Monthly Archives: May 2012

Turning Plowshares into Swords

Recently, in doing some research into the history of the Disciples of Christ in Louisiana, I ran across this entry in the minutes of Beulah Baptist Church of Cheneyville, Louisiana:

Saturday before the first Lord’s day in May 1862.

The church met after prayer and praise by the pastor. It was resolved. That whereas General G. G. Beauregard of Louisiana has made a call on the planters of the Mississippi valley to give their bells to be cast into cannon (sic.) for the confederate service. That the bell belonging to this church was in accordance to the case shipped to New Orleans, subject to the order of Gov. T. O. Moore on the 29th of March last. No motion adjourned.

H. B. Ferguson, Clk.

Does it not ring strange in our ears that a bell that once called people to worship God would now be used to kill people?

The prophets offered a grand vision of the time when war would be no more:

He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (Isa 2:4; repeated Mic 4:3)

The powerful images of weapons being melted down and turned into agricultural equipment is quite motivational. The move from killing people to feeding them speaks loudly to our times.

This motif was subverted by the prophet Joel in his attempt to arouse his people to their current reality:

Beat your plowshares into swords,
and your pruning hooks into spears;
let the weakling say, “I am a warrior.” (Joel 3:10)

However, the burden of Joel was that building up a military arsenal would make no difference since the foreign army they were to face was God’s army.

When we come to God’s call on the church today, there is no doubt that God has called us, the church, to to beat our swords into plowshares and ours spears into pruning hooks, that is, God has called us not to kill people but to call them into the peaceable kingdom.

It just doesn’t ring true, does it? That the church would in any way participate in the killing of others when her mandate is the salvation of all people.


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Origen’s Reponse to Celsus on How Christians Serve the Government

Toward the end of Origen’s life (ca. AD 254), his patron Ambrose encouraged him to respond to a little book by an enemy of Christianity, Celsus. Celsus’ book was mockingly titled The True Doctrine and had been circulating for nearly seventy years before Origen’s response. Because Origen chose to respond to the book in a point-by-point fashion by quoting Celsus and then offering a response, we have the bulk of Celsus’ book, now lost. Though, this is a older translation, it still proves quite interesting (and perhaps bewildering) to modern Christians. What follows comes from Contra Celsum 8.73-75 which happens to be the very end of Origen’s total response.

73 In the next place, Celsus urges us

“to help the king with all our might, and to labour with him in the maintenance of justice, to fight for him; and if he requires it, to fight under him, or lead an army along with him.”

To this our answer is, that we do, when occasion requires, give help to kings, and that, so to say, a divine help,

“putting on the whole armour of God.”

And this we do in obedience to the injunction of the apostle,

“I exhort, therefore, that first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority;”

and the more any one excels in piety, the more effective help does he render to kings, even more than is given by soldiers, who go forth to fight and slay as many of the enemy as they can. And to those enemies of our faith who require us to bear arms for the commonwealth, and to slay men, we can reply:

“Do not those who are priests at certain shrines, and those who attend on certain gods, as you account them, keep their hands free from blood, that they may with hands unstained and free from human blood offer the appointed sacrifices to your gods; and even when war is upon you, you never enlist the priests in the army. If that, then, is a laudable custom, how much more so, that while others are engaged in battle, these too should engage as the priests and ministers of God, keeping their hands pure, and wrestling in prayers to God on behalf of those who are fighting in a righteous cause, and for the king who reigns righteously, that whatever is opposed to those who act righteously may be destroyed!”

And as we by our prayers vanquish all demons who stir up war, and lead to the violation of oaths, and disturb the peace, we in this way are much more helpful to the kings than those who go into the field to fight for them. And we do take our part in public affairs, when along with righteous prayers we join self-denying exercises and meditations, which teach us to despise pleasures, and not to be led away by them. And none fight better for the king than we do. We do not indeed fight under him, although he require it; but we fight on his behalf, forming a special army— an army of piety— by offering our prayers to God.

74 And if Celsus would have us to lead armies in defence of our country, let him know that we do this too, and that not for the purpose of being seen by men, or of vainglory. For “in secret,” and in our own hearts, there are prayers which ascend as from priests in behalf of our fellow citizens. And Christians are benefactors of their country more than others. For they train up citizens, and inculcate piety to the Supreme Being; and they promote those whose lives in the smallest cities have been good and worthy, to a divine and heavenly city, to whom it may be said,

“You have been faithful in the smallest city, come into a great one,”


“God stands in the assembly of the gods, and judges the gods in the midst;”

and He reckons you among them, if you no more

“die as a man, or fall as one of the princes.”

75 Celsus also urges us to

“take office in the government of the country, if that is required for the maintenance of the laws and the support of religion.”

But we recognise in each state the existence of another national organization, founded by the Word of God, and we exhort those who are mighty in word and of blameless life to rule over Churches. Those who are ambitious of ruling we reject; but we constrain those who, through excess of modesty, are not easily induced to take a public charge in the Church of God. And those who rule over us well are under the constraining influence of the great King, whom we believe to be the Son of God, God the Word. And if those who govern in the Church, and are called rulers of the divine nation— that is, the Church— rule well, they rule in accordance with the divine commands, and never suffer themselves to be led astray by worldly policy.

And it is not for the purpose of escaping public duties that Christians decline public offices, but that they may reserve themselves for a diviner and more necessary service in the Church of God— for the salvation of men. And this service is at once necessary and right. They take charge of all— of those that are within, that they may day by day lead better lives, and of those that are without, that they may come to abound in holy words and in deeds of piety; and that, while thus worshipping God truly, and training up as many as they can in the same way, they may be filled with the word of God and the law of God, and thus be united with the Supreme God through His Son the Word, Wisdom, Truth, and Righteousness, who unites to God all who are resolved to conform their lives in all things to the law of God.

Oh, that the church might again recover her true calling!

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He Shall be Called a Nazarene

In the continuing study of how the New Testament (NT) uses the Old Testament (OT), several mysteries remain. Sometimes a writer will quote a text we don’t seem to have, such as when Paul calls on the Law as grounds for the silence of women in the church assembly (1 Cor 14.34). There is no clear text that seems to say exactly what Paul has in mind.

The text that has caught my attention today, however, is Matt 2:23:

There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.(NRSV)

καὶ ἐλθὼν κατῴκησεν εἰς πόλιν λεγομένην Ναζαρέτ· ὅπως πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν διὰ τῶν προφητῶν ὅτι Ναζωραῖος κληθήσεται. (GNT-T)

On the surface, Matthew is connecting the name “Nazorean” (spelled variously by the translations) and the name of the city where Jesus will grow up. Additionally, the author notes that what is fulfilled here was spoken through the prophets (plural) and may not be intended as an exact quote but a summary of what several prophets had said.

Scholars have attempted to make sense of this text in about three ways. First the word “Nazorean” sounds something like the word for “stump” (נצר ; netzer, as in Isa 11:1). While I think the earliest Christians would have no trouble connecting Jesus with the stump of Jesse, this does not seem be the text that influenced Jesus being named after his hometown.

Second, perhaps Matthew wants to connect Jesus with the Nazorite vow. This word is very close in sound to the word translated “stump.” But Nizer (נזר) comes from root that means dedicated or consecrated. And while Jesus is certainly dedicated and consecrated, he is not a Nazorite nor, based on the information we have in the Gospels and elsewhere, did he ever take on a temporary Nazorite vow. Two predominant features of the vow was the vow-keepers could not cut their hair nor partake of anything produced from the grape while under the vow (see Numbers 6 for the particulars on this tradition). The Bible says nothing about how Jesus wore his hair or about ever having it cut. Yes, Virginia, Jesus could have had short hair. However, we do know of some of Jesus’s drinking habits and Jesus himself claims that he came eating and drinking while John the Baptist did neither (Matt 11:19; Luke 7:34). John the Baptist, then, looked far more like a Nazarite than Jesus did. Therefore, it is very unlikely that Jesus saw himself as a Nazarite and even less likely that Matthew was attempting to make the connection.

However, before leaving this point, the spelling in the Greek LXX for Nazarite is much closer to the language used by Matthew.

LXX  – ναζιραιος

GNT – ναζωραῖος

Incidentally, the Torah in the Greek LXX does not use the word in Numbers 6 which describes the vow and how to keep it. Rather the translation of this word in Number 6 is a circumlocution: ὃς ἐὰν μεγάλως εὔξηται εὐχὴν ἀφαγνίσασθαι ἁγνείαν κυρίῳ; “whoever greatly wants to pray the prayer the prayer of purity to be pure to the Lord”). In the Greek OT the word for Nazarite occurs only at Judg 13:5, 7; 16:17; 1 Mac 3:49; and Lam 4:7. The reference to 1 Maccabees shows that Nazarite vows were still taken as later as ca. 185 BCE. (Paul’s vow in Acts [Acts 18:18] and the four men [21:23] may have been a Nazorite vow because of the reference to hair being cut when finished).

As interesting as all of this background is, we still have not found a text that might have been Matthew’s inspiration for designating Jesus a ναζωραῖος. Since Matthew makes use of the LXX and the first references to ναζιραιος occur in three verse in Judges (and not really any where else in the “prophets,” except for Lamantations), I would like to suggest that Matthew gets his insight from a selective (typological) reading of the Nazarite texts related to Samson in Judges 13:2-7:

“There was a certain man of Zorah, of the tribe of the Danites, whose name was Manoah. His wife was barren, having borne no children. And the angel of the LORD appeared to the woman and said to her, “Although you are barren, having borne no children, you shall conceive and bear a son. Now be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, or to eat anything unclean, for you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth. It is he who shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” Then the woman came and told her husband, “A man of God came to me, and his appearance was like that of an angel of God, most awe-inspiring; I did not ask him where he came from, and he did not tell me his name; but he said to me, ‘You shall conceive and bear a son. So then drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth to the day of his death”

Here are the intertextual connections that I found in reading this story and comparing to Matthew’s nativity story:

  1. Both involve miraculous births (though on opposite ends of the life cycle of the women involved).
  2. The angel of the Lord appears in each; in the first to Hannah; in Matt, to Joesph.
  3. The language of “conceive and bear a son” is common to each.
  4. As Samson would deliver Israel from their enemy so Jesus would deliver “his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21).
  5. In each story, the husband was the last to find out their wives were to have babies.
  6. And finally, though Samson was to be a life-long Nazarite, a similar calling was on Jesus “from birth to the day of his death.”

What other prophets Matthew may have had in mind, I’m convinced these verses from Judges (which belongs to that part of the Bible the Hebrews would have called “the Prophets”) had something to do with Matthew calling Jesus a “Nazorean.” That Jesus was to live in Nazereth, from Matthew’s way of reading the OT, made the fit too perfect.


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KJVism That Just Won’t Die—But Should

No doubt the KJV marks a significant milestone in the the translation of the Bible into the English language. I would even say that the KJV is a magnificent piece of English literature whose influence is unfathomable. But, because all languages change, the task of translating the ancient Hebrew and Aramaic of the Old Testament and the Koine Greek of the New Testament into English will go on until the Lord returns.

However, partly because of the iconic significance of the KJV, certain phrases retain currency, even when the current understanding of those words are not what the translators meant and, in some cases, is actually contrary to what the text is saying. On the other hand, I’m glad that other phraseology has dropped from common usage. For example, no one misses the less than poetic “he that pisseth against the wall” (1 Sam 25:22, 34; 1 Kings 14:10; 16:11; 21:21; and 2 Kings 9:8), a Hebraism for the men—women would never even dream of doing such as disgusting thing.

Anyway, here are a couple of these archaic readings that still have currency today but misses what the text actually says. For example, this text, which I have known since childhood:

Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.
(2 Timothy 2:15 KJV)

Often taken as a verse to encourage Bible study—and I don’t want to discourage such—this verse actually encourages Timothy to do the best he can in his work as a minister. First, the word “study” in 1611 could also mean “to be diligent,” which is what it means here. Secondly, most folks in the ancient world in which 2 Timothy was first read would not have had access to books and would not have been able to read had they had access. The notion of the private study of books belonged only to the wealthy in the ancient world. Perhaps it is the word “study” that teases modern readers into seeing “rightly dividing the word of truth” as equivalent with “use the Bible properly.” Again, something I would not want to discourage; but that is really not what the text is about in the context of 2 Timothy. By “dividing of the word of truth” the author has in mind that Timothy should distinguish between the true Christian message against the heresy of such characters as Hymenaeus and Philetus. Thus, “rightly dividing” is more accurately today rendered “use correctly.” By the way, this is one of the earliest texts that seems to recognize the divide between orthodoxy and heresy which would be such a challenge later in the second century. “Rightly dividing” furthermore has nothing to do with distinguishing the Old Testament from the New as the New Testament, though the Johannine literature was yet to be written, was not collected as a whole at this time.

Another verse that comes to mind as being being misunderstood today since it has been somewhat frozen in KJV English is this one:

“Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. (Romans 16:17 KJV).

“Mark them” would appear to be a mandate to label (and to libel) those with whom we disagree. However, at the time of the KJV, “mark” could also means to “watch, keep an eye on,” which is much closer to the original Greek word σκοπέω. (One can even see the word “scope” in it). Interestingly, this text is similar to the text from 2 Tim in that the concern is to be on the right side of doctrine. However, “keep an eye on” and “mark” are far removed in modern English. In the end, one should not MARK those who reject orthodoxy but, according to this text, AVOID them.

These are merely two texts where I believe the tradition of English translation has frozen their meanings, thus making it hard for us to hear the text afresh in their original contexts. Perhaps you can think of a few more texts where traditional translations actually obscure the meaning rather than elucidate it. If you do, please share.


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Update on the Semester

A very full academic semester has come to a close. Just in time, I would say.

This past semester I have had the chance to explore the Bauer Thesis in the Orthodoxy and Heresy seminar as well as how the Biblical writers used earlier sources in my Biblical Intertextuality seminar. In this latter class, I specifically looked how Luke used the Minor Prophets in the composition of his narrative known today as Luke-Acts. The paper I wrote in this seminar will be presented at the Thomas H. Olbricht Christians Scholars Conference (, June 7-9 at Lipscomb University in Nashville.

In addition to these two seminars, I attended a reading colloquium that covered Johannine scholarship, NT theology, and linguistics. The reading colloquiums at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary are a way to expose NT students to the important literature across the field of NT study. Needless to say, it involves stacks of books.

Consequently, I have not been able to contribute much to this blog. But now that summer is here, I should be able to find some time to add to these scholia.

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