dianoigo blog

Sunday, 1 August 2021

The Church as Spiritual Israel (4): Israel, Not-Israel, and the Olive Tree

In the first article of this series, we called attention to a statement that early Christian apologist Justin Martyr made to a Jewish interlocutor in which he described the Church as "the true, spiritual Israel." We undertook to investigate whether the idea of the Church as Israel in a spiritual sense goes back to the New Testament, with particular attention to the Apostle Paul. We recognised the sensitivity of this matter in view of the subsequent painful history of Christian persecution of Jews, but nonetheless sought to take the New Testament evidence at face value and not engage in a fallacious appeal to consequences. In the second article, we studied three passages from Galatians (3:6-29; 4:21-31; 6:16), finding that this early Pauline letter does indeed lay the foundation for an ecclesiology that identifies the Church, spiritually speaking, with Israel. In the third article, we went further afield and found evidence of a Pauline "spiritual Israel" concept in 1 Corinthians 10:18, Philippians 3:3, and Romans 2:28-29.

In this final article, we turn our attention to the only passage in Paul's letters—indeed, in the entire New Testament—that treats at length the subject of where Israel fits into God's purpose in the wake of the Messiah's founding of a new eschatological community. This passage is Romans 9-11, and is far too rich and complex for a single blog article to do it justice. However, by looking at a few texts within this great section of Paul's greatest letter, we hope to offer some insight into Paul's spiritualisation of Israel and where this leaves ethnic Israel in his theology.

Romans 9:1-8

While Paul does not explicitly give the reason for the "great sorrow and unceasing anguish" that he refers to (Rom. 9:2 NRSV), it is clear from the context that he is acknowledging that—already by the late 50s C.E.—the Christian message has been largely rejected by the Jewish people. He seeks to show, therefore, that rather than God's failure (9:6), this sad reality is part of God's ingenious and merciful plan of salvation—a plan that will have him extolling God's wisdom by the end of the section (11:33).

In Romans 9:3, Paul describes the Jews as his "kindred according to the flesh," using the phrase kata sarka that we have seen previously to stand in implicit contrast with kata pneuma, "according to the spirit." Given that Paul frequently calls his Roman addressees "brothers," goes without saying that he thinks of believers in Christ (regardless of ethnicity) as his kindred kata pneuma. In 9:4-5, Paul lists the privileges that had been granted to the Jewish people, and he begins simply with, "They are Israelites." This reinforces the inference we drew previously from 1 Corinthians 10:18: while the Church may be spiritual Israel, this does not mean ethnic Israel is now nothing. All ethnic Jews are Israelites kata sarka.

Yet, in Romans 9:6, we have this remarkable statement: "not all who are of Israel are Israel" (NABRE). This sounds self-contradictory, until we realise that Paul is using the term "Israel" in two different ways. It could be glossed, "not all who are of Israel according to the flesh belong to Israel according to the spirit."1 This basic sense is confirmed by Paul's synonymous parallelism: "nor are they all children of Abraham because they are his descendants". Paul then quotes Genesis 21:12 to prove this point, and explains the nature of the distinction he has introduced: there are "children of the flesh" and "children of the promise," i.e. "children of God" (language already discussed under Galatians 3-4).

Most scholars agree that Paul is making a distinction within ethnic Israel, between those who are Israelites kata sarka only and those who are Israelites kata sarka and kata pneuma.2 Strictly speaking, Gentiles are not in view in Romans 9:1-13. Yet, as Jason A. Staples observes, he does not restrict the meaning of "Israel" to Jews here,3 and we have seen clear evidence from elsewhere in Paul's writings that he does consider Gentile Christians to be part of Israel kata pneuma. Michael J. Cook therefore infers the following unstated corollary from Romans 9:6b:
many ethnically descended from Israel now happen not to belong to the Israel of God's promise, while many others not ethnically descended from Abraham do indeed belong!4
Romans 9:23-26

What is implicit in Romans 9:1-13 becomes explicit later in the chapter. The Gentiles are introduced into the argument in v. 24, where he describes the objects of God's mercy as "us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles" (NRSV). Paul again explicitly refers to the Gentiles in v. 30: "What then are we to say? Gentiles, who did not strive for righteousness, have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith..." (NRSV) In the intervening verses, he quotes several biblical texts with minimal commentary. Especially intriguing for our purposes are the quotations from Hosea 2 in Romans 9:25-26. Immediately after the statement about the called-ones being "not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles," Paul introduces the quotation with the words, "As indeed he says in Hosea..." This suggests that the quotation from Hosea is cited as scriptural proof of the statement that the objects of mercy—the aforementioned children of God or spiritual Israel—include Gentiles.

Paul's quotation from Hosea is made up of a paraphrase of Hosea 2:23 and a nearly verbatim quotation from Hosea 1:10:
As indeed he says in Hosea, 'Those who were not my people I will call "my people," and her who was not beloved I will call "beloved." And in the very place where it was said to them, "You are not my people," there they shall be called children of the living God.' (Romans 9:25-26 NRSV)
Battle notes that there is near-universal scholarly agreement that, in its original context, the oracle of Hosea 1-2 "has literal, national Israel in view—particularly, the ten northern tribes."5 The oracle foretells how God will have mercy on the disobedient northern kingdom and reunify his people. Pablo T. Gadenz notes that there are three scholarly positions on how Paul has understood these lines from Hosea: (1) Paul applies the oracle to the disobedient Israelites of his own day; (2) Paul applies the oracle to Christian believers, both Jewish and Gentile; (3) Paul applies the oracle to Gentile Christians.6 In my view, the Gentiles are definitely in view: the statement about the call of the Gentiles in v. 24 requires biblical substantiation, and the phrase hōs kai at the beginning of v. 25 can be understood as linking the statement to its biblical proof.

However, it seems unlikely that Paul would have spiritualised the ethnic language of Hosea 1-2 in its entirety and simply equated references to "Israel" here as Gentiles who are spiritual Israelites. As D. A. Carson notes, Hosea depicts Israel as disowned by God ("not my people") only to be restored to his favour. If God is prepared to restore disowned Israelites to the status of "my people,", what is to stop him from granting this status to Gentiles?7 Gadenz agrees that the phrase "not-people" "enables Paul to associate the salvation of the nations with the restoration of Israel."8 In Paul's understanding, the eschatological restoration and reunification of Israel prophesied by Hosea includes not only the re-inclusion of previously disowned portions of Israel, but also the inclusion of the nations.9

Romans 11:16-32

Constraints of space require us to skip to the latter part of Paul's argument, where he uses his famous olive tree metaphor. Three important details of this passage will be considered: firstly, the identity of the "root" in vv. 16-18; secondly, the significance of the grafting metaphor in vv. 17-24; and thirdly, the meaning of "all Israel" in v. 26.

At least four interpretations of the "root" can be found in the literature: (1) Israel, (2) the remnant consisting of Jewish believers in Christ (including the apostles), (3) Abraham/the patriarchs, or (4) Christ.10 Arguments can be made in favour of all four options. For instance, Christ is referred to as "the root of Jesse" in Romans 15:12 and as "firstfruits" in 1 Corinthians 15:20-23 (note equivalence of "firstfruits" and "root" in the parallelism of Rom. 11:16). Abraham features prominently in Romans 4 and 9 as ancestor and archetype of God's children, and it is on the patriarchs' account that disobedient Israel remains beloved (Rom. 11:28). However, these two individualising interpretations are difficult to reconcile v. 18, since the reminder "that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you" would then be too obvious to require emphasis. That the root is Israel seems to conflict with the apparent correspondence between the olive tree and Israel in the verses that follow. Hence, the "believing Jewish remnant" view is most plausible, with the nourishment provided by the root corresponding to the preaching of the (Jewish) apostles (cf., e.g., 1 Cor. 3:5-6). The term "firstfruits" is used of individual (presumably Jewish) believers in Romans 16:5 and 1 Corinthians 16:15.

As for the olive tree itself, Israel is depicted as God's olive tree or plant in the Jewish Scriptures (e.g., Ps. 80:9; Jer. 11:16; Hos. 14:6). Given Paul's earlier distinction between Israel kata sarka and Israel kata pneuma, we should clarify that the tree represents not ethnic Israel but Israel kata pneuma. Ethnicity is denoted by the the natural/wild duality of the branches. Hence, the breaking off of natural branches refers to ethnic Israelites who are cut off from spiritual Israel due to unbelief in Christ, while the grafting in of wild branches refers to ethnic Gentiles who become part of spiritual Israel by faith in Christ.11

This is all seemingly very good news for Gentile Christians and very bad news for non-Christian Jews. However, the matter is not so simple: the former group are warned against complacency while the latter are provided with hope. Philip F. Esler notes that the olive tree allegory is actually "most unflattering" in its depiction of Gentile believers, since Paul has reversed the normal horticultural practice of grafting cultivated olive branches onto a wild olive tree. In this case, wild branches are attached "contrary to nature" (v. 24) to the cultivated olive tree, where they "will not produce fruit, but...are actually parasitic upon its richness."12 They should therefore "not become proud, but stand in awe" (v. 20).13 There also remains hope for the natural branches to be grafted in again (vv. 23-24).

In vv. 25-27 Paul reveals a "mystery," supported with scriptural quotations: 
a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, 'Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.' 'And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.' (NRSV)
 Once again, there are several distinct scholarly views on what "all Israel" means: (1) the church (both Jews and Gentiles saved during the present age); (2) the remnant of believing Jews (saved during the present age); (3) ethnic Israel (to be saved at the end of the present age). The prevailing view in modern scholarship is (3).14 I follow the majority view, but with a twist. 

Verses 28-31 continue to refer by verbs and pronouns to the referents of vv. 25-27: "they are enemies of God for your sake...they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors...they have now been disobedient, in order that...they too may now receive mercy." It is thus clear that the people group referred to in vv. 25-27 are ethnic Israelites (descendants of the patriarchs) who are currently disobedient. Paul thus envisions some climactic expression of divine mercy upon ethnic Israel at the eschaton. This demonstrates conclusively that, while Paul does spiritualise "Israel" so as to include Gentiles, he also retains a place for ethnic Israel qua Israel in God's plan.

It is therefore evident that "all Israel" in v. 26a includes disobedient ethnic Israel. But does this group exhaust its meaning? In my view, this phrase refers to the totality of "the Israel of God," Israel kata pneuma, the Israel of promise. It is inclusive of disobedient ethnic Israel—those who are the focus of vv. 26-31—but also of the full number of Gentiles who are "coming in," and the remnant of Israel who were not hardened (v. 25). "All Israel" finally encompasses both Israel kata pneuma and Israel kata sarka.15 It should not, however, be universalised in an individual sense, as though to include every ethnic or spiritual Jew who ever lived. In the Hebrew Bible, the phrase "all Israel" is often used with the sense "representatives of all parts of Israel" (e.g., Joshua "summoned all Israel, including their elders, leaders, judges, and officers," Josh. 23:2).16


Our first major conclusion from this four-part study is that the letters of Paul do indeed reflect a concept like that described by Justin Martyr to Trypho: the Church, consisting of believing Jews and Gentiles alike, are "spiritual Israel." Yet Gentile believers are part of God's Israel not because the Church has swept ethnic Israel aside and supplanted her, but because the Church is the eschatological continuation of what already existed within ethnic Israel. Gentile believers are spiritual Israelites by adoption. Our second major conclusion follows from this first one: Gentile Christians should not look down on ethnic Jews (including non-Christian ones), as they often have. Rather, they should regard them as kin, and look forward to their eschatological redemption by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the King of Israel.

  • 1 In fact, it is possible that "of Israel" (ex Israēl) here refers to Israel personally, i.e. the patriarch Jacob (cf. Num. 24:17 LXX). In that case, the sense would be, "Not all who are descended from Israel belong to the spiritual Israel."
  • 2 See, e.g., Charles M. Horne,  "The Meaning of the Phrase 'And thus all Israel will be saved' (Romans 11:26)," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 21 (1978): 329; Michael Cranford, "Election and Ethnicity: Paul's View of Israel in Romans 9.1-13," Journal for the Study of the New Testament 15 (1993) :31.
  • 3 "What Do the Gentiles Have to Do with 'All Israel'? A Fresh Look at Romans 11:25-27," Journal of Biblical Literature 130 (2011): 378. Notice also how the term "children of God," used in Romans 9:8 of elect Israelites, is used of all believers in Romans 8:14-17.
  • 4 "Paul's Argument in Romans 9-11," Review & Expositor 103 (2006): 96, emphasis added.
  • 5 John A. Battle, Jr., "Paul's Use of the Old Testament in Romans 9:25-26," Grace Theological Journal 2 (1981): 117.
  • 6 Called from the Jews and from the Gentiles: Pauline Ecclesiology in Romans 9-11 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009), 102-103.
  • 7 "1 Peter," in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G. K. Beale & D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 1032.
  • 8 Gadenz, Called from the Jews and from the Gentiles, 108-109.
  • 9 Notice how, in a similar way, Paul appears to interpret Isaiah 65:1-2 in Romans 10:20-21 as a positive statement about the Gentiles and a negative statement about Israel, whereas in the Isaianic context, both verses are negative statements about Israel.
  • 10 See survey of views and their proponents in Svetlana Khobnya, "'The Root' in Paul's Olive Tree Metaphor (Romans 11:16-24)," Tyndale Bulletin 64 (2013): 259-61.
  • 11 J. C. T. Havemann, "Cultivated Olive - Wild Olive: The Olive Tree Metaphor in Romans 11:16-24," Neotestamentica 31 (1997): 87-106.
  • 12 "Ancient Oleiculture and Ethnic Differentiation: The Meaning of the Olive-Tree Image in Romans 11," Journal for the Study of the New Testament 26 (2003): 122-24.
  • 13 Paul, in fact, seems to be opposing some Gentile Christians who seem to believe that the Church has simply replaced Israel without remainder as the people of God (Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996], 704).
  • 14 So Christopher Zoccali, "'And so all Israel will be saved': Competing Interpretations of Romans 11.26 in Pauline Scholarship," Journal for the Study of the New Testament 30 (2008): 290.
  • 15 cf. Staples, "Fresh Look at Romans 11:25-27," 376-387.
  • 16 See, similarly, Judg. 20:34; 1 Sam. 3:20; 25:1; 2 Sam. 17:11; 1 Kgs 4:7; 1 Chr. 13:5.

Monday, 7 June 2021

Review of "The Doctrine of the Trinity: Christianity's Self-Inflicted Wound," by Anthony F. Buzzard and Charles F. Hunting

My blog has remained dormant for some time mainly because I have been busy with a larger work: a detailed review of and response to a work of unitarian apologetics by Sir Anthony Buzzard and the late Charles Hunting. It is not a new book (published 1998), but I had not read it until Anthony kindly mailed me a copy earlier this year. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then rebuttal must be a close second: it indicates that the work was worthy of careful study. I hope that readers will find this a useful contribution to the ancient and still-ongoing theological debate concerning the nature of the Christian God.

Saturday, 3 April 2021

The Church as Spiritual Israel (3): Israel kata sarka, Spiritual Circumcision, and Inward Jewishness

The previous article looked at Paul's Letter to the Galatians, which deals with the interface between the Church and Judaism as its primary focus. By contrast, Paul's first letter to the church at Corinth does not deal with matters pertaining to the Jews or the Jewish laws at any length. Nevertheless, there is a passage within the letter that uses a phrase—albeit only in passing—that is highly significant for the subject of "The Church as Spiritual Israel."

1 Corinthians 10:18: Israel kata sarka

In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul alludes to some of the events that befell ancient Israel as recorded in the Pentateuch, citing them as moral examples: "These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come" (v. 11).1 In verse 18, having moved on from the historical examples to the subject of idolatry, Paul poses a question: "Consider Israel according to the flesh (kata sarka); are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar?"2 That Paul uses the present tense here (in contrast to past tense in the biblical allusions in the preceding verses) suggests that he may be referring to the current sacrificial system practiced in Jerusalem.3 What then does he mean by "Israel according to the flesh"? 

The Greek expression kata sarka occurs twenty times in the New Testament, all in the Pauline corpus.4 In some instances the phrase has a negative moral connotation, as in Romans 8:4-13, where Paul warns his readers not to live kata sarka. In other cases, the phrase has no negative connotation, as in Romans 1:3, where Paul declares that God's Son is of David's seed kata sarka. However, in virtually every case, there is an explicit or implicit contrast between that which is kata sarka and that which is kata pneuma ("according to the S/spirit").5 The common denominator of meaning is that kata sarka refers to carnal, earthly ways of being and acting, while kata sarka refers to spiritual, heavenly ways of being and acting.6 Thus, "Israel according to the flesh" in 1 Corinthians 10:18 denotes those who belong to Israel merely in a carnal, earthly sense. Paul's implication—albeit unstated—is that there is also an "Israel according to the S/spirit," consisting of those who belong to Israel in a spiritual, heavenly sense—namely, believers in Christ.

Just as Paul considers Israelites to be his "kin according to the flesh" (Rom. 9:5), so believers in Christ—whether Jewish or Gentile—are his spiritual kin. In Christ they are all, as we saw in the previous article, spiritual children of Abraham. As Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin writes, "Paul at one stroke was saying that the genealogical Israel, ‘according to the flesh,’ is not the ultimate Israel; there is an ‘Israel in the spirit.’"7

While Paul never explicitly refers to the Church as Israel in the Corinthian letters, there are hints that he understands the predominantly Gentile church at Corinth to be part of Israel in some sense.8 For instance, in 1 Corinthians 12:2, Paul reminds the readers of "when [they] were Gentiles" (ethnē). Some translations render the word as "pagans" here, but while the idolatry and unbelief of the nations is certainly in view, "Gentiles" is still the literal sense. In 1 Corinthians 10:1, Paul introduces the discussion of Israelite history as concerning "our ancestors," implicitly including the Corinthians among the Israelite progeny. In 1 Corinthians 5:1, Paul describes the immorality "among you" as of a kind "not even found among the Gentiles (ethnē)." It appears, then, that in Paul's thought, Gentile believers are no longer ontologically Gentile except "according to the flesh." At a higher ontological level—kata pneuma—they are Israelites.9 

Philippians 3:3: "We are the Circumcision"

The ancient rite of circumcision is so integral to Jewish identity that Paul can use the terms "the circumcision" and "the uncircumcision" to denote Jews and Gentiles respectively (see, e.g., Romans 3:30; 4:9-12; 15:8; Gal. 2:7-12; Eph. 2:11; Col. 4:11). In Philippians 3:2-3, however, Paul writes the following bold words:
2 Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh (NRSV)
It appears that Paul is taking this identifying label for Jews, "the circumcision," and applying it to believers in Christ, including Gentiles. If so, there is little doubt that Paul thinks of Gentile believers as spiritual Jews. Circumcision is spiritualised in Romans 2:28-29 (to be discussed below) as well as in Colossians 2:11-12, where baptism is described as "the circumcision of Christ." Moreover, some Pauline references to physical circumcision seem to be pejorative about the practice seen as an end in itself, such as Galatians 5:11-12 (where Paul suggests that circumcision advocates ought to castrate themselves) and Ephesians 2:11 (where the writer emphasises that circumcision "is done in the flesh with hands").10 In Philippians, too, circumcision is described in terms of "mutilation" of the flesh and putting confidence in the flesh, in contrast to "worship in the Spirit of God" (note, once again, the sarka/pneuma contrast).

While most scholars take the "we" in the expression "We are the circumcision" (hēmeis... esmen hē peritomē) to be the Church,11 there are exceptions. Lionel J. Windsor, for instance, argues that "we" refers not to "Paul along with all of his Philippian addressees," but to "Paul and Timothy, as Jewish teachers of Gentiles."12 In support of Windsor's interpretation, a first-person plural pronoun does occur in Philippians 3:17 that appears to refer to Paul and Timothy ("the example you have in us"). However, a collective noun like hē peritomē is unlikely to be used of just two people. Timothy is a co-addressor of the letter (Phil. 1:1) and is favourably described in 2:19-24. However, between 2:19-24 and 3:2-3, Paul discusses another minister, Epaphroditus, who was probably a Gentile (given that his name derives from the Greek goddess Aphrodite). Thus, the immediate context gives no indication that the words "We are the circumcision" are confined to Paul and Timothy. Like the first-person plural constructions later in the chapter (3:15-16, 3:20), Paul uses "we" in v. 3 to bring his audience onto equal footing with himself, despite his own impressive Jewish pedigree (3:5-6).

Since Paul's fairly harsh words in Philippians 3:2-3 could easily be misapplied in an anti-Semitic way, Stephen E. Fowl offers an important reminder:
Paul’s claim, ‘we are the circumcision,’ is not designed to contrast a true circumcision, associated with Christianity, with a now superseded Judaism, a false circumcision. Rather, Paul’s claim situates the Philippian believers already within the Abrahamic covenant apart from physical circumcision… In a sense, then, Paul’s claim might be recast as ‘we are already the circumcision – there is nothing else we need to do.’13
Romans 2:28-29: The Inward Jew

The third text to be discussed in this article in connection with Paul's spiritualisation of Israel is Romans 2:28-29. Whereas 1 Corinthians 10:18 (implicitly) spiritualises the term "Israel," and Philippians 3:3 spiritualises the term "the Circumcision," Romans 2:28-29 spiritualises the term "Jew." As in Philippians 3, Paul does so by spiritualising circumcision, that fundamental identity marker of Jewish males. 

The paragraph from Romans 2:17-29 opens with Paul addressing one who calls himself a Jew. Most commentators believe that Paul is interacting with a hypothetical Jewish interlocutor to demonstrate that physical circumcision and instruction in Torah cannot save him and that true Jewishness is defined in terms of the heart, not the foreskin.14 This interpretation is reflected in most translations of Romans 2:28-29, such as the NRSV:
28 For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. 29 Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God.
The consensus view has been challenged, however, by scholars such as Matthew Thiessen and Rafael Rodriguez. Thiessen argues that Paul's interlocutor in this passage is not a Jew but a proselyte, a "so-called Jew,"15 and that Paul disagrees with him "not because he has redefined Jewishness, but because he does not believe that a gentile can actually become a Jew."16 He notes that the usual translation requires one to add important words that are not present in the Greek and, following Arneson, he offers the following alternative translation:
28 For it is not the outward Jew, nor the outward circumcision in the flesh, 29 but the hidden Jew, and the circumcision of the heart in spirit and not in letter, whose praise [is] not from humans but from God.17 
If this translation is correct, the focus of the text shifts from Jewishness and circumcision to divine approval. One point in favour of the latter reading is that in Paul's questions that immediately follow, "What advantage is there then in being a Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision?" he appears to revert back to the standard ethnic definition of "Jew," which would be odd if he has just redefined the term so as to deny the label "Jew" to the physically circumcised who do not obey God from the heart. Thus, I think that Arneson's translation is preferable to the NRSV.18 Paul is not saying that a circumcised, Torah-observant Israelite is not a Jew; he is introducing a new kind of Jewishness, an internal, spiritual kind, that he contrasts with a (merely) external Jewishness.19 This then coincides with the Abraham's children kata pneuma vs. kata sarka and the Jerusalem above vs. the present Jerusalem in Galatians 3-4, and with the implied Israel kata pneuma vs. "Israel kata sarka" in 1 Corinthians 10. Contra Thiessen, Paul clearly does assert in Romans 2:29 that a Gentile can become a Jew, albeit a "hidden" or "inward" one.


In the previous article and the present one, we have seen abundant evidence from four of Paul's letters (Galatians, 1 Corinthians, Philippians, and Romans) that Paul spiritualised the concept of Israel, the elect people of God, and so understood the Church—Gentiles included—to be Israel according to the Spirit (though he never explicitly uses this term). Importantly, in spiritualising Israel, Paul was not abandoning or denigrating Israel according to the flesh, the ethnic group to which he himself belonged. The spiritualisation of Israel does, however, raise the question of where ethnic Israel, the children of Abraham kata sarka, the outward Jews, fit into the purpose of God. This is a question to which Paul turns in one long and rich passage—Romans 9-11—that will be the subject of the fourth and final article in this series.
  • 1 Bible translations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the NRSV.
  • 2 This translation follows the NRSV except that the words Israēl kata sarka are translated literally here as "Israel according to the flesh," whereas the NRSV translates "the people of Israel." The NRSV translators are seeking dynamic rather than formal equivalence here, but as Bruce Hansen points out, the NRSV translation "obscures Paul’s rhetorical move in calling [the Corinthian believers] ‘Israel according to the flesh’, a move that implicitly interjects the question of whether there might be another way of viewing Israel" ('All of You are One': The Social Vision of Gal 3.28, 1 Cor 12.13 and Col 3.11 [London: T&T Clark, 2010], 116 n. 26).
  • 3 1 Corinthians was certainly written well before the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., probably in the late 50s.
  • 4 Rom. 1:3, 4:1, 8:4, 8:5, 8:12, 8:13, 9:3, 9:5, 1 Cor. 1:26, 10:18, 2 Cor. 1:17, 5:16 (twice), 10:2, 10:3, 11:18, Gal. 4:23, 4:29, Eph. 6:5, Col. 3:22.
  • 5 This contrast is explicit in Romans 1:3-4, 8:4-5, 12-13, and Galatians 4:29 (the latter of which was discussed in the previous article).
  • 6 An interesting observation can be made about the occurrence of kata sarka in Romans 4:1. Most translations render this verse along the lines of the NRSV ("What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh?"). Richard B. Hays, however, offers a persuasive argument that this text would be better understood as, "What shall we say then? Have we found Abraham to be our forefather according to the flesh?" ('"Have we found Abraham to be our forefather according to the flesh?" A Reconsideration of Rom 4:1,' Novum Testamentum 27 (1985): 76-98.) It would then be understood as a rhetorical question that expects the answer "No!" Abraham is the father of all who are faithful, including the uncircumcised, according to promise (Rom. 4:11-18).
  • 7 'Paul and the Genealogy of Gender,' Representations 41 (1993): 8.
  • 8 For evidence that the Corinthian church was largely Gentile in composition, see Paul Kariuki Njiru, Charisms and the Holy Spirit's Activity in the Body of Christ: An Exegetical-Theological Study of 1 Corinthians 12,4-11 and Romans 12,6-8 (Roma: Editrice Pontificia Università Gregoriana, 2002), 27-28.
  • 9 Andy Cheung asserts that "There does not seem to be any linguistic or exegetical reason for inferring the existence of an 'Israel according to the Spirit'" from 1 Corinthians 10:18 ('Who is the "Israel" of Romans 11:26?' in The Jews, Modern Israel and the New Supersessionism, ed. Calvin L. Smith [rev. ed.; Broadstairs: King's Divinity Press, 2013], 129). However, Cheung's brief analysis of this passage does not take into account the broader "Israelisation" of the Corinthian believers in 1 Corinthians, or the wider use of the phrase kata sarka and its contrast with kata pneuma, particularly in Galatians 4:23-29.
  • 10 Of course, I am not suggesting that Paul was against physical circumcision; he was against regarding it as an end in itself, or something that should be imposed on Gentiles.
  • 11 For example, Mikael Tellbe, 'The Sociological Factors behind Philippians 3.1-11 and the Conflict at Philippi,' Journal for the Study of the New Testament 55 (1994): 101; Darrell J. Doughty, 'Citizens of Heaven: Philippians 3.2-21,' New Testament Studies 41 (1995): 109-110; Andries H. Snyman, 'A Rhetorical Analysis of Philippians 3:1-11,' Neotestamentica 40 (2006): 270; and most commentators
  • 12 Paul and the Vocation of Israel: How Paul's Jewish Identity Informs his Apostolic Ministry, with Special Reference to Romans (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2014), 53-55; italics original.
  • 13 Philippians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 147-48.
  • 14 "It is clear that in these verses Paul is in some sense denying the name of Jew to those who are only outwardly Jews and not also secretly and inwardly... Paul is using 'Jew' in a special limited sense to denote the man who in his concrete human existence stands by virtue of his faith in a positive relation to the on-going purpose of God in history... [but this] should not be taken as implying that those who are Jews only outwardly are excluded from the promises" (C. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [2 vols.; London: T&T Clark, 1975], 1:175-76); Romans 2 "emerges as a continual diatribal accusation against the Jew who defines himself or herself in terms of possession of the law and (falsely in Paul's eyes) rests confidence therein. By the end of the passage (v 29), Paul will have totally redefined the 'true Jew'" (Brendan Byrne, Romans [Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1996], 96); "The chapter climaxes with the assertion that being an ethnic Jew and physically circumcised is insignificant (2:28-29). What matters is being a Jew internally and experiencing the circumcision of the heart" (Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998], 148); "Paul here redefines membership in God's people in terms of religious commitment and not in terms of physical descent or ethnic ethos... It follows from this that Gentiles who keep the law (even unwittingly) are inwardly true Jews (2:26). Paul locates membership in the people not in external ritual but in the orientation of the heart and the actions that flow from that orientation" (Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans: A Literary and Theological Commentary [Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2001], 43).
  • 15 Rodriguez states that "The choice between an actually Jewish interlocutor in Rom 2:17-29 and an ethnically-gentile-religiously-Jewish interlocutor will prove to be the fork in the road for our reading of Romans as a whole" (If You Call Yourself a Jew: Reappraising Paul's Letter to the Romans [Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2014], 51. He summarises Romans 1:18-2:29 as "Paul's comments for (or to) three types of gentiles: (i) the depraved immoral pagan (1:18-32); (ii) the elitist moralizing pagan (2:1-16); and (iii) the gentile proselyte to Judaism (2:17-29)... In contrast to these stock gentile personae, Paul will instruct his Roman readers to be gentiles who worship the Creator God of Israel without assuming Israel's obligations under Torah. To this point, Paul has not said anything negative about Jews" (If You Call Yourself a Jew, 61). I am not persuaded that Paul's interlocutor in 2:17-29 is a proselyte rather than an actual Jew. For instance, in Romans 2:24, Paul paraphrases Isaiah 52:5 as, "Because of you the name of God is reviled among the Gentiles"; but Isaiah 52:4-5 is clearly talking about Israel, so this source would not apply to a proselyte who (according to this interpretation of Paul's argument) merely calls himself a Jew and is not really one. Moreover, in Romans 3:9, Paul asserts, "we have already brought the charge against Jews and Greeks alike that they are all under the domination of sin." Yet, if (as Rodriguez claims) the addressee in 2:17-29 is a Gentile proselyte, then Paul has not yet brought any charge against Jews placing them under the domination of sin. Another problem is that Rodriguez's interpretation hinges on the assumption (unstated in the text) that the clincher in Paul's argument against the proselyte is that he has violated the Torah by not being circumcised on the eighth day, as the Torah prescribes, and thus—like Ishmael—his circumcision is of no benefit. However, this argument overlooks that Abraham himself was not circumcised on the eighth day, but at age 99 (Gen. 17:23-24)! Moreover, if Paul regarded adult circumcision as a transgression of Torah, why would he have circumcised Timothy, as Acts 16:3 states he did?
  • 16 'Paul's Argument against Gentile Circumcision in Romans 2:17-29,' Novum Testamentum 56 (2014): 390.
  • 17 Quoted in Thiessen, 'Paul's Argument,' 377.
  • 18 A literal rendering of the Greek text (following NA28) would be: "Not for the one outwardly a Jew is nor outwardly-in-the-flesh circumcision, but the one secretly a Jew, and circumcision of heart in spirit not letter, of whom the praise is not of men but of God." A key syntactic question is what the verb estin ("is") modifies in v. 28. According to the NRSV translation, it modifies Ioudaios; thus something like "For the outward one is not a Jew..." However, the alternate translation understands estin to modify the last part of v. 29: "For it is not the one outwardly a Jew... of whom the praise is not of men but of God." The word order of the Greek is not determinative; this syntactic ambiguity can only be resolved by close attention to the context.
  • 19 Andy Cheung argues that it is erroneous to infer from Romans 2:28-29 that "anybody, Gentile or Jew, who finds faith in Christ is therefore a Jew inwardly"; rather, Paul "is restricting the traditional definition of a Jew to an ethnic Israelite who has faith in Christ" ('Who is the "Israel" of Romans 11:26?', 132). However, the notion that Romans 2:28-29 is exclusively concerned with ethnic Israelites runs afoul of the context. In the preceding verses, Paul is clearly concerned with the physically uncircumcised, i.e. Gentiles (vv. 26-27). It follows that the category of inward Jews, whose circumcision is of the heart, includes Gentiles.

Monday, 15 February 2021

The Burke-Buzzard Devil Debate

I watched with interest the recent online debate on the topic, Are Satan & Demons Personal Beings? between Sir Anthony Buzzard (Restoration Fellowship) and Jonathan Burke (Christadelphian). The topic has been a primary interest of mine over the past two decades—largely due to my Christadelphian background—and the question itself is one on which I have changed my mind (from 'No' to 'Yes') during that period. Sir Anthony (henceforth AB) has been an important influence, as it was his essay, Satan, the Personal Devil that led me to first think critically about the Christadelphian view that I had hitherto been taught. Jonathan (henceforth JB) has been an interlocutor of mine over the years, mainly in online correspondence, Facebook discussions, and blog articles, but also in a published exchange in the journal Svensk Exegetisk Årsbok.1

In this article I am not going to give an exhaustive commentary on the debate, but offer some impressions based on notes I jotted down while watching the debate live. First, I must heartily commend the participants—the moderator, Tracy (whose surname is unfortunately unknown to me), and the two debaters—for a civil and amicable discussion. It was, in fact, a model of decorum: no interrupting, talking over each other, snide remarks, bickering, etc. Both debaters expressed their personal respect for the other and emphasised the common ground they hold on other theological topics (being both unitarian restorationists).

The format of the debate consisted of a brief opening statement from each side, followed by a 40-minute discussion where the two debaters would ask each other questions, followed by a brief closing statement from each side, and lastly a Q&A session where the moderator pulled up audience questions from the chat. Before getting into the content, a comment on the big picture. The question, "Are Satan & Demons Personal Beings?" is a theological one; it was not phrased at a purely exegetical level (such as, "Does the Bible Portray Satan & Demons as Personal Beings?") Nevertheless, the content of the debate was largely exegetical. AB had almost nothing to say about the theological significance of his "Yes" answer, even when pressed by JB. For his part, JB commented briefly on what he sees as some theological and ethical problems with the "Yes" view. Given that personhood is a complex philosophical concept, and that the term "personal beings" (as we moderns understand it) does not occur in Scripture, one might have expected both sides to offer, or better yet agree on, a definition of "personal beings" up front.2 Otherwise, how do we know both sides are answering the same question?

Opening Statements

In JB's opening statement, he begins by appealing for "hermeneutical consistency." What he means is that, given the unitarian belief system shared by both sides, biblical texts about Satan and demons should be interpreted in a way consistent with how unitarians interpret challenging texts on other topics, such as Christology and hell. (This is, of course, problematic for audience members who do not share the unitarian belief system, but perhaps I was the only viewer who faced that problem.) JB poses the rhetorical question whether a unitarian belief system is compatible with an "autonomously powerful evil Satan," or whether such a being would be tantamount to a second god. This challenge extends equally to Christian orthodoxy, in that an "autonomously powerful evil Satan" would equally undermine classical Trinitarian monotheism. The answer to the conundrum, of course, is that the Church does not teach, and has never taught, that Satan is "autonomously powerful." The Church has always taught that Satan is a mere creature, specifically an angel, who therefore exercises no more power than God allows him.3 Since this is also AB's well-known position, JB's opening salvo amounts to a strawman. To his credit, toward the end of the debate, JB batted down another caricature of classical Christian doctrine on the Devil, when he objected to a Q&A question suggesting that belief in the Devil could be used to excuse any sin, per "the Devil made me do it."

The rest of JB's opening statement focused on issues of "socio-cultural context," "scholarly literature," and "New Testament satan & demons." He asserted the need for consistency of interpretation across both testaments, and stated that in the Old Testament and Second Temple Jewish literature, terms like satanas/satan are used of the inclination to sin, an obedient angel, and as a common noun, while diabolos is used as a common noun and of humans, and other terms such as 'the evil one' and 'the tempter' do not occur at all. He makes the factually incorrect assertion that diabolos always occurs with the article.4

Turning to scholarship, JB claims that scholars have abandoned the idea that Satan and demons appear in the OT, claims that scholars propose various perspectives on Jesus' wilderness temptation (whether a visionary experience, symbolic description, dramatisation, or personal temptation), and claims that scholars say Jesus didn't share his contemporaries' belief in demons. This is not the place to engage at length with JB's citations; interested readers can refer to some of my writings for comprehensive engagement with scholarly literature on this subject. However, given that the scholarly literature is an area where much of the audience probably had little knowledge, it was JB's duty to mention the weight of scholarly opinion both for and against his own positions. Instead, he cited only literature that agreed with him, leaving the audience with a skewed idea of scholarly opinion. I will just comment on one instance. On a slide on "Jesus' Views," JB cites only one source (in contrast to the previous slide, which had cited about a dozen). The slide leaves the audience with the impression that JB's ideas about Jesus' views on demonology are well-supported in scholarship. In fact, not only is the opposite true,5 but the source JB cites here (Ferngren) disagrees markedly with his position.6

JB concludes his opening statement with a brief survey of New Testament passages on the Satan and demons. He focuses on a few texts that he believes are problematic for a personal view of the Satan, such as Matthew 16:23, Acts 5:3-4, 1 Corinthians 5:5, 1 Timothy 1:20, and 2 Corinthians 12:7. In fact, none of these texts are inconsistent with a personal view of the Satan.7 JB makes much of the absence of exorcisms in the Gospel of John,8 offering an argument from silence.

In AB's opening statement, he emphasises that JB concedes that satan in the OT is external, not internal, which he regards as an important concession. He stresses the significance of the definite article in New Testament usage of the terms diabolos and satanas (the Devil and the Satan, not merely a devil or a satan). He argues that proserchomai ("to come to") is an "astonishingly clear" word in Matthew 4:3, indicating the externality of the encounter between Jesus and the Devil. He helpfully draws a contrast between this narrative and Luke 12:19, where the rich fool really does have a conversation with himself, and this is clear from the text. He also contrasts the Satan and demons, which are consistently addressed as persons, with biblical usage of personification, such as for Wisdom. He asserts that Satan/Devil is the personal name of a personal evil being. AB—rightly in my view—criticises JB's claim that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written for uninformed novice Christians and John for more mature believers who could handle the full truth that demons do not exist.9 AB also criticises JB for adducing a lot of extra-biblical quotations. On this point, I would side with JB, as the latter is not quoting these texts as authoritative but in order to describe the historical context, the thought-world, from which the New Testament emanates, which is very helpful for correctly interpreting the meaning of New Testament terminology. The problem is that I do not think JB paints an accurate picture of Second Temple Jewish thought from the texts he quotes.10

Direct Discussion

The direct discussion proceeded. It was not entirely clear to me whether the format was that the two debaters would take turn asking each other questions, or each had a certain time allocation to ask the other a battery of questions. Either way, it seemed to me as though AB asked a lot more questions of JB than the other way around. The first questions concerned the presence or absence of the yetzer hara ("evil inclination") concept in the Old and New Testaments (since JB identifies the Devil in the wilderness temptation narratives as the yetzer hara operating within Jesus). AB pressed JB for an explicit equation of the Devil/Satan with the yetzer hara in Scripture; JB argued that the equation is implicit. AB asked JB how he understood the term "demons" in James 2:19; JB replied that it is an ironic reference to foreign gods.11 There was some discussion of whether demons and their victims are distinguished in the Gospel exorcism narratives (which they are).12 AB offered another grammatical argument, namely that one who is addressed in the vocative is a person.13 JB responded that his argument does not hinge on the grammatical details, but on whether the text is to be taken literally or figuratively. As evidence of the latter, he cited a Talmudic interpretation of a text from 2 Samuel in which the yetzer hara was inferred to be a character in the story.14 AB noted that the Christadelphians' founders (John Thomas and Robert Roberts) understood Jesus' tempter to be external; JB countered that other Christadelphians of the time disagreed with them, and that their opinions are not sacrosanct. AB asked whether there is any leading commentator on Matthew who takes an internal view of the temptation. JB responded that some scholars read it as a visionary experience, dramatisation, etc.15

JB asked of AB why the New Testament does not use terminology for the Devil such as Mastema and Sammael that were used in other contemporaneous literature. AB countered that other such terms, such as Belial (2 Cor. 6:15) and Beelzebul (Matt. 10:25; 12:24-27 and parallels) are used.16 AB emphasised that there is no disagreement between the debaters on the evil in human nature; the difference is in whether the evil in human nature is the Devil. AB asked JB about the meaning of the verb proserchomai, used in Matthew 4:3 ("The tempter came and said to him," NRSV). JB was prepared with a slide showing that the verb can be used in a figurative sense, as in "a shudder came over me" (Shepherd of Hermas, Visions 3.1.5). AB insisted that it is biblical usage of the word that matters; JB responded that the Bible doesn't use a different Greek from non-canonical literature of the time. On this point, I side with JB; however, AB was right to insist on the importance of Matthew's use of the verb, especially as Matthew uses it again within the same pericope in an obviously literal fashion ("Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him," 4:11). In fact, JB's insistence on a figurative sense for proserchomai here reflects an inconsistency in his overall argument on the temptation narrative.17

JB asked whether teaching on Satan and demons is consistent throughout Scripture. AB responded that there is development in the concept, but that by the time we get to Revelation, we have a being who is "called" (indicative of a proper name) Devil and Satan. JB pressed AB on whether the NT understanding of Satan and demons (as he sees it) is in the OT; AB responded, "No, it is not."18 JB then cited commentators on Revelation who identify the language about the dragon/Satan as referring symbolically to the actions of Rome. In effect, then, the devil is Rome; Rome is the pre-eminent manifestation of that evil power. AB disagreed that the dragon is Rome, and asked what the beast is, if we make that identification? JB noted that the Evangelical scholar Beale concedes that, in Revelation, Satan is behind Rome. There seems to be a lack of precision here about the relationship between the dragon and Rome.19

In what were probably JB's best moments of the debate, he pressed AB on the contemporary, practical significance of Satan and demons. He asked AB how he would distinguish Satanic temptation from internal temptation today, and AB responded that he had no idea, but it does not matter.20 JB asked whether first-century Jews could tell if anyone was demon-possessed; AB replied that it doesn't matter, but Jesus could. JB then observed that Jesus never diagnosed anyone with demon-possession; AB responded that if "Come out of him" is not a diagnosis, what is?21 JB asked whether there is exorcism today; AB was unsure.22

Closing Statements

In JB's closing statement, he focused strongly on empirical and ethical arguments. For instance, he asked, "When you are tempted, does Satan come up to you?"23 And, "Have you ever seen people demonically possessed?"24 Working from Jesus' teaching on good and bad fruit in Matthew 7, JB points out that belief in Satan and demons has produced plenty of bad fruit (e.g., witch hunts, injuries incurred in botched exorcisms, failure to seek medical care due to belief in a supernatural cause),25 but is unaware of any good fruit produced by these ideas.26 JB concludes that temptation is fundamentally a matter of the human heart.27

AB's closing statement quoted at length from a scholar who observed that, given the clarity and emphasis with which the Synoptic Gospels affirm the reality of demon-possession and Jesus' exorcisms, the truth of these Gospels—and thus the truth of Christianity—are jeopardised if their testimony on this subject is false.28 AB then reiterated his central claim, that if one pays close attention to the language and grammar of the biblical text, it speaks clearly about the reality of Satan and demons.


For sake of space, I will not say much about the audience questions and debaters' answers, most of which pertained to the meaning of particular biblical passages about Satan or demons. Let me just comment briefly on my question, which was directed to JB:
Septuagint translation of Job 1-2 and Zech 3 renders hassatan as ho diabolos. Is this the main source of the technical term ho diabolos that occurs dozens of times in the New Testament?
The moderator and both debaters spoke as though this question had largely been addressed by JB's observation—which AB conceded—that there is no single Satan or diabolos figure in the Old Testament. However, the point I was driving at was the following:

(1) hassatan in Job 1-2 and Zechariah 3 (Hebrew Bible) is an external adversary (admitted by both sides). 
(2) hassatan in Job 1-2 and Zechariah 3 is translated in the Greek Septuagint (LXX) version with ho diabolos
(3) The Greek Septuagint was the version of Scripture used in most early Christian churches outside the Holy Land, including the earliest readers of the New Testament (which was also written in Greek). 
(4) Therefore, when the earliest readers of the New Testament documents encountered the term ho diabolos in the text, they were encountering a term familiar to them from Job 1-2 and Zechariah 3 LXX, and would accordingly have interpreted the figure as an external adversary.29

In post-debate correspondence, AB has acknowledged the force of this argument. Thus, I think the question still needs to be answered, because JB's view—for all his claims of consistency between the Testaments—posits a disconnect on the diabolos/Satan between Old and New Testaments, when in fact there is striking continuity.30

Overall Analysis

I have no interest in adjudicating who "won" the debate on a personal level, and probably neither do the debaters. From my own studies of the topic, I have become convinced that the Scriptures testify clearly to the "personal" reality of the Satan and demons31 (notwithstanding that belief in transcendent beings—and transcendent causes—is out of favour in the post-Enlightenment West). I believe that AB brought that clarity across successfully. 

As far as the exegetical part of the argument, I found AB's arguments to be simple yet forceful, and JB's to be convoluted and unconvincing. What stood out for me was that AB argued directly from the details of the text, from lexical meaning and from syntax. By contrast, JB's arguments tended to focus more on broader issues such as genre and alleged extra-biblical parallels from the "socio-cultural context," and less on what the biblical text actually says. JB's hermeneutical method features a willingness to infer figurative or ironic meanings when there is little or no warrant within the text for doing so. Consequently, his arguments run afoul of Ockham's Razor. For me, one of the most telling statements in the debate from JB was the following (beginning c. 43:27 in the YouTube video). After AB offered syntactic arguments for interpreting the demons as persons in the text (e.g., masculine participles), JB responded,
Well the point is of course I'm not making my argument from grammar; I believe that it means what it says, that people actually understood that to be, for example, a demon being addressed...
Thus, when demons are depicted in the Gospels as though persons, this apparently is the authors' meaning, and it is how their readers understood them. Yet, it is not the meaning we should draw, because the writers did not actually believe their own meaning, but merely accommodated their readers' ignorance. This is a startlingly bold claim to make, and it needs to be backed by compelling positive evidence, but it is not. 

The same is true of JB's interpretation of the wilderness temptation accounts. I did not actually hear any point in the debate when JB defended his view exegetically. He asserted that the Devil here is the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, and that the genre of these accounts is not narrative, but something else that is figurative. Since the genre within the Synoptic Gospels as a whole is narrative, and since all three transition into and out of this pericope just as they do so many other episodes in the life of Jesus, and since they use the same kind of language that they use elsewhere to describe actual interpersonal encounters and dialogue, why should we conclude that these particular accounts follow a completely different genre? Something much more weighty is needed than centuries-later rabbinic parallels in which the yetzer hara is mentioned explicitly (rather than needing to be introduced as a gloss for ho diabolos). What is needed is positive evidence from the text itself. Yet not only is this evidence not forthcoming, but in my own experience, when JB is presented with evidence from the text that contradicts his position, he dismisses it as irrelevant, because his argument is not about what the text says.32

Perhaps not all Christadelphians will agree with JB's interpretations of key passages about the Devil and demons. However, Christadelphians should take note that JB has probably studied this topic more, and written about it more, than any other Christadelphian. He is an intelligent man, an able logician, and he has plumbed the depths for the best possible defence of the Christadelphian position. This has led him to move away from what the text actually says; and that should be concerning to any "Berean"-minded student of Scripture.

JB's strongest point in the debate was pressing AB on the contemporary significance and value of belief in Satan and demons. AB effectively shrugged off all such questions, and they are valid questions. The other important take-away from this debate was that both debaters were a model of decorum, setting a fine example for the rest of us on how Christians ought to conduct themselves when arguing matters of the faith.
  • 1 Jonathan Burke, 'Satan and Demons in the Apostolic Fathers: A Minority Report,' Svensk Exegetisk Årsbok 81 (2016): 127-68; Thomas J. Farrar, 'Satanology and Demonology in the Apostolic Fathers: A Response to Jonathan Burke,' Svensk Exegetisk Årsbok 83 (2018): 156-91.
  • 2 This is true of other theological subjects, too. I am always amazed at how lengthy theological debates on the Trinity or the ontology of the Holy Spirit can run their course without either side ever giving a philosophically precise definition of the term "person."
  • 3 For scriptural passages showing that the Satan requires God's permission to act, and is aware of this, see, e.g., Job 1-2, Luke 4:6, Luke 22:31.
  • 4 JB states that the word always occurs in the form the diabolos. In fact, diabolos is anarthrous in 1 Chr. 21:1 LXX, Ps. 108:6 LXX, 1 Macc. 1:36, and Wis. 2:24. Within the LXX corpus, it occurs with the article only in Esther 7:4, 8:1, Job 1-2, and Zech. 3:1-2. All of these latter instances refer to the personal transcendent being that eventually became "the Devil," with the exception of those in Esther, where it refers to Haman. In grammatical terms, the uses of the article with diabolos in Esther 7:4, 8:1 LXX are cataphoric and anaphoric, respectively. Esther tells the king that her people are to be destroyed, but that she has hitherto kept silent, "For the slanderer (ho diabolos) is not worthy of the court of the king" (7:4). This creates dramatic effect, for the reader immediately wants to know who she is referring to, and this is precisely what the king asks in 7:5 ("Who is this who dared to do this deed?") Esther then identifies Haman as "this wicked one"; hence the article in 7:4 is cataphoric, with "the" slanderer referring to the specific slanderer that is to be identified in 7:6. Similarly, the article in 8:1 ("King Artaxerxes granted to Esther all that belonged to Haman the slanderer [ho diabolos]") is anaphoric, referring back to the slanderer introduced in 7:4 and identified in 7:6. Thus, far from being a precedent for applying ho diabolos to various referents in the NT despite the use of the article, this text represents a contrast. The occurrence of ho diabolos in the NT never elicits the question, "Who?" because it is assumed that the reader knows who is meant. By this time, ho diabolos had become a technical term for a specific personal being, probably by reading Job 1-2 LXX and Zech. 3:1-2 LXX together and inferring that the same being is in view.
  • 5 There is a scholarly consensus that Jesus and the Synoptic Evangelists believed in demons and in the efficacy of exorcism. For numerous quotations from scholarly literature, see pp. 11-16 of my online article, 'When an unclean spirit goes out of a person': An Assessment of the Accommodation Theory of Demon Possession and Exorcism in the Synoptic Gospels.
  • 6 JB summarises as Ferngren stating that "Jesus didn't share first century Palestinian demonology" and that "Gospels don't record either Jesus' or the gospel writers' explanation of demon possession." The level of support for JB's position conveyed by these statements is unremarkable. Ferngren does state, "The evidence...does not suggest that Jesus shared the demonology of his Palestinian contemporaries" (Gary B. Ferngren, Medicine and Health Care in Early Christianity [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009], 45), but this is very different from stating that Jesus had no demonology. In fact, the main differences that Ferngren highlights between Jesus and his contemporaries are (i) his method of exorcism, (ii) his personal authority over demons, and (iii) the careful distinction that Jesus and the Evangelists make between healings and exorcisms, and thus between disease and demon-possession. That the Gospels do not record Jesus' or the gospel writers' explanation of demon-possession in no way favours the view that Jesus or the gospel writers disbelieved in demon-possession. The Gospels tell the story of Jesus, not of demons. We would therefore not expect the Evangelists to explain the phenomenon of demon-possession, unless they believed that their readers needed such an explanation. Thus, the absence of such an explanation actually suggests that the Evangelists assumed that their readers knew what demon-possession was, and saw no need to correct or supplement their readers' understanding. Finally, Ferngren clearly affirms that the Evangelists believed in Satan and demons: "The frequency with which demons appear on the pages of the Gospels reflects the Evangelists' belief that the advent of Jesus's kingdom brought about a spiritual conflict with the forces of Satan. Jesus' exorcism of demons was one dimension of this conflict, which they viewed as 'a cosmic struggle in history to inaugurate the eschatological reign of God.'" (Medicine and Health Care, 45). Again, "Chapters 1 through 8 [of Mark] picture Jesus as a powerful miracle worker, through whom God, the Great Warrior, is undoing the evil brought about by Satan's control of the world. Hence in his frequent confrontations with demons Jesus repeatedly challenges the powers of darkness... there are several indications that neither Jesus nor the Evangelists believed that disease was ordinarily caused by demons... while the Gospel writers speak of Jesus's healing and exorcism as related aspects of his messiahship, they routinely distingiush between them... Exorcism and healing denoted different aspects of Jesus's messianic ministry, not a single act." (Medicine and Health Care, 45-46). Thus, Ferngren's view is broadly consistent with the scholarly consensus that Jesus and the Evangelists believed in demons.
  • 7 On Mark 8:33 (parallel to Matt. 16:23), see Thomas J. Farrar and Guy J. Williams, 'Diabolical Data: A Critical Inventory of New Testament Satanology,' Journal for the Study of the New Testament 39(1) (2016): 49-50 (preprint accessible here). On 2 Corinthians 12:7 (where the phrase in question should be translated, 'angel of Satan'), see sources cited in Farrar and Williams, 'Diabolical Data,' 48 n. 35. On 1 Corinthians 5:5 and 1 Timothy 1:20, there is no difficulty once we appreciate that punishment is one of the Satan's God-given roles. Indeed, in 1 Corinthians 5:5, given the Passover allusion, Paul is probably identifying the Satan with "the Destroyer" from the Passover narrative (Ex. 12:23; cf. 1 Cor. 10:10; further discussion in Farrar and Williams, 'Diabolical Data,' 54-56). On Acts 5:3-4, JB makes much in the debate on the parallelism between vv. 3 and 4. There is indeed a parallelism, whereby Ananias' act is described in v. 3 as "Why has the Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit?" and restated in v. 4 as "Why did you contrive this deed in your heart?" Both statements identify Ananias' heart as the locus of the temptation. One says that the Satan filled his heart, the other that Ananias contrived the deed in his heart. JB's inference is that "the Satan" = "contrived"; thus, the Satan is an internal impulse. However, it is equally plausible that the two statements are describing the same event from two different angles and at two different levels of causality. Ananias allowed the Satan to infiltrate his heart, and Ananias contrived the plan to lie about his donation. Not only is this latter explanation plausible, but it is much more consistent with the wider context of Luke-Acts, in which the Satan is depicted as an external being who converses with Jesus and departs from him (Luke 4:1-13), "falls from heaven" (Luke 10:18), "comes" and takes away God's Word from people's hearts (Luke 8:12), "enters into" Judas so as to tempt him (Luke 22:3), and "demands" (of God) to sift the disciples (Luke 22:31).
  • 8 On this, see Thomas J. Farrar, 'New Testament Satanology and Leading Suprahuman Opponents in Second Temple Jewish Literature: A Religio-Historical Analysis,' Journal of Theological Studies 70(1) (2019): 66-67. Preprint can be accessed here.
  • 9 On this point, see my ‘When an unclean spirit goes out of a person,’ 25-28.
  • 10 For a detailed alternative account, see Farrar, 'New Testament Satanology and Leading Suprahuman Opponents,' 31-57. Preprint can be accessed here.
  • 11 For a detailed analysis of this text, including a refutation of JB's view, see my article, Even the Demons Believe and Shudder: Demonology in the Epistle of James.
  • 12 See ‘When an unclean spirit goes out of a person,’ 19-20.
  • 13 The vocative case indicates direct, second-person address. In modern English it does not come through in translation, but in the KJV is often conveyed by the word "O." Since it requires intelligence to understand speech, being addressed in the vocative is ordinarily an indication that the one addressed is a person. However, this is not universally the case. For instance, in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint), impersonal objects such as mountains and hills are often addressed poetically in the vocative in the psalms and prophets (e.g., 2 Kingdoms [2 Samuel] 1:21; Ps. 67:16-17[68:15-16]).
  • 14 As a contextual argument, citing rabbinic literature is not particularly weighty. The Talmuds date from several centuries after Christ, so citing the Talmud in New Testament exegesis is roughly the chronological equivalent of citing Augustine of Hippo or other Church Fathers. Moreover, while the Talmuds contain many attributions to earlier rabbis, eminent Jewish scholars like Jacob Neusner have warned that it is methodologically invalid to accept these attributions uncritically.
  • 15 Reading the temptation story as a visionary experience is no help to the "internal yetzer hara" view of the Devil. Matthew describes the Transfiguration event as a "vision" (horama, 17:9), but this does not mean that Moses and Elijah were projections of the apostles' inner psyches! Similarly, Luke refers to encounters with angels as visions (1:22; 24:23), and Acts describes "visions" in which people engage in dialogue with supernatural persons (angels or the Lord, e.g., Acts 9:10-16, 10:3-7, 10:10-17). "Dramatisation" is an unclear term; what is clear is that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all weave this incident into their narrative like any other pericope, using similar transitions, pronouns, and verbs. They give the reader no indication whatsoever that this incident is of an entirely different genre and nature than all of the other incidents they record about Jesus.
  • 16 The broader point is that terminological parallels are less important than conceptual parallels. The NT writers show a clear consolidation toward using ho diabolos and ho satanas as the normative names or designations of the transcendent opponent, but there are striking conceptual parallels with other Second Temple Jewish texts that use other terminology. This is a central thesis of my JTS article, 'New Testament Satanology and Leading Suprahuman Opponents' (see esp. pp. 57-62). Preprint can be accessed here.
  • 17 JB's overall argument seems to be that the temptation story is figurative as a whole, at the level of genre—hence his insistence, when confronted by the argument from the vocative, that his argument is not a grammatical one. In fact, when I made the argument from Matthew's use of proserchomai previously on my blog, JB insisted in his response that this argument was irrelevant because of the genre of the passage ("such arguments hold no weight with the consensus of scholars who believe the temptation accounts are not historical narrative, and that the temptation itself was indeed figurative, symbolic, or visionary"). Yet now, in the debate, JB appears to be hedging his bets by insisting that the passage is figurative at the level of individual words—even if this means ignoring a consistent pattern of Matthean usage.
  • 18 I would agree, and it should come as no surprise, given the development from Old to New Testaments on so many other doctrines (Messiah, resurrection, Holy Spirit, angelology, etc.) The pithy saying attributed to St. Augustine is à propos here: "The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed."
  • 19 Most commentators, ancient and modern, would agree that "the beast" in Revelation is Rome, given the precedent in Daniel whereby beasts represent earthly kingdoms (Dan. 7:23), and the political reality of Rome's ascendancy at the time Revelation was written. However, the beast and the dragon are clearly distinguished in Revelation, and their relationship is indicated in 13:2: "To [the beast] the dragon gave its own power and throne, along with great authority." Thus, the dragon—explicitly identified as the Devil and Satan in 12:9 and 20:2—is an entity that empowers Rome, and not Rome itself. Further evidence that we cannot make the equation Satan = Rome in Revelation is found in 2:9 and 3:9, where we find the expression "the synagogue of Satan." The synagogue of Rome? Obviously not; thus Satan is a power behind both Roman and Jewish opposition to the faithful. The best indication of the dragon's literal identity in Revelation (besides the names "Devil" and "Satan," which would already have been plenty clear to the original audience) is the description of war in heaven between "Michael and his angels" and "the dragon and its angels." Michael is not a symbol, but the name of an archangel (Jude 9), and thus his angels are also not symbols, but are actual angels. This implies that the dragon's angels are also actual angels, and that the dragon/serpent/Devil/Satan is also an angel.
  • 20 I would basically agree, and an analogy could be made to divine providence. How do we distinguish between providential vs. natural causes of events in our lives? If I asked God for wisdom, and I subsequently became wiser, how would I differentiate between my own efforts (e.g., study and meditation) vs. divine help? Clearly, we humans cannot—under ordinary circumstances—recognize and differentiate supernatural causes from natural ones.
  • 21 In fact, it is the narrators who diagnose individuals in the narrative as demon-possessed, just as they diagnose other individuals with leprosy, blindness, etc. Yet AB is correct, in that by performing exorcisms on persons identified by the narrator as demon-possessed, Jesus is clearly depicted as agreeing with the diagnosis.
  • 22 In fact, there is well-documented evidence of exorcisms today, and the Catholic Church to this day has priests who perform exorcisms, just as the apostles did. However, demon-possession is relatively rare, and the Church resorts to exorcism only when there is strong evidence of demonic possession and all ordinary psychiatric treatment methods have been exhausted.
  • 23 One might as well ask, "When you were baptized, did the Holy Spirit descend on you like a dove and a voice speak from heaven?" or, "When the Lord answers your prayers, does he do so by sending an angel to visit you?" If the answers are "No," does this imply that baptism is of no benefit, that the Lord does not answer prayer, or that his angels no longer minister to his people?
  • 24 Since when has having personally seen something been a valid precondition for belief? Christianity is a religion of faith! Moreover, there is ample evidence that spirit-possession is a real phenomenon even today, though many of the anthropologists and psychologists who document it do not regard it as actual spirit-possession, due to their materialistic assumptions precluding this possibility.
  • 25 Witch hunts do not follow from belief in Satan and demons, but from other false and superstitious ideas. No well-informed ecclesiastical tradition or individual Christian today condones witch hunts. It is technically true that witch hunts would never have happened without belief in supernatural evil. However, it does not therefore follow that non-belief in supernatural evil is correct. If that argument were valid, then atrocities committed by people who believed they were doing God's will would be sufficient to justify atheism. Similarly, if one refrained from seeking medical care due to a belief in demons, this would reflect a false belief that medical care and exorcism are competing, mutually exclusive alternatives. In fact, the Church has always been at the forefront of medical care, and (as was mentioned in a previous footnote) resorts to exorcism only as a last resort. As for a severe injury received during an exorcism, I believe this is very rare. I would add that there are plenty of phony exorcists. I would further add that demon-possession is a dangerous phenomenon, as the biblical testimony itself describes spirits inducing their victims to injure or destroy themselves (Mark 5:5; 9:22). There is, consequently, some risk associated with an exorcism. There is also some risk associated with most medical treatments, so this is not exceptional.
  • 26 If people really do suffer from demon-possession and can be helped by exorcism, this is a clear and substantial "good fruit." For JB to dismiss this good fruit, he must first show that demon-possession is not real and thus that exorcism has no efficacy. But this is the very point under debate. Looking more broadly, most Christians would agree that having a sound theology of evil is helpful in the spiritual life, even if one cannot point to obvious instances where correctly believing in the Devil's existence brings concrete, practical benefit. However, this is true of many other theological ideas. What are the good fruit of belief in angels, for instance? It is not obvious; but we trust in God that every truth that he has revealed is beneficial to know. JB's "fruit" argument seems to be a misapplication of Jesus' message in Matthew 7:15-20 (which is actually about prophets, not their teachings). One might add that a "bad fruit" of non-belief in supernatural evil is that it requires very shoddy exegesis and hermeneutics to sustain, and once one begins to practice such, it may lead to errors in more fundamental areas of theology.
  • 27 Absolutely; and the human heart is by nature morally compromised. However, it can also be infiltrated by the Devil (e.g., Luke 8:12; Acts 5:3-4), which is not the same thing.
  • 28 This, I think, indirectly answers JB's question by identifying a "good fruit" of belief in Satan and demons: it reflects fidelity to the testimony of Scripture in an age where belief in the supernatural is dismissed by the dominant culture.
  • 29 Adding weight to this argument is the testimony of Justin Martyr. Writing around the 150s, Justin is the earliest extant Christian writer to quote directly from Job 1-2 and Zech. 3:1-2. When he does, he makes it clear that these passages are key source texts for the Christian idea of the devil (Dialogue with Trypho 79.4, 103.5, 115-116). For further discussion of Justin's views, see Thomas J. Farrar, 'The Intimate and Ultimate Adversary: Satanology in Early Second-Century Christian Literature,' Journal of Early Christian Studies 26 (2018): 543-44 (preprint accessible here).
  • 30 This continuity is not removed by the concession that, from a grammatical-historical point of view, "the satan" in Job and Zechariah is not yet understood as a wicked being. Christian theological interpretation of the Old Testament moves beyond the grammatical-historical sense in light of the fuller revelation received through Christ.
  • 31 I put "personal" in quotation marks to defer to the terminology of the debate question while acknowledging the complexity of "personhood." I would say that Satan and demons are as personal as angels, except for the extent to which "personhood," being a good attribute, is compromised by evil.
  • 32 For an example of this, see his response to my ten-point argument concerning the wilderness temptation accounts. After arguing that the genre of the accounts is "haggadic midrash, not narrative," he summarily dismisses most of my other arguments on that basis, without even interacting with what the text says.