Posted by: mattcolvin | January 17, 2020

“God Repented” vs Greek Ontology


Above: An approximation of Parmenides’ “what is.”


There is an ongoing conflict between Biblical studies and philosophical theology. N.T. Wright sums it up this way in his essay “Historical Paul and Systematic Theology”:

“In a famous conversation between Paul Tillich and C. H. Dodd at Union Seminary in New York, Tillich basically said that there was no point twiddling his thumbs waiting for some nugget of useful exegesis to emerge from the lexical and text-critical work going on down the hall. This negative comment has frequently been reciprocated, as biblical scholars see theologians who not only claim to be ‘biblical’ but write books about the authority of scripture making more or less no use of the Bible itself in their deliberations. In some quarters, biblical scholars explicitly reject ‘theological’ proposals, as though they were bound to corrupt the pure historical study of the text. If there is supposed to be a marriage of biblical studies and theology, then as Paul says about marriage in Ephesians 5 – but in a different sense – it is a great mystery.”

Alastair Roberts gives a similar assessment in his contribution to a recent book on classical theism:

“A preoccupation with God as He is in Himself, when proceeding in detachment from the revelation and action of God in history, is always in danger of distorting the character of Christian faith, replacing the intensely historical and relational realities of the scriptural text with doctrinal abstractions… [Dogmatic theology] faces the insistent temptation to reduce the Scripture to the handmaiden of its own authority, or the raw material for its own conceptual edifices. The dogmatician is in danger of approaching Scripture as if it were a mirror for his theological self-regard, within which to seek the confirming reflection of his doctrine (a posture most commonly seen in proof-texting approaches)…” – Alastair Roberts1

I find myself in the middle of this debate. As a scholar of languages and antiquity who cut his teeth on the puzzling Greek of the Presocratics, I am often frustrated by what passes for exegesis among Christian theologians. On the other hand, as a minister in a church committed to classical Anglicanism, and subscribing to the 39 Articles of Religion, I assent to the statement that God is “without body, parts, or passions” (Article I.1) – but then I find myself compelled to hedge and qualify this statement in order to remain faithful to the Biblical text.2 I count myself among the heirs of John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer, and the English Reformers, who all held to classical theism. I have no desire to overthrow this system. At the same time, I find the exegetical foundation for the doctrines of classical theism terribly lacking. My interactions with writers for the Davenant Institute have shown that they are aware of the problem.2.1 They feel the need for a solid exegetical grounding for the doctrines of classical theism of which they are some of the most prominent defenders. So this essay is an attempt from a sympathetic, but critical, onlooker to state the ways in which the current exegetical defences of some of the more contentious doctrines of classical theism fall short.

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Posted by: mattcolvin | August 13, 2019

Concerning Skubalon


The rector of the church we attend in Victoria singled me out in the course of a sermon on Philippians 3, as an expert on the word σκύβαλον. I groaned and laughed. “Of all the things to be an authority on!” He had read an old article in which Peter Leithart had quoted my research into the semantic range and register of the word. For the sake of easy reference, I am reproducing my comments here. I differ from Lang’s judgment in Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, which alleges that the word was “only hesitantly adopted from popular language,” i.e. that it is coarse or obscene. This is not the case.

The word σκύβαλον is, in fact, most common in the literature of Greek medicine: Galen (4 times), Soranus’ works on gynecology (11 times), Dioscorides Pedanius’ De Materia Medica (once), Marcellinus’ De Pulsibus (once), Erisistratus (once), Paulus (6 times), Aetius’ Iatrica (23 times), etc. In fact, of the 211 occurrences of the word in Greek literature, nearly half (98) are in medical literature. Most of the medical instances are quite tedious discussions of the digestive tract.

The word is not found in comedy, mime, or other genres where one would expect vulgarity. Achilles Tatius, the semi-pornographic author of Leucippe and Clitophon, does use the word, but only in recounting a legend about the origin of the luxurious purple dye derived from the murex snail (Leucippe and Clitophon, 2.11.5):

A fisherman caught this fish [i.e. a murex snail]. And he was hoping to eat it, but when he saw the roughness of its shell, he abused it verbally [eloidorei] and threw it back as the skubalon of the sea.

So the word here means “worthless item,” or “refuse.”

It does not have exclusive reference to fecal matter, but can mean “leavings from a table”. It is used by one medical writer, Oribasius, to mean “worthless” in opposition to “useful” or “beneficial” (chresimon): “Fevers that arise in shady and wooded areas have more of a worthless [sc. character] than the beneficial.” (Collectiones medicae I.2.11) Awkward translation, I know, but that’s what it says.

The Etymologicum Gudianum gives a rather fanciful derivation for the word:

Skubalon: that which is given forth from the bowels, or dung(kopros), as it were something thrown to dogs (kusibalon), or thrown out. A kusibalon is what is thrown to dogs (to tois kusi ballomenon), or given to them.

The Suda and the Etymologicum Magnum repeat this etymology.

The Greeks were working with an understanding grounded on a daily life rather different from ours. In their experience, waste was eliminated by shoveling it, rather than flushing – even ancient toilets eventually had to be shoveled out. There was thus no practical difference between leftover food and feces: both ended up in the compost pile. And of course, in an agrarian society, “sh*t” is far less likely to offend than in a squeaky-clean, shiny white modern one. When the local farrier came to trim the hooves of our Jersey cow two months ago, I apologized that I hadn’t quite mucked out the stall well enough. His reply: “Ah, it’s no problem. Just good clean manure.”

Posted by: mattcolvin | June 21, 2019

Trinity Lecture Series 2019, 2

Here are my notes for the second, shorter lecture, focused mainly on consequences of the first lecture for the Church in its use of the sacraments and its expectation for the life to come. An audio recording of both talks can be found here (via SoundCloud).


Above: detail from Rembrandt, Return of the Prodigal Son, 1665

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Posted by: mattcolvin | June 21, 2019

Trinity Lecture Series 2019, 1

Here are my lecture notes for the first of the two talks I delivered for Trinity REC. They are sketchy in places, and omit much ad libbing especially about Greek philosophy. They draw heavily on Jon Levenson, Alastair Roberts, and Thomas McDaniel. The audience ranged from age 8 to 80, so I tried to keep things clear and entertaining. MC

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Posted by: mattcolvin | June 1, 2019

On Exodus 21:22-23

Above: a human embryo at 8 weeks.

Philo writes:

… the following law has been enacted with great beauty and propriety: “If while two men are fighting one should strike a woman who is great with child, and her child should come from her before it is completely formed, he shall be mulcted in a fine, according to what the husband of the woman shall impose on him, and he shall pay the fine deservedly. But if the child be fully formed, he shall pay life for life.” For it was not the same thing, to destroy a perfect and an imperfect work . . . .” (Congressu Quaerendae Eruditionis Gratia, xxiv 137, 23)

The law which Philo quotes is Exodus 21:22-23. Astute readers will recognize that his translation differs from most English versions. Moreover, the LXX of this verse differs markedly from the Masoretic Hebrew.

How are these discrepancies to be explained?

This article by Thomas McDaniel is superb. The author is discussing the law about two men fighting who accidentally strike a pregnant woman and cause her to miscarry. In a masterstroke of comparative philology, McDaniel identifies a hitherto undetected Hebrew homograph אסון in Exodus 21:22-23 and confirms it by a cognate in Arabic, sawaya. There are two words spelled אסון: one means “harm” or “calamity”; the other means “fully formed”, and it is this latter that is at work in Exodus 21. Second, he shows that the LXX understood this word correctly, rendering it with ἐξεικονίσμενον, and that Philo echoes this understanding: thus, bilingual Jews from the second Temple period disagree with the later Masoretic tradition of interpretation. Finally, he also shows that the legal distinction between different stages of embryonic development is known from parallel Hittite laws. It’s thoroughly convincing and impressive on a similar level to David Daube. It also has implications for the ethics of very early abortion and for contraceptive methods that prevent implantation.

The result of this reading is to refute both the pro-abortion reading of Exodus 21:22-23 (as though it imposed only fines for harm to the unborn child, but death for the death of the mother) and another extreme reading by pro-lifers (that all accidentally inflicted miscarriage is homicide). This law is neither about penalties only for loss of the mother’s life (the pro-abortion reading) nor does it treat all induced miscarriage as homicide.

Instead, the law distinguishes two scenarios: it applies lesser penalties if the offspring is destroyed before it is “formed” and the full lex talionis penalty if it is killed after it is “formed.” The mother’s life is not in view; there are already laws in the Torah against homicide; but this law is treating only of harm to her offspring.

The result is that prolifers should temper their language about contraceptive methods that allow fertilization but prevent implantation. In Exodus 21:22, the accidental destruction of the woman’s unformed “fruit” is clearly a wrong, but it is not treated as murder or homicide. Rather, it is a sort of tort, to be punished by an indemnity.

At the same time, the law endorses the treatment of a “formed” fetus as a full human person entitled to lex talionis retribution under the law. It is homicide, or if intentional, murder. So this reading of the law would still be utterly anathema to the pro-abortion side.

When does “formation” occur? Job 10:10 uses the metaphor of “congealing” or curdling cheese to describe how God makes a human being in the womb. It is an apt metaphor for the production of an articulated human body out of a gelatinous and seemingly inarticulate mass. Early miscarriage may not present identifiable limbs or body parts; later ones do. (An embryo’s fingers are formed by 8 weeks.) Psalm 139:13 likewise uses a physical metaphor, weaving or knitting, for God’s marvellous creation of the human body in the womb. In light of these metaphors, it is fitting to discover that the Torah’s law on accidentally inflicted abortion says nothing about “ensoulment,” but is concerned with the development of the body.

I would suggest that if there is any identifiable embryo or fetus, then we are dealing with the law’s second scenario: it is destruction of a “formed” human being, and life for life applies. Blastocysts, on the other hand, will not be recognizable or “formed”.

Note, however, that this law does not condone accidentally inflicted abortion: it still penalizes it as a tort, just not as homicide. And the law does penalize as homicide all accidentally inflicted abortion of a “formed” embryo or fetus. But this distinction, though softening the hardline “full human rights from conception” stance of many pro-lifers, still does not leave any room for deliberately inflicted abortion of any sort. Such wickedness is condemned a fortiori.

Posted by: mattcolvin | May 24, 2019

Ghirlandaio’s St. Jerome

DOMENICO GHIRLANDAIO (1449 - 1494) - St Jerome in his Study,detail ✿⊱╮

Detail of St. Jerome in His Study (1480) by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494)

Note the Hebrew on the scroll and the Greek capitals at the bottom. The Greek is the opening of Psalm 51 (LXX). The Hebrew is not completely legible. The first two lines contain the names of the angels Kemuel and Uzziel; the second two say “I still call out in anguish; my lament is troubling me” — possibly also from one of the psalms (22?), but I cannot place it. If Hebraist reading this can identify the text more precisely, let me know.

Here’s the whole painting:


Posted by: mattcolvin | January 27, 2019

Jesus Snorted? On Aramaic behind Mark 1:40-45


Above: Jesus Heals the Leper, 12th-13th century mosaic, Cathedral of the Assumption, Monreale, Sicily.

I have been enjoying Maurice Casey’s insights in his Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel and An Aramaic Approach to Q. In this post, I want to share his solution to a puzzle, and then offer my own solution to a second puzzle, both in the same passage.

In Mark 1:40-45, Jesus heals a man suffering from the skin disease which the NT authors refer to as ἡ λεπρά:

And there came to him a leper beseeching him and falling to his knees, saying to him, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” And Jesus, being angered (ὀργισθεὶς), stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I am willing, be cleansed.” And immediately the leprosy left him and he was clean. And snorting (ἐμβριμησάμενος) at him, he sent him away immediately and said to him, “See that you tell nothing to anyone, but go and show yourself to the priest and offer concerning your purification the things which Moses commanded, as a testimony to them. But he, going out, began to proclaim it much and spread the word abroad, so that he [Jesus] was no longer able to go into the city openly, but was outside in deserted places. (My translation.)

Mark’s version exhibits two puzzles. First is why Mark says that Jesus was angered. The second is why the text says that Jesus “snorted” at the man.

First, regarding ὀργισθεὶς: this is the reading of Codex Bezae (D), which very frequently preserves Aramaisms and original readings that have been smoothed out or emended in other manuscripts.[1] The vast majority of manuscripts have a different word here: σπλαγχνίσθεις, “moved with compassion.” The UBS editors had a hard time deciding between the two, since σπλαγχνίσθεις has far more support in the manuscripts, but it is apparent that ὀργισθεὶς is the lectio difficilior: it is easy to see why a scribe would change “being angered” to “being moved with compassion”; it is inconceivable that anyone would change the text in the opposite direction. To Casey’s mind (and I agree with him), this is dispositive. Matthew 8:3 and Luke 5:13 smooth out the problem by omitting this verb entirely. Says Casey,

Mark’s Greek is perfectly comprehensible as a literal and unrevised translation of an Aramaic source which gave a perfectly accurate albeit very brief account of an incident which really took place. The Aramaic source will have read regaz. This word often does mean ‘be angry’, which is why Mark translated it with orgistheis. But the Aramaic regaz has a wider range of meaning than ‘be angry’, including ‘tremble’ and ‘be deeply moved’. Accordingly, Mark did not mean that Jesus was angry. He was suffering from interference, the influence of one of his langauges on another. All bilinguals suffer from interference, especially when they are translating, because the word which causes the interference is in the text which they are translating. In Mark’s mind, the Greek word for being angry (orgistheis) also meant ‘tremble’ or ‘be deeply moved’, because this was the range of meaning of the normally equivalent Aramaic word in front of him.[2]

My friend John Barach objects to this explanation on the grounds that ὀργισθεὶς is consistent with the later participle ἐμβριμησάμενος. This verb ἐμβριμάομαι has a semantic range that includes “to be deeply moved” (John 11:33, 38), but it is most often used of horses snorting (Aristophanes Themophoriazusai 461, Luc. Nec. 20). It is, in any event a rather odd verb, and no more consistent with anything Jesus says or does in the passage: the leper in question has done nothing to earn Jesus’ anger, if that is how we take the verb, and for Jesus to snort at him is even more absurd. Matthew’s gospel, evidently trying to avoid the difficulty, drops ἐμβριμησάμενος in favour of the plain vanilla καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς. Luke’s gospel replaces it with the more straightforward παρήγγειλεν, “he ordered him” (Luke 5:14).

Far from refuting Casey’s explanation, the word ἐμβριμησάμενος serves to confirm it. So odd a Greek word looks suspiciously like an attempt to translate an Aramaic word with a different semantic range, and — sure enough! — there is indeed an Aramaic verb that means both “snort” and “rebuke”: nḥr. (See the CAL entry here.) The evidence for this verb is mostly later than the NT, in the Talmud and Targums (e.g. b.Kidd. 81b, “they rebuked him [for his misbehaviour]” and b.Sabb. 152b, “R. A. snorted at them”, b.Gittin 68a, “Rav Hisda…snorted to him from behind in order to signal to him.”). Given how scanty the remains of Aramaic literature are from the 2nd Temple period (basically just Qumran), we have no right to demand contemporaneous parallels, and should be content with later ones.

Thus, we have two Aramaic verbs, regaz and nāḥar, which nicely account for the oddities of Mark’s Greek. Jesus was not angry, and he did not snort. He was “deeply moved” — coming to the same thing as σπλαγχνίσθεις —  and he “straightly warned” the newly healed leper. Both of these verbs are smoothed over by Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of the same episode, but Mark, our earliest gospel, preserves traces of an Aramaic account behind his Greek.


[1] For instances of D preserving semitisms that have been edited out of other manuscripts of Mark, cf. Casey, Aramaic Sources of Mark‘s Gospel 26, 69, and especially 226 and 239.

[2] Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching (London: T&T Clark, 2010), 63.

Posted by: mattcolvin | January 16, 2019

Jesus’ words to Judas


The Taking of Christ, Caravaggio, c. 1602.

Jesus’ utterance to Judas at his arrest in Matthew 26:50, ἑταῖρε, ἐφ’ ὃ πάρει does not appear to me to be a well-formed sentence. It is translated “Friend, wherefore art thou come?” in the KJV. Yet it contains no interrogative, since ὃ is a relative pronoun. Worse, its verb πάρει is thus subsumed within a relative clause, leaving the sentence without a predicate. As G. Stählin notes, “this hardly does justice to the relative pronoun.”[1] The best we can do is an aposiopesis: “Friend, that for which you are here —” This leaves the main clause a mystery and open for conjectures.

Most more modern English versions supply a main clause verb: “Friend, (do) what you came to do.” (ESV, similarly NASB: “do what you have come for”; NIV: “do what you came for”). If one must supplement, then “do” is probably the verb to use. But it may be better not to supply any main verb, and to leave the utterance as an incomplete sentence. We may see it as a harking back to the last words Jesus spoke to Judas before this: “What you are doing, do quickly.” (John 13:27, ὃ ποιεῖς ποίησον τάχιον), which also begins with a relative clause.

It is consistent with the gospels’ emphasis on Jesus’ foreknowledge of, and control over, his impending betrayal — which are also reasons not to adopt the question, unless it is seen as rhetorical. Taking ἐφ’ ὃ πάρει as a relative clause is not only good Greek grammar, but also suitably vague. It is a circumlocution. As such, it is consistent with Jesus’ approach to the identification of Judas and of himself as Messiah to the other disciples. Just as Jesus does not verbally identify himself as the Messiah to his disciples in so many words, but uses roundabout locutions (“the Son of Man”) until the night when he can use the bread of Passover to identify himself as the Messiah clearly but indirectly, so he also refuses to name Judas as the betrayer even when the other disciples ask him, instead using a coded action with bread to enable them to identify him.

After reading a lot of Maurice Casey of late, I also wonder whether it is an Aramaicism. Luke changes the utterance to something far more straightforward to a Greek reader: “Ἰο­υδα, φιλήματι τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου παραδίδως;” — “Judas, are you betraying the son of man with a kiss?” (Luke 22:48) Casey goes out of his way to reconstruct an Aramaic original for this: יהודה, נשׁק לבר אנשׁ שתמסרנה – “Judah, kissing a/the son of man and you betray him!”, which he sees as “expressing horror at this way of betraying him.” [2]  But Casey does not attempt to find any Aramaic behind Matthew 26:50’s awkward and incomplete Greek. Luke is far more often the evangelist who smooths out the linguistic interference of Aramaic in Mark, while Matthew occupies a somewhat intermediate linguistic position, being less likely to edit Mark for Greek idiom. Mark’s gospel entirely omits Jesus’ words on this occasion, swiftly moving from Judas’ pre-arrangement of the kiss as a signal to his address of Jesus as “Rabbi” and the planting of the kiss. Thus, if we are to investigate possible Aramaic vorlage behind Jesus’ words on this occasion, it will need to be either Matthew 26:50 or Luke 22:48. Of the two, it is far more likely that Matthew’s difficult and puzzling Greek expression is an (unsuccessful?) effort to translate an original Aramaic utterance. The only point in Luke’s favour is the use of the title “son of man” (the Aramaic בר אנשׁ, on which Casey has written much), but since this title had long since been taken over by Luke from Mark as Jesus’ preferred self-reference, I do not think it can be taken as any compelling trace of an Aramaic original.


[1] Gustav Stählin, φιλέω in G. Friedrich, ed. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament IX (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 140 n. 241

[2] Maurice Casey, The Solution to the Son of Man Problem (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 198.

Posted by: mattcolvin | December 7, 2018

Daube on Malchus’ Ear

Above: Peter striking Malchus from The Capture of Christ, Gregoire Guerard (c. 1520, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon)

Some years ago, I wrote a blog entry on the episode in which, during the arrest of Jesus by the crowd from the chief priests and Pharisees with Judas, Peter swings his sword at cuts off the ear of the servant of the high priest. (Mt. 26:47-56, Mk. 14:43-52, Lk. 22:47-53, Jn. 18:2-12) I want to rewrite and expand my observations here.

It is a curious episode for many reasons. First, there is the fact that none of the synoptic gospels actually names Peter as the disciple who wounded the servant of the high priest. Nor do they name the servant. It is only John’s gospel that gives us both these names: the servant is Malchus (John 18:10) and Peter is now named as the perpetrator.

Why this difference? Richard Bauckham helpfully points out that in the synoptics, Malchus is referred to as “the servant of the high priest” (τὸν δοῦλον τοῦ ἀρχιερέως), with the definite article:

“The high priest certainly had many more servants or slaves than one, and according to John 18:26 more than one such were members of the arresting party in Gethsemane. Commentators have therefore been hard pressed to explain the definite “the” in this case. Perhaps the meaning is that this servant of the high priest was the officer in charge of the arresting party. He was the most important person in that party, but his name may have been remembered in the early Jerusalem church not simply for that reason but also because the injury to him remained, so to speak, an unsolved crime of which Peter was the as yet undetected perpetrator. Malchus was an influential person in the high priest’s entourage with a personal grudge against the disciples of Jesus.”

(Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 194-195.)

Thus, the synoptists, writing soon after the events of Jesus’ earthly ministry, and in an atmosphere of fear and persecution, omit Simon Peter’s name in this episode as a matter of protective anonymity. John, writing later, has no such concern and therefore freely names both Simon Peter and Malchus (John 18:10). It is also possible that Malchus had by that time become a Christian himself and was known by name to the disciples. (There are also other speculations, such as that Malchus was also in charge of the guards at Jesus’ tomb.)

A second question is this: are we to think that Peter struck Malchus’ ear at random, rather like Mike Tyson biting Evander Holyfield’s ear because it was at the right height and was sticking out of his head? Perhaps Peter was aiming to cleave his head in twain, and missed, striking a glancing blow on the side of the head that removed his ear?

The question is addressed by Daube (“Three Notes Having to do with Johanan ben Zaccai”, CWDD vol. 1, 433ff) and Rostovtzeff (Οὖς δεξιὸν ἀποτέμνειν. ZNW 33, Issue 2 (1934), 196-199). They point out that in Josephus, Antiquities 14.13.10 §366, the Maccabean priest-king Antigonus II chose the ears as a target for mutilation to disqualify his rival Hyrcanus II:

But being afraid that Hyrcanus, who was under the guard of the Parthians, might have his Kingdom restored to him by the multitude, [Antigonus] cut off his ears; and thereby took care that the High Priesthood should never come to him any more: because he was maimed: while the law required that this dignity should belong to none but such as had all their members entire.

In another passage of Josephus, Bellum 1.13.10 §270, the same episode is described differently:

Antigonus himself also bit off Hyrcanus’s ears with his own teeth, as he fell down upon his knees to him, that so he might never be able upon any mutation of affairs to take the high priesthood again, for the high priests that officiated were to be complete, and without blemish.

So we have a Hasmonean priest mutilating the ears of his predecessor and rival, precisely in order to disqualify him from the high priesthood.

Daube and Rostovtzeff point out that the same action was taken by Yohanan ben Zakkai, a rabbi from the 2nd Temple period, roughly contemporary with the apostle Paul. The Tosephta (t.Par. 3.8) records “the Sadducean High Priest arrived in a state of cleanness, contrary to Pharisaic principles. Johanan ben Zaccai performed the traiditonal rite of the Elders and indeed displayed exceptional courtesy: ‘How fit are you for the High Priesthood!’ Then, however, when the High Priest came up from immersion, with all preparations complete to deal with the red heifer, the Rabbi slit his ear, thus disabling him from cultic service.” (Daube, CWDD 1, 431)

What Peter did to Malchus was by no means random. Both the targeting of the high priest’s servant and the type of injury inflicted were quite deliberate. “It was a very well-chosen insult. The wound was of a type which, had it been inflicted on the servant’s master, would have forced him from office. And there can have been nobody who did not understand.” (Daube, 434)

This observation leads to a further detail: as Rostovtzeff notes, there is variation among the words used by the four gospels for the wounded body part of Malchus: Luke calls it τὸ οὖς; Matthew, τὸ ὠτίον; while Mark and John use the term τὸ ὠτάριον. The two latter terms are diminutives, and Horst (TDNT 5.558-559) notes that, though they simply mean “ear” in much Hellenistic Greek, some scholars have seen them as words for the earlobe. There is also a distinct Aramaic term,
ˀdnwny, found as a variant of ˀdn in the Peshitta to capture this Greek diminutive. (It is likely that this is also the part of the ear that would also have been pierced with an awl for the ritual in Ex. 21:6.)

It was not, then, a random slashing, but the targeting of a very small, but ritually significant body part, clearly communicating intended insult to the high priest himself.

Posted by: mattcolvin | October 19, 2018

Classical Theism’s Ethos Deficit

Above: diagram of the epicycles of the planet Mercury by Ibn al-Shatir (d. 1375).

I had a debate with some online friends over Classical Theism this week. (“Honey, come to bed!” “I can’t. Someone is wrong on the internet.”) It left me examining myself and asking, “Why was I so unpersuaded? These Classical Theists are good guys. They are friendly, irenic, smart. They have advanced degrees and know a lot of stuff. They can write.” So why didn’t it work on me?

It is partly a problem of ethos. Students of rhetoric are told that abstractions, Latinate words, and opaque philosophical discourse create rhetorical distance. But the problem goes deeper: The striking contrast in vocabulary, degree of abstraction, and style of argumentation between Classical Theism and the Bible makes it difficult to see CT as having any explanatory power. There is a constant tension between the discourse of philosophical ontology and the language of Scripture that causes mental dissonance for anyone who is not persuaded of classical ontology on other grounds. CT’s recourse to apophaticism and to non-exegetical dodges like “anthropopathism” strike outsiders as something akin to epicycles in Ptolemaic astronomy: these devices are not there to save the phenomena, but to save the hypothesis of CT from the phenomena. Classical Theists are found employing inconsistent hermeneutics: Passages where Scripture talks about God not changing are siezed upon and paraded as though they were descriptions of the inner ontology of God, while passages that appear to conflict with CT, e.g. by saying that God changed his mind, are explained as metaphors or accomodations to human understanding that tell us nothing about God’s being. In all this, there is no exegetical insight: we are never given the sense that the hypothesis of CT has led us into a deeper appreciation for the inner workings of the apostles’ thought, let alone the self-understanding of Jesus himself. There is no “ahah!” moment, no “ring of truth” as mysterious or puzzling passages are resolved into new clarity. There is no discovery that this hypothesis solves multiple riddles and problems; quite the reverse, in fact.

Far from finding that puzzling passages of the Bible are cleared up by CT, I find that if I accept its system, I will be saddled with new propositions that I cannot understand: “God is pure act”, “The persons of the Trinity are their own relations” and the like. These claims challenge my ability to parse them: they appear to reduce agents to actions, nouns to verbs. The hypostases of the Trinity turn out to be something like the smile of the Cheshire Cat.

Classical theists claim that their system is useful. Alastair Roberts says:

“Without something resembling classical Trinitarian theology and a Chalcedonian understanding of Christ, the entire gospel narrative will assume a different character. The Creator will not be allowed to exceed His works and the deity of Christ, a truth revealed through the gospel narrative, will be radically constrained by His human nature.” (A. Roberts, “‘Arid Scholars’ vs the Bible” in B. Littlejohn, ed. God of Our Fathers)

I don’t see that this is the case at all. Alastair speaks as though this experiment has not been tried. But what did Christians do before 451 AD? During the reign of Diocletian, for instance? Did their lack of Chalcedonian categories for parsing Christology cause them to ”radically constrain the deity of Christ”? Has the Church at any time since Chalcedon ever equaled their fervent worship of Jesus as God? Does Classical Theism make anyone more ready to die for the faith? No, the faith that was ready to die for Christ was made perfect by the words of the apostles and prophets.

Contrast all this with the persuasiveness of Richard Bauckham’s account of “early high Christology.” Passages like 1 Cor. 8:6 are unfolded and placed within their rhetorical context. The inner working of the apostle’s deliberate transformation of the Shema is disclosed. Bauckham shows that Paul echoes Deuteronomy’s polemic against idolatry and especially against the eating of food sacrificed to idols. He shows that Paul transposes this OT monotheistic rhetoric into the key of exclusive loyalty to Jesus. Lines that were not appreciated before — “non-gods”, “provoke the Lord to jealousy”, “are we stronger than He?” — suddenly strike us with new force. Bauckham explains how these phrases echo the OT, and thereby also reveals how Paul’s language was persuasive to his first-century audience. Bauckham’s hypothesis of divine-identity Christology thus opens up a new appreciation of Paul’s argumentation: the reader feels that he now, at last, understands why Paul chose the words he did. Where fourth-century and 11th-century metaphysical explanations bump up against Paul’s field of discourse without entering into it, Bauckham’s early high christology discloses the inner workings of that Pauline discourse. This is the theology that inspired the martyrs of the early church to face the lions rather than burn incense to Caesar.

Whence, then, is the persuasiveness of CT for those who do believe it? I have to think there is some intellectually satisfying resolution that is beyond my ability to appreciate. Perhaps it is something like the solution of a problem in Calculus? The mind that is used to traveling in the realms of metaphysics evaluates metaphysical hypotheses by criteria that I lack. I am not a philosopher for some of the same reasons that I am not a sommelier or a chessmaster or a soccer fan. I know that there are, in each of these fields, criteria of excellence. But I also know that I have not acquired knowledge of those criteria. When my friend Tim G. enthuses about soccer as “the beautiful game”, I take his word for it, because I am aware that if I had more understanding of how the game works, I might appreciate it too. In the same way, perhaps I have not done what would be necessary to become a connoisseur of metaphysical systems.

And yet, I did six years of PhD studies in Greek philosophy: seminars on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, private tutorials on Parmenides, reading groups on Plato. I am pretty familiar with the discourse of classical metaphysics. I ought to be a prime target for CT. If Classical Theists cannot make me see the attractiveness of their system, whom can they persuade?

For these reasons, it is rather appalling to find that the primary argument they use in public debate is an appeal to authority: “Are you cleverer than your forebears in Church history who devised this system? Have some humility!” Are they so bankrupt, so bereft of any ability to kindle others with the joy they feel in this theology? If Classical Theism is true, there ought to be a desire to welcome others into an appreciation for it. It ought to be exciting, infectious, delightful.

Alastair Roberts, at least, recognizes this rhetorical deficit. “I generally fall on the Classical Theist side […], while believing that we need to do a lot more to connect classical theism with the reading of Scripture and trying to do some of this work myself.” But he appears to be virtually alone in this awareness, and the task is immense. He has certainly done some nice work in Biblical theology, but I haven’t seen anything from him that really bridges the gap that divides that enterprise from Classical Theism.

Classical Theists need to recognize that the problem is pervasive — centuries in the making — and runs very deep. They need to look in the mirror and realize that they are, most of them, philosophical theologians. Having realized that, they need to recognize that Biblical theology has different criteria of persuasion, and that they are not meeting those criteria at all.

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