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Friday, 26 April 2013

Leviticus 18:22 and Homosexuality

I recently read with interest an open letter to the church from a young American on behalf of his generation, which basically presented an ultimatum: embrace homosexuality or alienate the youth. I also read a response from Dr. Michael L. Brown, a leading voice of opposition to gay marriage.

The socio-cultural issues here are complex, and I've generally refrained from commenting on them. However, as a theology student there is one issue in the letter (and ensuing comments) that I think needs to be addressed. The author of the open letter says that while he has long been told that Christianity and homosexuality are incompatible, he has lately become aware of "evidence that the Bible could be saying something completely different about love and equality."

He doesn't say what evidence he is referring to, but one of the comments gives a take on Leviticus 18:22 which, if it is making the rounds as a legitimate interpretation, needs to be corrected. This verse reads: "You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination" (NASB). Referring to the Hebrew word tow'ebah, here translated "abomination", the respondent gives an alternate rendering as: "Not shall you lie with man [in the] bed of woman, [it is] against custom." He goes on to say that the word tow'ebah "essentially means frowned upon", and he reaches the following conclusion: "It appears more that it was saying not to fool around with your boyfriend in your wife’s bed."

It should be noted that, while the comment begins with a quotation mark, it doesn't cite any source. This is unsurprising, because this interpretation is completely untenable and without scholarly support. The respondent considers it "odd" that the commandment refers specifically to the bed. But it hardly needs to be said that "bed" here is a euphemism for intercourse; the issue is the act and not its location (cp. Num. 31:17-18Judg. 21:11-12). Furthermore, it is preposterous to think that this text, contained in what is commonly referred to as the "Holiness Code" of the Law of Moses (Rooker 2004, 4) should presuppose that a married man might also have a male lover!

In support of his view that tow'ebah means "frowned upon", the respondent points out that the word is also used with reference to dietary restrictions, menstruation, mixing of fabrics, and other "minor things." However, this definition lacks lexical support. Moreover, the respondent has drawn our attention to certain uses of tow'ebah while ignoring many others. The word is used, for instance, in Prov. 6:16: "There are six things which the LORD hates, Yes, seven which are an abomination (tow'ebah) to Him". Here, the parallelism suggests that tow'ebah is anything but minor. Elsewhere in the Pentateuch, the word is used with reference to child sacrifice (Deut. 12:31), injustice (Deut. 25:16) and idolatry (Deut. 27:15). And it was because of the tow'ebah of Israel that Ezekiel prophesied that they would fall by sword, famine and plague (Ezek. 6:11). Thus the word tow'ebah does not lend support to taking Lev. 18:22 as a minor thing.

Even more problematic for the view that the conduct described in Lev. 18:22 was merely "frowned upon" is the fact that it was a capital offence (Lev. 20:13, where tow'ebah is also used).

There are biblical scholars who argue that the commandment in Lev. 18:22 is not binding on the church today. However, these scholars do not dispute that the commandment (together with Lev. 20:13) prohibited homosexual intercourse in the strongest terms. The interpretation of this text in its original setting is broadly agreed upon. What is controversial is whether or not the commandment applies to the church today. It is this question that I plan to address in the next blog post.

Rooker, Mark F. 2004. The Best Known Verse in Leviticus. Faith and Mission 21(2): 3-14.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

1 Cor. 8:6: A Swing Verse

When it comes to hotly disputed doctrines such as the Trinity, the two sides typically each have certain Bible texts that they claim in support of their position.

For example, in a debate on the Trinity one might expect the Trinitarians to use texts such as Matt. 28:19, John 1:1 and Heb. 1:10-12 in their argument, while the unitarians might use texts such as Mark 12:29, John 14:28 and 1 Tim. 2:5. Each side would go on the offensive with their own texts, and attempt to defend their position against the challenge posed by the other side's texts. (Of course, one would hope that the arguments were more substantial and systematic than simply quoting 'proof texts').

We could draw an analogy with the so-called "swing states" in U.S. presidential elections. Democratic candidates don't bother campaigning in Texas, and Republican hopefuls steer clear of New York, because they know they can't win those states, despite their importance to the electoral vote tally. Instead, they focus on states that could go either way, such as Ohio. Similarly, Trinitarians know that they can't make their case from Mark 12:29, and unitarians know they can't make theirs from John 1:1, so they try to provide a plausible counter-proposal to their opponents' claims and then re-focus the debate on their own biblical "territory."

I would suggest that 1 Cor. 8:6 is one of the Ohio's of the Bible -- a veritable "swing verse" -- because both Trinitarians and unitarians use it to argue positively for their position. On the unitarian side, for instance, the 1877 Christadelphian Statement of Faith cited this verse as a reason for rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity. Moreover, one of the most comprehensive books written in defense of biblical unitarianism is entitled One God and One Lord, presumably taken from this verse. On the other hand, Trinitarians have also used this text to make positive arguments for their position; indeed, this text has become one of the most important in claiming that Paul's theology was a prototype for Trinitarian theology.
The text reads thus: "Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him." (1 Cor. 8:4-6 NASB)
Unitarians point out that v. 6 says, "For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things" while mentioning Christ separately. Jesus is explicitly excluded from the "one God" and therefore cannot be a person in the Godhead. Jesus is given a subordinate, intermediary role, while the Father is the source of all things. New Testament scholars such as James D.G. Dunn see Ps. 110:1 (a pivotal Christological text for the early church) as the main background to the use of the word "Lord" here. Thus the title emphasizes how the Father has exalted the human Jesus to a heavenly position.

Trinitarians, on the other hand, claim that the text includes the Father and Christ together on the heavenly side of the Creator-creature divide that was all-important in Jewish monotheism. Scholars such as Tom Wright and Richard Bauckham see Deut. 6:4, the Shema, as main background to the language Paul uses here. Indeed, they argue that Paul has rearranged the words of the Shema, "the Lord our God is one Lord," to include Jesus within the identity of the one God.

So which interpretation of this pivotal text is more convincing? For me it is undoubtedly the latter. Firstly, if 1 Cor. 8:6 excludes Jesus from being God, it also excludes the Father from being Lord. But Paul is not using these titles for the Father and Son to the exclusion of one another, but to the exclusion of all other claimants to these titles. What should strike us in 1 Cor. 8:6 is not that Jesus is excluded from being God, but that Paul included Jesus in his argument that "there is no God but one." Surely a mere creature has no place in such discourse!

Secondly, 1 Cor. 8:5 appears to be an allusion to Deut. 10:17: "the LORD your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords." This is the only place in the Old Testament where "gods" and "lords" occur in the same sentence (Ciampa and Rosner in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, p. 718). Thus it is reasonable that Paul expected his readers to interpret v. 6 with reference to Deuteronomy as well.

Thirdly, as I have argued elsewhere, the use of the Greek preposition dia followed by a genitive requires that we see Christ as participating in creation: "through whom are all things and through whom we exist." The very same language is used of God in Rom. 11:36 (by Paul) and Heb. 2:10. Paul is writing on the nature and existence of gods; there is no indication in the immediate context that he is limiting the scope of his statements to the new creation. Thus, the "all things" should be taken as absolute, or qualified only with "in heaven or on earth" (v. 5).

It is not wrong to say that the man Jesus was exalted to the status of Lord by God  (Acts 2:36). However, for early Christians, this exaltation was an impetus for questions about Christ's identity rather than the answer to those questions. 1 Cor. 8:6 shows that for Paul, Jesus' Lordship ties into the very definition of Christian monotheism.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Having neither beginning of days nor end of life (Hebrews 7:3)

One aspect of the doctrine of the Trinity is the concept of the eternal Sonship of Christ. This is the idea that Christ is, always has been, and always will be the Son of God.

When they hear about the eternal Sonship, unitarians tend to roll their eyes and think, "There they go again with their unscriptural jargon." At least, that's what I did when I was a unitarian. However, my studies of the Word of God have led me to the conclusion that the eternal Sonship is a biblical idea. One of the strongest pieces of evidence for this is found in Hebrews 7:1-3:
"1 For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, who met Abraham as he was returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, 2 to whom also Abraham apportioned a tenth part of all the spoils, was first of all, by the translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then also king of Salem, which is king of peace. 3 Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, he remains a priest perpetually." (NASB)
This text doesn't come up a lot in Christological debates or discussions because the argument the writer of Hebrews is making is rather cryptic. Once the idea is unpacked, however, the implications for our understanding of Christ are unmistakable. One recent commentary on Hebrews explains the point very well:
"In Genesis 14, Melchizedek is introduced out of the blue and disappears as quickly, his brief appearance interrupting a narrative that deals with the king of Sodom (vv. 17, 21-24). We know his name and office but nothing of his family or his previous or subsequent history. In terms of the biblical narrative, he is thus ‘without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life.’ His literary persona therefore suggests to our author a parallel with the Son of God, who is in very fact ‘without beginning of days or end of life,’ and the psalm, which speaks of ‘a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek,’ reinforces this thought. It is not a historical argument – nothing in the OT suggests Melchizedek historically had no parents, was not born, and did not die, and our author’s argument does not necessarily show that he thought this to be the case (though v. 8 may point that way). It is rather an argument from literary silence, setting Melchizedek up as a literary model for the eternal Son of God. In his very rootlessness and timelessness, he forms a suitable model for the one who was to come, the Son (not of any man but) of God, who shares God’s eternal existence and can thus uniquely exercise that eternal priesthood Psalm 110:4 has claimed to be the prerogative of ‘the order of Melchizedek.’ To our historically tuned minds, this may seem a bizarre conclusion to draw from silence, but it is an argument from the text, not from history, following the well-attested Jewish hermeneutical principle (found both in rabbinic and in Alexandrian writings) that what is not mentioned in the Torah does not exist. The comparison serves to underline the eternity of our true high priest in contrast with the transience of the OT priests, a theme that will be developed in vv. 23-25." (R. T. France, Hebrews, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Hebrews - Revelation, ed. Longman and Garland, p. 92)
The comparison made by the writer of Hebrews cannot merely refer to the Son of God in his humanity, because as a human being Christ did have a genealogy, a beginning of days and a mother. It is also worth noting that the writer likens Melchizedek to the Son of God, and not the other way around. This would be anachronistic unless the Son pre-existed (cf. John 1:30; 8:58).

Nor can this argument from Heb. 7:3 be dismissed as case of "proof texting." It must be seen in the fullness of the message of the writer to the Hebrews, who describes Christ as actively existing in the (distant) past, present and future. Past: the world was made through him (Heb. 1:2). Present: he upholds all things by the word of his power (Heb. 1:3). Future: he is the heir of all things (Heb. 1:2).

Past: He laid the foundations of the earth (Heb. 1:10). Present: he remains (Heb. 1:11). Future: his years will have no end (Heb. 1:12). Past, present and future: "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever" (Heb. 13:8).

Thus we should not be surprised to see that Heb. 7:3 implicitly teaches the eternal Sonship of Christ. It is hardly an anomaly; it fits right into the picture of Christ painted throughout the epistle.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Was Peter's first epistle written to deported Roman colonists?

The First Epistle of Peter opens with these words: "Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who reside as aliens, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia," (1 Pet. 1:1 NASB). These areas spanned several provinces of the Roman Empire within the region known as Asia Minor which forms part of modern Turkey (see map here).

Just who were these people to whom Peter wrote his epistle? Were they Jews, Gentiles or a mixture of both? And what particular relationship did they have with Peter that caused him to write them a letter?

New Testament scholars have proposed a number of different theories. A tradition dating back to antiquity has it that Peter wrote the letter to Jewish Christians. In support of this is Paul's statement that Peter was the apostle to the circumcised (Gal. 2:8), as well as the use of the Greek word diaspora in 1 Pet. 1:1, which was (and still is) used of the dispersion of Jews throughout the world.

Recent commentators have proposed that the letter was written to mixed Jewish-Gentile congregations (so Grudem) or even primarily Gentile congregations (so Schreiner). Schreiner points out that phrases such as "the futile ways inherited from your forefathers" (1 Pet. 1:18) and "Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people" (1 Pet. 2:10) are easily applicable to Gentile converts but not to Jews. Under this theory, the reference to "scattered exiles" in 1 Pet. 1:1 refers figuratively to the spiritual status of Christians as God's people living in a pagan world rather than their literal political status.

However, even if we resolve the issue of ethnicity we still need to explain how these congregations of Christians were known to Peter. It has been suggested that Peter made a missionary journey through these areas, and indeed that the reason the Spirit prevented Paul from preaching in Asia and Bithynia (Acts 16:6-7) is that Peter was already at work there. However, there is no direct evidence that Peter ever preached in these areas. In light of this, other suggestions have been proposed.

One suggestion has it that Jewish pilgrims in the audience at Peter's Pentecost sermon (which was attended by people from Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia - Acts 2:9) believed in Jesus Christ, then returned home and planted churches. These churches would have seen Peter as their spiritual father and thus he wrote the letter to encourage them. This idea is interesting but again, there is little evidence to support it.

A very intriguing suggestion, argued in great detail by Jobes, has it that the audience of the epistle consisted of Christians who had been under Peter's guidance in Rome but were subsequently expelled from Rome and resettled in new colonies within Asia Minor. Jobes summarizes her argument as follows:
"The theory is based on several points of historical evidence: (1) Claudius, and perhaps only Claudius, established colonies in every one of the five regions to which 1 Peter is addressed. (2) Colonies were typically populated by deportations from Rome and other urban centers. (3) There is the historical evidence of Roman writers of the first and second centuries that Claudius did expel people associated in some way with 'Chrestus' [thought to be a corruption of Christus, i.e. Christ]. (4) Peter is the stated author of 1 Peter. (5) The ancient tradition that places Peter in Rome during the reign of Claudius continues to be cogently argued...Even if Peter wrote in the 60s, the colonization of Roman Christians still provides a motivation for a letter to these remote regions" (Jobes, p. 39).
While the New Testament does not explicitly describe a trip to Rome by Peter, the reference to "Babylon" in 1 Pet. 5:13 is taken by most commentators (ancient and modern) to mean Peter wrote the letter from Rome. Jobes further notes that the word parepedimos (translated 'exiles' in 1 Pet. 1:1) is equivalent to the Latin word peregrinos, which was used to refer to non-citizens of the Roman Empire. This class of free non-citizens were frequently the target of expulsions from Rome.

It is impossible to know with any certainty whether Jobes' theory is correct (and, unless you have a keen interest in early Christian history, it probably doesn't matter to you!) However, while there is no direct biblical evidence for this theory, there is historical evidence to support it, and it has good explanatory power. It provides a clear reason why Christians in these remote areas of the empire - not known to have been evangelized by Peter - should receive a letter from the apostle encouraging them in the midst of very trying circumstances. It also explains why Peter shows no evidence of familiarity with the areas to which he is writing, or the specific situations faced by the readers. 

Finally, if this theory is true we can see God's providential hand at work in these events. If Christians expelled from Rome by Claudius resettled in Asia Minor, not only would they have evangelized these areas, but their expulsion likely saved them from the persecution of Roman Christians that occurred in the 60s under Claudius' successor, Nero.

Grudem, Wayne. 1988. 1 Peter, Tyndale New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Jobes, Karen H. 2005. 1 Peter, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Baker Academic.

Schreiner, Thomas. 2003. 1, 2 Peter and Jude, New American Commentary. Nashville:
Broadman & Holman.