Sunday, 29 June 2014

Textual and Translational Studies in Hebrews 1:1-3

Textual and Translational Studies in Hebrews 1:1-3
James M. Leonard, PhD (Cambridge)

            One of the great moments in biblical literature, and really, in all of ancient literature, is the opening of the book of Hebrews:

1 In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven (NIV).[1]

Its power and magnificence is even greater in the Greek, although we miss a few things in translation.  This brief analysis attempts to bring out some of the things which an English translation might miss.

Many times and in various ways
            Sometimes the word order in Greek is important.  For example, a word or phrase is often advanced to the beginning of a sentence for the sake of emphasis.  This is precisely the case in Heb 1:1.  Most translations begin the sentence with “Long ago,” while two translations begin with “God” (NASB, NKJV).  However, neither of these two renderings reflects the important word order of the Greek.  Only the RSV reflects the fact that the apostle emphatically advanced “many times and in various ways” (polymeros kai polutropos) to the first position of the text.
            The point is that the apostle intends to contrast the inconsistent and incomplete manner in which God previously spoke through the prophets with the definitive manner in which he has now spoken by his Son.  The old way was sporadic, unpredictable, ad hoc; the apostle makes this clear by advancing the prosaic, alliterated word pairing polymeros kai polutropos to the very first position of the entire book.
            This is important not only rhetorically, but also theologically.  On one hand, Deists believe that God rather standoffishly created the world, wound it up like a clock, and then got out of the way of nature and humankind.  On the other hand, first century Jews believe that God actually intervened in human history, spoke certain words through the prophets, gave them adequate guidance through the Hebrew Scriptures, and had been absolutely and regrettably silent since Malachi’s last utterance in 400 BCE.  The apostle affirms the Jewish view, emphasizing the sporadic and scattered manner in which God spoke, but he does so in order to say that now the last days have come, and that God’s Word has been uttered finally and definitively in the person of his Son. 
            No longer was God content to speak piecemeal.  The revelation of God’s will in his Son is perfect and definitive.  This is so because the Son is the heir of all things, the agent of creation, the effulgence of God’s glory, and the exact representation of God’s being.  No doubt the apostle loved that which was spoken by the prophets long ago at many times and various ways, but the Son says it all. 

Our forefathers
The apostle says that the prophets spoke to “the fathers” (tois patrasin).  The problem is that a number of translations insert the possessive pronoun “our” to modify “the fathers,” when the Greek does not warrant it!

without “our”                                                  with “our”
NKJV “to the fathers”                                                NLT “to our ancestors”
HCSB “to the fathers”                                                RSV “to our fathers”
NASB “to the fathers”                                   NIV “to our forefathers”
                                                                        ESV “to our fathers”

At first, one would suspect that there were a text critical question here, and to be sure, a few Greek manuscripts do include “our” (hemon).  However, such manuscripts are paltry few, none of which would prompt any text critic to include “hemon” into their edition of the Greek NT.  Ultimately, the translators have treated the insertion of “our” as a translational decision, not as a textual decision.  They inserted it merely as a translational aid, not because they found hemon in the Greek text.
            This decision is somewhat disappointing exegetically.  What if the apostle consciously chose not to say “our” in deference to the few Gentiles who might have been part of his readership?  What if the apostle wanted to distance himself and other believers from the Jewish persecutors who might have been appealing to “our forefathers” in their on-going debates against the Christian community?  By inserting “our” into their translations, the translators may have inadvertently skewed the exegetical process.
            The reason why the translators inserted “our” was to make a smoother reading.  After all, our minds trip over a phrase like “God spoke to the forefathers,” and so we automatically supply the possessive pronoun.[2]  However, we should never sacrifice exegetical accuracy and interpretational neutrality for smoother readability.  The ESV is especially disappointing here, in light of its attempt to provide a more “transparent” English translation through which one might see back into the Greek.[3]

God Having Spoken

            Many of our English translations render the main clauses of vv. 1 and 2 as coordinate clauses:

            v. 1 God spoke to our forefathers at many times and in various ways ….
            v. 2 God has spoken to us through his Son….

In order to make these two coordinate clauses work in English, one needs to doctor them up a bit.  One way to do so is to graft the two clauses together with the contrastive coordinate “but.”  Thus, the NIV reads, “In the past God spoke…at many times and in various ways, but in these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son” (compare also RSV, NLT, CEV, and NRSV).  A second option is to chop the two clauses into two independent sentences.  Thus, HCSB reads, “God spoke…at different times and different ways.  In these last days, He has spoken to us by [His] Son.”
            In reality, the two clauses are not coordinate clauses at all.  In the Greek, the first clause is actually a dependent clause modifying the main clause of the second verse.  The first verb is not a main verb, but a participle.  Minimalistically, the participle may be rendered as “having spoken.”  The difference between making them both coordinate clauses and making the first clause a modifying dependent clause can be depicted in the following sentence flow:

            As coordinate clauses
God       spoke                to our forefathers….
Equal and balanced paral-lelism, with two main clauses
                   at many times
                   in various ways

God       has spoken        to us….

As a dependent clause modifying the main clause

                                    having spoken             to our forefathers
One main clause and a dependent modifying clause
                                                    at many times
                in various ways

   God              has spoken       to us

So, syntactically, the apostle’s thrust is not to contrast the two clauses, but to modify the main clause. 
How does the participle “having spoken” modify the main clause?  Depending upon the context, a participle can have multiple meanings.  In this case, however, the participle is most likely intended to be either concessive or temporal:

Concessive:   “Although God spoke to the forefathers at many times and in various ways, in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.
Temporal:  “After God spoke to the forefathers at many times and in various ways, in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son (cf. NASB).

Both options seem possible.  One is hard pressed to make a decision one way or the other.

A Son
            The translations nearly always insert “his” to modify “Son.”  Thus, NIV reads, “…but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son… (cf. NLT, CEV, NKJV; HCSB[4], NASB, NKJV give indication that “his” is supplied for clarity).  “Son” here is anarthrous, that is to say, it lacks the definite article “the” in the Greek.   Not surprisingly, the RSV and NRSV best reflect the exact wording of the Greek:  “…he has spoken to us by a Son.”[5]
            The apostle does not mean to suggest here that Jesus is just one of many sons.  Rather, his intention is that the one speaking to us does so as a Son.  His proclamation is significant because he holds a Son-ship status.
            Because so many translations insert “his” into the text, English-only preachers are liable to miss the apostle’s emphasis.  “His” makes the emphasis fall upon Jesus’ relationship to God.  Certainly, this is emphasized in many places and is theologically correct.  However, in this passage the emphasis is not on Jesus’ relationship to God, but rather his status as a son:  Not by prophets does God speak in these last days, but by a Son.  Not by angels does God speak in these last days, but by a Son.


The translations analyzed in this essay achieve a relatively high degree of accuracy and linguistic aesthetics.  None of them is badly mistaken in this passage, and they all offer a legitimate translation.  I have included the complete text of this passage from the translations analyzed in this essay, listing them from the most formalistic to the most dynamic as reflected in their translations of Heb 1:1-3.[6]

RSV  In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.  He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power.  When he made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high….

NRSV  Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.  He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.  When he made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high….

NASB  God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.  And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power.  When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high….

HCSB  Long ago God spoke to the fathers by the prophets at different times and in different ways.  In these last days, He has spoken to us by [His], whom he appointed heir of all things and through whom he made the universe.  He is the radiance of His glory, the exact expression of His nature, and He sustains all things by His powerful word.  After making purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. 

NKJV  God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself[7] purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.

ESV  Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.  He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.  After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high….

NIV  1 In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.

NLT  Long ago, God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets.  Abut now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son.  God promised everything to the Son as an inheritance, and through the Son he made the universe and everything in it.  The Son reflects God’s own glory, and everything about him represents God exactly.  He sustains the universe by the mighty power of his command.  After he died to cleanse us from the stain of sin, he sat down in the place of honor at the right hand of the majestic God of heaven.

[1] I have perused the following translations in analyzing the prologue to Hebrews:  ESV, HCSB (Holman Christian Standard Bible), NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, and RSV.  The entire text of Heb 1:1-3 for each of these translations is found in the conclusion of this essay.  Peterson’s The Message is excluded since it is surprisingly mundane in this passage and elsewhere fails to qualify as a legitimate translation.   NKJV was included because it usually follows the Textus Receptus and alerts the reader of textual issues; KJV was excluded because of the inclusion of the NKJV.

[2] This is probably what has happened in the copying process of those few mss which add hemon to the text.
[3] This is one of many such inconsistencies made by ESV, despite its publishers animus against other translations which sacrifice “transparency” for readability.
[4] An annoyance of the NKJV, NASB, and HCSB is that all pronominal references to God and Jesus (his, he, him) are all capitalized.  While this is consonant with widespread devotional literature, it is contrary to standard English, historical translational practice (KJV and most standard translations do not capitalize them), and to well established style rules in scholarly journals as articulated by the Society of Biblical Literature.
[5] Once again, the ESV is guilty of false advertising in that its translation is not very transparent.
[6] Based on the entire Bible, the translations would normally follow this order, from formalistic to dynamic, with those not analyzed herein listed in parenthesis:  (ASV, KJV), NKJV, RSV, NASB, ESV, NRSV, HCSB, NIV, NLT, (TEV=GNB, NEB, REB, JB, NJB, NCV, CEV, Peterson).  While assigning relative degree of formalism/dynamism of the translations based upon a single passage is difficult, I have given special consideration to 1) the word order of the opening line; 2) the interpretational addition of the pronoun “his” to modify “Son in verse 2; 3) the interpretational addition of the pronoun “our” to modify “the fathers;” and 4) the phrase to hremati tes dunameos autou (“by the word of his power” or “by his powerful word”).  Thus, we may depict our translations of this passage from most formalistic to most dynamic (recalling that only one of the dynamic translations was analyzed): 
RSV        NRSV     NASB     HCSB    NKJV     ESV        NIV        NLT.
[7] “By himself” represents the sole translatable textual issue of the passage.  The other translations do not include “by Himself.”  The decision is somewhat difficult, with intrinsic probabilities weighing slightly in favor of the shorter reading against the NKJV, since it is thought that “by himself” is likely to have been added to clarify and strengthen the force of the middle voice of the verb “to make” than to be accidentally omitted.  The documentary evidence is difficult to evaluate.  The longer reading is only apparently supported by the sixth century ms D (Claromantanus), convoluted as it is with an expansionistic text.  P46 (c. 200) supports the longer reading of the NKJV, as do a few important non-Byzantine miniscules such as 1739 and 1881, and the Syriac and Coptic versions.  Most textual critics are impressed by the support for the shorter reading by Sinaiaticus, B, and the Western tradition.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Marcan Framework Commentary

Marcan Framework Commentary
James M. Leonard, PhD
May 2014

First, open the link Marcan Framework which puts the framework in a stair-stepped diagram (not yet available).

  1. Mark’s narrative sequence is followed for the most part by Matthew and Luke.
  2. John’s sequence of events is significantly different, excepting of course, the final week of Jesus’ life, leading up to the crucifixion and resurrection. In particular, John depicts Jesus as making several visits to Jerusalem and its larger region of Judea, while the Synoptic Gospels depict a ministry centered in the region of Galilee (to the north of Judea), and but one visit to Jerusalem. The action in the Temple (Temple Cleansing/Temple Demonstration, etc.) is placed near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in John, rather than in his final week as the Synoptic Gospels indicate.
  3. Mark’s Gospel lacks a birth narrative. Matthew and Luke have their own distinctive birth narratives. John opens with the grand depiction of Jesus’ origins going back to the eternal past.
    Rembrandt's Adoration of the Shepherds (Luke)
  4. Mark depicts events seemingly compressed into a single year, while John indicates that Jesus’ ministry took place over a period of three or so years.
  5. The Marcan Framework works toward a climax (at the top of the stairs), where Jesus’ disciples explicitly declare Jesus to be the Messiah. From there, the stairs work downward at a fast pace, with the last five steps (events) happening in Passion Week (i.e., the final week of Jesus’ life).

Marcan Framework Commentary (each point corresponds to each step in the framework indicated in the large diagram in the pdf article “Marcan Framework of Historical Narrative)

  1. Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. In the Marcan Framework, this is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. It seems that prior to this, Jesus may have been a disciple of John the Baptist. The Marcan Framework indicates that the baptism was a major moment of revelation for Jesus. It is as this point that Jesus perceives that he is uniquely the Son of God, and specially commissioned to be a suffering Messiah, as indicated in the scriptural allusions as they are spoken by the voice in heaven.
  2. The Temptation. The Temptation centers on Jesus’ newfound self-understanding and commission as the Son of God. Thus, in Matthew’s and Luke’s account, the Tempter repeatedly begins each temptation sequence with “If you are the Son of God....”
  3. Proclamation of the Kingdom of God. The message of Jesus is summed up (repeatedly) as, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repeat and believe the good news.” Thus, Jesus announces the presence of God’s eschatological kingdom in his ministry, and invites people to repent and believe the good news. This profoundly complex message assumes the Old Testament expectation that God would dramatically intervene in human history at the end of the age. Accordingly, Jesus heals people and drives out demons in support of his claim that the eschatological kingdom was present in his ministry, and performs nature miracles to reveal his identity as the divine (messianic) agent with authority to bring about the kingdom. (Note that, contrary to popular narrative, Jesus is not to be reduced to some nice guy going around teaching forgiveness and love and peace—you don’t get crucified for that sort of message.)
  4. Calling of the Twelve Disciples. The list of disciples varies from one gospel to another. But whether the differences in names reflect different people or merely different personal identifiers, the point is that Jesus picked twelve, and exactly twelve. Indeed, even after the traitor Judas’ death and prior to his replacement, the group was still known as The Twelve, as if a technical term. The action of choosing twelve disciples seems to indicate that Jesus was intentionally reconstituting the People of God, making his disciples the theological equivalent to the Twelve Tribes of Israel. This too was a part of his eschatological program, for Jesus tells his disciples that on the last day, they would sit on twelve thrones and judge the nations of the earth.
  5. Healing and exorcisms. These are indicators of the presence of God’s kingdom in Jesus’ life and ministry.
  6. Controversy with Jewish Leaders. Jesus ran into serious troubles with Jewish leaders over issues such as purity laws—questions about what one could eat, or with whom someone might fellowship, and such as Sabbath regulations. The holiness of Jesus was so great that instead of unclean things defiling him, he made defiled things holy. Likewise, in Jesus own person was something greater than Temple or Israelite King, for Jesus is lord of the Sabbath. The controversies arise early on and anticipate a bad ending.
  7. Execution of John the Baptist.
    Bring to me on a platter the head of John the Baptist
    The Synoptics use John the Baptist’s death to foreshadow Jesus’ coming execution. This seems to be a decisive moment for Jesus, assuring him of his mission to give his life as a martyr.
  8. Confession of Jesus as Messiah. This is climactic in the narrative. When Jesus asked his disciples about their perception of his identity, they professed that he was the Messiah, for which Jesus commended them. From then on, Jesus began to teach explicitly on his forthcoming death, forging the paradox of a crucified Messiah.
    Mt. Hermon, possible location of Transfiguration
  9. The Transfiguration. Jesus took his three closest disciples up a mountain where he was physically transformed so as to reveal his divine glory, with the divine voice thundering out Jesus’ identity as God’s Son. This marks the beginning of Jesus’ road to Jerusalem to face a certain death.
  10. Jesus Ministry on His Way to Jerusalem. Jesus continued to teach, heal, exorcise demons, and work his way to Jerusalem.
  11. Triumphal Entry and  Action in the Temple. As Jesus approached Jerusalem, he is received with great fanfare, as if a great king. He enters, however, on a donkey, not a war horse, to symbolize the coming of a humble king, in keeping with his paradox of a suffering Messiah. He then proceeds to the Temple and attacks the institution by overturning tables and preventing regular worship. This was a monumental moment in Jesus’ life, but its interpretation varies significantly.
  12. Controversy in Temple with Jewish Leaders. Jesus overcomes his detractors and poses questions which they cannot answer, and embarrasses them accordingly.
  13. The Last Supper. Jesus partakes in the ceremonial Passover meal with his disciples, and appropriates the meal for his Suffering Messiah program, making his own body and blood to serve as the sacrificial Passover lamb and wine.
  14. Agony in the Garden. Jesus and his disciples go from the Passover meal to the Mount of Olives where Jesus prays intently about his Father’s will and his impending death.
  15. Trial and Crucifixion. Jesus appears before a Jewish assembly that determines his guilt, precipitating his appearance before Pilate and the Roman court. Pilate is depicted as reluctant to sentence Jesus to death, but is pressured to do so. Jesus is crucified as a pretender to the Jewish throne, between two robbers.
    Rembrandt's Crucifixion
  16. Resurrection. Jesus resurrects from the dead. 

Sunday, 25 May 2014

A Very Brief Introduction to the Synoptic Problem

A Very Brief Introduction
 to the Synoptic Problem
James M. Leonard, PhD

The similarities and differences between the New Testament Gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke indicate some sort of interrelationship or interdependency. At times, the wording of a story or a saying of Jesus is word for word, and sometimes the sequence of events is all the same between two or three of these gospels. On the other hand, subtle or major differences occur, sometimes unpredictably, but sometimes such changes seem to fit a pattern, or are consistent with a theological urgency, or fit an author’s stylistic tendencies. John’s Gospel does not share this interrelationship, but the interdependency of the other three gospels are sure and beg an explanation.

Pre-critical explanations assumed Matthew was written first, and that Mark and Luke copied and edited his material accordingly. This explanation has fallen out of favor, with most scholars concluding that, whatever else, Mark was written first, that Matthew used Mark, and that Luke used Mark or Mark and Matthew.

With great enthusiasm, many scholars in the last century or so have argued that Matthew and Luke used not only Mark’s Gospel, but also a lost document known as Q (usually explained as short for the German word Quelle, which means source). Q is and must remain for the time being a hypothetical document. We do not know of its existence from ancient references or from actual manuscript evidence. Despite this, Q advocates try very hard to conjure up its existence. Books on Q with over the top titles abound, titles such as Excavating Q and Q—the Earliest Gospel. Q scholars claim to have reconstructed its text, based upon a comparison of Matthew and Luke, and their stylistic and theological tendencies.

Enthusiasm for Q has waned in the last ten years, largely in response to arguments by Duke University scholar Mark Goodacre who argues that we can live in a world without Q. This last year, British scholar Francis Watson’s monumental work on the gospels dispenses with Q. The long-term future of Q may be in doubt.

Our knowledge of ancient persons is usually very sketchy, and dependent on very limited sources. In the case of Jesus, however, scholars are privileged to have multiple primary sources. Mark’s Gospel is the oldest, written within the living memory of the eyewitnesses to Jesus. Although Matthew incorporates much of Mark, Matthew has his own independent material which makes it a second primary source, likewise written within the living memory of the eyewitnesses to Jesus. Same also for Luke, which gives us a third primary source. If Matthew and Luke did indeed use Q (in whatever incarnation), our count of primary sources increases to four. Add to this the Gospel of John which was likely written toward the end of the first century, and the number of primary sources totals at five, if one includes Q. Such multiple attestation by contemporaries of Jesus is probably unprecedented for any ancient personality, and has implications for reconstructing the historical Jesus.

Synoptic interrelationships also allow for a comparison of the theological emphases of the specific gospel writer. An intensive analysis of an author’s style and theological tendencies may help ascertain why Matthew or Luke modified Mark’s account, or to accentuate interpretive differences between Matthew and Luke as they redacted their source. For example, both Matthew and Luke include the famous story of the 100 sheep, one of which was lost, prompting the shepherd to leave the 99 and to go search for the lost one. Luke puts this story into a context of God’s gracious forgiveness of notorious sinners (“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ Then Jesus told them this parable...” [Luke 15:1-3]). In contrast, Matthew applies this story to the faithful community which seeks the restoration of one of its own members who had gone astray (“‘See that you do not despise one of these little ones [i.e., one of Jesus’ disciples]. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.’” Matt 18:10-14).

Given the historical benefits and theological insights of having four or five independent primary sources for the life of Jesus, we might rename this issue as the Synoptic Opportunity.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Background for Temple Veil

Background for Temple Veil
James M. Leonard, PhD (Cambridge)
23 May 2014

The Jerusalem Temple of Jesus’ day was a huge and marvelous wonder, built on a mountain height known as Mount Zion. Its theological significance was in its representation of Israel’s God dwelling with his people. As such, it was fashioned as a house, with household furniture such as a table for meals, a lamp, and a chair. It had its origins in the desert wanderings of Israel, after the Exodus. Under Moses, God led Israel out of Egypt in a cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night, both of which were visible manifestations of God’s presence. After establishing Israel as his people at Mount Sinai by covenant, and after the giving of the Law, God gave instructions on building a tabernacle—a grand tent, that would be placed in the middle grounds of Israel’s encampments, so that the theological urgency that God dwells in the midst of Israel would be fulfilled. As the tabernacle was dedicated, God’s manifestation in fire and cloud came down from the sky and filled the tabernacle with smoke (i.e., the Shekinah glory).

Despite the emphasis on proximity, imminence, and intimacy of God, the tabernacle was designed to convey God’s other-ness, his transcendence, and his utter holiness. The throne room where God was symbolically seated was set off from the people. Indeed, the tabernacle had its own fabric walls clearly marking off the border of God’s house from the rest of the camp. Entry was strictly regulated and required sacrifices, characteristically animal offerings. At times, sacrifices were offered as a means to atone for the worshiper’s sins, reinforcing the portrait of a holy God who does not countenance sin in his presence.

The holiness of God is further emphasized by additional barriers between the holy throne room and worshipers. Worshipers were generally not admitted into the inner shrine of the tabernacle. The inner shrine was called the Holy Place. 
The Holy Place itself was further divided by a heavy curtain veil. This curtain marked off the Holiest Place (KJV: the Holy of Holies), the innermost room of the Tabernacle where God’s throne seat was kept, and where God’s presence was most manifest. While select few could enter the Holy Place under certain circumstances, only the High Priest could enter the Holiest Place, and could only do so once a year, and not without a blood sacrifice for the sins of the people. Bad things happened to people violating this high regard for the holiness of God’s house, a background exploited in the film Raiders of the Lost Ark—the lost ark had reference to the Ark of the Covenant which comprised God’s throne chair in the Holiest Place.

After the Egyptian bondage and wilderness wanderings, Israel conquered and settled in Canaan. The era of the portable tabernacle came to an end, and the Jerusalem temple was built. At its dedication, God filled the temple with his glory cloud, as he had done previously in regard to the tabernacle. The similarity of the two events indicated that the Temple was now the new abode of God, as God dwelt in the midst of his people. For the most part, the design of the tabernacle’s construction served as a model for the temple, and most rules were carried over into the new era. 

God’s presence with his people was contingent upon Israel’s faithfulness. Failure to be faithful would result in divine judgment, the culmination of which would be the departure of God’s presence from the Temple. The temple’s holiness was not innate, but rather was wholly dependent upon God’s presence. It was God’s presence that made the temple holy (holy Temple); it was God’s presence in Jerusalem that made Jerusalem the Holy city; it was God’s presence in Canaan that made Canaan the Holy Land; and it was God’s presence that made the Israelites holy (holy people = the saints). Without God’s presence, the temple, the city, the land, and the people would be common, defiled, and their destruction inevitable.

Indeed, after generations of prophetic warnings, God’s patience came to an end, and judgment ensued. The sixth century BCE prophet Ezekiel depicts the glory cloud of God’s presence very methodically arising from the throne chair, exiting out the Holiest Place and then out of the Holy Place, breaching the both the inner and outer curtains of the inner shrine. After exiting the inner sanctuary, it proceeded to the courtyard, where God’s glory observed the profanity therein, and then departed the temple courts, and then forsook the city itself. It ascended up the Mount of Olives opposite the Temple Mount, and then finally disappeared. The departure of the temple made way for its conquest and destruction by the invading Babylonians.

Decades later, the temple was rebuilt, and centuries later, was damaged again in a conquest of the city. The city’s new king, Herod the Great, expanded its foundations and rebuilt it with unrestrained splendor. Although substantially complete during Jesus’ ministry, improvements and embellishments continued up until a few years prior to its utter and final destruction in the revolt against Rome in 70 C.E.

Jesus’ view of the temple was not at all evident in his early ministry. A better understanding of his perspective, however, arises in his final days, after the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem at which time he threw a fit in the temple precincts, overturning tables and preventing legitimate temple activities.
While much is debated as to the precise meaning of this action (should it be called the Temple Cleansing, or perhaps The Temple Demonstration, etc.), it could be a prophetic action intended to convey the future destruction of the temple, or at least the end of the era of Israel’s temple worship.

In subsequent days (following the order of events in Matthew’s Gospel), Jesus unleashed a vicious attack against the Jewish religious leaders, blaming them for all the blood that was ever shed, from that of Abel, son of Adam and Eve, to the murder of a Zechariah son of Berekiah who was slain at the steps of the temple. The tirade culminated in his pronouncement in Matt 23:38 of the temple’s forthcoming forsakenness, at which time Jesus departed from the temple, a departure that is arguably understood as a prophetic correspondence to the departure of God’s presence from the temple in Ezekiel, especially as Jesus ascended the Mount of Olives, and predicted the coming destruction of the temple.

During the crucifixion, the Synoptic Gospels indicate that the curtain of the inner sanctuary was ripped in twain. An interpretation of the meaning of the ripping of the veil was not explicated in either of the three gospels, but there are clues that might suggest the authors’ intended meaning, meanings which might be substantially different from the meaning explicated in Hebrews.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Jesus and Moses in Matthew 1-4

Many have noticed Matthew’s sensitive contrast between Moses and Jesus.  This is fairly obvious when we get to the Sermon on the Mount where, just like Moses, he delivers something of a new law to the people.  If you read any standard introduction to the biblical theology themes of Matthew, you will find many such examples of how Jesus is the New Moses.

Jesus on Mount 
I’d like to share with all of you a little more of how Matthew portrays Jesus as not just the new Moses, but the one who is greater than Moses.  I will focus my attention on the birth narrative in chapters one and two.  Much of this information depends upon common first century beliefs about Moses, and illustrates how a better appreciation of the primary sources can help us understand the biblical text better.

The Direct Quotation
Let’s begin with the quotation of Exod 4:19 in Matt 2:20.  In Exodus, God tells Moses to return to Egypt, while in Matthew, the angel tells Joseph to return to Israel.  Here’s how the two texts read in the NIV:

Exod 4:19       ...for all the men who wanted to kill you are dead.
Matt 2:20        ...for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.

The Greek texts of Exod 4:19 (Septuagint) and Matt 2:20 are actually as close as they can possibly be, except for the difference of the use of the second person (“you”) in Exodus, while Matthew refers in its place “the child,” an unavoidable difference.

So, we have here two very similar stories of the main character returning to his homeland for the same reason, with Matthew giving an almost direct quotation of the earlier text.  This should give us the interpretive clue that Matthew is comparing Jesus to Moses.

Listing the Other Parallels
However, there are many more clues.  Let’s list them.  (I culled the raw data from the New International Critical Commentary on Matthew, pp. 192-193, for full citation of the primary sources.)

Josephus, a 1st cent. Jewish historian
1.         According to Josephus (whose dates are approximate to Paul’s), the Jews believed that Amram (Moses’ father) was troubled at the news of the coming birth of Moses.  Also, Josephus says that God appeared to Amram in a dream and told him not to despair.  In telling the story, Josephus lauds Amram for his piety and noble character.  Matthew says the same things about Joseph:  Joseph was a righteous and noble man, he was troubled at the news of the pregnancy, and he was told not to be afraid.  (See also Pseudo-Philo, probably first century.)

2.         According to Pseudo-Philo, the Jews believed that an angel appeared to make an announcement of the coming birth of one by whom “I will save my people.”  In the same way, an angel also appeared to Joseph to foretell the birth of the one who would “save my people from their sins.”

3.         Pharaoh ordered the death of all the Hebrew boys.  Likewise, King Herod gave similar orders regarding the boys of Bethlehem.

4.         Josephus says that the Jews believed that Pharaoh ordered the drowning of the Hebrew boys because he learned of the birth of a future liberator of Israel (see also the Aramaic Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Exod 1:15).  Likewise, Herod’s motivation for the slaughter of the innocents was the same.

5.         Josephus says that the Jews believed that Pharaoh learned of this future liberator from sacred scribes (see also the aforementioned Targum).  Likewise, Herod learned of the coming Messiah through the chief priests and scribes.

6.         Just as Moses was forced to leave his home by people who wanted to kill him, Jesus also was forced to leave his home because people wanted to kill him.

7.         Just as Moses took his wife and sons and went back to Egypt (Exod 4:20), Joseph took his son and his wife and went back to Israel.

8.         Finally, the issue in Matthew 2 is, Who is the real king of the Jews?  Obviously, Jesus is, not Herod.  But interestingly, according to Josephus, Philo, and a number of other Rabbinic traditions, the Jews believed that Moses also was a king.

Concluding Comments
Let me just hasten to say that much of the Jewish beliefs about Moses are legendary and found outside of the Old or New Testaments.  However, the primary sources do tell us what first century Jews typically believed about Moses.  When reading Matthew’s Gospel, they would not have overlooked these parallels, even if we moderns don’t get a picture as fully developed as they did.

Now, this is just raw data.  Interpretation of the raw data requires a bit more work.  Minimally, we see that Jesus is being compared with Moses.  Later in Matthew, we see that Jesus’ word is superior to that of Moses.  The theme can be developed much more fully.

The birth narrative in Matthew’s Gospel clearly sets out to compare Moses to Jesus.  It doesn’t quite tell us who is greater, but it gives us a heads up so that we can look for other clues later in the story.

After the Passover, the Israelites departed Egypt and crossed through the Red Sea.  Many have also compared Christian baptism to the same event.  If this comparison is valid we see that Jesus’ baptism might correspond to the Israelite crossing of the Red Sea.  But Jesus’ venture through the waters was followed by the divine pronouncement of his sonship, revealing that he is more so God’s Son than Israel ever was; recall the Matthean quote, “Out of Egypt I have called my Son.”

After the crossing of the Red Sea, the Children of Israel were tested in the wilderness.  Likewise, after Jesus’ water experience, he too went into the desert to be tested.  The Israelites failed in this time of testing, but Jesus Messiah endured the testing successfully.

After crossing the Red Sea, Moses went up to a mountain, received the Covenant and issued it to the people.  In Matthew, after his Jordan experience, Jesus also goes to a mountain and lays out the Covenant to the people (i.e., The Sermon on the Mount).  In doing so, Jesus exerts his superiority to Moses not only by announcing that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, but also by saying, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago....  But I tell you.....”  Clearly the Messiah is a prophet greater than Moses.

My comparison of Jesus to Moses is limited to the first few chapters of Matthew.  However, more could be spelled out.