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What’s Old about the Old Testament?

What’s Old about the Old Testament?

Many years ago, more years than I will admit to, I went into a Jewish book and supply store and requested a copy of the “Hebrew Old Testament.” I recall vividly the look on the store clerk’s face, and I apologized, but it’s not an error that you can recover from easily. To a Jew, of course, it’s the Bible, not the first part of it that must be finished with another text in another language.

Many Christians are unaware, or only vaguely aware of how their faith relates to the Hebrew scriptures, and thus it is very easy to be offensive in one’s language without intending to. Unfortunately, there are those who will be intentionally offensive.

Over the years I changed my terminology. I didn’t actually abandon the term “old testament,” but I took up a somewhat complicated usage, one I have to explain regularly. That doesn’t bother me, as I believe that in explaining it, I invite my Christian audiences to think about things they may not have considered before.

My Terminology

That’s what I’m going to do here. First, the terms.

  • Old Testament – I use this when, and only when, I’m referring to these books as part of Christian scripture. For reasons I will expand on below, I believe that a sacred text differs according to the way it is used, and only fully functions as part of a faith community.
  • Jewish Bible – I use this term less frequently, and largely when I’m going to quote actual Jewish scholars expressing their views. I have found that studying the Jewish Bible using commentaries and other tools produced by Jewish scholars of various branches of Judaism is powerful and very helpful to me, but I prefer not to have people think I am expressing the Jewish point of view in other than a limited sense.
  • Hebrew Scriptures – Though I didn’t know it, this was what I set out to study when I chose to major in biblical languages. By Hebrew scriptures I refer to these same books as Ancient Near Eastern literature and look to read them as such literature, looking for their historical setting and meaning. Some assume that one can simply read ancient texts and move directly to their applicability to a modern setting, but that is precisely what requires a community of faith and a hermeneutic process. A hermeneutic process cannot be validated, in my view, apart from a community of faith. I use this term when I do not intend application to the present but rather to discuss how the text was used and understood at a time in history.

Some would suggest either that Jewish or Christian interpreters have the right process of interpretation and application, while the other fails. Now it’s likely that various of us are wrong about some things and right about things, and I believe in objective truth, but it is difficult to call things right or wrong without also considering the community of faith that’s involved. We would have to talk about whether a whole community was right or wrong, and that’s even more difficult!

Some Christians may be wondering at this point whether I believe in evangelism and disciple making. I do. I just don’t believe that those things are about intellectual persuasion. Rather, conversion is an act of God, not an act of persuasion. Saul on the road to Damascus did not encounter an intellectual argument. He had a powerful encounter with the one he would call Lord and Savior. Other experiences may take more time and be more subtle, but I think no less an act of God.

A key note here: Christian witness must come from Christian community. This is a major problem for the church today. In fact, the community of faith is central to interpretation, application, and therefore to witness.

Reading as Ancient Near Eastern Literature

When I started my studies in biblical languages and literature, it was my expectation that I would learn the history, determine the historical context of any verse or story, and the intended lesson, which would allow me to correctly and objectively apply that lesson to my time and situation. The reality? Not so much!

As an example, I often use two texts from Leviticus in teaching about hermeneutics to lay audiences. The are:

  • “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination.” (Leviticus 18:22)
  • “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you, you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34, NRSV)

The results are often interesting with current American audiences. I’ve been using these two verses for years and I have seen no real change, other than differences based on the demographics of the audience I use it on. There will be people who are willing to accept both, but there are only a few of those. There are many who want Leviticus 18:22 to be applicable but not Leviticus 19:33-34, and those who want 19:33-34 to be applicable but not 18:22. Those who have thought through that application and provided a hermeneutic that can be consistently applied to texts are few and far between.

Doubtless among my readers there are those who have thought these verses through and can explain their use of one, both, or neither in determining modern theology. If you have done so, you are engaging in hermeneutics, and you most certainly have been influenced by your faith community.

For example, many Christians will claim that Jesus or other New Testament authors have reaffirmed one text or the other. Others may feel that one fits with Christian values better. Others may try to discuss cultural applicability.

Yet others will say, “The Bible says it, and I believe it.” That, of course, is problematic in Leviticus, especially for Christians. We don’t do most of what Leviticus tells us to do. If you doubt me on that, read Leviticus 11 & 13. There are many more examples, but that one will do. In this case, though different filters are used, Jews don’t expect gentiles to keep all of those rules. They have a very limited set that come from outside this portion of the Torah that would apply to us. Christians have a different filter. The key here is that we both have a filter.

Thus my goal was not realistic. The process of study was, however, quite useful. There is a value in historical study. It just doesn’t convert without difficulty into application.

Reading as the Jewish Bible

So working in reverse, I look at the term Jewish Bible.

The key element here is Judaism as a community of faith. I don’t mean that we try to tell just what is correct Judaism. I have found great value in works from quite different branches of Judaism. I continue now, many years after I did the study, to consider studying Leviticus with Jacob Milgrom’s commentary in the Anchor Bible Series as the most profound spiritual experience of my life. But I have benefited from discussions with Reform and Orthodox scholars and from reading their books. Nahum Sarna’s works, and particularly the JPS Torah commentary series which he edited is another extremely valuable source. (You can find many of these titles and others in the Energion retail store page on Torah.)

We need to read the Hebrew Bible as a Jewish book because …

  • It is a book given to Israel and preserved by them. Paul makes the Christian affirmation of this in Romans 3:1-2 and elsewhere.
  • We might learn to understand the text better. Because the books of Hebrew scripture have been borrowed and reused we have the benefit of seeing it from different perspectives. This is an advantage no matter what one is trying to do. One of the great features of Jacob Milgrom’s Anchor Bible commentary on Leviticus is that he looks at the history of interpretation including Christian and secular looks at the text.
  • If we are to affirm the Jews as God’s chosen people, then at a minimum we should have some idea who they are and what they believe.
  • It’s a great joy to do it!

Reading as Christian Scripture

There are a couple of fundamental points we need to keep in mind in studying the Hebrew Bible as the Old Testament of Christian scripture. First, we need the other views. It is impossible to understand where people were in the first century as Christianity came into being without looking at how those people would have seen it. Second, because our scripture is so seriously rooted in Hebrew scripture—even the term “New Testament” comes from the Old—we need to understand these roots.

Regarding the first point, I am often annoyed by Christians who make remarks such as, “Jesus is so clearly taught in the Old Testament! How can the Jews not see this?” And yes, the Apostle Paul can get on my nerves. He should remember that he had to be pretty much struck by lightning to change his mind. He shows the zeal of a convert on this point. But those of us who have not been struck by lightning should be aware of the interpretive problems, and also of what Jewish interpretations are. Besides the Jewish commentaries I use, I keep a copy of the Jewish Study Bible from Oxford University Press at hand for quick reference.

Those who use Paul’s writings in an antisemitic sense should both be aware of his own attitude at the time and also of the difference between our time and his. That is also hermeneutics. “Paul did it, so I can,” is not a safe statement in a world that has changed. Paul spoke to a group that had not truly separated from Judaism at the time. We speak to a world in which persecution of the Jews has been rampant and vicious. What might he say regarding his “brothers and sisters, his fellow countrymen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3)? Or how might Jesus address descendants of the Pharisees in the light of what his self-proclaimed followers have done in the meantime?

At the same time, I read the whole Christian Bible, including both testaments as Christian scripture and as the core of my faith. As one of my Energion authors, Edward Vick noted, (see Creation: The Christian Doctrine), the key to something being a Christian doctrine is that it centers in Christ. He makes that statement even clearer in his book Seventh-day Adventists and the Bible when he said:

God’s decisive revelation is in the events the Bible records and in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. All Christian revelation has Jesus Christ as its point of reference, since God’s revelation in Jesus Christ is the event from which Christians interpret all history and all experience. The problem for the Seventh-day Adventist church is to make Jesus Christ central and primary in this way in its doctrine. The problem for the theologian and for the framers of church doctrine is to interpret the Bible, life, practice, doctrine, so that the centrality and primacy of Jesus Christ comes decisively and clearly to view…. (p. 5)

He is addressing his own denomination, but the point applies to any Christian group, I believe.

Thus I read the Bible unabashedly Christocentrically as a Christian. My doctrine forms around the person, mission, and teachings of Jesus. At the same time, I have no need to deride other approaches, nor should I be unable to discuss those other elements from a compatible point of view. Someone who does not accept Christ, as I do, is unlikely to be interested in the “centrality and primacy of Jesus Christ.” Yet we can discuss the text.

Failure to recognize differences in our approach to hermeneutics is at the root of many of our most fierce and least constructive discussions.

A Note about Certainty

At this point, I need to make a note regarding thinking people are wrong. Any time one thinks one is right, one necessarily thinks those who disagree are wrong. We get into problems because we then look down on those who disagree with us, holding positions contrary to our obvious truth. I think this sort of behavior is both unnecessary and does not indicate confidence, but uncertainty.

In all areas of life, I think there are two goals: 1) We must seek truth in some sense, and 2) We must be able to maintain community (faith, local, national, and world) while still disagreeing. I think it is unfortunate when we feel we have to smooth over our differences in order to get along. We should instead celebrate our differences and dialogue about them so that we can improve.

I consider efforts to force change to be counterproductive. The best way of constructively changing anyone’s view on anything is respectful dialogue. Being respectful doesn’t mean abandoning your principles. It means listening attentively and courteously and clearly explaining your viewpoint. Contrary to popular option, it is not the noisiest who are firmest in their convictions. Only one who is confident in what he or she believes, including sufficient confidence to recognize and admit the unknown, can get the most out of dialogue.

So How Old Is It?

The problem with the word “old” is that we tend to see it in negative terms such as out of date, obsolete, and requiring replacement. That is whenever we’re not fantasizing about a golden age that never actually existed. In the case of the Old Testament, Christian theology works against making it a golden age. Why would we have a new testament if the old one was a golden age?

I’ve discussed this extensively with reference to the book of Hebrews, which has the statement, rather unfortunate when taken out of context (as it usually is), that “what is becoming old is soon to disappear” (8:13) is sometimes used to suggest that the Old Testament is no longer applicable and in some cases hardly worth studying. If it’s obsolete, why red it?

I’m not going to go into a study of Hebrews, but let me simply say that if the author of Hebrews thinks the Old Testament (as a collections of books) is obsolete, he has cut the limb off behind him, as he bases all his arguments on texts from that same Old Testament. He has other concerns.

And that is my first problem with the term “Old Testament.” The books of the Hebrew scriptures do not constitute a covenant or testament. They contain more than one such covenant. So if Hebrews, or any other passage of the New Testament refers to the passing of the “old covenant,” they aren’t referring to all the books of Hebrew scripture.

The division of the Christian Bible into Old and New Testaments tends to create some errors. I should note that it also presents an important division. What did we borrow from someone else and what did we add? That’s a good distinction. It might be more accurately presented in other ways.

It would help if Christians recognized the Jewish divisions, Torah, Prophets, and Writings. The covenant with Israel is stated in the Torah, and a great deal of the rest is dedicated to discussing how to keep that covenant, or proposing God’s new covenant (yes, I mean new). “New covenant” (or testament) is not a New Testament idea. Jeremiah 31:31-34. This proposed new covenant differs from the old one largely in the enabling grace given to people to keep it. The main problem with the old one, a problem that might be seen to make it obsolete, is the failure of Israel to keep it.

Which leads to another Christian problem. We often look at the experience of Israel with disdain. How could they be so unfaithful? Why didn’t they just keep the covenant God had given them? Why turn to other gods? We do all of this while we turn away from God and ignore what God has commanded ourselves. We would be well advised to heed Paul’s command in Romans 11:20, “put away your pride and be on your guard,” which he gives precisely in reference to this attitude of superiority.

My next problem is simply with the view of “old” that we often hold, as though God’s later acts are better than his former acts. People and circumstances change, but I believe that God’s aims stay pretty much the same. The covenant with Israel expresses accurately God’s desire for his chosen people, Israel. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it, but we should remember who it was addressed to. I would suggest that one of the key elements of that covenant was to establish an identity for Israel, an identity that was necessary to allow them to carry out their mission. I would suggest that goal was carried out with great success. More than 3000 years later we hear the echo of this in Tevye’s remark in Fiddler on the Roof, “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?” The Jews have a very strong identity.

While we may not be subject to the same regulations, we still need an identity as God’s people. There is a history here that we need to learn. The covenant is, in a sense, as old as the hills and as new as tomorrow, because God is still looking for ways to get his message out to the world.

So the Old Testament needs to be seen not as a single entity that has become obsolete or been replaced, but as the witness to God’s activity which has been continued in other ways. If we pay attention to this, we may be able to better understand some of the goals of the New Testament.

But even further, the New Testament itself doesn’t come in a single package. It is also a collection of books that looks at the witness of Jesus, the witness to Jesus, and the vision of the future of God’s world. Without understanding this background, we are unlikely to understand what New Testament writers were up to, because we don’t know where they are coming from.

Conclusion

Despite my wordiness, I have left much untouched.

How old is the Old Testament? As old as the hills and as new as tomorrow.

How old is the New Testament? As old as the hills and as new as tomorrow.

Both are rooted in and lead to eternity.

We ought not to discard either.

 

The Value of Theological Disagreement

The Value of Theological Disagreement

Earlier today I posted links to a video by Andy Stanley and a response by Michael Brown. Some people have commented on this issue indicating that it was unfair to “attack” Andy Stanley about his views.  (These were not on my blog post or its Facebook link; the controversy is widespread.) I have a few comments on this.

  1. There are those who claim that one has to listen to the entire series in order to get the context and respond. I would disagree. If you make a short video, be prepared to be challenged based on the content of that video (or audio file or blog post, for that matter). I think there is sufficient material in Stanley’s presentation to which one can respond.
  2. It’s interesting that one is expected not to respond to Stanley, yet Stanley is critiquing quite a number of other Christians. I do not criticize Stanley for doing this. If you’re going to assert that X is true and Y is not, you’re going to critique someone.
  3. As in #2, those who critique Stanley are in much the same position. If they are to assert that X is true and Y is not they will obviously be offering a critique of those who hold Y.
  4. Which leads to my main question: Why is it wrong to question theological statements, especially sweeping ones that are offered as a critique of other Christian positions?
  5. As for the “Marcionite” argument, we’re in a standard name-calling situation. For some reason, we think that by labeling someone we have responded, and, on the other hand, by defending ourselves from a label, we’re defending our position. Forget the label; ask whether the viewpoint is correct, or whether it can be improved upon.

I believe it is very important to discuss theology, and discussion involves the assertion that some things are less right than others. The idea that we can never point out what we believe is an error in the teaching of another is ludicrous. Now if we arrogate to ourselves the ability to judge someone’s salvation or their standing with God, that’s another matter. But to assert that some things are true is by nature to assert that others may be less accurate or perhaps untrue.

In this issue, I actually go farther than I perceive Michael Brown is going. I don’t believe there is a singular, straightforward distinction between the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian New Testament. I believe that there are many cases of God changing the way in which he relates, as God carries out God’s plan to save humanity. Thus the Christian Bible, consisting of the Old and New Testaments should be read as a single story. There are points of distinction, but they occur in a variety of ways and are usually envisioned ahead and then their interpretation grows afterwards.

I object to simply dismissing a portion of scripture. You have accomplished nothing of value, I believe, by unhitching the New Testament from the Old, first because they are connected by much more than a hitch. There is an earth-shattering change with the incarnation, the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus, but this takes place in the midst of a growing understanding of God and his actions in the Hebrew Scriptures, and we struggle to understand this completely millenia later.

As an example, many—I suspect the vast majority—of those who heard Jesus may have been surprised by his attitude toward the gentiles, and may have similarly been concerned by the church’s mission to the gentiles. Indeed, the gospels and Acts record that many were. But Isaiah (2nd/3rd Isaiah, 40-66) would not have been so shocked. One may point to differences, yet I think Jesus appears no more radical in his look at the law than Isaiah 56. So if the audience was shocked, they were missing some of the lead-up story. I think they may have been less shocked than modern people imagine. There were many viewpoints in Judaism at the time.

And if Isaiah 56 wasn’t radical enough, then perhaps Ruth or Jonah would take the place of radical scripture. Or, if we really wanted to get down to it, we might note Genesis 12:3, Genesis 17:5 (from Abram’s call and covenant).

There are certainly things that are hard to deal with in the Hebrew scriptures/Old Testament. There are also some of those in the New. My problem with a dismissive solution, broadly stated, is that the texts are still there. God has been working with people for a very long time and people have been interpreting God’s actions for a very long time.

So let’s disagree, critique, and grow. A bit of love and generosity would be good as we do so.

(Featured Image Credit: OpenClipart.org.)

Review: NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible – Hebrews

Review: NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible – Hebrews

Introduction

#contextchangeseverything – yes, it does. But how?

With the vast array of Bible study materials that are available in the English language comes a problem. How does one choose what materials are worth my time, shelf space (or HD space!), or money? If you search my blog for posts about study Bibles, you’ll find that I have a love-hate relationship with them, and it tends to be mostly hate. Nonetheless, I own—and use—a variety of study Bibles, and you’ll even see some positive reviews.

The reason for the hate side of the equation is that far too many people purchase a study Bible that’s recommended by someone they trust, or even written by someone they trust, not to mention randomly selected from a bookstore shelf and then accept what the notes say because they are written by biblical scholars after all. I recall being accosted by a church member some years ago who asked me about the notes on a particular text. I can’t even recall which text it was. Her problem was that she couldn’t figure out how the meaning presented in the note could be extracted from the text itself. I strongly recommend asking just such a question! I asked her if she’d considered the possibility that the note could be wrong. That was a revelation for her.

What I recommend is that a reader make sure to get study Bibles that are written from different perspectives and use them as an aid, not as a source of the answers. To some extent one should study the Bible text first, and then the notes, but sometimes one can read background material first. A study Bible that provides notes that tell you directly what the passage means can be quite convenient, but also quite misleading.

But one of the key problems for Bible students in the 21st century western world is the extent to which our culture is different from that of the world of the Bible. Very frequently what seems quite plain to us is not at all what the Bible writer is trying to say because we simply don’t share enough of those norms. I have come to believe that I have benefitted more by coming to understand human culture and language over the last 30 or so years than I have by learning the biblical languages. I do not mean to underestimate the value of learning Greek and Hebrew, but if my language learning had not been enhanced by the study of linguistics, history, sociology, and anthropology, it would have been of little value.

Pastors frequently proclaim that “the Greek word ____ means” or “the Hebrew word ____ means” and then build their exegesis on what is essentially simply another gloss. This makes people believe they have been enlightened by the ancient languages, when they have actually simply transferred their 21st century attitudes and presuppositions to a set of sounds they are told is Greek or Hebrew. Understanding a language means to some extent understanding a culture. Similarly understanding a text means understanding something about the person or persons who wrote it and the audience for which it was intended.

This is the key element that I believe a study Bible can provide. Certainly cross-references and historical connections are important, but letting the reader know how people in that time and place lived and thought is much more important.

NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible

Olive Tree with NIV Cultural Bible
NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible on my Android Tablet

(Note: I am basing my notes on the Olive Tree Bible software edition provided to me free of charge as I did not receive my print edition. I will not make comments on the layout or usability of the print edition.)

Thus I come to the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. They use the provocative (and obviously true) URL contextchangeseverything.com. I should note here that there are many types of context. There is a literary context, historical context, linguistic context, and (among others) cultural context. We usually think of context in a fairly narrow linguistic sense. A word study might be done by finding a variety of sentences that use a particular word. We know that when Jesus says, “Go and do likewise” we need to look at the context of what has been commanded. We can’t grab some other activity and make that the command of Jesus instead.

Study Bibles generally examine a range of these ideas as well as proposing interpretations for difficult passages, often without providing enough information so that the reader can follow the logic. The final reader is left with the simple logic that the skilled scholar who wrote the study notes concluded X, so X must be correct, an assumption that will be severely shaken in many cases if one compares other Bibles written by skilled scholars.

The Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible aims to help you understand the Bible writers, their audience, and their times. In the notes you will find direct connections between ancient culture(s) and the text itself. Rather than just being told that a certain phrase means a certain thing, you will be given the reason why one might come to that conclusion. This is no guarantee that every interpretation is correct; that would be expecting the impossible. (Which perfect one of us would make the determination in any case?) What it does mean is that for most explanations in the notes in this Bible you can follow the logic path. If you want to, you can do deeper research, and the notes are specific enough that you’ll be able to do your search, Bible dictionary reference, or deeper study in a commentary or at a good library.

Since I’m not reviewing the Bible overall, but rather looking in particular at one book, I won’t spend more time on an overview. Let me simply say that I’m delighted with the intent, and quite impressed with the implementation. There are obviously limitations. This is a study Bible, not a multi-volume commentary or an encyclopedia. It would be easy to complain about what’s not there. In my review of the book of Hebrews, I believe that the editorial choices made were quite good. I would doubtless have chosen differently in some cases, as would just about anyone, but that’s only to be expected.

On to Hebrews

To study Hebrews most effectively using this Bible, start first with the introduction to the Old Testament. Why? Because Hebrews displays an interesting interplay between the text of Hebrew Scripture, seen generally through the LXX translation, and then interpreted in a particularly New Testament light. The details of how these elements interact require some discussion, and that’s why you study and compare, but you need to understand the sources. The introduction discusses 12 issues in which we will see the world differently, and I think all of these issues will impact your reading of Hebrews.

While reading the text of Hebrews you can use the links (if you’re using Bible software) or follow the references to Old Testament passages. You cannot impose your own exegesis of passages of Hebrew Scripture on Hebrews, but it is important to know not just the text that is quoted, but also its literary context that might be brought to the audience’s mind by the reference, and also by ways in which that text might have been understood. It is not sufficient to treat the Old Testament quotations in Hebrews as words used in the context of Hebrews. Of course, the context of their use in Hebrews is the most definitive when we determine how the author of Hebrews intended them, but we need to do everything possible to get into his (or her) world in order to understand that context.

This is the value of a volume like this. I’m currently reading a commentary on Hebrews that is more than 600 pages. I have another on the shelf in front of me that is of similar length. It’s hard to back off and get an overview of the forest using those commentaries, though both are extremely valuable. What I enjoyed with the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, even as someone who has read the book of Hebrews many times, and studied the works of many commentators on it, was this broader view. Having dealt busily with the trees, putting each leaf under a microscope, it was nice to get so much material easily available. (This is a general advantage with study Bibles over detailed commentaries, at least the better ones, but the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible excels).

Content Comparison

study bible stackI’m going to compare the content of several study Bibles I have on my shelf. Where I give word counts, they are loose estimates based on line counts and my eyeball count of average words per line. The Bibles I’m using to compare are: The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV), The Orthodox Study Bible, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, The NLT Study Bible, and of course the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible.

First, let’s compare sheer quantity of text. First, the introduction. (I’ll add a note on approach.)

NOAB: About 450 words, no outline, though an outline can be extracted easily from the notes. The approach of the notes is often technical. Users complain that they don’t get enough theological help.

OSB: About 220 words, short outline provided, stronger suggestion of possible Pauline authorship than others. Theology is consistent with that of the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

NISB: A bit more than 1000 words and a mid-length outline. The NISB is kind of the pastor’s answer to the NOAB for mainline teachers/preachers. It provides more theological reflection, a fact I receive with definitely mixed emotions, though the material is generally helpful in its place. Theology is mainline with a bit of a liberal lean.

NLT Study Bible: About 1500 words and a brief outline. Theology is strongly evangelical

NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: About 800 words, no outline, features “Quick Glance” section. Theology is evangelical.

Now let’s consider a specific passage, in this case Hebrews 4:12-13, and look at the quantity of notes, along with a count of insets or excurses in the whole text of Hebrews:

NOAB: 21 words. No excurses.

OSB: 54 words. One excursus.

NISB:  75 words. No excurses.

NLT Study Bible: 74 words. 9 excurses.

NIV Cultural Background Study Bible: 136 words. Two excurses.

The critical value of these notes is that they are aimed at the background and at helping you draw a line from the background to the meaning. I would say that the NOAB is great at pointing to technical details, but not so much at theology, while the NISB spends less time on technical details while using much of its space to reflect on theology. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible uses its space in drawing a picture and pointing that to possible theological conclusions without trying to be a theology text.

Conclusion

Over the next few days I will post something on a couple of my favorite passages and the specific comments provided by this study Bible. I would consider this an excellent Bible to have at hand for a study of any biblical book. In my To the Hebrews: A Participatory Study Guide (currently under revision), I recommend that a study group have more than one study Bible available. I think it would be good for a group studying Hebrews to have this one at hand. One of the reasons my own guide is being revised is that it is largely a collection of thought questions. I’m going to provide more of a basis for those questions in the second edition. But the book will still be intended for use by a study group that has available multiple resources to compare. This will be one of the few that I recommend.


Note: All of these introductions to the book of Hebrews tend to dismiss Pauline authorship, with the Orthodox Study Bible being the most favorable. My own position is that it is not possible to determine the author. I used to exclude Paul as a possibility, but have been persuaded by the writing of David Alan Black that Paul should be kept as a possibility. I publish his little book The Authorship of Hebrews: The Case for Paul.

Deuteronomy and Introductions Redux

Deuteronomy and Introductions Redux

Study Bibles and CBCA second law and a second note on introductions to biblical books. Goes together, no?

I completed my reading of Numbers along with the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary yesterday and today read the introduction from the section on Deuteronomy. In it the author, Eugene H. Merrill (professor at Dallas Theological Seminary) argues forcefully for Mosaic authorship and for an early (1446 BC) date for the exodus. In school I learned 1445, but the majority position is that the exodus occurred in the mid to late 13th century, and critical scholars in general would reject at least direct Mosaic authorship in favor of a date of writing in the 7th century BC.

In the course of presenting these positions and his basis for them he makes the statement (p. 449) that “there is absolutely no objective evidence that compels a late provenance for the book.” I would first point out that it is useful to realize that evidence rarely compels, especially in historical situations such as this. Secondly, there is evidence that would point to the composite nature of the book and some that would suggest a later historical setting. Certain Merrill, along with many others, has provided explanations for this apparent evidence, but having provided an alternate explanation, however convincing it may be to the one providing it, does not make the evidence go away.

I like to look at introductions in various study Bibles. I’m not sure why, as the usual result is simply to raise my blood pressure a bit. In this case I have at hand The Oxford Study Bible, The Jewish Study Bible, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, and the NLT Study Bible. Out of these, only the NLT Study Bible would tend to agree with Merrill. That count is not important, however, because it doesn’t constitute a good survey of quality scholarship on the issue.

The problem with the lot of these is that they each assert their position with confidence and provide a couple of notes on things that favor that position, but give very few reasons why anyone might disagree. If you read the conservative introductions, you might well conclude that the critical scholars who disagree are just perverse, while if you read the more critical introductions, you might not be aware that there are modern conservative scholars who would hold to such views as a 1446 BC date for the exodus or Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy around 1406 BCE.

You may think I’m being unfair, as each introduction must be short, especially in the study Bibles. Merrill’s can be somewhat longer as he is writing for a substantial commentary on just three books of the Bible. But my point is not to chastise the scholars for their positions or for espousing them in their introductions. I do find their language a bit intemperate, and I would also point out that it doesn’t take many words to indicate that other scholars disagree with at least some indication of why that might be.

My interest is in what you do about it. I’d suggest strongly that you don’t surround yourself with books that agree with you and that come from scholars that are in your own religious/denominational tradition. I am generally convinced, though I wouldn’t use “compelling” for any evidence, that the Pentateuch, including Deuteronomy, is a composite text containing some ancient traditions, but built up with case law and later additions and adaptations. Yet I will carefully read Merrill’s commentary as I also read through the Hebrew text. What’s more, I can predict right now that I will learn a great deal from Merrill’s work.

The reason I can do that is that I’ve read this introduction, and while I disagree with the dating and authorship section, it is followed by a discussion of structure and themes that is extremely helpful. I frequently encounter the idea that a certain writer is just a liberal, or too conservative for me, so why should I read his material. We could go for “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17). But I think perhaps Provebers 27:21 is better:

The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold,
    so a person is tested by being praised. (NRSV)

Or as I translated it for a Tweet (I like literal in this type of poetry):

I really need to read someone saying that there is “no compelling evidence” for the position I hold. If I only read The Oxford Study Bible, The Jewish Study Bible, and The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, I would never be pushed to look more closely at the evidence.

I think it is particularly important in using study Bibles, because people seem to get the idea that whatever is in the notes is what “scholars” believe regarding the passage. They often also decide that if “scholars” believe it, then they must too. But scholars as a group rarely agree on anything. It’s one of their best features, because they all want to refine things and find some new, good ideas. The results are sometimes crazy, but nothing like as bad as the results of not doing so.

Introductions are hard to write and often don’t prove that useful. But using a range of them can be quite enlightening!

Numbers 30-31, Biblical Cultural Shock, and the Process of Hermeneutics

Numbers 30-31, Biblical Cultural Shock, and the Process of Hermeneutics

Since I wrote recently about biblical culture shock, and have also commented from time to time on our impatience with the process in politics, it was interesting for me to come to Numbers 30 and 31 in my evening reading.

Numbers 30 is a sort of kinder, gentler sort of culture shock. It’s about vows in general, and more particularly about women and vows. When can “a woman’s man” abrogate her vow. If you read this passage negatively, there’s a certain sense that a woman needs to be protected from rash vows by a sensible man, whether by her father or her husband.

Underlying that is a much more robust view of the sacredness of the vow in the first place. Promises are somewhat weaker in our modern society, so we really have two levels of culture (at least) in this passage to get past. The first is the idea that a rash vow to do something stupid would actually be binding. I think our modern view would be that if it’s rash and stupid, don’t do it, and God will forgive you. If it’s a verbal agreement with someone else, we still might wiggle out. Even if it’s in writing, we’ll probably try. But those “outs” are not permitted by the text.

It’s important to note a category of cultural issue here. We have to adjust to the question in order to understand the answer. No, this isn’t presented in question and answer format, but much of Torah is answering various questions about how a group of people will come to be a society and live together. How do we work things out? There are other passages in scripture where this problem occurs. Take 1 Corinthians 14:40 as an example. I’ve heard this quoted so many times, often to state that we must rigorously follow the order of service contained in the bulletin. But the question Paul is answering here is not “can there be deviations from the church bulletin?” Rather, he’s talking about a large group coming together in which most people feel they have something to express in the gathering. (What about church bulletins? Use your common sense. I’d suggest saving trees by not printing them.)

So once we’ve gotten past that, we have the next issue which is the subjection of the women to men in what is clearly a serious spiritual issue. There is an assumption underlying this passage that the responsible spiritual decision maker in the home is a man, whether the father or the husband. It is on his action that the result is based.

I’m an egalitarian, and so, I suspect, are many of my readers. I don’t want to debate that right now. Whether you are egalitarian or complementarian, consider your reaction to the passage in connection with your existing beliefs about the roles of men and women. I’m reading this passage through with the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary on Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, with the Numbers portion written by Dale A. Brueggeman. Here’s a quote regarding vows in the New Testament:

As in this text, wives were expected to be subject to their husbands (Eph 5:22-24; Titus 2:5; 1 Pet 3:1-7), although mutual consent had become a strong consideration (1 Cor 7:4). … (397)

So we’re going to find some variety among Christians today in how they might relate to the relationship between men and women reflected in this passage, as well as to the general idea of a vow.

The attitude toward vows becomes a critical element of Alden Thompson’s exposition of what he calls “the worst story in the Old Testament” in chapter 6 (pp. 99-123) of his book Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?. The passage covered is Judges 19-21. There the nation of Israel has sworn a rash vow that they will not give any of their daughters to the Benjaminites as wives. When they find that they have reduced the tribe of Benjamin to a small number of men (no women at all!) they want to find a way out. Now the modern idea would be to get together and repeal the previous vote, but the sacredness of the vow/oath is such that this isn’t an option for them. Instead, they find alternative ways to provide wives. (You’ll have to read the passage.)

I would suggest that, contrary to Alden’s chapter title (as much as I like it), the next chapter in Numbers may be the worst story in the Old Testament. Numbers 31 is pretty dismal. Those who might call Christianity or Judaism violent religions might well cite a passage like this one.

And herein lies the question of interpretation. We find it easy to bypass or ignore a passage like Numbers 31. You’ll find very few Christians who believe that the behavior of the Israelites, even though it is presented as divine command, is something we would apply today. We’ll have various reasons for doing so, and in looking at how we apply this passage, we can discover a great deal about how we interpret scripture.

Think about how you do it. Then compare how you respond to Number 31 with how you responded to Numbers 30. Are the two approaches the same? Or do you have a sort of ad hoc explanation which comes out with a result you “know” is right, but which cannot be applied universally?

I’d suggest that we need to consider our method of biblical interpretation carefully and ask whether the same method works everywhere.

I wrote something about Numbers 31 for the spring issue of Sharing the Practice. You can find that article online, Preaching an Unpreachable Passage.

Preaching from the Old Testament

Preaching from the Old Testament

violence and scripture booksNo, I’m not going to do it, but I’m going to ask Dr. Bob Cornwall some questions about it. He’s currently preaching a series in his church from 1st & 2nd Samuel. Bob is one of my Energion authors (see his book list here), and is editor of the two book series we publish in cooperation with the Academy of Parish Clergy, Conversations in Ministry and Guides to Practical Ministry. You can find more information about this event on its Google+ event page.

I’m going to ask Bob how he handles the authority of the text he is preaching from, and especially whether he will deal with some of the more violent passages and how he will preach from them. There are quite a number of passages in the books of Samuel that could be very troubling to a 21st century conversation.

This morning, I was reading one of those: 1 Samuel 15. You can read the whole thing if you want to get a general picture, but let me just summarize here. God tells Samuel to pass the order to Saul, King of Israel, that he should go and wipe out the Amalekites. He is supposed to designate them as herem, meaning that they are devoted to destruction, every person, every creature, every thing is to be destroyed. And lest we be tempted to soften the story, we are told that this included men, women, and even nursing babies.

Saul disobeys God and doesn’t kill everyone. The best of the animals are preserved, and the king is taken captive. Saul blames this on the people. God blames Saul and says he has cut Saul off (or at least Samuel says God says this) from being king over Israel. This story opens the cycle of stories about the conflict between David and Saul, which ends with Saul’s death in battle and David’s accession to the kingdom.

I have heard this story handled in a number of ways:

  1. Get a modern lesson from it, ignore the gory details, and hope nobody notices. I remember hearing it in my early years taught as a story about obedience. When God tells you to do something, you better do it. When I did ask about the killing, I was told that it was God, so it was OK.
  2. Emphasize the gory details. We’ve all become too cowardly to truly uphold God’s will in the world. (Yes, I’ve actually heard this.) We can just hope folks like this aren’t too serious.
  3. Some things in the Bible are less inspired than others, and this is one of the less inspired. Bloodthirsty people did bloodthirsty things and blamed God.
  4. When people lived in a violent world God worked within their context. So things that might be commanded then could be forbidden now, not because God has changed but because he is staying the same, and working with us where we are.
  5. The Old Testament God was violent. That’s why we stick with the New Testament. (If you take this approach, you should likely avoid texts like most of Revelation and Acts 5:1-11.)
  6. Let’s never read this in church and hope nobody notices.

I could probably come up with some more given time. I’ll be interested to see how Bob Cornwall handles the text. He’s both a good preacher and accomplished scholar, so I expect his comments to be helpful.

In the meantime, two things. Following a challenge on a similar text, I wrote two blog posts. The first was a story/dialogue discussing the text, titled The God-Talk Club and the She Bears, on my Jevlir Caravansary fiction blog. (In the God-Talk Club series I write dialogue without any intention of expressing my own point of view. It’s sort of an exercise for me in trying to express several views on a topic.) The second was a homily on the same passage, titled Real Guy Interpretation.

Finally, I recently interviewed two authors, Allan Bevere, author of a book based on a series of Old Testament sermons he preached titled The Character of Our Discontent, and Alden Thompson, author of Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?. I’m embedding that video below.

Yet Again Hebrews Authorship

Yet Again Hebrews Authorship

9781938434730sIn September of 2013 I published a book titled The Authorship of Hebrews: The Case for Paul by David Alan Black. It has been interesting to read material on this topic since. I would note that while I believe Dave’s case is well presented, and was convinced by it to give more room to the idea of Pauline authorship, I have not been convinced to abandon my agnosticism on the authorship of Hebrews.

Today my attention was drawn to two more posts. The first is by Dave Black, which I copied to the Topical Line Drives site to create a permanent link (Dave’s blog doesn’t support this). It’s a short comment, but makes clear Dave’s view that Hebrews is not so anonymous as one might think.

The second post is by Kyle O’Neill (HT: Thomas Hudgins), who favors Apollos or Aquilla and Priscilla.

There is a broad consensus among scholars that Paul did not write the book of Hebrews. There is no similar consensus about who did write the book. There’s an easy explanation, however, for the difference between these positions. It’s simply the view of the authors in question of the external evidence. Is the testimony of the early church fathers reliable on matters of authorship? While there are some disagreements about precisely what each church father said (Dave Black provides his own translations of many of these references in his book), in general if one is prepared to accept the testimony of the early church fathers, one is likely to accept Paul as the author of Hebrews.

On the other hand, if one favors internal evidence over this external testimony, one likely will not favor Paul. Note that I do not mean here a simple differentiation between how one favors internal over external evidence, such as one might have in textual criticism. In this case, we’re looking at specific testimony with specific issues. How much could each witness have known? To what extent are they reporting hearsay? To what extent might they be trying to shore up the claim of Hebrews to be scripture? So one can have a general position favoring external evidence on many other topics, but nonetheless not have the same emphasis with regard to authorship.

In my view, if we did not have the testimony of the early church fathers, nobody (or almost nobody) would assign Hebrews to Paul based on the internal evidence. But I also believe that if you don’t accept the testimony of the early church fathers on this point, there is no basis to claim any particular author for the book. The problem with determining authorship based on internal evidence is that you must have a body of material with known authorship with which to compare the book. Of the proposed authors of the book of Hebrews, only three have a significant body of written material, Luke, Paul, and Clement. For others, such as Apollos or Aquilla and Priscilla, we have no written material, and precious little biographical information. It is always possible that one of these many candidates wrote the book, but the evidence just isn’t there.

That’s why, having decided that there is enough internal evidence in the book to question Paul’s authorship, I do not propose an alternative. I don’t know who wrote it. I realize there are answers to the difficulties with Pauline authorship, but in my view it seems that there’s just a bit too much to explain away. It could be Paul, but then again, not so much.

It’s interesting how strong the consensus against Pauline authorship has become. I would think that there would be a greater body of argument in favor of the testimony of the early church fathers. A very slight swing in favor of that testimony would probably shake the consensus quite substantially.