A Few Remarks on the Problem of Psalm 22:16

Psalm 22

In the comments section of my page on mistranslation in the NIV, frequent contributor John Kesler recently suggested that the NIV’s translation of Psalm 22:16 (Hebrew 17) and its associated footnote were incorrect. Dr. David Instone-Brewer, a member of the NIV translation committee, replied with a comment of his own defending the NIV against some of John’s remarks.

A copious amount of literature has been written on this very verse, not only because it is apparently corrupt and uncertain in meaning, but also because of its importance in Christian interpretation. I have by no means read all this literature, but after perusing most (if not all) of the articles published in the last decade, I believe I can summarize the problem and provide some suggestions on what might be an acceptable English translation approach. Continue reading “A Few Remarks on the Problem of Psalm 22:16”

Canaanites, Amorites, and Hittites in History and the Bible

Autumn by Nicholas Poussin, painted between 1660 and 1664

The Old Testament is full of names used to describe various ethnic groups of the Promised Land and the lands they occupy. Some of these names are well-attested from other archaeological and historical sources; others are obscure and remain a mystery to this day.

Throughout the Pentateuch and historical books, the Promised Land is frequently referred to as Canaan, and its non-Israelite inhabitants as Canaanites. Other terms used fairly often for the land’s indigenous inhabitants, though less frequently than “Canaanite”, are “Amorite” and “Hittite”.

What, in historical terms, was a Canaanite, a Hittite, an Amorite? How did ancient sources outside the Bible use these labels, and what comparisons can we draw with the Bible? The answers may help us to understand the times and places in which the biblical authors wrote, as well as the idealogical framework they were working from. Continue reading “Canaanites, Amorites, and Hittites in History and the Bible”

Is John out of Order? The Strange Geography and Chronology of the Fourth Gospel

Westfälischer Meister (John)

German theologian Rudolf Bultmann, in his famous and still widely cited commentary on John, wrote many decades ago:

The thesis has been represented, occasionally even in very early times but strongly from the beginning of this century, that the original order of the text [of John] has been disturbed, through an interchange of leaves or by some other means. …it must be presumed that the present order of our Gospel is not derived from the author. …It is not enough to reckon with a simple exchange of the pages of a loose codex, for the sections that appear to demand a change of position are of unequal length. The assumption lies closest to hand that the Gospel of John was edited from the author’s literary remains on the basis of separate manuscript pages, left without order. In any case, the present form of our Gospel is due to the work of a redactor. (pp. 11–12)

Bulfmann’s observations on the incongruities of the Gospel have been made and expanded on by many biblical scholars since then. Some agree that the Gospel seems to be out of sequence, as though an early manuscript were dropped and the pages put back in the wrong order. Others have proposed complicated source theories or stages of redaction, whether by the same author or an authorial community. Still others have simply ignored the problem altogether.

Regardless of which (if any) of these hypotheses is correct, the passages in John that have prompted this debate are worth having a look at. Continue reading “Is John out of Order? The Strange Geography and Chronology of the Fourth Gospel”

The Day the Sun Stood Still: Interpreting the Miracle of Joshua 10

John Martin (British, 1789 - 1854 ), Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon, 1816, oil on canvas, Paul Mellon Fund

Joshua 10 has one of the most remarkable miracle stories in the whole of the Old Testament  outside the opening chapters of Genesis. Fresh off of victories at Jericho and Ai, Joshua’s Israelite army faces down a coalition of five Amorite kings; victory is swift, and with the enemy on the run, Joshua commands the sun and moon to stop moving, apparently in order to give the Israelites more time to pursue and slaughter the Amorites. So great is this feat that the narrator exuberantly declares, “there has been no day like it before or since!” and the chapter eventually ends with Israel in firm control of the Judahite heartland.

This passage, sometimes referred to as Joshua’s Long Day, is a puzzler. Exactly what kind of miracle is supposed to have occurred here? What traditions is the author working with? Answering these questions has proven quite difficult, since voluminous books and papers have been written on Joshua 10, and there is a remarkable diversity of opinions on every facet of the story among biblical scholars.

The passage is also interesting for its role in the debate between science and religion that has embroiled theologians, church authorities, and other interested parties since the time of Galileo and Copernicus. Even today, the interpretations given by those with a more conservative perspective reveal much about the thinking of modern biblical literalists. Continue reading “The Day the Sun Stood Still: Interpreting the Miracle of Joshua 10”

Has the Q Source Been Under Our Noses All Along? Luke, Matthew, and the Didache

Burney MS 19, f 1v, St Matthew, 2nd quarter of the 12th century copy

In this article, we delve further yet into the murky depths of the Synoptic Problem, and a new actor appears on the stage: an ancient work known as the Didache, or The Teaching of the Apostles. (The name is usually pronounced “did-a-key”.) This was an ancient document that contained both ethical teachings and instructions for conducting church, and it may well date as early as the first century. Strangely, its relevance to the Synoptic Problem has been mostly overlooked until recently. Continue reading “Has the Q Source Been Under Our Noses All Along? Luke, Matthew, and the Didache”

Melchizedek: King, Priest, Time Lord

Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek—by Dieric Bouts the Elder, 1464–1467

“The ring of the King,” said Ransom, “is on Arthur’s finger where he sits in the land of Abhalljin, beyond the seas of Lur in Perelandra. For Arthur did not die; but Our Lord took him to be in the body till the end, with Enoch and Elias and Moses and Melchisedec the King. Melchisedec is he in whose hall the steep-stoned ring sparkles on the forefinger of the Pendragon.” — C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

“He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night, and the storm in the heart of the sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the centre of time and he can see the turn of the universe.” — Doctor Who, “The Family of Blood”

I still remember my astonishment many years ago, reading Hebrews for the first time and coming across this character named Melchizedek who was apparently an eternal and immortal being, without parents and without beginning or end. This was one of those places in the Bible where the line between religion and fantasy seemed to blur.

When I read Genesis 14 — one of only two places in the Old Testament where the immortal referent of Hebrews is mentioned — I get a sense of a character who doesn’t quite belong to the world around him; an enigmatic priest serving El Elyon, the god whom Abram equates with Yahweh, and who is also king of a city that seems to be Jerusalem but not quite. He always struck me as someone like the Tom Bombadil character of The Lord of the Rings, a powerful but reclusive wizard who disappears from the narrative once the main characters move on. More lately, he reminds me of Doctor Who, a character who seems human but whose influence extends across time and space.

Somehow, this obscure character insinuated himself right into the heart of primitive Christian theology — as well as several parallel trends in Jewish and Gnostic thought, as we shall soon see. Whether an eternal cosmic being or merely a folkloric character, Melchizedek is more important to the development of Jewish messianism and Christianity than many people may realize. Continue reading “Melchizedek: King, Priest, Time Lord”

Jesus and the Beelzebul Controversy: A Devilish Synoptic Puzzle

Lindisfarne Gospels - caption: 'St. Matthew'

Lately, I can’t stop thinking about the Synoptic Problem. This is my third article on the subject, so if you’re not sure what the Synoptic Problem is, I suggest that you first check out an earlier post I wrote on it.

In my second article on the subject, I looked at the Parable of the Talents/Minas, which is found in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark. Under the standard two-source theory, the source of such material is a hypothetical document called Q. According to noted Q skeptic Mark Goodacre, Luke copied that parable and other double tradition passages from Matthew. My own analysis suggests a third solution supported by a small but increasing number of scholars: that Matthew copied Luke — to be precise, an earlier version of Luke we can call proto-Luke. We’ll call this view “Matthean Posteriority” for convenience.¹  Continue reading “Jesus and the Beelzebul Controversy: A Devilish Synoptic Puzzle”

Crime and Punishment in Sodom and Gomorrah

Pieter Schoubroeck, De verwoesting van Sodom en Gomorra (The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah), 16th century

In many religious circles, Sodom and Gomorrah have become watchwords for the moral panic many people feel in connection with the perceived corruption and depravity of society. The metaphor is invoked particularly by those who oppose the increasing acceptance of homosexuality, and it is not hard to see why. The story of Sodom in Genesis 19 is a vivid tale of fire-and-brimstone destruction, and same-sex attraction is frequently thought to be the main crime for which its denizens are punished. Understandably, then, this biblical passage has become a target for Christians on both side of the debate who need the Bible to express either condemnation or silence on the matter. If the biblical story of Sodom is an infallible morality tale, then interpreting it correctly is of utmost importance. Continue reading “Crime and Punishment in Sodom and Gomorrah”

Did Luke Know and Use Matthew? The Parable of the Talents/Pounds as a Test Case

Willem de Poorter, The Parable of the Talents or Minas, 17th century

I recently wrote an article on the Synoptic Problem and how editorial fatigue — consistency errors made by one writer who is copying another — is a key type of evidence showing that both Matthew and Luke were based on Mark. If you don’t know what the Synoptic Problem is, you should go read that article before this one.

In addition to the material Matthew and Luke copied from Mark, we often find material shared in common between Matthew and Luke that is absent from Mark. This content is known as the Double Tradition, and it presents us with a puzzle. Regardless of its pre-Gospel origin (e.g. church teaching, oral tradition about Jesus, or other texts), it shows a direct literary relationship between Matthew and Luke, as indicated by identical wording and other close parallels.

Did Luke get this material from Matthew? Did Matthew get it from Luke? Both possibilities seem unlikely for a number of reasons; for one, Matthew and Luke differ drastically on key stories not found in Mark, like Jesus’ nativity and the resurrection appearances. If, for example, the author of Luke knew Matthew, why did he completely reject great story material like the adoration of the Magi and the flight to Egypt? Why provide a genealogy completely different from Matthew’s? And so on. Continue reading “Did Luke Know and Use Matthew? The Parable of the Talents/Pounds as a Test Case”

The Tower of Babel: Did It Exist, and What Does the Story Mean?

Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Tower of Babel, circa 1563-1565

The Tower of Babel is another biblical story that will be familiar to anyone with a typical Western religious upbringing. Like many of the narrative snippets found in the first eleven chapters of Genesis (the Primeval History), its brevity and ambiguous wording have led interpreters to fill in the gaps in all sorts of ways in order to squeeze meaning out of it.

As we read the text, there are a number of interesting questions we can ask. Was the Tower of Babel based on a real building? What message is the text trying to convey, both on its own and in context?

I’m also interested in the story’s application to the modern creationist movement. How much attention does the Tower of Babel get in the science-religion debate compared to the Genesis stories of creation and Noah’s flood? Continue reading “The Tower of Babel: Did It Exist, and What Does the Story Mean?”