Special Study: Imminent Eschatology in the New Testament (Pt 2)

A reminder of the outline for this study:

    1. Evidence that the New Testament authors/speakers believed that Jesus would return and the end would come very soon—i.e. during their own time, in the 1st century A.D., roughly speaking. In so doing, it is important to determine whether this was the dominant view—that is, what, if any evidence is there to the contrary?
    2. An attempt to explain this eschatological expectation, from several aspects:
      1. The phenomenology of religion
      2. Eschatological and apocalyptic views common at the time, and
      3. New Testament theology and the doctrine of inspiration (of the New Testament writings)

The New Testament evidence was examined in Part 1; here, in the second Part, we will explore interpretive approaches to the question.

2. Explanations for the imminent eschatology in the New Testament

a. Phenomenology of Religion. It would seem to be a generally observable phenomenon that, where there is a strong eschatological component to the religious thought and belief of particular individuals or groups, this eschatology is almost always imminent. That is to say, there is present the belief that the current time is the “end time” and that people at the moment are living in the “last days”, the period just before the end. This is quite understandable from the standpoint of religious psychology—what is the urgency of a message about the end, if it does not relate directly to the life situation of those being addressed? Even adherents of religious traditions which have a broader conception of cyclical time—cycles of Ages—tend to envision that they are living at the end of a cycle, and/or at the end of the current Age. It would be difficult to find many examples where this is not the case.

Built into this idea is also the tendency to conceive of the current Age—and, in particular, the moment in which people are living—as especially corrupt, in comparison to prior periods, and becoming increasingly so. Eschatological thought serves, in part, to offer hope for a better future, an ideal time—of peace, prosperity, justice and righteousness, etc—that is a stark contrast with the present. From the theological standpoint, the expectation is strong that God will eventually correct the apparent evils in the current order of things, punishing the wicked and rewarding the righteous, removing the causes of suffering in the world, and so forth. The natural hope, of course, is that this might happen soon, in the very lifetimes of those living at present, that they might live to see a new and transformed world, with the power and justice of God more clearly manifest in the created order.

b. Eschatology and Apocalyptic in the first centuries B.C./A.D. Of the many eschatological and apocalyptic traditions and movements roughly contemporary with the New Testament, i.e. in the first centuries B.C./A.D., those most relevant to early Christianity, and about which we are best informed, are associated with the Community of the Qumran texts (the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran). Like the early Christians, the Qumran Community believed they were living in the “last days”, and that God was about to act to bring Judgment upon the wicked/nations and to deliver the faithful ones among His people (i.e. the Community).

One way we see this expressed is in the use of the idiom <ym!Y`h^ tyr!j&a^ (°aµ¦rî¾ hayy¹mîm), “(the time) after the days”. Originally, this expression simply meant “in the time to come, in the future”, but its use in the later Prophets (Jer 23:20; 30:24; 31:33; 48:47; 49:39; Ezek 38:16; Daniel 10:14; cf. also Hos 3:5; Mic 4:1), as well as in two key passages which came to be understood as Messianic (Gen 49:1; Num 24:14), gave it a definite eschatological significance (often translated “end of [the] days”) by the 2nd-1st century B.C. It occurs some 30 times in the Qumran texts, and in at least two places there is the clear indication that the author/audience believed that this “end-time” was their own time:

    • In the so-called “Halakhic Letter” (4QMMT [4Q394-399]) section C 13-15ff, Deuteronomy 30:1ff is cited (“and it will be when all these things come upon you…”), framing the coming Judgment in terms of the covenant blessings and curses, and declaring that these have been (and are being fulfilled) in the present: “and this is the (time) after the days, when they will return in Israel to the Law…” (C 21). The members of the Community are those who faithfully observe the Law, and, as the end comes nearer, it is expected that more in Israel will turn and join them.
    • In the document 1QSa, a kind of supplement to the Community Rule text (1QS), it is declared in the opening words, “And this is the rule of all the congregation of Israel in the (time) after the days…”.

The expression also occurs a number of times in the interpretive (midrashic) works, such as the 4QFlorilegium [4Q174] and 4QCatena [4Q177], in which different Scripture passages are brought together, being interpreted in a Messianic (and eschatological) sense and applied to the time and life-setting of the Community (cf. also 1QpHab 2:5-6; 4QpNah 3-4 ii. 2; Collins, p. 79). There is also the similar expression /wrjah Jq, “the end (coming) after”, i.e. the final age, etc, which occurs, for example, in the commentary [pesher] on Habakkuk (7:5-6, on Hab 2:3); cf. also in the Damascus Document (CD 1:12). In the commentary on Hab 2:3, we can detect an awareness of a ‘delay’ in the coming of the expected end. According to the Damascus Document (CD/QD), the Community made use of Daniel’s Seventy Weeks prophecy (Dan 9:24-27, cf. the earlier article on this passage)—70 weeks of years, i.e. 490 years—which coincides with the Jubilee period framework (i.e. 10 x 49 years), to determine a general time for the coming of the end, one which coordinated with a period of 40 years after the death of the “unique Teacher” (CD 20:14). This leading figure is probably to be identified with the “Teacher of Righteousness” (or “Righteous Teacher”, cf. Part 4 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). The end-time of God’s Judgment will begin around 40 years after this person’s death. Quite possibly, 1QpHab 7:5-6 indicates that this benchmark date has come and gone, and that some explanation for the delay is required. This sort of thing occurs quite frequently in eschatological belief. As time passes, imminent expectation of the end must be re-interpreted and explained; and yet, there is no evidence for any ‘trauma’ within the Qumran Community due to this apparent delay. Eschatological thought tends to be rather flexible in this regard.

c. New Testament Theology. There a number of important areas of early Christian thought, as expressed in the New Testament, that are directly related to an imminent eschatology, and which help to explain the importance of this eschatological aspect. In no small measure, early Christian theology is based on an imminent expectation of the end. All of these areas for consideration have been, and will be, discussed in the various notes and articles of this series. Here I wish to delineate the most relevant strands of thought, touching upon each of the following:

    1. Belief in Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah)
    2. The early Christian understanding of salvation
    3. The Christian religious worldview as ‘dispensational’
    4. Christian identity and the early mission-work
    5. The early Christian movement as the fulfillment of Prophecy
    6. Theodicy and the future hope

(1) Belief in Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah)

As I have discussed in considerable detail throughout the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, Jesus was identified with all of the Messianic figure-types present in Jewish thought during the first centuries B.C./A.D. Messianic belief and expectation was fundamentally eschatological—the appearance of these Anointed figures corresponded with the end of the current Age, and, with it, God’s end-time Judgment on the wicked/nations and the deliverance of God’s people (the faithful ones). Thus, to say that a person (such as Jesus) was, in fact, the Messiah—whether of the Davidic Ruler tradition or another figure-type—meant that the current moment, in which that person was alive and present on earth, was the “end time”, the “last days”, etc. In other words, the very belief in Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah) necessitated a belief among the first Christians that the end was near. In all likelihood, such an eschatological view preceded their belief in Jesus, being part of the wider Jewish eschatology (and Messianism) of the time (cf. on the Qumran Community, above). I have discussed this in more detail in an earlier article of this series.

What is unique with regard to the Christian view of the Messiah, in relation to the end-time, is that Jesus departed earth, being exalted and ascending to Heaven, before fulfilling entirely the Messianic role expected of him. This entails a period of some length before his return to earth, at which point the Messianic eschatological expectation will be realized. However, as we have seen—in Part 1 of this article and throughout this series—this is quite compatible with an imminent eschatology, with the general understanding that this intervening period was to be relatively brief, i.e. with the lifetime of most believers.

(2) The early Christian understanding of salvation

It is possible to isolate two main ways salvation is expressed—typically using the verbs sw|/zw (with the noun swthri/a) and r(u/omai—from a religious/metaphysical standpoint, in the New Testament and early Christian tradition:

    • Salvation from sin—either: (a) from the effect of personal sins, or (b) from the power and control of sin
    • Salvation from the end-time Judgment by God, often described in terms of being saved from the anger/wrath of God which is about to come upon humankind

Interestingly, the aspect of salvation which is probably most commonly in mind with people today—that of the individual’s personal salvation following death (i.e. from the punishment [of Hell])—is not emphasized particularly in the New Testament. This, of course, was a popular way of thinking even in ancient times, usually depicted in some manner as the person standing before a divine/heavenly tribunal after death to be judged according to his/her deeds and actions while alive. The background of this idea is retained in early Christian thought, as for example, in the Beatitude form (Matt 5:3-12 / Lk 6:20-26) and the image of entering/inheriting the Kingdom (i.e. of the heavenly/eternal life), cf. Mk 9:47; 10:23ff; Matt 5:20; 7:21; 25:34; Jn 3:5; Acts 14:22; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:21, etc. However, specific references to the traditional (afterlife) scene of Judgment are somewhat rare in the New Testament (cf. 2 Cor 5:10; Rom 2:6ff; 14:10-12; also Matt 10:32-33; 12:41-42 par; 25:31-46). This is largely due to the fact that the eschatological emphasis has shifted to the (imminent) coming of the end—that is, the coming of God’s Judgment upon the earth, expected to occur soon, within the lifetime of most people. Early Christians widely shared this expectation, along with many Jews of the period; the distinctly Christian component was the role of Jesus as the Anointed One (Christ) of God and heavenly “Son of Man” whose coming (back) to earth from Heaven would usher in the Judgment. Thus the idea of salvation meant being saved from the Judgment (the anger/wrath of God) about to be visited upon sinful, wicked humanity (cf. the “day of YHWH” motif in the Old Testament Prophets). Christ, as the divine representative of YHWH, oversees the Judgment, but also acts as savior and deliverer of the Elect—that is, of God’s faithful people, the believers. This eschatological context for salvation is found all throughout the New Testament; of the many passages, I would note the following:

A similar (generalized) sense of eschatological salvation is found widely in early Christian thought—e.g., Luke 3:6 [Isa 40:5]; John 3:17; 5:34; 10:9; 12:47; Romans 10:9; 11:14, 26; 1 Cor 1:8; 3:15; 9:22; 10:33; 15:2; Phil 1:6, 9-10; 2:16; 1 Thess 5:23-24; 2 Thess 2:10; 2 Tim 2:4, 10, (15); 4:16; James 1:21; 2:14; 4:12; 5:20; 1 Pet 1:5, 9-10; 4:18? [Prov 11:31]; (2 Pet 2:9); (Jude 23); Heb 1:14; (7:25); 9:28. Virtually the entire book of Revelation deals with this theme.

What is the significance of this? It means that the whole of the early Gospel message tends to be eschatological in character, even apart from its central aspect identifying Jesus as the (end-time) Messiah (cf. above). For more on this, see the discussion in the two-part article on Eschatology in the book of Acts, as well as the upcoming articles on Paul’s eschatology.

(3) The Christian religious worldview as ‘dispensational’

By “dispensational” I simply mean the recognition of a clear demarcation between two different Ages—this Age, and “the Age to Come”. The earliest Christian communities were marked by certain religious phenomena which indicated that a “New Age” was being ushered in. This is expressed most clearly in the book of Acts, with the descriptions of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon believers in Christ, with accompanying phenomena—miraculous speaking in foreign languages (“tongues”), the ability to prophesy, the working of healing miracles, etc. Peter, in his great Pentecost speech, citing Joel 2:28-32, declares that this manifestation of the Spirit is a fulfillment of prophecy and shows that the early believers are living in the “last days” (vv. 16ff); for more on this, cf. Part 1 of “Eschatology in the book of Acts” and Parts 23 of the series “The Speeches of Acts”.

Much the same may be said of the other episodes in the book of Acts, involving the manifestation of the Spirit in the mission work of Paul and the other Apostles. The early Christian communities continued this “charismatic” tradition, experiencing similar spiritual phenomena and “gifts”, to judge from the New Testament evidence (esp. in 1 Corinthians). There is every reason to think that this was understood as a foretaste, an initial ushering in, of the Age to Come, during the (brief) period before the return of Jesus. Paul, it would seem, expresses this rather clearly in 1 Cor 13:8-12 (cf. my earlier note on this passage). Thus, even if early believers were to doubt that they were living in the “last days”, and even if a belief in Jesus as the Messiah did not necessitate it, the spiritual phenomena they experienced provided proof that the end was near and a New Age was about to begin.

(4) Christian identity and the early mission-work

If we accept the authenticity of the tradition in Acts 1:6-8, Jesus, in instructing and commissioning his disciples prior to his departure from earth (vv. 9-11), declared that their missionary work, proclaiming the Gospel to the surrounding peoples, was eschatological in nature (cf. Part 1 of the “Eschatology in the book of Acts”). This same point was made in the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus, fitting the early apostolic mission into a framework for the coming of the end (Mark 13:9-13 par). Moreover, this, along with the other aspects of early Christian thinking mentioned above, helped to inform the self-identity of believers in Christ as the end-time people of God—those faithful ones, living in the “last days”, who will be rescued from the coming Judgment. In this regard, the early Christian communities had much in common with the Qumran Community (cf. above).

The reality of their (daily) life and existence shaped the way this eschatological expectation was expressed, and vice versa. This took place in all kinds of small ways—see, for example, the eschatological dimension of Paul’s instruction on marriage in 1 Cor 7:25-31 (to be discussed). Or, consider how the imminent expectation of the end caused concern for the Thessalonian believers with regard to relatives and other believers who had already died (1 Thess 4:13-18, study upcoming), and how Paul addresses this. At other times, it might involved more complex and detailed patterns of thought, such as in Paul’s famous discussion in Romans 9-11 (also to be studied in this series).

What is most important to keep in mind is that the religious identity of early Christians was, in a very real sense, fundamentally eschatological. Perhaps nowhere is this seen so clearly and vividly than in Romans 8, especially the line of argument in vv. 18-25. The author of 1 John expresses something similar in 2:28-3:3 (esp. vv. 1-2), stating that our identity as God’s offspring now is only a reflection of what is about to be fulfilled for us at the appearance of God (in the person of Jesus Christ) at the end. The two aspects of the identity of believers—present and future—are closely connected, and, for early believers, close in time as well, expected to be realized within their lifetime.

(5) The early Christian movement as the fulfillment of Prophecy

Early Christians, like the Qumran Community, viewed themselves at the center of the fulfillment of Scriptural Prophecy. This began with their belief in Jesus as the Messiah (cf. above), and the various passages which were understood in a Messianic (and eschatological) sense and applied to Jesus. It was only natural that, by extension, other Messianic/eschatological prophecies would be interpreted in relation to Jesus’ followers, the first believers. This was especially necessary in light of the uniquely Christian aspect of this eschatology—of an intervening period, before Jesus’ return to earth, when his disciples (believers) would continue his end-time work (on this, cf. above). Numerous Scripture passages could be—and, indeed, were—interpreted on this basis. The two most notable are Joel 2:28-32 (in Peter’s Pentecost speech [Acts 2:16ff], already mentioned) and Amos 9:11-12 (in James’ speech at the Jerusalem Council [Acts 15:15-17]); also worthy of mention in the book of Acts is Paul’s use of Isaiah 49:6 (his speech at Antioch [13:47ff]; cf. also Lk 2:29-32). These passages are all discussed in the article on the Eschatology in the book of Acts, as well as in the series “The Speeches of Acts”. The force of this prophetic self-understanding, in connection with other aspects of early Christian thought (cf. above), always served to keep an imminent eschatological awareness in full view.

(6) Theodicy and future hope

One final area worth noting falls under the heading of theodicy—that is, an attempt to explain how a just God could allow so much injustice in the world, allowing wickedness and evil to go unpunished (in the present). Central to Jewish and Christian eschatology at the time was the belief that God would soon act to judge the world, bringing a decisive Judgment upon humankind, punishing the wicked and rescuing/rewarding the righteous. For early Christians, in terms of religious psychology, affirmation of this coming Judgment was all the more urgent since, during his time on earth, Jesus did not fulfill the traditional Messianic role of ushering in the end-time Judgment. Surely this had to occur soon, and so we see this expectation expressed all throughout the early Christian preaching in the book of Acts, in Paul’s letters, and in the remainder of the New Testament. Paul’s warning, in his famous Athens speech, captures this expectation most precisely (17:30-31).

The future hope for believers in Christ is tied to this idea of the coming Judgment, at which time the people of God (believers) will be rescued from the wickedness of the current Age, and will join with Jesus in the blessed heavenly/eternal life, in God’s own presence.

Paths of Interpretation for Believers today

It goes without saying that the imminent eschatology expressed in the New Testament poses significant problems for Christians today. How are we to reconcile the clear belief that the end was imminent with the reality, so it would seem, of more than 1,900 years (and counting) before the great Judgment and the return of Jesus comes? In the Introduction to this series, I outlined four possible approaches or ways of handling this question, which, for convenience (and not necessarily indicating any preference), I number #1-4:

    • The New Testament authors, like many today, truly believed that the end of the Age was close at hand, presumably to occur during their lifetime. God made use of that belief (common among many Jews and others at the time) for a greater purpose. While the inspired authors could, technically, be seen as having been mistaken on this point, it does not affect the truth of the message which they are communicating to us. [Approach #1]
    • In interpreting these passages, our emphasis should not be on individual statements (regarding the end being near, etc), but, rather, upon the overall worldview of which they are a part. This relates, in particular, to the unique way in which early Christians adapted traditional eschatological language. Conceivably, early Christians could also speak of the end being “near”, even though they realized it might not become manifest on earth in the way that traditional eschatology imagined. [Approach #2]
    • In speaking of the end as being “near”, this language is really expressing the idea that it could take place at any moment, since no one (not even Jesus [the Son], cf. Mark 13:32 par) knows exactly when the end will occur. [Approach #3]
    • The use of this language of imminence is primary rhetorical, rather than literal. It is meant to exhort believers to live and act a certain way, as well as offering hope in difficult times. This view, in part, draws upon a distinction between descriptive and prescriptive language—i.e., how things are (or will be) vs. how things ought to be. [Approach #4]

I will here make a number of brief comments regarding each of these, leaving a more definitive solution, on my part, to wait until the conclusion of this series.

Approach #1. This approach essentially involves the principle of accommodation. In terms of the doctrine of inspiration (of Scripture), accommodation theory posits that the inspired authors/speakers may have accepted or adopted views commonly held by people of the time, but which, technically speaking, from our vantage point today, could be deemed erroneous, inaccurate, or incomplete. This frequently relates to various kinds of scientific information—ancient cosmology, history, anthropology, biology, metaphysics, view of the afterlife, etc. As a simple example, in the parable of Lk 16:19-31, Jesus might be seen as simply drawing upon traditional imagery (for the purposes of the illustration), without intending to give a scientifically accurate portrait of the afterlife. Other examples could be much more controversial. Some traditional-conservative commentators and theologians are reluctant to admit any such occurrences of accommodation in Scripture, while others are willing to accept it in varying degrees. Much depends on the particular passage, and circumstances, involved.

The question of possible limitations (of knowledge) on the part of Jesus, as a human being on earth, is especially controversial and much debated. However, as it happens, there is at least one passage in the Gospel tradition where Jesus appears to admit such a limitation for himself—the saying in Mark 13:32 par, which is part of the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse”, and happens to involve the matter of precisely when the end will occur. Due to the sensitive nature of this passage, I will be discussing it in more detail as we approach the conclusion of this series. It would, however, naturally follow that, if Jesus himself did not know exactly when the end would come, the New Testament authors would not have known either. Accommodation theory would allow that the writers simply were expressing a general belief (regarding the end being imminent), common to Jews and Christians of the time, without necessarily stating it as an absolute fact.

Certainly, a number of the eschatological references (cf. Part 1 of this article, and throughout this series), could be viewed in this way and, as such, be incorporated within a sound doctrine of inspiration. Yet there are other passages where this approach becomes much more difficult to maintain. For example, in 1 Peter 4:7, it is declared bluntly to readers (living in the 1st century A.D.) that “the end of all (thing)s has come near”. This seems to go beyond a general belief, to the point of a positive (and absolute) declaration. Another example is in the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” (Mark 13 par). In spite of the qualifying statement in 13:32 par, the entire chronological framework of the Discourse is centered on the key event of the destruction of the Temple, with the accompanying end-time events, apparently, set within the general bounds of the lifetime of the first disciples (13:28-30 par). For more on this, cf. Part 4 of the Eschatological Discourse study and the separate note to this article.

Approach #2. This view is similar in certain respects to approach #1 (above), but formulates more precisely the idea that New Testament authors (and speakers) are regularly making use of traditional eschatological language and imagery, without necessarily affirming concrete eschatological beliefs. For example, various apocalyptic images from the Old Testament Prophets, related to the “Day of YHWH” theme, might be used to express the idea of God’s coming Judgment, without literally meaning that the moon will turn to blood or that the stars will actually “fall out of heaven” (Mk 13:24-25 par; Acts 2:19-20, etc). That is to say, much eschatological language is figurative, as evidenced, in a highly developed way, by the symbolism in the book of Revelation (discussed in the current series of daily notes). How might this relate to the expressions of imminent eschatology in the New Testament? It could be viewed as part of the traditional idiom—i.e., the end is always understood as coming soon, being near; this is simply part of any eschatological mode of expression (cf. the first section of this article, above).

The problem with this approach is that it tends to ignore the fundamental way the aspect of imminence is fundamentally tied to the early Christian worldview and religious identity (discussed above). Far from being a colorful detail on the eschatological/apocalyptic dramatic stage, the message that the Judgment and return of Jesus will soon take place is essential to the early proclamation of the Gospel (cf. the articles on the Eschatological sayings of Jesus and on the Eschatology in the book of Acts). Early Christian belief in Jesus as the Messiah, and of salvation in terms of rescue from the coming Judgment (on both points, cf. above), are shorn of their true significance without a concrete belief that the end was imminent.

Approach #3. The is by far the most popular approach to the problem adopted by Christians today. It basically holds that the language of imminence means, not that the end will come soon, but that it may come soon. It is certainly a convenient solution, in that it very handily allows for an intervening 1,900+ years of history. Indeed, some commentators and theologians simply define imminence (in eschatology) this way, thereby effectively circumventing the entire chronological problem. However, I consider this approach to be fatally flawed in the way that it seemingly ignores the straightforward language used by the New Testament authors. A careful study of the evidence in Part 1 of this article, as well as in the other articles of this series (and the daily notes on the book of Revelation), demonstrates, I think rather decisively, that early Christians in the 1st century (including the New Testament authors), believed that the end would come soon, probably within their own lifetime.

A variation of approach #1 (principle of accommodation) would handle this a slightly different way. While the New Testament authors believed, and declared, that the end would come soon, this expression of imminence was used, by God, for the greater purpose of conveying to all believers, in all times, that the end may come soon. As a result, every generation of believers, in responding to the message in the Scriptures, effectively responds just as the first generation did—believing that the end might well come in their lifetime. I find this version of approach #3 to be much more acceptable (and plausible) in relation to the tenets of orthodox Christian doctrine.

Approach #4. This approach looks more to the practical effects of the rhetoric and literary style used by the New Testament authors. In other words, what is the context of these eschatological references? What does the author intend to accomplish by introducing them where and when he does? For example, the eschatological references by Paul in 1 Cor 7:25-31 are part of his wider instruction on marriage (and marital relations) in chapter 7, and really ought not to be examined outside of this context (i.e. as independent eschatological pronouncements). More to the point, references to imminent eschatology could be meant primarily to exhort and comfort believers in various ways, rather than being intended to establish a chronological framework.

Some commentators would extend this approach to include a distinction between descriptive and prescriptive language—i.e., how things are (or will be) vs. how things ought to be. As applied to eschatology, the very notion of the coming Judgment and a New Age, generally reflects, in part at least, an idealized vision of how things should be, how many people wish they soon would be. Eschatological language and imagery naturally fits the mode of exhortation, and, in the New Testament, is frequently found in such a setting. In light of the coming Judgment, etc, we ought to live and act a certain way, not simply for fear of what is to come, but with the idea of God coming near to us, visiting humankind—the promise of His Presence, in both terrifying and comforting aspects, Judgment and Salvation.

There is something to be said for each of these approaches, in their various forms, while admitting, at the same time, that none of them offers a truly satisfactory solution to the problem. However, as possible paths of interpretation, we should keep them in mind, as we continue through the remaining articles of this series. I hope to bring together the strands at the conclusion, at which point I will attempt to offer my own humble solution.

Gnosis and the New Testament, supplement: Luke 2:29-32

Luke 2:29-32

An interesting passage which connects salvation with knowledge and revelation is the “Song of Simeon” in Luke 2:29-32. Like the hymn of Zechariah (the Benedictus, Lk 1:67-79), it functions in the narrative as a prophetic oracle. There are actually two oracles uttered by Simeon, the other being addressed to Mary in vv. 34-35. All of the canticles, or hymns, in the Lukan Infancy narrative, draw heavily upon the Old Testament Scriptures, quoting or alluding to various passages in nearly every line. The very poetry, and the underlying mode of expression, has assimilated the language of the Old Testament Songs, Psalms and poetic oracles of the Prophets. The Song of Simeon is comprised of four lines. In the first line (v. 29), Simeon addresses himself to God:

“Now you (can) loose your slave from (his bonds), O Master, according to your utterance, in peace”

The second line (v. 30), in the context of the narrative, relates to Simeon’s revelatory experience of seeing the child Jesus:

“(in) that [i.e. because] my eyes saw your salvation”

The third line (v. 31) connects this revelation back to the prophecies and promises in the Old Testament, the (old) covenant between God and his people:

“which you made ready down upon the face [i.e. in the presence] of all the people”

The fourth line (v. 32) indicates the goal and purpose of this revelation:

“a light unto the uncovering of the nations, and (the) honor/splendor of your people Yisrael”

The theme of salvation is emphasized in the first two lines:

“Now you (can) loose your slave from (his bonds), O Master, according to your utterance, in peace,
(in) that [i.e. because] my eyes saw your salvation [swthri/a]”

The narrative context would associate the words a)polu/w (“loose from [bondage]”) and dou=lo$ (“slave”) with Simeon’s earthly life, lived in service to God (YHWH) as his Lord/Master (despo/th$), that is, the lord/master of the house who is the owner of the slave. However, the hymn itself can (and should) also be read more generally in terms of salvation from slavery to sin, etc, which is otherwise associated with the birth of Jesus in Lk 1:77, and more directly in Matt 1:21. The mention of peace [ei)rh/nh] also well fits the idea of salvation.

In the last two lines the theme of revelation is emphasized:

“which you made ready down upon the face [i.e. in the presence] of all the people:
a light unto the uncovering of the nations, and (the) honor/splendor of your people Yisrael”

This is already suggested by the use of ei&dw (“see”) and o)fqalmoi/ (“eyes”) in v. 30; the verb ei&dw (oi@da) in Greek is essentially interchangeable with ginw/skw (“know”) and often indicates knowing as well as seeing. The expression kata\ pro/swpon (“down on the face”, “against the face”, i.e. “before the face”) also suggests something that is seen; the word translated “face” (pro/swpon) literally means “toward the eye”, i.e. before one’s eyes, facing, and so the face or “appearance” of a person, etc. For the words fw=$ (“light”) and a)poka/luyi$ (“taking the cover from”, “uncovering”) used for revelation, cf. Part 2 of the series “Gnosis and the New Testament”. The noun do/ca refers to the esteem or honor which a person receives, or which is due to that person (especially God), often described in terms of visual splendor (light-imagery, etc); it is frequently associated with divine revelation in the New Testament. For more on the connection between salvation and revelation, cf. Part 3 in “Gnosis and the New Testament”.

I discuss the Song of Simeon elsewhere, examining each verse (each line) in considerable detail.

As my translation above is an extremely literal (glossed) rendering, the rhythm and feel of the poetry has been obscured; here below, in closing, is a more poetic rendering:

“Now, Master, you can release your slave, according to your word, in peace,
(now) that my eyes have seen your salvation
which you prepared before the face of all (the) people—
a light to uncover (for) the nations,
and (the) splendor of your people Israel.”

Gnosis and the New Testament, Part 2: Knowledge and Salvation

A fundamental aspect of gnostic (and Gnostic) thought is soteriological—that is, salvation in terms of, or by way of, knowledge. This aspect, however, is hardly unique to the quasi-Christian religious groups of the first centuries A.D. (i.e., what is usually labelled “Gnostic” [cf. Part 1 & my article on Gnosticism]); it can be found, in various forms, all throughout the New Testament. Even so, there may a wide range for what is meant, or assumed, with regard to the nature and object of this “knowledge”. It is important, then, to examine the various passages in the New Testament carefully. This I will do in the present article, providing a survey and summary for the most relevant passages, while giving more details exegesis of several key verses in the separate daily notes.

The Terminology

The basic word rendered “save” in New Testament Greek is sw|/zw (sœ¡zœ), occurring more than 100 times. Its fundamental meaning is to make or keep (someone) safe. It can refer to any form of physical protection (esp. in battle), usually with the idea that serious harm (or death) threatens. Sometimes it has the specific sense of rescuing someone (i.e. bringing them to safety), and, in a medical context, can also refer to healing from disease. Naturally, it could be used in a religious context as well, in several ways: (a) protection by the divine powers from harm or loss, (b) deliverance from personal sin and its effects, often through ritual means, and (c) passing through the divine/heavenly Judgment after death. When dealing with this word-group, Christians tend to have (c) in mind, but that is not always the sense which is meant, and assuming it can cause considerable confusion among readers and commentators; the context of each reference must be examined closely. Several important words are derived from the verb sw|/zw: (i) swth/r (sœt¢¡r), “one who saves, savior” [24 times]; (ii) swthri/a (sœt¢ría), “safety, saving, salvation” [46 times]; and (iii) swth/rio$ (sœt¢¡rios), “(adj.) saving” [4 times], used as a substantive “(means of) salvation/protection”. The compound verb diasw/zw (“bring through safely, to safety”) also occurs several times.

There are a number of other words, some partly synonymous, which can relate to the idea of salvation or being saved:

    • r(u/omai, lit. “drag (to safety)”, i.e. rescue, deliver
    • lu/w, “loose”, and esp. the compound a)polu/w, “loose from (bondage, etc)”, i.e. from prison or debt; the related verb lutro/w, with the nouns lu/tron, lu/trwsi$, etc, refers to providing the means for release (from prison, slavery, etc), i.e. ransom, redemption
    • a)fi/hmi, with the noun a&fesi$, “release, loose”, in particular from sin—so used frequently in the NT
    • dikaio/w, “make right, make just, do justice”, with the related noun dikaiosu/nh, adjective di/kaio$, etc.
    • zwopoie/w and zwogone/w, “make alive”, “give/preserve life”, etc
    • words related to healing, health and wholeness: i)a/omai, qerapeu/w, u(giai/nw, etc

In addition there is some vocabulary and idiom which is distinct to early Christian and Jewish thought of the period, such as, for example:

    • the idea of entering or inheriting the kingdom (of God)
    • the way leading toward God
    • finding (eternal) life
    • the words related to resurrection

Concept and range of meaning

Quite often in the New Testament, especially in the Gospel and book of Acts, the verbs sw|/zw (with the noun swthri/a) and r(u/omai refer either generally to saving/protecting a person from physical harm or specifically (in the case of sw|/zw) to healing from disease—cf. Mk 3:4; 5:23, 28; 6:56; 10:52; 13:20; 15:30-31 pars; Luke 1:69, 71, 74; John 11:12; 12:27; Acts 4:9; 14:9; 27:20; Rom 15:31; 2 Cor 1:10; 2 Thess 3:2; Heb 11:17; James 5:15; 2 Pet 2:7-9; Jude 5, et al. If we exclude these references, we are left with the idea of salvation in the deeper religious (and/or metaphysical) sense—of the soul, or of the person in an eschatological (final) sense. The sifting of these references must be done carefully, since there are a number of passages which are ambiguous or which make use of wordplay with different (levels of) meaning, such as Jesus’ famous saying in Mark 8:35 par, or the shipwreck scene in Acts 27 (cf. vv. 20, 31). However, it is possible to isolate two main ways salvation is expressed, from a religious/metaphysical standpoint, in the New Testament and early Christian tradition:

    • Salvation from sin—either: (a) from the effect of personal sins, or (b) from the power and control of sin
    • Salvation from the end-time Judgment by God, often described in terms of being saved from the anger/wrath of God which is about to come upon humankind

Interestingly, the aspect of salvation which is probably most commonly in mind with people today—that of the individual’s personal salvation following death (i.e. from the punishment [of Hell])—is not emphasized particularly in the New Testament. This, of course, was a popular way of thinking even in ancient times, usually depicted in some manner as the person standing before a divine/heavenly tribunal after death to be judged according to his/her deeds and actions while alive. The background of this idea is retained in early Christian thought, as for example, in the Beatitude form (Matt 5:3-12 / Lk 6:20-26) and the image of entering/inheriting the Kingdom (i.e. of the heavenly/eternal life), cf. Mk 9:47; 10:23ff; Matt 5:20; 7:21; 25:34; Jn 3:5; Acts 14:22; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:21, etc. However, specific references to the traditional (afterlife) scene of Judgment are somewhat rare in the New Testament (cf. 2 Cor 5:10; Rom 2:6ff; 14:10-12; also Matt 10:32-33; 12:41-42 par; 25:31-46). This is largely due to the fact that the eschatological emphasis has shifted to the (imminent) coming of the end—that is, the coming of God’s Judgment upon the earth, expected to occur soon, within the lifetime of most people. Early Christians widely shared this expectation, along with many Jews of the period; the distinctly Christian component was the role of Jesus as the Anointed One (Christ) of God and heavenly “Son of Man” whose coming (back) to earth from Heaven would usher in the Judgment. Thus the idea of salvation meant being saved from the Judgment (the anger/wrath of God) about to be visited upon sinful, wicked humanity (cf. the “day of YHWH” motif in the Old Testament Prophets). Christ, as the divine representative of YHWH, oversees the Judgment, but also acts as savior and deliverer of the Elect—that is, of God’s faithful people, the believers. This eschatological context for salvation is found all throughout the New Testament; of the many passages, I would note the following:

A similar (generalized) sense of eschatological salvation is found widely in early Christian thought—e.g., Luke 3:6 [Isa 40:5]; John 3:17; 5:34; 10:9; 12:47; Romans 10:9; 11:14, 26; 1 Cor 1:8; 3:15; 9:22; 10:33; 15:2; Phil 1:6, 9-10; 2:16; 1 Thess 5:23-24; 2 Thess 2:10; 2 Tim 2:4, 10, (15); 4:16; James 1:21; 2:14; 4:12; 5:20; 1 Pet 1:5, 9-10; 4:18? [Prov 11:31]; (2 Pet 2:9); (Jude 23); Heb 1:14; (7:25); 9:28. Virtually the entire book of Revelation deals with this theme.

With regard to the second main aspect of salvation—that of being saved/delivered from sin and its power—this is likewise expressed frequently, and in a number of ways, throughout the New Testament. Salvation from sin, either in a general sense, or in terms of (the effect of) personal sins, is commonly described in terms of “release” (a&fesi$), as of from a debt, bond, or burden. Baptism was originally seen as symbolizing the washing/removal of sin, when it was preceded by genuine repentance. This is the primary sense expressed in the Gospels, with the movement from baptism (as administered by John) to “release” being announced/declared by Jesus (and the apostles) through the authority of his word. Only rarely, however, are the words sw|/zw and swthri/a connected explicitly with salvation from sin (cf. Matt 1:21; Luke 7:50; 19:10 [par]; also James 5:20; Jude 23); even more rare is the direct connection of salvation with repentance (cf. Acts 2:40; 2 Cor 7:10), though the idea of repentance is common enough in the New Testament. Along a similar line, in the apostolic teaching (in the Pauline writings, etc), ethical instruction and exhortation, while frequent, is generally not described in terms of salvation from sin. Much more common is the idea of being loosed or freed from the power and dominion of sin, as from bondage to a wicked and oppressive ruler. This view is central to the theology (and Christology) of the Pauline letters:

It also underlies the Pauline language of purchase/redemption out of slavery (i.e. bondage to sin)—cf. 1 Cor 6:20; 7:23; Gal 2:4; 3:13; 4:4-5; 5:1, 13; Rom 3:24; Col 1:14; Eph 1:7; Tit 2:14. This emphasis on freedom from bondage (to sin) is also found in the Johannine writings, including the discourses of Jesus in the Gospel. It often includes the specific motif of being delivered out of one domain (of sin and darkness) and into another (of truth, light and [eternal] life). These references will be discussed in more detail in a separate article, but it is important to note here that they have a good deal in common with the gnostic viewpoint; and is also expressed variously by Paul in his letters (cf. Gal 1:4; Col 1:12-14; [2 Tim 2:26], and note the entire discussion in Rom 5:12-8:2ff).

Salvation as knowledge

In turning to the idea of salvation specifically in terms of knowledge, we must keep in mind the two primary aspects of salvation outlined above—being saved (1) from the end-time Judgment, and (2) from the power (and domain) of sin. It is the latter aspect which is tied most directly with knowledge (gnw=si$), both in the New Testament and in gnostic thought. The terms “save/salvation” (sw|/zw / swthri/a) and “knowledge” (gnw=si$) appear together in several key passages:

    • Luke 1:77—part of the hymn/oracle of Zechariah, which moves from the deliverance of God’s people from the power of their (historical) enemies (vv. 71, 74) to deliverance from the power of sin. In verse 76 it is prophesied of John that he will act as the messenger of Mal 3:1, who will make ready the way for the Lord when he comes. The main purpose of John’s ministry will be “to give knowledge of salvation [gnw=si$ swthri/a$] to His people”; this knowledge will be disclosed and made manifest in the “release [i.e. forgiveness] of sins”, which is symbolized in the ritual act of baptism. In verse 79, this knowledge is described using the image of light—”to shine upon the (one)s sitting in darkness and (the) shadow of death”.
    • 1 Cor 1:21—”For seeing that in the wisdom of God the world did not know God through the wisdom, God considered (it) good, through the ‘stupidity’ of the proclamation [i.e. of the Gospel], to save the (one)s trusting”. I have discussed this verse as part of a series of notes on 1 Cor 1:18-2:14.
    • 2 Cor 2:14ff—For this important passage, cf. the studies in this series on 2:14 and 4:6.
    • 2 Pet 2:20-21—Again salvation is described as deliverance from sin, but with a slightly different nuance, emphasizing the action of those who come to faith (“fleeing from the defilement of the world”); this action, however, occurs strictly according to the knowledge of the Lord—that is, in our coming to know [e)n e)pignw/sei] him (Christ), who is identified as our savior (“the Savior Yeshua [the] Anointed”). This is personal knowledge of Christ—who he is and what God has done through him—but it is also, in verse 21, connected in religious terms to “the way of justice/righteousness”.

Elsewhere, this soteriological aspect of knowledge is expressed a number of ways, as:

As indicated previously, the motif of knowledge is fundamental in the Johannine writings; even though the noun gnw=si$ does not appear, the verb ginw/skw (“know”) occurs 86 times (56 in the Gospel), while the largely synonymous ei&dw (oi@da, “see, know”) occurs 113 times (85 in the Gospel). These passages are surveyed in a separate article, but several key verses should be noted here, which strongly express the idea of salvation by way of knowledge:

    • John 4:22—”you worship what you have not seen/known, we worship what we have seen/known—(in) that [i.e. because] salvation is out of the Jews”. This saying reflects the wordplay and dual-meaning typical of the discourses of Jesus in John. On the one hand, he seems to be expressing simply the traditional religious (and nationalistic) view that the Jews, rather than Samaritans, have preserved the true faith. However, according to the deeper spiritual meaning of his words, we have the idea that salvation comes “out of” (from) the Jews in the sense that Jesus himself came to be born and appear among the people, though without their knowing/realizing it. This true religious knowledge only comes by way of the Spirit (v. 23, cf. 3:3-8).
    • John 8:32—”and you will know the truth and the truth will make/set you free”. I discuss this verse in a separate pair of notes. For the idiom of knowing the truth, cf. above.
    • John 14:4-7—all of the important terms and motifs of knowledge and seeing, the relation between Father and Son (and the believer), etc., are encapsulated in this sequence of verses, centered around Jesus’ famous declaration: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life—no one comes toward the Father if not through me”. Knowledge of the way (o(do/$) which leads to God and (eternal) life involves knowing/seeing the Son who manifests the Father. Cf. my notes on this passage.
    • John 17:3—the declaration by Jesus in this verse is perhaps the most explicitly “gnostic” soteriological formulation in the New Testament (cf. the separate study):
      “And this is the life of (the) Ages [i.e. eternal life]: that they should know You the only true God and the (one) whom You se(n)t forth, Yeshua (the) Anointed”.
    • 1 John 4:7—I include this verse because of the close connection it gives between knowing God and coming to be born from Him, drawing upon the distinctly Johannine relationship between spiritual birth (regeneration) and salvation (cf. John 1:9-13; 3:1-21, etc).

A gnostic approach in the New Testament?

Based on a number of the passages cited and discussed above, a strong argument can be made that there is, indeed, a gnostic component to the view of salvation expressed in the New Testament, especially within the Pauline and Johannine writings. At the same time, however, several other aspects of early Christian thought serve as a check or counterbalance toward the development of any (exaggerated) gnostic tendencies. Here, in conclusion of this article, I highlight what are probably the three most important elements in the New Testament in this regard, each of which will be discussed at different points in the remaining notes and articles of this series:

  • The emphasis on trust/faith—Much moreso than knowledge, salvation is expressed in terms of trust (pi/sti$), specifically trust in Christ as the means and embodiment of the (way of) salvation provided by God. When Jesus speaks of being “saved” by trust, it is usually in the context of physical healing (i.e., trust that Jesus has the power to heal); but, occasionally, the reference is to salvation from sin or eschatological salvation (Lk 7:50). In the early Gospel preaching and in the subsequent writings, it is trust/faith in the person and work of Jesus which is in view. This is especially prominent in the Pauline writings—cf. 2 Thess 2:12; 1 Cor 1:21; Gal 2:16ff; Rom 3:21-22; 10:9-13; Eph 2:8; 2 Tim 3:15; 1 Tim 4:10—and is ultimately expressed through the developed Pauline concept of “justification” by faith (Gal 2:16-21; 3:6-14, 21-22ff; 5:4-6; Phil 3:9; Eph 2:8-9; Tit 3:4-7, and frequently throughout Romans). Ephesians 2:8 provides the most explicit statement:
    “For by (the) favor (of God) you are (one)s (who) have come to be saved, through trust; and this (comes) not out of you (yourselves), but (is) the present/gift of God…”
  • The person of Christ, and the believers’ union with him—While a central savior figure, who reveals the knowledge of salvation, is common to gnostic (and Gnostic) thought, the primacy and centrality of Christ in the New Testament and early (orthodox) Christianity is especially significant. Salvation comes through knowing Christ, as poignantly expressed by Paul in Phil 3:8-10 (cf. the note on this passage). An even stronger Christological aspect of salvation is found in Col 1:26-27 and 2:2-3 (also discussed in a separate study). This orientation is still more pronounced in the Gospel and letters of John, as will be discussed in a separate article. It is no coincidence that the disputes between (proto-)Orthodox and Gnostic Christians of the 2nd and 3rd centuries tended to be christological in nature—that is, precisely how one should properly regard Jesus Christ as the Savior. The presentation of Jesus in the Pauline and Johannine writings could easily be interpreted in a decidedly gnostic manner. It is possible that 1 John already shows this dynamic at work (cf. 2:18-25; 4:1-6; 5:6-12), and the attempt to combat it.
  • The emphasis on love—The “love command (or principle)” is fundamental to early Christianity, normative for guiding behavior and relationships within the Community. It derives from Jesus’ teaching and has special prominence even in those writings (i.e. the Pauline and Johannine) which exhibit the greatest affinity with gnostic thought. In 1 Corinthians, Paul goes out of his way to set love over against any exaggerated sense of (spiritual) knowledge—cf. 8:1ff; 12:31b-14:1a; 16:14. Here he is referring to knowledge as a (prophetic) gift of the Spirit, not in the fundamental sense of knowing Christ. Indeed, Paul would surely say that knowledge of Christ, for the believer, means being guided by his presence (through the Spirit), following his example, which is epitomized and demonstrated perfectly through love.

“Gnosis” in the NT: Phil 3:8-10

Philippians 3:8-10

Another important occurrence of the words gnw=si$ (“knowledge”) and ginw/skw (“know”) is Philippians 3:8-10. Verses 7-11 are central to the discussion in chapter 3, where Paul establishes an autobiographical illustration to exhort the believers in the Philippian churches to endure in the face of persecution. The harsh language he uses to describe (at least some of) his Jewish opponents in verse 2, is, we may say, regrettable. While altogether typical of the polemical style of the time, it is ultimately unnecessary for the point he is making. Nevertheless, it is in referring to Jewish (and Jewish Christian) opponents, that Paul unleashes some of his most severe rhetorical outbursts (cf. 1 Thess 2:14-16; Gal 5:7-12; 6:12-14; 2 Cor 11:1-12:13). Beginning with the issue of circumcision (v. 3), so important to the early disputes among Jewish Christians (Acts 15:1ff; 21:21; Gal 2; 5:1-12; 6:12-16; Rom 2:25-29; 4:9-12; 1 Cor 7:18-19; Col 2:11), he extends the symbolism by use of the word flesh (sa/rc), which is set in contrast with the Spirit (pneu=ma), as often in Paul’s letters (Rom 7:14; 8:3-4ff, 12-13; 1 Cor 3:1ff; 6:16-17; 15:39, 44-46; Gal 3:3; 4:29-31; 5:16-25; 6:8). In verse 4, he describes his (Jewish) religious experience, prior to his conversion, and the religious status which he achieved, as being of the flesh—”and (indeed) I am (one) holding persuasion [i.e. confidence/assurance] in the flesh [e)n sarki/]”—using the same kind of rhetorical “boasting” as he does in 1 Cor 11-12. Here, too, Paul engages in exaggeration or hyperbole:

“If any other (person) considers (himself) to have persuasion [i.e. confidence] in the flesh, I rather (have even) more: cut around [i.e. circumcised] (on the) eighth (day), coming to be (born) out of Israel, of the offspring of Benjamin, a Hebrew out of Hebrews, a Pharisee according to the Law, pursuing [i.e. persecuting] the congregation [e)kklhsi/a] (of Christ) according to (my) burning (zeal), coming to be without fault according to the justice/righteousness [dikaiosu/nh] th(at is) in the Law” (vv. 4b-6)

He boasts of achieving a nearly perfect fulfillment of the religious “righteousness” as it was understood in the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah). That this was of the flesh (and not the Spirit) is clear from that the fact that he vigorously persecuted the early Christians (cf. Acts 8:1-3; 9:1-22), fulfilling the same conflict expressed in Gal 4:29: “but just as (it was) then (that) the (one) coming to be (born) according to the flesh pursued [i.e. persecuted] the (one born) according to the Spirit, so also (it is this way) now”. This fleshly religious achievement Paul ultimately rejects or devalues in verses 7-10, utilizing the language of commerce—profit/gain (ke/rdo$) and damage/loss (zhmi/a):

“[But] the (thing)s which were profit for me, those (same thing)s through (the) Anointed {Christ} I have (since) brought out as damage(d) [i.e. regarded as loss]” (v. 7)

The word zhmi/a fundamentally means something like “disadvantage”—i.e., the religious experience and status which Paul thought was to his advantage actually is to one’s harm or disadvantage in Christ (cf. Gal 5:2-4). Again, he widens the scope of his statement, from the things related to religion to all things (pa/nta); note the parallelism:

    • “these things [tau=ta] I have brought out [h%ghmai] as damage/loss [zhmi/an] through Christ [dia\ to\n Xristo/n]” (v. 7)
    • “all things [pa/nta] I (now) bring out [h(gou=mai] to be damaged/lost [zhmi/an] through…of Christ [dia\ to\Xristou=]” (v. 8)

The last two expressions are parallel, but, perhaps, not exactly equivalent:

dia\ to\n Xristo/n (“through the Anointed”)—the perfect verbal form h%gmai (“I have brought [out]”, i.e. in my mind, “I have considered/regarded”) suggests Paul’s conversion experience, similar to the believer’s response to the Gospel message, something which took place in the past but continues on into the present. Thus I would take the expression “through Christ” as encapsulating and summarizing the Gospel message (of Christ) and its effect on the believer.

dia\ to\ u(pere/xon th=$ gnw/sew$ Xristou=  )Ihsou= tou= kuri/ou mou (“through the overriding [greatness] of the knowledge of [the] Anointed Yeshua my Lord”)—the very length of this expression suggests knowledge, i.e. the believer (Paul) comes to understand the greatness of Jesus and who he is (the Anointed One and [my] Lord). For a similar genitive chain (also using the word gnw=si$, “knowledge”, cf. 2 Cor 4:6 and my study on this verse). The verb u(pere/xw literally means “holding (oneself) over”, often in the more abstract sense of something being above, i.e. excellent, superior, etc. I have tried to preserve the literal meaning of the participle here with the translation “overriding (greatness)”, but the basic idea is that the knowledge of Christ far surpasses all other things we may come to know or experience. Just what does Paul mean by the “knowledge of Christ”? He clarifies this in the remainder of verse 8 and 9, which functions virtually as an exposition of the Gospel:

    1. That he is “my Lord” (ku/rio$ mou)—for Paul, as for most Christians, this has a two-fold meaning: (a) he is Lord in the basic sense of “master, guide, teacher, etc”, and (b) he is identified with God (YHWH), the Lord (see esp. Phil 2:9-10).
    2. I have experienced the loss/damage/disadvantage of all (other) things through him—cf. verse 7; not only have all things (outside of Christ) become lost/damaged for Paul, he actually considers them to be sku/balon, a somewhat obscure word which can refer to scraps to be thrown out, food for animals, rotten food, even excrement—perhaps “garbage” is a good modern equivalent. This is a bit of rhetorical exaggeration, to be sure, but the point of it is clear.
    3. That I might gain Christ, and/or profit from him—continuing the language of profit/loss; the verb here could be understood in two different aspects: (a) gaining the blessing and benefit from knowing Christ (as a believer), and (b) gaining the experience of knowing Christ in full, at the end-time. Presumably, Paul has the latter primarily in mind.
    4. That I might be found in him—parallel to the previous phrase, drawing upon the familiar (Pauline) idiom of being “in Christ” (e)n Xristw=|); according to this expression, believers are united with Christ in three aspects: (1) through the presence of the Spirit, (2) the symbolism of baptism, and (3) the communal experience of believers together (the “body of Christ”). However, it is the eschatological sense which Paul again has in mind here, perhaps drawing upon the idea expressed in Col 3:1-4.
    5. Holding the justice/righteousness of God—here we have the familiar Pauline contrast between the righteousness of God and the righteousness that comes through observing the Law. In his earlier religious experience, Paul had something of the latter, but not the former (cf. Rom 10:1-4 which well expands upon the statement here). The expression e)k qeou= specifies that true righteousness is that which comes from God (lit. out of him). It comes only by way of faith/trust (pi/sti$) in Christ, another fundamental Pauline teaching, which he expresses here two ways: “through [dia/] (the) trust” and “upon [e)pi/] the trust”.

The syntactical relation of verse 10 with the previous verses is not entirely clear. It begins with the articular infinitive tou= gnw=nai (“the knowing [of], to know”), which I prefer to view as epexegetical with verse 8a, forming an inclusive parallel:

    • “through the overriding (greatness) of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord” (8a)
      —”through whom…” (8b)
      —”and I…in him…through faith…” (9)
    • “the knowing (of) him…” (10a)

What follows in vv. 10-11 reflects a somewhat different sense of “knowing” Christ; if the knowledge in vv. 8-9 relates fundamentally to the message of the Gospel, that in vv. 10-11 is symbolic of the believer’s union with Christ—i.e., participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. This is clearly expressed at the start of v. 10: “knowing him and the power of his standing up [i.e. resurrection] (from the dead)”. The logic here is as straightforward as it is profound:

    • to know the power of his resurrection, which is experienced by:
      —sharing in his sufferings (“the common [shar]ing [koinwni/a] of his sufferings”)
      —being (con)formed to his death (“being shaped together with his death”)
    • to come into the resurrection from the dead

By sharing in the suffering and death of Christ—symbolized in baptism, and experienced throughout the Christian life with its share of trials and persecution—one has the promise of sharing in his resurrection at the end-time. This eschatological sense is parallel with the expressions in vv. 8b-9a, marked by use of the subjunctive:

    • “that I might gain Christ” (8b)
      “and might be found in him” (9a)
    • “if (some)how I might come down into the resurrection…” (11)

I have here translated the verb katanta/w (“come down [against]”) quite literally, in order to preserve the idea of participating in the death (and burial) of Jesus. It also carries the sense of coming to meet someone, or to meet/arrive at a goal, etc. The eschatological context is clear enough—the believer rises to meet Christ at the end-time (1 Thess 4:16-17; Col 3:1-4).

One final aspect of knowledge, not stated in vv. 7-11, but implied throughout the passage, is that one comes to know Christ (and God the Father) through the Spirit. The contrast between the flesh and the Spirit is central to Paul’s discussion (cf. above), though the Spirit (pneu=ma) is only mentioned directly at the start, in verse 3. That the presence of the Spirit is central, and parallel with the believer’s knowledge of Christ, I demonstrate with a chiastic outline:

    • “For we are the circumcision
      —”the (one)s doing service for God in the Spirit
      —”and speaking (out) loud [i.e. rejoicing/’boasting’] in Christ Jesus
    • “and not having been persuaded [i.e. having confidence] in (the) flesh

Gnosis and the New Testament: Introduction

Gnosis is an English transliteration of the Greek word gnw=si$ (gnœ¡sis), meaning “knowledge”. This series of articles and notes will approach the New Testament from the standpoint of the relationship between (early) Christianity and gnosticism. This approach is useful and important for several reasons:

    1. It helps to bring into focus several aspects of early Christianity which cannot be explained entirely from the background of the Old Testament and Israelite/Jewish tradition.
    2. It brings greater clarity as well to the religious-cultural background of the New Testament, both from a Jewish and Greco-Roman viewpoint. The importance of a proper view of the ancient way of thinking, as opposed to assumptions based on a modern-day mindset, for interpreting Scripture, must always be stressed.
    3. Much of the religious self-identity of early Christians was formed in the context of disputes involving gnostic (and/or Gnostic) ways of understanding Scripture and religious tradition. This can be seen, to some extent, and at various points, already in the New Testament writings—especially the later texts from c. 60-90 A.D.

To begin with, it is important to consider the term “gnosticism”, one of the most problematic and ill-defined in Christian and religious studies (on this, see especially my earlier article). The word itself is, of course, derived from gnosis (gnw=si$). “Gnostics” (gnwstikoi/, gnœstikoí) are literally the “ones who know, knowing ones”, i.e. those possessing knowledge, or who have come to be so. Much of the confusion surrounding the terms “Gnostic, Gnosticism,” etc, stems from the fact that there are, properly, two fundamental ways they can be used or understood: (1) as a phenomenon of religion, or (2) as a specific historical religious development in the first centuries A.D.

In 1966, an important scholarly conference (the Messina Colloquium) was held which specifically addressed the subject of “Gnosticism”. It was deemed advisable to use the term “Gnosis” for the wider religious phenomenon (1), while reserving “Gnosticism” for the historical phenomenon of the 1st-2nd century (2). In the subsequent decades, a number of scholars have retained this distinction; it is useful enough, from a practical standpoint, and is part of the reason I have used the word “Gnosis” in the title of this series. However, as I discussed in my earlier article, I believe it is better (and more precise) to distinguish between the more general and specific senses of the word “gnosticism” itself. Indeed, I prefer to make the distinction with lower and upper case letters—”gnosticism” (little g) for the general religious phenomenon, and “Gnosticism” (big G) primarily when referring to the (heterodox/heretical) quasi-Christian groups and beliefs from the first centuries A.D.

Definition of Terms

Drawing from my earlier article, here is the basic definition I will be using in this series—gnosticism is:

A set of beliefs or tendencies which emphasize salvation, as well as other fundamental aspects of religious identity or status, in terms of knowledge.

Often this will take the place of, or take priority over, ceremonial, ritual or cultic means. As such, it is similar in certain respects to the phenomena of mysticism and spiritualism. There are two main components, or aspects, to this knowledge:

    1. A person comes to know or realize his/her true nature (religious/spiritual identity), of which, in ignorance, he/she had previously been unaware or only glimpsed in part.
    2. This knowledge (salvation) comes only through special revelation not normally accessible to people at large.

With regard to this last point, special (divine) revelation is typically considered necessary due to the evil/fallen condition of the world around us, with the result that humanity has been ‘lost’ in ignorance. The presence of a “savior figure”—a divine being or representative—is required to bring knowledge.

Perhaps the most common and distinctive aspect of gnostic (and Gnostic) thought is the way it is expressed in markedly dualistic language and vocabulary, emphasizing conflict or contrast—light vs. darkness, true vs. false, knowledge vs. ignorance, mind/spirit vs. body/flesh, etc. In gnosticism, such basic religious pairings become more prominent, used with greater consistency, often reflecting a particular worldview or cosmology. For more on a definition and explanation of the term “dualism”, cf. the associated article here.

The Gnosticism which is attested in the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D., as reported by (proto-orthodox) Christian authors, as well as found in a number of surviving texts, may be defined this way:

Groups, individuals, and writings which reflect strongly gnostic beliefs and/or a gnostic worldview (cf. above), and which are characterized by a blending of Christian and other religious/philosophical components; this syncret(ist)ic character results in a (heterodox) form of Christianity which differs in many respects from the theology, tradition, and interpretation of Scripture found in the (proto-)orthodox writings of the period.

The Issue of Salvation

The above definition of gnosticism emphasizes soteriology—that is, salvation in terms of knowledge (gnosis). This is one of the key topics that will be discussed in this series. However, by way of introduction, it may be helpful to consider the basic understanding of “salvation” assumed by early Christians. In modern times, when Christians speak of being “saved”, it is typically understood in terms of individual, personal salvation, specifically a person’s fate after death. A careful reading of the New Testament, however, shows that this was not a major component of what early Christians had in mind when using the words sw/zw (sœ¡zœ, “save”) and the related noun swthri/a (sœt¢ría, “salvation”). The relevant passages will be discussed in an upcoming article (Part 2 of this series), along with several supplemental notes, but the results of this study may be previewed here, as indicating two main aspects of the early Christian understanding; fundamentally, salvation relates to:

    • Being saved from the end-time Divine Judgment that is about to come upon the world (and humankind)
    • Being delivered from the sin and evil that dominates and controls the world (and humankind)

The first aspect was more or less inherited from Jewish eschatology of the period, but sharpened among early Christians (as in the Community of the Qumran texts) with their distinctive religious identity. It gained special prominence with the belief that Jesus Christ, as the Anointed One (Messiah) and “Son of Man”, was God’s end-time representative who will appear to usher in the Judgment. The belief that this Last Judgment was imminent—about to occur within the lifetime of most believers—was shared by nearly all Christians at the time, as the New Testament writings amply attest. Only at the end of the New Testament period (c. 80-100 A.D.) does this strong eschatological emphasis begin to disappear somewhat.

The second aspect is best known from Paul’s letters, frequently described in terms of release and freedom from bondage—that is, bondage to sin, and the power of evil. His unique handling of the relation of believers to Judaism and the Old Testament/Jewish Law resulted in a parallel formulation: freedom from bondage to the Law—for believers the normative, guiding religious principles now come from the presence of the Holy Spirit and the example of Christ. Occasionally, in both Pauline and Johannine thought, we also find the wider idea of believers being transferred from one domain or kingdom (that of darkness and evil) to another (of God, light and truth, etc). This particular way of describing salvation is, on the whole, closer to the Gnostic approach.

Outline of Topics

Here is an outline of the articles for this series:

    • Part 1: The word gnwsi$ and related terms in the New Testament
    • Part 2: Knowledge and Salvation
    • Part 3: Revelation
      • Special Study: Knowledge and Revelation in the Johannine Writings
    • Part 4: Tradition and Religious (Christian) Identity
    • Part 5: Predestination: Christians as the Elect Community
    • Part 6: Dualism

The Salvation of “All Israel” in Romans 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Verse 5—he applies the situation in 1 Kings 19:9-18 to his own (current) time: “so then, even now in (this) time, there has come to be a (remainder) left behind [lei=mma] according to (the) gathering out of [i.e. by] (the) favor (of God)”. In verse 4, the verb used is kataleip/w (“leave down, leave behind”); the noun lei=mma is related to lei/pw, indicating something which is left (behind), either in a positive or negative sense. The word lei=mma is typically translated as “remainder” or “remnant”; but here, as indicated above, this remnant is understood as a people gathered out (the noun e)klogh/, from e)kle/gomai, “gather out”), i.e. elected by God, just as Israel herself was chosen as his people.
  • Verse 6—this gathering out is the result of the favor (xa/ri$) of God, and not because of anything the people have done. Here Paul moves away from the Old Testament passage again, which seems to tie the people’s being spared with their particular religious behavior; instead, he emphasizes that the gathering out is no longer (ou)ke/ti, “not yet, not any more”) based on works (“out of works”, e)c e&rgwn). He has already applied this very idea to the example of Abraham in Galatians 3 and Romans 4.
  • Verse 7—only the remnant obtains what Israel seeks after (cf. Rom 9:30-33), the rest were hardened (lit. turned to stone). The metaphor of “hardening the heart” is common in the Old Testament, most famously in the example of Pharaoh in the Exodus narrative, which Paul references in Rom 9:14-18.
  • Verse 12—this verse is transitional, following Paul’s answer to the (second) rhetorical question (in verse 11), and leading into the address of vv. 13-24. He introduces the first of several qal wahomer exclamations, arguing from the lesser to the greater—i.e., if in this lesser/inferior case it is so, then how much more so when…! The contrast is between Israel’s h%tthma (“loss, defeat”), parallel with para/ptwma (“falling alongside [i.e. over the line]”), and their plh/rwma (“filling [up], fullness”). The exact meaning of plh/rwma here is important for the overall flow and force of Paul’s argument; I think it is best to understand it in the sense of a restoration (filling up) of what was lost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    • Not all Israelites are the true Israel (9:6), and
    • They fell away (i.e. refused to believe) in order to make room for the Gentiles to come to faith
      —this last proposition is most vividly illustrated by the image of the olive tree and the branches (11:17-24)
      • Paul viewed Christianity as the outgrowth of (faithful) Israel stretching back to Abraham (i.e., the “remnant” is the root of the tree)
      • The branches which are faithful and remain in the tree (cf. John 15:1-11) are the early Jewish believers
      • The branches of the wild olive tree are the Gentiles—believers are grafted into the tree of ‘true Israel’
      • The branches which were broken off (i.e., unbelieving Israelites and Jews) may yet come to faith and be grafted back in

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

Paul’s View of the Law: Romans (9:1-11:32)

Romans 9-11

These famous chapters in Romans have been notoriously difficult to interpret, not least in terms of how exactly they fit into the overall structure of the letter. From the standpoint of rhetorical analysis, Rom 1:18-8:39 clearly represents the probatio, the presentation of arguments in support of the main proposition (Rom 1:16-17). I have already discussed in detail each of the four main sections which make up the probatio, according to the thematic division presented as four announcements:

Through the arguments in these sections, Paul effectively expounds his central (two-fold) proposition:

“I do not feel shame upon [i.e. about] the good message [i.e. Gospel],
for it is the power of God unto salvation to every (one) th(at is) trusting—to the Yehudean {Jew} first and (also) to the Greek.
For the justice/righteousness of God is uncovered in it, out of trust (and) into trust, even as it has been written: ‘but the just/righteous (person) will live out of trust’.”

In chapters 9-11 he further expounds one portion specifically: “unto salvation to every one that trusts—to the Jew first and (also) to the Greek“. This section has been referred to as a refutatio—a refutation by Paul of (possible) arguments made especially by Gentiles in Rome with regard to the role and position of Jewish believers (cf. B. Witherington, Paul’s Letter to the Romans Eerdmans [2004], pp. 237-9). However, I do not see Paul’s approach here as being appreciably different from the one he takes in earlier in chapters 2-4; there is an interesting symmetry and balance of presentation:

    • Rom 2-4—addressed primarily to Jews, emphasizing that Gentiles are on an equal footing before God with regard to both judgment and salvation
    • Rom 9-11—addressed primarily to Gentiles, emphasizing the (future) salvation of Israelites/Jews and their inclusion into the body of Christ

In between (Rom 5-8) Paul presents a kind of “salvation history”, an exposition of the Gospel message for all human beings—Jews and Gentiles alike. Chapters 9-11 actually have the character of a personal appeal or confession—indeed, this characterizes each of the sections (matching the numbered chapters):

The opening verses of each section, with their personal and moving tone, lead into a presentation of arguments. The main issue at hand is how the Israelite/Jewish people relate to the new Christian identity. As a missionary and representative (apostle) of Christ, Paul saw how many of his fellow Israelites and Jews had been unwilling to accept the Gospel, some even being openly hostile to his missionary work (as narrated repeatedly in the book of Acts, cf. also 1 Thess 2:14-16, etc). Even Jewish believers could be opposed to his presentation of the Gospel, especially his unique view of the Law and his missionary approach to the Gentiles, as seen in Acts 15:1ff and throughout Galatians. At some level, this must have been traumatic for Paul, and difficult to understand—how could so many of God’s elect people, Israel, fail to trust in Christ? While he never really addresses this directly in his other surviving letters, it is clear that he had thought about it a good deal. The result is the wonderful, if somewhat enigmatic, exposition here in Romans 9-11.

I present my analysis of these chapters in summary, outline form, discussing several key verses in more detail in separate notes.

Romans 9

Rom 9:1-5—Paul’s personal address: Israel (“they are Israelites…”, vv. 4-5)

In vv. 1-3, Paul offers a moving confession of the sadness and burden he feels for his fellow Jews, whom he refers to as “my brothers” and “my kin (lit. ones coming to be [born] with me)”, and who, most notably, are Israelites (ei)sin  )Israhli=tai). This leads in vv. 4-5 to an announcement of the benefits and honors accorded to Israel by God, culminating in the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh (“according to the flesh”, kata\ sa/rka). The setting forth (establishment) of the Law (nomoqesi/a) is, of course, one of these honors.

Rom 9:6-13—Argument: Not all Israel is the true Israel.

This is defined clearly by Paul in verse 6:

“But (it is) not so that the word/account of God has fallen out [i.e. failed]: for these—all the (one)s out of Israel—are not Israel.”

The specific syntax of this last statement is important. The negative particle ou) governs the statement as a whole: ou) ga\rou!toi  )Israh/l (“for these…are not Israel”); and these (ou!toi) refer to the preceding phrase pa/nte$ oi( e)c  )Israh/l (“all the ones out of Israel”). Secondarily, one may also read the negative particle with pa/nte$, “not all the ones out of Israel.. are Israel”. The preposition e)k here means “out of” in the sense of physical/biological descent from (i.e. “offspring of the flesh”, v. 8). In other words the true Israel is not simply the same as all Israelites taken in the ethnic/cultural sense. Paul builds on this by returning to the example of Abraham from chapter 4 (cf. also Gal 3-4), emphasizing that Isaac was his “seed” according to the promise of God, and not simply out of his flesh. Abraham’s true descendants likewise are the “offspring of the promise” (ta\ te/kna th=$ e)paggeli/a$), v. 8. In a similar manner, Paul emphasizes that Isaac’s son Israel was chosen (“called out”) by God beforehand, in contrast to his other son Esau—i.e., the blessing was not based simply on birth or genealogy (vv. 11-13).

Rom 9:14-33—Exposition: Three arguments, each beginning with a rhetorical question:

    • Vv. 14-18—”What then shall we declare [ti/ ou@n e)rou=men]? There is not injustice [a)diki/a] alongside God (is there)? May it not come to be (so)!”
    • Vv. 19-29—”You will therefore declare to me [e)rei=$ moi ou@n]: For what [i.e. why] then does He yet find fault (with us)? For who has stood against His counsel [i.e. what He has resolved to do]?”
    • Vv. 30-33—”What then shall we declare [ti/ ou@n e)rou=men]? That the nations not pursuing justice have taken hold of justice…but Israel, pursuing (the) Law of justice…did not arrive (first)…?

The first two arguments (vv. 14-29) relate to the example of Isaac in vv. 6-13, of how God chose Israel beforehand (over Esau). These verses came to be central to subsequent theological debates regarding “predestination” and the sovereignty of God—i.e., how God may accept one person and reject another, quite apart from anything done to deserve such blessing. Unfortunately, this doctrinal emphasis tends to wrench the passage well out of its original context, as is quite clear from the the concluding argument in vv. 30-33, where Paul returns to the main statement of v. 6. Because of their importance to Paul’s view of the Law, verses 30-33 will be discussed in a separate note.

Romans 10

Rom 10:1-4—Paul’s personal address: The Law and justice/righteousness (vv. 3-4)

Paul offers a personal confession, similar to that in 9:1-3; here he expresses his desire (and prayer) that Israel might be saved—”(my) need (expressed) [i.e. prayer] toward God over them unto (their) salvation” (v. 1b). In verses 2-3 he offers his diagnosis regarding Israel’s current situation:

“For I witness regarding them that they hold a fervent desire of God, but not according to (true) knowledge upon (Him); for, lacking knowledge of the justice/righteousness of God, and seeking to stand (up) th(eir) own [justice/righteousness], they did not put themselves (in order) under the justice/righteousness of God.”

Then follows, by way of contrast, the famous statement in verse 4, functioning as a concise (and controversial) summary of the Gospel:

“For (the) Anointed {Christ} is (the) te/lo$ of the Law unto justice/righteousness for every (one) th(at) is trusting.”

This verse (along with vv. 2-3) will be discussed in a separate note.

Rom 10:5-13—Argument: Justice/righteousness is realized in Christ.

This argument is essentially a commentary on Leviticus 18:5, which Paul also cites in a similar context in Gal 3:10-14. It is part of his regular contrast between the Law, which one observes by doing (“works of the Law”), and trust/faith (in Christ). The contrast is stark indeed—”justice/righteousness out of the Law” vs. “justice/righteousness out of faith/trust”. His supplemental usage here of Deut 30:11-14 is interesting, illustrating dramatically the righteousness based on doing, taken to extremes: “step up into the (high) heaven…step down into the deep (pit)”, adding the detail that the purpose is to “bring the Anointed down” and “bring the Anointed up”. The idea seems to be that this righteousness through deeds (i.e. observance of the Law) effectively takes the place of the true righteousness of God found in Christ, as expressed in v. 3. Another difference is that true righteousness is realized through the “utterance in the mouth… and in the heart” (v. 8, citing Deut 30:14); this utterance (r(h=ma) is then identified with the “word” or proclamation (kh/rugma) of the Gospel. Paul cites a kerygmatic formula in verse 9, expounding it in vv. 10-11, and applying it to all people—Jews and Gentiles equally—who trust in Christ, and confess this trust, i.e. “all who call upon him” (v. 12f, citing Joel 2:32 [cf. Acts 2:21]).

Rom 10:14-21—Exposition: The Proclamation of the Gospel, and Israel’s response to it, in three parts:

    • The proclamation of the Gospel (vv. 14-15)
    • Israel’s response to the Gospel—not all have faith (vv. 16-17)
    • Evidence of this in the Scriptures (vv. 18-21, citing Psalm 19:4; Deut 32:21; Isa 65:1-2)

The statement in v. 16, “not all have obeyed [lit. listened/heard under] the good message”, relates back to the main argument in 9:6—not all Israelites are (the true) Israel. The implication is, that the true Israel is represented by those who accept the Gospel and trust in Jesus Christ. This is the message of chapters 9 and 10, in summary form. It is important to keep this in mind when studying chapter 11 (below).

Romans 11

Rom 11:1-12—Paul’s address (and argument): The People of God (“His people”, vv. 1ff)

The structure of this chapter is somewhat different from the previous two—here Paul’s personal address in relation to Israel is embedded within a larger discussion of Israel’s role as the people of God. Verses 1-12 actually form an argument from Scripture (vv. 3-10), framed by two similar rhetorical questions:

    • Vv. 1-2: “I relate then [le/gw ou@n]…”
      Question: “God has not pushed his people away from (him, has he)?”
      Answer: “May it not come to be (so) [mh\ ge/noito]!… God has not pushed away from (him) his people whom he knew before(hand).”
    • Vv. 11-12: “I relate then [le/gw ou@n]…”
      Question: “They have not started to fall (so) that they should fall (completely, have they)?”
      Answer: “May it not come to be (so) [mh\ ge/noito]! But by their falling alongside, the salvation for the Gentiles (has come), to bring them [i.e. Israel] along to a burning (desire) [i.e. to jealously].”

The central argument from Scripture (vv. 3-10) draws upon the narrative from 1 Kings 19:9-18, and the idea of a faithful remnant of Israel—”so then also in this time now there has come to be a (remainder) left over, according to the gathering out of [i.e. by] (the) favor (of God)” (v. 5).

Rom 11:13-32—Exposition: A Two-fold address to Gentile believers:

    • Vv. 13-24—Illustration of the olive tree and its branches
    • Vv. 25-32—Discourse on the (eschatological) salvation of Israel

Rom 11:33-36—Doxology on the wisdom and knowledge of God

Because of the importance of this chapter, especially verses 13-32, in terms of Paul’s view of the Law, as well as the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in Christ, it will be discussed in more detail in a supplementary article.

July 31: 2 Corinthians 5:21

In today’s note I will be looking at Romans 8:3-4 in comparison with 2 Corinthians 5:21. These two passages connect the incarnation of Christ with God’s work of salvation for humankind. From the beginning, Christians understood the sacrificial and salvific character of Jesus’ death, and that he was God’s unique representative; but here, in these two letters, perhaps for the first time, we find a developed doctrine blending soteriology with Christology. As 2 Corinthians was likely written before Romans, I will begin with 2 Cor 5:21.

2 Corinthians 5:21

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

The context of this passage (2 Cor 5:11-21) is similar to that of Phil 2:1-11—an appeal for peace and unity among believers is connected with the example of God’s sacrificial and saving work in Christ. Here in 2 Corinthians, the emphasis is on reconciliationkatallagh/, vb. katalla/ssw, to make things different, mutually, between two parties. In vv. 18-19, Paul makes two statements:

    • God is “the (One) making (things) different [katalla/canto$] (for) us with Himself through [dia/] (the) Anointed” (v. 18)
    • God “was [h@n] in [e)n] (the) Anointed, making (things) different [katalla/sswn] (for the) world with Himself” (v. 19)

In both instances, a participial form of the verb is used: the first in the aorist (indicating a past action), the second in the present. In verse 18, it is “us” (believers) for whom the situation has been changed with God; in verse 19, it is the entire world. This particular work of reconciliation is glossed and interpreted by Paul as “not counting for them (the instances of) their falling alongside [paraptw/mata]”, i.e., not reckoning their sins and failures, understood as violations/transgressions of the Law, especially in its moral/ethical aspect. We also see, in each statement regarding God’s work of reconciliation in/through Christ, a corresponding declaration of the work of reconciliation God intends for believers (focused primarily in the apostolic ministry):

    • “…and (also) giving to us the service [diakoni/a] of making (things) different [i.e. reconciliation, katallagh/]” (v. 18)
    • “…and (also) placing in us the word/account [lo/go$] of making (things) different [i.e. reconciliation]” (v. 19)

It may be helpful to examine each element of verse 21:

to\n mh\ gno/nta (“the [one] not knowing”)—i.e. Jesus Christ; here the verb know (ginw/skw) probably should be understood in the sense of familiarity.

a(marti/an (“sin”)—The expression mh\ gno/nta a(marti/an is sometimes translated as “knowing no sin“; but the negative particle relates primarily to the verb, and thus the emphasis is on “not knowing sin”. Paul doubtless would affirm something corresponding to the later orthodox belief regarding the sinlessness of Christ; however, when referring to specific sins or misdeeds, he typically uses the words para/ptwma (cf. in v. 19), para/basi$, or a(marti/a in the plural. The use of the singular here could indicate the idea of sin in the more general, abstract sense; or, as often in Romans especially, of sin as a power. To describe Jesus as “the one not knowing sin” probably means, for Paul, that he was the only person who was not enslaved under the power of sin, i.e. did not know Sin has his master. The word a(marti/a fundamentally means a failure—in the conventional Israelite/Jewish religious sense, this would be a failure to observe the commands and regulations of the Law (Torah), and, in particular, moral failure. In English, the word is normally rendered as “sin”; it is generally synonymous with the corresponding afj in Hebrew.

u(pe\r u(ma=$ (“over us”)—The preposition u(pe/r literally means “over”, but often in the metaphorical sense of “on behalf of, for the sake of”, etc. What God did through Christ was done “over us”, covering us, and it was done for our sake.

e)poi/hsen (“he made”)—God is the implied subject, with “the one not knowing sin” (Christ) as the object, i.e. God made Christ to be (like/as) sin. How should we understand this “making”? I have previously suggested three possibilities:

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

i%na (“that”)—the particle here introduces a final clause, indicating either purpose or result (or both), i.e. “so that…”

genw/meqa (“we might come to be”)—the common existential verb indicating becoming, i.e. the purpose and result of God’s work is that we (believers) will come to be something new. The aorist subjunctive form could here could also be rendered: “that we should come to be…”

dikaiosu/nh qeou= (“[the] justice/righteousness of God”)—Paul’s use of this expression is familiar from Romans, where it appears numerous times (Rom 1:17; 3:5, 21-22; 10:3, also 3:25-26; 6:13, etc). More than half of the instances of the noun dikaiosu/nh come from the undisputed Pauline letters (34 times in Romans). I have discussed dikaiosu/nh (and the dikaio- word-group) extensively in the articles on “Paul’s View of the Law” (note also the article on Justification). Where this particular expression is used in Romans, it should be taken fundamentally as a characteristic or attribute of God Himself, but which is expressed primarily in the person and work of Christ.

e)n au)tw=| (“in him”)—that is, “in Christ”, e)n Xristw=| being a favorite Pauline expression, indicating the union (and unity) of believers with Christ (and with God through Christ). Here it should also be understood as the focus of our becoming the “justice/righteousness of God”—it takes place in Christ. Elsewhere, Paul refers to Jesus as the very embodiment of justice/righteousness. The parallel in 1 Cor 1:30 is especially noteworthy:

1 Cor 1:30: he came to be the justice/righteousness from God for us
2 Cor 5:21: we come to be the justice/righteousness of God in him

The interplay reflected in these two verses is fascinating indeed!

What does it mean precisely, that believers should “become” or “come to be” the justice/righteousness of God? I will leave this question until I have discussed Romans 8:3-4, which I will do in the next daily note.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 3

Psalm 3

This is the first entry in the Psalter (following the customary order) which begins with a superscription, which for the Psalms typically contain an indication of subject/author and a musical instruction. According to the Hebrew verse numbering, the superscription counts as the first verse, while in most English versions it is regarded as part of the verse. In such instances, I will be utilizing the Hebrew numbering, but with the English numbering in parentheses.

Verse 1

The superscription marks this work as romz+m! (mizmôr) which simply means a musical composition, often specifically one that is sung. It is also said to be dw]d*l= (l®d¹wid), which would be “(belonging) to David”, either in the sense of being written/composed by him or, that he is considered to be the subject of the work. This setting of the song (according to the superscription) is David’s flight during the rebellion by his son Absalom (cf. 2 Samuel 15-18). The historical reliability of these traditional notices is disputed by commentators; generally, it does seem that they reflect attempts to place a particular Psalm into the context of a specific Scriptural narrative, one which fits the overall mood and tone of the work. Critical scholars regard the superscriptions as traditional, but quite secondary to the Psalms themselves; even among traditional-conservative commentators, few would treat the superscriptions as part of the original (inspired) text.

Verses 2-3 (ET 1b-2)

The tone of lament, which, of course, would suit the situation of David indicated in the superscription, comes through clearly in the opening lines, in which the root bbr (“to be many”) appears three times. This sets the lone Psalmist against his “many” opponents and enemies; whether this reflects an historical reality or poetic hyperbole is impossible to say. In any case, it is to God (YHWH) that the Psalmist raises his lament to ask for deliverance:

“YHWH, how many they are [WBr^], the (one)s hostile to me,
(how) many [<yB!r^] (the one)s standing up against me,
(how) many [<yB!r^] (the one)s showing (hostility) to my soul!
—There (seems to be) no help for him with the Mightiest [i.e. God]!”

The sense of these lines is straightforward, with one notable exception which affects the specific meaning (and translation) of the passage. In the third line, we have the participle <yr!m=a), from the verb rm^a*, which is typically translated “say, speak”. Following this standard interpretation, the fourth line reflects what the “many” say to the Psalmist (to “his soul”), as a taunt: “There is no help for him with God!”. However, the original, fundamental meaning of the Semitic root rma had more to do with making something visible (“shine, show”), from which came the idea of making something known through speaking. Admittedly, this earlier meaning of rma is not attested much in the Hebrew of the Old Testament; however, poetry often preserves older/archaic usage, and that may be the case in a number of Psalms. Dahood (p. 16) cites examples where he feels rma has the meaning of “see, look (at)” rather than “say”; perhaps the most relevant example is from Ps 71:10, where rma is set parallel to rmv (“watch”) in a construction very close to that here in Ps 3:

“My enemies say/show [Wrm=a*] to me, and the (one)s watching my soul [yv!p=n~ yr@m=v)] take counsel as one [i.e. together]”

This suggests that, in these instances, rma may indeed have the sense of looking at someone (with hostile intent). I have tried to capture both possibilities by rendering the participle <yr!m=a) as “(one)s showing (hostility)”. According to this interpretation, the fourth line would not necessarily record the words of the “many”, but could simply reflect the apparent hopelessness of the situation.

Verses 4-5 (ET 3-4)

In these lines, the Psalmist’s hope is restored by reflecting on the character of YHWH—as a Ruler who has proven that he will protect and reward his loyal vassals. It begins with an address to YHWH (v. 4 [3], continuing from vv. 2-3 [1b-2]), then shifts to an objective declaration of His character:

“And (yet) you, YHWH, are (my) Protection (round) about me,
my Honorable [lit. Weighty] (One), and (the one) lifting my head (up) high.
(When) I should call out with my voice to YHWH,
(then) indeed he answers me from (the) mountain of his Holiness.

Verse 4 (3) utilizes three idioms related to the language of royalty and suzerain-vassal relations:

    • /g@m*, a noun derived from the root /ng (“surround, protect”); it is often translated “shield”, but is better rendered according to its basic meaning (“protection”), perhaps as an honorific attribute of the ruler (i.e. Protector, Defender)
    • dobK*, a noun derived from db^K*, fundamentally referring to something with weight, i.e. value, worth, etc. It refers to the honor (and honorable/noble character) of the ruler, including the authority he possesses to bestow honor on others (cf. Psalm 84:12 [11]). The specific epithet “(my) honorable (one)” as a Divine title, is found in Pss 4:3 [2]; 62:8 [7]; 66:2 (Dahood, p. 18).
    • yv!ar) <yr!m@ (“[the] one lifting/raising my head high”)—to “lift the head” or “lift the face” is an ancient Near Eastern idiom, referring to one in a position of authority who shows favor to a subordinate.

If the Psalmist affirms YHWH’s status as a trustworthy and honorable Ruler in verse 4, he publicly affirms His faithfulness again in v. 5. I would agree with commentators who take this as a conditional sentence, one which demonstrates YHWH’s faithfulness. When a person calls out to YHWH (as the Psalmist is doing), He will answer, responding to the request. We ought to read here the same Ruler-Vassal language of v. 4 and understand the condition as referring to the request of a loyal vassal (e.g. David, in the purported setting of the Psalm). Moreover, the wording “call out with my voice” is presumably meant to indicate the intensity of the situation—the earnestness of the Psalmist, as well as his desperation. The sacred-mountain locale of the Deity is common, especially in the Semitic world where the Creator God °El/Ilu was typically seen as dwelling on (or in) a great Mountain-Tent. The Canaanite sky/storm deity Haddu (i.e. “Baal”) also had a mountain dwelling. Typically, a specific mountain which came to be associated with the deity was based on actual geographic circumstances—but any mountain could fill this role, even a modest hill such as that of Zion/Jerusalem. The mountain was foremost the dwelling place of God (El/YHWH).

This is the first Psalm (in the standard Psalter) with the musical notation Selah (hl*s#). Both the etymology and technical meaning of this term remain uncertain; presumably in the Psalms it refers to some kind of musical refrain, either instrumental or choral.

Verses 6-7 (ET 5-6)

The assurance of the Psalmist in verse 5 [4] receives even greater expression in these lines, with the answer/response of YHWH cast in more personal terms, according to the needs of the Ruler’s loyal vassal (the Psalmist/David):

“(When) I should lie down and sleep, (then) I wake (again), for YHWH rests (his hand on) me.
I will not fear from the multitudes of people placed around against me.”

Verse 6 [5] is probably best read as another conditional sentence, on the pattern of v. 5 [4]; it shows that YHWH’s protection extends even to the times when his vassal is asleep. We should assume here a setting of sleeping/waking in the midst of being surrounded by enemies, a situation which is made clear again in the following line. The verb Em^s* (“lay/lean [on], hold, support”) here is a bit tricky to translate; probably the sense is twofold: (a) of God laying his hand down on the sleeping Psalmist (as protection); and (b) as support under and around him. The idea of full protection all around is implied; indeed, this is the reason why the Psalmist does not fear the enemies surrounding him. The noun hb*b*r= (“multitude”) is related to the same root bbr used in vv. 2-3 (cf. above). However, there is a separate roor bbr which means “shoot (arrows)”, and it is possible that here the expression <u* tobb=r!m@ means something like “(groups of) arrows of the people” which surround the Psalmist. We see this idiom elsewhere in Scripture, most notably in Job 16:13, but there may also be two occurrences in the Psalms. In Psalm 89:51 [50], we read:

“Remember, my Lord, the scorn of your servants,
I carry (with)in my chest the <yB!r^ of the peoples”

Here <yB!r^ as “arrows” (i.e. things shot at him) makes much more sense than “many/multitudes”. Also worth noting is Ps 18:44 [43]:

“You have brought me out (away) from the <yb!yr! of the people”

Here, in the Masoretic text, the noun in question appears to be derived from the root byr! (“strive, contend, dispute”), with the expression <u* yb@yr!m@ meaning something like “from the strife/disputes of the people”. However, again the reading “from the ‘arrows’ of the people”—i.e., the scorn/taunts as something “shot” like arrows by the people—would make equally good sense, and would only require a general repointing of the consonental text. Cf. Dahood, p. 19.

Verses 8-9 (ET 7-8)

Verse 8 [7] the Psalmist returns to the immediacy of his dire situation, calling out to YHWH to act on his behalf:

“Stand up, YHWH, save me, my Mighty (One) [i.e. God]!
That you (would) have struck all my enemies (on the) jaw,
(and would) have broken the teeth of (the) wicked (one)s!”

The verbs in the first line are imperative forms, urging YHWH to take action. The verbs in the next two lines are perfect forms, and are almost certainly to be understood as precative perfects—i.e. what the Psalmist would have God do as though it already has been accomplished. The request is made in graphic, almost gruesome terms—breaking the jaws of the enemies and shattering their teeth—symbolic of a humiliating defeat at YHWH’s hands. According to Israelite (royal) theology, even if the defeat occurs through military action, it is still seen as God’s own work on behalf of his people, and his loyal vassal the king (David). The closing line of the Psalm serves as a final refrain, calling on God (YHWH) to save his people:

“Salvation, O YHWH!—Your blessing be upon your people.”

The prefixed preposition (l) may serve as a vocative marker (hw`hyl^, “O YHWH”), and that is how I have translated it here; otherwise the phrase would mean “Salvation (belongs) to YHWH”. It seems more likely that here it is a general call to YHWH for salvation/deliverance. Actually the petition is two-fold:

    • bring salvation (to the Psalmist) in his time of need, and
    • bring blessing (hk*r*B=) to the people as a whole

This second line, especially, forms a doxology to the Psalm which is quite similar to that of Psalm 2 (cf. the previous study):

“(The) happiness of all (the one)s taking refuge in Him [i.e. in YHWH]”

The general pattern which this establishes between the first two Psalms (2 and 3) is instructive. In each instance, we have a poem/song which draws upon Israelite royal tradition and theology. The first (Psalm 2) is rooted in the tradition of the coronation/enthronement of the new king; the second (Psalm 3) purports to come from a setting in the life of David (as king). However, each utilizes royal language and imagery which expresses the idea of the king as the faithful vassal of YHWH, ruling under His favor and protection. By the time these Psalms took on definite written form, and certainly by the time the Psalter was put together, the royal traditions had been re-interpreted and applied to the Israelite/Judean people as a whole. Most likely this took place under the influence of Wisdom traditions, such as those expressed in the opening Psalm 1 (cf. the initial study). Long after the monarchy effectively ceased to exist, Israelite and Jews—collectively and individually—could identify with the Psalmist. All of the themes and motifs from the earlier royal theology take on new meaning—trust in YHWH, the favor and protection he provides, deliverance from surrounding enemies, etc.—these all now apply more directly to the people‘s relationship with God. We will see this dynamic repeated numerous times as we proceed through these studies.

Interestingly, despite the royal/Davidic setting, there is no real evidence that Psalm 3 was ever interpreted or applied in a Messianic sense; this differs markedly from Psalm 2, as we saw.

Also, for those interested, I made no mention above of the Dead Sea Scrolls for the simple reason that Psalm 3 is not preserved among the surviving manuscripts of the Psalter. This is unfortunate, as it may have elucidated one or two textual points discussed above.

Believers and the World (John 17:20-23)

This is a follow-up article to the discussion on verses 20-23 of the Prayer-Discourse of Jesus in John 17 (part of a Monday Notes on Prayer series). It is necessary to examine the use of the word ko/smo$ (“world”) in the concluding phrase of the two (parallel) strophes that make up this section:

“(so) that the world would trust that you se(n)t me forth”
i%na o( ko/smo$ pisteu/h| o%ti su/ me a)pe/steila$ (v. 21d)
“(so) that the world would know that you se(n)t me forth…”
i%na ginw/skh| o( ko/smo$ o%ti su/ me a)pe/steila$
“…(and) that you loved them just as you loved me.” (v. 23c-d)

Jesus has been praying on behalf of believers, but now suddenly he shifts to the response of the “world”. There is some question as to the syntactical place of these two i%na-clauses, whether they are parallel to the prior i%na-clauses in each strophe (see the earlier discussion), or represent a subordinate result clause. In the first view, the world’s trusting/knowing would be part of the unity of believers in Jesus’ request; according to the second view, it is the result of the unity shared by believers. I consider the latter to be more likely, and more in keeping with the thought of the Prayer, and have rendered the conjunctive particle i%na to reflect this (i.e., “so that…”).

However, this reference to the “world” (ko/smo$) raises a problem. All throughout the Prayer, as well as the Last Discourse, and, indeed, the Gospel of John as a whole (with but few exceptions), the expression “the world” (o( ko/smo$) designates a realm of sin and darkness which is opposed to God and hostile to Christ; moreover, Jesus warns his disciples (and future believers), that, as long as they are living in the world, it will remain hostile to them (cf. 14:17, 22, 30; 15:18-25; 16:33; 17:9ff). This has been discussed repeatedly in the previous notes on chapter 17. Now, suddenly, Jesus speaks of the world trusting and knowing. How are we to understand this? There are several possible answers to this question:

1. It refers to a different kind (or level) of trust and knowledge, one which shows awareness of Jesus’ divine origins, but does not indicate true trust and knowledge. In traditional religious terms, we might refer to this as faith (of sorts), but not saving faith. There is some precedence for this in the Gospel of John. On several occasions, the populace at large (including Jesus’ opponents) are said to “trust” or “know”, but without any definite indication that they are true, committed believers (7:28ff; 8:30-31 [compare with the discourse that follows]; 11:45ff; 12:43-44). However, throughout the Gospel, the verbs pisteu/w (“trust”) and ginw/skw (“know”) are overwhelmingly used to characterize true believers, being used almost interchangeably. Even more to the point, the emphasis on Jesus as one “sent forth” (vb. a)poste/llw) by the Father serves as a shorthand for (true) trust/belief in Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God (see esp. verse 3 of the Prayer).

2. An interpretation more in keeping with the portrait of “the world” as hostile to God and unable to accept the truth, is to read the subjunctive verb forms (“might trust”, “might know”) as indicating a possibility which, for the most part, will not be realized. In this view, the missionary work of the disciples serves as a challenge to the world which leads, not to true faith, but to judgment for their inability (and/or unwillingness) to accept the truth. This preserves the contrast between believers and the world, which Jesus states unequivocally again in verse 25. The theme of Judgment is certainly present in the Last Discourse (14:30 [cf. 12:31]; 15:22ff; 16:8-11, 33), but is generally absent from the Prayer-Discourse of chap. 17, and, it must be said, is quite foreign to the thought of verses 20-23.

3. A simple reading of the phrases, taking the words at face value, might suggest that Jesus is speaking of the wicked/sinners in the world being converted to faith by the witness of believers. This is a common enough Christian outlook which continues to inform missionary work and evangelistic preaching today. It is certainly present in the New Testament, especially in the Gospel context of Luke-Acts, where an emphasis on repentance and forgiveness of sin is an essential component of the Apostolic message (Lk 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 11:18; 17:30, etc). However, it is almost entirely absent from the Johannine writings. Apart from the episode in 7:53-8:11 (which likely was not part of the original Gospel), it is hard to find any examples referring to the conversion of sinners (5:14 is a rare instance, perhaps drawn from the wider Gospel tradition). Admittedly, some key passages in the Gospels have been understood this way (most notably 3:16-17), but only when taken somewhat out of context from the rest of the Gospel of John.

4. An interpretation closer to the mark would again be to understand the subjunctives as “might trust” / “might know”, but in the sense of “might be able to trust”, etc. In other words, through the work and Gospel of Jesus, the world is freed from the power of sin, and has the ability to accept Christ. This does not mean that all in the world will accept—indeed many (perhaps most) will not—however, they are no longer prevented from doing so by the power of evil (and the Evil One) at work in the world. As appealing as this view might be, it reflects a universalism that, I would maintain, is foreign to the Gospel of John. By “universalism” I do not mean it in an absolute or final sense (i.e. “everyone will be saved”), but in a qualified sense related to the human will (i.e. “everyone is able to be saved”). In classical theological terms, the contrast is between a universal and limited application of the atoning work of Jesus. It would be anachronistic to use either label in the case of the Johannine writings; however, it seems abundantly clear that the Gospel, in particular, evinces a strong view of what we would call Election/Predestination—i.e. believers come to Christ because they already belong to God, being “born” of God and “chosen” by Him beforehand (1:12-13; 3:21; 6:37ff, 44-45, 64-65ff; 8:42-47; 10:3-5, 14ff, 27-29; 18:37, etc). To be sure, through Christ’s work, believers are freed from the power of sin and darkness in the world (1:5; 8:12, 31-32; 12:35-36, 46; 14:30; 16:33, etc); however, from the standpoint of Johannine theology, they never really belonged to the world in the first place—they were “in” the world, but not “of” it. This is a central theme in the Prayer-Discourse of chapter 17 (vv. 2, 6, 9, 11ff).

In my view, a proper understanding of the phrases in question requires a close examination of the usage of the expression o( ko/smo$ (“the world”), beginning here in chapter 17, and widening out to the Last Discourse, the Gospel as a whole, and, finally to the Letters of John for comparison. Such a study is beyond the scope of this article; however, let us at least summarize the language and usage in the Last Discourse and the Prayer. Overall, in spite of some wordplay, o( ko/smo$ is part of a dualistic contrast—i.e. Jesus/Spirit/Believers vs. the World. A few points of detail:

    • The world is unable to receive the Spirit, and also unable to receive the Truth (“Spirit of Truth”) (14:17; 17:25); similarly, the world cannot “see” (i.e. recognize, accept) Jesus (14:19ff; 16:28)
    • The Spirit will judge/convict the world of its sin, this sin being that it does not trust in Jesus (16:8-11)
    • The world is contrasted with Jesus in the person of its chief/ruler (presumably to be identified with the Satan/Devil), a person (and/or personification) embodying evil. This “Ruler of the World”, and, the world itself, has no power over Jesus (14:30; 16:11, 33), who, in turn, has the power to remove believers from the world, i.e. freeing and protecting them from sin and evil (15:19; 17:15)
    • The world hates both Jesus and his disciples (believers), being hostile to them and persecuting them, etc (15:19; 16:20, 33)
    • Believers are not “of” (lit. “out of”, i.e. “from”) the world; rather, they are “of” God, belonging to the Father (14:19ff; 17:6ff, 16), and this is the reason for the world’s hatred of them (15:19; 17:14-15). The Father has given believers to Jesus, who, in turn, sends the Spirit to protect them in his place (14:26; 15:26; 16:7ff; 17:6, 9)
    • There is a clear contrast between the realm of the world (below) and that of the Father (above) (14:27; 16:28; 17:16ff)

Now let us look specifically at the way believers are contrasted with “the world” in chapter 17. In particular, there is an interplay of two expressions: “out of the world” (e)k tou= ko/smou) and “in the world” (e)n tw=| ko/smw|):

    • Believers are “out of [e)k] the world” in the sense that they/we do not belong to it; rather, they/we belong to God (vv. 6, 9). If believers, like Jesus, are “out of” the world, then it means that they/we are truly not “in [e)n]” it (v. 11).
      • In a secondary, but related, sense, God gave the disciples (believers) to Jesus “out of” the world (v. 6); this refers specifically to their/our coming to be believers in Christ.
    • The exact same point can be made, saying that believers are not “out of [e)k] the world”, meaning that they/we do not come from it—their/our true origins are from God (vv. 14, 16)
    • Yet it is also said that believers are not “out of [e)k] the world” in the sense they/we are still living on earth and, more importantly, must face the evil and hostility that dominates the world; in this sense, believers are “in [e)n] the world” (vv. 11, 13, 15)
      • Jesus’ ministry on behalf of believers relates to their being “in the world”: he speaks to them, giving them his word, “in the world” (v. 13), and sends them, as his representatives, out “in(to) the world” (v. 18)

Now, let us consider how this relates to the wording in vv. 21, 23. If we piece together the evidence in the Prayer, we can discern three key points:

    • Believers (the Elect) do not belong to the world (i.e. are not “of” it), but come from God
    • Yet believers remain living “in” the world, in the face of its darkness and evil
    • When believers are “given” by the Father to Jesus (the Son), they/we are taken “out of” the world and come to be believers in Christ

Thus, it would seem, when Jesus speaks of “the world” trusting and knowing as a result of the disciples’ (believers’) ministry, etc, it must be understood in light of the three points outlined above. In other words, here “the world” signifies the Elect/Chosen ones living in the world who have not yet come to be believers in Jesus. The same situation is described, though in different terms, in 10:16, where Jesus speaks of “other sheep”; of them he says that “it is necessary for me to bring/lead (them)”. And, from where does he, the herdsman, bring them? The answer is given here—from out of the world. The call, the sending out of the shepherd’s voice, is done through the work of other believers (“…trusting in me through their word”, v. 20), led and directed by the Spirit. I should say that the other universal-sounding statements in the Gospels, referring to the saving/salvation of “the world”, are best understood in this light as well (cf. 1:7, 29; 3:16-17; 6:33, 51; 12:32, 47).

If the above interpretation is indeed correct, there still remain three questions which I feel need to be addressed:

    • How does the unity of believers relate to the world trusting/knowing Jesus?
    • What is the significance of this for the use of the verb teleio/w (“make complete”) in verse 23?
    • How does the final clause of verse 23, with its motif of love, fit in to the structure of the section?

I will look at each of these briefly in the continuation of this article.