Thursday, April 26, 2012

Eternal Life in John 5:39

Those who have read TGYNH will know that I'm quite interested in the αἰώνιον ζωὴν, the Greek phrase that is translated "Eternal Life" in most bibles. I put forward the claim that this term was mostly intended not primarily as a reference to immortality in heaven but rather referred to the new covenant life believers enjoy through the holy spirit. In other words, αἰώνιον ζωὴν was "code" in some sense for "life in the Messianic Kingdom" or " the world to come," a concept with which Jesus' Jewish audience was well acquainted.

(This is not to claim there is no such thing as the afterlife or the abolishment of death, Jesus addresses this in other words within Luke 20:35-36, which actually bears on this discussion later.)

The most direct indication that αἰώνιον ζωὴν does not mean "eternal life" in the way we normally think about it comes in John 17:3, where John uses a very specific grammatical construct to DEFINE αἰώνιον ζωὴν as "that they may know you, the one true God, and Christ whom you have sent."

Today I found another interesting testimony to this idea that when Jesus speaks to his Jewish audience of "αἰώνιον ζωὴν," He is not emphasizing or even referencing immortality but is rather referring to the question of who will be chosen to join in the blessings of the Messianic age. Check out John 5:39, shown in context below.
John 5:39–41 (NAB)
39 You search the scriptures, because you think you have eternal life through them; even they testify on my behalf.
40 But you do not want to come to me to have life.

The "eternal life" here is the same phrase, αἰώνιον ζωὴν, mentioned above. There is something very strange about John 5:39. Jesus claims that the Jews He addresses are searching Scripture, the Jewish Torah, because they have "αἰώνιον ζωὴν" through them. But this would make no sense if αἰώνιον ζωὴν meant "eternal life." The Jews did not believe in eternal life. Many of them believed in a resurrection, where those who suffered in the past could have an opportunity to enjoy life in the Messianic Kingdom. But that resurrection did not have immortality attached to it. Those selected for the World to Come could look forward to a long life where they could safely worship God, but this life would still involve normal human frailty and death. [For example, consider Zech 8:4]

This somewhat explains the question posed for Jesus in Luke 20:35-36 (see also Matthew's version in Matthew 22:23-31).  The Jews assumed life in the coming age was similar to life in this one, which meant death, which meant the need to procreate, and hence meant that marriage was a necessary feature. But Jesus says that there is no death, and so there is no need for marriage, and hence their question is ill-posed.

So, the Jews do not believe in eternal life, yet Jesus accuses them of searching Torah because they they will find αἰώνιον ζωὴν there. This makes no sense if αἰώνιον ζωὴν is a reference to "eternal life." However, it makes complete sense if it is a general way of referring to the "life in the world to come." The Jews most definitely did believe in the World to Come, and they also believed that studying and applying Torah was the prime way to get there!

One statement from the Mishnah shows this in a backhanded manner: (Abot 3:11):

‎  R. Eleazar the Modite says, “(1) He who treats Holy Things as secular, and (2) he who defiles the appointed times, (3) he who humiliates his fellow in public, (4) he who removes the signs of the covenant of Abraham, our father, (may he rest in peace), and (5) he who exposes aspects of the Torah not in accord with the law, “even though he has in hand learning in Torah and good deeds, will have no share in the world to come.”

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Interesting points from the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew

I finished my second read of the Hebrew gospel of Matthew and the translator, George Howard, offers some interesting justification for why a Hebrew version of Matthew's Gospel is more likely to be the original one than the canonical Greek version that practically all normal Bibles used.

I pointed out in TGYNH how the end of Matthew presents an odd problem. Jesus supposedly tells the apostles in Matthew 28:19-20 that they are to go and make disciples of all nations, but reading the history shown in Acts makes this hard to believe. The apostles do not go out to make disciples of the Gentiles and the Jews at the Jerusalem council are quite shocked to hear that Peter had baptized any gentiles nearly 20 years after Jesus' resurrection.

In the Hebrew version of Matthew Gospel, the gospel ends with Jesus simply saying  "To me has been given all power in heaven and earth. Go and teach them to carry out all the things which I have commanded you forever."

There is no trinitarian baptismal formula and no discussion of other nations. George Howard points out other examples where the Hebrew version differs in ways suggesting that the original text did not foresee the evangelism of the Gentiles. One example is that the Greek text of Matthew 9:13 has Jesus saying "I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners." The Hebrew text has "I did not come to restore the righteous, but sinners."

In the Greek version of Matthew 13:38, the field is pictured as "the world" in terms of its physical geography...that is "the entire world." But in the Hebrew version it has instead the emphasis of time "This world" versus "the world to come."

George Howard points out another difficult reading in the Greek versions, one that I had not noticed earlier. In the story of the Canaanite women in Matthew 15:21-28, the canonical versions have the disciples telling Jesus to send the woman away, and Jesus "answers" them by saying he did not come but for Israel. The odd thing about this is that this is not really an "answer" at all. It does not rebuke the disciples nor explain why he is not sending the woman away. It is a strangely middle-ground statement [Jesus ignores the woman but does not send her away, but does not justify why he is not sending her away.]

In the Hebrew version, though, the disciples do not tell Jesus to send her away. Instead, they ask Jesus why he is ignoring her. Against that backdrop, Jesus response makes much more sense because it actually answers the disciples' question.

I recommend this book to all Christians.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Four Ways to Consider the Bible

While there are many, many perspectives on the Bible, I think most people hold one of three views:
  • The atheist/agnostic literature perspective
  • The conservative/traditional static-flat perspective
  • The liberal fluid perspective
The first of these is not very interesting from a theological standpoint. If one believes God does not exist or is unknowable, than the Bible has little value as Holy Writ.

The second perspective is the typical evangelical/classical protestant view. Above all else it stresses the Bible as God's Word for human-kind. Part of this perspective demands that the Bible is meant for all people more-or-less equally, which requires whatever truth the Bible had for 3rd century readers to be just as valid as whatever truths it has for us today.

Since truth lies outside time, it is not hard to see how this basic assumption leads to a "static" Bible. If the Bible could be re-interpreted by each generation in that generation's context, one cannot help come across a genuine truth of one era contravening a genuine truth of another. If the Bible is God's timeless word to humankind, it's principles cannot change from century to century (though the applications of those principles certainly can).

While it is easy to to see why the conservative/traditional view leads to a static Bible, it is less appreciated that it also leads to a "flat" one. For traditionalists, the Bible is a cohesive unit intended as a whole work. It is God writing through different quills, but all a single piece. This means all its parts fit together without any conflicts, sharp points or rough edges. This goes beyond mere internal consistency. For the traditionalist, the whole work aims to answer the same key questions, and its various parts actively agree with one another toward this goal.

This "flatness" extends to the audience as well. The reader is to assume everyone on Earth form a single audience for which the entirety of the Bible was intended. This, of course, connects back to the notion of the Bible being God's word for all humans.

Contrast this with the liberal, fluid perspective, which may or may not consider modern readers as a primary intended audience for the Bible and tends to divide its teachings into those that are relevant today and those that are inapplicable, which they generally ignore.

Not that liberals are the only ones who marginalize parts of the Bible they find troubling. Their treatment of topics considered unpalatable today (Hell, God's wrath, and the many politically unsavory aspects of God's Law) is perhaps slightly better than how a typical conservative/traditionalist handles passages difficult to their theology or politics. Liberals tend to ignore or dismiss passages they don't like while conservatives neuter them.

Press an evangelical on how John 5:29 and Acts 21:24-26 intersects with their theology or how Luke 12:16-21 and Acts 2:45 intersect with their politics and practice, or how
Matthew 25:34-46 Luke 10:25-37 intersect with both, and you are almost certain to be told that those passages don't really say what they appear to say. Jesus did not really mean that the judgment will be based on an individual's actions, nor did he really mean we shouldn't store up money for retirement, and he certainly didn't suggest we pick up and help random (possibly dangerous!) people on the roadside.

A fourth perspective could be called the "Archipelago" view, which attempts to respect the individual components of the Bible as missives written for various purposes and to various audiences, but each intended for a specific historical audience long, long ago. This does not mean they are unimportant for us, after all they were written by people who have a far better understanding of God and Christ and spiritual cosmology than anyone alive today. However, when interfacing with these texts we must humbly accept that we are silent guests, generally coming in late on a conversation between people who are more acquainted with each other than we are with either one.

One of the most important points of this Archipelago perspective is not just that biblical writers wrote to address different needs and answer different questions, but by and large the questions they intended to address are not the ones considered important by the church today. Hence, one must be careful lest we take from Paul or John the right answer to the wrong question.

Evangelicals typically focus on three questions:
  • What is the relationship between Jesus Christ and God?
  • How does one go to heaven?
  • How did Christ's death address the problem of our individual guilt before God?
Yet these are not the questions deemed important by the writers of the Bible. The Jews of Jesus day already had a perfectly reasonable answer to the second question, which Jesus modifies only a bit, indicating that HE will judge rather than the Father. According to their understanding of the Judgment, the third question is ill-posed.

The various texts of the new testament seek to answer many questions, none of them being the ones posed above:
  • What is the relationship between Jesus Christ and mankind?
  • How does Jesus' resurrection address the problem of man's physical mortality?
  • How does Jesus' death relate to HIS status before God?
  • How has the Kingdom of God been opened to the Gentiles?
  • If Gentiles can now fully follow the Jewish Messiah, should they also keep the Jewish ordinances?
  • What is the content of the new covenant?
  • How should followers of Christ live on Earth while expectantly waiting Christ's return?
  • What does it mean to have faith in God?
 One of the reasons the thoughts above came into my mind today is that Easter is all about Christ's resurrection, which is generally under-appreciated (compared to Christ's death) by modern Christians. A fair reading of Acts should convince anyone that the "good news" spread by the apostles to those they were evangelizing is "Jesus of Nazareth is the risen King of Creation." Interestingly, the chief relevance of the crucifixion in the evangelism there is as proof of prophecy fulfilled rather than offering made.

It was important to show that the OT indicated that the Messiah would be killed not to convince everyone that Jesus paid for their sins but to explain to the Jewish people the unfathomable idea that God's Champion would overthrow death by dying. Otherwise, how could they believe that Jesus was God's Christ? The conventional wisdom of the time suggested that Jesus' death proved that he was not, in fact, the Son of David, because how could the Messiah save Israel from the grave?

Saturday, April 7, 2012

He is Risen!

In my time zone, dawn has come.


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Two passages that caught my eye today

Two passages in Matthew grabbed today during my reading.

Matthew 16:23-25 is one of the places where Christ describes how those who wish to "follow Him" should take up their cross and deny themselves. I had mentally always made two assumptions in this reading:

First, that the "follow me" was a reference to "be a genuine member of my following" or "be someone who has taken my precepts to heart and follows my spiritual philosophy, etc."

Second, that the "deny themselves" is a reference to humble living and sacrifice of comfort.

But when I read it today, a different meaning came out, perhaps one that is more aligned with the context, which discusses Christ's coming death and resurrection (before the passage) and the Judgment (after the passage).

I'm now considering that the "follow me" may reference a more literal notion of "follow," but still taken in an abstract way. In particular, the idea of "Follow me through the boundary of life and death...and then the boundary between death and life."

This interpretation is more in line with what I think are core points of early Christian thought, namely that Christ has proven the temporary nature of death and God's righteousness in vindicating the righteous over death [c.f. 1 Peter 2:23]. This notion has a key connection with an under-valued prophesy that I cannot find at the moment regarding Israel's leader blasting a hole through death for the nation to follow through. This prophecy is purported to have been important to Hebrew Rabbis of the time, but I don't know that I still have the reference where I saw its discussion.

Another passage that drew my attention was Matthew 19:9, one of the passages dealing with divorce. Jesus says that everyone who divorces his wife, except from adultery, commits adultery. I wonder whether this is meant to have some reference to God's coming temporary divorce from the Jewish people, or even God's earlier divorce from Israel (as opposed to Judah). In both cases the people were adulterous before the divorce.

Monday, April 2, 2012

I'm back I know I said a while back that I was hoping to start posting regularly...but this time I mean it!

I began reading the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew and the book "Terms for Eternity" recently and hope to have time for more blogging in general now that I'm in the wrapping-up stages of a chess book.