here may also reflect the idea that death would be the result of violating the agreement.

At the same time, blood could symbolize the life-essence of a person (Gen 9:4-6), and thus possess a sacred, life-giving (and life-preserving) quality. In the underlying symbolism of the Passover ritual, the blood from the sacrifice specifically protects the person(s) from death (Exod 12:13, 22-23).

A third aspect—perhaps the one most relevant to the covenant scene in Exodus 24—is the use of blood to consecrate persons and objects within a religious setting (Exod 29:12ff; Lev 4:5-7ff; 8:15-24; 9:9ff, etc). The consecration of priests, those responsible for managing the ceremonial/sacrificial elements of the covenant, is accompanied by a ritual use of blood which is very close to that of Exod 24:6-8. In a sense, the consecrated priests are representatives of the entire people (like the elders in Exod 24), who are called to be a holy nation (Exod 19:6). In this respect, the “blood of the agreement” marks the sacred and holy character of the agreement between the people and God. Symbolizing both aspects of life and death, blood serves to finalize the binding agreement—the very bond—between the two parties.

It hardly needs to be pointed out that the use of blood in Exod 24:6-8 is drawn upon by Jesus in the Gospel tradition of the Last Supper. This is found in the institution of the “Lord’s Supper” in the Synoptic Gospels (also echoed by Paul in 1 Cor 11:25):

“This is my blood of the covenant [diath¢¡k¢] th(at is) being poured out over many” (Mark 14:24 par)

Similar language is used in the Gospel of John (6:51, 53ff) and elsewhere in the New Testament (Rom 3:25; 1 Cor 10:16; Col 1:20; Heb 9:14ff; 10:29; 13:20; 1 Pet 1:2, 19; 1 John 1:7; 5:6, 8). In these passages, the “blood of the (new) covenant” clearly refers to Jesus’ death, as a sacrifice—an offering slaughtered (cut up), and its blood poured out (onto the altar, etc), just as Jesus’ body is ‘broken’ and his blood ‘poured out’ in his death (see John 19:34).

Finally, we must note the climax of the Exodus 24 covenant episode: the manifestation of God (YHWH) to the leaders of the people (the seventy elders, etc) in verses 9-11. As in the vision of Genesis 15:17f, here God appears—the presence of both parties being required to ratify the agreement. To be sure, God was present, symbolically, by the altar, but now he becomes visible to the people (as he did in the initial Sinai theophany of chapter 19). We may outline this section as follows:

    • Ascent of the elders (v. 9)
      —Appearance of YHWH (v. 10)
      —They behold Him and live (v. 11a)
    • They eat and drink (conclusion of the ritual, v. 11b)

The use of the verb µ¹zâ (hz`j*) in verse 10 indicates that the manifestation of YHWH was, at least in part, a visionary experience (see Ezek 1, etc). The parallel with the Genesis 15 episode would seem to confirm this aspect. The precise nature of the “eating and drinking” mentioned in verse 11b is uncertain, but it would seem to reflect the conclusion of the meal related to the sacrificial offerings in vv. 6ff. The people’s participation in this meal serves to finalize the agreement (specifically, their part in it). It is noteworthy that the establishment of the “new covenant”, marked by Jesus’ blood, is also part of a ritual meal (Mark 14:12-26 par).

As significant as the Exodus 24 covenant episode is, it should be pointed out, again, that chapters 19-24 represent only the beginning of a larger covenant-narrative complex which continues on to the end of the book (and, one might say, into the book of Leviticus). For next week, even as you think and meditate upon these covenant episodes we have studied, I would ask you to read on through the remainder of Exodus, considering how chapter 24 fits into the structure of the book—both the legal material in chapters 25-31, 34ff and the important narrative scenes in chapters 32-33. The covenant agreement between God and Israel cannot be separated from the Law, or Torah—the regulations and instructions given by God to his people. These regulations function as the terms of the covenant. While this applied initially to the “ten words” (Decalogue) and the “book of the covenant” in 20:19-23:33, it came to encompass a much larger body of instruction and tradition. The importance of these associations—the leadership of the people (Moses/Elders), the covenant ritual, and the Torah—must be realized and studied closely, as they relate precisely to the language and symbolism used by early Christians in the New Testament. We continue to use this language, to some extent, even today, though its fundamental meaning is largely lost in the modern age. It is possible for us to regain and restore its meaning through a critical study of Old Testament passages such as these in the books of Exodus and Genesis.

Blessings to you in your study…and I will see you next Saturday.

Women in the Law (Torah)

(This article is a supplement to the current series Women in the Church [Part 8])

Reading the Old Testament Law (Torah) for Christians today is a difficult matter, as I have discussed at length in my series on The Law and the New Testament. Without a proper understanding of the religious and cultural context of the time, many passages will doubtless seem strange indeed. With regard to the position and role of women, one may be disappointed that there is so much that runs contrary to modern ideals of women’s rights and gender equality. Even in terms of the surrounding societies of the ancient Near East, the legislation in the Torah presents no marked progress (from our modern perspective) in these areas; in fact, in certain respects, it reflects an even more restrictive position for women (on this, cf. below). The traditional-conservative approach, which takes the text at face value—i.e., the commands are God’s revealed word to Israel—introduces an especially acute theological difficulty: how can God have established laws for Israel which seem to contradict, at times and in various ways, the finest ideals both of the New Testament and of an ‘enlightened’ modern society? It is not possible to address this question here in any detail, and I will limit my brief study in this article to an honest and straightforward examination of the passages in the Torah which relate to the role of women.

Male Orientation of the Law

To begin with, it is clear from the very beginning of the tradition—i.e., in the Decalogue (Ten Commandments)—that the Law is being addressed primarily to men (cf. the wording in Exod 20:17). This reflects the patriarchal and patrilineal character of Israelite society, as, indeed, of most societies in the ancient Near East. Men serve as the heads of the household, and of the larger clan, tribe, etc., and similarly function in the leading religious roles (the priesthood), and as ruling elders, judges, etc., of the Israelite tribal union (Exod 24:9-11; Num 11:16ff). This male orientation is evident in various aspects of the Torah commands and regulations; I note the following:

The importance of the (male) firstborn—This is emphasized in Exod 34:19-20, 23; Num 3:11-13, 40-51; 8:5-26; 18:1ff. The Torah draws upon ancient religious beliefs and traditions regarding the sacred position of the firstborn—the firstborn males are consecrated as an offering to God (Deut 15:19-23). This is taken literally in the case of animals; for human beings, the firstborn son is to function in a priestly role. In ancient Near Eastern culture and religion, the eldest son held a (semi-)official position, especially with regard to the care of the ancestral spirits. For the religious cultus in Israel, the ritual duties are assumed by a specialized priestly group—the males from the tribe of Levi take the place of the firstborn sons of Israel as a whole, who are purchased back (redeemed) to their families in a special symbolic rite (Num 3:44-51; cf. Luke 2:22ff).

Circumcision—All Israelite males were to have the foreskin of their genitals “cut around” (circumcised). Normally this would occur on the eighth day after birth (Lev 12:3), but might be done for adult converts as well (Gen 34:15-24; Exod 12:44, 48). It is hardly unique to Israel, as various forms of circumcision were common and widespread throughout the ancient world, and even today in traditional/tribal societies. However, in Israel it was specifically established as a rite symbolizing the covenant between God and his people (Gen 17:10-27). As such, it always held a special significance within Israelite/Jewish society with regard to a person’s religious identity (cf. Acts 10:45; 11:2ff; 15:1ff; 21:21; Rom 2:25-29; 3:1; Gal 2:1-10ff, etc).

The rights of husbands and fathers (i.e. over their wives and daughters)—Several of the regulations in the Torah make clear that men (husbands and fathers) have specific rights over women, in terms of their conduct, crimes committed against them, and so forth (cf. Exod 21:22ff; 22:16-17; Num 30:3-16). In such matters, women do not hold the rights themselves, as would be the ideal in modern society. Note especially the regulation regarding divorce, which was the prerogative of the husband (Deut 24:1-4), and the notorious ritual (ordeal) for a woman suspected of unfaithfulness/adultery (Num 5:11-31, cf. below).

Sexual regulations—Generally the commands/regulations regarding sexual conduct (Lev 18:6-23; 19:20-22; 20:10-21, etc) are oriented toward the male: it is he who is commanded against “uncovering the nakedness” of women, in instances where sexual relations are prohibited.

The “Holy War”—The rules laid down for the “consecration” (<r#j#), i.e. holy warfare, allow for Israelite men to take women (and children) as booty/spoils of war (i.e. slaves), and to make such a woman his wife (Deut 20:10-14; 21:10-14). The entire matter of the <r#j# is exceedingly difficult (and troubling) for many Christians and concerned readers of the Old Testament today, and cannot be dealt with here.

Equality of Men and Women

In certain respects, men and women were treated more or less equally under the Law. This is particularly so with regard to their own (physical) bodies and persons. Note especially:

Sin—The regulations regarding sin and its ritual (sacrificial) atonement apply equally to men and women, without any apparent distinction (Num 5:6ff; Deut 17:2ff)

Impurity/Uncleanness—For the most part, the purity laws (Lev 11-15) apply to men and women equally. The only exception involves the special case of the impurity of a woman following menstruation/childbirth (cf. below).

Religious participation—Apart from the priesthood, which was reserved for men, there do not seem to have been any notable restrictions as to the participation of women in the religious ritual—i.e. involvement in the feasts/festivals, access to the sacred space of the Tabernacle, etc. Special religious vows, including that of the Nazirite, were open to women as well as men (Num 6:2ff; 30:2-16).

Slaves—Again, for the most part, male and female slaves were treated equally (Exod 20:10; 21:20-21, 26-27, 32; Lev 25:6, 44; Deut 5:14ff; 12:12, 18; 15:17, etc). Only in Lev 27:1-8 do we see a difference, in terms of monetary valuation, which presumably reflects the ability to do certain kinds of physical work.

Special Cases and Concern for Women

There are several passages dealing with the treatment of women which are worthy of note:

    • Special regulations for the treatment of female slaves—Lev 21:7-11
    • Concern for widows and orphans—Exod 22:22-24; Deut 10:18; 14:29; 16:11, 14, etc. This is also the basis for the provision of “levirate marriage” (Deut 25:5-10)
    • Women (daughters) are allowed to inherit property, when there are no sons, as long as they marry within the same clan—Num 27:1-11; 36:1-12 (the case of the daughters of Zelophehad). This regulation is actually more restrictive for women than in other ancient Near Eastern societies, as indicated by surviving laws from Sumer and Mesopotamia (including the Code of Hammurabi §§171-181), the cities of Nuzi and Ugarit, etc., where daughters were apparently allowed to inherit (alongside or in place of sons) with fewer restrictions (cf. Milgrom, pp. 482-4).

Two special cases, which reflect a particular ancient cultural worldview, now quite foreign to us today, need to be examined briefly:

Purification ritual for menstruation and childbirth
    • Leviticus 15 records purity laws related to the bodily emissions of men and women—semen and menstrual fluid/blood. Both result in impurity which must be cleansed through a (ritual) process which involves both seclusion and sacrificial offering. For a man, he is unclean until the next evening, while a woman, following menstruation, is in a state of impurity for seven days. This difference is almost certainly due to the fact that the woman’s discharge involves “blood”, for which, in the ancient mind, there was an association with death, and with it, various taboos intended to safeguard society from any possible threat. It was especially important to keep impurity away from the religious sanctuary.
    • There are similar purity regulations for the woman who gives birth, in Lev 12:2-8. However, one also finds a curious detail regarding the length of her required seclusion—seven days if it is a male child, fourteen days (twice the time) if a female child. It is not easy to come up with an adequate or meaningful reason for this difference. Perhaps the best explanation relates again to the sacred character of the blood: the female child, who will grow up to be child-bearing woman, carries this same blood as her mother, and so the situation requires special protection, symbolized by the doubling of the time of seclusion. This is not a valid reason from the standpoint of modern health and hygiene, but it may accurately reflect the ancient way of thinking. Cf. the discussion in Levine, pp. 249-50.
The ritual/ordeal in Num 5:11-31

Even more difficult to understand is the ritual provided in the case of woman who is suspected (or accused) by her husband of infidelity. The ritual serves as a means of testing the accused (i.e. trial by ordeal), involving:

(a) Presentation of the woman and preparation of the offering and (sacred) water (vv. 15-18)
(b) An oath taken by the woman, in penalty of God’s curse—the curse being written down and mixed into the water (vv. 19-24)
(c) The twin ritual act of the woman’s sacrificial offering and drinking the test-water (vv. 25-28)

This is similar in certain respects to other water/river ordeals known from the ancient Near East (cf. Milgrom, pp. 346-7), and its apparently superstitious character is unquestionably problematic for us today. However, there is no need for Jews and Christians to rationalize or explain away this aspect of the ritual, which, to a large extent, simply reflects the religious-cultural context of the time. Indeed, this is essential to a proper interpretation of the passage. The situation must be considered closely. As the text points out, the woman is only suspected/accused of adultery, but she has not been caught in the act, nor is there any definite proof. In a strict patriarchal society, such as in ancient Israel (and the Near East), the tendency might be for the husband (and/or his relatives) to rush to judgment and mete out punishment—which, in the case of adultery, was death (cf. John 8:1-11). An ordeal ritual, while quite foreign to us today, was relatively common and accepted practice in the ancient world, and actually served as a valuable protection for the woman, as it placed a determination of guilt and punishment out of the hands of suspicious/vengeful men and into the hands of God. It is not known to what extent this particular ritual was ever implemented; Rabbinic sources express some unease about the matter, but indicate that the Temple apparatus was equipped to carry out the rite (cf. Milgrom, p. 348). Interestingly, according to the Torah, even if the woman failed the test and was thus deemed guilty, she was not sentenced to death (the typical punishment for adultery), but was instead rendered sterile through the ritual itself.

References marked “Levine” and “Milgrom” above are to the JPS [Jewish Publication Society] Torah Commentary, volumes by Baruch A. Levine (Leviticus, 1989) and Jacob Milgrom (Numbers, 1990).