When I Open the Gospels

An Interview with Dr. Mark Goodacre

Author John D. Barry

WhenIOpenTheGospelsThe Gospel writers often record a particular event in Jesus’ life differently. These differences have resulted in long quests to find the historical Jesus, who is supposedly “behind” the Gospel accounts, as well as many scholars devoting their entire lives to understanding the particular theological message behind each Gospel writer’s account. Since grasping the complexities of the Gospels is often a difficult task, Bible Study Magazine posed a set of questions to a world-renowned expert on the Gospels as synoptic (parallel) accounts, Dr. Mark Goodacre, professor of New Testament studies at Duke University.

BSM: Can you provide an example in the gospels that illustrates the importance of reading each gospel on its own merits?

GOODACRE: The most obvious example is the depiction of Mary Magdalene, who today has become a composite of a variety of figures from the four Gospels: a fictional, harmonized creation of the prostitute who repented and followed Jesus. She is variously thought of as three or four different women in the Gospels: the anonymous sinner of Luke 7:36–50, the Samaritan Woman of John 4, and the Woman Caught in Adultery in John 8. None of these women are ever called Mary Magdalene. What we actually know about Mary Magdalene is rather limited, but we do know she is never called a prostitute. It’s a good case of Christian tradition warping the way that we read the Gospels—for a long time no one really noticed that interpreters were doing this.

Right up to the present, Mary Magdalene is depicted this way in films and fiction (e.g., most recently in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ). I was delighted that in the recent BBC/HBO production The Passion, Mary Magdalene, for the first time in a major production, was not depicted as a prostitute!

BSM: Generally speaking, what are the theological slants each Gospel writer puts on their work?

GOODACRE: This is not a quick and easy question to answer, and I am always a bit wary of attempts to try and put the Gospel writers’ agendas into a nutshell.  Such attempts are rarely satisfactory and tend to draw wedges between the Gospel writers while oversimplifying their Gospels.  In spite of the importance of looking at each of the Gospels as a text in its own right, I think it is actually easier to describe what they have in common.  All four share the same basic plot and structure and agree that Jesus is the Messiah, that he taught about the kingdom of God, healed people, died and rose again on the third day, and will come again. The theme of the suffering Messiah in fact dominates all four Gospels, even if it is manifested in different ways in each.

BSM: If someone is speaking to their church, Sunday School class, or small group, how should they go about teaching on a passage that is recorded in parallel accounts in the gospels?

GOODACRE: I am not a minister or a church leader of any kind, nor have I been trained as one, so I would not presume to make suggestions about how church leaders do their work.  Nevertheless, when I am asked to speak to church groups about such things, I like to explore the world of parallel accounts a little by showing people the richness of understanding the way that different evangelists tell the same or similar stories.  Let’s take an obvious example, the annunciation of Jesus’ birth in Matthew 1:18–25 and Luke 1:26–38.

Both have clear features in common, not least the announcement that Mary will give birth to a son who will be called Jesus. Nonetheless, there are substantial differences: Matthew’s Gospel has an announcement to Joseph and Luke’s Gospel has an announcement to Mary, each giving reflections on Jesus’ future that are characteristic of the way each Gospel writer portrays the narrative of Jesus’ life.

BSM: Should readers be distraught about accounts in the gospels that appear to disagree with one another?

GOODACRE: It depends on your perspective.  Since I am not, nor have I ever been, a kind of biblical literalist, I have always been a bit puzzled by those who struggle with places where the Gospels disagree with one another or, for that matter, other places in the Bible where there are disagreements.  Ignoring the disagreements does not make them go away.  What is enjoyable about studying the Gospels as a historian is that one is trained to take disagreements seriously, rather than harmonizing them. I tend to feel that taking the Gospels seriously shows a respect for their integrity as texts.  If one is interested in texts that many regard as sacred, then it is important to take those texts seriously, and that includes taking seriously places where they disagree with one another.

To learn more about Dr. Goodacre, or read more written by him, go to NTGateway.com.

For more tips on reading the Gospels, see Mark Goodacre’s The Synoptic Problem: A Way through the Maze. Go to Logos.com/Goodacre.

 

Bible Study Magazine delivers tools and methods for Bible study, as well as insights from respected Bible teachers, professors, historians, and archaeologists. Take over 30% off the cover price—subscribe now!

 

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Logos Bible Software. Originally published in print, Vol. 1 No. 3.

Sanctified Dirt

Author Michael S. Heiser

Elisha’s healing of Naaman the leper, commander of the army of the king of Syria, is a familiar story to many (2 Kgs 5:1–27). Naaman hears that Elisha, the prophet of Israel, can heal him, so he makes the trip. When the two meet, Elisha tells him rather dismissively that he needs to take a bath in the Jordan River. Naaman doesn’t take this well and prepares to go home. At the behest of some servants, he consents to dip himself in the Jordan. He is miraculously healed by the simple act. The display of power, so transparently without sacrifice or incantation, awakens Naaman to the fact that Yahweh of Israel is the true God. Here’s where the story usually ends in our telling, but that would result in the omission of one very odd detail—what Naaman asks to take back home.

SanctifiedDirtIn 2 Kgs 5:15–19 the elated Naaman returns to Elisha and begs him to take payment for healing him. Elisha repeatedly refuses. Finally, before embarking for Syria, Naaman makes a strange request: to load two mules with dirt to take back with him.

Dirt? I can think of a few favors I would ask of a prophet in a receptive mood, but dirt certainly isn’t one of them. The request is so odd that it’s hard to avoid wondering if Naaman needed some other kind of therapy. Why would he ask for dirt?

But Naaman was completely in his right mind. In 2 Kgs 5:17, Naaman follows the request with an explanation: “for from now on your servant will not offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god but the Lord” (ESV). The dirt and Naaman’s new allegiance to the God of Israel are related. Naaman was a man with significant duties in his home country. He couldn’t stay in Israel, but he could take Israel with him. Why would he want to?

Naaman’s unusual request stems from the ancient—and biblical—conception that the earth is the locale for a cosmic turf war. Naaman wanted dirt from Israel because Israel was Yahweh’s territory. The dirt which is Yahweh’s domain is holy ground.

The idea of “holy ground” is an important element of Israelite theology. This phrase is used when Moses is in the presence of the Angel of the Lord and the God of Israel at the burning bush (Exod 3:1–5), and when Joshua meets the Angel of the Lord (Josh 5:15).[1] More broadly, the idea derives from Deut 32:8–9 (compare, Deut 4:19–20) where we learn that when God divided up the nations at the Tower of Babel, they were allotted to “the sons of God.”[2] The nations of the world were, in effect, disinherited by Yahweh as His own earthly family. Immediately after Babel, Yahweh called Abraham and the nation of Israel was created. Israel was therefore “Yahweh’s portion” (Deut 32:9), whereas all the other nations belong to the sons of God whom Israel was forbidden to worship. As a result, Israel was holy ground; the territory of every other nation was not. The rest of the Old Testament is the story of God’s intention to reclaim every nation on earth.

Elisha understood Naaman’s request and granted it without hesitation. He knew the request came from a sincere theological change of heart. Naaman believed that “There [was] no God in all the earth but in Israel” (5:15) and wanted to return to his homeland with holy ground. Even though he would still have to help his aged king bow before Rimmon, Naaman wanted Elisha to know his heart belonged only to the God of Elisha.

Notes:

[1] The “captain of the Lord’s army” in Josh 5:13–15 can be identified with the Angel of the LORD on the basis of two observations: (1) The parallel with Exod 3:1–5; and (2) The description of the Captain standing before Joshua “with his sword drawn in his hand.” The Hebrew phrase behind this description is found in only two other places in the Old Testament: Num 22:23 and 1 Chr 21:16, both of which explicitly apply the phrase to the Angel of the LORD.

[2] This translation is based upon a correction of the Hebrew text in Deut 32:8 with material from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Most English bibles read “sons of Israel” in Deut 32:8, a reading that makes no sense, since Israel did not exist at the time of the tower of Babel, nor is Israel listed in the Table of Nations that resulted from the judgment at Babel. The ESV correctly incorporates the Dead Sea Scroll reading into Deut 32:8. For more information, see MichaelSHeiser.com/DT32.pdf

 

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Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Logos Bible Software. Originally published in print, Vol. 1 No. 3.

Insomnia, Gallows & Rescuing the Jews

Author Leonard Greenspoon

Insomnia, Gallows & Rescuing the Jews

What do they share in common? They are all in a story about a beautiful woman named Esther.

Every year in the spring, Jews gather in synagogues to hear the biblical book of Esther chanted with a special melody. Each time the name of Haman, the story’s villain, is mentioned, the entire congregation stomps their feet and makes noise to blot out the very sound of this infamous individual.

All Jews, young and old, participate in this joyous holiday. Whether they are hearing the Megillah (as the “scroll” of Esther is known) for the first or hundredth time, there is great satisfaction in discovering, just before the book’s characters do, the fate that fittingly awaits Haman.

InsomniaGallowsRescuingtheJewsThe tale contained in the book of Esther narrates the marriage of Esther, a Jew, to Ahasuerus, king of Persia. This monarch learns of Esther’s religion only after Haman plots to annihilate the Jews, including Esther and her guardian Mordecai, who (like Haman) serves the king. Among the numerous subplots is the personal hatred that Haman bears for Mordecai, whom he conspires to hang on “a gallows fifty cubits high” (Esth 5:9–14 NIV).

Those familiar with the account know that everything Haman plans against his enemies will ultimately be done to him. Midway through the story (Esth 6:1–11), the king, suffering from insomnia, has his officials read some official state documents to him. (Was he hoping that they would be so boring that he would immediately fall asleep?)

As it happens, the very passage they read told how Mordecai had saved the king from an assassination attempt (compare Esth 2:21–23). It just so happened that Haman was walking by at that very minute and so the king queried him: “What shall be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor?” (Esth 6:6 NIV). The biblical text notes that Haman presumptuously assumes it is he whom the king has in mind when he replies:

“For the man the king delights to honor, have them bring a royal robe the king has worn and a horse the king has ridden, one with a royal crest placed on its head. Then let the robe and horse be entrusted to one of the king’s most noble princes. Let them robe the man the king delights to honor, and lead him on the horse through the city streets, proclaiming before him, ‘This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!’” (Esth 6:7–9 NIV).

Readers of this biblical book, of course, are already laughing as Haman goes into vivid detail to describe what he is sure is in store for him. “‘Go at once,’ the king commanded Haman. ‘Get the robe and the horse and do just as you have suggested for Mordecai the Jew, who sits at the king’s gate. Do not neglect anything you have recommended’ ” (Esth 6:10 NIV).

This reversal of fortune is not lost on at least one of the characters in the story itself. Zeresh, Haman’s wife, declares: “[If] Mordecai, before whom your downfall has started, is of Jewish origin, you cannot stand against him—you will surely come to ruin!” (Esth 6:12 NIV). This is the same Zeresh who only a little while earlier was urging Haman to construct the gallows for Mordecai. We are then not surprised, and even enjoy more than a moment of pleasure, when we learn that it was not Mordecai, but Haman himself, who was hanged on the gallows (Esth 7:9–10). Standing fifty cubits high (approximately 75 feet; the height of a six-story building), this would have constituted a very public execution of the once powerful villain—how the mighty have fallen!

But there is more. King Ahasuerus is portrayed as indifferent and indolent more than as treacherous and tyrannical. His previous wife Vashti was banished because she refused her husband’s demand that she dance before him and his carousing drinking buddies (Esth 1:10–12).

Thus it is supremely ironic that what actually brought Haman down was a misperception on the king’s part: after Esther reveals that she would be a victim of Haman’s plot, along with all the rest of her people, the king momentarily left the room. (To take in the just revealed fact that Esther was Jewish? To consider how to conceal from Esther how deeply he himself was implicated in the plot?) In a last-ditch attempt to beg for his life from Queen Esther, Haman as supplicant threw himself “on the couch where Esther was reclining”—which Ahasuerus took as an effort at sexual assault on the part of Haman (Esth 7:8).

In short, Haman was judged worthy of execution by the king for the one crime he didn’t commit. As for the Jews, they were saved. Mordecai was promoted, and, we suppose, Esther and Ahasuerus lived happily ever after.

Two thoughts immediately come to mind, and they can both aptly be applied to Haman and also to the more laudatory characters in the Book of Esther. First are the words of Hannah in 1 Samuel chapter 2 to: “The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts” (NIV). Second, the familiar adage, undoubtedly based on the words and thoughts of the Book of Proverbs: “Man proposes, God disposes.” Such messages, serious ones to be sure, nonetheless can bring a knowing chuckle to those who fully comprehend that there is nothing capricious in such reversals of fortune.

 

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Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Logos Bible Software. Originally published in print, Vol. 1 No. 3.

Born Again … and Again and Again?

Author Michael S. Heiser

Was Jesus open to the idea of reincarnation? The question may seem odd, but it’s one that many people, even biblical scholars, contend has a positive answer.[1] The idea comes from a passage you’ve likely read dozens of times.

John 9:1–4 ESV

“As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but in order that the works of God might be made manifest in him (he was born blind). We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.”

BornAgainNotice the disciples’ question: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Many presume the question indicates that the disciples believed the man born blind really could have sinned before he was born, and that his pre-birth sins caused his congenital blindness. This presumption is followed by another: that Jesus’ answer wasn’t a categorical denial. Since Jesus doesn’t come out and say, “What a silly idea, don’t be ridiculous!” Some have argued that his response means that in this case the man born blind didn’t sin in a previous life, but perhaps that could have happened in another case. Could this interpretation be correct?

Reincarnation is the belief that the soul migrates from one body to another, different body, in a long (possibly endless) succession. The idea of the “migration of the soul” cannot be found in the Bible, or in other Jewish writers of antiquity,[2] which indicates the disciples were likely presuming something different: People can do good and evil while still in the womb. Paul addresses this misconception in Rom 9:9–13, when dealing with the case of Jacob and Esau. Even if a pre-born person could sin in the womb, this does not involve the migration of a soul.

Romans 9:9–13 ESV

“For this is what the promise said: ‘About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.’ And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’”

Matthew 16:13, where some people suggest that Jesus was John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the Old Testament prophets, is also no help to those who want to see reincarnation in John 9:3–4. Jesus and John were contemporaries, born six months apart (Luke 1:8–36), thus John’s soul could not have migrated into Jesus’ body. Elijah never died (2 Kgs 2:1–17), and so the migration of his soul is also not possible. If Jesus were one of the prophets, who had come back to life, then the prophet would be resurrected, not the prophet’s soul in another body. There are other, more technical flaws in this interpretation of John 9,[2] but from this examination alone, it should be apparent that the idea of Jesus approving of one being born again into another physical body,  is dead . . . again.

Notes:

[1] The notion that Jesus embraced reincarnation is usually associated with New Age writers such as Elizabeth Clare Prophet and Dolores Cannon. However, J. D. M. Derrett, a highly-respected Greek New Testament scholar, recently promoted this view in a scholarly journal article, “The True Meaning of Jn 9, 3–4” (Filología Neotestamentaria xvi 2003), pgs. 103–106.

[2] See “Did Jesus Allow for Reincarnation? Assessing the Syntax of John 9:3–4” at MichaelSHeiser.com/John9.pdf

 

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Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Logos Bible Software. Originally published in print, Vol. 1 No. 3.

A Woman Who Fears the Lord

See the beauty of Proverbs 31 displayed through the Bible-art video below. Share this video with a woman you admire today.

Author Katie Monsma

“An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.” –Proverbs 31:10

The word “excellent” in Proverbs 31:10 is derived from the Hebrew lemma hayil.  The root of this word defines this woman as strong and confident—a woman of substance.

Hayil is a masculine term used 242 times in the Old Testament to reference strong men and armies. There are only two other references that link the Hebrew lemma hayil to a woman. A woman that is “the crown of her husband” in Proverbs 11:24, and when Boaz assures Ruth that she is a woman who exhibits hayil in Ruth 3:11. Hayil was an extremely uncommon way to describe a woman in the Old Testament. Proverbs 31 dives headfirst into the worth of a virtuous woman—this woman is a rare jewel, a gift from God.

The next set of verses continues to dig into the characteristics of this woman with hayil. She is trustworthy, hardworking, nurturing, and has enough resources to give readily to those who are in need. Proverbs 31 paints this woman line by line, creating a picture of a strength, confidence, and wisdom.

“Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised” –Proverbs 31:30

Finally, the chapter ends by praising her as a truly virtuous woman (Prov. 31:28). Everyone treats her fairly and gives her credit for her work, yet she humbly receives such praise because of her fear for the Lord.  She is strong and fearless—truly a woman with hayil.

Take a moment to reflect on the beautiful passage of Proverbs 31 with this video. It seamlessly brings Scripture to life through color, sound, and animation. Share this video today!

Don’t miss the September/October issue of Bible Study Magazine featuring Lysa TerKeust, President of Proverbs 31 ministries. In every issue, you will find useful tools and methods for Bible study, along with insights from respected Bible teachers, professors, historians, and archaeologists. Take over 30% off the cover price—subscribe today!

 

Why the Dove?

Author John D. Barry

Ambrose of Milan on Jesus’ Baptism

Ambrose (ca. 333–397 AD) was the bishop of Milan, as well as St. Augustine’s teacher. He is most well known for his defense of the Holy Spirit as a divine part of the Trinity.

WhytheDove ‘[H]eaven was opened, the Holy Spirit descended in bodily shape like a dove’ [Luke 3:21–22]. Why like a dove? For the grace of the washing requires simplicity, so that we may be ‘innocent like doves’ [Matt 10:16]. The grace of the washing requires peace, as in an earlier image the dove brought to the ark that which alone was inviolable by the flood [Gen 8:10–11]. … In that branch, in that ark, was the image of peace and of the church. In the midst of the floods of the world the Holy Spirit brings its fruitful peace to its church. David too taught [about] the sacrament of baptism … with the Spirit of prophecy, [saying,] ‘Who will give me wings like a dove?’ …

Because the Father did not wear a body, … the Father wished to prove to us that he is present in the Son, saying, ‘You are my beloved Son. In you I am well pleased’ [Luke 3:22]. If you wish to learn that the Son is always present with the Father, read the voice of the Son saying, ‘If I go up into heaven, you are there. If I go down into the grave, you are present there’ [Psa 139:8].”[1]

[1] St. Ambrose of Milan, Exposition of the Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke with Fragments on the Prophecy of Isaias. Translation by T. Tomkinson (Etna: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 1998), pgs. 76–77. Translation amended by A. A. Just, Luke. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament  Vol 3. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), pgs. 66–67.

 

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Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Logos Bible Software. Originally published in print, Vol. 1 No. 3.

Figuring out the “Firstborn” in Colossians 1:18

Author Andrew B. Perrin

In Col 1:18 Paul describes Jesus as “the firstborn of the dead.” How can this be when Lazarus was resurrected before Jesus (John 11:44)? To understand what Paul meant here, we must investigate the meaning of the Greek word behind the English word “firstborn.”

Step 1: Make the Switch to Greek and Establish a Preliminary Definition

FiguringOutFirstbornThe easiest way to pinpoint the Greek word translated as “firstborn” is to use The ESV English-Greek Reverse Interlinear New Testament. This resource aligns the English translation with the corresponding Greek text. When we look directly below the English word “firstborn” in this resource we find the word prōtotokos.

From here we can use a Greek lexicon to formulate a working definition. If using print resources, take note of the number 4416 in the reverse interlinear, and look this number up in the Hebrew-Aramaic Dictionary appended to Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. In Logos Bible Software, I simply double-click on prōtotokos in the reverse-interlinear and am directed to the appropriate entry in my preferred Greek lexicon, which is A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG). Both resources tell us that prōtotokos refers to birth order—in the first century, this signifies rank, or status.

Step 2: Briefly Track the Word through Greek Literature

Since the New Testament was written in a Greek culture, investigating how words were used in other Greek writings is an integral component of our study. Through concise survey articles, the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNTA) plugs us into this Greek context.

Looking up “firstborn” in the Table of English words in TDNTA directs us to the article on page 965. In Logos Bible Software, this resource is a double-click away. TDNTA states that prōtotokos is rare in Greek literature; in its place authors often used the synonym prōtogonos meaning “first in rank.”

In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, prōtotokos was applied to humans (Gen 38:6) and animals (Gen 4:4), both of whom God uniquely claimed as His own (Exod 13:2). The term also functioned as a national designation for Israel as the object of God’s special favor (Exod 4:22). Closer in time to the New Testament, Philo, a Greek Jewish Philosopher (20 BC–50 AD), described Cain as a prōtotokos since he was very literally the first human physically born (Gen 4:1)—who had a special rank as Adam’s heir. In all of these usages, the term denotes the special rank of the “firstborn” in relation to others.

Step 3: Survey the Usage of the Word in the New Testament

We can narrow the scope of our study by focusing on the New Testament uses of prōtotokos. This can quickly be done using Logos Bible Software’s speed search, or manually by looking up the word “firstborn” in Strong’s and counting all of the occurrences listed with the number 4416. Both methods reveal that prōtotokos occurs eight times in the New Testament.

Six of these occurrences refer directly to Jesus. At the most basic level, Jesus is described as Mary’s “firstborn son” (Luke 2:7). Just as Philo referred to the physical birth and rank of Cain, Luke refers to Jesus as the first child of Mary.

In Col 1:15 Paul states that Jesus is the “firstborn of all creation.” Paul may be referring to Jesus being the “first” eternal, divine being made flesh and born into the created order. Paul may also be referring to Jesus’ rank as head of creation. Jesus is the preeminent one who entered into the created world (Heb 1:6). The phrase “firstborn of the dead” occurs twice (Col 1:18; Rev 1:5), alluding to the significance of Jesus’ resurrection, not the timing of the resurrection. Because of this event, Jesus is the “firstborn among many brothers” (Rom 8:29).

Step 4: Revisit the Passage to Find the Meaning of the Word in Context

Assuming that theology is conveyed at the level of single words is a danger associated with word studies. However, the true indicator of the author’s intended meaning is how the word fits within the immediate context; for us this is Col 1:15–20.

Paul’s use of prōtotokos twice in this short section suggests that the “firstborn” is an important concept for the passage as a whole. The wider context of other New Testament writers, like John, who affirm Jesus’ pre-existence and eternality, also helps us understand what Paul is saying and not saying by this term.

Although Paul’s first usage of prōtotokos evokes the idea of rank and chronology, the second occurrence of “firstborn of the dead” refers to the idea of rank and not chronology. We know this precisely because Lazarus was raised from the dead—making Col 1:18 about the “special status” of Jesus. Col 1:18 extends this priority from creation to re-creation in light of resurrection. As “the firstborn of the dead” Jesus is the resurrected one that guarantees new life for those who follow Him. This understanding is the basis for Paul’s message of reconciliation that is fully dependent on Jesus’ preeminence as prōtotokos (Col 1:17, 20).

 

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Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Logos Bible Software. Originally published in print, Vol. 1 No. 3.

Thorns, Thistles and Toiling

Author Jeannine Seery

“To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.’

To Adam he said, ‘Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, “You must not eat of it,” cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life’” (Gen 3:16–17, NIV).

Perhaps it’s because of the immThorns, Thistles and Toilingense joy and pain I’ve experienced being a parent that I’ve been thinking a great deal
lately about how the actions of Adam and Eve, our first parents, influence our daily lives.

As I’ve read it and heard it preached, the curse itself seems to be pretty straightforward: Women will toil in childbirth while men toil in work. I find myself wondering, though, how is this ancient curse evidenced in our modern existence, as we seek to work out our salvation with fear and trembling?

At the very core of the curse is the act of rebellion against God. Adam and Eve were not satisfied with what their Father had given them and deemed it necessary to follow their own interests. They chose to look outside of their relationship with God for fulfillment, instead of trusting that He would satisfy their every need. In doing so, they broke relationship with Him. The rest is history.

I’m not sure if the curse, as seen in 21st century America, is only the actual pain of childbirth and hard work. I believe that we are cursed also (perhaps even more) by our desire to find satisfaction, identity and meaning in our children and work, rather than our relationship with God.

Male and female, it seems that we are endlessly striving to make a name for ourselves—whether that would be in reaching the top of the corporate ladder, or parenting the next Albert Einstein. Take a look at the shelves of your local bookstore: You’ll find countless resources on how to become a more effective, successful person in the world of work. A quick search on the internet can yield a wealth of information on how to best meet the physical and emotional needs of your child, even before birth.

The creators of these resources appeal to our deepest insecurities and deceive us into believing that if we can somehow find the secret formula, our success will be guaranteed.

People typically aspire to be the absolute best at what we do, which in and of itself is a noble pursuit. Our problems begin to arise when we seek to measure our intrinsic value by our successes and failures. Contrary to what we’ve been told, we are not what we do. It has never defined the essence of who we are, and it never can. We have been created by a loving God to bring glory to His name in all the circumstances of our lives. And often the very circumstances that bring Him the most glory are the times of our greatest failure, times when we give up trying to work in our own power and instead allow His power to be made perfect in our weakness.

The Word of God says in Eccl 1:9, “there is nothing new under the sun.” While our daily struggles may not appear in the same form as our first parents’, their essence is quite similar. We often find ourselves dissatisfied with the path that God has ordained for us, which leads us to pursue our own agenda. Instead of taking our confusion and dissatisfaction to the one who knows us best, we are tempted to look outside of our relationship with God to find answers to our failures and disappointments. We toil, not against actual thorns and thistles, but against “the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things [that] come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful” (Mark 4:19 NIV). We seek the forbidden fruit of this world that will never satisfy, while God waits for us to come and walk with Him in the cool of the day. He can meet our every need, if only we would let Him.

 

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Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Logos Bible Software. Originally published in print, Vol. 1 No. 3.

 

“Soul” Searching in Deuteronomy 6:5

Author Andrew B. Perrin

Soul Searching in Deuteronomy

In Deut 6:5, Moses admonishes the Israelites to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (ESV).

But how well does the English translation “soul” in this verse convey the meaning of the underlying Hebrew word? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers eight definitions for the word. Since we can be certain Moses did not have a copy of this dictionary in hand, we must delve into the Hebrew text in hope of gaining fresh insight into this ancient verse. We can do this in four easy steps.

 

STEP 1: Make the Switch to Hebrew and Establish a Preliminary Definition

Locating the Hebrew word behind the English word “soul” is made easy with The ESV English-Hebrew Reverse Interlinear Old Testament. In this resource, each word of the English translation is aligned with its corresponding Hebrew word. When we look directly below “soul” in Deut 6:5 we see that nephesh is the Hebrew word behind the translation.

Now that we have this Hebrew word in mind, we establish a preliminary definition, what scholars call a “gloss.” If using print resources like Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, we look up the English word “soul” and locate the reference to Deut 6:5. We then note the Strong’s number, 5315, to the right of the passage and look it up in the numerically-keyed Hebrew-Aramaic Dictionary appended to Strong’s. With Logos Bible Software we just double-click the word in the reverse interlinear and our preferred lexicon opens, which for me is A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament by Holladay.¹

A survey of the entry for nephesh in Holladay shows us that the word has up to 10 potential meanings including: “breath,” “living being,” “man,” “life,” “soul” and even “corpse.” Since words function in context, we need to investigate what our word means in various contexts, not just lump all the definitions together.

 

 STEP 2: Briefly Explore the Word in Other Ancient Semitic Languages

It is often valuable to investigate the cultural contexts from which a word emerged. The most efficient way to detect the potential influence of other languages on our Hebrew word is to consult a resource such as the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT).² For Logos Bible software users this resource is a click away. For those using the print edition, a convenient index coded with Strong’s Numbers allows readers to easily access the dictionary.

By looking up the Strong’s number 5315 we are directed to the TWOT numerical entry 1395a on nephesh. This article informs us that similar words in Ugaritic and Akkadian were associated with breathing and by implication the throat. Further nuances are seen in equivalent Arabic words that can also mean soul, mind, life or appetite.

With this broader context of associated meanings in mind we can now move on to isolate the unique contours of nephesh in the Old Testament.

 

STEP 3: Survey the Usage of the Word in the Old Testament

There are two perspectives that must be considered when understanding the usage of a word: (1) frequency (how many times a word is used); and (2) distribution (where the word is used). Investigating usage along these two axes allows us to establish a spectrum of meaning for our word in the Old Testament context.

To determine the frequency and distribution of a word we can use Logos’ concordance function or Strong’s. If using Strong’s we must look up the English word “soul” and tabulate only the number of occurrences with the Strong’s number 5315. In total there are 757 occurrences of the noun nephesh in the Old Testament. We can consult a selection of these passages to ascertain the spectrum of potential meanings.

At this stage we already see that nephesh in the Old Testament is a diverse term touching the many facets of life and living.

By narrowing the scope of our study and focusing on the distinct features of the occurrences of nephesh in Deuteronomy, we see that the term has special significance in light of Israel’s conduct and relationship with God. While Deuteronomy often uses nephesh to simply denote existence (Deut 12:23) or desire (Deut 14:26), the word is afforded a unique nuance that extends the spectrum of meanings provided above. Of the 35 occurrences in Deuteronomy, nephesh appears in close proximity with the word “heart” 11 times. This consistent pairing is seen most often in the phrase “with all your heart and all your soul” referring to the diligence and commitment the Israelites were to exhibit towards God’s laws (compare Deut 10:12).

With the broader palette of Old Testament usage, as well as the unique coloring of nephesh (שׁפנ) in Deuteronomy in mind, we can now return to the beginning of our investigation and examine Deut 6:5 once again.

Nephesh is often used to denote:

The very essence of existence (Gen 2:7) which departs at death (Gen 35:18; 1 Kgs 19:10).

The seat of human emotion and/or desire (Psa 35:25; Song 1:7; Ezek 24:25).

The organs, or physical actions, associated with breathing (Ps 105:18; Job 41:21; Isa 5:14).

 

STEP 4: Revisit the Passage to Find the Meaning of the Word in Context.

Our study has shown us that the English translation “soul,” especially when paired with “heart,” is ambiguous and lacks the precision required for an accurate interpretation of Deut 6:5. In this context nephesh is primarily a synonym for life and is distinct from other words such as “heart” (lev) that is closely associated with the mind rather than emotion. Instead of understanding “soul” as the immaterial spiritual component of a person, this concise understanding better conveys the passage’s call for an all-encompassing and lived-out devotion to God.

 

Notes:

¹A lexicon is an in-depth dictionary about a specific corpus of writings. Because of this, lexicons contain more lengthy and detailed entries than dictionaries.

 

Bible Study Magazine delivers tools and methods for Bible study, as well as insights from respected Bible teachers, professors, historians, and archaeologists. Take over 30% off the cover price—subscribe now!

 

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Logos Bible Software. Originally published in print, Vol. 1 No. 2.

What does the Bible teach about … Righteousness and Truth?

Author Craig C. Broyles

Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down righteousness; let the earth open, that salvation may spring up, and let it cause righteousness to sprout up also; I the Lord have created it.  Isaiah 45:8 NRSV

Some words from the Bible are used so frequently in Christian vocabulary that we assume we know their meaning. What does the bible teach acout righteousness and truth?But often they have been so colored by our traditions that their meaning has shifted from biblical times. Fortunately, to recover these ancient meanings we do not have to rely on archaeology and inscriptions (though these resources are often helpful). Most scholars use the same resource every Christian has access to: the Bible.

A word’s meaning or definition is best determined by how it is used. The usage is found through considering the following contexts:

1. The sentence (grammar and syntax)

2. The genre (a literary type) and literary context

3. The situation (historical and sociological contexts)

Let’s now examine two words—righteousness and truth—to see how these features can shed light on a word’s usage and meaning.

 Righteousness

God’s Righteousness in Isaiah 40–55

For many Christians “righteousness” (sedeq or sedeqah) can simply mean conformity to God’s moral law. This conformity should then be exemplified in moral behavior. There are indeed biblical references that support this perspective (Deut 6:25). But there are other facets to this diamond of biblical “righteousness,” especially when we focus in particular on God’s righteousness in Isaiah 40–55.

1. The Sentence. “Parallelism” is characteristic of Hebrew poetry, and it can provide an immediate clue to the field of meaning (often called the “semantic field”) of a particular word in a particular context. In this verse we see that as “righteousness” rains down from the skies, it produces “salvation.” While there are different kinds of parallelism, in this case “salvation” and “righteousness” appear as near synonyms.

2-3. The genre and literary context, and the historical situation. This hymnic fragment follows a pivotal oracle (44:24–45:7) in Isa 40–55. These chapters are addressed to the Jews exiled from their homeland to Babylonia in the mid-sixth century BC. They had little hope, except for “the word of our God” that “stands forever” (Isa 40:80). In this pivotal, prophetic word, God announces that he will use Cyrus, king of Persia, as his agent to restore the Jews to their homeland and to rebuild Jerusalem. He even calls this Persian king “my shepherd” and “anointed” (or “messiah”)! Now we can make sense of why “salvation” and “righteousness” are one and the same thing for these Jewish exiles. God, by “saving” his people from deportation, “puts things right” for these oppressed people. This amounts to nothing less than “rescuing righteousness.”

“My righteousness” and “my salvation,” that is, God’s salvation and righteousness, are parallel terms in Isa 46:13 as well. In this speech the Lord challenges His people to believe that “the man of my counsel from a far country” (46:11), namely Cyrus the Persian, will bring God’s “righteousness” and “salvation” to Zion/Jerusalem. Similarly, three times “my righteousness” and “my salvation” appear as parallel terms (51:5, 6, 8) that bring the Lord’s comforting and restoring of Zion/Jerusalem (51:3). Finally, in Isa 45:21 the Lord characterizes Himself as “a righteous God and savior”—in contrast to the idols of the nations. In this speech against the nations, they are given an altar call, so to speak (“turn to me and be saved”), wherein they may confess, “only in the Lord … are righteous deeds and strength” (i.e., rescuing acts; 45:22–24). Indeed, “in the Lord all the offspring of Israel shall be justified” (or “made right,” yisdequ). This verse uses the verbal form of the Hebrew word for “righteousness.” The righteousness of God in Isaiah 40–55 does not denote the absolute, moral standard by which He judges and condemns people. What is decisive here is that God’s “righteousness” is virtually synonymous with His “salvation”—even though his people disobey His “law” (Isa 42:24) and His “commandments” (48:18). In fact, it is in spite of Israel’s being “far from righteousness” that God declares “I bring my righteousness near, it is not far” (46:12–13; compare, 48:1). Thus, the “righteousness” of God in Isa 40–55 anticipates the rescuing righteousness of God that is fundamental to Paul’s epistle to the Romans (see esp. 1:16–17).

Truth: Truth in the Psalms

As with the term, “righteousness,” many in Western society conceive of “truth” (’emet) as an abstract, absolute standard or norm of reality. But the Old Testament tends to treat “truth” in the context of relationship.

In the Psalms ’emet, (תמא) is frequently paired with khesed, which is translated as “steadfast love” (NRSV, ESV), “lovingkindness” (NASB), and “love” (NIV). All fifteen of these pairings describe attributes of God. This pairing of terms, along with the psalmic prayers and praises that use it, associates ’emet, (תמא) with relational loyalty. Hence, the NRSV and ESV translators use “faithfulness” in these contexts. The echoes in Ps 86:15 point to the famous confession in Exod 34:6: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (’emet).”

At this moment during the Golden Calf incident, the Lord revealed His merciful “faithfulness”—in spite of His people’s rebellion.

In some cases where “truth” is used in reference to humans in the psalms, it is better understood and translated as “authenticity.” When the hymn, Ps 145, celebrates that the “Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth” (145:18 NRSV), it refers to those who call on the Lord with sincerity and authenticity and not necessarily to those who are in full conformity to an absolute standard of “truth.” Ps 51 is a classic confession of personal sin.

The claim, “you desire truth in the inward being” (Ps 51:6 NRSV), points to the sincere, authentic confession exemplified in the psalm itself. The temple entry liturgy of Ps 15 echoes this same notion: “those who … speak the truth from their heart” (15:2). These uses of ’emet do not point to “truth” in the sense of moral perfection but to “true” speech that authentically reflects one’s heart.

Word studies can be fruitful endeavors. By listening closely to how the Hebrew writers used their words we can get closer to how they thought. In the cases of “righteousness” and “truth” they primarily considered them not as external, moral standards or norms, but within the context of a committed relationship. In Isaiah 40–55 and the Psalms, God’s “righteousness” and “truth” exhibit themselves as salvation and fidelity. Human righteousness in the Psalms exhibits itself as authenticity.

 

Bible Study Magazine delivers tools and methods for Bible study, as well as insights from respected Bible teachers, professors, historians, and archaeologists. Take over 30% off the cover price—subscribe now!

 

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Logos Bible Software. Originally published in print, Vol. 1 No. 2.

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