Monday, 30 August 2021

1 Thessalonians 2:14-16: authentic or interpolation?

The authenticity of 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 is challenged by some on surprising grounds – mostly because some scholars have a preconceived idea of what Paul can say and they can’t fit this into their view, and what Paul says seems historically premature. There are fundamental flaws in that. But what are those sceptical of the passage surprised by? Simply that Paul is condemning towards the Jews he is talking about, whereas he writes elsewhere more optimistically about Jews in general, and it seems premature for Paul in the 50s of the first century to talk about God's wrath having happened, if we presuppose that the only wrath that happened to the Jews in the first century is the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD. That’s the critics' argument, the “it doesn’t sound like Paul to us, and it’s premature” argument. 

Here’s why it falls apart. First look at the passage:

For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.
The first problem critics have to admit is that the disputed passage is actually always there, found in every ancient manuscript where it should be found. There are no manuscripts where it goes missing in action. When there are zero manuscript variations to that effect, the objection is immediately relegated to being speculative. It therefore needs stronger evidence on other counts. That is, there is no knock-out punch here, so the argument for interpolation aims to win the bout on points.
The second problem, a clear weakness for a speculative argument, is that critics have nothing else written by Paul in the same place at the same time  on the same theme to compare it to. Pauline scholars sometimes stray into an error of conflating several works by Paul written several years apart at different stages of his life into one theological lump, harmonising it, turning it a single body of harmonised systematic theology. That is a heinous error in handling historical material. Paul’s definitive classic optimistic argument about the Jews being saved was written to the Roman Christians perhaps as much as a decade after his letter to the Thessalonian Christians. To prop up such historical method, you have to assume that Paul had no development in his thinking and no life experiences to affect his view at any moment over that long period. This is not true to human nature. It’s highly improbable. Every scholar in history or theology develops their views over time, and what one writes ten years apart can be substantially different in its development. In fact it almost certainly will be unless one has become a fossil. Speculation built on such method is not likely to be sound speculation.
The third problem for critics of this passage is that it doesn’t quite do what they tend to claim. It does not condemn Jews generally. It condemns the ones in Judea who have hounded Christians such as Paul.
The fourth problem for critics is that to assume that this refers to 70AD, they also have to assume that there is no other kind of wrath that Paul could be talking about. That’s a big hurdle to overcome for any speculation. To pursue that, you have to determine what divine wrath looked like theologically to Paul. (The author Paul is as vague as can be here. He refers to nothing concrete, so a scholar will widen the net for clues.) So, for a start, you have to look at what Paul means by ‘wrath’ elsewhere, and again you are making the hazardous leap into assuming that what Paul means by ‘wrath’ at different times of his life doesn’t much change. So speculation has chasms to cross. But if we were to take one example, here's one that doesn’t help the critics’ case at all. For a start, the only undisputed Pauline letter (going here only with undisputed ones) that uses the same Greek word for ‘wrath’ is, lo and behold, Romans, written probably a decade or so later. But what does this evidence base suggest? There are three uses of the word in Romans, Two of these are vague warnings of future doom, so they are of little help (Romans 2:8; 12:19). That leaves only Romans 1:18, and read in context it is clear what divine wrath is in Paul’s Jewish-Christian perspective: it looks like alienation from God and moral collapse – scholars have long known that this is how Paul thinks about wrath. God gives people over to their own rebellion against him and gives up on them. Theologically, that is divine wrath as Paul sees it in Romans. Is there anything like that in 1 Thessalonians 2:14-1?. There certainly is: it’s that some Judeans have become rebels against Jesus, against Paul, against God in his view. Paul is telling the Thessalonians that some Judeans (note, Judeans, not all Jews) who had hounded him out of Judea have fallen over a moral cliff-edge. That for Paul is precisely what divine wrath looks like in present times – your own rebellion is your own moral collapse. Speculation that the passage refers to 70AD is understandable speculation, but it ignores what wrath actually looks like to Paul: “They displease God.” To Paul, to displease God would be self-destruction, as he believed that to please God is life itself.
The fifth and related problem for critics is that to understand a passage, you can’t just look at it theologically, you have it look at it narratively. Could Paul really think such judgmental things of these Jews in Judea, and not be more optimistic for them, like he is for Jews more generally in his reflections a decade later? The narrative explanation is simple: “the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out.” It is difficult to deny Paul the right to be negative towards such people, and easy to understand why he would think that their condemnation, their alienation from God, is complete. In fact, even in Romans, there is a hint of condemnation for some of the Jews: “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children.”
In conclusion, if you are going to speculate that 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 is not authentic, but is an interpolation, then you have to overcome problems that collectively seem insurmountable.
The final nail in the coffin for this speculation is the undesigned coincidence between those verses and Acts 17:5-8. (See Hidden in Plain View by Lydia McGrew, Ohio: DeWard, 2017. pg 148, 152-154.)

Sunday, 25 April 2021

Quirinius? Census? Is Luke 2:1 anachronistic?

Here is a question that is sometimes raised for dating Luke’s Gospel or Luke's competence as a historian.

The NIV translation of the Bible, among some others, takes the liberty of translating Luke 2:1 to the effect that a “census” was conducted across the Roman Empire around the time of Jesus' birth. But did that really happen? And are there any implications if it never happened?

If we think that Luke 2:1 is claiming a "census" took place, then there could be implications for dating Luke’s Gospel. Here’s why. While there is a historical record of an Empire-wide census - counting people and property - in 74AD, there isn’t one for the time Luke is talking about, unless you are basically talking about Quirinius' 6AD undertaking instead. (In the era of Luke 2:1, the Emperor Augustus was counting everything and anything he could get away with, but not necessarily an empire-wide census of people and property covering Judea.) Where could Luke have got the idea of such a "census" in Herod's reign from (if he meant that)? Would it mean (the critics' view) that the 74AD Roman census gave Luke the idea of imagining a massive census in the year of Jesus’ birth? Well, if so, that means that Luke wrote his Gospel sometime post-74AD. That is a reason why some scholars use Luke 2:1 to date the gospel after 70AD. But there is already a heap of ‘ifs’ here. Let’s step back and unpick the overlapping issues. 

The devil is in the detail, and especially the assumptions of translators. In Luke 2:1, the specific Greek words matter. Firstly, whichever way you choose to read it, Luke says there was more than one registration. There are two main options about that. Option A: Luke could be saying that 6AD was the "first" of more than one registration under Quirinius - which is odd because neither Luke nor Josephus ever claims that Quirinius had a second one after 6AD. Or option B: Luke is saying that the one around Jesus' birth was the one "before" the 6AD Qurinius one, but fewer scholars like the translation "before". Either way, we ought to have some sense of why Luke undoubtedly thought there was more than one registration, but I can't resolve that in this post. What would be interesting to develop further is that when Luke talks about the registration in the nativity story, it is here that we find the word translated "first"; whereas when Gamaliel refers to a registration, it is not claimed to be the first. This word "first" is plausibly how Luke distinguishes between the two. 

Secondly, my focus here: these words report a decree to REGISTER i.e. “apographesthai” (not literally the word “census”, and there are alternative meanings - see below), to register ALL THE WORLD i.e. “pasan ten oikoumenen” (not literally “the Roman Empire”). That’s all we have to go on within the verse: "to register all the world". Everything else is interpretation. Let’s break this down, because there are reasons to think "census" is a mistranslation, and it wouldn't be the first time that an exegetical problem has been thrown up by a mistranslation or a misunderstanding.

Simply following the traditions of some translators, and their assumptions about what “register” means, is problematic. Clearly, we can’t absolutely assume without evidence that “register” here means “census” (NIV) - certainly not in the modern sense of a head count or in the ancient sense of mustering an army; nor can we absolutely assume it means “pay taxes” (KJV); or “register loyalty to Augustus” (see this suggestion which I think needs more attention). Census, taxation and loyalty oath are all within the range of activities covered by "register." Perhaps the safest translation is to leave it ambiguous as “register”, admitting that we can’t confirm what was meant by Luke to have been registered around the time of Jesus' birth. 

For the purpose of this post, it ultimately has little bearing as it is an inconclusive translation. Even if we were to suppose that Luke made an error in Luke 2:1, writing some decades later, nothing about dating Luke-Acts pre- or post-70AD is determined by it. That is, an error in dating the registration could be made by a writer before or after 70AD.

But, as said, a date after 70AD will be often be suggested by those who hold that "register" means "census," and this is because the best external explanation for anyone writing "census" is found post-74AD.

So, the issue of dating can be influenced by assumptions of what this "registration" actually was. 

There is another reason why some assume that Luke means "census". Luke uses the same word "register" when talking about the 6AD one (Acts 5:37), but this does not mean that Luke is using such a generic word to mean the exact same kind of thing with laser-sharp certainty. Here I need to expand on the suggestion of an error by Luke himself, as to his placing of Quirinius. In Acts 5:37, Luke a second time refers to a "registration" but which he now associates with Judas the Galilean's troubles (one which historian Josephus happens to uniquely connect with a tax-related registration in 6AD, when Quirinius held an office). Whereas in Luke 2:1, a "registration" is associated with an earlier time - Herod's era (which Luke uniquely connects with Quirinius having some kind of governing influence). Why be certain as to why he gives the same meaning to the generic word "registration" each time?

That's two registrations connected separately by the two authors with Quirinius, unless Luke has awkwardly messed about with a single one (but why then does he clearly say there were two?). As hinted above, anyone who tries to say that both Josephus and Luke are correct usually has to either translate the Luke 2:1 registration as the one "before" Quirinius' registration; either that or calculate that Luke's two registrations where in two periods with Quirinius having some kind of official role in Judea in both periods. If we don't want to leap to the conclusion that either Josephus or Luke is wrong. That is one of the reasons for not leaping to the conclusion that they are all one and the same 'registration', especially as Luke unquestionably indicates there was more than one registration, and he pins one of them to the era of Herod who died in 4BC, and the other to Judas the Galilean's antics which Josephus effectively dates to 6AD. You can see why some people think one of those authors made a mistake (usually pointing the finger at Luke, not Josephus, because they can see that Luke knows about the 6AD census and could muddle things). And this is why some factor this into their thinking about dating Luke's Gospel late (after 74AD). Bear with me here.

For my part, I don't think Luke is muddled, in light of two loose ends that leave some awkwardness for the argument that Luke is conflating together two different moments in time. Firstly, that he clearly says there were two registrations. Secondly, the loose end that his colourfully detailed story of the birth of Christ (Luke 2) does not have any trace of Judas the Galilean's revolt in the background, which it surely should do if Luke has the 6AD census revolt in his mind. It would add colour to the story of Joseph and Mary's journey to Bethlehem. For that reason, I don't see that Luke thought that these two events - the birth and the 6AD census revolt - coincide in time. In that light, he cannot be placing them under the same "registration," in his mind. If Luke had included any trace of Judas the Galilean's revolt in the nativity story, then yes, we could then say that we know he made the error. But he doesn't. Luke's terse mention of Judas the Galilean (Acts 5:37) omitted mention of Quirinius and a registration, but he must have known that Judas' revolt was about that registration. So that does suggest that Luke is conscious of these being his two registrations: in separate moments in time, the story of the birth and the story of the revolt. He was probably conscious that he was referring, or alluding, to a registration in each of those separate stories. Thus, in his mind, two registrations are clearly on the table, so perhaps the first being a loyalty oath, and the second the 6AD tax-related census. Of course, even with a two-registration solution, there still has to be  a satisfactory explanation for what connects Quirinius' name in each case. The explanation for 6AD being under Quirinius is supplied directly by Josephus. The explanation for one under Herod is dependent on Luke and needs a bit of reasoning that is somewhat difficult as explained here.

Let's get back to the crucial issue of translation, and how that at least helps to see what the evidence is. We've seen a range of possible meanings for "registration." Now let's look at...

The Greek word for ‘world’ here is oikoumenen. We can’t absolutely assume it means “the whole geographic world”, and similarly we can’t absolutely assume the NIV’s interpretation that it means all of “the Roman Empire”, or that it just means “all Judea”. The question is, whose “oikoumenen” is it in Luke’s mind, given that the only illustrative example he gives merely takes a single couple to Bethlehem? The safest translation is perhaps just “world”, admitting that we can’t nail down whose “world” is intended. But clearly, at least, Luke would not intend the literal whole physical world because he will have known that that went beyond Caesar’s jurisdiction. 

CONCLUSION: All we are strictly left with as an accurate translation is “register all the world”. That’s how I would translate it, with a footnote to say that we don’t know what that means; and mentioning the notable suggestions of translators and exegetes. The ESV translates it more or less the same way: "In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered."

If there are three options for what "registration" means, and "census” is probably an anachronistic one, we need a good rationale for why we would select that in this specific case (NIV translators ought to take note!).

In short, if we were to start from the presumption that Luke has made a mistake, we would have to choose which mistake, and there are different ways of cutting the cookie: e.g. a pre- or post-70AD mistake due to Luke misapplying an awareness of Imperial oaths or tax collection; or a post-74AD mistake of Luke misapplying an awareness of an Empire-wide census. 

My tentative conclusion would be that this registration is to do with making a loyalty oath to Augustus, as the best fit with the text and the historical period (with people being registered for this purpose in Judea and probably wider afield). If it is about an oath to Augustus, then Luke may be correct about it having happened. We know that this was a practice in the era of Jesus' birth. On that basis, I lean towards that, but I wouldn't press that too firmly. 

A critic might still think, even if it is about an oath, that it is a mistake made by Luke pre- or post-70AD, but there would be no certain way of knowing which. So that does not help to date this gospel anyway. 

I don’t think we can date Luke’s gospel from Luke 2:1 – we might try to, but we shouldn’t press our conclusions about it too firmly into service, when no-one can be sure of the correct translation and meaning of it. 

Sunday, 14 March 2021

Jesus and paradox

How can something be hidden and un-hidden at the same time, clear to children and unclear to the better educated? How is it that something which Jesus’ disciples can hear is in a sense completely un-hearable to others at the same time? To some people this may be a contradiction. To others, it’s a paradox that is only explained by an underlying truth.

For instance…

When Jesus says his words are for those who have ears to hear, he is answering his disciples’ question of why his words go misunderstood. It’s the sort of enigmatic reply that Jesus is known for. Even the phrase “for those who have ears to hear” is curious. It’s a humorous word picture, not a statement of philosophy. Some people who have ears are like people who don’t have ears, Jesus is saying, and therefore they are like a deaf person even if they heard every word he said. Confused?

I’m going to talk about the Trinity. Many people would run a mile at the thought. Discussion of the Trinity has been appropriated by philosophers for well over a thousand years. In my book on the Trinity, I take the subject out of the realms of philosophy and into the world of semitic thought, a world of word-pictures rather than logic statements, where thoughts are often conveyed in narratives and images without explanatory notes.

It’s not an easy thing for many in the west to get their heads around this. Western intellectual thinking long long ago had a paradigm shift that separated it from semitic ways of thinking. Valid in its own way, western rationalism serves many useful and important purposes. But it can be tone deaf to the music of the Bible. How do we attune our ears to the world of semitic thought? It’s not just a different way of seeing, but more like different eyes to see with. It’s not just different ways of hearing, but in Jesus’ word-picture, a matter of having ears at all. It’s not irrational, but it is different.

Let me make an analogy that people in the west can understand more readily. Ikea furniture instructions. The sort of instructions that come with pictures and without words. Because they are sold in different countries that speak in different tongues. Ikea know that a picture of a plank and a screw means the same everywhere, and it is most efficient for them to sell their product with universal pictures rather than multiple translations. But what happens when you take it home and try to put it together? One person will be in a state of frustration complaining to a partner that “the pictures are not very explicit,” only to be told annoyingly by their partner, “yes, they are.” The partner will, to their irritation, say, “Look the pictures show you that this size screw goes into this size plank on this side.” And the first person moans again, “That’s not explicit to me,” and the second person just doesn’t understand why the pictures are not clear and explicit to the first person. And it's frustrating at times because Ikea have decided that explicit images are more valuable than explicit statements. I'm using the two different meanings of the word explicit: visually clear and not hidden; or verbally explanatory to remove doubt as to meaning.

The first person might have been happier if Ikea furniture came with well-written verbal instructions alongside the pictures. Because that is some people’s key idea of explicit. But not everyone's. Ikea believe the diagrams are explicit (tested by people's ability to readily follow and understand them).

Another example. Which is more explicit for a child reading a Janet and John book, the picture of the red ball in the air, or the statement – here in the English language - that “the red ball is in the air”? To the child, of course, the image is clear and explicit and sufficiently so, but the English adult wants the child to learn the explicit statement in the English language. It is possible to be verbally clear and explicit only because it has a clear and explicit image first. But, as we become more educated, we forget that the image is clear and explicit, because verbal reasoning becomes dominant over the visual in Western thought. In fact, part of the problem is that we use the word explicit in the two different senses of the word, and we have a view as to which is more important, a bias for the verbal over the visual. 

So much so that if you ask an adult in Britain what it means to be speak of an explicit image, their brain will reach for a qualifier: e.g. “Do you mean sexually explicit images?” (Meaning that there are body parts that are not hidden.) Or we might think of explicit violence in a movie. But change the context, and the language is used casually. The Ikea image is “not very explicit,” but the television footage of a footballer committing a foul in the penalty area “is pretty explicit.” We know the conversation: the foul tackle is pretty explicit in the TV pictures, but not from where the referee was standing at the time. Eyes to see, ears to hear. We still know an explicit picture when we see one. Basically, explicit means that the object, the ball in the air for instance, is fully in view and not hidden. This is rather different from what a philosopher defines as “explicit,” which means that a verbal statement is clearly explained beyond doubt. And the historic problem with understanding the Trinity is connected to the fact that discussion of it has been appropriated by the intellectual verbal discipline of philosophy, and it is hard for Western philosophers to stomach the idea of their discipline ever being subordinate to the word-pictures and narratives of Scripture. It's a bit like the dichotomy between a silent movie and a talkie - in the early days, many critics thought silent movies the superior art form, communicating truth through explicit and implicit imagery, whereas most films later came to be dominated by dialogue. (The rise of CGI has shifted the balance back a bit.)

Jesus claims that there are things that are explicitly clear to children and simultaneously hidden from adults. Contradiction or paradox? Another way of putting it: there are things that are straightforwardly knowable but only to those “who have ears to hear.” Contradiction or paradox? It’s paradox in the sense of an apparent contradiction that leads to underlying truth. An image is only clear and explicit to your understanding if you can focus your eyes on it. Jesus is saying that his words are misunderstood only if your ears are not attuned to them.

There is a terrific youtube channel which analyses Beatles recordings to observe oddities that listeners have probably never noticed, with the premise that once you hear this, you can’t unhear it. That’s a great way of putting it. My book on the Trinity does something similar. As I said, in my book I take the subject out of the realms of philosophy and into the world of semitic thought, a world of word-pictures rather than logic statements, where thoughts are often conveyed in narratives and images without explanatory notes. I show for example the picture of a triune God in 2 Chronicles 5-7. There we have the word-picture and narrative of God in heaven listening to prayer whilst God's Name resides in his earthly temple and God's Glory fills that temple. I show it to people and we find that once you see it, you can’t un-see it. Being Western thinkers, we can be immediately tempted to try to appropriate it hastily back into the language of philosophy and wrestle with questions such as, where are statements about “being” and “persons,” but the point of my book is to retrieve it back to semitic thought until we have grasped it. The force of explicit propositional statements and the force of explicit word-pictures can amount to two different things. 

The place to start understanding the Trinity is the word-pictures and narratives of semitic thought.  Borrowing the language of science for a moment, we make our observations first. We look at the word-pictures first. We can posit our logic theories afterwards. But we can’t start with abstract theories and project them back onto the Bible. That is precisely not the way to read the Bible at all. That is not letting the Bible speak to us. Remember how the Ikea pictures are clear and explicit in meaning to one pair of eyes and not to another. Remember how the footballer’s foul tackle is explicit in the TV pictures but yet was not from where the referee was standing at the time: once you see it, you can't un-see it.

When Jesus spoke in paradoxes, he did so to makes us think, but not to make us only abstract thinkers. He did so to make us ask, why are we not hearing what others can hear? Why are we not seeing what others can see and understand clearly and explicitly? The ball is in the air and not at all hidden. We can’t solve the problem by being Western rationalists. Other worldviews are available, worldviews communicated in word-pictures and narratives.

Another example. John’s Gospel is a tour de force of paradoxes. John wants to make us think, but not merely to make us abstract thinkers. That’s why he communicates his paradoxes in word-pictures and narrative. Here is an example.

This is by way of a meditation on John chapter 20. Here Jesus says, the Father is “my God, and your God” and later Thomas calls Jesus “my Lord and my God”.

That’s a thought-provoking contrast, but that’s not all. In this chapter, Jesus tells Mary not to touch him and this is when Jesus says to her that the Father is “my God, and your God”; and a few verses later Jesus tells Thomas to touch him, and this is when Thomas calls Jesus “My Lord and my God”. It’s a striking juxtaposition. Here are the verses from John 20:

John 20:17, 27-29: ‘Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not;

for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God…

Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side:

and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God.

Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.’ (KJV – out of copyright!)


This is surely a deliberate contrast - what do we learn from it?:

- Jesus’ first command, not to touch him,

when Jesus says to Mary that the Father is

“my God, and your God”;

and then

- Jesus’ second command, to touch him,

when Thomas calls Jesus,

“My Lord and my God.”


The way John relates the resurrection narrative is surely intended to make us think about these two moments together.

The first excerpt emphasises Jesus’ humanity in relationship to the Father - before and after the resurrection the human Jesus has a God, the Father. This is as a Christian expects, for Jesus “had to be made like his brothers in every way” (Hebrews 2:14, 17). We, who are flesh and bone, have a God to worship and so therefore must the flesh and bone Jesus.

The second excerpt presents his humanity (ie ‘touch me’) and his divinity {‘my Lord and my God’ says Thomas to him}. Contradiction or paradox?

John’s gospel climaxes as foreshadowed in the prologue: the divine Word made flesh (John 1:1, 14). In his humanity Jesus is a flesh and bone man (John 1:14) whose God is the Father (John 20:17); at the same time, Jesus in his divinity (John 1:1) is ‘my God’ (John 20:28).

John loves paradox. It’s signalled in Jesus’ contradictory instructions to touch him and not to touch him, and it goes a step deeper with Jesus speaking of “my God” and being hailed by Thomas as “my God.” It’s not a contradiction, but a deliberate paradox to open our eyes and ears to underlying truth.

Here’s another way of communicating about these verses about Jesus.

The prologue: John 1:1 presents Jesus as ‘god’ without the definite article in the Greek, saying “and the word was god” (most translations, which a minority would translate as “a god”); and the narrative climaxes in John 20:28 when the Greek unambiguously supplies the definite article, with Thomas calling Jesus “the god of me” (that is, to translate the Greek literally). This verse is normally translated in English as “my God”, not as “the God of me”, obscuring the fact that the definite article (“the”) is unambiguously supplied in the Greek, declaring Jesus as “the God”.

Here in the climax of the narrative any lingering questions from John 1:1 about Jesus’ divinity are answered. He is “the God of me”.

Only the incarnate Son could be “my God” to Thomas, and yet at the same time speak of the Father as “my God.” Therefore to myself writing this post, both the Father and the Son are “my God.” That’s the message to me of John chapter 20. Does it resolve all the philosophical questions we might ask about it? Absolutely not. Is it communicating in semitic thought, in narrative and word pictures? Yes, absolutely. To begin to understand, then, philosophy had to be subordinate to the word-pictures and narrative.

I hope this meditation gives you a chance to think how you might look to Jesus and call him “the Lord of me and the God of me,” the divine Word made flesh.

What I’ve written here is bound to offend some people. Why? The answer is in narrative:

And when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying in the temple, and saying, Hosanna to the son of David; they were sore displeased,

And said unto him, Hearest thou what these say? And Jesus saith unto them, Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise? (Matthew 21:15-16 KJV)

Sometimes hard to take for those of us with an extensive Western education, but Paul wrote: “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise” (1 Cor 1:27). Contradiction or paradox? You decide. John Lennon once, commenting on how musicologists were analysing Beatles' songs, said that intellectuals have proven that you can be a genius and not have a clue what's going on. In my life, I often come back to that. 

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Review by Eddie Arthur of my book 'God in 3D'

Review by Eddie Arthur of my book God in 3D: Finding the Trinity in the Bible and the Church Fathers

Reproduced here with permission  

Books I Have Read: God in 3D

The thing about this book is that it is completely novel. You won’t find discussion of persons, essences or hypostases. It takes an approach to the Trinity which is rooted in Biblical theology rather than in dogmatics.

I’ve read a lot of books on the Trinity over the years, but nothing quite like God in 3D: Finding the Trinity in The Bible and the Church Fathers by Colin Green. It’s a fascinating book built around the central, simple theme that the Old Testament description of the Temple contains basic threads that point to the triune nature of God, which is more fully revealed in the New Testament.

The book is a medium format paperback of just over 250 pages. The style is probably best described as academic-light. It is aimed at a general readership, and there is a light smattering of footnotes and a good bibliography. Unfortunately, it will set you back about £20 for a paperback at and even the Kindle version is not cheap (don’t even think about buying the hardback).

"This is a journey to discover how the first Christians were primed by the temple stories of the Old Testament and prepared by Jesus to understand the three-in-one God – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." (p. 1)

"You don’t need to have had any special training. This book is for the train or untrained reader alike, for anyone who wants to understand the Trinity, and for anyone who may have doubts about understanding it." (p. 2)

It is difficult, nay impossible, in a short review to give a detailed overview of the argument of a book like this one. The central theme is that when the Old Testament speaks of God’s Name and His Glory dwelling in the Temple, these point to the Son and the Spirit, who while the transcendent God (the Father ) dwells in heaven. I will admit that I didn’t find the first chapter which introduced this topic very convincing. However, there is an appendix which outlines the academic case for the argument which I found very helpful. I would suggest reading this appendix either before or immediately after, reading the first chapter.

Having set out his case, the author goes on to demonstrate how the themes of the book are present through the New Testament and on into the writings of the Fathers. There is an important chapter on discipleship, a theme which distressingly is often missing from popular books on the Trinity. This chapter has helpful suggestions on prayer, reading the Bible, the Lord’s supper and the communal life of the church.

The thing about this book is that it is completely novel. You won’t find discussion of persons, essences or hypostases. It takes an approach to the Trinity which is rooted in Biblical theology rather than in dogmatics. I will leave it to the systematic theologians to discuss the merits or demerits of this approach. From my point of view, it presents a welcome alternative to some of the of the Trinitarian literature that I have read. It made me think and reflect on my own practice, rather than wrack my brains trying to understand what was going on – and that’s never a bad thing.

Who should read this book? I wouldn’t give it to someone who had never really thought about the Trinity, I’d offer someone like that Delighting in the Trinity by Tim Chester. However, for someone who has read a little theology and wants to know more, this would be an excellent follow up book to some of the basics. If only it didn’t cost so much.

I was provided with a review copy of this book by the author, but I have tried not to let this generosity influence my review. If I thought it was a stinker, I would have said so.

This review was originally posted at:

Sunday, 21 February 2021

Book review: Dale Tuggy’s ‘Trinity,’ independently published 2013


Dale Tuggy’s book began life as an encyclopaedia article on the Stanford website. It is rather like the curate’s egg - good in parts. As for what it sets out to do, Tuggy writes: ‘This article surveys these recent “rational reconstructions” of the Trinity doctrine, which centrally employs [sic] concepts from contemporary analytic metaphysics, logic, and epistemology‘ (pg 1). This is an interesting endeavour, given that recent “rational reconstructions” are a rather niche area, and a good summary is to be welcomed.

Nonetheless, its survey falls a bit short of that aim for reasons I’ll explain. The key part of such a book is its review of what other scholars have written on the subject, and we find mixed results. There are two main flaws. One flaw is erroneous readings of other scholars’ work. I will give three examples of this.

First example: Tuggy’s paraphrase of James Anderson. (This example refers to James Anderson, Paradox in Christian Theology: An Analysis of its Presence, Character and Epistemic Status, Paternoster, 2007.) Tuggy writes: “Orthodox belief about the Trinity, Anderson holds, involves one in believing for example, that Jesus is identical to God, the Father is identical to God, and that Jesus and the Father are not identical” (Tuggy pg 47). Tuggy’s citation is pages 11-59 of Anderson’s book. On checking, I can’t see Anderson say that. Perhaps Tuggy has in mind what Anderson writes on pg 30, but if so it is an erroneous paraphrase of this: “the Father is identical with, not distinct from, the one divine ousia (essence, substance, Godhead); likewise for the Son and Spirit.” It is frustrating when checking a source reveals something different from what is claimed. Saying “identical” to “God” (as a count noun) is, I’m sure, not what Anderson meant by saying “identical with… the one divine ousia.” This is a serious difference.

Second, Tuggy claims that “Augustine’s mediaeval successors all reject three-self approaches to the Trinity.” (One- and three-self theories are central to the book, as I’ll explain.) Tuggy’s citation for this is Richard Cross’s article in Rethinking Trinitarian Theology: Disputed Questions and Contemporary Issues in Trinitarian Theology, T&T Clark, 2012.) Tuggy cites pages 26-27 of it. However, turning to it we find that it doesn’t refer to “three-self” anything. Rather, Cross’s book does say this: “Medieval views of the Trinity are all clearly in the so-called ‘Latin’ camp” (Cross, pg 27). Tuggy imposes his ‘one/three-self’ framework, categorising the ‘Latin camp’ as 'one-self', as if these were equivalent – and he does not make it clear that this is not what Cross is saying either.  

Third, Tuggy seems to attribute to Richard Cross (Duns Scotus, Oxford University Press, 1999, page 69) this thought - Tuggy writes: “The persons, as it were, partially but don’t entirely “overlap”, as each is also partly composed of a unique personal property…” So, Tuggy. But this is not what Cross is saying. Indeed my suspicions were alerted by Tuggy’s peculiar talk of a person “partly composed of a… property.” What Cross actually writes is this: “What Scotus means is that the Father is not a part of the Son; not being the Father is a necessary property of the Son. (It is not a necessary property of the divine essence; hence the Father is formally distinct from the divine essence, but really distinct [in the relevant sense] from the Son.)” (Cross, pg 69). This does not mean a divine person being “partly composed of a… property.” Curiously, such is the sort of thing some Unitarians say pejoratively of the doctrine of the Trinity.

To be clear, the only citations that I cross-checked where these three, and all three are erroneous readings of these scholars, which is troubling.

I said two main flaws, and the other is to do with how Tuggy uses a one/three-self idea. The thing is, this is meant to be a literature review of writers’ ideas. But the writers he covers have largely not considered the sort of one/three-self framework Tuggy writes about. But his literature review gives the impression of centuries’ old ‘one/three-self’ debates. To show why this is problematic, a bit more detail.

Tuggy centre-stages the idea of a “one-self God.” He claims, “God in the Bible is always portrayed as a great self” (pg 4). This may well strike the reader as odd. It’s not a Bible phrase. It’s also not something you usually hear people describing the God of the Bible as. He quotes Brian Leftow using the term “one-self” for God (pg 8) and Swinburne. (Curiously. Francis Joseph Hall (1857–1932) doesn’t get a mention or a bibliography entry. Hall, however, brings a theological nuance to ‘self’ that Tuggy doesn’t.) That’s it. And yet Tuggy’s literature review features much talk of a “one-self Trinity” and a “three-self Trinity” in a way that the literature he reviews doesn’t generally correspond to. Theologians through history who never classified their work in this way are nevertheless assigned to these categories by Tuggy, and the paradigm for this is his definition of 'self,' which is not one of theological depth or nuance. (I hope he wouldn't mind me saying that. It's not meant as a criticism.) So let’s see how this second main flaw plays out.

So, under his classification of “one-self” Trinity theory: Tuggy claims that Barth and Rahner “endorse one-self Trinity theories” (pg 6) even though Barth scholars, for example, will be wondering when Barth ever did “endorse” such a thing (is it really appropriate to re-frame Barth’s divine self and modes this way?); also Leftow; and “Augustine is arguably a one-self trinitarian” (pg 90). Tuggy rather imposes his taxonomy on Augustine: “One must say “three persons”, but for Augustine these are not three selves” (pg 91). I’m pretty sure that question was never even put to Augustine. If it were possible to time travel, Augustine would no doubt not rely on Tuggy’s definition of ‘self’ anyway for the purposes of theology, but would draw up a definition and come to any conclusions on that basis under his own control. (I mention Tuggy’s ‘self’ definition further below.)

Unfortunately, what Tuggy is doing is veering off from the regular job of a literature review, which should actually be allowing authors to speak clearly, not to awkwardly squidge them into categories they didn’t choose for themselves. Some taxonomy may be inevitable, but not done like this. It becomes apparent why some of Tuggy’s citations give entirely the wrong impression of what other scholars have said - see my three examples above – it’s because Tuggy is pressing them into service to do something other than a literature review normally would.

Under his classification of “three-self Trinity theory” (a.k.a Constitution Trinitarianism – pg 21) Tuggy lists, for instance, Rea and Brower, Stephen T. Davis, and Hasker. Again, is this really the task of a literature review?

Tuggy’s definition then: “A self is being which is in principle capable of knowledge, intentional action, and interpersonal relationships. A god is commonly understood to be a sort of extraordinary self” (pg 3). A common understanding? Common among whom? (Besides, the term “self” seems rather limiting to me as a descriptor for a transcendent God. It seems to define the individual by their ability to do something instead of by any spiritual barometer.) It seems that what Tuggy is trying to do is to persuade us that ‘self’ should be central to our discourse by presenting it as if it has already been central to our discourse for a long time.

With so many problems, it would be difficult to conclude that this is a successful literature review. Where does that leave this book? To recap, Tuggy’s book sets out to review recent philosophical discussions about the Trinity, particularly novel and experimental thought (a brave endeavour to review it). It is thought-games that philosophers play, a cat and mouse game of whether Unitarians or Trinitarians (and which ones) can erect a better philosophical framework of words and logic to explain or dismiss theories about the Trinity. But like Tom and Jerry, the fight always has another day. A lot of theologians are averse to the experimental approach to the doctrine as unnecessary and risking unorthodoxy, and so this sort of material is simply not in view across a wide range of published work on the Trinity.

This short book is written as a history spanning centuries, and it necessarily does so in a concise way, and it can’t be expected to be comprehensive. If you were hoping to find the likes of Moltmann or Pinnock given a mention here, you’ll be disappointed.  The emphasis though is on new experimental suggestions about the Trinity.

A note of caution: the reader needs to know, before reading this book, the basics of the doctrine of the Trinity, or otherwise could be left with quite the wrong impression of what it is. One would expect accuracy from Tuggy who has decades of study behind him. And yet one finds this on page 1 about the traditional doctrine of the Trinity:

“The guiding principle has been the creedal declaration that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of the New Testament are consubstantial… this is understood to mean that all three named individuals are divine.”

Individuals? Understood as that by whom? Not by everyone of course. It is a rather extreme expression of Social Trinitarianism as espoused by Richard Swinburne. (See Richard Swinburne, The Christian God. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994. pg 27.) Tuggy erroneously starts his book off as if this were the unequivocal historical tradition, which it is far from being. Yet Tuggy writes of its “imperial enforcement towards the end of the fourth century” (pg 1). This aberration at the top of his article/book is compounded further when he claims that “the doctrine of the Trinity as explained at the top of the main entry” was “clearly and fully asserted” around the end of the Arian controversy (pg 72). No, I can’t find any council clearly and fully asserting “three divine individuals” and the fault isn’t mine here. Does Tuggy know what is actually traditional and orthodox? Of course he does, so this is troubling. 

On pg 25 this goes further: “Richard Swinburne… argues that it is uncharitable to read the ecumenical councils’ claim that “there is only one God” as asserting that there’s only one divine individual, as that would contradict their commitment to there being three divine individuals.”

Why leave the impression that the historic councils committed to “three divine individuals”? They did not use this language, and language is key. Swinburne uses this phrase (quoted on pg 26). The councils didn’t, and it is wrong to leave the impression that they did. I don’t think it would have taken the councils very much time to dismiss the term out of hand! (James Anderson points out that a reading like this diverges from the Church Fathers’ intentions. See Anderson, 2007, pg 42-43.)

So the book goes askew on page 1, and throws the tracks just as the train is leaving the station. It would be easy for the unaware reader to be thrown with it, not realising that Tuggy is reading in a sometimes idiosyncratic way, to put it politely. The destination, for Tuggy, is to conclude that the doctrine of the Trinity is fundamentally flawed and cannot be saved by modern experimental thought. It’s an idiosyncratic approach to a review of others' theology.

Oddly, when Tuggy does refer to something traditional and orthodox, he claims it is a modern interpretation attributable to Bohn! – “Bohn argues that orthodoxy, by the standards of the New Testament or the “Athanasian” Creed, requires that the persons of the Trinity be distinct… but not that any is identical to the one God” (pg 40). I don’t see anything novel in that.

It seems at times that the term ‘self’ is used by Tuggy in a way that mischaracterises the doctrine of the Trinity too. Thus: “Trinitarians hold this revelation of the one God as a great self… if these divine persons are selves, then the claim is that there are three divine selves, which is to say, three gods” (pg 3). No Trinitarian who really knows what they are talking about ever made any such claim to the best of my knowledge. It’s a caricature of extreme Social Trinitarians and it’s being used to smear all Trinitarianism. I would be embarrassed to write something that gave the wrong impression so badly. Tuggy’s usage of the words “individuals” and “self” often clutters the book with confusion about the subject at hand. Sometimes, it is difficult to resist the impression that this is polemics from the Unitarian camp: “We literally can’t believe what is expressed Trinitarian language, if we don’t grasp the meaning of it” (pg 46). It doesn’t help if an inability to make sense of a doctrine arises from one’s own presentation of it. (I'm also mystified as to how a seemingly subjective "We literally can’t believe" statement is in an encyclopaedia entry on a university website.) 

A niche subject that appears in philosophical literature is relative identity theory/ies. This is an idea only of the last century or so. But Tuggy’s use seems off-centre (pg 13-14), more or less as a way of arriving at the formal logic conundrum below. Tuggy depends on use of the count noun ‘God’ to promote a well-trodden Unitarian argument against the Trinity, and he claims that Trinitarians (e.g. Leftow – see pg 10) fail to provide a good response to this:

 1. the Father = God

 2. the Son = God

 3. God = God

 4. the Father = the Son (from 1-3)

Knowledgeable Trinitarians will wince at the un-nuanced travesty that this argument amounts to. The somewhat artificial problem is avoided merely by replacing ‘God’ with the word ‘divine’ and explaining what is meant by the word divine, as done by many intelligent orthodox Trinitarians. Once this is done, there is no need for 4 to follow 1-3 at all. (See his examples on pg 10, 16.) Tuggy also uses ‘being/beings’ as a count noun to the same effect. It’s an exercise in constructing problematic verbal frameworks. The problem is an artificial philosophical one, though much discussed in the literature. But instead of “being,” we could easily offer something like “existence-havers” or “existers” and the problem falls away. A lot of these knots are ones that Trinitarian debates tied in the first place, and one sometimes senses the Unitarian’s glee at seeing Trinitarian dialectic wrestling over self-made problems.

This is not a book about things written in the Bible. (You don’t need the fingers of one hand to count the Bible verses cited in this book). And don’t expect to find here any exploration of biblical semitic thought. This is a book of western philosophy, a realm which creates its own thought-worlds, and in particular it is a review only of a niche area of it. (It doesn’t acknowledge the existence of non-western worldviews, which is not unusual for this kind of book.) Trinitarianism has both semitic and western developments. Which brings me to ‘mystery,’ an idea that Tuggy covers. In Tuggy’s way of looking at it, Trinitarians use the label ‘mystery’ where a thing about God is held to be true without a fool-proof logic formula for it. Tuggy’s acid test for verifying a doctrine seems to be possessing a flawless logic formula, and he is hardly sympathetic to Trinitarian mystery. Eventually in this book, the thought peeps through that actually anyone’s belief in God at some point encounters mystery (pg 105). In the logic-driven west, we all draw a line in the sand somewhere on the mystery spectrum. The difference is where each of us does so, and Tuggy draws a line against the Trinity.

On mystery, Tuggy does acknowledge without proposing a reply the argument that there are real mysteries: “Sometimes an analogy with recent physics is offered: if we find mysteries (i.e., apparent contradictions) there, such as light appearing to be both a particle and wave, why should we be shocked to find them in theology? (van Inwagen 1995, 224-7)” (Tuggy pg 47). (In drawing attention to this, this is not to say that we should place too much store in analogies from creation.) There is a good deal in Tuggy's book on mystery – he uses the philosophers' word ‘mysterian’ signifying the the human brain is not sufficiently equipped to understand some things – and it is interesting to read other scholars' responses to Tuggy on it. It’s also worth noting that there are scholars who maintain that the doctrine of the Trinity is possible and intelligible to the human mind, although Tuggy gives more attention to the mysterian human problem. 

Sometimes when I read what Tuggy writes about the history of the church, the historian in me quietly sighs. His description about the late second century:

‘a “catholic” movement, a bishop-led, developing organization which, at least from the late second century… [was] out-competing many gnostic and quasi-Jewish groups’ (pg 80-81).

He doesn’t qualify what he means by ‘organization’ or ‘quasi-Jewish’ and doesn't explain what he means by the scare quotes around 'catholic.' Another example – Tuggy says that:

‘No theologian in the first three Christian centuries was a trinitarian in the sense of a [sic] believing that the one God is tripersonal’ (pg 81).

Well, that’s a bit too bold. How about Tertullian, On Modesty, XXI, 16? Or particularly Cyprian’s Epistle 72 to Jubaianus?

Now, some notes on the edition. References are in the text, not in footnotes or endnotes, and sometimes a book is cited without page numbers, e.g. ‘Holmes 2012’ – see Tuggy pg 24. There is a bibliography, but due to a fault by someone (Amazon printed on demand, so maybe them) the bibliography skips straight from M to R. So, for example, Pruss is missing from it. The book is also littered with typos and poor drafting: “the the” is not untypical. We read of ‘Trinitians’ and ‘Trinitarinas.’ Persons become ‘Perons,’ and we meet ‘Gregory of Naziansus.’ I could go on. It is difficult to believe that this article/book went through much, if any, independent editing, let alone peer review. Given that it first appeared on the Stanford website as an online encyclopaedia entry, it’s perplexing in its faults.

On a personal note, I prefer to see what semitic thought portrays, and to see if western philosophy can catch up. Nonetheless there is much to enjoy in this book, and the most enjoyable part for me was its history of Unitarian movements from the 16th century onwards, although it seems slightly odd that around 15% of a book titled ‘Trinity’ is devoted to a short history of Unitarianism. (And I don't mean to say that this is simply due to Tuggy being a Unitarian who sometimes criticises Trinitarian positions. Only Tuggy can confirm whether that forms a part of his motivation in any case.) And if I take one main thing from this book, it is a desire to read Duns Scotus. But if a serious reader wants an introduction to historic and recent Trinitarian philosophical ideas, a better book than this would be *An Introduction to the Trinity* by Declan Marmion and Rik Van Nieuwenhove (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

Finally, I can't resist mentioning that an article by Eric Olson found on the Stanford website says this on "self":

"‘Self’ is sometimes synonymous with ‘person’, but often means something different: a sort of unchanging, immaterial subject of consciousness, for instance (as in the phrase ‘the myth of the self’). The term is often used without any clear meaning and shall be avoided here."

It seems somewhat ironic, and potentially problematic for Tuggy's theme. (The article is on 'personal identity' and can be found here.) Also problematic, some philosophers have noted how ideas of “self” are called into question by the experience of conjoined twins – read here. It is increasingly unlikely that “self” is a satisfactory category for our debate.

And for a different Christian approach to the question of what is a 'person,' I highly recommend the article here.

Disclaimer 1: philosophy is not my area of research and training and I am more than happy to be corrected on anything I’ve said above, and to make corrections.

Disclaimer 2: Tuggy’s online version of the article had a substantive revision on November 20th 2020, which I have not had time to compare with the book version, except to check that it still has the delightful typo ‘trinitarinas’ and the non-objective "We literally can't believe" statement.)


Scholars engaging with Tuggy

Some online posts that may be of interest, to see scholars engaging with Tuggy on some of these points:

Edward Feser touches on the theme of ‘self’ - Edward Feser: Dude, where’s my Being?

Edward Feser on God as “being” - Edward Feser: Present perfect

Aidan Kimel critical of extreme Social Trinitarianism and engaging with Hall - Father, Son, Spirit as Divine Selves | Eclectic Orthodoxy (

Other reading

George Plasterer on how Barth uses his concept of the divine self - Barth on the Trinity | Karl Barth: Church Dogmatics





Thursday, 31 December 2020

Does the Bible teach that slaves can be beaten and mistreated?


Does the Bible teach that slaves can be beaten and mistreated? I have seen this written on the internet. Let’s break this down:


·         Does the Bible teach – we should never be so broad in examining ancient texts. Let’s focus. The question is narrower than the whole Bible. It’s narrower even than the Old Testament. If we narrow it down to the Pentateuch (the five books from Genesis to Numbers) we are getting warmer and need to start paying more attention. If we narrow down further to the Torah (Moses’ law) we are zooming in and adjusting our focus better still. If we narrow it down to the book of Exodus, we are getting very warm. If we narrow it down to a few chapters, that will be about right for our most detailed work. If we zoom in on only a couple of verses, or a few words, that’s too close – we wouldn’t be able to see the wood for the trees. We need to get to about the right distance to read the verses in context, but ready also to turn an eye to anything especially relevant from broader contexts. I’ll do that: focus on context in Exodus, with relevant broader stuff referred to.


·         that slaves – always define terms. In the case of Israelite “slaves,” these are really indentured servants, not chattel slaves. In the case of non-Israelite slaves, these are more like chattel slaves, but not like the industrialised slavery of the Roman Empire or the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The world of Moses’ law is more ancient, more inward-looking, more about what goes on within one’s own clan and one’s own wider family. If for example, an Israelite sends his son or daughter into indentured servitude, they won’t be shipped off and cut off from the protection of their kinsfolk. They are probably not far from their family networks, where concerned relatives can keep an eye out for them.


·         can be beaten – that’s what this article is about.


·         and mistreated – the Bible never says “mistreat.” Whatever we might think according to our values, those who preserved Moses’ law didn’t think it was a charter for mistreatment. They believed it was fair, so we need to understand what was going on in their reasoning.



So vague statements like “the Bible says slaves can be beaten and mistreated” are misleading on multiple levels, and we need a more scientific discourse than that. That’s what I am aiming to do here. And the first thing is to look at what verses say in context, and in more than one translation, and with an eye on meanings found in the original languages. (Hebrew in this case.) Why assume we have the right to give poorly informed opinions and conclusions?





I said we were getting warmer when we narrow down to the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. The first pages of it (in Genesis) set an agenda for everything that follows. They have a vision of God’s perfect world: the garden of Eden. It’s so foundational that when we get to the end of the New Testament, they are talking about spiritually getting back to Eden, a garden-like new earth and a new heaven. If these are God’s ideas of perfection, then ask yourself what would God allow in Eden? What would God allow in the New Heavens and the New Earth? Eden is a place where people are not at first fallen from perfection. There would be no assaults there anyway, but could Israelites imagine assault in Eden without punishment? Hardly. They maintained a dream of perfection free from violence, amidst the chaos of the world.


In Genesis, after Eden, people are fallen from perfection, and so when it comes, Moses’ law is a law for the fallen. You can't discover all God's ideals from laws for the fallen. Judge God's ideals by his ideals where clearly pictured, such as Eden. Don't defend what God would not ideally have wanted. When I see that Christians have tried to defend slavery because they have thought it is part of God’s perfect law, I feel like tearing my hair out. Moses’ law is not God’s perfect law. It is a law for a fallen world. There was a higher standard than Moses’ law according to Jesus, and it was the perfect world of Eden. After the fall comes Moses’ law, and for this I turn to slave laws in Exodus. Moses’ law was a guidebook, a legal manual for ancient Israel’s legal experts and priests. It’s more than a list of do’s and don’ts. It’s a lesson in how to think justly for Israel’s legal experts.  



Exodus 20-21


I said we are getting into the right area when we zoom in on Exodus. Does Exodus 21:20 really mean that if a master strikes his slave with a rod and they die the master will be punished, but if they don't die the master won't be punished for beating his slave? Actually, no, Exodus 21 isn’t saying that at all.


What it is: an example of how these are illustrations for the jurist - the legal expert - in how to determine proportionate justice for a crime of assault. It doesn’t say beating with rods isn’t assault. It says non-fatal beating with rods won’t incur the death penalty but a different punishment. The judge is meant to think about illustrations such as this to teach him how to decide on real cases of assault and murder. Thus, we need to understand why it says that if the injured slave doesn't die within a day or two the injured slave is not to be “avenged” – i.e. the master is not to be executed.


In the hypothetical case, the judge already knows it was assault (and is allowed to punish the slave master proportionately). The explanatory context is found in Exodus 20 and following. Fundamental and well known are these prior verses: Exodus 20:13 "thou shalt not murder"; and Exodus 21:23-24 "you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth". These are illustrations of proportionate justice for training judges. That doesn't literally mean that an eye-gouging villain’s own eye always has to be gouged out too. It means the judge should come up with a punishment proportionate to an offence. It’s a lesson, not a fixed statute. It does give a jurist permission to apply it literally to a guilty eye-gouger, but the jurist is allowed to think for himself and handle it proportionately in other ways too. That’s the point.


The proportionate penalty for murder is execution: "a life for a life." The idea is to affirm the value of a life. Nothing less than a life is equivalent in value to a life. So the death penalty applies for murder. If a master murders a slave, the punishment is death for the master (Exodus 21:20).


The master will be executed. The slave's life is a life like anyone else's. We may or not agree with the death penalty, but we should agree with Exodus that the slave's life is a life worth no less than any other.


Remember, these chapters are training for judges in learning to reason about justice, not an exact set of laws to be followed rigidly without thinking.


Back to justice for beaten slaves. As we will see, a correct reading of Exodus 21:21-27 is that the slave-beating master either forfeits his life or else forfeits certain “property”, depending on whether the slave survives or not. It’s punishment either way.


Punishment for assault generally is guided by the principle "an eye for an eye." If a master assaults a slave and the slave loses an eye, the law suggests to the judge to think like this: the master isn't to lose his eye, he is to lose his property, that is, lose ownership of his slave. The slave master is punished for beating his slave in that way (Exodus 21:26-27).


Thus verse 26 “An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye."


In that case, instead of “a master’s eye for a slave’s eye”, it’s “a slave’s freedom for his eye.” This is seen as proportionate and more remedial in this illustration.


Thus, the slave master actually is still supposed to be punished if his beaten slave recovers. There is a switch from verse 21 to verse 26, but it is concealed by bad translations.


·         A common translation of verse 21: "they [slave owners] are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property." (Note that “not punished” is the bad translation and I’ll come back to that.)


·         Verse 26: “An owner [slave-owner] who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye.”


These two verses would contradict each other if “not punished” were the right translation. "Not punished" is obviously a bad translation. This is clear because there is punishment for the master and it is set out in v. 26 - the master loses his property, the slave goes free.


So what would be a better translation of v. 20-21? "Avenged" is a better translation. If a slave dies, the dead slave is avenged, a life for a life. The murdering slave master will be executed. If the slave recovers, he is alive obviously, so a life is not to be avenged. Rather the punishment is that property is forfeited. The slave master loses his property. For his crime of assault he is punished, but a life is not “avenged.” This is why the translation “not avenged” makes sense and the translation “not punished” simply does not.


The point is this. The judge is taught to punish the slave-beating master where it hurts him - in his pocket – and in a way that gives the slave a just remedy. The slave was property. Now the slave is free. Loss of human property is the master's punishment for assaulting his slave.


This is how the judge is being taught to think. It doesn't need a literal eye to be lost or a literal tooth to fall out. These are illustrations. It just needs proportionate justice for an offence. Assault your slave causing bodily harm and your slave ceases to be your property. A good remedy for the injured slave.


Following this illustration, a jurist could also consider that such would be a proportionate remedy for a beaten slave who had witnesses but no injuries to show for it.



Another illustration


Therefore, it is important to understand how the law of Moses was intended to function in its ancient context. Another illustration to help get our minds around this comes in the mistaken mis-reading of Moses’ law that assumes a raped woman must marry her rapist. The ancient background which this mis-reading completely overlooks is that when a woman married a man, this was seen as two whole families being married together. The woman’s father was not obliged to have his family married to a rapist’s family. He could say “no,” and the raped woman could ask her father to say “no.” I mention this example to emphasise that this was a world different to ours and we may have difficulty understanding it. I highly recommend this article – on that particular question - which helps us to understand that ancient world better: