Monday, May 12, 2008

Using the NT to Validate OT Historicity

I could be opening the proverbial can of worms with this one.

First, let me say that I believe there were real historical people behind many of the stories and traditions of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. I believe there was a real Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Moses and so on. However, I can't indisputably prove any of them really existed. I can point to details in the biblical accounts that suggest their historicity. For some figures, there are references from archaeology that suggest their existence, but those are always bitterly disputed (For example, the Tel Dan inscription's mention of the "House of David"). For figures whose historical existence I was unsure of, I used to consider the NT references to them as validations of their historical existence.

For example, I thought that Jonah must have really lived, even though his short book reads a lot like a fable teaching a moral truth, because Jesus mentioned him, referring to the sign of Jonah in Matt. 12:39-41 and 16:4 (cp. Luke 11:29-32). Jesus also mentions Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Elijah fairly frequently. I believe, though again I can't prove it, that these figures have a historical origin. Jonah, on the other hand, quite possibly has only a literary origin. Is the truth conveyed by his book and used by Jesus in the NT predicated on his historicity? After giving the question a lot of thought, I don't believe that it is. The story teaches the same moral whether it really happened or not. The story exists as an example for Jesus to use to draw a parallel to his own situation. The comparison of Jesus being in the tomb 3 days just as Jonah was in the whale for 3 days does not depend on Jonah having existed and endured the events of his story. The comparison is valid because the story existed that provided the literary parallel.

[This extends to Jesus's full use of OT figures in Matt. 12:39-42 and Lk. 11:29-32. He's using an argument structure the rabbis called qal-va-homer ("light to heavy") to reinforce the judgment of wickedness and evil against the current generation of Jews. This type of argument is a comparison ("how much the more so" or a fortiori), so he's drawing parallels between the situation in Jonah and the situation with Solomon. His argument is that the men of Nineveh believed Jonah and the queen of Sheba believed Solomon; he is greater than both; therefore Israel should believe him and will be held accountable at the last judgment for it. The claim that the men of Nineveh or the queen of Sheba will rise up at the last judgment is part of his rhetoric. The argument is theological, not historical, in my opinion. (Paragraph added -- 5/15/08).]

It would be a little bit like today's culture where we can reference fictional characters that have reached iconic cultural status. When we mention their names, we evoke their story, known to most people at least in broad outline form. This is especially true of Shakespearean characters such as Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, or LOTR characters like Frodo and Gandalf whose public profiles were raised by the recent blockbuster movie trilogy, or a literary/film phenomenon such as Harry Potter. When we reference these fictional characters, we are tapping into the power of literature and art, not history. No one assumes that Frodo was a real person just because they heard a friend mention him by name.

Of course, no one in today's culture is believed to have special knowledge or authority to speak about past people and events in the same way that many Christians believe Jesus or the NT writers in general had a unique perspective on history informed by the divine inspiration of their words. If these characters weren't historical, what does that do to inerrancy for either the OT story or the NT reference to it? The answer, in my opinion, is that it does nothing at all to inerrancy or inspiration. Neither reference is explicitly claiming to be telling a history. James isn't wrong to refer to Job (James 5:11) and claim his patience as a virtue that believers should attempt to emulate. He can refer to the main character of a well-known story without necessarily claiming that Job was a real person. The book of Job itself never claims to be history. It's set in the land of Uz - unknown as an actual place in the ancient world - and begins with the Hebrew equivalent of "Once upon a time..." Even the ancient rabbis believed that Job was a parable, not necessarily a real person. Claiming that Job or Jonah must be real historical figures would be like trying to find the historical personages behind Jesus's parable of the Good Samaritan.

The question is more difficult the further back one goes to the "legendary" material in Genesis. Did humanity really start with just one man named Adam (which literally just means "man")? Was Noah a real person? Did the flood really happen? Again, I think the answer is yes, but it is a belief based on a faith commitment, "the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1), not on anything I can prove with evidence.

Adam is hardly mentioned at all in the NT. Jesus never mentions him by name, and I could find no direct allusions to Adam, Eve, and the Garden of Eden in the Gospels. Luke's genealogy of Jesus goes back to Adam (and includes Noah), but so many genealogies seem to be handcrafted to make a theological point that I don't think we should use them as historical evidence (cp. Matthew's genealogy that obviously skips generations and conveniently divides history into three eras of fourteen generations each).

Noah appears a few times in the Gospels, usually in a comparison of the wickedness of his days with that of the coming end times (see Matt. 24:37-38 or Lk. 17:26-27). He also appears in the famous chapter on OT faith in Hebrews 11. He's also part of the retelling of the biblical account of God's interaction with mankind and mankind's failure that appears in 2 Peter 2. For all of these references to Noah, the biblical story is what's important to give meaning to the NT reference, regardless of whether Noah was historical or not .

Most of the references to Adam in the NT come from Paul who specifically contrasted Adam and Christ theologically (see Rom. 5:14; 1 Cor. 15:22, 45). This is demonstrated most concisely in 1 Cor. 15:22.

1 Cor. 15:22 (ESV)
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.

Paul has mapped out a theological system where he uses OT figures and events as types which find their ultimate fulfillment in Jesus and the Church. Paul's theological use of OT figures falls under the same issue. His theological point is based on the story as recounted in the Bible. The meaning and theological significance of the Bible transcends history. It is rooted in divine revelation, not in our ability to prove that all of the characters were real historical people.

Therefore, it seems ok to me to admit that some of the characters may be fictional. I believe many are historical, but the fact that a NT writer refers to an OT character should not be used as evidence that the person really lived. The biblical writer had a purpose in using that reference. That purpose usually did not include corroborating our assumptions about the historicity of the Bible.

To conclude, let me stress that I am NOT saying all OT figures are fictional characters. I have circumstantial evidence that strongly suggests there was a historical person behind many of them. My point is that the NT was not concerned with that question. The NT writers referred back to the entire body of biblical tradition that was known in their day. They did not attempt to divide the material into historical/non-historical. The question probably didn't even occur to them. They used the material because the story helped them make a theological point or draw a parallel that their audience would have understood.

I'm still working out my ideas on this question, so my thinking might be a little fuzzy. My intention was addressing the issue with claiming that Jonah or Noah or whoever was a real historical person solely based on the "proof" that the NT mentions him. I hope that I've at least stimulated some thought on that question.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Wealth of the Nations in Isaiah 40-66

[N. B. -- The following post uses the terms Deutero-Isaiah (DI) and Trito-Isaiah (TI) as labels for the major sections of the Book of Isaiah. DI = Isa. 40-55. TI = Isa. 56-66. They should not be taken to imply any conclusions about the overall authorship and composition of the Book of Isaiah.]

For my class on Isaiah 40-66, I spent some time contemplating the theme of the "Wealth of the Nations" in the Book of Isaiah. This is my class presentation with a few additional observations.


The theme of the wealth of the nations appears primarily in Trito-Isaiah in an eschatological context concentrated in chs. 60-61 & 66. When the ultimate redemption of Israel is accomplished, the glory of YHWH will dwell in Zion visibly as a light (60:1-2) so bright that it removes the need for the sun and moon (60:19-20) and draws the nations en masse (60:3) like moths to a porch light (or a bug zapper if we recall the deadly power of the presence of YHWH). The nations all bring their wealth to YHWH as they experience this inexorable draw to the light (60:5-6, 11). In addition to bringing their wealth, the nations are bringing the children of Israel back (60:4). Israel has special status in this new age as a priestly class (61:6), and they and the temple appear to be the primary beneficiaries of the material tribute from the nations (60:7,13; 66:12, 18-20).

There is some ambiguity about whether the treasures spoken of in ch. 60 are literal or whether they refer metaphorically to Israel. Isa 60:4 refers to the Israelites being returned by the nations.

Isa 60:5 records Zion’s reaction:

Then you will see and shine. Your heart will be in awe and grow wide because the multitude of the sea has (re)turned to you, the wealth of the nations will come to you. (writer's translation)

The reference to the sea could possibly be understood in context of YHWH’s promise to Abraham in Gen. 22:17 to multiply his offspring more than the sand of the sea. So, Israel equals the multitude of the sea equals the wealth of nations. Perhaps both understandings are intended because the passage continues to speak of both wealth and children being brought to Zion (esp. 60:9-11).

Trito-Isaiah appears to be developing an idea from Deutero-Isaiah in 45:14 where YHWH promises that Egypt, Cush, and the Sabeans will place themselves under Israel’s sovereignty, recognizing that YHWH is the only God. They will bring their wealth and their merchandise with them. DI uses different terms for the products/wealth than TI. The theme appears in First Isaiah in 10:14 using words similar to those in TI, so it is possible that TI is reversing a concept from FI. In Isa. 10, YHWH is depicted punishing the nations and gathering their wealth as a consequence.

So, the wealth of the nations appears in two ways in Isaiah -- either as spoil resulting from conquest (Isa. 10) or as tribute willingly brought to YHWH at Zion (Isa. 45, 60-61, 66). The eschatological focus of the last part of Isaiah results in the second -- wealth as tribute -- being more prominent.

List of Relevant Passages in Isaiah

10:14; 45:14; 60:5-13; 61:6; 66:12, 18-20

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Fructification and Excessive Mastication: The Dangers of Intertextuality

Inner-biblical exegesis is trendy now in biblical studies. By searching for similar vocabulary, themes, and style, it is sometimes possible to determine that a certain writer was using and interpreting another biblical book as a source.

I have doubts, however, about our ability to detect textual borrowing, and many of those who draw parallels between biblical texts seem to be grasping at straws sometimes. Even if textual borrowing is detected, it is then virtually impossible to detect the direction of literary dependence without following a priori assumptions about the relative dating of biblical books.

For example, Second Isaiah likes to use the image of the ecological transformation of the desert into a fertile oasis accompanying Israel's return from exile. Thematically, those passages share concepts with the creation accounts of Gen. 1-2. But can we say that Second Isaiah was envisioning a renewal of creation with the Gen. account of creation in mind?
One of the passages speaking of the transformation of the desert is in Isa. 41:17-20.

Isaiah 41:19-20
I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive. I will set in the desert the cypress, the plane and the pine together, that men may see and know, may consider and understand together, that the hand of the LORD has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it.

This is reminiscent of the initial statement in Genesis about the growth of trees and other vegetation.

Genesis 1:11
And God said, "Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth." And it was so.

The specific language outlining the specific types of trees that will grow in the desert is completely absent from Genesis. In fact, the writer in Genesis did not give us lists of many plants and animals. The only word that the two passages have in common is the generic word for "tree," hardly evidence of textual influence. Some writers would take the accumulation of such common words as "tree," "land," and "seed" as evidence of dependence. It seems dangerous to base such a conclusion on such meager evidence.

If textual allusions which require the transference of meaning from the source text to the target text are not sufficiently marked, the importation of meaning from another context could completely obscure the meaning of a verse.

For example, Isa. 41:19 talks about trees growing in the desert. We can take that to allude to creation. Bringing in the creation theme reminds us of the Garden of Eden which recalls the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Recalling the tree reminds us of the forbidden fruit which reminds us of original sin.

Genesis 3:6
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.

Reading Isa. 41 in light of the Garden of Eden account reminds us that man sinned even in the wonderfully fructified Garden through the disobedient mastication on the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Therefore, man will likely just make a mess of things again after the return even if God turns the desert into a fruitful garden. In a way, bringing in the Genesis context cheapens the message of redemption from Isa. 41:14 by reactivating the depression and hopelessness that Second Isaiah was trying to overcome.

There is no reason to assume that Second Isaiah intended those allusions or parallels to be drawn. The conclusions drawn by intertextuality and allusion sometimes place too much emphasis on perceived allusions that may be purely coincidental. The danger of intertextuality is that intentional use of another text is very difficult to detect in the absence of specific citations. Many of the perceived allusions could be nothing more than shared language derived from common subject matter and similar concerns.