All Else Is Commentary
Matthew’s Beatitudes: By Way of Introduction

Anyone with even a modicum of familiarity with Matthew will be aware that it has an interesting structure. Chronology is not at the forefront of the evangelist’s mind; rather he intended to write a work structured around thematic blocks of teaching, separated by narrative (which also performs a didactic role). The first of the has been termed the Sermon on the Mount, derived from its introductory verses (5.1-2).  How then does the account kick start his teaching? A selection of sayings known as the Beatitudes, or Blessings.

 

To understand their purpose in the work is to understand their position. They are an introduction of sorts. But Jesus was evidently aware that his teaching built on that which came before him and so here it also serves as a bridging passage, between the Biblical tradition he inherited and the teachings of Jesus himself. The evangelist wants both; its positioning, therefore, has a dual purpose.

 

Firstly, although not a single Beatitude is a quote from the Hebrew Bible, they would still have a familiar sound. The formula of ‘blessed are x, for they will y’ is common enough. The Psalms begin with one such example (Ps 1.1-3). So this collection of sayings in Matthew would immediately invoke the past tradition. This is made implicit at the end of the Beatitudes, with the phrase ‘for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you’ (v.12). The teachings are introduced with a call back to the past.

 

However, one might be forgiven if they read the Beatitudes as foreshadowing the future. After all, they do appear to be talking about groups of people in the present and their fate in times to come. This is only a half-truth. Most importantly, the second half of each clause occurs after the first. Therefore it might be possible for both halves of the clause to have been fulfilled. Take the second Beatitude, ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted’ (v.4). The first time God intervenes to improve a situation after the fall of man is in fulfillment of this: he comforts Eve after the death of Abel with the birth of a new son, Seth (meaning ‘substitute’) (Gen 4.25). It is a monumental Biblical theme that God’s intervention transforms a state of affairs, described throughout the Scriptures, and here Jesus gives some examples of what this might look like. Some are a departure from an oppressive situation, whilst others are the reward for perseverance, but all are a change.

 

Their position at the start of the first teaching block suggests the idea that these things have been going on all along. The reader must then look to the rest of the Sermon on the Mount to see what follows. This section is entirely centred on present day conduct. Even those brief eschatological passages towards the end are more commentary on how life now will impact one’s future fate and therefore how one should live in the present (7.13-14; .21-23). This would seem odd if the Beatitudes were merely about the future of those groups of people listed with them. Rather, the Beatitudes are supposed to stand as the beginning of something.

 

To return to the example of Seth, the subsequent narrative is telling. The reader of Genesis has already seen that Cain has a line of descendants and the implication of the brief episode of Lamech is that they are far from righteous (4.23-24). Seth, on the other hand, is God’s replacement for Abel. Consequently, his lineage include Enoch, described as someone who ‘walked with God’ (5.22 & .24), and Noah, ‘a righteous man, blameless in his generation; [he] walked with God’ (6.9; cf. Eze 14.14 & .20). Curiously, Noah is also one who is destined to end God’s curse on the land (5.29). God’s intervention begins with comfort for Eve, only for Seth and his descendants to undo a curse that resulted from evil actions. This is another common Biblical theme that goes hand in hand with God’s reversal of situations: there is an assumption that God’s grace will be a trigger, setting the ball rolling for others to have a similar impact on the world around them. There is no need to detail every Biblical example of this but it becomes strikingly clear as an expectation when Israel’s first king Saul goes astray. Samuel reminds him:

 

‘Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel’. (1 Sam 15.17).

 

Here the meek really did inherit the earth, only for Saul to be rejected as king (15.23 & .26). There is an expectation that God’s intervention in a person’s life demands a response.

 

To return to the Beatitudes, the author has created a link with a familiar Biblical theme and simultaneously offered an introduction to the Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes continue to occur, just as they always have done and always will. But for each individual occasion in which they happen, the teachings that follow illustrate what the natural response should be. Again, order and arrangement in Matthew is always vital. Therefore, it is no mere coincidence that Jesus has been healing the sick for the first time immediately before the first discourse begins (4.23-25). God’s grace comes first here; it is not earnt but only sought. Once received it transforms, changing a situation. The Beatitudes give some poignant examples. The rest of the discourse shows a disciple of Jesus how they can bring about similar effects for others, whilst simultaneously changing their whole approach to life. It teaches forgiveness, kindness and a lack of judgment towards others. It teaches reliance on God and perseverance in doing his will. Put simply, it teaches how to contribute to the Kingdom of Heaven.

 

The Kingdom of Heaven is the great theme of the synoptic gospels, none more so than Matthew. The Beatitudes aptly illustrate this theme. The people described within them are the sort of people that belong in the Kingdom and the change that occurs in each is indicative of how the Kingdom functions. In Matthew (and elsewhere), Jesus assumes that the Kingdom is a work in progress and that those within it contribute to it (cf. 7.21). The Kingdom begins to grow with the Beatitudes and then those who enter are invited to help do the same. Behind the Sermon of the Mount, just beneath the surface, lies Jesus’ iconic statement, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near’ (4.17).

 

The Use and Abuse of Ritual

By the time Roman influence had encompassed Judaea, Galilee, Idumaea and the Trans-Jordan (Peraea), Jewish society was one that was saturated with religious ritual. From mezuzot to tefillin, from mikva’ot to the Shema, reminders of the ordinances in the Torah were ever present in the every day life of a Jew. It was against this backdrop that Jesus began his ministry.

Today, it is commonly taught by Christians that Jesus’ polemical attacks upon some of the Pharisees of his day were directed at their overly zealous devotion to their rituals. Yet it is often paired with a second teaching, seeped in misunderstanding, which asserts that Jesus abolished these rituals as needless and potentially damaging. This could not be further from the truth. For example, Jesus is reported to have said the following:

‘Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.’ (Matt. 5.17-19)

In fact, one is hard pressed to find contradictions on this matter within the gospel accounts. The following teachings Jesus gives in this section of Matthew (vv. 21-48) cannot be considered to override the Torah. Anyone familiar with the painstaking care the author tends to take over the arrangement of his material would think twice before taking this line. Rather, these are a call to go beyond the expectations of the law, which can hardly be considered breaking it.

The only other candidate is a passage in Mark’s gospel, which begins by Jesus defending his disciples who have ignored the tradition of washing their hands before they eat (it is not made clear whether Jesus ignored this tradition himself) (Mark 7.1-23). Jesus argues that it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean’, rather than what enters a man. The author concludes that Jesus’ meaning was that all food was ‘clean’ (v. 19), yet this appears to be an insertion by way of explanation on the part of the author, presumably with an awareness of the direction the early church was taking on this issue. It is notable that the corresponding passage in Matthew does not contain this addition (Matt. 15.1-20), and that the whole discourse was over the ritual of hand washing, which had no obvious Biblical justification, not the Jewish dietary laws (Lev. 11.1-47). It would have been inconceivable for Jesus or his disciples to break these laws anyway, since such food would have been inaccessible given that the whole society strictly adhered to them (unless they wanted to deliberately break them by expending more effort!).

It would appear that Jesus happily upheld the Torah’s 613 mitvot. His two main topics of debate with his contemporary teachers were the Sabbath regulations and purity rituals like the hand washing mentioned above. The Sabbath had remarkably few details given in the Hebrew Scriptures. It was clear that collecting wood was definite no-no (Num. 15.32-6), but it had left a lot of unanswered questions about what was permissible. Jesus observed the Sabbath fully, but in a period when debate still raged over its regulations, his main argument was encapsulated by the rhetorical question, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ (Mark 3.4; Luke 6.9), and the maxim, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath’ (Mark 2.27).

The Sabbath may be technically termed as a moral commandment; the same must not be asserted regarding the purity laws. With the possible exception of the dietary laws, all mitzvoth may divided into two categories: moral and ritual law. Similar language was used to describe both, leading to considerable confusion, but it is worth noting that it was not a sin to contract ritual impurity and in fact at times it was obligatory (Gen 1.28; 9.7; Lev. 16.28; 21.10-15; Num. 19.8). Never the less, the original meaning behind the ritual laws had long been lost by the time of Jesus. Like many other Jewish groups, Jesus held to the view that there was some relationship between the two types of laws. To return to the example of hand washing above, it was only natural for it to lead on to a discussion on the moral sin, in this case the evil in ones heart and its effect on ones speech (Matt. 15.10-20; Mark 7.14-23). Yet the Pharisees, like their rabbinic successors, maintained that both sets of laws were to be upheld without any bearing on each other.

Jesus’ objections were twofold: moral laws like the Sabbath had been expanded upon to the point that they were rituals without real benefit and that ritual laws were upheld without any use at all, rather than as reminders of moral injunctions. In fact, a ritual is designed to habitually remind someone of something. In Jesus’ day, Jewish life was saturated with ritual. They were not insufferable for him, but rather they were a positive aspect of Jewish identity. They reminded the community of their covenant with God. But he felt they had been distorted so that one was burdened by upholding them. He never broke tradition for the sake of it and it is unlikely he ever broke Mosaic Law at all, but he believed that the rules dictating everyday life had to help uphold and recall the more important issues in the eyes of God. Take the almost laughable custom of tithing ones herbs and spices. Jesus approves of this, saying one ought to do so, but not at the expense of ‘the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith’ (Matt. 23.23). The tradition was acceptable, provided it did not detract from the focal point of the whole system of laws of which it was a component. Ritual can remind but it can also make one forget. It can be useful or it can be damaging.

Paul: Apostle To The Jews

I take a slight risk in writing this publicly, for it is a hypothesis which stems from the implications of my postgraduate thesis and is the most appealing subject that I would relish forming into a PhD. But I feel relatively safe for a number of reasons: very few people will read this; those that do would be ill equipped to convert it into any form of their own work owing to an ignorance of the wider subject (no offense intended); anyone who attempts to may in fact save me a lot of hassle, since three years of research would be no mean feat. Anyway, here goes…

Paul, long before his conversion to Christianity, was an apostle. The apostle, or messenger, in Jewish society of his day was a by-product of a most interesting discrepancy between Judaism and Christianity of the Roman era. Whereas Christianity rapidly became and remained a religion of doctrine, such constraints were absent from its parent faith. In Judaism, the only minim, or heretics, of note were those who were traitors to the community in some sense, either as apostates, or lapsed Jews or simply those whose conduct was detrimental to their fellow brethren. Christians were traitors, not because of a perceived mistaken faith in Jesus as Messiah, for messianic fervour gripped many of the Jews of the time, but because of their rejection of some fundamental symbols of identity which bound the Jews together, including the Temple cult, circumcision and dietary laws. Yet one was far less likely to find themselves excommunicated from the Jewish community for incorrect theology than a Christian of the same era.

The reason was simple enough: there was no one in a position to pronounce such a ruling. The Jewish religious figures did not hold enough sway to do so. The High Priest and the priestly aristocracy of Jerusalem controlled the Temple cult, but their word was not law beyond the Jewish capital itself. The wider area of Judaea, Peraea, Idumaea, Galilee and the Diaspora beyond Eretz-Israel (which most certainly outnumbered those within at this point) were largely left to themselves to worship Yahweh according to the Torah, however they might read it. Outside of David’s city, the Pharisees were supreme and not all bad either! What is often (somewhat understandably) lost on the readers of the Gospels, is that not all Pharisees were the hypocrites Jesus vehemently condemned. Jesus certainly found them his main opponents, but surely received support from others of the same sect. Like the Jews as a whole, these teachers were a heterogeneous group. Individual Pharisees became extremely influential amongst the common people, which led to the Herodian dynasts often prudently forming close relationships with some, but would not necessarily agree on a given issue. Jewish communities far away might desire a ruling on a particularly thorny issue and write to a teacher whom they trusted, or a teacher might send out their rulings on an issue to all who might listen.

It is in this light that we ought to read Matthew 23.15. As Martin Goodman convincingly demonstrated, Jesus (or the evangelist) refers to the process of expounding new teaching to other Jews, rather than any proselytizing activity. And it is on this backdrop that Paul’s first recorded actions find their place. Having carried out a persecution in Jerusalem (Acts 8.3), Paul obtained letters from the High Priest, ruling that followers of the new and nefarious Way in Damascus might be brought back as captives to Jerusalem (Acts 9.1-2). It would be interesting to know what might have happened if he reached their with his message; the Jews there may not have been inclined to listen, nor the Damascenes, especially if any were citizens of the city. But in any case, here Paul is functioning in a role as apostle, bringing a message to the wider Jewish community, which derives its authority from a leading Jew of his day.

After Paul’s conversion and a lengthy period often entitled ‘the unknown years’, Paul re-emerges as an apostle of the church in Antioch. Evidently, Jerusalem was not the only centre of early Christianity with the capacity to send forth messengers to the wider Church. Paul’s first task, along with his first known companion, Barnabas, is to bring relief aid to the Judaean elders, owing to a famine (Acts 11.27-30; cf. Gal. 2.1). Next, the two are sent out by the Antiochene Christians on what becomes Paul’s first of three mission trips (Acts 13.1-3). Here the notorious evangelist assumes a role with which he was already well acquainted.

At this point, our limited information becomes problematic to say the least. It is well documented that Paul branded himself as an apostle to the Gentiles, and rightly so (Rom. 15.15-16; Gal. 2.2; Eph. 3.8). He is even deliberately contrasted with the distinct (but complimentary) roles of James, Peter and John as apostles to the Jews (Gal. 2.7-9). It is perhaps somewhat surprising to find Paul’s first port of call, without exception, was the synagogue of a given city (Acts 13.4, 14; 14.1; 16.13; 17.1, 10, 17; 18.4, 19; 19.8 – the proseuche at Philippi should be understood as a roughly equivocal term). Moreover, Paul was still an observant Jew in some respects; he was eager to make haste to Jerusalem in time for the Pentecost, at the expense of a potential stop at Ephesus (Acts 20.16) and clearly maintained a hope that the overall result of his mission would bring deliverance to Israel (Rom. 11.1-32). I would like to propose that Paul’s success with the Gentiles initially took him by surprise.

It is reasonable to assume that Paul frequented the synagogues on his missionary routes owing to his own comfort in such an environment. As a well trained Pharisee, he was all to familiar with Jewish debate, whereas it is notable how little success he achieves on Ares’ Hill at Athens in front of an Attic Greek audience (even if one doubts the authenticity of his reported words, the disappointing outcome is likely to be genuine; Acts 17.32-4). We even get a hint that Paul and Barnabas’ initial intent was to minister to the Jews, but they turned to the Gentiles due to a lack of success (Acts 13.46; 18.16). To understand how Paul’s mission became the success it did amongst Gentiles, we must pay some attention to his audience and his message.

The Gentile audience that comprised the bulk of Paul’s converts were almost certainly the ‘Godfearers’ we find amongst several of his audiences in Acts (13.26; 17.4 & .17). The term is difficult to define but we can go so far as to say it encompassed all Gentiles who had some sympathetic leanings towards Judaism but had stopped short of full conversion as proselytes. Many may have been attracted by the monotheistic element of Judaism, as many other Pagans thought along similar lines. Others perhaps felt that Moses proved to be an exemplary moral teacher of wisdom and virtue. Still others were perhaps associated with the Jewish community as patrons (or matrons), who had found the Jews a worthwhile group to bestow favour upon.

In any case we can rule out some elements of Judaism that were certainly not common factors in attracting Godfearers. Circumcision was not likely to be a procedure any Gentile would have thought appealing. The dietary laws were hardly less foreboding. Amongst the almost exclusively Jewish populations of Eretz-Israel, these food laws were the default, owing to the absence of any alternative cuisine, but within the diverse cities that the Jews inhabited elsewhere, these rules could prove to be extremely self-isolating. Of course, both these elements of Judaism were absent from the Christianity of Paul, whilst the Sabbath continued to be observed. It is no coincidence that a the Roman stoic Seneca attests to some appeal to the Jewish day of rest amongst Pagans (De Superstitione, apud: Augustine, De Civitate Dei 6.11). But we ought to view these discrepancies between Judaism and early Christianity as a by-product of the converts won by Paul, rather than the cause of them. But there is another element of Judaism that was absent from Christianity that offers a plausible explanation for our troublesome puzzle.

It is easy to forget that the Jewish Temple functioned like any other ancient cult; it was a form of worship that relied on active participation. The two altars were not ornamental but intended for adherents to sacrifice there. This Temple was renowned in the ancient world, attracting pilgrims from all over, but the bulk of these were most certainly from the local regions. Philo, a wealthy Jewish aristocrat from Alexandria probably attended only once and he was able to afford the trip (Philo, Prov. 2.64). It is reasonable to assume that most Diaspora Jews and the Godfearers associated with their synagogues would never even see the Temple in their lifetime. The understanding that no other site could be endowed with a similar Temple to Yahweh compounded the problem (Deut. 12.5-14). For the Jews, this was less of a difficulty, since the Temple stood as a symbol of Jewish identity and recent immigrants may even have visited it. On the other hand, this was a part of Judaism that the Godfearers could not hope to appreciate. Whatever attracted them to Judaism, it was not this cult.

As Christianity reached these communities through the zeal of Paul, it was still a religion that was regarded as a form of Judaism. It was a Judaism in which the Messiah had come and the Temple worship no longer held sway. Whatever had attracted the Godfearers to Judaism was evidently still present in Christianity, but this new message no longer had the trappings of Judaism that helped keep Gentiles on the outskirts of the religion. This was a Judaism without a local cult, or put differently, a universally acceptable Judaism. When this is considered, the subsequent developments of Christianity should come as no surprise

Mistaken Genres

I once, during my undergraduate studies, attended an event hosted by the atheist society entitled ‘Ask An Atheist’, a sort of answer to the common ‘Grill A Christian’ events. I went hoping to understand more about their views on various areas but was sadly thwarted by the unexpected direction the whole discourse went. It turned out there were only two groups (or two vocal groups) present: evangelical Christians and stalwart Atheists. The event became an argument between the two camps over who had a more fundamentally sound basis for their belief system. It was not enough for the proselytising Christians waiting in the audience to take on board the answers from the panel provided without retort and the Atheists weren’t going to take anything lying down.

But if the environment that developed did not allow me to gain any helpful understanding of the hosts’ views was frustrating, this was not the most alarming observation I made on that day. A major cornerstone of both stances was the status of the Bible: was it to be trusted? Like Dawkins’ The God Delusion, the Atheists were quick to point to all sorts of errors in the Bible, whilst there was always an explanation offered to resolve such objections. To my horror, they had begun a debate around the historicity of the Bible; and no one present was a historian of the period.

To be frank, the arguments were appalling. They betrayed a total ignorance of all the evidence, totally misrepresented anything cited, which clearly had come out of some agenda ridden book they had read, without any first hand acquaintance of the material they were using. But here’s the crux of the problem: evidence has to be read. It must be interpreted and quite honestly can pretty much prove almost anything you want it to. I am of the opinion that historical understanding adds absolutely nothing to this debate. It can be incredibly illuminating once one accepts a given view on the Bible, but it should not be decisive factor in one’s decision.

The real problem was not the atrocious historians arguing well out of their depth. The real problem was that neither side had realized they were dealing with a text totally alien to them in its own assumptions about what made a literary account valuable. The rest of this piece does not argue for either side. It simply hopes to illuminate the farce that is the argument I witnessed and which dominates so many apologetics. In other words, the factual accuracy of the Bible does not dictate how trustworthy it was.

We now compose history in the most objective way possible, or else it is deemed poor. The concept of analytical history in fact comes from the way the Annals of history (year-by-year accounts) were written by Greco-Roman historians. There was a great expectation that the writer would relay the events accurately (although they could certainly add their own moralizing assessments). Other forms of literature were praised and enjoyed, but it was historical accounts that ought to be reliable and factually accurate. It should come as no surprise that as the Jews and Christians lived in the Classical world, their central text should have been judged with such expectations, since it recorded past events.

We are dealing with a case of mistaken genre that has plagued approaches to the Bible since Antiquity. Firstly, the way past traditions were recorded in the Bible comes from the fundamental principle that who said something was far more important a test for value than what was said. However odd this might sound, there was an underlying logic to this madness. Whereas we tend to go on the principle that as we move forward in time, so too does our understanding of the world (as each development builds on previous ones), in the ancient world it was thought that the most valuable insights were those ancestral traditions of the past. One’s ancestors inevitably had a purer, more accurate understanding of the principles dictating a commendable life since they had learnt them from the gods (or god) in an age when the divine was far more intimate with mortals. Past tradition was invaluable and to be preserved at all cost, rather than scrutinized. This might lead to several separate traditions making their way into the same Biblical book. In Genesis, there are three creation stories with absolutely no attempt to blend them into a single tale (Gen. 1.1-2.3; 2.3-25; 5.1-2). Or there may be some strikingly similar accounts in different guises. Both Abraham and Isaac move to Gerar and tell the king Abimelech that their wife is in fact their sister (in both cases this was true), only for the king to discover the true relationship and avoid disaster (Gen 20.1-18; 26.1-11). In fact, an eerily close story occurred when Abraham moved to Egypt as well (Gen. 12.10-20). It appears that several traditions surrounded a single episode, but rather than judge between them, it seemed more prudent to the writer to include the whole lot. And why not? The author is not being intentionally deceptive, since it is assumed that the principles dictating such a choice are shared by the original reader. It would be a much greater crime for the writer to attempt to judge which was correct or try to form a single account, since this would condemn past tradition to oblivion and rob others of its insight. The current form does not provide an accurate account of three episodes in the lives of Abraham and Isaac, but then again this surely cannot call into account the works reliability if it had no intention of being taken as such in the first place!

In case it be suggested that this antiquarian approach was unique to Genesis, one can readily observe similar examples elsewhere. In Samuel, Goliath is not only killed by David but another Israelite is also credited with the feat elsewhere (1 Sam. 17.1-58; 2 Sam. 21.19). This other giant slayer was likely to have been the earlier tradition (note how little ‘the Philistine’ David kills is called Goliath), but even though this is merged with David’s own victory over an enemy champion, the original is not repressed. In fact, David’s life is full of chronological problems and inconsistencies in description. Again, the idea of producing an account free of inconsistency and other inaccuracies was not one that dominated the writers’ notions of commendable literature.

A failure to grasp the way past events were preserved is only half the problem in misunderstandings of Biblical literature. There is a tendency to assume that most of the Bible fits into the same genre. Most understand that books like Psalms and Proverbs, are not factual accounts but rather poetry and words of wisdom. But many other works are all assumed as historical narrative, sometimes unfairly. So not only do many miss the mark in their understanding of how Biblical literature retells past events, they also assumed this is the intention of far too much of the Bible.

What about some lighter reading? Some satire and comedy? It may sound ludicrous but if we consider that none of the Biblical books were written in order to fit into the framework they are now preserved, we might be inclined to understand them differently. For example, Erich Gruen has drawn attention to this possibility in at least one Biblical story: Esther. The work is normally viewed as a narrative account in the reign of Xerxes. There can be found little to corroborate the tale in other historical works, from which many suggest that the tale is fictitious. To this can be added a string of blatant historical errors. But it does not follow that this confirms the author or the source material was dishonest. This would only be the case if there were an intention for the work to be taken seriously as a retelling of a past event.

Close inspect suggests otherwise. Exaggerations of a laughable scale pervade the entire work. Are we to believe that the Persian Empire was comprised of 127 satrapies and that the satraps of all of these were drawn away from the administrative duties for half a year for the sole purpose of a grand banquet (Est. 1.1-8)? Esther endures a full year of cosmetic treatment (Est. 2.12). That rogue, Haman, raises a gallows to the truly magnificent height of 50 cubits (Est. 5.14). No fewer than 75,000 inhabitants of the Empire are killed off by a minority group (Est. 9.16). These sound far more like the gross exaggerations of a satire than the retelling of incidental facts.

To this we may add the absurd buffoonery of the characters and their laughable logic. Vashti’s rebuff of her consort leads to a panic over its potential Empire-wide ramifications, the summoning of advisors and an ecumenical edict (Est. 1.12-22). Upon hearing of Mordecai’s mourning in sackcloth, Esther somehow thinks the best consolation would be to send her adoptive father a new set of clothes (Est. 4.4). Haman’s scheming recalls the characteristics of a comic villain, doomed to be thwarted despite his spectacular schemes. He resolves to exact revenge upon Mordecai’s whole race (Est. 3.5-6). The king sees his absurdity and raises it; he tells Haman he can keep the funds put up (a ludicrous amount at that) and go about it as he saw fit, seeming to take no care over an Empire-wide matter, which was far from trivial (Est.3.9-11). Later, Haman is strung along by Esther’s insincere flattery, unaware of his impending demise (Est. 5.12). In a bitter twist for the villain, his own gallows are used upon him (Est. 7.10), but not before he is forced to honour is enemy in a most lavish manner and one, which he himself suggested (Est. 6.6-13)! Meanwhile, Xerxes appears to have totally forgotten that Mordecai has saved his life, only to realise through the unusual medium of consulting his imperial records in order to overcome insomnia (Est. 6.1-2). But this is nothing compared to his next moment of absent-mindedness. Upon hearing from Esther of Haman’s scheme, which he had approved earlier, the king demands to know who is behind such wickedness, with Haman all the while sat next to him (Est. 7.1-5).

When one looks at the work without the presuppositions that have accompanied it for so long, it is hard to view it as a serious work. But with this in mind, it is hardly worth drawing attention to the implausibility of much of the tale as evidence of the works untrustworthy nature, since it clearly has no intention of being taken as a serious historical narrative. One would not discredit the works of comics like Aristophanes, Menander or Terrence simply because their works defied belief. The question of divine authority must be argued on other terms. I do not intend to attempt to answer this.

The list could go on but perhaps enough has been said to illustrate the point. The Bible contains a plethora of genres and even those that sound familiar do not adhere to our own versions of such literature. But if uncovering the original nature of the Biblical material dispenses of any debate over its divine authority in terms of historicity, it brings up a whole host of new questions. In fact, all other questions of context are better understood and of greater use if genre is borne in mind. Consequently, it is worth asking if anyone wishes to understand the Bible. It allows a fuller, more illuminating evaluation of the material.

A few thoughts on the pre-flood genealogies of Genesis

An inquisitive friend of mine asked me recently about the Nephilim. The truth was there was not much to say; we know virtually nothing. But it did lead me to revisit a passage that had puzzled me for some time:

‘When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years”. The Nephilim were on the earth in those days – and also after- when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.’ [Gen. 6.1-4]

It is pretty difficult to understand what is going on here. What exactly has displeased the Lord in this instance? And there are three references to groups of people without any explanation: ‘Nephilim’, ‘sons of God’ and ‘daughters of humans’.

The passage is positioned directly after two rather unusual and confusing genealogies, and is intended to be read with those in mind. Genesis is a work that strings together a number of traditions, but does so to great effect, not simply to compile as many traditions as possible (although this was important), but to also illustrate a point. Therefore, if there is to be any hope in understanding what the author means by certain passages, one needs to accept that their original context is lost but their new positioning alongside other sources can speak volumes for their meaning within the existing work.

Some take ‘the sons of God’ to mean some form of divine beings that mated with humans. Even if this were the case, they are clearly not to be identified with the fathers of the Nephilim, as some later Jewish works made out (1 Enoch 1-36; Jubilees 5.1; Philo Q Genesis 1.92; Jos. AJ 1.73). In fact, the Nephilim can be dispensed with quickly. Clearly the redactor assumes that the reader will be familiar with them, for otherwise the absence of any explanation would be inappropriate. There are all sorts of weird and wacky theories about these fellows posted on the Internet, but the truth is there is simply no explanation. But we need not sweat too much over this whilst looking into understanding the passage in question, since they appear not as characters that have a bearing on the narrative but in order to give temporal context. With lots going on in the text, the redactor seems to offer them as a point of reference. At the same time the heroes of old were born from the union of ‘the sons of God’ and ‘the daughters of humans’, the Nephilim were also kicking around. All we know from elsewhere is that they were giants, in some sense at least (cf. Num. 13.33; Deut. 2.10-11).

This leaves the question of God’s displeasure and the two groups that are procreating. Clues lie in the preceding passage. Cain, having killed his brother Abel, is cursed by God (4.9-15). He then settles in the East and we have an account of his descendents (4.16-24). The genealogy ends with one of Cain’s descendents, Lamech, bragging about his ability to avenge himself well out of proportion to any injury he has suffered (4.23-4). Lamech is portrayed as a more extreme version of Cain.

The story then returns to the aftermath of Abel’s death, presumably stringing together two separate traditions. Another son is born to Adam and Eve: Seth (4.25). Through him there is another line of descendents, ending with the three sons of Noah (4.26-5.32). Within this genealogy is a character called Enoch (5.21.4). He jumps out because of two significant facts: he is the seventh generation from Adam - a highly significant number in Jewish thought - and his life span is much shorter than the other figures at a mere 365 years, invoking the solar calendar. The character is meant to be noticed. Like Noah, Enoch is said to have ‘walked with God’, referring to his righteous conduct (5.24; 6.9).

The two genealogies are set up so that they might be compared. Like Enoch, the standout character in the first genealogy, Lamech, is the seventh generation from Adam. Both epitomize what each list stands for, which is essentially their standing with God. The second genealogy is made possible through the birth of Seth, who is provided by God as a replacement for Abel (‘Seth’ means ‘substitute’). This is the first example of divine grace since ‘the fall’, and it has a knock on effect. There are generations that stand in contrast to the conduct of men like Lamech. The second genealogy includes a foretelling of Noah’s destiny: through him the curse brought on the land by Cain is going to be ended. God’s grace starts this genealogy, through the birth of Seth, only for it to conclude with a descendant of his undoing the wickedness of Cain.

One may also notice that whilst Cain’s genealogy begins with the villain himself, Seth’s goes back to Adam, with another mini creation of mankind by God. In other words, Seth’s genealogy traces its roots back to God, whilst Cain’s makes no mention of anything of the sort. Since the passage we began with follows directly after this second genealogy, it seems most likely that ‘sons of God’ alludes to the second genealogy, whilst ‘daughters of humans’ recalls Cain’s. God is then angered by the coming together of two groups of people intended to be separate and opposing.

At the time of the composition of the work, there was a tendency to see a need for endogamy within the community of Israel to guard against corrupting influences. Genesis, which appears to view righteousness as transcending ethnic groups, guards against this. The implication in this passage is not that God will be displeased with intermarriage. It should now be clear that these genealogies are functioning as devices to demonstrate a point. Close inspection reveals that both genealogies are very similar in nomenclature. What their original context was is uncertain but it seems likely that there are two traditions surrounding the same set of names, or that the redactor included the same list twice, whilst altering it to create a genealogy from Seth. But it is surely no coincidence that only two names are identical in both: Lamech and Enoch. It is as if to say that the type of people these two names represent transcend ethnic boundaries, in case the reader otherwise misses the real point of the narrative.

What really lies at the heart of the passage is that the two types of people concerned have nothing in common. One has been set up by God to undo the wickedness of the other. Divine grace starts the process with the birth of Seth and the response is to continue God’s righteous ways, or to ‘walk with God’. When this stops being the response, God feels aggrieved. It is a rather simple meaning really, but somewhat complicated to arrive at it. If we had the same background knowledge as the redactor it would undoubtedly have been much plainer.

All Else Is Commentary

Recently I heard a Christian whom I respect say that on the front of his Bible it reads ‘the Holy Bible’, and that’s the way he likes it. He went on to qualify his statement by suggesting that many have on the front of their Bible the title ‘the Commentary Bible’. For him these stood for two separate ways of approaching this text. His argument was that many read the Bible like a text book, over analysing and relying on a lot of help notes, whilst it is much better to rely on the power of the words to inspire the reader, along with the helping hand of the Holy Spirit. I take issue with this.

There is at least one point to be made in favour of his stance; there is a lot of ‘academic’ engagement with the text, arguing as it often does over the finer points, without serving much further purpose. Perhaps we may also add the indisputable fact that the Bible has profoundly inspired the lives of millions, not all of whom were intellectual masterminds. But few have not benefited from the insight of others.

I would first point out that the Bible itself is a commentary; there can be no denying that, whether you afford it the status of holy tome or not. The most famous of the Tannaim, or rabbinic sages, were two Jews named Hillel and Shammai. The following is a tradition concerning the two:

‘Once there was a gentile who came before Shamai and said to him: “Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot. Shammai pushed him aside with the measuring stick he was holding. The same fellow came before Hillel, and Hillel converted him, saying: “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.”’ (b. Shabbat 31a)

Hillel’s Golden rule was basic in principle; he could readily formulate the entirety of God’s law in less time than his inquirer took to come off balance. Yet the rest of the Torah would help understand this rule. The concept was easy enough but life always complicates matters and at times further explanation was valuable. The apostle Paul’s famous description of love illustrates the point; he is unable to define love, instead he can simply describe its outworking in a list of examples (1 Cor. 12.31-13.13).

In fact, the process of commentary occurs on many levels. Not only does the Bible comment on certain themes, it also evidently is able to comment on itself. Many will be familiar with the term ‘inner Biblical interpretation’, according to which earlier parts of the Bible are referred to or alluded to by later passages, often with the intention of providing further explanation. This is often differentiated from extra-biblical interpretation, perhaps ignoring the fact that the same processes underlines both. A brief note on Jewish scribes ought to illustrate the point.

The Jews of the ancient world believed that the Bible required constant interpretation for it to remain relevant. This affected their approach to translation. Scribes were expected to not only copy passages verbatim, but to insert notes on the text, many of which made their way into the actual body of the text later on. A comparison of Kings and Chronicles, illustrates the extensive lifting of texts from the former, but with additions, usually in the form of explanations, making their way into the later. To put it simply, parts of what are now called ‘the Holy Bible’, would once have been referred to as commentary.

The same exact process was still operating during Jesus’ day. The Targums, Aramaic translations read in the synagogue alongside the Hebrew, were rife with scribal additions. The only difference was that much of the Jewish canon (at least the Torah and Nevi’im) was already closed and therefore these had no hope of making the cut. There were no discreet phases in interpretation, but rather the Pharisees and their successors, the Tannaitic sages, continued much the same.

As far as historians of the Near East can ascertain, the Jewish communities in the region were unique in the esteem afforded those specialists of the Torah. It was not the wealthy priestly aristocracy that had influence with the masses, but rather those who were deemed accurate interpreters of scripture. This comes as no surprise when one considers that every element of daily life was governed in one way or another by the Bible. It was a practical necessity that precise, somewhat detailed analysis should be supplied.

Jesus is often seen as opposing this approach, advocated as it was by the Pharisees. But this is a rash assumption made by rather naïve, ill-informed Christians. Let us look at one rather illuminating verse in Matthew:

‘Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others’. [Matt. 23.23]

Here there appears to be an example of nitpicking but Jesus’ criticism is not the extremely detailed interpretation itself; he even appears to approve its practice. Rather, the criticism is made that it is elevated above the ‘weightier matters’. Jesus lived at a time when commentary was simply the order of the day. It was commentary that kept the scripture from becoming archaic and irrelevant. It could of course detract from the main issue. But equally, it could breathe life into the words written long ago. So it appears many Jews regarded Jesus’ expounding of the Bible, travelling as they did from Galilee, the Decapolis, Judaea, Peraea, Idumaea and the Phoenician coast (cf. Matt. 4.25; Mk. 3.8). Jesus constantly showed an awareness of the discussions of his day and the interpretations that had developed since the Hebrew Bible had been composed. He was a very well versed and highly respected Biblical commentator. All of Jesus’ teachings were founded in his scriptures and interpretations of them. In other words, he built on the discourses that had preceded him. The textual criticism of his day was to be embraced, provided it illuminated the most important issues. After all, the Law and the Prophets could be condensed into two commands. All that remained was to understand how best to fulfil these and so all else is commentary.

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This blog hopes to explore how interpretation of the Bible can bring new insights. By this I do not mean to impose new meanings onto passages to suit an agenda. Rather, sensible exegesis can help understand elements of the Bible, even if the conclusion is not what was sought. I do not like to force the issue, but rather go about my work to the best of my ability and then see what emerges. But my experience shows that a better understanding, even if one is forced to rethink their position, is satisfying. In most cases, this approach simply allows the otherwise unintelligible, confusing or redundant to be rendered far more meaningful.

Finally, I am an historian by trade, specializing in the Ancient Near East and Roman Empire. Inter-disciplinary studies are increasingly becoming recognized as the most effective means of progressing in our understanding. I hope to combine traditional Biblical studies with the cultural and textual awareness of an historian to provide some refreshing new slants. To the reader I leave the task of discernment and application.