Posted by: mattcolvin | September 22, 2018

The painting in this blog’s title

The painting in the title bar of this blog is Henk Helmantel’s Nieuw Leven 2. Helmantel is a Dutch realist painter of still lifes and interiors. About this particular painting, he says: “In 1972 I painted ‘ new life ‘ in which I expressed that the old and New Testaments belong inseparably together and Jesus is the source of the new life. I consider this painting as my profession of faith, which I hope to share with many people. ”

In 1997, the original Nieuw Leven was stolen at an exhibition at Hope College in Michigan. Helmantel executed a second painting of the same subject in 1999 to replace the original.

Helmantel’s faith — the unity of the two testaments and Jesus as the source of life — is mine also. I have a giclee print of this painting framed on my wall.

Posted by: mattcolvin | September 21, 2018

Etiquette and Eschatology in Luke 14:1-14


14:1 — Jesus chooses to dine with, not just Pharisees, but “a leader of the Pharisees,” and to do so, not on just any day, but on the Sabbath, the day that was at the centre of the ongoing contention between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Sabbath was the central controversy between them because both sides held it as a symbol of an entire ecclesiology and eschatology: in short, of their two different ways of being Israel, and of their expectation of what God would do for Israel.

For both the Pharisees and Jesus, the Sabbath was a symbol of God’s long-expected rescue of Israel. But for Jesus, that rescue was happening in his own person: in him, Israel’s God was at last becoming King. For the Pharisees, the Sabbath was a marker of the true Israel that could expect vindication and inheritance of the age to come. In their social pragmatics, Sabbath-observance was eschatologically oriented, and looseness about the Sabbath was a sure sign that the violator would find himself on the wrong side of the decisive eschatological moment. For the Pharisees, Jesus was an intriguing figure because he largely agreed with them about the resurrection of the dead and the corruptness of the Sadducees and Herod. Luke 12-14 can be read as an account of the Pharisees’ attempts to make sense of Jesus. Yet in their final analysis, he was disqualified from being the Messiah: “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” (John 9:16)

In 14:1, then, the Sabbath is the elephant in the (dining) room. However cordial the meal, however welcoming the host, the Pharisees in attendance are nonetheless “watching him like a hawk” (παρατηρούμενοι).

14:2 — Suddenly, in the middle of this meal, and against this background of (polite?) tension, a man with dropsy (œdema) is “before him” (ἔμπροσθεν αὐτοῦ). We may entertain our suspicions here. Is this a set-up, like the woman caught in adultery in John 8? We know that the dropsical man is not a guest at the dinner party, for Jesus will later “dismiss” him (ἀπέλυσεν, 14:4). The phrase “before him” is full of suspense because of the expectations that prior narratives of healing have set up. The question in every onlooker’s mind is “Will Jesus do something?” And in our mind, we may add, “In front of this audience?” and “On this day?”

14:3 — Jesus is the undaunted master of the situation. Note the odd expression καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν, “and answering, he said…” Answering? But no prior utterance is mentioned. Jesus is “replying” not to anything that has been said, but to the situation, the elephant in the room, which poses, of itself, the question which he then makes explicit by posing it aloud to the νομικοὺς καὶ Φαρισαίους.

14:4 — οἱ δὲ ἡσύχασαν, “they were silent,” effectively passing their turn in the implied debate. Jesus will now answer his own question, not by delivering a verbal verdict or halakhic ruling, but by actually healing the man.

14:5 — Having made his case by deed, Jesus now puts it by words as well. …καὶ οὐκ εὐθέως ἀνασπάσει…

14:6 — The Pharisees are defeated in the end and reduced to “silence,” and that in the very house of one of their own leaders. Cf. the story (t.Ber. 5.2) of R. Jose ben Halafta who, when contradicted by his own guests in a halakhic matter (whether to stop eating if the Sabbath begins during one’s meal), exclaimed “Will you even do violence to the queen before me in my house?” — a citation of Esther 7:8. It is likely that there was then, as there is today, an expectation that guests ought not to attack their hosts’ dearly held theological opinions. Jesus, of course, violates that norm.

14:7 — Having silenced the Pharisees, Jesus then turns to “those who were invited” (κεκλημένους). This designation is the catchword that serves to introduce the two parables that Jesus then tells. He seizes upon their “invited” status and uses it to address the central issues between him and the Pharisees. As N.T. Wright says, it is a mistake to think that Jesus is concerned about etiquette in this passage. Rather, he is using principles of etiquette to address questions of ecclesiology (or what I call “Israelology”), eschatology, and his own identity as the Messiah.

14:8-11 — Jesus here virtually quotes from Proverbs 25:6-7. We must interpret this as a metalepsis in the sense that Richard Hays elegantly explains in his two books on Echoes of Scripture. When Jesus quotes a few lines from Proverbs to a room full of Scripture-saturated, highly literate Jews, there is simply no way that his words can fail to bring to his hearers’ minds the entire context of those phrases. What is that context?

Do not exalt yourself in the presence of the king,
And do not stand in the place of the great;
For it is better that he say to you,
“Come up here,”
Than that you should be put lower in the presence of the prince,
Whom your eyes have seen.

Jesus has deftly avoided quoting the very lines that would make the point too bluntly. He prefers, as always, to let his audience put two and two together, to let the Father and the Spirit and his works testify to his identity as the Messiah. But there can be no mistake about it here: He intends that his hearers will understand that they are “in the presence of the king” and that he himself is “the prince, whom your eyes have seen.”

These lines are also an indictment of the Pharisaic approach to being Israel. Where the Pharisees practiced “the works of the Torah” as a way of securing for themselves a sort of πρωτοκλισία in the eschaton, Jesus preaches and embodies being Israel for the sake of the world. This is not, then, mere etiquette advice. “Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted” (14:11) is a principle cited dozens of times in Scripture because it is dear to the heart of Israel’s God, and central to the way his salvation has always operated.

14:12 — Turning from the “invited ones” to the host who had invited them, Jesus again takes social etiquette as the starting point for theological and “Israelological” teaching. He attacks the very root of social relations in the ancient world. As John Barclay notes, hospitality and gift-giving were means of forming and maintaining relationships. Aristotle sums it up well:

“For it is by proportionate requital that the city holds together. Men seek to return either evil for evil—and if they cannot do so, think their position mere slavery—or good for good—and if they cannot do so there is no exchange, but it is by exchange that they hold together. This is why they give a prominent place to the temple of the Graces—to promote the requital of services; for this is characteristic of grace—we should serve in return one who has shown grace (χάρις) to us, and should another time take the initiative in showing it.”

— Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1133a (Revised Oxford Translation, ed. J. Barnes)

Yet precisely because hospitality and gift-giving place men into the bonds of relationship, one must be careful to show these graces only to those who are worthy of relationship. Thus, the 6th century Greek lyric poet Theognis expresses the principle that would have guided Greeks in their giving:

“He who does good to the wretched poor gets the emptiest thanks; it is the same as sowing the waters of the salt sea;
For you would not reap hay after sowing the waters; nor would you receive anything in return after doing good to the wretched (lit. “bad people”, κακοί).
For bad men have an insatiable mind, and if you just make one mistake, then the friendship from all past deeds is poured out and lost. But good men blot out even the worst that they have suffered, and keep the memory of kindnesses, and return thanks (lit. “grace,” χάρις) in the future.” — Theognis, 105-112 (my translation)

Barclay cites other Roman and Greek authors on the inadvisability of indiscriminate generosity. What Barclay calls “the incongruity” of grace is emphatically not the way of the ancient pagan world.

Jesus rejects this ethic, urging instead the bestowal of hospitality and grace upon those from who no counter-gift (ἀνταπόδομα, 4:12) can ever be expected. As in the sermon on the mount (Mt. 6:2), the foregoing of reward from men results in a reward from God, whose gifts and welcome cannot be taken away.

Again, Jesus’ point is not about etiquette, but about the Pharisees’ way of being Israel. By using the “works of the Torah” as badges of their expected eschatological superiority, they brought their “reward” into the present and forfeited it for the future. They did not use their covenant status and privileged position in God’s household to benefit the weak and helpless, but to line their own eschatological nests.

Posted by: mattcolvin | June 2, 2018

Akkadian light on “Grasping the Hem”

Above: alabaster panel from the palace of Tiglath-Pileser III.

We are told by Matthew (14:36) and Mark (6:56) that at Gennesaret,

“They besought him that they might only touch the hem (τὸ κρασπέδον) of his garment; and as many as touched (it) were healed.”

The gesture is also seen  in the episode of the woman with the bleeding whose healing is bookended by the story of Jairus’ daughter (Mt. 9:20, Mk. 5:27-28, Lk. 8:43-44). I have noted before that

“she touches his outer garment – not even him himself, but clothing in contact with him! It is a telling reversal: normally, if the woman with a bleeding touched a garment, and then Jesus touched the garment, he would become unclean with a second-order uncleanness. Instead, Jesus’ own garment is able to make her clean.”

But this does not adequately account for all the information given in the gospels. All three synoptists are careful to note that the woman touches, not just his garment, but more specifically the hem of his garment. Why this detail?

Scholars give elaborate answers revolving around the fringes (tsitsit) on Jewish garments. But here, the Jewish background proves ultimately unfruitful. For instance, one author remarks that

Why the woman decided to touch this specific part of Jesus’ garments is unknown. Was it simply because it was easily accessible to her touch, being low on his robe, or was it because she possibly knew that there is power in remembrance, power in the commandments, and power in obeying them. Perhaps she thought that of all places to touch on his clothing, these tassels, with their priestly blue threads, would be the closest thing to touching heaven.

It seems best to admit that tsitsit have nothing much to do with the woman’s gesture. Instead, it is a gesture with a meaning found in other ancient Near Eastern literature, including the Old Testament:

“Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘In those days ten men from every language of the nations shall grasp (ḫazaq) the hem (kanaph) of a Jewish man, saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.”’” (Zech. 8:23)

The gesture is evidently similar. But what does either of them mean? Is it an act of supplication? Of submission? Or what? In an article for a festschrift for Nahum Sarna, Shalom Paul gives parallels from Akkadian and Ugaritic literature that shed some light on this gesture:

[asḫur]ki aš’ēki sissiktaki aṣbat kīma sissikti ilija u ištarija – “I [turned to] you and sought you. I grasped your hem (i.e. was loyal to you) as if it were the hem of my own god and goddess.”

sissikti ilūtišu rabīti aṣbat ašte’â ašrātešu – “(When Marduk entrusted the rule of Assyria to me), I grasped the hem of his divine majesty (i.e. pledged allegiance). I sought his shrine.”

sissikti Sin šar ilāni aṣbatma – “I grasped the hem of Sin, king of the gods (night and day).”

aššum sissikti Marduk bēlija ṣabtākuma Marduk bēlī jâti irammannima – “Because I grasped the hem of Marduk, Marduk, my lord, loves me.”

S. Paul adds that the meaning of the gesture can be further confirmed from the parallel Akkadian expressions qannam ṣabātu, “to grasp the hem” and qaran ṣubāti ṣabātu,  “to grasp the hem of a garment”:

ištu ūmim ša qaran ṣubātija iṣbatu matima ina mātišu kaspam…mimma ul alqut – “Ever since he grasped the hem of my garment [i.e. gave me his allegiance], I have never exacted any silver … from his country.”
ana qabê mātija qaran ṣubāt bēlija aṣbat bēlī qātī la inappas – “At the request of my land, I grasped the hem of my lord’s garment; may my lord not reject me.”

šumma qaran ṣubāt [royal name] uwaššaruma qaran ṣubāt šarrim šanîm iṣabbatu ina ālāni u eperī it[taṣṣ]i – “If he lets go of the hem of Abban’s garment and takes hold of the hem of another king’s (i.e. exchanges his allegiance), he for[feits] his cities and territories.”

ṣabtākuma kî tīri ina qannīka – “I am attached to your hem like a courtier” (i.e. loyal as a dog)

Finally, Paul adduces an Old Aramaic inscription with a similar expression, in which the loyalty of Panammuwa II to the Assyrian king Tilgath-Pileser III:

פי אדון בכנף מרוה מלך אשׁור רב – “He grasped the hem of his lord, the great  king of Assyria.”

Thus we see that in both Aramaic and Akkadian, sister languages of Biblical Hebrew, the act of grasping the hem of the garment of a deity or king is a way of expressing one’s submission and loyalty to that person’s authority.

I submit that this clarifies several things about the woman with the bleeding in the synoptic gospels. It explains why the hem (kraspedon) is mentioned specifically, even though contact with any part of Jesus’ garment might otherwise have sufficed for a “contact” for healing power to flow from him to the woman. Very likely many in the crowd were doing the same thing.

It also explains why Jesus replies to the woman, “Daughter,your faith has made you well.Go in peace, and be healed of your affliction.” The question is sometimes asked, “Does this woman show the requisite sort of faith? Is she not merely trying to filch some power in order to be healed?The answer is that her gesture of touching the hem of his garment is itself a pledge of loyalty, an acknowledgment of Jesus as messiah.

(Akkadian and Aramaic quotations from S. Paul, “Gleanings from the Biblical and Talmudic Lexica in Light of Akkadian” in M. Brettler and M. Fishbane, ed. JSOT Supplement 154, Minḥah le Naḥum: Biblical and Other Studies Presented to Nahum M. Sarna in Honour of His 70th Birthday. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993.)

Posted by: mattcolvin | April 24, 2018

The Widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11-17)


“Jesus raises the son of the Window of Nain” Matthias Gerung, 1500-1570

(A sermon from Holy Trinity Church, REC, in Colwood, BC, from October 1, 2017)

One of the things I have encouraged you to pay attention to is focalization, a crucial aspect of how the Bible tells stories. It can very often shape how we think about the action and the characters; it is the equivalent in storytelling of the camera angle or point of view in a film. And here, the camera shows us the world from Jesus’ perspective. He is approaching the city of Nain, about five miles from Nazareth where he grew up. No doubt he knows the place well enough. With him, we draw near to the gate of the city, see the crowds around us and the disciples. And the narrator emphasizes this point of view with his exclamation, “Behold!” So with Jesus we behold. And what do we see?

Pay attention to how the situation unfolds before us: Luke uses word order to recreate in our mind’s eye the same gradual gathering of information that Jesus and his disciples experienced: “Behold” — we see something, but what is it?  “there was being carried out” — the pallbearers, as it were, are the first thing we see. “…a man who had died” — so there has been some tragedy, some death. Jesus is thus confronted with his old enemy, death, which he has come into the world to suffer himself, and thereby to defeat. But the tragedy deepens: “the only son of his mother” — thus, death has cut down a young man, and thereby removed at a stroke the entire future of a bereaved woman. “and she was a widow” — so her livelihood and support is also removed, and she is reduced to beggary, gleaning, and dependence on the pitying alms of the community. 

This is the situation we face, looking at it through Jesus’ eyes: the son is actually dead, and the mother, being widowed and now bereaved of her child, is experiencing a sort of death herself. And the narrator gives us insight into Jesus’ reaction to this scene: “Seeing her, Jesus was moved with compassion for her.” The Greek, as usual, expresses this feeling of compassion using a metaphor about bodily organs: Jesus “felt it in his gut” or “his intestines were moved” — down there, the feeling of discomfort and pity.

He tells her “Do not weep.” The word here is κλαίω. It is not merely shedding of tears, but the keening, wailing cry that accompanied an ancient funeral while flutes and professional mourners kept up a din of surrounding noise so that the bereaved would not need to be embarrassed to be giving vent to their feelings. (How different from a modern funeral, all quietness and sombre formality.) We have seen Jesus rebuke the noise of mourning before, when he raised Jairus’ daughter. 

If a child skinned her knee and came wailing to her mother, we might hear the same instruction. Jesus is moved with compassion, and he addresses himself to the emotional pain that death inflicts on a child of God. She has not asked for anything; there is no request, just the raw pain expressed in wailing. Jesus does not need to be asked. He addresses the need of his own initiative: “Do not weep; I will do something about it.”

And so he does: he touches the bier. Why is this mentioned? Because a dead body makes unclean anything it lies on. The bier or bed for a dead person is being carried by “carrying ones” — pallbearers, we would call them today. And in ancient Israel, to serve as a pallbearer meant becoming unclean for that day. It wasn’t a sin, but because one had had contact with a dead body, or with anything that a dead body was lying on, or a house where a dead body was, anyone who became unclean in this way would have to take a bath and be unclean until evening — until the beginning of a new day. But Jesus pays no attention to this law of cleanness. He goes right up to the bier that is being transported and touches it — not surreptitiously, I think, but quite obviously — I picture him grabbing it in a very blatant way. He makes lepers and menstruating women clean, he does not contract uncleanness from them. We might call it “eucontagion” — Jesus’ purity is catching.

There is an ordinary procedure, a way things go, a set of etiquette and protocols and rules and ordinary obligations around death — indeed, it is precisely around death that we have such rules; no job requires more politeness and etiquette and knowledge of procedure than a funeral director. But Jesus stops the pall-bearers in their tracks: οἱ δὲ βαστάζοντες ἔστησαν — the ones carrying it stood still. Are they just astonished? Has he miraculously frozen them in their tracks? We are not told. What matters is the result: There will be no more progress toward the tomb today.

And then, having stopped the procession, Jesus speaks. Not for him the procedure of Elijah in 1 Kings 17, spreading himself out on the child three times. Nor the method of Elisha in 2 Kings 4, who “lay on the child, and put his mouth on his mouth, his eyes on his eyes, and his hands on his hands; and he stretched himself out on the child, and the flesh of the child became warm.” These OT prophets use maximum contact with the dead in a sort of after-death CPR. Jesus has no need of that method. He merely speaks. It is a resurrection command formula: “Young man, I say to you, arise!” Νεανίσκε, σοὶ λέγω, ἐγέρθητι, compare Luke 8:54’s “Child, get up!” (Ἡ παῖς, ἐγείρου) and John 11:43’s “Lazarus, come forth!” (Λάζαρε, δεῦρο ἔξω), and Acts 9:40‘s Ταβιθά, ἀνάστηθι “Tabitha, be raised!” and above all Mark 5:41’s peek at the Aramaic original of the formula, Ταλιθά, κοῦμι, which is translated, Little girl, I say to you, arise!” (Τὸ κοράσιον, σοὶ λέγω ἔγειρε) All of these utterances involve imperative verbs coupled with vocative nouns or names. They are direct address of the dead person — the last person in the world who might be thought capable of obedience to commands. Yet it is a formula that expects obedience. Who is this, that issues orders to the dead? Who bosses death around? It smacks of the same sort of authority with which Jesus commanded the winds and the waves when he was in the boat with his disciples.

St. Augustine makes an interesting observation: Christ by his miracles of resurrection demonstrates his power over death in three different circumstances: the ruler of the synagogue’s daughter is raised while she lies still in the house; the widow of Nain’s son, while he is being carried out; and Lazarus is called forth, when he has been wrapped in grave linens and spices and has already been in the tomb four days.

But this young man of Nain, once he is raised, Jesus “gave him to his mother” — restoration of relationship. I cannot stress this too highly: God does not rescue humankind as bare individuals. The life of the new creation is a restoration and perfection of human nature in its every aspect. That includes all the aspects of our individual being — our bodies, minds, emotions, the wiping away of tears, the oblivion of all hurts and pains which we may bear in this life. But it also includes the restoration and perfection of our relationships. God’s creative and restoring power aims at making a new Israel, that is a people, not a mere collection of individuals. And that will mean relationship — though perhaps not marriage and reproduction. The restoration of the dead man to his mother is a powerful symbol of how God by resurrection restores our relationships as well.

Remember what I have taught you about the Jewish view of children. We read the book of Job, and we see all his children die at the beginning of the book, and then God blesses him with new children at the end of the book. And we, because we think in terms of modern Western individualism, look at that and say, “But what about the original children? They can’t just be replaced! They were individuals, and they are dead!” But that is not what the narrator, or Job, is preeminently concerned with: for Job, says Jon Levenson,

“bereavement of progeny is the functional equivalent of death;… the patriarch’s restoration inevitably entails his recovery of his seven sons and his three daughters (Job 42:13; cf. 1:2). To us, of course, the loss has not been made good, since these are not the same children who died at the onset of the tale. But that very objection only demonstrates the distance between our individualistic and non-familial construction of personal identity and the highly collective and familial concept that underlies these ancient Israelite narratives. For the epilogue, which speaks of Job’s restoration, gives no indication whatsoever that grief about his deceased first set of children impaired his contentment at the time of his own death. The tragedy of the mortality of individuals cannot but attract the attention of the modern reader. The interest of the ancient narrator lies, rather, in the restoration of Job through the return of his family.”

The widow of Nain, of course, cannot experience a restoration of her family as Job did; if she is to be rescued from her plight, it will need to be by a literal resurrection.

But Luke has something else he wants us to notice here: the story of the widow’s son is a prolepsis of Jesus’ own death. Jesus too will soon be carried out for burial outside Jerusalem; his mother too will experience the grief of losing her child. (And the scholarly consensus is that Mary is likewise widowed by the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, Joseph having predeceased her.) And in that case, too, there will be a resurrection. But there is a crucial difference, for the young man of Nain, like Jairus’ daughter, like Lazarus, is raised only to resume his normal life, live out his days, and eventually die again. But Jesus is raised with a new sort of life, a body that will never die again; indeed, in Him is the Age to Come, The Resurrection that Martha of Bethany expected at the last day, but it bursts into history in the middle of things, in AD 33.

To this great irruption, the lesser resurrections of Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter, and the young man of Nain serve as foretastes. They speak of the power of the God who would  soon deal with death finally and forever. They are sneak previews of the eschatological reality that Israel has been waiting for.

And that is how the people understand this raising from the dead: “fear siezed all” or, as another translator puts it, “Trembling gripped all of them.”

For they make the eschatological connection: “a great prophet has arisen” — perhaps the Prophet like Moses whom God promised in Deuteronomy 18:15. And “God has visited his people” — the Greek is Ἐπεσκέψατο — he has “checked up on, inspected” His people. It is the same word used in the song of John the Baptist’s father Zacharias in Luke 1:68, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, because he has visited and redeemed his people, and raised up for us a horn of salvation by the house of David his son…” Both Luke’s narrative about the resurrection at Nain and Zacharias’ song ultimately go back to Exodus 4:31, where Aaron does miracles in front of the Israelites in Egypt to let them know that God is about to rescue them: “So the people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had visited the children of Israel and that He had looked on their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshiped.”

That is what it is about, ultimately: raising this woman’s son is a way of telling the crowd and the disciples about what God is about to do for Israel. It a signal to them that Israel’s God, in the Messiah, has come to rescue His people as He did before in the Exodus. Like every miracle, it is a way that Jesus asserts his identity: both his identity as Israel’s Messiah, and beyond that, his identity as Israel’s God. That is why there is fear and trembling.

How do I assert this so confidently? Because what immediately follows our passage is the question of John the Baptist, asked via his disciples, “Are you the coming one, or do we wait for another?” And Jesus’ response makes clear the significance of his miracles: “Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and tell John the things you have seen and heard: that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them.” (Luke 7:22-23)

We ought to make the eschatological connection. Hebrews 4:2, speaking about Israel of old, says that “We have had the gospel preached to us, just as they had.” We are about to turn to the Lord’s Table, to feast on His resurrection life at the meal that He inaugurated by his death. Like Jairus, we look to Him in expectation that He need only “say the word”, and we will be healed. Like the widow of Nain, we receive from him hope and a future.

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

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