Click to go to my Main WebsiteClick to go to my Blog

Confidence in the Bible

Win Corduan, Ph.D.

What follows is a set of entries, which appeared on my personal blog during the time period from November 24 to December 26, 2012, interrupted from time to time by less related entries. One of the main topics of my blog has been of late a study of the Gospel According to Luke. In conjunction with that study I made some remarks concerning textual criticism, which brought up some questions connected to the inspiration of the Bible in general. I have done relatively little editing, so that the style and flavor of blog entries is preserved. For anyone new to my style of writing, you will recognize pretty quickly that, in telling a biblical story, I often paraphrase passages, particularly dialog, into a more contemporary mode of speaking so as to suit the narrative.




THE TEMPTATION OF JESUS                                                                                                                                 BACK TO TOP

Luke 4:3: The Devil said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”

If ever a passage lent itself to over-interpretation, it is this one. The problem is that it is not necessarily easy to tell when one has reached that point. We're back to the same kind of thing as I said the other day about Occam's Razor. Who's to say when we have overcomplicated our understanding?

At this point in the Bible, we see Satan in his full-blown occupation as opponent to God. Assuming the traditional identity of the serpent in the Garden with Satan, there we saw him as a trickster; a figure who causes mischief and is punished for it. In the book of Job, further revelation lets us understand him as the adversary of human beings and competitor with God. He is allowed to enter God's presence, and God permits him to carry out a "diabolical" scheme on Job, but he has to play by God's rules. Now here he appears in his true colors, opposing God's very plan of salvation by trying to turn the Son of God away from the Father. To clear up potential Trinitarian concerns, we have here very clearly the simultaneous distinction between the persons of the Father and the Son, which is not irrational, but only intelligible to us on a pretty rudimentary level. It will also help to keep in mind the fact that the second person, the Son, had joined a human nature to the divine one.

trinity and incarnation

It is of utmost importance once again to remind ourselves of the setting of this episode. A common topic of study in the twentieth century was the question of when Jesus acquired his consciousness as Messiah, or when he knew that he was God incarnate. As we saw a while back, the Gnostic and docetic gospels attribute this awareness to him from infancy on. Perhaps he knew exactly who he was by the time he was twelve years old and referred to the temple as his father's house. We can be quite sure that at this point, after the baptism and the divine affirmation, that Jesus was certain by then that he was the Son of God, with both the divine nature and a full human nature.

But what sane human being can just accept such a truth about himself--and remain sane? Jesus went out into the Judean desert to fast and meditate. He knew he was God. He knew--and had affirmed with his baptism--that he was human. Somehow he managed to bring the two together in his mind. And then the doubts came. They were conveyed and reinforced specifically by a personal being, the fallen angel Satan.

Let us remember that during his time on earth, Jesus, although being God, did not do his works in his own power, but by the power provided him by the Father. We read in Philippians 2:6-7:

Jesus was and remained God, but did not take advantage of his deity. Had he done so, his entire display of righteousness--including this temptation--would have been a sham. He "emptied" himself, a term that has given rise to much unwarranted speculation. It seems to me that the context clarifies its meaning: he became one of us, a fact that included foregoing his prerogatives as God. And so, later on he concluded a lengthy debate by saying:

These are big words, but how would they stand up under pressure? Would Jesus stay true to his chosen path of demonstrating the righteousness of God in his human nature? Remember that only if he was completely human, and only if he was completely righteous could he fulfill his role as substitutionary atonement on our behalf. If he sinned, or if he cheated (by invoking his power as God), so to speak, his mission would be worthless. God was righteous already; the man needed to be perfect victim of the sacrifice, without blemish.

So, after fasting for forty days, Jesus was understandably hungry, and it gets pretty desolate in the Judean desert. As the German poet says, "Viel Steine gab's und wenig Brot." There were many rocks, while there was a clear shortage of bread. Well, that would have been a problem for you and me; we would have to travel quite a ways to get to, say, Ber Sheva, to find the nearest falafel stand. But that shouldn't be much of a problem for God incarnate, should it? He didn't need to go anywhere to find bread. He had superpowers and could turn the rocks into loaves of bread. The devil encouraged him to carry out that idea, playing on any self-doubts that the human mind of Jesus may have had.

"Look, Jesus, you think you're the Son of God. Well, in that case, just say the word, and you can turn all these rocks into as much bread as you want to."

The devil was right, of course, and both he and Jesus knew it. And what would have been the harm? What's wrong with following the devil's suggestion if the devil is right? Jesus need not have made a big thing out of it. I don't think there's much help in the explanation that, if he had started to conjure up a loaf for himself, he would have committed himself to go into the bread-making business, and, sinceJesus could have fed the whole earth, he would have become its political ruler, thereby diverting him from his mission of salvation. Excessive popularity and political power were a genuine temptation, but the argument in this case is based on heaping up a number of extreme and improbable scenarios. The problem is that, if Jesus had done so, he would have stepped out of his role of demonstrating a human life completely in obedience to and trust of God, and he would have used his deity for his own personal advantage. At that point, as I said, his mission would not just have been starting to deteriorate; it would have been over.

"Bread isn't everything," Jesus said. "We also need to live by the Word of God."

I realize, of course, that the sequence is different in Matthew, so we shouldn't make much of it, but I'm sticking to Luke's version. The devil next showed him the entire world over which he presently rules (C. S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet is a fabulous illustration of that point). "I can give you this entire planet."

Now we're talking about political leadership and something that went beyond it. Satan is the spiritual ruler of this world; he is on a losing mission, but for now he's working as though he's still in charge. The devil offered all of this to Jesus for the simple price of worshiping him. The fact of the matter is that eventually Christ's work will be implemented, and everything will be subject to him (Phil 2:9-11; Heb 2:8). But did Jesus himself really believe that prophecy right then and there as he was exhausted, starving, and possibly confused? Wouldn't it be rational to trade an exalted position now for some grandiose promises in the future? What's the harm in offering homage to Satan if in consequence Jesus can become ruler of the entire earth?

No, Jesus was not confused. Nothing was worth the cost of bowing down to Satan, an action that would have been supremely problematic in its own right, as well as compromising his saviorhood. Jesus quickly invoked the first commandment. "I can't worship you. Don't you know that we are supposed to worship no one except Yahweh?" Satan knew that, and so he moved on to his third attempt.

Here is where Luke's sequence, though apparently not really significant, does make the story flow nicely as a narrative because in his version he now has Satan focus on Jesus' commitment to God. "So, it's all about Yahweh to you, is it. Very well. Let's see how much you really mean it. Are you willing to stake your life on your faith in God?"

They transported themselves (physically or in vision) to the "pinnacle" of the temple. It's the northwest corner (I think), where the huge walls were situated in such a way that anyone standing there would look pretty much straight down into the Hinnom Valley.

"Okay, Jesus, you remember Psalm 91:11-12, don't you? If you were to leap off here, God would send his angels to catch you, and they would let you waft down slowly like a feather in the air, without your ever even stubbing a tow on some rock. Look! It says so right here in the Bible. Just show me that you really do trust God, and that those aren't empty words coming out of your mouth. God ahead; all it takes is one step forward."

It would seem to me that of all the temptations, this one would have been the most enticing. How many times have we ourselves heard some unbeliever taunt us in similar ways. "Well, if you really believed what you say . . . If you really trusted God . . . " And then followed some condition of the person's own devising by which he might be willing to consider the reality of our faith. Unfortunately, sometimes Christians even take the bait and think that they can set up a demonstration for a non-Christian by promising that specific things will happen if the non-Christian were to start believing. But this is a bad idea. As we saw with Zecharias, demanding a sign from God can easily backfire. God will not let himself be challenged on our grounds.

Satan was asking Jesus to tempt God, and Jesus again made a short reference to Scripture in repudiating him. "Do not test the Lord your God." At times, what Jesus was saying here has been interpreted as Jesus forbidding the devil to tempt him any further, but that's missing the point. Jesus was saying that he could not jump off the pinnacle, because by doing so he would be tempting God in violation of that directive.

But Satan had enough for the moment and strode off the scene. Jesus returned to Galilee to continue the mission on which he had embarked.


LIFE OF JESUS                                                                                                                                 BACK TO TOP

Luke 4:14-15: Then Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about Him spread throughout the entire vicinity. He was teaching in their synagogues, being acclaimed by everyone.

Luke's notice that Jesus returned to Galilee gives us a little breather, and we can do something that's been overdue, namely, to provide a basic outline of the life of Jesus. There's nothing original here. I'm just stating what you'll find in so many words in most of your traditional New Testament Survey books. Come to think of it, though, I can always entertain myself and any patient reader with a few side comments. (Actually, if I may say so, I'm going to raise some significant issues before I'm done here.)

The German Bible scholar Martin Kähler once remarked concerning Mark that it was really a "passion narrative with a long introduction." In other words, the whole story is just so much preparation for the "passion," viz. the suffering, of Christ. I would quickly want to add that we should not forget about the resurrection. Furthermore, even though in the other gospels, including Luke, the "introduction" is a little longer and may have more content than Mark has given us, it would appear that the same basic plan applies to all four gospels. In whatever other aspects the gospels may differ from each other, they definitely point to the end right from the start. "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world," is right there at the beginning of the gospel of John, informing us already that this book is headed towards Christ's crucifixion.

That fact may seem pretty obvious to us evangelicals, who see Jesus first and foremost as our savior, who died on the cross for us and was resurrected. But it's a little bit of an obstacle for liberal scholars for whom a legitimate understanding of Jesus has been as a kind of preacher/teacher to whom eventually a savior role was ascribed by the earliest church as a belated afterthought. Of course, there's no documentation for such a picture of Christ without the cross among his immediate followers. I've known scholars who have adduced the alleged document Q as evidence for a Christianity without Christ's atonement since Q does not contain a passion narrative. With all due respect, this is a really silly argument. Of course, since by definition Q contains those passages that are common to Matthew and Luke, but are not found in Mark, and since all four gospels have the passion narrative, there would be no way of telling whether there was such an element in one of the alleged versions of Q. For more on Q see the entry on Luke and his Sources.

Additionally, the early followers of Bultmann found themselves unable to break down the passion narratives in the gospels into various components. In other words, as far as they could tell, the story of Jesus' capture, trial, and crucifixion, though subject to some variations, seemed to come as one whole narrative. You see, Bultmann and followers were practicing form criticism, which is different from source criticism. In source criticism, one attempts find the large documents that were allegedly patched together to create a book of the Bible. Some famous examples are the idea that the Pentateuch consists of a pastiche of earlier documents called J, E, D, and P, or the theory that Isaiah is an anthology of the writings of Isaiah, the later "Deutero-Isaiah," and the even later "Trito-Isaiah." I won't get any further into source criticism now; I'm just establishing the contrast to form criticism.

Form criticism is perhaps best understood through the work of Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932) and his last work, Introduction to the Psalms (orig. 1927). It seems to be clear that many of the Psalms were written on special occasions or for specific purposes. For example, some of them were probably chanted by pilgrims going up to Jerusalem, while others were Psalms of thanksgiving and rejoicing at festivals. So, Gunkel set about trying to find a specific Sitz-im-Leben (life situation) for each individual psalm. On the whole, assuming that he stayed true to the text, that seems to be a reasonable project.

But what if you applied the same method to other books of the Bible? That is to say, what if, for example, you isolate particular passages in Genesis and ascribed a particular ritual setting to them? To mention an extreme example, consider the story of how Jacob wrestled with the angel of the Lord, and the angel twisted Jacob's hip, so that he had to walk with a limb from then on. I've seen it seriously proposed that this narrative might have its origin in the adaptation by the Israelites of an ancient Canaanite dance in which everyone limped in a circle. (And, just so that we understand each other, there is no evidence for such a Canaanite dance, let alone any adoption of it by the Israelites that would require an adaptation). A little more sanely, could the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand in the New Testament have its origin as part of an early communion practice? Could various other gospel passages have their beginnings as explanations of specific rites that were being practiced by the early church? With such methodology, form criticism was fragmenting the Bible, including the New Testament, into various small self-contained portions that supposedly started out as recitations within first-century church life.

Eta Linnemann

But the passion narrative resisted that kind of division, at least at first. It appeared to be made of one cloth. Then, in 1970, Eta Linnemann (1926-2009) made the break-through with her Studies in the Passion Narratives. My New Testament professor in graduate school awarded her the highest accolades: she had the great distinction of isolating separate components (pericopes) within the passion story. Not that Linnemann's discovery altered anyone's basic vision of the gospels; they were still "passion narratives with long introductions," but, thanks to her work, the passion components no longer seemed to be as utterly dominant as they had appeared to be previously since they, too, could be resolved into various earlier pieces.

However, not too long thereafter, Frau Linnemann herself began to question what she had done. She had applied Bultmannian methodology to the Bible and destroyed whatever factual meaning was left to the story of Christ's death and resurrection. Form criticism is, she pondered, a human undertaking, based on human presuppositions. Could a person's ingenuity in applying a philosophy really take the power out of the Word of God? Eta Linnemann recognized that her work, as well as that of her contemporary scholars, was ultimately simply one of destruction. Through various circumstances, while she took this look from a distance at her professional work, she found Christ as her Lord and Savior and renounced unequivocally all her previous critical writings.

June and I were sitting together with Frau Professor Linnemann at the annual banquet of the Evangelical Theological Society a few years ago. I remember that Dr. Bill Heth, my colleague at Taylor, was also there. A young scholar came up to her, politely introduced himself, and said some words of appreciation concerning a particular book of hers on the gospels. I'll never forget her response in her very heavy German accent:

"You can srow sat avay in se trash. It's garbage."

[And I must say that I've always wondered why someone at ETS should have held Frau Linnemann's Bultmannian work in high regard . BACK TO TOP ]

There's a lot more to be said here, but I'm cruising all over the place as it is. Let's just have it come down to this much (or little): The gospels are from beginning to end oriented towards Christ's death and resurrection. The scholar who supposedly made the breakthrough in de-emphasizing the integrity of the passion accounts in the gospels, subsequently vehemently renounced her work. So, clearly, the gospels are not biographies of Jesus Christ. Only two of them have a birth narrative; only one of them mentions anything in conjunction with his childhood. The actual content begins after his baptism and temptation around age thirty. Now, we can follow a traditional approach and recognize five sections. We do this purely for our convenience; there is no theological significance attached to it.

1. Preparation. The time from his birth through the temptation.

2. Early Judean Ministry. This period is covered by John and not mentioned in the synoptics.

3. The Galilean Ministry and Excursions to Jerusalem.

4. The Perean Ministry. This time period is especially emphasized in Luke. Perea was the area on the east side of the Jordan, and on his last trip, rather than heading straight south through Samaria, Jesus took the long way around--as most Jews did at the time--crossed over the Jordan, traveled down through Perea, and then crossed over again into Judea around Jericho.

5. The Fulfillment. Here we have the Last Supper, Christ's arrest, trials, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.

So, we have covered so far section 1, "Preparation," and we're skipping section 2, "Early Judean ministry" because it is not covered in Luke. We're about to start on the third section, "Galilean Ministry."


Here are a couple of titles by Eta Linnemann:

Biblical Criticism on Trial: How Scientific is 'Scientific Theology'?, trans. by Robert Yarbrough (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2001; orig. 1990).

Historical Criticism of the Bible: Methodology or Ideology? Reflections of a Bultmannian Turned Evangelical, trans. by Robert Yarbrough (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2001; orig. 1990).


JESUS IN NAZARETH                                                                                                                                 BACK TO TOP

Luke 4:22: They were all speaking well of Him and were amazed by the gracious words that came from His mouth, yet they said, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”

Welcome to Three Beans, Indiana!
Home of Fritz Brauer
3-time Champion of the
Corn County Horseshoes Tournament.

Okay, I don't mean to make fun of the state in which I have lived for the last three and a half decades. You see similar signs in lots of places all over these states. Everyone wants to lay claim to someone important having come out their town, and sometimes it turns out to be a bit of a reach. Not so for Nazareth in Galilee, hometown of the up-and-coming preacher and teacher Jesus Son of Joseph. He truly was becoming famous, and everyone was predicting great things of him, considering what he had accomplished already. Rumor had it that he might even be the Messiah.

It's pretty clear that by this time Jesus had relocated to Capernaum as his more or less permanent residence, which is much more conveniently located right at the Sea of Galilee. To get to Nazareth you have to climb a fairly steep mountain. I have done it three times on my bike, and how I wish I had the time to tell you the stories connected with two of those. But that'll have to wait. The thing is that Nazareth by itself, one of the officially Christian Arab towns in Israel (the other being Bethlehem), is really a pretty blasé place on the whole, at least in your bloggist's opinion.

So on one Friday Jesus went up to Nazareth, the town in which he had spent at least the majority of his childhood. He had been teaching to great acclaim in the synagogues of the area, and I think we can infer from what the people were thinking later on, not to mention the parallel passages in Mark 6 and Matthew 13, that he had also performed a few miracles. The hometown boy was making good, and he was going to preach in the synagogue on Sabbath morning.

A quick point of clarification: a synagogue is a totally different thing from the temple in Jerusalem. The word comes from the Greek term meaning "assembly," and its primary purposes were then--and continue to be--as a community center and a place for teaching the Law. There never have been nor will there ever be sacrifices in synagogues. They were not operated by priests. The synagogues belonged to the community, and the teachers were usually rabbis of the Pharisaic affiliation. We can see how seriously the Jews were taking the Law of God in those days that these teaching centers had sprung up all over the country. David had hoped that the priests would carry out a teaching ministry throughout the land, and Jehoshaphat had attempted to install such a system, which was rather short-lived. It was not until much later that the synagogues came into being and actually provided a place where common people could be instructed in the Law. When the temple fell in AD 70, the synagogues were the only religious buildings that were still being used, but there could be no sacrifices without a temple. It so happens that Reform (liberal) Jews like to call their synagogues "temples," but they do so specifically in order to make the point that they are not anticipating the restoration of the temple in Jerusalem or the reinstitution of sacrifices.

As Jesus walked up the bema, the main platform, someone handed him the scroll of Isaiah. He rolled it close to its end and read from Isaiah 61:1-2.

This passage was definitely associated with the Messiah, and when Jesus then said that today these words were being fulfilled right in front of his listeners, the listeners in the crammed building knew that they were watching divine history unfold before their eyes. Wow! The Messiah was declaring himself right here, and they were witnessing it. Apparently some people were skeptical of what they were seeing and hearing. "Isn't that Joseph's son?" they asked. Then again, for some people even that remark may have been meant positively. Not only were they seeing the Messiah announce his arrival, they knew his dad personally and may even have remembered Jesus as a kid. It would be time to add to the "Welcome to Nazareth" sign as soon as the Sabbath was over. Luke portrays the people as excited and pleased.

And then Jesus turned on them. This is the part that can be quite puzzling. Matthew (13:53-58 and Mark (6:1-6) make it easy on us. They tell us that a lot of people simply did not accept him because they knew him and his family and could not bring themselves to believe that he was the Messiah. Matthew and Mark also point out that as a consequence of their unbelief Jesus did practically no miracles in Nazareth. But Luke does not raise these points, and so we must examine Luke carefully to see what he is telling us. He is clearly adding a different angle to our understanding of the same event.

Whereas Matthew and Mark focus on the people who took a negative attitude toward Jesus, Luke concentrates on those who were cheering him on.

"Yes! Here his is! We've heard all about what he's been doing lately all around Galilee. And he's one of us. So, bring on the miracles!"

Ken Griffey, Jr.

Have you ever thought about the phenomenon that people speak about their local sports teams in the first person plural, even in these days when chances are good that not a single player on, say, their baseball team actually comes from their own town, their area, or even their state? A few years ago, June and I went to Cincinnati in order to watch "our" Atlanta Braves play against the Reds. It's a sad memory. By the third inning the Braves had a 6:0 lead. Ken Griffey, Jr. of the Reds came to bat, and I said to June, "Now would be a good time for him to hit a home run. The Braves don't look like they're going to lose, and, even if they were to do so, we can still tell posterity about having seen Griffey hit a home run." No sooner said than done. He uncorked a monster into the right field bleachers. It was so obvious that the ball was gone the moment it left Griffey's bat, that the Braves' right fielder didn't even look up as it passed way over his head. My smugness turned to disappointment. Sadly, the Reds did win that game, and afterwards a lot of people were saying things along the line of, "We beat them," except that many of them expressed themselves far more colorfully, and a few made references to various aspects human anatomy, aggravating my hurt feelings even more. I was tempted to say to someone, "You know, Sir, you personally did not do anything to contribute to your team's victory," but that would have been a rather brainless thing to do. My point is that, as the German expression goes, we like to decorate ourselves with the feathers of others, particularly if we can find some relationship to them, be it ever so tenuous. [No doubt, if the Braves had won, I'm sure I would have said that "we" beat the Reds. ]

I believe that such an attitude was behind the reprimand that Jesus now issued. The folks at Nazareth had let messiah fever get to their heads and were acting as though the circus had come to town for their own benefit. Let me try to paraphrase what Jesus was saying.

And to emphasize his point Jesus mentioned two incidents from the lives of Elijah and Elisha. In both of those cases, although there would have been opportunities for them to feed widows or heal lepers in Israel, God had each of them help a Gentile instead, namely Elijah provided for the Sidonian widow of Zarepath, and Elisha healed the Aramean general Naaman. God gives grace and mercy, but he does not issue entitlements. And clearly the residents of Nazareth had felt entitled to a memorable demonstration of Jesus' miracles.

Whatever excitement there had been a moment ago turned to outrage. Not only was Jesus questioning their motives and sincerity, he even dared to throw into their faces that God might just prefer Gentiles to them. I can picture in my mind how the skeptics in the crowd (Matthew and Mark's subjects) and the temporary Jesus-fans (Luke's subjects) looked at each other and simultaneously came to the same conclusion. "This guy is a fraud and a blasphemer."

They rose up, rushed the bema, and converged on Jesus. Apparently nobody really grabbed him, let alone bound him, possibly because it was the Sabbath. Instead, it reads to me as though, merely by the fact that they had formed a virtually impenetrable crowd around him, they drove him to the edge of a cliff, trying to force him down to a quick descent from which he would not recover. Their maneuver did not work. Commentators are divided as to whether Jesus' escape here was a miracle or not, but he managed to slip away right through the mob of his would-be executioners.

Our commercial culture plays up the idea of entitlement. We are constantly being told what we deserve from life, from God, from who knows what or whom? Where is it written that Person X deserves a luxury car, or that Person Y is entitled to such and such a pleasure? (Or, if someone wrote it down, why would that statement be authoritative?) Specifically, we are not entitled to the grace of God; we do not deserve salvation; we have no right to make demands on God. But we do have the privilege of receiving from him what he gives us freely and to be thankful to him for it.


THE MESSIANIC SECRET                                                                                                                                 BACK TO TOP

Luke 4:41: Also, demons were coming out of many, shouting and saying, “You are the Son of God!” But He rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew He was the Messiah.

After the rather unsatisfactory visit to Nazareth, Jesus went back down to Capernaum. We read about his healings and exorcisms. For the moment, I'm going to ignore the details and just focus on one phenomenon that has given rise to a lot of guesswork and speculation over the years. Our passage first singles out one man who was demon-possessed and then later mentions a multitude of possessed people. Jesus liberated all of them.

These demons were rather vocal, and as they were driven out of their victims, they railed about Jesus. Specifically, they identified him as God's Messiah. Jesus told them to be quiet about who he was. Among the gospel writers, Mark brings up this kind of incident most often, Luke reports a good number of such events, Matthew mentions a few instances, and they don't show up in John at all. Here in Luke 4 the command to be quiet is directed at the demons; in other places it is the person who was formerly possessed. It can also be someone healed by Jesus. As we will see shortly in Luke 5:13, Jesus did not want word about him spread by a man whom he had just cleansed of leprosy. The question is, Wouldn't Jesus have wanted people to know who he was? Wasn't Jesus on a mission to recruit as many followers as he could?

The answer to the last question is clearly no. Jesus had come to earth to make atonement for our sins, not to start a start a new religious movement that would sweep the globe. He was (and is) the Messiah, but in the way God intended, not in any other way. We already saw that he was not going to put up with becoming the main attraction for the Nazareth Brothers Circus and Sideshow. We can see why he objected to having his messiahship be advertised by the denizens of Satan's kingdom, but why he did not want it to be publicized by people whom he had healed? This question gets a little more difficult.

Before getting to that question with a provisional answer, I need to bring up another wrinkle here, simply because it has set the standard for the academic discussion of this topic for most of the twentieth century. To follow this discussion we need to ask some fundamental questions. Did Jesus really give evidence of being the Messiah? How did his contemporaries react to this ambivalence that looks almost as though it turned Jesus into a pseudo-anonymous Messiah? Was he the one or wasn't he? Did he claim messiahship or not? Liberal Bible critics, forever searching to substantiate a non-supernatural Jesus, have had a particularly difficult time with these acclamations and with the idea that Jesus squelched them. His prohibition of spreading words about his miracles, presupposes that he did miracles. A solution that became quite popular for a time was proposed by the German scholar William Wrede (1859-1906) in his book The Messianic Secret in the Gospels (Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien), published in 1901.

Wrede's reconstruction of the matter was this. His main focus was on Mark, who has the most instances of this command to silence. The final version of the gospel of Mark was redacted at some time in the first half of the second century AD.(This is, of course, incredibly late compared to our own conclusions. See my compilation of NT life situations and my comments on Luke's sources.) By that time the Christian community had pretty much come to agreement that Jesus was, indeed, the Messiah, the Son of God, the Savior. However, according to Wrede's assumption, none of the manuscripts that supposedly had come down to the second century church from the time of Jesus (various fragments and pericopes and partial collections thereof) supported such an understanding of Jesus. So, Wrede asks, how could the 2nd century church reconcile its beliefs with the lack of support for them among the earliest Christians?

William Wrede

According to William Wrede, Jesus did not see himself as the Messiah. Consequently, the church in the 2nd century was in a pickle. How could they believe something, even to the point of making it the core of their religion, without support for it from the founder of the religion himself? Wrede stated that many of their beliefs were added by the apostle Paul, whom he called "the second founder of Christianity," but they could not be traced back to whatever scripture passages they possessed that would eventually become included in the gospels. This is where the person who combined the various sources into a single gospel, the anonymous redactor, had a brilliant idea. He intimated that there were, indeed, times when one could have inferred clearly that Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah, and so the redactor inserted passages according to which Jesus had consistently repudiated that notion and forbidden people or demons to say such things about him. Wherever Jesus gave evidence of being the messiah, or when someone proclaimed him to be the messiah (even the demons), Jesus told them to hold their tongue. At least that's what Mark's redactor said. Or, better, at least that's what Wrede said what Mark's redactor said.

Thus, in Wrede's view, the fact that Jesus actually was the messiah had been kept secret because, as we see in these accounts, Jesus wanted it that way. By the second century, however, word of Jesus' identity could not longer be concealed. Still, all of these passages in which Jesus proscribes exalting him explain why this fact wasn't known right away to the earliest believers. As you can see, underlying that explanation is the much larger thesis that the gospels are not historical documents, but are to a large extent, reflections of what the second-century church believed, and how they then accommodated the story of Jesus to their beliefs. The fact that a similar kind of free editing of sacred texts to suit a group's preferences occurs frequently in the world's religions is beyond question, and that claim is easily supported by looking at various versions of similar writings among subgroups of a religion. That this was the fate of the gospels is hard to defend. It is not supported by any manuscript history. It appeals to various unsupported and unsupportable ideas, specifically 1) that Jesus repudiated the idea that he was the Messiah, 2) that the earliest Christians did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah, 3) that the second-century church was aware of a tension between what they believed and what they thought the earliest Christians believed, and 4) that an unknown redactor reversed the entire meaning of pericope after pericope in Mark, whose redacted version was then picked up by Luke and Matthew, in order to correct this issue. Wrede was stipulating an unknown device (the redactor) in order to solve an unknown problem (the disparity between beliefs in 30 AD and 130 AD). BACK TO TOP

Having said all of that merely to address an idea that a serious Bible student is sure to run across, we are still left with the question of why Jesus did not want people or demons to shout out his identity. As I already alluded to, I'm pretty sure that at least a part of the reason was that God had not become incarnate in order to start a new religion. Please ignore the demonic aspect for a second; it's not always there, and I want to draw up a comparison, not a criticism. Loud, unchecked acclamations would have suited well the purposes of, say, Muhammad or Baha'ullah, as they saw themselves as prophets of God beginning a new age with their teachings. Let's stick with Muhammad for a moment, if we may. His goal was clearly to take the message of Allah to all the world and to establish a new community, the umma, governed entirely by the principles of his teachings, as recorded in the Qur'an. Such is still the goal of Islam. The point is to increase the numbers of adherents and, thereby, to increase the number of countries with Islamic governments until the entire world is governed by shari'a. So, the more testimonials, formal or informal, the better. As we mentioned in connection with Jesus' temptation, a superficial "Christianized" political entity, world-wide or not, is incompatible with Jesus' mission. To return to a phrase I've used before, Jesus did not want people to start acting righteously, he intended to make them righteous, and it would take his atoning death and resurrection to bring this about. Most importantly, to become righteous in the eyes of God, to be justified, to receive salvation, is something that takes personal faith. It takes a direct encounter with God to become one of his children. Nobody is born a Christian; you are not a Christian because you were born in a so-called Christian country, had Christian parents, or spent a lot of time with Christians inside or outside of church buildings. The only way in which anyone can become a Christian is by recognizing their own sinfulness, their inability to set themselves right with God by their own works, and by totally relying on the person of Christ and his finished work to have accomplished all that is necessary for their salvation.

So, this is what I see going on with these passages. Even though at this stage of the gospel we are still far from Jesus' actual work of atonement, and even though at this point Christ is doing more to demonstrate our sinfulness than to clarify a plan of salvation, he is already making a significant point. It takes a first-hand encounter with him to become one of his. Jesus did not want fans. For that matter, Jesus does not now want fans. I've already mentioned before on this blog that I'm uncomfortable with the currently popular phrase "Jesus-followers" to describe those who are children of God, siblings to God's son, and regenerate creatures. We are new beings, and we can become such only by letting him transform us, not by following a new and better teacher. (My apologies to those who see more in that phrase than I do, possibly because I hand around the leader-follower type of religions too much. Becoming a Christian is a supernatural event, and only God can bring it about, person by person.

Picture this potential outcome: The demons cry out Jesus' identity; the former lepers spread his fame; people get excited about Jesus, and a large pro-Jesus movement sweeps Galilee. Fans of Jesus put "I'm for Jesus" bumper stickers on their chariots. Young people hang Jesus posters on the walls of their mud huts. The Capernaum Post adds a weekly column featuring what's new about Jesus. And people get confirmed in their sinfulness and self-righteousness because, after all, they just adore Jesus. Satan has no better device to keep people from Christ than warmhearted pseudo-Christianity.

Then as now, such superficialities can (I'm not saying that they always must) turn people 180 degrees away from coming to Jesus in recognition of their personal need for salvation. And I think it was in order to make it clear from the beginning that he was not interested in starting a new fad, but to reconcile us to God, that Jesus did not care for any paper thin advertising campaigns, and that's why he asked people, and, of course, demons, to keep what they had come to know for themselves.

I wanted to quit here, but I better answer an obvious question. Isn't what I just caricatured and dismissed precisely what missions is all about? Well, I have to acknowledge sadly that sometimes it may be, but, if so, it's not missions in a biblical sense. There have been times when missions and evangelism have been a kind of "Christianization," viz. to establish superficially "Christian" values in a region, to lead people to a generally good feeling for Christ, and frequently submission to (colonial) church authority. But a true missionary or evangelist does not aim to increase the numbers of those who want to sign up to be listed as "Christian." He or she leads people to recognize their sin and fallenness and invites them to come to Christ for cleansing and a new life. So, missions in a proper sense seeks for others the same personal relationship with God that you and I are allowed to have by his grace. If God provides numbers, great; if not, just as great. Thus, to answer the question above, no, the goal of missions is not to establish Jesus fan clubs, but to show people how they can become God's children.


TEXTUAL CRITICISM 1                                                                                                                                 BACK TO TOP

Luke 4: 44: And He was preaching in the synagogues of Galilee. (HCSB)

Once again, I'm going to use a short passage to take off on a broader topic. I have used Luke 4:44 for decades to illustrate the meaning of "Lower Criticism," which is NOT a negative thing. "Criticism" should probably be called "analysis" in this context. So-called Higher Criticism addresses questions such as the authorship of a book, its historicity, reliability, and so forth. Lower criticism attempts to reconstruct the original text as it was probably written by the biblical author. You see, we do not actually have any copies of the books of the Bible as their human authors had penned them. We have copies of copies of copies of the originals (also called autographs), and sometimes there are variations between them. So, lower criticism (or "textual criticism") is the discipline that attempts to figure out what the original author probably said and to identify as much as possible what may have become changed or corrupted by scribes over the centuries. We're going to confine ourselves here to the text of the New Testament; lower criticism of the Old Testament is valid as well, but looks quite different. The chart below illustrates the problem. The manuscripts that we have are several generations removed from their time of writing and display some differences from each other. In the example below, "X" is the author of a book of the Bible, which we will unimaginatively call "Y."

Highly simplified chart of NT manuscript history

The problems that textual criticism addresses are real. In other words, they are not something made up by liberals in order to cast aspersions on the Bible. It does no good here to take refuge in the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Granted that the original text of the Bible is inerrant, what lower criticism does is, first of all, to establish which manuscripts contain the original text. Let me clarify my vocabulary, using Luke as an example.

"Source" or "document" refers to the book of Luke as we have it. The specific content that we read is based on the best selection out of the many available manuscripts. "Manuscripts" are the actual ancient physical copies of the book of Luke. To qualify as a manuscript, the piece of papyrus, vellum, or whatever its substance may be, has to be hand written in Greek. A "version" refers to a translation of the book. We have many versions of Luke in English; they are based on what scholars have considered to be the best manuscripts. Finally, "variants" are the places where different manuscript have different words, grammar, or somehow diverge from each other in some way. So, let's look at our verse and use it as an example of lower criticism. The English version that I use is the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB). It tells us in v. 44 that Jesus went on preaching in the synagogues of Galilee. Now, that verse makes sense because we have seen from v. 14 on that Jesus was in Galilee, and in chapter 5 he is still in Galilee. But other modern versions translate the verse as Jesus preaching throughout Judea. Here's a quick chart of some popular versions and how they translate that verse:

Versions with "Galilee"


Versions with "Judea"



 "And he preached in the synagogues of Galilee."


"And he kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea."


"And He was preaching in the synagogues of Galilee."


"And he was preaching in the synagogues of Judea."




"So He kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea."



GNT  (Good News Translation)  

  "So he preached in the synagogues throughout the country."

And the award for the smoothest side-step shuffle goes to ... may I have the envelope, please ... the ... GNT!

The other versions made a choice on whether to say Galilee or Judea. Now you may be starting to think that this is all pretty silly. It's not like "Galilee" and "Judea" only differ by one letter or that they sound more or less like the same word. Luke must have said one or the other. So, let's just look at the Greek New Testament and see which word shows up there.

The problem is that you cannot simply rely on the Greek New Testament either. It depends on which edition you might use because at times different editions give greater authority to some manuscripts than to others. In the Greek below, please forgive the lack of accent marks, which for some reason my copy function disdained. An edition produced by Constantius Tischendorf states:

And he was preaching in the synagogues of Galilee.

However, another edition, named after its two editors, Westcott and Hort, reads,

And he was preaching in the synagogues of Judea.

Just in case you've forgotten your biblical geography, let me remind you about the locations of Galilee and Judea by inserting a map. As you can see, there's a huge difference. By that time, Galilee was under the puppet ruler Herod Antipas, while Judea was governed more directly by the Romans and their procurator Pontius Pilate. You can also see on the map the item to which I referred earlier, namely that the quickest route from Galilee to Judea was straight south through Samaria, though many Jews preferred to avoid Samaria, crossing over the Jordan to the Decapolis (Ten Cities), and then journeying south through Perea until they could cross back into Judea.

map of Israel

So now, textual criticism asks the question: Which did Luke actually write, "Galilee" or "Judea"? There are manuscripts for either one. With the exception of the HCSB (and the GNB), modern versions prefer the ones that say "Judea."

Some of you, no doubt, know a lot about textual criticism--more than I do. For others, it may be a pretty new puzzle to be up against. Either way, let me know what you think. By that I don't mean just which option you think is correct, but how one might choose between two sets of manuscripts that differ in a detail. Can you think of any criteria that a person might apply to figure it out? Actually, the criteria are more important than the conclusion since chances are you don't have the manuscripts to which to apply the criteria.

Remember, the question is not "Where was Jesus?" The answer to that question is clear: He was in Galilee. But is that what Luke wrote? How can we decide? Please be courageous, step up, and take a stab at it, whether it's educated or not.


TEXTUAL CRITICISM 2                                                                                                                                 BACK TO TOP

Luke 4: 44: So he preached in the synagogues throughout the country. (GNT)
Luke 4:44: And He was preaching in the synagogues of Galilee. (HCSB)
Luke 4:44: And he kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea. (NIV)

So how can one decide whether Luke's original manuscript said that Jesus was preaching in the synagogues of Galilee or of Judea? One must assume that he only said one or the other in his autograph. The alternative would be just a little too irrational to face, viz. that Luke wrote his gospel twice, and that once he said "Galilee," and the other time he said "Judea."

Let me restate what I said in the previous post. This question is not about historical accuracy. If we merely seek to know which of the two renderings makes more sense in the context, "Galilee" seems to win hands-down. However, you can't do textual criticism that way. We cannot assume that, among all the variants that show up in the manuscripts of the Greek New Testaments, it is always the ones that are the most intelligible to us that are the correct ones. Again, to repeat myself from the last entry, invoking biblical inerrancy is of no use here because we are trying to figure out exactly what the supposedly inerrant text says and can't prejudge the matter. A lot of times the variants can't even be construed along the lines of truth or falsity, such as when we're looking at different grammatical formulations or, say, word order. If you look again at the rather simplified chart of New Testament manuscript history, you'll see that eventually two major "families" or "types" of manuscripts coalesced, the "Byzantine" and the "Alexandrian," and some scholars are committed to one or the other main lines of development. The "Alexandrian" manuscripts were, on the whole, discovered later than the "Byzantine" ones, but their actual age is not younger. Still, the Byzantine type, with its subsets, the "Majority Text" and the Textus Receptus, is the basis for the KJV, while modern versions tend to favor the "Alexandrian" orientation. So, in really general terms, we can associate the rendering "Galilee" with the Byzantine family, and "Judea" with the Alexandrian family, and scholars of the Greek New Testament who have a basic allegiance to one family or the other may be swayed on those grounds which variant they favor. The HCSB is unusual with its rendering of "Galilee." According to the introductory matter, their translators relied primarily on Nestle-Aland, Novum Testamentum Graece, 27th edition, which tends to follow the Alexandrian line and says "Judea"in its main running text, informing us of the manuscripts that say "Galilee" in a footnote. However, in this spot, the HCSB translators preferred "Galilee" for the main text, but tell us in a note that some manuscripts say "Judea."

dialog on mss.

A lot of people just don't get it. Not every piece of knowledge is given. Much of it must be earned. The whole point of textual criticism is to apply criteria to the multitude of manuscripts in order to sort out the ones with the greatest plausibility. Muslims often point out that the existence of so many manuscripts for the New Testament means that we're stuck not knowing what the autographs may have said, and they point out that there is no such problem with the Qur'an since all of the copies of the Qur'an have been identical ever since the time of Uthman, the third caliph (successor to Muhammad).

drawing of Qur'an

As a matter of fact, there have been some small discoveries of textual variants with regard to the Qur'an, but let's ignore those for a moment. Actually, the sandal is on the other foot. Given the stance that Muslims usually take on this issue, we will never know what the original text of the Qur'an may have been. Qaliph Uthman collected all the manuscripts of the Qur'an of his time, went through them and, together with some of his other friends who had been companions of Muhammad, put together what they thought was the most accurate compilation of Muhammad's messages. Then they burned all of the manuscripts with different variants and declared their production to be the one and only authoritative one. Thereby Uthman and his coworkers have made it impossible to verify the value of their selection. We have to take his word for it. Now, I have no good reason to assume dishonesty on Uthman's part, but my point is that it's simply impossible to apply tests when all the alternatives have been consigned to the flames. The clearest, though not necessarily the most diplomatic or appropriate, response to a Muslim who disparages the Bible because there are so many manuscripts, while there aren't any for the Qur'an, might be to point out that, if at any time one of the early church fathers had collected all of the New Testament manuscripts and burned all of them except those that he agreed with, there needn't be any textual criticism for the New Testament either.

One further important point: We can't use either Mark or Matthew to decide what it is that Luke wrote. We can use them to settle the historical question of Jesus's location, but that's not in question anyway since we know that he was in Galilee. But whatever they might have written in some parallel passage or other gives us no help in knowing what Luke originally wrote.

So, what are some criteria that one would use in deciding between different manuscripts (or groups thereof) as to which one most likely reflects Luke's autograph? All of these points come with an "all-other-things-being-equal" rider. None of them are decisive by themselves, particularly if they are opposed by the results of other criteria. Some of them may not be easily discernible.

  1. The ms (manuscript) closer in time to the original writing is preferable to one further removed.
  2. A ms showing evidence of cultural adaptation will be less reliable. An example would be a ms copied in Egypt substituting terms more common in Egypt than in Palestine.

  3. A ms that shows a lot of other evident scribal errors would be more questionable than ones with fewer mistakes. Examples of obvious mistakes in copying are:
    • Spelling mistakes;
    • Phrases with distorted syntax;
    • Phrases left out; e.g., if the sentence in other manuscripts were, "He told Fred that John thought that Jim went to New York," and we read, "He told Fred that Jim went to New York," it would appear that the scribe's eye skipped over a phrase, and, consequently, so did his pen.
    • Phrases inserted; e.g. "God's Word came to the prophet and God's Word came to the prophet and said 'Prepare for judgment!'"
  4. The reading that appears to be in the majority of mss tends to be preferable. We need to be very careful with this one. As the diagram shows, genealogies of manuscripts developed, and so various readings just were copied from ms to ms. Thus, we can't just count mss and let the pure mathematical majority among them decide the question for us. We need to take account of individual mss and how they are related to each other. So, perhaps it's best to phrase this one negatively: A singular, totally oddball variant is probably not correct.
  5. Let me mention one more. This criterion is being given a lot of weight by most contemporary scholars, but defenders of the Byzantine family tend to downplay it. Since we have two variants, "Galilee" and "Judea," and Luke would have written only one of them, a scribe must have made a change, either from "Galilee" to "Judea" or from "Judea" to "Galilee." Which one makes sense?
    • Let's go with the change from "Judea" to "Galilee" first. A scribe is paying attention to his work. He knows that Jesus is in Galilee through Luke 4 and into Luke 5. He comes to v. 44 and sees "Judea" in front of him. That doesn't make sense to him, and so he "corrects" the text. He substitutes "Galilee" to make it more consistent. In that case, Luke must have said "Judea" originally.
    • Now for the change from "Galilee" to "Judea." A scribe paying attention to what he is copying knows that Jesus is in Galilee throughout. He gets to v. 44 where it says that Jesus kept on preaching in the synagogues of Galilee. What in the world would possess a scribe to change something that makes perfectly good sense to something that doesn't? Well, there could be something, but it's does not seem likely. If Luke had said Galilee, it's very difficult to imagine why a scribe would have substituted Judea.
    • Consequently, it has become a general principle that--again, all other things being equal, and to be applied cautiously--if one has a choice between two readings, the one that makes less sense than the other is probably the correct one because only on that basis can we explain why it would have been changed.

By using these kinds of criteria, we can draw some conclusions with quite a bit of certainty. This is all really pretty much common sense; without thinking about it, we use criteria such as these all the time in clarifying to ourselves what we hear and read around us. Say, you receive an e-mail from someone, in which the sender quotes another person. Let's say that you set out to forward that quote and you notice an obvious spelling mistake in the quote. If you're so inclined, there's a good chance that you'll correct the mistake before you send it on. If you're not paying close attention, you may introduce an error that others may go on to forward to yet someone else. Or let's say that you see something in the quote that strikes you as inconsistent with the whole of it. You may figure that someone messed it up and set it right. On the other hand, it could be that you just didn't understand the part that struck you as inconsistent, and you have now distorted the quote. We run into such things all the time, and, without invoking rules, the chances are high that you will make corrections as you find them to be necessary. Then, if someone saw a large part of this particular thread, they could recognize the changes, possibly why they were made, and, if for some reason such an investigation were necessary, what the first e-mail probably said.

So, most modern translations have chosen to favor those manuscripts that say "Judea," at least to some extent because it is the variant that makes less sense in order to account for the change. Now, here are three more important points concerning this matter:

1. If Luke said "Judea," he would not have made an obvious geographical mistake. As a matter of fact, even though for us "Judea" primarily refers to the area, it also carries a wider meaning of "Land of the Jews," which covers all places where Jews live and practice their religion, including Galilee. So, actually, I set you up, making the problem sound a little more serious than it actually is. Luke's statement that Jesus was preaching in all of the synagogues in the land of the Jews makes perfectly good sense.

And, by the way, given this general meaning, the rendering in the Good News Translation of "throughout the country" is not as much of a cop-out as it sounded at first.

2. Of course, we haven't solved the problem absolutely. Although the consensus has gone into the direction of "Judea," there are still the other manuscripts that say "Galilee," and they're not totally worthless, as shown by the surprising choice of the HCSB to go with "Galilee."

3. But here's the thing: It has to be one or the other. Greek New Testaments usually carry a heavy load of footnotes, called "the apparatus," that list all the mss that have the variant chosen by the editor as well as all the significant variants along with the mss in which they are found. (Every ms is catalogued and has a unique designation.) Since we have thousands of manuscripts of the Greek New Testament, the chances of running into another variant that trumps the others is negligible. So, if the editor chose the wrong option, we know that the range of potentially correct alternatively is rather limited, and that it must be one of the options listed in the apparatus.

Thus, so much for the litany that we cannot make assertions of what, say, Luke, really said since we don't have his original. As a matter of fact, we do. If it's not the variant that the editor chose to use in his reconstruction of the text, it's right there in the apparatus. Omniscience is not necessary to make good choices, and just because we may not know everything does not mean that we cannot know a lot. In short, we can be quite sure that when we read our English or German or Chinese translations of the Bible, we read what the original authors wrote under divine inspiration. And even our modern English translations give us notes with the alternative variant when there is a noteworthy issue that's not settled.

Atheists and some liberal critics love to taunt us about our making affirmations concerning the hypothetical non-existent original autographs. First of all, that's a verbal redundancy since "original" and "autograph" refer to the same thing, and hypothetical seems to imply non-existence as well. Second, there's nothing hypothetical about the existence of the autographs. Even if you were to posit multiple preliminary editions and a final redaction (which I would heartily counsel you to avoid), there still would have to be one manuscript that is the first copy of what has become the canonical book. Third, as I have tried to show, just because we don't have physical possession of the autographs does not mean that we cannot say a lot about them, as long as we proceed carefully and logically.

In many common conversations people just blurt out that we don't have the autographs, and that, therefore, the Bible is unreliable, without having a clue about the nature and success of textual criticism, particularly as applied to the Bible. Frequently, that assertion is accompanied by an air of arrogance, so that a lesson in lower criticism volunteered by you is most likely going to be ignored or sidestepped. Nevertheless, in this case I recommend blurting back without further argument that, yes, we know exactly what the autographs said. Then let your friend ask you to explain what you mean, which you can then do. If they don't, let them stew over it. I would further suggest that you stop trying to explain lower criticism as soon as they get off on a tangent. This is a topic that requires thought and investigation, and such a topic can't be reduced to a single argument. It would be helpful to have a Greek NT to hand, just so that you can show the person what the apparatus looks like, even if your own Greek is weak. Chances are that, if your interlocutor has sincere intellectual problems on this issue, they are grounded in more general epistemological concerns. If a person has trouble accepting that we can know anything by inference, then demonstrating to them what we can know about the biblical autographs, based on inference, has a small chance of success.


OLD TESTAMENT QUOATIONS                                                                                                                                 BACK TO TOP

2 Timothy 2:16: All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (HCSB)

In the last two entries I discussed the nature of textual criticism, also known as "lower criticism" and how this discipline helps us to establish the content of the original manuscripts of the Bible. I said repeatedly that one cannot invoke biblical inerrancy in this process because the person carrying it out is attempting to do something more elementary, namely to first of all establish the content of the text for which we claim divine inspiration and, consequently, inerrancy. In this context Cousin A. brought up some interesting suggestions of topics for me to address. They are tangential to textual criticism per se, but they provide excellent opportunities to clarify the proper understanding of biblical inspiration. To save you from having to scroll back and pursue the "comments" link, I'll start out by quoting the ideas he brings up.

"One of these days, take up the interesting phenomenon of a translation (LXX) being recited back as Scripture in the NT in a way that we would never have translated from the Hebrew. Let alone the Greek translation of Jesus words in the autographs being Scripture, vs. Jesus' actual words in the Aramaic. :)
"Another pondering that would seem up your alley: Are Tertius's words in Romans 16:22 inspired? "I Tertius, who wrote this epistle, salute you in the Lord." And - if so - does that make him an official contributor to Holy Writ? :) It is a bit of a quirky thing that has interested me."

Fascinating points. Insofar as may be necessary, I will try to demonstrate why they are potentially controversial issues and attempt to provide explanations for them one by one. And it'll take me more than one entry to do them justice. I see three phenomena here:

  1. The apparent (mis)applications of Old Testament quotations by New Testament authors, who were using a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures;
  2. The fact that Jesus' spoke Aramaic, and yet the gospels are in Greek, so that apparently we don't actually have Jesus' teachings in his direct words;
  3. The insertion by the scribe of one of Paul's letters of his own name and greeting.

Let me give you a key to approaching these matters. When we talk about "inspiration," to what does this term refer? Who or what is it that is inspired?

First of all, it definitely has nothing to do with us readers getting "inspired" as we read God's Word. In a loose sense, we may get "inspired," i.e. feel confident, blessed, elevated, edified, and motivated by a greeting card, a poem, or a passage in the Bible. But that use of the term is not the same thing as what we should say about scripture, where the term means that it is "God-breathed"; it is God's message to us. Now, don't get me wrong, it is impossible to understand the Bible correctly apart from the work of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:10-14), but the proper term for this doctrine is that the Holy Spirit provides us with divine illumination. It is not inspiration.

Second, we can say correctly that the biblical authors were inspired, but again only in a somewhat derived sense, namely if we realize that to do so gives us only a partial aspect of inspiration. We read in 2 Peter 1:20 that the writers "spoke from God as they were moved by the Holy Spirit." This statement is very important. Correct theology holds that the Bible's authorship consists of human beings in all of their humanity (which does not imply sin or error by itself) as well as God in all of his Deity. Now this verse reminds us that the initiative belonged to God. It is not that the human persons wrote their pieces, and then God accepted those that met his standards, but God directed the biblical writers to put down exactly what he wanted them to write, and they did so, using human language embedded in human cultures. Even when the Old Testament prophets say, "Thus says the Lord . . . ", there are differences in style between them; they expressed God's words in the human words that they knew. Much of the time, the authors didn't even realize that they were writing down divine revelation.

My Video on the Biblical Canon
Does anyone notice anything somewhat amusing about the background music I wrote for this presentation?

A famous example of such a case occurred when Paul acknowledged in 1 Corinthians 7:10 that he had not had a specific revelatory experience on a certain point. Nevertheless, even though he was not aware of the fact, what he wrote was, in fact, divine scripture. (You may want to contrast this biblical view with the oppressive description in the Hadiths of how Muhammad supposedly received his revelations, which eventually became the Qur'an.)

The object of inspiration is, in fact, scripture itself. As the famous verse says in 2 Timothy 3:16: "All Scripture is inspired by God." It is neither the author nor the reader to whom Paul refers here, but to the written text itself. Consequently, when I read a passage from the Bible, whether it be printed on paper or encoded on my Kindle, I am reading inspired writing. Today's availability of the Bible in digitized form on computers or other devices, should make it easier for us to understand than was possible in previous generations that we are referring to the content, and not the physical pages covered with ink. Whatever the Bible says is God's Word, and that is what we refer to when we talk about biblical inspiration. We say that it is plenary, viz. that all of the Bible is inspired, and that it is verbal, viz. that every word used by the human author is precisely what God wanted him (or her--e.g., Miriam or Deborah) to write.

So, the basis on which I'm going to approach each of these three topics is that 1) the early church recognized these writing as inspired by God [the so-called formation of the canon (see my YouTube video)] and 2) textual criticism has refined to a large extent what we can accept as the actual wording of the original text. Here, then, is my ground rule:

We should accept the book as inspired in the form in which the Holy Spirit directed the church to accept it.

Thus, if we recognize biblical inspiration as referring to the canonical text, rather than trying to justifying parts of it on the basis of other criteria, we can come to some sound conclusions on each of the three points Cousin A. brought up.

1. Old Testament Quotations in the New Testament

I mentioned that most of us read the Bible in translations, and that different translation are called different "versions." The earliest believers in Christ already were using translated versions of the Jewish scriptures. The language of the Old Testament (OT) is overwhelmingly Hebrew with a few chapters in the book of Daniel constituting an exception because they are written in Aramaic. By the first-century A.D. the language of the Jewish people was Aramaic. You may remember the time when the Rabshakeh, emissary of the King of Assyria, taunted the people of Jerusalem (2 Kings 18 ). He spoke in Hebrew so that all of his listeners could understand him. A delegate of King Hezekiah asked him to speak in Aramaic so that the common people would not know what he was saying, but the Rabshakeh refused to comply with that request. Now things had turned the other way around. The common language was Aramaic. As we can see in the misunderstanding of Jesus' cry from the cross, Hebrew was no longer understood by and large (Matthew 27:45-48).

The rabbis (the scribes and teachers, usually Pharisees) knew Hebrew, and they were able to interpret the Bible for the common people. It became standard practice that, when a rabbi had read a passage of scripture, he would translate crucial parts, as well as explain and illustrate them in Aramaic. After a time these Aramaic versions were becoming somewhat standardized, but they were not allowed to be written down, lest the Aramaic adumbrations should erroneously be considered to be scripture. Just like the Mishna, they were eventually recorded after the fall of Jerusalem and the dispersion. An Aramaic version of the Old Testament is called a Targum. Please let me introduce one of several abbreviations. The standard Hebrew text of the OT is often called the "Masoretic Text," named after the Masoretes, a group of Jewish scribes who copied the Hebrew scriptures from generation to generation throughout a long period of the Middle Ages. So, rather than saying, "the Hebrew text," let me just use the abbreviation MT.

So, now consider the following dilemma. Let us say that you are a first-century Jew, though not a rabbi, who is writing about religious matters, and you want to quote from the Old Testament. You don't know Hebrew. You may very well know the content of your quote from the Aramaic targum, but you comply with the proscription of not setting it down in writing. But you know Greek; in fact, you're writing in Greek and, what's more, there is a good Greek translation of the Old Testament available. So it is to the Old Testament in Greek that you turn as your regular written source.

The best known Greek Old Testament is called the "Septuagint," which means "Seventy," and is usually abbreviated with the Roman numeral LXX. It supposedly derived its name from the legend that in the 3rd century BC King Ptolemy II of Egypt commissioned 70 or so scholars to translate the Hebrew scriptures into Greek. These seventy men were supposedly isolated from each other as they did their work. At the appointed deadline, each of them had come up with the identical translation, thereby proving that their work was guided supernaturally. (I have a difficult time accepting this story as true, though it leaves me with the question of why it was called the "Septuagint." I have to say that I don't know, but that it illustrates once again my theory that many times an explanation is invented subsequent to an unusual phenomenon. Someone must have called it something in connection to the number 70, and the name stuck for some unknown reason, thereby stimulating someone else to come up with this story.) The Septuagint, though a translation and not a Hebrew manuscript, is often used in textual criticism of the Old Testament in places where the MT is so obscure that one has to rely on a translation to figure out what the original conceivably could have been. So, many first-century Jews were using the Septuagint for their scriptures, including the New Testament writers.

a. If it's okay with you (since we can't consult Luke to get his permission), let us look for some good examples in Matthew. Applying the fundamental rule as stated above, if Matthew used the Septuagint for his OT quotations, we need to accept Matthew's gospel in the way in which he wrote it, even if his version of the verse is not identical with (our understanding of) the verse in the MT. So, at times, it's almost as though we're looking at two different verses, one from the MT and one from the LXX. Obviously there aren't two verses, but only one. Still we need to leave both the OT prophets and Matthew a free hand in expressing their own message since they are equally inspired scripture. I think this is a necessary first step in approaching this matter, but we must be careful lest we get ourselves lost in a hermeneutical wasteland, as I will clarify later on.

Here are some examples. Matthew (1:23) quotes Isaiah 7:14 as applying to Mary and the virgin birth of Christ,

Bible scholars debate whether this verse really does refer to the birth of Christ. For Matthew there does not seem to be any question about it, just as there is not for me. [I just googled my site, and apparently I have not talked about "telescoping" in prophecy for a long time. So I'll probably inject that topic into the entries surrounding this topic as well.] But with other verses that Matthew cites, it's not as straightforward.

For example, when in 2:15, Matthew invokes Hosea 11:1 on the return of Joseph and family from Egypt to Galilee, he seems to be really stretching the meaning in the Old Testament. "Out of Egypt I have called my son." In Hosea, the reference is clearly to Israel's Exodus.

Similarly, Matthew applies Jeremiah 31:15, a reference to the wretched conditions prior to the Babylonian exile,

to the slaughter of the infants by King Herod, and, again, as Cousin A. said, we would hardly come up with these applications of these verses if we just stuck with the MT. However, Matthew, using the LXX (which may actually not have made that much of a difference here) applies them in unique ways that would not have occurred to us.

Nevertheless, the first step is to recognize that Matthew's writing is just as canonical as that of the OT prophets he cites, and so we need to accept Isaiah, Hosea, and Jeremiah on their terms and Matthew on his. Please don't take that fact as a license for your own creative reinterpretations. We may not adapt prophecies in the way that Matthew did because we are not led by the Holy Spirit to compose inspired writings, but we have to accept that the Holy Spirit did not make a mistake in guiding Matthew in making his applications.

b. And that brings me to the second step. At all times we need to be careful to observe the distinction between the meaning of a scripture passage and its application or significance. A lot of times the meaning of a verse or passage in the Bible is perfectly clear; we just don't understand how it fits into the context or our understanding of a larger picture. Then we may be prone to say that we don't understand its meaning, but that's not really the case. We are perfectly clear of what it says, but we either don't know what to do with it, or we feel as though we need to do something different with it than the Bible does. (Or perhaps, could it be that there are times when we just plain don't want to accept what the Bible says?) Less negatively, let's return to one of the above examples. Is there really a question of the basic meaning of "Out of Egypt I have called my son"? I shouldn't think so. There is someone to whom God refers to as his son, who has been in Egypt, and whom God called to come out of Egypt. The distinction between Hosea and Matthew comes into play, not in the meaning of this verse, but in its application or in the specific significance they each ascribe to it. Similar things can be said about Matthew's application of other verses--as well as about Luke's use of the Old Testament in the early chapters of Acts, where there is a similar cluster of seemingly out-of-place quotations.

c. Still, we need to take a third step. Matthew did not say in 2:15, "Thus the expression, 'Out of Egypt have I called my son' was thereby illustrated." He said that "what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled." Apparently, then, Matthew believed that his application of the prophecy was the ultimately intended one. But that idea seems to lead us down a rather thorny path. And so, we're going to take this "third step" next time by clarifying the telescoping nature of prophecy.


THE TELESCOPING OF PROPHECIES                                                                                                                                 BACK TO TOP

This series of posts is turning into a solid display of stacking, but I trust it's worthwhile. We were going through Luke. Luke 4:44 led me to write a little bit about textual criticism. In the process, a few questions led to a short discussion on OT quotes in the New Testament. While doing so, I thought it would be a good idea to repeat some material I've posted quite a while back on the telescoping nature of prophecy. We are still on (a tangent to) Cousin A's first comment.

Basically, I'm going to copy what I wrote a few years ago, and maybe touch it up in a few places. My starting point at the time was King Ahaz and his encounter with Isaiah, which led to the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, "Behold a virgin shall conceive . . . "

Madonna with Child

Starting in the same place gives me the opportunity to add one more level of stacking, not to mention to re-post a picture of mine that, I confess I really like. A few weeks ago, I posted my drawing of Mary with Baby Jesus, not meant to compete with the Renaissance masters. I made it my desktop picture, but something kept striking me as wrong, though I couldn't put my finger on it. Baby Jesus definitely needed some help, and I experimented with various changes, but nothing really seemed to fix my feeling of incompleteness. Finally, it came to me. I had intentionally put the Star of David on Mary to emphasize her Jewishness. To quote Paul in Romans 9:4-5 (HCSB):

They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple service, and the promises.The ancestors are theirs, and from them, by physical descent, came the Messiah, who is God over all, praised forever.

And then, all of a sudden it became obvious. Mary needed a thumb, but, more importantly, Baby Jesus needed his own little yarmulke. I don't know whether the drawing is improved as a whole, but at least it feels more "right" to me now. [By the way, if you've ever been to Israel, you will have seen the many cute and colorful yarmulkes that little boys wear. See, for example, this item for sale.]

Pop! Let's go back up one level and get to the prophecy and its occasion. As I said, much of this comes verbatim from my posts of the past. The method of interpretation is something I learned from the late J. Barton Payne, Old Testament professor of mine at TEDS. The question is in this context is, Why would King Ahaz in the eighth century BC care about a Christmas prophecy? Do you recall the story? In case you've read my recent separate website on Hezekiah and the Assyrians, you may want to be reminded that these events occurred just a few years earlier. Ahaz was an ungodly king, and he was beside himself with fear of the northern kingdom of Israel, the Aramean kingdom of Damascus, the Edomites, and the Philistines. He pretty much was convinced that everybody hated him, and I can't say that he was wrong. So, he tried to buy protection from Tiglath-pileser (TP), the king of Assyria. Talk about hiring the wolf to guard the sheep! Well, the prophet Isaiah came calling on Ahaz and told him that this was a really, really dumb idea. He tried to convince him that it was TP and the Assyrians that he should worry about, and that God would protect him from all those other neighboring countries. Ahaz didn't buy it. He was not interested in either God's protection or Isaiah's wise counsel. So, Isaiah offered him a sign from God as reassurance, but Ahaz with obviously faked piety claimed that he didn't want to impose on God. This little piece of hypocrisy was making a mockery of Isaiah, not to mention the Lord. So, Isaiah lost his cool and spoke to Ahaz in a tone in which we're never supposed to address royalty. Too bad, he exclaimed, if he didn't want a sign, that made no difference; he would get one anyway. And then he started out, "Behold a virgin will conceive . . . " Everyone's favorite Christmas prophecy.

But why would Ahaz care about Christmas? Why should it make any difference to him that Jesus will be virgin-born more than seven hundred years later?

The first thing we need to do is to look at the total context of this prophecy in Isaiah 7 and 8. When we do, we may find that not much of this passage has a whole lot to do with Christmas at all. The word that we usually translate as alma means "virgin," but can also simply mean "young woman." In the context it seems to refer to Mrs. Isaiah, the "prophetess." She was going to have a son, a boy of whom we will learn at the beginning of chapter 8. He would carry the somewhat unfortunate name of Mahershalalhashbaz, and that by the time that he had learned the difference between right and wrong, Assyria would have invaded and devastated the land. So, it appears that the entire prophecy may have been fulfilled in the time of Ahaz or shortly thereafter.

But wait! What about Matthew 1:23, which clearly applies this verse to the virgin birth of Christ? Surely God, who inspired the whole Bible, didn't make a serious mistake about the fulfillment of this prophecy. So, which time is the time of fulfillment: the time of Ahaz or the time of Christ?

Please don't say "both" too quickly! Obviously, we must be heading in the direction of accommodating both time frames, but there's something very discomfiting about the idea that a Bible passage can have multiple meanings. At this point the difference between the Hebrew Scriptures (MT) or the Septuagint (its translation into Greek) is of limited value.

Let's stick with the idea that a verse (or a single statement) cannot have two meanings. I know that there is the notion of sensus plenior, the "fuller sense," and I've even heard some people talk about the "Law of Double-Fulfillment." But these devices can easily undermine the basis of historical-grammatical Bible interpretation. Still, a larger passage can have several points of reference. In fact, when it comes to a prophecy, it is not at all unusual for it to have various segments that may refer to different time periods.

As an example, take a look at these excerpts from Acts 2: 17-21. See how the prophecy begins in Peter's own time. Then it telescopes out to the last days, and then at the very end, it collapses again to Peter's present time.

Acts 2

Prophecies often telescope back and forth between time periods. Frequently part of a prophecy may have been fulfilled in the immediate circumstances, while other parts reach forward to the time of Christ or even to the end times. But these different times of fulfillment come up in different segments of the passage. There should be no such thing as "double fulfillment" for any one assertion.

Telescoping of Prophecy

Can we apply this awareness to Isaiah's prophecy to Ahaz? Look at the following points concerning this passage:

First of all, note that Isaiah took along his older son, Shear-jashub, as he went to meet Ahaz. The point is that the passage already begins with the motif of the next generation. Second, keep in mind that it is not unusual for Isaiah to announce messianic prophecies (e.g. Is. 9 and 53) or other long-range predictions (e.g. Is. 19). So the idea that Isaiah would make a prophecy referring to Christ is not out of bounds per se. Third, obviously the bulk of this prophecy has to do with the next decade after this conversation. There's just no way of getting around it. Fourth, there's a theme running through all of Isaiah, which is that God's word is true. Consider the contrast depicted in Is. 44 between idols who cannot speak and God who goes out on a limb and speaks in the most remarkable ways--even to predict by name the coming of Cyrus, king of Persia. The point of the contrast is that God knows and controls the future in all aspects.

So now (fifth), does it make sense that Isaiah would begin his sign to Ahaz by starting way out in the present and show that God will eventually do something stupendous in the future? Sure. Recognize here that God (through Isaiah) is severely reprimanding Ahaz. This is not the occasion for nicely-minced words of diplomacy. With that in mind, it becomes plausible that alma means "virgin" and not just "young woman." Immanuel--"God with us."--does not apply to anyone except Jesus, certainly not to Mahershalalhashbaz. So, yes, it wouldn't make sense if Isaiah just gave Ahaz nothing except a prophecy predicting Christmas. But it does make sense that he should begin with predicting something truly amazing that shows that God has history in his hands before returning to Ahaz and what he can expect just a few years from now.

So, that's what I meant by the "telescoping" of prophecy. Now, we can pop back to the second of the three suggested topics: The fact that Jesus spoke Aramaic, but that his words are only available to us in Greek.


THE PRIMACY OF ARAMAIC?                                                                                                                                 BACK TO TOP

We turn to pondering the question of "Why are the gospels, written in Greek, authoritative for us, when Jesus spoke Aramaic?" I must tell you that I learned a lot over the last few days pursuing this topic as my Facebook friend Steve S. sent me scurrying into a direction that I had heretofore only encountered very briefly and dismissively, but which is taken extremely seriously by a significant segment of the church. Let me break down this discussion into various points in the hope that doing so will help me remember to include everything significant to the discussion. Hopefully, some kind of logical order will emerge concomitantly.

  1. Let's start out with the principle that I stated the other day, namely that we must receive the New Testament as canonical in the form in which the Holy Spirit directed the early church to accept it.To elaborate on that matter just a tiny bit, even though we can identify rational principles that guided the church (e.g., apostolic authorship, harmony with the OT), ultimately the compilation of the canon was a matter of the church recognizing by the will of God what was to be considered inspired. The idea that a council somewhere along the line decided which books belonged into the canon is very popular, but false. By the time that gatherings, such as the Synod of Carthage in 397, promoted lists of accepted books, they were endorsing what was already accepted in the churches. (There's more to be said about that, but this is enough of a reminder for now.)
  2. Problems in the area of textual criticism are real, but frequently overblown. The same fact applies to translations; if someone has made a mistake in translating a verse, we can, for the most part, correct it. Translators are good at their work. So, when I read the Bible in a different language from the original, I'm still reading the Word of God. Yes, there may be a few minor questions raised by textual transmission or by an imprecise translation, but those issues are only slight distortions to my present version of God's Word. As an illustration, If I were to look at you through an old window pane whose glass had become warped a little, I would still be looking at you. My point, then, is that the true canon consist of the originals, but that the authority of the true canon is not lessened by transmission or translation, in part thanks to the care taken by textual scholars and translators, in part thanks to the providence of God, who did not reveal inspired writings only to have them become lost.
  3. The overwhelming number of Christian scholars believe that the canonical texts were written in Greek. Of course, the overwhelming number of Christian scholars could be wrong. Still, some of the points in support of their judgment include:
    • The nature and quality of the Greek reads as an original composition would, not as a translation out of another language. (On this and the next point I have to rely on the word of those who have mastered Greek to such an extent that they are in a position to make such judgments.)
    • This fundamentally Greek syntax and style of the New Testament, including the gospels, is highlighted by the few passages that stick out by appearing to be a translation from an Aramaic source. E.g., I mentioned that this may be the case for Luke 1 and 2, in which Luke may very well have recorded Mary's recollections.
    • Greek had become the common international language of its day, similar to the role that English has been playing around the world recently. It was the language of Jews in the diaspora, the language of Jewish literature, the language in which Josephus wrote his books for the Romans (I would have thought that he would have used Latin, but cultured Romans, e.g., Plutarch, wrote in Greek), and it is not unreasonable to expect that even many common people in Palestine knew some Greek. Please keep in mind that few cultures tend to be as monolingual as the American culture has been. Thus Greek would have been the natural language to communicate the gospel, particularly beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem.
    • Furthermore, there are places where the gospel writer quotes a phrase of Aramaic and then immediately supplies a translation. Verses include Mark 3:17 and 15:22. The Aramaic version follows that pattern, even though a translation from Aramaic into Aramaic should hardly be necessary. We see a drastic case in Mark 15:34. When Jesus cries from the cross, the Greek manuscripts give what Jesus said in Aramaic, and then give a Greek translation. The Aramaic version of the New Testament (the Peshitta)gives the Aramaic and then provides an unnecessary translation into Aramaic, thereby giving strong evidence for all of it being a direct translation from the Greek. And that point takes us to the next fact.
  4. There is little question that, despite the popularity of Greek, the primary language of Jews in Palestine in the first century AD was Aramaic. Furthermore, as the subpoint above shows, few people take exception to the notion that, when Jesus addressed people, he would normally have done so in Aramaic. In fact, as long as we are really careful with our selections, it is the case that there are some verses whose meaning is clarified or enriched if we look at what the Aramaic might have said. The following example is based on something that I learned from the article "Aramaic New Testament" in the Wikipedia:, but am stating in my own words.

    Quickly, what's the Hebrew word for "father" or "dad"? ---Abba, of course; everybody knows that. --- Sorry, not if you're talking about classical Hebrew. There the word is simply Ab; the word Abba is the Aramaic version, which was the term used in the first century, and--just to confuse us--became incorporated into modern Hebrew, as spoken in Israel. I just thought I'd throw that in, even though the example below would also have worked with just plain Ab.

    In John 8 Jesus gets involved in a debate on who are the true children of Abraham, whose name means "Father of many nations." In v. 39 Jesus' opponents declare: "Our father is Abraham." Or, to envision the way in which the conversation may have played out with some Aramaic words:

    "Our Abba is Abraham."

    Now in his response, Jesus tells the people that, if they were Abraham's children, they would do as Abraham did. In a reconstruction of what may have been the Aramaic words of the original discussion, Jesus makes a pun that clearly enhances what he is telling them, based on the fact that the Aramaic word for "do" is 'abad.

    If Abraham is your abba, 'abad what Abraham 'abad.

    There is a dimension to this verse that comes out in the Aramaic, but neither in Greek nor in our translations. This is one example among several.

  5. So, we have arrived at the following preliminary observations: In the original setting of the gospels, the language that was used was undoubtedly overwhelmingly Aramaic. The gospel writers translated the Aramaic of the original speeches into Greek as they produced what became the canonical scriptures. Signpost in Kenya
  6. Now, one can go into one of three directions: 1) accept things for what they are and not worry about what the Aramaic might have said; 2) through hard work and imagination attempt to recover the Aramaic original, which then may be considered to be more authoritative than the alleged Greek translations; or 3) accept the existing ancient Aramaic version of the New Testament as the original, rather than the Greek.
  7. Concerning option 2), despite verses such as John 8:39, where it makes sense to reconstruct an Aramaic form of the content, on the whole such a project is too subjective to bring together with any kind of assurance. It certainly is possible, assuming you know the languages well enough, to translate the New Testament into ancient Aramaic according to your best lights. And, if it is a good translation, as we said above, we can have confidence that the translation is a version of the Word of God. However, to claim status as the originals for such translations is going beyond anything that's warranted. I remember when someone asked John W. Montgomery how he dealt with the fact that Jesus would have spoken in Aramaic, his answer was, "As the farmer said, you can't get there from here." We can make guesses, inferences, and produce translations, but we can't reconstruct a hypothetical (this time the term is appropriate) Aramaic original.
  8. Concerning 3), the fact of the matter is that there is already an ancient Aramaic version of the New Testament in existence. It is a part of the entire Bible in Aramaic (or, more precisely in Syriac) called the Peshitta. The Old Testament contains the books to which we referred the other days as Targumin, and it would be a real shock if the Targumin rather than, say, the MT were closest to the originals. The Aramaic NT does not have a few of the usual books (2 and 3 John are missing, as well as 2 Peter, Jude, and Revelation). Still, according to the Nestorian Church, the Peshitta version of the New Testament is the original, as it had been written by the biblical authors, and then the Greek version would be a later translation of it. (The omitted books were later added in Aramaic, and it would be extremely difficult to make a case that their original language was not Greek, but that fact does not really sway the argument one way or the other.)

    The Nestorian Church consists of Christians in areas of northern Iraq and surroundings. They also call themselves Assyrians and Chaldeans. As the name suggests, they hold the view of Christ as virtually two persons with each with its own nature (human and divine), which was declared to be heretical at Chalcedon in AD 451. Nevertheless, they have remained outposts of believers in Christ for a long time through much persecution. Nonetheless, their claim that the Peshitta is the original is too strong because it has to deny its evident textual history. It would be easier to debate a more plausible thesis, such as that the Peshitta is closer to a set of Aramaic autographs than the Greek, not that it is the autographs. The Peshitta as we have has had to pass through generations of copying, just as the Greek NT did.

  9. As I was doing my hasty research, I found that most references to the Peshitta New Testament, insofar as they mention it at all, don't go much further than to say that scholars in general do not take seriously the claim by the Nestorians that the Aramaic scriptures constitute the original manuscripts.

    I cannot go into great detail here, because I do not have greatly detailed knowledge, but let me return to the example of why the claim for the primacy of the Peshitta is probably spurious. Remember that above I made reference to places in the gospels where the author quotes an Aramaic expression and then provides an immediate translation into Greek. In the Peshitta, the translations of the Aramaic into Greek are also included--except that those translations are also into Aramaic, perhaps with just a touch of paraphrasing. I think that occurrences such as these give us good reason to believe that the Aramaic New Testament is an early translation of the Greek New Testament. Thus, we can say that it is authoritative in the sense in which any translation carries the authority of the Word of God, but, again, the steam for the notion that it represents the original manuscripts is pretty much evaporated.

  10. Thus, we are left with the first option. A Greek version of the New Testament constitutes the originals. The Peshitta has great value insofar as it translates the Greek back into the language in which many of the conversations were held and thereby provides some great insights, and it carries the same authority as any translation insofar as it renders the Greek originals accurately. I don't want to downplay the Peshitta to the point where someone might think that the King James version is the Word of God, but the Peshitta is not. My instinct is to think that the Peshitta probably does have an edge over many translations into modern languages.
  11. So, what about the argument then: Jesus spoke Aramaic. What he actually said, except for a few phrases, is preserved only in Greek. Therefore, we are cut off from his "real" teaching?
    • You might want to think about how many of the conversations recorded in the Bible were held in languages other the biblical ones. Noah's pre-Tower-of-Babel language was probably not Hebrew. I would assume that the discussions between Joseph or Moses with the Pharaoh were held in Egyptian. Much of what was said in the first part of the book of Daniel probably originated in Chaldean. In all of these cases we can and should accept the statements as true and authoritative in their canonical language, even though they would have involved translations.
    • It is a really, really bad idea to go from there to think that the matter of translation only makes a difference when it comes to the words of Jesus. Paul's books are no less inspired than those of the gospel writers. For that reason, I find Bibles that display the words of Christ in red print problematic. It's as though someone is creating a canon within a canon. All the books are inspired, but those of Jesus then look super-inspired--not a good way to go.
    • Again, just as we can do textual criticism on the Greek New Testament, we can also apply the same criteria and get closer to what the first copies of the Aramaic may have said. However, the available manuscripts are not as plentiful as the Greek, and, thus, the assurance with which we can look at an Aramaic reconstruction is as good as that of a translation, but does not get us closer to saying that the Peshitta is the original version of the NT. Furthermore, we can't get there from here in terms of hypothesizing mistakes in the translation either. Of course, there are always language barriers when it comes to the reproduction of texts. One can make a serious case that various nuances or plays on words (as above) differ from language to language, from culture to culture, even from individual to individual. But then we sit down together and talk and communicate successfully, even by way of an interpreter if necessary. What I'm trying to say is that theoretical barriers don't necessarily harm practical communication.
    • Also, the apostles had supernatural help. In John 14:26 we read: "But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit—the Father will send Him in My name—will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have told you."
    • In short, I can be quite comfortable with the fact that when I read the Bible I'm reading exactly what God wants me to read. If there had been a different and better way of communicating his will, he would have chosen it.


NEW TESTAMENT CO-AUTHORS?                                                                                                                                 BACK TO TOP

And now, for what may be the last item in the digressions that we've been stacking recently. Then we can go back to Luke. In case you don't remember, my tangent on textual criticism sparked Cousin A's interesting corollary questions, which induced me to add some additional observations. Here's the last of Cousin A's suggestions:

Another pondering that would seem up your alley: Are Tertius's words in Romans 16:22 inspired? "I Tertius, who wrote this epistle, salute you in the Lord." And - if so - does that make him an official contributor to Holy Writ?

Now, I suspect that after all that we've covered, you can put my answer together pretty much on your own if you wanted to, but I'll write it out anyway, so that you can confirm that you are on the right track.

Let us remind ourselves again of what counts as "holy writ" with regard to the New Testament canon. It is the writings in their original form, as they were received by the church from God as inspired books. If we may recall an example from the Old Testament, most people are agreed that Moses did not record his own death in Deuteronomy 34 (though one might stipulate that he did so as a prophecy). Someone else must have added that passage. But it is a part of the book of Deuteronomy and belongs right there alongside the rest of the Pentateuch, which Moses recorded. There is another class of additions, which are often confused with the above kind of scenario. The apostle Paul, as well as Jude, include some clearly non-canonical citations. Jude 14 refers to the Book of Enoch, whose pseudonymous author pretended to be the same Enoch who was "in the seventh generation from Adam." That does not mean that Jude endorsed this spurious attribution of authorship or that, thereby, the entire book of Enoch has been raised to the level of inspired scripture. I does mean that those verses from Enoch have become a part of the book of Jude and that, to the extent of their meaning and function in the book, they are a part of the inspired text.

Let me try an example on a level lower than inspired scripture. A little while back, when writing about Christ's temptation in the desert, I described the inhospitable conditions there, which offered more rocks than bread. In fact, I quoted from a German poem, "Viel Steine gab's und wenig Brot." I did so entirely for illustrative purposes for my German readers. However, to be honest--and I don't know whether anyone other than my dad might have noticed, and he didn't say anything about it--that line does not come from any comment on the Judean desert, let alone from Christ's temptation, but from a poem about the ill-fated crusade of Emperor Frederick Red Beard (Kaiser Rotbarth), describing the setting in the wilderness of Asia Minor. Nevertheless, that line from that particular poem is now a part of my entry as an example of the unavailability of food where rocks and stones vastly outnumber loaves of bread on the ground. I didn't--and wouldn't have--include the entire poem because doing so would not have made the least bit of sense. Thus, it would be hanging on to a very thin strand to say that the author of the poem (anonymous to me) co-authored that particular entry. It would be stretching the meaning of "authorship" anytime if we designated the originator of a quote as co-author of a piece of writing.


A similar line of thought applies to Paul's quotation of Epimenides, a poet from Crete, who lived in the sixth century BC and described his fellow inhabitants of the island: "Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons." (Titus 1:12 HCSB) There are clearly multiple problems here beginning with the self-referential incoherence of the statement. Since Epimenides was also a Cretan, his statement must also be false, and I shall let you pursue the further consequences on your own. Thankfully, Paul does not go into the logical aspect of Epimenides' reflection on his neighbors, but simply uses it as a straight-forward testimony of their character. For our purposes, the point is that Paul is quoting from someone who is definitely pagan in order reinforce a hyperbolic description of the people of Crete at that time, and in that sense those words have become a part of inspired writings. Does that make Epimenides a co-author of the book of Titus? Hardly. Does that mean that the writings of Epemenides are inspired? Absolutely not. What about that specific quotation? Not in its setting in Epemenides, only in its setting in Paul's writings. Don't forget: no passage of scripture should be interpreted apart from its biblical context, so the idea of just yanking out that verse and drawing consequences, let alone preaching, from it is absurd.

This is where it is so important to remember that when we are talking about inspiration, we should be referring to the scripture, not the author. Being cited by Paul doesn't endow the author of a quotation with any kind of spiritual status.

Having said all of the above, I need to tell you that it doesn't have anything to do with Tertius in Romans 15:22. Please take a moment to go over differences in you own mind. The situation is much more like that of Deuteronomy 34. It's not a quotation by Paul; it's a statement addressed directly by its author to his readers; it's been a part of the book all along; it's was included in the manuscripts that the church recognized as being a part of the NT canon. So, yes, those words are a part of Holy Writ, and Tertius is a "co-author" of the book of Romans. To underscore, this fact makes no difference to the inspiration or authority of the books.

Click to go to my Main Website Click to go to my Blog