May 13: Joel 2:28-29

Joel 2:28-29 [3:1-2]

In the previous note, I mentioned a theme found at a number of points in the Prophetic writings—a ‘democratization’ of the ancient principle of spirit-inspired leadership, whereby the Spirit of God comes upon the land and its people as a whole, rather than on select individuals. This idea seems to have developed among the later Prophets, likely as a reaction (at least in part) to the trauma of the Exile. The collapse of the Israelite/Judean kingdoms, and the loss of the monarchy, left a void for the principle of spirit-inspired leadership. Two separate, distinct concepts took root during the exile, in response to this void. On the one hand, the hope for a future ruler from the line of David, who would restore the fortunes of Israel, became an important component of Messianic thought; the roots of this tradition can be found in the exilic Prophetic writings of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. At the same time, an entirely different line of thought took shape—that of the anointed/inspired Community. Both of these lines of tradition coalesced in the Qumran Community, and, somewhat similarly, among the early Christians as well.

I discussed an example of this ‘new’ manifestation of the Spirit in the Deutero-Isaian passage of Isa 44:1-5 (v. 3), in the previous note; other relevant passages in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah will be considered in the upcoming notes. In some respects, however, these Prophetic texts are simply drawing upon much earlier aspects of Israelite historical tradition. For example, the Moses tradition(s) in Numbers 11:10-30 were examined in a prior note in this series. By all accounts, these have to be at least as old as the historical traditions in Judges and Samuel, with their striking record of the ancient principle of charismatic (spirit-inspired) leadership at work. In the Numbers passage, the inspired status of Moses—as the spokesperson (ayb!n`) and intermediary between YHWH and the people—is broadened out to include 70 chosen/appointed elders (vv. 16-17ff). The wording to describe this process is most significant:

(YHWH speaking) “And I will lay aside (something) from (the) spirit [j^Wr] that is upon you, and I will set (it) upon them…”

When this occurs in the narrative (vv. 25ff), the 70 elders begin to “act as a ayb!n`” , just like Moses—i.e., they become active, inspired (prophetic) leaders, who communicate the word and will of God to the people. When Moses’ young attendant Joshua becomes alarmed at this, the great leader utters an extraordinary statement that broadens the prophetic/inspired gift even further:

“Who would (not) give (that) all (the) people of YHWH (would be) <ya!yb!n+, (and) that YHWH would give His spirit [j^Wr] upon them!” (v. 29)

Ideally, all the people would function as inspired leaders/spokespersons, gifted to know and understand the word and will of YHWH directly from Him. This doubtless relates to the broader tradition of Israel as a holy, chosen people, a nation made up entirely of anointed/inspired priests and kings, etc (Exod 19:6). The ideal could not be maintained initially, as reflected by the people’s response to hearing and experiencing the voice of God at Sinai (20:18-21). Moses came to be designated as the spokesperson (ayb!n`), and, similarly, certain individuals (and only they) were selected to function as priests.

Turning now to the oracle in Joel 2:18-32 [Hebrew 2:18-3:5], we find the famous declaration in vv. 28-29 [3:1-2], of how the ideal condition will finally be realized, in the future:

“And it will be, following this, (that)
I will pour out my spirit [j^Wr] upon all flesh,
and your sons and daughters will act as ayb!n`,
and your older (one)s will dream dreams,
and your choice (young one)s will see visions;
and even upon the servants and upon the (serv)ing maids,
will I pour out my spirit in those days.”

The verb rendered “act as ayb!n`” , is the denominative ab*n`, occurring here in the passive (Niphal) stem. As I discussed in prior notes, this verb featured prominently in the early (prophetic) traditions in Numbers and Samuel (cf. above), but afterward largely disappeared from the Prophetic writings, only to reappear, and be used quite frequently, in the later Prophets (Jeremiah [40 times], Ezekiel [37 times], Zechariah). This is perhaps an indication of a comparable date for the oracles in Joel (6th century).

Joel 2:28-32, of course, came to play an important role in early Christian thought, as is indicated, famously, in the Pentecost speech of Peter in Acts (2:16-21). As such, the oracle also has a special place of importance in this pre-Pentecost series of notes on the Spirit of God in the Old Testament. I will be looking at the passage in more detail in the next daily note.

May 11: Isaiah 42:1; 61:1

Isaiah 42:1; 61:1

In the previous note, we saw how the earlier traditions regarding charismatic (i.e., spirit-inspired) leadership and kingship were developed within the oracles and writings of the Prophets (in the 8th-6th centuries B.C.). The verses discussed (Isa 11:2; 28:6) were from the first half of the book of Isaiah (chaps. 1-39), which, on the whole, is firmly rooted in the oracles and historical traditions of the prophet Isaiah from the late 8th century (c. 740-701). The situation is rather different with regard to the second half of the book—the so-called Deutero- (chaps. 40-55) and Trito-Isaiah (chaps. 56-66). Most critical commentators would hold that the oracles and poems in these chapters, while inspired by the Isaian themes and traditions, were written considerably later, during the Exile and post-Exilic period. Certainly, the main setting and subject matter involves the restoration of Israel and the return of the Judean people from Exile (cf. the reference to Cyrus in 44:28; 45:1, among many other details). While some would defend a traditional-conservative view of Isaian authorship, the message of hope in these passages is more intelligible, and makes more sense for the people of the time, if the exile had already occurred.

In any case, we are looking here at two key passages which draw upon the association of the spirit (j^Wr) of God with prophetic inspiration. In previous notes, we examined early traditions where the divine spirit comes upon (or “rushes” to) a person, resulting in an ecstatic prophetic experience. Such a person is shown to be gifted as a prophet or spokesperson (ayb!n`) for YHWH, and the speech/action that comes out of the encompassing charismatic/ecstatic experience is a sign that the person is “acting like a ayb!n`” (the denominative verb ab*n` in the reflexive or passive stem). The main passages for this line of tradition are Numbers 11:17-29; 1 Samuel 10:5-13; 18:10 (19:9); 19:20-24.

Isaiah 42:1

The poem in Isa 42:1-9 is generally regarded as the first of the “Servant Songs” in (Deutero-)Isaiah, though the theme had been introduced already in 41:8-9. The couplets in the opening verse establish the focus of the poem:

“See! my servant—I hold firmly (up)on him,
my chosen (one), (in whom) my soul delights!
I have given my spirit [j^Wr] upon him,
(and) he shall bring forth judgment/justice for (the) nations.”

The precise identity and nature of this “servant” (db#u#) have been much debated by commentators throughout the years. In 41:8-9, the “servant” is identified as the people of Israel/Jacob (the “seed of Abraham”) as a whole; however, here, and in subsequent passages, a distinct individual seems to be in view. Perhaps the best explanation is that it is a ayb!n` (prophet/spokesperson), patterned after Moses. The term is used specifically (and in a special sense) of Moses in Num 12:7-8; Deut 34:5; Josh 1:1-2, 7, etc (cf. also Num 11:11; Deut 3:24). Moses was also the first (and supreme) ayb!n` of the early Israelite period (Num 11:17ff; Deut 18:15-18ff); on his role as spokesperson and intermediary between God and the people, cf. especially the tradition in Exod 20:18-21. Just as Moses led the people out of bondage in Egypt, so a servant/prophet like Moses will lead the people in their return from the Exile.

What is clear is that, like Moses, this “servant” will be specially chosen by God to lead, and that the spirit (j^Wr) of YHWH will be placed upon him. The spirit-inspired aspect of Moses’ leadership is surprisingly absent from the Pentateuch narratives, but there is at least one important passage where it is emphasized prominently—Numbers 11:10-30, discussed in an earlier note. The ideas expressed in that early tradition seem to relate in some way to the Prophetic theme of the Spirit being given to all the people (v. 29)—to the land and its people as a whole; this will be discussed further in the upcoming notes.

With regard to the poem in Isa 42:1-9, the initial theme in verse 1 is developed through the two main sections (or strophes) in different ways:

    • Vv. 1-4—here the focus is on the servant functioning as leader for the people (Israel), establishing justice—i.e., rendering right judgment (fP*v=m!), and setting that pattern throughout the whole society. This justice is based fundamentally upon the Instruction (Torah) of God (v. 4b).
    • Vv. 5-7—the Instruction given to Israel is aimed at the wider world—the surrounding nations—as well. This cosmic aspect is introduced with an allusion to the Creation in v. 5, including the important motif of the spirit/breath of God that gives life to all people (cf. the prior notes on Gen 1:2 and 2:7; Job 33:4). The “servant” will apparently play a role in extending God’s covenant with Israel out to the surrounding nations.

Isaiah 61:1

The opening of the oracle in Isaiah 61 is similar in some ways to that of 42:1-9; however, here there is a decidedly stronger emphasis on the idea of Israel’s return and restoration. The opening lines in verse 1 also speak of the spirit of God being given to a chosen ‘servant’:

“(The) spirit [j^Wr] of my Lord YHWH (is) upon me
in that He has anointed me to bring (good) news to (the) oppressed;
He sent me to provide wrapping for the (one)s broken of heart,
to call out release for (the one)s led away (into bondage)
and an opening up for (the one)s bound (in prison)”

Here we find again the theme of justice—especially for the poor and oppressed in society. Only now the role of the spirit-inspired figure is narrowed to that of giving a prophetic announcement. It is proper to refer to this individual as an “anointed herald”, similar in many respects to the “voice” ordered to call out a message of salvation and justice in the initial Deutero-Isaian oracles (chap. 40).

The kingship motif of anointing is present here (cf. the discussion in the previous note), only it has been applied specifically to a prophetic context. Scriptural evidence for the anointing of prophets is quite limited, but it seems to have been a perfectly valid line of symbolism. That there were Messianic (i.e. Anointed) Prophet figure-types in subsequent Jewish tradition is clear enough (cf. Parts 23 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). Indeed, the Anointed Herald of Isa 61:1ff is the Messianic figure-type that best fits Jesus during the time of his active ministry, and is the one with which Jesus specifically identified himself, according to the Gospel accounts. The authenticity of this self-identification would seem to be confirmed, on objective grounds, by its multiple attestation in at least two separate Gospel traditions (Matt 11:2-6 / Lk 7:20-23 [Q], and Luke 4:17-21ff). There is evidence for a similar Messianic interpretation of the passage at Qumran (cf. my article on 4Q521).

May 6: 1 Kings 18:12ff; 22:10-28

1 Kings 18:12ff; 22:10-28

The main occurrences of the word j^Wr in the book of Kings (1-2 Kings) are found in the Elijah narratives, and the usage of the word here is quite illuminating. It is related to the idea, discussed already in several prior notes, of prophetic inspiration—of the spirit (j^Wr) of YHWH coming upon (or “rushing” to) a person, manifesting itself in a kind of dramatic (and ecstatic) prophetic experience. If Moses was the principal figure for the earliest mode of prophecy in Israel, Elijah serves much the same role in a later line of tradition during the Kingdom period. The main difference in the Elijah narratives, however, is that there is now a strong sense of conflict between the true prophet (Elijah, Micaiah) and the older tradition of spirit-enthused prophetic ecstasy.

1 Kings 18:12ff

The narrative in chapter 18 has, at its heart, the contest between Elijah and the prophets (<ya!yb!n+) of Ba’al and Asherah. This, of course, reflects the marked tendency of religious syncretism in Israel, whereby Canaanite religious traditions and practices where blended together with those devoted exclusively to El-Yahweh, to the point that Yahwism could become displaced in importance within the culture. Such tendencies had been present for centuries, practically from the first Israelite settlement of Canaan, but increased dramatically under the influence of certain royal houses and their administrations. This began with Solomon, but reached its pinnacle, it would seem, with the Northern court of Ahab and Jezebel, the principal setting of the Elijah narratives.

Almost in passing, within this narrative, there is an interesting notice at verse 12, involving the encounter between Elijah and the royal messenger Obadiah. Elijah instructs him to return to Ahab and announce “See! Elijah (is here)!” (v. 8). Obadiah is frightened at how Ahab may react to this. The king had been searching for Elijah, without success; and, if he is now told “Elijah is here”, and then comes and does not find the prophet, then the messenger giving this report will suffer for it. The rather superstitious and fearful mindset of Obadiah is reflected in the concern he expresses in verse 12:

“And it will be (that), (as) I go (away) from you, and (then the) spirit [j^Wr] of YHWH carries you upon [i.e. to] (a place) which I do not know, and I come to make (this known) before Ah’ab, and he does not find you, then he will slay me…”

Here the fundamental meaning of j^Wr as “breath” or “wind” (i.e. something blowing) is clear. The idea is that, as a divinely-inspired prophet, around whom supernatural events and phenomena can occur, Elijah might suddenly (and/or miraculously) be taken away to another place by the “wind” of God. Indeed, this very thing was essentially described in the famous departure (or ‘ascension’) of Elijah in 2 Kings 2:11-12, though depicted more colorfully through the image of a ‘fiery chariot’ carried up by a powerful storm-wind (hr*u*s=). In this scene, the idea of the j^Wr of God is expressed through the imagery of Storm-theophany (i.e. God manifest in the storm), frequently applied to YHWH in the Old Testament. Such an identification is made in verse 16, when Elisha (now possessing the prophetic spirit that had been on Elijah) encounters the “sons of the prophets” (essentially a group of prophets-in-training) at Jericho. One of these young prophets, interested in searching for Elijah, suggests that the “spirit/wind [j^Wr] of YHWH” may have carried him off to another location (cp. Acts 8:39), echoing the earlier language of Obadiah.

Even though Elijah—and, after him, Elisha—clearly possesses the prophetic spirit (j^Wr) from YHWH (2:9, 15), these narratives tend to avoid the older manner of expression, in their referring to the spirit of YHWH coming/rushing upon the prophet. Instead, where this idea occurs in Kings, the preferred expression is “the hand of YHWH”. Like the spirit rushing upon the Judges (on this, cf. the earlier note), etc, the “hand” of YHWH brings special inspiration (3:15) or supernatural ability to the person. So it was for Elijah, in the episode following the contest with the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18—the “hand” of God gives him special ability to run (v. 46), further proof of his status a true inspired prophet (in contrast to the false prophets of Baal).

1 Kings 22:10-28

A similar sort of prophetic contest/conflict is narrated in chapter 22. The situation is comparable, though instead of 450 / 400 prophets of Baal / Asherah, we now have 400 prophets of YHWH who belong to Ahab (i.e. attached to the royal court), vv. 6ff. We might be inclined to read this in light of the chap. 18 narrative, which recorded that the prophets of Baal/Asherah were put to death (v. 40); however, given the syncretistic tendencies at the royal court, there is no reason why the king might not employ prophets of YHWH in addition to those of Baal. Perhaps implicit in the chap. 22 narrative is the idea that there is little difference between these court-prophets—whether of Baal or YHWH—as they function the same way, and are generally branded by the author (and the underlying prophetic tradition) as false prophets.

On the surface, these 400 men function very much in the manner of prophets and diviners throughout the ancient Near East—including those in Israel. It was common practice for kings to consult such (apparently gifted) men, especially when they were about to make an important decision, such as going to war. It was important to ascertain the will of God (or the gods) in this regard—i.e., what the result would be, and whether one ought to take a particular action. There had been a longstanding tradition of priestly divination in Israel, especially involving the “urim and thummim”, stones used to obtain a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to questions. The prophets of Ahab in chapter 22 apparently utilize similar kinds of instrumental means for divination, in addition to oracular responses obtained during moments of prophetic ecstasy.

In verse 10, we read how the kings of Israel and Judah (Ahab and Jehoshaphat), together consult the group of prophets on the question of whether to engage in battle with the kingdom of Aram-Damascus at Ramoth-gilead. They meet at the threshing-floor (/r#G)) outside the city, the open area best suited for public gatherings. Here the prophets (<ya!yb!n+) are all “acting like a ayb!n`” . This denominative verb (ab*n`), in the reflexive hithpael stem, was discussed in the earlier notes (on Num 11:13-30 and 1 Sam 10:5-11; 18:10; 19:20-21ff). It seems to connote specifically an ecstatic manner of prophetic experience, brought about by the presence and activity of the divine spirit, and marked by unusual behavior. In the earlier lines of tradition (in Numbers and Samuel), this was an entirely valid expression of the prophetic gift, however strange and disturbing it may seem to us today.

In the book of Kings, by contrast—and especially here in the Elijah narratives—such ecstatic modes of prophecy are very much devalued, due in large part, I am sure, to the continued reliance upon them, in a superficial manner, among all these many prophets attached to the royal court (of Ahab, etc). Since such court-officials were expected to give the response that the king wanted to hear, all of the supposedly spirit-inspired phenomena had become largely a matter of show, lacking the substance of true prophecy. It is no coincidence that the verb ab*n` occurs in the books of Kings only in the narratives of chapter 18 (v. 29) and 22 (vv. 8, 10, 12, 18), referring essentially to the false prophets (of Baal and YHWH). While the true prophet of YHWH in chapter 18 was Elijah, here it is Micaiah, unique among the prophets because he typically does not tell the king what he wishes to hear (v. 8).

There is an important parallel involving the vision Micaiah narrates as part of his prophetic response to the king (vv. 19-23):

    • a heavenly being from YHWH’s court volunteers to be sent as a lying/deceitful spirit [j^Wr] from YHWH (vv. 21-23), to deceive Ahab and cause him to go out to battle (where he will be killed)
    • the 400 prophets who tell Ahab it is God’s will for him to go to battle, and that he will be victorious, similarly act as a ‘lying spirit’, speaking falsely (as prophets) on YHWH’s behalf (v. 24)

Zedekiah represents these 400 prophets, and confronts Micaiah regarding his contrary response, striking him as an insult, along with the following words:

“Where (did) this (happen), (that the) spirit [j^Wr] of YHWH crossed over from me to speak to you?” (v. 24)

The implication is, that if Zedekiah had spoken under inspiration by the spirit of God, and Micaiah gave a contrary response, then Micaiah could not possibly have been inspired by God as Zedekiah was—i.e., Micaiah is a false prophet. The narrative, of course, shows the situation to be exactly the opposite—Micaiah’s prophecy is true, while that of Zedekiah (and the other 400) is false, their apparent ecstatic manifestations of the spirit notwithstanding. The emphasis is on the substance and result of the prophecy, not the various phenomena that accompany it (vv. 25, 28)—a point fully in accord with the Deuteronomic principle for the testing/confirmation of true prophecy (Deut 18:21-22). The prophets of the 8th/7th centuries, whose oracles and activity received written form, attest a similar caution regarding prophecy apparently uttered under ecstatic inspiration from the divine spirit (Hos 9:7; Mic 2:11; cf. also Jer 5:13), and likewise tend to avoid use of the verb ab*n` (cf. above), though the verb does reappear with some frequency in the later prophets of the 6th/5th century (Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah).

April 30: Numbers 24:2; 1 Samuel 10:6ff

Numbers 24:2; 1 Samuel 10:6ff

In the previous note of this series on Old Testament passages involving the Spirit [j^Wr] of God, I discussed the fundamental association of the Spirit with prophecy. In particular, it is the special gifting by the spirit/breath [j^Wr] of YHWH that enables a person to fill the role of ayb!n`—a spokesperson who speaks and acts on God’s behalf, communicating His word and will to the people. From the standpoint of Old Testament tradition, prophecy in Israel begins with Moses; he was the ultimate ayb!n`, though, as we saw in Numbers 11:10-30, this role was not limited to him even at the time.

Various forms of prophecy had, of course, long been practiced in the ancient Near East. I previously mentioned the evidence from the city-state of Mari, where at least two different kinds of prophets are attested—one (the ¹pilum) apparently functioning in an official capacity (at the royal court, etc), while the other (the mu——ûm) operating at a more popular level, was marked especially by ecstatic experience (cf. below).

Numbers 24:2

As it happens, the Old Testament Scriptures refer to at least one such non-Israelite prophet, the famous (and rather enigmatic) figure of Balaam (Bil±¹m, <u*l=B!). He is featured in the narratives of Numbers 22-24, including four distinct oracles attributed to him; his role in the Baal-Peor incident (chap. 25), itself a complex tradition as recorded in the text, is more problematic (cf. Num 31:8, 16). It is the latter association, especially, that colored Balaam as a negative, evil figure-type in later Jewish and Christian tradition.

The historicity of Balaam, and the general authenticity of the Pentateuch traditions (in Num 22-24), would seem to be confirmed by the extra-biblical evidence of the Deir ±All¹ inscription from Jordan (c. 800 B.C.). For a translation of this inscription, along with photographs, see the treatment online at livius.org.

The entirety of the matrix of traditions in chaps. 22-24—but especially the oracles in 23-24—make clear that Balaam was a prophet, primarily in the sense of being a seer (ha#r)), a visionary clairvoyant, one who could discern the course of future events. Despite the lampooning episode of 22:22-35, and his subsequent negative caricature, there is no evidence in the text that he is in any way a false prophet, or that his visions do not genuinely come from God (El-Yahweh). Indeed, in the narrative he repeatedly receives communication from God (22:9ff, 20, etc). This is an extraordinary datum, and serves as an objective confirmation of the authenticity of the oracle-traditions.

As previously mentioned, Balaam would best be characterized as a seer (ha#r), from the root har), and the text several times mentions his eyes being “opened” (by God); indeed, this is stated at the beginning of the third and fourth oracles (24:3-4, 15-16), indicating that such revelatory experience was a regular occurrence for Balaam. Moreover, in accordance with the ancient understanding that all such prophetic experience was the result of divine inspiration (from the spirit of God), this is stated of the non-Israelite Balaam as well:

“And Bil’am lifted his eyes, and he saw [vb ha*r*] Yisrael residing (according) to its staffs [i.e. by tribe], and (the) spirit [j^Wr] of (the) Mightiest [<yh!ýa$] came upon him” (24:2)

It is possible that this detail was emphasized as a way of legitimizing the oracles of a non-Israelite (Canaanite) prophet, affirming (for an Israelite audience) that they are genuine and true prophecies. Much more likely, however, this simply reflects the basic understanding of how prophecy worked in the ancient Near East. Any distinct prophetic experience was the result of a divine presence (spirit) working in or upon the person—its source was the spirit/breath [j^Wr] of a deity, whether El-Yahweh or another.

1 Samuel 10:6ff

In the previous note, we saw the distinctive use of the denominative verb ab*n`, which essentially means to “act or function as a ayb!n`” . This verb occurs either in the passive Niphal stem or the reflexive Hithpael stem—both of which imply the idea of a person being under the influence or control of a prophetic “spirit”. Outside of Num 11:25-27 (discussed in the previous note), the verb ab*n` (in both passive and reflexive stems) occurs a number of times in Samuel-Kings, where it unquestionably reflects old/authentic historical tradition. The very oddity and unorthodox character of some of the details in these narratives would tend to confirm, on objective grounds, the authenticity of the traditions.

A particular early reference occurs in 1 Samuel 10:1-13, where the young Saul is directed by Samuel that, on his journey, he will encounter a group of <ya!yb!n+ in front of the hill-site city of Gibeah, or Gibeath-Elohim (“hill of God”), vv. 5-6. Both the name, and the presence of these prophets, suggests that it was a sacred site (or “high place”); at the moment, it also was marked by a Philistine garrison. The prophets Saul will encounter will be coming as a procession from the city, playing musical instruments as they “act as ayb!n`” . As most commentators recognize, this involves a specific mode of ecstatic prophetic experience, of a kind frequently aided (or induced) through music. That it is a dramatic and aggressive (even violent) sort of experience is indicated by the wording in verse 6, stating that the spirit [j^Wr] of YHWH would rush (vb jl^x*) upon Saul and overtake him, so that he would “act as a ayb!n` ” with all the others. So dramatic would this experience be that it is said Saul would be “turned over” (i.e. changed/transformed) into “another man”.

This prediction by Samuel is fulfilled in verse 10, and the state of prophetic ecstasy indeed results in such unusual behavior that everyone who knows Saul has to take note and wonder at it: “What (is) this (that) has come to be [i.e. happened] to the son of Qîš?” (v. 11). A similar kind of evil spirit comes upon Saul in a later narrative (18:10ff), resulting in the same sort of unusual manic/ecstatic behavior, only in a more destructively violent manner. The same verb ab*n` is used here, even though it has nothing to do with “prophecy” in the typical sense. This is most informative, as it demonstrates rather clearly that, in the context of prophecy, the emphasis is squarely on the divine presence/spirit that influences and overcomes the person. In 18:10, though it is an “evil” spirit, it still comes from God, utilizing the common expression “spirit of the Mightiest” (<yh!ýa$ j^Wr). While this certainly created (and still creates) theological problems for subsequent readers, it is fully in accord with the ancient way of thinking (cp. the episode in 1 Kings 22:19-23).

We should point out that the prophetic ecstasy that came over Saul in 10:10 was repeated in a separate tradition (19:20-24). There, at another sacred “high place” site (Ramah), there is a group of ecstatic prophets (<ya!yb!n+), only this time Samuel himself is present with them. The frenzied character of this experience, marked by unusual or aberrant behavior, is indicated especially by the detail of Saul tearing off his clothes, and laying naked in that place all day and night (v. 24). Again, this will no doubt seem troubling to our modern sensibilities, in terms of our conceptions regarding the nature of prophecy, etc, but it very much reflects aspects of traditional prophetic experience worldwide, both in ancient and later times.

The verb ab*n` (in the passive/reflexive) also occurs in 1 Kings 18:29 and 22:8-12 (note the group of prophets, v. 10), 18 par. Interestingly, while the verb is frequent in the later Prophetic writings (Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah) it is quite rare in the earlier books (only Amos [6 times] and Joel [once]). This suggests that the earlier usage—indicated by the underlying historical traditions in Exodus–Kings—was abandoned for a time, only to be picked up again in the Exilic/Post-exilic period.

In the next note, we will touch further on the idea of the violent effects of the Spirit’s influence, as recorded in the Old Testament.

April 29: Numbers 11:10-30

Numbers 11:10-30

There is an interesting historical tradition recorded in the narrative of Numbers 11. Like most such narratives, there are simplifications involved in the telling of the story, and that can make it difficult, at times, for us to gain a clear picture of the underlying historical situation.

The basic tradition begins in verse 10 (see vv. 1-9 for the narrative context), as Moses is feeling overwhelmed at the responsibility for leading the people on their difficult journey across the desolate stretches of the Sinai peninsula. Within the Tent where Moses speaks with YHWH, he complains of this to God (vv. 11-15). In response, YHWH decides to relieve Moses of some of this burden, by having it be shared with seventy elders specially appointed for the role (on the tradition of seventy elders, cf. Exod 24:1ff, and cp. Gen 46:27; Exod 1:5 etc). Though it is not stated as such here, this relates to the idea of Moses as the ayb!n`, the spokesperson and intermediary between YHWH and Israel (cf. Exod 19:18-21, etc). In a real sense, prophecy in Israel begins with Moses, at least in terms of the Scriptural narrative, and he stands in many ways as the ultimate prophet-figure.

This is not to say that there was no prophecy and no prophets prior to Moses, since various forms of prophecy were practiced in the ancient Near East centuries before. Some of our best, and most relevant, information in this regard comes from the site of Mari, where at least two kinds of prophets were known (cf. Milgrom/JPS, pp. 380-4):

    1. ¹pilum, those functioning in an official capacity, it would seem, such as at the royal court
    2. mu——ûm, those operating at a more popular level, their gifted status marked especially by ecstatic experience

The use of the word “prophet” to translate Hebrew ayb!n` is actually rather misleading, since it tends to imply the limited function of telling/seeing the future. While the role of the ayb!n` may involve a measure of clairvoyance and visionary experience (as a “seer”, Heb. ha#r) / hz#j)), it is better defined as that of a spokesperson—i.e. one who speaks and acts on God’s behalf. The noun ayb!n` is quite rare in the Pentateuch, occurring just four times in Genesis–Numbers; this, along with the three passages in Deuteronomy where it is used (13:2-6; 18:15-22; 34:10), confirms the point above that the position of ayb!n` in Israel properly begins with Moses. Though in Exod 7:1 the word is used of Aaron (as Moses‘ spokesperson), the implication is that Moses himself is the one representing YHWH (Num 12:6ff; the use of the word in Gen 20:7 may be influenced by the Exodus/Moses traditions).

This brings us back to the tradition in Numbers 11, and YHWH’s response to Moses’ complaint in verses 16-17ff. Regarding the 70 elders chosen to share in Moses’ role (as spokesperson/ayb!n`), God says this about them:

“…and I will lay aside (some) from the spirit [j^Wr] that (is) upon you, and I will set (it) upon them, and they will carry with you (the) burden of the people, and you will not carry (it) by yourself alone.” (v. 17)

Though it is never so stated elsewhere in the Pentateuch, here it is clearly implied that Moses prophetic ability—that is, his role as spokesperson (ayb!n`) for God—is the result of a special gifting from the spirit (j^Wr) of God (on this, cf. the previous note). Now YHWH says that he will “lay aside” (vb lx^a*) something from this same spirit, and put it upon the 70 elders, just as it is upon Moses. In later terminology, this could be referred to more abstractly as “the spirit of prophecy” (Rev 19:10). According to the ancient way of thinking, all varieties of ‘prophetic’ experience were the product of divine inspiration—that is, the possession of (or by) a deity or spirit. For Christians, of course, true prophecy comes from the presence of the Holy Spirit (2 Pet 1:21; Eph 3:5; 1 John 4:1-5, etc), and a comparable idea is expressed numerous times throughout the Old Testament (this will be discussed in upcoming notes).

The chosen elders are to gather around the Tent of Meeting, and, while Moses is inside, this transfer of the ayb!n`-spirit will take place. This is narrated in verses 24-25, precisely as declared earlier by YHWH:

“And YHWH came down in a cloud and spoke to him [i.e. Moses], and He laid aside (some) from the spirit [j^Wr] that (is) upon him, and gave (it) upon the seventy elder men; and, it came to be, as the spirit rested upon them, they also (themselves) acted as ayb!n` [WaB=n~t=y!]…” (v. 25)

While the specific noun ayb!n` is not used here (cf. below), the related verb ab*n`, a denominative from ayb!n`, does occur. The basic meaning is “act/speak as a ayb!n`” —that is, to fulfill the role as an inspired spokesperson for God. This is the same role Moses has, but now it is being shared by these 70 elders. The extent of their prophetic role is a matter of some dispute, given the ambiguity of the last two words of the verse: Wpsy aýw+. The Hebrew text wpsy could be parsed as Wps*y` (“they continued [to do]”, i.e. did repeatedly, vb [s^y`), or as Wps%y` (“they ceased [doing]”, vb [Ws). According to the first reading, the negation (with the particle ) would be “and they did not continue” (i.e. in this role as ayb!n`)—that is, it was only temporary, under special circumstances. The second option would be “and they did not cease” (in their role as ayb!n`). The latter is much to be preferred syntactically (but compare e.g. Gen 38:26), and in the context of the narrative; it is also supported by the Targums (Onkelos, Jonathan), while the former reading has the support of the LXX and other Rabbinic authorities. It remains an open question of interpretation. Cf. Milgrom/JPS, pp. 89, 308.

A fascinating related tradition follows in verses 26-30. Two of the appointed elders—named Eldad and Medad—apparently were not gathered around the Tent with the others, and yet the prophetic spirit still came upon them. They, too, acted as ayb!n` —the same reflexive Hithpael form of the verb ab*n` used in v. 25 (cf. above). Such use of this verb seems to have the technical meaning of exhibiting a certain form of inspired prophetic experience. Based on similar occurrences elsewhere in the Old Testament (to be discussed in the upcoming notes), it would imply an ecstatic experience, manifested at times in strange or aberrant behavior. If so, it would have been striking indeed for these two men to go about through the camp, speaking and acting under such ecstatic inspiration. It is understandable why Moses’ young attendant Joshua might be troubled by reports of their activity (v. 27), calling out as he does to his master, “My lord Moshe, restrain them!” (v. 28). Moses’ answer in verse 29 is not what we might have expected, given the importance (expressed elsewhere) of regulating and testing apparent prophetic experience; here is his reply to Joshua:

“Are you red (with concern) for me? And (yet) who would (not) give (that) all (the) people of YHWH (would be) <ya!yb!n+, that YHWH would give His spirit [j^Wr] upon them!”

One is reminded of Jesus’ response to his disciples’ complaint about people, outside his immediate circle, performing miracles in his name (Mark 9:38-41 par). Moses’ words also seem to foreshadow the use of Joel 2:28-32 in Peter’s famous Pentecost speech, with the promise that the Spirit of God would come upon all His people, and that they (i.e. all believers) would act as prophets. The initial question posed to Joshua suggests that the younger man’s concern may have been for any possible threat to Moses’ leadership that might arise out of such prophetic activity in the camp. Since Moses was aware that the inspiration of the 70 elders was the direct result of YHWH’s action, he had no immediate cause for concern. This also confirms Moses’ position as supreme ayb!n`, a point made even more explicit in several other passages which would greatly influence the subsequent Old Testament and Jewish tradition.

In the next few notes, we will continue to explore this important emphasis on the relationship of the Spirit to prophecy.

References above marked “Milgrom/JPS” are to The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers rbdmb, commentary by Jacob Milgrom (Jewish Publication Society: 1990).

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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February 16: Revelation 22:6, 10-11

Revelation 22:6-21

Verses 6-21 form the conclusion to the book of Revelation, and, as might be expected, they run parallel in many respects with the introduction (1:1-3ff). Many of the same words, phrases, and motifs occur here. Verses 6-17 have a parallelistic structure that may be outlined as follows:

    • Angelic declaration (“And he said to me…”), involving the words of the prophecy (the book) as a whole—vv. 6 / 10-11
    • Announcement of the exalted Jesus (“See! I come quickly…”)—vv. 7a / 12-13
    • Beatitude declaring happiness/blessings for those who remain faithful—vv. 7b / 14-15
    • Closing personal statement, by the seer (John) and the exalted Jesus, respectively (“I, Yohanan…”, “I, Yeshua…”)—vv. 8-9 / 16f

It makes sense to discuss each component, as it occurs in each part, together.

Revelation 22:6, 10-11

Each part begins with a declaration by the heavenly Messenger who is speaking with the seer (John), cf. 21:9, 15; 22:1. Let us compare the two statements:

“And he said to me: ‘These accounts [i.e. words] (are) trustworthy and true; and the Lord, the God of the spirits of the foretellers [i.e. prophets], se(n)t forth His Messenger to show to His slaves the (thing)s that are necessary to come to be in (all) haste [e)n ta/xei]’.” (v. 6)

“And he says to me: ‘You shall not seal (up) the accounts [i.e. words] of the foretelling [i.e. prophecy] of this paper-roll [i.e. scroll], for the moment is near [e)ggu/$]’.” (v. 10)

Clearly the statements are similar, involving a common set of verbal and thematic elements: (1) the opening phrase, (2) reference to the “accounts” (lo/goi, i.e. the words) in the book, (3) that it is prophecy (foretelling what is to come), and (4) the things described in the book are imminent.

22:6—Verse 6 is quite close to the introductory statement in 1:1 (words in italics):

“An uncovering of Yeshua (the) Anointed which God gave to him, to show to His slaves the (thing)s that are necessary to come to be in (all) haste…”

To this is added a specific reference to the words of the prophecy as being “trust(worthy) and true” (pistoi\ kai\ a)lhqinoi/), which repeats the wording in 21:5; elsewhere, the same dual expression is used of God and Christ himself (3:14; 19:11; cf. also 6:10; 15:3), indicating here the divine source and character of the prophecy.

There is also an emphasis on the spirit (pneu=ma) of the prophecy. From the standpoint of early Christian religious psychology and anthropology, the spiritual dimension of prophecy was rather complex, with certain conceptions that are generally foreign to us today. The word pneu=ma (“[life-]breath, spirit”) is used in three distinct, but interrelated ways, in regard to prophecy:

    • The deity as a spirit-being—this applies not only to the Spirit of God (and Christ), i.e. the Holy Spirit, but to the opposite: evil/unclean or deceptive “spirits” (spirit-beings)
    • The “spirit” (inner-most breath and source of life) within the human being; it represents the point, or level, at which people relate to the Spirit of God (and other spirit-beings); this is especially true for those gifted as prophets
    • The prophetic gift or ability is also referred to as a “spirit” (pneu=ma); early Christians saw it as a specific gift from the Spirit of God—this is a uniquely Christian development of the conception in the ancient Near East and Greco-Roman world, etc, whereby such giftedness was due to the indwelling presence of a personal deity (or semi-divine being), i.e. a genius, in the original sense of the word.

This spiritual aspect of prophecy is described several ways in the book of Revelation:

    • On certain occasions, the seer (John) is said to be “in the spirit” (e)n pneu/mati) when he receives his visions (1:10; 4:2; 17:3; 21:10); since he is in contact with the Spirit of God at these moments, he is certainly “in the Spirit“, but he is also engaged “in the spirit (of prophecy)”
    • In 19:10 there is the statement that “the witness of Yeshua is the spirit of prophecy” (or “…of the prophecy”); the primary meaning here is that the exalted Jesus, through the Spirit, is the source of the message (cf. 1:1, above, and my earlier note on 19:10)
    • This message is also communicated (by God and Christ) through heavenly Messengers (i.e. Angels), themselves spirit-beings who are specifically called “spirits” (pneu/mata) in 1:4; 4:5; 5:6; by contrast, false prophecy is inspired by evil/unclean spirits (16:13-14, cf. also 13:15; 18:2).

22:10-11—If verse 6 resembles 1:1, the statement in verse 10 is correspondingly similar to 1:3, as it specifically emphasizes the need for believers to read (i.e. hear read aloud) the words of the prophecy, along with the declaration that “the moment (is) near” (o( kairo\$ e)ggu/$). Here the reading of the book is expressed negatively: “You shall not seal (up) the accounts [i.e. words] of the foretelling [i.e. prophecy] of this scroll”. The verb sfragi/zw (“seal”), along with the related noun sfragi/$, is used repeatedly in the book of revelation, mainly as an idiom for a message that is meant to be kept hidden until it is revealed at some future time (5:1-2ff; 6:1ff; 7:2; 8:1; 10:4). Generally, in the visionary narrative, seals are being opened—that is, the message is finally being revealed (and fulfilled) in the end-time, which is also the present time (and/or the near future) for readers of the book. This is also the reason here for the injunction not to seal the prophecy—the events described do not refer to things that will take place at some time in the distant future, but are about to be fulfilled now.

On the use of the adverb e)ggu/$ (“near”), and the expression e)n ta/xei (“in [all] haste”), as clear indications of the imminent eschatology of early Christians, cf. my earlier study on the subject. It is probably this sense of imminence that informs the proverbial declaration in verse 11:

“(For) the (one) being without justice [i.e. unjust], he must yet be without justice; and the (one who is) dirty, he must yet be dirty; and the (one who is) just, he must yet do justice [i.e. act justly]; and the (one who is) holy, he must yet be holy.”

The pairs of opposites are precise: just(ice) vs. without justice, holy [i.e. clean/pure] vs. dirty. The book of Revelation has a strong sense throughout of the wicked as belonging to evil, while the righteous (true believers) belong to God and the Lamb. Little hope is held out for the repentance and conversion of the wicked. The end-time was seen as a period of ever-increasing wickedness, a time of testing that will reveal a person’s true character and identity—i.e. whether he/she belongs to God, or to the forces of evil. As the end draws nearer, this dynamic will only intensify further, to the point that, even in the face of God’s Judgment, the wicked will scarcely repent (9:20-21; 16:9, 11). Believers will genuinely repent of their sins (2:5, 16, 21-22), but not the wicked. There is also in the book of Revelation an emphasis on what we would call predestination, which corresponds to the aforementioned sense of person’s essential religious identity (which cannot be changed). The form and language in verse 11, with its poetic parallelism, is similar to that earlier in 14:9-10; it also resembles certain proverbial statements in the Old Testament (e.g., Ezek 3:27; Dan 12:10).

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Saturday Series: 1 John 4:1-6

This week, in our series of studies on the Johannine Letters, we will be examining 1 John 4:1-6. The stated purpose of these Saturday Studies is to introduce readers to the principles and methods of a critical study of the Scriptures (i.e. Biblical Criticism), and how these may apply in practice. In looking at 1 John 4:1-6, we will be focusing primarily on historical criticism—that is, on establishing the historical background and context of the passage. However, on at least one point of interpretation, a major text-critical issue will have to be addressed. Also, in considering the place of 4:1-6 in the structure of the work, we will be touching on aspects of literary criticism as well.

1 John 4:1-6

When considering the structure of First John, from a conceptual standpoint, we may note the way that certain themes alternate throughout as a point of emphasis. The main thrust of the letter involves sin (hamartía) and the “commands” (entolaí) of God. This was the focus of 2:28-3:10, which we examined closely in the previous two studies (last week and the week prior). The entolaí of God are actually reduceable to a single two-fold command, defined in 3:23-24: (1) trust in Jesus as the Anointed One and Son of God, and (2) love for fellow believers according to Jesus’ own teaching and example. Each of these two components of the command for believers is given particular emphasis in different parts of the letter.

As far as the letter itself is concerned, we may fairly divide the body of it into two main divisions, each of which begins with the declaration “this is the message which (we heard)…” (haút¢ estin h¢ angelía h¢n…):

    • Part 1: “this is the message which have heard from (the beginning)” (1:5-3:10) – Main theme: Light vs. Darkness
    • Part 2: “this is the message which we heard from the beginning” (3:11-5:12) – Main theme: Love as the great Command

Part 1 is framed by a discussion of sin and the believer, sin in relation to the “commands” of God:

    • 1:6-2:2: Sin and the identity of the Believer: Jesus’ work cleanses us from sin
    • 2:3-11: The Believer’s identity in terms of the “commands” of God, with special emphasis on love
    • 2:12-17: “Children [teknía]…”: Exhortation for Believers to live/act according to their identity, and not like the world (which is in darkness)
    • 2:18-27: “Children [paidía]…”: Warning of “antichrist”- Identity of Believers is marked by true belief/trust in Jesus
    • 2:28-3:10: “Children [teknía]…”: Sin and the identity of the Believer – restated in a dual instruction.

Part 2 essentially functions as an exposition of the “commands”, i.e. the two-fold command:

    • 3:12-24: Love characterizes the believer (vs. those who “hate”)
      • Exhortation (“Children [teknía]…”), vv. 18-22
      • Declaration on the “commands”, vv. 23-24
    • 4:1-6: Trust in Jesus characterizes the believer (vs. those who have false trust/belief)
      • Exhortation (“Children [teknía]…”), vv. 4-6
    • 4:7-5:4: Love characterizes the believer – restatement in a dual instruction
      • Exhortation & Declaration on the “commands”, 5:1-4
    • 5:5-12: Trust in Jesus characterizes the believer – restatement in a two-part instruction

Thus the teaching in 4:1-6 ( on trust/belief in Jesus) runs parallel to that on love in 3:12-24, with a doctrinal/theological statement or argument (vv. 1-3) followed by an exhortation (vv. 4-6). We will examine the doctrinal argument first.

1 John 4:1

“Loved (one)s, you must not trust every spirit, but you must (instead) consider the spirits (closely)—if (one) is out of [i.e. from] God (or not)—(in) that [i.e. because] many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

The first occurrence of the noun pneúma (“spirit”) was at the conclusion of the previous verse (3:24), making explicit what had otherwise been implied in the letter: that the abiding presence of Jesus (and God the Father) in and among believers is through the Spirit. Now the author contrasts the Spirit of God (and Christ) with other “spirits” (pl. pneúmata). This underscores an aspect of early Christian thought that is rather foreign to us today. It was believed that people (especially gifted persons and leaders, etc) spoke and acted more or less under the guidance and influence of a “spirit”. For Christian ministers, and believers in general, they were guided by the Holy Spirit; and, by the same token, if it was not the Holy Spirit at work, then it must be another (that is, an evil, false or deceiving) spirit. In this regard, the first-century Christian congregations were largely charismatic in orientation, with ministers, leaders, speakers operating under the direct inspiration of the Spirit. Paul’s letters (especially 1 Corinthians) offer a fairly detailed portrait of how such early congregations would have functioned.

An obvious question is exactly how one could determine and be sure that a minister or speaker was genuinely operating under the guidance of the Spirit. How was this to be tested? Here the author of 1 John provides instruction similar in some ways to that offered by Paul in 1 Cor 12:3. It has to do with a true confession of faith in Jesus Christ.

You may recall in an earlier study (on 2:18-27), we established that, in large part, the letter appears to have been written to warn the congregations against certain persons who had separated from the wider Community (“they went out of us”, v. 19a). These same persons are surely in view here as well, characterized as “false prophets” (pseudoproph¢¡tai). I normally translate the noun proph¢¡t¢s as “foreteller”, rather than using the English transliteration “prophet”. However, it is important to understand the term in its early Christian context, based on its fundamental meaning, as someone who “says/shows (something) before [pró]”, either in the sense of saying something beforehand (i.e. before it happens), or in front of (i.e. in the presence of) others. The latter meaning more properly corresponds to both the Hebrew word n¹»î°, and to the general Christian usage. The proph¢¡t¢s serves as God’s spokesperson, declaring and making known the word and will of God to others. As such it was one of the highest gifts that could be given (by the Spirit), available to all believers, but especially to chosen ministers (Acts 2:16-18; 1 Cor 12:28; 14:1ff; Rom 12:6; Eph 2:20). This may indicate that those who separated from the Community (some of them, at any rate) were ministers or other prominent figures who functioned as “prophets”. That they are “false” means that, according to the author, they do not speak under the guidance of the Spirit, but of another “spirit” —i.e., an evil spirit.

There are likely two levels of meaning to the statement that these “false prophets” have gone “out into the world”. First, “into the world” is essentially the same as “out of us” in 2:19, since the “world” (kósmos) in Johannine usage tends to signify the realm of evil and darkness that is opposed to the realm of light (God, Christ, and true believers). These persons have departed from the Community of true believers, showing themselves to be false and not genuine believers at all. Secondly, going out “into the world” could suggest that they are functioning as itinerant, traveling ministers. It is hard for readers today to appreciate how prevalent, and potentially problematic, this dynamic was for Christians in the first two centuries. In an age of slow communication, and without an established collection of authoritative Christian writings, authority in the 1st-century Church largely depended on two factors: (1) the personal pedigree of ministers, and (2) manifestation of Spirit-inspired gifts and abilities. Determining the reliability of traveling ministers could be difficult on both counts. We will discuss this point further when we come to the study of 2 and 3 John.

1 John 4:2

“In this you (can) know the Spirit of God: every spirit that gives account as one (with us) of Yeshua (the) Anointed having come in flesh is out of [i.e. from] God;”

Here the word “spirit” (pneúma) is used two different, but interconnected, ways: the spirit of the person speaking, and the Spirit which guides/inspires the speech. To say that there are many different “spirits” means that there are many distinct people who may speak and act. However, for the author, it is probably better to think of just two Spirits—the Spirit of Truth (which is the Holy Spirit of God) and the Spirit of Falsehood/Deceit. This is fully in accord with the dualism of the Johannine Writings (both Gospel and Letters), and the same sort of dualism is also found in other Jewish writings of the period (such as the Qumran texts, see especially the Community Rule [1QS 3:17-21, etc]). The Spirit of Falsehood is also that of the Evil One (or Satan) who is the effective Ruler of the dark realm of the “world”. What distinguishes the True from the False is ultimately centered on the truth of Jesus—who he is and what he has done. This Christological framework of of truth vs. falsehood, is, from the standpoint of the Johannine writings, also the same as the fundamental definition of sin (on this point, see the previous studies on 2:28-3:10).

In 2:18ff, the false view of Jesus was simply described as failing/refusing to affirm (vb arnéomai) that Jesus is the Anointed One (Christós), characterizing it fundamentally as antíchristos (“against the Anointed”), vv. 22-23. In the context of the Johannine congregations, this wording seems peculiar, since, presumably, all believers (and supposed believers) would have affirmed that Jesus was both the Anointed One and the Son of God. But what is precisely meant by such an affirmation? Here, in 4:2-3, we have clearer sense of what the issue was for the author of 1 John. It involves giving a “common account” (vb. homologéœ) of, i.e. acknowledging together with all other true believers, Jesus Christ having coming in the flesh (en sarkí el¢lýthota). Some commentators would identify this ‘false’ view of Jesus as docetic. Docetism (from Greek dokéœ) is a rather obscure term that refers to the idea that Jesus as the Son of God only appeared or seemed to be a flesh-and-blood human being. It is usually associated with certain so-called “Gnostic” groups and writings of the second and third centuries. Unfortunately, based on this statement alone, it is impossible to determine the exact nature of the Christology that is opposed by the author of 1 John. It requires a careful study of the remainder of the letter, which we are doing here inductively, assembling the available information piece by piece.

1 John 4:3

“and every spirit that does not give account as one (with us) of Yeshua is not out of [i.e. from] God—and this is the (spirit) th(at is) against the Anointed [antíchristos], of which you have heard that it comes, and is now already in the world.”

The declaration in v. 3b confirms that we are dealing with the same situation as earlier in 2:18-27. The false view of Jesus, held and proclaimed (apparently) by those who separated from the Community, is called antíchristos (“against the Anointed”). Both here and in 2:18, the author appears to be drawing upon an early version of the Antichrist tradition, derived from earlier Jewish sources (the book of Daniel, and other writings), but given a special significance within Christian eschatology. Even so, we do not know precisely what is in mind, other than that “antichrist” is something (or someone) who will appear in the last days prior to the end. Clearly the author believes he and his readers are living in the last days (“last hour”, 2:18). This eschatological tradition is being re-interpreted and applied by the author to the specific situation facing the Johannine congregations at the time of his writing. These “false prophets” who separated from the Community are inspired by the Spirit of “Antichrist”, and are a functioning embodiment of that evil power. The presence of false prophets and false/deceiving spirits were thought to be a distinctive marker of the last days (1 Tim 4:1; Mark 13:5ff, 21-22 par; 2 Thess 2:9-11; Revelation 2:20; 13:11ff; 16:13-14; 19:20).

And what is it about their view of Jesus that marks these people as “antichrist”? Unfortunately, the matter is not so clear at this point, since there are two forms of the text of v. 3a—one which uses the verb homologéœ (as in v. 2), and one which instead has the verb lýœ (“loose[n]”, i.e. “dissolve”). Here are the two forms:

    • “every spirit that does not give account as one (with us) of Yeshua” (pán pneúma hó m¢ homologeí ton I¢soún)
    • “every spirit that looses [i.e. dissolves] Yeshua” (pán pneúma hó lýei ton I¢soún)

I would ask you to give consideration as to what the second version (with the verb lýœ) might mean here in the context of 1 John. In our next study, we will continue the discussion of this passage, looking at the text-critical question in v. 3 in more detail, as well as examining the remaining verses (vv. 4-6). In addition, we will explore briefly how the instruction in both 3:11-24 and 4:1-6 is expounded in the following sections of the letter (4:7-5:12).

October 8: Revelation 11:3-14

Revelation 11:3-14

As discussed in the previous daily note, the scene involving the measuring of the Temple is transitional between chapter 10 and this vision of the ‘two witnesses’ in 11:3-14. It establishes the contrast between the “holy city” (with the Temple at the center) and the “great city”, an allegorical distinction between the people of God (true believers) and the surrounding world (the “nations”, spec. the Roman Empire). In this vision, the image has shifted from the shrine (nao/$) of God to a pair of persons—two witnesses:

“And I will give to my two witnesses and they will foretell [i.e. prophesy] for a thousand two-hundred (and) sixty days, having been cast about [i.e. clothed] in a coarse garment [sa/kko$].”

Much ink has been spilled regarding the identification of these two persons—how are they best understood? The visionary character of this section, in context, would suggest that they are figurative, and yet many commentators believe that it refers to a pair of actual (historical) persons expected to appear, or to be active, at the end-time. It is important to begin with the language used to describe them, and the Old Testament traditions which are involved. Three lines of interpretation may be mentioned:

    • Angels—i.e. heavenly beings sent by God as a witness to humankind prior to the Judgment; the reference to the “great city” as “Sodom” would certainly bring to mind the Abraham narrative in Genesis 19, and the two (heavenly) Messengers that come to the city.
    • Messiah-Prophets—the Messianic figure-type of Anointed Prophet, expected to appear at the end-time (prior to the Judgment), according to several traditional patterns, most notably Moses and Elijah (cf. below).
    • People of God (Believers)—that is to say, as witnesses, these two persons represent the people of God, the faithful believers as a whole.

All three of these are more or less clearly present in the text; the vision draws upon the distinct lines of tradition, in various ways, and a proper interpretation must take each of them into account. Let us begin with the primary identification of the two persons/figures as witnesses (ma/rtu$, sg.). The word occurs five times in the book of Revelation, being used in two distinct, but related, ways in the other four references:

    • Of the exalted Jesus, who is given the title “the trust(worthy) [pisto/$] witness” (1:5; 3:14)—this is best understood in two respects:
      • Jesus gives witness of God the Father (YHWH), proclaiming His word and will, and acting as His representative (cf. the context of 1:1ff)
      • This witness entails, in a fundamental way, the sacrificial death of Jesus (the Lamb)
    • Of believers, who follow the example of Jesus, bearing witness of Christ and the Gospel, especially insofar as they follow him to the death (i.e. beginnings of the technical use of the term [“martyr” in English]):
      • In 2:13, Antipas, who was put to death, is given the same title used of Jesus in 1:5—”the trustworthy witness”
      • In 17:16, the believers whose blood was shed are specifically called “witnesses of Yeshua

Is it possible that this two-fold aspect is implied by the fact that there are two witnesses mentioned? The next bit of evidence comes from the parallel identification in verse 4:

“These are the two olive (tree)s and the two lamp(stand)s, the (one)s having stood in the sight of the Lord of the earth.”

This imagery is drawn from the fourth chapter of Zechariah, and, again, there is a clear two-fold aspect involved:

    • Messianic—Olive oil was used for anointing, and, in the context of Zech 3-4, the two olive trees (vv. 3, 11) refer to Zerubbabel and the priest Joshua (“sons of oil”, v. 14) according to early Messianic/Anointed figure-types—Davidic ruler and Anointed Priest, respectively.
    • Heavenly/Angelic—The (seven) lampstands in Zech 4:2-3 are identified as the “eyes of the Lord” (vv. 10-11)—personalized as (heavenly/spirit) beings who represent YHWH in the world, i.e. Messengers (“Angels”), and, one might say, also witnesses. This is reproduced in the book of Revelation (1:4, 12-13, 20; 2:1ff; 5:6). At the same time, we should note:
      • The lampstands are also identified with believers collectively (i.e. congregations/churches), 1:20; 2:1, 5
      • The exalted Jesus is at the center of the lampstands, holding/controlling them (1:12-13; 2:1, cf. also 3:1; 5:6)

Verses 5-6 bring out a number of Messianic details, especially those connected with the Prophet figure-types of Moses and Elijah (for more on this, cf. Parts 2-3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”):

    • “fire travels out of their mouths” to “eat up” the enemies of God (v. 5)—the idea of the word of God, communicated by the Prophet, as fire is found in Jer 5:14, and is specifically associated with Elijah in Sirach 48:1. Indeed, in Old Testament tradition, Elijah called down fire from heaven (1 Kings 19:36-38). The more direct Messianic association comes from Isa 11:4, in which the mouth of the Messiah (vv. 1-3) slays the wicked. Paul draws upon this in a clear eschatological context in 2 Thess 2:8; as does the deutero-canonical book of 2/4 Esdras (13:10, 37-38, roughly contemporary with the book of Revelation), where the slaying power of the mouth is presented as fire. There is an interesting parallel here with the fire-breathing plague-army of the sixth Trumpet-vision (Rev 9:13-20).
    • “authority to close the heaven” so that rain does not fall (v. 6)—a clear allusion to the Elijah traditions (1 Kings 17:1; 18:1; Lk 4:25; James 5:17)
    • authority to turn the waters into blood and to strike the earth with plagues (v. 6)—Moses and the Plagues of Egypt (Exod 7:19, etc)

If verses 3-6 tend to emphasis the heavenly and Messianic character of the two witnesses, verses 7ff more clearly reflect the dual aspect of Jesus-Believers as true and faithful witnesses who are put to death. Their role as Heavenly/Messianic Prophets covers the period of 1,260 days (= 3½ years) during which they prophesy, wearing coarse garments (‘sackcloth’, sa/kko$), marking the coming of the Judgment and urging people to repent. In a sense, this period of preaching/prophesying is similar to that of John the Baptist, as well as Jesus (in his Galilean ministry), both of whom were identified in different ways as the Messianic Prophet (Elijah) who would appear at the end-time. Jesus was also associated with the end-time “Prophet like Moses”, though the Gospel tradition identifies him more closely with the Anointed herald of Isaiah 61:1ff. In any case, it is after this time of prophetic proclamation/ministry, that Jesus comes to Jerusalem and is put to death. This Gospel narrative-matrix is very much at work here in Rev 11:3-14.

At the same time, verses 7ff open up an entirely separate line of imagery as well—that of the beast (i.e. wild animal, qhri/on) who attacks the people of God. It is this visionary conflict which dominates much of the second half of the book (beginning with chapter 12). It is introduced here, without any real explanation or elaboration:

“And when they should complete their witness, the wild (animal) stepping up out of the (pit) without depth [i.e. bottomless pit] will make war with them, and will be victorious (over) them and will kill them off.” (v. 7)

As the “beast” (wild animal) is clearly symbolic in the context of the visions which follow (to be discussed), it stands to reason that the two witness are figurative as well; this would seem to be confirmed by the description in verse 8, where several different images are blended together:

    • The body (singular) of the two witnesses is left laying in the streets of “the great city”, which is further given a hybrid identification:
      • Sodom—traditionally associated with wickedness/immorality (and the judgment which came upon it)
      • Egypt—the land of slavery for the people of God (Israel)
      • Jerusalem—here, literally, “where our Lord was put to the stake [i.e. crucified]”

Some commentators, relying on the last detail, would identify the “great city” flatly as Jerusalem (i.e. the actual city). However, I believe that this is overly simplistic, and, indeed, incorrect. In my view the designation “the great city” is meant as a specific contrast to “the holy city” (i.e. where the Temple is located) in v. 2. By comparison, “the great city” is marked by its “wide (street)s” and wickedness (“Sodom”). It is best to see it as a figure for the wider world—i.e. the “nations”, or, the Roman Empire, according to the (historical) setting of the book. By contrast, believers (the people of God, collectively) are represented by the “holy city” and the Temple-complex (cf. on vv. 1-2 in the previous note). The 3½ years (1,260 days) is also a figurative period, drawn from Old Testament tradition, and represents the coming time of distress (and persecution). During this period, believers are to serve as witness of Jesus to the world (the “great city”); many, like Jesus himself, will be put to death as a result. This is the main association in verse 8, identifying the “great city” as the place “where our Lord was put to the stake”.

The death of the witnesses—that is, the time they remain dead—parallels the period of ministry (3½ days | 3½ years). The people of the “great city” rejoice and celebrate (evoking the Roman Saturnalia festival), even as the body of the witness(es) lies dead and unburied in the street (vv. 9-10). The cruelty and wickedness of humankind could not be more simply and vividly expressed. It is possible that the public spectacle-executions of Christians under Nero is in mind here, serving as a pattern for many other early Christian Martyrdom narratives. The period of 3½ days also serves to bring out more strongly the parallel with the death of Jesus (i.e. the traditional motif of three days); like Jesus, after three days, the two witnesses are raised from the dead (v. 11). The parallel is extended, as the witnesses ascend to heaven (v. 12) in a cloud, just like Jesus (Acts 1:9-11). Their enemies look on as they go up in the cloud, even as the nations will watch as Jesus (the Son of Man) returns in a cloud at the end-time (Rev 1:7)

The vision concludes with judgment striking the people of the “great city”, by way of a “great shaking [i.e. earthquake]”. An earthquake is also tied to Jesus’ death (and resurrection) in Matthew’s version of the Passion narrative (27:51; 28:2). Here, however, the more immediate connection is with the six Trumpet-visions in chapter 9, especially the first four, in which various natural disasters and phenomena destroy/afflict a portion (one-third) of the world. In this vision, the earthquake destroys a tenth of the city, killing seven thousand people (v. 13). It is interesting to note the smaller percentage involved, compared with that in the Trumpet-visions. Almost certainly, this reflects the ministry/witness of the two figures, culminating in their death and resurrection/exaltation. That this is meant to blend together features marking both Jesus and his faithful/true followers (believers), was noted above, and must be maintained as a fundamental aspect of any proper interpretation. This work of witness ultimately has a profoundly positive effect for humankind—limiting the extent of the Judgment, and leading people to repentance and the worship of God. This shift from judgment to worship also characterizes the seventh Trumpet vision, which follows in vv. 15-19 (to be discussed in the next daily note). The closing words of v. 14 effectively enclose the visions of chapters 10-11 back within the structure of seven-vision cycle, repeating the refrain from 9:12 (following the fifth vision):

“The second woe (has) come along—see! the third woe comes quickly!” (v. 14)

This third woe refers to the seventh (final) Trumpet vision, and yet, interestingly, no “woe”, as such, is described in vv. 15-19. It functions, rather, as a literary device, here primarily indicating the end, or completion, of the Judgment visions. With chapter 12, an entirely new mode of visionary expression is introduced, one which restates the Judgment narrative along more traditional-historical lines. Before embarking on that interesting study, it is necessary to examine the final Trumpet vision, which we will do in the next daily note.

Special Note on 1 Corinthians 13:8

(A concluding note for the series Women in the Church)

In discussing the role of Prophets in the early Church, I have mentioned the difficulty in relating it to the modern Age, and thus in applying passages such as 1 Cor 11:2-16 to the Church today. If Paul accepts the idea of women functioning as prophets, delivering messages in the congregational meeting, then this would certainly seem to support the idea that women may also do so (i.e. preach) today. However, according to one line of interpretation, the spiritual gifts (xarisma/ta, charismata) documented and described in 1 Corinthians (and elsewhere in the New Testament) are part of a unique set of phenomena, limited in time (more or less) to the age of the Apostles and the initial spread of Christianity. According to this view, Paul is essentially describing a situation which no longer applies today, contrary, of course, to the core belief of Pentecostal, Charismatic and Spiritualist traditions. But if, for example, 1 Cor 11:2-16 is taken as referring specifically to women exercising a (prophetic) gift which is no longer in effect, then it would not necessarily support the general idea of women preaching or delivering messages in the church meeting today. It is thus worth examining the main verse (also in 1 Corinthians) which refers to the gift of prophecy coming to an end.

1 Corinthians 13:8

This is part of the famous Love-chapter in 1 Corinthians, 12:31b-14:1a, which may be outlined as follows:

  • 12:31b: Introduction to the way of love
    • 13:1-3: The superiority of love—contrast with other spiritual gifts (Current time)
      —Such gifts without (being guided by) love are of little value
      • 13:4-7: The characteristics of Love
    • 13:8-13: The superiority of love—contrast with other gifts (Eschatological/teleological–in the End)
      —All such gifts will pass away, love is one of the only things which remain
  • 14:1a: Exhortation to the way of love

Love is contrasted with the spiritual “gifts”, in the parallel statements of vv. 1-3 and 8-13—the first referring to the current time (for believers in the Church), while the second refers to the end time. Verse 8 introduced this second section:

“Love does not ever fall; but if (there are thing)s foretold [i.e. prophecies], they will cease working; if (thing)s (spoken in other) tongues, they will stop; and if (there is) knowledge, it will cease working”

Paul does not refer here to knowledge generally, but to a special kind of spiritual knowledge or revelation, granted to believers by the Spirit. This idea of knowledge (gnw=si$) is given considerable emphasis in 1 Corinthians (cf. 1:5, 21ff; 8:1-3ff; 12:8; 14:6, etc), and especially here in chapter 13. The close connection between knowledge and prophecy is important (cf. 14:6), and is indicated by the parallel structure of the verse:

    • Prophecies will cease working [katarghqh/sontai]
      —Speaking with (other) tongues will stop
    • Knowledge will cease working [katarghqh/setai]

It is interesting that the phenomenon of speaking in other tongues occurs in between the references to prophecy and knowledge, since ‘speaking in tongues’ (glossolalia) was the central phenomenon marking the coming of the Spirit upon believers (in Acts 2). At the same time, prophecy and knowledge reflect two (higher) aspects of the Spirit’s work among believers as they participate in the Community. Though they can be separated as distinct “gifts”, they are really two sides of the same coin. In chapter 14, prophecy and messages in tongues are mentioned as specific ways that believers (men and women) may speak and minister within the meeting; Paul clearly gives priority to prophecy—delivering a message expressing the word and will of God in the ordinary language of the people—rather than similar messages in unknown languages (tongues) which require special interpretation. The close connection between prophecy and knowledge is reiterated in verse 9:

“For we know (only) out of a part [i.e. in part], and we foretell [i.e. prophesy] out of a part…”

The phrase e)k me/rou$ (“out of a part”) means that, even through the presence and work of the Spirit, believers only have a portion—that is, the knowledge and revelation we have of God, and from Him, is partial and limited. And it is this partial understanding, made available through the gifts of the Spirit, which will “cease working”:

“…but when the (thing which is) complete should come, (then) the (thing which is only) out of a part will cease working.” (verse 10)

It is the same verb (katarge/w), used twice in v. 8, and frequently elsewhere by Paul—of the 27 occurrences in the NT, all but two are found in the Pauline letters, including 9 times in 1 Corinthians. The basic meaning of the verb is to make something stop working, have no effect, etc. Paul uses it in a variety of contexts, but the essential idea is related to something new (e.g., the new covenant in Christ) replacing that which was in effect before (the old covenant). With the presence of the new, the old “ceases working”—i.e. is no longer valid or has no effect. In the current context of 1 Cor 13, the idea is that the old way (the spiritual gifts) is no longer needed or of any use. What is it that makes the prior working of the Spirit in believers obsolete? This is stated in v. 10a, and is the interpretive crux of the passage:

“when the (thing which is) complete should come”

Because of the importance of this clause, it will be helpful to look at each word in detail.

o%tan (“when[ever]”)—this is a combination of the temporal particle o%te (“when”) and the conditional a&n, indicating possibility or uncertainty, etc (“if, perhaps”). The simple o%te is used twice in verse 11 as part of the illustration of human development, marking two points in time—”when I was an infant” and “when I became a man”. This should be understood parallel to the use of the related to/te (“then”, i.e. at that time) in verse 12. The conditional o%tan here in verse 10 indicates some degree of uncertainty—i.e. whenever this should take place.

de/ (“but”)—a simple joining particle (conjunction), “and”, but which sometimes is used in a contrastive or adversative sense (“but”). Here Paul uses it to contrast v. 10a with the earlier statement in v. 9, as well as what follows in 10b. The point of contrast is between e)k me/rou$ (“[out] of a part”) and te/leio$ (“complete”).

e&lqh| (“[it] should come”)—this is an aorist subjunctive form of the verb e&rxomai (“come, go”), and is used here to indicate a specific point (in time) when something should take place, that is, when it will come. The subjunctive is related to the particle a&n embedded in the temporal o%tan (“when[ever]”, cf. above). Paul has no doubt this will occur, there is only some uncertainty just when it will take place.

to\ te/leion (“the [thing which is] complete”)—this adjective (te/leio$) is related to the noun te/lo$ and refers fundamentally to something being (or becoming) complete. It can be used in three different basic senses: (a) for the end of something, (b) for something which is full, perfect, whole, etc, and (c) for coming to fullness, maturity, etc. Paul uses the term in all three senses at various points in his letters. When applied to human beings (believers) it is often the third aspect (c) which is meant, as in 1 Cor 2:6 and 14:20 (the only other occurrences of the adjective in 1 Corinthians). The illustration of human growth and development in 13:11 might suggest that this is also the meaning of te/leio$ here—i.e. as believers come to greater maturity and understanding, there will increasingly be less need to rely upon the various spiritual gifts. There is no doubt that a number of the Corinthian believers were unduly enamored by the gifts of (spiritual) knowledge, prophecy, speaking in tongues, and so forth, which is the very reason why Paul was inspired to pen 12:31b-14:1a, to emphasize the priority (and superiority) of Christian love over all other manifestations (gifts) of the Spirit.

However, I do not believe that the adjective te/leio$ can be limited to only this sense. While it may relate to the idea of believers coming to completeness in Christ, it is primarily used in the more general (temporal) sense of something which is to come (in the future). This is the only occurrence in the New Testament of the neuter form te/leion, used as a substantive with the definite article—to\ te/leion, “the (thing which is) complete”. This should be compared with the plural substantive in 1 Cor 2:16: toi=$ telei/oi$, “[in] the (one)s (who are) complete”. In 13:11, Paul does not refer to “the (one)” [i.e. the believer], but to “the (thing)”—something which is going to happen or will appear. What is this “thing” which will come at some point in the future? The only answer Paul gives in the immediate context is found in verse 12, as he describes the transforming moment when we (believers) “will see face to(ward) face”. There can be little doubt that Paul’s orientation here is eschatological—that he has the end time (te/lo$) in mind, the completion of all things, which will follow upon the return of Christ, the resurrection, and the final Judgment. It is God himself we will see, face to face, far more perfectly than Moses did, through our union with Christ (2 Cor 3:7-18). We will know Him fully and intimately, even as we are known by Him. This is already experienced by believers through the course of our lives (2 Cor 3:18), as we grow in faith, wisdom and knowledge, but will only be realized completely at the end.

Given this basic outlook by Paul, it is unlikely that he envisioned a time, prior to the end, when the spiritual gifts would cease—least of all prophecy, which he regarded as one of the highest gifts. The situation is complicated by the fact that Paul, like most (if not all) believers of the time, more or less had an imminent expectation of the end-time—that the return of Christ and the final Judgement would soon take place, presumably in his/their own lifetime. In approaching Paul’s letters from our standpoint today, we are forced to factor in an intervening 2,000 or more years between his teaching and the end (which is yet to come). Still, if we are to give an accurate portrayal of what Paul said and wrote, we must recognize what his perspective was on the matter. It seems reasonably clear that he felt that the current working of the Spirit (the charismata, etc), and his instruction to believers regarding its manifestation, would be valid until the coming of the end, when we would experience and know God (and Christ), as well as each other, in new and perfect way.