Reading Matthew with an Attentive Friend: A Response to Greg Johnston
There is a lot—and I mean a lot—here with which I agree. I’ve never suspected Greg to be a superficial reader of Scripture (or of anything, for that matter) before, and I certainly won’t start now. There’s so much here with which I enthusiastically agree that I actually don’t understand how Greg has come to the conclusion that the Sermon on the Mount (“SoM”) doesn’t restrict personal violence for all followers of Jesus. The title of this short response is meant to signal the deep agreement I have with Greg. I think we are reading Matthew in step with one another, and this shared walk actually leads beyond Greg’s thesis that SoM does not prohibit violence among followers of Jesus. With this agreement and disagreement in mind, I’d like to summarize a few key points from Greg’s post that are of fundamental importance, not only to my argument about nonviolence but also to general method in reading a NT Gospel. Then I will lay out why I think Greg’s reading strategy ought actually to lead him to the position of affirming nonviolence as a non-negotiable ethic for anyone seeking to keep faith with the Matthean Jesus.
As I read him, Greg makes a big deal out of three things pertaining to how one approaches Matthew’s text. First, Greg doggedly emphasizes the narrative genre of Matthew (as he no doubt would do for the other three NT Gospels). This is crucial. Matthew comes to us as a narrative and is best read as such. After a hardwon fight with the form critics, this is now the default setting of most Matthean scholarship. We should not exegete any verse from Matthew without explicit reference to its narrative context. Second, and equally crucial, Greg emphasizes the scriptural context of Matthew. Matthew has a theological agenda informed chiefly by what Greg and others term “the Hebrew Bible.” Of chief importance here is Greg’s emphasis on Matthew’s framing of Jesus as “the new Moses” and the SoM as “another Sinai moment” within the Gospel story. I bet Greg has read it already, but this section had me thinking a lot about one of my favorite books in NT scholarship, Dale Allison’s http://wipfandstock.com/the-new-moses.htmlThe New Moses: A Matthean Typology. Allison argues for this typology as a key structural element of Matthew’s narrative. I find Allison’s argument compelling, so I was predisposed to agree with Greg here. Borrowing words on loan from a former professor, I think it is appropriate—necessary, even—to read Matthew’s Jesus as “the new Moses who renews the covenant, intensifies the Law, and calls his disciples to do it.” That is, the Matthean Jesus expects his audience (readers, hearers) to follow Jesus’s teaching. (I think this point will turn into a [nonviolent ☺] haymaker later; I’ll get back to it.) Third, based on the narrative and Scriptural context of the SoM in Matthew, Greg argues that we have no access to the historical Jesus behind Matthew’s portrayal of him. This is a key argument making the rounds in current NT research, and I don’t think the field has yet felt the weight of its import. Greg rightly says that we have no access to any biblical figure apart from how they are portrayed in a given biblical text. Applied to Matthew, this means we have no access to the Jesus who gave the SoM apart from Matthew’s text. In some ways, this third point may just be another way of stating or summarizing the implications of the other two. But I think it stands apart at least because of its far-reaching implications. In constructing our theologies and enacting our discipleship, we are always (always) tethered to and constrained by the text.
I hope I have accurately summarized these three methodological and theoretical points undergirding Greg’s post. I think they are vitally important and I applaud Greg for making such a big deal out of them. It is because I think they are so important, and because I agree so whole-heartedly, that I am having a hard time understanding how Greg comes to a conclusion other than my own on the question of non/violence. After clearing the forest of bad assumptions about how to read Matthew, Greg says
the “love your enemy” and “turn the other cheek” instructions [Mt 5.38-48] are not universal pacifistic moral teachings, or instructions addressed directly to Christians. They are expositions of the Torah regarding how Israel should conduct themselves as the channel through which God’s blessing would ultimately be extended to the godless nations.
If Matthew is a narrative text that structures its story around the authoritative teachings of Jesus, the New Moses, I simply don’t know how the Matthean Jesus’s SoM isn’t binding for followers beyond Matthew’s initial audience. Jesus, acting as a new Moses, is reforming (and re-forming!) Israel. This new Israel answers the dual question of “Who are the covenant people of God and how is the covenant to be maintained?” succinctly: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (5.48). Live by this Law. Do it. The people who follow this Moses and keep his commands are the covenant people of God; their obedience is covenantal maintenance.
The fact that the Matthean Jesus’s teaching here is presented as a blanket statement lends further credence to the idea that, as a vitally important part of Matthew’s narrative text, the SoM makes unqualified demands of its readers. We have no access to the Jesus behind Matthew, which means that we have to submit ourselves to Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus and his speech. Matthew’s Jesus speaks in extremely broad categories:
38 ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer [no qualifier here!]. But if anyone [ὅστις – a general pronoun rendered well as “anyone”] strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you [τῷ αἰτοῦντί σε; lit. “the one who asks of you”], and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies [ἐχθρός, a broad term glossed well as “enemies”] and pray for those who persecute you [τῶν διωκόντων ὑμᾶς – again, a broad category glossed well by this translation], 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Much ink has been spilled trying to nail down exactly who might sue for a coat or force a mile’s march, but I think this is potentially misguided. The Matthean Jesus uses the concrete examples of the courtroom and forced march to apply the broad teaching on how the reformed/re-formed Israel is to engage its enemies, whoever they are.
Add to this a theory of the Gospels from Richard Bauckham that they were composed not just for discrete communities bounded by time and space but were, from the start, composed for all Christians. Obviously, Matthew could never have predicted a 21st century American audience armed with semiautomatics for his Greek narrative, but there’s no actual evidence that the Gospels were composed for singular communities so bounded by space and time (look how fast and far the documents circulated!). If the Gospels were composed for a wide audience, they must be meant to be authoritative texts for anyone attempting to keep faith with the Jesus they portray. I think this is a necessary interpretive step, but I don’t like it.
I don’t like it because it means I have to submit myself to the Matthean Jesus. I’m reminded of what my former NT prof said to his Matthew class on the first day of the course: “Why are you people here!?” Echoing again my agreement with Greg (and NT Wright): this Gospel is good news, but it is not good advice. If I have to submit myself to the SoM, I do so at my own peril. And my wife’s peril. And my daughter’s. It goes against everything in me to affirm the Matthean Jesus’s prohibition against violence, but I don’t know what else to say. Exegesis trumps experience; otherwise, we are simply rehashing the liberal hermeneutic that has driven the American church’s witness on both right and left into the ground. Greg was not making an argument from experience (he’s too good a reader for that), but other, lesser readers of Scripture often do.
So, to sum up: I agree with Greg that Matthew is a narrative text that frames Jesus as the new Moses (and is wholly steeped in the OT throughout) and that this narrative, OT-steeped portrayal is our only access to Jesus’s SoM teaching. Because I agree with these theoretical and methodological points, I disagree with Greg’s contention that the SoM does not present a universal prohibition against violence among followers of Jesus. If Jesus is the new Moses, and this narrative our access to him, I think we must submit ourselves to that teaching—even if it means we join our new Moses in martyrdom. I submit that Greg’s reading strategy, as I understand it, should actually lead him to this conclusion and I look forward to his forthcoming concession speech.
Reply to Danny’s Critique
First, thanks to Danny for his gracious and generous response to my thoughts on the issue of violence and the Sermon on the Mount.
A couple of points to concede in order the clear the path for exegesis. First (as I’ve already mentioned), I agree that the gospels were written to be read widely. Second, I agree with Danny’s point that Jesus as the “new Moses” makes his teaching in the SoM applicable to those beyond Matthew’s initial readers. For me the question is not whether they are applicable, but rather what did they mean in their original context?
I resist interpreting the SoM through the lens of modern concerns about “violence.” A concern about violence is a modern one and not exclusively a Christian one. Framing the question in this way belies a narrative world that may not be helpful in understanding the first-century remarks of Jesus. Is Jesus concerned primarily about violence or something else?
I will attempt to establish the narrative world in which Matthew wrote by appealing to four interrelated contexts: (1) the canonical narrative context; (2) the larger literary context of Matthew’s gospel; (3) the historical context as evidenced from Second Temple Period literature; and (4) the immediate literary context of the Sermon on the Mount itself. I will attempt to show that the concern of Matthew’s Jesus was not violence but what I will call “posture.”
Canonical Narrative Context
The popular narrative world of first-century Israel – and thus their understanding of the words “enemy” and “evil” was most shaped by two key texts: Psalm 2 and Daniel 7. In Psalm 2 the “enemies” of the LORD and his Anointed were the nations and their rulers. The Messianic Son of David would smash those enemies with Yahweh’s active approval. In Daniel 7 (following up on Daniel 2) the enemies of God and the “saints of the Most High” are the various kings and their militant empires. The fact that they were intended literarily to embody evil is evident from their crawling onto a Mediterranean beach from the sea. Yahweh’s eschatological act would be to deal with these evil enemies and thus vindicate “one like a son of man,” who would in turn be glorified and given rule over every nation, tribe, tongue, etc. That this picture had captured the imaginations of the first-century Jews can be seen from Jesus’ adoption of “the Son of Man” in self-reference and the interest in the Sons of Thunder to sit at his right and left.
The canonical narrative world of Jesus and Matthew put those two texts in the larger narrative of Genesis 1-11 climaxing in Genesis 12:1-3 and eschatologically developed in New Exodus texts such as Isaiah 42:1-9; 45:20ff, 49:1-6 and of course 52-53. In the larger narrative, the nations are not the enemy. They are the intended recipients of the “blessing.”
Literary Context of Matthew’s gospel
That the respective roles of the nations and of Israel in the popular narrative of first-century Israel and those roles in the narrative of Matthew are at odds with one another is suggested early on when Matthew adds “Son of Abraham” to his identification of Jesus as the “Son of David.” This can be seen especially from the story of the Roman centurion in Matthew 8. When the centurion confessed his understanding of Jesus’ mission where those in Israel had failed to understand it, Jesus replied, “Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:10-11). The parable of the vineyard in Matthew 22 also makes it clear that the story may not come out as the first-century Jews were anticipating. Finally, Matthew concludes his gospel with the commission to include the nations. In Matthew’s story, Jesus is the Son of David and the Son of Abraham. It is time to offer the nations their opportunity to find Yahweh’s long-intended blessing. That Matthew’s narrative begins and ends with this theme suggests that it is at the heart of the story he is telling. It is also clear that it is not in the hearts of first-century Israel, which is also central to Matthew’s narrative, as the parable of the vineyard indicates, a theme that reaches its catastrophic climax in Matthew 23-24.
The First-Century Historical Context
As N.T. Wright puts it, “recent folk memory” had shaped the narrative world of first-century Israel, and especially their reading of the Torah. Adherence to circumcision, Sabbath-keeping and purity laws were what Jews had been butchered for at the hands of Antiochus IV. Adherence to them in the first century was not negotiable for a faithful Jew. They served as “boundary markers,” and the synagogue leadership were committed to making those boundaries as clear and exclusive as possible. In their narrative world, it was absolutely appropriate to “hate” the enemies of the LORD and his Anointed. I suspect the theme carried the day in many a synagogue sermon. The beastly nations were evil incarnate. In their narrative world, the Maccabean clan had “taken a stand against evil’ (Matthew 5:39) and Yahweh had given them his blessing and the victory. As N.T. Wright and (your buddy) Richard Horsely have demonstrated, this posture toward Rome was a smoldering undercurrent waiting to erupt at the slightest provocation, which it did around the time Jesus was born and would do again in AD 66. This anti-Gentile posture was cultivated in the synagogues and facilitated with the wall around the Torah and around the court of the Jews in the temple.
Context of the Sermon on the Mount
The sermon begins with the “beatitudes,” which have the effect of challenging the first-century Jewish narrative in favor of one more in line with a careful and perceptive reading of their Bible (e.g., Isaiah 57:15 following Isaiah 56:6-8). Matthew 5:13-16 provides the thematic context (salt and light), and together with 7:13-29 provide ominous warnings that bookend the sermon. Salt that fails to deliver will be trampled on by invading armies, trees that do not bear fruit will be cut down, and the “house” in the city on a hill will fall to its ruin. In this context, covenant faithfulness will require a posture appropriate to being salt and light in first-century Israel within Yahweh’s long-held plan to reconcile the nations. There is no place for pretentious religious posturing. The appropriate posture is one that is completely on page with Yahweh’s intention. Jesus prescribes behaviors appropriate to being salt and light win that setting.
In other words, Matthew’s story is splitting into two directions. The story of Jacob-Israel is coming to a catastrophic ending, the story of Yahweh’s plan to bless the nations is heading toward culmination and fulfillment. Within this divided story, Jesus interprets the Torah to Israel playing the role appropriate to that first-century setting in which the “enemy” and “evil incarnate” is garrisoned overlooking the temple of the Most High.
Specific Prescriptions in the Sermon on the Mount
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
The context for “resisting” or “taking a stand against” the evil person suggests that hostile self-vindication is Jesus’ concern. The “But I say unto you” in contrast to the eye for an eye policy and the conjunction ἀλλ’ coming after proscription to not resist indicates that the behavior contrasted to resisting the evil person is turning the other cheek. This seems to be about self-vindication. The story of the Son of Man is that Yahweh is the vindicator. It turns out to be the story of the Son of David as well. You cannot be salt and light to the nations if you are hell-bent on standing up for yourself and thus cranking up the enmity and hostility. This in contrast to the conciliatory action of going the second mile.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
What “enemies” were first-century Jews taught to hate? I find it hard to believe that they were taught to hate just any old enemy. The second part of the compound sentence “pray for those who persecute you” suggests that Jesus has more than “any old enemy” in mind. Does his instruction not suggest the posture appropriate for the moment in which God is taking steps to win the hearts of these “enemies” as Jesus speaks? I would suggest that the four-fold context I have reviewed above makes this reading more than plausible.
I am suggesting that this is not at all about “violence” in general. It is about either adopting a posture and actions that make for peace and reconciliation or adopting a posture and actions that make for enmity and alienation. It is about making brothers out of enemies. It is what their God is preparing to do in Christ. True, violence is often the means by which one responds in self-vindication, but that is not the heart of Jesus’ teaching here, in my opinion.
Finally, this is not at all about defending one’s family (or one’s self for that matter) from criminals. That would require “evil” to be generic. And for Jesus to teach against “resisting” such a generic evil would seem to me to require taking him out of the specific drama unfolding in the larger context of Matthew’s story and placing him in the role of a Confucian sage, a teacher of timeless moral law. I don’t think the Sermon on the Mount should be read as the Timeless Analects of Jesus the Sage.
SCATTERING & GATHERING
I agree that there is a parallel between the two “exiles.” The parallel is in the “scattering (διασπείρω), used in both Genesis 10:32 (of the nations) and 11:8-9 (of those in Babel). It is the same word used in Acts 8:1 and 8:3. There is a fairly dominant theme of “scattering” and “gathering” in Israel’s story. When YHWH scatters Israel in exile, he will also gather them. It begins with Deuteronomy 30:1-4 and is restated throughout the prophets:
And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, and return to the LORD your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you. If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the LORD your God will gather you, and from there he will take you.
I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed through the countries.
I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land.
Part of the “gathering from exile” story line is the restoration of Northern and Southern kingdoms.
Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all around, and bring them to their own land. And I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. And one king shall be king over them all, and they shall be no longer two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms.
Isaiah 40-55 also records the same visions.
Fear not, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you.
The Servant of YHWH is tasked with the gathering and restoration of Jacob-Israel, and then another task is added.
And now the LORD says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him … he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.
Accordingly, the gathering of Israel will include the gathering of others besides.
The Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, “I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.”
I would argue that Luke’s primary purpose is to show that the events of which he gives “an orderly account” in Acts are both the “fulfillment” of these scriptures and their significance is explained by these scriptures. In other words, Luke understands these events as YHWH gathering both the outcasts of Israel and those from the nations.
Apparently, the shoot from the stump of Jesse will play a part in the gathering.
He will raise a signal for the nations and will assemble the banished of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.
It seems significant that the Son of David is seen as a gathering point for the nations, Israel (Northern Kingdom) and Judah (Southern Kingdom). Or at least that’s the way I read it.
It may be also be significant both to Luke’s programmatic quotation of Jesus in Acts 1:8 and to the scattering in Acts 8:1. The “scattering” is not to the “end of the earth” (as in the scattering of the nations in Genesis 10-11), but rather to contemporary Judea and Samaria, in other words, to the historic Judah and Israel, the Southern and Northern kingdoms.
THE WORD OF GOD ON A MISSION OF CONQUEST
In his ACTS AND THE ISAIANIC NEW EXODUS (Chapter 5), David Pao makes a strong case for reading Acts 8 as Luke’s development of the theme that “the word of the Lord will go forth from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3) based on Luke’s programmatic Acts 1:8. He argues convincingly (in my opinion) that the “word of God” is a central character and that the journey of the Word is an organizing theme.
He also argues from what he calls “summary statements” that the triumph of the Word interextually evokes Exodus 1:7 and 1:20 in their contexts.
But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.
So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong.
THEMATIC SUMMARY STATEMENTS
Acts 6:7 – And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.
Acts 12:24 – But the word of God grew and multiplied.
Acts 19:20 – So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.
From this intertextual connection to Exodus 1, Pao argues that the Word of God is depicted in Acts as the power of God that overcomes opposition and forms the people of God. To make this work, he also argues that because of their role as “witnesses” (taken from Isaiah 43; see my two studies), the people of God empowered by the Spirit (originally represented by the Twelve) have become the embodiment of the Word as witnesses. Their testimony becomes the Word of God.
I have summarized relevant sections from that chapter below.
Use of the phrase “the word … “ or “the word of God” or “the word of the Lord” throughout the travel narrative [missionary journeys] and the three summary statements concerning the growth of the word (Acts 6:7; 12:24 and 19:20) must be understood within the paradigm of the New Exodus. As the narrative develops, the word becomes a powerful force conquering the world. The word conquers and overcomes opposition.
And now, Lord, look upon their threats, and grant to thy servants to speak thy word with all boldness, while thou stretches out thy hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of thy holy servant Jesus.” And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.
Pao argues that Isaiah 40-55 is an expansion of Isaiah 2:1-4. (NOTE: Pao is not the first to make this observation. I’ve read several others making the same argument. Some even see Isaiah 2:1-4 as the prologue to Isaiah 40-66.)
The word which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the Torah, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
The the phrase “in the latter days” is the first clue that Isaiah 2 has an eschatological scenario in mind. Also, Isaiah 40:9 repeats the parallelism involving Zion and Jerusalem of 2:3.
Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!”
NOTE: Pao doesn’t include it, but Isaiah 42:1-4 seems to see the Servant as having a role in delivering the Torah to the nations:
Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his Torah-instruction.
With Acts 1:8 as setting the agenda for the progress of the word, it will begin in Jerusalem. Then it will proceed to Judea and Samaria, and finally to the “end of the earth.” The pathway of the word is a straight line outward although the missionaries travel in circular paths. The word never passes through any city more than once. Acts 6:7, 12: and 19: serve as summary statements of the conquest of the word after each stage of the journey.
Jerusalem: As per Isaiah 2:3, “the word of the LORD will go forth from Jerusalem,” which becomes a one-sentence summary statement of the journey of the word in Acts.
Judea & Samaria: The Jews of Judea are the first to hear the word. The Samaritans are included as a result of the Greek-speaking Jews scattering from the persecution following the stoning of Stephen.
Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to a city of Samaria, and proclaimed to them the Messiah. And the multitudes with one accord gave heed to what was said by Philip … Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John,
As Samaria was the same territory as the Northern Kingdom of Israel, the inclusion of the Samaritans represents the complete restoration of Jacob-Israel as envisioned in Isaiah 49:5-6.
And now the LORD says, who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD, and my God has become my strength — he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
I agree with Pao that the whole of Isaiah 40-55 is indeed a subtext that serves as a “hermeneutic key” to reading Luke’s account of “the things accomplished among us.” But given Luke’s quotation of Jesus in Luke 24:44-47, I would suggest that Moses and the Psalms are also evoked to explain these events.
This would leave open the possibility that there is a parallel between the scattering of Acts 8 and Genesis 10-11. I see that possibility increasing and multiplying when we consider the command/commission of Genesis 1:28:
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
Pao notes in Chapter 5, the significance of the disciples scattering in Acts 8 is that “those that scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria” did so “preaching the Word” (Acts 8:4). It becomes evident that the example Luke focuses on is that of Philip, who is also empowered by the Spirit, similar to the original Twelve. So Pao’s argument that the Word is embodied within Spirit-empowered members of the Christian community seems to survive Philip’s renegade evangelistic foray into Samaria.
I am not sure what to make of all of this with regard to Stephen’s original observations, but these are my incomplete observations along with David Pao’s to go along with them. One thing I am not convinced of is the idea that Luke is depicting the Twelve as disobedient to their commission in Acts 1:8. His story is not really about them. It is about Jesus and about what God is accomplishing through him and as a result of him. He uses Israel’s scriptures to make his case that the events he records are nothing less than Israel’s God working out – by the power of his Spirit and Word – his long-held plans to redeem Israel, and to extend that redemption to the nations, thus gathering into one new people all those “scattered” in their ignorance and sin, beginning from Jerusalem.
Witnesses and the Narrative World of Luke
N.T. Wright – especially JESUS AND THE VICTORY OF GOD and to some extent THE NEW TESTAMENT AND THE PEOPLE OF GOD – did three things for me as a Christian student of scripture. First he rehabilitated my faith in the historicity of the Gospel story at a time when I needed it. Second, he began the process of opening my eyes to what I will call the “narrative world” of the New Testament writers as the historical context in which the New Testament documents were written. Finally, he was instrumental in introducing me to biblical (including narrative and canonical) theology and the paradigm shift of rigorously (even ruthlessly) reading any part of scripture in the context of the whole of scripture. This includes reading the Bible as an integrally, intricately and intentionally connected literary whole and reading the “history” texts as prophetic narratives. George Terrell, a member of the ICC BT group, has accompanied me and assisted me along this journey, both by pointing me to new resources and by patiently listening to my pedantic pontifications.
But for me this is not just academic theory or trendy theology. That the New Testament writers understood the events they witnessed and wrote about primarily in terms of their Bible not only makes profound historical and apologetic sense, it is almost certainly how it had to be. I thought I would never use this word (it seems pretentious), but any other way of reading scripture seems anachronistic to me. Once the paradigm shift has been made, there is no going back to the theological tradition I inherited from my training. I took the red pill and am in the process of seeing just how deep the rabbit hole goes.
In spite of it making historical sense, it also has to make literary sense. If the New Testament writers really did imagine themselves primarily as witnesses to the end of the story begun in their Bible, then one would expect this reality to manifest itself in the texts of what they wrote. I’ll leave the case for historical sense to Wright and NTPG, but there is an abundance of textual corroboration when we begin reading through the lens of the new paradigm. This is especially true and easy to see in Mark and Luke. But since we’re talking about “witnesses” in Acts, I’ll limit my comments to Luke-Acts.
In his prologue, Luke states that his own orderly account of “the things fulfilled (πληροφορέω) among us” will be just as the eyewitnesses and ministers of the word first delivered them. It perhaps should be noted that he uses the word αὐτόπτης, which denotes one who has seen something with his own eyes, and hence, first-hand knowledge, but is not a technical forensic term. I dug up Bauckham’s comments on this vocabulary. In his chapter “Eyewitnesses from the Beginning”・(JESUS AND THE EYEWITNESSES, p. 117ff.), Bauckham makes a pretty strong case (in my opinion) that Luke is intentionally putting his two-volume treatise in the genre of ancient historiography. In contrast, Bauckman establishes that witness-μάρτυς is a legal metaphor that is not used in a historiographical context (see the “Witness of the Beloved Disciple,” p. 385). More on this later. Either way, it is certainly worth noting that Luke understands the events he chronicles as things “fulfilled” among us, suggesting a preexisting agenda that has been somehow accomplished in those events.
And it doesn’t take him long to bring that agenda into the forefront of the story he is beginning to tell. Gabriel enters the narrative connecting Zechariah’s son to the eschatological mission of Malachi’s Elijah.
And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (Luke 1:16-17)
And Gabriel himself has similar eschatological news for Mary, connecting her son to the Son of David.
And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:31-33)
And then when she and John’s mother are together, Mary herself offers what seems to be “big picture” prophetic insight into these strange events.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” (Luke 1:54-55)
And when Zechariah gets his tongue back, he pulls together several of these prophetic story lines from his Bible.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people 69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71 that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; 72 to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, 73 the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us 74 that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, 78 because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:68-79)
The angels announcement to the shepherds also echos the visions of the prophets.
“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Messiah the Lord … 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:10-14)
And finally, Luke editorially depicts the two faithful Israelites in the temple as “waiting for the παράκλησις of Israel (Luke 2:25) and looking for the λύτρωσις of Jerusalem (Luke 2:38). Is it a coincidence that these events are announced as “good news” in the “new exodus” vision of Isaiah 40-55?
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” 8 The voice of your watchmen- they lift up their voice; together they sing for joy; for eye to eye they see the return of the LORD to Zion. 9 Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people; he has redeemed Jerusalem. 10 The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. (Isaiah 52:7-10 )
Luke then places the next narrative section smack dab and sassy in a concrete, historical context: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar …”, but (in case there is any doubt that he has Isaiah in mind) he also puts it (like Mark and Matthew) firmly within the narrative context of the Isaianic new exodus of 40-55.
And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'” (Luke 3:3-6)
Two things that I consider noteworthy here are not evident from simply reading the English text of Luke alone. First, 3:2 should not begin a new sentence, as it does in every major version except the NRSV, NASB and NLT. Luke intended to say that John’s ministry itself fulfills Isaiah 40:3ff. Or more accurately, Isaiah 40:3ff. explains the significance of John’s ministry. Second, Luke quotes more of Isaiah 40 than Mark or Matthew, including his own interpretation of Isaiah 40:5 in Luke 3:6.
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
Instead of all flesh seeing the glory of the Lord, they will see “the salvation of God.” It appears that Luke is drawing from Isaiah 52:10 as an explanation of Isaiah 40:5.
The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.
In other words, from the Old Testament texts he uses to explain “the things fulfilled among us,” Luke is laying the groundwork early on for the final summary of God’s program as fulfilled in the events surrounding Jesus.
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:44-48)
Luke 24:46-47 includes three parallel infinitive phrases: (1) the Messiah to suffer, (2) to rise from the dead on the third day, and (3) repentance and forgiveness of sins to be proclaimed in his name to all nations. Luke has already documented “the things fulfilled among us”:in the (1) crucifixion and (2) resurrection of the Messiah. But Jesus sees a third event mandated by Israel’s scriptures. The “salvation of our God” must be seen before the eyes of the watching nations. The good news proclamation of his commissioned witnesses will offer the nations the chance to “turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth,” or in Jesus’ words, “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Where do Israel’s scriptures provide this mandate for including the nations? Almost certainly from Isaiah 40-55, and followed up in Isaiah 56 and 66.
Jerusalem is the starting point because Isaiah’s eschatological vision requires it: “For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 2:3). Many Isaiah interpreters sees Isaiah 2:1-4 as the fundamental vision of which 40-55 is an exposition.
As I have already argued, a big part of that exposition is Isaiah’s vision for the nations in which they are summoned into a cosmic courtroom and exhorted to render the desired verdict:
“Assemble yourselves and come; draw near together, you survivors of the nations! They have no knowledge who carry about their wooden idols, and keep on praying to a god that cannot save. Declare and present your case; let them take counsel together! Who told this long ago? Who declared it of old? Was it not I, the LORD? And there is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me. Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.” (Isaiah 45:20-23)
In a previous vision of this courtroom scene, Israel has been summoned as witnesses.・
All the nations gather together, and the peoples assemble. Who among them can declare this, and show us the former things? Let them bring their witnesses to prove them right, and let them hear and say, It is true. 10 “You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. 11 I, I am the LORD, and besides me there is no savior. 12 I declared and saved and proclaimed, when there was no strange god among you; and you are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and I am God. (Isaiah 43:9-12)
And this testimony is once again rehearsed in Isaiah 44:6-9
Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. 7 Who is like me? Let him proclaim it. Let him declare and set it before me, since I appointed an ancient people. Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen. 8 Fear not, nor be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? And you are my witnesses! Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any.” 9 All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame.
So Servant Jacob-Israel’s vocation in YHWH’s offer of salvation to the nations is fairly clear. However, Jacob-Israel’s ability to play that role has also been called into question.
They are turned back and utterly put to shame, who trust in carved idols, who say to metal images, “You are our gods.” 18 Hear, you deaf, and look, you blind, that you may see! 19 Who is blind but my servant, or deaf as my messenger whom I send? Who is blind as my dedicated one, or blind as the servant of the LORD? 20 He sees many things, but does not observe them; his ears are open, but he does not hear. 21 The LORD was pleased, for his righteousness’ sake, to magnify his law and make it glorious. 22 But this is a people plundered and looted; they are all of them trapped in holes and hidden in prisons; they have become plunder with none to rescue, spoil with none to say, “Restore!” 23 Who among you will give ear to this, will attend and listen for the time to come? (Isaiah 42:17-23)
YHWH’s critique of Jacob-Israel intensifies through Isaiah 48, setting the stage for the role substitution in Isaiah 49:1-6, in which “Servant Israel” is tasked with the new exodus project of restoring Jacob-Israel. And then as a kind of afterthought, YHWH goes ahead and assigns this Servant the rest of the job.
Isaiah 49:3-6 And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” 4 But I said, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with the LORD, and my recompense with my God.” 5 And now the LORD says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him- for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD, and my God has become my strength- 6 he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Fast forward again to the story the gospel writers are telling about Jesus, in which they depict him as Isaiah’s Servant of YHWH standing in for Servant Jacob-Israel. In the gospel adaptation of Isaiah’s new exodus vision, the Twelve Apostles represent the sons of Jacob, and as such, the twelve tribes of Israel. In the gospel narratives, the Twelve are the new Israel, reconstituted around Messiah Jesus.
It is within this narrative context that Jesus assigns the Twelve the task of being his witnesses (ἔσεσθέ μου μάρτυρες: You will be my witnesses). Compare Isaiah 43:10 (γένεσθέ μοι μάρτυρες: You are witnesses to me). By this time in Luke, Jesus is also standing in for YHWH himself in his deliverance of Israel, so the parallel works. Back to Bauckham:
Luke confines the confines the vocabulary of witness almost entirely to those who have been personal disciples of Jesus, with the single major exception of Paul, who is a witness on the basis of his own special experience of the exalted Christ. For both John and Luke, witness is something that requires firsthand contact with Jesus’ history.
We have noted that the martureo word group, used by both Luke and John, does not belong to the standard terminology of historiography. Therefore, Luke does not use it in the preface of his Gospel, where he seems to have deliberately avoided theological vocabulary, calling the witnesses autoptai instead. Luke, like John, appears to have drawn his witness terminology from deutero-Isaiah, as the phrase “to the end of the earth” in Acts 1:8 suggests (cf Isa 49:6). By identifying the disciples as witnesses with the witnesses to God in the Isaianic prophecies, Luke places them within the theological interpretative framework of eschatological events that those chapters of Isaiah provided, not only for Luke and John, but also for most of the New Testament writers. Thus it is clear that Luke has deliberately correlated the historiographic notion of eyewitness report with the Isaianic theological notion of God’s witnesses (JESUS AND THE EYEWITNESSES, pp. 389-390).
NOTE: To corroborate Bauckham’s connection of Acts 1:8 with Isaiah 49:6 is the fact that both use the very rare singular “to the end of the earth.”
In this way, it is Luke’s express intent to show that the events of Acts are finally the fulfillment of Israel’s long-intended role as a light to the nations as promised to Abraham and envisioned by Isaiah. And in this way, it was necessary “for repentance and forgiveness of sins to be proclaimed in Jesus’ name to all nations.”
I used to just read over all of this because (1) I didn’t know what any of these texts meant. I didn’t understand the “narrative world” of the New Testament writers, which means I didn’t really know “the Old Testament.” I still don’t know it very well. (2) I didn’t care about any of these texts. I was a “New Testament Christian” and was in a hurry to get to the theology I already understood and the applications I needed to make. But, as I said, now that I’ve taken the red pill there is no going back to the matrix of my theological tradition. Luke’s primary purpose for writing is to make his case that the events he records are the fulfillment of God’s long-held plan for the nations. He understands the significance of these events in terms of Israel’s scriptures, and he quotes and alludes to them to make his case. I would suggest that we will understand the significance “You will be my witnesses … ” within this framework.
Previous related study: “Isaiah’s Servant-Witness Motif in Acts”
Isaiah’s Servant-Witness Motif in Acts
This paper argues informally that Luke uses the servant-witness motif from Isaiah 40-55 to explain that the events he records in Acts are the fulfillment of Isaiah’s New Exodus vision for Israel’s witness to the nations. The goal of Israel’s testimony is for the nations to reach the verdict that YHWH alone is God and to turn to him be saved. In Isaiah, Israel’s “testimony” is the visible fact of its deliverance before the eyes of the nations (Isaiah 52:10). In Acts, the Twelve assume Israel’s servant-witness role, but their testimony focuses on the resurrection of Jesus as the visible proof that deliverance has been accomplished.
Note: This was written before I read Pao’s book, so it does not include many of the detailed and insightful arguments found therein.
(1) First, there is the cosmic trial motif in Isaiah. YHWH summons the nations to trial and to bring their idols to testify as to their status as god (Isaiah 43:9; 45:20), but they cannot because the cat’s got their tongue. They have no knowledge and they have no tongues. Then he summons Servant Israel as his witnesses (43:12; 44:8). The verdict of the trial that YHWH seeks is, “There is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is no one besides me” (45:21) so that the nations will finally turn to him and be saved (45:22).
In this way, servant-witness Israel functions as a light to the nations “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Is 42:7), because “I am YHWH, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols” (42:8).
But Israel herself is blind and without understanding (42:16-25) and thus incapable of playing the role of servant-witness, so YHWH is raising up a servant who can both restore Israel and be the light to the nations so that the ends of the earth can see the salvation of Israel’s God (49:5-6).
(2) Luke seems to understand the events he records as the fulfillment of this servant-witness storyline in Isaiah, which is a sub-plot of the big story in the entire section of Isaiah 40-55, that being YHWH’s return to Zion and the New Exodus. (Isaiah 40:1-11). Luke, with the other gospel writers, see Jesus’ work as fulfillment of this, which is evident from all four of them quoting Isaiah 40:3 to explain the role of John the Baptist in each of their own gospel narratives.
I have argued that Luke sees the gospel moving out to the nations as the fulfillment of the servant-witness subplot of the Isaiah storyline. This can be seen from the words of Acts 1:8 (to the “end of the earth”; cf. Isaiah 45:22; 49:6; 52:10). It can be seen in Paul and Barney’s quotation of Isaiah 49:6 in Acts 13:47. I have also argued (elsewhere) that the “subtext” underlying Paul’s speech to the Greek philosophers (as the intellectual representatives of the nations) in Acts 17 is Isaiah 42:1-9. Also, Paul’s explanation of his mission to the nations in Acts 26 seems to allude to Isaiah 42:6-7 and 49:6 (Acts 26:19, 23).
Luke also talks about the word of God growing and multiplying, which could also be his way of representing the fulfillment of Isaiah 55;10-11, and possibly also the “be fruitful and multiply” of Genesis 1.
(3) The concept of the twelve as “witness” is a major theme in Acts. This motif is introduced in Acts 1:8, following and parallel with Luke 24:48.
It is then highlighted in the selection of Judas’s replacement:
Acts 1:15-26 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus– for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” … So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us– one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.
The thing that is being highlighted here is the importance of the number 12. Israel of the Mosaic covenant is constituted around the twelve sons of Jacob. The new Israel is being constituted around Jesus and his twelve emissaries. These represent Israel as his witnesses. The theme is repeated in the first apostolic proclamation:
This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. (2:32)
And again in Acts 3:15
and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.
And again when the Jewish authorities attempt to put a stop to carrying out their commission, Luke relegates them among those who oppose the purposes of Israel’s God right along with the rulers of the nations, who “conspire against YHWH and his Messiah” (4:18-20, 24-28, cf. Ps 2:1ff).
God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him” (Acts 5:31-32)
And reviewed again when the gospel goes to the first Gentiles (if you don’t count the eunuch if he was a Gentile).
We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead (Acts 10:39-42).
Finally, Paul confirms the importance of the original twelve witnesses:
But God raised him from the dead; and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, and they are now his witnesses to the people (Acts 13:30-31).
Paul doesn’t mention that there were twelve, but Luke has already made that point and highlighted its importance in 1:15-26. The attentive reader knows the significance of the inner circle of twelve. When Paul is commissioned as apostle to the nations, he becomes a witness of all that he has seen and heard (primarily his own encounter with the risen Jesus)
Then he said, ‘The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear his own voice; for you will be his witness to all the world of what you have seen and heard (Acts 22:14-15; cf 23:11; 26:16-18; also verb form in 18:5, 20:21).
One must ask why this notion of “witness” is so important to Luke. It is one thing for Jesus to use the term. However, Luke picks it up and uses it thematically throughout his Acts narrative. I took it for granted for 30 years. I did not know enough to notice or to ask questions of the narrative. Now that I better understand Luke’s frame of reference, I believe he does not use the term without purpose. My argument that the witness theme in Acts is based on the witness motif in Isaiah has interconnected strands:
(1) Luke understands the events he records as the fulfillment especially of the storyline in Isaiah 40-55.
(2) Servant Jacob-Israel was to play the role of servant-witness, but Jesus took on the role of Servant Israel. The Messiah has been crucified and raised according to the scriptures and now Jesus commissions the 12 apostolic representatives of Israel to be his witnesses to the world, also according to the scriptures (Luke 24:44-48, Acts 1:8).
(3) The function of the servant-witnesses in Acts is the same as that in Isaiah 40-55
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken (Isaiah 40:5).
“You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. I, I am the LORD, and besides me there is no savior. I declared and saved and proclaimed, when there was no strange god among you; and you are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and I am God. Also henceforth I am he; there is none who can deliver from my hand; I work, and who can turn it back?” (Isaiah 43:10-13)
Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let them proclaim it, let them declare and set it forth before me. Who has announced from of old the things to come? Let them tell us what is yet to be. Do not fear, or be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? You are my witnesses! Is there any god besides me? (Isaiah 44:6-8)
Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.” (Isaiah 45:22-23)
The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God (Isaiah 52:10).
Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:45-48)
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
I made the statement in another forum that I disagreed with the pacifist interpretation of certain key biblical texts in their arguments. A member of the group asked me what interpretations I was referring to. I tried to answer his question, but ended up putting so much work into it that I thought I should post it here so that more people could argue with me.
The pacifists I’ve heard on the subject (and I must admit I was sympathetic to their arguments) base a lot of their case on several of Jesus’ sayings in the Sermon on the Mount. Like most of us, they have their synthesized Jesus based on all of the gospel accounts and treat him as a historical figure extracted from the various narratives, and they treat his sayings in the Sermon on the Mount as “the ethical teachings of Jesus.” The Word has become flesh as a peripatetic sage dispensing the divine moral standard and universal moral truth. The widespread notion that the gospels were written for the early churches so that they would have a record of “the teachings of the Lord” is another aspect of this (what I believe to be) misunderstanding of why the gospels were written and how they were intended to be read.
To some extent, I both follow and depart from N.T. Wright on he nature of the gospels. Wright has a well-worn saying that the gospels are not essentially “good advice”; they are “good news.” Having read quite a bit of his work, I take this to mean that the gospels are not written primarily to provide the teachings of Jesus. They were written as proclamations of God’s long-intended and prophetically envisioned deliverance in the person of the prophet from Nazareth. In other words, they are gospels in the true sense of the word and especially in the sense to which the entire Hebrew Bible looks forward and anticipates.
The events and sayings of Jesus are embedded in and contribute to this epic tale. Accordingly, they must be interpreted not as discrete events or sayings in isolation, but as carefully selected (and probably edited) material to advance the story each of the prophetically inspired gospel writers are telling. Jesus was a real person who did and said the things claimed of him by these writers. But we do not have access to Jesus as a historical person any more than we have access to David or Abraham as historical persons. We have access to these figures only as they are presented in the prophetic narratives of scripture. This means that our job is to read the gospels in order to understand what they are saying about Jesus and how everything they include contributes to their thesis about him. We know no more than what they tell us. And the way they tell us is through ingeniously constructed narrative. To hear the voice of the inspired story tellers, we need to read them as such.
As hard as it is to get our heads around this view, it makes sense. If the gospels were intended to be straightforward, objective history or biography with no theological agenda, the writers did a pretty poor job of it. And if they were written as records of Jesus’ teachings, they did an even worse job of it. The view that makes the most sense is that they are gospels, just as the early church understood them to be. The classic summary of their intent is in John’s gospel: Jesus did many things that were witnessed by his disciples. But these were selected and told in such a way that the reader may understand and believe who he is within this larger story, and that the reader might receive the life that he offers. I realize that this may seem like some extravagant, “newfangled” way to read the gospels that we don’t need. We were able to understand Jesus and conduct church very well using our time-honored traditional approach. Fine. That approach stopped working for me, leaving me in skeptical limbo. Men I’d never heard of (including N.T. Wright) came along showed me this approach. It answers so many critical questions. I think it is right and I was wrong. Thank God. If this means that your present way of reading the gospels is also wrong, I can live with that. 🙂
If you’re still with me, this brings us back to the Sermon on the Mount. This unit of discourse must be understood in the context of Matthew’s narrative. A detailed exegesis of Matthew’s gospel is beyond the scope of these comments, not to mention my competence, but the Sermon on the Mount is crucial to Matthew’s thesis about who Jesus is and what is happening within the larger narrative unfolding as repeatedly premonitioned in their own Bible (the writings that we have dismissively renamed “the Old Testament”).
In this reading of Matthew (as I read it and offer for consideration), Jesus is being presented in terms of the Hebrew Bible. He is the one to whom the whole thing points. He and his work are the intending ending to that story. He is the son of Abraham and the son of David (Matthew 1:1). He is Isaiah’s Servant of Yahweh (Matthew 12:17f). He is Daniel’s “one like a Son of Man” (Matthew 26:64). In other words, he is the archetype of what Israel (and its kings) were intended to be. And he is not only “one of the prophets of old,” Matthew is presenting him as the new Moses. Jesus is both the new Moses and the beloved son: “Listen to him” (Matthew 17:7, for those with eyes to see it, a Sinai moment). And the narrative concludes with Moses-like instructions for those about to venture out to conquer the Land: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and gather the nations, “baptizing them and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” In Matthew’s story, Jesus is also the new Moses. The prophets envisioned the nations coming to Zion and learning the Torah. Matthew is revising that on Jesus’ authority because Jesus’ identity and role in the story authorizes him to do so. Listen to HIM.
That is the gist of Matthew’s narrative, and the Sermon on the Mount must be understood as another Sinai moment within that story. It is an expositional updating of the Torah for first-century Israel, the elect people of God, in the grips of enemy occupation. In other words, in the grips of the enemies of Yahweh and his people. In the version of the larger story presented by the synagogue leadership (“You have heard it said …”), Rome is the hated enemy upon whom Yahweh is just itching to execute his wrath and smash to pieces like a potter’s vessel. But in Matthew’s narrative, Rome is NOT the enemy against whom the Messiah will lead his people. Satan is that enemy and Rome represents the nations held in his grip. Israel was called ultimately not as a tool of God’s wrath on the nations, but as a vehicle of blessing (Genesis 12:1-3 and all repetitions of this promise throughout the rest of Genesis). Hence, the Sermon on the Mount begins with a proper perspective on Israel’s role (5:1-13). “Blessed are the meek … Blessed are the peacemakers … ” Matthew’s narrative is all about what it means to be Israel, the covenant people of God. Jesus is both prototype and archetype of the true Israel. All of this is vital to the story Matthew is telling about Jesus and his role in Yahweh’s long-held program for Israel and the world.
In this context, the “love your enemy” and “turn the other cheek” instructions are not universal pacifistic moral teachings, or instructions addressed directly to Christians. They are expositions of the Torah regarding how Israel should conduct themselves as the channel through which God’s blessing would ultimately be extended to the godless nations. As the chosen people of God, the city on a hill cannot be hidden (Matthew 5:14). Rome is aware of their claims about God and that they supposedly possess the light of God in the Torah. Their light will either shine by obeying the intent of the Torah, or they will obscure that light by corrupting its intent. Jesus is there to explain its intent. And there is an ominous warning: Salt that has lost its salt qualities is good for nothing except to be trampled under foot (5:13). According to Matthew, the story of ethnic, national Israel is heading towards a catastrophically tragic ending (Matthew 23-24) because it is following the “blind guides” of the synagogue leadership and their reading of the Torah. But at the same time, Jesus (and his followers symbolically represented by the Twelve) constitute the reboot of Israel’s story as it was intended to unfold. “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” He will show you what it means to be the people of God and salt of the earth in a world that is hostile to the way of God.
I don’t think you can understand any pericope of this story, much less isolated sayings of Jesus, outside the narrative world in which the gospel writers were living and telling their stories. My conclusion is that these sayings in the sermon on the Mount must be understood in this context before we even begin to understand how they might apply in our own. You cannot simply snatch them out of this narrative and apply them to gun ownership or home defense today. They are not addressing the issue of violence vs non-violence. Neither is the observation that those who live by the sword will also perish by the sword. They are all intricate parts of the story Matthew is intent on telling.
Or so it seems to me.
Blog posts and articles like this one by Joe Rigney bother me a lot. In fact I think they are dangerous, especially for Christians who are concerned about recent events and who don’t have the ability to see through the rhetoric. What this article is encouraging Christians to do is extremely dangerous. He is making both a rhetorical and emotional appeal for Christians to engage in civil disobedience along the lines of Kim Davis. But is his appeal either biblical or reasonable?
Joe argues from the Book of Daniel that compliance with the Court rulings concerning same-sex marriage is logically equivalent to bowing down to pagan gods or praying to pagan kings. First he tells the story of the young Jews in Daniel who refuse to comply with the edicts of the Babylonian kings and who are thrown into furnace and lions den for their faithfulness.
“O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16–18)
And this response wasn’t because they were blind to the possible outcomes; they mention two of them, right there in the passage. But the outcomes were irrelevant to their duties. And what’s more, they aren’t led to the furnace with a hang-dog look, muttering an apologetic, “I’m so sorry; we’ll regrettably have to decline the king’s invitation to kneel.” Nor did they angrily rant and rave about the injustice of it all.
They walked to the gallows with clean consciences and a gleam in their eye that said, “Go ahead. Throw us in that briar patch. We know in whom we’ve believed, and our God reigns.”
This is very good rhetoric, in my opinion. However, the problem with vey good rhetoric is that bad and deceptive argumentation is often lurking among the good stuff.
Joe argues that the U.S. courts’ redefinition of marriage to include same-sex unions is “an act of high defiance against God, nature, and history. The State is attempting to arrogate to itself the right to define marriage ” In other words, the state and/or the courts are setting themselves up as God and demanding that we acknowledge their sovereignty by complying with their policy regarding same-sex marriage. To comply, Joe argues, is the modern day equivalent to worshiping pagan deities.
Now I can already hear the objections. “No one’s asking you to worship anything. Worship whoever and however you want. But you will issue the marriage license. You will bake the cake. Or else.” This sort of objection fails to reckon with what the public act means — whether it’s bowing down or offering incense or issuing lying marriage licenses. At the end of the day, Caesar didn’t care whether the early Christians worshiped him deep, deep down in their hearts. “Think whatever you want behind your eyes and between your ears. But you will acknowledge the absolute divine right of the emperor in public.”
COURTS PLAYING GOD?
Joe sees things in common between worshiping the pagan ruler and obeying a secular court, so he WANTS to use it as an analogy for his argument. Yes, the situations are similar. That’s why the argument is both attractive and deceptive. But the analogy fails at the crucial point. In terms of what each action represents, there is a big difference between the physical bowing down to a pagan ruler and issuing a marriage license.
You shall have no other gods before me. “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them …” Exodus 20:3-5
The First Commandment expressly forbid “bowing down” as part of the command not to worship other gods. Bowing down was understood universally as a symbol of worship. It is explicitly forbidden in the Torah. Issuing a marriage license (or otherwise complying with the Court rulings) does not carry that symbolic connotation. Nor is it explicitly forbidden. That’s why Joe needs the casuistry and the rhetoric to make his case. And that’s why he needs this false analogy.
The fact is, for the purpose of administering the law, the state has the right to define “marriage” to include same-sex couples under the Constitution. Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs, in writing the decision of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in the DOMA ruling stated:
Our straightforward legal analysis sidesteps the fair point that same-sex marriage is unknown to history and tradition, but law (federal or state) is not concerned with holy matrimony. Government deals with marriage as a civil status—however fundamental—and New York has elected to extend that status to same-sex couples.
In other words, it is not the intent of the court to “defy God, history and tradition” in “redefining marriage.” Their intent is to extend a “civil status” under the law to same sex couples. No court can change the definition of marriage that God intended. But they can change the definition as sanctioned under the law in order to protect the rights of Americans as guaranteed under the 5th and 14th Amendments.
To acknowledge their right to do this is not “bowing down to Caesar” because it is not calling on Christians to recognize the validity of the marriage except as a civil union under the law. The Court ruling simply mandates that the same-sex participants in this civil union will receive the same rights as heterosexuals under the Constitution. I don’t recognize the validity of same-sex marriage within the purposes of God. I am a Christian and have submitted myself to biblical revelation. But this does not prevent me from recognizing the validity of the same-sex civil union under the law.
Whether we agree with the Court’s interpretation of the Constitution is beside the point. It is a separate issue. It has nothing to do with whether the Court is assuming the role of God. Joe took a shot at the Court in their interpretation, but was right not to dwell on it. If you would like to hear me dwell on it, I do so here.
MARRIAGE LICENSES AND DIVORCE CERTIFICATES
It seems to me that this entire argument is either a charade or it is simply one-sided and half-baked. In the same text where Jesus supposedly defined marriage, he also proscribed divorce. In fact the intent of Jesus in that particular discussion is not so much to provide a definition for marriage as it is to establish that divorce is contrary to God’s intent for marriage.
And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away.” But Jesus said to them, “For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, `God made them male and female.’ `For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” Mark 10:2-9
The state legally allows divorce. The courts grant divorces. I don’t hear a bunch of strident and contemptuous rhetoric charging that the state or the courts are acting in high-handed defiance of God. Nor do I hear arguments that in recognizing these legal divorces, the church is “bowing down to Caesar” as having greater authority than Jesus. Would Kim Davis also refuse to issue a divorce certificate if that were among the duties of her office? Would Joe Rigney? This guy’s argument seems to be a classic case of Special Pleading. What appears evident to me is that we hate homosexual marriage more than divorce (and a good many other things that are legal but contrary to God’s will), and so we isolate it for special treatment. Whatever our reason for doing so, it is neither biblical nor logically consistent.
But one of the key differences is that we’re attempting to prevent a rebellious legal regime from being established.
GOD & COUNTRY
Now we come to the heart of the matter. We’re OK with the government defying God’s law on the issue of divorce, but the homosexual issue is going too far. Too far in what direction? Too far towards a “rebellious legal regime being established.” This entire issue seems to have less to do with our faithfulness and obedience to God than it does the writer’s political and social agenda. This was the same problem the Pharisees and Zealots had with the Herods. Herod was an illegitimate, immoral and rebellious regime. It is your basic God and Country agenda. “No King but the LORD! No taxes but the Temple!. No brother but a Zealot!”
Joe is attempting to stir up the mob and incite civil disobedience without having a solid biblical case for it. Many Christians don’t see this as a case for civil disobedience. Issuing marriage licenses is not the same as acknowledging Caesar’s authority over God. That’s why Joe needs all the rhetoric. On the other hand, some Christians are susceptible to rhetoric like this. I would suggest that this is highly questionable and extremely dangerous.
As the media and internet has reported, many Christians are outraged at the SCOTUS decision to uphold same sex marriage. I must admit, I have reservations. As I read the text of the Majority Opinion explaining the SCOTUS decision, I tend to agree with Justice Scalia, who thinks that it contains a lot of politically correct drivel.
The opinion is couched in a style that is as pretentious as its content is egotistic. It is one thing for separate concurring or dissenting opinions to contain extravagances, even silly extravagances, of thought and expression; it is something else for the official opinion of the court to do so. Of course the opinion’s showy profundities are often profoundly incoherent.
If, even as the price to be paid for a fifth vote, I ever joined an opinion for the court that began: “The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity,” I would hide my head in a bag. The Supreme Court of the United States has descended from the disciplined legal reasoning of John Marshall and Joseph Story to the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie.”
The world does not expect logic and precision in poetry or inspirational pop-philosophy; it demands them in the law. The stuff contained in today’s opinion has to diminish this court’s reputation for clear thinking and sober analysis.
In my opinion, the court had too much to say about marriage. Charges that the majority were promoting a politically correct agenda seem to be well founded. Nevertheless I do not share the outrage of many of my Evangelical colleagues and peers. There are several reasons.
The legal case that was brought to he court had nothing to do with the right of homosexuals to get married. From all of the moralizing about the institution of marriage, both from those who support gay marriage and those who oppose it, this is perhaps difficult to see. The issue that was brought the court is obscured by the wrangling over the definition of “marriage” and the morality of “gay marriage.”
The legal case that was brought to the court was a 14th Amendment issue. That amendment provides that
No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
An excerpt from the Majority Opinion manages eventually to make the connection between the equal rights of gays and the 14th Amendment:
The right to marry is fundamental as a matter of history and tradition, but rights come not from ancient sources alone. They rise, too, from a better informed understanding of how constitutional imperatives define a liberty that remains urgent in our own era. Many who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here. But when that sincere, personal opposition becomes enacted law and public policy, the necessary consequence is to put the imprimatur of the state itself on an exclusion that soon demeans or stigmatizes those whose own liberty is then denied. Under the Constitution, same-sex couples seek in marriage the same legal treatment as opposite-sex couples, and it would disparage their choices and diminish their personhood to deny them this right.
The legal argument was that the 14th amendment gave the gay couple the right to form a civil union that was accepted by their home state as normal under the law and that granted them the same benefits and protections as those of heterosexual couples, and that the various states have no right under the Constitution to deny them these rights. The petition to the court framed the issue:
Whether Ohio’s constitutional and statutory bans on recognition of marriages of same-sex couples validly entered in other jurisdictions violate the Due Process and equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. (http://www.scribd.com/doc/246592054/Ohio-Plaintiffs-Supreme-Court-Cert-Petition)
Everything else is simply irrelevant, whether it comes from a moralizing Supreme Court justice or a moralizing Evangelical Bible thumper. The legal issue is not about the right of gays to marry per se. Nor is it about the legal definition of marriage (although it effectively changes that). And it certainly isn’t about the rights of gays to “define and express their identity,” which is the sort of twaddle that disposed Scalia to disassociate himself by hiding his head in a bag. It is about their right to form the same sort of binding civil union as heterosexual couples and to have their civil unions (which, for their own political and/or sentimental reasons, they want to call “marriage”) recognized by their state as legally binding and granted the same legal and financial benefits as heterosexual couples. Anything less is discrimination, and the 14th Amendment protects all Americans against this. The Supreme Court agreed. Next case.
What I don’t understand is why Christians are outraged over this, especially those who are committed to adherence to the Constitution. One pastor argued that gay unions don’t deserve the same benefits as heterosexual unions because they do not provide the same benefit to society as heterosexual marriage. His argument is that the government grants certain benefits to heterosexual marriages in order to encourage that institution as an important “building block” of stable society. Same sex marriages do not provide the same stability.
The problem is that he is comparing homosexual marriage to heterosexual marriage. The question of which type of “marriage” is better for society is irrelevant. What is relevant is the fact that it is better for society for two homosexuals to form a mutually binding, long-term union than the alternative. A monogamous homosexual union is much better for society than multi-partner homosexual promiscuity. The last several decades of HIV proliferation should be enough to tell us that.
Several Christians have reproached me for not being outraged. They cannot seem to distinguish between my biblical understanding of God’s design for human sexuality and marriage and my position on the legal issues. The two are irrelevant. Either we repeal the 14th Amendment or we submit to it. Or we ignore both it and the Court ruling on it in this case.
But if we ignore or criticize the Court ruling on “gay marriage,” we had better be sure we stand on solid biblical ground for doing so because either of these responses opens us up to legitimate charges of bigotry and discrimination. We are in effect taking the position that gays should not have the same rights in society as other sinners. If we have biblical ground for taking this position, then so be it. In that case, God would be calling us to judge and discriminate against this particular category of sinner in society, and to ensure that others are doing it. I just don’t see that as being something that follows from anything the Bible says on the subject.