Tag Archives: Paul

Michael Bird: Brief Thoughts on the New Perspective on Paul (NPP)

I get asked about my opinion of the NPP at events and on Q & A episodes of the Naked Bible Podcast. I always recommend Kent Yinger’s book,  The New Perspective on Paul: An Introduction. It’s short and clear.

I’m happy to also recommend this brief set of comments from Michael Bird on the issue. It won’t educate you like Yinger’s book, but Bird captures my own thoughts. In a sentence: “The NPP is correct in what it affirms, but often wrong in what it denies.” That’s well said. Read what he means at the link (and get a lot more with Yinger’s book — the same spirit there).

Read More

Catholic Skeptic Candida Moss at it Again

Someone just sent me this short article from the Daily Beast by church historian Candida Moss: “Nero, the Execution of Peter and Paul, and the Biggest Fake News in Early Christian History.” Basically, it’s about how Christians really weren’t persecuted by Nero as part of the great fire of Rome because the term “Christian” wasn’t in use by 64 AD. If you’re thinking the book of Acts’ references to Christians rebut that, Moss just says you can’t trust Acts — it was written after 64 AD (Moss notes scholars disagree but basically just ignores that point; see below). Candida Moss was the scholar who told us that Christians really weren’t persecuted like church tradition has it. Scholars have pointed out that her definition of persecution was too narrow — essentially front-loading the conclusion in the data.

Sigh.

Aside from the fact that plenty of scholars would assign an early date to Acts which would fit just fine with the Nero chronology, this idea is another example of scholarly illogic. (I’ve mentioned before how I once said — in a doctoral seminar — that all scholars should be forced to take at least one course in logic). Moss commits the (I should think obvious) logical error of presuming no one used a term in SPOKEN discourse before a term was WRITTEN. Really? Think about the illogic of that. Did peoples whose languages were never preserved via writing not have a vocabulary? Scholars regularly make this mistake — equating communication and its vocabulary with writing instead of …  well … SPEECH.

The point is that lots of people could have been referring to Christ-followers as Christians before the term was ever put into a piece of literature.

For those curious about the dating of Acts, here are some excerpts from sourced discussions (footnote content is not copied):

Schnabel

As regards the date of composition, most scholars assume that Luke wrote the book of Acts between AD 80–90. This date is predicated on two factors: the dependence of Luke-Acts on the gospel of Mark, and the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 which is regarded to be presupposed both by Mark 13 and by Luke 19:43–44; 21:20. To begin with the second argument: since the description of the fate of Jerusalem by Mark (and Luke) contains many Old Testament and Jewish motifs (Daniel; 1-2 Maccabees), and since we should not discount the possibility of genuine prophecy, the date of AD 70 as terminus post quem for the composition of both Mark’s gospel and Luke’s two volume work is not compelling. The first argument raises the issue of the reliability of the two-source hypothesis (Mark wrote his gospel first, and both Matthew and Luke depend on Mark as well as on a source which contained mostly sayings of Jesus), which continues to be disputed; and it begs the question when the gospel of Mark was written—some scholars are prepared to date Mark as early as AD 55. If Luke’s gospel is indeed dependent on Mark’s gospel, and if Luke wrote Acts shortly after having written his gospel, a date of Mark in the late 50s or even in 60/61 would allow for the completion of Acts certainly before AD 70 and possibly before the date at which Luke’s narrative in Acts ends (Paul is a prisoner in Rome from AD 60–62). This leaves the possibility that Luke published Acts before he knew the outcome of Paul’s trial.
The ending of Acts which relates Paul being under house arrest in Rome, preaching the gospel, does not by necessity presuppose that Acts was written before AD 62. If Paul was indeed released from prison, as 2 Tim 4 suggests and 1 Clement 5:5–7 presupposes, Luke may have written Acts soon after Paul’s release in AD 62. Luke’s silence about Paul’s acquittal and about Paul’s renewed missionary activity could be explained by his desire not to alert the apostle’s enemies about the location of his ministry. Or Luke took Paul’s preaching in Rome to be a more suitable climax for his narrative than a reference to Paul’s continuing ministry in the churches of the East.40 A date not long after AD 62 is suggested not only by the lack of reference to Nero’s persecution of Roman Christians between AD 64–67 and Paul’s (and Peter’s) martyrdom, but also by the fact that the Jewish revolt against the Romans in AD 66 and the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 are not reflected in Luke’s portrayal of the Jews and of Jewish institutions in Jerusalem and in the diaspora. Irenaeus (Haer. 3.1.1; 3.14.1) and Eusebius (Hist. eccl. 2.22.6) assert that Luke-Acts was written in Rome, which is a good possibility, particularly in view of the historical considerations connected with the date of Acts, but certainty is not possible in this matter.

Eckhard J. Schnabel, Acts (Expanded Digital Edition.; Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012).

Bock

The date of Acts is tied to discussion of the date of Luke’s Gospel (Bock 1994a: 16–18). As the sequel, Acts would have come after the completion of the Gospel, and so the discussion is tied to the two books as well as to the Gospel of Luke’s relationship to the other Gospels (Fitzmyer 1998: 51–55 has a solid survey of the issues here). Acts could have been written no earlier than AD 62, since there is discussion of Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. Some scholars argue for allusions to Acts in the Pastoral Epistles, such as in 2 Tim. 3:11 or the mention of Luke in 2 Tim. 4:11, but such connections are not certain (Conzelmann 1987: xxvii).

Conzelmann (1987: xxvii–xxxiii) covers potential allusions to Acts in the later writings of the church, as does Bruce (1990: 10–12). Potential allusions include 1 Clem. 2.2 (Acts 2:17); 1 Clem. 5.4, 7 (Acts 1:25); Pol. Phil. 2.3 (Acts 20:35); Pol. Phil. 6.3 (Acts 7:52); Pol. Phil. 12.2 (Acts 2:5; 4:12; 8:21; 20:32); Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 50.12 (Acts 1:8). Such allusions would mean that the work was completed by the turn of the first century.

Two options dominate the discussion of the date of writing. One possibility is sometime in the 60s. The other is the period AD 70–100. Hemer (1989: 367–70) has a good list of adherents for all such options over about the last century, including those who opt for a date as late as AD 135, a decidedly minority third view. The latter date assumes that a noncompanion of Paul wrote this work and that the unified tradition surrounding Luke is completely wrong, as he would not have lived to such a late date.

The major arguments for a date in the 60s are the absence of references to Paul’s death and/or the lack of resolution of his Roman imprisonment (Kistemaker 1990: 22–24, opts for a date before Nero’s persecutions in AD 64). Reasons are as follows: (1) Those who point to the lack of resolution on the imprisonment favor an early 60s date. Those who emphasize no mention of Paul’s death favor a date in the mid- to late 60s. The rationale here is that if a writer had written after AD 70, then how could the outcome of this imprisonment or the eventual death of Paul in about AD 67 not have been noted? The argument is more against a later date than for the earlier date, since it is an argument from silence. (2) The absence of any mention of Nero’s persecution also suggests an earlier date in a time before Rome attacked the new movement. Bruce (1990: 14) responds, however, that the Romans themselves regarded Nero’s behavior as an aberration of Roman standards, so nothing need change in how someone writing after AD 62–64 saw the Romans as a whole. (3) There also is no hint of the war with the Jews in the late 60s. Here too the argument is more against a late date and is grounded on what is not covered. (4) It is also suggested that the positive tone in engaging Judaism comes before there was a major split. (5) Finally, the lack of discussion of Paul’s letters is said to favor an earlier date. The argument for a late date must suppose that the author of Acts ignored these letters, which would have been well known by the later period.

A date in the early 60s relies a great deal on the lack of resolution of Paul’s fate. Hemer (1989: 383) asks rhetorically about the argument for the nonresolution of Paul’s fate, “If Paul’s fate were immaterial, why tantalize the reader with a cryptic and unnecessary focus on it?” If there are reasons to suggest a resolution is not necessary to the author’s account, however, then the rationale for an early 60s date is weakened. And there is such an explanation: whether Paul (or any messenger of the gospel) dies or not in bringing the message is not as relevant as the message being proclaimed, which is exactly where Acts ends. The message reaches Rome as God had promised Paul. In Acts, we have martyrs for the faith such as Stephen and those who are merely persecuted. In each case, the gospel message is shared (Bruce 1990: 13). This is Luke’s key point. It must be admitted that this argument for an early date has some force. The question is whether it is compelling enough in light of other factors that also are at work in determining the date of Acts.

Critics of a date in the 60s, or at least the early 60s, note that abrupt endings occur elsewhere in the canon and do not impact dating. For example, Mark’s Gospel likely does not develop the resurrection appearances—a surprise—and such an omission is the clear choice of its author. So how much can one make of such an argument (Fitzmyer 1998: 52)? It may well be that the death of Paul is alluded to delicately in Acts 20:24–25. But the real reason for objecting to this date is that it requires an early date for Mark’s Gospel, which most place, at the earliest, in the 60s as well (Fitzmyer 1998: 53). A late-60s date or a post-70 date for Acts escapes this objection.

Those favoring a late date tend to base it on the fact that Acts follows Luke’s Gospel and then argue that Luke’s Gospel was written in a post-70 setting. This view depends more on how Luke’s Gospel is dated than on evidence from Acts. The key to this discussion is whether Luke’s treatment of the Olivet Discourse and its focus on the city of Jerusalem more than the temple reflect a post-70 perspective, something that is also debated. In addition, those holding this view appeal to allusions to Israel’s house being desolate or the unique description of Rome’s forces surrounding Jerusalem in Luke 19:41–44. The argument is that these texts with their unique details about how Jerusalem was put under siege require that Jerusalem had already experienced judgment, which means a date after AD 70. Since all these passages that are invoked for the date of Luke’s Gospel appear in prophetic contexts, the possibility of prediction cannot be excluded; this renders their use for dating problematic, especially when it is possible that Jesus saw Israel headed for covenantal judgment because of its rejection of his message, something taught in Jewish sacred texts (Bock 1994a: 17).

Those who favor an AD 80–100 date also refute the idea that the book could be later in origin, such as AD 115–30, because its theology does not reflect the period of the early second century.
A decision here is difficult. In favor of an early date are the use of Paul in Acts and the lack of explicit development of the fall of Jerusalem. For a date after AD 65 but before AD 90 stands the connection of Acts to issues tied to the date of the Gospels and details in Luke. For reasons argued in Bock 1994a: 17, I do not find the post-70 dating of Luke on the basis of eschatological texts convincing, but the relationship of Acts to the dating of the Gospels is an important factor for this topic. The latter would tend to favor a date in the late 60s. Marshall (1980: 46–48) speaks of a “towards AD 70” date. This date is suggested by the lack of explicit reference to AD 70 and by the lack of any effort to draw upon the “legacy” of Paul in contrast to Acts’ focus on Paul’s own ministry activity. Luke might even be writing when he can sense the approach of Jerusalem’s defeat by Rome. Either Acts is written so much after AD 70 that these issues are no longer worth noting, because they are a given, or it is written before it. On balance, the latter is more likely.

Darrell L. Bock, Acts (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 25–27.

Guthrie

 

In a historical book such as Acts, which constitutes the main document on primitive Christianity, the date of production is clearly of considerable importance. As so often in problems of dating New Testament books, the prior decision regarding authorship will naturally affect the presuppositions with which the subject is approached. Moreover, in this case, the decision already reached regarding the date of the third gospel will clearly have an influence on the date of Acts, since this book must be dated subsequent to Luke. Our present approach will be first to treat the subject of date in the light of the traditional position concerning authorship, and then to discuss alternatives. If, of course, the conclusions regarding date demand a period too late to make the traditional authorship possible, it would require a fresh consideration of the latter problem.

There are three main proposals: first, before A.D. 64, secondly, A.D. 70–85, and thirdly, a second-century date. They will be considered in this order.

a. Arguments for a date before A.D. 64

(i) The absence of reference to important events which happened between A.D. 60 and 70. The fall of Jerusalem is nowhere referred to and, although it is not decisive that Luke must have hinted at it if it had already occurred, there is a strong presumption in favour of this opinion. It would have been difficult for him to avoid some allusion to it, although it must be recognized that the destiny of Jerusalem would not have appeared so tragic to the Christian church as a whole as it would to the Jewish people. At the same time it is not without significance that Luke in his gospel centres more attention on Jerusalem than do his fellow synoptists.2

Another event of importance was the persecution of the church under the Emperor Nero. This precipitated so great a crisis that it is difficult to imagine that the earliest Christian historian could have ignored it so completely if he wrote after the event. Although the geographical area affected was confined to Italy, it is still astonishing that Luke makes no mention of it in ending his story at Rome. The only other possibilities would be to suppose that Acts was written after such an interval that the grim details of the horror had faded from the author’s mind, or else that he was unaware of it. It might just conceivably be argued that the author would have no cause to mention it, in which case it could be discounted as a factor affecting dating, but probability is on the side of a date before it.4

A further event of less widespread importance, but one which might well have interested Luke, was the martyrdom of James, the Lord’s brother. In fact Luke mentions two early martyrs: James, son of Zebedee, and Stephen. Moreover, the description of James’ position as president of the Jerusalem church and the care with which Luke describes his relationships with Paul show that the author regarded him as a key figure in primitive Christian history.

Yet all these three suggestions are arguments from silence and must be used with reserve.

(ii) The absence of reference to the death of Paul. The abrupt ending of Acts has for long been an enigma. The author leaves his readers with a description of Paul, a prisoner at Rome, but enjoying considerable liberty to preach and teach. Yet there is no indication about what happened to Paul after this. The reason for the abrupt ending is subject to various interpretations and these must be carefully examined in considering its effect upon the dating.

1. The author records all he knew. If, at the time of writing, Paul was still in his own hired house awaiting further developments, the abruptness is at once explained. There was nothing else to report.

2. The author did not wish to mention the outcome of the trial. It is suggested that he knew of Paul’s death, but that it was no part of his purpose to close with this. Such a procedure would, in fact, draw too much attention to the man, whereas Luke’s purpose was to describe rather the progress of the gospel. It has even been suggested that to conclude with Paul’s death would hint at a parallel with the conclusion of the gospel with its climax in the passion story and that it was to avoid this that Luke omits all reference to it.3 But this latter motive would not be applicable if the gospel and Acts were conceived as a continuous narrative, and in any case the author regarded the passion of Jesus as the beginning and not the end of the real work of Jesus in the world. It is not sufficient, on the other hand, to propose a theory of the author’s intention without supplying an adequate motive for the intention, and it may be questioned whether this condition has been fulfilled. It seems incredible that an author should devote so much space to relating the details of the trial of Paul and then leave the reader wholly in the dark with regard to its outcome.2

3. The author intended to write a third volume. On the analogy of the connection between the gospel and Acts it has been proposed that Luke had in mind another volume which would have related the subsequent history of Paul and his associates, and this has had the support of some notable scholars. It would, of course, get over the difficulty of the abrupt end of Acts, but such a desirable end is achieved only by the postulation of an entirely hypothetical volume which has left no trace in Christian history. The theory admittedly does not demand that the proposed volume should have left any trace, for it does not demand that Luke actually wrote the third instalment.4 It would suffice that the author intended to write it. But Acts does not give the impression that it was written as part of a continuing series. The gospel has reached Rome and this forms a natural climax to the history of the primitive period. There is something to be said for the objection that it is difficult to imagine what a third volume would have contained in order to have reached the same spiritual stature as the two former volumes. Moreover the great amount of space devoted to Paul’s trials is unintelligible as an introduction to a further narrative of the same kind. In other words, it is easier to assume that Paul’s trial was still in progress than that the author has in this way drawn his second book to a close in anticipating a third volume. While the suggestion cannot be ruled out, it cannot be said to be very convincing.

The silence of Acts regarding the death of Paul may, therefore, be said to raise a presumption in favour of an early date. But one objection to this conclusion needs to be noted. In Acts 20:25 some scholars find clear evidence that the author knew that martyrdom crowned Paul’s Roman imprisonment. But if this passage preserves the genuine tradition of Paul’s address to the Ephesian elders, it is capable of being interpreted as a presentiment on Paul’s part without necessitating the presumption that it must have been fulfilled. After all, Paul’s plans, according to Romans, were to turn westwards towards Spain and he evidently at that time had no intention of revisiting Ephesus.2 The Pasoral Epistles, if dated after the end of Acts, presuppose that he did. Those scholars who claim to fit the Pastoral personalia into the Acts structure would not see these epistles as being in conflict with the Acts 20 reference. Those who dispute an early date for Acts almost invariably regard the Pastorals as non-Pauline and for them the line of argument lacks validity.

(iii) The primitive character of the subject-matter. It is significant that the major interests of the author of Acts are those prevalent in the earliest period of church history, but which were not so relevant in later times. The Jewish-Gentile controversy is dominant and all other evidence apart from Acts suggests that this was a vital issue only in the period before the fall of Jerusalem. Even by the time of Paul’s later letters it had ceased to be a burning issue. Moreover, the question of Gentile inclusion was taken for granted when once the universal character of the Christian church had been established. Again, the preoccupation with food requirements in the report of the decisions of the Jerusalem Council points to an early stage of Christian development. Before the fall of Jerusalem all these factors were of vital significance.

(iv) The primitive nature of the theology. Supporting evidence of a more incidental character, but nevertheless highly significant, is found in the theological language. The whole book gives the impression of primitiveness. Such titles for Jesus as ‘the Christ’, ‘the Servant of God’, ‘the Son of man’, reflect primitive tradition. Equally primitive are the description of Christians as ‘disciples’, the use of λαός for the Jewish nation, and the reference to the first day of the week when Christians met together to break bread. Either the author writes early enough to be in direct, living touch with actual eyewitnesses, or he possesses such remarkable historical skill that he is able to reproduce with clear fidelity the primitive climate of thought. The former alternative is the more credible.

(v) The attitude of the state towards the church. Luke is at pains to demonstrate the impartiality of the imperial officials regarding Christianity. In no case is it the Roman officials who persecute the church. The local government at Ephesus is represented as distinctly helpful towards Paul and his companions, while the cause of persecution against the church is in every case the intrigues of the Jews. This is precisely what might be expected before Nero’s persecution in A.D. 64, but subsequent to that date the imperial officials would be more suspicious of Christianity and less inclined to treat it under the general concession to Judaism as a religio licita. The concluding word in Acts (ἀκωλύτως) is significant in this respect, for it forms a fitting climax to Luke’s design to show the unhindered progress of the gospel.

(vi) The relation of Acts to the Pauline epistles. It is universally admitted that the author of Acts shows little or no acquaintance with Paul’s epistles and it may reasonably be claimed as a consequence that Acts must have been published before the collection of the Corpus Paulinism, or at least before this collection had much general circulation. There are differences of opinion as to when the collection was made, but this circumstance favours as early a date as possible for Acts. Those who consider that the collection was actually prompted by the publication of Acts assume a period, subsequent to Paul’s death, during which he was neglected, and this automatically excludes an early date for Acts, but the whole theory is open to challenge.2

b. Arguments for a date between A.D. 70 and 85.

The major reason for preferring this to the earlier date is the author’s use of Mark. It has already been shown that the dating of Luke generally takes as its starting point the date of Mark as A.D. 60–69 and assumes that Luke has adjusted the vague reference in Mark 13 to ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ to the more specific ‘surrounded with armies’ through his knowledge of the details of the siege. In other words, Luke is supposed to have written after A.D. 70. In that case Acts would clearly need to be dated later still. Reasons have already been given why this widely accepted dating of Luke may be challenged, and if the gospel is dated as early as A.D. 60 (see discussion on p. 130 f.) this would suggest an early date for Acts and would be in keeping with the argument already given for a date before A.D. 64. It is a doubtful method of dating early books to use a particular interpretation of the one available datum and then to build a superstructure of other books upon it. It will be clear that if a predictive element in the ministry of Jesus is allowed the whole basis of this generally held dating collapses.

It should nevertheless be noted that not all who accept the traditional authorship of Luke date the book before the fall of Jerusalem. If Luke is the author and it is deemed necessary to date his gospel after A.D. 70, the upper limit for the dating of Acts is restricted only by the probability of Luke’s life-span, which is very difficult to estimate. It would certainly not be impossible for Luke to have written Acts any time up to about A.D. 85 but it could hardly have been much later. A date between A.D. 70 and 85 is, therefore, preferred by the majority of scholars.

E. J. Goodspeed produced a list of additional reasons for a date as late as A.D. 90 for Luke–Acts, which were mainly inferences from the contents. Late features, according to him, can be seen in certain literary characteristics, in the infancy interest, in the resurrection interest, in the doctrine of the Spirit, primitive miracles, cessation of the Jewish controversy, interest in psalmody, church organization, primitive glossolalia, the inferences from 20:25, 38 that Paul is dead, Paul’s heroic stature, the emergence of the sects, lack of acquaintance with Paul’s letters and the historical background of a successful Gentile mission. Quite apart from the questionable character of some of Goodspeed’s inferences (e.g. that Paul is dead from Acts 20:25, 38), it is by no means clear that any of the points he mentions requires a date any later than the early sixties. In any case he accepts Lucan authorship and supposes that the author collected his material long before his book was actually published.

c. Arguments for a second-century date

Earlier critics of the Tübingen school popularized a second-century dating for Acts because their reconstruction of the history demanded it. The reconciliation tendency of the author to patch up the Petrine Pauline clash required a considerable time interval to develop. But the subjective character of this kind of criticism has assured its doom and the dismissal of the historical reconstruction of this school of thought has caused a general disinclination towards a second-century dating. But there are still some arguments which are advanced in support of this dating.

(i) The relation of Acts to Josephus. The fact that both Acts (in the speech of Gamaliel, 5:36) and Josephus refer to a rising under a Jew named Theudas has given rise to the theory that the author of Acts consulted Josephus’ Antiquities while writing his history. If this deduction is correct Acts must be dated after A.D. 94. An alleged contradiction between Josephus and the gospel has already been cited in discussing the dating of Luke (see p. 127 f.), and a similar contradiction is suggested here. Acts places the rising of Theudas before the rising of Judas the Galilean, but the latter happened in the time of Augustus, while Josephus dates the former at a period subsequent to Gamaliel’s speech. There are two possible explanations. Either one of these reports must be wrong, or else the Theudas mentioned by Luke was not the Theudas mentioned by Josephus. Most scholars prefer the former alternative and generally presume that the historian in error must be Luke. But the author of Acts almost certainly did not consult Josephus, for had he done so he would surely not have made so obvious a blunder. Moreover, it is no more self-evident that Acts must be wrong and Josephus correct than vice versa. It is, of course, possible that two rebellions were instigated by men named Theudas, since this was a fairly common name, but such a theory is none too convincing without corroborating evidence.

(ii) The relation of Acts to second-century writers. Some scholars have gone much farther than Josephus and have found affinities between Acts and the second-century Church Fathers. It has been maintained that Justin shared the same theological outlook as Acts although he makes no literary use of the book. But theological affinities are a precarious method of assessing dating, for the theory that Acts and Justin’s works were both produced about the same time is certainly not the only explanation of the relationship, nor is it even the most reasonable, for it raises far more problems than it solves.2 It may be assumed that Acts was linked with the third gospel almost from its inception, in which case it would be inconceivable for Marcion to have been acquainted with Luke and not Acts. But it would have been equally improbable for Marcion to have chosen as his one gospel a book which was clearly not of ancient standing. All the evidence points to an arbitrary rejection of Acts by Marcion on the same grounds as those on which he rejected the remaining gospels.

A second-century dating of Acts which gained such favour among earlier critics is not likely to be reinstituted by any argument based on theological affinities, in view of the strong traditional testimony against such a theory. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine that the strong impression Acts gives of recording factual details, particularly in the latter part dealing with Paul’s activities, is the work of a second-century writer. It is far less credible to regard the book as the product of a writer’s historical imagination than it is to regard it as the record of one who was in close proximity to the events he relates—which would be the case with a first-century dating

Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (4th rev. ed.; The Master Reference Collection; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), 355–365.

 

Read More

Naked Bible Podcast Episode 164: Paul’s Ascent and Angelic Torment with David Burnett

David Burnett returns to the podcast to discuss Paul’s defense of his apostleship and his heavenly ascent in 2 Corinthians 11-12. This episode expands upon an earlier episode on Paul’s ascent, specifically linking it to Second Temple Jewish apocalyptic literature (the Ascension of Abraham) and rabbinic material that appears to draw on that earlier material. The link to Abraham in Jewish thought is important, as it informs part of Paul’s comments on being the seed of Abraham.

The episode is now live.

Read More

Paul’s Use of Genesis 15:5 in Romans 4:18 in Light of Early Jewish Deification Traditions: Part 6: Origen’s Commentary on Romans 4 and the Reception of the Qualitative Interpretation

This is the final installment of David Burnett’s guest series.


 

This reading of Genesis 15:5 may appear novel yet it has an ancient antecedent in one of the earliest commentaries on Romans. Origen believed that in Romans 4, Paul did in fact understand the Abrahamic promise of Genesis 15:5 to become as the stars qualitatively. In his Commentary on Romans 4.6.4, he states: “Thus Abraham ‘against hope believed in hope that he would become the father of many nations,’ (Rom 4:18) which in the future would be like the stars of heaven, not only in terms of the greatness of number but also in splendor.”1 Here Origen reads the quotation of Gen 15:5 in Rom 4:18 explicitly as qualitative. In 4.6.7, he speaks further on the nature of the Abrahamic promise, as he understands Paul’s recounting of it. Discussing the content of Abraham and Sarah’s hope, he states:

 

“On the contrary when they hear of a such a hope of posterity and that the glory of their own offspring would be equal to heaven and its stars, when they hear these things, they do not think about their own goods, about the grace of continence, about the mortification of their members, but instead they regard all these things which contributed to their own gain as loss in order that they might gain Christ.” (Orig. Comm Rom, 4.6.7)

 

Origen assumes that the promise to Abraham and Sarah of an offspring would be “equal to heaven and its stars” in their “glory” is actually understood as the promise to “gain Christ,” drawing on the language of Phil 3:8. Significant here is the immediate context of Phil 3:8 in which Paul is discussing becoming like Christ (3:10) and attaining the resurrection from the dead (3:11).2 Fee rightly points out that Paul’s language regarding them, “children (τέκνα) of God without blemish, though you live in a crooked and perverse generation (γενεᾶς σκολιᾶς καὶ διεστραμμένης)” echoes Deut 32:5 (ἡμάρτοσαν οὐκ αὐτῷ τέκνα μωμητά, γενεὰ σκολιὰ καὶ διεστραμμένη), unsurprisingly where the immediately following verses (Deut 32:6-9) narrate Israel’s election in terms of the Deuteronomic vision as described above. Paul then turns to the language of Dan 12:1-4 to describe the children of God as those who “shine as lights (φωστῆρες, cf. Dan 12:3) in the world (κόσμῳ, cf. note 28),” reflecting the eschatological hope in Daniel as they are “holding on to the word of life (λόγον ζωῆς ἐπέχοντες, Phil 2:16),” echoing the language of Dan 12:3, “those who hold strong to my words (καὶ οἱ κατισχύοντες τοὺς λόγους μου),” as they approach the seemingly immanent eschaton and the full realization of their hope.3 Again, in the context of discussing the fruit of the spirit and dying to lust and vices Origen states: “Your seed and your works can ascend to heaven and become works of light and be compared to the splendor and brilliance of the stars, so that when the day of resurrection arrives, you will stand out in brightness as one star differs from another star” (4.6.9). Origen here relates the Abrahamic promise of star-like seed in Romans 4 to the discussion of the resurrection body in 1 Corinthians 15, also echoing the language of Daniel 12:3. It seems apparent that Origen takes for granted in his Commentary on Romans that Paul understands the promise to Abraham in Gen 15:5 qualitatively as well as quantitatively.

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is necessary to restate the initial problem this paper sought to answer. Esler noticed the deficiency in the quantitative only interpretation of Paul’s use of Genesis 15:5, seeming far too unlikely that having numerous descendants would somehow be the equivalent of inheriting of the cosmos, becoming the father of nations, and the expectation of being resurrected from the dead. This paper proposes a possible answer to this problem. Reading Paul’s use of Gen 15:5 in light of early Jewish deification traditions stemming from a qualitative as well as quantitative interpretation of the Abrahamic Promise provides fruitful results. This proposal is supported by widely attested interpretive traditions from Paul’s early Jewish historical context, whether Palestinian or Hellenistic (or diasporic), and is further received into the Patristic tradition, as seen in Origen, through Paul.

 

 

  1. Translations of Origen here are taken from Thomas P. Scheck, Origen: Commentary on the Epistle of Paul to the Romans, Books 1-5 (Washington D.C.: Catholic University Press, 2001).
  2. See Phil 3:8-11. Also important to note here previously in Philippians in the context of a moral admonition in light of the coming “day of Christ (ἡμέραν Χριστοῦ), which Paul seems to articulate here as an eschatological conflation Deut 32:5-9 with Dan 12:1-3, he describes the holy ones as “children of God (τέκνα θεοῦ)” who “shine as lights in the world (φαίνεσθε ὡς φωστῆρες ἐν κόσμῳ)” (Phil 2:15).
  3. See Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 244-48. In the eschatological expectation of Romans 8 the holy ones are also called “children of God (τέκνα θεοῦ, 8:16-17, 21),” most likely part of the same complex of language, see above.

Read More

Paul’s Use of Genesis 15:5 in Romans 4:18 in Light of Early Jewish Deification Traditions: Part 1: Introduction

This is the first of four installments on this topic, all written by David Burnett. This series is based on a paper David read at the Society of Biblical Literature. — MSH


Paul’s Use of Genesis 15:5 in Romans 4:18 in Light of Early Jewish Deification Traditions1

Abstract:

In Rom 4:18 Paul cites the “promise” to Abraham in the LXX of Gen 15:5 “so shall your seed be (οὕτως ἔσται τὸ σπέρμα σου)” in relation to what it means to “become the father of many nations” from Gen 17:5. Modern scholars have traditionally understood the relationship Paul sees between these two texts quantitatively, both promising a vast multitude of descendants made up of Jews and Gentiles. Conversely, some early Jewish interpreters of Gen 15:5 (and related texts like Gen 22:17; 26:4) such as Philo, Sirach, and the author(s) of the Apocalypse of Abraham understood the promise qualitatively: not merely speaking of multiplication, but also of transformation into the likeness of the stars and assumption of their power. Reading Paul’s use of Gen 15:5 in light of this qualitative interpretation would place him within the context of already well-established deification or angelomorphic traditions in Early Judaism that see the destiny of the seed of Abraham as replacing the stars as the divine or angelic inheritors of the nations. This tradition may provide a more fitting explanation of the relationship Paul sees between Gen 17:5 and 15:5 in the wider context of the argument of Romans 4. This reading could illuminate the relationship between a complex nexus of ideas that Paul sees implicit in the one promise to Abraham in Gen 15:5. The promise of becoming as the stars of heaven would encompass the inheritance of the cosmos, becoming a father of many nations, and the resurrection from the dead.

PART 1 – Introduction

The “One Promise” of Genesis 15

Romans 4 is rightly understood as a Pauline midrash on the narrative of the covenant promise made to Abraham in the LXX of Genesis 15, with particular focus on Abraham’s response of faith in the promise (ἐπαγγελία) which results in his being credited righteousness:

“Then behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “This man will not be your heir (κληρονομήσει); but one who will come forth from your own loins, he shall be your heir (κληρονομήσει).” And he took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And he said to him, “So shall your seed be (oὕτως ἔσται τὸ σπέρμα σου).” Then he believed the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness (καὶ ἐλογίσθη αὐτῷ εἰς δικαιοσύνην). And he said to him “I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to inherit (κληρονομῆσαι) it” (Gen 15:4-7).2

For Paul, what was the actual content of “the promise” that is to be believed by Abraham and his seed? C. K. Barrett makes an important observation at this point when he states, “Abraham received a promise. Paul never quotes it exactly or in full, but it is important to have in mind (as doubtless Paul does) the whole of Genesis 22:17.3 Barrett goes on to quote the text of Genesis 22:17, as if to suggest that it is the text Paul is primarily drawing upon for his understanding of the promise given to Abraham in Romans 4, a text whose argument is framed by the narrative of Genesis 15. The critical point here is that much of the language used in Romans 4 is found in those reiterations of the promise in Genesis, showing that Paul more than likely read them together and sees them essentially as one promise rather than many. Of particular importance to the present study are the two that repeat the promise of star-like seed. Later reiterated to Abraham in the Aqedah, Gen 22:17 reads: “Indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens (ὡς τοὺς ἀστέρας τοῦ οὐρανοῦ) and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess (κληρονομήσει) the gates of their enemies (πόλεις τῶν ὑπεναντίων).” Finally in the promise as retold to Isaac, Gen 26:4 reads: “I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven (ὡς τοὺς ἀστέρας τοῦ οὐρανοῦ), and will give your seed all these lands (πᾶσαν τὴν γῆν ταύτην); and in your seed all the nations of the earth (πάντα τὰ ἔθνη τῆς γῆς) shall be blessed.” For our purposes it is important to note what seems to be a close connection between being multiplied “as the stars of heaven (ὡς τοὺς ἀστέρας)” and the inheritance or “taking the possession of (κληρονομήσει)” the “cities (πόλεις)” of their enemies, or in other words, to inherit “all these lands (πᾶσαν τὴν γῆν ταύτην).” This will result in “all the nations of the earth (πάντα τὰ ἔθνη τῆς γῆς)” being blessed.

In reference to the meaning of the promise, Paul states in Rom 4:13, “For the promise to Abraham and to his seed that he would be heir of the cosmos (τὸ κληρονόμον αὐτὸν εἶναι κόσμου) was not through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.” What seemed to refer to the promise of land in Genesis 15 was somehow interpreted to include the cosmos. The promise here also pertains to becoming a “father of many nations” which Paul links to the resurrection from the dead as he states in 4:17, “as it is written ‘I have made you a father of many nations (πατέρα πολλῶν ἐθνῶν) (Gen 17:5)’ in the presence of the God whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist (καλοῦντος τὰ μὴ ὄντα ὡς ὄντα).” He later relates Abraham’s faith to the faith of the believers in the resurrection: “But the words ‘it was counted to him (ἐλογίσθη αὐτῷ, Gen 15:6)’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord” (4:23-24). In keeping with the narrative framework of his argument, the ideas of becoming “heir of the cosmos (τὸ κληρονόμον αὐτὸν εἶναι κόσμου),” a “father of many nations (πατέρα πολλῶν ἐθνῶν),” and the hope of the resurrection are not separate promises, but are understood by Paul as constituent parts of (and having been subsumed under) the one promise made to Abraham in Gen 15:5 in becoming as the stars of heaven.4

 

Acknowledging an Overlooked Interpretative Problem in Romans 4:18

 The focus of the present study is here in Rom 4:18, regarding Paul’s quotation of the LXX of Gen 15:5 “so shall your seed be (οὕτως ἔσται τὸ σπέρμα σου)” in relation to what it means in its immediate context to “become the father of many nations” from Genesis 17:5. The scholarly consensus on the relationship Paul sees between these two texts has been understood quantitatively, both promising a vast multitude of descendants made up of Jews and Gentiles. Many scholars even insert the term “numerous” or a related term into their translations of “οὕτως ἔσται τὸ σπέρμα σου (4:18)” so the construction reads, “so (numerous) shall your seed be” instead of the literal rendering of the Greek “so shall your seed be,” presupposing the quantitative reading as the only viable interpretive option for Paul.5 Philip Esler, taking for granted the quantitative only view, questions whether it actually accounts for the length to which Paul stretches the Abrahamic promise. He states,

“It is not impossible that having the world as one’s inheritance could be another way of saying that Abraham’s seed would be as numerous as the stars of heaven (Gen 15:5), but this may be pushing the latter promise too far … [later in referring to the argument of 4:14] The reasoning here is not easy to follow. It would be straightforward if the promise referred to were simply that in Gen 15:5 (to have descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven), which could then be related directly to Abraham’s faith in Gen 15:6. The answer, however, is probably excluded given that a promise to ‘inherit the world’ goes way beyond Gen 15:5.”6

While being fully aware of the commonly held explanations for Paul’s alleged expansion of the promise, Esler still does not find in them a sufficient answer to this problem: the promise to “inherit the cosmos” seems to go far beyond the promise to have descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven.

I agree with and wish to take seriously Esler’s contention that the promise to have descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven may collapse under the theological weight that Paul piles on it. I also agree that the answer to this problem is excluded if one is to read the promise of Gen 15:5 as merely quantitative. What this study will seek to demonstrate is that the answer to the problem isn’t excluded from Gen 15:5 per se. A possible answer to the problem, and perhaps a more viable interpretation, gone seemingly unnoticed or neglected by most modern commentators on Romans 4, can be found in a number of early Jewish interpreters of Gen 15:5 (and related promises in Gen 22:17; 26:4), who understood the patriarchal promise of being multiplied as the stars of heaven not merely quantitatively, but also qualitatively, that his seed would become star-like, assuming the life of the gods or angels.


 

  1. I would like to sincerely thank N. T. Wright, Pamela Eisenbaum, and Ward Blanton for their helpful and critical responses to the presentation of this study in the special joint session of the Pauline Epistles section at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature on Sunday, November 23, 2014. I am also especially grateful to Matthew Thiessen, Michael Gorman and Edith Humphrey for their careful and constructive reading of this paper and their assistance in the editing process. Any problems or errors that remain are certainly my sole responsibility. A special thanks to Stanley Porter as well for affording me the time to make any final edits necessary after receiving feedback from my esteemed respondents at SBL.
  2. James D. G. Dunn (Romans 1-8; WBC 38a; Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1988, 197) says of the present text, “the exposition of Gen 15:6 of which chapter 4 consists is one of the finest examples of Jewish midrash available to us from this era”; N. T. Wright (Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 2 vols; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013, 1 or 2:996) states that Romans 4 is a “sustained and quite detailed exposition of Genesis 15.”
  3. See C. K. Barrett, The Epistle to the Romans, 2d ed. BNTC 6; Grand Rapids: Hendrickson, 1991), 88. He does note Gen 12:3; 18:18.
  4. “Paul regards the ‘Land’ promise as containing the whole complex of salvation.” See Brendan Byrne, Sons of God, Seed of Abraham: A Study of the Idea of the Sonship of God of All Christians in Paul against the Jewish Background, AnBib 83 (Rome: Biblical Institute, 1979), 160.
  5. Below is a selective, though representative, survey of major modern English commentators since 1932 that presuppose the quantitative view, many of whom insert a term like “numerous” or “many” into their translation. See e.g. C. H. Dodd, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, MNTC 6 (New York: Harper & Row, 1932), 89, 92; C.E.B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans Vol. I, ICC; London: T & T Clark, 1979), 245; Ernst Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, trans. G. W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 118, 124; Dunn, Romans 1-8, 217; Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 211; Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale, 1989), 56; Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Romans: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AB 33 (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 383; Peter Stuhlmacher, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 69, 74; Brendan Byrne, Romans, SP 6 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996), 143; Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 283; Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, BECNT 6 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 234; N. T. Wright, Romans, NIB 10 (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 500; A. Katherine Grieb, The Story of Romans: A Narrative Defense of God’s Righteousness (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 50; Philip Francis Esler, Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting of Paul’s Letter (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 191-192, the only scholar here to acknowledge a problem with the quantitative reading, although seemingly without awareness of an alternative; Francis Watson, Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith (London: T & T Clark International, 2004), 178, 209,  211, 215; Ben Witherington and Darlene Hyatt, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 127; Leander E. Keck, Romans, ANTC (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 129; Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 336; Schliesser, Abraham’s Faith, 380; Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 743; Frank J. Matera, Romans, Paideia (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 116; Mark Forman, Paul and the Politics of Inheritance, SNTSMS 148 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 72; Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 848, 850.
  6. Emphasis added. Esler, Conflict and Identity in Romans, 191-92.

Read More

Rick Brannan’s Lexical Commentary on 1 Timothy Now Available in Logos

Listeners to the Naked Bible Podcast will recall the appearance of Rick Brannan, a friend and colleague of mine at Logos Bible Software. Rick is an expert on New Testament textual data and has had a sustained interest (as long as I’ve known him) in the pastoral epistles (1-2 Timothy, Titus). I blogged about Rick’s useful and unique lexical commentary on 1 Timothy a while back. Now that book is available in digital form in the Logos format. Get it while you can at the reduced pre-pub price — it’s a unique resource for this biblical book!

Here’s a link to Rick’s blog with more discussion about the book.

Read More

Rick Brannan’s Lexical Commentary on 1 Timothy Now Available in Logos

Listeners to the Naked Bible Podcast will recall the appearance of Rick Brannan, a friend and colleague of mine at Logos Bible Software. Rick is an expert on New Testament textual data and has had a sustained interest (as long as I’ve known him) in the pastoral epistles (1-2 Timothy, Titus). I blogged about Rick’s useful and unique lexical commentary on 1 Timothy a while back. Now that book is available in digital form in the Logos format. Get it while you can at the reduced pre-pub price — it’s a unique resource for this biblical book!

Here’s a link to Rick’s blog with more discussion about the book.

Read More

Naked Bible Podcast Episode 61 – Interview with David Burnett

Episode 61 is now live. It’s an interview with my friend and fellow-traveler David Burnett. though only at the beginning of his doctoral work, David is already an emerging scholar. He’s a fellow-traveler in the divine council worldview of Scripture. Even more remarkable, he’s a pastor of small church in rural Texas. I think you’ll enjoy him.

Read More