Posted by: mattcolvin | April 3, 2017

On Daube and Method

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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 | December 14, 2016

Artificial Orphans and the Death of Natural Rights


I recently read a discussion in which someone advocated abolishing last names and referring to people by their given names only:

“This ‘family name’ thing is such an old, conservative thing… it sounds like we’re in the XIX century. People are single individuals and for that exact reason they receive an unique name.”

What admirable logical consistency!

In the old system, we are all born into relationship. We all derive our identities in large part from our parents. Until recently, every human being on this earth was conceived by a relationship between a father and a mother. To be sure, there are horrible exceptions – a child conceived by rape, or the death of one or both parents in the child’s youth, or an abusive parent who does not love the child – but these are just that: exceptions. And they prove the rule: the reason why parental abuse of a child, or abandonment of a child, is so horrible is precisely that it violates the natural relationship that requires love on the basis of biological connection. Likewise, adoption and foster parenthood may be beautiful, but they are beautiful precisely because they are an attempt to supply the love and care and relatedness that a child has lost through some tragedy. Ordinarily, a child has a natural right to expect love and care from a mother and father, and this expectation is founded on the fact that the child was conceived in an act of love, and derives his or her material being from the mother and father. The child is a gift of God, not a product or attainment of the parents’ will. Parent-child relationship is based on this givenness rather than on choice.

In contrast to this, the sexual revolution has now triumphantly severed sex from procreation and made coitus a sterile act. It has also promoted surrogate pregnancy and the artificial (i.e. planned) orphanhood inflicted by homosexual marriage, in which a child is deliberately made to have no relationship or even knowledge of one or both of its biological parents.

Part of the consequence of this revolution is that personal identity is no longer a natural fact, but a construct of society and especially of the State, which enforces and validates the contractually-constituted “parenthood” of homosexuals, and nullifies the biological parenthood of sperm donors and surrogate mothers (wombs for hire). The result is not merely that families can look radically different, but that all of us have “lost consideration as natural persons in contemplation of law”, as my friend Mark Butler put it. There are no “natural rights” now, but only a Platonic system where rights – including the right to love and care from parents – are bestowed upon us by the State. Even if you happen to be raised by your biological parents, your relationship to them is only dignified with respect under the law when the State allows it, and social stigma does not permit us to speak of a natural family as in any way superior or more normal than a contractually-established family. Thus, biological parents are only parents because the State allows it — and the State may allow something else instead.

Accordingly, under Ontario’s eerily Orwellian-named “All Families are Equal Act”, even the words “mother” and “father” have been abolished from government documents, as being antithetical to the State’s usurpation of nature. The words “mother” and “father” bespeak the biological realities that underlie natural parent-child relationships. Since the sexual revolutionaries’ aim is to replace that natural basis with an artificial and legal one established by the State, these words must be abolished in favor of “parent”. And since the sexual revolutionaries pretend that the biological fruitfulness of sex is irrelevant, there can be no reason for a duality of parents (one father and one mother, as in nature). Accordingly, Ontario allows any four persons to be listed as “parents” on the birth certificate of a child. (It is a marvel that they still allow it to be called a “birth” certificate! Is that term not demeaning to the parental relationship of parents who had nothing to do with the child’s conception and birth?)

Since this is the current system, we should indeed abandon family names. Better, we should be assigned names by the government, since it is the source of our personhood and rights.

As my interlocutor at the beginning of this article said, it’s only conservatives who believe in God-given rights. Consider how the 19th century Dutch historian Groen Van Prinsterer put it in his lectures on the French Revolution:

“Just as all truth is ultimately supported by the truth that is from God, so the common foundation of all rights and duties lies in the sovereignty of God. When that Sovereignty is denied, what becomes of the fountain of authority, of law, of every sacred and dutiful relation in state, society, and family? What sanction remains for the distinctions of rank and station in life? What reason can there be that I obey and another commands, that the one is needy, the other rich? All this is based only on custom, routine, abuse, injustice, oppression. There can be, despite all social diversities, no real differences among men. Eliminate God, and it can no longer be denied that all men are, in the revolutionary sense of the words, free and equal. State and society must disintegrate, dissolving into a collection of isolated human beings, of individuals — a term of the Revolution’s naively expressive of its all-destructive character. Henceforward the state is conceived as a multitude of indivisible particles, of atoms.” (Revolution and Unbelief, lecture IX)

We are now living in the political consequences of the French Revolutionary conception of equality and liberty: we are all individuals. Which is to say, we are all orphans now.

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

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