Posted by: mattcolvin | March 1, 2017

Lusting for the Hero


A Javanese shadow-puppet of Surpakanaka or Soorpanaka from the Ramayana.

Among the tropes or story-types shared between the Bible and pagan mythologies is the story of the lustful female who is refused by the hero. The earliest such account is in the Epic of Gilgamesh, tablet VI.
The story begins by putting the reader in the position of the goddess Ishtar, watching in an almost voyeuristic way as the narrator describes Gilgamesh’s bathing and re-beautification after the slaying of the ogre Humbaba in tablet V. The description follows the epic conventions of the beautification typescene. Think of it as a sort of verbal advertisement for shampoo and male fashion accessories:

“[Gilgamesh] washed his matted hair, he cleaned his equipment,
he shook his hair down over his back.
Casting aside his dirty gear he clad himself in clean,
wrapped cloaks round him, tied with a sash.
Then did Gilgamesh put on his crown.” (VI.1-5, A. R. George’s translation)

Read More…

Posted by: mattcolvin | February 12, 2017

Focalization in Genesis 8

Noah with the Dove, mosaic from the south barrel vault of the west narthex of St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice, 1215-1235 AD.

One of the literary techniques that classical studies has called to scholarly attention in the last 20 years is the method of focalization. It is a category within the field of narratology, the study of storytelling methods and techniques. Irene F. DeJong’s Narrators and Focalizers: The Presentation of the Story in the Iliad and A Narratological Commentary on the Odyssey are the works that first introduced me to this method. I have found it fruitful for explaining how stories work on us (for instance, in the parable of the prodigal son). It is a method that novelists use all the time, and it is all the more effective because it often escapes our notice. Where the audience might notice a blatant switch into quoted character-speech, or a bald-faced declaration that a character “thought to himself…” or that “he noticed that…”, focalization is more subtle: without switching voices or telling that a character is perceiving things, the narrator describes or narrates, sua voce, things that could only be seen or known by one of the characters. The effect is often to cause the audience to sympathize or adopt the judgments or perceptions of one of the characters.

This technique is used to striking effect in Genesis 8. We are effectively placed inside the ark with Noah. There is no description of what the raven sees during its flight over the earth; we are only told that the raven “found no resting place for the sole of her foot, and she returned into the ark to [Noah], for the waters were on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took her, and drew her into the ark to himself.” (8:9) Though the narrator might have described the land or water beyond the ark from the perspective of the bird, he chooses not to, confining our perceptions to those of Noah himself. We share his sense of isolation.

The subsequent description of the dove’s flight and return is likewise narrated with Noah’s focalization: “Then the dove came to him in the evening, and behold, a freshly plucked olive leaf was in her mouth; and Noah knew that the waters had receded from the earth.” (8:11) The exclamation “behold” (wehinneh) conveys Noah’s surprise and delight, and the deduction that the waters had receded, though an objective fact that might have been expressed by the narrator directly – e.g. “…an olive leaf was in her mouth, for the waters had receded…” – is deliberately phrased as a thought of Noah (“and Noah knew…”).

By contrast, when Noah makes burnt offerings in 8:20-22, the scene is not narrated with Noah’s focalization. For instance, there is no description of the process of building of the altar, or of the process of slaughtering and burning the animals. Instead, the burnt offering is focalized from YHWH’s perspective: “The Lord smelled a soothing aroma. Then the Lord said in His heart…”

These shifts of focalization serve to accentuate for us the suffering of Noah on the one hand – his isolation, his inability to know the state of the wider world except through the indirect means of birds – and the restoration of God to a state of favor with the world.

Posted by: mattcolvin | January 23, 2017

On the meaning of Τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί in John 2:4

In John 2:4, Jesus responds to His mother Mary with the question, Τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί, γύναι; This has been widely misunderstood either as a harsh rebuke or as questioning the relevance or propriety of Jesus involving himself with the problem of the wine running out. But let’s survey the other instances of the phrase in the Bible.


Judges 11:13 – “ Then Jephthah sent messengers to the Ammonite king with the question: “What do you have against me – Τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί (LXX) – that you have attacked my country?”


1 Kings 17:18, the widow of Zarephath has been letting Elijah stay in her house, and he has blessed her with the inexaustible jar of flour and jug of oil. But then her son dies. And she said to Elijah, “What do you have against me – Τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί – man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?”

2 Chronicles 35:21, Pharaoh Necho of Egypt is on his way to fight against the Babylonians at Carchemish, and King Josiah of Judah is foolish enough to get in his way: “Josiah marched out to meet him in battle. 21 But Necho sent messengers to him, saying, “What quarrel is there, king of Judah, between you and me?” – LXX, Τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί – “It is not you I am attacking at this time, but the house with which I am at war.”

But Jesus’ statement refers most directly to the scene in 2 Kings 3 where Elisha was confronted by the kings of Israel, Judah, and Edom, who were going to battle against the king of Moab. After marching for seven days they ran out of water. They called upon Elisha to inquire on their behalf. According to the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), Elisha responded to the kings with the identical phrase used by Jesus in John 2:4 (Τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί;). In both texts the narrative reveals a reluctant prophet who is called upon to provide for one in need, a need the prophet sees as an unwanted involvement.

In all these passages the complaint is, “What have I done to you that you are causing me trouble unjustly? Why are you trying to bring disaster on me? Did I wrong you?” Or even, in Hebrew, Ma li valach, “What do you have against me?”


Why should Jesus complain this way to His mother? The answer is in the second half of the verse: “My hour has not yet come.” Why are you leading me to reveal myself this way, mother? Do you want me to get killed?” For we must remember that revealing oneself as the Messiah was a dangerous thing to do. Look in Acts 5 at Gamaliel’s list of all the false messiahs who have “risen up” — Theudas and Judas of Galilee — and how the Romans have dealt with them.

Posted by: mattcolvin | January 6, 2017

Dalman on the Thief on the Cross

Gustaf Dalman was a scholar of Aramaic and rabbinic Judaism who was instrumental in recovering the Jewish background of the New Testament. I particularly appreciated these remarks from his Jesus-Yeshua: Studies in the Gospels (1929), p. 197-199. 

“Jesus was mocked not only by those who passed by the Cross, but also by one who was crucified with Him. Mockery of this kind once resulted in a person being punished for an action which he had not committed. He mocked a robber who was standing before the judge (kām lēh gāhēkh kol kebālēh, literally: ‘he stood mocking’; Lk. 23:10: ‘they stood accusing’; verse 35: ‘He stood beholding’), and when the robber was asked: Who was with thee? he pointed in revenge to the mocker as his fellow in the crime: ‘that mocker was with me’ (āhān degāhēkh hū ‘immī). How different is the fellowship which our Lord promised to the robber who did not join the others in their mockery.

This robber said: 

‘My Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy reign!’ (Lk. 23:42)

Aramaic: mārī, anhar lī kidētētē bemalkhūtākh.

“It is impossible to address a person in Aramaic with mār (‘Lord’) alone. Κύριε without a pronoun is a Grecism as is πάτερ without a pronoun (Lk. 18:12, 18; ο πατήρ Mt. 11:26; τέκνον (for υἱέ) Mt. 11:2; Mk. 2:5; Lk. 2:48; 15:31; θύγατερ (θυγάτηρ) Mt. 11:2; Mk. 5:34; Lk. 8:48; ἀδελφέ Acts 9:17; φίλε Lk. 11:5; 14:10; ἑταῖρε Mt. 20:13; 22:12; 26:50). In Aramaic the only possible equivalents (which are also used in the Peshito) are abbā, berī, berattī, ahī, habrī, while the Pal. Evang. often translates literally. For ‘remember’ the Galilean expression is anhar; cf. anā manhar lēh: ‘I think of him’, ‘I remember him’. But neither is the root dekhar impossible. Onkelos and Targum Yer. I have in Gen. 40:14 tidkerinnani (the better reading is probably, according to verse 23, the Itpeel tiddakherinnani). The imperative would then be iddakherinnani, ‘remember thou me’. ὅταν can be rendered by kide or ēmat de. 

“Concerning bemalkhūtākh, the Aramaic form makes it probable that here, as in Mt. 16:28, it refers not to the domain into which Jesus will return but rather to the royal power which at present He does not possess and which will later make it possible for Him to plead for others. Bemalkhūtākh would in that case mean the same as ‘being King’ (Words of Jesus, 133). Moreover, he took it for granted that Jesus will not be just a King of the Jews, as others were before Him, for in that case He would not be able to help a criminal once he had been executed. What he meant was that Jesus would ‘come’ as the God-Anointed One in the full sense if the word, i.e. appear from the invisible sphere. The often-heard question, ‘When cometh the Messiah? (ēmat ātē meshīach — p. Ket. 35a) will then be answered, and the future for which a dying Rabbi wished to be in readiness, when he said in ātē meshīcha wa‘anā me’attad (‘when the Messiah cometh, in order that I may be prepared’), become an actuality. But His kingship must, like God’s, extend to the living and the dead, and He must be able to show forth mercy. For the ‘robber’ asks for an act of grace, which cannot be fulfilled in this life; he does not base this on the Jewish conception that the experience of an earthly punishment gives one a claim to be absolved from the state of punishment in the world beyond. When a criminal prays on the way to the place of execution, ‘May my death be a propitiation for all my transgressions,’ his confession is supposed to bring him forgiveness (Sanh. vi.2), as it did to Achor, to whom Joshua (according to Joshua 7:25) said before the stoning ‘Today thou art ‘akhor (turbid), but thou art not ‘akhor in the future world’. (p. Sanh. 23b; b. Sanh. 44b) The ‘robber’ wishes to see with his own eyes the kingship of Jesus, as it is promised (Isa. 53:9, Targum) to the wicked whose souls God has purified, that they shall behold ‘the kingship of their Messiah’ (malkhūt meshīchahōn). It was only his companionship on the Cross that gave him the temerity to put forward this bold petition; as Joseph’s companionship with Pharaoh’s butler in prison gave him courage (Gen. 40:14). Consequently, it was not works, but faith in the future glory of the One who was being crucified with him, that underlaid his petition.”

Posted by: mattcolvin | December 15, 2016

Never Seen a Pelican



Here’s a page of Greek text inscribed by Ange Vergéce, Renaissance era (1505-1569) calligrapher and scribe from Crete, in his edition of Byzantine court poet Manuel Philes’ De Animalium Proprietate. The illustrations are by Vergéce’s daughter.

It is evident that the daughter, at least, had never seen a pelican. Note the beak, the neck, and the label in red ink above.

(Claude Garamond used Vergéce’s handwriting as the basis for his famous Grecs du Roi typeface, which was used by Robert Estienne to print many of classics, as well as the first New Testament with verse numbers.)

Joshua Gibbs has a post on the Christian symbolism of the pelican, which medieval bestiaries such as Philes’ book misunderstood as stabbing its own breast, and feeding its young with its blood.

Posted by: mattcolvin | November 24, 2016

Jeopardy for Colvin Kids


I wrote this Jeopardy game for our kids. The categories are various Bible topics and books and places which they know well. If you’re from Davao City and know the Bible, Rick Riordan books, and especially Calvin and Hobbes, you might enjoy this game.
Read More…

Posted by: mattcolvin | November 2, 2016

Communion for Brats

Several years ago, I wrote a letter to the magazine Credenda/Agenda. My friend John Barach recently reminded me of it, and I thought it was probably worth putting it on this blog instead of leaving it in the Credenda archives. Here it is:

Dear Editor,

One thing still bugs me about the latest Credenda [C/A, 18.1]: all the kids described in the magazine— Nathan Wilson’s son, little Calvin Hurt, Grace Evans—are precocious, bright, cute little things whose charming expressions of their paedofaith are so winsome that they would probably inflict a nagging voice of self-doubt on the mind of any pastor who denied them the Supper. And that, of course, is why they were mentioned in the magazine.
We are in danger of giving people the impression that we give kids the Supper because they are precocious in their expressions of faith. No matter how far you lower the bar, unless the only requirement for coming to the Table is baptism, the focus is still on the achievements of the person coming to the table. Is this supposed to challenge credocommunionists?
The Supper isn’t something we can achieve. The whole Presbyterian tradition of being admitted to the Table by the elders is false—whether the test involves memorizing the Larger Catechism or just nodding your head when asked if you love Jesus.
No one wants to write about giving the Supper to unloveable, bratty little two-year-olds who habitually squirm and kick and fuss in church; who have to be coaxed, cajoled or even spanked into answering any catechism questions; who are liable to wad the bread up into a little ball, or throw it on the floor, or spill the wine out of its dinky medicine cup; who don’t have a pious bone in their bodies—kids, in short, who are everything that the credocommunionist thinks ought to be barred from the Supper. These are the kids that pose a challenge to our credocommunionist brothers. To give these kids the supper, one has to change one’s doctrine, not just lower one’s standards.

If we are to be real paedocommunionists, and not just low-bar credocommunionists like Virgil Hurt, then we must advocate for the terrible tots too. By all means, take them out of the service when they are misbehaving. But do not take it upon yourselves to admit them to the Table. God has already admitted them by giving them to Christian parents and baptizing them. It is no pastor’s job to examine them at all.
Pastors must come to realize that they do not have the right, let alone the duty, of examining the infants of believers to admit them to the Supper, anymore than they have the right to refuse to baptize the infants of believers.
If we only confront such pastors with lots of cute communing babies — like so many Hallmark cards or advertisements for Pampers — then we are not challenging them at the crux of the issue: it is about their wrongful usurpation of power and unbiblical judgment of others, not about the precociousness of any toddlers.
 Yours for paedocommunion in the churches,

Matt Colvin 

Cincinnati, OH

Posted by: mattcolvin | October 24, 2016

Questions on PFG 11.1-5

Questions on Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 11.1-5:
1. Notice the deeply Jewish phrasing of the Prayer of Humble Access from the BCP as Wright, perhaps because he’s an Anglican and has heard it so many times, uses BCP phrasing in his translation of Daniel 9. (Footnote 50)

2. What is the correct understanding of the phrase “the righteousness of God”? How does this differ from medieval and Reformation era uses of that same phrase? (Footnote 55)

3. (footnote 305) Why can we not keep Aristotelian virtue ethics?

4. What is the relation of eschatology to Christian ethics? Relate this to 2 Timothy 2:17-8. Think about how we can make this work in our pastoral care and exhortation. (310-312)

5. Why is self-control such a central virtue? How does it relate to anger and sexual immorality? In turn, how do angry speech/behavior and sexual immorality relate to eschatology and the church? What applications might this have for our day? (Footnotes 312-313)

6. What is the relation between Christ’s death on the cross and Christian ethics, in the letters of Paul? Is it a pattern for us? Is it somehow causative of our ability to please God?

7. In the paragraph with footnotes 350-354, Wright has some remarkably beautiful thoughts about how “salvation” is shaped differently in every Christian’s particular life. Give some time to discussing this paragraph.

8. How does Galatians 6.16 encapsulate Paul’s redefinition of Israel? (Footnote 426-440) How has Israel changed through Christ? What are her distinguishing characteristics now?

Posted by: mattcolvin | October 24, 2016

Questions on PFG 10

My questions on Paul and the Faithfulness of God, chapter 10, were written after we left the States. That also means that I had no access to my physical copy of Wright’s book, and thus, I had to refer to pages by footnote numbers rather than page numbers. (Footnote numbers are consistent between the paper book and e-book.)

  1. What Biblical warrant is there in the OT (especially in 2 Samuel) for the “incorporative” idea of the messiah that Wright claims was operative in 2nd Temple Judaism?
  2. What word should we supply, according to Wright, in order to rightly understand Galatians 3:19’s statement that “now the mediator is not of the one _______, but God is one”?
  3. Talk out how Paul makes these logical moves: from monotheism, to eschatological monotheism, to a unified eschatological Israel, to the temporariness of the Torah.
  4. What is the flip side of the temporariness of the Torah? Answer: the permanence of ______________ as a marker of membership in the people of God. 
  5. In Romans 5:17, how does Wright think we should understand “one man’s obedience”? How is this different from how both Roman Catholicism and modern Reformed thinkers understand it? Obedience to what?
  6. What does Wright say Romans 5:20’s phrase “so that the trespass might be filled out to its fullest extent” means? (Also his understanding of Rom. 7:13) How is this related to the fact that Jesus came as a Jew? How does it result in a “scandal of particularity”? How does it relate to the purpose of the covenant with Abraham?
  7. Wright says that “To say it once more: the division between ‘juristic’ and ‘participationist’ analyses of Paul’s soteriology is based on a failure to understand his underlying ‘covenantal’ thought.” (Same page as footnote 347) If this is correct, then we as pastors need to be able to explain how the juristic (or forensic) aspects of justification fit with our “participation” in the Messiah, and how this all works through the very historical covenant, coming to its climax in Jesus. So, go around the table and articulate how this fits together, and how it is to be preached and taught in our churches.
  8. What is the purpose of election, in the story of Abraham? (Page with footnotes 356 and 357) How often do we talk about the purpose of election? How does talking about election as having a purpose change the way the doctrine of election works in our theology?
  9. What does Wright understand by “theosis”? (footnote 694 and 700) How is it connected to the Holy Spirit? And to the temple?
  10. How does Wright understand Romans 1:7’s address of the church in Rome as “called to be saints”? (Footnote 713)
  11. What does Wright think is the relationship between “initial justification” and “final justification” and “a complete life lived”?
  12. What’s the difference between seeing Torah as “a set of commands” and seeing it as a narrative? (Footnote 730)
Posted by: mattcolvin | October 24, 2016

Questions on PFG 9

Here are questions on PFG 9:

Questions on ch. 9

1. What was Jewish monotheism, polemically speaking? What was it directed against? What was it not concerned with?

2. What point about Jesus did Paul never have to argue or try to prove against his Jewish opponents?

3. How does the story of Israel provide Paul with the means for recognizing Jesus as included in the identity of Israel’s God? How does this work differently than the 19th century way of framing the question of how high Christology developed? Which is more plausible?

4. Do you agree with Wright’s claim that theology itself takes the place of boundary-marking praxis (kosher, sabbath, circumcision) in bearing the weight of defining the people of God in Paul’s thinking?

5. (Talk the group through 1 Cor 8, Philippians 2, and Colossians 1 so that they will be able to unpack the divine identity christology and the OT allusions.)

6. How has Paul changed the Shema?

7. What are the main ways Paul includes the Holy Spirit within the identity of Israel’s God?

8. How tightly enmeshed, how inextricable, are Jesus and the Spirit, in Paul’s doxological and hymnic statements? How has Paul woven them in?

9. Why is the problem of evil more acute for Jewish monotheism than for other religions? How is Judaism’s answer different?

10. What do you think of Wright’s opening and closing comparison of Paul and Akiba, dying for Jewish monotheism, but of radically different varieties?

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