About Me

Fort Worth / Burleson, Texas
I am happily married and the proud father of two sons. I serve as Professor and Wesley Harrison Chair of New Testament, and Associate Dean of the PhD Program at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. I previously served for 13 years as a professor of New Testament and Greek at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, and three years as academic acquisitions editor for B&H Academic in Nashville, Tennessee.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Jerusalem Temple Warning Inscription

This temple warning inscription, found now inside the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul, was located in the outer court of the Jerusalem Temple platform and warned Gentiles not to enter the inner court area of the Temple on penalty of death. The inscription dates from the first century and would have been present in Jesus' day. Paul may have pictured this temple barrier when he penned the words in Eph 2:14 – “For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall,” (NASB).

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

"Paul's Building Metaphor in Ephesians"

Paul painted an extended metaphor in Ephesians using a number of building terms and word-groups like ἀκρογωνιαῖος (“capstone,” or “cornerstone”), ἔργ– (“work”/“to work”), θεμέλιος (“foundation”), κεφαλή (“head”), οἰκοδομή– (“building”/“to build”), πλήρ– (“fullness”/“to fill”), and ποίη– (“construction”/“to construct, build”). Intriguingly, these words in Ephesians have lexical parallels found in building contracts in ancient Greek epigraphy. Structures built under contract in antiquity frequently had epigraphs on them. McLean notes, “Building inscriptions are often found on temples, theaters, gymnasia, baths, gates, towers, walls, bridges, arches, architraves, columns, and aqueducts, most of which were funded at private expense...” (B.H. McLean, An Introduction to Greek Epigraphy... [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011], 196). He later gives a pattern that may be found in these epigraphs: “The most detailed building inscriptions typically record a number of points of information, such as (1) an account of the circumstances under which the edifice was constructed, (2) a record of the name of the person who had the structure built (or restored), (3) an acknowledgment of the generosity of the patron, and (4) a specification of the year when the structure was completed” (McLean, 196–97).

To employ just a few building terms in a letter is one thing, but to use a matrix of these words like the apostle did in Ephesians is quite another. Paul painted this controlling, extended metaphor in keeping with his purpose in the letter. The apostle's masterful, picturesque stroke of writing using these common terms found in the first century with which people would have been very well familiar or have heard on the streets every day is in accordance with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In my forthcoming commentary on Ephesians, I plan to elaborate in greater detail on Paul's metaphor and its words and show how understanding them beautifully illustrates what the apostle taught in this letter and brings the message of Ephesians to life. The church, the body of Christ, is “built” from saved Jews and Gentiles. They are a corporate "new man," and a holy temple fitted together— “growing” as a corporate living temple being built up into her head, Jesus Christ.

Monday, December 15, 2014

"Do You Hear What I Hear?"

Christmas is a time for singing. What better thing to sing about, especially at this time of year, than the birth of Jesus the promised Messiah? Of the two Gospels that tell of Christ’s birth and infancy, it is Luke’s Gospel which contains several songs or poems of praise of Jesus’ advent: for example, the Magnificat (Song of Mary, 1:46-55), the Benedictus (Song of Zechariah, 1:67-79), the Gloria (Song of the Angels, 2:13-14), and the Nunc Dimittis (Song of Simeon, 2:28-32). What is the meaning of each of these songs within their context and to the overall narrative? What do they declare about Christ’s nature?

To answer such, we need first to consider why Luke wrote his Gospel. He used eyewitness reports and written accounts to provide his own orderly, trustworthy version of Christian origins (1:1-4). The purpose behind his Gospel is specifically found in 1:4 and tells us much about why he would include such songs. Luke wrote to Theophilus (and no doubt others like him) so that he might know of God’s pledge/promise (asphaleia) with respect to Jesus Christ, the preaching of the Gospel, the truthfulness of Christ’s passion, and the certainty that the Gospel would spread despite opposition. In other words, Theophilus was given a pledge reassuring him of the events surrounding Christ the Lord. And, Luke especially drove home the point that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises.

"Luke’s Gospel is indeed one of promise and fulfillment."

And Luke’s Gospel is indeed one of promise and fulfillment. For example, God promised Zechariah through an angel that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son whom they would name John (1:13). That promise was fulfilled with the birth of John the Baptist (1:57-66). Through this same angel God promised that John the Baptist would be the forerunner to the Christ, the Messiah (1:16-17). That promise came to pass in the ministry and preaching of the Baptist (3:1-20; esp. 3:3-6, 16-17). The angel Gabriel promised Mary that she would give birth to a son named Jesus (1:26-38). That promise was fulfilled of course when Jesus was born (2:6-7). An angel of the Lord proclaimed Christ’s birth to shepherds and gave them a sign: they would find the baby lying in a manger (2:8-12). Later, the shepherds found the infant lying in the feeding trough (2:16-17), just as the angel promised. Jesus stood in the synagogue at Nazareth to read Isaiah 61:1-2, an OT promise about the Messiah (4:16-22), then sat down and told those attending that particular Scripture was fulfilled in him that day (4:21). When his disciples asked about future things to come, Jesus gave them a climactic promise concerning the preaching of the Gospel, viz., as they preached Christ as the Messiah they would be brought “before governors and kings” because of him, leading to an opportunity for witness (21:12-15). Christ’s promise to them is fulfilled throughout the book of Acts as the disciples are engaged in ministry, persecuted, seized, and brought before the magistrates. The resurrected Jesus also gave his disciples the promise par excellence, the Holy Spirit, telling them to wait in the city of Jerusalem until they received power from on high (24:49). The fulfillment of that promise occurs in Acts in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13).

So it is that the songs in Luke’s Gospel should be understood in context within this narrative theme that Jesus fulfills God’s promises regarding the Messiah. He brings to completion Israel’s kingdom and Messianic expectations. God’s covenant with Israel is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Magnificat (Mary)

Mary’s song of praise (1:46-55), also called the Magnificat because this word occurs in the opening verse of the Latin translation, reflects this promise-fulfillment theme. In response to Elizabeth’s blessing (1:45), she expressed joy at Christ’s birth and recognized God’s good favor toward her. She also praised God for His mercy toward His faithful people and for His mighty deeds. Further, she trusted that God was fulfilling His promises, particularly those made to Abraham (Gen 12:1-3; 17:7-8; 22:18; cf. 18:18; 26:3; Exod 2:24; etc.), through Jesus her son.

Benedictus (Zechariah)

Zechariah’s song (1:67-79), called the Benedictus from the first word in the Latin translation (1:68), also reflects the promise-fulfillment theme seen in Luke. Zechariah had previously been unable to speak because he did not believe the angel Gabriel’s words that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son (1:8-20, esp. 1:18-20). He regained his speech, however, at his obedient naming of John that occurred along with his newborn son’s circumcision on the eighth day (1:59-64). Filled with the Spirit, Zechariah prophesied, praising God for the salvation promised to Abraham and Israel that was now coming to pass through the raising up of the Davidic Messiah. This hope of salvation included redemption, but also anticipated deliverance from enemies. Much of Zechariah’s praise focused on his son John’s role in this salvation (answering the question asked earlier by the crowd in 1:66). John was a prophet who would prepare the way for Jesus the Messiah who is the son of David (1:76-79).

Gloria (Angels)

Just prior to the Gloria (Song of the Angels, 2:13-14), an angel of the Lord appeared to shepherds, announcing the birth of Jesus and giving them a sign of the birth: they would find the baby lying in a manger (2:8-12). Suddenly, a multitude of the Lord’s angels appeared, praising God in heaven for salvation in Jesus and declaring that the people to whom God draws near (cf. 1:50) will enjoy the peace/salvation and blessings that God gives to his people (2:13-14). After the angels left, the shepherds hurried to Bethlehem, and there, just as was promised by the angel, they found the newborn baby lying in the feeding trough (2:16-17), confirming the truth of the angelic announcement—again, promise and fulfillment! Jesus is the Savior!

Nunc Dimittis (Simeon)

In the Nunc Dimittis (Song of Simeon, 2:28-32), called such because of a phrase in the Latin translation’s opening, Simeon praised God for the fulfillment of his promise. He was a “righteous and devout” man (2:25) who had received a revelation by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Messiah (2:26). The Spirit led Simeon into the temple at the time when Jesus’ parents had brought him to be dedicated before the Lord, according to the law (2:27). Upon seeing Jesus, Simeon took the child in his arms and stated he could now “depart in peace,” knowing that God had kept his promise according to his word (2:28-29). Simeon praised God because he had seen the Lord’s salvation (2:30), which he links to seeing Jesus. Simeon further described this salvation as one that God had prepared (2:31) and as light for revelation to the Gentiles/nations and for the glory of Israel (2:31-32). In other words, Jesus the Messiah came to save not only Israel, but all the people of the world!

These passages in Luke especially show that Jesus fulfills the promises of God made concerning salvation. Indeed, God acts according to His word and keeps His promises. That you can count on!

Thank you, Lord, for Your indescribable gift (2 Cor 9:15)! May we marvel anew this Christmas at the birth of Your Son!

This post previously appeared on the SWBTS blog www.theological matters.com in December of 2011.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

"Alcohol Consumption: What Would Jesus Do?"

[The article below was written by Dr. Phil Roberts, former president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City. His essay originally appeared in the Midwestern Journal of Theology 5.2 (Spring 2007): 44-47, which I used to edit when I served on that seminary's faculty. I post it again now because the issue of alcohol consumption rises from time to time, and in recent years, evangelical Christians seem to have a more libertine attitude toward alcohol consumption than they have in the past. Roberts writes on the issue of alcohol consumption. I will offer an additional comment, which will be enclosed in brackets below in this article.]

Alcohol Consumption: What Would Jesus Do?

[In this article Phil Roberts calls attention to an excellent yet neglected resource on wine-drinking in New Testament times. He draws from historical and secondary sources on alcohol consumption in antiquity to determine whether Jesus would drink alcoholic beverages in the present day. Roberts concludes that Jesus would do in modern times just what he did in the first century].

After the 2006 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, debate swirled related to the rightness of alcohol consumption. The matter which fueled this issue was a resolution approved by messengers opposing the consumption of alcoholic beverages with an amendment attached disqualifying imbibers from appointment as agency or entity trustees.

Much of the debate, as expected, focused on a key question. That question is not “What would Jesus do?” but “What did Jesus do?” when it comes to this important concern. After all, many say, did not Jesus miraculously produce wine at the marriage feast in Cana (John 2:1-12)? Additionally, other references such as the “cup” of the Lord’s Last Supper would indicate, some argue, that alcohol consumption was involved. Surely, if alcohol consumption was routine in Jesus’ day and culture, then there is no way that he could have avoided it. And if Jesus consumed alcoholic beverages, then certainly his twenty-first century disciples should have no scruples about it. This argument would suffice, it would seem, for reasonably minded folk.

It is important for us, however, to step back a moment and ask an important historical question. That query is, “What was it that Jesus did?” Would it have been the case that Jesus created and consumed a beverage akin to the one marked “wine” that would be found in a local package or grocery store? Just what would have been the custom in Jesus’ day related to beverage consumption? Therefore, when we discover what Jesus did, we can more accurately pose the question, “What would Jesus do?” when it comes to today’s context.

As a start to an answer I turn to an important, but now little read, resource that more Baptists ought to know about. This resource is an article written by now-retired Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor of New Testament Interpretation, Robert H. Stein entitled, “Wine-Drinking in New Testament Times,” published over thirty years ago by Christianity Today, Volume 19 (1975): 923-25. It was brought again to my attention by Daniel Akin’s excellent Baptist Press commentary on this issue of June 30, 2006.

Stein adroitly and succinctly reviews the historical evidence for alcohol consumption in the New Testament era. Secular sources are taken into consideration. He consequently answers the questions of “Was alcohol consumed in the New Testament period?” and “Was it similar to alcohol consumption in our modern context?” with a yes–no response.

Yes, alcohol was consumed as a general custom, and no, it was customarily not synonymous with modern day consumption in the form of table wines, cocktails, mixed drinks, or even beer. Alcohol consumption in that fashion would have been viewed as a prelude to riotous debauchery.

As a rule, alcohol was mixed with water for general consumption in order to provide both a safe or sterile drink, when fresh water was not available, as well as a non-intoxicating one. In essence, alcohol consumed in the first century was so diluted and moderated that, in Stein’s words, “one’s drinking would probably affect the bladder long before it affected the mind.” Surprisingly, even in strictly pagan contexts, alcohol was always diluted except in preparation for the most raucous and debauched of circumstances in the form of a pagan celebration mixed with lewd actions and behavior.

The ancients understood the potency of and the problem with alcohol when drunk without careful precautions. It would cause drunkenness often without warning. And drunkenness was a condition viewed by the ancients as undignified and undisciplined. Inebriation was a condition only barbarians tolerated and undiluted alcohol a drink only they would imbibe.

Notably The Oxford Classical Dictionary comments wine “. . . was invariably heavily diluted with water. It was considered a mark of uncivilized peoples, untouched by classical culture, that they drank wine meat (undiluted) with supposed disastrous effects on their mental and physical health” (The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1623). Other historians comment that wine was “always mixed . . . with water and used more water than wine. Pliny mentions one sort of wine that would stand being mixed with eight times its own bulk of water. To drink wine unmixed was thought typical of barbarians, and among the Romans it was so drunk only by the dissipated at their wildest revels” (Harold Whetstone Johnston, The Private Life of the Romans, 199).

Mixing water with wine both sterilized the drink, avoiding the costly and time-consuming process of boiling, and lightly flavored the beverage. At a very minimum, wine was served by the general public, including the Romans themselves, at a one-to-one ratio, i.e., one part wine with one part water. At this level and certainly with anything less diluted, daily functions and responsibilities would have been impossible for the average person. In this mixture, it was still referred to as “strong wine.” This designation is evidenced among Old Testament writers who made a clear distinction between “strong drink” and “wine” (cf. Lev 10:8, 9; Num 6:3, Deut 14:26, 29:6; Jdgs 13:4, 7, 14, etc.; see Paige Patterson’s Baptist Press article of July 7, 2006, for further clarification on this matter). Wine mixed with more water in the ration was “wine.” In Jewish practice and custom, it was generally three parts of water to one of wine. This beverage was still referred to as wine or oinos in the Greek. Even then, Nazarites, Aaron and his sons and others were directed not to consume this form of strongly diluted alcohol.

Additionally in his article Stein notes that 2 Maccabees 15:39 comments, “It is harmful to drink wine alone, or again to drink water alone . . .” Obviously this last directive refers to the danger of drinking unpurified water. Even in the post-New Testament era the process of mixing water and wine for generic use was continued. And interestingly it was this diluted form of wine that early church witnesses directed to be used at the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper (see Justin Martyr, Apology I, 67, 5; Hippolytus, Apostolic Traditions XXIII, 1; Cyprian, Epistle LXII, 2, 11 and 13).

Ah, but some might say, you still have not addressed the question of what did Jesus do when it comes to the question of the wedding feast at Cana (cf. John 2:1-11)? After all, my Bible says “wine” when it comments on the miracle of Jesus. Again, this word is oinos, referring to the generally diluted form of wine or perhaps even to an unfermented “fruit of the vine” or juice.

So, what would Jesus do when it comes to contemporary alcoholic beverage consumption? In my thinking, he would do what he did. And that is to utilize only beverages that have absolutely zero chance of causing inebriation. In our modern context, in my opinion, where healthy non-alcoholic drinks are readily available, and where alcoholic drinks are undiluted, carrying the potential of intoxication and are often consumed to the point of drunkenness, it would be very probable that Jesus would be a total abstainer.

[To compare alcohol consumption in this day with that of the first century is to compare apples with oranges. Any alcoholic drink in our day would have been considered strong drink in the first century, and the Bible contains several strong warnings against strong drink. Further, the apostle Paul's attitude towards anything he might do is consistent with the conclusion reached above in Robert's article. One of the extremely important, key operative principles for Paul as he lived out his life and engaged in ministry was that he refrained from anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ. His method of operation was to do nothing to hinder the gospel of Christ (1 Cor 9:12). May it be so as well with us. Blessings!]

Friday, November 7, 2014

“Establishing the New Testament Canon”

The word “canon” (Greek: kanōn) originally meant “measuring reed,” but eventually developed the meaning, “standard.” Pertaining to the New Testament, the term refers to those books the church accepted as the standard that governs Christian belief and conduct.

When the apostles were alive and operating in the first century, no great need existed for a canon to be defined. This fact was because the apostles were divinely appointed and ordained men who had in themselves the authority of the Lord Jesus (Matt 10:40; 1 Cor 9:1–3).[1] The apostles got the church “off the ground,” in a manner of speaking. They were God’s authority on earth between the time of the Lord’s ascension into heaven and the completion of the New Testament Scriptures, which would then become the final and continuing authority. As long as the apostles and their immediate disciples were alive, people could easily determine what constituted apostolic teaching. As time wore on, however, certain developments prompted the need for defining a New Testament canon.

Rise of Heresies—The rise of certain heresies occasioned the need for defining a New Testament canon. For example, Marcion came on the scene around A.D. 144 advocating heretical views. He held to an Old Testament god, who was a harsh, judgmental and vindictive being, and a New Testament god, who was a loving, gracious and kind individual. Marcion believed the New Testament god sent Jesus to redeem people from the Old Testament god. He also contended that the apostle Paul was the only preacher of the true word of God; thus, he compiled his own Bible. He rejected the Old Testament as inferior; his “canon” consisted of the works of Luke (with certain adjustments for things he did not like) and 10 of the Pauline epistles. He did not include the Pastoral Epistles or Hebrews. When heretics began to publish their views and establish canons themselves, the true followers of Christ necessarily had to refute them by defining what the whole church regarded as the canon.[2]

Roman Persecution—During times of intermittent Roman persecution,[3] Christians were subject to imprisonment and even death if they possessed any of the Christian Scriptures. The possibility of imprisonment or death made it imperative to differentiate between which books the church would recognize as being a part of God’s Word and any corollary or supplemental works.[4]

Apostles Dying—As the second century wore on, the apostles’ oral teaching was becoming less familiar to believers, and the apostles’ disciples were beginning to die. Thus, Christians were being separated further from the apostles’ authoritative teaching. This meant Christians placed less reliance on the apostles’ oral teaching and more reliance on their writings and those under their supervision. Thus, the early believers recognized the need to define the canon of Scripture so that later generations might know what apostolic doctrine was and was not.[5]

Criteria of Canonicity
The basic criterion for recognizing books as being part of the New Testament is whether they were considered “God-breathed” (2 Tim 3:16). Books do not become inspired because they are recognized as being canonical; rather, they are recognized as being canonical because they are inspired by God. Thus, the church did not “produce” the canon.

Three principal criteria seemed to emerge which the early church used in recognizing books that had been God inspired and thus canonical:[6] apostolic origin, recognition by the churches, and apostolic content.

Apostolic Origin—The Lord had commissioned His apostles to be His authoritative spokesmen after His ascension. Additionally, the Holy Spirit inspired and gifted these men, enabling them to write inerrant Scripture and teach inerrant doctrine. Therefore, the canonical books were to be related in some way to one of these authoritative, inspired apostles.[7] The early Christians essentially asked, “Is this particular work under question the work of one of the apostles?” or, “If it is not the work of the apostle himself, was it produced under the supervision of and with the stamp of approval of one of the apostles?”

Jesus’ apostles wrote most of the books in the New Testament.[8] For example, John and Matthew were apostles. Additionally, Paul accounts for roughly half of the books. Luke, who wrote two New Testament books, was not an apostle. The early church, though, generally recognized him as Paul’s protégé, advisor, traveling companion, and physician. They believed that the apostle Paul supervised and approved what Luke wrote.[9] Or consider the writer of the Gospel of Mark; although John Mark was not an apostle, early Christians generally recognized Peter as Mark’s historical source.[10] These works thus meet the criterion of apostolicity.

Recognition by the Churches—This principle asked how the earliest leading churches regarded the book.[11] If the churches at Ephesus, Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, and Carthage for example accepted a book as authoritative, then chances were strong that the church as a whole would give it serious consideration for inclusion.

The Content of the Book—This criterion asked whether a particular book’s content agreed with the doctrine the apostles taught orally or wrote when they were still alive. If anything was contrary to the apostles’ actual teaching, it was considered spurious and not the Word of God. The early church leaders—those who had heard the apostles, or who at least had heard the immediate disciples of the apostles—recognized that as time wore on, these distinctions would become increasingly difficult to determine. This motivated them to determine and delineate the genuine New Testament canon in the earliest Christian centuries. This means the only apostolic doctrine we know today is what we get out of those written Scriptures.

So, all of this leads to what was perhaps the “prime” criterion, that being, “Was this book produced by an apostle or under the auspices of an apostle, and does it obviously correspond in doctrine to what the apostles themselves taught when they were on earth as God’s divinely appointed spokesmen?”

An example of this criterion at work is the Gospel of Thomas, a book that did not attain canonical status. This writing bears the name of an apostle, but it is not in accord with what the apostles taught. The book for many years was clearly recognized as a Gnostic forgery representing the heresy of Gnosticism. The fact that an apostle’s name is attached to it does not mean that it was apostolic; its content does not agree with apostolic doctrine.

Pivotal Dates
What were the pivotal dates for the recognition and formal establishment of the New Testament canon? In the eastern church the 39th Paschal Letter of Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, dates to A.D. 367. This document was the bishop’s letter to the faithful written on the occasion of Passover. In this letter Athanasius mentions 27 books the church accepted as being the New Testament. In the western church the Council of Carthage met in A.D. 397. Part of the Council’s work was to publish the names of the 27 books that the church held to be genuine Scripture. Putting these two dates together makes evident that by the middle-to-late fourth century the church had no question about the 27 books that would comprise the New Testament. No really serious question has risen since.

Not all the books that the apostles wrote became Scripture. For example, Paul wrote four letters to the Corinthians, two of which are lost and thus not in the canon. Nonetheless, the New Testament that we possess today can be trusted.

Jesus, while on earth, did not specifically mention writings that would become what we know as the New Testament. He did, however, seem to “pre-authenticate” the New Testament when he told his disciples: “These things I have spoken to you while abiding with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (John 14:25–26, writer’s translation).

The prophets of old spoke “as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21, HCSB). We can affirm with confidence that those who penned the New Testament wrote in like manner. Their work is God’s inerrant word, entirely true, and the result of His sovereign oversight and provision. By God’s grace and providence, the early church recognized those books that were inspired of God were to be included in the New Testament canon.


1 F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 119-20, 256-59; Terry L. Wilder, Pseudonymity, the New Testament, and Deception (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2004), 165–216. Scripture lists in the article are representative. Other passages, not listed due to space, could also apply. With slight modification, this article first appeared in Biblical Illustrator (Spring 2013): Center Spread. I am indebted to William E. Bell, Jr. former professor of Religion at Dallas Baptist University. Much of this article is based on teachings I first heard in his classes.

2 Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 75–106.

3 Roman persecution began around A.D. 64 and occurred intermittently over the course of about three centuries.

4 Metzger, Canon of the New Testament, 106-108.

5 Herman N. Ridderbos, Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1988), 12-24.

6 Bruce, Canon of Scripture, 255-69.

7 Ibid., 253; Ridderbos, Redemptive History, 12-15.

8 Cf. the discussion of E. E. Ellis, Pauline Theology: Ministry and Society (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 66, 89-91.

9 Tertullian in Against Marcion (4.2.4) spoke of Luke not as an apostle but as being “apostolic.”

10 See Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. 3.39.15) who records Papias’ remarks on Mark’s gospel that “Mark became Peter’s interpreter.”

11 Metzger, Canon of the New Testament, 253-54.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Martin Luther on the Languages of Scripture

A.T. Robertson, the noted Greek scholar of yesteryear, in his grammar shared the conviction of A.M. Fairbairn when he said, “No man can be a theologian who is not a philologian. He who is no grammarian is no divine” (Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek NT, x). In other words, both of these men thought that learning and knowing Greek and Hebrew were necessary for anyone studying Scripture and theology. Unfortunately, in our day many theological students, pastors, and even some scholars see no need or use to study the biblical languages because, among other things, so many English Bible translations are readily available to us.

Somewhat of a similar problem existed in the time of Martin Luther, the German reformer. He once asked the question: “Do you inquire what use there is in learning the languages? Do you say, ‘We can read the Bible very well in German?’”

Luther gave a lengthy answer to the question he posed.

"Without languages we could not have received the gospel. Languages are the scabbard that contains the sword of the Spirit; they are the casket which contains the priceless jewels of antique thought; they are the vessel that holds the wine; and as the gospel says, they are the baskets in which the loaves and fishes are kept to feed the multitude."

"If we neglect the literature we shall eventually lose the gospel . . . No sooner did men cease to cultivate the languages than Christendom declined, even until it fell under the undisputed dominion of the pope. But no sooner was this torch relighted, than this papal owl fled with a shriek into congenial gloom . . . In former times the fathers were frequently mistaken, because they were ignorant of the languages and in our days there are some who, like the Waldenses, do not think the languages of any use; but although their doctrine is good, they have often erred in the real meaning of the sacred text; they are without arms against error, and I fear much that their faith will not remain pure" [boldface emphasis mine].

Notice at least three things in the answer Luther gave. First, he said, “Without languages we could not have received the gospel.” Luther knew that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and some Aramaic, while the New Testament was penned in Greek. It was through these languages that God’s story, and specifically, the gospel came to mankind. Remember also that Luther was a professor of New Testament and engaged in an exegetical study of Romans in Greek when he “rediscovered” the gospel that had been long been lost, in particular, the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ. Second, the reformer stated, “If we neglect the literature we shall eventually lose the gospel.” He thought that just as languages were necessary in receiving the gospel so also they were essential in keeping the gospel. Third, Luther knew that preachers contemporary in his time preached good doctrinal sermons; in other words, their theology and doctrine were good and even orthodox; however, he also knew that it was possible to be correct in one’s theology and doctrine but not know the actual meaning of the texts on which that doctrine was supposed to be based. Unfortunately, this problem is one current in our day just as it was in Luther’s time with the Waldenses. Luther thought that having the right theology but erring in determining the actual meaning of the biblical text left one “without arms,” i.e., defenseless to fight against errors that encroach upon faith in Christ.

He went on to say,

"It is a sin and shame not to know our own book or to understand the speech and words of our God; it is a still greater sin and loss that we do not study languages, especially in these days when God is offering and giving us men and books and every facility and inducement to this study, and desires his Bible to be an open book. O’ how happy the dear fathers would have been if they had our opportunity to study the languages and come thus prepared to the Holy Scriptures! What great toil and effort it cost them to gather up a few crumbs, while we with half the labor— yes, almost without any labor at all—can acquire the whole loaf! O how their effort puts our indolence to shame" [boldface emphasis mine].

Luther lamented the neglect of the Bible and its languages. He thought that it was shameful not to know the Bible well. He believed it even more sinful not to study the languages, especially when the opportunity to learn them well afforded itself in his day with an abundance of resources. How much more so in our present day!

When contrasting “simple preachers” who did not use or know the languages with preachers of God’s Word who were “versed” in the languages, Luther said,

"Though the faith and the Gospel may be proclaimed by simple preachers without the languages, such preaching is flat and tame, men grow at last wearied and disgusted and it falls to the ground. But when the preacher is versed in the languages, his discourse has freshness and force, the whole of Scripture is treated, and faith finds itself constantly renewed by a continual variety of words and words" [boldface emphasis mine].

Luther thought that the biblical languages brought “freshness and force” to one’s preaching. He opined that those who preached without the languages were limited, and these limitations would ultimately show up in their preaching. He went on further to say, “to interpret Scripture, to treat it independently, and to dispute with those who cite it incorrectly . . . cannot be done without languages.” This giant of the Reformation spoke with great conviction, and we need to hear him on these matters.

Please know that I do not mention all of these things in this blog to condemn those who have not had or do not know the biblical languages. My thinking is that God will hold us accountable for what opportunities we have had and for what we did with them. Thus, if you have learned the languages, I would urge you to be faithful with the training you have acquired. Learn and use them well! If you have not had the facility to learn the languages, I would encourage you to take some language courses in Hebrew or Greek should the opportunity be available. You will not regret it and will not have to continue rehearsing what commentator x, y, or z has to say when you preach on a biblical text. On one thing I think we would all agree: all of us want to be faithful and more effective stewards of the gospel with which God has entrusted us. Knowing the biblical languages goes a long way towards that end, and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is a great place to learn them! Blessings.

(All of the quotes above from Martin Luther are public domain and can be found compiled in a variety of places and resources, e.g., Hugh T. Kerr, ed., A Compend of Luther’s Theology [Westminster John Knox Press, 1966]).

Friday, September 5, 2014

Phoebe, the Letter-Carrier of Romans

Scholars are not only divided along ideological lines but also clearly undecided or uncertain on what role Phoebe played in Paul’s letter to the Romans. In their discussions on this topic, they often particularly focus on how Paul used the word διάκονος as it pertains to Phoebe, mentioned in Romans 16:1–2. On the one hand, the term may be used generically to denote a “servant,” i.e., one who performs various kinds of service. On the other hand, the word can also designate the office of “deacon” (cf. Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8, 12; Ign. Eph. 2.1; Magn. 6.1). So, the question usually arises in Romans 16:1–2 whether Paul is commending Phoebe in his letter because she is a noteworthy “servant,” or because she is specifically a “deacon” of the church at Cenchrea. A third possibility exists; viz., Phoebe was the letter-carrier of Romans (a position I have held since the year 2000).

A brief survey of commentaries written on Romans reveals that a majority of scholars say that Phoebe may have been the letter-carrier for Paul’s epistle to the Romans, but then they often say, primarily on the basis of the word διάκονος, that she was a deacon. For example, though he provided no proof that Phoebe was a letter-carrier, F. F. Bruce maintained that the letter to the Romans evidently was taken by her to the church; he then states that she was a deacon (Romans, TNTC [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985], 252). T. Schreiner also thinks that Phoebe was probably the bearer of the letter, but then he too goes on to say that she held the office of deacon (Romans, BECNT [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998], 786-87). Though D. Moo strongly alludes to Phoebe being the letter-carrier of Romans, he likewise believes that she was a deacon—however, he is cautious about saying she held the office because he notes that regular offices in the church were still in the process of being established (Moo, Romans, NICNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996], 913-14). J. D. G. Dunn is no different and holds a similar viewpoint to that of Moo (Dunn, Romans, WBC [Dallas: Word, 1988], 886-87). C. E. B. Cranfield says that it is highly probable that Phoebe was to be the bearer of Paul’s letter to the Romans, but then he says it is virtually certain that Phoebe was a deacon of the church in question (Cranfield, Romans, ICC [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1979], 78-81).

In Romans 16:1–2, however, I think Paul clearly commended Phoebe as the letter-carrier for his epistle to the Roman church. That is to say, although Phoebe was generally exercising a service-oriented task, she was specifically one involved in dispatch letter service, i.e., the courier of the letter to the Romans. Various Greek texts show that the word διάκονος unmistakably can refer to one who is a letter-carrier or courier (a list of texts can be found in LSJ, 398; cf. also BDAG, 230). Moreover, Paul’s recommendation of Phoebe in Romans 16:1–2— though more extensive— nonetheless fits the pattern found in ancient texts where letter-carriers are commended to the recipients of letters (many scholars on ancient letters— e.g., Kim, White, Stowers, Richards— acknowledge that Paul’s commendation of Phoebe shows characteristics featured in Greek papyri letters of recommendation).

Consequently, this conclusion has a considerable impact not only on interpretation, but also on biblical theology, especially the role of women in church and ministry.

(For more, see my full article titled, "Phoebe, the Letter-Carrier of Romans, and the Impact of Her Role on Biblical Theology," SWJT 56.1 [Fall 2013]: 43–52).