Archive for the ‘New Testament – General’ Category

Reading a story as a story can be a beautiful thing! (With this, I don’t mean to imply that things aren’t necessarily true; I’m just referring to the concept of narratology – yes, it’s a word – where one looks at the characters, plot, scenery, action, etc. of a story.)

The same can be said of the Gospel of Matthew as a whole. By looking at Matthew’s depictions of his characters, the time in which the narrative is set, the “atmosphere” that is created, etc., one learns a lot about what he is trying to say. In this vein, I’d like to make a few remarks upon Matthew 25:31-46 – the so-called Last Judgement section.

Just to give a bit of background, Matthew has five big discourses cemented in-between the narrative parts. The first and most well-known of these is the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7). Chapters 23-25 forms the last one; of which verse 31-46 forms the last part.

At the start of this section of text, we are told that the Son of Man will “sit” on his “throne of glory”. “Sit” is very important here – because the bigger discourse starts with the pharisees and the scribes “sitting” on the “seat of Moses”. But wait! There is more! We are also told right at the start of the discourses, in the Sermon on the Mount (chap 5:1), that Jesus “sat” and taught the disciples.* So RIGHT at the start and RIGHT at the end we’ve got a reference to teaching (and to authority, and interpretation of the Law). We’ll return to that shortly.

Two ways to stress something (if one doesn’t have recourse to bold or italics etc.), is by repeating something or saying it V-E-R-Y   S-L-O-W-L-Y. Matthew does exactly this in his story of the Last Judgement. Which is kind of strange, because we tend to remember the following as being the main thought of the passage:

The Son of Man will come, He will judge people by separating them into “sheep” on the right and “goats” on the left, the former will go to heaven and the latter to hell.

Very well, a summary is always shorter than the main text. But what is interesting is that Matthew repeats a VERY long piece of text (by the standards of discourse in the Gospel; and seeing that words were used rather more sparingly in ancient texts). He repeats it not twice, not thrice, but FOUR times! It reads (NIV):

35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

This is repeated two times in the positive** – for the “sheep”; and two times in the negative, for the “goats”. In other words, Matthew repeats this AND makes us read it V-E-R-Y   S-L-O-W-L-Y. Obviously, for Matthew, this thing that happens in the very present, not somewhere in the future (the judgement somewhere in the future / eschatology), is a key theme in the passage.

Now, back to the pharisees/scribes (P/S) vs. Jesus debate, into which I won’t go too much here. Matt 5-7 is generally seen as a “new” take on the Law – against that of the P/S. In the bigger scheme: Jesus taught with authority (7:29); the P/S were given authority but used it hypocritically (chap 23). There is also a final contrast between chap 23 and chap 25 – the final two opposites. In light of the P/S’ hypocritical nature, the drawn out and repetitive theme of actually doing and caring as being THE decisive factor becomes critical. The Last Word on Judgement, then, is not on the interpretation of the Law, but on doing it. We should always, always add this element to our eschatological understanding of this passage.

P.S. Gosh! I love what I do for a living.



* Sitting was the normal position for someone to teach in the ancient world.

** Matthew does some fancy footwork here. For the surprise of the “sheep” surprises the reader: these people were given permission to enter, yet still they pause to ask why. Although this may naturally serve some other purpose, it gives the opportunity to repeat this key theme in the speech of the “sheep” again!

Read Full Post »

So, here’s another one of those posts. Bear with me, even though I mention the word “Greek”, this is more like Greek-extra-lite. With a “to the side”. Seriously.

There’s this thing in Greek. It’s called the genitive absolute, and mark my words, it’s absolutely fabulous. I’ve been trying to point this out to students, but, I fear, many of them just … don’t see the point. It’s all too grammary for them. So, maybe this will help – even for the unitiated. It’s a very short story in Matthew (9:32-34), here’s the first part in the updated NIV version:

32 While they were going out, a man who was demon-possessed and could not talk was brought to Jesus. 33 And when the demon was driven out, the man who had been mute spoke. The crowd was amazed and said, “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.”

Now, I won’t go on about blah blah you’ve got to read the Greek to understand it. I’ll just imply that and continue. Notice how there is no mention of the action of driving out the demon, at least what concerns the story-line: the mute man comes, the ex-mute man speaks. One can see this in the English (“and when the demon was driven out”), but it’s even more clear in the Greek: enter the aforementioned champion grammar-thingy of the day, our genitive absolute.

To explain the important work of the GA in lay-man’s terms: it takes two sentences, scrunches them together; the most important sentence pops out on top. Thus, and mostly so in narrative, the GA kind of pushes one sentence to the side, while the main sentence is placed in the spotlight. This is exactly what happens at the start of verse 33. Not only the act of exorcism, but also the demon itself has been assigned a second place in the grammar. In Matthew’s story, the poor thing had no chance! There’s no battle, no reprimand, no … nothing. Just a storyteller who tells us: let’s leave this to the side for now, it would’ve happened anyway. (In plain Afrikaans: Gaan sit in die hoekie, demoon, die grootmense wil bietjie gesels.)

I feel obligated to point out that one shouldn’t go overboard with genitive absolutes (or grammar, for that matter), sometimes it’s just – grammar. For instance, verse 32 also starts with a GA, but in this case, it simply sets the scene for what is to follow. (The people left, they’re not in the picture anymore, a new stage is being set.)

Also, the story continues – verse 34 is still part of the story.

34 But the Pharisees said, “It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons.”

But since I just wanted to highlight something in the story, and not explain the story itself, I’ll leave you to it. (But here’s a tip: Matt 12:24 and following might help.)



Verse 33 starts like this in Greek: καὶ ἐκβληθέντος τοῦ δαιμονίου ἐλάλησεν ὁ κωφός.

Read Full Post »

I was recently challenged by Cobus to write a more quotidian (just kidding) mundane (oops, did it again, sorry – I’m failing this challenge, it seems) – anyway, to write a more understandable conclusion to a previous post. Apparently, not everyone is really into the inner workings of Greek grammar. How strange.  So, here goes.

Ever thought of the saving power of Christ as a detergent / washing powder? Oh, come on! It’s in Revelation (7:14).  With a little bit of imagination, one could easily imagine the whole process as an advert – how it dissolves all the little dirty cookie-jar sins and roll-in-the-mud stains we’ve had from childhood on. Close up on the fabric – whoops, there it goes! Up, up and away! This is a SUPERpowder!

So, what now? Guess we can chill! We have received ab-so-lution! In fact, this SUPERpowder is so effective, it might have just dissolved our response-ability.

Guess again.

Paul writes in Philippians 3 about absolution – by talking about righteousness. Almost as if it was a court case, and God, the Judge, has to deliver the verdict. And He simply declares us righteous (i.e. we have no sins) because we believe in Christ.

Guess again.

Rather, for reasons I have set out in my previous post, Paul thinks that righteousness means

to know Christ,
to share in the power of his resurrection and
to share in his suffering.

Paul has just upheld Jesus as the ultimate example (Phil 2:5-11) – and he wants to follow Christ’s way even if this means that he, too, must die.  In fact, Paul is not saying: “I am free of sin, thanks to what Jesus did for me!” but rather: “I wish I could be like Jesus – and put other people’s needs before my own!” (Phil 2:1-5).

Paul is not really into chilling on a sofa with his new sparkly white clothes. Or a synagogue, for that matter. He wants to live a life of sacrifice – which means that he needs to put other people’s needs before his own. That is how he will have the right relationship with God.

OK, so what crappy SUPERpowder is this, then? (If you are affronted by my use of the word “crappy” – well, Paul used it too –  in Phil 3:8). Is … Revelation … wrong … or lying? Definitely not. Paul still views Christ’s death (and life) as the way through which we get righteousness. Especially the faithfulness of Christ (3:9). Through Christ’s faithfulness – and his obedience (2:8) – the way has been opened so we can live a life of righteousness – that is, consider other people as more important than ourselves.

Bottom line: belief in Jesus Christ is not the point at which we receive righteousness, but rather the starting point of a righteous life. Which means, incidentally, daily sacrifice (3:7ff).

I live in South Africa. We have one of the greatest divides between rich and poor – with reference to money AND power – and many of the rich consider themselves to be Christians (and therefore, of course, absolved of sin and righteous). Why? Because they believe in Jesus and confess Him as Lord. Methinks Paul would hotly disagree with them. Methinks Paul would rather say that if they do not step away from their riches – or help other people with these riches, they would be failing in living a righteous life!

Read Full Post »

Sermon preparation can lead to some interesting stuff!

In this case, it got me wondering about Philippians 3:10 – and whether Paul could possibly consider “righteousness” (δικαιοσύνη) to be equal to sharing in Christ’s resurrection and suffering. (If you’re not the geeky Greek-for-breakfast type of person that I assume you are, you may skip the technical stuff by reading only the translations in quotes and the last paragraph. I’ll forgive you. The second translation, of course, is my preference.)

The hinge, in this matter, is Philippians 3:10 – and especially the Greek phrase “τοῦ γνῶναι” (the translation of which depends on the arguments below). Sumney (2007:81) gives three possibilities for understanding this infinitive: One possibility would be to connect this with the “so that” of verse 8 (the ἵνα clause) – it would then read as follows (my translation):

… so that I might gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness out of the law, but that through the faith of Christ, the righteousness from God on account of (that) faith, (that I might) know Him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his suffering, …

In short, then, I might (a) gain Christ, (b) be found in Him, and (c) know Him, etc.

A second possibility would be to understand it as connected to “the knowledge of Christ Jesus” (τῆς γνώσεως Χριστοῦ Ἰησου) in verse 8, which it obviously echoes, but together with Sumney, I think this might be a bit too far removed.

The third possibility Sumney mentions, and opts for, is also the one given by Blass / Debrunner (1984:331 = paragraph 400, note 10). This is an epexegetical infinitive – meaning, in essence, it more closely describes something else. BD, however, is not quite clear on exactly what it describes – and in their example, the infinitive is governed by a verb. Sumney takes this as referring to “what immediately precedes it” – would this be “on account of (that) faith” (ἐπὶ τῇ πίστει)? Rather, in my view, this epexegetical infinitive is linked to the whole clause describing the concept righteousness” (δικαιοσύνη). This makes sense as it is exactly this concept that Paul has been discussing. (Note, however, that the article is not feminine, but neuter – could it be possible that Paul uses a neuter as some kind of stock phrase, and simply wants to refer to the single term, “righteousness”?) The “righeousness” Paul receives, instead of that being from the law, is to know Him, etc. In translation, this would read as follows:

... so that I might gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness out of the law, but that (righteousness) through the faith of Christ, the righteousness from God on account of (that) faith, namely to know Him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his suffering, …

Why is this important? Because it links the concepts Paul is speaking about together. This is how Paul receives righteousness – Paul receives righteousness from God by knowing Christ, sharing in the power of his resurrection and also by knowing (i.e. experiencing) fellowship with his suffering. This continues into the next part – “being conformed to his death” (συμμορφιζόμενος τῷ θανάτῳ αὐτοῦ). Notice how this is an echo of the hymn in Philippians 2:6-11! Paul holds himself as an example to the Philippians (see 3:17) – and in turn, he is following the example of Christ!


Blass, F., Debrunner, A. & Rehkopf, F. 1984. Grammatik des neutestamentlichen Griechisch. (16. Aufl.) Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Sumney, J. L. 2007. Philippians: A Greek Student’s Intermediate Reader. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers.

Read Full Post »

Reading the Bible is like looking into a pond. In some places, the water is all murky; in other places, the water is quite clear. In yet some other places, the rocks and pebbles at the bottom of the pond have shifted.

More importantly, when one looks into the pond, one sees a reflection of oneself. This reflection is surely not the only thing one sees, but it is there. An excessive case of narcissisim can lead one to read into the Bible exactly what one would like to read. If one is aware of one’s reflection, one could try and counterbalance it – to look beyond it – but it will always be there.

Read Full Post »

I am reading a paper in about a week’s time at the SA Association for the Study of the LXX’s Conference in Stellenbosch. The title of this paper is: “Reading ‘Bel and the Dragon’ as Narrative: a comparison between the Old Greek and Theodotion.

The abstract reads as follows:

This paper investigates the narrative character of Bel and the Dragon, using an eclectic model of narrative criticism. Since Bel and the Dragon exists in two Greek traditions, one can compare the way in which these stories are told: e.g., how the characters are portrayed, what point of view the narrator adopts, etc. In comparing these two versions, certain key features of each come to light.

I really think we Protestants should take a second look at the canonicity of Bel and the Dragon (or Snake, or Serpent)! It is a beautiful tale in which the king comes to the realization that Daniel’s God is the only one. This is done with quite some skill, contra what some people have said in the past. The problem with their perspective, if I may be as bold,  is that they simply stuck to historical-critical studies. With a narrative approach, a lot more can be gleaned from the text! One can read the story in the New English Translation of the Septuagint here. In fact, the whole NETS edition can be accessed online, here.

I wish I could post some more on this beautiful tale (tales, really). At the moment, though, things are quite hectic as I have to also prepare for the second conference, a joint conference of Old Testament -, New Testament -, Systematic Theology -, etc. societies in South Africa. It is part of the celebration of the 150th ‘birthday’ of the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch. At this conference, the bigger one of the two, I will be presenting (Deo volente!) a paper entitled: “Pilate’s character: a narratological reading.” Once again, the abstract explains it the best:

This paper investigates Pilate’s character as portrayed in each Gospel by using a combination of narratological theories of character. Each Gospel constitutes its own narrative, with specific emphases. By highlighting the different roles and character traits of Pilate as set forth in each Gospel, some of these emphases will be laid bare.

Perhaps, if time permits, I will post some thoughts on these two topics when I get back!

Read Full Post »

In many contexts and formularies of the church, the Eucharist has been linked with sin and the forgiveness thereof. Being perchance under the spell of the conversation with Scot McKnight a few of us South Africans had the privilege to be part of, I began pondering on this connection. (Professor McKnight’s lecture can be downloaded as an MP3 from Tom Smith’s blog, who also blogged on the conversation.) Prof McKnight pointed out a fourfold “oversimplification” of the Gospel, which might pertain to the overemphasised connection of the Eucharist with sin:


1. God loves you

2. You are a sinner

3. Jesus died for the forgiveness of your sin

4. If you accept Christ as your Saviour, your sins are forgiven (with an emphasis on gaining heaven)


The four highly relevant texts for a discussion of the institution of the Eucharist are Matt 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:14-20 and 1 Cor 11:23-26. (Perhaps one could also add the reference to the Eucharist in 1 Cor 10:16ff, or more veiled references such as Cleopas and his friend in Luke 24. John omits the institution of the Eucharist. Some reference to it might be picked up in chapter 21 – depending on one’s view on that chapter, of course.) 

Only in Matt 26:26-29 is there a direct connection between the Eucharist and sin. Verse 28 reads: τοῦτο γάρ ἐστιν τὸ αἷμά μου τῆς διαθήκης τὸ περὶ πολλῶν ἐκχυννόμενον εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν. “Because this is my blood of the covenant, which for many is poured out for the forgiveness of sins.”

Mark 14 does not have “for the forgiveness of sins.” Mark 14:24b reads: τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ αἷμά μου τῆς διαθήκης τὸ ἐκχυννόμενον ὑπὲρ πολλῶν. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” As can be expected, Mark is harmonised to Matthew, in that some manuscripts add εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν (“for the forgiveness of sins”). NA27 lists the following: W, family 13, a few more Greek mss, a single Old Latin Witness (Codex Vercellensis), one ms of the Vulgate (followed by some sahidic manuscripts and the bohairic tradition). Rightly, NA27 does not even give the witnesses for the printed text. Mark is often harmonised to read with Matthew, since Matthew was considered the ‘stronger’ Gospel. (In this verse, some other harmonisations of Mark to Matthew occur – e.g., ἐκχυννόμενον ὑπὲρ πολλῶν has been replaced with περὶ πολλῶν ἐκχυννόμενον in A and the Majority of Greek manuscripts (including family 1), and the Harklensian Syriac version.)

Luke, on prima facie evidence, draws on both Mark and some other source. For one thing, Luke adds another cup (verse 17), then the bread (verse 19) and then the institution of the cup “in the same manner” (ὡσαύτως). Some verbal echoes to Mark is apparent, e.g.:

Mark 14:22: … λαβὼν ἄρτον εὐλογήσας ἔκλασεν καὶ ἔδωκεν αὐτοῖς καὶ εἶπεν· λάβετε, τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ σῶμά μου.

Luke 22:19: … λαβὼν ἄρτον εὐχαριστήσας ἔκλασεν καὶ ἔδωκεν αὐτοῖς λέγων· τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ σῶμά μου τὸ ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν διδόμενον· 

Luke shows some similarities to Paul, too, e.g.:

1 Cor 11:23b-24: ἔλαβεν ἄρτον καὶ εὐχαριστήσας ἔκλασεν καὶ εἶπεν· τοῦτό μού ἐστιν τὸ σῶμα τὸ ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν· … 

Luke 22:19: … λαβὼν ἄρτον εὐχαριστήσας ἔκλασεν καὶ ἔδωκεν αὐτοῖς λέγων· τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ σῶμά μου τὸ ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν διδόμενον· 

These places of comparison can be multiplied. An important overlap between Paul and Luke is that the eucharist is instituted εἰς τὴν … ἀνάμνησιν (“for the remembrance”) of Jesus (1 Cor 11:24,25; Luke 22:19). For Paul, this implies the continuous preaching of the death of the Lord. Luke does not add this detail – one might propose that Luke considers the “remembrance” to point also to the reason of Christ’s death. Following the institution of the Eucharist, while still at the table, the disciples quarrel over which of them is the greatest. Jesus answers that it is the one who serves; after his own example, since he is ἐν μέσῳ ὑμῶν … ὡς ὁ διακονῶν (“in the midst of you … like a one who serves”). After this, of course, the passion takes its course. 

By no means exhaustive, the excursion above will suffice to indicate that the eucharist can not be reduced to simply the forgiveness of sins. At the very least, it should include the preaching of the death of Christ (and EVERYTHING that entails), as well as a remembrance of his death.


1) Matthew alone explicitly connects the Eucharist with the forgiveness of sins.

2) There are two main traditions of the Eucharist evident in the New Testament – Mark/Matthew and 1 Corinthians/Luke (although Luke draws on Mark, too.) Of course, all four authors of these books add their own emphases.

3) Luke probably made use of both Mark and Paul.

4) The Eucharist should (at least) also be a proclamation of the death of Jesus. This includes the grounds for his death – his life, lived as a servant.

Important CAVEAT: In this study, I’ve assumed that Luke 22:19b-20, one of the so-called “Western non-interpolations”  is part of the early tradition.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »