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Metzger and Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament (2005)

Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration, 4th ed. (2005)

This book is a textbook on “both the science and the art of textual criticism as applied to the New Testament” (xv). It is organized in three parts. Part I, “The Materials for the Textual Criticism of the New Testament,” presents an overview of ancient bookmaking practices and gives a narrative catalogue of the chief witnesses to the text of the New Testament. Part II, “The History of New Testament Textual Criticism as Reflected in Printed Editions of the Greek Testament,” surveys the textual character of printed Greek New Testaments from the Textus Receptus to the NA27 and UBS4. Part III, “The Application of Textual Criticism to the Text of the New Testament,” describes the development of scientific text criticism from Hellenistic Alexandria to the digital age, lists the types of textual errors found in the witnesses to the NT, describes some scholarly uses of textual variants outside the realm of text criticism, and closes with worked examples of the text criticism of several NT passages.

Part I begins in chapter 1 with a brief overview of ancient bookmaking practices, highlighting various parts of the process that produced variants among the textual witnesses to the NT, namely:

  • types of handwriting
  • reusing the parchment a text is written on (palimpsests)
  • abbreviations and nomina sacra
  • the διορθωτής correcting manuscripts after they were produced
  • fatigue brought on by the typical scribe’s working conditions

This chapter also catalogues the various “helps for readers” (33) found in manuscripts of the NT, like chapter divisions (κεφάλαια), titles of chapters (τίτλοι), and introductory material appended to the beginnings of texts.

Chapter 2 describes the various witnesses to the NT’s text. For each of the Greek manuscripts (arranged from oldest type to youngest—papyri first, then majuscules, then minuscules), Metzger and Ehrman give the date it was copied, its current contents (and, sometimes, its original contents and pagination), its text-type (Western, Alexandrian, Byzantine, Caesarean, or an mixture of the above), and any special features of the manuscript worth noting. Next, they list and briefly describe the ancient versions (i.e., translations) of the NT, giving the dates of composition, text-type affinities, and significant manuscripts for each. Finally, they very briefly mention how patristic quotations of the NT are useful for text criticism.

Part II narrates the history of the rise of the Textus Receptus (TR), its reign as the most commonly used Greek NT (chapter 3), and its demise at the hands of the Greek New Testaments produced through scientific text criticism (chapter 4).

The first printed Greek NT was produced in Spain in 1514 as part of a multivolume Hebrew-Aramaic-Greek-Latin polyglot bible (the Complutensian Polyglot) that was completed in 1520 and began circulating in 1522. However, even though this was the first printed edition of the Greek NT, it was not the first edition to circulate publicly; Erasmus’ edition claimed this honor in 1516, though because Erasmus rushed his edition to press so that it would be published before the Complutensian Polyglot, he did not have time to consult good textual witnesses, so his text is faulty in a great many places.

Erasmus’ edition quickly became the most popular edition of the Greek NT, and it was widely accepted as the only authoritative edition of the Greek NT. Over the subsequent few centuries, many scholars produced editions of the Greek NT that differed from the TR in various readings; however, they all faced severe opposition, including excommunication or being forced from ecclesiastical positions.

In the late 1700s, Johann Jakob Griesbach, a German scholar, laid the groundwork for modern text criticism; he set forth 15 canons of text criticism, which he used to produce a Greek NT that differed quite substantially from the TR. Over the next half-century, many new manuscripts came to light, and several scholars produced critical editions of the Greek NT, culminating, roughly 60 years after Griesbach’s edition, with Karl Lachmann’s critical edition of the Greek NT. Lachmann’s edition broke totally with the TR; instead, it depended solely on the results of text criticism, and, although his edition itself is not very good—since it depends on a very small number of manuscripts—it is important for inaugurating the age of scientific text criticism of the Greek NT.

In addition to Griesbach and Lachmann, Westcott and Hort are two very important figures in the history of NT text criticism. In the second volume of their New Testament in the Original Greek, Hort details the methodology that he and Westcott followed in producing their edition of the text, and he discusses the different text-types into which he and Westcott categorized the various manuscript witnesses (Syrian [the latest and least reliable], Western, Alexandrian, and Neutral [the most reliable].

Finally, the fruits of modern text criticism may be found in the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament, 4th rev. ed. (UBS4) and in the 26th edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament (NA26; now actually in a 27th and 28th edition [NA27 and NA28, respectively]). These texts were produced by committees of scholars working with all the available textual witnesses, from papyri on through the patristic citations.

Part III outlines the process of modern text criticism of the Greek NT. It begins with chapter 5, a brief overview of how the practice of text criticism developed, tracing it from Hellenistic Alexandria through Renaissance Europe—material that seems more at home at the beginning of Part II than Part III.

Next, in chapter 6, Metzger and Ehrman give an overview of different approaches to text criticism: the “classical method,” which follows Lachmann’s methodology (i.e., eclecticism, with readings weighted by the manuscript’s text-type), and reactions against Lachmannian text criticism from Joseph Bédier (who argued for pure eclecticism rather than using manuscript genealogies) and Albert C. Clark (who argued that scribal omissions were far more common than scribal interpolations); Streeter’s theory of “local texts” as the source of manuscript variation; diplomatic text criticism, using the Majority Text (which is Byzantine) as a base text; thoroughgoing eclecticism, which judges variant readings based not on text-type but on the book’s content and the author’s style; and, finally, conjectural emendation, which “classical” text criticism regularly employed when all of the readings of a text were equally bad. Chapter 6 ends with an overview of modern (= computer-based, mostly) tools for NT text criticism, and several ongoing projects (as of 2005), which make/made use of those tools. As with chapter 5, chapter 6 seems much better suited to Part II, since it largely covers the history of NT text criticism.

Chapter 7 is a partial catalogue of “the causes of error in the transmission of the text of the New Testament” (250), which I have condensed here.

Chapter 8 recounts the how the text of the NT was transmitted, tracing the development of the Alexandrian, Western, and Byzantine text-types and placing that process in the context of how other early Christian literature was disseminated. (Strangely, though the book makes frequent reference to the Caesarean text-type, it does not discuss the Caesarean along with the others, but instead discusses it on three pages in the next chapter.) Next, this chapter gives six ways in which textual data is useful for historians of early Christianity: 1) It gives information about early Christian doctrinal debates; 2) It provides data about Jewish-Christian relations; 3) It gives us information about gender roles in early Christianity; 4) It provides evidence of Christian apologia; 5) It provides information about early Christian asceticism; and 6) It provides data about the place of magic and fortune-telling in early Christianity.

The last chapter, chapter 9, gives an overview and several worked examples of how to perform text criticism on a particular NT text, the principles of which I have condensed here.

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Median Christianity vs. Mediocre Christianity, pt. 4: Conclusions

Note: This is the final part of my discussion of Median Christianity vs. Mediocre Christianity. For context, see parts 12, and 3. I apologize that this post is long, but I wanted to be precise in my treatment of the subject and in my conclusions.

The Task at Hand

My goal in this discussion has been to find a creed/confession that all true Christians can wholeheartedly give assent to. I am not interested in finding a formula that non-Christians cannot affirm, because such a creed will, I believe, be used by some Christians to exclude other Christians who simply believe differently in certain inessential areas. In the same way, I am not interested in constructing a rule of faith, but rather in formulating universal Christian beliefs; think of this task more as descriptive theology than prescriptive theology. My goal is to have a formula that every Christian can say without reservation, thus providing a tool to unify the Church. To that end, I will survey the confessions of the first 350 or so years of the Church, establish some criteria by which to judge them, and come to a conclusion about what I think should be the universal Christian Creed.

Survey of Ancient Confessions Through the Fourth Century CE

I begin my survey of ancient Christian confessions with what is, according to Oscar Cullmann, the oldest Christian confession: [1]

“Christ is Lord.”

Second, a sample of confessional material from the 50’s and 60’s CE, as collected from Paul. (For the complete list of Paul’s — and others’ — citations, see part 3 of this series.)

“Who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 1:3b-4)

“[We] are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Rom 3:24-26)

“That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” (1 Cor 15:3b-5)

“In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Cor 5:19)

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’” (Gal 3:13)

“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:27-28)

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” (Gal 4:4-5)

The confessions that Paul cites, it is worth noting, originally come from a devotional/liturgical setting and have Jesus, rather than the Father, as their primary focus. They were not meant to convey precise truths about Jesus, but instead were meant to inspire devotion to him. Two prime examples of this phenomenon are Philippians 2:5-11 and Colossians 1:15-20, both of which are quite florid but imprecise. [2]

By the late second century CE, the Apostles’ Creed was formulated:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.

Whereas Paul’s confessions were pre-biblical, the Apostles’ Creed is (obviously enough) post-Biblical. That is to say, while the confessions that Paul cites had their basis in the earliest Christian tradition, the Apostles’ Creed has its basis in what is now known as the NT canon. For instance, it incorporates “who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate” from the Gospels and “he descended into hell” from Paul.

In 325 CE, the Nicene Creed was written…

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father; the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made, both in heaven and on earth; Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

And in the Holy Ghost.

…followed shortly thereafter, in 381, by the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (what the Book of Common Prayer and the Lutheran Book of Worshiphave listed as “the Nicene Creed”).

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Notice how much more theological flourish is in the latter creed when compared with the former. [3] Most interestingly, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed goes into much more detail about the nature of the Holy Spirit than any of the other creeds, and it includes an affirmation of Christ’s eternal generation. It is also interesting that, while the teaching about the Spirit is expanded quite significantly through the Apostles’, Nicene, and Niceno-Constantinopolitan creeds, the teaching about the Father remains more or less identical through them.

Having surveyed the development of the first few creeds of ancient Christendom, I will now make an assessment of the validity of each of them for assessing true Christianity today.

Assessment of the Ancient Confessions

I propose three different criteria for assessing these ancient confessions for use today. First, I give priority to the older formulations, because the older confessions are not as tainted by theological struggle. Second, non-devotional creeds are better than devotional ones, because a non-devotional creed will be more precise in its wording (cf. my discussion of the Pauline confessions above). Finally, the better creeds are those that are accurate in their treatment of the whole Bible and that do not include inessential doctrine. [4]

To begin, let’s examine the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed according to these criteria. While it is certainly very specific in its language, gaining it points under criterion (2), that precision comes from it being written during a profound ecclesiastical struggle, which inherently mars its ability to unify the Church. It also includes inaccuracies like the Virgin Birth (see Andrew T. Lincoln, “Contested Paternity and Contested Readings: Jesus’ Conception in Matthew 1.18-25,” JSNT 34: 211-231) and inessentials like the homoousion, the eternal generation of the Son, and the procession of the Spirit. It was, to say it simply, written as a wedge to cleave off “false” believers from the true Church; it was designed as a weapon. Thus, as it stands, this creed is not useful for the task of unifying the Church.

The Nicene Creed is slightly older than  the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, and the Apostles’ Creed is older still. However, they, like the Niceno-Constantinopolitan, declare inaccurate and non-essential doctrine to be essential for true Christianity. Namely, the Nicene Creed includes the homoousion, and the Apostles’ Creed includes Jesus’ being divinely conceived and the Virgin Birth. Thus, it too must be rejected in their traditional form; however, I will re-visit these two creeds shortly to see if they can be salvaged.

Finally, the Pauline confessions and the earliest confession, “Christ is Lord,” though they are old and though they are accurate in their treatment of the whole of Scripture, are not precise enough to function in themselves as true markers of Christianity today. Even when synthesized into a single confession, it still leaves much to be desired, especially in teaching about the Father and the Spirit. Thus, they must be rejected as possibilities for establishing a universal Christian creed, too.

Conclusion: My Proposal

After thinking through this idea for a while, I have decided to abandon my original proposal for a creed (“Christ, the Lord, is risen”) for the reasons I have just rejected the original confession and the Pauline confessions: it is not precise enough. It is more suited for a devotional setting rather than as a statement of beliefs. In its place, I propose a modified version of the Apostles’ Creed, with inessential doctrine removed:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of a woman, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; on the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, and the forgiveness of sins. Amen.

I have change the line “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary” to the Pauline “born of a woman,” and I have removed the references to the descent into Hell, to bodily resurrection, and to “life everlasting.” [5] I have also made the section about Jesus into its own paragraph, for the sake of style and formatting, but that does not impact any content.

A disclaimer on this proposal: I must make it very clear that this creed is only a means of describing Christianity, not a means of prescribing things to be believed. Accepting the doctrines in this creed is not the same as faith. As Rudolf Bultmann, discussing one of his teachers, warns, “He thought that the old Apostles’ Creed should continue to be confessed serenely in the worship service, because scarcely anyone considers it obligatory to take all its assertions as literally true. But if a new confession were to be formulated, it would consist of sentences that the listeners — or speakers — would think were sentences that they must accept as true, and therefore faith would once again be confused with accepting sentences as true.” [6] That is a pitfall which must be avoided at all costs.

All things considered, I think this confession, or something along the same lines, is the happiest medium between something as inclusive as “Christ is Lord” and as exclusive as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. It has all the essentials for basic Christian belief, it allows room for one to be captive to his/her conscience, and it isn’t unnecessarily exclusive. Moreover — and this is the important part — it provides a core of teaching that would allow Christians from different traditions and backgrounds to recognize each other for what they both really are: members of the body of Christ. It is, in sum, a tool for unity, rather than division.

——————————

1. Oscar Cullmann, Les premières confessions de foi chrétiennes (1943). Cited in Richard N. Longenecker, New Wine into Fresh Wineskins: Contextualizing the Early Christian Confessions (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1999), 14.

2. Longenecker, New Wine, 28-29. Longenecker notes nine major, interdependent themes of the confessions cited by the NT authors (New Wine, 34-44):

  1. “God is the initiator, sustainer, and ultimate agent of redemption.”
  2. “Jesus is Israel’s Messiah (the Christ)”
  3. “The eschatological age of redemption has been inaugurated.”
  4. “Jesus is God’s obedient son.”
  5. “Jesus is humanity’s redemptive Lord.”
  6. “The true humanity of Jesus.”
  7. “Christ’s redemptive death on a cross.”
  8. “Christ’s resurrection/exaltation to new life.”
  9. “New relationships established through the work of Christ.”

3. According to Wikipedia, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed was originally a separate creed, perhaps a confession a candidate for baptism would have to recite before being baptized, that was modified to look like the original Nicene Creed. It seems to be that this unnamed baptismal creed looks an awful lot like the Apostles’ Creed.

4. This third point is inspired by the Church’s treatment of Galileo. Galileo, of course, was found by the Inquisition to be “vehemently suspect of heresy” and lived the rest of his life in house arrest. The reason? He dared to suggest, contrary to a plain reading of 1 Chronicles 16:30, Psalms 93:1, 96:10, 104:5, and Ecclesiastes 1:5, that the Earth revolved around the Sun, rather than vice versa. The Catholic Church did not formally apologize until 2000.

5. Note very well: my deletion of any phrase (except for references to the Virgin Birth) does not therefore imply that I do not believe that phrase to be true. Remember, I’m making a universal Christian creed, and not all Christians believe in, say, a literal bodily resurrection or eternal life post mortem.

6. Walter Harenberg, Der Spiegel on the New Testament (trans. James H. Burtness; London, Macmillan, 1970), 238. Emphasis added.

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A “New Testament Confession” (Median vs. Mediocre Christianity, pt. 3)

This post continues my discussion of Median Christianity vs. Mediocre Christianity (parts 1, 2). Last time, I proposed “Jesus Christ, the Lord, is risen” as the only creed that should be required in order to prove true Christianity. Here, I provide a list of the major confessional material in the New Testament (drawn from Richard N. Longenecker, New Wine into Fresh Wineskins). I also distill this material and synthesize it into a single confession. On Monday, I’ll compare this NT-based confession with my proposal and see what changes need to be made where, and why.

Here’s the raw NT material:

“Who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 1:3b-4)

“[We] are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Rom 3:24-26)

“Who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.” (Rom 4:25)

“That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” (1 Cor 15:3b-5)

“In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Cor 5:19)

“Who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” (Gal 1:4-5)

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.'” (Gal 3:13)

“For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.” (Gal 3:26)

“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:27-28)

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” (Gal 4:4-5)

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Col 1:15-20)

“We believe that Jesus died and rose again.” (1 Thess 4:14a)

“He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” (Heb 1:3)

“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” (Heb 5:7)

“Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” (Heb 5:8-9)

Other NT confessional material includes calling Jesus “Christ” (Mk 8:29b, par.; John 1:15–27, 41; 7:41; 9:22; 11:27; 20:31; Acts 9:22; 17:3; 1 Jn 2:22; 5:1), calling him “Son of God” (Mk 15:39; 16:16; Jn 1:34, 49; 11:27; 20:31; Acts 9:20; 1 Jn 4:15; 5:5), and calling him “Lord” (Rom 10:9; 1 Cor 12:3; 2 Cor 4:5; Phil 2:11; Col 2:6).

In this collection, it is far to say, we have some of the confessional material that the NT authors granted imprimatur. (If only we had more! Our lives would be much easier then.) Let us begin by distilling all of Paul’s confessions into one single confession:

Jesus Christ, the Lord,
Born to a woman, under the Law, in the line of David,
Died to redeem us from sin and Law,
Was raised and declared Son of God,
Appeared to Cephas and the Twelve,
Secured justification for us,
Made us God’s children,
Unifies the Church.

(Note that this Pauline confession also includes the single-word confessions from the Gospels et al. — that is, “Christ,” “Lord,” and “Son of God.” Also note that, in Paul’s confessions, Jesus is not “Son of God” until his resurrection.)

Now, let’s distill Colossians and Hebrews and add it to Paul:

Jesus Christ, the Lord,
The invisible God made visible,
The reflection of God’s glory.

He was born to a woman, under the Law, in the line of David,
Submitted himself to God,
Learned obedience through suffering,
Was made perfect and became our source of salvation.

He died to redeem us from sin and Law,
Was raised and declared Son of God,
Appeared to Cephas and the Twelve,
Ascended to sit at God’s right hand.

He created and sustains all things,
Secured justification for us,
Made us God’s children,
Unifies the Church, over which he is head.

With this, I think, we have something we could reasonably call a “New Testament confession.” On Monday, I’ll compare this confession with my proposal, “Jesus Christ, the Lord, is risen,” and see what changes need to be made to which confession, and why.

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Greek Wednesday: Non-Past-Referring Aorist Indicatives

Note: This post is adapted from F. Beetham, “The Aorist Indicative,” Greece & Rome 42 (2002): 227-236, Frank Stagg, “The Abused Aorist,” JBL 91 (1972): 222-231, Herbert Weir Smyth, Greek Grammar (rev. Gordon M. Messing; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1956), 429-434, and Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 

A good many aorist indicative verbs should not be read as a past tense; in fact, D. A. Carson has estimated that perhaps 15% of the finite aorists in the New Testament do not refer to the past.[1] On the face of it, this number might not seem significant, but it means that, to take Carson literally, somewhere around 900 aorist indicatives in the NT do not refer to the past. So, obviously, understanding this phenomenon is very important for understanding the text of the NT. I’ll use examples from Classical Greek to illustrate the phenomenon, which can then be applied back to the NT.

1) Substituting for the future tense, in order to intensify the action of the verb.

Classical examples:

εἴ περ γάρ τε καὶ αὐτίκ’ Ὀλύμπιος οὐκ ἐτέλεσσεν,
ἔκ τε καὶ ὀψὲ τελεῖ, σύν τε μεγάλῳ ἀπέτισαν
σὺν σφῇσιν κεφαλῇσι γυναιξί τε καὶ τεκέεσσιν.

If he that rules Olympus fulfill it not here and now,
he will yet fulfill it hereafter, and they shall pay dearly
with their lives and with their wives and children.

(Homer, Iliad 4.160-162)

εἰ μέν κ’ αὖθι μένων Τρώων πόλιν ἀμφιμάχωμαι,
ὤλετο μέν μοι νόστος, ἀτὰρ κλέος ἄφθιτον ἔσται·
εἰ δέ κεν οἴκαδ’ ἵκωμι φίλην ἐς πατρίδα γαῖαν,
ὤλετό μοι κλέος ἐσθλόν, ἐπὶ δηρὸν δέ μοι αἰὼν
ἔσσεται, οὐδέ κέ μ’ ὦκα τέλος θανάτοιο κιχείη.

If I stay here and fight, I shall lose my safe homecoming but I will have a glory that is unwilting: whereas if I go home my glory will die, but it will be a long time before the outcome of death shall take me.

(Homer, Iliad 9.412-416)

ἀπωλόμην ἄρ’, εἴ με δὴ λείψεις, γύναι.

I am lost, then, if you are going to leave me.

(Euripides, Alcestis 386)

NT examples:

πάντα ὅσα προσεύχεσθε καὶ αἰτεῖσθε, πιστεύετε ὅτι ἐλάβετε, καὶ ἔσται ὑμῖν.

Whatever you pray and ask for, believe that you have received [it], and it will be yours.

(Mk 11:24)

λέγει Ἰησοῦς· νῦν ἐδοξάσθη ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου καὶ ὁ θεὸς ἐδοξάσθη ἐν αὐτῷ.

Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him.”

(Jn 13:31)

2) Using the aorist to express a general truth (like a proverb or a maxim) or to make a general description.

Classical examples:

παθὼν δέ τε νήπιος ἔγνω.

A fool learns by experience.

(Hesiod, Works and Days 218)

οἱ τύραννοι καὶ οἱ τὰς ὀλιγαρχίας ἔχοντες μάλιστα δύνανται τιμᾶν· πλούσιον γὰρ ὃν ἂν βούλωνται παραχρῆμ’ ἐποίησαν.

Tyrants and oligarchs have an immense advantage in that they can make anyone they choose instantaneously rich.

(Demosthenes, Speeches 20.15)

φᾶρος δὲ αὐτημερὸν ἐξυφήναντες οἱ ἱρέες κατ’ ὦν ἔδησαν ἑνὸς ἑωυτῶν μίτρῃ τοὺς ὀφθαλμούς

On the day of the festival, the priests weave a cloth and bind it as a headband on the eyes of one of their number.

(Herodotus, Histories 2.122)

This aorist is also often equivalent to a conditional statement.

ἀλλὰ γὰρ ἀθυμοῦντες ἄνδρες οὔπω τρόπαιον ἔστησαν, ὦ Κριτία

But men of faint heart never yet set up a trophy, Critias.
(= If there is a disheartened man, he has never yet set up a trophy.)

(Plato, Critias 108c)

And it also occurs in similes pretty frequently in Homer.

ὡς δ’ ὅτε τίς τε δράκοντα ἰδὼν παλίνορσος ἀπέστη
οὔρεος ἐν βήσσῃς, ὑπό τε τρόμος ἔλλαβε γυῖα,
ἂψ δ’ ἀνεχώρησεν, ὦχρός τέ μιν εἷλε παρειάς,
ὣς αὖτις καθ’ ὅμιλον ἔδυ Τρώων ἀγερώχων
δείσας Ἀτρέος υἱὸν Ἀλέξανδρος θεοειδής.

As one who starts back affrighted, trembling and pale, when he comes suddenly upon a serpent in some mountain glade, even so did Alexander plunge into the throng of Trojan warriors, terror-stricken at the sight of the son Atreus.

(Homer, Iliad 3.33-37)

NT examples:

ἑπὶ τῆς Μωϋσέως καθέδρας ἐκάθισαν οἱ γραμματεῖς καὶ οἱ Φαρισαῖοι.

The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat.

(Matt 23:3)

ἐξηράνθη ὁ χόρτος, καὶ τὸ ἄνθος ἐξέπεσεν.

The grass withers and the flower falls off.

(1 Pet 1:24)

3) The aorist with τί οὖν οὐ and τί οὐ takes the place of the present tense to express surprise that something hasn’t been done.

Classical examples:

εἴ τινα ἔχεις τῶν ῥητόρων τοιοῦτον εἰπεῖν, τί οὐχὶ καὶ ἐμοὶ αὐτὸν ἔφρασας τίς ἐστιν;

If you have any orator of this kind that you can mention, without more ado tell me who he is!

(Plato, Gorgias 503b)

Τί οὖν, ἔφη ὁ Ἱέρων, οὐχὶ καὶ σύ, ἐπεὶ νῦν γε ἔτι ἰδιώτης εἶ, ὑπέμνησάς με τὰ ἐν τῷ ἰδιωτικῷ βίῳ;

Why, then,” said the Priest, “don’t you, since you are still your own person, remind me about what happens in private life?”

(Xenophon, Hiero 1.3)

NT examples:

καὶ διελογίζοντο πρὸς ἑαυτοὺς λέγοντες· ἐὰν εἴπωμεν· ἐξ οὐρανοῦ, ἐρεῖ· διὰ τί [οὖν] οὐκ ἐπιστεύσατε αὐτῷ;

And they discussed it among themselves: “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why don’t you believe him?'”

(Mk 11:31; par. Matt 21:25; Lk 20:5)

Τότε προσελθόντες οἱ μαθηταὶ τῷ Ἰησοῦ κατ᾿ ἰδίαν εἶπον· διὰ τί ἡμεῖς οὐκ ἠδυνήθημεν ἐκβαλεῖν αὐτό;

Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why can’t we cast it out?”

(Matt 17:19)

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1. D. A. Carson, “An Introduction to the Porter/Fanning Debate,” in Biblical Greek Language and Linguistics. JSNTSS 80 (1993), 25.

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Admit You Have Wishes

As a New Testament scholar and pastor, I am sometimes asked to lead Bible studies at local churches, including my own. Studies of Paul and women or of the Bible and sexuality are especially popular topics these days, though I have also taught courses on, for example, biblical perspectives on war and violence or the circumstances surrounding the production of particular New Testament books. Whatever I am teaching, however, I usually begin by asking participants what they wish the Bible said about the topic at hand. Do we wish that the Bible would reject war as a political strategy? Or perhaps we believe that the Bible should support defensive if not offensive wars. Do we wish that the Bible would confirm gay marriage, instead of rejecting it as so many Christians insist? Or perhaps our concern has to do with the role of women. Perhaps we wish that Paul had not told women to be silent and learn from their husbands at home, especially since talkative and independent women can be found throughout the Bible just as often as silent, obedient women. Whatever we wish for, I point out, probably can be found somewhere in the Bible, which is why it is so important to admit that we have wishes, whatever they may be. We are not passive recipients of what the Bible says, but active interpreters who make decisions about what we will believe and what we will affirm. Admitting that we have wishes, and that our wishes matter, is therefore the first step to developing an honest and faithful interpretation.

From Jennifer Wright Knust, Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 241.

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Sadduceic Christianity

And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:7)

“But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust.” (Acts 24:14-15)

“Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” (Acts 15:19-21)

It’s interesting to me that, though Gentiles were largely allowed to remain Gentiles when they converted to Christo-Judaism,* Sadducees were expected to become Pharisees when they converted. Of course, it makes sense that Sadducees, who denied an afterlife and a resurrection of the dead, would have to first acknowledge both an afterlife for the soul and the resurrection, since Jesus’ resurrection was a central dogma for Christo-Judaism. But it is also true that the Sadducees represented the traditional approach to the afterlife, the one presented in the Torah, as opposed to the revisionist teaching of the Pharisees, which isn’t found until the post-exilic period, developed in the face of persecution.

Notice the difference between Gentile conversion and Sadducee conversion in the quotes from Acts above. While Luke has James saying that Jews “should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God” (15:19), Luke frames the conversion of Sadducees as “becoming obedient to the faith” (6:7). Likewise, he has Paul saying that the true Christo-Jewish interpretation of “everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets” is that “there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust” (24:14-15). In other words, while Acts shows the earliest, Pharisaic church being relatively lenient toward Gentile converts, the church in Acts is, to be honest, pretty harsh toward the Sadducees.

Thus, I’d argue that because Sadduceism, to a Pharisee, represented a wrong view of the Scriptures (though the Sadducees actually interpreted the Messianic predictions in the Hebrew Bible more accurately, from the standpoint of reading the Scriptures as the original authors understood them), Sadducees had to become Pharisees in order to “properly” follow the Messiah.

What’s interesting, though, is that since the advent of modern biblical criticism, with its denial of the supernatural, certain groups of Christianity have taken a Sadduceic turn. For this camp, it is no problem if Jesus did not work miracles and did not experience a literal, bodily resurrection. (There is debate over whether Paul and Mark themselves believed in a bodily resurrection, but that’s another post for another day.) The focus in this Christianity thus turns to what Jesus said (his teaching and ethics), rather than what Jesus did (his miracles, his death, and his resurrection).

Personally, I find this kind of Christianity compelling, if not wholly convincing. Jews did not hope for a literal, bodily resurrection until the time of the Maccabees; thus, in order to do responsible exegesis of the OT hope for a Messiah, we cannot include the concept of resurrection from the dead. On this reading, the talk of the supernatural in the New Testament — the afterlife, the resurrection, etc. — is actually a culturally-conditioned addition to the Hebrew Scriptures, and is thus invalid, meaning that our focus should not be a hope for some future bliss after death, but of acting justly and ethically while alive.

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* I use “Christo-Judaism” because the term “Jewish Christianity” seems to me to put an undue and anachronistic emphasis on the Christian side of the belief.

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Greek Wednesday: Conjunctions in the NT

Here’s a guide I made a couple of years ago to help translate the conjunctions of the Greek NT. I based it off of the discussion of conjunctions in Dan Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, though I expanded on Wallace’s treatment to include all the conjunctions in the NT, not just the more common ones. I hope you find it useful.

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