dianoigo blog

Friday 23 December 2016

The problem of understanding the Bible: reflections after four years of theological study


A question which this author has made into a personal quest is this: How can I understand the doctrines of the Bible, and how can I be confident that my understanding is sound? In this post I offer some reflections on how my thinking about this question has developed over four years of formal theological study. Specifically, I discuss four possible answers that have occurred to me, and which one I have settled on.

Let me first give some personal context. I am in the final stages of an Honours degree undertaken by distance learning. No exams are involved; each module is assessed using one or more essay assignments. An essential criterion for a successful essay is an extensive bibliography showing engagement with the range of scholarly viewpoints on the issue(s) under investigation. It would be difficult to guess the number of academic sources I've consulted over the past four years while preparing for my essay assignments (as well as blog posts and some published research), but it is not a few. I say this not to boast about how well-read I am, but to stress the bewildering array of competing arguments, opinions and interpretations I have encountered concerning every biblical passage or theological topic I have closely studied.

Encountering the breadth of scholarly argument and opinion is enriching, but also challenging—even intimidating! As an undergraduate student with limited experience in exegesis and a limited command of the relevant background knowledge (linguistic, historical, literary, etc.), one enters the fray to find seasoned professors offering diverging views on the meaning of nearly every phrase in the Bible, never mind verse.

By way of example, I'm currently working on an essay on Paul's theology of atonement in Romans, with special reference to Rom. 3:21-26. This passage is a veritable minefield of exegetical debates. What is the exact connotation of the expression 'works of law' in 3:20? Does 'the righteousness of God' refer to an attribute of God or a status conferred by God or both? Does Rom. 3:23 refer to the Fall or to personal transgression or both? Is 'justification' here mainly forensic, ecclesiological or ethical? What is the meaning of the word hilastērion in Rom. 3:25—mercy seat, propitiation or expiation? Were Rom. 3:24-26 composed by Paul or is he quoting an earlier tradition? If the latter, where does the quotation begin and end, and has Paul modified it in any way? And finally—perhaps the most disputed question of all (although one wouldn't know it from most English Bible translations)—does the phrase pistis Christou or equivalent in Rom. 3:21 and 3:26 (and other Pauline texts) refer to faith in Christ (Christ as the object of faith) or to Christ's faith/faithfulness (Christ as the subject of faith)? It is easy to see that how one answers these perplexing exegetical questions has profound implications, not only for one's understanding of this passage but for one's theological convictions (just ask Martin Luther!)

Faced with this battery of exegetical difficulties and competing opinions each claiming the support of capable experts, one could hardly be blamed for feeling completely out of one's depth! Truly "much study is a weariness of the flesh" (Eccl. 12:12). However, the thesis statement "I don't know" is generally not well received by markers of academic essays, so pragmatism compels one to weigh the probabilities, form a judgment, and complete the essay. Yet as one goes through this process repeatedly over a period of years, one cannot escape becoming introspective about the question I posed at the beginning.

Broadly speaking, four answers to this question have occurred to me, which I will now discuss in turn. I have titled these answers (1) the perspicuity of Scripture, (2) the results of biblical scholarship, (3) the renunciation of dogma, and (4) the consensus of the church.

Option 1: The perspicuity of Scripture

One possible response is the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture. This basically says that the Bible is clear enough for any devout reader to understand. Sometimes the doctrine is qualified to state that only those teachings which constitutes knowledge essential for salvation are clear enough for any devout reader to understand.1

The basic advantage of this doctrine is that it equalizes access to theological truth across different levels of education and intelligence. This seems just, especially in the context of modern Western societies with democratic governments (both civil and ecclesiastical). However, this apparent benefit is outweighed by significant difficulties. First, the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture does not itself seem to be clearly taught in Scripture (one thinks of the Ethiopian eunuch's honest question in Acts 8:31, 'How can I [understand what I am reading] unless someone guides me?') Proponents of the doctrine would of course claim otherwise.

However, a second and more glaring problem is that different people read the Bible and come to widely diverging opinions about its meaning at the level of phrases, verses, and ultimately doctrines. What hits home when one undertakes academic theological study is that this is true not only of laypeople but also of "the experts"—professional scholars. Proponents of perspicuity have an answer to this conundrum, of course, and it lies in the qualifier 'devout': the Bible is clear enough for any devout reader to understand. Hence, when two readers come to conflicting, mutually exclusive conclusions about what the Bible teaches, the primary cause is not different education or intelligence, but different devoutness. It is the Holy Spirit, not the natural mind, that illuminates a person with the truth of Scripture, so only the person who is devout—i.e. in tune with the Holy Spirit—will understand the Bible.

This sounds satisfactory, but consider how it works out in practice. Each interested reader of the Bible operates from the following presupposition: my interpretation of the Bible is sound. (If I didn't believe this, I would adjust my interpretation until I became convinced of its soundness). If my interpretation of the Bible is sound, then I must be reading it devoutly. Consequently, anyone who arrives at a fundamentally different interpretation of the Bible must not be reading it devoutly. Thus, the doctrine of perspicuity seems to lead inevitably to the conclusion, "I read the Bible devoutly, and those who disagree with my interpretations don't." This, however, is a perspicuously arrogant statement! "Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor. 10:12) It might be protested that this statement is not arrogant, because 'devoutness' has been defined in terms of Holy Spirit activity rather than personal merit. However, "My interpretations are illuminated by the Holy Spirit, and the interpretations of those who disagree with me aren't" still rests on the complacent assumption of one's own privileged, elect status.

The 'devoutness criterion' also encourages confirmation bias: readers and interpretations in agreement with my presuppositions are viewed with favour and those opposed to my biases are viewed with suspicion. The Bible seemed very easy to understand when I was a teenager, because I had not read widely outside the narrow faith tradition in which I was raised. Now I know better than to privilege my own presuppositions over those of others. "With humility think of others as being better than yourselves" (Phil. 2:3).

In my view, reliance on the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture ultimately entails trusting in my own devoutness. This I cannot do, so I must reject the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture. This is not to say nothing in the Bible is clear, or that personal study is a lost cause. It is only to assert that deducing sound fundamental doctrine from the Bible is not guaranteed for even the devout reader.

Option 2: The results of biblical scholarship

A second response to the question, How can I understand the doctrines of the Bible, and how can I be confident that my understanding is sound? is that study of the Bible is a very complex science and is therefore best left to academic experts. 'Scholarly consensus' is the best metric for ascertaining the true doctrines of the Bible.

This is, on the surface, a satisfactory solution to intellectually sophisticated, scientifically minded readers of Scripture. However, as a method for arriving at the divine truths of the Bible its deficiencies are obvious. First, there are myriads of exegetical problems in the Bible for which no consensus exists among biblical scholars. Second, even established consensuses are occasionally overturned in light of further research. Hence, to rest one's dogmatic position on 'scholarly consensus' is to build a house on sand or lean on a bruised reed (choose your favourite biblical metaphor).

In any case, no ecclesiastical tradition can claim that its whole belief system is backed by consensus among biblical scholars. Hence, one is compelled to disagree with the scholarly consensus on at least some points. On what grounds does one justify holding up the scholarly consensus as vindication here, but repudiating it as mistaken there? Obviously other epistemological criteria are at work! (There are some people who seem to believe that scholarly opinion is on a relentless march toward their opinion, but this is a naive expectation, to say the least!)

One might concede that the academic community cannot be relied on for trustworthy dogmatic results, but maintain that the academic method of biblical study can be. In this case, one must take the bull by the horns and become a first-rate biblical scholar oneself in order to produce a sound doctrinal system. I must confess that there was an element of this thinking in my own motivation for undertaking formal theological studies. However, as I recounted in the beginning, the actual academic experience cured me of it (thankfully). If the doctrine of perspicuity boils down to trust in one's own devoutness, then the elevation of academic biblical scholarship boils down to trust in the astuteness and objectivity of human thought—whether of the academic community as a whole, or one's own. This fails on empirical grounds, as already discussed, but it also seems theologically wrongheaded, given Paul's polemic against 'the one who is wise... the scribe... the debater of this age' (1 Cor. 1:20).

This is not, of course, to say that academic biblical scholarship cannot produce any valuable exegetical results—far from it! In many cases it has produced near-certainty as to the meaning of previously confounding passages. (One example that comes to mind is 1 Pet. 3:19, an allusion previously thought to be obscure beyond recovery, but now generally accepted as referring to the Enochic Watchers myth). I only mean that the pursuit of academic learning cannot produce the assurance of doctrinal correctness which I have sought.

Option 3: The renunciation of dogma

A third response to the question, How can I understand the doctrines of the Bible, and how can I be confident that my understanding is sound? is essentially to wave the white flag. This might take two forms. I might conclude that the Bible itself is the problem; it does not contain any unified 'doctrines' to be understood. (This may or may not entail abandonment of Christian faith.) Alternatively, I may conclude that human subjectivity and distance from the historical context render an objective understanding of the Bible impossible. If so, perhaps dogma is ultimately not of critical importance to the Christian faith. Maybe I'm missing the point—maybe the Bible isn't meant to be understood; only marveled at. Maybe Bible study is more about the journey than the destination. Maybe God is not interested in doctrine so much as in our hearts; our sincere personal trust.

These mantras may seem trite as depicted here, but I do believe they represent an important corrective to an overly cerebral, dogma-centered approach to Christian faith. To know God at the level of dogma is surely not to have "arrived" spiritually: if I "understand all mysteries and all knowledge... but have not love, I am nothing" (1 Cor. 13:2). Nevertheless, that dogma is insufficient does not mean it is unnecessary, or neatly separable from more relational and experiential aspects of Christian faith. One can hardly, after reading Isaiah or John or Romans, conclude that God is not interested in theology. That God demands soundness of doctrine is clear from many passages censuring and warning against doctrinal error. And God could hardly demand this if the theological task were Mission Impossible. Hence, abandoning dogma as either unimportant or unachievable is not the answer.

Option 4: The consensus of the church

A fourth response to the question, How can I understand the doctrines of the Bible, and how can I be confident that my understanding is sound? involves appealing, not to the consensus of the academy, but to the consensus of the church. There are some obvious pragmatic problems—the consensus of which church?, for one—but let me explain why I find this to be the most satisfactory option of the four.

My worldview underwent a significant shift when I rethought and ultimately repudiated a fundamental assumption implicit in my question: that it is my responsibility to figure out the doctrines of the Bible for myself (or, more generally, that this is the responsibility of each individual Christian). In other words, I ought to have replaced "I" with "we" in my question and so approached it from an ecclesiological rather than an individual perspective.

The individualistic perspective is endemic to modern Western society, where literacy rates are extremely high, Bibles are readily available for personal study in the lingua franca, freedom of expression and religion prevail, and self-advancement is both a core value and often an actual opportunity. When I read texts like 2 Tim. 2:15 and 3:15-17 in my English Bible on my smart phone, it certainly sounds like a mandate to me, the individual reader, to study my way to doctrinal correctness and thus divine approval. However, in doing this I forget that this letter was not written to me, or to a layperson like me, but to an ordained church leader (2 Tim. 1:6). I also forget that the social situation of the early church was very different: literacy rates were very low, copies of biblical books were rare and expensive (and the Bible itself not yet a finished product), and most people had little freedom or opportunity for self-advancement. Intensive, personal study of the biblical text was the province of the few. The many were were dependent on their teachers (like Paul and Timothy), whom they were enjoined to respect and obey (2 Cor. 13:10; 1 Thess. 5:12-13; Heb. 13:17). And this concentration of knowledge in the few was not viewed negatively; the accumulation of too many teachers was (2 Tim. 4:3; Jas 3:1)!

Now suppose I put myself in the shoes of a first century female slave who is a Christian. I hear the Scriptures read and expounded in the assemblies but I am illiterate. There is little prospect of my ever learning to read or, even if I did, getting my own copy of the Bible. If I pose to myself the question, How can I understand the doctrines of the Bible, and how can I be confident that my understanding is sound? how will I respond? Will I not answer to the first question, "I can listen to my teachers in the church," and to the second, "I can be confident in my teachers' teaching because they were appointed by the apostles of Christ and have the guidance of the Holy Spirit"?

The question then is, at what point did this sort of scenario come to an end, so that each Christian was now responsible for achieving a sound doctrinal understanding through personal Bible study? Was it when the Holy Spirit allegedly ceased activity? Was it when the printing press was invented? When religious freedom became a reality? When the Industrial Revolution led to soaring literacy rates? The burden of proof lies with the one who claims that the original model—laypeople relying on divinely sanctioned teachers for doctrine—was replaced by a democratized model in which each individual bears responsibility for the theological task.

Christ promised the church—represented by the Twelve—that the Holy Spirit would lead her into all truth (John 16:13), and that he would be with her until the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). There is, then, good reason to trust an ecclesiological consensus—an agreement on fundamental doctrine reached by the church's ordained teachers. And, as it turns out, such a consensus did emerge in the early church and still exists today. It was first called the "rule of faith" or "canon of faith," and Irenaeus in the late second century both describes its content and calls it a worldwide consensus. In the the fourth century it was approved by ecumenical councils in a fixed form—the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. This is the ecclesiological consensus about Christian dogma, which has held ever since. (And, as I've argued previouslyall strands of Christianity extant today are descended from Nicene Trinitarian orthodoxy).

The 'ecclesiological consensus' approach seems to me to incorporate the best of the other three approaches. It affirms the perspicuity of Scripture, but not at the level of the individual reader. Scripture is clear enough to be understood by the Church, illuminated as she is by the Holy Spirit. The academy has an important role in furthering understanding of the Bible and of theology, but cannot fulfill the role of producing and defending dogma. In agreement with postmodernism, the futility of individual interpreters trying to achieve a definitive, objective understanding of the Bible can be readily acknowledged.

Finally, the 'ecclesiological consensus' approach is immensely liberating. There is no room for personal pride or boasting because for the individual Christian, dogma is a tradition I have received, not a thesis I have achieved. As a theology student I can undertake biblical exegesis with great enthusiasm and follow the evidence where it leads for any given passage, minus the burden of having to manufacture dogma for myself from scratch.

Of course, a major problem with this approach is that, on many doctrinal issues not covered in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed—such as various aspects of soteriology—no 'ecclesiological consensus' holds across contemporary ecclesiastical traditions. One must therefore decide which ecclesiological tradition has a valid consensus: Reformed? Eastern Orthodox? Roman Catholic? Something else? Which of these has a legitimate claim to be the 'one holy, catholic and apostolic Church' confessed in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed? This is where I am now in my journey.


My own finding after four years of intense academic study of the Bible is that the Bible is not easily understood, and indeed that the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture is invalid. The Bible—not only Paul's letters—contains things "that are hard to understand" (2 Pet. 3:16) and yet essential to the Christian faith (so that to twist them is to invite destruction). I do not think that any amount of personal study will enable me personally to reach a place where I can be confident that I have correctly deduced the doctrines of the Bible. Nor do I think the situation would be different if I had more intelligence, erudition or devoutness. Many Christians of far greater intelligence, erudition and devoutness than myself nonetheless profoundly disagree about what the Bible teaches. Hence I cannot expect that God will reward my faith and my effort with a unique ability to correctly and definitively interpret Scripture. Instead, I must recognize my own insignificance and willingly submit to the teaching of the 'church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth' (1 Tim. 3:15).


  • 1 Some definitions of the perspicuity of Scripture: 'the Bible read in its entirety can be clearly understood by the devout reader' (Melick, Richard R., Jr. (2013). Can we understand the Bible? In Steven B. Cowan & Terry L. Wilder, In Defense of the Bible: A Comprehensive Apologetic for the Authority of Scripture (pp. 89-118). Nashville: Broadman & Holman); 'the Bible is written in such a way that all things necessary for our salvation and for our Christian life and growth are very clearly set forth in Scripture. Although theologians have sometimes defined the clarity of Scripture more narrowly (by saying, for example, only that Scripture is clear in teaching the way of salvation), the texts cited above apply to many different aspects of biblical teaching and do not seem to support any such limitation on the areas to which Scripture can be said to speak clearly. It seems more faithful to those biblical texts to define the clarity of Scripture as follows: <i>The clarity of Scripture means that the Bible is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all who will read it seeking God's help and being willing to follow it. Once we have stated this, however, we must also recognize that many people, even God's people, do in fact misunderstand Scripture.' (Grudem, Wayne A. (1994). Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, p. 108).

Wednesday 23 November 2016

Word counts by book for Septuagint, New Testament, Apostolic Fathers and Justin Martyr

Religious studies meets data science. The result:

Click on image for a larger result.

Texts used for this exercise were as follows. The LXX text is taken from freely available text files from the Center for Computer Analysis of Texts at the University of Pennsylvania. The NT text is taken from freely available text files of the SBL GNT maintained by James Tauber. The Apostolic Fathers text is taken from the Logos software edition of Michael W. Holmes' critical text.1 Justin Martyr's writings are taken from online Greek texts which are in turn based on Goodspeed's 1915 critical text (at least for the Apologies; no attribution is present for the Dialogue with Trypho). Text mining to obtain the word counts was conducted using R statistical software.

A few fun facts:

  • We have more words of Justin Martyr preserved (69741) than the entire Apostolic Fathers corpus (64757), thanks to the truly massive size of his Dialogue with Trypho.
  • Justin Martyr and the Apostolic Fathers combined (134498) are only slightly shorter than the New Testament (137554).
  • The Gospels and Acts make up over 60% of the New Testament by word count. The Pauline corpus makes up "only" 23.5%.
  • The whole of the LXX consists of 589013 words (based on the texts used here). Of this, 82% comes from books considered canonical by Protestants (albeit in Hebrew). An additional 13% (77806 words) comes from books considered canonical by Roman Catholics but not Protestants (1-2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Judith, Tobit, Baruch, Epistle of Jeremiah, Bel and the Dragon, Susanna).2 The other 5% comes from books not considered canonical by Protestants or Roman Catholics (1 Esdras, 3-4 Maccabees, Odes of Solomon, Psalms of Solomon).

A couple of caveats. In cases where two quite divergent text families exist for a single book (e.g., Joshua, Judges, Daniel, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, Tobit) I've just represented one of the texts. It should also be noted that some of the texts have lacunae (Epistle to Diognetus; Dialogue with Trypho) or lost endings (Gospel of Mark; Didache), so the original word count would have been larger than the one reported here. Other texts have portions extant only in Latin (Polycarp's Epistle to the Philippians; Shepherd of Hermas) which will also have slightly affected the word count since, for example, there is no article in Latin. For the Martyrdom of Polycarp I've only included chapters 1-20 since the epilogues in chapters 21-22 are obviously added by later hands.


  • 1 Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007).
  • 2 The Greek additions to Esther, also considered canonical by Roman Catholics, are not included here since I didn't go to the trouble of counting these words separately.

Saturday 22 October 2016

A table of biblical occurrences of qal wachomer

Among the seven middoth (מדות, literally 'measures') or rules for biblical interpretation which rabbinic tradition attributes to Hillel (died c. 10 A.D.), perhaps the best known is the qal wachomer or qal wahomer1 principle (קל וחומר, literally 'light and heavy'). This principle involves either arguing from the lesser to the greater (what logicians would call an argument a minore ad maius) or from the greater to the lesser (a maiore ad minus). If one extends the scope of the qal wachomer beyond biblical interpretation to any logical inference within the biblical text that follows this pattern, it is very common throughout the Bible. I am not aware of any resource that comprehensively tabulates occurrences of qal wachomer arguments within the Bible, so in this article I am offering a step in that direction in the form of a table with 65 biblical texts that certainly or at least plausibly contain a qal wachomer. 

The table is largely my own work, although I did consult this page as a starting point, and was already familiar with a few of the more famous cases either through the academic literature or hearing about them from my theology lecturers. There are a few suggested cases of qal wachomer that I have omitted from the table because I am not convinced they are such.2 I do not claim to have found all biblical instances of qal wachomer, and some of those I have identified may be disputed (especially if the qal wachomer is only implicit or partially stated).

The most common structure for a qal wachomer is, 'If X (a light thing) is true, how much more is Y (a heavy thing) true?' Sometimes the direction is heavy to light, and sometimes the argument is phrased negatively, e.g. '...how much less...?'

A slight majority (39) are from the New Testament. Such reasoning is especially common in the sayings of Jesus in Matthew, Luke and John, in the Pauline Hauptbriefe (undisputed letters) and in Hebrews. Translations are taken from the NASB unless otherwise indicated. The table below can also be downloaded in Excel or PDF format.

Paraphrase of qal wachomer
Ex. 6:12
12 But Moses spoke before the Lord, saying, “Behold, the sons of Israel have not listened to me; how then will Pharaoh listen to me, for I am unskilled in speech?”
If even my own people wouldn't listen to me, how much more will Pharaoh not?
Num. 12:13-14
13 Moses cried out to the Lord, saying, “O God, heal her, I pray!” 14 But the Lord said to Moses, “If her father had but spit in her face, would she not bear her shame for seven days? Let her be shut up for seven days outside the camp, and afterward she may be received again.”
If her father had but spit in her face, she would bear her shame for seven days. How much more then when she has been struck with leprosy?
Deut. 31:27
For I know your rebellion and your stubbornness; behold, while I am still alive with you today, you have been rebellious against the Lord; how much more, then, after my death?
If the Israelites are rebellious while Moses is still around, how much more will they be after he is gone?
1 Sam. 14:29-30
29 Then Jonathan said, “My father has troubled the land. See now, how my eyes have brightened because I tasted a little of this honey. 30 How much more, if only the people had eaten freely today of the spoil of their enemies which they found! For now the slaughter among the Philistines has not been great.”
If I have been cheered by a little honey, how much more would the people have been cheered if they had been allowed to eat freely from the spoil of the Philistines?
1 Sam. 21:4-6
4 The priest answered David and said, “There is no ordinary bread on hand, but there is consecrated bread; if only the young men have kept themselves from women.” 5 David answered the priest and said to him, “Surely women have been kept from us as previously when I set out and the vessels of the young men were holy, though it was an ordinary journey; how much more then today will their vessels be holy?” 6 So the priest gave him consecrated bread; for there was no bread there but the bread of the Presence which was removed from before the Lord, in order to put hot bread in its place when it was taken away.
If women are kept from us on ordinary journeys, how much more on this urgent errand?
1 Sam. 23:3
3 But David’s men said to him, “Behold, we are afraid here in Judah. How much more then if we go to Keilah against the ranks of the Philistines?”
If we are afraid here in our own territory, how much more will we be afraid in enemy territory?
2 Sam. 4:9-12
9 David answered Rechab and Baanah his brother, sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, and said to them, “As the Lord lives, who has redeemed my life from all distress, 10 when one told me, saying, ‘Behold, Saul is dead,’ and thought he was bringing good news, I seized him and killed him in Ziklag, which was the reward I gave him for his news. 11 How much more, when wicked men have killed a righteous man in his own house on his bed, shall I not now require his blood from your hand anddestroy you from the earth?” 12 Then David commanded the young men, and they killed them and cut off their hands and feet and hung them up beside the pool in Hebron. But they took the head of Ish-bosheth and buried it in the grave of Abner in Hebron.
If I had a man executed just for telling me Saul was dead and expecting a reward, how much more will I have you executed for murdering Saul's innocent son inside his own house on his bed?
2 Sam. 16:10-12
 11 Then David said to Abishai and to all his servants, “Behold, my son who came out from me seeks my life; how much more now this Benjamite? Let him alone and let him curse, for the Lord has told him. 12 Perhaps the Lord will look on my affliction and return good to me instead of his cursing this day.”
(Heavy to light) If my own son wants me dead, it is no surprise if this man from another tribe does.
2 Sam. 18:11-12
11 Then Joab said to the man who had told him, “Now behold, you saw him! Why then did you not strike him there to the ground? And I would have given you ten pieces of silver and a belt.” 12 The man said to Joab, “Even if I should receive a thousand pieces of silver in my hand, I would not put out my hand against the king’s son; for in our hearing the king charged you and Abishai and Ittai, saying, ‘Protect for me the young man Absalom!’
(Heavy to light; rhetorical rather than argumentative) I would not have murdered Absalom for a thousand pieces of silver, how much less would I do it for ten pieces and a belt?
1 Kings 8:27 (cp. 2 Chr. 6:18)
“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You, how much less this house which I have built!
(Heavy to light) if heaven itself is unfit to contain God, how much less is a man-made building fit to contain God!
1 Kings 13:7-8
7 Then the king said to the man of God, “Come home with me and refresh yourself, and I will give you a reward.” 8 But the man of God said to the king, “If you were to give me half your house I would not go with you, nor would I eat bread or drink water in this place.
(Heavy to light; rhetorical rather than argumentative) I would not go home with you for a reward of half your house; how much less would I do so for some unspecified reward!
2 Kings 5:12
Then his servants came near and spoke to him and said, “My father, had the prophet told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”
(Heavy to light) Naaman, if Elisha had ordered you do something great to be healed, you would have done it; how much more should you be willing to do the simple, easy task he has given you?
Job 4:17-21
17 ‘Can mankind be just before God? Can a man be pure before his Maker? 18 ‘He puts no trust even in His servants; And against His angels He charges error. 19 ‘How much more those who dwell in houses of clayWhose foundation is in the dust, Who are crushed before the moth! 20 ‘Between morning and evening they are broken in pieces; Unobserved, they perish forever. 21 ‘Is not their tent-cord plucked up within them? They die, yet without wisdom.’
(Heavy to light) if God even regards his angels as impure, how much more does he regard mere mortals as impure?
Job 15:15-16
15 “Behold, He puts no trust in His holy ones, And the heavens are not pure in His sight; 16 How much less one who is detestable and corrupt, Man, who drinks iniquity like water!
(Heavy to light) similar to Job 4:17-21
Job 25:5-6
5 “If even the moon has no brightness And the stars are not pure in His sight, 6 How much less man, that maggot, And the son of man, that worm!”
(Heavy to light) similar to Job 4:17-21
Job 35:13-14
13 “Surely God will not listen to an empty cry, Nor will the Almighty regard it. 14 “How much less when you say you do not behold Him, The case is before Him, and you must wait for Him!
(Heavy to light; Hebrew is difficult and may read differently) if God doesn't answer the cry of the oppressed who don't raise doubts against him, how much less will he answer you, who do?
Prov. 11:31
If the righteous will be rewarded in the earth, How much more the wicked and the sinner!
(Logical progression is not obvious - see interpretation of LXX in 1 Pet. 4:18)
Prov. 15:11
Sheol and Abaddon lie open before the Lord, How much more the hearts of men!
(Heavy to light) if even hidden places under the earth are open to God, how much more the hearts of people living on the earth?
Prov. 19:7
All the brothers of a poor man hate him; How much more do his friends abandon him! He pursues them with words, but they are gone.
(Heavy to light) if even the brothers of a poor man hate him, how much more will his friends do so?
Prov. 21:27
The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination, How much more when he brings it with evil intent!
If the sacrifice of a wicked person is already abominable due to his wickedness, how much more when the sacrifice itself is done in bad faith?
Jer. 12:5
“If you have run with footmen and they have tired you out, Then how can you compete with horses? If you fall down in a land of peace, How will you do in the thicket of the Jordan?
(Double qal wachomer) If you can't even keep up with men running, how much more will you not keep up with horses? If you fall down in a peaceful land, how much more in a dangerous land?
Jer. 25:29
For behold, I am beginning to work calamity in this city which is called by My name, and shall you be completely free from punishment? You will not be free from punishment; for I am summoning a sword against all the inhabitants of the earth,” declares the Lord of hosts.’
(Heavy to light) if I am not sparing my own special city Jerusalem from punishment, how much less will I spare the nations?
Ezek. 14:19-21
19 Or if I should send a plague against that country and pour out My wrath in blood on it to cut off man and beast from it, 20 even though Noah, Daniel and Job were in its midst, as I live,” declares the Lord God, “they could not deliver either their son or their daughter. They would deliver only themselves by their righteousness.” 21 For thus says the Lord God, “How much more when I send My four severe judgments against Jerusalem: sword, famine, wild beasts and plague to cut off man and beast from it!
If the righteousness of past righteous figures could only spare themselves and not their people in the day of calamity, how much more will the present wicked city of Jerusalem face my judgment?
Ezek. 15:1-5
15 Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying, 2 “Son of man, how is the wood of the vine better than any wood of a branch which is among the trees of the forest? 3 Can wood be taken from it to make anything, or can men take a peg from it on which to hang any vessel? 4 If it has been put into the fire for fuel, and the fire has consumed both of its ends and its middle part has been charred, is it then useful for anything? 5 Behold, while it is intact, it is not made into anything. How much less, when the fire has consumed it and it is charred, can it still be made into anything!
If wood from a vine is useless when it is intact, how much more is it useless when it has been charred by fire?
Jonah 4:10-11
10 Then the Lord said, “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. 11 Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?”
If you (a mere mortal) had compassion for a mere plant, how much more should I (the merciful God) have compassion for a huge city?
Sir. 10:31
He who has repute in poverty, how much more also in wealth? And he who is held in disrepute in wealth, how much more also in poverty? (NETS)
(Double qal wachomer) If a person has a good reputation while poor, how much better would his reputation be if he became rich? If a person has a bad reputation while wealthy, how much worse would his reputation be if he lost his wealth?
Matt. 6:26 (cp. Luke 12:24)
26 Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?
If God feeds mere birds, will he not much more feed people?
Matt. 6:30 (cp. Luke 12:28)
30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith!
If God clothes mere grass, will he not much more clothe people?
Matt. 10:24-25
24 “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master. 25 It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, and the slave like his master. If they have called the head of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign the members of his household!
(Heavy to light?) If the wicked malign even the master (who is greater), how much more will they malign those who follow him?
Matt. 12:3-6
3 But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he became hungry, he and his companions, 4 how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat nor for those with him, but for the priests alone? 5 Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent? 6 But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here.
If the letter of the law could be overridden in the presence of the temple, how much more in the presence of the One who is greater than the temple?
Matt. 12:10-12
10 And a man was there whose hand was withered. And they questioned Jesus, asking, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse Him. 11 And He said to them, “What man is there among you who has a sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep! So then, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”
If it is legal to rescue a sheep on the Sabbath, how much more is it legal to rescue a man?
Matt. 12:41-42 (cp. Luke 11:31-32)
41 The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. 42 The Queen of the South will rise up with this generation at the judgment and will condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.
(Implicit) If Gentiles will be judged (and vindicated) in terms of their contact with Jonah and Solomon, how much more will Jews of this generation be judged (and condemned) in terms of their contact with someone much greater?
Luke 11:11-13 (cp. Matt. 7:9-11)
11 Now suppose one of you fathers is asked by his son for a fish; he will not give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? 12 Or if he is asked for an egg, he will not give him a scorpion, will he? 13 If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?”
If even earthly, mortal fathers respond to their children's requests with good, earthly gifts, how much more will the divine, heavenly Father respond to his children's requests with good, heavenly gifts? (the contrast in the quality of the gifts is not explicit in Matthew)
Luke 12:6-7 (cp. Matt. 10:29-30)
6 Are not five sparrows sold for two cents? Yet not one of them is forgotten before God. 7 Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows.
If God cares about sparrows, how much more does he care about people?
Luke 13:15-16
15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites, does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the stall and lead him away to water him? 16 And this woman, a daughter of Abraham as she is, whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years, should she not have been released from this bond on the Sabbath day?”
If it is legal to work to provide for animals' basic needs on the Sabbath, how much more is it legal to release a daughter of Abraham from bondage to Satan on the Sabbath?
Luke 16:10-12
10 “He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much. 11 Therefore if you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous wealth, who will entrust the true riches to you? 12 And if you have not been faithful in the use of that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?
qal wachomer principle stated explicitly in v. 10, followed by two applications
Luke 18:6-7
6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unrighteous judge said; 7 now, will God not bring about justice for His elect who cry out to Him day and night, and will He delay long for them?
(Implicit) if even an unjust judge can be moved by persistence to bring justice, how much more can God be? (Thanks to Anonymous for pointing out this instance in the comments.)
John 3:12
12 If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?
If you cannot even believe earthly things, how much less will you be able to believe heavenly things?
John 5:46-47
46 For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me. 47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?”
(Implicit) If you cannot even believe the words of Moses who wrote about me, how much less will you be able to believe my own words?
John 6:61-62
61 But Jesus, conscious that His disciples grumbled at this, said to them,“Does this cause you to stumble? 62 What then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before?
(Implicit) If you have been offended by the previous saying, how much more will you be offended by this one…
John 7:23
If a man receives circumcision on the Sabbath so that the Law of Moses will not be broken, are you angry with Me because I made an entire man well on the Sabbath?
If it is legal to 'fix' one small part of the body on the Sabbath, how much more is it legal to 'fix' the whole body on the Sabbath?
John 10:34-36
34 Jesus answered them, “Has it not been written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? 35 If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture cannot be broken), 36 do you say of Him, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?
If even those to whom the word of God came can be called 'gods', how much more can God's own Son be called 'God'?
John 19:36
36 For these things came to pass to fulfill the Scripture, "Not a bone of Him shall be broken."
(Implicit) As argued by Longenecker,3 this may be a subtle qal wachomer exegetical argument: if Ps. 34:19-20 is true of the generic 'righteous one', how much more is it true of Jesus, the Righteous One par excellence? However, I think the use of Ps. 34:19-20 in John 19:36 is at least partly explicable in terms of pesher (a revelatory 'this-is-that' interpretation of the contemporary fulfillment of Scripture).
Acts 1:16-20
16 “Brethren, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit foretold by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. 17 For he was counted among us and received his share in this ministry.” 18 (Now this man acquired a field with the price of his wickedness, and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his intestines gushed out. 19 And it became known to all who were living in Jerusalem; so that in their own language that field was called Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20 “For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘Let his homestead be made desolate, And let no one dwell in it’; and, ‘Let another man take his office.’
(Implicit) Again, Longenecker4 regards this as a subtle qal wachomer exegetical argument: if Ps. 69:25 and Ps. 109:8 are true of the generic evildoer, how much more are they true of Judas, the traitor par excellence? Again, however, I think the use of the psalms here is at least partly explicable in terms of pesher.5 Note the explicit use of 'this-is-that' pesher language in Acts 2:16.
Rom. 2:25-27
25 For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 26 So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?27 And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law?
(Implicit) if Jews who practice the Law - which they explicitly know - can be regarded as 'circumcised', how much more can Gentiles who meet the Law's requirements - which they do not explicitly know - be regarded as 'circumcised'?
Rom. 5:10
10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.
If the death of God's Son yielded a good result for God's enemies, how much more will the life of God's Son yield a good result for God's friends?
Rom. 5:15-17
15 But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many. 16 The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. 17 For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.
(Double; restated) Given God's righteous and gracious nature, if the transgression of the lesser man (Adam) had consequences for many, how much more did the grace and righteousness of the greater man (Jesus Christ) have consequences for many?
Rom. 8:31-32
31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? 33 Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies;
(Double; implicit; heavy to light) If even God, the highest judicial authority of all, is not against us but for us, how much less could any other judicial authority be against us? If God was willing to gratuitously deliver over his own Son to give us a hope, how much more will he consummate this hope when that same Son comes again?
Rom. 11:11-12
11 I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous. 12 Now if their transgression is riches for the world and their failure is riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be!
If God brought salvation in allowing his people Israel temporarily to fail, how much more will he bring salvation when he intervenes to end this failure?
Rom. 11:24
24 For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the naturalbranches be grafted into their own olive tree?
(Heavy to light) If it is possible for wild branches to be grafted into a cultivated olive tree (against nature), how much more is it possible for cultivated branches to be grafted in (in accordance with nature)?
1 Cor. 6:2-3
2 Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? If the world is judged by you, are you not competent to constitute the smallest law courts? 3 Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more matters of this life?
(Double; heavy to light) If the saints are competent to judge the world, and angels, how much more are they competent to judge temporal matters?
1 Cor. 9:12
11 If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? 12 If others share the right over you, do we not more? Nevertheless, we did not use this right, but we endure all things so that we will cause no hindrance to the gospel of Christ.
If others (who did not found the Corinthian church) have a right to reap material things from the Corinthian church, how much more does Paul (who did found the Corinthian church) have this right?
1 Cor. 14:6-9
6 But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues, what will I profit you unless I speak to you either by way of revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching? 7 Yet even lifeless things, either flute or harp, in producing a sound, if they do not produce a distinction in the tones, how will it be known what is played on the flute or on the harp? 8 For if the bugle produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle? 9 So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will bespeaking into the air.
(Implicit) If even 'lifeless', earthly sounds require clarity to be useful, how much more do life-giving, heavenly sounds require clarity to be useful?
1 Cor. 15:13-146
13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain.
(Implicit) If not even Christ has been raised, how can anyone else hope to be raised?
2 Cor. 3:7-11
7 But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones, came with glory, so that the sons of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, fading as it was, 8 how will the ministry of the Spirit fail to be even more with glory? 9 For if the ministry of condemnation has glory, much more does the ministry of righteousness abound in glory. 10 For indeed what had glory, in this case has no glory because of the glory that surpasses it. 11 For if that which fades away was with glory, much more that which remains is in glory.
(Triple qal wachomer) if the ministry of death and condemnation, which is fading away, had glory, how much more does the ministry of the Spirit and righteousness, which surpasses it, have glory?
2 Cor. 11:13-15
13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds.
(Heavy to light; logic is comparable to Matt. 10:25) If even Satan disguises himself (heavy), it is no surprise if his servants disguise themselves (light)
Gal. 1:8-9
 8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! 9 As we have said before, so I say again now,if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!
(Heavy to light; implicit) If even Paul himself (who originally brought them the gospel) or a heavenly angel should be accursed for preaching a different gospel, how much more should anyone else be accursed for preaching a different gospel
Gal. 2:14
But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?
(Implicit) If it was acceptable for Cephas himself-a Jew-to live like a Gentile, how much more is it acceptable for Gentiles to live like Gentiles?
1 Tim. 3:5
(but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?)
If a man is incapable of managing his own natural household, how much more is he incapable of managing God's spiritual household?
Heb. 2:2-3a
2 For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, 3 how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?
(Similar to Heb. 10:29-30) If transgressions under the law were punished, how much more will a rejection of the great salvation be punished?
Heb. 6:13-18
13 For when God made the promise to Abraham, since He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself, 14 saying, “I will surely bless you and I will surely multiply you.” 15 And so, having patiently waited, he obtained the promise. 16 For men swear by one greater than themselves, and with them an oath given as confirmation is an end of every dispute. 17 In the same way God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath, 18 so that by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have taken refuge would have strong encouragement to take hold of the hope set before us.
(Implicit) Guthrie7 sees an implicit qal wachomer argument here: if even men's oaths have force in confirming their word, how much more does God's oath have force in confirming his unbreakable word? Note, however, the comparative 'in the same way' (rather than 'how much more' as used elsewhere in the letter) casts some doubt on whether a light-to-heavy movement is intended; it may only be an analogy.
Heb. 9:13-14
13 For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
If the blood of physically unblemished animals have cultic efficacy, how much more does the blood of the spiritually unblemished Christ?
Heb. 10:28-29
28 Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?
If apostasy against the old covenant earned a punishment of death, how much more severe a punishment will apostasy against the new covenant earn?
Heb. 12:9-10
9 Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness.
If we respected our earthly fathers who disciplined us according to their imperfect will, how much more should we respect our heavenly Father who disciplines us according to his perfect will?
Heb. 12:25
See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking. For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape who turn away from Him who warns from heaven.
If people who failed to heed Moses' earthly warning (Ex. 19:12-13) did not escape punishment, how much less will people who failed to heed God's heavenly warning (Hag. 2:6-7) escape punishment?
1 Pet. 4:17-18
17 For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And if it is with difficulty that the righteous is saved, what will become of the godless man and the sinner?
(Implicit; v. 18 quotes Prov. 11:31 LXX) If the righteous household God will face judgment and scarcely escape, how much more will wicked unbelievers be unable to escape


  • 1 These transliterations are both widely used, and I am more concerned with ensuring this article receives a decent ranking in Google searches than with meeting transliteration conventions; hence I have not marked up the transliteration.
  • 2 These are Esth. 9:12 (suggested by Wansbrough), 2 Chr. 32:15, Matt. 6:15 (par. Mark 11:26) and 1 Cor. 8:8-10.
  • 3 Longenecker, Richard N. (1999). Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (2nd edn). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 81.
  • 4 Longenecker, op. cit., p. 139.
  • 5 Longenecker writes elsewhere concerning Acts 1:20 that 'While there is here the use of Hillel's first exegetical rule qal wa-ḥomer ("what applies in a less important case will certainly apply in a more important case"), thereby applying what is said in the Psalms about the unrighteous generally to the betrayer of the Messiah specifically, the aspect of fulfilment, as based on typological correspondence in history, gives the treatment a pesher flavor as well'. (Longenecker, Richard N. (2007). Early Church Interpretation. In Stanley E. Porter (Ed.), Dictionary of Biblical Criticism and Interpretation (pp. 78-89). New York: Routledge, p. 80.)
  • 6 Peerbolte thinks the whole argument of 1 Cor. 15:12-20 is a qal wachomer (Peerbolte, Bert Jan Lietaert (2013). How Antichrist defeated Death: The Development of Christian Apocalyptic Eschatology in the Early Church. In Jan Krans, Bert Jan Lietaert Peerbolte, Peter-Ben Smit & Arie Zwiep (Eds.), Paul, John, and Apocalyptic Eschatology: Studies in Honour of Martinus C. de Boer (pp. 238-255). Leiden: Brill, p. 241.
  • 7 Guthrie, George H. (2007). Hebrews. In G.K. Beale & D.A. Carson (Eds.), Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (pp. 919-996). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 966.