Recently in Biblical studies Category

The first time I studied Leviticus carefully (about 13-14 years ago), one of the things that stood out to me was the fact that ritual uncleanness transfers very easily, but cleanness does not. If someone is unclean for whatever reason, touching someone or something clean renders the clean person or thing unclean. It doesn't go the other way. Going from unclean to clean requires certain ritual ceremonies, and it often takes time, sometimes even a week or more. Going from clean to unclean simply requires exposure.

That's one of the reasons that it's particularly impressive that in the gospels Jesus touches people who have skin diseases or unhealthy menstrual conditions when he heals them, since those conditions were ritually unclean under the Torah ritual system. And it's clear that this wasn't out of some notion that the Torah ritual system was an ancient superstition that should be discarded. He insists in his teaching about Torah that it is the word of God and will be eternally true. But he also insists that it is eternally true not because it perpetually applies but because he fulfills it himself.

So what's going on when he heals people whose conditions would normally require a week or more of cleansing ceremonies? Sometimes he does tell them to go to the priests in the temple and do the ceremonies the Torah prescribes. Other passages don't mention him saying that. But certainly what's odd about it is that he touches them himself, when there are plenty of cases where he heals people without touching them. Are we to assume that he takes on the uncleanness himself voluntarily and then has to go through the rituals to be cleansed himself? The first would be a nice symbol of how he elsewhere describes what he would do at the cross, but I don't think that's the right way to think about these cases, because he's even telling them in some cases that he has simply made them clean (e.g. Matthew 8:3, although there he does say to make the sacrifices with the priest, but he says it's to be done for proof, not for actually making the guy clean).

I've long thought of this as just an exception. Normally cleanness doesn't spread to the unclean, but these passages are presenting Jesus as demonstrating something about himself as different. He can make unclean clean instantly, and that shows that he's superior to the Torah ritual system, which only looked forward to him.

But that turns out to be wrong, on closer inspection. For one thing, it can't be mere superiority. The Bible is clear across the entire canon that God can't entangle himself with sin or sinful beings, and that's why sacrifices are needed to begin with to deal with that sin. Isaiah 59:2 describes sin as separation from God. Jesus couldn't, merely by being God, do something that the scriptures clearly present God as not being able to do without sacrifice. So it has to be tied to sacrifices in some way, and it would be nice if we could find something explicit in the ritual ceremonies that looks more like what Jesus was doing in these passages.

It turns out that these cases in the gospels are not unprecedented. There is at least one mention in Leviticus of a case where holiness spreads to something common (although it isn't described as cleanness spreading to something unclean). That's in the description of the sin offering in Leviticus 6:27, where anyone who touches the flesh of the animal offered as a sin offering is made holy. I know of no other place where something is made holy merely by touching something in the entire Hebrew Bible, although maybe there are others that I just never connected with this issue.

What's going on in the gospel passages, then, given that there is a precedent for holiness spreading from a sin offering to something else? Perhaps the implication is that Jesus could reverse the normal flow of the symbolic status of ritual uncleanness to the clean because, as a future sin offering, he is in fact able to touch something and make it holy, whereas being divine without being the sin offering wouldn't do that. That seems to make these things fit together a lot better than the way I had been thinking about it.

Genesis and Camels

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Earlier this week the NYT published a critique of Genesis based on, of all things, the appearance of camels within its narratives, and I'm starting to see more and more discussion of this, virtually all of it simply repeating the claims of that article, without much at all in the way of careful reflection on the problems in the broader thesis that it puts forward, which I don't think the evidence actually supports.

This isn't actually a very new objection. Scholars have long objected that there isn't a lot of evidence of domesticated animals within the Canaanite region during that time. But there is evidence of domesticated animals in Egypt and Mesopotamia during the period Genesis describes, and the NYT article even mentions that, and it says they were more commonly used more by those nomadic peoples living in the more desert regions. The only thing new here is some carbon dating of the bones of camels, along with techniques for measuring properties of the bone, which can allow them to determine whether they were wild or domesticated and had to carry greater weight for much of the time.

I think there are several reasons to be very skeptical of the conclusions the NYT article draws. Here are a few:

1. Genesis doesn't report lots of camels being used during the time of the patriarchs, as the article claims. They are sometimes listed among the animals they owned, but usually it's in smaller numbers, and the only reports of their being used for riding are to cross the desert regions or when referring to nomadic peoples like the Midianites who lived within such regions.

2. Abraham and Lot had to cross that desert to get to Canaan, and the only animals they could have used would have been camels. The NYT article even says that no other animals would be able to make that journey so easily, and even their skepticism doesn't apply to that sort of trip. So if Abraham did come from a region where camels were used regularly at this time (as the article admits), and he had to use them to cross the desert (as the article admits), it stands to reason that he wouldn't have killed them all when he got there and would have had at least a small enough number remaining when he had to send his servant to find a wife for Isaac and so on, and we know they kept their own cultural identity and may have been hesitant to trade their camels because of their relatively small number and inability or procure more while there. They might  have increased in number during the time he was living in Canaan, as long as there were only a relatively small number of them in this period, belonging precisely to his family, but that doesn't mean we should think there would be evidence of the larger number of them that the NYT article seems to expect there would be if they had them.

3. Abraham is portrayed as being rich, and the existence of a small number of camels in the lists of animals he owned is presented in the book as evidence of his wealth. If they were common around him, the small number of camels would seem insignificant compared with the huge number of other animals he had. But even a smaller number is presented as evidence of his great wealth. So the portrayal of his camels in the book fits nicely with the claim that the locals didn't have them.

4. If his family only used them when traveling across the desert or on long journeys (as the narrative itself indicates) but just maintained them as domesticated by not pack animals or riding animals, then even the ones that they did have might not have appeared to be domesticated by the methods of measuring the bone density and such that these scientists have been using.

5. So I think at best the conclusion being put forward here goes way beyond the evidence. If someone were to conclude from the Genesis narrative that camels were being used throughout the Canaanite region the way the article assumes the book presents things, then it would create a problem. It's still an argument from silence, but it would be odd for there to be no preserved camels from this period if they were that commonly used. But the Genesis narrative doesn't present such a picture, and there's no reason to think the picture it does present is unlikely to have produced the (lack of) evidence this new research provides.

Seven years ago I wrote a post explaining why I think a common theory among biblical scholars is both against our best evidence and unnecessary in order to explain a few puzzling features of the texts we have. The puzzling features are as follows:

When Aaron dies in the Torah, it says his son Eleazar takes over the high priestly position, and then Eleazar's son Phinehas inherits that role when Eleazar dies. Yet the line of Eleazar does not seem to maintain that position by the time of Samuel. Eli seems to be occupying a high priestly role, and he's descended from Eleazar's brother Ithamar. Yet the biblical texts do report of the line of Eleazar being preserved, notably in a man named Zadok, whom David seems to elevate to a high priestly role of seemingly equal authority with a continuing high priestly descendant of Ithamar. It's only when that man betrays David that we seem to have a return to one high priest.

The common scholarly theory takes the texts to be unreliable reports of events. There's no direct evidence that Zadok was anything other than a Levite descended from Aaron through Eleazar. There's no direct evidence that the Eleazar line was invented wholesale in the Torah in order to retcon Zadok as a more legitimate priest than Ithamar's by-then-disgraced servants who had sided with the coup against David. But the suspicion because of the puzzling facts of the previous paragraph has somehow become unquestioned and even is presented as obvious by a lot of biblical scholars, when there are several other explanations of why the text reports what it does, none of them less likely to my mind than the suspicious explanation. I give two in that post seven years ago, and a third occurred to me this morning.

One possibility from the previous post is that the descendants of Eleazar had forsaken their responsibilities during the time of the Judges, which is entirely fitting with how Israel is described during that time, and the descendants of Ithamar were left to run the operation of the tabernacle and early pre-Solomonic temple structures (like the one we see in the early chapters of I Samuel).

The other possibility from the earlier post is just a decentralization of worship, not really being faithful to the tabernacle set up in the Torah (which would also fit with what the book of Judges tells us of that period). In this second case, Phinehas' descendants might still have been operating as priests, and indeed may even have considered themselves high priests, but other priests were operating in other locations, contrary to Torah specifications, and in each location someone was functioning like a high priest for that location.

The third explanation that occurred to me this morning is that there was a pattern for selecting the high priest that didn't consistently follow our expected rules of succession. Perhaps Phinehas' selection of high priest to succeed Eleazar has wrongly suggested to us that it would always continue as father to eldest living son. But perhaps instead the rule was eldest living male descendant of Aaron. If Ithamar died before Eleazar, then Phinehas might well have been the oldest male descendant at that time, as the eldest son of the eldest son of Aaron who had children (the oldest two seem to have died without children, or else their entire lines were disqualified for their fathers' sins). But the next high priest might have been a younger brother of Phinehas or an uncle or cousin from the Ithamar line. And this might not have had to have been a rule adopted at the outset. It could even have been a modification implemented later on, whether legitimately or not. The Torah doesn't ever specify, from what I can remember, how the high priest would be chosen. It might have been by Urim and Thummim or something, in which case the high priest could even be the youngest priest of age.

I think any of these explanations could be true, and all of them seem more likely to me than the possibility that the texts were all fabricated in order to explain a non-Aaronic family becoming pretenders to the Aaronic line. In a culture with such a high emphasis on geneaology, especially as evidenced in the narratives of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles to establish credentials beyond a shadow of doubt before someone could serve as a priest or Levite, I find it incredibly unlikely that someone could craft such a massive conspiracy that would rewrite all these texts that would have been so known and loved by the faithful Israelites who returned from exile. There's such an emphasis in those books on the careful study of the Torah that the conspiracy theory has to be far less likely by any reasonable weighing of the alternatives than any of the three possibilities that I've proposed.

There are a few other facts that might help us sort through the options. I'll look at just one, because it's sometimes used as an argument against the kinds of reconstruction I'm putting forward here. The texts from Samuel and Kings never refer to any of these priests as high priest. The conspiracy theory takes that to signal that the Samuel and Kings texts were earlier, and the language of high priest wasn't developed until much later and inserted into the Torah along with the concocted genealogies and stories that either invent Eleazar altogether or fabricate his genealogical connection with Zadok. But there are perfectly reasonable explanations for why this would be that completely fits with the texts we have without the massive reinterpretation required by the conspiracy theory. Taking the texts at face value, we have a scenario where there's a high-priestly position set up, and at least on the first two explanations, something goes wrong with that scenario. Someone is functioning as high priest who, ideally, shouldn't be.

1. On the scenario of the fallen line of Eleazar, the rightful high priest isn't even functioning as a priest. So the person who takes on that role, knowing that he's not really the high priest, refuses to call himself high priest. Then that becomes the habit, and when David restores the Eleazar line with Zadok he maintains two leading priests until Zadok takes over fully by himself, and even then we have the habit of simply referring to him as the priest (as opposed to a priest).

2. On the decentralization hypothesis, the leading priests in each location might have been hesitant to call themselves the high priest, and it became habit to refer to even the rightful high priest as the priest, because there wasn't a lot to distinguish him from the other chief priests in other locations.

3. On the alternate method of deciding the high priest, there may actually have been a continuing high priest, who was called high priest all along, but the rightful high priest may have been faithful to Saul and not David. David, perhaps too loyal to the man who had been functioning as priest under him, was willing to bring Zadok on as a parallel leading priest in order to comply with some of the Torah regulations, but did not make him (or at least did not call him) high priest until he was the sole leading priest.

I don't think we have enough information to sort through which of these three might be more likely with respect to each other, but they all seem more likely to me than the conspiracy theory that many scholars seem to have adopted as the only obvious reconstruction of historical events. And the mere possibility of three coherent reconstructions that could easily be imagined to have happened should give us pause at any attempt to reconstruct the historical scenario in a way that actually conflicts with the only evidence we have about these events.

Notes on Job

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When Jeremy Jackson covered the book of Job in his Tuesday night Bible study from 1995-1996, the studies were not recorded, but he did produce a three-page, single-spaced set of typed notes as a result of those studies. It occurred to me recently that I could make those available alongside the audio for the studies that I have been able to put online, so here they are.

For more Trinity Fellowship sermons and Bible studies, see here.

There is a lot of audio (and some video) material on Revelation online from Don Carson. I'm listing these in as close to chronological order as I can.


CICCU talk (Cambridge University organization for Christian students):
Apocalypse Now (Nov 9, 1986)


1994 Carey Conference, Wales (The Doctrine of Last Things) [all talks found at this link]

Rev 4 Vision of a Transcendent God (August 28, 1994)
Rev 5 Vision of a Redeeming God (August 29, 1994)
Rev 12 Rage, Rage Against the Church (August 30, 1994) [this link is to a Gospel Coalition listing that I think is the same talk)
Rev 13 Anti-Christ and the False Prophet (August 31, 1994)
Rev 21-22 Triumph of the Lamb (September 1, 1994)


The audio for Don Carson's entire seminary class on Revelation is online at The Gospel Coalition website. These are numbered out of order. The numbering was wrong before The Gospel Coalition got hold of the files, but they made it worse by listing the last six under numbers that aren't the same as the numbers the files themselves have (and they still weren't the right numbers). I spent some time a while back listening to the beginnings and ends of each file to see the proper order, and I'm reproducing my conclusions here. Because the lectures are already numbered (in some cases inconsistently), and because there happen to be 26 audio files, I will use letters to indicate the correct order to avoid confusion. (My first attempt to put these in the proper order got completely messed up because I used numbers.) This class was probably in 1995, given that he says The Gagging of God was coming out the next summer.

A. 1:1-3 (#1)
B. 1:4-15 (#2)
C. 1:16-2:7 (#3)
D. 2:8-11 (#4)
E. 2:12-28 (#5)
F. ch.3 (#6) starts with slides on cities, ends chs.2-3
G. ch.4pt1 (#9) right before #7 -- talking about elders at end
H. ch.4pt2 (#7) talking about elders at beginning
I. ch.5 (#8)
J. 6:1-6 or so (#10) new class, quiz then begins at 6:1
K. 6:6-ch.7 (#13) right after #10
L. 7:4ff. (#12)
M. 8:1ff (#14) new class starts, hands back quiz, begins ch.8 after 5 min intro
N. 10:1ff. (#11) interlude before 7th trumpet
O. 11.1ff. (#15)
P. ch.12 (#16) fills in 11:4 stuff he missed; eventually gets to ch.12
Q. 13:1-17 (#17) starts new class on 13-14,parts of 17
R. 13:17-into ch.14 (#18) class ends but didn't finish ch.14
S. ch.14 (#19) new class:rest of ch.14 some. ch.20 then ch.17, ends with children saved
T. ch.17 (#20) starts with Jews saved, continues children saved, ch.18 by end
U. ch.19 pt1(#21) new class,systematic issues,ch.19 ends with amill problem #1
V. ch.19 pt2 (#24) begins 2nd problem with amill, ends on imminent return [TGC lists as 24. Filename says 25.]
W. 19pt3 (#22) begins postmill prob: imminent Christ's return, end 19.8; class over [TGC lists as 22. Filename says 23.]
X. 20.1-6 (#25) last class, begins with ch.20 [TGC lists as 25. Filename says 26.]
Y. 20.7-21.8 (#26) starts 20.7, ends around 21.8 [TGC lists as 26. Filename says 22.]
Z. 21.9-22.21 (#23) begins 21.9 ends by reading to end of book [TGC lists as 23. Filename says 24.]


1995 EMW Aberystwyth Conference:

Rev 12:1-13:1 (August 8, 1995)
Rev 13:1-10 (August 9, 1995)
Rev 13:11-18 (August 10, 1995)
Rev 14 (August 11, 1995)


Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, MS) 2004 Missions Conference: Missions as the Triumph of the Lamb

[note: this is the same set as the ones labeled June 26, 2005 at The Gospel Coalition site, but RTS clearly labels it 2004]

Rev 4
Rev 5
Rev 21:1-8
Rev 21:9-22:6
Rev 12
Rev 13
Rev 14


June 1, 2004 (Summer at the Castle in Northern Ireland):

Rev 4
Rev 5
Rev 12
Rev 13, pt 1
Rev 13, pt 2
Rev 14
Rev 21:1-22:6
Q&A


ch.6 The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse unknown date, unknown if series (TGC lists as Jan 1, 2008)
ch.12 Rage, Rage Against the Church unknown date, unknown if series (TGC lists as Jan 1, 2008)
21:1-22:6 Even So, Come, Lord Jesus! unknown date, unknown if series (TGC lists as Jan 1, 2008)


Rev 12 The Strange Triumph of a Slaughtered Lamb (Dec 6, 2008 at Mars Hill Church in Seattle) video and audio


Rev 14:6-20 The God Who is Very Angry (Feb 28, 2009 according to TGC: part of The God Who is There series)
Rev 21:1-22:5 The God Who Triumphs (Feb 28, 2009 according to TGC: part of The God Who is There series)


Rev 21:1-22:5 The Unqualified Joy of the God-Centered New Heaven and New Earth (July 24, 2009)


Rev 21:1-22:5 What is the Gospel and How Does It Work, Part 3 (Gospel Coalition Regional Conference Los Angeles, Nov 6, 2010)


Rev 21-22 (unsure extent but probably through 22:5) Home at Last (Gospel Coalition National Women's Conference, Orlando, FL June 22, 2012)

Most New Testament scholars agree nowadays that Mark 16:9ff. is not the original ending of Mark. Either it ended with v.8, or there was an original ending that's been lost (sometimes thought to be something like Matthew's ending but with differences similar to how Mark normally is different from Matthew). A certain breed of skeptic often found on History Channel or Discovery Channel Easter specials will sometimes use this to claim that Mark doesn't actually report the resurrection, with the insinuation that Mark is the earliest gospel and therefore the most reliable reporting of events. Therefore, we might be expected to include, Christians invented the resurrection after Mark's gospel was fully composed.

Mark Heath nicely presents several reasons why such skeptics have to be ignoring what the Gospel of Mark really says and what else is in the New Testament. According to standard dating of Mark (by scholars across the theological spectrum), Paul's first letter to the Corinthians church is earlier than Mark, and chapter 15 of that letter is the lengthiest discussion of the resurrection in the entire New Testament. Furthermore, the entire gospel of Mark forecasts the resurrection and leads to its expectation, even explaining elements of it long before it gets to the actual events. But most importantly, the resurrection is the very last event reported in the section of Mark 16 that most scholars consider authentic. The disciples are told that he has been raised and told that they will see him. There aren't chronicles of what Jesus did after the resurrection, as there are in all three other gospels and in the book of Acts, but the resurrection is very clearly reported right there in the section that no one questions.

I'm less convinced on the fourth reason, so I'm not mentioning that here, but you can see Mark's post for it and my comment for my response.

[cross-posted at Evangel]

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.

I wrote a little a couple weeks ago about the early 1960s Supreme Court cases Abington School District v. Schempp and Murray v. Curlett (and perhaps to a lesser degree Engel v. Vitale). I said at the time that I have two further posts planned, one on substantive issues that weren't central to the cases and another on the central questions the Court dealt with. This post is the first of those two. Here are four relatively independent observations from the oral arguments I listened to that affect the main argument to some degree but aren't very closely about the central issue. I have some more thoughts on the fundamental issue to come at some point.


More or Less Sectarian to Comment?

There's an interesting argument among the various lawyers and justices during the oral arguments for these cases, about whether it's more sectarian or less sectarian to read from the Bible without comment or with comment. One argument is that reading without comment is more like studying the Bible as literature, since it doesn't involve endorsement or criticism, whereas commenting on it expresses a viewpoint. On the other hand, some argued that simply reading it seems more like endorsement, since there's no room for critiquing anything in the text or showing room for interpreting in different ways, whereas commenting on it allows for critical discussion or demonstration of different interpretations. I suspect the two views have something different in mind for what the commenting would be like, but I thought it was an interesting debate. The two lawyers defending two different Bible-reading laws were making these opposite claims. One law explicitly disallowed comment, and the other allowed for it. But the justices seemed to disagree among themselves about which claim was more correct.


Absolute or Potentially-Conflicting Rights?

Two lawyers on the same side on the general questions disagreed about whether the Constitution is vague (in the following sense, anyway). One insisted that any particular policy (1) either is or is not an establishment of religion and (2) either is or is not a violation of someone's free exercise of religion. Another countered that whether something falls into either category comes in degrees. Justice Stewart joined in on this, also pointing out that the free exercise clause and the establishment clause are sometimes at odds with each other, presumably implying that it's the job of the Supreme Court to figure out which applies more strongly in a particular case. (This, I think, is a sign of what later came to be seen as his moderate approach as a swing voter on key cases in the more ideologically-diverse Supreme Court to come. But he comes across as a hard-line conservative in this case, given where everyone else on the Court was. I'm not sure Justices Thomas and Scalia differ from Justice Stewart on these questions very much.)

The lawyer for the Unitarians who were suing the school, on the other hand, refused to call these prohibitions absolute but thought both clauses are as close to absolute as possible. He allows for some cases to be so insignificantly establishing or so insignificantly diminishing of free exercise that they're not worth enforcing. For example, he says this of "In God we trust" on coins, which he doesn't think anyone would have standing to sue about. But he also insisted that it isn't a genuine violation in such cases. It's not an infringement of a right, on his   view, unless it's enforceable in court. So that's how he gets the near-absolute. Smaller violations are defined away as not violations. Such is the magic of legal positivism.

He admitted to three examples to show that he's not strictly an absolutist on this. Military and prison chaplaincies are one example. We infringe on rights to free expression of religion to remove someone from their religious outlet without providing an alternative, so the clear establishment in chaplaincies is allowed despite being an establishment of religion. The other issue has to do with taxation, perhaps tax exceptions for religious institutions, but I didn't get a good sense of the argument there. It might have something to do with religions being infringed in their free expression if some of their money is taken for government use, and that's why it's ok for governments to establish them in some sense by exempting them from taxes. I find the latter case much less convincing as an establishment, but I'm not sure what it is if the argument is something else.

Obama's Use of Scripture

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John Hobbins has an interesting analysis of President Obama's use of scripture in his Tucson speech.

I agree with him that the use of Job is well-placed, at least on one interpretation of Job. The quotation comes from chapter 30, where Job is giving his final arguments after his "friends" have finished their attacks against him. It comes before Elihu's speech, were Elihu (rightly or wrongly) condemns much of what Job says in the preceding chapters, including chapter 30. On one interpretation, Job is righteous not just before his speeches in the book but in everything he says the entire book, and Elihu just repeats what the "friends" had said but without some of the uncharitable comments they make about Job's own words and without accusing him of particular things without evidence. On another interpretation, Job goes a bit overboard in his description of evil occurring from God's hand, and Elihu corrects him. If the former interpretation is correct, then President Obama has wisely picked a description of the evil that occurs in the world and its appearance to us without knowing the full context. If the latter interpretation is correct, then he's picked a bit from one of Job's over-the-top speeches that ignore the goodness of God in working through the bad things that occur in the world.

It's the Psalm 46 quote that gets John excited, though. He says Obama has masterfully taken the words of that psalm and applied them in a pre-critical, figural way that is very useful in civic religion. I wouldn't have put it that way. I'm not sure Obama has taken the words and applied them at all, in fact. He simply quotes a verse from the psalm and then moves on, leaving it to everyone hearing or reading his words to figure out what he might mean by it.

Read the text of his speech. He speaks of faith that Rep. Giffords will pull through and then quotes the psalm:

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, 
the holy place where the Most High dwells. 
God is within her, she will not fall; 
God will help her at break of day.

He then goes on to speak of what happened in Tucson, as if the psalm quotation hadn't been there at all. I'm not remotely sure what President Obama even means to be saying by quoting this psalm in his speech. He doesn't explain it at all. He doesn't later apply it to this case. None of the language of the psalm appears anywhere else in the speech. He just reads a verse out of context and then changes the subject. It's like a bad sermon, where the preacher quotes a text and then just goes on to say whatever comes to mind, as if the text has nothing to do with the point of the sermon, there in order to make it sound remotely biblical.

His intent behind including this psalm can be taken in a number of ways, if we just go by the speech itself. He could be taking the reference of the City of God the way Augustine took it, implying that she is a Christian and therefore that the promises of the psalm can be applied to her. The river here, as intended in the psalm, would be God's means of taking care of his people. If so, and if she really is a Christian, I would have no problem with Christian application of the psalm in such a way. It would be taking the greater canonical themes and applying them in this psalm. But I have no reason to think Obama would restrict this psalm to Christians, given his pluralistic approach to religion.

He could be taking the city of God to be the United States, and the river would be God's means of taking care of the people of the United States. This is how I would most naturally take the use of this passage in a civic religion context. I'd be a little surprised if Obama thought there was some special relationship between God and the United States, though. But a lot of fans of civic religion would take it this way. This would be faithful to how the psalm is using this language within itself, but it would be getting the referent wrong (and there's no argument from later scripture for doing so, as there is in the Christian interpretation above).

One thing I would not conclude from his use of the psalm, however, is that he is identifying the river with Giffords, as John does in his post. It's so strongly at odds with what the psalm is doing that it would certainly not appear to me to be a charitable interpretation. I don't generally like to attribute such poor reading skills to an intelligent person like President Obama. I'm curious why John is taking him to be doing that. I know the first two interpretations are pretty unlikely unless he's just trying deliberately to be unclear and to have people take it in many different ways as they may be inclined (I'm not sure he's deliberately this way; he just is this way because of his relativistic proclivities, I would guess). But why is the river Giffords rather than Congress, the American people, Obama himself, or even Dick Cheney? There's nothing in the speech that gives a hint as to what he thinks the river is, what he thinks the city of God is, or what he thinks the holy place where God dwells is.

I have to conclude that Obama likes the metaphor but that he has given us no particular way of taking it, whether that's deliberate for relativistic reasons (something I wouldn't put past him) or simply because he has no idea that a metaphor needs to be given a referent in the context in some way (which would just be a sign of bad speech-writing skills). In neither case would I call it a "logical and audacious" transition. It's simply a bad transition, with no sense at all of what he's doing with it and no reason given for why it's even there.

It's no surprise to me that so many people had such high hopes for this president but were sorely disappointed once he had to start governing. He was the empty metaphor himself, standing for whatever the voters wanted to see in him, and when you include all the good anyone might want in a president, including several incompatible goals and hopes, there's no way to live up to it. He's doing the same thing here. I expect a number of other analyses from people who end up with completely different interpretation's from John's, all of them confident that they got him right and with no suggestion of any other ways of taking him. But perhaps that's, in a way, getting Obama right, if indeed his intent is to be so open-ended that people will take what they will (and I find that as likely as the alternative).

Obama the Leopard King

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Cousin Danny found some guy arguing that President Obama is the leopard king of Daniel 7, with the especially convincing argument that leopards have spots of different colors, and thus they can easily symbolize someone of mixed race.

Obama's first book contains much interesting analysis of race. I took down several pages-long quotations from the library's copy in case I ever want to refer to them (since I don't own a copy and don't expect to get around to trying to find a used one anytime soon). His famous speech on race that distanced himself from his spiritual role model Jeremiah Wright also had a lot of worthwhile things to say about race. It's one of the few issues where I think he's more on the right track than not, and his background has allowed him to see things that a lot of people who are not from a mixed background will not be well-placed to notice.

Nevertheless, even he failed to latch onto the insights in the videos Danny linked to. But this makes great sense of his next-day comments on the results of the 2010 election. This explains pretty well why he prefers to read the election as a failure to explain to the ignorant voters why his policies are good, rather than admitting that so many Americans might just disagree with him on policy matters while actually being informed. But, you know, the leopard king can't easily change his spots...

Update 11/10/10: There really are a few interesting things in the second video. I hadn't noticed all of them initially.

1. This guy is a prophet, and he's not claiming that you can get all this from just reading the Bible. He's offering new revelation that this is Obama. So there's no complaining that he's speculating. He's giving a new revelation, just one that also involves the claim that no other country and leader combination best fits the leopard.

2. Keep in mind that he's a prophet, and he's revealing God's word to us in our day in addition to the scriptures. One of his arguments is that the four branches of the military and the four branches of the federal government are the four wings and four heads, and no other country has the four wings and four branches like the U.S. does today. So we should take this as divine fiat that there are now four branches of the government (the House, Senate, executive, and judiciary) as opposed to the three as declared in the Constitution (legislative, executive, and judiciary). Keep in mind that God can decree the Constitution invalid in terms of what it declares to be true of the United States government that it established, so this is entirely legitimate. It's just a huge surprise to me, and it shows that this revelation could only have come directly from God by means of a prophet like him. No one who knows just how the U.S. government works who reads this text could possibly have thought this interpretation even consistent with what Daniel 7 says and what the Constitution declares about the branches of government. We do need a prophet to know these things. So I stand corrected. The Constitution has been amended by a prophet by a method unknown to the Constitution itself.

3. Notice how he points out that Obama is the leopard as the leader of the U.S. with arguments both about the U.S. itself and Obama its leader. The leopard has skin that's both black and white, which reflects the racial makeup of the United States. Obama also has skin that's both black and white. Yes, it's not race-mixing in the sense that he is both black and white, which is what I was originally taking this to be, which would be yet another piece of evidence for my claim that the one-drop rule is on its way out, at least as applied in certain contexts. No, he says Obama's skin itself is both black and white, in the same sense at the same time. So I guess God can declare contradictions to be true after all, and his prophet is informing us of one particular contradiction that God has now declared to be true of our president. His skin is both black and white.

4. Read the comments on YouTube. You will discover a fascinating argument there against this prophet's claims. Obama can't the be leopard, because it's biologically impossible. Leopards are female, and Obama is male. The most amazing thing about that comment? No one even responded to it, and there are plenty of responses by the author of this video to claims made against him. Does this mean that he's finally encountered an argument that's making him reconsider his view? This is a pretty convincing reason not to accept the view, after all. Until I saw that, I was fully on board, but now I'm not so sure.

The following passage is sometimes taken to teach that suffering and death aren't always because of the sins of the individuals who suffer or die:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." [Luke 13:1-5, ESV]

This passage does not teach that. You can find a teaching close to that in the book of Job. It isn't quite that, though. What Job teaches is that the immediate cause of suffering need not be the particular sins of the person suffering. It never says that there's any suffering that's not because of the presence of sin in the world, though. This passage in Luke, in particular, strikes me as in fact teaching something in the opposite direction of Job's point.

What is says is that the people who died weren't any worse sinners than the ones who didn't die. This wasn't to illustrate they were innocent and suffered anyway. Jesus' point is for his hearers to repent so that too won't perish, as if the reason for the perishing was indeed because of sin but that many of the people hearing his message were simply spared that out of God's mercy, at least so far, but they should not presume upon that mercy continuing for much longer. So the point does seem to me to mitigate the Job point. While it may well be that suffering can occur without its being directed against someone because of that person's sin, this passage isn't teaching anything about the suffering of innocents. It's teaching that those who die because of their sin aren't any worse than those who haven't yet met God's judgment as fully as they might. Consider the very next words of Jesus in Luke:

And he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, 'Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?' And he answered him, 'Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"[Luke 13:6-9, ESV]

This seems to be a clear presentation of the patience point above. God is merciful, and that's why some continue to live despite deserving death. God puts it off to give them time to repent, but God need not do this. God doesn't owe this to us.

I've been thinking about two different themes that run together here, both of which came out in the still-ongoing discussion of the Canaanite genocide issue. One is the Punishment Theodicy, and the other is the Patience Theodicy. These aren't where theists typically start when dealing with the problem of evil, but I think that's unfortunate. The Punishment Theodicy is usually dismissed by contemporary philosophers pretty quickly, mainly because of the Job point. If there's innocent suffering, then the Punishment Theodicy won't do all the work. Also, you need a reason why God allows the sin that's being punished for a large amount of evil to constitute punishment. But I think the Punishment Theodicy does do a lot more work than contemporary philosophers want to give it credit. The claim isn't that every bit of evil is punishment directed against someone for a particular sin that's being punished by that particular bit of suffering. It's that the vast majority of evil in the world today is the result of sin's being in the world, and one reason God allows it to the point it gets to is because we deserve it (and indeed much worse). It's allowed, at least in very large part, in order to punish us.

Another reason this isn't popular, I suspect, is because punishment is not popular, at least not for retributive reasons. But retributive justice is very popular when you put it the right way. It's unpopular to suggest that we deserve suffering for anything when you talk in terms of sin and God, but just try telling a graduating senior who didn't get hired that it's perfectly all right for someone who had lower qualifications to get the job, as if any choice would have been equally good, and you get responses that assume some notion of retributive justice. We can't make sense of the notion of an ironic punishment if we don't think people can deserve suffering because of their sins.

The Patience Theodicy is an explanation why evildoers seem to get away with it, why God doesn't judge sin immediately. Habakkuk worried deeply about that question, and God's response is that the sinner seeming to get away with it will indeed be judged. I don't think we ever get in Habakkuk why he's delaying, though. One place we do see an answer to that is II  Peter 3, where we're told that it's out of God's patience, to allow more time for people to repent. This theodicy explains a kind of evil that seems counterintuitive from one perspective. Normally, we want a reason why God allows evil. In a sense, this is an explanation of why God continues to allow a certain kind of evil. But on another level, this is an explanation of why God refrains from doing something that causes something that's intrinsically bad -- suffering and death. So it's a funny kind of theodicy, but it's a theodicy nonetheless, and it's also a pretty powerful one in that it explains quite a bit. The Punishment Theodicy explains a good deal of suffering on a very general level (without offering any claim about the details of particular cases, which is where those who apply it often end up mistaken). The Patience Theodicy explains a more specific kind of suffering by giving a reason why it might be allowed to continue when there's an easy way of cutting short evil by ending its existence altogether. It's an answer to the "how long" kind of question, i.e. the duration of evils, in Peter van Inwagen's way of putting it.

I'm not sure I had any specific point here, just some stewing thoughts after reading Luke 13 this morning, but I wanted to record some of these thoughts.

Paul Copan's "Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?" presents what struck me, on my first exposure to it, as a relatively novel (to me, anyway) thesis defending God as presented in the Hebrew scriptures from the charge of genocide. He claims that the commands to wipe out Canaan and not leave anyone standing, including women, children, and even livestock are hyperbole and that such expressions were commonly used to indicate a severe attack but did not literally mean that no one at all would survive.

I was a bit hesistant to rely on such a view, because it seemed to be to require more evidence than Copan gave, and there are certainly some occurrences when the expression in question simply cannot mean what Copan wants it to mean, e.g. when Saul is roundly condemned by Samuel in I Sam 15 for not fully carrying out the wiping out of the Amalekites. Saul's failure in that chapter was precisely his willingness to leave some alive, as Wes Morriston pointed out in the comments on Robert Gressis' Prosblogion posting on this last year. That objection struck me as decisive.

It occurred to me very recently, however, that Morriiston's objection doesn't quite do it. I'm still a little skeptical of Copan's thesis without more evidence than I've seen, but I'm not sure anymore that Morriston's objection really defeats the thesis. Consider the following version of Copan's claim. There's the literal meaning of the expression to wipe out everyone and everything. Saul did not do that. He spared Agag and the best of the livestock. Copan could then come along and point out that the passage doesn't include in Saul's failure that he spared women and children, for example. So it's compatible with what the text says that (a) Saul did wipe out all the women and children (and spared just Agag and the best animals) and that (b) Saul didn't wipe out all the women and chilfdren (but never was supposed to kill all of them, just all of the animals and King Agag).

So I'm not sure anything in I Sam 15 disproves Copan's thesis. Saul did sin, according to I Sam 15, by sparing Agag and the best livestock. But it may well have been that Agag and the livestock should have been killed according to the correct Copan-modified translaton or paraphrase of whatever the hyperbolic command really insisted on. In other words, Saul really should have killed Agag and these animals according to the command of God, but that doesn't mean he literally was expected to wipe out the whole Amalekite people. So I don't think I Sam 15 is really a counterexample to Copan's proposal.

[cross-posted at Prosblogion]

You Shall Give To Him Freely

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There's a fascinating element in the discussion of the Sabbath year in Deuteronomy 15. The general law requires releasing people from their debts every seven years. That means if you lend to someone a few months before the release of debts, and the person is too poor to pay it back in time, you have to release them of the debt. You might expect this to give rise to unprecedented amounts of stinginess in the time before the year of debt-release. The law anticipates this, though, and it commands Israel not to use such fears as excuses not to give. It's sin to refuse to give in such a situation, and they were commanded to give and not grudgingly. It says God will reward those who get stiffed in such a situation.

In the debate between complementarianism and egalitarianism about gender distinctions in marriage, egalitarians often say that calling on a woman to submit to her husband is unfair when the man isn't called on to do the same. This does ignore that the same Ephesians 5 that tells women to submit to their husbands commands husbands to love their wives as self-sacrificially as the love that brought Christ to die for the church, which I think should count as at least as significant a level of sacrifice as what the wife is asked to do. But one thing complementarians often say strikes me as missing the point. They say that in any ideal marriage this shouldn't be an issue. If the husband is loving his wife as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her, then it won't be difficult at all for the wife to submit to the husband.

One hint that something is amiss here comes from considering the flip-side, which would be: If the wife submits to the husband, then it won't be difficult to love her as Christ loved the church. Really? I suspect it would still be immensely difficult for a sinful husband or wife to follow these commands even with a sinless spouse.

But I think the main reason I don't like that complementarian response is that you shouldn't have to go to the ideal situation to see that these commands are all right. If complementarianism is correct, then wives should submit to their husbands even if their husbands are complete jerks, and husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church even if their wives are as unlovely as someone's inner self could be. Indeed, I would say this is so even with an egalitarian interpretation of this passage. This is simply Christian teaching. Philippians 2 makes this utterly clear. Christ's model of giving himself for us is just plain the model for Christians and how we should treat others, regardless of how those others treat us. And this is simply continuous with the Hebrew scriptures, including the Mosaic law, since the very same principle underlies the command in Deuteronomy 15 that lenders should give to the poor even when there's little chance of getting the money back before the debt-release year (and many other places in the Torah, Proverbs, prophets, etc. along these lines).

So, while I don't think the complementarian reply above is correct (i.e. saying that in an ideal situation it isn't all that bad to follow complementarianism), at the same time I think objections to complementarianism that involve any claim that it asks too much are, at the very least, contrary to the very spirit of Christ and his call on the church. There are those who will resist such an ethic. They will say that Nietzsche was right in his diagnosis of Christianity as a slave-morality. I'm willing to grant that to a point, as long as they recognize that they resist Christianity in doing so. What I will have little patience for is those who think they can maintain a Christian ethic while thinking any unfairness here is immoral.

It reminds me of a discussion I overheard between two atheist philosophers, both of whom had some Christian influence when they were younger. One was giving a certain argument against a certain conception of hell, saying that it would be unfair, and the other said that it won't make much sense to use an argument that assumes God is fair against the followers of Jesus, since Jesus described God in terms of an employer giving the same amount of pay to the laborers who only worked an hour as he gave to those who had been working all day. These were day-laborers who subsist on a day's wage to live for the day. The Torah even requires people to pay day-laborers every day for that very reason. Jesus says God is like the farmer who pays the day-laborers a full day's wage even if they don't earn it. There's nothing fair about that arrangement, and yet Jesus says it represents what God's character is like. It's not remotely fair to ask Israelites to give to their poor fellow Israelites who will almost certainly end up with no debt due to the closeness of the year of debt-release. But it's very clear that biblical morality requires doing exactly that sort of thing and much more.

[cross-posted at Evangel]

Abominations

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There's a particularly bad argument against those who accept the biblical prohibitions against same-sex sexual acts, and I think I've just realized something new about the argument. The Torah prohibitions on male-male sex acts are declared to be an abomination. There are those who want to reconsider how to interpret the biblical texts who want to minimize this statement. They point to the fact that eating shellfish is also an abomination in the Torah, which means it can't be all that bad to be an abomination in the Torah.

Anyone who has thought for a little bit about the relation Christians see between the Mosaic law and the New Testament should see through such an argument, because the New Testament explicitly affirms the judgment of male-male and female-female sexual relations as bad while explicitly rejecting the dietary laws that the ban on eating shellfish was a part of. So that objection is pretty naive. Any Christian interpretive grid that seeks to minimize the Torah prohibition on same-sex sex acts can't do so merely because we nowadays think it's all right to eat shellfish, because there's explicit allowance of that in the New Testament and explicit continuance of the harsh language about same-sex sex acts.

What occurred to me today, when reading Christopher Wright's discussion of Deuteronomy 25, is that there's a further problem with this objection. It's not that the occurrence of eating shellfish lowers the negative judgment on homosexuality because an innocent enough act gets called an abomination. It's the evil of eating shellfish and the other things that fall under this same term that go way up, and that includes the example Wright discusses from Deuteronomy 25 (cheating people in commercial ventures). Eating shellfish in the covenant context of God's people called together to be separate from their neighbors is tantamount to deciding for yourself what you think God's standards should have been when he instituted the dietary laws. We can't read our acceptance of shellfish-eating into how serious eating shellfish would have been taken among those at the time.

The dietary laws were an important distinguishing feature of how Israel was to live in contrast to those around them. It reflected both abandonment of pagan worship practices and an affirmation of the things in nature that, in the Mosaic covenant, represented wholeness and unity among God's people. It's easy to lose sight of how serious it is to reject that when you think about how easily Christians eat shellfish today. It's a complete misunderstanding of the cultural, indeed covenant, context of the Torah to think that the inclusion of shellfish as an abomination makes abominations not very serious.

Those who continue to hold to a high view of scripture, including the Torah, aren't going to be able to dismiss the Torah pronouncements against abominations as easily as pointing out that we all eat shellfish now and don't consider it an abomination. Any Christian does consider it an abomination to do something with the import of what eating shellfish would have been in that context. We just rightly don't think eating shellfish in our context would have the same import. So any reconciliation of the prevailing secular view of homosexuality of our day with a high view of Christian scripture is going to have to look elsewhere. I don't think it's all that plausible that we should lessen how serious we take the Torah prohibitions on what it calls abominations to be just because it's called an abomination to eat shellfish. We should instead increase our sense of the horror an ancient Hebrew would have had at the idea of eating shellfish

[cross-posted at Evangel]

Direct discourse reports what someone said with an exact quote. Biblical authors almost always never intend exact quotation. They use indirect discourse, reporting the basic content of what's said rather than the actual words used. When the biblical author is reporting in translation (as most of the gospel accounts do), this is even a translation of a summary of the actual words.

There's a common way of reporting indirect discourse by summary in the Hebrew scriptures that the ESV handles by expressions like "thus and so". It usually occurs to avoid repetition. Biblical Hebrew often reiterates something very closely for emphasis or for structural reasons. Sometimes it does so to show that a prophecy or command is being fulfilled exactly as given. But sometimes the author sees no need to repeat everything again. So you'll see these cases where someone will be told something who then reports it to someone else, and the second occurrence is something like, "and he told me thus and so". I noticed an interesting occurrence where that may be going on, but it may be something else.

1 Then Elisha the prophet called one of the sons of the prophets and said to him, "Tie up your garments, and take this flask of oil in your hand, and go to Ramoth-gilead. 2 And when you arrive, look there for Jehu the son of Jehoshaphat, son of Nimshi. And go in and have him rise from among his fellows, and lead him to an inner chamber. 3 Then take the flask of oil and pour it on his head and say, 'Thus says the Lord, I anoint you king over Israel.' Then open the door and flee; do not linger."

4 So the young man, the servant of the prophet, went to Ramoth-gilead. 5 And when he came, behold, the commanders of the army were in council. And he said, "I have a word for you, O commander." And Jehu said, "To which of us all?" And he said, "To you, O commander." 6 So he arose and went into the house. And the young man poured the oil on his head, saying to him, "Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, I anoint you king over the people of the Lord, over Israel. 7 And you shall strike down the house of Ahab your master, so that I may avenge on Jezebel the blood of my servants the prophets, and the blood of all the servants of the Lord. 8 For the whole house of Ahab shall perish, and I will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel. 9 And I will make the house of Ahab like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha the son of Ahijah. 10 And the dogs shall eat Jezebel in the territory of Jezreel, and none shall bury her." Then he opened the door and fled.

11 When Jehu came out to the servants of his master, they said to him, "Is all well? Why did this mad fellow come to you?" And he said to them, "You know the fellow and his talk." 12 And they said, "That is not true; tell us now." And he said, "Thus and so he spoke to me, saying, 'Thus says the Lord, I anoint you king over Israel.'" 13 Then in haste every man of them took his garment and put it under him on the bare steps, and they blew the trumpet and proclaimed, "Jehu is king."[II Kings 9:1-13, ESV]

In verse 12, Jehu uses an expression that for all I can tell can be an instance of the above phenomenon. The author may simply be saving us some time by not reiterating everything the prophet had told Jehu, and the sense is that Jehu explained it all to them but that we're not going to have to hear it all explicitly. So when he says, "Thus and so he spoke to me" it means he actually told them the prophet's words or summarized them more fully than we see, but we only get "Thus says the Lord, I anoint you king over Israel". We're getting discourse within discourse. The author is reporting what Jehu says, and Jehu is reporting what the prophet had said, and it's possible the "thus and so" is an abbreviation of what Jehu says.

On the other hand, it seems just as possible to me (and perhaps the Hebrew precludes either option, but I don't know enough to know about that) that the "thus and so" is intended more like a direct quote from Jehu, and he is using it himself to abbreviate what the prophet said. Jehu has already shown his reluctance to tell his army buddies what went on, so it wouldn't be surprising for him to brush off their question by a quick summary, giving them the basic point that he's now been anointed king but leaving aside his responsibility to eliminate Ahab's house and the specific details of what will happen to Jezebel.

So if this expression is functioning the way I think it's functioning, then there's no semantic reason to prefer seeing it as Jehu's abbreviation of what the prophet said in order to brush off their question or the author's abbreviation of what Jehu said in order to spare us the repetition. There may be contextual clues that make one more likely, but it seems to me to be a semantic ambiguity that stems from the particular way this expression functions, and the Hebrew language (as far as I know) lacks a modifier to tell us whether direct or indirect discourse is going on, and so we can't (again, as far as I know) be sure just from the grammar which is intended. It does slightly affect the interpretation of the passage, since it may be another instance of Jehu's reluctance to embrace the kingship and/or his mission to eliminate Omri's dynasty, or it may just be an instance of the narrator sparing us a speech that repeats what we'd just heard.

If anyone who knows Hebrew has any information that helps here, I'd love to hear it.

Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, I anoint you king over the people of the Lord, over Israel. And you shall strike down the house of Ahab your master, so that I may avenge on Jezebel the blood of my servants the prophets, and the blood of all the servants of the Lord. For the whole house of Ahab shall perish, and I will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel. And I will make the house of Ahab like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha the son of Ahijah. And the dogs shall eat Jezebel in the territory of Jezreel, and none shall bury her. [ESV, II Kings 9:6b-8]
These are the words of an unnamed prophet to Jehu, the first king in the last dynasty of the northern kingdom of Israel. The prophet instructs Jehu to supplant Ahab's heir and kill of the remaining heirs. Every male of Ahab's house will perish. This isn't just a command. It's a prediction.

The only problem is that Ahab's daughter Athaliah was married to King Jehoram of Judah, and Jehoram's son Ahaziah was also killed off in Jehu's purge as a descendant of Ahab. In fact, all of Jehoram and Ahaziah's children were killed, except Jehoash, who would eventually become the next king of Judah, thus preserving the line of David. But isn't Jehoash a male descendant of Ahab? Do we actually have conflicting prophecies here, one confirming the Davidic dynasty in perpetuity and the other confirming the dying out of Ahab's dynasty? If so, then there's no way they could both be fulfilled, but even one false prophecy disqualifies a prophet. The author of Kings seems to treat this prophecy as fulfilled, however. So what's going on?

It doesn't do to treat the text's author as a bunch of unrelated, ignorant buffoons who edit a text without allowing for quality control enough for the text to be consistent with some of the driving ideology purposes of the very book itself, which would include the 100% reliability of prophecy from genuine prophets. I haven't seen anyone do that in this case, though. (Not to say that I've never seen biblical prophets make that kind of mistake. They often do. I just didn't see anyone doing it here.) Surprisingly, I couldn't find any commentary that raises this issue at all. I looked at several. Someone whose work I didn't look at might have raised it, or maybe one of the commentaries I looked at raises it in a different place (there are other prophecies about this transfer of power and references back to it later on). But it apparently never occurred to any of them that there might be some issue with a prophecy here that seems to conflict with a different one (and indeed seems not to have been fulfilled if taken the way I took it above).

So what might the author or final editors of this text have taken this text to mean if they obviously did think it fulfilled? If Ahab's line was preserved in the very line of David that was prophesied to go on perpetually (and on the Christian view leads to Jesus Christ as great David's greater son), then the prophecy must not mean "every male descendant of Ahab". This expression is literally something like "everyone of Ahab who urinates on the wall", and it's possible but unlikely that it means something else besides "every male of Ahab". Nonetheless, I find those proposals much less likely than just the males of his household. But that's the key, I suspect. Perhaps the males descended from Ahab aren't included among the males of his household that this passage refers to. So Jehoash would then not have been part of the intended end to Ahab's house, since he's not actually of Ahab's house but David's.

So it turns out this isn't that difficult question. It just surprises me that no one whose work I looked at on this verse had even raised it.

Sons and Slaves

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It's rare that I post on something I encounter that I have almost nothing to say about, but I was just catching up on Mark Heath's blog, and this post struck me as brilliant. Mark notices all the slave language and son language in the New Testament for believers and wonders what's going on with followers of Jesus being adopted into God's family but then called slaves of Christ. How can believers be both adopted members of the family and slaves to the master?

Mark wonders which is more fundamental or which is the way we should more strongly think of ourselves. But then he notices something that makes such a question seem completely in the wrong direction. He observes that the primary way God is addressed is as Father, and the primary way Jesus is addressed is as Lord. He thus suggests that we should think of ourselves primarily as sons* with respect to the Father and slaves with respect to the Son.

What's striking to me about this is that I think most Christians think of the Father as sort of a more distant figure to respect and pray more formally to, whereas the Son is more down-to-earth (literally; pun intended) and brotherly. The way the first two persons of the Trinity are addressed in the scriptures, however, is backwards from that. Now of course the very fact that we are told to address the Father as Father is a lot more significant than most of us reflect on. The immense privilege implicit in the first two words of the Lord's Prayer means we've been told outright how we should see God the Father, at least in terms of our praying, and it's not so much as a master as as a parent*. That tells us something about God and his attitude toward us.

OK, so I didn't have nothing to say about this. That's something. But I think Mark's observation is pretty interesting, and I didn't intend to have anything to add myself.

[*Note on inclusive language: I deliberately use the masculine here, because "sons" in NT usage would culturally have included far more in terms of inheritance and status than "daughters" or "children". That this term is applied, in my view, suggests that women who are children of the Father are treated fully as sons would have been expected to be treated, and I think something gets lost if it is translated more inclusively, at least for readers who understand this about the ancient Hebrew and Greco-Roman cultures. So I prefer to keep the gender-inclusive "sons" that is jarring in contemporary English if meant inclusively, since pretty much no one talks that way outside uber-traditionalist hyper-formal-equivalence translation circles.]

[Note on apparent typo: Yes, I know there's an extra "as" there, but it's actually correct with it and incorrect without it. I couldn't resist.]

[cross-posted at Evangel]

It strikes me that two principles commonly used in textual criticism can actually cancel each other out.

1. Charity to the Author: Other things being equal, it's generally better to be charitable to the author when we can do so. If we find two readings in manuscripts, where one makes a lot more sense for someone to have written than the other, then we might favor the one that we might more easily expect someone to have written and try to find some other explanation for the divergent reading.

2. Hardest Reading: Other things being equal, textual critics generally prefer a reading that is less likely to be what you'd expect to find, because copyists can see something and auto-correct it as they are copying. If they find something they consider to be grammatically, semantically, historically, or theologically incorrect, they might fix it. So the harder reading is often taken to be more likely, because we can explain why the manuscripts with the easier reading exist, when it's much harder sometimes to explain why the manuscripts with the harder reading would have arisen from the easier reading if that had been original.

These principles do seem to me to go in opposite directions, since charity seems to support the easier rather than the harder reading. I haven't done a lot of textual criticism myself, but I've read plenty of instances of authors writing about particular cases, and I have to wonder if sometimes people might choose one or the other of these in order to justify the reading they prefer, since charity supports the easier reading.

Does this make textual criticism completely subjective, at least in cases where these two principles are the only relevant ones that apply? Not really. I tried to state the principles carefully enough to hint at how the potential conflict can sometimes be resolved. Charity leads us to look for an alternative explanation for the harder reading, one not having to do with authorial intention, since it favors easier readings we'd actually expect someone to like. The Hardest Reading principle gives us an alternative explanation for how easier readings could arise, but we still need to make some sense of why someone would have authored the hardest reading, or else we might wonder if it's not original, provided that we do have an account of how the hardest reading could arise. Sometimes a slight different in how one letter is written can provide that explanation. Sometimes the harder reading still makes plenty of sense but requires some more careful explaining to see how it fits with the rest of the passage or some other passage. But in many cases there will be a reason to prefer the harder reading or the more charitable reading because of what we might say about the alternative reading.

I do have to wonder, though, about cases where the harder reading makes absolutely no sense, and the more charitable reading can easily be explained by being copied wrongly from the harder reading. There are hard cases in textual criticism because these principles do run counter to each other.

[cross-posted at Evangel]

Proverbs and Wives

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Proverbs contains two themes that might seem in tension with each other.

House and wealth are inherited from fathers, but a prudent wife is from the LORD. (Prov 19:14, ESV)

As James says, any gift is from God.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights. (James 1:17, ESV)

On another level, there's a human role in acquiring certain kinds of things that can also be gifts of God:

He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the LORD.(Prov 18:22)

So both houses/riches and an insightful wife are a gift from God. Both might come by means of some process that doesn't on the surface involve God, but one's own finding might be a significant part of it.

So what's the contrast in Prov 19:14 supposed to be, then? If everything is from God, then why are some things from God while others only from human beings? I puzzled over this for a while. Perhaps it had something to do with coming from God in one sense (the way everything comes from God) and coming from God in another sense (a sense in which only some things are from God).

That's certainly one way to make sense of such a distinction, but it doesn't strike me as the best solution. The most natural way to make such a distinction is between things God intends for the good of the person receiving them and things God intends not for the good of the person receiving them but for some other reason. I can't see how that fits well with this verse, though. Couldn't both things be intended by God for the good of the person receiving the gift?

I have another suggestion. This particular verse speaks of a prudent wife, not just any wife. It's not as if Proverbs only speaks of wives in good terms or anything. There's a long section in chapter 31 devoted to the industrious wife, but there are proverbs here and there about how hard it is to live with contentious wives (as in the previous verse), too, and one of the big opponents of the first nine chapters is the adulterous wife. Critics of the biblical wisdom literature sometimes focus on the negative pictures of wives while ignoring the good ones, usually to argue for some kind of sexism at work. But it takes selective appeal to certain parts of Proverbs to think the perspective behind the book is simply negative toward women and wives. It would be a similar mistake to think it's simply positive toward women and wives. Like the book's attitude toward people in general, including men, it places people into the wise category or the foolish category, and there are some particular ways of being wise and foolish that it emphasizes about how wives can be wise or foolish.

So here's my suggestion. The contrast in Prov 19:14 is not about some gifts being from God and some gifts not being from God. It's about some gifts that can come from people and some gifts that can only come from God. If my is right, then Prov 19:14 is about how parents can leave you possessions, and they can set it up so you get pretty much what they intend you to get. They might give you a spouse, but they can't guarantee a good spouse. Only God can do that. That's not to say that an inheritance isn't also a gift from God. It's hard to read Proverbs as a whole, never mind the rest of the Bible, and get that impression. But even if parents can arrange a marriage, there's part of the gift that can only be arranged by God, and that's something that requires depending on him. For anyone about to arrange a marriage, this is something to keep in mind.

At various moments in my life, it's occurred to me that the people who have been most important to me or most influential in bringing me to a certain point or simply those who have been most enjoyable for me to be around have not always been the people I would have chosen. They simply were around at the same time I was, and circumstances worked themselves out. To those who accept a sufficiently strong view of divine providence, then, it seems impossible to see such events as anything but the hand of God, and the same should be true of the events leading to a marriage, even if nowadays it's a lot less often from the organizing hands of parents and may even sometimes be simply due to two people finding themselves together often enough and finding that they want to continue spending time together in a deeper way.

Jesus the Jew

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Prov 19:17 says those gracious to the poor are lending to God. It's hard for anyone familiar with the New Testament to think about such a statement for very long without being reminded of Jesus' discussion in Matthew 25, where he says, "whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me."

It amazes me how far people will go to find sources outside the Hebrew tradition for some of Jesus' ideas. So many of his statements are steeped in the language and conceptual framework of the Hebrew scripture. The extent of these connections don't often enough get noticed, and not all of them are as obvious as others, but enough of them are transparent enough that I have to wonder if the people who make such statements know the Hebrew scriptures very well.

Christians will look at this example as a proverb in the Hebrew scriptures teaching a principle that would come to be exemplified in Jesus' teaching about himself, with the implication that Jesus is according himself divinity by taking on a feature the Hebrew scriptures reserve for God. But even those more skeptical of such notions should at least admit that Jesus' teachings are so strongly influenced by the Hebrew Bible and that it's contextually insensitive to take Jesus to be primarily something more like a Roman Stoic or an adherent to the teachings of some kind of eastern mysticism. Where there might be similarities there, his actual background, language, and cultural milieu serve as a far better explanation even of the teachings that are fairly distinctive in the gospels and not found with such close parallels such as this one.

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