The Names of God: Exodus 3:14-15 and the Answer

Thousands of years ago, so the story goes, an old man met god in a fiery bush that refused to be consumed. The god took interest in the old man—who went by the name Moses—and decided to send him so that he may help save a group of people whom the god called his own. “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians” (Ex. 3:7-8 NIV). Before Moses accepted this unknown god’s proposition, he first asked the god for its name—for if “they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (3:13 NIV). The response this god provided Moses has continued to perplex layman and scholar alike to this very day. In this paper, I will examine various interpretations of “the answer” the god gave in the hopes of finding a syncretic approach that makes sense of the answer both within its (a) historical context and (b) its current biblical, canonical context. In my concluding reflections, I will argue that the names of God, as revealed to Moses, are as elusive now as they were then.

In the Ancient Near East, names were thought to have magical properties.[1] Cassuto, summarizing the prevailing view, writes, “[T]he designation of any entity was to be equated, as it were, with its existence: whatever is without an appellation does not exist, but whatever has a denomination has existence.”[2] Already in the second creation myth found in Genesis 2, Adam was seen giving names to the recently created animals brought into existence.[3] Existence and having a name went hand-in-hand. The “magical element” of knowing the name of an object or person was grounded in the ancient idea, as Gordis points out, that “knowing the name of any person or object is tantamount to comprehending its nature.”[4] The language of the Hebrew Bible itself—including our text from Exodus—was conducive to such magical thinking. “In Biblical Hebrew, sëm [שֵׁם, “name”] means ‘essence.’”[5] In addition to this, knowing the name of a god, and “calling on its name,” meant you were able to invoke that god’s attention.[6] But attention itself was not granted unless you knew the god’s name. The “magical element,” however, is best epitomized by the ancients’ idea that “to ‘call a name’ [was] sometimes equivalent to ‘create.’”[7] Given the ancients’ concern for knowing the correct name for a correct object, animal, or god, it should come to us as no surprise that Moses was predominantly concerned with figuring out the god’s name—who, in fact, was speaking with him?

The answer the god gave appears to be as elusive as ever:

“I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’” (Ex. 3:14-15 NIV).

At first blush, it appears that there are at least three[8] separate but related answers the god, identifying himself as YHWH, gave Moses: (1) “I am who I am”; (2) “I Am”; and (3) “The Lord” [YHWH]. Numerous theories have arisen because of the seemingly various “answers” YHWH gave Moses; the scholars usually assign the different names to different sources.[9] In this paper, however, I will focus on the canonical text at hand without dealing with the complicated theories catalyzed by source criticism.

YHWH[10] first answers Moses’ question with the cryptic phrase: “I am who I am.” In Hebrew the phrase is אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה. The first word—namely, אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה [ehyeh]—is the first-person imperfect masculine singular verb from the root הָיָה [hyh, “to be”]. Generally speaking, the word could be translated “I will be,” being an imperfect verb that conveys an incomplete action that could occur in the past, present, or future. The particle following the initial ehyeh is אֲשֶׁ֣ר, which is normally translated in this passage as “who.” What does YHWH mean by saying of himself “I will be who I will be” or, as most translations have it, “I am who I am”? Numerous answers have been given; I will present three interpretations of this enigmatic phrase.

The first interpretation I will call “the unknowable explanation.” According to this interpretation, YHWH, in fact, does not answer Moses’ question; that is, YHWH does not give Moses a “name.” What YHWH does instead is give Moses a phrase—an idem per idem[11] syntactical construction, to be exact—alluding to the impossibility of placing God in a box. Zimmerli, one such exponent of this view, writes, “In the only passage where the Old Testament itself attempts to provide an explanation of the name ‘Yahweh’ it refuses to explain the name in a way that could confine it within the cage of definition.”[12] God remains, in this view, the deus absconditus—that is, “the hidden God.” Several good reasons seem to support this interpretation. In light of the earlier comments I made regarding names and their “magical elements,” this view prevents humans from knowing God’s name “because man should not know God’s name and acquire power over him, for God is not to be man’s slave.”[13] Also, this interpretation seems to suggest that the finite human mind cannot possibly understand God and his nature. Even if a name were given, it would be an illusory shell: the name could never contain God. Since a human could not possibly understand God, God and his name must forever remain a mystery.

The second interpretation I shall call “the ontological explanation.” In this view, YHWH is essentially saying, “I am because I am.” When Moses asked YHWH his name, YHWH gave him a name, but it was made in reference to the name itself. That is, outside of the name given—which is elusive as it is, meaning simply “I will be” or “I am”—is itself not supported by anything external to it, functioning, in a sense, as the grounding of being itself. “There is no cause for God’s existence outside himself.”[14] This is a very popular view, being supported by numerous scholars, both ancient and modern.[15] The problem with this view, from a Hebrew exegesis perspective, is that it assumes the particle here should be translated as “because,” and, in addition to this, the imperfect verb should be thoroughly read as a present perfect; that is, the “I will be” (imperfect) should be translated, with certainty, as “I am” (present perfect).[16]

The third interpretation I shall call “the covenantal-loyalty explanation.” In this view, one that seems to be favored by Cassuto, YHWH, by stating the “I am who I am,” means to relate to Moses that he is a god who is. He is one who is actively present in the life of his people. Prior to Exodus 3:14, this god tells Moses: “…For I will be with you [עִמָּ֔ךְ כִּֽי־אֶֽהְיֶ֣ה]” (v.12, my trans.). He is a god who is loyal to a people he calls his own. (Later on, he will tell Moses that he is the god of his ancestors [3:15].) Interpreting this passage, Cassuto writes, regarding what Moses would say to the people, “He Himself sent me to you; although we forgot his name, He did not forget us. He remembered His covenant with our ancestors, and has sent me to you to fulfill His covenant.”[17] In support of this view is Mowinckel’s assertion that “[t]o the Hebrew ‘to be’ does not just mean to exist—as all other beings and things do exist as well—but to be active, to express oneself in active being…”[18] Noth, likewise, writes, “הָיָה [“to be”] does not express pure being but active being.”[19]

After YHWH’s first answer—“I will be who I will be” or “I am who I am”—he further tells Moses that he is simply the “I am.” In this case, the verb seems to be functioning entirely as a title. But YHWH does not stop there. He then introduces another name for himself, providing a third reply: “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord [יְהוָ֞ה], the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’” In the third reply, God has now used yet another verb from the root הָיָה [hyh, “to be”], namely, יְהוָ֞ה [yhwh, “he is”].[20] The difference between the two words being that of person: the first being in first-person, the second being in third-person. Perhaps when God speaks of himself, he refers to himself in the first-person ehyeh; however, when others refer to God, and speak of him, he is referred to in the third-person yhwh. In any case, God is a god linked to the verb for “to be.” Having looked at various interpretations of “the answer” to Moses’ question, I now want to turn my attention to the Exodus narrative as a whole, looking to see which of these various interpretations make sense of the most data.

At the beginning of the book of Exodus, the narrator presents us with a strange picture. Calling to mind the first command given by God in Genesis 1:28—“be fruitful and multiply”—the book displays before our eyes a people who, indeed, had been fruitful (Ex. 1:7, 9). But in their fruitfulness, the people also made enemies: the Pharaoh felt threatened precisely because of it (1:9). The fruitfulness was either a blessing or a curse; it was either responsible for the growth of the nation, or it was the very curse that reduced them to their slavery. However, what appears evident is that God was intimately involved with his people in their struggle to survive tyranny. The midwives, the narrator tells us, “feared the God” (1:17, my trans.). In addition to this, the narrator makes us cognizant of God’s [elohim, אֱלֹהִ֔ים] early involvement in the Israelites’ reproductive efforts. “God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous” (1:20 NIV).

The tale suggests that, already, God was present with his people. We are not told whether the Israelites knew God as the “I am” or as the “He is”; what we do know is that God—in the generic sense conveyed by אֱלֹהִ֔ים—was with the Israelites. In addition to this, we are reminded right at the end chapter two, “God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob” (2:24 NIV). God, then, was both present and covenantal, both faithful and loyal.

Moses, having run away from Pharaoh’s court, and having settled into a nomadic lifestyle in a place called Midian on the Arabian peninsula, is confronted, years later, by a relatively commonplace scene in such desert regions: a burning bush. The not-so-commonplace sight was the fact that the bush didn’t just burn; it refused to be consumed (3:3). Midrash Rabba offers an intriguing commentary on this passage:

“Why did God show Moses such a symbol? Because he (Moses) had thought to himself that the Egyptians might consume Israel; hence did God show him a fire, which burnt but did not consume, saying to him, “Just as the thorn-bush is burning and is not consumed, so the Egyptians will not be able to destroy Israel.”[21]

Again, the covenantal-loyalty of YHWH is exuded here. If this is the message YHWH was trying to convey to Moses, then he was certainly trying to tell him that he, their God, his people’s God, was faithfully looking after them. Though they may be in the process of being burned by fire, they shall not be consumed—for YHWH remembers his covenants.

Just moments prior to giving Moses “the answer” to his question—namely, what is God’s name?—YHWH[22] said: “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain” (3:12 NIV). The promise is already there. First, YHWH says, “I will be with you.” He is the god of covenantal loyalty. Second, YHWH says what will happen with Israel: “you will worship God on this mountain.” He is the god of the future.

It is in this biblical, canonical context in which Moses first hears God’s reply (or “replies,” if you will). Who is God? and What is his name? Instead of seeing the various interpretations as mostly in conflict with each other, I think a syncretic approach works rather well in the interpretation of this passage. Why shouldn’t a first-person verb such as ehyeh convey (a) an “unknowable name”; (b) the grounding of being; and (c) covenantal loyalty? All of these interpretations have come from engagement with the verb in the middle of it all: hyh [“to be”]. What does it mean for something “to be”? What does it mean for God to say that he is (or was, or will be) this “to be”? In a way, then, I see all of these as tentatively valid interpretations. They all have been borne out of an authentic wrestling with the biblical text at hand.

Therefore, on that fateful day on Sinai, it seems likely to me that Moses was given an answer that involved complexity and nuance. A generic name for a god was not thrown out, but neither was no name given. Instead, what Moses discovered was, perhaps, that he was dealing with a God who didn’t like labels, a God who “fear[ed] the magical use of His Name…”[23] Later on in Exodus 33:19, this very same God would remark, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.”[24] The enigma is being perpetrated even here. Who will receive God’s mercy? The answer is not to be found in the answer given. The human subject remains at a kind of distance; he or she is never directly manipulating God’s behavior. Answers qua answers are not given; instead, YHWH speaks in cryptic terms. Maybe if the human subject could know God’s actions, could know whom God would show mercy, maybe then could the human exercise some control over this God.

If the name had to do with some other verb, could humans make sense of this deity then? Maybe if God was not a “to be” but a “to love,” maybe then would he be predictable.[25] But, as it is, no such verb was given. What was given was a verb scholar and layman alike continue to struggle with. In Exodus 3:14, we had come face-to-face with a passage one scholar has called “one of the unsolved difficulties for both translators and exegetes.”[26] Like the ancients of old who sought out names so that they might magically abracadabra various gods into existence, we, too, demand accurate knowledge. Like Moses, being presented with an answer he could not cope with, we meander around the ashes of a burnt out bush, hoping to find “the answer.” And what is our question? “What is the name of God?” In the commentaries and in the academic journals we went looking—only to return with a plethora of so-called “answers.” Under every rock we’ve looked only to come up empty-handed. Somewhere, buried in a long-forgotten commentary written by some nomad, another answer awaits to be discovered. And the names of God continue to puzzle and perplex us today as much as ever, evading us like elusive fireflies burning now and disappearing later. In every scholar, in every reader of the Bible, there lurks a Moses asking an age-old question: “What is his name?”


Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev



Albrektson, Bertil. “On the Syntax of אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה in Exodus 3:14.” Text, Translation, Theology: Selected Essays on the Hebrew Bible. Burlington: Ashgate, 2010.

Cassuto, Umberto. A Commentary on the Book of Exodus. Translated by Israel Abrahams. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1967.

Gianotti, Charles R. “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH.” Bibliotheca Sacra 142, no. 565 (January 1985): 38-51.

Gordis, Robert. “The Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Old Testament and the Qumran Scrolls.” Journal of Biblical Literature 76 (1957).

Hyatt, J. Philip. Commentary on Exodus. New Century Bible. London: Oliphants, 1971.

Janzen, Gerald J. “And the Bush Was Not Consumed.” Jewish Biblical Quarterly 31, no. 4 (October 2003): 219-225.

Noth, Martin. Exodus: A Commentary. Translated by J. S. Bowden. London: W. & J. Mackay & Co. Ltd., 1962.

Reisel, M. The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H. Studia Semitica Neerlandica. Netherlands: Royal VanGorcum Ltd., 1957.


[1] M. Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H., Studia Semitica Neerlandica (Netherlands: Royal VanGorcum Ltd., 1957), 1. “[I]n the view of primitive man forces are active in Nature that can be influenced and controlled by magical means, such as rites of protection or propitiation, by worship, as also by the giving or avoiding of certain names” (italics original).

[2] Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, trans. Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1967), 37.

[3] Genesis 2:20.

[4] Robert Gordis, “The Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Old Testament and the Qumran Scrolls,” in Journal of Biblical Literature 76 (1957), 125.

[5] Ibid.

[6] J. Philip Hyatt, Commentary on Exodus, New Century Bible (London: Oliphants, 1971), 75. “To pronounce the name of a deity meant to call upon his power.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Such is the view of M. Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H., 5. “To this single question he surprisingly receives as many as three answers…”

[9] Noth does this (cf. Martin Noth, Exodus: A Commentary, trans. J. S. Bowden [London: W. & J. Mackay & Co. Ltd., 1962], 42) as does Hyatt (cf. Commentary on Exodus, 75-8). For a list of scholars who advocate some source theory derived from the different names of god in the Hebrew Bible, I refer my readers to the numerous commentaries available. It is not the purpose of this paper to engage with various source theories robustly, as I am more interested in dealing with the interpretation of Exodus as the text currently stands, warts and all.

[10] I will refer to “the god” throughout the text as YHWH from this point forward. While it may cause some difficulties to my readers—perhaps various sources meant different gods when they mentioned either YHWH or elohim? and I have, as it were, caused some confusion by collapsing the alleged “distinction”—it would have been relatively strange, aesthetically speaking, for me to continue to refer to god as “the god” for the remainder of the paper.

[11] Hyatt, Commentary on Exodus, 76-7. “In this construction the speaker (or writer) is intentionally indefinite , because he is either unwilling or unable to be definite and precise.” For examples of other such constructions in Exodus, see 4:13; 16:23; and 33:19.

[12] Cited in Charles R. Gianotti, “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH,” in Bibliotheca Sacra 142, no. 565 (January 1985), 41.

[13] Hyatt, Commentary on Exodus, 75.

[14] Ibid., 76.

[15] See Gianotti, “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH,” 41.

[16] Ibid., 42-3.

[17] Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, 39.

[18] Cited in Gianotti, “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH,” 42.

[19] Noth, Exodus: A Commentary, 45.

[20] This verb is translated here as the Qal verbal stem third-person imperfect masculine singular.

[21] Cited in Gerald J. Janzen, “And the Bush Was Not Consumed,” in Jewish Biblical Quarterly 31, no. 4 (October 2003), 225.

[22] Technically the word here is elohim.

[23] Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H, 11. Italics original.

[24] NIV.

[25] Interestingly enough, S. D. Goitein makes the argument that the Hebrew root hyh is related to the Arabic “hawiya” which means “to love.” He then interprets Exodus 3:14 as saying, “I shall (passionately) love whom I love” (see Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H., 17).

[26] These are the words of W. A. Irwin cited in Bertil Albrektson, “On the Syntax of אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה in Exodus 3:14,” in Text, Translation, Theology: Selected Essays on the Hebrew Bible (Burlington: Ashgate, 2010), 41.

Crime and Punishment in the Garden of Eden: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Sexual Consciousness, Unnatural Sex Acts, and the Primeval Couple in Genesis 3:4-7

For years readers of Genesis have been drawn to the stories found about the primeval couple in the mythical Garden of Eden. From the beginning of the narrative arch to its climactic ending, the story appears to be a self-contained unit. The beginning is marked by God’s divine command to ’adam in 2:16-17, in which YHWH commands: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”[1] The middle of the narrative is the tension-filled discourse involving a snake, Eve, and Adam (3:1-7). A conflict scene in which YHWH confronts the primeval couple regarding their disobedience then follows (3:8-13). The climactic conclusion is the punishment meted out by YHWH. It is, then, when read in its final, canonical form[2], a story of “crime and punishment.”[3] What is the primeval couple’s crime? In this paper, I will primarily focus my attention on Genesis 3:4-7, in particular I will be analyzing various interpretations of the phrase “the tree of knowledge of good and evil,” which occurs as the official name of the tree in 2:9. What does it mean? In lay circles, it has come to mean that the primeval couple gained moral consciousness by eating of the tree’s fruit. Other scholars have argued that the “knowledge” had more to do with “mastery of one’s existence.”[4] I find all such interpretations to be unconvincing. Therefore, in this paper I will argue that the tree of knowledge of good and evil had to do with sexual consciousness. Moreover, I will argue that the punishment in this tale of “crime and punishment” has to do with the crime of “unnatural sex acts.” I believe that such an interpretation, while it may not convince everyone, explains virtually all of the data, making sense in the biblical context and its Ancient Near Eastern context.

Traditionally, especially for those of us who have graduated Sunday School, the story about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil had to do with their freely made decision of choosing their own way over God’s way; the couple chose to disobey God to discover some separate way of “knowing.” In other words, Adam and Eve wanted to abide by their own rules; and, so, as a consequence of eating of this tree’s fruit, they were awakened to moral consciousness. Leon R. Kass interprets the narrative in this way. He writes, “For a human being, as for any human child, the possibility of choosing for oneself lies always within reach. To be a human being means that judgments of good and bad are always in one’s mental garden…”[5] In other words, for Kass, the story has to do with Adam and Eve’s obtainment of moral consciousness.[6] For Kass, the knowledge of “good and evil” should be taken to mean—as the Hebrew phrase וָרָע טוֹב actually suggests—knowledge of “good and bad.” “Bad,” in this case, includes things like pain, sickness, and disorder.[7] In other words, to bite of the tree is to voluntarily begin participating in the experience of “bad things,” such as cancer, earthquakes, and heartbreaks. But does this make any sense, even in the context of Genesis? I don’t think so. For example, the text states that prior to Eve’s biting of the fruit, she already perceived the tree to be “good [טוֹב] for food,” a “delight to the eyes,” and “to be desired to make one wise” (3:6). How could she know that the tree was “good” prior to obtaining Kass’ moral consciousness? Kass, in an ingenious move, writes, “[T]o reach for the forbidden fruit is already to have tasted it.”[8] In other words, Eve, by reaching for the fruit, already tasted of it, and somehow—and this remains unexplained—was able to make judgments on her own prior to reaching for it. Ultimately, in the tale, the primeval couple proves that “a free choice is not necessarily a good choice, not even for oneself.”[9] This means the point of the tale was to demonstrate to its readers that—sometimes?—it is better to listen to God’s divine imperatives, to live by His commands, rather than make autonomous choices.

Does Kass’ interpretation make sense in the biblical context? It does not. The curse that later follows the crime on its heels has to do with a woman’s childbearing experience. And, as most of us know, sex precedes childbirth. The crime, as my paper will later show, has to do with sexual deviance. However, I have spoken too soon. Next, we will look at another unconvincing interpretation: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as “mastery of one’s existence.”

Claus Westermann argues that the entirety of the final narrative contained in Genesis 2-3 is “a story of the breaking of a law and punishment.”[10] God commands the prohibition (i.e., “do not eat…”) directly to the ’adam. The couple[11] does not listen, breaking God’s command. The story is a “direct confrontation between humans and God” in which “God himself discovers the transgression, conducts the trial and pronounces judgment.”[12] In the narrative, according to Westermann, the primeval couple attempts to eat of the tree because it represents “knowledge (or wisdom) in the general, comprehensive sense.”[13] Following a thesis proposed by J. Pedersen, and citing it, Westermann believes the reason that God felt threatened by the couple’s eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil had to do with “the god’s zealous maintenance of their absolute superiority.”[14] In eating of the fruit, the couple chose their “craving for more.”[15] In Westermann’s words, it is this that “leads to conflict with God or the gods.”[16] “Human beings are created in such a way that they are capable of advancing their life and of advancing their knowledge… There is a difference between these two human aspirations. To aspire after life comes in conflict with the inexorable barrier of death; to strive for wisdom or knowledge meets no such barrier.”[17] All of this leads to what Westermann believes the author of Genesis is particularly ascribing to the primeval couple: a desire “to be like God” (3:5). Comparing this text with Job 15:7-8, Ezekiel 28:11-19, and Sirach 49:16, Westermann articulates the view that the primordial myths all reveal a primeval person (or persons) “grasping after wisdom to which the creature has no right.”[18] Once the primeval couple disobeyed YHWH, they were punished. The punishment of the woman is of particular importance. She is “cursed” with increased birth pains. Why? Westermann, being unfriendly to the “sexual consciousness interpretation” of this text, remains utterly silent; he does not even address the “why.” Instead, he writes, “[J]ust where the woman finds her fulfillment in life, her honor and her joy, namely in her relationship to her husband and as mother of her children, there too she finds that it is not pure bliss, but pain, burden, humiliation and subordination.”[19] The punishment is harsh. (And Adam, along with the snake, is likewise punished.) Westermann cannot explain why this curse and not another on the woman. He cannot explain it[20]—and does not bother to—because his interpretation is wrong: the text is dealing with sexual consciousness and unnatural sex acts. It is to this interpretation that I now turn my gaze. But before I examine the biblical evidence in favor of a sexual interpretation, I would like to discuss some of the text’s Ancient Near Eastern “relatives.” Such “relatives” will make us aware of the kind of stories the ancients told about the primeval man…

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the goddess Aruru creates Enkidu—created as a “double” after the failed creation of the demi-god Gilgamesh, who ended up becoming a tyrant. But Enkidu, too, has problems. He is wild. He runs around naked and lives like a jungle animal. Anu then sends a cult prostitute who seduces him into a night of hot sex. Overnight, after, I assume, several orgasms, he awakens a brand new man: he is now civilized and tame. The animals abandon this new version of Enkidu—“it was not as before; but he now had wisdom, broader understanding.”[21] He returns to the harlot who enticed him. He is now willing to listen to her. She tells him, and I quote, “Thou art wise, Enkidu, art become like a god!…”[22] In this tale, which definitely has parallels with our Genesis text, the “wisdom” that Enkidu obtains is gained by sexual intercourse with a woman. The woman makes a man who he is. It is she who makes a man civilized, for lack of a better word, by means of pussification. Like the “Harlot of Gilgamesh,” Eve, too, forces Adam to bite of the fruit; she is the one who initiates him into sexual consciousness. Adam, like Enkidu, listens to her voice. In the final scene, much like Adam’s placement of the burden of guilt upon Eve in 3:12, Enkidu, too, blames the harlot. Enkidu becomes aware that sexual consciousness, having made him (a) awakened to life and (b) aware of death, is very much a blessing and a curse. And, so, he curses the woman; he curses the harlot. “Such motifs as sexual awareness, wisdom, and nature’s paradise are of course familiar from various ancient sources,” writes E.A. Speiser.[23]

In another Ancient Near Eastern text, known as the Adapa Myth, the god of wisdom, Ea, creates a man called Adapa. One day, while fishing, Adapa’s boat capsizes due to the wind. Adapa finds himself drowning. In the process of falling into the sea, Adapa breaks the wind’s wings, stopping it from blowing for seven days. The sky god, Anu, is enraged by this. He calls for Adapa to appear at the divine council. Ea, the creator-god of Adapa, instructs Adapa on how he should behave in the presence of the god Anu. He tells him, moreover, that he should not drink of the cup which Anu may present to him, nor eat of the food, for it is the drink and food of death. (In reality, the drink and food contain the gift of immortality.) In the end, Adapa refuses to drink and eat, and is sent back to earth to toil and live as a mortal.[24] The story is ultimately a story about Adapa being deceived into not obtaining immortality. Much like the Genesis story, in which the additional punishment is forever being forbidden to eat from the “tree of life,” the Adapa myth tells of a primeval event in history where man was tricked out of eternity. While the Adapa myth does not give us anything “sexual,” it does tell us something that does not sit well with Kass and Westermann’s interpretations: the ancients viewed primeval man as being endowed with wisdom from the get-go. In the myth, Adapa is described in the following poetic manner:

Wisdom… His command was indeed… like the command of Ea. Wide understanding he had perfected for him to disclose the designs of the land. To him he had given wisdom; eternal life he had not given him.[25]

Like Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh and Adapa in the Adapa Myth, Adam in the Garden of Eden was endowed with wisdom before eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Here’s the biblical evidence.

In the Garden of Eden, Adam, prior to the eating of the fruit of the tree, gave names to every living creature (2:19-20). Robert Gordis writes, “It is a truism that in ancient thought, including the biblical world-view, knowing the name of any person or object is tantamount to comprehending its nature.”[26] In another biblical text, which appears to be speaking of Adam before The Fall, describes him as being “full of wisdom and perfect in beauty” (Ezekiel 28:12). “Semitic, biblical and post-biblical [sources] are at one in conceiving of primal man as endowed with supreme wisdom and beauty before his misadventure.” Gordis further adds: “The theory that it was the fruit of the ‘tree of knowing good and evil’ that conferred the knowledge of the world and intellectual maturity upon Adam is therefore decisively ruled out.”[27] There go Kass and Westermann: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil does not have to do with either moral consciousness or, in a similar vein, “mastery of one’s existence”; instead, the tree has to do with something entirely different: sexuality.

Right from the beginning, the sexuality of the text was bursting at the seams. The phrase used in Genesis 2:9 to describe the forbidden tree in Hebrew is וָרָֽע טֹ֥וב הַדַּ֖עַת וְעֵ֕ץ [“and the tree of knowledge of good and evil”]. This includes the construct noun, with the definite article, הַדַּ֖עַת [“the knowledge of”]. The verbal form of this word [“to know’] is used in the Hebrew infinitive as a euphemism for “to have sex.” In fact, it’s a euphemism for sex in Arabic, Greek, Akkadian, and Latin.[28] Therefore, when the text states that this is the tree of knowing good and evil, it really is saying that the fruit of this tree cause one to become sexually conscious. But what does the phrase “good and evil” refer to then? The biblical texts suggest that this, too, has to do with sexual matters. The phrase וָרָֽע טֹ֥וב [“good and evil”] “may have originated in the two aspects of sexual experience, the normal (טֹ֥וב) manifestations of the impulse and the abnormal (רע).”[29] In Judges 19, there is the odd story about a Levite, his concubine, and an old man who took them both in. In the biblical episode, the Levite and his concubine are on a journey home, and stop at the town of Gibeah, being taken in by an unnamed man. At nightfall, the townsmen demand that the old man hand over his male guest to the townsmen. They want to rape him, essentially. “In each case, the host replies אַל־תָּרֵ֣עוּ[30] and expresses his willingness to offer up instead a woman to their lust.”[31] The phrase cannot be translated, as many translations do, “Do not act wickedly”—for “violating the chastity of an innocent women is surely an evil.”[32] Therefore, it is better to render the verb for רע [“to do evil”] here as “to act unnaturally.” In this case, the word refers to the abnormal sexual act. The opposite word טֹ֥וב, and its verbal forms, would mean “to act naturally.”

In another biblical passage, no other translation of phrase “good and evil” is possible but the sexual. Second Samuel 19:35 reads:

Today I am eighty years old; can I discern what is pleasant and what is not [וָרָֽע טֹ֥וב]? Can your servant taste what he eats or what he drinks? Can I still listen to the voice of singing men and singing women? Why then should your servant be an added burden to my lord the king?

The phrase translated by the NRSV as “pleasant and what is not” is actually וָרָֽע טֹ֥וב [“good and evil”] in Hebrew. In this passage, King David is lamenting that he can no longer enjoy life. In fact, he is so old, he cannot delight in women and wine, song and dance, and “good and evil.” But in this case, the phrase should probably be a reference to sex. King David didn’t have access to Viagra and, hence, found life to be a bore with all the babes around in the King’s Court. As we have seen, it’s not anywhere near mere conjecture when I say that the phrase “good and evil” has sexual overtones. And, most importantly, it could also mean, in some cases, “natural and unnatural.”

It is neither a stretch of the imagination nor a crime of biblical eisegesis: the fact that Adam and Eve’s, the primeval couple’s, sexual consciousness blossomed after eating the fruit can no longer be denied. Even the snake in the Garden of Eden functions as an object that inspires thoughts of sex. O. Loretz writes, “[T]he serpent in Gen 3 is one of those mythical serpents that represents life and death together. It stands…as a symbol of the Canaanite fertility cult and as such promises life.”[33] In addition to this, some scholars view the snake as “a phallic symbol.”[34]

We are now in a good position to read the pericope this paper is ultimately trying to make sense of. Genesis 3:4-7 reads:

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves (NRSV).

We’ve already ploughed most of the ground for a fertile interpretation of this text. We know that the snake represents the phallus. We’ve discussed what “the knowledge of good and evil” means (and the related phrase “knowing good and evil” used here); it means something along the lines of “sexual knowledge of natural and unnatural sex acts.” We’ve also looked forward into the text and saw that the “curse” directed at the woman only makes sense if the crime in the Garden were a sexual one (as sex results in conception and childbirth). At this point in our exegesis, it appears that the primeval couple performed some kind of unnatural sex act that would have upset YHWH. In addition to this sex act, they also disobeyed YHWH by eating of the fruit of that tree. We are left with two more key ideas to explore. The first is the enigmatic phrase “you will be like God”; the second is the realization that they were “naked.” To those two points in the text I will now turn.

What does it mean to “be like God”? If we are correct that this has something to do with sex, the natural reading of the text would suggest the following interpretation: to “be like God” means “to be immortal like God by means of sex, which results in progeny, implies that your name will live longer than your mortal body—and that is immortality.” As Gordis points out, “[P]artaking of the tree of knowledge afforded the eater the vicarious immortality which comes from the procreation of children.”[35]

What does the text try to communicate when it states that immediately after their eyes were opened, they became aware of being naked? It doesn’t require a PhD in sexology to recognize that something lewd is going on here. After being told not to eat of the fruit of that tree, the couple—albeit completely butt naked—eats of the fruit, fruit which conveys sexual knowledge of natural and unnatural forms of intercourse. Immediately, as their eyes open, as this new knowledge grabs a hold of them, they engage in sexual intercourse. In addition to sex, they recognize something about sex: it takes two butt naked people to engage in it. But that recognition that sex and nudity go hand-in-hand leads the couple to recognize that outside of sexual intercourse, they probably shouldn’t be naked. Nudity turned Adam on. It might turn YHWH on too; it did, several chapters later in Genesis 6, make the “sons of God” engage in sexual intercourse with “children of men” after all (v. 4). The couple, now informed that nudity should be saved for the master bedroom, hides from YHWH. And so, the ancient text introduces us to civilization, society, and clothing. In a vein similar to Enkidu, Adam becomes civilized after his rendezvous with Eve. She makes him a better man.

We must now come to the climactic ending, which, in a strange turn of events, occurred after Adam and Eve had already climaxed their way through orgasm.[36] YHWH finds the primeval couple, gives them clothing, curses them, and kicks them out. Scholars think that there were originally multiple sources at work here, and that two stories were mixed to create this one.[37] Originally, the punishment must have simply been either the curses or the expulsion from the Garden; one story, such as the tree of life tale, must have concluded with curses, and the other, such as the tree of knowledge tale, must have concluded with the expulsion. The final product, as it now stands, must be interpreted on its own terms. What we know, despite what the source critics say, is that the text ends with some form of punishment. YHWH punishes the couple for a crime they had committed. Having engaged in some form or another of unnatural and natural sex, the couple posed a threat to YHWH. At the very least, they simply disobeyed orders. But if our interpretation is correct, the couple, by means of progeny, was also able to live vicariously through them. In a sense, they had disobeyed YHWH and had tricked him. By means of children they, too, would live “forever”—whether YHWH liked it or not. Whether he liked their illicit sexual behaviors or not, they would live forever. But why was YHWH concerned with unnatural sex? The dichotomizing themes of pure/impure, natural/unnatural, have a long history in the Old Testament.[38] It was a way for the Jews to keep themselves set-apart and different from the rest of the ancient tribes. Having said that, the crime, however you look at the text, is clearly an act of disobedience. The question is: was it a sexual act? I think, as this paper has tried to show, the answer is probably a “yes.” It’s a tentative yes, not a dogmatic one.

Allow me to summarize my results and the conclusions I have drawn from them. I first looked at two interpretations of this text that I did not agree with, Kass and Westermann’s, respectively. I have revealed that they do not make sense of most of the data in the text. I then proceeded to show that the Ancient Near Eastern myths, which parallel our own text, reveal: (a) the primeval man was full of wisdom from the get-go; and (b) especially in the Epic of Gilgamesh, primeval man was tamed—brought to civilized life—through sex and sexual consciousness. I then proceeded to demonstrate that even the biblical text reveals to us hints of primeval Adam being endowed with wisdom from the start. In addition to this, I discussed that “to know” was a euphemism for sex; that “good and evil” could also mean “natural and unnatural [sexual acts].” I then grounded my study in the biblical texts themselves. Finally, I have tried to let my interpretation make sense of the “curse” on woman, the setting, and the surrounding biblical context itself. I would like to conclude by stating that, whatever one may draw from the individual premises themselves, and whatever one may ultimately think of the conclusions reached, this interpretation holds, at the very least, some—if not a lot—of water: Adam and Eve gained sexual consciousness in the Garden of Eden, disobeyed YHWH, performed natural and unnatural sex acts, and were ultimately expelled from the Garden of Eden. The myth was a tale of love and romance, nudity and sex—of crime and punishment.

Written by Moses Y. Mikheyev

I’m a graduate student at Emory University interested in religion, philosophy, and the philosophy of language. 


Gordis, Robert. “The Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Old Testament and the Qumran Scrolls,” in Journal of Biblical Literature 76 (1957).

Kass, Leon R. The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Mark, Joshua J. “The Myth of Adapa.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified February 23, 2011. /article/216/.

Speiser, E.A. Genesis: Introduction, Translation, and Notes. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1964.

Westermann, Claus. Genesis 1-11: A Commentary. Translated by John J. Scullion. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1974.


[1] All biblical citations in this paper will come from the New Revised Standard Version.

[2] I want to point out that I have decided not to make this paper a paper on sources for several reasons: (1) The scholars virtually all disagree as to where one such source begins and where it ends; (2) contrasting P’s account of the primeval couple’s sexuality (e.g., 1:28) with J’s (thought to be 2:4ff) does not really work as we don’t have enough data in Genesis to give us a holistic idea as to what they agreed upon and what they disagreed about; therefore, (3) the previous points make the excurses in the sexual views of J or P more of a highly speculative and highly tentative enterprise. Finally, I simply chose to deal with the final, canonical form for the simple reason that the final editor, whoever it may have been, chose to weave the tale in such a manner. I am attempting to make sense of what it was that this author (or authors) was/were trying to communicate.

[3] Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary, trans. John J. Scullion (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1974), 193. While I ultimately disagree with Westermann’s interpretation of Genesis 2-3, I agree with him that it is—in its final, redacted form—a tale of crime and punishment.

[4] Ibid., 248.

[5] Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 66. Italics original.

[6] Ibid., 63. “[T]he name [of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] suggests rather knowledge of how to live, of what we would call practical knowledge, including but not limited to moral knowledge” (ibid.).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 65.

[9] Ibid., 66.

[10] Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 193.

[11] Here it is evident that the final product of Genesis 2-3 involved multiple sources. In Genesis 2:16-17 it is the man given the command not to eat of the fruit. Another source in the pre-history of the text must have dealt with a “couple”—and not a single individual; hence, Genesis 3:2-7 involves Eve breaking a command she had not heard! Such “roughness” in the text reveals its own subtle disunity.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 247.

[14] Cited in Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 245.

[15] Ibid. Citing J. Pedersen here again.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 247.

[19] Ibid., 263.

[20] Ibid., 261-3. He spends three pages on “The Sentence of Punishment of the Woman” without so much as bothering to connect the punishment with the surrounding narrative.

[21] Ibid., 247.

[22] Cited from the “Enkidu Episode” (Tablet I, iv 26-34, ANET 75) in Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 247.

[23] “The Story of Eden,” in Genesis: Introduction, Translation, and Notes, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1964), 26.

[24] Joshua J. Mark, “The Myth of Adapa,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, last modified February 23, 2011, /article/216/.

[25] Cited from Tablet A, II. 2ff. in Robert Gordis, “The Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Old Testament and the Qumran Scrolls,” in Journal of Biblical Literature 76 (1957), 128.

[26] Ibid., 125.

[27] Ibid., 129.

[28] Ibid., 131.

[29] Ibid., 131.

[30] “You all (masculine plural), do not do evil!” (my trans.).

[31] Ibid., 133.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Quoted in Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 244.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Gordis, “The Knowledge of Good and Evil,” 130.

[36] Of course at this point in my paper, I have now resorted to a creative interpretation of the text. What I mean by that is, after having done some biblical exegesis, I am trying to understand the message of the text. That is, I am interested in presenting a robust and cohesive version of the story as I see it. I am trying to fit all the pieces of the text together into a cohesive, believable whole. And the “sexual interpretation”—the one I am espousing—seems to make a lot of sense of the data.

[37] For an excurses on sources, see Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 186-196, esp. 195.

[38] Gordis, “The Knowledge of Good and Evil,” 123-4 and 132-3.

The Historical Jesus on Divorce: An Examination of Mark 10:1-12 vis-a-vis Matthew 19:1-12

The historical Jesus almost certainly never made the comments regarding divorce which the author of Matthew says he made. In the following analysis, I will examine Mark’s Jesus and Matthew’s version of Jesus. We will then compare and contrast the two characters, attempting to figure out what the historical Jesus would have really said regarding the problem of divorce. As all scholars know, the quest of the historical Jesus is a very real and perplexing problem in biblical scholarship; many take seriously the problems posed us by having differing accounts of a single personality. In what follows, I will briefly comment on some general themes in Mark and Matthew before diving into the problematic verses.

The Gospel of Mark was written sometime around the “late 60s or just after 70.”[1] Mark was written for Gentiles with the intent to portray “the person and mission of Jesus Christ for Roman Christians undergoing persecution under Nero.”[2] Given this likely context, Mark has a very suffering Son of God, especially beginning in the 8th chapter of the Gospel and onwards. Jesus’ life is best understood as “victory through suffering.”[3] And Christians should learn from Jesus’ example. This, in sum, is the general thrust of Mark’s thesis.

When we come to our pericope (Mk 10:1-12), we find a story regarding Jesus’ encounter with a group of Pharisees questioning his position on divorce. Jesus, coming out of northern Galilee, entering “Judea beyond the Jordan [=Perea],” finds himself surrounded by “crowds” with Pharisees quickly coming to “test” him (v. 1). The Pharisees ask him if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. The Pharisees may have asked Jesus this particular question knowing full well that John the Baptist was beheaded on account of denouncing Antipas’ marriage to Herodias. If this is the historical context—which I think it is—then “Jesus is being asked whether Antipas was justified or not in divorcing the daughter of King Aretas to marry Herodias.”[4] Whatever the context, though, the “test” the Pharisees are performing is practical and existentially applicable to every Jew living in the first-century: does Moses allow divorce? For the Pharisees, divorce was a no-brainer: you find it in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Jesus replies by saying that, in fact, even Moses did not think this was the case; Moses merely allowed it due to their “hardness of heart” (v. 5). Jesus then appeals to Genesis 1:27 and 2:24, saying, “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female’” and “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’” (vv. 6-8a). Jesus then adds the additional comment: “So they are no longer two, but one flesh” (v. 8b). After laying out the premises, Jesus reaches his conclusion: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Jesus essentially gives the Pharisees—and the crowd around him—his answer: No.

After this very dramatic reply, even Jesus’ disciples cannot believe what they just heard. When they reach somebody’s house, a disciple wants to make sure Jesus meant what he, in fact, said. Jesus replies, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (vv. 11-12). The disciples were correct to be worried—for this was a new teaching indeed. During the first-century, the divorce policies were divided essentially into two camps, following two rabbis: Shammai and Hillel. Shammai allowed divorce only on the grounds of unchastity, according to the Mishnah. On the other hand, Hillel allowed divorce for any and every reason—even if a wife burnt a dish![5] Jesus disagrees with these two leading rabbis and says both are wrong: no divorce is permissible. Nada. Never. Ad infinitum.

At verse 12 of chapter 10, Mark concludes Jesus’ lecture on divorce. Immediately after this pericope, Mark has Jesus bless little children. (Continuing the pro-family stance of Jesus.) Writing possibly several decades later, Matthew reworks this Markan tradition of Jesus categorically against divorce and changes things radically.

Matthew wrote his gospel sometime after the year 70, probably between the years 80 and 90.[6] The gospel is 18,300 words (50 percent longer than Mark’s [11,300 words]).[7] Matthew is normally thought to have been written for a very Jewish audience; Jesus is ultimately presented as a type of “new Moses.” The gospel generally tends to follow Mark, so it is inductively thought that Matthew copied Mark and elaborated extensively upon Mark—hence the significantly larger text. Matthew is divided into five sections, mimicking the Jewish Pentateuch.[8] Jesus delivers five “sermons” or “speeches” in Matthew. That is, Matthew typically has Jesus deliver a “sermon,” concluding it with some such phrase as “and it happened when Jesus finished instructing the twelve disciples…” (7:28-29). He does this five times, probably consciously seeing Jesus as a “new Moses.” Our pericope on divorce (following Matthew’s earlier saying on the same subject in 5:31-32) stands as Jesus second statement on divorce, following the so-called “Sermon on the Church” (which is found at 18:1-35). This second statement of Jesus’ on divorce is more elaborate than the first, brief comment found in Matthew 5. In Matthew 19, we find an almost verbatim lifting of Mark 10:1-12, with some very noticeable differences.

Matthew, like Mark, has Jesus (explicitly) leaving Galilee and coming to Judea beyond the Jordan. Large crowds follow him. He is then met by some Pharisees who test him. They ask him if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason (v. 3). At this point in the text, Matthew adds the phrase “for any reason.” Matthew is probably reflecting Jewish rabbinical tradition at this point—Shammai versus Hillel. This phrase “might serve as a sweeping summary of the Hillelite view, which was probably the more influential among ordinary people.”[9]

Next, Matthew has Jesus quote Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. He reverses Mark’s original order in which Jesus moved from divorce (the negative) to the way God intended marriage to be (the positive). In Matthew, Jesus first begins by dealing with the ideal (the positive), only later moving on to the negative.[10] Also, as evidence that Matthew is indeed following Mark, Mark’s idiosyncratically redundant comment “So they are no longer two, but one flesh” (v. 8b) is repeated in Matthew verse 6. Moreover, in Matthew, the saying regarding a husband leaving his family and clinging to his wife is attributed to God not Adam (as in Genesis 2:24).

Another significant change is going on between Mark and Matthew. In Mark, the Pharisees present the issue of divorce as something Moses “permits”; while Jesus speaks of a “commandment” of Moses. In Matthew, these verbs are reversed: the Pharisees see divorce as a “command,” while Jesus sees divorce as merely being “permitted.”[11] “While the Pharisees refer to Moses’ commandment (ἐνετείλατο), Jesus speaks simply of Moses’ permission (ἐπέτρεψεν)—of a concession in light of the people’s disobedience and ‘hard-heartedness.’”[12] In such a way, Matthew does not have Jesus contradict Moses; rather, the Pharisees, by seeing divorce as a “command,” are the ones contradicting God himself (as seen in Genesis 1:27)!

Some more differences. In Mark, Jesus states that marriage formed a union in which the two became one flesh “from the beginning of creation” (v. 6). Matthew drops the term “of creation” (v. 4) and instead goes with “from the beginning” (a phrase he repeats again in verse 8). Matthew, unlike Mark, also includes the strange sayings of Jesus regarding “eunuchs” (v. 12). In Mark, Jesus allegedly forbids even “wives” to divorce their husbands (vv. 11-12)—a fact that supports the hypothesis that this gospel was written to the Romans; in Rome, it was permissible for a wife to divorce her husband. In Matthew this particular comment of “Jesus” does not appear, as Jesus probably never made it (since he would have been talking to an audience who would not have imagined a wife initiating divorce). Matthew eliminates this (probably) Markan redaction primarily because—for his Jewish audience—the comment would have been meaningless and superfluous. (Despite my observations, some scholars do in fact argue that in Second Temple Judaism [the Elephantine community not being counted] women were allowed to divorce their husbands. However, this is very much disputed.)[13]

Finally, in Matthew, after Jesus is done talking with the Pharisees, the disciples at home conclude that it is better for a man not to marry at all (v. 10). However, this conclusion is not warranted. Had this been the conclusion to Mark’s version of events and sayings, it would have made sense. But something radically different is happening in Matthew: Jesus is not actually forbidding divorce categorically. In fact, Matthew adds the idiosyncratic phrase “except for unchastity” (μὴ ἐπὶ πορνείᾳ)—an “exception clause” which only appears in Matthew’s redaction of Jesus’ sayings on divorce, both here and—with slightly different wording; “except on the account of unchasitity” (παρεκτὸς λόγου πορνείας )—at 5:32. Matthew is certainly the author of this phrase—it only appears in Matthew (twice) and does not feature in Mark, 1 Corinthians 7, or Luke 16:18.

As to why Matthew, in particular, would insert this phrase only seems obvious: the sociological reality of first-century Jewish Christianity was that divorces occurred whether one liked it or not. Jesus notwithstanding.

Matthew probably has other reasons, too. Matthew was certainly written later; probably at a time when the reality of Jesus’ expected sooner-rather-than-later “Second Coming” began to be reinterpreted. People weren’t so sure about an imminent end of the world. This meant that the Christians had to build laws and codes of conduct—not bomb shelters. Matthew’s gospel reflects (almost certainly) this reality. In fact, Matthew’s gospel is the only gospel which explicitly talks about the “church” (ἐκκλησίᾳ) [see 18:17]. This was a gospel written for people who were going to keep living on earth. And on earth there were certain events which occurred commonly. “Divorce was a widespread phenomenon through the ancient Near East and Mediterranean world, just as it is a widespread phenomenon throughout the modern world.”[14]

Jesus’ comments on divorce were spoken to a community which was grounded in the Old Testament—a fact I already briefly touched upon. The Old Testament has very little to say regarding divorce, in fact. A much quoted text by Christian fundamentalists—Malachi 2:16—is actually textually suspect. The text does not say “For I hate divorce”—it only “says” this if reconstructed. In fact, to the utter dismay of fundamentalists, the Qumran community interpreted the text as commanding divorce. Their text—with lacunas—probably read: “[B]ut if you hate [her], send [her] away.”[15]

Contrary to the legalistic and dogmatic stance of the Pharisees, the other much-quoted text (allegedly supporting divorce), Deuteronomy 24:1-4, actually has virtually nothing lucid to say about divorce. Summarizing the Jewish literature thoroughly, Meier concludes, after dealing with Deut. 24:1-4, that “the law codes of the Pentateuch have precious little else to say about divorce.”[16] Deuteronomy 24:1-4 essentially deals with a man taking a wife who ends up having (committing?) “a shame of a thing” (עֶרְוַ֣ת דָּבָ֔ר). This “shame of a thing” has been interpreted to mean, well, anything and everything. The man is instructed to hand her a certificate of divorce. Finally, if she goes away, marries another, gets divorced from the second husband, returns to the first, the first husband is not allowed to take her back. Meier thinks that the phrase “shame of a thing” is “purposefully left vague in order to permit wide latitude for the husband’s judgment within a patriarchal society governed by the codes of honor and shame.”[17]

The historical Jesus almost certainly did not make the “exception clause” statement. Contrary to Matthew, “the historical Jesus was categorically against divorce.”[18] Meier succinctly states: “I think there is sufficient reason for holding that the historical Jesus forbade divorce.”[19] Moreover: “By completely forbidding divorce, Jesus dares to forbid what the Law allows—and not in some minor, obscure halakic observance but in one of the most important legal institutions in society. He dares to say that a man who duly follows the Law in properly divorcing his wife and marrying another woman is in effect committing adultery.”[20] What is significant, however, is that Matthew retains the disciples’ astonishment at Jesus’ “new teaching” on divorce—which he categorically forbade. This reveals an ironic Matthean slip-up; on the one hand, Matthew is editing Jesus, on the other, he is revealing his own editorial hand. Contrary to Matthew, Mark presents us with a more radical Jesus—a Jesus that was crucified by both the Roman elite and the Jewish Sanhedrin. In this particular pericope, Mark is clearly the more original version (excepting his addition relating to Roman divorce law). The theological question for us today is not only “What Would Jesus Do?” but “Do We Agree With What Jesus Really Would Do Anyway?” Are we ready to follow Jesus, the real Jesus?

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev


[1] Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, The Anchor Bible Reference Library (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 164.

[2] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2002), 10.

[3] Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 126.

[4] Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, 300.

[5] Ibid., 299.

[6] Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 217.

[7] Ibid., 171.

[8] See Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 173.

[9] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2007), 715-6.

[10] See France, The Gospel of Matthew, 716. He also notes how Matthew does a similar reversal at 15:3-9.

[11] Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8-20: A Commentary, trans. James E. Crouch, Hermenia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 490.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, Hermenia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 459-464.

[14] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 4: Law and Love, The Anchor Bible Reference Library (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 74.

[15] Ibid., 82.

[16] Ibid., 80.

[17] Ibid., 79.

[18] Eben Scheffler, “(The Markan and Matthean) Jesus’ Appropriation and Criticism of the Torah: The Question of Divorce,” Hervormde Teologies Studies 67/1 (2011): 3.

[19] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 112.

[20] Ibid., 113.


Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. The Anchor Bible Reference LibraryNew Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Collins, Adela Yarbro. Mark: A Commentary. Hermenia. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.

Edwards, James R. The Gospel According to Mark. Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2002.

France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2007.

Luz, Ulrich. Matthew 8-20: A Commentary. Translated by James E. Crouch. Hermenia. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.

Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 4: Law and Love. The Anchor Bible Reference Library. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

Scheffler, Eben. “(The Markan and Matthean) Jesus’ Appropriation and Criticism of the Torah: The Question of Divorce.” Hervormde Teologies Studies 67/1 (2011): 1-6.

From “Behold the Man” to “Jesus the God”: An Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism and the Corruption of the Bible

Ancient copies of the New Testament attest to the fact that humans, as always, exaggerate the deeds and actions of their loved ones. Just like George Washington became the man who would not tell a lie—remember, that fictional cherry tree story where George sawed down a tree and admitted it—so Jesus Christ became not just ‘Jesus the Anointed’ (the literal meaning of the Hebrew word we commonly translated “Messiah”)[1] but “[Jesus] Christ, namely God” (as one ancient Old Latin manuscript has it).[2] We went from Jesus the Man to Jesus the God.

You see, it is so difficult to understand this textual change when most of us have grown up in a nation that teaches us from day one that Jesus Christ is God (within the Holy Trinity). Most of us have been taught that Jesus is, in one way or another, God in the flesh. It is precisely because of this that we cannot totally appreciate, and see the impact of, a scribe who changes “Jesus the Messiah” to “Jesus the God.” Most of us would shrug and say, “So what? Big deal. There is no difference between Jesus the Son of God and Jesus the God.” The problem is that there is a difference. A huge difference. Imagine for a second that the biographer of George Washington’s life started his story a bit differently. Suppose, for a second, that Mason Locke Weems— Washington’s first biographer and inventor of the cherry tree fable—started off his biography by calling Washington “the King.” If Washington was Jewish and living in ancient Israel, he would have been labeled, as Cyrus the Great was before him (Isa. 45:1),[3] “Washington the Anointed One.” And no Jew would even flinch. George would be called King.

Let us further speculate, suppose that a later author edited the text of the biography to read “Washington the Son of God” or, even more simply, “Washington, namely God.” What would the effect be? Obviously, we are dealing with some highly problematic textual changes! It is one thing to call George a king (even an “anointed king” at best), but completely another to call him God!

I am not suggesting that Jesus Christ is to be put on par with Washington, far from it. I am only trying to get the reader to understand the significance of such textual changes. According to the textual evidence, Jesus Christ was certainly the greatest Man (if it be appropriate to call Him a Man) who ever lived. In similar words, Flavius Josephus can say, “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was Christ.”[4] I agree with Josephus on this point. The point that I am stressing here, however, has to do with what I call “progressive exaggeration.” Progressive exaggeration is a part of human nature—we have seen it with George Washington. Early Christians tried to edit the text of the New Testament by making simple statements about Christ cheesier. They would take something as simple as the common name Jesus (also known as “Joshua”) and turn it into “Jesus the Messiah our Lord and Savior.” There is nothing wrong with this per se, but it is most definitely elaborative. Christian scribes would constantly highlight the fact that Jesus was not just an ordinary Joshua, but actually “the Lord.” Where Hebrews 13:20 once read “our Lord Jesus” the Old Latin changed it to “our God Jesus.”[5] One may argue that this is insignificant, but the problem is that it happens throughout the entire New Testament! Almost any space where an additional “Lord” or “God” could be added, it was added. The scribes made sure of it.

The problem with Christian (and heretical) scribes was the fact that they did not just make Jesus sound better—they went the extra mile, as Jesus ironically commanded, and eliminated things that made Jesus look human. One interesting change has to do with the text of John 19:5, the text about Jesus prior to His crucifixion.

Jesus Christ is standing before Pilate all wet in tears, saliva, and deep red blood. He is soaked in His own bodily fluids and is wearing a purple robe. Bearing the sins of the world, this God-Man looks more like a carcass than a once-living human. Jesus is crowned with thorns. He is crowned. Pilate presents Jesus the Messiah to the Jewish crowd by saying, “Behold the man.” Some ancient manuscripts totally eradicate this sentence.[6] It is not in the text. What is wrong with the text? Can anyone guess? Jesus Christ was obviously more than a man, thought a scribe. So, he deleted the fact that Pilate ever said such a thing. Matter of fact, it never happened. One of our oldest Biblical authorities, Codex Vaticanus, reads, “Behold a man.” This appears to have been another reading—it never got a wide audience. Anyone’s guess is as good as mine.

It should be obvious to the reader that Jesus Christ was being shaped by the crowd of scribes. He was being recast, so to speak. A scribe placed his ideas into the biblical text; be it out of love and affection, or out of need for correction (or so he thought…). I want to take a closer look at more such changes in the NT. It is my purpose here to reveal the textual evidence and to try to come to a decent conclusion that can do justice to the text.

The God Who Would Not Be

From the very beginning, if we are to take the Gospels as trustworthy literary accounts, Jesus denied the idea that He was God. The Gospel accounts do state in some places, or at least imply, that Jesus is, in fact, God, but even there we must go by mere implication. Because Jesus was such a radical figure, His image was distorted by the crowds and He was greatly misunderstood. Today, we have four Gospels that present us with slightly modified views of Jesus—Mark’s Jesus is human through and through; Matthew’s Jesus is Jewish and Law-abiding; Luke’s Jesus is a Mother Teresa figure out to help the poor; and John’s Jesus is the most divine figure of all time: his Jesus is none other than God Himself sometimes. But even with the most greatly divine Jesus—as He appears in the Gospel of John—Jesus denies the fact that He is God (the Father?). According to John’s gospel, Jesus tells the Jewish crowds, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30 ESV). But then He also tells them, “[T]he Father is greater than I” (14:28). Obviously, Jesus appears to have some sort of ‘schizophrenic’ existence in relation to God the Father. In no way am I being derogatory here—it, quite frankly, appears that Jesus wants His identity to remain sort of foggy and shrouded in mystery. Even in John’s gospel— which has the highest Christology in the entire NT—Jesus is still not completely and openly God. The text of John 5:18 clearly states that the Jews thought that Jesus was “making himself equal to God.” But even here, again, the disciples do not state openly that He is God; it’s almost as if they do not know exactly what He is—they know He has something divine about Him, but they cannot quite pinpoint it. In John 6:45, Jesus seems to imply that He may be God by stating, “It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me” (ESV). If Jesus is the so-called “Rabbi” and the so-called “Teacher,”[7] is He not, then, saying that He is God? (For they shall be taught by God—and He is the One doing the teaching!)

The problem is more magnified later in John’s gospel—after Jesus’ resurrection. In John 20:17, Jesus tells Mary, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (ESV). What is so ironic about this is that Thomas, a few verses later, worships Jesus and calls Him, “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28). Jesus either accepts the honorific titles or seems to shrug them off and ignore them—the text does not tell us what Jesus thought of Thomas’ statement. But, we must not quickly forget—in the air of such elaborate statements as Thomas’—that Jesus just called God the Father His God also!

In such an atmosphere of mystery and controversy, we come to the textual problem of John 1:18. The English Standard Version reads thus: “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” Clearly, in conjunction with John 1:1—“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”—John appears to tell us, on the surface, that Jesus (the Divine Word) is God. The text seems to differentiate between both God the Father and God the Son. Nevertheless, both are Gods. That is the keyword here: God. Both are God(s).

The problem that concerns us is that John 1:18 has suffered damage at the hands of the scribes. To be blunt, the majority of manuscripts read differently. They read: “No one has seen God at any time, but the unique Son who is in the bosom of the Father, that one has made him known.”[8] It is the Alexandrian text-type that the translators of the ESV (and other translations) are following. This is ironic, since many fierce inerrantists—who solely adhere to the Byzantine (Textus Receptus) text-type—follow the “corrupt” Alexandrian text-type when it suits their purposes! This textual variant appears to have been corrupted by later orthodox scribes. Of course, one could argue that it were the heretics who corrupted the “original” text—which read “God” in place of “Son”—but that is not entirely the point. The point is that scribes were modifying the Scriptures to suit their theological beliefs.

We can take a closer look at this passage in light of what we know about the Gospel of John. In John, Jesus and God the Father are sort-of like two Beings that are equal sometimes and at ends with one another at other times. If, according to the text, Jesus was the “unique God” how is it that the Father also existed? By “unique” (Greek: μονογενης) John is trying to say that “God the Son” is somehow unique. The problem is that if God the Son were “unique,” would not that imply that no other God exists? It makes more sense to have “unique Son” in the text because it implies that Jesus Christ is a “unique son”—in the sense that He is not like the other so-called “sons of God” (Rom. 8:14) or “gods” (John 10:34). Matter of fact, for John, then, Jesus is the unique Son of God. Thus, it appears that scribes were taking “Jesus the Son of God” and making Him into “Jesus the Unique God.” And, by the way, there is a world of difference.

We’ve already seen how scribes wanted to exalt Jesus from Man to God (and now to Unique God). This will become more evident as we look at a few more good examples. What is of importance here though is for us to look at how heresy and ‘orthodoxy’ were involved in these scribal changes. It is one thing to talk about changes in the text, but an entirely other thing to see them come to life when you discover the character of their very producer.

Docetic Gnostics and Textual Variants

Many Gnostics believed that Jesus Christ did not actually suffer and die. According to The Second Treatise of the Great Seth, Jesus Christ did not die on the cross. He merely “appeared” to die—the Greek word for “appear” is dokein (“to seem,” “to appear”). We call such Gnostics “docetists”—they are the Gnostics who believed in the absolute divinity of Jesus Christ. Not bad, right? Well, the orthodox did not think so. Christ could not be the human of the Ebionites nor the ultra-divine God of the Docetic Gnostics. Because of such reasons, The Second Treatise of the Great Seth could have Jesus explain His insignificant “death”:

And I did not die in reality but in appearance, lest I be put to shame by them because these are my kinsfolk. I removed the shame from me and I did not become fainthearted in the face of what happened to me at their hands. I was about to succumb to fear, and I (suffered) according to their sight and thought, in order that they may never find any word to speak about them. For my death, which they think happened, (happened) to them in their error and blindness, since they nailed their man unto their death. For their Ennoias did not see me, for they were deaf and blind. But in doing these things, they condemn themselves. Yes, they saw me; they punished me. It was another, their father, who drank the gall and the vinegar; it was not I. They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. I was another upon Whom they placed the crown of thorns. But I was rejoicing in the height over all the wealth of the archons and the offspring of their error, of their empty glory. And I was laughing at their ignorance.[9]

Jesus is saying that He never really died. It was Simon of Cyrene who did! Because the Docetic Gnostics held to this belief relatively strongly, they could not allow Scripture to speak about a Jesus who “died.” More to the point, they could not speak about a Jesus the Christ who died. The Messiah, who was probably the Good God Himself, could not have been bloodily crucified by evil and murderous human beings. This was absolute blasphemy for the Docetic Gnostics.

The orthodox (the so-called “majority” opinion) held to the idea that Jesus died on the cross. They stressed the fact that Jesus not only died human, but He was both human and God. In John 19:40, Jesus’ body is taken from the cross in preparation for burial. According to one of our most ancient authorities, Codex Alexandrinus, Joseph of Arimathea no longer takes the body of Jesus but the “body of God.” Because in ancient manuscripts (1st to 3rd century) the sacred names were contracted, this textual variant may have resulted from an innocent mistake. The nomina sacra (as they are called) would have been a ΘΥ (contracted possessive name of God—theou, Θεοῦ). On the other hand, the nomen sacrum (singular for nomina sacra) for Jesus would have been ΙΥ (contracted possessive name for Jesus—Isou, Ἰησοῦ). Because of the similarities between God (ΘΥ) and Jesus (ΙΥ) this textual variant may have been a mistake, but it is definitely a good mistake; something that makes the text say something completely different! Mistake or no, we now have an authoritative Greek manuscript saying something that is rather radical.

A similar textual variant occurs in 1 Timothy 3:16. Modern translators translate it thus: “He appeared in the flesh, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels…” (NIV). The “he” in the text is translated from the Greek word for “who.” What we have seen with the nomina sacra, we see here again. The “who” in Greek is OΣ (hos) it looks almost exactly like the nominative nomen sacrum for God (theos, contracted to ΘΣ). All that is missing is a “dot” in the center and a dash above the theta and sigma for the name of God. Thus, some manuscripts, most notably Codex Alexandrinus,[10] substitute “God” for “who.” Now, instead of Jesus appearing in the flesh, it is “God appeared in the flesh.” This is a relatively radical idea, once again.

In 1 John 3:21-23 we are told that if we have confidence before God anything we ask will be given us. That is, if we “believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ” and love one another (v. 23). Some ancient manuscripts, like Codex Alexandrinus, lack the words for “son” (in Greek it would be tou uiou). Now the text simply tells us that we must believe in his name, Jesus Christ, and love one another in order to get what we want from God. The text makes Jesus’ name be equivalent to God’s name.[11] This, again, may be an innocent slip of the pen, but that is debatable.

Separationist Gnostics and Textual Variants

In early Christianity there were the “separationists” who believed that Jesus was just a regular born-of-a-woman man and that He was thoroughly fleshly. Some such separationist Christians were found amongst the Gnostic schools of thought. These Gnostics believed that some divine Spirit entered Jesus at His baptism. The spirit was actually a piece of the divine Godhead. It could have been in the form of a dove but, because of the textual variants, no one really knows for sure. The real “christ,” according to the separationists, actually used Jesus’ body only as a vessel—He was not really born or raised human. This “christ,” then, left Jesus prior to His death—that is why Christ said with His dying breath, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” According to the separationists, Jesus (the human) only said that because the “christ” (or that piece of the Godhead) left Jesus right before His death. The Spirit/“christ” that entered Jesus at His baptism had now left Him because the “christ” could not die. Since the separationist “christ” was a piece of the divine Godhead, it was impossible for a piece of God to die.

The reason the separationists stressed this is relatively simple to understand. For them, the Creator was actually a demiurge or lesser/inferior deity[12] who trapped pieces of divine sparks in only some human bodies (carcasses). Some fleshly carcasses contained this divine spark, and the humans that had this spark needed to be saved and freed from this fleshly prison. All the while, a greater god was planning to save us: a piece of this “good god” was someone known as “christ.” The “christ” was here to save the “chosen few” who had remnants of these divine sparks. Therefore, Jesus’ body was only used as a vessel to pass on secret and special divine gnosis to the few elect. The elect would respond positively to Jesus’ message (it was actually the Gnostic “christ” speaking through Jesus). They would respond and in turn be saved from this world and flesh.

It is no wonder that Christ could not have come in the flesh. Yes, He could have been a phantom (as the Docetic Gnostics held) but a Christ who separated Himself from the flesh appeared to be most logical for the separationists—He came and went, so to speak.

The majority of manuscripts for 1 John 4:3 read “every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.” Some ancient witnesses read something vastly different. In these texts, it is “every spirit that looses Jesus is not from God.” The difference in Greek is striking, too—the words are either may homologei ton Iasoun (“not confess Jesus”) or luei ton Iasoun (“looses Jesus”). This is most obviously not a slip of the pen. The problem is that this text which speaks about false spirits “loosing Jesus” is not found in our best manuscripts. It appears to have been corrupted by some proto-orthodox scribes in the second century; Origen, Irenaeus, and Clement all know of this text. But what was the point of the change? It appears that “loosing Jesus” meant something like “separating Jesus.” This is probably a text that was changed in order to attack more openly the separationist claim that Christ entered Jesus, and before His death “separated” from Him.[13]

Another interesting variant is Luke 1:35. According to most ancient authorities, Luke’s gospel reads thus: “the child to be born will be called the Son of God” (NIV). On the other hand, according to some other manuscripts, the text inserts two words ek sou (“from you”). We get our word “exit” from the Greek root word ek (which means “out” or “from”). Now, with this addition, the text reads thus: “the child to be born from you will be called the Son of God.” But why would the text need to be changed to read “from you”? It should be obvious: Jesus was born not “of” Mary, but actually from Mary. Jesus was a flesh and blood human. Because this longer text hardly features in the textual tradition, it is virtually always condemned as addition by the scholarly community.[14]

The orthodox Christians were obviously having a field day with the text of the New Testament. Although such variants may appear to be a burden, they are not much so. Most such variants are quickly recognized as additions and quickly dismissed. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge these changes and come to terms with them.

The God That Did Not Know

One professor would always begin his lectures by telling his eager conservative students that Jesus was ignorant. He would quote Mark 13:32, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” He would then grin and emphasize how ignorant Jesus was, according to the very Word of God![15] In Matthew 24:36 this phrase is repeated. The textual problem with this verse is rather self-evident: how could Jesus, the very God of orthodox Christianity, not know about the end of the world? Well, the orthodox scribes had a solution: make Jesus more knowledgeable concerning “the times.” Most of our most ancient authorities—Alexandrian, Western, Caesarean traditions—include the phrase “nor the Son” (in Greek that would be oude ho uios). In these most ancient manuscripts, Jesus apparently does not know all things, like the omnipotent god(s) of Greek philosophy. For many Christians, raised in the Greek tradition, this did not, and could not, make any sense. If Jesus was God, even a lesser god, how could He not know something? Greek philosophical presuppositions would not allow such a god to exist. Therefore, orthodox scribes went into the text and changed it—they erased three words: “nor the Son.” This time, no heretic could claim that Jesus was not entirely God by using Matthew 24:36. A good amount of (later) manuscripts do not have this phrase. Even the so-called “inspired” text of the fundamentalist inerrantists—namely, Textus Receptus (almost identical to the Byzantine text-type)—has this phrase, “nor the Son,” omitted. Most of the Byzantine manuscripts lack the phrase, along with most of the Syriac and Coptic texts, including the Latin Vulgate.[16]

A few scribes managed to also delete this phrase from Mark’s gospel (at least two manuscripts have it removed: X and pc). It is almost self-evident that scribes were taking liberties when working with the text of the New Testament. That this phrase “nor the Son” created problems for later (orthodox) theologian-like scribes is more magnified by the textual history of one of our oldest biblical manuscripts: Codex Sinaiticus. The original writer of Matthew’s text in Codex Sinaiticus included this phrase, a second scribe (“Corrector #1”) erased it, and a third scribe restored it (he was “Corrector # 2”). To say that this phrase was not problematic for some Christians would be utterly misleading. In fact, it is still, to this day, extremely problematic—most of us would rather worship a Jesus that did know.

The Heretical Scribe’s Pen

It was not just the orthodox scribes that were focused on correcting and modifying the Scriptures. The heretic had much to offer too. The deletion between Luke 22:42 and 22:45 is still viciously being disputed by scholars today as to whether it is the original text of Luke or not. Bart D. Ehrman argues that it is an addition while von Harnack argues that it is the original text of Luke.[17] To me it appears to be original to the gospel of Luke—it was later edited out early in its textual history due to its portrayal of a human Jesus. Luke 22:43-44 reads, “An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (NIV). Because Jesus was seen as being in anguish and sweating (human) blood, some scribes felt it necessary to edit out such descriptions of Jesus. For example, a Docetic Gnostic would never accept such a portrait of Jesus; this was impossible. And so, just like Marcion of Pontus, the Docetic Christians deleted verses that appeared to be problematic for them. Nay, they were correcting a mistake that orthodox scribes (obviously) added to the text! (Ehrman argues that Luke 22:43-44 was fabricated by the orthodox in response to Docetic heresy.)

Since Alexandria, Egypt was the breeding ground for Gnostic Christians, it is significant that this deletion features almost solely in the Alexandrian text-type! Clement and Origen, along with some early Greek manuscripts, eradicate this passage. Nevertheless, some very famous ancient manuscripts have the addition (Codex Bezae, for example). What should concern us here is that this passage is not found in the Alexandrian Church Fathers and the Alexandrian manuscript family. Since Gnosticism was the form of Christianity in Alexandria, it is almost certain that the Gnostics of Alexandria edited this passage and made it conform to their ideologies. In the middle of the second-century, both Justin Martyr and Irenaeus were already familiar with this passage.

Nonetheless, because Luke edits his Markan source in a few key places, some scholars believe that Luke could not have envisaged an agonized Jesus. For, where Mark has Jesus praying in agony and distress in Gethsemane, Luke silently omits that. Mark 14:33-34 reads, “He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,’ he said to them. ‘Stay here and keep watch.’” (NIV). Luke only mentions Jesus leaving the disciples to pray (22:41). Where Mark has Jesus “falling” (14:35) to the ground, Luke has Jesus solemnly “kneeling” (22:41) to the ground. Where Mark has Jesus praying that the “hour might pass” (14:36), Luke, again, has nothing—he simply omits this phrase when copying Mark. When Jesus utters the godless, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” phrase in Mark 15:34, Luke simply has Jesus say, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (23:46 NIV). Because of such variations, and there are many more, some scholars have decided that Luke 22:33-34 is an addition—Luke constantly makes Jesus appear calm and under control, how could he have included a bleeding, agonized, sweating Jesus? These scholars, nevertheless, stress a “relaxed” Jesus where there certainly is no relaxed Jesus. We know that Jesus’ death is horrible and that He does, even in Luke’s narrative, pray to have the cup taken from Him (22:42). Thus, I conclude, somewhat tentatively, that Luke 22:43-44 is a deletion made by the Gnostics of Alexandria.

Summarizing Textual Corruptions

There is no doubt that the New Testament has been corrupted with the passage of time. There is also no doubt that the NT has also suffered negative restoration (a scribe alters a passage because of an assumed previous mistake, which ends up being a mistake nonetheless!). There were scribes altering the text due to their integrity. They firmly believed that some previous scribe made mistakes in the manuscript. They were dead-set on “correcting” those mistakes. If a Gnostic scribe came across the passage in Luke 22:43-44, he clearly knew what happened here (!)—it was the orthodox scribe next door who added that passage into the text! It was that filthy orthodox scribe who wanted to make Jesus look human; as if He really did come in the human flesh! Imagine what the Gnostic scribe would think to himself, “Aha! I got him! That rascal, he must have added this passage. He must have. Jesus could not possibly have bled and sweated. No way!”

But then we must picture the worldview of the so-called orthodox scribe.[18] He, too, must have reacted in similar terms. He must have eyed every “divine,” anti-human passage with utter suspicion. If Jesus appeared to be the “invisible God,” that must have been an addition. If Jesus is called “man,” that must be an addition. The orthodox scribe had a most difficult task, in comparison to the heretical Gnostic scribe. The orthodox had to strike a balance between a divine Jesus and a human Jesus. How do you do that? Do you eliminate a passage that makes Jesus God? No? Maybe? What about a Jesus that is a bit too human? No? Maybe? The questions must have haunted the scribes even in their sleep.

We have already seen the additions. The next question that should be answered is How do we make sense of this data? Should we trust the New Testament? Do we continue to believe that somehow this entire process had been guided by the very Hands of God? Do we believe that the scribes were guided by God? Or do we just lift our hands in surrender and say that we do not know anything? Is it even possible to believe in the unifying Spirit of God when such a mess exists? Do we simply dismiss these textual variants? Do we simply close our eyes and wish that they would disappear? I suppose. Nevertheless, we must remind ourselves that most variants are not entirely important to our faith. In fact, most obnoxious variants can be properly eliminated via textual criticism. I believe that textual variants such as these must have needed to occur. What would we think of a perfect Bible? Would not we just discard it on the grounds that it was “recently compiled”? Would not a coherent text reveal its own youthfulness? I think it would. Had the New Testament been so detached from the fierce theological battles of past eras, it would have been viewed as a “text of recent composition.” Had it not suffered at the hands of human scribes, it would have become quickly disposed of. But because the New Testament was so powerful, so entrenched in history, it suffered. Because the New Testament was written by humans, for humans, and through humans, it suffered. Had the NT come from God directly, it would have been irrelevant to us humans. (I do not mean to say that God is irrelevant.) Much of the NT text can be restored with great certainty—there are those few scattered verses that have been tampered with. In spite of it all, the NT remains God’s Word. In a very real and human sense. In a historical sense.

Because Jesus was seen as super-God by some early Christians and super-human by others, it makes sense for us to allow some room for simple diversity. Maybe this exercise will allow us to be more loving towards other denominations. Maybe we can now understand the difficulty of establishing precisely who Christ was and is. In fact, according to Mark’s “messianic secret,” Jesus wanted His identity to remain a secret. Maybe it is fitting to end a discussion on Jesus identity by simply stating that it is still a secret/parable. “He told them, ‘The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables’” (Mark 4:11 NIV).

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev


[1] מָשִׁיחַ (Māšîaḥ). We transliterate the word into the English “messiah.” In Greek, it was translated as Χριστός (Khristós), which means “annointed one.” The Greek is correct in the sense that the Hebrew originally meant “one who is anointed” (i.e., a king). Later, as some Jews awaited the coming of some King and High Priest that would save them, the term “anointed one” (and Jewish kings were anointed at the “induction ceremony”) came to mean more than just “anointed one” or even “king,” but “messiah” and “savior.”

[2] See Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effects of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (New York, NY: Oxford University P, 1993), 85. The Old Latin manuscript ff2 for Luke 2:26 has Simeon being told that he will see “Christ, namely God” before his death.

[3] Cyrus the Great was called “anointed” many times by Isaiah the prophet. He was a gentile king who was viewed favorably by most peoples; being democratic and peaceful in spirit.

[4] Antiquities of the Jews, 18.63.

[5] Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 87.

[6] Ibid., 94.

[7] John 1:38; 3:2;8:4; 11:28; Matt. 8:19;26:25 Mk 9: 5,17; Lk 20:39. These verses, and many more, clearly demonstrate that Jesus was known as the “Rabbi” and “Teacher” by both the disciples and His own enemies. It is also interesting to note that in the gentile Gospel of Luke, the name “Rabbi” never occurs—this reveals Luke’s bias.

[8] Ibid., 78-82. This entire exercise is dealt with in-depth by major commentaries and by Bart D. Ehrman. My text closely follows Ehrman.

[9] Selection taken from James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library, revised edition (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990), 193.

[10] I will admit that the evidence that Codex Alexandrinus originally read theos instead of hos is relatively poor. If one examines the manuscript closely, one sees that a later scribe used a more modern ink and turned the hos into theos. Nevertheless, this is still relevant to my argument that scribes changed Scripture to suit their purposes—be it in the fourth or fifteenth century.

[11] Ibid., 83-84.

[12] For other Gnostics, the angels were the ones who created us. This view was espoused by Simon Magus, according to most of our ancient sources.

[13] Ibid., 125-135.

[14] Ibid., 139-140.

[15] This anecdote I got from reading Thom Stark’s excellent book on biblical inspiration, The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2011), 160.

[16] This entire argument is more detailed in Ehrman’s, Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 91-92.

[17] Cf. Bart D. Ehrmann and Mark A. Plunkett, “The Angel and the Agony: the Textual Problem of Luke

22:43-44”, CBQ 45 (1983/3): 401-416. Also Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 187-194.

[18] I speak with natural human limitations—there is simply no evidence for a coherent form of Christianity in the first two centuries. No reputable historian should make the claim that “orthodox” Christianity was easily separable from “heretical” Christianity. The NT is evidence itself of the diversity of “unified” Christianity. Paul’s words in Romans 14 must constantly remind us that there will always be those “weak” Christians. Not to mention the fact that 1 Corinthians 12-14 clearly demonstrates the fact that each member had different functions and possibly even beliefs (Rom. 14). I only use the words “orthodox” and “heretic” in extremely vague and general terms. Paul admired diversity, remember the battles between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Here “orthodox” just means what is most likely the “correct” view, and what was eventually considered by the majority the correct view. Thus, “orthodox” is synonymous with “majority opinion.”

The Myth of Inerrancy: An Ad Hoc Response to the Book

The Bible is viewed by most believers to be the Word of God. In fact, many people will nonchalantly say that—whether they have an idea of what that means or not. Set within this view is another perspective that dogmatically asserts the view that the Bible is actually the inerrant Word of God. Those who hold such a view, believe that the Bible is, as it appears today, a book with no contradictions and no mistakes; it is a book that contains absolute higher truth and nothing but higher truth. Most scholarly inerrantists, who actually have the slightest idea of the state our biblical texts are in, will usually clarify the statement by adding “in the original manuscripts.” What they mean is that the Bible is inspired and inerrant, but only in the original manuscripts. It does not take long before an honest seeker asks where those “original manuscripts” are. With good faith, and with a breath of fresh faith, the scholarly inerrantist would reply that they (i.e., “original manuscripts”) do not exist. They have all long perished. And the conversation would seize. For a long minute. A very long minute.

If it has not yet occurred to you that such thinking is ludicrous, then you must seize reading this and go engage in other matters. The problem with such thinking is rather self-evident: how can you believe in an inerrant text—that is now corrupted, but must have been originally inerrant—that no longer exists? How could you even claim that it existed if the evidence[1] suggests otherwise? What would it take for me to convince you that the authors of the Bible were men who were writing history, as honestly and as godly as possible, yet who were also capable of making regular human errors? The answer: a contradiction or obvious mistake. But since contradiction is almost always labeled “alleged,” how could you test this idea? Answer: you cannot. (It is all circular reasoning. And, of course, not falsifiable.)

For example, if I wanted to know the truthfulness of something, I would naturally compare sources. If Mark, the earliest gospel, told me that Jesus could not perform miracles in His hometown, Nazareth (6:5), and Matthew said that He would not (13:58), is there not a difference? When there are stark differences, such as in 1 Sam. 24:9 and 1 Chronicles 21:5, we strive to understand what is happening. In 1 Sam. 24:9, the census that David takes of Israel records 800,000 valiant men; the author of Chronicles records 1,100,100. The author of Chronicles was writing after the publication of the books of Kings and Samuel. He consistently edited out things and made past kings, like David, look bigger and better. He is obviously exaggerating the numbers of Israeli forces here. He completely eliminates the account of David’s affair with Bathsheba, found in 2 Samuel 11, and has Satan guide David’s census (1 Chronicles 21:1) rather than God, as in the earlier source of 2 Samuel 24:1. Later, God holds this as a sin against David—counting his troops was considered shameful and arrogant to God, for the power of the army was in the Lord, not in human strength. The Chronicler obviously tries to make David look better. So he says that it was Satan who really moved David. (God could not be possibly working against this holy saint of God!)

We must simply ask: which account is more reliable? Is Mark, the earlier gospel, more reliable? Are the books of Samuel and Kings more reliable than Chronicles? (And they are obviously earlier.) It is not my goal to destroy faith at all here; I am simply wondering what the truth of the matter is, so to speak. I would like to honestly know when someone is exaggerating a bit (and I do not find that offensive at all) or when someone is editing the story a bit to draw a brighter picture (in Chronicles, David no longer gets a bad image). I am simply a seeker of what really happened.

Now, back to the original question: how can we prove that the Bible is errant? If someone presented a hypothesis, say, that the earth was flat, wouldn’t we want to know what evidence it would take to prove the hypothesis wrong? We would say that if we were to see the earth as a globe, we would label the hypothesis as incorrect. Now, suppose I shot you up into space and you witnessed the globular earth, what would you do? I think that you would state that the “Flat Earth Theory” is incorrect. On what grounds? On the grounds that your eyes have seen a circular globe as our planet. Let us apply this same scenario to the Bible. If you were to test the truthfulness of the Bible, you would have to apply some sort of criterion for discovering that truth. You would say that the Bible is inerrant unless otherwise proven. But what would “prove” inerrancy, I ask? Well, obviously, a contradiction! But I have shown you contradictions, have I not?

The problem with inerrantists is that they fail to bring their logic to fruition. If obvious contradiction is not enough to prove errancy, then I do not know what is. If I present a contradiction, as I did with 1 Sam. 24:9 and 1 Chronicles 21:5, the inerrantist quickly point out that the text must have suffered at the hands of the scribes. They point out that the numbers affect nothing and that they are unimportant. I suppose that they are sincerely right. But that does not answer the question. If contradictions prove that the Bible is errant, why do we have to keep arguing that the contradiction is actually a corruption of an inerrant text, when it is, to our very eyes, errant?! I conclude that this is all extremely circular reasoning. I have just proven that nothing can prove errancy. Because nothing can prove errancy, the whole system crashes. It ceases to be relevant and meaningful. If I cannot prove that the earth is flat, by any means whatsoever, why am I even engaging in debate? What is the entire purpose of defending a view that cannot be defended (for it cannot be destroyed, thus it needs no defending)? In fact, it appears that the entire purpose of the debate, from the inerrantists’ perspective, is to argue. Nothing more. For, if I have shown that no arguing is necessary (since inerrancy will remain for the inerrantist, no matter what), they are solely arguing for the sake of making argument. And that is not a very Christian thing to do.

As the arguments now stand, given by the inerrantist, there appears to be no reason for them. What further needs to be done is for us to take a closer look at inerrancy—a three-page paper could never do justice to the ensuing arguments—therefore, it would be proper for us to take a more thorough look. To be more precise, this will be a short critique of the book Inerrancy,[2] which was written by fourteen evangelical scholars, in defense of the theory of inerrancy. I will be “attacking” it here.

The Beginning of Scripture

Since the earliest times, people everywhere have regarded something as given to them by God—the Greeks thought that the gods gave them living prophecies, the Jews thought that God gave them written prophecy—everyone thought that God, or gods, gave them something. Judaism, for the most part, taught that the singular God, YHWH, gave them the Law. It was revered and holy. Most people, back then, as now, were born into a world that said that God—or some group of gods—gave us, mere humans, something; be it a book, a living oracle, or the entire planet. We were all born thinking that God gave us something. Christianity teaches us that God gave us His Son and that God gave us the Holy Scriptures. Though the Christians cannot agree on which canon of Scripture came from God, all believe that God gave them. Some read Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) as Scripture, others read Tobit; some like the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, others prefer to read 1 Enoch (the apostle Jude, the brother of Jesus, for example). One way or another, God gave us something.

When Daniel was writing his book, or whoever it was, he was reading the book of Jeremiah as Scripture; that is, a message given by God. Daniel 9:2-3 tells us Daniel’s view of Jeremiah, it was Scripture to him. But Daniel wanted an interpretation of Jeremiah’s seventy year captivity prophecy—so he was inquiring God about the proper “interpretation” of the prophecy found in Jeremiah 25:11-12. The angel of God reinterpreted the prophecy for Daniel and turned the seventy years into seventy weeks of years—forever changing the original intent of Jeremiah’s; in fact, the angel basically destroyed Jeremiah’s point and totally nullified it (for a new generation)…

A few hundred years later, Jesus the Messiah also shared a relatively exalted view of Scripture (though He never defines His own canon of Scripture). He quoted some of the books as authoritative and breathed Scripture. Jesus once gave a sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth and said, after quoting some form of Isaiah 61:1-2, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21 ESV). To the “Jews” of the Johannine literature, Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life…” (John 5:39 ESV). Even in His Temptation, Jesus quotes the Scriptures to the Devil (Matt. 4:4; Luke 4:4). Jesus, like Paul (Gal. 3:16), believes that, at the very least, some passages of Scripture have been preserved faithfully and were inerrant—about this there is no doubt (Mark 2:25, 12:10; Matt. 19:4, 12:3, 21:16, 22:31; Luke 6:3, etc.).[3]

One of Jesus’ most poignant, and widely (mis)quoted, statements is Matthew 5:17-20:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven…”[4]

According to Matthew’s version of Jesus—this saying of Jesus is only found in Matthew’s gospel—Jesus clearly believed even in some form of verbal inspiration (i.e., every word of the Law and the Prophets is of God).[5]

Years later, when the Bible came to be viewed with suspicion by critical (German) scholars, this view of the Scriptures was turned to absolute mush. The negative critics would have no piece of this pie; for them, the Scriptures were mostly, if not thoroughly, human— products of the human mind. The Scriptures were full of contradictions, inconsistencies, and human blunders. Ever since the Renaissance and the days of the so-called Enlightenment, biblical scholars were doubting, here and there, some parts of the Scriptures. With theories such as Wellhausen’s circling around, some Reformed scholars decided to respond to the onslaught by the same extreme—where the critical scholars were applying extreme, harsh, unrealistic methods to the Bible, the “conservative” scholars responded with the same zeal and attributed every syllable to God Himself. One school of thought set out to destroy the Bible, while another school devoted itself entirely to saving the Bible. In the nineteenth century, B. B. Warfield, from the so-called Old Princeton school, sharpened his knives and began attacking the critics of the Scriptures. His views were articulated in this extremely turbulent time. He came out of the cage fight with the following statement:

“The church, then, has held from the beginning that the Bible is the Word of God in such a sense that its words, though written by men and bearing indelibly impressed upon them the marks of their human origin, were written, nevertheless, under such an influence of the Holy Ghost as to be also the words of God, the adequate expression of His mind and will. It has always been recognized that this concept of co-authorship implies that the Spirit’s superintendence extends to the choice of the words by the human authors (verbal inspiration), and preserves its product from everything inconsistent with a divine authorship—thus securing, among other things, that entire truthfulness which is everywhere presupposed in and asserted for Scripture by the Biblical writers (inerrancy).”[6]

Warfield was adamant: Scripture was given by God, every word the author wrote was chosen by God. To argue his case, Warfield, along with every other inerrantist out there, used three primary verses for his thesis: 2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:19-21 and 3:15-16.

The author of 2 Timothy—virtually all scholars unanimously deny Pauline authorship of this epistle—tells us that “all writings are God-breathed” (πασα γραφη θεοπνευστος ). By “all writings” the author is referring to the Scriptures—by saying that they are “theopneustos,” the author means something along the lines of “inspired” or “God-given.”

In “Peter’s” second epistle—this epistle is the most problematic epistle in all of Christian history, being rejected[7] by virtually all scholars, of all times, as pseudonymous (that is, forged in Peter’s name)—Peter tells us that no prophecy was ever given by man, rather, he says, it was given by God:

“And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”[8]

Elsewhere, Peter tells us that the Scriptures are being misunderstood and even misused. He says:

“And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.”[9]

The inerrantists say that Peter is here equating Paul’s writings with Scripture. For them, this passage puts Paul’s writings (whatever writings the author has in mind is highly speculative)[10] on par with the “other Scriptures.”

From such passages, among others, Warfield obtained his theology. Ever since, modern inerrantists have joined his train of thought and hooted for his bandwagon. Unfortunately, Warfield was wrong: he couldn’t even convince his followers, like G. C. Berkouwer.

Berkouwer, at first, accepted Warfield’s theory tooth and nail but later he chose to reject it: it was flawed. Berkouwer maintained that the Scriptures were God-given but they, nevertheless, contained normal human errors and blunders, like every other piece of (human) ancient literature. He maintained that the “theopneustos” of 2 Timothy actually referred to God’s breathing in His Spirit into us via the Scriptures. The Scriptures themselves were totally human products—God just chose to work through them. It’s almost as if they were an instrument; an instrument He uses to get His Spirit to us.[11] His ideas are not without grounds; for example, in 1 Corinthians 2, Paul makes the case that wisdom and knowledge are nothing, only God’s power really changes lives. Therefore, the Scriptures, for Paul, serve a secondary purpose. In fact, if you have the Spirit, you could, theoretically, abandon the Scriptures (for that is the end—the Scriptures are just a means to that end [i.e., the acceptance of the Spirit]). Classical texts such as 1 John 1:10, Colossians 2:2, 1 Thessalonians 1:5, and Romans 8:15-16 are readily available. Passages such as these make the “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” the real matter at hand.

Karl Barth took a similar approach towards Scripture as Berkouwer: he opposed inerrancy. For him, the Scriptures were to be read as human books that served as testimonies to God. They were inspired but errant. Harry Boer succinctly put it: “I wish now to emphasize that the books of the Bible as a collection of religious writings are as human as Pilgrim’s Progress, Paradise Lost, or Spurgeon’s Sermons.”[12] In other words, we don’t treat John Bunyan’s works as Scripture, even though we know or think that they are inspired, right? The logic is impeccable. If we can read “inspired” books without making them Scripture, why should the Bible be viewed any different? Namely, if the Spirit works through Bunyan’s books, what is remarkably different about the Bible? The Spirit is working through both titles. Through Pilgrim’s Progress and through the collection of writings that we call the Bible.

In response to what conservative evangelicals have termed “neo-orthodoxy,” the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy was made. The enemies were those termed neo-orthodox, and the opposing party was made up of fundamentalist inerrantists. In October of 1978, three hundred pastors, scholars, and laymen gathered to formulate the Statement and endorse it. What they wrote was allegedly that which was “from the beginning” (though that is definitely a matter of great dispute). The rather short document basically stated the inerrantists position: the Bible (the 66-book Protestant canon) was inspired verbally and was inerrant. In nineteen articles, the committee proclaimed the message. The Scriptures were “God-given,” “without error or fault,” “inspired,” and “superintended by His Spirit.”Article III denied that the Bible was a revelation that merely led to—or pointed to—God; Article IV stated that human language was sufficient; Article V, the dispensational article, denied that any normative revelation may be given by God after the closure of the New Testament canon; Article X attributed absolute infallibility “only to the autographic text of the Scripture[s].”[13] Amongst other things, the entire Statement was fairly biased; namely, it was of Reformed and dispensational tradition—the Statement made other Christian traditions, like classical Pentecostalism, appear totally invalid.

Fabricating Inerrancy: The Process of Ignorance

Inerrantists have frequently given Martin Luther “inerrantist” status—they claim that he was thoroughly orthodox and that his methods of exegesis were correct. One such inerrantist, Robert D. Preus, after spending pages upon pages quoting “orthodox” passages selectively out of Luther’s writings, makes only passing mention of Luther’s absolute rejection of the Epistle of James. In fact, in his footnotes, he virtually denies any unorthodox moves made by Luther; he sugarcoats Luther up and down with extra-thick and creamy coating, calling Luther’s rejection of James as resting on “fallacious”[14] grounds. If a book failed to preach Christ and justification by faith alone, Luther regarded it, at the very least, inferior to the other books in the canon. Despite Luther’s dislike for the books of Esther and Revelations, Preus cunningly says, “Luther affirmed the absolute infallibility and truthfulness of Scripture. For Luther, as for those who went before him, this meant that Scripture (1) does not err to deceive in any way and (2) does not contradict itself.”[15] Then Preus goes on to contradict himself by stating, regarding Luther’s obsession with Christ and justification by faith, “It was just his failure to find Christ and justification by faith in certain books of the Old and New Testaments (all antilegomena) that prompted Luther to depreciate the value of these books and question their canonicity.”[16]

The contradiction and problem should be obvious: Luther believes in infallibility while throwing books out of the Bible? Are you crazy! Can you redefine infallibility for me, Preus? It appears that the inerrantists will crawl to Moscow and back in order to salvage their “heretical” ancestors. Luther does not, as Preus deceitfully says, believe in “infallibility.” Had he believed in the infallibility of the Scriptures, he would not have gone around throwing books out that did not suit his presumptions. If Luther believed, as Preus says, that the Bible contained no contradictions, he would not have had problems with James. James, as we all know, clearly presents a rather different view of justification: faith without works is dead (2:17). Paul, in Romans 3-4 and Galatians 3, too, makes statements on justification, but his views are somewhat different: faith, apart from works, justifies. Had Luther not seen the contradiction, he would have kept James on par with Paul’s writings. But he had seen the problem. And Preus tries to hide that fact. Luther believed that the Scriptures, that he originally received, were full of contradictions. Therefore, he was out having a field day trying to “clean” them up a bit. Because, like Marcion, he applied razor to the text, Luther, by his works (not by his faith or statements) revealed his true colors and thought: the Bible, as it had come down to him, was corrupted and needed to be freed from the antilegomena (books whose authority was doubted in the early church—this included, James, 2 and 3 John, Jude, Hebrews, and Revelations).[17] Luther did what scholars have been doing for centuries: eliminating textual corruptions (one must first admit the errancy of the manuscripts in order to practice the science of textual criticism!), deciding what should and should not be included (via our God-given reason), and thoroughly doubting what he was reading (one has to doubt James before tossing the epistle). It appears that Preus, along with some other inerrantists, represents the cause’s Mission Statement well: distort the truth, sugarcoat the “heretic,” and press tradition forward.

The Pillars of Conjectural Inerrancy

One of the main Pillars of inerrancy has already been attacked by me earlier (I snuck the attack in without your noticing): inerrancy is not falsifiable. No person can falsify inerrancy or destroy it. Why? One of the Grand Pillars of inerrancy is made of invisible stone. No physical human hands can destroy it. It is untouchable. Inerrancy rests well; it cannot be tested nor proved. However, some scholars maintain that it is a defendable theory—but how, since it is not falsifiable, remains shrouded in mystery as the Invisible Pillar itself. Gordon R. Lewis summarizes my point well (from an inerrantist’s perspective, of course):

“That interpretation is true which, without self-contradiction, fits all the relevant lines of data from the grammar, context, purpose, historical and cultural settings, and the rest of the Bible’s teaching on that subject. On some difficult passages we may not be able to come to a satisfactory resolution, but the interpreter committed to inerrancy need not ask whether in fact he is handling the word of truth. His only question is whether he is interpreting the word of truth in a worthy manner (2 Tim. 2:15).”[18]

Lewis is doing the unthinkable right before our eyes. First, he, from the bat, tells us that inerrancy must be presupposed. Second, he says that the interpretation must follow the “rest of the Bible.” Question: which Bible are you talking about? Is it the Catholic canon or the Protestant one? Are we talking about the famous 108-book Ethiopian canon or…? Also, aren’t you working with other presuppositions; namely, the preconceived notion that your canon is of God and that the text selected was of God, too? Third, Lewis tells us that the interpreter must be “committed to inerrancy.” This is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Inerrancy is thoroughly presupposed here. That is a matter of fact now, not merely my opinion of the inerrantists’ position. The second mistake is Lewis’ failure to recognize other canons as authoritative. Before aligning a text with “the rest of the Bible,” one must first state what the “rest of the Bible” really is. For example, if Tobit is to be included in the sacred canon of God’s Word, one must always presuppose the idea of predestination—as far as having our very wives predestined for us (Tobit 7). The third great mistake is the stress on “commitment.” Or, if one was to accept 2 Maccabees as authoritative, one would naturally pray for the dead. To further sharpen the argument, Lewis must then determine what specific text to accept as authoritative. Should one read the Greek Septuagint Daniel or the Hebrew Masoretic? Should one read the Alpha Text of Esther, Greek, or Hebrew? What about the shorter, and different, Jeremiah of the Septuagint? What Lewis is telling us is this: You will find problems in the Bible, but you must avoid them and ignore them and remain committed to your traditional, inherited presuppositions. A philosopher would be vomiting by now from such logic, but I must hold my tongue and continue.

Another inerrantist stated similar things as Lewis, except he was thoroughly honest and biased. Paul D. Feinberg writes, along similar lines of thought: “[W]e cannot preclude in advance the possibility that some of the historically or descriptively authoritative material may contain errors.”[19] Here, we are told, that it is impossible to even think that errors are possible. “A key principle in the application of hermeneutics is the analogy of faith as taught by the Reformers. This principle merely says that we should attempt harmonize apparently contradictory statements in the Bible.” Once a passage smells of contradiction, one must resort to reconciliation. If two conclusions are reached, the first conclusion establishing a unity and the second pointing to contradiction, the “former is the correct interpretation.”[20]

It should be obvious by now, that no errantist is lying when he states that the inerrantists’ position is full of holes and presuppositions.

The Problem of the Autographs: Inerrancy’s Brilliant Escape Clause

Suppose for a minute that two scientists, Jack and Bill, are doing some scientific research for NASA. On one beautiful summer evening, Jack pulls out a telescope and takes a peek at the sky. He points his telescope towards the moon and shouts to Bill, “Bill, take a look! I see a green man eating toast on the moon!” Bill, being rather surprised, and a very mature and serious scientist, takes the telescope and peeks at the moon. He says, “Jack, I see nothing! Nothing. What little green man are you talking about? I see no man and no toast!” Jack takes the telescope away and takes another peek. And behold, there is the little green man eating toast on the moon! Jack responds, “Bill, I see the man. He’s right there, eating toast.” And once again Bill takes the scope and sees nothing. By this time, Bill is irritated and tells Jack to prove it. Jack, on the other hand, is irritated that Bill does not believe him. What are they both to do? Well, being scientists, they resort to being inductive. But they cannot. You see, Jack sees the little green man, while Bill does not. Bill cannot prove nor disprove Jack’s sightings. They are to be accepted by faith. Bill must assume that (1) Jack is lying, (2) Jack is hallucinating, or (3) Jack’s little green man hides every time Bill takes a look. Inerrancy is the same. It cannot be proved nor disproved. Because it cannot be proved nor disproved, many scholars simply must resort to faith in the theory or simply resort to ignoring the theory (and theory it is). Feinberg admits the problem succinctly, “It might be objected that such a doctrine is unfalsifiable and therefore, if one were to use old positivist jargon, meaningless.”[21] Inerrancy is, as has been often repeated, meaningless at the core. Nevertheless, I intend to offer the rebuttal that inerrantists make to this so-called “positivist jargon.”

Inerrantists, with a fair amount of good reason, rebut the argument of the “little green man on the moon eating toast,” by stating that it is, in theory, absolutely possible that when Bill looks, the little green man hides. In theory, that is totally possible. More to the point, if Moses seen God on Mount Sinai, it does not mean that if I ascended the mountain that I would see God. Maybe God is, hypothetically speaking, “hiding” every single time I climbed the mountain. Though such an argument is not without warrant, it is, nevertheless, not to be used in science. We cannot assume such ridiculous arguments in our day-to-day lives. Imagine what the world would look like if such logic, as championed by the inerrantists, existed! You would be walking down the street and a person would begin talking to his “mom.” She, of course, would not be there. But who knows? Maybe you just do not see her! (She disappears every single time you look!) It would be, if properly done in accordance with inerrantist logic, a world of lunatics! If such a world would not be termed crazy, then I do not know what world would qualify to be called “insane.”

Being sincerely honest, and having written one of the best chapters in Inerrancy (most were horribly dry and boring), Feinberg finally goes on to point out one of the flaws of his own theory: the fact that inerrancy is not falsifiable. He relays what opponents of inerrancy usually bring up, “Any time there is a difficulty, one can assign the problem to the copy, claiming it does not exist in the original.”[22] Feinberg is right: if a problem is found in our current manuscripts, the “problem” can be “bypassed” by stating the following, “Well, our current manuscript contains this error but the original, I am sure, did not.” How can you falsify such an insane, ludicrous, lunatic—yet beautiful—statement? You cannot. You simply must turn to faith and assume that the original manuscript—the one that was breathed out (or into) by God—did not contain the obvious error.

For example, when Luke was copying Mark, he made an obvious mistake in Luke 9:28. Mark tells us that after Jesus had told the disciples that some of them would not taste death before they saw the kingdom of God come with power, that six days later Jesus transfigured (with power and glory) before Peter, James, and John (9:1-3). Luke, on the other hand, says that it was “about eight days later” (9:28). To establish the fact that this is an obvious human error, one needs to realize that Mark, just about always, uses the Greek word “euthus” (ευθυς) which means “immediately.” He uses this transition between paragraphs all the time—almost as if that is the only Greek word he knows. But when Mark writes the Transfiguration account, he does the unthinkable: he uses a different transition. This time he is not generalizing; he is being precise. He writes “six days later.” We must all be on the alert as to what Mark is doing here. He is telling us that Jesus is about to fulfill His own prophecy. And in Mark 9:2-3 He does. Here are the parallel accounts (italics are mine):

And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. (Mark 9:1-2 NIV).

“Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.” About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. (Luke 9:27-29 NIV).

Luke is already giving us a heads up—He tells us that it was “about” eight days later. Mark, on the other hand, has no “about”; he desires to be accurate. In fact, had he not wanted to be accurate, he would have used the Greek word “euthus.” Now, it is curious why Mark does not use this word. He is, in fact, trying to flash neon lights—he is being specific because he wants you to see that Jesus fulfilled this prophecy—in six days! Some atheists use this text to “prove” that Jesus Christ was wrong: He did not return before the death of His followers. The problem is that the interpreters may all be wrong. In Mark 9:1-3 and Luke 9:27-29, Jesus is speaking about His transfiguration, not His second coming. It is interesting to note that Matthew faithfully transcribes Mark’s account—he tells us that “six days later” (17:1) Jesus was transfigured before three of His disciples.

But what of inerrancy? What do we do? The solution, according to their presumptions, is reconciliation: Jesus must have been transfigured twice! Once after six days, and once after eight. (Not.) The inerrantists know that such a claim would even make old Grandma Jane laugh on Sunday morning. Therefore, they say that Luke must be counting Jesus’ speeches as occurring for roughly two days and then, at the end of his speech, Jesus issued the statement that some would not taste death before seeing the kingdom of God come with power. Basically, Jesus spoke for two days, issued the statement at the end of day two, and then six days later was transfigured. If you are good at math, then you know that six plus two equals eight. So, theoretically speaking, Luke was right and so were Mark and Matthew. Therefore, there is no contradiction. But who said it was? It is not a “contradiction,” just a regular human error of inexactness. Besides, six is a holy number in the Bible but eight…what ever happened in eight days?[23]

And if things get really hard, one can always pull out the Ace in the card game: the argument from the autographs. All the inerrantist needs to do now is terminate the argument. And terminate it does! Who could argue against an invisible, never-before-seen, imaginary “original manuscript” (autograph) that is free from error? In fact, all an inerrantist has to do is say that the original Greek text of Luke read “six days later.” Problem solved. (Not really.)

To resort to the inspired, inerrant, “original manuscripts” is merely “weasel wording.”[24] Most intelligent humans can easily see through this smoke screen. And the problem with the autograph(s) is not just that it does not exist—be it the singular, complete manuscript or the plural scattered collection of manuscripts—but that such a document is relatively meaningless for us today. Even if the autographs did exist, what purpose would they serve us if they had long ago turned to dust? As other scholars before me have said, the non-existence of the autograph and its total disappearance only—and very frighteningly—reassures us that God cares not about His Word, to the extent that the inerrantists say that He cares about it; or else He would have preserved some manuscript or group of manuscripts to this day that would have been recognized by most or some as authoritative. Had God bothered to totally and verbally inspire—or “spire,” as Warfield would have it—the original manuscripts, He would have went through all of the pains to maintain them verbally pure throughout the ages.

Inerrancy and Contradictions

We should predict the way that inerrantists handle contradictions by now. They resort to circular reasoning and insane “little-green-man-on-the-moon”-like arguments. They, too, have a hidden agenda and obvious presuppositions: inerrancy. For example, when dealing with the idea of error and contradiction, Warfield says it well: “[N]ot a single case of error can be proved [in the Bible]…”[25] He was referring to historical, doctrinal, and scientific errors. Not one could be proved. And how right he was! Of course, with a theory that cannot be tested, cannot be disproved, cannot be proved, how could one go about “proving” anything? A closer, in-the-know look at the inerrantist methods will reveal my point clearly.

John W. Gerstner writes that when the Bible contradicts itself, one must figure out—in some instances—if one text is speaking phenomenologically (God only appears to be doing something but He’s really not doing it) or whether it is actually referring to an actual deed/action of God; an action that is not poetical or metaphorical. Sometimes, as all Bible readers know, God is said to be a “consuming fire” (Deut. 4:24). We all know that God may, or may not, be a consuming fire. He might just appear that way to us, or He really may be a fire. God is portrayed as “repenting” not a few times in Scripture (Genesis 6:6; Deut. 32:36; Jer. 18:10, etc.). However, in other places, God is portrayed as a God who does not repent (Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29). What do we do with these rather weird and obvious contradictions? The inerrantists offer their best by saying, “Those passages of Scripture in which God is said to repent, are to be interpreted on the same principle as those in which He is said to ride on the wings of the wind, or walk through the earth.”[26] Notice that this is mere speculation and hypothesizing—do the inerrantists really know that God does not “walk through the Earth”? Moreover, who said that He cannot? A mere human inerrantist? This is all presupposition. The inerrantist is coming to the text (eisegesis) with a bucket full of presuppositions and he thinks that everyone else must do the same. His presupposition is obvious: wherever he says the text is being phenomenological, it is phenomenological—wherever he says the text is speaking realistically and literally, it must be in accordance with his preconceived notions. It is all about him. Not about the Bible. His opinions and his ideas. It is about time the inerrantists woke up and realized their problems. It is not that the errantists are without problems, it is the fact that the inerrantists have many more.

The greatest thing to fall back on when debating, for the inerrantist, is to the alleged claim that Judaism believed in an error-free collection of Scriptures. Many inerrantists point out that Second Temple Judaism held on to an inerrant text. To be sure, such a view is held by both Flavius Josephus and Philo of Alexandria, but that was not the only view. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, our knowledge of ancient Judaism has literally exploded beyond recognition. We now know that the Essenes, the alleged authors and owners of the Scrolls, believed in contradictions. We know this simply from the fact that ancient genealogical tables, those found in the Torah, all have their numbers changed. Why? Because the ancients’ texts numbers, when added up, did not make any sense. So an Essene, or a Jewish scribe before him, would have altered the numbers to make them fit the picture because they were contradictory and did not make sense! Michael O. Wise, a renowned Dead Sea Scroll scholar, describes this “chronology problem” perfectly, I will quote him at length:

“Early in the transmission process of the biblical books, anonymous scribal copyists began to calculate the chronology of various events about which the Bible gives numerical information. For example, these scholars began to add up the numbers given in Genesis. They soon realized that, as presented in texts that had come down to them, these numbers imply that some of Noah’s ancestors lived through the Flood. Yet Genesis explicitly says the opposite: none survived other than those on the ark. The scholars solved the problem straightforwardly and efficiently. They simply changed the numbers. The unchanged version of the numbers survives in the text of the Greek version of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint (Gen. 5). For the most part our modern Bibles translate the traditional text and therefore present the changed numbers.”[27]

The Greek Septuagint presents us with these ancient “pure and unchanged” numbers. But since most scholars prefer the Hebrew Masoretic text (sometimes called the “traditional text”) of the Hebrew Bible, Christians have not been seeing and reading these “contradictions”—it seems that the inerrantists have finally, in some way, won.

The Essenes also had many different versions of the same book. Some manuscript fragments agree with the shorter Septuagint Jeremiah, while other fragments agree with the Hebrew Masoretic text. The Essenes accepted both (different) versions as Scripture. This proves that Scripture, for this large Jewish sect, was rather fluid and not necessarily “static”; a prophet could go in and change the text (under the influence of the Holy Spirit, of course). A prophet could even write a text—which they did. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that many texts purportedly written by Moses himself are found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls. Never-before-seen—and some “old”—Psalms of David have surfaced, too. Psalm 154, for hundreds of years preserved primarily by the Syrian church, was also found amongst the Scrolls, preserved in ancient Hebrew, almost perfectly intact. Though our Psalter has only 150 psalms, the community at Qumran preserved more ancient additional psalms. These so-called apocryphal texts are sometimes quoted in the Essene literature as Scripture. For example, Jubilees, an ancient Jewish text purportedly given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, was, for many years, considered Scripture by the Ethiopian church. It existed, before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, only in Greek, Syriac, Latin, and Ethiopic translations. A large number of manuscripts of the book were found at Qumran. What is interesting is this: contrary to popular opinion, ancient Judaism had no set canon of Scripture and used other texts as Scripture. The Essenes quoted Jubilees as Scripture throughout their writings.[28] Because of the evidence, it is simply wrong to say that the ancient Jews all believed in inerrancy, and, therefore, we should believe it. Alternatively, we must recognize that Scripture was treated as holy, yes, but not unalterable. Of course, it was mainly altered because of the presupposition that, as always, human scribes made mistakes. One way or another, inerrancy is impossible.

The Essenes accepted different versions of the same book as Scripture. This also proves, somewhat, that inerrancy—verbal inerrancy—is absolutely ruled out as a theological option for the Qumranites. If verbal inerrancy were an option, the Essenes would have selected one single version of a given text and would have only quoted that sole text as authoritative. However, because words did not really matter, they allowed paraphrase. Every single word was not important. That is where the Essenes—ancient Judaism, I dare say, too—do not agree with the inerrantists. The inerrantists meaninglessly claim that inerrancy is ancient, and, therefore, authoritative. (As if everything ancient is trustworthy.) But, as I have briefly shown, that is simply not true. What was accepted as Scripture by the Essenes was the text as a homogenous whole. It may be safe to say that they believed in the inerrancy of the holistic message.

What must be set in opposition to this view held by the Essenes and early Judaism is the view espoused by the inerrantists. (We have already seen how early Judaism did not universally accept verbal inspiration.) Robert D. Preus summarizes the inerrantists’ position well:

“It is significant that the church and the synagogue in the postapostolic age held an essentially identical view of Scripture [that is, an “inerrantist view”]. Normative Tannaite Judaism professed to teach nothing but what was taught explicitly or implicitly in the Old Testament Scriptures. Although their hermeneutical principles and interpretation were different from that of the New Testament writers and the early church fathers, their understanding of the nature of biblical authority seems to have been the same. Both groups believed that the contents of the Scriptures were consistent and homogenous and the there were no contradictions in Scripture. Scripture was considered to be the Word of God in the sense of representing verbal, cognitive revelation. The idea of progressive revelation was impossible, if such a notion meant that a complete and saving revelation was not given to Moses.”[29]

There are a few things that are not exactly correct about this statement. First of all, early Judaism did not believe in a “complete and saving” revelation given to Moses. Had that been true, the Essenes would not have been writing additional material coming from the lips of Moses. It is true that Moses was prophet par excellence but that did not mean that everything he said was written—oral tradition was just as valid. Therefore, written Scripture was not necessarily more reputable than centuries old oral tradition. And such oral tradition was probably being written down by the Essenes and was being treated as Scripture. Secondly, it is simply not true that early Judaism believed in verbal revelation. Yes, later Rabbinic Judaism did—consummating in the Masoretic scribes of Tiberias—but that is reading later Rabbinic and Talmudic Judaism into the first-century.

Another rather narrow-minded view taught by the inerrantists is the belief that the Bible teaches inerrancy. They are correct that some of the Bible does teach some form (yet to be identified) of inerrancy, but other Scripture passages clearly suggest the complete opposite. Norman L. Geisler, one of the leading inerrantists in America, says, “The doctrine of inerrancy is the only valid conclusion from two clearly taught truths of Scripture: (1) the Bible is the very utterance of God; (2) whatever God affirms is completely true and without error.”[30] There are so many things wrong with this statement that I will now treat it at some length here.

The doctrine of inerrancy is not the only “valid conclusion.” (In fact, who determines what is valid and what is not, Geisler?) Plenty of Scriptural passages highlight the fact that mankind has corrupted God’s written and oral Word. The prophet Jeremiah, who was active during the Babylonian Captivity, clearly reiterates my precise point: “How can you say, ‘We are wise, and the law of the LORD is with us’? But behold, the lying pen of the scribes has made it into a lie” (Jer. 8:8 ESV). There is no doubt here that Jeremiah is attacking the scribes at Jerusalem. He is attacking the Law head-on. This point is further sharpened in his attack of the sacrificial system—which he says never came from God but was totally fabricated by men (Jer. 7:22). It will simply do us justice to remember that Jesus himself annulled some laws and commands given by Moses to the people of Israel (Mark 10:1-12; Matt. 19:8).

As can be seen, Geisler is cherry-picking the text even though holding on to a view that suggests that the entire Bible is authoritative. His greatest mistake is his stating that “the Bible” is the “very utterance of God.” Again, which Bible? The Catholic canon or the Protestant? His list of presuppositions is never-ending. He completely ignores canon and reads a set canon into the first century. And that, again, is simply not true. Had that been true, there would not have been a need for the Council of Jamnia in 90 A.D. Long after the days of Jesus, the canon was still open and books were tossed between the borders of canonical and non-canonical.

The inerrantists are wrong in supposing that there is some imaginary “original” text to fall back on. Sure, for some books of the Bible, there very well may be. But for others—Judges, Daniel, Esther, etc.—that is simply not true. The Essenes have taught us that, and they have taught us well. Inerrancy cannot claim an “original” text when there appears to be no “original” text. What we can claim is this: we have a mass multitude of sometimes diverse and conflicting texts. Now, we can try to figure out what is most likely original—be it original to the author or to a group[31] of authors—but we simply cannot believe in a bizarre original text that we will, most likely, never truly restore. (And if someone did restore it, who would accept it as authoritative?) Therefore, I conclude that the autograph card pulled by many inerrantists is simply an escape clause that has a multitude of issues and should be, at the very least, viewed with utter suspicion. Caution by both parties must be wisely exercised. Those who laugh at the autograph card must recognize that it could, in theory, exist, at least for some books of the Bible; those who accept the theory wholesale must admit that it is highly unlikely that we will ever restore the text.


What are we to do with a body of literature deemed Scripture but that is obviously somewhat corrupted? Do we simply proclaim the entire body of sacred literature as false and useless? Do we reject some parts and accept others? Do we become Marcions and bring razor to the text? Or do we simply accept the truth—the fact that inerrancy, from the very beginning, was a horrible idea? I don’t have many answers to offer. There are two extreme responses here. Paul D. Feinberg writes: “The Bible is a complete revelation of all that man needs for faith and practice.”[32] In total opposition to this statement is Søren Kierkegaard’s: “In the main, a reformation which sets the Bible aside would have as much validity now as Luther’s breaking with the pope,” and so, “the Bible societies have done irreparable damage. Christianity has long needed a religious hero who in fear and trembling had the courage to forbid people to read the Bible.”[33] Though Kierkegaard is obviously overstating his case—taking things to an extreme, using Jesus-like hyperbole—he is quite right. We need to take the Bible from the people because some of us (most?) do not understand much of it and use it in a way that defeats its own purpose. I shall conclude with a funny statistic: More than fifty percent of the people who believe that the Bible is inerrant cannot name the four Gospels![34] It is time for us to believe and read an errant text. The question should not be who believes in the inerrant Word of God, but who reads the errant Word. And that says enough.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev


[1] For “evidence” one may include the inconsistencies between Jesus’ life ministry in the Gospel parallels: did He go to Cana shortly after His baptism (Jn 2) or did He go to the mountains to be tempted for forty days (Mk 9-13; Mt 3:16-17 and 4:1-3; Lk 3:21-22 and 4:1-2); did He cleanse the Temple in the beginning of His ministry (Jn 2:13-25) or at the end (Mk 11:15-19; Mt 21:12-17; Lk 19:45-48, 20:1-8)? Was He involved in a Samaritan mission (Jn 4; Lk 10:30-37) or was He not (Mt 10:5-6, 15:24)? The Sermon on the Mount happened on a mountain (Mt 6:9) or on a plain (Lk 6:17). A downright mistake is whether Judas bought the field (Acts 1:16-19) or whether it were the Pharisees (Mt 27:6-7).

[2] Inerrancy, ed. Norman L. Geisler (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1980).

[3] Christ’s sometimes exalted view of Scripture, when it suited His purposes, is beautifully displayed by John W. Wenham, “Christ’s View of Scripture,” in Inerrancy, ed. Norman L. Geisler, pp. 3-36.

[4] ESV.

[5] It is always wise not to be anachronistic: do not look into your own 21st century Bible and define Jesus’ words—for we do not know what “prophets” He was talking about. He could have included Enoch as a prophet (1 Enoch) or He could have excluded some prophet or prophets. We must not read anything into this statement.

[6] Quoted by Henry Krabbendam, “B.B. Warfield vs. G.C. Berkouwer on Scripture,” in Inerrancy, ed. Norman L. Geisler, 428.

[7] Even the conservative Bruce M. Metzger of Princeton Theological Seminary rejected Petrine authorship for this epistle. This is no place to list the problems but something may be said: (1) this epistle is first quoted in the late second century; (2) the authority of this epistle is doubted by many early Christians; and (3) this epistle is incorporating much of Jude and talks about the apostles as if they were something of the past.

[8] 2 Peter 1:19-21 ESV.

[9] 2 Peter 3:15-16 ESV.

[10] In scholarly circles, there is a debate over whether there were seven of Paul’s letters first circulating or ten. One way or another, 2 Peter does not include the Pastoral Epistles and probably Hebrews. In fact, he could be speaking about only a handful of letters, say, 1 Corinthians, Galatians and 1 Thessalonians—therefore, that would exclude many writings now found in our Western New Testament canon.

[11] G.C. Berkouwer, Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 140.

[12] Quoted by Gordon R. Lewis, “The Human Authorship of Inspired Scripture,” in Inerrancy, ed. Norman L. Geisler, 231. Italics in the original.

[13] The entire Statement can be found in the Appendix of Inerrancy, ed. Norman L. Geisler, 493-502.

[14] Footnote number 102 in Inerrancy, ed. Norman L. Geisler, 481.

[15] Robert D. Preus, “The Early Church Through Luther,” in Inerrancy, ed. Norman L. Geisler, 379.

[16] Ibid., 375. Italics in the original.

[17] Amongst the antilegomena one can include, along with the ancients: The Acts of Paul, the Gospel according to the Hebrews, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Epistle of Barnabas.

[18] “The Human Authorship of Inspired Scripture,” in Inerrancy, ed. Norman L. Geisler, 262-263. Italics mine.

[19] Paul D. Feinberg, “The Meaning of Inerrancy,” in Inerrancy, ed. Norman Geisler, 298.

[20] Ibid., 297.

[21] Ibid., 295.

[22] Ibid., 296.

[23] Circumcision occurred on the eighth day (Gen. 17:12), the tabernacle had eight frames (Ex. 26:25), Israel served Cushan-rishathaim for eight years (Judges 3:8), Ezekiel’s Temple had eight steps (Ezekiel 40:34), etc. I guess eight is both a holy and unholy number!

[24] One opponent of errancy calls the entire argument from the autograph “weasel words.” See the chapter by John H. Gerstner, “The View of the Bible Held by the Church: Calvin and the Westminster Divines,” in Inerrancy, ed. Norman L. Geisler, 408.

[25]Quoted by Henry Krabbendam, “B.B. Warfield vs. G.C. Berkouwer on Scripture,” in Inerrancy, ed. Norman L. Geisler, 430.

[26] John H. Gerstner, “The View of the Bible Held by the Church: Calvin and the Westminster Divines,” in Inerrancy, ed. Norman L. Geisler, 408.

[27] See the introduction to manuscript 4Q559 (termed “A Biblical Chronology”) in the excellent book that offers both translation and commentary by Michael Wise, Martin Abegg Jr., and Edward Cook, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 565.

[28] Ibid., 316-317.

[29] “The Early Church Through Luther,” in Inerrancy, ed. Norman L. Geisler, 358.

[30] “Philosophical Presuppositions of Biblical Errancy,” in Inerrancy, ed. Norman L. Geisler, 310.

[31] It is obvious that some books went through multiple editions. The book of Acts of Codex Alexandrinus is thought to be a different version of Acts offered by Luke or someone else. The twenty-first chapter of the Gospel of John, too, is a later addition—this shows that texts went through multiple editions. Which one was, or is, “original”? The “original” gospel of John without the twenty-first chapter or the second edition gospel of John with it?

[32] “The Meaning of Inerrancy,” in Inerrancy, ed. Norman L. Geisler, 301.

[33] Quoted by Norman L. Geisler, “Philosophical Presuppositions of Biblical Errancy,” in Inerrancy, ed. Norman L. Geisler, 331.

[34] For this odd statistic, see Robert W. Funk’s essay, “The Once and Future New Testament,” in The Canon Debate (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2008), 548.

A Tale of Two Problems—Human Sacrifice and God’s “Bad Commands”: Jeremiah 7:22 vis-à-vis Ezekiel 20:25-26

Jeremiah and Ezekiel provide us with a glimpse into the theology of meso-exilic[1] Israel. With the Temple on the verge of being sacked and the people either in a foreign land or headed there soon, prophet and priest alike wanted to explain to the people how this had occurred. How could Israel, God’s chosen people, be overcome by a foreign God and foreign power? How could God allow this to a people who sacrificed to him and who allegedly followed his commands? Jeremiah, at first blush, appears to argue that God never did command the people to offer sacrifices; Ezekiel, on the other hand, appears to argue that God did indeed make the command to sacrifice but that He did this to “defile” the people and make them unholy (implying that they were no longer His people).

Jeremiah argues that God made no such command to offer sacrifices. “For when I brought your fathers out of the land of Egypt, I said nothing to them, nor gave them any command regarding burnt offerings and sacrifices.”[2] Bright argues that “It is unlikely…that it is to be taken either as a categorical rejection of the sacrificial system as such, or as a statement that there was no sacrifice in the wilderness.”[3] In other words, the words in this passage should not be taken literally. Craigie et al. argue along similar lines that Jeremiah was really condemning a form of sacrificing to God that was not approved of—namely, the fact that the burnt-offerings were being eaten by the worshippers (v. 21). Again, according to some interpreters, the passage is not to be taken literally.[4] On the other hand, Hyatt argues that scholars who run away from this issue are actually not reading Jeremiah the proper way, that is, literally. “[I]t is best to take Jeremiah’s words here at their face value and see in them his belief that the sacrificial system was man-made and not willed by Yahweh…”[5] According to Hyatt, then, Jeremiah is completely contradicting what Ezekiel has to say about sacrifices and what the Pentateuch has to say about them. This is the uncompromising message of Jeremiah against the Temple cult in Jerusalem.

Ezekiel, on the other hand, argues that all of the evil which befell Israel was bound to happen anyways because Israel chose not to serve God and did not follow all of the commands which he had commanded. Following a long section on rebuking Israel and its forefathers, Ezekiel states, writing in the first person for God, “And I also gave them laws not good and rules by which they could not live, defiling them by their gifts, in that they delivered up every first issue of the womb, so that I might desolate them, so that they might know that I am YHWH.”[6] Greenberg comments that the year is 591 BCE and that Ezekiel is arguing, according to his interpretation, Israel disobeyed God and that God, in his anger, decided to give Israel bad laws instead of good laws. “The shocking idea that God misleads those who anger him into sin, for which he then destroys them, already appeared in 14:9 (the misled prophet)…”[7] He further argues that Israel really did offer up their firstborn son in child sacrifice up to God! “These [bad laws] are then exemplified by child sacrifice, at once a murderous pagan practice and an abomination worthy of severest condemnation…[b]y this anti-gift, God only confirmed the people in their choice of laws countering God’s…”[8] Allen argues that these so-called bad commands were “[n]ot of God, they were given by God! Theologically the divine policy is akin to the role of prophecy in Isa. 6:9-10, where the prophetic word is given to seal the people’s fate by giving them an opportunity to add to their sin by rejecting that word. Judgment had already been passed and the gateway to life was locked by his providential judgment. The covenant goal of recognition of Yahweh, unreached by positive means (vv 5, 7, 12, 19, 20), had finally to be attained by a life-denying encounter with his judgment.”[9] These laws were not “of God” in the sense that they were “godly”; rather, these laws were simply given by God, for He knew beforehand that the people would choose evil instead of the good—thus bringing judgment upon themselves by means of freewill. In more blunt language, E. L. Allen put it this way: “In accordance with Hebrew usage, Ezekiel tends to ascribe to God whatever happens. Here he has in mind the perversion of religion at the entry into Canaan. He describes the evil practices which the newcomers took over from the original inhabitants. Most atrocious of these was the custom of child sacrifice. He carries this back to a definite divine command, though he modifies this by saying that the command was given as a punishment for previous sin.”[10]

It is quite obvious by now that scholars do not know what to do with these passages. In this paper, I will be arguing that there is no contradiction between Jeremiah and Ezekiel—they are both actually saying the same thing. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel acknowledge God as the giver of these allegedly “strange” and unappealing laws regarding sacrifices. Moreover, I will somewhat briefly put forth the argument that the law does not command the sacrifice of human firstborn children,[11] as some scholars have horrendously suggested.

Let us first begin by examining Jeremiah’s strange passage. Jeremiah uses the normal negating adverb לֹֽא  (“not”) followed by the verb דִבַּ֤רְתִּי (“I commanded”), making the normal translation read “I did not command…” However, לֹֽא is not always a negating adverb; it can also be used as a Hebrew idiom which roughly translates into “not-only.” Thus, the following translation would emerge for the introduction of Jeremiah’s words: “Not only have I commanded…” There are many such uses of לֹֽא in the OT where, if taken literally, the adverb would make the verse contradict what the rest of that particular verse demands to be so.[12] For example, in Exodus 16:8 the people along with the entire congregation murmur against Moses and Aaron and wish to stone them both. However, Moses replies that the people have murmured not (לֹֽא) against him and Aaron but against YHWH. The use of the לֹֽא would indicate, if taken literally, that the people did not murmur against Moses and Aaron. However, if it is an idiom—which it really is—then the verse states that the people murmured not-only against Moses and Aaron but also against YHWH. In Joshua 17:17 a very clear-cut example of the use of this particular idiom is given: “You [Joseph] shall have not-merely one portion.”[13] According to Whitney, “Thus did Joshua pronounce a blessing on the house of Joseph. If the ‘merely’ is to be omitted and the verse taken out of context, it could be misunderstood as saying that Joseph would not receive even one portion.”[14] All this goes to say that the use of לֹֽא does not indicate necessarily that the adverb negates any following verbs. Another such use of the Hebrew idiom is found in Ezekiel 16:47. In the passage, Ezekiel writes that Israel had not-only (לֹֽא) walked in the ways of their heathen neighbors but went above and beyond their corruption—so corrupt was Israel. If the לֹֽא is taken literally, the passage would contradict itself. In the crucial interpretive verse of Exodus 6:3, the use of the Hebrew idiom comes into play on a more significant scale. In reading the Pentateuch, one notices that the name of YHWH occurs quite frequently, appearing as early as Genesis 2. However, in Exodus 6:3 we read—literally—“ I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name [YHWH] I did not make myself fully known to them.”[15] This flies in the face of the entire Pentateuchal narrative! If taken literally the verse would imply that God did not reveal himself as YHWH to anyone prior to this incident in Exodus 6:3. However, we know that He did. If this is not the negating use of the adverb לֹֽא then this may be the Hebrew idiom meaning not-only. What further corroborates this is a passage in Genesis 32:29, where God changes Jacob’s name to Israel. God says that Jacob’s name is not (לֹֽא) Jacob but Israel. However, in Genesis 35:10, God[16] allegedly says “Your name is Jacob.” Whitney writes, “The qualification ‘not-only Jacob, but also Israel’ parallels that of ‘not-only Yahweh [YHWH], but also El Shaddai.’”[17] After dissertating somewhat at length about several other examples, Whitney comes to the passage in Jeremiah. He argues that the passage is “the most extreme criticism of the sacrificial system in Scripture.”[18] However, he continues, “This alone should make us cautious of founding too great a structure on it as a base.”[19] He argues that this “tradition of prophetic criticism of sacrifice” is as old as Hosea 6:6 and even 1 Samuel 15:22.[20] Thus, there is no reason for us to suppose, if this argument is to be taken seriously, that Jeremiah contradicts Ezekiel. This brings us to the final question: did God, according to Ezekiel, command the Israelites to offer firstborn children as sacrifices?

Ezekiel 20:25 uses the Hebrew phrase רָ֑חַם כָּל־פֶּ֣טֶר בְּהַעֲבִ֖יר (lit.: “in causing to pass over [i.e., “to sacrifice”][21] all the first issues of the womb”). According to Hahn and Bergsma, the passage does not necessarily refer to sacrifices offered to the god Molech simply because it uses the Hiphil form for עבר (this word is used in Ezekiel in contexts that have nothing to do with Molech). “Ezekiel himself uses the term frequently in contexts having nothing to do with such practices (5:1; 14:15; 20:37; 37:2; 46:21; 47:3-4 [3x]; 48:14).”[22] Moreover, they point out that Molech never required firstborn sacrifices. The Hebrew, if taken extremely literally, means “every opener of the womb.” In Exodus 13:12 we have the same expression followed by אָדָ֛ם בְּכֹ֥ור וְכֹ֨ל (“and all the firstborn of adam/man”), which are to be excluded from the sacrifices. This means that the passage “distinguishes human firstborn from ‘every opener of the womb’ in order to exclude them from being offered” and “the context makes clear that human sacrifice is not the referent.”[23] Lastly, “there is no biblical archaeological evidence for the practice of child sacrifice to the LORD in ancient Israel.”[24] Regarding Ezekiel’s comment that God gave the people “bad commands,” one can merely note that the ancient Israelites attributed virtually all activity to God—be it good or bad; however, it does not appear that the commands flowed out of God Himself, but rather these commands flowed out of the deuteronomic contractual covenant which the Israelites had broken. In breaking the covenant, the Israelites brought upon themselves the “evil commands” of God.[25]

Ezekiel and Jeremiah, it appears, are actually arguing very similar things. The people of Israel have abandoned God and have begun to serve themselves. They no longer follow God and his ethical categorical imperatives. They only “serve” God superficially; their hearts do not reflect God’s laws nor the goodness of God’s nature. Theirs is the “prophetic criticism” of gibberish forms of worship which merely pay lip-service to God and His demands. Isaiah 1 could be seen as a summary of both Jeremiah and Ezekiel’s statements: “Stop bringing meaningless offerings!” (v. 13) and “Stop doing wrong” (v. 16)[26] because what essentially God requires is the commitment to His ethical imperatives.

Such “prophetic criticism” is never too out of date. Even today many of us would fall into the category of the “sinful.” How many of us go to church simply because it is the sociologically complacent thing to do? On the other hand, how many of us actually come to God with an immediate sincerity that asks God to come into direct existential communion with us? The beauty of Jeremiah’s critique lies in what follows the critique itself. “Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you” (7:23).[27] The point of the passage is not to simply criticize, put down, and harshly condemn; no, the point is that God wills people to be His people and He wants them to merely obey His commands. Why? For out of the goodness of Him who offers good commands flows goodness itself. The critiques ends not with a curse, but with a blessing: “that it may go well with you.” The laws of God, as God sees them, are not burdensome or “bad” for people; they are actually good and life-giving.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev


Allen, Leslie C. Ezekiel 20-48. Dallas, TX: Word, 1990. Print. Word Biblical Commentary.

Bright, John. Jeremiah: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 21. New York: Doubleday, 1964. Print. The Anchor Bible.

Craigie, Peter C., Page H. Kelley, and Joel F. Drinkard. Jeremiah 1-25. Vol. 26. Dallas, TX: Word, 1991. Print. Word Biblical Commentary.

Greenberg, Moshe. Ezekiel 1-20: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 22. New York: Doubleday, 1983. Print. The Anchor Bible.

Hahn, Scott, and John S. Bergsma. “What Laws Were ‘Not Good’? A Canonical Approach to the Theological Problem of Ezekiel 20:25-26.” Journal of Biblical Literature 123 (2004), no. 2:201-218.

Whitney, G. E. “Alternative Interpretations of לֹֽא in Exodus 6:3 and Jeremiah 7:22.” Westminster Theological Journal 48, no. 1 (March 1, 1986): 151-159.


[1] Jeremiah’s “Temple Sermon”—in which 7:22 feature—is dated to 608 BCE by many scholars, which is just prior to the Babylonian Captivity. However, the Assyrian dissemination of the Northern Kingdom (Israel/Samaria) had already occurred in 722 BCE. In other words, Jeremiah, here, is probably pre-exilic but his message is already similar to post-exilic messages; namely, why did evil overtake us, the children of Abraham? See Peter C. Craige, Page H. Kelley, and Joel F. Drinkard, Jr., Jeremiah: 1-25, vol. 26, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word Books, 1991), 119.

[2] Translation taken from John Bright, Jeremiah: Introduction, Translation, and Notes, vol. 21, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1964), 53.

[3] Ibid., 57.

[4] Craigie, Jeremiah: 1-25, 124.

[5] James Phillip Hyatt “Jeremiah: Exegesis,” in Jeremiah, vol. VI of The Interpreter’s Bible (New York: Abingdon, 1956), 875.

[6] Translation taken from Moshe Greenberg, Ezekiel 1-20: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 22 of The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1983), 361.

[7] Ibid., 369.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Leslie C. Allen, Ezekiel 20-48, vol. 29 of Word Biblical Commentary, (Dallas: Word Books, 1990), 12.

[10]E. L. Allen, “Ezekiel: Exposition,” in Ezekiel, vol. VI of The Interpreter’s Bible (New York: Abingdon, 1956), 172.

[11] This is in reference to Ezekiel’s “first issue of the womb.”

[12] The following examples are taken from G. E. Whitney, Alternative Interpretations of לֹֽא in Exodus 6:3 and Jeremiah 7:22, Westminster Theological Journal 48, no. 1 (March 1, 1986):151-159.

[13]G. E. Whitney, “Alternative Interpretations,” 154.

[14] Ibid.

[15] New International Version (NIV).

[16] The name of God in this passage is elohim.

[17] G. E. Whitney,” Alternative Interpretations,” 156.

[18] Ibid., 157.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] The Hebrew expression הַעֲבִ֖יר  is in the Hiphil (causative) form (with a preposition בְּ) from the root עבר which means “to pass over.” This later became a euphemism for sacrifice.

[22] Scott Hahn and John S. Bergsma, “What Laws Were ‘Not Good’? A Canonical Approach to the Theological Problem of Ezekiel 20:25-26,” Journal of Biblical Literature 123 (2004), no. 2: 211.

[23] Scott Hahn and John S. Bergsma, “What Laws Were ‘Not Good,’” 212.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., 205.

[26] NIV.

[27] NIV.

Arguing with God: Deuteronomic Paradox and Habakkukian Critiques

The prophet Habakkuk was active sometime around 605 BC. He was most likely a contemporary of Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Zephaniah. The context within which Habakkuk issued forth his complaints against YHWH is essential to understanding his message. Twenty-four years prior to Habukkuk’s complaints against YHWH, the prophet Jeremiah began his own similar activities in 629 BC. It was not until a few years later, in 621 BC, that the “book of the Torah” was found and brought to the attention of the youthful king of Judah, Josiah. The “book of the Torah,” usually identified with (probably) Deuteronomy 12-26, was brought to the prophetess Huldah. She exclaimed that the curses within the “book of the Torah,” which faithless Israel had brought upon herself, would come upon Jerusalem (2 Kings 22:15-20).[1] Josiah responded by seeking to go back to a more conservative and less “modern” Mosaic religion. “[T]he paganism against which Zephaniah had protested (Zeph. 1:4-6) was abolished…”[2] Moreover, “[t]he practices of sacred prostitution, child sacrifice in the Valley of Hinnom, and the consultation of mediums and wizards were discontinued.”[3] The most novel response being the centralization of YHWHistic worship in the Jerusalem Temple. While Josiah was on a rampage to restore primitive Mosaic faith, Assyria was losing its clutch on power; in a decisive battle, Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, was overthrown by the combined forces of Babylon, Scythia, and Media in 612 BC.[4] Three years later, Necho, the ruler of Egypt, seeing an opportunity to help out Assyria, sent his troops in 609 BC. On their way north to Assyria, Josiah decided to play dice and come to Babylon’s rescue—he attempted to prevent the passage of Egyptian troops. Ultimately, he ended up dying and Judah would become a temporary vassal of Egypt.[5] For roughly another four miserable years, Judah is a slave to Egypt. Then, in 605 BC, the epic battle of Carchemish takes place, in which Babylonian troops put to waste Egyptian troops. In a matter of time, Judah is made a vassal of Babylon, and would remain so until its utter destruction in 587/6 BC. Thus, within a mere twenty years of Josiah’s initial reform, Judah is once again a slave to evil empires.

The theology of this period has been dubbed by modern scholarship “deuteronomic.”[6] It is a very retributive theology that is cut-and-dried: if you obey YHWH, good will follow; if you disobey YHWH, evil will follow. “In the popular view, Yahweh’s justice meant that good consequences would came from good actions, that obedience would result in security on the land, victory against foes, and abundant life. But the cruel facts of history seemed to contradict this belief.”[7] Within a matter of years, Jeremiah’s hopeful approach towards Josiah’s reform and deuteronomic theology withered away and became a bittersweet song; “[h]e came to see that  it did not result in a circumcision of the heart or a breaking up of fallow ground.”[8] Habakkuk, likewise, was greatly frustrated by this “health and wealth gospel.” How could it be that the children of YHWH, who did commit righteous acts, be visited by an utterly evil nation? Where was the deuteronomic righteousness of YHWH? Within these profound, paradoxical turmoils were born the complaints of Habakkuk.

Habakkuk wrote his complaints just after the battle of Carchemish.[9] “No one living in Jerusalem about the year 600 could fail to see that world-shaping events were already in preparation.”[10] Yes, he probably did witness the collapse of an evil Assyria—but that evil empire was soon replaced by one no different than it: Babylon. Habakkuk was not sure how one could approach this deuteronomic God. If evil is the result of disobeying YHWH, is it possible that those who were deemed “righteous” were somehow deceived? Maybe evil followed them precisely because they unknowingly sinned. But such thinking surely fled Habakkuk’s mind; he knew that the righteous were righteous—and, yet, they were being punished by the unrighteous. This deuteronomic paradox forced Habakkuk to cry out to YHWH: “How long, YHWH, will I call out and you will not listen? Or when I shout to you ‘Violence!’ and you do not save?” (1:2). Habakkuk expects a message from YHWH precisely because he knows that he is righteous. His contemporary, Jeremiah, likewise reiterated this fact: “When these people, or a prophet or a priest, ask you, ‘What is the message[11] from the LORD?’ say to them, ‘What message? I will forsake you, declares the LORD’” (23:33 NIV). Habakkuk had received a “message” and knew that, for whatever reason, he was not yet forsaken by YHWH. In the same vein, Job would cry out:

               הֵ֤ן אֶצְעַ֣ק חָ֭מָס וְלֹ֣א אֵעָנֶ֑ה אֲ֝שַׁוַּ֗ע וְאֵ֣ין מִשְׁפָּֽט

“Though I cry out ‘Violence!’ I get no reply; I cry out for help and there is no justice.”

Virtually the same language is used in both verses. Habakkuk cries חָמָ֖ס (“violence”) and so does Job; Habakkuk later (1:4) sees this as an attack on מִשְׁפָּ֑ט (“justice”) as does Job.[12] Job, it is presumed, was a righteous man.[13] Like Habakkuk, he too could not understand why YHWH would allow such a thing. How could it be that righteous men of YHWH could not get a response from YHWH?

Habakkuk was surely confused: isn’t YHWH too holy to behold any atrocities being committed against the righteous? “Why do you make me look at wickedness and trouble? Why do you make me gaze at death and at the violence before me? A dispute and a quarreling go up (to you)…” (1:3). Surely, YHWH was aware that “dispute and quarreling” were “going up” (i.e., being witnessed) by him. Habakkuk then calls to YHWH’s mind his own torah (“teachings”): “Therefore, the torah is paralyzed. Will justice never prevail? For the wicked siege the righteous; on this account, justice is perverted” (1:4). Habakkuk is directing his anger at YHWH, using his own torah, “Your very own laws, YHWH, are now paralyzed. They are no more. They are ineffective. You who defined yourself as just[14] have let justice fail. Justice has been perverted!” In what seems to be a statement vis-a-vis Deuteronomy 32:4, Habakkuk exclaims: “(Your) eyes are too pure to look at evil—they cannot gaze at trouble. Why, then, do you gaze at those who deal treacherously? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous (צַדִּ֥יק) than him?” (1:13).  The YHWH who defined himself as being “righteous” (צַדִּ֥יק) in Deut. 32:4 has allowed those who are like him to perish.

Out of this “doom and gloom,” in contrast to the “health and wealth gospel” of Habakkuk’s day, YHWH revealed something entirely new. “Behold,” YHWH tells Habakkuk, “I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe (לֹ֥א תַאֲמִ֖ינוּ) even if you were told” (1:5). The root for “believe” being used here is אָמַן. (It is the same root word that is being used to describe the “righteous” in Habakkuk 2:4.) What YHWH tells Habakkuk shocks him. YHWH is the very one who is raising up the Babylonians (1:6). For what is he raising them up? To execute justice? We are never told. All that Habakkuk gets in reply is this: “Behold! The soul of the unrighteous is puffed up in him; but the righteous will live by faithfulness (בֶּאֱמוּנָתֹ֥ו) in it (i.e., the vision/revelation of YHWH)” (2:4). Habakkuk was given a חָזֹ֔ון (“vision,” “revelation”) and YHWH expects Habakkuk to simply place his faith in it.

While it is true that an explicit answer is never given to Habakkuk as to what exactly YHWH would be doing that people would “not believe,” there are some clues in the text that may suggest a slightly different version of events. Some scholars argue that the answer to Habakkuk’s critiques lies in the fact that the first part of the book is addressing internal problems, while later passages address external (i.e., Babylon) problems. Because Habakkuk uses such words as חָמָ֖ס (“violence”), אָ֨וֶן֙ וְעָמָ֣ל (“iniquity and trouble”), and שֹׁ֥ד (“death” or “pillage”), some think that this indicates “native oppression and not a foreign invader.”[15] In other words, it may be that the “revelation” which Habakkuk is receiving from YHWH is that YHWH will destroy internal evil, within the gates of Jerusalem, by the hands of external—and more evil—Babylonians. Even if this may be the case, the problem still remains for Habakkuk: will YHWH punish the righteous along with the wicked? And even if justice will come, how long must one wait for that to happen?

In the most critical time of his life, Habakkuk was told by YHWH what would come to pass. Against all expectations, Habakkuk received what appears to be a “non-answer answer”: simply put faith in my revelation. Later on in the book, Habakkuk reminds YHWH of his previous deeds and actions. He wants YHWH to act as he had acted in the past. “YHWH, I have heard of your fame, I have feared your deeds; make them come to life in our day…” (3:2a). He is attempting one last try, one last argument he is offering YHWH. This one is an argument of old; it was used so many times, YHWH was probably tired of hearing it. “Do what you have done in the past,” begs Habakkuk, “Please!” The author of Psalm 44:2 used a similar technique:

                        אֱלֹהִ֤ים׀ בְּאָזְנֵ֬ינוּ שָׁמַ֗עְנוּ אֲבֹותֵ֥ינוּ סִפְּרוּ־לָ֑נוּ פֹּ֥עַל פָּעַ֥לְתָּ בִֽ֝ימֵיהֶ֗ם בִּ֣ימֵי קֶֽדֶם

“Oh God, with our ears we have heard, and our fathers have recounted to us deeds which you have done in their days, in the days of old.”

The ability to remind YHWH of his previous actions was founded on the assumption that YHWH was “reliable.” He was, as Deut. 32:4 put it, אֱמוּנָה֙. Anything that was not אֱמוּנָה֙ was not constant nor reliable. It is precisely because of this that Jeremiah likewise could say (15:18):

                        תִֽהְיֶ֥ה לִי֙ כְּמֹ֣ו אַכְזָ֔ב מַ֖יִם לֹ֥א נֶאֱמָֽנוּ

“Will you be to me like deceptive waters that are not reliable?”

The word for “unreliable” is the same root (and derivatives) we have seen being used before; it is the Niphal stem of the root אָמַן. In this particular case, the waters are not “reliable” in the sense that they are not “continual” or “lasting.” The expectation is that the spring or creek would have water whenever one would approach it; for Jeremiah, it is this “un-lastingness” that makes the waters “unreliable”—at one time there’s water, at another there isn’t. Like Jeremiah and the Psalmist, Habakkuk expects YHWH to be reliable (אֱמוּנָה֙). A derivative of this root אָמַן is the noun/adverb אֱמֶת, which basically translates as “true” or “trustworthy.” In Psalm 119:43, the Psalmist exclaims:

                        אַל־תַּצֵּ֬ל מִפִּ֣י דְבַר־אֱמֶ֣ת עַד־מְאֹ֑ד כִּ֖י לְמִשְׁפָּטֶָ֣ יִחָֽלְתִּי

“Do not utterly take/rescue from my mouth the word of truth, for in your judgments I have hoped.”

When the Psalmist uses this particular word, he “celebrates Yahweh’s torah and commandments as [אֱמֶת]…he does not just mean that they are true as opposed to false, but that they also have the character of being trustworthy and reliable for people to base their lives on.”[16] To be a trustworthy God is to be אֱמֶת. In fact, this particular derivative of אֱמוּנָה֙ is used in reference to God quite often. One can see the use of this word in one of the most divine statements in all of Scripture, Exodus 34:5-7, where God himself reveals his character and describes himself as וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת (“abounding in love and faithfulness”). To fully appreciate the moral uprightness of this word, one can look at its synonyms and antonyms, as found in the Hebrew Bible. The word is used in conjunction with חֶ֫סֶד (“covenantal faithfulness,” “love”), as was seen in the Exodus passage cited, צֶ֫דֶק (“righteousness”), and מִשְׁפָּט (“judgment,” “justice”) [e.g., Jer. 4:2, Ps. 15:2]. Its Hiphil form appears in parallelism with another Hebrew word בָּטַח (“trust”) [Micah 7:5]. The word is contrasted with שֶׁ֫קֶר (“lie,” “deception”) in Proverbs 12:22. The word אֱמוּנָה֙ (and its derivative noun אֱמֶת) has quite a moral character in the Hebrew Bible! It is no wonder, then, that Habakkuk could place such great faith in YHWH. If YHWH is the opposite of “deception,” if YHWH is equated with “reliability” and “steadfast love,” how could he allow a righteous person’s prayer go unheard? “Israel assigns to (or recognizes in) Yahweh elements of constancy and substance that make Yahweh in some ways knowable and available to Israel.”[17] And, yet, the strange thing about Habakkuk’s message is that YHWH does not really work in a way that seems, at least to Habakkuk, consistent with his character. In the words of the Psalmist, the deeds that YHWH had done were done (past tense) “in the days of old.” And that, precisely, is where they remained.

Habakkuk is no different than any one of us today. We are, to be blunt, all in the same boat. The fact that Pentecostals pray all day long, exceeding the volume of a rock concert, virtually does nothing to the way things really are. Even the good people are still falling prey to cancer at age thirty, dying in car accidents committed by drunk fools, or simply losing their jobs to more ruthlessly conniving individuals. The “faithful” people today still see the loud mouth, die-hard atheists using their vocal cords to cast curses upon YHWH. Just as in Habakkuk’s time, we still have our deuteronomic theologies—though they go by fancy names like “health and wealth gospel” or “success theology”—which teach people that, if one follows God, one will inherit the pearls of the Kingdom right here and right now. We still have our Joel Osteens, Joyce Meyers, Benny Hinns, regurgitating a worn-out theology; a theology of mere cut-and-dried retribution. Whether we like it or not, this sort of thinking was accepted by Habakkuk, Jeremiah, Moses, and a thousand others. It is the initial theology of all school children. But then we all grow up. Like Ecclesiastes, we shed our teenage mentality and we see that “things are not so.” Maybe along with his version of the categorical imperative—אַל־תְּהִ֤י צַדִּיק֙ הַרְבֵּ֔ה (“Do not be righteous too much!” [7:16])—we, too, will find rest in knowing that, no matter what you do, you will suffer. You can be good or bad, fat or thin, American or Russian, white or black, believer or atheist, you will still probably get cancer at some point in your life, and you may, or may not, live to see your grandchildren. One could relate to a lament made by people within Zephaniah’s time, a contemporary of Habakkuk’s, who had the audacity to say that YHWH “does neither good nor evil” (1:12). Von Rad makes the following remark about Zephaniah’s contemporaries, “[T]hese were no atheists, but they no longer reckoned with divine action in the present day; and when the storm broke, and the Southern Kingdom suffered the same fate as had the Northern, and saw its upper class deported to Babylon [in 586/7 BC], the question of Jahweh’s relationship to his people became completely uncertain.”[18] In Habakkuk’s time, deuteronomic theology became a theology of paradox—it could not even stand on its own two feet. And when the Babylonian captivity took place, after Habakkuk’s time, it completely fell beneath the weight of human experience. As I’ve stated earlier, even in the time of severe personal crisis and doubt, YHWH gave Habakkuk no real answer. “[T]he answer to the question why there should be such great and mysterious suffering is so remarkably veiled and obscure that it makes one feel as if Jahweh were retreating before the question, and withdrawing into ever deeper seclusion.”[19]

Habakkuk’s three-chapter book is one long sustained argument with YHWH, with a number of interjections made by YHWH. The prophet attempts to get YHWH to recognize that justice must be served at an appropriate time and in an appropriate manner. YHWH responds by making Habakkuk aware of, what appears to be, an uncertainty principle. Habakkuk is to trust that YHWH is, essentially, in control. All one has to do is trust in YHWH despite any given circumstances. No longer must one judge oneself as good or bad in relation to what one has or does not have. YHWH is not really about rewarding the righteous people, after all—at least not on planet earth. The methods Habakkuk uses to argue with YHWH are standard Old Testament methods that sometimes work (Moses and the Children of Israel in Exodus 32) and sometimes do not (Abraham and Sodom in Genesis18-19). We can plead with YHWH all we want, but Habakkuk is right, “the righteous will live by placing their faith in YHWH’s vision.” In the end, YHWH wins and you lose. You can either be on YHWH’s side or you can hold a sustained argument against YHWH, but it will be faith that gets you through on either side. As Paul once remarked, “Everything not done in faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). To argue or not to argue, to use Kierkegaardian language, “you will regret both.”


Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev



Translation and Textual Notes

עַד־אָ֧נָה יְהוָ֛ה שִׁוַּ֖עְתִּי וְלֹ֣א תִשְׁמָ֑ע אֶזְעַ֥ק אֵלֶ֛יךָ חָמָ֖ס וְלֹ֥א תֹושִֽׁיעַ׃

לָ֣מָּה תַרְאֵ֤נִי אָ֨וֶן֙ וְעָמָ֣ל תַּבִּ֔יט וְשֹׁ֥ד וְחָמָ֖ס לְנֶגְדִּ֑י וַיְהִ֧י רִ֦יב וּמָדֹ֖ון יִשָּֽׂא׃

עַל־כֵּן֙ תָּפ֣וּג תֹּורָ֔ה וְלֹֽא־יֵצֵ֥א לָנֶ֖צַח מִשְׁפָּ֑ט כִּ֤י רָשָׁע֙ מַכְתִּ֣יר אֶת־הַצַּדִּ֔יק עַל־כֵּ֛ן יֵצֵ֥א מִשְׁפָּ֖ט


טְהֹ֤ור עֵינַ֨יִם֙ מֵרְאֹ֣ות רָ֔ע וְהַבִּ֥יט אֶל־עָמָ֖ל לֹ֣א תוּכָ֑ל לָ֤מָּה תַבִּיט֙ בֹּֽוגְדִ֔ים תַּחֲרִ֕ישׁ בְּבַלַּ֥ע רָשָׁ֖ע

צַדִּ֥יק מִמֶּֽנּוּ

הִנֵּ֣ה עֻפְּלָ֔ה[20] לֹא־יָשְׁרָ֥ה נַפְשֹׁ֖ו בֹּ֑ו וְצַדִּ֖יק בֶּאֱמוּנָתֹ֥ו יִחְיֶֽה

יְהוָ֗ה שָׁמַ֣עְתִּי שִׁמְעֲךָ֮ יָרֵאתִי֒ יְהוָ֗ה פָּֽעָלְךָ֙ בְּקֶ֤רֶב שָׁנִים֙ חַיֵּ֔יהוּ

How long, YHWH, will I call out and you will not listen? Or when I shout to you ‘Violence!’ and you do not save?

Why do you make me look at wickedness and trouble? Why do you make me gaze at death and at the violence before me? A dispute and a quarreling go up (to you)…

Therefore, the torah is paralyzed. Will justice never prevail? For the wicked siege the righteous; on this account, justice is perverted.

(Your) eyes are too pure to look at evil—they cannot gaze at trouble. Why, then, do you gaze at those who deal treacherously? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than him?

Behold! The soul of the unrighteous is puffed up in him; but the righteous will live by faithfulness in it (i.e., the vision/revelation of YHWH).

YHWH, I have heard of your fame, I have feared your deeds; make them come to life in our day…

(Habakkuk 1:2-4, 13; 2:4, 3:2a)


Bibliography and Works Cited

Anderson, Bernhard W. Understanding the Old Testament. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975.

Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.

Goldingay, John. Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Life. Vol. 3. Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2009.

Janzen, J. Gerald. Habakkuk 2:2-4 in the Light of Recent Philological Advances. Harvard Theological Review 73, no. 1-2. (January 1, 1980).

Moberly, R. W. L. “אָמַן,“ in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. Ed. Willem A. von Gemeren. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997.

Rad, Gerhard von. Old Testament Theology: The Theology of Israels Prophetic Traditions. Trans. D. M. G. Stalker. Vol. 2. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

Ward, William Hayes. “A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Habakkuk,” in The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Eds. C. A. Briggs, S. R. Driver, and Alfred Plummer. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911.



[1] Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975), 348-349.

[2] Ibid., 349.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 362.

[5] Ibid., 363.

[6] Ibid., 362-364.

[7] Ibid., 363.

[8] Ibid., 360.

[9] Ibid., 364.

[10] Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology: The Theology of Israel’s Prophetic Traditions, trans. D. M. G. Stalker, vol. 2. (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 263.

[11] The word for “message” here is מַשָּׂ֖א. This is the same word which is used to introduce Habakkuk’s prophecy (1:1); it is a מַשָּׂ֖א (“message,” “pronouncement,” or “revelation”).

[12] Another interesting parallel is that both use the same word for “crying out,” צָעַק.

[13] Though the technical word for “the righteous” (הַצַּדִּ֔יק) is not used in relation to Job, similar adjectives are applied to him. He is called “pure and upright, fearing God” (תָּ֧ם וְיָשָׁ֛ר וִירֵ֥א אֱלֹהִ֖ים).

[14] Deut. 32:4 defines YHWH’s actions as “all just”: הַצּוּר֙ תָּמִ֣ים פָּעֳלֹ֔ו כִּ֥י כָל־דְּרָכָ֖יו מִשְׁפָּ֑ט אֵ֤ל אֱמוּנָה֙ וְאֵ֣ין עָ֔וֶל צַדִּ֥יק ויָשָׁ֖ר הֽוּא. YHWH is called “pure” (תָּמִ֣ים), “just” (מִשְׁפָּ֑ט), “faithful” (אֱמוּנָה֙) and “righteous” (צַדִּ֥יק).

[15] William Hayes Ward, “A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Habakkuk,” in The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, eds. C. A. Briggs, S. R. Driver, and Alfred Plummer (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911), 4. For a similar line of argument, see John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Life, vol. 3 (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), 786-792.

[16] R. W. L. Moberly, “אָמַן,“ in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. Willem A. von Gemeren, vol. 1. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 428.

[17] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 229.

[18] Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, 263.

[19] Ibid., 267.

[20] The Pual imperfect 3rd person feminine singular verb עֻפְּלָ֔ה (“she/it is puffed up, proud”) has been taken to be, by some, as corrupted. Janzen offers the suggestion that it be reconstructed to a noun to read עָצֵ֑ל (“sluggard”). I do not think that such a change would greatly impact my reading of the text, which is why I have not bothered to emend the Masoretic Text. See J. Gerald Janzen, Habakkuk 2:2-4 in the Light of Recent Philological Advances, Harvard Theological Review 73, no. 1-2 (January 1, 1980): 67-70. Numerous other, somewhat ingenious, emendations have been proposed by virtually any scholar who knows Hebrew, for those guesses, I refer the reader to any critical commentary on Habakkuk. As a rule, for every scholar there is an idiosyncratic emendation.

May 6, 2014

Philippians 2:6-11: A Creedal Hymn Reflecting Proto-Trinitarian Theology

Introductory Remarks

Philippians 2:6-11 is perhaps the single most written about pericope in the entire New Testament. In it, one finds a tight-packed theological reflection on Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, exaltation and, finally, one finds what it means to reflect Christ’s attitude. It is, in the words of Gordon D. Fee, “the very heart of Pauline theology.”[1] Moreover, being “one of the most exalted, most beloved, and most discussed and debated passages in the Pauline corpus.”[2] This “creedal hymn” has had virtually every aspect of it debated—words, grammar, authorship, structure, redaction, history, etc.—not a single rock was left unturned. Given the fact that such is the fate of this pericope, I will merely selectively mention things that I find of particular importance. I presuppose the pericope to be a creedal hymn that was, in one way or another, either written by Paul or, at the very least, edited by him. Many such things are, at best, speculative, and I will not, therefore, spend much time dealing with them here. My main interest here will be to look at the Greek grammar, syntax, and vocabulary used in the hymn—at times interacting with other scholars, too. I will, finally, reflect on the theological implications of this hymn and how it relates to Christian ethics and Trinitarian thinking.

Verse 6

ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ

“Who, because of his being in the ‘form’ (μορφῇ) of God, he did not consider equality with God as something to be seized upon.”

Prior to verse 6, Paul admonishes the Philippians to have a certain frame of mind while being Christian. He tells them to have the mindset of Christ. But what is that mindset? What is it like to follow and be like Christ? Verse 6 thus follows on the heels of an imperative (φρονεῖτε, “you all have this mind set”) and begins by laying out what Paul exactly means. Paul begins verse 6 with the relative pronoun ὃς. “The Christ-hymn proper starts here. Its initial word, the relative pronoun ὃς, “who,” recalls the way other hymnlike confessions in the NT begin (cf. Col 1:15; 1 Tim 3:16; Heb 1:3[)]….”[3] Following this is the difficult noun (dative singular feminine) μορφῇ, “form,” which is further modified by the adjectival (descriptive) genitive θεοῦ (“of God”). This noun occurs only twice in Paul (here and verse 7) and once in Pseudo-Mark (16:12). The noun μορφῇ can be translated best as ‘form’ (in quotation marks). Fee argues that it should best be translated as “that which truly characterizes a given reality.”[4] “[I]t denotes ‘form’ or ‘shape’ not in terms of the external features by which something is recognized, but of those characteristics and qualities that are essential to it.”[5] Furthermore, when the hymn will later on say that Christ took the form of a slave, “it is not likely that its author had in mind that Christ merely looked like or had the external appearance of a slave.”[6] That is, μορφῇ does not necessarily retain the simple meaning of “form”—in fact, it cannot. The word should be seen, as Fee suggests, meaning something along the lines of that which truly characterizes a given reality.

            Contra Fee,[7] the author of the hymn—Paul or somebody else—“did not wish to say that Christ was θεός, ‘God.’”[8] Moreover, the author did not say that Christ was “the form of God” (ὃς μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων) but rather ἐν (“in”) in the form of God. Clearly, the author is not saying that Christ is the God.[9] Christ is a preposition away from being θεός. At least in this verse. In verses like these, one gets the sense that the author of the hymn was not, by any means, intending for Christ to be identified with God the Father; rather, the intent appears to be to exalt Christ to divine status—as the following verses will reveal—but not at the expense of having the Father lose His place of paradoxical supremacy. Only Trinitarian theology, I believe, can make any systematic sense of this verse, as we will later see.

And, finally, the author’s use of the participle ὑπάρχων “is a widely used substitute in Hellenistic Greek for εἶναι, ‘to be.’”[10] On the other hand, despite this usage, many argue that ὑπάρχων here has a more precise meaning. “[T]hough often simply be, the exact sense is be from the beginning, w[ith] ref[erence] to God would mean being from all eternity.”[11] Fee, noting that the term ὑπάρχων is interchangeable with εἶναι (the infinitive “to be”), further suggests that the term could mean “to exist (really).”[12] He also disagrees with Zerwick’s A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament and states that “in the koine period the word on its own w[ould] hardly bear that weight [i.e., that the word would imply prior existence].”[13] Because of the disagreements, and the subjectivity of the conclusions, I believe it best to simply translate the participle with the neutral term “being.” There is, however, further ongoing debate about whether the participle is concessive or causal. Concessive participles should be translated with “although” and causal would be translated with the conjunction “because.” “[I]f ὑπάρχων is causal, ἁρπαγμὸν means robbery (“who, because he existed in God’s form, did not consider equality with God as robbery”); if ὑπάρχων is concessive, then ἁρπαγμὸν means a thing to be grasped (“who, although he existed in God’s form, did not consider equality with God as a thing to be grasped”).[14] Daniel B. Wallace believes, grammatically speaking, that “[o]nly the concessive idea for the participle and a thing to be grasped translation for ἁρπαγμὸν fit well with v 7.”[15] Or, if one wants to simply ignore such strict dichotomizing of the grammar, one could—as Fee will below—simply translate the participle as “being”; being preceded with neither an “although” (concessive) or a “because” (causal).

We now come to the difficult term, a hapax legomenon in the NT, ἁρπαγμὸν, which could be translated as “a thing to be grasped” or “robbery.” The noun is from the verb ἁρπάζω, which can mean “I seize spoil,” “I seize a prize by force,” “I snatch away [not in secret]” or “I obtain by robbery”—it can have any of these similar range of meanings. While the verb occurs in both the Old and New Testaments (e.g. Amos 4:11; Zech 3:2; Matt 13:19; 2 Cor 12:2, 4, etc.), with a range of meanings—not all with the implied meaning of “robbery,” as in 2 Corinthians, where Paul describes his ascent into heaven with the aorist passive participle ἁρπαγέντα (“having been caught, snatched away”)—it is, therefore, unclear as to what the noun actually means. Fee mentions C. F. D. Moule’s argument that the noun, being a noun which end in -mos (the noun ἁρπαγμὸν is the accusative singular masculine from the nominative ἁρπαγμός, hence the -mos ending), should be seen not as a noun referring to the “concrete expression of the verbal idea but to the verbal idea itself.”[16] Carrying this line of thought, Fee continues, “In this view harpagmos is not to be thought of as a ‘thing’ at all…Rather it is an abstract noun, emphasizing the concept of ‘grasping’ or ‘seizing.’”[17] Fee also, rather in a syncretic manner, sees the phrase “not harpagmon” as “correspond[ing] to ‘not looking out for one’s own needs.’”[18] John Reumann points out that W. Jaeger saw the entire phrase as being an idiom meaning to “regard something as a stroke of luck, a windfall, a piece of good fortune.”[19] However, this idiom occurs in much later documents (such as Heliodorus’ Ethiopian Story [3rd or 4th century]). Some scholars look for the noun’s meaning in the OT. The phrase τὸ ἅρπαγμα  (Lev 5:23) is used to translate the Hebrew noun  הַגְּזֵלָ֜ה (Lev 5:23), which is from the Hebrew Qal verb  גָּזָ֗ל (“to seize, plunder, steal”). The neuter verb occurs in the singular and in the plural in the OT 18 times (including Sirach [16:13] and the Psalms of Solomon [2:24]). In all the OT contexts, the terms clearly denotes “robbery” and “plundering.”) Finally, the noun could be taken as a synonym of its cognate term harpagma (“booty” or “prey”). If this is the case, it could be translated, in Paul’s context, as “‘a matter to be seized upon’ in the sense of ‘taking advantage of it.’”[20] Adding to the chaos, some scholars see the nouns (harpagma and harpagmos) as being identical; they “were used synonymously in the Hellenistic period.”[21] Despite the difficulties, as it should be obvious by now, the differences between the different approaches are, in some ways, rather negligible. I agree with Reumann’s conclusions: “The difficult (and rare) word harpagmos (6b) is probably to be taken as equivalent of harpagma, ‘a thing seized.’”[22]

It is time for us to look at some interesting grammar issues present in this highly contentious text. In Greek the structure of the clause ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ is a double accusative; that is, the verb ἡγήσατο (“he deemed, considered”) has both ἁρπαγμὸν (“robbery, something to be grasped”) and the definite article with the infinitive τὸ εἶναι (“the to be”) as its objects. “[B]y putting ‘not harpagmon’ in the emphatic first position, Paul indicates that the infinitive that follows refers back to the initial participle phrase, in a kind of A-B-A structure. Thus, ‘in his being in the form of God (A), not harpagmon did Christ consider (B) his being be equal with God (A’).’”[23] Fee then also sees the article before the infinitive not as marking out the infinitive as the object of ἡγήσατο but as functioning as “anaphoric.” Thus, the text should be translated as:

“Who, although being in the form of God, did not consider it something to be grasped; he did not consider [τὸ] being in the form of God [the anaphoric definite article functioning here to refer back to “being in the form of God”] to be [εἶναι] equal to God.”

Hence the more paraphrastic translation:

“Who, although being in the form of God, did not consider it something to be grasped; he did not consider his being in the form of God to mean that he was equal to God.”

The above are my own interpretations of Fee’s suggestions. He does, however, offer up his own version, which reads:

Being in the ‘form’ of God as he was

Christ did not consider a matter of seizing upon it to his own advantage,

this being equal with God we have just noted,

but he emptied himself.[24]

Interestingly enough, Martin & Hawthorne’s commentary also takes this definite article preceding the infinitive as anaphoric. In their view, “a function of the definite article here is to point back to something previously mentioned.”[25] That is, this article is not to be identified as an article that stands modifying the infinitive, making it a direct-object articular “substantival infinitive.” Despite the above views, Wallace maintains that “[i]n this text the infinitive is the object and the anarthrous term, ἁρπαγμὸν, is the complement. The most natural reason for the article with the infinitive is simply to mark it out as the object.”[26]  He continues: “This is an example of a direct object infinitive in an object-complement construction. Here the infinitive is the object and the anarthrous term ἁρπαγμὸν is the complement, in keeping with the normal structural pattern of object-complement constructions.”[27] Thus, you have this translation: “He did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped.” In this case, the infinitive is functioning as nothing but a noun, which is then complemented by another noun ἁρπαγμὸν (“something to be grasped”). While both Fee and Martin & Hawthorne’s commentaries argue for taking the definite article as anaphoric to μορφῇ θεοῦ (“form of God”), grammatically speaking, Wallace offers some potent critiques. In the same epistle, Paul uses the articular substantival infinitives as direct objects. For example, in 2:13 Paul writes:

θεὸς γάρ ἐστιν ὁ ἐνεργῶν ἐν ὑμῖν καὶ τὸ θέλειν καὶ τὸ ἐνεργεῖν ὑπὲρ τῆς εὐδοκίας

“For the one working in you all both the willing and the working for his good pleasure is God.”

Notice, then, that in the above citation, Paul is using articular substantival infinitives as the objects of the participle ἐνεργῶν (“working”). The problem with Wallace’s position is that not all substantival infinitives take a definite article. However, from the context, Wallace, Fee, and Hawthorne & Martin are correct in seeing the infinitive as an object. To be fair, in the NT direct-object infinitives are rare. J. L. Boyer only lists two such direct-object occurrences (2 Cor 8:11 and Phil 4:10).[28] Wallace goes on to list, in addition, John 5:26, Phil 2:6, and maybe 2:13. Despite their rarity, it is reasonable that the infinitive in 2:6 is most certainly an “articular-less” direct-object substantival infinitive (the article before the infinitive being anaphoric). Thus, we would translate the infinitive as merely: “to be equal to God”; this being equal to God would, then, be functioning as the object of the verb ἡγήσατο (“he deemed, considered”).

Last but not least, to finish this verse, we must deal briefly with ἴσα θεῷ (“equal to God”). The nominative pleural neuter adjective ἴσα is from the word ἴσος (“equal”). As in John 5:18 the adjective is functioning as a predicate adjective, further telling us something about the noun—the ὃς who is clearly to be identified with Jesus Christ. Already in John, Jesus is accused of calling God his own father, thus making himself equal to God (ἴσον ἑαυτὸν ποιῶν τῷ θεῷ). Following a similar vein of thought, the Philippians hymn is stating that Jesus “although being in the ‘form’ of God” did not attempt to consider equality with God as something to be grasped. On the other hand, Jesus took the road less travelled, which brings us to verse 7.

Verse 7

ἀλλ᾽ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν μορφὴν δούλου λαβών, ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος·

“But he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, in the likeness of men becoming, and being found in the likeness as man.”

The fascinating verb ἐκένωσεν is the aorist active indicative third person singular from κενόω (“I empty”). The verb is found five times in the NT (Rom 4:14; 1 Cor 1:17; 9:15; 2 Cor 9:3; and our passage). Romans speaks of those who are heirs if they depend on the law and not on faith—if such is the case, then the promise is κεκένωται (“it has been emptied”). As one can see from the occurrences in the NT, the word is thoroughly a Pauline word. This would support Fee’s position that the hymn originated with Paul (though he does not think it is a hymn!). But of what did Christ empty himself? “[O]n grammatical grounds it is impossible for ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ to be the object of ἐκένωσεν; the former is separate from the verb by the strong adversative ἀλλά.”[29] Those who argue that Christ emptied himself of his divinity (if that is what ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ implies) are arguing from a much skewed theological perspective (not grounded in the Greek text itself). It is best to simply read the text in a straightforward manner and see it as basically stating that Christ emptied himself in the sense that he took on the “form” or “nature” of a servant/slave.

The phrase μορφὴν δούλου (“form of a slave”) is set into direct contradistinction to the earlier phrase μορφῇ θεοῦ (“form of God”). “It is not as though Christ simply took on the external appearance of a slave or disguised himself as such. Instead, he became a slave, adopting the nature and characteristics of one.”[30] It is for this reason that some would be inclined to translate Fee’s ‘form’ (in quotation marks) with nature instead.

Verses 8-11

καὶ σχήματι εὑρεθεὶς ὡς ἄνθρωπος ἐταπείνωσεν ἑαυτὸν γενόμενος ὑπήκοος μέχρι θανάτου, θανάτου δὲ σταυροῦ. διὸ καὶ ὁ θεὸς αὐτὸν ὑπερύψωσεν καὶ ἐχαρίσατο αὐτῷ τὸ ὄνομα τὸ ὑπὲρ πᾶν ὄνομα, ἵνα ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ πᾶν γόνυ κάμψῃ ἐπουρανίων καὶ ἐπιγείων καὶ καταχθονίων καὶ πᾶσα γλῶσσα ἐξομολογήσηται ὅτι κύριος Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς εἰς δόξαν θεοῦ πατρός.

“And being found in the appearance as a human being, he humbled himself; becoming obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore also God highly exalted him and has granted him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, unto the glory of God the Father.”

The rest of the verses are relatively straightforward. The dative noun σχήματι (“outward appearance”) is to be contrasted with the phrase μορφῇ θεοῦ. The noun means “changeable outward shape, contrasted with morphe” which means, according to Reumann, “sphere” or “inner essential form.”[31] This is as close to Docetism as Paul ever comes.

Some interpreters see the textual variant for this verse, which occurs in Codex A, amongst other relatively late manuscripts (5th century onwards), as being the likely original reading. Most ancient texts have—most notably Papyrus 46—the finite verb aorist active subjunctive indicative (third person singular) ἐξομολογήσηται (“might confess”), whereas the variant is the aorist active future indicative ἐξομολογήσεται (“will confess”).[32] In Romans 14:11, Paul writes that κἀμψει πᾶν γόνυ (“every knee will bow”) and καὶ πᾶσα γλῶσσα ἐξομολογήσεται (“every tongue will confess”), echoing Isaiah 45:23.[33] However, in Philippians, Paul has changed the aorist active future verb κἀμψει (“will bow”) to κἀμψῃ (“might bow”). There is, then, good reason to suppose that Paul changed the second future finite verb to a subjunctive—which further corroborates the idea that Paul wrote this hymn.

Theological Reflections

This creedal hymn is Christian theology in a nutshell. As can be seen from the exegesis, or attempt at such an enterprise (!), one can sense what Paul was trying to do here. First, Paul attempts to place Christ as close to God the Father as possible. He remains a preposition away. Second, however, he goes on to say that Christ while being in the form of God (the only present verb in the pericope), did not think that equality with God is something to be grasped (whether he had it or was in the process of obtaining does not matter much and will probably never be settled). Christ is humble because he is “in the form of God.” Third, Paul, in verse 5, wants the Philippians to attempt to have this frame-of-mind in view. Of course the text is not saying that we, too, should “empty” ourselves by taking on human form—we already are human; rather, the text is saying that if Christ has such a character, what are we to do as his slaves? In this way, Christian ethics are clearly grounded in this passage. Fourth, and finally, Christ is given “the Name” which is above all other names. In his humiliation he is vicariously identified with Yahweh, as in Isaiah 45:23. Thus, though he remains distinct from God the Father, as the preposition so implies, he is, nevertheless, seen somehow as God.

As a side note, theologically speaking, some have seen an Adam-Christ theme being played out in this hymn. That is, unlike Adam, who was made in the “image of God,” Christ, though being in the “form of God,” did not do precisely what Adam did: that is, Christ did not try to be equal to God but, because[34] he was equal to God, Christ humbled himself (actively; he was not humbled by some external means) and emptied himself out. While, theologically, from a canonical perspective, this may make sense—and probably should be seen as a thoroughly possible possibility—as Fee remarks, while this is an “intriguing analogy” it is to be noted that “its basis is altogether conceptual, since there is not a single linguistic parallel to the Genesis narrative.”[35]

Written by Moses Y. Mikheyev


O’Brien, Peter T. The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991.

Fee, Gordon D. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Edited by Ned B. Stone, F. F. Bruce, and Gordon D. Fee. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Martin, Ralph P, and Gerald F. Hawthorne. Philippians: Revised. Word Biblical Commentary. Vol. 43. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2004.

Reumann, John. Philippians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. The Anchor Yale Bible. Vol. 33B. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996.

Zerwick, Max, and Mary Grosvenor. A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament. Rome: Gregorian & Biblical Press, 2010.


[1] Gordon D. Fee, Pauls Letter to the Philippians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, eds. Ned B. Stone, F. F. Bruce, and Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 217.

[2] Ibid., 192.

[3] Ralph P. Martin and Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians: Revised, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 43 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2004), 109.

[4] Fee, Pauls Letter to the Philippians, 204. Italics original.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Martin and Hawthorne, Philippians: Revised, 110.

[7] Pauls Letter to the Philippians, 204.

[8] Ibid., 110.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Max Zerwick and Mary Grosvenor, A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament (Rome: Gregorian & Biblical Press, 2010), 595.

[12] Fee, Pauls Letter to the Philippians, 202, n40.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 634. Italics original.

[15] Ibid., 635. Italics original.

[16] Fee, Pauls Letter to the Philippians, 206.


[18] Ibid., 208.

[19] John Reumann, Philippians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible, Vol. 33B (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 346.

[20] Fee, Pauls Letter to the Philippians, 207.

[21] Reumann, Philippians, 346.

[22] Ibid., 367. Italics original.

[23] Ibid., 207, n62.

[24] Ibid., 207.

[25] Philippians: Revised, 114.

[26] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 186.

[27] Ibid., 602.

[28] Cited in Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 601, n38.

[29] Peter T. O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1991), 218.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Reumann, Philippians, 351.

[32] That debate goes on about this textual variant is undeniable, contra the assumption of some scholars, there is certainly a difference between the future and the subjunctive—however tedious the debate may seem, see Reumann, Philippians, 373. Grammatically speaking, does the subordinating conjunction ἵνα [hina] (usually translated “so that”) express purpose (with the subjunctive) and does it later express result (with the future)? Or: should the hina express purpose in both the subjunctive κἀμψῃ and the subjunctive ἐξομολογήσηται. Clearly, the translations would be different.

[33] קְדָמַי תִכרַע כָל בַרַך תְקַיֵים כָל לִישָׁן

[34] Notice my causal translation of the participle.

[35] Fee, Pauls Letter to the Philippians, 209. Italics original.

God, The Fall, Suffering and Separation

I’ve recently been thinking about suffering and other problems. Not that I myself live in a state of suffering; rather, I am a person who thinks about suffering. I look at people and see all of the imperfections. I look at the happy marriages and see all the turmoil they go through. Sometimes the marriage is perfect whereas the kids are not. Other times, you may have a perfect family whereas the living conditions, from an economic perspective, are almost unbearable. All in all, us humans face problems. One of my recent patients was a young child of 4 who had leukemia. And a stroke. And  then she lost her fingers due to poor circulation. And now she also has a chronic clotting problem. What more could one ask for in this life? She’s received more than her share of suffering.
As you can already tell, I am not complaining about myself. That would by narcissistic; I am complaining about others. My suffering is bearable; it is watching others suffer that is not. At some point in religious studies, one must ask oneself: Where is God in all of this?
I don’t have a good answer, but I have an answer nonetheless. It’ll not solve anything since these sort of “answers” aren’t about “solving” things like suffering that simply cannot be “solved” in this lifetime.
If God gave us freewill that day when He made us–and it is taken for granted that we, as humans, have chosen sin–then we are responsible in part for our current isolation from God. We were given the freedom to choose love over hate and we had chosen hate. We were given the ability to follow God’s imperative commands, yet we chose not to. We all have chosen to follow our own inclinations.
So God gave us over to our own inclinations.
This world that we live in is not God’s doing per se; it is ours.
This world that we see around us is our creation.
The Fall as we know it did not take place in the distant past; it is taking place right now, with every sin that you chose to make your own.
The biblical “answer” (if you want to call it that) merely points to the problem of free will and our desire to choose evil almost incessantly. This world of suffering that we are born into is not God’s idea for humanity; it is humanity’s idea when substituting God.
Christianity today, at least the grace-filled “prosperity gospel” forms of it, neglect to pass on the severity and reality of both The Fall and our fallen nature. Not only that, Christianity in general has forgotten to talk about the isolation we experience in this world from God. Jesus did not cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” in a joking manner; He cried out on our behalf too. We live in isolation from God. We chose to be alienated and this is our experience of that alienation, exile, isolation–whatever you want to call it. This world that you live in is the world you have chosen. It is the world full of sin. Sin is, in this view, merely a choice reflecting our own opinion in contrast to the divine will and gracious mandate. God’s will for humanity is not some kind of categorical imperative that goes against freedom of will; in fact, God’s imperatives are commands that merely enhance our ability to thrive. If God commands you to have a single wife and to have sexual relations only with her, that command is in no way meant to benefit God; it benefits only you. The command itself is not even a command really; it’s more of a suggestion that will enhance your own ability to thrive. The command to the Israelites to avoid pork was not benefiting God–neither did it in any way make God Himself “happy”–it benefited the Israelites. They were the ones who were exempt from coronary artery disease.
The moment we have chosen to disobey God’s will for us is the moment that we have chosen to create our own version of life and “the world as we know it.”
The moment the 18-year-old girl has sex outside of marriage with some strange boy, who gets pregnant in the process, who gets abandoned and is left to raise the child alone, who drops out of college to raise the child, who ends up living in absolute poverty, who sells herself to more strangers to make a decent living–this is her version of life. This is an example of humanity exercising its use of free will.
When we are faced with suffering, we must remember our own responsibility. Unlike the early Christian Gnostics who blamed the Creator God for creating “evil” flesh with all of its evil inclinations, orthodox Christians believe in a good God who has allowed us to love and to hate–in His divine wisdom, He has given us the ability to curse Him or to love Him (the choice being completely ours). This was God’s version of the story. You can love me or you can hate me. I have created you for good deeds–but you can choose not to do them.
Gnostics pushed the problem of suffering and evil “upstairs”; they blamed the Creator God.
Orthodox Christians recognize the problem–and the problem is actually us. We are the problem.
God is seen, in our eyes, as the redeemer and savior. He is the one trying to reconcile this sinful world to Himself.
Not only that, God has joined this world and decided to become a part of it.
He is not standing at some distance looking on. He is in the suffering. He is suffering. Not only did God suffer in the past, He is suffering right now in the present.
The Christians proclaim a suffering God who has brought into this suffering world a suffering Messiah to redeem a suffering people from their sin.
Most people today are Gnostics. Whether they like it or not, they are what orthodox Christians in the past have called “heretics.” (And no, I am not using the term lightly here.) They ignore suffering; they treat God like some sort of divine heavenly Santa Claus just waiting to give out presents; they talk about grace and nothing else. But what is grace apart from sin? What does it mean to be graceful to someone? Is grace a commodity? Or is it the price a suffering God pays for a sinful people? Is grace given out of a “Santa Claus mentality” or out of a suffering mentality? Is grace given to sinners as a means of both revealing their sins and drawing them nearer to God Himself?
The crucified God will have nothing to do with the Joel Osteens, the Joyce Meyers, the Joseph Princes of this world. Such amateur theologians (if it is even appropriate to call them that) are inconsistent in their beliefs and unrealistic. When grace is all you hear about in a suffering world, you start to wonder: apart from sin, who needs grace?
Where sin is forgotten, there grace is a relic of the past; where sin is forgotten, there grace is no more.
In a suffering world, humanity must keep in mind why we are suffering.
The answer lies in us–quite literally,
Apart from God, this is the world humans will have.
Apart from God–living in a state of exile and isolation–this is what we get.
Sin has isolated us, it has exiled us into a foreign land where we are no longer welcome. Sin has cast us out of that garden of Eden. Sin has reigned and reigned until it drove that last nail through a dying God’s hand.
Sin is the state we live in.
But even sin has its problems. When a loving God shows up, offers grace to repentant sinners, sin ceases to exercise its authority. Standing in the shadows of love, sin ceases to be.
The Christians don’t believe in a graceful God apart from sin. Such beliefs are held by the heretics and deceivers of this world (who are, sadly, deceiving themselves).
In line with orthodox Christianity, I prefer to preach a gospel that is overflowing with suffering. A gospel that recognizes the sinful state that humans are in. A gospel that doesn’t run from sin and suffering but rather embraces it and swallows it whole. I don’t believe that Jesus proclaimed any other message than a message of the reality of men’s sin and entire dependence upon God. Grace is given to the sinner.
The Christian message of hope is essentially a message that proclaims that God alone will save humanity. But in saving humanity, God will create a new world–a world where God’s will is completely present in every individual. Why? Because goodness is not ontologically or epistemologically dependent upon God–there is no such dichotomy. Goodness is God. To be “in heaven” is to be in a state of absolute divinity. To be in complete harmony with Goodness Incarnate.
The problem with suffering is a problem that is deeply connected to man’s sinful nature. Virtually all problems and evils can be traced to this fountain. I say virtually all because obviously not all evils are caused by man. Hurricanes still kill people.
But even in this suffering–a suffering that asks the question: why?–Christians have a hope for a better world. Not that we have somehow become that hope already, but that we are looking forward towards it and are already participating imperfectly in it.

God and Suffering: Theologia Crucis

The Christian view of God is in some ways unique among the world’s religions because it embraces an idiosyncratic theological stance on two key issues: (1) unmerited grace as salvific versus works-righteousness; and (2) suffering as the epitome of human existence versus pleasure (in this life). The first stance (i.e., grace) is unique to Christianity but will not concern us here. What we will examine in this paper is the Christian view of suffering—that is, a theology of suffering. Many ask the modest question: if God exists (being omnipotent and good), how is it that suffering and evil exist too? The Christian view of suffering is rooted in a theology of the cross, which itself is rooted in the person of Christ Himself; namely, God crucified. I will argue in this paper that suffering, for the Christians, is the accepted form of existence because the God that Christians claim to worship was Himself the epitome of suffering. Hence, if a theology of the cross is at the center of Christian thinking then suffering and God go hand-in-hand. Suffering, then, from a Christian perspective, is a part of our theology and coexists with God, finding itself converging with God Himself in the body of Christ hanging on the cross.

Before we look at suffering as the accepted form of Christian existence, I would like to first briefly look at the Christian view that God is love (1 John 4:8). In standard philosophical circles, love is seen as that great abstract idea/feeling/commitment that presupposes the existence of freedom. A programmed automaton that “loves” God because he/she was programmed to “love” does not love out of personal choice but out of impersonal necessity (that is, the “love” offered by such an automaton belongs to the programmer, and is, thus, the activity of the programmer himself [the programmer being God in this example]). If God is love then God is freedom; that is, God exists in a fluid and changing freewill-run environment. Out of this chaos, love is born. Nonetheless, the presupposition is that this chaotic freedom exists because of love and the possibility of love. If love is possible, then, on the flip side, hate is possible; if hate is possible, evil is possible. Risks are inevitable? “[T]he risk-free alternatives of not loving or of trying to control another person is evidence of insecurity and weakness, if not sickness.”[1] But where is God? God is to be found amidst the chaos of human choice. God wills the good, but love demands that human freedom be exercised. Inevitably, God is handcuffed by love and is left sitting on the sidelines of human evil. All for the sake of love. A preliminary response to the problem of evil could always be this: evil exists because human freedom exists. Despite this, the Christian view is that God is not merely a God who sits passively on the sidelines forever; we believe that God participates in our suffering. This brings us to a theology of the cross (and suffering).

The Christian worldview finds its point of departure the cross of Christ. Christ is seen as God incarnate coming down to humanity to participate alongside it in its suffering. Alongside this view, Christians also embrace the view that this world is not perfect and is in a fallen state; we live in a postlapsarian world. This means that we are, as a whole, in a state of exile; we live apart from God and we live in a state of animosity towards God. It is into this mess that God through the man of Christ comes. The Christian message is that God doesn’t merely step into this mess in order to fix it; He becomes entangled in its affairs. Like a father who gives up his day job in order to work alongside his son at a coal mine, so is God seen as not merely standing by humanity but also being intimately tied up in its mundane tasks. Rather than issue commands from on high and at a distance, the Christian God is seen as offering commands from within the life of the community. A God who participates in your suffering is more believable than a God who merely comments upon your suffering. Jurgen Moltmann writes, quoting F. W. J. Schelling, “‘Every being can be revealed only in its opposite. Love only in hatred, unity only in conflict.’ Applied to Christian theology, this means that God is only revealed as ‘God’ in his opposite: godlessness and abandonment by God. In concrete terms, God is revealed in the cross of Christ who was abandoned by God.” [2] The Christian God is then not only suffering par excellence but also, it would seem, the only God that has ever been revealed to humanity—in the oppositeness of His paradox existence.

In all this, God is not to be seen as a powerless homeless man living on the brink of suicide; rather, God is to be seen as a powerful Being who is able to give up power because of the amount of power. If love is seen as weakness, and God is love, this would then seem to imply that God is weak. I would like to suggest that (contra Nietzsche) though to love is to be weak, those who are most strongest actually can will to love and thus be weak. I would like to use a simple analogy. Let us imagine that a powerful king resides on a city built on a hill. He is so powerful that his city does not need to be walled. A city that is unwalled is seen to be “weak”; however, this king is so powerful that he can risk being weak without actually losing much power. To love is to be weak, that is true, but to love is to also demonstrate power. If God is love and love is essentially weakness (a giving up of absolute control), God must ironically be strong enough to love! I think that, as in my analogy, God is embracing all aspects of love, weakness, strength, and suffering. A God who is strong enough to give up power in order to love is also strong enough to redeem that which was lost in suffering.

Given the arguments made above, I don’t think that evil rules out the existence of God, from a Christian perspective. Moreover, I do not see how it is possible to call something good or evil apart from an objective moral framework; that is, if an atheist calls into question the existence of God based on his/her experience of evil in this world, how does he/she determine what is “evil” anyways? To use Ravi Zacharias’ point: “If [the] assertion that no moral order is visible in the world is true, we may well ask why Hitler couldn’t introduce his own order. What was wrong with what he did? What is the basis on which [we are] calling Hitler immoral?” [3] To be blunt, the moment you speak of evil in an objective sense is the moment you speak of God with the same breath. In conclusion, I do not think that evil posses any problems for the existence of God. It is something that merely is—deal with it.

[1] Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 57-8.

[2] Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 27.

[3] Ravi Zacharias, The End of Reason (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 52.