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Saturday, December 15th 2012


Some Puzzles on Biblical Inspiration

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: Recovering
Today (Friday) it's actually been a really nice day outside. It's not been too cold, and the sun has been shining, so our ride

Started Friday, finished Saturday.

Today (Friday) it's actually been a really nice day outside. It's not been too cold, and the sun has been shining, so our ride home from Indianapolis late this morning was kind of refreshing to the spirit. I had an early-morning appointment with Dr. W, the movement disorder specialist, which actually came right on the heels of Wednesday morning's appointment with Dr. B, the regular neurologist. Both appointments were good in a sort of paradoxical sense. They affirmed that my issues were real and encouraged me, but neither one was wanting to change any medication at this point. Considering that more often than not, over the last couple of years, changes have backfired, I agree, though there are a lot of days on which I get pretty miserable. Dr. B did write me a new order that on one day a week (other than Sunday) I may not do anything that I feel is required of me, trying to get my OCD under control. Actually, June voiced the opinion that neither doctor had done a whole lot for me. The thing is that she's probably right, but that at this point there's not much that they could do. Right now, there exist some relatively drastic measures to reduce the effects of Parkinson's, but they all come with an expiration date, and so one reserves them for when matters go from miserable to intolerable, and thankfully I'm far from there yet. (I'm sorry to have to add this comment, but please do not consider the above statement to be an invitation to try to get me to pay for dubious remedies allegedly suppressed by the medico-pharmaceutical establishment or for unapproved supplements. Thanks.)

I have found that I'm forgetting more and more of my old songs, so I'm going to make a series of videos of them, as best as I can to preserve them, not so much for posterity as for myself. I mean, posterity is welcome to remember them as well, but I don't know whether posterity will be all that concerned. Regardless, I began yesterday with a video I put up on Facebook and YouTube with my song "You Never Had The Time." It's obviously self-produced with less-than-professional equipment, but I think it came out okay. You might even like the song, even if it is kind of somber. Or maybe it's more of a chip-kicking song; you can decide. If you do, you may even set a precedent for posterity. 

Luke Bible Study      

Bible Reading:
2 Timothy 3:16,17

All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (HCSB)

In the last two entries I discussed the nature of textual criticism, also known as "lower criticism" and how this discipline helps us to establish the content of the original manuscripts of the Bible. I said repeatedly that one cannot invoke biblical inerrancy in this process because the person carrying it out is attempting to do something more elementary, namely to first of all establish the content of the text for which we claim divine inspiration and, consequently, inerrancy. In this context Cousin A. brought up some interesting suggestions of topics for me to address. They are tangential to textual criticism per se, but they provide excellent opportunities to clarify the proper understanding of biblical inspiration. To save you from having to scroll back and pursue the "comments" link, I'll start out by quoting the ideas he brings up.

One of these days, take up the interesting phenomenon of a translation (LXX) being recited back as Scripture in the NT in a way that we would never have translated from the Hebrew. Let alone the Greek translation of Jesus words in the autographs being Scripture, vs. Jesus' actual words in the Aramaic. :)

Another pondering that would seem up your alley: Are Tertius's words in Romans 16:22 inspired? "I Tertius, who wrote this epistle, salute you in the Lord." And - if so - does that make him an official contributor to Holy Writ? :) It is a bit of a quirky thing that has interested me.

Fascinating points. I will try to demonstrate why they are potentially controversial issues and attempt to provide explanations for them one by one. And it'll take me more than one entry to do them justice. I see three phenomena here:

  • The apparent (mis)applications of Old Testament quotations by New Testament authors, who were using a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures;
  • The fact that Jesus' spoke Aramaic, and yet the gospels are in Greek, so that apparently we don't actually have Jesus' teachings in his direct words;
  • The insertion by the scribe of one of Paul's letters of his own name and greeting.

Let me give you a key to approaching these matters. When we talk about "inspiration," to what does this term refer? Who or what is it that is inspired?

First of all, it definitely has nothing to do with us readers getting "inspired" as we read God's Word. In a loose sense, we may get "inspired," i.e. feel confident, blessed, elevated, edified, and motivated by a greeting card, a poem, or a passage in the Bible. But that use of the term is not the same thing as what we should say about scripture, where the term means that it is "God-breathed"; it is God's message to us. Now, don't get me wrong, it is impossible to understand the Bible correctly apart from the work of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:10-14), but the proper term for this doctrine is that the Holy Spirit provides us with divine illumination. It is not inspiration.

Second, we can say correctly that the biblical authors were inspired, but again only in a somewhat derived sense, namely if we realize that to do so gives us only a partial aspect of inspiration. We read in 2 Peter 1:20 that the writers "spoke from God as they were moved by the Holy Spirit." This statement is very important. Correct theology holds that the Bible's authorship consists of human beings in all of their humanity (which does not imply sin or error by itself) as well as God in all of his Deity. Now this verse reminds us that the initiative belonged to God. It is not that the human persons wrote their pieces, and then God accepted those that met his standards, but God directed the biblical writers to put down exactly what he wanted them to write, and they did so, using human language embedded in human cultures. Even when the Old Testament prophets say, "Thus says the Lord . . . ", there are differences in style between them; they expressed God's words in the human words that they knew. Much of the time, the authors didn't even realize that they were writing down divine revelation. 

A famous example of such a case occurred when Paul acknowledged in 1 Corinthians 7:10 that he had not had a specific revelatory experience on a certain point. Nevertheless, even though he was not aware of the fact, what he wrote was, in fact, divine scripture. (You may want to contrast this biblical view with the oppressive description in the Hadiths of how Muhammad supposedly received his revelations, which eventually became the Qur'an.)

The object of inspiration is, in fact, scripture itself. As the famous verse says in 2 Timothy 3:16: "All Scripture is inspired by God." It is neither the author nor the reader to whom Paul refers here, but to the written text itself. Consequently, when I read a passage from the Bible, whether it be printed on paper or encoded on my Kindle, I am reading inspired writing. Today's availability of the Bible in digitized form on computers or other devices, should make it easier for us to understand than was possible in previous generations that we are referring to the content, and not the physical pages covered with ink. Whatever the Bible says is God's Word, and that is what we refer to when we talk about biblical inspiration. We say that it is plenary, viz. that all of the Bible is inspired, and that it is verbal, viz. that every word used by the human author is precisely what God wanted him (or her--e.g., Miriam or Deborah) to write.

My video on the canon. Does anyone note anything
somewhat amusing about the background music
I put together for this video?

So, the basis on which I'm going to approach each of these three topics is that 1) the early church recognized these writing as inspired by God [the so-called formation of the canon (see my YouTube video)] and 2) textual criticism has refined to a large extent what we can accept as the actual wording of the original text. Here, then, is my ground rule:

We should accept the book as inspired in the form in which the Holy Spirit directed the church to accept it.

Thus, if we recognize biblical inspiration as referring to the canonical text, rather than trying to justifying parts of it on the basis of other criteria, we can come to some sound conclusions on each of the three points Cousin A. brought up.

1. Old Testament Quotations in the New Testament

I mentioned that most of us read the Bible in translations, and that different translation are called different "versions." The earliest believers in Christ already were using translated versions of the Jewish scriptures. The language of the Old Testament (OT) is overwhelmingly Hebrew with a few chapters in the book of Daniel constituting an exception because they are written in Aramaic. By the first-century A.D. the language of the Jewish people was Aramaic. You may remember the time when the Rabshakeh, emissary of the King of Assyria, taunted the people of Jerusalem (2 Kings 18 ). He spoke in Hebrew so that all of his listeners could understand him. A delegate of King Hezekiah asked him to speak in Aramaic so that the common people would not know what he was saying, but the Rabshakeh refused to comply with that request. Now things had turned the other way around. The common language was Aramaic. As we can see in the misunderstanding of Jesus' cry from the cross, Hebrew was no longer understood by and large (Matthew 27:45-48).

The rabbis (the scribes and teachers, usually Pharisees) knew Hebrew, and they were able to interpret the Bible for the common people. It became standard practice that, when a rabbi had read a passage of scripture, he would translate crucial parts, as well as explain and illustrate them in Aramaic. After a time these Aramaic versions were becoming somewhat standardized, but they were not allowed to be written down, lest the Aramaic adumbrations should erroneously be considered to be scripture. Just like the Mishna, they were eventually recorded after the fall of Jerusalem and the dispersion. An Aramaic version of the Old Testament is called a "targum."

Please let me introduce one of several abbreviations. The standard Hebrew text of the OT is often called the "Masoretic Text," named after the Masoretes, a group of Jewish scribes who copied the Hebrew scriptures from generation to generation throughout a long period of the Middle Ages. So, rather than saying, "the Hebrew text," let me just use the abbreviation MT.

So, now consider the following dilemma. Let us say that you are a first-century Jew, though not a rabbi, who is writing about religious matters, and you want to quote from the Old Testament. You don't know Hebrew. You may very well know the content of your quote from the Aramaic targum, but you comply with the proscription of not setting it down in writing. But you know Greek; in fact, you're writing in Greek and, what's more, there is a good Greek translation of the Old Testament available. So it is to the Old Testament in Greek that you turn as your regular written source.

The best known Greek Old Testament is called the "Septuagint," which means "Seventy," and is usually abbreviated with the Roman numeral LXX. It supposedly derived its name from the legend that in the 3rd century BC King Ptolemy II of Egypt commissioned 70 or so scholars to translate the Hebrew scriptures into Greek. These seventy men were supposedly isolated from each other as they did their work. At the appointed deadline, each of them had come up with the identical translation, thereby proving that their work was guided supernaturally. (I have a difficult time accepting this story as true, though it leaves me with the question of why it was called the "Septuagint." I have to say that I don't know, but that it illustrates once again my theory that many times an explanation is invented subsequent to an unusual phenomenon. Someone must have called it something in connection to the number 70, and the name stuck for some unknown reason, thereby stimulating someone else to come up with this story.) The Septuagint, though a translation and not a Hebrew manuscript, is often used in textual criticism of the Old Testament in places where the MT is so obscure that one has to rely on a translation to figure out what the original conceivably could have been. So, many first-century Jews were using the Septuagint for their scriptures, including the New Testament writers.

a. If it's okay with you (since we can't consult Luke to get his permission), let us look for some good examples in Matthew. Applying the fundamental rule as stated above, if Matthew used the Septuagint for his OT quotations, we need to accept Matthew's gospel in the way in which he wrote it, even if his version of the verse is not identical with (our understanding of) the verse in the MT. So, at times, it's almost as though we're looking at two different verses, one from the MT and one from the LXX. Obviously there aren't two verses, but only one. Still we need to leave both the OT prophets and Matthew a free hand in expressing their own message since they are equally inspired scripture. I think this is a necessary first step in approaching this matter, but we must be careful lest we get ourselves lost in a hermeneutical wasteland, as I will clarify later on.

Here are some examples. Matthew (1:23) quotes Isaiah 7:14 as applying to Mary and the virgin birth of Christ,

    See, the virgin will become pregnant
    and give birth to a son,
    and they will name Him Immanuel.

Bible scholars debate whether this verse really does refer to the birth of Christ. For Matthew there does not seem to be any question about it, just as there is not for me. [I just googled my site, and apparently I have not talked about "telescoping" in prophecy for a long time. So I'll probably inject that topic into the entries surrounding this topic as well.] But with other verses that Matthew cites, it's not as straightforward.

For example, when in 2:15, Matthew invokes Hosea 11:1 on the return of Joseph and family from Egypt to Galilee, he seems to be really stretching the meaning in the Old Testament. "Out of Egypt I have called my son." In Hosea, the reference is clearly to Israel's exodus.

Similarly, Matthew applies Jeremiah 31:15, a reference to the wretched conditions prior to the Babylonian exile,

    A voice was heard in Ramah,
    weeping, and great mourning,
    Rachel weeping for her children;
    and she refused to be consoled,
    because they were no more.

to the slaughter of the infants by King Herod, and, again, as Cousin A. said, we would hardly come up with these applications of these verses if we just stuck with the MT. However, Matthew, using the LXX (which may actually not have made that much of a difference here) applies them in unique ways that would not have occurred to us.


I started to fall asleep right around here Friday evening and was afraid that I might end this entry by recording hypnogogic illusions if I kept going. So, I stopped writing, forced myself to stay awake another hour or so, and then went to bed at 10 pm. I probably fell asleep at 2 am and woke up with a killer headache this morning. My life is weird.

So, I'm continuing on Saturday evening.


I said that the first step is to recognize that Matthew's writing is just as canonical as that of the OT prophets he cites, and so we need to accept Isaiah, Hosea, and Jeremiah on their terms and Matthew on his. Please don't take that fact as a license for your own creative reinterpretations. We may not adapt prophecies in the way that Matthew did because we are not led by the Holy Spirit to compose inspired writings, but we have to accept that the Holy Spirit did not make a mistake in guiding Matthew in making his applications.

b. And that brings me to the second step. At all times we need to be careful to observe the distinction between the meaning of a scripture passage and its application or significance. A lot of times the meaning of a verse or passage in the Bible is perfectly clear; we just don't understand how it fits into the context or our understanding of a larger picture. Then we may be prone to say that we don't understand its meaning, but that's not really the case. We are perfectly clear of what it says, but we either don't know what to do with it, or we feel as though we need to do something different with it than the Bible does. (Or perhaps, could it be that there are times when we just plain don't want to accept what the Bible says?) Less negatively, let's return to one of the above examples. Is there really a question of the basic meaning of "Out of Egypt I have called my son"? I shouldn't think so. There is someone to whom God refers to as his son, who has been in Egypt, and whom God called to come out of Egypt. The distinction between Hosea and Matthew comes into play, not in the meaning of this verse, but in its application or in the specific significance they each ascribe to it. Similar things can be said about Matthew's application of other verses--as well as about Luke's use of the Old Testament in the early chapters of Acts, where there is a similar cluster of seemingly out-of-place quotations.

c. Still, we need to take a third step. Matthew did not say in 2:15, "Thus the expression, 'Out of Egypt have I called my son' was thereby illustrated." He said that "what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled." Apparently, then, Matthew believed that his application of the prophecy was the ultimately intended one. But that idea seems to lead us down a rather thorny path.

And so, we're going to take this "third step" next time by clarifying the telescoping nature of prophecy.

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