Biblical studies: May 2011 Archives

In his commentary on on II Kings 12, which deals with King Joash's temple repairs, T.R. Hobbs argues that the chapter could not have come from a priestly author:

The record of the events undoubtedly has a Judean origin, but it is highly unlikely that it can be attributed to priestly circles. The Kings account of the temple repairs, compared to that found in 2 Chr 24, is decidedly critical of the priesthood. The blame for the lack of repair to the temple after Joash's original order is laid upon their shoulders ... and, as a result of that failure, new regulations are introduced.... In the procedure outlines by those new regulations the priests play a minor role. In 2 Chr 24:4-7 it is the failure of the Levites, not the complete priesthood, which is noted.

The reform also takes place at the initiative of the king, not the priesthood, nor one of its members such as Jehoiada. The king's accountant actively participates in the reform ..., and the priests themselves are eventually refused access to a source of income they had hitherto enjoyed ... because of their failure to obey the king.

The tone of the chapter then is far from "priestly," and is in fact highly critical of the priests.

The background to this is Wellhausen's hypothesis that the biblical narratives came from a number of hands across several centuries, with one source specificially coming from a priestly hand in order to promote priestly agendas in opposition to the other agendas of biblical authors that conflicted with priestly concerns. Wellhausen's specific proposals have largely been rejected, even if some of his structure has been retained by many critical scholars. None of them can agree on any of the details, which is some reason for wondering if the whole thing should be rejected as thoroughly unfounded, but the fact remains that many scholars accept something of Wellhausen's source proposal. As for this chapter, I wonder if we can really say much about the authorship. Hobbs overstates his case in several places.

For one thing, the priests are not a larger group than the Levites, as if pointing to them means a smaller subsection of the priests. The reverse is true. Sometimes the Levites are treated as a contrast with the priests, and so the context makes it clear in such cases that the non-priestly Levites are in mind. There is such a reference to "the priests and the Levites" in the Chronicles parallel that Hobbs refers to. But the Levites are the broader category, and failing such a context we might just as easily take a reference to the Levites to include the priests, who were indeed from the tribe of Levites. There is some reason to take the Levites in Chronicles as the non-priestly Levites, given that both are mentioned earlier, but it could just as easily be a shorthand to reference both groups mentioned earlier, since the priests are Levites. If so, then the Chronicles mention of Levites rather than priests might simply indicate that all those who served in the temple were responsible, and the Kings reference to priests might reflect the fact that the priests were ultimately responsible for whatever happened in the temple, even if non-priestly Levites were partly at fault.

But that isn't something I'd rest a lot on. Even so, I'm not following the reasoning here. Is the argument supposed to be this?

1. This passage is critical of the priests at this time.
2. No priestly writer would ever be critical of priests at any time.
3. Therefore, this passage couldn't have been written by priests.

The second premise is undoubtedly false. Why couldn't a priestly writer be critical of other priests, even an entire generation of them? Perhaps this is what is meant:

1. This passage is critical of the priests at this time.
2. Wellhausen's supposed priestly source P is never critical of priests at any time.
3. Therefore, this passage couldn't have been written by the supposed priestly source P that Wellhausen concocts out of thin air.

That argument I can agree with. Wellhausen proposed a certain agenda for his priestly writer(s). But Hobbs says that it's "highly unlikely that it be attributed to priestly circles". I just don't see how that follows from the conclusion of this argument. It's not likely to be from a circle that uncritically seeks to justify or excuse everything the priests might ever have done, but I'm not sure any of the biblical texts come from anyone like that. I certainly don't think Wellhausen's supposed P author, if that's an essential characteristic of that source, could have produced the biblical material we actually have, unless a later editor thoroughly reworked things to remove such assumptions.

I'm open to source theories of composition, especially in Samuel and Kings, where the text tells us that sources were used. But too often we get this sort of argumentation passing for scholarship with rhetoric about scientifically determining what those sources must have been and what the agendas of the various source traditions were. Sometimes you even get some kind of nonsense about the final editor stupidly placing contradictory materials side-by-side as if the final editor had no clue or no care about the supposed theological contradictions going on. Or you might instead get some proposal of an agenda being portrayed by the narrator that conflicts with the agenda in one of the sources, and the editor comes out as someone who must have been pretty poor at masking alternative agendas in the source materials. I have a hard time calling this stuff serious scholarship, since there have long been ways to deal with supposed contradictions that can just as easily deal with supposed conflicting agendas. Literary scholarship in recent decades has shown how anachronistic, Western-centric, and uncharitable such readings are.

High Priest

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The Hebrew term for "high priest" is often not present in the Samuel-Kings narrative. Instead there's often just "the priest" with a context making it clear that this is a priest who is over the other priests. Sometimes the Torah passages that discuss the high priest are therefore thought to be a late addition (the implication being that the Pentatechal narratives are deceptive in presenting a false history to justify a later practice, or else some view gets concocted according to which everyone knew it was presenting a fictional history of Israel so that it only deceived later generations).

I have little patience with speculative reconstructions of the history of Israel that don't actually have evidence supporting them, especially when the actual evidence we have is only what we see in the actual historical narratives we have, narratives that certainly present things in the order of Exodus coming before Kings and not the other way around. The onus of proving an alternative hypothesis seems to me to require a bit more than things like the absence of terms like "high priest" in the writings discussing later periods. We'd have to have no available explanation for why the term might have dropped out for that to count as much evidence.

Nevertheless, the fact that the term "high priest" is hardly ever used in the Samuel-Kings narrative is at least a very small piece of evidence, even if I wouldn't consider it enough to outweigh the strong presumption of the only chronology we're ever given. It's still something that ought to have an explanation, and it's worth thinking through what that might be. The usual term is "the priest" in Samuel and Kings, and that isn't what you'd expect given the Pentateuchal narratives that precede Samuel-Kings in the traditional chronology.

There seem to have been two figures taking that title during the time of David, and there's no statement that they were back-to-back. They seem to have been simultaneous. I've explained in another post why I disagree with the speculative reconstruction about Zadok that holds sway among most liberal scholars and why I think a better reconstruction of events is that the high priesthood changed hands from the Eleazarites (descended from Aaron's third son) toward the Ithamarites (descended from Aaron's fourth son). That seems to have ended when the line of Eli finally died out. From that point on, there was one priest called "the priest" among the other priests, and it was always a Zadokite from Eleazar's branch of the priests. The only geneological information we actually have traces Zadok to the line of Aaron's third son Eleazar and Eleazar's son Phinehas. (The oldest two were killed in Leviticus during their early days as priests, and presumably they had no offspring.)

But why the terminology of "the priest" rather than the Torah term "high priest" if the Kings narratives were indeed written after the Torah texts that discuss the high priest? Remember that the period of the judges led to such decentralization, with every priest doing what's right in his own eyes, that there was in effect no one high priest but just people taking that position in particular locations. Perhaps Eli was one of them. You might have had relatively faithful descendants of Aaron here and there, and the evidence suggests that other descendants of Levi were functioning as priests also, but there's no reason to think very many of these priests or Levites were faithful and much reason to think many weren't. It's quite possible that Eli was the highest geneologically-descended priest who was faithful in his time, and thus he was called high priest because he was the most rightful high priest willing to serve the proper function of a high priest. If the entire line of Eleazar was unfaithful during this period, we might expect something like that. But when someone faithful to God's law like David came along and began to rely on Abiathar, a descendant of Ithamar, as his sole priest, he might have been loath to call him the high priest because the high priest should be descended from Eleazar. Then when he found Zadok, who had every reason to be called the high priest, he was unwilling to demote his close friend and confidant Abiathar, and they were thus both listed as "the priest" in parallel for David's early reign. Eventually, Abiathar betrayed David and sided with Absalom, and that ended. From that point on, Zadok was "the priest". I wonder if terminology just stuck, at least in some quarters, and you didn't get a resumption of high priestly terminology until a later revival reintroduced the scriptural term.

That reconstruction of events makes a good deal of historical sense, given the text's presentation of chronology (which, again, is our only strong evidence of chronology). Scholars pick at little things that are hard to make sense of without some thought about what might have happened, such as the sudden appearance of the Zadokites and the use of the term "the priest" instead of the term "the high priest". But it seems to me that there are explanations available for these things, and the speculative reordering of events to suit some contemporary fad at undermining the historical accuracy of the biblical narratives seems less intellectually-motivated to me than does the simple effort to find a way to make sense of the historical texts we've got, which does take some speculation but not on such a grand scale. So even without any motivation to maintain the historical reliability of scripture, I think there are good intellectual reasons to resist the revisionist readings.

Michael Kruger reviews Bart Ehrman's latest offering Forged: Writing in the Name of God -- Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are. [ht: Justin Taylor]

A common strategy among anti-Christian apologists (and some skeptical sorts in liberal theological circles, I should add) is to attribute complete idiocy to the biblical authors and editors. See my discussions of Exodus 22 and Judges 3 for particular cases where I've complained about this before.

Michael Kruger has identified a strategy in a recent book by Bart Ehrman that does that sort of thing, but in this case it's even worse. It attributes complete idiocy to the entire history of the church. In this case, the issue is whether Ephesians could have been written by Paul. Ehrman joins that 50% of scholars who manage to find some reasons to deny Pauline authorship (reasons I've never thought came even close to showing such a thing). One of his arguments has to do with a supposed conflict between Paul's theology in I Corinthians and this supposed other author of Ephesians. Ehrman goes as far as claiming that the Ephesian letter, in saying we're seated with Christ in heavenly places, adopts exactly the view that Paul condemns in I Corinthians when he says we don't have spiritually-resurrected bodies in this life.

Kruger points out that it requires theological unsophistication of a severe order to confuse these statements as if they're in conflict, but he notices an even worse problem. Here's the key quote:

Beyond all of this, are we really to think that early Christians would have widely affirmed the canonicity of Ephesians if it so plainly denied the bodily resurrection, one of the most cherished beliefs in early Christianity? Ehrman would have us believe that all early Christians (not to mention later Christians) were just too blind to notice such a thing until modern scholars have come along to point it out for them.

We thus have a kind of cultural superiority about modern, western biblical scholars whereby they can proclaim themselves literarily and theologically more acute than the entire history of the church. It's not just attributing simplicity and moronic behavior to an editor of a text who can't manage to figure out that contradictory ideas are placed side by side, as in the Exodus and Judges cases I linked to above. It's attributing the inability to recognize that Ephesians and I Corinthians flatly contradict each other and insisting that the theological understandings of those texts that have lasted two millenia have basically misunderstood what the text actually says, even though the people who were much closer to the cultural milieu and who actually spoke the language the documents were written in saw no such contradiction and could even attribute the books to the same author.

Ehrman's thesis here is pure hubris. It amazes me how easily this sort of thing passes for responsible scholarship in certain circles.

A cursory reading of the biblical account of King Hezekiah's near-death experience and subsequent actions in his final days (found in II Kings 20, Isaiah 38-39, and II Chronicles 32) might seem to be a description of a missed opportunity. God tells Hezekiah he's going to die. Hezekiah whines and complains, and God shows mercy and gives him more time. When he's given more time but told that it will come eventually, he's relieved that at least it won't come in his lifetime. He uses his extra time to parade all of Judah's possessions, including everything in the temple, in front of its future conquerors, who managed to carry away all those valuables when they destroyed Jerusalem and God's temple. Hezekiah basically sets up the nation of Judah's ultimate destruction and exile at the hands of Babylon. He was given a great mercy, and he blew it.

While I'm not going to say that this cursory reading is wrong, I'm beginning to wonder if there's more going on here. The leadup to the exile began with Hezekiah's refusal to abide by God's will and have his life cut short. Is the narrator suggesting that the exile was brought about by means of a king refusing to acknowledge that his time was up? Is the suggestion that Hezekiah's life wasn't going to be cut short but was in fact exactly ready to be done, and the extra time he whined and complained to get was beyond Hezekiah's rightful time? Perhaps Hezekiah should have accepted God's prophetic message that it was his time. Perhaps there's even a reason why it was for Hezekiah's own good that he die then rather than later. Perhaps it was to spare him the moral corruption that would have come had he continued on, and his refusal to accept it then led to God to give him over to that moral corruption that God would have graciously spared him from. If your life is going to end in a way that seems cut short, it might well be because of what you would do if you were to live longer. It might be a mercy.

I'm not going to stake everything on interpreting this passage this way. Perhaps I'll change my mind on it when we cover the Kings account of these events in a few months in our sermons. But it strikes me as a plausible way to read what's going on. Where things end up is some grounds for thinking maybe God would have spared him that but did not, in part to teach a lesson through the scriptures' recording of the incident (three times!) for posterity. It's not clear to me exactly which bits in the Isaiah and Kings versions are meant when II Chronicles 32 refers to Hezekiah being prideful and then humbling himself and Judah, and it's unclear to me when chronologically that's taking place in comparison to the Babylonian incident, during which Hezekiah both declares God's pronouncement of the exile good and grounds that judgment on the fact that it won't happen in his lifetime. So I say this with some hesitation. But it nonetheless strikes me as a plausible explanation of these three texts.

I have a friend whose older brother died in high school, and I remember him telling me at some point that he wondered if it was to prevent him from heading down a certain path that he seemed headed toward. I can think of at least two Christian celebrities that I suspect the same thing of. It's even occurred to me that my own brother's seemingly premature death at 21 could have been to prevent him from heading down a path that would have been bad, perhaps even bad for him and his moral character. I have a sense of a several other things God might have been doing by providentially setting the bound of his life at that point. One member of my extended family came to understand the gospel because of his funeral and soon after began the path of Christian discipleship, and I believe I heard of a couple other stories along those lines from the same funeral (but I forget any details now; it's been more than thirteen years). His life did show much promise, and as far as most people knew it seemed very tragic that God had allowed a life that seemed headed for doing much good for the kingdom of God to be cut short without much in the way of obvious explanations. But it's possible (and I know of one fact that increases my sense of its likelihood) that at least part of it was for his own sake and for the sake of avoiding some bad results that could have come about had things continued as they were headed or had he faced whatever scenarios would have come up down the line.

We tend to think that extended life is always a good thing. In terms of intrinsic value, I would insist that that's so. A shortening of the life is, other things being equal, intrinsically bad. Death is an evil, even if Christians will insist that it isn't a genuine end to conscious existence. But it may well be that some people's time comes in a way and at a time that seems premature to us, when it's purely at God's mercy that he takes them at precisely that point. It isn't premature. It's to spare them from a much worse evil than dying at a younger age than we'd like. I imagine that any right-minded Christian should be glad to accept death at a younger age if the alternative is to destroy one's family and ministry because of a serious sin that God knows they would engage in if they continue on their current path. I'm not suggesting that this would be a death to punish that sin but that it would be a merciful sparing of person from ending up in a very bad state of moral corruption that harms God's purposes in the long run. God certainly doesn't spare every such person who might have such a thing happen, since we know full well of such cases, but perhaps God spares people from a lot more of those cases than we know would happen.

If being evil is worse than being dead, as Socrates rightly insisted at his trial, then we should prefer to avoid such an end and gladly accept death over moral corruption if that's the choice. It may well be that God was giving Hezekiah that choice, and Hezekiah chose the wrong option, with disastrous consequences both for God's people and for Hezekiah's own inner state. If so, then rather than his earlier death being premature, we might call his later death post-mature. His time had been right, and he whined and complained about it, so God "spared" him from the lesser evil in order to allow the greater evil to befall him. He gave him over to his sin, in effect, without it being explicitly said that that's what he was doing.

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