Feeding, Suffering, Passover, and the Manger

Tonight I was dabbling in Latin and noticed that the word for “feeding” is pasco. This is not remarkable in and of itself, of course, but when we look at the other biblical languages a rather strange event occurs: they all point to Jesus and his death.

When we hear “Away in a Manger” we might as well be hearing “Away in the Fridge” if we have ancient ears. Jesus was laid in a place for food. It was a place for animals to eat from to be sure, but it was literally a “feeder” in Greek, and the verb for eating in French is “manger.” Jesus was stuck in the cupboard, and this is how it should be, since he grew up to claim that he was the food from heaven. But he wasn’t only some kind of heavenly bread (manna) that descended from heaven, he was also the Passover lamb who was sacrificed and whose blood saved his followers (who were the same people who ate him!) from the Angel of Death. This happened on Passover around 30 AD.

This icon of Jesus’s identity is conveyed with the word “Pascha” in the three major languages of the time. He was the Pascha in every conceivable way, and in every major language that a 1st century Jew would recognize. This is remarkable, to say the least.

The title of this post is :

Feeding, Suffering, Passover, and the Manger.

Another way of saying it is:

Pasco, Pascha, Pascha, and Pasco.

The Three Languages

In the 1st century there were three major languages in Palestine: Hebrew/Aramaic, Greek, and Latin. This is reflected in the proclamation posted on Jesus’s cross, written in all 3 languages. We will look at all 3 below, starting with the most ancient.

Hebrew

The term for Passover in Hebrew is pecach (pronounced peh’·sakh). It means what you would think: to pass over. When the writers of the LXX translated the Hebrew scriptures  into Greek they often faced a common linguistic choice: to translate a word literally or aurally. For example, one could translate “Joshua” (“Jehovah is salvation”) as θεός σωτηρία or as Ἰησοῦς. This choice faces the translator most often with proper nouns.

With Passover, it appears the translators chose to translate aurally, using the term πασχα instead of σκεπάσω (to pass over). This choice led to the wordplay which is the subject of this post.

For a Jew, Pascha meant “Passover” but it also meant “to suffer” in Greek. The association was unmissable, even if it was one that was due to translation alone (and therefore a secondary or seemingly random connection). When a Jew who knew Greek (and most did) celebrated the Passover, they could not help but associate it with suffering, since the language of the Roman Empire was Greek.

The Passover got its name from the angel of death “passing over” the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, while visiting all of the Egyptian houses and killing their firstborn. Therefore the feast of Passover/Suffering was when the Israelites were passed over and the Egyptians suffered. The feast was centered around a meal with symbolic foods that called to remembrance the suffering in Egypt and the suffering of the Egyptians that led to the release/salvation of the Israelites. The Israelites were released so that they could go worship God in the desert, receiving the Law from Moses and eating a sacred meal with God.

Greek

It was only with the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that suffering was explicitly (or literally) equated with Passover. But by the 1st century this had been the case for roughly 3-4 centuries. It was not a new association.

Yet this association took on new depth when Jesus died on Passover/Suffering. One could not help but think that the LXX translation was inspired to foretell this event. When Passover/Suffering was celebrated, Jesus suffered and died as the firstborn Son of God. Yet in the original Passover, it was the Egyptians (sinners) who suffered. With Jesus, he paradoxically is the only innocent one yet is condemned to die. He, as the scapegoat of Yom Kippur, takes the place of the sinners and is punished in their stead. By this, as in Yom Kippur, the punishment that was due to Israel is passed over to another. Jesus dies as the firstborn of sinners even though he is the firstborn of God. This injustice is reversed with his resurrection, celebrated as the feast of Pascha by Christians (later changed to “Easter” in the West).

In other words, the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus was called Pascha by early Christians, denoting both the Passover and Suffering of Jesus. How was it remembered? By a ritual meal, insitituted by Jesus just prior to his pascha on the feast of Pascha during the Paschal meal, the Last Supper.

Latin

The significance of pasco for the Bible is this: eating is sacred. The instances of sacred meals in the OT are too numerous to recount here. Beyond this, Jesus invites people to consume him as food, calling himself “the true bread from heaven” (John 6:32). He goes on to say in verse 51:

I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

Since we are in the Nativity (Christmas) season, it is worth noting that Jesus was born in a “manger.” While we take this as a simple fact that he was born in a trough, the deeper meaning is that he was (in English) born in a receptacle whose name derives from the French term for “eating.” It is, after all, a feeding trough. The Greek term used for manger in the NT, φάτνη, is used only by Luke, and refers only to the place where Jesus is placed after his birth (with the one exception being 13:15). His birth a manger in is in a sense an impromptu accommodation, and in another sense a foreshadowing of his identity as the One Who Is To Be Eaten.

To sum up: in the NT Jesus is born in a “feeder” and to feed in Latin is pasco. This is where Jesus was placed as a newborn, and where he was to be found by the shepherds. They were told that they could identify the child as the one who is in the feeder.

We can add to this that pasco is not a very commonly used word in the Latin NT, but it used after the Resurrection by Jesus in his words to Peter (over a meal!):

So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs. (pasce agnos meos)

He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep. (pasce oves meas)

He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep. (pasce oves meas)

-John 21:15-17

It is actually the case that pasco denotes feeding and shepherding, not merely eating. It is the providing of food, something that Jesus claimed he could do and what he commanded Peter to do. The Greek text of John has the verb ποιμαίνω (to shepherd). Again we have a strange coincidence, in that Jesus was called the Good Shepherd, killed as the Passover lamb, identified as the Lamb of God and the Firstborn of God, born in a feeding trough for sheep, and identified as the food for his own flock. As we can see in the Latin translation above, the word for feed/shepherd is pasce, which is virtually identical in sound to Pascha! (the only difference being in the ending vowel)

Tying the Threads

The feast of Pascha (Passover/Resurrection) follows immediately after Pasco (the Last Supper) and Pascha (the Passover), and is followed by Jesus telling Peter to shepherd/feed (Pasco) his sheep.

The feast of Passover, where the passing over of Israel by the Angel of Death is commemorated, is the feast of Pascha (suffering), the feast of the Resurrection of Jesus who suffered on Passover (Pascha), which is also the feast of Pasco (feeding/eating), the commemoration of the Last Supper where Jesus offered bread and wine to his Apostles in anticipation of his Pascha (suffering) which occurred on Pascha (Passover).

Passover is celebrated by eating symbolic food, and Jesus instituted the Eucharist at a Passover meal, suffering the next day during Passover.

Jesus takes the place of the sinners (the Egyptians) and is killed by the Angel of Death so that Israel may be freed. Israel (Jesus’s followers) is passed over (they are not crucified), and yet this does them no good until they accept his salvation by eating with him after the Resurrection, and thereafter celebrating the Eucharist with others as the symbol of who Jesus and who they now are. Israel, after being passed over, went into the wilderness to commune with God and eat with him, as we see in Exodus 10:8-10, 18:10-12, and 24:3-12 below:

And Moses and Aaron were brought again unto Pharaoh: and he said unto them, Go, serve the LORD your God: but who are they that shall go?

And Moses said, We will go with our young and with our old, with our sons and with our daughters, with our flocks and with our herds will we go; for we must hold a feast unto the LORD.

And he said unto them, Let the LORD be so with you, as I will let you go, and your little ones: look to it; for evil is before you.

 

And Jethro said, Blessed be the LORD, who hath delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of Pharaoh, who hath delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians.

Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods: for in the thing wherein they dealt proudly he was above them.

And Jethro, Moses’ father in law, took a burnt offering and sacrifices for God: and Aaron came, and all the elders of Israel, to eat bread with Moses’ father in law before God.

 

And Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD, and all the judgments: and all the people answered with one voice, and said, All the words which the LORD hath said will we do.

And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD, and rose up early in the morning, and builded an altar under the hill, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel.

And he sent young men of the children of Israel, which offered burnt offerings, and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen unto the LORD.

And Moses took half of the blood, and put it in basons; and half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar.

And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the LORD hath said will we do, and be obedient.

And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD hath made with you concerning all these words.

Then went up Moses, and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel:

And they saw the God of Israel: and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in his clearness.

And upon the nobles of the children of Israel he laid not his hand: also they saw God, and did eat and drink.

And the LORD said unto Moses, Come up to me into the mount, and be there: and I will give thee tables of stone, and a law, and commandments which I have written; that thou mayest teach them.

Back to the Manger

This all explains why Jesus was laid in a manger (φάτνη, feeder) after being born. It was not merely because there was nowhere else to stash him: it was because he was born to be eaten (manger). He was the Pascha, the One who would make the Angel of Death pass over Israel, the one who would suffer, and the one who would tell his disciples to eat (manger) him in remembrance of his Passover/Pascha, and to shepherd/feed (pasco) his sheep/lambs just as he had.

One last note is in order. The Hebrew term for “manger” or “crib” is ebuwc (“to feed, to fatten”). It is used only 3 times in the OT, the last being Isaiah 1:3

The ox knows its owner
And the donkey its master’s crib; (ὄνος τὴν φάτνην τοῦ κυρίου αὐτοῦ)
But Israel does not know,
My people do not consider.”

This chapter of Isaiah was cited widely by early Christians (see Romans 9:29 for a NT example, and note that Justin Martyr, Ireneaus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian all cite 1:3 in particular), and as the opening chapter of one of their favorite books it was very important.

One cannot help but see the new significance that the second clause takes on in light of Luke’s nativity story: the donkey (the lowly Gentiles and faithful remnant of verse 9 as opposed to unfaithful Israel) now knows the crib/manger of the Lord (note that κυρίου was the Greek rendering of Yahweh (see v.2 as well as meaning “master”). It is the manger of Jesus, the Passover lamb who was to suffer and be eaten. We can even add to this that the Passover lambs were literally put on crosses to support their carcasses, as Justin Martyr points out. Jews were used to seeing Passover lambs sacrificed and cooked on wooden crosses every year! These were to be taken home and eaten for the sacred Passover meal.

 

My Lord and My God: John’s Use of Psalm 35

At the end of the Gospel of John, we read the following:

26 And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.

27 Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.

28 And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God.

29 Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

30 And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book:

31 But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.

The problem with this passage is the following: Thomas seems to call Jesus both Lord and God, but we know that Jesus and God are different. This is the only direct attribution of the name “God” to Jesus in John, and in all of the NT (with the exception of Hebrews). So the question is: Did John really mean for his readers to understand that Jesus is God, or that he can rightly be called God?

 

The Citation Approach

Normally this statement of Thomas’s would be evaluated in terms of a bald declaration, but it seems to me that the words of Thomas are really a citation of Psalm 35:23.

Awake, O Lord, and attend to my judgment, [even] to my cause, my God and my Lord.

ἐξεγέρθητι, Κύριε, καὶ πρόσχες τῇ κρίσει μου, ὁ Θεός μου καὶ ὁ Κύριός μου, εἰς τὴν δίκην μου.

Thomas’s words are a verbatim repetition, with the exception that the order of God and Lord is reversed. This is not a problem, though, since reversing the order of words or clauses was not uncommon in Jewish writers at that time (see Paul and the Language of Scripture by Christopher D. Stanley; for example, compare 1 Corinthians 2:9 [Eye has not seen, nor ear heard] and Isaiah 64:4 [we have not heard, neither have our eyes seen]. Ciampa and Rosner write that “such alterations were an accepted part of citation technique in antiquity.” The First Letter to the Corinthians, 127.). So it could be that this is exactly what is going on in John 20:28, but is there reason to think this, other than the unusual statement of Thomas? I think that there is.

Psalm 35 and John

We should ask ourselves whether John even knew Psalm 35 before we jump to the possibility of him citing it in the words of Thomas. It appears that he did, since in John 15:

21 But all these things will they do unto you for my name’s sake, because they know not him that sent me.

22 If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin: but now they have no cloak for their sin.

23 He that hateth me hateth my Father also.

24 If I had not done among them the works which none other man did, they had not had sin: but now have they both seen and hated both me and my Father.

25 But this cometh to pass, that the word might be fulfilled that is written in their law, They hated me without a cause.

26 But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me:

27 And ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with me from the beginning.

For our purposes we will note the following:

  1. Jesus identifies himself with the Father (God) in the sense that hating him means hating the Father.
  2. He cites “their law” about being hated without cause.
  3. He speaks of the Comforter (the Holy Spirit).
  4. He speaks of testifying and bearing witness.

As for the citation from “their law,” it could be from two different sources: Psalm 35:19 or Psalm 69:4. Here is a comparison of the Greek:

 Ἐμίσησάν με δωρεάν (John)

οἱ μισοῦντες με δωρεὰν (Ps 35)

οἱ μισοῦντές με δωρεάν (Ps 69)

We can see that the two Psalms use an identical phrase, and so we cannot from this discern which one Jesus was citing. So it seems that Jesus could have been referring to either one.

However, when we look at this passage in John 15 in relation to John 20, things become clearer.

Point 1 is seen in John 20:38 (“My Lord and My God,” spoken to Jesus alone).

Point 2 is seen (possibly) as another citation from “their law.” (“My Lord and My God”).

Point 3 is seen in the context of 20:38 in that Thomas was not their when Jesus gave the Holy Spirit to the 10 Apostles, the very event predicted in John 15.

Point 4 is seen in the testimony of Thomas. He had set himself up as a judge of Jesus, demanding that evidence be shown to him before he declared a verdict. When the evidence was presented by Jesus himself, he passed his judgement with the testimony of “My Lord and My God.” This was done not by him putting his fingers into Jesus’s hands (the text does not say whether he did so) but rather by him receiving the Holy Spirit just as the 10 Apostles had. Although this is only implied rather than recounted, it makes sense since it would be strange that Thomas would not receive the Holy Spirit like the other 10. If he did receive it, it would appear that he received it in this encounter, like the 10 had a week earlier. The result of him receiving it would be his testimony that Jesus is Lord and God, recalling John 15:26 “he shall testify of me.”

Given the 4 strong connections between John 15 and John 20, we can conclude that the citation in John 15 is of Psalm 35, just as Psalm 35 is cited in John 20.

This is further shown by the context of Psalm 35 itself and its relation to the narrative events of John 15 and 20. While both Ps 35 and 69 speak of being persecuted by enemies (the context of John 15) there are particular traits in Ps 35 that apply to the chapters in John.

 11 Fierce witnesses rise up; They ask me things that I do not know.

21 They also opened their mouth wide against me, And said, “Aha, aha!

Our eyes have seen it.

23 Stir up Yourself, and awake to my vindication, To my cause, my God and my Lord.

27 Let them shout for joy and be glad, Who favor my righteous cause;

And let them say continually, “Let the Lord be magnified, 

Who has pleasure in the prosperity of His servant.” 

28 And my tongue shall speak of Your righteousness And of Your praise all the day long.

All of these elements find an interpretation in the story of Thomas: he was a follower of Jesus, but had believed what he had seen (v.21), namely that Jesus had died. He favored the cause of Jesus, and as a consequence “magnified” him by calling him “My Lord and My God” (v.23). Thomas saw the vindication of Jesus, the Lord’s servant (v.27) and responded accordingly as we see in the Psalm.

Conclusion

John ends his Gospel with the declaration of Thomas that Jesus is “My Lord and My God.” This confession of belief caps the book, and is therefor very important. The only material after this confession is the statement that those who believe without seeing (the readers of John) are blessed, that Jesus did many other miracles not recorded in John, and that the Gospel was written so that you would believe (like Thomas, but without the benefit of actually seeing). Thomas’s statement becomes the model that John’s readers are to adopt, a confession based on faith without seeing. John wants his readers to confess Jesus as “My Lord and My God,” a confession coming from Psalm 35 that is applied to God himself.

That is not to say that John flatly equates Jesus with his own Father, but rather that Jesus and his Father are “one”(Dt. 6:4, John 10:30) and to see Jesus is to see the Father (John 14:9). This is why, when Thomas is given the Spirit, he looks at Jesus and confesses him to be “My Lord and My God,” the same Lord and God who vindicated Jesus, God’s servant. The statement is not a piece discursive theology, but a citation of prophecy fulfilled in Jesus’s resurrection, and a recognition of the unity of God and his Son. John “has his cake and eats it too” in the sense that he affirms a unity of Jesus and God while retaining a distinction between God and Jesus.

 

 

The Christology of Hebrews Chapter 1

I recently got into a discussion about the assertions that the author of Hebrews makes in the opening chapter of his letter and I was invited to unpack just how I interpreted what the author was doing. Given that it is a somewhat complex topic that is not germane to a short comment in a thread, I decided to make a blog post about it.

 

Hebrews 1

The passage in question is this:

God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets,

Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds;

Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high:

Being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.

For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee? And again, I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son?

And again, when he bringeth in the firstbegotten into the world, he saith, And let all the angels of God worship him.

And of the angels he saith, Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire.

But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of thy kingdom.

Thou hast loved righteousness, and hated iniquity; therefore God, even thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows.

10 And, Thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands:

11 They shall perish; but thou remainest; and they all shall wax old as doth a garment;

12 And as a vesture shalt thou fold them up, and they shall be changed: but thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail.

13 But to which of the angels said he at any time, Sit on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool?

14 Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?

The passage is a beautiful exposition of the identity of the Son of God. By using a series of different scriptural quotations the author makes his point about just who the Son actually is, and he also adds his own assertions/rhetorical questions both prior to and after this string of quotations.

Here is a listing of the quotations used:

Verse 5: Ps. 2:7b and then 2 Sam. 7:14

Verse 6: Dt. 32:43 (see this paper for more info on the text critical issues involved)

Verse 7: Ps. 104:4

Verses 8-9: Ps. 45:6-7

Verses 10-12: Ps. 102:25-27

Verse 13: Ps. 110:1

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the author’s use of Scripture in this chapter is that he asserts that the words of David directed towards God are actually the speech of God directed towards the Son! This issue is a problematic one for non-Trinitarians, and one which I will address here. But first we need a little background.

 

Jewish Monotheism

Jews believed in One God. They might have admitted to other “gods” existing, but such entities were not on par with the One God. Only God was worthy of worship, only God created everything, only God chose Israel and spoke by the Prophets.

In the created realm there were humans, animals, inanimate objects, and angels. The gods of the nations were thought to be either in the angelic realm or else simply imaginary. They were no gods at all, even if men worshipped them as gods.

The way that God was spoken of by Jews was diverse but rather consistent. God was called  El, YHWH, the Lord, Father, the Rock, and other titles. The primary titles were ‘el, ‘elohiym, and Yĕhovah/Yahweh. This final name is a proper name of God revealed directly to Moses, and the variation of how it is rendered is due to the Hebrew text lacking consonants. It is called the Tetragrammaton because it is 4 consonants (YHWH); he vowels between those letters are inferred, leading to the different renderings as Yĕhovah/Yahweh.

The Greek terms corresponding to these Hebrew titles/names are fairly consistent: El and Elohim are ὁ θεὸς (God), and YHWH is κύριος (Lord). The second is quite important, since when reading the Hebrew word YHWH, the reader would not pronounce the Tetragrammaton but would instead pronounce the word as Adonai (Lord). This was due to the belief that YHWH was such a holy name that it should not be pronounced, except once a year by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement.

This led to a curious aspect of the Greek text of Scripture: when the Hebrew text had YHWH, the Greek text usually had κύριος. When the Hebrew text had Adonai, the Greek text also had κύριος. Hence there was no way of telling (by the Greek alone) if the κύριος written of was YHWH or Adonai. Even in the account of God revealing his name of YHWH to Moses (Ex. 6:3) the Greek has no literal rendering of YHWH and instead has κύριος. So when a Jew heard “Adonai” or “κύριος” they had to decide whether it was referring to the One God or was simply a title of respect that could be used of humans. (note: Adonai is a plural of Adown, just as elohim is a plural of el. This was a plural of heightened emphasis rather than actual pluarlity, at least in the minds of interpreters.) Just as Mr. or Sir Jones means “master” and “sire,” but we don’t actually consider Jones to be our Master like God is said to be; or when we hear “Lord Byron” we don’t assume that it denotes the same Lord as the phrase “Lord have mercy.”

 

Hebrews 1 and the Exegesis of Jewish Monotheism

While the authorship of Hebrews is a contested matter, we can safely assume that the author was either Jewish himself or was convinced of the truth of Jewish beliefs. This follows from his use of Jewish scriptures in his argument in chapter 1 and throughout the entire letter. As such, it is shocking (to us) how he appears to speak of Two Gods.

The implicit assertion is found in verse 8, but the previous verses set the stage and the verses which follow strengthen his point. It should be noted that while many modern Christians have doubts about the divinity of Jesus as opposed to his humanity, it appears that Hebrews 1 addresses the divinity of Jesus as opposed to his angelic status. The humanity of the Son is never mentioned explicitly in chapter 1.

The book opens (vs.1-2b) with the assertion that in these last days God spoke through his son rather than through the prophets. It follows that the Son spoke for God, but there is also an implication that he trumped the work of the prophets precisely because he spoke as a son rather than as a servant.

The Son is then said to be:

1) the heir of all things,

2) the one who God used to make the worlds

3) the brightness of God’s glory

4) the image of God’s person

5) the upholder of all things by the word of God

6) the one who purged our sins

7) the one seated at the right hand of God

(Note that rather than copying and pasting the original, I summarized the content and therefore the listing above contains some of my own interpretation of the words rather than a literal retelling. One should always defer to the original when in doubt, which would be the Greek text rather than my reworded synopsis.)

Verse 4 is where the angels come in: the Son was made to be better than the angels and by virtue of his inheritance the Son received a greater name than the angels.

At this point the description of the Son seems to rule out a (mere) human being, although it could be said that the description could apply to a perfect, high priestly, true human being on all points except one: that God made the worlds through the Son. This simply did not happen through a human in Jewish teaching.

Yet all of these points could possibly apply to an angelic figure, including the making of the worlds. It was affirmed by Jews that God was the creator of everything, but also that God made everything through Wisdom, a hypostasized (personalized) concept. Some Jews believed that Wisdom made everything by the power of God, and still other Jews believed that God made everything through angelic mediators.

This seems to be exactly what the author of Hebrews was addressing: the idea that the Son was Wisdom and an angelic mediator. His aim seems to clarify the latter and distinguish the Son from a “mere” angel, affirming that the Son was the Son of God, not merely a creation of God (as the angels were). There was a “genetic” connection, to use a modern metaphor.

So, verse 4 distinguishes the Son from all other angels, but still allows for the Son to be an angel himself. He could simply be the highest angel. Yet verse 5 makes clear that the identity of the Son is that he is God’s son, not simply one of God’s angel. Verse 6 has God telling all of his angels to worship his Son, which shows that the Son is higher than the rest of the angels, but admittedly still allows for the Son to be an angel. After all, the chapter began with the Son being sent by God to speak to humans, which is exactly the role of an angel.

While verses 4-6 set up a distinction between the Son and the angels: angels are not spoken of (here) as being “sons” nor are they (here) objects of worship. Yet it should be remembered that in some instances an angel could receive worship that was due to God alone, and that angels were sometimes called “the sons of God.” So the distinction is not absolute at this point.

It should also be pointed out that my analysis here is functional, not ontological. The angels could be exalted men, since an angel is simply an agent who brings a message. Verse 7 speaks of angels as “sprits,” and men have spirits; they are also “ministers,” and God appointed men to minister to him in the Temple and elsewhere.

Yet in verse 8 we have something rather different: the author of Hebrews boldly asserts that “to the Son” (or perhaps “regarding the Son”) God calls him (the Son) “God”! Not only is this bold on the face of it, but it is bold when we consider the Psalm that he is citing. On a plain reading of the Psalm it is clear that David is speaking of the One God. Yet the author of Hebrews tells us that God spoke those words to the Son. The One God called his Son “God.” This simply cannot be said of a (mere) angel or a (mere) man.

Yet the citation continues with another twist: God, still speaking to the Son, says that the Son’s God anointed the Son above the Son’s fellows. This is perplexing because the One God cannot be “anointed,” nor can the One God have a God. In the Psalm it is clear that the figure being anointed is not the One God, but the king (Ps. 45:1), yet verse 8 in Hebrews (Ps. 45:6) makes it explicit that the one being addressed has shifted from the king/warrior to the One God, apparently as an aside. The author of Hebrews makes clear that he interprets the Psalm differently than this, and that the king is God. Yet the king is God who has a God and has “fellows.” This seems to be impossible to say of the One God. Yet the fact remains that the author of Hebrews is asserting this very impossibility.

God is often spoken of as a king and a warrior. Could the Psalm be about God himself, and not a human agent? It could be, and the author of Hebrews seem to lean in this direction, but again there is the objection of the king having a God, and being anointed (Hebrews 1:9, Psalm 45:7). Whoever this figure is, he is God and he has a God, which John 20:17 applies to Jesus and in Hebrews is applied to the Son.

The specific words used for “God” in this Psalm are elohiym and θεός. These terms cannot be read as merely functional (like Adonai or κύριος). They apply only to the One God in a plain reading of the OT writings. The author of Hebrews points out to his readers that this is not the case, but rather that elohiym and θεός are rightful titles for the Son. The Son is both God and yet distinct in some ways from the One God who goes by the same name/title.

For the sake of easy reading I will here repost the end of Hebrews chapter 1 so the reader doesn’t need to scroll up to see the original:

10 And, Thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands:

11 They shall perish; but thou remainest; and they all shall wax old as doth a garment;

12 And as a vesture shalt thou fold them up, and they shall be changed: but thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail.

13 But to which of the angels said he at any time, Sit on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool?

14 Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?

Verses 10-12 move from the stunning assertion that the Son is God to the assertion that the Son is Lord. The idea that Jesus is Lord is nothing new, of course, but is often taken in the more mundane sense of “master.” But the author of Hebrews makes clear that the Son is Lord and God, making the “Lord” to mean YHWH. No human Lord laid the foundations of the earth or created the heavens. Only the Lord YHWH did this, and this idea was already mentioned in Hebrews 1:2. But again, the original context of the Psalm seems to apply to YHWH as the One God, leaving open the possibility that the actual work of creation may have been done by an imtermediary. The author of Hebrews affirms that it was done through an intermediary, namely the Son of God who is also God and Lord (YHWH).

We can see this when we look at the original in Psalm 102, and for your convenience I have listed below the verses that mention God/Lord by name, starting with verse 1:

Hear my prayer, O LORD (YHWH, κύριος), and let my cry come unto thee.

12. But thou, O LORD (YHWH, κύριος), shalt endure for ever; and thy remembrance unto all generations.

15. So the heathen shall fear the name of the LORD (YHWH, κύριος), and all the kings of the earth thy glory.

16. When the LORD (YHWH, κύριος) shall build up Zion, he shall appear in his glory.

18. This shall be written for the generation to come: and the people which shall be created shall praise the LORD (Jah, κύριος).

21. To declare the name of the LORD (YHWH, κύριος) in Zion, and his praise in Jerusalem;

22. When the people are gathered together, and the kingdoms, to serve the LORD (YHWH, κύριος).

24. I said, O my God (El, no word given in the Greek), take me not away in the midst of my days: thy years are throughout all generations.

We then come to verses 25-27, which are the ones cited in Hebrews 1:10-12. But we should note that the author of Hebrews has used the Greek version of the beginning of the citation. The Psalm English readers are used to is based on the Hebrew text, which begins:

“Of old hast thou laid the foundation of the earth”

while in Hebrews we read

“And, Thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth”

This is better understood when we realize that the author of Hebrews is citing the LXX version of the Psalm, which includes “Lord.” Here is the Greek of both:

κατ᾽ ἀρχὰς σύ κύριε τὴν γῆν ἐθεμελίωσας (Ps)

καί Σὺ κατ᾽ ἀρχάς κύριε τὴν γῆν ἐθεμελίωσας (H)

The only difference between the two is the “and” which actually introduces the citation rather than forms part of it, and the transposition of the “you” (σύ).

Who is the Lord in this Psalm? It is always YHWH (6 times strictly speaking, and 1 time the shortened form YH substitutes YHWH). The Lord in this Psalm is always understood as the One God, and the author of Hebrews asserts that it refers to the Son, just as earlier elohiym, θεός refers to the Son.

The chapter has one final citation, this time of Psalm 110:1. He cites only the second and third clauses of verse 1, but it is worth noting the clause he omits (note that it is a common Jewish rhetorical technique to omit a verse or part of a verse with the aim of the reader supplying the clause/verse himself; the omitted phrase is usually the most important one).

The LORD (YHWH, κύριος) said unto my Lord (‘adown, κύριος)

Sit thou at my right hand,

until I make thine enemies thy footstool.

The author of Hebrews essentially asks how it would be appropriate to speak to an angel this way. Yet he omits the most striking clause, the initial one that calls the subject of the action “Lord”  (‘adown, κύριος). Here we should point out that Lord is not the name of YHWH, but adown in the Hebrew. Yet there is no such distinction in the Greek, and we have already seen that the Son is Lord in the sense of YHWH, not merely adown or Adonai.

By omitting the initial phrase which speaks of “the Lord” speaking to “my Lord,” the knowledgeable reader’s attention is brought to bear specifically on this phrase. And when they look at it, it clearly says that the Lord spoke to my Lord, just as the author of Hebrews had earlier asserted that God had spoken to the Son and called him “God.” Without this treatment by the author of Hebrews, a Jewish Christian would read Ps. 110:1 as YHWH speaking to a human or angelic “Lord.” The author of Hebrews makes that reading impossible. There are two Lords (κύριος) and two Gods (θεός). The two have distinct functions and are not the same, but are also identified with the same unique titles. The Son is not an angel or a man, but God and Lord.

At this point the reader here has a few options:

  1. Affirm that the Son is a second God and Lord, even while being distinct from the first God and Lord
  2. Affirm that there is only one God and Lord, and so the Son must be that sole God and Lord
  3. Affirm that the author of Hebrews is wrong in his treatment of the OT citations
  4. Affirm that the author of Hebrews didn’t mean what he actually wrote

The only viable option for those who affirm that Hebrews is an inspired book is #1. Options 2-4 are all contradicted by the author of Hebrews and the notion of the inspiration of Scripture. It should be remembered that the idea of a second YHWH was already an idea extant in Judaism, forwarded by Philo, an Alexandrian Jew who simultaneously affirmed that the second YHWH/Lord/Logos was distinct from the One God yet still God.There was also the “Two Powers in Heaven” discussion in Jewish circles, which pointed to Metatron as an angelic second YHWH. The only novelty in the assertions made in Hebrews 1 is that the Son (Jesus) is affirmed to be that second YHWH, something that Philo would not have affirmed and that Jews who believed in a second YHWH like Metatron also rejected.

As always, thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

Was Jesus Really a Carpenter? Part III: A Type of Confession

In looking at whether Jesus was really a carpenter I had expected to write a series of three posts: the first would introduce the problem, the second would deal with the linguistic evidence, and the third would give perspective to the evidence and draw a valid conclusion.

Yet, as happens so often in honest research, these plans were thwarted. I found something rather different than what I had expected, and as such I am forced to change directions and follow where the evidence has led me. Below is a a reassessment of where I’m at on the issue.

 

The Historical Jesus

Nothing is quite so fashionable in biblical studies in the past century as the notion of the Historical Jesus. The original question I intended to answer is implicitly tied to historicity: “Was Jesus ‘really’ a carpenter?” implies to the modern reader that the answer will deal with the historical Jesus. He was either “really” a carpenter or not according to what “actually happened” in history.

Yet this approach is fundamentally flawed and ultimately an exercise in futility. We have no reliable way of determining whether Jesus even existed, at least in terms of modern ideas of history, let alone what his day job may or may not have been. Instead, we have literary evidence that tells us a story about a man who lived, died, and lived again. This evidence is therefor outside of the realm of modern history. There is no “objective” (read: reasonably non-biased) data set to even gauge the plausibility of the story, much less the historical veracity of it.

Instead of looking for what “really happened” (a fairly futile endeavor even for modern news stories) we should take the evidence for what it is: a story that is intended to communicate meaning. As such, we might reframe the original question in the following manner: What does it mean for Mark to tell us that Jesus was a carpenter?

In the first two installments of this study we have seen that the modern connotations of “carpenter” do not exactly fit what the Greek of Mark conveys, yet no single English rendering can accurately reproduce the connotations of the Greek. As such, “carpenter” is close enough for our purposes, while we should keep in mind that “builder” and “mason” are close to the mark as well, and perhaps even superior to “carpenter.”

 

Typology

Rather than pursue the dead end approach of the Historical Jesus, we should adopt the narrative logic of Mark. After all, Mark is our starting point for the idea that Jesus was a carpenter. To take his account as historically factual is an ignorant approach and one which disrespects him as an author. Instead we should adopt the well attested and undeniably valid criteria of typological analysis.

The OT writings use genres of myth, prophecy, ancient history, and wisdom literature to convey meaning to their readers. They are constantly self-referential. One cannot understand the ending of the book of Judges, for example, without realizing that the last 3 chapters are a retelling of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. One cannot understand Ezekiel’s contention that Jerusalem is like Sodom without knowing the story of Sodom to which he refers, nor can we understand his depiction of the king of Tyre if don’t notice that it is based on the typology of both Adam and Satan. The Old Testament is a tightly woven set of texts that constantly allude to and at times explicitly cite other texts within Jewish tradition.

Perhaps the greatest living Old Testament scholar today is Dr. Paul Nadim Tarazi. He has demonstrated for several decades the literary meaning of the Old and consequently the New Testaments. Much of the typology and allusion is lost on the English reader since the original languages of their composition (Hebrew and Greek) contain wordplay that cannot be conveyed in English. What was obvious for the original readers of the texts is no longer obvious to English readers.

Tom Dykstra, a protege of Tarazi, has written a brilliant book on Mark, but for our purposes what he says on the issue of genre is important in this article. His thesis is that Mark wrote his Gospel as “scripture.” That is to say that we should not approach Mark as modern history, ancient biography, or even as Homeric epic. Instead, we should approach it as a text self-consciously written as holy scripture, taking on the models of the OT writings rather than merely occasionally quoting from them.

This approach is not confined to the school of Tarazi, although in my opinion he is the leading light of it. Dykstra’s book, for example, is endorsed by the likes of David Trobisch and Thomas Brodie, both brilliant and uncompromising scholars. A scholar who has garnered more attention in the field is Richard Hays. For whatever reason, he has been able to communicate the scholastic validity of the typological/literary approach to the New Testament to a wide range of both liberal and conservative scholars. (I say “for whatever reason” because while Hays is a great scholar and superb writer, he is not as original as Tarazi. Perhaps it is his position at Duke as opposed to the smaller St Vladimir’s Seminary that has afforded him more publicity amongst scholars than Tarazi has received.)

In Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel WitnesHayes shows the importance of reading the Gospels in light of the Old Testament texts. The authors of the NT consciously wrote with OT literature in mind. We should note here that this approach is hardly novel, but is rather the traditional way that the Bible was read up until the modern period. The novelty that Tarazi and Hays bring to the table is novel only in the context of modern scholarship; the figural or typological approach was always how Scripture used to be read, and we know this from the Old Testament texts themselves. As such we should look for answers to our carpenter query in the Old Testament. We already began this process in the second installation of the series, but now we will do so in a more focused way. In particular, we will look at the theme of fulfilled typologies.

By this we mean the following: in the New Testament, Jesus is portrayed as the fulfillment of all the Old Testament heroes. He is the new Moses, the new David, the new Solomon, the new Joshua, etc.

All too often this thesis is accepted, but never followed to its logical conclusion. For example, the portrayal of Jesus as the new David is beyond question. He is the son of David, the Davidic Messiah, etc. It is all too obvious. Likewise the new Moses theme is in the forefront of the portrayals of Jesus as fulfilling the Mosaic Law, giving the Sermon on the Mount, etc. The Elijah/Elisha story cycles are also found throughout the Gospels and Revelation, and Jesus as the new Solomon is driven home to the reader of the NT quite forcefully and repeatedly. All of these assertions are backed up by plain readings as well as solid scholarship, to the point that no legitimate scholar could possibly object to them. They are that obvious.

But some other typologies have been neglected. One obvious one that is seldom if ever mentioned is Jesus as the new Joshua (son of Nun). This is obvious because both men lead Israel into the Promised Land. Moses never gets to the Promised Land, nor do any people from that generation, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb. Joshua goes on to conquer Canaan and establish possession of the Promised Land. He is the rightful leader and successor to Moses. The first book following the Pentateuch in the Bible is named after him, and it was reckoned as the first book of the Prophets by Jews. What makes this typology painfully obvious is that “Joshua” and “Jesus” are literally the same name. There is not one shade of difference between the two, in spite of the misleading translation in English. No Jew could hear/read the name of Jesus and not think of Jesus the son of Nun, the most famous Jesus in history prior to Jesus of Nazareth.

In the upcoming posts we will see that this typological fulfillment theme extends to two other figures in the Old Testament, ones that are not well-known to us today but were of utmost importance in the 1st century. Not only that, but these two figures were related to each other already within the Old Testament narratives.

I’m willing to bet that although these figures are important and were well-known to first century Jews, if I gave you their names and asked you to describe them you would be as clueless as I was. In other words, this is new information for modern readers.

As always, thanks for reading.

 

Was Jesus Really a Carpenter?

You have probably heard the claim that Jesus was a carpenter, but what is the basis for this assertion? I’m going to delve a bit into the evidence below and hopefully shed some light on this commonly held idea.

The Carpenter in the New Testament

We read about Jesus as a carpenter only once in the New Testament, namely in Mark 6:3. Verses 1-6  (KJV) are given below for context.

And he went out from thence, and came into his own country; and his disciples follow him.

And when the sabbath day was come, he began to teach in the synagogue: and many hearing him were astonished, saying, From whence hath this man these things? and what wisdom is this which is given unto him, that even such mighty works are wrought by his hands?

Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended at him.

But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.

And he could there do no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them.

And he marvelled because of their unbelief. And he went round about the villages, teaching.

The passage is unusual for a number of reasons but we will focus here on the reference to “the carpenter.” Neither Luke nor Matthew include this specific detail in their Gospels (cf. Matthew 13:54-58 and Luke 4:16-30). John’s omission of it is not particularly noteworthy since he differs from the Synoptics as a rule. It should also be noted that Matthew changes Mark’s account to read “Is not this the carpenter‘s son?” In other words, Mark alone tells us that Jesus was thought of as “the carpenter” while Matthew and Luke avoided telling their readers this.

(note: We are here assuming “Markan priority,” meaning that both Matthew and Luke used Mark as a basis for their own Gospels. While this is the scholarly consensus, it is not beyond question. Yet for our purposes it is instructive to see that the difference in accounts seems to indicate a conscious omission on the part of Luke and a conscious alteration on the part of Matthew.)

 

A Short Detour into Non-Canonical Accounts

No other NT author describes Jesus this way, and we have to wait until (presumably) the mid-2nd century to get more information on this in the Infancy Gospel of James (click here for the text and here for the first of several of my posts on the document). There we read that Joseph was a builder of some sort since he told Mary “and now do I leave thee in my house, and I go away to build my buildings.”

In the Arabic Infancy Gospel we read of Jesus doing some tricky carpentry work to assist his (unskilled) father:

38. And Joseph used to go about through the whole city, and take the Lord Jesus with him, when people sent for him in the way of his trade to make for them doors, and milk-pails, and beds, and chests; and the Lord Jesus was with him wherever he went.

As often, therefore, as Joseph had to make anything a cubit or a span longer or shorter, wider or narrower, the Lord Jesus stretched His hand towards it; and as soon as He did so, it became such as Joseph wished. Nor was it necessary for him to make anything with his own hand, for Joseph was not very skilful in carpentry.

39. Now, on a certain day, the king of Jerusalem sent for him, and said: I wish thee, Joseph, to make for me a throne to fit that place in which I usually sit. Joseph obeyed, and began the work immediately, and remained in the palace two years, until he finished the work of that throne.

And when he had it carried to its place, he perceived that each side wanted two spans of the prescribed measure. And the king, seeing this, was angry with Joseph; and Joseph, being in great fear of the king, spent the night without supper, nor did he taste anything at all.

Then, being asked by the Lord Jesus why he was afraid, Joseph said: Because I have spoiled all the work that I have been two years at. And the Lord Jesus said to him: Fear not, and do not lose heart; but do thou take hold of one side of the throne; I shall take the other; and we shall put that to rights. And Joseph, having done as the Lord Jesus had said and each having drawn by his own side, the throne was put to rights, and brought to the exact measure of the place.

And those that stood by and saw this miracle were struck with astonishment, and praised God. And the woods used in that throne were of those which are celebrated in the time of Solomon the son of David; that is, woods of many and various kinds.

While these textual traditions are somewhat interesting, they are later compositions and have less value in the eyes of most readers. Consequently, for now we will simply focus on evidence as found in the canonical Scriptures.

Returning to Mark

The term found in Mark 6:3 is not technically “the carpenter” but  τέκτων in the Greek. We should remember that English is not a proper reference for understanding the NT, and so the Greek word rathe than the English translation will be our basis for understanding the claim of Jesus being a “carpenter.” So what is a τέκτων?

τέκτων is basically a builder, or one who uses “technology” (think of the word “architect” which means “head builder,” roughly speaking). A carpenter, on the other hand, usually denotes a person who works with wood (see the etymology here). A mason is a person who tends to work with stone, at least by modern usage (see the etymology here). “Mason” may be a better rendering of τέκτων since it is more general (meaning “maker/builder”) but the modern connotations might mislead readers to think of something more specific than the term actually denotes. Similarly, “architect” carries the connotation of a person who plans a building project rather than one who actually does the work of building. An architect is perceived as being more “hands off” than a mason or carpenter.

Mark and Matthew don’t tell us what materials Jesus and/or Joseph worked with, and since Palestine had both wooden and stone buildings we can only speculate as to which term would be more correct. We can say at this point that the more general term of “builder” is the most appropriate.

(note: the Vulgate reads as follows:

Mt. 13:5 “nonne hic est fabri filius”

Mark 6:3 “nonne iste est faber

ergo the Latin translators understood the Greek text to mean that Jesus and Joseph were makers, craftsmen, workmen, etc.)

However, there is a way to more fully understand what the first readers of the NT would have understand the term to mean by looking at the Greek OT (commonly called the LXX). This was the version of the Scriptures that the NT authors used almost exclusively. We can also look at the corresponding Hebrew terms in the OT to try to grasp a fuller meaning of the term and what it meant to 1st century readers.

This will be the subject of our next post. Thanks for reading!

Why Was Cain’s Sacrifice Rejected?

The first instance of sacrifice in the Bible is a strange one, as we see in Genesis 4:1-6.

 

“And Adam knew Eve his wife;

and she conceived, and bare Cain,

and said, I have gotten a man from the LORD.

And she again bare his brother Abel.

And Abel was a keeper of sheep,

but Cain was a tiller of the ground.

And in process of time it came to pass,

that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD.

And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof.

And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering:

But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect.

And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.”

Why did God accept the offering of Abel but not of Cain? Evidently some think that it was because there was no blood offered with Cain’s sacrifice. But this clearly cannot be the case, since offerings to God were often of fruit, bread, and incense in the OT. So what was the reason?

The text does not tell us. We need to be open to the ambiguity that we are presented with. We also need to keep in mind that Cain and Abel were just introduced. They were born, they had respective roles, and then they sacrificed, all in a few verses. Nothing is said of their characters.

One explanation is that Cain harbored ill will against Abel. He goes on to kill him rather quickly in the story, but this could have been a result of jealousy stemming from the sacrifice, not a long held antipathy.

Another explanation is that the story shows the preference for the shepherd over the farmer, the pastoral life over the city life. It should also be noted in this regard that eating animal flesh had yet to be blessed by God (this only happened after the flood). Why was Abel shepherding sheep if nobody was going to eat them? This kind of shepherding is non-violent and non-abusive, while in the world of the readers the shepherd was known to occasionally slaughter a sheep for good (sacrifice) and bad (greed) reasons. The leaders of Israel were often compared to shepherds in the Bible, and criticized for abusing their power and devouring the sheep they were supposed to protect. Shepherds generally did not kill their sheep, but awaited orders from their masters as to when a sheep should be killed. The flock was “on loan” to the shepherd, not owned by him.

This explanation does little to resolve the tension in the story. Various other explanations have been offered, but rather than list all of them I will simply refer to the “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan,” a Christian text that preserves various Jewish and Christian traditions.

The text tells us that Abel loved to pray, fast, and sacrifice, while Cain often would skip out on the action. Cain had a “hard heart,” while Abel had a “meek heart.” Abel was interested in spiritual things, but Cain was interested in ruling over his brother.

The account is very much like Rabbinic retellings of Jacob and Esau. From the womb God favored Jacob, the second born twin, while Esau was “hated.” The two boys grew up very much like Cain and Abel, with one of the pair interested in the fields and hunting (Cain and Esau) and the other stayed at home and was gentle and pious (Abel and Jacob). The sworn enemy of Jacob becomes precisely his twin brother Esau. This continues until the end of time, when Amalek (the anti-Israel figure in the OT who is the descendant of Esau) is destroyed by the Messiah and the face of God is finally revealed to humanity.

In the “Conflict,” Satan appears to Abel while he is praying and tells him that he will kill Abel because he fasts, prays, and offers sacrifices to God. Then Satan appears to Cain, telling him that since Cain’s parents love Abel more than him, they will give Abel Cain’s twin sister for a wife (yes, Cain and Abel were both born with twin sisters in this retelling). Cain wants to marry his own twin (!) rather than Abel’s twin (Abel’s twin was evidently less attractive!). Satan suggests that Cain should kill Abel, leaving his beautiful twin to be his wife.

The story then takes a dramatic turn, in that it begins to conflict directly with the Biblical account. Here Adam tells Cain and Abel both to make an offering to God for their sins: both of their offerings are said to be “the fruit of thy sowing.” They both offer a vegetarian sacrifice. The tension between an animal and vegetable sacrifice disappears.

Abel makes his offering first, but only after being instructed how to do it properly by his parents. God accepts it “because of his good heart and pure body. There was no trace of guile in him.”

Cain, on the other hand, angered his father by not wanting to sacrifice and taking no pleasure in the offering. He offered a sheep (a surprise since the offering was “of his sowing”) but was thinking about eating it as he sacrificed it. He had also picked out the smallest (least desirable) sheep.

We should note here that the text in question has another strange tradition about sacrifice and blood. It tells us that Melchizedek offered bread and wine, and was the first priest. It is  specified a number of times that he never offered blood sacrifice, but rather the type of the Eucharist. His priestly ministry was without animal blood, in distinction to the Aaronic priesthood. So the views on animal sacrifice should be seen as later Christian teachings, although they might also be derived from Jewish traditions.

Here we come to the reason for the rejection of Cain’s sacrifice by God: the text tells us that “God did not accept his offering, because his heart was full of murderous thoughts.”

Conclusion

We cannot definitively say why Cain’s offering was rejected, and this is (evidently) how the writer of Genesis wanted it. Had he wanted the meaning to be plain, he would have simply stated it. Instead, ambiguity was inserted into the story, inviting various readers to add their own interpretation to the textual story.

The most convincing explanation is that God did not accept Cain’s sacrifice because he did not accept Cain. Cain was a (future) murderer and was a current murderer in his heart. We have no other information to explain the rejection. The explanatory sections of the “Conflict” fill out this picture with background information: Cain eschews prayer and sacrifice, and is jealous of his brother (the younger favorite).

God rejects his sacrifice because a pure heart is acceptable to God, not sacrifice, as we see from Psalm 50 (51 MT):

 

“O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.

For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit:

a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem.

Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness,

with burnt offering and whole burnt offering:

then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar.”

The praise of the lips (prayer) is an acceptable sacrifice, as we also see in Hosea 14:2

“Take with you words, and turn to the LORD: say unto him,

Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously:

so will we render the calves of our lips.”

Obviously the image is a metaphor, but it shows that the substitution of praise for animal sacrifice was not a development of post-70 CE Judaism, but one that was repeated in the Psalms and Prophets. It is also noteworthy that he Greek version of the verse above has “fruit of our lips,” indicating that the LXX translators saw the “calves” as being “fruit.” The hard distinction between fruit and animals sacrifices cannot be maintained, according to Hosea.

Cain did not have “a broken and contrite heart” while Abel did. Abel offered “sacrifices of righteousness,” which are sacrifices from one who practices righteous acts and has a righteous heart (not merely animal or vegetable offerings). The sacrifices are only acceptable of the sacrificer is acceptable. Cain was not, and it was because his heart was not right with god or his family (all of humanity at that point!).

Therefore the “Conflict” explains the story rather well, even if it of a comparatively late date (5th or 6th century CE). Cain’s offering was rejected because it was not offered with joy, nor remorse, nor charity. Instead, it was offered with a greedy mind, and one bent one killing his brother and anyone else who would stand in his way.

Another Look at Biblical Minimalism

In trying to come to terms with Biblical minimalism and the new approach of historians and literary theorists, a number of misunderstandings and false steps are inevitable. These mistakes can be opportunities to learn and further develop a coherent view. I’d like to address some questions from a FB user and proficient student who may or may not be an historical figure.

1. Lemche and Postmodernism

“Also, I still think that your understanding of historicism is skewed by Lemche. Historicism is not the position that every story in the Old Testament that seems to be related to history must’ve happened [or must be demonstrable by historical methods] exactly as the text says so or else the text is disproven. At least, that’s not how I’ve seen it argued.

What is argued is the understanding that the Old Testament is a document that contains a special witness to the Hebrew past, and that part of this witness *is* to real events. This is the definition of history that is used. Not, “history that is demonstrated/proven” or “objective historiography”. Sort of like how we would view stories told or handed down generation by generation in the modern era. Yeah, they might not have that critical eye or meticulous attention to detail that characterizes ‘modern’ historians, but it is nevertheless an interesting witness to an event that would not otherwise have been recorded. ”

I found Lemche’s book to be excellent. However, I am not a student of his, nor am I “following” his methodology or ideas. I had struck upon such methodology and ideas years ago, and I have been developing them ever since. I basically agree with much of what he writes in the book, but I do so on the basis of recognizing ideas I am already familiar with. These ideas I was exposed to while completing a master’s degree at an Orthodox seminary. The ideas were coming from the professors who had

a) taught the longest

b) were the most “cutting edge” in their scholarship

c) struggled with blowing the minds of seminarians

d) were the most kind people on campus

They taught hermeneutics, OT, NT, homiletics, etc.

Both professors were very much into pushing their students into the great unknown, where the floor drops out and one is left struggling to find one’s bearings. The upshot of this is such a struggle is simply the outcome of becoming aware that we are all in an ambiguous state of becoming. Most people think of themselves as having arrived and having fairly stable supports to shore up the few lingering questions in their mind. Professors such as mine were not afraid to show that the entire edifice of understanding is, for most of us, on the verb of collapsing under its own weight. We have passed the modern period and are firmly in the mournful and bewildering postmodern predicament. Returning to modernism is not an option, as that would be a step backwards and rather naive. That bridge has been burnt, even though many (if not most) today are still crossing it.

So it should be clear that Lemche didn’t drop this bomb by himself, and this thing has been on its way for quite some time.

As for the issue of my definition of historicist criteria, I think it stands. It wasn’t invented by me, and the criteria is simple. The criteria would be softened for historical books that are less important, or more “pedestrian.” But for the Bible, whose readers claim that it is perfect and that the text itself claims to be perfect (although the details of such “perfection” is open to debate), any “mistake” in terms of historicist criteria renders the text false. It has claimed to be inspired and perfect, but it shows itself to be imperfect and therefore false. Perhaps it can be seen as basically true with a bit of falsehood added, but that status in terms of logic makes the text as a whole false. If I right an email to a friend and most of the contents are true, while some are false, the email as a whole is false.

I concede that this is not how many would like to argue the historicist viewpoint. But the reason for that is these historicists want the Bible to be true, and so they are at pains to lower the bar for truth claims so they can somehow squeeze in the flawed (in their pov) text of the Bible. Yet their criteria show that the Bible for them could never be inspired. Only parts can be inspired, since many parts of it are simply wrong.

Getting back to the quote:

“What is argued is the understanding that the Old Testament is a document that contains a special witness to the Hebrew past, and that part of this witness *is* to real events. This is the definition of history that is used. Not, ‘history that is demonstrated/proven’ or ‘objective historiography’.”

Here we have some weasel words: “special witness” is either meaningless or unhelpful, as any text is special in a certain way. How is the OT special? Archeologists would say it is special because it is unique and culturally significant. Yet most of them would not go so far as to say the OT is special because it is accurate or true.

We also need to revisit “historicity”: if an event is not demonstrated or proven (to a reasonable extent), it cannot be validly asserted, and if an historical account is not objective, it is biased and therefore false or half true at best. So perhaps you are correct, but this only shows that the argument used doesn’t employ a strict historicist criterion, but a modified set of standards that in essence renders the OT an ANE text that has value but is not true in all respects. This means that the claims to authority that the Bible holds are false claims.

And finally:

“Sort of like how we would view stories told or handed down generation by generation in the modern era. Yeah, they might not have that critical eye or meticulous attention to detail that characterizes ‘modern’ historians, but it is nevertheless an interesting witness to an event that would not otherwise have been recorded. “

I agree, but again this puts the ancient history of the Bible in the same category as myth and folklore. We don’t read folk tales and fairy tales and then go looking for archeological evidence to confirm those tales. We don’t believe that these tales are “literally” or “historically” true, but morally true (or simply entertaining). It doesn’t matter that these characters never existed, or that if they did exist they were probably very different from their depictions in folklore. That is beside the point.

So it seems that the end of this first quoted objection brings us back to the beginning: the text of the Bible is seen as folklore, not real history. There may be a core of historical truth there, but the whole is not historical and therefore not true for the historicist. The Bible fails the test for the historicist.

2. Ancient Views on Historical Reality

“Yet we’re fairly confident, as historians of first-century Judaism, that the Jews would most certainly believed that Adam had been a real person. What is meant by this? If you were to ask a random, knowledgeable, scholarly Jew from the first-century what they thought about Adam, they would respond that if you were to go back far enough in time, past all these generations of Israelites, to the first man, they would reply that this is Adam, and that he is [or was] no more or less real than you or I would be.”

The assumption from the comment above is that I think ancient Jews were not historicists: they did not think that the Biblical events “really happened.” But if one returns to my somewhat convoluted essay they will see that I affirm that the Biblical writers truly believed (afaik) that the events “really happened.” In this sense they seem to be historicists. Yet I also point out that historicism was an impossibility at that time. Historicism depends on what “really” happened, and this is an option for the curious today while it was not so in the ancient world. In the ancient world, one could hear competing stories and accounts, but there was no “fact of the matter.” To put it another way, there was no way of showing conclusively whether any event happened other than deferring to stories.

This, of course, is not the situation of today. Today we can take competing stories and rather than simply comparing them to each other we can compare them with the archeological evidence. We can look at DNA instead of relying on the testimony of ancient genealogies.

In the past, there was no way of disproving a genealogy, while today it is a simple task if one has access to the “real” evidence, the physical remains of the actors. It is as if facts have only become available in the modern era. Before this the closest thing to a fact in terms of history was a story.

So the characters were believed to be real, but it needs to be remembered that “reality” at that time was a matter of faith/trust, not proof. If any proof was available, it was in the form of stories, not DNA results or carbon dating. This puts the “historical” reality in the ancient world in the realm of literature, not “science.” It is in the realm of the humanities, a matter to be decided by the wise rather than the scientists (who didn’t really exist).

3. Regarding the use of “Adam” by Paul in the NT 

“The debate then is not whether “Adam’s historical existence” was a basic belief of Paul. The debate is over whether the historical existence of Adam [as defined by way of a fictitious anecdotal story] impacts the significance of who Adam is in the Pauline salvation-history narrative.”

Here we come to the threatening idea that Paul was using a fictional character to make his point about the gospel. If Adam never really existed, then did Jesus?

This is an interesting problem: Paul uses a figure who is mythical/historical/undefined to teach about Christ and the Church. How is this possible if Adam never existed historically? If Adam did exist historically, how is it possible for Paul to make his taking a wife a symbol of Paul’s own situation rather than an historical event at the beginning of time?

We can be thankful that Paul didn’t cite the Adam story with the aim of proving Adam’s historicity and a young Earth. His point was about teaching life, not science.

But what about the use of fictional characters to teach? Is that legitimate? This brings to mind the prayer of repentance in the Orthodox tradition.

“I have sinned in thought, word and deed. I repent my sins. You are the master and I am the servant. Accept me as the prodigal son.”

In this prayer one is literally asking God to act as he did in a clearly fictional story. The Prodigal Son was a parable, a piece of fiction invented by Jesus to teach a lesson to his listeners. Why would we ask God to accept us like he accepted a fictional character?

Jesus (according to the NT) taught with fictional stories. Let that sink in. This means that the argument that Jesus spoke of Adam, Noah, Abraham, etc. as historical people is fallacious. The characters could have been real or could have been part of a fictional narrative that is true (e.g. The Prodigal Son and many other parables).

It is high time that we take seriously the possibility that the NT is closer to a parable than a history.

4. Where the Truth Lies

“You say that “the “truth” of the story lay in the realm of meaning, not disinterested (read: unbiased) historical reporting.” You seem to be saying that the form of the story is not important in itself, but rather what *really* matters is the bits and pieces we can extract after analyzing the story and removing it from its form and structure that we found it in.”

This is not my position, but rather the position I am arguing against (historicism). Instead, for me the form and function of the story is important and the details serve that function. Isolating the details for historical analysis is the preoccupation of the historicist, not the minimalist. By removing or ignoring the form and function, one kills the story and renders the details of the story lifeless and irrelevant. The details find their significance within the stories, and not in the “reality” behind the stories. In other words, the referents for the details are in the story ultimately, not the “outside” world of historicity. The story is an organism that teaches a lesson. The details find their function in the story, not in reconstructing the “historical reality” behind the story. The authors were not interested in history per se.

I’ll end my address of questions here, but another post will follow that answers some additional issues.