Understanding the Bible: Out With the Old and In With the New?

OldAndNewFew believers today would admit that they place the same importance on the contents of what is called the Old Testament as they do on the New Testament. But the apostle Paul tells us that “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Timothy 3:16, New King James Version). This would include the Hebrew Scriptures. 

When Christ taught the people of the first century—His first followers—He was using the same Hebrew Scriptures. Using the term Old Testament to describe them can privilege the New Testament in a way that debases the value of the Scriptures that Christ used to great effect in His teaching. 

Jesus pointed out that His purpose was to uphold and magnify the law of God, not to make it of less effect. He said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17, New International Version). 

The Old part of the term Old Testament is simply a reference to the covenant relationship God established with ancient Israel at Mt. Sinai, when the Ten Commandments were given. 

The New part of the phrase New Testament refers to the new relationship offered through Jesus Christ to all humanity. This new relationship includes access to the Father of humankind through the gift of the Spirit of God. It would be a mistake to think that the Old Testament is no longer useful for instruction and correction just because we use the word old to describe it. 

A first-century audience would have recognized that Jesus taught from the Hebrew Scriptures. Those words had meaning and authority in their lives. Christ’s followers conveyed His teaching in what became known as the New Testament, which supports the Old. 

Jesus made it very clear that God’s law is still valid when He stated, “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18, NIV). 

First-century followers of Jesus understood and valued the Hebrew Scriptures as the inspired Word of God. By taking a studied approach, we should be able to come to the same conclusion.


Tags: first christians, new testament, Old Testament, first century church

Major New Testament publication launched.

Following the success of its Jewish Annotated Old Testament, Oxford University Press approached the editor and other Jewish scholars about producing a Jewish Annotated New Testament. The resulting New Testament Study Bible has just been released.

Using the New Revised Standard Version as the basic text, and Amy-Jill Levine with Marc Zvi Brettler as editors, they have assembled a phalanx of Jewish Scholarship to provide commentary on the entire New Testament. This may seem oxymoronic to most Christianity, but in reality, the New Testament addresses a Jewish audience with Jewish issues and challenges much more that a traditional Christian audience. As a result, they are able to illuminate various NT passages in a surprising manner.

Designed to follow the organization of other Study Bibles, the JANT provides introductions to the various books of the New Testament together with commentary on the various passages on the lower section of each page. In addition, some 18 essays on various background issues that are foundational to an appreciation of the New Testament, numerous maps, charts and sidebars are provided to add understanding for the reader.

Aimed firstly at a college student application, the book will also be valuable reading for the general Christian audience in providing a marked contrast and fresh approach to the traditional Christian creedal readings and interpretations of the New Testament provided in other study Bibles.

Care has been taken to avoid reading later Rabbinic teachings of the 4/6 th centuries back into the New Testament so that the commentary provided represents Jewish attitudes and understandings of the first century in which the New Testament is set. Some references to Rabbinic teachings are recorded when they throw light on the practice or teachings on the New Testament period.

For anybody who considers themselves a student of the New Testament, the Jewish Annotated New Testament is a volume that should be added to their library for regular use.

Tags: new testament, Judaism, First Century

Apostle Paul and the Book of Deuteronomy:

It has long been recognized that Deuteronomy, Isaiah and the Psalms were the most frequently quoted parts of the Bible by the writers of the New Testament.  In a new book, David Lincicum evaluates Paul's use of Deuteronomy in his writings. 

Mohr Siebeck, the publishers, provide the following comments on the new title:

Attending to the realia of ancient practices for reading Scripture, David Lincicum charts the effective history of Deuteronomy in a broad range of early Jewish authors in antiquity. By viewing Paul as one example of this long history of tradition, the apostle emerges as a Jewish reader of Deuteronomy. In light of his transformation by encounter with the risen Christ, Paul's interpretation of the end of the Pentateuch alternates between the traditional and the radical, but remains in conversation with his Jewish rough contemporaries. Specifically, Paul is seen to interpret Deuteronomy with a threefold construal as ethical authority, theological norm, and a lens for the interpretation of Israel's history. In this way, the volume sets Paul firmly in the history of Jewish biblical interpretation and at the same time provides a wide-ranging survey of the impact of Deuteronomy in antiquity.

Lincicum's work appears to chart some new territory in the appreciation of Paul's writing that grounds him in a first century Jewish tradition rather than the creator of some new religion as he has so often being portrayed.

Tags: new testament, Apostle Paul, Old Testament, Judaism, Mohr Siebeck, David Lincicum, use of Deuteronomy

"Petrus im Rom" or Peter in Rome revisited

A pleasant surprise was included in a recent Review of Biblical Literature. It contained a review by Professor James Dunn of Durham University, Durham, United Kingdom, of a new title on a subject on which I've been writing: Peter in Rome. Professor Dunn is a highly respected New Testament scholar. He provided a review of Petrus in Rom: Die literarischen Zeugnisse or to the non-German readers "Peter in Rome: The literary testimony". This was a monograph written by Professor Otto Zwierlein, a noted writer on classical literature and philology and published by Walter de Gruyter at $137.00. So don't expect to see it appearing on any best seller lists. Subsequent examination finds that another review was published in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review (03/25/2010) by Pieter W. van der Horst a Professor at Utrecht University and a member of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences.

Firstly a word of caution. The author of this book is not a theologian, but a classical scholar of some standing. The reviewers are both respected scholars within the area of the New Testament and related Jewish literature. None appear to be adherents of the Catholic faith. But Horst notes that the approach of Zwierlein is not that of a polemic (streichschif) against the Roman church but "a very sober and thorough philological and historical analysis of all the literary documents from antiquity that are commonly supposed to underpin the Vatican myth". Dunn corroborates this view with the opinion that Zwierlein provides a "painstaking examination of the textual traditions relating to Peter's residence and martyrdom in Rome, in which Zwierlein finds little or no sound history."

Both reviewers note the points of departure that Zwierlein takes with previous writers on this subject. Zwierlein's understanding that the use of Babylon in 1 Peter 5:13, not as a cipher for Rome but as "a metaphor equivalent to Jas 1:1 'in the diaspora' and hence equivalent to 'in exile'" is quickly noted.  That is a new approach to the use of Babylon in 1 Peter that I have never noted before and judging from Dunn's literary raised eyebrow, he has never seen or considered previously. 1 Clement is also re-dated to the second century and Zwierlein argues that Clement simply bases his detail of Peter and Paul on Luke's writings in the Acts of the Apostles. Such a dating is a departure as of recent date; some have been seeking to date the writing of 1 Clement into the 60's of the first century. Similarly, the Epistles of Ignatius are noted to contain later interpolations or are the product of the late second century which makes them unreliable evidence for the subject at hand.

Dunn records that Zwierlein's thesis is that the idea of Peter being martyred in Rome developed in the mid second century as a response to the challenge to the church from Gnostic ideas and groups that were using Simon Magus as a focus. Horst notes that "[h]e proves how in this process of anti-Gnostic struggle, which went hand in hand with the consolidation of the monarchic episcopate, developments that took place in the second half of the second century were retrojected to the middle of the first century (as happened so often) in order to provide them with apostolic authority." This idea is of interest as it is the same point I sought to make in "The Birth of a Legend".

Both reviewers note the care and detail given to the textual and philological analysis by Zwierlein, which is clearly the man's forte.

Dunn concludes with an interesting wish for Zwierlein. While accepting the plausibility of Zwierlein's argument,  Dunn notes his failure to connect with a lengthy article on this subject written by Richard Bauckham "The Martyrdom of Peter in Early Christian Literature" (ANRW 2.26.2:539-95). This is an interesting article and I'm indebted to Professor Dunn for giving me the segue to discuss it here. I read the article in preparation for my own writing on the subject and then put it aside, hoping to be able to write on Bauckham's approach subsequently. 

The article in question provides a comprehensive introduction to the earliest literature relating to Peter being in Rome. While a useful article as Dunn notes, my evaluation of Bauckham's article has a strong negative aspect.  Bauckham starts his examination of all the literary testimony with the New Testament "evidence" as he sees it. He reads 1 Peter 5:13 as being a cipher for Rome. However, he then approaches the rest of the New Testament with the ‘fact' that Peter was truly in Rome and finds numerous New Testament allusions to support his conclusion. However, if those same texts were examined without such a precondition, then the same readings would not be reached. To my mind, Bauckham establishes his conclusion by circular reasoning, which then influences the remainder of his work so that it lacks the objectivity for which he is normally known.


Tags: new testament, Babylon, Rome, James Dunn, Zwierlein, Petrus im Rom, diaspora, Richard Bauckham, Pieter W van der Horst, Peter in Rome

Noted Jewish Scholar Dies: Impact on Studies of New Testament

Jacob Milgrom, a noted Jewish academic and Biblical commentator, died last weekend in Jerusalem at the age of 87. Professor Milgrom will be long remembered for his work on the priesthood in ancient Israel and especially the aspects of ritual purity that were required of the priests and the community. His commentaries on both Leviticus--published as part of the Anchor Yale Bible Commentary Series (3 volumes) as well as the Augsburg Fortress Continental Commentary Series--and the Book of  Numbers, published in the JPS Torah series--will form the basis of study in this area for considerable time. 

The impact of purity is often overlooked in terms of the New Testament. Christian scholarship, in a desire to create distance from Jewish antecedents, often overlook the importance of this within the early church. Most of the healing miracles that are detailed in the Gospels were undertaken by Jesus Christ to enable the sufferer to become "clean" and hence avoid the stigmatism of being impure. The great debate in the early Church was the application of the purity laws to gentiles who wished to be followers of the way.

Milgrom has thus made a sizeable contribution to further studies in this field.

As a prolific scholar, Milgrom had just finished a section of a new commentary on the Prophet Ezekiel for the Anchor Yale series.

Tags: new testament, gentiles, New Testament Studies, Jacob Milgrom, purity, priesthood, healings, Leviticus, Ancient Israel

What Can We Learn from Old Books?

Lessons to be understood in this day of multiple translations

In the late 19th century, textual scholars Westcott and Hort established a classification of types of ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. The reason for the classification was an attempt to understand the history of the development of the Greek text and determine the earliest witness to the text. Three of the oldest and most complete codices (Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, and Vaticanus) had come from Egypt and so were placed in one group which was classified as Alexandrian texts. The conclusion that they were of the same type was based on the comparison of these texts with the majority of what were classified as the Byzantine texts. But in making the classification, little consideration was given to the comparison of the three codices to one another.

With the digitization of the Vaticanus in 1999, and now that of the Sinaiticus,  comparison has become a possibility.  The result is that the three manuscripts, although closely related in terms of geographic origin and time of composition, are in fact now considered three distinct types of text. That finding provides an interesting commentary to the statement of Origen of Alexandria, Egypt, who lamented:

‘. . . the differences among the manuscripts [of the Gospels] have become great, either through the negligence of some copyists or through the perverse audacity of others; they either neglect to check over what they have transcribed, or, in the process of checking, they lengthen or shorten, as they please.[1]

Origen’s comments are well displayed in the case of the Apocalypse represented in the Sinaiticus. Juan Hernandez Jr. of Bethel University, St. Paul, MN, presented a paper titled “Codex Sinaiticus: The Earliest Greek Christian Commentary on John’s Apocalypse?”  In an abstract he states:

The Apocalypse in codex Sinaiticus is a striking example of a fourth-century text that differs substantially from modern critical editions. It exhibits dozens of differences at key points, reflecting the concerns, interests, and idiosyncrasies of its earliest copyists and readers. Taken as a whole, Sinaiticus’s text of Revelation may constitute one of our earliest Christian commentaries on the book, disclosing its fourth-century milieu and anticipating the later concerns of Oecumenius and Andrew of Caesarea. This is no commentary in the contemporary sense, however. Sinaiticus’s readings range from the spectacular to the mundane and include the theological, the liturgical, the commonplace and even the infelicitous. It is a text ever in tension with itself, effective both in its capacity to obscure as well as in its regulation of meaning. Clarity and confusion co-reign and compete for our attention. Despite that, we can discern a concerted effort to elucidate the Apocalypse’s message by scores of changes throughout. Some of these are inherited. Others created. All affected the reading of the text.

So what can really be learned from old texts?  It’s apparent that scribes used their role to establish ideas that supported their views of scripture just as translators may do today. It’s our job to cut through the confusion and establish what may have been intended given our understanding of the milieu of the first century. It will be interesting to see what impact this realization of the differences between Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus and Vaticanus will have on the establishment of future eclectic texts. For the last century they have been given first priority in view of their age. But now that the extent of variation and text type has been established, that could well change.

[1]Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transition, Corruption and Restoration (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 152.

Tags: new testament, Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus, Origen, Textual Study, translation

Greek Lexicon of New Testament

Review and instructions available

Mark Goodacre of NT Gateway highlighted a useful review of the latest version of A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (3rd edition). All New Testament students should avail themselves of the details provided in this review, which is written by Rodney J. Decker. Also offered in Decker’s post are several PDF files outlining the appropriate usage of the lexicon for those wishing to benefit from it seriously.

In that the lexicon is available electronically in many of the major Bible software suites, it is worth reviewing Decker's notes to make the most of this great resource. 

Frederick Danker, who edited the 3rd edition, also has another useful Bible study aid in hisMultipurpose Tools for Bible Study, published by Augsburg Fortress Press in 2003. Danker provides a helpful insight into the various types of Bible study tools available.


Tags: new testament, Bible Study Tools, Frederick Danker, Greek Lexicon, Lexicon, Mark Goodacre, NT Gateway, Rodney Decker

How to Read the New Testament

Recognizing the scope of change in New Testament studies
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Details: How to Read the New Testament
E P Sanders

E. P. Sanders is one individual who has contributed an enormous amount  to the study of the New Testament in the past 40 years—especially to the study of Paul.

A brief autobiographical essay was presented by Sanders at a conference held in his honor in April of 2003. Titled “Comparing Judaism and Christianity: An Academic Autobiography,” the paper is available online courtesy of Duke University and Mark Goodacre.

This is a worthwhile read for any student of the New Testament in that it outlines the sea of changes that have occurred throughout the 20th century which have laid the foundation for New Testament studies in the 21st.  

Tags: new testament, E P Sanders, Paul, New Perspective on Paul, Rabbinics


“You get what you pay for!”

That sounds a strange maxim to consider with translations of the Bible.  Don’t most Bibles in any translation cost about the same today?


The statement was made by an Emeritus Professor of Classics, Carl Conrad, who moderates the online B-Greek list.  Conrad used the expression in relation to the approach used in translating Biblical texts. 


Today two common approaches exist, literal, which has been the norm since the Bible was first translated into the vernaculars as a result of the Reformation.  Since the 1940’s a new approach has been used which is called dynamic equivalence translation.  This differs from the literal in that rather than translating word for word as the literal does and leaving the reader with a sense of “how do these words relate” or “how do I relate this to myself today”, a dynamic equivalence translation seeks to translate the intent and meaning rather than just the words themselves.  Hence what is required of the reader is less with a dynamic equivalence translation than a literal.


The New English Bible (NEB) was the first translation to employ dynamic equivalence.  The English Standard Version (ESV), which is a modernization of the Revised Standard Version (RSV), holds to a more literal approach.


In addressing this issue Conrad drew attention to a comment by fellow blogger, John Hobbins "ancient hebrew poetry" whom we have previously referenced.  Speaking of John’s comment, Conrad stated: 


It seems to me that what Hobbins has to say in this blog has a bearing on lots of the short-cuts adopted by those who are endeavoring to develop some level of competence in Greek, including interlinears, parsing guides, quick-fix glossaries, quickie reference grammars, all designed to pave the way to a grasp of Greek, to which, as Euclid reputedly told the first Ptolemy about geometry, "there is no royal road." The nicely-turned formulation at the end of this blog says, "A literary [literal] translation, in order to be understood, will push the reader beyond the limits of his or her already acquired knowledge. It may have to be read and reread, perhaps with the aid of explanatory notes. A dynamic translation aims to be instantly comprehensible. Fine. But make no mistake: with fast food, you get what you pay for."


How do you bridge the gap between these two approaches to translation?  A maxim given frequently in graduate school went as follows: “If you aren’t going to learn and use the original languages, then you must use a variety of translations rather than relying on one alone.”

Tags: new testament, Greek, Bible translation, dynamic equivalence translation, literal translation

Original Languages reconsidered

Did the writers of the New Testament quote from a Greek translation of Scripture?

A commonly held view of previous centuries is that the writers of the New Testament quoted from the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament Scriptures. This translation was purportedly undertaken in AlexandriaEgypt, under the patronage of Ptolemy Philadelphus who ruled in the first half of the 3rd Century BCE.  This translation is commonly referred to as the LXX. 


This concept has been contested by many protestant writers who reject the idea of the LXX with its inclusion of the Apocryphal books, a canon accepted by the Catholic and Orthodox churches.  Protestant traditions have almost universally followed the Jewish canon of Scripture and reject the Apocryphal books as opposed to the canon presented by the LXX.


Despite the differences in canons accepted by the church groups, a frequently held view is that the writers did use the Greek translations in their writings.  However, current research calls into question the dogmatic “black and white” views of the past. 


Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, people accepted that there was simply one Greek translation of the Scriptures prior to the writing of the New Testament.  Subsequent translations into Greek were made by Aquila and Theodotion to aid Greek speaking Jewish groups in the Diaspora.


Such was not the case in the discoveries of Qumran.  Amongst the few Greek scrolls found atQumran were at least two families of Greek Scriptures; those that could be identified as LXX text types and another potentially older version, which has been labeled as OG or Old Greek.  Interestingly, it appears that the Old Greek texts bear a resemblance to the later translation of Theodotion, who possibly relied on this translation for the production of his own subsequent translation in the mid 2nd century CE.  Theodotion’s translation presented a Greek translation much more in harmony with the traditional Hebrew text which came to be known as the Masoretic Text.


If alternative Greek texts existed in the first century, we could then raise the question of which Greek texts were used by the writers of the New Testament.  Personally, I see that as the wrong question.  In reality, the times of the writing of the New Testament were times of a largely oral society.  People quoted source material from memory as they didn’t have personal copies to carry with them on their travels.  The closest the writers would have been to any texts would have been the nearest synagogue to them.


Add to this, another factor that influenced the idea of the writers quoting a Greek translation of Scripture which is also now redundant.  It was held that Hebrew was not spoken in the time of Christ and the early church hence everyone spoke Aramaic or Greek.  Once again the Dead Sea Scrolls have dismissed that argument.  Hebrew was at least spoken in the synagogue and it is possible to create a scenario where people were able to converse in several languages.  So writers of the New Testament who had lived in Judaea and Galileewould have known the Scriptures in Hebrew rather than Greek.


What then of the quotations of Scripture. In reality, rather than sending a messenger to the local synagogue to copy out a section of Scripture so that it could be quoted verbatim, a person such as Paul would have quoted from memory and possibly even translated from Hebrew to Greek themselves as part of the writing project.  Hence the idea of locating an exact form of Scriptures which the writers used requires that we consider in what language the writers learned of the Scriptures to commit them to memory. 


The idea of committing Scripture to memory may be unbelievable to we who live in the 21st Century, inundated with a deluge of information and knowledge.  Yet in the first century, the simple cost of writing and of the materials for writing meant that little was written.  No daily newspapers, magazines, libraries or radio, television, videos or the internet existed to occupy people’s time, hence what was read or heard was committed to memory.


So the simplistic model of previous centuries needs to be reconsidered.  In fact considering the use of memory, and the possibility of writers translating from Hebrew to Greek for their own purposes, raises a question about Origen’s editing of the LXX that we have today.  Did he amend various Old Testament Scriptures to read exactly as they appeared in the New Testament quotations?  This charge has been leveled against Origen in the past. It may bear further study.

Tags: new testament, Greek, Hebrew, Origen, Scriptures, LXX

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