Posted by: mattcolvin | March 15, 2018

Reading Romans 4:1 from left to right

“Despite an intriguing suggestion to the contrary, it is best to read Romans 4:1 as it is usually translated: “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has discovered?”
– John M. G. Barclay. “Paul and the Gift.”
Philologically speaking, there is zero chance that his rendering of Romans 4:1 is the right one. The correct reading is that of Wright and Hays: “What then shall we say? That we have found Abraham our forefather according to the flesh?” Pace Barclay, this is not an “intriguing suggestion.” It is, rather, the natural and plain reading of the Greek.
It is not plausible that any ancient reader would have taken the τί of τί οὖν ἐροῦμεν as the object of εὑρηκέναι instead of as the object of ἐροῦμεν. Ancient Greek readers read from left to right. They would have been familiar with Paul’s dialectical technique of introducing an imagined objection with τί οὖν ἐροῦμεν (“What then shall we say?” – cf. Rom. 6:1, 7:7, 8:31, 9:14, 9:30 – and that is just within Romans). Reading Rom. 4:1 after 3:31’s resounding, “May it not be! Rather, we establish the Torah,” every ancient reader would have taken it as Paul’s usual way of turning to an imagined objection. The first three words would be the familiar “What then shall we say?”, with τί construed quite naturally as the direct object of ἐροῦμεν. But if Barclay is to be believed, they would then have had to revise their construal of the sentence upon discovering that τί was actually the direct object of εὑρηκέναι. As a process of decoding the syntax of a sentence, this is whiplash-inducing.
No one would have taken 4:1 to be asking “what has Abraham found?”, especially because there is no subsequent discussion of Abraham “finding” anything.

In a footnote (88), Barclay asserts, following Engberg-Pedersen, that Wright’s and Hays’ reading is “fatally flawed: if it were a predicate, “forefather” would have no definite article, which it has in Paul’s Greek.”


This ignorance is perpetuated by Barclay, who says, “There is no evidence that ‘the forefather’ was a well-known title of Abraham.” But there is no need for such a construal. Anyone who has ever taken Greek prose composition would know that to render “Abraham our forefather,” one will need to use the definite article, for Αβραὰμ προπάτορα ἡμῶν without the article would mean “Abraham, a forefather of ours”, just as Zahn says.

Incidentally, this is the second time I’ve found Zahn nailing the Greek for a controverted verse. He also solved the pseudo-problem of alleged conflict between John’s chronology of the Passion week and that of the synoptics, by pointing out that παρασκευη του Πασχα does not mean “the day before the Passover” but “the preparation [of the Sabbath] of the Passover week”, i.e. Friday in the Passover week, the same day on which the synoptics also say Jesus was crucified.

Posted by: mattcolvin | January 30, 2018

Vafthrudnir and Gollum


Above: Vafthrudnir Concedes, illustration by Lorenz Frølich, 1895.

Among the poems included in the Elder, or Poetic Edda, is the lay of Vafthrudnir (Vafþrúðnir), a giant (jotunn) who engages in a contest of question-and-answer with Gagnrâd, who is actually the god Odin in disguise. Vafthrudnir goes first, and quizzes Odin about various recondite facts about the Norse cosmos: the identity of the divine horses that pull the sun and moon, and various eschatological details about Ragnarok. Odin then returns the favour, asking Vafthrudnir about the fate of various Aesir and their opponents, until at last, he ends with this question:

GAGNRÂD (actually Odin): Much have I journeyed, much experienced, mighty ones many proved. What said Odin in his son’s ear, ere he on the [pyre] was laid?

VAFTHRÛDNIR: That no one knoweth, what thou in days of old saidst in thy son’s ear. With dying mouth my ancient saws I have said, and the gods’ destruction. With Odin I have contended in wise utterances: of men thou ever art the wisest!

(B. Thorpe, trans. “The Elder Eddas of Saemund Sigfusson; and the Younger Eddas of Snorre Sturleson.”, available here.)

It is apparent that J.R.R. Tolkien based his chapter of The Hobbit, “Riddles in the Dark” on this contest and others like it in Norse mythology. Notice that Vafthrûdnir, no less than Gollum, had adequate reason to claim that his opponent’s final riddle “wasn’t a fair question… Not a riddle, precious, no”: “What have I got in my pocket?” and “What did Odin say in the ear of the dead Balder?” are both alike details unknowable except to the asker.


Posted by: mattcolvin | December 31, 2017

Woodcutting and Wrath

Photo credit: R. Hernandez

Deuteronomy 20 includes instructions for Israel to follow when besieging the cities of the Canaanites; among these are detailed rules for distinguishing between different kinds of trees:

“When you besiege a city a long time, to make war against it in order to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them; for you may eat from them, and you shall not cut them down. For is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by you? Only the trees which you know are not fruit trees you shall destroy and cut down, that you may construct siegeworks against the city that is making war with you until it falls.” (Deuteronomy 20:19-20 NASB)

This passage is the subject of another illuminating connection from David Daube that I had not seen before:

“Care for continuity determines the prohibition of cutting down the enemy’s food-bearing trees to serve as siege material. The law emphatically uses two verbs for “to destroy”: both appear in the negative part against the cutting down of a food-giving tree and in the positive part permitting the cutting down of a tree giving no food. The verbs are hisḥith and karath, both suggestive of extermination, prevention of living on in any way whatever…

“In a somewhat obscure clause of the law a comparison is drawn, or rejected, between a tree and a man: such comparisons are typical of wisdom [literature], though they may of course be incorporated in ordinary speech. (The usual rendering assumes that the comparison is rejected: “Is the tree a man that it should be besieged?” There are several difficulties – above all, that this consideration ought to save the barren tree as well as the useful one. Maybe we should rely on the assumption that the comparison is affirmed: “The tree is [represents] the man and thus comes to be besieged.” This might allude to the preceding law, dividing the nations into such as are in some measure worthy of perpetuation and such as are to be extirpated.)…”

“Surprisingly, it does not seem to have been noticed that the Baptist’s preaching as recorded in Matthew [3:8 ff.] and Luke [3:9] is indebted to the Deuteronomic law: “And now also the axe is laid unto the roots of the trees. Therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is cut off and cast into the fire.” Useful and barren or poisonous trees are separated; while the former will be saved, the latter will be completely eradicated. “To cut off,” ekkopto, corresponds to karath and figures in the Septuagint’s translation of the law; “the axe,”” too, occurs in the first part of the law. How far John is thinking of the law itself, how far these ideas by his time have gone into a general pool, it is hard to say. It is not a priori impossible that the image of a siege was in his mind. The reference to fire would certainly not be out of place: the wood condemned to serve as siege material would often enough find its end in a conflagration.” – D. Daube, Law and Wisdom in the Bible: David Daube’s Gifford Lectures volume 2. (Templeton Press: 2010) p. 21-22.

I’m not sure if I buy it. If Daube is correct, then John the Baptist’s warning of the “axe laid to the root of the trees” is no longer merely a metaphor for divine judgment of whatever sort, be it abstract or eternal, but instead stands forth as a frightening allusion to the details of siege procedures from Deuteronomy — a prophecy of imminent destruction in a this-worldly, historical war such as actually overtook Jerusalem in 65-70 AD. This use of Deuteronomy, if it is intentional, is made even more frightening by the fact that Jerusalem fills the role occupied by the Canaanite cities in Deuteronomy 20.

My friends who enjoy the work of Andrew Perriman or the late David Chilton may find this an interesting connection.

Posted by: mattcolvin | November 29, 2017

The Exegesis of Immutability


So, I’m paging through James Dolezal’s little book All That is in God. I’m looking for exegetical evidence for the doctrines of Classical Theism. Here we go:

“Numerous biblical passages witness to God’s unchangeableness. In Numbers 23:19, God does not repent”

A mere glance at Numbers 23 shows that it is covenantal only. The entire context concerns Balaam’s attempt to curse Israel contrary to God’s covenantal love and election of them. There is nothing here about God’s being. Worse, Dolezal offers no exegesis of the passage. Apparently, “does not repent” is supposed to be all the proof we need.

But of course, there are numerous passages that say that God does repent. The same verb (nâcham) is used in Exodus 32:14: “And YHWH repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.” Similarly, 1 Sa 15:35 (“YHWH repented that he had made Saul king over Israel”), 2 Sa 24:16 (“YHWH repented him of the evil [the plague]”), and other passages.

With what face will Dolezal tell us that these passages are metaphorical anthropopathisms, while the one with a negative is to be taken au pied de la lettre?

In Malachi 3:6, God says, “For I am the LORD, I do not change”

Again, this is clearly covenantal. God appeals to the “Sons of Jacob” who “from the days of our fathers have gone away from my ordinances.” One wonders whether Dolezal even looked at the context at all, for in the very next line, YHWH urges:

“Return to me, and I will return to you.”

Shuvu ēlî we’ašuvâ elêkem

In light of Malachi’s symmetrical use of the same verb, shuv, for both Israel’s and God’s act of “returning,” it is a singularly terrible text to use as a proof of Israel’s relationship with an immutable God.

Next is James 1:17, where God is “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.”

Dolezal offers no comment on this verse, apparently believing that its prima facie meaning is sufficient support for his position. But once again, the context shows that the author is speaking of God’s unchanging faithfulness and goodness, not of ontological immutability. The metaphor is from astronomy: the heavenly bodies are variable in their luminosity. The sun gives bright light at noon, dim light at dusk; the moon, likewise, changes in its phases according to the time of month. But God, designated here as the “Father of lights”, is not like the Sun and Moon. His light does not wax and wane; there is no παραλλαγή.

James’ image is the same as that used in Revelation, speaking of the New Jerusalem: “The city had no need of the sun or of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminated it. The Lamb is its light… Its gates shall not be shut at all by day (there shall be no night there).” (Rev. 21:23-25) James’ phrase “shadow of turning” (τροπῆς ἀποσκίασμα) is also an astronomical image. The word τροπή can denote the solstices (Dt. 33:14) and equinoxes. It can also be used for other circular motions of the heavenly bodies (Job 38:33), or – probably the best parallel for James’ usage – “a point on the horizon, probably in the West, or place where the sun sets” (LSJ). Thus, the point is not “God doesn’t change whatsoever” but “God’s goodness to us, unlike the light of the sun, never diminishes.” A moment’s thought about this imagery shows that it concerns, not God in Himself, but God in His relation to His redeemed people: not the Sun considered as a fiery ball of gas, but as shedding its rays upon the earth. It is covenantal, not ontological language.

Dolezal continues:

Hebrews 6:13–18 even indicates that God swears by Himself in giving the promise to Abraham and that the surety of this promise is based on the fact that He is unchangeable (Heb. 6:18, Greek, ἀμεταθέτων). This clearly indicates that immutability signifies more than simply God’s covenant faithfulness since the assurance of His covenant faithfulness is itself staked on His unchangeable being.

Really? What mention is there of God’s unchangeable being here?

The verb ἐπιδεῖξαι (“thus God, determining to show more abundantly…”) is a technical, forensic word, “to afford proof of”.  What does he show? “…the immutability of His counsel,” not of his being. How does he show it? Not by appealing to his being, but by swearing an oath. Thus, Hebrews says, God has assured his heirs of his will by (1) the promise and (2) the oath. These are the “two unchangeable things.” These are the matters “in which it is impossible that God should lie.” And both of these are covenantal, not ontological.

If faithfulness itself should be that which constitutes God’s immutability, then why offer an oath staked on His own self/life in order to strengthen the assurance that His promise will remain constant? The plain sense appears to be that God’s unwavering covenant faithfulness is worthy of our hope precisely because it is rooted in His unwavering and unchangeable being.”

This argument proves too much. If God were immutable, there would be no need for an oath at all. Nor, for that matter, would an appeal to one’s own immutability count as an oath: that is simply not what an oath is.

Most oaths in the Bible are either implicitly or explicitly self-maledictory (e.g. “May God deal with me, be it ever so severely, if I do not kill Jonathan…”). And that is the usual force of swearing by oneself, as also of the ceremony of dividing animals by which YHWH confirms his oath in Genesis 15. It has nothing to do with appealing to one’s own being or to ontological immutability.
We can take God at his word because he has always kept his promises. That is enough. Attempting to penetrate beyond this to an analysis of the being of God, and claiming that that being has been proven to be immutable is unnecessary. It is also, as we have seen in these four examples, a great way to misinterpret passages of the Bible in an effort to make them answer a question which their authors were not addressing.

Posted by: mattcolvin | November 3, 2017

Linguistic Cynicism

In an article for Unravelling, John McWhorter writes:

No linguist says that people should ignore the fact that it is preferred in some settings that you say “Billy and I went to the store” rather than “Billy and me.” What the linguist is saying is that those rules are not based on any kind of logic or any kind of scientific principle, and the reason that’s important is because it means that when you hear somebody using one of these prescribed [sic: he means proscribed, i.e. prohibited] constructions, they’re not doing something that’s dirty, broken, or wrong.
Yes, if somebody is saying “acks” instead of “ask” when making a public speech, that’s unfortunate. They should say “ask” just like they should wear underwear, just like they shouldn’t be using a cane today, just like they shouldn’t be wearing a waist coat, just like in 1950 they would have to have been wearing a suit. Fashion is arbitrary, just like things with language.


It’s delightful to see a radical descriptivist like McWhorter committing howlers of diction (prescribed for proscribed). But it’s even more delightful that he reveals his presuppositions so blatantly. For him, the rules of formal English grammar and morphology are “fashions.” By this he means not merely that they are conventions, but that they are arbitrary conventions. Violations of prescriptivist rules are not “dirty, broken, or wrong.” They are simply the way language is developing. They are natural.

Nature! But which nature? Diogenes the Cynic (404-323 BC) thought that a life “in accordance with nature” meant that we should all urinate in public, disregard rules of commerce by eating food in the marketplace without paying for it, have sex wherever we want, etc. He deliberately showed his contempt for all social conventions: “Thus do I trample on the pride of Plato!” The result was that he acted like a dog (κύων, κύνος > Cynic). But his philosophical opponents, the Stoics, taught that we ought to pursue life in accordance with human nature, not the nature of dogs.



Diogenes in his pithos outside the temple of Athena Nike, being taunted by Athenian women. Painting by J.W. Waterhouse.

Linguistic descriptivists who decry the artificiality of prescriptive grammar are the spiritual heirs of Diogenes. They see a new linguistic development and say, “See? This is according to the nature of language.” But is it? It is in accordance with human nature for language to develop in an unregulated, wild manner? Human beings are natural gardeners. Pure descriptivism bids us leave the garden untended: no pruning of solecisms, no weeding of ugly forms, no cultivation of graceful constructions shaped and defended by rules or pedagogy or the framework of traditional models. Instead, just admire all linguistic developments: they all have equal integrity and beauty, right?

In a recent interview, McWhorter remarks on the recent usage of the word “literally” to mean “figuratively” — as in, “Trump is literally Hitler”:

The fact that literally can mean both itself and its opposite is — admit it — cool! The way literally now works is a quirky, chance development that makes one quietly proud to speak a language.

No, it isn’t cool. It’s a sign of a fundamental misunderstanding of the concepts (not merely the words!) of literal and figurative. I’m sure it’s fascinating to a descriptivist from a certain point of view to see how this sort of thing can happen, much as a chemist who knows all about oxidation reactions might be delighted by the rusting of a vintage sportscar’s bodywork. But if we ask, “Does this sort of development help people communicate precisely and elegantly?” the answer is surely, “No.” Any word that “can mean both itself and its opposite” has lost much its usefulness for expressing its original meaning.

Posted by: mattcolvin | October 9, 2017

Mom of Constant Laundry

Many years ago, my wife recorded a parody of “Man of Constant Sorrow” from O Brother Where Art Thou. It’s called “Mom of Constant Laundry”. I posted it on my old blog, but the link got broken, so I am posting it again. You can download it here

Posted by: mattcolvin | July 13, 2017

Instone-Brewer on “Who is the greatest?”

“It was natural that the disciples would discuss who was the greatest at this meal, because the seating plan and the progress of the meal depended on it. The head of the group leads the prayers and readings, and the youngest male who asks him the questions would have a prominent role that night, so he might sit near the head (or center) of the triclinium. The seating of the rest was probably determined by their relative age or importance — they would line up in order before they reclined, with the least important individuals furthest away from the head. All this would explain the heated debate among the disciples, before or during the meal, about their relative importance (Lk.22.24-27; cf. Jn.13.15f). It appears that ‘the one whom Jesus loved’ (usually identified as John) was the youngest and yet was next to Jesus, probably because of the special role which the youngest plays in the Passover liturgy. Peter, being the most important disciple, was next to him (Jn.13.23-25). If Judas was next to Jesus on the other side (as suggested by Jn.13.26-28), this would indicate that he was either considered to be very important, or he had pushed himself forward.”

David Instone-Brewer. Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament vol. 2A (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011). p. 184.

Posted by: mattcolvin | April 10, 2017

On the Form of Jesus’ Answer to the Sadducees

Harvard professor Jon Levenson includes in his book Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel a chapter entitled “Resurrection in the Torah?” In it, he discusses the various clever exegetical and eisegetical maneuvers by which the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud attempted to prove that the Torah taught the doctrine of bodily resurrection. 

One passage relates the response of Rabbi Simai to the Sadducees’ position:

Rabbi Simai says: How do we know that the resurrection of the dead can be derived from the Torah? From the verse, ‘‘I also established My covenant with them [that is, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob], to give them the land of Canaan’’ (Exod 6:4). ‘‘To you’’ is not written but ‘‘to them.’’ Hence, resurrection of the dead can be derived from the Torah. (b. Sanh. 90b)

The form of the argument is identical to that used by Jesus in Matthew 22:31-32, where he appeals to Exodus 3:6’s statement, “I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” to argue (elliptically)  that the patriarchs must live (or must be resurrected), since God is the god of the living, not of the dead. Whether this argument depended on the tense of the verb, or merely on the patriarchs’ being the stated covenant-partners of the LORD is disputed in the scholarship. 

Rabbi Simai appeals to the pronoun: “not ‘to you’, but ‘to them’. A similar grammatical precision is employed by Paul in Galatians 3:16’s parsing of the promise to Abraham: “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds (τοῖς σπέρμασιν) as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed (τῷ σπέρματι), which is Christ.”

The rabbis were also capable of suspending an entire argument from a minor grammatical detail, such as the tense of a verb — or even tendentiously misinterpreting the tense of a verb, as Rabbi Judah haNasi does regarding the verse introducing Moses’ song of the Sea in Exodus 15:1:

‘‘Then Moses sang (šār)’’ is not written here, but rather ‘‘Then Moses will sing (yāšîr).’’ Thus we are instructed that the resurrection of the dead can be derived from the Torah. (Mek., Shirta 1)

Levenson’s verdict on early rabbinic attempts to prove resurrection from the Torah is wry:

This interpretation makes for exceedingly bad philology, to be sure, but also for rich and powerful theology.

Posted by: mattcolvin | April 3, 2017

On Daube and Method

The Scottish legal scholar and justice of the Supreme Court of the UK, Sir Alan Rodger, was a pupil of David Daube at Oxford. In a 2004 article he sums up David Daube’s method of reading texts:

…what we do not seem to be taught is a kind of disciplined examination of texts. In Germany, the traditional form was the Digestenexegese, but we have no similar tradition here [sc. in England].
Yet Daube’s work provides endless models of how we should proceed. For it matters little whether the text is a statute, a Digest text or a line of Ovid or Homer. In all cases the crucial thing for Daube is to notice precisely what expressions are used. And then you have to ask yourself why. Why did the draughtsman or author use this word rather than another? Why does that item come at the end of the list rather than at the beginning? Does this text actually make sense or has it been modified and has something gone wrong in the process of modification? These are the kinds of issues which regularly present themselves, or should present themselves, when a reader is trying to understand a modern text just as much as an ancient text.

Elaborating on this point, Ernest Metzger in the same volume puts it this way:

Daube’s work has a quality we can admire even when we are not persuaded by it: he will explain a text in a way which is entirely unexpected, but which seems suddenly to reveal something that had lain unnoticed. How does he do this? According to Alan Rodger, Daube would notice something in a text and ask why it was there; he would then explain the text by answering the question. This essay discusses Daube’s method of reading texts, and discusses in particular why it is useful to begin with a qustion, how Daube finds the right questions to ask, and what makes one answer better than another. I argue that Daube’s method of reading texts produces the explanations it does because it does not rely on inferences from the text so much as prior guesses about what the text means.

Metzger goes on to compare Daube’s method to Karl Popper’s view of science as really driven – contrary to all the school textbooks – by non-inductive, creative, hypothesis-driven research. It is a method only practicable by those who are steeped not only in the languages of the literature they are studying but also in other languages and other literatures, which from ideas and comparanda may be derived.

Gabriel von Max, The Raising of the Daughter of Jairus, 1881.

These are notes for a sermon I preached this morning at Church of Our Lord in Victoria, BC, for the 4th Sunday in Lent.

Mark 5:21-43
This section of Mark’s gospel is a double story: the woman with a flow of bleeding is framed by the beginning and the end of the story of Jairus. And the two stories are intended to play off each other in interesting ways. Jairus is bold, the woman with the flow of blood is timid. The daughter is 12 years old; the woman has suffered bleeding for the same length of time. The woman is not named, while Jairus is. Perhaps this is protective anonymity, lest she suffer for her testimony of what Jesus did for her. Jairus is named presumably because he was well-known in the early Christian movement, and so that readers of the story could ask him about it and thereby verify the testimony that Mark relays from him; perhaps also because he was already dead, and thus safe from persecution.
Jairus is a “ruler of the synagogue” – not a very important person, but a leader the community. He humbles himself quite blatantly, “falling at Jesus’ feet” (5:22), and puts his request: His daughter is “at death’s door” – literally, “disposed finally” (ἐσχάτως ἔχει, 5:23). The father is driven by desperation. We can imagine what has brought him to this point: his daughter’s health has become worse and worse; the doctors can do nothing; the spirits of the household are slipping. So the father goes to find Jesus. Ponder the connection between a father’s love and the humility he shows in his request – prostrate, “begging earnestly”, his worry and fear and love in every word: she is not “my daughter” but “my little daughter”. It is the diminutive of affection. Read More…

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