Saturday Series: Isaiah 13:1-14:27 (continued)

Isaiah 13:1-14:27, continued

In the previous study, we looked at Isaiah 13-14 from a historical-critical and composition-critical standpoint, within the overall context of chapters 13-27. Of particular interest are the opening chapters 13-14, since they establish the thematic setting for the collection of nation-oracles, focusing on the fall of Babylon (and the Babylonian Empire) in the 6th century B.C. By contrast, the Isaian material—that is, the oracles and traditions stemming from the time of the prophet himself (mid-late 8th century), are from the Assyrian period. I discussed the historical-critical question, regarding the relationship of chaps. 13-27 to these two different time-frames, in the previous study. In particular, I mentioned the critical theory whereby the older Isaian (nation-oracle) material, focused on the Assyrian empire, was applied to the later context of the Babylonian empire. According to this theory, the linchpin is the poem in 14:3-21, which may have referred to king Sargon II of Assyria, who also held the title “king of Babylon”. Thus, an oracle against Assyria (14:4b-21, 24-27) may have come to be reinterpreted, being applied to Babylon (chap. 13; 14:4a, 22-23), with a new message for Israelites and Judeans in the 6th century: just as God brought judgment on the Assyrians, so he will do the same to the Babylonians.

Today, I wish to focus specifically on the poem in 14:3-21, approaching it from an exegetical-critical standpoint, much in the manner that I do in the (Sunday) Studies on the Psalms, looking at each individual couplet and strophe.

Isaiah 14:3-21

The introduction in verse 3-4a identifies this as a poem against the king of Babylon. While this may be part of the editorial layer that sets the Isaian material in a 6th century Babylonian context (see above), it could also reflect a genuine historical tradition regarding the identity of the king referenced in the poem. In the previous study, I discussed the possibility that Sargon II may have been the (Assyrian) king in view. Within the poem itself there is no reference to a specific ruler or nation, and certainly no indication that it is meant to refer to a king of the Babylonian empire (in spite of the notice in v. 4a).

The poem is part of the ancient nation-oracle tradition in the Prophets, and involves a very specific sub-genre, in which the nation is represented by its king. The ruler embodies the ambition, violence, and wickedness of the nation as a whole—especially for a nation that acts as an aggressive, conquering regional empire, such as is the case of Assyria in the 8th/7th century. A comparable poem, probably similar in date, is directed against the Assyrian king Sennacherib (r. 704-681 B.C.) in 2 Kings 19:22ff (= Isa 37:23ff). This prophetic denunciation (and taunt) is an the early instance of the “wicked tyrant” motif, emphasizing the arrogance and ambition of the ruler, who, by his actions and attitude, foolishly sought to challenge YHWH Himself:

“Whom have you treated with scorn and attacked (with words)?
And against whom did you raise (your) voice high
and lift up your eyes (to the) high place?
(Was it not) against the Holy (One) of Yisrael?
By the hand of your messengers you treated the Lord with scorn,
and said: ‘With the great number of my riders [i.e. chariots]
I have gone up (to the) high place of the mountains,
(to the) sides of the (snow)-white peaks (of Lebanon),
and I cut (down) the standing cedars (and) chosen fir-trees!
I came to the lodging-place (at) his (farthest) borders,
(to) the thick (forest) of his planted garden!'” (vv. 22-23)

The wording at the close of v. 23 suggests that Sennacherib essentially boasts that he has ascended (and/or is able to ascend) all the way to the Garden of God, according to its traditional/mythic location at the top of the great Mountain. Through his earthly power—by brute strength (i.e. military might) and force of will—he cut his way (using the motif of felling trees) to this highest point. In spite of the ruler’s great boast, his ambitions have been curbed by God (i.e. he has been turned back militarily), leading to his abject humiliation (vv. 21, 27-28). Sargon II was the father and predecessor of Sennacherib, and, if he is indeed the king being referenced in Isa 14:3-21, then it means that this poem is an even earlier example of the “wicked tyrant” motif; indeed, there are a number of thematic similarities with the poem of 2 Kings 19:22ff par. For more on the subsequent development of the “wicked tyrant” motif, see my article on the “Antichrist Tradition”.

In verse 4a, the poem is specifically called a m¹š¹l—that is, a figurative discourse, where certain characters and situations are used in a representative, illustrative manner.

Isa 14:4b-11

The poem may be divided into two main sections, or stanzas. The first, in vv. 4b-11, addresses the tyrant in the 3rd person, before shifting to direct (2nd person) address in verse 8. The mechanism for this is a dramatic scenario, in which the trees of Lebanon speak collectively to the king. This is followed by a scene in which the shades of the dead speak similarly to him, as he arrives in the realm of the dead (Sheol). The section may thus be further divided, according to the structure of the mini-drama:

    • Opening taunt (vv. 4b-6)
    • The Trees of Lebanon (vv. 7-8)
    • The Shades of Sheol (vv. 9-11)
Verses 4b-6

“How (the one) pressing has ceased—
how (his) defiance has ceased!
YHWH has broken (the) stick of (the) wicked,
the staff of (the) rulers—
(the one) having struck (the) peoples,
striking without turning away,
having trampled (the) nations in anger,
pursuing without any (to) restrain (him).”

The taunt is directed at an especially notable “wicked tyrant” (cf. above), marked as one who oppresses other nations–i.e., pressing or exerting pressure (vb. n¹ga´) against them. He is also characterized by arrogance and defiance in his willingness to attack and conquer others. The noun in the second line of v. 4b is ma¼®h¢»â  in the Masoretic text, but the reading of the Qumran scroll 1QIsaa mar®h¢»â is likely correct, derived from the root r¹ha», with the basic meaning of “pride, arrogance, defiance”, and connoting a tendency to cause disturbance and alarm among people. With the stick/staff of his wicked rule (note the parallelism in the verse 5 couplet), he strikes others, but now has been struck (by God) in turn. Indeed, YHWH has broken the staff that symbolized the tyrant’s rule. The apparent invincibility of the tyrant, with his widespread conquests, is certainly appropriate to the Assyrian empire at its height, as well as being applicable to the later Babylonian empire (see above).

Verses 7-8

“(Now) all the earth rests and relaxes,
they break out (in) a cry (of joy);
even (the) cypress trees are joyful toward you,
(and the) cedar trees of (the) white (peaks),
(saying) ‘Since you were laid down (low),
the (one) cutting no (longer) comes up against us!'”

As in the taunt against Sennacherib in 2 Kings 19:22ff par (see above), the conquest of peoples is compared to the cutting down of trees. Indeed, both are characteristic of great nations and empires, and important to a king’s reputation and legacy. His building projects, requiring the cutting down of trees (i.e. acquisition of timber from the “snow-white peaks” [Lebanon]), and military conquests go hand in hand. The tradition of the king mounting an expedition to the Lebanon goes back to at least the ancient Gilgamesh tales of Sumer in the late-3rd millennium B.C. (see above). Now, however, with the death/defeat of the tyrant, the trees can rejoice in safety, without any worry of men coming to cut them down (at least for the time being).

Verses 9-11

Š§°ôl from below (also) stirs toward you,
to meet (you) in your coming,
rousing (the) shades (of the dead) for you;
it makes the (wild) goats of (the) earth stand from their seats,
all (the) kings of (the) nations—
all of them will answer and will say to you:
‘Even you are (as) worn (out) as we,
you have become like unto us!
Your exaltedness has been brought down to Š§°ôl,
your skin (to the) throng (of the dead);
beneath you (the) multiplying (worm) spreads out,
and (the) crimson-worm (is) your covering!'”

From the trees at the high peaks of Lebanon, representing the summit of human ambition and accomplishment, the scene shifts to the lowest point–the realm of the dead (Sheol) located far below the surface of the earth. As the trees speak (joyfully) to the fallen tyrant, so also do the shades (r®¸¹°îm) of the dead. These are specifically identified as the mighty “he-goats” (i.e. the chiefs/rulers) of the earth, who have their own kinds of ‘thrones’ in the underworld. No longer grand and exalted, in the realm of the dead it is a seat made of maggots and worms. The (Assyrian) tyrant thus joins all others like him—all other once-mighty kings who now have their seat among the throngs of the dead. Portions of this section are difficult to translate and interpret with precision; in particular, the second line of verse 11 is problematic.

Isa 14:12-21

A second taunt begins at verse 12, aimed more directly at the king. The tone follows that of the Sennacherib-taunt in 2 Kings 19:22ff, as also other examples of the genre, such as Ezekiel’s oracle against the king of Tyre (28:11-19). It emphasizes even more dramatically the contrast between the king’s grandiose ambitions and his undignified fate.

Verses 12-15

“How you have fallen from the heavens,
(you) shining (one), son of the Dawn!
You have been hacked (down) to the earth,
(the one) bringing (the same) lowness upon the nations!
Indeed, you said in your heart:
‘I will go up to the heavens!
From the place above the stars of the Mighty (One)
I will raise high my ruling-seat [i.e. throne];
and I will sit (myself) on the Mountain appointed (for the Mighty)
(there) on the sides of (its) secluded (peak) [‚¹¸ôn]!
I will go up upon the heights of (the) dark cloud(s),
(and so) will I be likened to (the) Highest (myself)!’
(But) how you were brought down to Š§°ôl (instead),
to the side [i.e. bottom] of (the deepest) pit!”

As in the Sennacherib-oracle, there is the idea of the king thinking he could ascend all the way to the Mountain where God dwells. This is associated with snow-capped peaks of the Lebanon range (verse 8; compare 37:24), drawing upon ancient Syrian (i.e. northern Canaanite / Ugaritic) tradition. One such designated mountain was Mt. Casius (Jebel el-Aqra±), but different local sites could serve as a representation of the Mountain of God in religious traditions. Indeed, it is the place “appointed” (mô±¢¼) for the divine/heavenly beings to gather, but only those related to the Mighty One (°E~l)—otherwise, it was entirely inaccessible to human beings. This helps to explain the significance of the name ‚¹¸ôn, essentially referring to a distant and secluded (i.e. inaccessible and fortified) location; directionally, it came to indicate the distant north.

While ascending to the Mountain peak, or so he imagines, the king cuts his way there, felling the tall trees (v. 8; 37:24 par). On the cutting down of trees as a suitable representation for the worldly ambitions and grandiose exploits of a king, see the discussion above. It is depicted in ancient Near Eastern tradition at least as early as the Sumerian Gilgamesh legends of the late-3rd millennium B.C. (preserved subsequently in the Gilgamesh Epic, Tablets 3-5); and, the “cedars of Lebanon” were among the most valuable and choicest trees a king could acquire. The motif also serves as a figure for military conquest—the ‘cutting down’ of people and cities (vv. 6ff). Ultimately, however, it is the king himself who is “hacked” (vb g¹¼a±) down to the ground (v. 12). Indeed, instead of ascending all the way to Heaven, he is brought down to the deep pit of Sheol (loav=)—that is, to the underworld, the realm of Death and the grave. In all likelihood this is meant to signify the actual death of the king.

Clearly, the oracle is satirical—the claims, etc, of the king are ultimately doomed to failure, and, in the end, his ambitions are foolish, and his fate is appropriately the opposite of what he imagined for himself. To some extent, these divine pretensions merely reflect the ancient beliefs and traditions surrounding kingship. Frequently, in the ancient Near East, divine titles and attributes are applied to the ruler; this was true even in Israel (especially in the Judean royal theology associated with David and his descendants), but never to the extent that we see in the surrounding nations. The symbolism and iconography was, of course, strongest where nations and city-states expanded to the level of a regional empire; the king could virtually be considered a deity himself (cf. especially the Egyptian Pharaonic theology at its peak).

Thus, the declaration in verse 12, calling the king of Babylon “(the) shining (one), son of the Dawn”, plays on this tendency of identifying kings with deity—especially the celestial/heavenly manifestation of deity. The terms hêl¢l (“shining [one]”) and š¹µar (“dawn”, i.e. the rising of the sun/light) are, in essence, both attested as divine titles (or names) in Semitic/Canaanite tradition. It is also possible that there is here an allusion to a mythological religious (and/or cosmological) tradition involving the disobedience (and fall) of a heavenly being, which has been applied to an earthly ruler.

Verses 16-17

“(The one)s seeing you will stare at you,
and will give consideration to you, saying:
‘Is this the man making (the) earth quiver,
(and) making kingdoms shake (with fear)?
(who) set (the) habitable (world) as a desert,
and destroyed its cities?
(who) would not open [i.e. allow] its bound (captive)s (to go) home?'”

As in the first part of the poem, a group of people speak in response to the king’s fate. Here, the focus would seem to be on the population generally, commenting on the ultimate legacy of this tyrant. It is parallel to the declaration by the shades of the dead, emphasizing that the king’s fate is simply to join with all the (wicked) dead in the depths of Sheol. Most likely the exile of the northern territories (of Israel) is alluded to in the final line; it certainly would have had resonance for the Judeans exiled by the Babylonians as well.

Verses 18-21

“All (the) kings of (the) nations, all of them,
lie down in (great) worth, a man with his house;
but you, you are thrown out from your burial (place),
as a <stripped> (corpse), detestable,
(with) slain (bodie)s (as) a garment,
having been stabbed (with) a sword,
going down to (the) stones of (the) Pit,
as a carcass trampled under.
You will not be united with them in burial,
for you brought ruin (to) your land,
(and) slew your (own) people.
(Its name) will not be (re)called into (the) distant (future),
(it is the) seed of (one)s bringing evil.
(So then) establish slaughtering (for) his sons,
with the crookedness of their father;
they do not stand up any (more),
and will (not any longer) possess (the earth),
and (no more) fill (the) face of (the) habitable (world with) cities!”

Because of the king’s ignoble fate, involving death and defeat (in battle?), he will not receive an honorable burial with the rest of his “house” (i.e. ancestors). The claim that he “brought ruin” to his land and “slew” his (own) people, probably alludes to a military defeat. Attempts have been been made to identify this with events in the life of the Assyrian rulers Sargon II (see above) or Sennacherib, but a connection cannot be established with precision. What is clear, however, is that this king’s demise and disgrace will extend to his “sons” (i.e. descendants). This presumably refers to the eventual defeat and collapse of the Assyrian empire in the late 7th century (see below). Certainly, the wording of the last two lines suggests a nation that no longer has any empire-building power.

Isaiah 14:22-27

Most critical commentators agree that verses 22-23, with its specific reference to the fall of the Babylonian empire, are intrusive, belonging to the layer of editing that has interpreted and applied the Isaian nation-oracles to the later context of the fall of Babylon (see above, and in the previous study). This would seem to be confirmed by what follows in verses 24-27, prophesying the defeat of the Assyrians. If all of 13:1-14:23 originally dealt with the fall of the Babylonian empire, then the sudden shift to Assyria would seem most out of place. However, there is strong reason to think that 14:4b-21 + 24-27 (and possibly also the opening vv. 1-2) together represent, in their original context, an oracle against Assyria. Only at a later point was the tradition regarding the Assyrian tyrant as the “king of Babylon” developed so that chapters 13-21ff applied to the message of judgment against the 6th century empire of Babylon. This composition-critical view, if correct, demonstrates the longstanding power of the Prophetic message, the inspired character of which cannot be limited to a single time or place. Certainly, Christians who accept many Isaian passages as inspired prophecies of Jesus’ Christ’s life and work—centuries later and far removed from the original context—should not be surprised if the same sort of thing were done by Israelites and Jews in earlier generations. Applying the Isaian prophecies of the Assyrian period to the time of the Babylonian empire may be considered just such an example of “inspired application”.

In next week’s study we will turn to chapters 24-27 which close this (nation-oracle) division of the book. It is a most intriguing section, sometimes referred to as the Isaian “Apocalypse”. Suddenly, the nation-oracle form is expanded to include a range of eschatological and quasi-apocalyptic elements. We will not be able to examine these chapters in detail; however, certain key representative passages will be singled out, along with an introductory survey.

 

Saturday Series: Isaiah 13:1-14:27

Isaiah 13:1-14:27

In this current series of studies on the Book of Isaiah, we turn now to the next major division of the book—chapters 13-27. That 13:1 marks the beginning of a new division is clear from the parallels with the superscription in 2:1, and is confirmed by the formatting at this point in the Qumran manuscripts 1QIsaa and 4QIsaa. Moreover, these chapters are characterized throughout as nation-oracles, with the overall theme of God’s judgment against the nations.

Indeed, the nation-oracle is a distinct genre with a long history in the Old Testament (and elsewhere in the ancient Near East), overlapping with that of the judgment-oracle. Examples can be found in most of the Prophetic writings, spanning a period of centuries, with noteworthy sets or collections in the books of Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. It tends to be tied to the “day of YHWH” motif—the “day” being the moment or time when YHWH acts to bring judgment against a particular nation or people (including His own people, the kingdoms of Israel/Judah). The nation-oracles typically announce or foretell the coming judgment, often in graphic (and exaggerated) visual terms, using a range of striking imagery and symbolism. Such details are not necessarily meant to be taken in a concrete, literalistic sense. The point is the judgment itself—and its certainty, as a direct response of the sovereign God (El-Yahweh) to the wickedness and violence of a nation. Sometimes the possibility of repentance is part of the oracle, though typically this is not the case—the judgment is determined, and cannot be avoided.

IsaIAH 13:1—the Historical & Literary Setting

Isaiah 13:1 reads: “(The) lifting up [ma´´¹°] (of the voice regarding) Babel [i.e. Babylon], which Yesha‘yahu {Yah-will-save} son of ’Amos beheld in a vision [µ¹zâ]”. As noted above, this is similar to the superscription at the beginning of chaps. 2-12, as well to that of the book as a whole (1:1). The idiom of seeing/vision (using the root µ¹zâ), can refer simply to the prophetic message, and need not entail an actual vision (of which there are very few in the book of Isaiah). There may be a tendency to associate these words specifically with chapter 13; however, their real significance relates to the wider context of chapters 13-27, and is two-fold:

    • It marks chs. 13-27 essentially as a collection of ma´´¹°o¾, and
    • It marks the literary setting of the Isaian material (oracles) as that of the Babylonian Empire (Babylon) in the 6th century B.C.

The noun ma´´¹° literally means a “lifting up” (that is, of the voice), used in the technical prophetic sense of an oracle uttered by the inspired spokesperson (n¹»î°, i.e. prophet) of YHWH. It occurs frequently in the Prophets, including at the beginning of the shorter books (Nah 1:1; Hab 1:1; Mal 1:1; cf. also Zech 9:1), but most often appears in the book of Isaiah—14 times, and 11 of these are found in the nation-oracle material of chapters 13-23.

The focus on the judgment against Babylon—its fall—in chapters 13-14 (and also chap. 21) needs to be discussed, both from an historical and literary standpoint. It is hard to explain these prophecies as the work of the 8th century prophet Isaiah, something that critical commentators, especially, have long noted. What meaning would the fall of Babylon (presumably that of the Babylonian Empire) have held for people of that time, when the dominating power was Assyria? By contrast, such a message would have been most important (and welcome) to Israelites and Judeans of the 6th century, especially as an announcement of Babylon’s fall would have been tied to the idea of the possible restoration of Israel/Judah, and the return of the people to their land. Prior to the Babylonian conquest and exile, would the message of chap. 13 (and 21) have made any real sense to the people? Thus, most critical commentators would hold that the prophecies on Babylon’s fall were composed at a later time, in the 6th century (prior to 539, when Babylon fell to the Persians). The similarities of wording, theme, and detail between Isa 13 and Jer 50-51 would tend to confirm this (see Blenkinsopp, p. 278).

At the same time, there is little reason to doubt the authenticity of most of the material in chapters 15-20, as representing Isaian oracles from the (late) 8th century B.C. Even the poem of 14:4b-21 itself, despite its connection to Babylon in vv. 4a, 22-23, could easily date from this period (for more on this, see below). This suggests the following (possible) literary and historical explanation regarding the structure of chapters 13-21ff:

At some point in the 6th century (prior to 539), a collection of (earlier) Isaian nation-oracles was set within the context of the Babylonian conquest and exile. The theme of judgment in the nation-oracles was applied to Babylon (the Babylonian empire) in this transferred setting—announcing the coming judgment by God against the empire, including the fall of Babylon itself (similar to the oracle in Jeremiah 50-51). The twin oracles in chapters 13 and 21 on this theme suggest that chapters 13-21 may have formed the primary division, to which additional Isaian material (in chaps. 22-23) was added, being capped by the ‘Apocalypse’ of chapters 24-27. It has been suggested that the ‘Apocalypse’ was composed at the same time as chapter 13 (and perhaps by the same person), drawing upon authentic Isaian material and themes (see Roberts, p. 194).

A strict traditional-conservative view of the matter would tend to maintain the Isaian authorship of chapters 13, 21, etc—or, at least that they stem from authentic oracles by the prophet. My own opinion is that some measure of later (6th century) handling and editing has taken place, best explained as either: (a) adaptation of an authentic Isaian oracle, or (b) an intentional interpretation of Isaiah’s oracle(s) as applying to (and foretelling) the fall of Babylon. This will be discussed further below on chapters 13-14.

The Structure of Isaiah 13-14

Given the historical and literary questions addressed above, a proper understanding of this material must begin with a careful analysis of its form and structure. Within the overall context of chapters 13-27, it is right to consider chaps. 13-14 as a distinct unit, with the following literary outline:

    • 13:1—superscription establishing the Babylonian context of the nation-oracle(s)
    • 13:2-22—An oracle (ma´´¹°) on the Fall of Babylon
    • 14:1-2—Promise of Israel’s restoration/return (following Babylon’s fall)
    • [14:3-4a—transition to the poem in verses 4bff]
    • 14:4b-21—A dramatic representation (m¹š¹l) of the Fall of Babylon (the wicked tyrant, “king of Babylon”)
      [with an editorial comment, vv. 22-23]
    • 14:24-27—An oracular announcement of the Fall of Assyria

Each oracle-poem (13:2-22, 14:4b-21) is essentially followed by an announcement of salvation for God’s people. The sudden shift from Babylon to Assyria seems strange at first glance, but it makes good sense in light of the literary and historical explanation of this material offered above. Note the following parallelism, which strongly indicates an intentional adaptation (and interpretation) of the Isaian material:

    • Poem on the Fall of Babylon (13:2-22)
      • Babylon’s Fall = Salvation for the conquered/exiled people (14:1-2f)
    • Poem on the Fall of Assyria, whose king is the “king of Babylon” (14:4b-21)
      • Assyria’s Fall, which, by implication, means salvation for Judah and the conquered parts of Israel (14:24-27)

In other words, the overriding message is: just as God brought judgment on Assyria, with the possibility of salvation/deliverance for His people, so also He will bring judgment on Babylon, which will allow for the restoration/return of His people from exile.

The Oracle-Poem in Isaiah 14

In light of the above analysis, in the remainder of this study I wish to focus specifically on the oracle-poem in chapter 14. In the introduction (v. 4a), it is called a m¹š¹l, which is best translated as “representation”; that is to say, it is a poetic (and dramatic) representation of the nation’s fall, in the person of its king. But which nation? In spite of the references to Babylon in vv. 4a, 22-23, there are no such indicators in the poem itself, which could apply to almost any nation and/or wicked ruler of the time. For this reason, many commentators would hold that the original (Isaian) oracle actually referred to the king of Assyria.

A strong argument can be made that the king in question is Sargon II of Assyria (r. 721-705), who did, in fact, take on the title “king of Babylon” a few years before his death (709), something that, apparently, cannot be said of other Assyrian rulers of the period (Roberts, p. 207). On Sargon’s ascending the throne of Babylon, cf. A. Kirk Grayson, Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles, Texts from Cuneiform Sources 5 (J. J. Augustin: 1975) 75 ii. 5-1´ (cited by Roberts, l.c.). Sargon died ignominiously, killed in battle while on military campaign. A later Assyrian text from the time of Esarhaddon makes clear that Sargon’s demise was such that his son and successor (Sennacherib) had to inquire of the gods what his father’s great sin was that led to such a fate. The comment that Sargon “was not buried in his house” could indicate that, having died on the battlefield, his body could not be recovered for a proper burial. If the oracle in chapter 14 referred to Sargon II, and was uttered during the years 709-705, then the title “king of Babylon” would have been entirely fitting, his death serving as a general fulfillment of the prophecy. At a later point, this circumstance would have allowed for the natural association between this Assyrian “king of Babylon”, and the Babylonian Empire itself (see above).

In considering the structure of the poem, it may be divided into two main parts:

    • An announcement of the tyrant’s death, which is declared by all the earth (and the underworld), verses 4b-11
    • A juxtaposition of the king’s lofty ambitions with his actual fate (vv. 12-21), presented in a dramatic dialogue-format that may be further subdivided:
      • Initial announcement of his fall (v. 12)
      • Dialogue (vv. 13-17):
        • The words ‘spoken’ by the tyrant’s heart (vv. 13-14)
        • His fate is the opposite (v. 15)
        • The words spoken by those oppressed by the tyrant (vv. 16-17)
      • The end and legacy of the tyrant (vv. 18-21)

If this is indeed a genuine Isaian oracle (from the end of the 8th century), then it represents perhaps the earliest example of the “wicked tyrant” motif in the nation-oracles of the Prophets. There is a comparable instance, applied to Sennacherib (son and successor of Sargon), in 2 Kings 19:22ff (= Isa 37:23ff). These occurrences in the nation-oracles, as they developed over a number of centuries, provide much of the Old Testament background for the “Antichrist” tradition in early Christianity. I discuss that subject at length in a three-part article as part of the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”.

Having surveyed the critical aspects of chapter 14, in next week’s study, I wish to examine the oracle-poem of vv. 4b-21 in detail, looking closely at each verse and poetic line. Such exegetical analysis, in addition to a critical analysis, will allow us to see more clearly how the ancient prophetic oracle form functioned in its original setting, and how it may have served as a source of inspiration for subsequent messages of judgment against the nations, as well as hope and deliverance for God’s people.

References above marked “Roberts” are to J. J. M. Roberts, First Isaiah, Hermeneia Commentary Series (Fortress Press: 2015).
Those marked “Blenkinsopp” are to Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 19 (Yale: 2000).

 

Saturday Series: Isaiah 8:23-9:6; 11:1-10 (continued)

Having approached the oracles in Isaiah 8:23-9:6 [9:1-7] and 11:1-10 from a general historical-critical standpoint (see last week’s study), we will here look at them from a literary-critical point of view. Working from the structure and form of the oracles, we will undertake a short exegetical survey, drawing out information, inductively, for each section and verse.

Isaiah 8:23-9:6 [9:1-7]

In terms of the form and structure of this passage, it is best understood as consisting of a prosodic introduction (v. 23 [9:1]), followed by a poem (9:1-6 [2-7]), though it is also possible to treat 8:23b-9:6 as a single poetic oracle (applying 8:23a to the previous section). The poem proper may be divided into 6 stanzas corresponding to each numbered verse (vv. 1-6 [2-7 in English translations]):

    • V. 1: Light shines for those in darkness
    • V. 2: Joy will be increased, with two-fold motif: (a) harvest, (b) army dividing spoils
    • V. 3: Three connected symbols of oppression—yoke, cross-bar, and rod/whip—will be smashed
    • V. 4: The signs and remains of warfare and conquest (shoes, blood-caked garments) will be burned
    • V. 5: Announcement of the birth of a child (son), along with symbol(s) of government and (royal) titles
    • V. 6: A promise to establish/maintain the greatness and (eternal) rule of the Davidic kingdom

It is a poetic oracle, the concluding piece of 6:1-9:6[7], a document consisting of unquestionably authentic Isaian material—oracles and historical-biographical traditions—from the period c. 740-701 B.C. (focusing especially on the Assyrian crisis of 735-732).

Isa 8:23 [9:1]

The context of the oracle is established in 8:23 [9:1], though it can be difficult to determine this with precision. Here a careful study of the text is important, but even then, scholars and commentators may be divided on the correct interpretation. Compare the translations in two leading critical commentaries (by J. J. M Roberts [Hermeneia, 2015, p. 144] and Joseph Blenkinsopp [Anchor Bible, 2000, p. 245-6]):

Roberts/Hermeneia

…Surely it will be without daybreak to the one distressed by it.

As at the former time he treated with contempt
<The Sharon and the land of Gilead,>
The land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali,
So at the latter time he has honored the way of the sea,
Trans-jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who were walking in darkness
Have seen a great light…

Blenkinsopp/AB:

There is no gloom for her who is oppressed. At that time the earlier ruler treated with contempt the territory of Zebulon and Naphthali, and the later one oppressed the way of the sea, the land across the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people that walk in the dark
Have seen a great light…

These differences are based, in part, on difficulties surrounding the Hebrew. Note the following two examples:

    • Isaiah 8:23am¹±û¸ can be derived from ±ô¸ (“fly, flutter”) or ±ô¸ (“be dark”); the former would indicate a negative situation (“there will be no flying/fluttering” [that is, release/escape, or perhaps poetically as “daybreak”]), the latter a positive one (“there will be no darkness”). The referent for the feminine suffix –l¹h is unclear: it could refer to any of the feminine nouns in verse 22 (°ereƒ [“land”], µ¦š¢kâ [“darkness”], or parallel ƒ¹râ/ƒôqâ [“distress, oppression”]), or it could look forward to the “land” of 8:23b/9:1. The preposition could have the sense of “for her” or “from/by her”.
    • Isaiah 8:23b—Does h¹ri°šôn (“the head” [i.e. the first, former]) modify the prior common/feminine noun ±¢¾ (i.e. “as at the first/former time, [when] he…”), or does refer to an implied (masculine) subject (i.e. “as at the time [when] the first/former one…”); this affects the parallelism with h¹°aµ¦rôn (“the following” [i.e. the later]): is it a former/later time or former/later person? The verbs qll and kbd (in the Hiphil) mean “make light” and “make heavy” respectively; the former can either have the sense of “treat with contempt/dishonor” or “lighten, make easier”, the latter “treat with honor” or “make heavier [i.e. more difficult]”. Then, is the parallelism synonymous or antithetical? In the historical context, how do these verbs relate to the territories of Zebulon, Naphtali, the Transjordan and Galilee?

Keeping in mind the overall context of Isa 6:1-9:6, which is set rather securely in the period c. 740-732 B.C., if this context still applies to 8:23, the regions mentioned (Zebulon, Naphtali, Transjordan [Gilead], Galilee and the northern coastal plain [“way of the sea”]) represent areas which suffered under Assyrian attack 734-732 B.C., and were effectively annexed to become Assyrian provinces. The message of 9:1-6 is directed, in part, to the Northern kingdom (“the people who walk in darkness”)—there is no indication that Samaria has fallen completely yet. Of course, Assyria still threatened the Southern kingdom of Judah, and would launch a devastating attack some years later (this will become the central event of the remainder of the first half of the book [up to ch. 39]).

Isa 9:1-2 [2-3]

In the first two stanzas of the poem, God promises to deliver Israel/Judah from her enemies, bringing a renewed period of peace and prosperity. This is expressed in the prophetic perfect: “he has increased joy”, “he has smashed”, etc. The contrast of darkness and light in verse 1 brings out symbolically this distinction between the suffering experienced by the Northern kingdom, and the imminent promise of future hope. This darkness and shadow specifically alludes to the threat of death, and evokes language associated with the realm of Death and the grave (see Job 10:21-22, etc). Light (as of the sun) is a corresponding image representing (new) life and salvation. It is naturally associated with God (as a divine attribute/characteristic), but applies just as well to the king/ruler who functions under God’s authority.

The imagery in verse 2 shifts to that of the harvest. The contrast (implied) is between the pain/toil involved in planting and the joy (´imµâ) that comes with the time of reaping. This is further compared, in the last line, with the rejoicing that comes after victory in battle. A small text-critical note: by reading haggîlâ (instead of haggôy lœ°) in the first line, the wordplay and parallelism of the stanza is properly preserved:

“You have multiplied the circling (with joy),
you have made great the (feeling of) gladness—
they are glad before your face,
like the gladness at the (time of) reaping,
like those who circle (for joy) in (the) dividing of plunder.”

Isa 9:3-4 [4-5]

The allusion to battle in the final line of v. 2 becomes the main theme of the next two stanzas. The promise of hope and salvation is defined precisely in terms of the defeat of Israel’s enemies. The image in verse 3 is that of an oppressive foreign power being overthrown, leading to freedom and independence for the people. Given the apparent historical context of the oracle (see above), it suggests the possibility that the Northern territories, turned into Assyrian provinces, would regain their independence. The “day of Midian” doubtless refers to the Gideon traditions in Judges 6-8, when the Northern tribes were similarly delivered from the control of a foreign power. Verse 4 gives a vivid and graphic depiction of a military defeat.

Isa 9:5-6 [6-7]

These verses, so familiar to many Christians, are almost always read completely out of their original historical context. Again, the historical setting of Isa 6:1-9:6 would seem to be the years leading up to 732 B.C. (and prior to 722). In this light, the standard Messianic interpretation of the child in vv. 5-6 [EV 6-7] is out of the question (in terms of the primary meaning of the passage). Can we then identify the child with a particular historical figure? The grandeur of the titles in v. 5, and reference to the “throne of David” in v. 6, would require, at the very least, a king of Judah (that is, from the Davidic line). The only person from Isaiah’s own time (c. 735-700) who seems to fit is Hezekiah, son of Ahaz. The birth and/or accession of a new king could be a time of great hope and promise, but also of tremendous danger, as princes and vassals may see the moment as an opportune time for revolt (cf. Psalm 2). Following the reign of his father, Ahaz (who “did not do what was right in the eyes of YHWH”), Hezekiah is a positive figure, even under the withering judgment of the book of Kings (2 Kings 8:3ff: he finally removed the “high places”, which his ancestors failed to do). He will also become a central figure in the book of Isaiah, and focal point of the key historical moment: the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem under Sennacherib in 701 B.C.

It is also possible that Hezekiah is to be associated with the title ±Immanû-°¢l (“God-with-us”) in the prophecies of 7:10-17 and 8:5-10. Certainly the name is suggestive of the words describing Hezekiah’s reign, in 2 Kings 8:7 (“and YHWH was with him…”). For a consideration of arguments against identifying Hezekiah with the child of 9:5-6, see my earlier article on the subject. In that article, you will also find a discussion of the divine titles occurring in vv. 5-6. There are four such titles: the first two have nouns in juxtaposition, the second two are effectively construct forms. They are included under the formula: “and he/they will call [or has called] his name…”.

It has been said that the weighty titles listed in Isa 9:5 are too lofty to be applied to a human king. However, similarly lofty, theologically significant names and titles were regularly applied to rulers in the ancient Near East. The most extensive evidence comes from Egypt, and the names applied to the Pharaoh during enthronement rituals (some of which are roughly parallel to those in Isa 9:5). No similar ritual is recorded as such for kings of Israel/Judah in the Old Testament, but there are a few hints in the Psalms and elsewhere; Psalm 2 is perhaps the most striking example, a setting similar to that in the Egyptian ritual, where the Deity addresses the new ruler as His “son” (Ps 2:7).

Isaiah 11:1-10

As in 8:23-9:6, a period of salvation and peace is tied to the rise of a new king from the line of David. If 11:1-10 represents an authentic Isaiah oracle (i.e. from the mid-late 8th century B.C.), then it may well refer to the same king (Hezekiah?) announced in the earlier passage. Many commentators, however, would assign the composition of chapter 11 to a later period. In the previous study, I discussed the critical theory that the document 6:1-9:6, having been included with the wider (Isaian) context of chapters 5-10, was subsequently placed in the later literary context of chapters 2-4, 11-12. Certain thematic and stylistic considerations suggest an exilic (6th century) or even post-exilic setting, though this is hardly decisive, and there are even some critical commentators (e.g., J. J. M. Roberts, cf. above) who would accept Isaian authorship, on the whole, for the oracles in chaps. 2-4, 11-12.

Isa 11:1-10 has a very precise (literary) structure, consisting of two main parts (or strophes), bracketed by references to the new Davidic king (using the idiom “root/trunk of Jesse”).

Verse 1

“And there will go forth a branch from (the) trunk of Yishay,
and a green (shoot) will bear (forth) from his roots”

The oracle opens with a simple parallel couplet, establishing the theme: the rise of a new king (over Judah) from the line of David. The similarity of language with Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15ff, suggests that a 6th-century/exilic setting is in view. On the other hand, a Davidic emphasis is present in the 8th century Isaian material (7:2, 13, and elsewhere in chaps. 2-39 [16:5; 22:22, etc]), and the Jeremiah references may have been inspired by earlier Isaian usage. An authentic Isaian oracle (from the 8th century) would only make more likely that Hezekiah is the expected king; or, in any case, that it is one who would come after (or in place of) the disappointing Ahaz.

Verses 2-5

The bulk of the poem (vv. 2-9) describes the reign of this new king as a ‘golden age’ of peace and prosperity for Israel (presumably a unified Kingdom), conveyed in ideal (and idyllic) terms. The first portion focuses on the theme of the justice that would be established throughout society during his reign. The wisdom and discernment with which he governs follows the ancient principle of Spirit-inspired leadership (v. 2, cf. my recent note on this point). It is marked by fairness and impartiality, reflecting the very character of God as Judge (v. 3). Of special importance is the way that he works on behalf of the poor and weak, protecting them from oppression and violence (v. 4). Righteousness and faithfulness (to YHWH) are the overarching attributes that explain and characterize the justice of his rule (v. 5).

Verses 6-9

The ‘golden age’ of the new king’s reign is described, in the second half of the poem (vv. 6-9), in more mythological terms, drawing upon the idea of a state of peace and harmony that may once have existed (and will once again) in the natural world. These are certainly among the most beautiful and memorable lines in the entire book. The emphasis of peace and security from wild animals, while drawing upon earlier lines of tradition (Hos 2:18 [20]), may be another indicator of a 6th-century/exilic date for the poem (compare Ezek 34:25-26).

The main point of this imagery is that it will be an ideal time of peace for God’s people. This was also the theme in 2:2-5 (discussed in an earlier study), one of several literary parallels between chaps. 2-4 and 11-12. Roberts, in his commentary (pp. 180-1, cf. above), cites examples from Egypt and Assyria, where the accession of a new king is announced as a time of peace and security; however, in some ways, a closer parallel is to found in Virgil’s famous Fourth Eclogue, however far removed it may be from the ancient Near Eastern milieu.

Verse 10

The closing lines reprise the motif of the rise of a new Davidic king (from v. 1), forming an inclusio for the poem:

“And there will be in that day a root of Yishay {Jesse},
which, standing, (will be) for a n¢s of (the) people;
to him (the) nations will go in search,
and his resting(-place) will be worth(y).”

An important aspect of this king’s rule will be the way that the surrounding nations come to him. In its earlier form, this idea simply reflected the sovereign-vassal relationship that existed between the kingdom of Israel and a number of nations in the region, during the reigns of David and Solomon. This Israelite ’empire’ was brief, and collapsed shortly after Solomon’s reign, but would remain an ideal, in terms of Israel’s restoration, for centuries to come. However, during the later Prophets of the exile and post-exilic periods, this motif of the ‘gathering of the nations’ came to be expressed in a new way, as part of a developing eschatological (and Messianic) understanding of Israel’s future restoration.

This same eschatological aspect was seen in 2:2-5 (cf. the earlier study), centered around the Jerusalem Temple, and the outreach to the surrounding (Gentile) nations. As I have noted, the theme is typical of many of the Deutero-Isaian oracles in chaps. 40-66—see, for example, 40:9; 42:6-7; 45:14-23; 49:6; 51:4; 56:7; 57:13; 60:1-18; 65:11, 26; 66:20, etc. Most critical commentators would ascribe the Deutero-Isaian material, generally, to the exile or post-exilic period. A thematic comparison with texts from this period (e.g. Zech 2:14-16 [EV 12-14]; 8:20-23; Hag 2:7-9) would tend to point in this direction (cf. Blenkinsopp, p. 191). I have already noted the idea that the framing sections in chapters 2-4, 11-12, while likely containing earlier/older material, may well have been composed somewhat later. From the standpoint of the composition of chaps. 2-12, this would mean that the (earlier) Isaian message promising deliverance (for Jerusalem and a faithful remnant) from the Assyrian invasion could well have been applied to the setting of the Babylonian exile and the promise of a future restoration/return.

The new king will stand among his people, functioning as a n¢s for them. I left this word untranslated above; it essentially refers to something that is displayed prominently, serving as a rallying point for a group of people (such as a flag or banner). It also becomes a point around which other nations will gather as well, coming to the king (and his court) in search of truth and justice, etc. The religious emphasis of 2:2-5 (i.e. the nations joining Israel in worship of YHWH) is not as definite here, but it certainly would have been implied, in light of the language used in the rest of the oracle. There is likely a bit of wordplay in the final line, which could alternately be translated something like “and honor/worth will rest (on) him”. This honor/worth (Heb. k¹»ô¼, literally “weight”), in the context of the oracle, refers to the presence of God that is around the king, and the Spirit that comes upon him, gifting him with divinely-inspired wisdom (v. 2). Thus, in coming in search of Israel’s divinely-inspired king, they nations are effecting seeking after God.

Conclusion

Both of these remarkable oracles, however and whenever they were composed, announce the coming of a king (from the line of David) who will usher in an ideal time of peace and prosperity, bringing salvation and renewal to the people. A working critical hypothesis, based on the results of these two studies, might be outlined as follows:

    • The Isaian document of 6:1-9:6[7], composed sometime after 732 B.C., concludes with the announcement of deliverance for the Northern territories that had been conquered and annexed by Assyria. This was associated, most likely, with the birth (and/or accession) of Hezekiah, who did indeed make overtures to the North for them to join with him in a political and religious revival.
    • This hope, never realized during Hezekiah’s reign, came to be applied to the later context of the Babylonian threat in the early 6th century. As Jerusalem was saved from Assyrian invasion during Hezekiah’s reign, so the southern kingdom might be delivered under another faithful king from the line of David.
    • Ultimately, this ideal, and promise of future salvation, was reinterpreted from the standpoint of the Exile—i.e., the restoration of Israel in a post-exilic period as a golden age of justice and righteousness.

Such an outline would provide a veritable snapshot of Israel’s Messianic hope, in its early stages of development (captured within the complex literary structures of the book of Isaiah). It can be no surprise that Isa 8:23-9:6 and 11:1-10 came to viewed as Messianic prophecies subsequently in Jewish tradition, and that early Christians continued this process, applying the oracles to the person of Jesus as the Messiah. That such a Messianic interpretation is a secondary development, quite apart from the original context of the prophecy, should be clear enough. However, this does not in any way diminish or devalue the Messianic (and Christian) view. The inspiration of Scripture is wide and expansive enough to encompass all of these aspects.

Saturday Series: Isaiah 8:23-9:6; 11:1-10

Two of the most famous Messianic passages in the Old Testament occur in the portion of Isaiah we have been considering initially in these studies on the book (chaps. 2-12)—8:23-9:6 [9:1-7] and 11:1-10. We must look at these passages from the standpoint of historical– and composition-criticism, as a way of highlighting the important principle that a proper interpretation needs to begin (and proceed) from a careful grammatical-historical approach to the text.

Isaiah 8:23-9:6 [9:1-7]

In the most recent studies, I discussed certain critical aspects of the composition of Isaiah 2-12. While the date and provenance of portions of these chapters may be debated, there can be no question that 6:1-9:6[7] derives from the prophet Isaiah’s own time, and contains key historical and biographical material from the prophet, covering the last 40 years of the 8th century B.C. (c. 740-701). This section centers on the Assyrian crisis (and the Syro-Ephramaite war) during the years 735-732 B.C., and provides a firm historical setting. At the same time, the situation regarding the surrounding chapters (2-5, 9:7[8]-12:6) is more complex. A plausible critical theory would involve a three-stage process of composition and editing/redaction:

    • 6:1-9:6: a core document, presumably produced by the prophet’s own disciples (see the notice in 8:16), not long after the events of 735-2; it contains authentic Isaian material—oracles, and historical-biographical traditions.
    • At some point, this document was placed within the context of chapters 5 and 9:7-10:34, which seem to represent authentic Isaiah oracles from the late 8th century (prior to 701). The emphasis is more on the theme of the impending judgment—warning Judah of the coming judgment from Assyria, and an oracle against the great nation of Assyria itself. Critical commentators are generally agreed that 5:25-30 and 10:1-4a have been misplaced, swapped from one location to the other; this may have occurred as a way of smoothing the transition when the 6:1-9:6 document was included.
    • The addition of chapters 2-4, 11-12. This material appears to stem from a later period of composition, but likely still includes authentic Isaian material (though perhaps in an adapted form). It would seem that the oracles and traditions, related to the Assyrian crisis and its effect on Judah (chaps. 5-10), have been adapted to the context of the Babylonian conquest (and exile) more than a century later. The historical parallels between the two periods are obvious, and such an adaptation by a later author/editor would have been most natural. Evidence for such a dating of chaps. 2-4 was discussed in an earlier study, and will be addressed again in the upcoming study on 11:1-10.

I discussed 9:5-6 [6-7] in some detail as part of an earlier article (in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”). I will be reproducing portions of that two-part article here (and in next week’s study), and you should consult it for an in-depth examination of the text. With regard to the historical background of 6:1-9:6[7] as a whole, it may be summarized for each of the sections/components of that document as follows:

    • Isa 6:1-13: The “call” and commission of Isaiah (discussed in the prior two Saturday Series studies), accompanied by a vision of God in the Temple, said to have occurred the year of king Uzziah’s death (c. 740/39 B.C.). The words of commission (vv. 9-10 cited famously by Jesus [Mark 4:10-12 par.]) are harsh and foreboding: Isaiah’s preaching will only harden the people, leading to judgment, destruction and exile, but with a final promise—that which is left standing in them is “the seed of holiness” (v. 13).
    • Isa 7:1-9: The alliance of Aram-Damascus and the Northern kingdom of Israel (Ephraim), along with their attack on Jerusalem, is summarized (vv. 1-3). What follows is set in the face of the (impending) siege: Isaiah is called to meet the young king Ahaz (grandson of Uzziah), bringing along his own son (named “a remant will return”), with a message for the king not to be afraid but to trust in God, for YHWH will not allow their attack to succeed. A time indicator for the destruction of Ephraim appears in v. 8-9, but the text here may be corrupt or a later gloss. The setting of this scene would be c. 735-4 B.C.
    • Isa 7:10-17: A second scene between Isaiah and Ahaz, which may have occurred at a different time (though the same basic setting c. 735-4 B.C. is implied). This section, and especially v. 14, has also been discussed extensively in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”. It contains a similar message: that Ahaz should trust God in the face of attack, for within 2-3 years YHWH will bring judgment on Aram and Ephraim through the king of Assyria. This prediction essentially came to pass by 732 B.C.
    • Isa 7:18-25: A separate oracle of judgment: God will ‘whistle’ for the king of Assyria to come and ‘shave’ the land in humiliating fashion. Assuming the position of the oracle in its overall context, the target is most likely the Northern Kingdom, which would suffer greatly under the advances of Tiglath-pileser III (734-2 B.C.) before being conquered and destroyed finally in 722.
    • Isa 8:1-4: A sign-oracle with some remarkable parallels to that of 7:10-17 (esp. vv. 3-4 with 7:14-17), involving: (1) conception and birth of a child [from “the prophetess” instead of “the maiden/virgin”], (2) a temporal indicator based on the early growth of the infant [i.e. within a year or two], and (3) a prophecy of judgment against Aram-Damascus involving the king of Assyria. A setting again of roughly 734 B.C. is implied.
    • Isa 8:5-10: A compact oracle with several different interlocking levels: (a) judgment against the Northern kingdom in its alliance with Aram-Damascus [v. 6], (b) warning against the leaders and people of Judah who would save themselves by submitting to Aram-Damascus [v. 6-8], (c) the destructive advance of the king of Assyria [v. 7-8], and (d) a message of hope and promise for Judah/Jerusalem [with a warning to the nations], set around the name la@ WnM*u! (±Imm¹nû °E~l) “God-with-us”:
      • “God-with-us” [end of v. 8]
        • O nations—”come together”, “gird yourselves” and “be shattered” [v. 9]
        • (Your) counsel will break apart, your word [i.e. plan] will not stand [v. 10]
      • For “God-with-us” [end of v. 10]
    • Isa 8:11-15: A message to Isaiah himself to trust YHWH and not to follow the fearful way of the people.
    • Isa 8:16-22: A symbolic scene, involving: (1) testimony and instruction from Isaiah which has bound/sealed for safekeeping, (2) his sons [presumably the two mentioned in 7:3; 8:1,3; but does this include “Immanuel”?], (3) a warning to trust in the message and signs given by God to Isaiah rather than various kinds of divination commonly practiced in the ancient world [vv. 18-22]. Some commentators would divide vv. 16-18 and 19-22 into separate scenes.
    • Isa 8:23-9:6: Best understood as a prosodic introduction (v. 23), followed by a poem (9:1-6), though it is also possible to treat 8:23b-9:6 as a single poetic oracle (applying 8:23a to the previous section).

Clearly, 8:23-9:6 [9:1-7] functions as the conclusion of the document, and there is some evidence that it, along with portions of 8:5-22, stems from a slightly later time than the rest of 6:1-9:6. Many commentators would identify this with the accession/coronation of Hezekiah, and in this they are likely correct. The beginning of Hezekiah’s reign is typically dated to 715 B.C., though some would locate that event as early as 729, placing it closer in time to the events of 735-2 (see above). Early Christians were quick to take this passage as a Messianic prophecy (of Jesus’ coming/birth, cf. Matthew 4:12-16), and it is simply accepted in this light by many Christians today as well. However valid such an interpretation may be, it is important to keep the original historical context of the passage in mind as we study it. That is to say, how would it have been understood in the 8th century, by the people of the time, to whom the oracle was primarily addressed? The original point-of-reference is almost certainly that of Hezekiah’s reign. He was the king of Judah at the time of the Assyrian campaigns, when the kingdom (and the city of Jerusalem) was saved from destruction and conquest.

Keeping this setting in mind, we can see how, in 11:1-10, the same sort of tradition—regarding a king who would oversee a time of salvation and peace for both Israel and Judah—could be adapted to the later context of the Babylonian conquest, providing a message of hope to the people of the exilic (and post-exilic) period. It even makes possible a future/eschatological interpretation of the oracle, part of the Messianic expectation of Jews and Christians in generations to come.

In next week’s study, we will proceed with a brief, but thorough, exegesis of both 8:23-9:6 and 11:1-10, touching upon important critical questions and issues, and other points of interpretation, along the way.

Supplemental Note 1 on Revelation: Authorship and Date of the Book

Authorship and Date of the Book of Revelation

I dealt with the question of authorship briefly in the earlier note on 1:9—i.e. the identity of the seer Yohanan (John) in the book. However, it is worth discussing the matter a bit more comprehensively, now that we have come to the end of the notes themselves. In most commentaries, this subject is part of an introduction, prior to the exegesis; I opted for the reverse approach, to deal with such matters only after the text has been thoroughly discussed. This allows the reader to consider the text objectively, without presuppositions or pre-judgments regarding authorship. The question of date—when the book was written—is more pertinent to a critical study, and to providing a sound, basic interpretation for a number of the visions; however, even here I felt it best to avoid discussion of theories on the book’s date as much as possible.

Critical commentators today are not as inclined (as past generations) to view the book as pseudonymous, despite the fact that much Apocalyptic literature is pseudepigraphic in nature (cf. my earlier article on these terms, and also note the discussion in Part 2 of my study “The Antichrist Tradition”). The book is generally lacking in the kinds of details and references one might expect if the author were presenting himself as a famous (apostolic) figure. Some Christians chose the third option above, identifying the author with a second-generation Elder/Presbyter named John (cf. Eusebius, Church History III.39.4-6; VII.24.7ff). However, the main lines of Christian tradition identified the author as John the Apostle, an identification which appears to have been reasonably well-established by the end of the 2nd century (cf. Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho 81.4; Irenaeus Against Heresies III.11.1, 16.5ff; V.30.3; Clement On the Rich Man §42, etc).

However, there is no evidence in the book itself that this John is an apostle, or even an elder; however, it is clear that he is a prophet (profh/th$, “foreteller”). The book throughout demonstrates a keen interest in the role of genuine prophecy (profhtei/a), characterizing itself as such (cf. 1:3; 10:7, 11; 11:3-18; 16:6; 18:20, 24; 19:10; 22:6-10, 18-19). Moreover, it shows an understanding of the dynamic of prophecy in early Christianity—especially the way that the Spirit of God interacts with the gifted spirit of the prophet. Also noteworthy is the opposition to false prophecy, being inspired as it is by the forces of evil (i.e. an evil/deceptive spirit)—cf. 2:14, 20ff; 16:13; 19:20; 20:10. In early Christianity, “prophecy” (profhtei/a) entailed much more than predicting the future; the term referred primarily to the idea of serving as a spokesperson for God, by which the word and will of God was communicated to others. As such, the role of the Christian prophet was closer to the meaning of the corresponding Hebrew word ayb!n`. Thus the “John” of Revelation can be identified as a Christian minister, a gifted prophet; whether he was also an apostle (and/or John the Apostle) remains quite uncertain.

We know little else about him from the book itself, except that, at the time of receiving his visions, this John was residing on the island of Patmos, about 40 miles off the southwestern coast of Asia Minor (almost directly west of Miletus). He says that he came to be there “through the account of God and the witness of Yeshua” (1:9). This could mean that he was on the island as part of his ministry/missionary activity; however, most commentators understand it as a reference to banishment, i.e. as a punitive action against him, (relegatio ad insulum, “relegation to an island”), possibly even a permanent exile (“deportation”, deportatio ad insulum); for more on this, cf. Koester, pp. 242-3. Patmos was scarcely a desolate locale, contrary to popular portraits of John receiving his visions in Christian art, etc; it had a thriving culture and society, including festivals, athletic events, and so forth. There was also a strong religious life on the island, including major pagan cult centers, though the prevalence of the imperial cult, so strong elsewhere in Asia Minor at the time, is less certain. The tradition regarding John the Apostle’s exile on Patmos is attested by the end of the 2nd century (Tertullian Against Marcion 3.14.3, 24.4; Prescription Against Heretics 36); Irenaeus presumably accepted it (Against Heresies 5.30.3, cf. above), though he does not mention that specific detail.

The Problem of Dating the Book

The book of Revelation has been variously dated by scholars and commentators, sometimes based on established tradition (i.e. regarding John the Apostle, cf. above), though more commonly (in recent years) on the basis of internal (historical-critical) evidence in the book itself. For those interested in establishing a specific date, or time-frame, the two main options, favored by commentators, are: (1) early, in the 60s A.D., or (2) at the end of the first-century A.D., c. 95. A third (3) minority view would set the book in the early second-century A.D. (sometime between c. 115 and 135). The language and vocabulary offer little help in establishing a precise date, and similarly with regard to other literary and rhetorical factors. Scholars thus have tended to turn to details which relate to the historical and cultural background of the book (i.e. historical criticism).

1. Foremost of these details is the description of the heads of the Sea-creature (i.e. ‘beast’ from the Sea), especially the interpretation in 17:7-18 (vv. 9-11). This is one of the only instances where the book itself offers an explanation of the visionary symbolism, so it must be taken most seriously as a guide for interpretation. The seven heads are explained as seven kings, which most commentators—correctly, it would seem—understand as a sequence of first-century Roman emperors. Five of these emperors have already died (“five [have] fallen”) at the time the book was written, while the sixth is the current reigning emperor (“one is“, i.e. is currently alive). This has encouraged commentators to attempt to identify the six heads with a sequence of six emperors, which would more or less establish a date for the book; for example:

    • beginning with Julius Caesar, the sixth emperor would be Nero (r. 54-68)
    • beginning with Augustus, the sixth emperor would be Galba (r. 68-9)
      • or, skipping over the short reigns of the four emperors in 68-9, the sixth would be Vespasian (r. 69-79)
    • beginning with Gaius (Caligula), and skipping over the four of 68-9, the sixth would be Domitian (r. 81-96)
    • beginning with Nero, the sixth (strictly) would be Titus (r. 79-81); counting more loosely, it might also be Domitian.

It is, however, highly questionable whether the symbolism of the heads can be interpreted (reliably) with such historical precision. After all, the motif of seven heads derives from ancient tradition, and relates to the seven-vision cycles throughout the book, as does the 5 + 2 motif. It seems likely that it was meant to apply only generally to the historical circumstances of the Empire. If any of the above schema are accurate, I would say that the second and fourth are most plausible—i.e. (a) from Augustus to Galba, or (b) from Gaius (Caligula) to Domitian. Caligula was the first emperor to begin his reign after the death/resurrection of Jesus, and would have been the first to fit clearly into the eschatological “wicked tyrant” pattern (cf. my three-part article “The Antichrist Tradition”).

2. Along these same lines, many commentators find a number of references or allusions to the Emperor Nero (r. 54-68) in the book; this could be cited as evidence for the setting of the book itself (i.e. during Nero’s reign), or as an indication that Nero was one of the (five) emperors who had died previously. The latter seems much more likely, especially if the common interpretation regarding the head with the death-blow (“strike of death”) in 13:3 (cf. the earlier note) is correct—that it is, in part at least, an allusion to Nero (and the Nero legend). The wording in 17:11 may represent a similar allusion. One plausible line of interpretation would be that: (a) Nero was one of the emperors who had died, but (b) he would ‘return’ in the form of the last (eighth) emperor, a demonic ‘Antichrist’ figure patterned after him. For Christians in the second half of the first century A.D., Nero would have been the persecuting emperor, and the more intense persecution to come during the time of distress could legitimately be regarded as a revival of Nero’s actions.

It has also been popular to interpret the famous ‘mark of the beast’ in 13:18 as a veiled reference to Nero. I will not discuss that cryptic verse any further here (consult my earlier note). Even if correct, it could be understood either as a reference to Nero as the current emperor, or to the previously-mentioned idea that the wicked ruler of the end would be patterned after Nero.

3. Two other historical points are important for a dating of the book—(1) the extent of the persecution of Christians in Asia Minor, and (2) the influence of the imperial cult in the region. The persecution of believers during Nero’s reign, while notorious enough, was relatively brief, and more or less limited to the city of Rome. Evidence for persecution during the reigns of the subsequent emperors (such as Vespasian or Domitian) is uncertain or sketchy at best, and has been very much exaggerated, it would seem, by Christian writers in the case of Domitian (cf. Koester, pp. 76-8). We have a little more evidence for the arrest/interrogation of believers, in the provinces (e.g., Asia Minor), during the early-second century (cf. especially Pliny the Younger Epistles 10.97.2, cited in the note on 13:15); however, there were no widespread state-sponsored attacks on Christians until later in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

This generally accords with the portrait we have of the situation in Asia Minor at the time the book of Revelation was written. Persecution was sporadic, with believers being held for interrogation a much more common occurrence than their being put to death. Executions were apparently infrequent enough that special mention could be made of Antipas’ death in Pergamum (2:13). While the visions of Revelation foresee a time (very soon) when persecution would be much more intense and widespread, this had not yet been fulfilled. A setting in the late first or early second century would seem to fit this evidence.

Much the same is true of the prevalence of the imperial cult, which would become the focus of the 2nd-century persecutions. The unwillingness of believers to participate in the various aspects of the imperial cult—including worship/veneration of the emperor and his images—would put them at odds with the surrounding society, and, increasingly, with the provincial and imperial authorities. There can be little doubt that the Roman imperial cult informs much of the depiction of the Sea-creature’s wicked regime in chapters 13ff (esp. the detail in 13:11-18); however, again, the book envisions a dramatic increase (and intensification) of the current situation. The imperial iconography and religious associations, while well-established in Asia Minor by the end of the first century, would only become more pronounced in the second, during the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian.

Consider the example of Pergamum, an important center of Roman administration in the province. Already in the late 1st century B.C., a provincial temple to Augustus and Roma (goddess of the city Rome) had been constructed, including dedicatory altars (remains of which have survived). First century coins depict many images and scenes of the rich religious culture (festivals, games, etc) associated with the cult. Later, during the reign of Trajan, a new temple (to Zeus and the emperor) was founded in 114 A.D., further dedicated in 129, in the time of Hadrian, who was similarly identified with Zeus Olympus at the temple in Athens (dedicated 132).

4. One argument for an early date (i.e. pre-70 A.D.) is the lack of any clear reference to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple; indeed, the symbolism of the Temple precincts in 11:1-2 has been taken as an indication that the Temple was still standing. If correct, it would seem to require the book be dated to the reign of Nero (54-68) or Galba (68-9). However, attempts to date the New Testament Writings based on references to the Temple are questionable at best. Long before the Temple had been destroyed, early Christians had spiritualized its significance, treating it as a symbol and figure of the person of Christ, the presence of the Spirit, the union of believers, and so forth. Moreover, lack of reference to the Temple’s destruction could just as easily indicate a significant time after 70 A.D., when the reality and physical existence of the Temple building had long ceased to be important. With the exception of Paul’s mention of the Temple in 2 Thess 2:4, references elsewhere in the New Testament tend to be ambiguous, in terms of the question of date, and whether or not the Temple building still stood at the time of writing. Consider, for example, the complex way the matter is handled in the letter to the Hebrews; there is no indication of the Temple’s destruction, and yet, the writing tends to be dated to latter part of the first century by most commentators, based on numerous other factors.

Overall, the evidence points to a general time frame of the last quarter of the first century A.D. (c. 75-100) for the composition of Revelation. Traditionally, a date for the book has been set at the end of Domitian’s reign (c. 95 A.D.), a tradition attested at least as early as Irenaeus in his Against Heresies (5.30.3), and followed by Eusebius (Church History 3.18.3, 20.8-9; 5.8.6) and Jerome (Lives of Illustrious Men 9), as well as others (cf. Koester, p. 74). A majority of commentators today would tend to concur with this, and a date for composition c. 90-95 A.D. is probably not far from the mark.

References marked “Koester” are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).

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Saturday Series: Isaiah 1:1 and Overview

After a brief hiatus these past two months, the Saturday Series feature on this site is picking up again. In the upcoming weeks, this series will focus on the Old Testament Book of Isaiah. Due to its size, complexity, and diversity of content, the Book of Isaiah provides a rich ground for demonstrating and applying the techniques and methods of Biblical Criticism—which is the primary purpose of this running series. My goal in these studies is to help readers understand what is involved in an objective, critical analysis of Scripture, and to illustrate how this can be done, using specific portions of the Scriptures—from the Old and New Testament alike. The most recent studies dealt with the Letters of John (New Testament Criticism); now we shall turn to Old Testament Criticism, working from the Prophetic book of Isaiah.

In each passage that we examine, we will be considering it through the lens of the different areas of Biblical Criticism; in the case of the book of Isaiah, there are four main areas: (1) textual criticism, (2) historical criticism, (3) source criticism, and (4) literary criticism.

Textual Criticism

This involves a careful examination of the Hebrew text, as it has come down to us. A primary objective (though not the only one) is to establish, as far as possible, the most likely form of the original text. How the text was shaped and developed over time is also an important consideration, though this can touch upon other areas of criticism related to the composition of the text.

One problem in text-critical study of the Old Testament is that there are so few surviving manuscripts, especially of manuscripts produced prior to the middle Ages (i.e. before the 9th/10th century A.D.). The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has been a great boost to Old Testament textual criticism, but even with these documents, the number of extant manuscripts is scant indeed. Fortunately, for the book of Isaiah, the Dead Sea material is especially rich, including two extensive manuscripts (1QIsaa and 1QIsab). The first of these is the great Isaiah Scroll, an essentially complete manuscript (and thus unique among the Scripture MSS at Qumran), likely dating from the mid-2nd century B.C. (c. 150-120). Its text confirms the general reliability of the Masoretic tradition, however there are also a number of significant variants; the text of the second MS (1QIsab) is even closer to the Masoretic Text (MT). In addition, there are the remains of eighteen other fragmentary manuscripts from Qumran, as well a fragment from the Dead Sea site of Wadi Murabba’at. Thus, we are able to do a reasonably thorough textual comparison between the MT (and the Greek LXX) and the Dead Sea Scrolls, much more so than for other books of the Old Testament.

Historical Criticism

The term historical criticism covers two areas:

    1. The historical background of the text—where, when and how it came to be written, the circumstances of its composition, and
    2. The historicity of the text, which includes both (a) the historical reliability of the text, and (b) the history that is contained and preserved in it.

A Prophetic book as large and diverse as Isaiah poses considerable challenges for a sound and objective application of historical criticism. Much of the difficulty (and controversy) has surrounded the ascription of the book to the prophet Isaiah (cf. below on 1:1), and thus involves the question of authorship. Scholars had long noted that many of the oracles in the book seem to relate to the situation of Israelites and Jews living long after the prophet Isaiah’s own time—i.e. in the Exile and post-exilic periods. This especially seemed to be true in chapters 40-66, but similar passages can be found within chaps. 1-39 as well. Various theories have been developed to explain these apparent differences, ranging from the traditional-conservative to the skeptical-critical. I would outline four general approaches to the book as we have it:

    • It was largely, if not entirely, written by the prophet Isaiah himself
    • It substantially contains authentic Isaian oracles throughout, but was actually composed—written and edited—by later scribes (possibly including Isaiah’s own disciples)
    • It contains an authentic core of Isaian oracles (and historical tradition), around which a range of material was added, over a considerable period of time, and, most likely, by a number of different authors
    • While containing some authentic historical tradition (both of Isaiah and others), the various portions of the book were largely composed by later authors (and prophets), down into the exilic and post-exilic periods; the unifying theme of all this prophetic material was the fate of Judah and Jerusalem.

The first two approaches may be characterized as traditional-conservative, while the last two generally reflect the view of most critical scholars. I would tend to rule out the first option, as being rather difficult to maintain objectively, but strong arguments can be made in support of the last three views, and we will be considering these different approaches (or some variation of them) throughout our studies on Isaiah.

Source Criticism

Again, this can be understood two ways: (1) sources used in the composition of the text, and (2) sources used in the editing and redaction of the final book. These “sources” can range considerably, in size and complexity, from snippets of oral tradition to full-fledged written documents. Typically, within the context of Biblical Criticism, such sources must remain hypothetical, since only rarely will external evidence exist, or survive, in support of them. The evidence cited by scholars is almost entirely internal—that is, based on a study of factors within the text itself. These factors include things like differences in style and language, historical-critical details (see above), the specific form or genre of a passage, and so forth.

Critical scholars have tended to divide the canonical book of Isaiah into two portions (chaps. 1-39 and 40-66), often thought to reflect two distinct books which were combined together (as sources) at some point in the process of editing and redaction. The first ‘book’ (1-39) was generally thought to relate more directly to the prophet Isaiah himself (his life and times, and actual sayings), while the second (40-66, typically called Deutero-Isaiah), was from a much later time, reflecting the concerns of Israelites and Jews in the exile and post-exilic periods. Some would isolate a third ‘book’ (Trito-Isaiah, covering chapters 56-66 [or 55-66]). Most critical commentators today hold to some form of this basic approach, though realizing that the situation is much more complex, in terms of how the material developed—that is, at the level of composition. Here the idea of sources carries a slightly different meaning. As an example, we might consider the “source” of an individual oracle or historical tradition—where did it come from, how and when was it composed, and how did it come to be included in the text?

All of these questions and issues will be considered in these studies, without prejudice or presupposition regarding theories of authorship.

Literary Criticism

Literary criticism is a wide-ranging term that covers a number of more specialized sub-categories of criticism. It generally refers to an analysis of the literary features and characteristics of a passage (or book)—its language, style, structure, symbolism, use of literary/figurative devices, etc. These, in turn, touch upon how a text was composed (composition criticism), and relate to matters of historical and source criticism (see above). Two key areas of literary criticism are form and genre criticism. In some ways genre criticism is an expansion of form criticism—an analysis of the structure of a passage, in terms of identifying it as a distinctive textual and literary unit, such as, for example, a proverb-collection, parable, or poem (oracle). Determining the genre of a passage involves more attention being paid to questions of style, content, and function. As an example, for a prophetic Scripture such as the book of Isaiah, many of the poetic forms relate to the genre of oracle, for which certain types or categories can be discerned (nation-, judgment-, woe-, etc). These will be discussed frequently in our studies.

Also under the banner of literary criticism is the area of rhetorical criticism—a study of the message of the passage, according to the author’s purpose, and the means and methods by which it is communicated to the audience. The term ‘rhetorical criticism’ is often understood in terms of classical (Greco-Roman) rhetoric, and, as such, is more applicable to the New Testament writings (especially the letters); however, viewed more broadly, it very much applies to the Old Testament Prophets as well, the writings of which are certainly intended to convince and exhort, etc, their audience.

Isaiah 1:1

To launch this series of studies on the book of Isaiah, I include here a brief examination of the opening verse of the book:

“The vision of Yesha’yahu son of Amos which he saw (as a vision), upon [i.e. regarding] Yehudah and Yerushalaim, in the days of ‘Uzziyyahu, Yotam, ‘Ahaz, (and) Yehizqiyyahu, kings of Yehudah.”

The name of the prophet, typically given in anglicized transliteration as “Isaiah”, is actually a YHWH (Yahweh) sentence- or phrase-name, meaning something like “Yah(weh) will save” or “May Yah(weh) save!”, in Hebrew Why`u=v^y+ (Y®ša±y¹hû). The four Judean kings mentioned are similarly Yah-names—three certainly, but ‘Ahaz (zj*a*, °A~µ¹z) is probably a shortened form of a Yah-name (Y®hô°¹µ¹z, zj*a*ohy+) as well. This alone tells something significant about the religious culture in Judah in the 8th century B.C., with the well-established worship of God (the one true God) under the name YHWH (hwhy, on this divine name, see my earlier article).

This statement, which reflects the span of Isaiah’s career as a prophet (see the historical references in 2 Kings 19:2-7, 20; 20:1-19; 2 Chron 26:22; 32:20, and the traditions within the book itself), establishes the historical setting for the book as a whole. In all likelihood, verse 1 stems from an editorial layer, as do the notices in 2:1 and 13:1; these contextual statements are separate from the oracles that follow, in which Isaiah’s name does not appear. His name is otherwise mentioned only within historical narrative portions (7:3; 20:2-3, and in chaps. 37-39). Technically, the oracles themselves are anonymous, and their Isaian authorship must be determined from other factors, including the traditional/editorial superscriptions in 2:1; 13:1. Those notices function like the superscriptions in the Psalms, attributing the (anonymous) poems to specific figures (David, etc).

Thus, even a simple statement like that of 1:1 can be considered in terms of the different areas of criticism:

    • Historical—questions of authorship: where, when, and by whom, the book (or portions of it) was composed; but also related to the composition, editing and redaction of the book as a whole
    • Source—the origin and attribution of specific oracles, as well as more substantial portions of the book
    • Literary (Form/Genre)—the role of superscriptions in introducing, and thus demarcating the start of, a particular poetic/prophetic form; from a rhetorical standpoint, the ascription establishes the prophetic authority for the oracle (and the book as a whole).

According to the view of many commentators, the first chapter was prefixed to the opening oracle of chapter 2, which has its own notable superscription, itself fitting as an introduction to the book. At the time that all of the material had been brought together, the chapter 1 oracle was included, as a summary introduction for the many themes that would be found (and developed) in the book. The superscription in verse 1 was then added, effectively as a title for the book. This is a reasonable theory, though it says nothing definitive about the overall authorship of the book. However, even as a traditional ascription, the association with Isaiah must be quite ancient, and thus objectively reliable to some degree. The notice in 2 Chronicles 32:32 suggests that the book of Isaiah was in existence (some form of it, at least) by that time; the author there refers to it as a “vision” (/ozj*), just as in Isa 1:1, even though there are few visions, as such, recorded in the book. It is possible the Chronicler’s statement corresponds generally to the time that the book of Isaiah reached something like its final form.

In next week’s study, we will focus on the introductory poem in chapter 1, focusing in detail on several representative passages.

Saturday Series: 2 & 3 John

This is the final study in this Series focusing on the Letters of John. In exploring these writings, I have approached the studies variously from the standpoint of the different areas of Biblical Criticism. One particularly important aspect is that of historical criticism, since a proper understanding of the Johannine Letters requires that, as far as possible, the historical setting and background is analyzed carefully. The theological (and Christological) arguments in 1 and 2 John, as we have seen, are closely tied to the views of a specific group of Christians (whom the author regards as false believers), who have, in some sense, separated from the Johannine Community, espousing a view of Jesus (as the Messiah and Son of God), which, according to the author, contradicts the truth of the Johannine Gospel and the witness of the Spirit. It is possible to reconstruct this historical scenario, at least to some extent. This was part of the previous study, on 2 John, where the Christological dispute in vv. 7-11 was compared with similar statements made in 1 John. Clearly we are dealing with the same situation in both letters.

2 and 3 John: Historical Criticism

Is it possible to bring the matter into more precise detail? Let us here consider the nature of 2 and 3 John, letters written to different parts of the Johannine Community. When speaking of this “Community”, it is best to understand it in terms of a group of congregations (house-churches) located throughout a relatively wide region. Tradition has identified this as the region of Asia Minor, centered around the site of Ephesus; it is as good a surmise as any, though there is no direct evidence for a specific geographic location in the letters themselves. Scholars recognize at least a general relationship between the book of Revelation and the Johannine Letters (and Gospel); and, if these writings stem from the same “Community”, then it certainly would be located in Asia Minor, as 1:4 and the letters to the Churches in chapters 2-3 demonstrate.

The Setting of 2 John

The Address: Verse 1 (also vv. 4-5, 13)

“The Elder, to the (noble) Lady gathered out [eklektós, i.e. chosen] (by God), and to her offspring [i.e. children], whom I love in (the) truth—and not only I, but also all the (one)s having known [i.e. who have known] (the) truth…”

1. The Author of 2 (and 3) John: “the Elder”

New Testament scholars are virtually unanimous in the opinion that 2 and 3 John were written by the same person. The author does not identify himself by name, but instead refers to himself as “the Elder” (ho presbýteros, v. 1). Opinion is divided as to whether this same person wrote 1 John as well. This would seem to be the best (and simplest) explanation; certainly, all three letters stem from the same Community, Tradition, and religious-theological outlook, and utilize a common style and vocabulary. According to tradition, the author of all three Letters (and the Gospel) was John the Apostle; however, there is no evidence for this in the Letters, nor there any real indication that the author was an apostle (let alone one of the Twelve).

The title presbýteros (“elder”), based on comparable evidence elsewhere in the New Testament (in the period c. 60 A.D. and later), signifies a minister with a leading role and authoritative position in a congregation (or group of congregations)—Acts 20:17; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1, 5; 1 Timothy 5:1-2, 17-19; Titus 1:5. Certain “elders” (presbýteroi), especially those with close ties to the founding missionaries (apostles) in a region, could be expected to oversee multiple congregations (see the role of Timothy and Titus in the Pauline Pastoral Letters). The information in 2 and 3 John suggests that the author functions as a regional overseer. Certainly, 1 John (if written by the same author) appears to have been intended for believers (i.e. groups of congregations) over a relatively wide area.

2. The Addressee of 2 John: “the chosen Lady”

2 John is addressed “to the gathered out [i.e. chosen] Lady” (eklekt¢¡ kyría). Commentators have debated how this title should be understood, with two main options for interpreting it:

    • It refers to an individual, well-known to the author, but otherwise unnamed (presumably), given the honorific title (“[noble] Lady”). She clearly would have been a prominent person in the Community—a minister and/or host of a house-church, such as Prisc(ill)a, Phoebe, and Chloe in Paul’s circle (Rom 6:1-3; 1 Cor 1:11; 16:19).
    • It is figurative, referring to a particular group of believers (congregation), to a house-church or group of churches (community).

Arguments can be made in favor of each, but it would seem that the second option is to be preferred. The context suggests that the author is writing to a congregation. He refers to adult believers as her “offspring/children” (tékna, vv. 1, 4, 13). Elsewhere in the New Testament, the adjective eklektós (“gathered out, chosen”) typically occurs in the plural, being used of believers generally (Rom 8:33; Col 3:12; 2 Tim 2:10; 1 Pet 1:1; Rev 17:14, etc), though occasionally a specific individual is in view (Rom 16:13). The noun used for a congregation, ekkl¢sía (a group “called out” to assemble together), is feminine, and so it is natural to personify it as a woman; in English, the feminine personification here might be translated loosely as “sister-Church”. I am inclined to view the “Lady” of 2 John as a separate presbyterial community (i.e. group of congregations), distinct from the author’s own, but part of the same wider Johannine Community. The author may still exert some influence over it, but it is not the congregation/community with which he most directly belongs. Note how in verse 4 he speaks of “your children”, while in 3 John 4, in a comparable statement, he says “my children”.

Verses 9-11

In this conclusion to the body of the letter, the author gives specific advice regarding the Christological error held by the ‘false’ believers (vv. 7ff, and throughout 1 John [see above]). The seriousness of this “antichrist” belief is emphasized again in verse 9:

“Every one leading (the way) forward [proágœn], and not remaining [ménœn] in the teaching of (the) Anointed, does not hold God; (while) the (one) remaining in the teaching, this (one) holds both the Father and the Son.”

To “lead (the way) forward” (verb proágœ) may sound like a good thing, but here the sense of the verb is decidedly negative—it means that these ‘false’ believers have left behind the true teaching of the Johannine Gospel (which ultimately derives from Jesus’ own words about himself, i.e. the Discourses). This is not simply a matter of affirming a particular doctrine—to “remain” (the key Johannine verb ménœ) fundamentally refers to the believer’s union with Jesus (the Son) and God (the Father) through the Spirit. In other words, those who espouse a false teaching about Jesus (as understood by the author and his Community) cannot be true believers, nor can they speak and teach from the Spirit.

What are the practical implications of this division within the Community? In verses 10-11 the author gives instruction for all who are true believers, who would remain rooted in the truth:

“If any (one would himself) come toward you and not bear this teaching, you must not take [i.e. receive] him into (the) house and you must not say to him ‘(May there) be joy (to you)’, for the (one) saying to him ‘(May there) be joy (to you)’ has a common (share) in his evil works.”

Much was said in 1 and 2 John regarding these false “antichrist” believers, but only here do we find any instruction as to what other Christians should do about them. The implication is that they should be avoided completely, along the lines of “excommunication” or “shunning” in later traditions (see Matt 18:17; 1 Cor 5:9ff). Most Christians who read this today understand the instruction in general terms, of providing hospitality in one’s own home; however, given the house-church setting of these early congregations, it is possible to understand “(the) house” (oikía) here as referring to house where the congregation met for worship. If the “Lady” of the letter is an individual, who hosted a house church (see above), then this is all the more likely in context. In other words, it is a special warning not to allow such persons to have a place within the congregational meeting.

Even so, the author undoubtedly would have extended this instruction to the private home as well (see below on the setting of 3 John), given his prohibition against even greeting one of these false “antichrist” believers. I have translated the verbal infinitive chaírein rather literally, as “(May there) be joy (to you)”; however, this essentially served as an ordinary greeting, without necessarily connoting anything deeper. Thus, even the simple conventions of polite society are to be avoided; the “antichrists” truly are to be shunned. The dangers and pitfalls in attempting to apply this instruction today are discussed below, at the end of this study.

The Setting of 3 John

In contrast with 2 John, the Third Letter is written to a person that, it would seem, is part of the author’s own presbyterial community (compare the wording of v. 4 with 2 John 4, as noted above). This would entail a number of individual congregations (house-churches), each with its own ministers and/or elders; presumably, the author, as an overseeing Elder, holds a position of influence and authority. There are two main characters in the letter, the first of which is Gaius, a common Latin name; he is the person the author is addressing in verse 1:

“The Elder, to the (be)loved Gaius, whom I love in (the) truth.”

This is essentially the same form of address as in 2 John; on the question of whether “the Lady” is an individual or represents a congregation/community (“sister-church”), see above. The wording the author uses in verses 3-4 suggests that, while Gaius may not belong to the same immediate congregation as the author, he is still part of the same ‘presbyterial community’, i.e. the congregations over which the author considered himself to have presbyterial oversight and influence:

“For I had great delight (in the) coming of brothers and (their) giving witness of you in the truth, even as you walk about in (the) truth. I do not hold (any) delight greater than this, that I should hear (of) my offspring [i.e. children] walking about in the truth.”

It was necessary for the author to hear reports from other messengers in order for him to be aware of how Gaius was conducting himself; and yet, he still considers Gaius to be one of his “children” (compare 2 John 4). This reference to the “coming of brothers and (their) giving witness” is vitally important to any proper understanding of the historical background and setting of the Johannine letters. In a Community built up of small house-churches, over a relatively large territory, it could be quite difficult to maintain communication and, with it, the community organization essential to the life and function of the Church. Nearly all such work required personal visits from messengers and other traveling Christians; even communication through written letters entailed a personal visit, sometimes over fairly long distances. As a result, it was a common and frequent occurrence for a local congregation to receive traveling ministers and other Christians into the “house” (see above on 2 John 10-11).

Central to the message of 3 John is the praise and exhortation the author gives to Gaius, in regard to his showing hospitality and support to believers in their travels:

“(My be)loved, you do (the) trust(worthy thing in) whatever you would (do as) work unto the brothers, and this (even for) strangers—(and) the(se persons) gave witness of your love in the sight of the congregation [ekkl¢sía]—(for) whom you will do well, (hav)ing sent them forward (as) brought up (according to the way) of God; for (it was) over the name (that) they went out, taking not one (thing) from the nations. Therefore, we ought to take these (sorts of people) under (our care), (so) that we might come to be workers together with (them) in the truth.” (vv. 5-8)

I have translated these verses quite literally, and there are some syntactical difficulties in rendering from the Greek; however, the basic idea is clear enough. The author has heard from certain traveling Christians (publicly, in the congregation) how they had received hospitality and support from Gaius. Along with this, Gaius is encouraged to continue such support in the future. It is clear that these persons Gaius took in were traveling ministers or missionaries, as it is said that they “went out over the name“, that is, on behalf of the name of Jesus Christ.

Here we have one of the only examples in the Johannine letters of how believers demonstrate the love that is required by the great command, the one true duty of the Christian (1 John 3:23-24, etc). In practical terms, this is done by showing care, support, and hospitality to other believers, even to those who are strangers, especially when they are traveling (and thus in a vulnerable position). We may rightly say that the Johannine Community, with its network of house-churches, was bound together (or, should be) through this sort of love, reflecting the very unity we share in Christ (John 13:20, 34-35; 17:20-25, etc). These traveling ministers/missionaries depended entirely on support from other believers, since they took “not one thing from the nations” (i.e. from non-believers).

The opposite—a failure to provide hospitality to traveling ministers, etc—is demonstrated by the example of Diotrephes in verse 9:

“I wrote some(thing of this) to the congregation [ekkl¢sía], but the (one who is) fond of being first (among) them, Diotrephes, will not receive us upon (himself).”

Unfortunately, this notice is brief and enigmatic enough (from our vantage point today) as to leave us almost entirely in the dark about the exact situation. It has also produced no end of speculation. What was the position of Diotrephes? Did he belong to the same congregation/community as Gaius? as the author? A plausible reconstruction, based on a careful analysis of the wording in verses 9-10, may be offered here as follows:

Diotrephes is in a position of some prominence in a local congregation, presumably as a minister/elder, and/or as the host of a house-church. The author’s disparaging characterization of him as one who “is fond of being first” (verb philoprœteúœ) should perhaps be understood in light of the New Testament evidence that first-century congregations, in their ideal form, would have been relatively egalitarian. By this is meant that the leading/gifted ministers served more or less as equals, and that the elders of particular congregations were all on an equal footing with each other. Diotrephes may have violated such principles in seeking to exercise greater (individual) control over his congregation. A bit more is said regarding Diotrephes’ conduct in verse 10:

“Through this [i.e. for this reason], if I should come, I will keep under memory (all) his works that he does—babbling evil accounts (about) us, and, not containing himself about these (thing)s, he does not receive the brothers upon himself, and the (one)s being willing (to do so) he cuts off and throws (them) out of the congregation.”

One senses here, not merely a partisan divide, but a measure of personal animosity between the author and Diotrephes. Does this relate to the situation involving the false “antichrist” believers who had ‘separated’ from the Community? Many commentators believe so; however, the author is so vocal about the matter in 2 John (and throughout 1 John), it is hard to imagine that he would not mention it again here if the Christological issue were at the root of the division. In all likelihood, the situation has more to do with general considerations regarding how to handle traveling ministers and missionaries, especially those who may not be particularly well-known by a local congregation.

Establishing the reliability—pedigree and qualifications, etc—of traveling ministers was a serious matter in early Christianity and created many challenges for local congregations. Especially within a charismatic, egalitarian setting, which seem to have characterized both the Pauline and Johannine congregations, the giftedness of the minister was of great importance. However, it could be difficult to know for certain if such talented and influential ministers were genuinely inspired by God’s Spirit. Almost certainly, many of the ‘false’ believers—those who espoused the view of Jesus attacked so severely by the author of these letters—claimed to speak as prophets. Yet the author unequivocally calls them false prophets, who speak from an evil spirit that is opposed to Christ (“antichrist”). He offers his readers tests and instruction on how to recognize such false teaching, but it would not be easy to put them into practice to any extent.

Diotrephes appears to be doing precisely what the author himself advocates in 2 John 10-11—refusing welcome and support to traveling ministers he deems false or unreliable. The difference is that, from the author’s standpoint, his refusal is based on opposition to teaching that contradicts the Gospel message of Christ, while Diotrephes acts out of personal ambition and animosity. Almost certainly Diotrephes would describe the situation quite differently, if we had his own testimony preserved for us. Perhaps he felt threatened by the presence of traveling ministers, over whom he and his congregation did not have any direct control. His actions could even have been reasonable, in terms of the goal of protecting his congregation. Given the strong emphasis on the role of the Spirit as the primary guide and authority in the Johannine Community, with the egalitarianism suggested at many points in the letters (and the Gospel), perhaps the best explanation is that Diotrephes was violating these fundamental principles by attempting to exert more personal control over the congregation, to the point of excluding outsiders and traveling ministers/missionaries.

It would seem that Gaius and Diotrephes were in relatively close proximity, either part of the same congregation, or belonging to neighboring congregations. It is possible that Gaius is one of those who has been “thrown out” by Diotrephes, and that he continues to provide support to ministers aligned with the author. In any case, the context strongly indicates that the author is appealing to Gaius (vv. 6, 8, 11) as a local avenue for support to his ministers/missionaries since they have been excluded from Diotrephes’ congregation. Demetrius, mentioned in verse 12, is presumably one of these missionaries; the author is writing to introduce him to Gaius, in hopes that he will be received in a similar manner.

Conclusion

While it may be possible to reconstruct the historical situation and context of the 2 and 3 John, at least in part, applying the instruction in the letters to the life-setting of individual Christians and congregations today is more problematic. Certainly the exhortation associated with the two-fold command—trust in Jesus and love for our fellow believers—is just as relevant (and applicable) for us today. In particular, to demonstrate love through showing care, and offering hospitality and support, to other believers—including ministers and missionaries who need our assistance—remains central to Christianity, and can be expressed today many different ways. Also the emphasis on a careful (and correct) understanding of the Gospel Tradition regarding the person and work of Jesus continues to be of the greatest importance, and, sadly, is rather lacking in much of modern Christianity. Special care in regard to Christological statements and definitions is much needed, especially when so many of the traditional statements from the past are now so poorly understood.

How, then, should we respond when we encounter or experience differences in understanding on key theological or Christological questions? Should we adopt the advice given in 2 John—and, if so, how is this to be done? Doubtless, many believers today would continue to uphold the famous maxim: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty…”; but therein lies the difficulty—how do we determine what the “essentials” are, and how should they be treated in comparison with “non-essentials”. Are Christological differences enough to bar communication and association between believers? Certainly, this has proven to be so at times in the past, often with unfortunate and even tragic results. And yet, to act as though such differences do not matter is equally perilous, and can quickly lead to the negation of any meaningful sense of Christian identity.

I would maintain that, for believers in Christ, it is not any Christological definition or understanding as such, but the abiding presence of the Spirit, that must serve as the unifying force. Yet, to judge from the Gospel and the Letters, this was clearly a central point and fundamental emphasis for the Johannine Community as well, and it did not prevent painful and disruptive divisions, with the author’s community banning believers considered to be false, and finding themselves being banned by others in turn. Is it possible to maintain the spirit of the instruction in 2 and 3 John while finding new ways and methods for achieving the author’s goals? I leave that to the consideration of each believer and community. Bridging the divide between ancient and modern times, between the thought-world of first-century Christianity and of the Church today, remains of the most challenging and thought-provoking aspects of Biblical interpretation.

Saturday Series: 2 John

2 John

Having taken a break to post some special Christmas season notes and articles, I return to complete our Saturday Series studies focused on the Letters of John. The studies thus far have been on First John, being by far the longest and richest of the letters; but now it is time to turn our attention to the second and third letters. By general consensus, these two short works (which truly are letters) were written by the same person, who refers to himself only as ho presbýteros (“the Elder”). It is less certain that the same author wrote 1 John, though this would probably be the best (and simplest) explanation. The three letters share the same fundamental concerns, as well as the same religious and theological outlook; also phrases are repeated almost verbatim. If not all written by the same author, they certainly come from a common setting and Christian Community.

Our discussion on 2 John will shift between literary and historical criticism; the subsequent study on 3 John will be devoted almost entirely to historical criticism. From a literary standpoint, we will be considering how the central Johannine themes, which provided the structure and rhetorical framework for 1 John, also serve to organize the epistolary form of 2 John. The historical analysis will similarly build on our earlier studies of 1 John, as we examine the setting of 2 and 3 John as it relates to the ‘false believers’, those Johannine Christians who had (according to the author) separated from the Community, and who hold a false/erroneous view of Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God.

Literary Criticism

The structure of 2 John is relatively simple and may be outlined as follows:

    • Opening and Greeting (Epistolary Prescript), vv. 1-3
    • Body of the Letter, vv. 4-12:
      • Introduction with Thanksgiving (Exordium), v. 4
      • Primary Statement (Propositio), vv. 5-6
      • Central Argument and Exposition (Probatio), vv. 7-11
      • Closing with Exhortation (Exhortatio), v. 12
    • Final Greeting (Epistolary Postscript), v. 13

If we consider the body of the letter in terms of its thematic structure, which, in turn, serves the rhetorical purpose of the author, we may note an outer and inner structure:

    • Those whom he is addressing are aligned (with him) as true believers, v. 4
      • Love as fulfillment of the dual-command which marks the true believer, vv. 5-6
      • Trust in Jesus–warning against those who violate the command, i.e. those who mark themselves as false believers, vv. 7-11
    • The bond with those whom he is addressing (as believers) is re-affirmed, v. 12

Proper trust in Jesus and love for one’s fellow believers–these are the components of the great two-fold command (entol¢¡, 1 Jn 3:23-24), which is the command, and the only command which believers in Christ are bound to observe. The word entol¢¡ is perhaps better translated as “duty”, especially in the Johannine context, literally referring to something God the Father has placed on us to complete. All ethical and religious behavior stems naturally from this one entol¢¡.

In the prior studies, we saw how 1 John—the second half of the letter, in particular (3:11-5:21)—is structured on these two themes of trust and love, alternating between the two (love, 3:11-24 / 4:7-5:4, and trust, 4:1-6 / 5:5-21). They serve as identifying marks of the true believer, while the false believer, on the other hand, exhibits neither true trust in Jesus nor proper love for others. The same dual-structure is found in 2 John, but with differing points of emphasis:

    • Love: Sign of the true believer (vv. 5-6)
    • Trust: Warning against the false believers (vv. 7-11)

To see how this thematic framework functions, within the context of the letter, let us briefly examine the theme of love in verses 5-6:

“And now I (would) request of you, (my) Lady—not as writing to you a new (duty put) on (you) to complete, but (only) that which we held from the beginning—that we would love each other. And this is love—that we would walk about according to (all the thing)s (put) on (us) by Him to complete; (and) this is the (thing put) on (us) to complete—(that) even as you heard (it) from the beginning, (so it is) that you should walk about in it.”

Verse 6 is wonderfully elliptical. The main difficulty for interpretation is the final pronoun aut¢¡ (“in it“)—what exactly does “it” refer to? The gender of the pronoun is feminine, which would correspond to two different nouns in vv. 5-6:
(1) entol¢¡, which I have translated with extreme literalness above, as something “put on a person to complete”, i.e. a duty; it is typically translated “command(ment)”, but this can be quite misleading, especially in the Johannine context. There is just one such duty (or command) for believers, as noted above—it is the two-fold duty of trust and love (1 Jn 3:23-24).
(2) agáp¢ (“love”), one component of the two-fold duty/command (entol¢¡)
The two nouns are thus interchangeable, as the syntax of verse 6 itself would indicate. Probably the pronoun is meant to emphasize believers walking in the entol¢¡—that is, walking in our duty, which is also a duty to love one another.

Historical Criticism

When we turn to verses 7-11, it is historical criticism that becomes our focus–that is, to establish the historical background and setting of the passage, and of the letter as a whole. As noted above, the theme in these verses is trust in Jesus, corresponding to the theme of love in vv. 5-6—trust and love being the two sides of the great command, the duty believers are required to fulfill. The issue is stated rather clearly in verse 7:

“(For it is) that many (who are) leading (people) astray (have) gone out into the world, the (one)s not give account as one (with us) of Yeshua (the) Anointed coming in (the) flesh—this is the (one) leading (people) astray and the (one who is) against the Anointed.”

The similarities in language and wording with 1 John 2:18-19, 22-23; 4:1, 3, show that we are dealing with the same situation addressed in the First Letter. By analyzing those sections (2:18-27; 4:1-6; 5:5-12) on the theme of trust in Jesus, in our previous studies on 1 John, it was possible to reconstruct, at least partially, the historical situation. This reconstruction, which is confirmed here by vv. 7-11, may be outlined as follows:

    • Members of the Johannine congregations have, in some fashion, separated from the main Community; this may entail a physical separation, or simply a fundamental difference in outlook and belief
    • They are said to have gone “out into the world”, which, in the Johannine context, has a dual meaning: (1) departure from the Community, and (2) demonstrating that they belong to the “world” (kósmos) of evil and darkness. Possibly this could also imply missionary activity beyond the bounds of the Johannine congregations
    • They actively promoted a view of Jesus Christ which contradicted the Johannine Gospel, and which may be seen as a misinterpretation of it; the chief error involved an unwillingness to recognize the importance and significance of Jesus’ earthly life (as a human being), especially his death (“blood”)—essentially denying that it was a real human death, and that it was Jesus’ death that effected salvation for those who believe
    • This view of Christ was presented as prophetic truth, a “high” Christology at odds with the established Gospel message; it is likely that there were prominent ministers and teachers (prophets) who promulgated this Christology, along with an active group of missionaries who sought to convince others of its truth

The author(s) of 1 and 2 John regard such persons—those holding this view of Christ—as false believers (and “false prophets”) who represent a real and present danger to the Community. They are also considered to be inspired by evil and deceiving (i.e. Satanic/demonic) spirits and are called antíchristos (“against the Anointed”). Their presence and work in the world is a clear sign that it is the “last hour” (1 Jn 2:18), and that the end is near (along with the return of Christ, 2:28-3:3). 2 John echoes the same kind of warning, again with a strong sense of eschatological urgency, in verse 8:

“You must look to yourselves, (so) that you do not suffer loss (away) from the (thing)s we (have) worked for, but (instead that) you would receive (the) full wage from (God).”

In some manuscripts the pronoun/subject agrees throughout (“you”); however, almost certainly, the alternation “you-we-you” here is correct. The “we” represent the Community of true believers, while the author specifically addresses his readers (“you”), urging them to remain united with the Community and not go astray by following the message of the “antichrist” false believers. The use of the word misthós (“wage”) preserves the eschatological context of this exhortation, an aspect that is brought out more clearly by the translation “reward” (though “wage[s]” is the more appropriate rendering; see Matt 5:12, 46; 6:1ff; John 4:36; 1 Cor 3:8, 14; Rev 11:18; 22:12, etc).

Verse 9 again echoes 1 John 2:18-27 (esp. verses 20-25), making two vital points. First, these “antichrists” go beyond the accepted teaching of the Community. This is indicated by the verb proágœ, “lead (the way) forward”, in a negative sense, since it is paired with the negative concept of “not remaining in the teaching of the Anointed”. As we have seen, ménœ (“remain”) is a key Johannine verb, used repeatedly throughout the Gospel and Letters, and always with special theological (and Christological) significance. A true believer is one who “remains” in Christ, even as Christ (and the Spirit) “remains” in the believer. Secondly, this confirms that those who promote the ‘false’ view of Christ are, in fact, false believers—they violate the central command/duty of trust in Jesus, and so cannot possibly hold in them either the Son (Jesus) or God the Father (i.e. Christ and the Spirit do not “remain” in them). The true believer can be understood in relation to the false, and the positive aspect is emphasized in v. 9b:

“the (one) remaining in the teaching, this (one) holds both the Father and the Son”

It is not entirely clear whether the expression “the teaching of the Anointed” involves a subjective genitive (i.e. it is Christ’s teaching) or an objective genitive (i.e. it is teaching regarding Christ). Both would certainly be valid in context; however, probably the expression is mean to underscore the idea of the believer “remaining in Christ”, which means following a Gospel message that goes back to Jesus’ own teaching, and is the natural continuation of it (1 John 1:1-3, etc). It remains among us internally, through the Spirit, but also externally, through the witness and tradition that has been passed down from the first disciples.

Verses 10-11 are important, especially from the standpoint of historical criticism, since the author, for the first time in the Letters, gives practical instruction on how those whom he addresses should respond to the “antichrists” promoting the false view of Jesus. It is also a point of some controversy, in terms of whether, or to what extent, we should attempt to apply the instruction today. This will be the subject of next week’s study, as we combine these verses together with the message of 3 John.

Saturday Series: Deuteronomy 32:15-18ff

Deuteronomy 32:15-18ff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verses 15-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

š¹mant¹ ±¹»ît¹ k¹´ît¹

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

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

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

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

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

Verses 19-25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. How does Acts 15 relate to Galatians 2?

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

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

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

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

The main differences:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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