«      »

The Importance of Taking Account of Jewish Ways of Thinking and Speaking That Are Found in the Bible

By Max Aplin

It is a fact widely recognised by Christians that the divine inspiration of the Bible nevertheless allows room for the writing styles of the various human authors to be given expression.

What modern Christians often fail to recognise, however, is that the inspiration of Scripture has also allowed room for expression to be given to the thoroughly Jewish ways of thinking and speaking that were present in the culture of the original authors. Crucially, some of these ways were very different from how we think and speak about things in modern Western countries.

What often happens is that Western Christians approach the biblical books subconsciously assuming that the authors thought and spoke in the same way that we do, when in fact they didn’t. This frequently leads to puzzlement and mistakes in interpretation. Many of the problems that modern Western readers of the Bible feel when reading Scripture can be solved by taking account of the authors’ Jewish ways of thinking and speaking.

One important difference between how they thought and spoke and how we think and speak is in attitudes to precision. When expressing a concept, the biblical authors often tended to use words that corresponded less precisely to that concept than we would. They also tended to be less concerned about precisely adhering to traditions that they held in high esteem than we are.

To be sure, when it was important, the biblical writers could be very precise. But often they were imprecise about things in various ways that we find strange, at times even amazing.

In what follows, I will highlight some areas in which this difference in attitude to precision manifests itself in Scripture. I will concentrate almost exclusively on the New Testament, since that is the part of the Bible that I know the most about.

To begin with, here are two general examples of how first century Jews, including Jesus, could use astonishingly imprecise language by our standards:

First, there is Jesus’ prophecy in Matthew 12:40: ‘Just as Jonah was in the sea monster’s stomach for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.’

In comparison with how modern Westerners speak about things, the lack of precision here is astounding. Three days and three nights is, of course, approximately 72 hours. Yet Matthew himself, who records these words of Jesus about Jonah, portrays the time between Jesus’ burial and resurrection as roughly 36 hours (Matt 27:46-28:7)!

Jesus was in the tomb for part or all of three calendar days (beginning at sunset in Jewish reckoning): the very last part of the day before the Sabbath, all of the Sabbath day, and about half of the day after the Sabbath. The fact that His time in the tomb occurred on at least part of three consecutive days was obviously enough to make a reference to ‘three days and three nights’ seem legitimate.

The words used here to describe the time Jesus was in the tomb clearly correspond much less precisely to what actually happened than the words that people of our culture would use to describe what happened.

Second, in 1 Corinthians 1:14-15 Paul thanks God for how few of the Corinthians he baptised, and he says that he baptised so few, ‘so that no one would say that you were baptised in my name’.

Paul has clearly been concerned that some of the Corinthian Christians were putting him on a pedestal and regarding him more highly than was proper, and he is implying that he baptised so few of them to counter this tendency.

However, the way he phrases things is amazing by our standards. He cannot possibly have thought that Corinthian believers who had been baptised in the name of Jesus (or perhaps in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) would really have thought to themselves, ‘This guy Paul is amazing. You know what, when I was baptised, I think I was actually baptised in the name of Paul.’

Yet Paul speaks as if they had been thinking this! The gap between the concern that he really has and the words used to describe that concern is astonishing in comparison with modern Western ways of speaking about things.

I have given these two examples to set the scene for what follows by showing to what extent the biblical authors could be imprecise about things in a way that we would not be. I am in no way criticising this imprecision. I am just noting that it is a strikingly different way of thinking and speaking when compared to how we think and speak.

Let’s look now at some specific types of imprecision in the Bible.

Firstly, there is the matter of hyperbole, which could be defined as deliberate exaggeration for effect that does not intend to deceive.

This is found commonly in modern Western culture. For example, an exasperated mother might say to her disobedient son, ‘I’ve told you a thousand times today to tie your shoelaces!’ In this case, ‘a thousand’ is not intended to be taken literally, and both speaker and hearer understand this perfectly. The idea is that she has told her son to tie his shoelaces many times, and the exaggeration is used to stress the frequency.

Although we commonly use hyperbole, in first century Jewish culture it was used more often and in ways we would not use it. Here are some New Testament examples:

(1) In Mark 10:29-30 (paralleled with variations in Matt 19:28-29 and Luke 18:29-30) Jesus promises: ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or land for my sake and for the gospel’s sake, who will not receive a hundred times as much in the present time – houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and land . . .’

In comparison with the way Westerners use language today, the hyperbole in this passage is really amazing. We can note too that Jesus even emphasises this promise by beginning it with ‘Truly I tell you’, yet the promise can hardly be taken literally. Jesus is promising blessing before death to those who give up things for His sake. But the language used to describe this blessing is astonishingly exaggerated in comparison with what we are used to.

(2) In Mark 1:5 the evangelist tells us that all the country of Judea and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem went out to be baptised by John the Baptist.

Actually, we know that there were many, including Pharisees and Sadducees, who didn’t do this. The point is that large numbers of people went to be baptised by John, but it is phrased in exaggerated language.

In fact, there are many places in Scripture where ‘every’ or ‘all’ should not be taken literally. In addition to the example I have just given, see, e.g., Luke 6:30; Acts 3:24; 17:21; Heb 4:15; Titus 1:12, and probably Rom 11:26. There are also numerous places in the Old Testament where the phrase ‘all Israel’ does not literally mean all Israel. See, e.g., 1 Sam 7:5; 25:1; 1 Kings 12:1; 2 Chron 12:1; Dan 9:11.

Failing to recognise hyperbole or possible hyperbole can lead to misinterpretations of biblical texts. For example, Revelation 5:9 refers to those who receive salvation as coming from ‘every tribe and language and people and nation’. Because there have been tribes of people that have existed and died out during the Christian era without ever having been reached with the gospel, it is often claimed that this verse proves that some members of these tribes must have been saved without faith in Christ, and that we can therefore also expect significant numbers of people today to be saved without faith in Him.

However, once we recognise that ‘every’ in Scripture is often used hyperbolically, it immediately becomes apparent that this verse does not prove this at all. It could easily just mean that the saved come from a huge diversity of ethnic groups.

Another issue which overlaps with the issue of hyperbole is that of allowing exceptions to a general rule. In the modern West, we tend to express exceptions to a principle more than first century Jews did. They often didn’t mention that there would be exceptions to something, even when there might be many exceptions. Here are a couple of New Testament examples:

(1) In Matthew 5:42 Jesus teaches: ‘Give to the person who asks you, and do not turn away from the person who wants to borrow from you.’

There are in fact obviously countless times when we should not give to someone who asks us for something or who wants to borrow from us. For example, if someone asks us for money to buy illegal drugs, we should certainly not oblige!

Jesus, in line with His Jewish cultural context, sees no need to mention the fact that there will be many exceptions to the principle that He is outlining. We wouldn’t speak like this in our culture. We would express the same concept differently.

(2) In Luke 16:15 Jesus states: ‘That which is highly esteemed among people is hateful in the sight of God.’

We can, in fact, think of many things that would have been highly esteemed among people in first century Jewish culture but which would not have been hateful to God. For instance, helping someone who has been hurt in an accident is just one out of a multitude of examples that could be given.

Again, in line with His Jewish culture, Jesus takes it for granted that there will be numerous exceptions to the principle He is outlining, although He doesn’t refer to these exceptions. We wouldn’t speak like this in the modern West. We would probably express the same concept by saying, ‘Much that is highly esteemed among people is hateful in the sight of God.’

Sometimes, the fact that first century Jews allowed for unexpressed exceptions to things more than we are used to causes difficulties for modern Western Bible readers. For example, in Mark 10:2-12 Jesus teaches that whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery. That might seem to conflict with Matthew 5:31-32 and 19:9, which allow for divorce and remarriage in the case of sexual immorality.

However, once we understand that the first century Jewish cultural context allowed widely for unexpressed exceptions to a principle, the difficulty disappears. Mark provides a general principle whose exceptions have been left unexpressed. Matthew then goes into a bit more detail, specifying exceptions to the principle in Mark. There is no need whatever to see a conflict between these passages.

Something else that modern Western Christians find strange about the attitudes of the New Testament writers is the way that they sometimes felt a liberty to modify the Old Testament text that they were quoting. They had enormous respect for the authority of the Old Testament, and yet often that didn’t stop them altering the wording to make it more applicable to the situation they were writing for.

For example, in Acts 2:17-21 we find Peter quoting Joel’s prophecy in Joel 2:28-32. The fact that the Greek words in these verses of Acts correspond very closely to the words in the Septuagint, i.e., the standard Greek Old Testament translation of the first century, shows that Peter is quoting Joel in these verses; he is not paraphrasing it. And the fact that the first Greek words in Acts 2:17 – kai estai – are the same as the first words of this passage in the Septuagint shows that the quotation starts at the beginning of Acts 2:17.

However, in the Septuagint this prophecy begins: ‘And it will be after these things’. Very similarly, in the Hebrew underlying our English translations of Joel the prophecy begins, ‘And it will come to pass afterwards’. In Acts 2:17, by contrast, in Peter’s quote, the prophecy begins: ‘And it will be in the last days’. ‘In the last days’ is not in the Old Testament text. It seems that here Luke (and also Peter, if the quote is strictly historical – see the discussion on historicity below) has correctly understood that Joel’s prophecy applied to the last days that began with the crucifixion/resurrection/giving of the Spirit, so he modifies the Old Testament quotation to make this connection clear.

Another example can be found in Galatians 4:30, where Paul cites Genesis 21:10.

In the Septuagint, Gen 21:10 reads: ‘Expel this slave woman and her son. For the son of this slave woman will not be an heir with my son Isaac.’ The Hebrew underlying our English versions of Genesis is virtually identical.

In Gal 4:30, however, Paul writes: ‘But what does the scripture say? ‘Expel this slave woman and her son. For the son of the slave woman will not be an heir with the son of the free woman.”

Apart from the last few words, the words Paul uses correspond very closely to the Septuagint translation, and this shows that Paul is quoting Genesis, not paraphrasing it. His initial question, ‘But what does the scripture say?’ also suggests quotation.

Note, however, the big change at the end of this passage: ‘my son Isaac’ in Genesis has been changed to ‘the son of the free woman’ in Galatians. Paul has modified the Old Testament text that he received in order to help him further his argument in Galatians. At this point in the letter he is rounding off his allegorical treatment of Sarah and Hagar, and he wants to emphasise that Christians, whose allegorical mother is Sarah, are free. He therefore modifies the text of Genesis to aid him in making his point.

Even though the points that are being made from the Old Testament in these examples from Acts and Galatians are legitimate ones, it nevertheless tends to strike us as slightly dishonest to modify the text in this way. But Luke and Paul apparently didn’t think it was dishonest at all. And, more importantly, apparently neither did the Holy Spirit who inspired Scripture.

At times, then, the New Testament authors felt a liberty to modify the Old Testament text despite holding that text in very high esteem. Similarly, when writing their historical accounts of Jesus and the early church, at times they clearly felt a liberty to make certain modifications to their traditions too, despite holding those traditions in very high regard. If they were prepared to modify the Old Testament text, it should not surprise us that they were also prepared to modify their historical traditions.

For example, in Luke’s resurrection account, on the day Jesus rises from the dead He appears to various people and then on the same day to the inner circle of eleven disciples (Judas Iscariot is no longer with them) and others in Jerusalem (Luke 24:1-53, esp. vv. 1, 13, 33-49).

In Matthew’s account, however, on the day Jesus rises an angel appears to Mary Magdalene and ‘the other Mary’ (28:1-7), who instructs these women to tell Jesus’ disciples to go to Galilee, where they will see Him. Immediately after that, Jesus meets the women and repeats the instruction: they are to tell the disciples to go to Galilee, where they will see Him.

Then in verses 16-17 we are told, ‘The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain that Jesus had designated. And when they saw Him they worshipped Him, but some doubted.’

There can be no doubt that in Matthew’s account, this meeting in Galilee – a few days’ journey from Jerusalem – is being portrayed as the occasion on which the eleven see Jesus for the first time after His resurrection. It is impossibly implausible to suppose that the eleven are being portrayed as those who have already seen and spoken to Jesus in Jerusalem on the day of the resurrection. Verses 16-17 cannot be read in that way.

This means that Matthew’s and Luke’s portrayals of the timing of the first resurrection appearance to the eleven cannot both be historical. And the best solution is that one or both of these authors felt a liberty to depart a little from a strictly historical approach to what they were writing. Unless we assume that at least one of these authors has made a mistake, there must have been some conscious decision by at least one of them to modify historical traditions or to accept already modified traditions.

Here is another example of where a conscious modification of historical tradition seems probably to have occurred, one that also involves Luke 24:

In Luke 24, as I have already noted, there stands an account of Jesus’ resurrection appearances on the Sunday He rises from the dead. This narrative includes words of Jesus to His disciples in verses 46-49, which are certainly portrayed being spoken either on that Sunday or perhaps in the early hours of the following Monday morning. Then immediately following these words, Luke continues in verses 50-51: ‘And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. While He was blessing them, He left them and was carried up to heaven.’

By far the most natural way of understanding verses 50-51 is that they are portraying Jesus’ ascension taking place on the Sunday of His resurrection or early the following Monday.

If we turn to Acts 1:1-11, however, we find that Luke – the same author! – portrays the ascension taking place forty days after the resurrection!

Saying that there must have been two ascensions is a very dubious solution to the problem, and is surely not what the church has believed down through the centuries. Similarly, trying to force the interpretation of one or both of these passages to make them agree is the wrong thing to do. We need to let the Bible stand as it is. Instead, the best solution is to suppose that in at least one passage Luke felt a liberty to modify his traditions somewhat.

Just as with modifications of the text of the Old Testament, so modifying the history of Jesus and the early church strikes us as strange and even as dishonest. Besides, it is in the psyche of us modern Westerners to want to know exactly what happened.

But a close analysis of the text of the New Testament – I could give many other examples – shows clearly that the Jewish mindset of the authors of the Gospels and Acts (even if Luke was a Gentile, he was massively influenced by Judaism, as scholars agree) was not so concerned as we are about precision in recording history, and if they could modify their historical traditions to a certain extent to make them more edifying for their readers or to simplify things, they sometimes did that.

If we were able to ask Luke, for example, ‘Luke, I’ve looked closely at your Gospel, and it seems to me that you have not written pure history. Is that right?’ I am sure he would say something like, ‘Yes. I’ve modified it a bit to make it more applicable to my audience and to simplify things, but it approximates closely to history. I’ve done something similar in my quotations of the Old Testament.’

It is important for us to recognise that the Gospels and Acts are first and foremost works of theology. They are aimed primarily at teaching us important spiritual truths. They are only secondarily works of history. Once we understand that, the fact that the history has at times been modified is a bit easier to understand. And we must surely say that God would not have allowed the Gospels to give us portraits of the life of Jesus that are basically unhistorical. They surely still give us largely historically accurate portraits of His life. Similarly, Acts surely gives us a largely historical account of what went on in the early church.

These works are historical enough that a pastor need not bother to try to differentiate between what is historical and what is modification of history when teaching. When I write about Christian matters and I want to cite the Gospels or Acts, I myself usually just treat the text I am dealing with as though it is fully historical. Treating these works as historical will be a close enough approximation to what actually happened. And, in any case, these works infallibly teach us what is true in all that is of importance for life and faith.

Insisting that the Gospels and Acts are works of pure history is a problem in large parts of Western evangelicalism. There are huge numbers of sincere believers who rightly have a very high regard for the authority of Scripture, but who wrongly misapply that zeal by trying to force the Gospels and Acts to be works of pure history, when neither the original authors nor the Holy Spirit ever intended them to be such.

We can only read the Gospels and Acts as pure history, if, time and time again, we take very unnatural interpretations of passages. This is not only dishonest, but it sets a terribly dangerous precedent by unwittingly giving a green light to those who want to take forced and very unnatural interpretations elsewhere in the Bible too. It also often puts people off the Christian faith, when they are led to believe that being a Christian involves interpreting the Bible in ways that are patently contrived and false.

It is also worth noting that understanding the Gospels and Acts as something other than pure history is not an invention of modern theological liberalism.

For example, the second-third century theologian, Origen, asserted: ‘There are many . . . points on which the careful student of the Gospels will find that their narratives do not agree’ (Comm. Joh. 10.2).

Similarly, the fourth-fifth century church leader, John Chrysostom, stated: ‘But if there be anything touching time or places, which [the Gospel writers] have related differently, this nothing injures the truth of what they have said . . . [but those things] which constitute our life and furnish out our doctrine nowhere is any of them found to have disagreed . . .’ (Hom. Matt. 1.6).

I could give many more examples to illustrate the points I have been trying to make in this article, but I don’t want it to become any longer than it already is. Basically, the key point that I have been trying to get across is that the New Testament (together with the rest of the Bible) is a collection of works that have been written with a thoroughly Jewish mindset, and that this mindset often involved thinking and writing about things in ways that are in a sense much less precise than we are used to in the modern West.

We should accept and embrace this feature of Scripture. However, sadly, there are large numbers of Christians in Western countries who do anything but this, usually because they have not understood that the biblical authors didn’t share our modern Western mindset. Time and time again you can find Western Christians – usually devout and rightly with a very high view of the authority of Scripture – who consistently explain away aspects of imprecision in the text, often by coming up with extremely unnatural interpretations of passages. This is not only dishonest but causes real problems.

Other believers, who are more honest with the text, will admit that the features I have discussed are present when it is really forcing things to deny them, but in cases that are not so clear-cut they will always deny that they are there. This not only makes no sense, but also shows that these Christians are not really at peace with the Jewish mindset that allowed these features to be there in the first place. These believers are still trying to fit the Bible into a modern Western mould whenever it is conceivably possible to do so. Instead, what we should do is let the Bible stand as God inspired it, and that includes accepting all its thoroughly Jewish ways of thinking and speaking about things.

One final point I would like to make concerns the issue of errors in the biblical text. Importantly, none of the above discussion has involved a biblical author making any error. I have only been considering various ways in which the authors of the Bible thought and spoke differently from how modern Westerners think and speak. The issue of inerrancy – the debate between those who say that God has inspired Scripture in such a way that there are no errors in it at all and those who say that He has inspired Scripture in such a way that He fully succeeds in revealing what He wants to despite human errors in unimportant matters – is a completely separate issue from what I have been discussing.

Often Christians assume that in the Bible any departure from pure history when writing narrative must involve error, but this is a wrong assumption that comes from bringing a modern Western mindset to ancient texts that have been heavily influenced by an ancient Jewish mindset, as I have tried to explain above. Inerrancy and ancient Jewish attitudes to precision are both issues that concern historicity, but these issues should not be confused.

I have been a Christian for over 25 years. I have a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Edinburgh. I am a UK national and I currently live in the south of Scotland.

Article Source: http://www.faithwriters.comCHRISTIAN WRITER

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

  • Stay Up to Date with TheHolyStory News!
    Get Your TheHolyStory News here!
    * indicates required
  • Categories
  • Search the Net from here!
    Custom Search
WP Flex by WP Queen
Wordpress theme developed by Simpler Computing and others - Wordpress and WPMU Plugins, custom code and more.