Sunday, September 1, 2013

A short Gem in Jeremiah related to John 17:3

I ran across a really powerful passage in Jeremiah today: Jer 22:15-16.

Jeremiah 22:15–16 (NRSV)
15 Are you a king
because you compete in cedar?
Did not your father eat and drink
and do justice and righteousness?
Then it was well with him.
16 He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
then it was well.
Is not this to know me?
says the Lord
The thing I find so striking about this passage is that it describes the doing of good as what it means to "know God." This is notion is critically important to me because John 17:3 defines "the eternal life" as "Knowing you, the one true God, and Jesus Chris whom you have sent."

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Philo and the Meaning of Grace

My readers may remember that one aspect of modern Christian speech that gets under my skin is the rampant misuse of the word “grace.” Christians regularly and frequently use this term to refer to “forgiveness” or “not being held accountable for our wrongs,” and we refer to “grace periods” as times during which we can escape punishment for error.

Christians also often use the word “grace” to refer to a gift that is unmerited. When many Christians say “we are saved by grace” they mean something like “we reap the benefit of salvation though we have done nothing to merit it.” But this interpretation is manifestly at odds with Paul’s own use of the term. For example, if “grace” has nothing to do with us, then how could the Galatians to whom Paul writes “fall from grace” (Galatians 5:4)? And Paul certainly makes quite clear in 1st Corinthians 9:27 that he labors for the Gospel is so that he will not be disqualified from its blessing.

 (Note to the well-read, I will discuss Ephesians 2:8-9 as an example.)

Since “grace” is a key word for the Christian gospel, it is important to understand what the term means, what the Jewish writers of Greek New Testament meant by the word. The word “grace” does not refer to unmerited goodness, nor does it directly refer to forgiveness or pardon.

In fact, the Greek word translated as “grace,” charis, generally presupposes that the receiver of the grace has pleased the giver. It literally means “that which delights” (The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament). It can refer to holding someone in good favor because of this delight and can also refer to means and demonstrations of the pleasure one takes in another. In later times it frequently referred to gifts bestowed by a ruler. Its intransitive version is chara, which means “joy,” and is used 59 times in the Greek New Testament. For example, when the shepherds saw the star in Matthew 2:10, they rejoiced “with great joy.”

The clearest indication of this point in the Bible is Jesus’ oratory in Luke 6:32-36, a passage that explicitly refers to favor given in response to godly actions. The text of this passage (from the NRSV) is transcribed below, except I have inserted the word [grace] in those places where that Greek word shows up in the text. (In this passage it is commonly translated “credit” instead, which should say something about the meaning of the word!)

 “If you love those who love you, what [grace] is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what [grace] is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what [grace] is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

I’m not claiming that “grace” is the appropriate translation here, but I do believe consistent word choice would help readers; practically no one can be expected to know that the Greek word used here is elsewhere commonly translated “grace.” Knowing this would hopefully color one’s interpretation of several passages.

Perhaps a better translation would be “If you love those who love you, why should that bring you God’s favor?...” and then in Paul’s writings, the same word could be used “… we are saved through God’s favor…” and “…you have fallen from God’s favor…,” this would be less biasing in the interpretation as one would determine from context what (if anything) engendered this favor or its loss.

I have brought all the above up before, but in my recent readings of Philo I found two further excellent examples that should lay to rest the presumption that “grace” has some intrinsic notion of unmerited benefit. Philo is perhaps the most important writer to study when determining what certain Greek words meant to the Jews writing in the 1st century AD. He was a Greek-educated Jewish philosopher and theologian living in Alexandria (the birthplace of the Septuagint, which was the guiding Greek text for all Jews at the time) between 20 BC and 50 AD.

In On the Change of Names (52), Philo quotes and explains the giving of a covenant:

…for he says, “I will place my covenant between me and between thee;” and covenants and testaments are written for the advantage of those who are worthy of the gift, so that a testament is a symbol of grace, which God has placed between himself who proffers it and man who receives it.

(Emphasis mine.)

And again in passage 57 of the same text:

And this expression conceals beneath its figurative words such a meaning as this: There are very many kinds of covenants, which distribute graces and gifts to those who are worthy to receive them; but the highest kind of covenant of all is I myself.

Both of these texts are from C. D. Yong’s translation: The works of Philo: Complete and unabridged (345). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

The above quotes (from both Jesus and Philo) are not meant to indicate that grace always refers to unmerited kindness. Parents often favor their children over other boys and girls for reasons having nothing to do with their offspring’s objective superiority. In any given setting, one has to deduce whether the receiver of grace has played a role in the favor they have found or whether God has found them pleasing for some other reason. The Bible provides many examples where people have pleased God through their actions. Christ Himself describes many people as “righteous” and refers to God rewarding people for their individual works.

In any event, when we see the word “grace” in the New Testament, we should definitely not believe that the writer is attempting to reference or emphasize worthiness (or lack thereof) of the receiver. That’s simply not the meaning of the word, which should lead us to ask “then what is the writer attempting to draw our attention to when referring to ‘grace’?”

The key idea behind “grace,” especially as it is used by Paul, is that it is non-obligatory. There is a big difference between “non-obligatory” and “unmerited.” A graduation gift is non-obligatory, but it is certainly not unmerited or without any reference to the receiver’s conduct.

The main purpose of Romans and Galatians is to emphasize that the salvation available through Christ is a gift to the world rather than a contractual obligation to the Jews. Galatians is a simpler text to read, and it clearly describes how Christ’s coming is a fulfillment of a promise made to Abraham 400 years before the Law (i.e. the Mosaic Covenant) was given. Thus, it is impossible to claim that Jesus is a gift only to those who keep the Mosaic Covenant. The conclusion, extremely important in the middle of the 1st century, was that non-Jewish believers did not have to take on the Jewish cultural law to claim Jesus as their Lord. Neither could the Jews boast about being the cause of Jesus’ advent and hold that over their Gentile brothers as proof that Jewish practices were more godly.

It is this boasting that Paul refers to in Ephesians 2:8-9 and Romans 3:27-29, and the “works of the law” he refers to are the cultural markers and customs (circumcision, seasonal festivals, and eating habits) prescribed by the Jewish Torah [the Law]. Note in particular Romans 3:29, which makes no sense whatsoever if “works of the law” is taken to mean “godly deeds.” Paul refers explicitly to these practices in a few places, such as Colossians 2:16.

Notably, when Paul discusses the Final Judgment (rather than “salvation” which I claim has a different province), he is not bashful about the value of pleasing Christ: 2 Corinthians 5:9-10. Then again, neither is Christ (e.g., Matthew 12:36-37, Matthew 13:24-30, and Matthew 13:47-50.)  Interestingly, Matthew gives over a dozen vignettes of the Final Judgment and he also discusses the oft-quoted Isaiah 53:4, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.” Yet, Matthew interprets the meaning of this verse in a way that has nothing to do with a modern view that God punished Christ in our place. See Matthew 8:16-17.  

If one is forced to dissect the motivation for salvation, a reasonably simple and accurate model would be:

1. God is motivated to send Christ owing to God’s love for the world and God’s promise to Abraham, based on the latter’s righteous loyalty and obedience (Genesis 22:18, John 3:16-17, Galatians 3:8-18).

This promise, which Paul describes as the “preaching of the gospel” to Abraham in Galatians 3:8 was declared without any indicated provocation in Genesis 12:2-3 but is confirmed in Genesis 22:18, where God gives as the reason “because you have obeyed My voice.”

2. God is motivated to commence the New Covenant in response to Christ’s obedience, an obedience that naturally led to Christ’s death, a work that perfected Christ as High Priest before God. This covenant provides salvation from our sinful natures in the form of the Holy Spirit (John 14:16-21, John 16:7, 1st Peter 2:23, Hebrews 2:10, Hebrews 5:9).

Combining 1 and 2, we have that the salvation of the world and in the abstract is wholly based on God’s love, Christ’s righteousness, and Abraham’s finding favor with God.

3. Those worthy of this New Covenant are naturally drawn to Christ and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit as the promise of that Covenant after being consecrated from their previous lives and baptized into a new one of repentance (John 3:20-21, John 14:15-16, Galatians 3:7, Acts 2:38, Acts 11:18, Titus 3:5).

4. The natural culmination of those who remain in the New Covenant (as well as all those deemed worthy to join on the day of the Final Judgment) is the resurrection of the body. Those with the Holy Spirit enjoy a foretaste of this in the present insofar as they participate in Christ’s resurrection (Romans 6: 1-11, Romans 8:1-11, Romans 8:23-24).


When Paul discusses “grace” his goal is not to usurp God’s role as righteous judge, for “salvation” is not explicitly linked to the Final Judgment. Rather, Paul’s interest is in showing that the Jews do not have a monopoly on Jesus Christ. He did this by showing that God did not send Christ out of an obligation sourced in the Mosaic Law. Thus, in reference to Christ, the Jews had no reason to boast in their heritage or force it upon believing Gentiles. Thus, Gentiles should not feel their salvation depended on their taking up the trappings of the Mosaic Law (the “works of the law”).

Paul, rather, says that it is Abraham’s heirs, not Moses’ followers, who have a claim on Christ, and in Romans 4-9 he lays out his doctrine that the heirs to this claim are not the physical progeny of Abraham but Abraham’s spiritual progeny, those who had faith in God’s promises. (In the New Testament, this faith primarily refers to faith in the resurrection.)

In a manner very similar to how 1st-century Jews actually saw their own covenant (as opposed to how anti-Semitic Christians portrayed them afterward), the New Covenant owes its abstract existence completely to the goodness and charity of God, but individual members could prove themselves unworthy of the New Covenant and hence fall from it. In this way it is possible to “fall from grace” or “fail to enter God’s rest” or any of the other metaphors used by the writers of the New Testament when a believer failed to live in repentance. In some cases these metaphors are set in the present; in others they have an eschatological setting (Matthew 7: 21-23, Matthew 22:11-14, Hebrews 3:12-13, Peter 2:20-21, Revelation 3:15-16).

Thus, the “Final Judgment” is not best seen as a court of law where people are judged only on their sins (and not their godly deeds) and are convicted if they have a single unforgiven sin. The Bible never presents it as such. Neither is to there to be found among its many depictions of the Judgment a case where believers are treated differently from non-believers. Rather, it should be seen more as an immigration interview where Jesus selects people for (or allows them to remain in) the Covenant He inaugurated 2000 years ago and will perfect in due time.

In fact, the whole idea that “salvation” means “protection from God’s righteous judgment” is an invention of Saint Augustine, who lived nearly 400 after Christ. But that is a post for another day.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Philo and Aionios

(Note to anyone who got here by Google search: This post is not a discussion of whether hell is eternal or not. That debate does not interest me. It is a discussion of what “aionios” means in general, with particular interest in what the phrase “aionios zoe” (generally translated “eternal life”) means in the New Testament.)

The Greek word aion originally simply referred to life, and later came to mean “life span.” From this usage it became a general word for a “length of time.” By the time of Christ it more commonly referred to longer time-spans, and is often translated as “age” in the New Testament. It is where we get our word “eon”(or aeon). 

When Christ speaks of those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit not being forgiven “in this age or in the age to come” [Matthew 12:32], the background Greek is aion. About 75% of the time you read “age” in the New Testament, the background Greek is aion. Unfortunately, there is simply no English equivalent to the essential meaning of aion, but “age” is the most accurate of several unsatisfactory choices. Indeed, if translators were more literal, we would read “age” more frequently in our Bibles, but often aion gets translated as “world” or “forever.” Instead of “forever,” a more accurate translation would be “throughout this/the age.” To capture the notion of something transcending the/this age, writers often use the plural, as in the common reference to glory being to Jesus “forever and ever” (e.g., Hebrews 13:21) which is literally “into the ages.”

While “age” is the closest English word to what aion means, it fails to capture its philosophical trappings. Indeed, our modern understanding of time forms a real barrier to understanding the Greek notion of an “age.” We see time as a type of coordinate system that complements space. Space bounds the universe and every point in that universe travels through time. In this way, locations and events can be designated by their place and date much like points on the Earth’s surface are designated by latitude and longitude. For the Greeks, though, time was bound up with the idea of motion and (more generally) the type of gradual change perceived in the world as it evolves.

When I say aion means “age” I don’t mean to emphasize the chronological time interval moving from one date to another. In fact, the philosophical meaning of aion contrasts with the notion of chronological time. Chronological time (as understood by the Greeks) is bound to the realm of our senses. We see and apprehend events occurring in time and we mark time off from one solar cycle to another. The notion of aion is rather a “timeless present” that captures the abstract properties of the world. A new aion is marked out when the characteristics of the previous one cease to be and are replaced by new characteristics.

One example given by Philo [(On the Changing of Names (267)] is the aion signified by the birth of Isaac. The world prior to Isaac’s birth is somehow fundamentally different from the world afterward because Isaac’s birth marks the fulfillment of a promise by God. This was an aion that was, in Philo’s words, truly “strange, marvelous, and new.” So the point of an aion is not that it marks off some interval of time but rather that it represents an apprehension of abstract qualities of the world, an apprehension that does not change gradually (as the world seen through the lens of time does), but is rather a timeless present that endures until the next age commences.

Linguistically, the word “aionios” is just the adjective formed from aion. Thus, if we were using strict etymology, aionios would mean something like “pertaining to (a/the) age.” Its actual meaning (or range of meanings) has been much debated.

It is an odd word. We don’t have one in English. The words “age-y” or “time-span-y” don’t exist. The closest we come is when we say something like “That outfit is so 80s.” Words are created because of practical needs, and it is not clear why one needs an adjective form of “age.”

For this reason, the adjective aionios came rather late. The Greeks got along perfectly well for several centuries prior to Plato coming up with the word. He is the first person known to use the term aionios, most notably in Timaeus, where he describes the creation of the universe. 

The thing that makes aionios so difficult to understand is that it is very often used to refer to “unceasing” or “constant,” and hence is often read as “eternal.” Yet, the Greeks already had a word for “eternal” [adios], so why did Plato feel the need to create this other word?
More important to my study is “What did John, Paul, and the other Jews responsible for the NT mean when they wrote aionios?” If they just wanted to say “eternal” or “unending,” then the Greek word that clearly means that is adios. Yet aionios is used very frequently in the NT while adios is only used twice (in Romans 1:20 to refer to God’s eternal power, and in Jude 6 to refer to the eternal chains binding the rebellious angels for punishment). Aionios is a more obscure word, so why was it favored so heavily? What did the apostles mean by it?

Much of the interest in the meaning of aionios comes from people who want to argue against the idea of hell lasting forever. This strikes me as a rather silly debate. First, whether or not hell lasts forever, the Bible is clear it should be avoided at all costs. Second, claiming that God could not possibly choose to punish people for eternity seems too much like judging the Creator. Third, those who argue for a temporal hell generally (though not always) do so as part of a Universalistic theory that claims all eventually go to heaven. This further claim seems decidedly unbiblical based on Matthew 10:28. (Luke 13:24 ff also seems to suggest that once the door is closed it won’t be reopened.)

The reason I care about the meaning of aionios is its use in the key phrase aionios zoe, generally translated “eternal life.” I claim that it rather refers to “life in the age (to come)” or “life in the (Messianic) age.” In other words, the life we have in the New Covenant. We have a type of this life now with the advent of the Holy Spirit, and it will reach fullest flower when we receive our full inheritance of a purified flesh in the resurrection (Romans 8:23).

The problem is that it is hard to tell what aionios is intended to mean in general because the life of the next age is supposed to be unending/eternal (see Luke 20:36) as well, and the life of the New Covenant is understandably linked to that life as described above. Thus, it is hard to untangle what aspect of the life we have in Christ the New Testament writers referred to with aionios. Was it intended to refer to the new creation, the “life of the new age.” Or was it intended simply to refer to immortality?

Often this is when people who don’t like theology say something like “can’t it be both?” Or, similarly, “why does it matter which meaning they actually intended if both meanings apply?”

The reason I’m pursuing the question is that our understanding of what the apostles meant by aionios zoe (typically translated “eternal life”) directly influences how we think about other topics because the idea of aionios zoe is fundamentally linked to salvation and Christ’s work in general. If you think of aionios zoe as referring to the life we have in the New Covenant through the power of the Holy Spirit, then the gospel story of Christ’s work revolves around the question of “what did Christ have to do to allow me to receive the Spirit?” In other words, it becomes centered on verses like John 16:7. This is quite a different gospel story than what many Christians are used to. Note that this question includes the key idea of the resurrection as well because the resurrected flesh is the most perfect form of this life in the New Covenant. It is the completion of the work Jesus has already begun, the final inheritance for which the Holy Spirit is a portion.

Notably absent from the above is any discussion of the Final Judgment, which I do not believe is directly linked to salvation. Jesus judges both Christians and non-Christians alike, but not as a judge assesses a defendant (who is only on trial for supposed crimes). Rather Christ judges everyone based on all their works (both evil and good) to determine whom He will choose for the New Kingdom. (This is indicated many times in scripture, some clear examples being Matthew 14:47-50; Matthew 25:31-46. Paul says it in three different ways within the Romans 2:5-16 passage and repeats it in Romans 14:10-12. 2nd Corinthians 5:11 is also notable.)

Enter Philo

Recently I found a couple of particularly interesting passages in Philo where aionios is used in a way that completely settles the question as to the basic meaning of aionios for Hellenized Jews around the time of Christ. Before going into the details, I want to give an English hypothetical that mirrors Philo’s discussion of aionios.
Imagine you are a 5th grade student, and your science teacher says “The academic name for our Sun is Sol. I say ‘academic’ because it is not a universal name for our ‘sun.’ Our sun doesn’t have a universal name, and it does not need a universal name. People just say ‘the sun’ and most people have no knowledge of the name ‘Sol.’”
Now, as a 5th grade student, you may not know what “academic” means, but from the above discussion it absolutely cannot mean “universal” or “used everywhere” or “unlimited in space.” The teacher has specified that the whole point of her use of “academic” is to limit the scope of the term under discussion. If “academic” could in any way have “everywhere” or “universal” as its base meaning, then her statement becomes sheer lunacy.
Philo makes a statement very similar to the above, except instead of discussing something containing all of space (everywhere/universal), the discussion refers to time.
Philo comments on passages in the Old Testament where the name of God is discussed. The Greek version of the Old Testament uses the term aionios to refer to this name. Philo explains that the use of the word aionios tells us that this name is not the eternal name for God. It does not apply to the age that came before this one, but is only given in this age so man would have a term to use in prayer. Philo indicates that aionios is a fundamentally limiting term (with respect to time) and specifies that it is not only a limiting term, but it is used precisely for the purpose of specifying that God’s absolute name is not in view because God has no absolute name. Philo says that the word aionios is used to “relativize” the name of God, indicating that the name given to Moses is God’s name relative just to this age, not one that is applicable beyond or before this age. Clearly, if aionios had “eternal” as a base meaning, it could hardly be used with the purpose of limiting the noun it is modifying.
In discussing the well-known “I am who I am” passage where God is said to have given God’s aionios name, Philo says (On the Changing of Names, section 12):
For this, says he, is the “[aionios]” name, as if it has been investigated and discerned in the age [aion] in which we live, and not in the age [aion] that was before.
In another passage (On Abraham, section 51), Philo makes a similar remark. He quotes Scripture where God says “This is my [aionios] name: I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
Here, Yong’s classic translation of this passage:
…appropriating to himself an appellation composed of the three names: “For,” says God, “this is my [aionios] name: I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” using there the relative term instead of the absolute one; and this is very natural, for God stands in no need of a name. But though he does not stand in any such need, nevertheless he bestows his own title on the human race that they may have a refuge to which to betake themselves in supplications and prayers, and so may not be destitute of a good hope.


This discussion is not intended to suggest that aion or aionos can never imply or give rise to the notion of eternity.  As mentioned above there are certainly phrases using this term (“from age to age” and “into the ages”) that convey the notion of “forever and ever.” However, these very phrases indicate that aion itself cannot refer to “forever” in the philosophical sense. There cannot be multiple “forevers.” These terms can get across the notion of “ceaseless” or “enduring” because the notion of aion embodies those properties of the world that are not subject to the gradual effect that time has on the world. However, this does not mean “changeless” per se, but rather “constant within this age.” (Of course, there is nothing saying that the age in question has to end...)
The point of this discussion is to claim that when Jesus or one of the apostles used the term aionios to refer to the life made possible to us through Jesus, they were not referring to the “unendingness” of that life but are rather referring to the character of that life. The aionios zoe is the life in the age of the New Covenant and is fundamentally different from the life of those who never received the blessing of the Holy Spirit. Just as the birth of Isaac ushered in a new age fundamentally different from that which came before it, the ascension of Jesus as High Priest who sends the Holy Spirit, brings about a new age, and those who believe in Jesus have access to the special life of that age.

Under this reading, Christ’s claim in John 17:3 makes perfect sense: “This is the aionios zoe, that they know You, the one true God, and Jesus Christ Whom You have sent.” This verse defines the aionios life not in terms of its duration but in terms of its nature.Note that the special linguistic structure John uses in 17:3 is the same he uses elsewhere when he wants to give a definition or exact description of something or someone. See John 1:19, John 3:19, John 15:12, 1 John 1:5, and 1 John 3:11 for further examples of this grammatical structure and John's use of it.

The life in this new age is one typified by knowledge of God, knowledge which Jesus says will be brought by the Holy Spirit. It is the sending of the Holy Spirit that Jesus claims is the reason He had to die (John 16:7).

Monday, February 18, 2013

Jonah and Jesus, Repentance and Resurrection

During an Ash Wednesday service last week, the pastor brought up the notion of signs in the Old Testament and spoke of Jonah. This got me thinking about Christ's discussion of Jonah's fish challenges as "the only sign given to this evil generation." Matthew saw this as important enough to mention two separate times. (Matthew 12:59, Matthew 16:4, and Luke provides it in Luke 11:29-30.) The relevance of Jonah may also be linked to Jesus' stress on Peter's lineage, which the gospel writers pass along "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah." (Matthew 16:17, John 1:42, John 21:15-17.) Note how in Matthew's gospel this note on Peter follows nearly immediately the proclamation to the crowds about Jonah and Nineveh.

For decades I had assumed that the only relevance of this passage is that Jesus was in the ground and rose on the 3rd day as Jonah was in the "great fish" for the same length of time. It just seemed like Jesus was predicting His own resurrection and the gospel writers were providing evidence that this resurrection was a sign from God.

However, that seems now like a rather naive view. Jesus' resurrection would be recognized as a sign of God regardless of whether it was predicted to the masses, and there are plenty of other instances where the gospel writers indicate to their audiences that Jesus' resurrection was foretold. Also, the version given in Luke 11:30 suggests a closer connection between the sign of Jonah and the sign of Jesus.

As I thought about this, two separate points came to mind. If Jesus' resurrection is a sign like Jonah's, what would that mean, especially to a Jewish audience who fully understood Jonah's whole story?

The first connection is clear (though it was actually the second one I thought of). Jonah was sent to call Nineveh to repentance [c.f. Luke 11:32]. The story of Jonah is interesting because it shows that simple repentance has authentic value even when done by a people who have no notion of Christ whatsoever. Nineveh was not in Judah. They were neither cognizant of nor had any portion of the promised salvation for the Jews. The repentance they showed was based only on a belief that the God who sent Jonah was real and a hope that if they showed humility toward God and changed their ways to do works pleasing to God, then maybe God would relent.

This is important because most evangelists today suggest that repentance has no effectual value in itself. (Repentance is portrayed as a by-product and not directly dispositive toward how we are judged by God.) Similarly, it is highly suggested that it is impossible to do works pleasing to God without faith in Christ. The story of Jonah in Nineveh disproves both assertions.

The second way in which Jesus' resurrection is linked to Jonah is subtler. It is the first one that came to me, partially because of something the pastor had mentioned. The story of Jonah shows the value of repentance in two ways. One is the effect that Nineveh's repentance had on God. The second is the effect of Jonah's own repentance inside the fish, which led to his own deliverance.

What struck me about this aspect of the story is the possibility (perhaps tenuous) that one can draw a connection between resurrection and repentance. When the evangelists of the New Testament speak of the value of being in Christ, they speak of three things:
  1. Being delivered from the physical wrath that will come against the world when Christ returns. (C.f. Matthew 24:22, which makes no sense at all if the Final Judgment were in view rather than deliverance from the physical destruction of the last days.)
  2. The "baptism of repentance" (the holy spirit). (c.f. Acts 5:31, Acts 11:18, Acts 13:24, Acts 26:20 and many other places)
  3. The resurrection of the body, which is their full inheritance when their "adoption is complete." (c.f. Romans 8:23)
Paul's letters show that these last two items are really just stages of a two-part glorification. We are given the spirit today that strengthens our will to do God's works, though our flesh still fights against this. Then, in the next age, we will receive a renewed body that no longer pushes us against God.

The specific repentance that we receive from Christ is a renewal of the spirit (c.f Hebrews 6:6) that Paul links to both Christ's own resurrection and our future one in Romans 6-8. That particular discussion is worthy of its own blog post.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Sacrifices in the Old Testament

I recently began another excursion through the Bible, with an eye toward a deeper look at the soteriological topics that piqued my interest beginning in Winter '01 (I think), and upon reaching Leviticus I spent a good deal of effort trying to work the various sacrifices into a single, cohesive structure; a goal I had sought off-and-on for quite some time. This was very important to me because it was my hope that a genuine, self-consistent understanding of these sacrifices would shed light on Christ's work. Too often the reverse occurs, someone has a certain view on Christ's work and goes back to find some isolated bits that match it when taken out of context.

I was unable to get the various sacrifices and their meanings to fit together. The fact that the ritual conducted after someone was found to be healed of skin disease included a "sin" and "guilt" sacrifice was particularly hard to fit into frameworks that otherwise looked to make some sense. This ritual may be quite important to fully understand because it is the only one that abstractly matches the key "Day of Atonement" ritual. (Two birds, one dies, the other flies free.)

I decided to break off reading and investigate what others had written on the topic. Two books I found particularly helpful were Milgrom's commentary on Leviticus (Continental Commentary Series) and Purification Offerings in the Priestly Literature: Its meaning and function by Kiuchi. Interestingly, Milgrom also could not make any sense of the bird rite and chalked it up to a Pagan holdover that the priests felt compelled to keep. That's "higher criticism" for you.

Anyways, I certainly did not go into this study seeking information about animal cruelty, but the books made some key observations that had flown under my radar. I'm relaying them here in case they have also alluded y'all.

A. The sacrificial system was intimately woven into a larger cultic law (more on this in "C" below), and should be considered in context.Abstractly, the set of large land animals the tribes of Jacob could eat was determined by two questions: Does it chew the cud? Is it's hoof split? However, for all practical purposes, the requirements meant that the tribes could only ranch 3 types of animals. Everything but goat, sheet, and ox was more or less off limits. (There were a very restricted set of wild animals, like the gazelle, that were also allowed.) Thus, the food laws (and the general value of these animals) greatly limited ranching. Also, the relative value of these animals meant that the typical person ate almost no ranched quadrupeds, eating red meat only a few times a year. [They did have domesticated birds and fish.]

B. It must be recognized that the "sacrifices" of these animals do not match what we might think of sacrifice. In fact, "sacrifice" is perhaps not even the best word to capture what is going on here. It focuses on the notion of "loss" or "payment." Contrary to what many might make of these texts, that is not where the value of these animals lay. The focus of these sacrifices (to the extent that we can speak in general terms) was in the cleansing power of the blood.  The connotation of "sacrifice" might lead us to believe that the animals were simply destroyed or wasted without any practical value being gained (much as some might consider recreational hunting today). However, this is not the case. For the vast majority of sacrifices, only the fat was burned up. The rest of the meat was eaten, either by the priests or the person who brought the sacrifice.

[I reiterate here a point I have made before: outside the Day of Atonement (and perhaps the bird-rite) scape-goat, there is no transfer of sin going on in these sacrifices. If the animals received the sin of those who brought them, they would have defiled the temple and altar on which they were sacrificed. The scape-goat, of course, was not brought into the temple, nor killed as part of the rite. Jewish theologians note a key difference in the "laying of hands" ceremony done by the priest for the scape-goat offering as compared to others. One theory claims that the two-hand version done on the scape-goat represents transfer of sin/guilt/iniquity but that the one-hand version done in other sacrifices (including those that have nothing to do with sin) are a marking of sorts, so that the good done by the animal, or the favor it found in God's eyes, was credited to the one who marked it by the laying of a hand. So Ibn Ezra.]

C. The idea in point B actually works in reverse as well. Not only were (most) sacrifices eaten, but all of these ranched animals had to be "sacrificed" before they could be legally eaten! This is a key and amazing point that is easy to miss. It might be better to term these sacrifices as "consecrations," because they represented the only way any of the animals could be eaten. If an Israelite killed a sheep for food, but did not bring the sheep to the temple to be "sacrificed," then he was liable for murder. [See Leviticus 17:3 ff].

This redoubled the effect mentioned in A. It reduced the actual amount of ranching and killing that occurred by adding to the expense involved in raising animals for food. In some sense you could consider the temple sacrifice as a type of tax on eating meat, because anytime someone slaughtered an animal for food, they had to give some of it to the priests.

D. Finally, once again in the vein of thinking of these rites as not being "sacrifices" in the typical use of the term, one should consider the Israelite mind when contemplating the meaning of these rites. As mentioned above, much of the point of the sacrifices lie in the cleansing effect of the blood on the sanctuary (and, perhaps, on the people who brought the sacrifice). The life of the animal was "in the blood" and by bringing the animal to the tabernacle, sacrificing it, and spilling its blood on the altar, the owner and priest were bringing the animal into communion with God. Recall that the Israelites did not have our understanding of the afterlife. At this point in time, there were two competing frameworks for thinking about the "soul." In the older of these frameworks, which may have been predominant at the time, there was no such thing as an individualized "soul." Living men were animated by the "breath of life" received from God (c.f., Adam becoming a living being when God breathed into him). Upon death, that life went back to join God.

For animals, the "life was in the blood," which is why the Israelites were not allowed to eat any blood, and the "sacrifice" rite can be viewed as returning the essence of the animal being killed to join in communion with God when its blood was dashed upon the altar to cleanse it. Thus, attempting to put these things into a modern context, one could conceive of the cultic law as essentially demanding that every rancher perform an individual funeral of sorts for every animal they killed.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Interesting translation of Genesis 45:7

Update: My wife Nancy is, to put it charitably, unconvinced that the wording here suggests that Joseph thought that Jacob's descendants would rule the world.

I ran across something odd in Genesis 45:7 today.

For my general reading, I prefer the NAB. I'm not a Catholic, but I think that on balance the NAB is the most accurate translation in general, but it does not have a reverse interlinear available [at least not in Logos, an electronic system for bible study], so I have chosen to use the NRSV as my chief reading translation as I go through the Bible again.

I noticed something strange in Genesis 45:7.  The NAB, NASB, and the NET have similar translations here:
"God sent me ahead of you to preserve you on the earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance."

But both the NRSV and the ESV, both rock-solid literal translations when not trying to bend the text to suit their politics/theology, have something different:

God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.

Instead of merely "preserve you" the more literal translations have "preserve for you a remnant." I could be wrong, but this seems to speak to the notion that Jacob's progeny would rule the a remnant of all people were saved for them.

[Truth in Translation, a fantastic book by Jason BeDuhn has good things to say in general about the NAB, though his book focused on just one arena where theological presumptions can influence translations.]

Thursday, September 6, 2012

What is the point of the Garden of Eden story?

What is the point of the Garden of Eden story?
Many Christians believe the point of the story is to explain how humanity fell into sin. While there may something to that, it must be always kept in mind that NONE of the New Testament evangelism even mentions the fall of Adam. If the Garden of Eden is a key part to the story of Christina salvation, you would never know it from reading the Gospels and the many evangelistic sermons in the book of Acts.

In fact, I claim the text makes clear in flashing neon lights what the story is about, and we only fail to see it because we have been taught to read Protestant theology into the story.

It is true that the Garden of Eden story is linked to man's mortality (which is different from his damnation), but not in the way people often are taught. Even after sinning, humanity could have had immortality had Adam eaten from the tree of the fruit of life. [Genesis 3:22] and the principal reason God kicks Adam out of the Garden is that (for whatever reason) God did not want Adam to both know the difference between good and evil and be immortal.

But the story answers other questions as well. For example, it explains why snakes have no legs [Genesis 3:14], more importantly it explains where our conscience, our ability to determine right and wrong, comes from [Genesis 3:5-7, and Genesis 3:22 again].

Most importantly, it acts as a key lead-in to Noah's story!!

Yes, I believe it is not an over-estimation to say that the single most important theme of the Garden of Eden is that it acts as a prequel to Noah's work. It does not appear that way to us because we focus on the least important aspect of Noah and miss a key point to the Garden of Eden story.

When you think of Noah, you think of the flood. And when you think of the flood story, the conclusion everyone remembers is the rainbow as a proof that God will not destroy the Earth by flood. To us Americans living in the land of plenty, where true poverty and hunger are extremely rare, the dramatic story of the flood and the destruction it wrought on the Earth is the key point. But to the Israelites/Hebrews reading the story of Noah, the flood is not the real point.

When we look at the passage where God makes a covenant with Noah [8:21-22] we note two blessings given to Noah. The one everyone knows (the rainbow, etc.), and another one "I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the intention of his heart is evil from his youth."

Recall that in Genesis 3:17-19 the ground is cursed because of Adam's sin. Prior to this curse Adam was still expected to work in the garden and tend it [Genesis 2:15]. The curse made the work much harder. Indeed, Noah gets his name because he was appointed to reverse this curse: Genesis 5:29 reads “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands.” [The Hebrew word Noah sounds like the word for "bring us relief" and there are several puns made on this in the ensuing story of the flood.]

This reference to agriculture is also found in Noah being the first person to plant a vineyard.

 In fact, Noah more than reverses the curse because not only does God remove the curse on the ground, but for the first time God allows humanity to eat animals rather than only plants. [Genesis 9:3] This is another reason why the curse on the ground was so onerous: humanity depended completely on agriculture rather than ranching.

So I think the most significant part of the Garden of Eden, at least for the original readers, was its role in the general drama of sustenance. Before the garden, no plants were cultivated because it had not rained and there was no one to tend them. Adam is made and put in the garden to tend the plants there. Adam's sin causes the ground to be cursed, making life hard. Noah gets his namesake from the hope that he will break the curse, and sure enough that is what happens. He more than breaks the curse because the ground is no longer cursed and humanity can now eat animals as well.

How very different we read the story.