Discovering the New Testament Anew

I wish that more people really grasped the truth contained in the following quote. I think it would change a lot of things for the better.

“…the New Testament is indissolubly bound to what Christianity has traditionally erred in calling the “Old Testament.” The New Testament as a written text is both a continuation of and a commentary on or explication of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. It cannot be understood without reference to the Tanakh, which provides it with its primary interpretive context. This is one of the primary justifications for our premise that the New Testament is a Jewish text. Because of this fact, the issue of exegesis or interpretation is also bound to the content and context of the Tanakh. In addition, however, our claim of a Jewish text and Jewish mode of interpretation for the New Testament is tied to the specific historical period in which its books were written and the thought of the people who wrote them, who may be accepted as authentic examples of the Jewish world of the first centuries.” – Shulam, Joseph, Hilary LeCornu. A Commentary On the Jewish Roots of Romans. pg 2

Remind Your Yeshurun, O God our God, that there is none like You Who rides in His majesty through the heights of the heavens to help us. Guide us in our distress, place our feet on Your path, as we meditate on Your laws.

Gnostics or Judaizers?

“Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” Colossians 2:16-17 (ESV)

An acquaintance of mine made the following comments about this passage:

Many of the Jews at that time were trying to enforce the restrictions of the law upon the Gentile Christians, telling them they should not eat pork or shell fish, etc., telling them they should observe all the feasts, new moons, sabbaths, etc.

Paul was telling them that these requirements were not necessary, and to not be concerned about the Jews judging them in these matters.

Where does this common assumption about this passage come from? That might be difficult to answer, so let’s focus on why I question the assumption.

Paul indicates we are not to allow anyone to judge us in regard to festivals/sabbaths or eating/drinking. Judge us in regard to what pertaining to festivals/sabbaths or eating/drinking ought to be our first question.

We typically assume that Paul is indicating we are not to allow anyone to judge us in regard to if we keep a particular festival or particular sabbath. But from the text itself it is equally possible that Paul was saying not to let anyone judge us in regard to how we keep festivals/Sabbaths or in regard to whether we are more stringent than the dietary laws of Torah require. So this means we need to investigate the context surrounding the passage in order to determine Paul’s likely meaning.

Let’s assume for a moment that Paul means don’t let anyone judge you in regard to if you keep the festivals/sabbaths. Does Paul indicate that you are to prevent people from judging you since you do keep or because you don’t keep?

The text itself doesn’t answer this question, so what we assume is determined by whatever pre-suppositions we bring to the passage. Many would say they make this determination on the basis of other “proof-texts” from the New Testament (e.g., Matthew 12, Mark 7, Acts 10, 1 Timothy 4:1-5). Since those are debatable, where ought we to turn to try and determine what Paul meant? Historical context, of course! (It should be noted here, that a basic building block of proper interpretive method is to consider a passage in isolation of possible corollary passages prior to considering it in light of other Scriptures, which themselves ought to have been considered in isolation first.)

Is there a single scrap of historical evidence indicating there was any 1st century people group suggesting that YHVH-worshippers not keep the Sabbath or the festivals? There is not. Is there any evidence that 1st Century YHVH-worshippers were taking the position that one need not abide by God’s laws for what is food and what is not? No. Is there anything about drink dealt with in God’s Law? Yes, one is to partake of alcoholic beverages in moderation and not to consume blood.

Is there historical evidence that some segments of pagan society were drinking blood? Abundant evidence; the drinking of blood was the focal point of specific religious festivals in Ephesus and Smyrna, for example.

Is there any evidence that the drinking of wine was a contemporary issue? Yes. Wine was typically opened and then splashed on the ground as a libation offering to whoever was the household god. Therefore most Jews and many Gentile believers were of the opinion that when eating in the home of a Gentile, it was best to simply abstain from drinking wine since you couldn’t know for sure whether the wine you drank had been consecrated to an idol or not. (Some rabbis ruled that if the wine was opened in your presence it was ok to drink.)

The issue was almost exactly the same with meat, though with slight variations. Paul was most certainly not discussing kosher vs. non-kosher meat or drink, but whether these had been consecrated to idols. This clearly was a hot button issue in mid-1st Century Asia Minor. We can read about it in extra-biblical writings and elsewhere in the writings of Paul.

Similarly, were there sects which prescribed eating/drinking or festivals/sabbaths in addition to those of biblical prescription? Yes there were. They were of an ascetic and proto-Gnostic nature, and Paul apparently is forced to deal with them on more than one occasion. He specifically warns against these same folks in 1 Timothy 4:1-5.

Let’s move to considering if there is historical evidence for how versus if one should observe particular days. Were there any contemporary debates over when and/or how one should observe festivals and the Sabbath? Why, as a matter of fact there was a raging debate over exactly this issue. It can be observed from Qumran to Jerusalem, from Josephus to Ptolemy. In fact, it was so prevalent that at least 4 competing calendars existed in Paul’s day. The Qumrani sect had a solar calendar, the Romans observed a solar calendar of sorts that changed from time to time (they even experimented with an 8-day week), the Pharisees had one lunar calendar and the Sadducees had another. We know that there were believers of the Pharisaic persuasion; it seems equally likely that former Sadducees or Essenes (former disciples of John the Baptist ?) also believed in Jesus, and then you have former pagans who may have followed an entirely different calendar, not to mention set of religious festivals.

So, does it seem plausible that there may have been a group urging the keeping of Passover on the 14th of Nissan and another group urging it’s keeping on the same day as the pagan Easter celebration? Oh, my goodness–that actually happened didn’t it! You can read all about it in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History.

Now I don’t know the specific answer to what Paul is referring to in Colossians 2: 16 & 17, but I would suggest that the least likely suggestion is that he is urging people to abandon the commandments of God regarding the “Festivals of the Lord”, which were “perpetual statutes for all your generations” or that Paul is vetoing God and declaring that which God declared abominable (unclean meats) suddenly kosher. It seems most likely that Paul is referring to the same proto-Gnostic soon-to-be-heretics that he battles elsewhere in the Epistles.

Let’s talk just a bit about verse 17.

There is a significant disparity between how various translations render verse 17; it ranges from very good to actually irresponsible translation. The ESV, the NKJV, and ASV represent some of the best efforts in this case. The NASB, in this instance, is surprisingly inaccurate (although at least they admit it…by putting words added by the translators in italics), and the NIV is downright shameful.

Many folks assume verse 17 is a derogatory or diminutive reference to the festivals and sabbaths of verse 16, but the reality is 180 degrees different. The NASB actually inserts the word “mere” to support the impression of “shadows” of something less than and dismissive, but in reality, the verse is stating that the festivals and sabbaths are the shadows cast by the substance, Messiah himself. As such, these shadows are copies and shadows of the reality that is in heaven (see Heb 8:5) and the closest thing to what we will eventually experience in person along with Messiah in the world to come. The NIV actually changes the tense to past instead of future!


Why did certain translation committees decide to do this?

I hope this short investigation has prompted you to ask questions about the text of Scripture that may never have occurred to you before. I hope it has also prompted a re-examination of Scripture passages whose meaning you may have previously considered obvious. Stay tuned and we’ll investigate other potentially troubling passages in the future.

Chutes & Ladders

Tonight I played Chutes & Ladders for the first time in my life. Where has this game been? It helps my daughter as she counts, helps her to follow directions, teaches her that winning is fun, but so is playing the game–I love it. Now that I think about it, where was this game when I was young? I have a sneaking suspicion it’s been around for a while.

That was such a hit we played War (you know the card game that seems to never end, each player puts down a card, whichever is larger wins, if there is a tie, then each player puts down 3 unseen cards with a fourth, face-up card on top of that) which was another great idea because each lay down was an opportunity for her to recognize each card and determine which was larger.

This is good stuff. My daughter, Alethea, loved it and we worked on learning to say “I won”, instead of “I winned.” Ahh, my English-major soul cringes. Where are my kids picking up this horrific language? Did I ever talk that way? I certainly don’t remember it! LOL; and I’m sure my wife thinks my first word was “dispensationalism” or some such blather.

“The Holy Spirit told me…”

I think I may have blown my book budget for a couple months buying copies of the Archaeological Study Bible.[1] It’s the single greatest study Bible idea in a long time and possibly ever. Why, you might ask, am I so enthusiastic, especially about a Bible version that certainly isn’t my favorite?

Well, it’s brilliant to put extra-biblical information that provides historical context right next to passages that the info reflects upon. Secondly, instead of having to read an entire book on archaeological finds in ancient Sumer, one can see the pertinent details right there, right when you need them. It’s really rather awesome.

But there’s a more important reason, and the editors touch on it in the “About This Bible” portion of the introductory pages:

“Awareness of the context of the Bible is an antidote to the dangerous dismissal of history that we see too often in both the church and the academy. In our day the postmodern outlook all but rejects history and context. Under the influence of this movement readers simply refuse to hear the writers of Scripture on their own terms and instead assert that it is up to each reader to make whatever he or she will of the ancient texts. Many outright reject the suggestion that we are obligated to attempt to understand the objective of a passage’s original writer. The author’s intended meaning is thus rendered irrelevant to the modern reader, who feels free to interpret a text in any manner whatsoever. Such an approach makes a mockery of Biblical authority. Further, many well-intentioned Christian readers, although not fully committed to a postmodern way of thinking, tend to interpret the Bible strictly in terms of their own experiences and standards, without ever considering what a prophet or apostle was saying to the people of his own day. An awareness of the beliefs, conflicts, history and habits of the people of Biblical times forces us to confront questions like, “What did Paul actually mean when he wrote these words to the Corinthian church?” (pg xiii of the Archaeological Study Bible)

I have recently been confronted by the fact that the malady so aptly described above is an absolute epidemic within American, evangelical Christianity. The really frustrating part is that most individuals afflicted with this hermeneutical disease would protest vigorously the idea that they’ve been overly influenced by postmodernism. The reality is, however, that Christians have by-and-large adopted the Reader-Response theory of literary criticism [2], shaken it up with misunderstandings about the illuminating activity of the Holy Spirit, and adopted it as their practice for Bible interpretation.

 

This scourge of relativistic interpretation of Scripture can serve only to further fracture the unity of the Church. It ignores any role the Holy Spirit may have played in forming the understanding of believers who have gone before us, and refuses to acknowledge the problematic nature of focusing only on our response to a passage, as if our thoughts and feelings are a definitive reflection of the Holy Spirit’s illuminating guidance. What if the Spirit tells your neighbor something different? How will we resolve the apparent conflict between “the Spirit’s leading” of individuals within our sundry communities?

This brings up another aspect of this pandemic…individualism. The Scriptures record God’s dealings with a people. Yet American Christianity is obsessed with Scripture’s message to the individual. No wonder we are confused. What God intended to be pondered by a community we are parsing as individual islands, desperately searching for anything to cast our opinion of a text’s significance as its God-intended meaning.

What is the remedy for this sweeping illness? I don’t know; but I shall start by pointing out its existence and then being a signal beacon pointing the way toward more rational theories of Bible study. Here are some good quotes about what it means to dig up the text and discover its meaning.

“…the first task of exegesis is to penetrate as far as possible inside the historical context(s) of the author and of those for whom he wrote. So much of this involves the taken-for-granteds of both author and addressees. Where a modern reader is unaware of (or unsympathetic to) these shared assumptions and concerns it will be impossible to hear the text as the author intended it to be heard (and assumed it would be heard).”[3]

“…A text is essentially a message from an author to its first readers, which the author hoped would be understood and acted on. Because both readers and author shared a common language and culture, there was a reasonable chance that the writer’s intentions would be realised and the message understood correctly. Our distance in time and space from the author and first readers makes it much more difficult to pick up the original sense of the message. However, just as readers of modern texts, whether they be e-mails or scholarly tomes, do their best to grasp the author’s intended sense, so responsible interpreters of ancient texts have tried to do the same.”[4]

An exhortation from the Archaeological Study Bible seems an appropriate way to wrap up this diatribe.

“A study of the context of the Bible is an encouragement to faith. Many modern Christians shun the study of the ancient world for fear that scholars will make them aware of troubling facts that will serve only to undermine their faith in the Bible. In reality, a careful study of the world of the Bible enhances our confidence in its historical accuracy and in its distinctiveness as the Word of God. Set against the astonishing variety of cultures that made up the Biblical world, the unity of the message of the Bible is remarkable.” (pg xii)

If you’re interested in pursuing responsible principles of Bible interpretation further, I highly recommend An Introduction To Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning, co-authored by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. and Moises Silva.

 

 

  1. Kaiser, Walter C., Jr., Duane Garrett, eds. NIV Archaeological Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan (2005)
  2. See the writings of Hans Robert Jauss, Norman Holland, David Bleich, etc.
  3. Dunn, J. D. G. Word Biblical Commentary : Romans 1-8. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word, Incorporated (2002). Page xv.
  4. Wenham, Gordon J. Story As Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic (2000). Page 1.