Biblical studies: August 2009 Archives

In Matthew 22:41-46, Jesus raises a question to the Pharisees who were doubting his identity as sent from God. He cites Psalm 110:44, which has the psalmist saying:

The LORD said to my Lord, sit in the place of honor at my right hand until I humble your enemies beneath your feet. [Matthew 22:44, NLT]

Jesus asks them how David could call the Messiah "My Lord" if the Messiah is David's son, and they have no answer.

There are plenty of interpretive issues going on here, but it strikes me that Jesus' argument relies on Davidic authorship of the psalm. Most scholars today deny the authenticity of the psalm headings as later additions. I have a couple contemporary commentaries on the Psalms that do take these headings seriously (I think the arguments in the introduction to Geoffrey Grogan's Two Horizons commentary are excellent, and if I remember correctly Derek Kidner's Tyndale volume takes this approach), but a lot of pretty conservative evangelicals, even inerrantists, don't consider the psalm headings to be a genuine part of the canonical scriptures. The problem with this is that anyone who takes Jesus' teaching as authoritative has strong reasons to accept Davidic authorship of Psalm 110, because Jesus' argument relies on that. So there's a choice between (1) accepting Jesus' teaching as true and accepting this psalm's heading as reliably reporting the truth about David's authorship of the psalm or (2) allowing Jesus to have taught something false if David didn't actually write this psalm.

The only way I can think of to get out of this argument is to consider Psalm 110 to have been written by someone other than David but to express something that, if David had said it, would be true. Then Jesus could give an argument that relies on David having fictionally said something that would be true if he'd said it, and it would therefore have to make sense with David saying it, so his conclusion would follow. But this isn't how those who reject Davidic authorship generally take Psalm 110. They generally take it to refer to God speaking to a Davidic king and a human but not Davidic Israelite (not a king) referring to God speaking to that king as "my Lord". So it seems as if the usual non-Davidic-authorship interpretation still doesn't work if Jesus' teaching is accurate. So even though there does seem to be a third option available, I don't think it reconciles how most who reject Davidic authorship actually take the psalm with how Jesus takes it.

Most recent discussions of the sin(s) of Sodom and Gomorrah focus on whether homosexuality is the sin that brought God's wrath down on them or whether it was instead lack of hospitality. It's as if the point of this passage is to score points in the debate over homosexuality, which misses the point entirely. I was therefore thoroughly impressed with the job David Wayne did at treating the question of the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah.

David looks to the text and draws out its implications based on what it actually says and what the things it says assume. The picture of the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah is much more comprehensive and shows elements of degredation along most axes. Progressives and conservativees alike should have serious moral difficulties with most of the items on the list, even if some aspects of a few of them might be controversial.

David's point is that Billy Graham was wrong to say that the U.S. is worse than Sodom and Gomorrah. While I'm not going to weigh in on that debate, I do want to draw attention to Jesus' comment that the people who rejected him would wish they were in Sodom and Gomorrah because their punishment would be worse than Sodom and Gomorrah's. It certainly creates trouble for the picture of Jesus as the non-judgmental peacenik, but I think we miss the point again if we leave off at such observations. His claim is that those who reject him are worse than the significant picture of evil (in largely-unconstroversial terms) that David presents, not perhaps morally worse in their everyday lives but worse in the most important aspect of human life, which is our attitude toward God.

So if we're going to weigh in on whether Billy Graham is right, we'd have to evaluate whether current American culture is more at odds with Jesus than those Jews of his day who rejected him. That would be more immediate to the question than trying to observe the inner attitudes behind the actions by comparing outward behavior with the outward behavior in Sodom and Gomorrah.

The so-called New Perspective on Paul, spearheaded by E.P. Sanders and James D.G. Dunn, is
sometimes seen (and I think this is part of the motivation for some of its proponents) as a more Jewish-friendly view than the traditional understanding of Paul. On the traditional view, the prevailing mindset among the Jewish leaders, especially Pharisees of Paul's day was a theology of works-earned salvation. On the New Perspective, the Jews held a view more like the contemporary Roman Catholic view. People enter the covenant by God's grace but remain in it by works. I've wondered sometimes if some of the idea behind the NPP is to try to make the New Testament more friendly to Jews in this politically-correct age. If the view we attribute to the Jews of Paul's day (at least a notable portion of certain sorts of their leaders and those they
taught), then we don't seem as down on the Jews. Given the history of negative attitudes toward the Jews from the Christian-influenced world, anyone with a shred of respect for Judaism should at least like the idea of distancing Christianity from Anti-Semitism.

I don't happen to think the arguments for the NPP are remotely convincing, and for that reason I do wonder if some who want to be tolerant of Jews are engaging in wishful thinking in adopting the NPP. I don't see the need, because I don't think the traditional view is even close to anti-Semitic. Paul was in the tradition of the prophets, culminating in Jesus himself, in his self-criticism of his own Judaism. The internal critique found in Hosea or Jeremiah certainly wouldn't be seen by most Jews as anti-Semitic, and there's nothing that Paul does that's any different, even on the traditional view. But I'm not the only one who has wondered if some of the motivation for the NPP is a desire to abandon a view that's often been portrayed as anti-Jewish. Even if that's not true, there certainly are NPP proponents who offer that as a plus for their view.

There's a deep irony in all this, though, a double irony in fact. The very act of adopting the NPP, even if motivated by the a desire to think highly of the Jews of Paul's day, ends up leading to an unintended consequence while not really achieving the intended result to begin with. First, changing their view of the view Paul is condemning doesn't change the fact that he condemns it. It doesn't soften Paul's harsh language against the Galatians in calling them heretics and thinking it would be better to emasculate themselves than let circumcision do whatever it is (which is a matter of debate here) that they saw circumcision as doing. It doesn't make the Jews of Paul's day suddenly become orthodox Christian thinkers in Paul's mind. The Christians who were accepting the Jewish theses that the Galatians were playing around with would still be heretics in Paul's mind, no matter who wins the debate about what those theses happened to be. So the tolerance motivating the NPP doesn't lead to a tolerant conclusion on either the traditional view or the NPP. There's a theological view that gets rejected here, and revising our view of what that view is doesn't change the fact that Paul considers it s heresy.

Second, there's an unintended consequence. As I said at the beginning of this post, the view that the NPP attributes to the Galatians is pretty much the official Roman Catholic position. The view most people in the traditional approach attribute to the Roman Catholic position is actually a misrepresentation of official Catholic teaching but is common enough among Catholics who misunderstand the teaching of their church. I grew up in a very Catholic area, and it's obvious to me that many Catholics do hold the Galatian heresy to the extent that they have any beliefs on the matter at all (and many I knew didn't). But the official teaching of Roman Catholicism is not the Galatian heresy but rather a view very much like the view the NPP thinks Jews of Paul's day held.

The result is that, in extending so much tolerance toward the Jews of Paul's day, the NPP ends up closing the only door to separating Roman Catholicism from the Galatian heresy. Someone who holds the traditional view on what Paul was responding to can distinguish between that view (which Paul calls heresy) and the Roman Catholic view (even if many who hold the traditional view fail to do this). But someone holding the NPP seems to me to have to say that Roman Catholics are heretics. I wonder if the tolerance that NPP proponents are so motivated by can extend to Roman Catholicism. There's at least an internal tension within some who hold the NPP between one key motivation and one logical implication of the view.

Acts Commentary Bleg

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I'm expecting to begin reading a commentary on Acts in a few months or so. I suspect that it will be one of the following: Ben Witherington's Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, Darrell Bock's BECNT, or David Peterson's brand-new Pillar volume. I expect that there might be several people reading this who have some experience with commentaries on Acts, and I'm interested in any information or evaluations anyone might have to offer about any of these three books, especially if you can detect specific reasons to prefer one to the others or over one of the others on a particular issue.

Some of the issues that come to my mind include:

1. I know that Bock had access to Witherington, and Peterson had access to both of the other two, and that gives the more recent ones priority in my mind over the earlier ones, all other things being equal (which is often not the case). So my presumption is to prefer Peterson to Bock and Bock to Witherington if no other factors influence my preferences. Bock had a chance to learn from Witherington, and Peterson had a chance to learn from Witherington and Bock. Of course, if they didn't fully avail themselves of those chances then it's still possible that they don't present the best of what came before them.

2. Witherington doesn't include the text of the book of Acts, which would mean having a copy of that in addition. That gets unwieldy the way I read books, because I carry them around with me and pull them out to read when I get a chance while waiting for something or while walking. Bock and Peterson, I believe, both include a translation of the text of each section before the discussion of that section.

3. Some reviews I've seen claim that Bock does a lot of commenting on other commentaries, which some people claimed meant that he didn't discuss the text as much for himself and often didn't indicate his own view on the issue he was discussing, but I don't know if this is true. The suggestion was that it's better to read Witherington than to read Bock's comments on Witherington and several others, which is true only if Witherington's discussion is better at sifting through the information than Bock's.

4. Bock had the advantage of writing a hefty commentary on Luke before writing his Acts commentary, and Luke-Acts is a two-volume work by the same author. The other two don't have that. (Witherington will eventually do every NT book, but his Acts commentary was one of his earliest, and he hadn't done Luke yet at that time.)

I'm currently leaning toward Peterson at the moment, but anything anyone might say to sway me in a different direction or to confirm that choice is welcome.

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