Was Jesus Magical? Larry Hurtado on “Semitic Language in Mark”

Larry Hurtado, a biblical scholar based out of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, recently wrote a blog post addressing the question of whether some of the Semitic terminology used in the Gospel of Mark are examples of magical incantations. The passages in question are Mark 5:41 and 7:34.

He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” (Mark 5:41, NRSV)

Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” (Mark 7:34, NRSV)

It is those Aramaic expressions – “Talitha cum” and “Ephphatha” – that are in view. This issue has also been addressed by other commentators [1] and the conclusion is generally that they do not represent such a thing. Hurtado offers three reasons for this: (1) a lack of more examples of such magical incantations doesn’t make sense if Jesus used them when he performed miracles like exorcisms; (2) Semitic phrases that are not connected to miracle stories can also be found elsewhere in Mark as well as the other Gospels; and (3) the terms are translated by Mark, something that you don’t do with magical incantations. Hurtado concludes,

So, my final suggestion about these particular instances is this:  Not only are they not really instances of the magical use of foreign/exotic expressions, Mark may actually have intended to counter any such idea!  It is as if he “sends up” the practice, taking what at first might appear to be the magical device of exotic words, and then translates them, thereby voiding any magical power.  Perhaps the intention was, if there is any allusion to magical practice, in short, to distinguish Jesus’ miracles from it.

Read his full post here.

ENDNOTES

[1] For example, see David Garland, A Theology of Mark’s Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 64.

Musings on Mark: Who Wrote the Gospel of Mark?

My personal library has close to a thousand volumes. No, it isn’t much and it used to be a bit bigger but it gets the job done. Let’s say I pick a random book of the shelf like The Revenant. The cover has a bear attacking a man and has both the title of the book as well as the book’s author on it. If I open the book the first page has a short blurb about the author and other books he has written. On the backside of that page is a list of other books by the author. Opposite that is a title page featuring the name of the book and its author. We then find the copyright page which features the name of the book, its author, and the publisher. If I close the book and look at its spine I see again the book’s title and its author. Not once but six times I will have seen that the author of The Revenant is Michael Punke. There is no question to me who wrote it and I would need a very good reason to deny that Punke is the author of The Revenant. [1]

Now let’s take one of the four canonical Gospels that appear in the New Testament like the Gospel of Mark. Apart from the title “The Gospel According to Mark” that appears before the actual text of the Gospel itself, where do we find Mark’s name? In sixteen chapters and eleven thousand words, we don’t find Mark’s name mentioned one time. There is absolutely nothing in the Gospel of Mark that makes us think that someone named Mark wrote it. And this is true not only of the Gospel of Mark but also the Gospel of Matthew and, to a certain degree, the Gospels of Luke and John.

The Traditional View

So if there is no internal evidence for Markan authorship, [2] why do so many believe that Mark wrote it? By-and-large it has to do with the second century bishop Papias. Papias wrote Λογίων Κυριακῶν Ἐξήγησις, An Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord. Unfortunately, this work is no longer extant and it is only partially preserved for us in the writings of another second century bishop named Irenaeus and the fourth century bishop and historian Eusebius. It is in Eusebius’ Church History that we read Papias’ words regarding the Gospel of Mark.

This also the presbyter said: Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord’s discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely. [3]

Papias is claiming a number of things: that he received this information from “the presbyter,” a likely reference to the apostle John; that Mark received the material for his Gospel from the apostle Peter himself; that Mark was not an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus; that the Gospel was written such that it was “not in order” but everything was written down accurately. It is upon this basis that the Gospel of Mark has been attributed to Mark for the last nineteen hundred years. Is it enough?

Mark Who? 

Let’s begin with the most obvious question: Mark who? If we say that the Gospel of Mark was written by Mark, we need to figure out who this Mark character is.

In the book of Acts we read of a “John whose other name was Mark” (Acts 12:12). John Mark becomes a companion of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 12:25). Following a trip to Cyprus (Acts 13:4-12), Paul and Barnabas decided to travel to Pamphylia. John Mark, however, does not continue with them and instead returns to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). The three are reunited at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). Following this important meeting, Paul and Barnabas decide to “visit the believers in every city where [they] proclaimed the word of the Lord” (Acts 15:36). Barnabas wants to bring John Mark with them (Acts 15:37) but Paul decides that he shouldn’t because he “had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work” (Acts 15:38). This causes a rift between Paul and Barnabas and the two never work together again. Barnabas takes John Mark and travels to Cyprus while Paul takes Silas and travels to Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15:39-41). [4] Since the rest of the book of Acts focuses in on Paul and his activities, we don’t learn anymore of the work of Barnabas and John Mark.

The Jerusalem Council happened around 50 CE and all of Paul’s letters were penned after that meeting. Barnabas is mentioned by Paul in the epistle to the Galatians (2:1, 2:9, 2:13), the first epistle to the Corinthians (9:6), and in the epistle to the Colossians (4:10). [5] An individual named Mark is mentioned in only Colossians (4:10), 2 Timothy (4:11), and Philemon (1:24). If this is the same Mark as that of the book of Acts, then at some point he rejoined Paul on his journeys. This is the view of various commentators. [6] 

Another individual named Mark is mentioned in 1 Peter 5:13 where he is referred to as Peter’s “son.” Though the Gospels make it clear that Peter was married (see Mark 1:30) and the apostle Paul states that Peter had a wife (1 Corinthians 9:5), we don’t know if Peter had any children. It seems unlikely, then, that this Mark is the literal son of Peter. Unfortunately, the connection between the John Mark that traveled with Barnabas and this Mark is also quite tenuous. Though in Acts we do read that the disciples were gathered in the home of Mark’s mother when Peter, an escaped convict, happened upon them (see Acts 12), that is the only connection between Peter and Mark we see in the book of Acts. Throughout the New Testament, the only whiff of a connection between the two is here in 1 Peter. And since 1 Peter was written well after Peter’s death, this connection holds little stock. [7] Furthermore, if Mark had been traveling with Barnabas and then at some point rejoined Paul, when did he join Peter? Philemon was written by Paul while he was under house arrest in the mid 50s CE. Did he leave Paul to go to Peter? Did this happen before or after Paul’s death? These are questions for which the New Testament offers us no answers.

We must also ask the question as to who exactly Papias meant when he named Mark as Peter’s interpreter. It is clear from the context in which Eusebius quotes Papias that he means the Mark of the book of Acts but is that what Papias meant? Since Papias’ Expositions of the Sayings of the Lord is no longer extant, we cannot be certain. And it may be that the book of Mark that Papias spoke of was not the Gospel we have today.

Problems with Papias

One of the clues that Papias may not be speaking about the Gospel of Mark we have today actually has to do with what he says (and doesn’t say) about the Gospel of Matthew. In Eusebius we read Papias’ words:

So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able. [8] 

While there is some debate as to what Papias meant by this [9], generally it is thought he was referring to the Gospel of Matthew as we have it. But therein lies the problem: we have no early manuscripts of Matthew’s Gospel in Hebrew or, as some have thought Papias meant, Aramaic. While undoubtedly Jesus spoke Aramaic, all of our sources are in Greek. So far, with all the evidence at hand, Papias is either wrong about our Gospel of Matthew or he had something else in mind.

The real issue is what Papias doesn’t say about the Gospel of Matthew. The majority of biblical scholars accept the notion that the first Gospel to be written was Mark’s. They also tend to think that both Matthew and Luke used Mark’s Gospel as one of the sources for their own. While we will look at Markan priority at a later time, it suffices to say that when we look at Matthew and Luke and compare them to Mark we can see that they generally follow Mark’s order of events. But if Papias was right – that Mark wrote down what Peter said in his narrative and it was “not in order” – then couldn’t the same be said about Matthew’s Gospel since it generally follows Mark’s?  Yet Papias makes no statement about Matthew’s order at all.

There is yet another issue with Papias’ words about both the origin of Mark’s Gospel and Matthew’s: Papias doesn’t offer us a sample text that shows he is thinking of our Mark and Matthew. Bart Ehrman writes that

it is important to stress that in none of the surviving quotations of Papias does he actually quote either Matthew or Mark. That is to say, he does not give a teaching of Jesus, or a summary of something he did, and then indicate that he found it in one of these Gospels. That is unfortunate, because it means we have no way of knowing for certain that when he refers to a Gospel written by Mark he has in mind the Gospel we today call the Gospel of Mark. [10] 

Remember, we don’t even have Papias’ original writings and so we don’t know if Eusebius was presenting Papias in the context of our Mark and Matthew.

So what do we do with Papias? Well, we can speculate that Papias was speaking of our Mark and Matthew, a speculation that is not conducive with the available evidence. Or we can speculate that Papias was speaking about something other than our Mark and Matthew, a speculation that is a bit more reasonable than that he was speaking of our versions. Or we can simply say Papias was flat-out wrong. I opt for the third possibility.

So Who Wrote the Gospel of Mark? 

If we cannot trust Papias and we cannot go off of any internal evidence to establish authorship, what can we say about the Gospel of Mark’s author? Simply put, the answer is that we don’t know. There is nothing in the book to indicate who the author is and our traditions about the book are not all that reliable. In the absence of good evidence, saying “I don’t know” seems fitting.

But does that matter? For those concerned with canonicity it might. One of the driving forces behind connecting the Gospel of Mark with Mark is the connection to Peter via Papias. After all, Peter was an eyewitness to Jesus’ life and ministry. If Mark wrote down what Peter communicated, we would have an immediate contemporary account of the life of Jesus, albeit second-hand. And it would have apostolic authority standing behind it!

But none of the Gospels are from eyewitnesses directly or indirectly and that’s okay. That doesn’t affect our exegesis of it in the slightest. Regardless of who wrote it, it stands as a biography of Jesus from which we can learn how some of his earliest followers saw him. We can parse the words, observe the context, and offer an exposition that can be enlightening and interesting without having it connected to Mark or Peter or whoever.

It adds nothing to the Gospel.


ENDNOTES

[1] Not only can I see on the book that Punke is the author but I can access the Internet and search a Wikipedia page on him, watch YouTube videos featuring him, and more. The evidence that Punke authored The Revenant is overwhelming.

[2] D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo write, “But the important point is that nothing in the second gospel stands in the way of accepting the earliest tradition that identifies John Mark as its author. Our decision, then, will rest almost entirely on external evidence, and especially on the tradition handed down through Papias and Eusebius from the unnamed presbyter.” (An Introduction to the New Testament, second edition [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005], 175.)

[3] Eusebius, Church History, 3.39.15. In Phillip Schaff, editor, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series II, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d.), 379. Available at https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf201.pdf

[4] In his letter to the Galatians, likely written sometime in the 50s CE, Paul possibly offers a different explanation for his split with Barnabas. In Galatians 2 we read about Paul and Barnabas’ trip to Jerusalem for the Council mentioned in Acts 15. Whereas in Acts 15 we get the sense that Paul and Barnabas had already split up, here in Galatians 2 we see things a bit differently.

At some point Peter (i.e. Cephas) arrives in Antioch and there Paul confronts him. The issue at hand was that Peter would sit and eat with the Gentiles but when “certain people came from James” Peter withdrew from the Gentiles “for fear of the circumcision faction” (2:12). Peter’s hypocrisy evidently was contagious and Paul says that “even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy” (2:13) Paul believed that Peter, Barnabas, and the rest “were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel” and so he confronts Peter in front of them all saying, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (2:14)

Barnabas isn’t mentioned again after this and it seems that the two never worked together again. But the fight does not appear to be over Mark but over the hypocrisy of Peter and Barnabas regarding table fellowship.

[5] The letter to the Colossians is an example of pseudo-Pauline literature. In all likelihood, Paul never wrote it. This is true of other so-called Pauline letters like Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus.

[6] See Peter T. O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, WBC, vol. 44 (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982), 307-308, and Scot McKnight, The Letter to Philemon, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 112.

[7] Both of the epistles of Peter were not written by the apostle Peter and can be dated to after his death in Rome. See Claudio Moreschini and Enrico Norelli, Early Christian Greek and Latin Literature: A Literary History, vol. 1 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005), 118. For a defense of Petrine authorship, see Carson and Moo, 641-646.

[8] Eusebius, 3.39.16. In Schaff, 380.

[9] For a discussion of Papias’ testimony regarding Matthew’s Gospel, see Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13, WBC, vol. 33a (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1993), xliii-xlvi.

[10] Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2016), 114.

Featured image: By Phillip Vere – http://wfurl.com/a6ea272 (.pdf) “An illustrated commentary on the Gospel of Mark”. By Phillip Medhurst. .pdf file, FAL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34093282

Some Thoughts on SJ Thomason’s Response to Elisha Ben Abuya

In December Twitter user Elisha Ben Abuya posted to his blog a piece on Isaiah 53. In it he lays out his case that the passage which Christians attribute to divine prophecy about Jesus is actually about Israel and is hardly prophetic at all. He wrote,

My intent was to show that Isaiah 53 needs to be read COMPLETELY with the other chapters.

And if you pull out chapter 53 and threw it away, and you had to guess what it would have to say, based on all of the other chapters before and after.

The individual words of one chapter are not as important as the complete package.

And isn’t that something that Christians are always complaining about? “You are taking it out of context!”

Indeed.

In response to his post, pop-apologist SJ Thomason posted a rebuttal that not only completely misses the point of Elisha’s work but also displays a dearth of knowledge about biblical texts generally. I have no desire to dissect her post piece-by-piece but I would like to make a few observations. We will begin with the end.

Jesus and the Fourth Servant Song

Thomason writes,

The four Gospels recount Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, which corresponds to the passage above [i.e. Isaiah 53] in that he (1) was rejected by mankind; (2) bore our suffering and was crushed for our iniquities; (3) was pierced for our transgressions; (4) did not open his mouth when being led into slaughter; (5) was cut off from the land of the living; and (6) after suffering he saw the light of life and was satisfied.

This tells us exactly nothing about whether the Fourth Servant Song is about Jesus. Rather, it tells us that Christians accommodated the biblical text in their telling of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Thomason offers no meaningful exegesis of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 that demonstrates beyond any doubt that Jesus is the topic of discussion. And why doesn’t she? Because she can’t.

When we read the Gospels, we aren’t reading a unified approach to the telling of Jesus’ life and death. Each of the writers shaped their narratives to suit their audiences. It is why when we read the story of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law and healing the sick and casting out demons in the Gospel of Mark (1:29-34) we don’t find a connection to any fulfillment of prophecy like we do in Matthew’s version of the story (Matthew 8:14-17). Matthew sees Jesus’ healing and exorcism ministry as the fulfillment of Isaiah 53:4:

“This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.'” (Matthew 8:17, NRSV)

But we expect this of Matthew’s Gospel which before Matthew 8 had already appropriated seven other texts from the Hebrew Bible and made them about Jesus in one way or another. For Matthew, Jesus is the new and better Moses and, in many ways, the new and better Israel. [1] L. Michael White notes that

this pattern of formulaic citation of scriptures appears throughout the Gospel of Matthew. Consequently, all of the prophecy-fulfillment citations in Matthew are part of the Matthean design and composition of the narrative….In each instance they are carefully selected and adapted to give the actions described an aura of verisimilitude….The prophecy-fulfillment citations reflect a major component of the Matthean theological agenda in shaping the image of Jesus. [2]

But is this appropriation by Matthew proof that Jesus is the fulfillment of passages such as Isaiah 53:4? No, it is merely evidence that early Christians saw in the Jewish holy texts their crucified and risen Savior. In order to establish that Jesus is the fulfillment of these texts, one must provide some kind of meaningful exegesis that deals with the full context of the citations and not just the cherry-picked portions. [3] Thomason simply doesn’t do that. Instead, she comes up with weak arguments for why Isaiah 53 cannot be about Israel. She writes,

Unlike the Suffering Servant, the nation of Israel (1) is beautiful, as opposed to Isaiah 53:2 and (2) has a history of violence, as opposed to Isaiah 53:9. If the nation refers to the people of Israel as a whole, as Origen suggested, some within the group are beautiful, as opposed to Isaiah 53:2; and (2) all Jewish people have not been led into slaughter and have not been silent when persecuted, as opposed to Isaiah 53:7. God has always punished sins and rewarded righteousness, so punishing the Jewish group as a whole for the sins of others is inconsistent with the scriptures (Isaiah 61:8; Deuteronomy 10:18, 32:4; Psalms 99:4, 140:12; and Proverbs 11:1).

I’ll be honest, it looks like Thomason wrote this part in great haste. [4] For one thing, the numbering of her points is off – (1), (2), (2) – and for another she completely undermines the point she is trying to make regarding Isaiah 53 and Jesus.

First, while it is true that the nation of Israel is described as beautiful in the Hebrew Bible (see Psalm 50:1 or Ezekiel 16:14 for example), there are also descriptions of Israel that are not so beautiful. In not a few places is Israel referred to as a whore (Ezekiel 16 and Hosea 4:15) and in Isaiah the nation is referred to as “godless” (Isaiah 10:5). The description of the Servant in Isaiah 53:2 fits perfectly with Israel. In fact, there is an interesting parallel between the description of the Servant in Isaiah 53:2 and Yahweh’s description of what the nations did to Israel in 53:23. In 53:23 we read,

And I will put it into the hand of your tormentors,
who have said to you,
“Bow down, that we may walk on you”;
and you have made your back like the ground [כָאָרֶץ]
and like the street for them to walk on.
(NRSV)

The imagery is vivid enough: in what the nations did to Israel, they essentially pounded them into the ground . In Isaiah 53:2 we read that the Servant grew up “like a root out of dry ground [צִיָּה מֵאֶרֶץ].” So then we can see the idea that the misfortune of Israel at the hands of her “tormentors” is being reversed. Though Israel had been pounded into the ground, out of the ground she emerges.

Second, Thomason thinks that because Israel has conducted violence in her past that this disqualifies her as the Servant based upon 53:9 which says,

They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
(NRSV)

Since Israel certainly had a violent past, this description of the Servant cannot fit Israel, right? Only if you ignore the larger context of the passage. If you look back at 52:3-6 you see something interesting going on in the book of Isaiah. Really, it has been going on since chapter forty. It says,

For thus says the LORD: You were sold for nothing, and you shall be redeemed without money. For thus says the Lord GOD: Long ago, my people went down into Egypt to reside there as aliens; the Assyrian, too, has oppressed them without cause. Now therefore, what am I doing here, says the LORD, seeing my people are taken away without cause? Their rulers howl, says the LORD, and continually, all day long, my name is despised. Therefore my people shall know my name; therefore in that day they shall know that it is I who speak; her am I. (NRSV)

Twice we see Yahweh through the prophet saying that the Assyrians and the Babylonians have acted against Israel “without cause.” This is clear revisionism. In Isaiah 10 the Assyrians are called “the rod” of Yahweh’s anger that he would send against the “godless nation” of Israel (10:5-6). So what is going on? It seems that the author is presenting the ideal Israel, the faithful remnant that seeks after Yahweh. So too in Isaiah 53:9 and in other verses in the text we see this ideal Israel, the faithful remnant that is Yahweh’s Servant. Furthermore, in the Third Servant Song (50:4-11) we read of Israel’s humility in the face of suffering.

The Lord GOD has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens –
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord GOD has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out
the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
(50:4-6), NRSV

We must also consider who is speaking in 53:9. The Fourth Servant Song begins with 52:13 and the final three verses of Isaiah 52 are clearly Yahweh. But then the voice switches from the first person singular to the first person plural – “Who has believed what we have heard?” (53:1) I think that the speaker is the nations or the kings of the nations referred to in 52:15. They have witnessed Israel’s humiliation and have judged it to be unjust. From their perspective, the Servant has seemingly endured a miscarriage of justice.

Jesus and the Justice of God 

Thomason also objects to identifying the Servant as Israel on the basis that it is not characteristic of how God deals with people. She writes,

God has always punished sins and rewarded righteousness, so punishing the Jewish group as a whole for the sins of others is inconsistent with the scriptures (Isaiah 61:8; Deuteronomy 10:18, 32:4; Psalms 99:4, 140:12; and Proverbs 11:1).

There are two parts to this objection. The first is that God punishes sin and rewards righteousness. I do not have a problem with this claim: the Hebrew Bible does communicate such a message, particularly in the passages Thomason cited. But the second part of the claim is that for God to punish Israel for the sins of someone else is inconsistent with the Hebrew scriptures. For that she offers no support whatsoever. Now I could mention some places where this seems to be the case, Jeremiah 31:29-30 for example. But what is interesting about this second part of the objection is that it completely undermines the point Thomason attempts to make that it is Jesus and not Israel that is the Servant.

While there are a myriad of ideas that try to answer the theological question as to what exactly Jesus’ death accomplished, Thomason appears to be in the penal substitution camp based upon this blog post. There she writes (with reference to Matthew 27:51-53),

The moment Jesus died on the cross was the same moment in which holy people who had passed were freed from captivity, death, and Satan, and raised to eternal life. Jesus had fulfilled the scriptures, such as Isaiah 53, by overcoming the world and redeeming humanity from sins and death.

She also says in that post that

when He was crucified, we and our sins were crucified. He and we are one. He served as both a substitute for us and as an integral part of us as both God and man.

But how can this be? If it is the case that God rewards righteousness and punishes iniquity, and that it would be unjust of God to punish Israel for the sins of the nations, how then can Jesus – by all counts a righteous man – be punished for the sins of the world? Isn’t this also “inconsistent with the scriptures”?

I doubt whether Thomason thought about the implications of what she wrote and when confronted I’m sure she will have some less than clever response that invokes some kind of special pleading, but the point stands. If Jesus can stand in and be punished for the sins of the world, then Israel can stand in and be punished for the sins of the nations.

Falling Flat

Much more could be said about Thomason’s lackluster response to Elisha Ben Abuya. For the sake of time, I didn’t dwell on the first section of her response but she didn’t contribute much to the overall discussion there anyway. I would also encourage my readers to take a look at Elisha Ben Abuya’s response to Thomason’s blog post here. There he briefly goes over the seven exegetical issues that render a Christocentric interpretation of the Fourth Servant Song null and void. He also offers his own translation of the passage which is fascinating in its own right. You can also check out my blog post that discusses the Fourth Servant Song here.

At the end of the day, seeing the Servant in Isaiah 53 as Israel makes far more sense than seeing it as Jesus. That text must have meant something to its original audience and by-and-large the Jews at that time were not looking for a suffering messiah. Rather, the Fourth Servant Song communicates how Israel in the Exile was punished for the sins of the nations but would be restored and exalted.

END NOTES

[1] The very first text that Matthew appropriates is from Isaiah 7:14, a text that is not about Jesus at all.

All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel.
(Matthew 1:22-23, NRSV)

Isaiah 7:14 is clearly not about Jesus because of the context (Isaiah 7:10-17). Ahaz fears that his kingdom will be attacked and the city of Jerusalem besieged. But Isaiah declares that Yahweh will give a sign to him, an assurance that things will turn out okay.

Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. The LORD will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah – the king of Assyria. (7:14-17, NRSV)

When you examine the text in full, it becomes clear that (1) Matthew cherry picked the verse from its larger context, and (2) in context Jesus is not the subject. Rather, it is a message to Ahaz that there will be plenty of food (“he shall eat curds and honey”) and therefore the siege against Jerusalem would not last long. Why? The child’s name reveals why: God would be with them.

Furthermore, this is not the first time a child has been given a symbolic name in Isaiah nor is it the last. In 7:3 we read that Isaiah has a son named Shear-jashub, a name that means “a remnant shall return.” In 8:1-4 we read of a prophetess who conceives a bears a son whom they name “Maher-shalal-hash-baz.” The name means something like “the spoil speeds, the prey hastens” and in context was meant to symbolize the coming destruction of Syria and Israel at the hands of the Assyrians.

It defies imagination that the text of Isaiah 7:14 is about Jesus since the only way to make it about him is to divorce it from its original context and insert it in a birth narrative that is intended to make Jesus look like a new Moses or Israel. We should also consider that Matthew was clearly using the LXX in his citation of Isaiah 7:14 and not the Hebrew text. For whatever reason, the translators of the LXX translated הָעַלְמָה (“the woman” or “the young woman”) as ἡ παρθένος (“the virgin”) and it is ἡ παρθένος that we find in Matthew 1:23. Since the birth tradition in Matthew has a pregnant virgin as Jesus’ mother, Matthew lifted Isaiah 7:14 in the LXX and used it as proof that Jesus is “God with us.”

[2] L. Michael White, Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2010), 244-245.

[3] Christian interpreters have come up with ingenious ways to work around the implications of Matthean-type lifting of texts. In their Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, the authors list four criteria for adopting what they deem “a creative interpretation.” Those criteria are:

  • “it expresses or conforms to orthodox Christian theology;
  • it corresponds to typical paradigms of God’s truth or activity as clearly revealed in historically interpreted sections of the Bible;
  • it works in the crucible of Christian experience – producing godliness and other valid Christian qualities, and advancing God’s kingdom; and
  • it finds confirmation along the full spectrum (racially, sexually, socio-economically, et. al.) of Christians within an orthodox faith-community.”

Then they write this:

Where a creative interpretation meets these criteria, it has a claim to validity – not as the historical meaning of the text, but as a valid “perlocution,” that is, additional effect. Where one occurs in isolated sectors of the Church or derives from individual interpreters, it must remain seriously suspect and probably be rejected until it can meet the criteria. (William B. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, revised and updated [Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2004], 206.)

So when Matthew lifts the words of Hosea 11:1 about the nation of Israel and applies them to the young Jesus leaving Egypt to return to Nazareth, this is not an eisegetical rendering but rather a “creative perlocution.”

Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart write that instances like the aforementioned Matthean usage of Hosea 11:1 represent an example of “analogical” fulfillment. He writes,

This kind of “second meaning,” therefore, should not be thought of as “playing games” with the Old Testament; rather, as God’s inspired servant Matthew is “retelling” the story of Israel, God’s son, as that which has been reenacted by God’s true and greater Son.” (Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, third edition [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003], 204.)

This too is a creative approach but it is one that already assumes the supremacy of Christianity. In order to demonstrate that supremacy, one would need to appeal to the texts of the Hebrew Bible and unless one wishes to invoke a tautology, the fact of the matter is that these ancient texts had their own meaning in their own contexts.

[4] Thomason isn’t known for taking her time. She has on more than one occasion claimed that it takes me so long to write a piece because God was hindering me. And she has on more than one occasion been able to write a “rebuttal” to a piece in just a few hours. I think the quality of her writing and research, particularly about biblical texts, demonstrates that she is way out of her depth and needs to take more time in thinking through what she writes.

Musings on Mark: Abiathar the High Priest

πῶς εἰσῆλθεν εἰς τὸν οἶκον τοῦ θεοῦ ἐπὶ Ἀβιαθὰρ ἀρχιερέως καὶ τοὺς ἄρτους τῆς προθέσεως ἔφαγεν, οὓς οὐκ ἔξεστιν φαγεῖν εἰ μὴ τοὺς ἱερεῖς, καὶ ἔδωκεν καὶ τοῖς σὺν αὐτῷ οὖσιν; (Mark 2:26)


The Bible notoriously gets details wrong. Matthew attributes to Jeremiah what was loosely written in Zechariah (Matthew 27:9-10; cf. Zechariah 11:13); Luke places Jesus’ birth a decade later than Matthew does (Luke 2:2; cf. Matthew 2:1); John thinks Jesus’ purging of the temple happens at the beginning of his ministry rather than the end (John 2:13-17; cf. Mark 11:15-18); and so on. Both professional apologists and those of the pop variety have no shortage of responses to these kinds of textual issues, many of which involve serious mental gymnastics of the exegetical and historical kind. [1] Sometimes they are entertaining; more often it is too painful to watch.

Here in Mark 2:23-28 we find a detail that Mark need not have gotten wrong.

23 One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26 He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” 27 Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” (Mark 2:23-28, NRSV)

This pericope is one of the controversy narratives that feature in this section of Mark’s Gospel. In the previous unit (2:18-22), Jesus had to deal with the question of fasting – “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not?” (2:18)  In 2:23-28, the Pharisees are upset that Jesus’ disciples were going through a field of grain and plucking heads of grain to eat. Wasn’t this an unlawful act? (Exodus 24:21) Jesus’ response to the Pharisees is to tell a story found in the Hebrew Bible.

21  David came to Nob to the priest Ahimelech. Ahimelech came trembling to meet David, and said to him, “Why are you alone, and no one with you?” David said to the priest Ahimelech, “The king has charged me with a matter, and said to me, ‘No one must know anything of the matter about which I send you, and with which I have charged you.’ I have made an appointment with the young men for such and such a place. Now then, what have you at hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here.” The priest answered David, “I have no ordinary bread at hand, only holy bread—provided that the young men have kept themselves from women.” David answered the priest, “Indeed women have been kept from us as always when I go on an expedition; the vessels of the young men are holy even when it is a common journey; how much more today will their vessels be holy?” So the priest gave him the holy bread; for there was no bread there except the bread of the Presence, which is removed from before the Lord, to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away. (1 Samuel 21:1-6, NRSV)

David and his men had been roaming the countryside trying to avoid Saul the king of Israel. He arrives in the city of Nob, a town in the tribe of Benjamin, that is referred to as “the city of the priests.” (1 Samuel 22:19) There he meets with Ahimelech the priest from whom David requests five loaves of bread so that he can feed himself and those with him. [2] Ahimelech has no bread to offer except “the bread of the Presence” and he cannot give it away to anyone who has been with a woman. In fact, the bread of the Presence was to be consumed by the priests and replaced the next day. (See Exodus 25:30) David informs him that he and his men have kept themselves from sexual interaction with women and Ahimelech gives the bread to him.

In Jesus’ Cliffs Notes version we notice a problem in a pretty big detail. Jesus says that the ἀρχιερέως – “high priest” – is Abiathar and not Ahimelech. (2:26) This is problematic because Abiathar is Ahimelech’s son and it is only after Ahimelech is killed by Saul in Nob that Abiathar becomes the high priest. (1 Samuel 22:6-23) So who is right? The Deuteronomic Historian in Samuel or Jesus in the Gospel of Mark?

Attempts to Reconcile

In the ESV Study Bible, we read this note that attempts to rectify the problem (and thereby rescue inerrancy):

The incident with David actually occurred when Ahimelech, not his son Abiathar, was high priest (1 Sam. 21:1). “In the time of Abiathar” could mean: (1) “In the time of Abiathar who later became high priest” (naming Abiathar because he was a more prominent person in the OT narrative, remaining high priest for many years of David’s reign); (2) “In [the Scripture section] of Abiathar, the high priest” (taking Gk. epi plus the genitive to indicate a location in Scripture, as in Mark 12:26). Abiathar, the only son of Ahimelech to survive the slaughter by Doeg (1 Samuel 22), is the best-known high priest in this larger section of 1 Samuel. [3] 

So here we see two possibilities: either Abiathar was named because he was better known than Ahimelech, or the Greek construction of ἐπὶ Ἀβιαθὰρ ἀρχιερέως is offering us a locating in the Hebrew Bible to which Mark’s readers could refer. Neither possibility seems plausible for at least four reasons.

First, it is simply inaccurate to say that Abiathar was high priest when this incident occurred. He wasn’t. Regardless of whether Abiathar is “a more prominent person” in the narrative to which Jesus refers, it is simply inaccurate to describe him as the high priest at the time this event is said to have happened.

Second, while it is true that in Mark 12:26 that ἐπί plus the genitive τοῦ βάτου (“the bush”) is Jesus’ narrowing down of where the quote “I am the God of Abraham, etc.” comes from, the connection in 12:26 takes place right away – “Have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush [ἐπὶ τοῦ βάτου]….” If the intention of Mark had been to communicate that ἐπὶ Ἀβιαθὰρ ἀρχιερέως meant “in the section about Abiathar the high priest,” why didn’t he put it in verse 25 when he said, “Have you never read?” That would have been the time to insert ἐπὶ Ἀβιαθὰρ ἀρχιερέως. There would have been no confusion then. 

Third, some manuscripts of Mark omit ἐπὶ Ἀβιαθὰρ ἀρχιερέως entirely in a bid to avoid the contradiction and others insert the Greek definite article τοῦ before ἀρχιερέως “to permit the interpretation that the event happened in the time of (but not necessarily during the high-priesthood of) Abiathar (who, was afterward) the high priest.” [4] So clearly later editors saw a problem and sought to correct it. 

Fourth, in both Matthew’s version of this narrative (Matthew 12:1-8) and Luke’s (Luke 6:1-5), Abiathar isn’t even mentioned! Here are all three passages, beginning with Mark.

Mark 2:26 – πῶς εἰσῆλθεν εἰς τὸν οἶκον τοῦ θεοῦ ἐπὶ Ἀβιαθὰρ ἀρχιερέως καὶ τοὺς ἄρτους τῆς προθέσεως ἔφαγεν, οὓς οὐκ ἔξεστιν φαγεῖν εἰ μὴ τοὺς ἱερεῖς, καὶ ἔδωκεν καὶ τοῖς σὺν αὐτῷ οὖσιν;

Matthew 12:4 – πῶς εἰσῆλθεν εἰς τὸν οἶκον τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ τοὺς ἄρτους τῆς προθέσεως ἔφαγον, οὐκ ἐξὸν ἦναὐτῷ φαγεῖν οὐδὲ τοῖς μετ’ αὐτοῦ, εἰ μὴ τοῖς ἱερεῦσιν μόνοις;

Luke 6:4 – ὡς εἰσῆλθεν εἰς τὸν οἶκον τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ τοὺς ἄρτους τῆς προθέσεως ἔλαβεν καὶ ἔφαγεν καὶἔδωκεν καὶ τοῖς μετ’ αὐτοῦ, οὓς οὐκ ἔξεστιν φαγεῖν εἰ μὴ μόνους τοὺς ἱερεῖς;

If you look, there is no mention in either Matthew or Luke of Abiathar the high priest. Given that Matthew and Luke came after Mark and both used Mark as a source for their texts, it seems that the authors of Mark and Luke recognized the error and just chose to omit it altogether. This redactional activity makes sense since it didn’t matter who the high priest was when David ate the bread of the Presence. The point Jesus was making was that there are times when it is morally right to violate a sacred command in the interest of preserving life. Just as David was in the right when he broke divine law in eating of the bread of the Presence because he needed sustenance, so too the disciples are in the right when they broke divine law in picking heads of grain on the Sabbath because they needed sustenance.

For those who are not concerned with inerrancy, the inclusion of Abiathar rather than Ahimelech is not an issue. Mark obviously got the name of the high priest wrong when he put together his Gospel. But for inerrantists, this detail is highly problematic because it is flat out wrong. If Jesus is right, the Hebrew Bible is wrong. If the Hebrew Bible is right, Jesus is wrong.

Any way you slice it, inerrancy is in trouble.

ENDNOTES

[1] And let’s not even get started on creationism!

[2] It should be pointed out that when Ahimelech asks David why he is alone, David responds with an outright lie – “The king has charged me with a matter, and said to me, ‘No one must know anything of the matter about which I send you, and with which I have charged you.'” (21:2) Saul did not charge David to do anything of the sort.

[3] Lane T. Dennis and Wayne Grudem, editors, ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008), 1,897. See also William Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), 115-116.

[4] Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, second edition (Stuttgart, Germany: Germany Bible Society, 1994), 68.


Featured Image: By Scanned by: User Lavallen – Book: “Biblia, det är den heliga skrift, med förklaringar af P. Fjellstedt.” part I, page 167, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7784858

A Blog You Should Follow

This blog, for better or for worse, is about biblical texts. My aim is to point my few readers to resources that illuminate biblical texts and help them understand them better. So I don’t recommend many blogs (though I follow plenty of good ones). But today I need to recommend the blog of Twitter user @elishabenabuya called “Musings of an Apikoris.” It is a site filled with posts covering the Hebrew Bible, including numerous pieces on the various texts Christians misuse and misapply from the Hebrew scriptures. His exchange with SJ Thomason, a pop-apologist, over Isaiah 53 is well worth the time to read. You can read those recent pieces here and here. Here are a few of my other favorite posts:

Elisha (assuming that is his real name) hails from Israel and was at one time a practicing religious Jew who is now a non-believer. But despite this non-belief, Elisha maintains an interest in the Hebrew Bible and a desire to communicate its intricacies and idiosyncrasies to his audience. I find in him a kindred spirit.

If you can only read one blog on biblical texts, ditch mine and head over to his. You will not regret it.

Featured Image: By ליאםשרוט – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45764690

An Index to My Response to SJ Thomason on “God’s Promises”

Today I posted seven different pieces responding to the work of SJ Thomason and her blog post entitled “Babylon Will Never Be Inhabited.” This post will serve as an index to which readers can refer to navigate the posts. Keep in mind that I have written over forty-thousand words and so reading the posts in one sitting is not advisable. It would be far better to take them one day at a time.

Part 1 – Deals with Babylon and the book of Jeremiah.

Part 2 – Deals with Joshua and Jericho.

Part 3 – Deals with the Flood myth.

Part 4 – Deals with Jesus and Isaiah 53

Part 5 – Deals with Judas Iscariot and the book of Zechariah

Part 6 – Deals with the Parousia and the meaning of “this generation” in Matthew 24.

Part 7 – Deals with the Nicene Creed.

Evangelical Eisegesis: SJ Thomason and “God’s Promises,” part 7

This is the final post in a seven-part series responding to the blog post “Babylon Will Never Be Inhabited” by pop-apologist S. J. Thomason. You can read the sixth post here.

All biblical references, unless otherwise noted, are from the English Standard Version (Crossway, 2001).

GOD’S PROMISE #7 – GOD’S FINAL PROMISE

Thomason wrote,

According to Biblical scholars, the Nicene Creed is the most universally accepted and recognized statements of the Christian faith. And the Nicene Creed offers God’s final promise to us.

“We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried, and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father. And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end.”

I have to confess that this is a bit perplexing to me. The Nicene Creed is not part of the biblical canon and I was under the assumption that Thomason was a believer of sola scriptura, the Reformation doctrine that the Bible alone is the final authority on all matters theological. While the Nicene Creed may or may not reflect biblical ideas, it itself is not sacred scripture. In fact, the Nicene Creed doesn’t even appear until the fourth century CE, centuries after the final books of the New Testament were composed.

I will not offer a commentary on the Creed, though it is a fascinating statement of what would become orthodox belief. Unlike the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed fleshes out what it means to call Jesus the “begotten” Son of God: “begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” The intention was to rebut those dastardly Arians who insisted that Jesus was a created being and could not be divine as the Father was divine. The Arians lost, though it should be noted that following the death of Constantine, a Trinitarian, the Arians gained some ground in the political sphere. But that is a story for another time perhaps.

The “final promise” Thomason mentions must be the final line of the Christological portion of the Creed: “He shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end.” But if the whole purpose of the blog post was to “show the way God has used the Bible to demonstrate how He keeps His promises,” then there is simply no way to evaluate this one. Jesus hasn’t returned and it has been two thousand years since he departed this world. There have been numerous failed predictions from various religious leaders claiming that he would return on this or that date. But none of them have panned out and the world remains as it is.

And so, on this promise, we can say with a great deal of confidence that thus far God has not kept his promise. And as we have seen in each and every promise Thomason presented in her blog, the evidence that God has kept his word is dismal at best. From Babylon to Noah’s Flood to the death of Judas, we have seen time and again a pattern of evangelical eisegesis and one-sidedness that is unbecoming of one who claims to be a “Christian Apologist.”

And now, having offered my own rebuttal, I can say with a great deal of confidence that it most assuredly took as long to write her post as it did for me to read it.

Evangelical Eisegesis: SJ Thomason on “God’s Promises,” part 6

This is the sixth post in a seven-part series responding to the blog post “Babylon Will Never Be Inhabited” by pop-apologist S. J. Thomason. You can read the fifth post here.

All biblical references, unless otherwise noted, are from the English Standard Version (Crossway, 2001).

PROMISE #6 – “THIS GENERATION WILL NOT PASS AWAY”

Thomason writes,

In Matthew 24:34, Jesus states “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

The interpretation of the word “generation” has led some people to believe that Jesus was referring to a generation of people. The original Greek word for generation is “genea (γενεά),” which means generation, race, family, times, or nation. In Acts 14:16, genea translates to times. “In the past times, he let all nations go their own way.” In Acts 15:21, genea also refers to times. “For the Law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” In Philippians 2:15, genea translates as a nation. “That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world.” Some scholars believe genea refers to the nation of Israel. The translation to times may also be the case, considering the earth’s age (4.5BY) and the time since Jesus walked the earth is relatively short.

It is not clear to me what “promise” Thomason is writing of when she quotes Matthew 24:34 and then offers up her opinion on what γενεά refers to in context. Given her reworking of the text and her appeal to various English translations to make the text say what it clearly does not say, perhaps she means to say that the “generation” or “time period” Jesus speaks won’t pass until “all these things” take place. Since Thomason fails to offer anything resembling exegesis, it is difficult to say what she thinks on this matter.

However, we can do what Thomason refuses to do and offer some analysis of the text and context of Matthew 24:34. First, we will discuss the expectation of early Christians regarding the return of Jesus according to the Christian scriptures. Then we will briefly examine Matthew 24:34 and what is meant by “this generation.”

THE RETURN OF JESUS IN EARLY CHRISTIAN WRITING

The death of Jesus of Nazareth likely happened sometime around 30 CE. He was hanged for crimes against the state on a cross and, according to the Gospels, was taken down after he died and placed in a tomb. Three days later, his followers claimed, Jesus emerged from that tomb alive. Forty days later, Jesus departs this world by ascending into the sky to sit at God’s right hand.

Paul and the Return of Jesus

Though Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are typically the first books that appear in most New Testaments, in reality those books were not among the first Christian documents to be composed in the first century. That honor goes to a Christian-killer turned Jesus-follower by the name of Paul of Tarsus. Within just a couple of decades after the death of Jesus, Paul begins writing various letters to churches he had visited in his missionary journies. They include a letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, a letter to the Galatians, two letters to the Corinthians, a letter to the Philippians, a letter to Philemon, and a letter to the Romans. These seven “authentic” letters represent Paul’s responses to circumstances within various Christian communities in the mid-first century as well as his own thoughts on various theological and practical matters. [1] 

One of the many theological matters with which Paul was concerned was the return of Jesus. Alexandra R. Brown identifies a number of explicit and implicit references Paul makes to the return of Jesus and the various ways he communicates that eschatological expectation. (Brown, 2000, 52-58) He uses words like παρουσία, ἀπάντησις, ἀποκάλυψις (and cognates), φανερόω, and more. He also talks about “the day,” or “the day of the Lord,” or “the day of Christ,” all terms that hearken back to the “day of Yahweh” used throughout the Hebrew Bible. “What he seems to anticipate at the return of Christ, his writings indicate, is the final overtaking of the ‘present evil age’ (Gal 1:4) by the future and final triumph of God.” (Brown, 48)

The first of the seven letters written by Paul is one to the Christian community in the city of Thessalonica, a port city in Macedonia where the Roman governer of the province lived. (Bruce, 1982, xx-xxi) In 50 CE, not long after he visited Thessalonica, Paul writes his letter to them. One of the topics he addresses is the return of Jesus. He wrote,

But we do not want you to be uninformed brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, ESV)

Much ink has been spilled commenting on this section and I have no desire to reinvent the wheel. What I would like to do briefly is touch on a few eye-opening things Paul has written here that should affect our own view of early Christian expectations regarding the return of Jesus.

First, Paul is writing to offer encouragment to Thessalonian Christians who have watched their brothers and sisters die before Jesus’ return. These numerous deaths “have left some wondering about the delay of the parousia [i.e. coming of Jesus] and somehow, too, about the relation of the dead to the living at the last day.” (Brown, 67) What Paul writes here is to ensure that they are not “uninformed” (ἀγνοεῖν) about the last day and so that they do not lost hope. (4:13)

Second, Paul believes that since Jesus died and was raised back to life then those who had died “in Christ” (4:16) will also rise again. (4:14) Paul here is appealing to the common Jewish belief in a general resurrection at the end of the world. (Daniel 12:2) But Paul claims that more than just a general resurrection will occur at the last day. According to a revelation from God (4:15), anyone still alive at the return of Jesus will not be taken up before those who have died. Instead, the dead will rise first and then the living will be “caught up together with them in the clouds to meet [ἀπάντησιν] the Lord in the air.” (4:17)

Third, Paul is not writing this in general terms. Instead, Paul contrasts “those who are asleep” (τῶν κοιμωμένων) and “those who have fallen asleep” (τοὺς κοιμηθέντας) in verses 13, 14, and 15 with “we who are alive, who are left” (ἡμεῖς οἱ ζῶντες οἱ περιλειπόμενοι) in verses 15 and 17. By employing the personal pronoun ἡμεῖς Paul is lumping himself in with “those who are alive” (οἱ ζῶντες) and “those who are left” (οἱ περιλειπόμενοι). Had Paul wanted to make a general truth about the return of Jesus with relation to the living and the dead, Paul could have dropped ἡμεῖς and left the participles alone. Then the text would have read, “Then those who are alive, who are left” rather than, “We who are alive, who are left.” (4:17) But Paul does not do this and ἡμεῖς displays the emphasis Paul places on his own expectation of the return of Jesus, namely that it will happen within his own lifetime. 

We see this again in another letter Paul wrote, this time to the Christians in Corinth. Apparently some in the church were teaching that there was no resurrection of the dead (1 Corinthians 15:12). Paul employs a reductio ad absurdum in his reply to that notion.

But if there is no resurrection from the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain….And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. (15:13-14, 17)

For Paul, the denial of this aspect of eschatology had soteriological consequences.

Paul then lays out for the Corinthians the order of events that will take place at the end of the age. The end began with the resurrection of Jesus – “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (15:20) The next to be raised from the dead are “at his coming [ἐν τῇ παρουσίᾳ) those who belong to Christ.” (15:23) Then comes τὸ τέλος, “the end.” (15:24) Paul does not mention what will happen to those who are alive at τὸ τέλος until verses 50-57. He writes there, 

I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. (1 Corinthians 15:50-52)

Paul speaks to the Corinthians of a “mystery.” The mystery is this: “we shall not all sleep [πάντες οὐ κοιμηθησόμεθα], but we shall all be changed [πάντες δὲ ἀλλαγησόμεθα].” (15:51) In other words, even those alive at the coming of Jesus will experience a change from perishable to imperishable. It is isn’t only the dead that will experience it. 

There are some interesting similarities between what he writes here in 1 Corinthians 15 and what he wrote to the Thessalonians. For example, Paul says that the change will happen “at the last trumpet [ἐν τῇ ἐσχάτῃ σάλπιγγι].” (15:52) Similarly, in 1 Thessalonians 4 Paul writes that Jesus will return “with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God [σάλπιγγι θεοῦ].” (4:16) And just as in 1 Corinthians after the trumpet sounds “the dead [οἱ νεκροὶ]will be raised imperishable” (15:52), so too in 1 Thessalonians, after the sound of God’s trumpet “the dead [οἱ νεκροὶ] in Christ will rise first.” (4:16) 

But there is more. In 1 Corinthians, Paul says that after the trumpet sounds and after the dead are “raised imperishable” then “we shall be changed [ἡμεῖς ἀλλαγησόμεθα].” (15:52) In 1 Thessalonians Paul says that after the trumpet sounds and after the dead “rise first” that “we who are alive, who are left [ἡμεῖς οἱ ζῶντες οἱπεριλειπόμενοι], will be caught up together with them in the clouds.” (4:16) Notice the personal pronoun ἡμεῖς shows up in 1 Corinthians 15:52, set in contrast with οἱ νεκροὶ, “the dead.” Paul didn’t have to write ἡμεῖς there at all since the future tense verb ἀλλαγησόμεθα is in the first person plural – “we shall be changed.” ἡμεῖς must have been inserted there by Paul for emphasis. [2] But why? Because Paul believed that he would be among those alive at the coming of Jesus. 

The Book of James and the Return of Jesus

The book of James is another example of New Testament pseudgraphia and was likely written toward the end of the first century CE. (Moreschini & Norelli, 2005, 117) Yet in it we see references to the return of Jesus. To begin with, James writes his treatise “to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (1:1), a reference to Jewish Christians living at that time but couched in terms that connect them to the Assyrian and Babylonian exile of Jews beginning in the eighth century BCE. There was an eschatological expectation among Jews that Yahweh would restore them in the land and return Israel to glory. (For example, see Jeremiah 30-31.)

The major theme of the book of James is steadfastness and patience during suffering. Jewish Christians should “count it all joy” when they endure trials because “the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (1:3), and steadfastness will work in them so that they will be “perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” (1:4) The word translated as “steadfastness” (ESV) or “patience” (ὑπομονή) appears three times in James (1:3, 1:4, and 5:11) while the verb “to be patient” or “to have patience” (μακροθυμέω) appears twice (5:7 and 5:8). A related noun, μακροθυμία, appears in 5:10. Over and again the theme of patience appears in the beginning and the end of the book.

In chapter five, James tells his readers, “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming [παρουσίας] of the Lord.” Just as the farmer patiently waits for his crops to appear after it receives “the early and the late rains,” so too they must be patient. (5:7, 8a) He commands them, “Establish your hearts.” Why? “For the coming of the Lord [ παρουσία τοῦ κυρίου] is at hand [ἤγγικεν].” (5:8b) What does he mean that the coming of Jesus is “at hand”? 

For starters, the word translated as “at hand” comes from ἐγγίζω, a verb meaning “to come near” or “to draw near.” James uses this verb elsewhere in the letter when he writes, “Draw near [ἐγγίσατε] to God, and he will draw near [ἁγνίσατε] to you.” (4:8) The idea of coming near God may have roots in the Hebrew Bible where Yahweh tells Moses to have the priests “who come near [LXX, οἱ ἐγγίζοντες] to the LORD” consecrate themselves. (Exodus 19:22) By cleansing their hands and purifying their hearts, James readership can experience the nearness of God.

So when James writes that the coming of Jesus is “at hand,” he means to say that it is “near.” That is, James expected Jesus to return sooner rather than later. And while it is true that the emphasis for James isn’t so much on the timing of the return but upon the conduct of Christians prior to it (Martin, 1998, 192), his usage of ἐγγίζω suggests that the urgency of living a pure and holy life was because the return of Jesus was rapidly approaching. “The Judge is standing at the door.” (5:9)

The Letters of Peter and the Return of Jesus

There are two letters in the New Testament that claim to have been written by Peter but in all likelihood neither of them were from the prominent disciple of Jesus. (Morchesini & Norelli, 117-118 and 121) Though 1 Peter was written sometime in the 90s CE and 2 Peter sometime after 100 CE, both convey messages concerning the return of Jesus.

Like the book of James, 1 Peter is written “to those who are elect exiles of the dispersion” (1:1), language reminiscient of the days of the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles. The Christians that Peter writes to “has caused us to be born again to a living hope,…who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation read to be revealed [ἀποκαλυφθῆναι] in the last time [ἐν καιρῷ ἐσχάτῳ].” (1:3, 5) But these born again believers who have been kept by the power of God have undergone suffering “for a little while [ὀλίγον ἄρτι]” (1:6) with the purpose of bringing “glory and honor at the revelation [ἀποκαλύψει] of Jesus Christ.” (1:7) 

Throughout the epistle, Peter calls his readers to holiness (1:13-2:12) and to live in harmony with one another and the world. (2:13-3:22) But these are not ends in and of themselves; rather, they are to “be self-controlled and soberminded” because “[t]he end of all things is at hand [Πάντων δὲ τὸ τέλος ἤγγικεν].” (4:7) Just as we saw in James 5:8, the verb ἐγγίζω makes it clear that the author fully expected Jesus’ return soon. Peter also exhorts the elders of the churches to which he is writing to be “examples to the flock” so that “when the chief Shepherd appears [φανερωθέντος], you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” (5:3-4) Peter seems to be aware of the book of James by his usage of ἐγγίζω, the “crown [στέφανον] of glory” (c.f. James 1:12), his shared use of Proverbs 3:34 (LXX), and his command to his readers to “humble yourselves” before God. (5:5, James 4:10) Peter, like James, had a similiar view and this extended to his expectation of Jesus’ return. The time was drawing near. 

The epistle of 2 Peter also contains direct eschatological language, perhaps more so than 1 Peter. In the final chapter, Peter addresses “scoffers” about whom the prophets and Jesus himself had predicted would come “in the last days [ἐπ’ ἐσχάτων τῶν ἡμερῶν].” (3:3) In mocking tones they say, “Where is the promise of his coming [τῆς παρουσίας αὐτοῦ]? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” (3:4) Given that 2 Peter was likely composed sometime after the turn of the first century and that, as we have seen, the Pauline expectation was that Jesus would return within just a few decades of his departure, this question from the scoffers seems fitting. But Peter has an answer. 

For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. (5:5-7)

In other words, the same God who promised Jesus’ return is the one who formed the world by his words in Genesis and by that same word stores up the current world for future judgment of the ungodly. He is “not slow to fulfill his promise” as some would say but his delay is his “patience toward you” because he is “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (3:9) When “the day of the Lord” comes it will be sudden and unexpected, “like a thief,” and then the ungodly will be exposed for who they are. (3:10)

Peter tells these Christians that because the world is so transient, they ought to be holy and godly, “waiting for and hastening [σπεύδοντας] the coming [τὴν παρουσίαν] of the day of God.” (3:11-12) Hastening? To what is Peter referring? As Richard Bauckham shows in his work on 2 Peter, it is likely that Peter is drawing from rabbinic ideas about God’s response to his people’s holy living that he would hasten the time of the End. Such views influenced other Christian literature (the epistle of 2 Clement, for example) and likely influenced the author of 2 Peter. So what does it mean then here in 2 Peter 5:12? Bauckham writes,

Clearly this idea of hastening the End is the corollary of the explanation (v 9) that God defers the Parousia because he desires Christians to repent. Their repentance and holy living may therefore, from the human standpoint, hasten its coming. (Bauckham, 1983, 325)

So then the author of 2 Peter likely believed that his readers could expedite the return of Jesus by living holy and godly lives. The end, then, would be near.

The Epistle of Jude and the Return of Jesus

The short epistle written by “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James” (1:1) was likely not written by anyone named Jude and was certainly not penned by the brother of James who was the brother of Jesus. In all liklihood , the epistle of Jude was written sometime near the end of the first century and before the epistle of 2 Peter as it is very clear that 2 Peter draws extensively from Jude. (Carroll, 2000, 138-139) Jude also uses extra-biblical sources such as the book of 1 Enoch in 1:9, despite the fact that it had not been accepted into the rabbinical canon, though in some Jewish and Christian circles it had been considered sacred scripture. (Moreschini & Norelli, 119)

Jude’s main concern in his epistle is false teachers who have “crept in unnoticed” and whose interest is in “pervert[ing] the grace of our God into sensuality” and in “deny[ing] our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (1:4) He gives examples of judgment ranging from the Jews during the Exodus (1:5), the “angels who did not stay within their own position of authority” (1:6), and Sodom and Gomorrah. (1:7) The false teachers have judgment coming on them for soon “the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment.” (1:14, 15)

The author of the epistle then reminds his readership of “the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:17) who had said, “In the last time [ἐσχάτου τοῦ χρόνου] there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” (1:18) This is an interesting verse because Jude is appealing to the tradition of the apostles in the past and their future prediction that “in the last time there will be scoffers.” And then Jude writes, “It is [εἰσιν] these who cause divisions [οἱ ἀποδιορίζοντες], worldly people, devoid [μὴ ἔχοντες] of the Spirit” (1:19) using a present tense verb and two present tense participle. Jude, then, connects the prediction of the apostles to the current situation that the Christian community finds itself in at that time which he considered “the last time.” So it appears that the author of Jude believed he was living in the time right before the return of Jesus who comes “with ten thousands of this holy ones.” 

The Epistle to the Hebrews and the Return of Jesus

One of my favorite New Testament books is the epistle to the Hebrews. The letter itself is anonymous but it is clear that it has been connected to the apostle Paul for some time. The earliest papyrus we have containing Hebrews – P46 – includes the epistle immediatley after the book of Romans. Other manuscripts place it after 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, Titus, Philemon, Philippians. (Metzger, 1994, 591-592) The inclusion of the letter in with Pauline-related epistles reveals that many thought Hebrews to have been penned by Paul. However, others still did not agree, including Irenaeus (second century CE), Tertullian (second century CE), and Hippolytus (third century CE). Tertullian connected it with Barnabas, a colleague of Paul’s. (Carson & Moo, 2005, 601) Dating the book of Hebrews is a nearly impossible task and it has been dated as early as before 64 CE (Bruce, 1964, xliii) to as late as the 90s CE. (Borg, 2012, 278) Regardless, it is likely a first-century document that was not written by the apostle Paul.

The epistle begins by connecting the work of God in the past to the work of God in the present.

Long ago [πάλαι], at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days [ἐπ’ ἐσχάτου τῶν ἡμερῶν τούτων] he has spoken to us by his Son.” (1:1-2) 

From the outset, the author reveals that the ministry of Jesus inaugurated the “last days” and that he and his readership are living in them. The letter contains various warnings against straying from the fath (2:1-4, 3:7-4:13, etc.) conveying a sense of urgency. Since Jesus had not returned by the time of his writing, perhaps some Christians had abandoned their faith causing them “to fall away from the living God.” (3:12) Regardless, the author’s interest is in promoting firm belief in Jesus since the return of Jesus “in these last days” was imminent. After all, Jesus had “appeared once for all at the end of the ages [συντελείᾳ τῶν αἰώνων] to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (9:26) He will “appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (9:28) 

It is clear, then, that the author of Hebrews – whoever he may be – believed that Jesus inaugurated the last days through his death “at the end of the ages,” and that he and his readers were living in those last days prior to Jesus’ return.

The Johnannine Literature and the Return of Jesus [3]

The Johannine literature – the Gospel of John, the three epistles of John, and the book of Revelation – were all likely composed in the 90s CE (or later). While the Gospel is anonymous, the three epistles and the book of Revelation all claim to have been written by John, a disciple of Jesus. For various reasons, this seems highly unlikely but it is possible that there was a “Johannine community” that penned material in his name. (Moreschini & Norelli, 83-84) The first of the Johannine material to be written was probably the Gospel though it is likely the product of redaction. (Borg, 304) The last to be written is perhaps the epistles.

The Gospel of John

The Gospel of John, though not overt in its eschatology, does reveal something about the author’s views on the return of Jesus. In the episode of the resurrection of Lazarus, Martha, Lazarus’ sister, says to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” (11:21-22) Jesus’ replies, “Your brother will rise again.” (11:23) Martha takes this to mean that Jesus is speaking of “the resurrection on the last day. [ἐν τῇ ἐσχάτῃ ἡμέρᾳ]” (11:24) Jesus responds with one of the most famous of his sayings.

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (11:25-26)

Notice that Jesus does not correct Martha’s understanding of the resurrection on the last day. Rather, Jesus clarifies that the resurrection of the last day is grounded in himself.

The eschatological rule of God for which Martha hopes, with all its blessings for humankind, is vested in Jesus. The greatest gift of God’s saving sovereignty is precisely life eternal under that sovereignty and entry upon it through resurrection. The power to initiate it resides in Jesus (“the Resurrection”) and to grant it in its fulness (“the Life”). (Beasley-Murray, 1999, 190)

Elsewhere, Jesus connects the resurrection to his present context.

Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming [ἔρχεται ὥρα], and is now here [νῦν ἐστιν], when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live…..Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming [ἔρχεται ὥρα] when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment. (5:25, 28-29)

According to Jesus, an hour was coming and “is now here” (literally, “and now is”) when the dead would hear his voice and live. While some have tried to connect “the dead” who live when they hear Jesus’ voice to those who are “spiritually dead” (Calvin, 2009, 205-206), this seems unwarranted. Jesus is saying that the resurrection that comes on the last day is coming and now is because he is that resurrection. The last days, from his persepective, were then and there.

As we already noted above, the Gospel of John shows signs of redaction. One of those signs appears in the final chapter of the book. The Gospel shows all signs of reaching a natural end in 20:30-31 with the author’s own epilogue.

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (20:3-31)

If the book ended there it would not affect the tone or message of the Gospel at all. And yet in 21:1-23 we read of another miracle of Jesus along with his words to Peter. After this the book seems to have yet another prologue. [4]

This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.

Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain athe books that would be written. (21:24-25)

Between 20:30-31 and 21:24-25 we have a story about an appearance of Jesus along the Sea of Galilee (“the Sea of Tiberias,” cf. 6:1). The disciples had gone fishing the night before and had caught nothing. (21:1-4) In the morning, they see someone on the shore and this man says to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” When they respond negatively, the man says, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” This they do and they caught so many fish that the could not bring the net onto the boat. Then “the disciple whom Jesus loved” said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” (21:4-7)

Peter’s response is immediate. He put on his outer garment and dives into the water. The other disciples follow in their boat which was only a few hundred feet off shore. They find Jesus cooking fish on a charcoal fire. He tells them to bring their fish to cook as well. (21:8-14) After breakfast, Jesus asks Peter a question. “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Peter replies, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus then says to him, “Feed my lambs.” (21:15-15) This series of question, answer, and command is repeated two more times (21:16-17) and finishes with Jesus telling Peter about the disciple’s fate.

Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go. (21:18)

The narrator then comments, “This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.” (21:19)

Peter was probably taken back by this prophetic utterance and he immediately wonders why he has been singled out. He sees the disciple whom Jesus loved and asks Jesus, “What about this man?” (21:20-21) Jesus replies, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” (21:22) There is a strong implication that Jesus meant John would not die before his return, so strong that the author of the Gospel says, “So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die.” But the author tries to clarify: “[Y]et Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die but, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?'” (21:23) Why this clarification? Why does the author try to correct the misunderstanding?

In the opinion of some scholars, it was because some members of the Johannine community had expected that their beloved leader, this unnamed disciple, would not die before the coming of the end. When he did, they were thrown into confusion. Had the Lord gone back on his promise? The Johannine author constructs the story to explain that Jesus never had said “that he would not die” (21:23). If this interpretation is correct, then the Gospel would have been published in its final form, with the addition of chapter 21, only after the death of the beloved disciple, and probably after the martyrdom of Peter as well (see 21:18-19). (Ehrman, 183)

The community of believers clearly believed that the coming of Jesus would happen soon, in the lifetime of their leader. The death of John, then, was an indicator that perhaps it had been delayed.

The Book of Revelation

The book of Revelation is the only canonical Christian apocalyptic work. It is pure eschatology, but not of the Left Behind variety. The author of Revelation says that the information in the book of Revelation was revaled to him “to show to his servants the things that must soon take place” (1:1) and he makes it known that “the time is near” (1:3) and that Jesus would be “coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him.” (21:7) Jesus himself says to the angel of the church in Pergamum, “I will come to you soon and war against [the Nicolaitans] with the sword of my mouth.” (2:16)

The end of the book of Revelation reveals the same. An angel says to John that “these words [i.e. the book of Revelation] are trustworthy and true” and God sent the angel to John “to show his servants what must soon take place.” (22:6, cf. 1:1) The angel also commands John to not seal up the book “for the time is near.” (22:10, cf. 1:3) Three times Jesus says, “I am coming soon.” (22:7, 12, 20) It is quite clear that the viewpoint of the book of Revelation is that the return of Jesus would happen “soon.”

The Epistles of John

The first epistle attributed to John are far more explicit in its eschatology than is the Gospel. John writes, “Children, it is the last hour [ἐσχάτη ὥρα], and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore [ὅθεν] we know that it is the last hour.” (2:18) While 2 John does mention the antichrist (1:7), neither 2 or 3 John have anything significant to say regarding the return of Jesus. Nevertheless, the view in at least 1 John is that the return of Jesus would be happening soon because they were living in “the last hour.”

The Gospel of Mark and the Return of Jesus

Mark’s Gospel, the earliest of the four canonical Gospels to be written, shares its imminent eschatological view with the rest of the New Testament. The Gospel opens with a quote from two Hebrew prophets – Malachi and Isaiah. The citation from Malachi is from its third chapter. In context, the question had been asked, “Where is the God of justice?” (2:17) The answer from Yahweh through Malachi is,

Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come in his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap. (3:1-2)

Mark’s appropriation of Malachi’s words in Mark 1:2 is an indication that his narrative of Jesus’ life and ministry is part of the end of time, that the God of justice is coming. So when we read Jesus’ very first words in Mark – “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (1:15) – we can feel the sense of urgency with which he speaks. He has inaugurated the end of all things.

It has been observed that one of Mark’s themes is discipleship through suffering. “The way of Christian discipleship,” writes theologian David Garland, “is not a triumphant procession with victory after victory but a way barbed by enmity and pocked by personal failures.” (Garland, 2015, 510) And since it is likely that Mark is writing to a group of believers just before or just after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, this theme of the book would have been readily apparent. The destruction of the temple is in Jerusalem in 70 CE is a concern taken up by Jesus through Mark in 13:1-2 and is followed up by a discourse on the end of the age. (13:3-37)

Because there is significant overlap between Mark 13 and Matthew 24, the passage we are interested in exegeting, I will not go into the text of Mark 13. I will draw comparisons in our exegesis on Matthew 24. For now, it would be worthwhile to note the significant parallels between Mark 13 and Mark 14-15. (Garland, 512)

  1. A prediction is made about the destruction of the temple. (13:2) It is claimed of him that Jesus said he would destroy the temple and build it again in three days. (14:58) He is mocked on this point. (15:29)
  2. There is a command for the disciples to watch in chapter 13 (13:5, 9, 23, 33, 35, 37) and in chapter 14 (14:34, 37-38).
  3. There is a prediction made by Jesus that the disciples will be handed over to various  religious councils and political authorities. (13:9) Jesus is handed over to a religious council and to the Roman authorities.
  4. There is a prediction that the disciples will be betrayed by family members. (13:12) Jesus is betrayed by one of his own disciples. (14:10, 11, 18, 21, 41-45)
  5. There is a mentioning of the hour. (13:23, 33) Jesus states that the hour has come. (14:41)
  6. There is a prediction that the sun will be darkened in “those days.” (13:26) At his crucifixion, darkness sweeps over the land. (15:33)
  7. Jesus predicts that the Son of Man will come in the clouds and with power and glory. (13:26) Jesus predicts before the council that they will see him seated at God’s right hand and coming with the clouds of heaven. (14:62)
  8. There is a warning to watch so that when the master returns the servants are not found sleeping. (13:35-36)
  9. The disciples fall asleep while on watch and Jesus finds them sleeping. (14:17, 37, 40)

It is clear that the Mark 13 discourse serves not just the function of giving Mark’s readers an eschatology but to set up the narrative for the events about to unfold in Jesus’ life. These events in Jesus’ life serve as reminders to Mark’s readers that just as Jesus faced great opposition and persecution, so to will they as the end approaches. Yet “the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (13:13)

Luke-Acts and the Return of Jesus

The Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts are two books likely written by the same author. The Gospel tells the story of Jesus and his ministry among his disciples and the book of Acts tells the story of the disciples after Jesus had left this world.

Luke’s Gospel, after the dedication to Theophilus (1:1-4), essentially begins with eschatology. As Zechariah the priest is serving in the temple, an angel appears to him and tells him that he and his barren wife Elizabeth will have a child who will “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God…to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (1:16, 17) Prepared for what? The answer comes in 1:30-33. To Mary an angel says,

Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.

Jesus’ entry into the world was a sign that the promises made to David (2 Samuel 7:12-16) as well as the expectation and promise of Yahweh that “the house of Jacob” would be restored. (Isaiah 9:1-7) John the Baptist served as the one who would prepare the people of Israel for this coming king.

One of the first signs in Luke that Jesus has inaugurated the end comes in 4:16-21. Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth and, “as was his custom,” he goes into the synagogue on the sabbath and reads. That day, the reading was from Isaiah. Jesus unfurls the scroll and locates Isaiah 61:1-2. It says,

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn.

We must not forget that chapter and verse divisions were not added to biblical texts until centuries after they were written. So Jesus finds a particular section he wants to read and ends at “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” But what Jesus does next is telling. He rolls the scroll back up, hands it to the attendant, sits down, and as everyone is staring at him he says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (4:20-21) The year of Jubilee and the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel that “whereas you have been forsaken and hated, with no one passing through, I will make you majestic forever” (Isaiah 60:15) is in Jesus’ arrival to Israel. The kingdom of God was in their midst. (Luke 17:21)

As we indicated in our discussion on Mark 13, Luke 21 contains a discussion of the destruction of the temple and the end of the age that is featured in Matthew 24. (Though Luke offers more details, likely from his post-fall of Jerusalem perspective.) Let’s shift to the book of Acts and its eschatological view point.

In Acts 1:6-11, Jesus is asked if he will restore the kingdom of Israel. (1:6) He tells the disciples that it isn’t for them to know “the times or the seasons” of God’s plan. However, the power of God through the Holy Spirit would come upon them and they would be Jesus’ “witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (1:8) As he says this to them, he is taken up into a cloud where two men say to the disciples, “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (1:11)

While the disciples are gathered together “in one place” (2:1) the Holy Spirit comes and they begin to speak in other tongues. People think they are drunk (2:13) and so Peter preaches a sermon to the scoffers. He appeals to the Hebrew prophet Joel and quotes Joel 2:28-32. There the prophet had written,

And it shall come to pass afterward,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit.

And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.

Now, if you compare Joel’s words and Peter’s you might have noticed a major difference. Whereas Peter says, “And in the last days it shall be [καὶ ἔσται ἐν ταῖς ἐσχάταις ἡμέραις],” Joel says, “And it shall come to pass afterward [וְהָיָה אַחֲרֵי].” In the LXX, Joel’s words are translated as Καὶ ἔσται μετὰ ταῦτα, “And it will be after this.” So where is Peter getting “in the last days”?

In all likelihood, Peter is getting it from Joel himself. [5] The book of Joel uses the phrase “the day of the LORD” five times: 1:15, 2:1, 2:11, 2:31, and 3:14. Peter recognizes that the last days, those leading up to “the day of the LORD,” are upon them. The change from καὶ ἔσται μετὰ ταῦτα to ἐν ταῖς ἐσχάταις ἡμέραις is probably “to emphasize that the events of Pentecost do belong to the activity of God in the last days: a new age has arrived.” (Marshall, 2007, 534) For Peter (and therefore Luke) the last days had arrived and one of the signs was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Later while Peter and John are in Solomon’s Portico, a crowd gathers and Peter offers another sermon about Jesus. (3:11-26) He calls them to repent of their sins so that

times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of the holy prophets long ago. (3:19-21)

The connection to repenting and the return of Jesus is also evident in 2 Peter where we saw that believers were called to repent (2 Peter 3:9) and were to live holy and godly lives to hasten the coming of Jesus’ return. (3:11-12) Here, Peter is calling the “men of Israel” (Acts 3:12) to repent of their wickedness so that “your sins may be blotted out” (3:19), “that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord,” “and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus.” (3:20) For Luke in the book of Acts, then, Christ’s return was imminent and the characters in his narrative believed they were living in the last days.

The subject of Jesus’ return does not come up in the rest of Acts though Paul mentions “day on which [God] will judge the world in righteousness.” (17:31) The return of Jesus as such is not in view and Acts ends with Paul in Rome “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ.” (28:31)

The Gospel of Matthew and the Return of Jesus

I have left Matthew for last because it is in that Gospel we read Jesus words that “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” (Matthew 24:34) Matthew and Luke draw much of their material from Mark, the earliest of the Gospels (see above). So does Matthew display an imminent eschatology also? Yes, but with a catch.

Although Jesus speaks in Matthew of the near approach of the parousia for his generation (10:23; 16:27-28; 24:34; cf. 23:36), the narrative addresses an audience that has experienced a delay in the fulfillment of the promised eschatological events. (Carroll, 20)

In other words, while Matthew’s Jesus certainly believes the end was coming soon, its delay was explained by the parables of 24:45-25:13. The master/bridegroom had been delayed; the end would still be soon but “concerning that day and hour no one knows…but the Father only.” (24:36)

The eschatological motif isn’t surprising. We see it all over in Matthew. For example, Jesus proclaims, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (4:17) Jesus also differentiates between two ages: the present and the one to come. (12:32) It is this present age that is coming to an end to make way for the next and Jesus’ coming into the world signifies that the end is near. It is no surprise that before he is crucified, Jesus discusses the end of the world. He has come to Jerusalem to be its king but there was still some events that had to take place before that could happen. And so in Matthew 24 we read in the Olivet Discourse the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem and the “sign of the Son of Man.” (24:30) Following the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the Son of Man would return “coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” But this didn’t happen and the readers of Matthew’s Gospel knew it. So why? Well, the parables that don’t appear in Mark or Luke explain. There has been a delay!

I must confess here that I had fully intended to compose an exegesis of Matthew 24 and I did in fact write well over three thousand words on it with much of the passage left to work on. I decided against including it here for two reasons: 1) I was running out of time to get this post done so that it can be posted with the rest and 2) I needed to really dig deeper into both the Markan and Lukan accounts, especially the Markan account, to bring out more fully what the Matthean version is saying. Sometimes comparing and contrasting parallel passages can highlight the purposes of each.

Summary

We have touched on every single New Testament work except for Deutero-Paul. In passing we can note that there are eschatologically interesting passages (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, for example) that have been dealt with in various commentaries. I have not been as thorough as I perhaps should have been in my own analysis but we must move on. Suffice it to say, the view of the New Testament seems to be that 1) Jesus’ arrival in the world inaugurated the last days and 2) the return of Jesus was expected to happen in the lifetime of the authors of the New Testament.

“THIS GENERATION”

Now we can ask the question as to what Jesus meant when he said, “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” (24:34) Thomason wrote,

The interpretation of the word “generation” has led some people to believe that Jesus was referring to a generation of people. The original Greek word for generation is “genea (γενεά),” which means generation, race, family, times, or nation. In Acts 14:16, genea translates to times. “In the past times, he let all nations go their own way.” In Acts 15:21, genea also refers to times. “For the Law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” In Philippians 2:15, genea translates as a nation. “That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world.” Some scholars believe genea refers to the nation of Israel. The translation to times may also be the case, considering the earth’s age (4.5BY) and the time since Jesus walked the earth is relatively short.

Reading Thomason’s botched exegesis would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. While she is correct that the word translated in 24:34 as “generation” is γενεά, the rest is problematic.

For starters, she doesn’t bother to see how Matthew uses the term and compare it with 24:34. Instead, she runs to Acts and Philippians, works written by other New Testament authors. Had she bothered to see how Matthew uses the word γενεά she would have discovered her error. The word γενεά appears over forty-times in the New Testament and ten of those occurences is in the Gospel of Matthew. Over and over again when γενεά appears it is almost exclusively in reference to Jesus’ contemporaries. The only exception to this would be the four occurences of γενεά in Matthew 1:17, and even then a generation is only about forty years. Let’s list the other six times γενεά appears.

Matthew 11:16-17

But to what shall I compare this generation [τὴν γενεὰν ταύτην]? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, 

We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.”

In context, τὴν γενεὰν ταύτην must refer to the critics of both John the Baptist and Jesus who apparently couldn’t make up their mind as to what Jesus’ ministry should look like. In other words, it is in reference to a specific group of Jesus’ contemporaries. 

Matthew 12:38-42

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation [γενεὰ] seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation [τῆς γενεᾶς ταύτης] and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation [τῆς γενεᾶς ταύτης] and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.

There are three instances of γενεά here, two with the form of τῆς γενεᾶς ταύτης. It is quite clear that the “evil and adulterous” γενεά to which Jesus is referring is the generation of the scribes and Pharisees who are seeking a sign from Jesus. Jesus tells them that the “men of Nineveh” – the ones who repented when they witnessed Jonah and listend to his preaching – would judge them – “this generation” – because something far greater than Jonah was in their midst. Similarly, the queen of the South would rise up in judgment against “this generation” because though she came from afar to hear the great Solomon, Jesus was far greater than Solomon. In other words, because the scribes and Pharisees would not listen to Jesus, their generation would be judged. That is, these contemporaries of Jesus would face great condemnation for not following Jesus. 

Matthew 16:4

And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation [γενεὰ] seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed.

As in 12:38-42, Jesus’ opponents try to entice him to show him a sign but he reiterates that the only sign that will be given to them is the sign of Jonah. Why? Because they are “an evil and adulterous” γενεὰ. Again, Jesus is using γενεὰ to refer to a specific group at a specific time – they are his contemporaries!

Matthew 17:17

And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation [γενεὰ], how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.”

This response of Jesus is because a man brought his son to Jesus telling him that his disciples could not heal the boy. Jesus’ words are almost a lament that he will not be with them – a “faithless and twisted” γενεὰ – for long. He would have to leave to go to his Father at some point. But it is clear that γενεὰ here refers to Jesus’ own contemporaries.

Matthew 23:29-36

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation [τὴν γενεὰν ταύτην]. 

Here we have the famous “woes” Jesus makes against the “scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites.” In his final woe, Jesus mocks the Pharisees who claim that they would not have been so wicked and murdered the prophets if they had been alive during their fathers’ day. But Jesus tells them that he will send to them “prophets and wise men and scribes,” people whom they will murder. Such murderous actions will be undertaken by “this generation,” that is, the Pharisees and scribes Jesus was speaking with.

Matthew 24:34

This brings us to the final γενεὰ of Matthew.

Truly, I say to you, this generation [ γενεὰ αὕτη] will not pass away until all these things take place.

The “these things” Jesus is referring to is what preceded in Matthew 24:4-31. So the destruction of the temple and the return of the Son of Man would happen before the current generation would pass away. To claim, as Thomason does, that it means something other than this is to ignore how Matthew has used γενεὰ throughout his work. She has offered no plausible reason why Matthew would suddenly use γενεὰ in a way other than how he has used it in every case before 24:34!

The fact of the matter is that the full expectation of Jesus and of his followers was that the end of the world was close at hand, within their own lifetimes. Thomason’s poor, eisegetical understanding of γενεὰ in Matthew 24:34 is just her attempt to make the text “work” so as to avoid its clear implications.

ENDNOTES

[1] The letters of Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, and Titus were likely not composed by Paul and are considered “Deutero-Paul.” For more, see Ehrman, 2016, 438-457.

[2] Greek does not require that a pronoun be used to accompany a verb. Verbs contain in their own conjugation information about their tense (present, imperfect, aorist, future, perfect, pluperfect), voice (active, middle, or passive), mood (indicative, imperative, subjunctive, or optative), number (singular or plural), and person (first, second, or third).

[3] For an excellent run down on the return of Jesus in the Johannine Literature, see Carroll, 77-112.

[4] For more on this and other signs of apparent redaction see Ehrman, 177-182.

[5] It should be noted that some ancient manuscripts (B, 076, etc.) of Acts change ἐν ταῖς ἐσχάταις ἡμέραις to μετὰ ταῦτα so that it fits with the Septuagint reading. Metzger notes that such a change “is inappropriate for the context” and that “the presence of μετὰ ταῦτα” in these other manuscripts “should be regarded as the work of an Alexandrian corrector who brought the quotation in Acts into strict conformity with the prevailing text of the Septuagint.” (Metzger, 256)

PRINTED WORKS CITED

Richard J. Bauckham. Jude, 2 Peter. WBC, vol. 50. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc., 1983.

Marcus J. Borg. Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2012.

Alexandra R. Brown. “Paul and the Parousia.” In John T. Carroll. The Return of Jesus in Early Christianity. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000.

F.F. Bruce. The Epistle to the Hebrews. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964.

F.F. Bruce. 1 & 2 Thessalonians. WBC, vol. 45. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc., 1982.

John T. Carroll. “The Parousia of Jesus in Other New Testament Writings.” In John T. Carroll. The Return of Jesus in Early Christianity. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000.

Bart D. Ehrman. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

David E. Garland. A Theology of Mark’s Gospel. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015.

Bruce M. Metzger. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second edition. Germany: German Bible Society, 1994.

Claudio Moreschini and Enrico Norelli. Early Christian Greek and Latin Literature: A Literary History, volume 1. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005.

Featured Image: By Unknown – My own collection, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52494035

 

 

 

Evangelical Eisegesis: SJ Thomason and “God’s Promises,” part 5

This is the fifth post in a seven-part series responding to the blog post “Babylon Will Never Be Inhabited” by pop-apologist S. J. Thomason. You can read the fourth post here..

All biblical citations are from the English Standard Version (Crossway, 2001) unless otherwise noted.

PROMISE #5 – “GIVE THIRTY PIECES OF SILVER TO THE POTTER IN THE HOUSE OF THE LORD”

On her blog, Thomason wrote,

Zechariah 11:12-13 “So they paid me thirty pieces of silver. And the Lord said to me, ‘Throw it to the potter’’ – the handsome price at which they valued me! So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them to the potter at the house of the LORD.”

In Matthew 27:3-8, Judas’ suicide is recounted. “When Judas, who had betrayed Him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders. ‘I have sinned,’ he said, ‘for I have betrayed innocent blood.’ ‘What is that to us?’ they replied. ‘That’s your responsibility.’ So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. The chief priests picked up the coins and said, ‘It is against the law to put this money into the treasury, since it is blood money. So they decided to use the money to buy a potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day.”

Acts 1:18 – 19 continues recounting the passage. “(With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is Field of Blood.)”

Biblical scholars note that Judas’ body likely decomposed after his death by hanging, which is why his body burst open when he fell onto the ground. Only a decomposed body would burst in such a way that one’s intestines would spill out. Furthermore, Judas symbolically “bought a field,” as the silver coins he returned to the chief priests ended up being used to purchase a potter’s field.

We can see that there are at least two things going on here. First, Thomason tries to reconcile the seemingly contradictory accounts of Judas’ death featured in Matthew’s Gospel and in the book of Acts. Second, Thomason connects the words of the prophet Zechariah with Judas’ betray of Jesus, something Matthew himself did. We will begin by briefly looking at the two accounts of Judas’ death and then we will move on to whether Zechariah 11:12-13 is a prophecy about Jesus’ betrayal.

“JUDAS ISCARIOT, WHO BETRAYED HIM”

Most of us have experienced the heartache of being betrayed by someone we loved and trusted. I know I have and the scars that have since healed still pain me from time-to-time. Jesus too experienced betrayal at the hands of one he called to be among his closest friends. We are all familiar with the story: Jesus called a man named Judas Iscariot to be one of his disciples, Judas makes a deal with the Jewish authorities that would make him wealthy and give them Jesus, Judas finds Jesus in the garden and kisses him to identify him, Jesus is taken and crucified, and Judas kills himself. In Matthew’s Gospel, we know right away that Judas is the betrayer because the author identifies him as such: “Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.” (Matthew 10:4) And of all the Gospels, Matthew is the only one who tells us about Judas’ fate.

Then when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since it is blood money.” So they took counsel and bought with them the potter’s field as a burial place for strangers. Therefore that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.” (Matthew 27:3-10)

So in Matthew’s version, Judas returns the money he received from the religious authorities due to a feeling of guilt for what he had done to Jesus. The authorities don’t care about Judas’ new-found repentance and basically say to him, “So what?” He throws the money into the temple and then he goes out to hang himself. The authorities take the silver and realize that since it is “blood money” they decided to purchase a field to be used as a place to bury “strangers,” that is, non-Jews. Because the field was purchased with blood money, it was called the “Field of Blood.” And all this fulfills ancient prophetic utterances from the esteemed prophet Jeremiah.

We also have a brief account of Judas’ fate in the book of Acts, the second half of the Luke-Acts duo. There we read,

In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) “For it is written in the Book of Psalms,

“‘May his camp become desolate,
and let there be no one to dwell in it’;

and

“‘Let another take his office.’
(Acts 1:15-20)

Here the eleven disciples decide choose a new disciple to fill the slot taken up by the now deceased Judas. Peter, taking charge, says that what happened to Judas was a fulfillment of scripture. But in the middle of his speech, the narrator offers the details of what happened to Judas. According to Luke, Judas purchased a field with the money he had received from the religious authorities. Apparently he did not get to enjoy his new field for long because he fell headlong, burst open in the middle of his body, and all his insides became outsides. This became known to everyone in Jerusalem and so the field became known as the “Field of Blood.” Right away we can detect some issues between Matthew’s version of events in his Gospel and Luke’s version of events in Acts.

First, Matthew wrote that immediately after he had confronted the religious authorities to return his ill-gotten silver, Judas went out and hanged himself. So for Matthew, Judas’ death is death-by-hanging. But Luke in Acts says that Judas fell headfirst, somehow causing his bowels to burst forth from the middle of his body. These are two entirely different versions of Judas’ death.

Second, Matthew wrote that since the returned silver could not be put into the temple treasury that the religious authorities decided to use it to buy a field in which to bury non-Jews. But Luke in Acts claimed that it was Judas who purchased the field with the silver that in Matthew he did not have anymore. This, too, is an entirely different version of events.

Third, Matthew wrote that the field purchased by the religious authorities was called the Field of Blood because it was purchased using blood money. But Luke in Acts suggests that the reason the field was called the Field of Blood was because of Judas’ gruesome death in it.

Trying to Reconcile

Thomason tries to reconcile the first discrepancy by saying that Judas likely died by hanging and then as his body decomposed it fell from the noose, smashed into the ground below, and that is what caused him to spill his guts. Simon Kistemaker has a slightly different view and in his commentary writes,

Even though Luke omits the information that Judas hanged himself (Matt. 27:5), we infer that Judas’s falling down headlong resulted from being suspended. The rope either broke due to the sudden stress caused by a falling body or eventually was cut by someone. The possibility is not remote that, while falling, Judas’s body struck a sharp object that caused it to burst open. (Kistemaker, 1990, 62)

Both Thomason’s and Kistemaker’s explanations are interesting but are not very persuasive. Thomason’s view rests on the idea that Luke was trying to explain what happened to Judas’ body post-mortem but that isn’t what he is doing at all. Luke seems to be explaining why Judas was no longer one of the twelve. It wasn’t merely that he had betrayed Jesus but also that he wasn’t alive. And how did he die? He fell headfirst in his field and split open in the middle. Matthew’s version contradicts that. Kistemaker’s explanation that Judas fell headlong because either the stress of the hanging or the cut of a knife later on fails for the same reasons. To claim that we can “infer that Judas’s falling down headlong result from being suspend” is unwarranted. One can fall headlong for many reasons; the only reason to suggest suspension is to rescue inerrancy. Do we have a textual warrant for that position? Not that I can tell.

Thomason also tries to reconcile the second discrepancy by claiming that Judas bought the field symbolically when the chief priests purchased it. This idea has been put forward by others including Kistemaker (62) and by Daniel Wallace who wrote,

The text seems to suggest that Judas himself purchased the field in which he was later buried. However, Matt 27:7 specifically states that the chief priests purchased the field after Judas had died. It would be difficult to reconcile these two texts from the English point of view. But from the Greek, it is easy to see ἐκτήσατο as a causative middle, indicating that ultimately Judas purchased the field, in that it was purchased with his “blood money.” Another possibility here is that since this verb never had an active form, it might be deponent, having the force of a causative active. However, it seems that it retains a middle force from classical to Koine Greek, and thus should be considered a true middle. In classical Greek (especially in Sophocles, Euripides, and Thucidyes) κτάομαι often had the causative nuance of “bring misfortune upon oneself” (cf. LSJ, BAGD). Such nuance may even be appropriate in a secondary role to “acquire” in Acts 1:18. (Wallace, 1996, 424-425)

This is an intriguing possibility but one I don’t find compelling. The author of Acts is narrating the events of Judas’ demise and intimates that before he died he purchased the field. This is simply not reconcilable with Matthew’s version of events where Judas kills himself by hanging and then the field is purchased by the religious authorities. We should also note that Luke suggests that Judas died in the field he had purchased, exhibiting some sort of poetic justice for his betrayal of Jesus. But there is no sense of that in Matthew. These are two different accounts.

Judas_Hangs_Himself_(Judas_se_pend)

Thomason doesn’t touch on why the field is called the Field of Blood. As stated before, Matthew suggests that it is called the Field of Blood because of the blood money with which it was purchased while Luke suggests that it is called the Field of Blood because of Judas’ gruesome, and no doubt bloody, death in it. This is an indication that different traditions arose that called it the Field of Blood for different reasons. (Stott, 1990, 56)

“THROW IT TO THE POTTER”

We must now move on to the matter of the prophetic passage that Matthew claimed was fulfilled by the events surrounding Judas’ death and the purchasing of the Field of Blood. Matthew wrote,

Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.” (27:9-10)

If you searched the book of Jeremiah you would never find that prophetic utterance, at least not in the form it appears in Matthew. So what is going on? How did Matthew get it so wrong?

It is obvious that Matthew employs “a mosaic of scriptural motifs” (France, 2007, 1042), combining texts and themes found in various prophets and ascribing them to the superior prophet Jeremiah. Here it seems that the bulk of the passage is from Zechariah 11:12-13 with hints of Jeremiah 18, 19, and 32. We will not dive into the Jeremiah texts for the sake of time. Instead, we will focus on Zechariah 11:12-13 and ask the question, “Does the context warrant the application in Matthew’s Gospel?”

Zechariah 11:12-13

The book of Zechariah opens with these words: “In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo.” (1:1) Darius, a Persian king, began his reign in 522 BCE and so this puts Zechariah’s prophetic ministry beginning in 520 BCE. Before Darius’ took the throne, Cyrus the Great had proclaimed in 538 BCE that the Jews could return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians. (Ezra 1:1-4; cf. 2 Chronicles 36:22-23) Cyrus’ successor, Cambyses, had ordered that the rebuilding of Jerusalem be stopped after claims were made that the goal of the rebuilding of the city and the temple was to rebel against Persia. (Ezra 4:11-24) Under Darius the rebuilding resumed and the Second Temple was completed in 515 BCE.

The first eight chapters of Zechariah, referred to as “First Zechariah,” include various visions and oracles set within the historical context of the reign of Darius. The text offers us a timeline for the various prophetic words given to Zechariah from Yahweh: “in the eighth month, in the second year of Darius” (1:1), “on the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, which is the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius” (1:7), “in the fourth year of King Darius” (7:1). Beginning with chapter nine the text changes and shows signs of redaction that must have taken place after Zechariah’s ministry. Though the themes of First Zechariah are apparent in Second Zechariah, [1] it seems that a Zecharian “school” had developed that had written in his spirit.

Zechariah 11:12-13 is situated in Second Zechariah and is itself an intriguing passage. In chapter ten, Zechariah lamented that in following their household gods, the people of Israel and Judah were wandering aimlessly, a flock of sheep without a shepherd. (10:1-2) The shepherds of times past had failed God’s people, and so Yahweh declares that he would “whistle for them and gather them in” (10:8) causing his people to “walk in his name.” (10:12)

In the prelude to chapter eleven (11:1-3) we read a poem about the destruction of the trees of Lebanon and Bashan. They are told to “wail” which leads to the wailing of the shepherds who do so, not because of the loss of Yahweh’s sheep, but because “the glory is ruined.” (11:3) The demise of the trees is clearly a symbol of the demise of the shepherds who failed in their responsibility to shepherd Israel and Judah. It is also indicative of the fate of the people since their leadership has abrogated their duty to care for them. Yahweh then tells Zechariah, “Become shepherd of the flock doomed to slaughter.” (11:4)

Zechariah takes two staffs for himself and names them Favor and Union (NRSV, “Unity”). (11:7) With them he tends the sheep and he deposes the “three shepherds,” a reference to unnamed leaders within the community. But all is not well with the flock. He grows impatient with the people and they begin to dislike him. (11:8) So Zechariah decides he will no longer be their shepherd (11:9) and in an act of symbolism he destroys the staff named Favor, “annulling the covenant that I had made with all the peoples.” (11:10) He asks for his wages for his service as shepherd and they hand him a paltry thirty pieces of silver. (11:12) With dripping sarcasm, Zechariah calls the wages a “lordly price” and, under direction from Yahweh, takes the silver into the temple and throws them to the potter within. (11:13) Then he takes his other staff, Union, and breaks it, “annulling the brotherhood between Judah and Israel. (11:14)

As we read the Zecharian text and compare to the Matthean usage of it, suddenly we see that the former is in no way connected to its usage in the latter. That is, Matthew rips Zechariah’s words from its original context and appropriates it for his own purposes. It is hard to say that the words were “fulfilled” by Judas’ casting his silver back to the religious authorities since there was in Zechariah 11:12-13 nothing to be fulfilled in a prophetic sense. Zechariah wasn’t referring to a betrayal or blood money and he certainly wasn’t concerned with events that transpired over five-hundred years later. [2]

No Promise Fulfilled

Thomason had written that her blog post was to “show the way God has used the Bible to demonstrate how He keeps His promises.” Unfortunately, Judas’ throwing the money back to the temple does not fulfill any promise foretold in the Hebrew Bible. Zechariah 11:12-13 simply isn’t about Judas, Jesus’ betrayal, or any of that. There is no exegetical defense to warrant such a connection and tangentially connecting the two because they both mention thirty pieces of silver or a potter or the temple reveals less about “prophecy” and more about how New Testament authors wrote their stories. We know from reading the Gospels that they not only picked and chose what stories to include but they also had no problem rearranging the order of events or alter Jesus’ words entirely.

So no, there was no promise kept in Matthew 27:3-10.

ENDNOTES

[1] There are a number of themes shared by First Zechariah (1-8) and Second Zechariah (9-14) including a future coming king (6:11-12; 9:9), the Gentiles as being part of God’s people (6:15; 9:7), cleansing from sin (3:4-5; 12:10-13:1), and more. For more, see McComiskey, 1998, 1016-1018.

[2] Bart Ehrman notes in his introduction to the Bible that “the prophets do make predictions, but they are not predicting events that will transpire hundreds or thousands of years after their day. They are speaking to their own situations and must be rooted in their own historical contexts.” (Ehrman, 2014, 121)

PRINTED WORKS CITED

Bart D. Ehrman. The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

R.T. France. The Gospel of Matthew. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: William. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.

Simon Kistemaker. Acts. NTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1990.

Thomas Edward McComiskey, editor. The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998.

John Stott. The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church & the World. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990.

Daniel B. Wallace. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Evangelical Eisegesis: SJ Thomason and “God’s Promises,” part 4

This is the fourth post in a seven-part series responding to the blog post “Babylon Will Never Be Inhabited” by pop-apologist S. J. Thomason. You can read the third post here.

All biblical citations are from the English Standard Version (Crossway, 2001) unless otherwise noted.

GOD’S PROMISE #4 – “I WILL REBUILD THIS TEMPLE IN THREE DAYS”

Thomason writes,

“Again the high priest asked Him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’ ‘I am,’ said Jesus. ‘And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven’” – Mark 14:61-62. (cf., Daniel 7:13).

The Sanhedrin convicted Jesus on the charge of blasphemy (Mark 14:64; Matthew 26:65). According to Leviticus (24:15), a blasphemer is one who curses God, which is punishable by death by stoning. The Sanhedrin (m. Sanhedrin 7:5) indicates that the blasphemer is only guilty if he pronounces the name of God distinctly. Yet Jesus’ carefully chosen words did not pronounce the name of God distinctly, as He referred to Himself as the “Son of Man” and to God as the “Mighty One.” According to Josephus (in Antiquities) blasphemy was interpreted more broadly as acts or words that violate God’s majesty.

The Sanhedrin were convinced that Jesus was a false prophet, which Deuteronomy 13:2-6 defines as one who leads others astray and Deuteronomy 18:22 defines as one who presumes to speak in the Lord’s name a message that does not come true. These definitions likely led the high priest Annas to question Jesus about His disciples and His teaching (John 18:19).

Jesus was punished by crucifixion instead of stoning, so some critics have argued that the punishment did not fit the crime and therefore, the crucifixion did not happen (Green, McKnight & Marshall 1992). Yet Deuteronomy 21:22-23 states, “If someone is guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight.” The Qumran Temple Scroll (11 QT 64.8, 10-11) interprets the passage as crucifixion, “You shall hang him on the wood so that he dies.” Accordingly, the punishment was appropriate according to Jewish standards and the crucifixion was the means by which the offender was punished and killed.

“But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our inequities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). “After He has suffered, He will see the light of life and be satisfied” (Isaiah 53:11).

In John 2:19, Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (cf., Matthew 26:61, Mark 14:58) Jesus kept His promise and fulfilled Isaiah 53 and other Old Testament prophecies (e.g., Psalm 118:22, Psalm 22) through his death and resurrection.

There is a lot we could cover in response to Thomason here. Let’s begin with the incident in the temple that prompted Jesus words regarding the destruction of the temple.

“He Said, ‘I Am Able to Destroy the Temple'” 

The rabbi had been arrested, betrayed by one of his own. Just hours before, he had been sitting with his disciples – his friends – sharing a meal, but now he stands before Caiaphas, the high priest. The religious authorities wanted him dead but could not find anyone credible enough to offer a convincing false testimony against him. Then two men came forward and said, “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.'” Caiphas rose from his seat and asked the man, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” The man says nothing.

This is the scene laid out for us by Matthew in his account of Jesus’ trial before Caiphas. (26:57-63) The earliest Gospel, Mark, records for us a similiar turn of events except there the men claim that Jesus had said, “I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.” (Mark 14:58) Luke’s Gospel doesn’t mention the witnesses’ claim regarding Jesus at all.

Matthew’s original readers were likely at a loss when they read that Jesus claimed to be able to destroy the temple and to rebuild it three days later. The same goes for Mark. There is no place in either Gospel where Jesus suggests such a thing. Sure, in both Gospels Jesus talks about the demise of the temple (Matthew 24:1-2; Mark 13:1-2) but no where does he says that he would initiate it. So the original audience would have read those words and knew that this was nothing more than an attempt by the religious authorities to do whatever they could to have Jesus taken care of for good. His opponents were not above lying.

In John’s Gospel we read that after his arrest in the garden, Jesus is taken before Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas (18:12-14) and then finally to Caiaphas himself. But in John we are never privy to what happens when Jesus meets Caiaphas. Annas sends Jesus to him but then after an interlude involving Peter’s denial of knowing Jesus, we find that Caiaphas has sent Jesus to the headquarters of Pontius Pilate. (18:28) So Jesus is never accused of claiming to be able to destroy and rebuild the temple in John.

An Incident in the Temple

One of my favorite movie series is The Lord of the Rings. Though I agree with most people that the movies were not as good as the books upon which they are based, they are still masterful works that bring to life the story of how two hobbits traverse Middle Earth to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom. From the beginning we can recognize key themes: the danger of absolute power, the frailty of the human will, the benefits of cooperation, and the role that hope plays in hours of darkness. In the film series, these are emphasized by musical scores that appear over and again in key places, reconnecting us to those themes.

The same can be said for books, including works like the Gospels. A key to interpreting any book is to see how it begins and to see the kinds of themes that appear in its opening chapters. We can tell from reading the opening verses of John’s Gospel that he has a high Christology – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (1:1) And our first story featuring Jesus shows him as one bestowed with the Spirit of God, a sign to John the Baptist that Jesus “is the Son of God.” (1:32, 34) The first disciples, Andrew and Peter, recognize Jesus to be the Messiah (1:41) and Nathanael tells Jesus, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (1:49)

Such proclamations by followers of Jesus that early in the story are meant to set the stage for all that follows. So in chapter two, we read first of a miracle story wherein Jesus turns water to wine (2:1-12) and then about an incident during the Passover season in Jerusalem. Let’s camp there for a moment. John writes,

The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” (John 2:13-17)

This is the first of three Passovers that we read about in John’s Gospel, the final one being Jesus’ last. Jesus and his followers have made the trek to Jerusalem and enter the temple. What Jesus finds there disturbs him: people were selling animals for sacrifice and there were “money-changers.” So what does he do? Jesus proceeds to make a whip and begins kicking them all out. He pours out the coins of the money-changers and accuses those who sold animals for sacrifice of making his “Father’s house a house of trade.”

Destroy This Temple

What follows next appears in no other Gospel. Upon seeing Jesus’ zealous reaction to what he saw in the temple, the Jews ask him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” (2:18) In other words, Jesus claimed that he was justified in kicking out these greedy temple-abusers because the temple was his “Father’s house.” How will he demonstrate that? Jesus replied, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (2:19) The response of the Jews is not unsurprising and is, in my estimation, completely natural. They ask him, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you will raise it up in three days?” (2:20) Jesus, standing in the temple, tells the Jews that if they destroy “this temple,” he can raise it back up in three days. But the text tells us that Jesus was not speaking of the temple they were standing in but of “the temple of his body.” (2:21) Describing the body as a temple is not a foreign concept; after all, Paul does so in his first letter to the Corinthian Christians. (1 Corinthians 6:19) Jesus, however, doesn’t make this clear to everyone and thus the confusion. John tells us that later, after Jesus had been “raised from the dead,” that the disciples remembered what he had said about destroying the temple “and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.” (2:22) So not even his disciples grasp what Jesus told the Jews in 2:19 until much later.

William_Hole_Jesus_Casts_Out_The_Money_Changers

At this point, we need to make a few observations. First, in the Synoptic Gospels the incident at the temple doesn’t happen until the final Passover of Jesus’ life. In Mark (11:15-19), the cleansing of the temple happens and Jesus tells the money-changers and those who sold pigeons, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations?’ But you have made it a den of robbers.” (11:17) In Matthew’s version (21:12-13), Mark’s version of events is reiterated in an abbreviated form. Ditto for Luke. (19:45-46) John, on the other hand, places this event very early in Jesus’ ministry which has led various apologists to claim that there were two incidents in the temple, one at the beginning and one at the end of Jesus’ ministry. But this solution seems contrived. If it were the case that this happened twice, why did none of the Gospels report a second instance? For Jesus to cleanse the temple once is highly significant, but twice? That would be a powerful message! Yet none of the Gospels tell us about two incidents.

Others have suggested that while there is no doubt that the incident at the temple happened at the end of Jesus’ ministry, in telling his version of events John felt it necessary to insert the story early on.

There is reasonably widespread agreement now that: (i) the event happened only once, not twice (at the beginning and end of the ministry of Jesus; (ii) it took place in the last week of the life of Jesus; (iii) the Fourth Evangelist had no intention of correcting the timing of the event, but set his account at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus to highlight its significance for understanding the course of the ministry. It provides a clue for grasping the nature and the course of our Lord’s work, his words and actions, his death and resurrection, and the outcome of it all in a new worship of God, born out of a new relation to God in and through the crucified-risen Christ. (Beasley-Murray, 1999, 38-39)

I admit readily that this is entirely possible. Assuming that the Gospel writers intended to write a thoroughly chronological account of Jesus’ life is mere fantasy. They were undoubtedly interested in getting the general order of things correct, especially in their culmination in Jesus’ death. But they also play fast-and-loose with the time-table as well. This may well be an example of that. [1]

Second, the cleansing of the temple may be what is commonly referred to as an “enacted parable.” Simply put, by overturning the tables and clearing out the complex, Jesus may have been playing out what would happen to the temple in 70 CE. In at least one of the Synoptics, this seems clear from how the incident at the temple relates to other events and teaching. In Mark the cleansing of the temple is sandwiched between Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree (Mark 11:12-14) and a lesson on faith based on the fig tree. (11:20-25) Later, the fig tree is a sign that the end would be soon coming. (13:28-31) So too in John, the cleansing of the temple is connected to its destruction, but not of the physical temple but of Jesus’ temple, his body.

There may also be an emphasis on the change of worship that was to come. For Jesus to refer to his own body as the “temple” may signify that the worship that had been central to Judaism in the temple was about to end. There would be no need for money-changers or for those who sold animals to be sacrified. Jesus himself would be the final sacrifice; the temple in Jerusalem would no longer be needed. And that may be while John puts the story where he does because shortly thereafter, Jesus meets with a woman in Samaria and he tells her, “The hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem [i.e. the temple] will you worship the Father….But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.” (John 4:21, 23) Why won’t Jerusalem be central to the worship of God anymore? Because the temple is in Jesus and those who worship him are true worshippers.

Wounded for Our Transgressions

In her blog post, Thomason connects John 2:19 with a couple of different passages in the Hebrew Bible. She wrote,

In John 2:19, Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (cf., Matthew 26:61, Mark 14:58) Jesus kept His promise and fulfilled Isaiah 53 and other Old Testament prophecies (e.g., Psalm 118:22, Psalm 22) through his death and resurrection.

In connecting passages like Isaiah 53, Psalm 118, and Psalm 22 to Jesus’ death and resurrection, Thomason isn’t doing anything that the New Testament doesn’t do. References to passages like Isaiah 53 can be found in the book of Acts (Acts 8:32-33) and 1 Peter (1 Peter 2:24) and Psalm 22:1 comes straight from the lips of Jesus while he is on the cross. (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46) So it is clear that some New Testament authors saw in those passages an obvious reference to Jesus.

But the question is whether that understanding of those passages fits the bill or if there are alternative ways to view them. For the sake of time, we will be limiting our discussion to Isaiah 53.

The Servant Songs

Scholars have long recognized that the Isaiah who wrote Isaiah 1-39 is not the Isaiah who wrote Isaiah 40-66. For starters, the historical circumstances for Isaiah (1-39) and “Second/Deutero” Isaiah (40-66) are entirely different: the former evidently was written before Jerusalem’s fall to Babylon while the latter was composed afterward. There is also evidence of differences in First and Second Isaiah’s style in terms of vocabulary and poetic structure, all signs that we are reading from two different authors. (Anderson, 1998, 422-423)

We can also detect in Second Isaiah what is commonly referred to as “Servant Songs” or “Servant Poems.” They appear in Isaiah 42:1-4, 49:1-6, 50:4-11, and 52:13-53:12. In these passages we read of Yahweh’s “servant” (42:1, 49:3, 50:10, and 52:13) and because of the general ambiguity of these poems, the identity of the servant has been hotly debated. We have already noted that Christian interpreters viewed the servant of Isaiah 53 to be Jesus. But other candidates have been put forward, including Moses and even the prophet Jeremiah. Some have even viewed the servant as one of the kings of Israel or even the author of Second Isaiah. (Coogan, 2014, 409-410) Few of these are satisfactory in any way.

The most likely candidate for the servant is actually straight from Second Isaiah. He writes,

Listen to me, O coastlands,
and give attention, you peoples from afar.
The LORD called me from the womb,
from the body of my mother he named my name.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword;
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow;
in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
(Isaiah 49:1-3)

So if were to ask, “Who is Yahweh’s servant?” our answer would be “Israel,” at least based upon 49:3. This notion is also seen earlier in Isaiah 41:8 where Yaweh calls Israel “my servant” and where he says to the nation,

“You are my servant,
I have chosen you and not cast you off.”
(41:9b)

Let’s test this notion that Yahweh’s servant in the fourth Servant Song is Israel.

A Brief Exposition of Isaiah 52:13-53:12

Before we begin, we must remember that Second Isaiah was composed sometime during the aftermath of the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon. The city was destroyed, the temple demolished, and the inhabitants killed or taken away. So as we look at the fourth Servant Song we should see if the descriptions fit the bill. Do we see any notion of the humiliation of Israel? Do we detect any idea of the Exile?

My analysis here rests strongly on the insights of Bernhard Anderson and Richard Clifford, two accomplished biblical scholars. Though both men generally agree that the identity of the servant is Israel, they disagree on other details that can only help us in the exposition to follow. The main area of disagreement is with regards to the speaker in 53:1 and following: Anderson sees it as the nations while Clifford sees it as Israel itself. While I lean toward Anderson’s view, Clifford’s contributions will be noted where they are applicable.

The section can be divided into five different strophes: 52:13-15, 53:1-3, 53:4-6, 53:7-9, 53:10-12.

Strophe #1 – 52:13-15

The author wrote,

See, my servant shall prosper;
he shall be exalted and lifted up,
and shall be very high.
Just as there were many who were astonished at him
– so marred was his appearance,
beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of mortals –
so he shall startle many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
for that which had not been told them they shall see,
and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.
(New Revised Standard Version)

The fourth Servant Song opens with the proclamation from Yahweh that his servant will go from “marred [מִשְׁחַ֥ת]” and “beyond human semblance” (52:14) to “exalted,” “lifted up,” and “very high.” (52:13) And just as the servant’s diminished state astonished “many,” so too will his exalted state “startle many nations” and “kings shall shut their mouths because of him.” (52:15) So if it is the case that the servant is Israel, what is going on here in 52:13-15?

We cannot downplay the destruction wrought by Babylon when it invaded Judah and leveled the city of Jerusalem. The Deuteronomic Historian wrote,

On the seventh day of the fifth month, in the nineteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, Nebuzaradan commander of the imperial guard, an official of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. He set fire to the temple of the LORD, the royal palace and all the houses of Jerusalem. Every important building he burned down. The whole Babylonian army under the commander of the imperial guard broke down the walls around Jerusalem. Nebuzaradan the commander of the guard carried into exile the people who remained in the city, along with the rest of the populace and those who had deserted to the king of Babylon. (2 Kings 25:8-11)

Jerusalem loomed large in the mind of both the residents of the holy city and those who resided in the nation of Judah. And the temple served as the cult of Yahweh’s central hub, the place where atonement for the sins of the people were made annually. Without the temple, the people could no longer offer up sacrifices to appease Yahweh. It is no wonder that the author uses the Hebrew word מִשְׁחַ֥ת to describe Israel’s fallen state. The only other place in the Hebrew Bible מִשְׁחַ֥ת is used is in Leviticus (22:25) where the term is translated as “mutilated” (NRSV). Truly, Jerusalem’s fall and the temple’s destruction “mutilated” Yahweh’s servant.

Nevertheless, Yahweh’s plan is to exalt the servant to the astonishment of the nations and their kings. They will see “that which had not been told them” and they will contemplate “that which they had not heard.” (52:15) Israel will be restored to her former status and fulfill the purpose Yahweh had for his people.

And now the LORD says,
    who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
    and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
    and my God has become my strength—
he says,
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
    to raise up the tribes of Jacob
    and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
    that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
(Isaiah 49:5-6, NRSV)

Strophe #2 – 53:1-3

In the second strophe we read,

Who has believed what we have heard?
    And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
    and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
    a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him of no account.
(NRSV)

53:1 features two rhetorical questions, one that focuses on the unbelievable turn of events from a ruined to exalted state and another that focuses on the vindication of the servant. (Clifford, 1984, 178) The kings of the nations mentioned in 52:15 express their astonishment. Israel, who was little more than “a scraggly plant in arid soil with no beauty to make one notice him” (Clifford, 1984, 178) is to be exalted and placed in the highest position above the nations.

The kings are utterly amazed that such an unlovely, despised, and revolting figure is actually the one to whom “the arm of Yahweh” – the victorious power of the Divine Warrior – has been revealed. They had not recognized the Servant in his humilitation. (Anderson 443) 

Though Israel had been cast down and publicly shamed during the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions, the great reversal will come.

Strophe #3 – 53:4-6

The third strophe reads,

Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
(NRSV)

The nations had assumed that the punishment inflicted upon Israel was its own doing, that the servant was being punished for his own sin. But this was not what was truly going on. Rather, Yahweh had put on Israel the iniquity of the nations.

The terminology the text uses – “infirmities [חֳלָיֵנוְּ]” and “diseases [וְּמַכְאֹבֵינוְּ]” – recall the appearance of the servant in 52:14: “marred [מִשְׁחַ֥ת].” As we noted earlier, מִשְׁחַ֥ת only appears in the Hebrew Bible here in Second Isaiah and earlier in the book of Leviticus 22:25 where the text tells us that the priests cannot offer as a sacrifice animals with damaged testicles (22:24) because they are considered “mutilated [מִשְׁחַ֥ת].” In the Levitical passage, the point was to prevent Israel from purchasing substandard animals for sacrifice to God, with an emphasis on the castration of the animal.

Since such an animal was no longer whole, it did not accord with the standard of holiness. It would always be tempting to take such an animal from the herd and give it as an offering to God. (Hartley, 1992, 362)

Emphasized in Second Isaiah is the notion that the seemingly substandard Israel was the one chosen by Yahweh to bear the “infirmities” and “diseases” of the nations. So then, the infirmed brings about healing of infirmities and the diseased brings about the curing of diseases. The nations who were once estranged from Yahweh will be brought into the fold but only through his chosen servant whom he must punish if the nations are to experience wholeness (שָׁלוֹם) at his exaltation.

The strophe ends with what seems like the unjust nature of what has happened to the servant. It is the nations, not the servant, who went astray, yet Yahweh has punished the servant and not the nations. The choice of imagery – “all we like a sheep have gone astray” – picks up again in the next strophe.

Strophe #4 – 53:7-9

We read here,

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.
They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
(NRSV)

As in 53:6, in 53:7 the imagery of a lamb or sheep is picked up again. Whereas the nations had behaved like sheep by wandering astray, the servant Israel bears the punishment from God silently, “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter” and “like a sheep…before its shearers.”

The kings note also that the servant was “taken away” by a “perversion of justice.” So terrible was this and seemingly final that they ask, “Who could have imagined his future?” That is, they had no expectation that the servant would recover from his sudden demise. The speaker expresses the servant’s end in terms of death: “he was cut off from the land of the living” and he was buried with the wicked and the rich. (53:8) Physical death need not be in view here. After all, in other Hebrew texts we read of death being used as a metaphor for being in a destitute state which warrants despair. For example, in the book of Jonah while the prophet sits in the belly of the fish, he cries out,

I called to the LORD out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice….
The waters closed in over me:
the deep surrounded me:
weeds were wrapped around my head
at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my ife from the Pit,
O LORD my God.
(Jonah 2:2, 5-6, NRSV)

In Second Isaiah the metaphor is used to communicate how terrible the suffering the servant must endure to atone for the sins of the nations. And the injustice of it all is that all this happened though “he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.” (53:9) As Anderson observes, the servant is “meek and innocent through the whole ordeal.” (Anderson, 444)

Strophe #5 – 53:10-12

The final strophe reads,

Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain.
When you make his life an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the LORD shall prosper.
Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong:
because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.
(NRSV)

Anderson contends that the final strophe is Yahweh speaking throughout. (Anderson 444) I am not entirely convinced of this as it seems the kings of the nations are still speaking up until the first half of 53:11. However, if it solely Yahweh then the “you” of 53:10 are the kings of the nations of 52:15, the ones that were speaking from 53:1-53:9. And this view has some appeal, for we know from other biblical texts that God had used foreign powers to bring Israel to its knees: Assyria in the northern kingdom and Babylon in the southern. If, on the other hand, it is the kings of the nations who are speaking then this fits in the idea that it is Yahweh who punishes Israel, something the text made clear for us in 53:4. Regardless, the intention of the fifth strophe is that the servant, Israel, will be rewarded and restored. We can see this specifically in the wording of 53:10 and 53:12.

There are two ideas in 53:10 that hint at the nature of Israel’s restoration. (Clifford, 181) The first is that the servant will “see his offspring [זֶרַע].” The second is that the servant will “prolong his days [יַאֲרִיךְ יָמִים].” The juxtaposition of these two in 53:10 is seen in other biblical texts, especially those related to Israel in the Promised Land. For example,  In Deuteronomy 11 we read,

Keep, then, this entire commandment that I am commanding you today, so that you may have strength to go in and occupy the land that you are crossing over to occupy, and so that you may live long [תַּאֲרִיכוְּ יָמִים] in the land that the LORD swore to your ancestors to give them and to their descendants [וּלְזַרְעָ֑ם], a land flowing with milk and honey. (11:8-9, NRSV)

This idea is repeated in Deuteronomy 17:20 and in 30:18-19 (though in 30:18-19 it is part of a warning). It seems unlikely that the connection between the two ideas is accidental here in 53:10. But what do we make of it? Well, since at the time of the writing of Second Isaiah Israel was not in possession of the land but had been removed from it by the Assyrians and the Babylonians, the promise is that one day they will possess it again. This is a recurring theme in Jewish literature following the events of the Exile. [2] 

Second Isaiah also states that “out of his anguish, he shall see light.” (53:11) Here the author is drawing from themes first composed by the author of Isaiah, specifically in Isaiah 8:16-9:7. There the expectation is that though Israel would face “the gloom of anguish” and they will be “thrust into thick darkness” (8:22), there would come a Davidic king, a Messiah, to take the throne once again in Jerusalem. (9:7) The people of Israel may have been walking in darkness, but at that time they will see “a great light.” (9:1) This eschatological expectation (9:1 – “in the latter time”) is obvious in 53:11 and the entirety of the fourth servant song.

The song ends with Yahweh noting again that the servant “bore the sins of many.” (53:12) That word translated as “many” in the NRSV comes from the Hebrew word רָב and is the same word translated as “many” in 52:14. We also see the repetition of the notion that the servant will be exalted. In 53:12 the exaltation is expressed in terms of partaking in the spoils of war and being among “the great,” likely a reference to powerful nations.

The poem ends by referring back to the beginning. Just as the opening claimed that great kings and many nations would be astonished at the Servant, so the conclusions announces that Yahweh will make him great. His greatness is described in the concrete terms characteristic of Israelite tradition. The Servant will receive a portion with the great and will divide the spoil of conquest, for he is the true conqueror who advances along the royal road of God’s kingdom. (Anderson, 445)

Summary

The brief exposition I offered above will not persuade the ardent Christian, especially Thomason, but it does show that it is possible to understand Isaiah 52:13-52:12 without making recourse to Jesus as its subject. In fact, the text must have meant something to its original readers and since they had never heard of Jesus and lived centuries before he was born, it almost goes without saying that there must have been a way to understand the passage without him. [3]

Back to the Future

So what do we make then of Thomason’s claim that Jesus death and resurrection fulfill what was written in Isaiah 53? We can see that this is simply not the case and that it is possible to understand the passage as referring not to a future messiah but to Israel who had experienced intense suffering at the hands of foreign powers but is promised to be exalted to the shock of the nations.

While we will not be addressing either Psalm 22 or Psalm 118, we can make a general statement about them similiar to the one above regarding Isaiah 53. Those texts must have meant something to the original readers that had absolutely nothing to do with Jesus. And, in fact, often those texts are not treated with any deal of respect but they are instead divorced from their contexts or cherry-picked to support the Christian interpretation.

In my estimation, as an Amateur Exegete, Isaiah 53 is not a prophecy fulfilled in Jesus. It was meant to convey a sense of hope for a future restoration of Israel in its own land. Jesus wasn’t even on the radar and, in fact, no Messiah was. [4]

ENDNOTES

[1] There are some problems with this view. For example, the text of John implies that Jesus remained in Jerusalem for the Passover and did not leave the area until the Pharisees learned that Jesus was making and baptizing disciples. (4:1) In the Synoptics, Jesus remains in the area until his death and does a good deal of teaching but does not leave the region.

[2] The idea that Israel would one day take back the land they had lost to foreign powers is all over the place in the prophetic works. One of the most vivid of passages about this comes from Ezekiel and his valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14). There the people are described as dead and in their graves, similiar to the ideas in Isaiah 53:8-9, and they are told by Yahweh that they will be resurrected and restored to the land of Israel. (Ezekiel 37:12-14)

[3] Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman responds to the common Christian interpretation with four points. First, he notes that the Hebrew prophets were not in the business of predicting events that would happen centuries from their own context. What they had to say was for their time and for the people within their hearing. Second, in the fourth servant song the suffering that is spoken of has already been endured by the servant. The vindication is yet to come but the suffering has already passed. Third, the word “messiah” appears nowhere in the fourth servant song and so it is not messianic in character. Finally, since the text isn’t about a future messiah, the text must be referring to something. If we let Second Isaiah speak we can see that the servant is in fact Israel. (Ehrman, 2014, 154)

[4] That isn’t to say that there was no expectation that a Davidic Messiah would be involved in the restoration. We already stated that based on the connection of Isaiah 53:11 to 9:7 that there was an expectation. But Isaiah 53 isn’t specifically about that Messiah but instead focuses on the restoration of Israel to its exalted status and its return to the land.

PRINTED WORKS CITED

Bernhard W. Anderson. Understanding the Old Testament. Abridged Fourth Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998.

George R. Beasley-Murray. John. Second edition. WBC vol. 36. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1999.

Richard J. Clifford. Fair Spoken and Persuading: An Interpretation of Second Isaiah. New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1984.

Michael D. Coogan. The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Bart Ehrman. The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

John E. Hartley. Leviticus. WBC, vol. 4. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992.