N.T. Wright on Repentance

‘Repentance’, in a good many texts, was what Israel must do if her exile is to come to an end. Though the Greek word metanoia and its cognates, which occur in the gospels with this meaning, are rare in the Septuagint – and when they do occur, they refer, more often than not, to YHWH himself ‘repenting’ – the first-century sense of the word encapsulates a range of meanings expressed in other ways in the Hebrew scriptures and their Greek translations. Deuteronomy spoke of Israel ‘returning’ to YHWH with her whole heart; this would be the condition of her forgiveness and of the return from exile. In Deuteronomic terms, this would mean a return to the shema, to the love of YHWH alone with all the heart. The prophets regularly used the term ‘repent’ to denote the turning to YHWH which would result in restoaration, return from exile. Indeed, the word shub and epistrephein, since they mean ‘return’, hint constantly, particularly in Jeremiah, that for Israel to ‘return’ to YHWH with all her heart is the crucial thing that will enable her to ‘return’ to her own land. The whole point of passages like Daniel 9, Ezra 9 or Nehemiah 9 is that these great prayers of repentance – and we must be careful not to confine our thinking simply to occurrences of shub and epistrephein – are prayers precisely designed to bring about the return from exile. (We may note once again that all three books are clearly ‘post-exilic’ in the normal sense, and yet still seeking the real ‘return’.) (N.T. Wright, ‘Jesus and the Victory of God’, pp. 248-249)

Camels, Minimalism, Anachronism, and Kenneth Kitchen

‘Camels were last and least of Abraham’s possessions (Gen. 12:16), and in his time were used solely for the long-distance, desert-edge trip to Harran and back by his servant to obtain Isaac’s bride (24:10-64 passim). They were among the last named in Jacob’s wealth (30:43; 32:7, 15) and again were used solely for the long trip from Harran back to Canaan (31:17, 34). The desert-traveling Midianites used them (37:25). This is remarkably little. Then, at the time of the exodus and after (thirteenth century at the latest), they occur once among Pharaoh’s transport animals (Exod. 9:3) and twice in lists of creatures not to be eaten (Lev. 11:4; Deut. 14:7). Not much of a presence at all!

What about external sources between circa 2000 and 1200? We first consider the early second millennium (vaguely patriarchal), for which we have the following: from Egypt, a camel skull from the Fayum, “Pottery A” stage of occupation, within circa 2000-1400; from Byblos, a figurine of a kneeling camel, hump and load now missing (originally fixed by a tenon), about nineteenth/eighteenth century; from Canaan, a camel jaw from a Middle Bronze tomb at Tell el-Far’ah North, circa 1900/1550; from north Syria, a cylinder seal of the eighteenth century (of deities on a camel), in the Walters Art Gallery; and from mentions of the camel in the Sumerian lexical work HAR.ra-hubullu, going back in origin to the early second millennium….

[T]he camel was for long a marginal beast in most of the historic ancient Near East (including Egypt), but it was not wholly unknown or anachronistic before or during 2000-1100.’ ( Kenneth Kitchen, ‘On the Reliability of the Old Testament’, p. 338-339)

‘Abraham did not want his son to marry a Canaanite, so he sent his servant to Paddan Aram (as the Haran region of north Mesopotamia is called) to secure a bride for Isaac. With ten camels and adequate personnel, the servant heads the caravan towards his master’s Aramean kinsmen. The mention of camels here and elsewhere in the patriarchal narratives often is considered anachronistic. However, the correctness of the Bible is supported by the representation of camel riding on seal cylinders of precisely this period from northern Mesopotamia”

“It is often asserted that the mention of camels and of their use is an anachronism in Genesis. This charge is simply not true, as there is both philological and archaeological evidence for knowledge and use of this animal in the early second millenium BC and even earlier. While a possible reference to camels in a fodder-list from Alalakh (c. eighteenth century BC) has been disputed, the great Mesopotamian lexical lists that originated in the Old Babylonian period show a knowledge of the camel c. 2000/17000 BC, including its domestication. Furthermore, a Sumerian text from Nippur from the same early period gives clear evidence of domestication of the camel by then, by its allusions to camel’s milk…For the early and middle second millennium BC, only limited use is presupposed by either the biblical or external evidence until the twelfth century BC.’ (Kenneth Kitchen, full source here.

N.T. Wright on Forgiveness of Sins

‘From the point of view of a first-century Jew, ‘forgiveness of sins’ could never simply be a private blessing, though to be sure it was that as well, as Qumran amply testifies. Overarching the situation of the individual was the state of the nation as a whole; and, as long as Israel remained under the rule of the pagans, as long as Torah was not observed perfectly, as long as the Temple was not properly restored, so Israel longed for ‘forgiveness of sins’ as the great, unrepeatable eschatological and national blessing promised by her god. In light of this, the meaning which Mark and Luke both give to John’s baptism ought to be clear. It was ‘for the forgiveness of sins’, in other words, to bring about the redemption for which Israel was longing.’ (N.T. Wright, ‘Jesus and the Victory of God’, p. 271)

Holiness, Uzzah and Death by the Ark

‘The quality of being holy can be spread. Coming into contact with the ark, which is in a state of holiness, renders one holy as well. The condition of impurity may be spread by contact, too. (This will be a concern in Leviticus.) The Torah involved a belief that there are certain conditions which are invisible but which have an effect on persons and objects. The spreading of holiness by contact also confirms that the word ‘holy’ does not refer to just being ‘apart’ or ‘separate’, as we have often been taught in the past. Holiness is a powerful condition related to closeness to the divine.’ (Richard Elliot Friedman, ‘Commentary on the Torah: With a New English Translation and the Hebrew Text, p. 273)

My own comment: the closer one is to the divine, the more set apart one is. However, there are passages in the OT which tell how Uzzah was killed for coming into contact with the Ark, and yet the above passage refers to Exodus 29:37, which is detailing the procedure for making sacrifices upon the brazen altar, which seems to be a part of the Ark (I’m not sure if they’re two separate objects from my initial reading of the text. I’m in a hurry.) So what gives? You can touch the altar and be made holy, but touch the Ark and get zapped?

My own thought: the Ark is so concentrated, so loaded with God’s power, presence, and holiness, that touching it would be akin to touching a damaged electrical cable, which shocks you. Uzzah, as far as we can tell from the text, had no ill intentions – he wanted to keep the Ark from falling to the ground. Bam. Dead. So perhaps that’s just a consequence of coming into full physical contact with such an amazingly concentrated amount of God’s holiness.

Justification, in Summary

This post originated as a Facebook comment. There’s obviously lots to flesh out, tighten up, and correct and plenty to debate, but here’s my summary of justification.

Historically, its as factual as factual can be that Torah, in 2nd temple Judaism (all of Judaism, but specifically here), was not seen as a bad thing or a burden or something which was a kind of impossible standard one had to keep in order to go to heaven, and it still isn’t within Judaism. On factual, historical grounds, that’s pretty much beyond dispute. Calvin was right on when he saw the Law not as an entrance requirement but rather as something given to the redeemed people.

Alright, so what’s the point of Torah? It was not primarily, as commonly supposed, a way for people to recognize their own moral failings, as if it were a kind of Kantian moral imperative which hangs over all men, and that once the failure to meet this standard was recognized, the Gospel could then be preached. That was not the point though, though Torah did expose one’s failings and did serve to kill sin by imprisoning it. But here’s the thing: in Judaism, when you messed up, you made atonement and moved on. People mess up and don’t keep Torah perfectly, because we’re sinners. Okay. Make atonement, square yourself away and get back in step.

So if Torah isn’t primarily something that exists to show that it can’t be met, what is it? Here, modern scholarship is pretty much in accord in saying that Torah was not what one did to get into the people of God but what one did which showed that one was in the people of God. It was, in the days before Jesus, an ethnic marker of sorts. Torah belonged to the people of God, and the people of God kept Torah. One can disagree with the theological/dogmatic implications, but that is, again, pretty much an established fact.

The problem, however, is in that second to last sentence. Israel were called to be a light to the nations, to bring salvation to the world. People were to look at Israel and go, ‘What a people! What a God!’ But, as Scripture drives home, this was not the case. Sin worked through Torah, turning the heart upon itself, and what was supposed to the charter for the people of God, what was supposed to be the distinctive thing about the people of God, ended up being used to keep people *out* of the people of God. The promise of Abraham is being killed by the curse of Adam.

The rest, as they say, is history, up until an incident in Antioch, when the ethnic problems come to a head. Paul says to the Judaizers, no. You’ve missed the point. The second you begin to do with Torah what Christ had done, which is to redefine the people of God around faith instead of adherence to Torah, you’re right back where we started, keeping people who aren’t ethnic enough out. That is something Paul won’t stand for.

That is the fundamental issue – Torah cannot be used as a means to define the people of God anymore, because now the people of God are defined as those who, by faith, both their faith in Christ and the faithfulness of Christ, are in Christ. Jesus defined adherence to Torah not as rigorous obedience and boasting but as loving God and loving your neighbor – and this, Paul declares, is true Torah. This – faith and love – are what defines the people of God. Paul says, look, keeping Torah is fine, if you want to do it. But if it becomes something that separates people at the table, then you’re right back where we started, and you’re going to have Torah staring you down.

Witherington on Heaven

‘Notice how very little the New Testament says about dying and going to heaven, and that when the matter is discussed, for instance in 2 Cor. 5:1-10, Paul makes clear that life without a body in heaven is by no means his own hope or expectation in regard to how he will spend eternity. Indeed, Paul refers to life in heaven without a body as nakedness, which to an early Jew was hardly the most desirable state of affairs. While it is true that under the influence of Greek thought medieval Christianity often substituted the discussion of immortality of the soul for the New Testament doctrine of the resurrection of the body, this is not what the majority of New Testament passages are speaking of when they refer to the afterlife. Indeed, it could be said that in the new Testament life in heaven is seen only as an interim condition. Resurrection is something that happens in the earthly realm to real people who have died, It is not an event in some other real (for instance, heaven) and is not immune to historical scrutiny and evaluation. It is interesting that J. Murphy-O’Connor has suggested in a recent book, Paul: A Critical Life, that the whole reason that Christians believed in the everlasting existence of the human personality beyond death at all was precisely because they believed that there had to be a person there for God in Christ to raise up on the last day. How very different this is from what one usually hears today about dying and going to heaven.'(Ben Witherington III, ‘New Testament History: A Narrative Account’ pp. 166-167)

Metzger on John the Baptist

My interest in 1st century/2nd temple Judaism/early Christianity has been rekindled – I’ve spent the morning reading Wright, Sanders Segal, Metzger and others, and here’s an interesting snippet from Metzger about John the Baptist:

‘The other unique characteristic of John’s preaching was his insistence that in the coming judgment the privilege of belonging to the chosen people would count for nothing: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Matt. 3:9, Luke 3:9). In effect, John excommunicated the whole nation and received back such as would repent and be baptized.’ (Bruce Metzger, ‘The New testament, it’s Background Growth and Content’, pp. 109-110).

Wright is well known for the thesis ethnic boasting and exclusivity was a major problem for the apostolic church, and it would seem here that John the Baptist provides a bit of evidence to bolster that thesis. Part of John’s problem (it appears) was that people were resting content in the fact that they belonged to the ethnic family of Abraham, and so were safe on judgment day, to which John gives his spirited reply.

A Few Thoughts on Hebrews

Hebrews is one of my favorite books of the Bible. I couldn’t give any great reason why – perhaps it’s because of the saturation of Old Testament concepts and ideas, worked out in depth and applied to Christ. In Hebrews, one smells the blood of sacrificed animals, feels the heat of burnt offerings, smells the incense and is guided through the temple.

One sees the purpose of the old covenant and law, the priests in liturgy, the remembrance of sin every year. Then one comes to Christ – and the great themes of mediation, expiation and atonement come together and one sees the perfect sacrifice, Christ, who takes away our sin. We are told to pursue holiness and exorted to hold to the confessions of our faith, knowing that the blood of Christ allows to boldly go before the throne of God.

There’s raw, bloody power in Hebrews. It demands familiarity with the equally raw, bloody history of Israel – one cannot appreciate Hebrews (or the entire New Testament, for that matter, but in my mind this applies especially to Hebrews) without knowing Israel’s history. Hebrews calls to mind the grim stories of David, Jepthah and Saul – but shows the brilliant reality of Christ.

God the being


‘The notion of God as a perfect being is not of biblical extraction. It is the product not of prophetic religion but Greek philosophy; a postulate of reason rather than a direct compelling initial answer of man to His reality. In the Decalogue, God does not speak of His perfect being but of His having made free men out of slaves. Signifying a state of being without defect or lack, perfection is a term of praise which may utter in pouring forth our emotion; yet for man to utter it as a name for His presence would mean to evaluate and endorse Him. The Biblical language is free of such insolence, it only dared to call “His work” (Deut. 32:4), “His way” (2 Samuel 22:31), or the “Torah” (Psalm 19:7) tamim, perfect. We were never told: “Hear, O Israel, God is perfect!” It is an attribution which is strikingly absent in both the biblical and rabbinic literature.’ (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Hescehl, ‘God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism’, p. 101-102)

This is a stark contrast compared to the majority of Christian theology, in which God’s attributes are often the subject of conversation, music, books, and conferences. The other-ness of God is really what Rabbi Heschel is driving at – His absolute other-ness and holiness. This ties in a bit with some of the other posts I’ve made here: to what extent can we even speak of God, the Holy?

Part of me doesn’t really know – which is why I’m not a huge fan of various systematic theologies, especially those that try and lay out the attributes of God in a succinct form.  To me, that seems to really not take the Holiness and other-ness of God seriously.