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Being an attempt to make full proof of the following proposition:

The writers of the New Testament wrote in Greek, but they thought in Hebrew.

The Old Testament thought form

This is a bit of a break from the focus I have tried to maintain in these posts, but I was recently struck by what suggests itself as an Old Testament antecedent to a New Testament reality, and thought it might be worth setting the thought loose in the ether.

The story of Saul, the first king of Israel, is one of the most disappointing narratives in the Bible.  To be sure, because the document to which we go to recover that narrative, 1 Samuel, is primarily an apologetic in defense of the legitimacy of David’s claim to the throne, the impression with which we are left concerning the man Saul is no little bit jaundiced.  The bare facts are these: David is recruited as a young man to play a minor role in the court of Saul (1Sam 16:14-21a); he rises to a place of prominence second only to Saul (1 Sam 16:21b; 18:6, 7); and ultimately he ascends the throne occupied by Saul, thus displacing the house of his master (2 Sam 5:1-5).  All of this could easily lead to the conclusion that David was a seditionist, an unprincipled usurper who had used the privilege and position afforded him to seize for himself that which rightly belonged to his benefactor. The prophetic hand(s) behind the book of 1 Samuel frame(s) the story deliberately to dispel that notion, to demonstrate that David succeeded to the throne of Israel only because God had appointed him to that station. 

To make that point more carefully, the narrative of 1 Samuel casts Saul in a very negative light.  Indeed, the most extensive stories of his life recorded in the book have to do with his two great sins: the intrusion into the office of the priest which eventuated in Saul’s lineage being denied the throne (13:1 – 14:46 esp. 13:13, 14); and the refusal to slay all of the Amalekites which resulted in Saul himself being rejected as king (15:1-35, esp. 26, 35).  After those two sorry chronicles, the narrative turns to David (16:1-13).  To be sure, Saul remains titular king of Israel for some years, but the Spirit is soon taken from him and given to David, and the protection of the land falls to David and his mighty men. 

Two points deserve brief mention in this regard.  First, Saul was a much more effective king than is intuitively acknowledged by the reader of 1 Samuel.  He reigned for 40 years (Ac 13:21); however that is calculated (i.e., does it include the 7 years of the reign of his son, Ish-bosheth?), his was a significant reign.  Further, the synopsis of his reign in 1 Samuel 14:47-52 is impressive. 

Second – and most important with reference to this post – the word of rebuke spoken by Samuel after Saul’s second grand sin may well ramify to the New Testament.  The prophet confronted the king returning from the conquest of the Amalekites, caught that king in a lie when he insisted that he had “performed the commandment of the Lord” (15:13), and then assessed the situation in this remarkable conversation:

   Then Samuel said to Saul, “Be quiet! And I will tell you what the Lord said to me last night.”  And [Saul] said to him, “Speak on.”  So Samuel said, “When you were little in your own eyes, were you not the head of the tribes of Israel?  And did not the Lord anoint you king over Israel?  Now the Lord sent you on a mission, and said, ‘Go, and utterly destroy the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed.’ Why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord? Why did you swoop down on the spoil, and do evil in the sight of the Lord?” (15:16-18)

Saul responded with a flurry of self-serving attempts at rationalizing his sin (he is, after all, the greatest excuse-maker of the Old Testament), and then with an outburst of guilty anger against his prophetic accuser. But then Samuel concluded with a chilling message:

“The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today, and has given it to a neighbor of ours, who is better than you.  And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor relent.  For He is not a man that He should relent.” (15:28, 29).

For our purposes, it is instructive to focus on the prophet’s observation that God could use Saul only so long as he was “little in his own eyes”!

The New Testament Use

Given the rather infamous character of King Saul, it seems curious at first blush that a strict Pharisee of the second temple era would give his son the name, Saul (Ac 23:6). The primary reason was doubtless that this was a name given to many of the men in that family, but that only compounds the apparent anomaly: why would a deliberately Jewish family thus memorialize a man treated so negatively in their own Scripture? But that anomaly is explained when it is recognized, as suggested above, that Saul was in fact a heroic figure in the history of the Jewish people – a flawed hero, to be sure, but a man of some nobility and great significance nonetheless. 

Again, it is curious that Saul of Tarsus, after his conversion, becomes known only as Paul.  That transition takes place rather suddenly in the record.  As Saul commences his ministry to the Gentile world as recorded in the book of Acts, Luke simply refers – almost in passing – to “Saul, who is also called Paul” (13:9).  After that, the apostle is never referred to by Luke as “Saul” in any context, even when the focus is on his life before his conversion. (As I was reminded below, Paul does use His Hebrew name when remembering the experiences surrounding his conversion – Ac 22:7, 13: 26:14.) We are not given any explanation as to why the change occurred, although the almost universal speculation is that Saul’s family had given him both a Jewish and a Gentile name (per the custom of the day with Jews of the diaspora), and that as he began to move among Gentiles he employed that name.  Perhaps!  And yet throughout his ministry, Paul’s habit was to go first of all to the synagogue; in those passages it would perhaps have been appropriate for Luke to use the Hebrew name, but Luke does not refer to the apostle with the Jewish “Saul” even in those narratives.

I wonder if the change was much more deliberate and significant.  After his conversion, Saul must have spent much time re-thinking the Hebrew Scriptures he had always cherished so deeply and studied so carefully.  I wonder if in the course of those contemplations, as again and again he rehearsed the chronicle of his namesake, the significance of that prophetic rebuke – “when you were little in your own eyes” – gripped him so that he settled on a strategy to remind himself day by day of the importance of remembering how little we are before the God of the universe. In short, the connection between Samuel’s rebuke and the name by which Saul is known throughout his ministry – the name Paul, which means “little” – seems too immediate to be accidental.  Paul struggled much against pride (2 Cor 11, 12), and he had much of which he might have been proud (Gal 1:14).  The pattern of King Saul must have served as a powerful warning to the newly converted rabbi who, in the Jewish world in which he had moved all of his life, had exceeded the accomplishments of all who had gone before him. Perhaps the name by which we have come to know and regard this remarkable apostle to the Gentiles, a name which is in fact a perpetual reminder of a God-honoring understanding of who we are even as children of God, was not just a Gentile name assigned him at birth by his family.  Perhaps it was one of the ways in which Paul strategized to avoid falling into the same snare that entrapped both the devil (1 Tim 3:6) and his fondly remembered namesake, King Saul of Israel.

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In an earlier blog, I suggested that passages traditionally understood by distinguishing between “positional” and “conditional” reality would be better perceived as NT uses of the OT rhetorical device known as the “prophetic perfect.”  Having briefly made that case, I would like to take it one more tentative step. Let me first of all say that I know that the inference I am going to draw will seem radical to many.  But is not the blogsphere the place for edgy ideas?  (I don’t know who wrote that rule, but I’ll appeal to it when it suits me!)  In truth, I am loathe to embrace or espouse radical ideas. And yet I am convinced that there could be profit in at least considering a further – if incendiary – ramification of the case I made earlier for finding the Old Testament prophetic perfect on the pages of the New Testament.  And thus, a brief and uncharacteristic moment on the edge.

 

My concern is for the reading of NT passages which have in recent decades been construed as describing theological realities which are “already/not yet.”  Indeed, the “conditional/positional” construct has been almost entirely replaced by the notion expressed as “already/not yet.”  Again, if that turn of phrase were intended to say only that the promises referenced are absolutely certain of fulfillment, I would take no umbrage.  But the formula has become shorthand for the notion that the promise at stake can be both fulfilled and unfulfilled, a possession both presently possessed and not yet possessed. 

 

I know I am treading on very sacred ground here, and I don’t anticipate many will agree.  But that construct seems to introduce into the passages a measure of abstraction that borders on incoherence, if not contradiction.  (“Already – but not yet!”  I ask humbly and honestly, are we perhaps taking liberties with the law of non-contradiction?)  Furthermore, a great many theological inferences are drawn from the perceived “already/not yet” character of those passages (cf. Col 1:13).  On the other hand, if those passages are read simply as New Testament uses of the prophetic perfect, then the “already/not yet” dynamic is not to be found in those passages, and thus those inferences cannot be drawn.  But nothing is lost exegetically; indeed, those passages are seen to be straightforward and powerful affirmations that the promises under discussion are absolutely certain of fulfillment.

 

If nothing more than as an intellectual exercise, I would argue that it is worthwhile at least to ponder the following:  a) the minds of the NT writers were certainly saturated with Old Testament truths and thought forms, and b) if the NT writer is simply utilizing a nuance borrowed from the Old Testament, a rhetorical device which to the mind of his readers powerfully bespeaks certainty of fulfillment, then c) the passages can be read as straightforward expressions of absolute certainty, such as that which was conveyed consistently in the older Scriptures by the exact same rhetorical device, and therefore d) the inferences drawn largely from those passages deserve to be rethought.

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Being an attempt to make full proof of the following proposition:

The writers of the New Testament wrote in Greek, but they thought in Hebrew.

 

In my mind, one of the most compelling evidences of that remarkable intellectual habit of mind is that Hebrew grammatical nuances – forms which are foreign to the Greek language – are employed by those Greek-writing Hebrew-thinking apostles.  One of those is the use again and again in the New Testament of a construction which, in the Old Testament, is known most commonly as the “prophetic perfect.”

 

The Old Testament thought form

Throughout the Old Testament, when the future is foretold the anticipated event is spoken of as if it were a completed reality.  That is, the grammatical form in which the prophecy is framed (i.e., the Hebrew perfect or perfective) would normally be read to describe completed action. But in these cases the event is in fact future, and yet because the matter being foretold by God is certain to come to pass, it is spoken of as already accomplished.  Although this may sound strange to a modern Western ear, it is a very common feature of the Hebrew tongue. 

 

The standard grammar of Biblical Hebrew, Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, describes one of the uses of the Hebrew perfect as follows:

To express facts which are undoubtedly imminent, and, therefore in the imagination of the speaker, already accomplished (perfectum confidentiae), e.g., Num 17:27, behold, we perish, we are undone, we are all undone. Gen 30:13, Isa 6:5 (I am undone), Prov 4:2. . . . This use of the perfect occurs most frequently in prophetic language (perfectum propheticum). The prophet so transports himself in imagination into the future that he describes the future event as if it had been already seen or heard by him [my emphasis], e.g. Isa 5:13 therefore my people are gone into captivity; 9:1ff.,10:28,11:9…; 19:7, Job 5:20, 2 Chr 20:37.

 Section 106n, pp. 312-313

 

Again, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Waltke & O’Connor) refers to this usage as the “accidental perfective,” in which “a speaker vividly and dramatically represents a future situation both as complete and as independent [my emphasis].”  That text allows that this form is also known as the “prophetic perfect or the perfective of confidence” (Sec. 30.5.1.e, pp. 489-490).  And again, Jewish authorities consistently recognize this usage (though some have inconsistently tried to argue that the messianic prophecies in the canonical prophets must refer to a past Messiah, as those prophecies are in the perfect). Commentator Nahum Sarna says of Exodus 12:17 (“I have brought your armies out of the land of Egypt,” though that event was yet to happen),

     This is an example of the “prophetic perfect.” The future is described as having already occurred because God’s will inherently and ineluctably possesses the power of realization so that the time factor is inconsequential.

Exodus: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation (Philadelphia: JPS, 1991), p. 59.

 

Examples of this usage abound throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.

 

The New Testament Use

Again and again in the New Testament the future is spoken of as already accomplished.  Paul states that “those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom 8:30); orthodox evangelical theology would affirm that the first three steps in that blessed gospel progression are accomplished reality for the believer, but that the final step is yet future.  Yet it is expressed as if it were as much an accomplished fact as the three which preceded it.  Again, Paul states in Ephesians 2:6 that God has “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”  In Colossians 1:13 the apostle rejoices that Jesus “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.”  In my experience, this verse as much as any other is used to argue that the Kingdom promised by the Old Testament is already here, but if the verse is read in a way consistent with biblical habits of mind, it means nothing more (nor less, God be praised!) than this: the coming of that future day when we will be entirely delivered from evil in the kingdom of righteousness is so certain that it can be spoken of as if accomplished – which is the way God expresses anticipated realities throughout His Word.

 

A brief disclaimer.  I know that most do not discern the use of the prophetic perfect in the New Testament passages to which I have appealed.  Instead, a rather abstract construct has historically been appealed to in order to explain the apparent anomaly of future events spoken of as already accomplished.  That construct is the supposed distinction between “conditional truth” (what is true of man’s actual condition in the present physical world) and “positional truth” (what is truly and certainly destined to be ours because of our position in Christ).  Let me be clear: I concur with the point being made via the “condition vs. position” construct. Indeed, I cherish that reality.  But I am persuaded that the whole c/p construct would have been counter-intuitive to the Jewish-Christian readers of the New Testament.  It seems an abstraction born of a Greek turn of mind.  But more importantly, there is ready to hand an explanation which results in virtually the same understanding of the past tenses in strategic NT passages, but which looks to the intellectual habit of mind evident throughout the Old Testament to explain the perceived anomaly.  That is what I am arguing for here.

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I would like to suggest an understanding of an Old Testament passage which is dependent upon a discussion in an earlier blog entry which can be found here. Quite simply, that discussion considered a peculiar Hebrew idiom, the most familiar expression of which is the numerical proverbs found occasionally in the book of Proverbs.  It is my persuasion that this idiosyncratic literary device – foreign to the modern reader and thus easily overlooked – is very probably the key to one of the most cryptic verses in the Old Testament.  That verse is 1 Samuel 13:1.  It is almost universally concluded that the verse as it stands is incoherent, that in order to make sense of the verse some digits must be added.  That conclusion is drawn not on the basis of textual evidence but of “content analysis.”  Could it be that the problem arises from missing a nuance familiar and important to the Hebrew reader, but all too foreign to the modern reader.  The possibility is explored here.

 

Click here to read the entire essay. 

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From Tomsk, Siberia in Russia

 

Opening the New Testament and Finding the Old II

Being an attempt to make full proof of the following proposition:

The writers of the New Testament wrote in Greek, but they thought in Hebrew.

 

The Old Testament thought form

There is a curious Hebraism which is very common in the Old Testament, but which is so foreign to the modern ear that it is all too often treated as an oddity that perhaps really means nothing at all. It is most familiar in a distinct type of proverb often known as the “numerical proverb.”  The construction is disarmingly simple and quite flexible.  It is the literary device which is framed in terms of a numerical progression – basically, “c, yea c + 1.”  The wisdom teacher, Agur, especially loved this form of expression; four times in Proverbs 30 this construction is employed, always with the numbers “3, yea 4.”  In each case, the four items are iterated after the introductory accounting.

There are three things that are never satisfied, yea, four things say not, It is enough: (30:15, KJV)

    There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not. (30:18, KJV)

    Under three things the earth quakes, And under four, it cannot bear up. (30:21, NASB)

    There are three things which are stately in their march, even four which are stately when they walk (30:29, NASB)

 

This is the most obvious form of the device, as both numbers are explicit. (At Prov 30:7, K&D refer to this as the “sharpened or pointed” numerical proverb.)  Many times only one numeral is explicit, but the list which follows makes clear the numerical progression; for instance, in Prov 30:7, Agur implores, “Two things I asked of you…”, but in the next verse he lists three. And again, in many cases there is no digit expressed at all, but the progression from one number to the next carries the weight of the expression, as in Agur’s opening distich “The man declares to Ithiel, to Ithiel and Ucal” (30:1). Finally, the digits may be used with no ensuing list, as in Amos 1:3 – “Thus says the LORD, ‘For three transgressions of Damascus and for four I will not revoke its punishment…’”

 

So what is the point of this curious device?  Very simply, it expresses fullness.  For instance it’s not true that there are only six things the Lord hates, but He really despises these seven (Prov 6:16-19). Ithiel and Ucal – whoever they were – were precisely the audience for whom Agur intended his wisdom sayings.  And Damascus has filled to overflowing its cup of iniquity.  In a day when italics and underscoring were not available, and when most people accessed the Scriptures by ear at any rate, such a device for communicating fullness, completeness, or intensity was precious to speakers and writers.

 

The New Testament Use

In Luke 13:31, Jesus is in Perea.  Some Pharisees, still seething over the claim made by Jesus in Jerusalem at the Feast of Tabernacles (Jn 10:30-40), come from Judea with a plot to lure Jesus back into the land where they could do Him harm. Jesus sees through their sinister designs and in response He makes a statement that is enigmatic to many:

 

    And He said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I reach My goal.’” (13:32)

 

The chronology of this period late in Jesus’ ministry is very difficult to piece together with any specificity, and thus to trace His travels day-by-day is impossible.  So what are we to make of the Lord’s reference to “today and tomorrow, and the third day…”?

 

I am persuaded that He is employing the Hebraism considered above: “today and tomorrow” = two days, and “on the third day I will reach my goal.”  The point again is fullness – only when the time was full (cf. Gal 4:4), the time intended by the Father, the time when everything was in readiness, would Jesus make His way to Judea once again. (Compare, by the way, the strikingly similar construction employed by the prophet Hosea in 6:3.) Indeed, I would contend that to read the passage in Luke 13 with a modern Greek mind, to ponder exactly what happened on the mysterious succession of three days in the weeks between Dedication and Passover, is to miss the point entirely, that this reference is best understood as another place where we open the New Testament and encounter the Old.

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From Tomsk, Siberia in Russia

 

It is my persuasion that one of the most important and defining hermeneutical insights to be brought to the interpretation of the New Testament is this: the writers of the New Testament wrote in Greek, but they thought in Hebrew.  This is true to a degree more dramatic in some writers than in others (the most dramatic of all: Rabbi Saul/Paul), but it is never not a factor.  In the course of my own studies, that reality confronts me again and again with reference to this passage or that concept.  In making my way through Romans here in Tomsk this week, I have encountered a number of passages where the meaning of a specific text becomes more clear and/or compelling if the appropriate nuance of Hebrew thought or expression is made a part of the reading of that text.

 

And thus was born the idea for an intellectual exercise.  I am going to identify some of those New Testament texts which seem to be so much informed by ideas or forms of expression which arise from an Old Testament milieu (indeed, ideas or forms which are often entirely foreign to the New Testament milieu), and then try to point out how those texts are more completely understood when comprehended with that Old Testament thought form in mind.  The effort will be by fits and starts, to be sure, and the entries will appear with no taxonomical considerations whatever.  But it occurs to me that it would be interesting to have a catalogue of such texts, and perhaps it might even be a help in some quarter.  And so herewith the first installment of…

 

Opening the New Testament and Finding the Old

Being an attempt to make full proof of the following proposition:

The Writers of the New Testament wrote in Greek, but they thought in Hebrew.

 

The Old Testament thought form

Again and again in the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s Word is represented as a soldier, a mighty warrior who goes out to do the bidding of his commander and always accomplishes the task assigned him. It’s a rich word picture, redolent with various specific points of timely application.  One of the most apparent uses of the figure is 1 Samuel 3:19 – “Thus Samuel grew and the Lord was with him and let none of his words fail” (NASB). That final phrase is literally, “the Lord did let none of his [Samuel’s] words fall to the ground.”  That is what demonstrated to the nation that Samuel was genuinely a prophet of the Lord (3:20) – the requirement of Deut 18:20-22 was without exception met when Samuel spoke.  I think the picture is this: one very simple test of a good soldier is that he always comes home at night!  To “fall to the ground” is to be defeated in battle, and thus not to return.  Just as a good soldier goes out to battle and then returns, his enemy having fallen to the ground, so God’s word, spoken through His prophet Samuel, did not “fall to the ground.”

 

Another aspect of the word picture is seen in Isa 55:11 – “So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty [ריקם].” A good soldier vanquishes and strips his enemy, and thus he returns with spoil.  So it will be with God’s word: it will accomplish what He desires and return, soldier-like, with the spoils of victory.  And again in Isaiah 45:23 – “The word has gone forth from My mouth in righteousness And will not turn back.”  That final word [ישׁוב] means “to turn back,” but in the context of military conflict, it speaks of “retreat” – very possibly the picture here.

 

The New Testament Use

In Romans 9-11, the apostle Paul is defending and celebrating the righteousness of God (1:17) in His dealings with Israel.  He commences that extended discussion by affirming that it is “not as though the Word of God had taken none effect’ (NASB).  The Greek there is έκπέπτωκεν, from ekpiptō. The root is πίπτω, “to fall,” here strengthened to mean “to fall out (of rank, in a military context), or to fall so as to not get up again.” I think Rabbi Saul/Paul may well have had in mind that Old Testament figure of God’s word as a mighty soldier.  It is unthinkable that His word be defeated, slain in the battle to which it is sent.  Indeed, in the thought section to follow (9:6-13), Paul twice cites passages which demonstrate that the way God is working in this present time (cf. 11:5) is entirely consistent with God’s purposes and character, and thus His word is accomplishing its mission in this age, just as it has in the past.  

 

The passage is certainly coherent if we perceive it simply in the abstract, “has not taken effect.” But to my mind it is the more compelling – and the more (happily) Hebraic – to see it as answering to that Old Testament prophetic word picture. Thus, Paul’s asseveration might be comprehended to mean (in rather expanded form): “certainly it is not as though God’s word concerning Israel has fallen in battle, is a soldier slain.”  And having made that blessed point, he proceeds in careful fashion to explain and celebrate this blessed reality: all that God has ever said regarding His purposes in Israel is being and ultimately shall be fulfilled.

 

 

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