Archive | New Testament

The Problem of Abiathar in Mark 2.26

Bultmann was not right about everything, but he was certainly right when he recognized that presuppositionless exegesis was not possible. There are few texts where an exegete’s presuppositions can cloud his interpretation more than Mark 2.26. The issue here is not simply a conservative vs. liberal debate. Of course, battle lines are drawn by one’s bibliological convictions, but the tapestry of this passage is richer than that. Source criticism (specifically, whether one holds to Markan priority or Matthean priority), tradition criticism, textual criticism, and christological constructs are also lurking in the background here, to name a few. We will have a chance to explore these issues only briefly in the time allotted.

In Mark 2.26, as found in Nestle-Aland27, Jesus is reported as saying: πῶς εἰσῆλθεν εἰς τὸν οἶκον τοῦ θεοῦ ἐπὶ Ἀβιαθὰρ ἀρχιερέως καὶ τοὺς ἄρτους τῆς προθέσεως ἔφαγεν, οὓς οὐκ ἔξεστιν φαγεῖν εἰ μὴ τοὺς ἱερεῖς, καὶ ἔδωκεν καὶ τοῖς σὺν αὐτῷ οὖσιν; Or, in English, “Haven’t you ever read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions were hungry? How he entered into the house of God when Abiathar was high priest and ate the sacred bread that is not lawful for anyone but priests to eat, and also gave it to his companions?” (Mark 2.25-26). The fundamental problem with the phrase “when Abiathar was high priest” is that this incident in David’s life is recorded in but one passage in the OT, 1 Sam 21.1-7. But there, Ahimelech is mentioned as the priest; Abiathar, his son, would later become high priest, but he is not introduced into the narrative for another chapter (22.20).

On the one hand, the prepositional phrase, ἐπὶ Ἀβιαθὰρ ἀρχιερέως, has caused some angst for evangelicals because it ostensibly is a historical error. And if so, whose error is it? Did some early scribe corrupt his copy of Mark, which then influenced other witnesses and became the predominant text? Or did Mark add this as an editorial comment on his own? Or did he copy down accurately what his source said (which, according to patristic writers at least, would have been the apostle Peter)—a source that created the historical discrepancy? Or is it possible that Mark’s source repeated Jesus’ words accurately, but that Jesus made a mistake? Or did Jesus summarize the OT text accurately, but the OT was in error? Assigning error to someone is one route that is taken today in dealing with this problem. What I wish to contend, however, is that several presuppositions are at work in assigning blame; the matter cannot simply be isolated to a bibliological problem. Yet even here, there are rather different approaches to the problem by evangelicals.

In addition to the bibliological issue is the question of which Gospel came first. Those who embrace Markan priority tend to argue for an error on Mark’s part that would have been detected and eliminated by Matthew and Luke. Those who embrace Matthean priority tend to downplay any error on Mark’s part by various, although rather brief, explanations.

Then there is the christological issue. Very few scholars even entertain the notion that Jesus could have had a mental lapse. Here is where both liberal and conservative scholars are usually in agreement, but for different reasons: the more conservative scholars, because of their high christology and high bibliology, almost never raise the possibility that Jesus could have erred for that would apparently impugn the character of both the Lord and the Bible. Less conservative scholars (moderate as well as liberal) often see only part of the pericope going back to Jesus, and v 26 is sometimes relegated to a later source. But Jewish scholars have no problem seeing this pericope going back to Jesus and attributing error to him.

Textual criticism also plays a role in this passage. There are variants that either alter the prepositional phrase and its subsequent translation or eradicate it altogether. But one’s text-critical theories inform his decision here—or at least they should!

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, the interpretations of this text are so vast and our time so short that we will have to park ourselves on that part of the iceberg that is above water. Perhaps that is the safest place to be though after all.

The fundamental problem in this text is that Abiathar was not the high priest when David went into the sanctuary and ate the showbread. This raises several questions; in the least, someone or something seems to be wrong. Here are the facts: (1) 1 Sam 21.1-7 mentions Ahimelech as the priest when David entered the sanctuary; (2) Abiathar was Ahimelech’s son; although he was a priest when this incident occurred, he was not the high priest but would become so later (after Saul murdered his father and eighty-four other priests); (3) Ahimelech’s ministry was in Nob, while Abiathar’s would especially be in Jerusalem; (4) except for the possibility of text-critical solutions, Mark’s Gospel has the words ἐπὶ Ἀβιαθὰρ ἀρχιερέως, normally translated “when Abiathar was high priest.” In addition, there are several other, less significant differences between the dominical version of this story and that found in 1 Sam 21.1-7 (Gundry lists seven). Continue Reading →

Textual Problem Study: Matthew 18:15

 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” (Mat 18:15 ESV)

The Problem

Matthew 18:15 is one of the textual variants in the New Testament that is both viable and significant. A textual variant occurs when there is some degree of disagreement among the nearly six thousand extant (existing) manuscripts. While most scholars agree that none of the variants impact any major doctrine of the historical Christian faith, some are more important than others. For one of these variants to be worth discussion, it must be both 1) viable and 2) significant. For a variant to be “viable,” it has to have a legitimate shot of being the correct rendering of the text. In other words, there has to be some debate about what the original actually says. However, some variants are viable, but not significant. They may have a valid chance of representing the correct reading, but lack any meaningful consequence. For example, there may be some debate about whether a reading is “Jesus” or “Jesus Christ,” or “Peter” or “the Peter,” but normally, this would not be significant since it does not change the meaning of the text and could be unrecognizable when translated. To be significant means that a variant will change the meaning of the passage to some degree.

Matthew 18:15 reads in the NA27 (the standard Greek critical text of the New Testament):



I know…it’s Greek to you, right? Don’t worry. Here is what the text reads: “If your brother sins [against you] go and show him his fault in private. If he listens, you have won your brother.”

The variant is shown here in brackets: [eis se] “against you.” The earliest and most respected manuscripts (Codex Vaticanus, Codex Sinaiticus, and 0281) lack this addition, while the later Byzantine manuscripts include it. English translations are divided as to which reading best represents the original. Here is a list to show you which reading is preferred by various Bible translation committees and individual translators:

ESV “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”

KJV “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.”

NAS “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.”

NET  “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have regained your brother.”

NIV1984  “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.”

NIV2011 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.”

HCSB “If your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother.”

The Message “If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend.”

NJB “If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him alone, between your two selves. If he listens to you, you have won back your brother.”

NLT “If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back.”

The Significance

The significance of this variant should be fairly obvious. If the shorter reading is preferred, then we are admonished to rebuke brothers and sisters who are involved in sin in general, whether or not it is a direct offense against you. So if you know of someone in the church who has an anger problem, is having an affair, or is cheating on his taxes, you are to follow the procedure of confrontation described in Matthew 18:15-20. However, if the longer reading is preferred, then the confrontation is only necessary when someone in the church sins against you. Cheating on taxes or an adulterous affair would not be a sin against you, so this passage would not be applicable to that situation. But if he or she lies, cheats, or acts arrogantly toward you, then confrontation is necessary. Continue Reading →

Did Joseph Smith Restore Theosis? Part Two: The New Testament and Joseph Smith’s Doctrine of Exaltation

This is the second installment in my series responding to Dan Peterson’s recent article, “Joseph Smith’s restoration of ‘theosis’ was miracle, not scandal.” To understand the issues addressed here and my treatment of them, it is more or less mandatory to read the first part of this series. In this second part, I will address the question of whether Joseph Smith’s doctrine was a restoration of truths attested in the New Testament. Continue Reading →

A Review of the NIV 2011: Part 1 of 4

Stan Gundry, Vice President of Zondervan, was kind enough to send me a review copy of the NIV 2011. Not just any review copy—but a soft leather, NIV Thinline Reference Bible! My wife told me to hurry up with the review so that she could have it. I had to remind her that one doesn’t judge a book by its cover, but being Irish she might not have heard a word I said. And being of Scottish descent, I didn’t pay attention to whether she did. 

So, I must do this review in haste for the sake of peace in my home. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a careless review. I have read several reviews of the NIV 2011—some positive, some not—and have checked numerous passages to form a judgment of my own. As one who has been a consultant, proofreader, translator, or editor of a few Bible translations, I come with some experience in the matter.

A Selected History of the English Bible

First, for a brief history lesson. The NIV was one of the first English translations of the modern era to consciously depart from the King James Bible tradition. That tradition—reaching as far back as William Tyndale (1525)—has had successors in the Revised Version (1885), American Standard Version (1901), Revised Standard Version (1952), New American Standard Bible (1971), New Revised Standard Version (1989), and English Standard Version (2001). This tradition involves a heavy amount of infighting: The revisers of 1885, mostly British scholars, were slammed by those devoted to the King James Bible. Chief among them was John Burgon, whose main complaint was over the textual basis of the RV New Testament, a work that was largely a translation of the Greek text that Westcott and Hort had published in 1881. Apart from the textual base, the RV also suffered from its position of touting the triumph of “King Truth” over “King James.” The RV was literal, and slavishly so; it was the ugly step-child of King James, and had a poor following. Contrary to what many KJV Only advocates believe, the KJV was not a literal translation; it was a literary translation (as H. L. Mencken—no friend of Christianity once quipped—the King James Bible is “unquestionably the most beautiful book in the world”). It was a literary masterpiece that, in this regard, has been unmatched by any English translation of the Bible since. But its accuracy of text and translation were long overdue for a major overhaul when the RV came along. Continue Reading →

Twelve Reasons Why Romans 9 is About Individual Election, Not Corporate Election

Much theological debate centers around the doctrine of election. No one debates whether election is biblical, but they do debate the meaning of election. I believe in what is called unconditional individual election (the Calvinistic understanding). Those who oppose my understanding normally believe in some sort of conditional election or corporate election (or a combination of the two; the Arminian understanding). Corporate election is the belief that God elects nations to take part in his plan, not individuals to salvation. So, when Romans 9 speaks of God’s election of Jacob over Esau, Paul is speaking of God’s choosing the nation of Israel to have a special place in salvation history. They will go on to interpret all of Romans 9-11 in light of this assumption.

However, I don’t believe that Romans 9-11 is talking about corporate election, but individual election. Here are eleven reason why:

1. The whole section (9-11) is about the security of individuals. Election of nations would not make any contextual sense. Paul has just told the Roman Christians that nothing could separate them from God’s love (Rom. 8:31-39). The objection that gives rise to chapters 9-11 is: “How do we know that these promises from God are secure considering the current (unbelieving) state of Israel. They had promises too and they don’t look too secure.” Referring to corporate election would not fit the context. But if Paul were to respond by saying that it is only the elect individuals within Israel that are secure (true Israel), then this would make sense. We are secure because all elect individuals have always been secure.

2. In the election of Jacob over Esau (Rom. 9:10-13), while having national implications, starts with individuals. We cannot miss this fact.

3. Jacob was elected and Esau rejected before the twins had done anything good or bad. There is no mention of the nations having done anything good or bad. If one were to say this is nations that Paul is talking about, it would seem that they are reading their theology into the text.

4. Rom. 9:15 emphasizes God’s sovereignty about choosing individuals. “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.” The pronoun hon (whom) is a masculine singular. If we were talking about nations, a plural pronoun would have been used.

5. Rom. 9:16 is dealing with individuals, not nations. “So, it does not depend on the one who desires or makes effort, but on the mercy of God” (my translation). theolontos (desire) and trechontos (effort) are both masculine singulars that is why it is translated “the one” rather than “those.” (BTW: I don’t like ESV’s translation of this (man’s) as it is misleading and, ironically(!) supporting of corporate election). It is hard to see national implications at all here. It is about individual desire and effort. The acquisition of God’s mercy transcends the ability of man. Continue Reading →

A Short Exegesis of 2 Timothy 2:11-14 – An Early Christian Creed

2 Timothy 2:11-14

It is a trustworthy statement:

For if we died with Him, we shall also live with Him; 

    If we endure, we shall also reign with Him;

If we deny Him, He also will deny us; 

   If we are faithless, He remains faithful; for He cannot deny Himself.”

There is strong agreement that this passage, introduced by pistos ho logos (“this saying is trustworthy”), is an early creed set to meter. In other words, this is not Paul’s original composition, but was a common among the early church. It could have been a saying or a part of a hymn. This is significant as it demonstrates early Christian dogma which predates Paul’s letter by many years.

Each of the four lines is introduced with the conditional participle ei. The creed (or at least this part of it) seems to consist of two parallel sets of lines each of which represent escalation (climatic parallelism). I have distinguished by font and indentation here:

For if we died with Him, we shall also live with Him; 

    If we endure, we shall also reign with Him;

If we deny Him, He also will deny us; 

   If we are faithless, He remains faithful; for He cannot deny Himself.

In the first line, the protasis is a past tense, “If we died with him.” The second is set in the future, “we shall also live with him.” While Paul may not be the author of this creed, it does seem to represent Pauline influence. In Romans 6 Paul informs Christians that we have all died with Christ, meaning the old condemned man has been done away with, being buried with him (Rom. 6:2-3). It would then follow that the future “living with him” is not eschatological, but a present reality that follows our death with Christ. If we have died with him, we live with him becoming united in his resurrection (Rom. 6:8).

Our “enduring” is the subject of the next protasis. It would seem that it escalates the previous apodosis, “live with him.” Christ’s life was one of endurance, so we should expect the same (Rom. 12:12; 1 Cor 12:7; hupomeno). The final escalation, paralleling “live with him” is our future reigning with Christ. 

However, there is a turn in the creed. This turn is from one of hope, to a stern warning. The first person plural (“we”) is retained, but the protasis introduces the opposing option that people can take concerning Christ—denial. If we are to deny him, he will deny us. Our denial is the polar opposite of dying with him. Therefore, it would seem that this has to do with the progressive response of unbelievers (who neither die nor live with him), not a slip of faith like that of Peter who denied Christ three times. The fearful result is found in the apodosis, “he will deny us.” This denial is reminiscent of Christ’s words in Matt. 10:33. Christ’s repetition of this theme in his ministry demonstrates it importance in his message (Mark 8:38).  Continue Reading →

Did Paul Make a Fundamental Mistake in Athens? – Paul the Philosopher (Part I)

When I was in college, I remember reading F.F. Bruce’s superb work, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free.  I recall, however, Bruce’s suggestion that Paul’s preaching at Athens (Acts 17) had been something of a failure. Why? He hadn’t preached the “word of the cross.”[1] Similarly, the late William Ramsay claimed that Paul, because of the apparently meager response to his Areopagus speech (which cited Stoic thinkers for reinforcement), was “disappointed and perhaps disillusioned by his experience in Athens.  He felt that he had gone at least as far as was right in the way of presenting his doctrine in a form suited to the current philosophy; and the result had been little more than naught.”[2] 

Thus, in Corinth—Paul’s next stop—he determined that he wanted to “know nothing while I was with you but Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).  No more philosophy or apologetics there!  No more quoting of pagan thinkers to build bridges with his audience!  

 But is this what really happened?  Not at all! In this first part of a series on Paul the philosopher at Athens, I want to probe further into his cross-centered approach rooted in the Old Testament Scriptures, but adapted to a pagan audience.  (You can follow the text here.)  I’ll offer a few responses to the assertion regarding Paul’s alleged failed, inferior methodology of placing philosophy and reason above the cross.

1. The charge is an argument from silence: We could ask why Luke would devote so much space to Paul’s speech when the message ran contrary to the preaching of the cross—and could undermine Luke’s own theological strategy in the book of Acts. 

2. The claim reads into Acts a specific situation in Corinth: In 1 Corinthians, Paul was addressing the congregation’s arrogance and one-upmanship—a complete departure from dependence on the sufficiency of Christ’s cross-work and the Spirit’s power.  They had emphasized their giftedness in knowledge and wisdom and rhetoric. They glorified speaking in tongues, elevating this over other spiritual gifts; they considered themselves as having “arrived”: “you have become kings without us,” Paul told them (1 Cor. 4:8).  They elevated social status so highly that they were willing to tolerate—even boast about—gross immorality in one of its prominent members (ch. 5).[3]  And the new covenant blessings through the Spirit overshadowed any sense that a future bodily resurrection was still needed (15:12).  The Corinthians’ skewed theological perspective emphasized the “already” but ignored the “not yet”—a view known as “over-realized eschatology.”[4] 

Yes, the Corinthians believed they had all blessings in Christ—and nothing was left for the new heaven and new earth!  The point is this: we should treat Paul’s writing about the Corinthian situation on its own terms and not read Paul’s correspondence back into Luke’s theological strategy in Acts.

We could add that in 1 Corinthians itself, Paul is still quoting pagans!  He cites Menander when he writes, “Bad company corrupts good character” (15:33). Paul uses the same strategy of quoting pagans in Corinth—just as he did in Athens!  For good measure, we could also throw in Paul’s citing the Cretan thinker Epimenides in Titus 1:12.

3. A review of Paul’s ministry in Acts shows this charge to be inaccurate; Paul uses the same general approach before and after Athens: Before Athens, Paul would “reason” with people in an attempt to “persuade” them (cp. 28:23).  He does so in Thessalonica (17:2) and during his visit to Athens (17:19). Also, Paul continues to do so after Athens—in Corinth (18:4) and Ephesus (18:19; 19:8,9). Continue Reading →

Bible Interpretation In a Nutshell

The following is a practical guide to biblical interpretation following a three step process that I have used for years. The Bible is two-thousand years old and often seems very archaic. This makes it hard to know how it applies to us. It can be very frustrating as all Christians are encouraged to read their Bible daily but often are at a loss as to how to understand it and apply the message to their own lives. This process has served me well and I believe it is representative of the best way to interpret the ancient word of God and apply it to today. I hope that it will alleviate some of the “Bible interpretation anxiety” that is out there, allowing the Bible to become real and relevant to your life.

click on image to enlarge

Notice the three sections of the chart. There are three audiences that everyone needs to recognize in the process of interpreting the Bible. In the bottom left, you have the “ancient audience.” This represents the original audience and the original author. The top portion represents the “timeless audience” which transcends the time and the culture of the original situation. It is that which applies to all people of all places of all times, without regard to cultural and historical issues. Finally, we have the “contemporary audience” in the bottom right. This represents the audience of today. Here we will find application of the Bible with regard to our time, culture, and circumstances.

In Biblical interpretation, it is of extreme importance that one goes in the order of the chart. The goal is to find out what the Bible meant, what it means, and how it applies to us. So many people start with the third step and fail miserably in understanding God’s word. Others start with step number two, attempting to force their own theology on the text. It is important that all steps are covered to ensure interpretive fidelity.

Step one: Exegetical Statement

What did it mean then?

The first step is the most important. Here the goal is to ascertain the original intent of the writing. It is very important that one enters into the world of the author and the audience. Sometimes this will be easy, sometimes it will be very difficult, requiring quite a bit of study.

Here are the different issues that you must consider:

Historical issues: There will be historical circumstances that will aid in your understanding of the text. Here, you will ask questions of “occasion.” Who is the original author? Who is the original audience? What purpose did the writing have? When Moses wrote the Pentateuch, what was his occasion or purpose? Was it to give an exhaustive history of the world to everyone or to prepare the Israelite religious community to exist in a theocratic society under Yahweh? When Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians, what was his purpose? Knowing that in 2 Corinthians he was writing to defend his apostleship as other false apostles were opposing him is essential to understanding every verse. As well, what was Paul’s disposition toward the Galatians when he wrote to them? Was it to commend, condemn, or correct? The occasion will determine so much of our understanding.

Grammatical issues: It is important to understand that the Bible was written in a different language. The New Testament was written in Greek. Not only that, but it was a particular kind of Greek called “Koine.” Most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew (small portions in Aramaic). Naturally, other languages will have characteristics that communicate well in the original tongue but can get lost in translation. Greek, for example, works off inflections (word endings) which determine their part of speech. Word placement can add emphasis. These types of things are often hard to translate. I am not saying that everyone needs to be a Greek and a Hebrew scholar to understand the Bible, only that there are grammatical issues that can nuance our understanding of the passage. A good commentary will normally bring these to recognition.

Contextual issues: Every book was written for a purpose. The smallest component of a writing is a letter. We don’t take each letter in isolation, but understand that with a group of letters, it makes a word. But we don’t take the word in isolation, understanding that a group of words makes a sentence. And we don’t take sentences in isolation, understanding that a group of sentences makes a paragraph. But we don’t stop there. Each paragraph either represents or is a part of a larger whole that we call a “pericope.” The pericope is the basic argument or story that is being told. The story of David and Goliath is a pericope of many paragraphs. As well, Christ’s parables make up individual pericopes. Finally, the pericopes are smaller parts of the entire book. The purpose of the book will shape the context in which each pericope should be interpreted.

Here is how it looks:

click on image to enlarge

Literary issues: We must remember that there is no such thing as a type of literature called “Bible” or “Scripture.” The Bible is made up of many books from many different types of literature called “genres.” Just like in your everyday life, you encounter many genres and know almost instinctively that they follow different rules of understanding. You have fiction novels, newspaper editorials, commercials, television dramas, academic textbooks, and tickers at the bottom of the news stations. All of these need to be understood and interpreted according to the rules of the genre. In the Bible, we have narratives, histories, parables, apocalyptic prophecies, personal letters, public letters, songs, proverbs, and many others. Each of these are to be interpreted according to the rules of the genre. Just because they are in the Bible does not mean that the rules change. For example, a proverb is a common type of literature that is found in the Bible, but also in many other cultures. A proverb is a statement of general truth or wisdom that does not necessarily apply in every situation. A proverb is not a promise. If it is in the Bible, it is still not a promise. As well, theological histories are just that—theological. Being in the Bible does not turn it into a technically precise and exhaustive history that is supposed to answer every question that we have. We must determine the type of literature we are dealing with if we are to understand it.  Continue Reading →