More LXX translational issues: Isa 28:16

It has been interesting looking at the quality of the LXX translation of the OT and comparing it with the MT (Masoretic Text: Hebrew) to try to understand how some of these issues came about. This will probably be my last post on this subject since there are other things I would like to write on after this. For now, let us turn our attention to Isa 28:16 (NKJV):-

Therefore thus says the Lord GOD:
“Behold, I lay in Zion a stone for a foundation,
A tried stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation;
Whoever believes will not act hastily.”

The context of this particular verse is God encouraging the faithful remnant (Isa 28:15) who live among those who put their trust elsewhere. The phrase there “will not act hastily” comes from the Hebrew לֹ֥א יָחִֽישׁ which literally means “will not (have to) haste/flee”. The various English translations have attempted to translate the sense of this to elucidate the phrase better, for example:-

NASB – … will not be disturbed.
NIV – … will never be stricken with panic.
NRSV, NET – … will not panic.
JPS – … need not fear.

As you can see, the translators were trying to make better sense out of the word here because there is some awkwardness in the original “haste” within the context of the rest of the verse. I think the general sense of the verse is something along the lines of “God will protect Zion and those who trust in God (who live in Zion) will not have to flee because Zion will be kept safe.” The preceding verses talk about those who place their trust in evil and “death”, so either you trust in God or you trust in death, to keep you safe (Isa 28:15) – the issue in question being the source of their safety.

Now, when I looked at Rom 9:33 which quotes Isa 28:16, I was surprised to find there a different version of the verse, which looks like this (NKJV):-

As it is written:
“Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense,
And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.

Okay, I think to myself – this looks interesting. First of all, Paul introduces this “a stumbling stone and rock of offense” which isn’t in Isaiah – maybe he is paraphrasing the text to draw a parallel between the “stone for a foundation, a tried stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation” to a Christological reference (Psa 118:22). Then there’s the change of “will not act hastily” to “will not be put to shame”. While I can appreciate that Paul might have been playing loose with the idea of “As it is written”, it should be quite clear that these two changes alters the meaning of the text. In Rom 9:33, the general sense is something like “God has appointed his stone that many will reject, but those who do not reject him and believe in him will be vindicated (not be put to shame).” I do agree, however, that at the most practical level, this probably isn’t a deal-breaker. From an academic point of view, however, this was very interesting and was worth investigating more.

I figured, this has to be the LXX again, judging from the pattern that has been emerging in my studies, so I went straight to the LXX and sure enough, we see part of the problem there. In the LXX, Isa 28:16 (LXX Brenton) reads:-

Therefore thus saith the Lord, even the Lord.
“Behold, I lay for the foundations of Sion a costly stone,
a choice, a corner-stone, a precious stone, for its foundations;
and he that believes on him shall by no means be ashamed.

Here we see how Paul got the “will not be put to shame” bit but there is no “stumbling stone and rock of offense” in the LXX, which I think we can just attribute to his paraphrasing (I really don’t want to get into a speculative debate about Paul’s motives and sources here.) My interest here is to discover why the LXX translators made the change from “will not hasten” to “shall by no means be ashamed”.

Initially I wondered if the LXX translators might be doing what our English translators were doing, trying to make the sense of Isa 28:16 clearer and using a more dynamic translation instead of a literal one. The problem is that “ashamed” makes the issue one of vindication rather than security/safety that the original “hasten” implies. If it was a dynamic translation, it’s a pretty bad one contextually speaking. Then I started to look at the Hebrew text again. The Hebrew word translated “hasten” is יחישׁ (Hebrew:yachish) and one of the Hebrew words that is translated “ashamed” (Isa 29:22) is יבושׁ֙ (Hebrew:yevosh). When I saw this I thought, “Wow, those two words sure look the same!” – the main difference being only in one alphabet, the ח (chet) and the ב (bet) because the difference between the י (yud) and ו (vav) can easily be mistaken in handwriting.

At this point, I realised that a number of scenarios could have happened that gave rise to this discrepancy in the text:-

  1. The LXX translator misread the word while translating
  2. The LXX translator had access to a better copy and our existing OT has the wrong word
  3. The LXX translator had the right copy but decided to interpret and did a bad job
  4. The LXX translator relied on a manuscript that contained a copyist error

I thought it might be interesting as an academic exercise to try to figure out which was the correct text. We know that the LXX translators did their work around the 3rd century BC. Our OT text is based off the Aleppo Codex, a Masoretic copy produced in the 10th century AD. Although much “younger”, it is considered the most reliable and accurate copy of the OT Hebrew text in existence (even more accurate than the DSS) for reasons that I can’t go into in such a short post. In any case, I felt I needed an older witness besides the Aleppo Codex to verify who got it right. As it happens, among the Dead Sea Scrolls are various fragments of Isaiah (4Q60 etc.) and a complete scroll of Isaiah (1QIsa). This scroll is kept in the Shrine of the Book in Israel and the actual manuscripts have been photographed and put on line, which was great news for me! While the DSS were written around the 2nd century BC, the sources would have dated even further back and so we have a source that is over a thousand years older than the Aleppo Codex. So what does the Great Isaiah Scroll say in Isa 28:16? It says “hasten”.

This means that it is unlikely that the LXX translators had a copy that was correct and everyone else got it wrong. More likely, the translator made a mistake in reading the text, or that the copy he was working off had a copyist error. This is what the DSS Great Isaiah Scroll for Isa 28:16 looks like. The red box highlights the word “yachish” (hasten).

isa2816dss

This is Isa 29:22 from the same scroll where I have highlighted the word “yevosh” (ashamed).

isa2922dss

It is easy to see how a mistake might have happened, and why reliance on the LXX poses particular problems when these errors are inherited by the NT writers.

How was Paul’s Hebrew?: Gal 3:16

In some of the discussions following my previous posts, the point was made that Paul was fluent in both Hebrew and Greek as a serious student of Scripture and a man of “great learning” (Acts 26:24). While I do not doubt that Paul probably used both Greek and Hebrew/Aramaic, my reading of Paul is increasingly leading me to the conclusion that he was predominantly a Greek speaking Jew. For starters, in just about all of his citations of the OT, he drew upon the LXX. This could be explained by the fact that he was addressing a primarily Greek speaking audience in a Hellenised world.

While there is much we could speculate about his background as Saul of Tarsus (in modern day Turkey) and his educational background, that would serve little useful purpose. What I would like to look at is how this “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Phil 3:5) handled the Hebrew texts. Specifically, let us look at Gal 3:16 (NKJV):-

Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as of many, but as of one, “And to your Seed,” who is Christ.

The context of this verse is Paul making the case that the promises made to Abraham prefigured Christ. He builds his argument around the fact that the word “seed” was used in the OT promises, as opposed to the plural “seeds”. So, for example, Gen 26:4 (NKJV) says:-

And I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven; I will give to your descendants all these lands; and in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.

On the surface of it, this seems to be a plausible, if a little novel, line of reasoning that Paul is employing here. If the promises were made to a single “seed”, who would that have refered to? For Paul, Christ was the best candidate. Had it been “seeds”, then Israel might have fit in better. Where we find a problem is with how this argument was constructed – it was predicated upon the Greek distinction between the singular σπέρματί (Greek:spermati – seed) and the plural σπέρμασιν (Greek:spermasin – seeds). When we look at the LXX translation of Gen 26:4, it reads:-

καὶ πληθυνῶ τὸ σπέρμα σου ὡς τοὺς ἀστέρας τοῦ οὐρανοῦ καὶ δώσω τῷ σπέρματί σου πᾶσαν τὴν γῆν ταύτην, καὶ ἐνευλογηθήσονται ἐν τῷ σπέρματί σου πάντα τὰ ἔθνη τῆς γῆς

The underlined bit translates to the seed (singular) of you (singular)” and this is exactly in line with Paul’s argument. The Hebrew text, however, presents a slightly different story.

וְהִרְבֵּיתִ֤י אֶֽת־זַרְעֲךָ֙ כְּכוֹכְבֵ֣י הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְנָתַתִּ֣י לְזַרְעֲךָ֔ אֵ֥ת כָּל־הָאֲרָצֹ֖ת הָאֵ֑ל וְהִתְבָּרֲכ֣וּ בְזַרְעֲךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל גּוֹיֵ֥י הָאָֽרֶץ

Here, the relevant phrase “in your seed” is found in one Hebrew word – בְזַרְעֲךָ֔ – that transliterates to “b’zerakha”. This breaks down into three components:-

“b” meaning “in”
“zer” (or “zera”) meaning “seed”
“akha” meaning “your” in reference to Abraham

The thing about “zer” or “zera”, though, is that this word in the Hebrew does not distinguish between the singular or the plural. It’s a bit like the word “sheep” in English where both the singular and plural are the same word “sheep”. “Zera” is just like that in Hebrew – there are no words to distinguish between the singular or the plural of “seed”. For example, in Gen 47:19 (NKJV) we have:-

Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for bread, and we and our land will be servants of Pharaoh; give us seed, that we may live and not die, that the land may not be desolate.

The word “seed” used here is obviously plural from the context – they were not asking Pharaoh for one seed but many seeds. The Hebrew word for “seed” here is “zera”, the same case as in Gen 26:4. Likewise, in Lev 27:16 (NKJV) we have:-

“If a man dedicates to the LORD part of a field of his possession, then your valuation shall be according to the seed for it. A homer of barley seed shall be valued at fifty shekels of silver.”

The “seed” here is again clearly plural from the context and in the Hebrew it is the same “zera” as used in Gen 26:4. You simply cannot argue that “zera” is singular or plural based on the word itself just as you cannot do that with the word “sheep” in English. In practice, you would have to rely on the context to determine if the singular or the plural noun was intended. In the context of Gen 26:4 (NKJV), it appears that “in your seed” sounds like a reference to the multiplied descendants, and is therefore plural in meaning. Even if you choose another passage such as Gen 22:17-18 (NKJV), you see the same sort of plural context:-

Blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.

Notice that the referents here are the many descendants that Abraham will have. The pattern “… your descendants … your descendants … your seed …” should strongly make it clear that “seed” here is plural because the Hebrew for “descendants” is in fact “zera”. This means that the verse could just as well have been translated:-

Blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.

Just in case you still need convincing, look at Gen 13:15-16 (NKJV) to see how “seed” was understood within the Abrahamic promise:-

… for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever. And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if a man could number the dust of the earth, then your descendants also could be numbered.

Here it is even clearer that “zera” (translated “descendants” here) is plural. It just doesn’t get any clearer. I should mention that in all these cases, where our English translations read “descendants” or “seed”, the LXX renders it as the singular σπέρμα (meaning “seed” in the singular). The NKJV and most English translations used the plural word “descendants”, showing that the translators understood that the context suggested a plural “zera”. What this means is that contextually speaking, “zera” should be plural even though the Hebrew word itself does not differentiate between the plural or the singular. That said, Paul wasn’t making his argument based on the context but on the morphology of the word.

Now, if we assume that God spoke to Abraham in Hebrew rather than Greek, Paul’s argument should center about the Hebrew usage of the word “zera” and the entire argument he used in Gal 3:16 would fail. Had he even considered the Hebrew word “zera”, he would have known that the distinction he relied upon did not appear in the Hebrew and his entire line of reasoning would fall apart. Even if we should take the context of Gen 26:4 into account, you would still not arrive at a reading that yields a singular “seed”. How then could this expert of the Torah and master of the Hebrew language overlook such an obvious (in the Hebrew at least) mistake? That’s what I’d like to know.

Just so we are clear – I do not disagree with the substance of Paul’s argument. What I find problematic is his “exegesis” of Gen 26:4 and his making a distinction that isn’t there in the Hebrew and using that false distinction as the basis of proof-texting to a Greek speaking audience who most likely wouldn’t know any better. So what options do we have here concerning Gal 3:16? They are (MCQ):-

  • He really didn’t know what the Hebrew text of Gen 26:4 (and similar verses) said and was relying on the LXX.
  • His mastery of Hebrew wasn’t good enough to realise the problem with the word “zera”.
  • He knew the OT and was good in Hebrew but decided to make up a non-existent distinction.
  • He forgot what the Hebrew rendition was or made a blunder?

I’m open to other options you might come up with to help rescue Paul from this conundrum.

For the sake of completeness, there is an argument that Gen 22:17 might allow for a singular “zera” because of the genitive suffix for the word “enemies”. Gen 22:17 (NKJV):-

… and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies.

The Hebrew for this bit goes:-

וְיִרַ֣שׁ זַרְעֲךָ֔ אֵ֖ת שַׁ֥עַר אֹיְבָֽיו

transliterated and literally translated we get:-

v’yirash            zarakha             et shaar  oyevav
and’possess  seed-of-yours     gate     enemies-of-his

Specifically, because of the “v” suffix in “oyevav” which makes it “enemies of his” (as opposed to “oyevahem” which would become “enemies-of-theirs”), it has been suggested that this would indicate that the preceding (antecedent) “seed” must be seen as singular. This seems like a plausible save for Paul. Then again, when we look at how this exact same phraseology is used in the subsequent Gen 24:60 (NKJV):-

And they blessed Rebekah and said to her: “Our sister, may you become the mother of thousands of ten thousands; And may your descendants possess the gates of those who hate them.

Here you have the exact same phrase in Hebrew with “soneav” (meaning “haters-of-his”) at the end instead of “oyevav” in Gen 22:17. Once again, you have the “v” suffix but here it is obvious that it is plural because the number “thousands of tens of thousands” is given, taking away the ambiguity in “zera”. What this means is that the “v” suffix does not automatically imply a singular antecedent as can be shown from its usage in Gen 24:60. Note that in both Gen 22:17 and Gen 24:60, the English translators unanimously rendered the words with a plural genitive, ie. “their enemies” and “of those who hate them” rather than “his enemies” and “of him who hates them”.

Ahhh… another over-lengthy over-technical post. I best end this here!

Inspired eisegesis: Eph 4:8

In my previous post, we looked at where Paul had possibly arrived at an unorthodox position as a result of reliance on the LXX. Fortunately, it was not a real deal breaker – in the end, one was still to be kind to our enemies whatever the motivations might be. From a pragmatic point of view, it got the job done even though the supposed “biblical justification” failed. To be sure, this wasn’t the only instance where Paul went off the rails when citing the OT in his arguments. Of course, in all fairness, he probably didn’t have the tools and references that we have today. Nevertheless, it still remains a rather interesting curiosity that challenges us on how we see the writings of the NT. In this post, we will look at another one (or two) such instances, beginning with Eph 4:7-11 (NKJV):-

But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore He says:

“When He ascended on high,
He led captivity captive,
And gave gifts to men.”

And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers …

I have left out verses 9 and 10 for brevity but let us look at the above verses. These should be pretty familiar verses because of the important place they occupy in the teaching of the so-called “five-fold ministry” of the church. Paul was making the point that Christ, having been resurrected from the dead and ascended into heaven, gave gifts to men – in particular the five-fold ministries. In order to back-up his argument, Paul partially cites Psalm 68:18 (NKJV) to make that connection between Christ’s ascension and the giving of gifts. The problem, though, is that he misquoted the verse. Psa 68:18 (NKJV):-

You have ascended on high,
You have led captivity captive;
You have received gifts among men,
Even from the rebellious,
That the LORD God might dwell there.

Even without going into the Hebrew (or the LXX in this case), it is clear to see that Paul had mis-remembered Psalm 68:18 where it says that the Lord, in his ascended state, received gifts among men rather than gave gifts to men. It is obvious from the context of Ephesians 4 that Paul totally understood it as the Lord giving gifts (and thus not due to copyist error) – completely opposite from what the Psalmist wrote. The Hebrew word לָקַ֣חְתָּ (laqachta) is explicit in the direction of the gifts and leaves no room for misunderstanding or confusion of the meaning.

So here we have an example where Paul based his argument upon a mis-remembered OT verse. There is no squirming out of this one easily. Fortunately, it is not of great significance because the OT citation isn’t needed to make the point that Christ gave us gifts – a point that can be made in other more legitimate ways. It does show, however, that Paul does get his OT wrong at times. He got the broad strokes right, but sometimes gets the details (and exegesis) wrong.

Just in case this wasn’t explicit enough, here’s a bonus example from Hebrews 8:7-9 (NKJV):-

For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. 8 Because finding fault with them, He says: “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah — not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the LORD.

The following verses continue in the citation of Jer 31 which you can verify for yourself. The underlined words are where the discrepancy lies. Jer 31:31-32 (NKJV) reads:-

Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah — not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD.

So how did the author get the idea that God disregarded faithless Israel? You guessed it – bad LXX translation. This is what the passage reads in the LXX, Jer 31:31-32 (LXX Brenton-English):-

Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day when I took hold of their hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; for they abode not in my covenant, and I disregarded them, saith the Lord.

In this case, the writer of Hebrews actually correctly cited the LXX but the LXX contained a mistranslation of the original Hebrew. Once again, this isn’t really that significant as long as we’re looking at the broad strokes.

In addition to misquotations, Paul also quotes the OT out of context at times. Take Rom 10:5-8 (NKJV) for instance:-

For Moses writes about the righteousness which is of the law, “The man who does those things shall live by them.” But the righteousness of faith speaks in this way, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ down from above) or, “ ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith which we preach)

Here Paul is trying to contrast a righteousness that is through the law, and that which is through faith. He argues that the righteousness that is through faith “speaks this way” and then cites Deut 30:14 (NKJV) which goes:-

But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.

This seems alright on the surface until you read the rest of Deut 30:11-14 (NKJV) and discover that it has a completely different context. Deut 30:14 is talking about the LAW being something that can be performed, that isn’t too difficult to achieve or to attain. In other words, Deut 30:11-14 was in fact making the opposite case than Paul was making. God was saying that the people should obey his commandments (Law) and that these commandments aren’t hidden in heaven that one needed to ascend into it, nor unreachable beyond the sea. Rather, “the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.” Paul, however, makes a completely different case and turns it into a verse about the “word of faith”. If anyone were to make such a case today, they would be shot down for using the bible out of context, and they would be right.

And yes, there are still other instances where Paul does this. In many of the cases, he mangles the original OT meanings and gives it a different or even opposite meaning. One might ask – why does Paul do this and why didn’t anyone point it out? Well, for one, Paul was writing mostly to Gentiles and they were pretty ignorant of the OT texts. In fact, most of the uneducated Jews may not even know the OT well enough to catch these errors, especially when they heard it in a reading. Secondly, Paul’s heavy reliance on the LXX means that he inherited the translational errors inherent to the LXX. These sometimes got incorporated into his own pastoral and doctrinal teachings. Thirdly, Paul was a Pharisee and he might have been used to “Midrashic interpretation” which, in summary, allows a Rabbi to pretty much say anything he wants without regard to the meaning of the OT text being cited. Here is how it is explained by David Stern in this essay (pg.1865):-

The scholar Michael Fishbane, who has exhaustively studied these and similar cases in the Bible, has described them as part of a larger phenomenon which he calls inner-biblical exegesis … Although most of these examples are not, strictly speaking, exegeses … These include the tendencies to harmonize conflicting or discordant verses; to reemploy and reapply biblical paradigms and imagery to new cases; to reinvest “old” historical references with “new” historical contexts …

That’s just a very scholarly way of saying that “Midrashic interpretation” basically makes up stuff that isn’t there. This is (still) a feature of Rabbinic Pharisaism and Paul might have been used to it. That, of course, doesn’t make it right but it might explain this penchant of his. What it does not do is legitimise the practice. This shouldn’t surprise us, though, because Paul was, after all, human like us and prone to eisegesis as we are.

Beginnings of NT scriptures: Luke 1:1-4

In a previous post I pointed out how 2Tim 3:16 could not be used as proof-text for the idea of biblical inspiration.  We looked at the text and the context to arrive at that conclusion. But even if 2Tim 3:16 had been a proof-text, there would still be logical problems with a book, 2Timothy in this case, being considered inspired just because the same book declares itself to be inspired. There is circularity in the logic here and it would be like an accused saying, “I’m innocent because I said so!” We would not accept that kind of reasoning in the courts of law, so why would we resort to that kind of logic when it comes to the issue of the inspiration of scripture? What this shows is that we’re going to need a whole new kind of reasoning if we’re going to show the inspiration of scripture, and stop relying of proof-texts. The early church surely could not rely on 2Tim 3:16 to determine whether a book was inspired or not. So how did they do it?

While the early Christians readily accepted the OT canon, things were less tidy with the NT writings. Various letters were often circulated and read in the different churches. Back in those days, one of the main ways information was disseminated was through public reading. This is also why it came to be that scripture reading was a part of church life from very early on. In addition to reading of scriptures, letters from various persons and other churches were also read. Acts 15:23-29, for example, is a short letter from the church in Jerusalem to the church of Antioch, Syria, and Cicilia. Such a letter would be read publicly – a little bit like what we might do in our “announcement” segment of our church services.

Over time, some of the letters gained greater circulation whilst others surely faded away. The trouble was that there were a great number of such letters going around and it eventually became a concern as to the veracity of those letters. Some were clear forgeries and it came to the attention of bishops these were being read in the churches, which led to some reactionary measures which included certain simple criteria being put in place for what could be read. This happened pretty early on, as soon as the documents falsely claiming to be authoritative started going into circulation, as you would expect. This was not an organised effort, especially since the early church wasn’t as institutionalised as it is now. I suppose it would not be too much to say that it was actually more of a commonsensical approach, as opposed to a mystical or religious one. It came about that some of these criteria became more useful and widely accepted. We will discuss these criteria but for now, let us begin with the nature of the NT writings from the perspectives of the authors themselves.

The books of the NT were not “born” as scripture. They were originally letters of communications to various individuals and churches addressing a variety of needs and issues. We know this because Paul, in several places, specifically said that he was rendering his own opinion in the midst of teaching biblical positions (on the basis of OT laws.) The case in point here is 1Cor 7:25 (NASB):-

Now concerning virgins I have no command of the Lord, but I give an opinion as one who by the mercy of the Lord is trustworthy.

Prior to this, in 1Cor 7:19 (NASB), Paul indicates that he was teaching: “… but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God.” In essence, Paul was applying OT principles into the Corinthian context, producing a teaching that was based on (OT) scriptural authority. After he had done this, he inserts v.25 as his own opinion. I think it is quite clear that Paul wasn’t of the mind that he was writing new scriptures that were inherently authoritative. His teaching was authoritative in a derivative sense – in that it reflected (OT) scriptural principles, albeit interpreted with the benefit of Christian history. He does this again in 2Cor 11:17 (NKJV):-

What I speak, I speak not according to the Lord, but as it were, foolishly, in this confidence of boasting.

Once again, Paul explicitly injects what he considers his personal views into the text, referring to most of 2Cor 11. It seems rather unlikely that Paul was writing this with the mind that he was creating inherently authoritative scripture (as opposed to derivatively authoritative.) None of the early Christians would have initially anticipated that there would one day be a selection of their writings that would be considered “scriptures” in the same way that the “holy writings” of old were.

This is an important thought, and if true, it must be asked – at which point did these NT writings come to be regarded as “scriptures”? The thought is important because most Christians assume that the NT books are scriptures because they were inspired by God, presumably from the time of writing. But at the time of writing, it is likely that the authors as well as the readers had no notion of the letters being inherently inspired, much less as holy scriptures. Authoritative, definitely and derivatively. Scriptures. Probably not yet.

Consider how Luke (although the gospel itself doesn’t name him) explains his work. Luke 1:1-4 (NKJV):-

Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.

Luke, it seems, was saying that he was doing what many others have done – that is to put together an account of Jesus’ teachings – and he was writing this for his friend Theophilus (although some argue that Theophilus wasn’t an actual person but a “code” for a those who love God.) On the surface of it, it was a personal letter, albeit an extremely long one. Luke’s motivation was that it seemed like a good idea to him – ἔδοξεν κἀμοὶ would be more directly translated “and I thought”. I’m not entirely sure why some versions translate it as “seemed good” because the idea of “good” just isn’t there in the Greek. The NRSV and NIV come closer with their translations of Luke 1:3 (NRSV):-

NRSV – I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus …
NIV – With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus …

So Luke had this idea (you could say that he was perhaps inspired?) to inform Theophilus of what he had learned in order to convince him (v.4). Regardless of whether Luke might have been inspired by God to embark on his writing or not, it is important to see that Luke himself did not explicitly think that he was creating new holy scriptures, as far as we can tell. It seems like he thought he was doing what many others have done (probably referring to other gospel writers though not necessarily limited to the gospels of Matthew & Mark. John was written much later.) If Luke didn’t see his writing as scripture, it should follow that his first readers would not regard it as holy scriptures either. That must have happened at some later point. At this beginning point, no one was going “Oh, Luke wrote under the inspiration of God and therefore his gospel should be included in the new canon.”

Clement of Rome, writing around 96AD, wrote the following. 1Clement 42:1 (Lightfoot translation):-

The Apostles received the Gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ was sent forth from God.

This might have worked for Matthew but Luke was not himself an apostle, nor was he one of the first disciples of Jesus, nor even a Jew. While it is true that he might have travelled with Paul, neither was Paul one of the original 12-apostles, nor was he a direct eye-witness to the life and ministry of the Lord. (Mark was also not one of the 12-apostles either.)

My point is that the writings of Luke, which we now regard as holy scriptures, acquired that status somewhere down the line after the initial writing and first reading. The recognition that it was “theopneustos” (God-breathed:beneficial or profitable – see earlier post) came through a process that didn’t speed up until the middle of the 2nd century when the problems with spurious writings became more widespread.

The reason for all this study is to make us consider what the nature of “inspiration” might be. What qualifies something as “scripture” if not explicit divine inspiration? And when did that happen? I suspect that some Christians have this notion that God guided the hands of the writers to virtually dictate what was to be written. In that way, they would claim that every single word of the NT was literally the word of God, selected divinely and supernaturally conveyed through the NT authors’ hands (and those of their amanuensis.) At least for the examples above – this does not seem to be the case. I would suggest that “inspiration” must work some other way than what the Germans called senkrecht von oben (came vertically from above.)

This post is getting way longer than I would like it to be so I will leave you with this cliff-hanger!

Missing “inspired” books?: Col 4:16

In my last post, I suggested that 2Tim 3:15-16 referred to the Old Testament (or the Tanakh) when talking about the writings being “inspired” or “god-breathed.” Obviously that leaves us with the problem of figuring out the status of the NT books – are they or are they not inspired books? If so, on what basis do we say that they’re inspired. We would further have to talk about what we mean when we say something is “inspired”. Before getting to that, here are some questions you may want to consider even as we explore this subject.

Col 4:16 (NKJV) – Now when this epistle is read among you, see that it is read also in the church of the Laodiceans, and that you likewise read the epistle from Laodicea.

In Colossians 4:15-16, Paul closes out his epistle with some instructions to greet the brethren who are in the neighbouring city of Laodicea. In v.16 he specifically instructs them to read the epistle (to the Colossians) to the Laodicean church, and to also “read my letter that is coming from Laodicea” (NASB). Apparently Paul had written an encyclical epistle to the Laodiceans just as he had done for the Colossians, and he intended for the two churches to exchange those epistles. This puts the said epistle to the Laodiceans on the same footing as the epistle to the Colossians – inspired or otherwise. We have but one problem – the letter’s (sort of) gone missing (although there are purported manuscripts.)

Yup. We do not have this epistle to the Laodiceans in our NT! Question here: Do you think that the Laodicean letter is as inspired as the Colossian letter? If so, would we not be missing some important inspired revelation of God as a result of some historical boo-boo. I mean – somebody’s in trouble! (Inside (lame) joke: “I’m not sayin’ how but somebody’s gonna get hurt real bad!”) See, this poses some interesting questions to us about God’s plan for how his truth would be transmitted historically. If every bit of scripture contains some unique and special revelation, losing an entire inspired book could be catastrophic for the church, right? I mean, for all we know, it could contain some truth that could fundamentally change the way we did Christianity. So how?

Which brings me to the second question – who decided that just those 27-books of the NT (or maybe 28 if we include the missing epistle to the Laodiceans) would be THE inspired books? Think about it. The authority that determines what goes into the NT canon must itself be higher than the authority of the canon itself, by definition. It turns out that in some of the early lists of canonical NT books, other books that are no longer in our modern NT canon were included – such as “The Shepherd of Hermas” (which is arguably a rather weird allegorical work but was widely read and accepted in the early church) which was still found in the Codex Sinaiticus.

For those of you who are curious, like me, here’s the Epistle to the Laodiceans in full. This Roman letter is of an unknown date of origin but the Latin manuscript we have dates back to the 6th century. Fortunately for me (since I’m hand-typing this) it is rather short:-

Paul, an apostle not of men and not through man, but through Jesus Christ, to the brethren who are in Laodicea. Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank Christ in all my prayer that you are steadfast in him and persevering in his works, in expectation of the promise for the day of judgement. And may you not be deceived by the vain talk of some people who tell you tales that they may lead you away from the truth of the gospel which is proclaimed by me. … Therefore, beloved, as you have heard in my presence, so hold fast and do in the fear of God, and eternal life will be your portion. For it is God who works in you. And do without hesitation what you do. And for the rest, beloved, rejoice in Christ and beware of those who are out for sordid gain. May all your requests be manifest before God, and [may you] be steadfast in the mind of Christ. And what is pure, true, proper, just, and lovely, do. And what you have heard and received, hold in your heart and peace will be with you. … The saints salute you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. And see that this letter is read to the Colossians and that of the Colossians among you.

Well, now, isn’t that interesting? We will, in a future post, discuss how books came to be included into the Canon of the NT. For the moment – how would you determine if this particular book belongs in the NT?

The NT canon evolved over time. Polycarp acknowledged 15 books, Irenaeus 21 books, Hippolytus 22. A number of books in our present canon was considered controversial – Hebrews, James, 2Peter, 2 & 3John. Sometimes they fought and disagreed over which books to include – Marcion, for example, rejected many Pauline epistles and all of the Jewish books. By 170AD, the Muratorian Canon (list) included 24 of our 27 NT books. The Council of Laodicea (363AD) agreed on 26 books, the Council of Hippo (393AD) and Carthage (397AD) agreed on the present 27 books. I know that there are many who will argue vehemently that the men simply “recognized” books that God had divinely selected but truthfully, that’s a pretty lame argument that simply evades the issue. In short, we have a bit of a problem here if we continue to insist on a notion of inspiration that relies solely on having the “correct” texts. Furthermore, you cannot escape the human element in all this.

It should further be pointed out that we don’t actually know who authored some of the canonical books of the NT, such as the book of Hebrew. Some speculate that it could have been Paul but we do not know for sure. Others dispute the authenticity of the claimed authors – many of which we know only by tradition.

I think we need to explore a simpler and more robust idea of how “inspiration” works, something less “magical”. That will have to wait for yet another post.

God-breathed scriptures: 2Tim 3:16

In writing about textual and linguistic issues, it becomes natural to ask about the nature of scriptural inspiration. I thought I’d write down some thoughts on this rather important subject. Let’s just start where we find the word in the bible – 2Tim 3:16. Paul was writing to Timothy to encourage him to stay the course and to hold fast to what he has been taught. In the preceding v.14-15, Paul tells Timothy to continue in what he had learned and then referring specifically to “the Holy Scriptures” as the source of his learning. Paul further adds that these “Holy Scriptures” were able to make him wise salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.

The phrase “Holy Scriptures” (NKJV) or “sacred writings” (NASB) here is translated from the Greek ἱερὰ γράμματα (Gk:hiera grammata). “Writings” is a good translation – elsewhere in the NT, the same word is often translated “letters” so we’re thinking “holy letters”. Note that since the earliest Greek were uncials (all uppercase), there is actually no capitalisation in the Greek. When you see capitalisation, that’s the input of the translators and isn’t reflected in the original text.

Now, this phrase “hiera grammata” is an odd one, as it is not found in this combination anywhere else in the bible (not even in the LXX). The context of the verse suggests that this refers to the Tanakh (our Old Testament) because at this point of writing, the gospels have probably not been penned yet. Paul died around 64AD and Mark, often believed to be the first gospel to be written, would have been written just after than and before 70AD. This means that the most likely candidate for “hiera grammata” would be, as suggested in the context, the Tanakh. Timothy, being born to a devout Jewish mother, would have been taught the Tanakh since he was young so that v.15 would make good sense.

Paul goes on in v.16 to elaborate that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, …” (NKJV and NASB) It should be obvious that Paul wasn’t referring to ALL kinds of writings at large but to all the scriptures he had just been talking about, namely the Tanakh. He certainly could not have been referring generally to the yet unwritten gospels. It is also quite unlikely that he would be referring to his own letters (including the one being written). The word “scripture” here is different from the “grammata” of v.15. It is another related word – γραφὴ – which is also used to refer to the Tanakh in Mark 12:24 and elsewhere in Pauline epistles. I think it is quite safe to say, on the basis of the context and on lexical usage, that the “scripture” in the mind of Paul is simply the Old Testament.

These (OT) scriptures, Paul says, are θεόπνευστος (Greek:theopneustos = “god-breathed”) which is translated as “inspired” in most English versions of the bible. Here again you find a word that doesn’t appear anywhere else in the NT or LXX texts (For geeks: We call this type of word a “hapax legomena” or just “hapax” for short.) When you get a hapax, it makes it difficult to extract meaning contextually since it only appears this once. Scholars try to look at the etymology of the word – “theo” (god) and “pneuma” (breath, spirit, or wind) – to guess the meaning. It seems to suggest that the subject that is “inspired” is infused with the breath (or spirit) of God, whatever that means. This approach doesn’t always work since many words have meanings totally unrelated to it’s root words, eg. hippopotamus (ἱπποπόταμος) = horse (ἵππος) + river (ποταμός), but it is neither a horse nor a river.

*As an aside, Paul had the habit of inventing words – words that don’t appear in classical Greek literature, or used in other NT writings. Sometimes he uses words from the LXX or combines words to make new ones.

So what does Paul mean by θεόπνευστος? Fortunately for us, Paul himself furnishes the answer to this question in v.16 itself – it means that the scripture in question is useful for teaching, reproof, correction, training, etc. He certainly wasn’t putting forth a doctrine of “inspiration” as we know it. As far as I can tell, he was simply pointing out that the Tanakh contained God given truths that are “profitable” (ὠφέλιμος = “beneficial”). That’s about it!

This means that if all we had was 2Tim 3:16 – we’re not going to end up with too much of a doctrine of inspiration because Paul certainly wasn’t saying anything unusual there. We sometimes make a bit too much of a word, it seems. It doesn’t mean there is no doctrine of inspiration but it does mean that we are going to need a whole lot more than just 2Tim 3:16 which is all too often used as proof-text. This verse does not tell us anything about how the bible (OT and NT) embody the revelation of God. That is rightfully an important subject worth exploring. This we will do, hopefully in future posts (if there is interest of course.)

*Note of interest: The context of 2Tim 3-4 includes ideas such as “my teaching”, “sacred writings”, “scripture”, “the word”, “sound doctrine”. Paul clearly had something in mind when using these words – something that extends beyond simply the Tanakh. Very likely we’re talking about Paul’s theological ideas that incorporated the OT and prevailing teachings of Jesus as taught by the other apostles and elders.

A look at Pauline eschatology: 2 Thessalonians

My recent post on the number of the beast didn’t really get into the eschatology of John, mainly because my interest was in the textual issues. Admittedly, the goal of studying text is to arrive at some kind of meaning and that can sometimes be a more difficult process, involving more assumptions and in some cases conjectures. But what fun is it if we just stay within the safety of being non-committal, right? So, here’s a shot at eschatology, albeit Paul’s and not John’s.

2Thessalonians was one of the very first books that Paul penned (soon after 1Thess), if we are to believe the scholars – anywhere between 48-52AD. Written to a suffering, persecuted and battered church, here’s the quick and dirty outline for those of you who are too lazy to read it:-

  1. Paul was proud of their suffering (2Th 1:4 (NKJV))
  2. Their faithfulness in suffering was evidence of their election (2Th 1:5)
  3. God is going to repay their persecutors in the final reckoning (2Th 1:6-9)
  4. The will receive their rest (from suffering) when Jesus is revealed (2Th 1:7)
  5. Suffering for Christ is a “worthy calling”, a privilege (2Th 1:11)

Since Paul had pointed out in 2Th 1:7 that their rest would come when “the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven”, it is natural that the big question upon the minds of the Thessalonian Christians would be – “When is this going to happen?” Paul had anticipated this question and went on to deal with this in chapter 2, “concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ …”

  1. Do not believe anyone who says that Christ had already come (a second time) (2Th 2:2 (NIV))
  2. That day will come only after a great apostasy (falling away from the faith) (2Th 2:3)
  3. There will be a time where the anti-Christ (“son of perdition”) that precedes the second coming (2Th 2:4-10)
  4. God will destroy this “lawless one” when Jesus comes (2Th 2:8)
  5. The “lawless one” will come with “all power, signs and false wonders” and deception (2Th 2:9-10)
  6. Many will be deceived in this interim time of testing, presumably by these signs (2Th 2:11-12)

So there you have it – Paul’s eschatology in a nutshell. He doesn’t say much about where or when this will take place but it is interesting to ask how he came to believe in this particular sequence of events? Was this something that the early church was expecting? Was it something predicated by OT prophecies? Was it a result of some personal revelation or a vision? Did Paul have some idea of who this “son of perdition” or “lawless one” might be? We can only speculate but we do not have the answers to these fascinating questions.

What, then, was Paul’s purpose in bringing up this eschatological explanation in chapter 2? It was to, ostensibly, console the Thessalonians in their present suffering, to draw their focus to a future escape from present pain. His point was made to them as follows:-

  1. You who are faithful, stay faithful and don’t give up (2Th 2:15)
  2. Though you suffer now, you have an everlasting consolation and hope (2Th 2:16)
  3. Pray that you will be delivered (things will get worse) (2Th 3:1-2)
  4. God is with you and will guard you (2Th 3:3)
  5. Be patient in your suffering and waiting for Christ’s return (2Th 3:5)

With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that none of the Thessalonians lived to see Christ’s return or the immediate relief from their suffering and persecution. Things did get worse, much worse, before they got better. For Paul, a future hope was a good answer to present suffering – and that seems like a good enough reason for eschatological writing. The purpose was not to promise impending relief or salvation, or to predict the time of the return of Christ. Rather, it was to encourage faithfulness. It is interesting to note that it is often in the time of great turmoil and suffering that eschatological interest peaks.

In any case, Paul, being the pastor that he was, ended with practical advice:-

1. Stay away from “disorderly people (2Th 3:6,14 (NKJV)). The word that is translated “disorderly” here comes from the Greek word ἀτάκτως and is sometimes translated as “unruly” (NASB) or “idle” (NIV, ESV). This is a reference to those people who are just living off others and are not living industriously or productively (2Th 3:11). BDAG (Bauer-Danker lexicon) even suggests that these were religious persons (self-proclaimed religious leaders or pastors) who held services and fed off gullible Christians. Avoid those who keep asking for money or financial support. Basically avoid the scammers. (2Th 3:11-12)

2. Don’t give up. Persevere in following the faith and doing good. (2Th 3:13)

A very pragmatic approach to eschatology I should think and advice that still stands good for Christians today.

Three digits of intrigue 666: Rev 13:18

666, that’s the weight of gold in talents that entered into Solomon’s treasury annually (1Kgs 10:14). It was also the number of persons under Adonikam who had returned to Jerusalem with Zerubabbel (Ezra 2:13). But these numbers don’t grab our attention as it does in Revelations 13:18 where it is presented to us as the “number of the beast.” If ever there was fodder for speculation, this was it. And speculate we did. It’s like finding a Sudoku puzzle in the bible that is begging to be solved. Growing up as a Christian, I’ve given it a few attempts myself, not to mention the countless teachings and articles that I have read on the issue. So, what does this have to do with linguistics? Quite a lot, as it turns out, but let us begin with the text, Rev 13:18 (NKJV):-

Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man: His number is 666.

I guess most of us secretly figure ourselves to be wise! The number 666 is just that in the Greek – ἑξακόσιοι ἑξήκοντα ἕξ – six-hundred sixty six. No translational mystery there. Where it gets interesting is that some of the oldest manuscripts of Rev 13:18 (two extant manuscripts:P115 and P.Oxy. LVI4499, and two missing manuscripts but referred to by Irenaeus) actually read 616 instead of 666. Most of the manuscripts read 666. So why is this variant reading of any interest to us? And whose name could the Apostle John have encoded into that number, 666 or 616? (an 11th century manuscript actually reads 665!)

beast300

This is the Papyrus Oxyrhynchus (or P.Oxy.), the oldest fragment of this part of Revelations that we have. On the third line you can see the letters “XIC” which is the ancient Greek shorthand for 616.

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Well, fortunately for us, John had a disciple by the name of Polycarp. Known to us as a great martyr and bishop of Smyrna (circa. 150AD), he in turn had a disciple by the name of Irenaeus (mentioned earlier) who was quite a prolific writer and, fortunately for us, had written on the subject of 666. In his wok “Against Heresies”, Irenaues wrote (ANF, “Against Heresies”, Book V, Ch. XXX, 1.):-

Such, then, being the state of the case, and this number being found in all the most approved and ancient copies [of the Apocalypse], and those men who saw John face to face bearing their testimony [to it]; while reason also leads us to conclude that the number of the name of the beast, [if reckoned] according to the Greek mode of calculation by the [value of] the letters contained in it, will amount to six hundred and sixty and six; that is, the number of tens shall be equal to that of the hundreds, and the number of hundreds equal to that of the units (for that number which [expresses] the digit six being adhered to throughout, indicates the recapitulations of that apostasy, taken in its full extent, which occurred at the beginning, during the intermediate periods, and which shall take place at the end), — I do not know how it is that some have erred following the ordinary mode of speech, and have vitiated the middle number in the name, deducting the amount of fifty from it, so that instead of six decades they will have it that there is but one.

What John’s grand-disciple was talking about here is the Hebrew practice of Gematria where a number is associated with each alphabet, enabling words to be converted into representative numbers. This practice was also applied to transliterated Greek (and Latin) words and that was, according to Irenaeus, what John was doing in the Apocalyse (Revelations.) So how does that work?

The emperor at that time was Nero, the madman, and his title was Nero Caesar. In Greek this would be Καισαρι Νερωνι (“kaisari Neroni”) which when transliterated into Hebrew can take several forms, just as it would when transliterated (not translated) into any language phonetically. One form is as follows:-

נרון קסר

*I should mention that the Hebrew word for Caesar is usually spelled with a “yud” or קיסר and the one used in the example above is a variant but a valid one. Jastrow’s dictionary of the Talmud (1926 ed., pg.1365), for example, lists both forms of spelling. Likewise, Nero is sometimes spelled with a trailing “nun” (n) as in “Neron” or without it. In many cases, the regular “nun” is used (=50) rather than the trailing/final “nun” form as written above (=700).

hebrew_alphabet-1965753-7-1458007575028

In the Gematria, the alphabets are numbered as “aleph” = 1, “bet” = 2, “gimel” = 3 and so on until 10, and then increases by tens until you reach a hundred, and then by the hundreds until you reach the last alphabet “tsadi” = 900. For the title נרון קסר you end up with the number 666. However, if you drop the trailing “n” and use “Nero” (typical of Latin) instead of “Neron”, your number adds up to 616. It is this peculiarity that suggests that the person behind the number is Nero. The earliest readers must have known this and altered the number to match their alternative spelling of his name, and thereby generating the alternative number 616 as found in some of the earliest extant manuscripts.

So, we identified the “beast”, it seems. Unfortunately, life is never that easy, is it? Given that most scholars believe that the book of Revelations (also known as the Apocalypse of John) was written circa 90AD or later, it seems a little odd for John to refer to Nero who reigned between 54-68AD as the “beast”. The mystery remains!

What’s in a name?: 1Chr 8:33

King Saul had four sons (and two daughters), we’re told in 1Chr 8:33. Jonathan we’re most familiar with but there’s also Malchi-shua, Abinadab (a.k.a. Ishvi or Jishui – 1Sam 14:49) and Ishbaal (a.k.a. Ishbosheth – 2Sam 2:8). 1Sam 14:49 leaves out Ishbaal for some reason when listing the sons of Saul, which is somewhat interesting considering that he (sort of) succeeded the throne of Saul (2Sam 2:10) while David was taking over. So why was his name left out?

The name Ishbaal (אֶשְׁבָּֽעַל) comes from two Hebrew root words – “Ish” meaning “man”, and “Baal” which is sometimes translated “Lord” (or “husband” since the husband was traditionally the lord over the house) but is a carry-over from Canaanite pagan worship. It literally means “man of Baal”. Historically, as a result of syncretism among the Israelites, Baal has come to be used more generally as a term for God. (It might be of some interest that the word “adonai” has also been used to refer to Babylonian gods such as Marduk.) We see “Baal” used quite commonly such as in the names of places used to commemorate an act of God – “Baal of Peor” (Num 25:3), “Baal Perazim” (2Sam 5:20) being two examples.

In any case, “Baal” was the proper name for one of the Phonecian gods, sometimes identified with Molech, which was widely worshipped in the Levant. The Israelites were frequently drawn into Baal-worship, such as in Judges 8:33 (NKJV):-

So it was, as soon as Gideon was dead, that the children of Israel again played the harlot with the Baals, and made Baal-Berith their god.

Over time, there was some confusion as to the usage of the term and that was how it came about that “Baal” was used to refer to YHWH when they were in fact two separate names altogether. This distinction was lost to the masses since the time of the Judges and so it comes as no surprise that Saul named one of his sons “Man of Baal” or Ishbaal.

Now it is believed that some of the scribes who were loyal to YHWH found it a great offence that the name of “Baal” was so used so when they recorded the history, they swapped out “Baal” with “bosheth” (בָ֨שְׁתְּ) meaning “shame”. Thus Ishbaal became Ishbosheth, the “man of shame”.  In the same way, Jonathan’s son, Meribaal (1Chr 8:34) which means “Baal my advocate”, was changed by the writers of Samuel to Mephibosheth (2Sam 4:4, 9:6)  which means “from the mouth of shame”. This probably explains why Ishbaal’s name was omitted 1Sam 14:49.

What we learn is that the scribes and editors of some of the books took it upon themselves to make some alterations to reflect their concerns even as they recorded the events. Obviously Ishbaal and Meribaal would not have been given alternate names by Saul and Jonathan, respectively. This suggests that when we read some of these accounts, we have to allow for the fact that the human writers of scripture play a big role in the text itself. This is another reason why notions of literal inspiration just doesn’t work terribly well. It is just as well that these alterations were made because it turns out that YHWH was no fan of being called “Baal”. Hosea 2:17 (NKJV) reads:-

For I will take from her mouth the names of the Baals,
And they shall be remembered by their name no more.

Does the kingdom of God suffer violence?: Matt 11:12

Recently a friend asked me concerning a very interesting (and puzzling) verse of the bible found in the gospel according to Matthew, Matt 11:12. It’s a verse that we’ve no doubt read from time to time but if we were careful, we might have detected some difficulty with the flow of the verse – not least because it gets translated differently in different English versions:-
NKJV – And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.
NASB – From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force.
NIV(2011) – From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence,and violent people have been raiding it.
NRSV – From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.
NET – From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and forceful people lay hold of it.
ESV – From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence,4 and the violent take it by force.
 
I remember reading this verse as a young Christian and being rather perplexed by what it could possibly mean. In particular I was curious about who these “violent men” who are taking the kingdom of heaven by force might be. Were they “good” people whom we are to emulate? ie. Should we too take the kingdom by force? Or were they “bad” people that we should be on the lookout for? Either ways, the verse just doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. I mean – how do you even go about taking an invisible kingdom by force?
 
To be sure, this is one of those verses that scholars debate over and translators agonise over. The problem stems from the word βιάζεται (biazetai) which is usually translated as “suffers violence”. The word “biazetai” means “to use force or violence”. The problem is that Greek verbs have different “voices” – the active, passive and what is called the middle voice (sometimes called the “aorist”). In English we are used to the active and passive voices. So “He will be killed” is a passive form of the verb “kill”. In English, the voice is determined by other parts of speech. In Greek, the voice is determined by the conjugation of the verb, in the same way that the tense in English is conjugated as part of the same word, eg. kill, killed, kills, killing. They’re all one word. So in Greek, you get one word “biazetai” (βιάζεται) and you will need to look at the conjugation to determine the voice, and hence the correct translation.
 
In this case, βιάζεται is the third person, singular, masculine, middle, indicative form. It is masculine because in the Greek, heaven is “masculine” so the verb associated with it is also masculine. It is the third person, for obvious reasons, when referring to the kingdom of heaven. The real problem comes when we get to the voice – the aorist middle voice. Middle voices are neither active nor passive, and is usually reflexive – acting on itself. In English, you might translate this literally as “the kingdom of heaven is violencing itself” – which is how many translators have translated it, more smoothly albeit. That, however, isn’t the only way of translating this. It is also possible to translate the reflexivity as “the kingdom of heaven is operating forcefully” [Rudolf Otto, “The Kingdom of God and the Son of Man”, pg.78], or as “the kingdom of heaven operates through force” [Reza Aslan, “Zealot”, pg.256]. These two translations are, for me, more sensible in the context of the passage.
 
The verse (Mt 11:12) says that since John the Baptist, which isn’t very long before Jesus said those words, the kingdom of heaven has been advancing forcefully, or operating forcefully. (I prefer “spreading powerfully” here.) Some have chosen “suffers violence” in the light of John the Baptist’s beheading by Herod Antipas (or Antipater). If so, the “violent men” are bad people who abuse God’s people. Fortunately for us, we have more than just one gospel. This same verse is reproduced for us in Luke 16:16:-
 
NKJV – The law and the prophets were until John. Since that time the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is pressing into it.
NASB – The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since that time the gospel of the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it.
NRSV – The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force.
NET – The law and the prophets were in force until John; since then, the good news of the kingdom of God has been proclaimed, and everyone is urged to enter it.
 
Once you consider Lk 16:16, the “violent men” are clearly those who have responded to the preaching of the good news, rather than “bad people” like king Herod. If so, then Mt 11:12 should be translated more towards “advancing forcefully” or “operating with force/strength” as opposed to “suffers violence.” When Luke 16:16 used the same word “biazetai”, the context is that of people pressing into the kingdom of God forcefully, or “urged” as the NET translation puts it.
 
In summary – we have in Mt 11:12 a verse that talks about how since John the Baptist (the last of the OT prophets as implied in v.13-15) a new era has begun and people have been responding to the preaching of the good news of the kingdom of God in droves and, as a result, entering the kingdom of God in large numbers. This fits in well with the context of Mt 11:7-11. Jesus was trying to tell them that they have witnessed the fulfilment of the Malachi 4:5 and John had come to usher in a whole new era – the era of the good news of the kingdom of God. It’s not talking about “violent men” but those who are eagerly responding to the gospel described for us in Mt 3:5-6. Matthew, in particular, was trying to show how Jesus’ life fulfilled OT prophecies as the one that Isa 40:3 speaks of (see. Mt 3:1-3).
 
For what it’s worth, my interpretation of Mt 11:12:-
 
“John the Baptist marks the beginning of a new era of the kingdom that is spreading powerfully, through preaching of the good news and people are eagerly responding in droves, and entering the kingdom of heaven.”
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