Posted by: mattcolvin | July 31, 2015

The Eye is the Lamp of the Body

    
I had a major “Aha!” moment some months ago when preparing for my men’s Bible study. The passage in question was Matthew 6:22ff:

Ὁ λύχνος τοῦ σώματός ἐστιν ὁ ὀφθαλμός. ἐὰν οὖν ⸂ᾖ ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου ἁπλοῦς⸃, ὅλον τὸ σῶμά σου φωτεινὸν ἔσται· ἐὰν δὲ ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου πονηρὸς ᾖ, ὅλον τὸ σῶμά σου σκοτεινὸν ἔσται. εἰ οὖν τὸ φῶς τὸ ἐν σοὶ σκότος ἐστίν, τὸ σκότος πόσον. (ΚΑΤΑ ΜΑΤΘΑΙΟΝ 6:22, 23 SBLG)

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! (Matthew 6:22, 23 ESV)

Most of the evangelical interpretations of this passage have applied it to pornography and other occasions of lust. Connections are made with Psalm 101:3 (“I will set nothing wicked before my eyes”) and Proverbs 4:25 (“Let your eyes look directly before you, and your gaze be straight ahead”).

Such applications are certainly wholesome. Yet they have always struck me as forced, robbing Jesus’ sermon (or Matthew’s report of it) of any flow. Neither the preceding passage (“Do not treasure up for yourselves treasures on the earth…”) nor the following one (“You cannot serve both God and Mammon”) has anything much to do with sins of sexual lust. Where’s the train of thought?

The answer – and it is readily available in good commentaries, so I cannot claim to be the discoverer of it – is that the OT and Jewish background gives a very different meaning to Jesus’ words in 6:22-23.

Deuteronomy 15:9 warns the Israelites against stinginess during the advent of the Sabbath year:

Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, “The seventh year, the year of release is near,” and your eye be evil (wera’ah ‘eynekha) toward your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the Lord against you, and you be guilty of sin. (Deuteronomy 15:9)

Likewise Dt. 28:54-56, speaking about the horrors of cannibalism in the straits of a siege:

The man who is the most tender and refined among you, his eye shall be evil (terah ‘eynow) to his brother, to the wife he embraces, and to the last of the children whom he has left, The most tender and refined woman among you, who would not venture to set the sole of her foot on the ground because she is so delicate and tender, her eye shall be evil (terah ‘eynah) to the husband she embraces, to her son and to her daughter… (Deuteronomy 28:54, 56 ESV)

The eye here is not the receptacle of bad influences coming in, but the portal of malice going out. (And such emissionistic theories of the eye’s operation were not unusual in be ancient world: Empedocles, for instance, compared the eye to a lantern with sides of horn, DK 31 B84, 87.) Jesus is talking about miserliness, begrudging, envy – Latin invidia, from in + videre, to look against, to give someone the evil eye. Pirke Avoth is the Rabbinic source that has the most to say about it, and all its uses are consistent with Jesus’ mention here in Matthew 6:

“he who desires to give, but that others should not give, his eye is evil toward what appertains to others; he who desires that others should give, but will not give himself, his eye is evil against what is his own…” m.Avot 5.15

“R. Joshua said, “The evil eye, the evil inclination, and hatred of his fellow-creatures, put a man out of the world.” m.Avot 2.16

““A good eye, a humble mind, and a lowly spirit (are the tokens) of the disciples of Abraham, our father; an evil eye, a haughty mind, and a proud spirit (are the signs) of the disciples of Balaam, the wicked.” m.Avot 5.19

We may fairly conclude that Jesus’ saying is about one’s attitude toward one’s fellow men. What, then, is meant by “if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light”? Those who are generous to their neighbors are themselves in a good state with God: if you with your own lamp give light to others by giving generously to them, God will shine the light of His countenance upon you. With the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

The result of understanding this background in Hebrew idiom is  a newly revealed consistency and rhetorical force to Jesus’ arrangement of His sermon, in perfect agreement with other statements from the same sermon. (And if you need to preach against looking at pornography, there are plenty of other passages to use.)

Posted by: mattcolvin | July 31, 2015

Ancient Jewish Zwinglianism

I am not myself a Zwinglian, and I am sympathetic to the critique of Zwinglianism, advanced by Charles Taylor and Peter Leithart, among others, that says it is typical of modernity to divorce symbols from efficacy and from the signified, and to reduce their operation to mere indicative signs.

Yet though this desacralizing tendency may be typically modern, the Zwinglianizing impulse also appears to be  very old. We find it even in 2nd Temple Judaism, in a contemporary of the Apostle Paul:

Johanan ben Zaccai explained that neither did a person become really unclean by a corpse nor did he become really clean by the “water of separation,” but that the relevant provisions must be observed because it was the will of God. (Num. Rab. on 19.2; P. de R. K. 40a f.)

Below: Johanan ben Zaccai, from the Knesset Menorah (Wikipedia). 

    

Posted by: mattcolvin | July 31, 2015

Jacob’s Rods

Here’s a fun story from Numbers Rabbah:

An Arabian prince complained to Rabbi Akiba against his wife, who, being an Arabian woman, gave birth to a perfectly white child. The Rabbi, who was always anxious to establish good and friendly relations among men, especially among those who should live in peace and in harmony, knowing the beams on the ceiling in the Arabian’s house to be dazzling white, mentioned Jacob’s contrivance of obtaining speckled sheep, and pointed out that the phenomenon of his child might be due to the extreme whiteness of his ceiling at which the princess gazed.

One of the features of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer is its inclusion of the Declaration on Kneeling, or Black Rubric, which explains that Anglicans kneeling to receive Communion are not doing so to worship a presence of Christ in the elements, but to express their gratitude.

The Declaration was changed in 1662 from its original phrasing of 1552. The words “real and essential presence”, which were denied in 1552, are replaced with the words “Corporal presence”:

…thereby [sc. by kneeling] no adoration is intended, or ought to be done, either unto the Sacra-mental Bread or Wine there bodily received, or unto any Corporal Presence of Christ’s natural Flesh and Blood. For the Sacramental Bread and Wine remain still in their very natural substances, and therefore may not be adored; (for that were Idolatry, to be abhorred of all faithful Christians;) and the natural Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ are in Heaven, and not here; it being against the truth of Christ’s natural Body to be at one time in more places than one.

It is alleged by some that this rubric does not actually close the door on Eucharistic adoration, since…

… this change in language from 1552 to 1662 allows for someone to adore the real and essential presence while rejecting adoration of the corporeal presence, that is adoration of the elements in a transubstantiated sense.

Now, on the face of things, this seems to me to be stretching logic and the English language to the breaking point. It is not the first time it has been tried, though. Nathaniel Dimock already sufficiently refuted this argument back in 1897:

Does not the very structure of the rubric itself render a purpose of changing the doctrinal statement absolutely inconceivable ? Let it be carefully considered what such a change would amount to. It would be a designed rejection of the previous statement, admitting its contradictory. But the contradictory of the previous statement would be that adoration may be done to a real and essential Presence there being of Christ’s natural flesh and blood, the amended statement still declaring that no adoration ought to be done to any corporal Presence of Christ’s natural flesh and blood. The effect of the change of statement would obviously be to make a distinction between a real and essential Presence (not to the soul, but upon the table), and a corporal Presence there, allowing adoration to the one, and refusing it to the other. But the whole argument of the rubric will be found to apply as much to the exclusion of adoration to the one as to the other. If the rubric allows adoration to a real and essential Presence in the elements, then the order of kneeling is certainly not well meant for a signification of our humble and grateful acknowledgment of the benefits of Christ given in the Lord s Supper to all worthy receivers; and further, not only is it foolish to argue from the statement of Christ’s natural body and blood being in heaven, but it is actually untrue to declare that they are in heaven and not here. And then, further still, it cannot be maintained that it is against the truth of Christ’s natural body to be at one time in more places than one. On the hypothesis of the doctrinal statement being thus changed to admit of the teaching of the adorable Presence of Christ’s Body really and essentially present after the manner of a spirit in the elements, it will be found that there is a cause for the statement appended to the statement, which alleged cause is not only inapplicable to the statement, but is actually destructive of it. But further: looking at the object of the rubric, it cannot be denied that, upon the supposition of such an intentional change of the doctrinal statement, the whole rubric would have been a miserable delusion, an attempt to put to rest men’s suspicions by a declaration, which declaration in its changed form (with the change so understood), instead of removing suspicions, would not merely have aggravated them, but have raised the fiercest opposition. Such an attempt at public deception is not only incredible, it would have been worthy of infamy. — N. Dimock, History of the Book of Common Prayer in Its Bearing on Present Eicharistic Controversies, 1897, p. 71-72. 

In other words, if adoration is directed to a presence of Christ’s body and blood, and this is excused by the qualification that it is not a corporal presence, then what use is it to mention the location of Christ’s natural body “in heaven and not here”? The logic of the Declaration is that since the natural body is in heaven and not here, therefore the kneeling that we do is not an act of worship directed toward a presence of that body in the elements on the table, but is only an gesture “for a signification of our humble and grateful acknowledgement of the benefits of Christ therein given to all worthy Receivers”. To claim that the change of words was intended to give room for practices condemned by the earlier version 110 years before is to impute to the 1662 revisers the shady trickery of an unscrupulous lawyer hiding phrases in fine print that clandestinely and subtly vitiate a document of which everyone thought they knew the intent and meaning. This is why Dimock says that, if that were what was intended by the change of “real and essential” for “corporal”, it would be “worthy of infamy”.

We ought never to forget that Englishmen died to rescue the Lord’s institution of Holy Communion from the multitude of abuses under which it was hidden in the Renaissance era: processions, elevation, display of the elements for worship by staring at and “adoring” Christ locally present in them. The fruit of the Reformers’ labor and sacrifice was an English church that “duly used” the Lord’s Supper by eating and drinking the elements of bread and wine and thereby receiving Christ’s body and blood by the means of faith, the res of His body and blood being conveyed by the Holy Spirit to worthy receivers.

Against this hard-won achievement, some would turn the clock back to pre-Reformation practices, willfully “mistaking” the BCP and the Articles of Religion’s plain and historical sense in order to make room for the very practices that provoked the prohibitions and condemnation of our Reformers.

Christ’s body, being located in heaven and not here, is really given to us by our right use of the elements of Holy Communion. Let us then eat and drink with faith, and not wrest Christ’s institution to purposes He never intended, and which our tradition has always condemned.

Posted by: mattcolvin | July 23, 2015

Bishop Cosin on Real Presence

Here’s another nice quotation on the classical Anglican doctrine of the Eucharist by one of the leading Caroline divines, John Cosin, Bishop of Durham: 

“Because the body and blood is neither sensibly present (nor otherwise at all present, but only to those who are duly prepared to receive them, and in the very act of receiving them and the consecrated elements together, to which they are sacramentally united), the adoration is then and there given to Christ Himself, neither is nor ought to be directed to any sensible object, such as are the blessed elements.” (In Nicholls’s Additional Notes on Communion Service, p. 49)

Here we have a leading Caroline high churchman stating that the body and blood are not locally and objectively in the elements, but are only present to those with faith, and only in the very act of receiving the consecrated elements. The elements are not transformed. They are used in a ritual action, and it is in the doing of that ritual action (eating and drinking) that Christ is personally and really present to the faith of the believer. Without the believer’s faith, and apart from the doing of the ritual, there is no presence of Christ. Christ is present to us via our participation in the ritual consumption of bread and wine, but not in the elements as they sit on a table. 
Two more quotations from Cosin:

“The body and blood of Christ are united sacramentally to the bread and wine in such a way that Christ is truly presented to believers, to be beheld not, however, by any sense or reason belonging to this world, but only by faith resting upon the words of the Gospel. But Christ’s flesh and blood are said to be united to the bread and wine because in the celebration of the Eucharist His flesh is presented and received along with, and at the same time as the bread; and His blood along with, and at the same time as the wine.” — Cosin, Works IV, p 46. (1851)

“These two things become one by the divine ordinance in such a way that, although their union is not natural, or substantial, or hypostatic, or local (by the existence of one thing in another), nevertheless it is such a joining and so true that in the eating of the consecrated bread the true body of Christ is communicated to us, and the names of the signs and the things signified are mutually exchanged back and forth, and it is attributed to the bread what belongs to the body, and on the other hand to the body what belongs to the bread, and they are together in time which are separated in space.” — Cosin, Works IV, p 48 (1851)

Notice some of the phrases here: the sacramentum and res are “separated in space”. They are not together in location (the “union” is not “local”), so worship should not be directed to the elements. There is no union of substance or essence. Cosin uses the specialized theological vocabulary of communicatio idiomatum that was developed by Cyril for explaining the incarnation and the predicates of Christ’s two natures, but this is only an explanation for the theological manner of speaking about the elements as the body and blood. (This is a far cry from simplistic claims that “the word ‘is’ means ‘is'”.) Cosin also explicitly denies a hypostatic union between bread and body, thereby undercutting a favorite Anglo-Catholic analogy with the incarnation.

  

  

Posted by: mattcolvin | July 23, 2015

Quotations on Real Presence and Eucharistic Adoration

 
I have long suspected that the rise of Anglo-Catholicism in North American Anglicanism can be partly attributed to the fact that the literature of the Oxford Movement and ritualism is in English, while many of the sources of classical Anglican doctrine and the works of the Caroline Divines and Reformers, many of them, remain in Latin.

I would like to help mitigate this problem by reproducing and, where necessary, translating some of the quotations collected in the pages of Nathaniel Dimock’s On Eucharistic Worship in the English Church.

We start with his opening quotation from Bishop Jewel, the main defender of the Elizabethan Settlement:

Now, touching the adoration of the sacrament, M. Harding is not able to show neither any commandment of Christ nor any word or example of the apostles or ancient fathers, concerning the same. It is a thing very lately devised, by Pope Honorius, about the year of our Lord 1226; afterward increased by the now solemn feast of Corpus Christi day, by Pope Urbanus, anno 1264; and last of all, confirmed forever by multitudes of pardons in the Council of Vienna by Pope Clement V, anno 1316. The church of Asia and Grecia never received it until this day. The matter is great, and cannot be attempted without great danger. To give the honour of God to a creature that is no God, it is manifest idolatry.” — Bishop Jewel

I would add that it is idolatry even if the theological ontology undergirding it is changed from Aristotelian/Thomistic to modern Nouvelle Theologie, or even to no ontology in particular.

Next, we have every high churchman’s favorite Caroline divine, Bishop Lancelot Andrewes:

“In the words the worship of the Sacrament he badly stumbles at the very threshold. Of the sacrament, he says, that is, of Christ present in the sacrament in a marvelous, but true way. But avaunt! Who granted him this? Of the sacrament, that is, of Christ in the sacrament. Nay, rather Christ Himself, the res of the sacrament, is to be adored in and with the sacrament, and outside and without the sacrament, wherever He is. The king, however, has decreed that Christ, being truly present in the Eucharist, ought also to be truly worshiped — the res, to be sure, but not the sacramentum, the earthly part, as Irenaeus calls it, or the visible, as Augustine terms it. Nor do we ever eat His flesh, but that we first worship Him, with Augustine. And nonetheless, we none of us worship the sacramentum. Let that be done which Christ wanted to be done when He said, ‘Do this.’ Nothing else shall be done that a priest might show, or the people worship, from a pyx.” — Bp. Lancelot Andrewes

(A pyx is a special box used for transporting consecrated Eucharistic hosts.)

Finally, another quotation, but one that was in English and needed no translating. It is from Thomas Morton, Bishop of Durham, whose 1618 Defense of the Innocencie of the Three Ceremonies of the Church of England is one of the most famous rebuttals against the Puritans:

“ I may ask any ingenuous man whether he ever heard (I do not say our Church, but) any approved Doctor therein, teach, that we do, or ought to kneel before the Sacrament; that by it, or in it, we may personally worship Christ, as if He were really present.” —Bp. Morton’s Defence of the Ceremonies, p. 285, London, 1619: ”Published by Authority.”)”

More to come later. As long as the quotations in Dimock remain untranslated in their original Latin, the erroneous opinion can be more plausibly put about that the practice of adoration directed at an alleged real presence in the elements is a permissible Anglican practice. But no one who can read and understand Latin could possibly harbor that opinion after reading the book. 

Perhaps I can help remedy this lack with more translations in the days to come.

Posted by: mattcolvin | April 17, 2015

Jujitsu in Hebrews 8

8.2 – καὶ τῆς σκηνῆς τῆς ἀληθινῆς, “of the true tabernacle” is a polemical phrase that points ahead to 8.5-6, with its argument that the Mosaic tabernacle (and thus also the 2nd Temple refurbished by Herod) is a copy of a heavenly original.

The effect of this argument is to turn one of the early Christians’ weak points – the absence of Christ from present view on this earth – into a point of superiority to Judaism. Why is Christ not here and visible like the Aaronite priests? Because He has ascended into heaven to do His ministry in the only Temple that really matters. The vaunted temple in Jerusalem is not the true one; is it not then a false one? And worse, it is a σκηνή set up (“pegged”) by men, not God.

The Jerusalem temple’s divine authorization was a weak point for Christians, who expected its demise, but could not help admitting that it had been instituted by God. Here, Hebrews makes a clever move by shifting the question from the Temple’s institution to its construction. This, of course, was elaborately narrated in Israel’s scriptures, both for the Mosaic tabernacle in Exodus 36-39, and for the Temple built by Solomon in 1 Kings 5-8 (and rebuilt in Ezra 3-6). Thus, the fact that God commanded the construction of the Temple is rhetorically undercut by the equally undeniable fact that He did not Himself construct it.

This argument is formally similar to Paul’s dismissal of circumcision as “made in the flesh with hands” in Eph. 2.11. Circumcision too was instituted by God, but human hands executed it no less than they constructed the Temple. And in the same way, the pejorative λεγομένης (“so-called circumcision”) parallels the use of ἀληθινῆς in Hebrews 8.2 to imply that the present temple in Jerusalem is not the true one.

8.4 – εἰ μὲν οὖν ἦν ἐπὶ γῆς – note the contrafactual conditional with its imperfect present-unreal verb. If Jesus were here (but He is not), then He would not be a priest. He is thus removed not only from actual rivalry with the Aaronite priests (since He is not ἐπὶ γῆς and they are), but also from even hypothetical competition with them: even if He were ἐπὶ γῆς, He would not have any need to perform the sort of work that they do, since He is not concerned with serving a “copy and shadow” (8.5).

Again, this defangs a powerful argument of unbelieving Judaism: namely, the observable presence of very visible Aaronite priests going about their divinely commanded work in the solid Herodian temple. “Where is your priest? What Temple does He work in?” The pressure of this argument on early Judaeo-Christians would have been powerful. The author of Hebrews brilliantly turns it against the Jewish opponent: the very immanence of that temple, the very repetition of those rituals, the very visibility of those priests are all proof that that entire system is ineffective and inferior. If Jesus is not visible, it is because His priesthood truly qualifies Him to enter the only Temple that really matters, with the only sacrifice that is permanently effective.

Posted by: mattcolvin | April 17, 2015

Bread and the Messiah in John 6

5fish_2loaves_7304

I haven’t been blogging much, but I have written many GNT notes and preached a lot of sermons in the last two years. Here are some thoughts on John 6.

John 6:5 – Jesus as so often, introduces his teaching by setting it up with a question, this time to Philip:

πόθεν ἀγοράσωμεν ἄρτους ἵνα φάγωσιν οὕτοι;
Where shall we buy loaves, that these may eat?

The question is highlighted in the memory of the witness (John’s memory or the memory of his source) because it sets up the problem that Jesus will go on to solve by His teaching. It is, on the surface, a straightforward question about providing food for a large number of people.

Jesus’ solution to this practical problem is immediately understood by the multitude. What conclusion do they draw? Surprisingly enough, not a practical one. They draw a conclusion about Jesus’ identity and His role in the story of Israel; and thus also a conclusion about where or at what point in the narrative of Israel’s eschatology they therefore find themselves:

οἱ οὖν ἄνθρωποι ἰδόντες ὃ ἐποίησεν σημεῖον ἔλεγον ὅτι οὗτός ἐστιν ἀληθῶς ὁ προφήτης ὁ ἐρχόμενος εἰς τὸν κόσμον.
So the people, seeing the sign which He had done, started saying, “This is truly the prophet, the one Coming into the world.”

(I capitalize “Coming” to indicate that this was a word denoting a figure from Jewish eschatological expectations.)

Jesus is also aware that they have drawn a second conclusion:

…Ἰησοῦς οὖν γνούς ὅτι μέλλουσιν ἔρχεσθαι καὶ ἁρπάζειν αὐτὸν ἵνα ποιήσωσιν βασιλέα…
…so Jesus, knowing that they were about to come and snatch him to make Him king…

All this, simply from the sign: the eschatological Prophet like Moses has arrived to bring about the new Exodus accompanied by miraculous food, and the time has arrived, they think, to restore the kingdom to Israel (cf. Acts 1.6)

And yet, when Jesus finds them again on the other side of the sea (6.25), He accuses them of not understanding, and of treating the miraculous feeding in a crassly greedy manner:

ζητεῖτε με οὐχ ὅτι εἴδετε σημεῖα, ἀλλ’ ὅτι ἐφάγετε ἐκ τῶν ἄρτων καὶ ἐχορτάσθητε…
You seek me not because you see the signs, but because you ate the loaves and were satisfied

This is probably a verbal allusion to an OT narrative of the miraculous feedings during the Exodus. Since the manna and quail were both given in response to Israel’s ungrateful complaining, the OT tends to emphasize the “satisfaction” or “fullness” of the Israelites after their eating. We see this detail in Psalm 78.25 and 78.29:

[He] had rained down manna on them to eat
And given them of the bread of heaven
Men ate angels’ food;
He sent them food to the full. (78.24-25)

Or again, the miraculous quail:

So they ate and were well filled,
For He gave them their own desire.

Cf. Exodus 16.8 (LXX):

ἐν τῷ διδόναι κύριον ὑμῖν ἑσπέρας κρέα φαγεῖν καὶ ἄρτους τὸ πρωὶ εἰς πλησμονην…
When the Lord gives you flesh to eat in the evening and bread early in the morning, to fullness

Tellingly, the result of these two miraculous feedings is not faith and loyalty:

In spite of this they still sinned
And did not believe in His wondrous works (LXX: οὐκ ἐπίστευσαν ἐν τοῖς θαυμασίοις αὐτοῦ). (Ps. 77.32 LXX (78.32 ΜΤ))

By taking Psalm 78 as a grid for understanding His present situation, Jesus is making a pointed response to His audience in John 6, who are asking, “What sign will you perform then, that we may see it and believe you? What work will you do?” (6.30) This is an outrageous request, given that Jesus has already fed them with 5 loaves. They want something like the manna, but first, they have already received a miraculous feeding, and second, Jesus asserts that they are blind to the typological nature of the manna:

Moses did not give you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives/is giving (δίδωσιν – present tense!) you the true bread from heaven.

The central question concerns the identity of Jesus and His superiority to the types of the Old Covenant. It is the same question that the Jewish redactors of the Passover seder also stumbled over by expunging the figure of Moses and by prohibiting the christological exegesis of the rituals of the meal. “We do not conclude (sc. typologically interpret) the Pascha with afikomen” – i.e. with the Messiah as the antitype of the lamb.

We recall that after the episode with the Samaritan woman at the well, when Jesus’ disciples brought Him food, He replied by defining His food “of which you do not know”:

My food is to do the will of Him who sent me, and to finish His work.

This understanding of metaphorical bread is taken up again in John 6, and in light of John 34, we may be entitled to link 6.33 and 6.38:

For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. (6.33)

For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. (6.38)

There is nothing here about transmogrified bread; not even anything about “setting bread apart for holy use.” That is simply not what John 6 is about. It is about recognizing the Messiah, understanding where in Israel’s story you are, and not responding to the generosity of God with unbelief and rebellion.

Posted by: mattcolvin | January 20, 2015

Genesis 1:27 and Interpretive Maximalism

My friend Pr. Uri Brito has a fine article at Kuyperian.com about James B. Jordan’s controversial hermeneutic. He cites this paragraph from Jordan’s Judges commentary as a justification for Jordan’s approach:

We have to explain this [i.e., the business about types and prophecies] in order to distance ourselves from the interpretive minimalism’ that has come to characterize evangelical commentaries on Scripture in recent years. We do not need some specific New Testament verse to `prove’ that a given Old Testament story has symbolic dimensions. Rather, such symbolic dimensions are presupposed in the very fact that man is the image of God. Thus, we ought not to be afraid to hazard a guess at the wider prophetic meanings of Scripture narratives, as we consider how they image the ways of God. Such a `maximalist’ approach as this puts us more in line with the kind of interpretation used by the Church Fathers.

I have seen this argument also in Jordan’s Through New Eyes:

Just as everything in creation is a general symbol of God, so also man is the special symbol, for man and man alone is created as the very image of God (Genesis 1:26). Each individual human being, and the race as a whole (Genesis 1:27), symbolizes God in a special way. What is this special way? Theologians have debated the issue, and no one will ever fully understand it (since to do so we should have to understand fully the nature of the God whose symbol we are). All the same, this much can be said: Man is the only symbol that is also a symbol-maker. The first part of Genesis 1 is the context in which it is then said that man is the image of God. God has been presented as one who determines, creates, evaluates, names, takes counsel among Himself, etc. These things are what man uniquely images. (Jordan, Through New Eyes, p. 31)

Thus, Genesis 1:27 is used to underwrite “symbolism all the way down”.

I do not follow Jordan’s hermeneutic, but I don’t want to spend time criticizing it here. Casting his net wide has allowed him to catch many fish that other exegetes do not catch. So there is fruit from his method, and we would do well to glean from him. But my concern is with the way he takes Genesis 1:27 to justify his approach to the creation as “symbol all the way down” and to Scripture as virtually a Mandelbrot set of recursive and bottomless symbolism.

Whatever debates theologians have had about what it means that Man was created as “the image of God”, the precise meaning of the phrase can indeed be ascertained. And the procedure for explaining it is not Jordan’s hermeneutic, but the more plodding and difficult work of historical and linguistic research. Jewish exegete Jon D. Levenson explains in Creation and the Persistence of Evil:

The link between the creation of humanity “in the image of God” in Genesis 1 and their status as royalty can be clearly seen in ancient Near Eastern inscriptions in which it is the king who is described as the “image” of the deity. Hans Wildberger assembled a rich and convincing collection of such passages from both Egypt and Mesopotamia, of which a sample will suffice for purposes of illustration here. In the Rosetta Stone, to begin with a late example, the Hellenistic Pharaoh Ptolemy V Epiphanes is called eikōn zōsa tou Dios, “the living image of Zeus.” About twelve hundred years earlier, Amunhotpe III was described as the god Amun’s “beloved son,” his “living image.” Another Pharaoh, perhaps his successor Thutmosis IV, is called “the image of Re, son of Amun, who tramples down foreigners.

Wildberger noted the similarity of this epithet to the use of rādâ in Genesis l and Psalm 110, but he might have drawn attention as well to the statement in Psalm 8:7 that God has laid “the world at his feet,” made not of the individual, but of humanity in their regal role within the created order. Of Wildberger’s Mesopotamian examples, the most striking is an Assyrian letter from the seventh century B.C.E. in which the priest and court astrologer Adad-šum-uur terms the king “the image [tsalam]” of the god Bel, using the Akkadian cognate of the Hebrew tselem, the term for “image” in Genesis 1:26–27. On the basis of these examples, and apparently without knowledge of Saadya’s precedent, Wildberger makes a persuasive case for seeing the creation of humanity “in the image of God” as a statement of the sovereignty of the human race over the rest of creation. The entire race collectively stands vis-à-vis God in the same relationship of chosenness and protection that characterizes the god-king relationship in the more ancient civilizations of the Near East. “The image of God” is his chosen viceroy.

To my mind, these parallel usages in Egyptian and ANE sources establish the meaning of the phrase in Genesis 1 fairly precisely and conclusively. If we did not have them, we simply would not know what it means for man to be “the image of God”. Without the work of historical research, and of ancient languages, we are at sea.

Despite all this, Jordan has actually arrived at the right conclusion: “God has been presented as one who determines, creates, evaluates, names, takes counsel among Himself, etc. These things are what man uniquely images.” But he has got there without the extra-Biblical evidence that would have given the answer certainty and confirmation. And this is the problem that I don’t think I will ever surmount: my own training as a scholar of Greek and Latin literature has accustomed me to certain standards of argumentation and evidence; without the needed historical and philological work, an interpretation simply fails to persuade. All too often, that is what separates Biblical Horizons from what Alastair Roberts has called “a more public form of scholarship”.

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Posted by: mattcolvin | September 28, 2014

Wished His Father Dead?

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In Kenneth Bailey’s Jacob and the Prodigal, I encounter again the claim that for the younger son to ask for his share of the inheritance was a huge insult to the father, a way of wishing his father dead. In support of this claim, Bailey cites Ebrahim Sa’id, an Egyptian Protestant scholar commenting in 1935, with the commendation that “Sa’id was an able Middle Eastern Christian scholar. He looked at this text and at his own culture and affirmed that Jesus does not use an Oriental patriarch as a model for God” because it is “unthinkable” in the modern Middle East that a father should accede to such a request. Rather, says Bailey, “if the father is a traditional Middle Eastern parent, he will strike the boy across the face and drive him out of the house.”

(Perhaps Bailey could have benefited from reading a different Sa’id, namely postcolonial theorist Edward Said, who would have flagged Bailey’s use of a stereotyped “Oriental patriarch” as a benchmark of the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son.)

Two things make me suspicious of Bailey’s claim: first, the text of Luke 15 does not explicitly draw the conclusion that the younger son was wishing his father dead. Indeed, the parable gives no attention to any such implication. Even the older son, whose resentment of the younger gives him every reason to remind their father of this implication, makes no mention of it. Instead, his complaint is over the squandering of the money “with harlots” and the inequitable treatment of his own faithfulness in comparison to the younger son’s unfaithfulness.

Moreover, the father gave an early inheritance not only to the younger son, but also to the elder: ὁ δὲ διεῖλεν αὐτοῖς τὸν βίον. (‭‬ Luke 15‬:‭12‬)

The younger’s difference from his brother is not in having received his inheritance early, for they have both done that. Rather, it is in having broken an arrangement of consortium, or “dwelling together”, which is an arrangement preferred and extolled in many Biblical texts (e.g. Psalm 133). A similar breaking of consortium is at work in the story of Jacob and Laban. And we can see that this is so in the father’s answer to the elder son: “Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.” (‭Luke‬ ‭15‬:‭31)

Second, if we direct our attention away from modern “Oriental patriarchs” and toward more specifically Jewish evidence from before the time of the New Testament, we find that the distributing of inheritances before the death of the testator, far from being an unthinkable breach of filial duty, was common enough to attract attention from Ben Sira: “To son or wife, to brother or friend, give no power over thyself while thou livest; and give not thy goods to another so as to have to ask for them again… For it is better that thy children ask of thee than that thou shouldst look to the hand of thy sons… When the days of thy life are ended, in the day of thy death, distribute thine inheritance.” (Sira 33:19-23, cited in Lachs, A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament) If Ben Sira feels the need to warn his readers against the practice, we may assume it was common enough and not “unthinkable”.

Ironically, the section in which Bailey perpetuates this mistaken claim of “wishing his father dead” is entitled, “Scraping off the Barnacles of Centuries”. A good project, that, if only one does not preserve certain precious barnacles and polish them because “that’ll preach”.

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