I wrote a short story as a lead-in to this study and posted it on The Jevlir Caravansary. It is titled About the Jump in Safety Violations. It illustrates what I’m trying to say about the law in this discussion.
I’m a bit behind posting these, but here are the files from the last Perspectives video. Note we will be continuing the discussion this coming week, as I only completed about half of what I had planned. The key theme text will be Jeremiah 31:31-34.
Remember that a good deal of the material I’m covering presently relies somewhat on Hebrews, which is not generally regarded as Pauline. I am one who does not believe Paul was the author. This may provide us with some material on which to base a discussion of the differences and similarities of the theology of Hebrews and of the uncontested Pauline letters.
(Note that I publish the book The Authorship of Hebrews: The Case for Paul by David Alan Black, which contends that Paul was the author. Though I think Dave makes the best possible case, in the end I am not convinced.)
Remember: Resources for Studying Paul
Law Through Scripture – I
Here is the video (via YouTube) and the PowerPoint slides for my study of September 30, 2020. I am taking a look at the law through scripture and looking at how that impacts Paul and his message.
First, the PowerPoint:
And for those, especially on mobile devices, who may have trouble viewing the PowerPoint, here it is as a PDF.
And the video:
If you want to participate in the study, you can view it live on the Facebook page my wife and I share, Henry and Jody Neufeld.
I’m resuming my series, interrupted for three years. Here’s the first video:
Each Wednesday night I’ll be live on Facebook with this posted to the Henry & Jody Neufeld page, and crossposted to my home church, Chumuckla Community Church. I’ll get the video to Facebook a couple of days later.
This is an open-ended series as I am wandering far afield with various concepts as they appear.
Donald C. McIntyre is writing a series about the temptation of Jesus and the texts Jesus used. Do we understand this usage correctly? He titles this What If We Got the Temptation of Jesus Wrong?, and I’m calling attention to part II of the series.
I am always interested in intertextuality and the way it is used. I suggest a couple of things to consider regarding McIntyre’s post:
- Would this interpretation depend in any way on how one dates the Pentateuch or on one’s conclusions about authorship?
- What about one’s view of progressive revelation? Trajectories?
- How does one guard against incorporation of material that the author does not intend?
None of these questions result from concerns about McIntyre’s presentation, which I appreciate. These questions are ones to carry with you as you relate scripture to scripture.
It’s a common question, but it’s one I don’t like: What does that Greek word really mean? (You can substitute Hebrew or Aramaic for Greek.)
The basic problem is the assumption that a word “really” means anything specific. Underlying this is a tendency to think that one discovers the meaning of a communication by mentally finding the meaning of the individual words and then adding them together. Language isn’t that simple.
In English, we see this in appeals to the dictionary when word meanings are concerned. “The dictionary says that word means ____, so that’s it.” I have encountered great frustration when I don’t find that the final answer. But the way we use dictionary definitions can help us with understanding definitions in biblical languages.
A look in the dictionary will help at this point. You’ll notice that the definitions of words come in groups, and that there are multiple possibilities. If you have definitions 1, 2, and 3, which one applies to your particular case? I’ve seen angry debates occur because the participants were using a different, valid definition for a particular word. Valid, that is, apart from the particular context.
How do you know which one to use? The answer is context. Your dictionary is not written as a form of sacred writ, derived from some mountaintop revelation and delivered on unalterable tablets. Lexicographers study the ways in which words and used and then develop definitions that reflect those uses. The meaning is determined by the way words are used. Even what words get the official status of being in the dictionary is determined by usage. Who uses them? Where? Are they slang, or have they become part of mainstream languages. Lexicographers debate this sort of things, sometimes quite vigorously.
Now you need to avoid the reverse problem. This doesn’t mean that words can mean whatever you want them to. Well, they can, but not if you want to be able to communicate with someone else. Language is social, which is why lexicographers look at the way people use the words.
Words in the Bible behave as words do anywhere else. While we may debate the working of inspiration in the choosing of the words, it is clear that they are there to communicate with humans. These words function as human language.
So when I’m asked what a Hebrew or Greek word “really” means, I need to know where it is in the text so I can ask who is using it, when it is used, and what the various elements of context are. The Bible was written and transmitted over many centuries. If we take the oldest suggested dates for elements of the text, this history covers more than a millenium and a half. Many of those dates are debatable, but the time period is fairly long. Try reading something written in English in the 15th century CE (make sure it hasn’t had its language updated) and see how hard it can be to understand. Then be aware that the biblical languages underwent similar changes over time.
One way we learn how to guess and then remember words is etymology. A word is derived from one or more other words, and we combine the meanings to determine what the word means in its current form.
This procedure is helpful in guessing the meaning of a new word and in remembering meaning, but it doesn’t determine the meaning. That is because words develop in meaning as they are used. A favorite of New Testament teachers is the Greek ekklesia, which is derived from the words for “out” and “called.” I don’t intend to run through the history here, but that meaning is at best very doubtful for uses in the New Testament. The word has developed in meaning, and now refers to the gathering of believers.
Another technique that has been applied to that particular word is a search for historical meanings. An ekklesia could, historically, be a legislative assembly, but there is no evidence of this usage in the New Testament. My point here is not to develop a “correct” interpretation of this word, but rather to point out that such a result must ultimately result from reading the texts of the church that use the term.
What can a word study do for understanding the text in that case? Is it a waste of time?
Hardly! It is no more a waste of time than lexicography is. What word studies can do is discover the range of meanings a word may have. A good word study would find different contexts, different categories of use, and appropriate examples. That’s one of the differences between a good dictionary or lexicon and a vocabulary guide.
Strong’s concordance, for example, is a vocabulary guide. (With questionable content in many cases.) It provides a general survey of the English words used to translate a particular term in a particular Bible version, not a good range of definitions. It’s a challenging tool to use for word studies. A good Bible app with search, or a good concordance of a text will make it much easier.
Similarly etymology doesn’t tell you what a word really means. Rather, it provides some options for what a word may mean. That’s why we have a named fallacy, the etymological fallacy, which refers to the improper use of cognate words as determining meaning.
Debates about linguistics and biblical languages were in a much earlier stage when I was studying, but I was able to observe this in connection with using Ugaritic. Ugaritic is a Semitic language that is closely related to Hebrew, but definitely not identical. After five years of Hebrew it was easy for me to learn.
At the same time there was a temptation to use Ugaritic to determine the meaning of obscure Hebrew words, as well as to determine the meaning of unknown or obscure Ugaritic words from Hebrew. The latter was necessary. The language was an unknown, and we had to start from what was known.
In both cases, however, we had to watch for the problem of letting something other than the context determine the meaning. Words in Hebrew, Akkadian, Aramaic, and Arabic (among others) could give us a range of possibilities, but we had to work to interpret the text in order to get a good definition of a word in a particular context. (No, I was not one of the folks who interpreted these texts initially. My professor encouraged us to walk in those steps to develop our own skills.)
Thus the etymology, parallel languages, and summaries of word uses (word studies) all contributed to understanding, but none of them determined the meaning. That involved understanding the context.
Now suppose we’re looking at a New Testament word. What goes into determining the meaning of a word in a particular text? You need the known options. You also have to consider that a creative author can re-purpose an existing word. You need to understand the passage not just as a matter of the definitions of the words in the local context, but in terms of the author’s overall message. You could add to all these contexts a theological context.
Then you have to ask whether the author always uses the same word in the same sense. As an example, I suggest reading Romans 1-9 (if not further) carefully, looking at how Paul nuances the use of the word “law.” If you don’t watch his dance with that word, you will have a hard time coming up with a definition that will work. If you try to force something on the text from the outside, then you will miss what Paul is actually saying.
One of the negative results of studying biblical languages is that one can develop a tendency to study only the nuts and bolts. You spend so much time on specific words and even phrases or idioms that you lose site of the passage and its message.
That sort of careful study is essential. It provides the foundation for understanding. All comments about words not having singular, specific meanings should not give us the idea that we can do anything we want.
But once that sort of work is done, we have step back and read more rapidly, hearing the message in its broader sense.
In turn, we go back to the nuts and bolts and see if we understand them differently now that we’ve seen the overview.
Difficult? Time consuming? It can be. Yet each step you take builds your understanding of the text.
For more on word studies, see my post on Word Study Dangers, starting with Word Study Reprise, which links to the rest.
… or any scripture, for that matter.
In graduate school I became progressively less interested in listening to sermons or in reading devotional items. While I was very interested in reading poetry, fiction and other non-technical materials, I applied a largely technical approach to scripture and theology. I say this to make clear that I preach to myself in what follows and not just to others.
I think there is a problem with academics interpreting scripture. It’s not true of all academics, but it tends to be stronger in those with both a fervor for the scriptures as religious texts and a strong technical background. People like that tend to expect direct, final answers. Things mean either this or that. One works very hard to make a clear presentation, properly argued presentation out of a text, whatever may actually be there in the first place.
Writers of poetry, on the other hand, may have other ideas in mind. They may be trying to evoke emotions, paint pictures, or energize a reader to action. Preachers also may have a different approach. I am a teacher, and tend very much toward the academic approach, and yet when I’m asked to preach I am not satisfied with an audience becoming acquainted with a set of facts. When preaching I want to evoke some form of commitment.
One of the best examples of this, in my opinion, is what Walther Eichrodt does to the text of Ezekiel 1. Ezekiel writes of the experience of a vision. He struggles for words, he moves through the picture. He is comprehending and presenting at the same time. I imagine that he is writing so close to the vision that he is under its influence. Eichrodt, though an excellent commentator whose work I much appreciate, guts the text, correcting the “error” and making a relatively ordinary description.
R. H. Charles, in his International Critical Commentary on Revelation, thinks that the latter part of Revelation became disordered (you can find his commentary, likely at a library, and read how if you want), and proposes a reconstruction of the text that makes it much more logical and orderly.
So what does all this have to do with Hebrews 4? Well, mostly that I got to thinking about it while reading that chapter, but also because there are terms in Hebrews that people want to place in an orderly structure when they are intended differently.
It’s critical, for example, to consider rhetorical structure and to look at the text broadly. Forcing the text into a known pattern can be fatal. As an example, now from Hebrews 4, there is considerable debate on the division of the presentation. Is there a major topical division between 4:13 and 4:14, or does this come slightly earlier? When does the next major discourse begin?
I would suggest it’s not quite so clean. The author of Hebrews likes to tie his text together with keywords. He likes to give glimpses forward at what’s coming up, and in turn tie what he’s currently discussion to earlier material. I would suggest considering the possibility that 4:14-16 is a kind of bridge, connecting 4:13 to 5:1. Because it isn’t purely a conclusion, since it leads to further discussion of this high priest, and it isn’t purely an introduction, people get into debates about what it is.
We also have changes in quality, such as was introduced in chapter 3. Jesus is not just better than Moses in the sense that one might hire a better steward who can do more “stewarding.” Rather, he is something different, the owner of the house (note the element of christology here), and not a steward (see particularly 3:5-6).
In the broader theme of Hebrews, it’s easy to get into the “the law of Moses failed to get us to do what is right, so Jesus is a better command-giver, evoking better obedience.” I’ll leave discussing this to other posts (perhaps!), but I’d suggest that what is in view is changing the quality of the relationship. In fact, this new quality is one that has been sought all along. No amount of running will turn you into a bird so you can take flight. No amount of doing will turn you into a saint. Being a saint consists of something qualitatively different.
As the argument develops, words shift meaning as their context shifts.
As we come into Hebrews 4, we have repeated uses of the word “rest,” and the question generally asked is just what does the rest (or specifically “Sabbath rest/celebration”) that remains to us consist of? Is it something that happens now or in the future?
Here’s a case where I think finding the one, clearly delimited answer is suboptimal. We have a pattern of “rests” presented. Our author is not afraid to draw on the story and bring us into it. There is the rest after creation (do you see the tie-back to 1:1-4?), then the rest of being in the land offered to the Israelites, and finally (or is it final?) a rest offered to us.
I’d suggest that the word rest here is as flexible as the story and the context. There is definitely a “now” rest to us. In fact, that is the rest of confidence in the One who is perfect. This is developed as the topic of priesthood moves forward. This rest is part of that very boldness in approaching the throne of grace. But there is no reason that this rest does not extend ultimately to the rest in the kingdom of God. No one-or-the-other choice is required.
I would note also that the word use for “to rest” (4:4) and “to give rest” (4:8a) are the same word and form used in different ways close to one another.
Which leads me to 4:12-13, in which we being with the word (logos) of God and end with the account (logos) which we must give to God. First, I find the debate over whether this is Jesus as the Word, with the follow-up debate over how closely it is tied to John 1:1-3ff in intent, to be slightly misguided. God’s Word is much more than your Bible, but your Bible reflects and provides God’s Word in its way and purpose. Is Jesus greater than the book? Yes, just as the one who provided the book is greater than the that which he provided (see the logic at the beginning of chapter 3).
I think that this Word is more than written scripture because of the context, but by nature it must include scripture. Just look at how firmly the author roots his presentation in the story of prior scripture. But because the author intends to establish Jesus a greater than what we have received by nature (1:1-4), it also must bring in this greater revelation here. This is an integral part of what is meant by Jesus as our High Priest.
Then we turn back to the account. I believe the account we will give is the account placed in us by the Word. We can talk about how thorough the examination presented by 4:12-13 is and how difficult it would be to survive such an examination. If, however, we assume that somehow we will in this life be ready for such an examination, we’ve missed the point again. This examination is not one you’re going to handle.
I think the second use of the Greek word logos is our first pointer to the fact that the one who is perfect is Jesus, and only Jesus, and it is only in Christ that we attain anything. We are going to give back to the Word nothing but the Word. The account we give is Jesus.
I’m continuing to read Guthrie’s commentary on Hebrews (George H. Guthrie, Hebrews, The NIV Application Commentary, Kindle edition) and I am enjoying his approach. That doesn’t mean agreeing with everything, but I find that his approach is likely to be particularly helpful to preachers and teachers as he attempts to bridge the cultural differences.
In the introduction he makes a strong differentiation between the theological portions of the book and the exhortation, even indicating in his translation some of the sections that overlap between both. When I read this part it made me somewhat uncomfortable. I think the distinction can be artificial in Hebrews, and problematic elsewhere.
In the commentary, however, he carefully draws the connection between the exposition (as he calls what I would call theology) and the exhortation. The exhortation derives from the theology.
It’s important to see this close relationship, and while I was uncomfortable with the hard distinction, I am very happy with the close connection drawn in the commentary on the text.
When I took a class in Exegesis of Romans, based on the Greek text in college we only managed to get through chapter 8, and it was generally accepted that this was OK, because we had done the important parts. In churches, on the other hand, I frequently hear exposition of Romans 12, 13, or 14 (generally separately, for more, see here), which treat these passages as separate topics. Paul tends to build his theological foundation and then draw from that for his exhortation, but the two are closely connected.
In Hebrews we have an even clearer connection between then two elements, and I believe the mixture is quite intentional. There is no sharp distinction. Yes, we westerners can classify and separate, and yes, you can distinguish the application from the theology, but when doing so you should avoid missing the author’s point, which is that his exhortation is rooted in a theology, and particularly in a Christology. He does not exhort without laying the foundation.
I consider this important for a reason that is perhaps different than that of the author. I think this close theological tie is what allows us to sort through applications and discover what is temporary and what is permanent. It even allows us to find ways in which the underlying theology can provide new guidance.
Just today I was reading a comment asking whether we can translate certain texts to permit women in certain ministry positions. I think that is the wrong approach. The question is really how we can apply the theology to our time and place and come out faithful to God’s action and revelation.
In the case of Hebrews it also involves understanding the way in which theology is expressed and separating the expression from the content. I think Hebrews is a superior place to practice this because I see the theological basis and form of expression so thoroughly laid out in the text.